Skip to main content

Westminster Hall

Volume 405: debated on Wednesday 14 May 2003

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

Westminster Hall

Wednesday 14 May 2003

[MR. EDWARD O'HARA in the Chair]

Stevens Inquiry

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

9.30 am

I am grateful to Mr. Speaker for granting my request for this debate. The findings of Sir John Stevens—even in the form of an interim overview—represent the most damning indictment of the security services and, by implication, Government practice that I can recall. That being said, I am surprised and disturbed that it should require a Back Bencher, not even a right hon. Member, to bring such a matter before the House. In light of the grave findings and the report of Sir John Stevens, I am surprised that neither the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland nor the Secretary of State for Defence volunteered to make a statement to the House.

Nominally, the report is the third inquiry conducted by Sir John Stevens into allegations of collusion between the security forces and loyalist paramilitaries in Northern Ireland. Taken together with Stevens 1 and 2, it is already the largest criminal investigation undertaken in the United Kingdom. I pay tribute to Sir John Stevens for his courage, tenacity and persistence in pursuing the inquiry. It has been a 14-year battle against formidable odds, and the odds have all been within the establishment. Even more so, I pay tribute to the family of Pat Finucane and to the families of all the victims of collusion, from whatever area they come. Their grief has been compounded by the cover-up and lies that they have come to expect. The tenacity of investigative journalists and the hard work of human rights non-governmental organisations have played a large part, but it has been the families of the victims who have refused to forget and who have kept alive the search for the truth.

The hon. Gentleman has paid tribute to Sir John Stevens, as he has to the family of Pat Finucane. Am I right in thinking that Pat Finucane's widow did not co-operate with the Stevens inquiry, or have I misunderstood the position?

I understand that that is the case. The reason for such a decision was that the family were not happy with the way that they had been treated by the Royal Ulster Constabulary and investigative forces in the past. They considered that only a full and open public inquiry would reveal the truth about what happened.

The Stevens report's stark message is that successive British Governments have sanctioned murder—that they have employed agents and given them a licence to kill. Agents have acted above the law, without the law and with impunity. While the interim overview and recommendations before us stop short of the full publication that the families of the victims are pressing for, Stevens proposes to allow criminal investigations and prosecutions to proceed, while putting into the public domain the gravity of his findings and the obstruction that he has encountered. I urge full publication as soon as possible.

I hope that the Government will announce that they accept the interim report in its entirety and will respond favourably to its immediate recommendations. Many of Stevens's proposals on bringing accountability to the intelligence-gathering process echo the thoughts of Her Majesty's inspector. Stevens's findings on the murder of Patrick Finucane are clear. It is not in the public interest for an independent inquiry to be further delayed. There is a need to restore confidence. I urge the Minister to bring forward the Government's agreement-in-principle commitment for a full inquiry under the Tribunals of Inquiry (Evidence) Act 1921, to be conducted by an international jurist of repute.

Stevens says that he has uncovered enough evidence to lead him to believe that the murders of Pat Finucane and Brian Adam Lambert could have been prevented from happening. He also believes that the RUC investigation of Pat Finucane's murder should have resulted in an early arrest and detection of his killers.

Stevens concludes that there was collusion in both murders and the circumstances surrounding them. He says that collusion
"ranges from the wilful failure to keep records, the absence of accountability, the withholding of intelligence and evidence, through to the extreme of agents being involved in murder.
"The failure to keep records or the existence of contradictory accounts can often be perceived as evidence of concealment or malpractice. It limits the opportunity to rebut serious allegations. The absence of accountability allows the acts or omissions of individuals to go undetected. The withholding of information impedes the prevention of crime and the arrest of suspects. The unlawful involvement of agents in murder implies that the security forces sanction killings."
Stevens's three inquiries

"found all these elements of collusion to be present. The coordination, dissemination and sharing of intelligence were poor. Informants and agents were allowed to operate without effective control and to participate in terrorist crimes. Nationalists were known to be targeted but were not properly warned or protected. Crucial information was withheld from Senior Investigating Officers. Important evidence was neither exploited nor preserved."
Throughout his three inquiries, Stevens has operated from the premise that those involved in policing and security duties in Northern Ireland work within, and are subject to, the law. Where he has uncovered unlawful activities, he has attempted to assemble the evidence necessary to identify those responsible and bring about their successful prosecution.

At the centre of Stevens's investigation and allegations of dirty tricks and unlawful activities carried out by the British Army are the members and officers of the force research unit—the FRU—previously known as the forward reconnaissance unit, and before that the 14 Intelligence Company. The unit is now known as the joint services group and, according to Brigadier Arundell David Leahy, its methods of operation have not changed to any significant extent.

The hon. Gentleman should get his facts straight. He has confused a series of wholly discrete organisations and has misused their titles. It would be a service to the debate if he got his facts straight.

It would have been of service to the debate if the hon. Gentleman had given me the correct names. I would be quite happy to use them. He obviously knows more about it than I do.

Of Brian Nelson, who doubled as the head of intelligence for the loyalist Ulster Defence Association, Stevens says:
"It was only through the investigative efforts of my Enquiry team that I was able to identify and arrest the Army agent Brian Nelson in January 1990. When he was interviewed I discovered that he had been in possession of an 'intelligence dump'. This had been seized by his FRU handlers when my first Enquiry had begun, in September 1989. This crucial evidence had been concealed from my Enquiry team.
"There was a clear breach of security before the planned arrest of Nelson and other senior loyalists. Information was leaked to the loyalist paramilitaries and the press. This resulted in the operation being aborted. Nelson was advised by his FRU handlers to leave home the night before. A new date was set for the operation on account of the leak. The night before the new operation my Incident room was destroyed by fire. This incident, in my opinion, has never been adequately investigated and I believe it was a deliberate act of arson.
"During my first Enquiry I asked to examine particular documents but received written statements that they did not exist. My latest Enquiry team has now recovered all these documents. The dates recorded on them show that they all existed at the time of my first request."
Who was responsible for those lies?

Following three recent major disclosures by the Army and the Ministry of Defence, Stevens is now investigating whether the concealment of documents and information was sanctioned, and if so at what level. The Saville inquiry has heard evidence of discussion papers prepared by senior personnel in the security forces arguing for the adoption of tactics based on illegal use of lethal force through arbitrary killings and extra-judicial assassination. Orchestration of a flawed inquiry under Lord Justice Widgery and consequent failure to prosecute those responsible for the Bloody Sunday outrage sent a disturbing message to the security forces. Her Majesty's Government allowed the impression to remain that although the legal actions were damaging for propaganda purposes, the commission was protected by an informal system of impunity.

If it is tacitly understood that intelligence agencies may operate outside the rule of law, or that such behaviour is given an informal legitimacy through the failure to set lawful parameters, it is not structurally possible to hold the agencies or their employees and agents accountable without the intervention of an outside independent body. It now seems evident that the intelligence agencies have been engaged in running agents inside both loyalist and republican paramilitary groups and promoting, planning and participating in terrorist activities in order to achieve internally defined goals. Agencies have protected individuals from other paramilitaries and from investigation and prosecution by the police.

Police investigations have been prevented or undermined, sidetracked and sabotaged. Combatants and non-combatants alike have become victims of those practices and the failure to stop them. Police officers have lost their lives and their honest efforts have been thwarted. For successive Governments, the tactical assessment of the options for a military offensive against terrorism was flawed by compromised intelligence and undermined by its reliance on the unlawful activities of agencies.

I remain to be convinced that dirty tricks saved lives. Undoubtedly, undercover British agents prevented some loss of life, but too often the lack of political control meant that agents were averting their eyes from terrorist crime and ending up acting as judge, jury and executioner.

On 15 January 1990, I raised in the House the shooting dead of Peter Thompson, Eddie Hale and John Joseph McNeill in Whiterock, and the activities of British soldiers from 14 Intelligence Company during an attempted armed robbery. I will not go into the details; I asked questions about the activities of that unit. The Ministers responsible are now saying that they did not know about the activities of those units. The questions that I asked in the House are on the record. Some 13 years later the families of the victims of that incident still await justice.

I believe that intelligence agencies played a significant role in shaping the political geography of Northern Ireland and prevented the emergence of a political alternative for many years. Great strides have been made in addressing the shortcomings of the RUC by a process of police reform and the adoption of a model of accountable policing contained in the Police Service of Northern Ireland. Such changes would have been unthinkable a decade ago. However, the intelligence agencies have so far been immune to change.

When Brian Nelson was first brought to court in June 1990 he faced 34 charges, including two counts of murder. It was admitted that he was an agent for military intelligence. There was, at the time, speculation that Nelson was threatening to expose the involvement of the Army in a large number of offences, including murder. When the trial began two years later, counsel for the Attorney-General, Brian Kerr QC, argued that after
"a rigorous examination of the interests of justice",
15 charges, including two murder charges, were to be dropped. Nelson then pleaded guilty to the remaining charges, including five counts of conspiracy to commit murder.

Following pleas for leniency from the then head of the FRU, Colonel—now Brigadier—Gordon Kerr, and the Secretary of State for Defence, Tom King, Nelson was sentenced to just 10 years in prison. He was freed in 1996 and died this year in somewhat suspicious circumstances; no one knows quite how or why.

I was not happy when the Attorney-General took control of that prosecution and I was dubious about his reasons for deciding to drop charges. Those reasons remain undisclosed.

No. With the greatest respect, I have a lot to go through. I have secured the debate and I have already given way twice, so I am trying to give other hon. Members opportunities to make their case.

I do not believe that impunity for serious offences committed by agents of the state can be in the public interest. Following the Stalker investigation into allegations of a shoot-to-kill policy in Northern Ireland—[Interruption.]

No. Chief Constable Colin Sampson recommended that police officers should be prosecuted for conspiracy to pervert the course of justice and for fabricating cover stories. The journalist Peter Taylor reported that Sampson also recommended that MI5 officers should face the same charge for destroying a copy of the missing audio tape recording of the shooting dead in a hay shed of 17-year old Michael Tighe, who mistakenly walked into an ambush set by the security forces. In that case, the Director of Public Prosecutions felt that there was sufficient evidence, but the then Attorney-General, Sir Patrick Mayhew, halted proceedings; he informed the House in January 1988 that there would be no prosecutions "in the public interest" and a nolle prosequi was entered. At that time, most of us who were involved in the issue thought that that only revolved around RUC officers. We had no idea that MI5 was involved in the destruction of evidence.

I believe that the activities of intelligence agencies must be governed by the rule of law and that they should be held politically accountable. Shortcomings and breakdowns in the system of accountability inevitably lead to political misjudgment and errors. Through interviews by my staff of a number of individuals who claim to have been undercover agents, I have discovered that there is a particularly blurred line between who is and who is not an agent; between who is a covert human intelligence source and who is simply assisting the security services. Individuals who feel that they have been expected to put their lives at risk will want to know that their information will be acted on; when they make personal and financial sacrifices, they expect protection and security. Without effective regulation, those people feel let down—they do not know where they stand and they have no legal means of redress. The insights that I have gained have been passed on through what I consider to be the appropriate channels. I have no means of knowing whether or not my advice was acted on.

Discovery of the truth behind controversial killings is part of the process of reconciliation in Northern Ireland, where the grief of victims has been compounded by unlawful acts that have apparently been condoned by those in authority. The interests of justice require that those who sanctioned such activities be identified and brought to justice. They must be removed from office and punished. The process of cleansing is also essential to the integrity of the intelligence agency. The passage of time and normalisation of the security situation alters a balance to be struck in determining the public interest. The fear that the identity of agents might become known and prejudice the effectiveness of ongoing intelligence-gathering operations must be significantly diminished in today's climate. The fear that cross-examination of police officers and security services agents might compromise intelligence-gathering methods must now be set against the need to establish whether those methods have included unlawful actions. If evidence exists for prosecution, it must be in the public interest to proceed.

Following an indication by Sir John Stevens that he wished to interview an FRU agent known as Stakeknife—I understand that there is now an alternative spelling—new and even more serious allegations concerning the activities of security services have come into the public domain. I do not want to distract attention from the findings of Stevens, which have been thoroughly investigated and are based on verifiable evidence. I am aware of the controversial nature of Stakeknife's allegations, and the extraordinary lengths to which the Ministry of Defence has gone in issuing gagging orders to prevent journalists from reporting them. I am aware that republicans regard the whole affair as yet another example of counter-intelligence propaganda.

However, in light of the naming of Freddie Scappaticci as Agent Stakeknife, I urge the Government to end uncertainty around his position and ensure that no impediments are placed in the way of his questioning by the Stevens inquiry. In particular, it is incumbent on my hon. Friend the Minister to state whether Stakeknife is in the custody of some of the agencies of Her Majesty's Government.

It is alleged that Stakeknife was a low-ranking Irish Republican Army volunteer, who was recruited to the FRU in 1978. As a double agent, he was tasked with advancing himself in the paramilitary group, and he became head of the IRA internal security unit, the nutting squad. For that service, he was paid the salary of a then Cabinet Minister—£80.000 a year; moneys were deposited into a bank account based in Gilbraltar. As head of the nutting squad, Agent Stakeknife would have been in charge of vetting all recruits to the IRA and seeking out British moles. If that were true, he would have been involved in kidnap, interrogation, torture and punishment. He would have taken part in anything up to 40 murders of suspected informers. He would be guilty of colluding in the murder of IRA volunteers, police officers, soldiers and civilians.

No.

It is reported that Gregory Burns, John Dignam and Aidan Starrs were also FRU agents. Burns's girlfriend, Margaret Perry, discovered his double role and the three agents conspired to kill her. It is alleged that Stakeknife then killed the three agents, and all with the approval of his handlers. In a case already considered by the European Court of Human Rights, three IRA volunteers, Mairead Farrell, Daniel McCann and Sean Savage were killed in 1988 by the SAS on the rock of Gibraltar. If, as is now alleged, Agent Stakeknife supplied the information that led to that ambush, his handlers could also have chosen to prevent the IRA action. Instead they permitted a summary execution. He is alleged to have been involved in the murder of Joseph Fenton in February 1989. Fenton was a Belfast estate agent who supplied safe houses for the IRA, but acted the good citizen by passing information to the police. Stakeknife had him killed.

Around the same time, the Irish police recruited a confidential informant in the IRA who passed valuable information to the Garda Siochana. If allegations concerning Stakeknife are correct, he was directly implicated in the murder of Tom Oliver, whose body was found in 1991.I should be grateful if my hon. Friend the Minister would inform us of whether there have been any discussions with the Government of the Irish Republic about that allegation, and if he would say what allegations had been made either way.

When the going got hot, and loyalist paramilitaries began to target Stakeknife, it is alleged that the FRU moved to protect him by setting up another Belfast man, Francisco Notarantonio. It planted false documents and persuaded the Ulster Defence Association that he, not the man identified as Stakeknife, was a leading figure in the IRA. If true, those allegations go to the heart of British involvement in unlawful actions in pursuit of British objectives in Northern Ireland. Also, if they are true, responsibility goes right to the top of Government, and they must be held accountable.

Files with information from Stakeknife would have been passed from the FRU to the Joint Irish Section— MI5—and right up to the Cabinet, and possibly to three Prime Ministers: Mrs. Thatcher, Mr. Major and Mr. Blair. It is the job of MI5 to monitor Royal Ulster Constabulary special branch and military intelligence and report, independently of them, direct to Whitehall and the Government. In his preliminary conclusions, Sir John Stevens stated that he wants to question Agent Stakeknife and Brigadier Gordon Kerr, a former head of the FRU who is currently a British military attache in Beijing. It is interesting to note that, despite Sir John Stevens's interim report, not a single person has been removed from their post or suspended as a result of the inquiry.

We are entitled to know how far up the obstructions to the inquiry went. The journalist John Ware has reported that the former RUC Chief Constable, Sir Hugh Annesley, instructed the then commanding officer of Her Majesty's armed forces in Northern Ireland, Lieutenant-General Sir John Waters, not to provide Stevens with Army intelligence. It has also been reported that members of the Stevens inquiry team threatened Waters with arrest if he did not hand over the files in his possession. The cost of the Saville inquiry is frequently invoked as an argument against the public inquiries that everyone wants to be held into such terrible murders. I think that the cost of the inquiry is outrageous, but I am very clear about where responsibility lies: not with the families seeking the truth, but with those that covered up the truth in the first place, such as the Ministry of Defence; those that attempted to pervert the course of justice by the destruction of evidence, again the Ministry of Defence; and those who have fought a guerrilla campaign of evasion from the outset—once more, the Ministry of Defence.

Most of the answers to my questions and those raised by the Saville inquiry are in the Government's files. An internal trawl and political will could have saved millions of pounds. The Minister who is to reply to this debate on behalf of the Northern Ireland Office is doing so because the Chief Constable commissioned the report, but responsibility does not stop at the Northern Ireland Office. The Ministry of Defence must answer questions about the FRU and its predecessor and successor units. I repeat my earlier charge: it is the responsibility of MI5 to monitor RUC special branch and military intelligence and report independently of them direct to Whitehall and the Government. Prime Ministers and senior officials were in the picture, deliberately excluded from it, or given only rough generalisations.

The public have been kept in the dark for too long. I believe that the Government have colluded in the unlawful activities of their agents, and that the guilty must be called to account, however high up they are. Where there is sufficient evidence, they must be prosecuted and punished—no more nolle prosequis. It is clear that existing mechanisms for the oversight and scrutiny of the intelligence services have failed. A Committee of Members of this and the other House, appointed by the Prime Minister, meets in secret and has its reports vetted in advance of publication, and so cannot provide the accountability that we are entitled to demand.

When the Government themselves stand in the dock, what is the appropriate remedy? The charges made by Sir John Stevens are the most serious to be faced by any Government in Britain. They go right to the heart of our democracy. Our commitment to human rights, the rule of law and justice in Northern Ireland will count for nothing if we cannot address these matters openly and honestly.

9.53 am

May I congratulate those in the Ministry of Defence on being virtually the only people who can spell "Steak-knife" correctly? That in itself is significant, because it reminds us that journalists tend to hunt in packs. In the media, as in many other aspects of life, real independent thinking is not often evident.

I start with some basic principles. I congratulate the hon. Member for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) on securing the debate: it addresses a matter that is topical, so it is good that it is being raised. However, I want to touch on some general principles, which it would have been better if the hon. Gentleman had focused on at the outset.

We are dealing with terrorist organisations and with conspiracies to commit some of the most appalling crimes that humanity has seen, which are designed to overthrow democratic Governments. The public have a right to expect that the authorities will take effective action to ensure that terrorism fails and that terrorists are made amenable to justice. To do that, obtaining intelligence is crucial: if Governments were to fail to endeavour to obtain intelligence, they would be culpable.

Intelligence can be obtained in a number of ways, but it has been clear from time immemorial that one of the most effective ways is to penetrate the terrorist organisations either by using people who volunteer to join them in order to do so or, more often, by turning members of those organisations—that is frequently the only effective way to do that. If the public are to be protected and terrorism is to be defeated, there must be intelligence agencies that recruit and run agents, and their operations must be secret. In order to defend the public, that must be done and it must be done secretly: those are basic principles that we must never lose sight of.

