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Westminster Hall

Volume 405: debated on Wednesday 21 May 2003

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Westminster Hall

Wednesday 21 May 2003

[MR. JOHN MCWILLIAM in the Chair]

Fly Tipping

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

9.30 am

My purpose in seeking a debate on fly tipping is to remind the Government and the House of the scale and seriousness of the problem, to draw attention to factors that are likely to increase the dimensions of the problem and to propose a number of specific remedies, which I hope will be considered for urgent action.

I pay tribute to the work of the officers of the Environment Agency in the Thames region west area, in particular the manager, Mr. Innes Jones. My request for this debate arose from a visit that I paid earlier this year to the agency offices near Wallingford in my constituency, and from site visits that the agency organised for me where fly tipping was going on around the city of Oxford. I also thank my local branch of the Country Land and Business Association, which first got me interested in the subject by drawing my attention to the costs that fly tipping imposes on private farmers and landowners and the injustice that it represents.

All hon. and right hon. Members will be uneasy about the recent increase in litter along Britain's highways and byways. In a written answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) on 7 May, the Minister for the Environment recorded that there are no centrally collected data on the extent of fly tipping, but that a provision in the Anti-social Behaviour Bill now before Parliament will require the Environment Agency and local authorities to collect data and submit annual returns. That is welcome, so far as it goes. However, the Minister was able to report that the Environment Agency has been operating a national incident recording system for the past two years. In the light of that, it is believed that there are about 50,000 fly tipping incidents each year that impose clean-up costs in the order of £100 million a year.

The independent consultancy Marcus Hodges has examined the current impact of fly tipping on landowners. It concluded that fly tipping on agricultural land in 2002 cost farmers £57 million. That figure is high, but it is quite believable because, on 4 March, the Minister told the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) that a recent report on fly tipping on agricultural land estimated that about 600,000 tonnes of waste was deposited on farms in England and Wales in 2001.

Of course, cleaning up is not cheap. For instance, the local authorities in my county of Oxfordshire recently had to spend some £12,000 on putting to rights a single lay-by in the north of the county. The National Farmers Union tells me that, in response to a recent survey, 46 per cent, of its members said that they were spending between £500 and £1,000 a year removing fly-tipped waste, and one farmer reported the cost of one incident to be £30,000.

I am glad that my hon. Friend instituted this debate, because it is an important topic. I apologise that I shall have to leave after a short time to chair the Environmental Audit Committee.

Is my hon. Friend aware that fly tipping is now so rampant that people are dumping waste on ordinary suburban streets in outer London? Huge mounds of waste are being dumped by fly tippers in daylight on the outskirts of London. It is hugely inconvenient, and the cost of cleaning it up is large.

Yes, I am aware of that, and I shall go on to say something about its impact on charity shops, which have become a favoured locale for the dropping of waste, which is often dumped in the middle of the high streets of many towns.

So much for the scale of the problem. On the basis of the data that I have given, I think that all hon. Members will agree that the amount of waste involved, the number of incidents and the annual cost of cleaning up are already unacceptable. Unfortunately, deficiencies in the statistics mean that I cannot produce hard numbers to demonstrate that the dimensions of the problem are increasing, although the Minister may be able to shed some light on the issue in his reply. However, there are anecdotes aplenty, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Mr. Horam) referred. The Association of Charity Shops tells me that there has recently been
"an exponential increase in the dumping of rubbish at charity shops"—
something that it describes as fly tipping by stealth. To add insult to injury, charity shops are obliged to pay for that rubbish to be removed as commercial waste, even though most of it is of domestic origin.

One indicator may, however, serve as a proxy for an estimate of the rate of increase in fly tipping. I mention it because it points towards a more effective way of dealing with the problem, and I shall return to that at the end of my speech. The indicator in question is the number of persons who are convicted annually of fly-tipping offences under the Environmental Protection Act 1990. On 9 December 2002, the then Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Leeds, Central (Hilary Benn), supplied a series of figures from 1991 to 2000. In 1991, just after the Act came into force, four people were convicted of fly tipping. The number rose to 18 the following year. Subsequently, it has risen steadily, from 104 in 1993, to 317 in 1999, and 393 in 2000.

Clearly, one factor is the increasing activity of the Environment Agency and local authorities. However, another important factor is simply the increase in fly tipping. We must all recognise the basic fact that the incentives to fly-tip have increased as a wholly foreseeable consequence of Government policies. I do not say that to attack the Government, whose broad approach to waste disposal I support. However, they must anticipate the inevitable consequences of their polices, and they have not been very good at that in this area.

The biggest factor behind the increase in fly tipping has been the introduction and gradual escalation of the landfill tax since 1996. It has increased the cost of waste disposal to businesses, including construction businesses. I strongly support the tax, which should be escalated even more rapidly than the Government propose. I also believe in the diminution of our national reliance on landfill disposal. However, it is simply realistic to recognise that the landfill tax gives unscrupulous businesses a financial incentive to transfer to others the increasing cost of disposing of their waste.

On top of that, there is the increasing impact of recycling targets on the collection of all kinds of waste by local authorities. Again, I strongly support the policy, but it is simply realistic to recognise that it increases local authorities' sensitivity about the waste that they collect. It also increases the complexity of the way in which householders and businesses must present waste for collection, as well as the charges for disposing of waste in general and some kinds of waste in particular. All of that gives unscrupulous or merely thoughtless people an incentive to shift the cost of disposing of their waste on to others by fly tipping it.

Britain's approach to the disposal of waste is being transformed by successive waves of European Union directives on landfill and packaging, as well as on the disposal of fridges, electronic equipment, cars, tyres and hazardous wastes. As those new laws take effect, one inevitable consequence will be that the cost of disposal rises, and the incentives to fly-tip will inevitably increase. Let me repeat that the directives are leading us in the right direction, and I would not urge the Government to be slow in implementing them—even if that were an option, which it is not. However, I do urge Ministers to act with greater urgency to deal with the inevitable consequences of their policies. In particular, I urge the Government to bear in mind their responsibility to ensure that alternative methods of disposal are available as landfill sites are closed, especially sites for the disposal of hazardous wastes. The Environmental Audit Committee, which is chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington, drew attention to that problem, which I also raised during Prime Minister's questions because I believe it to be of such importance.

In a recent answer to me, the chairman of the Environment Agency said that some 400 of approximately 1,400 landfill sites across the country are already being closed, and that the number will increase over the next three years. It has been reported in the specialist press that the agency has indicated that from July 2004 the number of landfill sites for the disposal of hazardous waste—roughly 20 per cent. of all waste—will fall from 184 sites to only 14, and that my own Thames region will be left with no site at all for the disposal of such waste. There is a real risk that the lack of local opportunities for waste disposal will precipitate a step increase in the amount of fly tipping as the sites close, and that that will include increasing amounts of waste designated as hazardous.

I was glad to see that the Minister told the hon. Member for Leyton and Wanstead (Harry Cohen) that the Government recognise that fly tipping is "a growing antisocial problem", and that they are
"currently considering bringing forward changes to legislation"
that will
"do more to empower both local authorities and the agency to deal with fly tipping".—[Official Report, 24 February 2003; Vol. 400, c. 88W.]
I hope that the Minister will tell us how his consultations are going, what issues he is considering and, above all, the Government's time scale, as this problem is urgent.

My shopping list for legislation includes several suggestions. Should we amend section 59 of the 1990 Act to allow clearance cost recovery from any producer or previous holder of waste who has failed in their duty of care? Should the Government do more to make businesses aware of their duties under the law? Is there a case for extending a duty of care to householders, so that they will be held responsible for the clearance costs of the fly tipping of their waste if, for instance, they have failed to use a registered waste carrier or to obtain and retain a waste transfer note, or would such a change in the law be inappropriate, as the Environmental Services Association has argued on the grounds that the Litter Act 1983 is sufficient?

Perhaps we can do something to make it easier for the Environment Agency and other enforcement agencies to trace unregistered vehicles. I am told that much of the business end of fly tipping is carried out using such vehicles. Making it easier to trace their ownership will help to tie down the business involved. Can we improve the definition of waste to make it easier to secure convictions? The enforcement authorities currently have to prove that the waste was household, commercial or industrial. If the defendant refuses to be interviewed, he can simply walk into the court and claim that the waste came, for example, from agricultural premises, and the case against him will fail.

The Government must also do something about the increasing injustice of the rising cost to farmers, landowners, charity shops and private individuals of disposing of waste fly-tipped on their premises. Before a local authority will take on the cost of clear-up, the occupier has to be able to prove that the waste is not his and that he did not knowingly permit it to be deposited. That is too high a hurdle. The law should be changed so that if the occupier can establish that he has taken reasonable steps to prevent fly tipping, the local authority should be required to clean up the waste.

Can we not introduce a fixed penalty system of minor offences? Such a system would enable them to be dealt with more quickly, and the fixed penalties would impose a greater penalty on minor offenders than the current written warning letter. What about increasing the levels of fines, many of which have remained unchanged since the relevant legislation came into effect? Can we improve the guidance to magistrates on the appropriate way to handle these offences, and make it a topic in the training offered to magistrates?

I am sorry to interrupt my hon. Friend, but he may not have heard the Minister say "Absolutely" from a sedentary position a moment ago when my hon. Friend proposed that fines should be increased. Does he take great encouragement from that? We look forward to hearing from the Minister.

I do take encouragement from that. I hope that the Minister will also give an affirmative response when I suggest how the fine income should be used, but for now I shall concentrate on the role of magistrates courts. If fines are impracticable, such as when an offender claims to be unemployed, could more use be made of community service orders? Action along those lines would improve the legal framework within which fly tippers can be more effectively pursued.

I have another suggestion, which gets nearer to the heart of the problem. The fundamental problem is not the legal framework, although that could certainly be improved, as I have suggested. Rather, the problem relates to the means and resources for enforcement. Let me juxtapose two sets of figures that I have already put before the House.

In a written answer, the Minister recorded that there were
"approximately 50,000 fly-tipping incidents each year"—[Official Report, 7 May 2003; Vol. 404, c. 715W.]
In another written answer, which I have mentioned, the then Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Leeds, Central, recorded that 393 individuals were convicted of fly-tipping offences in 2000. Let me repeat those figures: there were 50,000 incidents, and 393 people were convicted. The clear conclusion to be drawn must be that enforcement of the law against fly tipping is not sufficiently effective. Quite simply, not enough resources are being put into that work.

Of the series of recent written answers on this issue from the Minister for the Environment, the most pathetic is that which he gave to my hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Sir Sydney Chapman) on 21 November 2002. Perhaps with pride—or perhaps not—the Minister stated:
"The Environment Agency has purchased £120,000 worth of surveillance equipment that may be used in covert surveillance operations to identify fly-tippers attempting illegally to dump waste"—[Official Report, 21 November 2002; Vol. 394, c. 284W.]
Let us compare that £120,000 with the £100 million annual cost of clear-up that the Minister records in another written answer.

On that point, I should like to refer to my experience on a visit to the Environment Agency's enforcement operations in my constituency. Those are effective so far as they go, but they are far too limited in scale. In the western area, there are funds to operate no more than four covert cameras at one time, running 24 hours a day, as they need to do. However, the evidence from those cameras enables the agency to refute the all-too-common "I gave it to a man in a van" defence. Such evidence also makes it unnecessary to persuade reluctant witnesses to come to court to testify.

There are many other detection and deterrent devices of proven value, which could be made more effective with a greater commitment of manpower than the agency and the local authorities can currently afford.

I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way a second time. Although there are obvious and sensible uses for closed circuit television in enforcement and prosecution, does he agree that there is a risk that that will only shift the fly tipper along to the next farm, which does not solve the problem?

I have discussed that matter with the enforcement people, who say that the psychology of fly tipping is that people see a site and use it. If it is cleared up, they may return, but if it is repeatedly cleared up, they will abandon it and perhaps go elsewhere. The enforcement people's experience is that surveillance cameras are very effective, and I think that more use should be made of them.

Other things could be done if more resources were available. Registration of carriers could be more effective. Another example is roadside checks on carriers, which is obviously manpower intensive. The placing of "stings" is another example. I believe that that has been tried successfully in Birmingham. It involves placing "trackers" in the waste that illegal operators pick up from vulnerable old people. They often make an exorbitant charge for that and then simply fly-tip the waste. If there is something in the waste that enables them to be identified, so much the better, but that is a manpower-intensive operation.

I conclude by suggesting what should be done to improve enforcement. On 24 November 1995, I introduced an Adjournment debate on speed enforcement cameras. Based on experience in the Thames Valley police authority, which covers my constituency, I put on record evidence of the effectiveness of speed cameras in reducing accidents and saving lives. I proposed that some portion of the fine income produced by speed cameras should be reinvested in increasing their numbers and improving their operation. The debate was an early shot in what was a protracted campaign to persuade Whitehall, especially the Treasury, to see sense in the matter. I am glad to say that in the end, after a number of years and the unnecessary loss of life, the Treasury dogma about hypothecation was put to one side and my proposal was adopted.

I therefore make another proposal in the same vein: let the Government take the necessary action, which does not involve primary legislation, to enable local authorities and the Environment Agency to recoup the cost of enforcing the laws against fly tipping from the income that is derived from fines for fly tipping. The case for doing so is even stronger than it was in respect of speed cameras, which has been conceded. There can be no question in this case of the same sort of objection, which reasonably exercised Transport Ministers, that motorists might resent the camera system as a revenue-raising device.

The Government have an excellent policy, which it inherited from the Conservatives, that is summed up in the slogan "the polluter pays". My suggestion is to make the polluting fly tipper pay directly, through the fines imposed on his activities, for the cost of extending and making more powerful the means of enforcing the law against those activities. I commend the proposal to the Minister. I hope that he will make it part of his current policy review and that it will not take as long to persuade the Treasury to adopt it as it did to persuade it to accept the need for speed cameras, because the problem of fly tipping is acquiring an immediacy and urgency that the Government should not underestimate.

9.52 am

First, I apologise for coming late to the debate. I managed to lock myself out of my office.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Wantage (Mr. Jackson) on securing the debate on a subject that is uppermost in the mind of most Members. In the past few months, I have been carrying out a detailed survey of my constituents in Mitcham and Morden. The result shows that people's two principal worries are crime and environmental quality of life issues such as graffiti, abandoned cars and fly tipping, which are the priorities for nearly two thirds of my constituents.

Fly tippers vary from the unscrupulous Mr. Bigs of enviro-crime, who seem to think that it is our duty to pay to pick up their commercial waste, building rubble and even hazardous chemicals, to individuals who would rather dump their mattress on the street corner than telephone the council's bulk refuse service. The Environment Agency estimates that fly tipping could cost local authorities as much as £150 million a year.

Fly tipping is one of the council's top priorities in the borough of Merton, and it has set a target for clearing 93 per cent, of fly tips within one day. There has been a 36 per cent. increase in the incidence of fly tipping in the past year and more than 85 fly tips are reported each week. Merton's fly tipping budget will increase by 20 per cent. next year and cost council tax payers nearly a third of a million pounds, which is a significant amount for a small London borough. However, it does not cover the aspect of the problem about which I receive the most complaints: fly tipping in back alleys that are jointly owned by private householders who do not feel that they should have a personal responsibility for clearing the rubbish dumped at the back of their houses by small builders and people trying to get rid of tyres.

I therefore suggest a cost-effective, low-cost way of getting rid of the problem—rolling out a national alley-gater scheme in which residents get together with the local authority to block off the back alley. Residents contribute part of the cost, and the council or voluntary sector group involved can help.

One such scheme was carried out in the Pollards Hill ward in my constituency, which has one of the highest levels of fly tipping and of crime generally. It was a huge success, and the pay-off was enormous. Neighbours spoke to one another, the amount of money collected from residents always exceeded what was needed because it was seen as giving good value, the council's contribution was small compared to the benefits for local residents and people on community service constructed the gates. The scheme was cost-effective and much appreciated by local residents.

I believe that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Home Office should work together to come up with such a scheme, because the other pay-off is that it drastically reduced the number of domestic burglaries. Indeed, a couple of years ago in a Wimbledon ward in the borough of Merton, an alley-gater scheme brought about a 65 per cent. reduction—again, a small scheme with a big effect.

Last October, I tabled a ten-minute Bill on waste management licensing whose main aim was to give local authorities the power to combat fly tipping. I was astonished to discover that they did not have the power to ask small businesses or high street shops whether they had valid trade waste removal licences, even though the council tax payers had to pay to clean up the waste if they did not. I am pleased to say that, due to the intervention of my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment, that is no longer the case. We should ensure that local authorities are fully aware of their new powers.

I am pleased that the Anti-social Behaviour Bill, which is being considered in Committee, will introduce fixed penalty notices for fly tipping. That will make it quicker and easier for councils to take action, and the scheme will provide them with some modest help by allowing them to keep the fines to offset their costs. However, an awful lot needs to be done. For instance, out of 4,361 cases reported in Merton last year, only 1 per cent, resulted in sanctions being taken against the perpetrators, even though the council spent more than £75,000 on enforcement. The result is that 99 per cent. of fly tippers get away with it. That is a local statistic of the type sought by the hon. Member for Wantage.

Unfortunately, local authorities still do not have the power to seize vehicles involved in fly tipping, nor to see their waste carrier licences. Only the Environment Agency has those powers. As I said when introducing my ten-minute Bill, giving those powers to local councils would encourage better co-operation between the councils and the agency, which could help with enforcement of the rules. However, most important is the fact that it might lead to an increase in the number of successful prosecutions and to some really tough punishments that would act as a genuine deterrent.

I want to see more powers being given to local authorities to deal more efficiently and effectively with fly tipping. My constituents in Mitcham and Morden are angry about antisocial crimes such as fly tipping that blight the streets and open spaces around their homes. I hope that the debate once again raises the profile of an important matter and that the Government continue to listen. Through initiatives such as the alley-gater scheme, we might be able to reduce the incidence of dumping. However, environmental crimes such as fly tipping should not be tolerated, and environmental criminals should be made to pay for the misery that they cause to my constituents and to people throughout the country.

9.58 am

I am delighted to take part in the debate. It is important to establish that fly tipping is a rural and an urban problem. It involves not only the countryside, but, as we have already heard, affects all our constituencies, whether town or country. Fly tipping sends the most terrible signal about how people view an area. It contributes to lawlessness, and sends the message that the area is not cared for and that anything goes. That detracts hugely from the quality of life of those who live in areas where fly tipping is a frequent menace.

The cost of clearing up fly tipping is enormous. The Environment Agency's figure of £150 million has been quoted, but I doubt whether it captures all the costs to local authorities, the police and the other responsible agencies. I shall give a brief example.

I was talking to a gentleman who runs a building business, part of whose remit is to clear up fly tipping on behalf of local councils. He told me that it costs £3,000 a month to clear up the lay-bys on either side of a dual carriageway on the way to Westoning in Bedfordshire. That is just north of my constituency, so it falls in Mid-Bedfordshire district council's area. The gentleman knows that cost because he bills the local authority, and the figure of £150 million is probably an underestimate. The waste of taxpayers' money, when we all know that there are vital services that could use it, is horrendous. The Government need to focus on that.

I have thought long and hard about this issue, and I mentioned it in my maiden speech. I have a number of different suggestions and solutions that I would like to put to the Minister for further consideration. I am sure that he views the issue as seriously as we all do. The gentleman to whom I spoke used to take waste away from building sites, but he was almost being run out of business because he was competing against fly tippers. Being a resourceful fellow, he developed the other half of his business, which is clearing up fly tipping. He is managing to hang on in there, and he has made a very practical suggestion, which I would like the Minister to consider.

