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Commons Chamber

Volume 407: debated on Thursday 19 June 2003

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House Of Commons

Thursday 19 June 2003

The House met at half-past Eleven o'clock

Prayers

[MR. SPEAKER in the Chair]

Death Of A Member

I regret to have to report to the House the death of Paul Daisley, Esq., Member for Brent, East. I am sure that Members on all sides of the House will join me in mourning the loss of a colleague and in extending our sympathy to the hon. Member's family and friends.

Oral Answers To Questions

Environment, Food And Rural Affairs

The Secretary of State was asked—

International Whaling Commission

1.

If she will make a statement on the outcomes of the annual International Whaling Commission meeting in Japan. [120184]

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

As you know, Mr. Speaker, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is unable to be present today due to her attendance at the Agriculture Council in Luxembourg.

The outcomes of the 54th annual meeting of the International Whaling Commission, held in Japan in May 2002, were detailed in the letter of my predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley), of 10 July 2002, a copy which was placed in the Library.

This year's annual meeting, which is being held in Berlin, ends today. I will report on the outcome in due course, but I am pleased to announce to the House that, so far, the UK has achieved all its key objectives, including maintaining the moratorium on commercial whaling and successfully adopting the so-called Berlin initiative. That UK co-sponsored resolution reinforces conservation as a primary function of the IWC and will help to give greater focus to the conservation agenda. The conservation groups have described that achievement as historic.

I welcome the Minister to his new post. I submitted this question before the reshuffle and was told that it might be answered by the Secretary of State for Wales.[Interruption.]

The UK Government have a good track record on whale conservation and promoting whale sanctuaries, and the progress at Berlin in the past week has been good. However, not all countries will abide by the agreements. What positive action can the Government take to bring those rogue states into line?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his warm welcome and for his recognition of the positive role played by the Government and by my predecessor, now the Minister for the Environment, who has an excellent track record and has achieved so much on this issue. The UK Government will continue to work very hard with other pro-conservation Governments around the world and the relevant non-governmental organisations to ensure that those rogue states, as the hon. Gentleman calls them, come into line and properly address this very important issue of conservation and cruelty.

What about the plight of small cetaceans? Randall Reeves, who is the chair of the IUCN specialist cetacean group, says that they

"are dying in droves every year in fishing nets",
that they
"lose out in the shadow of the whaling controversy"
and that the
"scale of the cetacean by-catches problem was highlighted in a recent survey of boats fishing off north-west Spain."
The number of common and bottle-nose dolphins is now unsustainable. This is a real problem.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. This is a very serious problem. The specific resolution on by-catches that the UK co-sponsored at Berlin has not yet been discussed, but the Berlin initiative itself should have a positive impact on the problem that he outlines. He may be interested to know that the Whale and Dolphin Conservative Society has already called the Berlin initiative

"a positive step for the world's cetaceans",
and that the World Wide Fund for Nature went even further by describing it as an
"historic day for cetacean conservation".
I should also add that the trials that the Government have undertaken off the south-west of England to try to prevent the problem of the by-catch of small cetaceans have proved very successful and we shall try to roll them out next year, as well as talking to fellow EU members to encourage them to initiate similar trials.

I also welcome the Minister to his post. He has got an easy start because the Government have a very good record on whaling, and I have paid tribute to them for that for many years. However, does he share my concern about the increasing use of sonar technology in the oceans, particularly for military purposes, which deafens and kills whales? There have been examples of that in the Bahamas and elsewhere. In particular, will he reflect on the fact that the US Administration, under President Bush, have apparently given permission for the navy to use sonar technology in 75 per cent. of the world's oceans, which could have serious consequences for the whale population? Will he raise that with the American authorities and the IWC?

I would be happy to do so. I admit that I know a great deal less about this subject than the hon. Gentleman, as I have been in the job for only a few days, but I understand that the primary responsibility for the issue falls to the Ministry of Defence. I will ask my ministerial colleagues for their reaction to his remarks.

Agricultural Research (Aberystwyth)

2.

What plans she has to visit Aberystwyth to discuss agricultural research projects being undertaken there. [120185]

Sadly, I have no plans at present to visit Aberystwyth.

Shock, horror! I understand that my hon. Friend's Department finances quite a lot of research at Aberystwyth. In particular, will the Department consider—I hope that it will—putting even more money into research on grass for use in arid areas, as that is of particular relevance to many parts of the developing world?

I certainly agree that a great deal of important work has been done at the Institute of Grassland and Environmental Research at Aberystwyth, which is recognised by the Department for Environment. Food and Rural Affairs. My hon. Friend might be interested to know that over the last three years we have funded research at Aberystwyth to the tune of around £6 million for each of those three years. I recognise that it is doing important work on grassland types, which will have a great deal of helpful applications, particularly in arid areas.

First, I congratulate the Minister on his promotion and on having had the burden of fishing lifted from his shoulders. He will understand that Aberystwyth's research work is much bolstered by the scientific output of Horticulture Research International. To that end, is his Department yet able to decide its future grant funding arrangements for HRI and the application from East Malling for support, both of which are central to the future of HRI and its marriage with Warwick university?

The right hon. Gentleman, who knows the history of HRI and who knows about the existing complications, is absolutely right about HRI's important role. All I can say at the moment is that we are trying to find a way forward on its funding problems, and we recognise the important role that it plays in horticulture and the value in which it is held.

Fishing Industry

3.

What recent discussions she has had with ministerial colleagues on the fishing industry. [120186]

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

DEFRA Ministers meet ministerial colleagues, including those in the devolved Administrations, regularly to discuss the fishing industry.

I thank the Minister for that answer. I am not sure whether I should congratulate or commiserate with him on becoming Minister with responsibility for fishing. In his discussions with colleagues, however, has he had a chance to discuss the clause in the new draft constitution of the European Union that would transfer full control of fisheries to Brussels? Such a move would be disastrous for Scottish fishing communities already reeling from the last Fisheries Council in December, and the clause has been opposed by both the Scottish Parliament and by the Scrutiny Committee on European Legislation in a report this week. Will the Government stand up for the fishing communities of Scotland and ensure that the clause is removed at the forthcoming intergovernmental conference?

Sadly, I have not yet had a chance to discuss that specific issue with colleagues, but I will be going straight from the Chamber to spend most of the afternoon in discussions with colleagues and interested parties from the fishing industry. I do not think that the hon. Gentleman is right, however, because the Convention recommends no extension of EU powers or competencies over fishing. Marine biological resources have been the exclusive competence of the EU since 1979. Scotland's First Minister made that clear in his letter of clarification of 10 June to John Swinney, which I am sure that the hon. Gentleman has seen. If he has not seen it, I have a copy that he can have afterwards.

First, I add my congratulations to the Minister on taking up a post that is very important to my constituents in Fleetwood. They would want me to draw to his attention the special needs of the Irish sea as a mixed fishery, because they have serious concerns about some of the recent pronouncements from Brussels. I therefore take this opportunity to put in an early bid to the Minister to come to speak to the fishermen of Fleetwood so that he can hear directly not only their concerns but their positive attitude to joint working with Government scientists and to work across the Irish sea with other communities, both to safeguard the fish stocks and to develop a sustainable fishing industry.

I am grateful for that kind invitation from my hon. Friend, who is a doughty and effective fighter for her local fishing industry. I am going to try to get around to as many centres of our fishing industry as quickly as possible, as I am critically aware that I follow a Minister with up to 15 years' experience, and I have a lot to learn. I am sure that the concerns that she expressed, which we share, about the proposals as they would affect the Irish sea will be high on the agenda when I listen to what her fishermen have to say.

Congratulations to the Minister on taking control of the nation's fish. I only regret that there are so few fish left because of the disaster of the common fisheries policy. Does he agree that the time has now come to re-impose the 200-mile limit for this nation to take control again of its own fish resources, especially as his distinguished predecessor confirmed recently in the European Scrutiny Committee that that would be lawful?

No, I do not. My hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment has said that he did not say that.

Withdrawal from the common fisheries policy would be neither practical nor sensible. It would entail negotiating a whole series of bilateral agreements with other EU members. I would have thought that there would be a consensus that we need a common European policy on fisheries because fish move around. The way to improve the common fisheries policy is to negotiate improvements, which the Government have an excellent record on doing.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his new brief and give him a warm welcome. When he held discussions with ministerial colleagues, he probably noted that the former Parliamentary Secretary was regrettably unable to come to an engagement at the Whitby fishing school, which is at the heart of the North sea fishery. When he undertakes his tour of the coasts, will he come to Whitby and meet the fisher-people of the community of Whitby and Scarborough? I hope that he will prove to be as much of a fishermen's friend as his predecessor.

I do not promise to perform miracles where my predecessor did not manage to, but I am critically aware of the potential pitfalls of leaving anywhere out when I make my tour of the country to visit fishermen.

May I, too, welcome the hon. Gentleman to his new position? He will already know that competence for UK fisheries policy lies entirely with the European Union. However, will he confirm that if competence for that policy were repatriated to the United Kingdom, it would require legislation in Parliament? If further devolution took place—for example the Scottish Executive being given responsibility for the Scottish industry—will he confirm that legislation would also be required in the House?

Forgive me, but I am not absolutely sure whether legislation would be required in the House.

Well, the hon. Lady says that I should say yes but I would rather be completely sure of my ground before doing that. However, there would have to be a change to a European Union treaty, which would require unanimous agreement.

May I, too, add my words of welcome to the Minister and tell him that he has a hard act to follow? When he starts his tour of fishing communities, I hope that he will start with those at the centre of fishing areas—those in Shetland, of course. Thereafter he may work out to the periphery. He will be aware that the European Commission recently gave an unhelpful ruling on schemes operating in my constituency and elsewhere regarding the purchase and leasing of quota. Will he assure me that he will speak to his colleagues in the Scottish Executive at an early stage as he comes to terms with his brief with a view to establishing from the Commission exactly what can be done to bring the schemes within state aid rules?

I am aware of the issue in the hon. Gentleman's constituency in which proposals have fallen foul of EU state aid rules. I shall examine the implications of that and discuss them with my colleagues in the Scottish Executive and interested parties in the industry. It sounds as though I shall be spending the summer on a grand tour.

Gm Crops

4.

What recent assessment she has made of the potential advantages of GM crops. [120187]

Advocates of genetically modified crops argue that they offer a wide range of potential benefits if they are developed and used wisely. We have commissioned a study of both the costs and benefits as part of the national GM dialogue. This will be published next month. As part of our commitment the public will have the opportunity to consider both sides of this issue.

I welcome the Minister to his new post and congratulate him on his promotion. I hope that he will find GM crops a little more comfortable than fishing. Is he aware of the work of Bengali scientists to develop a protein-rich potato that could improve the diets of 6 million children who are currently malnourished? Does he agree that that is a good reason why we should not throw the whole idea of GM out of the window and that GM crops have potential advantages that must be exploited?

I thank my hon. Friend for her comments and know of her expertise in the subject. I am aware of that research work. It shows why it is important that we consider each case on its merits. We consider very carefully the potential benefits of GM crops and, indeed, benefits are claimed for that potato. It is also important, however, to consider the arguments in the round. For example, increasing the amount of pulses may result in more protein improvement in India than modified potatoes. We have to weigh up such considerations. My hon. Friend puts her finger on how important it is to look at the arguments fairly and not to take a polarised position on one side or the other.

May I warmly welcome the Minister to his new role and urge him to maintain scientific objectivity before the Government come to a conclusion? In the light of the extraordinary question from his predecessor, the right hon. Member for Oldham, West and Royton (Mr. Meacher), to the Prime Minister yesterday, does he agree that GM foods are the most trialled and tested ever in the history of mankind? Given that many millions of people have been eating those foods for the best part of a decade with not one single case of an adverse reaction, does he really think that human feeding trials are the answer? Even if the right hon. Member for Oldham, West and Royton were to volunteer, would it be ethical?

It is important that we question science and look at it carefully. In that respect, my right hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West and Royton (Mr. Meacher) is right to apply precautionary principles. It is a privilege to follow him in the role that he carried out with such distinction over many years. However, I come back to the point that we must approach the issue on the basis of good science. We need to examine the claims and consider GM foods on a case-by-case basis. The effects on people must also be taken into account.

The matter has been considered by the Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes. It was also examined in the detailed Food and Agriculture Organisation study in 2000. In addition, our Food Standards Agency takes into account the potential effects of toxins and allergies. We cannot ignore those issues. They do not necessarily rule out GM foods, but we cannot ignore them.

May I strongly support my hon. Friend, my successor, in what he said about the need to follow good science? However, since the science indicates that there is still far too much uncertainty about the long-term impacts of GM, as there was in the case of BSE; since science has not yet devised co-existence rules that can fully protect organics against cross-contamination; since there have been no scientific trials of the long-term health or biochemical impacts on human beings of eating GM-free food; and since neither science nor EU labelling rules have yet found a way to guarantee consumers' rights to eat GM-free food for those who wish to, is it not clear that on scientific grounds—I emphasise on scientific grounds—it is not safe, necessary or desirable to commercialise GM crops at this stage in this country until far more testing has been carried out?

I quite agree with my right hon. Friend that more work needs to be done. There are unknowns and more research needs to be put in place. He is right about labelling because whatever the future of GM foods, it is important that consumers have information and choice. He is also right about the need to look at the implications of GM foods in every sense. We need mechanisms in relation to control, potential liability and certainly in terms of co-existence, but those are not yet in place.

