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Westminster Hall

Volume 403: debated on Tuesday 8 April 2003

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Westminster Hall

Tuesday 8 April 2003

[MR. EDWARD O'HARA in the Chair]

Health And Safety At Work

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

9.30 am

I begin by declaring an interest in health and safety at work. I am a member of Unison and have a long interest in the subject as a former health and safety representative in engineering and public services.

When the Adjournment debate was suggested, I was keen that we should raise the issue of health and safety at work, not only to allow us an hour and a half to discuss this important subject in Westminster Hall, but to create an awareness of it beyond the debate today. It has not been given high enough priority in the work of the House of Commons or elsewhere. It should have the No. 1 spot on any organisation's agenda. We need to push it up the industrial relations agenda, so that it is seen as more important and is discussed more. We need to make health and safety a No. 1 issue in the voluntary sector as well as in public services and the private sector. The issue is relevant to the whole of the British economy and needs to be treated as such.

I compliment the work of the all-party group on occupational safety and health, which is chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham). It has done, and continues to do, admirable work across the piece, which I welcome. We should salute the work of the group, and that of my hon. Friend in particular.

I welcome the Government's decision to move the responsibility for the Health and Safety Commission to the Department for Work and Pensions. It is a good move, and one that we should welcome as it allows for a more co-ordinated, all-round approach to health and safety through the Department. I hope that that is what happens. We must examine not only statistics, but the whole question of illness and health in the workplace, which has not been treated properly in the past.

I think that we would all agree that we hear about health and safety when there is a major problem, which can be international as well as national. Among the international incidents were Chernobyl, Bhopal and Mexico City—to name just three. Nationally, we have had Piper Alpha, Herald of Free Enterprise, King's Cross, Hatfield and, unfortunately, too many others to mention. It is only when such disasters occur that we all, for a short period, deal with health and safety issues, and awareness of the problems sometimes disappears far too quickly—perhaps a day or two later. We must focus on these incidents and try to ensure that they do not happen again.

I do not want to use the debate to describe the health and safety situation in the United Kingdom as desperate and deplorable, because it is far from that. In fact, it is very good in some areas. The commission, the Health and Safety Executive, employers, employees, the TUC and the Scottish TUC work daily to improve health and safety in this country. As I said, it would be wrong to argue that there has been no improvement in recent years, because that is not the case.

In the past 10 years, significant European Union directives have made a qualitative difference to the health and safety agenda in this country, including: the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 1994; the Construction (Design and Management) Regulations 1994; the consumer protection legislation; and related general product safety regulations in 1994. Health and safety representatives throughout the country, irrespective of which sector they work in, have welcomed the health and safety six-pack of regulations, which included the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1992, the Manual Handling Operations Regulations 1992, the Provision and Use of Work Equipment Regulations 1992, the Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992 and the Personal Protective Equipment at Work Regulations 1992. Steady progress has been made throughout the 1990s with legislation that has helped to build a framework for employers and employees, and for managers and health and safety representatives, who have to implement it at local level.

Having said that, there has still been no major UK legislation since the 1974 Act. That Act has been very successful and has played an important pivotal role in developing all the health and safety regulations I mentioned, but things have moved on significantly in those 30 years. We need to upgrade the legislation and bring in a new Act. The legislation needs to be taken forward, consolidated and built on for the future, because of the differing situations that people now face in the workplace.

As I said, it is not a dreary picture: it is a positive one. Much good work is taking place, such as that of the Health and Safety Executive. The inspectors, the Health and Safety Commission, the Confederation of British Industry and the Trades Union Congress are all trying to work in partnership, locally and nationally, to develop a better health and safety framework for industry and the British economy.

Health and safety continues to play a major role for people at work and for trade unions where they are organised and recognised in the workplace. The revitalising health and safety strategy, which has been sponsored by the Government, the Health and Safety Commission and the TUC, has been engaged in campaigns to strengthen the health and safety system. It has promoted and supported the work of the workplace safety representatives, fostered rehabilitation and retention systems as well as dealt with a wide range of workplace hazards. In particular, it has raised the profile of health and safety nationally and internationally. All those partners are to be complimented on that. The TUC needs to continue to engage the CBI as well as other organisations to ensure that people work collectively on this problem. If they do that, we have a chance of securing major gains in health and safety.

It might be as well to mention some of the statistics, which can sometimes be very dry. We should not take that attitude in this case, as we are talking about people being injured and killed. That is the daily reality in British industry. The figures are quite stunning. It is not true to say that there have been no improvements,

because there have been and we should record that. According to the HSE's provisional figures for 2001–02, 249 workers were killed—43 fewer than the previous year—4,000 people were killed by asbestos-related diseases and 6,000 from other occupational illnesses.

The HSE says that at least 70 per cent. of incidents causing death or serious injury are due to health and safety management failures and should—not could—have been prevented. That highlights the major problem that we face in trying to ensure that good structures and framework agreements are implemented, and are applied locally to protect the work force. We must ensure that fewer people are killed. One would be too many for me. Realistically, we must aim to reduce the number of people killed and injured at work.

Some more figures should be added to those official statistics. About 30 people are killed at sea on British registered ships and on British waters. About 1,000 people die in work-related road traffic accidents and another 1,000 are killed by asbestos. The TUC estimates that around 5,000 people a year die from asbestos-related diseases. It should be a matter of deep concern that that problem continues. About 9,000 people are killed by other occupational diseases such as cancer, asthma and cardio-vascular illnesses.

Before my hon. Friend leaves the issue of asbestos-related diseases, will he join me in putting on record our appreciation for the work of voluntary organisations such as Clydeside Action on Asbestos? If such organisations did not exist, people with this terrible disease, and their families, would have been left to suffer alone.

My hon. Friend is right. Clydeside Action on Asbestos has for some years worked almost single-handedly to raise awareness and understanding of asbestos-related issues. In the west of Scotland, because of shipbuilding and heavy engineering, there is a long history of problems related to asbestos. It is crucial that relatives have someone to link up with and to get support from, and Clydeside Action on Asbestos is a serious, well-organised organisation.

The Health and Safety Executive report 2001–02 records 27,000 major injuries, which is only 47 fewer than in the previous year, which shows the task that faces parliamentarians and local health and safety representatives in trying to improve the situation. The consequences of illness and accidents are a serious problem for the families involved, but they also have a shocking effect on the British economy, as it is estimated that 40 million days off are due to illness and injury.

The figures are surprising. Some sectors would be considered safe places to work, but the figures show that that is not so. One would think that there should not be accidents or deaths in agriculture—hunting, forestry and fishing—but there are. One would expect major problems in construction, and many of the deaths in British industry occur in that sector. There were 79 in the current year, but 113 in the previous year. Those are worrying statistics.

Every week, five people in Britain are killed in their place of work, and 200 die as a result of occupational illness—I have already mentioned some of the illnesses.

We need to underscore the importance of health and safety not just because of the deaths and illnesses, but because it is a person's right to be protected and to work in a healthy environment.

My hon. Friend used the word "protection". Does he agree that a new health and safety problem has arisen in work places, which is the threat to the work force from bullying and physical violence? Indeed, a member of the staff of an hon. Member, who was pursuing his activities as an MP, was subjected to physical violence. Such incidents occur in banks, supermarkets and so on, and cause stress and illness. Does my hon. Friend accept that that new phenomenon has developed in the past 10 years?

Yes, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making the point. I know only too well the recent evidence from the shopworkers' trade union on the number of assaults that its members suffer. In the health service, nursing and portering staff in hospitals have to face such threats daily. There have been major campaigns in London Transport to try to reduce the number of assaults on staff. It is a great problem for everyone, and is perhaps a subject for debate in its own right.

The statistics show a major impact on families and on the economy. Tomorrow, the Chancellor will tackle British productivity. It is not a party issue; every Chancellor will say that we need to improve productivity in the economy. It would be a good starting point to say that if the days lost through accidents could be substantially reduced it would be a major contribution to improving productivity. We must take health and safety issues in the workplace seriously.

My hon. Friend quoted the statistics. Does he accept that, even if people have been killed or seriously injured, when employers who flagrantly ignore health and safety regulations are taken to court, they often receive the most pathetically low fines for abusing legislation to protect their work force?

Yes, I accept that point. I welcome the campaigning work of the TUC and other organisations to highlight the issue of corporate manslaughter. If that could be included in legislation, it would be a significant step forward and it would be welcomed all across the country, not just by trade unions and employers, but by relatives and friends of people who have been involved in some of the major incidents.

We need to drive health and safety up the industrial and political agenda. I referred earlier to the health service. There is an attempt in the House, through a private Member's Bill, to deal with needle stick injuries. That matter is straightforward. Thousands of people per year are injured at work. We are losing tens of thousands of days in the health service because people are receiving needle stick injuries. Whether in Scotland, England or Wales, there needs to be a determined effort to eradicate needle stick injuries. Such injuries are unnecessary. If we were to work on that alone, there would be a major benefit, not only for people who are likely to be injured, but for the health service and for patients and staff. People would not be injured in that way, and would be at work rather than off work because of a needle stick injury.

I refer my hon. Friend to the needle stick injuries policy of Barnsley district general hospital. That policy has been brought to the attention of the Minister, who is to invite my hospital to a conference this June to promote its policy. Does my hon. Friend feel that there is a need for the Department of Health to drive best practice on the issue through the entire national health service?

Yes, I do, and I welcome that point from my hon. Friend. When we have successes in the health service on health and safety issues, it is important to show them to other trusts up and down the country as examples of best practice. There is no point allowing every trust to try to find a way forward. If we find something that is successful, it can be used as an example of best practice and can be developed quickly.

There might be the odd accident, but almost 100 per cent. of needle stick injuries could be wiped out by good practice.

I accept that point. My hon. Friend has years of experience of the health service. Nurses know how such injuries can be avoided, and how we can ensure that people are able to go to work and not be involved in such incidents.

Unison and other trade unions have been campaigning for some time on this issues, because it is important to their members, who are on the front line of the health service. A needle stick injury is not just a physical problem: it also causes psychological worry. People who are in that situation start to worry about what the needle was used for and what effect the jab will have. That is a dreadful burden. It is not just about the days off. Staff should be protected and should be able to work safely in the health service, without fear. I welcome the campaign by Unison and others. More strength to their elbow. I hope that they will be successful in ensuring that we eradicate needle stick injuries from the health service in the UK.

All too often we speak about health and safety in relation to the British economy and the voluntary, private and public sectors. We also need to consider the people who work in the Palace. Are they being protected properly? Whether they are in kitchens or other locations such as workshops, are they being treated properly and afforded the proper protection?

I compliment my hon. Friend on securing this worthwhile and important debate. Before he goes deeper into the question of location, will he clarify the definition of workplace? Although it is easy to define factories, offices and shops as places of work, does the definition include buses, trains and aeroplanes? People who work on them often face health and safety hazards. I am aware that other legislation, such as that on construction and use, can apply in certain cases, but if legislation does not specifically apply to such situations, does my hon. Friend agree with me that it should?

Yes, I accept that point. I mentioned that a new Act was necessary. Such an Act should examine the definitions in the 1974 Act, because they can change so quickly. Home working is another issue. Whether we like it or not, people work from their homes. They should be afforded the protection of health and safety legislation. Some people work at home with toxic substances or even fireworks. There is no legislation on that. We need to review everything that we are doing on this subject.

We all know how long it took to detect the fact that diseases were caused by asbestos. Those diseases went for many years—I think that it was 30 or 50—without being reported by the Government. I am concerned about MDF board, which is a new material that is banned in America. It is creating the same situation as asbestos caused.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that matter, which I was unaware of, and I am sure that he and others will ensure that it is put on the political agenda. If that material contains the same dangers as asbestos, we must act quickly.

We will commemorate workers memorial day in April, and I think that that is an appropriate time to redefine the health and safety campaign. We need new legislation. We need to recommit ourselves to doing everything that we car to reduce the number of deaths and injuries at work—that goes without saying. Workers memorial day gives us the chance to do that, but we must seize the opportunity to ensure that health and safety remains on the political agenda. It is not good enough that we see health and safety as an issue just for employers, trade unions and employees. It is an issue for all of us and we must take it seriously.

MPs must have a keen interest in health and safety matters. Our constituents have to ensure that they are in a healthy, safe and secure workplace every day of the week, and we must support them in that. Those working day to day need our full support, including employers, employees and the health and safety reps who slog away at the front line trying to ensure that improvements are consolidated, so that working people have a better working life.

9.52 am

I should like to raise the issue of health and safety at work in care homes for elderly people. There are, obviously, multiple risks and opportunities for accidents in care homes for staff and residents. Where budgets are being squeezed, there are implications for staffing levels, staff training and, therefore, health and safety at work.

Heavy responsibilities rest on care home registered managers, many of whom, due to staffing difficulties arising from budgetary pressures, are now having to take on additional duties that they previously only supervised. I am full of admiration for many of the care homes in my constituency—for the level of care that they are giving while they are coping with those difficulties.

By 2025, the number of people trying to survive on ever-dwindling pension funds will be 2 million more than the number of children under 15. Currently, less than 18 per cent. of the United Kingdom population is under 15. Some of the next generation are already 30-something. That begs the question of who will look after those people if they live beyond the current life expectancy of 80. It is more than likely that they will have to live in care homes; at current rates, that can cost £20,000 a year. Recent statistics from the Health and Safety Executive and the local authorities enforcement liaison committee on residential care home injuries show that most injuries occur to people over the retirement age of 60, and the vast majority of those to people aged 80 and over.

In my constituency, the council has told me that the number of people aged over 80 will increase over the next five years, and that an additional 20 placements will be needed in residential or nursing care. Currently, the council pays £480 a week for a person to stay in a council-run home, but only £340 towards someone living in a privately run home. That has obvious implications for the viability of private homes, and care bids are being lost at an alarming rate.

There is a health and safety issue here. What happens to an elderly person living in a private home when the funds with which they are topping up the amount given by the council run out? In several instances in my constituency, when residents' funds have run out, and they have been in a private home for a long time and are looked upon as family rather than clients, the owners of the homes have chosen to absorb that expense themselves rather than take the risk of moving elderly people into another, cheaper home. There have been instances in which people have died after being moved out of the home that has been their familiar surroundings, and away from the people that they have known for so very long.

One problem has centred on the question of who should enforce health and safety standards in care homes when the Health and Safety at Work Act etc. 1974 and the Care Standards Act 2000 both apply. Elderly people have a large range of special needs so care homes have to deal with clinical waste, drugs and medicines, all of which have to be controlled and administered properly. There is a significant risk of scalding in baths and showers. Four out of 10 accidents in the health care sector are due to manual handling problems and proper manual handling risk assessments are essential. Independence and the maintenance of dignity are particularly important when devising methods of lifting dependent people into beds or baths and there are health and safety implications for staff—they must be trained in proper techniques; otherwise, they can sustain back injuries.

A range of equipment and circumstances is required in care homes to ensure safety, such as good lighting, non-slip floors, handrails and so on. Temperatures may need to be higher than are comfortable for the people who are working there. They need to be provided with proper clothing so that they can work comfortably. An increasing number of electrically assisted pieces of equipment are used to care for older people, such as seating, hoists, chair lifts and other mobility equipment, which all have to be maintained properly, even if they are the private property of the resident, to ensure that they are safe and for reasons of fire prevention.

Violence to staff and other service users is not uncommon and must be properly managed to avoid ugly situations and give staff a safe means of withdrawal from dangerous situations.

The number of older people is rising rapidly in Europe. We are living longer—I hope that I do, too, and I hope that we all do—but we are having fewer children. There will continue to be a need for an increase in the supply of care homes and the employment of carers. We need to have not only patience and dedication to care for older people but sufficient knowledge and understanding to carry out tasks safely without risks to staff or those being cared for. There is an inescapable link between funding via local authorities and health and safety training in local care homes. There is a growing need because of the increase in the numbers of dependent elderly people, and we need to stem the flow of the loss of care beds. I hope that the Minister will address the implications that local council funding has for health and safety issues in care homes for elderly people.

Order. It may help hon. Members to gauge their contributions if I point out that the first of the three Front-Bench spokespersons should be called not later than 10.30.

9.59 am

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Strathkelvin and Bearsden (Mr. Lyons) on securing the debate. The presence of such a large number of hon. Members in the Chamber this morning demonstrates the importance with which the issue should be treated.

In the past five years, more than 1,500 employees and 500 members of the public have died as a result of work-related disasters. Let me give just three recent examples from my region, the west midlands. In May 2001, Orangzeb Khan was killed when he fell two floors down a lift shaft at a factory. In September 2002, 39-year-old Troy Tattam, a construction worker, was killed when he was hit by a vehicle on a construction site. In February this year, 19-year-old Kyle Newell was killed when he was struck by a concrete load that fell off an excavator at a construction site.

That is the reality of death at work. However, we are concerned with not just death but injuries, occupational illnesses and psychological injury, which may be caused by excessive stress or bullying. The hon. Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson) rightly reminded us that we are dealing not only with factories and construction sites but with other workplaces such as care homes. I shall try to confine my remarks to five minutes so that my hon. Friends can also contribute to the debate.

I wish briefly to address the issue of the law. It is only part of the solution. We must also bring about cultural change, embed good practice in businesses and raise the profile of health and safety. However, the law has an important role. As my hon. Friend said, we have not had major legislation on the issue since 1974.

The law must be changed in three main areas, the first being corporate killing. The Labour party has a manifesto commitment to introduce such a change, and it is about time that we did. The problem is one of identification. Although it may be possible to identify a particular person in an organisation as having been guilty, say, of gross negligence, it is not possible to identify the company with the act. The Law Commission's proposal, which has been endorsed by the Government, of an offence of corporate killing would overcome that problem.

Secondly, the question of penalties was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Mr. Cox). If it is possible to imprison people for breaches of trading or food standards law, why is that penalty not available for breaches of health and safety law? It is time that we dealt with that inconsistency.

Thirdly, there is the matter of directors' obligations, which was the point of a ten-minute Bill that I introduced a fortnight ago. I refer hon. Members to an excellent briefing paper on my Bill that was prepared by Brenda Brevitt of the science and environmental section of the Library. She explains the background to the Bill with greater clarity than I did when I introduced it in the House. She pointed out that in 2002 the British Safety Council revealed that many company directors believed that profits were more important than safety. Such concern with profits rather than safety must be addressed.

In my Bill, I tried to incorporate through amendments to the Companies Act the elements of good practice that have been developed, for example, by the Centre for Corporate Accountability and by the Health and Safety Commission, which issued guidance in 2001.

There are two aspects to my Bill. First, it would require companies to identify a particular director as having responsibility for health and safety. That is not scapegoating. The duties that would be imposed by my Bill on the health and safety director would not be subject to any criminal penalties, but the director would be required to monitor health and safety in the company and report on it regularly to the board.

