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Westminster Hall

Volume 450: debated on Tuesday 10 October 2006

Westminster Hall

Tuesday 10 October 2006

[Mr. Roger Gale in the Chair]

Bus Services

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

I am delighted to have secured the debate. October seems to be my lucky month. In October 2002, I had a debate on bus security, and in October 2003 I secured a debate on bus re-regulation. I make no apology for raising the subject again, as good, reliable, affordable and safe bus services are vital for social inclusion, economic renewal, the reduction of congestion and the improvement of our environment. As those arguments are universally accepted, I shall not repeat them.

I am optimistic about today’s debate, because I sense that the time has finally come for proposals for additional powers, or for the removal of barriers, to promote and deliver quality bus services. In the October 2002 debate, I said that it would be the first debate in a series that I wanted to have. The debate gains strength every year, and I pay tribute to the many hon. Members who have highlighted the subject in this Parliament. In June 2005, my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Blackley (Graham Stringer) tabled an early-day motion on re-regulation, which he followed up by securing an Adjournment debate in March this year. In February, my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Andrew Miller) introduced a Bill to deal with the unilateral removal of bus services and the needs of the least mobile passengers. In July, my right hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East and Wallsend (Mr. Brown) introduced a ten-minute Bill to enable passenger transport authorities in some metropolitan areas to regulate their operations. Those contributions have all helped to further this important debate.

This year, the Select Committee on Transport is conducting another inquiry into bus services, in which it is considering whether deregulation has worked and whether metropolitan areas outside London should be allowed to develop their own form of regulated competition. In its July report “Reducing Carbon Emissions from Transport”, the Environmental Audit Committee outlined its important recommendations on buses, and concluded that the Department for Transport should

“explicitly adopt modal shift from cars to buses as an environmental objective, and set itself a target of emissions savings to be gained as a result.”

The report went on to recommend:

“Something much more effective in enabling authorities throughout England to apply the kind of powers currently enjoyed only by Transport for London should be introduced as an urgent priority.”

If, for some, that does not add up to an irrefutable case for change, they should consider that at the end of September an independent report from NERA Economic Consulting, commissioned by the Passenger Transport Executive Group, predicts that service levels and patronage will each fall by about 20 per cent., while fares will rise by 20 per cent. unless control of key bus services and fares policy is passed to local authorities. That is a sign of the failure, apart from a few notable exceptions, of the current deregulated system outside London and Northern Ireland. So, just when we are looking for one report to support our argument, like buses, three come along at the same time.

What are the core facts about bus travel? Bus services outside London and Northern Ireland have been deregulated for 20 years and are now predominantly provided by five large companies: Arriva, First group, Go-Ahead, National Express and Stagecoach. Buses account for 31 per cent. of the turnover of the big five, but 47 per cent. of their profits. The taxpayer subsidy to the industry continues to rise, and in 2004-05, it was estimated to be £1.86 billion.

Are we getting value for money and, most importantly, a bus service that meets the needs of local passengers? Sadly, in many instances, the answer is no. Since deregulation, bus use in Great Britain outside London has declined by 37 per cent., and fares have risen by 45 per cent. in real terms. Alarmingly, in our largest cities, the decline has been more severe, with patronage down 38 per cent. and fares up by 86 per cent. in real terms, yet 85 per cent. of all public transport trips in PTE areas are made by bus—1 billion journeys a year. The PTEs and local authorities support the bus industry with an investment of £500 million each year through concessionary fares, support for subsidised services and improvements such as new, sometimes expensive, bus shelters.

In Greater Manchester, the overall decrease in bus journeys between 1994-95 and 2004-05 was about 10 per cent. The Greater Manchester PTE is committed to the development of bus services and has a published bus strategy. It is investing more than £80 million in a quality bus corridor programme, which will include a total of 33 routes when completed by 2008. The strategy is already helping to improve reliability and reduce journey times. In contrast to the trend of declining bus usage in the UK, the GMPTE estimates that patronage on quality bus corridor routes is around 10 per cent. higher than it would have been if action had not been taken. The people of Manchester have also benefited from some joint ticketing schemes and the introduction of a central information service, so we in Greater Manchester have maximised the opportunities provided in the Transport Act 2000.

I have followed my hon. Friend’s arguments with great care. He makes a good point about investment in quality bus corridors, but does he accept that when they are introduced in Greater Manchester as part of the deregulated system, private companies such as Stagecoach and First group withdraw their services from other routes, so we get a smaller network even though more people are travelling on those radial routes?

Absolutely. I accept my hon. Friend’s important point.

I admit to having served on the Standing Committee that considered the Transport Act 2000, but as I and others then predicted, we were too optimistic about what could be achieved on a voluntary basis. In Greater Manchester, we have worked in non-contractual partnerships: the Greater Manchester passenger transport authority, the Greater Manchester district authorities, the Highways Agency, Manchester airport and the bus operating companies are all party to our voluntary “integrate project”, so I appreciate that voluntary co-operation brings some limited success.

In January, the SAFEST—the Salford agreement for ensuring safer travel—protocol was launched. It is a partnership of bus operators, the GMPTE, Salford police and Salford city council. In August, we were informed that the crackdown on bus crime in Salford had led to a drop in crime of nearly 25 per cent. in the first six months of 2006. We are confronting the problem of physical and verbal assaults on staff and passengers, and vandalism to buses and bus shelters, by the use of CCTV and special police operations targeting antisocial behaviour. Already, one evening bus service which was withdrawn in 2002 because of persistent vandalism has been restored. Things are better, but they are not good enough.

After 20 years’ experience of deregulation, we can say with some certainty when voluntary co-operation does not work and when further initiatives are needed. The quality contracts provided for in the Transport Act 2000 have not, in the main, materialised. My union—the Transport and General Workers Union—believes that that is because local authorities are concerned that they will be sued by private bus companies for undermining their share price. We still have a situation in which bus operators can, subject to minimum safety and operating standards, run the services they like at whatever cost they determine, with what is called light-touch monitoring—exactly the point that my hon. Friend made.

I am fortunate to represent a constituency that is served by the largest remaining municipally owned bus operator in the United Kingdom, Lothian Buses, which provides an excellent service to customers and the wider community. Does my hon. Friend agree that it would be desirable if changes to transport regulations allowed local authorities in other areas to develop further the idea of community-owned bus operators, as one way of ensuring that we provide a good service to customers, consumers and, of course, workers?

I thank my hon. Friend for that contribution. As I shall say later, no single model is applicable to the whole country, and we should learn from good practice in other areas, although it is patchy. I shall argue that, despite limited success, the voluntarist approach is not good enough in itself and that PTEs and local transport authorities need further powers.

In early September—thankfully before it successfully hosted the Labour party conference—Manchester saw its traffic grind to a halt along a major city-centre route, as private buses competed for a site to drop off passengers. The problems started when an operator launched a new service on a route that was already serviced by another operator. According to market analysis, that should have led to more choice and happy passengers, but it led to gridlock for public and private transport, and people were forced to use their feet to get to work. Police were needed to sort out the chaos.

Under the current system, local authorities and passenger transport authorities can franchise bus services in their area via a quality contract only if such a franchise can be deemed “the only practicable way” to achieve a local bus strategy. Under such a contract, the public sector specifies the service that is required, and the bus companies can bid for the exclusive right to provide that service. As a member of the Committee that considered the 2000 Act, I noted that those powers were inadequate for PTEs, and they still are.

So what is the solution to the problems that I have highlighted? I fully accept that I am speaking from a metropolitan perspective and I do not claim that the solution for the Manchester city region will necessarily be the solution for other regions, small towns or rural areas—or vice versa. I do not wish at this time to be prescriptive in my solution to the problem and I accept that there are a number of different potentials. For example, the Transport and General Workers Union believes that the Northern Ireland solution, under which buses are publicly owned, and bus and rail company policies are co-ordinated by Translink, would be best. It believes that the London model is the second-best alternative, although that would undoubtedly need to be modified if it were to be extended beyond the capital. Some argue, for example, that it would need modifying to cover geographical areas rather than specific individual routes. However, that is not my territory, so I shall leave it to my London colleagues to champion any changes that our capital city may require. It is worth noting, however, that the Government’s target for growth in passenger numbers will be met by growth in passenger numbers in London alone, while the numbers outside London will continue to decline in the main.

Some large cities outside London are not persuaded that the London model is for them. Indeed, PTEG has proposed that only minor changes to the 2000 Act are needed to solve our current difficulties. Local authority franchises or quality contracts can be introduced only if they can be demonstrated to be “the only practicable way” to achieve a local bus strategy. That is too high a hurdle, and PTEG says that the “practicable way” test should be removed, leaving the existing tests of economy, efficiency and effectiveness. It also believes that the current five-year limit on such franchises should be extended to act as an incentive for operators to invest.

Whatever option is chosen, it must enable us to meet our objectives of ensuring that buses connect rather than compete, and that they link up with local tram and rail services, provide more reliable services and penalise poor performance, integrate networks so that passengers need to purchase just one ticket and have access to clear and accurate information about buses, provide more stable networks, with less frequent changes to fares, times and frequencies, and develop networks that keep pace with the social and economic needs of our local communities.

When I opened the debate, I said that I was optimistic. That is not only because the debate is being attended by a large number of hon. Members who, along with other Members of Parliament and a variety of outside bodies, support some form of managed regulation, but because the Minister has put on the record her intention to increase and improve bus travel. Furthermore, at the very successful Labour conference in Manchester last month, the Secretary of State for Transport said:

“I will act to give the local transport authorities that need them real powers to make a real difference.”

With such high-level support, a solution must surely be imminent. I should add that, in many areas of policy and delivery, the Government have already devolved powers to the regions and local authorities, and doing the same for transport would be a natural extension of that approach.

I want, therefore, to make an appeal to the Minister and to emphasise that whatever option is chosen, it must be implemented soon, not in two or three years’ time. If legislation is required—I think that it will be—it must be announced in the next Queen’s Speech on 15 November.

Finally, I want to address labour market issues in the bus industry. I am a proud member of the Transport and General Workers Union, which is the largest trade union in the bus industry, representing more than 100,000 employees in the UK. Those members are employed in various occupations in the industry and include engineers, inspectors and clerical staff, but bus drivers form the bulk of the membership. Unless we have the required number of bus drivers and engineers, we shall not achieve our desired improvements in bus services.

Since privatisation and deregulation, however, average wages in the industry have declined in real terms. Currently, bus drivers earn 57 per cent. of the male average wage, and the lowering of real wages has resulted in an estimated shortage of 33,000 drivers. Yet bus companies highlight fuel and staffing costs as key reasons for raising fares. Raising fares, however, contributes in turn to the loss of passengers and to service reductions. So we have a difficult problem to address.

Whatever form the new powers proposed by the Secretary of State take, I should like the new contracts, partnerships or whatever they might be called to cover minimum employment and pay standards for reasonable hours. The T and G recently issued a bus workers charter, which sets out those objectives, and I am sure that some of my colleagues will refer to them.

The union has also identified pensions as a serious block to flexibility in the bus industry labour market. Currently, many employees will not even transfer employment within the same group, let alone move to a new operator, because different pension schemes can operate in different subsidiaries. My union believes that that key barrier to labour market flexibility will remain unless a universal pension scheme is introduced for the industry as a whole. It proposes that the major bus groups should have access to the local government pension scheme, and I hope that that option will be explored as a matter of urgency.

In conclusion, I referred to the NERA report, which was commissioned by PTEG. It concludes that if we are to meet our objectives of increasing bus usage for all the well-known social, environmental and economic reasons, we must deliver local control of key bus services, but it adds that that alone might not be sufficient and that we might need other measures to control the use of cars in our cities, such as park and ride schemes and congestion charging. Indeed, such measures have already been introduced in some of our towns and cities.

The issue is complex, and, given the time constraints, I have concentrated on regulatory reform powers. However, the Government are now in a position to put the next piece of the jigsaw in place and to champion a better bus service for all.

I look forward to the Minister’s reply. If hon. Members and Ministers want to engage in the debate further, they are welcome to attend the Greater Manchester PTE’s parliamentary reception, which will take place next Tuesday from 4 pm to 5.30 pm in the Members Dining Room. Our topic for debate is “Bus deregulation: has it worked well?”

Several hon. Members rose—

Order. This is the first time that I have heard an opening speech end on a commercial.

I intend to call the Liberal Front-Bench spokesman at 10.25 am. The debate finishes at 11 am. Five Members have indicated that they wish to speak, and I know that others wish to intervene. If hon. Members choose to do the sums, they will work out that overly long speeches on their part may lead to a loss of opportunity for somebody else.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Eccles (Ian Stewart) on securing the debate. As he said, it is one of many that have taken place in this Chamber and the House. Such debates tend to follow a familiar ritual: we fire off our arguments based on personal experiences and those of our constituents, only for them to bounce off stubbornly thick-skinned responses from Ministers. I hope that the Minister’s response will be different today.

The Secretary of State for Transport made some interesting comments at the Labour conference. He said that he would

“act to empower local communities…I will act to give the local transport authorities that need them real powers to make a real difference.”

Those are bold words. If things are as good as they sound, the Minister who is to respond to the debate stands on the brink of being the most celebrated bus Minister in living memory, and possibly of all time; beatification is just a few steps away. Let us be clear that it would be well deserved, because it is 20 years since the Tory Government garrotted the local, democratically accountable bus services. Bus operators have had 20 years to show that they can provide decent services, and they have failed. It is time that they were made more accountable to passengers and communities.

Quality and standards have fallen dramatically, and fares have increased by almost 50 per cent. in real terms. For example, in west Yorkshire, First increased off-peak fares by 36 per cent. and peak fares by about 11 per cent just in the period from April 2004 to January 2006. Since 1986, the number of passengers has fallen by 40 per cent. in west Yorkshire. That represents more than 100 million passenger journeys, many of which will have been replaced by car journeys, with all that that entails.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Eccles said, public subsidy stood at an estimated £1.86 billion in 2004-05, which was an increase from about £1 billion in 1999-2000. Passenger transport executives subsidise about 13 per cent. of services; the rest are simply out of their control. There is little or no competition for contracts, so it is impossible to gauge whether the taxpayer is getting value for money.

Deregulation has meant that companies can pick and choose what services they provide. They are free to make profits while providing a poor service, resulting in many people having been denied a reliable and affordable service to their work, or to schools, colleges, shops, health centres and hospitals. We all know from our constituents’ letters that week in, week out services are chopped, changed, missing or late. Passengers suffer or they vote with their feet.

My hon. Friend should be congratulated on raising an important dimension that is too often omitted in this debate: bus workers. We must examine the impact on their pay and conditions, and the fact that they bear the brunt of passenger dissatisfaction. As we know to our frustration and to that of our constituents, there is little that passengers, communities, MPs, councillors or even PTEs can do in the deregulated system to make private companies maintain or improve services.

The decline not only affects passengers; it affects everyone. Poor services lead to increased car use, which creates even more congestion, pollution and road safety hazards in our communities. Other forms of transport, such as rail, have a role to play, but as my hon. Friend said, buses provide more than three quarters of local passenger transport journeys.

I can give a number of examples from my constituency of where deregulation has failed to provide a decent local service. I am sure that such examples can be reflected by almost every Member present. Superstores outside the centre of Pudsey have effectively caused the closure of small supermarkets and other businesses. Somerfield recently announced the closure of a store in the centre of Pudsey, yet bus links to the superstores are limited or non-existent, which causes a particular problem for older people and those who do not have access to their own transport. Communities such as Hough Side were suddenly cut off from work, shops and other facilities by the simple stroke of an operator’s pen. Direct access to Wharfedale hospital—rebuilt under this Labour Government—is not available to patients from my constituency. The links to neighbouring Bradford, which is a city in its own right, are pathetic during the evenings and at weekends. Changes to services such as the Nos. 97, 647 and 651 in the Guiseley and Yeadon areas have resulted in significant reductions in the links to nearby Bradford, which has caused tremendous hardship for a large number of people. At this point, I was going to quote extensively from letters that I have received from constituents, but because of time constraints, I shall spare the Minister those comments. I am sure that she can guess just how wise and trenchant they are.

I appreciate that partnership is the Government’s preferred way forward. As my hon. Friend the Member for Eccles said, it is true that it sometimes works in smaller, often historic, cities where road space is restricted, local economies are strong and parking spaces are expensive and their number limited. There are even examples in metropolitan areas, such as Leeds, where such partnerships work, but they are few and far between.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Blackley (Graham Stringer) said, on profitable routes along major transport corridors buses can be seen queuing up for passengers. However, off the beaten track the picture is completely different. We should not use the few good examples that can be quoted to mask or dismiss the widespread deficiencies of which we are all aware. Currently, PTEs are totally dependent on local monopoly providers and whether they choose to act responsibly and take a long-term view. The experience of all hon. Members is that such situations are unfortunately not the norm.

What needs to change? I need not reiterate the points so cogently made by my hon. Friends. There needs to be a change to the Transport Act 2000. We need to be able to use its teeth—quality contracts—and remove the “only practicable” test, which effectively muzzles it and makes it unworkable.

As has been said, franchises can currently run for five years. That needs to be extended to a longer period, because doing so would reduce the net costs of franchises and act as an incentive to operators to invest. I believe, as does the Passenger Transport Executive Group—I make no apology for speaking on its behalf—that the result would be multifold. It would lead to more reliable services; poor performance being penalised; integrated networks; clear and comprehensive information at bus stops; buses connecting rather than competing; less pollution with operators required to provide newer, cleaner buses and to maintain them properly; more stable networks with less frequent changes to fares, times and frequencies; and networks that keep pace with the economic and social needs of the areas they serve.

If the Minister is prepared to go down that particular route, she, like my hon. Friends and I, will be vilified by bus operators. She will be told that the clock cannot be turned back, and predictions will be made of some sort of bus Armageddon. I ask her not to listen. It is time to listen to passengers, to us as their representatives and to PTEs, and to give back some powers to the communities to have bus services that meet their needs.

It gives me great pleasure to speak in the debate and, in particular, to welcome the announcement about changes to bus services made by the Secretary of State for Transport just a couple of weeks ago.

I first started looking into bus workers’ conditions in 1999-2000. In 2000-01, I chaired an inquiry by the London assembly into affordable housing, which we called “Key issues for key workers: affordable housing in London”. We concluded that bus drivers in London were not earning enough money to pay even council or housing association rents. Bus drivers were coming from cities such as Leeds, living four days a week in houses of multiple occupation provided by the bus companies, driving London buses and then going back home again. It was no surprise that with that level of income there was a shortage of drivers, a high turnover of drivers without local knowledge of London streets and a great deal of passenger dissatisfaction.