When those in the building trade apply for their road tax licence, they should also be asked to show an operator's licence. As they are illegal businesses, many of those engaged in fly tipping do not possess an operator's licence. If they were asked to show one when they bought their road tax, that would cut off some of that activity at source. I commend the suggestion to the Minister. Perhaps his officials can look into it further and liaise with the other relevant Departments.

Can the Minister clarify whether the local authorities and the police have the power to seize vehicles that are engaged in fly tipping? Last Friday, at half past 6 in the morning, I went out with my local chief superintendent on an operation to try to clear up fly tipping. He did not know whether his officers have that power, which is quite worrying, and he asked me to find out. Do local police forces have that power under the antisocial behaviour legislation? The police can seize vehicles that are involved in antisocial behaviour. Does fly tipping qualify as antisocial behaviour? I certainly think it should, and I hope that we can make progress on that point.

The ability to identify a vehicle and tie it to a specific owner is vital. Our constituents, the police or a local authority are sometimes lucky enough to see the number plate of a vehicle involved in such activity but, because of the way that cars are bought at auction and the way that they can change hands without the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency or other official bodies knowing who owns it, it is difficult to link the vehicle with the person responsible. That is an area where the Minister needs to link up with other Departments if we are to tackle this successfully.

We have heard about increasing the fines for fly tipping, and the Minister gave a nod to that suggestion earlier. I hope that we increase the fines massively. I hope also that the people who are caught suffer and regret having done it. There were 50,000 incidents, although I suspect that there were a lot more, but only 393 convictions in 2000. Most people get away with it. We must introduce that element of fear and worry to the mind of the would-be fly tipper so that he thinks, "If I get caught, it will be too costly and too awful. The fine will be huge, and I will lose my vehicle. I cannot contemplate that, so I will dispose of my waste legitimately."

I am convinced that we must increase the number of covert operations by local authorities and police to catch fly tippers. I know how many cameras my local district council has, and I wish there were more. Those cameras are deployed, but there is an onus on police and local authorities to involve the public as well. The public can be the eyes and ears of the police and local authorities, gathering; the information and evidence that will lead to convictions. Fly tipping is often done very late at night in lonely and isolated spots where there are no people around, so it is difficult for the police and local authorities to get the evidence that they need. For that reason, we must involve the public in helping us to get that evidence.

I am concerned that it is too difficult in many cases for small builders or landscape gardeners to dispose of their waste at tidy tips. No business, however small, can go to a tidy tip and dispose of its waste for free. There are bars on the entrance to many tidy tips that prevent larger vehicles from entering. Part of the solution to the problem is to make the legitimate disposal of waste easier. Perhaps we should think again for the sake of the small jobbing builder or landscape gardener who is trying to get rid of hedge cuttings and the like, and who wants to do so legitimately. We should make that as easy as possible. It should be free, because we are paying more in clear-up costs than we would to take more material in a legitimate way.

I hope that the Minister will liase very closely with the other Departments involved. I had it in mind that a Home Office Minister would be present, because I consider fly tipping to be a serious crime. I am delighted to see the Minister for the Environment here, however, and I hope that he will assure us that he is involving his colleagues in the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, because I understand from the police that the primary responsibility to prosecute lies with local authorities. I hope that he will also liase very closely with his colleagues in the Home Office, who are responsible for criminal justice. The problem requires a joined-up approach.

10.7am

I start by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (Mr. Jackson) on securing this debate. It is very timely, and its subject will find resonance up and down the country. He has not only secured the debate, but has come up with a list of common-sense measures that I hope the Minister for the Environment will shamelessly plunder and incorporate into early legislation. Those measures deserve to be enacted.

I was also struck by the sensible and constructive input from the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh). The use of alley-gaters might be a little harsh, but the idea is extremely innovative. Likewise, I was impressed by my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous). Many of the points that he made apply to my constituency.

Fly tipping not only pollutes the environment, but unfairly imposes costs on law-abiding landowners and farmers. The countryside is an obvious target for the illegal disposal of waste, whether it is household rubbish, food and drink containers, or much larger disposals. The Country Landowners Association has given a staggering figure of more than £50 million for the cost to agriculture of this problem. The National Farmers Union estimates that 67 per cent. of farmers situated next to urban fringes were affected last year by fly tipping. In a recent survey, the Local Government Association found that 94 per cent. of local authorities had experienced incidents of fly tipping, with 20 per cent. recording more than 1,000 incidents. In 2001, the Environment Agency responded to 3,774 incidents of fly tipping. Since Labour came to power in 1997, the Environment Agency has convicted 1,361 individuals and businesses of illegally dumping waste, which is only a fraction of the number engaged in the activity.

Fly tipping is a major blight on the Government's already fragile waste policy. We are slowly making strides towards improved direction and regulation of the legal disposal of waste, but without a properly thought out and efficiently policed system to crack down on fly tipping, the illegal disposal of waste that it represents could run out of control. As with other areas of the waste hierarchy, isolated action is not part of a holistic approach to the issue; it results in waste being displaced from one area of activity to another. Fly tipping is being diverted into illegal activity, as the figures confirm.

If the lack of, or difficulty in, enforcement leads to no deterrent to breaking the law, better and more progressive environmental legislation that is designed to improve our quality of life and to enhance the countryside will not work and Britain will be a worse place in which to live. The current division of responsibilities between local authorities and the Environment Agency—that depends on the type of waste dumped and its location—has led to inadequate collection of data on fly tipping and an inefficient response to the problem.

I welcome the statement by the Minister in which he said:
?The Government are currently discussing with the Environment Agency the potential for setting up a national recording system for fly tipping, which would record this type of data from both the Agency and local authorities in England."—[Official Report, 20 March 2003; Vol. 401, c. 873W.]
My hon. Friend the Member for Wantage said that there was a plethora of inaccurate and unreliable statistics that made it difficult to gauge the seriousness of the problem. It is likely that the data underestimate rather than overestimate the problem. The LGA recently found that 84 per cent. of local authorities believed that they did not have sufficient powers to deal with fly tipping, and that 97 per cent. supported a change in the regulations. In the light of such figures and the clear demand for a change in the law, I hope that the Minister will tell us what progress is being made towards the implementation of a system that will provide an accurate picture and reliable database to inform future policy development.

The picture may be blurred, but there is no doubt that the problem is getting worse, and my experience in my Bexhill and Battle constituency is that it is getting worse fast. Rother district council has seen a sharp rise in fly tipping of materials such as tyres and abandoned cars. There were 130 cases in 2002, whereas there were barely a handful in previous years.

However, as my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Bedfordshire said, the problem is not confined to rural areas. Between July and December 2002, Leeds reported 1,884 incidents of fly tipping, which cost the council £250,000 to clean up. That prompted Simon Firth, the Environment Agency's team leader for Leeds, to say:
"Fly tipping is both an economic and environmental blight. It is antisocial, looks terrible and can attract vermin."
The proliferation of vermin often goes unmentioned. However, in January 2003, the Daily Mail highlighted the issue, reporting that Scotland's rat population has increased by a quarter in just four years, largely as a result of fly tipping.

Yes, since devolution. It is clear that broad changes are needed. The Environment Agency dealt with only 3,774 fly tipping incidents last year; the majority of incidents were processed by local authorities, which are ill equipped in terms of legal status to do so. As I said, local authorities overwhelmingly believe that the system needs an overhaul. We need to arm our local authorities with new and coherent powers.

The Select Committee on Environmental Audit, of which I am a member, recently produced a report, entitled "Waste and Audit", which confirmed that the number of illegal disposal cases had mushroomed since the late 1990s. I particularly commend the report's comments on fly tipping. In point 21, we noted:
"The Environment Agency has recently applied to DEFRA for additional funding to support a Fly Tipping Abatement Task Force"
at a start-up cost of £14 million, plus £1 million annual running costs. In light of the cost of cleaning up, that is a small-beer solution. We strongly recommended that DEFRA gives the application urgent and sympathetic consideration.

Would the hon. Gentleman agree that local authorities might be better placed to do that work than the Environment Agency, because they are under greater pressure from the local population to deal with the problem? Most of our constituents consider that it is the responsibility of the local authority.

I agree that responsibility must rest with locally elected and accountable councillors. However, there is a need for a coherent national policy and a national strategy to ensure that laggards conform, as not all local authorities are up to best practice. The Environment Agency is best placed to make the concerted effort that will ensure that that is done and that there is uniformity of implementation and application of environmental legislation.

Our other point was that:
"Both the Environment Agency and local authorities need more defined responsibilities and improved powers to combat the growth in fly-tipping."
We recommended
"that DEFRA takes the opportunity presented by the Anti-social Behaviour Bill to address the weakness in the anti-fly tipping regime."
It is clear from everything that we have heard that the number of prosecutions for fly tipping, and the fines imposed, are insufficient to cope adequately with the problem, especially when companies decide that it is more economic not to comply with environmental law than it is to comply with it. The average fine imposed for fly tipping is gradually increasing, but it is still far short of the maximum that the Environmental Protection Act 1990 allows. We need greater powers to tackle persistent offenders, and more effective imposition of fines at the point of sentence.

Complaints about the inaction of local authorities and the Environment Agency regarding fly tipping are ultimately a reflection on the Government. I know that the Minister is committed to trying to do more, and that budgets cannot be stretched as far as the Government would like. Because of the waste-related costs imposed on local authorities and environment agencies as a consequence of new regulations, local authorities' budgets are already strained; they have competing priorities other than just responding to fly tipping. As always, we come back to the issues of priorities and funding. This year, in particular, local authorities see their budgets stretched and their priorities questioned more than ever.

The issue can be solved only by improving the myriad ineffectual and sometimes burdensome regulations. We should not stop there but should look at ways of improving public education. We need new regulation plus proper implementation and guidance, or we run the risk of achieving the opposite effect and harming the environment that we are trying to protect.

I have listened to my hon. Friend with great interest. So far as public education is concerned, would he agree that schools, particularly primary schools, could play an important role? Schools could do more to educate the next generation to take litter seriously. Children might then badger their parents to have a better attitude, and people might have more pride in ownership of their areas. That might be a way of tipping the balance.

I wholeheartedly agree. I draw the attention of my hon. Friend to the report that the Education for Sustainable Development Sub-Committee of the Environmental Audit Committee is preparing. It is considering ways in which sustainable development can be promoted through education.

As on so many other matters of environmental concern, the Government's record has fallen short of their ambitious rhetoric. I know that the Minister remains personally convinced of the need for action and his sedentary comments this morning have been encouraging. However, he must not be left isolated in a sea of Government indifference, surrounded by those whose interests and commitment lie elsewhere.

10.20 am

I should like to congratulate the hon. Member for Wantage (Mr. Jackson) on proposing this topic for consideration and all hon. Members who have spoken so far on their thoughtful contributions.

Fly tipping is not a nuisance—it is a crime. We have heard a lot about the increasing problem of urban fly tipping and the fact that people do not even seem to be sufficiently ashamed of themselves to do what people used to do, which was to drive into the countryside where they were not seen. Instead, people just drive round the corner and hope that they are not recognised. That creates a big problem.

We have heard a lot of statistics, which I do not propose to repeat just for the sake of their appearing in press releases. However, the figures that the Government issued in connection with an answer that my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) received included a table with some significant figures. For instance, 380,000 tonnes of construction and demolition waste were dumped in 2001—we have already discussed same of the problems to do with that—and there were 118,000 tonnes of cars. That is a real problem. Although we are rightly concentrating on remedies, we must also consider causes. There is still a problem with the end of life vehicles directive, whereby people must pay to dispose of their cars. However, the poorest people who own a car at the end of its life are the hardest to trace. Such people may have bought that car in the pub and it might not be registered.

There were also 5,600 tonnes of furniture. That was probably fly-tipped by individuals, because not everyone who buys a bed gets one from the top of the market where people also pay for someone to take the old bed away. If people are short of money, they do not do that. However, the figure represents the equivalent of 82,000 double beds dumped in 2001.

I sincerely hope not.

On white goods, the Minister will be relieved to know that I am not going to use the F-word in this debate and that we have struck out all references to it. However, there is still a problem. There is also the problem of uncleared dumps growing. There is a psychology to the process: people pile on rubbish, and then they continue to pile rubbish on rubbish.

I am concerned that farmers are being increasingly affected in my constituency, which is served by two local authorities. Farmers there make no money whatever, but they have to pay for things to be taken away all the time.

Does the hon. Lady support my proposal, on which I hope the Minister will comment, to change the law, so that if a landowner or private individual has taken reasonable steps to prevent fly tipping on his property, he will not be held responsible for the cost of clearing it up?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his point, which I shall come to shortly. It is an important consideration. I am most sympathetic to his thoughts on the matter, because we need to find a solution.

I wish to repeat something that the Liberal Democrats have said before and with which the Conservative party might agree. We must bear in mind the lack of a coherent waste strategy when considering the underlying causes. Although I am happy to give the Government credit for introducing certain activities to build up the waste strategy, that strategy is still like a jigsaw. We all know what it is like when one tries to do a great big jigsaw without having the picture, especially when one gets to the sky. I am not even sure that there has been any blue-sky thinking—we are just feeling our way and seeing what fits and docs not. Many of the comments that have been made support that view.

I know from written answers that the Government are concerned to get things quickly into place. We need full consultation on important subjects like this. However, when Cabinet Office guidelines for consultation and partial regulatory impact were published on 17 February, only nine days were given to consider the impact of legislation that included consideration of fly tipping. We would usually be given about 12 weeks for that. Given the complexity of the debate, one can understand why we would want the full 12 weeks. After all, if the Government have waited for six years up until now, 12 weeks to ensure that the consultation is conducted reasonably seems fair.

We accept that the current system for dealing with fly tippers is inadequate. Average fines are short of the maximum permitted, although they are increasing. We are also concerned about how magistrates deal with the problem generally. We need the Government to give clear instruction to the courts on imposing strong, punitive fines to overcome the problem of the economic solution to rubbish disposal—that it is cheaper to fly-tip than it is to dispose of the waste in the correct way. As has been mentioned, organised criminals—the only way to refer to such people—quietly take large amounts of money for removing rubbish and then simply dump it.

We are also concerned about the Anti-social Behaviour Bill and what the Government are doing. We do not know the real scale of the problem. We know how much has been measured, but we do not know what the unmeasured scale of the problem is. Some of the Bill will deal with the problem in part, but we are uncertain about the provisions for waste on private land—a problem that many farmers have—and for having to deal with the cost of the waste.

Fly tipping is a blight for farmers. It creates a lot of work for them, costs them a lot of money and often causes damage as fence gates are demolished to accommodate the waste. Livestock are often injured, and hazardous waste and poisonous materials are left lying around. It is important to recognise the costs of clearing and repairing.

We welcome the measures in the Bill to extend the powers available to the Environment Agency and to waste collection authorities. We hope that they will bring some benefit. However, those powers must be backed up by resources. We are concerned about what local authorities are doing, about the role of the police and about funding. We also have concerns about the Environment Agency.

I speak as a member of the Conservative party, so will the hon. Lady comment on my suggestion that income from the fines should be used to help to pay for the costs of enforcement? The key issue is enforcement, which requires more expenditure and greater resources.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his idea, which is worth considering and consulting on. Fines are an extra source of income, and ensuring that the facilities were in place to deal with waste would be a very good way of spending them. They would also help to meet the cost of bringing prosecutions and putting the damage right. Much more thought needs to be given to how that can be achieved.

If, as the Government have estimated, local authorities choose to use the powers available to them under the Anti-social Behaviour Bill, the cost could be more than £20 million in the first year. Where will that money come from? Will it come from already hard-pressed Government funds, gradually from fines, or will there be some pump priming first to set up the schemes? Some information would be useful. My fear is that if the problem is left to the council tax payer, especially in the south-east of England where our councils are already hard pressed, it will understandably not become one of the councils' top priorities.

We have a problem with fragmentation and how we deal with individuals or with organisations, how we deal with different sorts of waste and with the roles of the Environment Agency, the police, the local authority and the collection agency. There is a clear need for a coherent strategy; roles and responsibilities should be fully defined and publicised to all concerned, so that there is a simple understanding as to what to do in the case of a given problem. Perhaps we should have a central organisation, such as a national helpline running 24 hours a day, that would give advice as to what to do and whom to contact, or pass on information to the appropriate body.

At the moment, if the rubbish is on public land, one organisation deals with it. However, if it is on private land, the owner deals with it. Parish councils get stuck with it, and parochial church councils get stuck with it when it is in churchyards. They do not have the money to keep on dealing with it. They often rely on volunteer labour, and find such problems insurmountable, especially in rural areas. Fines must be punitive.

We need to think more about landowners, who bear the cost of clearance. Whether somebody collects rubbish from their land or they take it away themselves, it is wrong to expect landowners to pay for disposal when they arrive at a transfer station or landfill site. In such cases, it is easy to establish that they did not cause the problem. If rubbish is sitting in a street, it is easy enough to prove it, to report the problem and to make an appointment to collect it. Farmers do not collect construction waste, and I am sure that the residents of Merton and Morden do not pile up their rubbish immediately outside their backdoors.

If they do, they can be dealt with locally. My suggestion is not a loophole for the sinners to get through; it is a way of dealing with a problem.

This is an urgent problem to which we would like the Government to apply joined-up thinking so that we do not—as is the case with so much waste management legislation—get a bit of a prod here and a bit of a prod there in response to a directive without considering the underlying causes and the possible remedies. We mentioned fixed penalties earlier, but I am worried about their use under the Anti-social Behaviour Bill. Should they relate to the size of the crime, the nature of the material and the ability to pay? Is it different if a poor person dumps a car or somebody who could afford to pay for it dumps a lot of rubble? I hope that the Minister will consider all the points that have been made. There have been some strong messages about the different activities that could take place. The overwhelming point is that we need an answer that does not pick off little areas, but provides a coherent strategy for the whole problem.

10.32 am

It is a pleasure to reply to this important debate on behalf of Her Majesty's loyal Opposition, lest the hon. Member for Guildford (Sue Doughty) should be under any misapprehension. It is unfortunate that only one Member from her party has been able to attend, and I am glad that five Members representing Her Majesty's loyal Opposition are here, although one had to go off to chair the Environmental Audit Committee, which does such a good job.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (Mr. Jackson) on having done an outstanding job in bringing this important matter to the attention of the House, which is in unanimous agreement on the scale of the problem and how unattractive it is. It affects farming, all our lifestyles and tourism, and it is an aesthetic outrage in many parts of the country. As the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) and others have reminded us, it is not merely a matter for the countryside. It is an aesthetic and environmental offence in many urban and suburban areas.

The National Farmers Union tells me that 67 per cent. of farms on the urban fringe report a fly tipping problem. That compares with 25 per cent, in truly rural areas. The closer one gets to towns, the bigger the problem becomes, for obvious reasons. I am certain that, as one moves into towns, the problem is large, but less obvious—it is hidden in back alleys, as the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden reminded us. We are unanimous about the fact that it is an evil, that it is getting worse and that society and the Government must do something about it. However, we seem to be slightly less unanimous on the causes of fly tipping and the solutions.

