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Westminster Hall

Volume 454: debated on Wednesday 13 December 2006

Westminster Hall

Wednesday 13 December 2006

[Sir Nicholas Winterton in the Chair]

Road Pricing

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

This debate is important, and I am delighted to see in the Chamber so many hon. Members from Birmingham, the west midlands and Greater Manchester. It is unusual for an hon. Member from one urban conurbation to secure a debate relating to another, but I hope that why I have done so will become clear.

At present, Manchester and Birmingham, and Greater Manchester and the west midlands, are going through a competitive process for transport innovation funds to improve public transport in their areas. Competition between major cities in this country is not unusual, but that process is worthy of further examination through open debate and discussion. I am grateful for the opportunity this morning.

Both conurbations are bidding for the transport funds. If it all goes ahead, one area will win and the other will lose. In all probability, that will mean road pricing and a better form of bus regulation for one of the areas. That is my interpretation of yesterday’s consultation document on buses and all my discussions about the process with officials in Greater Manchester and elsewhere. However, when I have asked the previous and current Secretaries of State for Transport, they have said that road pricing and congestion charging will not be forced on the areas as a condition for funding tram schemes and other public investments. That is not what officials in Greater Manchester understand; they believe that if they do not bring in some form of road pricing, they will not get the funds.

The background is that, on an annual basis for the foreseeable future, the public transport funding allocated to the north-west is £115 million a year. All the officials in Merseyside and Greater Manchester tell me that that is not enough for the individual sub-regions, so there is terrific pressure on Greater Manchester to bid for the funding.

It will be helpful to consider what is happening to the national spatial distribution of funding for transport and other services. It is very difficult to have debates such as this without bringing London into the equation. London always gets more per head of population, and we can argue about whether that is right or wrong, or whether it is disproportionate. However, it is clear that as the economy grows under this Government, education and health funding in London and all around the country grow proportionately—but not transport funding. In transport, the difference has increased.

The other great cities of this country have gone from getting roughly 50 to roughly 40 per cent. per capita of what is spent on London. During a sitting of the Transport Committee on 29 November, I asked the Secretary of State for Transport why that was. His answer—and I paraphrase—was that London is different. Indeed it is, but it was different five, 10 and 15 years ago. It is important to the whole economy, but that does not explain the different ratios. That is one point.

All the great cities of this country—Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds, Sheffield, Newcastle—not only look for resources from central Government, but are in serious competition with other European cities and cities around the world. Let us compare Munich and Manchester. The funding of public transport per capita in Munich is eight times that of Manchester. The basis of what I am saying this morning is that if our cities are to be successful and economically viable, we have to look at how money is spent in this country and how it is spent in comparison with other areas.

The populations of the west midlands and Greater Manchester almost equal that of London—if we throw in West Yorkshire, the population is equivalent to London’s. It is vital that London gets the transport system that it deserves, but it is just as vital, both for the cities that I am talking about and the country, that we maximise the economic potential in Birmingham, Leeds, Manchester and the other great cities. That requires looking at our national priorities, which I do not think we have right.

We should also consider some of the investment that goes into London. Although it seems perverse, I think that some of that cash subsidises congestion and reduces the economic impact of other serious investment. There are simply not enough public sector jobs being moved out of London. That is not happening as quickly as it should. That is the background. That is why public transport in Birmingham, Manchester and other cities needs funding.

I have another question. Are we really saying that if Birmingham wins, Manchester should not get the investment that it needs, or that if Manchester wins, Birmingham should not get the investment that it needs? That would be a dereliction of duty. The process that the Government are bringing forward is to set up road pricing or congestion charging in the victorious city; they say that that will produce revenue and stop the damage that congestion does to the economy.

Why do we start by looking at road pricing and congestion charging in urban areas? What really differentiates this country from our European competitors is inter-urban congestion. I should have thought that the Government could lead by starting a national road pricing scheme rather than considering one for our urban areas and relating it to a lack of investment in public funding.

There are many difficulties in respect of congestion and economic development and its impact on the economy. In the Transport Committee, I have asked professor after professor about the relationship between those two effects, but they say that there are no direct studies that will show us. They can measure the extra time that people spend in cars, but it is difficult to determine the impact that that has on the economy.

We get estimates from the CBI on the impact of congestion. In one of the transport publications, Ben Webster of The Times recently showed that its estimate of £20 billion was complete fiction. The original estimate came from Deidre King, who said that it was £5 billion. The CBI rang up and asked whether they could treble it. She said, “Do what you like with it, but don’t quote me”, and it went up to £20 billion.

In 2004, the Department for Transport commissioned an independent study on congestion charging and road pricing. It concluded that cordon systems did not work in complex conurbations, and there is no more complex conurbation than Birmingham or Greater Manchester. It is obvious, really, that putting a line around an area and saying that people going into it will pay more will disadvantage that area. In the centre of Manchester, some of the poorest populations would be taxed. The Institute for Public Policy Research looked at the issue and said that if such measures are revenue-neutral, they increase the amount of carbon dioxide and other pollutants because people avoid the cordons. They are not good economically nor are they good for the environment.

I come back to my original point: why do the Government not give a lead and consider where we are at a disadvantage with competitors on the inter-urban roads and put satellite-based systems there? The only advantage of barrier systems in urban conurbations that I know of is that they are easier to install than satellite systems, which offer a road-pricing system that is time and distance dependent. If we got the system right, it would probably relate more directly to congestion than would just taking one area of an urban conurbation and putting it at a disadvantage.

Another leg of this discussion is bus re-regulation. I shall not tire the Minister and other hon. Members by repeating the many debates that we have had about it, except to say that I do not think that the Greater Manchester or the South and West Yorkshire conurbations can wait until there is a congestion charge or real change to re-regulate the buses. It is an outrage that senior managers of Stagecoach in Greater Manchester turn up to meetings and say, “If UK Bus does not stop competing with us, we will bring your city to a halt.” They have done that on several occasions. A democratic, civilised country does not allow narrow-minded, selfish bus operators to bring cities to a halt for the sake of their bottom line. We need re-regulation as soon as possible.

Of course I agree with my hon. Friend that we need re-regulation of the bus services, but it has been found that bus journey times in Birmingham are twice as long during the rush hours, which are ever-lengthening, than in off-peak hours. Even if the buses are re-regulated, there will still be the problem of journey times, which can be tackled only by measures to deal with the amount of car and other traffic on the roads.

I hope that my hon. Friend is not misunderstanding me. I am not opposed to improving traffic flows, nor do I have a religious opposition to road pricing or congestion charging. I believe that the solution to the problems in Manchester and Birmingham is investment in public transport, and that what we are being offered is not a solution to the problems, whether in terms of resources or methods of tackling them.

I looked up the traffic speeds during the past six or seven years for the west midlands and Greater Manchester in the 2005 Department for Transport study. The situations in the cities are not satisfactory—clearly, traffic is slower during the rush hour than at other times—but the report showed, rather surprisingly, that speeds had increased. In Greater Manchester, that was clearly because of the M60. I make that point not to say that we do not need to restrain traffic, but that we must do it carefully so that we do not do more damage to the economy, and we must address the present problems. In fact, according to the statistics, traffic speeds in both conurbations are improving.

The Association of Greater Manchester Authorities responded to the proposal. The authorities are in a difficult situation. If Birmingham, for example, is offered £1.5 billion or £2 billion, can it say, “No, Secretary of State”? The association said that authorities want investment in public transport first, that they want to know that their competitiveness will not be affected, that they want public acceptance of the system—I would like to ask my hon. Friend the Minister whether he agrees in principle that there should be a referendum before such a scheme is introduced, as there was in Edinburgh—and that any scheme must be relevant to congestion.

Congestion occurs in surprising parts of Greater Manchester, which I know better than I know the west midlands. When I visited Wigan during the by-election some years ago, it took me an hour and a quarter to travel through Wigan to get back into Manchester. In many ways, it is much more congested than the city centre. It is a complicated situation.

There are some background issues to be considered. The real problem that we have in the whole country, not just in urban conurbations, is that car travel is getting cheaper and public transport is getting more expensive. The Government need to reverse that and thereby dramatically affect what is happening at present. I may be in a minority, but I thought that it was a mistake to take off the fuel duty escalator at the first whiff of grapeshot from some extraordinarily reactionary farmers and lorry drivers, and I am pleased that there is an attempt to put it on again. It meets the polluter pays criterion, and it does not impoverish and attack some of the poorer people in the country.

In conclusion, every study has shown that to deal with the economic problems and assets of cities, investment in public transport is likely to give greater rewards immediately than a road pricing or congestion scheme. At the back of that, of course, is the fact that the Government said that the Greater Manchester tram system would be funded from 2000 onwards, but it has not been. Some of the problems with price increases have been beyond anybody’s control. My hon. Friend the Minister and I had an interesting debate about that when the Transport Committee discussed its report on transport. However, the Government are responsible for other issues because they slowed down and micro-managed the work and chose the wrong systems. The decision in principle to wait from 2000 to 2007 for the second phase of the big bang to come through was wrong. The process has been inadequate.

The Government have always had difficulties with road pricing. I do not underestimate how extraordinarily difficult it is politically. The previous Secretary of State waited for the Mayor of London to introduce congestion charging. It is wrong for the Government to tell Manchester and London, both of which need the resources, to have a go at congestion charging in urban areas. If we are concerned about congestion in this country, we should be looking at the inter-urban roads.

The Secretary of State said that the real choice for our cities is between growth and gridlock. I gave my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Lynne Jones) some information about current traffic speeds. The real choice for the country and for our great urban conurbations is investment in public transport or gridlock. It is bus re-regulation or gridlock. They will make a much greater impact. Studies of people going into city centres show that trams get the most people into a city centre the most quickly. Buses simply cannot offer the same capacity. Even if they ran end to end, their speed would be determined by the road space available.

There is no evidence or analysis to show that leaders of the Greater Manchester districts—I cannot speak for the west midlands—consider what is on offer through road pricing and congestion charging to be a solution. The situation has been turned around: when I asked the Secretary of State why he is going for cities first, he said that the leaders of the cities were considering the schemes, but they are considering them because they have been put first. I do not want officers and leaders in Greater Manchester and the west midlands to fiddle figures in the way that the CBI did in order to justify something that will not solve the economic and transport problems of Greater Manchester. I want a real focus on the problems. When the Secretary of State is saying that there is that desire, he is quoting his own echo, if that is not a mixed metaphor.

I shall finish on that point. I am grateful that so many hon. Members have turned up. Such issues are vital not only for our cities but for the whole economy. If our cities do not work economically, the country cannot do as well as it should.

Order. I intend to try to start the winding-up speeches at half past 10, unless those speaking for the Opposition indicate that they need less than the normal time allocated. I ask right hon. and hon. Members to bear that in mind.

First, I congratulate the hon. Member for Manchester, Blackley (Graham Stringer) on securing this important debate on a subject about which I know he is very knowledgeable, which makes a welcome change from his early-day motion earlier this week on cancer services in Greater Manchester.

I confirm my support for the principle of national road user pricing. If we are serious about tackling climate change and congestion on our roads, we need to discourage people from making unnecessary car journeys. We must also provide public transport that is good enough to persuade people out of their cars.

My constituency of Manchester, Withington will be one of the greatest beneficiaries of a successful transport innovation fund bid by the Greater Manchester passenger transport authority. People in Manchester were understandably angry when the Labour Government cancelled Metrolink money, and it was only a concerted all-party campaign, with tremendous support from businesses and the local newspapers, that forced the Government into a U-turn. The possibility of further money for Metrolink is great news for my constituents as not only would it ensure that the link to Chorlton would go all the way to the airport, but it would result in the Didsbury spur being built through my constituency.

The airport link and the Didsbury spur would have a dramatic impact on congestion in south Manchester and would also massively improve air quality. Thousands of people work at the airport, and the Metrolink would provide a vital quick route to work for them. In recent years a large number of people have moved to south Manchester because they thought that the Metrolink was coming and wanted a quick, reliable service to get them to and from the city centre where they work. A lot of those people are forced to drive to work, because the Metrolink has not been forthcoming, so it would have a real impact on the number of car journeys through the constituency into the city centre.

It is still a great disappointment to me that there has to be some element of local congestion charging—I stress the reference to local—or road user pricing to gain access to the transport innovation fund money.

The hon. Gentleman has stressed his support for national road user charging, which is of course the normal Liberal Democrat mantra. Can he tell me anywhere where the Liberal Democrats support local road user charging, particularly if they have to face the public in a referendum on the subject?

If the hon. Gentleman had waited until I had developed my argument, he would have realised that my concern about a local scheme is that a national scheme is far more sensible than introducing local schemes that do not tackle the main problem of congestion.

Do not we need both? We have congestion in our city centres and urban areas and on our motorways.

I accept that we need a scheme that includes both local and national road user pricing. I am not personally in favour of a congestion zone in the centre of Manchester, because that would be counter-productive. I believe that a national road user pricing scheme that includes national roads as well as local roads is the way to proceed.

I am trying to understand. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we need to introduce some market mechanism that will introduce a cost to the use of roads? If his answer is yes, then clearly such a scheme must be national and local.

I am not specifying what sort of scheme I would like to see, other than a national road pricing scheme that would involve all roads rather than merely major routes between major conurbations.

The Government’s failure to allow transport innovation fund money to be released to either Manchester or Birmingham for improvements in public transport without an element of road user pricing or congestion charging is an unwelcome reminder of the Government’s lukewarm and half-hearted support of light rail and better bus services. The Department is forcing pilot schemes on PTAs when they try to access transport innovation fund money. That has never been stated explicitly by the Department, although the hon. Member for Manchester, Blackley pointed out that it has been made fairly clear to the Greater Manchester PTA that without an element of road user pricing or congestion charging the bid will be unsuccessful.

Given that the Government have taken that position, we need some assurances from the Minister that improvements to public transport—I include better regulated buses as well as extensions to Metrolink—will be in place before any scheme of congestion charging or road user pricing is introduced. So far we have received no guarantee of that, so I hope that the Minister will give us that guarantee this morning. If the badly needed improvements to public transport are not implemented first, drivers will continue to use their cars and take the extra hit from the financial consequences.

I hope that the Minister will answer another question, which is: what does the Department expect to achieve from the pilot schemes? There would seem to be little merit in a basic congestion zone in Manchester, given that that has been tried and tested in London. In the centre of Manchester, such a zone could have a detrimental economic impact on the area covered, especially if it was restricted to the city centre, because the shops in the city centre would lose out to the Trafford centre. A small, focused congestion zone would not deal with the parts of Greater Manchester that have the most congested roads.

The hon. Member for Manchester, Blackley mentioned a Wigan by-election some years ago. When I was involved with the regional assembly for a short while, travelling to Wigan was incredibly difficult. The hon. Gentleman rightly pointed out that traffic between Manchester and Wigan is a major problem.

A road user pricing pilot scheme in Manchester and Birmingham will hardly prove that a national scheme will work. The majority of our congested roads are the inter-urban routes between Manchester and Birmingham and between other conurbations, which will be unaffected by the pilots. That prompts the question what the Department hopes to achieve through the pilots when it comes to rolling them out as a national road user pricing scheme. I hope that the Minister will address those points.

I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Blackley (Graham Stringer) on securing today’s debate. I agree completely with him about the urgent need to boost investment in transport infrastructure in both of our cities, other conurbations and regions.

I do not think that anybody present would deny the needs of London; it has big needs, too. my hon. Friend was right to point out that more could be done to ease some of those needs by decentralising jobs and activities and taking them outside the capital. Whatever the capital’s needs, however, they in no way diminish the fact that the scale of the problem outside the capital means that investment in transport, particularly public transport, must undergo a step change. If we get to a stage where conurbations are competing for investment, that will not make for good policy making and we will not necessarily get the benefits that we all need to get from any changes. If the transport system in Birmingham and the west midlands does not work properly and there are clog-ups, that will affect not only Birmingham and the west midlands, but the north-west and the south-east. One could say the same about other conurbations.

My view of road user charging is not identical to my hon. Friend’s. I am sure that he, as a member of the Select Committee, has gone into the statistics in a lot more depth than I have. However, it is projected that congestion in the west midlands conurbation will increase by a further quarter by 2021, and the Confederation of British Industry estimates the cost of that congestion to be about £250 million a year. My hon. Friend said that the statistics are questionable, but having talked to business people in the west midlands, I do not get the impression that they are dreaming up figures; they are genuinely worried about the costs of congestion.

One of my biggest concerns, which my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Blackley (Graham Stringer) mentioned, is the lack of consideration that is being given to improving bus usage and deregulating buses. Such measures would contribute to improving the figures, but they have been taken out of the calculations because investment in local bus services is not sufficient to reduce some of the congestion on the streets.

I guess that the answer is yes and no. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that there is a need for greater investment in buses, and I will say something about that in a little while. However, I am not sure that such investment affects the figures strongly either way; it is probably a separate issue.

We need to look seriously at road user charging, and I say that as somebody who is known as bit of a petrol-head—I chair the all-party motor group and, in many ways, the motor industry is in my blood. Nevertheless, I think that we need to consider road user charging, so I am pleased that local authorities and others in the west midlands have produced the document “Gridlock or Growth?”, which looks at some of the options that can be adopted there.

Whatever position we take on road user charging—my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Blackley and I are at one on one issue—we still need investment up front in our transport infrastructure. That includes buses, as my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Mahmood) said, and I am sure that he is right about that. We should have a much greater expansion of measures such as real-time signing. We should have more customer-friendly buses, and we should, to put it bluntly, make sure that buses go where they are needed, when people need them and at prices that people can afford. Re-regulation must be part of that. I went to a conference in Manchester just a few months ago and I know that in Birmingham we do not have bus wars like those that I saw up and down the Wilmslow road in Manchester. Nevertheless, ensuring some democratic control over where buses go and how they operate must be a matter of importance for both our cities.

The same is true of our local railway infrastructure. Let me give an example from my own area of the crucial need for buses and rail to network together. Never does a speech go by without my mentioning Longbridge, but let me mention it again. We are trying to regenerate the former MG Rover site, and it is vital that we establish the necessary transport links to that regeneration area. At the moment, no one can park their car at the train station, which is built on top of a humpback bridge. However, there is an opportunity to create a new transport interchange, which will regenerate and revitalise the area and could link up marginal communities on the outskirts of the city of Birmingham in a way that we have not been able to achieve so far. That involves using the existing cross-city line as well as expanding bus numbers, and there may even be the option of using guided buses. That could make a real difference economically and could relieve congestion in south-west Birmingham. However, there is no way round the fact that it will cost a great deal.

We are right to say that some projects are nationally and regionally important, such as the renovation and rebuilding of New Street station, on which my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) has done so much work and which has the support of all Birmingham Members of Parliament.

Does not my hon. Friend agree that the extension of the Metro, particularly to the black country, is also vital? An early decision on that is key to the regeneration of the black country.

No, my hon. Friend was right to intervene. One thing that has bedevilled that project for many years is that, because we have never quite known how far it will get—literally—down the line or where the lines would go, the choice of lines has often ended up as a compromise, and the first lines have not necessarily been built where, objectively, they should have been built. A light-rail system could, for example, be extended through the centre of Birmingham, and it is great to go to Manchester and see the tram, which is vital to the local transport system there. However, these things cost. If we half do things, with a project in one place taking money from one in another place, we will not tackle congestion or achieve the important step change in attitudes that we need. That is why local authorities in the west midlands have clearly said that they will need an extra £2 billion up front and a further £2 billion thereafter to tackle such problems.

Before I finish, let me say something about congestion charging and road user charging. They probably must be part of the solution, which is why I welcome the study that is being done in the west midlands. I have some concern about opting for camera-based systems as the best approach. The west midlands is not London and its economic profile is entirely different. The geography is also different, and the west midlands conurbation is not one centre, but a number of interlocking centres. The question of how we design and run the zones is therefore highly complex.

