Skip to main content

Westminster Hall

Volume 406: debated on Wednesday 4 June 2003

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

Westminster Hall

Wednesday 4 June 2003

[MR. JOHN MCWILLIAM in the Chair]


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

9.30 am

:It cannot have escaped the House's attention that today's parliamentary business includes two scheduled debates on Iraq. I have little doubt that one of those will display the House at its worst, with Members indulging in party-political point scoring, feigning outrage at trumped up and imagined charges, and imputing dishonourable motives and even more dishonourable deeds. I trust, by contrast, that this debate will provide Members with the opportunity to display the House at its best. Colleagues from all parties have been and continue to be rightly concerned that, whatever our differing opinions on the war, its aftermath should be a success not only for the coalition forces but for the people of Iraq.

I begin by welcoming the Minister of State, Department for International Development, my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, Central (Hilary Benn), who will respond to the debate. In him, the House recognises a politician of humanity and integrity. He began his ministerial career in this Department, and many were delighted to see him promoted there as Minister of State after a brief spell at the Home Office. I know that he will wish to be as open and frank as possible in responding to the questions and criticisms that Members may raise. He is every bit as concerned as we are to ensure that the reconstruction and development of Iraq are achieved as swiftly and effectively as possible.

Yesterday, the concluding summary from the G8 summit at Evian had this to say about Iraq:
"We welcome the unanimous adoption of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1483 and share the conviction that the time has now come to build peace and reconstruct Iraq. Our shared objective is a fully sovereign, stable and democratic Iraq, at peace with its neighbours and firmly on the road to progress".
As a statement of what we in the international community wish to achieve, that is admirable, but it prompts two rather fundamental questions: what needs to be done and who is best equipped to do it? My answers to the first question will be many and varied. My answer to the second will be unitary and unvarying. Although I accept the immediate short-term need for the occupying power to take various actions, I firmly believe that the United Nations is the better equipped and more effective agent in the medium and the long term.

On Monday 2 June, Mr. Sergio Vieira de Mello, special representative of the UN Secretary-General, arrived in Baghdad. Yesterday, he held a 90-minute meeting with the US administrator, Mr. Paul Bremer. I will pass discreetly over the six wasted weeks of General Garner's incumbency and simply note that Paul Bremer welcomed the vital role that the UN has to play. He spoke of their
"very good first meeting on the wide range of issues in which we can work together to create a democratic, independent and peaceful Iraq."
He continued:
"We have a very good sense of mutual mission".
Mr. de Mello, an experienced career diplomat, merely pointed out that the role of the UN has yet to be defined, but his remarks only a day previously were not so terse. Speaking to the press after his arrival, he emphasised the UN's role in a range of critical areas, including construction, refugee return, economic development, legal and judicial reform, civilian administration and humanitarian assistance. He also referred to the importance of re-establishing the rule of law and security for the population. That is first on my list of things that need to be done.

Reports that I have received from non-governmental organisations and from the Iraqi reconstruction group with which I have been working closely in recent weeks are unequivocal on this point. The key issue facing Iraq in general and Baghdad in particular is the establishment of law and order. Many agencies engaged in the reconstruction effort are under constant threat from armed gangs. Warehouses are regularly looted and NGOs must restrict the areas in which their staff can operate because of fears for their safety. It is clear that crime in Baghdad has reduced since 19 May when US troops in the city began adopting the methods deployed by British military personnel in Basra, including foot patrols and proactive attempts to engage with local committees. None the less, if lawlessness is a problem for aid agencies, it is even more of a problem for the ordinary Iraqi civilian, for whom shootings and fatalities are still a daily occurrence.

I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to investigate reports that World Food Programme distribution could be delayed because of its continued concern about the lack of security provided for its warehouses by US and UK forces. The Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Affairs has compounded that failure to establish law and order by sending out mixed messages to the Iraqi people. First, it announced a gun amnesty. Then, on 24 May, it promptly dismissed 500,000 soldiers from duty, without disarming them of their rifles, when it disbanded the Iraqi army. Those 500,000 young men have been provided with no rehabilitation, no reintegration and no employment programmes. They are roaming the country with no income—armed, frustrated and disaffected.

In a subsequent ruling worthy of Charlton Heston and the National Rifle Association in the United States, ORHA has announced that all Iraqis are entitled to keep guns, including the powerful AK47 assault rifles that retail in Baghdad street markets for 50 US dollars. Frankly, that is madness. It shows that the occupying power is incapable of performing its obligations under the Geneva and Hague conventions to establish law and order and to provide security for the local population. It is only to be expected that when a regime has been overthrown with minimal loss of armed personnel, elements of that regime will deliberately disrupt attempts to establish a post-conflict civil society. ORHA should have prepared against that eventuality, not hamfistedly assisted it. I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to persuade the Coalition Provisional Authority, which succeeded ORHA on 1 June, to reconstitute the Iraqi army and to re-employ those men until a proper process of demobilisation and reintegration in Iraqi civil society can be put in place.

An occupying power has a legitimate short-term role in maintaining order—indeed, it has a duty to do so—but it is clear that a speedy transition back to a civilian police force is a critical element in the restructuring and development of the country. That brings me to my second question: who is best equipped to do that? Unequivocally, I believe that it is the UN.

The UN's experience of peace and transition missions in East Timor and Afghanistan make it uniquely qualified, because of its experience of failure as much as its success, to conduct a programme of demobilisation and demilitarisation of society. In particular, it has the experience to recruit and train an ethnically mixed group for a civil police service that is accountable to political authority without being politicised as it was under the previous regime. The value of that function being carried out by the politically neutral UN rather than by the politically and militarily tainted occupying power is, I trust, self-evident.

Before leaving the issue of law and order, I should add one further important point. Saddam Hussein's human rights abuses and his process of Arabisation had the effect of removing as many as 4 million refugees and internally displaced persons. Many of those people are returning to their homes, only to find them occupied. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees must be allowed to set up a process for handling the consequent property disputes and providing compensation to injured parties. If that is not speedily organised, the potential for groups and individuals to take matters into their own hands will escalate into major violence and disorder. Resolution 1483 resolved that the United Nations

"should play a vital role in humanitarian relief, the reconstruction of Iraq and the restoration and establishment of national and local institutions for representative governance".
It is to humanitarian relief that I now turn as next on the list of things that need to be clone. The reports of several major UK aid agencies are remarkably similar. One says:
"No acute, widespread humanitarian needs have been reported".
That agency has therefore focused its efforts on the recovery of health, water and sewerage infrastructure and capacity, but it points out that
"the potential to drop into an acute crisis is great".
Another agency says:
"There is at the moment no widespread acute humanitarian crisis in southern and central Iraq".
It continues:
"However, all the makings of such a crisis are in place and unless urgent action is taken we will see serious hunger, widespread disease and a further breakdown of Iraqi society in the coming weeks[elipsis] The state of the water and sanitation system is also a serious concern."
I am pleased to note from my hon. Friend the Minister's response to a number of my written questions that food stocks are not expected to run out in Iraq and that the World Food Programme is making arrangements to enable it to purchase wheat from Iraq's 2003 harvest, thereby supporting indigenous farmers. I welcome the support that the Department has provided to the WFP by giving £33 million towards this supply of food.

I trust that my hon. Friend the Minister is as concerned as I am that under paragraph 13 of resolution 1483, although the oil-for-food programme has been extended for another six months, all funds thereafter will be lodged with the development fund and disbursed at the sole direction of the Coalition Provisional Authority. It is essential that the UN agencies work with the CPA to draw up suitable plans to meet the population's food requirements after that six-month period has expired.

It seems perverse that this function should be expressly taken from the UN and appropriated by the occupying power when the UN has far greater technical capacity and experience of putting together such strategies. That is especially the case when one considers the fact that a long-term strategy is required that can reduce Iraq's dependency on external food aid and stimulate indigenous agricultural production. Again, I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to do all he can to ensure that the UN has the closest possible involvement with the CPA, even to the extent of consideration being given to subcontracting this responsibility to them.

The hon. Gentleman is making a compelling contribution. Does he also accept that much of the money provided under the old oil-for-food resolution, resolution 986, has still not flowed through? The money is somewhere, and it is gaining interest. We must look at the flow-through of that money to finance the construction of hospitals, schools and so on. We must not take our eye off that ball either.

I am, perhaps, not as suspicious as the hon. Gentleman about how the balance of that fund will be used, but I take his point.

Central to any allocation of resources is the requirement for an independent and comprehensive assessment of humanitarian needs. It is to be hoped that Mr. de Mello will be able to undertake that. Save the Children, in its report "Winning the Peace in Iraq: Defining a Role for the United Nations", names three separate categories that can be identified from such an assessment—relief activities to address unmet humanitarian need; wider activities to improve public health and welfare that will require negotiated agreement with the CPA, according to obligations under the Geneva convention and the neutrality of humanitarian assistance; and the execution of existing programmes to deliver priority human goods.

There has been widespread concern among NGOs about the access that ORHA has provided. Although they report that communication with DFID is generally good, they are clear about the fact that on-the-ground co-ordination with ORHA has been extremely poor. In the words of one agency:
"While we have had sight of an organisation chart for staff of ORHA, our staff in Baghdad have found it impossible to make contact with any of them."
Another comments that one of its jobs
"has been to lobby the coalition-run ORHA, reminding officers of their duty not just to return the infrastructure of Iraq back to its pre-war state, but as the occupying power, to meet all the needs of Iraq's people."
I would welcome an explanation from my hon. Friend the Minister as to why such problems have arisen and how they might be addressed. I am concerned that more UK ground staff were not in place earlier. I recognise the issues of security and suggest that it might have been appropriate to deploy such staff to neighbouring countries, where they could at least have met with key partners. I welcome the announcement of 14 May that the Government have sent out a further 24 civil servants, bringing the total to 44 so far. It is clear, however, that NGOs have found difficulty in liasing with military staff, whereas they have long-standing and mostly excellent working relationships with the UN that have developed over many years.

Under Paul Bremer, the CPA is divided into seven directorates, including civil affairs policy, which will deal, among other issues, with education sector reform. Even if one sets aside the obvious technical expertise that both UNICEF and UNESCO have, the UN has one more distinct advantage over the CPA: it is seen to be a politically impartial adviser that is able to draw on its worldwide experience. That is a most practical argument for the engagement of the UN, in that the occupying powers are unlikely to be able to gain the trust and confidence of the Iraqi people.

What is true for education is equally true for other matters, such as economic policy, for which the UN can harness the expertise of the World Bank, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development and the International Monetary Fund. It is equally true for electoral or judicial reform, in that the UN's department of political affairs and office of legal affairs are seen to be politically divorced from the occupying powers. The specialised agencies within the UN possess enormous reserves of technical and professional expertise that should be deployed to the full in the reconstruction and development of Iraq.

Iraq's situation is truly unique in that it is recovering not only from the immediate effects of a war but from the cumulative effects of 13 years of sanctions, the 1991 Gulf war and 20 years of centralised brutality and dictatorship, during which time the political and administrative structure annealed together in one ossified whole. However, despite those problems, Iraq has a highly educated population and a wealth of natural resources. I am convinced that only the UN has the experience and expertise, coupled with popular respect and impartiality, to enable it not only to deal with the immediate humanitarian problems of food, medicines, water and utilities but to pave the way to a regenerated civil society.

I would have liked to touch on many more issues, such as the need to deal with Iraqi war criminals, the need for the UN to control the oil revenues, the appalling handling of contracts for reconstruction without any open tendering procedures by the US Government, the need to ensure that women are properly protected and fully represented in the new polity, the need to get children back into school and the urgency with which our military must clear all unexploded ordnance. Above all, I would like to have discussed the need to ensure that indigenous and expatriate Iraqi people are used to play a key role in the work of rebuilding what is, after all, their country.

Many colleagues want to contribute, and it is my earnest hope that the case we are putting to our Government, urging the fullest possible involvement of the UN in the reconstruction and development of the country, fulfils the vision set out yesterday by the G8 of a fully sovereign, stable and democratic Iraq.

Order. Many Members want to take part, so may I encourage brevity to enable the maximum number to get in?

9.50 am

I congratulate the Minister of State on his well-deserved promotion and return to the Department. I know that the International Development Committee is looking forward to working with him. I entirely endorse what the hon. Member for Brent, North (Mr. Gardiner) said. I agree with every word, and I do not intend to repeat his comments.

We are not the only ones who are concerned about reconstruction. I noticed in the International Herald Tribune last weekend a report by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in Washington on 22 May. The International Herald Tribune led into the report with the following comment:
"Lawmakers have been seething for weeks over the administration's failure to consult in depth with Congress about the costs, methods and goals of rebuilding Iraq".
This House has not had very much information about the goals, costs or methods of rebuilding Iraq. The previous Secretary of State appeared before the Select Committee before conflict broke out and talked about the costs of humanitarian rebuilding in Iraq. Since then, with the exception of the daily DFID updates on the web, there has been no coherent ministerial statement on where DFID is going in Iraq, which we clearly need. One gets a sense of there being a void.

The military clearly expects DFID to be doing things. That was reflected in an article for The Guardian last Saturday, written by the shadow Defence Secretary, who had recently been in Iraq. He reported that wherever he went the military said, "Where is DFID?" I suspect that DFID has been saying, "Look, this is Geneva convention territory and the military has to establish security. That is its responsibility. Together with non-governmental organisations, we can go in only when the situation is secure." There is some confusion in the machinery of government that needs to be resolved, but it exists not only in this country. Clearly, there is also confusion in the United States. Senator Richard Lugar, who chairs the Foreign Relations Committee, said:
"I am concerned that the administration's initial stabilization and reconstruction efforts have been inadequate. The planning for peace was much less developed than the planning for war."
Senator Joe Biden referred to
"the administration's failure to acknowledge publicly that the postwar efforts would cost billions of dollars, require years of involvement and get the United States bogged down just as it is in the Balkans."
He added:
"When is the president going to tell the American people that we're likely to be in the country of Iraq for three, four, five, six, eight, 10 years, with thousands of forces and spending billions of dollars, because it's not seen told to them yet?"
When we considered Afghanistan, all the evidence was about security, security, security. Establishing security in Iraq is obviously a job for the military, but it will take a long time and considerable commitment and resources. It is not yet clear, however, that there is public acknowledgement—in the United States or the United Kingdom—that that is going to happen. Of course, because Afghanistan was under UN responsibility, the advantage was that we could hand over responsibility for the international security assistance force to others, such as the Turks and the Germans, in due course. We will not be able to do that in Iraq, because other countries will not be willing to come forward.

DFID has to be much more forthcoming with the House on issues relating to reconstruction. The Intelligence and Security Committee will consider who said what to whom in its assessment on weapons of mass destruction, and the Foreign Affairs Committee will review the matter. The International Development Committee will follow very closely the reconstruction of Iraq.

I make a gentle final point. The International Development Committee has not heard from the previous Secretary of State since before the outbreak of war. We invited the new Secretary of State to give evidence, and 10 June was fixed as a date. She says that she will be in Iraq then—that is understandable—but no new date has been set. I would have thought that the Secretary of State, who is a Minister of the Crown with responsibilities, would not need to go to Iraq to discover the Whitehall line to take or what DFID is doing in that country, but would want to take the earliest possible opportunity to tell the Select Committee, which scrutinises her Department, exactly what DFID has been doing and intends to do about the reconstruction of Iraq.

The Secretary of State's predecessor was extremely forthcoming about Afghanistan because, I suspect, it was considered to be a good news story. The reticence of DFID Ministers in telling the House what is happening in Iraq creates a suspicion that it is a bad news story. The speedier Ministers are to give a full account, the quicker they will rebut that concern.

Order. May I encourage all Members to emulate the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) and keep their comments brief?

9.56 am

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, North (Mr. Gardiner) on securing this timely debate and on the excellence of his contribution. We cannot debate the role of the United Nations in Iraq in the future or the present without reflecting on what has happened in the recent past. We were told that military action was necessary in order to uphold the authority of the UN. I believe that that authority has been undermined by the challenge by the United States to the UN weapons inspectors. We were told that doing nothing was not an option, but we were doing plenty. For seven years, international inspectors were destroying weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and punitive sanctions made it impossible that such weapons could be reinstated in a way that would make them effective, particularly within 45 minutes.

Therefore, the very first thing that we should do in respect of the UN's role in Iraq is apologise to Kofi Annan, Hans Blix and Dr. el-Baradei for the way in which the international community, particularly the coalition, undermined their work and challenged their authority. It is now time to make up for that. We must take very seriously the points that were made by my hon. Friend about the unique ability of the UN to be the key body in the reconstruction and rehabilitation of Iraq. I also believe that, to end the controversy over weapons of mass destruction, we must most urgently return the UN weapons inspectors to Iraq so that they can fulfil the mandate that they were given in resolution 1441.

If the war had been authorised by the UN as a result of a final and negative report by the UN inspectors, perhaps it would have been conducted differently. However, it is certain that the post-conflict situation would have been handled very differently indeed. For instance, there might have been a much smoother transition. There is no doubt that the coalition forces have failed to restore vital water and electricity supplies and hospital services. There has been an extraordinary level of unpreparedness, which I find quite unbelievable, given our experience in the Balkans and, more recently, Afghanistan. Lessons ought to have been learned.

Potentially, post-conflict Iraq should have been much easier to deal with than Afghanistan, where there was civil war for 24 years rather than 24 days. Yet already there are reports of grave disorder and a huge degree of violence was described graphically by my hon. Friend. As he said, guns are on open sale and the suggestion has been made that everyone has the right to carry a gun. I can testify to what he said. What could be more ludicrous in a post-conflict situation in which the priority should be to achieve security for the civilian population than not disarming those who carry guns and prohibiting the further sale of guns to the civilian population? That is a matter of extreme urgency. Such a situation would not conceivably be allowed to pertain if the United Nations had been in charge in Iraq.

Furthermore, I refer to the attempts to establish an interim Iraqi Authority in parallel with what was done in Afghanistan. I accept that I have made many criticisms about that, but it is the core of the reconstruction process and an important procedure was undertaken. All the attempts to make progress in Iraq have floundered completely. There have been many false starts. People with no credibility were appointed. Then they were sacked. Another conference takes place; so does another meeting, at which another suggestion is made. Over and again, we see clearly that people have no experience, no expertise and are not capable of bringing forward proposals. Let us hope that the new appointments will bring about a more secure and sound path towards involving the Iraqis.

There will be no legitimacy if the Iraqi people are not quickly brought into the reconstruction and rehabilitation project. It is not the role of the occupying forces to undertake such work. They are not equipped to do so; they do not have a mandate. Moreover, they do not have the experience. It is not just a matter of humanitarian relief. The whole basis of reconstruction is political as well as physical, and that is something that only the United Nations can deliver. There must be a clear mandate as there was in Afghanistan when the Bonn agreement set out a process of stages at six-month intervals in a full two-year programme to arrive at democratic elections. That may not have been possible in Afghanistan, where they were great difficulties, but at least we knew where—to use current terminology—the road map would take us.

UN resolution 1483 is mainly an endorsement of the status quo. It is to be reviewed in 12 months. There seems to be an acceptance that the military forces will run the show for at least a year. That is completely unacceptable. I endorse strongly the paper that was prepared by Save the Children, especially its conclusions and recommendations. I am sure that most hon. Members here will have read it. I shall not rehearse what the paper said because I want to be brief, but the key to reconstruction is—and must be—international humanitarian law and human rights law. Only the United Nations can be the embodiment of international laws and can conceivably provide the basis for reconstruction and relief.