There is a serious risk that those whose job it is to defeat terrorism may be so focused on the outcome that they begin to lose sight of legal and moral responsibilities and boundaries. Those boundaries are necessary, but some of them must be breached. The hon. Gentleman implied—although he might not have actually said—that there must be no criminal activity by agents, but, necessarily, there is such criminal activity. Being a member of a terrorist organisation is a crime. Therefore, agents for intelligence organisations are necessarily involved in the commission of crime. If those people are to remain members of such organisations, they will inevitably be involved in its activities.

The problem then becomes this: where should the line be drawn? I imagine that we would have no difficulty in saying that the line must be drawn at murder. There are plenty of novels in which intelligence agents commit murders and other crimes, but in the real world the line must be drawn at that. However, where else is it to be drawn, and how is it to be drawn?

We are dealing with a very murky area where the facts are often difficult to ascertain. In recruiting agents, one does not have a huge range of choice and some of the people who are recruited are not attractive characters. They would not have joined terrorist organisations in the first place if they were moral, upright citizens. If one is dealing with members of terrorist organisations who have been turned, one is necessarily dealing with flawed persons. That factor must be borne in mind. Whether those people accurately report their activities or intentions is also uncertain.

It would be nice if we were in a position to conduct a detailed forensic examination of everything that has happened, and I can understand people's saying that because of the difficulties in taking decisions in these matters we should know what has been done. However, I return to my point that secrecy is necessary. While the terrorism continues, too much publicity is prejudicial to the operation of the intelligence bodies—and, consequently, prejudicial to public safety. There are things that must remain secret. Of course there should be accountability and the hon. Gentleman's comments showed that there is a degree of that. Accountability is essential, because we have to trust some people. We tend to place our trust—rightly—in those who hold office and are accountable to the House, and to those who head the agencies concerned. However, I concede that there is a serious risk that people will become so carried away with their objective that they lose sight of where the boundaries should be set.

A lesson learned in Northern Ireland in the 1970s was that soldiers are, by their nature, training and culture, focused on winning, and in a war they have to win by whatever means available. However, policemen, by their training and culture, are focused on upholding the law; they know what the law is and what evidence is— much more so than any soldier would. That is why, in such a situation, we must uphold the principle of police primacy, but that was ignored in Northern Ireland in the 1970s. We are worried that Army intelligence may continue to be ignored in the present.

I wish to digress a little. Some hon. Members may have heard the story that I am about to tell. I first heard it many years ago. The hon. Gentleman referred to the fire at Stevens's headquarters. He was using Carrickfergus police station as his base and a fire there destroyed important material contained in various filing cabinets. As a result of the fire, the offices were not available for use and he was relocated elsewhere. When I heard the story, it was said that he was moved to Musgrave police station in the centre of Belfast—that may or may not be accurate.

I heard that a difficulty arose because the Stevens inquiry officers had to use the same canteen as regular RUC members, and apparently the RUC members developed a habit of playing the jukebox whenever the inquiry officers were there. They played a song by Billy Joel entitled, "We Didn't Start the Fire". The incessant playing of the song so irritated the Stevens inquiry officers that a fight broke out. I mention the story because, as far as we can tell, the police officers were absolutely right. I say, "as far as we can tell," because we are relying on comments made by a person who was an agent and has since gone public. He said that the fire at the Carrickfergus police station was started by Army personnel, not by policemen.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will bear in mind that, at that time, allegations were made that it was the police who were responsible for the fire, and allegations continue to be made against the police. The hon. Gentleman may be aware of a mural that exists in Belfast, put up by republicans, referring to the Finucane case and various participants in it. It alleges that they were special branch agents. Of course, many of the persons that it mentions were not special branch agents. Mr. Nelson was not.

There is a tendency to focus on the police and to attack them—repeatedly and inaccurately. I see examples of that even in the summary of the Stevens inquiry, in which reference is made to a British Irish Rights Watch report entitled "Deadly Intelligence— State involvement in loyalist murder in Northern Ireland", which includes allegations that the RUC incited the death of Mr. Finucane. I am happy to say that the next paragraph makes it clear that there was no evidence to support those allegations. Allegations are too often thrown around in the direction of the police, for which there is no justification.

The inquiry reports from Sir John Stevens are necessarily highly abbreviated, so it is extremely difficult for us to evaluate them. Their conclusion was that there has been collusion in both murders—those of Lambert and Finucane—which was evidenced in many ways by wilful failure to keep records. That in itself is not evidence of collusion. We need to know more about how that shows collusion. There may be more evidence in a full report from Sir John Stevens, which unfortunately he cannot provide because cases are ongoing and there is a need for secrecy. This report refers to "the absence of accountability". Again, we would need to know what that referred to in order to know whether it indicated collusion. The report also refers to
"the withholding of intelligence and evidence".
That might indeed be the case. The report goes through to
"the extreme of agents being involved in murder."
That is a very serious matter, and it would be important for us to know what material lay behind it. As far as the report is concerned, that material is not disclosed.

The paragraph referring to Nelson's involvement in the attack on Mr. Finucane states:
"It is not clear whether his role in the murder extended beyond passing a photograph".
With regard to Stobie's involvement in the case, the report states that the information that he provided
"principally concerned the collection of a firearm."
He

>"supplied information of a murder being planned."
Again, there is no material here to demonstrate the collusion that is referred to. That evidence may be there. I would not be surprised if things had happened and things had gone wrong over the years. I would not be surprised at mistakes having been made. Whether deliberately or culpably, we do not know. I hope that we will know, that the full information will become available and that we will reach a point at which it is safe to put the full information in the public domain. Whether that point has arrived must be open to debate.

I must take exception to some of the terms used by the hon. Gentleman. Perhaps he knows more than we do. He referred to Mr. Nelson dying in suspicious circumstances. I do not know what those circumstances were. I am not aware of any evidence about the death to demonstrate that the circumstances were suspicious. Perhaps it is just the fact of the death that the hon. Gentleman regards as suspicious.

I should perhaps have used the word "mysterious", because none of us knows how Mr. Nelson died, why or whether there have been autopsies, and his family have not been properly informed.

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has clarified matters in that way. Whether the death is mysterious, I do not know, because I do not know what information is available to the authorities in Florida. There may be no mystery. The mystery may be simply that the hon. Gentleman does not know the circumstances. He now describes the death as "mysterious"; previously he described it as "suspicious". The fact that those terms automatically occur to him in describing these matters indicates a certain cast of mind and a certain basic attitude on his part. That is the criticism that I was making of him: he appears to approach these matters from a particular angle.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the Widgery inquiry as "flawed" and doubts whether dirty tricks saved lives. However, successive Chief Constables of the police in Northern Ireland, the General Officer Commanding and others have said that, in the latter years of the IRA's campaign, the security forces succeeded in foiling four out of five of the IRA's operations. Accounts such as the book entitled "Fifty Dead Men Walking" also tend to verify that. That book was written by a person who was a member of the Belfast brigade of the IRA, who became an informer and subsequently published a book detailing his activities and experiences. That account substantiates the security forces' claim that they were able to foil four out of five of the IRA's operations. In many cases, that was due to the information obtained by the use of agents, so in response to the suggestion that those activities did not save lives—I am not sure whether they justify the use of the phrase "dirty tricks" in any event—I say that such evidence as we have clearly points the other way.

That brings me back to the basic point: if we are to defeat terrorism, it will be necessary to obtain intelligence and to obtain it by getting people to join illegal organisations or by turning members of illegal organisations. That will inevitably involve criminality. Yes, there have to be guidelines and accountability, and when the guidelines are breached, there must be legal action; there was in the Nelson case. The hon. Gentleman referred to the allegations of a shoot-to-kill policy in the 1980s. There were criminal proceedings. Several police officers were charged with murder and tried. The judgments given by the courts can be read and examined in those matters too. The evidence is that there is monitoring and that the authorities intend to ensure that the law is adhered to in its essential fundamental points. Whether that is always done perfectly, we do not yet know. In an ideal situation we should know more. We have not reached that ideal situation.

I close by reflecting on the comments of the hon. Gentleman when he said that finding out about killings was a necessary part of the healing process of Northern Ireland. Yes, it is; but unfortunately the hon. Gentleman qualified that phrase by saying "controversial killings". It would be good if we had information about all killings and we bore it in mind that the vast majority of the killings were carried out by terrorist organisations and the republican movement. We should keep a degree of balance as we look at this difficult area.

Order. There is much interest in this debate. The first Front-Bench speaker must be called not later than 10.30. That may help those who are called to speak to gauge their contribution and thus enable as many to get in as possible.

10.11 am

I congratulate the hon. Member for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) on securing the debate and making some clear points. I do not agree with all of them, but I am none the less grateful to him. I also congratulate the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) on his clear exposition of the case.

The purpose of my short speech is to ask people to understand exactly what this campaign was about. This was not some James Bond escapade. It was not glamorous. It involved phrases like "nutting squad". A nutting squad is a squad of thugs that eventually shoots people through the head, having first shot them in the ankles, the knees, the elbows and so on. It is a form of torture culminating in execution. Another phrase is ''romper rooms", which were rooms where gangs of thugs, of all political stripes, beat, tortured and occasionally quickly executed the lucky few. Their victims were criminals, perhaps, and innocent people certainly, who were involved in this dirty war.

My own involvement started in the early 1970s as a platoon commander with the Sherwood Foresters and culminated some 20-odd years later in another capacity. As a fresh-faced individual out of university I did not really understand what this was about. I can give a couple of quick illustrations. In Dungiven in County Londonderry in the 1970s I was told to respond to a tout who was on the run. I did not know what a tout was but our dogs eventually picked up the blood trail and found a 14-year-old boy who was bleeding not because of the beatings that he had received from the Provisional IRA, but because of the deep gashes that he had inflicted on himself while crossing barbed-wire fences.

The following year in Crossmaglen I had the dubious privilege of clearing a corpse of explosive that was left with its hands and ankles bound with wire and naked feet—the ultimate indignity. I remember watching a wife receive a telephone call to fetch her husband who had had an accident. The accident involved 77 rounds of Armalite ammunition being pumped through his body. Again, he was a tout. His wife was told to go and find the body as a warning to the rest of the community about touting.

The right hon. Gentleman made it clear that the people who were asked to counter this style of war were policemen and soldiers. The policemen could possibly have been expected to handle this in a slightly different fashion. I fully endorse the right hon. Gentleman's comments about police primacy. As a former practitioner in the field, I know that it was difficult for soldiers to understand precisely what was required. I was told at one stage to lift—to arrest—32 terrorists in the West Belfast sector who were on the run and who would be indicted once they had been captured. I could not understand why those people had not fled from the Belfast area, but they had stayed—I use the phrase carefully—within their ghettos. The fact that they did riot wish to leave the water in which they swam made it extraordinarily difficult for either a born and bred policeman or someone like myself from the mainland to penetrate those deeply violent, thug-like organisations where an outsider, even an outsider from a different housing estate, stood no chance of survival. That is why we used agents.

The right hon. Gentleman has made it clear that those agents were not plaster saints. I do not have time to go into any more detail than that. It was made very clear to us—visitors to that particularly ugly campaign—that we acted at all times within the law, because not to do so made us criminals and terrorists in our own right. That is why soldiers were arrested by policemen, and policemen were arrested by soldiers, when they overstepped the mark. It was not an easy line to understand, and I have no doubt that it was stepped over from time to time.

However, I draw hon. Members' attention to names such as Private Thane, Corporal Clegg, and Guardsmen Fisher and Wright. I am deliberately not talking about policemen. They were soldiers who were asked to be involved in that sort of campaign and who overstepped the mark. They were all prosecuted, and dealt with in what to my mind was a thoroughly unsatisfactory fashion because they were being asked to carry out duties where the line is blurred.

Someone must defend the people who defend our democracy. Clearly, things have gone wrong. Policemen, soldiers and Ministers have got it wrong; they must be accountable. I ask hon. Members to bear in mind that the peace process is not where it is today because of some benign intent, some benign understanding by thugs and terrorists, some conversion, some sudden ray of light falling into their lives revealing to them that they are wrong and evil. The peace process is where it is today because the IRA and Protestant paramilitary organisations have been shown that they will be militarily defeated if they continue down the road on which they are travelling. Let us be in no doubt about that. There has been a campaign, and a campaign is about killing people if necessary and deterring people because it has to be done. That is not the sort of campaign that we have just seen in Iraq; it is by definition a dirty campaign.

In conclusion, let us remember those men and women who have brought the campaign as far as it has come. As we hear the confused exposition from the hon. Member for Hull, North, let us remember how many gallantry decorations those organisations have won; how many lives those brave men and women have saved; how much violence they have deterred. Let us pay tribute to them, and hope that common sense will prevail and that public interest will dictate that no prosecution takes place.

10.19am

I rise to speak on a very serious topic that has concentrated the minds of many people in Northern Ireland and throughout the United Kingdom for a considerable time.

Further to what the hon. Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer) alluded to, I preface my remarks by saying that I think that all the law-abiding people in Northern Ireland would want to state that the law— upholding the law and the rule of law—must be paramount. That issue should be at the forefront of all our minds throughout any dirty tricks—any nasty, vicious, sectarian campaign of murder such as that which we have had to endure in Northern Ireland for the past 34 years.

The hon. Member for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) would have done his cause a greater service had he outlined the context in which the matters he wanted to address had occurred. As I said, the onset of a bloody conflict some 34 years ago was at its height in the early period, from 1969 to 1973. In one year, more than 400 people were murdered; in the House recently, comparisons have been drawn between the extent of violence then and now. The violence has got worse since the Belfast agreement was signed, but it bears no comparison whatever—even though it is worse now than in 1998—with what it was in the early 1970s.

The violence was virtually endemic between 1969 and 1973 and much of what the hon. Gentleman has raised today had its origins and genesis in that time. The context in which we are talking about any activities that were either across the line or utterly reprehensible must be stated: it was at a time of endemic violence and continuous murder on a daily, if not hourly, basis on some occasions.

The hon. Gentleman alluded to the series of inquiries that have taken place; since that time there have been no comparable investigations and no comparable inquiries in the Irish Republic into the allegations of collusion between the Garda Siochana and/or the Irish army and the Provisional IRA that I am aware of, and I live closer to the border than most hon. Members do.

Despite that, we have the call by the hon. Gentleman—

I am sorry to intrude on the hon. Gentleman, but I want to point out to him that of course he intended to say that there is evidence that some members of the Garda and some members of the Irish army had colluded. He was not of course suggesting that the organisations themselves had done so.

No, I was not indeed. I was coming to the point about the numbers of people involved— allegedly—in Northern Ireland.

There have indeed been allegations for many years regarding a number of people in the Irish Republic and their alleged collusion with the Provisional IRA. In fact, as I understand it, Judge Cory is investigating at least one of those allegations, but the outcome of his investigations remains to be seen.

Those who have acted in a manner in which they should not have acted, those who have overstepped the mark and those who have engaged in acts—legal acts and acts whereby innocent people have died—lead us into a very serious moral dilemma. I have no difficulty in admitting that; it is a moral dilemma. We have heard hon. Members ask how, in a modern civilised society, where, in a dirty, vicious war agents are used, and some lives are saved and others taken, we balance that loss against the gain? We must accept the context in which that is happening, and accept that those who engaged in the brutal, vicious, sectarian war in the first place are inevitably responsible for any agents that have to be recruited to get their war to cease.

I close by saying that the commendable bravery and courage of 99 per cent, of the police officers, the Army officers, and all those who have been in the front line against terrorism for 34 years must be taken into account when considering the alleged collusion or activities of an insignificant number of people who, for whatever reason, have broken the law. On this day, in these premises, when we recognise the courage and bravery of those who have received the highest award for bravery that the nation can offer, we would do well to recognise the courage and bravery of the many tens of thousands of officers who have stood in the front line in Northern Ireland and across the United Kingdom against terrorism.

10.26 am

I congratulate the hon. Member for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) on securing the debate on the Stevens inquiry, and on his long and distinguished career, the past two years of which I have observed in the House. Over the past 30 years, the hon. Gentleman has called for many inquiries. He will correct me if I am wrong in saying that he has never called for any inquiry into the activities of the Provisional IRA and their criminal and terrorist campaign against the state of Northern Ireland and the: innocent people of Northern Ireland—Protestant and Catholic—over the past 30 years.

I would have called for an inquiry into the actions of terrorists, who by their own actions; condemn themselves. I have always supported the police and the security services in bringing them to justice, and I would always do so.

I am learning today, because my view of the hon. Gentleman's activities over the past 30 years is that they have involved serious concentration on undermining the security forces in Northern Ireland.

The Stevens inquiry has been taking place for a long time. I believe that it has been running for 14 years, which means—someone will no doubt correct me if I am wrong—that it started under the Thatcher and Major Governments. Fourteen years is probably far too long. I would appreciate it if the Minister could give us some guidance on how long it will take and how wide the terms of reference of the Stevens report will be. We read in the press, and in direct quotes from Sir John Stevens, that he will be investigating Stakeknife—so be it. However, may we know what the terms of reference of the report will be?

I, and many others in Northern Ireland, see in the findings of the Stevens report—the public findings, not the full report—many opinions and conclusions that are apparently not based on evidence. We have not yet seen the full report, and we want to know how long the inquiry will last.

There should be inquiries, internal inquiries, into the activities of the security services, the Army and the police, if wrongs have been carried out and members of those forces have gone beyond the law and guidelines in the fight against terrorism. However, there is only one balance in Northern Ireland, and that is the balance of inquiries against the security services. Some £150 million has been allocated to the Bloody Sunday inquiry, and I predict that its conclusion will please neither those who called the inquiry nor the Parachute Regiment. The report will be inconclusive and a total waste of money. There has been no inquiry into the authorisation by Martin McGuinness, second-in-command of the Provisional IRA, of 24 murders of policemen, members of the RUC and the Army in 1972, and I doubt that there will be one.

We should try to draw a line under the past 34 years. Many Members have proposed looking at other conflicts around the world to see how we can achieve a balance. I would like an inquiry into the activities of the Provisional IRA and the foundation and activities of Fianna Fail, which forms the present Government in the Irish Republic and helped to found and finance the Provisional IRA. I would like an inquiry into Bloody Friday and the deaths of all the members of the RUC. I will not get one, and the law-abiding people will not get one. That is not the current balance, which is to undermine the security forces, Army and police.

If the Stevens inquiry continues to investigate Stakeknife, as it appears that it will, so be it. However, if the security services cannot handle and use informers and intelligence in the war against terrorism, terrorism will win. We are on dangerous ground in allowing the undermining of the intelligence services—both special branch and the police, and the Army intelligence agencies and units that have operated out of Lisburn for the past 30 years. We need guidelines and accountability, but we need intelligence that includes the use of informers. It concerns me that the balance is tipped one way.

Let us draw a line in the sand and have a truth commission. However, the problem with a truth commission is that everyone has to tell the truth. I look forward to having Martin McGuinness tell the truth about his activities in the past 34 years. I would also like to hear Gerry Adams, Stakeknife and Johnny Adair. Let them all come to a truth commission to explain why they did what they did and say, "We now believe it was wrong and unjustified. Let's bring it to an end." That is what the law-abiding people of Northern Ireland want, not another biased, pro-republican, pro-nationalist inquiry, which is the only thing that the hon. Gentleman has campaigned for in this House for the past 30 years.

It is time to draw a line in the sand on the past 34 years and have some truth. We will not get it through what the hon. Gentleman has suggested today.