We do not know the size of the problem, although anecdotal evidence suggests that 50,000 instances occurred last year. We know that the Environment Agency responded to 3,774 of them, but that resulted in only 300 prosecutions. That shows that 49,700 were not prosecuted, and the latter figure is the more significant. The 300 prosecutions may have been of major cases, but many businesses and all sorts of people are taking part in this distasteful practice, and they are getting away with it scot free. Indeed, in 1991, as much as 556 cu m of household waste was collected, presumably from private householders. That is equivalent to the contents of 2,500 wheelie bins—quite a lot, but none the less a relatively insignificant amount compared with the large quantities that we know are to be found in the countryside. People are severely affected by it in all sorts of ways.

Fly tipping comes in different forms. We know about household waste, of which there is quite a lot, and we are becoming increasingly concerned about vehicles and tyres, but the end of life directive will make things a great deal worse. The scrap merchants—an old fashioned expression—say plainly that car dumping will be a much bigger problem than dumped fridges. I apologise for using the F-word, but I shall return to the subject in a moment.

Car dumping will become an extremely large problem as a result of the end of life directive. The British Metals Recycling Association predicts that the number of illegally dumped cars; will triple to about 750,000 a year as a result of the directive. That may be an exaggeration, as the association has to make a case and will want things to sound bad, but when driving around my constituency in Wiltshire, or Gloucestershire or Oxfordshire—my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage is only two stops down the motorway from me, and the Minister knows Gloucestershire well—one sees large numbers of dumped and burned-out cars in the lay-bys.

The problem particularly affects the countryside. We are very concerned about the effect of the end of life directive, but other directives are in the pipeline. We are worried about the ozone depleting substances directive. As the Minister knows, it deals with fridges, which are a huge problem for my constituency. More asbestos regulations will be made soon, but a lot of asbestos is being dumped with builders' rubble, as are soil and supermarket trolleys—"you name it, we dump it." All sorts of people are doing it, and it will get worse.

Those of us in the countryside are extremely concerned about the animal by-products regulations. In Wales, there is evidence of unscrupulous farmers dumping carcases with the ear tags removed, and we may well see more of that unless the Government get their act together. They should set up a sensible system to remove carcases from farms, and bring it into operation quickly.

Leaving aside all those carcases buried on farms or disposed of by knaekermen, hunts alone disposed of 400,000 carcases last year. However, most hunt incinerators are about to become too small, in that they will not achieve the temperature that, from towards the end of the year, will be required by the European Union. The hunts will therefore have real difficulty in dealing with those carcases. What will happen to the 400,000 hunt-collected carcases and the large number of carcases disposed of on the land?

A small number of farmers have signed up to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs scheme for the collection of carcases. Most responsible farmers would not consider so doing, but is there not a risk that irresponsible farmers and traders, as well as some less responsible members of the agricultural community, may be forced to dispose of their carcases improperly?

If my hon. Friend will forgive me, I have only a few moments to respond and I want to deal with a few more points.

The disposal of carcases is a worry, and the Minister might want to respond on the question. It is a huge problem and we believe that it will get worse. The Government are, of course, doing much to put it right, but we believe that they are not doing sufficient. Some useful suggestions have been made today as to what they might do.

First, the Government must think much more carefully about unwanted and unforeseen side effects of European directives. We have seen that with regard to fridges and cars, and we are seeing it with regard to carcases and animal by-products regulations. All those measures are laudable, but sometimes they have unforeseen side effects, to which the Government pay insufficient attention. This country tends to gold plate European directives, which we must avoid doing. We must not be at the forefront of implementing the directives coming from Europe; we must be somewhere in the middle. We should conform, but not excessively. Sometimes we go a little too far down that track, which has unfortunate side effects.

Secondly, we must think about green taxes. The landfill tax, which the Conservatives introduced, is eminently laudable and sensible. We must reduce landfill, and the tax is a good way to do that. Incidentally, we must also reduce incineration. However, if a landfill tax were increased to a level at which it became truly uneconomic for anyone to use landfill and that had an effect on behaviour—at £35 or £40 a tonne, people would say that they could not afford to use landfill—the effect on fly tipping would be enormous. The Government must recognise that.

A balance has constantly to be struck between the level of the landfill tax and the consequences that it has elsewhere in the countryside. We must not have the equivalent of a fridge mountain in relation to the landfill tax. It is a question of finding a level that dissuades people from dumping things in landfill unnecessarily, but that makes it economically possible to use landfill.

I am concerned that the skip hire price in the UK has doubled this year, which is an enormous increase. People do not use skips because of the cost of the landfill tax. That is good from an environmental standpoint, but people may wonder what is happening to all the stuff that used to go into skips. Most of us in this Chamber know where it is going. Therefore, green taxes must not be counter-productive.

Several Members have referred to the Anti-social Behaviour Bill, which presents the Government with an opportunity to deal with some problems that have been raised in relation to fly tipping. They must do so carefully, however. It would be useful if the Government clarified the muddle over the roles and responsibilities of the Environment Agency and of local authorities, which are not clear. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker) said, it is not clear who is responsible for paying for the removal of fly-tipped waste from public or private land, There might be an opportunity to sort out that problem through the Bill.

We like the proposal for a fly tipping abatement taskforce, which was made by the Environmental Audit Committee in particular. It seems to have quite a lot to recommend it and quite a lot of what the Committee suggested is sensible, but we would like additional measures to be introduced. My hon. Friend the Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) talked about identifying offenders. Action could be taken, whether through the vehicle licensing authorities or others, to identify vehicles and CCTV could be used, perhaps in urban or suburban areas more than in rural ones. The hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden talked about that.

In the moment or two remaining, I want to commend a proposal of my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage that makes eminently good sense. In Wiltshire, we are making good use of the ability to hypothecate the money from fines resulting from the use of speed cameras. Like it or lump it, Wiltshire will shortly be covered by those yellow boxes, because the county council is to recycle the funds raised from the fines to introduce speed containment measures. As my hon. Friend proposed, the same principle could be applied to fly tipping. If the local authority recycled the fines, that would be a good use of the "polluter pays" principle, as he says, to improve enforcement standards and prevention in the county.

The Government could and should be doing quite a lot of things, but we have concerns about their approach to European directives, which we believe they may be excessively enthusiastic in applying. There are unfortunate side effects to some directives, as the Minister knows to his cost, and the word "fridge" is probably written on his heart. There has been a failure on occasion to spot those inadvertent side effects. That applies to the end of life directive and the animal by-products directive, which could have serious effects on fly tipping. We ask the Government to pay particular attention to them.

Even at this late stage in the legislative year, the Government should consider introducing a new clause on fly tipping to the Anti-social Behaviour Bill. Fly tipping is a huge problem for farming, tourism and all of us who enjoy the countryside. We believe that the Government can do something about it. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage on taking the opportunity to introduce the debate. I hope that the Government have listened very carefully to what he had to say.

10.45 am

I entirely agree that it has been an excellent debate. The hon. Member for Wantage (Mr. Jackson) was absolutely right to raise such a major national issue. He addressed it in a balanced, fair and reasonable way and made many helpful suggestions that I am keen to pursue. My only disagreement is that I fear that the problem is even bigger than some hon. Members believe, and I should like to go further than many suggested.

The Government agree that it is necessary to take further action on a major scale to tackle fly tipping. Litter and fly tipping are major problems. They have undoubtedly got worse in recent years. Such acts are unacceptable and must be stamped out. The principle that the polluter pays is one in which we all believe. That must be done and be seen to be done.

Many changes are being made to how we deal with waste. We need to recycle more and dispose of less. The hon. Gentleman was fair in saying that he agrees with much Government policy, but he also said that we need to recognise that directives could have an adverse effect. He is quite right that we must close down as far as possible the unintended side effects of what are otherwise sensible and proper policies.

The hon. Gentleman effectively outlined the problems that fly tipping brings, including the costs. I would add to his list the additional problems it causes of undermining legitimate business activities, creating risks to public health and safety, and damaging the environment. We all agree that it is thoroughly antisocial and unsightly, and that it degrades the countryside and urban areas.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the current lack of national statistics and our plans to remedy that in the Anti-social Behaviour Bill. He asked whether we have any data to illustrate the growing problem, and we do. The Environment Agency is in its second year of recording the incidents with which it deals. It noted a 19 per cent. increase in fly tipping in England and Wales in 2002. Closer inspection of the details shows a 73 per cent. increase in London, where fly tipping is dominated by construction waste, which often contains hazardous material such as asbestos waste. The midlands and the north-east are the other hardest-hit areas. Some local authorities are also recording increases. In 2002, the London borough of Lewisham counted 13,500 incidents of fly tipping, costing more than £500,000 to clear up. That figure was 50 per cent. higher than in 2001, which, in turn, was 50 per cent. higher than in 2000. That is the scale of the problem.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned some of the policies that he believes will lead to an increase in fly tipping. We need to understand more about why people fly-tip. Cost is certainly a factor, as is laziness, ignorance, and the procedures and practices at some civic amenity sites. There is also a hard core of professional criminals in many localities, and for them it is a matter of profit. We need to know more about the incentives, the further pressures and the general policies that have been tried by local authorities and the Environment Agency. Those policies have had some positive effect in reducing the levels, and we plan to carry out research this year that will help us to develop effective policies in future. In 2004, we plan to issue guidance on good practice to local authorities on the measures that they can take.

On the key question of what should be done, the hon. Gentleman made a great deal of the difference between the 50,000 incidents and the 319 convictions resulting from the 3,700 incidents dealt with by the Environment Agency. I agree that that is a stark comparison. The fundamental problem is identification. It is difficult to catch fly tippers, particularly if they are clever and do not leave any tell-tale details behind. Although a great deal of rubbish is dumped during the day, fly tippers also dump rubbish during the hours of darkness, and are therefore difficult to catch unless night cameras are used.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the proposed measures in the Anti-social Behaviour Bill to resolve some of the current deficiencies in legislation. If successful, local authorities will be given the Environment Agency's current power to stop, search and seize vehicles suspected of being used for fly tipping, and to investigate incidents to help them track down and prosecute those responsible for dumping waste. Yesterday I happened to accompany the chair of the Environment Agency on a visit to certain landfill sites. He told me about the success of the Environment Agency in using those powers, and the remarkable and criminal activities that were discovered as a result. Giving those powers to local authorities could substantially increase the apprehension of such people.

The Bill will also give the Secretary of State the power to issue statutory directions to the Environment Agency and local authorities on the types of fly-tipping incidents with which they should deal. The Environment Agency will deal with the fly tipping of hazardous waste and serious environmental crime, and local authorities with incidents involving non-hazardous waste. That seems to us a sensible division. Those directions will formalise the current voluntary agreement and will ensure that all local authorities take action. As I mentioned, local authorities and the Environment Agency will also be required to submit annual data returns to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs so that national statistics can be compiled.

I was also asked what further measures we are considering, and I think that the hon. Gentleman asked about the time scale. We are considering responses to the consultation paper, "Living Places—Powers, Rights, Responsibilities". The responses commented on the two options included in that paper and, I am pleased to say, suggested many others. We are also discussing possible measures with the Environment Agency and the Local Government Association, and I have asked the national fly tipping prevention group, which is chaired by the Environment Agency, for its suggestions. I attended a meeting of that group recently and was impressed by the range of ideas and the enthusiasm and determination of its members. Further consideration should be given to many of those suggestions and the costs of each one identified.

During the summer, we plan to consult on the proposals and on any partial regulatory impact assessments. In the autumn, we will publish details of the proposals that we intend to implement. The changes will be made when another legislative opportunity becomes available. In other words, the Anti-social Behaviour Bill is only part of the package. We will also try to address the funding problem in the spending review process because I am fully aware that more resources are needed, particularly for enforcement. Retention of receipts is an important issue, and I should like that practice to be implemented.

The duty of care regulations were recently revised to give waste collection authorities the power to serve a notice on businesses requiring them to furnish the waste collection authority with their duty of care records. Of course, the Environment Agency already has that power. It helps waste collection authority officers to check whether businesses are transferring their waste in accordance with the law. It will also help local authorities to investigate fly-tipping incidents by, for example, finding letterheaded paper in the waste. That requires considerable effort to rummage through the waste, but it is worth it. Waste collection authorities are well placed to do that work as part of their local responsibilities.

I understand that the hon. Gentleman discussed fly tipping with one of the Environment Agency's local officers in the western area of his constituency. The officer offered some personal views on changes that could be made, and I shall comment on some of them. People who have failed in their duty of care can be prosecuted under section 33 of the Environmental Protection Act 1990 and clearance costs can be recovered from the person responsible for fly tipping. I am not sure what extra measures the hon. Gentleman proposes, but I shall be happy to consider the matter further if more details are supplied. There is nothing between us in our determination to stamp down on fly tipping and I will consider anything that will do that positively and effectively.

The changes that we want to make to section 59 of the 1990 Act, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned, will make it more useable by applying it to landowners and by amending the current defence that anyone served a clearance notice can say he neither made, nor knowingly permitted, the waste to be deposited. He made a significant point that landowners who assert that they have taken all reasonable measures to prevent fly tipping on their land should not be liable. We are considering that, although implementing such a measure is not as straightforward as it looks.

As disposing of bulky household waste is one of the main types of fly tipping, I can understand why many, including the hon. Gentleman, want householders to be placed under a similar duty of care to that of businesses to ensure that they dispose of their waste legally. We are happy to consider such a proposal, but we must further consider the practical implementation difficulties of introducing such a system given the number of households in an area, how it would be enforced and the potentially huge additional cost involved.

The hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Guildford (Sue Doughty) asked about making it easier for enforcement agencies to trace unregistered vehicles. The hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) referred to that when he could get away from his obsession with the F-word, which he mentioned at least half a dozen times. There used to be problems with unregistered vehicles, but they should be resolved by section 22 of the Road Vehicles (Registration and Licensing) Regulations 2002, which require the registered keeper of the vehicle to return the registration document to the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency immediately after a sale.

The definition of waste was also raised by the hon. Member for Wantage. I understand that his purpose in doing so was to address the possibility of defendants abusing the current exclusion of agricultural waste from waste management controls. The Government have made clear their commitment to repealing that exclusion. We have also established the agricultural waste stakeholders forum to develop the necessary regulations and plan to consult in the autumn on a draft of those regulations.

On the critical point about penalties, I go further than the hon. Gentleman: I am appalled at how many of the fines are utterly paltry and derisory. It sends the message that it is cheaper, better and easier to evade the law than to obey it, which is the exact opposite of what it should be in a law-abiding society. I have been considering penalties for some time and whether the use of fixed-penalty notices would help to enforce the legislation.

I shall come to that in a moment.

I am keen to have a substantial increase in the level of fines contained in legislation and imposed by magistrates to reinforce the seriousness of these offences, but getting that across to magistrates is often a large part of the problem. We issued guidance to magistrates last year, in which tackling environmental crimes was an important goal, and the agency offers training courses to magistrates. However, I am keen to see a dramatic rise in the average level of the fines that magistrates impose. I like the idea of community service orders, which was mentioned.

Finally, on the retention of receipts from fines, we shall discuss with the Treasury whether that is appropriate for fly-tipping offences, much in the same way as local authorities keep receipts from litter fines.

Shellfish Industry (Devon)

11 am

The Minister is well briefed on shellfish today, having attended the centennial of the Shellfish Association of Great Britain at Fishmongers hall last night, as did I and many others. He will have heard an eloquent speech by Captain Phillip Gibbon, who outlined the problems of the shellfish industry over recent years. I noticed that the Minister also spent some time afterwards talking to fishermen, rather than just rushing off, and I compliment him on that. He will have heard directly their concerns and fears about the future of their industry. I spoke to a number of those fishermen, and two or three of them told me to say a special thank you to the Minister—the crab fishermen from south Devon, in particular, were pleased with he has achieved on their behalf.

However, I am not here merely to praise the Minister. The River Teign's problems go back over a number of years, and I shall briefly go through the history. In July 1997, the testing for E. coli in bivalve molluscs recorded two failures over the accepted limit of 4,600 parts. That is not a problem under the current regulation: in a year, from April to April, up to a 10 per cent. failure rate is allowed. However, the following January there was, bizarrely, a spectacular failure. The rate exceeded the limit, going up to 35,000. Everyone in the industry said at the time that that result was a glitch and I still think that it was an error that arose from putting the decimal point in the wrong place. However, whether that result was real or an error, its consequence was that the Teign estuary could no longer be considered as category B. It had failed and had to be downgraded to category C. The Teign estuary was shut down as of 1 September 1998.

In the previous year, 110 tonnes of oysters and mussels had been extracted from the estuary, which employed 40 individuals, some full-time, but mostly part-time. The shutdown devastated the industry. Mussels are not like oysters—the issue mostly concerns mussel production—in that they cannot be picked up and moved, as that is not cost-effective. Many people have left the industry, some almost certainly permanently. In the second year of reopening the beds, those in the industry have managed to extract 25 tonnes. It is a cause of some bitterness to the shell fishermen and watermen of the Teign estuary that it now employs only three individuals.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on raising this issue, which is critical to south Devon. I should also like to associate myself with issues concerning the Teign, because there are similar problems in the Dart and the Avon. Does he agree that, in Britain, we are now, perhaps understandably, neurotic about hygiene and food safety? In France, Spain and Italy, people produce all those wonderful fruits of the sea. The public eat them, survive and are healthy. Would he agree that our officials seem to be over the top on many of these issues to the detriment of the public in Britain?

I accept the hon. Gentleman's point. I will go into slightly more detail as I progress.

Was the shutdown in 1998 necessary? The fishermen say no, local consumers in Teignmouth, Shaldon and Newton Abbot say no and the environmental health officers for Teignbridge and for South Hams, whose job is to protect the public on matters of food poisoning, also said no. My view is that that is the correct answer. The shutdown was not necessary and it was not justified at that time. As I outlined, the shutdown took place from 1 September 1998. If the January reading of 35,000 was correct, why did it take nine months to shut the river down? If there was a problem then, surely we had a risk of food poisoning for the rest of the season from the continued extraction of the shellfish.

France and the Netherlands follow the same EU directive on the amount of E. coli in bivalve molluscs, but they follow a simple red-light, green-light system. If the test is failed, they stop extraction. When, after extensive testing, they get the all clear, they can extract again. Therefore, when they have good molluscs—good mussels and good oysters—they can sell them. The River Teign has some superb mussels and oysters. If they have a problem, they are not sold. The problem is that, under our system, bad mussels and oysters can be sold because of the delay in the order to stop extraction. The following year perfectly good mussels and oysters can live happily, lying on the riverbed, enjoying the sunshine and not being extracted.

That was the problem that the shell fishermen described to me and to the others who would listen in 1998 and 1999. I spoke to Graham Watson, a Member of the European Parliament, to see whether he could organise a meeting in Westminster. Later that year, he led a delegation to see Baroness Hayman. The delegation also included the then Member of Parliament for Teignbridge, the environmental health officers from the two south Devon districts, fishermen and representatives from the Shellfish Association of Great Britain.

We got a good reception. The noble Lady clearly listened. The civil servants prevaricated and justified the existing situation. However, we left that meeting clearly of the view that the noble Lady had turned to Richard Hardy and said, "Sort this out. Investigate this and let us know what the answer is." This would have made a good episode of ?Yes Minister", because nothing happened. The fishermen waited, and they wrote. The Shellfish Association wrote, but there appeared to be no action for a number of years.