In a way, cameras are old technology. Satellite-based systems are generally regarded as having far more potential and can enable better and fairer charging. Of course, there are real issues around privacy, and we need to log and acknowledge those. It is also often said that satellite-based systems are too off in the future for us to move to them, but having talked to some of the companies involved, I am not sure that they are, or have to be, as far away as we sometimes assume. I therefore urge Ministers and local authorities to explore what will be possible in the near future, before we invest millions in camera-based technologies, which could be obsolete sooner than we think and which rely on zonal systems, that may not work in the way that satellite-based systems could. I am worried about that, because if we go down one route prematurely, when we all know that the other route is the right option, in a few years’ time we could be stuck with something just because it is then too difficult and expensive to do anything else.

We need to get a form of black boxes in cars, but we need to incentivise them in a way that makes them attractive to people. We also need to look at ways of incentivising the use of in-car technology, which could provide passports through to the extra use of public transport. Incentives in the road fund licence could be piloted in particular areas. There could even be discussions with the oil and petrol companies about the possibility of incentives connected with fuel, to encourage the use of such technology.

This is a key issue and there are many ways to deal with it. If any of us were in any doubt about that, the Stern report and the Eddington review have given emphasis to it, for all of us. We must all face up to it. Competition between cities is not the way to achieve our ends. Investment is the way. Thinking big and creatively and being ambitious must be part of the package. The west midlands has been in the forefront of innovation for decades—centuries—and when we develop these systems we need to consider whether we can secure the technological and industrial benefit, getting into the design and production game as well as piloting and using the systems in the relevant areas. The best system in the long term will be a national one—there is little doubt about that—but such a system will be highly complex, which is why it needs to be trialled. The time to do that is now, and we need to ensure that our big cities can carry out the trials a way that is imaginative and which will boost the economy and cut congestion—not the reverse.

I remind hon. Members that just 19 minutes are left of the debate before I call the Front-Bench speakers to wind up.

I take your point, Sir Nicholas, and in deference to other hon. Members, I shall be brief and cut some of my remarks.

I shall get to the nub of the issue straight away: road pricing is a tax. It is quite proper in Government to use tax to modify behaviour, but I want to consider the impact of the tax. My first question is whether it will be an additional tax. Motorists already pay £24 billion in fuel duty. We have, and already had even before the recent increase, the highest fuel duty rate in Europe, particularly for diesel users. I want to know whether there will be any offset on that, and more particularly who will pay for the very considerable costs of setting up and running the system. Going by the west midlands study, it does not get to break-even point until year 17, so there is huge public expenditure in set-up costs at the start, let alone the cost to individuals.

My next question is who will pay. By definition the people who will pay at the highest level—according to the Department’s own study—will be those who use the busiest roads at the busiest times. That, certainly in the west midlands, means those in the urban conurbation. Therefore the people who pay will be the people using the roads at peak hours, which are the travel-to-work times. We are therefore targeting a tax at urban workers on their way to work—people who used to be called hard-working families. If we have a national scheme, who will benefit? It will be those who live in rural areas. I do not, as a Labour Member, find it intrinsically attractive to tax my constituents in urban areas when they go to work, for the benefit of people who live in Herefordshire. Incidentally, collecting fuel duty is an extremely cheap and efficient way to collect tax; some 99 per cent. of that £24 billion is collected from some 20 companies.

Is there a problem? Of course there is. We have a dynamic economy; there are 2 million more people in work. We also have internet shopping, with a massive delivery economy. What can we do to mitigate the problem? I should have more confidence in the Department for Transport’s proposals if at the same time it was making progress with mitigating existing problems. Let us consider lorry bans, for example. In this instance I give credit to the Minister—it is a shame that he is answering, because he is a real can-do Minister in Government—who is considering the matter of delivery bans. Often there is an insistence that delivery vehicles for supermarkets turn up in peak hours; they are not allowed to deliver in the early hours of the morning, even though the supermarkets are often open then.

Other relevant matters are hard shoulder running and active traffic management. Again, all credit is due to the Minister, who gave the Highways Agency a real shove when it had been ducking and dithering about the issue for years. When I asked him about it early in the year, the date was supposed to be March 2007. When I asked him in the summer about progress with the equipment needed for active traffic management on the M42 to the east side of the midlands conurbation, he said that it was all in place, and got the Highways Agency to get on with it. In September, it was introduced. What happened? There were no problems, and a 13 per cent. increase in capacity. By the way, about a 15 per cent. reduction in traffic is needed to do away with most congestion. That is why school holidays have such an impact.

Is traffic information accurate enough, and are the signs put up by the Highways Agency making enough use of the technology? Are we using the national traffic control centre?

As to street works, we have been putting legislation through, but we are still miles behind New York, Sydney and many other places which manage the system day by day. Departments are very good at 20-year plans and long-term projects, but they are not good—and nor are the police, frankly, although they try to guard their powers—at running the system in real time.

My final point, because I am mindful of the time, is about demand. Why do schools in many areas all start at the same time? That adds considerably to congestion on the school run. Why do many firms that are not on flow-line production not have flexible working? Why do Government Departments, for example, not encourage people to work at home for one day? That, incidentally, happens in Washington, precisely to deal with traffic congestion there. Several issues need to be addressed, but the Minister needs in particular to answer the question of my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Blackley (Graham Stringer) about whether there is conditionality in properly evaluating transport schemes in the west midlands and Manchester. Will they be assessed on their merits rather than on whether we are going along with the current fad?

Ever since I became an MP 15 years ago, transport has been an item on the agenda of the annual meetings that take place with local business leaders. Even when the Tories were in government, business leaders were pressing for a bigger budget on transport. It was the one area of public spending in which they wanted an increase. Although we have increased transport investment, that has not, outside London, been on the scale that is needed. My right hon. and hon. Friends have already touched on this issue, but I understand that spending on London is three times that on Birmingham and Manchester—or five times if one includes the £3 billion prudential borrowing that Transport for London is able to put in. We are, I think, united in this Chamber on the need for greater public investment. It should not be a matter of competition between conurbations. We need greater investment, which, overall, would pay for itself.

We must, however, also tackle congestion. I accept that there are measures that could be taken, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Warley (Mr. Spellar) has mentioned, but if we get the economic growth that we want, a 25 per cent. increase in congestion is predicted over the 20 years to 2021. I do not believe that that can be tackled without some road pricing. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) that it would be better if we could introduce the more sophisticated satellite system, and I hope that he is right to say that we might be able to bring forward the date of 2020, which has been given by the transport experts from Birmingham whom we have met. If that does not prove possible, we cannot wait until 2020. We need to do something more quickly, because of the scale of congestion.

An hon. Member who represents Manchester said that we should have a referendum before any road pricing was introduced. Had there been a referendum in London, it would have gone against congestion charging. Sometimes, politicians have to put their heads above the parapet and do the right thing even though it is unpopular. I know that Liberal Democrats are not fond of doing that.

I did not say that it was the hon. Gentleman. It was a Manchester Member, but I cannot remember which part of the city my hon. Friend represents.

Generally speaking, as many decisions as possible should be taken locally, but in this case we need to follow the Government’s lead. We need a national scheme. In the west midlands, we have considerable congestion on the M6, and some argue that charging should be introduced on motorways, but we also need action in our conurbations.

In London, the Mayor can take decisions for the entire conurbation, but that cannot be done in Birmingham or Manchester. I agree with the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Leech) that it would be difficult to impose congestion charging in Manchester without doing the same in Trafford. We have a similar situation in Birmingham; traders in the city centre would be adversely affected by congestion charging in the city but not, for example, around the Merry Hill centre in Dudley. We need a regionally based system, and the Government are right to encourage council leaders, often from different political parties, to get their act together.

I finish by introducing a subject that no other speaker has mentioned. That is cycling. We need to encourage far more cycling in our urban areas. I cycle in London and in Birmingham. I feel safer in London—although I do not feel entirely safe—as it has a more extensive use of feeder lanes and advanced stops for cyclists. In London, I am frequently accompanied by dozens of other cyclists, but in Birmingham I cycle alone; there are no other cyclists on the roads. The investment in cycling in places such as Birmingham is minuscule in relation to the sums invested in our roads. The traffic engineers still do not think of cycling when investing in road schemes, although they sometimes paint a few white lines to give cyclists feeder lanes and advanced stops.

We need to do far more to encourage cycling. People need to believe that it is safer than they perceive. Not only would that help relieve congestion, but it would make us fitter. As a cyclist myself, I recommend it: it is good for health and good for congestion, and it is about the quickest way of getting around in London—and in Birmingham during the rush hour, although not necessarily at off-peak times. I urge the Government to do more to encourage investment in cycling.

I shall be brief, Sir Nicholas, as I would be happy to put my name to all that my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) said.

I have some thoughts on subjects that have not yet been mentioned. Today’s debate is easy for the Minister; he has only to stand up and say yes. We all agree that we need massive investment in the transport system, but the question is where to start. We have not quite reached that stage in our debate.

We need to be much more rigorous when considering the nature of the journeys that we are talking about, some of which may impact on the economy and some of which we can do without. We need to know the reasons for the journeys and to decide on the most appropriate ways to travel. I can tell my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Lynne Jones) that when I lived in Holland, I saw massive traffic jams being caused by bicycles, so it should not be thought that they cannot cause congestion. However, she is right that that we need to do more in Birmingham.

A crucial factor is the cost of journeys. How should we price them? The Department for Transport has to be extremely careful. If it wants a pricing mechanism—ultimately, that is what we will have to do—it will have to provide alternatives that are not based only on the ability to pay. Those alternatives will require a decent infrastructure for our buses, cycles, trams, trains—and even our waterways.

Goods should be taken off the roads. One of the most bizarre conversations I have had on the subject was with a manager at Hams Hall. I asked him how he would get the car engines from Cowley to Hams Hall, and he said that it would be done by road. I said, “Why on earth are you doing it by road? You have the railway.” He said that the roads were even more reliable than the railways. There is something wrong.

I agree with my colleagues that competition between cities can be rather unpleasant. I spent 10 years of my life in Manchester, and along with Birmingham, it is a city for which I have the greatest affection. However, when the Department for Transport is faced with limited funds, it will have to give the money to those places that already have got their acts together—places that can more effectively implement Government policy. Indeed, all Governments expect local authorities to implement their policies.

As the Minister gets ready to go home with his red box, I recommend that he takes two documents with him. The first is “Gridlock or Growth”, a west midlands metropolitan area congestion management study. In the final paragraph, it considers the options and spells out the blunt conclusion:

“This package would require expenditure of £2 billion to be committed or spent before implementation which would be provided largely through new TIF money and a further £2 billion expenditure over 8 years to be funded directly through road use charges.”

The second document is Birmingham city council’s prospectus of November 2006. It shows that if the Minister has limited funds, he might insist on road pricing as one of the conditions for allocating transport innovation fund money. I hope that he will tell us whether that is likely. I hope that he is confident that the west midlands, and particularly Birmingham, is ready to start that long and necessary debate.

I associate myself with most of what has been said by my right hon. and hon. Friends. I want to draw attention to the findings of the west midlands “Gridlock or Growth” study on congestion, particularly as it affects the black country. It is often said that one can get to the black country but that one cannot get through it. That is very true, particularly on Fridays. Indeed, because of the way in which our diaries work, that is when I do most of my travelling in the black country. The traffic is almost like rush hour all day long. It is horrific.

Congestion is a serious and growing problem in the west midlands metropolitan area. The road network regularly reaches the point when everything could all stop; we are never far from gridlock. There are several congestion black spots. The Birmingham study shows that congestion in the area will grow 22 per cent. by 2021 and that an extra 300,000 hours of travel delay should be expected every day. That is the equivalent of an extra 469,000 car journeys. That will continue to damage the competitive position of the west midlands.

In my part of the black country, we have managed to reduce unemployment, and new investment is starting to come in, but congestion will stop that growth. It is vital for the black country that the problem is addressed and that city regions are not left to compete with each other. I hate to be boring on the issue, but it vital that early decisions are made, particularly on the extension to the metro and on the plans for Birmingham New Street station, which affects the wider west midlands area.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Nicholas. I thank the hon. Member for Manchester, Blackley (Graham Stringer) for initiating this debate and other hon. Members who have made a valuable contribution to what is an increasingly important issue.

Although the debate is about Birmingham and Manchester, I would like to set out some clear principles of the Liberal Democrats with regards to road pricing. There are several reasons why we are talking about road-user pricing and an obvious reason has been mentioned already. It relates to reducing congestion because a punitive charge shifts behaviour. That shift presupposes that there is another route people can drive their car down or that people will use public transport. Therefore, there has to be investment in public transport. A reduction in congestion is not just needed in towns and cities, but as other hon. Members have said, if we are serious about tackling the problem, it is needed in the inter-modal routes— whether those are the national motorways or the routes between places such as Manchester and Wigan.

Road-user pricing is about raising revenue. We know that this Chancellor often raises huge sums of money that disappear elsewhere. I hope that some of the money raised will be used to fund public transport investment, but this issue is also about reducing CO2 emissions and doing something for climate change. Road-user pricing probably relates to all three points I have mentioned: reducing congestion, raising revenue and reducing CO2 emissions.

Can the hon. Gentleman tell us whether he considers the road-user charge as additional to fuel duty or whether he thinks it will be compensated by reductions in fuel duty?

I was about to answer part of that. The charge relates to a mixture of both. If we are serious about wanting people to use more user-friendly and environmentally friendly cars, the present fuel duty and road tax system should be replaced with a system that rewards people who have such vehicles. However, there also has to be a balance with raising additional resources.

On the tension between local and national concerns that the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) raised, we are all agreed that, in the long term, there must be a national road-user pricing policy. The problem is how to get that and when to concentrate solely on the urban areas. As the hon. Member for Manchester, Blackley said, there are problems with that.

The Government have missed a trick. In Germany, Switzerland and Austria, road-user pricing is being introduced for HGVs. In this country, our road haulage industry is rightly complaining that it is subsidising cheap, foreign transport, which is taking away some of our jobs. A major step would be for HGVs to have satellite systems installed. We should insist on that as it would ensure that foreign hauliers begin to pay some of the costs. While it should be revenue-neutral for British HGVs, the extra resources should be used to obtain some of the national systems that need to be introduced.

Birmingham and Manchester have been given transport innovation fund pump-priming and are in direct competition with each other. I agree with other hon. Members who have questioned whether that is fair when the investment has been found in other great cities on the continent to ensure those cities can grow and develop. Economically, it is absolutely vital that Birmingham and Manchester get the additional resources. We have already heard the cost of that: for Birmingham it is £2 billion now and £2 billion later. In the next few months, we will no doubt have an indication from Manchester about just how much its funding will cost. In terms of operation, any system that is adopted must be fair and be seen to be fair to the people who use it and to the people who may want to invest in those great cities.

A lot has been said about the use of barrier systems. Like other hon. Members, I have huge concerns about the effects of a barrier or camera system on economic development. We know what will happen and where people will go if, for example, the towns in Greater Manchester have a system and the Trafford centre is excluded. As the hon. Gentleman said, congestion will shift on to the M60 and town and city centres will die.

The report on Birmingham, “Gridlock or Growth”, has been mentioned. I have spoken to colleagues in Greater Manchester and they have serious concerns about some of the proposals. Those concerns relate to the way the proposals dissect Birmingham in two, and avoid some urban conurbations, and to the fact that that its recommendations are unfair.

A crude camera system, as the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield said, is not fair. We need to develop satellite systems. I know that local authorities want the resources and that many of them are willing to play the Government’s game, but what will happen if and when they get the money? That is not the right way to proceed. We need to invest, to cut CO2 emissions, and to tackle traffic congestion—not just in urban areas, but in our cities. In order to do that we need a system that uses satellite technology. Such a system needs to be rolled out so that it starts in certain areas. However, people should not have to go along with the system as a prerequisite to getting the funding needed to improve public transport. We must all accept that climate change and our way of life mean that we must take action, but we first need a clear system that is based on the national road network and on the motorways and trunk roads that already exist. That will do far more to tackle congestion than drawing lines on maps and saying, “If you are in that area, you are paying and if you are outside it, you are not.” That is not a fair and equitable system and it will not bring about fair economic growth.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Nicholas. I congratulate the hon. Member for Manchester, Blackley (Graham Stringer) on bringing this interesting subject to our attention.

There has been a genuine national debate on this issue. Our party is convinced that a price mechanism can change people’s behaviour and manage demand. I have seen several projects in the past year and the one that most clearly proves that point is the SR 91 road in southern California, which joins a residential area to an area where many people work. As there were four lanes of freeway—or motorway—jammed solid morning and evening, the central median was ripped out and a four lane high-occupancy vehicle lane was built with free access for people with more than two passengers. That was a complete waste of time as it was jammed morning and evening. The HOV lane was then converted to a high-occupancy toll lane with a varying charge. The intention was that a maximum of 3,200 vehicles would travel every hour and, in simple terms, the number of vehicles was doubled and the speed of those vehicles trebled. The lesson is that those prepared to change their behaviour in the morning and go to work at 5 or 11 o’clock paid a modest charge of around $4 for a 10-mile run. In the afternoon, when there are strong incentives to arrive home on time, such as a $10 per minute charge for being late at the nursery to pick up a child, people wanted reliability and they bought it. In the afternoon, people were prepared to pay a much steeper fee of up to $8.50 at 4 o’clock on Wednesdays and Thursdays.

As the right hon. Member for Warley (Mr. Spellar) said, the lesson is that people will pay more on top of what are huge charges for vehicle excise and fuel duty in this country if there is a genuine product. As with the M6 toll, we have seen that people will pay because they are buying the certainty that they will arrive at the other end—29 or 31 miles away— on time. That is an absolutely key lesson.

Before the hon. Gentleman moves on, can he clarify whether he sees the road-user charging as additional to fuel duty or whether he sees there being an offset?

If it was national, it would almost certainly have to be an offset, but the point I am making is that there would be public support for delivering a product that involved reliability and certainty of arrival.

The Government have a real job on their hands, as perhaps we all do, to differentiate between congestion charging and road pricing. They are two completely different animals. The congestion charge in London is, bluntly, a brutal socialist club designed to discriminate against people who have the temerity to enter Ken’s kingdom in a private motor car. There is a single charge and no incentive once one has entered the kingdom not to use the car as much as possible. There are some extraordinary anomalies with the congestion charge and the scheme is a real lesson of what not to do in London. It is heroically inefficient: 49 per cent. of the revenues go on administration, as opposed to 19 per cent. in Singapore. Also, the product has not been delivered because, as the right hon. Member for Warley said, enormous changes have been made to the road space. Some 1,000 extra traffic lights have been imposed, and the infamous bendy buses have come along. The situation is admitted in Transport for London’s own “Transport vision for a growing world city”, published last month. It states:

“Effective road space for motor vehicles has been reduced due to the reallocation of road space to bus passengers, pedestrians and cyclists, and to improve road safety and the public realm.”

We have seen that very expensive scheme set up. Speeds before charging were 8.9 mph. After charging, they were 10.4 mph, but they are now back down to 10 mph. What is extraordinary is that there has been a decrease of 11 per cent. in the number of vehicles, but the total vehicle kilometres driven in the zone have gone up. This is my point: there must be varied charging and it must take account of the fact that people, once they have paid a charge, will maximise what they have paid for and drive around as much as possible.

There has also been quite a severe commercial impact. The chairman of the John Lewis Partnership, which has done a lot of research on the matter, told me that the turnover of its store in Oxford street is significantly less now on a seven-day week than it was before on a six-day week. That has been confirmed by the Greater London authority’s own economics unit, which says that small retailers, which represent—

Order. May I say to the hon. Gentleman, who is making a most interesting contribution to the debate, that the discussion is directed specifically at Manchester and Birmingham, not London?

I am most grateful for your guidance, Sir Nicholas, but there are clear lessons from the experience in London about the commercial impact. I have some interesting comments from west midlands business men, which I will come to in a second.