10.32 am

I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) on securing the debate. However, I must say, with regret, that in many respects it has been an unsatisfactory exercise. I say that because almost every hon. Member who has contributed has done so from one particular perspective, and it is a matter of substantial regret that no one has been prepared to look at the totality of the situation.

The right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) rightly spoke about the need for intelligence as part of what the hon. Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer) referred to as a dirty war. No one disputes that, but that is not the only issue open for discussion. There is also the conduct of the Sir John Stevens inquiry and the manner in which it has been obstructed. I would have much more respect for the views of the hon. Member for Hull, North and the right hon. Member for Upper Bann if they looked at the totality of the situation. They demean their case by failing to do so. The issues are massive and the decision to investigate may not please everyone, but the basic position is that once the decision has been taken, it cannot be acceptable for obstruction by anyone to go unremarked.

This is an unsatisfactory forum. With the exception of the hon. Member for Hull, North, no hon. Member has had adequate time to develop their argument. The one person whom we really want to hear from on such occasions, and who is given 10 minutes at the end, is the Minister. Therefore, exceptionally, I do not intend to make any further contribution. I shall leave the rest of the time available to me to the Minister, in the hope that she might take more interventions, so that we may have a fuller debate during her speech than we have been able to have so far.

10.34am

I endorse the congratulations to the hon. Member for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) on securing the debate. I was rather taken with the self-sacrifice of the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) of what might have been considered to be his own time. I shall try to match that.

Meanwhile, I was as impressed as ever by the speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer). It is a matter of fact that Sir John Stevens presented his latest report to the Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland on 17 April. As the hon. Member for Hull, North reminded us, we have now had three Stevens inquiries. The first was set up under Lord Brooke when he was Secretary of State for Northern Ireland in 1989 and the third following a request from the then Chief Constable of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, Sir Ronnie Flanagan. Therefore, it is a saga that has already lasted for some 14 years.

The events that prompted those three inquiries are the murder of solicitor Patrick Finucane in February 1989 and the allegations that members of the security forces colluded with so-called loyalist paramilitaries in his murder, and the murders of a number of other Roman Catholics. In recent days we have also read claims that in some of those cases members of the Army's force research unit directed loyalists towards certain targets in order to protect the identity and life of the agent known as Stakeknife. I am sure that hon. Members will forgive me if I say that I most emphatically do not wish to go down that road.

There are, however, two matters on which I wish to comment. The first relates to whether there should now be a public inquiry into the Finucane murder. The second is whether past or serving members of the armed forces should face criminal prosecutions for their part in certain anti-terrorist operations.

The Conservative party does not believe that a public inquiry is warranted. As I have said, there have been three Stevens inquiries over 14 years. The Finucane murder is also the subject of an investigation by the retired Canadian judge, Peter Cory. We are told that his inquiry has now been completed and that the contents are in a secure location in Canada. What purpose would another inquiry serve? After the excesses of the Saville inquiry, which has already cost over £100 million and could end up costing double that, do we really want to create yet another haemorrhage of legal expenses—a lawyers' orgy? If three inquiries by the most senior police officer in the country and a distinguished retired judge cannot establish the truth, how can we be confident that a public inquiry would yield any better results? Therefore, we believe that the latest Stevens report and the Cory report when published should represent closure on this matter.

On the subject of prosecutions, our view is clear. It would be wholly wrong to put on trial past or serving members of the security forces, the Army or the RUC, for their part in the fight against terrorism at a time when more than 440 terrorists have benefited from the early release scheme established by the Belfast agreement; nor, however, do we believe that members of the security forces should benefit from arrangements of the type put in place for terrorists. That would introduce the concept of equivalence between the legitimate forces of the Crown and illegal terrorist organisations. That is morally repugnant to us and would rightly be resisted by the armed forces and members of the police.

What do we believe should happen? As a result of the latest Stevens inquiry, a number of case files are currently with the Director of Public Prosecutions in Northern Ireland. He will obviously make an assessment in the normal way as to whether in each case there is a less than 50 per cent, chance of a successful prosecution. Yet there is another consideration. The DPP is ultimately responsible to the Attorney-General, who exercises a superintending role over him. It is for the Attorney-General to decide whether a prosecution would be in the public interest. Moreover, under the Shawcross convention, the Attorney-General has a duty to consult colleagues although he cannot take instruction from them. It is our hope that in these cases common sense will prevail and the public interest will dictate that prosecutions do not take place, as occurred in 1988 when Lord Mayhew of Twysden declined to prosecute following the Stalker/Sampson inquiries.

As other hon. Members have said, we are dealing here with very murky events. They should not, however, obscure the huge debt of gratitude that we all owe to the armed forces and the RUC. For over 30 years the overwhelming majority of their members carried out their duties with skill, great bravery and even-handed professionalism. They are deserving of our praise and our thanks. It would be a scandalous travesty if the actions of the few were used to tarnish the achievements and honour of the many.

10.40 am

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) for securing the debate. It is a serious matter and one that I know is of concern to all hon. Members here this morning, including some who have not had an opportunity to speak, so I have listened with a great deal of interest to what has been said. There can be no mistaking the anxieties that have been expressed and the disquiet that lies behind many of the questions raised. I hope that I will be able to respond to those questions and address the concerns. I am grateful for the extended opportunity that the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) has given me by being so generous with his time. I am grateful, too, to the hon. Member for Solihull (Mr. Taylor) for being so succinct.

It is right and proper that I commence my response by returning to the reasons for Sir John Stevens's third report. He begins the second chapter of his summary by outlining the events that he investigated. It is fitting that we remember that Patrick Finucane was murdered in front of his wife and three children in his home on Sunday 12 February 1989. He was 39 years old and he worked as a solicitor in Belfast. Sir John Stevens says in his report that Patrick Finucane was shot 14 times by two masked gunmen, who entered his house in the early evening.

I begin by saying unequivocally that the murder of Patrick Finucane was a tragedy and a crime. It was a tragedy not only for his family, whose grief is still palpable, but for the legal profession and the wider community in Northern Ireland. There can also be no doubt that it was a crime, and as a Government we have clear views on crime and those who perpetrate it. The Government take Patrick Finucane's death very seriously, as do the police. Indeed, Sir John Stevens concludes that Patrick Finucane's murder, and that of the young man Brian Lambert, could have been prevented. That is a matter of enormous regret.

If I may do so without embarrassing my hon. Friend the Member for Hull, North, I shall respond to some of the comments that he made. A number of contributors to the debate have paid tribute to the work of the security services.

I listened with interest to what the Minister said about Sir John Stevens's remarks about the murder of Patrick Finucane. She will be aware that he goes on to say in paragraph 4.6:

"I also believe that the RUC investigation of Patrick Finucane's murder should have resulted in the early arrest and detection of his killers."
That has palpably not been the case. Does the Minister have any comment to make on that?

Indeed: I shall come to that shortly. If I do not, perhaps the hon. Gentleman will draw my attention to it again later. Before I get into the detail, I want to respond to some of the comments made about the work of the security forces and the tributes paid to them, but in doing so, I shall make clear the context.

I do not share the views of hon. Members who have denigrated the work of my hon. Friend the Member for Hull, North. I pay tribute to the role that he has played and the tenacity with which he has followed the events, and spoken for and pressed Governments on human rights in Northern Ireland and elsewhere. Indeed, he serves on the Joint Committee on Human Rights. It is worth considering comments that he made in a debate on 11 July 2002 on a report of the Intelligence and Security Committee, again in the context of grave criticisms about allegations of intelligence agencies overstepping the grey line that the hon. Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer) described. I will comment on his remarks in a moment. My hon. Friend said:
"I have made grave criticisms … however, I want to pay tribute to the many men and women in the security forces and intelligence agencies who have not behaved in the way I have described, but have acted with great bravery and dedication. They put their lives on the line because they believed that their work would allow others to live in safety. I pay tribute to them: the nation owes them a great deal."—[Official Report, 11 July 2002; Vol. 388 , c. 1120.]
I associate myself entirely with those comments. People who continue to do such important work deserve our support.

In their fight against terrorism, the security forces use a variety of techniques, including the use of covert human intelligence sources, which is the phrase that we now use for the term "agent". We have always required the public authorities to act within established guidelines when using those sources. The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 ensured that the guidelines set out by Parliament were compatible with the European convention on human rights. That Act has improved the structures for the management of informants and has ensured far greater accountability than there may have been in the past. However, my hon. Friend made a very serious allegation to which I must respond: he alleged that Governments have sanctioned murder. Sir John Stevens does not conclude that successive Governments have sanctioned murder. The report voices many concerns and I accept that its findings must be acknowledged, but the allegation that Governments have sanctioned murder is not one of its findings. It is important that I state that for the record.

We are grateful for Sir John Stevens's efforts in conducting his investigation, just as we are grateful to the former Chief Constable, Sir Ronnie Flanagan, for asking Sir John to investigate. The police response—the Stevens inquiry—has been the largest investigation of its kind in the United Kingdom, and its findings are invaluable to us. Its effort to achieve prosecutions is admirable: we must remember that this third investigation, conducted by Sir John Stevens, has been a criminal investigation, and one that continues.

Sir John Stevens's recommendations for the future are vital, but there could be no one better than Hugh Orde to ensure that the report's recommendations are brought to bear on the reform of the Police Service of Northern Ireland. We must remember Hugh Orde's familiarity with the detail of the Stevens investigation and his knowledge of the circumstances surrounding Patrick Finucane's death. His track record so far is of a Chief Constable who knows what he wants from a police force and how to achieve the best.

The Government's response is that those who are culpable in the affair must face justice. In the first instance, we look to the police investigation and to the criminal process, which must take priority. The investigation is continuing, as I said, and Sir John Stevens has made it clear that lines of inquiry are still being pursued and investigations are still being made. Files have been, and continue to be, sent to the Director of Public Prosecutions, which we welcome. Let no one be mistaken about the role of the DPP: he acts with total impartiality and integrity. He will consider all the allegations passed to him by the Stevens team, and he will apply the prosecutions test to those allegations without distinction. Whether or not he decides to prosecute in each case, he will be acting without fear or favour.

We hear the concerns of the relatives and others who are calling for a public inquiry—a call that was repeated by my hon. Friend this morning. That is why we appointed Judge Cory. He has the task of recommending what, if any, further action needs to be taken in this case and others. Judge Cory is on schedule to complete his work, and to report to both the British and Irish Governments on his six cases by autumn this year. However, let me make it clear that because of the priority given to the criminal justice process we are obliged by law to ensure that prosecutions are not prejudiced and that the criminal justice process is not damaged. We would have to ensure that no public inquiry cut across judicial proceedings.

On the issue of Judge Cory and his investigations, the Minister will be aware of the information, which is in the public domain, that he indicated displeasure at the Stevens inquiry's outcome being in the public domain and said that that could jeopardise his own report. Has Judge Cory been in touch with Her Majesty's Government about his report and its connection with the Stevens revelations?

Judge Cory is in regular touch with the British and Irish Governments about the work that he is undertaking. From time to time, he has expressed various anxieties and made representations to the Irish Government and to us. He continues in that dialogue but is content to continue with his work. We expect to receive his findings in the autumn of this year.

I have broadly set out the Government's position, but I shall try to reply to other issues that hon. Members have raised. My hon. Friend the Member for Hull, North raised the question of a public inquiry, and I shall add one further comment to that. It remains the case that the possibility of holding a judicial inquiry into the Patrick Finucane case has not been ruled out. As I said, however, the criminal justice process must take its course. An inquiry now could undermine the prosecution process and damage the possibility of successful prosecutions. We look to Mr. Justice Peter Cory, who may make recommendations for further action. If he does, we will stand by our commitment to implement his recommendations.

On the Stevens report, it is important to remember that this is a criminal investigation. Sir John Stevens's report is to the Chief Constable, and it was our judgment when the summary was published that it was not for us to make a statement to the House. I note the comments that were made about the suitability of this forum for debating the process, but we have had an opportunity to explore some serious issues. I know that the matter will be returned to on future occasions. Indeed, Hugh Orde has said that it is one of his major concerns. He has committed himself to reporting on the implementation of his recommendations to the Policing Board at its meeting in early July, with an interim report to the board next month. He told the board last week that a good deal of the work envisaged by Sir John Stevens, and contained in his recommendations, was already in progress.

Hon. Members also made comments about Stakeknife. They will not be surprised to learn that I will not comment on intelligence matters. I will not confirm whether press speculation about the identity and actions of Stakeknife is accurate—regardless of how that name is spelt. I will not comment on Stakeknife's whereabouts, nor will I comment on media speculation about any arrangements for his safety. That is a blanket refusal to respond.

Before my hon. Friend intervenes— this may pre-empt his intervention—I will say this: it is for Sir John Stevens to decide whether he wishes to interview Stakeknife. The Government fully support him in his investigation, and we will do everything in our power to assist him.

I take it that no impediments will be put before Sir John Stevens if he seeks to interrogate Stakeknife, if that agent exists?

Does the Minister understand the concerns of those who are currently serving in Northern Ireland in both the intelligence services that are linked to the Army and the police special branch about the problem that they will face in future in handling informers in their traditional way? Does she understand that informers are now very nervous about co-operating with the security services, and that if intelligence gathering in Northern Ireland is weakened, that will put us on very dangerous ground?

The hon. Gentleman makes a serious point.

The hon. Gentleman also asked earlier about the terms of reference of Sir John Stevens in his ongoing inquiries. He spells those out in the opening paragraphs of the published summary of his report.

Finally, I turn to the comments of the hon.—and gallant—Member for Newark. I am grateful to him for enlightening us with examples of his experiences when he served in Northern Ireland. The hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend the Member for Hull, North commented on police primacy. I reassure hon. Members that in my dealings as Minister with responsibility for security with the armed forces and the Police Service of Northern Ireland, I have been consistently reassured that police primacy remains at the heart of the armed services' objectives in their work in Northern Ireland by all those who are engaged in that enormous task.

The hon. Member for Newark also described how those to whom we paid tribute earlier who do that difficult work are constantly trying to judge where the line is drawn. I am sure that he would be the first to acknowledge that those who are engaged in this work are deeply concerned when that line is crossed. They are bitterly disappointed when it is crossed accidentally, but because of the nature of the work that will occasionally happen, as he described. When it is crossed deliberately, the anger that is felt among the brave men and women who undertake this work is very real and deep. It is right and proper that those who cross that line deliberately are held accountable: when that line is crossed, serious consequences sometimes follow.

The security forces and all those who are engaged in this work are properly accountable. The framework within which they operate, as defined by the RIPA regulations, is now comprehensive. It is clear that we need to continue developing and constantly reviewing the way in which we conduct this work. I assure hon. Members that we will continue to do that, and that we will also continue to make the necessary effort to ensure that justice is done, in that case and in others. We uphold the law and the criminal justice system so, in the case of the murder of Patrick Finucane, we look first to the prosecution and conviction of those involved in that crime.

Cyclists

11 am

I am delighted to have been able to secure this debate on the provision for and regulation of cyclists. I am a cyclist myself. I cycle to work every day, but I am consistently amazed by the irresponsibility of many of my cycling colleagues regarding observation of basic laws of the road. The Minister and I have discussed this matter before when we were at red traffic lights together, me on my bike and he in his car. I was a solitary cyclist at red lights, while other cyclists went past me and rode through them. It is all too common to see cyclists ignoring red lights, riding on pavements, riding the wrong way up one-way streets and, in some instances, breaking speed limits. Outside towns, cyclists treat footpaths as their own preserve with virtual impunity.

Lawless cycling causes fear and traffic problems, which are often left behind as the unaware and unconcerned cyclist sweeps on. More importantly, it results in hundreds of cyclists and pedestrians being hospitalised each year. It clearly demands attention. I have called this debate to raise a number of issues surrounding the provision and regulation of cyclists, and to suggest some possible remedies to what I consider to be a major problem.

In my view, adequate legal provision to enforce regulation of cyclists already exists. The difficulty is that it is rarely enacted, and the plain fact is that, by allowing lawless cyclists to continue to flout established ordinance, we are allowing them to put themselves and others at unnecessary risk. I know from my experience that roads, especially in urban areas, can be a dangerous place for cyclists. That applies as much in Merseyside as it does in London. Drivers often pay little heed to their vulnerable two-wheeled pedalling companions.

Although we should expect cyclists to obey the law, we should, as a quid pro quo, ensure that their needs are adequately provided for. Such provision is gradually being established through initiatives such as the national cycling strategy and the cycling projects fund. I welcome and encourage those wholeheartedly in my constituency, which, as part of Merseyside, comes under the local transport plan. We have a cycling strategy that aims to maximise the role of cycling as a mode of transport. It incorporates efforts to extend provision for cyclists and underpin growth in the number of cyclists with a programme of proficiency instruction. That is very much to be welcomed. New cycle paths have been created, and existing cycle paths are being extended across the Wirral. The Wirral is to get a major cycle network as part of the Merseyside cycle network. All that is valuable, but it must progress alongside efforts to improve the enforcement of regulations for cyclists.

Given the numbers involved, provision for cyclists is not adequate. One of my constituents, Mr. Harper, took me on a cycle challenge. We got on our bikes together and went off to observe the provision on the ground in the Wirral. I remember vividly one cycle way that was all of 6 yd long. There is much to be done. The much vaunted targets for hugely increasing the number of cyclists over the next decade could, therefore, offset the benefits of efforts to expand provision.

I appreciate the need for greater provision for cyclists, but I do not believe that that excuses behaviour that is illegal and irresponsible, and that invariably affects the most vulnerable members of society, particularly the elderly when it comes to cycling on pavements.

I stress that I wholeheartedly support the hosts of lawful cyclists among whose number I hope that I can count myself. I support the work of the all-party parliamentary cycling group and try to participate in its annual cycle ride. As a mode of transport, cycling is essentially positive. It is good for one's health and environment, and in the inner-cities, it helps to ease the ever-present problem of congestion—although that is slightly lighter in London at the moment. It certainly gets me home quickly.

Cycling is loved by many, as is clear from its many lofty descriptions. It has been called
"the most civilised conveyance known to man",
and
"the vehicle of novelists and poets",
and even—although it was said in 1896—
"the great emancipator of women".
There is a romanticism about cycling that, unfortunately, informs some cyclists' tendency to regard themselves as above the law. They see themselves as eco-warriors operating on a higher plain of conscience than other road-users who rely as they see it on combustible, carbon dioxide-creating, environmentally damaging fossil fuel to propel their vehicles, rather than their own sweat and self-satisfaction. Some cyclists have a monopolistic, self-righteous arrogance, feeling that only they can be right. Those urban guerrillas operate according to their own morality and ignore the laws that enable our road system to function safely.

That is demonstrated in the actions of the anti-car non-organisation known as Critical Mass. That amorphous group urges cyclists to reclaim the streets by going out en masse and taking over the roads without regard for other road-users or "The Highway Code". Personally, I am unclear about from whom the streets are being reclaimed. It is presumably from car-owners, although I fail to see why the two modes of transport must be, or indeed how they can be, be mutually exclusive. For cyclists to ignore the laws of the road is not the way to achieve harmony.

I am sure that H.G. Wells is right that
"cycle tracks will abound in Utopia",
but I am equally sure that it would be a dismal Utopia for many if they were unable to get there by car. The two tribes must learn to cohabit peacefully; the farmer and the cowboy must be friends. At present, we have a vicious circle: motorists almost hate cyclists because of their apparent disregard for the law and then cut them up and run them off the road, which in turn justifies cyclists' lawless behaviour.