The United Nations needs a clearly defined role, which was one of the arguments put forward in the Save the Children paper. Resolution 1483 is not sufficient; it does not expand the role of the United Nations. It merely endorses the action of the coalition forces. As Save the Children said, there need to be three pillars, not only the humanitarian pillar that was well rehearsed by my hon. Friend, but a second pillar, which is democratisation, institution building, transitional government, electoral assistance and human rights monitoring. Such tasks can be undertaken by the United Nations, and those roles must be fleshed out. Authority to do that must be given. The work must begin because the process is enormously complex. Because of the lack of democracy and the brutal dictatorship, it is obvious that people are not ready to vote and that there is no system to allow that to happen. The work has to begin urgently. The third pillar is civilian security sector reform. Again, that cannot be the job of the coalition forces. Indeed, the United Nations has demonstrated in other countries, albeit imperfectly, how to undertake such work.

There must be a meaningful political process to ensure Iraqi self-determination—that is the key to reconstructing that country. If we compare Iraq and Afghanistan, we find an enormous difference. Historically, the Iraqi population has been well educated, and the country has many professionals. It also has a complete, modern infrastructure. All those factors provide a basis on which it should be possible to begin swift and effective reconstruction.

I want to refer particularly to the position of women. In any post-conflict situation, women suffer most and are most neglected in terms of planning for the future. It is common for men who return home from the war front to inflict violence on them, and that is now happening in Iraq. It was recently reported that Yarmouk hospital in Baghdad had had 300 women rape victims. In the streets, women and children are being kidnapped, and women and young girls cannot walk alone. As people will know, there was never a dress code in Iraq, but female students are now banned from university in Basra unless they wear the hijab. A new kind of repression is emerging. Previously, for all the brutal dictatorship, Iraq was at least a secular society, which was to the benefit of women. Now, however, many threats are being made against women. The coalition forces are not dealing with the issue and are ill equipped to do so, but it must be addressed urgently.

Despite the recent disadvantages that the women in Iraq have suffered, they still make up 34 per cent. of university and polytechnic teachers, and 38 per cent. of doctors. They have had equal pay and equal opportunities in the professions, they have been able to drive and, as I said, they have had no dress code. Nasreen Sideek, the Minister for reconstruction and development in the Kurdistan regional government, recently addressed a women's conference in the United States, saying:
"There are 3 women members in the regional cabinet—women are professors and senior administrators".
Women also make up more than 60 per cent. of the staff and half the engineers in her ministry. That is very unusual for a middle-eastern society. If we—the international community—ignore the advances that had been made in the status of Iraqi women, which they have begun to lose in recent years, we shall do a terrible disservice to more than half Iraq's population.

There are parallels with Afghanistan, where pressure from the international community forced the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan to take the issue on board, and there is now gender mainstreaming. There are huge deficiencies, but the authorities have taken on board the message that they must take care of women, and great efforts are being made to involve them. They are constantly being drawn into the constitutional and legal processes, in particular, because of pressure from the international community and the United Nations.

I pay tribute to the Government, because Ministers have played a key role in getting women involved in Afghanistan, and we are doing the same in Iraq. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Women and other Ministers have been meeting Iraqi women's organisations in this country and talking with women in Iraq. We hope that there will be a women's conference in Iraq—the Government will take a lead role in organising it—so that women there can have an input.

There is so much that I want to say, but I shall draw my remarks to a close. For many reasons that I am sure hon. Members will elucidate, the United Nations needs to play a much more central role, as we were told it would. We were told that there was going to be a UN trust fund for the oil revenues, but that is not going to happen. A central bank will take the oil revenues controlled by the coalition. There are many questions on which I hope the Minister will be able to elucidate. Only the UN has the impartiality, the transparency and the respect to play the central, critical role that is required in the reconstruction and rehabilitation of Iraq.

Order. Again, I exhort hon. Members to be brief. If every speech takes 15 minutes, we shall get very few hon. Members in.

10.10 am

Within the overall Iraq administrative solution, the Kurds should have an autonomous state with self-government in their own region in a federal Iraq that will, I hope, have a single sovereign identity.

The Kurds have shown great enterprise under the no-fly zone during the past decade. As a people, they are capable and energetic. They have created a strong Parliament with good representation for women, as the hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock) eloquently said. The Kurds have shown that they respect human rights. They understand how democracy must develop and they have substantially rebuilt their community under the woman Minister for reconstruction and development—a great heroine—about whom we have just heard. Given the right administrative structures and support, they will achieve remarkable results in the north of Iraq and lead the middle east in developing good governance for the entire region. We must, however, be vigilant in resisting any improper Turkish influence in that area of northern Iraq.

To get it right in future, we must learn from the past. UN resolution 986—the oil-for-food programme—was good in parts. It delivered well on education in certain parts of the region, especially under the no-fly zone. In some areas, however, there were problems. I am not unreservedly critical of it; it was good so far as it went, but there are problems. Billions of dollars available under that fund have not yet flown through. One must ask the following questions: where is that money, is the money earning interest, to whom does that interest belong, and when will the money be released for use?" More than four years ago a hospital was approved for Irbil. People are ready to build it; they need it, but the money has not been released to enable them to start the construction. The questions must be addressed. The billions that are tied up must be released.

In some areas, only 30 per cent. of the money that should have been available has been made available for the use for which it was and should have been directed. The issues must be dealt with. There are problems with bureaucracy in the UN. It is possible that there is corruption—that needs carefully to be examined. There is also the issue of the political will to release the money for the purpose for which it should be used.

A number of questions need to be asked. First, will all the 986 money that has not been used be freed up for its original, intended purpose? Secondly, what interest have the billions of dollars earned and should that money also go to the original intended recipients for use in rebuilding the different regions of Iraq? Thirdly, when will the money be released? Fourthly, can the cut of the money that the UN takes for its bureaucracy be reduced from the extraordinary—some have said extortionate—levels it creams off the top? Can that level be reduced to a more reasonable, defendable level in future? Can there be an inquiry into that to ensure a speedy, proper solution? I do not criticise resolution 986; it has delivered tremendously well, and I want it to do even better. It is in that spirit that I make my comments. I encourage the Minister and the international community to answer these points. so as to ensure that Iraq is rebuilt and that its people get the help that they need and deserve.

10.14 am

Today, the newspapers are full once again of reports about weapons of mass destruction. Weapons of mass destruction were said to be the reason for going to war, but debates on the subject beforehand distorted the situation appallingly in that we were unable to say what we should do after we had won the war. The danger of our continuing obsession with such weapons is that we are failing properly to consider reconstruction in Iraq. The weapons are important, but they are not the most important factor. More important is what we are debating today, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, North (Mr. Gardiner) on securing this debate.

We may believe that weapons of mass destruction are more important than other key issues, but that was not why the Americans went to war—and they are now saying so. Wolfowitz has said that the weapons may have been the "bureaucratic" reason, on which everybody agreed, but that it was not why the Americans went to war. They went to war at least for regime change. Wolfowitz said in Vanity Fair that the huge significance of capturing Iraq was the ability to move troops out of Saudi Arabia. No one can tell me that he came across that answer only when the war was over. No, we have to consider the situation as it is.

We have ended up in the position that we were headed for all along, which is to be the occupying power, and we shall probably be there for many years. The hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) quoted Senator Biden; he could have finished the quote, which said that the American population think that "Johnny and Jane" will be coming home next week. The Americans must be let in on the story, as must we. It is most likely that our forces, in their thousands, will be there for years. We must work on that basis.

One of the things that we did wrong before the war was to take no notice of what the Americans were saying and doing. We seemed willing to follow them everywhere, but without believing what they were saying. Before the war, they set up the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance. I will not skate over the fact that the office was set up publicly, but questions were asked in the Senate about what was being set up under the control of General Garner. We heard that the relief and reconstruction effort would be conducted by the Pentagon. That is still the situation, but it is breaking the first rule of humanitarian effort, which is that those giving help should not be associated with the combatants. Nothing could be clearer than that. If people are receiving assistance from those who bombed them and who are occupying their country, that entirely alters the relationship. That is why those of us in this Chamber believe, without exception, that Iraq's reconstruction should come under the control of the United Nations as rapidly as possible.

I pay tribute to Save the Children and Amnesty International for the documents that they have produced. It is essential that the factors listed by Save the Children—human rights monitoring, transitional governance, technical assistance for post-conflict recovery and the management of oil revenues and reconstruction contracts—should come under the United Nations; and Amnesty International points out the huge need for the UN to be involved in setting up a new Iraqi criminal justice system. Crucially, the UN can bring a legitimacy and transparency that we and the Americans cannot, because of doubts about our motives.

Christian Aid correctly believes that the UN and its specialised agencies have been sidelined, which should have been a sticking point for the Government. We should have said that we would not be party to a situation in which, as an army of occupation, we could not uphold the UN to the fullest extent. That ought to have been our doctrine of belief. I hope that we can reach a situation in which, instead of using words in relation to the UN such as "vital role", we can say openly and clearly that there is no feasible chance for the successful recovery of Iraq unless the UN is put in control of the reconstruction phase.

10.20 am

Due to the pressure of time, my congratulations and welcome will have to be taken as read. I say in passing only that I am sorry that the Minister is not in the Cabinet. Responsibility for these debates should be with a Member who is accountable to the Commons.

The hon. Member for Brent, North (Mr. Gardiner) gave a succinct introduction to the debate; it was a good summary of where we stand. He posed two questions that followed from the G8 communiqué in Evian, but he did not pose the questions that I want answered. What do the people of Iraq want out of the reconstruction efforts? What sort of a society do they dream of, deserve and desire? Which Department is best prepared to help them to achieve that? There is no question of which Department is the most experienced and has the best way of working in this regard. It is the Department represented in this Chamber by the Minister. I share with all Members who have spoken a frustration that the Department for International Development has been unable to get down to the ground, as it is best placed to work with the UN. The military cannot work with the UN in that way, but DFID can.

Over the next six to 12 months, I see two main priorities, which are slightly different from the ones identified by the hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie (Tony Worthington). The first priority is law and order and human rights, which was mentioned by the hon. Member for Brent, North, and the second is weapons of mass destruction. We must recognise that those were our priorities before going to war. If our priorities before war were human rights, regime change and weapons of mass destruction, our priorities post-conflict must be to continue to pursue those objectives until they are brought to a successful conclusion, which should be within six to 12 months.

The next question is how to achieve a successful conclusion. To paraphrase Paul Robeson, in the next short period in Iraq we need to consider peace, justice and bread. Those are the three things that must be achieved in that country. We have already talked about the bread issue because it relates to the oil-for-food programme. The hon. Member for Brent, North referred to a particular problem with that, which I shall reinforce. The programme comes to an end in six months' time, but the Security Council resolution that authorises the occupying forces in Iraq will not be reviewed for 12 months. There will therefore be a six-month period during which we do not know who will be responsible for food aid. I should like the Minister to respond to that.

I do not know how the programme will be funded, and, as hon. Members have said, we do not know about trust funds and we are not clear about what happens to the proceeds of oil going into Iraq. As the hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) said, we do not know what has happened to previous oil revenues either.

The final problem with delivering aid is that the US still believes in tied aid. This country—DFID, in particular—has moved away from tied aid, but we are now working with a main agency that strongly believes in that. That will affect not only the companies that get the contracts—we have already heard about that—but the way in which Iraq is rebuilt. We have not begun to consider how a massive injection of a particular sort of tied aid will affect the country, or whether the Iraqi people will respond favourably to that way of working.

The issue of justice has been mentioned so I shall concentrate on one related objective that I should like to see achieved. The human rights provisions under new resolution 1483 are somewhat weak. We talk about accountability for crimes and atrocities, but we do not say how that can be achieved. The International Criminal Court presents a magnificent opportunity to ensure that atrocities and crimes in Iraq are examined, and the role of the UN in international relations and justice is strengthened, but we are not going to go down that route. I am certain of that because the US will not allow us to go down that route. So what can we do? One suggestion from Amnesty that bears a great deal of scrutiny is the possibility of a UN commission to consider the new criminal justice system for Iraq and to look into crimes in that country. We must put the UN at the centre of the future justice system in Iraq. If we do not do that and rely on the Guantanamo bay approach, we will once again take away from the people of Iraq their desires and hopes.

My final point concerns achieving peace in Iraq. We have already heard about the militarised society there and the difficulties of achieving even a day-to-day peace. It is certainly the case that the UN would be better placed to provide that than the previous combatants. We also have to examine the way that we have allowed the desecration not only of the lives and homes of people in Iraq but of their very culture. We have not protected them from that. We have also lost documents that may have been useful in bringing prosecutions.

I return to weapons of mass destruction. What is the point of concrete barriers around the House of Commons if we honestly believe that there are weapons of mass destruction free and available in Iraq, able to be used in 45 minutes, which are not yet found, in a country that we were told before the war was a nest of international terrorism? What is the priority: concrete barriers outside this place or finding weapons in Iraq? That is the question—unless, of course, a great deceit has been played on Members of Parliament and the British public. I want the UN inspectorate to go in now under the old, existing mandates, along with the International Atomic Energy Agency, and look again for weapons of mass destruction so that we can be absolutely sure about their existence.

Plaid Cymru opposed the war completely and utterly. We remain completely and utterly sure that we were right in opposing the war, but, as Members of Parliament, we will work with the Department for International Development in the same way that the previous Secretary of State tried to work with all parties. We hope that that opportunity will be there in future, because we want to ensure that the House continues to focus on the reconstruction of Iraq. I congratulate the hon. Member for Brent, North on securing the debate and ensuring that we had this opportunity.

10.27 am

The test of Britain's and. more important, America's military might and of our resolve to confront tyranny and human rights abuse was over much more quickly than many of us thought possible. The test of our humanitarian intent—of whether the Iraqi people will benefit from our intervention in their country—has only just begun. We have discovered that restoring law and order in a country that has not enjoyed the basic democratic rights that we take for granted, and, therefore, the responsibilities that come with those democratic rights, is not as simple as driving a fascist dictator out of power.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, North (Mr. Gardiner) said, without law and order, the basic job of post-war reconstruction for the humanitarian agencies is impossible. UNICEF reported a couple of weeks ago that repairs to the Rustumiya water treatment plant were destroyed as soon as they were carried out. The new equipment installed was stolen by armed gangs.

We shall also discover that building democracy, rights for women and human rights are difficult. That is more difficult, in fact, than the economic redevelopment of the country because Iraq has the benefit that Afghanistan does not have, of oil. It is essential that we achieve these aims, because they are the only ways of guaranteeing that the economic benefits that come from Iraq's oil go to aid the poor in Iraq.

In the short term, humanitarian needs and the country's reconstruction and development will have to be funded by aid. I and other members of the International Development Committee were in New York on 28 March when the UN launched its appeal for Iraq. It is its largest ever appeal: an appeal for $2.2 billion. If it raises that much, it will account for about 70 per cent. of all the funds raised this year by the UN to deal with famine in Africa, reconstruction in the Balkans and all its other responsibilities. It is an enormous sum.

The UN must take the lead, because it is the only body with the capacity to deliver food aid in the quantities that are required and to guide the reconstruction of Iraq. In New York. we were told that the UN already had 3,000 Iraqi nationals on its books as employees in Iraq. Other agencies do not. A UN lead is also essential because countries that did not support military action will not work with the occupying powers. Many of those will, however, work with the UN on reconstruction.

The importance of the UN's role is emphasised by the figures. From the total of $1,284 million given so far in humanitarian aid, $978 million—more than three quarters of that total—has been channelled through the UN. I say to those countries that have argued so strongly for a UN lead, especially those that opposed military action, that they should provide the UN with the resources to do its job, now that the UN Security Council has agreed a resolution giving it a prominent role in the reconstruction of Iraq.

I went to the UN website yesterday, on which the contributions to the UN appeal from various countries were shown as follows: the US has contributed $472 million; the UK $117 million; Japan $88 million; and Australia $45 million, but Germany has contributed only $10 million. France has contributed only $5 million, which is less than the sums contributed by India and Korea. If those countries want the UN to deliver, they must provide the resources to enable it to do so.

I wanted to say much more about the economics of redevelopment, but time is against me. I am delighted to hear the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr. Thomas) supporting the Labour Government's decision to untie aid. That must happen across the piece, because the $1.2 billion that has already been contributed will buy more in terms of reconstruction if contracts are let to whichever country can do the job for the lowest price. Aid will be more effective if it is untied.

In the longer term, Iraq's oil revenues will make a big contribution to post-war reconstruction. It is not a poor country. When Saddam seized power, Iraq's per capita income was higher than many countries in Europe. It is now one of the poorest countries in the world. When its economy is rebuilt it will have resources for its own development.

On debt relief, I am glad that debt interest and capital repayments have been frozen in the short term while the Paris Club decides what to do with Iraq's debts. However, I want the Government to ensure that the terms for debt relief applied to Iraq are the same as those applied to other countries. First, they should be conditional on Iraq's ability to repay. Secondly, if debt is forgiven, as it were, the proceeds should be used on development by the Iraqi Government to assist poor people. A poverty reduction strategy would need to be agreed by a new Iraqi Government.

We took action in Iraq as part of our post-11 September response to terrorism. At the start of my speech, I said that the test of whether we are on the side of the Iraqi people will be our humanitarian response to their needs now. If we rise to that challenge we will win friends in the middle east, but if we do not we will fuel the resentment in the region that creates the conditions for terrorism.

10.34 am

I congratulate the hon. Member for Brent, North (Mr. Gardiner) on securing the debate and on an excellent speech. I welcome the Minister back to international development, although I suspect that he will have to write long letters to everyone after the debate to answer the points that they have made.

The title of the debate should really have been: "Role? What Role for the United Nations in Iraq?" Most Members have expressed their frustration that there is not such a role. The Prime Minister promised a vital role for the UN in the aftermath of war and instead we have resolution 1483, which gives the USA and the UK authority and huge scope for the reconstruction and development of Iraq. That goes way beyond any rights of occupying powers under the Geneva convention, as the hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie (Tony Worthington) said.

There is a sort of justice, however. Let the countries who destroyed Iraq have the problem of rebuilding it. However, as the hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock) pointed out over and over again, the UN is the only body that is seen to be fair. The accusation stands that the US, and its faithful little friend the UK, will use Iraqi money from Iraqi oil revenues to repair the damage that they have done, so that they can have a permanent and secure base in the middle east, as the hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie pointed out. That is a nice thought.

A couple of weeks ago, the late-lamented right hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Clare Short) said that
"the UN mandate, which is necessary to bring into being a legitimate Iraqi Government, is not being supported by the UK Government."—[Official Report, 12 May 2003; Vol. 405, c. 36.]
I share her angst. The Government have misled us time and time again. In March, the Prime Minister, referring to oil, told an MTV audience:
"We don't touch it, and the US doesn't touch it."
Really? In truth, control of the oil revenues has been seized by the USA and the UK, reducing the UN role to one seat on an international advisory and monitoring board. Think about the oil revenues and the oil-for-food programme in six months' time. The hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) made the point about the money that is in the account already—we do not know what is happening to it. All of that money presumably goes into the development fund, which is under the control of the coalition until the interim authority is formed. That is very worrying.

Can the Minister explain the proposal from the occupying powers that Iraq's oil revenues should be used as collateral for extended borrowing? Does the UN approve of that? An important point was also made by the hon. Member for City of York (Hugh Bayley), who asked what was going to happen to Iraq's debt.

What of the interim authority—the Iraqi Government in preparation? It was promised that that would follow soon after the end of the conflict when Iraq's immediate security and humanitarian needs had been met. Again, the UN was to play a vital role. In reality, the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance, under the coalition, is still in charge, distributing largesse in the form of contracts to American companies, without any input from the UN.

We were also led to believe certain things about aid. On 18 March, the Prime Minister said:
"The UN should have a key role in administering the delivery of humanitarian aid."
The reality has been somewhat different. Again, it is the US and the UK. A UN special co-ordinator is there somewhere to assist UN agencies and non-governmental organisations to co-ordinate with one another, but not with the occupying powers.