One of the other key lessons from London concerns evasions. Last year, 5,500 people received penalty notices on a daily basis, 25 per cent. of which were not paid. The Minister must address this point, which I raised in a debate last week. We all give credit to the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency, given the titanically difficult problem that it has of tracking 47 million drivers and 36 million vehicles, but its database is only 68 per cent. dead accurate. It is 10 per cent. so inaccurate that people cannot be traced, so that involves 3.6 million vehicles and 4.7 million drivers. That will create a huge sense of unfairness. Even in the Stockholm trial, accuracy became an issue. Even the good, law-abiding Swedes found that a substantial number of people did not pay. I just do not see how we can get off base one on road pricing until we have a cast-iron accurate database.

Let me turn to the Greater Manchester project. There is a clear link in this respect: those who are in favour of the scheme in Manchester seek a large increase in investment in Metrolink. The way in which the Government are behaving is quite clear. They are offering substantial extra sums of public money to the authorities around the country in the provincial zones being targeted for congestion charging or road pricing, if they will introduce a road pricing or congestion scheme. That will enable them to pick up an extra large slug of money. The danger is that they might get it the wrong way round.

There were comments last week in Manchester showing that the Metrolink is already extremely clogged up. There was one very interesting comment in the Manchester Evening News only a few days ago that

“the trams regularly arrive full”.

An unnamed commuter described how the buses and trains were full and commuters had to squash on and how, on at least two occasions, they had not been able to get on the train at all.

The Government have a problem in this regard. We are talking about a chicken-and-egg situation. If an aggressive road pricing scheme is introduced, where will such commuters go? In London, they had an option. Edmund King of the RAC said:

“The difference between Manchester and London is before congestion charging, 86 per cent. of people in London used public transport anyway. The figure is not as high as that in Manchester.”

There was substantial investment in extra buses in London; there was an alternative. The situation was the same in Stockholm, where 200 extra buses were bought.

What will happen in Manchester if the main aim of the exercise is to get a huge slug of extra money to extend Metrolink? Obviously, there will be interim monster disruption while Metrolink is extended, but where will people go? I agree with the right hon. Member for Warley that there will be a penalty on what he called hard-working families who are trying to get in and out of Manchester on a daily basis at times when they simply have to travel.

I also entirely endorse the right hon. Gentleman’s comments on deliveries to shops by heavy goods vehicles. If we are to have road pricing, we have to address the question of evening curfews. I walk to this place every morning past a Tesco truck delivering to the Tesco mini-store by the Home Office. Presumably, that truck can deliver only at that time of the morning. It seems crazy to have an articulated lorry driving into Westminster at 9 o’clock in the morning when, if the delivery was made at another time, the only people who would, I suggest, be disturbed would be MPs getting up early preparing for a debate, civil servants or possibly cleaners in the Home Office building itself. The right hon. Gentleman is right. It is pointless to introduce a road-charging scheme on the Californian model that will encourage people to get up earlier in the morning and arrive home later at night if the planning regulations prevent rational decisions from being made and deliveries from being made at different times.

I detect in Manchester some scepticism about charging. Roger Jones, chairman of the Greater Manchester passenger transport authority, said:

“Congestion is going to become an increasing problem but we have always maintained that we need to improve public transport and then look at congestion. It has to be in that order.

Charging is one possibility. We will have to learn from London and other places. Manchester will ask why should we charge people to come and shop in Manchester when other towns don’t charge and the Trafford Centre offers free parking?”

That is a very pertinent point. Where does one draw the boundaries? What is Manchester? What is Greater Manchester? Those inside the net and those outside it will feel aggrieved for different reasons.

It was interesting that the island of Lidingo in Stockholm had to be excluded from the scheme there, and people had to be given access through the congestion zone as long as they did not stay for more than 40 minutes. The main north-south Swedish motorway was also excluded, because that was thought to penalise people from outside.

We then have a huge technical problem: how will people be picked up? The hon. Member for Rochdale (Paul Rowen) mentioned that he is in favour of a national scheme and he did not seem to like tag and beacon, but what will be done about itinerant people coming from Yorkshire or people from Cumbria passing through Manchester? The complications technically will be very difficult to overcome. I think that it was as a result of that that, in a poll last week in Manchester, 74 per cent. of the people said no to congestion charging and 26 per cent. said yes. The Government have a major public relations problem in trying to win this argument.

The situation is similar in the west midlands. “Gridlock or Growth—Choices and Challenges for the future” has horrific figures on the costs of congestion: £2.2 billion, according to the CBI. In a poll of 5,000 people, 79 per cent. said that congestion was a key priority. However, the report is emphatic that the west midlands requires £2 billion of investment and improvement in transport ahead of any road-pricing scheme in order to provide choice and alternatives to the car, with a further £2 billion afterwards. Again, some 70 per cent. of people in Birmingham get to work by car. We cannot just put an extra charge on those people if there is no alternative. I think that that was the point made by the right hon. Member for Warley. I believe that people would go by bus, as they did in London and as they did possibly in Stockholm, as an alternative, but people must have those alternatives; otherwise, there is a real penalty on the hard-working people referred to by the right hon. Gentleman.

Those people may well cycle, but I suspect that some of them travel rather too long a distance to cycle. Cycling is certainly a possibility, but I do not think that it will answer the substantial problems of congestion in the west midlands.

I am about to conclude my comments, Sir Nicholas. Those who will make the decisions—I talked to a cabinet member for transport only yesterday in the west midlands—say that they have a healthy scepticism about congestion charging, as they do not want the west midlands to be put at a competitive disadvantage by isolated regional trials. Now I come to the macro point, which we raised in a debate last week. I do not quite understand what these trials will teach us for a national scheme. A national scheme, I suggest, will probably be satellite based—the hon. Member for Rochdale referred to that—but we will have these small isolated trials built around the peculiarities of congestion in the big conurbations. Can the Minister tell us what we will learn for a national scheme, and can he then mention the big elephant in the room, which we did not get an answer to last week, which is the European directive, not yet finalised, on the technology?

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Blackley (Graham Stringer) on securing the debate. He and I have differences of opinion on several aspects of this issue, but at least I know that he is keen to debate the issue and to bring matters out into the open. That is exactly what I want to happen. In our manifesto, we said that we would launch a major national debate on road pricing and we have honoured that. We are moving the issue forward, but we will win people over only if we have debates such as this to discuss the issues.

My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) struck exactly the right note—I hope that this does not do his career too much damage—and is in exactly the position that I would like Members of Parliament and local councillors to be at this stage. I want them to acknowledge that road pricing has to be part of the mix, but be a bit sceptical and ask questions about exactly how it will work and how it will be made fair. I want them to understand that we have to face up to these issues and answer these questions because road pricing is inevitable. I see no alternative to it in the long term.

There will be national road pricing. We have said that that will happen around the middle of the next decade, although I shall not have a sweepstake on exactly which year it will be. It might be a little later than that; circumstances and the Government of the day will determine when it is. In no discussion with any transport expert, academic or other person who has studied traffic issues around the country have I heard any dispute that road pricing is coming to the roads near us at some time in the future.

I shall give way to my right hon. Friend in a moment; I want to make some progress first. The questions that we should be asking are about how road pricing should be done and in what order. How can we test it? How can we make it work? How fast should we do it? What alternatives need to be put in place?

It is clear from the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Blackley that he believes there is an alternative to road pricing in Manchester: massive investment in public transport. We have made massive investments in transport around the country and we will continue to do so and to make big investments in public transport, but one has only to take a cursory look at the Eddington report to realise that if we do not do something else as well, those massive investments will fail.

My hon. Friend knows as well as I that when our constituents say, “If only the public transport system was better, I would use it,” they mean, “If only the public transport system was better, everybody else could use it and I could carry on driving my car down a nice, clear road.” If we are to provide the carrot of increased investment in public transport, we must also use the stick of road pricing to make people use it. That is the only way in which we can make sense of those massive investments.

A 25 per cent. increase in congestion is coming soon, according to the Eddington report—all the facts and figures are there—unless we start to manage demand. That has to be through road pricing. It is going to be difficult, as the hon. Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson) said. There are many questions to be answered and we have to work out how to do it, but we must answer those questions and do those things because we cannot avoid that.

I was not in Manchester or Birmingham yesterday; I was in Brussels. I do not know if they were simply having a bad day there, but if hon. Members want to see what congestion might look like in 15 years if we do not do something about it, they should go to Brussels on a bad day and see the utter chaos. People there even ignore red lights because there is no other way of making progress in the traffic system. That will be the story everywhere if we do not face up to these difficult questions.

May I take the Minister back to the academics who are all applauding road-user charging? How many of them are involved with consultancies that advise on road-user charging and can see themselves having very lucrative careers for a long time to come?

I am sure that many of them are so doing, but, equally, I have met many experts who are not making that sort of link between the future and the policies that they propose. My right hon. Friend should consider the journey that the British Chambers of Commerce has made. When I was appointed to this position and had to start going out and trying to sell road pricing, the BCC said, “Over our dead body.” Six months later, it had changed its position to saying, “Oh, yes, we must do road pricing, but it must be revenue-neutral.” Now it has published a report saying, “We have to get on with road pricing and it should be revenue raising with the money being spent on transport systems.” It has made the journey that I would like everyone in the country to make. If the BCC is prepared to see the benefits of road pricing, including those to public transport and transport investment, we can all come to that position.

I want to correct a few inaccuracies in what my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Blackley said. He began by talking about a competitive process but it is a competition only in the sense that our colleagues in Manchester and Birmingham have decided in their heads that it is a competition between those cities. It is true that if we were to give all the money to one of them, there would be nothing left for the other, but we have never said that that is our intention. I know that the west midlands has produced a document that basically says, “You need to give us £2 billion and then another £2 billion a few years later,” and it is true that if we gave £2 billion to the west midlands in that time scale, there would be little left for anyone else, so perhaps people in Manchester have interpreted that to mean, “It’s us or them,” but it could quite easily be both of them. If we get the right plans, we will consider how we can support both.

It will be key to the whole process that the pilots are able to teach us something because the innovation fund is meant to help us move towards introducing a national road-pricing scheme. We are therefore unlikely, as both the hon. Members for Rochdale (Paul Rowen) and for North Shropshire said, to make major investments to learn about another barrier scheme because we know what a barrier scheme looks like and what we can learn from it. We have the London congestion charge. We are more likely to support a scheme that uses a distance-based approach.

My hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Blackley said that people were being forced into the transport innovation fund partnership, but there are no pressed men in the partnership. We may have attracted them with the prospect of a good dose of honey, but if the political leaders in Manchester do not want to proceed down that path, and if the political leaders in Birmingham and the west midlands do not want to continue to explore these issues with us, by all means let them say so and step aside now.

Obviously, there is a great deal more to debate on that point later, but if Manchester were to withdraw from a congestion-based road-pricing scheme, would the Government still be willing to fund the second phase of the Metrolink extension?

Manchester would have to make a business case for that funding along with everyone else. We have made it quite clear that we expect our partners in the TIF pilot scheme areas to look seriously at demand management, the business issues that they are trying to address, local congestion problems and alternative solutions to them. I am delighted to tell my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Lynne Jones) that that includes cycling and walking. Those partners need to consider bus and tram scheduling, regulation and provision in their local areas. All that we ask at this stage is that they consider all those issues sensibly and take into account the potential of demand management and road pricing.

We are not asking anyone to sign up to road pricing. Neither are we specifying any particular technologies at this stage. I know that some people have started to speculate about camera-based systems, but I have been pressing on all our partners that at this stage they should focus on the business case and the problem that they are trying to solve. I have stressed that that must be identified before we start considering technological solutions or other ways of moving forward. I very much hope that they will do that and that local politicians in Birmingham and Manchester will take forward the debate with local people and ask them what they want to see—

Order. I am afraid that I must tell the Minister that time is up. I believe that we had 10 speakers in this most interesting debate of an hour and a half.

Universities Research Assessment Exercise

I am glad to have this opportunity, however brief, to draw attention to some of the issues surrounding the way in which research in universities is evaluated and rewarded, and to some of the consequences for activities that seem to me to matter. I should confess that I have had a bee in my bonnet about this for some time, and I would like to transfer it to the bonnet of the Minister for Higher Education and Lifelong Learning. I see that he has sensibly decided to be abroad, but it is a great pleasure to see the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills, my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Mr. Dhanda), in his place.

I need to make further confessions: I used to be a university teacher, and I am an honorary professor at the university of Birmingham and a visiting professor at the university of Westminster. I should make it clear that nothing that I say today has any connection with those fine institutions.

I am also joint editor of a journal called The Political Quarterly, which was founded in 1930 with money from Bernard Shaw by Leonard Woolf, Kingsley Martin and William Robson. Its past editors have included John Mackintosh, a former distinguished Member of this House, and Professor Bernard Crick, that great public intellectual who has retrieved the idea of citizenship for us and put it, belatedly, into the national curriculum. The journal’s mission, which is still announced inside its back cover, is to publish articles on issues of public policy aimed at the most demanding level of intelligence but without being technical and pedantic. The tradition of the journal has always been to accept articles written in plain English—without jargon—that deal with issues of political importance, or that provide background material or basic speculation directly related to those issues. The terms of that mission statement have implications for some of what I want to say. Let me explain why.

During a previous research assessment exercise—RAE—there was an attempt to get objective indicators of the worth of journal articles. When that was applied to politics journals, The Political Quarterly scored highly when people were asked about its impact, but much less highly when it was evaluated for research content. In other words, in terms of audience, there were high rewards for writing for fellow political science professionals but low rewards for writing for a wider public readership. That means that quality was being defined in a way that explicitly excluded the ability to reach a wide audience, and that for a discipline that supposedly had civics at its centre. The situation is frankly bizarre.

There are many disciplines on which I have no authority to speak—science, engineering and technology. It may be that they have no difficulties in the way that research is assessed, whether it is done in the present RAE form or in the form of the metrics that is planned to replace it. Indeed, it is widely said that one of the general problems is that the research assessment that is designed for the natural sciences is inappropriately applied to the humanities and the social sciences. That is particularly said about the application of metrics, which compounds the deficiencies of the RAE.

I want to concentrate on what I think I know and on what I have been told by the distinguished academics in social science and the humanities whom I have consulted about the impact of research assessment and whom I shall quote, albeit anonymously. Some point to the benefits that RAE has brought in establishing the importance of research and challenging received reputations and funding. However, all also identify its deficiencies and damaging consequences for activities that matter. One has to spend only five minutes in the company of academics before talk turns to the malign consequences of the RAE.

What are those consequences? Let me start with the main bee in my bonnet. The RAE encourages production for its own sake of stuff that people do not need to write, in a form that is impossible for most people to read. In social science in particular, the RAE drives the profession in upon itself, cutting itself off from a wider public discourse. It is marooned in a private and impenetrable language, and it is consumed by its own publishing preoccupations. No thought is allowed to go unreferenced, and sentences become ugly aggregates of borrowed phrases.

George Orwell put it well in that wonderful essay on “Politics and the English Language”:

“As soon as certain topics are raised, the concrete melts into the abstract and no one seems able to think of turns of speech that are not hackneyed: prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated henhouse.”

One has only to pick up a copy of a political science journal to find oneself immediately in the linguistic world of prefabricated henhouses. The Orwell mission of turning political writing into an art has no chance at all in this kind of academic environment.

Journals are invented just to consume the products of the RAE, and the more obscure and professionally introverted they are, the better. Public relevance is despised and devalued. One young academic, a representative of many, was warned by his head of department to stop doing policy-relevant research and concentrate on getting stuff into “the high-ranking journals”. Of course, as a general rule, the higher the ranking, the less such journals are read and the less sense they make to anyone in the real world.

Another academic writes:

“It encourages academics to publish for its own sake, regardless of quality or readership, just to get the points for the RAE. This spawns all sorts of rubbish new journals, makes wait-times for journals horrendously long and means that there is a vast quantity of stuff published that nobody had the time or inclination to read.”

It is widely remarked that the whole RAE exercise has become a game. One head of department put it to me, that it

“rewards the cunning rather than the excellent.”

New players, and sometimes whole new teams, are shamelessly brought in to improve the ratings, and old ones are disposed of despite their general contribution to the life of the institution.

The preoccupation with assessed research has a particular and serious consequence for teaching. Another departmental head observed that

“over time it has encouraged a culture, particularly among younger academics, that research matters far more than teaching to their careers, because research is given such a large financial incentive in comparison with teaching. This is having a serious distorting effect, because it means that a great deal of ingenuity goes into reducing time for teaching, and increasing time for research.”

One of these younger academics points to the gap in salary and regard opening up between the high-earning RAE academics and

“others who may be brilliant teachers and are left to do all the departmental legwork and presumably stay underpaid.”

This neglect and undervaluation of teaching is now being noticed, not least by fee-paying students and their parents. History students in Bristol drew attention recently when they protested at the drastic cut in teaching. One said:

“I thought I was paying to be educated by leading academics, not for a library membership and a reading list.”

We can expect to hear more of that sort of sentiment as teaching is consistently devalued in the preoccupation with research ratings. Good teaching goes unrewarded, and research, even if it is of doubtful value, is over-rewarded. Some academic staff now do little or no teaching and are an increasingly remote presence, and students receive less attention.

My plea is that those issues are properly picked up and tackled as the RAE has its last outing before being replaced with something else. The RAE is undoubtedly a costly and bureaucratic burden, but that is not the only reason for wanting to review it. One distinguished professor and departmental head said that

“the proposed change away from peer review to metrics would reduce some of the costs of the RAE, but would be even more perverse in accelerating the switch away from teaching, and would also produce bizarre and less reliable results in many subject areas—particularly, in arts and social sciences. No-one trusts citation indices or input measures”.

One good reason for not trusting citation indices is that articles with certain key words in their title attract more citations. Desperate researchers will soon learn to play that game.

In the disciplines that I know and care about, I want the perversities of the current arrangements to be rectified. I want the work of public intellectuals to be encouraged, the civic purpose of the university to be affirmed, policy-relevant research to be celebrated and valued, and the bias against teaching to be attended to.

I shall end by raising one final perversity. A recent guest on “Desert Island Discs” was the eminent philosopher Mary Midgley, who recalled that it had taken her 30 years to publish her first book. She said that she had spent that time in intellectual maturation and reflection. If she were a young scholar now, she would have to publish or perish, whether or not she had anything ready to say, and in a form that would count for the purposes of the RAE. In fact, she would probably be discouraged from writing a book. That may be the function of the RAE, but it should not be the purpose of a university.

I am ferociously independent here in the Chair, and I shall listen to the new Minister’s response to that speech with great interest. I do not envy him his task.

It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Nicholas.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) on securing the debate and I am grateful for his welcome. If I were a footballer, I dare say that I would be a utility player. As he rightly said, today I am filling in for my hon. Friend the Minister for Higher Education and Lifelong Learning.

I hope that my hon. Friend has a spring in his step, having heard the news of the abolition of the RAE after 2008. I am sure that you have, too, Sir Nicholas. University research is a progressive force that must change constantly and move forward. For the past 20 years, the RAE has been the most important engine of that change. Since 1986, we have moved from a position of relative ignorance about the use of hundreds of millions of pounds of public money to a point where we can confidently say that the research that taxpayers fund is truly world class.

Between the last two RAEs in 1996 and 2001, the number of university departments achieving the top five or five-starred ratings rose by 65 per cent. to more than 800. Those excellent departments now employ more than half of all researchers in the higher education system. The RAE has changed and improved after every exercise, but I take on board my hon. Friend’s comments. In the next exercise in 2008, for example, the financial cliff edges—the difference between, for example, a four and a five-starred rating—will be eliminated by the introduction of quality profiles of the sort recommended in Sir Gareth Roberts’ 2003 review of the RAE. There will also be fewer peer review panels in 2008 and greater recognition of previously undervalued activities, such as applied research.