Eventually in 2002, there was public consultation that had to be completed by 6 December 2002. Evidence was gathered to look at the problem and we should have expected an answer by now. But no, we have heard that the Shellfish Association has been told that the Foods Standards Agency is too busy. It does not have enough staff and the earliest that it can begin to review the consultation carried out last year is at the end of this year. Does the Minister believe that that is good enough? I do not. If he does not believe that it is good enough, will he do us and the industry a favour and give the FSA the proverbial kick up the backside? In this instance, it needs it.

There are a couple of other areas in which there are problems with the way in which we administer and test for problems in bivalve molluscs. We should look at instances of diarrhetic shellfish poisoning. The testing method is to take a sample of a mollusc, mince it up, inject it into a mouse and observe the mouse for 24 hours. If it dies, one has a problem and stops extraction.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
(Mr. Elliot Morley)

indicated assent.

The Minister nods. He is clearly familiar with the method. Mice came up at the dinner last night—but only in the conversation. The question that the industry asks is: when the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science at Weymouth carries out the test, why do the mice die? However, when samples from the same beds are sent to the marine laboratory at Aberdeen, why do the mice not die?

When the Shellfish Association has had concerns about the testing methods at Weymouth and has sent samples from the same batch to the national laboratories of France and Holland, which use different testing methods, it has been told that there is no diarrhetic shellfish poisoning. There has to be a question about how CEFAS at Weymouth carries out the tests. I understand that the method is to inject into the gland. If all the mice are dying, are the scientists using a hammer to put the mice to sleep before injecting them? I hope that the Minister will ask his Department to look into the disparity between the test results. If the results come back negative, it has a devastating effect on the beds and on the people trying to make a meagre living—they do not make vast fortunes—out of the growing and extraction of oysters and mussels.

I know that the Minister and his colleagues in most countries in Europe are concerned about the way in which we measure E. coli and whether the present methods are accurate and reliable. I should like to give him a piece of information that was passed to me at the weekend. Last September, there was a problem in the River Teign. The environmental health officer was concerned when he learned about it, but he was not told at the time. Those with such information are at CEFAS in Weymouth, and they sit on it. One of the points made to the Minister last night concerned the remoteness of CEFAS from what is going on. We should consider a system of local control, so that environmental health officers can be told what is going on and can carry out investigations into problems and resolve them.

The Government are keen on decentralisation and on giving powers to local people; we have seen that in many policy areas. I do not believe that decentralisation has, necessarily, been carried out correctly, but the principle is right. On the occasion in question, an investigation was carried out some time after the problem occurred. By chance, one of the harbour commissioners asked when it had occurred, and remembered that 6 September had been the day when some of an excess of sprats had accidentally spilled into the River Teign. The consequence of a large number of dead fish in the river is a large number of seagulls on the estuary. It is more than conceivable that the guano from seagulls caused the problem. However, I understand that the human E. coli is dangerous and that the E. coli from seagulls is not a big problem in the minute particles in which it is found in bivalve molluscs. I am happy to take alternative scientific advice, but that is what I am advised.

We have other problems. The River Teign is dredged as the tide is coming in, not when it is going out. Pollutants on the river bed will be disturbed as the tide is rising which will therefore affect the mussel beds. I wonder whether we need greater liaison between the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the FSA and the Environment Agency on dredging procedures. Teignmouth has a small port, but many other rivers are dredged.

Finally, the European Union FSA sent a delegation to the United Kingdom last year, between 8 and 17 June. It produced a report on the implementation of directive 91/492/EEC on live bivalve molluscs, and directive 91/ 493/EEC on fishery products. It visited Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales. The Minister may not know, because it concerns another Department, but I wonder why it did not visit England. Despite requests, it did not meet people from the industry because it was not permitted to do so. On page 11, the report states:
"Traceability was often not of the required standard. Registration documents were not always received with batches of bivalve molluscs. Dispatch centres did not necessarily maintain the required records."
What will the Minister do to improve traceability and to answer that criticism?

I thank the Minister for what I hope will be a short reply. I say that because, putting it bluntly, the industry does not want a long speech that was prepared by officials. I hope that he will recognise the problems and give us an assurance that they will be resolved. Will he finish the work started by Baroness Hayman? Will he change the system from the lunatic 12-month ban that starts in September to a stop-go, red-light, green-light situation?

Order. Does the hon. Gentleman have the permission of both the Member and the Minister?

11.17am

Yes, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but I shall be brief.

I support the hon. Member for Teignbridge (Richard Younger-Ross). I had similar experiences in my previous constituency of South Hams, where oyster beds and mussel beds were lost because of overzealous enforcement by environmental health officers. The problem is that the Government can never get it wrong, because in matters of health and hygiene and the good management of shellfish, they will always go for the safe option. They will always say that things are not safe unless they have an absolutely green light. That is true of all food.

We now live in a state in which food is so processed and pure that one would expect no illnesses, yet we have more incidents of food poisoning under the new agency for health and hygiene. There is no correlation between the obsession about health and hygiene, and the health of the nation.

I entirely support what the hon. Gentleman said. I have similar stories, but it is not appropriate to tell them now. I have complete confidence in the Minister's ability to take the matter by the short and curlies—if he so decides. I know that eating shellfish can be dangerous and that the health of the country is important, but the Minister must not go overboard, as the Government often do, on matters of hygiene and safety, because that would eliminate jobs—and a wonderful crop of oysters and mussels.

11.19am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
(Mr. Elliot Morley)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Teignbridge (Richard Younger-Ross) on his introduction of the debate and on asking a number of relevant questions. He is right: I went to the Shellfish Association of Great Britain dinner last night on its 100th anniversary, which was an enjoyable occasion. I was touched to be presented with a special badge by the association, and I listened carefully to the concerns raised by the speakers.

As the hon. Gentleman rightly said, I also took the opportunity to stay on after the dinner to talk with representatives of the shellfish industry. I discussed in more detail their concerns, which are pretty consistent. I understand the importance of the shellfish industry to the hon. Gentleman's constituency—shellfish is a quality product and the sector is successful. We are keen to support and promote the industry and to address its concerns.

It might be useful if I concentrate on the points that have been raised and which I understand—I spent a considerable time talking about them last night. This morning, I had further talks with my officials about how we can address those concerns and what we can do to assist. The issue of classification of waters is important; there is no dispute about that. Shellfish waters have to be classified and the testing of shellfish for toxins is a public health matter that rightly falls in the policy scope of the Food Standards Agency. However, as a Minister at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, I am responsible for the fisheries industry, so it is perfectly legitimate for the industry to raise concerns with me. I am more than happy to raise those concerns with the FSA and to address the points that the hon. Gentleman has made.

One of the hon. Gentleman's points was about the tests, which were again discussed last night. Mice get a hard time in those tests, yet in the 21st century we could and should have a more sensitive and more accurate test than feeding bits of shellfish to unfortunate mice to see whether they keel over. Our laboratories want to move away from such tests involving mice, as there are more modern tests available, such as molecular and DNA tests. I shall raise the matter with our DEFRA chief scientist. The Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science, for example, is anxious to move away from such tests, and the Home Office is also committed to modernising and reducing the use of animals. More sensitive tests may be helpful here.

I appreciate that Members understand this point, but it is worth emphasising that food safety and the safety of consumers are paramount. The idea behind the FSA is addressing what happened to the red meat industry. Consumers lost confidence in the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and in the testing procedures in the wake of BSE. The red meat industry suffered devastating consequences from which it has not fully recovered even today. We do not want that to happen to the shellfish sector, which has a good image and sells a quality product. We want to maintain that strength. The idea behind the FSA's independence is to ensure that there is consumer confidence. Consumers can then be reassured that there is neither ministerial interference nor attempts to put industry concerns above consumer protection. That is a strength and success of the FSA.

Despite that, it is not unreasonable to raise some of the points that have been made. I am well aware of the worries about the atypical testing results for diarrhetic shellfish poisoning and the fact that the FSA has, from time to time, closed harvesting areas as a precautionary measure to protect human health. There have been a number of atypical DSP results in Devon. The FSA has assured us that it is, investigating the cause of those results as a priority, and it has a substantial programme of work under way to assess the human health implications.

In the meantime, DEFRA, working with the sea fisheries committees for affected cockle grounds, has been doing what it can, in consultation with the agency, to try to address some problems in relation to management. Where practicable, we can operate zoning arrangements, so that even where there have been positive test results we do not necessarily have to close all the shellfish beds. We can create a zone from the areas where there have been positive results, and allow harvesting from some other areas. We have been doing that in various parts of the country where there has been a problem, and we have had some success.

I take the hon. Gentleman's point about the need for a consistent approach to what is done in Europe and how it addresses this issue. We are prepared to take that up with the FSA, because we would not want our shellfish sector to be unfairly disadvantaged compared with others, and I understand the point about the classification of water quality in shellfish harvesting areas. We are pressing his point on reviewing all those issues.

The FSA is thinking about a longer-term classification—over five years—to improve the stability of area classifications and safeguard public health protection. The industry is interested in that. I also take the point that when there is a positive result on quality— a negative result, in this case—there is an argument for perhaps closing the area and reopening it as soon as there is a better result. I am happy to talk to the FSA about that. In all fairness, the FSA and CEFAS are aware that there are so-called spikes in water quality, particularly when there is a downpour and perhaps sewer flooding and discharge. They understand that, and it is taken into account in their monitoring, but I will certainly raise those points.

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we are committed to improving our coastal waters—indeed, all our waters. I am glad to say that the trend in water quality is upwards. The Government aim to achieve bacteriological standards that allow all shellfish sites to gain at least category B classification. As part of our commitment to implement the shellfish water directive, we have designated 93 shellfish waters in England as category B—an increase of 76 sites since 1998.

We have been talking to the water and sewerage companies, which are one of the principal reasons for waters failing the quality test, about their investment programme. In the Devon area, South West Water is making significant investment to improve sewage treatments. Most of those improvements are under way or planned to be completed by the end of 2005.

On that point, South West Water has already carried out a clean sweep of the River Teign. Bizarrely, the failures happened after the cleanup programme. That is what makes them so inexplicable.

I may be able to explain. I understand that there has been a problem of intermittent discharges from the sewerage system upstream of the estuary at Newton Abbot. That may be responsible for the downgrading of the waters to category C in 1999. However, I understand that some have been recategorised as category B, so things are clearly going the right way.

We want to consider schemes to help to upgrade some areas from category B to category A in the next periodic review of water price limits in England and Wales. That involves building into the investment programme consideration of water quality generally and taking account of the shellfish industry's needs in particular. We certainly want to take that forward, and CEFAS has contributed to it. It is working with the Shellfish Association of Great Britain to identify priorities for category A waters.

I well understand the points that the hon. Gentleman has made and the shellfish industry's concerns. We must look after consumer interests. No one would disagree that that is in the industry's interests. However, questions have been raised that deserve to be taken seriously, and we will take those up with the FSA. It is important to have local information, and it is a fair point that the Environment Agency should be informed.

It is also important that the industry is involved from the beginning of the process in relation to the assessments and how they are done, and that its views and local knowledge are taken into account within that approach. We will take up those issues with the FSA. I hope that we can address them for the benefit of the industry and water quality.

11.30am

Sitting suspended until Two o'clock.

European Year Of Disabled People

2 pm

I welcome this debate, and the inevitable focus on disabled people in both Britain and Europe. In Britain there are 8.6 million people with disabilities, including blindness, deafness, inability to walk or talk, and mental illness. If they were all gathered together, we would not have enough football stadiums to accommodate them. Disability has no boundaries socially or internationally, and it has been estimated that almost 600 million people throughout the world have disabilities.

In the European year of disabled people, the European Union has 37 million disabled people, who are more likely than their fellow citizens to be unemployed and only half as likely to reach further and higher education. Nothing illustrates that discrimination—for that is what it is—better than the recent Scope document, "Ready, Willing and Disabled", which highlighted the predicament of one individual who has 10 GCSEs, two A-levels and one degree, has made 114 job applications, had 24 job interviews, has one disability—but, chillingly, has no job.

The European year of disabled people and the charter for the new millennium offer the opportunity for us to have this debate, which I hope will be open and inclusive. I know that it will be well informed, because of the number of briefings and the amount of advice that I have already received. There is a window of opportunity to discuss what has been happening, what has been achieved, what challenges lie ahead and what discrimination in Britain and Europe still exists and should be removed. I have taken the opportunity to sign early-day motions 1225 on autism awareness and 1269 on the European disability directive.

For the moment, I shall focus my comments on some of the significant developments for people with disabilities. Motability must rank as one of the most important developments ever. Currently, 400,000 people in this country are enjoying mobility in a way that was not thought possible, but that has not been emulated elsewhere in Europe. More generally, under this Government, it must be acknowledged that last year alone, £11 billion was paid to 4 million people to help them to meet some of their needs and to cope with the cost of disability. For example, in 1997, a disabled child drew £21 a week in income support. That has now almost doubled to just over £41 a week. Families with a disabled child have received an increase in average family income of more than one third since 1997, and I warmly welcome that focus on children with disabilities.

There have been positive initiatives on jobs, but employment for disabled people is still one of the major hurdles to be overcome. A disabled person in Britain is seven times more likely to be out of work and on benefits. I am delighted that the Government intend to implement a key employment directive, thus ensuring that even the smallest companies will no longer be able to discriminate against disabled people.

Housing for disabled people is far more accessible than at any time in our history. Of total Housing Corporation expenditure, 13 per cent. is allocated for people with special needs, although I can tell the House that I seldom attend a constituency surgery without at least one constituent enquiring about aids and adaptations, which are very important. In Scotland we have a prosthesis clinic in Glasgow that is the most modern in the UK. I want to see more such examples of best practice. We should be proud of many such achievements.

It has not been a journey without obstacles. As far back as 1986, I piloted a private Member's Bill through the House. Nothing has given me more satisfaction than successfully introducing the Disabled Persons (Services, Consultation and Representation) Act 1986. In all humility, let me cite the main features of my Act, which had a modest impact on the lives of many people with disabilities, but which even today has not yet been fully implemented. The Act addressed the importance of services and access to such vital services as transport, housing, leisure and art facilities, and the health service. Those goals could not be delivered properly in the absence of a strategy for that access.

Advocacy was at the heart of the 1986 Act, and remains of the utmost importance. Representation was part of the Bill's title, and the reason for that was clear. When we talk today about people with brain injuries— many of those are young people—and about elderly people with Alzheimer's disease and those with physical disability, it is clear that there is still a role for advocacy, whether that be one individual representing another as we have seen in so many successful cases, or advocacy groups, which exist in many parts of the country and are very effective.

The Act also rightly drew attention to the needs of carers. Of course it was right that there should be assessments of the needs of disabled people and the services that ought to be available, but we are also bearing in mind today, as we did in 1986, the fact that so many carers all over Britain are doing an excellent job 24 hours a day, seven days a week. They, too, are entitled to assessments if that means a couple of afternoons to do a bit of shopping, give them a bit of respite, and allow them to meet friends. Otherwise, we find that relationships break down and two people can end up institutionalised, so that we meet with no degree of success.

When the 1986 Act was going through, the huge number of letters that I received, in one question raised again and again by carers—often elderly people—as their offspring grew and became difficult to handle, was what would happen to their son or daughter after they had gone. I want to be part of a society that is able to answer that question. That is why consultation is important, and if we are to have an inclusive society, carers and advocates should feel that they are part of it. At that time, I had excellent support from two advisers in particular. One was a young man called John Healey, who then became my hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth, and is now the Economic Secretary to the Treasury. Given his sensitivities, he will listen very carefully to the growing demands for proper resources, not least from local authorities, and, given his knowledge of disabilities, we can look forward to more funding to deal with the problems of people with learning disabilities, as I believe Lord Rix suggested in another place a few weeks ago. We also admired the support of Peter Mitchell, who worked for Radar and whose drafting abilities were exceptional.

The 1986 Act and so much of the legislation that followed would not have been possible without the outstanding support of many organisations of and for disabled people, whose sole purpose is producing a better quality of life for people with disabilities. An organisation that I want to mention, and which I know my right hon. and hon. Friends would want me to mention, is the all-party group in this House, which is one of the most influential and effective of its kind.

We have support, too, from organisations outwith the House, such as Enable in Scotland, Mencap, Radar, Mind, the Royal National Institute of the Blind and the Royal National Institute for Deaf People, and, of course, we are supported by the input of local voluntary organisations and disability forums. They constantly remind me to advance the case for proper joint planning, which is nowhere more relevant than in mental health. I find it extremely worrying that, notwithstanding all the legislation and all the commitment to care in the community, there are still mentally ill people who leave long-stay hospitals and find themselves in hostels or, perhaps, even in the streets. We still have what has been described for many years as the revolving-door syndrome, and such people simply do not know where to go.

I feel bound to refer to one very unpleasant aspect of that situation: many mentally ill people and people with learning disabilities are sent to prison in every part of the British isles because the courts simply do not know where to put them. That is unacceptable in the new millennium.

I have referred to the 1986 Act, but since then we have also had the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, which was introduced under the previous Conservative Government by the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague). It was very much a step in the right direction, but some of us who followed its proceedings said that in many respects, welcome as it was, it was flawed. I hope to refer later to some of the flaws.

That Act dealing with disability discrimination did manage to address the issue of definition. I am glad that that debate continues and that, if the information that I have is right, the Government of today are considering adding HIV/AIDS and cancer to the definition. That would be very welcome.

However, I have a specific question for my hon. Friend the Minister about ME, which was examined in the very significant and well informed Donaldson report. Some of my colleagues may recall that about 15 months ago, on 6 February 2002, I was able to initiate a debate on the report in this Chamber. In responding, the Minister said that the Government were considering taking that report to the National Institute for Clinical Excellence and asking it for recommendations. Time has passed. The issue is extremely important, particularly for those who suffer from that draining condition, and I would very much like to hear from my hon. Friend the Minister what the Government's thinking is now.

One of the major defects of the Disability Discrimination Act, to which I referred earlier, was the absence of a disability rights commission. It was not that some of us did not fight for that; we did, and came within 13 votes of getting it. It is to this Government's credit that the Disability Rights Commission does now exist, and I congratulate it on its work. However, I had not expected that we would so soon be turning to the proposed single equality body. Three statutory bodies are currently charged with promoting equality, but our concern in today's debate is the Disability Rights Commission, which covers discrimination on the grounds of disability under the Disability Rights Commission Act 1999 and the Disability Discrimination Act 1995—the DDA. An advanced debate on the possibility of a single equality body is being driven by an EU employment directive requiring member states to implement legislation banning discrimination.

Many people are concerned, as am I, that the specific problems relating to disability could be lost or marginalised by a single all-embracing body. However, the Government seem to favour such an option, at least in the longer term. From a Government perspective, it is difficult to quarrel with the notion that a statutory commission offering advice, guidance and support principally on equality matters makes sense. However, my friends and colleagues in the Disability Rights Commission naturally view with healthy scepticism the prospect of their organisation being subsumed into a much larger body, particularly as theirs has been operational only since April 2000.

I accept that there is always a danger of becoming bogged down in processes and organisations when what matters most in the end is the outcome for people with disabilities. However, the TUC and organisations such as the RNIB have said that a single body would not work unless there were a single equality Act. We should consider those representations carefully. Whatever the outcome of this process, whatever the final structure, the acid test is neither the process nor the structure but the model that best delivers the most effective outcome.