I recently asked a parliamentary question to ascertain when a full survey of child malnutrition would be undertaken in Iraq. We all know the situation of the children in Iraq. The answer from the Department on Tuesday 3 June was:
"A full and detailed nutritional survey is not immediately feasible because security conditions in many parts of Iraq are preventing humanitarian agencies' access to households."
Security conditions are the nub of the matter. Security, security, security. Where is it? Without it there is no victory. It is six weeks after the war. There are 250,000 troops, the coalition is in control and the population is still waiting for proper water supplies, food and medical care. What is stopping these things? The answer is lack of security. The aid agencies cannot operate. Iraq is awash with arms, as we have heard from many Members. Every household and shop has guns. Even doctors in the hospitals are carrying guns to defend themselves. There is no police force yet, and, as the hon. Member for Brent, North said, the occupying powers have discharged all the soldiers of the Iraqi army. How will it help security to have tens of thousands of unpaid soldiers roaming around under no one's command?

Where, oh where is the UN? The Americans are not popular. Yes, the Iraqis are glad to see the back of Saddam Hussein—are not we all?—but the plinth from which his statue toppled in that famous television footage now bears the slogan, "All Donne—Now Go Home". A Kirkuk policeman is quoted as saying that the Americans seem to be completely lost because they are all military and do not understand the politics of the place. The Americans do not do peacekeeping—we all know that. When will the UN be asked to take control? As discussed by the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr. Thomas), how long will it take to retrain the civilian police force and the judiciary so that they can take on justice in Iraq?

Before I leave the subject of security, where are the weapons of mass destruction? There are many disaffected, angry Ba'ath party members still in Iraq. How long will it be before someone finds the weapons of mass destruction and uses them, if they are there? Why are the Government not pressing for the return of the UN inspectors, not only to ensure that if any weapons are found the USA and the UK will not be accused of planting them, but for the security of Iraq itself? If weapons of mass destruction exist, why were British troops sent into battle at the beginning of action without any protective clothing for chemical or biological weapons?

I repeat that without security Iraq is nothing. Today is Iraq in Westminster day. We lucky few have started the debate, and there are those still abed—I shall not continue the quota: on, but it could be very apt. The Liberal Democrats will call for a proper inquiry into whether the House was misled by the Prime Minister on the reasons for waging war, but let us also call for a rebirth and strengthening of the UN, for that body to be given a truly vital role in Iraq and, as mentioned by the hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford, an apology for the way in which it has been undermined. It may not be a perfect organisation, but it is the best that we have, and the Iraqi people need the UN.

10.42 am

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Brent, North (Mr. Gardiner) for securing this debate. There has been a dearth of debate on Iraq, particularly in the post-conflict period. Since Baghdad fell, we have been short of opportunities to discuss the matter. I believe that we are all glad to welcome the Minister back to the Department for International Development, but I am sure that the frustration of Members is tangible to him. He should be exonerated from the comments and criticisms that I am about to make because he was not in the Department during the period in question, but I have to ask why the contingency planning was so poor.

As the former Secretary of State admitted in an interview on the "Politics Show" this past weekend,
"the preparations for post conflict were poor, and we've got the chaos and suffering that we've got now."
She went on to say that the advice that she was giving about the need
"to keep order, to keep basic humanitarian services running"
was, to quote her, "all being ignored".

Those extremely serious allegations need further scrutiny. We cannot expect the Minister in a Westminster Hall debate of an hour and a half to give adequate answers to all the questions that have been asked, but there must be a thorough post mortem on why the contingency planning for the war was so poor.

There is no excuse for the terrible sense of déjà vu that we are experiencing. The lessons from Afghanistan, which was a recent conflict, were not applied. The record in Hansard shows that in November and December last year the Secretary of State was deluged with questions, in which she was asked what contingency plans her Department was making for a possible conflict in Iraq. The record bears me out that a one-word answer of "None" was given. In January, when asked what discussions were taking place with the Governments of surrounding countries about dealing with the impact of the conflict, the answer that came back was, "None."

I do not exonerate the former Secretary of State from blame. It is unfortunate that she is not here this morning, participating in the debate. While criticising the poor planning, she should also be willing to answer some criticisms about her role in the matter. I feel strongly about such issues. There is a clear need to prioritise quickly. As other hon. Members have said, the key lesson is security, security, security. That should have been learned from Afghanistan and should have come as no surprise. The lack of security hits the vulnerable in Iraq most severely. As the hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock) said, it is women who suffer the most in the post-conflict scenario. It was recently reported that 13 schoolchildren were abducted from school in central Baghdad. It is not safe to get on with ordinary life. That is the reality of the situation, so we can hardly say that we have fulfilled our role in accordance with the Geneva convention as an occupying force restoring and maintaining law and order. That is a clear failing.

Children are the other vulnerable group. I was appalled to learn that there is no possibility of a child nutrition survey. I saw shepherd boys lying in hospital in Kuwait, who had been injured in the conflict. A 14-year-old weighed only four and a half stone as a result of chronic malnutrition. There is an urgent need to help the most vulnerable, but that cannot be done without security.

I join other hon. Members in chiding the Government on their contingency planning for phase 4. Clearly, it has failed. Phase 4 envisaged taking on board the Iraqi army and police, purging and vetting the Ba'athist elements and recycling them to help keep the peace in their own country. We were told that that did not work out because people removed their uniforms and went home with their automatic weaponry, which aggravated the security situation. Given the lessons learned in Afghanistan, will the Minister explain why there was no back-up plan for phase 4? The advantage about Iraq was that at least there was an army and a police force, and some possibility of recycling them.

What is the thinking about inter-ethnic tension? Kirkuk has become a no-go area for the non-governmental organisations to work in because the returning Kurds are at loggerheads with the Arabs. The problem is spreading to Mosul. The situation is entirely predictable. It could have been envisaged in any contingency plan that was made last year. How does the coalition intend to deal with a situation that is only likely to become worse? I flag that up now to try to prevent a disaster from happening.

After decades of distorted priorities under Saddam Hussein and the impact of sanctions, it is no surprise that the utilities are in such a bad state. It is a good deal worse than a sticking plaster job. The fact that there were no spares for the power stations and water supply plants has produced a chronic situation. It could all have been envisaged in the contingency planning. I have received calls from people who work in the utilities here and who want to help to restore the utilities there. Why were such matters not factored into contingency planning? Why were experts who were willing to help with the problem not lined up in advance? I reiterate that we need a proper post mortem to find out why the Government's contingency planning for Iraq was so weak.

What about the relationship with the United Nations? Resolution 1483 gives America and Britain legal cover to occupy and govern Iraq, but it has been said by the leaders of our countries that the UN will have a "vital" role to play. However, so far it seems to be very much the junior partner. The group whose role is most consistently eroded seems to be the Iraqi people. On 2 April, the Prime Minister said:
"Iraq should not be run either by the coalition or by the UN but should be run by the Iraqis."—[Official Report, 2 April 2003; Vol. 402, c. 911.]
Is that still the case? Yesterday, the Prime Minister's envoy to Iraq, John Sawers, told The Times that the Iraqis were not ready for democracy and that the coalition would appoint a political committee of 25 to 30 Iraqis. What role do the Government expect the Iraqi people, and women in particular, to play in running their own country?

None of my remarks is intended to denigrate the hard work and accomplishments of our armed forces—we are all proud of what they have achieved in Iraq. The information that I have received from recently returned aid workers is that the Iraqi people are, contrary to much of what we hear in the media, delighted to be rid of Saddam Hussein and glad to have British forces there trying to restore order amid the anarchy. Of course, they would like the current phase to end, and they would like to see a plan setting out the way forward. However, that should not detract from the role that our armed forces played in liberating the country from the repression that it suffered for far too long. The coalition's victory over Saddam was swift and impressive, and our forces did Britain proud in their successful prosecution of the campaign. Our responsibility is to ensure that we do not ruin the peace.

10.50 am

First, I join other hon. Members in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, North (Mr. Gardiner) on securing the debate and on setting out so clearly what must be done.

As this is my first contribution to a debate since taking up my post at the Department for International Development, I want to place on record the appreciation that I am sure all hon. Members feel for the enormous contribution that my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Clare Short) made in setting up DFID and leading it with passion and distinction for six years. The Department's reputation in this House and in the wider world owes a great deal to her efforts, which we much appreciate.

The debate has made clear the sheer scale of the challenge that Iraqis face in rebuilding their country, which has suffered so much in the past 25 years. It is evident from hon. Members' contributions that we are talking about not only the impact of the recent war but about trying to overcome an entire generation of destruction in all its forms—physical, social and political. That makes it all the more important for members of the international community—the UN, the coalition and others—to work together to carry out the task before us.

Hon. Members have rightly spoken about the great strengths on which Iraq can draw—its proud history, its rich natural resources, its highly educated and skilled people, its history of public administration and public service, and its potentially vibrant civil society, to which the experience of Saddam's regime laid waste. Given that potential, it is an indictment of that generation of nightmare that so many people now live in poverty. As was said a moment ago, Iraq was about as wealthy as Portugal a generation ago. Even before the recent conflict, however, 16 million Iraqis—about 60 per cent. of the population—depended on food handouts from the United Nations to survive.

In a moment, I shall come to the UN resolution and the process that flows from it. The UN's involvement in Iraq does not, however, begin with that resolution—it is very much part of what has happened in recent years and, indeed, in recent months. I want to place on record the appreciation that I am sure hon. Members feel for the role played by the UN and its agencies, together with the Red Cross and the Red Crescent, in responding to humanitarian needs in Iraq before the conflict and in managing relief operations subsequently. As my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, North said in reporting on the views of NGOs in Iraq, it is a tribute to the effectiveness of the UN's work that there is currently no humanitarian crisis. Let us be honest, before the conflict started, some people, feared that there would be such a crisis.

The UN has now established a significant presence on the ground. It has five regional teams in Iraq, and agencies such as the World Food Programme, the World Health Organisation and UNICEF are carrying out vital humanitarian work. DFID has been working in a practical way t o help that process, predominantly through UN agencies.

I hear what the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) and others have said about the thirst for debate and information. I very much welcome the early opportunity to have this debate, in which the issues can be aired. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that Baroness Amos and I have written to all hon. Members to provide information about both the work that DFID is undertaking and our strategy. I know that— [Interruption.] If hon. Members are saying that they have not received the letters, I shall check, because they are certainly on their way. The very first thing that Baroness Amos and I did was to recognise the need for more information for hon. Members, which is why we have written. I shall ensure that the letters arrive quickly.

On Baroness Amos's appearance before the Select Committee, her view is that it might be more helpful for the Committee to have that session once there has been a chance to look at things on the ground, although that dialogue through the usual channels will no doubt continue.

We have so far committed £115 million in support of the emergency efforts of the United Nations and other agencies. We have also set out on the DFID website and in the letter, which is on its way, all of the ways in which that money has been allocated to various UN agencies for food, emergency supplies, mine clearance, health and surgical kits, repairs to the electrical system, and so on. On the question that my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, North raised about liaison with NGOs, the Coalition Provisional Authority is now holding weekly open-house meetings with the NGOs in Baghdad. My understanding is that that will begin to address the problem that he identified when he referred to previous experience.

Overall, the UK has to date sent to Iraq about 60 people—volunteer civil servants from a number of Departments. However, there has been some ill-founded criticism, so I make the point that DFID's help with reconstruction has been practical, although what matters is not whether that contribution has a flag on it that says "UK" or "DFID", but whether the help is delivered to where it needs to be delivered at the right time. It is sensible to work as much as possible through UN agencies that are already there, and hon. Members know that that is our policy.

Having said all that, I remind Members that the situation in Iraq is undoubtedly difficult, albeit improving. We must acknowledge the scale of the task that lies ahead, because trying to overcome the generation of disaster is an enormous undertaking. I agree with every Member who has said that security is the key—it is, and we have all seen the problems, especially in Baghdad. Reference has been made to the Iraqi police, but one of the difficulties in a society such as Iraq's that was controlled by sheer fear is that when that fear is lifted, many things happen. In that sense, the lessons to be learned are different from those in relation to other examples about which Members have spoken. The truth is that each nation, each history and each set of political circumstances is absolutely unique. The challenge in Iraq is large because of the political legacy.

As Members are aware, the coalition is now undertaking joint patrols in Baghdad with police—7,000 policemen have reported back to work. However, I accept the challenge that Members have set out. The real test in the end will be whether the people in Baghdad and throughout the country feel secure. With security, the other work of restoring the country can begin. I can report that all 12 major public hospitals are now working in Baghdad, although sewerage remains a big problem, while in Basra the three main power stations are working and electricity has been restored to pre-conflict levels. Indeed, water supply is now better than it was before.

Resolution 1483 has been enormously significant: it has lifted economic sanctions against Iraq, which is a hugely important step that has not been mentioned so far in the debate, and will enable Iraq's oil revenues to be used to meet humanitarian, reconstruction and development needs.

On food, Iraq's public distribution system, which has been mentioned, resumed on 1 June for the first time since the war. I will check on the issue of security that was raised, but we expect the World Food Programme to continue to implement food distribution. The resolution also provides for the establishment of the development fund, which will be overseen by the advisory board, comprising the World Bank, the IMF and others. I accept the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for City of York (Hugh Bayley) about debt and about the need for an assessment by the World Bank and others, and for a donor conference so that we can look at longer-term needs.

In conclusion—

Order. The time is up. I thank all Members for co-operating and keeping their contributions short. I apologise for the fact that the hour and a half allowed under the temporary Standing Orders is not sufficient for a debate of such magnitude. I invite all Members not wishing to stay for the next debate to leave quietly.

Election Turnout

11 am

I am delighted to have secured a debate on the important issue of turnout in UK elections. There are serious concerns about voter turnout among all elected Members at all levels and across all political parties; they have expressed those concerns on numerous occasions. Unfortunately, a huge proportion of the electorate do not share those concerns with politicians. That is a matter that we must address if, in the long run,s we are to convince the electorate that low turnout is bad for democracy.

I understand that the Minister attended yesterday's launch of the "Voting for Change" report by the Electoral Commission. The report suggests a number of welcome changes to update election arrangements and make them more accessible and convenient. I hope that, in addition to commenting on the report, she reassures me on the proposals for election pilots in 2004. I will also make other proposals for her consideration.

This is the third parliamentary debate in six months on issues closely related to the subject, but I make no apology for raising it again. I intend to continue the debate, highlight concerns and examine measures taken to address voter turnout and raise public awareness. The Minister will also have an opportunity to share her thoughts with the House.

In recent elections for the Scottish Parliament, turnout dropped to 49 per cent., from 58 per cent. in 1999. In the Welsh Assembly elections, turnout dropped to 38 per cent. from 46 per cent. We could have expected a large turnout to have been generated, owing to the importance of the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly, but that simply did not happen.

We are all aware that very few of the electorate bother to vote. More worryingly, that is becoming a downward trend. That should concern every one of us. At what point do we admit that the democratic legitimacy of councillors, MEPs, MSPs and, dare I say, MPs, has become suspect because too few votes have been cast in their election? I am certain that, with the decline in turnout, that is a question that we shall face time and again.

There are no easy solutions—otherwise, we would have adopted and implemented them before now—but there are common-sense measures, such as the recent proposal to hold the Greater London Authority, European and local authority elections on the same day in 2004. Asking voters to turn out on two separate days would be a disaster—we can only imagine the turnout had we maintained the idea of going out to vote twice.

Of deeper concern is the turnout among various age groups, especially younger voters, who are less likely to vote than other people. Anyone who mans a polling station on election day is amazed at the determination of those of mature years, who, whatever the weather and whatever the circumstances, make a supreme effort to use their vote. I can only assume that the years of experience that they have gathered ensure that they recognise the worth of that vote. That is an attitude that we must instil in the younger population.

There is little consensus on why turnout is declining, although a range of arguments has been put forward. In countries governed by dictatorships—where the electorate have been deprived of a vote—we know that there is a massive turnout when democracy is restored. It is important to recognise that phenomenon, although I am not suggesting for one minute that a dictatorship should be created in this country to increase electoral turnout.

Strong views on particular issues can increase turnout, as demonstrated by the election of independent candidates on single-issue platforms, while lack of trust in the political process, as well as a feeling that policies are much of a sameness and that the vote makes no difference, can reduce it. Politicians scored 18 per cent. in a recent poll on trustworthiness. That is something that we should all, as politicians, be deeply concerned about.

Although it is difficult to see how to tackle the root of the problem of low turnout, I want to make three brief observations. First, those in favour of proportional representation often argue that under such a system every vote would count and none would be wasted, and that a PR system for all elections would increase voter turnout. However, experience does not support that theory. In the 1999 European elections, turnout fell by 50 per cent. Turnout for the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly elections has also declined. That is extremely disappointing and it gives the lie to the notion that PR is a panacea for all the ills of low voter turnout.

Secondly, I welcome the introduction of citizenship education in schools, and I hope that it will reawaken interest in the political system and make young people committed to using their vote. If citizenship is taught in schools, young people can go home and, I hope, persuade their brothers, sisters and parents that they should participate in the electoral process.

Thirdly, all of us who hold elected office have a duty to engage with the electorate, redouble our efforts to encourage people to vote and ensure that we have their trust. In the past few years, trials and studies have been held of different methods of voting that are designed to encourage turnout. The Electoral Commission, created in November 2000, has provided a useful means of consulting on such trials and of suggesting ways to proceed and strengthen the electoral system. I congratulate the commission on its advertising during the recent campaigns in Scotland and Wales, but, like me, it will be very disappointed that turnout was low in those elections despite the intensive campaigning.

Day after day, the Daily Record, a Scottish national newspaper, highlighted the reasons why people should vote and emphasised the fact that the democratic deficit would be apparent if less than 50 per cent. of voters turned out to vote for the Scottish Parliament. Those who produce that newspaper will also be disappointed, and the turnout problem is one that we must address.

The commission, after undertaking the appropriate consultations, has made two announcements recently. Its proposal on merging the polling days for the 2004 local and European elections into a single super Thursday is sensible, and I also welcome the proposal to trial weekend voting, although some minor points concern me. A previous trial of Saturday voting in Watford showed that because the trial occurred after the main polling day, turnout fell, owing to the electors' perception that the local elections were over. I trust that such issues will be addressed if we consider Saturday voting.

I am keen that trials should be carried out over consecutive elections to establish whether the new methods being tested increase turnout merely on a temporary basis because of their novelty, or whether they provide a long-term solution. The failure of various methods of electronic voting to increase turnout in 2002 provides some reassurance on that aspect, and I would like a more long-term approach to the trials to be taken.

Although I know that the consultation addressed many concerns, I would like to be reassured on a number of points. Before 1974, voting in local elections could occur on any day other than Sunday, including Saturday. I asked staff in the Library to provide me with details of whether Saturday voting had a beneficial effect on turnout and why it was abandoned. I am extremely grateful for their research. They said that such information might be available, but that they were unable to obtain it. I am concerned by that, and I would like the Minister to confirm that, before any proposed piloting of weekend voting, the implications of the pre-1974 system will be thoroughly studied and that appropriate lessons will be learned.

I am apprehensive about whether we are radical enough in our approach to such problems. Although the continual re-running of the Serbian presidential elections must serve as a warning, the Electoral Commission should consider introducing turnout thresholds, even if they are set moderately. I am also intrigued by the proposal put before the House in November 2000 by my hon. Friend the Member for Clydesdale (Mr. Hood) to create a "rewards for democracy commission" to study whether we should give people incentives to vote. Opposition Members decried that proposition, and a vote on it was lost, but in such a serious situation, we must consider all aspects of how we can encourage people to vote. We must try to convince them that voting is worth while and give them some incentive to vote, such as a council tax rebate.