Increasingly in recent years, the RAE has attracted criticism from the higher education sector, partly as a result of its success. It looms large in the lives of universities and researchers and is said sometimes to overshadow other important activities in a university’s life cycle. The criticism is perhaps also a sign of the RAE's maturity—an indication that it has achieved all that it can and that it is time for something new. I shall say a little more about that in a moment.

I shall recap some of the key criticisms of the RAE. First, it is said to be expensive. The Higher Education Funding Council estimates the total cost to be more than £50 million. That is a significant sum, albeit 1 per cent. or less of the total value of the research budget, the allocation of which is informed by the RAE. Most of that cost is borne by universities in staff and administrative time. Secondly, the RAE is said to be bureaucratic. We heard about that during the debate and, again, to an extent, the allegation is true. Eighty-two peer review panels supported by 800 pages of guidance and many times more pages of university submissions will make the quality judgments that underpin the next RAE. Thirdly, the RAE is said to be divisive. Of the £1 billion or so of quality-related research funding that goes to the 131 English higher education institutions each year, more than one third goes to only four of them.

Not all institutions produce excellent research, but we must acknowledge that research excellence is not the only game in town. Some universities have successfully pursued alternative missions and sources of funding through promoting access, through excellence in teaching or, increasingly, through interaction with business and the community. That diversity is greatly welcome.

Although the RAE has served the country well, the Government and the higher education sector alike have continued to seek a simpler system. The challenge is to achieve that while upholding the principles of the dual support system for research. Some funding for specific projects comes through the research councils and the rest comes from the funding councils to encourage and reward research excellence.

Earlier this year the Government announced their intention to move, after the 2008 research assessment exercise, to a metrics-based system for research assessment and funding. Initial proposals were published on 13 June for consultation. They suggested that an assessment model based on research-income metrics might be adopted relatively quickly for science disciplines, as has been pointed out in the debate. For other disciplines, the proposals acknowledged that it would be harder to find a robust replacement for the peer-review-led process of the RAE. The consultation closed on 13 October, with nearly 300 responses received from universities, researchers, subject interest groups and other organisations and individuals with an interest.

Some clear messages emerged from the consultation. There was a desire for reform that would reduce the bureaucratic burden of the current arrangements, increase transparency and recognise all types of research. However, the majority of respondents had some key concerns about basing an assessment system on the 13 June proposals, noting: first, assessment on income metrics alone could not recognise research quality; secondly, although metrics were more readily applicable to some disciplines than others, the separation of assessment arrangements would be undesirable, so subject variations should be recognised within a single assessment framework; and thirdly, the move to new arrangements should not be sudden, and it should not destabilise institutions.

The Government have accepted those points. We agree that the sector must be confident that a new assessment process will promote quality, so I hope that that demonstrates how friends in the Department have the same bee in their bonnet as my hon. Friend. We are also grateful for suggestions about the use of quality indicators and the role of expert advisers in assessment. We value respondents’ appraisal of the applicability and fitness for purpose of metrics in different subjects. We recognise, too, the sector’s desire to ensure that its investment in RAE 2008 is reflected in a reasonable lifespan for the results. Taking account of those concerns, we announced on 6 December, as part of the pre-Budget report, revised proposals for a new assessment process. We remain committed to replacing the RAE with a research assessment process that uses metrics as its basis when they are sufficiently robust and fit for purpose. It reflects our belief that metrics offer the best opportunity for developing an objective and transparent assessment system that reduces the burden of the RAE and recognises all forms of research excellence.

The development of robust metric indicators should capture a greater range of excellent research activity and assist institutions in monitoring and managing their own activity. We agree, however, that income metrics cannot stand alone as indicators of quality. We therefore propose a new assessment process based on a series of indicators, containing income and research degree metrics, and a quality indicator, too. We recognise that the robustness of the quality indicator will be pivotal in creating confidence in the new process.

Bibliometrics—statistics relating to publications—are our choice as the source of a quality indicator, and many who responded to our consultation saw their potential. However, the development and use of bibliometrics varies greatly between disciplines. Our initial proposals made a crude distinction between science subjects and others, and as consultation responses noted, they neither reflected the complexity of metrics’ applicability, nor did justice to the majority of disciplines, social sciences in particular. Differences lie within disciplines as well as between them, and even where bibliometrics are well established, further work is necessary to provide a robust indicator for assessment purposes.

Our ultimate goal, none the less, is a metrics-based assessment process with a bibliometric quality indicator that is applicable to all disciplines, but sensitive to differences between them. We have decided to introduce metrics-based assessment swiftly for subjects where the funding council is confident of quickly identifying a bibliometric indicator. Those disciplines fall under the broad headings of science, engineering—my background, although not in research—technology and medicine that are collectively known as SET.

For other disciplines, the quality indicator will continue in the interim to involve expert review of research outputs, so some of the issues that my hon. Friend highlighted will remain problematic at least for the interim period. Output review will continue until bibliometrics in those disciplines are sufficiently well established to replace it. We are hopeful that the use of metrics in SET assessment will act as a catalyst for the development of bibliometrics in other disciplines.

For the time being, however, there will be differences in assessment for different disciplines. However, those differences will exist within the single overarching framework of indicators, and we are confident that assessment will operate in such a way as to ensure that all disciplines, and interdisciplinary work, are rigorously and fairly assessed.

Another part of the overarching framework will be the involvement of expert advisers. Although there will be no expert involvement at the level of the current RAE panel, there will be a continuing role for expert advice in deciding the weighting of the indicators for all disciplines, and in reviewing research outputs in disciplines where bibliometrics are not used. Expert advice in that context will include advice from disciplinary experts and expert users of research.

The first assessment for SET subjects under the new system will take place in 2009, and it will begin to inform funding from the 2010-11 academic year. It will completely replace the RAE 2008 element in funding for SET subjects by 2014-15. For other subjects, assessment under the new lighter-touch arrangements will be in academic year 2013, and it will inform funding from 2014-15.

The detailed design of the process requires further work, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has asked the Higher Education Funding Council to lead that work and involve the sector closely. Our aim, as I have said, is for a process that continues to reward research excellence, but that significantly reduces the administrative burden on higher education institutions and their researchers.

Sir Nicholas, I hope that that has satisfied your own concerns. I once again congratulate my hon. Friend on raising his concerns for the House.

Sitting suspended until half-past Two o’clock.

Human Trafficking

I welcome Members to this debate. I can see from the Chair that quite a lot of Members want to participate. It is an issue of considerable importance. The debate was secured by the hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen). Totnes, for those who do not know, is in the great county of Devon.

I thank the Speaker for choosing this subject for debate. He has done Parliament a great service in many ways, and the debate could not be more timely.

The war on terror is portrayed as enemy No. 1 in the west—the enemy cannot be seen, the enemy is within, society is threatened—but another war is going on, a more insidious one that is potentially more corrosive. I refer to the trafficking of human beings, including the trafficking of children for sex, begging, domestic servitude and other forms of child labour. Young children are lured away, usually from desperately poor families, and made dependent on crooks and criminals.

Until recently, child trafficking was seen not as a problem facing this country but as something that happened elsewhere. That changed with the launch last February of Operation Pentameter, which discovered 72 trafficked females in different parts of Britain, 12 of whom were minors. The discovery brought into stark relief the fact that Britain too is a host country into which young children are being trafficked to be bought and sold like meat in a butcher shop. As the deputy chief constable in charge of Operation Pentameter said,

“teenage virgins will fetch as much as £4,000 on the open market, whereas a 39-year-old may only command £500.”

We have no idea just how virulent child trafficking is, but we know that from time to time it raises its ugly head. Last Saturday, The Times reported that a Czech woman had been caught shipping children into Britain, using female couriers who posed as their relatives. Once here, the children were handed over to gangmasters. Despite lurid tabloid exposés and television documentaries chronicling stories of girls and gangs observed by undercover reporters, such criminal activity will inevitably continue unless confronted by stronger forces. Without a permanent Operation Pentameter detailing every police force in Britain to look out for and apprehend those involved in trafficking, and without a stronger remit from the Government for our law enforcement agencies, prosecutions and convictions will be spasmodic and erratic. Without a designated unit in every one of our 53 police forces to combat trafficking and help victims, the scale and extent of this illicit trade will never be known, and it will never be halted.

It is not just the police who need to be focused on trafficking. Could not some of the 9,000 health and safety officials working with every local authority in the country add to their concerns about obesity some other health aspects of our increasingly affluent population? One wonders what information health and safety officials could discover in their localities. Could they not help the police, social workers and the immigration service to root out the problem? It is no good for the Government to say that they are on side and deeply concerned or what a terrible business it all is if the Home Secretary fails to send the police a directive. Should not the Health Secretary also send some guidance to the health and safety officials? What about the probation services, or the thousands of housing officials throughout the country? More people work for the Government and local government than ever before. Surely among them they can discover trafficked persons and criminal gangs and act speedily. How is it that underage girls continue to enter this country? What is happening to our immigration service that it continues to admit children into Britain to be forced into prostitution?

In the United States, children travelling with people other than immediate family members are interviewed separately by the immigration service at points of entry. That is not done in Britain. If it were, we could intercept many potentially trafficked children. Will the Minister explain why it is not done, and whether it will be? It would create an entirely different climate where children accompanied by people other than their mother or father would be taken separately into a room, interviewed by an immigration official and asked the questions that need to be asked.

I used to have a business that related to another business in Florida, and I often took young, attractive female staff over there on business. My hon. Friend is quite right. They would be taken into a separate room and interviewed for half an hour to check that the story was correct. That simple measure would cut down the number of people trafficked into this country.

It is illuminating to hear what my hon. Friend did before he became a Member of Parliament. I thank him for that elucidation of how the Americans do it; it is an important point. I do not understand why we do not do it here. Will the Minister seriously consider it?

Even though we have not yet signed up to the minimum standards of victim protection laid down in the Council of Europe convention on action against trafficking in human beings, we are still obliged to consider children’s best interests, not just from a moral point of view but as an international legal requirement under article 3 of the 1989 UN convention on the rights of the child, which was ratified by every country in the world except for the United States and Somalia. Yet when we discover trafficked children at ports of entry, we are still inclined to put them back on the next plane to the country from which they came. The snag in doing so is that such children are usually re-trafficked or their families are placed at risk.

Immigration officials must be instructed not only to discover victims of trafficking but to challenge fake parents or guardians, who inevitably have tickets to return to the country from which they came within 24 hours of arrival. It is another simple thing. When children are accompanied by a parent or guardian, all immigration officers should check the date on the return ticket. If it is within 24 or 48 hours, questions must be asked.

Does the hon. Gentleman also agree that a significant number of children trafficked for the sex trade come from countries in conflict? Abiobesh Davies, brought at age 15 from Sierra Leone and now residing in my constituency, has no family left because they were all killed in the conflict. Now 18 and with a history of prostitution, she is fighting the immigration service’s constant attempts to return her to Sierra Leone, where the only future before her is further prostitution and abuse. Is that not a disgrace?

Yes, it is a disgrace. I shall come to the similar experiences of other African girls whom the all-party group has met. They will merely corroborate what the hon. Lady said. I thank her for that intervention.

All in all, the Government have taken a somewhat unco-ordinated approach. Although I know that the Minister’s heart is in the right place and thank him for his meetings with the all-party group and with me, he should realise that the Government’s efforts and his own, although they are welcome, are no match for sophisticated and well-organised criminal gangs. The Government have a specific Minister for Children and Families. I realised that only recently. She has not answered questions on the issue in the House, and inquiries to her about trafficking of children are sent back with a note saying, “Not known here; please refer to the Home Office.” Perhaps the Minister could explain where she fits into the Government jigsaw.

Recently, five teenage girls volunteered to talk with the all-party group on trafficking of women and children, of which I am the chairman, about their experiences. They came from Guinea-Bissau, Kenya, Sierra Leone, Uganda and Burundi. My hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone) was present at that meeting. The pattern was similar: most of the girls had been physically abused when they were young children, and some had been raped. All were accompanied by a minder on the plane and through immigration, and all had been told that they were coming to Europe for a better life. Once through immigration those children were handed to another minder in the UK who was part of the international network, which then trafficked the girls onward.

Those seven teenage girls were the fortunate ones in that they got away, but they had no security and feared that they might be sent back at any time. They had no passports, no identity cards and little confidence that they would be safe in Britain if they shopped their traffickers. If Britain signed the European convention on action against trafficking, that would at least ensure that trafficked people knew their safeguards and were protected.

I am glad that my hon. Friend has referred to the convention. Given that the convention was tabled as long ago as May 2005 and that, the last time I looked, no fewer than 24 of the 46 eligible member states had chosen to sign it, does he agree that it really is time that the Government spoke to those signatory states and established how they were able perfectly satisfactorily to overcome concerns about the convention operating as a pull factor? To sign it would guarantee a minimum level of protection and treatment for some of the most vulnerable people in the world.

My hon. Friend puts his finger on it, and makes the case much better than I can. He is absolutely right. The idea that if we signed the convention, minors would pour into Britain, all seeking asylum, is pure moonshine. There is some other reason why the Government are not inclined to sign it, but I shall come to that in a moment.

Child trafficking is allegedly growing, but there is very little information available and nobody knows exactly whether it is or where it is. We also know that the public are strangely indifferent to the stories of child abuse and violence, as if they have been so anesthetised by the layer upon layer of horror daily served up to them and just cannot stomach any more. The recent Crimestoppers poster was well intentioned in its attempt to raise awareness of sex trafficking, but the information that it displayed lacked a certain credibility. Although raising public awareness is an important part of tackling trafficking in the UK, it is vital that it should be handled in a sensitive and measured way, rather than seeking sensationalism and resorting to shock tactics.

The hon. Gentleman raises the issue of publicity, but does he feel that insufficient attention is given to publicising the stark facts of what is happening in the United Kingdom?

I am grateful for that intervention because the thing is, we do not know what the facts are. That is the biggest problem. We hear terrible stories but they are probably the tip of the iceberg. The media, well intentioned though I am sure they are, tend to go for the sensational stories and do not give an overall picture. I hope that I will be able to put the issue into a better perspective in my speech, but there are a lot of hon. Members present who can add to the story. I hope that the media might give a more measured picture after they have listened to this debate.

Besides the UK perspective, there is the European one. Britain needs to play a major part, not only by addressing demand factors in this country and making it difficult for trafficked minors to get through immigration and border controls, but by ensuring that all 27 EU countries adopt a similar protocol with their police forces and judiciaries. The accession of Bulgaria and Romania from 1 January 2007 will push the frontiers of the EU eastwards, giving greater access for trafficking from Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova and the former Soviet Union. We must also not forget Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, which are now in the EU and where there is considerable poverty. People can travel from Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia by crossing the frontiers, without having to be trafficked.

The first problem that the Government have to tackle with other EU member states is determining to what extent corruption among border controls, the police forces and the judiciary is rife. How are the Government going to tackle bribery, with which many former communist countries’ institutions are riddled? Is the problem that corruption is so widespread that top-level individuals will not be brought to justice? Although Romania has an indomitable police chief and Bulgaria has a new and well-regarded state prosecutor, why have no high-level prosecutions occurred and why have no convictions taken place? Is it that, in former communist countries, corruption is so ingrained and reaches so far into all levels of society that gathering sufficient evidence to mount a successful prosecution is nigh impossible?

It is against that background that we should view the work of Europol and Interpol. How good is the sharing of information between police forces? The Romanian police have established two-way links with the United Kingdom through the Serious Organised Crime Agency on fingerprint mapping, image tracking and DNA database information, as well as fire arms profiling, which is a new technology, but is that happening in the other 25 EU countries? How good is the secret intelligence gathering in south-east European countries?

I should like to share some of my own experiences with the Chamber and pay tribute to the work of ECPAT, which stands for End Child Prostitution, Child Pornography and the Trafficking of Children for Sexual Purposes. ECPAT is a coalition of nine leading UK organisations working for the protection of children’s rights. It services our all-party group on trafficking of women and children, and has enabled me to make secret visits to hostels in the Netherlands and Rome. I should like to thank the chief of the Romanian national police for giving me an inside picture of what is really going on there, and the deputy governor of the high-security prison in Bucharest for arranging for me to talk with three convicted traffickers in private for several hours. I should also like to thank David Savage, a former constituent of mine who switched from his work from Nortel, a high-tech company, to helping HIV/AIDS-infected children in the former Romanian orphanage at Chernavoda, for his continuing work on the issue.

At a safe house on the outskirts of Rome I met a woman who had been trafficked as a child from eastern Europe. I met many such women, from Albania, Bulgaria and Romania. Some were still in their teens. The market for buying children for adoption has been well documented by Baroness Nicholson, who is an officer of our group. She exposed what was happening in the orphanages in Romania in the late 1990s.

Different patterns are emerging in different parts of Europe. One girl had been sold by her brother to a gang because he needed money when their parents died. Another had been forcibly abducted when she was 10. She is now 21. She lost her childhood and spent eight years with pimps, virtually a prisoner and largely providing sex for wealthy Italian men. She was threatened repeatedly that if she tried to escape, her sisters would be raped and her parents killed. With no one to turn to and not able to speak Italian, she could not escape until she was caught stealing and sent to jail. She was released on appeal by telling her full story to a magistrate. She was not just sexually abused, but physically abused. She showed me burn marks on her stomach that had been caused by the traffickers stamping out their cigarettes, warning that there would be more to come if she tried to escape. What I learned is that the real mafia no longer works in just Sicily or New York, but has spread to Bulgaria, Moldova, Croatia and Albania. It is very nasty indeed.

The hostel provides the sympathy and support of an exceptional and inspirational young woman psychologist, who not only runs the hostel, but offers all the victims years of ongoing intensive support and therapy. We do not do that here. In many ways, Italian social legislation that is aimed at the protection of victims of trafficking is more advanced than ours in the UK. At least trafficked people are given respect and the status of a residence permit to help them rebuild their lives.

I spent a day at that hostel and had a full and frank discussion with a lot of the girls, thanks to ECPAT and a girl who had worked there for more than a year. The girls talked to me frankly in Italian and other languages about their experiences, although I am sure that I did not get the whole story.

The Chamber will understand what a trauma child trafficking is to the victim, what a heinous crime it is, and how considerable the financial resources are that enlightened countries such as Italy and the Netherlands are prepared to spend over long periods to try to rehabilitate people who have been through such appalling experiences. We, however, try to get them out of this country on the next plane as quickly as we can. That is not what we should be doing.

Is it likely that cost is making the Government apprehensive about signing up to the European convention on action against trafficking? If that is so, how do they square that with the fact that the trafficking of human beings is a criminal offence under much international legislation? How do they square it with the violation of international law, including human rights law? Trafficking is an offence against the dignity and integrity of human beings, which is laid down in international conventions such as the universal declaration on human rights, the slavery convention and so on.

If there is a reluctance to sign up to the new convention, could we not put in place something better for people trafficked into Britain, who are at risk? If the convention is not strong enough, the Government have every opportunity to put in place something better. Perhaps the Minister can explain why we have not even signed the additional protocol to the convention on the rights of the child, which refers to the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography and states that countries should take all measures to protect children from sexual exploitation.

There must be some reason why the Government are so reluctant to protect human rights; after all, this country is proud of its track record on human rights. As things are, some children and young people here are deeply scarred, frightened and dreadfully unhappy. Some are still extremely angry.

In Chernavoda, I met pimps who were not part of organised gangs. I was told that that could be dangerous, but I am glad to say that it turned out not to be. The neighbourhood pimps operate on a locality basis known as “lover boys”. They swear undying love in a feigned relationship with a local teenage girl, then take her on a purported holiday to Italy or Spain—two host countries to which there is a lot of trafficking. There, she is abandoned and handed over to a criminal network.