First, may I welcome the Minister of State to his new and promoted responsibilities? I also welcome the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for Exeter (Mr. Bradshaw), to the Department's team. I pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Oldham, West and Royton (Mr. Meacher). The Opposition did not always agree with him when he spoke in a ministerial capacity, but his commitment to the environment was undoubted and his courtesy was unfailing in all Commons exchanges. We certainly appreciated that.

Will the Minister now acknowledge both that the Government's great debate on GM crops has amounted so far to six meetings within the space of 10 days, none of which have been held in the main arable areas of England or Scotland, and that the debate will have concluded months before the publication of the Government's own crop trials? Will he give an undertaking that, before the Government announce whether they will give approval to the commercial growing of GM crops, they will not only publish the results of their crop trials but subject those conclusions to widespread debate, criticism and discussion?

That is the whole idea of the dialogue. I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman is dismissive of the fact that the debate has been set up by an independent group with an independent chair. The fact that we are talking about it now demonstrates that it has been successful in promoting discussion in this country about the pros and cons of GM foods, which is the intention. I was a bit surprised by what the hon. Gentleman said about arable areas—the issue of GM foods goes far beyond simply farming, and is an issue for consumers, the environment and the wider community. It is quite right that debate on that is as wide and accessible as possible. All the information that we have will, of course, be put into the public domain and will be made available in a transparent process. Whatever the outcome, there is no intention whatever to give blanket approval to commercial planting—every application must be treated on its individual merits.

I, too, welcome my hon. Friend to his new position. Is he concerned about the possible transmission of GM spores on farm vehicles, following research in France on the contamination of organic production and the reliability of food labelling on foods which claim to be GM-free at a time when consumers increasingly want to consume organic food and are reluctant to take the plunge on GM, perhaps with good reason?

The need to ensure that organic farmers are not subject to cross-contamination from GM crops is a serious issue, and we are giving a great deal of thought to it. It is an important consideration in the coexistence rules that have to be developed. My hon. Friend is right that we have to look at the potential spread of GM seeds and pollen. That applies to any kind of seed and pollen, but the issue has to be taken into account in the evaluation and, indeed, the current debate.

May I congratulate the Minister on swapping one poisoned chalice for another? Will he not admit that the Government, although perhaps not him or his distinguished predecessor, made up their mind in favour of GM years ago, and the public debate is merely window-dressing? In 1999, the DTI invested public funds

"to improve … the take-up of biotechnology applications"
across the country. The sum that was invested was 26 times greater than the amount of money being spent on the public debate. Why does the Minister not admit that, although consumers do not want the stuff, although it could give biotech companies a stranglehold on the whole food chain, and although we need to base decisions on sound science rather than quick science, the Government, but perhaps not him, are already in the pocket of the GM lobby?

I absolutely reject that claim. I have been involved in the discussion of GM on and off since 1997, when I was a Minister in the then Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, and I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the Government have always expressed the need for caution. I repeat that we should not rule out new developments on the basis of prejudice. We must evaluate the scientific arguments for and against, and look at each case on its individual merits. We should not take a polarised position which, I have to say, is unusual for the hon. Gentleman.

Registered Agricultural Holdings

5.

What steps she is taking to arrest the decline in the number of registered agricultural holdings; and if she will make a statement. [120188]

The Government launched their strategy for sustainable farming and food in England last December to promote a competitive and efficient farming and food sector. A similar strategy was published by the Welsh Assembly Government in November 2001. The structure of the farming industry will be determined by the markets and the commercial judgment of individual farmers and growers.

I, too, congratulate the Minister on his elevation and you, Mr. Speaker, on your well earned doctorate. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear"]

Unfortunately the Minister did not answer the question that I tabled when I asked what was being done to arrest the decline in agricultural holdings. A written reply that I have just received states that in 1997, there were 77,829 holdings in England whereas in 2002, there were 69,000. The position is worse in Wales, where the number has decreased from 19,300 to 16,800—a drop of 13 per cent. That has a disproportionate effect on the rural economy of Wales. Will the Minister examine the current structure and consider, for example, assistance for new entrants and smaller farms? He shakes his head, but nothing has been done in the past 10 years. It is complacent of the Government simply to talk about marketing when farms are lost daily.

But those changes have been happening since farming began. The trend towards amalgamation has been accelerating since the 1930s; there is nothing new about it. It is difficult for the Government to set any industry in stone and say that it will never change again under any circumstances. It is not possible to do that.

All sorts of changes have occurred in farming. The same farmer may have several holdings that he has consolidated; that does not necessarily mean that farms have disappeared. I accept that there has been a decline—I would not want to pretend otherwise—but that has been in progress for a long time. However, other changes have occurred, with new people, who may have other sources of income, taking on smaller farms. They bring innovation and new ideas.

Farming is dynamic: it changes and adapts. We have a role to play in that through the help that we give farming—in research and development, environmental or marketing support. However, we cannot say that farming will never change: that is up to the drivers of society, markets and, indeed, farmers.

But does my hon. Friend agree that local authorities and other public bodies can recognise the importance of farming in rural economic development? Will he join me in congratulating Monmouthshire county council, which recently decided to invest in a new livestock market that will serve not only south-east Wales but the border areas of England.

I certainly join my hon. Friend in congratulating Monmouthshire county council on its work. We can do a great deal to support local sourcing, not only through supporting our farmers in the rural economy but in reducing food miles. There are sound arguments for that.

Locally Grown And Produced Food

6.

What steps she is taking in the EU to enable the preferential procurement by public sector bodies of locally grown and produced food. [120189]

We encourage public sector bodies to adopt purchasing policies that allow local growers and food producers the opportunity to compete for business. Local sourcing is an element of our sustainable food procurement initiative.

I thank the Minister for that answer, but it did not address the question about what he is doing in the EU. We lag way behind France and Italy in local procurement. I draw the Minister's attention to the excellent report, "Relocalising the Food Chain", which Cardiff university produced. It found that

"barriers imposed by EU procurement legislation, while considerably restricting purchasing discretion are not insurmountable."
Will the Minister give a clear and quantifiable pledge to increase the amount of locally produced and procured food in our schools, hospitals and other public bodies, and thereby dispel the Government's reputation for lacking imagination and ambition on local procurement?

The hon. Gentleman has imagination because he has managed to answer his question. I am delighted that he has done that. The EU rules do not prevent local procurement. It is a question of engagement between farmers, food producers and their market. We are trying to help the industry to understand the way in which to get into that market. We have issued guidance, which is publicly available, so the hon. Gentleman can read it. We have provided case studies and advice, and we shall continue to do that to enable people to understand the way in which they can help local producers to bid and succeed. We also need to help the producers to get into the market and supply what their market wants.

As the rest of the ministerial team have been congratulated, may I offer my congratulations to my right hon. Friend on still being in his job? Does he accept that cheap and prepackaged foods are often stuffed full of fat, salt or sugar, and that that is contributing to an alarming increase in the incidence of obesity, diabetes and ill-health? Is there not a responsibility across government to establish rules for procurement—within EU rules—that would require more fresh, wholesome food? Such rules would obviously contribute to a greater degree of local production and supply of food.

I thank my hon. Friend for his congratulations; I am delighted still to be in this role and to be a member of this very fine learn. He is absolutely right: it is possible to set procurement standards that enable fresh local produce to have the best chance of succeeding. He is right to place an emphasis on health and good quality, but we cannot demand that local produce should be included. As the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker) suggested in his supplementary question, however, there are ways of encouraging good quality, fresh and locally produced food to come into the public service. That is the way in which we should approach this.

The Minister must realise that public sector bodies have a problem, in that they have to buy according to best value. When I walk into Tesco's supermarket in Ballymoney, I know whether the lamb, chicken, vegetables and loaf of bread that I am buying have been produced locally in Northern Ireland, because they are labelled. Could the Minister direct all public sector bodies in the health service and education to have the same labelling policy in their restaurants and canteens, so that it would be quite obvious which products had been locally produced? That would lead to a massive increase in demand for such products from the customers. Does the Minister agree with that constructive proposal?

There is a variety of ways in which the choice available to consumers—in public organisations and elsewhere—can be extended. There are two halves to the equation, however. The first involves ensuring that public sector bodies know that they are not precluded from designing their procurement policies in such a way as to promote fresh and local produce, to give it a fair chance while not excluding other bidders. The second involves encouraging UK producers to understand the service that they are providing and to be more competitive through greater collaboration, more co-operative working, and having a greater understanding of the public procurement approach. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that informing people about what they are purchasing and what their choices are is an important part of that.

Departmental Rebranding

7.

If she will make a statement on the purpose of the rebranding of her Department. [120190]

A lot of work has gone into making DEFRA an efficient organisation that serves the public interest and is focused on the needs of its customers. [Interruption.] Conservative Members may chortle, but this is not something that the Conservative Government ever sought to do. We seek to be a Department that is modern, professional and forward-looking. We want that to be reflected by a new sense of confidence among our staff, and for the public to see the effects of change and modernisation. The rebranding exercise is just one part of that work, helping to establish a new identity and explain the role and purpose of the new Department.

Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm the figures extracted by my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Norman Baker), which show that the rebranding exercise cost £329,000, and that a further £200,000 was spent on putting up new signs? The right hon. Gentleman says that extensive research has helped DEFRA to develop a better understanding of what its customers expect from it. Is it not the case, however, that customers expect something other than invisibility in matters concerning the environment, and something other than disengagement in matters concerning agriculture? Do they not also expect the Department not to waste half a million pounds of taxpayers' money?

The public expect those things from us, and that is what we are trying to give them. There is a little disingenuousness in the hon. Gentleman's question. The work to which he refers includes scoping the project, producing briefing and listening to consumers. It has been suggested that that money has gone into producing a new logo, and I would like to correct that. The direct cost of the new DEFRA logo was £24,000. It is part of a change in the culture and the capacity to deliver on the part of the Department.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the review being conducted by Lord Haskins could inevitably lead to further rebranding of the Department? Does my right hon. Friend accept, first, that all change causes uncertainty and that it is important to complete the process as quickly as possible; and secondly, that although policy and delivery may be different, it is important that, even if they are separated, there are means to communicate and link up those two aims?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. First, any reorganisation—any uncertainty—causes problems because it takes people's eyes off the ball of delivery. We will do all that we can to avoid that. Secondly, on the link between policy and delivery, the wrong policy well delivered is not good news, nor is the right policy badly delivered. We need good policy and good delivery, which is what we are working on.

I do not think that there will be the necessity to rebrand the Department, but there may be changes in relation to the agencies that are part of the DEFRA family and how things are delivered, for instance, through the regional development agencies, local government and so on. The likelihood of some changes in those directions is indicated by the statement of principles that Lord Haskins has already put in the public domain.

Does the Minister understand the justified resentment in our rural communities at time and money being wasted on rebranding exercises when, to take just one example, his Department's Rural Payments Agency is persistently late in delivering to British farmers the payments to which they are entitled and on which the cash flow of their businesses may depend? Is it not time that he started to treat effective service delivery as rather more important a priority than rebranding?

I suppose that there is some resentment when people are told by the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues that rebranding is not necessary. Of course, he skips the necessity to improve the quality of services, policies and delivery, which is all part of the same issue—improving quality and improving delivery.

The point is that the new Department takes on enormously important responsibilities for the environment and all the things that are necessary for life and the quality of life; for farming and food; for rural economies; for fisheries; and for the issues that we have already talked about today. People need to understand that we are changing in the direction that the public and our consumers want. As much as the hon. Gentleman tries to obscure it, that is what we are doing—but there we are, that is the Opposition we have got.

Indeed, the examples of incompetence and poor priorities go much further than British agriculture. Will the Minister confirm that, because the Government got their sums wrong over the cost of implementing their right-to-roam legislation, they are having to cut their vital villages grant programme in this and future years? Is it not time that he committed himself to delivering a fair deal for the countryside by concentrating first on good housekeeping and practical policy delivery rather than on slogans and spin?

Well, that sounded like slogans and spin to me, but it gives me the opportunity to correct some impressions about the Countryside Agency's spending. There were fears that it would be far too high and that that would dramatically affect the vital villages programme. That has been brought under control. There has been a short-term suspension of activities in the vital villages programme, which I think is unnecessary. I have made that clear to the agency.

The hon. Gentleman criticises the Rural Payments Agency. It has vastly improved its performance and we are investing a great deal of money in the IT that will enable it to do so even more responsibly. I see that a certain amount has been invested in rebranding the Conservative party. I agree that that is a waste of money.

Fallen Stock

8.

If she will make a statement on the disposal of fallen stock on farms. [120191]

10.

If she will make a statement on the proposed scheme for collecting fallen stock. [120195]

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

The response to the letter that we sent to livestock farmers in April asking for expressions of interest in joining a national fallen stock scheme has been disappointing. In the light of that, we are considering whether the scheme should now go ahead, and if so in what form.

In welcoming the new Minister, may I also pay tribute to the former Minister for the Environment, the right hon. Member for Oldham, West and Royton (Mr. Meacher), whom I found to be both able and courteous?

Does the Minister agree that many livestock farmers may not have fully realised the implications of the European legislation? The Minister for the Environment shakes his head, but would not more people be attracted to the scheme if it were already up and running? Farmers will have great difficulty in disposing of fallen stock, especially if the Minister for Rural Affairs has his way on the hunting ban.

