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Westminster Hall

Volume 448: debated on Wednesday 5 July 2006

Westminster Hall

Wednesday 5 July 2006

[Mr. David Marshall in the Chair]

Policing (Northern Ireland)

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

Order. In view of the climatic conditions, it would be in order for Members to remove their jackets if they so wish.

I hope that the temperature does not rise because of anything that I say. The weather is sufficient to warm the Chamber this morning.

I welcome the opportunity that this debate grants us. However, I am somewhat torn, because I would have liked to be with the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs this morning in Northern Ireland, where it is launching its report on organised crime, an issue of equal importance. If the goal of devolution is to be realised, agreement on policing in Northern Ireland will be an essential component of any arrangement. While this debate takes place, the Committee is launching its report just outside Armagh. It is significant that a Committee of this House has taken its message on that aspect of policing to an area associated with so many of the criminal activities of IRA-Sinn Fein. A range of witnesses gave the Committee the messages that dealing with organised crime is essential to political progress in Northern Ireland and that the unwillingness of one political party—IRA-Sinn Fein—to back the police in that endeavour makes the task more difficult.

The effective policing of communities by the Police Service of Northern Ireland is equally essential to political progress. However, that objective becomes impossible if a major political party openly discourages the public from co-operating with the police and undermines them at every turn. That creates a policing vacuum, within which people have to live, and there can be no confidence in any political institutions that require the inclusion of those who, while making laws, will not support the very people and organisation who have to enforce them.

There is an important political message to send out from this debate. The Democratic Unionist party is committed to achieving devolution. We have made it clear that we will work with IRA-Sinn Fein in government, although that may be unpalatable. That is a big step for people in my community, and, indeed, for the whole community in Northern Ireland, who have suffered at the hands of IRA-Sinn Fein for 35 years. We will work with them in government, but in return, we require them to relinquish terrorism and criminality and to support the police.

Support for the police means not only sitting on the Northern Ireland Policing Board or on district policing partnerships. It means giving a lead to the public by helping the police with investigations and supporting them when they take on criminal godfathers—I do not really care what side of the community those godfathers come from. It is totally reasonable to make that a requirement of entry into government, but the Secretary of State has rejected it as the creation of a new precondition. He knows that it is nothing of the kind, of course. It is simply the outworking of the commitment that all parties were supposed to give to work towards exclusively peaceful and democratic means. Sinn Fein has rejected a move in that direction, because it requires the demonisation of the police in Northern Ireland and the use of its own armed wing to keep control of its core areas. Its criminal connections are a useful source of funds, so it cannot afford normal policing.

Rather than face down Sinn Fein, the Secretary of State has reacted in a weak, and I must say, politically cowardly way. He has chosen to ignore what would be regarded as an essential requirement of any Minister or any party in the rest of the United Kingdom—to support the police in the execution of their duties. He has sent a message to Sinn Fein that he will facilitate its intransigence. In doing so, he makes the task of achieving devolution by the deadline of 24 November even more difficult. Oddly, he has made it clear that all Sinn Fein has to do is promise to support the police at some time in the future. But it does not have to practise that support for its members to become Ministers in Northern Ireland.

More worrying is the way in which the Administration seek to facilitate Sinn Fein when it comes to policing, especially in republican areas. The Administration are prepared to alter policing arrangements locally to facilitate the Sinn Fein-IRA version of community policing: policing that they control.

That brings me to the heart of what I want to say. In December, the Government issued a consultation document, “Draft Guidelines for Community-Based Restorative Justice Schemes”. There are 18 such schemes in Northern Ireland—four in what would be regarded as loyalist areas, mostly staffed by ex-paramilitaries and people who were involved with loyalist paramilitary groups, and 14 in republican areas, almost exclusively staffed by people who had associations with the IRA, of whom most have served time in prison for terrorist offences. Until now, the schemes have been financed mostly from America. The money was running out and the funding period coming to an end, and there were moves to try to bring the funding into the mainstream. That meant that there had to be guidelines on how the schemes would qualify for funding.

The idea is that the schemes deal with those who have committed offences in local areas. Victims report the incidents and those administering the scheme take action to administer punishment and, sometimes, to resolve the disputes by bringing victims and perpetrators together. However, the schemes are seen by many as an IRA court and an IRA police force. The hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) has described it as the lords of gangsterism becoming the law lords in those areas. The schemes give Sinn Fein considerable control over a local area, and since it neither recognises the legitimacy of the police nor co-operates with them, Sinn Fein is, in effect, an alternative police force in republican areas.

I see the same happening in loyalist areas, and the schemes provide local Sinn Fein representatives, or indeed local representatives of one of the loyalist political parties, with considerable ability and strength. If there is a problem in an area, they refer the person and the perpetrators to a scheme that they control, and they get it sorted out. On one occasion in my council ward of East Belfast, someone came to me about people who were behaving antisocially next door to them. I went through all the normal channels—the environmental health department, the noise monitoring service, the police and social services—but still the behaviour went on. The lady met me in the road one day and said, “It’s okay, Sammy, I got it sorted out.” She named one of the people who sat with me on Belfast city council, and said, “I went to him. The boys came round and they sorted it out on Friday night.” Now, that undermines legitimate public representatives who do not have access to that kind of muscle. Secondly, it undermines the bodies set up by the state to do such jobs. That is why Sinn Fein wants that form of policing in republican areas. It gives it control, enables it to hold its grip on its communities and, in effect, gives it the power to police its own areas.

I will go through the guidelines and would be interested to hear the Minister’s response. The Government have issued guidelines that only strengthen the ability of the community restorative justice schemes to ignore the police and the criminal justice system and to exercise their own control. Once public funding goes into the schemes, they will become an integral part of the criminal justice system. The objective of the draft guidelines, they say, is to make the schemes an integral part of the system. Yet at the same time, the funding facilitates the schemes in ignoring the most vital part of the criminal justice system, which is the police.

At every turn, there are ways for the schemes to bypass the police. Of course, the reason is quite clear. Those who are involved, especially on the republican side, do not recognise the legitimacy of the police. They will not accept that the police are an acceptable police service in their areas. The danger is that if we proceed down the road that the Government are following, we will make schemes an integral part of the criminal justice system while the police are kept outside. The schemes are part of the Government’s efforts to get Sinn Fein to accept policing in Northern Ireland. Rather than make it live up to its responsibilities, as any other democratic politicians would have to do, and to accept that the police service that is in place is the legitimate police service in Northern Ireland, the Government are seeking to find alternative ways to allow it to police particular areas.

The objective of the guidelines is to help

“promote confidence in the criminal justice system”.

How can they hope to promote confidence in the criminal justice system if they allow one arm of that system, namely the community restorative justice schemes, to ignore the police and to set them aside?

I agree with everything that my hon. Friend has said so far. The Minister was quoted in a document entitled “Partnership policing key to success”, published on 31 May, saying:

“Effective policing is about working in partnership with local statutory and voluntary groups; it’s about listening to and responding to the concerns of local communities.”

It is impossible to achieve that if a major political party representing part of that community disparages co-operation with the police force, in which case what is said here stands for nothing.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that perceptive intervention. It goes even further. The Government are going to fund one of those community partners and say, “We will find ways of allowing you to bypass any involvement with the police.”

Let us look at what the guidelines say. I hope that the consultation, which the Minister will have received, will lead to significant changes and a substantially different emphasis. The guidelines will not even apply to some schemes, because as paragraph 2 states:

“the guidelines do not relate to non-criminal matters, or to anti-social behaviour which does not reach the criminal level.”

Some schemes claim that 80 per cent. of their case load involves dealing with antisocial behaviour. I am not sure how the distinction is made. To me, antisocial behaviour in most of its aspects involves some degree of criminal behaviour. I suspect that that is an easy way of exempting some schemes from the guidelines and escaping even some of the weak requirements that could be placed on them.

In most countries where community restorative justice schemes are used, the normal method is that someone commits an offence, the police investigate, the case goes to the public prosecution service and then it goes to court. Then, the court can recommend that the person is dealt with by the community restorative justice scheme. Indeed, even before the case goes to court, the police can say that they believe that it would be more appropriately dealt with by the scheme. That will not be the case in Northern Ireland, however. Paragraph 6 of the guidelines makes it clear that the initiative will be taken by the victim, who can opt whether he or she goes for the community restorative justice scheme or whether the case is referred to the police.

Of course, the guidelines make it clear that

“neither victim nor offender should be coerced, or induced by unfair means, to participate in the process or to accept the outcome.”

The people who will give advice to victims or perpetrators might well be people, certainly in republican areas, who do not accept the legitimacy of the police. Of course, they will have a vested interest in saying, “You go down this route”, and I suspect that, in many cases, rather than giving advice, they might give instructions that that route should be followed.

When the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee went to Northern Ireland, we met people who had been victims of crime, had gone down the community restorative justice route and were very unhappy with how their case had been dealt with. In fact, they claimed that in some cases they were pushed down that route because the people who perpetrated the crime had associations with a local paramilitary group that, of course, had control of the community restorative justice scheme. Those victims found that they, rather than the perpetrator, were the ones being punished and ostracised.

The danger with the guidelines is that they allow such things to happen. Despite the fine words in the document, I do not believe that people will be able freely to make a decision. I believe that many community restorative justice schemes would rail against referrals to the scheme by the police, since they do not accept the legitimacy of the police in the first place.

I want to consider the way in which the police are to be actively excluded from the schemes. Paragraph 7 suggests that the only role of the police will be to investigate a crime. The police will have no role in what happens in the community scheme. Where an offence has been committed, the job of the police is to take measures to bring the offender to justice. The paragraph states:

“The Police Service…has responsibility for the investigation of crime, and carries out its functions with the aim of securing the support of, and acting in cooperation with, the local community.”

After that, it is passed to the community restorative justice scheme without police involvement. Indeed, the next paragraph shows that any police involvement that there might be can be circumvented. Rather than having to interface with the police, the scheme can go through the probation board of Northern Ireland or the youth justice agency, which

“may assist in the communication of information to PSNI”

about the offence, and what is happening to the offender under the scheme. They do not even have to have face-to-face communication with the police: it can be circumvented by the use of intermediaries.

If the guidelines are meant to build confidence in the criminal justice system, why have the Government gone out of their way to ensure that the police are held at arm’s length if the scheme organisers decide that that is what they wish to do?

To extend the point that my hon. Friend is making—the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan), too, has made the point on a number of occasions—the risk is that in some of areas the paramilitaries, or proxies for the paramilitaries, will become involved in the schemes. That is one reason for the desire to hold the police at arm’s length; the paramilitaries want to present themselves as an alternative form of policing in local communities.

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. I think that that is already happening under the system that pertains at present.

I turn to those who will be involved in running the scheme. As my hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Donaldson) pointed out, they are by and large from paramilitary backgrounds. The Government, using fine and honeyed words, speak of the schemes operating to

“high standards in order to comply with human rights requirements”.

Those are fine-sounding words, but how can the Government ensure that the schemes operate to the highest standards? Indeed, the guidance continues by saying that it would be

“unacceptable for anyone involved in paramilitary activity or criminality to work in schemes.”

Again, everyone would say that that is right; but how can the Government ensure it?

The proposal is that the schemes will police themselves, and assess the suitability of their staff in light of that. It is unlikely that anyone applying for a job in a scheme will say, “By the way, I am a paramilitary” or “I’m a criminal”. In fact, those who interview them will probably know very well that they are criminals or paramilitaries—they might even be mates. None the less, the schemes will assess their own staff.

It is suggested that one way of determining whether an individual is suitable will be to put them through the “protection of children or vulnerable adults” machinery. However, that will record only whether someone already has a criminal conviction. The only way to vet those who do not have a criminal record is to use normal police procedures and police intelligence. The police will know whether someone is currently involved in paramilitary or criminal activity and has not been caught. Again, however, that would involve the police.

On the face of it, the consultation provides a safeguard, but when we dig deep we find that there is no safeguard. Indeed, a researcher from Magee college at the university of Ulster has written a paper called “The Restoration of Restorative Justice”. In it, he says:

“What about CRJ indeed being a new role for the IRA?”

That is the sort of thinking of many who support the scheme. To allow schemes to vet their own staff would be an abrogation of responsibility. There should be an oversight body to vet the staff, with information being supplied by the police; it would be same as the normal vetting procedure for a job of such significance.

The schemes will be responsible for training their staff. Paragraphs 19 and 20 contain high-sounding words about the highest possible standards, but how can we ensure such standards? There will be occasional inspections to ensure that the training is adequate. Again, I believe that an oversight body is necessary; it should be responsible for the training and personal development of those staff who have been vetted and selected. The schemes will also be able to handle complaints against themselves. Given those who currently people many of schemes, anyone making complaints against them might want to think twice.

On the question of schemes considering complaints against themselves, is it not the case that the police were required to move self-investigation and establish the office of the police ombudsman for the purpose of ensuring impartiality in investigating complaints against the police? Surely we should not expect a lesser standard to apply in respect of community restorative justice schemes.

My hon. Friend reads my mind. He anticipates what I was about to say. He is right that the police require independent investigation of complaints against them, yet self-investigation and self-assessment seem to be allowed for the schemes. I believe that the Government are seeking to find ways to accommodate those who want the lowest common denominator when policing their own communities and who are therefore making those kinds of demands.

The guidelines are an abdication of policing in republican areas. They a sop to Sinn Fein and an attempt to allow it to fill the policing vacuum caused by its opposition to the PSNI. The Government have shown a typical lack of backbone on policing. I trust that this debate will at least help raise the importance of the issue. I emphasise again—I hope that the Minister carries this back to the Secretary of State—that political progress will depend on how the Government deal with policing in Northern Ireland.

I made it clear at the start that we are up for devolution. We are even prepared to take on the hard decisions that devolution may require, including with those who were previously wrecking our economy, but we will not do it on the basis of allowing them to choose the kind of policing that should be acceptable in Northern Ireland. That kind of Government would not be stable, it would not be acceptable, and it would not be supported by the majority of the population.

I congratulate the hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) on securing this debate. He touched on a number of important matters. I have some sympathy with much of what he said, although I come to these issues from a different direction.

In his opening remarks, the hon. Gentleman spoke generally about the political situation and the prospects for devolution, and he linked possible political developments to the attitudes of the various parties in Northern Ireland to policing and to the Police Service of Northern Ireland. He criticised the Secretary of State’s response to his party’s attitude on those matters. I am not averse to criticising the Secretary of State from time to time for how he handles political affairs in Northern Ireland. However, I am at one with him in warning people about the dangers of turning objectives—no matter how valid—into preconditions. The history of our political process should tell parties that doing so only creates self-frustrating demands.

The worthy objective of ensuring full support and co-operation for the Police Service should not be made a precondition for the restoration of our political institutions. Flawed and wrong as Sinn Fein’s position on policing and justice is, it did not bring about suspension. Such matters should not be made into preconditions for the restoration of the institutions. If the factors that caused the suspension of the institutions are, in the judgment of the Government, the Independent Monitoring Commission and so on, resolved and settled, then restoration of the institutions should take place and parties should pursue all the other issues through all the appropriate means and channels—challenging each other, testing themselves and so on. That is how things should be done, or else we will get lost in another pub crawl of preconditions.

Sinn Fein will have preconditions for its support, or nominal support, for policing, and funding community restorative justice schemes in a way that suits it and its personnel could be exactly one of those demands and preconditions. I warn the hon. Member for East Antrim that in making Sinn Fein moves on policing almost a central prerequisite for restoration of the institutions, he could assist Sinn Fein’s attempts to extricate concessions on the quality and fabric of policing and justice, about which he expressed such concern.

There are huge contradictions in Sinn Fein’s position on policing, and it should be tested and challenged on them. It should not be comforted by the Government with all sorts of side deals on community restorative justice. Nor should it be assisted by the creation by other political parties of a framework within which it can happily do various side deals—some of which we might see, others of which we might not.

The new dispensation in respect of policing derives from the Patten report. The Patten commission was established by the Good Friday agreement, and its report set out 175 main recommendations; it was a 10-year plan to change the nature and face of policing. We are in only the fifth year of that plan, but there is already huge progress; nearly 90 per cent. of the recommendations have been delivered. That huge success rate is due to the leadership in the Police Service and to the role and work of the Policing Board. If the SDLP had followed Sinn Fein’s advice and approach and refused to take part in the board, that board would not have been established and would not have driven implementation of the Patten plan. Essentially, we would have been left with the status quo.

Sinn Fein needs to be challenged and tested, by the Government and others. I welcome the Minister, who deals with policing and security matters, but I hope that he will strike a tone different from that of his immediate predecessor, who seemed obsessed with spending a lot of time flattering Sinn Fein. During one broadcast, he actually credited Gerry Kelly of Sinn Fein with the Patten report and its implementation. He bent over backwards to humour Sinn Fein and told a very basic big lie, which was an offence to all the good and responsible people who took part in the leadership and management of the Police Service, or were on the Policing Board or in the district policing partnerships. The Government need to come to the issue with more consideration than they are showing.

Alongside the Patten commission, the Good Friday agreement established a criminal justice review. That review, among many other things, saw a role for restorative justice and, rightly, positively identified a place for such justice within the entire suite of the criminal justice system. The Social Democratic and Labour party fully supports that recommendation, just as we support the criminal justice review more widely. However, there is a difference between restorative justice as part of the fabric of the administration of justice—as one of the options or channels that can be pursued—and setting up the highly privatised version of administering justice that the Government seem to favour in their guidelines.

We should remember that in their approach to community restorative justice the Government set about accepting the existing schemes as a given. They did not conduct consultation on the broad principles and precepts of restorative justice. They did not ask questions about what qualities, principles and protections they needed to build in, what resources they needed to commit or what legal framework they needed to build, so that people from anywhere in Northern Ireland could have access to the good model of restorative justice. The Government did not engage parties on what they saw, or on how examples from elsewhere in the world—Australia, Canada or wherever—could be applied to Northern Ireland, or how they could be varied to do so.

No, the Government set out to fix a funding problem for some existing schemes, particularly those run by an organisation called Community Restorative Justice Ireland. Those schemes’ philanthropic funding was going to run out, and there was a crisis about how to keep them going. As part of keeping Sinn Fein engaged on policing and politics, the Government obviously decided, “Well, we’ll see what we can do to fix things for you. We’ll come up with a way of funding.” That is where the whole question of guidelines and so on came from.

The Government had to consult on the guidelines only because a number of people identified and raised questions about what was going on. Initially, the Government denied that such engagement was even going on and that such plans were even afoot. Ministers did not know what we were talking about—there was total, blank denial that it was going on. Even the Prime Minister made it clear that he did not know. In meetings with us, he said, “Where did this come from anyway? I don’t know what it means.” Even he was in denial, but as the documents emerged, it was clear that things had not happened suddenly; there had been exclusive engagement between the Government, the groups directly involved in the scheme and one political party only. That was simply wrong. Anything that comes from such behaviour and dubious engagement is bound to be dubious itself.

The Government are happy to create twilight-zone arrangements, on the edge of or underneath policing, that might suit Sinn Fein. The Government are prepared to create a policing twilight zone in another direction, outside the Patten principles and the Patten plan; they have plans for an expanded and enhanced role for MI5 in Northern Ireland, to give MI5 primacy in intelligence policing. The Patten report is, however, very clear that intelligence policing should be in the hands of the Police Service of Northern Ireland. The difference is that in a matter of national security the Chief Constable should report not to the devolved interest, whether that is the Policing Board or a devolved Minister, but to the national Government, through the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.

