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Westminster Hall

Volume 401: debated on Wednesday 19 March 2003

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Westminster Hall

Wednesday 19 March 2003

[MR. FRANK COOK in the Chair]

Animal Experiments

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.— [Mr. Derek Twigg.]

9.30 am

I am delighted to be able to talk about this matter today because it is a burning issue for the development of science, technology and medicine in this country. Many people will pay attention to the issues that we highlight during this debate.

The treatment of disease during the past 50 years has led to dramatic improvements in the quality and quantity of life, not only in this country but throughout the world. There are still many diseases for which treatment is not yet available; for example, cancer, heart disease, strokes, Alzheimer's and so on. Research into such diseases is taking place, but we still do not have cures and treatments for them. Important issues have arisen concerning the drugs to treat infectious diseases, drug resistant micro-organisms and AIDS, not only in this country but in the developing world and the African continent. We are all interested in the role of the biopharmaceutical industry and the development of its drugs, its worldwide network and how it can produce drugs at a price that we can all afford. Research and endeavour into biotechnology and biomedicine will bring great benefits for humanity.

A major issue is the use of animals in research, which is sensitive and complex. As people will have seen in their morning papers, 90 per cent. of the United Kingdom population supports animal experiments if they are associated with benefits, particularly medical benefits, but some people in this country are violently opposed to any experiments. That debate burns below the surface of daily life in this country.

One group of protesters has a savage record in opposing animal experiments. Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty—SHAC—has demonstrated violently and with a degree of terrorism that has been noted by the Government and the Home Office. However, that activity continues, and I want to speak about the group's behaviour because it is part and parcel of the debate.

SHAC has some devious tricks for annoying people. I have seen its website, and documents have fallen into my possession. Its campaigns include blockades and abusive phone calls and text messaging. We are used to that in parliamentary life, but people who work in our institutions, including not only managing directors and multi-millionaires but members of trade unions, have a right to go to work and carry out their endeavours, which they believe benefit mankind, without harassment. My hon. Friend the Minister and I belong to the Manufacturing, Science, Finance union—MSF. It has campaigned for some time to protect its members in such institutions and has engaged with the Home Office on that.

When reading about the opinion poll this morning, was my hon. Friend as disappointed as I was that a spokesman for one of the so-called, legitimate anti-vivisection charities, instead of calling SHAC terrorists, referred to its members as people who resort to more direct forms of action, and instead of condemning them out of hand, said that it was disappointing if SHAC's actions had led to a change in public opinion? Is that not disgraceful?

Yes, that is a euphemistic way of justifying terrorist activities that no right-thinking individual in any part of this planet would ever support. One should be certain and sure-footed about condemning SHAC's activities. Let us look at them more closely.

A document entitled "This is your chance to drive them out" lists senior scientists, directors and staff at Huntingdon Life Sciences, and states where their children go to school, where they park their cars and so on. All such information is given freely. SHAC's job is to drive the company out of business, and it has had a certain amount of success. Recently, it forced auditors—of all people—to quit the firm and ask that the contracts not be renewed, so its terroristic methods and behaviour are effective.

A SHAC document that is not publicly available says:
"A simple tactic has been adopted recently. Pick your target. Throw a couple of rape alarms in their roof guttering or thick hedgerow, and leg it"—
in the middle of the night, obviously. It continues:
"Being kept awake at night hardly puts you in a good mood at work or with your family."
You will agree with that, Mr. Deputy Speaker, although presumably you are not kept awake at night by rape alarms and people throwing things in your guttering. The document also says:
"Another idea is to set off extra loud fireworks from a safe distance that will wake up the HLS scum and everybody else for miles around."
The authors are obviously nice people to take home to meet one's mum and dad for Sunday tea. The document continues:
"From the comfort of your own home, you can swamp all these"—
I shall not use the word, but it is something to do with illegitimacy—
"with send no money offers. They cause huge inconvenience and can give them a bad credit rating. Order them taxis, pizzas, curries, etc, the possibilities are endless. Above all, stay free and safe, and don't get caught. The more preparation you do the better."
SHAC goes on to say:
"Think, think, think. Don't lick stamps, use gloves when pasting stuff",
and so on. These people are organised and know exactly what they are doing. SHAC advises:
"No idle talk in pubs. Burn your shoes and clothes after your night of action".
Such activities may sound like a bit of fun or undergraduate play, but they are serious. They intimidate people, and they can lead to people with baseball bats getting stuck into managing directors, and so on.

I want the Government to address the problem and to think about new legislation to deal with such extremism. Could it be made illegal, for example, to incite or support such a campaign of harassment, the sole intention of which is to cause economic damage to a legitimate business? Could any demonstration against workers in the vicinity of employees' or directors' private residences be made illegal?

Existing legislation should be reinforced. The Companies Acts could be amended to protect the private addresses of directors, shareholders and those who work in such units. Legislation could be introduced or amended to oblige internet service providers to remove harassing materials from their sites. Current operations could be strengthened through long-term funding for an animal extremist taskforce structured along the lines of the public order section of the National Criminal Intelligence Service, which has done sterling work on eliminating football hooliganism in this country. We must think beyond what we have done already, much as the research and medical community has welcomed that, and take the impending attacks a little more seriously. I hope that the Minister will engage with the problem.

Rodents, rabbits, fish, reptiles, amphibians and birds make up the majority of the animals used in experiments. I think that only 0.15 per cent. of non-human primates—monkeys and so on—are used. Such animals are used to understand basic biological functions, diseases and new treatments and to test the safety of new medicines. Nobody would ever say that such tests are perfect or that they give all the answers. Experiments have, however, contributed a lot to our understanding, and there are a few good tales about how successful they have been in preventing the hazardous effects on human beings of substances that have become medicines.

Working with animals is popular, and I ask myself why people want to do animal experiments. They do not do them for fun, and we deprecate the one or two cases that have been brought up in which there has been maltreatment of animals. People conduct such research because experiments with the whole organism tell them more than alternative methods. That has been the ideology for a long time. It may al so be easier to do animal experiments than to use other methods, although it has become less easy to set up mice colonies and so on, because of the fantastic cost and the dangers of such experiments.

It could be argued that a person testing a chemical, drug or medicine on cells in a tissue culture may miss the fact that the culture does not contain the molecules that bring about the effect, whether for good or for bad. The substance could be broken down in a whole-body environment into something else. That is a strong reason for carrying out studies on the whole organism. Of course, the whole organism is a very complex mechanism with immune responses and a functioning brain, and that has to be taken into account in the clinic.

There are good reasons for carrying out some animal experimentation. For example, it can be useful to know that some people may be more responsive than others to a particular drug. That can assist in making difficult medical decisions, and we know from the decisions of the National Institute for Clinical Excellence that some people will benefit from a drug while others will not. Sometimes that has to be worked out in an animal environment; it cannot necessarily be done only in a test tube.

It is argued quite strongly, however, that alternative approaches to those problems are bearing fruit, and I shall provide evidence of that. The Fund for the Replacement of Animals in Medical Experiments, or FRAME, has done sterling work over the years. Prominent individuals have been working hard to push their arguments on substituting for animals. They have developed practical and realistic ways forward, based on targeted research, without sidelining the need for regulations and the eventual requirements of industry.

Anyone now setting up a biomedical unit—I am involved in one with Paul Nurse in Norwich—has not only to decide whether animal experiments are necessary, as they may be for the reasons that I have already outlined, but seriously consider alternative methods of assessing compounds, and new technologies and treatments. There are political reasons for that, as well as good scientific ones, because it would be smart to show that one was taking alternatives seriously. One might also gain through a reduced use of animals by using those alternative methods.

It is interesting to note that, as a previous Home Office Minister told me the other day, money given by the Medical Research Council to look into alternatives to animal experiments has not been taken up. It is not fashionable or interesting, and there is a deep-seated feeling that it will not pay off. I shall now spend a little time telling the Chamber about the pay-off, and about what has been achieved with some of those alternative methods.

We seek to reduce the number of animals used in experiments. We want to refine the procedures to minimise the suffering of animals. We also want to replace the tests that are used to assess the safety or other qualities of a drug or treatment. FRAME has done much work on replacement therapies in association with a European organisation. They have done a great deal of work on tetanus vaccines, and they have found ways to assess whether drugs are effective without using whole animals. They estimate that 20,000 fewer animals a year have been needed as a result.

Various other tests have used mono-clonal antibodies, which were perfected at Cambridge university but developed in the United States because we are not that good at picking up on such discoveries. Again, a number of animals have been saved in those experiments. Reducing the number of animals used is a genuine pay-off. No doubt the Minister and others will say that the number of animals used in experimentation in this country is decreasing every year, and that is to be welcomed. The paper from the European centre states that sometimes other methods should be considered before one asks whether animals should be used.

I know of much research in which substitute tests are available, so that one need not perform tests on rabbits' eyes. I know a professor who does sterling work on cataracts, funded by a local hospital, among others. Eye cells in vitro can be used to explore the effects of drugs and chemicals that may eliminate cataracts. The LD50 test has been substituted. Irritation and skin toxicity tests have all been developed through work by FRAME and other organisations.

I went to a heartening meeting in the House this week involving a group from the tissue engineering and regenerative medicine centre at Imperial college London which is setting up a spin-off company. Its researchers are interested in stem cells—something pioneered in this country, and in which, with our legislation, we are well ahead of the world, with the involvement of people from the United States. The researchers want to transplant stem cells into degenerating tissue, and they have found a way to test whether that will work. They have produced what they call an organoid set-up: a three-dimensional structure of cells which sits on a scaffold and through which, for example, nerve cells can run. That mimics a total organ in a given situation.

The researchers have wonderful ways of examining the production of lung, bone and nerve tissue using stem cells, with a view to transferring them back into affected individuals. That will be a big news story for the United Kingdom, and the team is receiving a lot of support. Those involved are very pleased not to have to conduct animal experiments. People do not find it easy to inject animals, and they are glad of a substitute system that seems, at this stage, to be providing good information about treatments.

As well as being aware that tissue culture can avoid many of the problems of animal experiments, we should consider the reason for particular tests, and what tests may be appropriate for work similar to that being done by the groups at Imperial college London. Other groups have done work using tissue cultures. I did some work once on hair dyes and aftershave lotions, using yeast cells and bacteria as an in vitro assay system for mutations, the argument being that if those substances caused mutation in a single-celled organism they would be likely to have a carcinogenic effect too, since carcinogenicity equals DNA changes. Many tests of that kind have been carried out over the years. My hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) will talk about chemicals and tests for assessing them.

Computer programmes can now simulate a total organism system. Systems are beginning to be developed which make it possible to test how a particular molecule, with its physical or chemical properties, would behave in a given situation. Such work is certainly on the up and up. The trouble is that it is not yet sexy enough. Money is being provided, but we must induce in the scientific community a sense of those methods' reality and the way in which they function, as well as of the political message that such techniques send out.

As the world moves on into the arena of work on the human genome and that project produces more drugs and vaccines for diseases, we shall have to ensure their safety. Substitute tests will be a major part of that, and we must somehow speed up the current movement in the scientific community towards their use. I hope that the Minister, in conjunction with the Minister responsible for science and the Government's chief advisers on science, will call a summit to talk about how we can make progress. We must tell people that alternatives are coming through and that there are now good results in experiments that do not need to use whole animals, thereby saving their lives. If there is fear, we will have to use more mice for human gene tests; there is no doubt about that.

Everybody wants to set up the so-called transgenic situation. The hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) and I have had disputes about GM crops. I am sure that we will have the same dispute over GM animals, such as salmon and rodents, as more such animals are constructed. The debate will become even more intense, and there will be more demonstrations, but there will be increased production of drugs that are beneficial to people.

The world is in turmoil over this situation, and the Government now need to go the final mile and tackle the legality of the matter. They need to question scientific methods and induce the scientific community to take alternatives much more seriously than they have done. Groups such as FRAME and others need to join the more traditional groups in our universities and in the scientific and medical communities which are resistant to animal experiments. The time is right, both politically and scientifically, to move forward.

Order. It may be advisable if I draw all Members' attention to the fact that we generally start the first of the three winding-up speeches 30 minutes before the debate concludes. That leaves 39 minutes, and three hon. Members have sought to catch my eye. I ask them to bear in mind the passage of time when making their contributions.

9.51 am

I congratulate the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) on seeking and securing a debate on a subject that is of particular interest and concern to many of our constituents.

I also offer you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, my hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) and the Minister my apologies because I have to meet a delegation later, so I may have to leave before the end of the debate. If I do, I shall certainly read with great care all the remarks made after I have spoken because this subject happens to be of particular interest to me too. [Interruption.] I hear the Minister; the fact is that the sitting hours of the House have made life very difficult for Members who need to be in two or three places at once.

I had the privilege of being the founding chairman of the first all-party group for FRAME, and I am also the president of the Conservative animal welfare group. I have been living with this subject in the House for years, since 1985 in fact.

I suspect that everybody in the Chamber will agree that research into new compounds is essential if we are to advance modern medicine. For the foreseeable future, whether we like it or not—and I do not—much of that research will have to be carried out on animals. We need therefore to explore how that research can first minimise the use of live animals and hopefully then, with investment into alternatives, obviate it.

I must say two things in response to the hon. Member for South Thanet (Dr. Ladyman). I concur entirely with his view of the activities of a small group, and it is a small group, of animal rights terrorists. I hesitate to call them activists; they are terrorists, as he said. Those who are genuinely concerned about animal welfare are certainly concerned about the welfare of laboratory animals, but they will have no truck with those who seek to pursue their cause outside the law.

Many people do not like animal experimentation at all. As one who does not, I must say that if it is to be carried out, which, for the foreseeable future, it is, I would sooner that it were done in the United Kingdom than anywhere else in the world. I believe that in our standards of laboratory animal husbandry, and the care and attention that we give the subject, we are so far ahead of anywhere else that, purely in terms of animal welfare, simply banning animal experimentation, as some would do, would just move the problem from A to B. It would drive research away from the UK, destroying our research base, which is among the best in the world, and, far from enhancing the welfare of the animals that we seek to protect, it would worsen the conditions in which they are raised.

The hon. Gentleman has in his constituency the Pfizer research establishment, which employs many of my constituents as well as many of his. Hence I visit it regularly and always make a point of going to the animal house. I have no quarrel with the standard of animal husbandry there or at many other pharmaceutical research establishments that I visit in this country. In each case, the named vets are caring people who do their utmost to look, after the animals, and their laboratory technicians, far from being sadists, as some portray them, have a wonderful working relationship with the animals and care for them as well as the circumstances allow.

I would go further. I have been pleased to see, given the confines within which the debate is taking place, that there has been a dramatic improvement in the animals' caging and environment over the last 10 to 15 years. That is part and parcel of the work or organisations such as FRAME, which have pressed, on every front, to make sure that the number of animals used is minimised and their environment and husbandry are as good as possible.

We must press the case for research into alternatives. If we are not simply to move the problem from A to B, there has to be a global solution. Many of the requirements of the Medicines Control Agency, the Federal Drug Administration and their Japanese equivalent are no longer based on science; nor are they necessary. Everybody working in the field knows that experiments are carried out purely to satisfy outdated bureaucratic regulations. Thank God, as the hon. Member for Norwich. North says, that in the UK the Draize test and the LD50 test are a thing of the past. However, we should not delude ourselves; elsewhere, regulation for the sake of regulation means that far too many animals die.

The number of animals used in laboratories in the UK has increased, and it is not hard to determine why. First, more procedures are carried out, and every one is logged. Secondly, because of the quality of the UK research base much more research comes here—and I would sooner that it were done here than anywhere else. However, if we are to get to grips with the problem and make progress in the development and use of in vitro experimentation of the kind that the hon. Gentleman has referred to; if we are to see a greater dependency on molecular modelling; and if pharmaceutical companies are to be encouraged not to repeat research but to publish it, to share knowledge and, accepting the restrictions of commercial confidentiality, to make sure that no animal dies in a cause that has already been pursued by somebody else, not only in the UK but throughout Europe and then the world, we must have a common political will.

Sadly, I see little of that political will in the European Union or in other areas on which we shall not touch this morning. Again and again we have had fine words followed by little action. Let us take the despicable example of the cosmetics directive, which was passed and given a time scale for implementation. That time scale was then extended by several years, with the effect that cosmetic companies that had begun to invest heavily in alternative research because they thought that the end was nigh for the use of animals suddenly found that they had more time, so all the money was taken out again. Without funding, the little companies that had been set up to research alternatives to the use of animals for the cosmetic companies found themselves out of business.

If we are to crack the problem, first across Europe then worldwide, we have to have the political will to say, "Here is the directive; this is how long you may continue using this practice. After that there will be an alternative." That will compel those engaged in research into pharmaceuticals and domestic products—we must not ignore household products that must be tested—to comply with the directive. If we are to make real progress we must have the political will to set a deadline, but that in itself is not enough.