The hon. Gentleman may have a point when he says that if the scheme were up and running people might come on board, but I do not agree that we could have done more to publicise it. We have debated it for over a year, we have written to every livestock farmer in the country, and we have extended the consultation period. The response we have received does not suggest to us that people are not aware of the scheme; it is just that not enough people have responded.

Although the response was disappointing, as the Minister says, it is possible that those who did respond were the main livestock farmers. The response may have come from the larger holdings, where the scheme could work. Will the Minister look at the details of the responses from both England and Wales, and establish whether the scheme could be made to work initially? Other farmers could be persuaded to join subsequently.

Will the Minister also take account of the experience of Scotland? The scheme is going ahead on most farms there. Meanwhile, leeway is being given to upland and remote farms in, for instance, mid-Wales, where stock can be left to feed the rare red kite population. That combination could prove successful. Will the Minister look into it and ensure that something is done and that farmers are not left in limbo?

I will look at the details of the responses. From what I have seen during the few days in which I have been doing my job, I believe that there has been a bigger response from the bigger producers, and a bigger response from Wales and Scotland. That does not help our calculations, however. After my meeting with representatives of the fishing industry this afternoon, I shall discuss the matter during my first meeting with farming industry representatives, taking into account the points made by the hon. Gentleman.

The aims of the fallen stock scheme are laudable. The Minister may be surprised to learn, however, that farmers in my constituency must travel as far as Haverfordwest and the constituency of the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) under the current scheme— journeys taking more than two hours—although there are local, established incinerators that could be brought up to standard. Will the Minister clarify the guidelines on grants that may be available, and specify the standard that the incinerators should meet?

I will look into that. I understand that the issue of grants is currently being investigated, as are the guidelines on the standards of incineration.

I join others in congratulating my hon. Friend.

I know from meetings I have had with farmers in my constituency that there will be great disappointment if the scheme does not take off. What about the BSE testing scheme? Will that still be in situ, and will beasts aged both under and over 24 months still be picked up free of charge?

The BSE scheme will remain in situ. The issue of the age of carcases i s under review. I am grateful for my hon. Friend's recognition—reflected, I think, on both sides of the House—that the scheme the Government came up with earlier this year is a good one. It is disappointing that there has not been a more positive response.

Leaving aside the substantial shortcomings of the scheme that has been proposed, will the Minister focus for a moment on one unfortunate side product? I use the term advisedly.

I understand that all the ash that will be produced from the incineration of the 200,000 tonnes of fallen stock each year will have to go into landfill, which contrasts starkly with what happens to ash from human crematoriums. If one's granny dies of black plague we can spread the ash on the garden, but if one's horse dies of old age we cannot. Will the Minister reconsider the regulations involved so that the ash can be put to better use—for instance, by being spread on the land?

The hon. Gentleman is rather unfair when he describes the scheme as having shortcomings. It is a very good scheme. It offers—it is still on the table—good value for money for producers of all sizes. The charges that were being talked about represented good value for money compared with the fees that producers would pay if they had to dispose of the fallen stock themselves in the free market. On the specific question of the disposal of ash, I am ashamed to admit that I was not aware of that problem, but I will look into it and write to the hon. Gentleman, if he will allow me.

The Poultry Farming in the United Kingdom Sub-Committee of the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, of which I am a member, is conducting an inquiry under my chairmanship into the British poultry industry. Two days ago, we heard from the two national organisations for egg producers and meat producers that they have a significant problem with the disposal of dead birds, which number many millions a year. What access to any fallen stock scheme was offered to them? Would not that help to improve the viability of the scheme?

Yes. As it stands, large poultry producers would be eligible for the scheme. However, as I said earlier, because of the low number of responses to the Government's consultation, we may have to have another look at that matter. I am also aware that many of the producers that my hon. Friend talks about already have their own solutions to the problem, such as incineration on-site.

Gm Contaminations

11.

When she expects to issue guidelines on liability for compensation in the case of GM contaminations. [120196]

We expect to receive a report next month from the Agriculture and Environment Biotechnology Commission on the co-existence of GM and non-GM crops and associated liability issues. We will consider that issue further in the light of that report.

Can I return to the issue of the economic implications of contamination, particularly for organic farming, by GM crops? When will the Government issue guidance on specific liability, which I believe the commission judges to be a political, not a technical issue, and on an industrial compensation scheme, on which the Government would have to take a lead? Without guidance and leadership on those two issues, it will be impossible to make rational decisions on the future of commercial use of GM crops.

As I mentioned earlier, we recognise that co-existence raises issues, including whether it is possible to agree threshold limits in relation to crops, how those can be measured and how that fits in with the organic sector's rules. Of course, there are issues of liability, regulation of the use of any crops, declaration, description and control. Those are quite complex issues. The report that has been commissioned will be helpful in guiding the Government on what the best way is of shaping that. Those issues are still under discussion. The national dialogue that is under way will also be helpful in obtaining people's views on the best way forward on those points.

Cap

12.

If she will make a statement on EU discussions on reform of the common agricultural policy. [120198]

As my right hon. Friend is aware, crucial negotiations between EU Agriculture Ministers about reform of the common agricultural policy got off to a positive start last week and resumed on Tuesday. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is currently heavily engaged in trying to secure a deal that will benefit farmers, consumers, the environment, developing countries and world trade.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. Does he agree that replacing the common agricultural policy with a policy of sustainable rural development is the best way to reconcile the interests of farmers, world trade and developing countries? Which countries in the EU are supporting such an approach, and, in particular, what discussions and support are we getting from our German partners, who have a lot to gain from that approach?

My right hon. Friend takes us into some of the detail. I believe that the plenary session reconvened a few minutes ago. We are still talking and negotiating. There seems to be a common agreement among all parties that we must get an agreement and that the common agricultural policy must be reformed. As I indicated, we are working hard to achieve the right deal. I am sure that she will agree that we have the best negotiator in the business in the Secretary of State, who is seeking to achieve those outcomes for the United Kingdom.

It is nice to see you back in the Chair, Mr. Speaker. I ask the Minister to look very carefully at unsupported crops, as it is growers who are already out of the subsidy culture who stand to lose most as a result of the current proposals.

We certainly look with interest at the situation regarding unsupported crops. The Government's general approach is to help all producers—supported and unsupported—to do their best to meet their market's requirements and to be their competitive.

My right hon. Friend will be aware that it is absolutely crucial that the European Union is able to enter into the World Trade Organisation discussions in September with significant changes to the common agricultural policy already agreed. Does he agree that a slightly amended CAP— rather than radical reform—is probably not worth having, and that it would be in Britain's and the developing world's interests to push this issue to the limit, instead of agreeing to a slight compromise to satisfy the French Government's unreasonable demands in the current negotiations?

As my hon. Friend knows, the Secretary of State is the sort of person who will ensure the very best outcome from any period of negotiation. We should await the outcome of those discussions, but my hon. Friend is right to say that a meaningful agreement on CAP reform would be the best possible starting point for our entering into the WTO trade talks at Cancun in September. For the moment, however, we need to contain ourselves and wait and see what emerges from today's discussions.

The Financial Times reported last week that the French and the Germans have entered into complex secret negotiations on the subject—would you believe it?—of the takeovers directive. The Germans have made huge concessions and blown a hole in the Fischler package in return for concessions on the takeovers directive. We are pleased that the Secretary of State is currently involved in the negotiations, but I rather hoped that the Minister would come to the Dispatch Box today and give us a bit of news from the front. What line is the Secretary of State taking in those negotiations, will the Minister reassure us that she is indeed fighting British farmers' corner, and what does he hope the outcome will be?

I am not going to try to predict the outcome of talks that are taking place as we speak. The hon. Gentleman knows full well that the line that the Secretary of State will take on behalf of Britain and British agriculture will be a tough one. She will do everything that she can to produce the best possible outcome, and it would enhance the hon. Gentleman's reputation if he were to give her proper credit for the way in which she has fought for us on the international stage. On the Financial Times report, I would simply say that our discussions ought not to be driven by what we read in the newspapers.

Fishing Industry (Northumberland)

13.

What recent assessment she has made of the (a) state of and (b) prospects for the fishing industry in Northumberland. [120199]

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

The north-east of England fleet has been numerically stable in the past two or three years. The Northumberland fleet will continue to benefit from access to prawns and to shellfish stocks.

Does the Minister agree that he would do well to travel to Northumberland pretty soon to enhance his knowledge of the problems faced by fishermen in the region? They have lost much of their cod fishery, are in the process of losing their salmon driftnet fishery, still have no licensing system to protect their shellfish fishery and are worried about the future of the prawn fishery, to which the Minister referred. Should not all of that be fairly high on his agenda?

My grand tour of UK fisheries during the summer is expanding by the minute. I am aware of the problems faced in recent years by the fishing industry that the right hon. Gentleman represents, but I should point out that the salmon driftnet fishery is a voluntary scheme that has proved—he will correct me if I am wrong—popular in his area. Of course, it will have very beneficial effects on the number of river salmon, which will also benefit other people.

Abattoirs And Slaughterhouses

14.

What measures her Department is taking to support small and medium-sized abattoirs and slaughterhouses. [120200]

We are encouraging the use of investment grants within the England rural development programme to help to improve the abattoir industry's structure, processing and marketing. We are committing resources to the Meat Industry Forum and are actively participating in its work to improve the competitiveness of red meat food chains.

The problems associated with the reduction in the number of small abattoirs have been well rehearsed, and many existing abattoirs are concerned about the impact of the animal by-products regulations. What is being done to help the smaller slaughterhouses, for which the cost of disposing of blood will rise from £16 per tonne to £60 to £80 per tonne?

We are helping, and working with, the industry to develop an action plan to address some of these issues. As I have said, grants are available within the England rural development programme to help smaller abattoirs become more competitive. I accept that things are not easy for small abattoirs; indeed, this has long been a difficult issue. We must help and support the market, rather than looking for a magic wand to take away those problems.

Business Of The House

May we have the business for next week from the new and part-time Leader of the House?

The business for next week will be as follows:

MONDAY 23 JUNE—Opposition Day [10th Allotted Day]. Until 7 o'clock there will be a debate on student finance, followed by a debate entitled "The Transport Crisis". Both debates arise on a motion in the name of the Liberal Democrats. Followed by proceedings on the Consolidated Fund (Appropriation) (No. 2) Bill.

TUESDAY 24 JUNE—Remaining stages of the Anti-Social Behaviour Bill.

Commons consideration of Lords amendments.

WEDNESDAY 25 JUNE—Opposition Day [11th Allotted Day]. There will be a debate on a fair deal for students and parents, followed by a debate on a fair deal in world trade. Both debates arise on an Opposition motion.

THURSDAY 26 JUNE—A debate on motions relating to the Second Report of the Committee on Standards and Privileges and on the Eighth Report of the Committee on Standards in Public Life "Standards of Conduct in the House of Commons".

FRIDAY 27 JUNE—The House will not be sitting.

The provisional business for the following week will include:

MONDAY 30 JUNE—Remaining stages of the Hunting Bill.

TUESDAY 1 JULY—Remaining stages of the Finance Bill.

WEDNESDAY 2 JULY—Opposition Day [12th Allotted Day]. There will be a debate on an Opposition motion. Subject to be announced.

THURSDAY 3 JULY—Debate on the Intelligence and Security Committee Annual Report 2002–03 on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

FRIDAY 4 JULY—Private Member's Bills.

I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for the beginning of July will be:

THURSDAY 3 JULY—A debate on the report from the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee on badgers and bovine TB.

THURSDAY 10 JULY—A debate on the report from the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee on the financing of terrorism.

I should like to take this opportunity to say what an honour and privilege it is to be appointed Leader of the House. I am delighted to have the opportunity to work closely with you, Mr. Speaker. I follow in illustrious footsteps, and I want to pay particular tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook) for the great advances that he—and we—made during his time as Leader of the House. I very much share his enthusiasm for modernisation and his great respect for Parliament. I hope that I can live up to the high standards that he and the now Secretary of State for Health, my right hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton, North and Bellshill (Dr. Reid) set.

It is my intention, as Leader of the House, to listen to all sides and strive for consensus rather than conflict. I have fought for democracy and liberty all my political life, and I am and will remain the House's ambassador within the Government. I look forward to working with the shadow Leader of the House—hopefully in a less robust and rumbustious manner than our first encounter on Tuesday inevitably was.

I am more than happy to welcome the Secretary of State for Wales to business questions—[Interruption]—and we are grateful that he has been able to spare some time to be with us this Thursday. I hope that we will see him nearly every Thursday—at least for a while.

At yesterday's PMPs—[HON. MEMBERS: "PMPs?"] Yes, Prime Minister's porkies again. At yesterday's PMPs, the Prime Minister said:
"It has never been the case that officials have given evidence to Select Committees".—[Official Report, 18 June 2003; Vol. 407, c. 350.]
Yet in reply to a point of order raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant), Mr. Deputy Speaker said:
"If the hon. Gentleman is asking whether it is normal for officials to appear before Select Committees, the answer is yes."—[Official Report, 18 June.2003; Vol. 407, c. 388.]
We really must know who is right. The Prime Minister and the Deputy Speaker are in direct and explicit contradiction of each other. Will the part-time Leader of the House please tell us who he believes to be right on that issue, and if necessary will he give the Prime Minister an opportunity to come to the House urgently to apologise and to clear the matter up?