Secondly, the Bill would impose an obligation on all directors of a company to take health and safety into account. Under current company law, directors have a responsibility, for example, not to act in a way that is contrary to the company's interests. There should be no conflicts of interest. Directors cannot, for example, appropriate, or misappropriate, corporate opportunities, and there are statutory responsibilities relating to financial matters. My Bill says that there is an additional area—health and safety—in which directors should have a duty under company law.

Would the Bill not make it easier to prosecute a director for manslaughter?

There would possibly be that indirect effect, but that is not in the Bill. The intention is to mirror, in relation to health and safety, directors' responsibilities in other areas. Someone may ask, "Well, why not impose duties on directors in relation to, say, environmental matters?" However, I would reply that health and safety is so central, given that it relates to the physical integrity of employees and others, that it should be a priority among directors' duties.

Reaction to the Bill has been positive, in the sense that the TUC has endorsed it. The Institute of Directors has written to me saying that it is unhappy because it fears that identifying a particular director as the health and safety director would lead to scapegoating. I have addressed that in the Bill by limiting the health and safety director's responsibilities. The chairman of the Black Country chamber of commerce, Mike Holder, has endorsed the Bill, although he has pointed out to me that, in our area of the black country, many health and safety difficulties arise in relation to unincorporated bodies, rather than companies. My Bill is the first step. Other legislation would have to cover the public sector, and unincorporated companies would also have to be addressed.

I promised that I would speak for only five minutes, but I just want to mention, as I mentioned informally to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that I am serving on a Select Committee and I beg the indulgence of hon. Members if I leave the Chamber shortly to return to it.

10.7 am

I warmly congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Strathkelvin and Bearsden (Mr. Lyons) on obtaining the debate. It is vital to working men and women that such debates take place in the House, and that their concerns about health and safety at their workplaces are discussed. We all know the figures—my hon. Friend quoted them—showing that, despite existing legislation, there are far too many deaths and injuries at workplaces in this day and age.

I am the first to say—as I am sure my hon. Friend would—that there are good employers who are concerned about the health and safety of their work force. Those employers work with their work force, trade union representatives and trade unions, but there are also employers who do not. There are still today employers who clearly put profit before safety, and safety rules are not always followed, which puts at risk the health and safety of the work force.

In Wandsworth, for which I am one of the Members of Parliament, the Battersea and Wandsworth Trades Union Council has been at the forefront of dealing with two cases of men who were killed at work because safety rules were not followed. One of the men, Olatunji Owolabi, was a night security guard on watch at a vacant London Underground building in Balham, which is in my constituency. That man died after being overcome by carbon monoxide fumes. All the rules that his employers were supposed to follow, such as telephoning him every hour to see that he was all right, were not followed. Mr. Owolabi was telephoned only once. He was supposed to be visited once during his shift duty, but that did not happen. The man died because his employers were not following the rules.

The other case concerns Michael Mungovan, who was struck by a moving train just outside Vauxhall station in south London where he was working on rail maintenance. He had not received proper training, and proper supervision had not been implemented for workers working on rail maintenance while trains were still running. Both those men would still be alive today if their employers had followed the rules.

It causes deep concern that when those responsible for such tragedies are charged and found guilty in the courts, they are fined appallingly low sums of money. In the case of Mr. Owolabi, the fine was £35,000 plus costs. No one who caused his death—his death was caused through sheer negligence by the people who employed him—was sent to prison. I must say to my hon. Friend the Minister that existing legislation is not tough enough. Why should people who neglect the safety of their work force walk away with pathetic fines that mean nothing to them? My hon. Friend who opened the debate made it clear that men and women are killed every year by the failure of employers to follow safety rules.

The other issue, which concerns many trade unions and their health and safety representatives, is the lack of action against employers who allow safety rules to be broken because the Crown Prosecution Service does not take action against them. In the case of Mr. Owolabi, although there was clear evidence that the cause of his death was neglect by his employers, the CPS claimed that the evidence did not warrant further action. Just what message does that send out to working people and to trade unions? I say to my hon. Friend the Minister that there is an urgent need to introduce much tighter legislation to protect working people.

We all know that the issue is not political. The hon. Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson) raised an important point, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Strathkelvin and Bearsden on securing the debate, which has given my hon. Friend the Minister the opportunity to tell the Chamber and working people up and down the country what action the Government will take to protect them while they are at work.

10.13 pm

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Strathkelvin and Bearsden (Mr. Lyons), who represents a neighbouring constituency, on securing the debate. He and other hon. Members have presented a compelling case for further health and safety legislation in the workplace, to which I should like to add my support. Only a minority of such cases result in a prosecution. In the past 50 years, there have been only three successful convictions for corporate manslaughter, and there is growing frustration that nobody can readily be held to account.

Shipbuilding is an important industry in my constituency. In the tragic case of Simon Jones, it took three years of campaigning to bring the general manager of Euromin, the Dutch owners of the dockyard where he died, to court on a charge of corporate manslaughter. When the trial finally went ahead in November 2001, the company and its general manager, James Martell, were cleared of manslaughter. The company was found guilty of two lesser charges of breaching health and safety regulations and was fined a measly £50,000. I must say to the Minister that that is not good enough. It is time for the Government to take action and improve workplace health and safety, increase law enforcement and promote corporate accountability. We need to introduce legally binding safety duties on company directors, so that they are obliged to take measures that will ensure that their companies comply with health and safety law. We also need to change the law on corporate manslaughter, so that companies can be more easily held to account if management negligence causes death or serious injury.

It is also important, particularly to the people of Scotland, that the Scottish Executive introduce proposals to ensure that a similar regime applies in Scotland. Is it not sad that once again no one from the Scottish National party could be bothered to turn up for the debate?

On average, workplaces can expect a visit from the health and safety inspector once every five years. In the absence of more external inspectors, trained safety representatives should be given greater legal power to stop unsafe working practices.

I draw the Minister's attention to what is called a provision improvement notice, which is used in Australia. The serving of a PIN puts an employer on formal notice that the safety representative thinks that the employer is breaking health and safety law. Work can continue, but the representative has given notice that he considers that work to be unsafe and that it must therefore be examined. It is then the employer's responsibility to consider what the safety representative has said and to ascertain whether he is correct.

Does my hon. Friend agree that public liability premiums, which have increased tenfold since the advent of terrorism, make it difficult for small businesses, some of which are not insured at all?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. If a company is not insured, how will the work force be looked after in the event of an accident? That is all the more reason for representatives to be given the power to act when they see that an error is being committed.

I do not want to repeat too much of what other hon. Members have said, but I will mention bullying in the workplace, which is one of the newer aspects of working life. The law on harassment must be examined and brought into line with health and safety legislation. Bullying at work has increased, and in Europe it is seen as a more important issue than it is in the United Kingdom.

As mentioned in a debate a few weeks ago, Scandinavian countries in particular have recognised that bullying is a health and safety issue, and have introduced methods to prevent it. Norway recently improved its legislation on the work environment to protect employees against bullying at work. In Sweden, an ordinance on measures against victimisation at work came into force in March 1994. That defines victimisation as
"recurrent reprehensible or distinctly negative actions which are directed against individual employees in an offensive manner and result in those employees being placed outside the workplace community."

Another issue that is dear to my heart is the effect of smoking in the workplace on health and safety. There is abundant evidence that breathing other people's tobacco smoke carries serious health risks, even for the children of those who are chronically exposed. Recent estimates suggest that, each year, several hundred people in the UK die from lung cancer caused by passive smoking. Those people have rights: I am an asthmatic, and I have rights.

A study by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, published in June 2002, analysed all the significant published evidence related to tobacco smoking and cancer across 12 European countries. It identified passive smoking as a cause of lung cancer, and classified second-hand smoking as carcinogenic to humans. It estimated that non-smokers exposed to second-hand smoke were 20 to 30 per cent. more likely to develop lung cancer.

The code of practice on smoking in the workplace should clarify the steps that all employers should take to comply with the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974, which requires
"every employer to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare of all his employees."
Such measures should start with a complete ban on smoking in every workplace where reasonably practicable. Even employers such as pub landlords and restaurant owners who might not want to ban smoking altogether should have to take reasonable and practical steps to reduce employees' exposure to smoking by, for example, improving ventilation or creating separate areas for smokers, as some public houses now do.

The Health and Safety at Work Act etc. 1974 was introduced 30 years ago. It is lacking for today's workplace, especially given new research, the vast technological changes that have transformed the modern workplace and medical studies since the 1970s. It is time to introduce new legislation in a 2004 health and safety at work Act to do justice to today's employees.

10.20 am

I echo the compliments made to my hon. Friend the Member for Strathkelvin and Bearsden (Mr. Lyons) on securing this important debate.

I want to refer to one or two matters relating to work that has already been done in the House. First, I am sure that my hon. Friend agrees that the revitalisation of health and safety strategy, led by the First Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Hull, East (Mr. Prescott), has been valuable in tackling an Act that was effective in improving industrial practices in that day and age, but is not relevant to the wider range of work opportunities now. It is necessary and important to revitalise legislation on health and safety at work.

I also want to draw attention to the work of the campaign for new safety legislation, led by the Centre for Corporate Accountability. It is a true partnership and the trade unions support its work and the principles behind it. It also involves representatives of bereaved families and gets to the heart of the matter touched on by my colleagues this morning: the need for the Government to introduce legal reforms to impose legally binding safety duties on company directors. The campaign also examines the need to reform sentencing law and procedures and law enforcement, and recommends various proposals that I am sure, without going into detail, would be worthy of consideration. I lend my support to the campaign's work.

I agree that the issue is not political. We have all probably had bad experiences of a colleague in the workplace being seriously injured or, tragically, losing their life through incompetence. I have been involved in work force collections and, as a representative of the work force, have handed over a cheque to help a grieving widow through a tragic and difficult time, although she might feel that no money can compensate for such a tragedy. There is a great need to introduce legislation to encourage employers to take on board their responsibilities.

Mention has been made of good employers, and there are many of them. However, no mention has been made of the responsibility on work forces to ensure that working practices are adhered to. On many occasions, and despite best efforts in workplaces, I have seen short cuts taken by the work force to achieve bonus levels and so on. That incentive has sometimes led to corners being cut, with tragic results, often for someone other than the person who cut the corners.

There are many issues in a fast-changing working environment, and none should be excluded. We should consider the fact that people work from home, and my hon. Friend the Member for Strathkelvin and Bearsden referred to this. For example, there are also bus drivers trying to do their jobs late at night whose work is interfered with by rowdy members of the public, possibly leading to threats to other people's safety. Nurses and doctors in hospitals are also affected.

There are many examples, and good legislation should work as a deterrent in every situation, whether for shopkeepers, bus drivers or whoever. We should ensure that the maximum incentive and deterrent comes from legislation to ensure that the best practices prevail. People should be allowed to go about their day-to-day work. They should know their responsibilities, and that should the employer not introduce the protective measures clearly required by law, there is no way out for that employer and the punishment will fit the crime.

Mention was made about competitiveness and the size of companies. The biggest lack of incentive is the variation of penalty. If each company knows its responsibilities in legislation, there will be a level playing surface; everyone will face the same penalty, which will be proportionately of benefit. There is nothing worse than for employers not to have proper working practices in place and then to discover the cost of court cases, legal battles and penalties. It is better for companies to cover themselves at the early stages of employment to protect against such events, and encouragement in legislation should ensure that that happens.

I will not say much more because much of what I would have said has already been said. I echo the sentiments of hon. Members who have spoken, and I want to note again the large turnout. I am sure that we all want to see safer working practices. We must be tough at home as well as tough abroad, and we must be tough to ensure that people, not only in the workplace but in their day-to-day lives, are protected by legislation and have the comfort of knowing that it will be implemented. They must know that there will be no mercy for those who breach the legislation.

12.27 am

I am conscious of the time, and I add my congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Strathkelvin and Bearsden (Mr. Lyons) on securing the debate. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Central Fife (Mr. MacDougall) for leaving me three minutes to speak about my experience of working as a health and safety representative.

I was fortunate enough during my working life to work for a company that took health and safety extremely seriously from the senior director down. Indeed, my biggest problem was trying to encourage employees to take health and safety seriously. My experience of working for a progressive employer contrasts with that of those working in the construction industry, which is an absolute disgrace. I cannot emphasise enough to the Minister that we need to examine that industry and see how best we can improve its record.

We spoke earlier about the problem of asbestos, and I am proud of my own union, the Transport and General Workers Union, and its work to secure a change in the law in Scotland. The law now allows for relatives to pursue a claim for those who were killed by asbestos or asbestos-related diseases, when previously it said that when people died, their claim died with them. However, the TGWU—through the work of the TUC and the Scottish TUC—managed to change the law, which has proved extremely beneficial to the relatives of the people who have died of such a horrible disease. If people need a reason to join a trade union, I can see no better one than to secure their health and safety.

My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Shettleston (Mr. Marshall) mentioned bus drivers, and I have anecdotal experience of bus drivers being attacked in their workplace. That resulted in communities losing a bus service but, more importantly, bus drivers being supported in their workplace.

Corporate responsibility has been mentioned, and I will finish on this point. Corporate responsibility is worldwide, and corporate bodies should not be allowed to export their bad practices from this country to third world countries or exploit vulnerable people to secure profits and the loss of jobs in this country. I hope that the Minister will take that on board in examining legislation on corporate responsibility.

10.30 am

I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Strathkelvin and Bearsden (Mr. Lyons). As he rightly said in his introductory remarks, this is an enormously important subject that we do not consider often enough. I believe that it was last debated in the Chamber just over a year ago. I also congratulate the hon. Gentleman on the very effective support that he has received from his colleagues, which, in many cases, comes from a wealth of experience of health and safety problems.

I want to concentrate on enforcement, as there is no point in having elaborate regulation and new laws if they are not enforced. The subject is often raised by businesses, many of which approach it responsibly, some of which do not. I often hear from business people whom I meet that we have an incredibly elaborate health and safety enforcement system in this country, with thousands of inspectors crawling all over their premises morning, noon and night investigating petty breaches. However, the facts and figures suggest the opposite; in many ways, we have a very loose, skeletal enforcement system.

The figures produced by the Centre for Corporate Accountability surprised me, although I have examined this area before. Currently—or at least when the last research was done—we have some 840 inspectors in the field who examine health and safety regulation enforcement issues. They cover some 730,000 premises; in other words, there is one inspector for roughly 1,000 workplaces. This team of inspectors covers 37,000 major injuries every year; an inspector therefore covers a major injury roughly every five days, carrying out investigations and bringing prosecutions in addition to their other work. That seems to be a very thin enforcement system, and I should be grateful for the Minister's reaction.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the 37,000 injuries and accidents are the tip of the iceberg, and that the real number of unreported injuries and accidents is probably at least double that?

Yes. The Health and Safety Executive recognises a category of workers who are off work for more than three days because of injuries at work, whose numbers are vastly greater than those of workers who incur so-called major injuries. As the hon. Gentleman says, many major injuries are never reported. It is not just a question of small numbers of people enforcing a regime that covers large numbers of injuries. What also struck me about the figures was the sharp decline in the number of inspections in recent years. In construction, agriculture and mining, which are particularly dangerous industries, the number of inspections since 1996 has declined by about 50 per cent. That may represent greater efficiency and better targeting—I do not know the explanation—but it is very striking that the amount of inspection is going down, not up.

It is inevitable that there is a good deal of under-investigation of accidents that occur at work. I saw from the same source that the HSE investigates only 20 per cent. of major injuries. That figure has improved in recent years, which suggests better prioritisation. The figure has roughly doubled since 1996, but it is still a small number. Only 5 per cent. of smaller injuries, where people are off work for three days or more, are investigated. Only 30 per cent. of dangerous events, such as explosions and collapsing premises, are ever investigated. Large numbers of injuries and accidents occur that are never investigated because the resources are not there to pursue them.

An alarmingly small number of injuries and accidents that are investigated ever result in prosecution; only 33 per cent. in the cases of deaths and work, and 10 per cent. in the cases of major injuries. We should reflect on that fact: of the major injuries that are ever investigated, only 10 per cent. ever lead to prosecution. It is also striking that when prosecutions are initiated, they are almost always successful. The Crown Prosecution Service and HSE system has a brilliant success record when it brings cases to court. In cases of major injuries, there have been only three failures out of 300, and in cases of deaths, there has been only one failure out of 83. That suggests to me that a far higher standard of proof is sought in industrial accident prosecutions than would be the case with normal criminal investigations, let alone civil cases.

In other words, the authorities are looking for a 90 per cent. plus standard of proof. If the CPS adopted a somewhat more relaxed standard, as we would normally expect, far more cases could be brought successfully before the courts. Will the Minister give his reaction to those figures, and the Government's assessment of what resources and manpower are required in the HSE system to produce a satisfactory level of investigation and prosecution?

I want to respond to a couple of points that have emerged during the debate. One is about the legal changes and the other is about legal liability. The hon and learned Member for Dudley, North (Ross Cranston) is one of several Members pursuing private Member's legislation to cover different deficiencies in the law. His Bill relates to the legal duties of directors, and I am a co-sponsor of it. The hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Lawrie Quinn) is introducing a Bill on tougher fines, and the figures are extraordinary to me, as someone relatively uninitiated in this field. Some 87 per cent. of major accident cases go before magistrates rather than Crown courts, and the average fine is £9,000. Even in cases of deaths, 40 per cent. go before magistrates, and the average fine is £15,000. We are often dealing with ludicrous levels of fines, and the hon. Gentleman's proposed legislation is designed to address that.

There is also the issue of Crown immunity, such as in the case of the Royal Mint, which simply walked away from its obligation to an employee when it had been grossly negligent. We also have to address the issue of corporate killing, and I am supporting the amendments of the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) to the Criminal Justice Bill. I am not a lawyer and do not know whether that is the best way of dealing with the problem, but at least it is now being addressed. How do the Government see the different pieces of legislation being interwoven? Do they favour a piecemeal approach, or would it make more sense to have one large health and safety Bill to incorporate the different elements?

My final question to the Minister relates to legal liability, as I know that he has taken responsibility for the inquiry currently taking place in the Department for Work and Pensions. Last Friday, I visited a local roofing contractor, a long-established Twickenham company that is highly regarded, totally above board and observes very high standards. However, it has faced insurance cost increases of about 500 per cent. during the past five years and is losing business left, right and centre to cowboys who do not insure or observe proper standards. I was asked about the progress of the Government's inquiry, so will the Minister explain that this morning? I understood that it was due to finish at the end of March, and I do not doubt that it is imminent.

In particular, will the Minister tell us about the possibility of changing the system of insurance to bring it closer to that for car insurance? In other words, employers with a good record should receive the equivalent of a no-claims bonus as an incentive to improve their practices. That does not happen at the moment, as all the risks are pooled within a given sector, so good and bad employers pay the same charges. Is it possible, through regulation or some other way, to bring us closer to a model in which insurance charges reflect performance as well as the average in the industry?