The European Centre for the Validation of Alternative Methods, which was established under the superb chairmanship of Professor Michael Balls, was starved of funds, in a classic example of a European institution kicking something into touch. The attitude towards the centre was very much, "Good idea; here's five bob to do it." That will not work. If we wish to will the ends, we must will the means.

Will the Minister ensure that his colleagues in the Council of Ministers take the UK argument, standards and aspirations to the EU to make certain that there is a political will and a sense of commitment to the research, validation and use of alternatives to animal experiments? Will he seek to ensure that the EU, through the Council of Ministers, presses our case at the World Trade Organisation and under the general agreement on tariffs and trade to obtain a worldwide perspective? Above all, will the Minister and his colleagues press the EU to stop wasting money on fancy schemes and start putting real resources into ECVAM and organisations like it so that they can carry out their work?

10.1 am

I thank you for calling me, Mr. Chairman. I agreed with—

Order. I would be remiss in my duty were I not to remind the Chamber that when the House made the decision to hold these sittings it decided that some occupants of the Chair should be referred to as Deputy Speaker.

I apologise, Mr. Deputy Speaker; it was remiss of me not to have remembered that.

I agreed with a great deal of what the hon. Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale) said. If he and I keep finding issues to agree on people will start to talk, so we shall soon have to find something on which to disagree. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) on securing the debate. I respect his stand on the issue; few Members are prepared to stand up and be counted on animal experimentation and the need to protect scientists. He is to be congratulated on being at the forefront of that campaign.

I hope that I bring three perspectives to the debate. The first is that of a bench scientist who carried out animal experiments. Secondly, because I developed an extreme allergy to lab rats, my bench science career came to a very sudden halt and I had to shift into computers. I spent the rest of my career before becoming an MP developing computer systems that are now regarded by many as the alternative to animal experimentation. I therefore know the limitations of animal experimentation and of the computer alternative to it.

Thirdly, I bring the perspective of a politician who, as the hon. Member for North Thanet said, represents an area where a company called Pfizer is based. It has more than 5,000 employees, and it is the biggest US investment in the UK. It is the world's leading drug discovery centre; its record for discovering medicines is better per pound spent and per employee than any other centre in the world. Its success has been largely dependent on its involvement in a whole range of drug discovery procedures, including not just animal experiments but alternatives to them.

As well as representing those 5,000 people, I represent constituents who are strongly opposed to animal experimentation and who provide me with many views and a great deal of information. It is clear to me that many of them misunderstand the way in which drugs are developed. They believe that drugs are largely developed using animals, yet nothing could be further from the truth. Large pharmaceutical companies and medical researchers in general do not want to carry out animal experiments because they are unpopular and expensive, and they have certain limitations. If we can find quicker and cheaper alternatives, they will be used.

When I started to work for the pharmaceutical industry, for Pfizer, we used to have to screen 12,000 chemical compounds to find just one that would ultimately become a successful drug that could be sold on the market. It is not possible to screen 12,000 chemical compounds using animal experiments. We must use robotics and in vitro tests to find a compound that has some sort of biological property. When such a compound has been found, three questions must be answered. Is it safe? Will it work? How will it he delivered to the patient? Those three questions must ultimately be answered in relation to man, so most of the testing is done on man.

There is a famous three-phase process for developing a medicine. First, it is tested on healthy adults to see whether it is safe. Secondly, it is tested on a slightly wider group of adults who have the condition that the compound aims to treat to see whether it works. If it does, large-scale human testing is carried out to see what the benefits are and whether there are any side effects.

Between the mass of work testing the compound on human beings and the screening process that identified the compound, there is a period in which it is necessary to use animals, although it is unnecessary to use animals exclusively. Some work can be carried out during that period to discover how to formulate the compound, using computers or in vitro tests. Ultimately, however, some toxicology testing must be carried out on animals to see whether the compound is safe because, sooner or later, we have to give the compound to a human being and say, "Swallow this and see what happens." We cannot take that risk without first carrying out some basic testing on animals. We cannot work out what the formulation should be without having first tested the hypothesis and considered how the material is metabolised in an animal. That little piece of the picture, therefore, has still to be investigated using animals.

As the hon. Gentleman said, it is better that that investigation is carried out in the United Kingdom, where standards are higher and the law is tighter than anywhere else. If we allow that work to be exported, it will be carried out to a lower standard in other countries. There is considerable evidence that much of the investment in the pharmaceutical industry which could be directed here is being displaced to other countries by campaigns against animal testing.

There is huge investment by the pharmaceutical industry in alternatives, such as robotics and computers. As I said, I have been involved in both those initiatives. It is fascinating work, but what is the source of the information that allows us to build computer models and carry out in vitro tests? Most of it comes from animals themselves. It is not possible to make up that information or pluck it out of the air; it is based on previous animal experiments. We can and must create alternatives, but those alternatives are ultimately dependent on a willingness to do some testing on animals.

The hon. Gentleman referred to cosmetics testing initiatives. He is right to say that it has taken far too long to put those initiatives in place. I see no justification for developing cosmetics by using animals. I am sure that my constituents would agree with me on that, but developing medicines for human use is a different kettle of fish. Scientists and parliamentarians must ensure that our constituents understand that whereas alternatives are desirable and huge investment must be put into finding them, until they are found, our health depends on animal experiments, as do our industries.

In conclusion, I hope that the Minister will agree that we must constantly review legislation to ensure that we do not require animal experiments to take place unnecessarily and that, when alternatives are developed, they are acceptable under our laws. The Government must also make sure that the right amount of finance is being put into developing alternatives. However, I ask the Minister to ensure that our laws to protect scientists are every bit as tight as our laws to protect animal welfare.

We must not tolerate terrorism against scientists and we must not tolerate people who prevent other business people from working. I refer to the ridiculous nonsense that has just happened in the midlands, where a policeman has had to pay £50 in compensation and apologise to a demonstrator whom he moved on, because a megaphone used in the demonstration was making a lot of noise. The person went to court and said that their human rights had been infringed because the policeman should have asked only the person with the megaphone to move on. That sort of nonsense has got to stop. It is up to the Minister and the Government to make sure that honest businesses and honest scientists, who are doing vital work, are protected.

10.11 am

It is obvious that we are dealing with an extremely emotive issue. It is also obvious that, in the past, we have used far too many animals in experiments, but I do not subscribe to the complete ban on animal experiments for which many organisations are campaigning. My hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) referred to SHAC, which is one of the more militant organisations, but there are others, such as the Animal Liberation Front. If those people keep campaigning vigorously for a complete ban on animal experiments, using their current methods, there is a danger that they will drive experimentation abroad. As my hon. Friends have said, we have some of the tightest legislation on animal experiments, which are controlled through the Home Office and other mechanisms, and driving experimentation into other countries would defeat the whole object of such campaigns.

I want to flag up another danger, which was emphasised by the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee. The process of applying for Home Office licences has become extremely bureaucratic. I have received complaints that it is taking much longer than it should for people working in the pharmaceutical industry to obtain those licences. I have also heard the contrary opinion from the Home Office that some applications are not well formulated and need to be returned, so I do not know where the truth lies. Perhaps the Minister will comment on that, because we do not want bureaucracy to add to the pressure from animal activists to drive pharmaceutical companies to do their work abroad. In fact, many jobs in this country depend on the pharmaceutical industry, which is one of our most profitable, earning money for the general good of the country.

Obviously, animal testing is extremely expensive. Not only do we have to breed the animals in controlled and licensed conditions, but the added security that is necessary because of the extremism that we have seen in the past few years costs a great deal. The good news, however, is that in the past 25 years the number of animal experiments has substantially decreased. I believe that it has gone down by about 50 per cent.; perhaps the Minister will confirm that.

In moving away from animal experiments to alternative methods, one of the barriers to change is the culture in which life scientists have worked for centuries. They must realise that there are alternatives and begin to explore them. Indeed, those who fund life sciences may need to consider switching their funding to those organisations that are researching alternative methods. We certainly cannot screen compounds on human beings, as we used to do centuries ago.

There is a lovely story about Basil Valentine, an alchemist, who was also the chef in a monastery, where he occasionally tested chemicals on his fraternal monks. He thought, erroneously, that putting an element called stibium into swill for the pigs had made them fatter, so he tried putting it into food for the monks and killed half his colleagues. That element became known as antimonk, for obvious reasons, and in turn as antimony. It is dangerous to stick things into human beings and it is probably safer to use animals for experiments.

In the 2001–02 Session, the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee produced a good report, which made several recommendations. It stated that
"it is morally acceptable for human beings to use other animals, but that it is morally wrong to cause them unnecessary or avoidable suffering."
I agree with that. The Committee also stated:
"The UK should strive not for the tightest regulation but for the best regulation properly enforced."
It continued:
"There is scope for the scientific community to give a greater priority to the development of non-animal methods, and more consideration should be given to the pursuit of the Three Rs—Reduction, Refinement and Replacement."

Is my hon. Friend concerned, as I was, that the Lords Committee may have overlooked the fact that the law requires scientists to use alternatives whenever possible and to minimise suffering? It is a legal requirement on all scientists before they can get a licence to carry out an animal experiment that they should have explored the possibility of alternatives and taken humane issues into consideration.

That is correct, but to be fair to the Lords Committee, it did not overlook that point, as my hon. Friend will see if he reads the report in full.

The milestone date is 1959 when William Russell and Rex Burch published a book entitled "Principles of Humane Experimental Treatment", which detailed reduction, refinement and replacement. In this debate we are discussing replacement methods, which include human and animal cells, lower organisms such as bacteria and yeast, and computer programmes to predict the effect of chemicals on complex biological systems.

I pay tribute to FRAME and other organisations that are trying to find alternatives to animal experiments, including the Lord Dowding Fund for Humane Research and the Dr. Hadwen Trust. FRAME, to which hon. Members have referred, has research facilities at Nottingham university, where it has been based since 1981. As the hon. Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale) said, it is represented in the House by an all-party group to which I belong.

I am hosting a reception for FRAME on 1 April between 4 and 6 pm in the Terrace Dining Room to celebrate 20 years of FRAME research, to which I invite all right hon. and hon. Members. FRAME was founded in 1969 by Dorothy Hegarty and Charles Foister, who started to raise funds to publicise the concept of replacement. It was one of the first organisations to represent the middle ground in the animal experimentation debate. FRAME's research programme at Nottingham university was established in 1982, and in the period 1983-86, it acted as principal adviser to the Government in framing the new legislation on animal experimentation. It is funded by donations from private individuals and companies and by grants from industry and Government. In 1983, it was the first organisation to receive a Home Office grant specifically for the development of alternative methods to animal experiments.

Fortunately, public pressure has resulted in a considerable reduction in animal experiments in this country, especially since the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986 was passed. In 1992, the European Centre for the Validation of Alternative Methods, or ECVAM, which is based in Ispra in Italy, was established as a unit of the European Commission's Joint Research Centre. That, too, was an important step forward.

In 2002, the European Parliament voted for an immediate Europe-wide ban on the sale of cosmetics, toiletries and ingredients that had been tested on animals. It is pressing for an outright ban, to be effective from 2004, on such products that have been tested anywhere in the world. However, it is running into some opposition. The European Council is unlikely to agree to the second proposal because it hopes that the World Trade Organisation will find an acceptable collaborative approach. The hon. Member for North Thanet said that we need political agreement throughout the world on these matters; a point of view to which I subscribe.

Unfortunately, there are two pressures for animal experiments. My hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North referred to one: the human genome project. That will, I hope, lead to many new medicines, which will have to be tested to ensure their safety for use by human beings. The indications are that many new medicines will arise from that area of activity, so that will exert a huge pressure for animal experimentation unless we develop suitable alternative methods ahead of that research being carried out.

Another worry arises from the Copenhagen charter, which is supported by 80 consumer and environmental groups throughout Europe. In 2001 the European Commission published its "Strategy for a Future Chemicals Policy". That White Paper proposes the establishment of a registration, evaluation and authorisation system—the so-called Reach system—which will require producers, importers and downstream users of chemicals produced in amounts greater than 1 tonne per annum to supply information on their toxicity to a central European Union authority by 2012. The supply of information on persistent organic pollutants and all carcinogenic, mutagenic and/or reprotoxic chemicals will be mandatory, irrespective of the production volumes.

Fortunately, FRAME has developed a strategy to implement a case-by-case application of the proposed timetable for the Reach system. That is important. I hope that the chemical industry will work with FRAME, ECVAM and other forward-looking organisations to implement the Reach system, or it will suffer dire consequences. ECVAM, with the help of its partners, including FRAME, has already produced a draft of a comprehensive strategy document intended to provide an introduction to the EU chemicals policy. It describes an integrated testing approach to assessing potential hazards to humans from exposure to chemicals, together with a survey of the current state of non-animal approaches to chemicals testing. That is all with reference to the proposed schedule for implementing the EU policy.

Apart from pharmaceuticals, only about 14 per cent. of manufactured chemicals have a minimum basic set of safety data. Many have come on to the market since 1981. In that year, the European inventory of existing commercial chemical substances, otherwise known as EINECS, was established. EU legislation requires any substance that is not on the list—new substances, in other words—and those that are to be sold in quantities greater than 1 tonne per annum to be sold only if a basic set of safety data is made available.

It is estimated that of more than 100,000 existing chemicals in production, about 30,000 that were on the market before 1981 will fall under the proposed EU legislation. The gathering of all the data to satisfy the legislation will require the use of a considerable number of animals unless alternative experiments are discovered by the organisations that I have mentioned. In 2001 the Institute for Environment and Health estimated that 12 million animal tests may be necessary. However, organisations such as Friends of the Earth have disputed that figure. It has been boiled down to the fact that a third of a million animal tests may be necessary to implement the EU directives on chemicals. That is a severe warning to the general public. Together with the human genome project, the chemicals directive would exert huge pressure for an increase in animal experimentation.

The Government have an important role to play. I ask them to consider funding alternatives to animal experiments to a greater extent than they already do. To be fair to the Government, they have increased the amount of money that they put into that area of activity. In 1997–98, the Government's budget to support the three Rs principle was £182,000. That is quite a small amount, but it has increased to £280,000 in the current year. It should also be remembered that the Government fund ECVAM through their contribution to the EU. However, I put it to the Minister that much more money should be put into research on alternative methods to animal experimentation.

We should also consider the continuing work of the EU research directorate-general. It has funded 35 projects, worth €43 million, through its quality of life programme, which is part of the fifth framework programme. The Commission addressed the use of animals in research in its action plan on science and society, which it presented in December 2002.

At present, many alternative methods to animal experiments are being examined. My hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North mentioned some of them. However, it is not sufficient for a laboratory to produce an alternative method, whether it be the FRAME laboratory in Nottingham or any other, because that method must be validated. Validation of the tests that the alternative groups discover is critical.

A test must be accepted by international organisations so that there is consistency in non-animal testing methods throughout the world. Organisations such as FRAME lead the world in developing alternative methods and ensuring that they are validated. There are European validation centres—I mentioned the one at Ispra, in Italy—and there is also an American validation centre. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development is also important in agreeing validation techniques for non-animal methods.

I would like to pay a compliment to the Medical Research Council, which, in the past, backed off from funding alternatives to animal experimentation. However, it recently made its first award of £200,000 to the defence science and technology laboratories at Southampton university. I applaud it for making that award, and hope that it will continue to fund alternative methods.

Mention has already been made of the LD50 test, in which compounds are fed in increasing amounts to a group of animals—usually 10 or a dozen—until half of them die. Millions of animals have been slaughtered through use of that test, which is now no longer used. I am pleased to say that the Draize test for eye irritancy, which caused the suffering of hundreds of thousands of animals, is also no longer used. Experiments to test a variety of potential new drugs have, been developed in a number of areas of medical research, including diabetes, cancer, sleeping sickness, dentistry, pain, cataracts, rheumatism, AIDS and pregnancy.

My argument is that although far too many animals have been used in experiments in the past, animal experiments cannot be banned completely, as the animal rights extremists seem to think. I am trying to publicise the middle way, which organisations such as FRAME and the others that I have mentioned are pursuing.

I hope that responsible Departments, including the Home Office, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Department of Health and the Department of Trade and Industry, will also play their part and contribute financially to the work that is urgently needed to pursue more and reliable alternative methods for animal experimentation.

10.30 am

I congratulate the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) on securing the debate and on his contribution. I also congratulate other hon. Members on their contributions in what has been a high-level and interesting debate. If the public were able to see such debates more often, they might have a higher opinion of Members of Parliament.

I abhor animal experiments and long for the day—which will eventually come, although perhaps not in my lifetime—when animal experiments are a thing of the past and looked back on with as much curiosity as that with which we look back on sending children up chimneys. That may be some time away, as it cannot be achieved overnight, but that must be our long-term aim. I want to spend some time developing the points made by other hon. Members and examine the obstacles to reaching that goal.