There are 2.8 million Romanies in Romania, more than 1 million in Bulgaria and millions in Hungary and the Czech Republic. They all share one characteristic: there is little work and few prospects for those who leave school, so their young people and children are particularly vulnerable to traffickers. Trafficking patterns have tended to change, certainly for the neighbourhood pimp who is ever-conscious of extremely serious penalties if he is caught trafficking under-18-year-olds into Italy or Spain.

As was mentioned by the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman), mafia gangs have acted brutally in the field of human trafficking. However, neighbourhood pimps are now striking new deals with their former girlfriends, so that the trafficked person keeps a percentage of their earnings and the balance is shared by way of commission among those who facilitated the business in the first place. The idea that trafficked women are all chained up and given the most terrible time is changing—certainly as far as the neighbourhood pimps are concerned.

I am told that throughout Europe, the pimp business is flourishing. Pimps make a good living thanks to the appetite of the growing number of affluent men in western Europe who are happy to pay relatively modest sums for trafficked children. If the penalties for having sex with trafficked children were quadrupled, as is being discussed in Sweden, that would inevitably be a disincentive to customers and would further affect or reduce demand.

Not only girls are being trafficked for prostitution, labour exploitation such as exploitation in cannabis factories, or forced begging. Male victims are trafficked for sexual purposes, but their number is very difficult to estimate. There is a double shame for the young men who come forward: that of being a prostitute and that of having sex with men despite not being gay themselves. Boys are harder to identify, as they are often judged by law enforcement officials as being the criminals, not the victims. They are reluctant to come forward to the authorities. Far more work needs to be done on the issue; there is a great deal of evidence from both Romania and Moldova of trafficking arrangements that go outside the EU before coming back in with young boys.

If we made trafficking to Britain much more difficult, the gangs would switch to more lucrative and less complicated activities. Traffickers are business men, and want to make money with minimum effort and risk. If we made it more difficult to traffic into this country and all other EU countries, they would probably divert their attention to something else.

I am so glad that my hon. Friend has secured this very important debate. Is he aware that in this country the average earnings of a trafficked prostitute for his or her pimp are roughly £100,000 a year? Each trafficked prostitute makes big business. Does my hon. Friend welcome the measures introduced in border countries such as Austria and Italy? At the point of entry, women are given a leaflet in the relevant languages setting out where they can go for help. Such women are often not sure about where to turn. At present, no such thing exists in our own country.

I am grateful for that intervention. We need a massive publicity campaign, not only here but in every EU country. Every school should educate all their young people about the dangers. There could be poster boards. The issue has to be talked about and discouraged. I believe that in Chernavoda as many as 40 per cent. of teenage girls are in prostitution. I mentioned David Savage, who has done remarkable work there. He set up his own school to try to deal with disadvantaged young people. He was delighted with the first class of 15, but found that 14 of them were going into prostitution or pimping after school.

This major problem is created and caused by continued demand from western countries. I cannot comment on the figure of £100,000 a year, mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman)—it sounds about right—but the figure is far beyond the work of the Home Office, good though that is. The traffic is international and in the European dimension, we have not yet started to address it. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her contribution.

Trafficking is not smuggling, which involves people who have consented to be smuggled. Trafficked victims have either never given consent or have given initial consent that has been rendered meaningless by coercive, deceptive or abusive action by traffickers. “Trafficking” suggests that victims are taken to another country, although that is not necessarily so; victims can equally be moved from one town to another. Trafficking involves ongoing exploitation, whereas smuggling does not.

Britain still does not have a clear, coherent approach to helping victims of trafficking. The Joint Committee on Human Rights of the Lords and Commons made a number of excellent recommendations in its October 2006 report, especially about victim care. I am glad to see that its Chairman, the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore), is in the Chamber; he has taken considerable interest in this issue.

No doubt, the Government will respond to the report shortly. As things are, the police do not know what to do, social services say that they do not have the resources, and immigration and border controls admit that trafficking regularly slips through their net. Furthermore, unless trafficked people have a better idea of what they can expect if they come forward, they will continue to hide away—fearful of the police, of extradition, of being re-trafficked and of retribution, especially if they volunteer to give evidence against their traffickers. That is just in Britain; in many eastern European countries, the police not only are corrupt, but abuse the trafficked women. That is another problem.

The British Government may be well-meaning and the Minister sympathetic, but the overall picture is one of muddle and lack of direction. Hundreds of agencies continue to attend seminars, discussion groups and training sessions. Whenever I go to any foreign capital to hear about and discuss trafficking, there are 400 or 500 people there. They are everywhere, with flags, lunches and dinners. It is a sort of social merry-go-round. I have never known so many people to be involved in the issue of trafficking.

Yet there remains one indisputable fact, and it is the most telling: only 25 hostel places have been created for trafficked women, and they are all in London. However, they are regularly empty, and only 16 of the 25 beds—two thirds—were being used this morning. What happened to the other third? There are only 25 places in London, but what about the rest of the country?

Those places are in the Poppy Project, to which the Government give sizeable grants, and I pay tribute to them for that. In answer to every parliamentary question on this issue over the past three months, Ministers have said that the Poppy Project is the answer, but the project is 25 hostel beds in London alone, of which only 16 are currently being used. Furthermore, the arrangement is only short term, unlike the Rome scheme. An average stay is four weeks, but it is three years in the Rome hostel, because that is what the girls need. What happens to the trafficked women after four weeks?

There is one further problem. I wonder whether the Minister knows that the Poppy Project refuses to take minors and has turned away 70 children under the age of 18 this year. What has happened to them? The Minister will know how inadequately resourced local authorities are, and none has specific accommodation for such cases. What will the Minister say about that? Will he find out for me and the House what has happened to each of those 70 children? Will he then write to me and place a copy of that letter in the Library?

Finally, without missionary zeal, the British Government will, by default, be condoning child slavery, and I fear that things could get worse once Romania and Bulgaria join the EU in a few weeks’ time.

Order. Could I make a further plea from the Chair? A lot of people want to speak, and I want to get them all in. Speeches of four minutes would be warmly welcomed, and hon. Members who go much beyond that will see me tapping my pen on the table.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) on securing the debate and on enabling us to have a wide-ranging discussion about a problem that should be recognised as shameful for both the world and the United Kingdom, particularly in this century. We will soon commemorate the bicentenary of the abolition of slave trading in the UK, although slavery has not, of course, disappeared. I shall concentrate on one appalling aspect of present-day slavery: the trafficking of women and children for sexual exploitation. I shall look particularly at what is happening in the UK and discuss what we might do about it.

We should be in no doubt that we are talking about an international trade and business, whose value is estimated to be $7 billion per annum. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that we do not know for certain what the numbers are, but it is estimated that in any one year there are about 4,000 trafficked women here in the UK. Operation Pentameter has referred to a 14-year-old Lithuanian girl being sold for £8,000 because she was a virgin, while the Crown Prosecution Service has commented on the outrageous fact that slave auctions take place in the lounges of our airports. The trade in trafficked women and children is taking place before our eyes in such places, and it is beyond comprehension that no action is taken against it.

I was both pleased and disturbed to meet the group of young women who had been trafficked, whom the hon. Gentleman mentioned. They were brought together through a National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children programme, which was organised by ECPAT. All those young African women had been trafficked, and I was struck not only by their numbers, but by the way in which, almost without emotion, they recounted the dreadful stories of what had happened to them. It was as if they somehow no longer had the capacity to feel anything about what had happened to them and about how their lives had been destroyed, although the NSPCC was trying to help them rebuild their lives through its programme. I was particularly concerned to hear that one of the girls had been taken to a flat in Liverpool.

Many countries are involved in the trade, including countries in Africa, the far east and, increasingly, eastern Europe. In some circumstances, force is used; in others, deception, with women and children believing that they are coming to a better life. At a Pentameter meeting in the House, I heard what typically happens. Young women and children in other countries are sold—sometimes without their knowledge—by impoverished and ignorant families. They believe that they are going to a better life and a better job. They then travel, sometimes passing through several countries, not knowing which country they will arrive in. Their passports are taken from them, and they are taken to unknown premises where they are raped repeatedly. They are then told that they must repay their debts and are forced into prostitution. That takes place in several different places, such as explicit brothels or massage parlours, but also in suburban flats and anonymous houses.

What should be done? We need a combination of actions, as suggested in the excellent report by the Joint Committee on Human Rights. We should step up anti-poverty measures in countries of origin, because much of the trade is encouraged by poverty and by people’s desperate circumstances. There should also be stronger international action against organised crime and trafficking, and more consistent and comprehensive assistance to victims.

The Government have made some efforts to deal with the issue. New offences have been created to prosecute trafficking, some of which were brought into effect only two years ago. There is also support for victims through the Poppy Project, which has now been expanded. Operation Pentameter, too, has done excellent work. I also welcome the setting up in Sheffield of the UK trafficking centre, which is an inter-agency organisation bringing together the police, the immigration service, the Serious Organised Crime Agency, the Crown Prosecution Service and others. The centre deals with traffickers and victims, as well as looking at enforcement, intelligence gathering and the care of victims, but such measures need to be comprehensive and nationwide.

I join the calls for the implementation of the Council of Europe convention on action against trafficking in human beings. I do not accept that it would be a pull factor for prostitution; instead, I think that it would address the real and cruel situation in which so many young people find themselves.

Recently, on the international day for the abolition of slavery, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan stated:

“Contemporary forms of slavery—from bonded labour to human trafficking—are flourishing as a result of discrimination, social exclusion and vulnerability exacerbated by poverty”,

and I would add exploitation by criminal gangs to that list. He also observed:

“The movement against slavery was the first campaign to bring together the international community in the struggle against gross human rights violations.”

We should all recognise that we now need a new, concerted effort to end a scandal that disgraces both the world and our country.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) on securing this important debate and on his chairmanship of the all-party group, on which I serve as treasurer. I know that he is determined that we should get things done rather than just talk. I welcome the Minister, who I know is very concerned about the issue. It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman), who set out the problem so clearly. It is amazing that a young woman is probably being sold for between £4,000 and £4,500 at Heathrow today.

We are talking principally about slavery, not prostitution. The fact is that women are held against their will and given no choice but to have sex with men. Such things have happened so many times that people are now beginning to realise that they are happening. If one talks to any hard-nosed police officer, he will say that there are sex slaves in every town in this country.

Let me give hon. Members one example, of a woman whom I will call Sarah. She was one of the young women who came to the House and she was saved by the NSPCC. She was 16, I believe; she was from Africa and she was attractive. She came to this country when she was 14, arriving through immigration with a middle-aged white man, with a passport that was not hers and did not even have a picture of her on it, yet she was allowed into this country. She was locked up in a flat and forced to have sex with men continually. Thankfully, she escaped after a few days, came to London and heard someone speaking the language of her home country; that person took her to the authorities and she was then protected. She was an extremely lucky young lady, but there are thousands of others who are not.

You might say, Sir Nicholas, that the problem is a big city problem, which happens in Liverpool, Manchester or London. But the truth is that it is everywhere. I was at my surgery one day in Northamptonshire and a letter dropped through the letter box. It was an anonymous letter from a local prostitute, who said that she was approaching me not because she was losing trade, but because she wanted to tell me about Albanian gangs in Northampton who were ruthlessly exploiting women whom they had trafficked into this country. I went to see the police, and they told me, “Yes, that is happening, and we have taken action.” They had raided a brothel in Northamptonshire and released several young women whom they suspected had been trafficked. However, none of the women was prepared to say so, because they were so scared about what would happen. They thought that they would be returned home and that their families would be persecuted. Very cleverly, Northamptonshire police prosecuted the Albanians on the basis that they were here illegally, and got rid of them in that way. The point is that the problem affects every part of the country.

It might also be thought that the problem is nothing to do with the House of Commons—that it is nowhere nearby. Well, I walked across the bridge to St. Thomas’s hospital and, unannounced, I went to the sexual health clinic. That little room was packed with young women, virtually all of whom were foreign. None could speak English. There were young, eastern European men there. They might be thought to be loving, kind partners, concerned about the young women’s welfare, but I do not think so, because when one of the young women made a bolt for the door to escape, a man, swearing, chased after her. I have no idea whether the young woman got away. Right on our doorstep there are trafficked women who are being forced to be slaves.

I know that time is limited, so I want to end with some questions to the Minister. I think that a number of things can be done, some very easily. One is publicity. Perhaps every brothel in the country could have a notice telling young women that if they are trafficked they will not be persecuted by the police, that they will be looked after and that there is a telephone number they can call. That is simple and would work. The notice could also be put up in ports and railway stations. Northamptonshire police took the initiative when they discovered the problem. What happens if at 10 or 11 o’clock in the evening a beat bobby comes across a young woman who says, “I’ve been trafficked.”? Until the recent initiative there was no procedure, but now every police officer in Northamptonshire knows what to do, where to take the young woman, and how to treat her. It does not cost any money and is a simple procedure.

We talked briefly about immigration control and I think that that is one of the keys. Again, such a measure would not cost a lot of money. However, the most important thing is to have safe houses across the country where young victims can be looked after for a year or two—because it can take that long for a case to come to court. It is no good looking after them for a couple of months and sending them home, because there will then be no chance of continuing the prosecution. The victims will be got at in their home country. I do not quite understand why we are not signing the Council of Europe convention on action against trafficking in human beings, but leaving that aside, let us bring in legislation or regulations to provide safe houses. That would help greatly.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) on securing the debate. It is a pleasure to follow him when we are on the same side of the debate. On this occasion his speech is the longer and mine will be the shorter.

As hon. Members will know, the Joint Committee on Human Rights, which I chair, recently completed a lengthy inquiry and published its report. It is widely accepted that trafficking of human beings is not merely a criminal justice or migration issue, but a significant human rights issue too. There is a positive legal obligation on states to investigate, prosecute and punish traffickers, but in accordance with human rights standards, the effective protection of victims must be the starting point.

The hon. Member for Totnes rightly drew a distinction between trafficking and smuggling. Far too many people confuse the two. The essence of trafficking is that people are coerced, conned or kidnapped, and exploited. Smuggling is a voluntary activity, which is always illegal, and does not involve the exploitation at the end of the process.

The scale of the activity is a big issue. People have spoken about 4,000 women in sex slavery, but those are old numbers from 2003 which I believe to be a significant underestimate. Ten years ago, 85 per cent. of women in brothels were born in the UK, whereas now 85 per cent. are born overseas. We have no idea of the number of children who have been trafficked—not just for sex purposes, but also for labour exploitation. We have no idea, either, of the number coming as adults for labour exploitation. Each of those individuals is a real life story.

It is true that trafficking and exploitation are going on everywhere. Even my local newspaper in Edgware reported under the heading “Sex slave gang jailed” the appalling kidnapping and exploitation of a Lithuanian woman. The focus in the debate and in the country has always been on the sex trade, but I should like to mention one or two other aspects as well. Children may be smuggled for domestic service, often through family and community links. It is often a cultural practice, going back to Africa where the tradition is that people are farmed out to relatives for food and education and to be cared for. They come here and are exploited, often as a result of debt bondage of the family in the source country. We even heard evidence in our Committee of children from Vietnam being brought here to farm cannabis, looking after the plants in the greenhouses.

Domestic workers are also exploited and subjected to violence and abuse. Under the new visa rules, which we want changed, they cannot change their employer, so they are trapped. A third of domestic workers are not allowed out. Some, we heard, sleep in corridors or under the kitchen table. Agriculture is a source of labour exploitation, too. We heard from the TUC of a case in which legal Portuguese workers had to pretend to be illegal Brazilians pretending to be legal Portuguese, so that they would be open to exploitation by the employer. That was bizarre.

Our Committee found that the Government were doing quite well on enforcement, but we were extremely concerned about the lack of a victim-centred approach. We want a rebalancing of the Government’s initiative. There is inconsistency in approaches around the country, primarily because of a lack of training and knowledge. Victims are often seen as criminals themselves or as illegal migrants, rather than as the victims of horrific crime, multiple rape and slavery. They are often taken straight to the removal centre for deportation. The Home Office operates a case-by-case approach, whose discretionary basis gives no guarantee against arbitrary removal. People can often be removed even while they are deciding whether they want to support a prosecution. The fear and trauma that those women have experienced is often underestimated by the authorities. The Poppy Project gave us a very good example, when we went to see it. Not one of its clients had been given asylum on the first decision, although many succeeded on appeal.

No, I have limited time. The trafficker of the Ukrainian woman we met had been convicted, had served a lengthy prison sentence and been discharged from prison, yet she was still waiting for a decision on her asylum case. That cannot be right.

We identified very poor levels of support for children, which is inevitably organised through local authorities, which do not have the resources, training or knowledge to recognise victims of that serious crime and treat them any differently from other looked-after children.

We need a victim-centred approach. We must research the scale of the problem across the board, and publish the research and the material that gives rise to it. We must have much better training in the identification of victims and potential victims by the police, immigration and local authorities. The point has been well made about warnings at airports, and in particular an eye should be kept out for unaccompanied minors, who are often unaware that they are victims of trafficking.

I am aware of that. It is not allowed to take them because they are minors and must go to the care of local authorities. That is the problem: the law does not allow it to take them.

We must stop treating the victims as criminals, and we must end the risk of arbitrary removal. We must provide the basic support through NGOs such as the Poppy Project, which estimates that we need double the number of beds that it has. More important is security of funding, instead of the year-on-year funding that leaves organisations unsure of their future position. We need better support and advice for victims—especially legal advice, to help them to prosecute effective applications for residency. We would also like cultural mediators with the experience, language and knowledge of the country of origin to help to bridge the gap between the victim and the authorities. We need to help to reintegrate victims back in the source countries, if that is where they want to go, but then we have to deal with the risk of re-trafficking. Twenty per cent. of Poppy Project clients were re-trafficked, and one had been resold by her family within three days of being returned to the source country.

There is great vulnerability in the countries of origin, and we need much better education of potential victims. We heard of Italy’s good practice in that respect. We must put the victim at the centre of the process, and care of them must be a much higher priority than enforcement. The key to that is the reflection period recommended by the Council of Europe convention. The Joint Committee wanted to go further and recommended a three-month reflection period and residency permission, rather than the number of weeks stated in the convention.

I know that time is limited, and I had planned to say more about the convention. Rather than go through the details, I will simply say this: the Government’s argument is the pull factor. They say that if we treat victims humanely, they will be encouraged to come to this country and make fraudulent claims. I believe that the Minister was embarrassed by the brief that he had been given when he advanced that argument in oral evidence to the Joint Committee. The Joint Committee’s report states:

“Given that trafficking takes place under conditions of coercion or deception such a claim would not of course make sense. It is not credible to suggest that a woman would voluntarily submit to indeterminate sexual slavery of the most brutal kind for the purpose of obtaining UK residency.”

It simply makes no sense whatever for a woman to go through that horrible, traumatic experience to make a fraudulent claim.

I ask the Minister to respond to the Joint Committee’s conclusions that the Government should sign and ratify the convention. Signing is not enough. The UK is one of only a handful of countries that have not signed, but another seven countries are needed to ratify the convention. I would also ask him to respond positively to our recommendations for the better care of victims.

I know that many Members want to speak. I hope that when we have the Government’s response we can, through the good offices of the Liaison Committee, secure a three-hour debate on the issue, as there is much more to be said about it. The Government need to get a grip on looking after victims much more effectively than they have so far.

I am absolutely amazed that I agree exactly with the last point that the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) made.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) on securing this debate on a very important subject. It is related to a problem that I have been working on for some considerable time, as the Minister knows to his cost—he has experienced some ear-bashing. The issue of paedophiles is related, although we have not touched on it.

I am astonished by my hon. Friend’s timing. There was a report in The Times today about a lonely little funeral on 5 December at a London cemetery. It was for a little boy called Adam who was four, or perhaps five or six—we do not really know. He was called Adam, but nobody knows what his real name was. He was found some five years ago—or at least bits of him were—floating in the Thames. The police think that he had been smuggled here from Nigeria for a Muti ritual murder. He was smuggled in for, in effect, dissection—possibly while alive—and murdered. We do not know how much of that is going on.