To conclude, I should be grateful if the Minister gave his assessment of the optimum level of staff for enforcement through the executive, an indication of how the Government see the best route to new legislation and a progress report on their inquiry into employers' liability insurance.

10.39 am

I join in the welcome for this important debate on health and safety. From his experience as a mechanical engineer and later as a trade union official with Unison, the hon. Member for Strathkelvin and Bearsden (Mr. Lyons) knows a great deal about this subject. I agree with the hon. Members for Tooting (Mr. Cox) and for Central Fife (Mr. MacDougall) that the issue is not party political, and that it is in the interests of everyone employers, workers and the country as a whole to have high standards of health and safety. That should be a "No. 1 issue", to use the expression of the hon. Member for Strathkelvin and Bearsden.

The hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) said that we must address employers' liability insurance by matching the risk to the premium much more closely, particularly with small and medium-sized enterprises. I agree that the idea of a no-claims bonus has merit, but that should be tied to good health and safety practice in the industry. If a trade body were prepared to have a good-quality health and safety scheme for the industry, membership of that scheme and its implementation, plus good practice over a long period, would lead to lower premiums. A double trigger is required.

We heard that accidents cause injury and death to workers, but it is worth remembering that accidents also damage productivity for business, result in lost work days—a point made in the debate—and open up employers to the possibility of legal action in the criminal and civil courts. There should be every incentive to have a partnership that enables good practice to be built on.

It is important for the Minister to answer the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson) about care homes, and the points made more widely about bullying. It cannot be a coincidence that incapacity benefit claims for mental illness have increased by 25 per cent. That means that many people are leaving work because they are suffering from clinical depression and stress. I am interested to know what the Minister thinks can be done to improve circumstances in the work setting so that that is no longer the case. The points about bus drivers and nurses must also be addressed.

The hon. Member for West Renfrewshire (Jim Sheridan) talked about his experience of working for a good company and said that a good partnership could be achieved. It is worth repeating a remark made by a former Minister who dealt with this issue previously, the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead):
"Effective health and safety is about getting duty holders to fulfil their obligations as a matter of course, not just in response to an inspector's visit, and that means working in partnership with stakeholders to achieve long lasting improvements in voluntary compliance."—[Official Report, 19 March 2002; Vol. 382, c. 284–5.]

That is the test. Good health and safety in the workplace should be commonplace.

I shall raise one other issue; the fire strike. Last autumn, the Health and Safety Executive issued a paper entitled "Application of Health and Safety Legislation to the Police in the Context of the Firefighters' Dispute". However, we do not seem to have heard much in response. The document states:
"The police role means that police officers will be first on the scene of many possible fires during the dispute, many more than during ordinary duties. The potential risks to officers are … greater than normal, and may be increased further by the lack of support from fully trained civilian firefighters, as well as lesser availability of military assets … Considering how to address these risks will also have to take account of complicating factors such as the limited time in which to give further instruction to police officers, and the absence of personal protective equipment for officers normally required for fire rescue, or training to use it."
I have three questions for the Minister about that. Have the Government been able to make any agreement with, or representations to, the Fire Brigades Union that would protect the police in such difficult circumstances? What is to be done to make life a little easier for them during the dispute? Are the Government able to make any estimate of the total cost to UK business of the impact of the fire strike in relation to more general health and safety issues?

One of the issues discussed today is whether there should be legislation on work and safety. The hon. Member for Twickenham asked the Minister whether there should be a wider new framework through the primary legislative route. As long ago as 2000, the Government promised in the Gracious Speech that a Bill would be drafted to provide for, among other things, the revitalisation of health and safety at work. The hon. Member for Central Fife recalled that. We have had one of the Bills that was promised—on railways and transport safety—but the engineering employers have said in their briefing for this debate that the commitment to have a new legislative framework
"appears not to have been carried forward … If there is to be new legislation introduced by way of modernising the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 we urge that this is done not in a piecemeal fashion but as a Government Bill which will then allow the full participation of all stakeholders."
What is the Government's position? Are we to have a new health and safety at work Bill?

On corporate manslaughter, the same considerations apply. There should be a well thought through proposal that has the support of the Government after proper consultation. My hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) makes that point quite regularly. In July 2001, the right hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Bradley) talked about the end of the consultation period on corporate manslaughter. He said:
"The consultation period ended in September 2000. During that time, we received more than 160 responses. Almost all were of high quality and required careful consideration[elipsis] We have yet to make final decisions … It is important that we consider those issues in detail".—[Official Report, Westminster Hall, 10 July 2001; Vol. 371, c. 237WH.]
On 24 July last year, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Leeds, Central (Hilary Benn) said:
"an interdepartmental group has examined the issues raised by the consultation and other unresolved areas. The group has now completed its work. We will be publishing a digest of responses to the consultation paper shortly."—[Official Report, 24 July 2002; Vol. 389, c. 1505W.]
I have looked, and my researcher has looked, and we cannot find any evidence of such a digest being published. If it has been, I would like the Minister to reassure me about that.

It is not good enough that it is all taking so long. When I was shadowing the then police Minister—now the Secretary of State for Education and Skills, the right hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke)—two years ago, I was pursuing him about the matter. On 29 January 2001, he said:
"in our view, and overhaul of the offences against the person legislation is best handled in the context of a law reform Bill, which will also include changes to the law on involuntary manslaughter and corporate killing."—[Official Report, 29 January 2001; Vol. 362, c. 120.]
In other words, there should be a new offences against the person Act. Is that still the Government's position? What is the current state of play, two years on?

I do not want to rehearse all the past arguments about white asbestos, but I should be grateful if the Minister told us whether there was any further scientific thought on white asbestos. He will know that regulations were introduced last autumn, after vigorous debate, on whether white asbestos should be classified in the same way as brown and blue. I should be grateful to know if he has any plans to consider that again.

On employers' liability insurance, the Minister must be aware that, last year, there were examples of 100 and 1,000 per cent. increases in the premiums for employers' liability insurance. Some employers who gave evidence to the all-party group on small business—I know that the hon. Member for Twickenham was there—said that it was almost impossible to get cover.

Obviously the matter is urgent. This year's increases could be 20 per cent. or more, and many employers are being put in a difficult position. Will the Minister come forward with detailed proposals to help small businesses? Does he accept the logic of the point, which has been made by Conservative and Liberal Democrat Members, that good practice by small and medium-sized firms, which should not be rated across their industries, must be recognised? Will action be taken soon?

10.50 am

This has been an important debate. I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Strathkelvin and Bearsden (Mr. Lyons), not only on his powerful contribution, but on stimulating important contributions from across the Floor. I want briefly to outline the Government's overall strategy on this vital issue, and then do my best to respond to the numerous points that have been raised in this interesting debate.

As has been acknowledged, we already have one of the best health and safety records in Europe. There has been a dramatic reduction in accidents since the introduction of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974. The rate of fatal accidents in the United Kingdom is now less than a quarter of that in the early 1970s. That is down to the hard work of decent employers, the Health and Safety Executive and the trade union movement, whose representatives have played a leading role.

My hon. Friends the Members for Glasgow, Anniesland (John Robertson) and for West Renfrewshire (Jim Sheridan), who drew on his experience, emphasised the importance of good trade union work, which we should acknowledge. There is more such work to be done in the future. There are, however, no grounds for complacency, which has been a theme in the debate. Although the record is good, it is certainly not good enough.

There is no doubting the role of health and safety in improving people's quality of life and in stopping their work reducing their quality of life. Everybody has the right to carry out their job in safety. Today, we have heard about the misery that health and safety failures, which have caused some terrible accidents, can cause to workers and their families, and hon. Members have rightly talked about tragedies in their constituencies.

It is not only workers who benefit from good standards in health and safety, although that is crucial, but employers and our economy. We are losing up to 40 million working days a year because of work-related injuries and ill health. It is worth emphasising at the outset that proper health and safety management systems are not a financial burden on businesses but should be viewed, as they are, as vital investment. Let us be clear; good health and safety is good business for us all.

In conjunction with the Health and Safety Commission, the Health and Safety Executive and other stakeholders, the Government have achieved a lot in the past five years towards improving health and safety. Nevertheless, too many people are dying or are absent from work as a result of injuries and ill health. Although provisional figures for 2001–02 indicate a welcome 15 per cent. decrease in fatalities among British workers, figures for work-related, non-fatal injuries sadly show an increase. Again, there are no grounds for complacency.

Furthermore, in 2001–02 some 2.3 million people in Great Britain were suffering from what they believed to be work-related ill health. That translates into an estimated 33 million working days lost, the vast majority of which were due to musculo-skeletal disorders and, increasingly, stress-related illnesses. It is therefore vital that we continue to keep the issue firmly on the Government's agenda to ensure that health and safety retains a high profile and is at the heart of daily working lives. I share the view of those hon. Members who argue that we need to lift the issue up the key agendas in our economy.

In particular, we need to raise the profile of occupational health, which is sometimes seen as the poor relation of health and safety management. We were pleased when the HSC and the HSE came into the Department for Work and Pensions, which makes sense in terms of making links with our benefits relating to incapacity and with the growing number of people on incapacity benefit.

In brief, our goal is a health and safety culture that emphasises prevention and that leads to the reduction of workplace accidents, absences and health inequalities and, thereby, reduces the pressures on our national health service, incapacity benefits and so on. We want to put more emphasis on rehabilitation and advice, and we want to provide better access to occupational health support. Increasingly, we must work with our partners on building on good practice. I recognise the point of the hon. Member for Central Fife (Mr. MacDougall), who discussed good and bad practice in the workplace.

We should remember that the economic burden of health and safety failures is estimated to be a whacking £18 billion, so the matter is of economic as well as social and health importance. In the document "Revitalising Health and Safety", the Government set targets and discussed eight priorities that hon. Members have highlighted today.

Let me turn to the detailed issues that have been raised. There seems to be an inverse correlation in these debates between the range of questions and the time allowed to the Minister to try to sum up and answer them. I suspect that I shall not be able to deal with all the questions. As usual, I shall reply in writing if necessary and send copies to hon. Members.

Needle stick injury is an important issue. We do not know the precise number of such injuries. The Royal College of Nursing is doing a study that we shall review very carefully. The Government's position is that proper legislation is in place in the form of the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 2002. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for East Lothian (Anne Picking), who emphasised the importance of good practice and the need for Government inspectors to work very closely with those who oversee the practices in health care institutions and, in particular, hospitals.

Much concern has been expressed about the terrible deaths that still occur, about the failure of some employers to comply with the law and about prosecutions. Every year, the Health and Safety Executive undertakes some 200,000 visits, which result in approximately 1,000 prosecutions. In addition, some 11,000 notices are served. Last year, fines increased by about 33 per cent. to an average of £12,000, and the Government are supporting a private Member's Bill to increase fines and penalties, which is important. Following a Select Committee inquiry, the HSE now investigates a higher percentage of accidents than before, but we must find the right balance between that work and prevention, which is never very easy.

A theme of the debate was violence in the workplace. My figures suggest that some 1.3 million incidents of violence from fellow workers or customers occur in the workplace every year. I know from my own visits to the accident and emergency department of Mayday hospital in Croydon about the abuse and, at times, violence that our wonderful front-line staff—the doctors and nurses—have to tolerate from patients fuelled by drugs and drink. One could find similar evidence in many other sectors such as the fire and police services. That matter certainly must be given high priority.

The hon. Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson) discussed care homes and the way in which demography places an emphasis on the health, safety and welfare of the very frail people who are cared for in care homes and of the staff. It was right to emphasise that. Alongside issues such as stress, we must ensure that work on health and safety is not concerned only with the traditional industries—although such work is important and must continue—but with the problems in the modern economy, such as lifting and the fear of abuse that may arise in care homes. The hon. Lady's contribution was important.

On corporate manslaughter, which is essentially a matter for the Home Office, the Government remain committed to reforming the law in order to provide a strong deterrent to the few employers who are inclined to disregard in extreme ways the health and safety of their employees. My hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Mr. Cox) said that legislation on corporate manslaughter was not strong enough. I hope that my assurance that we are committed to the matter will help.

There has been a rigorous and full review of employer's liability insurance and we are committed to reporting on that as soon as possible. There has been proper consultation. I shall deal with the points made about the fire strike by the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) in writing. Our employment policy has to be about making work possible, but also about making work safe.

Housing (East Lancashire)

11 am

I am glad to have the opportunity to raise the issue of funding for the housing renewal area in east Lancashire. I have raised the subject of housing many times over the years, but I do not apologise for raising it again. Indeed, I have been trying to secure an Adjournment debate on the subject for several weeks. The issue is of great importance in my constituency; it is the biggest single issue facing Burnley and a major problem throughout the whole of east Lancashire.

My hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) will want to have a short word before the Minister responds to the debate. My hon. Friends the Members for Hyndburn (Mr. Pope) and for Rossendale and Darwen (Janet Anderson) have indicated that they regret that they cannot be present today because they are away from Westminster on parliamentary business, but they fully support the case that will make. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs also supports me. We all know that he is currently involved in discussions of important events in Belfast with the Prime Minister and the President of the United States.

The issue is important. I have heard of the plight of so many of my constituents when I meet them at my advice bureau, on the streets and as I canvass in the local elections, and I get letters about such problems every single day from various people. People are living in houses in terraces that are almost completely empty. They live in fear of crime, squatters, fire and all sorts of other things. I share their fears and concerns; I know what it must be like to live in such conditions.

Other people have lost all their money because they cannot sell their houses. They have seen the price of their houses nosedive. We all believe that, in this country, someone invests in a house and the value goes up. At the end of the day, people hope to make money. In Burnley, exactly the opposite occurs. In many cases, people find that, when they have to move, the amount that they owe on their mortgage is more than the amount that they receive for their house. That is a great tragedy and I am very concerned about those very real problems.

I want to comment briefly on the history of the problem. How have we got into this situation? Much of the blame lies with the Tory Governments that were in power between 1979 and 1997. There is no doubt at all about that. I raised such issues time after time in the House, in questions and debates, and I met various Ministers and had them come to Burnley. There was never any response at all. The last time I spoke on the subject, I referred to a speech that I made in 1984. This time, I want to refer briefly to one that I made in 1986. On that occasion, I said:
"In Burnley the cost of improving an old terraced house is more than the sum that the house will sell for … the house may well become derelict, causing the entire terrace subsequently to become derelict."—[Official Report, 15 December 1986; Vol. 107, c. 924.]
That is the type of problem that we face. That was the situation in 1986 and that is what we are seeing today.

In May 1987, a dossier—I will not go into it in detail—was prepared by the then chief executive of Burnley borough council, Brian Whittle, who went into great detail. We put it to the relevant Minister, but to no avail. We got no response. In the 1990s, the then Bishop of Burnley became so concerned about the position in east Lancashire that he set up an independent inquiry, with housing experts and others interested in the issue, to consider the situation. The Lancashire housing inquiry was published in 1993 but, again, it was to no avail.

Since the election of the Labour Government in 1997, we have seen housing gradually move up the agenda. I say to my hon. Friend the Minister, in a friendly way, that we want to see it continue to do so because it is an issue of great importance. We recognise that the south has very different problems from east Lancashire. My right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister has paid two visits to my constituency, and we have had several visits from Lord Falconer. On one visit, when Lord Falconer met the Members of Parliament and the chief executives and council leaders in Accrington, we realised that we were beginning to get an answer to the case that we had made. Lord Falconer asked us to prepare a bid based on a 10-year programme for tackling the problem, showing what response we needed from the Government to enable us to do that. We in east Lancashire work together—I chose to have a debate on not just Burnley but on east Lancashire—and we chose to put forward a case together.

I welcomed the announcement last April of nine pathfinder housing renewal projects, one of which covers east Lancashire, including Burnley. I welcomed the announcement a few months later of funding of £2.66 million for each of those projects to allow early preparations and for the schemes to get underway. That was very important. We all welcomed the statement by the Deputy Prime Minister on 5 February 2003, in which he said that £500 million would be made available over the next three years for the nine pathfinder projects.

When the Deputy Prime Minister made that statement in the House, I said:
"In Burnley empty homes are no longer a problem; they are a living nightmare…Will more money be made available, and does my right hon. Friend recognise that all the problems in those nine areas cannot possibly be solved in three years?"
The Deputy Prime Minister replied:
"I agree with my hon. Friend. Having visited his constituency, I was left with a powerful impression of the way in which such problem areas scar the whole community and give rise to economic and political problems."
He continued, in response to my question on the programme:
"We hope to learn a great deal from it and to expand it, but it certainly will not be limited to three years."—[Official Report, 5 February 2003; Vol. 399, c. 287.]
That was a very important point, which we very much welcomed.

Elevate, the group formed in east Lancashire to promote the scheme, with David Taylor in charge, was launched on 17 February. Each council had a little piece in the document produced for that. Burnley borough council said, among other things:
"Land registry data shows that the prices of terraced houses in Burnley fall well below those achieved both regionally and nationally. Burnley has a crude surplus of housing, with large proportions of vacant dwellings in all sectors."
We have 4,500 empty houses, 10 per cent. of our housing stock. It is that which makes Burnley, in percentage terms, the area with the biggest single problem in the whole of the country. I accept that many other areas in the north-east—in Manchester, Merseyside and east Lancashire itself—have problems; but in percentage terms, ours is the most acute at the present time.

Burnley council goes on to say:
"The problems that this brings with it, boarded up houses, vandalism etc. have so far been concentrated in a small number of areas of the town but it is recognised that the problem is growing worse rather than improving."
On the positive side, Burnley council says:
"The Market Restructuring Scheme means that East Lancashire will be able to tap into resources amounting to £500 Million nationally over three years. This is seen as the first phase of a 15 to 20 year programme to revitalise the housing market within East Lancashire. For the first time, this gives Burnley Borough Council the opportunity to make a real difference in improving living and environmental conditions for its citizens."

My concern in raising this debate is the need to ensure that the people of Burnley and East Lancashire see an end to the decline and downward spiral that we have seen continue for so long. MPs, councillors and council officials well understand announcements, but the public do not understand the need for plans and preparations in the same way as those of us who are involved. The public want action, as do I, Burnley borough council and other local councils in our area. That is why I continue to press the case. I shall be retiring at the next general election, whether it is in two or three years time. By that time, I want to see a positive improvement in the problem and the removal of the blight on the area that I represent in Parliament.

I was pleased to hear last week's important announcement of another £4 million for the east Lancashire renewal project. The Minister for Housing and Planning, Lord Rooker, wrote to me on 3 April stating:
"I have always stressed that it is important to see some action on the ground as soon as possible. This will help build confidence in the pathfinder areas and send a clear message to communities that we are committed to turning around these areas.

