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Westminster Hall

Volume 456: debated on Tuesday 30 January 2007

Westminster Hall

Tuesday 30 January 2007

[Mr. Bill Olner in the Chair]

Hertfordshire Housing Target

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

It is a privilege to open the debate, and I express my gratitude to my neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans (Anne Main), for joining me in securing it, as we promised at a big public meeting on housing that covered both our constituencies. This is a key issue throughout Hertfordshire, but nowhere more so than in the city and district of St. Albans and north Hertfordshire district, both of which cover my constituency.

The green belt is much loved and needed. I have defended it since my maiden speech, in which I described the contrasting views of different parts of my constituency and remarked that one thing that united the different settlements within it was the desire to remain separated from each other by strips of green belt. That desire remains. Those strips of green belt provide green lungs, access to the country, room to breathe and a sense of different identity. I have always defended the green belt, and for nearly a quarter of a century we have always succeeded in our defence. I have spoken at every public inquiry on proposals to build on the green belt, and we have usually seen off such developments—until recently.

We have seen those developments off and been able to build homes and meet targets, so what has changed? A number of things. First, the Government keep raising the targets, and I want the Minister to explain why. Secondly, the way decisions are made has changed. We now have regional planning assemblies such as the East of England authority, which most of us do not recognise and few of us understand, but all of us know is not directly elected. It is simply a creature of the Government that enables them to divide and rule and say to other representatives—or appointees—from Norfolk and Cambridge, “Why don’t you vote for more houses in Hertfordshire and Essex? If you don’t, we’ll plonk them on you.” That change has given the Government the opportunity to steamroller through increased targets.

There has also been a political resiling from defending the green belt. The first and most serious example of that was when the county council, which was temporarily under Lib-Lab control—together they had a majority of one—steamrollered through proposals for the biggest incursion on the green belt that this country has ever seen: the decision to build up to 10,000 houses on the green belt to the west of Stevenage. They had to change the orders of the council to ensure that the majority of one could prevail. It was a pretty sordid process, but it worked. Of course, their proposals were endorsed by the Deputy Prime Minister and given the go-ahead.

There has also been a change in the Government’s attitude from the traditional view—in the words of the Deputy Prime Minister, “We created the green belt and now we’re going to build on it”—to the other meaning of that unintended double entendre. They are now preaching that a green belt can be flexible and that the boundaries can be changed as long as that is compensated for by land elsewhere being reclassified as green belt. That destroys the purpose of the green belt: if it is elastic and plastic rather than firm, rigid and defensible, it ceases to serve any purpose.

If the Minister were given responsibility for defending the list of protected species, would she say, “It doesn’t matter if a few of them become extinct, because we can always reclassify the common house sparrow and chaffinch, so the total will not alter”? That seems to be the Government’s view of the green belt.

I can no longer say to my constituents, as I have for a couple of decades or more, “Back me, support me, we’ll fight and we’ll probably win.” I now have to say that the odds are stacked against us because the Government are actively encouraging building on the green belt, not least in my constituency and that of my hon. Friend and neighbour.

May I make a point about the flexible green belt? At a meeting that my right hon. Friend and I attended, Tim Frehey, head of development and infrastructure, explained the compensatory green belt, using slides. When we challenged him on the concept of a compensatory green belt, he quickly resiled from the phrase and said that it was not a very good one. Does my right hon. Friend agree that Mr. Frehey thought it not very good because people at the meeting understood exactly what it meant, and now a better phrase will have to be adopted that makes it sound better to the public?

I agree entirely. My hon. Friend has hit the nail on the head. That example shows that even officials are infected by the new Labour view that if one changes the wording, one somehow changes the substance, and that most of the people can be conned most of the time. However, they cannot con our constituents, because they have rumbled what the Government are doing and are incensed by it.

None of that is to say that my constituents or I believe that there should be no building. I accept that there is a need for homes. The fact that homes are so hideously expensive in and around London is a sign that demand has outstripped supply. I have never opposed building outside the green belt where that is appropriate and sensible. I have not taken a nimbyist view. When there were plans to build houses at the bottom of my garden, I did not object as some of my neighbours did, even though those houses will deprive me of a view of the countryside, due to the fact that that is quite a sensible place to build. The plans were contiguous with existing buildings and were not an infringement on the green belt.

I support building and recognise that we must have some new homes because young people cannot afford to leave home. They have to stay at home for longer and longer, like young Italian men—they will still be at home with mama at 30. Indeed, a survey yesterday showed that whereas, 15 or 20 years ago, about 59 per cent. of people had got on to the housing ladder by 30, now only 40 per cent. have. There has been a huge drop. Will the Minister tell us why the Government have failed on this policy? Why are young people increasingly unable to buy homes?

Those who have bought homes have to pay such astronomical prices that they are mortgage slaves for the first 20 years of their lives together. That is why one sees few young couples at public meetings—both are working such long hours. At the meeting that my hon. Friend and I attended, it was significant that very few of those mortgage slaves could attend to discuss housing, however crucial the issue is to them.

I am not nimbyist and neither is the county council. When the Lib-Lab coalition that steamrollered through the proposal to build on the green belt was ousted by the electorate, it was replaced by a Conservative administration. The new administration recognised that it had to build houses, not only because the Government were telling it so, but because it recognised the genuine need. It carried out an urban capacity study and concluded that there was substantial capacity outside the green belt, on brownfield and other sites, to enable it to meet the targets imposed by the Government. But the targets have moved. When the capacity to meet the first target was found, the target rose again and again as the Government yo-yoed back and forth in their dealings with the East of England assembly.

We have to ask ourselves why demand is outstripping supply. Yes, we have to find extra land and extra capacity to build, but we cannot treat this simply as a question of supply. We need also to examine demand.

In a debate in the main Chamber on 7 December, the Minister for Housing and Planning said:

“On the overall level of house building that is needed, we believe, given the growing number of households with people living alone and an ageing population, that we should be building at least 200,000 new homes a year.”—[Official Report, 7 December 2006; Vol. 454, c. 507.]

She was being a little economical with the truth, because a growing number of households and people living alone as they age is not the only factor behind the need for house building, although it is an important one.

There has been a tendency for people to live in smaller households, which has, over the years, increased the number of residences and dwellings that we need by roughly 0.5 per cent. a year. One does not need to be a mathematical genius to know that if there are about 20 million households and that number is growing by 0.5 per cent. each year, that makes 100,000 extra a year, not 200,000. Where does the greater number of houses that the Government require come from? Not from the causes that the Minister for Housing and Planning mentioned or described to the Select Committee.

Something else is happening: for 50 years, there has been a move towards smaller households. When I prepared some draft notes, my research assistant, who is new to the subject, looked up the figures and found that there has been no reduction in the average size of household since 2000—the move to smaller households has stopped since then. I suspect that it has stopped not because there has been an outbreak of matrimonial harmony and people are not getting divorced any more, or because people have decided to invite their children to stay with them longer, but because people cannot do otherwise. The cost of housing is forcing people to remain in larger households than they would choose and the underlying demand is being suppressed. I am not trying to pretend that it has gone away. We ought, and will need, to cope with it by building the 100,000 houses a year.

We need to recognise one thing. To the extent that the growth of housing demand comes from having smaller households—the same number of people living in more houses—there is no increase in demand for infrastructure. If no more people are involved, just more smaller households, we do not have to build more houses or hospitals, or provide more water and so on. These are big issues locally because our hospitals are being closed or run down. Several hospitals in Hertfordshire are earmarked for losing their accident and emergency services, if not for closure, and cottage hospitals in my constituency are following suit. There is great concern that we are losing resources, but, at least to the extent that there is no change in population, we do not need additional resources.

The second factor often quoted by the Government as allegedly accounting for increasing demand is people moving from the rest of the United Kingdom to the south-east. The Liberal leader of the council that I mentioned got a great cheer when he said that we should try to reverse and discourage the process by persuading people to stay in Scotland and the north by developing those areas. That might be a slightly antagonistic attitude to take towards the Scots and northerners, but it got a great cheer and was not deemed to be in any way racist. If that council leader was right and if that process were happening, we should be trying to encourage development elsewhere and discourage movement to the most congested part of the country, but that is not what is happening. There was a small net increase up until the early 1990s, but it never represented more than a tenth of the population growth in the south; it was never even as much as a tenth of the population growth in the south-east.

Since that time, there has been a net outflow from the south-east to the rest of the country and a return of people to Scotland and the north. So, that process is not a factor behind the ever-rising targets that the Government are imposing on us. The simple truth is that the big, new and rising element of demand over the past nine years has been people moving to this country from abroad. I hope that we can deal with that issue in a sensible, moderate and reasonable fashion, and that we can all agree on one thing: the caricature of economic migrants to this country as people who want to rip-off the benefits system or as lawless, unsatisfactory people is the reverse of the truth. By and large, they are dynamic, ambitious, hard-working and law-abiding, and they want to improve their life and that of their families, so I look favourably upon them.

However, we must ask whether we should be a country of settlement. Should we be asking people to come here to settle in large numbers? If we think that that is right and proper and that there should be large-scale settlement in this country, we need to ask whether we should house the people involved. I have no doubt that the answer to that question is yes.

If there is large-scale migration to this country, we must build a corresponding number of extra houses. The Government forecast that over the next 20 to 25 years the population of this country will increase as a result of net immigration—the extent that immigration to this country exceeds emigration and people returning elsewhere from this country—by 6 million. That population growth equates to growth by approximately the population of Southampton every year, and those people need to be housed.

The Government deploy respectable arguments that there are economic benefits of mass immigration and settlement, and that it is worth the candle. But let them be open and frank, and admit that that is why we face such pressure and demand on housing, why we will have to build on the green belt and why young people who are already here, from all races and ethnic groups, find it difficult to get a home due to increased population and the resulting pressure.

This is not a debate about immigration. I have examined the arguments that the Government deploy and that purport to justify migration on this scale economically, and I find them bogus and inaccurate. There is a need for some immigration, but not for massive immigration on that scale. There are only two honourable positions to take on this matter: that of those who say that it is economically necessary and will mean large-scale house building, and that of those who say that it is not economically necessary because we can do without immigration on that scale and can return to a more balanced position such as prevailed in the 1980s and early 1990s. Thus, we will not have constantly to increase our housing targets.

What is not tenable logically, morally or with any humanity is to say that we should encourage large-scale settlement in this country but not build the additional houses.

I take the point, Mr. Olner. You will know that Hertfordshire is very near London. The vast majority of those coming from abroad come initially to London and, in turn, people from all ethnic groups in London move out to Hertfordshire. They are very welcome, but that is the pressure that we face. An indirect consequence of that flow is that there is huge pressure on housing in Hertfordshire. We want some recognition of that from the Government.

If the Government think that the process needs to continue, we want an open justification of it. We want an end to the pretence that it is not a factor and, above all, an end to the pretence that anyone who discusses this factor in a reasonable and sensible way is somehow pandering to racism. If we do not discuss these things openly, we let the British National party have a field day. That is not what I want. It already has a foothold in other parts of Hertfordshire, and I do not want the BNP to spread into my part of the county, thank you very much.

We face a serious situation in Hertfordshire: young people are unable to get homes, those who do are mortgage slaves for much of their lives, there is increasing pressure on our green belt, our facilities and infrastructure are under stress and strain, and greater strains will be imposed on those if we have a rising population rather than if we simply cope with the tendency for people to live in smaller households. There are pressures on our health service, schools, infrastructure, water supply and roads, which are aggravated by the pressures posed by potential development of the two airports in Hertfordshire.

I hope that the Government will think again about their attempts to impose targets of this size on our area, and about their policy of no longer treating the green belt as sacrosanct, and come clean with the people of Hertfordshire about what they are up to.

I shall speak briefly because unfortunately I have to go to a Public Bill Committee meeting on the planning gain supplement. That supplement, which the Government want to deliver the necessary infrastructure, is one matter that I wish to raise here.

A couple of years ago the East of England regional assembly refused to sign off its draft plan because we had a recognised infrastructure deficit. When I raised that with the Minister I was told, “Well, everybody says they’ve got an infrastructure deficit,” and it was batted aside. We are being asked to take a significant amount of new development, crucial to which is the infrastructure network needed to support it, including hospitals and schools, about which we have major concerns, and water and roads.

I was totally disappointed that when I said to the head of development of infrastructure for the east of England, “You haven’t even touched on the planning gain supplement when explaining how we are going to deliver these housing totals with a compatible infrastructure,” he said that he believed that the supplement was simply meant to bring land forward more quickly. That is not the Government’s objective, and I am pretty depressed that the head of development of infrastructure sees it in that way. It shows a lack of information and does not fill me with any confidence that we will have the infrastructure to support the new houses. He did say that we have per capita water use targets. That is fine and dandy, except that there are already water shortages with our existing housing stock. No information was given about people currently suffering from a lack of water. The River Ver is in danger of drying up, and I know that other areas of Hertfordshire are similarly taxed in dryer spells. Just to say that we have a water use target does not fill me with confidence.

We are also to have a regional target to reduce CO2 emissions. I am sorry: we already have a significant CO2 emission problem in Hertfordshire. We use 3.7 worlds in the carbon footprint of St. Albans alone. Coupled with that, we have air quality management areas that I have asked the Government to help us with. The response has been that there is no statutory obligation to do so, merely to note and recognise them. I do not want more and more CO2 emissions to accompany the carbon footprint of housing, which contributes 23 per cent. of our emissions. I do not want more houses in Hertfordshire along with a target and the recognition of a deficit in our air quality. That is not good enough, and my constituents need an explanation of how they are supposed to live happily and compatibly with the extra houses.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley) rightly spoke at some length about the pressures coming to our area from London. We will unfortunately have between 5,800 and 10,000 new homes—it is a flexible figure—on an aerodrome site between my area and Hatfield. It will be partly in my constituency, and I asked the developers what the thought process behind it was other than the fact that they liked the site. I was told, helpfully, that it would provide an overspill for Harlow. I mentioned that for St. Albans residents, providing an overspill for Harlow was not a high priority, particularly considering that the housing will not be included in the St. Albans total. Yet again, the figures are fudged and there will be pressures from all sides. The Hemel Hempstead figures will also include areas near St. Albans and there might well be houses that are in my constituency but not counted towards my target figures.

People are not sure what the figures mean. My constituents went to consultations on figures that they believed could be delivered principally using brownfield development, which we all want to see. They now feel that if the figures are redrafted and revised by the Government, we will have housing imposed on us. The consultation was a complete sham.

I entirely endorse much of what my hon. Friend says. Does she share my concern that the change in Government policy on green belt, to which my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley) referred, means that speculators both in my constituency and, I believe, in her district, are pegging out fields for future development? The principle of green belt has been broken by Government policy.