Shortly after our report, the Mayor of London—I like to think that we had some influence on his decision—decided in 2001 to increase bus drivers’ pay by £20 a week. In addition, Transport for London introduced a training programme for bus drivers and other benefits to improve their working conditions. During our inquiry, we heard clear evidence from bus drivers who found that at the end of a journey there was nowhere for them to use a toilet—they would have to beg the indulgence of a local publican—and often there was nowhere for them to have hot food.

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Eccles (Ian Stewart), my hon. Friend talks about pay, pensions and general conditions. Bus drivers in my constituency are worried about the nature and pattern of shifts, in particular the length of time they spend behind the wheel, which can be a maximum of five and half hours. That is obviously a great concern because with increasing traffic and road rage, a tired bus driver is a dangerous bus driver. Would my hon. Friend care to comment on reducing bus drivers’ hours?

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention and I shall go into the matter later. There are good examples in London of how bus drivers’ shifts have altered and been made safer and better. That has also aided the retention of drivers.

According to Transport for London, in 2000 bus drivers received an average of £18,000 to £19,000, but from my direct experience and contact with bus drivers during the key workers inquiry, I know that in many cases it was lower than that. Pay of £15,000 to £16,000 was normal, and that involved some creative accounting. In 2006, as we stand here today, bus drivers in London earn around £23,000 to £24,000 a year depending on their shifts and overtime. In addition, all bus drivers in London with at least one year’s experience have passed a BTEC diploma in passenger relations and disability awareness. All bus drivers throughout the country will have to do that under the European Union’s driver training directive, and we should encourage that to happen more quickly outside London because we have seen a huge difference. Transport for London is also introducing further training for garage staff and a higher level of disability awareness training for drivers. That has already made a difference in London. The level of service now lost in London because of staffing problems is 0.17 per cent. That is an all-time low and I suspect—I do not have the figures for other areas—that it is considerably lower than in other parts of the country.

There is always more to do. Transport for London and the Transport and General Workers Union—my trade union—are considering flexible working practices, and I want to highlight an example that is local to my constituency. They are also pressing for basic improvements, including toilets and other facilities in those bus stations that still do not have them, better working times, which my hon. Friend mentioned, and no rest-day working, which I feel passionate about.

In my youth, I worked in the merchant navy and back then, in the late 1980s and the 1990s, rest-day working was never sanctioned on board ship. As privatisation crept in, with the use of agency workers, rest-day working became the norm. I saw closely the effect that that had on people. I do not want to be on a bus with a driver who has worked on a rest day and is too tired to drive safely.

On conditions for bus drivers, does my hon. Friend agree that the bus service, warts and all, is one industry that has not sought to exploit migrant workers, in particular people from eastern Europe, such as Polish workers? Companies such as First bus have a proud record of paying and guaranteeing the same wages and conditions for migrant workers as exist for indigenous workers.

As a trade unionist I believe in equal pay for equal work, and my hon. Friend made a fair point. In London, we do not now have to have migrants from northern cities to do our work, which shows what good pay can do to maintain local jobs in cities.

I want to highlight briefly one example in my constituency of an extremely good transport provider. Hackney Community Transport is a social enterprise that runs transport services in Hackney. It has been so successful in reinvesting in the transport service and in being a good operator that it now operates two local Transport for London routes—394 and 153. The 394 is particularly close to my heart because it was an initiative from local people which was taken up by Transport for London and provided by a local provider. I helped to launch that bus route.

The bus route had a low turnover of staff before that was the case for other London bus companies because it worked hard to make its working conditions family friendly. In doing so, it has managed to have an above average number of women working for it not just as bus drivers, but at all levels in the company. That is partly because of flexible working patterns. Drivers who are also carers can opt to work early or late, but never both. They do not have ridiculous split shifts, which exist in too many other bus companies. It is not surprising that Hackney Community Transport was named social enterprise of the year last year and its chief executive, Dai Powell, was named in the honours list.

The Transport and General Workers Union has launched a London bus workers charter—I was a veteran of the London bus engineers charter some years ago—which shows that there is still work to be done. One essential is to maintain the level of pay increases. The difficulty in London is that many key workers cannot afford to buy housing and to live in the inner city. We must ensure that pay keeps up with inflation and house prices.

We need greater safety. I have touched on working times, which is a key issue, but safety for drivers going about their business and ensuring that there are intercoms on buses and so on are also important.

Another key issue is pensions, but I shall not reiterate the points made by my hon. Friends, particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Eccles (Ian Stewart). Pensions are critical and too many bus drivers and bus workers are second-rate citizens in that respect. Providing good pension rights is a way of keeping good staff and maintaining a low turnover. We must also ensure that bus workers have rights to affordable housing alongside other key workers in our city. We saw what happened in London before the changes were introduced and there are lessons for the Government to learn.

As a member of the Transport and General Workers Union, I am proud of the work that it is doing. In London, there has been a 32 per cent. increase in bus journeys, in contrast with a 7 per cent. decrease in the rest of the country, as my hon. Friend said. We have improved bus services and seen huge improvements to the environment, to our health and in congestion. In London, control has gone to a local transport body, with sensitive services run by good local providers, such as Hackney Community Transport, with better pay and conditions, which are critical to ensuring good bus services, family-friendly working—there is still more to do on that—training and investment. In short, we have seen the future in London and we have seen that it works. I commend the model to my hon. Friend the Minister.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Eccles (Ian Stewart) on securing the debate. Again, it is October, which seems to be his lucky month.

I go back some time in the bus industry. I was joint secretary of the negotiating machinery in Scotland and was involved in the whole matter of deregulation as a trade union official in 1985. I sat in a room here for almost six months listening to the good reasons that the Tory Government at the time gave for deregulation. All that was promised for bus usage has not come to fruition.

I am a realist, and I understand and respect that even in the Government’s 2000 White Paper on the 10-year plan they concede that bus patronage has been in decline for almost half a century. With my experience and knowledge of the industry, having represented the workers at that time, I know it was not all rosy before deregulation. On bus quality, the average bus in 1986 was 20 years old; today, the average bus throughout the country is about seven years old, so there has been improvement. I say that from a Scottish perspective, because Falkirk has one of the best bus building operations in the UK, and it supplies those buses and is a good employer.

We should consider the trend during that period. It is not all doom and gloom. I am glad to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier), who described the position in London, because similarly in Scotland, bus use has increased. Throughout Scotland, it is up by about 1 to 2 per cent. My hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz) has left the Chamber, but in Lothian, bus patronage has increased by about 26 per cent. since 1986.

North of the border, many of the terms of the Transport and General Workers Union bus workers charter have been achieved. The average salary for Lothian Buses workers is £21,500, and they have maintained their final salary pension scheme. Throughout the industry, the two big players, First group and Stagecoach, have also maintained those schemes, so the picture is not all doom and gloom. We must consider the industry as a whole to work out the best direction to take. We are considering re-regulation, but we cannot do that in isolation. We must consider the reality of modern life.

In 1986, when I worked in Parliament for six months, about 30 per cent. of households did not have a car. The figure is down to 18 per cent. That reflects some of the reasons why the bus industry has problems. As a past member of the Select Committee on Transport, I suggested that we should consider the modern household and a modern housewife with two children, one four years old and the other six. In one morning, the mother has to take one child to nursery and the other to school, go on to a dental appointment and then go shopping. Even in urban areas of Scotland, the task is impossible. In a constituency with rural areas, the task is well nigh impossible on buses. If the Government are serious, and I am told that they are, they must explain how it is possible for that woman to operate with the bus as her main source of transport, because I do not think that it is. Enormous investment will be required if it is to be achieved, and that is what I am interested in learning about from my hon. Friend the Minister.

I do not see the impact of deregulation on services in south Yorkshire since 1986 from the perspective of my hon. Friend the Member for Central Ayrshire (Mr. Donohoe). By and large, the measures have been bad for passengers and workers. They have been an unmitigated disaster. Bus services are one of the few public services that have worsened since 1997.

I shall quote some stark figures. The network mileage in south Yorkshire has declined by 34 per cent. since 1986. For every 3 miles that buses ran then, they run for 2 miles now. Compared with the retail prices index, which has increased by about 100 per cent. since 1986, bus fares in south Yorkshire have increased by more than 1,000 per cent. The contrast is enormous: the increase is 10 times more than inflation. It is therefore unsurprising that ridership, which has increased by 55 per cent. in London, has decreased by 48 per cent. in the passenger transport executive areas outside London. In south Yorkshire, ridership has decreased by 68 per cent. For every three passengers on a bus in 1986, there is one left. That public service provision in my constituency is an unmitigated disaster.

Deregulation was supposed to bring in competition, but only two operators provide 91 per cent. of the services in south Yorkshire, and they do not compete with each other. It is unsurprising that the major bus operators make a 21 per cent. return on capital on their investments in the PTE areas.

The reality is that quality contracts have failed. They are non-existent. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Eccles (Ian Stewart) on securing the debate. For the reasons he gave, quality partnerships are ineffective. Through-ticketing is the subject of one row after another between operators that will not co-operate. South Yorkshire has an excellent super-tram system, which was built to link in with the bus services. However it does not, because they try to compete with it. There is no integrated public transport system; deregulation has destroyed that concept, too.

Those measures hit the poorest hardest because they have no access to a car. However, I accept that more people have access to a car, and that re-regulation alone is not the answer. As well as improving public transport, we must consider some restraints on car use. The withdrawal of a bus service can cut the pensioner off from their post office and the child off from their school. Somebody with a job, starting a shift at 6 o’clock in the morning, who finds that the bus service that gets them to work is being withdrawn, effectively has 42 days’ notice in which to find another job. That is unacceptable in the modern age.

The solution exists: re-regulation works in London. Whether we opt for the precise London model or the PTEG proposal, it is crucial that we get the details right. In order to get right the re-introduction of regulated services in our major towns and cities outside London, I say to my hon. Friend the Minister, for heaven’s sake, please do not simply listen to the interests of the major bus operators. Their interests are in retaining profits. She should listen to the PTEs, because they have one vested interest, which is to improve the public services to which we are also committed. Their vested interest is our vested interest. It is the vested interest of our constituents. It is important that we get the details right so that we can bring back regulation and make our bus services work once again for the people whom we represent.

It is a great pleasure to follow a passionate speech from a Yorkshire MP. It is one of several that we have heard from Yorkshire and Lancashire, and I intend to add to them. I also want to add a rural perspective, which we have not heard so far.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Eccles (Ian Stewart) on securing the debate. He referred to the speech of the Secretary of State for Transport. It was the most radical speech about buses from a Transport Minister for several generations. The hall in Manchester filled up as he made his speech, although he had the grace to admit that that may have been in part because President Clinton was following him. Nevertheless, my right hon. Friend’s speech was witnessed by people who, when they see the improvements that we hope will follow, will look back to that critical moment.

Ministers in the Department for Transport are becoming bolder by the day. The Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln (Gillian Merron), told me in a written answer only in early September that

“I am taking a long, hard look at bus policy with the aim of taking decisions in the autumn on whether or not changes need to be made.”—[Official Report, 13 September 2006; Vol. 449, c. 2262W.]

Three weeks later, it is clear from the radical speech of our right hon. Friend that there will be changes—for all the reasons that have been well rehearsed today. They include the massive decline in bus patronage outside London—down 11 per cent. in the past four years in Yorkshire—the unjustifiable rate of return that many bus companies enjoy in metropolitan areas outside London, and the many complaints that traffic commissioners receive about bus safety.

I shall not rehearse those reasons, but I make three points to the Minister. I represent the southern suburbs of York. Down the years, whenever Ministers were in trouble about the subject, civil servants would hand them a piece of paper saying, “What about York, and Brighton, too?” My hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Mr. Truswell), whom I hold in great esteem, did not mention York, but discussed historic walled cities and poor parking. He may have meant York. As a York MP, I know that bus deregulation is no more a success there than in many other areas, although it is true that on the main routes into the walled city, there have been improvements, because of co-operation between the main bus company and a progressive council over the years.

However, in the rural areas near York which I represent, such as Wheldrake, Elvington and Dunnington, bus services have been cut. They have changed by the month, as in other areas. The services in the Fordland road area of Fulford, just off the main road, have been cut in recent weeks and there have been massive increases in fares. The people of York feel frustrated when they are told that their bus services are the future, which I do not believe they are.

My hon. Friend the Member for Eccles quoted a phrase in the historic speech made by the Secretary of State, who said:

“I will act to give the local transport authorities that need them real powers to make a real difference.”

I hope that the Minister will not just listen to the strong, powerful lobby from the more urban areas—the old six passenger transport authority areas—which makes unanswerable points. If powers are to be given to one set of local authorities and passenger transport authorities, it is hard to find a logical reason why the same powers should not be given to such bodies across the country.

We have a proud record of putting money into rural areas to improve bus services. In our early years in power, the rural bus challenge led to services such as the C1 service—I know my bus numbers as well as my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey does—between Tadcaster and York, through such villages as Appleton Roebuck. Funding for the rural bus challenge has now been cut. We peaked in our support for rural bus services in 2003, with the provision of £68 million. That figure is now down to £54 million. The problems of deregulation are felt in many villages, such as those whose residents work at the designer outlet centre in my constituency, just outside York. If such people are given 40 days’ notice that a bus service is going, as they were in that case, their job prospects disappear because it is difficult for them to find other jobs in a rural area. If regulation is to return, it must apply across the country or there will be anger in many rural areas and a belief that we are only thinking about urban areas.

On travel-to-work areas, I am at one with my hon. Friend.


The passenger transport authority in west Yorkshire, with its creative and visionary leader, the chief executive Kieran Preston, is coming up with a plan to expand its horizons. The leaders of not only west Yorkshire councils, but some councils in north Yorkshire, will come to the House in November to present a plan to Ministers to extend the passenger transport authority area beyond the traditional west Yorkshire area to such places as Selby, Harrogate and York. Bus services in those places are integrated with Leeds, the dynamo of the local economy, although they should be more so. There is a lot of debate about the choice between regions and city regions, and I know that Ministers are tentatively considering changes to the boundaries of passenger transport authorities. It would make a real difference if, like those people a few miles away over the west Yorkshire border in Garforth, somebody in Selby could get a metropass to go to the same place, namely Leeds.

I shall finally make a political point. Nothing shows the bankruptcy of Thatcherite ideology better than bus deregulation. There is an apocryphal story of the then Secretary of State for Transport, Nicholas Ridley, going to the north-east and asking how many bus drivers owned their own buses, such was the lack of knowledge of how bus services worked at the time. Social democracy, regulation and community involvement will provide the answer, and I say to my hon. Friend the Member for Central Ayrshire (Mr. Donohoe) that there is nothing inevitable about the decline of buses. Other countries in Europe have not had such massive increases in car ownership as us, and one of the reasons for that is that they have decent, reliable public transport and bus services. Let us not be pessimistic.

I am sorry that I was out of the room for a few minutes when my hon. Friend the Member for Central Ayrshire spoke about the bus operator in my area. I suggest to my hon. Friend the Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan) that we should not restrict our ambitions. Yes, regulation must be available to our local authorities, but we should also consider creating opportunities for community ownership, municipal ownership and public ownership, which exist in many European countries.

I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. I urge the Minister to continue to be bold and to go down as one of the heroines of the Labour Government.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Eccles (Ian Stewart) on securing the debate and the other hon. Members who have made cogent and valid points about why we must improve bus services. There is no doubt that in the past 12 months the campaign for re-regulation has gained pace. Ministers have said publicly that something must be done and we are all waiting to see what happens in the Queen’s Speech.

I shall not repeat the many excellent points made by the hon. Gentleman, but it is clear that outside London, in both rural and urban areas, bus fares are up and services down. The public monopoly has been replaced with a private monopoly and our communities have not been served as they should have been. He mentioned the bus wars in Manchester. It was interesting that they seemed to stop during the week of the Labour party conference. I do not know whether the private operators were trying to ensure that Ministers were not made aware of the problem, but anyone who has been to Manchester recently—I was there last week—has seen what it is like on a daily basis, with a crazy system that serves nobody.

Buses are the cheapest, most accessible and most environmentally friendly form of public transport. We all talk about the environment and climate change, and buses are the cheapest and easiest way to get people back on to public transport. They can serve the communities that most need them: for example, in my constituency one third of people still do not have a car and therefore do not have a choice of how to get about. If there is no bus service, they have no means of doing so. I was pleased that at our party conference we were able to pass a motion committing the Liberal Democrats to the re-regulation of bus services. As the hon. Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan) said, we want regulatory powers not to be restricted to PTEs, but to be available to all local authorities that need them.

There are means of paying for services without incurring costs similar to those experienced in London. I am waiting for the Minister to give me the exact figures, but I am told that something like £350 million a year of vehicle excise duty goes straight to bus operators. If we look at the profit made by bus companies—I do not say that they should not be allowed to make a profit or that they should be privatised—we see that they make a return of 8 or 9 per cent. in London, but 20 per cent. in Greater Manchester. There are clearly means of financing the re-regulation of bus services. Local authorities want and deserve powers to do so.

The hon. Member for Eccles mentioned the bus workers charter, which I have read. Anybody who has had dealings with bus services, as I did in my former life when I was responsible for school buses, knows how difficult a job it is to work as a bus driver. The days of bus conductors in London have gone, and the charter of the T and G—I shall give them a plug—is excellent. I hope that it is adopted once new powers have been awarded. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say and, more importantly, to what is contained in the Queen’s Speech.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Eccles (Ian Stewart) on the eloquent and passionate way in which he presented his case. I note from his comments and from reading the parliamentary website that he has had a long tradition of concern about this issue during his time in Parliament. I read a number of his parliamentary questions yesterday and know that he has been a forceful advocate for his side of the story. He said that he had effectively initiated a debate on public transport. Members in all parts of the House support public transport; what we are talking about is how it will be delivered and continually improved.

The Government produced a 10-year plan back in 2000, in which they set themselves the relatively ambitious target of increasing bus journeys by 10 per cent. That target was to be fulfilled by 2010. They also wished to improve the punctuality of services nationally, but against that they recognised the increasing decline of bus usage over many years, increased prosperity and car ownership, and the increased cost of travel on buses. The Government recognised that that target was unattainable and it has been revised twice since 2000. We now have a combined target of increasing bus and light rail usage by 12 per cent. and of increasing growth in every region. Although I have heard about the speech in Manchester, we shall see whether there is any real difference in progress.

I have listened with interest to the arguments. The hon. Gentleman said that there was a case for change. However, the debate is about what that change is, how we should achieve it and what we should expect from it. The previous Secretary of State said:

“I would be wary of saying that we should go back to the pre-1986 situation.”—[Official Report, 2 July 2003; Vol. 408, c. 404.]