One obstacle is the small criminal element, which has been referred to by other hon. Members, that has brought the legitimate and worthy campaign for an end to animal experimentation into disrepute. Let us be clear: the activities of that small minority, who have engaged in disgraceful criminal activity, have not only been indefensible, but set back the cause. Those of us who argue for a move away from animal experimentation have been inconvenienced and disadvantaged by those persons. Their activities have been counter-productive as well as criminal.

I have great difficulty in understanding how those who pretend to want to defend animal life can be so cavalier with human life. We should try to defend all life, and I concur with other hon. Members who said that members of the science community who conduct legitimate activities are entitled to do so without any expectation of intimidation, which has sadly not always been the case.

When I say that some campaigns have been counter-productive, I mean that they have affected Government, who have had to slow down. I do not blame the Government for that, as they have had to divert their attention to what is now a law and order matter. We have spent some time today talking about that, so the debate has been on law and order as well as animal experimentation. That is regrettable. I know that one of the Minister's predecessors felt frustrated that he was being diverted down that road, instead of taking matters forward as he wanted and as all hon. Members would endorse.

Another limitation is the fact that animal experimentation is still dealt with by the Home Office when all other animal matters are concentrated in DEFRA. I had some fun in a previous Adjournment debate when I pointed out where all the animal responsibilities lay across Government—it was a right mess. A departmental reorganisation has since been undertaken—I would like to think, partly as a result of that debate—and the matters are concentrated with DEFRA. That is much better, and any animal welfare Bill introduced by the Government will show that. However, animal experimentation is an exception. It is still under the Home Office because of the law and order importance that must be attached to it.

It is also more difficult for those of us who want to articulate alternative views to do so, because we are always charged, wrongly, with defending the people engaged in criminal activities—that applies to Ministers as well as people such as me. We need to say that animal experimentation is not perfect and that the sooner it can be replaced with better alternatives, the better. The House of Lords Select Committee on Animals in Scientific Procedures report says on page 39 that
"all sides of the debate on animal procedures say that animals are highly imperfect models. It will be for the benefit of science, and ultimately of human health, if better methods of research and testing could be developed … It is also important for reasons of good science. Replacement in vitro tests tend to produce less variable results than animal tests."
I do not want anyone to believe that those who believe in the traditional animal testing are on the side of good science while those who advocate alternatives are on the side of bad science. That perception is sometimes created, quite wrongly. The Chamber should send that message today. We all agree on that.

The outdated regulations to which the hon. Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale) referred, in a powerful contribution, are another obstacle to moving towards an ending of animal testing. I hope that the Government are considering them. Like the previous Government, they always say that they want to eliminate red tape and bureaucracy. Indeed, they set up a unit to do so. I do not know whether it is still there or whether it has been swallowed up in its own efforts to reduce bureaucracy. In any case, there are outdated EU regulations that require animal tests. They are hard to justify. The pharmaceutical industry itself has drawn attention to some of those tests and said that it could do without them. There would be no loss to the protection of human health if they were removed. I hope that the Government are identifying some of those outdated EU regulations. If they could be swept away it would benefit not only animals, but the scientific community. Businesses would benefit too, for that matter, by cutting costs. It is a win-win-win situation.

The hon. Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) was right to identify the EU chemical review and the human genome project, which make the need to identify and then eliminate those regulations even more important. As the hon. Member for North Thanet said, there is a lack of co-ordination within the EU that must be sorted out. There is still a different view on how animals should be regarded. Denis Healey always said that views on animals changed north or south of the olive line. I do not know whether that is accurate, but it is a reasonable proposition.

When I went to Brussels recently and met relevant people from the Commission to discuss, among other things, animal issues, I was told that one of the main obstacles to securing agreement on the cosmetics directive was the Department of Trade and Industry. While some people in government are beavering away trying to do the right things, others are perhaps taking a slightly different view and not helping. That underlines the need for co-ordination across Government.

Freedom of information is a key aspect to moving matters forward, both to share data to prevent duplication—we are making progress on that but not enough—and to identify alternatives. We must ensure that the world at large is aware of those alternatives and we must also subject the current tests to public scrutiny so that they can be justified or otherwise. Can the Minister say anything about section 24 of the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986, which has been a long-running issue in Government? He will know that many have argued for its repeal, including the House of Lords Select Committee in its report.

It is possible and desirable to have more information published about the animal experiments that are taking place without—this is important—endangering the lives of those who are conducting them. It seems perfectly possible to have more data released without necessarily releasing data about the individuals who carried out those experiments. That seems a sensible compromise. I cannot understand why the Government said in their response to the House of Lords Select Committee report that they wanted to consult further on that. We have had a great deal of consultation on that over many years with successive Ministers and over successive Parliaments.

What is the time scale for that review and when do the Government expect to reach a conclusion? I hope that it will be in line with the House of Lords Select Committee report. I also hope that they will resist that Committee's recommendation that activities involving genetically modified animals, which are bred but not otherwise used in regulated procedures, be excluded from the Home Office statistics. I welcome the Government's response that that is not necessarily their view on that. There certainly needs to be full data on animals that have been involved in experimentation, even those that have been bred and subsequently discarded. The overbreeding figures should be produced too, as part of the process of knowing what is going on. The more information we have, the better. I hope that the Government agree.

Finally, what progress has been made in establishing a centre for the 3Rs, following the House of Lords Select Committee report recommendation, which the Government accepted? I agree with the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East. Although £280,000 is an increase on what the Government inherited, and it has been increased above inflation, it is a drop in the ocean. If the Government can find blank cheques at no notice for the millennium dome or to bail out British Energy to the tune of £650 million and, dare I say it, billions of pounds for Iraq, I am sure that a couple of million pounds here or there for alternatives to animal testing would not come amiss.

10.40 am

I congratulate the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) on obtaining the debate. His two doctor colleagues have added much to the scientific expertise and knowledge available on the subject.

Hon. Members will know that there is occasionally debate among ministerial teams—there certainly is in Opposition teams—as to who will respond on a particular topic. I volunteered for this one because the issue is of genuine concern to me, although I do not have the expertise of some who have spoken. I welcome the Lords Select Committee report; it is balanced and brings a sense of proportion to what is often an emotional issue. As my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale) said, we must all look forward to the day when we can do away with animal testing. However, it is unrealistic to expect that to happen quickly. It is crucial, as the hon. Member for South Thanet (Dr. Ladyman) said, to understand the importance of animal testing in ensuring that the research, when it is translated into new compounds for medical purposes, is safe for humans. It always astonishes me how many people who want to ban animal experimentation would not dream of taking a drug that had not been properly validated as safe for humans, without necessarily understanding the role of animals in that process.

I greatly welcome the reduction in animal experimentation—my information is that it has been 50 per cent. over 20 years. The BioIndustry Association has welcomed the report and that reduction, and has made the point that over 80 per cent. of medical research does not involve animals. We must get the matter in proportion. My constituency, surrounding Cambridge, is at the centre of much of the work. Although Huntingdon Life Sciences is in the adjoining constituency, many of its staff are my constituents. Many other companies involved in pharmaceutical and biotechnological research are in my area—for obvious reasons, I shall not put their names on record. Some do their own animal experimentation, many more contract it out; it is of huge importance in the locality. Just outside my constituency is the proposed new site for Cambridge university research.

When I visit the businesses and operations in my constituency, I always ask about their use of animals in research. The constant refrain is, "Believe me, Mr. Paice, if there were an equally good alternative, we would use it." The cost of using animals is immense. Therefore, the suggestion that scientists use animals because they cannot be bothered to develop another test, they are not interested or they gain personal satisfaction from experimenting on animals is nonsense. It is terribly expensive and if there were an alternative it would be used.

The role of FRAME has been discussed by many. The hon. Member for South Thanet pointed out that even if one develops new tests, the only way to ensure that they are equally satisfactory is to validate them against tests using animals. Those messages are not sufficiently understood.

As has been said, the level of legislation in this country is extremely high. We have all visited such facilities and all recognise that there are many obligations on their owners in relation to husbandry. I would go so far as to say that most animals in those facilities are kept in far better conditions than the average pet is and, apart from the experimentation, probably live a more satisfying life.

Section 24 has been raised, and was raised in the Lords Select Committee report. I am all for openness and do not believe in secrecy other than on the ground of public safety, yet I am concerned about the matter. Although I strongly welcome the Government's review of section 24, I hope that they will bear in mind the need to ensure public safety and the safety of everyone involved in that review.

That leads to the issue that has perhaps blighted the debate, but which is an essential part of it: the activities of extremists. Although all hon. Members present this morning have rightly condemned them, what the hon. Member for South Thanet said in an intervention is terribly important. It is sad that many of the moderate organisations do not sufficiently condemn the extremists, who therefore give everyone a bad name. Many of my constituents have been physically attacked—of course that is an offence, although what leads up to it is not necessarily so—intimidated and terrorised in the way that the hon. Member for Norwich, North described. That is wholly unacceptable. It is also important, however, that the people who work in such facilities are not the only people who are affected. As the hon. Gentleman said, all the other organisations are affected too. It is disgraceful that, as auditors, Deloitte and Touche capitulated so quickly.

Where do such activities stop? What about a tanker driver who is delivering fuel? What about the guy who might want to do a bit of building work? The Government should look at the issue of at-risk directors, which was a sensible step forward. However, the Government need to consider extending the list of people whose names should be kept secret and not on the public register, because the problem goes much further than simply the directors of HLS or AN Other research company. All the others who are involved are affected.

I encourage the Government to look at legislation relating to the numbers of people who gather together. It does not take very many people gathering on one's front path to cause intimidation. We should consider reducing the number from 20 to something much smaller. The situation is terribly difficult for people and their families. It is more than distressing: it is driving people to take their careers abroad, which we certainly do not want to encourage.

That leads to my final point, which is to endorse the comment that so many hon. Members have made this morning, but which cannot be over-emphasised. It is far better that such research is done in this country under our strict controls than to let SHAC have its way and close down HLS, which would not save a single animal or reduce research, but would simply ensure that research took place abroad under less strict regulations and that more animals suffered. That would be the outcome if SHAC had its way. Let us work to reduce animal experimentation in this country, but ensure that we keep it in this country. The best way of doing that is to continue in the same way, using the Act introduced by the previous Conservative Government, with the changes made by the present Government, to protect those who work in or derive their income from such businesses. I urge the Minister to consider further what can be done to protect direct employees and people who have any business relationship with such companies, all of whom are being victimised by that hideous group, which claims to act in the name of animal welfare.

10.50 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department
(Mr. Bob Ainsworth)

I congratulate every hon. Member who has taken part in this debate and echo the points that have been made by the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) about the high standard of the debate, which is due to my well qualified hon. Friends the Members for South Thanet (Dr. Ladyman), for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) and for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson), and the hon. Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale), who has been active in the area for many years and has developed much expertise. The contributions from the Back Benches brought a level of knowledge to the subject that is unrivalled in any other debate in which I have participated.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North on securing this debate and FRAME on inspiring it. FRAME has worked for 21 years to try to develop alternatives to animal experimentation and has done more to reduce the amount of suffering and the number of animals used in procedures than any of the activities of the organisations that the Chamber has unanimously condemned today.

I want to expand on that subject, because it is extremely important. It was said, rightly, that only a very small number of people behave in such a way as to bring into disrepute other organisations with a justifiable case to argue, and they distract the Government from issues that they want to get on with. We must always try to guard against that. However, when we say that an extremely small number of people is involved, we must not lose sight of the fact that there is, if not wide support for, at least ambiguity about their activities in other organisations and sections of the media, and a lack of understanding about exactly what they are about.

We must try to ensure that everyone who has to deal with such cases, whether the police service, the Crown Prosecution Service or the courts, is aware of their activities. We must develop an understanding of what those people are doing and their methods, and I hope that some of the issues raised this morning have advertised that. It concerns me greatly that people make monetary contributions to organisations when they cannot have any knowledge about how that money will be used and what will flow from their contributions. They believe that they are supporting effective activities to reduce the suffering of animals in experimentation, but they may be supporting a bunch of cruel and villainous terrorists in their appalling activities.

My hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet referred to a specific case, but Ministers cannot comment on individual cases even when they seem to be beyond understanding. However, he flagged up the need to ensure that everyone involved—the Crown Prosecution Service, the police and the courts—is aware of the background of such cases and the sort of activities involved. I have subjected myself to listening to the plight of people who work in the industry. I am not referring exclusively to top-flight directors or well qualified people who can take their expertise abroad. I am talking about ordinary working people who have been consistently and repeatedly targeted in their homes, intimated, violently attacked and put in terror by an organisation that is an absolute disgrace. We must do everything that we can to put a stop to that.

Picking up the question that the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire asked, we are considering how we can strengthen the legislation. We need to understand some of the logistical problems that the limits on section 14 of the Public Order Act 1986 place on rural police forces where it is harder to pull the necessary numbers together at short notice to deal with large demonstrations. It might be easier for larger forces in more concentrated areas.

We need in particular to make absolutely certain that we are doing the maximum possible to drive out the growing problem of targeting people and their families in their homes. Targeting their private lives is beyond the pale. We need to look at what we can do to strengthen the regulations and the operational procedures.

Within the National Crime Squad, we have set up a taskforce to deal with the extremists. We will be following that through, but the media and other people have responsibilities. They cannot report people as if they are buccaneers on the Spanish main. They must be aware of the disgraceful activities and behaviour and the anti-democratic methodology of such people, and they must be prepared to condemn them in the terms that all hon. Members have been prepared to do this morning.

A problem associated with that, which some hon. Members have raised, is the issue of openness. My hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet and the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) raised the matter. I agree that if we are to be effective in persuading the public that we are doing everything possible to reduce unnecessary animal experimentation, we must actually be doing it. We must be as open as we possibly can about what takes place, why and in what circumstances. I agree in principle that openness is an absolute given and that we ought to be trying to drive down that road.

I do not believe that section 24 of the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986 will make any difference to the amount of information put into the public domain, but it has become a totem for both sides in this argument. However, I am not prepared to proceed with its removal if it undermines the confidence of the people who are doing the work that we are talking about. We must carry people with us and convince them that we are not putting them in any jeopardy.

As our response to the Science and Technology Committee report said, we plan to publish summaries of licences. That will do much more to put real, usable information into the public domain so that people can get a better understanding of what is being done and why than section 24 itself can. However, I am not prepared to push ahead with the removal of the section when confidence is so fragile among many people working in the area because of the activities of the people about whom we have heard today.

I know that I will not be able to deal with the other issues in the time left. I promise to go through Hansard afterwards, because so many important issues have been raised. I will respond to all those who have participated.

We do much to try to reduce absolutely the number of animals used in procedures in this country. The statistics show that the number of genetically normal animals being used annually went down from 2.27 million in 1995 to 1.74 million in 2001, a drop of 23 per cent. The commercial sector, whose animal use has halved over the years despite increased investment and activity, is to be congratulated on that. However, we must also point out to people, as has been said today, that no one conducts these procedures if alternatives are available. I have been visiting these establishments since I held my present responsibilities and I can see that clearly. People are desperate to develop alternatives.

We invest far more than the £280,000 that pays for the committee. Our estimate, which can always be shot at, is that out £10 million of Government money goes into the reduction of animal procedures—

Order. Time is up, and we must now turn our attention to the next topic.

Warsaw Convention

11 am

I want to focus on article 17 of the convention, which concerns airline passengers' health. However, I am not sure that I should be speaking on health issues this morning, as I have the most appalling flu. I apologise if I am not as coherent as I would like to be.

The purpose of this short debate is clear and simple, but important: to point out to the 55 million airline passengers who travel abroad from this country that the airlines that carry them have no liability for their health. I heard the tail end of the previous debate on animal welfare—ironically, airlines do have a liability for the health of the animals that they carry: they must travel in an area that would accommodate at least twice their own body weight and size and must be fed, watered and exercised regularly. That courtesy is not extended to human beings transported on British airlines, because of the absurd anomaly in the Warsaw convention.

The Warsaw convention was introduced in October 1929, when air travel was in its infancy. It was a dangerous and novel activity and, rightly at the time, the countries that wanted to govern it internationally recognised that it had risks. They introduced limited liability, and it is absurd that it continues to this day. It has been updated on several occasions since 1929, in particular in the Hague protocol of 1955, in the early 1960s and most recently in Montreal in 1999—that update awaits ratification. However, updating the convention does not place a responsibility on airlines for the health of their passengers.

I place on record my thanks to the Department for Transport, which I congratulate on its announcement last week that it will take the earliest legislative opportunity to put a statutory responsibility for aviation health on the Civil Aviation Authority. The proposal will be the first such in the world, and it is to be welcomed.