It seems clear to me that the Government are quite happy to do a deal by which they try to tell us they will bacon-slice the Patten report from two sides. On the one hand bits of policing and the administration of justice will be privatised by way of community restorative justice and recycled paramilitaries. In many cases in the communities affected it will be a case of warlords turned law lords. On the other side, the bacon-slicing of Patten will consist of the expanded role that is to be given to MI5 in intelligence policing in Northern Ireland; so we may have crooks on the one hand and spooks on the other. Of course, the Government will then tell us that there is a balanced approach and that what we are left with in the middle, between the two sides that have been sliced, is the core of Patten. Of course, that will not be so.

I ask the Minister and the Government to think again and to return to Patten. I hope that the Minister will not rely on the briefings that he is getting from his Department to the effect that the changes are consistent with Patten. I hope that he will read the Patten report properly and come at the issue honestly and straightforwardly.

The hon. Member for East Antrim raised specific points about community restorative justice. One was about the way the proposed guidelines would strengthen the ability of people involved in the schemes to ignore the police, bypass the formal justice system and pretty much do their own thing. The main way in which that will happen is through the notion of what is called third-party referral. Let us consider that notion. Only last year Ministers, like the rest of us, condemned Sinn Fein’s sidestepping evasion in response to the murder of Robert McCartney. When Sinn Fein belatedly started to answer some of the challenges and questions about Robert McCartney’s murder, the most it did was begrudgingly say, “Yes, this was a terrible crime for which people should be brought to book, and if people have any evidence they can maybe make it available”—although it fully understood why they would not make it available to the Police Service.

The ruse that Sinn Fein came up with was giving the information to a third party. It made it sound very good and strong by including the police ombudsman among the third parties to whom it suggested people could give information. Some people did make statements to the police ombudsman. Some people made such statements and then did not sign them, which made them worthless as evidence. Some people made fairly vague statements to the police ombudsman, and, of course, many people made no statements at all. That was in relation to a vicious murder, which had been followed by a clear effort to clean up the bar and stage a cover-up, and which involved pressure being put on witnesses. The ruse to show that Sinn Fein was making an effort was the notion of reporting to a third party.

People rightly perceived the cynicism of that. The Government told us that they thought it was terrible—awful. The Prime Minister told parties that it was terrible and awful. He told the McCartney family that it was a terrible, awful, crude and cynical thing, which should not be allowed, and that he was making it very clear to Sinn Fein that that approach was not of an acceptable standard and was not on. But what have the Government gone and done now with the guidelines? They have incorporated exactly that standard as the new going rate for approaching the question of justice and policing. They are rewarding Sinn Fein’s cynicism and saying, “That will do nicely. That will be the rule, the law, from now on. We will work it that way.” People can pretend that so long as they engage under such justice schemes with a third party, that will be it.

That of course undermines the role of the police. Let us be clear. I should have my doubts in some situations about whether some police officers and senior police officers might abuse community restorative justice to abdicate their responsibilities in certain areas. Some police officers would be happy to take the line, “Well, we just police the highways and we let someone else police the alleyways and byways”, and to use people in the community in that way. Many police officers would be happy to wash their hands of some of the details and use the existence of the schemes to abdicate responsibility. I am not basing my objections and concerns about community restorative justice on the idea that only the police have a role and the police are wonderful; they, like other public services, will try—pardon the pun— to cop out, when they can and to land responsibility elsewhere. Indeed, that is already happening. In many cases, senior police officers are saying, “Well, there is nothing, really, that we can do. You should maybe go and talk to so and so. Have you talked to such and such about that? They might be able to do something.”

We want a system of policing and justice like the one Patten promised. We want something consistent with the Patten vision, which was equal access to acceptable, active policing—not police who are more active in some areas than others or a localised form of policing that does one thing in one area and has a completely different standard in another. We do not want to privatise policing to former paramilitaries, as though it is some sort of occupational therapy for them, or a way to recycle those groups as they decommission and withdraw from active criminal behaviour.

The hon. Member for East Antrim made other points about how widely permissive the Government’s guidelines are in enabling community restorative justice schemes to do their own thing—setting staffing criteria, investigating complaints against themselves and so on. I do not accept the idea that the schemes can investigate themselves—first, because of the point made by the hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Donaldson) that we have not accepted that the police should investigate complaints against themselves. We have been very demanding about requiring a full independent investigation mechanism, through the police ombudsman’s office, so why should we accept something less in relation to the matters in question, which affect people’s rights, and policing responsibilities, fundamentally?

Secondly, I do not accept the idea because community restorative justice as it is practised in Northern Ireland has already been subject to a number of complaints and challenges, including in the context of the McCartney case; personnel from the CRJ were involved in that. Subsequent to the murder there was a meeting in the Short Strand area to establish a restorative justice scheme, and among the people on the committee was someone known to have helped to direct the clean-up of Magennis’s bar and someone else who was definitely and clearly identified as having been involved to some extent on the night. Those are the sort of people involved. We have put that evidence directly to the Prime Minister and his shocked Secretary of State—his shocked Secretary of State—but to no effect, because the guidelines, and the Government’s intention, roll on.

My final point about complaints concerns Jeff Commander, a friend of Robert McCartney and the McCartney family who was viciously assaulted. His family has been trying to get that criminal offence dealt with properly, as the McCartney family did. One of the issues that has arisen is that a senior figure in Community Restorative Justice Ireland actually witnessed the assault on Jeff Commander, but he has still failed to give his evidence to the Police Service of Northern Ireland. The Government are still acting as though that is okay and as though that will be the going rate for co-operation on policing and justice issues. The CRJI is not even trying to deny that the crime was witnessed, and the family is being offered mediation with the CRJI and the republican movement. Indeed, it is being offered anything but justice—any way of handling, burying or sidelining the issue, but not justice.

I ask the Minister to think thoroughly about this issue and to talk to people who know how the CRJI works and who have seen it completely mishandle cases in which it has been way out of its depth. In cases involving sexual abuse, other sexual crimes and domestic violence, it has brought the victim and the perpetrator together in a way that is absolutely inappropriate and that breaks all the rules, all the guidelines, all the advice and all the standards. Do the Government not care about that? They let these people do their own thing and set their own standard, but that is not justice or policing. No notion of law will be worthy of its name if the Government say, “That’s the way your society is to go.”

Order. The winding-up speeches will start at 10.30 am, but if hon. Members co-operate, both of those who want to speak will get in.

I concur with the comments of my hon. Friends. However, it is important to put some facts on the record.

As we all know, the Government are downscaling the number of British troops in Northern Ireland. In 1994, at the time of the IRA ceasefire, the number of soldiers was approximately 12,700. That number has since been cut to 9,300, and the plan is to reduce it to 5,000 by next July, and further if the Assembly is restored after talks with Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist party.

Further action will include the withdrawal of the military from five of the 10 joint police-Army bases, the closure of two military bases, which will bring the total to 22, and a 28 per cent. reduction in the flying hours of British Army helicopters. Part of the plan also involves the defortification of police stations to make them resemble normal buildings, which will involve the demolition of towers and observation points.

Public safety must the overriding priority, and there is enormous pressure on the Police Service of Northern Ireland to fulfil the role that will be left when the Army goes. That pressure is ongoing, and funding is necessary over and above that needed for the ordinary operation of the force. I completely agree with the Independent Monitoring Commission’s report, which made that point, and I should like the Government to walk up on the issue.

In all that is being done, it is police officers on the streets who are being overlooked. As my hon. Friend the Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) said, the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs has visited the Province on many occasions, and we have seen at first hand the difficult conditions in which police officers must work. The facts that I have just given, and the number of officers out there, mean that there is enormous pressure on people to do their job. Unless matters are handled in a coherent and co-ordinated way that is, most importantly, accepted by all political representatives across the community, I fear that officers who put their lives on the line every day for the peace that we all so want will be put under further undue pressure and that the aims that we all have will not be fulfilled.

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for South-West Norfolk (Mr. Fraser), and I entirely agree with the thrust of his remarks. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) on securing this extremely important debate. A wide range of general political and more specific issues has been highlighted, and it is absolutely right that they should be. No issue is more important for the people of Northern Ireland than their security, and policing is central and fundamental to people’s confidence as they move forward.

On the general situation, I listened to the warning from the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) about making support for policing a precondition. The Secretary of State and the Prime Minister have referred to that on several occasions. I have to say that the Prime Minister looked extremely uncomfortable during a television interview in which a leading reporter put it to him that it would be absolute nonsense to suggest that someone could be in government in any other part of the United Kingdom who would not even recommend that people should give evidence or information to the police about a rape, burglary or murder. We put the same point to the Prime Minister when he visited Belfast last Thursday, and he admitted that that situation would be absurd. He talks about a deadline of 24 November, but if that situation is absurd today, or on 23 November, it will be equally absurd on 25 November, if not more so. It will be absurd if Martin McGuinness or some other member of Sinn Fein has responsibility for producing and for proposing laws in the Northern Ireland Assembly, but refuses to tell his people, or anybody else in Northern Ireland, to help the police to implement them. That would be absolute nonsense.

It is not the creation of a new precondition to say that support for the police and the institutions of law and order is a prerequisite for being in government. As we have said all along—the authors of the Belfast agreement voted this into the agreement—there must be a commitment to exclusively peaceful and democratic means. In my estimation, and in that of most reasonable, ordinary, decent people in Northern Ireland, someone who is committed to exclusively peaceful and democratic means should support the police—that is not rocket science. We should not get into the business of saying, “We would like you to support the police. We hope that you will in due course. However, it shouldn’t be a precondition.”

Let us face the fact that if Sinn Fein gets into government in Northern Ireland and does not then support the police, there will be absolutely no pressure on it to start supporting them. The hon. Member for Foyle referred to the lessons to be learned from the current process, and the biggest lesson, which the Ulster Unionist party did not learn—costing it its seats in this House and its position in Northern Ireland—concerns what happens when we pander to Sinn Fein and do not take a zero-tolerance approach to such issues, but say, “We’ll have a parallel process. We’ll let you into government.” The Ulster Unionist party did not learn what happens when we say, “You can decommission alongside”, or, “You can get involved in the democratic process and wean yourself off criminality, terrorism and paramilitarism when you get into government and start to work Government institutions. That’s the way to go.” When Sinn Fein went into government, it was quite clear that it did little or nothing about any of the rest of the stuff; it carried on with its paramilitarism and criminality and did not decommission its arms. The lesson that we must learn is that if we want Sinn Fein-IRA to commit to supporting the police and the institutions of law and order, they must do so before they get into government. After that, there will be no means to exert pressure on them to do anything else.

I agree with a large amount of what has been said about community restorative justice. I simply make the point that there are community restorative justice projects in Northern Ireland that work alongside the police and that involve the police not only in their day-to-day operations but in their management committees. I mention Northern Ireland Alternatives, which works in my constituency, in North Down and in other constituencies. Where community restorative justice programmes involve the police and do not give rise to the problems to which my hon. Friend the Member for East Antrim and the hon. Member for Foyle alluded, there is a case for saying that they should be looked at differently from schemes run by Community Restorative Justice Ireland, which refuses to have the police anywhere near. There is a distinction there.

On the general point, it is essential for the confidence of the people of Northern Ireland that their local areas and housing estates are policed in a way that is transparent, so that they have confidence that things are not being run by paramilitaries or those associated with them. Community support police officers give rise to the same sort of concerns among ordinary people, who think there is a danger that local paramilitaries could gain a foothold in the policing of local areas if such officers are recruited from local communities. It is essential that we examine draft legislation and terms of employment before any final decisions are made and that, whatever happens, there are clear procedures for vetting officers, so that no one becomes a community police support officer who would not be entitled or able to become a regular police officer. There can be no double standards or lower standards in respect of anyone who seeks to become a community support officer, as there are real concerns in areas that I represent and in others that it could be a back door for paramilitaries.

The lack of public interest in the operation of local district police partnership arrangements and the fact that members of the public are not turning up to meetings has been highlighted recently, particularly in the Belfast Telegraph. On some occasions, meetings have been abandoned because there was not a quorum. Colleagues and I have been involved for a long time in local police liaison committees in my patch of north Belfast. They have worked well and have had good attendance. The police have come to meetings and responded to local concerns. Those committees believe that they are being bypassed in favour of DPPs, which are formal and structured and which do not allow the same input from the local community on bringing the police to account.

I ask the Minister to justify the millions of pounds that have been spent on the DPP structure across Northern Ireland. Many people believe that it is not working. It does not bring the police to account in the way envisaged in Patten. Rather than sticking to every letter of what Patten said, people should think about what works, what is effective, and what, in fact, delivers. Something may well have been in Patten, but it should be reviewed if it is not working. We must be prepared to be flexible and think about structures that can properly bring local police to account.

I thank the hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) for giving us the opportunity to debate policing in Northern Ireland. He will know that the issue that has been vexing many of us in Wales is whether the four forces of the Welsh police service should be merged. However, in comparison, the problems in Northern Ireland policing dwarf the difficulties faced anywhere else.

We have heard much about community restorative justice schemes. We have heard criticism as well as support. My judgment is that they have an important role to play in dealing with the low-level crime that most commonly concerns local communities. Such schemes can sometimes provide a more effective and productive route for both the offender and the victim. A more victim-oriented solution is possible that brings to the attention of some offenders the reality of their actions. There is some evidence to suggest that well-run CRJ schemes reduce the risk of reoffending.

In addition, CRJ may be useful in preventing young people from taking a more formalised criminal path. Such schemes seem to work well in places such as New Zealand, United States and Canada.

However, as we have heard, there must be safeguards. They were set out in the review and included upholding the human rights of all participants, receiving referrals from the criminal justice system—I shall return to that—being open to inspection by the independent criminal justice inspectorate of Northern Ireland and adhering to high standards. The real danger is of such systems operating outside the law, and we heard strong arguments about that.

I am sorry to say that many schemes seem to have fairly clear-cut, albeit indirect, links to paramilitaries, in that they employ individuals with terrorist records. They rationalise the role of paramilitaries in society and take referrals from such organisations. A recent Independent Monitoring Commission report highlighted the dangers of CRJ schemes operating without proper guidelines, or weak and ineffective ones. Therefore, any firm proposals must be accompanied by rigorous safeguards and proposals.

It is fair to say that over the past few years the Police Service of Northern Ireland has become the most heavily scrutinised and accountable service anywhere in the world. Therefore, it would be totally unacceptable for policing functions to be devolved to the community, which has much less demanding procedures in place, in a way that appears to bypass the police.

I have good news for hon. Members: in October 2005, Northern Ireland’s finest political party, the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland—I believe that I can say that without fear of contradiction—[Interruption.] Perhaps not. I seem to have created the greatest controversy in the debate so far with that comment.

The Alliance party put forward several key principles that should guide any formal state co-operation with or recognition of community-based restorative justice schemes. Whether or not hon. Members vote for the Alliance party, I hope that they will consider the five key elements of the recommendations. First, there must be protections to ensure that neither the victim nor the alleged perpetrator is coerced into participating with any scheme, and must have the right to exit the process at any stage. Coercion can be actual or perceived, and some schemes, particularly those with perceived paramilitary links, can carry with them the undercurrent of threat, based on who the people involved are or with whom they are associated. That is unacceptable.

Secondly, statutory agencies including the police must be represented on the boards of such schemes. Thirdly, the police must be informed of all referrals and should be able to make an independent judgment regarding whether a particular suspect would be better processed through the formal criminal justice scheme or through the scheme.

Fourthly, those running CRJ schemes must receive formal training. It is not good enough for them to say, “I will deal with this, I have plenty of experience”, not least because often that experience itself can lead to concerns that a paramilitary operation is functioning under the cloak of legitimacy. Fifthly, the operation of CRJ schemes and their funding must be subject to annual review by the Northern Ireland Office to prevent any risk of corruption in respect of funds.

CRJ schemes must not be an alternative to the existing policing and criminal justice system but a complement to it. That point was made by the hon. Member for East Antrim and others, and I very much agree. Indeed, I would not support any proposal that allowed a CRJ scheme to bypass contact with the police, for all the reasons that we have heard. However noble and thorough the Probation Board of Northern Ireland or the Youth Justice Agency may be, they are not the police.

Many people have swallowed bitter pills in the re-formation and restructuring of the police specifically to make it easier for Sinn Fein and others to participate in the police service. We can go as far as saying that if certain people are not prepared to accept the legitimacy of the police, it calls into question their fitness to operate CRJ schemes. CRJ can operate only in conjunction with the PSNI. There can be no equivocation on that point, as anything else or anything less gives succour to the argument that the police in some way are not legitimate. We must leave that thought behind.

It is also objectionable to recognise any scheme that places or entrenches paramilitary organisations in a position to control the procedure in any part of Northern Ireland, thereby subverting the interrelated values of respect for human rights, democracy and maintenance of the rule of law. We have heard good arguments about that which I shall not repeat. I am committed to maintaining the highest standards of justice and the rule of law in Northern Ireland, and, as we form the details of CRJ schemes, I am concerned to ensure that we take seriously the issues that, with the best will in the world, could create the unintended consequence of entrenching paramilitarism within the state structures. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say about that.

We are opposed to the efforts of paramilitary groups to police communities through beatings and shootings. We must recognise that, whatever a person’s view about CRJ schemes, paramilitary beatings must become a thing of the past. Such attacks are wrong in all circumstances and should in no sense be tolerated on the spurious grounds that they fill a vacuum, pending the formation of a more legitimate police service. We have a legitimate police service. Now is the time for Sinn Fein and others to adhere to the rule of law and to participate within a law enforcement process that is there for all to see. We must recognise that paramilitary beatings constitute actual or grievous bodily harm under criminal law and are offences in themselves, not restorative justice by any stretch of the imagination.

To that end, I make a direct appeal to Sinn Fein. If there is to be public confidence in the IRA’s statement of last July, Sinn Fein must demonstrate its declared commitment to exclusively peaceful and democratic means by participating in the policing arrangements of Northern Ireland. Although I have a lot of respect for many in Sinn Fein and the long journey that they have made, it remains a bald fact that Sinn Fein must show that it has truly broken its links with the IRA. The best way to do that now is to indicate that there are no alternatives to the Police Service of Northern Ireland by henceforth participating in its management.

I congratulate the hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) on securing this debate and on the typically passionate and eloquent way in which he spoke. Policing in Northern Ireland is obviously a subject close to his heart, as it is close to my heart and those of many in Northern Ireland. I do not intend to speak for long, as I want to give the Minister a chance to answer the many points that have been raised, but I entirely endorse the points that the hon. Gentleman made about the requirement for Sinn Fein to support the police.

A few weeks ago, I and the shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington), sat in front of Mr. Adams and Mr. McGuiness and made that very point. Mr. Adams responded by saying that he was not sure that he could take his community along with him. If that is the case, I really do not know where we go from there. How can we have someone sitting in government who not only does not support the police, but does not recognise their legitimacy? The reason those in Sinn Fein do not recognise the legitimacy of the police is that they do not recognise the legitimacy of the British Government—as they refer to them—in Northern Ireland. Sinn Fein does not even call Northern Ireland Northern Ireland; it calls it the north of Ireland and talks about the British Government, as if they were nothing to do with them at all.