Yesterday, my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale) asked the Prime Minister whether Buckingham Palace had been consulted before the announcements were made from No. 10 last Thursday. The Prime Minister replied:
"Consultations have taken place in the normal way."—[Official Report, 18 June 2003; Vol. 407, c. 367.]
Will the part-time Leader of the House confirm explicitly whether the palace was consulted before the announcements were made last Thursday from No. 10, especially on those concerning the Lord Chancellor and the Privy Council? We need to know that for the sake of completeness.

Why are the Government giving parliamentary time to the Hunting Bill and not, apparently, to the Health and Social Care (Community Health and Standards) Bill? Do the Government now believe that foxes' health is more important than people's health? And why has only one day been allocated to the Hunting Bill, with all the amendments that have been tabled to it? Why has only one day been allocated to the Finance Bill? That is in direct contradiction of the conventions of the House on such an important Bill. It should concern all right hon. and hon. Members that the Government are now squeezing the parliamentary time for even the Finance Bill, in the same way as they have squeezed almost everything else.

Can the part-time Leader of the House please clear up the continuing confusion about the relationship between the Department for Constitutional Affairs, the Scotland Office and the Wales Office? When we finally and belatedly dragged the new list of Ministers out of the Government, some five days after the now notorious reshuffle, it emerged that the Under-Secretaries of States for Scotland and Wales are listed as part of the Department for Constitutional Affairs. There is no longer any mention of the Scotland Office or the Wales Office in the list of the Government. Can the part-time Leader of the House further confirm that the Prime Minister said this yesterday?
"The civil servants in the Scotland Office and the Wales Office will be part of the Department for Constitutional Affairs".—[Official Report. 18 June 2003; Vol. 407, c. 358.]
We know already that they report to one permanent secretary, so what has happened to the Scotland Office and the Wales Office? They appear to have disappeared completely in ministerial and official terms, so what is left of them? There might be a brass plaque up on the building, but is there anybody left inside?

Two Opposition days have been announced for next week—for Monday and Wednesday. Can the part-time Leader of the House guarantee to us that there will be no Government statements encroaching on Opposition time on either day? If he cannot give us that guarantee, will he guarantee that Opposition time will be protected? If the Government ever do have to make a statement on an Opposition day, will he guarantee that the time available to the House will be extended appropriately to protect Opposition time?

First, on the last point, I will happily endeavour to protect Opposition time. I realise that that is an issue for the right hon. Gentleman—[HON. MEMBERS: "For all of us."] Indeed, and I shall see what I can do. The right hon. Gentleman will also appreciate that we have had regular requests for statements from Secretaries of State—certainly in the first period of our Government—and Ministers, including the Prime Minister, have made statements with greater frequency. I know that the House welcomes that.

The right hon. Gentleman made regular reference to me as the part-time Leader of the House. I regard myself as doing everything that is needed in all the time that is needed to do this job properly, and I will certainly continue to do that. There are many precedents for it. I do not claim to have the intellectual ability or stature of Lord Howe, but he was both Leader of the House and Deputy Prime Minister. Someone of much greater stature than both of us—Winston Churchill—also held those posts—

That is what I have just said. I agree with the hon. Gentleman.

I also want to say that I thought that the right hon. Gentleman gave a very creditable performance, and I look forward to many more of them. Indeed, his performance on Tuesday was so creditable by comparison with that of the Leader of the Opposition yesterday that I wonder whether he might find himself in a different job in the event of a shadow Cabinet reshuffle. The Daily Mail reported this morning that the Leader of the Opposition
"was terrible. Quite stunningly bad. By the end … he was reduced to not much more than a handful of quivering gizzards and an empty, tock-hollow skull."
It went on to say that watching his statement
"was like seeing Manuel the waiter carry a large tray of Campari sodas down the Spanish Steps in Rome."
I know that the shadow Leader of the House will agree with the Daily Mail, as he is no friend of the Leader of the Opposition. I am very much looking forward to our exchanges in the future, and to working with him.

I turn now to the other points that the right hon. Gentleman raised. The shadow Leader of the House asked about officials attending Select Committees. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made the matter amply clear and, if there was need of clarification, Mr. Deputy Speaker later supplied it. Officials appear by special invitation; but it is not simply as it were a sport—a question of any official attending on demand. The matter is handled in the usual way.

On the second point raised by the shadow Leader of the House, I can happily confirm what my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said. Buckingham Palace was indeed consulted in the usual fashion. [HON. MEMBERS: "When?"] The right hon. Gentleman and his colleagues ask when and where, but it is not the habit of this House to discuss private conversations with the monarch. The right hon. Gentleman should abide by the culture of the House, as I shall certainly seek to do.

The right hon. Gentleman asked why only one day had been allocated for consideration of the Hunting Bill. He and every other hon. Member will be well aware that the Bill has been subject to detailed scrutiny, quite properly, in Committee and on other occasions in the House. We are dealing with the Hunting Bill in the normal fashion, and according to the precedent established with other Bills.

The right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst asked about the Wales Office and the Scotland Office. Frankly, I think the issue is running out of steam, but I shall deal with the points that he raised. Of course my deputy in the Wales Office is listed as a junior Minister under the Department for Constitutional Affairs. For the purposes of locating officials—[HON. MEMBERS: "Careful."] I am being precise, not just careful. I am the Secretary of State for Wales as well as the Leader of the House, so I know what is going on in Wales, unlike the right hon. Gentleman.

The Wales Office is open for business. The right hon. Gentleman can trot up Whitehall and find that the Wales Office plaque is still there. It was there on Thursday afternoon; it was there on Thursday evening; it was there on Friday morning; and it will remain there. All the officials who were working for me before the reshuffle announcement on Thursday afternoon are still working for me, and will continue to do so. The right hon. Gentleman should stop flogging this dead horse and get on to serious business instead.

As to why the Scotland Office and the Wales Office were not listed on the official titles of Ministers, I can tell the House that they never have been. The title of Secretary of State for Wales has always appeared in the official list, and that remains the case—it refers to my goodself. [Interruption.] It is interesting to note that the Opposition promised in their manifesto for the last general election exactly the same division of responsibilities for the Secretaries of State for Wales and for Scotland as we have now implemented. They are now seeking to walk away from that manifesto promise, because they are interested in trivia and not the big the constitutional picture.

The right hon. Gentleman should concentrate on the fact that I, as Secretary of State for Wales, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland will deliver for the people of Wales and Scotland in a way that the Tories so abjectly failed to do during their 18 miserable years of office.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his generous words about me and offer my own warm congratulations to him. I am delighted that the role of regenerating our parliamentary democracy should fall to him, and I am confident that he will give it full priority and will be successful.

My right hon. Friend will find that one of the delights about this time on a Thursday is the volume of helpful but unsolicited advice that he will receive from Back Benchers. Now that I have the privilege of being a Back Bencher, may I offer him two suggestions on parliamentary business?

First, when I left his post, the majority of Departments that had a Bill for the next Session had given an undertaking to publish it in draft before the end of this Session. As there are only four weeks to go before the House rises for the summer, I suggest that my right hon. Friend give priority to reminding Departments that they need to fulfil that undertaking.

Secondly, the innovation, which we introduced, of having a 12-month calendar of parliamentary dates has, sadly, only four more months to run. I am well aware that there will be those around my right hon. Friend who will say that we have no idea of the date of prorogation. May I suggest that if he were to produce a calendar that took us up to and included the next Whit recess, with an asterisk noting that prorogation will be at an unknown date in November, the majority of Members would warmly welcome it and it would get him off to a good start with Members on both sides of the House?

I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend. I am a long-standing admirer and friend of his, and I am privileged to follow in his footsteps in this job. He has made two important suggestions, and I have a great deal of sympathy with both. As Secretary of State for Wales, I have been responsible for seeing draft Wales Bills—a draft Audit Bill for Wales is currently going through pre-legislative scrutiny, which has been very effective—

Indeed, I am, and I will see it to its end and see it on to the statute book.

That precedent is a good one, and I shall encourage my fellow Secretaries of State in Cabinet to continue with it.

On the question of dates for recesses, my right hon. Friend made a valid point, and I understand the need that right hon. and hon. Members have for a clear calendar. That was one of my right hon. Friend's innovative procedures, and it was widely welcomed across the House. I hope to be in a position next week at least to say something about the Christmas recess dates.

In congratulating you, Mr. Speaker, on behalf of my right hon. and hon. Friends on the honour awarded to you by Glasgow university, I wonder whether you may want to dispel the nefarious rumour that you wish, outside the Chamber, to be referred to from now on as "Doc Martin".

The Leader of the House has given us further information on the Hunting Bill. Will he consider seriously what will happen after the Bill leaves this part of the building and goes to the other place? He will be aware, having fully briefed himself, that the House of Lords has a different procedure from ours for carryover. If the Bill is not properly considered in this House—there are queries about whether it will be—and many amendments therefore have to be considered in the other place, the arrangements at the other end of the building are, according to the Clerks, that
"bills that have received pre-legislative scrutiny in either House should, on a motion moved in the House in possession of the bill at the end of the session, be allowed to be carried-over into the next session"
The Procedure Committee's recommendation to the House of Lords was:
"We recommend that the House should now take this endorsement a stage further and agree to Group recommendation (b)"—
the one to which I have referred—
"but only for Government bills and subject to the proviso on pre-legislative scrutiny in paragraph 6 above."
In other words: no pre-legislative scrutiny, no carryover. If, therefore, the business is not completed in the other House before prorogation, there is no prospect of that Bill's going through to the next Session on carryover. It will have to start again.

What does the Leader of the House intend to do in those circumstances? I have no doubt that he has had an opportunity of reading contributions to the debate in this House on carry-over on 10 June, including my own, and I hope that he will note that carry-over is still a matter for negotiation between the parties and is very much connected with the proposals of the Modernisation Committee, led by the previous Leader of the House, which were part of a trade-off to the effect that the Opposition parties should have a bigger role in deciding what comes to this House and in what order, and what business takes place here.

On a different point, the Leader of the House will have noted the decision on Friday when the Ministry of Defence lost an appeal on Gulf war illnesses having spent £1 million on legal fees, pursuing and harrying veterans—service personnel who served this country well in the first Gulf 'War—whose only fault was that they sought justice. This morning the Medical Research Council has reviewed the situation. There is still great uncertainty, but what is certain is that those who have served the country well deserve better than the extraordinary behaviour of the Ministry of Defence. Given that there is a new Minister responsible for veterans' affairs, surely the Secretary of State himself should come to the House and explain what has happened.

I echo the hon. Gentleman's congratulations to you, Mr. Speaker, as I am sure do Members on all Benches throughout the House.

I was somewhat nervous of the hon. Gentleman's question because when he last rose to question my predecessor as Leader of the House, he prefaced his remarks thus:
"Assuming that the right hon. Gentleman is not about to become Secretary of State for Health".—[Official Report, 12 June 2003; Vol. 406, c. 834.]
I assume that he had an inside track on the Prime Minister's mind. If that is still the case, I should be grateful if he could tell me what my next job will be.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the Hunting Bill. He is right that there is no carry-over provision. I am sure that the Lords will not wish to frustrate the overwhelming view of the House of Commons. This House has consistently expressed its position on the Hunting Bill and is about to do so again. It is a manifesto commitment by the Labour party being carried into legislation—as our Government have consistently done with all our manifesto promises. I am sure that the Lords will not wish to block a manifesto commitment of this kind. However, in such circumstances there are other procedures available, to which I hope we will not have recourse, which include the Parliament Acts.

The question of Gulf war illnesses is an important one. We all had constituents serving in the Gulf and it is an important concern for them and for us as Members of the House. I do not think that the judgment was as conclusive as the hon. Gentleman suggested. I know that the Minister of Defence is considering it closely and no doubt at the appropriate time a Minister will report to the House.

You began the parliamentary day today by announcing the death of my friend and parliamentary neighbour, Paul Daisley, Mr. Speaker. Is my right hon. Friend aware that the last debate following which Paul came from his sick bed to vote was the hunting debate earlier this year? He would have rejoiced at my right hon. Friend's announcement today that the Bill is coming back to the House for its remaining stages, despite the fact that he was a lifelong supporter of Leicester City—the Foxes.

I echo your earlier statement, Mr. Speaker, and my hon. Friend's recognition of the outstanding role that the former hon. Member for Brent, East played in this House. He was a champion of the rights of animals and took a strong position on the Hunting Bill, to such an extent that he was willing to rise from his sick bed in desperate circumstances to register his vote. I hope that the House will bear that in mind when we vote on the issue in future.

I wonder whether the acting Leader of the House would come back to the point raised by my right hon. Friend the shadow Leader of the House about the appearance of civil servants in front of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs and the Intelligence and Security Committee. It seems to me and to many hon. Members that the Prime Minister's director of communications, Mr. Alastair Campbell, has something to offer, whatever one's views on the evidence, because among other things he was directly involved in setting up the Foreign Office coalition information centre. I backed the Government on their action over Iraq and I should have thought that his appearance on behalf of the Prime Minister in front of either Committee would clear this matter up once and for all. If he does not appear, I suspect that those who are looking for a cover-up will believe that there is one.