Today's announcement, while underlining the importance we attach to strategic schemes. will enable all pathfinders to deliver innovative action demonstrating our joint commitment to tackling low demand and abandonment"
We are discussing not just demolition, although some is necessary, but the importance of regenerating such areas.

The points that I want to put to the Minister are as follows. The east Lancashire market restructuring organisation, Elevate, welcomed the Government's announcement on 3 April of resources for 2003–04. Its chair, David Taylor, said:
"This is an exciting opportunity. We are already beginning to deliver a £1m programme of action, and this new money is a welcome boost to our efforts. It is the start of a long-term plan to revitalise the area's housing markets and neighbourhood over the next ten to fifteen years. We realise that our various communities need to see action on the ground now, and in the next few weeks we will be announcing specific projects to use this money."
I agree with those sentiments and I am particularly pleased that in allocating £4 million to Elevate Ministers have made significant improvements in comparison with earlier indications of funding levels. Having said that, even £4 million is low in view of the scale of the challenges to be dealt with. The communities of Burnley and east Lancashire are impatient for action now and the political implications could be serious if we are not seen to respond.

In the longer term, Elevate is well aware of the need to prepare a comprehensive, strategic plan to release future resources. That work is well under way. Consultants have been appointed to help and a dedicated team of staff is being recruited. Local authorities and their partners are working well together and the Minister acknowledged that when he met them in January.

I trust that the Government will respond positively in the coming year's allocations, including, crucially, the period beyond the three-year comprehensive spending review. I hope that the Minister will indicate the Government's intentions on that because we must be able to plan ahead. My hope today is that the Minister will emphasise that long-term commitment to Burnley and east Lancashire and that he will say that the Government will respond positively if we can show that local government, the private sector and the people of east Lancashire can work together to deliver an accelerated programme to end the decay and make those areas vibrant and worth living in.

11.13 am

I want to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Burnley (Mr. Pike) for allowing me a few moments to emphasise his points and to speak about my constituency of Pendle, which lies within the east Lancashire pathfinder. We want significant sums of money for east Lancashire—enough to make a difference. That is the acid test. People must see evidence of change on the ground. Huge swathes of crumbling and rotten terraced housing should have been pulled down a generation ago. My constituency has the highest percentage of pre-1919 terraced housing in the country—over 60 per cent., which compares with an English average of about 20 per cent. Some of it is in a dire state. Furthermore, 25 per cent. of the housing in east Lancashire is unfit, compared with the English average of about 7 per cent.

The scale of the problem is enormous. My local authority estimates that it would cost £150 million to bring private housing stock up to standard in my constituency. Last year 4,290 houses in Pendle were unfit. Next door in Burnley the figure was 9,336. Last year there were more than 2,000 empty or abandoned houses in Pendle and 4,500 empty properties in Burnley, which have spread out like a contagion on street after street. We have lived with the problem for decades.

My hon. Friend mentioned the inquiry by the then Bishop of Burnley in 1993. It repays rereading. If anything, the situation in some parts of Pendle and Burnley has got worse, not better. The Bishop's inquiry told us that poor quality terraced housing in need of renovation could be purchased in the inner town areas for as little as £12,000 to £15,000. I can point to areas in Pendle where properties can be bought for £6,000 or £7,000. When Lord Falconer visited my constituency, his jaw dropped when I pointed out a house on the market for £1,000, which still had a roof on and windows. It is staggering.

No one expects a new Jerusalem tomorrow, but people expect evidence of change. Strategies, plans and inquiries are, as my hon. Friend said, necessary, but they cannot be an excuse for delay. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister can reassure people in Pendle, Burnley and elsewhere in east Lancashire that the Government are determined to do something about the deplorable housing conditions in our area.

11.17 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister
(Mr. Tony McNulty)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Burnley (Mr. Pike) on securing this debate on this important issue and on his unstinting work in voicing his constituents' concerns. He has certainly put Burnley on the map and his constituents are well served. I also recognise the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice). The saddest comment I have to make following both contributions is that this is not new. If something had been done by the Conservative Government when the first inklings of the problems arose in the 1980s and before, east Lancashire would not be facing the severity of the problem that it faces today. That is a matter of profound regret.

I also understand the impatience of people in Burnley and east Lancashire and how they seek and crave a sense of real commitment. I also pay tribute to my other right hon. and hon. Friends who represent constituencies in east Lancashire who have worked equally tirelessly to ensure that the issues we are debating today are not forgotten. I recognise what my hon. Friend the Member for Burnley said about my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs and my hon. Friends the Members for Hyndburn (Mr. Pope) and for Rossendale and Darwen (Janet Anderson). The people of east Lancashire will be grateful to them for all their efforts because today we can reflect on what the Government have already done and the promise of more investment to come. I know that the people of Burnley and east Lancashire want action quickly.

My hon. Friend alluded to much of the background and the position of Elevate now, so I will not dwell on those aspects unduly. The east Lancashire partnership has already begun to address the challenges and it has a vision for east Lancashire. Its existing strategy is to achieve that vision based on a foundation of what it will do in the coming months and years. I accept what my hon. Friends have said in the debate about visions, plans and strategies when people want real action, but sustainability underpins all that we are going to do in the market pathfinder renewal areas. The last thing that the people of Burnley and Pendle or anywhere else in east Lancashire want is another gimmick or quick fix; they want lasting, sustainable action that will change their areas and arrest the decline.

East Lancashire has a new opportunity: a promise of new Government investment in the next 10 to 15 years to help to tackle its housing problems. That is a real commitment. My hon. Friends would not expect me to dictate to the Treasury what should be in the next comprehensive spending review, but there is a clear commitment from the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister that—as my hon. Friend the Member for Burnley said—these problems will be addressed in a sustainable and lasting way over 10 to 15 years. Of course, we understand that people are impatient for results and action now, and in the coming months and years, but long-term problems require long-term solutions. I assure my hon. Friends that the Government, too, are in it for the long-term.

If the three fast-track schemes, which are further along the road, cannot use all the resources that are allocated to them, and east Lancashire shows that it can accelerate its plans, can funding be moved over and used for housing rather than it being lost?

There will certainly not be any loss of funding between the nine pathfinders. We have said clearly to all nine that it is not a race, but neither is it a matter of £500 million divided by nine, and that is their lot; the allocation needs to be rooted in their strategy and plans. Although, as my hon. Friend said, three of the nine are fast-tracked, the others, including east Lancashire, are coming up on the rails and may overtake them.

As I said last week when I announced the allocation of £4 million, my message to all the people who are involved in low-demand pathfinders is, "Take your time, but get on with it." We understand people's impatience, but we want them to take a step back and ensure that the plans, as they unfold, are long-term and sustainable. As my hon. Friend said, any fool can bulldoze a row of houses, but if that does nothing to contribute to the long-term, sustainable vision and direction of communities such as Burnley and Pendle it will do no one any favours. We must consider where those towns and communities will go in the next 10, 15 or 20 years. The schemes may be called housing market renewal pathfinders but they are about far more than housing: they are about the future of towns and communities, which is the key to the whole project.

I shall not dwell on the launch of Elevate East Lancashire at Turf Moor, as my hon. Friend has covered the subject. To spare his blushes, I shall not mention Watford and the 7–4 result, which would be churlish of me given that Watford abuts my constituency. At least Burnley has the integrity and imagination to play in appropriate colours—claret and blue—although my affiliations are in a London, rather than a Lancashire, context.

Nine months is a short period for action to turn around the decades of under-investment to which my hon. Friend alluded. However, much of the groundwork has been done in east Lancashire. The board, drawn from local and regional organisations, has been established; in December, David Taylor, a leading regeneration practitioner, was appointed as independent chair, and the pathfinder has completed the action necessary to draw down the initial £2.6 million from the Government's capital modernisation fund to begin the task of replacing unpopular and obsolete housing.

As my hon. Friend said, I recently met the board, which I am convinced has the integrity, skills, expertise and dynamism to deliver for Burnley and east Lancashire. The local authority is well represented on the board and some of the big decisions necessary for east Lancashire in the next couple of years are being discussed and assessed, and will be taken forward. There are signs that the board, and local government, accept that the proposals are of major importance for the future of the communities in east Lancashire, and they are taking the job extremely seriously. The pathfinder has already moved to convert money into tangible outcomes that residents will recognise as making a difference to the housing market. I accept what was said about the need for early action.

Elevate East Lancashire recently announced several measures to boost the regeneration of neighbourhoods in Burnley and the east Lancashire area. The strategy is about regeneration, refocusing and restructuring the communities in those areas—it is not simply about housing. Some £300,000 is to be invested immediately to improve the quality of life and environment across the borough of Burnley, and I welcome that important demonstration of commitment to the people of Burnley and east Lancashire.

The programme includes some simple, but important initiatives that will make big differences in the short term. Additional funding will be provided for the Council's alley-gating programme, which will improve safety and security in the vulnerable back streets of terraced houses. The area caretaker scheme will be expanded, with two new caretaker posts for the Burnley Wood and Fulledge areas. Community wardens will be enabled to tackle "grot spots", involving young people and other residents. A strategy will be developed to deal with vacant properties, with the aim of reducing the number that stand empty for long periods. Those are all small actions, but are as important as the wider actions and the wider vision. Contributions will also be made to demolition programmes in Burnley Wood and south-west Burnley. The proposals are small scale, but are none the less important. I know that the people of Burnley will welcome the improvements that they will make to their town.

Last Thursday I announced that we will make an initial allocation of market renewal funding of up to £4 million for east Lancashire in advance of completing their market restructuring scheme, to carry on the good work begun over the past year. That allocation means that, alongside drawing up the scheme, action can be taken in the areas that need it most: action that will underpin the future schemes. The range of initiatives that I have just outlined will be expanded and the people of Burnley, and east Lancashire as a whole, will see the benefits in the coming months.

We do not start from the perspective that £500 million is sufficient to deal with every problem in each of the nine pathfinder areas I am encouraged that in many areas, not least in east Lancashire, the boards are beginning to examine how they can use some of that money to attract further money to deal with the size of some of the problems.

In that particular case, is it not important that English Partnerships and the regional development agencies should be involved?

Very much so. If we are considering the regeneration of entire areas, communities and towns, English Partnerships, the regional development agencies and the private sector in the areas should be involved.

We are seeking to introduce other measures. In the Housing (Overcrowding) Bill that has just been published, we are examining ways to legislate for selective licensing of private landlords, who are part of the problem, and for licensing of houses in multiple occupation, which also cause some difficulty. Moreover, today the Anti-social Behaviour Bill will receive its Second Reading: that Bill also contains some housing elements.

Making the most of all these opportunities is crucial. We are at a crossroads, and offer a once in a lifetime opportunity for these communities, working with local and central Government, to take over and determine their own future. As I said at the start, it is a matter of regret that these situations were highlighted time and again by my hon. Friend the Member for Burnley and others under the previous Government, but to no avail.

The challenge now is to bring forward an innovative and sustainable vision for the future of east Lancashire. All involved in local leadership must therefore work together positively, breaking down traditional boundaries and barriers, in pursuit of that vision. Burnley borough council, with its partner local authorities, must play its part. It will require new ways of working in partnership, in which the overall vision is the goal. It will require the development of credible strategies, in which all stakeholders, including the private sector, can have confidence.

The Government have provided the opportunity and resources for the area's rejuvenation, and it is time for local leaders to take things forward. The people of Burnley and east Lancashire deserve nothing less. It will take 10 to 15 years, but I assure my hon. Friends the Members for Burnley and for Pendle that this time the Government are listening, and will not let Burnley and east Lancashire down. We are here for the long term; the time for waiting is over. Action is needed now and I will do all that I can to fulfil my hon. Friend's desire to see real change and action for Burnley, before he stands down at the next election. I should say that when he steps down, the vacancy that that will create will be a matter of profound regret.

Burnley and east Lancashire will thank my hon. Friend for raising these issues today. It will be a long haul, but the Government are committed for the long term.

11.30 am

Sitting suspended until Two o'clock.

Sub-Post Offices


It is a great charm to discover that I face the Minister, who is a former Financial Secretary with whom I spent many happy hundreds of hours considering Finance Bills.

I begin by putting on record something that I think every Member present already knows, but which particularly affects my constituents in West Dorset and, I suspect, others in rural areas throughout the country: there is no such thing as "the village institution". Villages in their full-blown incarnation have pubs, village halls, shops, post offices and schools. No one of those is critical to the survival of the village as a rural community, but the matter is a question of Sorites' paradox. Members will recall that Sorites raised the paradox that when one takes a pile of stones and removes one, one still has a pile of stones. That continues to be true as one removes stone after stone until, at last, there is only one. Then, alas, it is no longer a pile, but just a stone.

So it is with village institutions: one can lose the shop, the post office, the village hall or the school. Eventually, one loses everything that makes the village a living community and brings the people in it together to create the neighbourly society that we should welcome and treasure, and which still exists in West Dorset villages, by and large. We know the intense and aggravated social problems of inner cities. We know of the heroic efforts of Government after Government of different persuasions to resolve some of those problems, and the costs and difficulties entailed. To fail to reinforce social success, where it exists, in relation to societies that function properly, where they exist, is a tragic waste of resources quite apart from the effect on my constituents.

We ought to take steps to ensure that each part of the village community is sustained. With that in mind, I have sought to add my own voice, and those of my hon. Friends and other Members, to the chorus that has been raised during the past several years about the threat to the rural post office network.

I should declare a semi-interest: for some years, I have been the secretary of the all-party group on sub-post offices. Through its auspices, and some years ago, we worked with the National Federation of Sub-Postmasters to inaugurate and stage in Methodist central hall a large manifestation of feeling among sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses. On that day, there was a large lobby of Parliament. I think that the ministerial mind was somewhat affected by all that, and it is to the Government's credit that they began to think more seriously about the effect of their actions on the rural post office network, but I fear that the signs are that the steps that have been taken are not yet sufficient to do the trick.

Let me briefly rehearse what Members will already be well aware of: the strange history that has led us to the position in which we now find ourselves. For many years, under the Conservative Administration, officials in the Department of Health and Social Security, later the Department of Social Security, proposed to Ministers a major efficiency saving—that was how they described it. They suggested replacing the old-fashioned system of collecting benefits with automated credit transfers through the banks.

Time after time—last but by no means least when my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley) was Secretary of State for Social Security—when officials came forward with such proposals to save taxpayers' money, Conservative Ministers, perhaps because they had an instinctive understanding of the points that I have made on the importance of the rural post office network, said, "No, we will not make that saving. Although we would save money, we would ultimately have to subsidise a rural network to keep it in existence, which would be at least as costly. Otherwise, we would lose an invaluable social resource."

Not until the advent of this Government was that same paper presented—brushed down and word processed, with a few commas and full stops changed—and, perhaps because they lacked that instinctive feeling for rural areas, they said, "Whoopee! If we save money here, we can spend more on useful things such as the health and education services." Because of that decision., the all-party group came into being, sub-postmasters began meeting and lobbying the Government, and the Government had to work out how to solve the problem that their officials had persuaded them to create. The problem is that without the old-fashioned system of benefits collection, post offices in rural locations were bound to suffer appallingly from a reduction not only in the amount of money that they received in direct commission for giving out benefits and pensions, but—indeed, mainly—in footfall.

Estimates of the loss of direct payments to the rural network vary widely, as do estimates across the whole network, rural and urban. The Minister may contradict me if my figures are outdated or wrong, but I believe that the direct losses are some £400 million a year for the 17,500 post offices, of which only some are rural. However, the footfall loss is far more difficult to quantify and, undoubtedly, the larger problem in the long run.

It would be wrong to suggest that the Government have not attempted to resolve the problem that they were persuaded to create, because they have. They started with the concept of a universal bank and engaged in prolonged and intensive negotiations with the banking fraternity.

Before the right hon. Gentleman moves on to what the Government may or may not be doing, is it correct that there was a lot of confusion and delay when the Conservative Government were in power because they could not agree on whether to privatise the Post Office? Perhaps that is a reason for us having the debate today.

I have no doubt that the hon. Gentleman and I profoundly disagree about the privatisation of the Post Office, but, whether he is generally right about that or I am, what is certainly true is that it has nothing at all to do with a debate on the sub-post office network, which is, of course, intrinsically privatised. It is entirely composed of private operators. Indeed, in terms that he may find more attractive than I do, that is the problem. We would not be having this discussion if that network were part of the nationalised service, as it would simply be invisibly subsidised as part of the nationalised arrangements. I do not accept his point.

While we are at it, and before the hon. Gentleman springs to his feet in further and righteous indignation, I entirely accept that, alas, under the Conservative Government there was already a severe financial problem for rural sub-post offices. I do not seek to disguise that and it would be dishonest to do so. There were significant closures—they were running at rather under 200 per year, if I remember correctly, which is a serious rate of decline. Indeed, the closure rate was so alarming that groups and inter-ministerial committees were considering how to staunch the flow. That was without the measure that the Government have now decided to take in relation to automated credit transfer.

It should be said that, the Government having caused an increase in the outflow to, if I remember correctly, rather over 400 closures per year at its peak, they have brought down the figure somewhat through the measures that I will describe. My angst is related to the fact that, for reasons that I shall enumerate, by the time the Government's measures have been fully implemented, we shall probably see the closure rate rise again.

Before my right hon. Friend moves on to his next point, may I inform him that the sub-post office in the village of Rettendon in my constituency closed over a year ago? Despite attempts to find an alternative sub-postmaster to reopen it, Chelmsford borough council, which is controlled by the Liberal Democrats, has made that almost impossible by being inflexible in planning terms. Does he agree that the Liberal Democrats should be careful to practise what they preach?

My hon. Friend is a remarkable and dextrous pugilist, but I am inclined, if possible, to turn this into a most consensual effort to save sub-post offices, so I shall refrain from commenting on what I do not know about—the case in his constituency—and say only that during my efforts to save the tiny post office in Toller Porcorum, which is not one of the great metropolises in our kingdom, but which is in my constituency of West Dorset, I discovered that it is necessary to have just the flexibility in planning that he describes.

We eventually managed to establish a part-time post office in what can best be described as a room on the bottom floor of what can best be described as a tiny cottage on the basis of persuading flexible planners that we were not doing much injustice to the fact that the cottage was a residential establishment. Flexibility is of great importance.

If I may diverge for a moment into that important element of saving sub-post offices, it has to be said that flexibility will also be required in other respects if we are to save the network. I am sure that there will be cases in which sub-post offices need to be located, perhaps with their shops, in village halls and pubs. We all have to be enormously flexible if we are to save such valuable resources.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the Welsh Assembly has tried to learn lessons from the processes that he has described? It has introduced rural community action plans, which can be directed towards any rural community issue, including post offices. They are designed, if used in an integrated way, to create viability in circumstances where it might not otherwise be present.

