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Commons Chamber

Volume 448: debated on Monday 3 July 2006

House of Commons

Monday 3 July 2006

The House met at half-past Two o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Culture, Media and Sport

The Secretary of State was asked—

Live Music

The Government are committed to supporting live music in all its forms. Through the Live Music Forum, we are working to ensure that opportunities for the promotion of live music are realised to the full.

For 25 years, The Studio in my constituency has encouraged participation in grass-roots music by delivering a range of recording, training, rehearsal and performing opportunities, while giving local people access to internationally recognised musicians. Despite making cutbacks, including redundancies, it is forecast that, by the end of the year, The Studio will run out of money, although it requires only an additional £20,000 per annum to stay open. What steps will my hon. Friend take to ensure that small yet vital concerns such as The Studio stay open, so that live music can be enjoyed today and in future?

I thank my hon. Friend for campaigning to make sure that there are the right music services, particularly for young people in his constituency. In relation to The Studio, I know that the Hartlepool local authority is looking at that issue very closely. It was keen to ensure that the services offered met its strategic priorities for the coming period, as it is an important funder. I hope that we can achieve that, and the Arts Council advises that it is keen to look into how arts provision is met at The Studio. It is important that the local authority and the Arts Council can work together on that over the coming months. I will keep a close eye on the matter but, as my hon. Friend knows, there is an arm’s length relationship between us and the Arts Council; it is right that the funding decisions are made independently.

It is important that we have the right facilities, particularly for young people in our most disadvantaged areas. I know that that is why my hon. Friend takes the issue seriously.

What would the Minister say to Steve Dickinson, the proprietor of Mojo’s café in Scarborough, who has had to curtail his popular Wednesday afternoon jamming sessions because the two-in-a-bar rule has been abolished? He now faces having to pay for a licence for such events, which allow local bands their first opportunity, and local people to hear music for free at no cost to the taxpayer, unlike the case in Hartlepool.

I like a jamming session like anybody else, but we do have licensing provisions. It is clear that small venues have been able to apply for licensing, and that music is going on. We set up, and specifically tasked, the Live Music Forum, which has representatives from the unions and the industry, to look closely at the issue. It will report to us in the autumn so that we can be clear on how, or if, the licensing provisions have affected our live music venues.

May I wish you, Mr. Speaker, the happiest of birthdays and say how extraordinarily well you are looking? It will not have escaped your notice that at least one other Westminster character shares your birthday; I refer, of course, to PC John Harrigan, although it is also my birthday.

Parts of my body are considerably older.

Further to previous questions, may I ask the Minister whether the Department for Culture, Media and Sport will report on a study that I understand it intends to conduct into the experience of small venues and the impact of the Licensing Act 2003—not so much on Mojo’s of Scarborough, but on the wider musical scene?

Yes, I can tell my hon. Friend that we will come back to Parliament on those issues in the autumn.

If everything is so rosy in the field of live music, why do the results of a recent survey by the Musicians Union reveal that there has been a marked drop in live music in smaller venues, particularly those previously benefiting from the two-in-a-bar rule? If Ministers think that the Licensing Act 2003 is encouraging live music, why are they issuing new guidelines to local authorities? It is not the local authorities’ fault; no, it was the Government who passed the inadequate Licensing Act, and the Government who wrote the guidelines, and arrogant and incompetent Ministers who are only now waking up to the situation that we and thousands of musicians predicted over three years ago.

The hon. Gentleman made all sorts of spurious predictions on the record that have not stood up to the facts. If there is incompetence, it is on his side, and the Hansard record will show that.

The unions are part of the Live Music Forum, which is conducting the research and the survey, and as I have already said, that forum will come back to us with its findings in the autumn.

Sporting Village

Just before I answer the question, I believe that most of the House would like to share in our deep sense of disappointment at England’s early exit from the World cup on Saturday, but it would be wrong if the House did not thank David Beckham, who has captained the England team for more than five years. Let me also thank him for the support that he gave to help London in securing the Olympic bid. To Sven—dreams were not realised, but I wish him the best for the future. To Steve McClaren—the man at the helm now—good luck, and I thank him for meeting some of the 300 young people who took part on Saturday; he realised their dreams.

The answer to the question—[Interruption.] Quite honestly, Opposition Members are being churlish when the World cup has been one of our biggest sporting events for many years.

There is no dedicated funding stream for sports villages, but between 2001 and 2006, the Government have invested about £1 billion of lottery and Exchequer funding in sports facilities, which represents the biggest sports facilities investment programme in decades. Derek Mapp, the ex-chair of East Midlands Development Agency, is currently leading a feasibility study looking at how this interesting and innovative concept might be developed further. The study will look at whether sports villages—[Interruption.] If Opposition Members listen, they might discover that there is to be one in their area. The study will consider whether sports villages have the potential to contribute to the regeneration and sustainability of communities on a wide range of fronts, as well as a role in delivering the Olympic 2012 legacy.

I agree with my right hon. Friend that the whole of England is disappointed that the World cup will not be lifted by David Beckham. Of course there is sorrow, but we look forward to four years’ time, when I believe that we can win it.

I agree with my right hon. Friend that sporting villages are very important. There must be a good geographical spread across the country, but I can think of nowhere better for one than in Chorley, because we are a former new town, with a lot of Government-owned land, where we ended up with housing with absolutely no facilities and no infrastructure to back up the people who have been left neglected. Will he meet members of the local authority and me to pursue the development of a sporting village in Lancashire, but based in Chorley?

My hon. Friend is, without doubt, a great advocate for his constituents. Mr Mapp is getting Deloittes to do a survey, and as soon as that report comes out, which is towards the end of July or the beginning of August, I should be delighted to meet my hon. Friend and his constituents and, indeed, local authority representatives.

Digital Switchover

May I congratulate my hon. Friend on having got back from his constituency, where, this morning, he opened a new £100 million bridge? We were not sure that he would get back in time. We are very pleased that he is here.

To ensure that everyone, including older people, are able to enjoy the benefits of digital switchover by 2012, we are asking Digital UK to lead the campaign to provide relevant information to all households, as each TV region is switched.

The Minister for Sport, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Central (Mr. Caborn), started off the bridge project, so I should thank him publicly.

Has my hon. Friend had a chance to talk to the Secretary of State for Education and Skills? We have hundreds and hundreds of specialist computer and technology schools, and one of the cheapest ways in which we could carry out the switchover would be to charge those schools with the task of being the local hub for switchover—to go into old people’s homes, to liaise and so on. That would save us millions of pounds and generate great community spirit in those centres.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that suggestion. We have not held direct discussions on that specific topic with the Secretary of State for Education and Skills, but I will, of course, now initiate discussions with Education Ministers and officials. We are actively engaged in discussions with charities and public bodies, particularly those that represent older people and those who are disabled, because we believe that those are the individuals who will face the greatest difficulties in the switchover. We are absolutely confident that we have a very good plan in place, but we take on board his suggestions.

Does the Minister agree that the conversion of multiple dwelling units to digital reception presents particular challenges? What estimates have been made of the cost of converting MDUs, particularly for social landlords and local authorities? Does the Government propose to make any help available to them?

Multiple dwelling units present a particular problem, of which the hon. Gentleman has made particular efforts to make the House and departmental officials aware. There are especial problems associated with MDUs and we must adopt a sophisticated approach to them. We are in active discussion with all the relevant bodies and we believe that we are on course to solve most of the problems. I remind the hon. Gentleman that it is still nearly 18 months to two years before we begin the process of switchover. We believe that during the next 12 months the discussions that we are holding will bear the fruits and the policies that the hon. Gentleman wants to see.

The Government already recognise rightly the impact of energy costs on the households of older people. Is the Minister aware that only today the Energy Savings Trust produced a report that showed that the additional energy costs of digital set-top boxes could add £30 a year to household budgets for older people, and an even greater cost with certain new digital television sets? Will the Minister agree to work with manufacturers to find ways of reducing those costs, not least by putting off buttons on digital set-top boxes, and also to ensure that there is energy-use labelling on new equipment, along the lines of that provided on white goods?

The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. Yes, we are aware of the report; yes, we are in discussion with manufacturers about it and yes, it is our intention, when switchover takes place, for special codes to be introduced. It is not a problem that applies only to digital switchover; it applies to all digital equipment—mobile phone recharger units and just about everything in the house that uses the digital system. The Government are aware of the issue and are confronting it. I am sure that there will be bipartisan support for our efforts.

4. How the digital switchover pilot schemes have informed future policy; and if she will make a statement. (81365)

There have been two sets of relevant pilot schemes. The first of those examined the process of switchover in Llansteffan and Ferryside, and the second considered the needs of vulnerable groups in Bolton. Both pilots provided valuable real-time information. Above all, they confirmed people’s enthusiasm, and that, with support, digital television is popular. We will, of course, take those specific lessons into account in future planning. The results of both pilot studies are available in the Libraries of both Houses.

Is not the Secretary of State concerned that there is a lack of public awareness and that there are still people buying analogue televisions? Is there not much more that the right hon. Lady’s Department needs to do so that when switchover takes place in 18 months’ time it is not another Government failure?

There have been many Government successes. The process of digital switchover, commended by the Select Committee as a bold step and a bold decision, will be one of them. The right hon. Gentleman is right that people need to be properly informed, because, then, their apprehension about switchover—apprehension that tends to be higher among elderly and isolated people—falls. There is encouraging information from Digital UK. A £200 million public information campaign is now under way and in May, the first month of that campaign, the awareness in the borders—the right hon. Gentleman knows that that will be the first region to switch over—rose from 39 to 57 per cent. In Wales, awareness across the country rose from 3 to 22 per cent., as a result of targeted promotion and information. We will ensure that that is available consistently in the years up to switchover.

The Llansteffan pilot was a notable success. I am sure that the Secretary of State welcomes the fact that there is a significantly greater take up of digital television in Wales than elsewhere. Does the right hon. Lady agree that the real challenge for future policies is to ensure that all people in Wales have access to television that is produced in Wales for them? At present, 2 to 3 per cent. of people are unable to see Welsh television.

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. The key answer is the maintenance of platform choice. For example, in the case of the right hon. Member for Bracknell (Mr. Mackay), only 9 per cent. of his constituents can get a decent signal through digital terrestrial television, and so they rely on satellite. There are other parts of the country, however, where satellite may be a more difficult option. The maintenance of platform choice is one of the ways in which the constituents of the hon. Member for Caernarfon (Hywel Williams) will receive the service to which I believe many of them will be looking forward.

Gambling Commission

The Gambling Act 2005 will be fully implemented from September 2007. Between now and then, my Department will consult on and make the necessary orders and regulations, and the commission will continue to consult on, and publish, guidance and codes of practice on how it will operate the new licensing regime. Local authorities have a vital role to play in the new regime, as well. I am meeting the chair of the Local Authorities Co-ordinators of Regulatory Services on Thursday to address the concerns that it has about the timing issues.

With the British Medical Association warning only last week that one in 20 12 to 15-year-olds are showing signs of addiction to gambling, is it not time to educate and regulate? Some parts of the industry—such as, for example, internet poker—seem to be virtually untouched by any controls whatsoever. I understand that consultation and the appropriate actions have to be undertaken, but is it not now a matter of urgency?

I agree with my hon. Friend on two points. First, in terms of the role of the commission and internet gambling, that is the very reason for bringing the legislation forward—so that the Government have some controls over internet gambling. Secondly the Responsibility in Gambling Trust, which has been set up and is broadly run through GamCare, is looking at a wide education programme, as well as a prevention programme. I am meeting some of the industry tomorrow on those issues. There are concerns. To a large extent, that is why the 2005 Act was put on to the statute book: to give Government—indeed, Parliament—powers to intervene on behalf of the vulnerable in our society.

We were assured by the Secretary of State that the new regime for regulating gambling and the process for awarding the regional casino licence would be open and transparent. The reality is that they are now mired in chaos, confusion and disarray. Local authorities are warning of the kind of chaos and confusion that we witnessed with the Licensing Act 2003. In addition, we have now learned that the Government are to face a legal challenge from unsuccessful applicants. In a further development, Labour Back Benchers representing failed bidders are openly being encouraged to lobby Ministers to overturn a decision made by the supposedly independent commission. Is the Minister aware that the whole process is descending into complete disarray?

I have heard some rubbish from this Dispatch Box, but that is the biggest load of rubbish that I have heard for a long time. We have put in place the most transparent system—arm’s length from Government and my Department—to make an objective analysis of where the casinos should go. The confusion arose in the minds of Opposition Members when they decided to take the number of regional casinos from eight to one. They are now trying to get out of the issue politically and to blame the Government. That representation is totally untrue. We will stand by what we put in the 2005 Act and the process, which is transparent and fair. If people want to make a legal challenge, let them get on with it and take us to the courts.