The Department announced that one of the responsibilities will be to set up an aviation health unit at CAA Gatwick, funded from a levy from the airline industry. The main focus of the unit will be matters that affect aviation health and research. It will be the first port of call for inquiries and give advice to passengers and crew on aviation health issues. It is a most welcome development, and it took courage and leadership to announce the proposals. That is why the Government should take a leading role in calling for the revision of article 17, which has been described as a licence to kill for the airlines. We know, almost without doubt, that more passengers die through ill health—in particular from thromboembolic disease in long-haul international air travel—than die in accidents.

However, under article 17, airlines are responsible only for death or serious injury caused by an accident on a plane or while getting on or off a plane. They have no liability for the health of their passengers. That is absurd. It was not absurd in 1929, when they were still flying biplanes, few people paid to travel by air and cabins were not pressurised. However, in 2003 55 million people fly and airlines have total—total—control over the environment in which they do so, and it is nonsense to say that they have no responsibility for passengers' health. Employers have, quite rightly, responsibility for the health of their work force because of the control that they have over the work environment.

Airlines, however, do not have a liability for the health of their passengers, apart from a common-law duty of care. Not merely do they control what one can do on an airplane, where one sits and how one sits, what one eats and drinks, they control the very air that one breathes. They control the amount of oxygen in that air, and they control the pressure in a cabin. All those factors can have medical and health consequences. We know that until the mid-1980s airlines used to pump fresh air into cabins; now, however, they recycle old air through filter systems. Evidence suggests that that merely recycles microbes and germs that can infect passengers and can have serious health consequences.

That is one example, but the Minister will be aware that my primary concern is deep vein thrombosis. The incidence of that dreadful killer condition, which could be—and I stress could be—killing up to 1,400 passengers a year in this country alone, is increasing. That is a fifth of all those who die of DVT or pulmonary embolisms in this country. I must point out that 80 per cent. of all deaths from this condition are clinically silent. That is because deaths from it are diagnosed only through post mortems and there are not enough post mortems to identify all the tragic deaths from this condition.

I am involved in this campaign and I chair the all-party group on flight-related DVT because one of my constituents died in the most tragic circumstances. However, the real issue is that his family would have had no idea of the cause of his death had it not been for a chance exchange with a consultant pathologist. Deep vein thrombosis did not go on the death certificate and there was no mention of the death being related to travel. However, it is almost certain that travelling long distances in cramped conditions on aircraft causes blood clotting in one in 10 passengers and potentially fatal deep vein thrombosis in one in 40, according to the work of John Scurr.

However, I will be the first to admit that much more research must be done. I have called for such research and have placed on record my thanks to the Government for contributing a substantial amount of money to the World Health Organisation's research into deep vein thrombosis and air travel. We know that in the 1980s the average pitch in an aircraft—the distance between seats—was about 36 inches. That is not as much as is required for an animal, as I said earlier, but a little more space for people to move about. The average pitch now is about 30 to 31 inches, and, bizarrely, the statutory limit is even lower.

A recommendation was made recently to increase the pitch on aircraft but not in the health interests of passengers, despite the fact that being cramped like sardines in the seats causes the blood pooling in the bottom of the ankles, which in turn causes the clotting. That is the most dangerous situation and is either the primary cause of deep vein thrombosis in air travellers or at least a secondary but important cause. It is a major health issue that the airlines are allowed totally to ignore because of an anachronistic convention that was agreed at the beginning of the previous century. Given the Government's track record in the field of aviation health—their recent announcements and response to the excellent House of Lords Science and Technology Committee report of two years ago, which called for several measures to be introduced to protect passengers—they should consider showing leadership in the world in calling for the removal of the nonsensical protection for airlines.

When the average airline passenger in this country picks up their ticket and looks on the back of it, they will see a copy of the absurd Warsaw convention, but I doubt that they read it or understand its implications. It is a complex convention, and I am referring to only one small article, but it places a limited liability on airlines in many areas, including on the damage to or loss of luggage. I am sure that many hon. Members have been through the rigmarole of finding luggage, because the airlines are protected. They should be protected no longer, especially from prosecution or legal action for endangering the lives of their passengers by exposing them to deadly health risks, the most important of which is deep vein thrombosis.

When the aviation health unit is up and running, new legislation is introduced to give a specific responsibility to the Civil Aviation Authority and one Minister has overriding responsibility for aviation health issues, I predict that that Minister will be become known as the Minister for DVT and the unit will become known as the Department of DVT. That is for a simple reason. In the past two years, DVT has become the most important health concern of the general public about the risks that they take when boarding an aircraft for a long-haul flight.

It is important that the travelling public be made aware—I repeat this, because the message must get across—that the airlines do not have liability for their health. A recent case was brought, unsuccessfully, in the High Court by Des Collins of Collins Solicitors against 28 airlines, on behalf of many victims of that dreadful condition and their families, some of whom I know personally. They did not go to court to argue that their relatives had died and suffered because of that condition, which affects one in 40 of all people who fly, nor because they believed, rightly, that they should be compensated for the death and misery that had been caused by boarding an aircraft for long-distance travel, unaware of any risk. The case went before the court so that it could be argued that flight-related deep vein thrombosis was an accident, as defined in article 17 of the Warsaw convention.

The solicitors acting on behalf of the families, and some of the victims themselves, knew that they had no other way of suing airlines for placing people at risk and causing so much damage. It is worth bearing in mind how much damage can be caused by a deep vein thrombosis, which is a very large blood clot. It can cause tremendous injury and result in lengthy periods of medication if it does not move to the lungs, heart or brains and kill the sufferer. We are talking about something deadly, for which the airlines currently take no responsibility. It could be argued that those airlines have a licence to kill.

The Minister has an excellent track record in matters of this kind. I am the first to admit that in today's debate we are just highlighting the problem, and that it could take many years to make the appropriate change to an international convention. It could be a long struggle.

However, we must raise the flag now, to show that there is an issue to be dealt with. More people die from the condition than die in air accidents or crashes. Some responsibility lies with airlines for the latter, but no such responsibility—no statutory liability—lies with them for the health of their passengers. That should change.

11.17 am

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Glamorgan (Mr. Smith) on securing this important debate and on the campaign that he has waged on deep vein thrombosis. His interest sprang originally from the tragic circumstances affecting some of his constituents. I recognise that he is acting not only on their behalf but more widely on behalf of all those who travel by air. He chairs the all-party group on deep vein thrombosis awareness, which has done much good work to raise awareness and has quite properly lobbied the Government to take further action. I congratulate him on his vigour and hard work.

The Government share my hon. Friend's concern about the health of air passengers. We can claim with truth that the United Kingdom has led Europe, if not the world, in focusing attention on aviation health and taking positive steps on a range of issues. Three years ago, we received the excellent report by the House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology, entitled "Air Travel and Health". That was arguably the widest ranging and most authoritative study of aviation health ever carried out. It contained a sequence of well-researched and supported recommendations aimed at Government organisations and the airline industry.

The Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, as it was then, accepted nearly all the recommendations that were aimed at the Government and with the Department of Health set up the aviation health working group to oversee the taking forward of the Committee's recommendations. That body, which includes representatives from the Civil Aviation Authority and the Health and Safety Executive, has met regularly since then. Representatives of the airlines, airline staff associations and, most important, consumers are invited to join every other meeting of the group, sometimes with expert scientists or medical practitioners, to create a broad forum for the discussion of aviation health issues.

The group focused initially on the dissemination of sound information to passengers and on research matters—the two priorities identified by the Select Committee. Recently, however, my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, Department of Transport, announced plans to set up an aviation health unit within the Civil Aviation Authority, to become a source of technical expertise. The unit, which will be based at Gatwick, will act as a focal point for aviation health issues. It will offer advice to air passengers and crew and provide technical input for international organisations. It will also investigate potential new health concerns, handle public inquiries and identify research priorities. As aviation health is likely to remain a matter of continuing political concern, Ministers will continue to take a close interest. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Glamorgan will bring it to our attention, should we lapse.

The group will provide a strategic policy lead and will fulfil what I believe will remain a highly important role. The CAA will recruit someone to head the unit as soon as possible. For the time being, it will be funded by the Department for Transport. As soon as a suitable legislative opportunity arises, the CAA will be given statutory duties on aviation health, allowing it to fund the unit's work out of charges imposed on the aviation industry. As far as I know, the unit will be the first Government-run institution of its type in the world and it is a significant step forward. The pressure put on the Department by my hon. Friend has been helpful in taking that forward.

I said that one of the priorities that we would address was the need, identified by the Select Committee, for further research into possible links between deep vein thrombosis and flying. We have yet to see any definitive research-based evidence that authoritatively establishes a causal link. Based largely on the House of Lords report, we persuaded the World Health Organisation to initiate a major research programme. Central to that is a large epidemiological study to investigate whether air passengers have a greater incidence of DVT than non-fliers.

The first part of the project has secured €3 million of funding, the lion's share being provided jointly by my Department and the Department of Health with a contribution from the European Commission. Regrettably, other countries in Europe and elsewhere declined to provide funding, but the airline industry is making a significant input by providing access to flights and passengers and other forms of co-operation.

The project is scheduled to last for two years and the results are expected at the end of the next year. I am sure that my hon. Friend will agree that we will need to be certain of a link between the aircraft cabin environment and the incidence of deep vein thrombosis before we can think of making changes to air carrier liability. If the research shows such a link, the action for which my hon. Friend argued so strongly today could be carried forward.

For some years, most airlines have included health advice in the information that they provide to passengers. As the airlines cannot be expected to cover every eventuality or condition that might occur, that advice has tended to be broad and non-specific. Passengers have a responsibility to ensure that they are sufficiently fit to fly, but the Government agreed with the Select Committee that more should be done to ensure that passengers have as much sound information as possible on which to base their travel plans and on which to decide whether they are fit to fly.

In 2001, the Government therefore issued their own advice on travel-related deep vein thrombosis. That advice has been made available to the public through NHS Direct, the internet, the airlines and health services. It provides further information about DVT, based on the current state of knowledge, including setting out those categories of people who are more at risk than others, and gives practical advice about how air passengers on long-haul flights may reduce the risk of getting that blood-clotting condition. My hon. Friend will probably agree that the major risk is not to people on short flights—holiday flights—within Europe, but to those on longer flights.

The advice describes, for example, simple in-seat exercises that all air passengers should consider doing. All UK long-haul carriers have produced expanded and improved information for their passengers, in the form of pamphlets, videos or announcements, incorporating the material contained in the Government's advice.

My hon. Friend also mentioned the air circulated in cabins. My information is that 99 per cent. of particles are filtered out of the air that is recycled around the aircraft. He also mentioned the on-seat pitch: we need more knowledge about that. It is not only a question of "economy-class syndrome", because incidents have also occurred in business class, where people have more room. We need more research to inform us on the matters raised by my hon. Friend.

My hon. Friend explained why he thinks that the Warsaw convention is unduly protective of airlines, particularly in the light of the recent High Court ruling to which he referred. Although he rightly spoke of the convention as the international agreement that is in force, the key legal instrument is now the Montreal convention, to which he also referred. The Montreal convention, which is expected to come into force later this year, consolidates and updates all the earlier Warsaw-based rules. The adoption of the Montreal convention in 1999, within the framework of the International Civil Aviation Organisation, concluded a period of intense, and at times difficult, negotiations to forge worldwide consensus from a range of divergent views.

In many ways, the Warsaw convention had become out of date and the Montreal convention is a significant step forward in consumer protection. For example, it greatly increases the financial liability of airlines in the event of accidents to passengers. The UK is ready to ratify the new convention along with our partners in the European Community. My hon. Friend will appreciate that the UK is not in a position to make unilateral changes on matters such as those. Were any further amendments to be proposed, they would have to be considered and if appropriate agreed at a global level, probably through the ICAO.

Furthermore, I expect the European Commission to assert that the existence of Community law in this area creates exclusive Community competence, which would require us to act in concert with our European partners. In practice, I see little possibility of the international aviation community wishing to consider amending the convention so soon after its adoption and before it has come into force.

With regard to the case to which my hon. Friend referred, I understand that there may be an appeal. It therefore would not be appropriate for me to comment on that case. However, I can make some general points about the effects of the Warsaw convention. Mr. Justice Nelson held that the atypical reaction of any passenger to a normal and unremarkable flight does not, without any other factor, constitute an accident under article 17 of the Warsaw convention. The judge relied on a well- established legal interpretation of the term "accident" as an unexpected or unusual event or happening that is external to the passenger.

I am sorry to intervene at this late stage, but could the Minister briefly deal with my point about the unusual circumstances in which airlines have total control over the environment of passengers, but no responsibility for their health?

That is what I was trying to say. The way in which the courts have interpreted the Warsaw convention has prevented that particular group of passengers from claiming damages from the airline. It is a complex area of policy and law and it would be difficult to go into all the legal detail and niceties of the matter in the context of the debate today.

My hon. Friend has raised some important issues today, as he has on many other occasions. Those issues are of concern to passengers, consumers, the Government and the airlines. I welcome the debate as it gave me the opportunity to respond to some of his arguments. If there are questions to which I did not respond, I will write to him.

11.30 am

Sitting suspended until 2 o'clock.


2 pm

This is the second Adjournment debate on immigration in two days. I had not realised that there would be one yesterday. I intend to amend my speech somewhat to avoid covering in detail the issues that were covered in the debate introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames). However, I may ask some questions that follow on from it. It is also the second debate for a very long time on the subject outside legislation. That is because the House and politicians generally stay away from discussing immigration, thereby losing us respect in the eyes of the electorate. It is also a matter on which both major parties have performed spectacularly badly over the last 40 or 50 years.

Labour's British Nationality Act 1948 was the first ever to define British citizenship. It allowed 800 million Commonwealth citizens the right to reside in the United Kingdom. In June 1948, after the Empire Windrush arrived, 11 Labour Members wrote to Clement Attlee complaining about excessive immigration. In June 1950, a Cabinet committee was established with the terms of reference of finding
"ways which might be adopted to check the immigration into this country of coloured people from British colonial territories."
In February 1951, that committee reported that no restrictions were required.

But from the time of Churchill's premiership, new Commonwealth immigration rose from 3,000 in 1953 to 46,800 in 1956 and thence to 136,400 in 1961. These were largely economic immigrants, rather than asylum seekers. Andrew Roberts has written that
"Cabinet and Committee papers … point to irresolution and wishful thinking as the principal liberal Tory response to an issue which … could easily have been nipped in the bud."
In January 1954 a further committee was set up under David Maxwell-Fyfe, the then Home Secretary, which found that there was nothing to justify restrictions. It was reported afterwards that
"a reversal of traditional practice would antagonise liberal opinion".
In other words, the re was vacillation and postponement of considering the problem right through until 1961. I say that to illustrate that economic migration is a long-standing and contentious issue and that no party can be released from criticism for its handling of the matter.

The British people have never voted for mass migration and the longer we in respectable political parties ignore these issues, the more people will feel excluded from the political process and the more those who exploit race for political purposes will benefit, whether it is the race relations industry demanding ever more money from the Home Office or political parties from the British National party in Burnley to the Liberal Democrats in the early 1990s in Tower Hamlets.

We in the respectable political parties cannot afford to sweep this issue aside or bury it for fear of being called racist. I welcome the work in progress that the Minister for Citizenship and Immigration reported in the Adjournment debate yesterday.

Thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex, I need not go over all the numbers again. To summarise, last year 100,000 people were refused asylum and 11,500 were removed from the country, which leaves a net figure of about 90,000. In 2001 the figure for non-EU immigration was about 178,000. The hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris), who is not in his place, regarded that figure as "good". Of those, 46 per cent. were spouses and families.

It is estimated that the figure for illegal immigration could be anything from 35,000 upwards. The authors of the book entitled "Asylum Statistics UK 2001" report:
"Based upon day-to-day experience of Immigration Services Union members, a very modest estimate would be that, for every person known to attempt to or succeed in entering the UK illegally, two others succeed unnoticed."
To add those figures together and project them over 10 years is not difficult. That gives a figure of 2 million migrants to this country over the next 10 years, not including those from within the European Union. The Home Office has admitted that there were 1.5 million migrants to this country in the last decade. By any measure, that is mass immigration. It means that a town larger than Luton would have to be built every year to accommodate those people alone.

In making his powerful case, does my hon. Friend understand how much he is understating the problem? The Government's own commitment to 200,000 non-EU work permits a year would make the figure of 2 million over the next 10 years on its own, over and above the figures that my hon. Friend has given.

I do indeed understand that and I thank my hon. Friend. I have been very conservative in the figures that I have used. I ask the Minister why the Government do not accept the accuracy even of my projections, which come from Migration Watch UK.