I completely share my hon. Friend’s concern. What is more, developers use some of the Government’s press releases on their websites to encourage people to have hope value in particular parcels of land. Unfortunately, that makes it look as though the Government are hand in glove with developers, although the Government would not see it that way. Developers believe that they are being encouraged to proceed in that way.

Green belt can never come back. I know that that is an obvious statement, but it was there for a purpose. It was not meant to be a green field with views and a cow in it: one of its principal purposes was to prevent the coalescence of developments. That is the one element that cannot be compensated for, and St. Albans will end up joined up with Hemel Hempstead or Welwyn Hatfield.

We are already under intense pressure for transport in the area around the M25. Apparently, we have been designated a regional transport node. No information was given at the East of England regional assembly meeting about what that meant, and there was certainly no encouragement that there would be an early funding decision for Thameslink 2000 or any help to ensure that we have the infrastructure before developments are made. The Government’s push towards the planning gain supplement is a major concern, as it will mean a divorce from developers communicating with the community. More to the point, we have had no assurance that it will be i before e—infrastructure before expansion.

I can understand the Government’s wish to address the pressing housing problems. Mr. Frehey, the east of England head of development of infrastructure, tells us that we will have a great deal of say on any green belt boundary alterations. However, the St. Albans and Dacorum strategy manager says that we will have no choice and will have to accept what we are told, so that does not fill me with confidence. It does not give my constituents any confidence that the Government are listening sympathetically.

This is not nimbyism. We are under intense pressure, for instance on our roads, and that has been recognised. To keep telling us that we can put more houses in is somewhat naive. More to the point, the Government have their hands over their ears and are not listening to my constituents.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley) on securing the debate, and my hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans (Anne Main) on her speech. The debate is timely and they have both shown how passionately the issue is debated in our area of Hertfordshire.

It is important to remember that, with 1 million people, Hertfordshire is already one of the most densely populated shire counties in England. That is the essential context within which any future housing targets should be debated. The Government have published plans for up to 93,200 more houses in Hertfordshire by 2021, including up to 22,000 in my district. In English, that means an extra 200,000 people—an increase of 20 per cent. in 15 years. The plans are unprecedented in scale and completely out of step with local needs, as my right hon. and hon. Friends have said.

The Government like to claim that people in Hertfordshire, and therefore we as their representatives, oppose all new houses and that we are merely nimbys. As my hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans said, that is complete nonsense and disingenuous. We recognise the need for more homes. Indeed, they are being built in my constituency at a faster rate than in many neighbouring areas including Harlow and north London. However, development must be sustainable, underpinned by funded infrastructure and planned democratically. Sadly, the Government’s housing policy fails on all three counts.

Take sustainability. The Government want us to build 12,000 houses in east Hertfordshire, plus at least 10,000 more in the new town that is currently known as Harlow North even though it is in my constituency. The total proposed development in our area represents more than 47,000 extra people—a 36 per cent. rise in population. It would mean 28,000 more cars on our roads, 300 more pupils in each secondary school and 2,500 more peak-time commuters when our trains are already seriously overcrowded. Environmentally, that scale of development would be disastrous. It would mean the loss of at least 15,000 acres of green belt land, along with several woodlands and the natural habitats of hundreds of wild animals. As any reasonable person can see, that scale of development is completely unsustainable and would prove unworkable in practice.

Ironically, the whole policy is undermined by the Treasury’s unwillingness to fund even the most basic infrastructure. When presented with the initial list of key projects for improvements to roads, public transport and, as has been discussed, water and sewerage capacity, the Chancellor refused to fund more than 75 per cent. of them. In other words, the Government want houses for 200,000 people in Hertfordshire, but they are prepared to pay for houses for only 50,000 people.

And that is just the most basic of capital projects. Our public services, such as schools and hospitals, are being squeezed, not improved. For example, the Government are closing our hospitals. The Chancellor’s cutbacks mean that the proposed new hospital at Hatfield has already been scrapped. In the eastern part of the county, we now face the bitter choice of whether to shut the Lister hospital or the Queen Elizabeth II hospital. My colleagues in the western half of the county face a similar dilemma, because a further hospital is to close there. More people, fewer hospitals—that seems to be the reality of the Government’s housing plans. Perhaps the Minister can tell us in her reply exactly where the proposed 200,000 people are meant to go when they fall ill.

If the substance of the Government’s housing plans is bad, the way in which they have been imposed is even worse. Where there could have been a collaborative effort, we have had ministerial diktat; where there should have been openness, there has been obfuscation. As a result, fewer and fewer private and public organisations support the Government’s housing targets. The Environment Agency, for example, described the effect of those targets on the south-east as an “environmental time bomb”. The East of England regional assembly—the very body charged by Ministers with implementing the regional plan—has now withdrawn its support because of broken promises about the infrastructure.

However, the Government’s approach to setting housing targets is perhaps best typified by their decision to reinstate the new town in my constituency that I mentioned, and I should like to explain how that particular housing target has been engineered over the past year. Promoted by an oil company’s pension fund, the new town would entail the building of up to 20,000 new houses on 3,000 acres of green fields. It would destroy 15,000 acres of green belt land and swallow up the villages of Eastwick, Gilston, Hunsdon and High Wych. When the Government-appointed panel of inspectors considered the proposal in its inquiry last year, it recognised the problems, which included the environmental impact, the distraction from the urgent need to regenerate Harlow, in nearby Essex, the serious water and sewerage capacity problems and the absence of sufficient infrastructure.

On housing targets, the panel recommended to the Government on 19 June that the new town should expressly not be included in the plan. Some people disagreed; indeed, the Minister for Higher Education and Lifelong Learning, the hon. Member for Harlow (Bill Rammell), said that it was “unfair” and wanted to

“put an alternative to Government”.

Of course, as my right hon. and hon. Friends here know, the Government’s planning rules on housing targets preclude that. Planning policy statement 11 states that in the period between the panel’s report to the Government and the publication of the Government’s response, any representations would

“undermine the whole examination process and be prejudicial to other participants”.

Thus, until the Government publish any changes to their housing targets, no one should meet Ministers to lobby them, which is fair enough.

Regrettably, the Minister for Housing and Planning apparently breached that rule. On 13 July last year, she met the Minister for Higher Education and Lifelong Learning to discuss development in and around Harlow. As a result, on 19 December—strangely enough, that was the day on which the House rose—the Government suddenly announced that they would overturn their own inspectors’ recommendations and reinstate the new town, to the surprise of the public and most housing and planning experts.

My constituents believe that that meeting on 13 July last year has undermined the credibility of the whole process of setting housing targets and proven highly prejudicial. That is why they, among others, are now seeking legal opinion on how to challenge the decision and, therefore, the Government’s housing targets in our area. Such a challenge could affect not only housing in my constituency, but development across the county and, indeed, the eastern region.

Does my hon. Friend agree that that does little for public confidence because people feel that deals are being stitched up behind the scenes? If it proves to be the case that that meeting went ahead and was prejudicial, that will, unfortunately, only reconfirm the public’s opinion that they have no say and that everything is being done behind closed doors.

My hon. Friend hits the nail on the head. The concern is that the credibility of the process—we may or may not disagree with the outcome—should be beyond reproach.

That is why I hope that, in responding to the debate, the Minister will explain why the Government’s rules were indeed flouted in that way. Some of my constituents say that that was done for party advantage, given that Harlow is Labour’s second most marginal seat. Some say that one Minister was simply helping another, given that the hon. Member for Harlow is the Minister for Higher Education and Lifelong Learning. Whatever the reason, the Minister needs to explain to us and, therefore, to our constituents why the meeting was held and why officials now refuse to release the papers that were prepared for it. My constituents will expect nothing less than a full explanation.

As we have heard, it is vital to set the right housing target for Hertfordshire. It must be based on sustainable principles, matched by infrastructure and based on open and democratic processes. Sadly, the Government, embarrassed by their dismal record in house building to date, have failed on all three counts. For my constituents, however, the Government must also answer the questions surrounding the meeting in July, and I hope that the Minister will not duck the issue. She needs clearly to explain the reasons behind the rejection of her own inspectors’ advice and why Ministers seem to think that they can flout their own planning rules. I look forward to her reply.

I, too, congratulate the right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley) and the hon. Member for St. Albans (Anne Main) on introducing the debate. Housing is an extremely controversial subject in Hertfordshire.

I must agree with the right hon. Gentleman and the hon. Lady that the way in which we reach our housing targets—the current target is estimated to understate the problem by about 30 per cent.—is clouded in mystery. I do not understand some of the processes by which Hertfordshire county council arrived at the figures that have allowed it, over the years, to obstruct development to the west of Stevenage and extra development around new towns in Hertfordshire. As a result, house prices in Hertfordshire are among the highest in the country, and many young people—particularly those born in the county—are without homes.

Like the right hon. Gentleman, I spend a lot of time looking at this problem and trying to defend my constituency. Unlike him, I moved there only about 15 years ago, but like him, I have come to love the county. He and I work together on quite a lot of issues because we share a concern to maintain the beauty of this very green and pleasant patch of England.

However, constraints on building and the constraints imposed by the green belt are leading to infilling in some of the most beautiful villages in my constituency, including Datchworth and Codicote. People there are building in their back gardens and parking is at a premium because people cannot get out of the constraints on them. As a result, people are infilling. At the minute in Hertfordshire, we have town cramming, not town planning. The same is happening in Stevenage, where back gardens are being built on. At one stage the county council—to the derision of most of my constituents—proposed that we start building on the Fairlands Valley park to provide much-needed housing.

Of the 18,000 or so cases currently on my books, the third biggest category is housing. Every day I turn away people and say we cannot help because, thanks to the right-to-buy legislation, with which I have no disagreement, many of Stevenage’s council houses have been bought. We had, I think, 30,000 in the 1980s, and we now have 8,500. On top of that we have a housing waiting list of 3,000 and 250 homeless families in the town itself. All that is in green, leafy and fairly wealthy Hertfordshire. There are more and more families, and more and more children being born, with nowhere to go. They must either go to the north or they must live, as many do now, with their parents, in increasingly overcrowded accommodation.

I am glad that the hon. Members for Hertford and Stortford (Mr. Prisk) and for St. Albans and the right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden have all acknowledged that we have a problem; we do. There is some movement towards solving it. However, I disagree with the picture set out by the right hon. Gentleman of our eating into the green belt to concrete over the space from Stevenage to St. Albans. As I understand matters, the authorities propose to take only 3 per cent. of the green belt between now and 2031. They propose to put 5 per cent. back in, in a different area. I think that some of that will be in the right hon. Gentleman’s constituency. It makes sense. It is a little like what happens when some men get fat; they do not recognise the need to let their belts out, and they just drop their trousers more and more down their hips, until they reach a precipitous point. Hertfordshire has reached the precipitous point.

In a minute.

I am worried that if we do not recognise that we need to let the material out 2 in and add a little to other parts of the trousers, we shall be in for serious problems in Hertfordshire.

As an aside, I am proud to say that I have lost a stone in the past few months, and have taken the waistband of my trousers in.

Is the hon. Lady aware that the proposals to replace the green belt mean, according to several officials to whom I have spoken, that an area of east Hertfordshire could be replaced by land near Peterborough? In what possible sense will that benefit people in Hertfordshire or Peterborough? It would be to remove the belt and turn it into an elastic band.

If that were so—and I do not know that it is—I should disagree with it. I believe that it refers to land that is fairly close, and I shall allow my hon. Friend the Minister, who I see is nodding, to fill in the details about that. I shall concentrate on Stevenage.

Yes, Mr. Olner; women do wear trousers. When things need loosening women tend to wear voluminous tent-like tops like the one I am wearing, to hide the increase.

In Stevenage the problem has become a huge one, for me and my constituents. There have been many inquiries in public, which the right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden and I both attended, and where we were both, I think, amazed by the number of barristers retained by both sides, and the money that we saw thus flowing out of Hertfordshire. There have been inquiries in public into the development to the west of Stevenage in some fields along the A1(M). It is a very pretty area but I welcome the 3,600—and by 2025 it may possibly be 10,000—houses that will go into that area. There will also be schools, medical and sports facilities, and a cemetery—I shall probably be heading for the grave by that time, so I welcome that too. I think that we could build a very sustainable community there, along the lines of Poundbury.

I understand the worries about water. We have that worry throughout the country, not just in Hertfordshire, although, having been born in the Caribbean and raised in Africa I find our way of managing that concern risible, to say the least. In the Caribbean and Africa every house that is built must have a cistern underneath it, of the same volume as the house, to catch rainwater, or greywater, as it is called, to be used for baths, cisterns and gardens. We could easily do that here. We could easily manage the drainage systems if it were not for an argument between various Government agencies about who should have the ultimate responsibility to maintain them. I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to look into that, because it obstructs our conservation of water.

As to hospitals I must once again disagree with the hon. Members for Hertford and Stortford and for St. Albans and the right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden. I do not think that the proposal is to close hospitals; but it is certainly proposed to downgrade accident and emergency departments. We shall have two accident and emergency departments in Hertfordshire that will be trauma centres. Someone whose arm is broken in a car crash will go to one of the four centres; someone whose arm needs sewing back on again will go to one of the two trauma centres. The fight at the minute is about which two.

Health care is rightly being moved out into the community at the moment and some of the new communities that are being proposed would allow that to happen better than it does now. I see what is proposed as a challenge for Hertfordshire, not something to be feared. I should like to work more with members of other parties, to try to preserve what is good in Hertfordshire and to give the young people of Hertfordshire the hope—and the affordable housing—that they need. In the west of Stevenage development there are 900 affordable homes. We need more of those in Hertfordshire, which is why I am taking part in the debate today.

I, too, congratulate the right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley) on obtaining the debate. I am sure—and the evidence set out by other hon. Members bears this out—that housing is a key issue in the area that he represents and in Hertfordshire in general. Indeed, when I was elected, in 2001, I did not realise what an important issue housing would be in my area. Wherever local authorities are involved in planning decisions, particularly about housing, there will always be stress and difficulty between people and families wanting to rent or purchase their first house or buy a bigger house to accommodate their growing family, and the residents already living in the area, who want to protect the environment and who fear that local services will not be sufficient to cope with the increase in population.

Another aspect of the matter that has been drawn out in the debate is the despair that some people feel about centrally imposed targets and the difficulty that local authorities encounter in interpreting targets and trying to play their part in achieving them, when there are areas, such as the green belt in Hertfordshire and national parks, areas of outstanding natural beauty and other conservation areas elsewhere, that place real constraints on the availability of land for development. The East of England regional assembly has indicated, as I understand it, that there should be 478,000 new homes in the area. An independent panel considered the matter and increased the figure, and, indeed, the Secretary of State has increased it too.