Like the hon. Member for Pudsey (Mr. Truswell), who initiated a debate on a similar subject earlier this year, I have sat through four such debates since the beginning of the year. As he rightly said, they follow a relatively tried and tested formula—that is, there is a diatribe against the current system and a demand for changes to the Transport Act 2000, but then the other side of the story comes through. The hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Mr. Donohoe) pointed out that there had been substantial investment in buses, although bus life has declined, as he rightly said. A number of local authorities and PTEs have also deliberately set themselves against bus operators. It is therefore no surprise that we see the chaos that occurs occasionally.

I am listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman’s speech and would be interested to hear what evidence he has that PTEs in the six areas in England have set themselves against the bus operators.

Both the PTE and the bus operator in the hon. Gentleman’s own area have taken full-page adverts in the local newspaper criticising one another. I would have thought that that would count as evidence.

I agree with the hon. Member for Eccles in accepting that no one model is right. That is one of the lessons that we should learn from this debate. The policy does not necessarily need to be as prescriptive as previously suggested. I agree with the hon. Member for Pudsey about the need for long franchises, which is true not only of buses, but of rail franchises.

Just to recap on what the hon. Gentleman is saying, is it now Conservative party policy to favour franchising for buses? If he wants longer franchising, he has to agree to franchising in the first place.

We can have franchising within the quality contract.

Various other areas are available as evidence of co-operation rather than non-co-operation. I met the managing director of the Brighton and Hove Bus Company—some Members did not want to talk about that this morning—who wrote me a letter about the ingredients for success:

“The key ingredients that we have put into the partnership mixture are frequent services—80 per cent. of our passenger journeys are taken on a bus”

that runs

“every 10 minutes; simple pricing offering value for money; continued, sustained investment in new buses, taking advantage of constantly improving technology and comfort, and a passion for excellent customer service…The Local Authority’s ingredients are the installation of effective bus priority measures…a robust parking management and enforcement regime; effective enforcement of traffic regulations associated with bus priority measures…accessible bus stops which are pleasant to wait at with real time information…As we discussed, the private sector is best placed to deal with the first 5 ingredients…and…the local authorities are best placed to deal with the second 5”.

One of the problems in the deregulated market in parts of the country outside London is that a number of the bus companies are becoming increasingly frustrated at what they see as the failings of the local authorities, whereas the local authorities are frustrated at what they see as the failure of the local bus companies either to invest or to be responsive to them.

I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman would like to comment on the actions of Barnet council, and in particular Councillor Brian Coleman, a member of the London assembly, who is keen to remove bus lanes.

If I understand rightly, Mr. Coleman has tried two experiments in Barnet, the other one of which is to remove road humps. That is also part of his strategy for Barnet, but it is not necessarily the overall strategy for London, nor is it necessarily the policy of this Front Bench. I shall touch on London later, for I have heard it described—as ever in these debates—as a paragon of virtue.

With the increasing frustration, I wonder whether meeting the operators and local authorities in those areas where co-operation seems to work better might help those frustrations to disappear. I am sure that we will hear from the Minister about whether there is an argument for ditching or improving the system. I await her response, but I am sure that she will bear in mind the comments about the world as it is and what the previous Secretary of State said about buses in Edinburgh, which is that the routes are

“more extensive and imaginative now than when the local authority ran the service…So I would be wary of saying that we should go back to the pre-1986 situation.”—[Official Report, 2 July 2003; Vol. 408, c. 404.]

I have listened to a number of the arguments advanced for PTEs, and I am guided also by a National Audit Office report published in December 2005, which highlighted the fact that, on either method, the Government were unlikely to meet their revised targets of increasing bus usage. The NAO reported on the problems of administrative costs of procuring bus services, commenting that

“if authorities currently tendering for individual routes or small packages of routes adopted a more strategic approach…they could achieve…savings”.

That is an argument for some of the flexibility that has been mentioned in this debate.

I hear a lot about London being a paragon of virtue. I agree with the hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier) about the encouraging movements and social enterprise developments, including Hackney community transport and—as I am sure she would wish to recognise—Ealing community transport. However, those of us in London do not necessarily recognise all the virtues of the model that are extolled to us. Bus usage is up, but fares are also up by some 40 per cent., although that figure hides the cost of the concessionary fare that Mr. Livingstone has introduced. Those of us who have been local councillors as well as Members of Parliament have noticed that, in order to fulfil Mr. Livingstone’s transport objectives every year, we often have to take money out of other budgets, most usually social services budgets.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned concessionary fares. Could he outline his party’s policy on free travel for under-11s, which gives a lot of families in London money back from their council tax and makes it affordable for children and families to travel on buses?

I am happy to talk about pricing for families, because I was coming to that point. There are some pricing irregularities worth noting. Under this Mayor, London has done away with the family railcard. In my constituency, two adults and two children travelling one stop from Wimbledon Park to Wimbledon now pay £9.10 rather than £3.40, so I do not think we need learn any lessons from the Mayor on that. It is also true that London buses now average only 15 passengers and that the service is the most expensive per mile in the UK. We have heard other Members quote constituents; I could also cite letters from my constituents about problems with routes. Route 200 springs to mind; it is consistently poor on delivery and punctuality. The buses never seem to turn up.

As the hon. Member for Eccles said, there may well be a case for change, but different models may well apply. Before everybody starts over-extolling the London model, we should be careful and remember some of its major problems.

Is not one of the key distinctions between the situation in London and that elsewhere that the people of London can vote for the services that they receive and the amount that they pay for them? People elsewhere cannot. Why should London have a democratic and regulated system when the rest of the country has a system characterised by deregulation and commercial tyranny? Or would the hon. Gentleman deregulate London’s bus service?

The hon. Gentleman makes much of what Londoners may vote for. I hear consistently from my constituents that, given how much they have to pay for the Mayor, they will use their voting opportunity in two years’ time to change the situation.

Much has been made this morning of real powers to make a real difference, which is the clarion call of the new Secretary of State. Will the Minister tell us whether she agrees with her predecessor that a return to the pre-1986 regime is not an option? The rules on quality contracts need to be relaxed so that there is more designation of core and non-core routes. We need quality bus corridors that work, ensuring greater reliability, flexibility and quality—according to some indications, journey times are completed 10 times faster. Turning the clock back is not the answer; re-regulation is not the answer.

The hon. Member for Central Ayrshire said that we need to treat the world as it is today. The world today needs additional flexibility, better procurement and quality partnerships. Will the Minister follow that route—if she does, I suspect that she will make a real difference—or will she, like so many of her predecessors, be remembered for making bold statements but taking no action?

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Eccles (Ian Stewart) on securing this debate and providing an opportunity to discuss the important issue of bus services and how we seek to improve them, particularly in respect of provisions for bus employees. As always, he was thoughtful and incisive.

I am glad to see such tremendous interest among Labour colleagues, who are enticing me down a celebrated road. They offer me beatification and heroism, to name just a couple of things. I particularly thank my hon. Friends the Members for Pudsey (Mr. Truswell) and for Selby (Mr. Grogan) for their promises. Although I cannot accept their kind offers at this stage, I accept the importance of the debate and what stands behind it: the quality of bus services for the people of this country.

Like my colleagues, I am sorry to see such paucity of interest from Conservative and Liberal Democrat Members. I feel that they have missed the opportunity to set out their policies on bus services. We did not hear them, I am afraid, although I would be interested to do so, and I know that I am not alone.

Does the Minister not accept that I said that we wholeheartedly supported re-regulation and talked about how we could finance it? I hope that she will be able to do the same.

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that there are no surprises. We are not going back to re-regulation and the 1980s; I can deal with the comments from the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives in one go. I still feel that it shows a paucity of policy to say that a conference passed a resolution for re-regulation. We need rather better than that, and I would welcome constructive comments on the reality that we face.

I should like to give some context. Buses are Britain’s most used form of public transport. In England, nearly two thirds of all journeys on public transport are made by bus; there are more than 4 billion bus passenger journeys a year. As my hon. Friends have so clearly stated, buses play a key role in enabling people to access essential services, places and aspects of their lives. However, we need to raise our game. Those on buses should not be only those who rely on them; we must also ensure that those with an alternative—namely, the car—take buses because they find them an attractive, convenient and suitable option. If we are to tackle congestion and all the other challenges, of which we are all too well aware, we have to do that.

Buses are important, as the Government recognise through their support. They give £2 billion a year to help fund the operation of bus services around the country. That includes funding for the introduction, last April, of free local bus travel for those aged 60 and over and for disabled people. That will be extended still further nationally. I am sure that other hon. Members have heard from their constituents, as I have from mine in Lincoln, about how welcome that Government policy is.

In addition, last year we provided £1.6 billion to local authorities to finance capital spending on local transport schemes—including, for example, those aimed at improving the infrastructure for bus services, as well as related traffic management improvements. Hon. Members have rightly raised that matter as important to the future well-being of bus services.

As of this month, the bus industry outside London and Northern Ireland has been deregulated for 20 years. Those years have been challenging for it. My hon. Friend the Member for Central Ayrshire (Mr. Donohoe) rightly talked about the growth in car ownership, the increasing cost of providing bus services and the declining cost of running a car. Outside London, there have been a number of cases of increasing fares, reductions in services and declining bus patronage. As my hon. Friend said, we must remember to be accurate: bus patronage in most places was falling even more rapidly before deregulation. If fares were not rising then, that was often because of high levels of subsidy from local taxation. Rose-tinted glasses are not the order of the day; regulation was not a golden age of smart, punctual, frequent, good-value buses. We must see it as something that happened then, but we need to be accurate about it and help where we are now.

My hon. Friend the Member for Eccles reported—in my view, somewhat surprisingly—that the Transport and General Workers Union regarded the Northern Ireland system as a model solution. In fact, Translink has had problems in maintaining patronage there, and there are inherent flaws in the Northern Ireland system of bus regulation. I am glad to say that colleagues in the Northern Ireland Office are addressing them.

Hon. Members made various references to London, and I would like to give my view. Comparisons with London bus services do indeed produce aspiration, and in many cases inspiration, and that is a good thing, but I resist the invitation to draw a direct comparison with London. As the capital city, it has a unique place in our country. Its range of functions and density of people are unparalleled. Its bus service does not have a history of deregulation, and there is low car ownership, as we heard from London Members. It is also important to note that the London transport system incorporates the underground, congestion charging, the Oyster card, bus priority measures and a range of other means of supporting bus services. Yes, there is much to learn from London, but there is no straight lift and fit to other areas. My hon. Friends are well informed, and I was glad to hear them say that no one size fits all.

On one issue, though, does my hon. Friend agree that London is a great example? Pay, conditions and safety of bus drivers, in particular, have improved.

Indeed, I pay tribute to those improvements. I would always say that there are things to be learned from London, but we cannot lift from that experience and say that it is the only one.

For all its challenges, the deregulated market can be, and in some cases has been, a positive environment for bus services. Operators who understand the local market can respond quickly to changing travel demands, and many have made considerable investment in better-quality buses. Surveys show that the average age of local buses has fallen to 7.2 years, which is comfortably below the Government target of eight years, which the industry accepted in 2002.

I have seen how bus services massively improve when relations between local authorities and bus operators are good. As we know, more people are persuaded to use buses if they can expect faster journey times and more punctual and reliable services. However, bus operators cannot deliver such benefits on their own. I understand the necessity for and impact of better roads and traffic management. As has been discussed this morning, bus priorities are important, but they must be properly enforced.

As always, there is another side to the coin. Local authorities need assurances that operators will make use of the facilities and raise their game. In many places, assurances on both sides have been successfully achieved through quality bus partnership agreements between local authorities and bus operators. By improving both the infrastructure for buses and the standard of service, a virtuous circle of increased patronage and higher frequencies can be promoted.

I will overcome my nervousness about giving examples and try not to inflame my hon. Friends by those to which I refer. It is certainly the case that there have been tremendous benefits from partnership in places such as Cambridgeshire and Lincolnshire. Again, we can learn from such examples. I agree that we should not put down Brighton and Hove, but we should note that there has also been significant growth in bus use in Northamptonshire, Bedfordshire and South Gloucestershire. As my hon. Friend the Member for Eccles said, there is not one solution for everyone. He generously admitted that he spoke from his own experience and that we must take account of other experiences throughout the country.

I am well aware that there are places where real partnership is not a feature. I recently experienced at first hand the unacceptable chaotic situation in central Manchester. My hon. Friend referred to bus wars. Let us put the situation in context: bus wars are a problem in Manchester, but they were more common in the early days of deregulation. In practice, they are quite rare today, because sensible operators know that they cause difficulties and do them no good in the long term. The traffic commissioner has taken steps to bring some discipline to bear by imposing traffic regulation conditions on the Manchester operators involved, and I hope that the situation can soon be resolved.

I endorse the comments of my hon. Friend, who painted a complimentary picture of what the Greater Manchester passenger transport executive has done. I was pleased to have an opportunity to meet with the PTE recently. In addition to my hon. Friend’s comments, I compliment it on the Metro shuttle and night bus network, both of which I experienced for myself, and the yellow school buses, which I have not yet had the chance to experience. Also, GMPTE has been successful in securing Government investment through urban and rural bus challenge awards and through Kickstart, and should be congratulated in that respect.

There has been much talk about the announcement made recently by the Secretary of State. It is important to put on the record his references to empowering local communities and to giving real powers to local transport authorities that need them to make a difference. That means local solutions designed for local needs.

I will not take my hon. Friend’s intervention, as I have only a few minutes.

Hon. Members can take from the Secretary of State’s announcement the direction of travel. I know that many hon. Members have been on the edge of their seat, waiting for an early and private announcement. I regret that I shall not give in to that great temptation this morning, but I assure people in local authorities, PTEs, passenger transport authorities, the bus industry, environmental groups, business and other communities, and bus users as well as colleagues in Parliament, that all the talks and visits are contributing and moving us towards the decision that we shall make in the very near future. I hope that hon. Members will be able to wait until then.

Whatever the service delivery arrangements, we should acknowledge that it is the whole staff team—drivers, administrative staff, engineers, managers and others who work at the sharp end—who are a key factor in the delivery of good services. I pay tribute to them.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier) eloquently described what can be done to improve services, and I hope that many others will learn from what she said. The fact is, of course, that the working conditions of drivers and other staff are of primary importance, but they are matters for the industry itself. I know from my experience as a full-time Unison official who represented members in the transport sector that a well-motivated, well-trained and well-rewarded work force is paramount. As my hon. Friend said, working conditions, including suitable toilets and decent places where employees can eat a meal, are of significant importance in attracting and keeping staff.

Pay is a factor. I accept that wage rates traditionally have not been what they should, but average earnings of bus drivers rose by 3 per cent. in real terms in the past year: more than the national average for all occupations.

In summary, I pay tribute to those who provide bus services. We must acknowledge their worth, and we must work together to improve bus services and the conditions of those who provide them for all of us.

Independence of the Judiciary

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise an important constitutional subject—the independence of the judiciary. I welcome the Conservative spokesman, the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald), and the Minister of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs, speaking on behalf of the Government, to what I hope is considered an important debate. I shall be firm but constructive about where I believe that we as a country need to go.

I have always taken the view that one of the fundamental characteristics of the United Kingdom is that although it has never been written down in one clear document there has always been a clear separation between the legislature, the Executive and the judiciary. In other places at other times there are debates about how much the Executive are or should be Cabinet-led as opposed to being a one-man band. That is a perfectly proper debate and many of us believe that it is important that the Executive are led by a Cabinet that collects opinions.

There is a separate debate to be had about how we ensure that the legislature is properly representative of the United Kingdom. The hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire and I, and others, are involved in discussions with the Leader of the House about how the second Chamber should become more representative and we welcome those discussions.

One immutable element of the debate has been that judges should be independent. My fear is that in spite of the Government’s good intentions when they came to office in 1997 and some clear statements of principle, that has not happened in terms of the view that has been taken by Ministers, including Cabinet Ministers. On occasions, such a view has been taken by Cabinet Ministers as important as the Home Secretary, other Ministers in relevant Departments and, indeed, the Prime Minister. My contention is that fine words and occasional statements of support for the principle are not sufficient if there are regular lapses when the wrath of politicians, particularly Ministers, is turned on judges.

There is a difference between your perfectly proper right, Mr. Gale, and that of any of us and of the press to criticise judgments—we are entitled to say that we think that a judgment was wrong—and what has happened. Such criticism has turned into antagonism towards and criticism of judges and the judiciary. For example, the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett), as Home Secretary, regularly attacked the judiciary as clearly going beyond what we had asked them to do.

My colleagues and I have for many years argued the case for a written constitution. We think that the best way to guarantee our traditional values as set down in Magna Carta, the Declaration of Rights and elsewhere and modern issues of principle—for us those would include the right to jury trial for the most serious offences and the right not to be over-beholden to the state, which would permit resistance to and the prevention of the Big Brother identity card system—would be to write all those things down.

It is encouraging that in recent weeks and months there appears to be growing support for such a document from across the main political parties. In that time the leader of the Conservative party has expressed an interest in a written Bill of Rights. There are debates to be had about its content and what it should comprise but at least we have the assertion that he thinks it would be a good and valuable thing. The Attorney-General is on record as saying that he believes there ought to be a written constitution. I come to the debate with an unexpected fair wind from the comments made over the summer by the other two main parties and I hope that the Minister can be positive about my final proposition.

In addition to the current statutory obligation on the Lord Chancellor and Ministers to defend the independence of the judiciary, which is a recent innovation set down in the Constitutional Reform Act 2005, we ought to have it written in our constitution—a written document that overrides other statutes—that the judiciary should be independent of political influence and of personal political attack. I hope that I can persuade colleagues by the end of the debate and in the months ahead that as we work together to see whether we can agree across the parties on a written constitution, we should see whether we can also agree that judicial independence should be part of that. I sense a rising tide of support for that idea, which is welcome, and if we did so we would be following the tradition of most other Anglo-Saxon, former empire and old Commonwealth democracies where they have both a written constitution and a constitutional guarantee of judicial independence. In many cases, not only in the old Commonwealth and the new Commonwealth but in the rest of mainland Europe, a constitutional court rules on matters where there is a dispute between the public or an individual and the Executive of the day.

I want to say one other thing in sympathy and understanding of how we can reach a position where the Government can be so critical so often. What has come to be called administrative law, where people can apply for judicial review in order to have a government decision considered—whether it is made by local government, an agency of government, a Minister or a Department—is obviously a relatively recent development. That has become well-established as a perfectly proper way in which the citizen can check that an authority has not exceeded the power given to it by Parliament.