Just to help my hon. Friend, I wonder whether he is aware that Baroness Scotland, who is a Minister in another place, accepted the 2 million figure in a seminar at Oxford that was attended by my hon. Friends the Members for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) and for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Duncan). Although the Minister in last night's debate appeared puzzled by that suggestion, she should not have been, as Baroness Anelay placed that figure, and Baroness Scotland's use and acceptance of it on the Government's behalf, on the record in another place more than a week ago.

Indeed, and so did my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield last night. The Minister for Citizenship and Immigration replied:

"We do not accept Migration Watch UK's immigration projections as accurate".—[Official Report, 18 March 2003; Vol. 401, c. 920.]
Then the axe came down on the debate. Will this Minister say which projections the Home Office does not accept as accurate and what figures it would substitute for them; or does it accept the figures proposed by Baroness Scotland?

I shall say a few words about asylum and then move on to the question of numbers and whether large numbers in terms of inward migration are a good thing. I shall not go into detail on asylum because that has been debated many times. In my estimation, the issue revolves more around the numbers of immigrants outside the asylum system, who are part of a Government policy, than those within it, where Government policy is well known. It is common ground that the purpose of asylum is to protect refugees and those fleeing persecution and that abuse of the asylum process harms those deserving of refuge.

The Government have gone back and forth on the matter, but in 2001 there were 110,000 asylum claims of which 100,000 were refused, so some 10 per cent. were genuine. The problem is that the Government are constantly playing catch up, not only with criminals and people traffickers, but with the countries of origin of some asylum seekers and with the courts. Some countries such as China refuse to take back failed claimants even when they have papers. With others, it is impossible to prove the country of origin, so we are left with them. Others cannot be traced. They may be classed as "returned", but they are never returned in practice.

I hope that the creation of a removals agency, whether within the immigration and nationality directorate or separate from it, will assist in the process, because the Home Secretary has said that he is fed up with dealing with situations arising from judges overturning what has been decided after debates in Parliament. That does not happen by accident. Although some judges are more liberal than others, they interpret legislation introduced by Governments. The Human Rights Act 1998 is the legislation that interferes most in the interpretation of our asylum laws. It represents a surrender of our shores and of control of our asylum process. That is why we would be right to legislate to limit those judgments.

I welcome the asylum proposals by my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin), which I am confident would, if implemented, be widely copied around the world. In particular, we should enter a reservation against article 3 of the European convention on human rights to give us the power to deport foreign nationals who are judged to be a risk to the public.

I also welcome the proposal that asylum seekers should be dealt with rapidly, perhaps on an offshore island some distance from the shores of the United Kingdom. The message must be that we shall deal with asylum seekers swiftly and robustly and not allow those whose applications are rejected to leak into the general population; and that we shall adopt sensible policies on benefits, housing and settlement. That is the way to reduce demand for asylum and to enable those who really need help to receive it. It would have a marked impact on fears that asylum acts as a back door into the United Kingdom.

The Government's robust words about asylum conceal their generally pro-immigration policy. There must be a motive for the policy. What is the Government's philosophy on immigration? Is it that anyone is entitled to settle in the United Kingdom, subject to restrictions, or is it that no one is entitled to settle, but that permission may be extended to certain categories? What is the starting point, and what is the philosophy behind the restrictions or permissions that follow from it?

If, as the Government claim, high net migration brings many benefits, they should admit the numbers, sell the benefits to the public and bask in the adulation of a grateful electorate for providing such a generally beneficial improvement in our way of life. I see no evidence of that, because so far they have provided few arguments that mass migration is a good thing, but there are many arguments that the numbers put too great a burden on our infrastructure and public services, on the poorest people, and on our way of life.

2.12 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

2.27 pm

On resuming—

May I clarify matters by saying that the temporary sessional orders allow injury time for suspensions, so the present debate is now due to conclude at 3.45 pm?

The Government argue that we need to welcome the considerable benefits of migration. They say:

"Migrants contribute to our culture and society. They bring a range of backgrounds, cultures and faiths, which is one of the positive hallmarks of life in Britain in the 21st century."—[Official Report, 18 March 2003; Vol. 401, c. 916.]
Other arguments in favour of high inward migration—I invite the Minister to correct me if I have missed any out—include the suggestion that mass migration corrects declining population, worsening dependency ratios, the demographic time bomb and labour shortages, and that immigrants pay more taxes and contribute to gross domestic product.

Let me provide some facts. Britain's population is not declining. The Government Actuary predicts that with zero net migration the population will grow from 59.8 million in 2000 to 60.3 million in 2020. Britain does not have a declining work force, but the fastest growing work force in Europe. With zero net immigration it will grow by 1.2 million by 2020.

Britain is not suffering a demographic time bomb, with pensioners forming an insupportable burden on the working population. Indeed, the Government Actuary predicts that the number of children and pensioners per thousand people of working age will fall from 620 in 2000 to 583 in 2020. Neither are we suffering generalised labour shortages. Immigration is no fix to the problem, as it is sometimes termed, of an ageing population. Immigrants grow old too. To maintain the youthful element of the population an immigration level of 59 million by 2050 would be required, which is absurd.

Immigration does boost the gross domestic product, but there is no evidence that it boosts the measure that matters, which is per capita GDP. In fact, immigrants usually have lower incomes and so, on average, have lower per capita GDP. Although immigrants pay more tax than they receive in benefits and consume in public services overall, it is only because immigrants from north America, Japan and the EU pay so much more than their fair share compared with immigrants from other parts of the world, who have a net take from the tax system.

As for the argument that immigration is culturally enriching, doubling the amount of immigration does not, of course, double the amount of enrichment. When were the people of Britain last asked whether they wanted to be culturally enriched? They may go to Thai restaurants on the Isle of Wight, but do they want to see Chinese language advertisements in the Isle of Wight County Press?

Is it culturally enriching that a spokesman for Tower Hamlets council says that its schools are
"moving away from a religious theme for Easter and will probably be serving naan bread"
instead of hot cross buns? Is it culturally enriching that flags of St. George are frowned upon, that Winterval is introduced in Birmingham, and that there are bans on nativity scenes in Red Cross shops or on the mention of pigs in some schools?

Those are absurdities, I acknowledge, but they worry many people in our population and create a damaging effect of migration. Another damaging effect is that those who benefit are the employers of cheap labour for whom immigrants are a source of cheap labour, whereas the people who lose are the competitors who provide cheap labour in the labour market, including unskilled workers, especially other ethnic minorities who are already settled in Britain. The problem of cheap labour is in no way resolved by introducing immigrants into the country except in the very short term.

High levels of migration provide competition for new houses. Two million more will be required by 2021, overwhelmingly in the south-east, pushing up pressure to build on green belt areas, pushing up house prices and adding to congestion. Of course, that effect is offset by people who move out of London, but it adds to transport costs and lowers the quality of life as more people commute.

Before my hon. Friend moves on from the subject of labour, I wanted to make the point that the problems of cheap labour in agricultural and rural areas, and in my constituency in particular, are profound. The exploitation of immigrant populations and the exploitation of people who are not part of an organised work force—perhaps not unionised or organised in any way—is a real concern. My hon. Friend will know that action needs to be taken on that. It is not fair, it is not just and it is not appropriate.

Indeed it is not. That problem has also been mentioned by our hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegness (Mr. Simmonds).

The Deputy Prime Minister's proposals for solving the problem of additional population pressures in the south-east actually worsen things. There is talk of moving additional homes into the transport corridors that connect with London, thereby increasing pressure on transport to and from London.

There is a huge impact on infrastructure and an increasing need for school places, including in inner London. The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) is in his place. That authority required at least three, and it may have been four, new secondary schools over the last three or four years to cope with, among other things, an increasing population. There is also, of course, competition for housing.

There is also an impact on public health. The House of Commons Library brief on this matter says:
"During the 1990s, numbers of HIV cases in the UK following infection in Eastern Africa rose steadily, and were approaching 500 in 2001. Cases of infection in South Eastern Africa have increased dramatically over the past few years, and numbered nearly 900 in 2001. Of the 2,400 heterosexually acquired HIV infections diagnosed in the UK in 2001 … 70 per cent. were acquired in Africa."
They may have been by travellers, but they may have been by migrants.

Between 1998 and 2000, 11.2 cases of tuberculosis were reported per 100,000 population in England and Wales. That compares with 4.4 cases per 100,000 for people born in the UK; 73.4 cases per 100,000 for people born outside the UK and 280.5 cases per 100,000 for black African people born outside the UK. As Professor Peter Ormerod, the spokesman for the British Thoracic Society, says,
"There are a few areas of the UK that have levels of TB comparable to Third World countries."
The London borough of Brent is one of them. It has a level of 116.5 per 100,000 population, compared with China, which has a level of 113. We cannot prove that those levels are caused by high immigration, but they occur in areas in which there are large immigrant populations. I ask the Minister whether we have adequate screening to cover the massive numbers of people who are reaching our shores, so that we may ensure that high levels of infection are not imported into our country.

There is a net cost to immigration that must be measurable by the amount spent on ethnically based programmes. It is much more difficult to assess than some of the costs that I mentioned, and I do not believe that the Government have the mechanisms for identifying those costs. Only when those and other issues are honestly and openly explored can there be honest and open debate on immigration.

Among the many issues related to mass migration, the most difficult is race and what has been called the changing face of Britain. It is self-evident that when an unwelcome change takes place unnoticed and surreptitiously, it is less likely to generate hostility than one that is widely trumpeted and publicised. That appears to have been the philosophy behind all Governments', not just this Government's, handling of immigration. Sooner or later, it will be trumpeted, and when that happens I fear that we will have to deal with the consequences.

Order. It appears that four Back-Bench Members wish to speak. I intend to call the Liberal Democrat spokesman half an hour before the end of the debate. That leaves just under 40 minutes for the four Back-Bench Members who wish to speak. If they confine their remarks accordingly, all of them should be heard.

2.36 pm

I assume that I have 10 minutes. I will be obliged if someone let me know when I get to the end of those 10 minutes because I get carried away and forget where I am.

I will not even try to cover the subjects that the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) raised. I intend to confine my comments to my experiences in my constituency with Asian women. I shall speak exclusively about the abuse of Asian women's human rights brought about by the abuse of immigration policy by families. The women fall into two categories. Some are UK-born; some were born at Airedale general hospital in my constituency. They are extremely attractive, intelligent, capable women who are sometimes forced, sometimes persuaded or sometimes quite willing to enter into an arranged marriage with a cousin from Pakistan or Bangladesh; usually it is Pakistan.

Usually, the girl is taken to Pakistan to be married. When she returns she is frequently a willing sponsor. Many, however, are reluctant sponsors. A woman may not wish to sponsor her husband because she may have met him only briefly at a marriage ceremony and known him just for a few days. She may decide that she has no intention of living with that man and may refuse to be a sponsor. Her family will bring a great deal of pressure to bear on her, and she will usually come to ask me for advice to see how she can get out of her very difficult situation. Between us, we can usually think of ways round the problem. We give the high commission in Islamabad information about her, the marriage and the young man she has married to stop him being given a visa. That frequently works, and the girls are let off the hook.

Unfortunately, there is another category of young women who are more vulnerable and who need much more help than those in the first category. Those girls are brought in as wives by the family-in-law. They will rarely have been forced into a marriage, as they usually see this country as a land of milk and honey. They want to come and live here. It will help them and their families to live here, so force is rarely brought to bear on them. I know of a number of cases in which the girl has been abandoned by the husband. It is the girls who are the most vulnerable victims of using marriage to facilitate entry clearance.

The husbands keep the girls here, but they have little knowledge of their rights. Many do not even know the town where they live. Many of them arrive at Manchester airport and are taken directly to the house where they are to live. They do not know much beyond the corner shop. They are, therefore, not aware of their entitlements.

Sometimes, in the most unhappy circumstances, the husband and family-in-law abandon the girl. She is then brought to me by the Keighley Domestic Violence Service in order to facilitate the granting of indefinite leave to remain. Until she gets that, she is not entitled to benefit and therefore not entitled to go into a refuge—and many such girls have children by that time.

Her husband and in-laws simply drag their feet, because they regard her as an inadequate wife. Until she gains indefinite leave to remain, she is an extremely vulnerable young woman. I have yet to fail on any of those cases. I have always managed to obtain indefinite leave to remain for those girls, so that they have access to benefits and they and their young children have access to some form of sheltered housing.

If I were not on the scene, if I were an MP who did not care, if the girls did not receive the help of the Keighley Domestic Violence Service, I am convinced that they would be deported. If they did not have indefinite leave to remain, they would be over-stayers, and their family-in-law could report them to the police. They could then be sent back to Pakistan to their family, but I would have grave doubts about their future there because they would be a great source of embarrassment to their family. They would not be welcomed.

I believe that changes are needed in order to make it more difficult for the in-laws and the husbands to put those poor girls into such a dreadful situation. As I say, I have had a measure of success, and I am grateful to the Government for having the foresight to realise that such girls need indefinite leave to remain without the support of their husbands.

Opposition Members may say that, if we still had the primary purpose rule, none of those problems would arise, but I believe that they would. I am not aware of how the primary purpose rule worked, but I am sure that the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) could tell us how it worked—and that he would say that it was not a good idea. I have no experience of it, however, because the Government got rid of it soon after being elected. I have no way of knowing how it worked, but I do not think that it would help the present cases.

I have a few ideas that would help girls from the United Kingdom who are forced to marry and girls who are brought into the UK who are in difficult circumstances. I believe that a lower age limit would be useful for the sponsors and for those who are being sponsored. At the moment, there is no lower age limit. The only age limit is that of marriage, which is 16. It is ludicrous that girls of 16 should be brought here from Pakistan as wives, not knowing where they are going and not knowing what their futures will be. A great deal is expected of them, and they often do not live up to those expectations.

It is also ludicrous that girls as young as 15 and 16 are being taken off to Pakistan for marriage in order to facilitate entry clearance. An age limit of 21 would give those girls at least a fighting chance. That would have given the girls born in my constituency the chance to complete their A levels and go to university before real pressure was brought to bear on them by parents and extended family.

The hon. Lady may be interested to know that, unless I am mistaken, the Danish Government recently introduced an age limit of 24 for people in that category.

I am well aware of that. I am a member of the Council of Europe, so I know what is going on in European countries. About 12 months ago, Denmark introduced a lower age limit of 24 for anyone entering as a spouse from outside the EU. Of course, we cannot place restrictions on entry by EU citizens, but we could implement a lower age limit for people entering from outside the EU.

Many of the cases that I deal with would be helped enormously by the introduction of a lower age limit. If many of the girls involved were given the opportunity to make lives for themselves, it would ease the pressure put on them by their families to act as sponsors. A lower age limit would help those girls who come here as wives, because families would clearly understand that girls could not enter until they were 21, thereby easing the pressure on the girls themselves. Having reached the age of 21, a girl would be more able to look after herself and understand her rights. Both people acting as sponsors from this country and young ladies who are sponsored from the Indian sub-continent would be helped enormously by the implementation of a lower age limit.

It would also help me, as a Member of Parliament, and some of my constituents if the Home Office and Foreign Office stopped relegating us to the position of third parties. I get sick and tired of going to the Foreign Office and Home Office to tell them that a girl has been married under false pretences. It is frequently clear that the man whom she brought into this country did not want to marry her to be her spouse but simply wanted to enter the country, and that she facilitated his entry clearance. Frequently, the man leaves the girl, even before he has completed his 12 months' probation. Often, the girl comes to me and tells me a sorry story about how he has abandoned her after she has gone to all the expense of bringing him here. In many cases, the woman is a willing wife, who was happy to go along with her parents' wishes, but once he comes here and marries her, he leaves her.

Order. The hon. Lady asked to be reminded when she had spoken for 10 minutes.

Thank you, Mr. Taylor.

As I was saying, it would be helpful if the Home Office and Foreign Office allowed us to make representations without relegating us to the position of third parties. We need to tell them about the wrong-doing of some men and the unfortunate position that many young girls find themselves in when they want to have their husbands deported because they are not fulfilling their role of husband.

I have another idea, although I am unsure how it would work out. Some of the young men who come here as husbands and abandon their wives simply obtain a divorce and then, as long as they have indefinite leave to remain, call on young ladies from the Indian subcontinent to come here as their wives. That is extremely unfortunate, and it would provide more of a disincentive if they were unable to do that. It may also make them a little more determined to make their marriages a success. I suggest, therefore, that it should be necessary for someone entering this country to obtain citizenship before being allowed to act as sponsor.

I understand that the Government have certain changes in the pipeline, especially with regard to citizenship, to which I look forward. People who come into this country as a spouse or in any other way should be welcomed. The new ideas for citizenship, which will follow the example of Canada where the family participates in a ceremony, will help to make our immigrant community more part and parcel of this country and more welcome. They should certainly be encouraged to learn English—another bee in my bonnet.

