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Westminster Hall

Volume 448: debated on Tuesday 4 July 2006

Westminster Hall

Tuesday 4 July 2006

[Mr. Eric Martlew in the Chair]

Child Poverty

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

I am very honoured and in a way flattered by this opportunity; it is the first time I have participated in a Westminster Hall debate in the lead role—even if it is in Committee Room 10. A small but perfectly formed group of interested colleagues are taking part, and I welcome them to what I think is an important debate.

Why have I chosen this debate for my first time out in this Chamber? In years gone by, before I was elected, I was a regional organiser for the Child Poverty Action Group in the north-west, and the issue is one of long-standing interest to me, and to my party. Eradicating child poverty by 2020 is simply the civilised thing to do. The classic, if not hackneyed, answer to the question of how a society feels about itself is about how it looks after its young and old, and child poverty fits fairly and squarely into that.

The Government have already highlighted the issue, and I shall return to that point. It is topical, because other bodies have renewed their interest in it. For example, there is a coalition of outside interests on the subject, and I am sure that hon. Members will be familiar with many of the things that I am about to set out. The Fabian Commission on life chances and child poverty recently produced its report “Narrowing the Gap”; a similar research report is due to be published this month by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation; and the Institute for Public Policy Research and the Institute for Fiscal Studies have also commented recently on this important topic.

I shall not do a textual analysis of what those bodies have said, but an important point from the Fabian Commission serves as another reason for holding this debate now: among some worrying findings was the public’s general reaction to the idea of poverty eradication and, specifically, child poverty eradication. The commission found, in conjunction with MORI, that the idea was not culturally understood and that there was not automatic acceptance of such issues among the broad public. That is a worry if there is to be a coalition to fight child poverty by 2020. As is almost self-evident, with such a cross-cutting agenda, it is vital to take the public with us; but MORI found that the public did not understand why we are taking the action that we are taking.

As worrying as low awareness was the denial of the existence of income poverty. I suppose that it is easy for people to look at themselves and their families, without realising what happens elsewhere. The report noted comments, such as that income poverty for children was due to bad parenting. There was a general lack of empathy. If we are to make progress towards 2020, general awareness must be raised and the public brought to accept that the goal is a good thing in itself. There are good, self-interested reasons for seeing things that way. It is good for the individual, raises educational attainment and keeps people out of trouble and away from drugs. It also gives a future back to what might otherwise be disorganised or dysfunctional families.

What do we mean when we talk about the eradication of child poverty? I shall principally talk about income poverty; there are other forms of deprivation, but that is the key to unlock the conundrum. How we deal with income poverty is the kernel of the debate. What is income poverty? According to the classic definition, it means a child living in a household with income below 60 per cent. of the median household income, either before or after taking housing cost into account. I shall not detain hon. Members with the question of which it should be: if pressed I should probably err on the side of “before”, but whatever definition one takes, the general picture is broadly the same.

I do not want to pre-empt the hon. Gentleman, but does not the question of whether the definition is arrived at before or after considering housing costs go to the heart of child poverty and the Government’s record? Housing costs should be included in the definition of poverty, which would probably show that more children are living in poverty than were before 1997, because housing costs have increased so dramatically.

I do not accept what the hon. Lady says. If we want to bandy figures, I can do so but I do not think that the figures show what she claims. It would be unhelpful to go down that road, which is a way of avoiding the issue.

The Child Poverty Action Group recently calculated that the poverty line stood at £268 per week—an annual income of just under £14,000 for a couple with two children aged 5 and 11. However, for a lone parent in a similar situation it calculated that poverty-line income would be just under £10,000. Lone parents are, for that very reason, one of the target groups that I expect my hon. Friend the Minister to mention. Their access to income is different from that of a couple.

What is being done? In 1999, the Government, through the Prime Minister, gave a three-fold commitment. The first part was to reduce child poverty by a quarter by 2005, the second to reduce it by half by 2010, and the third to eradicate child poverty by 2020; hence the title of the debate. In some ways the first commitment is historical, because we have passed that point. We are approaching the 2010 target, but if we miss it, 2020 will be very difficult.

Sadly, despite a range of initiatives, the 2005 target was in fact missed by 200,000 children. Those children would not have remained in poverty had that target been hit. Between 2003-04 and 2004-05, about 100,000 children were taken out of relative poverty. If we do some simple maths, we see that, at a rate of 100,000 a year for the remaining years, we will miss the 2020 target. We have to do better than the 100,000 that we achieved between 2003-04 and 2004-05.

Which measures were relevant to, and current at the time of, the first target in 2005? The working families tax credit was introduced in 2001 and has since become the working tax credit and the child tax credit. One significant reason why the Government did as well as they did is that child benefit for the first child has risen by 25 per cent. in real terms since 1997. That offers major assistance to single parents and, classically, the mother in a couple.

By October 2006, the poorest fifth—in real terms—of families with children will be an average of £3,400 a year better off, and that is significant. As I said, relative poverty is defined as having an income of below 60 per cent. of median income. That poverty line resides within the poorest 20 per cent., so they are the key target for action on child poverty.

The proportion of children living in workless households has come down from nearly 20 per cent. in 1997 to just under 16 per cent. in 2005. Worklessness was, and is, a key to explaining why families live in relative poverty.

Where does that leave us? Mike Brewer of the Institute for Fiscal Studies said that although the Government would be disappointed at missing their targets, they must be congratulated on taking on the issue and on removing about 800,000 children from poverty by the dates that I mentioned. Those sentiments have been echoed by Kate Green, the chief executive of the Child Poverty Action Group, and one can well understand the CPAG’s reaction.

Perhaps I can just give a little plug for the CPAG, an organisation with which I grew up. It was set up under the Harold Wilson Government in 1965, and I understand, although I am slightly too young quite to remember this, that that was quite a shock to them, because poverty eradication was one of their key polices. They were quite shocked that such an organisation would form itself and was thought necessary.

The CPAG was formed because the system was not reaching a group of people in society, and, in some ways, we are still talking about that same group. Sadly, we may now be talking not only about the same group—the poorest 20 cent. and certainly the poorest 10 per cent.—but about the relatives of those then in it, because, unfortunately, the problem can be generational. Poverty of aspiration, poverty of opportunity and poverty of housing can all be passed down, literally, from father to son and from mother to daughter. As well as increasing income, we need to break that cycle of deprivation.

What is the problem that remains? Which is the hardest group to tackle? The target group is made up of four broad subgroups, and I have touched on some of them. One, for the reasons that I have indicated, is lone parents. Commonly, nine out of 10 lone parents will be female.

Another group is large families. Income poverty will hit large families, and, rather paradoxically, one can have in-work poverty. There must therefore be a way of helping not just the first and second children, but the third, fourth and fifth.

Another group is families with a disabled parent, which will also suffer income poverty because of unemployment. Unfortunately, not enough of our disabled constituents have the opportunity to work if they want to. The Minister may say more about that in due course; indeed, I believe that things may be said, or may have been said, about that today. That is an important part of the matrix, but it has been missing so far.

London also has its own problems, simply because of the cost of living. Although your constituency and mine, Mr. Martlew, are not a million miles from London, they might as well be culturally. Many people might say that that is a good thing—many of my constituents certainly would—because life pressures are different in London.

Let me just try to unpick those four areas a little further. On paid work, 75 per cent. of children in households with no adult in work are income poor. Some 12 per cent. of children are in households with all adults in employment. A key measure would be to get one parent and, if possible, both parents working.

Ethnicity, which I meant to mention before, is another area of concern. The CPAG has calculated that there are different risks of child poverty for different ethnic groups, and that 57 per cent. of Pakistani and Bangladeshi children, 44 per cent. of Chinese children or children from other ethnic groups, and 43 per cent. of black or black British children are categorised as being in poor families in the way that I have described. I have not resolved this issue in my own mind, but there is a suggestion that the Gini coefficient—the relationship between those at the bottom of the heap and those at the top—might be significant. I do not know whether it is, but others say that it might be. Despite the fact that 800,000 children have been raised out of poverty, the poorest tenth of the population still receives only 1.7 per cent. of the income received by the population as a whole, whilst the richest nearly 30 per cent. receives 17 times as much. CPAG calculates that despite the efforts that have been made, the Gini coefficient of proportional inequality, whether it be absolute or relative inequality, remains unchanged. Some would argue—I am not arguing this point because I have not decided whether it is a factor—that that relativity needs to be adjusted if we are going to crack this particular nut.

I come to the crux of the debate: where things are going. Clearly, child trust funds will bring benefits down the line and will be part of the mix towards 2020, although that policy is not universally adopted or respected across the Floors of the two Houses. That is a matter for debate.

Tax credits have been criticised, but I reject those criticisms, not because it is a party political issue, but because of my constituency experience. Having been a constituency MP for nearly 10 years, I have come to trust the evidence I get from people who come through my surgery door, or who telephone, fax or e-mail me, to show me where things are going. That has worked for many other issues, and I have absolutely no doubt that it is as true, or at least as likely to be true, for this issue as for any other.

Nearly 7,000 families in my constituency benefit from child tax credit and working tax credit. In the time that tax credits have been in operation—is it about two years?

I am grateful. In those three years, I have received about 50 complaints. While any complaint is regrettable, and I urge the Government to redouble their efforts to make the system work as we all want it to, that is 50 complaints out of 7,000.

Does the hon. Gentleman acknowledge that his experience may not be typical? In my constituency in the past two years, I guess that I have seen somewhere between 300 and 400 people with serious problems with tax credits. If one took the number of overpayments and spread them across constituencies, there would be many thousands in every constituency in the country.

I do not doubt for one second that the hon. Gentleman is absolutely accurate about his constituency. I accept that and respect it, but I trust my own figures and what I have found. I cannot really comment on other people’s experiences. I would find it extraordinary if my constituency were blessed on this issue for some reason. You will know from your postbag, Mr. Martlew, that when you pick up these things, it is very unusual not to pick up what your colleagues are picking up to some extent. Therefore, I am quite prepared to use my constituency work as a basis for assessing where tax credits are going.

When the new Secretary of State came into office, virtually the first thing that he said, which I very much welcomed, was that his No. 1 priority was to tackle child poverty. Given that, technically, the target was missed—that is admitted, and I have tried to deal with it in context—I suppose that he was saying that the effort was valiant, welcome and civilised, but the target was ultimately missed, so how do we get back on track? He said that the Government would redouble and renew their efforts, which I very much encourage. From my perspective, it was absolutely the right thing for the Department for Work and Pensions to focus on. In such a Department, many issues could be focused on and be the subject of debate. I am sure that we all have issues in mind that are dealt with by that Department and that we could debate, but they are not the subject of today’s debate.

The Government have taken things on the chin by acknowledging that we have the worst rate of child poverty in Europe. That is not a pretty thing to say, but they acknowledge it. Over the years, Governments have denied, fudged and not dealt with the idea that income poverty is the issue. I began by saying that, and I maintain that position. The question is how we continue the process and make the system better so that it can deal with income poverty. In some ways, I have two different targets to consider: the shorter-term target of 2010 and that which is the subject of the debate—the 2020 target.

The Government need courage and ability to take this matter forward, and I know that that is their intention. My hon. Friend the Minister recently announced the welcome appointment of a so-called child poverty tsar. No doubt he can tell us more about that and about how the office will work from a cross-cutting position, with the appointee having feelers across a range of Departments. I wish it success because this is a cross-cutting issue.

Let us consider income poverty, which moves us from the general and cross-cutting to the specific. The Institute for Public Policy Research calculated that to get back on track to meet the 2010-11 targets the Government would have to inject a further £2 billion into the tax and benefits system, which is a frightening figure if it is at all true. Whether or not the figure is cast iron is perhaps not the issue; the issue is that there is an income gap for the poorest 20 per cent. If that gap is not addressed, no matter what kind of exhortation and other measures are put in place—even though they will be good things in themselves—the likelihood is that the 2010-11 target will not be hit and the eradication of child poverty by 2020 will not be achieved, which cannot be contemplated and should not be countenanced. That is not necessarily agreed on all sides, however, and there may be more to be said on the matter.

On the appointment of Lisa Harker, who has a relevant background in that she was the chair of the Daycare Trust, I wish her well. Will the Minister tell us more about what she might be expected to do and will do? That is important in terms of additionality: what more will we do that we did not do before 2005? What extra is being put into the pot?

I want to pick up on a few things that others have said. The “Narrowing the Gap” report by the Fabian Commission on Life Chances and Child Poverty made a number of recommendations. I shall not go through them all but shall pick up on some. They may be of exhortatory significance in putting a bit of steel into the resolve that I know the Minister has to ensure that these targets and others are met. The report says that the issue must be identified as a key “central national priority”. That returns to my opening comments and the MORI review in respect of the public’s understanding. Eradicating child poverty should be a key national priority, and I hope that there will be cross-party support to make it a central issue, target or whatever one wants to call it.

The report suggests that

“a regular annual Life Chances Audit”

should be instituted. So, there we are; I ask the Minister to get on with it.

While much has been done on maternity support, not least with maternity leave and increasing maternity pay, disadvantage is still inflicted on families, particularly the poorest, when pregnancy comes around. We have talked about trying to have two parents earning, and that is key when more children are involved. Rather like illness or unemployment, that kind of interruption can be the difference; it can knock somebody out of the cycle or knock them back down to where they came from. There should be redoubled effort on maternity support.

A key recommendation, which I understand does not fall outside the Government’s direction of travel, is a system of what the report terms “universal high quality childcare”. I know that child care places have been increased by about 100,000 over the past two or three years, but such provision needs to be bedded down everywhere. I do not know but guess that it is not universal. Although it may be good in certain areas, there will still be pockets of hard-to-reach families, so universal high-quality child care is key and must be available.

The report suggests that

“benefit rates for children should increase”.

I have already talked about the 25 per cent. real terms increase in child benefit. That might be part of what the IPPR calls the £2 billion injection gap. Among other things, the Fabians would want the question of whether those increases can be in line with earnings to be considered. The minimum wage also needs to be maintained and supported. Finally, the Fabians suggest setting

“a target to reduce income and wealth inequalities”.

That comes back to the idea of the Gini coefficient. As I said, I am undecided on that, although I see the argument behind the report’s suggestion.

The final outside body that I shall cite for today’s purposes is the Child Poverty Action Group. It suggests a 10-point plan, but I shall not go through all of it. I cannot apologise for this and am not trying to make things party political as I am just reading from the list, but at the top it states:

“all parties…to commit to eradicate child poverty.”

It is saying that that should not be a vague aspiration or notion, but must be a hard and firm commitment to tackling what I have indicated is the crux of the issue—income inequality.

The CPAG says that there should be “poverty proof policies”—no doubt, Lisa Harker might be part of that in respect of the cross-cutting overview—making each policy consistent with eradicating child poverty. We need to avoid the silo idea and to ensure that one Department is not doing something that damages or acts against others’ interests.

I have exhorted the Minister to do all he can to eradicate what I would term the “glitches” in the tax credits and benefits system—others might put that differently. I support the tax credits system, as does the CPAG, but I ask the Government to examine take-up, because it is classically known in welfare work that it is possible to have a perfect system of benefit for something, yet people do not take it up or access it. The latest Government figures that I have seen showed that in 2004, 79 per cent. of those eligible for child tax credits were accessing them. If we could up that figure, income inequality would be addressed, almost by definition.

In general terms, but not in terms of income inequality, we should ensure that all children have access to decent education, school meals, uniforms, physical activity and jobs that are, as the CPAG said, not just jobs, but better jobs.

My constituency has one of the largest council estates in the country, and the mums that we have been able to encourage back to work have benefited on two fronts. First, they gained confidence because they had never worked, or had not worked for such a long time that they did not have the confidence to go back to the world of work and had become convinced that they could not. Secondly, they gained upskilling and training around those issues and obtained national vocational qualifications in various subjects, such as maths, English and IT skills, which enabled them to work. It is important to ensure that training opportunities are available.

The Government set out in the right direction and should be congratulated on having the courage to take on the issue. One of the groups that I have referred to said that no one underestimates the scale of the task. It is not easy and could have been ducked. The Government did not duck it, but we are not quite there and we may miss the target, so I ask them to redouble their efforts.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Wirral, West (Stephen Hesford) on raising such an important issue today and for an extremely thoughtful and non-partisan speech covering an extensive subject.

The hon. Gentleman talked about trying to engage the population at large with child poverty and to make them understand it. That is important. I regret that more hon. Members were not present to listen to his speech on what is a flagship element of Government policy. That may say something about the difficulty of engaging with an extremely large subject that crosses many portfolios. If we have problems engaging hon. Members in the debate, that demonstrates the difficulty of explaining to people in the wider country how extensive child poverty is and making them understand what poverty is in Britain compared with poverty in developing countries, which they understand better, and securing the sort of consensus that the hon. Gentleman and the Government talked about to continue the progress made in recent years.

I was pleased that the Secretary of State recently indicated that child poverty will be the No. 1 priority for his Department and I congratulate the Minister on having responsibility for the issue in the Department. Although I anticipated having less time than is available, this is still an extremely brief debate to cover an important and complex issue. I may be wrong, but I believe that this is the only debate on child poverty that we have had in the House since the general election. That is surprising, and it highlights the difficulty of engaging people with a subject that is the No. 1 departmental priority that we have not had other opportunities to debate it. I hope that the Minister will reflect on that and talk to the Secretary of State about it. Perhaps an opportunity can be found later this year for a more extensive debate to allow the issues to be aired in the main Chamber, in which many more hon. members could participate.

I started by congratulating the hon. Gentleman on raising the subject, and I must also congratulate the Government on making the matter a priority since they were elected in 1997. There was an extraordinary rise in child poverty after 1979 through the 1980s and into the early 1990s. During that period, our child poverty rate went from 14 per cent., which was towards the bottom of the European league table, to the astonishing level of 33 per cent. or one child in three living in relative poverty. The country should be ashamed of that horrific figure, which put us at the top of the European league table. It must be of concern to all of us that such a large proportion of our children were growing up in poverty, and there must be a read-across from poverty to other problem areas such as low skills, which increase people’s chances of staying out of the labour market and going into crime, social exclusion and declining social mobility. One concern in recent years has been that the figures seem to indicate that social mobility has been falling over the past few decades instead of rising as would be expected in a wealthier and more meritocratic society.