We set down the law and the judges interpret it, and if someone thinks that there has been an excess of power used they are entitled to challenge that. I am talking about administrative law in general, and if the judges find that there has been an Executive excess there is a remedy, which is that Ministers can come back to Parliament and seek to have the law changed to deal with that. The most controversial of such cases in recent years took place in December of the year before last when the House of Lords, in two cases brought by unnamed individuals against the Home Secretary, held in favour of those people and said that their detention in Belmarsh was illegal.

My colleagues and I had always argued that it would be illegal to detain people without trial and that that would apply whether they were British or not, and we were vindicated in our view. It seemed to us entirely proper that the Law Lords should then say that that was an excess of Executive power beyond what was intended by Parliament and beyond the normal rights to which people are entitled under the European convention on human rights, which has been part of British law for many years and has been incorporated into it since 1998. There were no grounds for criticism from Ministers of the judges for making that decision because it was made in accordance with a convention that the British Government had signed and an Act that Parliament had passed, which was brought to Parliament by the Government in 1998.

A more recent example was the decision of Mr. Justice Sullivan that control orders exceeded the intention of Parliament by taking away more liberty from an individual than was justified by the process. It is possible in this country to take away anybody’s liberty but there must be a proper judicial process to do so, and the judge made it clear that the control order system was not that proper process. Again, that was an argument that my colleagues and I had made.

The third type of controversial case was most obviously illustrated by the furore that followed the sentencing of a man called Craig Sweeney by the Recorder of Cardiff on 12 June this year. Mr. John Griffiths Williams QC, the senior criminal judge in Wales, passed a sentence that was then attacked specifically by people who included a junior Minister in the Department for Constitutional Affairs. She subsequently apologised and was rebuked by her seniors.

All the commentary after the Craig Sweeney case made clear that the judge had acted absolutely properly and according to the rules within which he was required to work. I have been a Member of the House through all those years during which Parliament has passed laws setting out sentencing guidance—a process that gives advice, with a body of people setting down the sentencing rules. Parliament has become explicit in the rules that it sets out.

The result is that judges are far more constrained than they used to be. They now have to discount time served in custody before the trial; and they have to discount a further period—they have to say when the person will be eligible for parole. In fact, Craig Sweeney might well be in prison for a very long time because although an initial date has been given when he might be eligible for parole, the judge made it clear that he should not be released until it was safe to the public to do so. But that decision was misinterpreted—it was greatly recast—to suggest that Sweeney would be released within a short time.

That criticism of the judge was entirely misguided. In any event, even if people had thought the judgment wrong, there is a process for dealing with it. Sentences that are thought to be over-lenient can be referred by the Attorney-General to the Court of Appeal. However, only a small minority of criminal cases—about 200—have resulted in an increased sentence. Of course defendants can appeal, and sentences can be reduced. It is a perfectly proper process. The Sweeney case was probably compromised by the fact that a Minister—the Home Secretary—suggested that the case should be referred to the Court of Appeal because the sentence was over-lenient because, by definition, it put unfair pressure on the Attorney-General, who acts in a quasi-judicial and entirely independent capacity when taking such decisions.

Those are the three cases. The first is the foreign prisoners wrongly detained in Belmarsh; it was clearly in breach of our obligations under the European convention, which has now been incorporated into our domestic law. The second is to do with the sentencing of people for serious and unpleasant offences. The third is those foreign citizens who are under control in this country—it is against a perfectly proper background—against whom excessive power had been used.

It is important that we do not go down that road, allowing open season and thinking it acceptable for Ministers—junior Ministers, Cabinet Ministers and even Prime Ministers—continuously and regularly to attack judges. Why is it unacceptable? Above all, it undermines one of the things that Ministers are always seeking to persuade society about—that we should support and accept the rule of law, and believe that we should all lead orderly lives. By definition, that means that judges should be respected for their decisions.

I shall be giving some strong quotations—some that I remembered, and some that I had to look up—to show how important it is that we should recognise the distinction between the judiciary and politicians and parliamentarians.

I am following closely what the hon. Gentleman says, and I agree with him. It is important that those at the top of Government should have an understanding of the principles that he outlines. Does he share my concern that the Prime Minister should have told the Liaison Committee on 4 July that

“our legal culture is behind the times”?

He was indirectly casting aspersions on the sentencing decisions that the hon. Gentleman has outlined. Does he agree that that is worrying?

It is very worrying, and I am troubled. As I said earlier, we all remember that before becoming a shadow Minister or even being in government the Prime Minister was rigorous in attacking the Government of the day whenever there was the suggestion of an attack on judges by Ministers or others. In the nine years since he came to office, he has set a bad example by becoming more willing to criticise; that slippage goes fundamentally against what he used to say—and what I thought the Government believed when they came to power.

The hon. Gentleman and the right hon. and learned Lady will remember that before the 1997 election the Labour party was led in discussions on constitutional matters by Robin Cook, and that he and my noble Friend Lord MacLennan of Rogart negotiated some principles on constitutional reform. Our two parties were then in opposition, but we did it against the eventuality that either or both of us would be in power after the election and that in any event it was better to establish the ground. By and large, those principles have been followed and they were and are extremely welcome.

The first of those principles was the incorporation of the European convention into domestic law, which was entirely supported and pushed through. I remember the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) marking the passage of that legislation into law. Then there is the welcome change that, when implemented, will separate the House of Lords Judicial Committee from its place in the legislature in the upper Chamber and create a separate Supreme Court. It was controversial, but it was the right decision. In this modern democracy, the Lord Chancellor should not have three jobs. The head of the judiciary should be a judge, not a politician; and the senior court should be entirely independent of the legislature. We support that change.

Those decisions were consistent with the Prime Minister’s original position. However, his views more recently expressed have not been, despite the fact that his colleagues, when pressed, have expressed the earlier view.

The hon. Gentleman will doubtless remember questions like those tabled in the other place to the Lord Chancellor earlier this year, including by Lord Marsh and my noble Friend Lord Goodhart. I shall cite two. Lord Goodhart asked the Lord Chancellor:

“My Lords, Section 3 of the Constitutional Reform Act”—

it came into effect in April this year—

“specifically requires all Ministers of the Crown to uphold the continued independence of the judiciary. Were a Minister of the Crown at any level from the lowest to the highest to describe a judicial decision as an ‘abuse of common sense’, particularly at a time when that decision was under appeal, would the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor regard that as legitimate debate? Does the noble and learned Lord agree that, while The Sun is free to attack the judiciary as offensively as it likes, short of defamation, the same freedom is not enjoyed by Ministers?”

The Lord Chancellor replied:

“My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord that Ministers are under an especial obligation because confidence in the judiciary depends in part on what Ministers say. The noble Lord is referring to what my right honourable friend the Prime Minister said about the decision of Mr Justice Sullivan in relation to the Afghan hijackers. I discussed his comments on Mr Justice Sullivan's judgment with the Lord Chief Justice, and we both agreed that they did not have the effect of undermining judicial independence nor were they intended to do so. The issue of whether or not the Afghan hijackers should go back is a matter of legitimate debate”.—[Official Report, House of Lords, 12 June 2006; Vol. 683, c. 7.]

Although there was some dispute about the Prime Minister’s comments, an answer to a similar question gave the strongest assertion of what the position should be. Lord Goodhart asked what steps the Government are taking

“to ensure that Ministers of the Crown act in a manner compatible with their obligations under the Constitutional Reform Act 2005 to uphold the continued independence of the judiciary.”

The Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs and Lord Chancellor replied:

“My Lords, a strong, independent judiciary is essential to the rule of law, public safety and the protection of the individual. The Government are fully committed to the independence of the judiciary. It is my duty as Lord Chancellor to defend judicial independence and to ensure that all Ministers are aware of and comply with their obligations to uphold it.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 12 June 2006; Vol. 683, c. 7.]

He said the same to the judges in his Mansion House speech.

What the Lord Chancellor has been saying has not been convincing for the judges. We need to do more, and I therefore return to my proposition that the principles need to be enshrined in a way that cannot be undermined, as they have been by the comments of the Prime Minister and others.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. I have followed his words with great interest.

There is clearly an issue about Ministers speaking out of turn, but there is also the strong public view that many of our judges at least appear not to be responding to the public opinion that criminals, and particularly career criminals, should be given exemplary sentences. How does the hon. Gentleman think that the judiciary could become more responsive to the public mood—and when he talks about the judiciary, does he include the magistracy? At local level there is concern that magistrates are not able to punish offenders as the public would like to see them punished.

The hon. Gentleman asked a pair of interlinked questions. First, how in touch are judges at all levels in reflecting the public mood? They are more in touch than ever, because of both their background and their exposure—they are a lot less protected than they used to be. That is particularly the case for people who were called magistrates and are now called district judges and sit in local magistrates courts. They see the whole family of life passing before them daily, and are probably as much exposed to what life is really like as almost anybody else in society, including politicians. District judges see people from all backgrounds and in all circumstances and hear their stories, true or false, when they appear in court.

Secondly, do judges have the power to do what they think needs to be done? They may not, and may feel that they are overly constrained by the law of the land. Before the summer, my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Clegg) and I introduced proposals reflecting our belief that sentences should do what they say. To take the unhappy and topical example of the pronouncement yesterday in relation to the death of Damilola Taylor, which took place in the borough shared by myself and the Minister of State, the sentence given will not in all probability be the sentence served by the two young men convicted. My hon. Friend and I believe that there would be greater credibility in the sentencing system if, when a judge gave a sentence of five years, that meant that five years would be served. A harsh consequence of that is that a life sentence cannot be regularly handed out if life is not meant. The reality is that there are only around 20 people actually serving life, and a sentence lasting the whole of someone’s natural life should be reserved for those few cases where the judges really mean it. However, I understand the point raised by the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone) and we are sympathetic to it.

Judges feel that they are acting within the constraints that we put on them. They are more constrained than ever before, and are subject to challenge in the criminal courts for being either excessively severe or too lenient. Therefore, there is no scope for parliamentarians, politicians and Ministers in particular having a go at them, because there are mechanisms available to be used when people are unhappy with a decision. A judge who consistently gets sentencing wrong can be removed. It is not impossible for a judge who regularly, as it were, misbehaves judicially to be dealt with. When I hear people such as the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Phillips of Worth Matravers, who is highly respected, and Mr. Justice Peter Smith and others regularly saying that there is considerable concern among the judiciary that they are not receiving the support that they want from the Government, I am worried, as we all should be.

In the past few days, when the Lord Chief Justice commented on the benefit of good community punishment, it was not just something that he woke up one morning and decided to say: he had first spent time under cover experiencing community punishment for himself, which is pretty hands-on experience. He commented on antisocial behaviour, not without thinking, but after collecting the opinions of many judges around the country. Judges are well seized of the issues. I read in the law supplement of The Times in June a worrying report that an increasing number of judges are troubled and feel that they may not be able to remain in their post if they continue to be subjected to such political attack. We need to be absolutely clear that we have a modern system of selecting and appointing judges, and that there is a more independent system of choosing the best people to be judges—more women and people from black and ethnic minorities and different walks of life, rather than just from the Bar or private schools. We have a better cohort of people who are representative of Britain, and they deserve our defence.

I hope that there will be a consensus that it is time we stood up for judges. They are not always the most popular people, but we should follow the great tradition of Blackstone, Lord Atkin, Lord Denning and Lord Hailsham, who have all argued over the years for the importance of judicial independence. I hope that there will be an encouraging response, not only from the Conservative Front Bench but from the Minister, and that the Government will look favourably on the idea that in the future we should enshrine the independence of the judiciary as a written part of our great constitution, so that the judges of Britain are not undermined in an unfair, ill-conceived and extremely unhelpful manner in the job that they do, applying the law as we decide it, but with the independence that comes from looking at each individual case and ensuring that it is decided on its merits by somebody who has seen it from beginning to end, not by politicians or journalists who may not have been in the court or know the history and are much less qualified to make a judgment.

I congratulate the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) on securing this debate. It is an important subject, and he has outlined the ground well. Indeed—[Interruption.]

Order. There may have been some confusion. I expected that another Member might rise, and that did not happen, but there now appears to be some consternation. Does the hon. Gentleman wish to be called?

The custom is that the Liberal Front-Bench Spokesman is called first, then the official Opposition spokesman, and then the Minister, if no other Member rises.

On a point of order, Mr. Gale. I apologise: no discourtesy was intended and it was simply that neither of us rose in the correct manner.

The apology should be mine. I am unaccustomed to our having a double helping of contributions from the Liberal Democrat Front Bench—it may be unprecedented in these debates, although perhaps it will be repeated in the future; we certainly welcome it. I imagine that it has taken others by as much surprise as it took me.

My hon. Friend the Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) dwelt in a highly articulate fashion on the constitutional principles and issues. I could not better his arguments, so I shall not repeat them, but I want to dwell a little on the political aspects of this crucial debate about the division of labour between the Executive and the judiciary.

Beyond the constitutional issues, a political choice is taken when members of the Government publicly attack members of the judiciary. It was a political decision to attack the judgment on the non-return of the so-called Afghan hijackers before the Government lodged an appeal. It was a political decision to attack the judge in the case of Mr. Sweeney, which has been alluded to, before the Attorney-General had the opportunity to refer the case onwards because of the undue lenience of the sentence. It was a political decision to attack the judiciary in broad terms for somehow restraining the Government from doing what is necessary on behalf of the public to deal with the new terrorist threat. It was a political decision to suggest, as we heard yesterday in the debate on the Floor of the House, that it is a failure of our courts and judges that not enough community sentences are handed down.

What is gained by taking those political decisions? I imagine that it is fewer unfavourable headlines directed fair and square at Ministers, a shifting of emphasis—some would even argue blame—from one part of the Executive to another, in the eyes of the public, and an impression among the public that the, at least until fairly recently, almost entirely voiceless judiciary is to blame for complex decisions that in many respects they do not follow in the detail that we do.

If those are the benefits, it is legitimate to ask what is lost by taking the political decision to make those public comments about the judiciary on behalf of the Executive. First and most obviously, it blurs or breaches the traditional constitutional division of labour between the judiciary and the Executive. That in turn leaves the public confused and, frankly, simply misinformed on occasion about who is responsible for what, so when a judge hands down a sentence on Mr. Sweeney, for instance, following recent deductions in respect of the possible parole date for Mr. Sweeney introduced by legislation just a few short months earlier, the public are either by accident or, worse still, wilfully persuaded by the nature of the public debate into thinking that it is the judge’s decision when, as we know, he was following the guidelines set by others in this place.

The political decision to make such comments also draws the judiciary and judges increasingly into the public debate. I agree in substance with some of the interventions referred to by my hon. Friend—notably, this weekend’s intervention by Lord Phillips about the merits of community sentences. However, I do not welcome those public interventions if they become standard fare in an increasingly public spat between the judiciary and the Executive. I understand why the judiciary would want to make its case more forcefully in public than it has hitherto felt necessary, but it is an erosion of the constitutional and political conventions that we have if judges feel provoked, as they clearly have been, to pick up the cudgels in public in the way that is occurring.

The other cost—a major cost, in my view—of the political decision to diminish the work of the judiciary in the way in which that has sometimes occurred is to present human rights not as something that protects the prerogatives and inalienable rights of British citizens but, increasingly, as something that acts as a threat to our collective public security because, in some nebulous way, they restrain us as a society and they restrain the Government from taking the necessary actions to safeguard public security.

It is an extraordinarily dangerous leap in the dark—or a very cynical move if it is not just a leap in the dark but a deliberate evolution of the debate—to transform something as precious as human rights, which have been championed for so long in this country, from something that has been an opportunity and a defence of our traditional rights into something that is increasingly regarded as a threat. That is because of a deliberate political decision by Ministers. I am sure that I speak on behalf of all hon. Members when I say that I have noticed that more and more of my constituents refer to human rights as something that is somehow making them feel less safe than they would do otherwise. That is new. In my view, it is dangerous. It is profoundly unwelcome and a total corruption of what human rights stand for, and it is a deliberate and direct consequence of political decisions taken in recent months and years.

Above all, perhaps, the dynamic that has been set in motion—an increasingly antagonistic dynamic between the Executive and the judiciary—erodes public confidence in all branches of government. The public often do not distinguish between one branch and another as we are doing today. Most particularly, it erodes public confidence in the operation of the criminal justice system as a whole. That is self-defeating, from the point of view of the Government of the day, and extremely dangerous for any of us who are interested in the rule of law and the credibility of the rule of law and the criminal justice system as a whole.

All those costs, which I have enumerated at some length, far outweigh the short-term political benefits to any Government of the day in deciding to take an increasingly antagonistic stance towards the judiciary, as has been the case in recent times.

I heartily congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. I very much hope that it helps in some small way to persuade the Executive—Ministers—to restore the balance and perspective in their attitudes and pronouncements about the judiciary, not to the benefit just of one party or another, but to the benefit of the traditions and customs by which we are governed and which I know unite us all today.

I congratulate the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) on securing an important debate. He set out the ground very well. The hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Clegg) also touched on important issues about the self-restraint that politicians need to show when talking about legal cases and decisions. It is important to recognise the long-standing convention that politicians do not interfere in the work of the courts lightly. One can go back as far even as Churchill in the dark days of the second world war. He was anxious to stress that the power of the Executive should be exercised with restraint and that we should respect our legal system and the independence of judges. He said:

“The power of the Executive to cast a man into prison without formulating any charge known to the law…is in the highest degree odious”.

We should remember that history and that tradition as something that is not just in the past but is living and breathing. It is part of the very important constitutional arrangement that we have in this country, to which the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey referred—the separation of the powers of Parliament, the judiciary and the Executive. The only point that I would make to him is that it has never been quite as simple as that. All those aspects were represented one within the other. I am sure that that has been one reason why we have not had in the UK the gridlock that there has been in America. I am referring to the idea that Parliament had the Ministers within it and that the senior judge—the Lord Chancellor—was a member of the Cabinet and of the Parliament and that the Parliament had the Leaders of the Houses within it and the Cabinet had them as well. We did not come upon all those relationships by accident and we tinker with them at our peril.

One comment that the Lord Chancellor made in his Mansion House speech—I always enjoy his comments—was about reaching an accommodation over the Constitutional Reform Bill. He said:

“I take no credit for stumbling from the cigarette packet to the solution.”

There is more than a grain of truth in that. It was a back-of-the-fag-packet job in the beginning, and it was only after a lot of hard work—Lord Woolf must take a good deal of credit for it—that the Government were forced to confront issues that they had simply not thought about.