Alternatively, we could take the polling station to the public, particularly the younger generation. Young people could be given the opportunity to vote at places of learning such as universities and further education colleges. We should consider whether the general public could cast votes at, say, railway or underground stations. We must consider taking radical steps to give people the opportunity to vote, and places of entertainment could also be used.

There is also the difficult issue of whether to make voting compulsory. If turnout continues to decline and the democratic deficit becomes an increasingly major problem, compulsion might have to be considered sooner rather than later. That of course raises the question of civil liberties and civil rights. An additional suggestion is that ballot papers should contain a box marked "none of the above". That might encourage people to vote even if they do not like any of the candidates. We must examine the fact that countries such as Luxembourg, Cyprus and Australia have such systems, and that that has not brought about unduly unstable Governments or led to accusations of serious breaches of human rights. Electoral turnout in the UK has reached the point at which we need a proper debate and proper consultation on the issue.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on once again managing to raise this issue in an Adjournment debate. I and many other colleagues share his concern that the percentage of people who vote has fallen, especially in the Scottish Parliament elections. In my constituency, there was a 52 per cent. turnout, but 2,500 people disappeared off the register because of legislation passed in this House under which householders were removed if they did not return their registration form for two consecutive years. So, although the figures are bad enough as they stand, the percentage turnout would have been even lower if we had not passed legislation to reduce the number of people on the register. I am not saying that that is a good thing, because some people have missed out on the opportunity to vote.

The figure of 2,500 for my hon. Friend's constituency was seen across every constituency in Scotland. He is right that without the removal of people from the register, the percentage turnout would have been much lower. The election figure for Scotland could therefore have been, to a degree, false compared with that for the previous election, which must give rise to concern.

Electoral turnout in the UK has reached the point at which we need a proper debate. Perhaps the Electoral Commission will consider the practicalities and popularity of introducing a "none of the above" scheme. I suggest, with only a little irony, holding a referendum on whether to introduce such a system. Perhaps those voting to defend their right not to vote might find the process relatively painless and, finding that their votes are indeed important, adopt the practice for future elections.

In the interim, I await the Electoral Commission's report, which is due in the autumn, on the 2003 round of trials of postal and other forms of voting. I hope that it provides a useful range of suggestions on how to increase turnout. The system is not yet in crisis but, with some wards registering turnout as low as 10 per cent. and some Scottish constituencies registering under 30 per cent., we must address the problem. It is only a matter of time before there will be a general election turnout of under 50 per cent., and that should deeply concern every one of us.

I welcome the Government's commitment to look at ways of making voting quicker and easier. If they are unwilling at present to take the drastic action of introducing compulsory voting, I urge them at least to consult on more far-reaching options for safeguarding the hard-won right to vote from the threat of apathy. It is important that we connect with the people, that we have a national debate on the question of turnout and that we encourage as many people as possible to reconnect with the political system to support our claim that we have a democratic mandate.

11.16 am

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton, South (Mr. Tynan) on securing this debate, on what I agree is an extremely important issue. Low turnout in elections of all sorts over the past few years is of concern to all democrats. He is right that the facts make unwelcome reading. Turnout can fluctuate from one election to another. Nevertheless, over the past 20 years, the broad trend is clearly a significant fall in turnout, whatever election one considers. There was a particular drop between the general elections of 1997 and 2001 from 70 per cent. to less than 60 per cent. Between those general elections, millions of voters decided not to show. Turnout in European elections has dropped to 24 per cent.; 2 million fewer voters turned out for the local elections in 2002 compared with 1986; and, as my hon. Friend said, turnout for elections to the Scottish Parliament has dropped from 58 per cent. to 49 per cent. We should be concerned about that.

We should also be concerned about a deep-rooted phenomenon over an even longer period: some groups are less likely to vote than others. As my hon. Friend has said, young people have always been less likely to vote, as have those on lower incomes, those who have had less education, and those from some minority ethnic communities. That should be of persistent concern to all those who care about democracy.

Theories on the drop in turnout over the past 20 years are many and varied. Some argue that voter turnout will increase again; others argue that the drop is part of a long-term, sustained trend. Some argue that this is about generational change—that younger voters today compared with those of previous generations are not simply less likely to vote while they are young, but will continue to be less likely to vote as they grow older. Others point to the nature of the current political and media debate. Some argue that there is too much confrontation; others argue that there is not enough. There are debates about the nature of political parties and policies, and about whether election results are perceived to be close.

We cannot wait for those debates to be resolved. We cannot wait until we know exactly the different causes and factors; we must do more immediately to address some of the issues on low turnout. We have to recognise, too, that there is a danger of extremism slipping into any political vacuum that might occur.

There are three challenges: the first is that facing political parties and politicians; the second concerns wider institutions in democracy—whether in schools or in debates across society—and includes citizenship, education and the role of the Electoral Commission, which my hon. Friend raised; and the third concerns voting systems and the removal of barriers that make voting difficult or inconvenient in any way. I shall concentrate first on the third category, as my hon. Friend mentioned such issues in some detail, but if there is time I will return to the others.

My hon. Friend raised a series of issues about voting and made various proposals. It is important to consider a wide range of voting systems and ways of making it easier for people to vote. My personal view is that the voting system will never be a panacea for low turnout; there will always be a wide range of factors involved. Nevertheless, it is right to make it more convenient for people to vote, not only because that clearly has some impact on turnout, but because it should be convenient to vote. It should neither be a hassle for people to exercise their democratic right nor an effort to vote: people are entitled to do those things in a democracy. For those reasons, making voting easier and more convenient is very much the right way to go.

I agree with my hon. Friend on holding the 2004 elections on the same day. People are less likely to turn out twice in the space of five or six weeks than they are to vote in both elections—as well as the Greater London Authority elections—on the same day. The Electoral Commission is conducting a wider review of the timing and dates of elections, so we will await its report before considering the issues for future years.

The only elections that we have in Scotland next year are those to the European Parliament. Few pilot schemes on voting opportunities have been carried out in Scotland, although a council by-election in the Scottish borders was conducted wholly by postal ballot and the percentage turnout doubled. Does my hon. Friend agree that, keeping in mind the fact that Scotland counts as only one constituency in the European Parliament elections, we should consider a 100 per cent. postal ballot for Scots next year?

I am keen to consider that—and a wide range of options—for the 2004 elections. Holding elections on the same day complicates pilot voting schemes, and means that we need to consider such issues across the regions where there will be both European and local government elections. The position is simpler in Scotland, where no local authority elections are taking place. We are keen to continue with the programme of pilots on both postal voting and e-voting, and need to consider the implications of the 2004 combined elections. Work is under way between the Lord Chancellor's Department and the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister to set out the possible options, after which we will need a wide debate about how to take them forward.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton, South that some issues concerning all-postal voting pilots are interesting. The average turnout in recent elections in areas adopting all-postal ballots increased from 33 per cent. to just under 50 per cent., and there was a substantial increase in some individual local authorities. We need to take those findings seriously because, clearly, large numbers of people wanted to use that postal vote and were prepared to vote when a ballot was sent to their homes, but were not prepared to vote if it meant going to the local school, or wherever the polling station might have been.

We should not underestimate how inconvenient traditional methods of voting can be for some groups of people. People may lead a busy life with complicated shift patterns, they may have to be away from home suddenly on a particular day or they may have to get back from work to put their small children to bed. Once the children are in bed, the parent may think, "It's polling day. How am I going to get out to vote? There's nobody in the house, there's no babysitter and the neighbours are not in." So, people just do not vote. Making voting more convenient for a certain part of the electorate is important because it would make a significant difference to voter turnout.

Interestingly, postal voting has been much more successful so far than some e-voting pilot schemes. People often talk about the importance of using new technology. We should explore new technology and the uses that text messaging and e-voting could have, but it is interesting that a technology that has been around for hundreds of years—the postal system—should have proved the most effective way to make voting more convenient. Over the long term of five to 10 years, some more high-tech methods will have a greater impact, even if they do not do so immediately or in the short term, as people get used to the new voting methods.

My hon. Friend also mentioned weekend voting, and I agree that the Watford example is interesting. It shows that holding the election on the weekend after everyone else in the country voted meant that many people in Watford felt that their election had been and gone, probably because they saw the results of those other elections in the newspapers. That is why we need more trials of weekend voting. We are considering trials for by-elections over the next few years and the potential for larger-scale weekend-voting pilots.

My hon. Friend made an important point about people's experience before 1974, and I will examine the evidence from those experiences. One has to go back a long way to obtain any evidence of weekend voting in general elections. I know of only one occasion, which was a Saturday in the years just after the first world war. The intention behind achieving more convenient voting is to fit it around modern-day lifestyles, but we must be cautious and remember that there have been substantial changes to patterns of daily and weekly life since the last instances of weekend voting.

My hon. Friend also raised the more radical options of incentives to vote and compulsory voting. I have always been cautious about compulsory voting, and people have a right to choose not to vote. I recognise that there are other ways of exercising that right, but we are not keen to consider compulsory voting. If people do not think that any of the candidates are worth voting for, they have the right to choose not to vote. Equally, over the long term, we will have to consider a range of issues and options, depending on turnout over the next five to 10 years.

On incentives to vote, I confess that I have not considered that option in any detail. Again, I am uneasy about its implications, but I am happy further to discuss my hon. Friend's ideas with him. He also made some interesting suggestions about voting in different locations. There are some interesting issues here and, with the success of postal and other forms of voting, the prospect of voting in different locations becomes more possible.

Yesterday's Electoral Commission report is about ensuring that, whatever system is used, we can be confident that it is secure and that the ballot has proper integrity. Furthermore, people must think and, importantly, believe that the system has integrity. Our electoral system must be secure and those who vote must feel that it is legitimate, because, ultimately, that underpins a democratic society. Therefore, it is hugely important for the long-term health of our democracy.

Sitting suspended until Two o'clock.

Tax Credits

2 pm

I am glad to have been given the opportunity to hold this debate on the tax credit system. It is very timely, given that problems persist two months into the new system. I am surprised that the Government Benches are so empty. As the subject afflicts many of my constituents and those of other hon. Members, I thought that we might have a better attendance this afternoon.

Before I start in earnest, I assure the Paymaster General that I acknowledge that millions of tax credit claims are being paid and that many people are getting the money that is vital and of great help to them. Hon. Members do not need to be told that again. What interests me and, I suspect, other hon. Members is not how many correct tax credits are paid on time, but how many are not. Why are correct tax credits not paid on time, and what are the Government doing about the problems? Surely, the proof of the system is not that it gets it right sometimes or even most times—it should do that anyway—but the extent to which it gets it wrong and how the mistakes are addressed. There continues to be real hardship.

Although I intend to talk about the working tax credit and the child tax credit, other tax credits are beset with similar problems. I spoke the other week to someone who is involved with research and development tax credits and asked what problems had been identified. There are great potential benefits for those in R and D, but the system is complicated. It is not clear who can apply or how they should apply. There are other tax credits, as well; for example, the pension credit is on the way. Clearly, there are problems and lessons to be learned from our current experience, and I hope that we will have an assurance from the Government that the lessons are understood.

Last week, I wrote to one of my constituents about her problems with a simple claim for tax credit. In my constituency, 75 per cent. or so of the population speak Welsh, so my letter to her was in Welsh. When I was printing it out, I pressed the English spellchecker by mistake. The first suggested correction was to replace the Welsh word "credyd", which means credit, with the English word "Cruddy". Computers are wonderful things—clearly, they see to the heart of the matter.

Cruddy or not, tax credits are particularly important to my constituents, as well as those of other hon. Members. In my constituency, the local rate of economic activity is relatively low. We have many people on low wages in the service industry, and many work in the tourist industry. The predominant pattern of employment is self-employment, which is particularly subject to low earnings, insecure earnings and earnings that can vary a great deal over a short time.

The tax credit system could be very useful in helping people into work and in keeping them in it. That was shown by the wage top-up scheme that was introduced in north Wales and several other pilot areas by the previous Government. It was found to be very useful indeed—anecdotally, at least. I am not sure what the considered research opinion on the matter is, but I know of several people who found and kept work because of that system.

It is clear that the central plank of the Government's anti-poverty strategy is not working as well as it should. For some, the tax credit system is not a means of getting back to work; it has proved to be yet another obstacle to getting back to and staying in work because they are not getting the money on which they have come to depend. In effect, they are having to subsidise the Government's failings, but they cannot afford to do that because, by definition, they are on low earnings. We must also remember that the system is largely aimed at families with children, and lower-earning families with children cannot afford to subsidise the Government even for a short time.

The Government were warned that the system was complicated and would be difficult to implement in April 2003. As long ago as July 2001, the Low Income Tax Reform Group said:
"The year 2003 may well prove to be an over-ambitious target if the new tax credits are going to reach out smoothly to those intended to benefit. The LITRG is most anxious to avoid a re-run of the 1999 introduction of the old tax credits where we found that claimant issues had to play second fiddle to administrative necessities."
The Government were warned by many organisations that introducing the tax credit in 2003 might be over-ambitious and that it could lead to problems.

I wonder what advice the Paymaster General received to the contrary. Who advised her, and did she act on that advice? If she acted on it, the advice has proved to be hopelessly optimistic, so who should be held responsible and how? Perhaps she did not take advice, in which case the mess is all her own work—and the current situation is still a mess. I suspect that many claims were submitted correctly and on time. A week or more ago, I tabled a question on the matter, asking for figures, but I am still awaiting an answer. Will she tell us how many of the claims that were submitted correctly and on time are still pending?

I know from experience that the public helpline remains clogged, and is usually jammed. I also know that, when one eventually gets through one is often put on hold for up to half an hour, with the line then going dead. That is a common experience. I have also had difficulties in accessing the MPs helpline. The IT system is often down for long periods. Officials have told me that, as a result, they cannot answer my questions, and I am asked to phone back later. I do so, but it still takes a great deal of time to get through, although the IT system may be running by then—or possibly not.

I also know that the staff are under extreme pressure. I understand that they have taken brief industrial action and, although I know nothing directly about it, the system is clearly causing great problems for the staff. It will not be good enough for the Paymaster General to say that most of the claims have been processed, and that many of the others were not properly completed. It will be no use saying that to a constituent of mine, who applied correctly and on time as part of her business plan, but who received nothing until I intervened on her behalf.

That person was previously in receipt of the working families tax credit, and her claim should not have been a problem; as I said, it was part of her business plan. The family have a small farm, and they have diversified, as everyone told them to. They have become entrepreneurs; they ventured into tourism and small- scale retailing. All those businesses are marginal, as they are small businesses in a remote rural area and they make little money. Between them, the family just about succeed. However, the tax credit is akin to Mr. Micawber's shilling. It is the difference between just managing and disaster, and that family have been facing disaster.

Millions of people may already have been helped, but that is of no comfort to my constituent. She is now receiving the proper tax credit, but she had to contact her Member of Parliament and I had to intervene on her behalf. It took some time, but I eventually got a result. Cases such as hers reveal the true level of misery and desperation that people experience, and show the failures of the system and the problems that they cause. Significantly, the damage done to trust in the system in the long term is one of the less obvious casualties.

I shall cite other cases involving not millions of people but individuals from my own dealings with the system. By the way, all those people tried the helpline first, but got nowhere. However, they got through to me and I dealt with their cases for some hours, eventually, I hope, with success. I am sure that many other hon. Members will have similar accounts to tell.

For example, many people in the inland areas of my constituency are called Jones, Hughes or Williams, and many others are called Hughes-Jones, Jones-Hughes, Hughes-Williams or Williams-Hughes. Sometimes those surnames are linked with a hyphen. Apparently, however, the IT system cannot deal with hyphens. I phoned up on behalf of someone with a hyphenated surname and was asked if he had a hyphen in his name. I could not answer that question as I had been contacted by phone, but I was told that the computer could not deal with hyphens.

I can reinforce the hon. Gentleman's argument. Computers cannot recognise apostrophes either, of which I have personal experience. One therefore tends to get filed under the letter "B" if one's surname is O'Brien.

I must admit that I have not come across that problem, but it is interesting. There have been other very serious cases. Some constituents have come to see me literally in tears. One constituent has cerebral palsy. She has done her best and got herself a small job for more than 16 hours a week, earning under £100 a week. She depends on the working families tax credit and, therefore, on receiving a proper payment. Five weeks into the system, she had received nothing and was owed many hundreds of pounds. She was struggling to live on £100 a week. She managed it, but I defy anyone else to do the same.

I telephoned the helpline and was told that there was a mistake in that constituent's address. Interestingly, the mistake was that her house had a Welsh house name, and I was asked what it meant. I said that it was a conventional house name in Welsh, and the response was, "Oh!" I presume that "mistake" was crossed out and the form marked "correct".

My constituent eventually received her benefit. In the meantime, however, she was very badly off and very much in need of the interim payments that the Government offer. I contacted the tax office and off she went, after having had considerable trouble arranging for someone to mind her children and cadging a lift from someone who kindly took her on the 20-mile round trip. Her trip was 20 miles, but I represent a rural district, and it could take a round trip of up to 76 miles for some of my constituents to get to their tax office. She made the 20-mile trip on a Friday and was told that, although she had come during working hours, no one was available who could write a giro for her. So she went home and waited until the Monday—managing on little, if any, money—before going to the tax office and eventually receiving her payment. That caused her many emotional as well as practical problems, and a lot of worry and pain.

I shall, if I may, detain the Chamber a little longer to talk about a few other cases—there are many. In one case, I telephoned the tax office and was told me that it could not pay because it did not have pay-as-you-earn reference numbers for two of my constituents. I told the member of staff that if they looked they would see that they were both self-employed. The mistake was corrected immediately. Another constituent applied by e-mail as soon as an e-mail application was allowed, but was told that her application had disappeared. It is unclear whether she will be paid for the period before she submits a new application. In another case, all that was needed was to check the name on the application against the name on the file. The operation should have taken about 10 seconds, but the applicant had to wait more than five weeks for the money. Lastly, and most intriguingly, the tax office said that some applicants had sent too much—not too little—information. It said that the computer could not cope with information that was not in an acceptable form.

I therefore have several questions for the Paymaster General. First and most important, what assurances can she give us about these problems with payments, IT, helplines and simple mistakes by officials? Is there an end in sight? What steps are being taken to ensure that similar problems do not arise when we have the pension credit in one year hence? What consideration is she giving to compensating claimants who have suffered unreasonable delay? Will they be compensated for their distress and worry? Will claimants be compensated for the financial loss incurred by having to borrow from sometimes dubious sources at high rates of interest? Will small businesses, whose viability depends on these tax credits, be compensated for their difficulties?

There is also the question of compensation for those who have suffered indirectly. A constituent had to lay off her child minder because she could not pay her wages. That constituent had great difficulty keeping her job as a bar manager because she worked irregular hours, but she kept it because she had a good child minder. Now, however, that child minder has lost her job. What compensation might there be for people who lose their jobs through no fault of their own?

Is the Paymaster General satisfied with the services provided by the IT company that established the system? Is she seeking some redress from it for the problems that we have all experienced? Lastly, given the mess that the Government continue to make of the introduction of tax credits, is it not reasonable to expect a full-scale debate in the main Chamber and in Government time?

Order. Before I call the hon. Member for Aberdeen, South (Miss Begg), I should say that gentlemen may remove their jackets as it is rather hot this afternoon. Ladies, of course, do not need to ask.

2.17 pm

I congratulate the hon. Member for Caernarfon (Hywel Williams) on securing this debate. At business questions before the Whitsun recess, I asked whether the Paymaster General could make a statement to the House, but the Leader of the House rightly pointed out that this afternoon's debate would take place. I am therefore pleased to be here and to have caught your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I might add that the Speaker prevented me from finishing my question to the Leader of the House because I wanted to say everything that I shall say this afternoon. Now I have a chance to put my comments on the record.