I hope that we can get the Assembly kick-started again, because this afternoon this place will have to deal with yet another statutory instrument, which covers a number of issues. We shall have to take all of it or leave all of it—we cannot amend any of it—yet most of us on the Committee do not even live in Northern Ireland.

I hope that the Assembly can get up and running again, but is it fair to ask my hon. Friends in the Democratic Unionist party to sit alongside people who have committed dreadful crimes in the past? People can repent and move on; but moving on is the requirement, and that means that people should accept the legitimacy of the Government and the police and do everything that they can to support them. As my hon. Friend the Member for East Antrim said, that does not just mean joining police boards—we can all go and join a club tomorrow—but going with hearts and minds. Until the hearts and minds are right, we will not get the Assembly up and running, and we will not make progress.

I mention my hon. Friends in the Democratic Unionist party, but on Monday and Tuesday I was in Belfast for meetings with all the political parties, apart from Sinn Fein; it is not that I do meet Sinn Fein—I do—but it was not possible on that occasion. I spoke to the leader of the Ulster Unionist party, who said that he very much hoped to get things up and running. I asked, “Well, would you go into Government with Sinn Fein with the situation as it today?” His response was, “I think I’d want to see some movement on policing first.” So, it is not just my hon. Friends in the Democratic Unionist party who say that. All legitimate parties recognise that there must be some movement—the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) came at the issue from a different angle, but he has also been concerned about the situation for a long time.

On my previous visit to Northern Ireland, I went to south Armagh and spoke to the police there, who are very concerned about the proposed reduction in the Army numbers. They told me that their police officers cannot even go into shops in the area and be served, and that the MP for the area will not even speak to them, never mind support them or encourage his people to go to them if they have witnessed a crime. Is he to sit in the Government? In my judgment, it would be difficult for him to do so.

When I went past Magennis’s bar on Monday, I was reminded of the IRA’s continued activity. At the very time when it was negotiating to sit in Government, 18 or so months ago, it was planning the Northern bank robbery, the money from which has not been fully recovered. There was the dreadful murder in Magennis’s bar, which the IRA cleaned up to hide the evidence, rather than taking it to the police, and there was the dreadful gang rape of a young girl shortly after that. Was evidence taken to the police? No: an attempt was made to clean up the scene. Although I share the desire for the Assembly to be up and running again, for the reasons that I have given, the more often I visit Northern Ireland, the more I am convinced that Sinn Fein-IRA have to support the police in their hearts and minds.

Something odd about going over to Northern Ireland regularly is that one reads the local newspapers, which one does not much see in this country. They report much that is not reported over here, which is significant. It is easy for Members to sit in this Chamber and say, “Oh, they should join the Assembly and sit in Government—they should give it a go”, but it is very different over there and much more difficult than we perceive to say such things.

I entirely endorse everything that my hon. Friend the Member for East Antrim and other hon. Members have said. I congratulate the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) on making a robust speech, as well as my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Norfolk (Mr. Fraser) on his telling remarks about the reduction in support that the Army will be able to give to the police, which is a worrying development.

I have gone on for slightly longer than I intended, but I wanted to express, on behalf of Her Majesty’s official Opposition, our entire agreement with the words that the hon. Member for East Antrim so eloquently put to us.

I congratulate the hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) on securing the debate. He has a significant track record on such matters and was an assiduous member of the Policing Board for a number of years. Just as his presence is felt here, so I am sure his absence is equally felt there.

The hon. Gentleman raised issues of local policing, which are top priorities for our constituents wherever we are in the United Kingdom. He focused on a number of issues in relation to Northern Ireland, with which I shall deal in a moment. I am sure that he would join me in paying tribute to the fine work of police officers in Northern Ireland and their continuing success in tackling crime at all levels.

Hon. Members have referred to publication of the report later today on organised crime in Northern Ireland. The tenacity with which the police and other agencies are dealing with that threat is commendable. Equally, dealing with community policing issues is important. During meetings with the Chief Constable and senior colleagues, as well as with officers in a number of locations, such as Omagh, Foyle, Newry and south Armagh, I have been struck by their absolute commitment and dedication to ensuring that the communities of Northern Ireland can live in safety and security.

The context for policing is changing, as I think we would all acknowledge. The political and security contexts have improved. The symbolism of the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs publishing its report in Armagh today speaks volumes for the progress that we have made, notwithstanding the fact that it will highlight some of the remaining challenges. The organisational changes that have emerged from Patten are also highly significant. We know from the oversight commissioner’s report that three quarters of those recommendations have been implemented.

I was struck by the comment from the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) that the policing structure in Northern Ireland is probably one of the most accountable in the world. With the Policing Board, district policing partnerships, the police ombudsman and so on, the system is very transparent. It is far too early to be sure, and it would be utterly naive to describe Northern Ireland as normal in relation to policing, but we should not be over-pessimistic either. We are moving to a situation in which things that we might take for granted in other parts of the United Kingdom, such as police being able to police in their own areas, where they live, should become the norm in Northern Ireland. In the past, that has not been the case.

I shall deal briefly with points made by the hon. Member for South-West Norfolk (Mr. Fraser) and his Front-Bench colleague, the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson) on the reduction in the number of Army personnel in Northern Ireland. We have made it clear that as we move down the path of normalisation there will be fewer military in Northern Ireland. From August next year, there will be a garrison presence of 5,000, which will represent a reduction from current numbers. We should take encouragement from what is happening. No military personnel at all were engaged with the Whiterock parade just over a week ago. We need to acknowledge that that is a move forward.

I am sure that all hon. Members present would join me in congratulating the police officers acknowledged in the recent community policing awards, which take us to the very essence of effective local policing. I pay particular tribute to Constable Chris Murdoch in Coleraine, who received the top award for being the community police officer of the year. He was recognised as a highly visible, accessible police officer who makes a contribution to improving the quality of life in his area. He is also very good at catching criminals, which is a rather good characteristic for a police officer.

Public confidence is high. Some surveys reveal that more than three quarters of people in Northern Ireland have confidence in police and policing arrangements, and Northern Ireland is, despite all the difficulties and challenges we face, one of the safest places in the United Kingdom in which to live in terms of crime.

I shall move to some of the specific points that the hon. Member for East Antrim and others raised. There was discussion of the position of Sinn Fein in relation to policing. Of course, the Government want to see Sinn Fein take its seats on the Policing Board and support policing at the earliest possible opportunity. I gathered from what the hon. Member for East Antrim said that, for all the difficulties in the past, he, too, wants that. However, it must be active support, not just sitting on a seat, and I fully support what the hon. Gentleman said about that. I do not accept—he will not be surprised at this—his description of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. The point that my right hon. Friend has made is that the pledge of office is sufficient. The commitment to exclusively peaceful and democratic means is an unequivocal commitment.

But the same Sinn Fein Ministers took exactly that pledge previously when they took office, and they did not support the police then. Given that, what gives the Minister any confidence for the future?

What gives me confidence is the progress made since then. That progress is backed by the IMC report, which both the hon. Gentleman and I have read. It clearly indicates the path to peace, which is now a clear commitment from the Provisional IRA. We look forward to further reports, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman does. He will be looking carefully at the next IMC report when it is published in October.

Let me move on to the core issue that the hon. Member for East Antrim raised and on which other hon. Members commented: community-based restorative justice. In a way, the wrong Minister is responding this morning, in that justice as an area of policy is the responsibility of my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office. Hon. Members will know that he has been engaged in a consultative process. They referred to the guidelines that have been out for consultation. My hon. Friend hopes to make an announcement relating to community-based restorative justice and the conclusions of the consultation in the very near future and certainly, he hopes, before the summer recess.

I am pleased that the hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Donaldson) made his point about how effective restorative justice can be. Previously, when I was in the Home Office, I had responsibility for a time for promoting restorative justice. Whether it is face-to-face or indirect restorative justice, it has a role to play. Particularly from the point of view of the victim, it can be a valuable experience. However, we must ensure that all community-based restorative justice schemes operate in full co-operation with criminal justice agencies. We simply cannot have a parallel criminal justice system. We need a system that reinforces confidence in the criminal justice system, rather than detracting from it. My hon. Friend will make a statement on the detail, but let me make four brief points.

First, all criminal cases referred to restorative justice schemes will have been investigated by the PSNI and will be referred by the Public Prosecution Service. There is no back-door route to restorative justice; things have to be done through the front door and with the full consent and involvement of criminal justice agencies.

The second point was raised by the hon. Member for East Antrim. Victims must of course agree to participate in any restorative justice scheme. However, their agreement alone is not enough; there must be the agreement and involvement of criminal justice agencies.

Thirdly, the police must of course be involved in all restorative justice schemes; that will be a prerequisite of all schemes. The police cannot be sidelined in that process; they must be engaged.

My hon. Friend the Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) made the fourth point forcefully: high standards must operate in respect of restorative justice schemes. There must be a robust accreditation scheme. Of course, no one currently engaged in paramilitary activity could possibly be allowed to participate. There will be and there will need to be oversight by the criminal justice inspectorate. That is as far as I can go this morning. We await the further details that the Minister of State will announce in due course.

I shall deal briefly with the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Foyle on national security intelligence. He invited me to read the Patten report for myself. I hope that he has enough confidence in me to know that I would do that. I draw his attention to Patten recommendation 20, which is:

“Responsibility for policing should be devolved to the Northern Ireland Executive as soon as possible, except for matters of national security.”

It is not true to say that Patten recommended that national security should stay in Northern Ireland; he recommended quite the opposite. What he recommended and what we intend to do from next year is to put Northern Ireland on the same basis as the rest of the UK.

I do not dispute what the Minister has quoted from the Patten report, but that report went on to say that the Chief Constable would report on matters of national security to the Secretary of State as opposed to the devolved interest. That is how the difference between national security and regional policing is dealt with, not by giving MI5 the role proposed.

What I can say in the brief time left is that the Chief Constable is of course deeply involved in discussions and negotiations about the future arrangements. He has made it clear that he will sign off only arrangements with which he is entirely happy. I hope that that gives my hon. Friend confidence for the future. Basically, the arrangements will put Northern Ireland on the same footing as the rest of the United Kingdom in relation to national security intelligence.

I am pleased that the hon. Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Dodds) raised the issue of police community support officers, whom the Policing Board has decided to recruit. I reassure him that there will be absolutely no lesser standards in relation to recruitment criteria and vetting. It cannot be a back-door route. The same standards have to apply to PCSOs as to all police officers, but they can make a big difference. They are highly visible, out in the community most of the time, and they will make an effective contribution.

Sutton Magistrates Court

I welcome the opportunity for this timely debate. I am aware that my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Burstow) wishes to make a brief contribution to the debate.

Order. May I just correct the hon. Member? Your colleague cannot make a brief contribution without the consent of the Minister and the Chair, but he can, of course, intervene on you.

Thank you, Mr. Marshall, for that intervention. I hope that the Minister will be receptive to the idea that my hon. Friend will share my time in this debate. I think that she has nodded her assent to that proposal.

This is not our first debate on Sutton magistrates court. My hon. Friend secured a debate on this subject on 14 May 2003, to which I contributed. I also secured a question high up the list in Prime Minister’s questions on 26 March 2003, when I asked him whether he could explain why the Greater London Magistrates’ Court Authority, which existed then and was responsible for the courts in London, had decided to close Sutton magistrates court. It is worth reminding hon. Members of the Prime Minister’s response. He said:

“I regret to say that the honest answer is that I cannot explain that, since I am not fully aware of the circumstances. I can certainly look into what those circumstances are, but I assume that the decision has been taken by the magistrates authority. There it is; it is a local decision”.—[Official Report, 26 March 2003; Vol. 402, c. 290.]

I am afraid that that could not be further from the truth. The GLMCA was not local in any true sense of the word. The real locals—justices of the peace, councillors, Members of Parliament, Victim Support, residents and the police—were all opposed to the closure. The GLMCA, which is not accountable to the local community and had no connections with it, as far as I could detect, favoured closure on cost grounds.

I congratulate the Minister at that time, Christopher Leslie, on granting the local authority’s appeal against the closure, so Sutton magistrates court did not close in 2003. One consideration that now gives me cause for concern is that the local authority can no longer appeal, so it is down to other parties to object or try to get overturned any future decision to close the court, should such a decision be taken. When Christopher Leslie made that decision he issued a press release, which I shall quote, because it is very relevant. He said:

“There are good arguments for and against the proposals put forward by the GLMCA, but I believe that justice in London is best served by keeping open these courts. By retaining them, Londoners can see their local court in operation. This is vitally important if people are to have confidence in the criminal justice system.”

He went on to say that he had decided that each borough needed a local court given the size of the population that the courts serve and the high use made of them. I very much welcome those statements.

The press release also said, of another appeal, that Mr. Leslie judged that it would be particularly difficult for Harrow borough residents to get to Brent courthouse, which is where work would have been reallocated. It is worth dwelling on that point, because it might be proposed that the court in Bromley could be used as an alternative venue for some or all of Sutton court’s cases. I recommend to the person who might put forward that proposal that they attempt to travel from Sutton to Bromley. I have made that journey five times in the last month or so, because of the by-election there. I imagine that by car it would take about an hour to an hour and a half in the week. To travel that journey by public transport requires one either to go in to London Victoria and right back out again and take bus connections at either end, or to take a train journey to East Croydon or West Croydon, followed by a tram to Beckenham junction, followed by a train to one of the Bromley stations and a bus at the other end. Clearly, many people, whether they are due to appear in court or to attend as a victim or witness, would simply rather not undertake such a journey. I cannot see how Bromley can be a viable alternative.

I do not have time to go through everything that was put forward in the local authority’s appeal when it fought the court’s closure, but I shall quote the final paragraph of the document, where it says that

“it is apparent that any decision to close the Sutton courthouse would have an adverse impact on the majority of court users and therefore fails to comply with what the GLMCA has set as one of the central tenets for its existence ‘providing a better level of service to court users at the point of delivery—in the courtrooms and at the courthouses’.”

Surely, whatever review is under way, that is what it must be about.

It has been quite hard to find out what is driving the current review of the courts. According to an official at Her Majesty’s Courts Service, there is no formal review under way, and what is happening is just part of the normal business planning process. It appears to be driven by the London estates strategy, which talks about the estate having a direct impact on the user experience in relation to victims, witnesses, jurors and people with disabilities. I certainly support that, but organisational changes are being proposed that would see the court clustered with Croydon and Bromley. Apparently, a paper is to be circulated some time this month, and there is to be formal consultation in September or October. Will the Minister comment on that time scale and whether that process will be followed?

If Sutton is proposed for closure, will the following steps be taken? Will the reason for the proposed closure be published? Will there be a consultation paper and time allowed for responses to the paper, after which an area director will decide whether to confirm the court closure? Will that decision then go to a courts board and eventually arrive on the Minister’s desk for her to sign off? I hope that she can confirm that. Her officials behind her have just nodded their heads, so it seems as though that procedure would have to be followed.

Local JPs are worried that clustering will be the first step towards closure. They particularly think that if each court in the cluster is not appointed a bench legal manager—the person who arbitrates on legal procedure, acts as a channel of communication with the police and Crown Prosecution Service and provides a link between the court’s operational activities and the magistrates—that will lead to the demise of the court. They are also worried that the demise of Sutton magistrates court is being precipitated because there is a shortage of administration staff there, which means that although it has the legal capacity to do more work than it does, it does not have the administrative capacity to support that. The court might therefore appear not to be busy. I can confirm that administrative support is missing; having made repeated attempts to call the court to discuss this issue, I eventually had to find another way to contact the court because the phones were, regrettably, not answered.

There are many local concerns, but I shall conclude now to allow my colleague to contribute. We fought and won a battle on this issue three years ago. The arguments that we then deployed in favour of the magistrates court are just as relevant now. We want local justice to be delivered locally by local magistrates, and that is why the court in Sutton must stay open.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) for applying for and securing a debate on this subject today. I am also grateful to the Minister for giving me the opportunity to contribute briefly to it.

As my hon. Friend rightly says, when this debate came up and when we became aware that in the wind was the possibility that Sutton courthouse might again be under threat of closure, there was a sense of déjà vu. As he said, just three years ago such a threat was hanging over it. Then, it was the Greater London Magistrates’ Courts Authority that was making the running and setting out the arguments for closure. I say setting out the arguments, but in a way the closure proposals then lacked any robust evidence to argue the case and the process lacked transparency. Time and again, my hon. Friend and I would write to the GLMCA on behalf of the magistrates court chairman at the time, Tony Kerr, asking questions and seeking data. In response, we received either no answer or prevarication; we did not receive the information that was relevant to understanding the basis on which the GLMCA was proceeding.

Following much hard work by the justices of the peace, the Sutton bench, in particular Tony Kerr, and colleagues on the council of the London borough of Sutton, and some lobbying both at Prime Minister’s questions and in other ways by myself and my hon. Friend, we seemed to have been able to unpeel the lack of evidence and get the Department to understand that the basis for the closure proposal was not robust, and was indeed rather flimsy. Consequently, the appeal that was made was upheld, and we were grateful to the Minister at the time for reaching that conclusion.

It is hard to see what has changed in the past three years, except that there has been a diminution of the services available to my constituents over the past few years, as access, at least by telephone, seems to have worsened. When one examines the strategy that is being put forward by Her Majesty’s Courts Service, particularly the strategic goal that is set out in the business plan, one finds it hard to reconcile the proposition that might now come along of clustering, and of moving my local courthouse and requiring victims of crime, the local police service and others to make the journey all the way to Bromley to have their cases dealt with.

As my hon. Friend rightly identified, the difficulties of getting from the London borough of Sutton, particularly from Worcester Park, which is at the furthest extent of my constituency, all the way to Bromley beggar belief. Orbital movement in that part of London is difficult. Public transport is not effective in facilitating easy transit. How on earth could the closure be seen to be improving access to justice? I would need to see some close argumentation from Her Majesty’s Courts Service before I could be convinced on that matter. Many of my constituents would not be convinced that such a move made sense from their point of view.

My delight in my hon. Friend’s securing this debate is tempered by the fact that, three years on, we are back to square one; we are back to the point where this debate must happen and we must ask the Minister some questions. The key issue for me is that if we are now about to embark on a similar process of examining the need for this courthouse, we must be clear that this time there will be transparency, honesty and the availability of the data. If those things are not present, and if we cannot see the data—

On clarity, does my hon. Friend agree that it would be important to know what the estates strategy means when it talks about Sutton court being an “opportunity”?

Yes, there is a lovely euphemism in the business plan; it talks of “integration opportunities”. I call them mergers and closures. That is what we are talking about. It is an opportunity to close a courthouse, realise an asset and reinvest it elsewhere in the business activities of Her Majesty’s Courts Service. The downside is that our constituents and those who are victims of crime do not have as easy access to the courts service.

I end with the fact that I am particularly concerned about the amount of time that will potentially be wasted by police officers from my patch having to travel further to be present in court. That runs the risk of non-attendance and of people who should be patrolling our streets and looking after our communities not being able to do that job—even more so than at present. That must be a consideration. So, for the same reasons as were given by my hon. Friend, we need transparency in any process of decision making on this, and reassurance that we will get to see the full facts on which any decisions are based. Local people want, need and deserve to have local justice delivered by local magistrates close to home, not a long way away, in Bromley.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) on securing the debate; perhaps I should congratulate the double act that is now in place, because he and the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Burstow) are each sharing one another’s concerns, as they did a few years ago. I am pleased that I have the opportunity to respond on behalf of my Department, although I should apologise for the absence of my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs, who would normally respond on these issues. Unfortunately, she has had to be away on departmental business.