I congratulate the Government on making the matter a priority. There is a major challenge to make people in the wider country understand the relevance and validity of the concept of child poverty, which a number of recent reports, including the Fabian report, commented on. The hon. Gentleman referred to cross-party issues and the desire for cross-party consensus. I shall not comment on the position of the other Opposition party. All I say is that we are committed to continuing the Government’s policy of reducing child poverty and are in the middle of a policy review dealing precisely with that issue. I hope that over the next year we will be able to set out our strategy clearly—I shall say more about that later—and how it compares with that of the Government.

Complex issues are involved in setting the right targets, which is why we have been determined not simply to sign up unthinkingly to whatever targets the Government have lifted off the shelf. We know that there is uncertainty about what their targets mean. The most important measure of poverty is the relative poverty indicator, and the Government have set a target of 2020 for eradicating child poverty according to that indicator. When we found out more about what that means, we found the target had been set to bring child poverty in the United Kingdom down to around the lowest rate in the EU. Perhaps that is the only sensible way of setting a target for child poverty, but it is not eradication and it depends to some extent on what is happening in other European countries. The Government have set a target that they cannot control.

Targets for child poverty must be seen in the context of the rest of the benefits system and poverty for other groups in society. The Government have made good progress in recent years in reducing child poverty and, to some extent, pensioner poverty. However, because those have been the two priorities, the poverty rate for people without children and who are out of work has remained unchanged. What is often forgotten is that children live in families with adults who are in poverty and if the benefits and incomes that those adults are on are anchored to price increases rather than earnings increases, it is more difficult to achieve targets for child poverty. I accept that child poverty has a special resonance and that we come from a position of having a particular problem with it, but the strategy for dealing with it must be seen in a wider context.

I shall comment briefly on three areas on which the Government need to focus in relation to their own policies if they want to help themselves achieve the child poverty targets: tax credits, the Child Support Agency and the regressive council tax. We could discuss tax credits for hours, and I would be more than happy to do so, as the Paymaster General knows. I can only say to the hon. Gentleman that his constituency experience does not match mine. I warn him that the more he talks about some of the problems with tax credits, which he may not do in his constituency, the more the people who come to his advice centres will not be the people who have defrauded the system or not bothered to inform the Inland Revenue of their problem, but those who, through no fault of their own, have ended up with overpayments that have driven them further into poverty.

The hon. Gentleman gently chides me, because he finds it difficult to understand why my figures are so low. I assure him it is not because I have run away from the issue, which I have publicised through the local newspapers and my newsletters. Despite that, I am where I am.

I accept that. I remember having this debate with the Paymaster General a couple of years ago when I warned her of the number of cases of overpayment occurring in my constituency. She said that there must be something odd about the south-west or the Yeovil constituency. Then came the figures that confirmed the problems. The parliamentary ombudsman produced a fantastic report on the administrative problems with tax credits a year ago. Sadly, only about four of the 12 recommendations—probably the four least important—have been implemented to date. The most important was about not recovering money until it is confirmed that it is recoverable under the code of practice, and about mechanisms for recovering it and for writing off cases in which an official error has caused the overpayment. The Government have not adopted those recommendations, which would make a tremendous difference to those people whom the tax credit system is precisely designed to help, and who, in many cases, have been driven further into poverty.

The problems of the Child Support Agency are well known; we expect a statement on the matter within the next couple of weeks. Again, we could debate that for hours, but it is worth pointing out that £3.5 billion maintenance arrears have accrued since the CSA was set up by the Conservative Government in 1993. The £3.5 billion that has not got through to families with children would have made an enormous difference in tackling child poverty, and until there is a working CSA, it will be more difficult to tackle the problems of child poverty.

The Government policy that is pushing against their own targets on child poverty is council tax, which is probably the most regressive tax in Britain—it has increased by about 100 per cent. since 1997. There are about 800,000 households with children who are in relatively low-income poverty and not in receipt of the council tax benefits to which they are entitled. In other words, about 50 per cent. of households with children in poverty who are entitled to council tax benefit are not in receipt of it.

The Government’s vehicle for dealing with the regressive nature of council tax is very ineffective, so we have a very regressive tax, which is making the Government’s job of reducing child poverty much more difficult.

The hon. Member for Wirral, West gave us a number of signposts about future issues. He indicated that without a continued increase in transfer payments from the Government it will be very difficult to meet the ambitious targets that have been set. I agree; getting more money into low-income families is a crucial part of the complex policy challenge of giving those children greater opportunities.

The hon. Gentleman’s right hon. Friends have flagged up some major issues, not only in respect of the administration of the tax credit system, but about the balance between means-tested and non-means-tested benefits. The number of people facing very high marginal deduction rates as they go back into employment has risen, as the hon. Gentleman knows, by about 1 million since 1997. Although those facing the highest marginal deduction rates have come down, that figure remains extremely high. Recent reports, including that from the Fabian Society, suggest that there is a debate about the right balance between means-tested and non-means-tested benefits, and in that respect the hon. Gentleman’s point about take-up rates is highly relevant. The Government should be engaging in a debate on that matter, and by retaining the child benefit element alongside the child tax credit, they clearly indicate that they think that those two elements need to be part of their child poverty strategy.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the child trust fund. It is clear that under any Government spending rounds in the next few years will be considerably less generous than those since 1999. Scarce resources will have to be spent where they will make the most difference. Our view is that the child trust fund is not the priority when setting aside £2.25 billion per Parliament as money that will be accessible by an individual only when they reach 18, by which time most of their disadvantages, such as poverty and problems in early years education, will already have been consolidated. We would much rather that that money went in at an early stage and was spent on additional help to low-income families to make a difference to people’s opportunities, rather than its coming to them at the age of 18.

I want to touch briefly on two other, vital, issues. Recently, in his speech on child poverty the Secretary of State questioned whether ultimately the strategy of simply increasing benefits and tax credits could ever deliver on the very ambitious targets that have been set, and he was right to do so. One reason why there are such high child poverty rates in this country is the number of children in workless households and in single-parent households, although it is extremely difficult for any Government to do much about the latter.

We need to get more parents into work; that is an issue that relates to single parents and to people on incapacity benefit who have been written off in the past but who could be moved into employment. I hope that they will be important elements in the Bill that has been published today. It is clear that low skills are associated with worklessness, so the skills agenda and early years agenda are vital.

Housing is also vital. About 32 per cent. of the income of low-income families is spent on housing costs, a much greater percentage than in higher-income households. Housing costs have been rising rapidly in recent years, and the housing market is not working. If we are to hope to meet the very ambitious targets, we cannot rely on one policy vehicle alone, we must tackle problems in the housing market and in worklessness, and we must address the skills agenda.

I again congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate and hope that we will have further opportunities during the rest of the year to debate the issue in greater detail.

I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Martlew, and say what an honour it is to appear before you. I welcome the debate, and congratulate the hon. Member for Wirral, West (Stephen Hesford) on securing it. He is a brave man, perhaps lacking the political ambition of some of his colleagues who have chosen to stay away from this debate, for a reason that eludes me.

The debate is particularly timely and gives us a welcome opportunity to bring together some of the strands underlining child poverty. At the outset, for the benefit of the House, I ask the Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform whether the Government will confirm their definition of poverty for the purposes of child poverty? The Library briefing note prepared for today’s debate states:

“The standard definition of income poverty is living in a household with an equivalised household income that is below 60 per cent. of the median household income. Income is ‘equivalised’, meaning it is adjusted to take account of variations in household size and composition to make it a better measure of standard of living.”

As we know from the Department’s press release in March, the target on child poverty was only narrowly missed before housing costs were taken into account, yet on closer examination the gap in missing the target was greater after housing costs were taken into consideration, and there are a number of reasons for that.

Let us consider the geographic spread represented by those present in the debate—the north-west, Scotland, Yorkshire and the south-west. It is interesting to note that the average house in north Yorkshire is the most expensive in the country. It is important that housing costs are taken into consideration in setting child poverty levels. Will the Government confirm that that is their understanding, and that it will remain so?

It fills me with dread when the Government appoint a tsar to a policy area. The hon. Member for Wirral, West alluded to the appointment of Lisa Harker as the tsar for child poverty. The Minister issued a press release at the end of June setting out her remit. The Secretary of State yesterday set before the Select Committee the reasons for the Government’s failure—that is perhaps why the hon. Member for Wirral, West, finds himself alone on his Benches today, regrettably—saying that of all the aspects of the Department’s work, the hardest is eradicating child poverty. The Secretary of State claims that child poverty rates have been falling because of the introduction of tax credits and the improvement in the employment rate of parents, particularly through the new deal for lone parents.

If there is one thing that the tax credit system and the Child Support Agency share, it is a lamentable failure of their computer systems. The hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws) referred to the £3.3 billion not yet collected by the Child Support Agency. I simply add that £2 billion of that is deemed uncollectible. What do we say to the parents with care who are owed that money and who will possibly never get it?

The Secretary of State claimed that the target had not been reached because not enough lone parents had got back into work. The Child Poverty Action Group, to which I pay tribute for its work over the years, commented in a November press release:

“Child poverty cannot be eradicated without significantly raising the safety net of the welfare state, supporting more people into employment, ensuring that work pays and making further improvements to the administration of tax credits”.

That is absolutely vital.

The Secretary of State said that two key areas are focusing more heavily on getting lone parents back into work and improving child support. The National Audit Office last week came out with the most damning indictment of the Child Support Agency. That should be taken together with the damning report by the Work and Pensions Committee, which came out before last year’s election, and which went to the heart of the matter. Some very good people work for the Child Support Agency—indeed, the Minister might take this opportunity to thank them for their work, often in difficult circumstances—but the Select Committee said that they lack training and that their skills were not necessarily deployed to best advantage.

We are poised to hear, any day now, a statement by the Secretary of State on the result of the David Henshaw review; obviously, that will give us more time to focus on the issue, but I would like to rehearse the reasons why the Government failed to reach the last target and to say why we believe a course of action can be followed that will eradicate child poverty more quickly.

Will the Minister say why Northern Ireland is not included in the figures? That gives a distorted view of the child poverty picture, because a third of children in Northern Ireland live in poverty. Will he provide a letter, to be placed in the Library for the benefit of all right hon. and hon. Members, giving the data with the figures for Northern Ireland aggregated into the total? Also, will he, on a regular basis, give the target both before and after housing costs are included, and explain which of the definitions the Government will use?

The Government have a quantifiable public service agreement target for child poverty in 2005; levels of child poverty are to be at least a quarter lower than in 1998-99, using the poverty line of 60 per cent. The Government missed their child poverty targets for 2005 and are on track to miss them again in 2010. I have to say that the two biggest problems in my constituency surgeries are overpayment of tax credits—that can have an impact in thrusting a household into poverty, because the Government try to claw back the overpayment in one go—and child support cases.

I have already made a point about tax credits but, for the record, I do not think that I said I thought that the Government were on track to miss 2010; I think that I made the point that we ought to put in place measures that help us get there, having accepted that we missed 2005.

Save the Children questioned Labour’s success in tackling child poverty. In a press release last December, it said that

“there has been little or no improvement in the percentage of children living in severe poverty”

in Britain. It went on to say:

“The Government needs to sort out the absurd mess of 11 different departments working on child poverty without a joined-up strategy”.

The hon. Member for Wirral, West, did mention tax credits, child support and lone parents, and we can see that already three Departments come into play there. The Government may wish to consider that.

The Government are on track to miss their target in 2010. The principal tool that they are using is tax credits, yet those have had a marginal effect that is diminishing, and that might well be squeezed in the next spending round. As the calculation of child poverty is a relative one that sits near the middle of the curve, a small movement in any direction has the effect of taking large numbers of children into or out of poverty. From our point of view, it is difficult to sign up to a target that the Government are clearly on course to miss.

We are committed, and state that we aspire, to eradicating child poverty by 2020. However, there are a number of issues that we would like to consider today. Does the Minister accept that the tax credits fiasco has probably impacted in such a way as to push more children into poverty? Does he further accept the mess that the Child Support Agency has got into and that the Government have failed to take up the mediation aspect, so strongly pushed by the former Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett), who, in 1998, promised to commit more resources to mediation so that there would be fewer calls on child support? Those two policies, taken together, have had a negative impact on the child poverty figures.

The hon. Lady obviously shares our concerns about the administration of the tax credit system, but she implies that child tax credits may have deepened child poverty. I am sure that that was not her intention. The problems may have meant that there was not as much of an improvement as the Government aspired to make, but the hon. Lady would surely agree that child tax credits have reduced the poverty figures.

The point that I was trying to make—I hope that the hon. Gentleman will accept it—is that there are cases where individual households may be pushed into temporary poverty because of the clawback, through the incompetence of the Government. I do not think that that was the Government’s intention, but it has been the practical effect. We may not be talking about many households, but the problem has had quite an impact, certainly in my constituency, which, although it has pockets of deprivation, could not be described as a deprived area.

In addition to tax credits and Child Support Agency failings, there is the issue of the new deal for over-50s. There are insufficient advisers, as I think the Minister will accept, and there is a six-month wait before over-50-year-olds seeking work can get assistance; that is a failing through having an insufficient network of business advisers. The new deal for younger people has not helped as many young people as the Government claim.

The figures show that when the Conservatives left power in 1997, youth unemployment was on a strong downward spiral anyway.

There are two related aspects, and the hon. Member for Wirral, West touched on one. First, there is the impact on child poverty of the disabled parent who is unable to enter the workplace. Secondly, there is mental illness. A recent Joseph Rowntree Foundation paper recognised that aspect, whereby the parent is unable to work or seek work because of mental illness. It is a general problem to which I hope all parties will seek a solution. I shall set out the Conservative party’s position. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman or the Minister know that we have stated that we embrace the principle of active market intervention. It is the best way of achieving a skilled and competitive work force. The new deal might have had a role to play, but the Government have not carried out a sufficient cost-benefit analysis. As with tax credit, child support and other targets, the Government are so obsessed with targets that they have failed to reach the 2005 figures for reducing child poverty and are not on course to reach the 2010 figures.

We invite the private and voluntary sectors to play a positive role in reducing child poverty. We are committed to improving the lot of the most disadvantaged in society. My right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron), the Leader of the Opposition, recently set out in his speech on the family four factors that promise a pathway out of poverty:

“A loving and stable home life; A good education; Economic opportunity; A life free of substance abuse and serious debt.”

My right hon. Friend the Member for—I cannot remember his constituency—

Indeed. My right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith), who chairs the social justice policy group, will report on those issues and set out a programme. One area that we are considering is transferable tax allowances to help support the institution of marriage and reform the welfare and tax system.

I praise the hon. Member for Wirral, West for drawing our attention to the Government’s failings. We join the Government in the aspiration to reduce and eradicate child poverty by 2020. However, I join with the hon. Gentleman, in identifying the reasons why the Government have failed to act. We look forward with great interest to hearing how the Minister is going to get us back on track to eradicate child poverty by 2020.

I am pleased to have the opportunity to respond in this brief but thought-provoking debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, West (Stephen Hesford) was particularly thought provoking, and if truth be told, he is the only one of us who volunteered to attend today. All three other speakers are present, first because of our Front-Bench responsibilities and secondly, because of our general interest. I congratulate my hon. Friend on being the only Back Bencher in attendance from any party. I did not know that he had experience of working with the Child Poverty Action Group before he became a Member of Parliament. The detail in his speech displayed the knowledge and experience that he built up over those years.

I apologise to my hon. Friend and others that as there have been myriad comments, questions and suggestions, we may not be able in the 16 minutes available to cover them all. I hope to make a good attempt,

I welcome the points that the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws) made. Although he has specific concerns about the Government’s strategy, the tone and reasonable way in which he put his points across improved the quality of our debate. We look forward to hearing and analysing the outcome of the policy commission that is considering the Liberal Democrat attitude to child poverty. He suggested some reasons why they do not share the commitment to the 2010 target of halving child poverty and the 2020 target of eradication. I am sure that we will discuss that in more detail as the commission concludes its deliberations.

I get on very well with the hon. Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh), except when we have debates. From the tone of her comments, I do not sense that she is a fully paid-up member of the new, modern Conservative party. Rather than pressing on specifics, which is entirely reasonable, she might more appropriately have acknowledged that because of the generational nature of poverty, lack of ambition, the challenge of social mobility, and inequalities in education and public service provision, many of the problems with which we are dealing did not start on 1 May 1997. In many respects, but not all, finding a solution to those generational and long-term problems has been one of our greatest priorities over the past nine years. It would have been more appropriate for her to start with an apology.

The hon. Lady suggested that the Conservatives share our aspiration, but for the Labour party and the Labour Government it is not an aspiration but a determined target to deliver. It is not a wilful aspiration that we might one day aspire to achieve; it is a determined target that we have set out to achieve. Working with others, we will continue to drive public policy to achieve it.

I am grateful to the Minister for allowing me to clarify our position. As he continues with his prepared speech, he will accept that we support the Government but recognise that they failed to achieve their ambitious target in 2005. They look as though they will also fail to achieve the target in 2010, by which time we aspire to be in government and will have to deal with the situation.

That is one target that we intend to miss.

In my prepared speech, I was to going to welcome the tone of the hon. Lady’s remarks. However, I am doing no such thing, because I thought that her tone was entirely inappropriate. Her suggestion that we are not hitting our target because we are obsessed with hitting our target raised three sets of eyebrows across the Chamber.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, West intervened on the hon. Lady’s comments about the experience of the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith), the former Conservative leader. I do not doubt the right hon. Gentleman’s motivation, based on his visit to a Glasgow housing scheme. However, for many of us who grew up in housing schemes, and certainly for myself, who grew up in a Glasgow housing scheme, it is not a visit to a housing scheme that drives us, but the life experiences of each and every individual with whom we grew up in those communities.

I am delighted about and thank hon. Members for their congratulations on the role that I have been invited to play at the Department for Work and Pensions. The Secretary of State rightly identified tackling child poverty as our No. 1 priority. There is no room for complacency, but child poverty is at a 15-year low. It more than doubled in the previous 20 years, when one in three babies in Britain was born into poverty. There have been policies such as Jobcentre Plus, the new deal, the minimum wage and tax credits. The hon. Lady and others have had their concerns about the latter, but despite the serious administration problems, which we do not seek to belittle, and having again put on record the apologies that other Ministers have made for the administration, I may say tax credits have made a substantial contribution to alleviating poverty in many of the poorest families in every constituency, including the hon. Lady’s. Some 6 million families and 10 million children have received support through the tax credit system. Of course, we have to find ways in which to improve the administration. For people in relative poverty, a mistake in administration can have long-term effects on the stability of their income and the way in which they can live their lives.