The real problem in Hertfordshire is that with a low unemployment rate an increase in economic activity will draw in people, who will need transport.

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that housing plans at the moment suggest that in our region houses would be built for 17,000 more people than there are jobs for; in other words that there is an assumption that people will commute out of the area?

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. Obviously, he really understands the issues in his constituency. It seems to me that a co-ordinated approach is necessary, between providing houses and opportunities for economic development. One without the other suggests a lack of foresight and planning. The Liberal Democrat mayor of Watford, Dorothy Thornhill, said:

“Watford is obviously a popular place to live but their targets ignore the demands more houses and more people will place on our already over-stretched infrastructure. I firmly believe that this latest government announcement is bad news for Watford.”

The point that the hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr. Prisk) made about transport is relevant, too. So much of the road and rail system is overcrowded, and that leads to frustration and to environmental damage to the area.

I ought to declare an interest in the matter. My son has recently purchased a house. I am not sure whether it is located in the constituency of St. Albans or that of Hitchin and Harpenden, but I am sure that he will be ably represented by their Members. It was a struggle for him to get on the housing ladder in the area, but he was not an incomer. He migrated to the area but married a local girl, so perhaps he can be excused for increasing the demand on housing stock in the area.

The Secretary of State proposes regional transport nodes, to which reference has already been made. Nodes would be sensible in areas such as Watford, Stevenage and St. Albans, but Hatford and Hemel Hempstead are small stations, and there is a lack of understanding about the existing infrastructure in those areas.

What are the other concerns? What happens after 2021—a relatively short time scale that is getting shorter by the year? The hon. Member for Stevenage (Barbara Follett) referred to 900 affordable houses that are being built as part of a development in her constituency. Wherever I go, and from the representations of other Members, I hear that affordable housing is desperately needed. The key point is to achieve the right mix of affordability and general development, ensuring that development takes place, but that it reflects the needs of first-time buyers and of people who want to rent.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the need to build housing. The decision—in my constituency, not that of the hon. Member for Stevenage (Barbara Follett)—to build several thousand houses on the green belt was taken on the votes of Liberal Democrats in Hertfordshire county council. Is it Liberal Democrat policy to defend the green belt or to support building on it? Do they oppose building on the green belt only when they are in opposition, and support it only when they are in alliance with the Labour party and in government?

The right hon. Gentleman makes a good point. He says that centrally imposed targets are difficult for local authorities to address when there are constraints on the areas in which they can allow development. He mentions the green belt implications and I, too, find it difficult to understand how one can substitute one area of land for an area of green belt on which planning permission has been given for development. It was either the hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford or the hon. Member for St. Albans who said that the importance of green belt is the separation of towns and communities rather than the conservation involved in the substitution of a different area. The spatial importance of green belt has been lost in the argument.

The Government should consider supply as well as demand, and they should invest in northern regions, which are crying out for investment and for jobs. The right hon. Gentleman made a point about that, but the issue must be re-examined, because there is huge capacity in the north and west, and it could be used to our advantage. The key to the issue is the Secretary of State and centrally imposed targets. Local authorities and the assemblies should be trusted more and given more powers.

Mention has been made about planning gain, and we are concerned about the legislation that is before the House and about the fact that the money will not be given to local authorities for them to determine its use. It is the very antithesis of localism. Commenting on the report by the Select Committee on Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Rogerson) said:

“This report confirms the Treasury’s proposals on planning gain supplement contradict everything Ruth Kelly has been saying about devolving powers to local people and communities.

Replacing the current planning contribution paid by developers with planning gain supplement will not provide more money for the roads, schools, GPs surgeries and any new houses that are needed.”

One other issue that must be considered is the VAT system. All new build is zero-rated but the refurbishment and reconstruction of existing property bears the full VAT rate. VAT equalisation would lead to the much better use of existing housing stock and facilities in order to meet the needs of the serious housing situation in Hertfordshire.

It gives me great pleasure to congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley) and other hon. Friends on securing the debate on housing targets in Hertfordshire. I congratulate, too, the hon. Member for Stevenage (Barbara Follett) on her contribution.

I feel somewhat hesitant about speaking in a county-wide debate. However, I can go back further than my right hon. Friend in my memories of the county of Hertfordshire, because we had close family friends in Berkhamsted, and I remember 40 years ago taking the dogs for a walk on the hills around the town. I doubt that I could do so now, as over the years one has watched Hertfordshire fill with housing as its towns and villages have expanded.

I can understand why there is such concern among my right hon. and hon. Friends about the pressure on the county. Largely, it has been centrally directed by the Government and by their poodles, the unelected regional assemblies. My party is on the record as saying that we would abolish those assemblies and allow local people to decide the make-up of their communities.

I absolutely believe that local people know how their community could and should function, and that they are prepared to accept expansion and new housing to a capacity that they feel is consistent with their own needs and demands. One basic problem that we all face is the pressure on infrastructure and the need to increase the density of housing. I have the same problem in my constituency, an outer-London suburb. The Minister with responsibility for London has stood in this Chamber and said that Bromley should double its housing density, so I sympathise with and understand the problems that Hertfordshire residents face.

The key problem is infrastructure. I am sure that if the county council and others were given the opportunity, they could solve it. Indeed, they have volunteered to meet the housing targets that they feel capable of delivering. I have a Scottish accent, as hon. Members may have noticed, and quite apart from knowing Berkhamsted from many years ago, in the 1960s I spent an enormous amount of time as a Young Conservative working in Easterhouse, that fabled housing estate outside Glasgow which was built with no facilities or infrastructure whatsoever. That community is still not a coherent one, 40 or more years on, and it still has serious social problems, the like of which it will take a Hercules to solve. Enormous resources have been put in, so I absolutely understand the concerns about forced housing targets being set without the commensurate infrastructure.

It is a question not only of schools, houses and hospitals, but of roads, transport and water. It is easy, as the hon. Member for Stevenage pointed out, to say that every house in the UK should have a cistern built underneath it that is the same size as the house. Would that we had, but we are where we are. I have never built a swimming pool, but I understand the problem of shifting the earth, and that is without there being a house on top of it. It is cloud cuckoo land to think that every house in this country could be built with such a cistern. However, we sympathise entirely with her objective, which we share, to save and gain rainwater. There are plenty of methods of doing that without building cisterns under houses—we can do it much more efficiently.

If fundamental infrastructure is not done right or properly funded from the beginning, it will produce dislocated communities, however sophisticated they are. As we see in the Thames Gateway, in my constituency of Beckenham, or in the situation hon. Members are facing in Hertfordshire, if the infrastructure is not there, fractured communities will result.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden alluded to another issue, on which I wish to take a different line. I accept entirely that at present there is a net outflow from London and the greater south-east to the other regions of the UK. However, we should address the reason why other regions are not generating real wealth in the way that they should, given that the bulk of the Russell group universities—the great research universities—are outside the greater south-east. I do not understand why those areas are not more economically successful. I accept that in places such as Scotland or the north-west there is an increase in wealth, but that does not rely on fundamental new wealth creation.

I listen with interest to what my hon. Friend says. Has she noticed, as I have in the past few weeks, the increasing evidence of the growing gap between north and south? Indeed, the evidence on house prices has shown that the gap has started to increase for the first time in 20 years.

Order. Before the hon. Lady rises to that bait, I remind her that we are debating Hertfordshire housing targets.

Mr. Olner, you are quite right. My hon. Friend has made his point. The relevance of what I am saying to Hertfordshire housing targets is that the pressure on housing would decrease if other areas of the UK were more economically sustainable. Of course, to revert to my point about infrastructure, my hon. Friend made the point that the housing targets assume commuting. We return to the point that if we are to have sustainable communities, there should be employment locally, particularly if they are to be environmentally sustainable. If there is no room in Hertfordshire for the wealth-creating industries, and the housing targets indicate that there is not, there is even more reason to solve the problem of regional economic wealth creation. That is one of the many routes that we want to take to solve the housing problem that we all admit exists.

I congratulate my right hon. and hon. Friends on calling for this debate. It has allowed them to air clearly the issues in Hertfordshire and allows us to put on record some other thoughts on ensuring that housing is provided for those people who need it.

I, too, congratulate the right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley) on securing this debate on what is obviously a key issue for the people of Hertfordshire.

I say at the outset that I am constrained in what I can say because the Government are consulting about proposed changes to the draft east of England plan, which will set the house-building targets for each district and county in the region. It is a full 12-week consultation on what, at this stage, are only proposals. Ministers will carefully consider responses before taking final decisions. For reasons of propriety, I cannot get into a debate about potential further changes to the plan before Ministers have had a chance to consider all the views expressed.

I shall deal at the outset with the assertion made by the hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr. Prisk) in relation to the Minister for Housing and Planning. I made the decision on the east of England plan. She is not making decisions on any of the regional plans. There is nothing wrong with a housing Minister meeting an MP to discuss housing issues: it is a function of the role. Therefore, there has been no breach of propriety.

If that is the case, will the Minister explain why her officials have issued a refusal on the papers in relation to the document on the specific grounds, under section 37 of the Freedom of Information Act 2000, that Ministers should be able to engage in the formulation or development of policy on this subject? The papers have been refused on the basis that the Minister for Housing and Planning was discussing the subject. Is this Minister now saying that that is not true?

The hon. Gentleman clearly was not listening. I said that the hon. Members in question were discussing housing issues. That is not the east of England plan, and the Minister for Housing and Planning is not making any decisions on those matters. I shall now move on to the issues—

On a point of order, Mr. Olner. Is the Minister honestly trying to suggest that the Minister for Housing and Planning did not discuss housing targets, which we are discussing today, with the Minister for Higher Education and Lifelong Learning, who represents Harlow ? Is she actually trying to claim that that is the case? That is nonsense.

I shall explain the rationale for the level of growth, not just in Hertfordshire but in all parts of the region and nationally. I also want to put the record straight about the situation in Hertfordshire. Last winter, an independent panel held an examination in public to test the soundness of the draft east of England plan that the regional assembly had produced, following wide consultation. The draft plan represented their proposals: a bottom-up vision for the growth of their region, not a top-down diktat. The hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford called for a collaborative approach, so I am not sure exactly why he objects to this approach. The assembly is made up mainly of elected councillors, complemented by experts and representatives from a wide range of stakeholders who have an interest in securing a strong sustainable future for the region.

The panel endorsed the basic thrust of the plan and the Secretary of State’s proposed changes built on the draft. However, the panel made a number of recommendations to improve it. They concluded that the case had been made for higher growth based on population growth, housing demand, affordability, and employment growth, and that growth can and must be reconciled with sustainability principles and environmental constraints. Ministers have accepted almost all the panel’s detailed advice, including their housing proposals for all but one of the 47 districts. To further clarify the matter, the independent panel does test those targets. The Government propose to increase the panel’s recommended target by less than 1 per cent.

I accept that the panel’s recommendations for Hertfordshire are controversial, but it found that the draft plan housing proposals were unbalanced. The figures for Hertfordshire in particular were too low. Let us look at the facts. Relative to population, the draft plan housing figures for Hertfordshire were well below the figures for counties such as Cambridgeshire, which has been actively planning to accommodate sustainable growth. The latest forecast of future housing needs in Hertfordshire is at least 30 per cent. higher than the scale of development that most of the Hertfordshire local authorities will accept. Our proposals are about in line with those forecasts and no more.

The ratio of average house prices to lower quartile household earnings is about 12:1 in Hertfordshire, making it the most unaffordable county in the east of England to live in. The situation has become worse in recent years. Many more houses are needed if local people are to find decent homes, which is a point that my hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage (Barbara Follett) illustrated well. Not building a sufficient mix of rented housing, equity share and homes for the majority who want to buy will just make affordability problems worse.

Hertfordshire has a role in meeting its share of London’s overall housing needs. The Mayor is seeking to maximise housing in London, but there are limits to what can be achieved on brownfield land in the capital. London’s economy is vital to UK plc overall and its workers need to live within reasonable commuting distances. Although the Government are working to support economic development and housing to match in every region of the UK, it is nonsense to think that London’s jobs can be sent to the other end of the country. Hon. Members clearly have not been to parts of the north recently. The north has recently been transformed and is making great progress, after the devastation of the years of Conservative Government.

I will not give way at this point, because hon. Members have put a great number of issues to me and I want to try to answer them all. If I have time later, I will happily give way to the hon. Gentleman.

While Londoners continue to move to Hertfordshire, such as when they start a family and want a garden, it is clear that Hertfordshire cannot close its doors. Incomers such as the son of the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams), many of whom are vital to the economy, will also be able to compete effectively in the housing market, so it is existing local people who would be hardest hit by insufficient housing.

As the panel pointed out, growth and living within environmental limits are not alternatives but joint imperatives. The proposed changes to the draft plan represent a new benchmark in reconciling the growth that we need with sustainability. We have taken the panel’s recommendations one step further and propose to put in place stronger policies to reduce water consumption, improve energy efficiency and drive up the recycling of waste.

It is alleged that there has been a lack of consultation. That is nonsense. First, consulting the public on our proposed changes is exactly what we are doing now. Secondly, there will be further substantial opportunities for public engagement at the local development plan document stage, when the broad intentions of the regional spatial strategy are translated by the local planning authorities into specific proposals. Thirdly, at the examination in public the panel asked the Hertfordshire local authorities what strategy they would propose if they were to recommend higher growth. Except for Stevenage borough council, none of them were prepared to put forward constructive proposals.

The green belt has taken centre stage in this debate. The pressing need for more housing, coupled with the sustainable benefits of expanding the new towns, provides the exceptional circumstances to justify the selective review of boundaries in a small number of locations. So, are we really talking about Hertfordshire’s green belt being concreted over? Absolutely not. Let me counter the mischievous misinformation that is being bandied about. As my hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage said, the reality is that only 3 per cent. of Hertfordshire’s existing green belt will need to be built on in order to provide sufficient development land for the long term, to at least 2031. The rest—97 per cent.—will remain. We are also putting in place a stronger framework to make that land more accessible for recreation. There is no question of towns merging together and losing their identity. It remains national policy that green belts must prevent coalescence between nearby towns. The local decisions on green belt boundaries in Hertfordshire must respect that principle.