Obviously, the comments that the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington made show that he has been concerned about this issue for some time. I am very much aware of the strength of feeling in the local community; it was clearly and successfully demonstrated in 2003, when the decision to close Sutton magistrates court was taken by the then Greater London Magistrates’ Courts Authority.

I am grateful for the positive and gracious comments that both hon. Gentlemen made about my friend, Christopher Leslie, who was the Minister at the time and who, along with the Lord Chancellor, upheld the subsequent appeal, having taken into account the needs and views of local users. I hope that by saying this at the beginning of my response, it will give some reassurance to both hon. Gentlemen: our position remains that there are no plans to close Sutton magistrates courthouse.

The court is a five-courtroom courthouse in the centre of Wallington. The property is wholly owned by Her Majesty’s Courts Service, and is in a good state of repair, which is perhaps unusual when one considers the comparison with other courthouses in London—the one that serves my local community could do with some money invested in it, and I may come to that point later. Some 17 staff are employed, including legal and administrative staff, and there is strong support from about 90 magistrates. It serves the community of Sutton and the surrounding area, with a mixed case load of criminal and family work, and it does so to a high standard. It is important to put that on the record.

Her Majesty’s Courts Service works closely with key local stakeholders, criminal justice agencies, magistrates and the judiciary on the effective delivery of services to local communities. It must also balance the demands placed on it with the resources that it has at its disposal.

I am acutely aware of the need to provide services as close to the local community as possible, as the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam made clear in his closing remarks, but there is also a requirement on the Courts Service to review continuously the effectiveness and efficiency of its operation, to maximise the use of its buildings and to provide the best front-line service possible to local users of courts.

Within the London region, recent discussions with magistrates and criminal justice agencies have concluded that there would be a benefit to grouping neighbouring magistrates courts into clusters. That would improve the flexibility in the listing of cases, use courtrooms more efficiently and allow staff to be deployed more flexibly.

In practice, such a move could make it possible to run trial courts alongside each other, and allow the listing of work into those courts from any of the boroughs within the cluster. It could also concentrate the work of certain non-Crown Prosecution Service prosecution agencies in particular courtrooms, so releasing CPS prosecutors to appear at other remand and trial courts; accommodate the administration that undertakes important back-office functions at a single location to improve the quality, consistency and efficiency of the service provided; and allow the creation of a single legal team to support all the courts in the cluster, thereby providing better cover and increasing the range of work available to each legal adviser. That should have positive results for the local community. In particular, it should provide benefits to victims and witnesses because the cases in which they are involved will be listed and progressed more quickly. It should also provide benefits for the magistrates working in the cluster groups because they will be able to gain broader case experience.

As the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington said, it is proposed that Sutton magistrates court is clustered with Croydon and Bromley courthouses as one of the 10 clusters recommended for London. To be fair, the hon. Gentleman made the point about Bromley, but Croydon is also in that cluster. I heard what he said about travel problems between Sutton and Bromley, but Croydon is an important transport hub for both Bromley and Sutton and we should not lose sight of that.

While that is true, in fact transport connections from the London borough of Sutton are via West Croydon, but the main interchange is East Croydon, so transport access is not straightforward.

Yes. I know the area very well and I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point.

There is already a precedent for joint working between courts in south-east London. For example, Camberwell has a satellite court at London Bridge, and Greenwich and Woolwich magistrates courts work co-operatively together, which has proved to be very productive in terms of relationships. I have a personal interest in that because those courts serve my community.

Would it be possible, after the debate, to obtain access to information about any modelling that has been done of the cluster idea in terms of its effect on the use of the three courts’ capacity and what it might mean for our constituents in terms of their travelling and where they might end up travelling to? It would be useful to know whether any modelling has been done.

I will certainly try to ensure that if such information is available it is provided to the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington.

We referred earlier to the fact that Sutton is an opportunity court. The comments on other opportunity courts state that Ilford, for example, has the potential to relocate. Could the Minister try to ascertain from the relevant Department precisely the way in which Sutton constitutes an opportunity?

I shall come to the definition of opportunity, but it means that there are likely to be different opportunities for continued usage in future. However, that does not necessarily mean closure. It could mean a court being used for a batch of similar cases that could be dealt with more productively if, for example, they were all based in one place.

The bench chairs in London have discussed the issue and agreed that clusters are a sensible way forward. That has also been discussed with the criminal justice agencies in London which support the change. The Courts Service intends to publish a consultation document later this month setting out the proposals in detail. If the proposals are widely supported, we would expect to implement them in the spring next year. However, they are subject to that consultation, and attention will be paid to the responses. We believe that the improvements to working practices should deliver an improved, high-quality service to local residents in Sutton by introducing greater flexibility and the ability to target resources more effectively and efficiently.

The hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington referred to victims and witnesses and we really want to put them at the heart of our court system, so it is important that we give them the opportunity to see their cases through as efficiently, professionally and sensitively as possible.

The hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam asked about the definition of opportunity and I hope that I have made a reasonable attempt to respond. Another issue concerns what drives the courts strategy. We are looking in detail at improving the court estate. For example, Greenwich magistrates court needs substantial work. The facilities and conditions of the court estate are not good enough and there are still areas with too much mixing of victims, witnesses and defendants. I am sure that the hon. Gentlemen are aware of the issues.

During the formal consultation phase of the proposals, would it be possible for the Minister or her colleague the Minister of State to meet me and my hon. Friend and representatives of the London borough of Sutton to discuss our concerns in a little more detail? Obviously, at that point we will have had the benefit of looking at any modelling and other data on the proposals.

I do not want to commit my right hon. and learned Friend to meetings without having a word with her, but I will certainly put it to her. She is generally very open to meetings with colleagues and, if her diary permits, I am sure that she will allow that.

On strategy, there is not a bottomless pot of money. The Courts Service must demonstrate that it is efficient and effective in its use of public funds, including its estate.

The hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington asked whether the local authority could appeal under the system. Local authorities no longer make a financial contribution to the courts and I will have to write to the hon. Gentleman about whether the local authority can definitely not appeal against closure. At the moment, of course, there is no closure, but I will ensure that that point is clarified. If at a future date the agency concludes that any of its courthouses should close, that could only follow rigorous evaluation of the benefits of doing so, including full consultation with local communities and key stakeholders who may be affected. Obviously, Members of Parliament are key to that.

I thought that the Minister was about to conclude. Will she respond on the bench legal manager issue, if not now then at least in writing? That is clearly an issue that JPs are most concerned about. I thought from her response that she was saying that there would be only one legal representative per cluster, but perhaps I misunderstood her.

I shall have to write to the hon. Gentleman about the bench legal manager. There will be local centralisation of administrative functions, but I shall have to take advice on whether that means only one legal manager. I will return to the hon. Gentleman on that.

I hope that I have reassured both hon. Gentlemen about Sutton magistrates court and its role in our court service. I want to put on record our thanks to the magistrates in Sutton for the splendid work that they do and will continue to do. We want to ensure that we give them the opportunity to expand their experience within a strategy that ensures that our court service serves the people it is supposed to represent.

Sitting suspended until half-past Two o’clock.

School Meals

I am delighted to have secured the debate, and I am very pleased that the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills, my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Mr. Dhanda), is responding to it. Although this is clearly an educational matter, it has wider ramifications. It fits with the public health agenda that has been followed since 1997, and the Government’s target and commitment to eradicate child poverty by 2020.

There is broad consensus that childhood obesity is a serious and increasing problem. It is storing up major worries for the future. The most recent figures show that more than one quarter of our children in secondary schools are clinically obese, which is almost double the proportion of a decade ago. The National Obesity Forum said that it was a public health time bomb, as children who are obese in their early teens are twice as likely to die by the age of 50. Some experts report that, unless the issue is tackled quickly, today’s children could be the first generation to see their life expectancy fall below that of their parents. Given the strides in medical technology and general standards of living, childhood obesity and smoking are the two key public health issues facing us today.

I want to use the experience from my constituency to showcase a joined-up way of tackling childhood obesity and improving public health for this generation and those that follow. Hull is an area of great health inequality and one of the most deprived cities in England. Using any indices of deprivation, we find that Hull is in the unenviable position of being one of the areas with the highest childhood mortality rate. Unemployment is twice the national average, heart disease is rising and is in excess of the national average, teenage pregnancies have been among the highest in England and attainment in secondary schools, although improving, is one of the lowest in England. With one of the highest obesity levels in England and Wales, Hull not surprisingly has been dubbed the country’s “fat capital”.

When I became an MP, I was struck by the statistic that life expectancy for a baby boy born today in Kingston upon Hull is six years less than a baby boy born in Kingston upon Thames. In light of that, Kingston upon Hull city council decided that, on healthy eating, it needed to get ahead of the game. In February 2004, it introduced healthy menus to primary schools and special schools. However, it continued the policy of allowing free school meals only to those on means-tested benefits, and the take-up fell from 48 per cent. to 36 per cent. Although the council was right to introduce healthy food, fewer children accessed it, and that undermined the policy.

It is also worth reflecting on the fact that 70 per cent. of those eligible for free school meals in Hull claim them. National figures show that one in four of those entitled to free school meals do not claim them. I had a look at the eligibility criteria for free school meals, and it is bureaucratic. The entitlement states that, if a parent or carer is on income support, income-based jobseeker’s allowance or in receipt of child tax credit, providing they are not entitled to working tax credit and their income is less than £14,155 a year, their child is entitled to free school meals. It is bureaucratic, and there is still a stigma attached to children who access free school meals.

We also need to address the issue of families who are just above benefit levels. For them, school meals payment can be a burden. Unison conducted a survey recently and it found that the average cost to parents of primary school meals is about £7.40 a week per child. That is quite a lot of money to families on low income. More fundamentally, childhood obesity is not merely a welfare or poverty issue, but a wider public health concern. The problems of childhood obesity are not confined to the entitlement limits of means-tested benefit recipients.

Kingston upon Hull city council decided to adopt a radical approach. It considered the experiences of the Hull education action zone, which was introduced after 1997. Like many zones throughout the country, Hull allowed schools to take forward innovative projects, try them out and do things that had not been done before. In Hull in particular, schemes such as breakfast clubs worked very well. Teachers said that breakfast in school was a huge benefit to children’s behaviour, attendance and concentration.

The Labour-controlled council considered the experience of the Hull education action zone and it talked to the city’s two primary care trusts. As I have stressed, public health is at the centre of the debate. The PCTs already provide fresh fruit for four to six-year-olds in primary schools. The council and the PCTs considered what they could do together to challenge the received wisdom about school meals and think outside the box. They considered the Education Act 2002 and its provision of powers to innovate, whereby local authorities can put forward new ideas to the Secretary of State, who at that point was my right hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke), and say, “We would like to do something really radical. All our school meals should be free.” To his great credit, he agreed that Hull could go ahead and do that. The city council was the only local authority that chose to take that step.

The proposal was called the “Eat Well, Do Well” campaign, and it was led by councillor Mary Glew, who held the health and public protection portfolio on the city council. She was a great champion of youngsters in Hull having access to good, healthy food, so that they would do far better in school and their health would be far better as they grew up.

The campaign is a pilot project. It has been running since 2004 and it completes its three-year pilot in 2007. Liberal Democrat and Tory councillors opposed the approach, so the project had to be phased in over one year. The first schools started the scheme in late April 2004, and the final phase of primary schools began in early 2005. Professor Derek Colquhoun at the university of Hull and his colleagues are monitoring the scheme, and they will produce a final evaluation in 2007.

There has already been an incredibly positive interim report, and monthly monitoring shows that take-up has been very good. So far, it has risen from 36 per cent. to 64 per cent., and in many primary schools in my constituency, the figure has reached 80 to 90 per cent. Some 24,000 pupils in primary and secondary schools benefit from breakfast clubs, free healthy school lunches and free healthy refreshments for our after-school clubs. There is also free fresh fruit for all primary school children.

To implement the policy, we needed the support of all primary schools, school cooks and lunchtime supervisors. Local trade unions have been magnificent in supporting the scheme, and Unison and the GMB in particular fully appreciated and understood that the present investment in our youngsters is vital to the future health of Hull.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate, and on early-day motion 2486, which deserves the support of a wide cross-section of the House. She mentioned the trade unions. Is it not the case that, in addition to the benefits that she has itemised—more nutritional school meals, wider access and better behaviour—a fourth quality that is particularly important in Hull and elsewhere is that jobs are created in the locality or community? That is worthy of note and it is pleasing that the trade unions are supporting the campaign in the vigorous way that they are.

That is absolutely right. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that point, as jobs are important to Hull.

I want to say something about Jamie Oliver. He visited Hull before he decided to take his television programme to the London borough of Greenwich. I think that he said that Hull was ahead of the game, and that the story was not there any more but at other local authorities that had failed to grasp the nettle. He had a look at what we were doing and was impressed.

Sue Rae, Kingston upon Hull city council’s healthy eating co-ordinator, said that:

“The council expected a drop after the introduction of the healthy eating menu. It’s quite a culture change to get children accustomed to a menu that isn’t dominated by things like burgers, chips, pizza and chicken nuggets: it takes time to educate children’s palates to a broader range of tastes and textures, but if we can do that with children in primary school then we really are giving them a better chance of being healthier later in life”.

My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech, particularly about the ground-breaking work in Hull. She mentions the need for cultural change for children, but there is a need for cultural change for parents, too. Does she have a view on the impact of schemes such as Sure Start, which help to develop parents’ cooking skills? Will that not have an important impact on this serious issue, too?

My hon. Friend anticipates what I was going to say about the valuable role of Sure Start and children’s centres in promoting healthy eating and encouraging parents to try cooking if they have not been used to it before. They have provided some excellent courses and support for young parents, particularly in my constituency. I pay tribute to the Sure Start at the Lemon Tree and the Newland and Avenues Sure Start, which are doing some amazing work on that.

I also wanted to comment on some of my personal experiences of school meals in Hull. Early on, children said that they did not think that they liked the healthy food. Hull took a good approach, packaging the healthy food in a way that made it exciting and interesting to children. I remember a child saying to me that he did not like the sound of a vegetable and meat stew, as he thought it sounded pretty dire. However, when that was described as cowboy pie, he was much more enthusiastic.

I was very impressed, when I was standing at some school gates last year, to see children coming out of school munching on carrots and apples. When I was at school, we left eating not fruit and vegetables, but chocolate bars and bags of crisps. I pay tribute to the work of the Parks primary school, which has embraced the issue of healthy school meals. I was impressed with the work done by the staff to encourage children to try different types of food. The head teacher in particular, Cathy Byrne, is an inspiration to local families and children when it comes to trying new things and being excited by different types of food. I invited the Minister with responsibility for public health, the Minister of State, Department of Health, to visit the school to see what was going on. I know that she was particularly struck by the school and the positive messages that were being given about healthy eating.

In my debate on this subject earlier in this Parliament, I pointed out that, although some schools have a good track record in promoting healthy eating and high-nutrition meals, others allow the presence of machines containing snacks with high-salt and high-sugar content. Would it not be futile if a child had a healthy midday meal, only to supplement it with such unhealthy food? Does my hon. Friend hope that the Minister will have something to say about that?

I look forward to what the Minister has to say about the provisions in the Education and Inspections Bill about the type of food that is available in schools.

Kingston upon Hull city council was awarded the Caroline Walker Trust award for improving the nutritional standards of food in the public sector. Earlier this year, we had an international conference in Hull to consider healthy school meals. Councillor Glew, who took forward the project, wanted to ensure that older people, too, could be included in the healthy eating pilot. Some of the meals on wheels provision in Hull is now linked to the primary schools, so that older people also benefit.

We cannot just say that food is the key. Exercise is also important. I am delighted that Hull has led the way in providing free swimming to our children. Not only is there a safety issue, but if we get children to exercise when they are young that will carry on into later life.

That all sounds good and positive, and I am proud of it. Unfortunately, the progress in Hull is threatened because our new Liberal Democrat administration has made it clear that it intends to have a managed withdrawal of universal free primary school meals from April 2007. Not only is that the wrong thing to do, but it is short-sighted, as the council is taking no notice of the final report and evaluation of the pilot scheme in Hull, which the university will produce next year.

Why are the Lib Dems doing that? Before the May local election, the leader of the Lib Dems told our local newspaper, the Hull Daily Mail, that they wanted to bring back charging to provide more revenue further to increase spending on ingredients. After the election, they claimed that the policy was unaffordable because of Hull’s budget position.

The flip-flopping Lib Dem administration has changed its tune about the policy in general. The leader of the Lib Dems has spent several months rubbishing the take-up figures for the free healthy schools meals and painting universal free school meals as a failure. He went on to our local BBC “Look North” programme to ask why, if the policy was such a good idea, no other council was doing it, clearly failing to accept that it was an innovative pilot scheme and involved a local authority deciding what solution was required for its area, and that Hull was, for once, taking the lead on an issue of national importance.

The Lib Dems have also said in the Yorkshire Post that the £3 million cost of the project has presented problems for social services and crime-related services in Hull. That concerns me greatly, because anyone with a passing understanding of budgets would know that the police budget is separate from the local authority budget. More recently, when protests about the council’s policy started to grow and people heard that the scheme would be withdrawn, Councillor Minns, the leader of the Lib Dems, told the Hull Daily Mail that he would carry on with universal free primary schools meals, provided that Hull received more money from Whitehall to fund it. That prompts the question of why the Lib Dems want public money for a policy that they think is such a failure.

Others object to free universal school meals because, in the words of Hull’s Tory group,

“it perpetuates a culture of state reliance”.

Many hon. Members have been victims of such right-wing political correctness, finding that, whenever they promote measures to discourage people from harming themselves or to allow them to make positive, healthy choices in their lives—for instance, with smoking bans or measures to prevent scalding in the bathroom—they are accused of a nanny-state mentality, big Government or state dependency. It seems to me that it is more about enabling people to make healthy, better decisions in their lives. I see the policy as an invest-to-save policy. The policy of free school meals has long-term scope, as we invest now to avoid larger bills for taxpayers in future years. Childhood obesity and the related educational underperformance can lead to spiralling costs in the NHS, more welfare dependency, and a reliance on a range of local government services that are related to ill health and incapacity.

One of the less publicised aspects of the Education and Inspections Bill is that it will make permanent the local discretion necessary to allow councils to follow Hull’s example of abolishing charges in the drive to promote healthy diets in schools. We know that the Bill contains provisions to improve nutritional standards— they have already been referred to—and we know that the Liberal Democrats voted against that part of the Bill.

There must be grave doubts in Hull about the Liberal Democrats’ decision to scrap that groundbreaking policy next year. There has been massive investment in educational funding from the Government, in Hull as in the rest of the country. It is possible for Hull to continue the “Eat Well, Do Well” policy beyond the initial pilot scheme, which ends next year, within the available budget. Hull Liberal Democrats set out their stall, alongside Hull’s two Conservative councillors, as being hostile to universal free school meals and in favour of means-testing—to the point of announcing, as I said earlier, that they will scrap the scheme from next year without considering the evaluation.