The hon. Gentleman will not be surprised to know that I know less about Wales than he does, but I welcome all efforts to bring people together and to find funding to sustain the network.

In the long run, savings will be made. There will be financial savings, as a supportive and vibrant community provides enormous intangible support to its members that otherwise has to be funded through elaborate bureaucratic programmes. There will also be direct savings, in the sense of saving the human misery that can all too frequently occur in quite unmelodramatic ways when people who are relatively housebound, or are in relatively rural locations with young children, do not have a means of talking to one another or to their neighbours.

I return to the history of the matter and to its present and immediate future. The Government have taken steps to try to resolve the problem that they created. The universal bank was intended to be such a solution and there were detailed discussions with the banking fraternity on it. Some of us with experience of the banking fraternity were sceptical about whether the Government could persuade the banks to behave in the way that they had first imagined. As it transpired, our scepticism was well founded. The banks participated in a discussion and have come forward with useful devices, but the system is not the universal bank that was originally conceived, nor is it as cost free as was originally intended.

That is not the main cause of my angst at present, because it has to be said that the banks and the Government have between them come up with a system, and there is much to be grateful for in that. There is, however, a terrible problem. I do not know of exactly whose making it is and I am not going to accuse any particular party of being its instigator. I shall say, however, that the Minister and his colleagues need to solve it, and quickly.

The problem is well illustrated by an admirable leaflet that has been widely distributed, which says:
"From April 2003 the Government will begin paying state pensions directly into accounts. But you can still collect your state pension at the Post Office."

My hon. Friend says, "Ho, ho" and to an extent that is exactly what I am going to describe—the "Ho, ho" of the matter.

The leaflet's front cover says that it will describe three items: a current account, a basic bank account and a Post Office card account. So far, so good. What is the current account? It is the current account that we all know and love. We did not need a leaflet to learn about current accounts, because we can walk into any bank and get one, but the leaflet describes them—first, I note—and explains that one can withdraw cash from a post office free of charge using a cheque book.

That is exactly the proposal for automated credit transfer that would have occurred in the first place without any discussions on the universal bank. There is nothing wrong with that, but from the point of view of the rural sub-post office network, there is nothing right with it either. People who choose option 1, the current account, may or may not ever go into a post office to collect their money. There is no particular reason why they should ever do so.

I have never done this, but I think that one can already go into any post office with a cheque book and card to withdraw money from one's current account, although it may not have had benefits paid into it. Is that right?

Yes, I can testify to that. I do it frequently. Sub-post offices in rural Dorset are immensely helpful in cashing my cheques, and I doubt whether that is because they know who I am. It is because I have an account with a card, and I observe many people coming in and doing the same. However, most people with current accounts who want to get cash or make payments do not go to sub-post offices. They go elsewhere, primarily when they go shopping. Almost always these days, people engage in major shopping in places where there are dispensers to obtain money from cards, or tills and other places where they can cash cheques.

I fear that the current account, which is likely to become the norm over time if the Government, the banks and the Post Office continue in their present mode, will not encourage footfall. I am in no position—perhaps the Minister can give us his estimates—to say what the footfall through the sub-post office network will be if the current account does indeed become the norm. I suspect that the Minister will find it difficult to deny that, if some 80 or 90 per cent. of those receiving pensions and benefits collect them through a normal current account, the effect on footfall will be serious.

The performance and innovation unit, no less, published a report entitled "Counter Revolution", which the Government accepted, including conclusion 18, which said that the Post Office should develop a role for post offices as Government general practitioners, and that would improve footfall. However, when I asked the Minister what he had done about that he said that there had been a "Your Guide" pilot that

"highlighted a number of areas in which Government Departments might deliver services through post offices in the future and we are exploring these".—[Official Report, 27 March 2003; Vol. 402, c. 323W.]
Does my right hon. Friend think that that is a vague answer on an issue as important as increasing footfall through the rural post office network?

I fear that I shall have to confirm my hon. Friend's worst fears and go further. I have experience of this Minister: I have asked him many complicated questions in the course of Finance Bills. I hate to tell my hon. Friend that I always received extremely lucid and detailed replies. I do not say that about every member of the Government, but this Minister was noted in the proceedings on Finance Bills for giving us genuine answers to genuine questions, although I hope that I am not ruining his career by saying that. It was an alarming tendency, and we sometimes saw officials in Committee registering shock and horror at the nature of the Minister's responses. If this Minister answered my hon. Friend in those terms, it confirms my suspicions that the Government have not the foggiest idea about how to make the Government general practitioner service system work, about which, as my hon. Friend said, much was said in the original reports.

I am enjoying this part of the right hon. Gentleman's argument. Does he agree with the group of sub-postmasters that I met in Inverness last week that it would be a tremendous opportunity to be able to access at every local post office the current accounts to which he refers? In many areas, not least in the villages in his constituency, there is no bank, so it would be a great boon for the post office network if one could sort out one's business at the post office.

The Minister is right that that would be an improvement for people whose benefits are paid through their current accounts and who cannot access a post office. If such people could access their account at the post office, more of them would be likely to go to the post office than if they had no such option. We are in agreement on that. However, that is not how the question ought to be posed. The question is how many of the people who currently go into sub-post offices will continue to do so if the method in question becomes the norm for receiving benefits and pensions, and if very few people receive them by other means. I think that that is the direction in which we are heading and in which somebody or other wants us to head. I do not know the answer to that question; indeed, nobody could know it. However, I hope that someone from the Department of Trade and Industry or someone else has studied the question quite closely. If they have done so seriously, they will have been forced to conclude that the number of people using sub-post offices will seriously decline.

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman and shall not keep on intervening. Does he agree that it is much better for the future of the post office network if people go into post offices because they choose to do so, rather than because they have no other alternative? That has been the position in the past.

First, let me say that I hope that the Minister will not apologise for intervening. Almost the only purpose of such debates in Westminster Hall—if indeed there is any purpose to them—is to engage the ministerial mind. We puny individuals in Opposition parties and on the Back Benches have no effect on such matters whatever. It is Ministers who make an impact, and it is much to be wished that an intelligent Minister will pay attention to the issues. I therefore welcome the Minister's intervention.

However, I do not agree with the Minister. He has exposed precisely the nature of the subliminal disagreement that has been going on for five or six years. I understand the theory that he expounds, and in general terms I am a proponent of it. It is generally better that consumers have choice. The Minister's party is a recent convert to the truth on that point, whereas my party has been converted to it for hundreds of years. Those of us who are long-term adherents to the principle of consumer choice recognise—once in the Labour party's great tradition it specialised in recognising this—the need under certain circumstances to create a basis for social solidarity where it might otherwise be threatened. The surprising thing about the character of British politics, as it manifests itself in this particular example, is that the Labour Government appear to have forgotten that very point.

It is not better to arrange the delivery of benefits so that institutions fall away. In some villages, such institutions sustain communal enterprise, bring people together and create a centre where there is somebody who knows them. Such a person can spot that Mrs. Jones has not come in today and can begin to investigate why. It is not better if those institutions fall away because people have more choice about where they go to collect their money. In the end, we will all suffer: those living in the villages will suffer, and the nation as a whole will suffer, because it will not be oblivious to the social difficulties engendered by such a circumstance. In that case, the Government will respond with bureaucratic measures, and will seek to enlarge social services departments to solve the problem.

It is counter-productive to replace a working dynamic, which involves an age-old procedure whereby people go into a sub-post office, talk to the sub-postmaster or the sub-postmistress and hence have neighbourly, wholly unbureaucratic relations that work well, with a bureaucratic system because one has unwittingly destroyed the nexus that used to exist by celebrating a form of customer choice that is not terribly important to people. That is the fundamental nature of the argument between us, and my purpose this afternoon is to persuade Ministers to think again.

Having exposed that difference, the Minister will almost concede the rest of my remarks. For the record, however, I shall explain what is happening, because the Government have never announced this and people would resist it if it were more widely known. The current account does not bring people into the post office of necessity, and in most cases they will not go there. Why not? Given that the basic account is sandwiched between the current account and the post office card account, I do not think that many people will take one out. A few people may do so, but I would be surprised if the Minister were to tell us that the take-up of the basic account has been or is expected to be large.

That brings us to the post office card account. Those of us who want the rural network to be preserved had placed much faith in the post office card account. Many of us thought that it would turn out to be the saviour of the network, because it is the electronic equivalent of the old system of collecting benefits. It was with dismay that I discovered that the Department for Work and Pensions has recently admitted that just 100,000 of the 1.3 million initial targeted claimants have actually chosen to apply for it. I hope that that figure will turn out to be wrong but, given how it has been presented, I would not be surprised if it were correct.

It is presented third in the list, which is not critical but is important. It is presented as something that people can do, but its write-up suggests that it is not a particularly good thing to do. Although the pamphlet describes the virtues of the other accounts, on page 5 it refers to the post office card account and states:
"No other payments, such as wages, can be paid into this account."
The leaflet specifically draws attention to something that cannot be done. It continues:
"The Post Office card account may be suitable for you if you want a simple account that won't let you go overdrawn or incur any charges."
The terms are calculated to ensure that most readers will think twice before opening such an account. However, it is difficult to write such leaflets, and it does not say that post office card accounts are dangerous or that smoking post office card accounts kill.

If there were an easy method of opening a post office card account that most people who now use post offices to collect their pensions could use, we could ignore the leaflet, but that is not so. It seems to be impossible to obtain a post office card account in any of the 18,000 sub-post offices. I say that with some diffidence because it is astonishing, but I believe it to be true, although I stand to be corrected by the Minister. As far as I can make out, such an account cannot be opened by going into a post office. What could be more calculated to ensure minimal take-up of the provision? There can be no possible explanation for refusing to allow people to open such an account when they collect their pensions and benefits each week, unless someone in Government wants to ensure minimal take-up of the post office card account.

People can open a bank account by going to a bank, and I do not suppose that anyone in Britain is under any illusion about that. The people who can open a bank account can do so by walking into a high street branch and opening it there and then. However, people who cannot open a bank account or do not want a basic bank account but want a post office card account cannot walk into a post office and open one. That is extraordinary and has surely been done with intent.

A system seems to have been created with the intention, or at least the effect, of minimising the number of people who, as a matter of normal practice, go each week into a post office to collect their money. The Minister may defend that—perhaps he will—by saying that it is better for people to have a choice of where they go and to have an ordinary bank account if they want, so let us not worry. My point is precisely that we should worry, because the tendency will be to decrease footfall and the rural network. Before we know where we are, there will be social problems that we did not anticipate.

Those problems could be overcome by subsidy. I know that the Government, subject to state aid clearance, have produced a package of £450 million—£150 million a year over three years. The extent to which that may be new money is not clear and is an interesting question. However, it need not detain us, because the scale of the subsidies that would be required if the whole of the sub-post office network were to be retained even though footfall diminished significantly would dwarf £150 million a year. I fear that there are only two possible outcomes.

The right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) is chairman of the all-party group on sub-post offices and is concerned, for obvious reasons, about the urban network of sub-post offices. If he were here, he could make a much more eloquent speech than I could about that.

No, I am not jesting. The right hon. Member for Birkenhead is passionate about the matter, and has lived with it as a committed constituency MP in an urban area for many years. I fear that either he and his constituents or I and mine will be disadvantaged, because the Minister will be unable to find the money from an increasingly hard-pressed Chancellor with an increasing problem of fiscal arithmetic to subsidise both an urban and a rural sub-post office network in circumstances in which the intrinsic dynamics, because of the failure of the Post Office card account system and the fact that the ordinary bank account has become the norm, has led to decreasing footfall.

My biggest fear for my constituents is that I foresee the day when the pressure from Labour Back Benchers and Members as committed as the right hon. Member for Birkenhead to the preservation of the urban sub-post office network becomes intolerable. As a result, the subsidies will be moved back into the urban network and the closure rate of rural sub-post offices will rise again in areas such as West Dorset. As with the pig industry that used to exist in my constituency and the many pubs, primary schools and village halls that have gone from villages or fallen into disuse, this situation may reach a point at which another critical element in the survival of the British village, in a part of the country that still has a working social community, is disadvantaged and gradually falls into disrepair. If I can, I am determined to persuade Ministers to prevent that.

Order. It may help those who are called to speak to gauge their contributions if I indicate that the first of the three Front-Bench speakers should be called no later than 3 o'clock.

2.36 pm

I thank the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) for applying for this important debate, because it is vital that we debate a subject that is of widespread concern throughout the rural parts of Britain.

Last Friday, I was speaking to a sub-postmaster in my constituency, who said that 70 per cent. of his business involved pensions and benefits. He was extremely concerned about what would happen to that when automated credit transfer was introduced. As the right hon. Member for West Dorset pointed out, the loss is not only of the money from processing the pensions but from the sales of other products within the sub-post office. There is great concern that if customers migrate to bank accounts, sub-post offices throughout rural areas will be forced to close. We should bear it in mind that in many villages the only shop is a combined sub-post office, grocery and newsagent. If the loss of the post office business forces the shop to close, the village is left without a shop.

The Government should be promoting the Post Office card account and advocating it as a solution. I have the same leaflet as the right hon. Gentleman, and I drew exactly the same conclusion as him—that the leaflet tries to downplay the Post Office card account as much as possible. It promotes the current account and basic bank account, but makes no effort to promote the card account, listing it as option 3. That is not only in the leaflet about collecting the state pension; exactly the same is stated in the leaflet about collecting benefit at a post office and in a Department for Work and Pensions leaflet on direct payment entitled "Giving It To You Straight".

I am grateful to the Department for Work and Pensions for putting in the House of Commons Library the script that employees of the customer conversion centre—a rather sinister name for the helpline—will use when pensioners or benefit recipients phone up to open a Post Office card account. We should note that the only people who will phone the helpline will have decided from the Government literature that they want to open a Post Office card account. Having phoned up, the first thing that the person in the customer conversion centre will say to them is:
"I know that you have asked for a Post Office card account, but I would like to make sure you know about all of the options. Can I tell you about the other types of accounts that are available?"
The script continues, "If yes", and tells the person what to do, followed by, "If not sure", and again tells the person what to do. There is no box that says, "If no", so the caller is not allowed to say no, only yes or "I'm not sure". If the answer is yes to hearing the other options, the person in the call centre will go through the pluses of the current accounts and basic bank accounts, and give a cursory description of the Post Office card account. If the "not sure" option is taken—I suspect that the "no" option will be included in the "not sure" option—the person says:
"If Post Office access is important to you there are other accounts that let you get your money at the Post Office. Can I tell you about them?"
If the answer is yes, the current accounts and the basic bank accounts are again promoted, although it should be noted that, according to the script, only a handful of banks allow people to take money out of the Post Office, while the vast majority of banks do not.

If the person says no yet again, the call centre outlines the features of the Post Office card account. The outlines, which are given over the phone, run into a page. It is very difficult to take in this information over the phone. It needs to be laid out in front of someone. Having gone through 10 points, and the caller having said about three times that they want to open a Post Office card account, we come to No. 11, which states:
"If any of these features could pose a problem for you, the Post Office card account may not be for you—you could look into getting a current account or basic bank account",
thus steering people that way yet again. The script continues:
"Is this the type of account you would like?"
It is very confusing at this point. Having said that the caller could look into getting a current account or a basic bank account, the person at the call centre asks whether that is the type of account that they would like, whereas the question refers to the Post Office card account. The script must be reconsidered, as it is very confusing.

If, having been told that the Post Office card account could pose a problem, the caller asks for one of the other accounts, the call centre again goes through all the benefits of the other accounts. After the pensioner or benefit recipient has said no about five times to the other accounts and insisted that they want a Post Office card account, they still do not get one. All that happens is that a personal invitation document is sent through the post, which they must take to the Post Office where they have to ask for an application form. Apparently, one can get an application form at the Post Office, but only after having phoned the call centre, said no about five times to the other options, and waited for a personal invitation document to arrive. The person can, eventually, open a Post Office card account, but we have to wonder how many people will be determined enough to go through all the options and negativity.

The Government should take a good, hard look at this matter. Very few people will open a Post Office card account, given all the difficulties. The benefits should be promoted, not criticised, as otherwise there will be severe doubts about the future of our rural post office network.

There is another concern. If an elderly person receives the invitation to phone the call centre, but does not do so and takes no other action, will they suddenly find that they no longer receive their pension? I hope that the Minister lets us know what will happen to people who do not respond to any of the invitations. Will a pension book still arrive, or will pensioners suddenly find that they cannot collect their pension?

ACT is the main threat that rural post offices face, but there are also plenty of other worries. For example, I was concerned to read in Friday's The Herald what the head of the Royal Mail had said at a conference—I believe that it was the same conference in Inverness to which the Minister referred. The newspaper reported:
"The head of the Royal Mail has warned Highlands and Islands customers that their full postal service may be scrapped. Allan Leighton … said a final decision will be taken within the next 12 months to determine whether it will be able to continue filling the same role at the same price as everywhere else in the country."
I hope that the Minister will take the opportunity to rebut what Allan Leighton is saying, bring him into line and make it clear to him that the universal service obligation means exactly that. We should have the same postal service throughout the country.

Another area in which rural sub-post offices do vital business is that of parcels. Again, there is discrimination against the highlands and islands, as Parcelforce charges more than double for deliveries there as for deliveries to the rest of the country. I know that a review has started, but it will take about a year. I hope that the Minister will try to influence that review and tell Parcelforce that there should be a universal price for the whole country.

At Prime Minister's Question Time last week, the Prime Minister said that families would be able to send packets to their loved ones serving in the Gulf entirely free of charge, when the operational situation allowed. As of this morning, the Post Office is still charging £6.89 to send parcels to family members in the Gulf. I hope that the Minister will be able to tell us today when he thinks that the operational situation will allow such parcels to be sent free of charge.

The most important message is that the Government must promote the Post Office card account.

2.46 pm

I start by congratulating my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) on his skill in securing the debate, and on the wisdom of choosing this particular subject.

I followed his philosophical introduction with interest. I agreed with him about the pile of stones, but I am not so sure that he had the right analogy in removing them from the top one by one. Stones in a pile have a relationship with each other, just as a pub has a relationship with a post office, a village store, the church and the village hall. I am reminded of an incident in a store several years ago. The storekeeper had very lovingly piled up tin on tin of baked beans in a conical shape, and it was most attractive. It had a symmetry. A young lad whipping round the corner caught the bottom tin, and suddenly it was reduced to its component parts, which were rolling all over the floor with no shape or symmetry. My worry is that if we lose the village store or post office, we lose the village. That is one of the reasons why I think that the subject is so important.