But the Secretary of State has failed to ensure public confidence in the new regime. She will be aware, as will the Minister, that Ministers in her Department have already had to clarify four statements in relation to meetings held by her and her officials with overseas operators. Does the Minister consider it—to use the words he has just spoken at the Dispatch Box—transparent and arm’s length that senior Ministers are being entertained on the estates of American casino operators? Will he act urgently to ensure a complete and full disclosure of the facts to ensure public confidence and transparency in the process?

That is absolutely disgraceful. The Deputy Prime Minister, who the hon. Gentleman is referring to, had no role in planning or negotiations, or in the siting of casinos. When Opposition Members start making those allegations, they ought to come up with the facts. What is being said is totally untrue and unfounded. If anyone is being brought into disrepute, it is the hon. Gentleman.

Royal Parks

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the Secretary of State is a trustee for the nation of the 5,000 acres that comprise one of the most priceless assets that London has—the royal parks? Will he explain to the House why his Department’s grant to the royal parks has slipped by more than 20 per cent. since 1993? Will he further tell us why he is allowing these fragile environmental fabrics to be seriously degraded by too many unsuitable large-scale commercial events? Finally, will he deal with the £110 million backlog that the National Audit Office found in repairs undone?

If I were not aware that my right hon. Friend is a trustee of the royal parks, that would be seriously remiss of me given that I have spent quite a lot of time over the past year in the royal parks, meeting the Friends of the Royal Parks and the chief executive.

The hon. Gentleman’s tastes may well not be the same as those of Londoners and much of the country, but the Prince’s Trust concert and the success of Live8 indicate that the Royal Parks Agency has been very successful at some of the events that it has put on. However, he is right that there is a balance to be struck between those events and the more reflective enjoyment of those in the parks. That is why this year there have been fewer events in Hyde park. We keep those things under review, working with the Royal Parks Agency and, as I said, I shall be meeting the chief executive shortly.

As to the money, the hon. Gentleman should remember that the Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee said in his report that there was

“untapped potential for the Agency to generate income from its considerable assets.”

It is right that the Government bear that in mind when making their grant in aid.

On a beautiful day like today it is obvious how very many people—visitors to London, those who work in the city and tourists—make intensive use of the royal parks such as Hyde park, Richmond park, St. James’s park and so on. Would the Minister care to pay tribute to the work of the Royal Parks constabulary, which is responsible for the safety, enjoyment and relaxation of those many people in the parks, and will he lay to rest the rumour that it may fall victim to the merger mania of forces and be absorbed by the Metropolitan police? That would be a dreadful step, would it not?

I am happy to pay tribute to the Royal Parks constabulary. Two of our parks have been awarded the green flag for 2005, and five are being put forward for a green flag for this year. A key criterion of that is that people who enter the parks feel safe, and that is largely down to the work of the constabulary. We ought to remember when thinking and talking about these issues that on Friday in Regent’s park there will be a memorial for the victims of the London bombings. The parks play a huge and important role in our national life.

In answer to the hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor), the merger has already taken place. The Royal Parks constabulary is now part of the Metropolitan police; I am assuming that the Minister was aware of that fact.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex (Mr. Soames) rightly pointed out, our royal parks should be an oasis of calm and quiet contemplation for Londoners, commuters and tourists alike. The notion that in summer 2012 they should become one huge campsite to house those in London for the Olympic games, as suggested by the Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, the hon. Member for St. Helens, South (Mr. Woodward), is barmy. It is also in direct breach of the assurances given by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport in this House in a debate initiated by me on 24 May 2004. Moneys can be raised to preserve the royal parks by other means, as my hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Mr. Swire) will point out—he was acting as an auctioneer at one such event last week. Will the Minister assure us that he will keep the Treasury at bay and his Department’s hands off our royal parks?

The hon. Gentleman is confused; the Royal Parks is an agency of the Government. The idea that the Government could keep their hands off is ridiculous given that we are funding it to the tune of £25.6 million. The hon. Gentleman’s tastes may not be the tastes of ordinary Londoners, but the Royal Parks always consults on its strategy for events, as he would expect, and it is right that we support it on the events taking place this year and in coming years.

Is the Minister aware that the financial position of the royal parks is now so dire that routine maintenance is having to be funded out of lottery grants? Is that an appropriate way to manage either the parks or lottery funds?

The national lottery, in particular the Heritage Lottery Fund, is funding parks throughout the country, and the constituencies of many hon. Members have benefited. Funding for the royal parks is increasing this year to £26.1 million. The hon. Gentleman knows that we are in the middle of the spending review, and it is right and proper that we consider the PAC’s comment that there is “untapped potential” to raise even more revenue from our parks. That is the position, and it is one that the Government have maintained for many years.

Digital Switchover

Ofcom estimates that approximately a quarter of homes in the Lewes constituency currently receive digital terrestrial television, although the vast majority of homes can receive digital TV via satellite, with the right equipment. Proceeding with digital switchover will allow all those who currently receive a good analogue signal to receive digital TV via an aerial, ensuring that the vast majority of people have access to a digital platform.

Does the Minister understand the strong feelings of the bulk of my constituents who cannot receive much of the BBC’s television programme output because they have no access to a digital terrestrial set-top box that works in the constituency, and will not have until 2012? Do they not deserve a reduction in the BBC licence fee for the time being? What is the position of those of my constituents for whom, when switch-off occurs, a digital set-top box will still not work and who will therefore have to use a satellite dish, but may be prevented from doing so by planning rules because they live in a conservation area or a listed building?

Obviously we are aware of the problems experienced by the hon. Gentleman’s constituents. We are working towards ensuring maximum access for everybody while preserving the Government’s position of platform neutrality. I remind the hon. Gentleman that switching off the analogue signal in 2012 will automatically provide a major boost to the digital signal. Ofcom is working on how to deal with the small percentage of homes in his constituency that might still have problems. Our hope is that we will have solved that problem by the time of switchover.

Understanding Slavery Initiative

8. What assessment she has made of the work of the Understanding Slavery Initiative producing materials for schools about the trans-Atlantic slave trade to support the teaching of history and citizenship. (81369)

The Understanding Slavery Initiative is having a real and positive impact on the teaching of that complex issue, and has produced high-quality materials and training for teachers and museum educators across the country.

I thank my hon. Friend for his recent visit to Hull to see our preparations for Wilberforce 2007. Will he join me in congratulating Hull university, which this week opens the Wilberforce institute for the study of slavery and emancipation, which will study the present-day context of slavery and what we can learn from the slave trade, as well as work alongside local schools?

I truly enjoyed my visit to Hull on Monday last week to join my hon. Friend and many other colleagues on the trip to the Wilberforce museum. Hull has been key to the development of the training resource. It is important that teachers are able to discuss sensitive and difficult issues at key stage 3 and have the right materials to do that. Hull has been absolutely brilliant, especially in its work with the National Maritime museum to develop those resources. I wish everyone in Hull the best of luck for the launch of WISE on Friday. I understand that Desmond Tutu is the president of that important new research facility. The work done at Hull, together with work carried out in Liverpool, Bristol and London, will help to ensure that the commemorations and celebrations of the abolition of slavery next year are a huge success.

Does the Minister accept that Wilberforce was not only Hull’s greatest son, but probably the greatest Back Bencher in the history of the House?

He did not belong to any party. It was Wilberforce’s parliamentary campaign that led not to the abolition of slavery in 1807, but the abolition of the slave trade. Can those facts be emphasised to all young people as they study what can be achieved by a persistent parliamentary campaign?

The hon. Gentleman is right. That is why a Committee of both Houses, very much with the grace of Mr. Speaker, is examining closely how those issues can be conveyed next year. It is true that Wilberforce played a key role as a parliamentary campaigner, but it is also true that the Quakers, who, for obvious reasons, sometimes remain silent about the role that they played, should be remembered, as should many of the black former slave campaigners.

Happy birthday to you, Mr. Speaker and to my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Stephen Pound), who assures me that refreshments are on him today.

Will the Minister indicate whether he agrees with and will support a grass-roots-led UK annual memorial day regarding the transatlantic slave trade?

My hon. Friend is right that some Members and communities have asked for a memorial day. There have been differences of opinion about what day that should be and about whether we should focus on a day or on other things to do with celebrations of the abolition of slavery. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has said that he keeps an open mind on these issues, so we will see whether a consensus can be arrived at.

Next year is the 200th anniversary of the death of the slave ship commander turned Christian hymn writer, John Newton. After his conversion on board a slave ship, he wrote one of the most famous hymns of all time, “Amazing Grace”. Will the Minister ensure that next year there is some formal recognition of that amazing figure in English religious literature?

We are in discussions with colleagues in the Department for Education and Skills on these issues, as we are with leaders of our cultural institutions, some of whom sit on the advisory committee that is led by the Deputy Prime Minister. I will ensure that that specific issue is raised.

Sports Participation

9. What estimate she has made of the number of people who play football, tennis or cricket at least once a week. (81370)

This information is not available on a weekly basis, but according to the general household survey of 2002-03, 1.8 million adults had played football, 745,000 had played tennis and 235,000 had played cricket in the previous four weeks. The Department’s taking part survey will provide a complete picture of current participation levels in sport, including football, tennis and cricket, later this year.

As the House sends its commiserations to the England team for not winning on Saturday night in that dramatic penalty shootout, as it reflects on the great legacy of Fred Trueman, who died at the weekend, and as it salutes the great performance of Andy Murray, whom we hope will go further, does the Minister think that there is scope for the Government to lead on engaging the great motivating potential of people such as Andy Murray, Rio Ferdinand and Andy Flintoff to make many more people who watch sport go on to participate in it, with all the benefits that that brings us all?

Very much so. The hon. Gentleman is right that such people are incredibly powerful in the community. There is no doubt that they are icons. The sporting champions whom we are developing are playing a major role and talent is being identified through the talented athlete scholarship scheme, right up to possible world-class performers. Young people in schools from the age of 10 will be picked up not by chance, but by design, and they can be put on the pathway to excellence to allow them to realise their potential. I agree that we need to use the sporting icons in our nation more effectively than we do, and we are working to that end.

Does my right hon. Friend share my concern that the lack of cricket coverage on free-to-air TV might have an adverse effect on the number of children who regularly play the sport? On average, only 200,000 viewers watch Sky’s coverage, compared with a peak of 8 million or 9 million people who watched Channel 4’s coverage last year. Does he also accept the good wishes of many cricket followers for the talks that he is initiating with broadcasters? There is widespread hope that that might lead to the return of at least some live test match cricket coverage to free-to-air TV.

I can partially agree with that, but may I put on record my great appreciation of a legend of Yorkshire cricket, Freddie Trueman? I saw him at Bramall Lane with my dad when I was about 10 years old, and he is truly a legend, as Dickie Bird said on Saturday night.

On Sky television and terrestrial broadcasting of cricket, we must remember what was in the Select Committee report. Had it not been for all the investment of television money in cricket, I do not think that we would have won the Ashes, which was a great feat, or had the coaching programmes and central contracts that the England and Wales Cricket Board now has. One must pay credit to the ECB for the modernisation that it has gone through. It is can now choose a team that can take the Ashes—which that team did, and we wish it well over Christmas and the new year in Australia—and also get more young people under coaching in cricket than there have been for many years. Credit must go to the ECB for that, and the funding—whether we like it or not—has largely come through television revenues.

No doubt the Minister would encourage participation in sport by boys and girls, and men and women, in equal numbers, so does he agree that it is unfortunate that the Wimbledon authorities still insist on paying much smaller amounts of prize money to their women champions than to their men champions, even though women are willing and able to play as many sets as men?

I think that the hon. Lady really believed what she said, so I have no doubt that she can join my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and none other than the Prime Minister in having a joint approach to the All England Club authorities. Let us have hope for the negotiations that are taking place with the Women’s Tennis Association. I hope that the All England Club listens carefully in the meetings that I know that its representatives will attend in the next few months, and I hope that this ill will have been rectified when the Wimbledon tournament takes place next year.

Licensing Act

10. What assessment she has made of the impact on consumers, licensees and community groups of the Licensing Act 2003; and if she will make a statement. (81371)

It is too early to determine the full impact of the Licensing Act 2003 on different stakeholders. However, we know that local people are engaged in the licensing process to an unprecedented level and are confident that the interests of the public, as well as of pubs, clubs, bars, restaurants, theatres, cinemas and other establishments, are better protected by the new regime.

Stourbridge police recommend the introduction of the cumulative impact policy in the centre of my constituency. That will enable local people to have a say in local licensing decisions. There is a committee meeting tonight to discuss the recommendation. If the decision is taken to introduce it, it will be the most wide-ranging in the United Kingdom. Will my hon. Friend join me in congratulating local police for their work so far in dealing with what has been a doubling of the number of bars and pubs in my town centre, and also for their foresight and vision in taking full advantage of this consultative process?