As the hon. Gentleman well knows, the Prime Minister, and indeed the whole Government, have offered to co-operate in the manner described. What is involved, and was evident in the hon. Gentleman's question, is an attempt to bait individual officials in No. 10 and elsewhere in Government. This is a serious situation. Serious allegations have been made and need to be investigated properly. The Prime Minister has made it absolutely clear that that will be done properly. I hope, too, that the hon. Gentleman will not seek to impugn the integrity of the intelligence services—

I am sure the hon. Gentleman was not seeking to do that. As I have good cause to understand from my job as a Foreign Office Minister, holding two posts between 1999 and last year, the intelligence services do an outstanding job. I worked closely with them on Iraq and other matters, and we should not bring them into this issue.

As the Government appear to have set their face against holding a referendum on the new European constitution, would my right hon. Friend at least give an assurance that when it arrives in its final form, it will be placed before the House in its entirety so that it can be scrutinised, and if necessary amended, line by line and clause by clause?

My right hon. Friend will remember our activity during the Maastricht Bill when these issues last arose. He will also know that it is the responsibility of the House and the wish of the Government to subject every treaty signed to detailed scrutiny. He will also be aware, however, that it is not possible for the House to amend a treaty, although it is possible for it to reject one. I hope that he will participate in that debate. The final constitutional treaty, as with the Maastricht, Amsterdam and Nice treaties and all the others before and between them, will be made available to Members and brought to the House for debate as usual.

The Leader of the House has indicated that he will on all occasions stand up for the integrity and authority of the House. If that is the case, when he comes to the Modernisation Committee and is no doubt elected its Chairman, will he assure the House that the matter of programming will be a priority for him? As he realises, much important legislation is going through the House with large sections not debated. That cannot be right or enhance the reputation of the House, and it means that the House is not carrying out one of its most fundamental duties.

To follow up a point made by my right hon. Friend the shadow Leader of the House, if statements are made prior to an important Opposition debate, will the right hon. Gentleman give me a commitment that he will look at extending that debate beyond the time of interruption by the length of time it took to hear the statement and all the supplementary questions on it?

I recognise the long and outstanding role that the hon. Gentleman has played in this House. He is widely admired on all Benches.

The hon. Gentleman made a series of important points. If the Modernisation Committee decides to elect me as its Chair, I would be privileged to do the job. Its work is very important. I know that the hon. Gentleman takes a close interest in it and I hope to have discussions with him on his views. He makes an important point about programming, which I understand. We have of necessity to get Government business through, but the rights of the House must be respected, and these matters are subject to negotiation through the usual channels. All too often it seems to be the case that a lot of time is taken and sometimes there is filibustering, which is a tactic that all Oppositions use—I am not casting stones in any particular direction—so that some of the big issues are not subject to the detailed scrutiny that they need.

I understand the hon. Gentleman's point about statements and consideration will be given to that. He will understand that Members want to know when proceedings are likely to end. If we continually did as he suggests there would be protests from hon. Members on both sides of the House. Moreover, we have a responsibility to get Government business through. Nevertheless, I will certainly give consideration to his request.

Will the Leader of the House give us an assurance that there will be an early debate on the situation in Iraq; that, during that debate, we shall have the opportunity to hear a statement from a Minister on the operations of the Iraqi assistance fund; and that we shall be told under what powers the privatisation of services is taking place, and given the timetable for British and American withdrawal and replacement by a United Nations force to usher in a representative Government of the people of Iraq? Many people believe that we are witnessing a new colony in Iraq, with all the accompanying horrors and devastation. We need an urgent debate on the matter.

I recognise my hon. Friend's long and close interest in the matter and the detailed concern that he expresses. There have been many debates and statements on Iraq and other opportunities to raise matters. He would be quite in order to table a private Member's Bill or to try to obtain an Adjournment debate if he feels that there is insufficient opportunity in the future.

On the future of the UN force, UN operations and the establishment of a representative Government, my hon. Friend knows that we are committed, for the first time in more than a generation, to establishing a representative Government in Iraq. The establishment of democracy in Iraq is one of our objectives.

A few moments ago, my right hon. Friend, the shadow Leader of the House, raised the question that I raised with the Prime Minister yesterday afternoon. The right hon. Gentleman speaking for the Government was as evasive today as the Prime Minister was yesterday, so I shall try again.

Is the right hon. Gentleman in a position to deny that the first that Buckingham palace heard of the abolition of the Lord Chancellor was through the news bulletins? Can he confirm that the Prime Minister discussed with the Head of State, Her Majesty the Queen, his proposals before they were publicly announced? If he can confirm that, can he indicate when it was done?

On 2 July, a mass lobby will be held by some of the 2 million women who suffer from endometriosis, a gynaecological condition that has severe consequences. Can the Leader of the House find time for a debate on treatment and research funding for a condition that affects so many of our constituents?

I understand and recognise that important issue and the concerns of those who are affected by the condition. I am pleased that they are making representations in the way that my hon. Friend described. Obviously, I shall look into the opportunities, but she can apply for a debate in the normal fashion.

The new Leader of the House's statement at the beginning of his tenure, committing himself to further modernisation, is welcome to those on both sides of the House who remain impatient for change. Will he bring forward proposals to give us his own ideas about that as soon as he can? Will he try to get the Minister for agriculture to make a statement next week, not in Opposition time, to explain the outcome of the ongoing consideration in Luxembourg of reform of the common agricultural policy? Will he give serious consideration to a debate on agriculture in Government time, before the summer recess?

Obviously, we shall give consideration to that. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will want to bring to the attention of the House in the usual way any developments that arise on that matter. We are all concerned. There is probably cross-party consensus on reform—and, indeed, abolition—of the CAP.

I am not in favour of modernisation for its own sake; I am in favour of listening to the House to consider how we can move forward and adjust, and what it is sensible to do. I look forward to practical suggestions from both sides of the House on how we can take the process forward.

In view of the fact that a full-scale public debate is under way on genetic modification—to the Government's credit—and that the public, the industry, the non-governmental organisations and even the media are discussing the issue, can my right hon. Friend use his good offices to ensure that the House, too, has an opportunity to express its views on that highly contentious issue in a debate before the recess?

First, I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend, who was an outstanding Minister for the Environment. I am sure that he will continue to play an important role on that matter in the House, including on the crucial issue of genetically modified products. Obviously, the matter will be discussed in detail and my right hon. Friend will have many opportunities to bring it to the attention of the House by applying for a debate. However, I shall discuss his request with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

I am sure that the new Leader of the House would not want to mislead the House on his first outing at business questions, so may I take this opportunity to invite him to correct what he said in answer to my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth)? The Leader of the House said that yesterday the Prime Minister had stated that officials attend Select Committees, but in fact the Prime Minister said:

"It has never been the case that officials have given evidence to Select Committees."—[Official Report, 18 June 2003; Vol. 407, c. 350.]
First, will the Leader of the House correct the inadvertent mistake that he made earlier and, secondly, will he tell us when the Prime Minister will come to the House and make a correction, too, and make a statement about when Mr. Alastair Campbell and others will appear before Select Committees?

The point that the Prime Minister was making to all fair-minded Members was that Ministers are answerable for the conduct of the Government and that the principle of ministerial responsibility applies. Ministers do not dump on our officials—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh!] Indeed, we do not. That is the point that my right hon. Friend was making. Of course, in particular circumstances, such things can be arranged and discussed, as has often happened.

I, too, congratulate the Leader of the House on his new appointment. My right hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook) is a hard act to follow.

About two or three weeks ago, the Royal Mail announced that it was changing Parcelforce and moving from rail to road. The impact on the roads will be tremendous and I cannot believe that it will be welcomed by the Select Committee on the Environment and Rural Affairs, the Department of Transport or the Department of Trade and Industry. Will my right hon. Friend make provision for a proper debate before thousands and thousands of lorries plough on to our already congested roads?

I very much sympathise with the point that my hon. Friend makes. As a former research officer for the Post Office workers union, I know how important the night mail service was. The change is regrettable for environmental reasons as well as for the interests of the Royal Mail. Obviously, the decision is for the Royal Mail, but if my hon. Friend wants to apply for a private Member's debate he has the opportunity to do so.

Every pound of public expenditure requires an accounting officer—a civil servant, incidentally—who can account to the House for how that money is spent. May we have an early debate on the consequences of the reshuffle on financial accountability to the House? Furthermore, particularly in relation to the non-devolved responsibilities of the Secretary of State for Wales, who is the accounting officer? Is it still Sir Jon Shortridge?

The accounting officer will be the Permanent Secretary at the Department for Constitutional Affairs. In that respect, my officials in the Wales Office, who come under his remit for such purposes, will have more advantages, instead of being in a very small Department, often seconded from the National Assembly—although that is not such a problem because they could return to Cardiff after service here. Officials permanently based in London had fewer career opportunities than those in much larger Departments. In the Department for Constitutional Affairs, they will have those career opportunities and future advantages that everyone in their position welcomes. I would have thought that the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends would do so, too.

The Leader of the House is more aware than many Members that we could improve the way in which we deal with European legislation and matters arising from Europe. Will he, therefore, look favourably on the suggestion that, in order to raise awareness, when the Commission's annual programme is discussed by the European Parliament, it is discussed on the Floor of the House at approximately the same time?

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend's outstanding work as one of two House of Commons representatives at the Convention on the Future of Europe. She worked extremely hard, spending far more time in Brussels than was good for her, but she achieved a very good deal for Britain, which we are taking into the intergovernmental conference.

On the specific point that my hon. Friend makes, I share her desire to make European Union affairs subject to much greater interest in the House. There is an insufficiently wide catchment of Members who take a detailed, informed and expert interest in EU developments. Excellent work is done by the European Scrutiny Committees of both Houses, but it would be to the advantage of the House and to that of the quality of debate on European matters if there were greater opportunities to discuss those issues throughout the House. I shall certainly consider my hon. Friend's interesting suggestion that the Commission's report and future agenda should be discussed in the House.

Next Thursday, the House will debate the report of the Committee on Standards in Public Life—the Wicks committee. Can the Leader of the House assure us that the relevant changes to Standing Orders will be published well in advance of that debate?

Yes, it is my intention to table the changes today, if I can. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman does not mind my saying that I also want to show them to him, so that we make sure that they are exactly in line with the will of the House.

My right hon. Friend will be aware that, during a rehearsal of the Parliament choir on Monday, large shards of wood fell from the ceiling of Westminster Hall to where an audience would have been sitting if that had happened during a performance. The audience would have included His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales. Has my right hon. Friend considered the implications? Does he feel, as I do, that it is time that this building was subject to the proper health and safety checks that every other organisation has to go through?

I am aware of that incident, as are you, Mr. Speaker. I think that we may even have been together when we received reports of it. Obviously, the choir behaved with great dignity in the circumstances and officials urgently attended to it, and I am sure that the points that my hon. Friend raises will be taken notice of in the appropriate quarters.

May I remind the new Secretary of State, Leader of the House and, possibly, Lord Privy Seal as well—

Oh, right. During the right hon. Gentleman's previous job share, he told us in a reply to a written question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) that he had spent 81 out of 90 days on his work as Secretary of State for Wales and the other 10 per cent. on his work on the Convention on the Future of Europe. Will he tell the House now which of his new set of responsibilities is most ill served by that job share—the House, or his duties in Wales? How will he get through those two jobs? He will need more than his usual Red Bull to cope with both of them. Will he arrange a debate in Government time not only on those matters, but on the important constitutional implications of moving civil servants from the Wales Office to a new Department without consulting the body that funds those civil servants from the block grant to the National Assembly for Wales?

The hon. Gentleman is wrong on the last point. The vote for the Welsh block comes to the Secretary of State, and I then make a subvention for the purpose of running the Wales Office—that will continue—and the remainder goes to the National Assembly.

The hon. Gentleman asks about the days spent on the Convention on the Future of Europe. In fact, I was asked how many days I had spent in Brussels. The answer was that I had spent nine days out of the previous 90 in Brussels. That is a different matter from the time that I spent an the Convention. I really think he should concentrate on the big picture, rather than on the trivialities. I shall do everything that is needed to give a good deal to the people of Wales, as I have done for the past nine months, and I shall do everything and put in all the hours that are needed to ensure that the wishes and interests of House are upheld in this post.

The hon. Gentleman asks about my post also as Lord Privy Seal. Frankly, when I became aware that I occupied that position, I did not know what it was, so I looked it up. "The Ministers of the Crown" says:
"Every Government has a Lord Privy Seal in it in order that the holder of the sinecure can carry out duties specified by the Prime Minister."
I think that it helps with getting paid as well. I was told that, if I did not have that title, I would not get a salary.

I am sure that that would have been to the despair of the shadow Leader of the House.

I looked further. "An Encyclopaedia of Parliament" says:

"From 1275, there was a Keeper of the Privy Seal, who became, in 1311, a Minister of State on the same footing as the Chancellor and the Treasurer, though of somewhat lower dignity. However, the Lord Privy Seal, who may be a Member of either House, can be a very useful auxiliary Minister, able to give his attention to any matter of urgency which may arise. Lord Waverley, for example, in 1938–39, had the job of situating and instituting more effective air-raid precautions."

May I join other hon. Members in welcoming my right hon. Friend to his new post? In particular, I welcome his commitment to modernisation. I think that he shares my view and that of many hon. Members that there is an increasing chasm between ourselves and the electorate. No doubt, modernising the House will help to bring about the renewal of trust.