Ministers are not agreeing to such reviews lightly. The only alternatives are to plan to under-provide for housing, with higher prices and more homelessness, or to have long-distance commuting to homes beyond the green belts. The right approach is to take decisions now, looking ahead to 2031, so that boundaries need to change only once. That will give certainty for local communities and ensure that urban extensions are planned properly, rather than leaving uncertainty about whether boundaries will need to be changed again in a few years. Let me also clarify that the green belt extension for Harlow North is not at Peterborough. The extension will be along the edge of the Harlow development, extending towards the A120, which is in the constituency of the hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford.

Opposition Members have poured scorn on our proposals to extend the green belt for their county.

I will continue, but I will be happy to give way if I have time at the end.

Opposition Members from Hertfordshire have poured scorn on our proposals to extend the green belt in their county on a scale larger than the total area of land that will need to be released from the county elsewhere to provide long-term development. Opposition Members’ understanding of the purpose of the extension is simplistic. We are setting in place a realignment of the overall shape of the green belt, to set clear long-term boundaries to development and protect the countryside from development pressures. It is nonsense to suggest that there is something wrong with reviewing green belts. Doing so will provide certainty, so I am astonished that Opposition Members take issue with that.

It has been alleged that the Government are not committed to putting in place the necessary funding for infrastructure. Central to our vision for sustainable communities is that development must be supported by the full range of infrastructure—transport, health, education, green and recreational infrastructure, and so on. We have a proud record of support for growth in the area. Within the constraints of public expenditure, we are looking to ensure that future investment is adequate. [Laughter.] Hon. Members laugh, but every Government must look carefully at what they can afford to do, but this Government is providing— [Interruption.]

The Government are providing significant infrastructure support. We have already made substantial commitments to investment in the region, through sources such as growth areas funding, support for local delivery vehicles and the transport innovations fund. The favourable outcomes for the region—through the regional funding allocation on transport and the single regional housing pot for 2006-2008—indicate that the Government appreciate the region’s investment needs. In my statement to the House on 19 December 2006, I stressed that once the plan was finalised we would consider what support might be needed to towns with high rates of growth that do not benefit from growth area funding and related measures. At a national level, the Government have been reviewing policy on how development should contribute to the full range of development-related infrastructure, building on the existing section 106 system.

We are currently consulting further on proposals for a planning gain supplement. No decisions have been made, so some of the statements that have been made—particularly by the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire—are not correct. We are encouraging local authorities to make greater use of standard charges in the meantime, to help to maximise the effectiveness with which contributions are collected through the existing mechanism. The aim of a planning gain supplement is to simplify the system for getting developers to make a fair contribution to the full infrastructure costs of development.

Let me respond to the concerns that have been raised about the rationale for the location of growth in Herts. We have accepted the panel’s reasons for concentrating much of the extra growth needed in Hertfordshire in the new towns—not just in Stevenage, as proposed in the draft plan, but in Hemel Hempstead and Welwyn Hatfield. The panel’s view, which Ministers accept, was that the most sustainable way of providing more housing in Hertfordshire was to concentrate development at the new towns. They have a good record of balancing jobs and housing growth, and have better infrastructure than older towns. Growth can stimulate urban regeneration, such as by boosting town centre services and public transport. The focus on new towns is part of a bigger picture. Basildon in Essex and the new towns in the south-east are also earmarked for growth.

The focus on the expansion of new towns is a guiding principle in Hertfordshire county council’s own structure plan, which provides for the expansion of Stevenage and Hemel Hempstead, both of which are new towns. The panel’s advice is consistent with the general approach to new towns in England and in Hertfordshire’s adopted structure.

I should like to respond to the points made by the right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden about migration. Let us deal with the true migration issues. It is true that the latest projections for the UK as a whole suggest that about 80 per cent. of population growth in the next 25 years will be due to international migration. However, that does not translate into a need for 80 per cent. more housing for migrants. There are several reasons why we need more housing. People living longer and complex social changes account for about three quarters of the estimated need for extra housing; migration accounts for only about a quarter.

At present, about 12,000 people move into Hertfordshire every year, mostly from London, and not many of them are international migrants. However, more than 10,000 move out of Hertfordshire every year to the rest of the UK and abroad. A total of about 33,000 will move into Hertfordshire during the regional plan period 2001-2021, but about four times that number will move into Essex, twice that number into Cambridgeshire and nearly five times that number into Norfolk. Hertfordshire is not a particular focus for migration and I regret that the right hon. Gentleman felt that he had to raise the matter as he did.

I am sure that you will agree, Mr. Olner, that this is not the place for a wider debate about international migration. However, let us bear a few facts in mind. Hertfordshire’s unemployment rate continues at a near-all-time low of just 1.5 per cent. There is an acute skills shortage in the county; there are thousands of unfilled vacancies for skilled and unskilled work. Business needs more workers and in Hertfordshire, as elsewhere, migrants are stepping in to do skilled jobs and some of the unskilled work that nobody else wants to do. We all benefit from their contribution; without any migration, our population would become increasingly aged. It needs a steady injection of younger working-age people to keep it balanced.

The hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford raised the issue of developers pegging out land. That issue has been raised with me in respect of other areas. It rightly concerns hon. Members that members of the public are sold land for which there is no prospect of development. The Government deplore the practice and there is no specific evidence that the proposals encourage it. Indeed, long-term planning of green belt reviews in specific locations will discourage speculation by developers.

Why, then, do most of those speculative websites quote Government policy in support of their proposals?

The hon. Gentleman will know that I am not responsible for what private organisations put on their websites. We deplore the practice; it is wrong that companies should set out information suggesting that people can make money from land that has no planning permission and is extremely unlikely to get it.

Recently, I spoke at an Adjournment debate on the issue, and I am sure that I will be able to provide the hon. Gentleman with further information on it.

This has been an important debate. We are—

The Minister said earlier that she would give way on the subject of the development in my constituency. The new town that BP wishes to build is laughably described by the Government as an urban extension, despite the fact that it is in a different district, a different county and about eight miles from the centre of town.

Why does the Minister think that the Minister for Housing and Planning, her senior colleague, was not involved in the decisions when her officials clearly state that they were? This issue involves an important principle of process. If the procedure is to have any credibility, it has to be crystal clear why the Minister flouted planning policy statement 11. Does the Minister not recognise PPS11?

Let me be clear. As I said, my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning is not taking decisions on the plan. Due to propriety, I cannot, standing here today, get into detail because the consultation is under way. The Government have accepted much of the panel’s thinking on Harlow and most of its other recommendations. We have given full reasons for departing from some panel recommendations and those issues will be considered further as we get to the end of the consultation. However, I simply cannot say anything more on those issues today.

To conclude, this has been an important debate; housing—

I am grateful to the Minister, who actually responded to my points with some purported facts rather than simply ignoring them. That is the first time that that has happened.

The Minister said that the population increase over the planning period—about 20 years for Hertfordshire—was expected to be about 30,000 people, on top of a million. If they live in an average household of two and a bit people, that increase will represent 12,000 or 15,000 extra houses. Is the Minister saying that of the proposed 90,000 extra houses, only 12,000 or 15,000 are for an increase in population and that all the rest are for other reasons? If that is so, it is the first time that we have ever been told. It is an interesting fact, but I should like it to be substantiated.

As I said, we are consulting on the proposals in the plan. That is the opportunity to raise those issues. The Government will respond to the consultation and we shall be happy to deal with the issue that the right hon. Gentleman raises at that time.

Housing is enormously important and we must make sure that more people can afford it. Hon. Members have said that the issue is not about nimbyism and not wanting housing in their areas. I hope that that is true, because the Government’s case is that to ensure that local people—not those moving into the area—can afford housing, more needs to be built. The point was well illustrated by my hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage.

We need to address the issues; we need sustainable housing. That is why there is a plan and process, although Opposition Members here seem not to support them. I regret that very much. They may want to live in little Hertfordshire, but the proper way to address the issues is to have a plan on the region as a whole and to plan properly so that local people and everybody else can be clear about where it is appropriate to have housing, where the green belt is and how the infrastructure to support people’s needs will be met.

British Army

Before I begin my speech, I would like to declare a number of interests. I have served as a member of the excellent parliamentary armed forces scheme, which has been administered by Sir Neil Thorne for a number of years. I am immensely grateful for the opportunities that it has afforded me. I have also been to various Army training facilities all over the world and learned a great deal about how the Army functions, particularly from the point of view of working soldiers. In addition, Altcar training camp is in my constituency. It supports the Territorial Army and receives thousands of visitors at weekends. I am also a professional engineer and, as such, represent companies and individuals who serve and support the defence industry. I am proud to do so.

The role of our armed forces in the modern world is without question a matter worthy of our debate. Recently, the Prime Minister rightly brought the issue directly into focus. His speech on defence and the future of our armed forces highlighted the fact that, despite the difficulties and challenges that we face today, Britain has to maintain a warfighting as well as a peacekeeping capability.

Iraq and Afghanistan are too readily perceived as the only theatres in which our forces serve, and the situation is often seen to be critically unstable. There has never been universal approval for any activity in which members of the Army are involved, from peacekeeping to engagement in war. Throughout its history, our Army has faced numerous challenges to its sovereignty—challenges that Britain has never shied away from and that, ultimately, have been overcome.

We are a nation that will act forcefully when the moral right is on our side, and I am concerned that the British instinct may have been severely constrained by our experiences in Iraq. The Falklands war demonstrated to the world how important territorial integrity is to Britain, and that we will fight to maintain it. In Bosnia, and later in Kosovo, while regular massacres were occurring and UN peace troops could not stop the slaughter, it was through the strength of British and American action that peace could be brokered. When it is necessary and just, ours is a nation, I am proud to say, that is not afraid to fight. We do not wait for the enemy to come to us; we are in a continuous state of protecting our own.

Many of our citizens may find defence matters repugnant or no longer relevant, but our history suggests that such attitudes are incorrect. Unless we want to lose our rights and the envy and respect of people throughout the world, which we have secured over time, we must maintain a defensive and, when necessary, offensive position.

The 2003 Defence White Paper listed the major threats as international terrorism, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and the problem of failing states. The threats are from an enemy who is determined, difficult to identify and opposed to the core principles that many people sacrificed their lives to preserve. Ours is a nation of tolerance, but we must use all the means available to us to defeat the extremism that seeks to undermine practical secular governance.

Given the new challenges that face the modern world and the UK, our military is surely one of the most capable of responding. From the Iberian peninsula to the Crimea, in Korea and Malaya, on the battlefields of France, in the waters of Jutland and on many other fields of conflict, men and women have served our national interests with professionalism, skill and bravery while continuously displaying ability to adapt and succeed. Now, with our armed forces serving, as ever, around the globe, it is right to discuss our military operations and how we should express ourselves militarily.

Taking a wider definition of British security requires us to consider political and economic stability, which can be affected by changes in countries or regions anywhere around the globe. Where a direct threat can be clearly identified, Britain and our allies must be prepared to fight terrorists before they can attack us at home. However, our security does not necessarily have to be won through warfighting. Peacemaking and peacekeeping operations can help to bring stability to a country on the brink of collapse. By stopping conflicts, we can allow war-torn nations to enjoy their own peace dividend. In an ever more interdependent world, we cannot afford to view ourselves as an island—the fate of one nation affects the fate of us all. With our support, strong, peaceful nations can be built in which terrorism cannot prosper, and in which development thrives and hatred withers.

Our armed forces’ most notable commitments are in Iraq and Afghanistan, where they remain engaged in a battle to ensure future peace and stability for the people of those nations. Strenuous challenges are faced daily, and the armed forces in both countries have admirably demonstrated the skill and bravery with which they face such threats.

In Basra, the number of murders and kidnappings is falling, and an increasing number of police stations in that area are meeting the standard required for handover. The assistance of UK military personnel and £35 million of our money have helped the Department for International Development to start work on more than 800 projects to help to rebuild and develop Iraq. It must be noted that 90 per cent. of sectarian violence in Iraq occurs within a 30-mile radius of Baghdad—a fact not often observed by our media.

In Afghanistan, alongside the efforts to hunt down Taliban fighters, there is an increased focus on helping to consolidate the abilities of the Afghan security forces. Development is occurring in both countries, but the main focus has been on securing and stabilising, for it is from there that true progress can occur.

There can be few armed forces more capable of winning the battle to ensure true stability than our own, as they have demonstrated many times. The British military has been an active member of peacekeeping forces around the world, with a recent and continuing presence in Cyprus, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Georgia, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Sudan. The intelligence-gathering opportunities afforded by such deployments cannot be overestimated.

In Bosnia, the UK led the EU military mission throughout 2005 and continues to have more than 600 troops stationed there. The reforms that followed have been significant, and include the establishment of a single Ministry of Defence and a single multi-ethnic armed force. The local authorities are increasingly gaining the skills to deal with weapon confiscation and combating organised crime. Training and assistance are being provided to equip former soldiers for civilian life. Crucially, on top of that, nine people indicted for war crimes have been captured.

In Sierra Leone, the arrival of British troops allowed for the evacuation of UK, EU and Commonwealth citizens. Meanwhile, the securing of Freetown’s airport in 2003, combined with regular patrols, paved the way for the arrival of UN aid and a subsequent UN peacekeeping mission that restored peace and stability to the country. Alongside that, the UK and the US were jointly responsible for construction of the special court presiding over the trial of the most appalling, murderous men this world has ever seen.

I had the privilege of going to Sierra Leone and spending time with the Army. I would like to take this opportunity to congratulate those personnel on their endeavours. Sierra Leone is rarely discussed, yet the nature of its civil war was unprecedented in world history. Appalling acts were committed, and I commend Army personnel on how they have conducted themselves since they liberated Freetown.

The Army is now part of a UN force in Sierra Leone that is doing great good. Many people throughout the world may wish to see the back of the Army and an end to its work, but people in Sierra Leone willingly shake one’s hand and thank God that we are there. We have saved them from a horror that we can only imagine, but that they, unfortunately, have lived through.

British forces are always ready to be involved in humanitarian relief assistance. Three Chinooks flew more than 330 hours to deliver nearly 1,700 tonnes of aid following the earthquake in south-east Asia in 2005, and a team of Royal Engineers was able to construct emergency shelters at 5,500 ft using expertise derived directly from field training exercises.

We are also able to maintain strong links with many nations through joint training exercises around the globe. At Goose Bay in Canada, the RAF is able to practise low flying and in Alberta—again, I have been to the area and spent three days with the infantry there—the Army trains six regiments a year. A full infantry battalion is able to conduct a wide variety of training from section attacks to battalion attacks, much of which involves live firing, in one of the Army’s largest training exercises.

In Kenya, Exercise Grand Prix allows training in a range of climates and terrain. Such training is essential for the challenges that the modern world presents. In Belize, 1,000 British Army and RAF personnel pass through a training programme each year, and the Royal Engineers, of which I am very proud, undertakes a three-month construction exercise that benefits not only our soldiers, but the residents of Belize.