The American green card system is good. It allows into the country the people who are wanted, rather than those who are married to somebody who lives there. Ours is a poor system. It allows cases to occur such as the one in which I helped two asylum seekers to obtain entry clearance and indefinite leave to remain. They were splendid young men—Iraqi Kurds. One was a teacher, the other a doctor. They simply wanted to convert their skills so that they were usable in this country. When I compare those two people with the ones who abuse the rights of my female constituents by using them to gain entry clearance, there is no contest.

Let us welcome such young people, whether they come here as asylum seekers or as economic migrants. They add to our wealth of skills and intelligence. Let us welcome them because they are different. We should celebrate difference—there is nothing wrong in that. What is wrong is the abuse of young girls' human rights. That is what I am against. I am not arguing against people coming into this country. I am arguing against the way in which some of them get here by abusing immigration rules. We have a lot to learn from the United States' green card system. We should look at that in order to facilitate the immigration of economic migrants—people whom we could welcome and who would take up citizenship very quickly.

2.51 pm

We owe a debt of gratitude to my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner). As he rightly said in a rigorous and brave speech, this enormously important subject is debated all too little; it should be aired far more often. I congratulate him and also the hon. Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer), who has pursued the issue with considerable courage over the years. I note that, despite the fact that this is a rare opportunity to discuss immigration, we have present six Conservative Members, two Labour Members and one Liberal Democrat. That gives us an idea of the relative importance attached to the issue by the parties. The Conservative party regards it as enormously important.

I am concerned, above all, about the quality of life, particularly—as the Member of Parliament for Orpington—about that in the south-east corner of our small and overcrowded island. The large population is a factor that damages the quality of life in our island. We live in one of the most overcrowded countries in the world. If we consider England on its own, it is populated more densely than Germany and four times more heavily than France, our nearest neighbour—the only comparable European countries are the Netherlands and Belgium—and it is getting worse.

United Nations estimates suggest that the population will increase from roughly 59 million now to about 66 million in 2050. A significant part of that increase will be due to net immigration. As my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight pointed out, if it were not for immigration, the increase would be small. Such an increase will hold dangers for the quality of life. It is, as he said, not simply a matter of asylum seekers, although that issue often claims the headlines.

In 1997, there were 41,500 people officially seeking asylum in this country. Last year, as we know, there were almost three times as many—111,000—of whom only 12,000 were recognised as genuine refugees. In addition, the number of those coming to study has increased from approximately 62,000 to 70,000 in the early 1990s to 95,000 in 2000. As the hon. Member for Keighley said, the abolition of the primary purpose rule has led to an increase in chain migration, although I shall not go into that, as she did so very ably, when she talked about some of the consequences.

In addition to asylum seekers and those studying, there has been a deliberate policy of encouraging economic migrants. On average, roughly 30,000 a year came in during the latter years of the last Conservative Government. The figure was 100,000 last year, and the Government plan to increase that number to 175,000, or possibly 200,000, as a matter of deliberate policy. I assume that the Liberal Democrats support that position. I notice that the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes), who has quite often spoken out about such matters, said recently:
"The evidence shows that this country, like many other European countries, needs"—
I emphasise "needs"—
"a net increase of immigrant workers to meet the needs of our economy." —[Official Report, 2 December 2002; Vol. 395, c. 615.]
It is interesting that both the Labour party and the Liberal Democrats see the need for more economic migrants as a matter of deliberate policy.

My hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight cited figures from Migration Watch UK, which is the independent organisation that we can rely on for sensible statistics on migration, and which Sir Andrew Green, the former British ambassador to Saudi Arabia, founded. Migration Watch UK estimates that roughly 250,000 people a year come into this country; this is net immigration. That would mean 2 million people over eight years. The Government's official figure is 2 million over 10 years. There is a difference, but both figures are very large. I emphasise that two thirds of those people usually come to the south-east corner of England. That is part of the problem. My hon. Friend compared the number of net immigrants a year to a large town the size of Luton. I represent Orpington, which is one third of the London borough of Bromley, which contains about 300,000 people. We are talking about 250,000 people a year coming into this country, which is almost two and a half constituencies—nearly the total size of Bromley.

That trend inevitably affects public services: it strains the health service and education; it adds to congestion on the roads; it adds to overcrowding in trains and in tubes; and it increases road building and house building. The Deputy Prime Minister's forward look at house building is to a considerable extent driven, especially in south-east England, by more immigration, as well as some movement from the north of Britain. There are also huge costs to the taxpayer, as well as social stress—although I shall leave aside the issue of terrorism.

It will be interesting if the hon. Gentleman has one or two more statistics to add. What percentage of the public service workers in Bromley, including those in the health service, are immigrants? What proportion of the public sector workers in London are immigrants? Many people reckon that more people are needed in public services, yet many jobs get done only because immigrants are doing them.

The hon. Gentleman raises a fair point that I want to consider—because the economic arguments are interesting—but certainly not in the way that he suggests. The situation has been caused partly by what I call traditional Labour incompetence. U-turns, policy changes and failures of policy have been legion. Only yesterday, the Home Secretary had to face another reversal when the law courts rejected his latest idea. The law courts were quite correct: it is shameful that the Government wanted to deny food and accommodation to people who have been allowed into the country, yet that appeared to be their policy.

In addition to incompetence, however, the Government have a deliberate policy of encouraging mass immigration, and that is the real difficulty when we consider the next decade and our quality of life. My hon. Friend spoke on the matter, so I shall not go into it at length, but I want to respond to the point made by the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey.

It is true that the effect of more immigrants is to increase the size of the economy, but it does not increase the per capita income of the country's inhabitants. Yes, there are shortages, as the hon. Gentleman said, but not 200,000. The 30,000 coming in when the Conservatives were in office were adequate to cope with the shortage of nurses, teachers and doctors. It lies ill in the mouth of the Government to adduce such an argument, because they have had six years to deal with such shortages.

The economic arguments are not well made, but even if they were, looking at things in a sustainable way and balancing economic, social and environmental considerations, we should be paying more attention to environmental, quality of life factors, even if it is at the cost of pure economic growth or market-led success. I favour a more balanced approach than hitherto. It is significant that the person who has written most about immigration is Mr. Anthony Browne, the environment correspondent of The Times. Our approach should be to consider the environment and quality of life issues.

The argument for economic immigration advanced and supported by Labour and the Liberal Democrats is immoral. In so far as economic immigrants are skilled and qualified, we are draining their countries of origin of their skills. For example, 50 per cent. of Jamaicans and 30 per cent. of Nigerians who have a degree come to western Europe. How can one build a country when it loses its best and most intelligent people in that way? I am staggered that Liberal Democrats and Labour want to pursue this policy, which is damaging to third world countries, although I agree that if my approach is adopted it should be accompanied by a generous trade and aid policy to build up those countries.

Importing skilled people to deal with skill shortages is neither moral nor economic, and importing unskilled people is similarly immoral, because it lowers the living standards of low-paid people in this country. For the Labour party to be making such a point, when it should be concerned, as we are, about the wages and conditions of less-skilled people, is amazing.

The suggestions made by my right hon. Friend the shadow Home Secretary make total sense. He is saying that we should agree a number with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees—he said 20,000 as opposed to the present 12,000—who are genuine refugees and should be allowed in. But the current 91,000 with bogus credentials should not be allowed in, thus reducing the overall numbers. Equally, I would be concerned about the number of economic migrants. Our policy is the right solution: it is moral and humane, and above all concerns itself with the quality of life in these small, overcrowded islands.

3.3 pm

I am grateful for the opportunity to take part in this brief debate.

This country has always welcomed those genuinely fleeing persecution but the numbers speak for themselves. In the 1980s, the numbers coming into this country were about 4,000 a year, but they were rising. In 1995 there was a bilateral agreement with France whereby those coming into this country could be returned to France within 24 hours, which was very effective. The numbers were rising, and three things have happened since then. The first was the attitude of the incoming Labour Government, which, by the abolition of the primary purpose rule, allowing in unmarried partners and adoptive children, relaxing the rules for employment in the UK, allowing in short-term foreign workers, and allowing graduates to switch from studies to an application for residence on a permanent basis in the UK, gave a green light to those who wished to come to this country.

The numbers, as I said, speak for themselves. In 2000, about 80,000 people sought to come to the UK, of which 78 per cent. were refused. In 2001, about the same number applied. In 2002, 110,000, including dependants, applied, of whom 10,000 were given permission to remain, 13,000 were returned to their place of origin and the remainder were either given exceptional leave to remain or simply stayed here.

It was not, of course, the Labour Government's policy alone that caused the massive growth in the number of people seeking to come to the UK. The second factor was that, in September 1997, the Government signed the Dublin convention, which was European Union-wide, and which superseded the bilateral agreement. The Dublin convention does not work and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) pointed out, we should take constitutional steps to change it, and to return to some form of bilateral agreement.

The third aspect was that the Human Rights Act 1998 has taken the issue of immigration and political asylum out of the hands of the UK and Parliament.

We do, therefore, have the problem of a large number of people seeking to enter the UK. The Prime Minister said, in relation to the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999, that
"the problem with the asylum system is being sorted out by the measures that the Government have taken."—[Official Report, 19 April 2000; Vol. 348, c. 974.]
The Prime Minister has been proved wrong in that area. The Home Secretary was more accurate when he said at the Labour party conference in 2001:
"The asylum system doesn't work. It is a mess from beginning to end."
We in the Conservative party feel that we have found a way ahead on the issue. As my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight has just indicated, the shadow Home Secretary suggested that a quota system of perhaps 20,000 should be agreed by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Those individuals should be scrutinised outside the UK, so that we get away from the unacceptable situation in which 100,000 people a year come in and are either turned away or disappear into the community. We believe that the present system is wrong and does not work, but that at the moment we have to work with it.

That brings me to the Government's proposals to create accommodation centres for some 3,000 people on a trial basis throughout the UK. The Government have examined some eight sites for the accommodation centres. They rejected six, and chose Newton and Bicester as locations for which they intend to apply for planning permission, each for an accommodation unit of approximately 750 people.

The Government have also announced that they propose to consider the Daedalus site in Lee-on-the-Solent, in my constituency, as a location for an accommodation centre. I ask colleagues to consider what the Government said about that. On 5 February, on a confidential basis between the Home Office and Gosport borough council, the Government said that they proposed the Daedalus site for accommodating 500 families and single young men. On 11 February, they had changed their plans, and proposed the site for accommodating 400 single men, but with open access—there would be an open gate, and the men could come and go as they wished. By 10 March, the Government had changed their mind again, saying that the location might be used for 400 single men, with a secure unit for those who had been told that they would be refused admission to the UK. Some of the men would be in the centre on a free basis and some would be held in a detention area.

The Government's stated objective is to provide a
"centre for single asylum seekers in an urban area."
I note and regret the absence today of the Minister for Citizenship and Immigration—she is being substituted for by the Under-Secretary. When the Minister spoke to me on the telephone on 11 February, she said that 500 people—which was the target then—would be
"less than 1 per cent. of the population of Gosport."
She gave the impression that that was not much to worry about. However, Lee-on-the-Solent is not Gosport but a completely separate area. It is in the administrative area of the borough of Gosport, but is a residential area in which some 6,000 people live. It has few facilities; there are certainly none for young men now that the Navy facilities are no longer available. It would be absolutely wrong to accommodate 400 young men in Lee-on-the-Solent—a quiet residential area with a significant number of retired people. That leads me to the point about consultation.

In a letter to me dated 11 February, the Minister for Citizenship and Immigration stated:
"We will continue to liaise closely with the local planning authority should we decide to submit an application for planning approval. We will also agree the timing and format of public consultation with them."
In the case of Newton, I understand that the Minister's public consultation was with 40 chosen people—it was not a public meeting—in a room for an hour. I am told that she grudgingly allowed the meeting to run on for an hour and twenty minutes, during which the county council, the local authority, all the local residents' interest groups and action groups all had to make their representations. She then swept away in her motor car.

We want genuine consultation in Lee-on-the Solent. I want the Minister to come to Lee-on-the-Solent and walk up and down the high street to meet the people and to realise that the entire population is hostile to the idea. I have had well over 1,000 letters, only six of which say that we should be considerate to asylum seekers. Of course we should be. That is the first thing that I said today. We have always been considerate to genuine asylum seekers, but the individuals who are likely to be in the accommodation centre are statistically unlikely to be genuine political asylum seekers.

If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I will not give way. His opportunity to speak is coming; I have only a moment or two left.

We must have genuine consultation. The Government have decided to proceed with planning permission in Newton and Bicester. They have stated that
"the Government is committed as a matter of policy to developing accommodation centres… at… Bicester… and… Newton."
So once the Government have decided to proceed with planning applications, it becomes a matter of Government policy to succeed.

I do not know how the Government can say on one hand that they are conducting genuine consultation, and on the other that they are committed to developing accommodation centres as a matter of policy and that the Deputy Prime Minister will take the final decision on planning permission on a quasi-judicial basis. That matter needs to be discussed further.

Several questions arise. Is it planned that the procedure at Daedalus will be a genuine trial? I have heard that the Home Office proposes to buy the land at Daedalus if it proceeds with its application for planning permission. Buying the land does not sound like a trial to me. Although it is intended that the claims and applications will be heard within six weeks, which can be extended to six, or possibly nine, months, I must draw the Under-Secretary's attention to two cases in my constituency that came to my notice last week. One man, whom I shall call Mr. A, has made 14 separate legal applications. He has made five applications for judicial review, including an application to the Court of Appeal. He came here as a visitor with a month's leave in June 1984, and he is still here. Another individual came here in 1994 with six months' leave to enter as a visitor. He has made a very large number of applications and is still here. That seems to show that these individuals will not be here for a mere six weeks.

How will the accommodation centres fit into the scheme of things in view of the Court of Appeal ruling yesterday, which said that individuals must be eligible for support, whether or not they have made immediate application for political asylum on arriving in this country? That is the point of accommodation centres: to provide those individuals with sustenance and support in lieu of money.

In conclusion, the Refugee Council said:
"we remain fundamentally opposed to large, out-of-town centres for asylum seekers. Such centres not only go against common sense but also ignore the problems of isolation and institutionalisation found in such centres elsewhere in Europe."
Lee-on-the-Solent is not a suitable place for such an accommodation centre, and I urge the Minister to consider the issues that I have raised and that the Daedalus action group is so effectively pursing.

3.14 pm

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) for securing this debate. It is a bizarre paradox that we have had two debates on the same subject in two days, as he rightly said, and I apologise for the fact that I could not be at last night's debate. In case he has not spotted it, I draw to his attention the fact that there was also a debate in the House of Lords on 7 March on a report from the Committee chaired by Baroness Harris of Richmond, although that was specifically about illegal immigration.

Our time is limited, and we cannot begin to have the debate properly, let alone conclude it, so I shall be selective. First, however, I want to note my regret that since our last Home Office debate, the right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham) has felt unable to stay in the Government. I have spoken to him privately, but I want to thank him publicly for his regular courtesy and friendliness across party lines. I also want to record my thanks for and recognition of the work of the hon. Member for Woking (Mr. Malins), who resigned from the Conservative Front Bench because of the war in Iraq. Both Members took the same general position as me and were unable to support the Government last night.

I shall deal with the core points raised by the hon. Member for Isle of Wight. I share his view that it would be helpful to have both clear statistics and a clearer expression of Government policy. I am not afraid of this debate, which I welcome. It should take place in every country, and it is a debate that we need to have now more than ever before.

I say one thing to the hon. Gentleman in passing. He said that he was not aware that the British people had been asked for their views. I am not aware that the people in all the countries to which we went over hundreds of years around the world when we had a British empire were asked for their views on whether they wanted us as immigrants to take their wealth. We normally imposed ourselves, took their money and came away, so we must be careful not to be hypocritical in judging that it is right for us to go abroad and do well by other people but riot acceptable for other people to have the same aspiration to come to a wealthy country such as ours. We must have a balanced view about that.

I do not share the hon. Gentleman's view that we should legislate to exclude the courts from judicial review of the Executive. They provide an important independent safeguard. I do not agree that we should come out of the European convention on human rights and re-enter only with a reservation. As he well knows, the convention, coupled with the refugee convention, means that people may not only be refused asylum if they have been in breach of international law, but lose their right to asylum if they are a threat to public security when in Britain. We have plenty of protection, and it worries me greatly that both the Conservative party and some voices in the Government have started to talk about undermining the two great institutions of the refugee convention and the European convention on human rights, the latter of which we introduced to domestic law only four years ago.