I shall make only one short statement, and then ask a question of the Minister. The Minister knows that I do not blame him for the shambles that is occurring at the moment. His two predecessors are to blame, and they have moved on. In fact, they have been promoted for their skill and wisdom, and the poor Minister has to come here and make the best of a bad job. The statement I want to make is self-evident, but needs repeating. Unless a sub-post office is profitable, the game is over. Its revenue comes from the commission it makes from distributing benefits, and also from the profit it makes in retailing goods, such as tins of baked beans, loaves of bread, milk, newspapers and so on—in fact, the footfall. With the reduction in the payments of benefit, the footfall is reduced.

I am trying to work out why the system is making it so difficult to get post office card accounts, when that further reduces the footfall and profits, and means that more and more subsidy is needed to keep rural post offices going. It would have seemed logical to encourage people to have post office card accounts so that they would go into rural post offices, increase the footfall, increase the profit to the sub-postmaster and sub-postmistress, and reduce the subsidy that needs to come from the centre. One is a virtuous circle and the other a negative circle. I hope that the Minister will not look surprised and bemused, as he did at the last Department of Trade and Industry questions, at anyone who suggests that it has been made extremely difficult for people to get a post office card account.

The hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Mr. Reid) mentioned the hurdles that people have to clear to get a post office card account. I can produce many constituents who have told me how difficult it is, and most of them have given up trying. A killer question that hits people straight away is, "Have you got a bank account?" If the answer is yes, they are told that they do not need a post office card account. That is game, set and match against them, and they go away. As my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset said, there are 100,000 people with post office card accounts, compared with the original 1.3 million who were targeted. I am surprised at the tenacity of the 100,000 who managed to get through the system to get a card account in order to be able to go into the post office, increase the footfall and help to keep the sub-post office in business.

Why is it being made so difficult to get a post office card account? What finances are so secret that they cannot be released? Why are we trying to drive the post offices out of businesses when we should be trying to keep them going?

2.51 pm

I thank the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) for securing this timely debate as we reach D-day. After perhaps four years of debating the matter in the House, we have finally reached the point when the concerns of many hon. Members may prove to be correct.

My hon. Friend the Member for Argyll and Bute (Mr. Reid) graphically described the great difficulty in proceeding with a card account. The opposition that people encounter on the telephone when they try to open such an account would do credit to the Inquisition. It would be difficult for people as robust as my fellow MPs to deal with such an onslaught, let alone those of advanced years who need encouragement and a clear expression of what to do. The hon. Member for South-West Hertfordshire (Mr. Page) added his constituents' experiences to the list of difficulties encountered in getting a card account.

We seem to be in a bit of a mess, because things that we were assured would happen have not happened. The right hon. Member for West Dorset referred to the importance of sub-post offices to communities throughout the country. Local communities are facing the cumulative effect of the closure of sub-post offices and corner shops, and now there are concerns about local pharmacies, which is another ingredient of the community. Hon. Members on both sides of the House have raised our concerns about local pharmacies with the Government. We have had to be robust in putting to the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry and other Ministers our concern that one more building block of the local community may be taken away. There has been a lack of response from this Government in the past. For instance, I went to the appropriate Minister at the time for help with business rates for small village pubs, but the Minister was less than helpful.

My argument about sub-post offices is that it is just one more attack on local communities. Indeed, the recent Licensing Bill was another example. The right hon. Member for West Dorset spoke about village halls. We could also mention churches. The measure will make difficult and restrict the possibility of holding various public events in churches and village halls.

Sub-post offices and many other facilities are absolutely vital to communities. I hope that the Chancellor in his wisdom will tomorrow address an issue that is relevant to sub-post offices. Business rates are a big burden on local shops and small businesses. At present, the business rate system is weighted against smaller businesses and does nothing at all to help them survive. I hope that today the Minister will respond positively to the debate, but also that tomorrow the Chancellor will indicate what he will do to help sub-post offices and other community organisations.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) asked me to raise a particular issue. Earlier, there was talk about siting sub-post offices in various places. such as residential buildings and pubs, to keep them going. My right hon. Friend pointed out to me that rural areas are especially badly hit when the Post Office decides to close an office to carry out an investigation. An example is Lowick, where pensioners had to travel six to 10 miles to the nearest post office. Why not use temporary or even mobile facilities for two or three days of the week to deal with the problem while the investigation is carried out?

Of major concern is the take-up of the card account. As has been said, only some 100,000 cards have been taken up so far, although more than 1 million people are eligible for them. Reference has also been made to footfall. It could be increased by several different measures. I wonder whether the Minister will tell us—we have had answers about this before—exactly what happened with the "Your Guide" experiment. As the hon. Member for South-West Hertfordshire said, this poor Minister has been left holding the baby after many Ministers have gone on to, presumably, greater and better things. He has been left to face the fact that various initiatives, "Your Guide" being one of them, have been abandoned. I wonder why it was abandoned. I come from a small-business background. When I had problems with the business and something did not immediately take off, I found other ways to encourage things to happen. It was not good to abandon that particular scheme.

Another issue with regard to sub-post offices is subsidy. It has been a great mantra of the Government that sub-post offices and the system as a whole will receive support—£450 million in three different elements. That has rightly been seen as a help. However, I wonder whether the Government plan to proceed with their announcement, which was made back in December and which was introduced as a fresh announcement. I have a newspaper account from 1 April that states:
"The future of nearly 6,800 rural post offices was thrown into doubt"
by the decision of the European Commission to delay support for the £450 million aid package. The account continues that it seems that
"it needs Commission approval before the cash can be paid."
The account in the paper could be totally incorrect, but if it is correct, and the £450 million is an integral part of keeping post offices going, I would be interested to hear what the Minister has to say about ensuring that the money is made available.

Members will hear increasingly from their constituents about the problems that will be created if sub-post offices are lost and people have great difficulty getting over the various hurdles put in their way when they try to find other means of getting their pensions paid, such as the card account. For example, people in the sub-post office in Hutton say that the information is very difficult to understand. Constituents in Weston-super-Mare have written to me in the same terms about understanding the various options available.

The Post Office in its wisdom—I think otherwise—discouraged a useful leaflet about the card that Age Concern wanted to place in sub-post offices and post offices. It said that the leaflets had to be withdrawn. I wonder if the Minister knows about that. What we are exposing in this debate is the great need for footfalls through sub-post offices, for the subsidy and for everything to be clear and to the point. In that respect, the Government have failed dismally, despite having had such a long time in which to prepare.

Concern exists throughout the country. Along with my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable), I collected a petition with 100,000 signatures from all sorts of communities in England, Scotland and Wales, which was presented to 10 Downing Street as recently as last Friday. That petition shows that there is concern about the issue in communities all over the country.

I hope that the Minister will be able to allay some of our concerns, that we can have more clarity, that it will be easier for people to understand the system, and that we will get support for the sub-post office network through subsidy. I hope that he will also announce some other schemes, similar to the "Your Guide" scheme, which will persuade people to keep on using the sub-post office network.

3.3 pm

May I just say to the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (Brian Cotter) that I am delighted to hear that the Liberal Democrat campaign has fulfilled its task? The Minister will remember that the last time we discussed post offices, I read from the Liberal Democrat campaign literature that said that signatures were to go to Downing Street. I am glad to hear that they have done so.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) on his good fortune in securing the debate and on his measured and comprehensive speech that outlined what is the matter with policy for rural post offices. I might be a little less measured. I have to tell the Minister—he already knows that I think this—that the Government's policy for rural post offices is in tatters. That has been revealed in every speech that we have heard today.

I should like briefly to address three issues: first, the expected increase in the price of stamps; secondly, universal banking, about which we have heard much; and thirdly, the rural post office subsidy. As we have quite a lot of time for this debate, I should also like the Minister to answer the questions that I and other hon. Members put to him.

This is a very small point, and I would never accuse the Minister of being cynical—he knows that I have said before that he basically gives straight answers—but I was rather surprised to discover that the stamp price increases will come in on 8 May. It is an unusual date to choose. I hope that he will tell us that it has nothing to do with the fact that 1 May is witnessing local elections the length and breadth of the country. It would be unfortunate if the date chosen had something to do with the elections, but I am sure that he will be able to reassure me on that point.

My second, and much more substantive, point concerns the universal bank and its effects. It has already started and will continue to be introduced in the next two years. I thank the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Mr. Reid) for giving us an interesting and illuminating script from the customer conversion centre. It is as bad as we expected. When universal banking has converted all its customers in the next two years, can the Minister tell us what will happen to the people who have not converted? Some do not have a current account, a base account or a card account. What will happen to them? The answer needs to be given now and not, perhaps, at the beginning of April 2005. Universal banking will reduce the income of postmasters, rural and urban, by approximately 35 to 40 per cent.

My right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset discussed the card account very lucidly and sensibly. I shall read from a document written last year by Mr. Kuczys of the universal banking policy department of the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, which is extremely illuminating. It discusses proposed consultation, and says that
"we should be clear that neither body"—
the British Bankers Association and the National Federation of Sub-Postmasters—
"will much like what they see. The emphasis of the letters"
letters to be sent to customers—
"is very much on encouraging people to use existing accounts where possible—in line with Ministers' decision to go for 'actively managed choice'. Both the banks and the subpostmasters would really like a completely free choice."
I should have thought that that was not unreasonable, but the document continues:
"We will have to make it clear that this is not on offer…In discussion with the BBA and the NFSP we might want to concede giving a bit more prominence to the Card Account at Post Offices, once it is available."
Referring to leaflets going out this summer, the document continues that
"the Card Account will not initially be included in the leaflet".
It was entirely clear a year ago that the card account was being put right at the bottom of the list for whatever reason. I think that we all understand the reasons—they are about saving money.

I should like to contrast that with the National Consumer Council document, "Everyday Essentials", which I have here and which, I think, every Member of Parliament has been sent. It says:
"The object of addressing the financial exclusion of some low-income consumers is submerged in a wider agenda to reduce government expenditure."
I have no problem with reducing Government expenditure, but I should like that point to be addressed. Referring to market research on Post Office customers, the document says:
"When asked about their preferred account options, responses were split but the most favoured option was the card account (33 per cent.)"
Recommendation 3 of the document is that the Department for Work and Pensions and the Post Office should ensure that all benefit recipients, including those with current accounts, have easy access to the card account. We know that they do not. Can I ask the Minister what happened to joined-up government and to the holistic approach to the financially excluded? They are being deprived here.

As the Minister will know, a sub-postmaster receives some 13p for paying out a pension in a post office. The average pension payment is £89. Transactions of all benefits make up 40 per cent. of the income of a sub-postmaster. It costs the Department for Work and Pensions£430 million a year.

Sub-postmasters who have spoken to me are concerned that, in communications and discussion with the Post Office, they were offered a take-it-or-leave-it agreement. They would get 14p for dispensing £100 of benefit money—not 14p per transaction or per unit of time taken, but per amount. Each pension averages less than £100, so they would have to carry out two transactions before they received the 14p. Moreover, although I support post office card accounts, they will generate an understandable temptation for people not to take out all their cash at one time, but to take it in dribs and drabs. The average pensioner may therefore make three or four transactions for the £89 of pension that they receive through their post office, but the sub-postmaster will still receive only 14p for the £100 of benefit that he pays.

Will the Minister tell me whether the Post Office threatened to impose that arrangement on the National Federation of Sub-Postmasters? Such an arrangement takes no account of the time that is spent. What assessment has he made of the impact that it may have on sub-postmasters' income?

My next point is specifically about rural post offices, whereas my earlier points applied across the board. A subsidy of £450 million has been allocated as a subsidy for rural post offices over the next three years. My first point, to which the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare alluded, is that the European Commission, which has to give state aid approval, has deferred its decision by another month, until May. When, if ever, will that much trumpeted £450 million receive permission, and what will happen if the European Commission denies state aid approval? The uncertainty affects every rural post office. My right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset referred to post offices not closing, but part of the reason for that is that people are waiting to see what the policy will be. The deferral of the decision throws further uncertainty into the pot.

The £450 million will be disbursed at £150 million a year for three years. The announcement was made in November 2002, in a written answer to me, I believe, and the funding was meant to run for three years to the end of 2005. What will happen then? There may be an election in 2005. I do not believe the Minister to be a cynical person, but some might conclude that that amount of subsidy was purely to take us up to the next general election and not beyond. What is the strategy beyond 2005?

I would also like to probe the Minister—I hope that he will answer—on what that money is for. He told me that £66 million a year would go to fund sub-postmasters and staff wages. That is clear, but I understand that, in fact, the money will go to the Post Office, which will then pay sub-postmasters the same amount that it currently pays in a signed office payment, and whatever else it pays for wages. It is not, therefore, extra money for the sub-postmasters.

Those 8,000-plus rural businesses—the sub-post offices across the country—will lose a large part of their income, but will receive no further income from the £450 million. That is what sub-postmasters are telling me and I should be grateful if the Minister could tell us whether that is correct. Small businesses—rural sub-post offices—are losing their income and have nothing with which to replace it. To what possible alternative income can a rural post office turn? I am all for innovations in rural businesses and in any business, but the Government have a responsibility here that they are failing to address.

As my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset elucidated, rural post offices provide a great service for communities. They are a part of the rural community. They are essential in many areas for social reasons. I am not a great one for subsidies but, as my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Hertfordshire (Mr. Page) said, if everything in rural Britain closes down one is left with very little. The post office is often the last port of call. We do not want to see them closed. We want to hear what the Government have to say: sub-postmasters across the country will want the Minister to tell them whether they have a future.

3.15 pm

I congratulate the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) on securing the debate. I share his nostalgia for our Finance Bill debates. It is a pleasure to be debating with him and other hon. Members this important subject. I want to start by giving him and the House the assurance that the Government regard it as most important that all communities have good access to postal and government services. We are committed to doing all that we can to ensure a viable post office network across the UK in both rural and urban areas. That is why we are investing such large sums in supporting the transformation of the Royal Mail and the post office network, totalling some £2 billion over the next five years.

The right hon. Gentleman was right to draw attention to the dramatic reduction in the number of rural post office closures. As I have told the House on previous occasions, in the quarter for which we have the most recent data—the last quarter of the last calendar year—the net reduction in the number of rural post offices was zero. It is the first time that that has been the case that anyone can remember. The commitment that the Government have made to sustaining and investing in the rural network is leading to a dramatic reduction in rural post office closures. That is quite a dramatic break— which the right hon. Gentleman, to his credit, recognised—with the long period of decline in the number of post offices that was presided over by the previous Government and continued into the early part of the term of this Government. We have taken action to address that decline and we have seen a dramatic turnabout as a result, not least in the right hon. Gentleman's constituency.

West Dorset has 51 post offices in total; most are rural and a few are urban. I was not quite sure whether this was the office to which he referred, but Owermoigne post office was closed for a period and has now been reopened. The Ansty sub-post office in Ansty lane is another post office that was closed for a period but has now reopened. Both benefited from the £2 million capital start-up fund that we have established specifically to support innovative arrangements to reopen sub-post offices or to open up new ones. A network of rural transfer advisers has been set up and we have made a commitment that there should be no avoidable post office closures. We have backed up that commitment with funding. That is why we have seen this dramatic fall in the reduction in the number of rural post offices. The whole House will welcome the success of the steps that we have taken.

The right hon. Gentleman is an accomplished and skilful debater, and I enjoyed listening to the case that he advanced. It is often difficult to spot the flaws in his arguments, but there was a clear flaw in his argument today. In recent years, there has been a dramatic reduction in the number of people going into post offices to do the kinds of things that they have always done. There are still a lot of people, but nothing like as many as there were, who just want to go into the post office to cash a giro. That is the flaw.

The figures for 1996 show that some 42 per cent. of benefit recipients went to the post office to cash a giro in order to obtain their cash. That fraction is now down to about one quarter and is falling steeply. So simply leaving things as they were is not the answer for the post office network. Indeed, that is the road to continued decline, which we want to stop.

I shall quote one further statistic. The number of retirement pensions and widows benefits paid by order books and giros through the Post Office has dropped by more than 1 million from just over 6 million to less than 5 million since 1996, although the total number of recipients has increased by more than 1 million. The background to this discussion is that people are changing the way in which they receive their pensions and other benefits. That is not a surprise, but it is an important part of the background to our changes.

I do not remember seeing the hon. Gentleman in the debate, but I shall nevertheless give way to him.

I apologise to hon. Members for not being here for most of the debate because I was detained elsewhere, but I am glad to be here for the winding-up speeches. Does the Minister accept that, despite the change in the pattern, in some rural communities, some of which are in my Caernarfon constituency, there is no alternative to the post office? Despite the fact that the overall figure for closures is decreasing, the effect on small communities is the same regardless of whether the number of closures is large or small.

The important point is, of course, that rural communities depend on their local post offices. That is why we have been investing in post offices, which have a better future as a result.

When we looked at the network, we had a choice. We could continue to force the dwindling number of people who want only to go and cash giros at their local post offices to carry on doing so or—this is our choice—we could invest to allow the Post Office to attract a new generation of customers into rural post offices, and urban post offices as well. That is why we have committed £500 million, which is entirely unprecedented, to equip every post office in the country for the universal banking services, which became available last week. Every post office in the country has the technology platform to offer a host of new services and to win a new generation of customers for the Post Office.

The network of post offices and sub-post offices has been heavily dependent on people coming in each week to cash their giros. That business is, however, dwindling. Increasingly, people who retire had their wages paid into a bank account. As the rate of employment has increased, more and more people have had their wages paid into bank accounts, and when they retire they choose to have their pensions paid the same way. The services that today's retired people want are different from the services demanded by pensioners a generation ago. That is why it has been necessary for the Post Office to make this change.

The Minister is soundly illustrating what we already know. We know that people such as he and I are unlikely to draw our pensions from a post office. Indeed, my wife takes her child benefit into her bank account rather than through the post office in cash. We want the Minister to tell us about the strategy—if there is one—for maintaining the post office network.

I am trying to make it clear to the House that it is important for the commercial well-being of the post office network that customers such as the hon. Gentleman and his wife should have a reason to go into the local post office, even if they do not have to cash a giro. By using the technology in which we have invested £500 million, the Post Office will be in a position to offer banking services, which will create an attractive opportunity for post offices.

Not at the moment, as I want to make some headway. As I said, I was pleased recently to have a discussion with a group of sub-postmasters in Inverness at the invitation of my hon. Friend the Member for Inverness, East, Nairn and Lochaber (Mr. Stewart). They hit the nail on the head; they told me that the best opportunity for the Post Office is to offer access to bank accounts, because everyone in the country will use that service. That will allow the Post Office to expand its customer base, rather than being locked into a dwindling group of customers, as it has been in the past few years.

With the basic bank accounts, every high street bank in the country, plus the Nationwide building society, will be able to offer an account that is fully accessible at every local post office. The Post Office has the biggest retail network in Europe; that is what we mean by universal banking. The right hon. Member for West Dorset suggested that we had not implemented universal banking, but that is not so; it has been implemented thanks to the co-operation of every high street bank and the Nationwide building society. That is what our investment of £500 million has achieved.