As hon. Members will recall, the great mission in the reshuffle was to get rid of Lord Irvine. They could not think how to do it, and eventually someone came up with the bright idea, “Let’s abolish the role,” so the role of Lord Chancellor, which had been with us for more than 1,000 years, was scrapped to get rid of Lord Irvine. That was such an ill-thought-through package that the Lord Chief Justice was telephoned five minutes before the press announcement was to be made; that was the consultation. There were 400 amendments as the Bill was considered. It was an example of how not do to constitutional change; but enough of that.

It was as the hon. Gentleman said, but I hope that he will recognise that some of us—I do not take the entire responsibility or credit—had been trying for quite a long time to work out what a new constitutional settlement should be, and had written that down and thought through most of the answers. The Government might have been pulling out the fag packet, but some of us had sought to put forward a clear and rounded proposal—and we have more or less arrived at that.

I am quite happy to acquit the hon. Gentleman on this one. It was the Government who at the time, on the back of the reshuffle, stumbled on the idea that he had been in favour of for some years.

In considering how our separation of powers works, it is important to recognise that it is a bulwark against arbitrary Government. If the legislators get to draft the laws but those laws are interpreted by independent judges, with the purpose of ensuring that the law rules and is applied universally and equally according to the facts, the situation is not reached in which politicians intervene in individual cases or judges make up the law as they go along. That is a very important safeguard.

The independence of the judiciary was a major issue that arose from the decision to remove the role of the Lord Chancellor. The Lord Chancellor had stood up in Cabinet for that independence, and that role was also seen as linked with the effectiveness of the legal system. He was therefore a very important person in the scheme of things. After the huge row that engulfed the Government following the reshuffle the role was eventually changed, rather than destroyed. The concordat that was reached puts the Lord Chief Justice at the top of the tree of judges, whereas the Lord Chancellor retains the role of speaking up for the judges and the legal system.

It is inevitable, given the Lord Chief Justice’s new role, that he will want to—and should—speak out more in public. I do not altogether agree with the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam about that. Obviously, the Lord Chief Justice must be careful about what he says and how he says it, but I should expect him to say more, publicly, than he previously did.

The recent cases that have been decided against the wishes of the Government have been a test of the new arrangements. It is still too early to say whether they will work as well as the old ones, or, indeed, as well as we should all hope. Some Ministers and ex-Ministers simply do not get it. The right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett) attacked judges, in The Sun, for overturning anti-terror legislation in the name of human rights—obviously forgetting that he had been a member of the Government who had put the Human Rights Act 1998 through Parliament. It was not a great surprise that the judges were interpreting that law as they did. Decisions such as the one made in the Belmarsh case and the one, which has been mentioned, made by Mr. Justice Sullivan about control orders, were perfectly understandable and were decided as one would have expected. Many of us certainly said that those outcomes were quite likely.

Then Judge John Griffith Williams QC sentenced Craig Sweeney to life and the Home Secretary intervened and asked the Attorney-General to refer the case to the Court of Appeal as “unduly lenient”, because the operation of the tariff would mean that it would be five years before probation could be considered. Yet the judge had followed the tariff exercise exactly. The great mystery is how someone learned in the law, such as the Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, the hon. and learned Member for Redcar (Vera Baird), could have chosen to join that ignorant bandwagon. It was, therefore, a good thing when the Lord Chancellor eventually slapped them down and explained that the judge had acted correctly. He required the hon. and learned Lady to apologise, and that seemed to be a straw in the wind suggesting that perhaps things were going to work.

However, it is worrying that we have a Prime Minister who says that our legal world is behind the times in relation to terror legislation, and suggests that judges are getting it wrong, directly or indirectly, while the Lord Chancellor must mop up behind other Ministers such as the Home Secretary and the Under-Secretary. The Constitutional Reform Act 2005 provides that all Ministers—not just the Lord Chancellor—are supposed to stand up for the independence of the judiciary. In my view it is too early to say whether the arrangement that we have will work.

Does the hon. Gentleman ever think that the reason why Ministers take such a view about criminal law is that they have not briefed themselves about the facts? The facts are that the number of life sentences has risen in the past decade from 3,000 to about 6,000; the number of people sent to prison by the magistrates courts has gone up considerably; the length of sentences has risen; and prisons are fuller than they have ever been. Ministers do not appear to check what the courts are doing before they suggest that they may be going about their business too leniently.

The hon. Gentleman makes the general point—which is right—that many Ministers are pretty ignorant about what is going on. However, the more particular point can be made about the Sweeney case that the guidelines were set down in Government legislation passed by a majority in Parliament. As Sir Oliver Popplewell, a former High Court judge, said in a newspaper article recently:

“Under current guidelines, offenders are eligible for parole after serving half their sentence. But they also get a discount of up to one third on this figure if they pleaded guilty early in legal proceedings.”

It is surprising that the Home Secretary, who is in charge of sentencing policy in the Government, would not know that, or that, if he did know it, he would be so wrong as to attack judges for something that is his fault.

The hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam was right to say that there are some political decisions being taken in this context. One wonders whether they are being taken with spin in mind, to try to give the false impression of being tough when one is not; perhaps that is at the root of it. We all know that many of the problems in our courts are caused by the fact that sentences are being increased, as a result of new offences, without anything being done to provide the additional prison places needed to respond to that increase. I do not think that we can have it both ways. If we want fewer prison places we must probably take a softer approach to sentencing, which would not be very popular. It should not be possible to have it both ways—to appear tough and to run the system into the sort of chaos that it is in at the moment.

Sir Oliver Popplewell makes the point, which fits with other remarks that have been made, that when everyone thinks that someone

“is getting five years when he should get 30 we have a big problem—particularly with the presentation.”

He is writing about the Sweeney case. He continues:

“Personally, I have always thought if you sentence someone to 15 years they should do 15 years—regardless of how well they behave in prison. And if they do not behave themselves inside they should spend some more time there.”

He goes on to say that judges would welcome honest sentencing. Who could disagree with that? Things have obviously got very complicated.

When I used to go to the courts, the prisoners would have a rough idea—better than anyone else—of the time that they would serve, but they would still go down to the cell block and ask the officer there, “I think I’m actually serving three years, aren’t I?” The sentence would have been much more than that. The system is so complicated that even experts such as persistent criminals and custody officers do not know how long the person is serving unless they use a calculator. It is a peculiar system, and it is absolutely right that we should do something about honest sentencing—a policy that the Conservatives have put forward on many occasions.

Does my hon. Friend believe that there is enough parliamentary scrutiny in the system with the Sentencing Guidelines Council? I should think that most members of the public feel that inappropriate sentences which do not reflect the nature of the crime are being awarded in many cases.

Certainly, there is sometimes a public perception that criminals are not being properly sentenced. My experience of judges is that they are doing their very best to give the right sentence for the right case, and that by and large they get it right. I do not think that we have a general problem, but my hon. Friend might be right that there is a public perception that the system does not work as well as it should. There may be a case for more debate in Parliament, and it may be right to consider further ways of scrutinising the system, but my instinct is that a bit of self-restraint from the media and the political world regarding judicial independence and sentencing would not go amiss. That may be because I am a lawyer by background, and my hon. Friend is right to ensure that I am kept on the straight and narrow and consider what the public think, but I do not think that we have a problem with our judges and courts. Neither do I agree with the Prime Minister when he says that we should modernise the whole process—meaning throw away some of our fundamental and ancient liberties, which are important to us.

The debate is timely, and it is right that the Conservatives are considering a Bill of Rights and how it might operate. We have started to consider the scope of it, but it is not an easy exercise. There are already several attempts out there, such as the European convention on human rights and the European Union charter of fundamental rights, and we are being careful to look at the relevant issues constructively. I welcome the cross-party support given to us by the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey in that endeavour, but all I will say to him is, “Watch this space.” We are doing a serious job, and will hopefully be able to co-operate with parliamentarians of all parties in seeking a solution which meets the British need. One problem with the Human Rights Act 1998—I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman agrees—is that it did not give us the margin of appreciation, which would be extremely useful. If we can include that in a Bill that is genuinely British in its intent, we can do something worth while.

I congratulate the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) on his choice of subject for the debate, and I welcome the comments of his colleague the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Clegg) and those of the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald). In order for there to be a right relationship between democratic accountability, through Members of Parliament holding the Executive to account, and the independence of the judiciary, these issues must be the focus of attention. There are no easy answers, and we must keep the focus on these issues and keep the principles clear.

This important subject sits against a background in which people now expect much more that institutions will be challenged. That is a welcome trend; the idea that we have to accept what somebody says because they are a Government Minister is no longer the spirit of the times, and rightly so. That is why we introduced the Freedom of Information Act 2000—so that people can see what Governments are doing in the name of the public. We also introduced the Human Rights Act 1998, so that Ministers and legislation can be held to account regarding their compliance with the European convention on human rights.

We must recognise that people expect to be able to challenge such people and laws and hold them to account. That does not threaten people’s deep commitment, across all political parties, or the strong public opinion that it is the responsibility of Parliament to make the law through elected Members of Parliament, who are accountable to their constituents and can be chucked out at an election. It is therefore our responsibility to make the law, and it is judges’ responsibility to interpret individual cases on a case-by-case basis. Although members of the public and the press often criticise judges, they strongly believe that having an independent, robust judiciary is the best system that we can have. However much people want the press to rail against judges, they do not want the independence of the judiciary to be interfered with.

I am sure that the Minister will agree, though, that it is important that the media should be able to report cases and put a point of view forward, and that we should be concerned only by extreme criticism.

Yes; I accept the hon. Gentleman’s point. However, the climate can sometimes become difficult if the press engage in a hue and cry, particularly against individual judges. It is important that the Government, particularly the Lord Chancellor and the senior judiciary, recognise that and support the judiciary in their important work. It is also important that the judiciary should know that they have the backing to do their jobs independently and according to the law.

Does the Minister therefore agree that it was not helpful—I am trying to use a neutral word—for The Sun to publish a page naming and shaming judges, on the basis of partial information in some cases, seeking to say, “These are the lenient judges; these are the tough judges,” and therefore stereotype people? That cannot be helpful because it simplifies what is actually a more complex set of assessments.

Having spoken to many judges in my work as a Minister for my Department, I know that judges find such headlines threatening. We need to respond by assuring them that we and the public see that it is important that they should be able to get on with their work and make their judgments independently. As well as saying that—the hon. Gentleman talked about fine words—we have sought to enshrine it in legislation with the Constitutional Reform Act 2005, which hon. Members have mentioned. It is no bad thing that that Act received a great deal of input from the previous Lord Chief Justice and was the subject of many hours of debate in the House of Lords. Whatever its starting point, by the end of the debate many people had had an input. The Government did not claim to be the purveyor of all wisdom on the issue, and many people made a contribution. That is not a bad thing.

The Act writes into statute, for the first time, a guarantee of judicial independence. Hon. Members will know that when judges take office they take an oath, which I know that they take seriously—as we all do. The oath is:

“I will do right to all manner of people after the laws and usages of this realm, without fear or favour, affection or ill will. So help me God.”

That is the task that they have to carry out, and they must be independent, irrespective of any criticisms of their judgments. That is sometimes difficult, and to that extent the Government are keen to support judges in the important role that they play.

Where the Home Office is a party to a case, or a litigant, but loses the case that has been taken against it, it would obviously be right for it to consider whether to appeal. It will say, “We don’t agree with this judgment. We’re a party to the case and we’ve put our argument in court, but the court has not agreed with it. We don’t agree with the court, so we’re off to the Court of Appeal.” The Court of Appeal might not agree with the Home Office, and at that stage the Home Office can say, “We don’t agree with the Court of Appeal either; we’ll see you in the House of Lords.” We must be clear that, in cases where the Home Office is a party defending an action, there is no dishonour in it being a robust litigant.

I totally agree, but does the right hon. and learned Lady not agree that the language used by Ministers is important? It is not acceptable for the Prime Minister to describe the decision in the case of the Afghan hijackers as an “abuse of common sense” or for the Home Secretary to describe the sentence in the Sweeney case, which had nothing to do with the Home Office as prosecutor, as “unduly lenient”.

All our language should reflect the respect that each bit of the constitution has for the others. It is always good for people to speak passionately about how they feel, but at the same time they must think about the effect of their words on different parts of the system.

On the Sweeney case, and the fact that the Home Secretary would have invited the Attorney-General to consider an unduly lenient sentence, all manner of representations are made to the Attorney-General, as I know from my time as Solicitor-General and from having spoken to previous Attorneys-General who had responsibility for referring cases to the Court of Appeal under the unduly lenient sentence jurisdiction. At the end of the day, Law Officers know that they have a responsibility simply to consider the facts of the case, the law and whether public confidence would best be served by referring the case up to the Court of Appeal. Everyone who takes up the great office of Attorney-General, and indeed Solicitor-General, is sufficiently robust to know that it is of cardinal importance that they make their decisions in the public interest and not as Members of Parliament or, indeed, as members of the Cabinet. That has always been the case for all Law Officers.

However, this is one of those things that is quite difficult to prove. One cannot demonstrate that someone is not submitting to pressure; people can see the pressure being applied, but how can they tell that it is being resisted? When I discussed that with previous Conservative Attorneys-General and Solicitors-General, their advice was, “You just have to remember that you have sworn an oath to act independently. You just have to get on with it. At the end of the day, people will recognise that.”

Throughout my time in the House, I have never had any reason to doubt that the right hon. and learned Lady or her colleagues as Law Officers in the Labour Government and past Conservative Governments have acted with anything other than absolute integrity and propriety in their function; as far as I am aware, they are beyond reproach. However, that is a different, although perfectly proper, issue from the one raised by the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald). When a criticism is made, even by the Home Office, it should be of the judgment and should invoke the opportunity of appeal; it should not be of the judges who give the judgment. It is always better to wait until the final judgment before coming to a final view. If the Government then think that the courts have got it wrong, they will know where the remedy lies.

We can all agree with the principles. The difficulty in particular individual circumstances is knowing where to draw the dividing line between speaking out in a perfectly acceptable way on a matter of public interest—as democratic representatives are entitled to—and behaving in a way that is oppressive and which threatens the independence of the judiciary. We must keep an eye on that dividing line all the time, and I welcome the fact that this debate has been called so that we can focus on that issue once again.

The Constitutional Reform Act not only enshrined the independence of the judiciary in law, but put in writing for the first time the fact that

“The Lord Chancellor must have regard to…the need to defend that independence”.

That is the first time that has been put into law as a statutory obligation. The Act also states:

“The Lord Chancellor and other Ministers of the Crown must not seek to influence particular judicial decisions through any special access”.

As the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire said, we have disentangled the situation. Previously, however the system worked in practice, the idea that somebody in the Cabinet—a member of the Executive—would also sit as a judge was subject to misunderstandings. So, too, was the idea that the highest appeal court was part of the legislature in the other place and that our judges, who were obviously supposed to be independent, were appointed by someone who was a political appointee and a member of the Cabinet. The Act set up the Judicial Appointments Commission and a transparent process that operates according to proper criteria so that we know that judges are chosen on an objective basis. All that makes things much more transparent and pre-empts any possible criticism.

The hon. Members for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone) and for Sheffield, Hallam mentioned sentencing and magistrates, and we must recognise that we are talking not only about the criminal courts, the Crown court and the Court of Appeal, but about the family courts—the fact that they should be well respected, have public confidence and be accountable to the public interest—and about proceedings in the civil courts, whether or not the Government are party to them. In respect of the criminal courts, we are talking, as the hon. Member for Kettering said, not only about the Crown courts, but about the important work of magistrates, whose impact most people see and feel in their local communities.

Hon. Members have talked about non-custodial sentences, and that is a legitimate subject for debate. Discussing the balance between custodial and non-custodial sentencing should not be seen as putting pressure on the independence of the judiciary—that is a public policy debate. The Government need to do more to build confidence in non-custodial penalties. If the court imposes a fine but the offender never pays it and that is the last they hear of the matter, the public will want prison sentences; they will think that that person will get off scot-free unless they get a prison sentence. If they think that unpaid work is ordered but not done, or is done half-heartedly half the time, they will think that the person will get off scot-free unless they get a prison sentence.

One issue that we are exploring as part of our community justice project in the Department for Constitutional Affairs, therefore, is whether the local magistrates in the 10 pilot areas that we will develop should advertise to the local community in the local newspapers. Should they ask, “Have you got some unpaid work that your voluntary organisation or your tenants group would like done? Is there a tenants’ hall that you would like to have repainted? Is there a bit of land on your housing estate that you would like to have cleared and goal posts put up on?”? The court would advertise and say, “You give us information about unpaid work that you would like to be done in the community”, and after that work is done, it would be badged. For example we might say that “Camberwell magistrates court has through sentencing in the community renovated this facility.”

People have had reason not to have confidence in non-custodial sentences, because there has been a lack of enforcement, to which we are now turning our attention forcefully. The more people have confidence in non-custodial sentences, the more they will think that perhaps it is better that instead of someone sitting in a prison cell they get out there and do something useful for the local community. Above all, it is that community that would have suffered from the offence.

We must also recognise that one of the things that sustains a community’s confidence in judges, and which will therefore sustain judges’ and magistrates’ confidence in themselves, is not only having a proper appointments system, but having some community involvement with it.

I formally invite any hon. Members who have not visited the Liverpool community justice centre to go there. I was most struck when I spoke to one of the community representatives who was at the formal opening of the court—of course, it had been operating for some time previously. She was like the type of tenants association rep that the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey and I know well in our area, and I asked her what she thought of the judge. She said, “Well, he’d better be bloody good, hadn’t he, because we appointed him.” Her point was that she had had an input into his selection and some sense of ownership. That sense of ownership was not over individual decisions—of course not, because she knows that he has to sit on the bench and make the decisions—but was a sense that he was connected to the community.

The hon. Gentleman will know that the police commander in Southwark used to be faceless and nameless when we first became Members of Parliament, but now our police officers are well known; they attend the Southwark police consultative group and all the local community movers and shakers know who they are. There is a process of building confidence in the judiciary, particularly locally, by letting people know who they are. Independent decisions can still be made but such people can be rooted in the community and accountable to it. Someone does not preserve their independence by removing themselves from the community, because that simply undermines public confidence, which causes a public critique of the judiciary, which in turn becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I have been to the North Liverpool community court and was very impressed with Judge Fletcher. An interesting experiment is going on there, but that is just one area of the country. We are also talking about small numbers with the Minister’s 12 courts scheme and with the one good police example from Southwark. Are the Government thinking nationally in respect of any of this? Is the North Liverpool centre the way forward? When will we know the answer? It has been mentioned in the Department’s reports for ages and has been going for more than a year, so are there plans to roll it out nationally? If not, why not?