However, may I press my right hon. Friend on a point to do with the lottery? In my constituency—which, as he knows, is a very deprived area, consisting of former coalmining villages—the Community Fund had what might be thought of as a perfect score, 10 out of 10; but it was 10 failures out of 10 applications. In the past two years, 10 groups have applied for lottery funding and 10 have been refused, each one for bureaucratic reasons. Will my right hon. Friend reaffirm to the House that one of the lottery's purposes is to address deprivation? Will he organise an early debate on the lottery, so that we can explore those matters further?

I will certainly draw my hon. Friend's points to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport because, obviously, the coalfield community that he represents, which I had the privilege to visit a few years ago, wants like mine to ensure that it gets a fair deal in every respect.

Given that the massive post office closures will reach the office that inspired "Postman Pat" this week and that there has been a big hike in fares on the railways at the same time as the quality of service will decline and services will be cut, can we debate in Government time the failures of Labour's nationalisation and renationalisation, showing that that only brings rip-off fares, a rip-off for the taxpayer and worse service?

I have brought up my two sons reading "Postman Pat", so I was very sad to hear that Greendale post office was closing and that Mrs. Goggins was being made redundant, but we are all concerned about the future of rural post offices. The right hon. Gentleman will know, having served in the previous Government, that thousands of local post offices were closed under the last Conservative Government, and there have been many more closures than I would like under our Government.

However, the bank closed in my own village, Resolven, in the Neath valley—a former pit village, where I live. I tried to urge its customers—I think that it was Barclays bank—to switch their custom to the local post office, to make better use of it, because they could have had pretty much the same facilities there. Very few took up that opportunity. The problem is that people's changing lifestyles and habits in respect of how they manage their money are putting tremendous strain on local post offices, but the Government are working closely with Post Office Counters Ltd. to ensure that as many local post offices as possible are protected.

May I welcome the new Leader of the House to his post? I have obviously changed my opinion since I heckled him in the past at a Tribune rally just after he had moved over from the Liberal party. One of the jobs that he held with distinction was that of Minister for Energy and Competitiveness, so he is well aware of the schemes that operate for ex-coalminers who have suffered from chest complaints and vibration white finger. He will be aware that cokemen form one of the groups that miss out—apart from two cases, which were settled out of court. Can we have a debate about that matter? I believe that negotiations are taking place at the moment to try to ensure that cokemen are covered, and such a debate might add to those possibilities. I have a particular interest, as Avenue coke works was in my constituency and many people have suffered from chest problems because of it, yet they fall outside those provisions.

First, I thank my hon. Friend for his historical reference. It was 26 years ago, if I am right, in September 1977 and, as I recall, it was a very friendly heckle. On his substantive point, I was privileged as Minister for Energy to drive forward—he was kind enough to say that I did so with distinction—the whole compensation programme for sick miners, their widows and families. We have continued to do that and hundreds of millions of pounds have been paid out in every region and nation of Britain. 1 know that in Wales more than £300 million has been paid out, bringing to miners justice that was denied them year after year under the previous Conservative Government. The specific point that he makes, however, is important, and I shall draw it to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry.

Order. The House will realise that another statement is shortly to be made, and I want as many hon. Members to be able to ask questions as possible. I therefore hope that I have Members' cooperation and that questions will be brief.

May we have a statement from either the Home Secretary or the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport on the importance of television dramatists showing particular sensitivity towards the British Muslim community in the post-11 September world? I have in mind the recent episode of the television series "Spooks", which focused on an alleged suicide bomb plot being hatched in a British mosque. Given that so many British Muslims are as proud of being British as they are proud of being Muslim, and while I appreciate the need for topicality in such presentations, is it not important that the moderate Muslim community are not unfairly alienated?

I very much agree with the hon. Gentleman and particularly with his statement that we are proud to have living in our communities many Muslims who count themselves equally proud to be British and of Muslim faith. That enriches our culture. I shall draw the points that he makes to the attention of the appropriate Secretaries of State. As for the issue concerned, a delicate balance has to be struck, as he has always acknowledged, between media freedom and the interests and sensitivities that he raises. I am sure that that will be borne in mind in the future.

In his helpful reply, the Leader of the House invited my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) to come forward with a private Member's Bill on Iraq. What did he have in mind: a withdrawal from Iraq Bill? That would have considerable support at the moment from a number of troops who are sweltering in 44°, with the prospect of 50° in July. Can we have a statement on exactly what is happening in Iraq? We have seen the dreadful pictures on the front page of The Guardian. Incidentally, although I support military action in the Congo, ought we not to have a statement before we get involved in mission creep in central Africa?

I shall bear in mind and draw to the attention of my right hon. Friends the Foreign Secretary and the Defence Secretary the points that my hon. Friend makes in respect of Iraq and the Congo. I am sure, however, that, as he has indicated, he is proud that we have soldiers serving in the Congo seeking to bring stability to that war-torn and desperate country. He may have been mistaken in hearing me say that there ought to be a private Member's Bill on Iraq— [Interruption.] If it sounded like that, I apologise to the House; I meant that there was an opportunity to apply for a private Member's debate. As we all do, I have among my constituents many servicemen serving in Iraq at the present time. I have been in touch with their families and I know of the desperately hot conditions in which they are serving with such distinction.

I can assure the Leader of the House that it is very hot in Iraq at the moment, as I have just returned from a trip to Basra with a number of other Members last week. Although we were able to see the excellent work undertaken by our forces, what was transparent to me was the absence or near-invisibility of other Departments. In relation to the Department for International Development, very little seems to be happening in terms of humanitarian aid, and very little in terms of helping with the restructuring of the banking system. Considering the period that has elapsed since the end of fighting, certainly in southern Iraq, is it possible to have a debate or at least a statement in the House on humanitarian aid and restructuring?

I shall certainly mention that to my right hon. and noble Friend the Secretary of State for International Development. As is known to the House in one way or another, she is anxious to visit Iraq but she has been advised that the security circumstances may not permit her to do that as early as she wanted. She has every intention of doing so, however, and I will ensure that the hon. Gentleman's points are recognised.

During the consideration of the constitutional changes, precisely the same treatment and status were accorded to the Wales Office and Scotland Office, and the jobs of Secretary of State for Wales and Secretary of State for Scotland were also treated with precisely the same status. That would be justified if the powers enjoyed by the Welsh Assembly were the same as those enjoyed by the Scottish Parliament. Do we not need a debate to ensure that equality of treatment is matched by equality of powers?

My hon. Friend has the opportunity to apply for such a debate. This is an opportunity for me to put it on record that my responsibilities as Secretary of State for Wales, as he implicitly acknowledges, are very different from those of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland—who may be about to appear before the House. I have responsibility for all the primary legislation affecting Wales, for negotiating on any transfer of function orders and for providing a partnership bridge between Cardiff Bay and Westminster, which happens almost daily, and certainly weekly, as issues arise. That is not the position in Scotland, where powers have been devolved at the legislative level, too.

We are a United Kingdom, and long may we remain so. It becomes increasingly obvious, however, that in terms of status and recognition, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, not only in our constitution but in the proceedings of the House, have a discrete identity of their own. I feel that the Government have now started to divide England up. As a Member representing an English constituency, may I say that now that they have started the process of regionalisation, England too should be afforded the same recognition? Can time please be set aside for debates on issues that concern those of us who represent English constituencies and who recognise English matters? In the interest of fairness and justice, the time for that is now.

There are plenty of such opportunities. The advantage that the hon. Lady, for example, has as an English MP over me and my colleagues who are Welsh MPs is that she can question and challenge Ministers across the board on English matters, whereas many policies have been devolved to the National Assembly for Wales, and Assembly Members are in the driving seat and in pole position to question and challenge in that regard. She therefore has considerable advantages, which she ought to recognise. On the question of dividing up Britain, we have united the nations of Wales and Scotland much more in the United Kingdom through devolution than would have been the case had the opportunity to govern their own affairs through the devolution settlement been denied to them still. It has been a huge success, and I believe that regional government for England will be an equally huge success in the future.

Can we have an early statement on the kidnap of British nationals by a foreign Government? I refer specifically to those British nationals who have been held in Guantanamo Bay without charge against them for an unacceptably long time. I remind my right hon. Friend that there are reports now of suicide attempts among those held in Guantanamo Bay, and there are rumours that the Americans plan to build what has been described as a "death chamber". We ought to have some certainty about the future of British nationals being held in this outrageous fashion.

I know that the Prime Minister is aware of the matter and is looking into it. I recognise the points that my hon. Friend has made and the close interest that he has taken in these matters.

Rail Fares

1.29 pm

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I would like to make a statement about rail fares.

The Strategic Rail Authority will be setting out in detail the results of its consultation later today, but I thought that I should set out the changes for the benefit of the House.

Last July, the SRA initiated a fundamental review of rail fares policy. Today, after public consultation, it is publishing its conclusions, which I believe reflect a realistic balance between what the travelling passenger pays and what the taxpayer contributes.

First, let me set out the context. We inherited a railway that had suffered from decades of under-investment and was left traumatised by a botched privatisation and the upheavals that followed. At the same time, because of economic growth and because we have got more people into work, passenger use has gone up by a third in the past few years. In fact, it is now at its highest level since nationalisation in 1947.

We set up the Strategic Rail Authority to provide the leadership and strategic direction that had been lacking to get a grip on the problems that we inherited. Network Rail, a public interest company, is now operating the track in the public's interest. We are also making funding available to make up for decades of under-investment. This year, the Government are spending £73 million every week to improve the railways, and bringing in a similar amount from the private sector. We have the biggest replacement programme for rolling stock ever seen in this country: more than a third of all rolling stock is being replaced in five years, and about half of that is happening on London commuter routes. Some £9 billion is being spent to maintain and improve the west coast main line, which is enabling more services to run faster, and £3 billion is being spent on new trains and a new power supply south of the Thames, which, when complete, will allow for more services and longer trains. All this has to be paid for.

Performance has improved but there is still a long way to go, which is why we have needed to take sometimes difficult decisions to improve the reliability of services. The House may recall that earlier this year we took a lot of criticism for the cuts that the SRA made to the timetable. It cut 180 services from the 18,000 train services that run every day. It is early days yet, but the evidence is that the decision was right. In the first four weeks of the new timetable, the performance of Virgin Cross Country trains was significantly better than at the same time last year, and despite the removal of some services, there are still more Virgin Cross Country services running every weekday than there were a year ago.

We now reach another difficult and necessary decision in relation to rail fares. When the current rail fares policy was introduced in 1996, it was always intended for it to be reviewed after seven years. The SRA launched that review last year with a public consultation, and its conclusions are available in the Vote Office.

Let me explain the existing fares arrangements on which the SRA consulted. About 45 per cent. of rail fares revenue comes from regulated fares, which are saver fares—or standard returns if no saver existed in 1995—standard class weekly tickets and London commuter fares. Since 1999, they have increased annually at 1 per cent. below inflation. Forty per cent. of people travelling to work in central London go by train, so the regulation of commuter and certain other fares is very important. That is why fare regulation will remain in place. Of course, the House will know that there are many far cheaper fares available than the regulated fares. Saver fares, for example, are not necessarily the cheapest deal on offer. The majority of fare income comes from unregulated fares, which include open and first class tickets as well as Apex and other low-price fares at off-peak times, many of which are now much cheaper than they were in the past.

The consultation showed that there was wide agreement that the existing policy needed to change. The Rail Passengers Council, the industry and local authorities all said that continuing to peg regulated fares below inflation was simply not sustainable.

There are only two main sources of funding for the railways: fares and the taxpayer. We have to strike the right balance between what the passenger pays and what the taxpayer pays. No nation in Europe has a passenger railway that runs without any form of subsidy, and nor do the United States or even Japan. Four years ago, rail fares covered 72 per cent. of the cost of running and improving the railway. That is now down to around 53 per cent., and the taxpayer pays the rest.

As I said, we have to ensure that there is a reasonable balance between what the taxpayer pays and what the farepayer pays. The SRA concluded that regulated fares should continue but that they should rise by 1 per cent. more than inflation—the retail prices index—from January 2004 for three years. It also examined the link between fares and performance. The mechanism put in place at the time of privatisation was supposed to link performance and ticket prices, but it has been widely discredited and there is no support for its continuation.

Finally the SRA's review considered the scope of regulated fares. There are two considerations on the regulation of saver fares. First, they are not necessarily the cheapest fare—the name is somewhat misleading. Secondly, they can result in the first off-peak trains being far more crowded than peak trains. Therefore, the SRA will work with train operators with a view to replacing the existing regime by 2006 with a better one that is more suited to passengers' needs. Saver fares will continue until 2006 unless it is possible to introduce a better regime earlier, provided that the proposal demonstrates clear benefits for passengers and taxpayers.

I believe that we need to do still more to encourage more people to travel by train, which is why I am asking the SRA and the industry to work together to develop a national discount rail card to achieve that. It is also why we are investing in the network. In the past few years, public spending on investment has increased by 164 per cent. We have taken the difficult decision that in future it is reasonable for fares to increase in line with investment. The franchise agreements that are in place mean that every extra £1 raised as a result of what has been announced today will go back into the railway network.

This was a difficult decision, but it is essential to strike the right balance between the contribution from the farepayer and the contribution from the taxpayer. We are sorting out the problems that we inherited. We are making the changes that we need to improve reliability and we are putting in place the investment vital for passengers and the future of the railway. I commend the statement to the House.

I thank the Secretary of State for his statement and for his customary courtesy in letting me have an advance copy.