There has been close co-operation in this Parliament between the Conservatives and the Government on dealing with paedophiles. The Government had the good sense to set up a small taskforce—in fact, the Minister and I should be at a meeting at this very time, but we cannot attend because of the importance of this debate. The taskforce has introduced many organisations, police representatives and some MPs who are particularly interested in the subject to each other. They have broken down the issues and split into groups to work on them. The taskforce could easily include people trafficking, as it is closely related. The Minister might like to think about that.

My particular interest in this debate is on the side of children. There is growing evidence that paedophiles may be using trafficking as an opportunity. Children are smuggled into this country for sex—very little children, in many cases. Some paedophiles are looking for children who are still in nappies. It is extremely easy to smuggle them through immigration as children, nephews and so on. They are brought in for domestic slavery, for benefit fraud, for Muti ritual killing and for adoption. But are we sure that it is adoption? Are they being brought in nominally for adoption but actually for other purposes?

I do not often support the Government, but they—or at least the law enforcement agencies in this country—are making some progress. There has been close co-operation, surprising as that might be to some of the speakers in this debate, between the police in this country and police forces in some rather unusual countries. A criminal gang working on adoption in Czechoslovakia were caught by a combined effort of the Metropolitan Police and the Czech Republic police. I hope and expect that that sort of thing will continue.

The Serious Organised Crime Agency has been set up and has a special duty to look into such activities. That is a good move, and the Metropolitan Police, virtually off their own bat, are working closely on Operation Paladin Child at Heathrow. There is much co-operation between Customs, the immigration service and the Metropolitan Police, but they are looking at only one airport, and there are many others.

I have already run through my four minutes. Will the Minister think carefully about more research? I take the points that other hon. Members have made, but we really do not know what we are tackling. The little taskforce that he and I should be working on this afternoon has had vast success. Perhaps its interests could be slightly extended, as its work has already been fragmented into specific topics, and I believe that trafficking is a related issue.

We must move forward. There will be co-operation across the House, and the Minister will find, as his predecessor did, that any legislative changes that have been thought through will go through simply, easily and with careful thought to the benefit of this country.

The hon. Gentleman has set a fine example to other hon. Members. I call Lorely Burt and say to the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris), who is also rising, that as long as his colleague is fairly brief, he will get in as well.

Thank you, Sir Nicholas. I shall be brief.

I would like to add my commendation to the hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) for securing this important debate. He spoke specifically about children. The only thing that I have to add is a chilling statistic that I read the other day: each week, approximately 100 unaccompanied children arrive at the immigration centre in Croydon, and 80 of them disappear without trace. The strong belief is that the vast majority are being taken for trafficking. Like the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman), I want to talk about the women’s perspective.

There are few issues that are more suited to international co-operation than dealing with human trafficking. As several hon. Members have said, the UK Government have been called on to sign the Council of Europe convention on action against trafficking in human beings, which calls for joint, co-operative action on trafficking. It includes the 90-day reflection period that several Members have mentioned. The Government have said that they are reflecting on the matter and have been gathering evidence of best practice in respect of the convention from other EU member states. However, 33 out of 45 Council of Europe member states have already signed the convention, so I would be interested to know from the Minister what further evidence of best practice the Government need before this country signs up as well.

It seems that the main barrier to the Government’s signing of the treaty is the 90-day reflection period. They fear that a mandatory period would, in the words of Baroness Scotland,

“act as an immigration pull factor, encourage spurious claims, and be used by those who have no right to remain in an effort to frustrate removal.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 5 July 2005; Vol. 673, c. WA77.]

My hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) asked the Prime Minister if he was aware that in Italy, where protection is at least as good as that recommended in the convention, if not better, there is no evidence of a pull factor, that 100 times as many women have been saved as in the UK and that there have been 100 times as many prosecutions. He asked the Prime Minister whether he would

“reflect again for the sake of the victims of trafficking, and allow the UK to sign the convention”.

The Prime Minister replied: “I will reflect again.” The Government have now had since May 2005 to reflect, and the Prime Minster has had a further five months since he made that statement, considerably longer than the 90 days proposed in the convention. Does the notion of illegal floodgates opening have any substance? How many people could we actually be talking about?

It is impossible to tell how big the number of trafficked people really is. I was heartened to learn about the United Kingdom Human Trafficking Centre, which is a Government co-ordinated policing initiative based in Sheffield and involves 55 police forces from all over the UK. As other hon. Members have mentioned, Operation Pentameter has rescued 84 trafficked women, 12 of whom were between the ages of 14 and 17.

Does the hon. Lady agree that the one thing that the Government could do immediately to enhance those efforts would be to set up a national helpline? It would not cost much money, could be properly publicised and would give a point of contact for anyone who has information or who needs help.

That is an excellent idea. I hope that the Minister will reflect on that.

I cannot underestimate the importance of giving those poor women a little time to recover so that they can get themselves into a reasonable state to give evidence and to make decisions on their future. A report by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, among others, concluded:

“Trafficking often has a profound impact on the health and well-being of women. The forms of abuse and risks that women experience include physical, sexual and psychological abuse, the forced or coerced use of drugs and alcohol, social restrictions and manipulation, economic exploitation and debt bondage, legal insecurity, abusive working and living conditions, and a range of risks associated with being a migrant and/or marginalised”.

In that study on violence and injury during trafficking, 95 per cent. of respondents reported physical or sexual violence, 90 per cent. reported being sexually assaulted, 75 per cent. reported being physically hurt, 36 per cent. reported threats to their family and 77 per cent. reported having no freedom of movement. A report by Amnesty International on its three-year study on trafficked women, “Stolen Smiles”, which was published in 2006, also found that severe health consequences were symptomatic of women who had been trafficked. The report urges specialised health care for the victims of trafficking for a minimum of 90 days after they have been removed from the situation: a “reflection period”. In light of all that, in the name of humanity will the Government conclude their reflection and sign and ratify the European convention?

I should be less than four minutes, Sir Nicholas.

As a member of the Joint Committee on Human Rights who carried out the inquiry, I want to thank the hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) for the service that he has done the House in introducing the debate. I thank hon. Members for speaking so briefly so that we could all get in, particularly the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) who will have had much more to say because of the excellent report by the Committee that he chaired. I will not repeat any of the points he made, because I agree with them all and with the way in which he put them.

I want to make two points. The first is about the convention. We should sign the convention so that we implement its provisions, as they will mean that victims can be treated better in terms of their human rights. Much more importantly, we need those protections because that is how we will find more of the victims. The Government’s approach, which is to say that if we find them we will carry out a case-by-case analysis, does not reassure people with the knowledge that they will get a proper period of reflection and the hope of being well treated in the longer term in this country, such as by being retrained, as they are in Italy where that in part produces tens—if not hundreds—of times more referrals. We are not identifying people here.

If the Government are to stick to their view that there is concern about a pull factor—I am interested to hear the Minister’s view—is there any evidence of such a factor from countries that operate the system? In Italy, we could find none and we asked everyone we met on every occasion.

Finally, I want to say a word about men, and it is about time we did. The demand for prostitution feeds the demand for trafficked women. Hundreds of thousands of men in this country use prostitutes; that is the sad fact. We need more data. The Government talk about doing research, and the sooner we can get hold of some decent figures the better. I do not think that we will ever get rid of prostitution, but we need to ensure that men who use trafficked prostitutes are a source of referrals, as they are in Italy. A helpline such as that mentioned by the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing) is used in Italy and there are significant numbers of referrals from men.

We said in our report that

“it is clearly inconsistent for the authorities to suggest that men who use the services of a prostitute who has been trafficked will be prosecuted for rape, especially given the legal obstacles to successful prosecution, and at the same time urge such men to report such activity to the authorities or a helpline. While we understand and recognise the reasons why politicians of all parties have called for prosecution of such men for rape, it does appear that this may have been counter-productive.”

We were led to that conclusion. Clearly, one can understand that those women are not consenting but I do not think—neither do most of the legal authorities that I have spoken to—that it would be possible to convict for rape on that basis. We should use the ability of those men to provide information to rescue the women and at the same time continue the efforts under Operation Pentameter to educate men who use prostitutes that they should not use those women who have been coerced, because it is equivalent to rape and to multiple rape. It is not merely a crime but a moral outrage. I hope the Government will understand—I know that the Minister feels strongly about the matter—and will consider all the representations that they have heard today.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his co-operation. If the two Opposition spokesmen could allow the Minister 10 minutes to wind up this important debate, the House would be grateful.

It is a pleasure to contribute to the debate under your chairmanship, Sir Nicholas. I congratulate the hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) on securing the debate. Human trafficking is an increasingly troubling and despicable trade and it merits such a substantial discussion.

Of course, by the nature of the practice we have only estimates to work from but we know that several thousand people in the UK have been trafficked into the country and we have reason to believe that that number is increasing year on year. All hon. Members will be aware that human trafficking is not simply a case of illegal entry into the country. The aim of human trafficking is to exploit its victims, almost always the weakest and most vulnerable, more often than not in modern-day slavery. Hardly a week goes by without media reports about the horrifying ordeals so many women and children—and men—are subjected to as a result of human trafficking, mostly associated with the sex industry.

Before I outline my objections to current policy, I want to say a few words about where I see common ground between the Liberal Democrats and the Government. It would be unfair to say that the Government and law enforcement agencies had been totally inactive. A number of positive steps have been taken to crack down on such awful crimes, but we contend that not enough is yet being done. The establishment of the UK Human Trafficking Centre to join up a number of agencies is a welcome move and it would be useful if the Minister could update us this afternoon on how the system is working in its admittedly relatively early stages.

Improved outreach services for trafficked women are also to be welcomed and it is only fair to acknowledge the emphasis the Government placed on the issue during their presidency of the EU in 2005: I refer to the EU action plan on human trafficking. Nevertheless, there is a fundamental difference between the Government and the Liberal Democrats on the issue and that is in relation to the European convention against trafficking in human beings.

Only a couple of months ago, our party conference passed a resolution unanimously calling on the Government to ratify the convention and to consider further measures aimed at improving transnational co-operation on this vital issue. Further to that, we are calling on the Government to put as much pressure as possible on new members of the EU and future members to put in place rigorous anti-trafficking policies. In our view, that should be a fundamental issue for any country that wishes to join the EU. Although there have been a number of successful police operations that have liberated dozens of women from sex slavery over the past few years, we urge the Government to encourage more intelligence-led operations against traffickers and those who profit from their vile trade.

Human trafficking, whether for prostitution, child slavery or the purposes of the black economy, is a trade of international proportions. It is estimated to be worth about $7 billion a year. As the standard note on the subject explains, the trade is similar in financial terms to drug trafficking. The problem therefore requires a Europe-wide response, and I believe that the convention offers an excellent way forward. Our view is backed by Amnesty International and UNICEF, which both say that the convention would be a vital tool in the fight against that abhorrent practice.

Human trafficking is a terrible crime; all too often it takes advantage of the weakest and most vulnerable in society, and it involves victims who have been tricked or violently coerced into leaving their homes. The convention recognises that fact in a way that Government policy does not. It is my view and that of my party that we should protect the rights of those who have been exploited as well as increasing our efforts to bring down the criminal organisations who perpetuate such human misery. It is not good enough for the Government to advocate a lottery for the victims of trafficking when deciding whether someone should benefit from a period of reflection once their status has been discovered. Such consideration should be mandatory.

Although much of the convention involves compassion for the victims, it also offers an effective way to crack the criminal networks that organise human trafficking. If all European Union countries were to be bound by the convention, our intelligence on the gangs that instigate human trafficking would be vastly improved. That would put a major dent in their operations. By working with victims instead of criminalising them, we would have a much greater chance of securing prosecutions.

In addition, I believe that the Government could do more to raise the profile of those crimes, and they should encourage members of the public to report suspected cases of trafficking, along the lines suggested earlier, and of people being used as slaves. It would be reassuring to hear how the Government intend working with employers, trade unions and councils, both to support the victims of trafficking and to monitor employment sectors vulnerable to traffickers.

The Government have dithered and deliberated on the convention for long enough, and members on both sides of the House have pressed them on the issue. I hope that we will receive an assurance this afternoon that the UK will be moving towards ratification; it would send a strong signal to people traffickers that the leadership of the EU is treating the matter with the utmost seriousness.

The Prime Minister said that Britain must use the bicentenary of the abolition of slavery to redouble our efforts against human trafficking. It is a shameful business, and it is a disgrace that Britain has not yet signed up to the European convention. I hope that the Minister will say that we are at last moving towards that vital treaty.

My hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) deserves more than the conventional congratulations on securing this debate. He deserves our gratitude for the energy and passion with which he pursues the issue through the all-party group.

Trafficking is partly about the sex trade but not wholly. It is also about providing cheap labour for unscrupulous employers in other fields. That is one reason why Opposition Members believe that control of our borders is vital. Steps to restore confidence in our immigration system and our borders would, among other benefits, discourage that evil trade, which as Members on both sides have said has attracted some of the most unpleasant criminal gangs in the world. At its worst, the trade is literally murderous. The cockle pickers at Morecambe bay and the Chinese people who died in the lorry at Folkestone were two tragedies that remind us of the real cost of the trade even without the horrors of the sex trade or of the paedophile trade mentioned my hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford).

Clearly, however, the sex trade is a big focus. My hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone) is right: the trade is not restricted to our big cities. He knows of examples of it happening in Northamptonshire, and I have heard of it happening in prosperous towns in Kent.

The facts are difficult to gain, but the estimates are staggering. It is thought that between 600,000 and 800,000 people are trafficked around the world every year. Closer to home, one newspaper has estimated that Britain has 4,000 massage parlours raking in something like £770 million a year. To answer the question raised by the hon. Member for Cheadle (Mark Hunter) about how many people are involved, the best guess seems to be that more than 250,000 men are spending at least £6.6 million a year on saunas and other sex-related commercial activities. What strikes me, as it has Members on both sides of the chamber, is how difficult it is to get hold of the facts. That was illustrated most starkly by a Home Office report of a few years ago that included the findings of a report by the university of London, which estimated that in 1998 between 142 and 1,420 women may have been trafficked into the UK. With an uncertainty factor of 10, it is clearly difficult to know the full scale of the problem. However, as others have said, we know that it is modern-day slavery.

We also know that after the drugs trade, it is the second biggest criminal industry in the world, with about the same value as arms dealing. However, it is also the fastest growing. It is closely connected with other illegal activities, and the FBI estimates that it generates about $9.5 billion a year. It is a huge and fast-growing business.

The Government have taken steps to try to combat the industry, and the small initiatives that they have taken are clearly to be welcomed. However, the Minister will be aware that, if anything, the problem in the UK is worsening. Under the Government’s initiatives, some women have been rescued. It was found that they had come from every corner of the world. We have seen girls as young as 15 coming here from other parts of Europe, some of them from countries that are now members of the EU, and being forced into prostitution. The problem needs more attention.

The Minister will have heard a wide range of suggestions this afternoon. I particularly endorse that proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing); a helpline would be a relatively easy and extremely effective innovation in the fight against that evil trade. However, more still needs to be done. The greater distribution of information and better education are needed, using specific profiling in order to target those most at risk. Schemes could identify the specific ages and home locations, and the industries, the work forces and the social backgrounds of the most vulnerable women.

We have seen, in other parts of the world, that such programmes can make a difference. In the longer term, it is important for our international aid and development efforts to encourage academic and economic opportunities in developing countries where human trafficking is an endemic problem. There was a particularly successful programme in Nepal, from where the trafficking of girls to India for prostitution is prevalent; the programme had a measurable effect.

We also need to change policing priorities in the UK. The Minister will know that the Opposition have been calling for some time for a specific border control force that combines the powers of immigration officers, customs officers and police officers. We believe that we would gain from enhancing police expertise in that way. We also need greater co-operation between the Government and overseas police forces. It is an international effort and it needs international solutions.

The Minister will have heard much about the Council of Europe’s convention, and he will have heard the many views that have been expressed about it. I would be particularly interested to hear the Government’s reasons for deciding that it is impossible to sign the convention. It will be no surprise to the Minister that Members on both sides of the House are considering the convention closely.

Finally, I ask the Minister to address the issues raised by several of my hon. Friends. It is not only the convention that is important; even if we signed it, it would not provide the whole solution. A wide range of activities, some of which we can and should be taking now, would mitigate the effects of human trafficking. It is a horrible trade and it needs to be fought as effectively as possible. If the Government take steps to do so, they will have the support of everyone from across the House.

I thank all hon. Members for their contribution to the debate. They have raised their points in a constructive if challenging way that will help us to take this issue forward. I congratulate the hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) on his contribution and on securing the debate, which is important in deciding how to make progress. I am also pleased to see that my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) and other members of the Joint Committee on Human Rights are here.

It is important that we start by accepting that everybody in this room and every single Member of Parliament wants an end to this trade. There is no division, conflict or controversy between anyone about the fact that every single one of us does not want to see a single child, woman or man brought into this country for the purposes of sexual or labour exploitation. We need to start from that point of being united in a common goal.

We need to try and find a way forward and I will outline some of the steps that the Government have taken in working with Members of Parliament, the voluntary sector, non-governmental organisations and others. I have a big list of answers to a whole range of questions and, because of the limited time available, it would be helpful for me to write with answers to the various questions of all hon. Members, and, indeed, to others who have not had the opportunity to contribute. I will simply not be able to go through all the points in any meaningful or sensible way that would do justice to the issues that people have raised. If hon. Members are happy with that I will undertake to write to them.

We have had a number of suggestions: a telephone helpline, the need for stricter border controls, raising the profile of the issue, action in source countries, cross-government working, a victim-centred approach, research, and training. All of those points are important in the work we are doing and I will talk about that in a moment. All the suggestions made by hon. Members and my hon. Friends are important and the Government are looking at them to see what sort of help and contribution they can make to tackling the trade at source and when people arrive in this country.

Where are we now? Well, the UK is determined to tackle this terrible crime and in doing so we have been mindful of the needs of victims, but also of the need to have an effective law enforcement strategy to bring the perpetrators of this awful crime to justice. As some hon. Members have mentioned, we have introduced significant and specific legislation dealing with the offence of trafficking. Initial legislation came under section 145 of the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002. That was then replaced by the Sexual Offences Act 2003. On 1 May, offences came into force to provide a specific law to deal with trafficking. Those dedicated trafficking offences carry a maximum sentence of 14 years imprisonment, which is an important contribution to the law enforcement effort. The legislation deals with trafficking into the UK, within the UK and out of the UK.

Alongside that, having outlined the main offence we have introduced for sexual exploitation, we have introduced Acts to deal with non-sexual exploitation. On 1 December 2004 the Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants, etc) Act 2004 came into force and section 4 of that Act introduced a new offence of trafficking people for exploitation. That was the first time that trafficking for non-sexual forms of exploitation, including forced labour and debt bondage, have been made the subject of specific criminal offences. Those offences carry a maximum sentence available to the courts of 14 years imprisonment. The combination of that offence and the offences of trafficking for sexual exploitation means that any trafficking is now a very serious offence and rightly carries serious penalties.

Hon. Members have referred to the success of Operation Pentameter and we wanted to build on that work. Therefore, we decided to establish a UK action plan because we knew that following Pentameter, there was still an awful lot to do. As a result of consultation, the Government are in the process of developing a UK action plan. For the benefit of hon. Members, I will outline the key areas that it will address: first, prevention; secondly, law enforcement and prosecution; thirdly, protection and assistance to adult victims; fourthly, protection and assistance to child victims; and fifthly, labour exploitation. We are trying to deal with all of the various issues that hon. Members have raised through the action plan.

We will carefully consider how activity in support of the plan will be delivered through the inter-ministerial group on human trafficking, and some of my hon. Friends from the Department for Education and Skills are involved with that—although not specifically the Minister for Children. We hope to deal with many of the issues raised in this debate through the action plan and believe that it will be introduced early in the new year around February or March.