As I have mentioned, there is a generational challenge, as identified by the statistics on life expectancy. If we compare the life expectancy of a child born in Kensington and Chelsea with that of one born in Wirral, West, there is a five-year gap. If we compare the life expectancy in Wirral, West with that in Calton in my home city of Glasgow, there is an additional 22-year gap. That does not need policies about tax credits, the minimum wage, primary education or getting lone parents into work, but a general approach to target and to focus relentlessly across government, along with business and the voluntary and private sectors, on the ways in which we can drive a sense of social mobility and real change in those families.

One of the interesting points that everyone has made today is the lack of awareness among many people about the nature of child poverty in this country. Of course, that lack of awareness exists not among those who continue to experience child poverty despite all their efforts—there is a real sense of what it means in those families—but in the wider public domain, which may be reflected in the attendance at today’s debate, and perhaps among some journalists. I do not criticise them for it at all, but in preparation for some work last week I found myself having to persuade a journalist that child poverty was a continuing and real problem in our country. The hon. Member for Vale of York made the fair point that, for some, child poverty is something in the developing world, about which celebrities campaign vocally for good purpose and to great effect, which we welcome. However, although the nature and scale of child poverty are entirely different here, the challenge remains.

We seek to co-ordinate our work to maximum effect so that policies in education, health, employment and across all Departments are more focused in the way in which they are brought together. I welcome the appointment of my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster as Minister for Social Exclusion. She has brought together a Cabinet Sub-Committee, and that means that Ministers from all Departments are working together and trying to support the poorest 5 per cent. in our communities.

Poorer children with a high developmental score as toddlers fall behind by the age of 10 compared with children from higher social economic groups who had a lower developmental score in early childhood. At key stage 3, fewer than half the pupils who receive free school meals reach their expected attainment levels. It is not only an issue of weaker educational outcomes; it goes much wider than that. An ever-increasing body of research attests to the importance of children’s early years informing their life chances, which is why this debate is so important in focusing on what more can be done to eradicate child poverty.

The poverty and disadvantage that afflict people, and children above all, are not new phenomena, as we have already heard. They grew grotesquely, out of all sense of proportion and beyond all sense of justification, throughout the ‘80s and early ‘90s. The way in which that grotesque level of poverty was allowed to grow embarrassed this country and shamed public life through that period.

I shall now reflect on what more can be done. The Welfare Reform Bill, which we publish today, will be an important step towards improving life chances by no longer writing anyone off and by supporting those with incapacity benefit to give them the chance to build confidence, which is important, rebuild their skills, which is key, and find work, obtain work and stay in work through personal advice and support, which will be crucial. The city strategy, of which we will announce more details later this month, focused on many of our big cities where the problem is even more acute. Two thirds of people on benefit in the United Kingdom live in our big cities, which is the rationale for the city strategy. Today, we shall announce the national roll-out of the pathways programme, again involving the private and voluntary sectors. That is an important part of the overall strategy.

I am listening with great interest. The Minister accepts that, as I mentioned, there are pockets of rural deprivation across areas such as the Vale of York, but the fact that the cost of housing is significantly higher than anywhere else in the country and the average wage significantly lower has an impact. Can he confirm the definition of poverty, so that we all know what we are talking about? Is it assessed in income terms, and is it assessed before or after housing costs?

There is an accurate definition in the House of Commons Library note for this debate, which I will confirm to the hon. Lady in writing.

Both sets of figures, before and after housing costs, will be published, so there will be maximum openness. As I say, our definition of relative poverty does not take into account the hon. Lady’s specific point about regional variations in housing costs. Both sets of figures will be published so she will be able to make her observations as she chooses.

The key to our approach to child poverty is the drive on social mobility, which, as the hon. Member for Yeovil said, has stalled, and I have said that in public before. I argue that that is largely the consequence of the fact that the socially-immobile 30-somethings of today were the children of the ‘80s and a time of substantial mass unemployment. The nature of social mobility is such that there is a generational challenge about how we break the cycle of poverty of aspiration. Early education is key, family support is crucial, and the alleviation of child poverty is absolutely essential.

I was reminded again of that when I was in Liverpool last week, knocking on doors with an organisation called Streets Ahead. In the daytime, there were three generations of one family behind a door in the poorest ward, I think, in Liverpool, all of whom were able through interaction with Streets Ahead to see that there is some opportunity through the new deal and other employment programmes for them to get closer to the labour market. Such projects are absolutely crucial if we are to overcome the generational nature of the lack of social mobility that is so endemic in so many of our larger cities.

Breaking the cycle of disadvantage is not simple. It is not about one specific policy. However, we are seeking to refresh our strategy at the Department for Work and Pensions. We have not appointed a tsar, although the newspapers suggested that we had. We have invited Lisa Harker, who has vast experience of the subject of child poverty through the Child Poverty Action Group, Save the Children, and the Daycare Trust, to advise us on what more we can do to achieve our targets for 2010 and to get us on track to eradicate child poverty by 2020. I want her to challenge us and to see what more we can do, and to challenge our policy approach, our organisational approach, our systems, our prioritisation, the way in which we structure our employment programmes and the interaction between those programmes. However, although my Department is important, we will not simply deliver the alleviation of child poverty on our own. There is a poverty of public services in some communities, and some people’s experience of public services is still take it or leave it, and take what you get. Despite recent improvements in extending equality of public services in such communities, we have to go much further in personalising public services in some of our poorer communities.

With that in mind, I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, West for introducing the debate in such an informed way and for giving the House the opportunity to reflect on what more can be done to alleviate child poverty in the UK by 2010 and to eradicate it by 2020, so that instead of having the highest levels of child poverty, as we did in the 1980s and 1990s, we can head the league table in Europe for the eradication of child poverty, rather than heading the table for its propensity and the grotesque way in which it was allowed to spread in many of our urban and rural communities.

Israel (War against Terror)

Almost to the day, 12 months ago, Britain suffered its first ever suicide bombing attack. In one day, Britain became a victim in the global jihad. Fifty-two innocent civilians were killed, and hundreds were wounded. Israel has had to face that same threat every day of the country’s existence, not only from hostile states whose aim is to wipe Israel off the map but from terrorist organisations, including Hamas, Islamic Jihad, Hezbollah and al-Qaeda, which target innocent Israeli citizens.

I want to get a little further into the debate before giving way.

This debate is not only about Israel’s personal fight against terror, but about its role in the global fight against terror. The face of international terrorism changed on 11 September 2001. Former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said:

“We have received a wake up call from hell. Now the question is simple: do we rally to defeat this evil, while there is still time, or do we press a collective snooze button and go back to business as usual?”

The threat posed by global terrorist organisations was not caused by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as many have argued since 9/11. That international radical Islamist terrorism is rooted in religious fundamentalism, not in national conflicts. Like the US, Britain, Spain and other western countries, Israel is a victim of this global jihad.

Some will argue that terrorism against Israel and terrorism against Britain are entirely separate. I disagree. They are closely linked. Like Britain and other western countries, Israel represents a bastion of western ideals—of democracy, capitalism and the rule of law.

I agree with our Prime Minister when he said in April 2004 that

“the best long-term security for us is the spread of freedom, democracy and values that all civilised people share.”—[Official Report, 11 January 2006; Vol. 441, c. 278.]

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. He is setting the historical context for this debate. However, we are approaching not only the anniversary of 7/7, but the 60th anniversary of the bombing of the King David hotel. Rather more people were killed on that day than were killed on 7/7. That attack was carried out by someone who, in 1946, was called a terrorist, but he went on to become the Prime Minister of Israel.

In setting the context for our debate, I hope that my hon. Friend will look at both sides of the argument and examine how movements develop, how the tactics of those engaged in a national liberation struggle have changed, and how people’s view of the characters involved in an unfolding drama and an appalling history have changed over time.

My hon. Friend raises an interesting point. Indeed, my father was in the British Army in the middle east at that time, and was based at the King David hotel. As it happened, he had just gone out for a sandwich, otherwise I would not be here today.

Of course, there are some big differences between the two events. We now know that the Irgun Zvai Leumi made an alarm call to the hotel but that it was ignored by the British forces. We must also remember that it was British forces who were based at the hotel, not innocent civilians. I do not condone terrorism, but to compare what the terrorist organisation Irgun Zvai Leumi did to the King David hotel with the blowing up of innocent civilians in night clubs in Israel is completely and utterly false.

It is our responsibility to take every conceivable measure to combat worldwide terrorism and to stand up to those who aim to destroy our values. We must ally ourselves with states such as Israel that share our ideals of freedom and democracy, and have enjoyed success in fighting terrorism. The terrorists who attack Israel and those who attack Britain have one aim—to destroy the western values of freedom and democracy, and to install an extremist form of Islam in the shape of a worldwide caliphate. We have seen the oppression inflicted through sharia law by the Taliban in Afghanistan and by the fundamentalist regime in Iran.

Anti-western hostility drives the global terror networks. Fundamentalist Islamists do not hate the west because of Israel; they hate Israel because the state of Israel is a bulwark of democracy, Judeo-Christian ethics of tolerance, western progress and freedom in the middle east.

The purpose of today’s debate is to recognise the global nature of terrorism, which is supported and aided by state sponsors of terrorism, and to urge the Government to take all necessary measures against those states that prop up radical Islamist terrorist organisations and to co-operate with Israel in the face of continued threats to its existence by hostile neighbours—the state sponsors of terrorism, Iran and Syria, and the terrorist groups that they support.

There is no international terrorism without the support of states. International terrorism cannot be sustained for long without the regimes that aid and abet it. Terrorists cannot operate in a vacuum. They train, arm and indoctrinate their killers in safe havens in territories provided by radical states. Those regimes often provide the terrorists with intelligence, money and operational assistance, dispatching them to serve as deadly proxies to wage a hidden war against more powerful enemies.

The Iranian regime is a principal player in supporting global terrorism, as our forces in Basra have found to their cost. Since 1979, when the Islamic republic was established, the Iranian regime has viewed terrorism as a legitimate means to further its ideological and strategic aims—exporting the revolution, assisting worldwide Islamist groups and attacking Israel. Hezbollah, Iran’s Shi’ite revolutionary proxy in southern Lebanon, is the spearhead for Iran’s export of terrorism, aimed globally and particularly at Israel. Iran also supports Palestinian terrorist groups, including Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad.

Britain and Israel share a common interest—the common threat posed by Hezbollah. Not only does Hezbollah target Israelis and Jews across the world, from Argentina to north Africa, but it provides Shi’a militias in Iraq with weaponry and training in terrorist tactics to kill British soldiers. With representation in 40 countries, Hezbollah has the capability to prepare attacks against western interests.

I am still struggling a little with the hon. Gentleman’s definition of terrorism. I am sure that hon. Members on both sides of the House abhor the targeting of innocent civilians from wherever it comes. However, in answer to the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt), he seemed to draw a distinction between the targeting of innocent civilians by what he called Palestinian terrorists and the killing of British regular soldiers in the King David hotel—although I am sure he does not approve of the latter. Would he also draw a distinction between the targeting of Israeli civilians by Palestinian fighters and the targeting of Israeli troops?

In answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate, I said that all terrorism is wrong. However, my hon. Friend was trying to imply a similarity between the dreadful attack on the King David hotel, when advance warning to evacuate the hotel was ignored, and attacks such as that on Mike’s restaurant and discotheque in Tel Aviv, when no advance warning was given. All terrorism is wrong; the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right.

Moreover, there is evidence that Hezbollah is facilitating al-Qaeda’s plans to attack Israel. On 27 December 2005, al-Qaeda claimed responsibility for firing Katyusha rockets into northern Israel from southern Lebanon, a feat impossible without the knowledge and permission of Hezbollah. We in Britain must not stand idly by while Iran arms and finances some of the most dangerous international terrorist organisations. Yet Hezbollah in its entirety does not feature on the British or European Union list of proscribed terrorist organisations. The European Union is lagging behind the United Nations Security Council, which, in June 2005, condemned Hezbollah’s attacks on Israel and reiterated demands, under UN Security Council resolution 1559, that the organisation be disarmed and that Lebanon exercise sovereignty over its border with Israel.

If the Government are taking the fight against terrorism seriously, why are they not doing more to force Hezbollah on to the EU list of terror organisations, and to prevent the raising of funds to perpetrate acts of terrorism against British and Israeli targets?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. On Hezbollah, is he aware of the view held by some academics that, in the event of the relationship between Iran and the west deteriorating—particularly if there is the prospect of a military intervention—one of the methods that the Iranian regime would very probably use against the west would be terrorism through Hezbollah? For the west, the threat of terrorists from Hezbollah is very real.

My hon. Friend raises an important point. In this debate, I am talking about things that have actually happened and clear evidence of Hezbollah involvement; I do not wish to speculate on future events. However, I know that the view that he just expressed is very widely held by military and intelligence experts in the west. I thank him for that helpful intervention.

In April, it emerged that Iran has some 40,000 suicide bombers poised to strike at Britain and elsewhere. Dr. Hassan Abbasi, the head of the Centre for Doctrinal Strategic Studies in the Revolutionary Guards, has warned would-be martyrs to

“pay close attention to wily England”

and vowed that

“Britain’s demise is on our agenda.”

The Iranian regime is a major threat to international peace and security. A fundamentalist regime hellbent on acquiring nuclear weapons is a threat to the west because it would grant the terror network, including al-Qaeda, a nuclear umbrella and allow Iran to increase its support for global terrorism. While the UN Security Council grapples with the Iranian nuclear issue, Iran threatens Britain, the United States and Israel. Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has threatened Israel with annihilation, denied the existence of the holocaust, and continues to incite anti-Semitism worldwide.

We in Britain must recognise that the threats issued by Iran are not empty and that they are directed not only against Israel, but directly against us in the west. Innocent British lives will be at risk if we fail to combat that brand of international terrorism. What is the difference between Iranian extremists promising to send suicide bombers to Britain and Iranian-funded Palestinian terrorists blowing up innocent civilians in Tel Aviv?

One of the most striking examples of the links between terrorism in Britain and that in Israel came in 2003. With direction from Hamas, two British-born Muslim suicide bombers—Asif Hanif, from London, and Omar Khan Sharif, from Derby—attacked Mike’s Place, a popular British bar in Tel Aviv, killing three Israelis and wounding 60 others.

The media, including the BBC, use moral equivalence to compare Israeli reactions to terror attacks with the attacks themselves. However, let us be perfectly clear: there is no moral equivalence between a terrorist who blows up a bus, hotel, marketplace or ice cream parlour and a response by a democratic state to find and root out those terrorists.

I have considerable sympathy with those British troops serving in Northern Ireland during the troubles who were vilified for “overreacting” in the face of terrorist violence. It is only too easy for armchair commentators and politicians to criticise soldiers from either country, on the ground, defending us.

Make no mistake—the terrorist organisations in the west bank and Gaza are willing tools of the wider causes of Islamic jihad. Not only is Hezbollah training and financing Palestinian terrorist organisations such as Islamic Jihad and Hamas, but, as confirmed by the Chairman of the Palestinian Authority, Abu Mazen, in those territories, there are now terrorist cells that have been recruited and funded by al-Qaeda networks operating from Israel’s near neighbours, Jordan and, yes, Egypt too.

I recognise that there has been suffering on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; many innocent lives have been lost. As our Prime Minister says, the only resolution of this conflict will be a two-state solution, reached through negotiation and a complete end to terrorism: a viable Palestinian state that lives side by side with a secure Israel.

Does the hon. Gentleman not accept that in his discourse he should say something about Israel’s breach of international law in its construction of the wall and in the killing of wholly innocent civilians by Israeli forces? For example, there were that poor family who died on the beach in Gaza and the children assassinated by Israeli troops operating illegally in the west bank and Gaza.

I take issue with the hon. Gentleman when he talks about children being assassinated; that implies that there was a deliberate attempt by Israel to kill children. I do not accept that at all. Of course I have sympathy with those killed when Israelis go into Gaza and the west bank to try to eradicate the terrorists.

The wall has been the subject of other debates, and I shall not go into the issue now. In fairness, I have to say—and the hon. Gentleman should know—that I do not totally agree with the route that the wall is taking. However, the wall, or barrier, is a necessary defence. If—God forbid—Scotland got its independence and started attacking Britain, perhaps we would build a Hadrian’s wall to defend ourselves. Of course I do not defend the route of the wall, but we are not discussing that issue now. For the benefit of any Scottish people listening to this debate, I hasten to add that I am sure that they want neither independence nor to attack England.

Let me move on. Every day since the Israeli disengagement from the Gaza strip in August 2005 and the total withdrawal of settlers and soldiers, rockets have been fired—more than 500 to date—by Palestinian terrorists into Israeli towns. Hamas, Palestinian popular resistance committees, Islamic Jihad and splinter groups of Fatah have all claimed responsibility and pledged further attacks against Israelis in community centres, schools, homes and shops. Despite Abu Mazen’s condemnation, no Palestinian political leaders have taken any steps to curb the launch of Qassam rockets or other terrorist attacks, including suicide bombings.

The Gaza strip remains a safe haven for terrorists. Sadly, that is why the actions mentioned by the hon. Gentleman have had to happen. The Hamas-led Palestinian Authority has not only refused to take any action, but openly encouraged continued acts of terrorism against innocent civilians.

The 25 June terrorist attack against an Israeli defence forces position near a kibbutz, Kerem Shalom, was not, as media outlets have argued, a revenge attack—that was just sloppy journalism—but the culmination of a three-month project that involved the excavation of a tunnel originating from a Palestinian apartment block in Gaza. Clearly, that situation could not be allowed to continue.

I gave a rather clumsy argument about Scotland, but I ask again what Britain would do in such circumstances. Would it stand idly by as its innocent civilians were attacked? Of course not. We cannot have double standards and condemn Israel; we have to look at what Israel is doing. All nations have a duty of care to protect their citizens and since Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza in August 2005, 36 Israelis have been killed and 436 others wounded.

Let us be clear that democratic and free nations need to work together to combat terrorism. Israel cannot be treated differently from countries in the western alliance because of the protracted conflict with the Palestinians. It is because of that conflict and decades at the hands of brutal terrorism that Israel should be accepted as part of the western alliance’s global war against terrorism.