In that context, it would be nonsense to have a quota for asylum seekers. However influential the Prime Minister may think that he is, we cannot determine how may people seek asylum in any country around the world. I commend to the hon. Gentleman the book that I wrote last year, which Ministers have read. In it, I recommended that instead of trying to shirk the burdens, we share them across Europe. When people come to Europe, we should try to share responsibility throughout the European Union in a fair and equitable way. This is not about human pass the parcel, but about sharing responsibility, and I hope that he remembers that the number of asylum seekers coming to western Europe has gone down by half in the past 10 years. Britain has taken a relatively high share recently, which is why a burden-sharing system that evens out the peaks and troughs would be welcome.

The hon. Gentleman used to work in education in Southwark. I am not sure that the new Southwark secondary schools were principally the result of net migration, let alone net foreign migration. Some of them are new schools to replace old schools, as opposed to new schools for migrants. Many of them were needed because the London Docklands Development Corporation, under the Conservative Government, developed the borough and put in more houses.

Do I understand from the hon. Gentleman's previous remarks that the Liberal Democrats are opposed to a quota on asylum seekers?

We are absolutely opposed. It is wars and the rumours of wars that force people to seek asylum and move around the world. It is quite improper and unrealistic to think that one can limit the number of people who make an application. It is difficult enough to get here, but if they do they should be allowed to put their case. In law, if they have a good case we should accept them. That is why I have proposed sharing responsibility, so we can distribute the numbers equitably according to a proper formula across Europe as a whole. I hope to persuade the Minister that that is the sensible approach.

The hon. Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer) made some important points. I support a citizenship recognition process. One point that needs to be considered is whether sponsorship should be more restricted so that it is by established citizens rather than people who have just arrived. I share her frustration that occasionally the Home Office does not recognise MPs' proper information.

In relation to the points made by the hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Horam), my judgment is that, on all the evidence available, we need immigrants to fill certain places in the work force. We need to have the debate about how many. That is why Government policy needs to be clarified. We never get any answers when we try to ask that question. It is partly to do with the changing demography. I put to him one of the points that is hugely relevant. How many people doing the key public sector jobs, without whom we would be unable to run our health services and public transport, have come from migrant communities?

I will not give way again, as I have limited time left.

I share the hon. Gentleman's view, however, that it would be wrong to go around the world and pick up talented people, when we have other people whom we could train. My experience of talking to Governments abroad is that the best system is for us to offer training so that people can return more skilled. Similarly, people from Britain could usefully go to be trained in other places and come back better skilled.

I must tell the hon. Member for Gosport (Mr. Viggers) that I support asylum accommodation centres of 250 people. If that were the number proposed in Lee-on-the-Solent, I believe that there would be no objection. It is far fewer single males than when the Navy was there. I believe that there is some hidden racism in his constituency. I shall visit his constituency—I shall let him know when. I will meet the people and talk to the local authority. I understand the issue, but I will not tolerate racism parading as something else. I hope that we can have an honest dialogue. Accommodation centres have to go somewhere. In my view, they should be for about 250 people and no bigger.

The hon. Gentleman did not give way. I have two minutes left. I will willingly talk to him outside the Chamber.

Has the Minister yet been able to form a view on whether the Government will have a common border force as recommended by the Home Affairs Committee and implicitly by the Lord Carlile of Berriew report on terrorism? That would give us much better control of our ports of entry. Rather than have three split agencies—the police, the immigration service and Customs and Excise—that seems a better way of managing our immigration. Whatever the policy, we must ensure that we know who is coming in. Secondly, can we have today or soon good projections of need and numbers?

Thirdly, I saw the reply that the Minister for Citizenship and Immigration gave last night. It seems that technologically we can quite easily put in place methods for checking who leaves. We ought to reinstate that. That seems an important thing that we could usefully do.

Fourthly, I agree with the hon. Member for Orpington that there is a need to ensure that migration is spread more evenly across the UK. All the figures show that, whereas about 25 per cent. of the London population are migrants, in most parts of the country it is between 0 and 5 per cent. It is important that there is fair sharing.

All the evidence from the Home Office and elsewhere shows that the migrant population coming to the UK is net financially beneficial. Home Office research and much other research shows that. Unless people can disprove that, we must be very wary of suggesting that migration is not a benefit. It has been a benefit throughout history and is a benefit now, although of course there is a question as to the right numbers. We should also beware of organisations such as Migration Watch UK: its figures have not been independently verified. If we have a debate, we must have it on honest facts and figures.

3.25 pm

If the information coming to me is accurate, I fear that my remarks may be interrupted midway by a Division in the main Chamber. Nevertheless, I shall start by echoing the tributes paid by the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) to the former Minister of State, the right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham), and to my hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Mr. Malins). I share entirely the hon. Gentleman's view. Both will be missed by their respective Front Benches—I know that my hon. Friend will be—and we wish them well. We understand entirely the decisions that they reached.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) for initiating the debate. As he said, we consider this very important subject too rarely. We have had an opportunity to consider it briefly—in a half-hour debate led by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames)—in the main Chamber, and for slightly longer this afternoon. However, I hope that these will not be the only two occasions on which we consider this subject.

Given the manifest confusion over the Government's own numbers and policy, I hope that the Minister will give a firm undertaking that there will be soon be a full debate in the main Chamber in Government time, specifically so that we can hear from the Home Secretary whether he endorses the estimate of immigration given by Baroness Scotland at a seminar in Oxford. When that point was put in the main Chamber last night, the Minister for Citizenship and Immigration declined to answer it. She suggested in other phraseology that she did not accept Baroness Scotland's figure, but she did not give her own.

I pay tribute to all my hon. Friends who have spoken—they have done so with passion—and to the hon. Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer). I have followed closely the work that she has done in her constituency and her various remarks on these very important issues in the House and the media, for two reasons. First, I think that she is a superb constituency Member of Parliament who does the work that we would all hope to do in our constituencies. Secondly—I am not sure whether she knows this—I lived in Keighley in the late 1980s, so I am very much aware of the problems and issues there with which she has been wrestling.

Both Government and Opposition Members should congratulate the hon. Lady, and I am sure that they do, on saying things that have been unpalatable for some of her colleagues about the need for citizenship tests and examinations and for people coming to this country to have their fluency in the English language assessed. She has referred to those matters in the media and has sometimes provoked what I can only describe as knee-jerk and hysterical reactions from some of her colleagues who have not understood the detail of the difficulties with which she has had to wrestle.

It just so happens—if I may introduce one personal note—that when I was growing up in the town of Bedford in the midlands in the 1960s and 1970s, it had the highest proportion of people who had not been born here of all towns in the UK. Most were refugees, not from the subcontinent, but from eastern Europe. Others had come here shortly after the second world war from Italy or had stayed on having been prisoners of war in this country. Many of the people with whom I was at school were second generation refugees—they were the sons of refugee families from eastern Europe or the sons of Italian parents.

Those families quickly made the effort to integrate into the UK population and learn the language. A lot of housing was occupied by people from eastern Europe and Italy, and as those people moved up in the world and succeeded in business, that housing became available to a growing population from the West Indies, the Caribbean and the Indian subcontinent. A Bedford tradition of welcoming people from all around the world—in particular, a clergyman called Rev. Nadkarni led the community effort—was thus maintained. From my earliest years I have therefore had an interest in and some experience of the issues with which the hon. Member for Keighley has to wrestle.

The hon. Lady talked about some of the particular problems that policy decisions have caused her. I echo what she said, because I, too, have had difficulties in getting the Home Office and the Foreign Office to listen to hon. Members.

3.30 pm

Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.

4 pm

On resuming—

I shall try to cover a number of issues quickly. I was just coming to the contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight, who opened the debate. He gave a valuable historical perspective at the outset of his remarks. We in the mainstream parties need to be conscious of what my hon. Friend said about ignoring the issue at our peril, because if we do not talk about it seriously, extremist parties will gain ground, as they will be the only people who are prepared to talk about it.

If any members of the mainstream parties, whether Front Benchers or Back Benchers, start accusing each other of "playing the race card", as it is called, and demean the level of serious debate in Parliament between the main parties, it will help the extremist parties. I earnestly hope that when we debate the issue seriously, whether in this Chamber or in the main Chamber, that will cease. There has been too much of it in recent times—some of it, I must say, coming from the Home Secretary, which I deeply regret and deplore, particularly as he accused my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin), the shadow Home Secretary, of playing the race card. My right hon. Friend does not have, and never has had, a racist bone in his body.

My hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight talked about the important work done by Migration Watch UK, and about the answers to the arguments in favour of mass immigration. I know that he is also interested in the work of Anthony Browne, the environmental editor who has recently written a book on the subject. It is important that all of us who talk about these serious issues pay close attention to what important organisations such as Migration Watch UK have to say. I disagree with the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey, who cast doubt on Migration Watch UK.

My hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight rightly asked the Government what their philosophy was. We certainly did not discover what that philosophy was from the Minister for Citizenship and Immigration in the Adjournment debate late last night in the Chamber. Nor did we discover the answer to my hon. Friend's other question, which was about the starting point. As he said, the Government have not provided any proper evidence or figures. He rightly talked about the strain put on health and education facilities by mass immigration.

I have already referred to the valuable contribution of the hon. Member for Keighley, and I shall add something in support of her views on the need for citizenship tests. In my constituency there is a charity called the Ockenden Venture. Some of those whom it supports have had to apply for British citizenship, and the Ockenden Venture has organised citizenship celebrations. I was asked to preside over one of them, and another involved the former governor of the Falkland Islands, Sir Rex Hunt. They were moving ceremonies, because the Ockenden Venture looks after people with mental handicaps, many of whom came from Vietnam. That was an example of how citizenship ceremonies can be important and valuable. That is important to remember.

The hon. Lady—rightly, in my view—talked about raising to 21 the age limit for those who are invited to this country as spouses. As she said, perhaps it would be even better to raise the age to 24, as the Danes have done. My hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Mr. Horam) rightly said that the debate was important, and that he agreed with my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight about how the figures would operate. He also paid tribute to Migration Watch UK.

My hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Mr. Viggers) talked about the problems with the Government's plans for Lee-on-the-Solent. I agree with everything he said; as he knows, his campaign has the complete support of our Front Benchers. He drew attention to the Refugee Council, pointing out that any centres for asylum seekers should be in urban areas. As a result of their election victories the Government represent just about every major urban area in the country, so it is extraordinary that the three proposed sites are all in Conservative constituencies: those of my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke), and my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry). That seems to us a very strange coincidence—or perhaps not a coincidence.

My hon. Friend the Member for Gosport was challenged by the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey to say whether there would be any opposition in Lee-on-the-Solent if the centre were for only 250 people. I suspect that there would still be opposition, as there would be in most small communities—and for good reason.

4.5 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department
(Mr. Michael Wills)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) on securing the debate. This is an important issue. However, I am baffled by his characterisation of the Government, and, indeed, by the suggestion by most of his hon. Friends, that we are somehow trying to conceal the debate or run away from it; far from it. As a Government, we have been more open, more transparent, given more opportunities for parliamentary discussion of the subject, and dealt with it more comprehensively than any Government whom I can remember. I am bemused by the idea that the Home Secretary—or the previous Home Secretary—would run away from an argument. That does not square with my experience of either of those two gentlemen.

I want to answer the many detailed questions that have been asked by all the hon. Members who have spoken today, but because of the relatively short time left, I fear that I will not be able deal with all of them. I will write to the hon. Member for Isle of Wight and other hon. Members who have raised questions, and send copies of those letters to everyone who has attended the debate. I hope that that is acceptable.

Before I address the substance of the debate, may I say something to the hon. Member for Gosport (Mr. Viggers), who regretted the fact that my hon. Friend the Minister for Citizenship and Immigration is not here today? It may help him in his state of anguish about that if I tell him that she is currently engaged elsewhere in the House, dealing with legislation on the subject that we are discussing. I hope that that will go some way towards mitigating his regret that I am here instead of her. I shall do my best to tackle the various questions.

I was struck by the way in which the hon. Member for Isle of Wight combined a philosophical and a historical approach with a practical approach. If I may, I will replicate that and deal with the matter by first giving a brief history of the subject. The hon. Gentleman alluded to the history of immigration, and the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) also went into that a little. We are an island nation. That is what makes us in many ways exceptional, not only geographically, but in giving shape to our values and our institutions. We are an outward-looking nation, and a trading nation. We are formed by our position in the world. As a result of that, as a people, we have also been formed by successive waves of migration over many hundreds of years. Huguenots, Jews, Irish, Asians and people from the Caribbean have all come here. It is our contention—my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer) rightly said so—that we have been enriched immeasurably by that. As a nation, we are indistinguishable from those waves of migration.

The fact that such issues have been contentious in modern times is also not new. We have only to go back to the early 20th century and consider some of the street demonstrations that took place, and the intense public anxiety that led to the passage of the Aliens Act before the first world war. All that is not new. Many of the questions that have been raised by hon. Members today are not new questions, either. If we read the debates of the late 19th and early 20th century about these very issues, we will often see that many of the same phrases were used. I believe that as a nation, we have dealt very successfully with the issues that have arisen out of the waves of migration, and I have no reason to doubt that we will continue to do so. It is important to put that point on the record.

The hon. Member for Isle of Wight rightly said that the issue is politically live. We all recognise that. For all the historical background that I have just sketched out, we have to recognise that our debate takes place against a different and often very challenging global context. People move around much more than they ever did. We live in an era of cheap air travel. People are much more conscious of the rest of the world. We are dealing with all the phenomena associated with globalisation of the world economy. Inevitably, that leads to far greater flows of people, not only to and from this country, but throughout the world. If we think about any area in the world, we realise that it is experiencing the phenomena that we have been discussing today. As a Government, we must respond to that.

We have had much discussion about the Government's philosophy—or the alleged lack of it—so I wish to set out the background to our approach. Last year we set out in our White Paper, "Secure Borders, Safe Haven", our comprehensive approach and the plan of action for immigration, nationality, asylum and the challenges that face the United Kingdom. I deliberately mentioned nationality and asylum because they are interconnected issues and we are tackling them holistically and coherently.

Our objectives are clear. We are developing our policy fundamentally to create supportive, safe, cohesive communities, and to manage flows of immigration through legitimate entry routes. We are developing managed migration policies to attract the people whom we need to compete and prosper in the global economy in a manner consistent with our international commitment to eliminate world poverty and our domestic commitment to achieve employment opportunities for all. Many practical details are associated with those broad policy objectives; I shall answer the questions that have been asked in a moment.

We are developing a more coherent and effective approach to dealing with abuse of the system. That lies at the heart of many of the worries that have been raised by hon. Members. We recognise that the system—honourable and legitimate as it is—is abused. It is being abused increasingly by organised crime, and we must tackle that problem. We recognise that there is a growing problem and are taking effective measures to deal with it. We will crack down on all those who undermine and abuse our systems. As is fundamental to our moral and humanitarian objectives, we are developing a seamless asylum process, which is clear throughout—from induction and integration to return. Those measures, taken together, are fundamental to reforming our citizenship, asylum and immigrations systems and to presenting a rational approach to the new challenges that we face, given the historical phenomena over many years.

I shall now deal more specifically with immigration. The key element of the overall package is about managing migration to the United Kingdom. It has to be balanced and coherent with other commitments and social policies. It must fulfil two ends: the needs of the UK economy in an increasingly global market, but also our commitment to international development targets and our responsibility to people in developing countries. The White Paper outlined our plans to bring that about.

Harnessing the vitality, skills and energy of migrants can stimulate productivity, economic growth and job creation. I hope that there is a consensus between all hon. Members about that. The hon. Member for Isle of Wight is shaking his head, but all the evidence shows that it is true. We have heard the Home Office figures that show that the net contribution of migrants to this country is £2.5 billion a year—although I acknowledge that that is accounted for disproportionately by the contribution of certain groups of migrants to this country.

I also ask the hon. Gentleman to reflect on the fact that the value of people to the community in which they live should not be measured by the size of their income alone. The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey has made valuable points about the contribution of people who have come to this country recently to maintain and sustain our public services, not only in his constituency or the constituency of the hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Horam), about which the exchange took place, but in all constituencies. That is certainly true in my constituency. I ask the hon. Member for Isle of Wight to think about that when shaking his head when I refer to the contribution that migration can make to the economy and to society in this country.