We must bring the two sides together to break the vicious circle, and it is clear that as well as improvements in provision for cyclists and stricter enforcement of rules and regulations, a fundamental attitudinal shift is required on the part of all road-users. Other than running red lights, speeding and riding on pavements, lawless cyclists can be found riding the wrong way up one way streets, under the influence or, at night, without the lights or reflectors required by law. There are problems with cyclists not wearing helmets, although that is not a legal issue because there is no requirement for them to do so.

Like me, you may recall, Mr. Deputy Speaker, the days when the local bobby would make it his business to check bike lights and act as a general guardian of "The Highway Code". Those days are sadly gone, but measures must be found to enforce existing regulations. Any road user disobeying the rules of the road puts others at risk, and even if the offender is not hurt, they might cause an accident by forcing other vehicles to take action to evade them.

I oppose the European Commission's proposal to make motorists liable for such accidents whether they were at fault or not. Motorists clearly have a duty of care towards the vulnerable, but the vulnerable have an equal duty to follow the laws and regulations that exist to protect them. Someone cycling dangerously must be accountable for his or her actions. The roads operate on a system of trust that all users will obey "The Highway Code". Once that trust is broken, the system breaks down, yet cyclists are rarely proceeded against for breaking the most basic principles of "The Highway Code".

The most recent figures available to me are for 2000, when just 52 cyclists were proceeded against for neglecting traffic directions, and just 223 were proceeded against for riding on the pavement—less than a quarter of the 1998 figure. On Merseyside, just 20 people were proceeded against for cycling on the pavement. The enforcement of traffic regulations is left to the discretion of local police chiefs. I am sure that that is right as a matter of principle, but there are thought to be more pressing issues for the police to deal with than enforcing cycling regulations.

Fixed penalty orders may be the most efficient way to discourage the main cycling offences. When applied, they have proved effective. In 2000, in England and Wales, 821 fixed penalty orders were issued for the offence of cycling on the pavement. I understand that the Police Reform Act 2002 introduced police powers to confiscate bicycles from offenders. Indeed, there have been a number of initiatives in recent years, such as mandatory cycle bells for new bikes, fixed penalties for riding without lights and, of course, the vast increase in investment in cycle projects. However, for all the positive effects of increased provision, police powers are rarely applied, regulations are not enforced and little practical change occurs.

Some geographical areas have performed relatively well in enforcing regulation, and of course some authorities choose not to implement the regulations at all. Numerous areas, such as south Wales, Wiltshire and Essex, have seen extended periods in which fixed penalties have not been applied.

There are numerous measures whereby the regulatory system might be strengthened. Subject to improved enforcement, bicycles could be licensed, providing each owner with a progressive record of his or her cycling offences or otherwise. Such licensing need not cover all cyclists; it might be just for each new offender. A monitoring system via licences could carry a variety of penalties according to the frequency of the offences.

Fines, confiscation and other measures could be applied in the same way as they are applied against drivers of motorised vehicles. Cyclists could be obliged to take out third party insurance to cover them for any damage and injury caused. Fixed penalty fines could be applied on an incremental basis according to the frequency and seriousness of the offence. Equally, the range of offences to which such fines applied could be increased.

Clearly, there is a balance to be struck. We do not want a draconian system of regulation, but we may want some regulation, and we certainly want it enforced. Such measures as I have described could have marked success in putting a stop to lawless cycling if they were introduced alongside increased investment to develop more cycle lanes, appropriate action towards lawless motorists and perhaps even legislation to make wearing cycle helmets obligatory, as it is on motorbikes. Those measures would also need to be combined with more effective enforcement of existing regulation.

Lawless cyclists must be held to account. Riding on the pavement was first prohibited under the Highways Act 1835, yet the law remains largely unenforced. Measures are in place whereby lawless cycling might be curtailed without taking up more valuable police time, such as through the increased role of community safety officers in issuing fixed penalty notices. Enforcing existing laws will help to resolve the problem, but a fundamental behavioural change is also needed on the part of everyone on the roads. Perhaps then the numbers of injuries and even deaths caused by clashes between cars and cyclists, and cyclists and pedestrians, each year can be reduced.

We must find ways to allow the police to stop turning a blind eye while allowing cyclists to ride in their own designated space. After all, the most effective way to persuade more people to cycle is to make the roads and provision for cyclists safer and user-friendly. I hope that this subject can be addressed by both the Department and, where appropriate, the Home Office.

11.14am

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, South (Mr. Chapman) on securing the debate and on the succinct, clear and balanced way that he put his case. I am grateful to him for giving us the opportunity to consider cycling, not simply in terms of transport, but as a positive influence on a number of areas such as health, the environment, education, and the economy. That is something that the Government have recognised in their review of a range of policies.

The 10-year transport plan underlined our commitment to encourage cycling by setting a target of trebling cycle use. That target was an interim one on the way to the national cycling strategy aim of quadrupling the number of trips by bicycle by 2012, which we have endorsed. To help support targets to increase cycling we established the National Cycling Strategy Board for England chaired by Steve Norris. That shows that we work on a cross-party basis on these matters.

There are many reasons why we want to see an increase in cycling, as my hon. Friend clearly described. Transfers from car to bike journeys, or to combined journeys by bike and public transport would reduce congestion and, consequently, air and noise pollution. Cycling can also promote social inclusion. One in three households do not own a car. By making it possible for more people to cycle, we improve access to services, jobs and leisure activities.

Improving facilities is essential to increasing cycling. To support that, all local authorities in England, excluding London, have included a cycling strategy in their local transport plans. Authorities' spending on cycling infrastructure was £28.7 million in 2001–02 and £39.7 million for 2002–03, which was a substantial increase in real terms. Projections for the next three years are for spends of between £35 million and £37 million.

In order to determine how well these strategies are working, the National Cycling Strategy Board has established an English regions cycling development team, funded by my Department. Its work includes assessing cycling strategies in local transport plans and authorities' reports as well as auditing on-street provision for cycling and highlighting where improvements can be made. The laughable provision that my hon. Friend described of a 6 yd long cycle lane is the sort of thing that it will look at. A report detailing the assessment of all highway authorities is to be submitted in July.

Better facilities for cyclists alone are of course not enough. Cycling needs to be widely seen as a practical, mainstream form of transport. One of the best ways of encouraging people to cycle more is by promoting its health benefits. Studies show that the risk of premature death is lowest amongst those who are active. Regular moderate exercise, such as cycling, can significantly reduce the incidence of coronary heart disease and other life-threatening illnesses, as well as guarding against the emerging problem of obesity, which is prevalent in this country and many other western countries.

Many people cycle regularly for fun. We believe that an increase in leisure cycling offers a good basis for encouraging people to use their bikes more for everyday journeys. We are highly appreciative of the tourism that cycle routes create. Only last month I visited Sustrans's Cornish way. I was on the route between Bodmin and Padstow. Not only is the route taking local traffic, such as school children, it is attracting tourists from across Europe who come to take an active holiday, cycling through the Cornish landscape and helping to invigorate the local economy along the way. If my hon. Friend has not been on this route I can strongly recommend it. It follows the route of an old railway line and is an extremely attractive and pleasant place to be.

School travel is a matter to which we have given particular focus. In July, I will visit Golden Valley primary school, which provided new cycle parking facilities, as part of a wider safe routes to school programme. Prior to the project, part-funded by my Department under the cycling projects fund, only five children cycled to school, but the project's success has been such that the school now has to limit cycling to one school year each day in order to cope with demand for the facilities. Those are the kind of results that can be produced with relatively modest investment in the right measures, in the right context.

We are also targeting the travel-to-work sector and the Government are urging employers to develop travel plans. A good travel plan should include a number of measures to promote cycling, such as the provision of secure parking, lockers and showers for cyclists, allowances for work journeys made by bike and, possibly, loans for bike purchase. Cycle lockers of the type produced by the BikeAway company, which is based near my constituency in Plymouth, offer cyclists protection from having their bikes stolen. I shall now give a little commercial for my constituency: if authorities want to know whether those products would be of benefit in promoting cycling, they may want to contact the company. Bike stands and secure bike pounds also offer the same protection. If sited at colleges and schools, at the workplace and at selected locations around towns such as bus and rail stations, they can bring about significant increases in local cycling trips.

We are actively involved through our road safety programme in promoting cycle training, and, earlier this week, the CTC launched its adult and cycle training schemes, work on which was funded by the Department for Transport and the Department of Health.

Cycling will increase where it is encouraged as part of longer journeys in conjunction with public transport, and local cycling strategies are expected to facilitate it. The National Cycling Strategy Board is working with the Strategic Rail Authority to integrate bike and rail travel. As those initiatives progress, there is reason to believe that a significant increase in cycling will be achieved in the next few years. However, as my hon. Friend said, the Government are aware that the behaviour of a minority of cyclists leaves something to be desired. That small but conspicuous minority bring the vast majority of law-abiding cyclists into disrepute. It is important that they realise that the rules of "The Highway Code" and road traffic legislation apply equally to them.

The Road Traffic Act 1991 made the worst two cycling offences parallel to those for dangerous and careless driving. The maximum fines are currently £2,500 for dangerous cycling and £1,000 for careless cycling. "The Highway Code", which has a specific section on cycling, details cyclists' legal responsibilities. There are also specific offences, including those relating to poor brakes, riding on footways and cycling under the influence of drink and drugs.

The sight of a cyclist ignoring a red light is, alas, all too familiar, especially in London. I usually walk, but one morning I was in a car adjacent to my hon. Friend, who was riding a bike; he was the only cyclist who stopped at the lights. Eight or nine other cyclists went straight past him, some of them weaving dangerously between pedestrians, including children who were trying to cross the road when they had the right of way. I have noticed that dangerous practice more in London than elsewhere in the country, including my constituency, but it gives cyclists a bad name and puts them and other people at risk.

Cyclists and other road users must obey traffic signs and signals, which exist for everyone's safety. A few cyclists also ignore one-way restrictions. My Department is aware that one-way streets can often result in cycle journeys becoming longer and more hazardous, but we have no plans to change the law to allow cyclists to travel the opposite way down a one-way street. Local traffic authorities already have powers to provide for contraflow cycling on one-way streets where they consider it to be safe and appropriate. My Department provides local traffic authorities with guidance on such facilities.

There is concern about inconsiderate cycling on pavements, which particularly affects the elderly and disabled, and those with limited movement. Cycling on the footway—the pavement adjacent to the carriageway—is an offence, and has been since the 1800s. The introduction of a fixed penalty for cycling on the pavement on 1 August 1999 provided the police with a direct and simple means of dealing with the problem. Chief officers recognise that the fixed penalty must be used with discretion; it cannot, of course, be issued to anyone under 16.

In addition, my Department recently made the Pedal Bicycles (Safety) Regulations 2003, which will come into force on 1 May 2004 and will require a bell to be fitted on the bicycle at the point of sale. The regulations will enhance the safety of pedestrians who share space with cyclists. To improve the conspicuity of cyclists, my Department recently consulted on amending the Road Vehicle Lighting Regulations 2002 to allow lamps where currently only reflectors are permitted, and to allow additional front and rear-position lamps to flash. Flashing lamps would be in addition to the mandatory position lamps that show a steady light. We are considering responses to the consultation.

Ultimately, the level of enforcement of cycling offences is for the local police to determine, but there is no excuse for adult cyclists breaking the law. My Department supports any action taken by the police to deter and reduce cycling offences. Traffic wardens do not have the power to deal with the offence of cycling on the pavement. However, one of the key aims of the police reform process is to free up police officers for front-line operational duties, and to harness the work of the extended police family in supporting the police. Consequently, community support officers have been given the power to issue fixed penalty notices for offences such as cycling on the pavement, and traffic wardens can be designated as such officers.

My hon. Friend also raised the European Union proposal to make the motorist liable for collisions with cyclists. The provision is presumably motivated by the well-meaning desire to maximise the protection given to the most vulnerable road users. However, it would not help us to consolidate our country's good road safety record if we issued the message that some road users need not be concerned about the consequences of their actions because they would be compensated regardless of any fault of their own. Our general line in recent years is that there should be mutual respect between road users, whether they are pedestrians, motorists or cyclists, although I accept that motorists probably have the greatest need to show care.

My Department has examined the case for a road tax on cyclists, but it would require a registration system, such as the one for motor vehicles, and the costs of the system would certainly outweigh any revenue benefit. For similar reasons, it would be impractical to introduce compulsory insurance for cyclists. Like any other road user, a cyclist involved in an accident can be sued for damages by the victim. However, we advise cyclists to take out insurance. Several insurance companies offer policies dedicated to cyclists.

In respect of cycle helmets, our policy is to recommend that they be worn, and our emphasis is on increasing wearing rates through persuasion. My Department conducts monitoring, and has found that about 22 per cent, of cyclists wear a helmet. We will review the option of compulsion from time to time.

The successful promotion of cycling may have huge benefits, through reduced congestion and pollution and improved health. However, as my hon. Friend said, the debate has been in two parts, one on the benefits of cycling, and the other on its problems, as set out in his introductory remarks. The damage done to the image of cycling by a minority of cyclists breaking the law is of concern to us, as well as to my hon. Friend. We need to encourage a culture in which all users take responsibility for their actions and look out for each other. I have no doubt that most cyclists are law abiding and are mindful of the needs of others, but the minority who are reckless and break the law can certainly expect no comfort from the Government. The debate has been useful, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving me the opportunity to speak on the subject.

11.30am

Sitting suspended until Two o 'clock.

Further Education

2 pm

This debate will last one and a half hours, and it may help hon. Members gauge their contributions if I say now that the first Front-Bench spokesman must be called no later than 3 o'clock.

I appreciate the opportunity to introduce this debate. I chose the subject for a mixture of reasons—national, local and personal—as many hon. Members do.

Nationally, a great deal of controversy is building up about recent increases in funding for schools and higher education, but little has been said about the further education sector. I suspect that that is for two reasons. One is that the further education sector rarely attracts headlines, and the other is that the mood in that sector has changed. The Government made a big increase in grant awards last November, and ended 10 years of cuts and contraction. I will try to show that despite that, there are still considerable problems, and perhaps the change is not as impressive as it seems. None the less, the mood of frustration and anger that many of us encountered in recent years, with further education lecturers striking and so on, has certainly changed.

At local level, there are two further education colleges in Twickenham, and they are an important part of the local community. The Learning and Skills Council described the tertiary college, on the basis of its published results, as the top FE establishment in Greater London. The college is an outstanding institution, not just in conventional academic and vocational training qualification terms, but in terms of value added. An interesting experiment took place in which the performance of a cohort of 250 GCSE students who went to the tertiary college was compared to that of an equivalent cohort that went through the private sector and attended top private schools. It showed that the tertiary college significantly outperformed the private sector, and that there was real value added. The college is in a relatively affluent part of suburban London, but a high percentage of its intake comes from deprived parts of inner London, and from adjacent boroughs such as Hounslow and Baling, which have a high ethnic minority population. Its achievements are considerable.

The second institution is the adult education college. It is more difficult to measure performance in adult education, and it is hard to ensure that we are comparing like with like, but some assessments suggest that the college is one of the top colleges, if not the top college, in the country. It is certainly enormously appreciated locally. There are high participation rates, and it is greatly valued. The Minister will be familiar with it, as she recently visited its new business department.

I use the example of those colleges not simply to talk about them in a parochial sense but to test the impact of recent changes in funding. I will go through the arithmetic as it affects those colleges, because that makes the points more concrete arid real, but first I shall add a personal note. My father has been dead for 20 years, but in his time he was one of the leading figures in FE. He was one of those people who first worked on the shop floor, and then educated himself. He became an FE lecturer, trained two generations of people in York in the building trades, which included everything from bricklaying and stonemasonry to quantity surveying, and eventually became the national president of his trade union. He helped to introduce much of our training infrastructure in the late 1960s and early 1970s, including the block day release schemes, which have become somewhat battered over the years, but are none the less the foundation of FE. Among the things he taught me were the importance of further education for people who wanted to improve themselves but did not have the opportunity to go to university, and its critical importance for the skill base of, for example, the building industry. Those two things are as important now they were then.

The issue of funding is central. I shall take the arithmetic that the Government have given us at national level and apply that to the institutions I know, to try to tease out what it means. The headline was that the Government's three-year award was a 26 per cent, cash increase, which in real terms was estimated to be 19 per cent. The fact that that was a three-year settlement was an advance and a positive change; it will give greater certainty, which is important. In the coming academic year, 2003–04, that settlement amounts to a 10 per cent, cash increase, which is an increase of 7.5 per cent, in real terms. That is impressive, and has been regarded as such in the sector.

I discussed the numbers with the college principal, Eric Kirby, and his chief finance officer, Graham Try, whose analysis is all the more credible because he is chairman of the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy, one of the leading organisations of public sector accountants in the country. They showed me that of that 7.5 per cent, real-terms increase, 2 per cent, goes towards the national teacher superannuation scheme, and 3.5 per cent, consolidates two existing pots of funds that were available last year, partly for teachers and partly for standards—that is not new money. A further 1 per cent, is for employers national insurance. The 7.5 per cent, increase cannot therefore meaningfully be described as additional real resources, because 6.5 per cent, is already spent. The increase is welcome, but it does not provide additional real money.

We are talking about a real increase of about 1 per cent., although even that description is flattering. Colleges must also account for their support staff pension fund, which is an additional obligation. There is also a rather technical accounting point—I do not fully understand it; perhaps the Minister can explain it—which is that the standards fund consolidation does not allow for an increase comparable to that in the last financial year. The estimate for the college, which was made by someone who is reputable and professional, was that it would end up with no real increase. In fact, things are slightly worse, because staff pay must be taken into account.

All hon. Members will know from the deputations that we have seen during the past few years, and from the strikes that took place in some of our colleges, that there has been cumulative enormous frustration among technical college lecturers. There are major shortages in certain skill areas where there is competition from the commercial private sector, and the salaries of many of the people teaching academic subjects lag considerably behind those of people teaching the same subject in schools. The maximum figure was 30 per cent.; even the official figures show more than 10 per cent.

Colleges are faced with a dilemma: either they award the lecturers 2.5 per cent., which is the inflation level built in to the award, in which case they will not solve the structural problem of pay, or they pay over the odds and face the need to make a real cut in services. I do not know how different colleges would deal with such a dilemma. The people whom I spoke to at the college were aware that it was in a serious predicament. Although that college is excellent and well managed, and is not thinking about laying off staff or affecting student welfare, it is going to neglect the maintenance of its building, which has already been condemned by Ofsted as totally unsatisfactory. People already have to make hard choices.

I also went to the other college that the Minister visited and I spoke to the principal, Christina Conroy, who is dynamic and successful. She took me through the arithmetic of her institution, where the position was even worse—the cost increase factors applied there as they did in the tertiary college. In addition, only half of that college's revenue comes from the Government. One of the problems for adult colleges is that a substantial part of their income is funded by adult community learning. My local college is seriously underfunded in that area, and it cannot escape because the Government have decided to freeze the allocations until 2008 because of the complexities of a new funding formula.