Israel has played a vital role in the struggle against global jihad. If it were not for its contribution to counter-terrorism and its daily struggle on the front line of terrorist attacks by global players such as Hezbollah and al-Qaeda, the middle east and the rest of the world would be far less stable. It is testament to Israeli security and intelligence services that its counter-terrorism activities in the middle east have had much success.

To support its war on terrorism, Israel has developed a highly co-ordinated and efficient intelligence apparatus. Britain must learn from Israeli examples of gathering human intelligence on terrorism by deploying undercover agents in Palestinian-controlled areas and recruiting local informants, and from examples of the vigilance and awareness of the Israeli public in preventing terrorism. Signals intelligence is no substitute for human intelligence, and MI6 is taking that on board. Incidentally, as we approach 7/7, I urge the British public to be vigilant, whether they be in London, Birmingham, Manchester or even in rural areas.

While paying tribute to the work of our own Secret Intelligence Service, Security Service and GCHQ, I also want to express our gratitude to the Israel security agency, Shin Bet, and to Mossad, the Counter-Terrorism Bureau and the intelligence arms of the Israeli police service and defence forces. We recognise that the time may not be right for Israel to join NATO as a full and equal member, although I would welcome it, but there would be considerable advantages for NATO if it were to upgrade its relations with Israel. Israel meets all the NATO criteria: it is a democracy with a free market economy, and it has logistics and intelligence capabilities that have been vital in the global war on terrorism. For example, it recently launched the Eros B high resolution reconnaissance satellite to monitor Iran’s nuclear sites.

Both human and signals intelligence can reduce the potency of global terrorism, but it should also be our objective to put an end to state support for terrorism and to cut off the financing, arming and training of terrorist cells.

In conclusion, may I ask the Minister four questions? I gave him prior notice of them and hope that he will answer them fully when he replies. First, will he confirm that Britain will take all necessary steps to combat international terrorism and will aim to add Hezbollah’s political wing to the European Union list of terror organisations? Hezbollah’s political and military wings are one and the same. Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah leads both. There are similarities with the odd distinction that was made between Sinn Fein and the IRA during the troubles. They, too, were one and the same.

Secondly, will the Minister encourage his colleagues to ensure that there is even closer co-operation between our Security Service and that of Israel? Thirdly, will the Government give an assurance that Britain will begin co-ordinated and effective steps to force state sponsors of terrorism such as Iran, Syria and the Sudan to stop supporting global terrorist organisations? Finally, will he assure the House, in the light of Israel’s contribution to the global fight against terrorism, that the United Kingdom will guarantee Israel’s security, particularly in respect of the threat that would be posed by a nuclear Iran? That nation exports fundamentalist ideology and terrorism.

Let there be no mistake: it is clear that Israel’s security is wrapped up with our own. It is in the interest of our nation and the British people that we work with and defend the state of Israel in the global fight against terror.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) on securing this debate. However, what he said bears scant relationship to what is in fact happening in the world. He condemns Iran, whose odious regime certainly challenges the balance of power and peace in the world, for sending killers all over the world. Of course, Israel, which is a nuclear power that refuses to sign the non-proliferation treaty, has sent killers all over the world. One can see in the film “Munich” by the American Jew Steven Spielberg, who also was the director of “Schindler’s List”, how the Israeli Government sent killers out after the Munich massacre at the Olympic games. They killed innocent people in many parts of the world.

The reflection of reality that the hon. Gentleman offers is in stark contrast with what was written recently by the Israeli Jew Gideon Levy in the respected Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz about what is taking place in Israel and the Palestinian territories now. He stated:

“A black flag hangs over the ‘rolling’ operation in Gaza. The more the operation ‘rolls,’ the darker the flag becomes. The ‘summer rains’ we are showering on Gaza are not only pointless, but are first and foremost blatantly illegitimate. It is not legitimate to cut off 750,000 people from electricity. It is not legitimate to call on 20,000 people to run from their homes and turn their towns into ghost towns. It is not legitimate to penetrate Syria’s airspace. It is not legitimate to kidnap half a government and a quarter of a parliament…Everything must be done to win Gilad Shalit’s release. What we are doing now in Gaza has nothing to do with freeing him. It is a widescale act of vengeance, the kind that the IDF and Shin Bet have wanted to conduct for some time”.

Let me proceed a little.

The hon. Gentleman rightly condemns Hamas, which is a terrorist organisation that is responsible for the death of innocent people. He implicitly condemned the kidnapping of the teenage Israeli corporal Gilad Shalit but seems to imagine that somehow or other such events are peculiar to Palestinian terrorists. He does not refer to the fact that before Israel gained independence, Jewish terrorists led by two future Prime Ministers of Israel, Begin and Shamir, one of whom was a murderer and an assassin, kidnapped two British sergeants, hanged them and booby-trapped their bodies. Hamas has learned well from Jewish terrorists.

If the hon. Gentleman believes that the explosion at the King David hotel can somehow be legitimised, he ought to pay attention to the fact that not only 200 non-Jews but 19 Jews were killed there, and if he goes on about terrorism, let him somehow justify more than 200 innocent Palestinians being murdered by Begin and Shamir in the village of Deir Yassin. There are no clean hands on either side of this conflict.

I condemn Hamas. The party includes murderers, killers and terrorists, but it won a democratic election. President Bush, whose first election was not a democratic victory but a fiddled election that resulted in his appointment by the Supreme Court, seems to imagine that not only do we require democratic elections in the middle east but those elections can be accepted as democratic only if the people vote in the way we want. I did not want the Palestinians to vote for Hamas—I was there leading an Inter-Parliamentary Union delegation before that election—but they did so. The more the Israelis go on oppressing and killing Palestinians, the more support for Hamas will grow.

The father of Gilad Shalit is quoted in The Daily Telegraph today as regarding the Israeli Government’s action, allegedly to free his son, as “delusional”. Ehud Olmert, the Prime Minister of Israel, is quoted in the same article as having issued orders to the army to

“make sure that no one sleeps at night in Gaza”.

That is collective punishment. It is in direct violation of every canon of international law; yet the hon. Gentleman says that it is all right because Israel is a democracy. However, Hamas was elected by a democratic vote—hon. Friends of mine went to see that election, and saw that it was democratically conducted.

Let us be clear: terrorists are murdering Israeli citizens. That is culpable to the nth degree, but at the same time, the Israelis have killed 4,000 Palestinians since the second intifada began, including hundreds of children. The hon. Gentleman says that children are not targeted—but they are dead just the same. As long as we go on tolerating such unacceptable breaches of law by the Israeli Government, the more terrorism and support for it among the Palestinians will be fostered.

I have a brief question for the right hon. Gentleman. He has correctly pointed out that Hamas was elected democratically, but is it appropriate for the Foreign Minister of a democratically elected Government to say, as was said three months ago, that Hamas will not hesitate to kidnap Israeli soldiers

‘to exchange for (Palestinian) prisoners, should the opportunity arise’?

That was said by the Hamas Foreign Minister, Mahmud al-Zahar, on 7 March 2006.

Of course that is wrong, but equally wrong is the President of the United States kidnapping people and holding them in an illegal prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, which has just been condemned by the United States Supreme Court. As I have said before, there are no clean hands in this situation, but simply to target the evils of Hamas, which exist and must be condemned, is not enough if we are to see the whole spectrum of what is taking place in the middle east, and between the Israelis and the Palestinians today.

I quote again from the article by the Israeli journalist Gideon Levy:

“Did anyone think about what would have happened if Syrian planes had managed to down one of the Israeli planes that brazenly buzzed their president's palace? Would we have declared war on Syria? Another ‘legitimate war’? Will the blackout of Gaza bring down the Hamas government or cause the population to rally around it? And even if the Hamas government falls, as Washington wants, what will happen on the day after? These are questions for which nobody has any real answers. As usual here: Quiet, we’re shooting. But this time we are not only shooting. We are bombing and shelling, darkening and destroying, imposing a siege and kidnapping like the worst of terrorists and nobody breaks the silence to ask, what the hell for, and according to what right?”

The right hon. Gentleman has quoted from Ha’aretz in Israel, where people are quite free, but I should like to point out that I have not condoned terrorism on either side. I do not think that the right hon. Gentleman listened to my speech, which was all about the global fight against terror, not the present Israeli situation, as I made clear early on. Does he think that there is a newspaper in Gaza or on the west bank that would publish criticism of its own Government on the same lines as the criticism against the Israeli Government that has been made in Ha’aretz and other Israeli newspapers? The answer is clearly no.

The answer is not clearly no. However, it is of course a bit difficult to publish newspapers in the Palestinian territories at the moment, particularly in Gaza, since Israel has destroyed the power supply, taking away air conditioning and water supplies in the most densely populated area on the face of the earth, in the heat of the middle east mid-summer.

The hon. Gentleman knows that I have a personal regard for him, but I recommend that he study the situation a little more, instead of trotting out a few statistics and believing that if he does that and says that Israel is a democracy, everything is all right. Yes, Israel is a democracy, but democracies make mistakes, as this country did when it elected Margaret Thatcher three times running. To be a democracy does not necessarily involve total wisdom on the part of the electors—apart from the electors in the Gorton division of Manchester, who have an unrivalled record on these matters.

Following on from the intervention by the hon. Member for Lichfield, I wonder whether my right hon. Friend would like to comment on the case of al-Haq, the respected Palestinian human rights organisation? Only yesterday it was circulating press releases that were critical of the actions of terrorist groups inside Palestine and of any support that they receive from the Palestinian Government. However, they also pointed out that 756 Palestinians are imprisoned in Israeli jails without trial.

My hon. Friend is a great expert on such issues and makes a valid point. I do not claim for one second that Palestinian democracy has produced a satisfactory outcome. It has not. On the other hand, however, to my mind Israeli democracy has not produced a very satisfactory outcome either. I am particularly sad that a Nobel peace prize winner such as Shimon Peres, in the vanity of his old age and for the sake of holding office, is colluding in such actions. I am also sad that a man whom I particularly admire—Amir Peretz, the leader of the Israeli Labour party—not only is a party to such violations of international law, but is inflicting them.

Our Government have been right all along in saying that the only way the issue can be solved is through direct negotiation based on the road map. As long as we continue as we are, more innocent Israelis will be killed, more innocent Palestinians will be killed and there will be no way out.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) on securing this debate. I wish to focus on the subject of the debate. It is all too easy to be partisan in looking at the details of the situation in Israel at present, but we should seek consensus on Israel as the focal point in the fight against terror. This country and others that have been victims of terror can join in that, but at the same time we should recognise that Israel is the focus of terrorist organisations. That must concern us all and we should all take action to deal with it.

I visited Israel in January, courtesy of the Conservative Friends of Israel, and have three abiding images that are relevant to this debate. The first memory is of going to northern Israel, to the southern Lebanese border, and seeing an armed Hezbollah terrorist standing 50 yards away on the border. That reminded me all too clearly of the presence of terrorist organisations. That needs to be tackled. As my hon. Friend said, it needs to be tackled by this Government as well through the way in which we deal with Hezbollah. As hon. Members will know, Hezbollah was established by Iran and Syria as a proxy for attacking Israel—as the spearhead for Iran’s export of terrorism. It seeks the destruction of the state of Israel and the establishment of an Islamic republic in Lebanon.

We need to recognise that Hezbollah is a threat to Israel, the United States and, indeed, the entire western world and we need to tackle it seriously. As the Foreign Secretary said in reply to a written question from the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Wright), we need to do that by calling on Hezbollah

“to contribute to peace and security in the middle east by renouncing violence, disarming in compliance with UN Security Council resolution 1559, and entering into the democratic process on an exclusively non-violent basis.”—[Official Report, 29 November 2005; Vol. 440, cc. 126-127.]

We can all unite on the response to that question, but we need to go further. As other countries, such as the US, Australia, Canada, Israel and, recently, Holland, have done, we need to recognise that Hezbollah is a terror organisation and to treat it accordingly. We cannot go along with the European Union in seeking artificially to differentiate between the political and military wings of Hezbollah.

I saw the situation for myself when I saw the terrorist standing there armed, guarding the border. I ask the Minister to respond on this particular point: Hezbollah is a terror organisation and we cannot separate the political side and what is called the external security organisation. We need to join the countries that I mentioned and recognise Hezbollah as an organ of terror.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield said, we need to recognise properly that Hezbollah is engaged in activities that are causing great damage to the region and instability beyond. It is threatening Lebanon’s own fragile democracy and independence from the Syrian occupation and it is causing instability and conflict to cross the UN-drawn Israeli-Lebanese border. It is a cause of instability in Israel and further afield.

We also need to recognise the activities of al-Qaeda in the region. I am referring not only to activities that we can see, but to the words of the al-Qaeda leaders bin Laden and Zawahiri. They have mentioned not so much Afghanistan or Iraq but Palestine as a higher priority. In recent times, they have carried through phases of operations in Afghanistan and beyond. Now we are seeing, particularly in Israel, the results of their activities.

In August 2005, the Syrian citizen Louai Sakra was arrested while planning to blow up cruise ships containing Israeli tourists. On 27 December 2005, nine rockets were fired from Lebanon into Israel. Al-Qaeda claimed responsibility for that attack. On 2 March 2006, Palestinian security forces caught al-Qaeda operatives in Gaza and the west bank, and the Chairman of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, admitted that there was proof of the infiltration of al-Qaeda into the west bank and Gaza.

We need to consider more broadly the war against terror, but inevitably the focus is Israel and the Jewish people. My second abiding memory is of Yad Vashem, the holocaust memorial. When I visited it, I was reminded that even when the war was over and Jewish people were going out of the camps, the killing of the Jewish people continued relentlessly. That reminds me and should remind us all that anti-Semitism and attacks on Jewish people continue to this day. We can see that in the words coming from Iran. As has been said, the Iranian President said that he wished to wipe Israel off the map. We should remember the words that have often gone in tandem with an attack on Israel and the Jewish people—words that constitute a denial of the holocaust, in which more than 6 million Jews were murdered.

Would the hon. Gentleman like to speculate on this issue in the context of what he has been saying and of the remarks of my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman)—who, it is fair to say, is a political hero of mine, so I do not disagree with him—on the behaviour of the Israeli Government? My right hon. Friend is the last person among us who needs a lesson in the history and travails of the Jewish people and the Israeli nation. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman would like to speculate on whether the current behaviour of the Israeli Government, rather than merely being dismissed as terrorist behaviour, should be put in the context of the recent and longer history of the Israeli state and the Jewish people and the current situation, which the hon. Gentleman is discussing.

I am grateful for that intervention. It is important to put these issues in the proper context, which is why this debate is so important and welcome. We need to consider the context of the fight against global terrorism and the context that I am seeking to draw out, which is the battle and the need for the Jewish people to have a safe place to go. That context is important and we should never dismiss it, because it is constantly under attack from terrorists. Indeed, it is constantly under attack in broadcasts of hate on the airwaves. That hate goes to the heart of the concerns for the Jewish people. It is anti-Semitic filth. We need to ask the Minister to consider how we can seek to tackle the funding for those broadcasts. We need to cut that funding off at supply, because it supports terrorist organisations. There are physical attacks on Israel and there are verbal attacks. We are dealing not just with a strategic battle, a battle of war, but with a state of mind that is built on hatred and evil. We need to ensure that the Government are at the forefront of tackling that.

That brings me to my third abiding memory from my visit to Israel, which is the words of Tommy Lapid, who was the last surviving victim of the holocaust who was a member of the Knesset. He gave an account of his experiences and what he saw as the rationale for the state of Israel. He sought to caution us about focusing only on the everyday occurrences and concerns in Israel and about the need to look more broadly at what Israel is about. He recounted how his family had in effect left him on his own when he was fleeing the ghetto, because they wanted him to run for it. He was completely isolated, fleeing from the ghetto, a place where the Star of David had to be worn and a place of great vulnerability. At the very moment when he was seeking a hiding place in a closet, he realised that a place was needed for him and the Jewish people to go. He reminded us that that need still exists today.

That is why we need to condemn properly the words of, for example, Mohammad Samadi, a spokesman for the committee for the commemoration of martyrs of the global Islamic campaign, who was seeking to recruit suicide bombers to the terrorist cause. His words in that recruitment drive are very pertinent:

“The first target is Israel. For us, that is the battlefield. All the Jews are targets, whether military or civilian. It’s our land and they are in the wrong place.”

In relation to the fight against terrorism, we need to recognise that, at present, the first target is, sadly, always Israel. We need to hear the concerns of Tommy Lapid and others that they need a place to go. We need to stand four-square behind them to protect that place to go, so that we can tackle terrorism properly and support Israel and the fight for freedom and democracy.

I thank the hon. Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) for securing this important and timely debate. In recent weeks and months, there have been several Westminster Hall debates on matters relating to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the wider middle east regional context. I was fortunate to secure a debate a couple of weeks ago on the prospects for peace in the middle east. My right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman) initiated a debate on the subject a couple of months ago, and I seem to remember that the hon. Member for South-West Hertfordshire (Mr. Gauke) introduced a debate on Iran in recent months. I hope that this debate adds further strength to a request that I made to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House a couple of weeks ago in business questions for a debate of a similar nature but much longer on the Floor of the House in Government time to discuss these vital issues.

The hon. Member for Lichfield raised some important points and I think that what he said about terrorism in Britain being similar to terrorism in Israel was accurate and appropriate. I also agree with him that there is no international terrorism without state support, and that is something that I want to discuss. Paying attention to the question of state-sponsored terrorism rightly puts the debate on Israel and the Palestinians in a regional context, which is necessary to understand the conflict properly. The conflict does not exist in a vacuum. It is played out on a regional stage, with global repercussions; the hon. Member for Lichfield and other hon. Members mentioned the role of Iran and Syria, and their contribution to the conflict through sponsorship and funding of terrorism, and it is right to raise those matters.

While the international community continues to exert pressure on the Hamas Government to recognise the state of Israel, it is important to remember that influential regional actors—Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, all of which exert various degrees of influence on Hamas—have also never recognised Israel’s right to exist, and continue to vie for its destruction. Iranian and Syrian state-sponsored terror undermines the peace process and threatens regional stability. Groups supported, bankrolled, armed and in some cases even controlled by Iran and Syria include Hezbollah, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and Hamas.