Our armed forces also gain strong international links through foreign recruits, with approximately 10 per cent. of the Army’s strength recruited from outside the UK. Membership is open to and positively encouraged among Commonwealth members.

The benefits of maintaining our military strength and remaining a key military contributor work from the bottom up. Those who serve in our Army can gain skills that will serve them for life, whether in or out of the services. Approximately 45 per cent. of armed forces recruits have very low educational skills. By joining the Army, they receive help to master that problem and to gain other skills that will serve them for life.

I am delighted that the Army has now taken steps to ensure that any qualifications gained while serving in and being supported by the Army are accredited against the UK non-Army training facility. As such, there have been 12,710 level 2 or 3 national vocational qualifications, and, I am delighted to say, 5,718 apprenticeships, 2,527 advanced apprenticeships and 544 foundation degrees. In addition, 279 personnel were also able to gain graduate or postgraduate degrees. We as a nation will benefit from that immense skill resource when those men and women decide to retire from the Army. It is an excellent investment.

Experience abroad continues to benefit the Army. A complete assessment of potential threats is impossible, so the broader the range of skills gained, the more we strengthen our ability to deal with any threat. In March 2003, the Ministry of Defence Joint Doctrine and Concepts Centre stated that the greatest threat to UK security would occur if the strategic environment were to change faster than the UK could acquire or apply resources to meet dangers. By playing a leading role in the world, our armed forces can gain daily hands-on experience of the techniques and abilities of our enemies, therefore receiving the best education in how to face the enemy of tomorrow.

The skills that the armed forces gain, both internally and externally, go on to advance British interests by providing us with the abilities to respond to threats wherever they emerge and whatever their nature might be. The growing threats from scarce resources, famine and religious and ethnic tensions are all examples of problems that can escalate and result in hatred, conflict and the subsequent destabilisation of a region. When those problems become globalised, the issues begin to affect the global economy, energy security and the UK and its allies.

Foreign missions not only serve to reduce imminent threats to our security, but give the armed forces opportunities to continue to learn and develop so that they can deal with future security threats. The lessons learned can also be applied in the training that we can offer the security forces in countries where we have troops based, as can our skills in construction and rebuilding.

By working as part of coalitions, as will be the case in most future engagements, we not only build stronger ties with our allies, but we can learn from those with experience of the problems we face. The threats from international terrorism are an issue not just for this incumbency, but for this generation. We must continue to lead in the search for a better, safer, more prosperous world, for it is there that our national security is truly based. We must be willing to consider and pursue all means possible to achieve our ends. Issues such as climate change or aid to developing countries are ones on which Britain is leading and are certainly means by which global stability and progress can be aided.

We have highly experienced, well-trained, motivated and professional armed forces that must be used proportionately and appropriately—and, crucially, must never be ignored as an option. They must be maintained as a force that can participate in high-intensity warfighting operations, but that maintains the qualities essential for peacekeeping and humanitarian support. If we place that responsibility on our armed forces, we must be prepared to provide them with the political and financial support to achieve the demanding and essential tasks for which we require them, which the men and women of our armed forces are trained for and willing to perform.

The search for national security in the modern world is just beginning. To retreat would be foolhardy and weak. We must continue to lead, adapt, innovate and secure. The fight will not be won overnight and it might at times seem short of significant victories. Mistakes will occur and, tragically, lives will be lost, but the threat to our national security posed by restricting the role of the armed forces cannot be overestimated.

We should not allow the loss of life in Iraq and Afghanistan to put us off future acts of military aggression. When right is on our side and the security of our nation is at stake, we must be prepared to use attack as the best form of defence. I believe in a Britain that will not sit back passively and allow itself to be attacked, nor fall back into the pack or drift into global insignificance.

I welcome the opportunity to take part in the debate. I had originally intended to make some interventions on issues raised by constituents, but I shall take the opportunity to make a wider assessment of the concerns that have been brought to me which the Minister can address.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas) on securing the debate. It is important to recognise the significant contribution that the British Army makes to this country’s well-being. The sacrifice that is made by the men and women who serve in our armed forces needs to be recognised and tribute needs to be paid to them.

The hon. Lady made clear the importance of recognising the interaction between the roles of the Ministry of Defence and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. The two have to go hand in hand in understanding first what resources are needed and, secondly, what resources are available when it comes to assessing our position in the world. We should not take for granted what is available from the Army and has been built up over generations, and we should not put at risk what we hand on to future generations. We are the custodians of something that has not happened overnight. Today’s Army is the product of many generations of commitment, sacrifice, training, understanding and professionalism. We will not be thanked if we put that at risk.

It is important that we recognise the weaknesses in our armed services and that we repair them. We should recognise, too, in our foreign policy how far our ambitions can go without overstretching our armed forces, which would put at risk what has been built up. I come from the north-east of Scotland, and the regimental structure was engrained into links with the armed forces. The Gordon Highlanders, of course, have a great tradition in north-east Scotland. It is important that with the merger of regiments those links are not lost for those previous service people who fought for and served our country. Those links should not be lost as part of the way of ensuring recruitment for the future.

I congratulate the MOD on recognising, through the veterans medal, the strength of feeling that people have for the time they have served in the services. I recently encouraged people to come forward with a new deadline for when people can apply for such a medal, and the enthusiasm, the interest shown and the way in which the phone has been ringing off the hook in the office shows that people want to be recognised for what they have given and for the commitment that they have made. The network that can be built among veterans and the support network between them is extremely important.

One of our problems as Members of Parliament is that people come to us with anecdotes about problems in the armed services and often, because of the nature of the chain of command and the discipline, they say that they do not want what they have said to be related back to the armed forces. The Minister is often faced with problems based on anecdotes and has to give us a response in the context of the wider picture. However, there has been worrying feedback from those on the front line and in the services about overstretch, to use the jargon. Some of the ways in which it manifests itself have been raised, such as people having to buy more equipment than they have been allocated to make their job easier.

One more recent concern, which I raised in the debate on Iraq, was mentioned by a constituent. Obviously, when someone joins the military, they have to go where they are needed and provide whatever functions are needed, especially in a crisis or emergency. However, someone joined the RAF in a specialist role—they had been trained in packing equipment to be loaded on to Hercules aircraft for logistical purposes—and found themselves suddenly taken on a short, sharp training course to go into a peacekeeping role in Iraq on the front line. If the armed forces have to fill in like that and reposition people ad hoc to make it possible for the armed forces to carry on functioning on the ground, it suggests that we are putting a greater burden on them than they might be able to take in the long run. The military are obviously capable, in short, sharp bursts, of taking on extra burdens over and above those that are planned for, but if the over-commitment is sustained, there is a worry that we will damage those abilities for the long term as well as the abilities to use the armed forces in the future.

Another more recent point that was raised with me concerned the way in which tours of duty and the amount of active deployments have an impact on training. For those looking in from the outside it might seem that training on the front line is effective, because people are practising those roles for which they have been trained. The feedback from those serving is that they do not necessarily get the breadth of training that a true training environment would give. We need to remember to take people out of the front line and cycle them through the training so that they have all the building blocks that they need for a flexible response next time. We cannot rely on the assumption that because they have been on the front line for so long they have sufficient experience and do not need training. That point was raised with me only yesterday, so I have not dug fully into it. How can we ensure, with the resources that we have, that the building blocks for the next deployment are properly put in place so that people are not put at risk?

The hon. Lady praised our armed forces peacekeeping work. The danger is that we take for granted how good our armed forces are; it is almost a cliché. Their skills and their instincts make them extremely effective in their peacekeeping role. They engage with other countries and other cultures, using the experience of others for those whom they are there to help. We must not be too arrogant, but our forces do much to train other countries in peacekeeping, engaging with the local population and in winning hearts and minds.

I recently visited Pakistan with the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association. Given the traditional links between our countries and Pakistan’s understanding of our military ethos and our foreign policy traditions, surprise was expressed that we had allowed ourselves to get involved with the Americans in such a poor way when tackling the transition in Iraq. In particular, Pakistan could not understand why we had allowed the destruction of the internal regime. Our armed forces had not done what the British traditionally do. When we go into another country, we obviously change the leadership, but often we use the institutions of that country to help us in our peacekeeping role.

We may not be the largest partner among our allies, but the Americans have a lot to learn from our experience in peacekeeping. If we are to work with them, we need to ensure that they take on board our understanding and our experience, as history suggests that we have a better track record than they do.

I find the hon. Gentleman’s comments interesting. I have not been to Iraq, although I hope to go there. It would be great if the Americans listened to us, but one of the primary problems is that their training and recruitment programmes are totally different to the British model. Someone can be walking the streets in the US one day and serving on the front line the next. We do not do that to our troops. It is difficult to get military commanders to appreciate that systemic difficulties preclude them from raising their game and copying the good practices to which he refers.

The hon. Lady reinforces my slight worry about the anecdote that I heard of someone who joined the RAF and ended up on the front line in Iraq. That person joined to do one thing but found himself doing something very different. We must be careful that overstretch does not start doing damage at the edges in a similar way to the American system.

When such sacrifices are made on our behalf in other parts of the world, our treatment of the injured and wounded becomes topical.

I am interested in what the hon. Gentleman says about RAF personnel. Clearly people joining the forces learn a particular trade or skill. As I understand it, he is talking about a loadmaster, which is a deployable skill or trade. I am surprised that people should think that they can join the forces and not find themselves in a theatre of conflict or engaged in peacekeeping operations. I hope that he can give me more information on that as I am concerned that people might think that they can do only one job in the armed forces, whether in the Army, the Royal Navy, the Air Force or the Royal Marines.

The concern raised by the relative was not that it was a deployable skill—they recognised that it would be deployed—but that the person was being deployed to do a peacekeeping role on the streets, on the front line, and that they were not being deployed to use their skill. The concern was that the person was being used not in an RAF regimental role but in a military role with the Army. I shall ask the constituent for more details and pass them on to the Minister.

One problem that Members have is that it is often relatives who raise individual cases based on anecdotal evidence. The constituent has every right not to be fingered as having raised a problem when it was the relative who did so, having seen what had happened to them.

I have had the opportunity to go to a number of training establishments and have spent time in the Army career offices. I have heard and seen thousands of people going through their training exercises, but there is no suggestion that people are trained for a specific skill and then sent out. All people, young and old, recruited into the Army will do the basic training and then specific training. That basic training is designed to equip the individual for a range of tasks. If their profile suggests that they can execute a particular role, they are sent to that role. I also accept that they may not have had experience in that role—

I will engage with the Minister in more detail if my constituent is willing to take the matter further. We need to test whether it was a misunderstood one-off or whether it was an example of possible overstretch and that the level of deployment does not allow for the effective rotation of training.

There have been welcome developments in the treatment of the injured and wounded, with the introduction of more medical management to the Selly Oak hospital, the main hospital for the wounded. Will the Minister update us on developments? Those who have served before, who grew up with the support that was available from the Royal Army Medical Corps, know how difficult it will be for the next generation.

We understand the professionalism of the acute medical care that is now available. The Government have taken on board the experience needed by the surgeons, and the ethos and management of the wards need to be developed so that people in recovery can maintain their links with the military. The introduction of medical management to the wards was a welcome recognition of that concern.

I refer again to regimental links. The Gordon Highlanders had an outreach centre in Aberdeen. A long-term commitment to maintaining those links with the community would be welcome. North-east Scotland has low unemployment and a high skills base in the oil industry, so recruitment is difficult for the armed forces. However, a presence and a profile that links them to the community gives them the chance to tap into skills and trades that would be extremely beneficial to our services.

The hon. Lady reinforced the message on training. When I was an RAF cadet at school, we were shown a powerful video for the RAF telling us that how well we did the training would decide whether we would do it for real. The more professional and effective our armed forces, the better the chance that the other side in a conflict will recognise that fact. As a result, we would not have to engage so often or deliver those forces. We must be willing to use our forces whenever necessary to protect the national interest, but the fact that they are highly trained and highly respected gives us an added edge in international negotiations and in our foreign policy.

I want to finish with the impression that I have of the Government’s failure to recognise what resources we have, how our foreign policy impacts on that and the fact that we need to feed back into our foreign policy only what we can deliver. We must therefore ensure that what we deliver is delivered well and thoroughly. Our armed forces provide an excellent service, but politically we have overstretched them and thus lost the focus on some of the key issues that we were trying to tackle. Again, it comes back to feedback from my visit to Pakistan.

Order. The hon. Gentleman said that he was about to finish. I remind him that he has spoken for longer than the hon. Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas), who secured the debate.

I apologise. I will bring my remarks to a close with one last key point.

We went into Afghanistan to deal with a serious and dangerous threat to the world from terrorist training camps. The perception, and certainly the feedback I received as a result of going out to Pakistan, is that, having gone there to do a job, we allowed the American distraction of Iraq to take us away from that crucial goal—

Order. That does not relate to the future of the British Army. The hon. Gentleman is straying into foreign policy. We are not having a debate on that so he should conclude his remarks.

In conclusion, the future of the British Army is crucial to delivering foreign policy and that policy should in future effectively target the use of the Army to ensure that it is not overstretched.

I was impressed by the ability of my hon. Friend the Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Sir Robert Smith) to speak for longer than the hon. Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas). He had only two pages of notes and I have to prepare much more than that to speak for that length of time. I appreciate his contribution to the debate and that of the hon. Member for Crosby—it was a thoughtful and detailed contribution. Her membership of the armed forces parliamentary scheme sounded attractive. I have, so far, resisted the temptation to join, but I will take her recommendations on board and may consider joining in order to learn first hand exactly what our armed forces face around the world.

I congratulate the Ministry of Defence on the veterans badge, which has already been mentioned. I have been running a campaign to raise awareness of the badge for just two weeks in Fife and we have already attracted more than 100 applications for the scheme. That means that we are able to recognise those who are often unsung heroes and who make significant contributions to our country. It is a small recognition for the valued contribution that they make.

I will talk mainly about overstretch, but will also cover other issues. Despite denials from the Ministry of Defence, it is clear that our armed forces in general and the Army in particular are overstretched. The National Audit Office says that our armed forces are about 5,000 below strength, which is about 2.8 per cent. That has roughly been the case during the past five years as the armed forces have been operating above predicted deployment levels. During the past five years, some 14.5 per cent. of soldiers have been sent on missions more frequently than recommended by harmony guidelines. Medical services have been the worst hit, with reservists filling 66 per cent. of vacant accident and emergency department and intensive therapy nurses posts.