I agree with my hon. Friend. In fact, this morning I had the pleasure of reading through the notes on the special meeting of the licensing and safety committee in preparation for this question, which were fully available on the web as part of the open, transparent government that we, of course, now operate. The serious point is that what is most interesting is the way that this provides the opportunity for the police and the council to consider together and in detail evidence to ascertain whether proposals to introduce a special policy should go forward.

That is exactly the kind of discussion that we wanted to happen as a result of the Act. We wanted a balance between the interests of the public who are affected by disorder, nuisance and other problems and those of legitimate businesses and people who enjoy themselves by having a drink, while leaving at the right time and not indulging in binge drinking. The combination of those interests and decisions being made by local communities is what this Act was properly for, and the matter raised demonstrates quintessentially why the Act is working.

What does the Minister suggest that I say to the Punch and Judy man on Southwold beach who now has to pay £300 in order to entertain the public? What should I say to the parish councils that run the annual church fête that took place yesterday, given that people now have to fill in a form several inches thick to run a perfectly reasonable charitable operation? Is this not in fact a metropolitan operation dreamt up by a Government who have never run anything in their lives?

I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman would extend his normal courtesies to whomever he met on a beach, or in any other place that he happened to wander around. The fact is that we are conducting a review of the 2003 Act’s implementation, and, as he will be aware, we are consulting widely. But at the moment, the overwhelming evidence is that—subject to marginal changes that need to be made, and which we have committed ourselves to being prepared to make, if the evidence is there to support making them—the changes brought in by this Act have improved the regulatory regime for those in business and for the consumer.

I have seen the benefits that sensible implementation of the 2003 Act can bring in the north-east. Is my hon. Friend aware that Newcastle-Gateshead has recently topped an influential list of the best nights out in Britain? That is no surprise, given that visitors to the area have a choice of such cultural gems as the Baltic centre for contemporary art and the Sage live music centre. Will my hon. Friend join me in welcoming the success of the Newcastle-Gateshead initiative in helping to establish the north-east as an arena at the forefront of British culture?

Clearly, the Newcastle-Gateshead initiative is an example to us all and I invite all Members, including the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer), to pay a visit to that area as soon as possible.

Public Accounts Commission

The Chairman of the Public Accounts Commission was asked—

National Audit Office

21. If he will make a statement on the progress of the National Audit Office in meeting its performance targets for 2006-07. (81384)

The National Audit Office will present its annual report and accounts to Parliament later this month, setting out its achievements for the year to 31 March 2006 and how it has used its resources. During the year, the NAO produced 61 major reports on the value for money achieved by Departments in using resources across a range of public expenditure. Examples include returning failed asylum seekers, progress in improving Government efficiency, and the failure of MG Rover. The Comptroller and Auditor General certified more than 500 accounts during the year and I know that the House will congratulate the NAO on identifying £555 million-worth of financial savings arising from its work in 2005—a return of more than £8 for every pound funded by Parliament. The Public Accounts Commission will have the opportunity to examine the NAO’s performance on the House’s behalf when it meets to consider the NAO’s corporate plan tomorrow.

I congratulate the NAO on last week’s report into the failure that is the Child Support Agency. Is it not an absolute scandal that it costs the CSA 70p to collect each £1 of child support, and that 60 per cent. of outstanding child support payments totalling £3.5 billion are deemed uncollectable?

That is really a matter for the Public Accounts Committee, rather than the Public Accounts Commission, but one is bound to feel that what we have read about is the latest in a series of disastrous performances by the CSA, which reflect what I suspect is the unpleasant experience of too many of our constituents. Our first inquiry, which was conducted a long time ago, discovered that—unbelievably—the CSA was set up with just one quarter of the staff that it required. Ever since then, it has never recovered.

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the National Audit Office is saving this country a lot of money and is he concerned that its expansion is being resisted by the Executive, because they are worried that it would expose their incompetence and weaknesses?

On the latter point, I do not know what the Executive’s aspirations might be, but if there is any such aspiration, it is having no effect. The Public Accounts Commission’s role is to ensure that the NAO has the money that it requires and, so far, there has been no serious attempt by the Treasury to curtail the grants that we were considering making to the NAO. I hope that that reassures the hon. Gentleman. Furthermore, because it has been so successful, we asked the NAO to consider whether, instead of achieving an £8:£1 rate of return for the taxpayer, it could do better. To our surprise, the NAO has said that in 2007 it hopes to increase that ratio from the present £8 to £9 for every £1 that it costs.

Does the Chairman of the Public Accounts Commission agree that, if the NAO is to maintain and preserve its reputation for professionalism and independence, it would do well to resist the well-known pressure from Government for it to soft pedal its criticism of private finance initiative projects? He speaks of the savings that the NAO has achieved. If he were to press the Government to abandon PFI, which is prohibitive in cost, flawed in concept and intolerable in consequences for taxpayers, citizens and public sector workers, the savings would be vastly greater than the sum that he quoted.

Again, that is a matter for the Public Accounts Committee. If the Government have been trying get the National Audit Office to curb criticism of PFI, they have been singularly unsuccessful, and they certainly have not managed to limit the activities of the Public Accounts Committee, on which I sit.

Church Commissioners

The hon. Member for Middlesbrough, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—

Retired Clergy

20. What recent assessment the commissioners have made of poverty levels among retired clergy. None. However, the Commissioners provide funding for certain schemes administered by the Church of England Pensions Board to assist clergy pensioners on low incomes. (81383)

We should find out what poverty levels are among retired clergy. Some of the clergy were late joining and therefore have not built up a sufficient pension fund to give them the income that they need to live off. When they retire, they also have to buy a property. I know they get a mortgage at 0 per cent. interest, but if they have a low pension to start with and have to pay a mortgage, it leaves those who have come late to the service at a great disadvantage. Will my hon. Friend investigate and calculate how bad poverty levels are among retired clergy?

I would rather refer to low incomes than poverty in relation to the clergy. As I told the House on 24 April at column 354 and on 5 June at column 21,

“the Church is reviewing its pension arrangements.”—[Official Report, 5 June 2006; Vol. 447, c. 21.]

The scheme’s cost has been increased by reduced investment returns, new regulatory requirements and increased life expectancy. My hon. Friend’s point is well taken and I will consider it.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that poverty among retired clergy is likely to increase if the Church of England investments that fund those pensions are made on the basis of what is politically correct, rather than what is financially correct?

I disagree with the hon. Gentleman, in the sense that our investments are properly made and are now at £4.9 billion. We have a proper investment policy—an ethical investment policy which is appropriate for the Church. In my time as a Church Commissioner, since 1997, the assets have increased from £3 billion to £4.9 billion, but of course I would hardly take credit for that.

Cathedral Repairs

22. What the cost of repairs to Lichfield and Hereford cathedrals was in 2004-05; and if he will make a statement. (81385)

Repair costs for individual cathedrals are not held centrally. However, by way of a statement, an English Heritage survey in 2002 identified £39 million worth of essential structural repairs needed in England’s 61 cathedrals.

Is it not important that we look after our cathedrals, not least Lichfield and Hereford? They act not only as spiritual centres of worship, but as community centres where people gather for live music, as we discussed in the Chamber earlier, and where other non-religious community groups meet in cathedrals. Is it not time that the Government recognised the wider role that our cathedrals play, not only in their diocese, but also to incoming tourists, and started to fund the repairs properly?

As the hon. Gentleman says, we should remember the educational benefits, of which Hereford cathedral’s recently launched Tudor trail for schools is a fine example. Lichfield cathedral works hard to encourage school visits, as the hon. Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) often reminds us. We are consistently in dialogue with the Government in relation to church repairs, as I may point out in response to another question.

The cathedrals of England are a particularly important part of our national heritage. Does my hon. Friend worry that, if the Church of England increasingly turns its back on its liberal traditions and seems to be an organisation that becomes more and more bigoted and less and less committed to the whole of British society, it will find difficulty in getting support from the society in which it is meant to preach?

Thank you for saying that, Mr. Speaker.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, notwithstanding the accuracy of everything that my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) said, these buildings are intrinsically the most important single group of large buildings in our country, and that any Government who allowed them to crumble into decay would not deserve the accolade of a civilised Government?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, cathedrals generate about £91 million per year and directly support 2,600 jobs. They are therefore a strong addition to our economy as well as our national heritage.

Ecclesiastical Buildings

23. How many times in the last 12 months commissioners have met the Chancellor of the Exchequer or other Treasury Ministers to discuss financial issues affecting the fabric of churches and cathedrals. (81386)

You will be pleased to know, Mr. Speaker, as will the hon. Gentleman, that I regularly chat to the Chancellor on several matters pertaining to the Church. We are grateful to him for his listed places of worship grant scheme, whereby last year in England £12,498,019 was paid out in reimbursement of VAT on church repairs alone.

As my hon. Friends the Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) and for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack) said, the maintenance of cathedrals is important, but also very expensive. As the hon. Gentleman will know from what I and hon. Members on both sides of the House have said in the past, that often involves VAT on building works and grants that are available to cathedrals for work. He cannot operate in isolation on these matters. To what extent has he raised these matters with the Chancellor of the Exchequer and is he aware that the Chancellor is taking them up with the European Union, which is very much concerned with VAT rates?

I sympathise with the Chancellor in his discussions on VAT in Europe, where he needs unanimous consent for any change. In relation to my discussions with him, the hon. Gentleman should know that we equally have discussions with Ministers in other Departments, especially the Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, my hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr. Lammy), who warmly welcomed “Building Faith in our Future” and promised a Government response shortly. We look forward to that.

Can the hon. Gentleman explain to the House why the five Scottish cathedrals in Glasgow, Aberdeen, Dunblane, Dornoch and Lerwick are entirely supported and maintained by the state, while English cathedrals receive not a penny?

I am not responsible for the Episcopal church in Scotland. President Pompidou was once asked whether he was responsible for the Church, and said, “No, thank God.” I can say the same of the Episcopal church.

Would it be reasonable for me to say to all the people who look after Christian centres of worship in a borough such as Southwark—the Methodist chapels and churches, the Welsh Free chapel, and the churches and cathedrals of all three denominations, Anglican, Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox—that if the heritage and importance of those buildings merit it, they can look for financial support, as each plays a hugely important part in the life of a borough such as ours?

I read comments of the Dean of Southwark in the newspapers with interest, and I well understand the hon. Gentleman’s position. I am, however, responsible for the Church of England, not for the other denominations to which he refers.

“Building Faith in our Future”

25. What progress has been made in implementing the recommendations in the paper, “Building Faith in our Future”; and if he will make a statement. (81388)

I refer my hon. Friend to the answer that I gave to the hon. Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant). We continue to make significant progress in helping parishes and dioceses respond to the opportunities and challenges that church buildings present. We await the Government response.

Given the potential for church tourism to support and maintain church buildings at the heart of many of our local communities, will my hon. Friend do his best to ensure a co-ordinated approach to its development, involving the Church Commissioners, the Government, the tourist industry and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport?

My hon. Friend has regularly championed faith tourism and we agree about its importance. I am happy to tell him that Church officials had a positive meeting at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport on church tourism last week. He might also be glad to know that the Churches Tourism Association will launch its tourism marketing initiative at its annual convention in November. The Church Commissioners, as well as my hon. Friend, will take a close interest in those proceedings.

British Forces (Afghanistan)

To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a statement on the position of British forces in Afghanistan.

Before I answer the hon. Gentleman’s question, I am sure that the whole House will join me in offering our condolences to the families of Corporal Thorpe and Lance Corporal Hashmi, the two soldiers killed on Saturday in Helmand province along with their interpreter. I have no doubt either that I speak for the House in wishing a speedy recovery to the five soldiers injured in the same attack. Our thoughts and prayers are with them all.

I should also explain that, given the time when you decided to take the urgent question, Mr. Speaker, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has been unable to return to the House in time from his constituency. I apologise on his behalf.

The losses of life that our forces have suffered over the past few weeks are a tragedy. However, they do not mean that our mission in Afghanistan is somehow confused. The position of our armed forces in Afghanistan is clear. First and foremost, our troops are in Afghanistan to ensure that never again is it is a safe haven for the likes of al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Quite simply, the risks are too great to us, our allies, and the Afghan people for us to stand aside and allow the terrorists to return. That overriding aim was clear when my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary—then Secretary of State for Defence—announced our deployment to Helmand last January, and it is clear today.

Our forces are our contribution to the expansion of the UN-authorised and NATO-led international security assistance force—ISAF. It is not only a British mission. Danish and Estonian troops are embedded into our forces in Helmand. Overall, 36 nations provide troops for ISAF. They, too, have had their casualties. A Romanian soldier was killed last month and Canadian and US troops have also died.

Our troops are there to help foster the environment in which the Afghans, with the support of the wider international community, can develop sustainable governing institutions and spread the authority of central Government across the country. They are there to help build up the Afghan security forces. They are there to help set the conditions for developing the Afghan economy and infrastructure. That means that we also help put in place the sort of environment in which the Afghans, again with international support, can make an impact on the narcotics trade.