Adult colleges are trapped. Their only other source of income is to increase fees, but that will cause a dilemma for them. If they carry out market testing and make an increase of 5 per cent., they will lose a substantial number of pupils. There is a problem with the elasticity of demand; they will have to safeguard the interests of the vulnerable clients. There is a limited scope for fee increases. Adult colleges are faced—as tertiary colleges are, but in a different way—with cuts, not increases. I am having to explain to constituents why popular, albeit economically marginal courses are now having to be cut, when the Government have announced big headline increases in cash.

I have illustrated some of the problems suffered by the two colleges—and I stress that those are particularly well managed and successful colleges. I imagine that further down the food chain, with badly managed colleges in more difficulty, the consequences are much worse. I do not want to pretend that the crisis is enormous. I am not talking about redundancies or a critical financial situation, but I am stressing the fact that the expectations that were aroused are being deflated rapidly. One of the colleges described the situation most eloquently, saying that there had been a curve of constant cuts for more than a decade, which had now reached a plateau at a lower level. That is the environment in which the colleges have to operate.

I have several other specific points to make, the first of which concerns staff. I have already mentioned the dilemmas faced by many colleges, certainly in the southeast of England, including the part of outer London that I represent, where there are acute labour market difficulties. One of the changes, which is designed partly to counter the adverse labour market trends, is an improvement in inner London weighting for the part of London that I represent. It used to be 6 per cent., but it has now been increased to 12 per cent. That is a substantial and welcome improvement.

The problem is that the studies on which the Department based its formula suggest that to meet changes in the real costs of living and the market conditions in which people operate, particularly with housing, the figure would need to be about 16 to 20 per cent. We have the awkward problem that although the Government have taken a substantial step forward, the conditions perceived by those who work in the environment, and those who employ them, are deteriorating. I appreciate that it is difficult to meet expectations, but the position of staff, especially in high-inflation areas, is difficult, and that problem has not been solved by the current changes.

Many of the problems that I have described do not apply only to this year; they will apply next year too, because the same cost factors will exist. Colleges are emphasising that the funding that they attract in real terms is conditional. It is not automatic. They have to satisfy a variety of tests to receive something that amounts to between 0 and 3.5 per cent, in real terms. That makes sense up to a point, but it entails uncertainty and complexity.

One of the matters that I have been asked about is business links. In future, the Learning and Skills Council will evaluate colleges in terms of how successful they have been in employer engagement. In a general philosophical sense, I do not have a problem with that. Of course colleges must be economically useful; they must make themselves relevant to their local business community. I do not think that either of my two colleges has problems with that. They are active participants in a business club. They constantly hobnob with the local business networks. As the Minister knows, the business school is very much at the forefront of their minds. Anxiety is felt, however, about the fact that, certainly given the comments of the Secretary of State, the Government seem to believe that the further education sector is failing collectively in such areas.

The Government perhaps do not appreciate that one of the fundamental difficulties that the further education sector has in dealing with business is caused by the problems of small firms. What tends to happen in that sector is that there are employees who want to be trained and there are colleges who want to train them, but companies cannot release their work force because of the fundamental difficulties of releasing staff in a small company. It is important that colleges should not be punished by a crude indicator of business engagement. We look forward to the ideas that will come through in the skills exercise to be carried out imminently by the Government to show how they will address the problem of the small company and how we can obtain the release of staff in a way that meets the needs of employees, companies and colleges.

One of the positive changes taking place, of which there are many, relates to the gradual roll-out of the maintenance allowance for people aged between 16 and 19. There are growing numbers of teenagers who did not do particularly well at school, who now have the opportunity to do post-school advanced vocational qualifications—A-levels—with the help of maintenance allowances. That is a big step forward. As I understand it, the programme is being rolled out, and it would be useful to know at what pace that will happen.

The Foyer Foundation has carried out some interesting research that suggests the enormous potential of building on the concept of the maintenance allowance for people over 19 years old. I meet many people, particularly young mothers, who are trying to get back into the labour force through upgrading their qualifications and training. That would also apply to people who have been mentally ill and are trying to rebuild their lives, who have enormous difficulties with the benefits system, which will help them with employment-related benefits, but will not help them to retrain.

The Foyer Foundation suggests that if the maintenance allowance could be extended to that age group, that would give a very favourable economic cost-benefit ratio. I do not want to go into the technicalities, but there are suggestions that that would be a productive use of Government funding. It would be interesting to gauge the Government's reaction to that work.

In conclusion, I am grateful for the opportunity to introduce an important subject. This is not a crisis point in further education, but perhaps it is a good time to think about FE and take stock of the changes that have taken place in the light of the Government's new settlement last autumn. The fundamental problem remains that the FE sector is still in the shadow of higher education; sadly, it still does not have the same degree of status and impetus behind it. Part of my effort is to ensure that that situation is changed.

2.18pm

I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) on securing the debate. It is a little disappointing that there are not more hon. Members present to consider the important issues that the hon. Gentleman has raised about the funding of further education. My hon. Friend the Minister will know something of the variety of further education provision that exists in the city of Brighton and Hove, part of which represent. We are perhaps unusual in that we have a long-established FE college.

I am glad that the Minister was able to come down in November last year to open the refurbished and latest version of that college—City College Brighton and Hove. It was established in the late 19th century as one of the colleges funded by the tax on whisky, which was directed to increasing opportunities for those who might not otherwise have them. We also have two excellent and innovative sixth-form colleges—one in my constituency and one in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Hove (Mr. Caplin). As a result of a historical accident in the Hove part of the city, we have secondary schools with their own sixth forms. Therefore we have a breadth of provision at that level.

My colleagues who represent the city of Brighton and Hove have made a point of regularly meeting representatives of all those institutions at least once a term. I can attest to the welcome that was given in November last year to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State's announcement of the £1.2 billion increase over the next three years in funding for further education; the three-year funding system that is linked to performance agreement plans from each college and the extension of the educational maintenance allowance.

As I have said, there is a variety of provision in Brighton and Hove, and in the past that has presented problems. Last year, I corresponded with the Minister and drew her attention to some of the problems that can exist in capital funding when sixth-form colleges are governed by one regime, and schools with sixth forms by another. I thank her for the flexibility that both she and the officials in her Department showed in their discussions with the Learning and Skills Council nationally that led to a relaxation of some central Government funding restrictions to sixth-form colleges. We will wait to see what the impact of that will be on the colleges in my constituency, but it is a welcome move.

As the hon. Gentleman has said, the sector generally welcomed last year's changes with enthusiasm. John Brennan of the Association of Colleges, writing in the spring edition of FE Now!, describes it as "a major step forward". He refers to the 78 per cent, increase in cash terms, the 42 per cent, increase in real terms since 1996–97 and the increase both in cash and real terms of funding per student. He says in his article that

"The 1990's nightmare of the efficiency squeeze has been replaced by a steadily improving funding picture".
As the hon. Gentleman said, colleges are expressing worries about the impact on the funding announcement of factors such as employers' national insurance contributions, pension schemes, the effect of consolidation into core funding of allocations for pay, especially professional standards payments in sixth-form colleges, and the staff development component of the standards fund. Colleges are also expressing concerns about their ability to meet the participation targets of further education within the increased funding that is available, which they willingly embrace. I am sure that they will find ways of meeting them.

I understand that colleges have until August to set their budgets for the next year. I am sure that the Minister will be liaising with learning and skills councils throughout the country, as they in turn will be liaising with the colleges within their areas, so that we can ensure that, as we approach the August deadline, some of those problems in school funding that have hit the headlines recently do not occur in the further education sector as well. There is great enthusiasm, and I am sure that Ministers will be willing to listen to the reasonable approach that they will find coming from that sector, while welcoming the settlement announced last year.

There are some other concerns that affect sixth-form colleges in areas where there is variety of provision. These relate to the inequality of funding generally between sixth-form colleges and school sixth forms, and not only in respect of capital issues. I am glad that the Government are taking steps to reduce that inequality. The gap is likely to be down to about 5 per cent, in the near future, and we hope that further progress will be made. However, there is some concern on the part of colleges about what the impact will be on sixth-form colleges when funding for 16 plus is under the remit of learning and skills councils.

Before I leave this area of further education, I should like to put on record my family's debt of gratitude. The hon. Gentleman talked of his father's contribution to FE. My son, who is now an established journalist with a national magazine, received his initial training in journalism at City College Brighton and Hove. My daughter, having spent eight years as a poorly paid nursery nurse, went to Varndean college—a sixth-form college—to take an access course that gave her the opportunity to go to university. Such a debt of gratitude to our FE institutions is probably shared by families throughout the country.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the research undertaken by the Foyer Federation. I have the honour of chairing the friends of the Brighton and Hove foyer. Its role is to secure support from the community for that excellent institution; it is one of 120 foyers throughout the country. There are 50 spaces at the Brighton and Hove foyer, and all respect is due to the manager of the foyer, Sheila Hall, and her staff for their excellent work in providing stability to young people who have faced either real hardship—of a sort that we cannot imagine— or great instability and vulnerability in their lives up to the point when they arrive at the foyer.

The Brighton and Hove foyer caters for people with few, if any, formal qualifications. It gives people, as all foyers do, a second chance. They are young people who have reached the age of 17 or 18 and who have probably left school with no qualifications, or who may not have attended school for much of their last two or three years of formal education.

We all welcome the Government's aspiration to ensure that, by 2010, 90 per cent, of young people will have participated in a full-time programme fitting them for higher education or skilled employment by the age of 22. Foyers have an important role to play in helping to meet that target, as young people who attend often have not only left school with little in the way of formal education, but, because of that, are likely to drift into low-paid employment with little chance of training on the job. Research that is quoted in the Government's skills strategy progress report, published earlier this year, found that 22 per cent, of people with a degree or its equivalent who are in work are likely to receive continuing training opportunities; only 5 per cent, of those with no qualifications are likely to receive continuing training opportunities when they find work.

As the hon. Gentleman suggested, the problem is that at the age of 19 some of the excellent work that helps young people comes to an end because of changes in benefit rules, in particular access to housing benefit which comes into force at that age if the person is in full-time education—that is, studying for more than 16 hours a week.

I shall cite the cases of two people at the Brighton and Hove foyer. Mr. X came to live at the foyer when he was 18. He was doing a full-time media course at City college. Whatever might be said in some quarters about media courses, I remind hon. Members that my son found gainful employment through taking one at City college. After doing very well in his first year, Mr. X went back to college in the second year. However, as the course was full time, when he reached his 19th birthday, he had to move out of the foyer because his rent could no longer be paid by housing benefit. Therefore, the stability that underpinned his education success was being undermined.

The second case is that of Miss Y, who came to the foyer from a difficult family background. She was entitled to income support and full housing benefit because of her family circumstances. She was in year 2 of a full-time HNC course in design. However, when she reaches her 19th birthday, she will no longer be entitled to those benefits. Under the current rules, as her studies are not considered to be vocational, she will not be allowed to continue them. Unfortunately, as she is in full-time education, the housing benefit department will not pay her rent, even if she is no longer claiming benefits. The skilful work of the staff at the foyer, and the helpful offices of the local new deal team, ensured that that young woman was able to continue her education and remain at the foyer. Such successful cases often involve staff turning a blind eye to certain regulations, or engaging in a degree of subterfuge, to ensure that the youngsters can continue studying: that should not be necessary.

As the hon. Gentleman said, the Foyer Federation is proposing an extension of the education maintenance allowance, which the Government will be rolling out from 2004. I commend to my hon. Friend the Minister the submission from the federation, of which I am sure that she is aware. That submission is entitled "Second Chances", and is a response to the progress report on the skills strategy. It argues for an extension of the education allowance to people aged between 19 and 30 who are on courses leading to level 2 or 3 attainment. It would be a means-tested allowance, linked to attendance at, and completion of, those courses—so it would not offer something for nothing, but it would be tied to the study that the young people are doing. That— along with, perhaps, some change in housing benefit entitlement—would make a great difference to the life and education opportunities of some young people, many of whom are extremely vulnerable.

I hope that the Minister and her colleagues will carefully consider what the Foyer Federation has to say, and that they will discuss such matters with Ministers in the Department for Work and Pensions, because this is a cross-departmental issue. I believe that some announcements will arise from the skills strategy progress report that will be produced later this summer, and I look forward to seeing some acknowledgement of the Foyer Federation's findings in them.

The benefits that are to be gained will not be only for the young people themselves. Our economy will also benefit because there will be an increase in the skills base that underlies it, and an outlay at this stage will reduce the likelihood of later benefit dependency by those young people, because they will have been given a chance by the foyers, with their links to educational institutions.

I end by joining the hon. Gentleman in welcoming much of what the Government have done over the past few years, and particularly the announcement in November. The Government have set high targets and expectations for participation in full-time education, because they know that the opportunities for the rest of our lives are often governed by those educational opportunities. I welcome the progress that has been made, and look forward to the Minister's comments on the issues that are raised in the debate this afternoon.

2.34pm

I thank the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) for raising this subject because I, too, believe it to be extremely important. I agree with the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Mr. Lepper), who spoke well and charmingly personally about his own and his family's experience, that we do well to debate the issue as often as we can in the House. I apologise to the hon. Member for Twickenham, to other hon. Members and to the Minister for the fact that I shall have to leave before the end of the debate, because I have to chair a Select Committee. That is one of the consequences of the new sitting hours. I put it on record, however, that I support the new hours, even if they do cause the occasional inconvenience.

The hon. Gentleman said that Richmond upon Thames college was the highest performer in the London area, and that is indeed the case. He may like to know that Orpington is ranked No. 2 out of the further education colleges. Moreover, Richmond upon Thames college is a tertiary college, and is therefore in a different category from Orpington, so Orpington is really the No. 1 when it comes to straight further education colleges. However, I will not pursue that further, as they are both very good colleges. Orpington college has received a string of awards, most recently for its basic skills training, for which it received a quality mark. It is a brilliant college and we are proud to have it in the London borough of Bromley, and in particular in Orpington.

I recognise the value of the new funding package that the Government put in place last November, and would not like anything that I am about to say to detract from my appreciation of that. However, I shall make several general points about how the situation is working out. The Minister will be aware that the Association of Colleges has made the point that qualifications are often inflexible rather than modular, and that the funding that colleges receive is often linked to students completing their qualifications. In practice, that means that colleges are inhibited from offering employers and students the learning that they want.

The Minister will also be aware of the excellent early-day motion tabled by the hon. Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor), who I know takes an active interest in further education issues. That early-day motion
"urges the Department for Education and Skills, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority and the Learning and Skills Council to implement proposals in the interim skills strategy which … give colleges greater ability to develop bespoke"—
I emphasise the word "bespoke"—

"training and flexible qualifications with simplified assessment systems so that they can equip more individual learners and employers with the skills they need in the modern economy."
That is the heart of the matter; we need flexibility and a more bespoke approach.

I mentioned that Orpington college is remarkable for its emphasis on basic skills and its basic skills strategy. However, as the hon. Member for Twickenham mentioned, there are some problems in that area arising from the reluctance of businesses to identify staff who are in need of support, or to give time to it, because they fear that, as a consequence, they will lose staff or may have to pay them more because of the increased qualifications gained. I wonder, therefore, whether the Government could find ways of rewarding employers if they engage staff in accredited training, and simultaneously reward colleges, in funding terms, for delivering a better work force.

My next point is a familiar one, but still valid, and one that weighs heavily on the principals of further education colleges. It concerns the excessive bureaucracy that accompanies much of the funding. The way in which colleges are expected to bid for additional project money, and the constant auditing of how resources are spent, create huge additional costs. I am aware that the Government have made a commitment to reduce such bureaucracy in many areas, including education, but on the ground floor there is little evidence of it happening. That is a problem for FE colleges that are trying to work the new systems.

Finally, I wish to raise the question of the starter home initiative. I raised that issue in a previous debate on further education in this Chamber some time ago—

2.40 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

2.55 pm

On resuming

We all have some difficulties with Divisions in the middle of debates; I am sure the Minister feels the same as we all do. I shall recap my point about the starter homes initiative. Lecturers at further education colleges cannot participate in the scheme, whereas teachers can. The Minister is a London MP, as I am, and she will be aware that this is a particular disadvantage in London and the southeastern area, where housing is such a problem.

She will know that I raised the matter the last time we discussed further education in Westminster Hall. Indeed, she interrupted my speech to say that the problem had been sorted out. Sadly, it has not. She may recall a flurry of correspondence on the subject between her Department, the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister and myself, in which she finally agreed that FE lecturers did not qualify for the starter homes initiative. The latest word that I had—I do not know whether she was copied in to this correspondence—was from the Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, the hon. Member for Harrow, East (Mr. McNulty) on 16 April this year. He said:

"The Starter Home Initiative (SHI) is jointly run by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister and the Housing Corporation, and funded centrally by ODPM … The Corporation expects to hold a bidding round for key worker and other affordable housing schemes in the autumn this year. We are in the early stages of drawing up the details of our approach, in consultation with the Housing Corporation and other Government Departments, including DfES. As part of this work, consideration is being given to the eligibility of key worker groups for housing assistance from April 2004".
In conclusion, I ask the Minister to look into that matter and, as a departmental Minister with responsibility for further education, to do her best to promote the case of further education lecturers to be included in the starter homes scheme.

2.57 pm

Before I begin my speech, Mr. Deputy Speaker, may I ask when the summing-up speeches will start?

We have added 15 minutes on, so the first Front-Bench spokesman will be called at 3.15 rather than 3 o'clock.

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

I welcome the opportunity for this debate, and congratulate the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) on obtaining one of these much-prized opportunities. I shall reflect on the wider context of the contribution that FE makes in the south-west region before turning to the further education sector in Plymouth. In the south-west region as many as 416,000 people are studying in further education—one in seven adults of working age. The majority—some 330,000— are studying part-time, but just over 70,000 are either 16 to 19-year-olds on full-time A-level, AVCE or GNQ courses, or studying HND/HNC in further education establishments.

Colleges are key to the regional economy and to raising the skills level. They produce an ad ded value of some £660 million in our region, and something like 21,000 jobs over and above those directly in the sector. I think that in Plymouth, about 4,000 people are in full-time further education, and about 20,000 part-time students from Plymouth and the surrounding area are studying in Plymouth.

Two of the leading establishments are Plymouth college of further education, which is predominantly sited in my constituency of Plymouth, Sutton, and Plymouth college of art and design. Both play an important part in the life of the city, and in changing a community that has seen the decline of a traditional industry—the defence sector—into a community in which new sectors require people to be trained through further education. In particular, the colleges have been the key to preparation for call centre work and tourism, and, indeed, the groundwork—basic skills.

We have particularly high levels of need for basic skills education; there are low levels of adult literacy and numeracy in the city. I shall return to that issue shortly. The colleges play a critical role in achieving access for people from some of the poorest communities in our city and the surrounding areas, particularly those who have no tradition of higher education in their backgrounds. The links that the further education sector provides between people in such circumstances and the possibility of higher education are critical.

I greatly welcome, therefore, the largest ever investment programme in further education, which represents a vote of confidence in the colleges. I particularly welcome the fact that all hon. Members here have recognised that that involves a significant increase, even if it also involves challenges for those setting the budgets of the further education sector, as hon. Members have taken the time to outline. The £1.2 billion extra going into the sector means a real terms increase of some 19 per cent, over the next three years. Certainty comes with knowing that we have a three-year increase. That will be helpful, because what people in the colleges want most is stability and simplicity.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister can assure us that everything possible will be done to reduce to a minimum the significant shifts that result from technical changes in funding rules, and the audit problems that the hon. Gentleman outlined. Those shifts may happen after courses have been provided and resources have been dedicated to running them, and that can create difficulties.

The hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Horam) referred to the need to be able to align the investment with flexibility in courses. Plymouth college of art and design, a big and important institution, is now one of only a handful of specialist art colleges in the country. In welcoming the skills strategy, it wrote to me:

"Too often, qualifications are inflexible rather than modular and too often the funding which comes to colleges is linked to students completing whole qualifications. In practice this means that we are inhibited from offering employers and students the learning they want."
I hope that the Minister can assure hon. Members that every encouragement and incentive will be given to colleges to use the additional funding to close the gap between the pay and conditions of lecturers and teachers who do similar work. Every hon. Member has probably been lobbied about that. A significant number of teaching posts as well as student places and additional jobs are created through the further education sector.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister can assure me that the work that further education colleges do to improve access to higher education continues, particularly for those from the least advantaged communities, which I have mentioned. I hope that she will join me in congratulating Plymouth college of further education and the local foyer. Hon. Members have referred to the foyer campaign, and I believe that my own college and foyer have just received a beacon award from my hon. Friend at Westminster today. Others attended the ceremony, but unfortunately I could not be there as I was chairing a meeting of our Cooperative group of MPs. I understand that the college and the foyer have just been recognised for achieving excellence in improving access for some vulnerable young people—which other hon. Members have also spoken about. The Minister probably heard about that in the citation.

The partnership between the Plymouth foyer and Plymouth college of further education has sought to provide residents with the opportunity to gain formal accreditation for the personal development targets that they have achieved. The programme was developed to broaden key skills, work with others, and improve learning performance and problem solving. A tutor from the college, key workers and support staff identified potential students and worked with them on the compilation of folders of evidence.

Some 10 residents enrolled on the programme. It is interesting to examine the outcomes that the programme achieved: increasing confidence and refreshing skills learned at school that some people might have forgotten. Of the 10 participants, two enrolled on an access to higher education course at the college, one is doing a GNVQ in health and social care, one is doing A-levels, and another has entered the employment market. That is a laudable outcome, given that the participants were so vulnerable and had some of the greatest barriers and hurdles to surmount.

I hope that others have commended the further education maintenance allowance proposal submitted by the Foyer Federation. Last week I attended a meeting hosted by the Chairman of the Broadcasting Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Mr. Lepper), and was very taken with the contribution that the proposal could make to constituents living in the foyer in Plymouth and to a wide range of other young people.

Mention was made of the need to persuade my right hon. and hon. Friends in the Department of Work and Pensions, as well as my hon. Friend the Minister here today, of that. However, we will probably have to persuade the Treasury in the end, as the proposal carries a large price tag. If piloting is being considered to show that the foyers' suggestions can add value to the economy as well as to individuals, I can think of no better place for it than Devon and Cornwall, where a network of foyers operates under the Devon and Cornwall housing association. The Minister might like to consider that suggestion. Plymouth and the southwest have a good record. The Minister may recollect the success that we made of the Connexions pilot and the robust results that we achieved, so if she wants an ally when she goes to the Treasury about such matters, she should look west.

General work is being done to enable people who aspire to university education for the first time to develop the building blocks that lie in between them and it. Such work is important in a city such as Plymouth. I hope that the Minister can assure me that it will continue, and that she will do everything that she can to highlight the damage that the plans that the Conservative party announced yesterday could do to young people, such as those whom the Plymouth project seeks to help. I hope that she will ensure that everyone knows that the Conservatives' plans will limit the number of higher education places available to young people, and that they will be bad for an economy such as Plymouth's, where there are whole swathes of households that have never aspired to higher education.

Other countries already have far larger proportions of their young people going into higher education, and that affects not just our ability to compete as a city economy, but our ability as a country to compete internationally. Other hon. Members outlined in significant detail the challenges that face those who draw up the further education budgets. I am sure that my hon. Friend is already aware of some of those. I look forward to hearing her concluding remarks, and I hope that she can offer some of the assurances that I have sought.

3.10pm

For reasons that I hope to expand on in a moment, further education is certainly worth funding properly. It is in the Government's interests to do so if they are serious about expanding the educational opportunities available to us all, particularly those opportunities that are available to those who in traditional terms have perhaps not enjoyed any education beyond 16. My hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) is therefore to be congratulated on securing this important debate. Politicians have not been talking about FE nearly enough.

For a very long time, FE colleges have been the Cinderella service of our education and skills system: under-recognised, undervalued, and underfunded. That is extraordinary given that FE involves twice as many students as there are in higher education. Part of the trouble is that two-thirds of FE students are part-timers and that is one of the causes for their low priority in Government thinking. That is quite absurd. There is no reason to suppose that a course is any less valid because it is spread over a longer period and studied on a part-time basis.

England's 400 FE colleges are responsible for nearly 4 million students. That is nearly one in 10 of our population. They are studying for 17,000 different qualifications. In fact, FE is and must be central to the Government's entire education and skills agenda. It is central to opening up vocational learning opportunities for 14 to 16-year-olds. It is central to academic and vocational opportunities for 16 to 19-year-olds. It is central to adult learning and skills. FE is central to assisting people to achieve the qualifications that they need to enter higher education, as well as being a direct provider of higher education. It is not difficult to see that the sector is crucial not only to the Government's aim of widening participation in education but to the wider strategies aimed at tackling social exclusion, unemployment, skills shortages and prisoner reoffending—a subject to which I intend to return shortly.

We are talking about a student intake drawn in large part from the very groups for whom the Government want to expand such opportunities. Indeed, 27 per cent, of college students come from the most deprived 15 per cent, of all local government wards. To give credit where credit is due—something that hon. Members may think I do all too seldom—in last year's comprehensive spending review, there was at long last some recognition by the Government that the FE sector requires more money, as my hon. Friend pointed out. Although the Secretary of State talks in terms of a 19 per cent, real-terms increase in funding over the three years to 2005–06, funding per student will rise by only 5 per cent, over that period. Most colleges are receiving increases this year that will just about keep pace with inflation, but little more.

Sadly, that is in the context of an overall decline in unit funding over the last decade. Between 1993–94 and 1998–99, real terms funding per student in further education fell year on year and by 14 per cent, overall—from £3,910 to £3,350. Recent funding settlements have merely halted this trend. They have not put it significantly into reverse. There has been a 70 per cent, increase in the number of students in the FE sector over the past five years. Unfortunately, as in our higher education sector, funding has not kept pace with the rise in the number of students. Like our schools, colleges also face extra costs such as the rise in national insurance and pensions contributions and increased pay for teaching staff.

Furthermore, the new money has come with strings attached. In his speech to the Association of Colleges annual conference in Birmingham on 19 November 2002, the Secretary of State announced that the investment would be tied to
"a new system of targets and performance management … designed to deliver the Prime Minister's four key principles of public sector reform".
He said that the resources
"will be allocated on the basis of a performance contract with each college based on the following: increasing customer focus, with targets for student numbers and employer engagement; providing high quality teaching and learning, with a target for learner success rates; and improving the capability of the college workforce, with a target for professional qualifications for teachers."
It is ironic to say the least that one of the Prime Minister's key principles of public sector reform as outlined by the Secretary of State is to
"promote devolution and delegation to the front line".
There is an obvious contradiction between that principle and the targets regime announced in the very next sentence. One target is to reduce bureaucracy—only new Labour could institute a centrally imposed target with the aim of reducing bureaucracy. If that is not a contradiction in terms, I do not know what is.

On the subject of bureaucracy, will the Minister act on the unnecessary bureaucracy introduced by at least some of the local learning and skills councils? They vary in how they deal with what they require of their local colleges, but there are horrific tales of colleges having to account for spending down to the last paperclip and of learning and skills councils failing to inform colleges in good time about their budget for the following year, apparently in the expectation that colleges can simply raise or cut staff levels at the stroke of a pen, even in the middle of the academic year.

The Government must also do something about the many separate funding streams through which colleges receive their finances. A typical college has about 30 different funding streams. Far too much money is stuck in specific pots, all of which require separate applications. I suspect that someone will soon start a further education course in how to apply for money to run FE courses.

I turn now to just one illustration of the work that colleges and the FE sector in general can do. It is a demonstration both of the vital part that FE services play in our society and of why the funding question is so important. A recent investigation by the Public Accounts Committee, on which I sat, highlighted the role that education plays, and could play, in reducing prisoner reoffending. In fact, the Prison Service told us that investment in education to help offenders secure jobs after their release would be the single action most likely to affect reoffending.

In response to my questions, the then director general of the Prison Service, Mr. Martin Narey, told us that education can reduce reoffending by 10 to 14 per cent. annually. He said that the return from investment "would be dramatic" but that not enough money is going into the system. As a consequence, he said that, with the exception of the under-17 age group,
"I do not believe I am doing much more than playing at the edges".
The implications of that analysis, at a time when record numbers of people are behind bars and our prisons are struggling to cope, should be clear to all: the financial cost of providing at least some basic education to those in prison is far outweighed by the cost of locking them away for a second stretch.

It is never easy, and it is certainly not popular, to call for more spending on those in prison, and I suspect that I do so at some risk. It is all too easy for the tabloids to say, "If there's enough money to spend on offenders, why can't we have enough money for our schools and those who have not offended?" However, it is an area of policy in which politicians will just have to defy the tabloids. We must point out that prison education is hugely cost effective not only in helping prisoners to become productive members of society, but in reducing the costs of crime, both financial and social.

I shall turn to the dramatic new Conservative policy announced yesterday. The Conservative press release, of which the hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) will be well aware, states that the Government's 50 per cent, higher education participation target
"forces too many young people onto unsuitable courses when they would benefit more from high-level vocational qualifications."
For a party that says that it believes in choice, one might suppose that such a decision is for the individual student rather than the shadow Secretary of State for Education and Skills. Leaving that aside, where will the money come from for the roughly 400,000 extra places on vocational courses that the policy implies? The Conservatives are hoping to use all the money that they save from taking people out of universities to pay for the abolition of tuition fees, but they have not told us where they will find the extra money for all the extra vocational courses.

Colleges already face real problems with the recruitment of teaching staff because salaries are so uncompetitive, as other Members have said. If the Conservatives are serious about providing more courses to train people to be plumbers and carpenters—as their leader said yesterday—they will need to find the money to pay for more tutors. The salaries will have to be competitive enough to attract people who at the moment can earn far more on the job—more, in most cases, than MPs earn. The truth is that the Conservatives are nostalgic for the old days when a university education was the preserve of a privileged few. There will be fewer places and less support for students from non-traditional backgrounds in higher education, and no commitment to additional resources to help those who prefer vocational courses in FE instead.

To return to the Government, the reality is that they have no coherent vision for the role of the FE sector in our education and skills system. As I said at the outset, it is arguable whether the Government's aim of widening participation in this sector will be met at all. Some 11 per cent, of degrees already come from FE colleges. There seems little recognition from the Government, however, of the huge role that FE is ideally placed to play in expanding the educational opportunities available to us all. That is reflected in the discrepancy between funding for colleges and funding for school sixth forms; between the support offered to part-time students and that offered to full-time students; and between the different levels of support students can expect depending on whether they opt for the FE or the HE route.

In addition to well funded FE colleges, we need to support students in FE. We welcome the Government's decision to introduce education and maintenance allowances for 16 to 19-year-olds. However, the time has come, as has been said in relation to the foyer movement, to develop a comprehensive system of student support for adult FE students. It is interesting to note that we spend in excess of £2.2 billion a year on student support for full-time higher education students, but barely a tenth of that amount on full-time and part-time adult FE students. That is despite the fact that the FE sector has twice as many students. Those inconsistencies are indicative of a Government who, after six years in office, continue to lack a coherent sense of direction for the FE sector. That failure undermines the Government's strategy for 14 to 19-year-olds, their higher education strategy, and their adult learning strategy. It also points to a continued failure to recognise the immense value of the FE sector to society as a whole. Our FE colleges are a vital resource, and we should support them.

3.23 pm

It is a privilege to participate in this debate, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) on opening it in such an appropriate manner. When we debate further education in this place, we find that so few people are committed to it that, in one sense at least, those who are so committed are all hon. Friends, and their concern should be that so many people do not pay as much attention to the subject as they should. That is the spirit in which the contributions of the hon. Gentleman who introduced the debate and those of other hon. Members have been made. It is true of the interesting comments by the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Mr. Lepper) on progression, and those by my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Mr. Horam) about the particular problems faced by his local college— incidentally, I am aware of those problems having visited that college, as well as that in the constituency of the hon. Member for Twickenham.

It was interesting to see so many participants in the beacon awards. One is familiar with those because they have been given to leading and outstanding colleges. It was also a particular pleasure to see the local college of the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy) receive the award from the Minister, not least because its principal was exported from Northampton, which is adjacent to my constituency. There is a lot of good in further education—that is perhaps the most important thing that we can say.

In case the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel), who speaks for the Liberal Democrats, feels left out, I wish to say that I agree with his remarks about bureaucracy and about prison education, and want to associate myself with them.

The hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton caused me to lift one eyebrow because in talking about Conservative proposals—which I do not intend to do at length today, because time does not permit it—she assumed that all post-16 activity would need to be conducted in higher education. It is clear from other remarks that she made that that is not the case. However, the hon. Member for Newbury implied that under our proposals, things would be like that.

May I clarify the point that I made? I was stressing the importance of the FE sector in stretching the imaginations of people who do not aspire to higher education. If the numbers in higher education are restricted, the incentives that encourage people to go in that direction will be significantly diminished—and there are a range of other associated issues.

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for clarifying that. However, her argument is somewhat numinous. I would prefer to see proper provision of proper educational instruction in training and in skills that have a practical end result, rather than hopeing that the problems of further education will be solved at one remove through the higher education sector.

Briefly—because it would take too long if we were to draw out these matters—I turn to the attacks of the hon. Member for Newbury on policies that have at least some resemblance to his own. I will not debate that similarity now, but I say to him, with respect, that he should not be worried about Conservatives wishing to go back to the metaphorical dark ages, because it was under a Conservative Government—indeed, it was largely under the Administration of Baroness Thatcher—that the proportion of young people in higher education rose from 8 to approximately 30 per cent. So we will hear no more of that.

On the skills agenda more generally, I will make a contribution tomorrow, if I manage to catch Mr. Speaker's eye, so I shall confine my current comments to the subject of further education funding and related matters. My hon. Friend the Member for Orpington had to leave the debate early to chair a Committee, but he made a distinguished contribution before he left, and I agree with him that this is a better settlement for further education than a couple of the past settlements. That is clearly true, so why argue about it? This is what we must now say to the Minister: whereas in the past we have had new Labour rhetoric unsupported by funding, on this occasion it is accompanied with a measure of funding, and that is at least some advance, but the key questions are about where we go with that and how far it will take us.

The hon. Member for Twickenham used his forensic skills to make the following point very well, and he had more time than I to do so. Clearly, it is possible to deconstruct the Government's inflated figures of what will be available by 2006. First, there is the issue of inflation. Secondly, there is the fact that this comes through over a period of three years, and in year one there will be no increase above inflation. There are also the increases in costs: in national insurance contributions, which alone account for £25 million in the sector, in pensions, and in pay, which has already been referred to. There is a need to keep pay broadly aligned with that of schoolteachers, and there are also further developments to come involving technicians' pay, which are welcome and necessary.

In itself, widening participation and increasing the effort and outreach entails further costs. The greater load will be carried by new enrolments. The assessment by the Association of Colleges suggests that there will be an overall increase of some 5 per cent, for students. To put it another way, most colleges will receive an extra 2.5 per cent, both in 2004–05 and in 2005–06, and that, of course, adds up to 5 per cent. A small number will receive 1 per cent, more than that in both years, for outstanding performance. However, those are conditional receipts, and are not yet actual receipts. I am sure that the Minister would wish to argue that that is proper. As the hon. Gentleman said, the guts of the matter is that in the real-life college situation, there may be no increase at all. That is better than a diminution, but it does not add up to a whole strategy.

One of the points that I want to make refers back to our brief exchanges on higher education. As the Association of Colleges points out, some of the figures for expansion, such as the proposed 11 per cent, increase in enrolment, depend on participation in foundation degrees. I am not here to rubbish such degrees. However, top-up fees may become a deterrent in themselves, and a far greater one than what I described to the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton as the somewhat numinous advantages of the availability of mass higher education on the scale that she envisages.

In any case, there are already real pressures on adult enrolment. Adults are excluded from modern apprenticeships, for example. No extra money is available to take on additional adults at the moment. In a press release that I quickly scooped up during the last Division interval, the association refers to difficulties with access at level 3. That is part of cutting off natural progression; we should be repairing historic skills deficits in cities that are comparatively disadvantaged.

A second issue, on which we all agree, is that colleges are central to the skills agenda. In the past I have been the first and foremost among those criticising Ministers for their rather sniffy attitude to colleges' delivery. I do not think that Ministers always take into account the value added by colleges or the difficulties that they face.

3.32pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

3.46 pm

On resuming

I was saying that we all accept that colleges are central to the skills agenda, and that Ministers have not always been generous to them in the past. If we put that beside the spirit of the new skills proposals, to which we look forward, it seems that there is an anomaly in the present remuneration for colleges, and the way in which employer requirements are scored in respect of college participation. That is a central issue.

The point has already been made that the funding formulae sometimes reward only full glasses and give no acknowledgment to half-full glasses. That may well be a disincentive, either for completion—people may not be able to get through to the end—or because the course may not be what is actually required by the employer or by the individual.

However, another problem for employers is the proportion identified as employer-driven participation. I understand that the Secretary of State has said that it is as low as 7 per cent. On the occasions when I have examined the total revenue for colleges derived specifically from fees, it has always been quite low. I believe that it is below 10 per cent. The Minister is nodding. Of course, some of the students who are in colleges—we hope that they are there and that they have not been deterred, as some employees of small and medium-sized enterprises may have been, according to earlier exchanges—may not be counted as having been sent there by their employers even if the employer is actually picking up the tab, because they may not be directly funded on contract to the college.

I hope that Ministers will review that and refine the formulae, so that at least they do not jump to the conclusion that because colleges have a relatively low direct employer participation rate, that means that employers are not interested. I believe that the experience of most of us is that among good employers—to be fair, I must add that that usually means those that are well organised—there is a strong wish to make full use of college facilities.

It might also be worth considering whether students who are inspired by their employers to participate in basic skills training for which there is no fee nexus should not also be counted as participating with the encouragement of their employers. I believe that to be the case, and it is hugely important.

This year's funding settlement provides some relief. It is better than recent settlements; there is no point in arguing about that. However, we do not need a one-off—or even a three-year-off—change of gear without further progress. With all the difficulties and handicaps that further education has faced in the past, what is needed now, alongside a central role for FE, is a steady and sustained effort, without too many initiatives, but with a continuation of appropriate funding and a degree of continuity of policy and approach. That is the only way to deliver what we want collectively, which is a long-term improvement in the broad skills base of the entire labour force.

3.49 pm

It is refreshing to come to a debate in which all hon. Members from all political parties welcome the Government's investment in a particular sector. It is also refreshing to come to a debate in which all those who have spoken recognise the importance of the further education sector.