Figures from the Defence Analytical Services Agency show that approximately 14,500 personnel left the Army in 2006. Many left before their period of engagement was up. They blamed too many deployments and the impact on their families. The retention crisis has led to some of our most skilled and experienced soldiers quitting the Army. Shorter gaps between tours of duty, and concerns about kit, and pay and allowances are starting to hit morale and put further pressure on service families. Those factors contribute to poor retention levels.

The Defence Committee has said that personnel shortages are creating a “clear danger” and that the military will be unable to maintain its commitments in the near future. With major deployments in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Balkans, and forces working in a total of 28 countries—already alluded to earlier in this debate—the Committee found that the services were operating

“in insufficient numbers and without the equipment they need”.

We have heard much about General Sir Richard Dannatt, but it is worth considering that in saying that relations between the armed forces and the Government could be undermined if current levels of commitment were maintained, he said that he was

“reflecting a view widely held in the armed services”.

Adrian Weale from the British Armed Forces Federation said that defence funding was based on assumptions made in the late 1990s. He said:

“We were never expected to be having to mount these two”—

by which he means Iraq and Afghanistan—

“what are called medium-scale enduring operations at the same time. And that’s put a lot of pressure on the armed forces."

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his considered words. Does he agree that the situation faced by the Army at the moment arises only from the fact that the threat to this country and globally has changed shape over time? The armed forces were set up for traditional major wars, but the situation is now very different. Many of the problems experienced by the armed forces are associated with shifting from one scenario to a very different scenario. With time, as we settle into that scenario, some of the current problems will diminish because there will be the experience to better manage the situation.

There is much in what the hon. Lady says, but we fundamentally disagree about whether we should have intervened in Iraq and whether that has led to overstretch in the Army. We believe that we should have focused on Afghanistan—I know that I am straying into foreign affairs territory here—rather than kicking in the door in Iraq. That would have allowed us to live within our means and capability.

On the points raised earlier, I too have had members of the armed forces raising concerns about one moment being in store and the next minute finding themselves on the front line. I would like to get to the bottom of this issue and find out what level of training they are getting. I welcome the Minister’s contribution on that.

What are the consequences of this overstretch? According to an MOD survey, one in five soldiers want to quit the Army at the earliest opportunity, with many blaming overstretch. More than half often think about quitting and more than a third blamed operational commitment and overstretch. A rising number of soldiers are no longer given the full recommended rest periods between operations, and only 30 per cent. of ordinary soldiers who responded to the survey were satisfied with the notice given for extra duties. Almost three out of five rated their work load as high or very high, and only 31 per cent. felt valued, with nearly one out of four saying that their morale was low or very low.

I am pleased that the Government have acknowledged that more needs to be done to improve housing for the armed forces, but I am disappointed that it took the intervention of the Adjutant-General, Lieutenant-General Freddie Viggers, who condemned cramped and decaying living quarters in barracks. He said that

“there is still too much accommodation which is of a poor standard, which is old, and which is not modern in the way it’s fitted for families. It’s a key issue in what we call the military covenant-giving our soldiers and their families what they deserve in return for that they do for us.”

The hon. Gentleman should not set hares running when there is no substance—I do not know if that is the proper use of that expression. The problems referred to by Lieutenant-General Viggers had already been recognised, which is why we invested £700 million last year in housing and are making a £5 billion investment over the next 10 years. There is an historical issue relating to accommodation; the issue was not started by recent comments. I ask the hon. Gentleman to be accurate in analysing the issue and not to set hares running—or release dogs into the street which we will never catch. The issue has been addressed over a number of years and is not of recent vintage. We have adopted a progressive programme for sorting it out.

I recognise that and am grateful to the Minister for his intervention. However, I am afraid that the world only found out to the present extent because of the intervention of Lieutenant-General Viggers, although I recognise that the Government have made significant investment in that area.

Figures obtained by my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) have already been alluded to, but with a slightly different presentation. Those figures revealed that one in 10 soldiers in the British Army are from abroad. Citizens from 57 countries are recruited to compensate for falling numbers of young Britons signing up. It is a welcome step that our Army is appealing to countries and citizens of other parts of the world. However, that sends out an underlying message that we cannot recruit from within and have to rely on foreign troops. For about 150 years, the United Kingdom has recruited Gurkha soldiers from Nepal to serve in their own Gurkha regiments. About 3,000 are currently serving. However, there are nearly 6,700 soldiers from 57 other countries, as I mentioned. Fiji leads the way, with almost 2,000.

Of course, the hon. Gentleman must understand the reason the British Army recruits so many Fijians. This is an extremely important issue. It is in order that the Army can beat the Royal Navy at rugby.

That makes it all right, then. I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention.

I will now deal briefly with teacher reservists in Scotland. A constituent recently approached me. She was concerned that she was not allowed to take part in training because she was a primary school teacher and was not allowed to take time off during term time. The guidelines for that stretch back to 1995. Although I recognise that it is a devolved issue, I would welcome the Minister’s scrutiny in this area, because my constituent has not been able to take part in the essential training. This is about the naval reserves, not the Army, but I am sure that it affects the Territorial Army as well. Bizarrely, teachers are allowed time off for a range of duties. They are allowed to serve as councillors, justices of the peace and so on, and to serve on the river purification board, which no longer exists in Scotland, so we need a review of the guidelines to ensure that reservists, who provide an essential service for our armed forces, are given the necessary time off to do the training.

As we are approaching election time, I want briefly to deal with the issue of independence, which I know is close to the Minister’s heart. I would like to know whether he has conducted any scrutiny of the policy for separating Scotland from the rest of the United Kingdom and what effect that would have on the British Army. Like him, I believe that Scotland is better within the UK and that an independent Scottish defence force would not have the recognition throughout the world that our British Army currently has. If we put any of that under threat, things would be the poorer not only for those serving in the Army, but for the whole UK. I would therefore welcome hearing the Minister’s views on that issue.

Finally, I want to touch briefly on the war in Iraq because I believe that that is fundamental to the problem with recruitment—

They certainly are. The Liberal Democrats opposed the war in Iraq and we are disappointed that so many members of the coalition forces have lost their lives in Iraq. We believe that that has contributed significantly to the problems with recruitment and retention in the armed forces and, in particular, in the Army. I am talking about problems to do with not having the right kit or the right equipment and the demoralising impact that failing to have the desired effect in Iraq is obviously having on our armed forces.

That may be the hon. Gentleman’s impression, but when I visit careers offices I find that the war has not necessarily had that effect. If people go to the recruitment office up in the north-west, they will find that the number of expressions of interest has gone up as a result of the war. It is an absolute fact that many young people join the Army because they want the experience of defending their country. That is what they are going for, and Iraq offers a very real possibility of doing that.

I understand that recruitment is reasonably healthy and the numbers have gone up, but retention is a fundamental problem. We are losing far too many people out the back end—roughly 14,500 in 2006, as I said. Certainly the feedback that I get on the streets is that one reason for the problem is our situation in Iraq and our intervention there.

I pay tribute to those who have lost their lives in Iraq in the service of their country. By invading Iraq, we created a moral obligation to support the country, and our armed forces had an important role in achieving that, but we must recognise that the commitment cannot be open-ended and that the current strategy is not succeeding. That is why the Liberal Democrats believe that it is time for us to go. We have reached the conclusion that our troops should—[Interruption.] I am sorry, Mr. Olner; that is my mobile phone.

Order. That is two mistakes that the hon. Gentleman has made. He has again strayed into a debate that took place in the Chamber last week and I do not intend to return to that. I call Mr. Gerald Howarth.

I follow on from what the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Willie Rennie) said and pay tribute to one of Britain’s greatest success stories, Her Majesty’s armed forces, and particularly, in the light of today’s debate, the British Army. I do not believe that there is an army in the world that can match ours.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas) on securing the debate. I am sorry that more hon. Members are not present, but I pay tribute to her because she is a tribute to the armed forces parliamentary scheme. She has clearly benefited from it and proven to the House and, we hope, to a wider audience—she has certainly done so to the Minister, although he needs no confirmation of this—that the scheme is an extremely good organisation and helps to ensure that Members of Parliament who do not have experience of the armed forces are introduced to what is, as I said, one of Britain’s greatest success stories.

I shall not go through all the points that the hon. Lady raised, but she made two fundamental ones. The first was that the Falklands campaign illustrated the importance of being prepared to fight for one’s country, territory and interests. We must never forget that that is what our armed forces are for. Having come straight from a meeting with Baroness Thatcher and just discussed these issues, I can reinforce that remark.

The hon. Lady’s second point was about Sierra Leone. That is a very different operation, but it is one in which the British Army is conducting itself magnificently. It illustrates the extraordinary versatility of Britain’s Army and particularly those who come from less privileged backgrounds. Some people come from very difficult home backgrounds and poorer parts of society, and it is a tribute to the British Army that it manages to train them and turn them into such stalwart citizens who are both brave and versatile. In theatres such as Sierra Leone, they are winning hearts and minds, as they are doing in Iraq and Afghanistan. That is an enormous tribute to them.

As Conservative Front-Bench spokesman on defence, but also as one who has the privilege of being the Member of Parliament for Aldershot, the home of the British Army, I have to say that this is a wonderful opportunity for me not only to extol the virtues of the British Army, but to highlight some of the difficulties. May I say to the Minister, who has been in post even longer than I have, that if I do highlight the difficulties, I do so because it is part of the constitutional duty of the Opposition to hold the Government to account? Much is being done that I am sure is good. New equipment is coming on board, and the Minister mentioned accommodation, but there are real problems. The hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife illustrated some of those.

General Sir Richard Dannatt’s first intervention when he became Chief of the General Staff was to say:

“We are running hot, certainly running hot. Can we cope? I pause. I say ‘just’.”

Coming from the head of the British Army, that should send a shock through all Members of this House, not just Ministers, but it was a considered view and reflects what is happening on the ground. The trouble with the military is that when asked to do something by politicians, invariably their answer is, “Yes, sir. We can do it, sir.” We politicians then glibly say, “Okay, that’s fine. Let’s crack on with it.” The military are reluctant to say, “No, we can’t do it,” because they would feel that they were failures or that they had failed to deliver what was expected of them by the politicians. I think that what General Sir Richard Dannatt said is absolutely right. It is certainly borne out by my experience and by the figures.

I remind the Minister that in 1997 the required strength of the British Army was 106,360. That had fallen by 2006 to 101,800. The trained strength of the Army in 1997 was 101,360. Last year, it was 99,570. We now have the smallest Army since 1930. The fundamental difference between 1997 and 2007 is that today we are fighting two wars. There is no point in pussy-footing around: when we say that people are going on operations, they are going into war zones. Iraq is effectively a war zone and Afghanistan is most certainly a war zone, as are the myriad other operations that the hon. Lady mentioned and to which we are committed.

The fundamental basis of our criticism of the Government is that there are insufficient men to undertake those tasks. It is no good saying, as the former Secretary of State did, that platform numbers no longer count because we have such sophisticated equipment. Of course numbers count. One ship cannot be in two places, as Admiral Sir Alan West, First Sea Lord, said. Equally, soldiers are human beings. To take territory and hold it, one needs men, and that means numbers. It does not matter how sophisticated the weapons are, the physical presence of the soldiers is what counts.

We cannot understand why the Government have cut four British Army battalions when General Richards in Afghanistan has called for precisely 2,500 men. What is that? It is four battalions. That is in addition to what they are doing to cap badges and what they are doing to destroy much of the morale and ethos that is associated with the support for individual units. Men do not fight for their country; they fight for the man next to them. They fight for their unit, their regiment and that battle honour. Anyone who doubts that should watch the 3 Para video of Afghanistan, which is extremely well worth watching. It exemplifies the sense of camaraderie and ethos.

In 2005, some 3,350 more people left the Army than joined up. Last year, the number was about 1,500. I agree that the problem is not so much with recruitment, although only two battalions are properly recruited—the Gurkha battalions—while the rest are under-recruited and under-strength. There is an attraction for young men and women in serving their country and taking part in the kind of operations that are under way. The problem is something else. When I go around and speak to people, many of them tell me, “I’ve done Iraq”—probably three times—and “I’ve done Afghanistan. It doesn’t get much better than that, so I’m quitting.” The people who are leaving are the backbone of the British Army: the captains, majors and senior warrant officers. They are the repository of the real experience in today’s Army. Their loss is potentially the most damaging, and something has to be done about it.

I have two Guards battalions in Aldershot at present—the Irish Guards and the Grenadier Guards. Before Christmas, the commanding officer of the Irish Guards, Colonel O’Dwyer, told me, “Sir, we are not valued.” That is a serious wake-up call and we need to wake up. The colonel is a splendid chap, and he did not say that in any way politically, but it is an accusation against the political classes. It is our job to make sure that they are valued. I shall return to the military covenant later.

I protested to the colonel that there is not a Member of Parliament who does not stand up in Westminster and proclaim the virtues of the British Army. He said, “We get less telephone time than prisoners, and when we go on a train we have to buy a travelcard. Police officers just flash their warrants and don’t have to pay anything.” I realise that those are small things.

I shall respond to that now because I might not have time to deal with all the points that have been raised in detail. It is not correct to say that forces members have less telephone time than prisoners. We recently increased it to 30 minutes a week. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman can go back and correct the misunderstanding or misinformation that is being peddled around.

I am happy to do that, but I want to make it clear that that is not the fundamental issue. It is more like the straw that breaks the camel’s back. If I am issuing a warning to the Minister, it is this: we are taking the British Army too much for granted. It is at a tipping point. Take the Grenadier Guards. In the 115 weeks between March 2006 and June 2008, they will be on operations for 48 weeks, doing field exercises for 20 weeks, and have 10 weeks of post-operational tour leave and pre-deployment leave. To anyone who thinks that that involves swanning around at home, I say that post-operational tour leave provides the process of decompression that is essential when men are taken out of a theatre such as Iraq or Afghanistan having seen what they have seen. It is not a holiday. We do them no service.

Servicemen and women tell me that the negatives of service are the separation from their families and lack of adventure training—the kind of thing that used to make up part of the whole military package. It is now tilted in favour of duty, responsibility and work and less in favour of the benefits that made the whole package attractive. Yet these days, unlike in the cold war, those men and women are putting their lives on the line for us day in, day out. They are dying for their country. They are giving a real, not abstract, commitment.

I pay tribute to those who have given their lives for our country and to their families, who deserve the biggest tribute because they supported them. They are the ones who have experiences like the lady who said, “When I put the children to bed, the house is silent.” She will live with that silence, and we need to bear that in mind.

Is the hon. Gentleman arguing that we should limit the exposure of the Army to a specific number of areas of engagement, or does he support the argument that while the Army’s diversified activity is positive, it is crucial that we have more people to deliver that diversity comfortably?