I return to employment issues of substantial importance to people with disabilities. The Government may wish to consider a few changes, given the priorities set by the Disability Rights Commission. In its document, "Disability Equality: Making it happen", it gives a considered and powerful response to the DDA and how it works. I should like to draw the Chamber's attention to four major points that it makes on employment. The first is:

"Employers should be subject to a duty to anticipate the requirements of potential disabled employees and applicants, and to take reasonable action to remove barriers in advance of individual complaint."
In practical terms, that means that employers should proactively examine their policies and practices to determine whether they inadvertently disadvantage people with disabilities. Although employers are required to make reasonable adjustments, there is a weakness in the DDA, which does not contain an explicit prohibition on indirect discrimination. Implementing that proposal would not create new sources of litigation, but simply improve and encourage best practice among employers, thereby benefiting people with disabilities.

The DRC's second point on employment is that employment inequality
"on the grounds of disability should only be justifiable where there is a genuine occupational requirement i.e. a person can be shown not to be competent, capable or available to perform the essential functions of the job, even after allowing for reasonable adjustments."
The DRC again points to the weaknesses of the DDA, under which, it claims, it is too easy for employers to evade responsibility for what would otherwise be considered an act of discrimination. It backs that up with an independent case study. In one particular case, Heinz v. Kerick, the employment appeal tribunal stated that the threshold for the justification "is very low". It went on to say:
"This is not a conclusion we reached with any enthusiasm but as the language of the domestic statute is clear, the remedy for the lowness of the threshold, if any is required, lies in the hands of the legislature and not the courts."
I am sure that the Minister is aware of the Disability Rights Commission case between Surrey police and Ms Marshall. Ms Marshall has a first class degree in genetics from the university of St. Andrews, and succeeded at the interview, but was rejected on medical grounds. Clearly, that is not acceptable.

The DRC's third point was that at present tribunals have no power to recommend that employers change their practices, even after it has been demonstrated that a case brought by an individual reveals the employer's shortcomings. An individual, in the main, seeks only a remedy to their complaint. However, the DRC will always work towards a broader solution. That may include getting the employer to change working practices where appropriate. The point is that tribunals have no formal power to make policy recommendations to employers. Perhaps the Minister will consider the representations that have been made by the DRC. I understand that the Commission for Racial Equality has made similar representations.

Fourthly, the DRC states:
"Disability related enquiries before a job is offered should be permitted only in very limited circumstances."
That is one of the most worrying of the DRC's points. In the Department for Work and Pensions research, disabled people identified recruitment as the most common source of discrimination. To be blunt, the Disability Discrimination Act cannot address that problem. Employers are still asking medical questions about applicants' disabilities prior to job interview and selection. Employers who want to discriminate reject disabled applicants at an early stage.

I know only too well that that is difficult to prove. However, let me highlight the problem in another way. In a Mind survey, 39 per cent. of mental health services users felt that they had been denied a job because of their psychiatric history. In the same survey, nearly 70 per cent. of mental health services users had been put off applying for jobs for fear of unfair treatment. We must ask ourselves whether those fears are well founded. In order to test the attitudes of major UK companies towards people with mental health problems, 200 personnel managers were asked to assess the employment prospects of two almost identical candidates. The only difference between the two was that one had had depression and one had had diabetes. I am afraid that the applicant with depression was thought to have significantly reduced chances of employment. Surely that cannot be acceptable.

Employment for disabled people is the gateway to a fulfilling life, and that is what people with disabilities want—that opportunity, without discrimination. I am sure that the Government agree with that objective.

Lord Rix and I are in the process of forming an all-party group, and we intend to pursue vigorously the aims and objectives of people with learning disabilities.

The Government, of course, have wider and welcome objectives, as we saw in the document, "Valuing People". However, I have some final pleas for them. In the European year of disabled people, let the new disability Bill be radical, comprehensive and practical. Let it not be piecemeal. As Radar and others suggest, let it be subject to scrutiny by a Joint Committee of both Houses. Let it offer a beacon of best practice not only to Europe but to the rest of the world.

2.24 pm

I welcome this afternoon's debate, and congratulate the right hon. Member for Coatbridge and Chryston (Mr. Clarke) on securing it. I hope that the European year for people with disabilities will be an opportunity to secure funding to solve some of the long-running problems in my constituency, which I am sure are reflected in other constituencies. I am delighted that the terminology has changed over the years and that we are discussing "people with disabilities" rather than defining people by their disabilities. We discuss people who happen to have disabilities rather than, as used to happen years ago, referring to "the disabled" or "the blind".

Does my hon. Friend agree that what has happened in Northamptonshire, where the Northamptonshire Council for Disabled People has been renamed Ability Northants, is even more positive? That modern title stresses what people can do rather than what they cannot do.

My hon. Friend raises an important point. I hope that the European year for people with disabilities will not be limited to raising awareness and that there will be some practical outcomes. People who are not disabled can only imagine the everyday inconveniences and difficulties for people with disabilities and their carers. I was once taken ill on a plane, and was taken off it and through the airport in a wheelchair. It was interesting to see that no one looked at me when I was in a wheelchair. I know that I was not at the same eye level as everybody else, but I felt that I had become a non-person. People who use wheelchairs have to be more assertive than others to gain attention and to participate in the activities going on around them.

I spent many years working in a school for physically handicapped children. Because the school was very small, the staff became familiar not only with the pupils but with the pupils' families, and therefore also became familiar with the difficulties that the families experienced in their everyday lives. I ran a group providing riding for the disabled. It is difficult to get heavily handicapped children into a minibus, to the stables, out of a minibus and mounted on horses. It requires lots of volunteers to make such activities happen—but to see the face of a child who is not mobile because they are unable to walk, but is enjoying a ride on a horse and acquiring equestrian skills, is worth every bit of effort. If only such organisations had greater opportunities to raise their profile and get more volunteers—the volunteers also get a lot out of the activity.

My mother was blind, and when her sight was failing, she had difficulties with the simplest things. For example, when we went shopping to buy clothes, I had to describe whether a garment had buttons or pockets, and whether it suited her. The things that we take for granted are enormous hurdles for people who have disabilities. One of my constituents who has an adult son with learning difficulties recently approached me. She is elderly and is concerned about what will happen to her son when she dies, because her property, which she had deliberately chosen to avoid inheritance tax, has risen in value much faster than she anticipated. The property will be subject to inheritance tax when she dies, and she is worried about how it will be paid because she has no surplus savings and the property will be her entire estate. There are all sorts of hidden problems, of which people who do not have disabilities are not even aware. It is important to raise awareness, and we have the opportunity to do so this year, with local authorities and organisations participating in making people aware of the long-term and everyday problems faced by people with disabilities.

I contacted my local authority to find out what it was doing for the European year of people with disabilities. It is launching a range of events and initiatives to raise awareness. I asked whether there was a source of funding that it could tap into, so that by the end of the year there would be some practical improvements. The European Commission allocated £8.5 million, of which the United Kingdom received £500,000. I understand that the Government added another £2 million. However, £2.5 million nationwide is not very much.

Grants are awarded by the national co-ordinating committee. Unfortunately, my authority, the London borough of Havering, was unsuccessful in its application, which was made on behalf of local organisations, in particular the Havering Association for People with Disabilities, which does good work for a range of groups. So here we are in the European year of people with disabilities, raising awareness by using the council's budget, with no additional money to do anything practical, such as ensuring that Upminster station has disabled access by the end of the year. We are confined to making awards. My local authority will award disability awareness awards in a range of categories. However, those awards recognise improvements that groups throughout the constituency and the borough have already put in place. I would have liked more funding to have come from Europe to back up a worthy and well intentioned year.

2.31 pm

May I first say that it is a pleasure to contribute to the debate, and may I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge and Chryston (Mr. Clarke) on securing it? The overriding objective of the European year of disabled people has been clearly stated. It is, in its organisers' words,

"to drive progress towards achieving equal rights for disabled people".
This debate comes at an interesting time, because it was only a few weeks ago that we celebrated the third birthday of the disability Rights Commission. Also, it was only a few weeks ago—indeed, it may have been on the same occasion—that we received the first review of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 by the DRC, in which it pointed out that it had several significant proposals, some of which were referred to by my right hon. Friend, to clarify and strengthen disabled people's rights in legislation.

The Government have given a commitment to introduce a draft disability Bill that will, among other things, plug the final holes in the DDA, because the DDA was a very flawed piece of legislation, with many omissions and ambiguities. The Government should be congratulated on their commitment to introducing a new Bill to put that right.

This debate on disabled people's rights takes place at an exciting time. I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge and Chryston who, throughout his political life, has made the interests of disabled people central to much of what he has done, but particularly in the two years before the 1997 general election, when he was the shadow Minister for disabled persons' rights. He was instrumental—indeed, key—in developing the policy for the incoming Labour Government; that is what shadow Ministers do. That policy included Labour's commitment to having a disability rights taskforce to address issues, and to introduce comprehensive and enforceable civil rights. My right hon. Friend deserves credit for ensuring that when that election victory came in 1997, the incoming Government had a policy in place to establish the foundations for what has happened since then.

I would also like to congratulate the Government on doing more to promote disabled people's rights in six years than anyone has done in the past 60—or, indeed, 600—years. They set up the disability rights taskforce, established the Disability Rights Commission, introduced the Special Educational Needs And Disability Act 2001, published the first learning disabilities White Paper in 30 years, introduced the new deal for disabled people, and put record amounts of funding into access-to-work programmes. The Government deserve our congratulations for what has happened over the past six years.

There were two preconditions for the progress that has been made over the past few years. The first was that disabled people should speak for themselves. Over many years, organisations representing disabled people have campaigned for equal rights, and disabled people have become increasingly effective in expressing their view about their entitlement to equal treatment. Without the lobbying from the disabled community, I am certain that progress would not have been as fast. The second precondition was for there to be a Government who were committed to doing something about the issue, and that is why I believe that the present Government deserve credit.

The present Minister and the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions also deserve credit for what they have done in the short time in which they have been in post. They are both highly respected for what they are doing, not just by their colleagues, but by the wider disabled community. I say to my hon. Friend the Minister that we look forward to the draft disability Bill, which I am sure will be forthcoming very soon. I hope that the consultation on the Bill will take place rapidly, so that its provisions can be included in the next Queen's Speech.

I shall also say some warm words about the Opposition's stance on this issue— I shall not talk about the past, because in politics the future is more interesting than the past. Since the hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) has held his present post—and, for all I know, before that—he has been supportive of what the Government and some of us on the Government Back Benches have said about the need for further rapid progress on rights for disabled people.

However, I am sorry to say that last Friday, a Bill that would have given public bodies a duty to promote equal opportunities for disabled people was talked out. That Bill was introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, East (Ms Prentice), and had Government support, and I do not understand why it was talked out. I hope that we will return to a position in which the Opposition are broadly supportive of the Government's actions in this respect.

In this European year of disabled people, there must be further significant advances in legislation. I welcome the Government's promise of a draft disability Bill, and I am optimistic that we will see that Bill soon. I would like to refer to some aspects of that future legislation. A range of areas need to be covered. The Disability Rights Commission listed the necessary legislative changes in its report, and other organisations have suggested similar changes.

In the brief time remaining to me, I shall address one or two of those issues. In legislation such as the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, the definition of disability matters. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge and Chryston said, there is an ongoing debate about who should be included in the definition of a disabled person, in order to secure rights under the DDA, which defines a disabled person as someone who has
"a physical or mental impairment which has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on his or her ability to carry out day-to-day activities."
There is a powerful case for a fundamentally different definition that reflects the social model of disability rather than the more medically based approach. However, I agree with the Disability Rights Commission that now is not the time to have a new debate about the definition, because we must ensure that we do not delay extending the protection in the DDA.

That said, I am not happy about the definition and I should like to extend it to embrace other people who are currently not covered by the Act. I shall give two examples. My right hon. Friend referred to people with HIV or cancer. It is essential that all progressive conditions be covered under legislation. Currently, people with HIV/AIDS, cancer, multiple sclerosis and so on are not covered by the Act unless they satisfy the condition that I read out. To be covered by the legislation, they must have the physical or mental symptoms. However, if it is wrong to discriminate against someone with MS when they have a physical impairment, it is wrong to discriminate against someone with MS when they have been diagnosed with MS but have no physical impairment.

How can it be right for an employer to say, "I can get rid of this employee now, before they fall within the definition under the DDA"? It is manifest nonsense to say that an employer can get rid of someone who has been diagnosed with cancer when they have no symptoms, whereas if they had sufficiently serious symptoms, they would have protection under the DDA. Progressive conditions must be embraced exclusively, or perhaps I should say "inclusively". I am pleased that the Government have indicated sympathy, indeed support, for such an approach.

Let me give the second example of a way in which the legislation is a bit odd. Years ago, a number of us pointed out that under the Americans with Disabilities Act, there was protection for people who had been discriminated against because they were mistakenly perceived to be disabled. Yet in this country, bizarrely, it is perfectly all right for an employer to discriminate against an employee if the employer thinks that that person is disabled but it turns out that they are not. It is perfectly possible for a service provider—a transport company, school or anything else—to discriminate against someone because it believes that they are disabled, so long as it turns out that that perception was wrong. We cannot allow people to be discriminated against because they are perceived as disabled. That needs to be sorted out.

The DDA must also apply to private clubs, as the Race Relations Act does. I think that the Government have made that point, too. The DDA should embrace all the currently excluded occupations, including the armed forces. This is an interesting issue. To their credit, the Government have said that they will extend DDA coverage to police officers, who were excluded under the original Act, and to prison officers, firefighters and so on. However, they will not extend the Act to cover those in the armed forces. I have tried hard to work out what is special about the armed forces that might justify their exclusion from the employment provisions of the DDA, but I have to confess that I have failed to think of any rational reason whatever.

Perhaps that position is based on the notion that disability discrimination legislation is about requiring employers to offer people jobs—but of course it is about nothing of the kind. The DDA allows for recognition of genuine occupational requirements. It is perfectly lawful, as it should be, for a disabled person to receive less favourable treatment in employment if they do not meet the occupational requirements of the job. Of course that is the case, but if we apply that to the prison service and firefighters, why can we not apply it to the armed forces? For the life of me, I cannot understand that. Nor, I believe, can my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. It is no great secret that, in an effective speech at a public meeting in Blackpool last autumn, he pointed out that he would be distressed if a member of the armed forces were automatically kicked out because he had become disabled. I have discussed this with my right hon. Friend, and others are lobbying hard. It is nonsense to have any excluded occupations.

The legislation is clear. It is worth repeating that point. The argument is not that people who do not have the necessary skills should get the job, but that people who have those skills should not be denied the right to apply for the job or to apply for promotion. When they apply they should be treated fairly. The Disability Rights Commission has received phone calls from service personnel who claim that they are being discriminated against because they have cancer, diabetes and other conditions. This is a serious matter. All the currently excluded occupations must be brought within the framework of the legislation.

Finally, there is a need to bring disability rights into the mainstream. I am second to none in my praise for what the Government have done with legislation and other matters, but there are difficulties in applying disability equality policies across the board. I will not go into my concerns about the Communications Bill now, but I have made representations about it. There are real issues here for disabled people, which the Government have not yet taken on board.

I shall give another brief example. As a member of the Trade and Industry Committee, I spent most of yesterday hearing evidence on the effects of direct payment of pensions and benefits on post office business. That used to be done by automated credit transfer—ACT—but we now call it direct payment. It is a bit confusing because there is another kind of direct payment. People who have a Post Office card account can now access that account with a piece of plastic and a PIN. The only problem is that PIN pads come in various shapes and forms.

The Select Committee heard how for 12 months or so the Disability Rights Commission, the Royal National Institute of the Blind and other organisations had been warning that the accessibility of the PIN pad was an issue. For example, the figures have to be a decent size for people with sight impairment, and the height should not be fixed, because that would be a problem for wheelchair users. I hope that all those who gave evidence yesterday were wrong, but what I read in the press leads me to believe that they were probably right, and that this has been a bit of a shambles.

Apparently the Post Office simply bought an inaccessible off-the-shelf PIN pad system from Fujitsu, and is now busy trying to work out how to modify it to take the needs of disabled people into account. I use that example to illustrate my point. I do not think that anyone will dispute the point, but it is still worth making. Disability is about mainstreaming those rights, too. We must ensure that the concerns and interests of disabled people are taken into account across the board.

Much has undoubtedly been done. I celebrate all that has been done to make progress along this long journey to equal rights. But we still have a long way to go before disabled people can participate as equal citizens. We must use the opportunity presented by the European year of disabled people to make further progress towards comprehensive and enforceable civil rights for all disabled people. The Government are committed to that. I look forward to the draft Bill—and I also look forward to seeing a Bill in the Queen's Speech in the autumn.

2.49 pm

I, too, congratulate the right hon. Member for Coatbridge and Chryston (Mr. Clarke) on securing this timely and important debate. I am well aware of the assiduous way in which he has sought to champion the rights of disabled people during his many years in the House. It is a pleasure to be called to speak in the debate. The European year of disabled people is an excellent initiative, not least because it serves to focus attention on the position of disabled people in our society, and the way in which they are treated by that society—including the Government.

I accept that progress has been made over the years in furthering the rights of disabled people. The right hon. Gentleman mentioned many positive developments. However, like other hon. Members, I agree that much more still needs to be done to ensure that disabled people enjoy the rights that the rest of us take for granted.

One area that has not been dealt with in detail is that of social security benefits. As far as disabled people are concerned, there is a pressing need to review the operation of the disability living allowance. I see that the Minister is looking at me; she will not be surprised that I raise that subject in all sincerity. In my experience as a constituency MP, albeit brief, I have reached the conclusion that the operation of that benefit has been, to put it politely, extremely problematic.

Problems include the complexity of the forms, which is still an issue, notwithstanding improvements; the lack of information available to those seeking to access the benefit; and the curiously high number of applications that are rejected at first but are successful on appeal. We must examine the quality of the state medical examination and report system. Its reports are frequently at odds with the medical reports prepared by the applicant's GP, who presumably has much greater knowledge of the applicant's situation than a third-party stranger. Those issues must be addressed. When an award is reviewed, or a claim assessed, why is no assessment made of the likely effect of removing the benefit or reducing its level? An assessment should look at the effect of such a reduction or change on the applicant's health. That would improve the operation of the disability living allowance.

I turn to another benefit, the winter fuel payment, of which we have heard much recently. The increase announced in the Budget was welcome, but most pensioners, certainly those in Scotland, will not benefit from that because they have not yet reached the age of 80. However, I wonder what thoughts the Minister has on extending that benefit to disabled people, in certain circumstances. It has been suggested by some organisations that an extension could easily be made to those in receipt of the middle or higher-rate care component of the DLA, and to those on the higher rate of the mobility component. The case for such an extension is unarguable, and I look forward to hearing the Minister's thoughts on that.

In many other areas, as has been mentioned, there is an urgent need to make progress. Problems of access are still, regrettably, very much part of everyday life for disabled people. Employment problems have been mentioned by several hon. Members. The right hon.

Member for Coatbridge and Chryston gave a pertinent account of the problems that disabled people face in securing employment, as well as the problems that they experience in the workplace. He put it very well when he said that employment for disabled people, as for us all, represents a gateway to a fulfilling life. I entirely agree. As I said at the outset, the European year of disabled people should facilitate a refocusing of attention on those issues that are of such importance to disabled people. I am sure that everyone will agree that that can only be a good thing.