I shall now concentrate on the fact that Hull’s experience is valuable nationally. Although I understand and respect the sound reasons why the Child Poverty Action Group is campaigning for universal free school meals across the country, as a localist, I do not advocate imposing a detailed school dinner policy from Whitehall on Hull or any other local authority. However, I believe that providing universal free school meals is an effective option in improving children’s health in areas of greatest deprivation. Local situations deserve local solutions.

I was pleased that, within the health arena, spearhead primary care trusts allow the most deprived areas to innovate, and to find different ways of doing things in order to reach groups that were previously difficult to reach. For instance, we have health trainers in Hull who get alongside the community and work with people who have chronic conditions.

The success of Hull’s scheme should give every local authority, especially those in areas of greatest health inequality, the incentive to use the new powers of the Education and Inspections Bill, and to follow Hull’s previous Labour administration. I assume that a great many local authorities share the aspiration to improve the diets of school children. It is for democratically accountable local councils to set local priorities on how to achieve that. That applies especially to those that are taking what I believe to be a regressive step in Hull.

Which of the Liberal Democrats’ policies will allow them to address some of the fundamental public health issues that we face today, and to ensure that our children are healthier and eating better? I do not know what their policies are: nationally, they talk about being against means-testing; locally, they use it when it suits them.

What next? In Hull, we will be fighting a vigorous campaign with local schools, parents, teachers, groups such as CPAG and trade unions to try to get the Liberal Democrat administration to change its mind before taking that step. Rob Batty, the Unison branch secretary for Hull, said that it is regrettable that school meals have become a political football. He will be working hard with other unions to mount a joint campaign with parents. Les Dobbs, the regional officer of GMB, said that the union is committed to action with parents. We want to promote best practice in fighting childhood obesity, and all that that is storing up for the future. In Hull and similar places, it may mean not only keeping universal free school meals in primary and special schools, but extending it to secondary schools.

I want to make it clear that I do not seek additional funds from Westminster for Hull’s scheme to continue. As I have already said, Hull, like everywhere else in the United Kingdom, has received a massive investment in education and health since 1997, and it has the power to pursue local initiatives. I am much more interested in local councils and PCTs pooling budgets creatively, and considering local area agreements and other methods of dealing locally with the public health agenda. Hull already has a joint director of public health, and the PCTs and the local authority show that we can have an effective partnership at that level.

I invite hon. Members to support my early-day motion 2486 on childhood obesity and healthy school meals. Liberal Democrat Members have a choice: they can distance themselves from their administration in Hull, or they can support the council’s regressive, wasteful and confused policy, which is to the detriment of a whole generation of children in Hull.

Order. As the Room does not have an adequate air conditioning system, Members may remove their jackets. It may help Members to know that I intend to start the winding-up speeches no later than 3.30 pm.

I start by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Ms Johnson) on making a powerful and compelling case. I do not think that either side of the House would argue about the importance of public health. It is crucial to the future of our children—and, indeed, to the future of our country, particularly the most deprived areas.

I want to talk a little about my constituency in Swindon. Although everyone agrees on the general principles, when it comes to local decision making, local authorities all too often seem not to understand the importance of public health.

Before I go on to deal with junk food and healthy diets in Swindon, I shall pick up on a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, North about free school meals. She made a good case for Hull’s visionary experiment, which pioneered innovation for universal free school meals—an attractive option. We have not been quite so visionary in Swindon, but my hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon (Anne Snelgrove) and I have been trying to work with Swindon borough council for nearly 18 months to get it to drive up the take-up of those entitled to free school meals. We all know that too few of those entitled to free school meals are taking them. A lot of information is held about entitlement, but data protection issues make it complicated to translate that information in a way that would allow us to encourage those entitled to free school meals to take them.

They are complex issues, and my hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon and I have been engaged in dialogue with the council and Departments. Data protection is important in protecting the liberties of every citizen, but that is no reason not to do things that are in the public interest. Data protection is often used as an excuse by lethargic bureaucrats not to do things that are perfectly possible under data protection legislation, and I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to look again at the matter and to get his officials to work with other Departments and local authorities to overcome those data protection impediments. Resolving that problem would drive up the take-up of free school meals by those entitled to them.

I want to talk about two issues in relation to healthy diets in Swindon. When the Conservative administration took over in Swindon, it rapidly came to the decision that it could no longer afford to subsidise hot school meals, and it asked schools to make alternative arrangements. Unfortunately, a number of primary schools were unable to make such arrangements, and as a result some primary school children no longer have the option of a hot school meal.

I was concerned about that, and I conducted a survey of primary school heads in my constituency. It is not a scientific result, but it is a reliable indication of the scale of the problem. The head teachers’ estimation was that in some schools, particularly those serving some of the more deprived areas, up to 25 per cent. of children received their only hot meal of the week at school. As a result of the council’s decision, even that is no longer possible. Swindon is a relatively prosperous constituency with areas of deprivation, but some primary school children receive no hot school meals.

There is some dispute about how essential a hot school meal is for nutrition; some people make the case that it is perfectly possible for someone who eats only cold school meals to have a healthy diet. I tend not to believe that, but for important social considerations it is important for children to sit together and have a hot school meal, or at least have the option of doing so. Having one is not possible in Swindon primary schools.

Fortunately, thanks to the Government’s new investment in school diet, Swindon borough council is to receive a significant sum of new money. It has told me that, as a result, it will consider reintroducing hot school meals by 2008. However, I am concerned by recent local newspaper reports suggesting that the council’s suddenly estimated costs for providing those hot school meals are way beyond what they used to be and way beyond the new investment that the Government are providing, and that the council is looking for a way not to provide the option of a universal hot school meal for primary school children in Swindon.

I am deeply concerned about that and would be grateful if the Minister gave some indication of his Department’s policy on hot school meals for primary school children; I know that it has been considering the issue. I would also be grateful if he did what he could to encourage local authorities, such as the one that I mentioned, to look much more constructively at the issue. We cannot take risks with the health of our young people, but I fear that that is at stake.

I turn to the issue of junk food in leisure centres. To its credit, Swindon borough council set up a working party to consider that issue, and it came forward with a number of recommendations. One seems important: to ban the sale of junk food in the council’s leisure centres. It seems pretty obvious to me that junk food on sale in a borough council leisure centre sends the message that such food is acceptable for the young people who enjoy the facilities. That message is unacceptable.

In looking at the issue and rejecting the recommendation of its own working party, the borough council said that the issue was one of freedom of choice and that it should not dictate what young people should eat. With all respect to the council, that slightly misses the point. Of course everyone believes in freedom of choice, but since the 19th century, elected representatives have placed constraints, on grounds of health and safety, on the freedom to sell absolutely any food to absolutely anyone. That is the issue here.

We should not send messages to young people or their parents that junk food is a viable healthy diet. It simply is not, although that does not mean that people should not enjoy it as part of a balanced diet. No elected body or borough council should send out that message, particularly to young people. Having junk food on sale in a leisure centre sends out precisely the wrong message.

I would be grateful if the Minister had a look at the issue. The Government have legislated to try to protect people from the consequences of all sorts of unhealthy options in their lives. Does he think that the practice of putting junk food on sale in borough council leisure centres should be encouraged?

Once again, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, North on raising this very important subject. I have been glad to make my contribution just on what is happening in Swindon. The issue is crucial for our young people; anything that the Government and the Minister can say to encourage all local authorities to take a more visionary attitude, such as that adopted by the Labour administration in Hull, would be very welcome—on both sides of the House, I hope.

I join my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Mr. Wills) in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Ms Johnson) on securing this debate. I have also signed early-day motion 2486 and encourage all hon. Members on both sides of the House to do the same.

I am pleased to contribute to this vital and topical debate. The policies that we adopt to fight childhood obesity will be vital to ensuring that we limit the damage to our nation’s future health. I was pleased to hear that the pioneering free school meals pilot in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, North will continue. It shows the folly of the Liberal Democrats’ attempt to scrap the scheme; they have now been forced into a U-turn.

There is an unbreakable bond between the two issues being discussed today. Although a focus on school meals can only ever be part of the solution to the growing problem of obesity in our society, I hope that by setting a strong, healthy example to our children, we can aim to tackle the problem at source.

Everybody seems to have an opinion, whether good or bad, on their school meals. For some, they are responsible for a lifelong love affair with great British food. In fact, one has only to mention jam roly-poly to see pudding lovers—myself included—turn gooey-eyed with reminiscence. For others, custard may always remain a byword for the inedible.

More recently, school meals have fallen under a less nostalgic spotlight. Thanks in no small part to the efforts of Jamie Oliver, we are having to face up to the consequences of opening up our school kitchens to competitive tendering. The “profit at all costs” mentality so prevalent throughout the era of Conservative Government has led to our nation’s school dinner tables becoming awash with high levels of salt, E numbers and mechanically recovered meat. We are only just beginning to see the true cost of that neglect. The 2003 report by the Select Committee on Health stated:

“On some predictions, today’s generation of children will be the first for over a century for whom life-expectancy falls.”

That is simply not acceptable.

The cost to the economy of the rapidly rising levels of obesity is conservatively estimated at about £3.5 billion a year. On top of that, obesity is rapidly closing in on smoking as the biggest killer in Britain. Good education is fundamental to combating the rising threat of obesity to our nation’s health. For those reasons, I strongly urge the Government to work towards the universal provision of free school meals, particularly for primary school children. For the 190 primary school days in the year, we should get back to the basics of the great Labour reformers of the post-war era and provide all children with food suitable in all respects as the main meal of the day.

I welcome the proposals in the Education and Inspections Bill, which will remove the statutory obligation on schools to charge pupils who are not exempted for school meals. The long-term goal of introducing free school meals would show true Labour values by fighting discrimination, battling the causes of poverty and ensuring that every child has an equal opportunity to lead a healthy lifestyle.

It is unfortunate that, despite attempts by local education authorities, there is still a stigma attached to free school meals. I should know, as someone who qualified for free school meals from my first day at school to my last. As many as one in four children entitled to free school meals do not claim them. That is an unnecessary waste; introducing free school meals for all would help to end such discrimination.

As my hon. Friend said, a recent Unison study found that the average cost of primary school meals was £7.40 per child per week; for parents with more than one child, the cost of school meals can soon add up, and that makes such parents more likely to take the cheaper option of producing a packed lunch for their children. Although packed lunches are not always necessarily unhealthy, the fact remains that it is cheaper to fill up on biscuits than bananas. My son informs me that children often swap items such as crisps and chocolate from their packed lunches. They become a valuable currency among those with the healthier packed lunches.

The pilot scheme in Hull has seen the uptake of school meals almost double—from 36 per cent. to 64 per cent. There is clear evidence that introducing free school meals reduces the number of children liable to be eating cheap and unhealthy packed lunches. In many urban areas, such as those in my constituency, it is not always possible for families to access, let alone afford, fresh food for their children. That leads to a diet high in calories but low in nutritional value.

It should come as no surprise that income levels remain a stronger determinant of educational attainment than any other factor. It is our responsibility to ensure that every child receives at least one good meal a day. That would help strengthen the Government’s strong commitment to combating the detrimental effects of child poverty. The benefits of achieving that are clear to see. A Hull university study has proven that better nutritional intake improves concentration and readiness to learn. We must help our teachers in their daily battle for the attention of school pupils and ensure that we maximise the benefits of every moment that a child spends in school. That will be easier with no spikes after a lunch of sugar and E numbers. It is our duty to provide every child with the best possible chance in life. Although I welcome the improvements that the Government have made, we must never stop pushing for a better chance for our children. Pursuing the long-term goal of free school meals would be a clear-cut case of social justice in action.

In Britain, we are lucky enough to have a tremendous amount of regional diversity in our food, and that should be reflected in the nation’s school dinner menus. By aiming to meet the Soil Association’s target that 50 per cent. of the food used in school meals should be sourced locally and that 75 per cent. of the meal ingredients should be non-processed, we can use school meal funding to sustain and boost local economies. Whether it is fresh fish, root vegetables or ripe fruit, every area has local produce that can be incorporated into school menus.

Although I will stop short of recommending Newcastle brown ale to the local education authority for the steak and ale pie in my area, research has shown that for every £10 that is spent on locally sourced goods, an extra £25 is generated for the local economy. That is a healthy return, and I applaud the schools in my constituency that have taken part in the intergenerational allotment scheme, which is run in conjunction with the charity Age Concern. Such initiatives, with a local focus, will help us to deliver nutritional value and value for money.

We should take heart from the success of other countries. In Sweden, more than 85 per cent. of pupils take free school meals. On a recent visit, I saw first hand how integral lunch time is to the school curriculum, with classes and teachers eating together as a unit, just as families should, and, indeed, most do. The food was tasty, healthy and appetising. All the children tucked in heartily, helped themselves to seconds and tidied up after themselves before retuning to wipe down the tables. When I asked whether that was normal behaviour, the Swedish teachers were astonished that we did not do the same here. They asked whether we did not realise how important it is that children eat a good, nutritious meal at lunch time if they are to concentrate and learn. As hon. Members can imagine, I had to give an awkward answer, which has only made me more determined to highlight the importance of providing free, healthy school meals to every child.

Sweden is not the only success story. Finland has succeeded in reducing its rate of heart disease by more than 60 per cent. since it introduced free school meals. More recently, the Hondurans, recovering from the devastating effects of hurricane Mitch, have decided that providing free food at school will help to strengthen the link between the education system and wider society.

In making the case for free school meals, I acknowledge that steps are already being taken in the right direction. Contracted caterers have begun to respond to the demand for healthier options, junk food has been removed from our schools and the amount that is spent on school meals continues to rise.

Almost all adults are familiar with the idea that an apple a day keeps the doctor away, and many of us will have gone to work on an egg. I am sure that all of us have momentarily wished that we ate more carrots when we have been plunged into darkness during a power cut. Sadly, however, the health and lifestyle benefits of food are not always well known to children today.

Given the long decline in school catering and the rising price of quality food, the country is left facing a long-term health crisis. To alleviate it, we should continue to strive to ensure that Britain’s children receive a top-quality education from the start of the day until the end of the day and, most important, during lunch times. We need to make lunch time a platform for teaching children the healthy eating habits that will stay with them for ever. Aiming to deliver free school meals to every child is the best way of doing that.

This is an important issue, which hon. Members on both sides of the House agree needs to be tackled. As the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Ms Johnson) said, a quarter of children are obese or overweight, and that is what we should be focusing on in this debate. We should also be concentrating on finding solutions—particularly national solutions—rather than on policy disagreements at Kingston upon Hull city council.

I think we all agree that the issue of providing food in schools is critical to this debate; indeed, it is possibly the most important issue. Of course, other factors play a part. For example, young people take insufficient exercise, and hon. Members on both sides need to take that issue seriously. Nevertheless, we are all aware that high-calorie foods are cheap, available in abundance and heavily promoted directly at children and young people. I shall challenge the Minister on that later.

Will the hon. Gentleman say whether the fact that he has skipped over the issue of Kingston upon Hull city council means that he disagrees with the Hull Liberal Democrats?

The hon. Gentleman shows a remarkable impatience. I have only just started my speech, and if he sits tight and listens, he will hear what I have to say about that issue and the wider debate.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way, because I want to raise a general point about the relationship between the national and the local. He made a remark about that at the beginning, but I think that he is going to move on. When he says that it is important to deal with the issue nationally, is he proposing that a national solution should be imposed on every local authority, or does he think that local authorities should have some freedom to make their own decisions?

One of the problems in this area of policy is that the Government have been quick to come up with directives, but they have not come up with any money to back them up, so the point is interesting.

As I was saying, the issue of the food that is made available to children is at the heart of the debate. Liberal Democrat Members are committed to all children having access to a healthy and affordable school meal option. Otherwise, as I am sure we can all agree, the problem will continue.

What I think we will find it much harder to agree on is the fact that the Labour party consistently and rather tediously demonstrates a bizarre Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde relationship, or a love-hate relationship, with the idea of local power. Here we are debating the situation at Kingston upon Hull city council, but the simple fact is that every local authority, of whatever colour, must makes decisions according to the local priorities in their manifestos and according to budgetary restrictions. The sad fact is that, every time a non-Labour council makes a decision that local Labour Members do not like, those Labour Members cry blue murder, even if that council happens to be in Scotland, where there is a Labour and Liberal Democrat coalition Administration.

Just so that I am clear in my mind, will the hon. Gentleman explain the national Liberal Democrat policy on school meals? Is he saying that the Liberal Democrats do not support free, healthy school meals in local authorities? Is it his view that there should be affordable school meals?

I am minded not to take any more interventions from the Labour Benches, although I will quite happily take one from the Opposition Benches, if the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr. Gibb) wants to make one. It is rather tedious to have interventions before I have set out the substance of my speech. I will indeed give some suggestions about national policy if I am allowed to do so in the limited time that we have.

Labour Members have a strange relationship to the decentralisation of power. They think that it sounds good on paper, but when non-Labour authorities happen to be in control, they do not like it. That is regrettable, and the fact that they have resorted to sending one of their local MPs to raise the issue at Westminster, when it is clearly a matter for the local authority, shows some of the motivation behind the debate.

Let us talk about some principles. We have heard the misleading suggestion that Liberal Democrats do not agree with means-testing. That comes from the fact that we support the idea of a universal citizen’s pension, and we are proud to do so. Like everyone else, we support the idea that everyone should have access to school education, and we do not think that they should pay for that. We also, of course, support such things as free personal care for the elderly and free access to higher education to first degree level. However, we must be clear what the principles are. The principle of free education for all is based on that being a good thing, and a right. It is not based on our thinking that it is a progressive policy.

In response to the questions put by the hon. Members for Kingston upon Hull, North and for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Mrs. Hodgson), there is a sensible debate to be had about whether we should provide free school meals for all primary school children. I would happily take part in that debate, and would be happy for my party to take part in it. It is not Government policy, and if the Labour party wants to put it in its manifesto at the next general election, I look forward to seeing it. We know that the things that go into Labour party manifestos are generally not worth the paper they are written on, but that is another story.

One myth in the context of the debate is the suggestion that the pilot scheme in Hull has been scrapped. It has not been scrapped; it is running its course. It is a three-year pilot scheme and it will continue. A pilot scheme runs for a certain period. As to the idea that the findings will not be looked into, they will be looked into once the pilot scheme has ended. The council has made it clear that it will consider the university of Hull’s independent evaluation. When we have the result, depending on what it is—we obviously have some interim figures—it may be the right time for the council to lobby central Government to ask for funds to continue the scheme. That is where the debate arises. It is ridiculous to suggest that something costing £3.8 million a year must not be assessed alongside other council priorities. If any of the national parties want to adopt a policy of free primary school meals for all, they can do so. We can have that debate and they can say how the measure will be costed, but the responsibility cannot be forced on to local authorities without the money being provided.

Two things are particularly important in considering where to divert resources. I accept that some hon. Members take the position that there should be free primary school meals for all. I suggest—and I challenge the Minister to give us his thoughts—that we have seen what is most fundamental in school meal provision, and that is the quality of the meals and making the meals nutritionally valuable. We all know that that has not been the case, and we have heard examples of that. The Government have responded very slowly, but at least there are measures in place now and we look forward to the problem being addressed. However, if there is a need to put resources into something, they should clearly go there, to the benefit of all.