Yes, our armed forces have been in action against the Taliban. That was only to be expected. That was why we sent an air-mobile battlegroup, artillery and Apache attack helicopters. Let me be candid. We would not have deployed such a formidable package if we did not think that there was a genuine threat to the safety of our armed forces. It was not pulled together on a whim. We did not pick and choose. We sent what the top military advice in the country—the chiefs of staff—said that we should send. So I want to make it absolutely plain that there has never been a sense that our aims and objectives were unfocused.

Of course, as with any operation, we keep our forces under review. The House will know that we regularly announce force changes for Iraq, as various formations are deployed in and out of that theatre. Afghanistan is no different, and we are working through such a process now. The hon. Gentleman will know that it is the intention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to make an announcement on the roulement of 16 Air Assault Brigade before the recess, but he will not do so until he has received the advice of the chiefs of staff on the precise details of the roulement. That will form part of a much wider NATO process that will be under way in July.

The House will understand that I cannot go into more detail now. However, right hon. and hon. Members can be assured that, despite press reports today, commanders have not asked for extra infantry or air cover. We do not go into matters such as these in detail, for reasons that the House will understand, but I can go as far as to say that the latest requests to the chiefs of staff, which are part of the planned ongoing analysis, include requests for enablers and engineering equipment. I want to make it clear that these requests were expected from the outset and that we expect more requests from theatre as the campaign continues. If they include “combat” elements, we will consider them seriously and immediately, as we always do.

I must stress, however, that we are only at the start of our three-year operation. Our forces in Helmand only reached their full operating capability this weekend, and there is still much to do. We all know that the democratically elected Afghan Government have had little sway in Helmand. It is inevitable that the earliest stages of such an operation will focus heavily on helping the Afghans to create security and stability. Only then can our wider aid and development programmes go forward unimpeded. They have already begun, and once they are fully under way, they will in turn reinforce security and stability as Helmand’s legitimate economy grows and the rule of law expands, and as we curb the influence of the Taliban and the drugs traffickers.

I shall say one final thing. We are committed to the success of the wider international project to help to rebuild Afghanistan, and we can best do that by making a real contribution—political, developmental and military—to the stabilisation of Helmand. Our armed forces are doing a magnificent job in making that happen, and they should continue to receive the full support of all of us in the House.

You will be aware, Mr. Speaker, that there has been much speculation over the weekend about the unease of British commanders in Afghanistan regarding their ability to carry out the mission defined by the Government. I believe that it is absolutely vital that we succeed in Afghanistan for three reasons. First, failure would be a catastrophic blow to the cohesion and reputation of NATO, and it would embolden our enemies rather than weakening them. Secondly, it would provide a victory for the forces of terror which oppose not only our troops on the ground but our entire value system and way of life, and give them encouragement to further their campaign of terror here at home. Thirdly, such a failure would betray the ordinary people of Afghanistan, to whom we have promised so much.

The Government have two basic duties: to maximise our chance of success in the mission and to minimise the risk to our troops. We intend to hold the Government to account in that regard, as is our duty in a parliamentary democracy. I must add that the tone in which the House conducts this process is also extremely important, because those who wish us harm will be listening intently for any sign of weakening in our resolve.

The Government’s presentation of the likely path of events in Afghanistan has been at the most optimistic end of the spectrum from the outset. The belief that the anti-terrorist operation, Operation Enduring Freedom, and the NATO reconstruction mission carried out by ISAF could in practice be separated for long has always been naive at best. Those who defend and promote the forces of terrorism, and who attack our troops or deny us the territory that we need to provide a stable future for the people of Afghanistan, are our enemies. The Government must therefore give our commanders on the ground everything that they need to carry out their mission successfully.

If our military chiefs have asked for more equipment and personnel, when did they start to do so? What specific plans do the Government have to increase the number of fixed-wing aircraft available to our troops in Afghanistan? What will they do to improve the helicopter capacity currently compromised by lack of numbers and difficulty operating in the severe heat? What do the Government intend to do about increasing the proportion of infantry in relation to support troops? What approaches have been made by the Prime Minister and his Ministers to their NATO and EU counterparts about ensuring that all countries pull their weight in this combined NATO struggle? What representations have they made about the appointment of an international co-ordinator to ensure that the funds for reconstruction are not squandered, which is an issue that my right hon. Friend the shadow Foreign Secretary has championed?

I accept that winning the battle against al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan and reconstructing that country may require a long deployment and significantly higher numbers of troops and equipment. I doubt very much that it is likely to be, as the Minister said, a three-year operation. I say to those on both sides of the House who have reservations about our involvement in Afghanistan—I know that there are some—that the costs of succeeding in Afghanistan may be very high, but the cost of failure would be intolerable.

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s support. His three points about NATO, terrorists and ordinary Afghans were well made.

On the point about the request for specific military hardware, the hon. Gentleman will understand that I cannot comment on that publicly yet, except to say that when our commanders ask our chiefs of staff for equipment, if those requests are put to Ministers, we will consider them in the usual way. I said in my statement that if such requests were for combat equipment, we would consider them seriously and immediately.

On the hon. Gentleman’s point about countries pulling their weight within NATO, of course, it is important in an alliance with 34 countries that all countries contribute their fair share. I will make sure that his points resonate in the appropriate corridors.

On the hon. Gentleman’s point about a three-year operation, of course, the Afghanistan of 2009 will still need different agencies of the UK, but our key goal is to build a security capacity for the Afghan Government where it does not exist now. My comments about some of the requests from theatre allude to the need to do that capacity building in the short and medium term. If he has any other fears, he should contact us about those. There has been some misinformed or ill-informed speculation in the press, and I am grateful that he has given me the opportunity to rebut some of the comments made at the weekend.

May I remind my hon. Friend that many Members of the House are justly proud of the role that British troops played in 2001 in removing an oppressive and fascistic Government? Will he reassure the House, however, that our troops are properly resourced for their continuing campaign against Afghanistan’s poppy trade, whose product causes untold misery in my constituency and the constituencies of almost every other Member of the House?

I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. I return to the point that we are in Afghanistan to make sure that it never again has the terrorist training capacity that created such a threat to the world a few years ago. The activity of poppy growers is one of the reasons why Afghanistan is such an unstable narco-state. As we try to create a secure economy in some of Afghanistan’s provinces, it is important to wean people off the poppy economy. Doing that too early and too soon, however, could create insecurity. We need triangulation between civic buy-in from ordinary Afghans on the ground, our military’s role and the way in which poppy traders are dealt with. However, his point is well made.

I associate members of my party with the Minister’s opening expressions of condolence and regret.

I have a personal and particular interest in this matter, because Royal Marines from Taunton have been deployed in Afghanistan—as have troops from the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Bob Russell), who is sorry not to be present this afternoon.

Will the Minister respond to the following questions at greater length? What assessment has been made of the Taliban’s capacity to destabilise British troop deployments, and what is his response to allegations that people in Pakistan have been giving shelter or support to Taliban fighters?

I have three further questions. First, will the Minister expand on how much clarity there is in the NATO mission, and what proportion of time our troops spend on force protection? Secondly, will he comment on how forces can achieve security objectives with counter-narcotics work, given the connections of insurgents, warlords and indeed Government officials with the drugs trade? Finally, will he comment on the declining security situation? In 2005, 1,600 people were killed by fighting in Afghanistan. So far, more than 1,100 have been killed this year, and there are increasing incidences of kidnappings and roadside and suicide bombings. Does the Minister share my concern and that of many other Members that the tactics used in Afghanistan increasingly resemble those being used in Iraq?

Counter-narcotics work is vital to our efforts to promote long-term stability and security in Afghanistan. The drugs trade feeds on and contributes to insecurity in Afghanistan and the surrounding region. However, it is important for our troops to build a security capacity so that the Afghans themselves can fight the drugs traffickers. That will be our key goal over the next three years.

The hon. Gentleman spoke of our relationship with Pakistan. We have good co-operation with Pakistan, which works with us in the fight against international terrorism.

The hon. Gentleman also raised a number of technical points about force protection. I will write to him about those.

After five years of attempts to destroy the poppy trade, this year’s harvest will be the highest ever and the price of heroin on the streets of Britain will be the lowest ever. The last Secretary of State for Defence said that the Helmand venture would end in three years without a shot being fired. What we are now seeing in the formerly peaceful area of Helmand is bitter resentment, not among the Taliban but among the ordinary people: murderous resentment of our troops. If we are sucked into a war in Afghanistan, it could deteriorate into a British Vietnam and provoke Afghan terrorism on the streets of Britain. When will we explain to our American friends and to our Government that it is not possible to win hearts and minds by using bombs and bullets?

I understand that my hon. Friend has long-held, forceful and powerful views on the drugs trade, which are not widely shared across the House or in the international community.

My hon. Friend’s point about winning hearts and minds is not lost on our forces on the ground. They understand that the way in which to deal with a narcotics economy—and in some areas of Helmand, the only economy is based on narcotics—is to build a security capacity in which the Afghans themselves can deal with the narcotics trade, and also to construct long-term development plans so that the economy of Helmand, apart from the drugs trade, can grow.

I do not recognise my hon. Friend’s description of the situation on the ground, but I understand the points that he has made.

If the Minister agrees with me that the Treasury’s £1 billion over three years for this operation is not enough, will he assure the House and the thousands of military families throughout the country that he will not hesitate to seek more funds with which to provide whatever the military need?

The future Panther vehicle must be the answer to many of the Army’s needs in the current circumstances. Only seven are being tried out at present, but 400 are due to come on-stream next year. Will we definitely have 400 Panther vehicles next year, or will that slip?

Let me just say to the hon. Gentleman that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence is a former Chief Secretary to the Treasury and very close to the Chancellor, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman’s points are well made.

The Minister referred to our NATO allies. He will know that there has been quite a lot of difficulty getting sufficient forces in Afghanistan from NATO collectively. Can he tell me whether the discussions with our NATO partners have made any recent progress as regards reinforcement not just from those countries that are already in Afghanistan, but from other NATO partners to assist this internationally vital success? As he and other Members have said, we cannot allow Afghanistan to become a failed state, where it could be a base again for terrorists to attack people throughout the world.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on the report that I believe his Committee has published today. I am sure that he will realise that I have not yet had time to read it because my day has got slightly busier than I anticipated at 9 this morning. However, I will read it. We are continuing discussions with our NATO partners on the issue that he has raised.

Will the Minister repudiate the view expressed by the Minister for Europe last week that the present Taliban fighting in Helmand and in the south constitutes the most serious Taliban offensive in the past four years? Will the Minister, so far as current policy is concerned, not only ensure that British capability is enhanced, but resist pressure from the Pentagon to use the presence of ISAF in the south as an excuse to reduce American forces? Will he make greater efforts to achieve a single unified command between ISAF and Operation Enduring Freedom, to ensure the best use of western resources?

Our troops face a very serious situation, which is why they are there. The right hon. and learned Gentleman makes his customary wise contribution in the House. Ministers have not yet received a request for any increased capacity, but if they do, I repeat, they will be taken seriously and considered immediately.

May I put it to my hon. Friend that we are going to have difficulty obtaining the support of the people in Helmand province for the fight against terrorism if they suspect that we have gone there to destroy their livelihoods? Therefore this may be the moment to get out and dust down the proposal by the Senlis Council for the regulated sale of Afghan opium—in the same way as already happens in Turkey and India, incidentally—to the international pharmaceutical market. I hope that, sooner or later, someone will take that seriously. I realise that there are many difficulties with it, but they are not as great as the difficulties we face doing it the other way.

I know that my hon. Friend, as a former Foreign Office Minister and a respected former Chair of the Select Committee on Home Affairs, knows about these issues. He raises a big issue. I am sure that his points will be amplified and I will ensure that they are taken seriously.

I join others in paying tribute to all those who are serving in Afghanistan. One of the soldiers who was killed last week was a constituent of mine. Given some of the press reports over the past week or 10 days indicating some rumours and suggestions that there are shortfalls, can the Minister give an absolute and unequivocal assurance that that is not the case and that everything is being and will be done to ensure that all our forces can carry out their functions and battles in Afghanistan to a satisfactory conclusion?

I can give the hon. Gentleman the assurance that all our military advice is that the current capacity is acceptable. There are commanders on the ground feeding into the chain of command, and if Ministers receive any requests, as I said earlier, we will consider them seriously and immediately.

I should like to add my sympathies to the families of those who have lost their lives, but laying out in front of the House the precise details of our deployment in Afghanistan, or indeed hard-won intelligence about the Taliban, could place our troops in greater danger. Does my hon. Friend agree that we should continue to be guided by operational requirements of commanders in the field and not press speculation about troop equipment and troop requirements?