Like the hon. Member for Caernarfon, I welcome the new child tax credit. I am a great supporter of everything that the Government have done on tax credits. The child tax credit and the working tax credit make a huge difference to those lucky enough to receive them. Such measures are the right way for the Government to proceed.

I have long said that the best way to remove the stigma from the benefits system is to merge it with the taxation system. The responsibility is then on all of us, as citizens, to fill in a form declaring our income every year or every five years. If we are getting too much money, the Government take some from us in the form of tax; if we are not getting enough, they give us more in the form of what is now called a tax credit. Ultimately, that could simplify the benefits system by cutting out some of the poverty traps in which many people find themselves and some of the odd quirks that exist in the system at present. I very much support the thrust of what the Government are doing.

I know that, for many people, the receipt of the child tax credit makes a huge difference to their lives. It is because that money is very important and because it makes a huge difference, that there is a problem. Two months after the tax credits were introduced, there are still people who are not getting the money to which they are entitled. It is no use saying to a mother of two small children who is dependent on child care to keep her job that she will get the money eventually. She needs it now. She will be used to the money that she received through the working families tax credit and, as a result, she is dependent on the weekly income that she should receive through the child tax credit and the working tax credit.

That is probably where the heartache and frustrations have come from. There have been frustrations for people who cannot get through on the helpline and have not been able to get things sorted out, but it is the fear of the lack of income that has probably made the constituents who have contacted my office most upset. They have been quite distressed. They are frightened that they will have to give up their job. They are frightened that their children are going to be kicked out of their child care places because the family have not been getting the money.

Luckily, the Inland Revenue in Aberdeen has been extremely helpful. My office has put a number of my constituents on to the Revenue, and the local Jobcentre Plus has also been helpful in accessing funds for the women who have found themselves in that position. That has certainly eased their fears and prevented them from worrying as much as they did. Initially, in the first two weeks of the tax credits, that process was not in place and local tax officers did not know that.

Although the Inland Revenue has been helpful and has been able to give interim payments, there is still a problem for anyone who takes that route because it can lead to even greater delay in the final settlement of what people should receive through the tax credit. Obviously, those people will have to be reassessed if they have received an interim payment. That is the position that some of my constituents are now in, two months down the line. Having obtained the money through that route, they are now facing further delays and frustrations in getting what they were entitled to in the first place.

Part of the reason that I am here today is that it is two months since the tax credits were introduced. I listened to my right hon. Friend the Paymaster General when she gave us assurances that everything should be up and running by this time. I repeated that to many of my constituents. I told them that, once it was all sorted out, the system would be smashing—everything would be fine and work well. That simply has not happened. I am still getting a number of complaints, which are probably arriving at the same rate per week as they were four or five weeks ago.

The MPs helpline has been extremely useful and, in most cases, my office has been able to sort out my constituents' problems thanks to the helpline, so credit should go to the work that it is doing. It is unfortunate that my office has to take that route and that people cannot use the normal helpline. It is obviously clear that, if there is someone at the other end of the helpline who knows what they are doing, resolving the problems becomes possible. There are still problems, however, and I will come to them later.

Unfortunately, not everyone knows that they should get in contact with their Member of Parliament. I find myself out socially with people from other constituencies and busily give them the phone numbers of MPs of different political parties. I tell them, "Get in touch with your local MP because they will be able to sort it out". I was dismayed that much of the coverage in the press and other media has not highlighted that a Member of Parliament's office is one of the routes for sorting things out. The impression has been given that we do not exist in the equation or that MPs have no role in what the Government do. That has been a shame.

Does the hon. Lady accept that things should not have to be that way? The problem should be capable of being sorted out without recourse to a Member of Parliament's office. Although I, like the hon. Lady, am delighted to help constituents and have done so, things should not need to be that way.

I absolutely agree. I honestly wish—and so do my staff who have had the increased work load—that things did not have to be that way. However, there is at least a means of getting a problem sorted out. I pay tribute to the MPs helpline. It would be much better if, in another month, the complaints and problems that we face were sorted out through the normal helpline or did not arise at all. I am fairly sure and hopeful that that will happen.

My hon. Friend is right that I was not looking to enlist MPs' offices in the administration of the new tax credits. However, I am sure that she is an avid reader of the House of Commons information documents, which list the occasions when someone should contact their MP. If I may say so, my hon. Friend is a fine example of why any constituent should contact their MP.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that. I was wondering—perhaps I have been doing my job too well—why the number of complaints that have come to me has been so high. Taking the advice of the Treasury and others, I undertook an exercise in informing my constituents about the new tax credit. I wrote to every parent in my constituency telling them about it and giving them my telephone number. Unfortunately, because that was done through the schools and because not everyone who goes to a school in my constituency necessarily lives in it, parents may have received the letter and telephoned my office when, in fact, they are not constituents of mine. That is why I am disappointed and why I am here today—I am an advocate of the tax credits. They are a good idea and will make a huge difference, and I want to ensure that the take-up of the child tax credit is as high as possible.

Let me move on to some of the problems that still exist. There seems to be a major problem with the IT. I serve on the Select Committee on Work and Pensions, and it seems to me and, I think, the other members of the Committee—its Chairman is here today—that every time that the Department for Work and Pensions or the Treasury moves to a new system, there are IT problems. The Passport Agency was one of the first examples, but the same is happening with the Child Support Agency. I have great concerns about that. We are about to introduce such measures as the pension tax credit—another Government policy that I have been proselytising about and advocating—to, I hope, great effect. I want to encourage pensioners in my constituency to be aware of their rights under the pension tax credit and to take advantage of it when it is introduced.

Obviously, we have such concerns with any new system, but I should like to ask my right hon. Friend the Paymaster General what provision will be made with regard to the pension tax credit to ensure that the IT is properly tested and that the unusual circumstances outlined by the hon. Member for Caernarfon will be taken into account. Will the lessons from the introduction of the child and working tax credits be learned in time for the introduction of the pension tax credit? It still seems to be a problem that there is no mechanism for staff at the other end of the telephone on the MPs helpline to change information that is incorrect on the computer. Even though a constituent of mine may have sent in the form properly filled out and with all the correct information, if the data inputter has got the information wrong, there seems to be no way for those operating the helplines to get into the system to put that information right.

For instance, on gentleman who called me did not receive payment because a computer glitch had "cancelled" his children. He was told that he was not eligible because he had no children. We have finally managed to get that sorted out. In fact, that gentleman now thinks that he is being paid too much and he is frightened to spend the money in case it is clawed back.

What will happen in cases in which there has been computer error or other difficulties with the system? If people are paid too much, will the Treasury claw that money back? If so, in what form will that be? Or will people be able to keep the money, because it is the Inland Revenue's error? I suspect I know what the answer will be. What mechanism will be there to deal with such cases?

The IT system seems unable to cope with unusual circumstances. I have a constituent who has twins with cerebral palsy. Obviously, she qualifies for a large amount of money under the child tax credit. Her children are in a nursery provided by the Care Commission, which does not have a nursery or child care registration number. Therefore the system is unable to recognise that her children are receiving child care and that she qualifies. We have got that problem sorted out, but the system still cannot process her claim because it thinks that someone else might be claiming on her behalf. We have not managed to get that sorted out yet. It is important that we deal with fundamental glitches in the way the computer system works and how it copes with the unusual circumstances that some people inevitably have.

Yesterday, I received a complaint from a constituent who receives the working tax credit. The problem may be caused not by the Inland Revenue but by the fact that her employer pays his portion of the tax credit in arrears. By the time that she catches up with the arrears, she has had very little money for almost six weeks. She is constantly running to catch up. As she points out, she has bills to pay today that cannot wait until she has enough money to pay them.

How long will it be before those quirks and problems are sorted out? I appreciate the problem of paying arrears can always take time to work through, but once it does everything is fine. However, we were assured two months ago that the problems would be sorted out in a month. We are now two months into the operation of the system, and there are still problems. My fear is that the bad publicity that the child tax credit and the working tax credit have received will undermine what should be a Government flagship policy. It will put people off claiming when it is important for them to claim. I want the policy to succeed, as I am a great believer in it. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Paymaster General can assure us that the complaints that I and other hon. Members have highlighted will be sorted out as soon as possible.

2.33 pm

I add my congratulations to the hon. Member for Caernarfon (Hywel Williams) on securing the debate. Many hon. Members have mentioned that this is one of their biggest surgery issues, and my experience up in west Edinburgh is certainly no different. Constituents generally do not contact me to say that their credit has come through on time, but I can accept that a number of people are being processed through the system successfully.

Usually, the problems that people come up against are not major ones, and they go to their MP who often sorts it out for them very quickly. Sometimes they simply cannot get through on the helpline. Something as simple as having their telephone call answered can solve the problem. But whether it is a hyphen, an apostrophe or some other minor detail, people should not have to go to their MP to get the matter resolved, and they should not have to wait week after week for sums without which they struggle to get by.

I welcome the Paymaster General to the debate. I thought that she might feel like a Christian being thrown to the lions as there would be nothing but complaints this afternoon, but most hon. Members will agree that some people are getting the service, although others are not. I should like to highlight a few cases; each individual is not too bothered about the people who are receiving their credit on time. I hope that things have moved on since 28 April, when the Paymaster General addressed the House in a classic new Labour statement, saying that things "could only get better". Sadly, for my constituents, things have not got better in the four weeks since then.

Things have not got better for my constituent Robert Park from East Craigs. He applied for the child tax credit, only to receive a letter asking him for his full name, home address and national insurance number. Considering that the letter came from the Inland Revenue, with his full name, home address and national insurance number as the reference, and that his wife received an identical letter on the same day, it naturally left both him and me puzzled. He is still awaiting further correspondence and payment.

Another constituent in Carrick Knowe submitted forms including pay slips and child care costs to the Inland Revenue as requested. Despite showing a combined income with her partner of well below the Inland Revenue level, the Revenue processed it at above the level, and despite the fact that she had included bills and receipts showing child care costs of £54 per week, it processed her claim assuming zero child care costs. She is still awaiting further correspondence and payment.

Things have not got better for my constituent Shirley Todd in Parkgrove, who has faced frustrating mistakes and delays to her claim. After applying to the Inland Revenue in January—before the Government's 31 January deadline—she heard nothing for over a month. When she managed to get through to the credit helpline, she was told that the computer systems were down and that she would have to wait a further few weeks. Having still heard nothing, she contacted the helpline again on 17 March, only to be told that she would have to fill out a second claim form because she had given birth to a second child since her original claim in January. However, she was informed that any amount owed would not be backdated but instead allocated on the basis of her second application.

In April, Mrs. Todd finally received correspondence from the Inland Revenue to confirm her entitlement. However, the amount was massively wrong, as the Inland Revenue admitted when she contacted the helpline for a third time on 7 April. She was told that it would take another eight weeks to process the correct amount, but when her payment finally did come through, she received only £300—over £1,000 less than the amount agreed with the Revenue. Mrs. Todd is not unlike many of my constituents, and those of other hon. Members, who have faced similar problems, and she remains angry and frustrated at the total shambles of a system. Today, four and a half months after making her original claim, she is still waiting to receive her money, on which she, as a mother of two, is heavily dependent.

As in cases mentioned by other hon. Members, the people concerned are dependent on the Government to give them the money that the Minister says they rightfully deserve. Dozens more constituents have contacted me to say that they are also trying to apply for one of the tax credits or seeking advice or guidance but that they cannot get an answer on the helpline. Who knows how many more in my constituency and throughout the country have not contacted their MP but face such obstacles to payment?

Following the Paymaster General's statement to the House on 28 April, I asked several parliamentary questions about additional resources being allocated to the helpline. She may repeat today what she has said in the House and in written answers about extra money and resources being allocated, but she must understand that we are not seeing those additional resources by way of an improved service.

I contacted my constituency staff again this morning for the most up-to-date situation, and they told me that they are still having trouble getting through to either the public helpline or the helpline for hon. Members. When they get through, they are faced with inconsistent information. They have sometimes been told that officials will contact individual constituents and on other occasions they have been told that that is not agreed practice. Whether a system is right or wrong, it must be consistent, but in my experience, such consistency is not present.

Looking ahead, one of my biggest worries is that the Government will not learn from the mistakes that have been made. If the introduction of the working tax credit and children's tax credit could be messed up to such a degree, what potential exists for similar problems with the pension credits due to be introduced in the autumn? I fear that the mothers and fathers coming into my surgery over the last few weeks about the child tax credit will soon be replaced by worried and upset pensioners who are not receiving the money to which they are entitled.

One of the biggest criticisms of the Government's tax credit system is its sheer complexity. The pension credit was designed to be a super-deluxe minimum income guarantee, and that may still end up being the case. However, whereas the minimum income guarantee was relatively simple, the new pension credit certainly is not. My researcher, who studied mathematics at Edinburgh university, had to go through the Government's allocation formulae three times before understanding the figures. I can only imagine what an old age pensioner in my constituency would do if mistakes were made with the applications, if incorrect amounts were allocated or if no allocation were made at all.

The debate this afternoon has probably developed in rather a predictable way. However, that should not detract from the seriousness of the problems that I and other hon. Members have raised. I often worry that the Government are obsessed with targets, and that they think of people merely as statistics. The ordinary MP, however, who receives letters in their mailbag, telephone calls to their office and visitors to their surgery, sees at first hand the problems and distress caused by the failure of the system.

I am sure that the people of Bristol, South have made the Paymaster General well aware of the problems in her own neck of the woods, but I hope that today has helped to re-emphasise to her that this shambles, which is of the Government's own making, must not be allowed to continue, nor to happen again.

2.40 pm

I offer my congratulations to the hon. Member for Caernarfon (Hywel Williams) on securing the debate.

I am a parliamentary "secondee" to the One Parent Families charity, with which I have had discussions about the impact of the credits beyond those that I would have had in my constituency. One Parent Families welcomed the introduction of tax credits, due to the significant impact that they are expected to have on child poverty. It organised policy simulations, which were carried out by Holly Sutherland, an academic who is probably well known to my right hon. Friend the Paymaster General. She found that, compared with simulation results for previous regimes, the effect of the credits on poverty rates was expected to be "dramatic"—a word that is infrequently used in academic circles. Compared with 1998–99, child poverty rates are expected to fall by nine percentage points, from 36 to 27 per cent., calculated on an after-housing-costs basis.

The Inland Revenue has, however, faced a massive task in getting the scheme up and running. It has been phased in, with 1,250,000 families on income-based jobseeker's allowance or income support still to be included in April 2004, or in October if they are over 60. It seems that 4.5 million people have been eligible since April 2001. One or two people in Redcar have readily admitted to me that they did not apply early enough—by 31 January—to get their awards processed in time. However, significant numbers of people who claimed in time did not receive their awards very quickly. By 28 April, 4 million claims had been received, 3.2 million had been paid or were being set up, and the remaining 800,000 were being processed as quickly as possible, although further information sometimes had to be requested. I, too, heard the Paymaster General's remarks about that in the House.

In The Times yesterday, it was reported that between 500,000 and 600,000 claims had still not been processed. I do not know whether the Paymaster General will be able to comment on that, and I cannot say whether those unprocessed claims had been submitted punctually. However, lone parents of all groups cannot afford interruptions in income, and tax credits often form a substantial part of their weekly income. In the early days of the scheme, not only the One Parent Families helpline but my constituency surgery received calls from lone parents who were extremely concerned that they might have to give up work or their child care places because of delays in payment. I am sure that most other MPs received similar calls.

I do not pretend to be as good an MP as my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, South (Miss Begg), who spoke earlier, but in Redcar we did our best to encourage take-up. The constituency party organised a concerted campaign to distribute leaflets on the high street, to try to ensure that everyone understood their entitlement to the new tax credit, and to ensure that, if they had not had a response to their written application in time, they had the claim phone number.

When that number was engaged, as it often was, the same constituents were led to phone me, because although they had of course been pleased to receive my encouragement to make the claim, they wanted to hold me responsible for the fact that they were experiencing delays. However, it is my good fortune to have an extremely experienced and well connected caseworker. As other hon. Members have said today, it is plain that MPs' helplines have played a major role in trying to sort out the problem. In my constituency, interim payments have been made from the Inland Revenue inquiry centres, which has been crucial in enabling people to manage until the regular payments come through.

I should like to look to the future. It is important not only that the difficulties that have been experienced this year be resolved as soon as possible but that steps are taken so that people can be confident that the next tranches of claimants joining the system will be paid on time. It is implicit in the system that there will be huge demands on the Inland Revenue's administrative resources at the beginning and end of every tax year. As the majority of people already have awards in payment, I assume that in future years those awards can run on until a new one is made. I also assume that payments of income support and income-based jobseeker's allowance will run on until claimants are transferred to the child tax credit. However, I seek reassurance that I have understood that properly.

Once awards for this year are in payment, attention must be turned to ensuring that there are no problems of over-payment, which again, perhaps, is a danger implicit in the system, excellent though it is. A feature of the system, as I understand it, is that annual awards are made that can be affected by changes in circumstances during the year. The Government appear to expect about 1,750,000 families, which would be 30 per cent. of all claimants, to have some income changes during the year that would affect their awards. One guesses that the figure would be higher in the first year, as the awards are, at the outset, based on income from the previous two years.

There are penalties of up to £300 for failure to report certain changes, such as a change in the number of adults heading the household and significant changes in child care costs within a fixed period of three months. It is vital that an effective strategy be put in place to ensure that people understand what changes will affect their awards. That should include an advertising campaign, with posters in doctors surgeries and on public transport to remind parents of the changes that they need to report. It is crucial of course that staff at Jobcentre Plus and on the tax credit helpline fully understand and can advise effectively on such difficult and potentially troublesome issues.

To speak briefly about the future, One Parent Families would like two policy changes to be introduced in the next pre-Budget report, on top of those mentioned. The first request is that the amount of child tax credit be increased by 2004–05 by at least £5 per child. At the end of the One Parent Families annual general meeting a couple of weeks ago I helped to carry a large box of postcards that those attending the meeting had sent to the Chancellor asking for that change.

The other request is that the proportion of help provided with child care costs be increased above the current 70 per cent. Analysis by the same academic, Polly Sutherland, for One Parent Families shows that for a significant number of parents the gains from being in paid work are still quite modest. The average gain for lone parents who move into paid work at 16 hours on the national minimum wage, for example, is £34 a week. An increase of that modesty can quickly be eroded by the requirement to meet 30 per cent. of child care costs.

Another suggestion is that the Chancellor should consider what could be called a child care cost run-on. Entitlement to working tax credit and therefore to child care assistance ends as soon as a job ends. A run-on for a period would allow lone parents to keep child care arrangements going. After a child is settled, it is good, if at all practical, to keep him or her in that place during a temporary period of unemployment. The danger, of course, is that if a settled place is not available, those in one-parent families are very vulnerable to having to give up work because they have lost their child care place and have therefore been locked out of Fresh employment.

I suggest that those three matters be considered, and I look forward to the imminent end—I assume that it is imminent—to the problems with tax credits. I believe, as my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, South does, that they are a landmark in the process of drastically cutting child poverty. I believe the problems to be teething troubles, although they are extremely troublesome to many people. As soon as they are over, I am clear that not only the non-governmental organisation in question but all the other ones concerned with poverty will see the tax credits for the important development that they are.

2.50 pm

I am grateful for the opportunity to take part in the debate, which I must say I believed would become more heated. The Room may be warm, but the debate has not quite matched the temperature in it. As hon. Members have said, the issue has fired my constituency surgery, my e-mail account and my mailbag. I make no apologies for asking the Government some pointed questions about how they will deliver an end to this chaos.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Caernarfon (Hywel Williams) on securing the debate. I suspect that there were many hon. Members in that particular raffle. The hon. Gentleman was fortunate, and I congratulate him on coming out ahead of the rest of us.