As far as I am aware, Syria is fully signed up to the Arab League position and the Arab League supports the peace plan of Crown Prince Abdullah, which, indeed, would have recognised the state of Israel within the boundaries of 1967, so what the hon. Gentleman says is slightly misleading, rather as the link between al-Qaeda and the Government of Iran, as presented by my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield, may have come as a slight surprise to the pair of them. We should try to use occasions such as Westminster Hall debates to arrive at a joint analysis, rather than to trade different sides of the story, and to understand why things are as they are in the middle east. If we can go forward on the basis of joint understanding, we shall be doing the House of Commons a favour.

I fully agree with the hon. Gentleman’s comments, but the Hamas political leadership outside the Palestinian territories finds a safe haven in Damascus, with protection by the Syrian leadership, including Khaled Mashal, one of the leaders and founders of the Hamas movement and its charter. Syria, for example, hosted meetings between Mashal and the Iranian leader Ayatollah Khamenei and President Ahmadinejad in January 2006. Iran, for example, is believed to be a major source of funding for Hamas, including its wide network of social and welfare institutions. Iran offered to send $50 million to the Palestinian Authority to alleviate the budget crisis after the election of Hamas, when the rest of the international community suspended funding and pressured the Hamas leadership to accept the responsibility of being a democratically elected Government.

It is not only Hamas that Iran and Syria sponsor. Hezbollah, to which Iran provides training, weaponry and expertise, not only threatens Israel along its northern border, but is increasingly active in the west bank and Gaza, where it supports and trains terrorist groups and provides financial incentives for launching attacks against Israel. Similarly, while Iran continues to support and fund terrorist organisations, President Ahmadinejad launches rhetorical attacks against Israel. That, together with its attempted procurement of nuclear weapons, surely constitutes an existential threat to Israel and raises the alarm for the future stability of the region.

I am enjoying the hon. Gentleman’s contribution, but in the context of the extraordinary intervention by my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt), who tried to exonerate Syria, I want to say that, in Iraq, let alone Israel, we know of the operations of the Syrian Government and Iran, with respect to British and American troops.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman.

The international community must continue to use its influence to encourage dialogue between Israel and the Palestinians. It is crucial to remember that the middle east peace process is just that—a process for the middle east region, requiring Iran and Syria to stop aiding terrorist organisations.

Will my hon. Friend give us an idea of what he thinks Israel’s borders are, and what position Israel is taking in negotiations on the matter of its borders and settlements?

I do not think that it is for me to say what Israel’s borders should be. I think that there is consensus that the 1967 border gives scope for discussion, and that would be the most appropriate step.

Is not the core of the problem the fact that today, on the road map that the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton was talking about, Israel does not exist for Hamas, Hezbollah or Iran? Therefore, Israel is in a position only to create a solution by itself. There is no one to negotiate with.

I agree. In the debate that I secured in Westminster Hall a couple of weeks ago on the prospects for peace in the middle east after the Israeli elections, I was struck by the comments of the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind), who said that we all know the solution—it is Israel and a Palestinian state working together, side by side, with mutual economic and social co-operation. People recognise that and it is important that everyone should recognise it as the end point of the process.

Israel’s war against terror will continue to undermine its efforts towards peace. The damage that terrorism causes is all too visible, and events in the region in the past week have highlighted how acts of terror can derail any positive trajectory for peace. In the midst of all the fighting that has been sparked since the attack on Kerem Shalom last week, and the abduction of Corporal Gilad Shalit, Hamas and Fatah signed what is known as the prisoners document. We should be cautious about reading too much into that. The document does not require Hamas to recognise the state of Israel or to cease its armed struggle, but it does recognise the Palestine Liberation Organisation as sole representative of the Palestinian people, giving President Abbas the power to negotiate with Israel and put an end to factional in-fighting.

In an area as volatile as the middle east, pigeon steps are welcome, and that was a relevant and right pigeon step. However, Palestinian groups working against peace and intent on a terror agenda have ensured that that development has been obscured by the murder of two Israeli soldiers and the kidnap of a third. If any progress is to be made in the peace process, Israeli citizens need to feel secure. They need to feel that they can go about their daily business free from the threat of suicide bombers—as, of course, do decent, ordinary Palestinians. They should feel secure as well and able to walk their children to school without worrying about being hit by a rocket launched from Gaza.

Israel needs to win its war against terror with the help of the international community, so that the cycle of violence can be replaced with moves towards negotiation, reconciliation and peace.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) on securing the debate, which is particularly appropriate after the events of the past couple of weeks. I also congratulate the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman) and the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) on their contributions, which were very sound and full of a lot of sense, which is required if we are to help both sides in the middle east go forward.

The hon. Member for Lichfield—to whom I apologise for missing the first sentences of his speech—referred to Israel as a victim of global jihad. That is true. There is certainly some evidence that there are jihad attacks on Israel. However, to imply, as that statement does, that the whole basis of the attack on Israel is religious intolerance is to misunderstand the debate. The Palestinians have been used and abused for a long time. They were first thrown out of what they considered their homeland and then abused by the Arab world, which left them, often, in camps with conditions that were not very good, when most of the Gulf was swilling with oil and there was plenty of money that could have been used to relieve some of their problems.

The idea that the conflict is all religious is not true. I worked in Iraq in 1982 and was privileged to have lunch with one of the senior accountants. The gentleman concerned, whose name is long gone from my memory, was very articulate. He was educated in Great Britain, very western in his approach and very gentlemanly. We were having a very pleasant conversation, but as soon as we touched on the subject of Israel, he talked about pushing all the Zionists into the sea. Those remarks had nothing to do with religious intolerance; they had to do with a lot of other deep-seated animosities and a conflict that goes back not just to 1967 and the 1940s, but to the 1930s and, indeed, 1919. Ultimately, a lot of the responsibility goes back to the 1919 peace talks in Paris, which did many things, but did not secure peace in many parts of the world.

The Foreign Affairs Committee has been looking at the causes of the war against terrorism, and I recommend its report to hon. Members. I am not saying that I agree with every word, despite being on the Committee, but there is a lot of common sense in it. On the issue of Palestine, I refer hon. Members to a contribution from the Foreign Secretary. Paragraph 2.20 of the report states:

“We asked Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett what the Government is doing to impress upon the Israeli government the need for a negotiated settlement. She told us:

We have made it extremely clear to the Israeli Government, and the Prime Minister did to the Israeli Prime Minister yesterday, that we are looking for negotiations and for a negotiated settlement and that we would view any unilateral action by the Israeli Government as—I was going to say very much second best, but we would be reluctant to see such unilateral action because we believe that negotiation is the right way forward.”

I hope that the Minister will confirm that, despite the events of recent weeks, we are still committed to negotiation and bringing other parties on side, rather than to unilateral action.

The hon. Gentleman still has not answered the question that I posed earlier: how can Israel do anything but be unilateral when the other side does not actually recognise the state of Israel?

Memories are very short. Fatah never used to recognise the state of Israel, but, eventually, it was brought to the negotiating table and accepted a two-state solution. Recent discussions with Hamas indicate that it, too, was moving towards accepting a two-state solution and accepting that the Palestinian territories could exist on one side of the 1967 border. De facto, Hamas is recognising the Israeli state, although it has not explicitly said so. There is still a long way to go—I am not saying that the problem is not significant—but the way to resolve it is to bring third parties in to talk to Hamas and to bring it to the negotiating table.

I am not taking further interventions. We have only a short time.

We have only to look at the past to see how other Palestinians can be brought forward and to see that that can work. That is what we need to do. Hamas did not expect to win the election, but it has now found itself in a position of power. That was a shot out of the blue, and Hamas is coming to terms with it, but that will take time.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving me time to intervene, but will he not accept that it is extraordinarily difficult to insist that Israel should negotiate with Hamas when we do not have a ceasefire because Hamas has broken away from it and declared its intent to kidnap people and use them as bargaining chips in what it clearly perceives as an armed conflict? How can we insist that Israel take only the route of negotiation when the people with whom we insist that it negotiates are not even prepared to bring about a ceasefire?

We can insist on negotiation because that is the only way in which we can achieve a resolution, although that is not always easy. History shows that, whenever there has been a terrorist insurgency—in Kenya, Northern Ireland or anywhere else in the world—the Government at the time have said, “We will not talk to terrorists.” However, to resolve the conflict, they have always sat down behind closed doors in third-party negotiations and talked to the terrorists, and they have actually brought about a resolution by doing that. We will not bring about a resolution, however, by unilaterally attacking, destroying and alienating.

The Old Testament saying that one should take an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth is often linked to Israel. However, Israel and its supporters—particularly the United States—should consider another old saying, which is that one should divide your enemies if you wish for victory. If people take actions that unite their enemies, it will be far harder for them to gain peace and achieve victory in the longer term. Those who support unilateral action are the same people who supported the arguments for war against Iraq. It was argued that we had a big stick and could get rid of Saddam Hussein, but we did not realise the can of worms that we were opening. Our history and our actions teach us that, if we had had a bit more negotiation and a bit more time, we would not have the mess that we do in Iraq. We would not have British soldiers being killed on the streets of Iraq, where they should not be, if we had got the negotiations right in the first place and sorted things out.

To conclude, the Prime Minister of Israel, Ehud Olmert, declared:

“We are prepared to renounce parts of the land of Israel so precious to us, in order to bring about the conditions for you”—

the Palestinians—

“to bring about your own dreams and to live side by side with us in peace and tranquillity. The time has come for the Palestinians to adapt their dreams to recognise the reality of Israel.”

To an extent, that sounds very good and very reasonable. However, writing in Jane’s on 1 June 2006, Lawrence Davidson responds:

“From the Palestinian perspective, Olmert’s intention to fix Israeli ‘borders’ unilaterally by 2010 would mean the annexation of at least 46 per cent. of the West Bank, including all of East Jerusalem. This would be accompanied by Israeli withdrawal from outposts beyond the security fence. Palestinian Prime Minister Haniya responded to Olmert’s declaration by stating: ‘We will obviously not prevent Israel from withdrawing, but this does not mean that we consider the borders they set to be those of the Palestinian state.”

That is one reason why the contention that religious war is the primary cause of the present problems is wrong. In many ways, the Palestinians are fighting an old-fashioned war over territory, not religious belief. If we forget that, we do both sides a disservice.

I, too, warmly congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) on securing the debate. As the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Wright) said a few minutes ago, this is not the first time in the past few months that we have gathered to discuss the wider aspects of the middle east. Rather like Captain Renault in “Casablanca”—the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman) will appreciate this analogy—we could be said to have rounded up the usual suspects, and the passionate speeches that we have heard have been similar to some that we have heard before. They have been passionate, of course, because the issue divides not only the people of the middle east but colleagues in the House of Commons.

I was very much taken by the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt), who said that we should try as far as possible to look ahead and decide what, if anything, we in Britain, and particularly the British Government, can do to help resolve what appears an almost intractable issue.

My hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield stated very strongly that he wanted to make it clear that Israel was participating in a global war on terror and that it was therefore up to the British Government to back the Israeli Government at every possible level. I adopt a slightly more subtle approach on this. We know that the Government and my party resolutely stand by Israel’s right to exist, and to take measures against those who carry out acts against it. Indeed, the British Government and our intelligence and security forces regularly co-operate with the Israeli Government. However, that does not mean that we think the Israeli Government have the right to take complete, unilateral action whatever the consequences.

Many people in Israel and within the Israeli security establishment realise that a proportional reaction is more likely to achieve the desired overall results, the first of which is to ensure that there is wider support within the region and the western community. The second aim, which we are partly debating, is to resolve the immediate issue of extracting alive the Israeli soldier who is being held somewhere in Gaza. That is the objective of his parents and the Israeli community. I can well understand why the Israeli Government have always refused to compromise on any form of prisoner exchanges, but we need to keep that measure in mind.

In relation to the war on terror, the British Government rightly have to work in conjunction with other Governments in the middle east. The political, diplomatic and intelligence relations that we have—imperfect though they sometimes are—with Israel’s neighbours in Egypt, in Jordan and in the Gulf are of absolute, fundamental importance.

I spent much of my life, in a previous existence, teaching British military personnel, and learning as much from them as they ever learned from me, about counter-insurgency, insurgency and terrorism. In one sense, the wheel has come full circle. One thing that I learned was that one cannot take out the narrow, military-intelligence, police action against terrorism without thinking about the wider political and economic context. That is summed up in the understandable logic behind Israel’s defensible border strategy, which I recently saw on the ground from both the Israeli and the Palestinian perspectives, which is to secure Israel against suicide bombers. That is a laudable and understandable action, but as Israeli security officials said to me, it will not resolve the issue. At the end of the day, the resolution will be a political one, in one way or another.

We are always in danger of reliving Major-General J. F. C. Fuller’s constant tactical factor. I apologise for bringing in a bit of an anorak element here. Dear old Major-General J. F. C. Fuller believed that any advances that are made in strategy, operational planning, organisation or technology that aid the offensive or the defensive will always be countered. What happened with Israel’s defensible borders was that a Palestinian group decided to dig a tunnel; they decided to operate Major-General J. F. C. Fuller’s constant tactical factor. In the war against terror, whether in Israel or in the wider war against terror facing us today, there is no complete military-intelligence solution. There will always have to be a political one.

In the context of this debate, the bottom line for my party is that we stand by Israel’s right to exist. We are absolutely firm on that, but we also recognise, as do most Israelis, that peace will come about in that part of the middle east only when there is recognition of an independent Palestinian state that is not a security threat to Israel and that provides a decent standard of living and security for its people. If we do not have that, there will be endless terror and counter-terror operations of one kind or another.

I recognise that it is incredibly difficult to imagine negotiating directly with Hezbollah, Hamas or any other such organisations, although I take the point made by the hon. Member for Teignbridge (Richard Younger-Ross) that invariably negotiations do take place, often at third hand. However, the objective, at least in the long term—for many Israelis the long-term objective is actually the very short-term objective of securing the release of this particular Israeli soldier and preventing the attacks that are taking place—must be to bolster the activities of those living in the Arab world, to make certain that they are not prepared to support such terrorism, as it is not in their interest to do so. It may well be that taking purely military action against them is not the most subtle way to do that.

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that Abba Eban, the former Israeli Foreign Minister with whom I worked closely on trying to resolve this issue, and who was wiser than the entire present Israeli Government put together, once said to me, “If you’re going to make peace, who else do you talk to but your enemy?”?

Yes, I understand that, and it is true unless one is ultimately faced with a war of annihilation and extermination. I understand, from an Israeli point of view, having been in that position once before, that they are sceptical to say the least. It is up to us collectively to make certain that that does not happen, through robust support of Israel while recognising that we want to work for a political solution.

Good afternoon, Mr. Chope. The last time we were here together was six years ago, when you initiated a debate on Government drugs policy. I do not know if you remember that, but I do.

I thank the hon. Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) for initiating this important debate, which is part of the framework of discussion and debate on this and related issues taking place in this House. It marks this place out as a democratic institution. What we say here is listened to not just within the confines of this place but outside it. Today’s debate may give some people hope that there will be co-operation across the piece regarding the strategic importance of the region and the need to resolve the problems there through dialogue rather than conflict in all circumstances.

I thank the hon. Members for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Burrowes), for Reigate (Mr. Blunt), for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) and for Teignbridge (Richard Younger-Ross) for their timely contributions, and my colleagues, my right hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Jane Kennedy) and my hon. Friends the Members for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden), for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn), for Hartlepool (Mr. Wright) and for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Simon).

I thank also my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman) who has shown his knowledge and skill on this issue, as he has on many issues in the Labour movement, and who gives wise counsel on occasions. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington, I, too, am a fan of my right hon. Friend, who has a quiet courage. More than 15 years ago, when it was not the thing to do, he was one of the first people to speak out on this issue about the need to bring together enemies to discuss, debate and ultimately reach a decision about recognising Israel and its secure borders and recognising the right of the Palestinian people within their secure borders. Part of the development of this policy has been due to my right hon. Friend. On almost all occasions, he has taken the first step in the development of such policies, and I thank him for that.

In the time that I have left, I will try to deal as best I can with all the issues raised by hon. Members. However, at least 12 issues have been raised, so if I cannot deal with them all, I will write to hon. Members and place the letters in the Library, so that all those who took part in the debate will get responses, if that is helpful.

The current situation in Gaza is deeply worrying. It is a serious concern for all of us and for our international partners. I would like to reiterate the deep concern that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs expressed on behalf of the Government on 25 June, after the attack near the Sufa crossing, in which two Israeli soldiers were killed and one was taken captive.

The UK continues to call for the immediate and unconditional release of Corporal Shalit. We, and our European Union and G8 partners, are also urging Israel to show the utmost restraint at this time of crisis. We have made clear our concerns about the destruction of essential infrastructure affecting power and water supplies. We will continue to urge Israel to protect civilians, and to call on the Palestinians to put an end to all acts of violence and help to seek the safe return of Corporal Shalit.

My hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North raised a particular point about the wall—the barrier. I confirm to him that although Israel has the right to self-defence, the building of the barrier in occupied land is contrary to international law. There is no doubt about that. On 15 September 2005, the Israeli court ordered the rerouting of the barrier because of its damaging impact on some Palestinian villages in the west bank area. The Government continue to be concerned about the route of the barrier in the occupied territories, because it is illegal.

I know that the Minister has to get through his 12 points, so I shall be as brief as possible. On his last point, perhaps he, in consultation with his ministerial team, could make the strongest possible representations to the Government of Israel about the latest construction of the barrier. It is already uprooting olive trees in the Cremisan area of Bethlehem, which is home to a monastery where some fairly fine wines are made. It is one of the world’s greatest heritage sites and the routing of the wall means that it is being cut off as we speak.

I fully take on board what my hon. Friend says, and I shall take the matter up as he requested.

Today, all democracies around the world face a common threat: international terrorism. Terrorist networks do not recognise borders, and their deadly attacks have been perpetrated in different nations across the globe, irrespective of religion, ethnicity, or culture. The threat is of a new order because of the willingness of small groups to inflict mass casualties in pursuit of radical objectives.

The international response over the past few years has made significant ground, and for the first time many nations and cultures are working together to combat this menace. The concept of an international community, based on core, shared values, recognising the need to uphold civil rights, and prepared actively to intervene and resolve problems, is an essential precondition of a nation’s future prosperity and stability.