In addition to developing the skills of our existing population, in the fast-changing economic environment associated with globalisation, specific bottlenecks arise. The hon. Member for Isle of Wight made a specific point about generalised labour shortages. I carefully picked up on the adjective "generalised", because he did not deal with the point that bottlenecks often arise. That is a phenomenon that will be associated with economic management for the rest of our lifetimes. We saw it at the end of the last century in relation to ICT skills. That is not the case now, but it was then. I ask the hon. Gentleman to accept that if we are to have a competitive, fully productive economy, we need to find ways of managing such skills bottlenecks. Indigenous training programmes are often invaluable, but they always take time to take root. We saw that in relation to the health service. The effect of our investment—

Miss Jo Martinson

4.15 pm

There can be nothing worse than to lose a child. It is a nightmare that we all dread, but for the Martinson family, that nightmare has turned into reality. The newspaper headlines at the time read, "Gifted Joanna died after road smash". The story said:

"Gifted university student Joanna Martinson was killed after a horror smash when her jeep ploughed into a tree and a wall, an inquest has decided."
However, that does not really tell one anything about the nightmare that the family has experienced. I know that the Minister will do everything that she possibly can to ensure that the issues that I raise this afternoon are considered properly. For Jo's parents Dawn and Chris, her sister Lucy, her brother Guy and her boyfriend Adam, the experience has been traumatic. Nothing that I say could bring Jo back, but I hope that I can give the family some comfort in the knowledge that the mother of Parliaments takes the loss of a loved one very seriously.

On 7 November 2001, at approximately 1.15, Jo was driving a Suzuki car along Hamlet Court road, which happens to be near where I live. It is not easy to drive quickly through that area, which is close to traffic lights and usually quite congested. Police have confirmed that the Suzuki was well maintained, had no mechanical defect and was travelling at 25 mph at the most.

Jo held a full driving licence and was insured to drive, and the car had a valid MOT certificate. Jo and her boyfriend, Adam Seomore, were both wearing seat belts. She was fit, in good health and not under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Adam confirmed that there was no harsh acceleration, no high engine revs and no sharp braking. He was looking out of the nearside passenger window when he became aware that the car had swerved sideways and was sliding towards a tree. Jo was gripping the steering wheel with both hands. Adam did not see what caused Jo to swerve, but recalls clearly that she was not distracted by anything in the car, such as a radio, conversation or a telephone. She was a scrupulously careful driver.

There were seven witnesses other than professionals. Adam, for the obvious reason that he was concussed, did not see what happened. Two witnesses arrived after the crash. Two of the witnesses implicate a large white DAF van, and its driver in particular, in the sequence of events that caused Jo's death, and two make no mention of the van's presence at all, yet there is no question but that the van was there. As police officers and a traffic warden at the scene of the crash observed, it was parked prominently, in a most dangerous manner, with a fraudulent vehicle excise duty disc.

A fixed penalty parking ticket was issued at 2.17 pm, and subsequently it was learned that the van's owner, a Mr. X, was a provisional driving licence holder with a medical defect—he had one eye—about which he had not notified the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency. He had no insurance and no MOT certificate. Furthermore, his van was found to have serious and dangerous defects and was subsequently prohibited by the police. No explanation has been offered for Jo's sudden swerve to the left other than by the two witnesses implicating the van and the driver. The police clearly regarded that to be valid, as they arrested Mr. X on suspicion of causing death by dangerous driving and failing to stop and report an accident. The coroner took a similar view when, on 11 April, having heard the first of the two witnesses giving evidence, he adjourned the inquest to refer the matter back to the Crown Prosecution Service.

The evidence of witness C is that he was walking along Hamlet Court road at the time of the crash when he saw a tatty and dented van reverse from a side road into Hamlet Court road and towards Jo. Witness C says that the driver was reversing with the door open, leaning out to look behind him, because the wing mirror was smashed. He saw the van continue to reverse briskly as Jo approached. He estimated her speed to be at the most 25 mph. C then heard Jo's tyres skid, and watched the car spin in the road before sliding towards a tree and wall. It was November and the weather was inclement. The tree impacted into the driver's door by approximately 40 cm. C describes the van driver showing panic and concern and driving the van back into the side road. He says that he would be able to recognise the van driver again.

Sadly, from the outset, the CPS regarded C as a potentially unreliable witness. He conceded that he had bad nerves and had had a breakdown some years ago. It is fair to say that some of the detail of his evidence is confused—for instance, the time of the accident and how far he was from the impact. However, the substance of his evidence at the inquest was consistent, credible and sufficient enough for the coroner to regard it as reason to adjourn.

There is another witness, witness H, who is known to witness C. He approached the accident scene shortly after the crash and spoke to witness C, who was, by that time, extremely distressed and told him what he had seen. Witness H then approached the van driver and spoke to him. He recognised the driver, having bought items from his second-hand shops and having seen him driving the van on previous occasions.

The van driver told witness H that he had been reversing into Hamlet Court road—he actually told him that—when he heard Jo crash behind him. He acknowledged to witness H that he had driven his van back into Windsor road, then gone to look at Jo in the wreckage. Witness H described him as agitated and anxious to move his van away. We are told that Mr. X has since denied driving the van that day.

On the basis of that evidence, the Martinson family were advised that there were sufficient grounds for a prosecution of Mr. X, at least on a charge of careless driving. Having initially decided not to prosecute, the CPS reviewed the file on three occasions, once at the request of a senior police officer, then at the request of the Martinsons' solicitor and again on the direction of the coroner. The only consequence has been a court appearance by Mr. X on 14 May last year on a charge relating to defective brakes.

When the Martinson family phoned the criminal justice unit on 15 May to question whether Mr. X might still be charged with having had no insurance, no licence and the other matters, they were told that the matter was academic, as the time limit of six months had lapsed by one week. That was obviously cruel news to give to the family. Members of the family, setting aside their feelings, are appalled by what they perceive to be the perversity and apparent negligence in that case. Characteristically for an agency that attracts national criticism—sometimes unfairly, but on occasion with merit—although the Crown Prosecution Service granted the Martinsons' solicitors access to the papers necessary to pursue a private prosecution, it was not prepared to test its budget or its competence in the pursuit of justice.

I shall speak about the role of the CPS in private prosecutions. The family were going to launch a private prosecution, but decided not to do so. I believe that the guiding factor was that the family found everything most traumatic, especially having to appear in court. The case has been going on for 18 months. The family were also concerned about the quality of the evidence that the witnesses might give.

The family do not seek a scapegoat, but they want justice to be seen to be done. I plead with the Minister. I know how difficult it must be, and I know that she will do everything that she can.

4.26 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

4.40 pm

On resuming—

I say again that I realise how difficult this is for the Minister and her office, but the family would desperately like to see whether there is some way of reopening the case. They feel very strongly that Mr. X was, directly or indirectly, responsible for the accident. They do not want anyone to be used as a scapegoat, but they very much want justice for Jo.

I have correspondence from the Director of Public Prosecutions. As it is not marked "private and confidential", I want to share with hon. Members the tone of the correspondence that resulted from my raising several issues about the investigation of Jo's death. In a letter, Mr. Calvert-Smith says:
"Essex Police laid informations before Southend Magistrates' Court, alleging that"
Mr. X
"had used his vehicle on 7 November 2001 without insurance, without having a test certificate and with defective brakes. The police then sent a file of evidence relating to these motoring offences to the Crown Prosecution Service for review.
A senior crown prosecutor reviewed the evidence and discovered that the information alleging no insurance had been laid out of time. The offence was alleged to have been committed on 7 November 2001 but the police did not lay the information until 24 May 2002, seventeen days after the six month limitation had expired."
It is not me saying that, but the Director of Public Prosecutions at the Crown Prosecution Service. The letter continues:
"Furthermore, it could not be argued that the police were unaware of the insurance matter during the currency of the limitation period and therefore this offence could not proceed further."
The letter goes on:
"I can confirm that the Crown Prosecution Service has never been asked to advise on any other offences relating to"
Mr. X
"and, as I understand it, Essex Police have not commenced proceedings regarding the other offences mentioned by Mrs. Martinson in her letter of 21 August 2002."
The sole issue to be addressed is Mr. X's admission to criminal offences, as recorded by the police in witness statements relating to charges that were never brought. By his own admission, Mr. X had driven for many years without a full driving licence. That is incredible. He had driven, despite a serious visual defect. Originally, he told the police that he had notified the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency, but later accepted that he had lied. He had driven and owned a van displaying a fraudulent tax disc, and he had driven and owned an unroadworthy vehicle, described by police as "heavily used", "generally uncared for", with a braking system that was "seriously defective" and a recorded mileage that
"may not be an accurate reflection … given its age and condition."
A prohibition order was issued because the braking defect made its use on any road dangerous by any definition.

What really upset the Martinson family beyond belief was that they heard Mr. X joke about Jo's death in the witness box, and heard from a witness that he walked away from the wreckage of Jo's car. By any measure the family have been restrained. Mr. Calvert-Smith attempts to shift responsibility to the police for failing to prosecute. His letter states that
"in advising the Police there was insufficient evidence to support any charges relating to Miss Martinson's death, the reviewing crown prosecutor did advise that the other Road Traffic Act offences relating to Mr. X's vehicle were made out … It remains the responsibility of the Police to start proceedings."
Somewhere between the two agencies must rest responsibility for an incompetence that has protracted and exacerbated the difficult time for the Martinson family.

What happened to Mr. X? He was given a fine of £60. If I were found guilty of not paying the congestion charge by midnight, I would be fined £80. It is outrageous that Mr. X, who has flouted the law, has been allowed to get away with it.

In conclusion, I can do nothing better than refer to the obituary in the university publication, which said:
"Jo will be remembered as being academically able, enthusiastic about her degree and extremely supportive of her fellow students. Most importantly, however, those who knew her will recall her vivacious personality, her warm and welcoming smile and how much they enjoyed being in her company."
I owe it to Jo, as her Member of Parliament, to see that justice is done and I know that the Minister will do her very best to ensure that it is.

4.47 pm

This debate is about the Crown Prosecution Service's action on the death of Jo Martinson. When reviewing the file of case papers, I came across the comments of Oxford Brookes university when it reported her tragic death to her fellow students. Jo Martinson's life was cut short and her friends, her brother and sister and her parents have suffered the greatest loss possible. Her parents, through their Member of Parliament, want answers to their questions. They want to know how she came to be killed at such a tragically young age and they want justice. They are entitled to nothing less. There will be no easy answers, but I have agreed to work with their Member of Parliament, the hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess). We are determined to do what we can to ensure that no stone is left unturned in this case.

As Solicitor-General, I assist the Attorney-General in superintending the Crown Prosecution Service. It is operationally independent, but through me, it is accountable to the House. I shall set out my understanding of the situation through my examination of the file and through talking to the relevant CPS department. I will make it my business to ensure that any points that remain unanswered or in dispute between us at the end of this short debate will be pursued until they are fully, properly and consistently answered.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that we have no interest in passing matters between the CPS or the police. We must ensure that what happened is understood fully and, as far as we can, sort everything out. At the very least we need answers, and we will endeavour to give them.

To assist that process, I want to convey, through the hon. Member for Southend, West, the offer of the chief Crown prosecutor John Bell to meet Mr. and Mrs. Martinson to discuss any further matters that arise in the case. I know that Mrs. Martinson is a magistrate, so she fully understands how the criminal justice system should operate.

From what the hon. Gentleman said, much of what happened appears to be commonly acknowledged. As I understand it, at around 1.15 pm on 7 November 2001 at Windsor road, Westcliff-on-Sea, Jo Martinson was driving a Suzuki car that swerved and struck a wall and a tree. She was severely injured and died in hospital a week later. There was one passenger in the Suzuki, sitting in the front passenger seat, whose name was Adam Seomore. He gave a detailed statement to the police but was unable to explain why Jo Martinson swerved into the wall; as the hon. Member for Southend, West explained, he was concussed. It is commonly agreed that the vehicle was not travelling fast, but was below the 30 mph speed limit. Although the road surface was wet because it had rained recently, visibility was good.

Initially, perplexingly, no other vehicle appeared to be involved in the accident. When police arrived at the scene, they were not made aware of any other vehicle. Statements were taken from six 'witnesses, and those who saw the accident, with one exception, described the vehicle swerving into the wall but made no mention of another vehicle being involved. However, a witness, Mr. C, approached the police eight days later to implicate a white Leyland van that he had seen backing out from a driveway, which might have caused Jo Martinson's Suzuki to swerve.

A second witness, Mr. H, had not seen the accident, but had come upon the aftermath. He was a friend and neighbour of Mr. C and approached the police after speaking to Mr. C about the accident. Mr. H claimed to have spoken to the van driver after the accident and said that he thought that, as the hon. Gentleman said, he appeared anxious. He said that the van driver had admitted to backing out at the time of the accident. The van driver had parked and left the vehicle unattended, which is how the police found it when they arrived.

Coincidentally, a parking attendant who arrived at the scene of the accident after the collision happened noted that the van had been left parked on double yellow lines, with the rear end overhanging the give way line. She issued a fixed penalty notice. In addition, a police officer pointed out to her that the vehicle had a fraudulent tax disc, but as the hon. Gentleman said, no action appears to have been taken. I have made inquiries and I am not entirely satisfied about why that happened. It should have been followed up and prosecuted, but it was not. I know that that sounds unsatisfactory, but I am not yet able to say why. However, I undertake to do so, either in a parliamentary reply or in a letter to the hon. Gentleman.

As a result of the later statements by Mr. C and Mr. H, the police were aware that the van was suspected to have been involved in the accident. On 21 November the police stopped Mr. X when he was driving in the van, which he owned, and took it away for examination. On 26 November, Mr. X was arrested and taken to Southend police station for questioning. In interview, he denied any involvement in the accident. He was interviewed again on 11 January 2002 and maintained his original story, although as the hon. Gentleman said, he admitted other offences relating to the deplorable condition of the vehicle and its lack of documentation.

The police and the CPS lawyer, Keith Rylands—an experienced senior Crown prosecutor—had an initial case conference mainly to focus on whether it would be possible to mount a charge of causing death by dangerous or careless driving. The police file for advice was then submitted in writing to the CPS on 13 February and considered again by Keith Rylands. He weighed up all the evidence and reviewed the papers, and concluded that there was not sufficient evidence to make a conviction relating to the accident more likely than not. The evidence from the two later witnesses, Mr. C and Mr. H, was weighed up, but its inconsistencies and the lack of other witnesses weakened it. For example, Mr. C claimed in his first statement to have been 4 ft from the accident, but later admitted to being approximately 50 yds away. His statement contained other inconsistencies. I am not suggesting that he did not see what he said he saw, but such factors would undermine the strength of his evidence, and it would be less likely to withstand a cross-examination by the defence and thus lead to a conviction.

Mr. C also suffered from a nervous disorder, and he had come forward with evidence late in the day after seeing a news report of the accident. Again, I am not suggesting that he did not see what he said he saw. However, so far as proof in court is concerned, those factors tend to weaken and undermine evidence. Keith Rylands advised the police that there was insufficient evidence to charge the driver with causing death by either dangerous or careless driving. However, on the other motoring offences, the police were advised that there was sufficient evidence to charge on the following counts: driving without a full licence, driving with a disability—Mr. X only had one eye, which had not been notified—driving with defective brakes, and driving with no insurance and no MOT. The police were advised that there was sufficient evidence to prosecute on those counts, and the file was returned to them so that they could put papers to the inquest and instigate prosecutions for those five offences.

On 28 March 2002 the police laid information at Southend magistrates court for only two offences: driving a motor vehicle with a defective brake on 7 November, the day of the accident; and using a motor vehicle with no MOT. It appears that the police did not lay information on the other three offences at that stage. The CPS did not notice the error. The information on the two offences was laid in time, as the first court date was 23 April 2002. On 24 May 2002 further information was laid by the police, and lack of insurance was added to the list of offences. The defendant pleaded not guilty, and the case was scheduled for trial on 28 August 2002. On that date, the CPS offered no evidence on the allegations of defective brakes and no insurance. The defendant pleaded guilty to having no MOT and, as the hon. Gentleman said, was fined £60 with £35 costs.

In April 2002, following the start of the inquest, the coroner adjourned its conclusion to consult with the head of the CPS trials unit, Chris McCann, who was asked to review the papers with a view to starting prosecutions for offences relating to the accident. He reviewed the evidence, and came to the same conclusion as Keith Rylands. Chris McCann was conscious of the nearing statutory time limit, and, after consultation with the defence solicitor, who was to take counsel's advice, he arranged for Essex police staff to lay information for careless driving and for failing to stop and report, so that the case could be kept open in case the family wanted to take out a private prosecution.

I shall now address the CPS's decisions. It is plain that there was insufficient evidence to enable the CPS to mount a prosecution for causing death by dangerous or careless driving that would comply with the code for Crown prosecutors. However, the other allegations should have been pursued, and they were not.

I have set out some of the facts, but I have not had time to set out my analysis, and where we go from here. I only have time to say that today is the starting point of the discussion, and of the unpicking of the case. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Southend, West for giving us the opportunity to start off the process of discussion. I have more to say, and I shall seek to conclude the matter by finding some way of bringing it back to the Chamber—[Interruption.]

Order. I apologise to those observing the debate for its fragmented nature. The debate is now concluded, and the sitting suspended for a Division.

5 pm

Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House

6.2 pm

On resuming

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at two minutes past Six o'clock.