In response to the rather sour contribution from the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel), I should point out that if FE had been a low priority in Government thinking, we would not be increasing investment by 19 per cent, in real terms over the coming three-year period. We would not be issuing a whole series of policy documents and initiatives that bring FE in from the cold and ensure that it can make its proper contribution. FE is central to what the Government are about. It is central to our desire to raise skill levels and qualifications, to improve our skills base and enable us to have a prosperous economy. It is central to our social inclusion agenda that we enable every individual to develop their potential and to contribute fully.

I do not recognise the interpretation that the hon. Member for Newbury put on our policies. Indeed, it is because FE covers everything from basic skills through to higher education, and because it deals with everyone from the age of 14 through to our oldest learner, who was 107, that it plays such an important role in what we do. If the hon. Gentleman were properly informed he would know that, as promised by the Learning and Skills Council, all colleges—except five, where there is still a dispute—received their budgets by the end of April. Again, I do not recognise his figure of 5 per cent. He should look at our departmental annual report, published today, in which we show that funding per student will rise by 7 per cent, in the next three years in real terms. By 2005–06, total funding for students will be 13 per cent, in real terms higher than it was in 1998–99.

The hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable), whom I congratulate on securing the debate, acknowledged that there is a 10 per cent, cash increase in the base funding rates for all colleges. He has two particularly good colleges in his constituency. I am in correspondence with the principal of Richmond adult community college about her funding. Funding for people in that area comes through the learning and skills councils. If the college gains funding elsewhere it is difficult for us to justify putting in additional funding to support activities that are funded elsewhere. I hope that he will recognise that.

A number of hon. Members mentioned that our funding over time will depend on performance. There will be a 2 per cent, real-terms increase this year. We recognise that there are additional pressures, but with that additional money all colleges are much better equipped to deal with them. Over the three-year funding period, which many hon. Members have welcomed, those that perform well next year will get a 2.5 per cent, premium. Excellent colleges that exceed their performance targets will get a 3.5 per cent, premium, which will go through into the following year. The outcome-focused funding mechanism is one of the most innovative structures that we have developed in government. Colleges will be rewarded for meeting and exceeding the outcomes that we want. The outcomes involve participation, success rate, employer engagement and raising the skills of the work force.

I will deal quickly with some of the issues that have been raised. The hon. Members for Twickenham and for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) expressed concern about how employer links are to be refined. We are aware of the importance of having sensitive mechanisms for measuring employer engagement; it would be different if someone were talking about a sixth-form college, and very different in many general FE colleges. We will be sensitive to that, but we want to encourage employer engagement. We are also sensitive to the importance of bringing small and medium-sized enterprises into the loop more firmly, and of ensuring that colleges can respond to training needs in SMEs. We will have something to say about that in the skills strategy that we shall publish in the summer.

I had the great pleasure of visiting City college in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Mr. Lepper), and seeing much of the excellent work that he has done there. I congratulate him on his active engagement with the FE sector, which is apparent in our correspondence on various issues. He talked about the foyer, as did the hon. Member for Twickenham, and he asked whether we could move towards some kind of support beyond the age of 19. All hon. Members recognise that that is important. We will introduce the education maintenance allowances nationally by 2004 and I hope that we will have something further to say about our proposals beyond that point in the skills strategy paper we will publish in June or July. We recognise, as other hon. Members do, that for many disadvantaged people in our community it is not beneficial for support for individuals to be cut off at age 19.

Linking with the Department for Work and Pension, which my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy) mentioned, is complicated and expensive. We are in constant discussion with our colleagues in the DWP, and my hon. Friend is correct to say that we should bang a little more consistently on the Treasury's door to try to get sensible working across Departments. There is, however, a real attempt to deal with that throughout the Government.

My hon. Friends the Members for Brighton, Pavilion and for Plymouth, Sutton spoke about our moves towards trying to get a level playing field between sixth-form colleges and schools with sixth forms. I acknowledge and welcome their recognition of the work we are doing on that. We hope to go further, and the financial settlement has taken us a long way down that road. However, no one can account for things that are outside their control. For example, because of pension contributions, we have probably been able to make less progress than we would have liked. Nevertheless, I think that we will make serious progress.

The hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Horam), among others, spoke about qualifications being flexible. The importance of having bespoke qualifications to meet employer needs was also mentioned. We hope to deal with that matter in the skills strategy. Indeed, those who have read the document that we issued in consulting on the skills strategy will have seen various suggestions as to how we can move forward on modular and bespoke qualifications to meet the needs of individuals better.

I do not take kindly to hon. Members saying that we are not tackling bureaucracy. We have a long way to go, but the hon. Member for Newbury ought to ensure that he is better informed. I shall simply say that we have reduced some 75 or 76 different funding streams to five. We are implementing all the recommendations of the Sweeney task force on bureaucracy, and I hope to make announcements in the not-too-distant future about how we can take that good work further forward.

I know that hon. Members are anxious to move on elsewhere now. This has been a good debate; I welcome it, and the support that has been given to the generous funding settlement. I also welcome the partnership that we have established with colleges, in which we will put the learner at the centre, to increase participation and raise standards.

Sutton Courthouse

4 pm

I am delighted to have secured the time for this debate today, and I hope, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that it will be possible for my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) to catch your eye during the debate so that he may have the chance to contribute.

I understand that the Minister cannot, today, prejudge any decisions about courthouse closures. My intention is to expand on some of the points that I raised with the Minister in correspondence after our exchange during the most recent Lord Chancellor's Question Time. The Minister knows of my concern about the way in which the Greater London Magistrates' Courts Authority approached the fulfilment of its stated purpose, which is

to provide a better level of service to court users at the point of delivery—in the courtrooms and at the courthouses."
What has the GLMCA achieved in the two years since it was set up? It has increased its costs. What local magistrates used to do for free now requires a justices' chief executive, paid more than £120,000 a year, and a permanent staff of more than 100, costing approximately £5 million a year. It seems that the main output of the GLMCA is a strategic plan, which was published in December 2001. The plan proposes to improve the delivery of services by closing several of the local courts where those services are delivered.

I am not dogmatically opposed to closing courthouses, or to replacing them with new, purpose-built courthouses, but I believe that any such proposals must be grounded in well-substantiated evidence. For example, the strategic plan should have a clear analysis of what capacity is required, taking account of the wider requirements of other types of courts, such as their use by tribunals. The GLMCA seems to have had some discussions on the question of capacity with the Court Service, but has not carried out its own systematic appraisal. When challenged on that point, GLMCA officials offer nothing more than vague generalisations: they cannot give chapter and verse, or put forward detailed figures to back up the strategy.

The GLMCA's work load assumptions were independently reviewed by the Lord Chancellor's Department in a case arising from the appeal against the proposed closure of the courthouse in Kingston, and the Minister appears to have concluded that the GLMCA's view that the work could be absorbed at Wimbledon was suspect. If the figures for one court closure are open to challenge, the basis for closures and for building new courts elsewhere might also be found wanting, and a large amount of taxpayer's money could be spent on building new courts that are soon found to be too small to carry out the work required of them.

Can the Minister give an assurance that the assumptions made by the GLMCA are thoroughly verified by her Department before substantial amounts of public money are committed to such projects?

Even if the work load assumptions were correct, I would expect there to be a range of investment appraisals setting out how the requirements could be met. Such investment appraisals should be supported by other evidence and studies. For example, there should be a risk analysis examining factors such as what would happen if the planned work load increased, proposed building works were delayed, or receipts from the planned disposal of property were reduced. It seems, however, that the GLMCA has carried out no such risk assessments.

There is a history of Government projects in which risks have not been properly assessed and costs have overrun, and assets have consequently not been properly used and taxpayer's money has been wasted. There should be a business plan and an implementation plan, but the GLMCA has admitted that it has neither.

Moreover, to ensure that the proposals are robust, they should be subject to a cost-benefit analysis. That would examine the impact that the proposed changes would have on court users. For example, it would examine whether the closure of a court would have an impact on the cost and time spent by witnesses, victims, the police and others who have been led to expect that the changes will bring about an improvement in the service that they receive.

The proposals should all be focused on the service provided to the end-users of the courts, but it seems that, all too often, they have been framed solely for the convenience of the GLMCA. The GLMCA has been resolute in refusing to consider how the proposed changes, and the closure of courts in particular, will affect those who use the local courts. I find disturbing the approach that has been adopted so far.

I will now move on from the generalities of the GLMCA's strategy to examine proposals in the London borough of Sutton. I appreciate that the Minister will have to determine an appeal should a decision be taken to close the court. I will therefore avoid touching on issues that she might have to consider in that role. The proposal to close Sutton courthouse is based on the premises that it is underused and that the Croydon court has the capacity to take on the work currently done there.

Does the Minister agree that it is unreasonable to expect us not to see the figures on which the proposal is based? The GLMCA has been asked repeatedly by the chair of the Sutton bench, Mr. Tony Kerr, and the executive head of legal services at the London borough of Sutton, Fiona Ledden, for the figures on which it relies. To date, it has failed to produce those figures. Will the Minister undertake to ensure that the information is provided by the GLMCA and that those being consulted have an opportunity to comment before any decisions on the future of Sutton courthouse are taken? I find it impossible to view as proper a process that is meant as consultation but which does not provide such basic information to enable a realistic evaluation of the case for closure to be undertaken. Does the Minister agree that consultation can be effective only if all those involved are in possession of the full facts on which decisions are made?

In correspondence, I have tried to obtain from the GLMCA information about the advice that its members were given which led them to decide to press ahead to the statutory consultation stage on closure of Sutton courthouse. The GLMCA has refused to publish that information. On what basis is it refusing to provide an open and transparent process in which the public may scrutinise its decisions? Will the Minister ask the GLMCA to provide copies of the advice on which its decision to proceed with consultation on the closure were taken and make it available to Members and others?

It has been asked how meaningful the process is. I have been unable to find anyone in my constituency who supports the closure. It has been opposed by the magistrates at both Sutton and Croydon, by constituency MPs, by the London borough of Sutton, by the Metropolitan Police Authority, by the local witness support scheme, and by many court users and local residents. On what basis were all those views swept aside and the GLMCA convinced that its views alone were of any value? Why does it appear that the GLMCA feels able to ignore everyone else's views?

As the Minister has pointed out to me before, the GLMCA is responsible for running magistrates courts in London, and she has no power to intervene until or unless there is an appeal against a proposed closure. If the members of the authority are not accountable to her and to the Department for their decisions, to whom are they accountable? It seems that the majority of authority members are effectively self-selected, appointed by the authority itself, while others are appointed by the London Mayor, Ken Livingstone. There is no apparent need for the authority to take account of Government policy, and still less, and more importantly, of the views of local residents.

I have written to the Minister about other concerns and I look forward to receiving a response through correspondence in due course. The plans to close local courthouses are being taken by an unaccountable body, using inadequate and flawed information. There has been no genuine consultation. Above all, the closure of local courthouses, including the one in Sutton, lacks the compelling evidence necessary to give the public confidence that their law and the administration of local justice is in safe hands with the GLMCA. Nor will they have any confidence that it will achieve its stated purpose, which is to improve service delivery to court users at the point of delivery in the courtrooms and courthouses.

4.8pm

I welcome the opportunity for the debate. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Burstow) for leaving me time to make a brief contribution. The Minister may be aware that I asked a question during Prime Minister's Question Time about the future of Sutton magistrates court. I expressed concern about the loss of a local court delivering justice locally. In his response the Prime Minister seemed to indicate that he felt that the Greater London Magistrates' Courts Authority was in effect a local organisation making a local decision.

That is not the case. Who is in the GLMCA? Do I meet its members in Woodcote road or Wallington high street on a Saturday morning? Do they approach me? Do I meet them when I am out canvassing? Have they ever approached me directly? The answer is no. I do not know who the GLMCA are. However, I know who my local magistrates are, because I meet them and have regular contact with them. It is clear that they are opposed to the proposal that the GLMCA may make, although I hope, of course, that it does not.

Since the exchange at Prime Minister's questions, I have written to the Prime Minister. I have the letter that I shall send him here. I finish it by posing three questions. First, does he accept the need for justice to be delivered in the manner that best suits the local community, and for justice to be administered by an organisation that is responsive to the needs and wishes of that community? The local magistrates court and local magistrates do that.

Secondly, are the Government committed to the principle that families who need to resort to the courts should be dealt with locally by maintaining the widest possible network of hearings centres? Clearly, that will not happen if Sutton magistrates court is closed. Croydon will be much less accessible, and many families will have enormous difficulty getting to and from the court.

Finally, I ask a specific question about an initiative at Sutton magistrates court that is helping to ensure that young offenders are dealt with according to statutory time limits. I understand that that is to be cancelled. How will removing those time limits help to process cases locally?

As my hon. Friend said, the Minister is not in a position to answer those questions, but I wanted to put them on the record. I hope that the Prime Minister will respond. I finish the letter by inviting him to come to Wallington to meet local residents and talk to magistrates, the local police, the local authority, Victim Support and a host of local organisations that want the court to be kept open. If the Prime Minister did so, he would have a clear picture of what the local community feels about the importance of Sutton magistrates court. I also extend that invitation to the Minister. I would welcome a visit from her, so that she could see for herself how important the court is to the local community. She has been very helpful on other cases, including the Kingston court. I hope that, if we have to proceed with an appeal, she will be willing to meet me, my hon. Friend, local magistrates and the local authority, so that she can hear our point of view.

I should like the Minister to confirm that, if the GLMCA decides to proceed with the closure, she will expect it to produce specific details as to why it wants to do so. We want to be able to examine in detail what it alleges are the reasons for the closure. Certainly, in relation to Kingston magistrates court, a number of the arguments that the GLMCA deployed for wanting to close the court did not bear examination. We want to know what reasons the GLMCA deploys, so that we can knock them down.

Our residents have made it clear that they want local justice delivered locally by local magistrates who understand the issues, are accessible to local people, are not remote and live in the community. I hope that, when decisions are taken about the court's future and when, potentially, an appeal is heard, the residents' wishes will be at the centre of any decision.

4.13pm

I congratulate the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Burstow) on securing the debate. I know that he feels strongly about this issue. He has raised it with other Ministers, as has the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake). They have raised the proposal of the Greater London Magistrates' Courts Authority to close Sutton magistrates court and transfer the work to Croydon. As they both acknowledged, the Ministers in the Lord Chancellor's Department have to take decisions on appeals about the closures of magistrates courts, so there is a limit on what I can say in advance of any appeal on which I may have to decide. However, I shall try to respond as best I can to the points made by hon. Members, and I assure the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam that I shall reply to his letter shortly.

As hon. Members are aware, magistrates courts are managed by locally based magistrates courts committees, as set out in the provisions of the Justices of the Peace Act 1997. Each committee is statutorily responsible for the efficient and effective administration of the magistrates courts, including the provision of adequate accommodation. The GLMCA is responsible for Sutton magistrates court.

Decisions to close, retain or expand magistrates courts are the responsibility of the local MCCs after consultation with the local paying authority. The Government already encourage MCCs to extend their consultation processes wider than is set out in the legislation, and it is usual for MCCs to consult more widely than their paying authorities and for longer than the eight-week minimum period set out in Cabinet Office guidelines. We also expect them to consult a wide range of local stakeholders, including magistrates, staff, police, the probation service, the Crown Prosecution Service, MPs and other community groups. In the case of the proposal to close Sutton courthouse, the GLMCA confirmed that it consulted for three months from 4 December 2002 to 14 March 2003, and it has extended the consultation period until 16 May to allow time for any further representations.

Given that no formal determination has yet been made by the GLMCA, I cannot comment on specific issues relating to the proposed closure of Sutton magistrates court. If the GLMCA makes a formal determination to close the court and an appeal is lodged by the local paying authority within one month of receipt of notification, I will have to make a decision. If there is no appeal by the local paying authority, the Lord Chancellor's Department has no role. We will consider any appeal lodged with the Department on the merits of the case presented by each party once dialogue has ended between the GLMCA, the local paying authority and officials in my Department.

Hon. Members asked about the information that I should demand from the GLMCA. In every case, I am always keen to ensure that all sides have the fullest access to the information and representations put forward by the other side, so that they both have a chance to respond. That will ensure that the GLMCA can respond to points made during the paying authority's appeal, and that the paying authority and others, including magistrates and local MPs, are fully aware of the reasons put forward by the GLMCA and can respond further.

In all such cases, I have been keen to ensure that each interested party is satisfied that it has had the full opportunity to make its case to the Lord Chancellor's Department. I can assure the House that if an appeal and determination is made in the case of Sutton magistrates court, I will do so again.

Before we get to an appeal stage, will the Minister use her good office to encourage the GLMCA to pass on to the consultees all the relevant information that they have asked for but not yet obtained?

I am not aware of what information the GLMCA has or has not circulated, but I will ensure that the hon. Gentleman's concerns are passed on to the GLMCA. As he will know, because any proposed closure is a matter for the GLMCA rather than the Lord Chancellor's Department, it is the GLMCA's responsibility to ensure that proper consultation takes place. However, as I said, if an appeal process is entered into, I will do my best to ensure that all parties have access to the fullest possible information on which the decisions are based.

Magistrates courts committees need to take difficult decisions about their courthouses. They must take responsibility for the condition of the estate, lack of disabled access, poor facilities for witnesses and victims, old and decrepit courthouses, and unused courthouses. All those factors must be taken into account, which inevitably means that magistrates courts committees sometimes have to take decisions that will not be popular with the local community. They must also consider access and the views of the local community when taking their decisions.

The Minister is making a fair point: difficult decisions must be taken. The key point, however, is surely that those decisions must be grounded in clear evidence, which the GLMCA's strategic plan is not. Certainly, the evidence on which it is based has not been published. Surely Londoners deserve to have sight of the evidence so that they can form opinions about whether the GLMCA is delivering efficiency and effectiveness?

Again, as I said, I cannot comment on what evidence has and has not been produced, its status, or how convincing it is in advance of any appeal process. I am afraid, therefore, that I cannot engage with the hon. Gentleman on the details of the information submitted by the GLMCA, except to say that the authority has the responsibility to consult properly and to take decisions about the use of its courts.

Does the Minister believe that the GLMCA should consider, as part of its consultation process, the impact of the court closure on the number of magistrates willing to continue as magistrates?

Clearly, the GLMCA and every other magistrates courts committee must consider the impact of any of their decisions about courthouses on magistrates, staff and members of local communities, and on the distances that they must travel and facilities.

Hon. Members made broader points about the GLMCA, on which I will try to comment. I am not sure that I understood the point made by the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam, but I believe that the hon. Gentleman was suggesting that the committees that preceded the GLMCA were run by magistrates for free. There were magistrates courts committees and administrations for the separate courts throughout London, and different administrations came together to form the GLMCA. They all had their own budget allocations and administrations, so it would be inaccurate to say that before the GLMCA, they were magically run by magistrates with no administrative support. However, it may be that I slightly misunderstood the points that the hon. Gentleman made at the beginning of the debate.

I recognise the concerns that both hon. Members have expressed about whether magistrates courts committees entirely reflect the views of magistrates or the local community. I also recognise the concern that magistrates courts committees are not clearly accountable to the local community or to Parliament. I am aware of concerns about the current structure of the magistrates courts committees, which we considered in great detail when we developed the structure for the new unified administration of the courts, in which the magistrates courts service and the Court Service will be merged into a single organisation.