In bilateral and multilateral forums, the UK is working to weaken the capabilities of terrorist groups by promoting international co-operation and building political will and government capacity in key countries. We are promoting reform abroad to address the structural problems that can push people towards extremism with violent consequences. We are also learning from other countries, such as Malaysia, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, where there is good engagement in programmes of de-radicalisation.

State sponsorship of terrorism is totally unacceptable; it is beyond tolerance, in fact. It is an instrument that Governments should and must abandon. Where Governments continue to believe that agreement with terrorists’ objectives justifies their methods, the British Government’s view is simple: such state promotion of terrorism is unjustifiable and must cease. There is no moral distinction between an attacker who deliberately targets civilians or a state that wittingly provides the resources that facilitate such a terrorist attack in the first place.

We are actively examining the problem of states that offer refuge or support to terrorists, and are tackling other areas where they may enjoy a safe haven. We continue to encourage international action to curb those who advocate or champion terrorism. I shall say a little about that later.

I also want to make it clear that our relationship with Israel is vital. There are cultural, trade, investment, education, defence and political links, and a regular exchange between our two countries. We also have a vibrant Jewish community here, and that is so important. The contribution made by that community, and other former immigrant communities, makes this country what it is: a proud, diverse, multicultural and tolerant society. The contribution is not only welcome, but recognised. It brings about a flourishing bilateral relationship. I shall be visiting the region in the months ahead.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton and the hon. Member for Lichfield raised the issue of the middle east peace process. The Government remain absolutely committed to the process that will lead to a negotiated two-state solution. Our immediate priority is to create the conditions to allow negotiations to get under way. Only through a negotiated settlement can we achieve a lasting peace; there can be no violent solution to this conflict. We remain firmly committed to reviving the final status negotiations as soon as possible on the basis of the Quartet road map, and we continue to give every impetus we can to moving the process in that direction. We reiterate our call to Hamas to adhere to the three Quartet principles: renounce violence; recognise Israel; and accept previous agreements, including the road map.

We are clear that we need to see a change in Syrian policy in a number of key areas before Syria’s standing in the international community can be fully rehabilitated and before our bilateral relationships can improve. It needs to fulfil its obligation under Security Council resolution 1559, which calls for an end to all foreign interference in Lebanon, and to co-operate fully and unconditionally with the United Nations commission investigating the terrorist attack in February 2005 which resulted in the death of the former Lebanese Prime Minister, Rafik Hariri, and 22 other innocent people.

Syria also needs to do more to improve co-operation in Iraq, and must think carefully about its relationship with Iran. We must also seek progress towards internal reform in Syria and greater respect for human rights. It is absolutely clear to the Syrians that we expect them to use their undoubted influence to secure de-escalation and restraint in the region. They must dissociate themselves from the terrorists responsible for the tragic, untimely and futile violence in the region.

The hon. Member for Lichfield also raised the issue of Iran and set out widely held concerns about its approach to terrorism. Progress in our relationships with Iran will depend on its acting in this and other areas, including the proliferation of weapons, and human rights. We have repeatedly pressed Iran to renounce all links to groups using violence and to support a solution to the Palestinian issue based on the principle of the two states living side by side in peace and security. Iran funds and has strong connections to Lebanese Hezbollah and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and provides financial support to Hamas. We are continuing to investigate the improvised explosive device attacks in Iraq, where the nature of some of the explosive devices used against our troops continues to lead us to Iranian elements or to Lebanese Hezbollah.

The proliferation of nuclear weapons in the middle east would severely threaten peace and stability in the region. We, together with France, Germany, the United States, Russia and China, have been at the forefront of international efforts to encourage Iran to address serious international concerns about its nuclear activities. We have proposed a way forward to give Iran everything it needs to develop modern, civil nuclear power programmes, while meeting international concerns. To create the conditions for talks to resume, Iran should reinstate its suspension of enrichment-related reprocessing activities, as required by the International Atomic Energy Agency board and the Security Council. We would then suspend action in the Security Council. We hope that Iran will take the positive path that is being offered. Should it not do so, there should be no doubt that the matter will return to the Security Council for further responses.

On Iraq, our complete commitment is to a democratic and stable Iraq, to bring about peace and prosperity not only to the people of Iraq but to the region as a whole.

Hon. Members have spoken about intelligence co-operation. It is not normal practice to discuss intelligence matters, and they will understand why, but I give an absolute assurance that there is close co-operation between the UK organisations, including the police, security and intelligence agencies and Departments, and many other countries, not just Israel.

Finally, I again thank the hon. Member for Lichfield for initiating this in-depth debate. I shall return with a more detailed reply on some of the issues that he and other hon. Members raised.

Counter-terrorism measures exist to help us preserve democratic and free societies. At the most basic level, measures that protect innocent civilians of whatever religion, ethnicity or culture from an attack are supporting one of the most basic human rights—the right to be alive—and they protect people’s ability to enjoy fully their other rights. We respect and promote human rights not only because it is the correct thing to do, but because it is one of the most effective ways to undermine the terrorists. I again thank the hon. Gentleman for this debate.

Engineering Training

I thank Mr. Speaker for granting me this debate.

Engineering is a subject that is close to my heart for one simple reason. Before I came to the House I was a practising engineer, and since then I have worked closely with the professional engineering bodies, as well as my own professional body, the Institution of Chemical Engineers. As Member of Parliament for a constituency in the north-east I represent a large chemical and process engineering sector, which is important for our country as well as Europe.

Today, I want to highlight the most important aspect of engineering, which will affect our future, and some of the causes for concern in the training of engineers, which pose a real threat to Britain’s excellent reputation for engineering. I also want to suggest one or two ideas for the Minister to take away if he cannot respond to them today.

Many of the national and global challenges facing us in the 21st century can be addressed only by the scientific and engineering community. Finding sustainable energy sources and reducing their impact on the environment, addressing climate change and fighting global poverty are all areas in which engineers have a huge role to play. That is why we must ensure that national and international Governments play their part in training and preparing the future work force that will build our nuclear power stations and research the new technologies that could save lives in Africa.

Engineering is crucial to our country’s economy. The strength and growth of our economy depend on new technologies. We need a work force of expert engineers to build, research and maintain those technologies. Britain and my region in the north-east have a huge role to play. Our goal should be to elevate Britain to the level of our international competitors and ensure that Britain is not merely a consumer of the new technologies but also an agenda setter.

I come to the debate as someone who strongly supports my Government. I am proud of their record in promoting science and engineering. I pay tribute to our Prime Minister and the Chancellor for setting the pace and for their support for science and engineering. The figures for financial support show that in 1998 there was a 15 per cent. increase in the budget for science, which was the largest increase in any area of Government expenditure. I am proud to say that during my lifetime I have never known a Government of any political complexion to show its commitment and to increase the budget as much as the present Government. I speak as a strong friend of the Government and champion them, but I want to raise one or two issues.

I know that the Government have set up a science and innovation framework target to increase the UK’s spending on research and development from 1.9 per cent. to 2.5 per cent. of gross domestic product by 2014. That is a tremendous challenge, but unless we ensure that enough engineers are being trained effectively in our universities to meet future demand, the UK will be left behind compared with our international competitors.

The shortage of maths and physics teachers seriously undermines the quality of secondary education in this area. That is no surprise to the Minister because the matter has been raised on the Floor of the House many times. A crucial problem is that teachers are often expected to teach subjects outside their own discipline. On average, only 19 per cent. of science teachers specialise in physics and only 25 per cent specialise in chemistry. Those shortages have become even more pronounced in schools with pupils with greater needs such as those with a higher percentage of pupils who are eligible for free school meals and those with more special needs pupils. Teachers are undoubtedly more comfortable and enthusiastic teaching the subjects that they specialise in, and that enthusiasm rubs off on pupils. Given that maths, physics and chemistry underpin engineering, that is a cause for concern among engineering professionals.

There has also been a considerable downturn in the number of those studying maths and physics at A-level. Those subjects are often required to study engineering at university and that downturn will no doubt have an adverse effect on the number of people who are able to do so. While the number of those entering university between 1994 and 2004 rose by almost 40 per cent., the number of those opting for engineering degrees remained almost static at 24,500. That was a drop from 11 per cent. to less than 8 per cent. of entrants. The Minister will say that the figures have risen as well as dropped, but those are the latest figures that I have.

The Universities and Colleges Admissions Service higher education figures reveal that applications for some engineering courses at some UK universities are down by around 25 to 30 per cent. I am thinking of electronic engineering. If that trend continues, many of the courses will disappear. What is even more worrying is that less than half of engineering graduates chose to enter the profession. How do those shortages impact on industry? The 2006 engineering skills survey by the Institution of Engineering and Technology found that nearly 35 per cent. of engineering companies did not expect to be able to recruit enough suitably qualified staff this year. The study found that senior engineers with five to 10 years’ experience are in most demand, with more than half of respondents saying that they are having trouble recruiting them. The institution suspects that that is due to engineers leaving the profession as well as to problems with graduate recruitment. The study also found that 23 per cent. of respondents were having problems in finding suitable graduates and 21 per cent. in finding qualified technicians.

If I may, I should like to refer to another survey, which was carried out by Henley management college on behalf of the Royal Academy of Engineering. The study, “Educating Engineers for the 21st century: the Industry View”, surveyed more than 400 UK engineering companies and found that companies are seeing a shortage of high-calibre UK engineering graduates and believe that they will need even more in future, which will deepen that shortage. Of those companies that responded to the industry survey 30 per cent. said that they were already seeing an impact on their company performance caused by engineering shortages. That included an impact on productivity, creativity and business growth. I need not emphasise that that is very worrying.

The survey also concluded that undergraduates are not being given appropriate experience of applying theory to real, open-ended problems. That is nothing new because when I was studying, exactly the same thing was said about us. I went on to work in industry after graduation. Nevertheless, the problem still exists and industry is still saying that. The teaching of engineering at undergraduate level needs to be overhauled to meet the needs of industry. Again, that has been said for as many years as I can remember.

However, positive messages also came out of the survey. One is that 90 per cent. of the companies employing more than 50 people have graduate training schemes, but of the companies with 250 or fewer employees, less than half have any graduate training schemes. Larger companies should be encouraged through their supply chains to support small and medium-sized enterprises and their graduate training requirements.

The Royal Academy of Engineering’s secretary for education and training, Julia King, concluded that

“action is needed now. Every day that passes is costing UK industry money in delayed product development and recruitment costs…unless skills shortages are tackled head-on Britain’s reputation for innovative engineering is at risk.”

On the whole the report was comprehensive and I hope that the Minister will look at some of the proposals and comments that I do not have time to mention now.

Another major problem that has come to my attention is that of private training providers nationally and especially in my area, the Tees valley. These organisations offer a useful and beneficial service, and often have close links with industry. They operate through franchise or partnership arrangements with colleges but cannot access capital, which is available only to colleges with direct contracts with the Learning and Skills Council, which has caused them great concern. Not only does it give them an unfair business disadvantage, but it seriously restricts the services that they can provide.

For example, the Teesside Training Enterprise has been faced with a lack of financial provision for those over 19 years of age who are not employed in engineering. Their contracts with colleges and other bodies do not offer funding to train people over the age of 19. That means that they are forced to reject 40 or 50 potential engineering trainees every year simply because of their age. Given the shortages in trained and qualified engineers, that is unacceptable and should be rectified.

The proposed introduction of the specialist diploma in engineering for 14 to 19-year-olds, which I believe will be available in some schools from 2008, has been encouraging for the engineering profession. I hope that it will succeed where the GCSE and GNVQ in engineering failed.

However, the engineering community is yet to be fully convinced that it will be a success. Given that it will run parallel to GCSEs and as an alternative to A-levels, parents and potential pupils will have serious reservations. The course must provide excellent links with industry and promise good employment prospects, or parents may see it as too much of a risk, with their children missing out on other subjects in the curriculum.

I have had lengthy discussions with representatives from industry about most of the problems I outlined earlier, and those problems recur time and again in our discussions. Some of them are more general and long term, while others, which I highlighted, such as the Teesside Training Enterprise in Tees valley, are more specific and can be addressed directly.

In order to tackle these problems, the Department for Education and Skills and the Department of Trade and Industry must seriously consider overhauling the way in which engineering is taught at every level of education. The 2006 engineering skills survey by the Institution of Engineering and Technology also asked respondents what needed to be done. The most common proposed solution was to improve engineering in the education system. Suggestions included better resources and laboratories, and more practical classes. Another common solution proposed was the need to promote engineering and technology to young people more effectively and at the earliest opportunity.

The other main suggestion focused on the need to introduce a scheme to create a uniformity of engineering qualifications across Europe. Given students’ increasing mobility, and the high numbers of students from overseas who study in our universities, engineering qualifications that apply throughout Europe would be beneficial to industry.

The value of engineering as a profession and as a central foundation of our economy should be emphasised to pupils from an early age. Engineering must become an integral part of the teaching of maths and sciences at secondary school and the national curriculum must reflect that. We must ensure that we train teachers who understand and believe in the value of engineering.

The possibility of extended school opening hours presents a great opportunity to emphasise the importance of science and engineering. Representatives from the industry could be invited into schools more regularly. However, schools need guidance and possibly funding tailored to promoting engineering and emphasising its importance.

Universities and colleges must be encouraged to develop even closer ties with industry to make their courses more relevant and reflect the needs of industry; I say that as someone who recognises the contribution that both sides have made. Twenty or 30 years ago that may not have been the case, but in the past decade there have been strong links, although we must do better.

The changes in communications over the last decade or so have been immense. Children now acquire knowledge in ways that are very different from the way that I did when I was at school: iPods, mobile phones and the internet are central to their everyday lives, but maths, science and engineering are still taught in very much the same way as they were 20 or 30 years ago. Education must reflect those changes and become more relevant and exciting.

I would like more than 50 per cent. of engineering graduates to go into the profession. Although it is good to see engineers representing their profession in other areas, as I do, the shortages can be addressed by simply maintaining students’ enthusiasm or love for their subject. The Department must encourage larger companies, through their supply chains, to support science, maths and engineering graduates and their training requirements. I hope that the Minister will consider allowing private training providers such as Teesside Training Enterprise to access funding from the Learning and Skills Council, which would allow such companies to train more potential engineers and could alleviate some of the shortages in key areas.

In conclusion, I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister for Higher Education and Lifelong Learning will meet me and members of the Royal Academy of Engineering, to explore some of the ideas that I have suggested today. I hope that by working together we can face some of the challenges ahead.

I am pleased to have this opportunity to respond to the debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland (Dr. Kumar) on securing it and raising this important subject. It is the second time in a week that he has raised these issues with me in Parliament, and I know that he takes a significant interest in them.

I want to respond to my hon. Friend in the context of the recent report by the Royal Academy of Engineering and to take up his invitation to meet him and colleagues from the academy, which I will be happy to do.

It is essential to this country’s continuing prosperity to produce the very best in science, engineering and technology research—STEM research—and to develop world-class scientists and engineers. The supply of skilled science, technology, engineering and mathematics graduates is as important today as it has ever been, which is why our priority is to stimulate and maintain student demand for engineering and related subjects. It is noteworthy that in respect of the supply and demand of STEM skills, the overall UK position is favourable according to the most recent figures available from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. There are some areas in which we are weaker, but a large stock of STEM skills and a steady flow into the labour market mean that we are well placed to take advantage of any likely growing demand in these areas.

In respect of the national picture, enrolments on undergraduate engineering courses, which, as my hon. Friend said, were in decline during the 1990s, have risen 6 per cent. since 2002. However, as he is aware, the overall increases mask increases in some areas and declines in others: for example, in 2005, entrants to general engineering courses were up by 10 per cent. and to civil or mechanical engineering by 4 per cent., but entrants to electrical engineering fell by about 8 per cent. We are most certainly not complacent, but it is encouraging that the national demand for and supply of courses is improving overall. We absolutely must keep that under review.

There are some encouraging recent signs about student demand across the STEM subjects. Overall, applications and acceptances through the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service indicate that there has recently been a higher-than-average increase of 10 per cent. or more in the number of students accepted to study maths, physics and chemistry. Previously, there had been a significant downturn, but we may be beginning to see the turn of the tide, although I do not want to over-egg it. Chemistry courses, for example, rose by more than 12 per cent. last year compared with the national average increase of 7 per cent.

My hon. Friend talked about the importance of science teaching in schools. It is significant that in the last three or four years there has been an increase in the number of science graduates going into initial teacher training. Also, when I last looked at the evidence, the proportion of graduates going into ITT with a 2:1 or a first had risen significantly, and that gives us grounds for optimism that, in the longer term, there will be higher-quality teaching in our schools.

Particularly important are the changes that we are making to the school science curriculum, in order to move away from rote learning to ensure that young people understand the processes of science. There are two other things that we need to do to stimulate and enthuse young people and engage them in science. First, and very practically, we should underline the importance of the graduate earnings premium in STEM subjects; it is about 30 per cent. compared with 23 per cent. for non-STEM subjects, so there is a significant additional earnings premium for those students who undertake those subjects. Secondly, we have to do much more through the media to present and depict science properly and positively, through newspapers, television programmes and drama. A number of initiatives are in train to ensure that that happens.

Let me say a few words about what specifically we are doing in the higher education sector. I very much take my hon. Friend’s point that we need greater collaboration between industry and the higher education sector as a whole. Foundation degrees, for example, are an important and exciting development in that area, designed, as they are, in partnership with employers to provide the specialist knowledge and employability skills that employers demand, as well as the broader understanding that equips graduates for future professional development. They not only provide a flexible and valuable entry level into higher-level engineering study, but make it accessible to people who might not otherwise have considered that route. These initiatives and qualifications address an important skills gap at the associate, professional and higher technician level identified by private and public sector employers. That is an important initiative, in terms of collaboration between industry and higher education, as is the higher education innovation fund, which works on knowledge transfer directly from higher education into industry.

It is important to ensure that the demand for engineering courses is maintained, and that there is Government funding of a number of projects to facilitate that. The Department of Trade and Industry, for example, is expanding the science and engineering ambassadors scheme, one of a number of successful schemes to encourage young people to continue science, technology, engineering and mathematics in higher education by supporting teachers and engaging and enthusing pupils. By 2007-08, the total number of ambassadors will be 18,000—an increase of 50 per cent. on the current year. That is an important and significant step forward.