I take the opportunity to raise an issue that could benefit from being put under the spotlight again. I speak of the Government's treatment of thalidomide sufferers. In 2002, contrary to the expectation that had been legitimately established over many years by previous Governments, the Chancellor refused to continue a tax concession that had operated with respect to the Thalidomide Trust. In effect, it means that the Treasury is making a profit from the compensation payments paid to thalidomide sufferers.

Surely the money is meant for those suffering disability; it should not go into the Chancellor's coffers. Other European countries do not tax payments made to thalidomide suffers. The question must therefore be asked: why do the Government continue with that shameful policy? On the grand scale of things, the impact of changing the Treasury's policy would be tiny, but the benefit to individual thalidomide sufferers would be enormous. Fairness and basic notions of justice dictate that the Chancellor should reconsider his decision and grant the Thalidomide Trust tax-exempt status.

In conclusion, I know that it is not within the remit of a Minister from the Department for Work and Pensions, but I urge the Minister for Disabled People to impress on the Chancellor and the Treasury the fact that they must change their position on the Thalidomide Trust. I hope that she will stand up for the rights of thalidomide sufferers.

2.57 pm

I congratulate the right hon. Member for Coatbridge and Chryston (Mr. Clarke) on securing this important debate. The European year of disabled people is important for three reasons. First, it sets a marker for future aspirations for equality for disabled people; secondly, it celebrates the achievements of disabled people; and thirdly, it raises awareness of the issue among the wider public.

A great deal has been done by member states to make society more inclusive for people with disabilities. For example, there is a move in some member states, including the UK, to integrate children with disabilities into mainstream education—a welcome development that I took part in as a teacher—and barriers to training are coming down.

Sweden is opening its training programmes to people with disabilities. Finland has reformed its benefits system to allow better access to vocational training. Denmark has introduced a new wage subsidy to encourage more young people with disabilities into the workplace. Luxembourg has modified its payment system better to support the autonomy of young people with disabilities. Progress has been made in making public spaces, including the workplace, more accessible. Greece has developed an inclusive approach, designed for all concepts, by removing architectural barriers to make its cities more disability friendly. Austria and Denmark are implementing measures to promote disability-friendly environments in the workplace and in public buildings. Significant commitments have been made on transport for disabled people in Spain, Ireland, Greece and the Netherlands.

Those measures all support the principles behind the European year of disabled people. The UK Government, too, have taken measures in support of the year. They have at last announced their intention to publish a draft disability Bill for pre-legislative scrutiny, a major step in providing a legislative base from which we could continue to build an inclusive society. The Government recently gave legal recognition to British sign language as a minority language, with extra Government support. They have also contributed another £2 million, on top of European funding, for a total of 171 projects.

The theme of the year deserves and has gained widespread support. However, having praised the European year of the disabled and the Government's contribution to it, I risk once again making myself a little unpopular with the Minister by raising some questions. In terms of both raising awareness and setting markers for the future, the Government have missed a golden opportunity this year. The European year of the disabled would have been an ideal time for them to announce the introduction of the long awaited and long promised single equality Act. Discrimination on grounds of disability is still legal in some categories where discrimination on the basis of ethnicity or gender would not be legal. As a result, at least 10 per cent. of the cases taken to the Disability Rights Commission cannot be dealt with.

The Government have announced that, later in the year, they will close some of the loopholes in the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, and that they propose to set up a single equality commission. However, that is in part setting the cart before the horse. A single equality Act to unify anti-discriminatory laws is essential first. During its passage through the Lords, Lord Lester's Equality Bill has shown how that can be done. Early-day motion 1217 called for such an Act; the motion was introduced only last Wednesday and in just seven days it has earned the support of 205 Members of Parliament, nearly a third of the House. I hope that the Minister will assure us that the Government intend to introduce such an Act.

It is also necessary to mainstream disability rights by embedding affirmative policies into all legislation. For example, the Royal National Institute of the Blind argues that the Communications Bill will allow exclusion from digital TV, radio and telecommunications to continue and deepen. The Planning and Compulsory Purchase Bill lacks requirements to ensure that developers will work to inclusive design principles from an early stage. The Criminal Justice Bill fails to ensure that hate crimes against disabled people will be tackled effectively. The Railways and Transport Safety Bill could offer opportunities for more joined-up policies to increase the safety of disabled people using public transport.

Then there is of course the question of money, which at least one other hon. Member has raised today. Events such as the European year of disabled people are excellent awareness raisers. Measures such as the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, the establishment of the Disability Rights Commission and the promised draft disability Bill later this year are all vital steps forward. However, money is needed to turn the new legislation and the changed public attitude to the disabled into real action. I should like to give some examples of that.

In my constituency there is an excellent special school called Ashgate Croft. The school needs a pool because swimming is the only chance for many of the children to get out of a wheelchair and undertake physical activity. It gives those children an enormous boost in self-confidence and has the direct, practical value of preventing their muscles from wasting away. The school had a pool that was paid for by voluntary donations, but it eventually had to be demolished for constructional reasons.

The school is now trying to raise £400,000 for a new pool. Lottery funds could go quite a way towards achieving that, but they come with strings attached, meaning that the pool would be a community pool that the school could use, as opposed to a school pool that the community could use. Wide-ranging community groups across Chesterfield, such as the Sheepbridge cricket club, are undertaking sponsored activities to raise money for the pool. Recently, for example, there was a sponsored walk from Chesterfield to Skegness, and the new mayor of Chesterfield, Councillor June Beckingham, has made the pool the key to her financial appeal for the year.

The appeal for the pool is named for Megan and her friends, and at this mayor's launch last Saturday, Megan's mother, Jane Carver, read out a letter that she had written on behalf of her six-year-old daughter:
"Hello. My name is Megan. I am in the infant class at Ashgate Croft special school. My mummy and daddy dream that one day I might be able to tell you that for myself. But, for now, I can't. I find it hard to talk and I don't understand a lot that is happening.
I don't want much. I don't want lots of toys or dolls or sweeties like most other little girls. I don't know what they are. But there are some special things that I do like: music, television and, best of all, water!—in the bath, the sea, the sink or even puddles! It is great fun but it can be dangerous too because I can't swim.
I would love to have a swimming pool at school so that me and my friends could exercise, learn to swim, feel better and have fun! We used to have one, lots of children in Chesterfield used it, but it had to be pulled down. Some children from my school go to the Queen's Park pool, but many of my friends can't because getting to the pool is difficult in wheelchairs and, often, there are not enough people to help us.
My class doesn't go swimming at all at the moment … swimming is one of the very few things that I can do as well as my two little brothers can. Being in the water makes me happy, gives me a little independence and, if I learned to swim, could save my life.
It will need lots of pennies to build us a pool, but we are hoping that if enough people help us we can get there. So please help us in whatever way you can and make our wish come true."
A second example, also from Chesterfield, but with problems that are experienced across Derbyshire and the rest of the country, is a voluntary project in north Derbyshire, based in Chesterfield, called Fairplay. Its project manager wrote to the Prime Minister on 9 April to say, among other things:
"Last year Fairplay was successful in receiving funding for an "Inclusion Support Project" from the Department of Education and Skills. The funding has enabled Fairplay to give support to Early Years settings throughout Derbyshire that work with children with additional needs and disabilities. The support offered by the project has included specialist training and advice on disability, as well as "time limited" support to staff members in individual schools and nurseries. This support has been extremely well received and the training so popular that Fairplay has had to establish a waiting list for the many nurseries and schools wishing to take part in the project.
The funding enabled Fairplay to establish one full-time and two part-time worker posts to meet the demand for the service.
Recently, Fairplay has had its second funding application for £36,000, which would have enabled the project to continue for a further year, turned down by the DfES. The explanation given for this was that the total number of bids received amounted to £6.8 million pounds and that the department had only £2 million pounds to offer organisations. I feel that the very fact so many requests for funding were received by the department indicates that there is a real need for support to be offered to settings working with children that have additional needs and disabilities."
The letter goes on to say that the special educational needs code of practice and the extending requirements of the Disability Discrimination Act will result in an acceleration in such demands from schools and nurseries, although the money to meet them will not be available.

Finally, the National Library for the Blind, based in Stockport, is a charity that began in the late 19th century. It houses Europe's largest collection of tactile books and offers a free postal library service to blind and partially sighted people, providing Braille, tape and large-print guides to available books. The latter guides, ?Read On" and "New Reading", began 18 months ago and are issued quarterly. However, the next quarter's issue, which would cost just £10,000 to produce, cannot go ahead because the money is not available. In the past financial year, the charity's operating income was £1.5 million, of which just £133,000 came from the Government and £62,000 from the lottery. That is approximately 13 per cent, of the total.

Somebody asked why the taxpayer should support such a charitable body. Charities do a lot of fundraising, so why is this one different? Kirsty Frost of the NLB argues that it is a human right to read.
"The taxpayer funds libraries for the sighted, but blind people have to rely largely on charities."
The limits on charitable funds raised mean that only 5 per cent. of published material in this country and others is available to the blind. Hon. Members should look at the bookshelves and filing cabinets in their offices and homes and imagine that 95 per cent, of that material is unavailable.

Inevitably, when arguing for money, we have to ask where it will come from. That is an issue for political parties to raise with the public through their manifestos at election time. The public will often give money to charity but say that they are not prepared to pay it in extra taxes to provide a uniform spend across the board. However, in this European year of disabled people, we should put down a marker. Let us look back to the millennium dome project three years ago. It was a flop; it cost £750 million at the time, and it still costs the taxpayer £250,000 a month to keep it open, policed and maintained. How much better that money could have been used for a millennium project providing facilities for disabled people, such as a swimming pool for Megan in Chesterfield, which would continue to be available for many years to come. Such projects would be regarded as far more worthy than the millennium dome.

3.9 pm

I too congratulate the right hon. Member for Coatbridge and Chryston (Mr. Clarke) on initiating the debate and on bringing to it his characteristic blend of expertise and enthusiasm. I shall continue the tour of the Labour Benches by commending the hon. Member for Kingswood (Mr. Berry), too, as he was personally generous to me. That was greatly appreciated, although perhaps unmerited. I noted the barbs that he imparted at either end of his address, and perhaps I can turn them by saying that I have some sympathy with the Minister. I have been in her position in the past, and I know that considerations such as legislative handling and resources must always inform our debate. However, I hope that they will not take it over in this instance; indeed, I do not think that that was the spirit of the debate.

I also commend my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson) on the expertise and real passion that she brought to bear in speaking of her concerns and on behalf of her constituents. I have considerable sympathy with the comments of the hon. Member for Perth (Annabelle Ewing) about the disability living allowance, and I totally sympathise with and endorse what she said about the Thalidomide Trust. Finally, as this is an inclusive speech, I should also mention the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Paul Holmes), who made some powerful points. The examples that he gave demonstrated the practical problems with delivery.

I have no wish to rubbish the European year of disabled people, although I always have some reservations about what one might term emblem policies. It is easy to package things together, to spend a small amount of public money, which is totally dwarfed by the huge amounts spent on benefits, and then to settle down after a year and say, "We'll move on to something else next year." It is important—perhaps the Minister will deal with this—that value be added by what is done this year, as I am sure that it will be. It is also important that there be a determination on her part, and on the part of the Departments involved, to do more next year and not simply stop after the relevant calendar date.

I want to bring to the Minister's attention two specific issues regarding the European year of disabled people. The first, which I am surprised has not been mentioned, is the impact of tourism and cross-border movements in Europe. Those are huge phenomena, which involve many millions of people—including, by definition, many disabled people. I have concerns about conditions outside the UK, which are not easy to control from this country. In that respect, I have corresponded with Ministers, the Disability Rights Commission and the Association of British Travel Agents. Any solution will probably need to involve a concerted effort by Departments, the European Commission and non-governmental organisations abroad.

I am thinking, for example, of the increasingly familiar problems with access to airline services and damage to wheelchairs in transit. There are also more subtle matters, such as the difficulties in offering travel contracts that include an accessible room. The continental hotelier will not guarantee such a room, and will speak only of his "best endeavours" to provide one. There are other examples. I mean no disrespect to the Greek authorities, which are doing their best—everyone has awoken to that fact—but anyone who has tried to ascend the smart marble steps of a Greek museum will know that it is a lot easier if one is not a wheelchair user.

My second point, which underlines my comments about moving on from this year to next year, is that 2004 will be the crunch year in terms of access to premises under the final implementation of the disability Discrimination Act 1995. I fully understand why the Disability Rights Commission has concentrated on other matters until now—it has been dealing with an important education initiative this year—but it is incumbent on everyone in the field to explore the obligations that will exist next year, so as to increase awareness of an issue that is, sadly, little understood.

I have some concerns, which the Minister may want to relay to her colleagues, about recent announcements by the Department for Education and Skills to the effect that schools could dispose of their capital budgets to shore up their current budgets. That will eat into their provision for special educational needs, and I have considerable doubts about whether it will be possible or practical for many schools to provide the resources for the necessary adjustments that they need to make to their premises. The 2004 deadline does not apply to them—they have a year's grace—but it is very important to get on with that.

I listened carefully to the right hon. Member for Coatbridge and Chryston when he introduced the debate. The Opposition are glad that the draft disability Bill is at last coming over the horizon. It had been delayed, but I hope that it will now produce a good outcome. When I read the disability Rights Commission's report "Making it Happen", I found it difficult to find many things to which I could reasonably object. No doubt if I read it again I could make minor objections, but it contained many good points, and I hope that the Minister will take the delay as a platform for embodying in the final draft of the Bill suggestions that might not have appeared in the first draft. There is no point in waiting when waiting is unnecessary. Equally, however, I agree that there is no point in rushing into a new theological definition of what is or is not disability and then losing much custom and practice on the way.

On the single disability body, I have much sympathy with the remarks made by the right hon. Member for Coatbridge and Chryston. It is extremely important for the DRC to retain its focus on disability, its credibility for its users and a good representation of disabled people in its work. The DRC has suggested ways in which such an organisation could be incorporated as a strand in an overarching body, which is possible. The question would then arise whether we need separate human rights legislation. However, the body needs careful tuning so that we do not lose something in the process of—dare I say it?—rushing on.

Two major factors still affect disabled people in their day-to-day lives. The first is their economic situation. It is right to report that there is still real concern about the very low participation of disabled people in employment and the relatively poor performance at school of children who are not mentally disabled and do not have learning difficulties, but who have an impairment, such as deafness, that prevents them from realising their potential so that they have to keep struggling.

All Members will know from their constituency work that they have to struggle constantly with the benefit system. I recently uncovered the great ducks and drakes exercise that starts with income support and moves on to the higher rate of incapacity benefit after 28 weeks— but after 52 weeks people must remember to go back to income support with the disability premium. We might just be able to understand that, but it is asking a lot of constituents, or even welfare rights workers, to get it all right.

There are also real concerns about the transfer of people under the disabled persons tax credit to the new working tax credit. Treasury Ministers have told me that everything is all right, but from my constituency experience, I do not believe that.

Finally, and perhaps more importantly, there is concern about disabled people's access to services. Over the years, Ministers have always claimed credit for developments, innovations and improvements. I thoroughly welcome the recognition of British sign language as a separate language, which was mentioned today. The hon. Member for Chesterfield referred to the possibility that that would trigger additional resources. The Department for Work and Pensions—the Minister's Department—has produced £1 million. I know that because I asked the Department for Education and Skills what it was going to do, and it was clear that it believed that it was unnecessary to provide extra resources to acknowledge the development.

Last week was autism awareness week. There are real difficulties in establishing the case for disabilities other than physical disability. A case was cited of two four-year-old twins, whom I happen to know, whose mother could not receive a blue badge because the children had no physical disability. That is a very difficult situation, which also applies to many other aspects of mental health.

The major problem with physical disability is that it is still very difficult for disabled people to get about. The weakest part of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 concerns transport—in fairness, the Government are consulting on it—as well as access to premises.

On the other side is what might generically be called training and awareness, and the need for staff who deal with the general public to be aware of the particular needs of disabled people and to treat them decently. However much we legislate, let alone however much we talk here, that is a matter for each individual.

There is a lot to do, and there will be a lot to do beyond this year. I do not mind if we return next year to have another go. I am sure that everyone here believes that if the European year of disabled people is to be successful it should function as a powerhouse or engine house for making further improvements, and strengthen our collective resolve to secure an inclusive society for disabled people.

3.20 pm

As ever on this subject in this place, we have had an excellent debate and I want to congratulate, in particular, my right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge and Chryston (Mr. Clarke) on initiating it. He is well known, as a number of my hon. Friends have made clear, for his interest in the subject and for his expertise. Both showed through strongly in his contribution at the beginning of the debate. For many years he, with others, worked tirelessly to improve the lives of disabled people in this country when it was not fashionable to do so.

The European year of disabled people is about raising awareness among those of us who are not disabled, celebrating the achievements and potential of disabled people, and promoting more participation by disabled people in all aspects of everyday life. It also gives us a chance to take stock of where we are, the progress that we have made and what more we need to do, and to have some exchanges on how to set about doing that.

I shall start by saying a little about legislation. It is easy on occasions such as this to talk about the future, and my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Mr. Berry) is right to say that the future is always more interesting than the past, but we should also recognise what we have done. Otherwise, we shall look to the future without the context of where we have come from and where we have got to. An enormous amount has been achieved, and legislation is important because it provides a framework around which advances can be made. I am not one of those who think that legislation should follow trends. It should lead and shape trends.

When this Labour Government came to power in 1997, the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 was on the statute book—my right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge and Chryston rightly paid tribute to the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), who when he was the Minister with responsibility for disabled people, had to fight to get that legislation on the statute book. It was the first major Bill covering disability to be enacted, but it had gaps, faults and flaws, and not all of it was implemented.

As recently as 1997, when we came to office, only the provisions covering direct employment discrimination in firms with more than 20 employees, and direct discrimination in service provision, had been implemented. We must remember that direct discrimination is saying that someone cannot be employed because they are disabled Talking one's way round that was not outlawed. Since then, we have made significant advances in extending the legal rights of disabled people to employment, access to goods and services, education and transport. We have given effect to many of the provisions that had sat on the statute book but had not been activated.

In 1997 we set up the disability rights taskforce to advise us on how best to make advances and secure our manifesto commitment of comprehensive and enforceable civil rights for disabled people. It made 156 recommendations, almost all of which we accepted. In 1998, we extended the employment provision to employers with 15 or more employees, and next October it will apply to all employers, including those with only one member of staff. When the regulations that I laid before Parliament on 8 May this year come into force, they will end the small firms exemption and will bring an extra 1 million employers under the employment provisions of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995. They will protect an extra 7 million employees, including many in the public sector, and provide protection for 600,000 disabled people already working in those jobs, who currently do not have that protection.

In 1999 we brought further rights of access to goods and services into force, requiring those who provide a service to the public to make "reasonable adjustments" where access is impossible or unreasonably difficult for disabled people. When the final changes in access to goods and services provisions are implemented next October, they will build on the serious progress we have already made to ensure that disabled customers can take advantage of the things that others often just take for granted.

We also set up the Disability Rights Commission in 2000, and my right hon. Friend and several other hon. Members have referred to that. That body has just celebrated its third anniversary. It is a typical three-year-old—it did not worry too much about my describing it as such—as it is loud, noisy, often right, and infuriating at times, but it does a very good job. Where would we be without it? That is how I like to regard the Disability Rights Commission. There is no doubt about the fact that it has made an extremely good impact, and has done so particularly well in its relationships with employers.