My hon. Friend makes a very wise point. Some of the comments in the press are unhelpful. We always take such matters seriously and we always announce them in the House at the appropriate time.

When the former Secretary of State for Defence, now Home Secretary, made the original statement about deployment, many of us warned him that the capacity of the force is driven by the definition of the mission, and that this mission was ill-defined from the word go. I am supportive of what our forces are trying to do, but I have always felt—and now feel even more strongly—that until we look again at the mission and decide that it does not cover the reality on the ground, and try to see it through the eyes of the Taliban, we will continue to underperform in the sense of not giving our forces the right equipment and support. If the Minister does not wish to be accused of complacency, he should do two things. First, he should not wait for the Chiefs of Staff to come to him, but go to them and demand to know what the forces need to deliver the mission. Secondly, he should then give it to them.

The Chiefs of Staff are no shrinking violets, and they are not backwards at coming forwards, as they say on West Bromwich high street, but the right hon. Gentleman makes an important point. I reread the debate in January when my right hon. Friend the then Defence Secretary announced our deployment. He said that the mission was clear and that there could be no security and stability if insurgents, illegal armed groups and the drugs trade were not tackled. Our role is to help the Afghans to do just that. Only then will the Afghan Government, with support from the international community, be able to set about the long and difficult task of reconstruction and development. I am pleased that the right hon. Gentleman joins us in that goal.

I am glad that my hon. Friend has given this response, because it is important that both sides of the House show our sympathy for those troops who have lost their lives and their families. We also express our strong support for the troops serving out there. Will he ensure that those troops are not left wanting equipment? The biggest breaker of morale is overstretch, so will he also ensure that the troops get the leave to which they are entitled? That is the biggest boost we could give them.

I take my hon. Friend’s point. I am sure that our troops will know that they have the full support of Members on both sides of the House, and I hear the point that he made about overstretch.

In many conflict situations, people start to want revenge more than they want peace. In the battle for hearts and minds, the danger is of creating vast resentment. Would it not be sensible for the Government to revisit their strategy from the perspective of how we can persuade people, instead of increasing the use of force?

Our commanders on the ground understand the need for civic engagement. They are responsible for security building in Afghanistan and they understand that if ordinary Afghans do not buy in to what they are doing, our security objectives will not be met.

My hon. Friend the Minister has outlined the fact that the troops have been in Afghanistan for four and a half years and will be there for at least another three. In addition to the tragic loss of British troops, can he tell us how many Afghan casualties there have been in the four and a half years? He said that the troops’ position has huge public support, but that is not obvious from what is happening in Helmand province and the rest of Afghanistan. Is my hon. Friend aware that many people in the region, including Pakistan, and in other parts of the world simply do not see the British presence in Afghanistan as anything more than an occupying army that should not be there?

My hon. Friend makes his customary point, but the operation is backed by UN mandate. Our coalition partners are clear that our objectives are never again to allow al-Qaeda and the Taliban to build a terrorist capacity that is a threat to the way of life all over the world. I would have thought that even my hon. Friend would wish us to achieve those objectives.

If the worthy aims of the mission are to succeed, it is essential that command and control be better synchronised, as has been mentioned by the shadow Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox), as well as my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind), the former Foreign Secretary. Would the Minister therefore agree that, when General Richards comes to take over his command, it should be a command of the whole mission in the whole area?

Secondly, does the Minister agree that, as it is a NATO mission, it is important that our other NATO allies cough up a great deal better than they have done so far, with proper fighting brigade-level formations to enable the mission to succeed?

The hon. Gentleman always makes a forceful and wise point to the House, and I will reflect his views back to the Chief of Staff, but our 34 coalition partners should play their role in making sure that our objectives are achieved.

Contrary to the views of my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn), many service families in my constituency are entirely behind the mission in Afghanistan and entirely understand the need for it, but one of the things that they are understandably anxious about at the moment are the recent deaths. It would relieve their anxiety if they were absolutely certain that the methods of communication between them and their loved ones serving in theatre were open at all times. Sometimes there have been difficulties in getting parcels, letters and e-mails through. Will the Minister make sure that that communication, which is important to morale both for troops and families, is guaranteed?

One of the sad parts of my being at the Dispatch Box today is that I have had to cancel a meeting with representatives of families of the three services; I would like to go on record as saying that I will rearrange that meeting as quickly as possible, and those points are just some of the issues that I intend to discuss with them.

The Minister will know that, from the Secretary of State’s original statement, it would be fair to say that the level of violence encountered by British troops has been greater than was expected. The main mission was to bring in civilian support teams to bolster the Afghan civilian infrastructure in Helmand province. Can the Minister tell the House how many of those support teams—with Foreign Office, Department for International Development and non-governmental organisation volunteers—have actually been deployed in Helmand, and whether any of them have as yet suffered casualties?

I am afraid that I cannot give the hon. Gentleman that information right now, but I will write to him about it in more detail. On his point about capacity building, I do not recognise his description of the mission as being in some way tougher than we thought it would be; we knew it would be dangerous at the start, but we knew that we had to capacity-build the security forces of the Afghan Government, as I have already said. Perhaps the request coming from theatre to which I alluded in my statement suggests to the hon. Gentleman that we are addressing that point.

I am grateful for the assurances that my hon. Friend has given this afternoon that the mission is part of the support that is necessary to build the capacity of the new Afghan state and the new Parliament and—crucially for us in the Chamber—to support the parliamentarians as they seek to build democratic institutions throughout the whole of Afghanistan. Is it not important that the Minister’s Department should do everything that it can to argue that, despite the difficulties and the terrible loss of life that we are experiencing, we must stay to see through reconstruction and a viable Afghan state? Is it not important that all Members of the House support that position?

Yes, is the short answer to my hon. Friend, but let me give two quick answers. First, she is right that our presence has allowed the first democratically elected Afghan Government for many decades to be put in place, and secondly, our goal now is to make sure that their authority can be enhanced and improved.

There are increasing reports of large-scale civilian casualties resulting from US air strikes in southern Afghanistan. What discussions has the Minister had with his US counterpart, as whatever the short-term military advantage that flows from taking out Taliban fighters embedded in civilian areas, the resultant loss of civilian life has potentially a corrosive effect on local sympathy and support, and could make the already difficult task of the British forces on the ground nigh-on impossible?

We talk to our American colleagues regularly about these issues, but the Taliban and the drug traffickers are killing people—innocent civilians—every day in Afghanistan, as a result of their terrorist aims, and until we can give the Afghan Government the capacity to deal with that, we have to be there.

My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) mentioned the numbers of Foreign Office and other civilian Government staff working in Afghanistan. I understand that they will only travel outside their offices in armoured Warrior vehicles. Given the absence of adequate air cover at the moment, should not those Warrior vehicles be reserved for the Army on the ground, so that they can get the full benefit of them?

The way in which such people travel varies in different parts of Afghanistan, but our advice from the Chiefs of Staff is that our capacity is appropriate for current circumstances.

Several hon. Members have spoken about the mission. Soldiers understand that it is absolutely essential that one has a clarity of mission, which all energies are devoted to fulfilling, yet the Minister has spoken about narcotics, the economy, the Government and all sorts of things. What exactly, succinctly and clearly, is the mission that our soldiers are pursuing, and to which their energies should be devoted?

This seems to be round 2 of the defence debate the other week and I know that the hon. Gentleman does not give his support to our Chiefs of Staff, but they tell us that our mission objectives are clear and that they will be met.

Order. May I tell the hon. Member for West Bromwich, West (Mr. Bailey) that he should stand up to try to catch my eye from the start of the statement, to give me an indication of who wants to speak?

Will the Minister admit that the lives of everyone in our armed services—men or women—in Afghanistan and Helmand province are very valuable indeed? Will he therefore perhaps go a little further in indicating that all the equipment that is required by our armed forces to ensure that their lives are put in as safe a situation as possible will be provided? In the light of the additional opposition to our personnel in Helmand province—this is along the lines of the question asked by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith)—is it not right that the original mission should be reviewed?

The hon. Gentleman always stands up for our services, and I commend him for that. When the Chiefs of Staff put a request to Ministers, we always take them seriously. If we get any request in these circumstances, his point will be well made and we will take it on board.


The following Member took and subscribed the Oath:

Robert Neill Esq., for Bromley and Chislehurst

estimates day

[3rd Allotted Day]

estimates 2006-07

Department of Health

[Relevant documents: Fifth report from the Science and Technology Committee, Session 2004-05, HC7, on Human reproductive Technologies and the Law and the Government’s response thereto, Cm 6641; Eighth Special Report from the Science and Technology Committee, Session 2004-05, HC 491, on the Inquiry into Human Reproductive Technologies and the Law; the Department of Health departmental report 2005, Cm 6524.]

This Estimate is to be considered in so far as it relates to a grant-in-aid to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (Resolution of 27 June).

Motion made, and Question proposed,

That, for the year ending with 31st March 2007, for expenditure by the Department of Health—

(1) further resources, not exceeding £37,417,520,000, be authorised for use as set out in HC 1035,

(2) a further sum, not exceeding £38,276,451,000, be granted to Her Majesty out of the Consolidated Fund to meet the costs as so set out, and

(3) limits as so set out be set on appropriations in aid. —[Liz Blackman.]

I welcome the opportunity to debate this important and topical issue on the Floor of the House. I once again pay tribute to the former Chairman of the Science and Technology Committee, the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson), and members of the previous Committee on producing an extremely thorough and thoughtful report shortly before the 2005 general election.

Few areas of medical and social policy command greater interest or promote greater controversy than research and clinical practice in the area of human reproductive technologies. Producing the report was in itself a considerable challenge. It is no secret that at least half the membership of the Committee disagreed with the report. Well, some people disagreed with it, and it was a real challenge to agree on a final report to bring before the House. That reflects the divisions not only in the Committee but in society on these issues. There would have been something strange about an all-party Committee that did not have significant disagreements on this subject.

In spite of the difficulties in arriving at a consensus, the Committee was right to tackle the question. It is surely the job of Parliament to lead debate and not to shy away from key issues of public concern, however divisive they may prove to be. I would argue that this is a good example of the Select Committee system in operation: not simply scrutinising but helping to influence policy.

The Committee’s inquiry began in late 2003. It began because the Committee had serious concerns about the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority. The Government said that they would keep the HFEA under review. The Science and Technology Committee thought that that was not good enough. The Chairman said that the HFEA should be reconnected with the 1990 legislation. That was one of the reasons behind the inquiry. A year later, in 2004, the Department of Health announced its own review of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990. The Department sensibly waited for the Committee to produce its report before issuing a consultation alongside its response in August 2005.

The results of the consultation were published in March of this year, and further announcements are promised for the summer. The Government should be commended for the way in which they have responded to the Committee’s work. However, after a lengthy period of consultation—it is well over a year now—I think that the time has come for the Government to come forward with firm proposals, and, I hope, to produce a Bill in draft form.

A Bill is required anyhow to facilitate the creation of the new regulatory authority for tissue and embryos—RATE—from the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority and the Human Tissue Authority, which the Government have pledged to do by 2008. I commend to the Minister a draft Bill which would give the House an opportunity to debate and scrutinise some of the recommendations that will emerge from the Government’s consultation. I hope that today’s debate, and the Minister’s appearance before the Science and Technology Committee next week, will stimulate some decision making on the role of the new authority and related issues.

Before tackling some of the more controversial aspects of the Committee’s report, I shall outline the boundaries of the debate. I shall do so by stressing areas of agreement on the fundamental issues, which are unlikely to change. Both the Government and the Committee agreed with the gradualist approach to the status of the embryo adopted by the original Warnock Committee. I acknowledge that there are those who may disagree with this approach. However, I do not think that there is any realistic chance of it being dropped now for the purpose of legislation—so I think that we must start with the premise of the gradualist approach.

I think that there is general agreement that assisted reproduction is a legitimate area of interest for the state. It is only the extent of that interest that is in question. That in vitro fertilisation is now a common clinical procedure is not in question. The Government agree that legislation should take account of consequent changes in public perception, and that is what the debate is all about. The question is: how far are we prepared to accept assisted reproduction being regulated like other medical procedures, and what additional safeguards are required to protect the human embryo and the future child?

Other points on which the Government agree with the Committee are that there is a need for greater clarity in the policy-making functions of HFEA, and that legislation covering abortion should be removed from the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act. I will return to that point later. The Government also agree with the Committee that there is a need for some rationalisation of existing bodies. These areas of broad agreement provide a solid foundation for debate on other matters of principle, such as the extent and nature of Government intervention in reproductive health.