The widening of the net for tax credits up to £58,000 of family income is clearly bringing more people into the tax credit net, but that obviously also widens the problem of addressing the issues that they present to us. I make no apologies for focusing on families at the bottom end of the spectrum, because they are the ones who have come to my surgeries with the most heart-rending tales and looking for help.

The chaos is recognised by the wider public, claimants, and Members of Parliament generally and in this debate. It is also recognised by Department for Work and Pensions staff. In Scotland and, I believe, the rest of the United Kingdom, many thousands of them staged a one-hour walk out simply to show how strongly they felt and how poorly resourced they were to deal with tax credits.

I, too, can cite examples of simple, administrative errors, to which hon. Members have already referred. I shall not repeat them, but letters have been sent asking for national insurance numbers when national insurance numbers are mentioned on them, as have letters telling claimants that they do not have children when the names of the children are confirmed at the bottom. They are legion, and do not do any credit to a Department that is supposed to be in control of another change.

The helpline is key for my constituents. I represent a very rural constituency, and the hon. Member for Aberdeen, South (Miss Begg) rightly referred to access to the offices of hon. Members, Jobcentre Plus and the Inland Revenue. I know that there are some rural parts in the hon. Lady's constituency. If someone lives in a very rural area and 40 or 45 miles from the nearest of those representative offices, their only recourse is to a helpline. Frankly, the Government have handled it absolutely dreadfully. They have lost all credibility among my constituents and among those who are most dependent on the helpline as the only way to reach Government and sort out their problems.

I assume that the hon. Gentleman's route to solving all this chaos, as he puts it rather hyperbolically, is simply to abolish the benefit. I have not heard one word of welcome for it yet, but it is an excellent tool.

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for adding spice to the debate. In fairness, tax credits have many plus points, and we should look to build on them. However, the system is overly complex, and it is a nightmare to administer. We have had 14 changes to the system during the past few years, and to a large extent the chaos is of the Government's own making. The chaos was indeed predictable, which I find most disturbing.

My hon. Friend the Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) said in April that it had been known for many months that it was going to happen. He released one document showing that, at a meeting in January 2003, local authorities had warned Inland Revenue and Department for Work and Pensions staff that tax credit claims had to be processed in time if a housing benefit crisis was to be avoided. Another showed that, in a national survey of housing benefit managers in February 2003, not one respondent spoke favourably about the implementation of the new tax credits. Lastly, in March, local government representatives were so worried that they wrote directly to the Chancellor—they must have been very concerned—to warn him of the impending problems.

That train has been coming towards us for many months, but the Government have not seen it and have failed to take action. That is the substance of my principle criticism. The most vulnerable of my constituents also saw their income being affected by the change in national insurance, and the coincidence of the two did not help.

Most other problems have been examined by previous speakers, but some of the knock-on issues are significant. In recent years, money for local government has become so tight that local authorities—to a degree understandably, but in my view somewhat excessively—have devoted their attention to defaults and late payments of council tax. If two payments are late by only a week in Scotland, the case immediately goes to sheriff officers proceedings. That is a significant side effect of the crisis in tax credits. I have had to extract a statement from Dumfries and Galloway council whereby they agree to hold proceedings for the most vulnerable of local residents who cannot make their council tax payments because tax credits are not coming through.

Two issues have not yet been raised that I would like to put to the Paymaster General, subjects on which feedback from local offices has been variable. Some problems have eventually been resolved, and however it has been done, I am delighted about it. However, when the backdating of that tax credit is agreed, can I have an assurance that the backdating will be paid up to date? Several of my constituents are very concerned that if the payment of tax credit is four weeks late, the money is being paid back over the succeeding 48, 47 or 46 weeks of the year. To many of my constituents, that is not good enough. They are working in debt: the Government's debts have been passed on to them, and they need reimbursement. The payments should be brought up to date at the time. I would appreciate an assurance from the Paymaster General that that can be achieved.

Secondly, several hon. Members have referred to the flexibility of local staff in making interim payments. I want an assurance that when an interim payment is made, further payments of tax credit do not hit the buffer. In my experience, when a problem has been resolved and an interim payment has been made, it gets shunted into a siding and cannot be progressed until someone reviews the case. That is all very well, but if those who are firefighting in the front line are always dealing with new cases, they will never get to those that have been shunted into the sidings. That is a matter of considerable concern.

Finally, the tax credit system depends on people believing that it will deliver what the Government have promised. In my constituency, many people can benefit from the tax credit system, which I welcome. However, one constituent sums up the problems in an e-mail, in which she said:
"We cannot avoid the inevitable conclusion that this Labour government is deliberately making it as hard as possible to get what is due to me and my family. The wise words of the Chancellor of the exchequer are a long, long way from the reality of the nightmare we are living through."
That is the reality of the day-to-day life of people who depend on tax credits. The Government's complacency does no credit to future tax credits; the pension credit may be the next instalment of chaos at the heart of the Department for Work and Pensions.

3 pm

I join in congratulating the hon. Member for Caernarfon (Hywel Williams) on securing the debate on a subject that many of us want to discuss. The hon. Gentleman has done the House a service.

Tax credits, when people get them, help the fight against child poverty. No political party opposed the Tax Credits Act 2002 during its passage through Parliament, but when Parliament legislates for a scheme to give financial assistance to families, it expects the Administration to deliver it. The dispute is not about whether Parliament wanted the scheme—it clearly did—but about why delivery has been such a shambles.

The hon. and learned Member for Redcar (Vera Baird) mentioned art important group that has received no attention during this fiasco: the families on income support who have not yet been transferred to child tax credit. The low-waged families who have been transferred suffered real pain when they lost out, but at least they had a wage to keep them going, yet their pain is as nothing compared to that which will be suffered by families if their income support stops before the child tax credit starts. I hope that the Minister will clarify the position of that group.

A bizarre feature of the system is that everyone who has a child should claim child tax credit even if they know that they are far too rich to be entitled to a penny. For example, a business that usually brings in £70,000 a year for a self-employed person and that is doing well at the beginning of the year may do badly later in the year; the income from the business may fall dramatically, bringing the family within the scope of child tax credit. Unless they claim by July, they are past the three-month deadline and will not get the money from the start of the financial year, but if they claim and receive a letter replying that they are not entitled to anything now, and later in the year they turn out to be entitled to something, the money will be backdated to April, provided they made what is called a protective claim before July. Thus, there is the bizarre scenario of the rich having to rush out and claim the credit because of the three-month deadline.

If the credit is part of the tax system, why does the benefit rule of three months to claim it apply? If the policy is supposed to be about integrating tax and benefits instead of bolting benefits on to the tax system, which is what actually happens, there should not be a three-month deadline. The system would then not have to cope with rich people being encouraged to claim something to which they know they are not entitled, in case they stop being rich. That is a daft way to run a system.

The take-up of the lax credit was raised in the debate and the Treasury has consistently given a misleading impression of the true position. The Treasury says two things at the same time: that nine out of 10 families will be entitled to benefit from the credit and that it expects 5.75 million families to claim. There are seven million families in Great Britain; nine out of 10 gives a total of 6.3 million families. The Treasury's best guess is therefore not that nine out of 10 families will claim, but that 5.75 million families—500,000 fewer—will claim. In other words, the Government's public spending plans build in an assumption that 500,000 families will not claim what they are entitled to. That does not include the 500,000 mentioned by the hon. and learned Member for Redcar and perhaps a further 500,000 whose claims may not have been processed. What sort of system builds in an assumption that 500,000 people will not get what they are entitled to, even when every problem has been sorted out? Is that a rational way to design a tax-benefit system?

Computers always get blamed n these cases. The Chairman of the Work and Pensions Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Sir Archy Kirkwood), who has had to leave the debate, told me that EDS, the company involved in supplying the computer system, has a bit of a track record in that respect. Will the Minister give us a clear answer to the question: has EDS suffered any penalty for the fiasco?

I am still slightly unclear whose fault the Treasury says it is. Some of the Inland Revenue press releases would have us believe that it is the claimants' fault. People did not know that they were entitled to claim under some of the phantasmagorical schemes and they failed to claim three months before they were due to begin. I do not think that it is the claimants' fault. If the Government introduce scheme after scheme, change the names and come up with complicated new rules, and people do not claim three months before those schemes are due to start, is that the claimants' fault?

Is it the computers' fault? We are constantly being told when we ring the MPs hotline that the computer is down. Several hon. Members have had that experience. Whose fault is that? Is it EDS's fault? Is there a trigger point or penalty? Who is going to meet the cost of the compensation and, as the hon. Member for Caernarfon (Hywel Williams) asked, how much will it be?

In my experience of phoning the hotline, part of the problem appears to be with the scanners. One of my constituents had a claim rejected because he apparently earned more than £500,000, which was 100 times more than he actually earned. Apparently, the scanners were scanning in pence as pounds and multiplying incomes by 100.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that point. I defy anyone to read my handwriting at such a distance, but "scanners" is the next thing written in my notes.

When we phone up the hotline we are often told that the forms have been put through a scanner, not entered by a human. They are presumably subject to optical character recognition, which is where the hyphen problem originates. Will the Paymaster General tell the House whether that is the norm? Is that the way Government forms have been processed in the past, or is it a new innovation? Is it the system that will be used in the future? Presumably the Inland Revenue had most of us listed on its computers already and the problem has arisen because optical character recognition has been used with scanned documents and—surprise, surprise—the computer cannot get a match. That is why we get the barmy letters asking for a national insurance number that is printed at the top of the letter—it cannot match up people with the documents. Will the Paymaster General tell us if that is the way things are done in Government now? Is that the root of the problem? Is it EDS's fault, and who is going to pay for it?

As well as people who get no money, some people get far too much money, which could be a serious problem. A member of my constituency office staff, who has phoned the hotline for lots of other people, got a fantastically generous tax credit award. When she told me about it, knowing a little about her personal circumstances I said, "You realise that's wrong, don't you? That's thousands of pounds more than you are entitled to." She was a little concerned about that, so she contacted the Department and—lo and behold—she had been given far too much money. Because we spotted that, she will not get any more, and she will not have received much of an overpayment, but what about people who do not spot it? There are such cases.

If people get 10 times what they should get—£5,000 not £500—at the end of the year there will be a vast overpayment. Normally, overpayments are clawed back the following year by reducing the award. However, if someone owes £4,500 and the next year's award is £500, would they get nothing for the next eight years? I think not. I think that the Inland Revenue would want a big chunk of money. If someone did not know that they were not entitled to the money in the first place, there could be real problems.

I will put the following to the Paymaster General as a written question if it will help. Has her Department tabulated last year's entitlement to working families tax credit plus children's tax credit against the entitlement to the new tax credits for 2003–04? Has the Department looked for cases in which people were given £500 last year, and £5,000 this year? If there are a lot of those cases, is it going to take a sample of them and see whether the system has gone crazy? I hope that the Paymaster General will assure me that such an exercise will be carried out to stop people reaching the end of the year with a huge overpayment.

Finally, the working tax credit component of the system for childless people is the dog that has not barked. Whenever we ask written questions about it, we receive virtually no information. It will bring new people into in-work benefits, but that set of people is not very likely to take up the benefit because they do not know that they are entitled to it. Will the Paymaster General tell us definitively how many childless couples and single people should have been brought into the working tax credit for childless people for the first time ever, and how many people have actually claimed? Something tells me that if the Paymaster General were to give us that answer there would be a big gap between those two numbers.

3.9 pm

I congratulate the hon. Member for Northavon (Mr. Webb) on a very articulate demonstration of many of the problems. I also congratulate the hon. Member for Caernarfon (Hywel Williams) on securing this timely and important debate. It is another opportunity to hold the Labour Government to account over their tax credit fiasco, which has been experienced by MPs from both sides of the House who have been deluged with complaints from constituents complaining about the failure of the new system. The helpline has been overwhelmed and desperate claimants have besieged benefit offices.

The hon. Member for Caernarfon (Hywel Williams) called into question the absence of any link between the Chancellor's rhetoric on making work pay and the practical application of what is now going on and recognising that the wage top-up scheme has been of benefit. We meet today just two days after tax freedom day, when we can start providing for our families and ourselves. Compared with 1996, we must now work an extra week to pay for the Chancellor's 60 tax rises, which Labour has introduced since 1997. The cry that has gone up is: where are the improvements in public services?

On 6 April the Government launched its latest version of tax credit. Working tax credit replaces working families tax credit and disabled persons tax credit, and child tax credit replaces children's tax credit. Since October 1999, the Government have introduced five new tax credits for families, scrapped four and then introduced two new ones. That averages a new tax credit for families every six months. We supported and continue to support tax credits in principle, but we do not support this stop-go system. It is apparently the Chancellor's flagship, but as he forces the Inland Revenue to become as effective in paying out money as it has been in collecting it from our constituents, his flagship has been sailing into uncharted waters. It has run into a predictable storm and is foundering. Only a Government, Chancellor and Paymaster General in denial would require the Minister when she stands up to carry the can for her boss and to attempt to dismiss the widespread tales of misery, frustration, anger and distress of people throughout the country, especially hard-working mums and dads with young children, often with child care responsibilities, in their dealings with the Chancellor's foundering tax credit system.

The Inland Revenue claims to have processed, but not necessarily paid, 3.5 million of 4 million claims. It admitted on Monday that 600,000 had not been processed—there are 100,000 missing somewhere. What is the precise number of credits claimed but not paid? How many eligible people have not yet claimed? Is it the 1 million that many estimate? If it is, 1.5 million people may be suffering and not receiving what they are entitled to under the Government's new system.

Of those whose claims have been processed, how many are suffering because of sloppy inaccuracy by the Revenue or further failures of the computer system? My constituent, Mrs Catherine McCabe of 45 Bradbury road, Winsford, has made a completed application and received some documents, but her tax is wrong because her earnings were misrecorded. She has three young children, but the Inland Revenue says that she has none. She has had three different assessments. The last stated wrongly that she is entitled to nothing, but £63.13 went into her account, which is a woeful sum compared with the £100 she is due.

I hope that the Paymaster General will tell us whether all those who made a completed application but had yet to receive any money did so by 2 May. She said in the House on 28 April that they would do so
"by the end of this week".—[Official Report, 28 April 2003; Vol. 404, c. 54.]
How many interim payments have been made? The Chancellor changed the rules and it is up to him to get them right. People have had to go into debt, incur bank charges and interest, and default on paying basic bills. The parliamentary ombudsman has said that she will consider cases in which individuals have suffered financial loss because of delays. Will the Government now come clean, confess their shortcomings and confirm that compensation—not just interim payments—will be paid for financial loss such as overdraft charges? The Revenue is the first to charge interest on late payment of tax and this shambles comes at a time when personal disposable incomes are being hit by the Chancellor's national insurance contributions increase and the increase in council tax bills resulting from the Government's changes to the way in which Whitehall funds local authorities.

Amid all that, the Government have a helpline. Its very name has turned out to be another of the Government's sick jokes to the hundreds of thousands of people who spend hours, days and even weeks trying to get through. At an original cost of £53 million, the Government in their panic rushed in 700 more staff. If callers did not get through they spoke to the "overflow department" which could not answer their questions because it could talk only about the system. What system, one might ask. For a short period, the department offered to ring people back. Mrs McCabe, my constituent, has been waiting since 16 April, and no wonder because the call-back service has now been stopped. No wonder we heard about Mr. Maddison, who had to superglue his hand to a desk in his local office at Bridgwater in Somerset to get paid after more than 200 attempts to contact the helpline. He was eventually paid before his hand was released because it got so sweaty.

Is it any wonder that all those frustrations, coupled with the number and speed of the Chancellor's changes to his own tax credit system is resulting in poor take-up rates? The Council of Mortgage Lenders estimates that one in five who are eligible for £60 a week or more are failing to claim. Will the Paymaster General stand by her Chief Whip's comment to The Scotsman newspaper that
"Gordon Brown's flagship system of tax credits is not appreciated or understood by the low paid",
or with her Cabinet colleague, the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, who said that the tax credits system is
"not having the transforming impact that we thought it would have and that it should have"?
Does the Paymaster General think that the taxpayer has received value for money for the £10 million in round figures that was spent on the promotional campaign for the new tax credits?

What is so utterly despicable is that all the chaos and confusion was predictable and predicted. It was predicted by the official Opposition months before April's implementation. It was predicted by others, who have been mentioned today, including Labour councils, which one would have thought were not political opponents of the Government, and by Inland Revenue internal auditors. The information technology specialists at the Office of Government Commerce warned in December last year—four months before April—that the new system for tax credits ranked as
"among the highest across Government for assessed risk".
They cautioned that the project was very ambitious and that the "very large and complex" nature of the initiative would rest on unprecedented levels of co-operation between Government Departments. My hon. Friend the Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts), the shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, stated:
"The problems were entirely predictable because the computer system for administering credits was rushed into use before it was ready. It was a great pity the Government ignored the warning signs … It is clear the blame lies with the Chancellor himself."
Frankly, the Chancellor should be here today to apologise.

It gets worse. The Revenue thought that nothing would go wrong, so it made no contingency plans. That is a pattern for the present Government, as my constituents found during the foot and mouth crisis. Despite the Local Government Association now calling for such plans, today it is reported in the newspapers that the Revenue are rejecting any need for contingency plans—another of the Government's sick jokes. On the subject of sick jokes, the Revenue first said about the new tax credits system that there were
"no problems with computer systems",
and that the review team's opinion of the project was that
"it was an exemplar of good project management and well-equipped to successfully deliver".
Only recently did it resile and confess that
"The new tax credits system is not yet performing as well as we would like."
Spare a thought for the Revenue and benefits office staff who work amid all the Government incompetence, confusion and denial. Hundreds of them staged a spontaneous walkout because of the chaos—the grim situation—that they are faced with in their offices and the sheer pressure heaped on there by the Chancellor, the Paymaster General and the computer system. In the House, we can hold the Minister accountable, but I hope that she will tell us that Ministers are holding EDS and other suppliers accountable. The hon. Member for Northavon also made that point.

Before the Chancellor drives the culture of dependency further and further into decent, hardworking individuals and families up and down the land through his increasing means-testing of the citizens of Britain, this appalling experience must be fully examined. The official Opposition call for a full, open, public and independent inquiry into the systemic failure of the administration of the Chancellor's new tax credits system, for which we did not vote. An inquiry must be held to establish what has gone wrong and why, and the Chancellor's policy decisions that brought about the problems. We welcome the National Audit Office investigation into the way the system was introduced, but it is clear that that is not good enough for the hundreds of thousands of people whose lives are blighted by the system. A full and independent public inquiry must be held to expose the damage and the unnecessary distress caused by the Government's incompetence and to ensure that the lessons are learned. Otherwise, what will we get?

Let us hope against all hope that today the Paymaster General will not repeat her claim of 29 May on GMTV that the problems are caused not by her or Inland Revenue but by late and incorrectly completed forms submitted by claimants. That statement was met by incredulity and anger on the part of huge numbers of frustrated claimants for its sheer arrogance and eye-watering denial. The Paymaster General should not try today to defend the indefensible. She should admit that the Government's incompetence has led to callous chaos and confusion and that their shameless shambles of a new tax credits system has caused unnecessary distress and anger.

The Government are denying a fair deal to the people of this country. They should now add to the apology given in the House by the Paymaster General on 28 April, which I acknowledge, and authorise a full, public and independent inquiry into the predicted and predictable shambles of the Government's new tax credits system.