It is the latter. I simply do not think that there are enough people, and that is the generally held consensus. There are not enough people to do all the jobs that are being done. I have no desire for us to retreat into a United Kingdom shell and remove ourselves from the world stage. We are a power for good in the world and I want us to play that role. I am a Tory. I believe that strong defence is the first duty of any Government—certainly a Conservative Government. We are able to play a great role in the world. Anyone who compares British forces, and how we deal with people, with the American forces in Abu Ghraib can see that we are good. Personally, I have no wish to see our role diminished.

I have written to Air Marshal Pocock about how the change in the allowances will affect the Grenadier Guards and they will lose £681,750. They are doing two operations—they just came back from Iraq in October and are going to Afghanistan in March—and they are uniquely disbenefited by the changes. I urge the Minister to look at that again.

I want to address one or two issues about equipment, starting with armoured vehicles. We have been warning for years that the nature of the operations in Iraq, in particular, and now Afghanistan, puts our troops at grave risk from roadside bombs and sophisticated improvised explosive devices. I was told in Iraq, three years ago, that the insurgents there had achieved more sophistication in 30 months than the IRA did in 30 years.

On my return from the armed forces parliamentary scheme visit to Iraq, on which there were no Labour Members, in 2005, I went straight to the Secretary of State and said, “You’ve got to do something about this.” I did not go to the press because my duty is not to spread fear and alarm among families. I have been criticised for not going public about it, but that was my view. The Government have made a mistake, although they are now bringing new kit on board.

We have a duty to give the men the best possible protection, so I welcome the Cougars coming into operation, but we were told last July by the Secretary of State that they would be fully operational at the end of 2006. I do not regard having four Mastiffs, as I believe the British Army now calls them, in theatre in Iraq as being fully operational. Everybody knows the limitations of the Snatch Land Rover and it is time that the Government did more to recognise that they have a duty to protect our troops. Equipment exists that is able to do that—for example, the Pinzgauer, which I have been to see. Others dismiss it, and I do not think that it has the full armoured capability of the RG-31 or the Mastiff, but it will make a contribution.

The second issue on equipment concerns helicopters. I understand that the Government have decided that the Danish EH101s are not available or that they will not go ahead with acquiring them. It is clear that we particularly need lift in Afghanistan, as it is insufficient. That which there is in theatre is being used at a far higher rate than had originally been envisaged, which is imposing a far greater toll on the maintainability of the helicopters. I gather that Eurocopter has put a bid before the Government concerning six Pumas; there is a possibility that three will be made fully theatre-prepared and available by July, with the rest available by the end of the year. The Government have a duty to do something about lift, because it is available, and I cannot understand why they are taking such a long time to deal with it.

I know that there is a bit more time available so would it be in order for me to have another five minutes, if the Minister agrees, as he would still have time to reply, Mr. Gale?

I am grateful, because there are many other issues that I could raise about the British Army. Although I do not have time to raise them all, I want to mention the important matter of medical care. We have an inadequate system of dealing with the aftermath of military operations and the Government need to do much more. The issue of mental health problems arising out of operations is also of paramount importance. If the Minister could do anything to increase the support that he makes available to Combat Stress, he would be doing a great service and would be widely thanked. We know that there are insufficient numbers of nurses and doctors. They are about 43 per cent. under-recruited, and that will also have to be addressed.

Mention has been made of the military covenant. There is not a person in this land who believes that Britain’s armed forces have not fulfilled their part of the bargain. They have done so in shed loads. They have met their duty under the military covenant, but the nation has failed them in return. We have not given them the kit, the sufficient manpower, the family support or the accommodation. Whatever the Minister is now doing, we have not done enough for our armed forces to enable us to look them in the eye and say, “We have fulfilled our part of the military covenant.”

I want to make a point to the Minister by taking as my text the remarks made by the former Secretary of State, now the Minister for Europe, in supporting essay 2 to the Defence White Paper of 2003, “Delivering Security in a Changing World”. He stated:

“Since SDR our Armed Forces have conducted operations that have been more complex and greater in number than we had envisaged. We have effectively been conducting continual concurrent operations, deploying further afield, to more places, more frequently and with a greater variety of missions than set out in the SDR planning assumptions. We expect to see a similar pattern of operations in the future”.

In other words, we are imposing on our armed forces a commitment that is greater than was proposed in the strategic defence review. The SDR was never properly funded and this is not properly funded. The situation is, “Commitments of SDR, plus; funding of SDR, double minus.” That sums up the dilemma that the Government face.

It is no good the Prime Minister saying, as he did against a military backdrop—on HMS Albion—in a wonderfully orchestrated and typically Labour spin thing, that we are going to spend more on defence. When the matter was raised in the other place—I raised this with the Prime Minister at Question Time last week—Lord Davies of Oldham said of the comprehensive spending review that

“there will be a number of contributions to that debate. The Prime Minister’s contribution will, of course, be regarded very seriously and very importantly indeed.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 17 January 2007; Vol. 688, c. 647.]

What have we come to when the Prime Minister of the land deliberately gives a stage-managed appearance on HMS Albion telling the armed forces, “Don’t worry boys, I am going to look after you. I give you a commitment” and that is a “contribution to that debate”? That debate is presided over by, undoubtedly, the next Prime Minister, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who has betrayed the armed forces. He has failed to fund them to the level required to meet the commitments that the Prime Minister has imposed on them. He is as much a part of this Government as the Prime Minister, and he has failed abysmally in doing the job that he ought to do of supporting our armed forces.

My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) and I offered a little challenge before the previous election. We offered a magnum, no less, of Pol Roger champagne—the favourite champagne of his grandfather, Sir Winston Churchill—to the first person to spot the Chancellor of the Exchequer arriving at, or leaving, a military establishment. The magnum of Pol Roger is still on my sideboard awaiting collection. I believe that the Chancellor has now been to Iraq and is trying to ingratiate himself with the armed forces, but he is a man who has never done anything to help them. He may say that the Tories cut defence spending, but we did so because the circumstances after the ending of the cold war, which was achieved by my noble Friend, Baroness Thatcher, meant that we had to have a rethink. To this Government’s credit, they had a review. We should have had a review, but we did not. We cut defence expenditure but the trouble is that the Labour party wanted to cut it even further. The Government should not tell us that we did not do the right thing by the armed forces because Labour wanted further cuts.

There is an issue about the funding of our armed forces, and the hon. Member for Crosby raised it. On 30 October, The Daily Telegraph gave figures from an opinion poll that asked people whether they thought more or less should be spent on defence. Some 46 per cent. of people said that we should spend more on it, of whom 18 per cent. said that significantly more should be spent. Only 22 per cent. said that less should be spent on it. Interestingly, there was an opinion poll about Iraq in another column showing that 57 per cent. of people said that we should be out of Iraq either now or within 12 months. That illustrates the complete disconnect between the public’s opposition to the Iraq war and their support for the armed forces.

We have a duty to support the greatest army in the world. It has served us well and I, like everyone else, is proud of it. We are not doing our stuff by the Army and, if we do not do so, the haemorrhaging of people leaving the armed forces will get even worse and experienced people will go. Such people cannot be replaced. The military covenant requires us to do our duty by our magnificent armed forces.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas) for securing the debate. I will come to some of the points that she made, but I want to start by paying tribute to the members of our armed forces for their dedication and the invaluable contribution that they make on a daily basis to our efforts for global peace. She put that into context well.

I also pay tribute to the families, particularly those who have lost loved ones. I was up in Kinloss yesterday for a most moving memorial service in recognition of the 14 brave men who lost their lives in the aircraft crash. It was a powerful event that brought home to me people’s resilience, dedication and commitment. I spoke only to RAF personnel and to some of the families, but all three services were represented.

As an aside, I should say that I appreciate the comments made by my hon. Friend about the armed forces parliamentary scheme. I was one of the early participants in it, which is possibly why I have ended up in this job for six years. I wanted to spend my time with the RAF because my father had been in it, but as two places had been filled, I ended up with the Army. I am glad that I did, because it gave me an insight into things that I did not have much knowledge of, other than through family contacts of a vintage period from the second world war. However, the Army’s future is not dependent on the armed forces parliamentary scheme. If it were, more participants of that scheme would be taking part in the debate. It is to be noted that so few of them are.

I appreciate my hon. Friend’s recognition of what is being done in the incredible training programmes in the armed forces and, considering who we recruit and where, particularly in the Army. People are lifted and become exemplars for others in their communities, and we give welfare to tens of thousands of younger troops. That is an example of what we are trying to do as part of the covenant. We want to create an ongoing ethos. What we have done is not new, but training is getting better, sharper and better funded.

One of the baselines is how we bring on young people who come into the armed forces. In my six years as armed forces Minister, I have been dealing with the Deepcut issue—the four tragic deaths that occurred there. We have analysed it and now transformed the whole training regime, which has been independently audited and examined. Those in the armed forces who have had to deal with it must be given credit for transforming their approach, which will give the forces strength.

The regime is not perfect, and there is still a lot to be done. There are accommodation issues to consider, but we have invested heavily in both financial and people terms to turn that around. If we do not get it right, we will not get right other aspects of what we are doing. I shall come to equipment, which is a key matter.

Hon. Members have mentioned the Prime Minister’s speech on 12 January. It is wrong to diminish its importance, but I understand the political knockabout that takes place. It is worth while to read the speech: it was successful and examined where we stand. The Prime Minister talked about the transformation of the context within which the military, politics and public opinion interact. We are in a new climate and environment, and some changes are driven by events and some would have had to be made anyway because of circumstances evolving beyond our shores.

What the Prime Minister said on HMS Albion was:

“For our part, in Government, it will mean increased expenditure on equipment, personnel and the conditions of our Armed Forces; not in the short run but for the long term.”

It was a Minister in the other place, Lord Davies of Oldham, who said that that was merely a contribution to the debate. I say to the Minister that this is not knockabout stuff. If the Prime Minister’s words did not mean that the armed forces were sent the message, “We are going to increase expenditure,” what did they mean?

I have read the comments made by my colleague in another place, and knockabout is a word that I could use to good effect in describing them. The Prime Minister’s speech was more than a contribution; it was a substantial analysis of where we stand. We are not here to consider that speech, which covered matters beyond the future of the British Army, but it put the armed forces into context. The Prime Minister talked about public opinion, politics and where Her Majesty’s armed forces sit. He also mentioned the need to invest in our nation’s warfighting capabilities to pursue our foreign policy. The sharp end of that is the British Army.

There are people who do not believe that we should be a warfighting nation, including some in the House and perhaps in the other place. I think that they are wrong, because that represents where we best position ourselves and where we have historically and traditionally given great effect at momentous times in world history. We are doing that in Iraq and Afghanistan today, and who knows where we will do it tomorrow? The Prime Minister set out a variety of security threats and challenges that we face and where the armed forces sit in relation to them. Much of what he said is what we have been addressing in the Ministry of Defence since the strategic defence review.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) for admitting that the Conservatives failed in government to address what was coming after the end of the cold war. The downsizing and the changes that took place were not well structured. The Conservatives did not analyse what the needs of the future would be. They immediately reduced defence expenditure dramatically so that they could invest it in trying to win the forthcoming elections.

I shall give way in a moment on that point, but I do not agree with the analysis with which the hon. Gentleman closed his speech.

The incoming Labour Government considered where the armed forces should be positioned and how best they should be structured. That was an intensive programme, driven directly by the armed forces themselves. They knew that they had to get themselves better structured and positioned. On the back of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, it was clear that more needed to be done. There was not a full review, but more consideration needed to be given to how to structure the armed forces, particularly the Army.

We considered the new technology that was coming in, which changed the relationship between the various services and how they could fight interdependently and flexibly, meeting new challenges and a different type of threat and enemy. All that had to be included in the examination process. Such a process will always be complicated while we are engaged in heavy commitments such as in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Other countries where we are engaged have been mentioned, and it is interesting that people forget about Northern Ireland. Only a few years ago we had more troops committed there than to Iraq and Afghanistan put together. We have transformed Northern Ireland: when I was the Northern Ireland Office Minister with responsibility for security, we had about 15,000 troops committed. Some were on rear bases, but that was the total commitment, the vast bulk of which came from the Army.

The peace process was required for a lot of reasons, one of which was the heavy resource commitment. We had been there for far too long and there was another, better way of doing it. We could never have solved the problem militarily, yet we had a large commitment. As of next year, we will have a commitment of 5,000 troops—not for the peace process, although a measure of support will be given to the civilian authorities, but overall. That is a major transformation and it has reduced pressure.

Two parts of our re-examination were called future Army structure and future infantry structure. The future Army structure represents a complete overhaul of how we brigade the British Army. Virtually every Army unit establishment was subject to examination, and will be in the months and years ahead. Some 10,000 posts will be redistributed, which will reshape and restructure the Army and is intended to get a better balance between heavy, medium and light capabilities. We inherited an imbalance: the enemy and threat had changed, so we had to change accordingly. That required re-roling and people doing tasks other than those that they thought they would do when they entered the armed forces. We were committed to one objective: maintaining the high quality and standard of Her Majesty’s armed forces.

A previous Secretary of State, now the Minister for Europe, commented on the matter on 16 December 2004, saying:

“However, enhancements that we have already decided on include the creation of a new commando engineer regiment, a new port and maritime unit, an additional strategic communications unit and a new logistics support regiment for each deployable brigade. We are also creating a number of new sub-units for surveillance and target acquisition, bomb disposal and vehicle maintenance capabilities.”—[Official Report, 16 December 2004; Vol. 428, c. 1796.]

In April last year, a new special forces support group was also formed to work alongside special forces tackling the terrorism that we face globally. I have visited a support group and spoken to those deployed in Afghanistan. I cite those examples because they are never recognised as part of the process of substantial change that we have seen. That process has been driven by a military imperative to get things right, and there has been political and financial support for it.

I entirely endorse that point, and the Minister is absolutely right, but we need to introduce changes to meet the circumstances of today, not the limbo in which we found ourselves in 1989, following the fall of the Berlin wall. It is absolutely right to do that, but the Minister’s problem is that he is still operating with an Army of less than 100,000. As far as I can work out, we would have to go back pretty well to the time of Wellington to find an Army as small as that. That is where the problem lies—not with the new units that the Minister is creating, which I applaud, but with the reduction in the Army below the critical 100,000 level.

Let us look at the figures. The hon. Gentleman said that trained strength was 101,300 in 1997. It dropped to 100,900 the following year and to below 100,000 the year after that. In terms of the figure being below 100,000 and the reference to 1935, therefore, he is wrong. The current figures are marginally below the 1999 level. Interestingly, however, recruitment grew at the height of the Iraq controversy, when there were massive demonstrations in this country.