There are, of course, areas of disagreement. That is not surprising. The Committee made 104 recommendations. It is interesting that the Government rejected very few of them outright. Indeed, rather than do so, the Government chose instead to consult more widely to gauge professional and public opinion. Not surprisingly, there was disagreement over the Government’s use of the precautionary principle. I am rather pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) is not here to make a speech. He is delayed and has sent his apologies to the House. We have just spent a considerable amount of time discussing the precautionary principle in a new inquiry, and we have not come to any sensible conclusion. The hon. Member for Braintree (Mr. Newmark) nods from a sedentary position. The Committee’s recommendation to include the Human Genetics Commission in the new regulatory body was a rationalisation too far for the Government, but I am sure that the hon. Member for Norwich, North would like to take up that issue later, because it was a fundamental proposal in the Committee’s report.

My hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon is in Committee at the moment and there was a vote at 4 o’clock, which is why he is delayed. I know that he has given his apologies to Members—in case there was some concern over his health.

The Government disagreed with the Committee’s argument that there was a mismatch between the protection afforded by legislation to an embryo created in vitro before implantation and one at a later stage of development. The Committee was pointing out that allowing the greater use of pre-implantation genetic diagnosis, or PGD, may mean that the demand for abortions falls—particularly in the case of abortion on the grounds of foetal sex, which is technically illegal but difficult to police. Perhaps the greatest area of disagreement was over the future role of Parliament in regulation. I will return to that a little later.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that Parliament should not do anything to deny any child the possibility at birth of growing up with both a mother and a father?

The Committee made it absolutely clear that it is important for children to be brought up in a loving environment. A significant number of children are brought up in incredibly abusive and unhappy environments. I would not wish to speculate on a child being brought up in a single household, but I agree with the hon. Gentleman in that, where possible, my personal view is that I would like there to be two parents—a male and female—within the household bringing a child up. That does not preclude other methods of rearing, which are perfectly satisfactory and which have proved to be helpful in terms of developing good human beings as far as society is concerned. I will return to that issue later.

On many of the key issues, the Government agreed to consult further. The results of that exercise were published in March 2006 as a summary of the views expressed, with no accompanying explanation of lessons drawn. I am looking forward to hearing from the Minister how helpful the exercise was, although if my interpretation of the volume of the published responses—there were 535—is correct, it would be fair to say that a variety of views were expressed. It was very difficult to draw firm conclusions, but perhaps the Minister will add her comments later.

Judging from the views expressed in Committee, I suggest that the extent of disagreement was never in doubt. However, disagreement should not be an excuse for inaction. Sooner or later the Government must take a view and convince Parliament and the public of the merits of their proposals. There were issues of concern to members of the Committee, and I am sure that right hon. and hon. Members will highlight their own, so I will not attempt to raise anything other than what I consider to be one or two crucial areas, for which Government proposals must be forthcoming.

First is the issue of sex selection for social reasons, which is highly contentious. I am sure that hon. Members on both sides of the House will have different views about it. The Committee could find no adequate justification for prohibiting the use of sex selection for family balancing, but sensibly called for further work to establish the demographic input of such a policy. The HFEA has also consulted on the issue and advised against it. The Government invited views but announced no plans to change their position.

I confess that the Government might be right on this occasion, and that such a policy might well give rise to unforeseen difficulties, so I would want to see convincing evidence of the potential impact before being convinced of the need for change. I suspect that the demand for sex selection is actually quite low—much lower than many hon. Members believe. We should not forget that it currently requires people to go through incredibly difficult and costly treatments to get a child. However, we have to plan for a time when there is a pill that destroys male sperm or ensures that a male embryo could not implant, so the Government need to be clear about how they would prevent sex selection, and they cannot dodge the issue in any draft Bill, or when they bring their conclusions from the consultation before the House.

A second area of contention between the Committee and the Government surrounds the welfare of the child provision in the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990. The Committee argued that the requirement for those providing fertility treatment to have regard for the welfare of the child, including the need for a father, was unjustified. It held that the provision was not only discriminatory towards the infertile and some sections of society, but that it was

“impossible to implement and…of questionable practical value in protecting the interests of children born as a result of assisted reproduction.”

Quite apart from the difficulty of interpreting what the welfare of the child means in practice, I cannot see a case for the state interfering in the reproductive decisions of parents because they happen to be infertile, when it makes no such attempt in respect of anyone else. For example, there is no welfare of the child provision for other fertility treatment such as vasectomy reversal. So, if the Government are committed to maintaining a welfare of the child provision, I hope that they are prepared to spell out exactly how it should be applied in practice. I look forward to hearing the Government’s latest thinking on what is, admittedly, a very difficult issue.

A third area is the allowable use of pre-implantation genetic diagnosis—PGD—and this needs serious clarification. At present, it is the responsibility of the HFEA, but paragraph 251 of the Committee’s report describes the authority’s policies and licensing decisions on pre-implantation tissue typing as “highly unsatisfactory”. Lord Winston, I suspect, used more graphic language. Certainly, no evidence was produced by the HFEA to support its claim that PGD would be used for “trivial” purposes, and the fact that the Government have agreed that it would be preferable if the parameters for PGD were more clearly set out in law is a tacit admission that the Committee was right.

For many, PGD provides a welcome opportunity for parents to reduce or eliminate the risks of passing on hereditary conditions and diseases such as Duchenne muscular dystrophy, Huntington’s and cystic fibrosis. The Committee argued in line with the gradualist approach that if an embryo is to be destroyed because it may carry a serious disease, it is better to do so when it is just a few days old than at 24 weeks. However, I fully accept that those who believe that all abortion is illegal and wrong would not subscribe to that view.

The crucial point to emphasise is that new technologies are developing quickly and, as a consequence, the HFEA is being required to take decisions with an ethnical dimension and with serious consequences. For example, the HFEA recently ruled that PGD could be extended to testing for certain types of cancer, and only last month we heard about a new technique developed at Guy’s and St. Thomas’ hospital in London that may enable thousands of diseases to be screened for as existing tests are improved significantly. The key change is that whereas the original PGD screening was for known diseases or hereditary conditions, the new screening is for possible development of conditions later in life, and that requires a substantially different approach from the present one.

If we are not careful, could not such screening become the ultimate form of discrimination against people with disabilities—denying them the chance to be born?

I have enormous sympathy with that point. I spent much of my professional life working with children who had sensory impairment and physical disabilities. All of them were precious to their parents, despite the fact that many had huge problems in managing their condition. However, I suspect that many of those parents, if they had had the opportunity to screen out some of those difficulties, would have done so. The question that the Committee rightly asked, and that the Government have to answer, is: should parents in that situation have the choice? We hope that the Government will adopt a fair position on that question.

Is the hon. Gentleman not concerned? Once we start down that slippery slope, where does it all end? I am sure that parents would much rather have a very intelligent child. Many would hate to have a child who grows up to be a politician. They might want a child with blue eyes. That is getting into the realm of eugenics—producing the perfect child that the parent wants. I do not want a world that has no one with any sort of disability, because such people have all been screened out and denied the chance to live.

Few hon. Members would disagree with the hon. Lady. I would go further and say that what we have seen in parts of the United States, where deformities, in particular deafness, have been screened in because the parents want their child to mirror their own condition, is absolutely horrendous.

Science is getting to the point where we have an amazing number of techniques and can do amazing things, but at that point we have to stop and to ask, “Is this what we want?” The Committee was right to ask some of the questions and it was right to say to the Government that we simply cannot let such matters drift on. The Government are there to make some of those decisions. The Committee’s recommendation about a bioethics committee is relevant. The hon. Lady is correct: not everyone is comfortable with the new possibilities or with the fact that it is the HFEA, which has only limited input from professional ethicists, that is taking those decisions. That worries me. In my view that is the job of Parliament—but I know that many people would disagree.

The new treatments bring their own ethical dilemmas. The value or rights of an embryo have to be weighed against the potential benefits of avoiding certain conditions; equally, the impact of such activity on existing people with such conditions must be taken into account. Although there are arguments over what diseases and conditions are serious enough to warrant screening, there is a more fundamental argument about who should make those decisions. The Committee argued that Parliament should set the ethical parameters for the use of PGD and other such procedures, and that regulators should then be responsible for ensuring the highest possible clinical standards.

I fundamentally agree with that position. Parliament, rather than unelected regulators, should have responsibility for establishing the ethical framework for the use of PGD and other procedures and for endorsing guidelines as necessary. The Committee proposes a new parliamentary Standing Committee on bioethics that would make recommendations on the need for legislative changes and scrutinise any secondary legislation in the field. Such a system has been adopted throughout Europe and I commend the principle to the Minister for serious consideration.

Of course, such an approach to bioethics would necessitate changes to the existing regulatory framework, which is a fourth area of contention between the Committee and the Government. The Committee recommended a three-pronged approach on a new regulatory framework to give greater clarity to existing legislation and thus allow medical professionals to get on with their jobs without the bureaucratic burden of frequent applications to the regulators.

The Committee’s call for a new human genetics, fertility and human tissue commission to replace the HFEA, the Human Tissue Authority and the Human Genetics Commission appears to have been rejected in favour of a model that combines the HFEA with the HTA. That body will retain the HFEA’s licensing responsibility, although that is a matter about which the Committee was critical. I hope that the House will debate the two sides of that argument today.

My final point is about abortion time limits. Paragraph 308 of the Committee’s report recommended that a Joint Committee of both Houses should be established

“to consider the scientific, medical and social changes in relation to abortion that have taken place since 1967, with a view to presenting options for new legislation.”

It is more than 15 years since the legislation was last reviewed by Parliament. We now know a lot more about the foetus and have gained more evidence about the factors underpinning the 24-week limit. There is growing pressure from those on both sides of the abortion debate to look again at developments since 1990 to determine whether a change to the existing legislation is warranted.

Early-day motion 2379 was tabled by the hon. Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (Geraldine Smith) in support of that, and it had been signed by 59 Members at the last count. Its signatories have all viewpoints; indeed, I signed it myself. The head of the Catholic Church, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, has recently called for the time limit to be reviewed. All that shows that there is a feeling in the House and the country that we should at least review the scientific evidence and put it before the House, rather than simply pretending that things are as they were in 1990—or, indeed, 1967.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the matter goes much wider than just the Catholic Church? There is a feeling among people in the country and MPs that a debate should take place. The Government should be leading the debate and putting legislation before us.

I agree that the matter goes much further than the Catholic Church. I am not a practising Catholic and do not come from that particular lobby, although I have a strong Christian background. However, this is not about religion. When I become Chairman of the Science and Technology Committee, one of the first things that we did was to ask the House of Lords to fulfil the recommendation of the former Committee by setting up a Joint Committee to review the science and determine where we were on that.

Does the hon. Gentleman think that there is any new science—and science alone—that would require the issue to be brought back to the House?

With the greatest respect to the hon. Gentleman, I do not know the answer to that. Does the fact that we now have better imaging of the foetus at 24 weeks represent a substantial change from the situation 10 or 20 years ago? Of course, people such as Lord Winston claim that the foetus is exactly the same at 24 weeks as it was 20, 30, or 40 years ago. However, medical technology, and our ability to maintain life at 24 weeks, have changed. The purpose of having an inquiry was to examine such matters and to try to ensure that we put on the table the question of where the science and technology were, and how we could tackle the key ethical questions so that Parliament could debate and discuss that and the Government could take action, if necessary. That is what Parliament should be doing.

Does the hon. Gentleman not appreciate—I am sure that he does—that many people are deeply concerned about the idea of one operating theatre struggling to keep alive a 24-week-old foetus child, while in another operating theatre down the corridor, a 24-week-old foetus baby is being terminated and perhaps left to die on the operating table? That causes great concern to many people across the political and the religious spectrum.

I have deliberately tried not to enter into a debate of pure emotion—[Interruption.] That may well be fact, but the hon. Gentleman does not know the circumstances behind either of those cases. To hold that view is grossly unfair when one is unable to examine the circumstances behind why a woman is aborting at 24 weeks. If the hon. Gentleman believes that any woman does that lightly, I am sorry, but I profoundly disagree with him. It is important to examine the core issues, rather than just stating our own personal, emotive views.

Does the hon. Gentleman consider that, along with the science and the medical advances, there is also the issue of the woman’s right to choose? That is rather important, too, is it not?

I fundamentally agree. At the end of the day, it is certainly not for white, middle-class males in Parliament to tell a lady in Birmingham, Brighton or Newcastle what she should do in such difficult circumstances. What the Committee and I are saying is that, given that this issue has not been examined for 16 years, is it not time to examine the science and the technology and put it objectively before Parliament? This issue may well be dealt with through a private Member’s Bill, but I point out, with the greatest respect, that it commands huge interest in the country, so it is up to the Government to take a lead on it, rather than an individual Member. Such a Member might introduce an ill-considered Bill that is purely emotive and does not deal with facts.