What about tackling immigration at the ports of entry? Something could be done on that immediately.

We have tightened up the visa regulations in respect of children and they are now required to have a passport on their visa. There also has to be an identified adult travelling with them and training is given to immigration officials on that. So we have tried to do an awful lot in respect of children coming into the country. In answer to the hon. Gentleman’s point about children being interviewed separately, if the child is in distress, immigration officers will interview that child separately from an adult to try and determine whether there is a particular problem.

We have also established the UK Human Trafficking Centre, which I was delighted to formally open in October. The centre will support the overarching aim of moving the UK to a leading position in relation to the prevention and investigation of trafficking. As we know, child trafficking is a particular issue and the Government, as hon. Members will be aware, are researching the scale and scope of the problem.

The hon. Member for Cheadle (Mark Hunter) mentioned the international front and we have done a lot internationally through the establishment of the EU action plan. The Home Secretary spoke recently at the G6 and there was an expert seminar to try and replicate Operation Pentameter across Europe. The UN will be holding a special conference on the issue of trafficking some time in the new year.

On the Council of Europe, the Government are still considering their position. Regarding the point that some hon. Members made, irrespective of our decision whether or not we sign the convention, we believe we have made good progress both on law enforcement and victim support. We know that there is a lot more to do in both those areas and we will continue to work with our partners to make progress on those issues. Law enforcement will be spearheaded by the UK Human Trafficking Centre, by the Serious and Organised Crime Agency and by the local police who will do everything they possibly can to bring the perpetrators of this vile trade to justice. I applaud the effort they have made.

However, we also want to carry on working alongside local authorities, voluntary organisations and non-governmental organisations in continuing to extend and develop the support that we give to victims of this vile trade. Together, we will be able to improve what we do, support victims and bring those who perpetrate the trade to justice.

Sport and Leisure (North Wiltshire)

I feel no awkwardness at all in moving from a matter of great and grave national and international concern—the trafficking of human beings—to a matter that is of great and grave concern to my constituents. People might think, at a glance, that North Wiltshire has sport and leisure coming out of its ears and that we have no worries in that respect, but I want to take the opportunity to raise with the Minister and the wider public a matter that is of grave concern locally.

We have six leisure centres in North Wiltshire, in Chippenham, Corsham, Malmesbury, Wootton Bassett, Calne and Cricklade, but it was announced last week that three of them—those in Cricklade, Wootton Bassett and Calne—are to close. In my 10 years as a Member of Parliament, I have had experience of a number of issues that have caused huge public outrage and concern. One thinks of the proposed closure of RAF Lyneham, with the loss of up to 10,000 jobs, the proposed closure of up to seven of the community hospitals in our area, the challenge faced by the Post Office at the moment, and a variety of other issues, but in my 10 years as an MP none has come close to causing the outrage that I have experienced in the last couple of weeks in response to the proposed closure of the leisure centres.

Before I talk about the leisure centres in detail, I should say that of course the Government have no direct responsibility for such matters, but I thought that it might be useful as background to touch on some of the things—very helpful things, they are—that the Government have said in recent years about the importance of sport and leisure in our society today.

First and most obvious is the Government’s response to the problem of obesity, particularly among the young. The appalling figures are that 69 per cent. of men and 59 per cent. of women today in Great Britain are overweight or obese and that 28 per cent. of children aged between two and 10 are overweight or obese. Do we know why? The reasons are fast food, TV and computer games, and sitting at home rather than getting out and about and playing sport. It was particularly worrying to see a report this morning that the national health service is considering stapling children’s stomachs in the hope that they will manage to combat obesity. I was glad to see in the media coverage of the issue that the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence said that the stomach stapling procedure would be used only in the most extreme cases in which children could not otherwise be persuaded to get their weight down, but NICE also said that obesity in this country is now more damaging to health than smoking, heavy drinking or poverty. That is amazing.

NICE goes on to say that city planners, employers and schools must take steps to help people to exercise regularly. That would include measures such as creating more bike paths, pedestrianised areas, subsidising gym memberships and offering healthier food choices. NICE goes out of its way to reiterate what the Government have said on a number of occasions, most notably in the 2004 health White Paper, which is that exercise of one sort or another is one of the most essential prerequisites of a healthy modern society. In the White Paper fetchingly called “Choosing Health: Making healthy choices easier”, one key theme was

“sustaining an ethos of fairness and equity”

in relation to sport and achieving

“good health for everyone in England.”

The Home Secretary, who was at that time for a relatively brief period, I seem to remember, Secretary of State for Health, said in the preface to the White Paper:

“Existing health inequalities show that opting for a healthy lifestyle is easier for some people than others.”

Well, where could that be more true than in North Wiltshire? One half of my constituency now has three functioning leisure centres, although in a television interview that I did on Sunday with a Liberal Democrat spokesman from the council, it appeared that she was undermining even those three and opened up the possibility that they, too, might be closed. In one half of my constituency, we still have provision of leisure centres, but in the other half, the eastern half towards the town of Swindon—I am pleased to see the hon. Member for North Swindon (Mr. Wills) here this afternoon—all three centres are being closed down. How could there be less equality than that?

The second reason to provide leisure centres and sport is—again, the Government set it out in the White Paper—to increase the choice and availability of opportunities for young people to engage in positive activities in their spare time. If we want to get children off the streets and doing useful things, for heaven’s sake let us get them into sport centres, rather than giving out antisocial behaviour orders.

The White Paper goes on to say that leisure centres are a central part of sustainable communities. We are seeing that throughout the nation at the moment, particularly in rural areas. With the reduction in post offices, village schools and pubs and all the rest of it, we are seeing the reduction overall of communities. The health centres and the leisure centres that we have in North Wiltshire will be some of the last things to go.

I think that everyone present in the Chamber this afternoon and, indeed, everyone throughout the House would broadly agree that sport for youngsters is a vital social good and something that we as a nation, as a society, ought to be ready to provide.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. I can confirm his impression of the outrage that has been caused among my constituents in Cricklade, a lovely market town that the hon. Gentleman will inherit as part of his constituency should he be re-elected at the next election. May I say how much I sympathise with the concerns that he is expressing? Does he agree that there are two particular obligations on a local authority in such circumstances? First, it should consult its constituents properly and adequately, which has not happened in this case. Secondly, if a local authority is going to damage the prospects for the physical well-being of people in area and take away opportunities for young people to have something to do and somewhere to go, it should at least produce concrete proposals for alternatives.

The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. Incidentally, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram), who is responsible for Calne, the third centre to be closing, very much regrets that he cannot be at the debate today. He supports both what I have said and what the hon. Gentleman has just said.

The hon. Gentleman is right. One of the worst things about the closures is that there was no consultation of any kind whatever. These events came as an absolute bolt out of the blue to the people of Wootton Bassett and Cricklade—I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for looking after Cricklade for me in the meantime. The people of the three towns were outraged by the speed of the decision and the fact that there was no consultation and no alternative plan in place. There was no public relations spin. At one stage, we thought that the centres were going to close by Christmas—we were simply told, “That’s it. Closed by Christmas.” I am glad to say that we have now extended the life of the centres through to 31 March. That three-month extension gives us time to put in place plans for replacements, but the speed of the decision about the closures was unacceptable and, I think, to a degree incompetent.

In that context, I want to declare a slight interest, namely that the people of Wootton Bassett have asked me to chair the pressure group seeking to save the leisure centre. I am pleased to do that, and it was my reason for calling for the debate this afternoon. I warned the Minister’s office in advance that that was the case, so I hope that I have not caught him entirely off-guard. A very powerful campaign is being fought locally to try to save the centres. Before I talk about how we can do that, perhaps I may touch briefly on some of the history.

In its 2006 report on North Wiltshire district council, the National Audit Office stated that

“the Council has very few measures and targets to show the progress it is making in providing leisure opportunities for all...The absence of a clear policy framework or strategy for its current leisure provision makes it unclear how the Council will meet the future needs of its community”.

The NAO said that the council was not providing the leisure opportunities that it should be. That should hardly come as a surprise to us.

What is the reason for the closures? It is lack of funding. North Wiltshire district council took over the provision of leisure centres in 2000 and strangled the baby at birth by cutting its funding and ever since then the thing has struggled to survive. A most interesting letter from one of the managers of a centre recently came to light; he wrote it two or three years ago. He said that the district council was strangling provision and that the services simply could not continue to be provided on the current funding. North Wiltshire district council, run by the Liberal Democrats, took no notice of that whatever.

An interesting point about the funding, just before I leave the issue, is that the annual running costs for the building are some £600,000. The income is some £400,000, so a loss is being made of some £200,000. Why is it losing £200,000? It is spending £1 million on management fees, that is why. We must examine carefully what has happened in the past and think carefully about how to do something about it in the future. The first opportunity that people locally will have to do precisely that will be on 3 May next year, when the district council elections take place. If the Liberal Democrats who run North Wiltshire district council think that people will turn a blind eye to the incompetence in the past five years that resulted in that closure, they may well get a surprise when they wake up on Friday 4 May. I am sure that the people will make sure, at the ballot box, that they pay the price for their incompetence.

A very worthwhile group of people got together to discuss the future of the leisure centres, and we are considering, broadly speaking, four possible options. The first is to try to persuade the district council, or its arm’s length trust, North Wiltshire Leisure, to take them back and prop them up. That is probably unlikely but at least it is a possibility. The second option is to get some kind of community group to run the leisure centres. I know that the people of Cricklade are going down that track, so it is certainly a possibility.

The third option, and probably the one that we most favour, is to bring in some kind of partnership. There are several partnerships around England in which private, profit-making companies partner the district council. I very much hope that the council will enter discussions with some urgency, particularly with a company called DC Leisure that is already in partnership with West Wiltshire district council and supports leisure centres there. The council has done nothing for five years, so I hope that it will get its act together and enter discussions with some companies to find a way to keep the leisure centres alive.

I will not trespass on the House’s time for much longer. I am very impressed with the hon. Gentleman’s powerful case. Does he agree that North Wiltshire district council could learn from Highworth rec in my constituency, which has created a whole new market with gym facilities for disabled people? It is one of the few such examples in the whole of Wiltshire. Perhaps the council could learn from the new opportunities that have been created by that excellent facility, which I recommend that the hon. Gentleman visit.

The hon. Gentleman makes an extremely good point. I may have a dodgy knee but I am not disabled. However, I will certainly take an early opportunity to visit Highworth. He gives a good example of the sort of thing that we can now do. The days when the Government or local government ran leisure centres and hoped that they would somehow break even are long gone. We have to find ways of making such places pay for themselves. This week, I spoke to the managing director of a company that runs some 200 centres nationally, and he told me that they all break even or make a profit. We do not need to have leisure centres making losses, but we will have that if they are run in the wrong way—the old-fashioned quasi-socialist way—because they have no incentive to make a profit.

Before the Minister replies, and I am keen to give him plenty of time to do so, I want to explore a fourth avenue with him: national funding. Two sources of national funding are particularly relevant, the first of which is the Big Lottery Fund, which recently gave contributions to several local leisure centres. The second is Sport England, which gave £600,000 to Devizes leisure centre and kept it open by that means. It also gave £2.65 million to Wincanton sports centre, which is not very far away, thus enabling it, too, to stay open. I hope that the Government will, if nothing else, commit themselves to working with the pressure group to establish whether we can find some form of Government funding to keep those outstandingly important centres open. I hope also that they will call on the district and county councils to work with us to do so.

We are all becoming less fit these days—I speak entirely for myself and mean nothing personal to you, Sir Nicholas—and it is vital that we find ways to tackle that national problem. One of the best ways of doing that is by providing sport and leisure facilities for our young people. The easiest and best way of doing that—one can see this in towns such as Wootton Bassett, Cricklade and Calne—is by having a large sports centre with a swimming pool and facilities for all the other sports and leisure activities associated with it. The facilities should be available to those who cannot afford to pay much at an affordable, or cheap, price, and at a more expensive price for people such as me who can afford to pay. That is fine; I do not mind paying a bit more to play squash or another sport in the centre. By that means, we can provide sport and leisure for all across the area. If North Wiltshire district council and the people attached to it have their way, one half of my constituency will be deprived of those important facilities.

I congratulate the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) on securing the debate, and congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Mr. Wills) on his contributions.

As the Prime Minister said in the House earlier this year, investment in community facilities such as swimming pools and leisure centres should be a priority for us all. The Government are committed to increasing sports participation and access to good-quality sporting provision, which are essential for people to live healthier lives in the 21st century and to participate in sport. The concern about this issue has been reflected in the debate.

I will set out the national picture before turning to the specific points raised by the hon. Gentleman about his constituency. One of the Government’s public service agreement targets is to increase priority groups’ participation in sport by 3 per cent. by 2008. One serious obstacle that prevents people from taking part in sport is the lack of good-quality sports facilities. That applies equally to all sections of the community. Our aim is that by 2008, most people should be no more than 20 minutes away from a good quality, multi-sports environment in a school, sports club or leisure centre. We hope that that can be achieved and maintained in Wiltshire. The Government are supporting that ambition with record investment in our sports facilities infrastructure through a number of programmes.

The scale of the challenge is immense. There is a clear deficit in funding for sports facilities and existing facility stock is in a failing condition. In the majority of cases, that is the result of many years of poor strategic planning and long-term underinvestment, which we seek to reverse. The average age of local authority facilities is about 25 years. Some £550 million needs to be spent to bring the national stock of sports centres up to a good and acceptable standard. That is if any upgrading does not take into account modern trends in sports participation and current demand.

Those needs were recognised in the key report “Public sports and recreation services” published by the Audit Commission earlier this year. The important message in the report is that local authorities need to plan more strategically for sports provision. They need to assess local needs and to develop more and better partnership arrangements across a broad spectrum. That message is particularly relevant to the situation in North Wiltshire that the hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend have raised.

Nationally, the Government are taking several positive steps to address the issue. Since 1997, the Government and lottery distribution bodies have invested more than £3 billion in physical activity and sport, and local authorities will invest around £1 billion in sports services, facilities and development in the next three years. By the end of this year, the Government and the national lottery distributing bodies will have committed more than £1 billion to facilities alone since 2001 through targeted initiatives to develop new and refurbish existing sports facilities.

In total, more than 4,000 new and refurbished sports facilities are being supported by funding programmes such as Active England, new opportunities funds for physical education and sport and community club development programmes. Across the country, that investment is starting to make its mark, and for the second year running more playing fields have been created than lost and more pools have opened than have closed.

However, a strategic approach is needed, and new investment must be accompanied by better planning and real consideration given to the sustainability of facilities. So, in addition to our record investment, we are challenging local authorities to put sports provision at the heart of what they do and provide the facilities that their communities demand. For the first time ever, we are monitoring local authority performance in sports provision through the comprehensive performance assessment.

All of that is extremely laudable, and I am delighted to hear about the £1 billion being invested. However, does the Minister agree that is wrong that the three centres in North Wiltshire are being closed? Will he indicate the means by which some of that £1 billion might come our way?

I will come to those precise points, because there are specific local issues to address, as the hon. Gentleman knows.

We are committed to supporting local authorities in their efforts. The Secretary of State has asked Sport England to establish a sports facilities advisory service to work with local authorities to help them improve the quality and sustainability of the sports facilities services that they offer. That service is being piloted in each region. Sport England has also developed a range of strategic planning tools to assist local authorities with their strategic planning for sports facilities. They include modelling tools and demand estimators for assessing the particular needs of communities. People will also able to benchmark their services in comparison with others.

Let us consider the specific issues that the hon. Gentleman raises about North Wiltshire. First, it is important to acknowledge the many positive things about sport within the authority. For example, the latest sports participation figures, released only last week, show that 24 per cent. of adults in the authority area take part in sport at least three times a week. That figure is above the national average of 21 per cent. and in the top quartile of all local authorities. Of course, that is being done with the existing facilities.

I am grateful to the Minister for rehearsing everything that the Government have done to encourage sporting facilities in the country. Does he agree with me, and, I am sure, with the hon. Member for North Wiltshire, that the remarkable figures just quoted on sports participation will be damaged if the closures go ahead?

I must say to my hon. Friend that it is hard to see how the figures could be maintained if the current plans go ahead as intended.

Some 82 per cent. of pupils in the authority’s area are doing two hours of high-quality physical education and school sport in a typical week. That figure is above the national average of 80 per cent. Some 43 per cent. of pupils are taking part in inter-school competition.

Those figures have been supported by significant public investment in recent years. Sport England has contributed more than £4 million to projects in the local authority area, including giving more than £1 million towards Malmesbury sports hall. A further £2 million was allocated to Wiltshire local education authority for community sports facilities as part of the new opportunities for PE and sport programme.

Those achievements make the unexpected closure of facilities all the more disappointing. I understand that the local authority has, on average, more facilities provision per head of population than the rest of the south-west region. The closures at Cricklade, Wootton Bassett and Calne would mean that provision would be below the average.

I sympathise wholeheartedly with the local community, which is rightly asking tough questions about the way the facilities have been managed. I understand that the council is in discussions with users and stakeholders at two of the centres—Cricklade and Calne—with a view to keeping them open. I am informed that the council is seeking to establish short-term management arrangements, and that a number of options are being considered. It is key that the local authority take the opportunity to undertake a full review of its sports provision and plan strategically for the future to ensure that all community needs are catered for.

The Audit Commission report that I mentioned earlier provides information on the advantages and disadvantages of the main procurement and management options for local leisure facilities, including using the private and voluntary sectors. A medium to long-term resolution will need to include discussions with all stakeholders, including the county council.

The hon. Member for North Wiltshire will be aware of Government investment through the building schools for the future—or BSF—programme. It offers LEAs more than £6.5 billion available over 2005 to 2008 to start on ambitious plans to rebuild. It is important that the BSF plans in North Wiltshire fit in with sports provision going forward. In addition, we have asked Sport England to consider the problems in North Wiltshire as part of the facilities improvement work it is undertaking with local authorities, which I mentioned earlier. I understand that Sport England has had early discussions with the local authority, including on the possibility of funding for professional expertise to assist it. I urge the council to continue that dialogue, as I think it could be quite meaningful. I ask the hon. Gentleman to keep my right hon. Friend the Minister for Sport informed of progress.

To sum up by returning to the national picture, it is clear that there are some very positive messages about sports provision in this country, although we are under no illusions about the scale of the challenge ahead. It is important that the local authorities plan and make provision to meet the needs that their public have outlined. I have great sympathy with the issues that have been raised today, and it is my sincere hope that by working with Sport England, and through the BSF programme and other existing provision in the North Wiltshire area, local councillors will be able to stand by their people and say that they are making the commitment to promote sports participation, deal with the issue of obesity and provide local communities with the leisure services that they deserve in the years ahead.

We thank the Minister for that reply. We have finished four minutes early, and that will mean extra time for the next debate.

Legal Aid Advice Services

Thank you, Sir Nicholas. I am grateful for the opportunity to raise this important issue. I pay a sincere tribute to the Minister on two counts. The first is that she kindly met me and representatives of a number of my local advice agencies a few months ago to hear some of their concerns. The second is that I am aware of her personal commitment to this issue and her concern to get it right. I have no doubt that she would be most anxious if we were able to convince her, as I believe we will, that the proposals for the future of legal aid funding and the funding of advice services will impact on some of our most deprived communities.

I am conscious that amendments have been made to the Carter review’s original proposals in the recent way forward document, and I appreciate that they have emerged as a recognition of the strength of some of the arguments put forward by the sector. However, I must tell the Minister that, despite the changes, concerns among many organisations delivering advice services remain. In my constituency in particular, and across London and nationally, there are real concerns about what the Government are proposing. When thoughtful and experienced advice providers use words like “meltdown” in the context of fixed-fee arrangements as they apply to London, they have to be taken seriously.