The important thing is to learn from the experience of pilot schemes. The hon. Gentleman would be the first to criticise us if we were to sit in Selborne house, think up a terrific idea and then impose it on the country far and wide. We have set up an experimental system in Liverpool and we are learning the lessons from it. As well as having the Salford community justice court, we are expanding to having 10 more. We will try yet further ways of doing things so that other magistrates courts can then learn lessons, not from what we have thought up on the seventh floor of Selborne house but from what other justices working in the community have done.

We are thinking nationally, but we want to build on the experience of people who are actually involved. We want to have the ideas, discuss the problems and come forward with the proposals, but we want people to try them out and to see how they work in practice. The Liverpool justice centre has been going for a little more than a year—I think that it is having its formal anniversary this Friday. It will be evaluated and we are learning lessons from it all the time.

All these innovative ideas are very welcome. The Minister knows that the Department’s lateral thinking about how to engage with the public is welcome. I want to put to her something that I believe I have put to her formally or informally before. In a borough such as ours, a huge way of engaging the public in the process without compromising judicial independence would be if the local authority leader, the borough police commander, the senior judge and the head of the Crown Prosecution Service for our borough were able to come before the public twice a year and be collectively accountable. It is often not the police that they are concerned about but the sentences of the judges or the decisions of the CPS. If they were accountable, the public could be engaged in that process too.

The hon. Gentleman is right. One of the things that the judge in Liverpool does is go to a community reference group, which is comprised of a group of local representatives. One of the things that we will be trying in the further 10 community justice pilots is to assess whether instead of creating a separate community reference group, the existing organisational partnerships can simply include the magistrates or the district judge. In our situation, the Southwark police consultative group would be involved, as they are the people who are concerned about law and order in the borough and are already configured there. It should be perfectly possible for the bench to go along to hear the sorts of things that are being said. People well recognise that we cannot wave a magic wand and solve all problems. If people are prepared to listen to such bodies, they will give credit for at least understanding, knowing and trying to do what they can. The difficulty is that if people are told that decisions are being made in their interests and in the interests of justice, but they do not know who by and they do not believe that such people understand the problems that exist in local communities—

I endorse the suggestion made by the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes). May I make a plea about persistent and prolific offenders? Such people are recognised by the Home Office and the police have targets to arrest them. I understand that when they are brought before the courts on the judicial side of things there is no separate category of persistent and prolific offender and that they are not being dealt with in the way that the Government with their approach to joined-up government had originally intended. If we intend to get all the different parts of the criminal justice system together and make them accountable to the public, may I draw this to the Minister’s attention?

The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. There are problems. The Prime Minister has made the point on a number of occasions that there could be a situation where what appears on its own to be a relatively small offence is taking place, but if a load of people are doing the same thing in a particular area, and if someone does it over and over again, the very sight of them in the local area can make people feel intimidated. One of the things that we are looking to try out in the community justice centres is a community impact statement. There is a victim’s impact statement, whereby if, for example, an elderly woman is mugged she can write down the fact that she felt afraid to go out afterwards. There is sometimes a need for a description of that sort of offence in relation to the particular community to assist the court in understanding the effect on the community.

We have had something analogous to that in the way that we have dealt with unduly lenient sentences. For example, in the first case of human trafficking the charges were rape and other individual offences. When it was referred to the Court of Appeal we explained that it was a new phenomenon—girls were being abducted in large numbers, hundreds of millions of pounds were involved and it was very much part of organised crime—and that we needed to send a message to traffickers that they would be dealt with severely when they were caught. That was a sort of national impact statement about a particular sort of offending. We are thinking about how to draw up a community statement so that the community knows that although something might look like one incident of taking and driving away or of graffiti, the impact on the community, which may be vulnerable and not resilient, needs to be brought to magistrates’ attention.

We have sought to put in statute by way of statutory duties the importance of the judiciary’s independence and we have sought to clarify that by disentangling the judiciary from the legislature and the Executive, which was not the case in the role of the Lord Chancellor and the House of Lords Judicial Committee. We have also sought to find ways of building confidence in the judiciary at local level with more community engagement. The process is to write all that down in a big Bill of Rights or a written constitution, as the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey said, with the Human Rights Act 1998, the Freedom of Information Act 2000, the Constitutional Reform Act 2005 and the different constitutional settlements in Scotland, Wales and London. In the olden days people might have taken it for granted that they understood all those things or did not need to understand them and we need to think about how to ensure that people understand the new constitutional settlement and how it fits together. I do not want it to be frozen in time and no one wants power to shift away from the elected part of the constitution to the non-elected part, but the question of how to bring it together and write it down as part of a process so that people understand the totality and can engage in the debate about whether there is yet more to do is a legitimate debate. I appreciate that it is taking place throughout the House. It is an important and constructive debate and I thank the hon. Gentleman for contributing to it.

Sitting suspended.

Benefits (Cancer Patients)

My debate is about ensuring that terminally ill patients receive their benefit entitlement. I pay tribute to Macmillan Cancer Support, which provided me with much research for the debate. I have personal experience of the problem, because my second late husband, John, died two years ago from cancer.

No one can ever be prepared for the moment when either they or a much-loved partner or relative is diagnosed with cancer. For the person who receives the diagnosis, coping with the news either that their life as they know it will fundamentally change through a regime of extensive treatment, or that their life may be cut short—or a mixture of both—is more than enough for anyone. For the family member, it can be equally devastating, as they attempt to balance the need to support emotionally and physically a partner or relative with the need to handle their own fears and shock on that emotional rollercoaster. I speak from experience.

Cancer is indiscriminate. It can affect anyone, of any sex, at any age, in any occupation and at any time. No matter who that person is, a diagnosis of cancer in themselves, their partner, parent or child immediately turns them into one of the most vulnerable members of society. When dealing with the shock and the urgency of treatment, the need to enjoy every minute of what remains of life becomes all encompassing. While they—the patient or family member—deal with what life really means, they are exposed to the realities of everyday life. They and their family live with the knowledge that their, their spouse’s or their relative’s life is coming to an end, but bills still have to be paid, the shopping bought and collected and the daily chores carried out.

The simple truth is that cancer frequently causes additional financial hardship. A Macmillan Cancer Support report suggests that 91 per cent. of cancer patients’ households have experienced a loss of income and/or increased cost. Among the under-55s, 70 per cent. have suffered a loss in household income, and the average loss is 50 per cent. Imagine what it must be like to lose half of one’s income in the space of a few months or, in some cases, a few days.

A 2005 survey by Cancerbackup demonstrated that 39 per cent. of working-age cancer patients had experienced significant financial difficulties because of their illness. Increased hospital visits, time off work, transport costs, higher utility bills, special diets, wigs, repeat prescription charges and—most ludicrous of all—car parking costs at hospitals estimated at as much as £325 per person all add to the financial burden on the patient and their family.

At the time of diagnosis, neither the patient nor their family are likely to give any thought to the financial consequences, but someone should be there to guide them. If they are not given that advice, how can they be expected to cope with essential financial management as well as the battle against cancer? It is hard enough coping with a life-threatening disease without having to deal with the stress of financial hardship. For that reason, access to financial support at the right time is crucial. Hence my calling for this debate.

The National Audit Office reported in February 2005 that 77 per cent. of patients had not been informed at any time of the financial support that might be available to them. Macmillan’s 2004 report, “The Unclaimed Millions”, showed that 54 per cent. of people who die with cancer are not in receipt of disability living allowance or attendance allowance, despite terminally ill patients being automatically entitled to such benefits. It is not surprising that the Public Accounts Committee described the situation as “scandalous”.

The DS1500 form caters for those people with a life expectancy of less than six months in order to fast track claims for disability living allowance and attendance allowance. Incapacity benefit, severe disablement allowance, income support and housing benefit may also be available. If the patient is unaware that they have six months to live, and in some cases it is better if they do not know, their carer, who almost certainly will know, can apply. If no one tells the terminally ill person or their family that they may be entitled to such benefits, however, how can they be expected to claim?

At such times of complete vulnerability and even despair, advice should be automatically triggered; it should not depend on chance. A well-informed and sympathetic GP, consultant, social worker or—dare I say?—MP’s office may be able to guide a cancer patient to the benefits to which they are entitled. Well-meaning tea and sympathy can be helpful, but readily available specialist advice is vital. No cancer patient or terminally ill person should be allowed to fall through the financial net.

In 2005, Macmillan advisers helped in 8,800 cases, enabling cancer patients to identify entitlements and grants worth £16.4 million. However, Macmillan reaches only 3 per cent. of new cancer registrations. Macmillan’s benefits helpline is a UK-wide freephone service for cancer patients. In a few towns and cities, there are specialist advice centres such as the Daisy Bank cancer support centre, which my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, North (Mr. Rooney) and I visited last Friday. The centre is largely dependent on donations to help the 3,500 people whom it supports. The services are essential, and it carries out outstanding work that requires our continuous, long-term financial support.

In my constituency, there is the treasured Sue Ryder home, Manorlands, in Oxenhope. Dedicated staff provide specialist palliative care to support patients and their families. I welcome the Department of Health’s recent announcement of additional funding, which will go some way to assisting with the capital costs of Manorlands. However, I am concerned that the long-term funding equation does not adequately reflect the number of people who call on its services. If we do not get the equation right, we will threaten the delivery of that crucial service.

As effective and supportive as the palliative care teams are in Sue Ryder homes, the Hospice at Home organisation, and the Marie Curie centre in Bradford where my late husband John was cared for, some families and patients still carry the financial burden alone until the care team picks them up. That is worrying and upsetting. Indeed, the 2005 Macmillan report said that 84 per cent. of GPs surveyed were prompted to suggest and support a financial claim only when their patients were particularly ill during the last weeks of their lives. Surely we should ensure that every patient diagnosed with cancer is routinely advised of the services in their area and their benefits entitlement.

The only way in which we can be sure that essential advice is provided uniformly and as a matter of course throughout the country is to commission a Department of Health/Department for Work and Pensions review recommending ways in which patients can avoid falling through the benefits net. It should focus on how to improve awareness and take-up, and include the key issues of benefits information, the claims process and best practice for health care professionals to ensure that support and advice is available to patients and families as soon as they need it.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer) on securing the debate, and I thank her for agreeing to allow me to interject briefly.

The special rules category, which deals with people who are within six months of death, almost always from cancer, has been a bone of contention for a long time. It is a wonderful concept, but it is difficult in practice. The person who signs the DS1500 form should be the person who puts it on the system, so that the transmission to a clearing house is direct, the process kicks in and the patient does not require external agencies. It is worrying—I suspect that it is an oversight—that according to the Welfare Reform Bill those people who fall under the special rules for the disability living allowance will still have to go through the personal capability assessment. They will not be entitled to receive benefit until after the 13-week period specified. I hope that that is an oversight and will be addressed in Committee.

I thank my hon. Friend. He is, of course, the Chairman of the Select Committee on Work and Pensions and he knows far more about the matter than I do.

The most effective way to improve the provision of information would be for the Department for Work and Pensions to work more closely with the Department of Health. Improving the awareness and take-up of benefits among cancer patients is a classic example of a policy that requires joined-up working across Departments if it is to be effective. If health and social care services do not routinely inform patients of their benefits entitlements and signpost them to DWP services with the capacity to meet their needs, I fear that very little will improve. Ministerial leadership in both Departments is vital to overcome the view that a person’s financial health has little to do with their overall health.

We must recognise that the NHS is the first, and often only, support service to which people in crisis turn. Cancer patients need to know their rights. I was disturbed to read the recent report of the Disability Rights Commission. Despite the amendments to the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 to protect the rights of workers with cancer or long-term health conditions, brought into force in December last year under the Disability Discrimination Act 2005, the DRC helpline receives an average of two calls a week from women who have been diagnosed with breast cancer complaining of unfair treatment at work. Some 82 per cent. of callers with other cancers said that employers were failing to make reasonable adjustments that would help to keep them in work. It is crucial that people who have cancer and will come out of it, whether in one year, three or 20, have the capacity to go back to work. There is nothing like that to encourage them to get better and give them an objective to aim for.

I am proud that this Government have made cancer a priority. There are thousands of people alive today who would simply have had no chance of survival only a few years ago. However, the fight against cancer goes beyond the hospital ward; it is fought also in the home. To have any chance of beating cancer, patients and their families must be equipped with every tool available to help them cope in frequently traumatic situations. Cancer must be treated holistically, with the care of professional doctors and nurses, new treatments, alternative therapies, home care, palliative care teams, families and friends. All are important, but so too is peace of mind. How can any patient have the best chance to fight, or live with, one of the most devastating illnesses that we can suffer if they are concerned about making financial ends meet?

Cancer patients and their families are some of the most vulnerable people in our society. The least that we can do is ensure that they receive the support, including financial support, to which they are entitled.

I first congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer) on securing this debate and raising an important and sensitive issue. I also thank her for bringing a personal perspective to the debate. I know that that can sometimes be difficult for a politician, but in so doing she has given the matters that she has raised extra resonance and importance. She has used her own experience to highlight areas that we as a Government and politicians collectively must examine.

Some of the issues that my hon. Friend raised were related to the NHS. If she will forgive me, I shall not deal specifically with those matters, but I assure her that I shall draw her remarks on the service given to cancer patients by NHS organisations to the attention of the appropriate Minister in the Department of Health. I thank her for raising the matter highlighted last week by the Disability Rights Commission, which allows me to draw attention, as I did on Friday, to the fact that we have extended the coverage of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 to cancer patients from the point of diagnosis. I share her horror at the fact that, as highlighted in the DRC report, some women were given the sack because of their cancer treatment. I believe that agreement has been reached with the employers involved on when the coverage of the Act was drawn to their attention, but those cases should not have happened.

I shall focus on benefit advice and perhaps give my hon. Friend confidence that we are moving forward to ensure that good advice is given to help people, including those with cancer, to make informed decisions on claiming benefit. With that wider remit in mind, I wish to highlight the progress that has been made and show that we are continuing to undertake work to build on it.

The DWP publicises its benefit advice through various outlets. Our starting point is that it is available from the Department’s offices, through citizens advice bureaux and from an increasing number of advice agencies such as local authorities, social services and carers’ organisations. My hon. Friend mentioned two such organisations in her constituency, Sue Ryder Care and the Daisy Bank centre. Such organisations work in partnership with the Department. In addition, information on disability benefits is provided by the benefit inquiry line and the Directgov website, and people with internet access can use it to make claims for disability living allowance and attendance allowance. I appreciate that not everyone has such access, and given the situation of stress that many families find themselves in after a diagnosis of cancer, that might not be an option for some. However, it might be helpful to patients and their families.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, North (Mr. Rooney) commented that it is now possible for a family to process a claim rather than leaving it to a professional, which could mean that it gets lost in the process.

Yes, and I shall come to that point.

Having said that we are making really good progress and working in partnership with many organisations, I add that I am not at all complacent about the situation and I recognise that we need to improve benefit awareness. We are currently working with the Department of Health to develop better ways to signpost disability and other benefits at the earliest opportunity. That relates to a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley: it is a matter of how to get information to the individual, including getting advice to people as soon as possible after diagnosis. The process will be woven into the information prescription proposals for England that we are developing with the Department. The information prescription will signpost people to sources of information on their condition and to treatment and services at points along their care pathway, including at the point of diagnosis. It will also direct them to telephone advice lines to find out more about the available benefits. As well as their diagnoses, people will therefore be given a coherent indication of the services available to them, including benefit services.

The Department plans to start pilots of the information prescriptions in the near future, and we look forward to their being available across England by 2008. Scotland and Wales are looking at other ways of encouraging the giving of information to the patient, particularly on their health situation. That is a major step forward in delivering benefit awareness nearer to the point of diagnosis and will certainly help people with cancer. The information prescription approach has been promoted by many of the organisations campaigning on cancer.

My Department is now much more involved in outreach work with a range of partners at local level. As my hon. Friend said, those groups are often better placed to advise people about disability benefits in a far more targeted and personal way than would be possible through any mass disability awareness campaigns. Jobcentre Plus also provides information about the full range of available benefits when it deals with claims, including disability benefits.

The Department for Work and Pensions, including the disability and carers service within the Department, and the Department of Health have had several productive meetings with Macmillan Cancer Support about benefit advice. Indeed, I met Peter Cardy from Macmillan Cancer Support only a couple of weeks ago. The meetings between Macmillan and my officials were initiated by Macmillan’s valuable “Better Deal” campaign, which my hon. Friend mentioned and which, among other things, campaigned to raise awareness of benefits for cancer patients.

Our collective aim—that of Departments, Macmillan and the other cancer charities—is to consider how we can identify people who need benefit advice at the earliest opportunity. However, as I am sure my hon. Friend recognises, the Government must also ensure that people with other illnesses and disabilities receive the advice that they need, irrespective of their diagnosis.

Disability living allowance provides a contribution towards some of the extra costs faced by severely disabled people. The allowance is not, and never has been, paid as compensation for particular disabilities, diseases or medical conditions. Entitlement is based on the effect that a severe disability or illness has on a person’s need for personal care. Although automatic entitlement to any of the components of DLA for certain disabling conditions might initially appear attractive, it would not be a precise enough way to determine someone’s actual needs, how they might vary over time, the variable responses of an individual to their condition, or the severity of the condition in each individual’s case—I have discussed the issue with Macmillan. Knowing the particular condition does not help in deciding either what rate of benefit is appropriate or over what period it should be paid.

To that end, the disability and carers service has taken the lead, in working with the patient advice and liaison service, which is located in many hospitals, as I am sure my hon. Friend knows. The disability and carers service offers training sessions on disability living allowance and attendance allowance, and the patient advice line is now linked to the disability and carers service and DWP websites, to try to ensure that information reaches people as quickly as possible. I hope that my hon. Friend will agree that that will give patients better access to benefit information.

It is important that we raise awareness of special rules in those instances where the diagnosis gives the patient only a short time to live—six months in the case of special rules. As my hon. Friend highlighted, the issue is sensitive, but I hope that we now respond to it quickly and appropriately. People with a terminal illness who have a life expectancy of less than six months can claim under the special rules protocol. More than 80,000 special rules claims are dealt with every year, most of which—nearly 90 per cent.—involve people with cancer.

Although the National Audit Office report said that 77 per cent. of people had not received benefit information, as my hon. Friend mentioned, it also said that almost 53 per cent. of people did not want benefit information at the time of their diagnosis. I am sure that my hon. Friend shares with me the understanding that there are so many other things in a person’s life at the time of diagnosis that the important point is where we locate the information on benefit advice and how we get it to the individual and their family.