The second important matter concerns raising the threshold of free school meals. I thought that it was valuable to hear from the hon. Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West about her experience and the stigmatisation that went on. Consideration could be given to the threshold and to ways of including more pupils in the scheme, perhaps in such a way as to avoid stigmatisation. It could sensibly be argued that the money available would be better spent in those two areas than on universal provision, because there is a danger that that would mean universal provision of inadequately nutritionally balanced school meals. I am sure that that is not what the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North is suggesting, but those are real issues and everything comes down to limited budgets and priorities.

If I tackle head on the question whether there should be free school meals for all, from my own position as a parent—admittedly of a one-year-old, who will not be starting school for a few years—I must ask whether I should expect or demand that my child’s school meals be paid for while I am on a salary of £59,500 a year. Actually, I do not.

Free personal care is based on the fact that people who have contributed throughout their life to society should be looked after by society. That is an easy one to deal with. I do not believe that I need the state and the taxpayer with their limited resources to pay for my children’s school meals. I look forward to participating in that debate.

I think that a veil should now be drawn over the situation in Hull, and it should be left to the people of Hull to decide about it in a democratically accountable way. Kingston upon Hull city council has made it clear that it is and will remain committed to healthy meals for all children, and will consider the conclusions of the pilot programme next year. It has, indeed, decided that the resources would be better spent on the overall quality of food, rather than on subsidising everyone, including the rich, to receive those things. That is the policy that it is putting forward. However, for those hon. Members who want the scheme to continue, the Minister is sitting in the Chamber. The leader of the city council, Councillor Carl Minns, has written to the Secretary of State for Education and Skills dealing with the point that, if universal free school meals are such a good idea, there should be Government funding for them. Let us see what the Minister will say about that.

I want briefly to deal with the points that the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North made in relation to overall policy. The impetus provided by the school meals debate in the past couple of years is welcome, although her holier-than-thou attitude is a little tedious considering that it took a chirpy TV chef and a prime-time television programme to get the Government to do anything to face up to childhood obesity and the appalling food being served in too many of our schools. The Minister will be well aware that some schools have found the money that they needed to fulfil the Government’s requirements—the 50p per head at junior schools and 60p per head at secondary schools. When will we receive a clear indication of where the funding is expected to come from? Will it be simply an extra burden on councils, without any help, or is it suggested that schools will effectively have to raise funds to reach those standards voluntarily? Will the Government commit to maintaining the expenditure increases that will, of course, be involved beyond 2008?

Vending machines in health centres have been talked about, but of course we have a problem with vending machines in schools. The Government are not at this stage tackling the issue well enough. I have some experience of the involvement of companies as I used to work for a marketing agency that had Britvic Soft Drinks as a client. What Britvic Soft Drinks was interested in was getting as many of its soft drinks as it could—as many brands and as much volume—down the throats of children, including primary school children, as regularly as possible.

We must accept that the pressures of the market and of profit affect what happens; increased regulation is needed. We all know that there is financial pressure on education and there always will be. However, some schools make £2,500 a year from vending machines. Clearly those responsible for them feel that, because of the pressures on them, that is something that they must, with regret, do. However, figures from the School Food Trust show that the food and drink companies make profits of £45 million a year from vending machines in schools. That is an issue that the Government have not tackled head on. We believe that food from school vending machines should meet minimum health and nutrition standards, just as any other foods provided in schools should.

Another interesting question that has come out of the Education and Inspections Bill is what would happen if an academy were sponsored by Britvic Soft Drinks or Coca-Cola. Would there be pressure to have those products in the school? That is an interesting issue that I want to put to the Minister.

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

On resuming—

The final issue that I want to raise with the Minister is the advertising of unhealthy food during children’s TV programmes. The Government have not yet decided to ban the advertising of junk food during such programmes, despite evidence that it contributes to the obesity epidemic that costs the NHS billions of pounds a year.

The Food Standards Agency and Ofcom appear to be working at cross-purposes when it comes to such advertising. Ofcom, which has been lobbied by far more food industry representatives than consumer and health groups, supports junk food advertising during children’s TV programmes because, apparently, it pays for new programming, yet the FSA disagrees because of the issues surrounding children’s health. I believe that most of us would agree that that confusing position must be rectified. I look forward to the Minister’s comments on those issues.

This debate has been about a local situation but also a serious national concern. We need a national framework that includes things such as minimum nutritional standards, which were touched on by the hon. Member for North Swindon (Mr. Wills). I challenge the Minister to give us his thoughts on that. It would be helpful, without in any way forcing local authorities to do things that they would not otherwise do. That suggestion would also apply in other sectors such as care homes, on which I have campaigned.

Given the positive developments, the Government must put their money where their mouth is—technically, I suppose that they must put their money where our children’s mouths are.

On the situation in Hull, I believe that the Unison representative is right. It is regrettable that that situation is being used as a political football. Instead, we should agree locally and nationally on the importance of better, healthier food for all our children, and we should maintain and perhaps increase the commitment to ensure that less well off children in our society continue to get free school meals. Let us end on a note of agreement and concentrate on that locally and nationally. If followed through with proper funding, that is what will make the biggest difference to children’s health and well-being.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Ms Johnson) on securing this important debate. Improving the nutritional content of school meals is vital, as childhood obesity is a serious problem. The official Opposition welcome action to improve school meals, and we supported measures in the Education and Inspections Bill that were aimed at achieving that.

I listened carefully to the hon. Lady’s interesting and positive speech about the innovative approach taken to school meals by Kingston upon Hull city council. I was impressed that it has used powers in the Education Act 2002 to innovate, as few authorities or schools have used them. I was also impressed by what she said about the “Eat Well, Do Well” campaign, and I will be interested in the outcome of the evaluation and the conclusions that are drawn from the pilot scheme in Hull.

The Government have promised improvements in school meals for some time. In 1997, the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett), who was then Secretary of State for Education and Employment, stated that he was determined to ensure that all children who have school lunches were served good, healthy and enjoyable meals. In 2001, the Government introduced standards for school meals that were based on providing pupils with food from certain food groups on a specified number of days. Despite that, concerns continued when it emerged that average spending on primary school meals dropped to just to 35p per head a day. The Soil Association noted the contrast with the £1.74 per head spent by the Prison Service on food for inmates.

As other hon. Members have said, the controversy culminated with Jamie Oliver’s television series last year. Following it, in March, the Government set out £220 million of new funding grants for 2005-06 to 2007-08 to ensure that local authorities spent 50p per head per day on meals at primary schools, and 60p per head per day at secondary schools.

The Government also created the School Food Trust and introduced tough minimum nutrient standards, which are to be made compulsory from September 2006. The new standards are to apply to all food served in schools, including, I believe, from vending machines. I hope that the Minister will correct me if that is wrong. We welcome those measures, because we believe that they will play a useful role in improving the health of our children. Ensuring that the food that is served in schools is nutritious is essential. High intake of saturated fat is associated with raised cholesterol and coronary heart disease, and high salt intake can lead to hypertension, which leads to heart disease and stroke. In its report entitled, “Salt and health”, the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition stated that it would be inadvisable for children to become used to the levels of salt intake currently habitual for adults.

As we know, increased consumption of products containing added sugar can lead to tooth decay and predispose children to obesity. In 2002, the national diet and nutrition survey found that consumption of added sugar by four to 18-year-olds was higher than the recommended level. The main source of that sugar was carbonated drinks and confectionary—the hon. Member for Leeds, North-West (Greg Mulholland) raised those very points in discussing the vending machines in too many of our schools.

The benefits of healthy eating extend beyond the medical. The British Medical Association has suggested that anaemia can account for as much as one grade difference at GCSE, and there are social benefits to be derived from the shared enjoyment of a meal, too. In 2004, France Bellisle, of the Hotel Dieu in Paris, published a paper entitled, “Effects of diet on behaviour and cognition in children” in the British Journal of Nutrition. He found:

“Diet can affect cognitive ability and behaviour in children and adolescents.”

He cited cases where thiamine deficiency was shown to lead to behaviour problems, and noted that that occurred in cases where adolescents’ diets consisted largely of high-calorie junk food. Treatment with thiamine alone resulted in behavioural improvement in patients who had failed to respond to drugs or psychotherapy. Similarly, non-verbal IQ scores rise in children with nutrient deficiency when vitamin supplements are introduced.

In addition to the problems of poor nutrition, many argue that this country faces an obesity epidemic—the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North argued that, and I agree.

The hon. Gentleman is making a very interesting contribution but, before he moves on, does he agree that, given the evidence that he has cited, the collective provision of a hot school meal is important, particularly for primary school children?

I absolutely agree and will come to that issue in a moment. I have been to Finland and have eaten a hot meal in a Finnish school—it was pasta with a salad, and it was simple, delicious and very healthy. I am not here to make Conservative party policy, just as the Minister will not commit his party to vast amounts of public spending, but I shall be interested to read the evaluation of what has happened in Hull. The importance of a hot, healthy meal in the middle of a school day cannot be overstated.

The 2004 joint report by the Royal College of Physicians, the Faculty of Public Health Medicine and the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health found that obesity in two to four-year-old children almost doubled between 1989 and 1998, and that it trebled among six to 15-year-olds between 1990 and 2001. If current trends continue, the report estimated that one fifth of boys and one third of girls will be obese by 2020. As the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North said, the National Obesity Forum has found that children who are obese by their teens are twice as likely to die by the age of 50. The National Audit Office estimated that more than 30,000 deaths were attributable to obesity in 1998.

Providing children with a balanced, healthy diet will not completely solve the problems that we face, however. As the hon. Member for Leeds, North-West said, childhood obesity is due as much to children exercising less than in the past as to problems with nutrition. Such provision is, however, an essential first step, although getting food right in schools raises further questions.

We need to address the issue of children leaving school premises during the lunch break to buy fatty fast foods. We also need to address the issue of packed lunches, which other hon. Members raised. One of the unintended consequences of the recent controversy surrounding school dinners has been a marked decline in the number of children taking school meals. According to the Local Authority Caterers Association, the number of pupils opting for school dinners has fallen by 12.5 per cent., which is nearly 400,000 pupils. Kevin McKay of the Local Authority Caterers Association said in May that

“a 4 per cent. increase by 2008 will only return the service to pre-downturn levels”.

I am sure that that is just a transitional issue, but it is concerning.

Concerns have been expressed about the funding of the new nutritional standards, which the hon. Member for Leeds, North-West mentioned. The Local Authority Caterers Association has also raised that point, and there are concerns that the wages of catering staff will need to rise if they are to prepare food in line with the new standards. That would mean that more money was needed than the £22 million that has already been announced. Meanwhile, the school meal review panel believes that to meet its standards the cost of ingredients would have to rise to between 70p and 80p per head. That increases the probability of caterers having to introduce higher charges to cover the shortfall, which will affect the take-up of meals.

Then there is the issue of kitchen facilities. According to evidence, one third of new schools are not built with proper kitchen facilities, and many schools that once had kitchens have now converted them into classroom space—there are primary schools in my constituency where that has happened in the past few years. The refurbishment of kitchens is essential to achieve the school meal review panel’s goal that meals be cooked on site. At present, too few schools have such facilities, not to the mention the dining room issue, which other hon. Members mentioned.

PricewaterhouseCoopers estimates the cost of refurbishment to be about £206 million for primary schools, because so many have had their kitchens removed, and £83 million for secondary schools. The Government are achieving that by making the refurbishment or construction of new kitchens a priority, through the “Building schools for the future” programme. However, there is no “Building schools for the future” for primary schools, so it is unclear which mechanism will be used to ensure that funding is channelled to where it is needed. Perhaps the Minister in his response could indicate how many kitchens still need to be built, and within what time scale he expects that to be completed.

Another issue that has been raised is local procurement. The inclusion of organic, local produce in school meals is one of the aims of the Soil Association’s “Food for life” campaign. The school meal review panel suggested that food should be sourced from local suppliers. The regulatory impact assessment for the Education and Inspections Bill—those of us who sat on the Committee and considered it for several weeks will know it backwards—stated that

“by sourcing food from local suppliers and farmers this would have a positive impact on the local economy and would help to promote sustainable development.”

Interestingly, it continued:

“By using local suppliers there is a direct benefit to the local economy. There is also an opportunity for caterers to work with producers to develop meat products and seasonal menus for schools, based on what is easily available locally, to take advantage of lower prices when produce is plentiful.”

The regulatory impact assessment also cited Oxfordshire, where using local suppliers resulted in a 20 per cent. reduction in the cost of food and a 69 per cent. reduction in weekly food miles. There is concern, however, that European Union procurement rules would prevent local authorities from sourcing food in that manner, as they preclude authorities from specifying local produce. A Government response to that point would be helpful, too.

We on the Conservative Benches fully share the Government’s objectives on school meals. Better nutrition means better long-term health, better behaviour and higher standards of educational attainment.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Marshall, and to make my debut in an Adjournment debate. I also extend hearty congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Ms Johnson) on securing such an important and topical debate.

I have listened to hon. Members’ views with great interest and I am glad that, whatever our differences—there are some small differences in emphasis in some areas—we all agree that childhood obesity is a matter of the utmost importance. The growth in obesity is an international problem, and this country is far from immune. The increasing prevalence of overweight children in England is among the worst in Europe. However, we are also the only country that has set itself a public target of halting the rise in childhood obesity, which we have pledged to do by 2010, within the public service agreement target.

There is a wealth of evidence to illustrate the scale of the problem. Twenty-two per cent. of men and 23 per cent. of women in England are obese. The figures have trebled since the 1980s. Sixty-five per cent. of men and 56 per cent. of women—24 million adults—are overweight or obese. Obesity rates among children aged two to 10 are rising fast. They rose from 9.9 per cent. in 1995 to 14.3 per cent. in 2004, and they are rising fastest among eight to 10-year-olds. Recent studies show that more than 30 per cent. of boys and 31 per cent. of girls aged two to 15 are overweight or obese.

The debate is therefore topical and important for our times. We are all aware that being overweight can lead to stigmatisation, including bullying, by childhood peers, but overweight and obese children can also suffer depression, poor social functioning, social exclusion and lower academic achievement. Those problems can easily continue into adulthood. In 2001, the National Audit Office estimated that obesity led to 9,000 premature deaths a year.

Just as there are many adverse consequences of obesity, the problem has many causes. At one level, obesity is a simple problem: it results from an imbalance between energy consumed and energy expended. However, at the heart of the problem has been a profound change in the way in which we and our children live our lives. We value the material improvements in ordinary life over the past two generations, but just as convenience lifestyles lead us to consume more calories, so they lead us to using fewer calories along the way.

We have more cars, televisions, computers and labour-saving devices at home and at work than ever before. The new technologies of home and the workplace ensure that we expend less physical effort on getting our work done. There is virtually no activity that cannot be done faster, easier and with less effort than was required 20, 10 or even just five years ago. We ride more and walk or cycle less. Many more children are driven to and from school today than was ever the case before. We and our children spend more of our leisure time sitting watching TV, on games consoles and using the internet, and less time in physical play. Children spend less time in unsupervised outdoor play today than they did in the past. Until we took action to reverse the trend, there had been a decline in the amount of sport and physical education that children took part in at school—activity that is now very much on the increase again.

Those factors are bound up with the profound changes that we have experienced in the economy and society at large, but they do not tell the whole story on obesity. There are unique factors for every individual, and several factors are likely to be at work at the same time. One factor is physiological characteristics. We do not all use calories at the same rate; we all have slightly different metabolic rates. There are psychological characteristics: we each have different attitudes to food, exercise and lifestyle. There are environmental factors, such as family lifestyle. As children, we are very much influenced by our parents’ diet and behaviour, and socio-economic status. Children who have two overweight parents are six times more likely to be overweight than other children.

The debate is about obesity and school food. I do not deny that what children eat at school is a major part of the issue, but it cannot be the only part of our strategy for tackling childhood obesity—it is not the only club in our bag. As we have discovered throughout the debate, there is no single simple cure for obesity. Preventing obesity is much easier than treating it. Prevention involves introducing the right eating and lifestyle habits in early childhood. Good nutrition and physical activity are essential for a developing child and are fundamental to energy balance and weight control. Families need to be educated and empowered through guidance that recognises the effects of poor eating and activity habits on their children’s health.

The complex, multi-factorial nature of obesity is the reason why our strategy to tackle childhood obesity is shared across the Government. Our PSA target to halt the year-on-year rise in obesity in children under the age of 11 by 2010 is led by the Department of Health, but is a shared responsibility with the Department for Education and Skills, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Department for Transport and the Department for Communities and Local Government. That cross-departmental approach is essential to ensure that we have the widest possible engagement with the issue and that we join our resources and actions to halt the childhood obesity epidemic by working across many fronts simultaneously.

The issue also involves antenatal and postnatal services and Sure Start, which my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne) mentioned. Sure Start and children’s centres are important in getting children off to a healthy start in life, not least by establishing patterns of healthy eating and exercise as a foundation for the future. Parents and parents-to-be are being made aware of the crucial role that they play in determining the health and well-being of their child. Children’s centres have practice guidance that includes ideas on combating obesity. Those ideas will be further developed when the practice guidance is updated later this year.

Our aim is that by 2009 all schools will have healthy school status and be focusing on healthy eating, PE, sport, emotional health and well-being and personal, social and health education. The healthy school initiative has been hugely popular with schools. Three-quarters of schools have started working towards healthy school status on a voluntary basis.

Full-service extended schools are expanding the provision of health and fitness activities outside normal school hours for pupils, their families and the whole community. That can mean opening sports halls and playing fields to wider use, running fitness clubs, cookery skills courses and food co-ops to encourage healthy eating, with services tailored to the demands and needs of local communities. We have also come a long way in a relatively short time on play, with the Big Lottery Fund’s £155 million strategic play programme.

In the time left, I shall deal specifically with food in schools. The debate was called to draw attention to the importance of school food in tackling childhood obesity. It is vital that children get the right messages about food and its importance to their health. Of course, for most children, most of their eating is done with their families, and I have outlined what we are doing to encourage healthy eating and healthy lifestyles in families. However, children’s experience of food at school is important in helping them to develop a healthy diet and a healthy attitude to food that I would want them to maintain into their adult lives.

In partnership with schools, local authorities and parents, we are engaged in an ambitious three-year programme to effect nothing less than a transformation of school food. We are under no illusions about the scale of the task—we are trying to undo decades of neglect—but we are showing a level of commitment that has not been seen before. The announcement of new nutritional standards for school food is a major step in that programme. Those new minimum standards will be the bedrock of the drive towards better food in schools.

We are keen to make real changes quickly, which is why the regulations governing food-based standards for school lunches will be introduced from September 2006. That answers the question asked by the hon. Member for Leeds, North-West (Greg Mulholland). It means that, from September, new food-based standards will ban economy burgers from the school lunch table; deep-fried products such as chips will be limited to twice a week; and chocolate, crisps and sweetened fizzy drinks will no longer be available as part of school lunches, including from vending machines, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned.

Even more stringent nutrition-based standards, stipulating the nutrients required for school lunches, will be in place for primary schools by no later than 2008 and for secondary schools by no later than 2009. To answer the question from my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Mr. Wills), I point out that tied into the funding for 2008 will be additional funding for those that ensure that those nutritional meals are hot rather than cold meals. All that will tie in with the healthy schools programme, which requires schools to adopt a whole school food policy that has been developed through wide consultation, and implemented, monitored and evaluated for impact.