But does the hon. Gentleman not agree that the unborn life has an equal right to that of the mother, and that that must therefore be taken into consideration? However, it is important that we focus on the technology. Technology has improved in the past 16 years, which is why the House should consider reducing the age of termination from 24 weeks to 20 or 18 weeks. We should investigate this issue through technology and science.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention, and I hope that he will forgive me if I do not stray into a debate on ethics with him. One wise Committee recommendation was that the House should have a bioethics Committee. We are moving into territory that, even five years ago, we did not believe we would enter. It is important that some of these issues be discussed within that framework.

Our Committee suggested to the House of Lords that we examine the science. It said “no”, and that it would prefer to have the matter dealt with by an ad hoc Committee of the whole House. I approached the then Leader of the House to ask for such a Committee, but was refused. This issue will not go away. It is important that the Government think again and at least set up an ad hoc Committee of the whole House to look at the facts and put them before Parliament. At that point, we can bring in the ethical, as well as the scientific, debate in an effort to resolve these issues.

I commend this excellent report to the House, and I look forward to the remainder of the debate.

I welcome this extremely important debate. The matters before us are complex and they raise numerous deep moral and ethical principles that are highly emotive, as we have already seen, controversial and often divisive—so much so that the Science and Technology Committee was split down the middle when it discussed the report. Five members were for the report and five were against. I was unable to support many of the report’s recommendations. In their response, the Government adopted a much more measured and cautious approach, which I welcome.

I find the attitude adopted by some representatives of the scientific community quite chilling. They appear to believe that the only restrictions that should be placed on their activities are the limitations imposed by their own scientific capabilities. They display a total lack of concern for the moral, ethical, religious and social issues involved, and view those who seek to restrict their activities as modern-day luddites out to wreck their scientific looms. In return, I view those people as 21st century Dr. Frankensteins. They reaffirm my conviction that we must have a strict regulatory regime in place to govern their activities.

I said earlier that this is an important debate. We are discussing the creation, the scientific manipulation and the taking of human life, and the laws applicable to those activities. I shall restrict my remarks to one aspect of the report, which I feel has not been adequately dealt with by the Select Committee or the Government in their response. There is so much in the report that I could speak for three hours on the various recommendations, but I choose to restrict my comments to one area about which I have concerns—the destruction of human life by means of abortion.

Let me make my personal position clear. I would never have an abortion, or I hope I never would, but I do not want to drive women back to back-street abortions. I realise that one cannot have simplistic views; the issue can be complex. Women can be under huge pressures to have abortions. Sometimes it is not an informed choice. It is not the woman’s right to choose. She is often under pressure to have an abortion.

As has been said, there is growing concern about the abortion law in the UK. Our current law is out of date and is in urgent need of reform. I know that there is widespread public support across the country for that view, not least among those in the medical profession who have the task of killing perfectly formed, healthy foetuses, particularly when they perform abortions close to the 24-week limit.

For the record, does my hon. Friend accept that there is so much in the report for discussion that the Committee decided deliberately to avoid abortion as one of the topics?

Yes, there was so much to discuss. We see today the emotions that are aroused when abortion is mentioned. It is sometimes difficult to have a sensible debate because the pro and anti-abortionists are at each other’s throat, but it is time to have that debate.

The legalised taking of human life under the current legislation has not been debated or amended for the past 16 years. Recommendation 77—

Does my hon. Friend agree that this debate concerns human reproductive therapies and the law, not abortion? Abortion is covered by entirely separate legislation. It is fine to debate abortion, but it is a separate debate and should be kept quite separate.

I will come to my reasons for mentioning abortion. Recommendation 77 of the Select Committee, on which my hon. Friend served, states:

“We call on both Houses in the new Parliament to set up a joint committee to consider the scientific, medical and social changes . . . that have taken place since 1967, with a view to presenting options for new legislation. This committee should be broadly based and should include nominees from the Commons Select Committees for Science and Technology and Health and the Lords Science and Technology Committee.”

Recommendation 78 states:

“We recommend that any new legislation introduced to amend the HFE Act should not include abortion, which should be dealt with by a separate Bill.”

I have no problem with that. However, I think it fair that I should comment, given that we mentioned abortion and the need for a Joint Committee in our report.

The Government say in paragraph 106 of their response that they accept recommendation 78, but their response to recommendation 77 is unsatisfactory. Paragraph 105 states:

“The Government has no plans to change the law on abortion. If a joint committee is set up to look at this issue, the Government will consider its recommendations. However, it is accepted Parliamentary practice that proposals for changes in the law on abortion have to come from back bench members and that decisions are made on the basis of free votes, with members and peers voting according to their beliefs and values.”

The hon. Lady might remember that the initial legislation, the Abortion Act 1967, was introduced as a private Member’s Bill, but the Government of the day gave it time in order that it could be enacted. Does she accept that during the passage of that Bill and of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990, huge pressure was put on people on both sides to come to a certain conclusion?

I think that the Government should be leading this debate, because there is concern across the country. It is not just about allowing parliamentary time if a private Member’s Bill comes up—they should be making time properly to discuss the issue. Before doing so, they should of course have all the available scientific and medical evidence on the changes that have taken place in society since the Abortion Act 1967 and the most recent amendment to the legislation in 1990.

The current law on abortions was established in the Abortion Act, with a time limit for abortion set at the 28th week of pregnancy. That was reduced to the 24th week by amendment to section 37 of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act. The central criterion underpinning the time span was that the foetus would not be able to survive outside the mother’s womb at that stage of its development. Following advances in technology and medical care, there is now strong evidence that foetuses are far more developed at a much earlier stage than was previously thought, so that they are able to survive outside their mother’s womb as early as 18 weeks. That undermines the key principle in relation to the formulation of the time limits. When life can be carried on independently of the mother, surely the foetus, or baby, has human rights of its own.

The Government state in their response, however, that they have

“no plans to change the law on abortion.”

Does that mean they have already considered the available evidence and concluded that they are perfectly happy with the current legislation and see no need for change? If so, they should be honest and say so, giving their reasons for reaching such a conclusion. Or do they believe that all the issues surrounding this matter need to be more fully examined? If so, why have not they supported the Committee’s recommendation on the establishment of a Joint Committee? Or do they believe, as they seem to suggest at the end of paragraph 105 of their response, that this is nothing to do with them and that it is up to Back Benchers to sort it out because that is what happened in the past? If so, I would accuse them of abrogating their responsibilities on this issue. While they are correct in their judgment that it is a matter of personal belief and conscience, and must therefore be decided by a free vote in both Houses, that does not absolve them of their responsibilities and prevent them from leading the debate.

I am sure that Ministers and Back Benchers are well aware that this issue will not go away and that pressure for a review of the law on abortion will continue to grow. I would welcome the Minister’s response to the points that I have outlined.

I am grateful to be called in the debate, which takes me back to 1990 and all the issues that were debated then. I went underground for the next 10 years, having had rather too much of them because they were exceptionally difficult and took a lot out of one as well as much time. However, they are exceptionally important and evergreen.

I want to focus on two issues in relation to the Science and Technology Committee’s consultation and report. I begin by commending the fact that the consultation’s terms of reference were comprehensive and rigorous. The Committee consulted extensively— online, through oral submissions and by encouraging written submissions. It was a truly committed initiative, which extended far beyond the usual time schedules involved in such consultation exercises. A little bird told me that the Committee even went to Rome to consult the Vatican. I thought that that was a good move, and I do not speak as a Roman Catholic. It must have been the first time in history that a Select Committee took evidence from the Vatican.

The report is, sadly, not to be universally celebrated and it is worth remembering from the start the amount of internal and public disquiet that surrounded its publication. The Committee was split down the middle, as the hon. Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (Geraldine Smith) said. I commend her bravery in raising an issue that perhaps other hon. Members would have preferred her not to raise. It was right and proper that she did so. Only the vote of the distinguished Chairman, the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson)—

The Chairman would have loved to vote but he did not need to do that. The majority of Committee members voted for the report.

To add further clarification, the vote on the report took place in the last days of the previous Parliament, in the run-up to the general election. Many of the members who opposed the report could not be present at the vote. I am sure that the Chairman accepts that five members supported the report and five opposed it.

Again, I am grateful to the hon. Lady. We all know what pressures are on Committees to reach a conclusion, and the period just before a general election is perhaps not the best time to do so. The hon. Lady has made what happened clear.

The formal minutes of the meetings that cover the approval of the report are a record of the dissent. In the days that followed its publication, the nation and media were almost unanimously up in arms over issues such as animal-human hybrids, germ-line manipulation, reproductive cloning, social sex selection and other hugely controversial proposals, which form part of the report’s recommendations.

Further to the validity of the recommendations—104 in all—the next point to consider is the extent to which they reflected the thrust of the evidence that the Committee received during its year’s extended consultation. For those who attended the oral evidence sessions—I am the first to admit that I did not—read the written evidence and followed the online consultation, it is impossible to accept that the Committee’s controversial recommendations relate in any way to the evidence that it received from the vast majority of participants.

A trio of postgraduate students took time to analyse the material and concluded that the weight of evidence was, for the greater part, conservative in its content and in favour of maintaining the status quo, not deviating significantly from the consensus reached in 1990 on the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act. The rationale behind the report was the intention to bring the Act up to date in the light of scientific advances. Technology might move fast, but that does not mean that our ethical concerns or the philosophical underpinnings of society and the law have altered radically—as the report would have us believe—if, indeed, they have altered at all. The Act needs to be reconnected not with modern science but with the interests and values of society at large. Some would even argue that those values have become more restrictive than they were at the time of the Warnock report, not least because many developments that were not anticipated at the time have been received with huge distaste by the public. Social sex selection is a classic example. While it attracts support in the maverick Science and Technology Committee report, 85 per cent. of public opinion polls register total opposition to such a proposal.

Warnock is cited by the report, but defended on a cherry-picking basis. The protection for the embryo enshrined in the original Act, for example, has been completely bypassed. On what justification? It is on the opinion of five Members of Parliament. Cherry-picking is applied even more openly to ethical opinions and citations. The continued references to John Harris, Julian Savulescu, Emily Jackson and others who hold similar beliefs are nothing more than a blatant endorsement of libertarian minority opinions.

The philosophical basis of the report is a selective mixture of some rights and harm principles. The rights, however, are limited to the reproductive rights of the adult, and leave little space for the rights of children, let alone the broader rights of society as a whole. The harm principle is limited exclusively to physical harms, and there is no wish to engage with broader, deeper concerns. That is to be regretted.

I wish to speak about the rights and welfare of children, not least because the matter has been in the news recently, perhaps because of the publicity given to the statements made by the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris), who is now in his place, having not been present earlier in the debate. I understand that he wishes to remove from the Act part of section 13(5), which refers to the welfare of the child. I have to admit that I was one of those responsible for the inclusion in the original Act of the need of a child for a father, and I shall read that subsection to the House:

“A woman shall not be provided with treatment services unless account has been taken of the welfare of any child who may be born as a result of the treatment (including the need of that child for a father), and of any other child who may be affected by the birth.”

It was I who encouraged my hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire) to table a very small amendment on that issue. It was the only one that we on this side of the argument managed to get accepted by the House on that occasion. I might add that that was the only time that I have been a Teller and been on the winning side. In fact, from that point of view, the whole of my parliamentary career has been an absolute disaster. However, I was very proud of that one small amendment, because it meant a great deal.

Perhaps that is why the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon is now trying to get the provision removed. He is, in effect, recommending the deliberate creation of fatherless children, whether to single or lesbian women, on the basis that

“including the need of that child for a father”

is a discriminatory phrase that should not have been included in the Act in the first place. However, it was obvious, when the Act was passed, that the wise intention of Parliament was to place the welfare of the child at the centre of our focus. The welfare of the child obviously extended to his or her right to a father. That is what the House voted on and for in those days.

I am sure that the hon. Lady was not chastising me for not being present in the Chamber, as I had told both Front Benches and the Speaker’s office that I was voting in a Select Committee. What evidence does she have that the welfare of the child is protected by this measure? Can she cite studies that show that children of lesbian couples, conceived by donor insemination, or of solo parents—women who specifically seek pregnancy when they do not have a partner—are damaged in that way? The Select Committee found that the evidence was on the other side, and that the provision was therefore unnecessary.

I thank my hon. Friend. I am grateful, however, that the hon. Gentleman has made his position clear. I could produce evidence, and evidence has been provided, but I do not have it with me this afternoon. As a mother of three and grandmother of seven, I, like most of my constituents and the majority of people in the United Kingdom, believe that it is better and right that a child has a mother and a father wherever possible, and that it is wrong to create a new life artificially without a mother and a father who will be in that child’s life from the very beginning. We all know of examples of children who have been brought up by single parents, either male or female, who have done a splendid job, and I do not knock that in any way. However, the artificial creation of such a situation is wrong. As we are allowed to express our view in the House, I hope that I have done so clearly.