Let me begin with two points on which I hope there will be broad agreement throughout the House. First, many passengers would be prepared to pay more for a better service, and secondly, an expanding rail system would be better for both safety and the environment. However, surely it is clear that that is precisely what is not on offer and what will not be delivered by the fare rises that the Secretary of State announced. Is he not asking passengers and taxpayers to pay more and more for less and less? Is he not replacing fares that are falling in real terms with fares that will rise in real terms? Does he concede that British rail fares are already the highest in Europe and that he said today that he wants them higher still? Yet, is he not presiding over a halt—indeed, a reversal—of rail expansion as many major infrastructure projects are shelved as money for the long term is gobbled up by the complete collapse of day-to-day cost control of the maintenance budget?

Will the Secretary of State confirm that the cuts to Virgin Cross Country services to which he referred are just the start? Will he confirm that further cutbacks on other rail franchises are in the pipeline and tell us today which services will be chopped? Will he confirm that he has abandoned the target in the 10-year transport plan of a 50 per cent. increase in rail passenger numbers?

Why are there more late-running trains now than before? The Secretary of State cannot blame a lack of long-term investment, because train performance was much better three years ago than it is now. He cannot blame the Conservative party, because even 18 months ago his predecessor said:
"There can be no more excuses. It's our responsibility. We can't blame the Tories any more."
He cannot blame the Hatfield crash in 2000, because train performance was better in 2001 than in 2002.

The Secretary of State has come up with a new explanation. He says that trains are late because there are too many of them, so he is axing a lot. He might be on to a point, because even I cannot deny that a train cannot arrive late if it does not set out at all. Do passengers not deserve better than that? Surely the real truth is that trains are running later while we are all paying more because of the Government's botched renationalisation of Railtrack.

Network Rail is expected to overspend its budget by a staggering £12 billion in the period to 2006. Will the Secretary of State confirm the Financial Times report that if Network Rail accounted for its assets in the same way as Railtrack, its losses in the past financial year would not have been the reported £290 million but £2.5 billion? Does he agree with the verdict of the rail regulator that the problem with Network Rail is that a complete absence of financial discipline has produced an explosion in costs?

If passengers and taxpayers are wondering why all that extra money, all those extra fares that the Secretary of State has announced and all the money that he is spending like water are buying a worse service, not a better one, has not The Daily Telegraph this morning provided the answer? Does he expect Back Benchers on either side of the House to be happy to discover that his Department will be footing a bill for £58,000—more than any Back Bencher's salary—just for the taxis hired by one of his sets of advisers for the period when Railtrack was in administration?

Will the Secretary of State comment on the fact that one signalling company told me that under Network Rail it costs more than £50,000 to apply for a simple contract to move one signal box 6 ft? Will he recognise that, although Conservative Members accept that there can be no return to Railtrack—not least because of what his Government did to its shareholders—taxpayers, shareholders and fare-paying passengers alike deserve none the less something a great deal better than the shambles that Network Rail has become under his supervision?

Today the Secretary of State said that he will replace fares falling in real terms with fares rising in real terms; replace an expansion in train services with a cutback in rail services; and replace falling subsidies paying for more trains with rising subsidies paying for fewer trains. Under him, we have later trains, fewer trains, and now, vastly more expensive trains. Is that not the worst bargain in Britain? Is it not clear that we do not have the promised integrated transport policy, but instead a disintegrated transport policy? Do passengers and taxpayers alike not deserve the full-time energies of a full-time Secretary of State to sort out that complete shambles?

The hon. Gentleman would have a little more credibility—no wonder he is laughing— if he had a single policy to his name or a single strategy that he thinks would improve things.

Railtrack was a disaster for the railways. If privatisation was bad, what Railtrack did in the years when it was in charge was disastrous. There was no proper cost control and it did not understand its assets. We have to get on and deal with that legacy. Network Rail, to its credit, is doing things that Railtrack never did. For example, it is getting proper control of the costs, understanding the state of the network and ensuring that it can deliver a safe and reliable railway. Of course that will take time and of course people are frustrated, but the hon. Gentleman did not have a single word to say about what he would do except to hark back, rather fondly I thought, to Railtrack. The friends of Railtrack are a very small group, even smaller than the present Tory parliamentary party.

The hon. Gentleman rightly said that if passengers are to pay more, they should expect improvements. Let me give examples of improvements. On London commuter lines, brand new rolling stock has replaced the old slam-door stock on the London Victoria to Brighton line. Something like 2,000 new railway carriages are in place, with more on order. In addition, a new electricity supply is being installed south of the river. I mention that because it comes back to Railtrack's performance. Anyone who knew shat brand new, more powerful trains were coming on to the line should have thought about the electricity supply that was installed in the 1930s and asked whether it would be capable of running modern trains. Of course it was not capable of that, which meant that Network Rail had to find another £1 billion to put things right.

The west coast main line is receiving investment now. The improvements are disruptive while they take place, but as a result of the decisions we took last year, the work will be finished two years earlier than expected. An hour will be taken off the Glasgow journey. There will be a two-hour running time to Manchester and four trains an hour to Birmingham. That is an example of how improvements are coming on.

The hon. Gentleman asked about changes to Virgin services. It is essential to have a timetable that works, but not all the delays and problems of reliability are caused by congestion. Issues such as fleet reliability must also be taken into account. For example, when GNER completed the upgrading of all its locomotives on the east coast main line, it improved reliability dramatically. Frankly, the railway is doing now what it should have been doing years ago: managing the system as one railway.

It is pretty clear from what the hon. Gentleman said that he is against fares increasing. That is a credible position to take, but one of two things follows from that: either taxes have to go up to pay for the investment or, more likely, wholesale cuts in services—perhaps of 20 per cent.—will be necessary. At some stage, he will have to face up to reality. The money for the railways comes from two places: the fare-paying passengers or taxation. If he is against fares increasing, either taxes have to go up or services have to be cut. One day, perhaps he will tell us which it is.

I welcome without reservation the Secretary of State's proposals for a national discount rail card, which is long overdue. However, given that rail fares have already risen significantly above the rate of inflation, and the cost of motoring has fallen, how can he seriously believe that further fare increases will persuade people to get out of their cars and on to rail so that we start to reduce the remorseless increase in congestion on our roads? Where is the joined-up thinking? Have not rail passengers in the south-east already seen a significant increase in fares as a result of changes to the network rail card? That was a fare increase by stealth.

Surely the Secretary of State must acknowledge that he is giving the impression that he wants to manage the railways to improve reliability by significantly reducing the number of trains, and to reduce costs by significantly reducing the number of passengers by constantly ratcheting up the fares of those services. In the case of managed franchises and those non-managed franchises through the fares incentive adjustment programme, surely he must also acknowledge that the vast majority of the money from increased fares will go directly back into the SRA.Will he at least give an absolute assurance that we will not have a grand announcement from the Secretary of State some time in the future about yet more Government investment in the railways, when everyone knows that that money will have come from fare-paying passengers?

The Secretary of State says that we must face up to realities, so why is his statement devoid of any reference to the urgent need to address escalating costs within the railways? Is he not aware of the significant increase in the number of managers within the train operating companies? Is he not aware of the significant increase in the number of staff and in the use of consultants by the SRA? Is he not aware of the astronomical costs that are charged for renewal and maintenance on our railways? He himself acknowledged that it costs four times as much to build a lift shaft on the railways as it would to build it anywhere else. Why is that not the crucial and first priority of the Government when they tackle the problems on our railways?

We may well have one of the worst rail services in Europe. We certainly have the highest fares in Europe, if not the world. Yet under this Government, train cancellations have increased by 50 per cent. and delays have doubled. Surely if we are to increase rail fares further above the rate of inflation, passengers will simply pay more and get significantly less.

Again, the hon. Gentleman's difficulty is that he has not advocated an alternative way to improve the railways. I happened to notice that in relation to spending, the Liberal Democrats' economic spokesman made it clear that they pledge to do everything they can within current budgets. In other words, no more money is available. I also notice that they have to decide whether new pledges could be better delivered by the private sector as a first port of call. I think that came as something of a surprise to him and some of his colleagues.

On escalating costs, as I have acknowledged many times, it is essential for the whole industry—not just Network Rail, but the train operating companies as well—to get a grip of the costs. I understand some of the historical problems they face. To be fair for one moment to Railtrack, part of the regime it inherited from British Rail also had the problem that costs for installing points varied from region to region, between different parts of British Rail, because the unit costs were very different. It is only now, under a completely different management with different disciplines, that Network Rail is beginning to get to grips with those costs and starting to drive them down. However, we cannot get away from the fact that it is necessary to make up for decades of under-investment. The reason we are spending £73 million of public money at the moment is that we have to make up for the deficit in investment that we inherited. BR used to replace 500 miles of track a year. Under privatisation, only 200 miles of track a year were replaced. This year, 740 miles of track are being replaced or upgraded. The money is essential, but I agree with the hon. Gentleman about cost control.

As for prices and getting passengers on to trains, I said at the outset that the British railway system is carrying more passengers now than at any time since nationalisation in 1947, and there has been a 20 per cent. increase in the number of passengers. One reason is that the fares on offer are not simply the standard or regulated fares. For example, the standard class return fare for the London to Bristol journey is £80, the regulated saver fare is £36.40, and the Apex fare is £19. There are many examples of cheaper fares, and many passengers, from both the hon. Gentleman's constituency and mine, are taking advantage of them.

We are sorting out the management problems that the hon. Gentleman referred to and putting the money in, so reliability is slowly but surely improving. Of course, there is a long way to go, but neither he nor the Conservative party has a coherent or credible policy.

Half the people in Croydon who go to work commute to London, so obviously they will not welcome any increase in fares. However, can you reassure my constituents that the extra money that is being gathered will be reinvested in more reliable, frequent and comfortable trains? Will you also undertake to make a review of regional—

Order. The hon. Gentleman must use the correct parliamentary language.

Thank you very much for that advice, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

In giving those assurances, will my right hon. Friend undertake to review regional variations in fares across the country to ensure that people in London and the south-east get a fair deal?

I can certainly tell my hon. Friend that the money raised by those increases will go back into the railway network. As for Croydon, I mentioned earlier that about half of the new rolling stock is coming on to the London commuter routes, much of it on services that run through Croydon, so if they have not already done so, my hon. Friend and his constituents will be able to use new, modern rolling stock. I accept that they will not immediately see the benefits of replacing the power supply, but they will experience an improvement, as delays and breakdowns will be avoided. All of us want more to be done quickly, but our difficulty is that we have to do an awful lot because of decades of neglect of our railway system by successive Governments.

May I tell the right hon. Gentleman, who will be viewed by Londoners as the Secretary of State for Scotland rather than the Secretary of State for Transport, that Londoners are getting a dreadful deal from the Government? Is it not preposterous that in the capital city, which already has the highest cost of living in Europe, Londoners should face over the next three years an increase in rail fares of 1 per cent. above inflation, whereas it used to be 1 per cent. below inflation? They have no assurance that they will get a better deal in future—all they know is that a review will be undertaken in three years' time of the regulated fare system. Judging from the Secretary of State's track record, there is no chance that they will get a more cost-effective deal in future.

The hon. Gentleman must face up to the fact that during the 18 years in which the Conservatives were in government, they did not make the necessary year on year investment that might have prevented some of those problems. The one big contribution that they made to the railways was privatisation, which was an utter shambles.

As for London commuter services, new rolling stock and carriages are being introduced, thus improving the quality of transport. As I said, we are replacing the power supply south of the river. That should have been done years ago, but was not, because nobody thought it necessary. Improvements are being made, but the hon. Gentleman must come back to the central point, as must the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Collins). If the hon. Gentleman believes that passengers should not pay any more, one of two things follows—either taxes go up to pay for that or services are cut. He must choose.

Surely, if we have to accept price increases, the service should improve. New infrastructure has been successfully introduced in my part of the world, but problems have been identified in two areas. First, at the busiest times, trains arrive consisting of three carriages instead of six. Secondly, again as a result of the railways' success, station car parks are full by 7 am. Can my right hon. Friend put more emphasis on those matters when talking to the Strategic Rail Authority?

One problem that we face—in some ways it is welcome—is that more people want to use the trains, but they are trying to use a system that was never designed for the current passenger load. That is why we are putting more money into the railways and replacing rolling stock. My hon. Friend's constituents will benefit, on some occasions at least, from the money that is going into the west coast main line. Local services are also receiving new money. Nobody would take lightly a decision to put up fares, but it is equally clear that the regime set up in 1995 was not sustainable. Interestingly, no significant body of opinion consulted by the SRA thought that it was. The Rail Passengers Council, for example, said that fares ought to go up in line with inflation. Nobody argued that the regime set up in 1995 was going to last, which I suspect is why the previous Government thought that it ought to be reviewed after seven years.

In his statement, the Secretary of State referred to the need to strike a balance between the interests of farepayers and of taxpayers. He is right, of course, but is there not a need to strike another balance, which he did not mention, between the cost of travelling by public transport and the cost of travelling by private transport? If we want a balanced and sustainable transport policy, is it not important that the cost of travelling by public transport does not rise faster than the cost of travelling by private transport? Is it not a consequence of his announcement that that is exactly what will happen? The signal that he is giving people who are thinking of switching from private transport to public transport has changed from green to amber.