How will we implement the change programme? A lot has been said about finance and how we intend to finance that. Some £15 million is available until March 2008 for the School Food Trust to give independent support and advice to local authorities, schools and parents to improve the standard of school food. The trust will work with schools that want to provide healthier food in vending machines and tuck shops, and will work with industry players to identify effective ways of making changes to school food provision and educating pupils about making healthier choices. New qualifications and training are being developed for school caterers to help school cooks to understand what makes a healthier meal, and, importantly, how to market them to encourage young people to eat them.

School food is now being considered as part of the regular Ofsted inspection process, with inspectors considering schools’ overall approaches to healthy eating. The Government have not subsidised the cost of school meals in England since 1967, when financial responsibility for the provision of school meals passed to local authorities. The cost of school meals is met through a combination of local authorities, parents, carers and, sometimes, schools. It is up to local authorities and schools to make decisions about how that money should be spent and the right balance of expenditure between the authority, schools and parents. However, my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, North makes a strong case about what has happened in Hull and the local benefits of that.

Healthier, better quality food may mean increased costs, but many local authorities and schools are investing more money in school food provision. In Sunderland, for example, there has been an increased spend per pupil in primary and secondary schools of 10p and healthier menus have been created. Greenwich has just announced an increase in resources of over £600,000 in 2006-07 for school meals, and in Devon, there has been a £2.1 million cash boost to provide healthier and improved school meals. The issue may not always be about spending more; it may be about spending the money better. Perhaps efficiency savings could be made through better procurement arrangements and the more effective use of existing resources.

Research shows that children spend over £549 million a year—on average, £1.75 per pupil per day—on junk food on the way to and from school. If children could be persuaded to eat more healthily, there could also be a saving to the parent's purse. There is a clear need for such a transformation to be driven at a local level, taking into account the wide range of circumstances in different parts of the country. That is why we are providing £220 million of additional money to help authorities and schools to improve their food.

Last September, local authorities each received a share of a £30 million targeted school meals grant. They will receive a further share of £50 million in 2006-07 and another £50 million the next year. Consequent spending arrangements will be determined after the comprehensive review, so I cannot give an answer on that now. Schools are also getting other funds. In October 2005, schools received a share of £30 million to fund local improvements such as increased training and working hours for school cooks. A further £30 million will be shared out to schools in 2006-07 and another £30 million in 2007-08. I hope that that demonstrates that the Government are serious about putting extra money in.

We have had an interesting debate on a vital subject. The World Health Organisation has called obesity a global epidemic and, in 2002, the chief medical officer called obesity a health time bomb. The Government are committed to defusing that obesity time bomb. We are under no illusion. That will be difficult, but I assure hon. Members on both sides of the House that we are determined to do that by providing the resources to do it and by working with local authorities to provide the best possible offer for local school children.

Nigeria (Aid)

It is a pleasure not only to have you in the Chair, Mr. Marshall, but to have a fellow Glaswegian in the Chair.

I am delighted to have the opportunity to speak about Nigeria and, more specifically, about aid. Nigeria deserves greater attention from the international community, especially the UK, and is of critical importance to the stability of west Africa and the African continent as a whole. It is the world’s eighth largest exporter of oil, and the UK is Nigeria’s biggest investor. After South Africa, Nigeria is the UK’s second largest market in sub-Saharan Africa, with exports to it valued at more than £775 million in 2004.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development was right when he said that

“what happens in Nigeria is of huge importance to the future of Africa as a whole.”—[Official Report, Westminster Hall, 7 June 2005; Vol. 434, c. 120WH.]

I am the chairman of the relatively new all-party group on Nigeria, which is dedicated to improving understanding of Nigeria in the UK, and of the UK in Nigeria, and to assisting in any way that it can with enabling human development and improving human security in Nigeria. The group has met many people to talk about issues related to Nigeria, including business people, representatives of non-governmental organisations and the Independent National Electoral Commission of Nigeria. Each of those parties wishes to work with Nigeria and see sustainable development there, but they all know that the country faces a great many challenges—both real and reputational.

In terms of Government revenues, Nigeria is one of Africa’s richest nations, but it is one of its poorest in terms of the number of people whose basic needs are not met. Around 75 million people there live in absolute poverty, and one in five children dies before the age of five. According to UNICEF, 60 per cent. of the population do not have access to clean water, and the United Nations Development Programme reports that approximately 90 per cent. live on less than $2 a day.

I, and many of my colleagues, have been to Nigeria and witnessed the destitution. It was a shock that a nation with such apparent wealth and such potential could be in such a situation. Despite those disturbing statistics, Nigeria receives considerably less aid than other sub-Saharan African countries.

My hon. Friend talks about the recent visit that a number of us made to the southern point of Nigeria, the Niger delta, where we saw at first hand the poverty. We also saw at first hand the corruption, although elements in the Government are trying to clear it up. The most profound statement that I have heard on this issue—I do not know whether my hon. Friend agrees—was to do with the Make Poverty History campaign, when people said that if we make corruption history, it will be far easier to make poverty history.

My hon. Friend makes a good point, to which I shall refer later in my speech, although I shall not use his excellent words.

While Nigeria receives less aid—about $2 per capita per year—the good news is that it seems as though its needs are being recognised. Aid has increased from £35 million in 2003-04 to £70 million in 2005-06. I welcome the increase in aid, which recognises the importance of Nigeria and the G8 promises. I welcome the engagement of the Department for International Development in Nigeria, and I am very pleased that it has opened an office in Kano, a hitherto sadly neglected region in the north of Nigeria, which I hope to visit later this year.

My purpose in speaking here today is to ask my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State about the steps that are being taken to ensure that development projects in Nigeria are sustainable and will be maintained. What is DFID doing about corruption? How does it hope to prevent its projects from becoming part of a system of entrenched corruption? I hope to learn from him how the Department will maintain pressure for the improvement of human rights issues while pursuing its development agenda.

Linked to that, will the Secretary of State say how DFID is preparing for Nigeria’s 2007 elections? Does it know how it will react should the election period be marred by corruption and the threat or use of violence? I very much hope that it will not be. I look forward to hearing his answers on those issues and his ideas on how aid management in Nigeria can be improved to help meet the systemic challenges that face all those working in its development. If we on the all-party group on Nigeria can assist in any way, we would be more than happy to do so.

Nigeria’s economy is dominated by oil. Income from the oil industry accounts for more than three quarters of the Nigerian Government’s revenues. Well over 90 per cent. of its export earnings comes from oil. The neglect of other sectors of the economy that that has caused has led to the extreme impoverishment of so many, and to the political tensions and communal conflict that arise when the wealth of one geographically specific resource is controlled by and concentrated among a few.

I understand that DFID has a joint-country partnership strategy with the World Bank through which it supports the Nigerian Government’s national economy empowerment and development strategy—NEEDS—focusing specifically on promoting non-oil, improving transparency and accountability, and creating conditions to enable human development. I welcome the support of the Nigeria Government’s NEEDS programme. Economic diversification is the key to Nigerian sustainable development.

Will the Secretary of State elaborate on the specific projects that DFID is running in Nigeria to promote non-oil growth? Our main concern is that such projects be sustainable and that sooner rather than later local project workers will be able to take over the management of the projects and will be fully able to rely on domestic resources and expertise. Related to that, will he discuss the extent to which DFID develops projects in consultation with local groups and those at whom projects are targeted? Are the projects formulated mostly in consultation with the Nigerian Government?

I ask for that detail about DFID’s projects because I have seen myself how an apparently well planned and well implemented project can simply go to waste once support stops. On my previous visit to Nigeria, I saw a project run by a local non-governmental organisation. It was a chicken farm, which was very well organised and seemingly thriving. However, when I asked the villagers what they would do and how they would sustain the farm once the money ran out, they had no answers. That was because they had no business plan.

Another example of unsustainable intervention by an NGO is of a project to boost the income of rural communities engaged in harvesting Allanblackia plants, the oil of which can be used as a substitute for palm oil. The market value for the plant is low, as it grows wild. The NGO involved is injecting cash to increase the market price, but that is clearly unsustainable. How does DFID ensure that its own projects are sustainable?

There is certainly vast potential in Nigeria for non-oil growth. Its agricultural sector needs attention; it needs redevelopment. Nigeria was once a major importer of cocoa, groundnuts, rubber and palm oil. Once the biggest poultry producer in Africa, its corporate poultry output has been slashed from 40 million birds annually to about 18 million annually. The Nigerian Government are putting resources into encouraging the local manufacture of finished and semi-finished goods. How is DFID directly supporting the agricultural and manufacturing sectors in Nigeria?

I recently had an instructive meeting with a representative from the Unilever corporation. It is engaged in what it calls a “localisation” programme. It seeks to encourage agricultural development that will additionally provide raw materials that may be used in local manufacturing of Unilever products. It was pointed out to me at the meeting that challenges faced by local manufacturers include the high cost of production and distribution; customs administration and port-related issues; the security of life and property; and the weak legal framework.

That brings me to the next issue on which I seek answers. For me, it is the core issue that prevents Nigeria from becoming the economic power that it deserves to be and one that keeps millions of people trapped in a cycle of poverty, and that will, if not effectively dealt with, render any and all aid to Nigeria unsustainable. The issue is, of course, corruption. The late Professor Peter Bauer described foreign aid as the process by which the

“poor in rich countries subsidise the rich in poor countries”.

Looking at Nigeria’s history and how the gap between the wealthy and the impoverished has evolved, that could almost be said to be true.

The Nigerian Government deserve praise for their efforts in tackling corruption, which I know that the Secretary of State recognises. The economic management team, until recently headed by the former Minister of Finance and the Economy, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, supported President Obasanjo in pushing through difficult reforms and was instrumental in getting Nigeria signed on to the extractive industries transparency initiative. Nuhu Ribadu, chair of Nigeria’s Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, faces an uphill struggle in trying to clamp down on corruption at the highest levels. His job is one of trying to challenge what is a fact of life in Nigeria. Tough as the challenge is, work is being done in Nigeria to try to curtail corruption, but like so many things, corruption knows no borders.

I thank my hon. Friend for giving way and for securing this debate. I am sure he agrees that the visit that we made to Nigeria was so very distressing, because some of the things that go on in that country beggar belief. The corruption is so palpable. Is it not the case that children cannot drink clean water and yet a governor can commission his own private jet to go to and from meetings or wherever he so desires? The problem is that the people do not understand that the Government are to blame; the people blame Shell and some of the other oil companies for all that is happening. We need to educate the people about who they should level the blame at for corruption. This is about bringing democracy to the land, as well as stability.

I thank my hon. Friend. She was moved on a number of occasions when we were in Nigeria, particularly when we were dealing with young children and their plight. I am not sure how to put this, but she has great faith that our Government can do something to help.

I believe that the UK has a part in corruption and the struggle against it. Clearly, effective aid delivery and development are of the utmost importance in a country in which unemployment and endemic corruption make it seem as though nothing else is happening. Poverty is the No. 1 blight on Nigerian society, along with corruption. It takes little imagination to believe that capitalist enterprise means big hustle, where gains are ill-gotten, and where the little guy gets ahead only by imitating the big guys. That seems to be the rule that governs what happens in Nigeria.

That aid is sustainable is all the more important. If projects cannot continue without ongoing external assistance, they are vulnerable to continuation through corruption. So I ask the Secretary of State, how is DFID supporting the struggle against corruption both within Nigeria and for Nigeria from within the UK? The fact that there is capital flight from Nigeria to the UK aids people who bring money into the country in suitcases. Such people are basically stealing money from the mouths of the poor. The few who are guilty of obtaining massive wealth through corruption can come to the United Kingdom to spend that money. I therefore urge that more action is taken against corruption in the UK with tighter legislation and a greater willingness to prosecute.

The issue is as much DFID’s concern as any other Department’s. Money that remains in Nigeria can be invested and used for development. Does DFID maintain contact with those agencies that deal with financial crime? How does it intend to ensure that its projects do not fall into the trap of corruption when it is no longer managing them directly? Does it have a monitoring mechanism to check on the progress of projects when it stops playing a central role? What practical steps will be taken by the anti-corruption commission to address the problem in Nigeria?

My final question relates to Nigeria’s coming elections and human rights. The commitments made last year by the G8 to provide increased assistance to Africa were based on a pledge from Africa’s leaders of good governance and transparency, and the Nigerian Government have taken action to justify the support that they are receiving. The period leading up to and following elections is turbulent for any country, and while I hope for peaceful and successful elections in Nigeria I am worried about the potential for irregular elections. Given the level of tension, the proliferation of small arms in the country is a major concern. Will my right hon. Friend explain how DFID Nigeria is preparing for the 2007 elections and how it intends to react should they be irregular or should there be a deterioration in the security situation?

On a related matter, I am concerned about reports from Nigerians on human rights abuse. Thousands have died in communal conflict and law enforcement agencies are known to be involved in abuse. I do not believe that my right hon. Friend is afraid to take an assertive approach to human rights issues and democratisation. I understand that DFID’s objective is poverty alleviation, but that cannot be sustained without human rights. How does DFID maintain pressure for improving the human rights record in Nigeria and what action can DFID Nigeria take on human rights?

I look forward to my right hon. Friend’s response and hope that by working together with not just the all-party group on Nigeria but the rest of Parliament, this country can do something to help Nigeria.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, North-West (John Robertson) on securing the debate and on the work that he and his colleagues on both sides of the House do in the all-party group on Nigeria. They have kept us debating Nigeria. It is a country that, as he said, is vital to what happens in sub-Saharan Africa for the simple reason that its population is 130 million and constitutes one fifth of Africa’s population. Nigeria is a big country and what happens there is crucial if we are to have a chance of achieving the millennium development goals. Some progress has been made but there is a long way to go.

On Nigeria's oil resources, some people have the misconception that because it has a lot of oil it is a fabulously wealthy country. The truth is that its oil revenue amounts to only around 30p per person per day. Nigeria is actually a poor country, particularly when account is taken of the large population where 70 million of the 130 million population live on less than $1 a day. That is the third highest number in the world and shows the scale of the poverty.

As my hon. Friend noted, the social indicators of that poverty are appalling. Colleagues who have visited Nigeria with the all-party group, as I have, know because we have seen it with our own eyes. One in five children die before the age of five—one in five. Seven million children of primary school age are not where they should be—in school. There are 1 million AIDS orphans. Fewer than 30 per cent. of children complete a full course of immunisation. One reason why one in five kids die before they are five is that they have not been vaccinated against the diseases that will claim their lives.

We all know that Nigeria has suffered from monumental bad governance, which has certainly been a major source of the country's troubles. It is also true that with a Government who are committed to reform, as we have seen in recent years, governance in Nigeria is turning a corner. For example, the federal Government, for the first time, has produced a home-grown poverty-reduction plan that gives the Government and the donors who are working with them a framework within which to operate.

That commitment to reform was responsible for the biggest single debt cancellation deal in the history of sub-Saharan Africa. It was agreed last year for Nigeria and its creditors wrote off 60 per cent. of its debt: $18 billion. The UK alone will cancel £2.8 billion. That deal frees up an additional $1 billion a year for Nigeria to spend on a range of things, including the employment of an additional 122,000 teachers and putting 3.5 million children into school. I pay tribute to former Finance Minister Ngozi and to President Obasanjo for having said that they will ring-fence that money in what they have called a virtual poverty fund with oversight, including from non-governmental organisations, so that the public can see the benefit of debt cancellation.

It is fair to say in passing that the UK played an important part in helping Nigeria to achieve that deal, which would not have been possible if people’s perceptions of Nigeria and the fact that there is now the beginning of a process of reform had not made it possible to unlock that arrangement through the Paris Club deal.

DFID is the leading bilateral donor in Nigeria and will spend £80 million this year, rising to £100 million in 2007-08. The help that we are giving is focused on the Nigerian Government’s plan to improve governance and contribute to the millennium development goals. The impact of the Government's reforms and DFID's programme is already being seen.

My hon. Friend asked about non-oil growth. Improving macro-economic stability is essential for sustainable development in Nigeria. We have provided technical assistance and it is worth making the point in passing in view of ActionAid’s report, which was published yesterday and reported in one or two newspapers this morning, that technical assistance of the right sort helps to fight poverty. To describe technical assistance as phantom aid is rubbish and it is important to put that on the record. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for obtaining this debate and giving me the chance to do so emphatically.

My right hon. Friend was right to make the point about the reforms that the Government are trying to introduce, but people are asking whether there are still elements in the Government who are travelling weekly to this country—there is anecdotal evidence of that—to buy property, particularly in London and the south-east, with money taken from people in Nigeria. What are my right hon. Friend’s Department and other Departments doing to scrutinise those people who are coming from Nigeria and buying property in this country at the expense of people in Nigeria?

My hon. Friend raises an important point and if he will bear with me for a moment I will come to it directly when I speak about corruption. I want to finish what I am saying about economic development.

Technical assistance has helped to improve the way in which the federal Government’s budget is managed and the way in which they handle debt. It has created the mechanism to allow the benefit of the deal to be ring-fenced for progress towards millennium development goals. It is also worth saying that a fiscal responsibility Bill will come before Parliament shortly and covers the way in which oil revenues should be used. One of Nigeria’s problems is that when oil revenues go up it spends the extra money, but when the revenue falls it has a problem in sustaining that level of expenditure because it does not have quite as much money as it had previously. Legislation to impose discipline on boom-bust expenditure is important and the world, including people in Nigeria, will look at that to assure themselves that the commitment to reform is continuing in the country.

We are increasingly focusing on non-oil growth. We have launched the PrOpCom programme—Promoting Pro-poor Opportunities through Commodity and Service Markets. That is a bit of a mouthful, but the programme is trying to look at improvements in Nigeria’s agricultural market system, to which my hon. Friend referred, so that it works better for small producers. One of the things it is doing to start with is asking what are the obstacles to more rice being grown, and what are the problems that get in the way of transporting that rice, because Nigeria is a rice importer. If more rice could be grown it would be good for those who are growing it and good for those who buy it.

The shared growth framework is looking at the regulatory and legal environment for business. State-level investment climate surveys are being done, asking the question, “What is it like if you want to invest in a business here,” and if it is not good and people are investing elsewhere, asking what we can do to change it, because that is the best way to secure investment from within Nigeria and Africa and from outside.

We have also given a bit of support through. A report in the newspapers recently said that it was shocking that CDC is spending money on building a shopping centre in Nigeria. But let us pause for a moment and ask, is that really shocking? The answer is that it provided jobs for Nigerians. Who will work in the shopping centre? The answer is that people will work serving the public, who will buy things in the shopping centre. That is an example of economic development that in time helps people to have a better life.

I turn now to the subject of governance. Although there has been progress in the fight against corruption and in promoting improved accountability, we have a long way to go. My hon. Friends the Members for Glasgow, North-West and for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North (Jim Sheridan) made very important points.

The progress that has been made in auditing Nigeria’s oil and gas revenues under the extractive industries transparency initiative has been significant; for the first time this year figures were published and openly debated. If one clarifies the oil revenues that the Government are receiving and people can see it they can ask the important question, “What have you done with the money, and are you going to spend more of it in my community?” A process can then start. First, we are introducing a Bill that will institutionalise the EITI principles, with regular auditing to show how the money flows. I very much hope that it will be enacted.

Secondly, we are working very closely with the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission —Mr. Ribadu is doing a magnificent job—and there have been prosecutions. However, it would be helpful if Nigeria were to lift the bar on serving state governors being prosecuted for corruption, which is, frankly, extraordinary. Despite the position we hold, if any of us behaved in a corrupt way and there was evidence we would be charged, and prosecuted. What justification is there for having immunity from prosecution just because one happens to occupy a certain position?