3.19 pm

In the few minutes that are left in the debate, I wish to say that the contribution of the hon. Member for Eddisbury (Mr. O'Brien) was particularly breathtaking. He suddenly finds sympathy with the poor, but the Conservative Government drove millions of children into poverty. We are debating this afternoon the introduction of the tax credit, but if the hon. Gentleman wants to see what a system that is not working looks like and how complex it can be, I suggest that he looks at the family credit system under his party's Government.

The hon. Member for Caernarfon (Hywel Williams), who introduced the debate, asked me to deal specifically with several points. I pay tribute to him, not only for acquiring the debate, but for having the good grace to acknowledge that the basic foundation of the tax credit system and its aim to assist people into paid employment is an absolute bedrock that he supports. He recognises that it has never existed before.

I turn to the questions about how many tax credits are left unpaid and where we are in the system. When I made a statement about tax credits to the House on 28 April, the Inland Revenue had paid tax credits to more than 1 million families. As of today—a month on—I am pleased to say that tax credits are being paid to 3.7 million families. About a third of those families are being paid weekly and are now in their eighth week of payment. The other two thirds are being paid on a four-weekly basis, on time and as planned. Last week, they received their second monthly payment.

Those numbers are in addition to the 1.3 million families with children on income support and income-based jobseeker's allowance who will be transferred automatically in April next year to the child tax credit, but who are receiving the increased level of support through their benefits now. The transfer next April means that 5 million families, as opposed to 1.4 million families on working families tax credit, are now benefiting from tax credits. Tens of thousands of additional claims are still coming in each week and the Inland Revenue is paying more than 100,000 more families each week.

Take-up of the new tax credits remains strong. All those families with children with income below £58,000—nine out of 10 families with children—are eligible for child tax credit. In addition, working tax credit is newly available to low-income working families without dependent children or a disabled worker. As of today, more than 4.25 million claims for tax credits have been received. That means that 5.5 million families have either applied for or are already receiving tax credits. As a result, enhanced family support is reaching far larger numbers of people than either the old system of family credit or the working families tax credit.

Far from failing to claim the new tax credits, millions of people have claimed them. Because we want all those who are eligible to apply, our take-up campaign is continuing, and last week we launched a new publicity campaign to encourage people to apply by 5 July, so that if they are entitled to tax credits, their claims can be backdated in full to 6 April. We are also encouraging people to apply if they think that their income will qualify them for payment this year—a matter to which the hon. Member for Northavon (Mr. Webb) referred.

As for turning claims into payments, I can tell hon. Members that successful claims from everyone who applied by the end of April have now been paid, apart from those about which more information is needed or more checks have to be made. The detailed figures at the end of May were that 3.7 million awards are in payment and 115,000 claims have also been decided but the claimant has not met the qualifying conditions and no tax credit is due.

Since my last statement, approximately 500,000 more awards have been put into payment. Of the remaining claims still being processed, the Inland Revenue received more than 200,000 only in the past four weeks, some arriving as late as last week. All of the outstanding claims are either incomplete or require further checks to be conducted to verify information. Last week, the Inland Revenue cleared more than 100,000 cases. At its peak, the system is capable of clearing 25,000 per day, and we are working to ensure that that number is delivered every day.

I acknowledge—I have made no attempt to resile from this either in my statement to the House or in interviews on television and radio—that some families have experienced serious difficulties. I have rightly apologised for that. However, to characterise the whole system as being in chaos is simply wrong. The present position is that about 5 million families are now benefiting from tax credits and the number of awards will continue to rise as more and more claims are put into payment in the coming weeks. I am glad to be able to report that as the number of awards and payments rises, the number of calls to the helpline has fallen—the pressure is easing, although it is still there.

Several hon. Members have referred to selective quotes from incorrect reports, and I should like to correct them. A few months ago, a report suggested that the tax credit system was too risky to go ahead. In fact, the report of the Office of Government Commerce found that the tax credit programme was a model of good governance and careful management of risk. I shall quote the report's key conclusions in December, which are that
"The Review Team finds that the programme is well on the way to successful delivery of Release 2 in April 2003 although it still has to complete a large amount of work against a very tight schedule.
The Review Team's opinion is that this is an exemplar of good programme management",
and the programme is well equipped to successfully manage challenges.

Several other issues were raised by the hon. Member for Caernarfon and others. It is important to point out that claimants in rural areas may be isolated from their nearest Inland Revenue office. I recognise that and we are trying to do several things to address it. First, we can arrange for payment to be sent directly, either couriered or by registered delivery, in particular where there are travel problems because the distance is too great or because travel is not possible owing to family responsibilities.

The hon. Gentleman did not speak in the debate, and I have many other questions to get through.

Questions were asked about hyphens. That was a story in the early days, but I assure hon. Members that the system can deal with claimants whose names have hyphens.

Key points were raised about housing benefit, such as the planning that was involved. We have always recognised that the introduction of tax credits will mean new work for local authorities, which is why they received well in advance of £17 million to pay for additional administrative costs. We understand that local authorities face pressure, and that it is sometimes difficult to process queries. However, we have made considerable efforts to get information to local authorities. Housing benefit should not be adjusted until tax credits are actually paid to the customer. Legislation was specifically amended to ensure that housing benefit was not reduced merely because a claimant claimed the tax credits. We have, however, gone further. If a tax credit award includes a payment of arrears, the payment is treated as capital for housing benefit and is effectively ignored. If a lump sum is necessary, it is paid in one go; if any backdating is necessary, it is not spread over the year. Local authorities should only take into account tax credits in payment. They cannot assume that tax credits are already being paid or treat them as notional income.

This is an important debate. Many questions have been asked but because of time constraints, I cannot answer all of them. The policy is to help and support those on the lowest incomes to help them to get into work. The system was not in place before April this year. It will work and I intend to ensure that it does.

Order. May I ask those hon. Members not wishing to stay for the next debate to leave quickly and quietly please?


3.30 pm

I am grateful for the opportunity to have a short debate on route management strategy and the A47. I appreciate the presence and support of my right hon. Friend the Member for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard) and the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson).

The debate has strong cross-party support from all the Members in Norfolk. Our primary objective is to consider a strategic plan for the whole of the A47 and to ensure that it is fully dualled from the A1 west of Peterborough through to Great Yarmouth. That is vital for the economic growth of Norfolk and for road safety. Since 1994, the A47 alliance—a coalition of local councils, businesses and other interested parties—has consistently lobbied for that strategic objective.

The catalyst for my debate was the recommendations from the study undertaken for the Government Office for the east of England, entitled, "Norwich to Peterborough Multi-Modal Study: Final Report"—a title that easily runs off the lips—which was published on 11 March. Without exception, all the interested parties in Norfolk—the parish, town, district and county councils and businesses—were bitterly disappointed with its piecemeal and inadequate recommendations. Indeed, some of its proposals have been deleted from the final strategy agreed yesterday by the regional planning panel. That has caused even more disillusion in Norfolk.

Sadly, the Department for Transport has no strategic vision for the whole of the A47 in Norfolk. Rather, we have seen a series of independent, piecemeal studies that deal with some local concerns through stretches of dual carriageway and some remedial work, but those do not deal with the overall economic arid road safety issues throughout the length of the A47. The failure to achieve a strategic plan has led to much disillusion and cynicism among all our constituents, who think that Norfolk is low down the list of priorities and can safely be offered some worthy short-term improvements and some long-term aspirations.

I shall move on to a critique of the Norwich to Peterborough multi-modal study and ask the Minister some questions. I realise that he may not be able to answer all my questions at the end of the debate, but I would be grateful if he would write to me.

The study began with a clear aim that was consistent with Government policy: to realise the potential of the Norwich to Peterborough corridor, including the economic regeneration of northern East Anglia, which is essentially Norfolk. That aim was supported by an objective—one of eight—to identify the contribution that improvements to the transport corridor could make to the economic regeneration and future prosperity of northern East Anglia. That clearly recognised that Norfolk's perceived remoteness and poor transport accessibility to the midlands and the north could be harming its economy, leading to pockets of deprivation, especially in Great Yarmouth, Norwich, King's Lynn and some remote rural areas.

The Norfolk community strategy has recognised that, and its delivery will partly depend on improved strategic accessibility. If anything, that assessment has been reinforced by a recent forecast from the business analysts Experian, which revealed that Norfolk will soon lag behind neighbours such as Cambridgeshire and Suffolk. The economic factor is therefore crucial to Norfolk in terms of growth.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that tourism in Norfolk has tremendous possibilities and potential? Hundreds of people penetrate into places such as Hunstanton, King's Lynn, Cromer and so on, round to Yarmouth, every year, but it is forgotten sometimes that those people have to travel on awful roads such as the one to which the hon. Gentleman is referring—the A47—and that the accident rate goes up significantly during that period. For that reason alone, there is a huge case to be made for improving that highway.

The hon. Gentleman makes a strong point. Hundreds of thousands of tourists come to Norfolk, and many are unfamiliar with our patchwork road system.

I shall briefly take up the study recommendations. Many of the proposed measures gain our support, including those for public transport improvements. No one in Norfolk believes that merely dualling the A47 will resolve all the transport and road safety problems or, indeed, immediately bring about economic improvement. Although we accept that various considerations have to be balanced and that there are many demands on the nation's purse strings, we have to reject the fundamental proposal not to bring the A47 fully up to dual carriageway standard. That was recommended despite full dualling being the option with the best economic efficiency—by that, I mean a function of travel time and a measure of whether it is a good public investment.

The main proposals in the study were: dualling between Dereham and Norwich by 2016; single carriageway bypasses for Middleton, East Winch and Bilney by 2026—those have now been dropped—and dualling from the A1 to King's Lynn by 2031, except for a Wisbech bypass, which I think will also be dropped. Many of the people involved in the study may well be in retirement homes by that date. Although these proposals are welcome in themselves, even the limited ones, they do not go far enough and would not be implemented soon enough. Even these basic proposals mean that, by 2031, there would be still be 60 km of single carriageway east of the A1.

I shall put a series of questions to the Minister.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on obtaining this debate on such an important issue. Before he comes to questions for the Minister, I believe that he said that even limited improvements to the A47 had yesterday been rejected by something describing itself as a regional planning panel. I wonder whether he or the Minister could give us some information on the status of that panel, such as whether it is composed of elected representatives, to whom they are accountable and on what information they are drawing, because it is self-evident from what my hon. Friend has said that they are not drawing on information about traffic flows on the A47 or, indeed, on any public opinion in Norfolk regarding the future of the A47.

My right hon. Friend reflects the amazement that was engendered in Norfolk by that regional planning body, and she raises a very good point about political accountability. That body is certainly not accountable to the electors of any of the Members here today.

I shall return to my questions. The process itself needs to be questioned. The A47 was studied by breaking it down into 22 discrete sections, so it was not seen as a strategic whole route. In a strategic study, why was the main highway route not treated from a strategic perspective? That is the fundamental question.

The economic regeneration focus, as caught by the aim and objective quoted earlier, was lost during the study. It became a traditional predict-and-provide transport study that predicted where congestion was likely to happen and recommended providing improvements at those discrete locations. Although addressing congestion is important, it should not be the only factor to consider when deciding where transport improvements are needed. Many parts of Norfolk are not congested by national standards, but they are deprived. Improvements to the A47 are needed to enhance their accessibility and economic performance, not to address congestion, which is usually a result of strong economic activity.

Will the Minister explain how continuing to improve transport infrastructure in areas of the United Kingdom that are already enjoying the benefits of strong economic activity and are congested, rather than improving it in deprived areas for accessibility reasons, is consistent with Government policy to reduce the economic imbalance? Furthermore, how are remote rural areas such as my constituency expected to diversify successfully if the root problem of poor accessibility remains?

The wider economic aspect was considered only at the end of the study, just to consider whether the recommended strategy would produce any wider economic benefits. The conclusion was that King's Lynn would enjoy regeneration benefits. Only one section of dualling is proposed east of King's Lynn between Norwich and Dereham, which lies mainly in my constituency. Although regeneration in King's Lynn is welcome, is it a coincidence that where the majority of the A47 dualling stops, the wider economic benefit also stops?

Social inclusion is a Government priority, and I fully endorse it. The main cause of social exclusion is unemployment, so does the Minister agree that the best way of delivering social inclusion is to regenerate deprived areas and promote job opportunities? We have an example of that, as it looks likely that the outer harbour will be developed at Great Yarmouth, but once it is developed, it will not have an east-west transport system that is capable of dealing with the economic activity. Surely common sense says that we should get the transport system up and running either before or in conjunction with the development of the outer harbour.

The study concluded that the wider economic benefits of full dualling are not fully understood. Fortunately, a Government study is currently investigating the relationship between transport infrastructure improvements and wider economic benefits. That will report in the summer, so why is this study being rushed through with such undue haste? Would it not be more sensible to delay the process and await the outcome of the Government's report? Once better understood, the economic and environmental considerations related to full dualling can be given a clear and transparent examination that is open to public scrutiny.

Although the final report accepted that full dualling was the best option for economic efficiency—a measure of whether it is a good public investment—it stated that that was outweighed by environmental concerns. I accept that the protection of the environment is an important factor, but no real analysis of the environmental costs compared with the economic benefits was shown in the report. Can that be provided or explained?

Furthermore, the latest road traffic accident data were not used, despite the upward trend in recent years on the A47. For example, between 1997 and 2001, there were 812 personal injury accidents between the A1 and Easton, which is on the western outskirts of Norwich. Those accidents resulted in an estimated 1,200 casualties. Worryingly, the trend is upward, with 149 accidents in 1997 and 190 in 2001. Given that rising trend, it is surprising that the accident data for 2002 was not used. How can the Highways Agency maximise its important contribution to the targets when studies ignore the most recent data?

The A47 is part of the trans-European network, and links to Europe are vital for our economy. Why are roads comprising the trans-European network not given priority when deciding where infrastructure improvements should be made? Finally, medium traffic growth forecasts were used and we are not convinced that that was justified, especially considering the emerging regional planning guidance and the proposed growth of Norwich and other places served by the A47. No explanation was given for that choice. Why was that assumption made?

This is a crucial issue for Norfolk. This short debate merely flags up our major concern that there is no overall strategic plan for the A47 to deal with important issues of economic growth and road safety. The consensus at every level of government in Norfolk, which is cross party and includes the business community and the police, is that dualling of the A47 is the priority and that the other options are unacceptable. Norfolk county council hopes to meet the Secretary of State for Transport to press these matters further. We will continue to raise the issue so that dualling of the A47 moves up the list of priorities within the Department for Transport. Without that dualling we will not see the economic growth required in Norfolk to meet the Government's targets. Sadly, we will see a continuing rise in road traffic accidents.

3.46 pm

I congratulate the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) on securing this debate and on the way in which he has prosecuted his case. I am pleased that the right hon. Member for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard) is present. When I visited her constituency to look at a road scheme she treated me famously with sandwiches, even giving me a doggy bag. I am pleased also to see my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson). My hon. Friend the Member for Great Yarmouth (Mr. Wright) also takes a great deal of interest in these matters, but he is unable to be here today.

As we have heard, the A47 is a major artery through Norfolk, and in particular through the Mid-Norfolk constituency. The hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk has dealt in some depth with the problems that are a common concern for him and his fellow Members in the region. As he implied, the A47 is a major strategic route into Norfolk and is an important trans-European route across the north of the region, serving Wisbech, King's Lynn and Norwich as well as Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft. It is also an important link to the more isolated areas and key market towns along the corridor.

Several major routes converge along the A47. West of King's Lynn, the Al7 from the north meets it and to the east of the town, at the Hardwick roundabout, the A149 to Hunstanton and the A10 to Cambridge and London join. At Norwich, the A47 bypasses the city and is joined by the A11, the most important route into the area from the south, and also the A140 from the Ipswich direction.

What have we already done on the A47? Considerable progress has been made in improving the road over a number of years by different Governments. To give the impression that nothing has happened would be quite wrong. The schemes have cost more than £150 million. In addition, we have also started work on the improvements to the Hardwick roundabout and have added the Thorney bypass and the Blofield to North Burlingham dualling to the targeted programme of improvements. This is a considerable investment by my Department that indicates the importance that is attached to the route.

It should be noted that we are also continuing to improve the A11, which is the major trunk road access to Norwich from the south and west. We opened the latest dual carriageway section in March, and two more schemes are currently being taken forward by the Highways Agency. The A11 is expected to be fully dualled by 2010, which will emphasise its key strategic role in the network and in relation to the A47.

The recent addition to the targeted programme of improvements—the TPI schemes—of the A14 Cambridge to Huntingdon trunk road improvement scheme, as recommended by the Cambridge to Huntingdon multi-modal study, reinforces the key strategic role of the A11–A14 corridor in providing links between Norfolk and the west.

I assure the hon. Gentleman that we have not neglected the A47. We have commissioned two studies to examine how the rest of the route could be improved and if a parallel railway line could serve as an alternative to the A47. I note the hon. Gentleman's comments about the importance of public transport.

The Norwich to Great Yarmouth road-based study recommended the Blofield and North Burlingham improvement, which, as I said, was mentioned in the TPI. We have commissioned further work from the Highways Agency to re-examine the Acle straight between Acle and Great Yarmouth. It is investigating whether a dual carriageway, a simple widening or, indeed, doing nothing at all would be the best option from an environmental point of view. It is also investigating the economic impacts of potential delays to traffic during the construction of either of the first two options. In addition, it is undertaking some investigative geo-technical work.

I will jot a line to my hon. Friend rather than shoot from the hip. I will ensure that he and other hon. Members taking part in the debate know.

I am aware that there is a local perception that the road needs to be dualled for the economic regeneration of Great Yarmouth, but we are not yet satisfied that the evidence for such a conclusion is available. The Highways Agency is implementing other recommendations from the study, which will improve safety along the A47 and improve the traffic flow at the Vauxhall junction in Great Yarmouth. That should significantly reduce journey times along the Acle straight.

I thank the Under-Secretary for his generosity in giving way and for his tribute about sandwiches, which remain unforgotten in his mind.

In the unavoidable absence of the hon. Member for Great Yarmouth (Mr. Wright), I must ask him what is the point of putting money into regenerating Great Yarmouth if it cannot be reached by road.

I will come to that. I noted what the right hon. Lady said in an intervention on her hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk.

The Norwich to Peterborough multi-modal study was commissioned to make recommendations that would address the transport problems and realise the potential of the Norwich to Peterborough corridor, including the possible economic regeneration of East Anglia and the entire route to Great Yarmouth. The study incorporated the A47 and the parallel railway line via Thetford and Ely. It reported in March 2003 and was passed to the regional assembly for its consideration. I believe that the assembly met yesterday to confirm its recommendations, and I note from the hon. Gentleman's remarks that neither he nor other local interests approve of them. However, the Department has not yet received its official response, and so I cannot comment on it in detail.

The right hon. Lady asked who the people on the regional panel were. The panel is made up of elected local councillors from the region. I understand that most of them are from her own party. If she wants a route of communication and contact with them, she may want to beat a path to their door, because they were the ones who recommended that dualling the whole of the A47 was unnecessary. That recommendation did not come from my Department, but was made locally to my Department.

The study concluded that a combination of measures would be needed to address its objectives. The preferred strategy, which the regional assembly was invited to consider, therefore includes targeted measures to increase capacity on the A47, new bus and coach services and some localised improvements to rail facilities. It also supports increases in the take-up of travel plans and the promotion of walking and cycling strategies in the towns along the corridor. It would be premature of us to give our views on the recommendations now. However, the study has raised a number of important issues and it may be helpful if I briefly run through them.

The study concluded that the major rail schemes are not feasible and that other public transport measures alone would not deliver a strategy to meet the study objectives. The study therefore proposed, in addition, staged programme improvements to the A47, to be constructed as and when the traffic conditions warranted them.