The community housing advice service—or CHAS—in central London, which services Church street, one of the most deprived wards in the country, told me that

“should the Legal Services Commission and DCA push forward their proposals as currently stated, there is a considerable risk that providers of legal aid in Westminster will simply not be able to afford to deliver free legal advice, and/or may refuse to deliver advice under LSC contract because it will require them to compromise the quality of that advice to such an extent that clients will be put at risk…Areas like Westminster will be the hardest hit because of the high levels of deprivation”.

It did not mention, although it might have done, the high cost of providing any form of service in central London. It continued:

“this in turn will inevitably have an impact on you as a local MP”—

that is, me—

“your workload will increase as people have fewer places to turn to for advice, and the number of organisations to which you can refer your constituents diminished”.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. She sees around her a number of colleagues from London and elsewhere who are interested in the issue. I am only sorry that she could not secure a longer debate, but perhaps we can do so in the new year.

Does my hon. Friend agree that her comments are particularly acute because they come from the not-for-profit sector, which has a long and rich history in helping some of the most deprived communities in our city and the country? The fact that the concerns come from that sector and not private practice should give them added resonance and weight.

I completely agree with my hon. Friend and I am delighted to see a number of other hon. Members here this afternoon, despite this being such a short debate. That tells us something important about the service. I shall expand on the point that my hon. Friend raised.

Barnet law service wrote to me in similar terms to those that my hon. Friend reported to the House. I went to see the people there a few weeks ago and they were extremely concerned that they would not be able to deliver high-quality—

Order. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will address the Chair, and not turn his back on it. Would he care to repeat the last part of his comments, which I did not hear?

Of course, Sir Nicholas. The point that I was making was that Barnet law service wrote to me in terms similar to the comments that my hon. Friend made. I visited the people there several weeks ago when they made their points forcefully. I, for one, do not want my work load to go up because of cuts implemented by the Department for Constitutional Affairs. We have plenty to do as it is and I am concerned that my constituents, particularly those in the most deprived areas, will not receive the service that they need and should expect.

I agree completely with my hon. Friend and share his concern that MPs’ offices, which are already heavily overstretched, should not be expected, for the sake of our constituents, to have to take on these complex and difficult cases.

I intervene so that my hon. Friend can lose her place completely! I agree entirely that the impact on our work is significant, but there are even more significant problems. First, the effect on the advice sector will be a barrier to good local government because it is often the advice sector that takes action against statutory bodies. It will also jeopardise the survival of many advice centres and legal aid solicitors, many of whom have gone already, particularly in my constituency where they are also affected by cuts implemented by the local Tory council. Fundamentally, this will have an impact on the most vulnerable people in our constituencies and runs completely contrary to the Government’s agenda on social inclusion.

I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck). Does she agree that for the people who are involved in some of the work that we value so highly in law centres and solicitors’ firms in our very deprived inner city constituencies, and who work with the poorest and most vulnerable people, including many asylum seekers and people with language difficulties, it will not be possible, nor sensible, to say that it could be possible for people to be able to do the work and provide the quality of delivery that is necessary to give our constituents a proper hearing?

Order. Before we take any more interventions, I suggest that the hon. Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck) respond.

I welcome the interventions that my hon. Friends have made. I shall develop some of the arguments during my comments, but everything that has been said so far echoes exactly my experience and what will be the thrust of my speech.

My hon. Friend seemed to indicate that she would be willing to take another intervention. It is important to demonstrate the breadth of the concern throughout London. The greatest single issue in my constituency casework is immigration. The people concerned have absolutely genuine and solid reasons for needing legal advice on immigration matters, which sometimes involve their relatives, and so on. I do a huge amount work for them, but from time to time I know that my ability to help is limited. They must have proper advice, and they will just not get it if the proposals go through.

In support of what my hon. Friend said, the model of good practice is for Members of Parliament to deal with constituency cases, whether immigration, welfare benefits, housing and so on, but to seek to work in partnership with our solicitors, law centres and citizens advice bureaux, so that they can offer expert advice and we can drive forward that advice and, we hope, obtain responses from agencies that might otherwise not provide them. That relationship, in which we both do the work that we are there to provide, is exactly how we achieve the best results for our constituents.

I have the privilege of making the first intervention from a Member of Parliament who does not represent a London constituency. I have many of the same issues that other hon. Members have mentioned, but there is no such thing as a law centre in Slough. The citizens advice bureau was smashed by its previous leadership, and is underfunded and limping along. I am afraid that I do not share the confidence that other hon. Members have expressed about the competence of many of the local solicitors’ firms to deal with immigration advice. May I ask my hon. Friend to comment on how important it is to have good-quality sources of advice, as well as to have them well funded?

That is absolutely right, and part of the thrust of my comments is the importance of having the general, although high-quality, advice that is offered by citizens advice bureaux and law centres, and also some of the specialist practices that I am fortunate to have in my constituency, such as the Catholic Housing Aid Society, which helps my constituents with what are sometimes complicated housing cases. Having that range of specialist advice services is exceptionally important.

I take the point made by my hon. Friend, but I am fortunate in having some very good local solicitors’ practices. In their representations to me, Gillian Radford and Co. said:

“Our firm currently advises”

just over 1,000

“legally aided clients a year, mainly relating to family and housing law matters. If Carter is implemented it will no longer be viable for us to continue to offer this service”.

That threatens a blow to the delivery of services in my constituency that is absolutely not sustainable.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this debate, which we all wish was longer so that we could all contribute in more depth.

Is it not a concern that the possibility of Carter being implemented is worse because of the way in which the means-testing process is being implemented for criminal legal aid? Does she share my concern that those who are mentally ill, in particular, are often denied the representation to which the Minister referred during a contribution in this Chamber when she said:

“No one can have a fair trial, and all of our much-prized legal principles are as nothing, if people are not adequately represented.” —[Official Report, Westminster Hall, 26 October 2005; Vol. 438, c. 71WH.]

Many mentally ill people are not adequately represented, despite the recent amendments on means-testing.

I agree. It is certainly the case that some individuals do not receive the representation that they should because of means-testing and the nature of their cases. That is with the service as currently constituted. It fills me with horror to think that we may deliver an even lower level of service than that provided at the moment.

The key issues expressed to me by organisations cover access, funding, the possibility of private practice withdrawing from social welfare law, and a reduction in suppliers because some will not receive preferred supplier status, sometimes because they are small and specialist services and not because of the quality of their work.

On the issue of private practice withdrawing from legal aid in social welfare law, we are concerned about what is happening already in immigration—in some cases rightly because, as my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) said, there were some poor practitioners in the area of immigration advice, but others were good. That withdrawal could accelerate into other areas of social welfare law. If that happens, how is it proposed that not-for-profit provision will be increased to fill the gaps? That will be a particular problem in London because without any London weighting to cover the inevitably higher cost of provision in London—wages, overheads and so on—we are starting from a lower base.

Until now, the legal aid system has recognised the higher costs in London by paying additional fees to organisations based in the capital. Organisations are concerned that the caps on time per case could hit vulnerable clients, who mainly opt for the not-for-profit sector rather than the private sector. It is probably the single most important issue. Those vulnerable clients include many people from black and ethnic minority groups, clients with multiple problems, language issues, mental health problems and chaotic lives. Inevitably, cases that involve such challenging clients take longer.

Many agencies have told me that the new time restrictions will result in an unsustainable loss of income. One of my local law centres told me that under the new regime, the loss of income could be as much as 40 per cent., meaning that it could not take on complex cases because they would simply not be economic.

Although I understand the proposals for exceptional cases, in practice many cases will take far longer than the average, but they will not make it into the three-times-costs category. That represents a major disincentive to accepting cases that take longer than a fixed fee allows for, but which do not make it into the exceptional case category.

The DCA asserts that there will be swings and roundabouts; however, if an agency serves mostly clients from groups with complex cases, it is difficult to see how the system will operate. In principle, I see little wrong with the fixed fee system per se, but unless it takes account of the needs of those groups, it will fail, and many of the more vulnerable groups will simply fall through the net. The director of one agency wrote to me to say:

“The proposed change to the Legal Services Commission ‘Not for profit’ contract from payment by the hour worked to block payment per case will disadvantage the disadvantaged. The payment by case system already operates for private practice and we have seen that it deters solicitors from taking cases where the client is disabled, disorganised or otherwise likely to require more time spent than average. Under the proposed system the fees will be based on national figures that are considerably lower than case costs in London. This will devastate London’s services.”

On the Government’s assertion that many firms are already doing work for the proposed cost, the director said that it was probably because they were cherry picking simple cases and easy clients while rejecting the complex cases and vulnerable multi-problem clients. The director conceded that

“it is entirely possible for a firm of solicitors to make substantial profits under the proposed new contract. However, to do that they will have to provide a poor service, exclude the socially excluded and their outcomes will be atrocious. That is very bad value for money.”

In the balance between cost and outcomes, the new service errs wildly on the side of cost constraint. It will provide cheap services but poor value for money. Having spent so long trying to drive the sharks out of legal aid, the Government will be left relying on sharks to provide it, as they will be the only providers left.

Other comments from lawyers bear out that conclusion. The partner of a specialist mental health practice in London gave me a number of case studies, illustrating the impossibility under the proposed system of taking on the type of complex cases that she routinely deals with. Similarly, a debt specialist unit in my constituency told me that its cases routinely take longer than the fixed fee times because of their complexity. Workers from the unit told me:

“We attended a lengthy meeting with the LSC in August 2006 and provided detailed information about all our closed cases where more than 7 hours had been claimed. Many of these clients either did not speak English as a first language, or had serious mental health issues which meant they needed a higher level of support to address their debts effectively. Many clients were threatened with committal to prison for non-payment of council tax, or their homes were at risk as a result of rent arrears.

“There were no cases from this presentation where the LSC felt we could have addressed the case in a shorter period of time, or conducted our work in a more efficient manner. The conclusion was that we had claimed appropriately for work legitimately done. However, in spite of this, a system has been introduced where we must complete additional paperwork, and at our own expense.

“Time spent completing this form is time spent not doing direct casework and therefore not meeting our contractual LSC hours. This creates additional work not only for us, but greater monitoring from the LSC—how can this be cost effective for either party, particularly if the conclusion reached at our meeting was that the team were providing a good and efficient service?”

Another local housing specialist told me that legal aid caps will hit many housing cases, particularly those against big landlords. Some are ultimately unsuccessful, not because of the merits of the case, but because legal aid runs out. Some landlords deliberately spin out their cases because they are aware of that. I am told that some registered social landlords are—shamefully—particularly guilty of such practice.

Organisations in my constituency also expressed concern about the proposed abolition of level 1 advice work, which provides brief, non-means-tested advice or initial diagnostic work for clients. It is a valuable service, as it often helps resolve matters at an early stage, or it highlights an issue that needs in-depth work. Another advantage is that one can advertise oneself as providing “free initial advice”.

Fear of cost is a major turn off to potential clients—even eligible ones. Now that such work will be means-tested, a significant number of people who need help will not be eligible. That is a common problem in London. Relatively poor people, even though they are low paid, are not eligible, because they are slightly over the limits but unable to afford to pay privately.

Another group increasingly caught out by the capital limits are those who have exercised the right to buy and who may after a year or so be over the capital limits. I have in that category a number of council leaseholders who are challenging major works bills. They would not be entitled to advice.

Most organisations have expressed their anxiety about the black and minority ethnic community, as potential user and supplier, being hardest hit. In a nutshell, all the proposals seem to push for larger suppliers, which are justified by the economies of scale argument. Few, if any, large suppliers are from the BME community, so a disproportionate fall-out may result, as BME agencies and firms fail to get contracts under the new regime. In view of those two issues, has a race impact assessment of the situation in London been undertaken?

My final concern relates to the assumption that local authorities will play a central role. It is assumed that local authorities will contribute to local plans and put resources into making local plans work. That is often not the case. For example, of my two local boroughs, Westminster city council contributes nothing to its law centres, and the royal borough of Kensington and Chelsea only a small amount. They appear to take the view that they will fund generalist but not specialist advice—sometimes because they wish to avoid legal action against themselves, and sometimes for historical reasons.

Without a statutory duty—or something similar—to provide funding, plans may fail, and there is evidence from other fields that local authorities may take it as an opportunity to cut funding and break the additionality principle by seeking to shift previously locally funded organisations on to Government funding.

In conclusion, I shall flag up a number of questions. In view of the almost universal opinion that fixed fees will not work as structured, particularly in London, because of the higher proportion of complex cases and the significantly higher proportion of multi-problem clients, how do the DCA and the LSC propose to address the issue? Will consideration be given to a more sophisticated fee structure, together with London weighting, which more accurately reflects the realities and costs of legal aid work in London? Will the DCA and the LSC address the issues raised by the abolition of level 1 assistance, particularly in London? Will the Minister assure me that a race impact awareness study, covering both clients and suppliers, has been undertaken in London? If so, what are its conclusions? What will the DCA do when local authorities refuse to co-operate or to resource local services as intended, so that people in such areas are not disadvantaged?

I have been blessed with a number of excellent advice services in the private and not-for-profit sectors, and I put on record my appreciation of the work that they do. However, even at present strength, my office is deluged with work: there were 3,000 cases last year. My office has dealt with more than 1,000 housing complaints, with homelessness, disrepair, debt and immigration, but still, a vast amount of need goes unmet.

If there is a reduction in the provision of advice services in my area, my office will not be able to cope, and those who lose out will be the poorest—the most disadvantaged of my constituents. This is an issue of national concern, but not for the first time, I make a particular plea for the interests of London.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Regent’s Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck) on securing this debate and those Back-Benchers who have contributed. Not surprisingly, Labour Back-Benchers are conscientiously looking after the interests of the underprivileged, while the only intervention from the Tories concerned the means test, which does not have anything to do with this debate.

I shall respond rapidly to a few questions. There will be a race impact assessment soon. I probably will not have time to deal with the question of community legal advice centres and community legal advice networks, but I will discuss them and their interaction with local authorities with my hon. Friend any time she wishes. There is no reason why smaller providers should not continue to offer niche services within the ambit of CLACs and CLANs. The model is intended to be flexible.

I agree entirely about the need for good-quality immigration and mental health advice. Neither of those issues is included in the current proposals, and no new proposals concerning them have been introduced. They will be introduced after consultation with the professions in October 2007.

I raised the issue of immigration because we are considering holistic local advice services, and it is an integral part of those services. If one part of a service were to be affected to its detriment, other parts of the service not touched by the proposal would also be affected.

I do not think that that will happen. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Regent’s Park and Kensington, North for her acknowledgment to me, a person dedicated to the Government’s commitment to public funding. I shall be ready to discuss the immigration and mental health proposals when they are published, but I imagine that as we will have consulted with practitioners, the proposals will not be exceptionable.

Frankly, much of what has been said is a little bit out of date. Conversations about supply months ago and repeated references to the Carter review ignore the changes made by “Legal Aid Reform: The Way Ahead”. The document was very recently published, so it is not all that surprising. I have made it clear throughout the process that the fundamental aim of legal aid reform is to safeguard the work of our advice agencies, which do so much to assist the socially excluded. My hon. Friends and I agree on that.

Contrary to the claims of advice deserts that emerge from time to time, the community legal service helped record numbers of people last year—708,000, far more than in any year since the LSC’s creation. That help included record amounts of face-to-face assistance—a 13 per cent. increase from the previous year, with another increase expected this year—as well as the advent of Community Legal Service Direct, a telephone service whose take-up has increased by a staggering 73 per cent. in its second year. We are improving and increasing the advice given.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Minister for giving way. Legal aid is a pillar of the welfare state and an enduring legacy from the post-war Labour Government. I agree that the system needs overhauling and that we must be careful when we do so not to destabilise it. I suggest that the legal aid budget has enough money, but that too high a proportion of that budget still goes to a few very highly paid barristers, principally those doing serious criminal work. I urge her to rethink some of her plans and redistribute more money away from such barristers to front-line advice and assistance services and firms.

Order. The Minister has very little time in which to reply to a full debate. I hope that there will be no further interventions.

The aim is to move money across from high-cost cases, and that aim runs throughout the proposals, as I am sure my hon. Friend knows.

The move to fixed fees is an essential part of legal aid reform. As is pretty well known, I deliberately toured the country during the summer and held 25 meetings, 11 of them with the not-for-profit sector. I am grateful for that input, which has improved our schemes for social welfare law. It will be my watchword to continue consulting, but I must make it clear that the direction of travel is now set.

Both solicitors and not-for-profits do advice work across the range of social welfare law. Solicitors are already paid a fixed fee per case. Such fees are called TFFs, or tailored fixed fees, because they are based on the individual firm’s average claims in 2003-04 for each category of case. TFFs were a stepping stone to a single fixed-fee system—that is, one that pays the same fee to all firms for the same kind of work. Clearly, we cannot continue to pay different fixed fees to different suppliers for the same work.

I have a good deal to say. Not-for-profit advice agencies such as citizens advice bureaux are paid on a contract to provide hours of work in the category of social welfare law for which they are contracted. I repeat that we cannot pay different rates for the same work, so the right way forward is fixed fees for such advice.

The fees in the consultation document that caused so much concern were based on solicitors’ pay rates. I listened carefully to those in the not-for-profit sector during the summer. They said that they see different clients than solicitors and that their clients are more vulnerable. Solicitors doing social welfare law disagree completely, saying that they see just such vulnerable people as well. Each side of the provider base also says that it does the most complex work. It seemed to be the right way forward to base a common set of fees on data from both not-for-profits and solicitors, and that is exactly what the Government have done. Average not-for-profit supplier costs are significantly higher than solicitors’ in some areas, but not all, so the new proposed fees have changed. They are now based on data from both sides. The fee for a debt case, for instance, is £70 more than in the July consultation document, and the welfare benefits case fee is £20 more.

We considered the option of London and non-London fees. In most categories the average London fee is higher, but the average costs of a number of suppliers in London are less than the proposed fixed fees, just as the costs of a number of firms outside London are more. The real issue is costs, not regions. I emphasise that some not-for-profit advisers work for lower fees than solicitors and vice versa and that there are variations, often large, between not-for-profit advisers doing the same work in the same geographical area. Those variations are not explained by any difference perceptible to the LSC or me or claimed in the meetings that I have had. I should also make it clear that many suppliers of both kinds work for less than the proposed new case fees. Concerns were also raised about an escape clause, which we have altered; I shall not go into detail.

Having explained all that, I hope that my hon. Friends can see that there is absolutely no reason why quality should be adversely impacted. Indeed, it will be enhanced, because no one will be permitted to contract until they have been peer reviewed. They will all be continually peer-reviewed. Quality will improve as well as quantity.

I turn to transitional arrangements. We have decided to delay implementation of the changes until October. In the meantime, the existing payment scheme will continue. The not-for-profit sector expressed complaints and concern about the proposal to move to payment in arrears, because not-for-profit advisers are now paid three months in advance. We accept that it is compatible with the contract to carry on doing so, and we will continue to pay the not-for-profit sector in advance, although payment will eventually be monthly, not quarterly. That transition can be introduced gently.

In terms of numbers of cases, not-for-profit productivity has gone up strikingly in recent years, particularly during the past year. I praise the sector for it. Productivity is already high. A significant portion of the increase in acts of advice that I mentioned comes from that sector. Many not-for-profits’ performance is already at least commensurate with solicitors’. That means that not-for-profits can be moved to fixed fees—based, remember, on the average costs that they and solicitors claim now—in 2008.

Arrangements will have to be made for transitional provision. Payment for work in progress will be calculated on an hourly basis and so on. The whole point will be to cushion the not-for-profit sector’s move to the new system and to encourage the sector, not to damage it. We will hold discussions with representative bodies throughout the process, exactly as I have throughout the summer, to ensure that the transition occurs sustainably. The position is rather like that of my hon. Friend the Member for Regent’s Park and Kensington, North. The complaint is not about fixed fees as such; it is about the transition, and we have examined that process.

It being Five o’clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the sitting lapsed, without Question put.