The aim is to make the services part of a single executive agency that is ultimately accountable through Ministers to Parliament, and to create local courts boards that include representatives from the wider community as well as magistrates. We are still holding a series of debates with stakeholders about how to do that so that we can ensure that local community views are taken into account.

We have also tabled an amendment to the Courts Bill to ensure that magistrates in particular are directly consulted, as there is concern that because magistrates courts committees exist, local magistrates on a particular bench or in a particular courthouse do not necessarily believe that they have been closely involved in particular decisions taken by the magistrates court committee. We tabled the amendment in order to clarify our intention that magistrates should be consulted on all sorts of decisions.

The hon. Members for Sutton and Cheam and for Carshalton and Wallington also asked about the decision on the Kingston courthouse. I decided to agree to the appeal on the courthouse and then, for several reasons, to overturn the decision to close the magistrates court. We were concerned that Wimbledon did not have the capacity for the work load to be moved there. Other considerations were the size of the population served by Kingston magistrates court, and the fact that it was located so near to other criminal justice agencies. As part of our approach to creating criminal justice boards and improving co-ordination across criminal justice agencies, co-location offers huge advantages.

I want to return to the point that the Minister was making, before she turned to Kingston, on the future reforms for making courts more accountable. Given the fact that there is now a clear policy intention to make those changes, does she agree that the strategic plan of the GLMCA should not proceed apace, but should wait until the new authority takes over and is able to take a look at it in the context of the new accountability framework?

The problem is that it will take two years to set up a unified administration. It is important that there is not a complete planning blight in the meantime. Decisions related to local circumstances, when progress needs to be made rapidly, should not be delayed for two years. That applies not only to London, but to areas throughout the country. Clearly, it is important that discussions are held with the Court Service about different estate implications, and the implications for county courts and the Crown court. Part of unified administration will be a unified estates strategy in every area, and we expect all those issues to be taken into account. I always ask whether those sorts of issues have been considered during the appeals process. However, it would be wrong to halt any development of or changes to estates simply because an overall administrative change is due.

The decisions to be made about the locations of courthouses and the distribution of work around London are not easy. The GLMCA must take responsibility for those decisions, and do its best to improve services for local communities, not just in the provision of magistrates courts, but in the work of the wider criminal justice system. When appeals come to Ministers, we try to ensure that every opportunity is given for those involved to make representations and give their views. Should we reach the point of determination to close, followed by an appeal, I would certainly consider all the detailed questions that the hon. Members for Sutton and Cheam and for Carshalton and Wallington raise, and I should ensure that they were given the opportunity to make their points. The two hon. Gentlemen understand, and have acknowledged during today's debate, however, that it would be inappropriate for me to comment on the detail of the issues involved at this stage. I hope that the situation is resolved and that, in the meantime, the hon. Gentlemen can have further discussions with the GMLCA.

Seafarers

4.28 pm

Last year, the Home Office commenced its consultation on the review of the Race Relations Act 1976. That included taking into account the proposals to implement European Union equality directives. Within that consultation, the total repeal of section 9 of the 1976 Act was recommended. The consultation was due to be completed by the end of January, and the Government are to make a decision on the matter imminently. Since then, I have led a number of delegations on behalf of the RMT parliamentary group to the Department for Transport and the Home Office. The repeal of section 9 has the support of the RMT and the TUC.

For the record, I shall explain the contents of section 9. It is a curious anachronism, left over from our racist and colonialist past. It is one of the last bastions of legislative racism yet to fall in the fight to secure a fair society. It is one of the last elements of a racist foundation of law.

Let us go back to the battle for anti-racist legislation in this country. The first major breakthrough was enacted by a Labour Government. The Race Relations Act 1968 outlawed racial discrimination generally, but focused particularly on employment. Shipowners at the time exerted considerable pressure on Parliament with the result that there were three exemptions within the legislation, especially for the shipping industry. The exemptions were that shipowners could refuse to employ a person on board a ship if that would result in people of a different colour, race or ethnic or national origin being compelled to share sleeping, eating or sanitary accommodation.

The second exemption was that shipowners could discriminate in such a way as not to force passengers of a different colour, race or ethnic or national origin to share cabins. The third exemption was that shipowners could engage seamen abroad at lower rates and on different terms than United Kingdom-domiciled seamen. A later Labour Government introduced the new Race Relations Act 1976, under which they outlawed the first and second disgracefully discriminating measures, but left the abuse to discriminate on pay on the statute book.

However, that Labour Government recognised that race discrimination was unacceptable in a modern society and set up a working group of industry representatives, employers and trade unionists to study ways in which to overcome problems in outlawing the practice. The working group recommended that race disparity be removed on a staged basis, over five years. There was an attempt to make agreements with certain countries, such as the Philippines, Pakistan, Bangladesh and others but, in reality, there was no movement towards removing the practice. There was increasing recognition that voluntary agreements would not work and that the only way in which to eradicate the practice would be to require legislative amendment. There was an expectation that when a Labour Government were elected, the legislation would most certainly be amended.

Since then, we have seen the effect of the legislation. We have seen the disparity between the wages paid to UK seafarers and those from other countries when they work alongside each other in the same job. Sometimes, the disparity is that non-UK seafarers will be paid less than half the wage of the others. On some ships, they are paid less than the minimum wage. We have also seen the behaviour of some companies, such as P & O Ferries, where UK seafarers have been dismissed and replaced by Filipinos to reduce wage rates. I have one contract of employment in front of me. It shows that the Lapthorn Group are employing a Filipino seafarer for 48 hours a week at less than $500 a month.

Twenty-seven years on, another Labour Government have now arrived, and we expect change; 110 MPs have signed an early-day motion urging the Government to implement change as soon as possible. We believe that it is time to act, but we are fearful that the Government are about to halt the forward march of equality commenced by previous Labour Governments. Why do we believe that? The powerful lobby of shipowners has used every form of influence that it can exert via No. 10 and the Department for Transport to block reform. Rumours abound in the industry and elsewhere that the Government have succumbed to such pressure. There are real fears that, once again, a progressive measure to tackle unfairness in the workplace has been vetoed by No. 10 as a result of lobbying by business interests. I desperately hope that the Government are not about to sell out some of the poorest paid workers in the seafaring industry.

What arguments are the shipowners putting forward? Their basic argument for the past 40 years is that, if British shipping companies were forced to pay all their crews a fair wage, they would become uncompetitive, with the result that companies would be forced to flag out, register under another company or move offshore. That would lead to a reduction in British seafaring and registration under a UK flag. Let us examine those arguments. We have had no estimate based on an objective analysis of the implications for British shipping provided by the Chamber of Shipping. We have heard some hysterical statements that the whole British seafaring industry will be wiped out, but there has been no objective study into such matters.

At present, wage costs are not significant to British shipping. Wages comprise a small percentage of operating costs—most studies say between 2 per cent, and 3 per cent. Increasing wages to a fair level would not be a disproportionate burden on shipowners. It would be offset by some of the advantages of UK flagging.

4.35 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

4.46 pm

On resuming

I was arguing that wages were a small percentage—2 per cent, to 3 per cent, in our last cost analysis—of operating costs for most shipowners, so increasing wages to fair levels would not be a disproportionate burden. Also, the increases would be offset by the fact that UK flagging, and the employment of seafarers, adds to the reputation of any company for safety and reliability. It may also lead to lower insurance premiums and savings as a result of increased efficiency and the skills of the British seafarers operating their ships.

A significant factor in the flagging decision of any company is national taxation arrangements. The Government have put UK shipping companies in their best competitive position for decades by developing a set of support proposals under their "charting a new course" initiative in 1998. That resulted in a raft of proposals for British shipping, including a tax concession of £15 million under the tonnage tax regime.

However, the result is that the same British shipping companies that opposed the reforms under the Race Relations Act 1976 on the grounds of loss of jobs have taken the tax concession and replaced British seafarers with lower-paid, poverty-waged foreign nationals. Since 1998, although more vessels have been registered in the UK, the number of British seafarers, particularly ratings, has continued to decline. The shipowners have clearly taken the Government's tax concession and run.

UK ratings and officers face mounting redundancies, despite the incentives provided to British shipping. I believe that the eradication of the discriminatory clause would protect, and not cause a loss of, British seafarer jobs. Clearly, shipping companies that pay decent, fair wages would not be affected, other than in the fact that they would be assisted in protecting against UK-flagged operations employing seafarers on exploitative pay and conditions. If problems are associated with the repeal of the legislation, owners, the Government and unions should sit down to work out a further programme of support initiatives in order to minimise any drawbacks and promote the advantages of the repeal for the long-term future of the industry.

Despite the spuriousness of the shipowners' arguments, it seems that they have been able to mobilise key support, associated with No. 10, to block the repeal of section 9. The word on the departmental and parliamentary street is that the section will merely be amended to state that discriminatory treatment can continue on the basis of the place of domicile of the seafarer. That is exactly the wording put forward by the Chamber of Shipping in the recent edition of Lloyds List. What do those words mean? If the amendment were accepted, a shipowner could continue to discriminate against someone by paying lower, exploitative wages and employing them on poorer conditions, based on where they live ashore—their place of domicile. In effect, that means no change.

Shipowners will be able to discriminate against seafarers and pay them lower wages if they live in the Philippines, Pakistan, Bangladesh, India or Africa, just as they do now. Those seafarers will do the same job as the person from the UK working next to them or on another ship. They will have exactly the same role, but they will still be paid a quarter or a half of the other seafarer's pay. Many of them will have no paid leave and no employment protection rights even as they do the same job as the British seafarer.

The Government's proposed amendment will make it clear that discrimination under the Race Relations Act 1976 will be exempted on the basis of race, colour, nationality or ethnic origin, but will be allowed on the basis of domicile. No matter how clear the drafting of the clause, there is no doubt that that will embed racist treatment of seafarers for a generation, if not for generations to come. We have the opportunity to change. We have had the consultation, we have heard the message from the representatives of the seafarers themselves and, as a Government, we should put some weight behind this major reform.

The argument that has been put forward by the shipowners that their industry would be crippled by paying fair wages is the same argument that has been mobilised for every reform measure that the Labour and the trade union movement have put through, from the abolition of slavery through to the proposal for sanctions against apartheid South Africa, the introduction of the minimum wage, minimum standards for working conditions, changes to the length of the working day or even equal rights.

The moral case is overwhelming. We need to act now, because we have the opportunity to act. I expect a Labour Government to do the right thing by British seafarers and by those seafarers from other countries throughout the world who are currently so exploited by shipowners.

4.52 pm

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate and on setting out the issues so clearly, especially as he had an interruption because of a vote in the House. I hope that we can progress without an interruption in the next 20 minutes or so.

I have long associated myself with campaigns to remove discrimination on the grounds of race and colour. None of us in our party has a monopoly of care on that issue. Many of us have had worries in that respect over a long period. My hon. Friend and I share the same views. Such discrimination on the grounds of race or colour undermines our ambition for a fair and just society. That is important to understand because it underpins what I am about to say.

Over the past few years, we have seen a substantial revival in the UK merchant fleet, with an increase of about 90 per cent, in UK-registered shipping since 1997. The introduction of the tonnage tax in 2000 and the reforms introduced by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency to make the UK register more customer friendly have helped to produce a favourable environment for shipping, and we are determined to ensure that that continues. After years of decline and decay in our UK fleet under the Conservative Government, our fleet has grown in a way that it has not done in perhaps 100 years.

As an important maritime nation, the UK has continued to play a major role in the International Maritime Organisation and, in particular, we continue to give our full support to the international quality shipping campaign, which focuses on the problems caused by sub-standard ships. I think that my hon. Friend would agree with me that the greatest hazard to any seafarer, whether he be officer or rating, is working on a sub-standard ship where there could be loss of life and cargo. This country has a proud record in helping to push up international standards in that regard. We can proudly boast a sound maritime administration that maintains a high-quality flag. The United Kingdom is currently top of the Paris memorandum of understanding white list, having the best port state control record in Europe. It does not feature as a targeted flag in any other port state control region. I am proud that the fleet under the United Kingdom flag is rated the best in the world

The conditions of employment on UK-registered ships are high—certainly higher than those for ships under flags of convenience—and all UK registered ships are required to have crew agreements approved by the MCA. For example, MCA surveyors assess safety, accommodation on board ship and pollution prevention. In February, the United Kingdom ratified the International Labour Organisation convention 178 concerning seafarers' working and living conditions, which will require more regular inspections of ships. In addition, the United Kingdom is one of only a small number of ILO member states to have ratified ILO convention 180 on limiting seafarers' working hours. The measures show the Labour Government's strong commitment to protecting seafarers' interests.

That is the background against we have laid an order to amend the Race Relations Act 1976. Until now, under that Act, there has been retained the ability to discriminate on grounds of race, ethnic or national origins and colour and nationality against seafarers recruited abroad to work on UK registered ships. My hon. Friend described that as a curious anachronism, and I agree.

For most of the period in which the 1976 Act has been in force, there has been a sharp decline in the number of UK-registered ships, and, therefore, in the number of ships that can be subject to United Kingdom legislation, so the number of people covered by our legislation has declined until recent years. However, as I said, there has been a huge increase in UK registered shipping since 1997. That has highlighted the fact that foreign seafarers do not have the protection that UK seafarers enjoy under the Act.

The European Community race directive adopted under article 13 of the EC treaty establishes the principle of equal treatment between persons irrespective of racial or ethnic origin, of which we are very supportive. In many respects, it accords with the race relations legislation that this country has had for many years— many other European Union countries have not had such legislation. As part of a package of measures implementing the race directive and the EC article 13 employment directive, the Government want to amend section 9 of the Race Relations Act 1976 to eliminate the ability to discriminate on the grounds of race, ethnic or national origin or colour. I am pleased to announce that there is an order before the House to remove those anachronisms to which my hon. Friend referred. However, in respect of section 9 of the Act, by virtue of a separate order-making power in the measure, we have decided to outlaw discrimination on the basis of colour and national origin as well as on the basis of the grounds required by the directive.

An order has been laid giving effect to the changes. Nationality is the only ground on which to justify paying people differently, including their retirement and death benefits. It is also important to remember that foreign seafarers qualify for the national minimum wage on UK flagged ships when they are in UK waters. Parallel legislation will be laid for ships registered in Northern Ireland.

The Government are persuaded that regulating to prevent pay differentiation on UK-registered ships for seafarers who are recruited abroad would be ineffective and, indeed, counter-productive. It would also be out of line with what is being done by our European Union partners, even though we intend to go further than the directive requires. My hon. Friend made a point about the proportion of crewing costs. They are a substantial part of overall shipping costs. He will know that shipping is a highly competitive industry and that the cost of wages is important to operators' margins. The shipping companies operate in a globally liberalised and highly competitive sector.

The Chamber of Shipping estimates that the additional costs to shipowners of paying foreign seafarers at UK rates could be up to £40 million a year. That would drive many companies to register their ships abroad. As many as 400 ships could leave the UK register, thus removing them from our jurisdiction and carrying the risk that they could move to less safety-conscious registers. If those owners move their ships to other flags, there could be a deterioration in the terms and conditions of work on board those ships for all the people who work on them, whether they be UK or foreign seafarers.

May I ask exactly where the estimate of 400 ships came from and whether it has been objectively tested by anyone?

That was an estimate from the Chamber of Shipping, but the number could be higher or lower. There are substantially more ships on our register, but the indications that we have had from discussions suggest that that is probably the number of ships that would flag out.

We must remember that flagging out is not a difficult process. Indeed, it can be done virtually overnight. Part of the evidence that we have used comes from the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, which is an independent agency that advises us on such matters. It has already received approaches from shipping companies asking which other flag state it would recommend in the circumstances.

The marine officers' union, the National Union of Marine, Aviation and Shipping Transport Officers, has expressed concern that the total repeal of section 9 would lead to flagging out to other registers, thereby leading to a reduction in the employment of UK officers at UK pay levels. The Government have listened very carefully to the officers' union.

We have also considered carefully the views of the RMT, which represents the seafarer ratings. I believe that it supports the total repeal of section 9, but I hope that it will at least welcome our decision to take the matter even further than the EU directive. We are not convinced by the argument that to oblige shipowners to pay foreign seafarers at UK rates would remove the cost differential that encourages the replacement of UK seafarers by cheaper foreign crews. We have not seen any evidence that there would be more jobs for UK seafarers. In fact, as I have indicated, there could well be fewer jobs if many ships flagged out from the UK register.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) on securing this important debate. I also congratulate the Minister on his announcement.

Does he agree that it is very important in discussing world trade and the world economy to distinguish between equity and equality? The flip side of the coin is that if there were not substantial flagging out, the net effect would be to reduce the jobs that are available in places such as the Philippines and the Baltic states on UK-flagged ships. The fact is that retaining the nationality exemption enables us to transfer knowledge and finances to those economies.

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I very much agree with what my hon. Friend said. That is exactly our fear.

I shall move on to wage rates, particularly the rates paid to those on ships that fly the UK flag, many of which never come anywhere near the UK. I firmly refute the claim that paying foreign seafarers local rates amounts to unfair exploitation. The rates paid to foreign seafarers on United Kingdom ships often compare favourably with rates for other jobs in the countries concerned. This is an important matter, so I have taken the trouble to find statistics for comparable rates paid to seafarers in a number of countries, to discover whether that is the case. For example, a Filipino chief officer earns an average $2,400 per month; that may not be as much as a UK officer, but that figure should be compared with an average of $298 for a computer programmer living onshore in the Philippines. That is a huge difference. Similarly, a Polish able seaman's average monthly salary of $1,053 compares with an average of $550 for a shore worker in Poland.

May I give an example that is nearer to home? Salaries for British motormen on the North sea are £20,000 per annum. Filipino seafarers on the Pride of Hull receive approximately £10,365 a year for doing the same job, with no pay for leave.

Of course, if they are in UK waters, they are subject to UK law. Whatever we do, even if we keep the nationality issue, it would not make any difference to that circumstance. My hon. Friend makes a good argument, but that sort of thing needs to be taken up with the union. Nothing that we do here would change that circumstance for those people.

I shall give another example. I am told that the Filipino able seaman is paid an average of $1,100 a month, whereas a qualified nurse in the Philippines earns only $130 a month. My hon. Friend said that we are selling out the poorest paid workers, and paying them lower, exploitative wages. They may be lower wages than United Kingdom wages, but in the countries where those who earn them are supporting families, where they are buying goods and housing themselves, the wages are anything but exploitative. In fact, for many of those people, the wages are good. We have had to take that into consideration.

The Labour Government are firmly committed to removing discrimination wherever possible, and we are convinced that the continued payment of local wage rates to seafarers recruited abroad to serve on UK ships is necessary to ensure the continuing success of our shipping policy, and of the UK register, which is a beacon of quality in the global shipping industry. Our proposals will mean that seafarers of all nationalities employed on UK-registered ships will enjoy greater protection under the Race Relations Act 1976 than has been the case. They will also enjoy the advantages of being employed on ships registered under a high-quality UK flag. That will be particularly relevant in regard to safety, conditions of work and contractual arrangements.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising the subject and for giving me the opportunity to put the Government's case, which is strong. I am proud of the order that we are putting forward today, which ends certain discrimination that has been in place since 1976. If the order is agreed to, we shall see an end to some of that discrimination—and I am proud to put my name to that.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at nine minutes past Five o 'clock.