The Higher Education Funding Council for England is using money from its strategic development fund to support the development of proposals from science, technology, engineering and mathematics subject areas to stimulate demand for higher education courses; that is a positive way forward. As part of that, the London engineering project, run by the Royal Academy of Engineering, brings together schools, universities and employers to engage with young people through enrichment activities in our schools. The programme is aimed at attracting new engineers from diverse backgrounds, and contributes to our goals for widening access to higher education from under-represented groups.

I am pleased that there have been proposals for funding from both the Royal Academy of Engineering and the Engineering Council UK. Projects proposed include using work experience placements to recruit young people into engineering and developing models of flexible pathways into and through higher education, leading to professional status in engineering.

Fundamentally, if we are to get an increase in demand from students for science and engineering courses in higher education, we need to take action at all levels in the education system, and most importantly, frankly, at a much earlier stage than higher education. That is why the 14-to-19 agenda is so important; we are talking about those who, at the age of 14, may arguably be switched off education and further personal development on being presented with a purely academic route. My hon. Friend is right that engineering is recognised as one of the key sectors of the economy; from 2008, it will be among the first five sectors to offer the employer-led specialist diplomas that we are developing. If we can get those diplomas right, as I believe we can, we can attract young people into that vocational pathway and into engineering in a way that we could not previously. The development of the specialised diploma is one of the most exciting opportunities of recent years to provide a strong route of mixed theoretical and practical learning for people of all abilities. As they are employer-led and designed, industry will get the people with the skills that it thinks necessary.

Schools, particularly those specialising in engineering and science, have a key role to play in encouraging young people to consider a career in engineering. The Government’s specialist schools programme plays an important part in our plans to encourage more people to study and understand engineering. There are currently 656 schools with a specialism in engineering or technology—that number is growing, and we need that trend to continue.

Science and maths in schools are typically thought of as the building blocks of engineering. The recent pledges that the Chancellor made in the Budget raised our ambitions further—rightly, in my view. Our “Science and innovation investment framework 2004-2014: next steps” document, published in March, set out clear aims for improving the stock and flow of skilled scientists, technologists, engineers and mathematicians, and set out measures across the education system to support that. To drive forward improvements to science teaching and learning, the Chancellor made a commitment to £32 million-worth of new measures over the next two years, supported by £18 million-worth of new funding.

We have new commitments: first, to increase the number of pupils achieving level 6 in science at key stage 3 and good science grades at GCSE; and secondly, to raise the number of A-level science entries and improve the percentage of teachers with physics, chemistry or mathematics as a specialism. That is a really important area. In the longer term, we want many more teachers who actually specialise in the core STEM subjects to teach them in the classroom.

My hon. Friend mentioned teacher numbers. It is worth noting that although there are still some challenges on that front, since 1997 there has been a 30 per cent. increase in the numbers of new science teachers, but we know that we still need to do more. To increase further the number of science teachers, we have improved the value of recruitment incentives. The teacher training bursary rose to £7,000 in September 2005 and will rise again to £9,000 this September. Also, the “golden hello” for new science teachers rose to £5,000 for trainees entering the postgraduate certificate of education or equivalent courses in September 2005. We are also recruiting and training a new cadre of science specialist higher-level teaching assistants and enabling every secondary school to recruit at least one by 2007-08. Those initiatives are beginning to bear fruit and are ensuring that we have more properly qualified teachers teaching science in the classroom, supported by able teaching assistants.

Furthermore, we have been encouraging science and maths students at university to consider teaching as a career, while helping to enthuse young people in the classroom through the student associates scheme. Of the 20,000 students placed in the past three years, 3,000 have been science undergraduates. The recent Budget rightly made £700,000 of new money available in each of the next two years to create more science and maths placements on that important, excellent scheme.

The engineering sector can make a vital contribution by working with the education system. Listening to employers is essential for a strong economy and a fully prepared work force. It is worth noting that engineering falls within the footprint of several sector skills councils. All are contributing to the development of foundation degrees. The Department for Education and Skills is working with the Science, Engineering and Manufacturing Technologies Alliance to support the delivery of the challenging GCSE double award in engineering, as well as the planned roll-out of the engineering diploma in 2008.

In conclusion, I reassure my hon. Friend that we take the issue extremely seriously. There are some encouraging signs at the higher education level, in terms of the numbers of students coming through, but real progress in the longer term is dependent on the changes that we are making to our schools system at the moment. If we look at the evidence, those changes are beginning to bear fruit, but I am not complacent; we need to keep driving the issue forward, and with the support of my hon. Friend I am sure that we can do that.

Flight N481EV

This debate is about an incident involving an aircraft of the Boeing 747-132 series, flight N481EV. Two issues need to be addressed: first, the safety of those on the ground, and secondly, what the aircraft was carrying.

The incident took place on 24 April 2004 at 10.48 am. The aircraft was run by the Evergreen International Airlines corporation, based in McMinnville, Oregon. It was en route from Ramstein in Germany, although it originated in the middle east, where it had encountered a sandstorm, to Wright Field, New York State—allegedly. I shall return to the issue about its destination later.

The aircraft was heading west up the Thames estuary when it began to experience problems. The outer port engine ran down and it was producing no power whatever. The aircraft flew over London, from east to west, and after passing Reading the crew made an attempt to relight the engine, but it could not be restarted. The flight engineer then contacted the operator’s maintenance control, and he was instructed to return to Ramstein where maintenance support was available. Shortly afterwards, air traffic control at the London air control centre approved the intended routing change. A 180° left turn took place, and the aircraft headed west to east, back over south London.

As the crew approached Maidstone, they determined that the three remaining engines were not producing the selected thrust. They declared an emergency and requested a diversion to London Heathrow airport. Their exact words were:

“We’re just not sure we’re gonna get enough power to land”,

and they called an emergency.

The aircraft then flew clockwise in a loop around Tenterden and over Tunbridge Wells. As it approached London for a second time, just south of Croydon, the controller informed the crew that the aircraft was still too high for the approach about which the co-pilot had informed the controller. That is when they said that they did not have enough power to land the plane. The crew did not have approach charts for Heathrow.

In response to a question that I asked the then Minister with responsibility for the matter, the hon. Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck), I was told that although Stansted is the designated airport for emergencies, Heathrow was chosen because the crew could see it from where they were. I do not profess to be an aviation expert, but from that height, I think one could see Heathrow, Stansted, Gatwick and just about every other airport in south-east England.

Although the crew had no maps for Gatwick, Luton or Heathrow, they had maps for Stansted, but the aircraft went to Heathrow. Given the aircraft’s height and its proximity to Heathrow, the radar control instructed that a 270° turn to the right should be executed to lose the excess height and speed. The crew accepted the instruction and the manoeuvre was flown. It took the aircraft over the centre of London and, at that time of day, hundreds of thousands of people. The pilot put the aircraft through a number of “S” turns to lose height and to manoeuvre to the runway and make a safe landing. It was only in the final stages of the approach that the engines responded with forward acceleration and the aircraft was able to land.

The air accidents investigation branch report says:

“During the handling of the emergency, there was some speculation within ATC concerning the nature of the cargo onboard the aircraft.”

When I asked the then Minister what cargo was on board, I received the answer “cargo”. Again, I am not an aviation expert, but I could have worked that one out for myself. I was asking for a better description of what the cargo might have been and what hazard it might have presented to the residents of London. They deserved a better answer than they received.

We were told that the aircraft’s destination was Wright Field in New York State. Wright Field is actually in Dayton, Ohio, and it is more correctly known as Wright-Patterson air force base. It employs more than 10,000 staff. I have maps of it, and from the satellite picture that I have, one can see that it is an extensive air force base. What is the base used for? It is home to the 88th air base wing, a logistics and transport unit moving US military personnel and materials throughout the world. It also includes specialist research and development facilities, and advanced engineering activities—in layman’s terms, I guess that means the development of weapons.

A number of concerns come out of the AAIB report. The cockpit voice recordings during the incident are unavailable, because they have been wiped. Police were notified of the plane on the ground at Heathrow, but they did not board it. Nor, according to answers that I have received, was the cargo checked. On top of that, there has been press speculation about what might have been on the plane. I know not whether it is correct, but without conclusive answers about what was on the plane, including whether it had a pulse, as it originated in the middle east, the speculation will continue until an answer is given or it is admitted that no one, including the aircraft owners, has any idea what was on it.

The Lockerbie disaster involved a jumbo jet coming down on a low-density area. We know the tragedy that occurred there. What tragedy would have occurred if the jumbo jet, flight N481EV, with whatever was on board, had come down over London? Why did it not go to Stansted, where it would not have had to fly over such populated areas? One could speculate that at Stansted, which is mainly used by carriers such as Ryanair and easyJet, a jumbo jet would be quite visible, whereas who would take any notice of one at Heathrow? That is the cause of the speculation.

My concerns have always been about the safety not only of my constituents—I, too, live under the flight path—but of flying the plane over the whole of London, when it has radioed in and said:

“We’re just not sure we’re gonna get enough power to land”.

That is a worry.

When the plane was on the ground, I assume that the authorities would have been notified about its contents. If they were, I have had no notice of it. I should like to end the speculation today, and I ask the Minister to consider carefully whether we might view the information. Perhaps it cannot be made public, and if so, I accept that. However, if it can, it would kill the speculation once and for all.

The carrier was asked what improvements could be made and why it did not have maps for Heathrow. It claimed, and this is all in the incident report, that there was no need, because it usually flies military personnel or equipment, and the maps that it has for bases are perfectly adequate. In such situations, it might be advisable for the crew to have maps of every destination to which a plane might be diverted on its route.

Why was it not mentioned that Wright Field is not in New York State? It does not exist. Dayton, Ohio is a long way from New York State, so why the inaccuracy? And why was the cockpit recording not kept? In such an incident, surely it is one of the fundamental things that one would do.

A number of points have been wrung from the internet, and I have before me just a little bit about Wright-Patterson air force base. It has its own website, interestingly enough. Some of the pictures here are of shooters trying out their new equipment.

Order. The hon. Gentleman is referring to pictures. As he knows, he will have to describe them for the Official Report. It is not possible to print photographs in the Official Report.

Thank you, Mr. Chope; I am happy to describe the picture. It is of three soldiers, one with headphones on, in a firing range shooting at I know not what because one cannot see it in the picture. The picture clearly demonstrates that the soldiers are firing something at something.

The base is used for the development of weapons, engineering and technology. That is on its website; it is a matter of no doubt whatever. Again I ask the Minister: what was on that plane? What could have come down on the heads of the constituents of London? What danger were they in? Why was the plane not diverted to Stansted? If it is possible for the Minister to answer those questions today—

From her nods, I believe that the Minister will answer my questions today, so that should end some speculation and, if nothing else, keep me quiet. I am grateful to the new Minister, who was not the Minister responsible for aviation when the inquiry first started, for agreeing that we can meet up at a later date to go further into the subject.

There has been a lot of speculation in the media and press about extraordinary rendition, about weapons being flown over Britain and about denials being given. That might well be true. All I am asking is that it clearly be proven that this flight, N481EV, was not part of that and that with such incidents, when Londoners’ lives are at stake—I am not being over-dramatic; one can tell that they were at stake by reading what the cockpit controllers said to air traffic control—we should be told why. If such a plane is airborne and the pilot has—let us be kind—bad eyesight and cannot see Stansted, Luton or Gatwick but only Heathrow, surely we should consider that he should be directed to the safest area for all the constituents of our country rather than the airport that seems to be the least safe? Not only that, but for that plane to fly round in circles again and again over London while clearly calling in “Mayday” is unacceptable. I look forward to the Minister’s response.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Ilford, North (Mr. Scott) on securing this debate on an important matter. I am grateful to him for giving me the opportunity to set out a number of facts that I believe and hope will end the speculation to which he refers and reassure not only his constituents but any other of our constituents who has worries.

Before I attempt to answer the specific points that have been raised, I want to put it clearly on the record that aviation safety is a matter of paramount importance. Our air transport industry has an excellent safety record and accident rates have stayed low despite the rapid rise in traffic levels. The Civil Aviation Authority oversees the safety of the UK’s air traffic services, and produces annual reports on the National Air Traffic Services’ safety performance on air traffic control. I am pleased to note that in the latest report, the Civil Aviation Authority has assessed that NATS has continued to maintain a positive safety performance.

Turning now to the Evergreen incident, I want to make it clear that the aircraft was engaged in normal commercial operations and was handled by controllers in line with guidance on handling aircraft in emergencies. Every incident is unique and, naturally, we always learn from such experiences and guidance is modified as appropriate. That is exactly what happened in this case.

For clarity, it would be helpful to confirm the facts surrounding the events that led to the incident. On 24 April 2004, the Evergreen aircraft was carrying out a cargo flight from Ramstein in Germany to McGuire air force base in New Jersey. I shall come back to the hon. Gentleman’s point about the destination in a moment. Shortly after reaching a cruising height of 36,000 ft, to the east of London, the left outboard engine ran down and could not be restarted. As a consequence the commander decided to return to Ramstein and the aircraft descended to 21,000 ft and commenced an easterly heading.

The crew then determined, when overflying Kent, that the three remaining engines were not producing the selected thrust. The commander declared an emergency, and requested a diversion to London Heathrow airport. The aircraft was radar-vectored on to the final approach track and the commander completed a successful approach to a safe landing.

On the subject of the intended destination, the aircraft was not going to Wright Field in New York State as stated in the air accidents investigation branch report. I have looked into that, and the error was a genuine mistake by the AAIB, which has only recently come to light. The AAIB has suggested that the confusion may have arisen during the interview with the commander of the aircraft when attention was necessarily directed at the more salient points of the incident, which were those related to safety.

I shall now refer to the process for handling aircraft in such an emergency, which is vital. The notion that an aircraft in emergency may divert to an airport other than the intended destination is a founding principle enshrined in the International Civil Aviation Organisation’s international standards and the UK Air Navigation Order 2005. Both documents clearly stipulate that the commander of an aircraft is ultimately responsible for the safety of that aircraft, and of the persons and cargo on board. The commander, in an emergency, may request information from air traffic control to enable the selection of a suitable diversion airport but the responsibility for determining what represents the safest and most suitable diversion airport rests with the commander of the aircraft.

The hon. Gentleman raised the question of why the aircraft was diverted to Heathrow. During the incident, the commander decided that an emergency landing was required as soon as possible. The lack of thrust in the three operative engines limited the choice of airports to those within gliding range and with adequate runway length to meet the landing distance required. London Heathrow and Gatwick were both within range, while Stansted and Luton were rather more distant.

The crew decided to divert to Heathrow because the weather and visibility were good. In addition, the commander had physically seen and identified Heathrow when overflying that airport before the engine trouble occurred and had good visual recognition.

The hon. Gentleman also asked why air traffic control allowed that diversion to Heathrow. As I have explained, the choice of a diversion airfield is the decision of the commander of the aircraft. For that reason, air traffic controllers safely facilitated the commander’s request to land at London Heathrow. That was entirely in line with guidance.

I come now to the AAIB recommendation that followed. The report recommended that the Civil Aviation Authority should review guidance to controllers on handling aircraft in emergencies and, in particular, whether

“sufficient guidance is provided on the avoidance of built up areas when vectoring aircraft in emergency”,

a matter of particular and understandable concern to the hon. Gentleman. The Civil Aviation Authority accepted that recommendation and issued revised guidance to controllers in April this year.

It will be helpful if I spell out what the revised guidance now says:

“It is desirable that aircraft in emergency should not be routed over densely populated areas, particularly if there is reason to believe that the aircraft’s ability to remain in controlled flight is compromised or that parts of the aircraft could detach in flight. If this is inconsistent with providing the most appropriate service to the aircraft, for example when any extended routing could further jeopardise the safety of the aircraft, the most expeditious route is the one that should be given. Where possible, when expeditious routing is not required, suggestions of alternative runways or aerodromes together with the rationale that the routing would avoid densely populated areas and be consistent with safety, shall be passed to the pilot and his intentions requested.”

That revised guidance meets the concerns raised by the hon. Gentleman. I understand his concern about aircraft overflying populated areas in emergencies. However, I am sure that all will agree that preventing accidents must always be the overriding concern.

I turn to some of the specific questions raised by the hon. Gentleman. First, he asked about the cargo. I understand that the contents of the cargo were not revealed to air traffic control during the diversion, but I assure him that that is not unusual. Information on what is carried normally resides on board the aircraft and at the airfield of departure. Such information is not readily available to air traffic control, and I am sure he will understand that it would be inappropriate for controllers to ask the crew for the information when, as should be the case, they are preoccupied with an emergency. As noted in the AAIB report, the cargo was subsequently identified as an aircraft engine. There were no munitions or explosives on board.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether the aircraft had been boarded. I confirm that, following the incident, the aircraft was not boarded by officials from the Civil Aviation Authority or from any other transport agency because there was no reason to suppose that the aircraft was likely to be flown in contravention of the Air Navigation Order 2005 or in a condition unfit for flight.

The police and immigration and customs officials also have powers to board aircraft. I am advised by my colleagues at the Home Office and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs that neither immigration service nor customs officials boarded the Evergreen aircraft or inspected its cargo. That is because checks for immigration and customs purposes necessarily focus on the points of embarkation and disembarkation, and the aircraft was not scheduled to land in the UK. As the Evergreen flight originated in Germany, its cargo was subject to free circulation within the EU, so no customs declaration was required. Fire services and police attended the incident, but no police officers boarded the aircraft as there was no reason to suspect that a crime was being committed.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned rendition. I shall answer that question directly. Evergreen International Airlines was established in 1960. It specialises in air freight, and some of its contracts are with the United States military, but it also has an extensive customer base with well known commercial organisations. I emphasise that there is no evidence to suggest that the flight was involved in a rendition operation.

We are clear that the US would not render a detainee through UK territory or airspace, including overseas territories, without our permission; and we have made it clear that we would not grant that permission unless the rendition was in line with UK law and our international obligations. In particular, we would not facilitate the transfer of an individual from or through the UK to another state if there were grounds to believe that the person would face the real risk of torture.

I shall now deal with the remaining points that the hon. Gentleman raised. First was the erasure of the voice cockpit tapes. I shall raise the matter with the AAIB, and write to the hon. Gentleman.