The right hon. Gentleman, I presume, is not arguing for an increase in motoring costs. If he is, I do not think that he will do so in his constituency. However, he is right that people make choices, which is why, two or three weeks ago, in common with a number of other people, I said that we needed to look at the question of road transport, how we can better manage demand for road space and so on. That is a long-term issue, but it clearly needs to be looked at. If people are to be encouraged to go on to the trains, reliability is paramount—if the trains are not reliable, they will not win more passengers. Relative costs are important, but as I said in reply to the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster), many fares are not regulated. In fact, the majority of income comes from non-regulated fares, which offer very good deals for passengers and are one reason why train usage has gone up so much.

The Secretary of State referred to discussions with train operators. Does he agree that it is also important for the SRA to consult passenger committees and regional authorities so that it can deliver a rail service that meets economic, environmental and social objectives? Has he had time to look at the Select Committee's report on railways in the north, which was published this morning? If so, can he explain how the fares policy announced today will relate to making an improved service for people in the north?

I have not had an opportunity to read that report. However, I am aware that there are a number of things that need to be done in relation to rail travel in the north. First, we must improve the reliability of the fleet, as there has been a problem with some trains in the north. Secondly, we must ensure that the track is reliable and is not prone to breakdowns. However, my hon. Friend is right that there are other issues, and local authorities and passenger transport executives can play a major role in ensuring that rail travel is attractive. Price is another factor, but we must ensure that the service is reliable and an attractive alternative to the car. If we can do that, we will get more people to use it.

I am pleased that there is much evidence, not least from the Mersey train service, that reliability has improved and, in the case of that service, reached approximately 90 per cent. A few years ago, reliability was bad, so we have an example of how things can be done.

Is not the Secretary of State embarrassed to tell my constituents that they face an increase in ticket costs that is above inflation? Since 1974, the cost of rail travel has increased by 85 per cent. in real terms, whereas that of motoring has decreased. Is it his policy to increase rails fares and decrease motoring costs? The Government deal with congestion on roads by building more roads, and with congestion on trains by having fewer trains. Money spent on railways is considered to be subsidy, whereas that spent on roads is perceived as investment. Is not that a topsy-turvy transport policy?

Not really. I look forward to visiting Lewes to hear the hon. Gentleman advocate increasing the price of motoring to his constituents.

Sotto voce, I expect. The hon. Gentleman knows that there has been substantial investment—some £3 billion—in trains south of the river. The investment is in new rolling stock as well as track improvements. As I said, that must be paid for. The money can come only from the fare-paying passenger or from taxation. There is no other way. That is why he and others who believe that we are wrong or that there is a better way must state the source of income that they favour. Perhaps, like the Tories, they should be upfront and say that they would cut the available services.

I welcome my right hon. Friend's comments about a national rail card and the investment in new rolling stock. However, many of my constituents, who constitute the captive cashbox for South Central trains and commute daily from Brighton—a high housing cost area—to London, will find it difficult to understand the increase in train fares. Will he consider reviewing the system of inflation plus I per cent. earlier than the three-year deadline that he specified? Will he also require the train operating companies and Network Rail to set out a clear timetable for the improvements that the investment brings so that my constituents understand what they will get for their money?

I travelled on the London to Brighton line recently. My hon. Friend knows that it has new rolling stock, which is expensive, good and reliable. Unfortunately, as is the way of things, it must be paid for. As I said earlier, it can be financed from only one of two sources. The price of an annual season ticket for London to Brighton will increase by approximately £2 a week as a result of my announcement today. I know that any increase is unwelcome, but if we are to invest the money that we need in the railways—in the track, the power supply or the stock—it must be financed. We cannot get away from that. A railway cannot be upgraded and improved for nothing.

I wish that successive Governments—in the past, Labour Governments were as guilty as Tory Governments—had done the same as other countries and ensured that we invested money in the railways decade after decade. Our problem is that we now have to make up for years of underinvestment quickly.

I greatly welcome my hon. Friend's comments on the rail card, but my announcement on fares is for three years, and I cannot undertake to reconsider the matter before the end of that time.

The Secretary of State's price-volume analysis is wrong. If we increase the number of passengers, we increase the funds. We should therefore increase capacity, not fares. Fenchurch Street passengers have suffered too long. Will he ask the Strategic Rail Authority to consider a new terminus station at Canvey Island, which would create an increase in capacity, with a link to the Pitsea interchange, and to reduce c2c fares so that Fenchurch Street passengers can get the decent deal that they deserve?

The hon. Gentleman mentions c2c. He knows that the line is one of the most reliable in the country and has much improved from the misery line that it once was. That happened through investment, which had to be financed, and through better management.

I note the hon. Gentleman's comments about wanting a new station in his constituency. It never ceases to amaze me that Conservative Members oppose raising money but greatly favour spending it. They have obviously been listening to the Liberal Democrats. If we support improvements such as those on c2c, and want more stations and better interchanges, they must be paid for. I have tried to strike the right balance between what the fare-paying passenger and the taxpayer pay. It is not easy, but it is right to ensure that the balance is fair and sustainable.

I welcome the negotiations and discussions on the national rail card. Many of my constituents are commuters and railway users. They will want to know that the increase in rail fares means a better service than the current service, not only on commuter services but on the west coast main line. I am worried that, as we increase rail fares, we may also increase the number of people on the roads. An individual is six times more likely to be killed or injured on the roads than on the rails. What assessment has my right hon. Friend made of the additional health, social services and benefits costs to the taxpayer that will result from the rail fare increase?

I welcome my hon. Friend's comments on the national rail card. I am sure that it will be valuable and another useful way in which to encourage more people to use trains.

The west coast main line illustrates my point. When the improvements are completed—the first wave will be evident from the end of next year—they will allow more trains to run into Euston, greater frequency and far more capacity. After a back-of-an-envelope calculation, Railtrack believed that such improvements would cost £2 billion. By the time the company left, the figure had increased to £13 billion. The current cost, according to Network Rail and the SRA, is £9 billion. That is a huge investment, which will make a huge difference to my hon. Friend's constituents and to commuter lines as well as long-distance lines on the west coast.

Again, I stress that the investment must be financed, one way or another. Our transport system—not only the railways but the roads—faces tremendous financial pressures not only on the railways but on the roads. If we want to get more people on trains, we must ensure that the trains are reliable, comfortable and an attractive alternative to cars. We can and will do that but we need to face the fact that we must get the right, reasonable balance between what the taxpayer and the passenger pay.

How far have the Secretary of State's remit and financial calculations taken Eurostar's growing crisis into account? Unless tackled, uncompetitive fares, decreasing usage and massive losses will quickly lead to demands for a large-scale Government rescue operation.

I would not bank on that. Eurostar has to ensure that it gets its finances in order and that it runs a sufficiently attractive proposition to get passengers. The channel tunnel rail link, which is the first major new rail line in Britain for more than 100 years, will open later this year, and enable faster journey times between London, Paris and Brussels. That should give the train company an opportunity to attract more passengers.

As an annual guest at the quarterly meeting of the RMT Scottish at Perth, what should I sensibly say about the balance between the 72 per cent. four years ago and the 53 per cent. today? What is the ideal balance that the Secretary of State supports?

As a supporter of the national discount rail card, may I ask when it is likely to be introduced and what the Secretary of State hopes it will achieve?

As a member of the friends of Nirex—a body that is even smaller than the friends of Railtrack—I ask my right hon. Friend what his attitude is to charging for the transfer by rail of hazardous substances?

On the last point, it might be better if I were to write to my hon. Friend rather than trying to hazard a guess as to what the position might be. I agree that the rail card will be very welcome, but the object must be to encourage people who do not use trains at present to use them with the card. We want to avoid a situation in which people who would have made a rail journey anyway use the card, so that the Government have to subsidise the journey unnecessarily. The object must be to get more people on to the trains. I agree with those hon. Members who have said that one of the objectives must be to get people who do not use the railway to use it. The discounts now being offered by GNER on return tickets mean that they can be bought for a remarkably small amount, and that is one of the reasons why the trains are so crowded. The other reason is that, thanks to a large amount of money being spent on the track, journey times are improving and the service is becoming more reliable.

My hon. Friend asked me what he should say to the RMT. I can think of many things that might be said to the RMT, but sadly, I have not been invited to address it. There is no ideal scientific balance between what the fare-paying passenger should pay and what the taxpayer should pay. I just think that it has got out of balance at the moment. I know that people do not want this increase, but unless we take steps to ensure a proper, sustainable balance, we shall reach the stage at which the railways start to run out of money. When the Conservatives privatised things, I believe that they envisaged that the railways would decline and run out of money, which is why they were not that bothered about it. I believe in the railways, however, and I am determined to ensure that they are properly managed and properly funded.

My constituents in south-west London want to see much more money being spent on the rail service. Does my right hon. Friend accept, however, that if we are to do this not only through increased public investment but through limited fare increases, we need a service that is not only reliable and efficient but much more responsive to customer needs? If, having waited in a queue for 15 minutes because stations are understaffed and the automatic ticket machines are not working, customers are unable to get the through ticket that they need, we are unlikely to see the benefit of those increased fares, because many people will choose not to travel by rail at all.

I agree: the whole experience of going by train needs to be attractive. People do not want to be held up, and they do not want the trains to be late. At least some of my hon. Friend's constituents will be pleased to know that South West Trains is about to introduce a new fleet of trains, which will be a vast improvement on the old slam-door trains that should have been replaced years ago. I suspect that those trains were running when he and I were children, if not before. That is a welcome investment, but I return to the same point: people will welcome all this new investment, and reliability will improve, but in their heart of hearts, people know that we have to put money into the system, and that it has to be paid for in some way—either through fares or through taxation. However, I strongly agree with everything that has been said today about the industry having to understand that if it does not get a grip on reliability and costs, it will face an uphill struggle. Based on what I have seen, however, I am optimistic. I know that this will take time, and there are no quick fixes, but I believe that it can be done. Indeed, for the good of the transport system in this country, it needs to be done.

Bill Presented

Corporate Responsibility

Linda Perham presented a Bill to make provision for certain companies to produce and publish reports on environmental, social and economic and financial matters; to consult on proposed operations of the company; to specify certain duties and responsibilities of directors; to establish a right of access to information held by companies; to specify the powers and duties of the Secretary of State; to provide for remedies for aggrieved persons; and for related purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 11 July, and to be printed. [Bill 129].

Point Of Order

2.13 pm

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Very unusually, we are about to debate the conduct of investigations into past cases of abuse in children's homes. In the recent reshuffle, a Minister for Children was appointed for the first time. Surely this subject should fall within her remit, but the Minister for Children, the hon. Member for Barking (Margaret Hodge) is not here. Furthermore, there was an amazing attack on the hon. Lady in the Evening Standard on Monday—I do not know whether it was justified or not—which particularly pertained to the conduct of investigations into child abuse in children's homes—

Order. I think that I can deal with the hon. Gentleman's point of order straight away. It is entirely a matter for the Government whom they seek to put on the Treasury Bench to represent them in debates such as these.

Estimates Day

3Rd Alloted Day

Estimates, 2003–04

Children's Homes (Investigations)

Home Office

[Relevant documents: The Fourth Report from the Home Affairs Committee, Session 2001–02, on The Conduct of Investigations into Past Cases of Abuse in Children's Home, HC836, and the Government's reply thereto (Cm. 5799); and the Home Office Annual Report for 2003 (Cm. 5908).]

Motion made, and Question proposed,

That further resources, not exceeding £17,181,299,000, be authorised for use for the year ending on 31st March 2004, and that a further sum, not exceeding £7,391,463,000, be granted to Her Majesty out of the Consolidated Fund for the year ending on 31st March 2004 for expenditure by the Home Office.— [Ms Bridget Prentice.]

2.14 pm

This debate was due to be opened by the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) who, as the House knows, was Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee up to his Government appointment last week. He has gone on to higher things—or lower, as the case may be. I have agreed to carry out the Chairman's duties on a temporary basis until a permanent replacement is duly appointed by the Committee.

Let me say at the outset that this report in no way minimises child abuse. Acts of abuse, physical and sexual, are indeed dreadful crimes, often leading to lasting damage and trauma to individuals. The police are certainly right to treat it with the utmost seriousness, and we would all be disappointed if that were not the case. However, it is also important that justice should be done and that the innocent should not be convicted. The Committee received a large number of representations from people accused of child abuse who maintain their innocence, from their relatives, and from journalists, lawyers and colleagues. My hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas), who I see is here today, also made vigorous representations to us on this issue. I understand that she is chair of the all-party group on abuse investigations.

Members of the judiciary have also expressed concern. In our report we quote Judge Jonathan Crabtree, who, in 1999, having dismissed all charges against a defendant, expressed serious concerns over the difficulties of defending such allegations. This quote from the judge appears in our report:

"Anyone who is in charge of children is vulnerable to allegations of assault from some dissatisfied or angry child, and if no complaint is made for months or years, how can any teacher, social worker, nurse defend themselves?…How is he or she going to be able to…prove his or her innocence when so much time has passed?"
In recent years, the police have investigated large numbers of allegations of abuse said to have occurred many years ago in children's homes around the country. Part of the difficulty is that such allegations go back so many years. The number of alleged suspects has been very large, and many lives have been damaged by the allegations, even in cases in which no charges were brought.

The allegation of child abuse is easily made, but it is very difficult to recover from, even if the person concerned is vindicated as a result of police inquiries or before a court. In some instances, accused teachers or care workers—however vindicated—may never work again.