Doctors and medical professionals can often help in identifying people who may qualify, and supply the disability and carers service with information about the person’s diagnosis or treatment. As my hon. Friend said, we do not even ask that the individual make the application themselves, recognising that in some instances it might not be the right thing for a person to know that they have only a short time to live.

The current qualifying criteria do not discriminate against any disabled group. Entitlement to DLA and AA is based on the level of care or mobility needs of each individual, regardless of the diagnosis. It is right and fair that people with non-terminal cancer—under the current rules, those who are expected to live for more than six months—have to meet the same entitlement conditions with regard to DLA and AA as people with any other diagnosis. People who claim under the special rules do not have to provide information on their care needs when they fill in their claim forms. Indeed, it is worth repeating that they do not need to apply themselves and need not be aware that their award is linked to an early expectation of death. A friend or relative can make the claim.

Special rules claims are dealt with urgently and speedily. Above all, when someone meets the entitlement conditions for the special rules, their claim is automatically awarded at the higher rate. Additionally, doctors who are employed to give medical advice to the Department about those serious cases have to turn them around in 24 hours. The claims are currently cleared in five to six days. About 90,000 claims a year are made under the special rules arrangements for DLA and AA. As I indicated, about 89,000 people are being paid under those rules.

It should also be noted that even if a person does not qualify under the special rules, people with cancer can still claim DLA and AA under the normal rules if their condition means that they have extra personal care and/or mobility needs. Not all cancers have the same prognosis, so it is right that the facts of each case should be taken into account when deciding whether special rules apply.

DLA and AA entitlement can be reliably established only after a claim and an assessment of individual needs have been made. For that reason, our view, which I recognise that not everybody shares, is that it is not currently possible to make a reliable calculation of the number of people who are not receiving DLA or AA, but who might be entitled to do so if they were to make a claim. We certainly do not want to encourage inappropriate claims, but we also want to ensure that people have the information that they need to decide for themselves whether to make the claim. Our information and research do not support the view that the process of making a claim stops people from receiving DLA.

In the five years to February 2006, the number of people receiving DLA increased by nearly 24 per cent., and by nearly 2 per cent. in the past 12 months alone, while AA increased by 13 per cent., and by 2 per cent in the past 12 months. We are trying to simplify the claim process where we can. We are developing and trialling new DLA claim forms that we think will be more responsive to the individual.

Like my hon. Friend, I have had experience of a relative with cancer—my mother, who died of breast cancer. I know the pressures on families and, although I am pretty well clued up, I was not aware in 1995 of some of the benefits that we could have received. As Minister with responsibility for disabled people, I share with my hon. Friend the aim of ensuring that we give information to people with cancer and other conditions and disabilities as soon and as appropriately as possible. I thank her for raising such an important issue again today.

Sugar Beet

Mr. Olner, I should like to pause to remember my late colleague, the right hon. Eric Forth, whose life we have just commemorated in a thanksgiving service. He was an excellent parliamentarian, and such an expert on parliamentary procedures that the rest of us can only aspire to follow in his footsteps.

I am delighted to have secured this timely debate. The impact of the York British Sugar factory closure, expected to take place in February or March after this year’s sugar beet campaign, follows a number of other job losses. I welcome the Minister to his place and look forward keenly to what he has to say. For his information, I should say that before the factory closure was announced, we were facing something between 1,200 and 1,600 job losses in York. The Terry’s factory had closed and Nestlé had announced a major restructuring; two sets of job losses were announced in one year. Furthermore, Norwich Union, the insurance firm, announced a major restructuring and job losses as well. I mention all that to put in context, for the Minister’s benefit, what the impact of the next closure will be.

The location of the sugar beet has brought great benefits to the chocolate and confectionery industry in York and the York British Sugar factory’s closure poses questions about the future of the remaining chocolate factories there. Within York itself, the closure will result in more than 100—102, we think—job losses, but there are something like 790 growers supplying the York factory, and many are based in Vale of York and other parts of North Yorkshire. In a moment, I shall turn to the impact on contractors and supply industries, including the road hauliers. I hope to take a positive look at this debate and shall not dwell too long on such things, but I shall just set the scene for the impact in York and North Yorkshire. However, I hope to explain in conclusion that I have a bullish, positive, upbeat outlook on the farming community.

There is a lot that the Government and we can do together, working with all concerned. However, we need support from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, not least so that alternative crops can be used in the production of bioethanol. I hope to end on a positive note.

I also hope that the Minister sees fit through his good offices to support what I have attempted to do, which has not been without its local difficulties. I have asked City of York council to impose a condition on the planning application for what we assume will be a housing development on the factory site; prime residential land will be available when the factory closes. That condition is that the railhead be built close to, presumably, the A19—probably within Vale of York constituency. That would have to be very sensitively handled from a planning and traffic point of view. However, opening up the railhead would permit growers to transport their sugar beet to York and enable it to reach not just Newark but the remaining sugar beet factory at Wissington in East Anglia. That is a 130-mile round trip for many constituents in Vale of York and North Yorkshire generally. I hope that the Minister will join me in applying that pressure.

I recognise that the decision is commercial and that since the day I was elected to represent Vale of York I have received complaints about the lorries, the noise pollution and the hours involved during what is called a sugar beet campaign, which runs approximately from October to February, sometimes March. It brings with it noise, heavy lorries and dirt and mud on the roads, and for some a decision to build houses on the site would be welcome. However, despite all that, I hope that there will continue to be a future for sugar beet growing.

The Minister will tell me that the issue goes back to the decisions taken, with our support, on the “Everything but Arms” campaign, which led to a fall in the price of sugar and more imports from third countries such as Brazil, which to my knowledge were never traditionally sugar cane producers, but are now undercutting. Another problem is that although world sugar consumption has been rising steadily in recent years, that rising consumption has been outstripped by the rise in production, giving a surplus that will continue for a considerable time.

The recent environmental impact assessment carried out by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and non-governmental organisations shows that the growing of sugar beet has positive, beneficial effects on biodiversity and bird life. During the past 20 years, there has been a substantial reduction in all forms of chemical input to crops; in the case of insecticides, the reduction has been 95 per cent. In addition, many of the co-products of processing sugar beet are utilised in the farming industry—in animal feeds, for example.

I hope that the Minister will address the real political issue, which so far has not been given a great deal of publicity. Alarmingly, there has been a 7 to 10 per cent. reduction across the board in the DEFRA budget. We heard this morning that for British Waterways, the reduction has been as high as 15 per cent. The DEFRA budget cut amounts to £200 million. The background, as I am sure the Minister will confirm, is avian influenza; the delays involved in the introduction of single farm payments for farmers, which have meant that interest payments have had to be made to the European Union; and an overspend on IT resources within the Rural Payments Agency. Flood defences will be particularly badly hit, along with nature conservation and canal repair work. Obviously, that, on top of everything else in connection with this debate, causes great concern to farmers.

As I mentioned, the York British Sugar factory is due to close in January, February or March next year. Three core groups in Vale of York will be affected—the growers, contractors and suppliers. As I mentioned, many parties are hoping to come into play and give their support, but they are hampered by the fact that it is often difficult to identify parties other than the actual growers. Critical remarks have been made by the Tenant Farmers Association, and I am delighted that the Prime Minister has agreed to meet a small delegation led by me tomorrow. I shall furnish him with a copy of my and the Minister’s remarks on the issues.

Will the Minister respond to my comments—if possible today, or, if time does not permit, in writing after this debate—so that I can share his response with the association? It understands that British Sugar could have decided to avail itself of the European Union restructuring scheme, agreed as part of the November 2005 sugar reforms, set out in EU Council regulation 320 of 2006, agreed and published on 20 February this year. Given the quota associated with the York and other factory closures—Allscott, in particular—British Sugar would have been entitled to up to about £490 per tonne in restructuring aid in return for announcing the complete or partial decommissioning of the sugar processing plant. Under the regulation, at least 10 per cent. of that aid would have to be passed to affected growers and contractors.

The Tenant Farmers Association argues that that would be a minimum, but should be a lot higher, particularly given the development value of the two closed sites. I understand that growers supplying the Greencore plant in Ireland will receive an astounding 32 per cent. of the restructuring aid available under the EU scheme, following decisions to relinquish the quota associated with that factory. Perhaps the Minister could respond to that against the background that, even with transport costs being offered to growers who supply York, it does not make economic sense when beet prices are £20 a tonne or less to transport beet into Newark, let alone Bury St. Edmunds or Wissington.

Among those who hope to assist the growers in particular is Yorkshire Forward. Obviously, it is easy to identify the growers, as they have identical contracts with British Sugar, and the National Farmers Union has been acting on behalf of all who are involved. However, Yorkshire Forward is finding it difficult at this stage to obtain supplier information from British Sugar. I wonder whether the Minister could use his good offices and intervene to ensure that not just the growers but the other parties concerned will be able to benefit in that respect.

The growers reached an agreement that I gather was concluded within the past fortnight. Unfortunately, British Sugar led them to believe that Newark would be the next port of call, but the British Sugar factory at Newark is full, so they will have to transport to Wissington. That is why they have such a problem.

The Minister may wish to address the fact that sugar beet will have to be replaced, as it is a rotation crop. It may be replaced by winter cereals or oilseed rape. I hope that the Minister will look favourably on the potential for those crops and also on the option of biofuels, which I shall come to in a moment.

Contractors have invested large amounts of money in harvesting equipment dedicated to beet. In most cases, a new machine costs in excess of £250,000. The problem for many people is that they are not eligible for compensation from British Sugar, which has no point of contact with them. They will be left completely in the lurch when the campaign season for sugar beet ends, and there will be repercussions for staff and employees of growers and contractors.

The supply industries—primarily hauliers with special loading equipment for beet—have invested large amounts of money to provide themselves with work for five months of the year. As the announcement was made late in the year, they expected the contracts to extend beyond January or February of next year. They, too, will be left in the lurch. Like the contractors who have heavy machinery that will be left idle if no alternative use is found, road hauliers have lorries that are fit for little else than hauling beet, unless the Minister sees fit to join my campaign to ensure a connecting railhead.

The three groups are the growers—the NFU has negotiated on their behalf and cared for them, but the Minister might like to address the remarks of the Tenant Farmers Association—and the suppliers and the contractors, who will be left in some considerable financial difficulty.

Finally, through the Minister, I would like to explore with the Government the opportunities for developing biofuels. He may or may not be aware that for many years there were lucrative contracts for sugar beet growers. Sugar beet has been a stable crop when everything else has failed or lost money. Recently, there was also an agreement under which willow coppice would be taken from north Yorkshire and co-fired with coal at Drax, but it has ended. There may be potential for bioethanol, either at Teeside or, as is more likely, at the sugar beet factory in Wissington. However, the only option at present is the British Sugar plant at Wissington. Against a background in which the Government have failed to meet their bioethanol targets, certainly in the past year, I hope that they will look favourably on VAT at a lower or zero rate on the production of bioethanols. The Conservative party through its shadow Minister for agriculture and rural affairs and, indeed, its leader is committed to exploring bioethanol, and I hope that the Minister will respond positively to the issue.

In conclusion, I am delighted to have secured this debate. The Minister will detect that emotions are running high against the backdrop of British Sugar’s announcement that the factory will close so near the end of the campaign. I wait in anticipation of some good news from him.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh) on securing the debate and associate myself with her remarks about her late colleague, Eric Forth, who was respected on both sides of the House.

I extend my sympathy and understanding to the hon. Lady’s constituents who will find themselves out of work as a result of closures and job losses at Terry’s, Nestlé, Norwich Union and, potentially, within the sugar industry itself. I understand the importance that she attaches to the future of sugar beet production in the UK, and the passion with which she speaks about it and the interests of growers and processors, particularly those in her constituency. This is certainly not the first time that the House has debated sugar reform. However, it is the first time we have been able to have a considered discussion of the issues since the reform process that was successfully concluded last November under the UK presidency of the EU—the first substantive reform of the sector in nearly 40 years.

I do not want to rehearse all the arguments for change, but it was estimated that the old regime cost EU consumers and taxpayers nearly £5 billion a year, less than half of which was transferred as benefits to beet growers and processors. The result was a welfare loss to the EU economy of around £3 billion a year. In the UK alone, the net annual economic cost was estimated at more than £500 million.

The old sugar regime was also the single most distorting and protectionist element of the whole common agricultural policy. Negotiating reform was complex and difficult, but it was clear to all that an EU sugar price of more than three times world levels simply was not sustainable.

It is worth while briefly to recap the three fundamental aspects of the reform package. First, sugar prices are to be cut by one third over the next four years. The sugar-using industries have been crying out for price cuts for many years. Indeed, the hon. Lady knows that from her constituency interests, which include Terry’s and Nestlé. She will no doubt recall that when Kraft Foods closed its Terry’s of York factory in 2000 and Nestlé recently announced 645 job losses at its York manufacturing facility, high costs of raw materials, including sugar, were implicated in both decisions. The unsustainable system of high sugar prices may have been good news to sugar beet growers and processors while it lasted, but it damaged our food and drink industry. The price cuts seek to reverse that damage in part—I say “in part” because, of course, only one third has been cut from prices that were three times world prices.

Secondly, a substantial compensation package for sugar beet growers has been announced. I shall say a little more about that aspect of the reforms in a moment. The third element is a restructuring scheme to help those member states with inefficient sugar production sectors close down their industries. One of the many problems of the former regime was the over-production encouraged by high prices and the quota management system. It was necessary to provide a financial incentive to persuade inefficient producers to quit production. As there has been confusion—indeed, the hon. Lady alluded to tenant farmers and their understanding of the situation, which perhaps added to it—I must stress that British Sugar’s planned factory closures are not part of the restructuring scheme. Far from it. Instead, it plans to remain in the business of producing sugar in the UK.

Difficult and controversial though the reform process was, the final outcome was accepted as a tough but necessary deal by all sides of the UK industry, including the National Farmers Union on behalf of sugar growers. In the course of negotiations, the Government published a full regulatory impact assessment on the effect of the reforms on various sectors of the sugar industry including, of course, the effect on sugar beet growers in Yorkshire and elsewhere in England. That was submitted to Parliament.

It is clear that there will be significant implications for UK beet growers. It is quite possible that the industry will not continue at the current level. The hon. Lady’s remarks have given us a feel for those implications. Farmers who receive the single farm payment, decoupled from production, may choose not to continue to grow sugar beet at all if other crops appear more profitable, but that would be a rational response to market signals allowing resources to be used to the best effect.

It was also open to British Sugar to participate in the restructuring scheme. I want to address this point in particular, as the hon. Lady dwelt on it and there is clearly confusion. British Sugar could have given up its production quota, exited from sugar production and received EU compensation. It chose not to take that course.

British Sugar plans to close factories at York and Allscott next year as part of its commitment to the future of sugar production in the UK. Rather than pulling out, it has signalled its intention to maintain and possibly even increase levels of quota for beet in the UK. In order to be fully competitive, it intends to do that at a smaller number of factories. That is, of course, unfortunate for the hon. Lady’s constituents who are beet growers or who work at the York factory.

Job losses are always regrettable and it is inevitable that some will occur at the York and Allscott factories, but I am pleased to say that an agreement has been reached between British Sugar and the NFU covering the consequences for sugar beet growers who are affected by the factory closures. Growers have the option of continuing to grow beet and supplying a more distant factory, or of switching to alternative crops and selling their supply contracts to a more favourably located grower.

My noble Friend the Minister of State at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Lord Rooker, recently made an announcement on compensation for sugar beet growers through the single farm payment. It is intended that the additional support arising from last November’s landmark EU sugar reform will be incorporated into the single payment scheme from 2006. That support will be worth almost £500 million over the next seven years.

As there have been difficulties with implementing the SPS in England, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State announced in June that he had decided to simplify to the maximum possible extent the arrangements for delivery of the sugar support for the 2006 SPS. In practice, that means that the £52 million available in the 2006 scheme year will be added entirely to entitlements held by the 7,000 sugar beet producers who meet defined qualifying criteria, rather than some of the funds being used to increase the flat-rate value of all SPS entitlements.

It has also been confirmed that from the 2007 scheme year, the additional support will be incorporated into the SPS on the existing flat rate and historic split, but that in the 2007 to 2009 scheme years, the annual increments in that support relative to the 2006 scheme year level will be added each year to the entitlements held, initially at least, by sugar producers. It is hoped the greater share of the income support directed at historic sugar beet growers in the key transitional period of 2007 to 2009 will help the industry to cope during the critical period of phasing in the price cuts that arise from sugar reform.

The arrangements that we announced on the incorporation of income support into the SPS were supported by the vast majority of consultees. I believe that the decisions that we have made successfully balance the interests of sugar producers and all other SPS claimants while taking account of the need for arrangements that the Rural Payments Agency can successfully manage alongside its existing challenges.

Finally, I want to refer to the potential for biofuel production in the UK, which the hon. Lady raised. The Government are keen to support agricultural diversification and the development of new market opportunities as appropriate, and biofuels are an important growth area, including bioethanol obtained from sugar beet. Road transport accounts for a quarter of the UK’s total carbon emissions and low carbon transport fuels will almost certainly be required if the Government’s 2050 target is to be met.

I am most grateful to the Minister for his comments, and I will read with care what he said about the compensation scheme. I welcome his comments on biofuels, but last year only 0.3 per cent. of the UK petrol and diesel market was provided by biofuels when the EU’s target, which was presumably agreed with his Government, was 2 per cent. Can he offer some encouragement that we will meet the targets year on year?

We were close to the target for biofuels in general in 2005 and we are introducing the renewable transport fuel obligation to increase production of biofuels to 5 per cent. by 2010. I hope that that gives the hon. Lady the assurance that she and her constituents need. There is a growing and developing market, and the Government will take the necessary action to see that the pull factor in the equation attracts more investment into biofuels.

In 2005, renewable fuels such as bioethanol and biodiesel accounted for only about 0.24 per cent. of all road fuel sales, as the hon. Lady said. However, to develop supply further the Government intend to introduce the renewable transport fuel obligation. As I have suggested, that will deliver 1 million tonnes of carbon savings by 2010.

I want quickly to address some of the specific questions that the hon. Lady raised and, in particular, the benefit of sugar beet on biodiversity as a rotation crop. It is certainly true that sugar beet has environmental benefits as a spring-sown broadleaf crop, but alternatives are available, as she acknowledged, and that can be addressed through the agri-environment schemes.

The hon. Lady also stated that there had been a £200 million reduction in the DEFRA budget. I want to correct that, as I am sure she would want me to. There has not been a £200 million reduction. New pressures, specifically those that she mentioned from avian influenza and so on, have meant that that money has been reprioritised to address those problems. There certainly has not been a cut in the amount of money spent to the order of £200 million. That is simply wrong.