People who live in the countryside where there is no bank branch for miles will in future be able to do their banking at the village post office. A raft of customers who previously did not need to go into the village post office will have good reason to do so. That service is available in respect of a number of banks, although not all of them, for basic bank accounts and for ordinary current accounts, too. The Post Office is aiming to reach similar agreements with other high street banks.

The post office can take on a new role as the convenient place to do banking, which will be a particularly good opportunity in the rural villages on which the debate has focused. It will also help to solve the problem of financial exclusion. A postmaster to whom I spoke last week said that many people on the substantial council estate in her area did not have a bank account, which made life difficult for them. An arrangement for people to open basic bank accounts at their local bank and to have full access to them at their local post office will help to tackle the problem of financial exclusion.

The hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) made a point that he has made before—that there will be a 40 per cent. drop in the income of the post office network. That statement is based on the view that all the people who at present go into the post office to cash their giros will no longer go there to obtain their benefit income and thus will not go there at all. That is clearly not the case; people with a card account will certainly go into the post office to obtain their cash, which will offset in full the 40 per cent. figure that the hon. Gentleman quoted.

However, the key opportunity for the Post Office is to attract a new generation of customers by offering services that many more people than those who currently use post offices will want to use, and that is the basis on which a successful commercial future for the Post Office can be built.

Of course the Minister is right to say that part of the 40 per cent. will be replaced by whatever comes along as a reward for obtaining cash through the post office card account. However, he said that the 40 per cent. would be offset in full. Did he mean that?

My point is that all the income that the Post Office earns from servicing post office card accounts will offset the 40 per cent. figure. The hon. Gentleman has said repeatedly that there will be a 40 per cent. fall in income, but that assumes that the Post Office will get no income at all from people receiving benefits. That is not the case, because post offices will get all the income from the post office card accounts; they will also derive an income from payments made at post offices on basic bank accounts.

The opportunity to bring many new customers into rural and urban post offices will provide the Post Office, including all rural post offices, with a big opportunity to build for themselves a much more attractive future than has been open to them for some time. I was particularly pleased in Inverness by the sense that the penny had dropped. Postmasters will have a much more positive perspective as they realise the opportunities made available to them by universal banking services.

Fallen Stock Regulations

3.30 pm

I welcome the opportunity to have this debate, which I requested following a meeting with local farmers. That took place a couple of months ago, but sadly the issues and concerns raised then are just as pertinent today, as there appears to have been little Government action on fallen stock in that time. Farmers are still in the dark about some of the finer detail of the proposals, and even the broader detail of some aspects of them. They are still frustrated that there appears to be no sign of a workable nationwide scheme, and they are at the mercy of legislation for which, quite simply, there is no proven scientific basis.

The basic problem is that the ban on on-farm burial comes into force in the United Kingdom on 30 April. Farmers and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs have known that for some time, and there have been consultations between relevant bodies, such as the National Farmers Union and DEFRA, but what use is that consultation if no decisions are made and the information given to farmers is too little, too late?

To ensure that I was bang up to date, I checked the DEFRA website this morning, but it had not been changed since 17 March. Even worse, the page said that it was currently being updated. Clearly, DEFRA has a long way to go to meet the e-government agenda, but perhaps that is a reason for another debate.

I do not want to pre-empt the hon. Lady's remarks or provide my response until she has asked all her questions, but it is only fair to tell her that a great deal has been going on as regards this issue, and a great deal has been on the table for farming representatives, if they wish to take that up. I can be as up to date as saying that discussions continue today in an attempt to secure a workable outcome. I only hope that the industry will take it up.

Discussions may still be going on, but with barely three weeks to go before the ban, some decisions should have been made some time ago.

In January, I felt that there was still time for the information to be disseminated, but farmers are still no wiser. That position was confirmed on 25 March by the NFU, which sent a briefing to Members of Parliament stating:
"So far farmers have received no clear guidance from DEFRA. We are concerned that many farmers will be unable to ensure compliance at what is now such short notice. With only a few weeks to go this is most unsatisfactory, given that Government has been aware of the impending legislation for well over two years."

I remind the Minister of a similar situation that resulted from a similar bout of incompetence by his Department. I am referring to fridge mountains. We are all aware of the knock-on effects of the Government's failure to act rapidly on that legislation. Will we face a replacement mountain of dead animals? It is simply not good enough for the Government to pass the buck and blame farmers—as the Minister appeared to do a moment ago—for reasons that I shall explain later.

I thought that it would be useful to contact my local farmers to find out how they saw the situation. Geoff Butler of Bossington farms told me:
"Funny you should ask about that because we had decided to buy an incinerator. I rang the Reading office"
"last week but was told that they were 'all away on a course'. They still haven't returned the call."
My first question is about when the guidance will be available to farmers. Is it fair to give them such short notice of the detail that many will be in danger of contravening the legislation through no fault of their own?

Given that DEFRA has been backward in its duties, will the Minister confirm the situation as regards compliance with the new rules? Given the lack of information, it is clearly unfair and unreasonable to expect every farmer in Britain to comply fully from day one. Does DEFRA intend to apply to the EU for transitional measures to allow farmers time to comply? Guidance on that would be useful for all those who have the will to comply, but are shackled by the lack of clear guidance.

Local farmers also raised funding implications. There is considerable anger that there is no new Government money—I stress the word "new"—to help to establish and run a national collection and disposal scheme. The Government appear to think that farmers are neglecting their duties, without paying any regard to the fact that many farmers have no extra money available because of a sustained period of difficulty in making ends meet, let alone any profit from which they can fund the scheme. They told me that the Government have not found any new money for the scheme.

I am aware that there was an announcement on 3 December that the Government would be prepared to put almost £30 million towards such a scheme. However, further research revealed that this money is the same money that currently funds other schemes, including the BSE monitoring scheme, the over-30 months scheme, the casualty collection service and the fallen stock transmissible spongiform encephalopathies surveillance scheme. DEFRA suggests that combining these schemes will produce monetary savings that can be used to part-finance the collection and disposal of animals currently being buried. Many people say that that is unworkable, but they might be more convinced if the Government provided a financial breakdown showing how the scheme will work in practice, and whether there will be any additional funds for animals that are not currently covered by the schemes. Perhaps the Minister could further enlighten us about that today?

It is also a fact that the majority of the EU member state Governments have provided funding to help set up and run national fallen stock collection schemes. For example, France has paid for all fallen stock collections since 1999. It has a different attitude to the problem, which it regards as a public health matter. If the regulations are so important, will the Minister explain what conversations he has had with the Minister for Public Health, and why we in Britain do not regard this as a public health matter?

What will the costs be? I shall return to the local picture for a moment. Bossington farms have decided that incineration is the answer for them. Initially, they considered an incinerator large enough to take a sow because of the nature of their operation. The knacker man used to take the cows away, but there is a reluctance to take pigs, so an alternative had to be found. An incinerator large enough to take a sow costs £9,000. They decided that that was not sustainable, and plumped instead for a model large enough to take stillborn pigs and afterbirth material. That will cost between £2,000 to £3,000, but the farm manager cannot make a purchase because he does not know what the regulations will be or whether an afterburner, at an extra cost of approximately £1,000, will be required. He had heard that DEFRA was considering making them compulsory but, as I said, he is still none the wiser. He can only guess the running costs after the initial outlay, but thought that the annual running costs would be between £1,000 and £1,500.

Another farmer, Peter Redshaw, who specialises in pigs, told me that he had not buried his pigs for some time because of the standard of pigs that he produced and the regulations that relate to them. Five years ago, the knacker man paid him for collecting his dead pigs. Since then, unfortunately for him, the situation gradually changed, and he now has to pay for his dead animals to be taken away. The price rose considerably after the problems with foot and mouth disease and BSE, and he now estimates that the annual cost to him is approximately £3,600.

Both farmers also raised the concern that the existing network of knacker men and the rendering industry would not be able to cope with the increased demand. Indeed, the industry, instead of gleefully rubbing its hands at the prospect of more work, has pointed out that there are problems ahead if the scheme is not nationally funded.

I previously alluded to the fact that times are difficult for farmers, but the bald facts are that a third of farmers currently default on their payments to knacker men. Peter Redshaw told me, "It is the one bill that I make sure is paid on the dot, because if I don't, I know they won't necessarily be back next week." The Minister should be well aware of the current financial plight of many of Britain's farmers. The NFU has provided the Department with farm income data to show that fallen stock charges will increase existing losses for small farmers and further reduce the very small incomes that larger livestock producers manage to secure. What assessment has the Minister and his Department made of the impact on farmers and whether the regulations might be the final straw for some of them?

There is another aspect to the benefits of a nationwide scheme that should not be overlooked. The UK Government must be able to demonstrate to the European Commission that they are complying with the new regulation. That will be easier with a national scheme, but as there are no plans for such a scheme, will the Minister outline how the Government will be able to achieve compliance? How will they obtain an accurate picture of the numbers of animals involved and how they are being disposed of? Will that be an additional bureaucratic burden, and how will the figures be audited?

I want to end by mentioning the potential of other systems such as biodigestion, which is an environmentally friendly and biosecure form of anaerobic digestion. In last week's DEFRA questions, the Secretary of State mentioned that the method was currently illegal but that representations had been made to the EU scientific authorities. Will the Minister elaborate on that? When were the details of the biodigestion system referred to the relevant EU scientific committee? Has there been a response or any indication of a response? If not, when is a response likely? What discussions has the Minster had with other member states, and is any likely to offer support?

Those are important questions because evidence shows that, as well as being environmentally friendly, if biodigestion is combined with alkaline hydrolysis, it is highly likely that TSE agents are fully destroyed. That is not the case with incineration, which is likely to be the method of choice for many farmers. Evidence shows that incineration has several disadvantages, including not being able to ensure that high enough temperatures are reached in all the material for a sufficient period of time. If the high temperatures are not reached, we cannot ensure that all the agents are killed off, which means that some TSE agents remain infective after the incineration process is ostensibly complete. Combined with the problems of dioxins and toxic ash, that gives us a potential environmental problem on our hands that should not be overlooked. My hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) will pick up on those points in a couple of minutes.

Farmers have been burying carcases on land for hundreds of years. We can guess at some of the disadvantages of the process, particularly if the water table is high, but no overwhelming body of scientific knowledge suggests we have a major health hazard on our hands if we continue as we are doing. However, we are willing to replace it with a dual system of transporting dead animals around the country, which could spread disease if not carried out properly, and of an increase of incineration despite its known health hazards.

I have taken slightly less time than I originally planned because two of my hon. Friends have asked for a couple of minutes each to speak. However, in conclusion, I would say to the Minister that somewhere we lost the plot. The Government have lost momentum, and it will be the farmers who have to pick up the pieces.

3.42 pm

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey (Sandra Gidley) on securing this important debate and on the diligence with which she is representing her constituents.

I want simply to raise two points, of which I have given the Minister advance notice. The first relates to the justification for the current application of the regulation. We understand that, in parts of the European Union, there are serious problems of buried livestock that result in the infection of watercourses, but I am not sure that we need the sledgehammer-to-crack-a-nut approach. I would appreciate the Minister's advice on that. We should consider fallen wildlife in the countryside as an example. We are applying the regulation to farm animals, but what will happen to deer, badgers and rabbits that die in the countryside? I assume that no arrangements exist for collection services, incinerations or biodigesters for that wildlife, even though they carry infectivity.

Secondly, why do the derogations available for the remote rural areas of Scotland not apply to remote parts of England and Wales, which may be distant from collection centres? Why has Scotland, as a result of the consultation period that started recently, been able to delay the enforcement of the regulation? Bearing in mind the concern about the current lack of information for farmers, would the Minister recommend to his Department that the enforcement of the measures be delayed in this country?

Order. Apart from the originator of the debate, no one is allowed to speak in the debate except with the prior permission of the originator and the Minister. I have indication only of two.

The Minister and originator are now agreeing and so, exceptionally, I shall allow Mr. Öpik to speak.

3.45 pm

I must be at fault. I had written to the Speaker and, perhaps, informed the wrong Minister. I shall learn from that and keep my comments extra short, with no trick questions for the Minister.

I shall speak about the issue of biodigesters. Would the Government be willing to continue a dialogue on the benefits of biodigestion as described by my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey (Sandra Gidley) until a conclusive determination has been made of its relative economic, environmental and health benefits compared with on-farm collection? In my constituency, I saw a responsible action using biodigesters. A farmer called Tom Tudor said:
"It's convenient and ensures there are no dead stock lying around the farm. The last thing farmers want is to leave their stock hanging around awaiting collection".
That case has already been made by my hon. Friend.

I am concerned that we might be missing a trick. Biodigestion is a superbly effective way of handling the issue on farm without the danger of extra transportation that could cross-contaminate between one farm and another. Some costs can be avoided if the natural processes of decomposition are managed through biodigestion. Biodigesters provide an on-farm solution without transport costs, environmental damage or the risk of cross-contamination through serial collection from farm to farm.

I simply ask the Minister one thing: will he not close the lid on biodigesters, but continue a dialogue with the British farming community to find the relative merits of that solution? It is a matter not of beating the Government, but of finding the right solution to a serious issue. I have been persuaded by the NFU and others that biodigestion offers that solution.

3.47 pm

The Department has gone to great lengths to help the farming industry and to provide additional money to assist in the creation of a national scheme. I can say that somewhat objectively, given that the hard work on it has been done by the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley), who is in Luxembourg today representing our interests, as always. He has been generous with his time and in trying to tease out a solution. He has also been open-minded, which leads me to respond to the last point.

The fact is that biodigestion, and composting, are not permitted disposal routes. The composting or biodigestion of fallen stock is illegal and the new EU rules will not change that position. However, under those new rules, the industry can submit a proposal for novel disposal methods. Any such proposal is subject to a scientific opinion and agreement by the European Commission. The relevant scientific committee meets next week and it will be considering novel disposal methods. Those formalities must be gone through. It is a question not of the Government closing doors, but of proposals from the industry being considered through the appropriate mechanisms.

Many farmers have buried stock on their farms for years and do not want to change that practice, but the new rules in the animal by-products regulation are based on several scientific opinions. Those take into account factors such as the potential for polluting water courses and the lack of scientific information on how persistent the prions that cause diseases such as bovine spongiform encephalopathy and scrapie are in soil. The decisions taken were based on a report of the EU's scientific committee. Given our history of BSE and foot and mouth disease, the EU is clearly justified in taking a precautionary approach.

However, there is nothing new in disposal by rendering and incineration. The industry exists and the capacity exists. The hon. Member for Romsey (Sandra Gidley) suggested that doubts have been cast and questions asked, but we have been assured time and again by the industry that it has the capacity to deliver what is necessary. We could reasonably leave the farming industry to get on with it—there is no requirement on the Government to set up a national collection system—but we believe that that is the best way to reduce the burden of costs on the industry. By utilising the infrastructure of knackers, renderers and incineration already in place and by building on the administrative arrangements established for collecting fallen stock for transmissible spongiform encephalopathy testing purposes, we can offer a scheme that could be up to 40 per cent. cheaper for a farmer than if he had to make his own ad hoc arrangements. The Government are prepared to set up such a scheme and contribute to the funding during the first few years. Indeed, we are offering to contribute directly and to use the muscle of our own contracting requirements to help farmers. That will lead to an industry-run scheme rather than a Government one.

The Government have tried to get to help to create a new system well in advance of the implementation date for the new regulation. As the hon. Member for Romsey said, that has not come up against us in the past few weeks, which is why we have been in discussion with the livestock and disposal industries for a full year. There was delay in progressing matters rapidly because the farming unions felt unable to agree on how to fund the scheme.

Industry representatives have consistently asked the Government to pay the full costs of the scheme, but we cannot do so. All industries are responsible for disposing of their own waste, and farming is no exception. Even more to the point, state aid rules forbid us from paying all the costs of such a scheme. The only way round that would be to arrange a scheme through a levy, as happens in Spain, or through a tax on meat, as happens in France. Neither option found favour with our farming unions.

Officials have, therefore, developed proposals for a low-cost voluntary subscription scheme, which will be offered to all livestock farmers in the next few weeks. If interest is sufficiently high, we shall have the basis of the national collection scheme that is being called for. As I speak, our latest proposals are being explained to the farming unions and I understand that today's discussions have continued to be fruitful. I hope that when they see the benefits for their members they will give their full backing to our plans and enter into the Government-industry partnership that we are offering.

There has been an unusually high level of misinformation on the subject. It has been stated that the Government must pay for the collection and disposal of fallen stock for BSE testing. In fact, although the testing of all fallen cattle aged over 24 months for BSE is required by the EU transmissible spongiform encephalopathy regulation, it does not require member states to pay for the collection or disposal of those carcases. That costs the Government about £30 million, if all aspects are taken into account. We took the decision to provide Exchequer funding to ensure that all required carcases would be tested and we shall, for now, continue to pay for the collection of cattle for testing purposes. However, cattle farmers can still benefit from the proposed scheme by having cattle under 24 months and calves picked up free at the point of collection.

A further myth is that all other member states fund national fallen stock collection and disposal schemes. The position in other member states varies. In some, the Government or local authority provide support; in others, farmers pay the full cost of disposal. There is also a variety of funding mechanisms, including levies and the tax approach to which I referred earlier.

Some people would like the Government to postpone the ban on on-farm burial until the national scheme is in place, but that is unnecessary. An infrastructure of knackers' yards and renderers is already in place. Farmers can comply with the new rules now. The EU animal by-products regulation is directly applicable to all member states from 1 May. Although the enforcement statutory instrument in England, Wales and Scotland may be delayed by a short period, I nevertheless urge farmers to do all that they practically can to comply with the new rules from 1 May. If there is sufficient interest to make a national collection scheme viable, we will introduce it as quickly as possible.

Yes, but that will reduce the time available for the rest of the response.

The voluntary subscription scheme is being introduced in the next few weeks, but it seems that some farmers will receive details after the date on which they are supposed to have implemented that scheme. I have raised the problem of the farmer who cannot easily get rid of sows to a knackers' yard and wants to buy an incinerator, but who has received no instructions from the Government. Will the Minister explain what is to happen in such cases?

If the national scheme is introduced, which depends on the agreement of sufficient farmers to make it worth while, it will save money for farmers. It is not a necessary requirement that the scheme has to be in place for them to use the facilities that already exist. Any scheme would be voluntary. Some farmers may want to incinerate fallen stock on their farms, and the regulation will permit that. We will include guidance on the controls that are to apply in a letter to be sent to all livestock farmers shortly. Having long discussions in an effort to reach agreement with the industry and to do things co-operatively delays sending out letters and reaching a conclusion. It is a matter of considerable regret that it has taken so long to reach this point, but we are encouraged that there seems to be movement. DEFRA is offering not only the muscle and co-operation, but additional finance. I hope that things happen in quick time.