Given the fact that the duties that I have just described come into force next year, it is particularly important that we take the community of employers with us. I do not want disabled people to have to take people or companies to court to access their rights. Their rights should be granted as a matter of course, without their having to ask. We do not just want to create litigation, we want real social advance. The efforts that the DRC has made in that respect have been tremendously important.

In 2001 the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act received Royal Assent. That plugged a major gap in the DDA; leaving education out was a major problem. The 2001 Act is a huge step forward for disabled pupils, students and adult learners. In due course, as it is fully and properly implemented, the Act will make a massive difference in the medium to long term in disabled people's ability to take their rightful place in all aspects of our society. The Act strengthens the right of children with special educational needs to be educated in mainstream schools, but it does not rule out separate special schools where those are appropriate, and it provides protection against discrimination for disabled students and pupils.

The record needs to be considered alongside the action that we are currently undertaking. I have already referred to the employment directive under article 13 of the treaty of Amsterdam, and the regulations introduced on 8 May. Not only was the UK Government instrumental in shaping the agenda in Europe, but we are implementing the directive two years earlier than the required deadline, and ahead of many of our European colleagues. The directive would bring occupations currently excluded within the scope of the DDA. We want disabled people not only to have better employment opportunities, but to have greater access to a wider range of services and activities that others take for granted. That is why we are tackling barriers in other areas of society too.

I am glad to hear from hon. Members of all parties that the draft disability Bill that was announced in January, which will be published some time this year, is so widely welcomed. I look forward to some constructive contributions to the debate when it comes before the House for pre-legislative scrutiny. Tempted though I might be, I cannot go into any great detail about when that will be, and hon. Members will understand why. I have heard what has been said, and their concern that it should happen sooner rather than later. Such things will make a difference.

I should take the opportunity that the debate presents to say—because it was not possible to do so last Friday in the House—that the Government support the Disabled People (Duties of Public Authorities) Bill, which was unfortunately talked out. For the life of me, I cannot understand why. It promised to make a real difference to disabled people's lives by ensuring that a huge range of public sector bodies—Government, local government and smaller organisations—will have to take account of the needs of disabled people. Such measures will make a difference. They will raise awareness and ensure that in future disabled people do not have to fight for their rights, because their rights will simply be there.

We must address prejudice and stereotypes. My right hon. Friend referred to a super-qualified person who was unable to get a job purely on the grounds that she had a disability. Legislation is not sufficient. We also need to ensure that we raise awareness. I was asked what we were doing about that, and I can say that I have set aside £3 million this year and next for awareness-raising activities. We recognise that, as the law is implemented fully next October, we have to ensure that whom we give obligations know what they are and are ready to comply with them. There is no point in changing the law if the changes are not implemented by those who have obligations.

We will be doing a huge amount. This year gives us a great opportunity to raise awareness, and we are doing that. One of the side effects of the European year of disabled people will be the fact that it gives us an opportunity to raise awareness in this respect, which would not have been quite so easy otherwise. We are taking those steps, and I hope that they will have a big impact. I am sure that they will. The latest research shows a higher awareness of the Disability Discrimination Act in society in general than we have ever seen before. There is up to 62 per cent. awareness, and that is an achievement.

3.30 pm

Sitting suspended.

Newcraighall Post Office

3.32 pm

I am pleased to have the opportunity to introduce a debate on the future of Newcraighall post office. The provision of a sustainable and vibrant post office network servicing communities in both urban and rural areas is something that I am sure that everyone supports. I recognise that, to keep up with the times, the network has to adjust to the challenges of an increasingly cashless society, changes in retail habits and the resulting reduction in footfall at local post offices. The closure of Newcraighall post office is being proposed as part of the urban network reinvention programme. I therefore want to focus on that programme this afternoon.

The starting point to a debate on the future of the post office network must surely be the performance and innovation unit report entitled "Counter Revolution— Modernising the Post Office Network". The report, published in June 2000 by the Cabinet Office, set out 24 recommendations that the Government accepted and have since been working to implement. The first eight recommendations in the report set out the steps for retaining the rural post office network. The Government are affording very substantial protection to the rural post office network. Indeed, they have given a commitment that states explicitly that there should be "no avoidable closures".

In order to produce a viable and sustainable network, the PIU, in its recommendations, concentrated on the need for the Post Office to develop its range of services. It rightly stated that the Post Office as a brand was in a unique position to do that. Public trust and awareness of the Post Office as a reliable public institution remains high, and the reach of the network is unique in that every citizen currently has easy access to a post office.

The universal bank, discussed in recommendations 14 to 17, formed the cornerstone of the idea of developing Post Office services, The universal bank had strong support from sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses in the Edinburgh area. The PIU stated:
"The Government should positively support the Universal Bank viewing it as the best means to ensure that benefit recipients can continue to access their entitlements in cash at Post Offices".
It is almost three years since June 2000, when I asked the then Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tyneside, North (Mr. Byers) whether it would be possible for an individual such as myself to open an account with the universal bank. He informed me:
"People who already have bank accounts will be perfectly entitled to join the universal bank and they will be offered the whole range of financial services that the banking sector provides."—[Official Report, 28 June 2000; Vol. 352, c. 918.]
Following discussions with the major high street banks, the universal bank has metamorphosed into the Post Office card account, and difficulties are being encountered by those attempting to open such an account.

My hon. Friend the Minister will have seen early-day motion 572, which has more than 200 signatures, showing that perhaps many hon. Members feel that the option of collecting benefits in cash at the post office has not received the wholehearted support of the agencies involved, which in the main are Government agencies. My hon. Friend may wish to comment on that in the debate.

The second area in which the PIU believed that the Post Office could develop the range of services it provided was in acting as Government general practitioners and internet learning and access points, coupled with the idea that post offices could provide information and low-level advice on government issues and become one-stop shops for local and national government. The PIU recognised that the Post Office has the advantages of reach, trust and staff experience to develop that role and many would agree that that is the case. It recommended a series of pilots throughout the UK involving local government and devolved Administrations, which resulted in the "Your Guide" pilot that took place in Leicestershire. The pilot ran from 16 July 2001 to 1 March 2002 and resulted in the publication of a report by the "Your Guide" pilot evaluation team entitled "Evaluation of the pilot of the 'Your Guide' service of post offices as Government general practitioners".

The purpose of the pilot was to develop a role for post offices as Government general practitioners and to contribute to the broad objectives of improving the uptake and accessibility of central and local government information and services; encouraging the uptake of electronic Government information and services; and maintaining the commercial viability of the post office network. The report concluded that
"the pilot yielded little hard evidence that Your Guide would significantly increase the footfall in post offices in a way which would impact positively on existing business".
However, there were some positive findings that were not championed as such. For example, the overall customer satisfaction level was 92 per cent, rating the services as useful or fairly useful and saying that "Your Guide" services had the potential to help the Government to reach some of their target audiences of disadvantaged groups. I was disappointed that a "Your Guide" pilot was not attempted in Scotland.

The "Your Guide" report also documented difficulties in obtaining accurate information regarding customer participation in the scheme due to poor communication between sub-postmasters and the content providers, which in the main are Government agencies. In conclusion, the National Federation of Sub-Postmasters described the "Your Guide" project as "brilliant."

In October last year, my hon. Friend the Minister moved a motion in the House to authorise funding for the urban post office network reinvention programme. He stated in that debate that a key recommendation of the PIU report was that, if the Post Office decided that fewer post offices were needed in some urban areas, the Government should consider providing financial support to the Post Office to ensure that sub-postmasters were adequately compensated for the loss of value of their business.

In the debate my hon. Friend set out the reasons why the Government believe the post office network needs restructuring. He wants the Post Office to end up with an urban network that provides for greater profitability, but does he agree that we need to ensure that such a network does not consist of sub-post offices that are based exclusively in relatively affluent areas? Judging by what I have seen in Edinburgh, there is a danger that a disproportionate number of sub-post offices will close in deprived areas. Some of those post offices have been hardest hit by the move to pay benefits directly into bank accounts rather than in cash.

On 22 April, Sandy Stephen, who heads the Scottish area of Post Office Ltd., wrote to me as the local Member of Parliament to say that the Post Office was proposing to close its Newcraighall branch. I am surprised and disappointed that Newcraighall is being considered for closure, for reasons that I shall explain. There is a consultation period, which ends on 27 May. The announcement that Newcraighall was being considered for closure came during the Scottish election campaign. Some of the candidates expressed the view that closure was inevitable and that the consultation was a sham. I do not believe that to be true. I have met Mr. Stephen and I am confident that he takes the consultation process seriously, and my hon. Friend the Minister has made it very clear that the Government's view is that the consultation should be taken very seriously by all concerned.

Referring to the consultation process during a debate in the House, my hon. Friend said that to
"ensure that the needs of all customers have been properly considered—the elderly, disabled people, those on low incomes and others—Post Office Ltd. will, in developing its proposals, take account of factors such as the accessibility and viability of the remaining post offices, transport links, opening hours and numbers of counter positions."—[Official Report, 15 October 2002; Vol. 390, c. 233.]
I believe that we would all support that, and I am sure that that is the objective of the Government and my hon. Friend the Minister.

I now turn to the case for Newcraighall sub-post office, which I believe is a special and compelling one. Newcraighall is a former mining village, as you know very well, Mr. Deputy Speaker, on the eastern edge of Edinburgh. In recent years, major new roads have been built linking up with the Edinburgh city bypass. Those roads have hemmed in the village to some extent and made it relatively more isolated from the adjacent Niddrie and Craigmillar areas of Edinburgh.

It is true that people with access to cars have several shopping areas within easy reach, but many of the elderly, in particular, do not have access to a car. There are bus services to other parts of Edinburgh and to Musselburgh, but they have been chopped and changed in the past year and are a source of continuing local concern.

Newcraighall is in the Craigmillar social inclusion partnership area, where two post office branches in Bingham and Greendykes have already closed under the urban post office network reinvention programme. In the consultation letter, the Post Office named two alternative branches that would be suitable for Newcraighall residents if the local post office were closed. Neither is an easy walk—indeed, I cannot imagine any elderly person choosing to walk to either of them. It is accurate to say that the post office in the Jewel Asda superstore is within one mile—just—but the other is 1.4 miles away on foot.

The post office in the Jewel Asda is closer, but the route on foot involves crossing two major roundabouts that lead on to the slip road of the A1, which is a very dangerous crossing for anyone; passing under a subway below the motorway; crossing the car park of a major retail park; travelling over an unpaved and overgrown footbridge over a goods railway line; and negotiating a set of steep and winding steps that have no hand rail and that lead to a further large car park that one must cross to reach the Asda superstore that houses the sub-post office. As I said, I cannot imagine anyone, certainly not a pensioner or a young mother with children, choosing to walk to what would be their nearest post office if the Newcraighall post office were to close.

A crucial point in the case for keeping the Newcraighall sub-post office open is that it is the only shop in the village. If the post office closes, the shop will close. The village shop issue, combined with Newcraighall's relative isolation, make the post office there comparable to a rural post office. The considerations that have persuaded the Government to prevent avoidable closures of rural post offices should apply in this case. There is a question as to whether, for sub-post office network purposes, Newcraighall village should be treated as a community detached from Edinburgh's population and classified as a rural post office.

Just before I conclude my remarks, I should like to quote Age Concern, which said:
"For many older people the local Post Office is an important lifeline providing a point of access to pensions, benefits as well as other financial services, a general store and a source of information and advice."
That is what we have in Newcraighal

Newcraighall is a small community with a number of elderly people who depend on the local post office not just as a post office but as a local shop. It is open seven days a week, and pensioners go each day for such things as milk and newspapers. The local postmaster, Jim Stewart and his staff provide what is, in practice, a social service. It would be a severe blow if the post office and shop were to close. The community is united in its determination to retain this important amenity. I hope that the Post Office will give careful consideration to the representations that are being made, and I am sure that that is also the wish of my hon. Friend the Minister.

3.44 pm

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, East and Musselburgh (Dr. Strang) on securing a debate on the future of the Newcraighall post office branch. He has, for a long time, shown a close interest in the issues and challenges facing the post office network. He has shown that again this afternoon and I welcome the opportunity to respond to his points.

First, I shall comment on some of the general points that my right hon. Friend made at the start of the debate. He rightly went to the PIU report as the basis for the Government's policy on the post office network. At one point, he said that the concept of the universal bank has become the Post Office card account. That is not quite right. The universal bank, which is an important development and good news for the Post Office, can be accessed in one of three ways, not only through the Post Office card account. That account is one form of access. The second is the bank or building society basic account, now offered by every high street bank and the Nationwide building society. It is for those who are new to banking, who just want to pay money in and get cash out, and perhaps pay bills automatically.

The third way of accessing universal banking services is through an ordinary current account. A very significant development in the past few weeks is that anyone who has an ordinary current account with the Alliance and Leicester building society or Barclays bank—between them, that is about 11 million people—can now get their money using their ordinary cashpoint card over a post office counter. That will be a compelling reason for many people to go into their local post office, which they have not had in the past.

My right hon. Friend mentioned "Your Guide". Very few of the sub-postmasters involved in the pilot reported any increase in sales from the additional footfall generated by "Your Guide". As that was what it was intended to be about, we concluded from our evaluation that it would not represent value for money to roll it out nationally. However, the pilot highlighted a number of ways in which Government Departments might deliver services through post offices in future. We are exploring those. There are also potential alternative commercial options. There is much commercial interest at the moment in placing kiosks in post offices. A commercial kiosk service, including some post offices, has just begun to be piloted in Cornwall. It will be interesting to see what comes of that. The "Your Guide" pilot has helped the Post Office to understand better how it can serve members of the public, and we may well see more on the kiosk idea in future.

I assure my right hon. Friend that the Government are committed, as he commented, to maintaining a viable network of pest offices across the country. He is absolutely right about the importance of sub-post offices as a focal point for local communities, particularly for the elderly and the less mobile. I agree with the point on which he quoted Age Concern. The post office network serves 24 million people every week. It is the largest retail network in Europe and includes half as many branches again as all the banks and building societies put together.

The question is how we take that network forward, given the changes that we have seen in customers' buying habits during the past few years. Some of the reasons for those changes date back more than 20 years. Past under-investment has certainly been a factor in what is now happening, but greater mobility and changes in shopping and financial habits mean that people are simply not using post offices as often as they used to. Customer numbers, as my right hon. Friend acknowledged, have fallen sharply.

The aim of the urban reinvention programme to which my right hon. Friend referred, under which the closure of Newcraighall post office has been proposed, is to restore the urban network to commercial viability, restoring the confidence of sub-postmasters, which we think is very important, and making it possible to attract new investment so that customers can continue to enjoy access to the full range of post office services.

My right hon. Friend is aware of the role of Postwatch—the consumer watchdog for postal services—in the process. It has an important role in the implementation of the programme, and it is examining every proposal that has been made. In each case for which Post Office Ltd. makes a closure proposal, it carries out a formal public consultation process, in accordance with the code of practice that has been agreed with Postwatch on branch closures. Post Office Ltd. actively seeks the views of those affected by its proposals, as well as the views of interest groups, councillors and MPs. I have been assured that the company will fully consider all representations before reaching a decision. I emphasise the importance of the role of Postwatch as an independent consumer watchdog.

My right hon. Friend mentioned that the proposal to close Newcraighall sub-post office was made on 23 April, and that the closing date for consultation responses is 27 May. Postwatch Scotland has issued a press release asking for comments on the Newcraighall proposal, so that they can be reflected in its response. Comments to Postwatch Scotland may be sent in writing or made by telephone at a local call rate.

I listened to the points made by my right hon. Friend about whether Newcraighall sub-post office should be regarded as being located in a rural area—or, at least, an area having some of the characteristics of a rural area. Post Office Ltd. has a process of which my right hon. Friend will be aware for determining which branches are urban and which are rural. That determination is made on the basis of whether the post office branch is located in a community of more or less than 10,000 inhabitants. That analysis has been revisited in this case, given the concerns that have been raised. Post Office Ltd. has reached the conclusion that the office is rightly classed as urban. If there are local issues that make that branch particularly important in the local community and alternatives are, for example, difficult to access, that is a consideration that needs to be weighed in considering how to take forward the proposal. Post Office Ltd. will weigh those factors seriously, as will Postwatch.

I understand that there are 12 post offices within a two-mile radius of the Newcraighall office, of which the nearest four are the Jewel—to which my right hon. Friend described a journey on foot—Magdalene drive, Hay drive and Joppa. The Jewel, at the Asda supermarket, has the benefit of being open seven days a week. The Jewel and Hay drive have regular and direct public transport links. A particular issue in this case is that the post office at Newcraighall has seen a 16 per cent, fall in business over the last three years, and the level of custom for the retail side of the business has also fallen significantly. There is a real problem for the sub-postmaster in seeing any viable future for the business. Clearly, the limited level of patronage from the local community is a significant factor in Post Office Ltd.'s proposal, as is the sub-postmaster's perception of the prospects for his business as a going concern. In the great majority of cases currently under consideration for closure under the programme, it is the choice of the sub-postmaster to accept compensation rather than continue with the business that has triggered the process.

The programme to restructure the urban post office network will run for three years. It started at the end of 2002, but there is no predetermined list or number of offices that will close, and no arithmetical formula is being applied to determine the number of closures in a given area. About 3,000 sub-postmasters have expressed an interest in closing under the terms of the programme, but those expressions of interest are not binding—not on Post Office Ltd. and not on the sub-postmaster.

We are confident that, even after the changes have been made, 95 per cent, of people in urban areas throughout the country will live within a mile of their nearest branch, and the majority within half a mile. Other than in exceptional circumstances, the scope of the programme will not extend to post offices in the 10 per cent, most deprived urban wards that are more than half a mile from the next post office.

My right hon. Friend expressed particular concern that sub-post offices in the least well-off areas would close. That is absolutely not the outcome that we want, but he was right to ask. That is why the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister have set aside funds to support post office services and the development of associated retail facilities in disadvantaged urban districts. The Scottish Executive have been apportioned funds for their equivalent of the English scheme. Similar funds have been made available in Wales and Northern Ireland.

I think that my right hon. Friend would agree that some form of properly managed urban reinvention programme is preferable to the alternative of unmanaged closures resulting from falling income. The consequence would be that more urban sub-postmasters would shut their businesses, causing much greater disruption and inconvenience to customers.

In the year to the end of March, there were 128 net urban closures outside the urban reinvention programme. If that pattern of unplanned closures continued, some serious gaps would open up in service provision in urban areas. The position is different in rural areas, but urban areas, where there are quite a lot of post offices, do not have the business to sustain so dense a network, given the changes that we have seen.

Much change is needed in the post office network. As my right hon. Friend said, the PIU report not only suggested that the Government should help if the Post Office should find that fewer offices were needed in urban areas, but recommended that we should support the introduction of universal banking. I said at the start that about 11 million current account holders with Barclays and the Alliance and Leicester can go to the post office, hand over their cash card, enter their PIN and obtain cash. I hope that more banks will open their current accounts to post office access in that way. In turn, we shall see many more people wanting and needing to visit the local post office, with consequent benefits to the other parts of the Post Office's business.