I believe that the child is discriminated against by writing out the need for a father. Were we to take the hon. Gentleman’s position to its extreme, it could be argued that a preference for a mother is also discriminatory. Will we also see attempts to write out the child’s need for a mother from the Act? Will we next ask for the reproductive rights of single men to be protected? Do they, too, have a right to have children, without the need for a mother? I ask all those questions with my tongue in cheek.

Does the hon. Lady agree that it is not just a question of evidence but of common sense? Most people in the country would think that it makes sense to start a child’s life with a mother and a father. Of course, there are terrific single parents who do a wonderful job. If we are looking for a basis to create a child, however, surely it should start with two parents—a mother and a father.

The hon. Lady has put far better than I ever could exactly what I and the majority of people in this country believe.

Does my hon. Friend agree that there is a deep strain of antipathy towards co-parenting on the Government Benches? When we debated the Children and Adoption Bill some weeks ago, the Government set their face completely against the principle of co-parenting, even when we argued strongly for the paramountcy of the welfare of the child. From birth through to adulthood, co-parenting is being opposed by the Liberal Democrats and the Government.

My hon. Friend has made his point clearly. I agree that, in any arrangements made, the rights of the child must be paramount at all times.

Will the hon. Lady correct the suggestion that the points of view that she expresses in this regard are confined to the Conservative Benches? Such views also find voice on the Labour Benches, and the picture is not as simplistic as the hon. Member for Peterborough (Mr. Jackson) suggests.

I agree 100 per cent. As the hon. Gentleman knows, we have worked closely on these issues for a long time. I was chairman of the all-party pro-life group for 10 years, which is a genuinely all-party group. These matters go far beyond party politics. I hope that that reassures the hon. Gentleman.

We must move outside the parameters of absurd political correctness and gratuitous gender politics, and acknowledge once and for all that a child benefits from the security of a father and a mother within a stable family environment. The original Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act enshrined many concerns about the welfare of children in that regard.

Is not the main requirement for the welfare of children, which is paramount, that they be born into a loving family—that they be wanted children, eagerly anticipated? Is it not true that children have the best chance in life, whatever the type of home into which they are born, if they are born into a home that wants them?

Of course that is true, but people who do not believe in what I am saying usually go on to say that if those conditions are not in place, it is better for children to be aborted: that they are better off dead. I would say that not all those conditions can be in place in every single case. We know of children—in our own family circles and in wider circles—who have had unhappy childhoods, but have grown up to be excellent adults and have played their part in society. We cannot guarantee those elements in anyone’s life, because life is not perfect, but if they are there, that is a tremendous bonus.

As I was saying, the original Act enshrined many concerns about the welfare of children. Many of the recommendations of the Science and Technology Committee attempt to lessen the impact of those concerns. I believe that we should resist those recommendations, and insist that the provisions in the Act are reinforced.

It is important that we are having this debate on an Estimates day. The subject is complex. The report from the Science and Technology Committee contains many chapters and much material that needs to be debated, and in the short time available today we shall not be able to do it justice. Let me say to the Minister that I hope this will be the first of many debates on the subject before we change the legislation, as we must.

When we embarked on the debate, I hoped that it would not be hijacked by the abortion issue. That is not because I do not consider the issue important. The Committee deliberately avoided debating it, however, because it had been debated so often in Government time on the Floor of the House and elsewhere in the Palace of Westminster. I rather hoped that today we would concentrate on other issues, which are not aired as frequently as they should be.

I regard my membership of the Select Committee as one of the most important duties that I perform in this place on behalf of my constituents. The Committee’s members believe that they have influenced Government thinking in a number of policy areas, and have also influenced organisations outside the House. A number of debates are taking place at present, of which this is only one.

During my time in the Committee disagreement has been rare, but the fifth report of the 2004-05 Session was an exception. It resulted in the eighth special report of that Session, which makes it clear that five of the 11 Committee members disagreed with the publication of the fifth report. That probably reflects the divided views of Members across the House, which is why we are given free votes on most of these difficult issues.

After a lengthy inquiry and prolonged discussions, the Committee met again on 14 March last year, faced with 130 further amendments to an already amended report. It was clear to me then that the report would not see the light of day, especially as we knew that Parliament was shortly to be dissolved. A great deal of effort had gone into compiling the report. It had also cost a lot of money, particularly because of visits to Stockholm and Rome—including a visit to the health ministry and the Vatican—and to clinics in various parts of this country. We collected a large amount of evidence, and the inquiry lasted for an entire year. If the report had dropped out of sight, it would have been costly for Parliament, and it would have been a shame in the context of today’s debate. Therefore, I did an unusual thing in a Select Committee: I moved a guillotine. That caused quite a rumpus. On that day, the meeting began at 3.30 in the afternoon and the guillotine was for 8.30 in the evening. Even though it upset some of my colleagues on the Committee, I do not regret taking that action, because if we had not taken it, we would not be having the debate on this important report this afternoon.

Our report states:

“the evidence suggests that the scale of intrusion into the private choices of individuals seeking to have a family can no longer be justified. We do, however, accept that the research uses of the embryo of the human species remain a legitimate interest of the State.”

Other members of the Committee felt that that was too liberal a statement and they moved an amendment against the libertarian approach of certain members of the Committee, but the majority prevailed and the report was published.

I accept that these issues are difficult to grasp and even more difficult to legislate for, but it is now generally accepted that the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990 is in need of review and I believe that our report forms an excellent platform for that review to take place. As in many other areas, advances in technology in this field are racing ahead of our ability to consider reform of existing legislation.

As I have said, the Committee deliberately excluded abortion from its inquiry and it excluded surrogacy, too. I want to touch on one or two aspects in the report. On the status of the embryo, we agreed with the Warnock view that embryos should have special status. As the present Chairman of the Committee has pointed out, we took the “gradualist approach” that a human being is not created at the point of natural fertilisation but emerges gradually towards birth. However, we respect the 14-day rule that allows research to be carried out on an embryo during the period before the primitive streak emerges, which is the first sign that the nervous system, the spinal cord and the brain are beginning to develop. It is my personal view that no change to the law should be made in that respect, although there are arguments being advanced both to reduce that 14-day limit and to increase it to 20 days, or even beyond that. Baroness Warnock has admitted that that time scale of 14 days is “arbitrary” and it is based on the reasoning that I have already given.

The 1990 Act defines an embryo in section 1(1) as:

“a live human embryo where fertilisation is complete”

which includes

“an egg in the process of fertilisation”.

The term “gamete” covers live human eggs or sperm, but not eggs in the process of fertilisation.

Today, that definition is inadequate because artificially created gametes can be produced and embryos can be created through the process of cell nuclear replacement, or cloning, the process used to give birth to Dolly the sheep at the Roslin institute nearly 10 years ago. Our Committee believes that attempts to define an embryo in any new Act would be counter-productive because it would lead to legal challenges, as the definition of the embryo in the present Act has led to legal challenges.

On sex selection, I agree with the majority of our report’s recommendations, but not all. I spoke against sex selection for non-medical reasons—Members have used the phrase “for social reasons”—either by sperm sorting or by pre-implantation genetic diagnosis. However, for the avoidance of sex-related disorders, I do support sex selection.

Some communities value boys more than girls; India and China are examples. I believe sex selection to be discriminatory and that it should not be sanctioned in this country. The policy of the two countries that I mentioned has serious demographic consequences. However, I recognise that there are arguments for family balancing, especially when a mother has given birth to a significant number of children of the same sex. Alan and Louise Masterton, who have four sons, lost their three-year-old daughter Nicole in 1999 in a domestic accident and campaigned for the right to rebuild their family with a daughter. If families cannot achieve what they want in this country, they will probably go abroad to achieve their ends. That applies to other areas of this debate as well as sex selection, but I have no ready answers to “reproductive tourism”. We have to face the fact that if people cannot get what they want in this country and it is legally available in other countries, they will go there to have that treatment, possibly under less safe conditions than would apply in this country.

Just because another country may have lower ethical or moral standards, does the hon. Gentleman think that we should introduce them here?

No, I did not say that. We want high moral standards in this country. We do not want to force people to go to other countries with lower moral and ethical standards. For example, the Mastertons had to go to Italy for treatment. Tragically, that resulted in only one male embryo, which was donated to an infertile couple.

Sex selection by PGD or sperm sorting is far preferable to sex selection by selective termination of pregnancy or by infanticide. Sex selection by sperm sorting is not covered by the human fertilisation and embryology legislation and, in my view, it should be.

Is the hon. Gentleman seriously suggesting that if we do not allow people to select the sex of their children, we will have parents committing infanticide?

No, I am saying that in some other countries infanticide is used to achieve what people want. I have mentioned two countries in which it might happen.

The Committee found

“no adequate justification for prohibiting the use of sex selection for family balancing”.

Sex selection in the UK would probably work both ways and the demographic impact would, therefore, probably be imperceptible.

The concept of selection is one on which we need a full debate—fuller than we can have this afternoon—especially if we want to allow selection as a means of achieving greater intelligence or beauty, a certain hair or eye colour, increased memory capacity, or other factors. Science will make all those choices available. I do not say that I am in favour of them, but I am saying that we will have to debate the issue in this House at some point.

The birth of Louise Brown in 1976 at Oldham and district hospital as a result of in vitro fertilisation was a milestone in medical history. Unfortunately, today, only 1.5 per cent. of all live births in the UK are a result of IVF treatment and, considering that the UK gave birth to IVF treatment, it is not pleasing that we were ranked 12th out of 15 countries in Europe that offer IVF treatment in a report published a few days ago by the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology. Denmark offers 2,031 cycles per million population, but the UK figure is only 633. In Israel, where there is an active policy to encourage childbirth, the figure is 3,000 and 7 per cent. of treatments lead to a live birth. In comparison, the figure in Denmark is 3.9 per cent.

The Committee formed the view that IVF treatment has become such a routine medical procedure that its regulation can become part of mainstream clinical regulation. That is not to say, however, that there should not be continued inspection of clinics offering the treatment, both in the public and private sectors.

I represent a constituency with some of the poorest estates in Britain and it concerns me that my constituents have such poor access to IVF treatment. Indeed, only a few years ago, our local NHS would not fund IVF treatment. Nationally, only 25 per cent. of IVF treatments are obtained in the NHS. The rich get the most treatment, because they can afford to go to the private clinics. Unless we make IVF treatment more readily available on the NHS, my constituents—poor as many of them are—will continue to be discriminated against because they live in the wrong place.

However, the question is not just the availability of IVF, but the quality of the services on offer. I believe that the success rates of public and private-sector clinics offering that treatment should be published, although clinicians are sceptical about doing so, because their success rates depend on a number of factors; the main one, incidentally, is the age of the woman presenting herself for IVF treatment. However, it is important that people can judge the success rates of clinics, and in taking evidence our Committee found that those rates differed spectacularly.

In February 2004, the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence published guidelines on IVF treatment. It recommended the implantation of only two embryos per cycle to avoid the risks that we know are associated with multiple pregnancies. It also recommended that three cycles be offered to infertile women, which would have a considerable cost implication for the NHS. The Government, of course, have asked primary care trusts to offer only one cycle. Again, the House needs to have a proper debate on the NICE proposals. In Italy, the position is different; the Italian Government have insisted that three embryos be implanted per cycle. There was considerable opposition to that proposal, as the Committee found when we visited Rome.

There is a rising trend of infertility in the richer nations. One in seven couples now experience problems with infertility; we need to invest far more in research to find out why. Some blame pollution of our environment by certain chemicals—so-called endocrine disruptors—but that is by no means proven. We should all remember that that trend comes at a time when the demographic make-up of our population is skewed towards the older end. We need more live births to make our demographic spectrum as it was in previous years. It costs an estimated £13,000 for every baby born by NHS IVF treatment, but we should remember that that baby will contribute an estimated £147,138 to the Exchequer throughout its lifetime, so it makes economic sense to support IVF treatment.

Spare embryos can be destroyed, donated, stored for future use by the woman or others, or donated for research. Many people believe that, once created, embryos should never be destroyed, despite the fact that 70 per cent. of embryos fail to implant and are merely washed down the loo. Is it not preferable to use spare embryos for important medical research? I was pleased when Parliament decided to debate stem cell research a few years ago, and to allow it to proceed in this country, admittedly under tight regulation. There is now a reverse brain drain in this country; people are actually coming from the United States of America to conduct much-needed stem cell research in Britain.

There are widespread concerns—shared by me, incidentally—about the principles and practicality of the welfare-of-the-child provision in the 1990 Act. Section 13(5) requires that

“A woman shall not be provided with treatment services unless account has been taken of the welfare of any child who may be born as a result of the treatment (including the need of that child for a father), and of any other child who may be affected by the birth.”

Although most of us have freedom of sexual reproduction, less fortunate individuals who need assisted reproduction actually have to be judged by others, mainly from the middle classes—general practitioners and people on various ethics committees. That is not right. Those people are not in touch, in my opinion, with some of the people on poorer estates in m