Secondly, the aircraft was carrying US Department of Defence charts, showing mainly military airports. The aircraft operator noted that that is more convenient as it invariably covers their military destinations, but the maps also include a number of civil airports throughout the world. It is important to remember that the plane was not scheduled to land in the UK, and by way of reassurance I reiterate that the commander chose Heathrow as being the safest and the most appropriate because he had had sight of the airport and was able to get there safely.

Thirdly, the hon. Gentleman referred to the middle east. That is taken into account in the AAIB report. He is obviously referring to the rumour that the aircraft was parked in the middle east during a sandstorm. The aircraft flew from the middle east to Germany prior to diverting to Heathrow. There is no evidence to suggest that that flight was anything other than commercial.

I hope that I have addressed the points raised by the hon. Gentleman. I wish to put on record once more that aviation safety is of paramount importance. Without doubt, the Evergreen incident was serious. It raised serious issues, and I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving me the opportunity to deal with them. However, the incident was handled in line with guidance and brought to a safe conclusion.

Furthermore, guidance has been modified and strengthened in direct response to the incident—specifically about overflying densely populated areas—and I assure the House that it is continually reviewed. Action does not stop there. However, each incident is unique, and it is not feasible to issue prescriptive guidance to controllers on handling aircraft in emergencies—nor would it be wise.

I state again that it is the commander of the aircraft who is responsible for its safety, and he is responsible for determining what represents a suitable diversion airport. None of that is done in isolation. I hope that my response has reassured the hon. Gentleman, and that the clarity of my response will ensure that speculation can be put aside. We can now concentrate on what happened, and on the advances that have been made on further developing aircraft safety for the benefit of all, including the hon. Gentleman’s constituents.

Housing Benefit

This debate is prompted by three things. The first is the publication today of the Welfare Reform Bill, which I welcome. The second is the concern that the Government response to the Green Paper, which was published before the Bill, made no mention of the single room rent and did not comment about responses on that subject. The third is the fact that many young people face continuing acute difficulties, which are highlighted by the research into the new local housing allowance pathfinders.

I shall give some background. Single room rents were introduced by the Conservative Government in October 1996. They were opposed by the Labour party, and the shadow Minister said somewhat presciently that single room rents could have a devastating effect on whether young people could live in safe, sound and affordable accommodation. Indeed, he went on to say that landlords were likely to withdraw from lettings based on single room rents. Sadly, that has proved to be the case. The number claiming single room rent fell from 32,000 in 1997 to about 12,000 last year. Financial hardship has undoubtedly resulted.

The single room rent is, on average, only 60 per cent. of the local reference rent; a gap exists between that and the rents that have to be paid. Indeed, research shows that 87 per cent. of those on the single room rent face some form of shortfall in the amount that they receive. That and the fact that young people receive smaller sums for living costs—£44.50 rather than £56.24 for those over the age of 25—has resulted in many young people living in poverty and being threatened with homelessness. Add to that the fact that many cannot access appropriate forms of accommodation, and we find that very large numbers of what we now term “the hidden homeless” exist in informal lettings or sleep on friends’ or relatives’ floors. According to the research, many of them stress that such circumstances make it more difficult for them to enter or sustain employment, one of the Government’s overall objectives.

Estimates of the savings made from the single room rent restriction vary, as do the estimates of the costs of phasing it out. In answer to a parliamentary question in April, the Government said that the costs would be about £20 million, not taking into account any behavioural impact. Previously, in December, they had indicated that they would be £60 million-plus. The Government’s calculations are obviously based on there being a significant behavioural impact, although under the new deal there has been a significant reduction in youth unemployment. My first question for the Minister is about what lies behind those behavioural impacts that the Government believe will lead to costs as large as £60 million, and what importance that has for decisions taken on the single room rent—or shared room rate, as it is now called.

In 1997, the Government decided to stick to the Tory spending plans of that year, and I supported that. The Minister at the time promised to commission a survey and to monitor the impacts of the single room rent restriction. Those impacts have been almost entirely negative. Under the previous Act, there were 100,000 determinations, but in the past five years the number has reduced to just under 15,000.

Few of the young people involved have been successful in negotiating the lower rents that we hoped would ensue from the introduction of the single room rent. A YMCA survey showed that 35 per cent. of its residents found it almost impossible to find suitable shared accommodation to move on to. As a result of the findings, the Government introduced a modest change to the definition of the single room rent; the definition now includes access to a shared living room, and that is to be welcomed. Ministers suggested that it would more adequately reflect the housing costs faced by young people. It certainly went a small way towards improving the circumstances. For example, it led to an increase in benefit of about £1.30 over the first nine months to a year of its introduction. That reduced the shortfall between the payment and rent that people were having to meet to about £35, but that was still significantly higher than the £16 shortfall for those above 25 who were paid the local reference rent.

However, the change did not have much impact on young people’s ability to access accommodation or sustain a tenancy. Indeed, lots of evidence from all the research carried out over the years shows that it undermines the efforts to access employment or training opportunities. The fact that such people have no stable housing base makes it very difficult for them to undertake training, or to gain employment.

Particular problems are faced by vulnerable young people such as those coming out of care, those who are disabled, those with mental health difficulties and those with alternative lifestyles, for whom shared accommodation may not be suitable. Some of the more recent research has been carried out for the Department by Dundee university. It concluded that a wide body of opinion among those involved was in favour of extending in two ways the exemptions under the single room rent restrictions. First, it was thought that the existing exemption for under-22s who have left a caring situation should be extended to include the under-25s. No one could understand why it was considered that 22 was a natural boundary. If someone is vulnerable because they have been living in care, surely they will be vulnerable at 22, 23 or 24.

Secondly, it was thought that the exemption for the severely disabled should be widened. Many are disabled, but not defined as being severely so, and they have real needs and difficulties in working and finding suitable accommodation. My second question for the Minister is about whether either extension of exemption has been considered by the Department in respect of the new shared room rate.

I move on to the contents of the Welfare Reform Bill, which I hope will be debated in the House later this month. The process started in November 2003, when the Government introduced pilot areas for the new flat-rate local housing allowance. Nine local authorities were originally chosen in 2004; another nine were later added to the list. At the same time, the Government not only made a very welcome change to the title, which changed from “single room rent” to “shared room rate”, but provided a more generous definition of what the shared room rate would be: all or some of the facilities lived in had to be shared.

That produced a small but welcome increase in the benefit provided to young people. However, although research on the pathfinders concludes that, overall, the gap between the rent that has to be paid and the benefit received has gone down—in some cases, significantly—there are, unfortunately, no specific figures for the new shared room rate.

A number of organisations, Shelter in particular, have carried out their own research. Shelter concluded that although rent was affordable for 46 per cent. of those living in one-bedroom accommodation and receiving the local housing allowance, it was affordable for only 26 per cent. of those living in shared accommodation under the new shared room rate.

There is also evidence that there was a reduction in the availability of suitable accommodation for young people. For example, Shelter undertook a study of adverts for accommodation in the pilot areas: 33 per cent. excluded those in receipt of housing benefit, and the figure rose to 50 per cent. for those in receipt of the single room rate. Follow-up research, involving telephoning and going round to the accommodation available, revealed that 15 per cent. of landlords were prepared to accept benefit recipients on the local housing allowance but only 7 per cent. were prepared to accept people on the shared room rate.

On top of that, it is clear from wider evidence and evidence from the pilot schemes that the supply of non-self-contained accommodation has been falling in recent years. The ability of young people on the new rate to engage with such accommodation is being more and more restricted. Although the shared room rate has improved the situation, because of the change in definition, there is no doubt that, as is shown by all the research, poverty, hardship and homelessness persist among those who are on the new shared room rate.

We cannot escape the reality that, given that the restriction on non-self-contained accommodation is forcing young people to move into self-contained accommodation, the living costs that they have to face are exactly the same as those faced by people of any age. Therefore, the boundary that exists between the over-25s and under-25s is causing severe hardship. The first question that arises from that work is whether in drawing up the Welfare Reform Bill the Government considered widening the definition of the shared room rate to reduce the gap in affordability. It is possible to use a wider definition to ensure that the gap that undoubtedly exists with the local housing allowance is reduced and that affordability becomes less of a problem for an adversely affected group of young people.

The second question is about the age range, which at present does not go to 25. Many of those vulnerable people face real difficulties in gaining employment. If we are to provide care in the community or make a reality of welfare to work, is there a case for narrowing the age range in which people are covered by the new shared room rate?

Finally, the evidence produced by the Department for Work and Pensions and by Shelter, the citizens advice bureaux and indeed everyone involved in this area confirms several things. The shared room rate undermines attempts to support young people, especially in getting from welfare to work, and that undermines the Government’s objectives. The shared room rate is ineffective in ensuring that young people live in shared accommodation because the amount of such accommodation is decreasing at this time, as I mentioned earlier. There is a continuing high risk of poverty, large debts—we talk continually in the Chamber about the debt taken on by young people—and homelessness, and that exists whether people are in low-paid work or on benefits.

The shared room rate is not achieving the Government’s objectives. Therefore, my final question is whether the Minister would outline the rationale for including the new shared room rate restriction in the local housing allowance regime in the Welfare Reform Bill. Surely the Bill is an ideal opportunity to equalise the situation for young people, to give them the options that we proclaimed in all our manifestos and to create opportunities for work, independence and improved living standards. That can all be achieved if we do something about the shared room rate.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton (Mr. Love) on staging this debate. It has been useful to listen to his points, and it is particularly appropriate that the issue should be debated today because, as he rightly said, the Government launched the Welfare Reform Bill today. As he knows, the Bill contains proposals to introduce the local housing allowance across the country. Indeed, I was in Coventry this morning for today’s launch. It was one of the pathfinder authorities for the local housing allowance. I discussed its impact in the area not only with the staff in the local authority and the benefits offices who administer the system but with local landlords and tenants, all of whom confirmed that the local housing allowance is a distinct improvement on the old housing benefit and welcomed many aspects of the reform.

I can tell my hon. Friend that we have listened and are listening carefully to the experiences of the 18 pathfinder authorities in respect of all the issues to do with housing benefit. I have been particularly interested to talk to them about support for younger people in private sector rented accommodation and the impact of single room rate measures. We are very much in listening mode and want to hear what the experience has been, but it is good to know that everyone who reports to us confirms that local housing allowance is an improvement on the old housing benefit, as I believe my hon. Friend acknowledged.

I am sure that my hon. Friend would agree that we have all been awaiting the introduction of the Welfare Reform Bill and that it is therefore only right that we should use this opportunity to reflect on our priorities for reforming the welfare state, on the central role that support for meeting housing costs plays in that and on how young people fit into the picture. I believe that he and I would also agree that welfare reform is a huge challenge, but that we have come a long way in addressing it in recent years. After all, we have increased the number of people in work by nearly 2.5 million, decreased the number of people in long-term unemployment by three quarters and virtually eliminated youth unemployment since 1997.

However, there are still tough challenges ahead, and we are now setting the barrier even higher. We believe that work is the best way out of poverty, and we want to deliver an opportunity to work to everyone in our society for whom it is relevant. Despite our success so far, there remain groups and communities that have not yet been able to share in the improvements in living standards that work brings. That is why we are now setting ourselves the considerable challenge of an 80 per cent. employment rate.

Key to achieving that 80 per cent. rate will be engaging and interacting with young people who are trying to enter the labour market. Work is important as the ladder out of poverty for everyone, but, as my hon. Friend said, it is especially important for young people. If we can give them a vital step up in their early years, we will make good progress towards achieving our ambitious goal.

The homes that we live in and our ability to pay for them can have a huge effect on our ability to gain and retain a job. The simple fact of having a roof over one’s head that is affordable from month to month can make all the difference when looking for work. For 4 million families across Britain—nearly 16 per cent. of all households nationally—that is exactly the kind of support that local housing allowance in the private sector will provide now and in the future.

However, we always want to make things better where we can, which is why we are undertaking a radical reform of housing benefit, as outlined through the Government’s recent response to the welfare reform consultation. My hon. Friend spoke about the views that we received during that consultation, and I confirm that we have seen Shelter’s submissions. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I met Shelter representatives just a few days ago and again discussed their wide-ranging views about the housing aspects of the welfare reform Green Paper. We had and still have a willingness to meet them to discuss their views, and that will continue to be the case as we take the Welfare Reform Bill through Parliament.

Shelter agrees that rolling out local housing allowance across the private sector will make housing benefit clearer, simpler and more transparent for everyone, including young people. In our meeting a few days ago, it confirmed that in principle it fully supports our reforms, and it too has been reassured by the experiences of pathfinder authorities. It had doubts about the reforms at the outset, but it now broadly supports them, and I am pleased that that is the case.

My hon. Friend asked a few specific questions which I shall try to address, in particular the one about the cut-off at 22. The evidence is that most people leave care between 16 and 18. By putting the cut-off at 22, we have built in a margin that in many cases allows people up to an additional four years without restrictions. That is a concession, given the age at which most people would normally leave care. Wherever we draw a line, there will always be the question whether someone is still in that position after that age. My hon. Friend suggested considering the age of 25, but I suspect that there will still be those who are aged 26 or 27 and in the same circumstances. There is a rationale for choosing 22.

My hon. Friend asked whether we had considered any further exemptions to the single room rate. We will continue to assess the impact that the local housing allowance has on young people as we evaluate the local housing allowance in the pathfinder areas. We will continue to assess the details of that while we develop the regulations that will be introduced following the passage of the Welfare Reform Bill, assuming that it succeeds in passing through Parliament.

I thank my hon. Friend for his welcome for the discussion of the research that lies behind some of the issues that I have raised, but can I press him about the disabled? The definition of “severely disabled” is restrictive and does not cover many people who are very adversely affected in attempting to live independently. Bringing them within the concession would help enormously with their living circumstances.

I understand my hon. Friend’s point, but he will be aware that other aspects of the benefits system can be utilised to support people in exactly that position. We are looking to make further improvements to those and other parts of the system in the Welfare Reform Bill. However, I take on board his point, which we shall consider as we go through the stages of implementing the Bill.

My hon. Friend wanted me to address the rationale behind retaining the principle of the single room rate in its slightly altered form, as we move into the local housing allowance. I recognise that the abolition of the single room rate is still a priority for many of our stakeholders and for many Members of the House. However, we feel that we must uphold the fundamental principle of fairness and equity across the benefit system, and that includes housing benefit. Let me expand on how that relates to the allowance.

As I am sure my hon. Friend would accept, young single people under 25 have earning prospects that are well below those of older people. In fact, 60 per cent. of those renting in the private sector who are not on housing benefit rent shared accommodation. It is therefore reasonable to expect young housing benefit claimants to share too. Doing otherwise would allow them to access better housing than that which was available to their working peers, which would not represent a fair deal for those in and out of work.

My hon. Friend is concerned about potential shortfalls in the benefit and about whether that would contribute to poverty among young people, with which he is rightly concerned. In his local authority area, where about 100 young people are affected by the single room rate, there is quite a sizeable nominal shortfall of £80 a week, which would of course be a concern. It is relevant and interesting that, where the young people concerned have gone into shared accommodation, the shortfall between their allowance and the rent is £22 a week, which is less than the average shortfall in his constituency for tenants in the private rented sector who receive housing benefit. That shows that if people respond to the pressure in the system to move into shared accommodation, they are not at any greater financial disadvantage than anybody else in receipt of housing benefit, and are possibly even at a smaller disadvantage. However, my hon. Friend makes a valid point about the supply of appropriate accommodation, which I shall address briefly if I have time.

In some areas young people might have difficulty accessing shared housing, and for them the choice is limited. However, extra help is available in the form of discretionary housing payments and flexible support from local authorities, which can be added in on a case-by-case basis. Under the local housing allowance, single under-25s will be able to see in advance what their maximum level of benefit is in the area. That will help reduce the risk of signing a tenancy agreement in good faith, only to discover subsequently—as currently happens—that the housing benefit is not sufficient to meet their rent.

Local housing allowance brings additional benefits, as has been demonstrated in the pathfinder authorities. Simplifying the scheme has produced quicker processing times for local authorities. Local housing allowance is paid directly to claimants, rather than to landlords, in an average of 85 per cent. of cases, thereby extending the benefits of personal responsibility and financial inclusion, which in turn helps people to prepare for and move into work.

I assure my hon. Friend that as we move forward with housing benefit reform we will continue to review the single room rate, to ensure that young people can access appropriate accommodation. However, as I hope I have explained, the rationale for doing so remains—namely, that of encouraging work. We could not endorse a situation in which benefit dependency was fostered, which would result in young people being trapped on benefits and in poverty more than otherwise. Therefore, to be blunt, the incentive issue must be considered in what we do. We want to pursue the programme of welfare reform, always mindful of our ambition to raise the level of employment and help people who want to enter work to do so. The right mix of incentives and encouragement must be in the system to achieve that.

I am pretty sure that if we were just to abolish the single room rate, we would produce outcomes that would quite probably leave more young people on benefits, and therefore poorer, than under the present arrangements, in which there is a work search incentive. I would not want to do anything in the name of welfare reform that left people dependent on welfare for longer than would otherwise be the case. The drive throughout the programme must be to help people to access work in every way that we can.

Although I understand the point behind my hon. Friend’s question about whether the right sort of accommodation is available, where that is an issue—and I fully accept that in some parts of the country it is—the answer does not lie so much in reforming the welfare system as in what my right hon. and hon. Friends in other Departments are doing to address housing supply and housing need. They will have more to say about that in the near future.

I thank my hon. Friend for that detailed reply. I believe that we will return to the question whether the restrictions, in whatever form, help or hinder in moving people from welfare into work. There is a lively debate to be had on that, which I hope will be joined when we discuss the Welfare Reform Bill, but let me press my hon. Friend on supply. There is growing evidence to suggest that shared accommodation is becoming harder to enter. In those circumstances, young people who cannot remain in whatever situation they were in previously will have to access more expensive accommodation, making the threat of homelessness, poverty and debt ever more prevalent.

I hear what my hon. Friend says, but he will understand that I cannot speak on behalf of colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local Government who are responsible for such matters. They are actively engaged on that very issue and have already made various statements about the eventual policy development, which I am sure he will hear more about.

My hon. Friend is right that the debate that he has correctly initiated will be joined by many others as we proceed with the passage of the Welfare Reform Bill and its subsequent regulations. I look forward to making further contributions on the subject over that period.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at one minute to Two o’clock.