The hon. Lady raised the specific matter of British Waterways and flood defences. In the reprioritisation process, there has been no cut in the capital allocation for flood defences, but only a cut relative to the revenue stream budget in that area. She has to see that in the context of the dramatic increase in funding achieved by British Waterways since 1999. The extraordinary backlog of repairs that had not been done for the previous 20 years has now been addressed and British Waterways has restored 200 miles of waterways to public navigation. It has done a tremendous job with the huge extra investment made available to it.

The hon. Lady talked about the location of sugar beet benefiting the factories of Terry’s and Nestlé and also asked specifically about the planning condition on the location of the railhead to facilitate growers to reach the market and sugar beet production at Wissington. In relation to the distance from the market, I am sure she has seen that British Sugar is operating site rationale in terms of best yield and transport distance. Of course, the problem for the York factory has been that, in terms of the yield, it has the lowest—

Hearing Loss (Coal Industry)

I shall proceed studiously, carefully and cautiously to outline the issues that I wish to raise about the scheme—or the lack of a scheme—that the Government operate for coal industry hearing loss claims. It is not a new matter. Such claims have been submitted over many years; the vast majority were settled 10 or more years ago through the iron trades scheme, which itself wound up about six years ago. I want to consider what has happened since then, and to ask some questions.

For the benefit of the Minister, and to give his officials the maximum time to delve into the issue, I give notice that one of my questions will be about the levying of VAT on costs, particularly those of the Union of Democratic Mineworkers. I have asked various parliamentary questions during the past year on whether the UDM has had to pay VAT on its costs. I give the officials the maximum time to clarify matters, should the Minister care to respond on that point.

I shall start with how the system used to work. Until six years ago, the costs paid by the Department for Trade and Industry as the employer, as a result of its Coal Board legacy, were between £600 and £700 a case. That is what solicitors received across the board. A number of solicitors have verified that the figures were in that ball park, and the Department’s statistics, kindly supplied in written answers, demonstrate that that was pretty much the case even six years ago. The vast majority of cases were not legally disputed. Most legal disputes were over limitation, but the vast majority were not disputed and therefore never went near the courts.

Since then, we have moved away from that system to a hybrid of bilateral arrangements with certain solicitors and others, and the common law. The position has worsened with the impact of the Conditional Fee Agreements Regulations 2000, which came into force in November 2000. From then, a different approach seems to have been taken by solicitors, which has implications for our constituents and for the Government.

I offer the Minister the opportunity to demonstrate that his Department and the Government have higher standards than other employers—as the Government should, given their employer liabilities. First, on their expenditure, the Government have a duty to taxpayers; secondly, as good employers, the Government have a duty of care to current and ex-employees. The difference between good and bad employers is that, faced with compensation claims for an industrial disease, the bad employer does not care how much goes to the men or women making the claim; they care about the bottom line and how much it will cost them. For the Government, the breakdown between the two is equal; the Government want to minimise the amount of taxpayers’ money being spent in toto—rightly so—but they also want to maximise the amount that goes to those who suffer industrial diseases as a result of negligence either of the Government or, as in this case, of the Coal Board, the employer.

When considering solicitors’ costs, the past six years provide some interesting reading. Between 2000 and 2006, the increase in solicitors’ costs for hearing loss claims has risen by 78 per cent. That is a significant increase. Average damages have gone down only slightly, but it is fair to say that they have remained on an even keel at just over £2,000 per man. I turn to the costs; I shall give one example, but there are many more—and this is not one of the more expensive ones.

In 2001, Beresford, the firm of solicitors, was paid an average per claim of £687. In 2005, that had risen to £1,246. As I said, at 61 per cent., that increase is below the average; the rise for the other solicitors and claims handlers is 78 per cent. That demonstrates a sudden and prominent rise. I shall round the figures downwards; the averages from 1999 onwards are £700, £700, £700, £700, £800, £1,100, £1,100 and £1,200. It is an upward spiral of costs to the taxpayer, but it is not only the Government who are paying more. Strangely, the claimant who wins is paying more.

It will be interesting to consider what has happened to some of my constituents. I have with me the minutes of a meeting between Beresford and the UDM. It gives details of how moneys will be transferred between the various agencies. It states that Vendside is “entitled” to a share of the client’s compensation. That sums up what was going on. A range of middlemen and women are sticking their noses in. That is the kind of thing happening to my constituents. If someone takes a claim to the UDM, the union might pass it on to a solicitor—perhaps Beresford. But Beresford could pass it on to another company, perhaps Browns. Indeed, I know of a case in which that happened. As a result, a cut of £352.50 goes to Vendside and another cut of about £250 goes to Beresford—before any work has been done by Browns.

It gets worse. I have a copy of the standard UDM form that one of my constituents had to use. Stamped over it is “Walker and Co.” and in the corner of the form I see this:

“When instructing Melex, the referral source of this claim should be noted on the letter of instruction.”

It seems a rather odd thing to write on a claim. Going back through the minutes of the meeting between Beresford and the UDM, I see that for medical fees Melex is a middleman broker, as is Walker and Co. They, too, are getting a cut of the money. Frankly, although the question whether my constituent or the Government pay is important, someone is making money out of claims for hearing loss.

Will my hon. Friend join me in condemning Watson Burton solicitors, who last week were exposed in the Newcastle Journal for colluding with a company called P and R Associates, another middleman firm? It abducted some £350,000 from victims’ payouts. Does my hon. Friend think that the Government should write to everyone who has had a claim paid, pointing out that those deductions are not necessary and should be repaid?

It would be appropriate for the Government, as a good employer, to write to everyone.

The Watson Burton case highlights the problem. The firm has been disciplined by the Law Society, but that ruling was kept private and confidential. It came to light only when it was leaked into the public domain, despite the fact that it affected the Government’s determination whether Watson Burton should be entitled to do hearing loss claims, as I believe it does, or claims for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or vibration white finger—or even consumer complaints for redress to the Law Society. I hope that the Minister will insist on making judgments public on all firms of solicitors in which his Department has a direct financial relationship.

Everyone taking a cut has a knock-on effect. The same model has been used for textile workers. However, it is worse for them, as cases are dropped, with less good employers being prepared to negotiate before they get to court. There is a strange correlation, in that hundreds of cases are dropped by solicitors the moment that employers are about to go through the costly legal process.

The document that I have here may explain some of that—I will give the Minister a copy afterwards. It is about an offshore insurance company and its relationship with one of the companies dealing with hearing loss, which does other work with the Government. The document goes through the distribution of the gross premium that would in theory apply to hearing loss cases in the mining industry—I do not know whether it actually does, because it is a generic document. A £1,400 premium is levied for a conditional fee arrangement. That is then split into £550 for the insurer, £500 into what appears to be an offshore trust account, £150 into another account and £200 into a fourth account. Those figures are documented in great detail in relation to an Isle of Man offshore insurer that deals with hearing loss claims, and I suspect may deal with claims in relation to the mining industry as well as the textile industry. I will leave the Minister to inform the House about that at a later stage if it impacts on his responsibilities.

Clearly, something is awry. The Minister claims in one of his answers that the issue of insurance indemnity is a matter for claimants. I suggest that it is a matter for the Government as well as claimants. People in the textile industry could have gone through unions, such as the Community union, at no cost or risk to themselves. Instead, they went down another route—that is a separate issue for a different Department about access to justice, but it impacts on the Minister’s Department.

In relation to mining, the insurance indemnity issue should be of concern to the Minister. A constituent who has had deductions, like many others, has been told that he should have £50,000 in insurance indemnity, in essence to meet the Government’s costs if he loses in court. I have looked at his insurance policy and he has only £25,000 of indemnity. There are countless identical cases. That is an issue for employers, but is also an issue for my constituent in terms of access to justice and for the Government as an employer.

The issue of VAT is simple. I have here a series of written answers from the Minister. We are told that all hearing loss claims from the Union of Democratic Mineworkers were submitted by the UDM, not by Vendside. However, it appears from another set of answers that VAT has been paid on all the claims. If that is the case, around £1 million of taxpayers’ money has been wrongly paid in VAT. Unions cannot levy VAT in such cases. Limited liability companies can, but the claims referred to in four written answers were put in by the UDM, so I trust that the Minister will confirm whether VAT has been paid and immediately take action with Customs and Excise to claw back what I estimate to be £800,000 to £1 million of taxpayers’ money wrongly paid out to the UDM.

My final point relates to minutes that I have obtained under the freedom of information legislation, having failed to obtain the information through parliamentary questions. It is a note of a meeting between the UDM and the Department. In the response to my request, the document is described as the only minutes before the claims handling agreements from 1999 were settled. I have copies here for hon. Members. Two paragraphs are particularly interesting. The first says:

“The UDM have been accepting “defecting” claimants who had initially been registered with solicitors such as—”.

The name has been deleted, and I am sure that hon. Members would like to know which solicitor that is. The second says:

“The UDM will administer both VWF and COAD claims for anyone, from anywhere, and do not charge the claimant anything for the service” .

We have it on the record—these are official minutes—but that has not been stated before. Indeed, there appears to have been some defence of charging by the UDM, yet in the one meeting between the DTI and the UDM before the claims handling agreement was signed with the UDM, it is specifically stated in the minutes that the union will not charge. I suspect that this may be useful in forthcoming legal action against the UDM.

There is then a paragraph that has been blanked out. As this relates sequentially to the question of how the UDM are operating, I suggest that it is in the public interest that the paragraph be made public, so that people can see precisely what the arrangements were between the UDM and the DTI at that time. The energy liabilities committee is identified in the document. It has delegated authority to make a decision. No one I have spoken to has heard of that committee, and I would like the Minister to clarify who sat on that committee, what delegated responsibilities it had and during what years or months it sat.

I want to ask the Minister about people who have not received money for hearing loss claims dealt with by his Department over some years when the Department has conceded the principle that there is a claim to be made. Is his Department choosing to keep people in contact with the progress of their claim? There appear to be cases in which my constituents have not been informed of progress for the past two years. Will he methodically keep claimants in touch with their claims in cases in which they will certainly receive compensation, although the amount may be in dispute?

Claims in 2000 or 1999—I have looked at loads of them—were settled in three months, from the claim being lodged until final payment. Settlements are now taking five years, which seems to be a long time. Will the Minister condemn the practice of industrial deafness and hearing loss claims being handled by telephone? I have found that all cases were dealt with by telephone. Does he agree that there needs to be an urgent policy statement by the Law Society on that practice, as it is clearly a nonsense and brings solicitors into disrepute.

Does the Minister agree that if the Government allow a claims handler such as the UDM to deal with claims, there have to be consumer rights equivalent to those for dealing with complaints about solicitors through the Law Society? Indeed, why are claims handlers putting in claims, and will he release the range of costs given to different solicitors in relation to the agreements over hearing loss, so that we can see the maximum and the minimum?

I have asked questions on VAT, Melex and Walker and Co. Finally, will the Minister give access to claimants’ files where there is a consumer complaint? If there is a complaint and a solicitor is involved, there is the possibility, using the Law Society’s regulatory powers, to access the file so that we can see what has happened and the claimant can proceed with their complaint for better or worse. That seems appropriate, and from my experience it is a good system that works. The Law Society could do with ratcheting up its action against solicitors who mess it around, but generally the system works.

The potential to use such a system is not there for any hearing loss claim put in by the UDM. When I have requested a file or answers from the UDM on behalf of a constituent, there has been no response hitherto other than a refusal. Will the Minister, as a good employer, give my constituents and others who have a consumer dispute the right to access the employer file so that they can take their complaint—against the UDM rather than the Government—to a further stage?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) for raising this issue. He has had a long and partially successful campaign that has led to a major inquiry into coal health compensation, and parliamentary statements by Ministers on this important subject. I am fully aware of the concerns that he and others have expressed about the difficulties that some claimants have faced in securing their full compensation, and about the manner in which solicitors and others have acted in handling the claims.

Generally, I am of course keen to ensure that the Department continues to pay damages swiftly and fairly—that is what the scheme should be about. I recognise that solicitors should be properly rewarded, but I also have a duty to the public purse to keep costs to a minimum and relevant to the work undertaken.

The first noise-induced hearing loss claims from miners were made against British Coal in the late 1970s and early 1980s. British Coal settled a considerable number of noise claims from its former employees. Some 257,000 hearing loss claims were made against British Coal in the 18-year period up to 1997. As the matter had not been heard in full at court, there was no time pressure on solicitors to submit claims.

The Department assumed responsibility for British Coal’s liabilities in January 1998. British Coal had been taken to court in 1996 under two separate group litigations supported by the mining unions. British Coal was found negligent in relation to vibration white finger in 1997 and in relation to respiratory disease in 1998. As a result, the Department entered into claims handling agreements in relation to those claims.

With hearing loss claims, the Department inherited pre-existing agreements between British Coal and miners’ representatives relating to those claims. At the end of August 2006, almost 40,000 hearing loss claims had been submitted since January 1997. Of those, more than 37,000 have been settled, denied or withdrawn, with more than 2,000 outstanding. Claims still outstanding are mainly claims of minimal hearing loss or those that have progressed to litigation. In total, almost £70 million has been paid in compensation since 1997. We continue to receive about 100 claims a month, although the trend is downward. Typically, claims take a little over a year to settle.

British Coal negotiated the settlement of claims on an individual basis. It did so initially by negotiating with the principal mining unions, entering into agreements with the unions directly, and their appointed legal representatives. As miners left the industry, many of them left the union and when they later became aware of their hearing loss they brought claims through high-street firms of solicitors. The change in the profile of cases led British Coal to enter into arrangements for the disposal of noise claims not only with unions, but with those firms that had large volumes of claims. In large part, the Department has continued with those agreements.

In the early days, claims were presented with either union backing or legal aid. In 2000, conditional fee arrangements were introduced and legal aid for personal injury claims was withdrawn. The Conditional Fee Agreements Regulations 2000 introduced different ways of financing claims for both solicitors and unions. The cost of financing unsuccessful cases is met by an uplift on the successful ones. The changes have meant that the Department has faced an increased cost liability in those cases in which there is no costs agreement in place and the claim is supported by a conditional fee agreement. There has also been pressure in those cases in which costs agreements are in place to increase the costs payable under those arrangements. Costs are settled on the best basis economically for the Department. If we can negotiate them, it is usually on a global basis, so none of the components is specifically negotiated. However, if the costs remain in dispute, each aspect of the costs will be questioned.

The Conditional Fee Agreements Regulations 2000 were intended to protect claimants from entering into agreements that were unnecessary or that they did not understand. Since November 2005, when the regulations were revised, the Law Society has been responsible for consumer protection. The new regulations are also designed to prevent technical challenges to conditional fee agreements. New codes of conduct in relation to client care and information regarding funding are due for release later this year. The Law Society has also produced a model conditional fee agreement.

There are cases in which the Department believes that solicitors have failed to satisfy the requirements of the Conditional Fee Agreements Regulations. That has led to continued challenges to the right to costs. However, I am pleased to report that the number of such challenges is reducing. I should make it clear that in cases in which the Department disputes the level of costs claimed, compensation is still paid up front. The Department is also making interim payment of those elements of costs that are not disputed. I understand that, in some cases, the claimant’s representative is withholding part of the compensation due in order to cover interest payments that accrue while the costs element is in dispute. That is, to put it mildly, disappointing, but it is for the Law Society to consider whether solicitors are acting appropriately in those circumstances.

My hon. Friend raised valid concerns both about claimants not receiving their compensation in full and about the manner in which some parties have handled claims. I stress that those are matters for the Law Society, not the Department. I am also deeply concerned that moneys are being deducted from claimants’ compensation; indeed, I am disgusted to learn of that practice. I assure my hon. Friend that I will continue to raise my concerns with the Law Society’s investigation and enforcement directorate and will maintain a close interest in the consideration of the issue. Indeed, I plan to meet its representatives again in early November to discuss progress.

The Department shares many of my hon. Friend’s concerns. In particular, I am concerned that some of the contractual arrangements entered into by some claimant representatives may breach either the Conditional Fee Agreements Regulations or the professional code of conduct for solicitors. Were that to be the case, I would expect that liability for costs could be struck down. I am also concerned by the level of some insurance premiums claimed. Those do not always appear to be good value for the claimant. A cheaper and more effective policy could and should have been obtained.

The level of the success fee uplift is invariably 90 to 100 per cent., leading to a potential doubling of the Department’s costs liability. I believe such claims to be excessive, given the nature of the cases that have been brought.

The Department considers some of the medical arrangements in these cases and the use of medical agencies excessive if not unnecessary. Courts have previously ruled that medical agency fees are recoverable provided that they are reasonable. Consequently, the Department continues to challenge charges that appear unreasonably high.

I cannot answer all the detailed points today. Some are very specific and some involve significant allegations, but I promise to respond fully to my hon. Friend in writing. On the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones), that the Department should write to all claimants, we have considered that in the past. However, for various reasons that I could explain, we felt that it might lead to unnecessary anxiety and confusion. Some of the people involved are now very old and we must be sensitive about this issue. However, the Law Society has stepped up its advertising campaign to raise awareness of the issue of deductions, and in the light of my hon. Friend’s point, I will raise the issue again with the Law Society when I meet its representatives in a few weeks’ time.

On the question about the responsibilities of the energy liabilities committee, I understand that my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw has asked me a parliamentary question about that. Although obviously I know the answer now, I think that it might be best to put it in writing as soon as I can.

On the levying of VAT on costs by the UDM, again I will have to write to my hon. Friend, but in view of what he has said, I will consider whether I need to take further action in terms of a possible need to alert the relevant Department or to direct Customs and Excise if that seems sensible, given what I think my hon. Friend was driving at.

There is one point that the Minister could confirm today if he was so minded. I am referring to access to files where there is a consumer complaint against the UDM and there is no ability to use the Law Society to force that organisation even to release the file to see, for example, whether the case has been handled properly in terms of the amount of compensation obtained.

In principle, it is always important to let people have access to as many data as possible. I cannot give my hon. Friend a full answer now. Because he does occasionally ask questions about this subject—100 or so a week—I will respond to him on the matter in writing so that I can get my answer right.

I congratulate my hon. Friend and colleagues on raising a series of matters relating to coal health compensation. We should remember that this has, in general, been a very successful scheme that has given many millions of pounds of proper compensation to decent former miners or their relatives. None of the concerns should hide that fact, but there are concerns, which is why we set up the official inquiry. I reported in parliamentary statements the outcome of that. My hon. Friend has now raised other matters, which I will take most seriously.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at two minutes to Two o’clock.