I am conscious that a couple of additional questions were asked in relation to biosecurity and fallen livestock. The new rules apply to wild animal carcasses only when they are suspected of being infected with disease or when all or part of them is being used to produce game trophies. They apply specifically to domestic animals. In some parts of the country, it could be assumed that badgers may be infected with tuberculosis and would therefore require disposal according to the regulation—for example, by incineration. However, in most cases it would be assumed that wildlife would be deemed healthy when killed, whether through shooting or road accidents. In relation to the regulation, I am not sure that there is a complication along the lines suggested by the hon. Member for St. Ives (Andrew George).

The regulation will be directly enforceable and applicable in the UK and national legislation will not repeat its provisions, but will give effect to the regulation by providing for offences in relation to power of entry and so on. Until the various statutory instruments are in place, the enforcement provisions in the Animal By-Products Order 1999 will remain in force. That is to say, burial will be permitted only when no alternative disposal route is available. We envisage that the statutory instrument for England will be introduced shortly and ahead of those for the devolved Administrations.

I hope that, as a result of the discussions today, we will see an agreement that enables all farmers to be told that, with the full co-operation of the farming unions, a national scheme is in place that will save money for farmers and the farming industry. I realise that there has been concern in rural communities about the new rules. The fairest way to describe the matter is to say that we wanted to continue the discussions with farming representatives to try to get an outcome that was achieved by agreement, which is in everyone's interests, rather than argue or disagree about the issues.

The Government are prepared to contribute financially to setting up the scheme. The voluntary scheme that we propose is fair and it can be made to work if there is a genuine partnership approach between the Government, the farming unions and the livestock disposal industry to enable it to be set up. That is why I believe very strongly that the time for complaining and disagreement is over. We need to make the scheme a reality, and the Government are going beyond the minimum that they need to do to help the farming industry to develop a solution that will be workable on the ground.

Employment Relations Act 1999 (Clergy)

4 pm

I am very grateful to have secured the chance to debate this important subject. In one way or another, I have been campaigning on employment rights for the clergy since 1997. Although during that time there have been potentially important developments, progress towards a successful resolution of the issue has been at times painfully slow, notwithstanding the efforts of my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough (Mr. Bell), who represents the Church Commissioners in this House and who is present today.

As the Department of Trade and Industry consultation on section 23 of the Employment Relations Act 1999 ended in December last year, I hope that rapid progress can now be made and that ministers of religion will be able to acquire rights which are long overdue. We are still awaiting the Government's response on the submissions that they received, but I hope that we will see it in the not-too-distant future. I hope that the Minister will say something about the consultation and enlighten us on the progress that has been made. It is essential that the Government recapture the initiative on the issue as soon as possible in the light of perceptions in some quarters that the Church has attempted to stymie the process. I shall say more about that later.

The complaints of the clergy about their conditions of service derive from the unusual categorisation of members of the clergy. There are two relevant categories. An employee is defined by the Employment Rights Act 1996 as
"an individual who has entered into or works under…a contract of employment".
On the other hand, a worker is an individual who does not have a contract of employment but who has some other contract to perform work or services for another person. Most of the rights conferred under the 1996 Act are for employees. They include the right to claim unfair dismissal, redundancy pay and maternity leave. Other rights such as the national minimum wage, four weeks' paid leave and limits on working hours are conferred on workers.

However, the clergy do not fall into either category. They are classified by case law and the Church as "office holders" because, owing to the nature of their position, a direct contract between the clergy and their employer cannot be identified. Generally, the courts have established that the relationship between Church authorities and ministers of religion is not a contractual one, apparently on the basis that ministers of religion owe their allegiance to God, rather than to a terrestrial authority. The relationship is seen as spiritual, not temporal.

It has also been said that the role of the priest or minister involves such a degree of independent judgment and discretion that his or her relationship with the Church authorities cannot be governed by a contract of service. I shall return to that later.

The issue has been pushed to the foreground in recent years by the gradual move by the Church of England from the use of freehold of benefice to the use of bishop's licence. Traditionally, almost all clergy held the freehold. To all intents and purposes, they had tenure for life once they were appointed; in other words, they had absolute security of employment and neither the congregation nor the diocesan bishop could easily interfere with it. However, nowadays some 3,500 clergy, constituting some 40 per cent. of the work force, operate under a bishop's licence, which must be renewed by the diocesan bishop every seven years. Naturally, that has led to a diminution in job security, and the arrangement is, surely, quintessentially temporal.

The assertion of the Archbishops Council in its response to the consultation was that there had been
"a very small number of contentious and well publicised cases"
that had
"highlighted certain weaknesses in the Church's present arrangements".
However, this is more than mere understatement. Indeed, high-profile incidents have exposed the urgent need for clergy to receive the same rights as other people.

The case of Ray Owen is well documented and is a cause celebre for those who advocate the extension of employment rights to the clergy. On reaching the end of his seven-year term under the bishop's licence, the Reverend Owen applied for an extension, but the diocese and bishop refused to accede to it, apparently on the basis of a recommendation by a panel that met without giving the Reverend Owen the opportunity to answer the criticisms levelled against him. His next action was to appeal to the bishop, without success.

Ultimately, the case was taken to the European Parliament, which voted by a majority of 308 to 10 that the treatment accorded to him had clearly breached natural justice and basic human rights. That, of course, had no impact on British legislation or, it appears, on the Church, as he was reinstated, with some reluctance, only as a pastoral auxiliary to the Bishop of Stafford as part of a deal to end a lengthy and costly court case. I believe, although I stand to be corrected, that he received no back pay for the time that he was out of employment in the Church.

Unfortunately, such cases are the tip of the iceberg. According to a survey that Amicus commissioned, which, according to its general secretary, contains some of the worst industrial relations practices and horror stories that he had ever heard, 82 per cent. of the clergy surveyed knew of a fellow minister whom the Church had treated unacceptably, and 81 per cent. recorded fears about how their Church authority would handle a conflict between a priest and the Church. In many ways, the most telling statistic in the study is that 71.6 per cent. believe that employment rights would not change the relationship with their parishioners or members of the public. Those figures are not small; they represent a sizeable majority. The last of them in particular indicates that, at least in the eyes of the clergy, little is incompatible between their being granted the rights that are rightfully theirs and the fulfilment of their mission as spiritual leaders of their communities.

I was relieved to read in the response of the Archbishops Council to the consultation that
"there is no fundamental theological incompatibility between being a minister of religion and having a contract".
In truth, I see no reason why the clergy should not be given a contract. The only argument that I have heard which gives any credibility to the notion that clergy should remain "office holders" is that they require a rare level of independence and free thought in their interpretation of scripture to allow them to administer their ministry effectively. That said, I cannot accept that it is impossible to devise a contract that takes account of that freedom. Is it not, in effect, a form of academic thought? Are scholars not equally contracted? This should not be a barrier to improved employment rights.

The response of the Archbishops Council to the DTI's consultation is an example of the attitude that the Church seems to take to the prospect of granting clergy their dues as rights. After sending in its statement on the last day of the consultation exercise, it made several contestable and controversial points and announced its intention to set up a review, which, it appears to argue, should make the Government's initiative secondary to it and put it on the back burner in relation to section 23.

In the many years since the Employment Relations Act 1999 became law, the Church has had ample opportunity to engage a wider constituency in a debate on the issue, including on the practicalities. It decided to ask for such a debate only as the consultation closed. Furthermore, not only did it fail to inform clergy that a review was one of its proposals, but it did not share with them any of the contents that were delivered. I emphasise again that that was on the final day of the consultation. It appears to be its avowed intention to be
"in close consultation with clergy who are involved at every level of synodical government and with all others who have an active interest, including Amicus".
Although I shall resist the urge to point out that it has barely made an effort to make headway on this for the past four years, it is worth mentioning that representatives of the Archbishops Council met Amicus representatives in the week before the closure of the consultation and refused to divulge so much as a single word of their proposals. So much for close consultation. It would appear that they are more concerned with advancing their agenda to move the issue back into the fold of the Church. That was without taking account of the fact that the council's response covered only clergy in England, when representatives of other denominations and Churches of the Union are also not covered by employment legislation.

The Church gives the impression that the McClean committee, now established, is a means of delay rather than a vehicle for progress. It has been suggested that the review would be used to reopen the issue of the freehold, and that is a difficult point. I have no doubt that any attempt to discuss it would create a number of divisions within the Church, as laity, clergy of different levels and patrons all expressed their views on what is genuinely a contentious issue.

Many see the freehold argument as indicative of the obfuscation of which the Archbishops Council seems sometimes to be fond. However, that issue should not prove too much of a barrier to full employment rights for the clergy. The one should not be traded off against the other. One should not lose employment rights if one has the freehold, and one certainly needs them if that freehold is lost.

By taking care of the rights issue, it could be argued that the problem of the freehold will ultimately take care of itself. Once an adequate contract mechanism is put in place, which would also inextricably tie a ministry to the relevant accommodation and property, would any hypothetical loss of security not be sufficiently tempered by the concomitant coverage of the new rights?

I have no doubt that such an arrangement would be of mutual benefit to the Church and the clergy. Sad to say, there is such a thing as an incompetent minister, and were he or she holding the freehold it would be difficult for the Church to rectify the problem, as long as the minister had the rights of appeal that were due to him or her.

It is not as if the Churches are always generous in other respects. Stipends and pensions are not princely—one of my constituents receives a niggardly pension from the Baptist Union. The issue is clear—the clergy need greater coverage by employment legislation, owing to the evolving basis of their employment, and they need that coverage soon.

The days of all clergy being covered by the freehold are long gone and, as a result of that and other factors, many have felt the need to resort to joining a union. The Church should acknowledge the need for access to employment tribunals in the case of a claim for unfair dismissal. It should also acknowledge that people's situations and circumstances change and that it must be able to cater for those changes. It should acknowledge that bullying and—although it is outwith the scope of the debate—discrimination exist in the Church, even at the highest levels, and that victims often feel that they have no recourse to their employer.

The Churches should acknowledge that God in all his wisdom gave us individual personalities and that those personalities sometimes clash. Above all, perhaps, they need to acknowledge that, regardless of the perceived practicalities, the clergy need rights now and not at some time in the future. A Christian church should act with Christian principles, generosity and fairness.

4.13 pm

This is my maiden speech in Westminster Hall, although it will be a very short one. I have not had the honour and privilege of speaking here before. It is also an honour and privilege, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to make that speech with you presiding.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, South (Mr. Chapman) on securing this debate. He has raised the issue on the Floor of the House on several occasions since 1997, and has been a consistent advocate of employment rights for the clergy, a role in which I have consistently encouraged him.

Of course, the Church Commissioners and the Church of England have a view on the matter, and that view must be described and defined through various organs and channels, such as the synod, the Archbishops Council and the Church Commissioners, but the Church of England has welcomed the opportunity to respond to the discussion document that the Department of Trade and Industry issued last July. We have no difficulty with or objection to that document, and, as I said, we welcome the intervention of my hon. Friend.

Stipendiary clergy fall into one of three categories. The majority—some 5,500—have the freehold, more than 1,000 clergy have contracts of employment and the remaining 3,500 have neither the freehold nor a contract but operate under a bishop's licence. The Church of England firmly believes that the clergy and all others who work for it are entitled to terms and conditions of service that adequately protect their rights, recognise their responsibilities and provide proper accountability arrangements. That has been the motivation behind a series of measures that the Church has undertaken in recent years. It spent six years examining the aspects of clergy discipline and introduced a new clergy discipline measure that has been agreed by the Ecclesiastical Committee and is now awaiting parliamentary approval.

Historically, the clergy of the Church of England have, for the most part, enjoyed a measure of independence and security of tenure that far exceeds that of those in almost any other walk of life. That remains the case for the majority who possess the freehold. As my hon. Friend said in his cohesive and coherent speech, there is no mutual exclusivity—if I may use a legal term—between being a minister of religion and having a contract with access to employment tribunals in case of dispute. There is clearly a need to explore how additional protection can be provided for those clergy whose position is not adequately safeguarded by the present arrangements.

The Church of England is committed to good practice and protection for its clergy and is taking seriously the need to put additional safeguards in place. Points raised in this short debate will be brought to the attention of the Church, which will be willing to consider them through the working group that was set up by the Archbishops Council.

I thank my hon. Friend and the Minister for allowing me to intervene under your chairmanship, Mr. Deputy Speaker, in this short debate. We will listen to what the Minister has to say. It will be relayed back to the Church, and we are confident that, at the end of the day, some satisfaction will be achieved for the clergy, the Government and my hon. Friend.

4.17 pm

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, South (Mr. Chapman) on securing the debate. He has a long record of interest in the subject, and I am pleased also to hear the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough (Mr. Bell), particularly as he fulfils the role of a Church Commissioner. What we have lacked in quantity in the Chamber we have made up in quality, because the complex issues that we are dealing with in the Department of Trade and Industry have been reflected in the two contributions.

I welcome the opportunity to talk about the Government's approach to such a highly complex topic. As was said, we are currently reviewing the issue of employment status in relation to statutory employment rights and, as part of the review, the Government published the discussion document on 11 July last year.

That sought views on the potential effects of and Justification for extending the current framework of statutory employment rights to certain people who do not have access to those rights at the moment. It also asked for views on whether there might be alternative approaches, and we intend to publish a response to the consultation later this year.

The review has raised a variety of issues, and my officials have been in discussion with a wide range of organisations and individuals. Some of the points raised are specific to one group of workers or sector of industry, while others affect the whole labour market. Applying the principles of better regulation, the consultation has involved a number of sector-focused round table discussions, covering construction, the public sector, hospitality, retail and tourism, agency workers, small businesses and, of course, the clergy.

No one should doubt that the Government recognise the importance of all workers having appropriate employment protection. For that reason, we were keen to have open consultation and we have undertaken a thorough analysis of the large volume of detailed evidence received. We have been considering numerous options to achieve the right balance between employer flexibility and fairness for workers and it is vital to get that balance right.

The clergy are one group of workers who currently lack the protection of employment rights provided by employment law because employment tribunals have consistently been unwilling to accept that their relationship with the Church is one of employment. That relationship is seen to be spiritual, rather than contractual. The Government are sympathetic to the clergy's position and want to ensure that they are treated fairly. The question is what is the most appropriate way forward to deliver an acceptable outcome. We are looking at the current framework of protection in different religious organisations and we are considering whether employment protection for the clergy could be addressed adequately through non-regulatory means, or whether regulation might be necessary to provide that protection. Churches, faith-based organisations, trade unions and the clergy have all contributed their views on whether the position of the clergy needs to be improved and, if so, how best to do that. We have been very pleased by the level of response to the consultation. This is clearly an area in which there is a lot of interest and our discussion document attracted more than 300 responses just from members of the clergy.

When I hosted a round table meeting in the Department of Trade and Industry last November, the debate was lively and the views expressed were diverse. There were representatives from a number of different faiths, including Hindus and Muslims, and a wide range of Christian denominations from the Roman Catholic Church to the free Church tradition. Subsequent contacts have been made with a number of other faiths and denominations. Some have identified employment protection as being mainly a concern for the Church of England and its clergy, but it is clear that the issue is not limited to the established Church.

It has become clear that the clergy are not a homogenous group. They exist within different faiths and different organisations with different concerns. The framework of employment protection and the nature of employment relationships between clergy and faith organisations varies considerably. I shall try to set out in the broadest terms the picture that has emerged from the consultation.

Developed regulatory frameworks exist within many long established western Churches and perhaps that is most evident in the Roman Catholic Church, which has extensive canon law. The Church of England, the Methodist Church, the Church of Scotland and others also have developed regulatory frameworks, which give members of the clergy certain employment benefits, such as leave and parental rights that in some cases are equivalent to, or even surpass the statutory minimum. They also cover disciplinary matters. It has been argued that that implies less need for intervention by the Government, but some clergy in those Churches, and the unions, believe that the mechanisms are inadequate. They argue that, in any case, they need recourse to an external mechanism, such as a tribunal.

Eastern Churches and some of the free Churches are typically less hierarchical, with responsibility for the clergy usually devolved to the local Church. Usually, the rules and regulations that guide Churches in their relationship with the clergy are less explicit. It has been argued on one hand that that makes the position of the clergy vulnerable and, on the other, that Government intervention would undermine the bond between the clergy and the congregation. It was also argued that for some small evangelical Churches a successful unfair dismissal claim could have a devastating effect and, indeed, that it could threaten their very existence.

In weighing our options, we must take on board the concerns expressed by the clergy, Churches and faith-based organisations. I am all too aware of the practical difficulties inherent in a one-size-fits-all approach and we need to consider carefully how to achieve our goal of securing protection for the clergy, whether through regulatory or non-regulatory means.

A very positive aspect of the review has been the commitment expressed by so many Churches and faith-based organisations to employment protection for their clergy. Many are constantly reviewing the relationship. I understand that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough said, the Church of England has embarked on a review to consider the balance of rights and responsibilities for the clergy, including issues such as freehold. It will seek to identify options for addressing unsatisfactory features in the current arrangements, including the possibility of extending the use of contracts. In that case, it would need to be determined against whom a contract should be enforceable.

Our understanding is that that review is being conducted in consultation with clergy and other interested parties including the Amicus trade union, although I take on board the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, South on that review. Such initiatives are important and to be welcomed, but there must be true and meaningful dialogue between Churches and their clergy. My main concern is that if we were to go down the path of self-regulation, such initiatives would have to deliver the kind of employment protection that we have introduced for so many other workers since we came into government in 1997.

The Government have the power, under section 23 of the Employment Relations Act 1999, to extend employment rights to the clergy. We would wish to keep that under review if a non-regulatory approach were tried. Although we would encourage a non-regulatory approach, that section is available, giving us the facility to introduce regulation where we deem that to be necessary.

So, to summarise, we have listened to a wide variety of views and concerns that have been raised with us. As my hon. Friends the Members for Middlesbrough and for Wirral, South have recognised, this is not just a Church of England issue. Discussions are profound and slightly beyond some of the other discussions that I have had with, for example, agency workers and office holders such as registrars. This matter is far more complex because it goes to the heart of something far more spiritual than the normal tenets of industrial relations law. We recognise that this issue has attracted a great deal of interest and speculation. It requires much sensitivity from Government Ministers and our officials. As I have tried to illustrate, this is a complex area and we need carefully to consider what is an appropriate response.

I shall not pre-empt the outcome of the Department of Trade and Industry review in this debate, but the remarks made today, especially by my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, South, will be taken into account in the consultation and in our deliberations. I hope that I have illuminated the process and addressed the concerns highlighted. We intend to publish our response to the consultation document. If that has taken a little longer than usual, I hope that I have explained some of the reasons why and the need for us to be very careful, especially in relation to the effects of the review on the clergy.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-eight minutes past Four o'clock.