Implementation of the recommendation on the introduction of universal banking has been made possible because the Government have made the largest ever investment in the Post Office—£480 million on modern online computer systems for every post office in the country. They were switched on, on time, at the beginning of the present financial year. The ambition is to build on the uniquely trusted ground that the Post Office has—my right hon. Friend was right to point that out—in order to modernise and extend its commercial banking arrangements so that it can become the nation's leading provider of access to bank accounts. That is what the concept of a universal bank means, and that is how we see the future role of the post office network. All the high street banks have signed up to deliver their part of the plan, in Scotland as well as in England and Northern Ireland.

There are two strands to universal banking. The first is full access at post offices anywhere in the country lo the basic bank accounts of every major bank and building society. Between them, those institutions account for 99 per cent. of all current accounts in the country. They will offer new basic accounts that are fully accessible at any post office. The second strand is the Post Office card account, which will be solely for benefit recipients. They will be able to use it only at a post office. It will be a simple and problem-free way of obtaining cash for those who particularly want that.

We must restore the urban post office network lo commercial viability and restore the confidence of sub-postmasters. That is critical if we are to attract much-needed new investment to the network. We continue to work towards the implementation of the recommendations in the PIU report to help bring about the accomplishment of its goals, which my right hon. Friend described at the outset.

House Building

4 pm

I am grateful for this opportunity to raise the important subject of house building in West Sussex. In doing so, I have a sense of déjà-vu, because way back in December 1997, one of the first Adjournment debates in which I spoke after my election was on the subject of the Deputy Prime Minister imposing what was then an extra 12,800 houses on West Sussex. He trampled over the West Sussex structure plan and imposed his extra houses on top of the 37,900 additional houses that we were expected to build over 25 years. We were talking about a number of houses equivalent to two whole new towns in the predominantly rural county of West Sussex.

The deposit structure plan that the Deputy Prime Minister overruled envisaged 54 per cent. of the new houses being built on brownfield sites and 46 per cent, on greenfield sites. The additional houses that were then imposed on the county meant that only 41 per cent. of the houses would be able to be built on brownfield sites, according to the predictions, and 59 per cent.—that is getting on for two thirds—would have to go on greenfield sites.

At that time, I and other hon. Members representing West Sussex constituencies warned against overdevelopment in our county. We do not have green belt and we have a great shortage of suitable building sites anyway, wedged as we are, particularly in the south of the county, between the downs, which stretch the full extent of West Sussex, and the sea to the south. We also lack many infrastructure elements, particularly with regard to transport across the county.

The measures imposed by the Deputy Prime Minister were in stark contrast to the undertakings given before the 1997 election by the Prime Minister. He said:
"We will put concern for the environment at the heart of policy making".
He added:
"Local decision-making should be less constrained by central Government."
That is in sharp contrast to what happened.

When the examination in public produced the structure plan, it said:
"Peripheral development could only be accommodated in the county at the cost of an environmental loss which is significantly greater than has happened in the past. The existing character of the county, which is now at a critical point, would be lost, and that would be regrettable."
In the debate on 17 December 1997, I referred to the Council for the Protection of Rural England, which had commented:
"The draft West Sussex Structure Plan had been agreed by a careful analysis of housing and environmental needs in the county. It stood as a beacon of a more common sense approach to planning new housing development and its housebuilding levels, significantly below those set out in Government planning guidance, received independent official support… The new Government has made an appalling start to meeting the challenge of providing new homes in ways that renew our towns instead of concreting the countryside. This decision is both undemocratic and environmentally damaging."
At the time, in its report on house building levels, the CPRE predicted that the projected levels of new housing development could generate demands for more than 80 new quarries, extra water resources equivalent to 20 million baths a day and disposal sites for an additional 180,000 dumper trucks of rubbish a year across the country.

Another quote from the time of that report was from the Sussex Wildlife Trust, which stated that the news of the Deputy Prime Minister's action was
"a severe blow against local democracy. The EIP process appears to have been a waste of time and resources. The month of eloquent discussion and the winning of the argument count for nothing against an ill-judged government direction."
How right all those comments turned out to be.

Since 1997, we have had many more debates in the House on the subject of house building, not least that in West Sussex. The West Sussex Gazette and other local papers launched a series of save our countryside campaigns. Tens of thousands of people signed a petition, which they handed in at No. 10 Downing street with me and other hon. Members from the county. Now we see the pigeons coming home to roost. Virtually everything that we have warned about from 1997 onwards is beginning to come true. The target for house building in West Sussex ended up at around 46,500 houses to be built by 2016. On the basis of existing commitments, 13,670 houses have so far been identified, of which just over 4,500—a third—are on brownfield sites. Two thirds, over 9,000 houses, are to be built on greenfield sites, almost the reverse of the equation that the Deputy Prime Minister led us to believe that the Government supported. Government figures show that, nationally, more than 260 sq km of rural land is earmarked for development, while more than 280 sq km of urban land is going to waste and is unused.

In West Sussex, large-scale developments between towns and between towns and small villages are beginning to merge into each other, and the 22 strategic gaps across the county—which are particularly valued—are under threat of further development. Even flood plains, areas that have been judged by the Environment Agency to be at risk from flood, are not exempt from development. There are continuing pressures on the infrastructure with virtually no motorway in the whole of the county and increasing traffic congestion. We in the south-east of England are supposed to continue to be part of the economic powerhouse of the country, but we have heavily oversubscribed schools and some of the longest hospital waiting lists in the country, with enormous pressures on our GPs.

I want to refer particularly to one case in my constituency. That is the planned development for an area in the north of Worthing at the top of Beeches avenue. It is a small site of just under seven acres on the edge of the south downs above the A27. We need to have another debate on another day about the problems on that road. It is marginally outside the area currently identified as an area of outstanding natural beauty and on the edge of what could well become the national park for the south downs. Beeches avenue and the parallel road, Pines avenue, are cul-de-sacs, purely residential roads. To the east of them is the Lyons Farm shopping development, which should never have been built in the first place; it has been a blot on the landscape since the 1990s. The roads have unspoiled views to the downs, and it is agricultural land, used for public footpaths, grazing and bridleways.

It has always been assumed that that would be the northern fringe of development in Worthing and that the town could not push any further into the downs. Worthing is already the largest town in Sussex. It has grown substantially over the past 20 years—it now has two MPs, such is its size. It is a mix of business and residential use, tourist and retirement use and it is deemed to be the most profitable place in which to do business in the whole country. In the local planning inquiry in 2000–01, the land in Beeches avenue was identified as to be kept as agricultural land. Soon after the draft plan was published, the inspector put his nose in and overturned the decision, saying that that plot of land should be earmarked for development. He said that any development there would be "hardly noticeable", and he largely ignored the infrastructure pressure problems that any development would have there.

In October 2002, I am glad to say that Worthing council unanimously overturned that objection by the inspector. The council was united. Hundreds of letters from local residents objected to the inclusion of the site in the local plan as a development site. An action group was formed for the Beeches avenue residents, the Findon valley society also objected, as did the CPRE and Worthing chamber of commerce. Everybody objected to that plot of land being earmarked for development. It was a victory for local democracy and the local environment, and it was right that we should all have stood up to the inspector's recommendation. The proposal would have ruined the scenery of the downs, and set a bad precedent for further development along the ribbon at the foot of the downs. The extra 90 houses which it was said could have been built there would have brought in an extra 300 people at a time when the local schools are mostly full, and most of the local doctors' surgeries have had to close their lists as they are oversubscribed.

Moreover, in the absence of a Worthing bypass, there is also the notorious problem of the A27. We have wanted such a bypass for the past 30 years, but the Secretary of State for Transport now refuses to see a delegation composed of me and my hon. Friend the Member for Worthing, West (Peter Bottomley) and other local representatives from the town, although he has apparently recently met local environmental groups objecting to such a road. Congestion on the A27 is the worst that it has ever been. Access on to the A27 from Beeches avenue and Pines avenue is already virtually impossible, and the proposed new houses would add 60 to 70 trips an hour. At times, it has taken me five minutes just to get out of those roads—one can only imagine what an extra 60 or 70 trips would do to the traffic on the A27. The A27 also acts as a severance to access from the southern side of that road, where all the schools and amenities are located. There is no major road infrastructure attached to the proposals for development.

Other problems with the development include that of water supply, to which I will return later, and the fact that the area is also archaeologically sensitive. Moreover, in including this area for development in the inspector's recommendation, no regard seems to have been given to the sequential approach to development with other brownfield sites.

However, if local people thought that that was the end of the matter, they have been lulled into a false sense of security. The Government's pronouncements about the need for higher levels of house building have sent out a green light to builders and emboldened speculative developers. Consequently, earlier this year, Hargreaves, a local developer, put in an application for the building of 90 dwellings on that piece of land. I have nothing against Hargreaves; its job is to make a profit, and to take advantage of vulnerable spots in potential local development sites, and it is not fussy whether those are greenfield or brownfield sites. The Hargreaves application was for a mixture of two-bedroom flats and three, four or five-bedroom houses, arranged around a series of cul-de-sacs. The development would include no affordable housing, contrary to the local planning policy. No transport impact assessment was attached to it, and it therefore conflicts with the policy requirements of TR4.

There were 376 objections to the application. I am glad to say that the Highways Agency, which is responsible for the A27, raised objections and, on 29 April, Worthing council planning committee unanimously rejected the application. However, even before the application had been rejected, Hargreaves had lodged an appeal, which will be heard later in the year.

We now have a big fight on our hands. As with many such planning appeals, the odds are always weighted against local residents, and they will have to dip into their pockets to pay for legal representation to ensure that they can contest the appeal properly. Thus contrary to the plan devised by the local council, and despite the wishes of local people, local councillors and the town's two MPs, the development could go ahead. That flies in the face of the recommendations of Lord Rogers' urban taskforce report, which was so triumphed a few years ago.

Other controversial large-scale housing developments taking place in Worthing and West Durrington, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Worthing, West, should mean that, by 2006, there will be an extra 700 new dwellings in Worthing, even without Beeches avenue, whereas the local plan assumes that only 400 dwellings will be needed by 2006 to comply with Government targets. That level of building also seriously conflicts with the eighth report of the Select Committee on the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister on "Housing, Planning, Local Government and the Regions". The report says:
"Building more homes is not a panacea and the impact of such a housing programme on the environment could be unsustainable. The impact of developing so many homes in the South East, one of the most densely populated regions in Europe has not been fully assessed."
One of the experts giving evidence to the Committee said:
"I think it is very simple: we are piling far too much activity and too many expectations into South East England, and in terms of environmental capacity it is like a vessel overflowing. We cannot take any more in South East England."
One of the conclusions of the report was:
"The Committee is not convinced that the enlarged house-building programme can be accommodated in the South East without seriously affecting the quality of the environment. Before new house-building targets are approved, the likely impact on the environment must be appraised within the Government?s sustainability criteria."
I am afraid that all that is happening in Worthing and the rest of West Sussex. Developers who previously took options on land and strategic gaps are now exercising them and buying the land outright. That is not helping to solve the problem of the shortage of affordable housing for key workers in our county. Almost no support money for key workers is coming into the county, and there are fewer police in Sussex than there were in 1997. They are not being helped by the lack of affordable housing. There is a chronic shortage of nurses, doctors and social workers: again, that is not helped by the shortage of affordable housing.

In short, Government policy is promoting the irreversible concreting over of Sussex countryside, to which Lord Rogers' report and the sequential processes are making little difference. It is making houses even less affordable in our part of the country, and is adding to the economic overheating in the south-east, which is always going to benefit from its geographical position, from its proximity to the continent and from the influence of the city of London.

Worst of all, this is part of the systematic destruction of the treasured environment and landscape of West Sussex that can only further tarnish the quality of life for many of my constituents and other residents of West Sussex, who have chosen to make our county their home and want it to remain so. They do not want it to metamorphose into an even more concreted-over and congested urban sprawl.

It is time that the wishes of local people, acting with representatives of their local communities, were respected and responded to, and that they counted for something. I shall stand shoulder to shoulder with my constituents in and around Beeches avenue, north Worthing, in opposing this unreasonable development. It sets a very bad precedent. I hope that the Minister will support that stand if local democracy, or what remains of it under this Government, still counts for anything. I warmly invite him to visit Worthing and the rest of West Sussex to see some of these developments, and to see for himself the strength of feeling.

4.16pm

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

I congratulate the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) on his success in securing the debate on house-building levels in West Sussex. It is an important matter not only for West Sussex but, as he implied throughout his speech, for the south-east in general.

I start by eschewing his pleasant invitation to visit West Sussex and Beeches avenue in particular, which is the subject of a planning appeal for non-determination. The examination in public has just reported on the West Sussex plan, which may well cross my desk or the desk of someone else in the Department as that process comes to fruition.

I was going to tag on to the end of my speech that I would be more than happy to see a group of people from Worthing or West Sussex to talk through these issues, which are important, or to pop down to Worthing to have a look at some of the developments. So, I may take up the hon. Gentleman's invitation, but not until the assorted processes of planning and inquiry have been completed. I know that the hon. Gentleman understands that I cannot comment on the details of specific development proposals or those that are still outstanding from the examination in public.

I regret that a serious issue that causes concern is being treated politically. If I am to believe the hon. Gentleman, everything that the Government have done about it has brought doom, gloom and concrete for the people of West Sussex. I do not share that belief, nor do I share the notion that, by implication, the thrust of the "Sustainable Communities: Building for the Future" statement on 5 February is all about concreting over the south-east. I accept that there are real concerns in West Sussex, as there are in other areas in the south-east and in London, which we are seeking to address, but to caricature it as concreting over the whole countryside is not terribly useful for the purpose of the debate.

The hon. Gentleman knows that West Sussex county council is preparing its replacement structure plan and I thank him for the potted history of the last round in that exercise. I share some of his concerns—not about specific developers on specific sites—about appeal processes, concurrent applications and applications that have not been determined at the local level going straight to appeal to bypass the process. We are seeking to deal with all those issues through our planning reform package.

There are several ways in which we will afford discretion to local authorities to deal with applications that are tantamount to abuses of the systems. For example, some developers make one application to the local democratic planning authority and another to go straight through the appeal process. There is also development by stealth, where an application is made and another one, which has minor modifications, rolls in straight after it. Under the present system, such an application has to be treated as a totally separate process and the process goes appeal, application, determination, appeal, application and determination. It is like a dice game until the developer gets what he wants, which cannot be the right way forward.

I suspect that the eighth report of the Select Committee on the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister: Housing, Planning and Local Government—this is at my peril because I am appearing before it in a couple of weeks—contains some serious flaws, which we will take up with the Committee. We have made the point in the media that the report was unfair on the substance of the sustainable communities plan. It did not give sufficient weight to the statutory duty in the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Bill to create a sustainable framework that takes full account of the ecological and environmental dimensions of any planned application. Its interpretation of the plan was rather shallow, which is a matter for regret—I am sure that I will regret saying this when I appear before the Committee in two weeks' time in another context.

What goes on outside the four growth areas in London and the south-east and the nine low-demand areas in the north and the midlands is important. For once, we may well be the victims of our successful spin, which is unusual for this Government, rather than the reverse. I sometimes wish that we spun better in that much of the focus of the immediate media coverage of the communities plan was on those four growth areas and not on the rest of London and the south-east.

As the hon. Gentleman says, the south-east is a hot spot and it will continue to be so. We cannot turn the country upside down for a decade to allow the northern regions to be in close proximity to the golden triangle from Calais to western Germany. The south-east is an economic hot spot, which means that we must be all the more sensitive to development in the south-east. West Sussex is still on the radar. Through the review of regional planning guidance for the south-east— RPG9—and its successor documents and through the eventual development plan for West Sussex, and indeed Worthing's local borough plan, we will reach a stage at which things can go forward in a measured and sensitive way.

I have no objection to the hon. Gentleman's point that environmental concerns should be paramount. I may have my own opinions on Beeches avenue, but I cannot venture to articulate them. I understand that the particular sensitivities in the south-east are distinct from those in London and its difficulties with an overheated housing market and commensurately high levels of economic activity. We must get to a stage where the debate is about more than either concreting the entirety of the countryside or not allowing any more development. The hon. Gentleman has not said, "No more development", but we must debate the matter in a measured way.

I am pleased that the development target for previously developed land in the plan, which has just finished its examination in public, is 57 per cent, in West Sussex. However, housing completions in the south-east region are too low. They dropped to 22,900 dwellings per annum by 2000, which is 18 per cent, below the figure indicated by regional planning guidance. If one puts all the RPGs together, along with the aspirational figures that we want from the four growth areas, at least 50 per cent, of the growth that we need in London and the south-east is still in areas outside the four growth areas: the Thames gateway, Ashford, the London to Stansted corridor and the south midlands and Milton Keynes district.

The hon. Gentleman also made some interesting points about affordable housing and key workers. The dearth of affordable housing and key worker provision in West Sussex is as serious an issue as it is elsewhere. Public services and the workers who carry them out underpin the communities in West Sussex as much as they do in London or anywhere else. I am not of the opinion that higher degrees of affluence somehow result in public services meaning less to communities.

There has been some progress on key workers in West Sussex. We have put some £4 million into the West Sussex economy specifically for key workers. Much of that benefits health workers and some of it benefits teachers, but my information shows that for some funny reason it covers one social worker in the entire West Sussex area. However, they are a movable feast. We hope that the plan in the document on sustainable communities to regionalise what the Housing Corporation does, which is to make the social housing sector for key workers more responsive and affordable, will assist in the process. When we introduce the planning reforms and the system of planning between

the local level and the regional level is far more iterative, responsive and flexible than it has been in the past, those sensitivities will be picked up at the plan-led level as well as at the regional housing board level.

The point about the visit is useful. Although the Minister said that he could not come and talk about Beeches avenue or West Durrington straight away, it would be greatly appreciated if he could come reasonably early and find out about the general issues in our part of West Sussex, in Worthing, Adur and Arun. However, I understand that the Minister may return to that later.

As I said, I would seriously be more than happy to come down. It is fun to get out and about round the country and one cannot beat seeing things on the ground. I am coming to my first birthday as a Minister and much of the low demand and abandonment that I have seen in northern areas is a completely new experience for me as a London MP. Although the problems of West Sussex and other parts of the south-east are starkly different and almost form a mirror image to those difficulties, they are just as real for all that. We are serious when we talk about sustainable communities, whether they are in the north or the south.

Come I shall, but a visit might be better in the context of the examination in public, rather than the non-determination application on Beeches avenue. We can drive past West Durrington and Beeches avenue and say, "There it is," or something like that. I will happily come, because having such experiences and making those observations are as important as going to growth areas, low demand areas or anywhere else. That is not least because of what I said about the need for much of the growth and development in London, the south-east and the four growth areas to be sustainable. West Sussex will have its role.

As the hon. Gentleman said, we cannot ignore issues associated with the affordability of housing in the south-east and in West Sussex. I hope that West Sussex gets the plan that it deserves as things unveil on the back of the examination in public—I mean that in the nicest possible way, not otherwise. Worthing borough is coming to the end of its process, which should again reflect local needs and sensitivities. I take seriously what was said about how the hon. Members for East Worthing and Shoreham and for Worthing, West (Peter Bottomley) both have seats with a certain uniqueness. They are sandwiched between the sea and coast on the one side and the downs on the other, and have huge swathes of natural beauty.

Visit I shall, but that will annoy my officials because every time I stand up I promise to visit someone or have meetings. However, we take the level of house building seriously. Building is not about concreting over the countryside and must be done with sensitivity and in a sustainable fashion. If building is not appropriate, I hope that with our planning reforms we will deal with that through the planning system.

Question put and agreed to.

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