The study has also concluded that the A47 is not congested over the whole of its length and that improvements need to be targeted on those sections that are currently at or near capacity, rather than on those that are expected to be able to carry the forecast traffic growth in their current form for many years to come. The sections identified as the first two priorities are in the west between the A1 and Sutton, west of Peterborough, and in the east between North Tuddenham and Easton, west of Norwich. The study also suggested the introduction of improved traffic management measures on the A47 at Peterborough parkway, with the aim of preventing queues on slip roads from tailing back on to the main carriageway. It is recommended that all these schemes be implemented before 2016.

In addition, the study proposes that further improvements to the A47 be undertaken after 2016. If all of these were to be built—clearly I can give no commitment today—we would achieve the hon. Gentleman's aim of improving the entire length of the A47 from the Al to Norwich. Although I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman and others would prefer such schemes to be implemented sooner rather than later, the multi-modal study suggests that the justification for them, in terms of traffic flows and consequent delays, will exist not in the near future but in 15 to 20 years' time. I stress that such matters are being dealt with locally. The relevant studies have not been undertaken by the Government; they have been generated by those in the local area who can best understand the issues involved.

The conclusions of the study suggest that it would be imprudent of us to bring forward major road schemes that do not make best use of our limited resources and that do not provide good value for money. When we consider the findings of the study and the other views that we have received, we shall be mindful also of the need to ensure that large areas of the countryside are not blighted through proposals for road schemes that have no prospect whatever of being built in the next 20 years. That would not help the regeneration of the area. It is also important for constituents that their properties should not be blighted.

The hon. Gentleman said that a predict-and-provide model was used, and he mentioned the need for new roads to help the economic regeneration of his constituency. It is always difficult to quantify with confidence how many jobs a transport scheme will generate—each area will react differently, and there is always a danger that jobs could be lost from an area if transport links are improved.

As required by the brief, the Norwich to Peterborough multi-modal study considered the wider economic benefits that the preferred strategy, including all the A47 improvements which have been proposed, would bring to the area. The study concluded that in the long term the strategy would improve accessibility to areas outside the sub-region, provide greater opportunity for development, reduce actual and perceived peripherality and expand markets and labour market catchments for businesses in the area. Further analysis suggested that the overall additional benefit of dualling all the A47, as compared with the preferred strategy, would be small when considered against the additional cost. It was also suggested that some of the further schemes that would be required to achieve full dualling would have potentially serious effects.

I began and ended by asking the Minister a question. He represents the Department for Transport, so can he say whether the Department, in its strategic vision, accepts that to dual the whole of the A47 for economic and road safety reasons is, in principle, logical and correct? I realise that there is a cost factor and do not hold the Minister on that. It is all well and good to refer to individual studies, but the crucial point is the principle.

The principle is that not even the regional planning body has come up with that solution. His party and his councils have not come to that conclusion. We should be making improvements for the throughput of traffic while taking into consideration the important environmental issues on the route.

Time is against me, and if there are issues that I have not been able to cover at the end of the debate, I shall be pleased to correspond with hon. Members.

Order. I ask hon. Members who are not staying for the next debate to leave quickly and quietly. I assure hon. Members that I have driven on the A47.


4 pm

I start by declaring my interest in seeking this debate: I am the co-chairperson of the all-party group on Taiwan, which has members from all political parties in both Houses. It is an active group, which is fully supported by the Taiwanese office in London. I am delighted that the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Mr. Rammell) is replying to the debate. We are all aware of his interest in Taiwan.

The United Kingdom and Taiwan have a good relationship, which benefits both countries. Some 155 Taiwanese companies operate in the UK. Taiwan has invested vast sums of money in the UK, creating many thousands of jobs for British workers, and has brought in some of the most advanced technological developments in the world.

Taiwan has the world's 16th largest economy; it is the 14th largest trading nation in the world, the eighth largest outward investor, and the world's third largest exporter of information technology. The UK is the third largest trading partner of Taiwan in Europe, and receives 48 percent. of Taiwan's investment in Europe. Taiwan invests more in the UK than in any other European country. Those are impressive figures that demonstrate how the UK benefits from its involvement with Taiwan. The importance to Taiwan of the relationship is seen by the high calibre of the person appointed to head its London office. That person has always been a senior diplomat, as is the current representative, Dr. Tien.

I hope. as does the rest of our group, that contacts between the UK and Taiwan can he upgraded, through discussions between Ministers, Dr. Tien and his officials, and senior civil servants and through the exchange of ministerial visits between our countries. I welcome the recent visits to Taiwan by my hon. Friend the Minister for Trade and Investment and by the Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, South (Nigel Griffiths).

Discussions such as those to which I referred could form the basis for the establishment of joint projects between the UK and Taiwan to develop trade and business links with mainland China. In Taiwan, many thousands of companies have links with mainland China. Taiwan has invested the equivalent of $100 billion in China, and fully understands the attitude and culture of the Chinese. I hope that the Government will enter into serious discussions on the setting up of joint venture projects, and I will welcome the Minister's comments on that point.

Every year, thousands of Taiwanese students come to this country to study—at present, the figure is 14,000—and that obviously brings us enormous benefits. However, those students could go to many other countries to study, which leads me to say that the problems that they have in obtaining visas must be greatly improved. British nationals visiting Taiwan can have a visa-free visit of up to 30 days, but it certainly is not as easy for Taiwanese people wishing to visit the United Kingdom to obtain a visa. I would welcome the Minister's comments on how the problem can be improved.

Another issue that the all-party group wishes to see greatly improved is the treatment of visits and stopovers in the United Kingdom by Taiwanese Ministers and senior officials when en route to other countries. Sadly, the Government place restrictions on such visits and stopovers, and I clearly ask the Minister why that is still happening. He must be aware that the United States Government and a number of European countries are far more responsive than the United Kingdom in assisting such visits. It is time for improvements to be made, so I ask: will they and, if not, why not?

I turn now to an issue that causes Taiwan and the British all-party group deep concern and disappointment. That is the refusal, yet again, to admit Taiwan as an observer to the World Health Organisation. Early-day motions are regularly tabled—they attract a great deal of support from Members of all parties—that clearly call for the Government to be seen to support the request for observer status to be given to Taiwan. The British Medical Association, a respected organisation in this country and in the world, fully supports that request. Taiwan has one of the most advanced health and medical care systems in the world, so why is it being denied observer status?

In January 2002, Taiwan became a member of the World Trade Organisation. If the country can qualify for membership of that organisation, what is the real reason for its being refused observer status at the World Health Organisation? I ask my hon. Friend to be frank in replying to that point. The United States Government and the European Union fully support Taiwan's application for observer status, so why does it not have that status? What is the United Kingdom's position on that matter? Does the United Kingdom support Taiwan's application for observer status at the World Health Organisation?

Taiwan has a population of about 23 million people. It is a democracy with a deep respect for human rights and freedom of the press. It obviously wants a role within the United Nations, yet it has been excluded from the UN since 1971. Here is a country that in the view of many people, and certainly in the view of the all-party group on Taiwan, has a right to be seriously considered for playing a positive role in the United Nations. Let us compare Taiwan with some members of the UN. Some countries are certainly not democratic, and human rights and press freedom either do not exist or have little respect paid to them, but those countries are still members.

In September this year at a meeting of the UN, Taiwan will again press its claim for involvement in the UN. Can the Minister tell me what the United Kingdom's view will be on the issue? In recent years when the issue has been discussed, the UK has sadly opposed Taiwan. Will we do that again, and, if so, for what reason? Why is it necessary for the UK to do that? Who are we seeking to please by showing opposition to Taiwan and the role that it wants in the UN?

I also wish to refer to the ongoing pressure—indeed, threats—which Taiwan faces from mainland China. President Chen of Taiwan has repeatedly sought to build a good relationship with China, but has received a poor response. We know that China has several hundred missiles aimed at Taiwan, and I want to know where we stand on China's attitude. China is a major country, but many would question several aspects of the policies that it follows within China and with other countries throughout the world. It wants to play an ever-increasing role in the world, but we have standards, such as respecting the views of a country and its people as to how they want to live. That applies to Taiwan and its people. The Minister can be in no doubt that, although Taiwan wants to co-operate with China, it will not be taken over by China. I hope that he and certainly the British Government fully understand that. If they do, should we not make that clear in our discussions with China?

I welcome this debate, and close my remarks by saying that I and many other Members, irrespective of party, will continue to work to develop the co-operation that exists between the United Kingdom and Taiwan. As I said, the relationship is good, but it can be improved. I have highlighted several ways in which that can be done. We have greatly benefited from the contacts that exist between our countries, but the all-party group on Taiwan looks to the United Kingdom to be, and to be seen to be, more supportive on key issues related to Taiwan. We must make it clear to China that its policy of threats against Taiwan is not acceptable to this country or to many other countries. I hope that that statement will be made clearly by the British Government in its dealings with China.

4.13 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs
(Mr. Bill Rammell)

I am grateful for the opportunity to reply to this debate, which has been secured by my hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Mr. Cox). I pay tribute to his assiduous work on this issue.

I think that I am correct in saying that this is the first debate on Taiwan in the House for three years. It is therefore a welcome and timely opportunity to reflect on relations. I will certainly argue this afternoon that I believe that our bilateral, commercial, educational and cultural links are in excellent shape. Before setting out the state of relations between the United Kingdom and Taiwan, it is perhaps worth while reflecting on two major changes that Taiwan has seen since our previous debate. I want also to say a few words about the SARS epidemic, which is clearly affecting Taiwan.

With the election of Chen Shui-bian in March 2000, we witnessed an historic event: the first democratic transfer of political power in Taiwan. It was the first time that a non-Kuomintang leader had been elected. The transfer was smooth and peaceful, demonstrating once again Taiwan's impressive achievements in establishing a fully functioning democracy in recent years. I am sure that I will be joined by hon. Members throughout the House in welcoming that event and in applauding it.

The pace of reform has led to an evolving and sometimes tense relationship with the mainland. Clearly, my hon. Friend was referring to that. We consider that the future of Taiwan is a matter for people on both sides of the Taiwan straits to settle among themselves. Conflict in the Taiwan straits would be destabilising for not only those concerned but the whole region and beyond. I say directly to my hon. Friend that we would view with extreme concern any raising of tensions or recourse to military action.

We take every suitable opportunity to convey to the Chinese Government and, informally to the Taiwanese authorities, that we are strongly opposed to the use of force. We believe that practical steps to build confidence, such as the recent indirect charter flights between Taipei and Shanghai, are the best way forward to lower tensions and to find a mutually acceptable basis for the resumption of a peaceful dialogue.

The second major change happened in January 2002. Taiwan joined the World Trade Organisation as the separate Customs Territory of Taiwan, Kinmen, Matsu and Penghu. The United Kingdom was a strong supporter of Taiwan's WTO membership, and I am pleased to place that fact on the record. We welcome its increased substantive engagement with trading partners. Their commitment to the WTO can only strengthen our commercial relationship. Such participation highlights the importance of Taiwan's economy in the global marketplace.

It is impossible to discuss the current situation in Taiwan without mentioning the SARS epidemic. Only a few weeks ago, it seemed that Taiwan was relatively unaffected by SARS. Tragically, since then there has been a rapid deterioration. I understand that, as of today, 81 people have now died from SARS in Taiwan. I wish to take this opportunity to place on the record my sincere condolences and sympathy to those who have died or who have lost a loved one from SARS. I am sure that I speak for both sides of the House when I say that our thoughts are very much with them at this difficult time. SARS does not yet seem to have peaked in Taiwan and, in response to that, the United Kingdom has offered both expert and practical help. We remain ready to offer whatever assistance we can to the Taiwanese authorities in this difficult period.

My hon. Friend also mentioned the World Health Organisation. Clearly, there is a difficulty with Taiwanese involvement in a United Nations specialised agency, when statehood is a requirement of membership. This year, some countries proposed that the health authorities of Taiwan be allowed to participate in the WHO as an observer. Statehood is not necessarily a requirement for observer status. However, China and several other countries strongly oppose the Taiwanese application.

The United Kingdom gave serious consideration to the Taiwanese application, and we discussed it with our European Union partners. My hon. Friend is no doubt aware that the objective of the WHO is the attainment by all people of the highest possible medical care. All WHO members are anxious to achieve that goal. However, the World Health Assembly in Geneva could not reach consensus on including the issue of observer status for Taiwan on the WHA agenda.

I note that Dr. Bruntland, the WHO director general, said that Taiwan has full access to the WHO's expertise, and I trust that that is the case. We certainly welcome the fact that the WHO's experts are in Taiwan. The British Trade and Cultural Office in Taipei has liaised with them to discuss where UK expertise and/or medical supplies might complement what is already being done and is available in Taiwan.

My hon. Friend also raised the issue of the United Nations, and perhaps it is appropriate for me to deal with that now. The United Kingdom spoke briefly against including the Taiwanese application on the agenda, and we did that because the UN charter makes it clear that statehood is a prerequisite for UN membership. As only 27 countries currently recognise Taiwan as a state, there is no prospect of Taiwan gaining full membership. That is fully consistent with our position on the status of Taiwan. However, in our contribution, we drew attention to Taiwan's democratic achievements.

I now turn to the main subject of the debate, which is UK-Taiwan relations. My hon. Friend made a knowledgeable and well argued speech about those relations, and he is well known and respected in the UK and in Taiwan for his knowledge and interest in that country. I want to take the opportunity to thank him and all the members of the all-party group for the very important work that they do. My hon. Friend has led groups of MPs to Taiwan and arranged visits for Taiwanese legislators to the UK. I believe that that has played an important role in contributing to the flourishing of relations between the UK and Taiwan. When such a delegation has gone to Taiwan in the past, I have taken the opportunity to meet members of that delegation following their visit so that I can learn of their experiences.

I hope that my hon. Friend will agree that UK-Taiwanese relations are now stronger than ever. Despite having no diplomatic relations with Taiwan, we have built up strong links in several areas. Commercial, cultural and educational ties are in excellent shape. Our position on the status of Taiwan is well known, and it remains our policy and forms the foundation of our dealings with Taiwan. The non-recognition issue should not inhibit the development of close relations in areas of mutual benefit that can help both partners.

Traditionally, trade has been the cornerstone of our relations. As the 17th largest trading economy, Taiwan has an important contribution to make in bringing about free and fair world trade. WTO membership will foster lasting reform. It should lead to more secure access to WTO members' markets, increased levels of foreign direct investment in Taiwan, and a more transparent and predictable business environment in Taiwan for British businesses, which is something that we all want. It is the case that the UK remains the favoured destination for Taiwanese investment in Europe. Historically, the UK has had 70 per cent. of Taiwanese investment in Europe, and that is concentrated in the manufacturing sector.

Many Taiwanese companies now manufacture in China rather than in Europe, and the Taiwanese are increasingly opting for low-cost manufacturing locations. As a result of that change, Taiwanese investment into the UK has slowed markedly from its peak in the late 1990s. Nevertheless, the UK is still the leading location for Taiwanese investment in Europe, which is something that we very much welcome.

It is pleasing to note that the Taiwanese companies in the UK that have chosen to remain here continue to do very good business. There are about 150 such companies in the UK and we are encouraging them to diversify their work from manufacturing into research and development. It is worth noting that recent successes include the decision by China Magnetics Corporation and Ritek, the world's two leading producers of digital storage media, to invest in the UK.

Such investment has by no means been one-way traffic. UK exports to Taiwan last year amounted to £853 million. During his recent visit to Taiwan, my hon. Friend will no doubt have been impressed by the number of familiar high-street names from the UK that he saw present in Taiwan. We very much welcome the recent announcement by China Airlines that it will produce 12 Airbus A330–300s for regional passenger traffic. BAE Systems will build the wings for those airframes, and Rolls-Royce is currently bidding for a £500 million order to supply aeroengines to China Airlines. Both Shell and BP hope to be involved in the supply of liquefied natural gas. I hope that such world-class, flagship British companies will continue to prosper and succeed in Taiwan.

The UK Government are keen to play their part in promoting and strengthening our trade relationship. The British Trade and Cultural Office, the non-governmental office in Taiwan that represents UK economic and cultural interests, is active in boosting Britain's profile in Taiwan and in improving our unofficial links. The BTCO now has more than 50 staff promoting Britain's economic and cultural interests in Taiwan, not only in Taipei but in Kaohsiung too. Despite not being able to carry out the normal range of consular work, the BTCO gives valuable assistance to the 2,500 or so British nationals in Taipei.

Last year, the BTCO handled 40,000 visa applications from Taiwanese visitors and businesspeople who wanted to visit the United Kingdom. I noted my hon. Friend's comments about visas, and I shall look into the issue. The Home Office, not the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, is responsible for immigration policy, and I shall raise his concerns with my hon. Friend the Minister for Citizenship and Immigration.

The BTCO is supported in Taipei by an active British chambers of commerce and by the Taiwan British Business Council. Founded in 1999, the TBBC is an industry-led, Government-supported organisation, which aims to promote business in and investment between Taiwan and the UK. It held its fifth annual meeting in Taipei in April this year. A total of 18 companies attended from the UK, and the Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, South (Nigel Griffiths), who has responsibility for small business, has supported and participated in the last two annual events. That has been worth while and welcomed in Taiwan.

My hon. Friend the Member for Tooting mentioned joint ventures between UK and Taiwanese companies and mainland China, and that was one of the key themes discussed at the recent TBBC meeting. It is one of several ways in which British companies can work with their Taiwanese counterparts. I have outlined the steps that the Government take to support British companies in Taiwan, and the Department of Trade and Industry is similarly active in mainland China. Last year, trade between Taiwan and mainland China grew by 36 per cent., as my hon. Friend mentioned. I also want to make it clear that our relationship is not simply commercial. As my hon. Friend said, education plays a vital role. Approximately 13,000 Taiwanese students are enrolled on courses of various lengths in the United Kingdom, which is a significant increase from about 300 some 10 years ago. We now have a 30 per cent. share of the Taiwanese overseas student market, and the BTCO offered 29 scholarships to help Taiwanese students to study in the UK. That is valuable, and we want that educational cross-fertilisation to continue.

Cultural links also form a major element of our relationship with Taiwan. The British Council is active and does significant work in Taipei, and its work in promoting British education and culture with UK and Taiwanese partners has expanded rapidly in recent years. Last year, the British Council organised events in Taiwan that brought 750,000 people into direct contact with UK expertise and ideas, which should lead to a significant strengthening of our relationship. Some 17 arts events were presented to audiences totalling 83,000 people, and in collaboration with the Taiwanese national museums, the British Council showcased UK expertise in science education to more than 600,000 Taiwanese young people. It is also worth noting that, in February this year, the Taiwanese Minister for Culture visited the UK to learn from our experience in the creative industries. That provided further opportunities to deepen our relationship.

The Taipei representative office in London must take a great deal of credit for improving relations. It shares our aim of developing substantive links between the UK and Taiwan, and as my hon. Friend noted, it is headed by Dr. Tien Hung-mao, who is well respected as both a politician and an eminent academic, following the track record of previous appointments to the post. We have a substantial programme of visits by Ministers for non-political reasons in both directions, and we want that to continue.

I listened carefully to my hon. Friend's comments about visits by senior Taiwanese politicians. I must say that we treat all applications on a case-by-case basis. There is no outright ban on their visits, but we must treat such requests in line with our non-recognition policy. However, there have not been such adverse comparisons with other European countries and the USA in the figures that I have seen, and we may want to pursue that point further.

This has been an important debate. Within the policy of non-recognition, relations with the Taiwanese authorities continue to prosper at a series of levels. We are happy to see that continue, and the deepening of that relationship can only be helped by the contributions of my hon. Friend and the all-party group that he chairs. I hope that he will continue that work and that we can move forward for the benefit of both the UK and Taiwan.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at half-past Four o'clock.