That is another example of a further step that Nigeria itself could take to help in the fight against corruption. However, the former inspector-general of police was convicted and imprisoned and the former governor of Bayelsa state, who is now facing prosecution for corruption, was impeached, because that was the only way to get to him.

We have worked with the Nigerians on the reform of the payroll. One way of improving public financial management is to ensure that one does not pay ghost civil servants, something to which Finance Minister Ngosi was very committed.

My hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North asked what we could do to play our part. We have ratified the United Nations convention on corruption which allows us more effectively to freeze, confiscate and return the proceeds of corruption. We are establishing the new unit with the Metropolitan police and the City of London police, and the Department for International Development is helping to pay for it. Why? Because it is a really good use of aid money. If we can be more effective in finding the proceeds of corruption and giving it back to the people from whom it was stolen in the first place it helps development, and it is right and proper that we should support the work in that way.

We also have money laundering legislation. In answer to the specific question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North, those who run money transfer companies and banks are now under a clear legal obligation. If the cash that comes into an account is not consistent with what they know about that person’s business activities and they have concerns in that respect, they should report it.

Finally, we take the issue of human rights extremely seriously. We have a security and justice programme which has funded research on women’s rights in northern Nigeria. We are also supporting a widowhood rights initiative and citizens rights.

We are funding a £7 million elections programme to ensure that Nigerians’ right to participate in the elections next year is as free and fair as possible. We have also been supporting the census financially, because that helps people to be counted and therefore to be registered to vote.

We are investing in a very big way in improving access to health care, education and water services. My hon. Friend the Member for East Lothian (Anne Moffat) mentioned people not having clean water. Another reason why one in five children die before the age of five is because they drink dirty water, get diarrhoeal diseases and die. Clean water really would make a difference.

Motorway Noise

It is a pleasure to be under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr. Marshall.

I start by declaring an interest: in the right climatic conditions, the motorway can be heard from my home. I secured the debate to draw attention to the increasingly desperate pleas of communities in my constituency that are close to the M4, where traffic noise has been steadily increasing. The issue is being closely followed by communities such as East Ilsley, Compton and Enborne along the A34. The junction of the M4 and A34 is the crossroads of the south of England and the growing number of vehicles that use these routes are having a major impact on the lives of local people.

Traffic levels in the United Kingdom overall have been on the increase since the M4 opened in 1972. Nationwide, road traffic rose 142 per cent. between 1970 and 2002 according to Transport Department figures. The figures also show that in 1999, 70,177 cars a day on average used the stretch of the M4 between junctions 13 and 14. By 2004, that number had risen 26 per cent. to 88,443 vehicles in any one 24-hour period.

The problem will only get worse. As the previous Secretary of State for Transport admitted earlier this year, the population will grow by 10 per cent. and

“the number of households is also set to double in the next thirty years…the number of two-car households will increase—and this means that the number of car journeys could go up”,

but he said that simply building more and more roads was not the answer. Whichever way we look at it, traffic volumes on roads such as the M4 will go up.

Although it is generally understood that those villages that are close to the motorway will inevitably be subject to high levels of noise, others further afield are also suffering. The rolling nature of the Berkshire downs effectively acts as a conduit, funnelling traffic noise from the M4 and A34 to communities in that special part of the North Wessex downs area of outstanding natural beauty.

The impact on people's lives has been significant. David Smith of Upper Basildon moved house 10 years ago to be far enough away from the motorway not to hear the noise. Where he lived previously was a mile away from the motorway and the noise was so loud that it kept him awake at night. Where he lives now is 2.5 miles away from the motorway and he notices the same level of noise and the same effect as he did in his previous home.

Motorway noise has worsened so badly for Michael Taylor, a parish councillor who has lived in the village of Oare since 1966, that he tested the levels with a decibel meter. As a comparison, Mr. Taylor held the meter in a room with the vacuum cleaner on, which produced a similar reading to the level of motorway noise coming through his window. That gives some idea of what he hears every day.

In the village of Wickham, some families live in houses only 80 yd from the M4. The section of motorway near the village is on an overpass, which increases noise levels considerably. David Hunt, chairman of Welford parish council, has been campaigning to have that stretch of the M4 resurfaced with “quiet” tarmac but he has been told by the Highways Agency that it could be many years before the M4 is eligible to be resurfaced. Those are three examples of a deluge of e-mails and letters that I have received, especially since I was told that this debate would take place.

Mr. Hunt, the chairman of the parish council, was right to identify quiet tarmac as the solution. I do not want to waste precious time considering other noise abatement measures such as acoustic walling or tree planting, which make a minimal amount of difference. I shall focus on the key measure that really achieves noise reduction: the replacement of the traditionally used hot-rolled asphalt with a quieter road surface.

One of the proven alternatives, which has been laid on a number of stretches of road, is porous asphalt; it is very effective for a number of reasons. The small grain size creates an even surface that reduces the rolling noise of vehicles. It also absorbs some of the noise emitted by vehicles. Much more importantly, there are safety reasons for laying porous asphalt: it allows rainwater to drain away much more quickly, and that makes it much less likely that vehicles will aquaplane when there is heavy rain. Good drainage increases safety, as it reduces spray and reflections in wet conditions.

Travellers on the infamous Newbury bypass know exactly when they are going from hot-rolled asphalt to porous asphalt. As soon as they hit the new bypass, it is quieter in the car and consequently, of course, quieter for people living nearby. However, the industry is increasingly using thin-layered surfaces. Used widely across the continent, even in concrete-loving Germany, it is now the surface of choice, rather than porous asphalt, because it offers better noise reduction, a better quality of ride and more skid resistance; it is also much better for maintenance. Interestingly, it costs about the same as porous asphalt. Applications of thin surfacing in the UK, for example on the M876 near Stirling, have proved very successful.

An April 2005 paper by the US Federal Highway Administration in Focus praised the UK’s wide use of quiet surfaces, and particularly of thin-layered, textured asphalt mixes. It praised many aspects of recent UK Government transport policy. Today, I particularly want to hear from the Minister on following through on those policies. The paper said:

“In 2000, a 10-year plan for transport was adopted that set a target for advancing noise reduction policies on major roads. The overall goal is to resurface 60 percent of major roads with quieter materials over the 10-year period.”

That does not appear to be happening. At a meeting with the Highways Agency on 25 January this year, Boxford parish council members were told that current funding levels and the criteria set nationally meant that no measures could be taken to reduce road noise on their stretch of the M4 in the foreseeable future. That was despite the conclusion of a noise consultant for Mott MacDonald, who advised that noise levels along the M4 were broadly in excess of acceptable levels.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Benyon) on securing this debate. Every Member of this House knows just how important the issue of motorway noise is to our constituents; it causes them great distress. In passing, I must say how grateful many of my constituents are to the Government for all the funding that they are giving the Highways Agency to provide noise barriers along the A419, a trunk road along the wards of Covingham and Stratton St. Margaret in my constituency.

The hon. Gentleman rightly drew attention to the importance of road surfacing in providing relief. My experience of the A419 very much bears out his experiences, and I am grateful to him for raising the subject. The Government agreed to resurface the A419 near the village of Latton, which suffered a great deal from the noise of that road. There is some uncertainty about when that resurfacing will occur. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, even if everyone accepts that there are inevitably resource constraints, and that money cannot always be found immediately—

I am just coming to the point; thank you, Mr. Marshall.

Does the hon. Member for Newbury agree that even if the money cannot be found immediately, certainty about when resurfacing will take place is important, because it provides relief to those suffering from that distress?

That is precisely what I hope to achieve by this debate. I entirely agree with the hon. Member for North Swindon (Mr. Wills) on that point. Many of the surfaces of the M4, both in the hon. Gentleman’s area and mine, have not been resurfaced since they were first laid in 1972. We seek an assurance from the Minister that a programme in which local people can feel confident will be rolled out, that new quieter road surfaces will be laid and that people can have clarity about when that will take place.

At the Highways Agency’s meetings with the parish councils, a figure was put about of £5 million nationwide for noise reduction measures similar to those described by the hon. Gentleman. That is obviously an inadequate sum for a nationwide road network, but we ask that the sum be used on the mitigating measures that I am about to put forward.

To pre-empt what the Minister may say about noise mitigation, compensation for noise pollution is available, potentially, only for buildings within 300 m of the motorway. However, many of my constituents and those of the hon. Gentleman live a greater distance from the motorway, yet suffer untenable levels of noise because of such factors as open ground, lack of trees, the motorway being part of an elevated section, and prevailing winds. That uniform band of 300 m seems daft, given that local topography, trees and foliage could mean that a property only 200 m from the motorway could suffer less noise pollution than one almost 1000 m away.

The US Federal Highway Administration paper that I mentioned praised the UK for providing that any new housing construction must take traffic noise into consideration, and must actively plan for it. The paper says that, in the UK:

“Any planned development that approaches the noise thresholds must include noise reduction strategies in the design.”

The Government were planning to build at least 500 new houses a year in west Berkshire but, to our horror, we have discovered that they would prefer the figure to be 810 houses per year. Other hon. Members may face many more than that in their constituencies, but I say that we have had more than our fair share over the past 20 years. From my time as a councillor—too many years ago to remember—I recall planners working to a figure of an average of seven road movements a day per new dwelling. If the building of 810 new houses goes ahead, it will mean 5,880 more road movements per day, simply as a result of west Berkshire’s new housing. Noise pollution, therefore, is set only to increase.

In a letter to me on the proposed new developments, the Minister of State, Department for Transport, said that the South East England regional assembly is undertaking an assessment to

“highlight the potential impact and identify areas of concern”.

To put it mildly, that statement does not fill my constituents with confidence.

In July 2003, the Department for Transport published its key long-term strategy document for the UK road network. It pledged to tackle the problem of noise on roads

“by specifying low noise surfaces as the norm for all trunk roads”.

I think that we would all agree with that. Its resurfacing budget for an initial four-year programme was set at £77 million. Not only has that not been spent, but the programme itself, I have been informed, appears to have been quietly withdrawn. By setting that target, Ministers demonstrated their awareness of the importance of the issue and of the distress caused to those who live close to motorways.

I welcome the Under-Secretary of State for Transport to her new job; I am sure that she brings a freshness to the Department and a drive to her new role. I hope that she has listened to the genuine concerns of my constituents and many others. They, and I, wait with interest to hear whether she and the Government are prepared to give the commitment that they so desperately need to protect them from the noise pollution that so blights their lives.

Mr. Wills, you have the permission of the mover of the debate and of the Minister to make a small contribution.

Thank you, Mr. Marshall, but I have already made my points in the rather lengthy intervention that you so generously allowed.

First, I congratulate the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Benyon) on securing the debate, so that we can consider the subject of motorway noise, which is important not only to his constituents and those of my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Mr. Wills), but many others across the country. Nuisance from traffic noise is an issue that the Government have recognised, and still do. Action is being taken to reduce the problem and real progress is being made, as my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon said.

The hon. Member for Newbury raised a number of concerns that his constituents have identified at sites along the M4 between junctions 12 and 14. They reasonably want to understand what can be done to reduce noise from the motorway, and the basis on which decisions are made to provide mitigation when something needs to be done on their section of the motorway. I sympathise with his constituents’ concerns about the traffic noise problems that they experience as a result of the growth in traffic on the M4. In response to the hon. Gentleman, I should like to explain how we have built up our policy on dealing with noise from roads, and the steps that the Highways Agency has taken to deal with the problem that he has so clearly identified.

Prior to 1998, the assessment of noise impact was carried out only for new roads. Where noise levels have been predicted to be high as a result of the construction of a new or improved road, measures such as noise barriers or earth embankments are normally included in the design of a road as a means of reducing noise to more acceptable levels. Where such measures cannot be provided, because of high cost or for practical reasons, there are provisions in the Land Compensation Act 1973 and the various noise insulation regulations for noise insulation in residential properties. Those measures have for many years provided protection against increased road noise for those who are affected by new roads.

However, it is worth saying that in 1998, this Government recognised that those measures ignored the plight of many people who live near existing roads. It has been a problem on the strategic road network, including on motorways where traffic growth has been greatest. A number of policies have been put in place to deal with those real concerns, and it will probably be helpful if I remind hon. Members of the considerable focus that we have put on improving the noise environment for those living close to high-speed roads.

First, in the White Paper, “A New Deal for Trunk Roads in England: Understanding the New Approach”, published in 1998, we gave a commitment to use quieter surfacing materials on new roads and existing roads that required resurfacing. That commitment was strengthened in “Transport 2010: The Ten Year Plan”, when we committed to resurface with such materials 60 per cent. of the existing trunk road network, including all concrete sections, by March 2011.

On the figure of 60 per cent. over 10 years, 6 per cent. of roads throughout the country will be resurfaced anyway, because of deteriorating road surfaces. If one multiplies that by 10, one gets 60 per cent., so is that a new announcement or just the status quo being prolonged? I know that we are six years into the 10-year plan, but was that a commitment over and above what is happening already?

The announcement also recognised value for money and the return that we can obtain. In response to the hon. Gentleman, I shall come on to that feature, because it has not yet entered the debate.

My hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon made a point about concrete roads such as the A419. I am glad to hear that some improvements have been made and welcomed. Concrete roads raise particular concerns, as they generate higher levels of tyre noise than more traditional roads. However, it is now considered that providing quieter surfaces on concrete roads ahead of their maintenance need will not provide long-term value for the taxpayer, so those roads will be resurfaced in accordance with their maintenance need.

The UK used quieter surfaces as early as the 1970s, developing the use of porous asphalt, which was known to reduce tyre noise as well as spray in wet conditions. That material has been successfully used for a number of years on the A34 Newbury bypass, but it is a more costly solution than recently developed materials.

I accept my hon. Friend’s point about value for money, and I am sure that the hon. Member for Newbury also realises the need for taxpayers to get effective value for money. However, what is almost as important to people as immediate relief is the certainty that there will be relief. That is what is not absolutely clear, so will the Minister expand on a timetable for the works that are available? It is something that I am sure my constituents and those of the hon. Gentleman would value.

That is a fair question. I understand the point about certainty, but I am not able to provide my hon. Friend with a direct answer. I shall gladly raise those concerns with my hon. Friend the Minister of State, as he will be considering that area. I hope that the hon. Members who are present understand that I am not equipped to answer that question. I should not wish to mislead them, their constituents or the House.

We have recognised that there remain concerns at locations where there was no early prospect of the road being resurfaced with noise reduction materials. As a result—the hon. Member for Newbury referred to this point—we announced on 22 March 1999 a ring-fenced budget of £5 million a year to deal with the most serious and pressing cases. Three criteria based on noise levels and road-opening dates were used to determine the cases.

In November 1999, the Highways Agency identified 79 sites that had met the criteria. They were the subject of individual studies to determine the most practical and cost-effective solutions. To date, 60 of those sites have been addressed. However, no sites were identified on the A34 or M4 within the Newbury constituency. I appreciate that that will be disappointing news to the hon. Member for Newbury.

Since the list’s announcement, the agency has identified a number of further sites with serious noise problems, based on the original criteria. The agency has used a new noise severity index to rank the severity of noise problems identified since the announcement of the 1999 list. The index is used to identify locations where a significant number of people experience high noise levels. The locations would be considered severe enough to warrant the installation of noise mitigation. One site that has been assessed lies within the Newbury constituency at Oare. A detailed study identified that when road maintenance is undertaken, the most cost-effective means of mitigation would be to use quieter surfacing. The alternative means of noise reduction would be noise barriers. However, they could not be justified because of their limited effect on reducing noise levels for the residents at that location. Noise barriers are normally effective only for properties located up to 150 m off the roadside, and the properties under discussion are located 250 m from the M4 motorway.

The Highways Agency has also considered a number of other sections of the road network in Newbury to see whether those locations would qualify under the criteria. They included sites between junctions 12 and 14 of the M4 motorway, and the A34 at East llsley. Some of the sites met the criteria, but the small number of houses present could not justify the early installation of barriers from the annual £5 million ring-fenced budget. A further noise study under that policy is taking place at Yattendon, and I shall ensure that the Highways Agency keeps the hon. Gentleman informed about the outcome of the study.

In summary, the locations studied within the hon. Gentleman’s constituency show noise severity indices that are not as severe as other locations alongside the strategic road network. Within the current arrangement, it means that no works can be undertaken in the short term. I realise that that will disappoint him.

The Highways Agency will identify the timing of resurfacing on the M4. The prioritisation of resurfacing on the trunk roads is related to the condition of the surface. The aim, of course, is to maintain the strategic road network in such a way as to minimise whole-life costs while taking into account disruption to the road user and the need to keep the road in a safe and serviceable condition. The Highways Agency’s resurfacing programme matches the prioritised schemes against the funds available. Over the past five years, road maintenance per network mile has increased from £120,000 in 2000-01 to £159,000 in 2004-05, an increase of nearly one third. The programme is kept under review as priorities might change depending on the deterioration of a stretch of road.

In his letter to the hon. Member for Newbury of 17 February this year, the chief executive of the Highways Agency explained that the M4 is still very much in a serviceable condition. Further correspondence with the Minister of State on 28 April confirmed that position.

Of course I understand the caveats that the Minister has to give on these matters, but will she give a commitment that if the road surface deteriorates to the point where it needs replacing, an improved quiet road surface will be applied?

I can gladly give the hon. Gentleman the commitment that the deterioration of the road surface of the M4, as with any other, will be treated in the correct way. Of course, our ambition is to reduce motorway noise but I cannot predict—I know that the hon. Gentleman is not suggesting this—the rate of deterioration and the view that the Highways Agency will take on that. Of course, this debate will be drawn to the attention of the Highways Agency as well as that of the Minister of State, who is responsible for working with it.

It would be a shame if the debate were to conclude without my paying tribute to the work of the Highways Agency. Throughout my hon. Friend’s speech she has made continual reference to the way in which the Highways Agency has engaged with the process. In my experience in my constituency, officials from the Highways Agency have shown themselves consistently, over many years, to be highly sensitive to the real distress caused to my constituents and highly imaginative and constructive in trying to find solutions, and although such solutions have not yet all been found, they are constantly engaged. It is only proper that I should pay tribute to all those officials, who work so hard.

I am sure that that contribution is welcome, and that it will be appreciated by the Highways Agency. It is not often that colleagues in the agency are picked out in such a way and I thank my hon. Friend for doing so. I hope that that will be a reassurance to the hon. Member for Newbury, who represents his constituents well on the issue of motorway noise.

Maintenance of the section of the M4 that we are discussing is not required for the foreseeable future and has not been included in the current four-year programme of maintenance work. I readily acknowledge that that is disappointing for the hon. Gentleman, but I hope that he will understand that we are ensuring that a fair system is in place that will benefit the greatest number of people while giving the best value for money.

The Highways Agency is committed to completing mitigation schemes at all the sites on the original November 1999 list by March 2011. The policies that have been in place since 1998 have led to significant improvements for many residents living close to the strategic road network. Real differences have been made and we will continue to help those who are the most affected by road noise while ensuring best value for money. Although I realise that I have not been able to provide the direct response that I know the hon. Gentleman would have liked, I hope that he, his constituents and those of my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon will appreciate the work that is going on and the commitment to work as readily as we can to mitigate the effects of motorway noise.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at fourteen minutes past Five o’clock.