In 2004 and 2005, the figure went up to 102,400. That tells us something that is probably hard to analyse—recruitment went up against the trend, but we are now having recruiting difficulties. Tempo is unquestionably part of the issue, but people tend to forget the strength of the economy. The hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Sir Robert Smith) mentioned the strength of the Scottish economy and his own region. It is difficult to recruit from a particular cohort when the economy is strong, and especially when the demographics and all the higher and further education opportunities open to young people, which were not there before, are working against us.

That is what this debate is about, and if people can find a solution to that problem, they should tell us. A lot of effort is being put into working towards the best conclusion. We offer young people immense opportunities not only in the Army, but in the armed forces, and my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby mentioned the educational opportunities. We market and advertise the opportunities that the armed forces provide so that people are aware of them. Sometimes those recruiting campaigns work, but sometimes they do not. We are no different from any other major organisation that is trying to reach a market and attract people in.

What militates against our efforts is people arguing that the British armed forces are underfunded, ill equipped, badly treated and badly looked after. There may be some underlying truth in terms of issues needing to be addressed, but no wonder we find it difficult to recruit when debates such as this present a picture of complete negativity, rather than highlighting the positive attractions for young people. That is why we are putting so much effort into our recruiting strategy and trying to lift the quality of the debate as best we can.

That is an interesting point. We have certainly seen that situation in the north-west, and particularly in Liverpool, which is a big recruiting area for young soldiers, although the economy and job opportunities have gone through the ceiling, which means that the Army is not as attractive as it was. However, I take my right hon. Friend back to my earlier point that the Army has made strong attempts to ensure that any qualification it gives has equivalent civilian accreditation. Many individuals were locked into the Army because their experience could not be marketed outside it, but that barrier has now gone. That means that they can gain fantastic opportunities and then say, “Where can I best use them?” That is quite an important factor, and I applaud the fact that we have taken those steps, but it does create retention problems.

It is probably a no-win situation. Not every young person who comes into the armed forces because of the opportunities that they offer—they are not all 16 or 17-year-olds, and some are a bit more mature—is focused on training and education, and some come in to do what they want to do with the Royal Marines or the Army, but they are all given every opportunity. I agree that that raises an issue, in that we are making people employable who were not employable before.

I talked to RAF personnel at Kinloss yesterday, and several of them were looking at openings in the outside world. As a nation, we have give them that opportunity. Some would have taken it as a result of their own choice, but many will now be able to do so because we have provided the resources—the hundreds of millions that we pour into the education of our personnel.

I want now to touch on equipment because we hear so much about equipment problems—indeed, that is all we are ever told about. When the issue arises, Defence Ministers try to take those who make such comments through the argument. Let me give a good example of what applies to the Army today and what will apply into the future. Four years ago, an eight-man fire team would have had roughly three SA80s; one light support weapon; an individual Mk 6 helmet, webbing and Bergen; enhanced combat body armour; the old Clansman; a light anti-tank weapon; an individual weapon sight; and a 51 mm mortar. Now, such a team has a light support weapon; a light machine gun; an underslung grenade launcher; thermal imaging sights; the Mk 6A helmet, which is an improved defensive aid; all-round Osprey body armour, which has saved lives; the interim light anti-tank weapon; the Bowman personal role radio; head-mounted night-vision sights; a long-range image intensifier; and an automatic lightweight grenade launcher and a 60 mm mortar in support.

All those developments have taken place because of the theatre in which we find ourselves. That is what is happening on the procurement of equipment, and it is the same with armoured vehicles. I am really surprised that the hon. Member for Aldershot criticises what we are doing and says that we should do more. What more can we do, other than procure the numbers that we need and ask industry to supply us, which it is doing to a considerable extent? All that will place the Army in a better position in the years ahead.

Let us just consider one fact: equipment valued at more than £10 billion has been delivered to the armed forces in the past three years. When people say that equipment is not being supplied to provide for force protection and wider capabilities, they are simply wrong. If they want more defence expenditure, let me hear where they want less expenditure. I shall advocate more expenditure as part of a spending Department’s approach with the Treasury—it is our job to do that—but let those who want more for defence say where they want a reduction. In health? In education?

The issue is part of our covenant with the British people, and the Prime Minister set it out in his argument. Have we got the balance right? The argument is now out there, and the Prime Minister certainly made more than a contribution—his was a powerful examination of where we stand as a nation and what we need to do against unknown threats and enemies. However, we must get ourselves in the best position. I welcome this debate, and we should have more such debates, but I just wish that more hon. Members would participate in them.

Young Carers

Young carers are children and young people under 18 who help to look after a family member who is disabled or physically or mentally ill, or who has a substance misuse problem. Helping out around the house is a normal part of growing up, but young carers regularly carry out significant or substantial caring tasks and assume a level of responsibility that is inappropriate to their age. Caring can involve physical or emotional care, or taking responsibility for someone’s safety or well-being. Many young carers spend a lot of time doing household chores or looking after younger siblings, in addition to helping a sick or disabled parent with tasks such as administering medication—often without training or support—helping someone to get up and dressed, or helping someone to use the bathroom. Some young carers help parents to look after a disabled sibling.

The last census, in 2001, found 175,000 young carers in the United Kingdom. Of those, 18,000 children, aged between five and 15, provided 20 hours of care or more a week. That is nearly three hours a day. Nearly 9,000 provided at least 50 hours—more than seven hours a day. However, it is generally accepted that there are many unrecorded and unrecognised cases. The culture of secrecy is strong among young carers and their families, and many young carers are invisible to the agencies that are there to help them. Perhaps that is because of fear that if social services become involved the family will be broken up. Local research has suggested that there may be up to 30 young carers in a large secondary school. Government estimates show 250,000 young people living with parental substance misuse, and the latest research by the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children suggests that 4 per cent. of children will be young carers at some point during their childhoods. Fifty-seven per cent. of known young carers are girls and 43 per cent. are boys.

Last year, the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) and I attended the annual young carers festival at Fairthorne manor in Hampshire, and I was approached, after the formal question and answer session, by a group of young girls. They were very challenging. What they said was, basically, “All you politicians ever do is talk, but nothing ever changes for us.” I came away with an even deeper commitment to try to make a difference to their lives. I felt quite ashamed, to be honest.

The types of issues that young carers consistently raise include comments such as the following: it is

“not just the caring that affects you. What really gets you is the worry of it all. Having a parent who is ill and seeing them in such a think about it a lot”;

“If I’d have gone regularly to school I would have done all right. But under the circumstances I’d have felt I couldn’t have gone. It would have just made me feel more guilty that I was going if you know what I mean. I just didn’t want to do that”.

Another comment is:

“I used to run away from school because I always wanted to be with my mum. I used to think that my mum was going to die. I was about eight...they treated me as if I was playing truant.”

Other comments include:

“It is just something I do. It has to be done and there is no one else to do it”;

“She was in hospital in and out going on two years. She couldn’t go to the bathroom on her own, she couldn’t walk. She couldn’t go to bed—she just slept in the chair downstairs. So it was everything really. She couldn’t cook, she couldn’t clean, she couldn’t look after my little brother. She was in a lot of pain, for a long time”.

This is another:

“Mum spends a lot of time alone, so it doesn’t seem right not to keep her company”.

Each young carer has different needs, and so does the person whom they are caring for, but being a young carer has heavy costs, such as being unable to do the sorts of things that other children do; taking on much more responsibility than other children, which sometimes leads to emotional and stress problems and clearly affects school attendance and performance; and even experiencing bullying at school. As one young carer said:

“There are a few young carers at my school and I’m sick to death of people hurling abuse at us. Sure I’m not the coolest or I wear all the latest fashions, but who gives? People think we do nothing at all, and if they were in our shoes, they would scream. So why give us abuse, if we wouldn’t do the same to them?”

I was pleased to be able to raise issues affecting young carers throughout the passage of the Education and Inspections Act 2006, and to have a meeting with the Minister for Schools. I should like to welcome some great improvements: the revised Department for Education and Skills guidance for schools on promoting attendance for vulnerable and at-risk groups, which includes an updated section on young carers, and the draft school transport guidance, which sets out the rights of disabled parents to free school transport to get their children to school. I think that I also wish to welcome the commitment in “Our health, our care, our say” to improving things for young carers, but I look forward to seeing the details.

Something else that is greatly to be welcomed is DFES funding for the young carers initiative at the Children’s Society, which is developing principles of practice for professionals who come into contact with young carers. Funding for many other initiatives and projects that support young carers in a variety of ways is welcome, too, and I hope that the funds will be continued for many successful projects, and not suddenly chopped off.

Nevertheless, there is much more that needs to be done for the particularly vulnerable group of young carers. Research by Barnardo’s showed that on average each young carer had spent four years looking after a relative or parent before they received any support. I would start by requesting that every school had a named young carers lead in line with DFES guidance. I should have liked that to be a duty, as it is in the case of looked-after children. It is very sad that we have not moved further on that point. Most young carers are not known as such by school staff, so being a young carer can be a hidden cause of poor attendance, under-achievement and bullying, and many young carers drop out of school or achieve no qualifications. Poor attendance by a young carer should not be equated with truancy or attract punitive measures. Appropriate support is needed. Teachers are generally not aware of the support services, if any, in their school or the wider community.

There should be a young carers champion in every local authority. Some local authorities include such a role, which allows them to knit together the work of children’s and adults’ services at a strategic and practitioner level. It is vital that every authority mentions young carers in its children and young people’s plans. In his recent report on statutory children and young people’s plans the Children’s Commissioner for England calls young carers

“another much neglected group in the Children and Young People’s Plans”

and goes on to say:

“There is a risk that children affected by the illness or substance misuse of adults who would otherwise be expected to care for them are in danger of falling through the gap between adult and children’s services.”

On this issue I recently asked a parliamentary question, and, indeed, the Minister replied at column 1398W on 19 January. I should be much reassured, I suppose, because we do have a framework for the assessment of children in need and their families, and guidance for fair access to care services, but what is happening on the ground? We cannot afford to be complacent.

In a report called “The state of social care in England 2005-2006”, the Commission for Social Care Inspection said:

“Given the separation of adults’ and children’s services, and our assessment that no more than 20% of councils are taking a wholly strategic approach to carers’ services, it is hard to see how young carers’ issues can be routinely addressed unless there are clear and robust interdepartmental policies and procedures…Care needs to be taken that addressing the needs of disabled parents and young carers does not fall between stools.”

I cannot emphasise that point enough. Some young carers, when asked about assessments, said that social services decided that

“all was well because the young carer seemed to be coping”.

The report quotes one comment that

“because we can cope day to day they say we can manage—but we need help as well”.

I applaud the hon. Lady for securing the debate. She and I have done a lot of work on the subject and I share her shame that more is not being done. Is there not an enormous neglected army of young carers, who are not properly recognised, and whom it is convenient not to recognise, because of the payments that go with that? In addition, is it not true that that lack of recognition extends to health as well as education, and that many of those children are not taken into the confidence of doctors dealing with the disabilities of their parents or other charges, and that they feel excluded? They are doing the job unpaid and without being looked after, and without being included in the process of finding out how to do the job better and look after the parents or loved ones they care for.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his helpful intervention, and I agree that we must pay tribute to that invisible army of young carers for all that they do. We need a joined-up approach in education, health and social care.

I have one particular example. The names have been changed. John’s mum, Jackie, had a stroke and lost mobility. John, 13, was caring for mum, including helping her with intimate care such as using the toilet during the night. The provision of intimate care resulted in a deteriorating parent-child relationship, tiredness and behavioural difficulties in school. It encompassed all three strands: education, social care and health. The intervention needed to prevent John’s excessive caring role was identified as night support for Jackie. However, Jackie did not qualify for night support from adult services in her own right, while children’s services felt that it could not fund night support for an adult. The services debated who should pay while John carried on caring.

I should therefore like every local authority to have a joint working protocol between children’s and adult services, and perhaps to be inspected on their joint working. I should also like a commitment to review the effectiveness of the fair access to care services guidance in ensuring that every adult service asks all its clients, “Are you a parent? How does your condition/disability/etc. affect you as a parent? And how can we support you as a parent?”

It would also be worth while reviewing the fact that 16 and 17-year-old carers, who try to juggle education and caring, lack an entitlement to carer’s benefit. It makes no sense to give them a financial motivation to leave education when the Government are proposing education until age 18. The Government must consider in their new proposals how they will support young carers.

We need a securely funded young carer service in every area. Young carers speak highly of their local young carer groups; they make such a difference to their lives. Many voluntary organisations are involved in the provision of such groups. They include the Princess Royal Trust for Carers, NCH, the children’s charity, the Children’s Society and Barnardo’s.

The challenges that young carers face are beginning to be recognised, but there is still a lack of knowledge on the part of families and of those people in the work force who could offer more support. The principles of practice that the Children’s Society is developing should be included in the training of all relevant professionals. It is vital that front-line staff in education, health and social care are offered consistent training and access to ongoing information to deliver whole-family working and joint working between children’s and adult services. Practitioners must understand the needs of young carers and their families.

I conclude by paying tribute to the enormous amount of good work that is done in many local authority areas by many organisations in the voluntary sector, particularly by the Princess Royal Trust, which has provided me with a great deal of material for today’s debate.

For the past few years, it has not been possible for a Minister to attend the festival about which I spoke earlier. I hope that the Minister present will be able to attend in the summer next year, because young people want to talk to people and they want us to listen, but most of all, they want action to make their lives better.

It is always a pleasure to be in a Chamber under your chairmanship, Mr. Gale. I thank the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) for securing the debate. I should know her constituency by now, as we have had quite a few debates in this Chamber, and indeed in the House.

I am pleased to have the opportunity to discuss young carers with the hon. Lady. Young carers may not always face circumstances as extreme as some other children in need, because they have, by definition, homes and families; however, all Members present recognise that young carers face particular hardship.

The last census suggested that about 150,000 young people in England and Wales are in that position. The work of Chris Dearden and Saul Becker in the field suggests that the average age of young carers is about 12. I know from visits that I have paid to organisations in my constituency that they support carers as young as eight, and in some cases—who knows?—perhaps even younger. Half of young carers deliver care for 11 or more hours a week, and many young carers face extra challenges. More than half live in lone-parent families, and perhaps one in 10 cares for more than one person. Not surprisingly, more than a quarter of secondary school-age carers experience problems with their education. We must be frank: those figures are stark.

I want to be quite clear that, where possible, children should be discouraged from undertaking inappropriate levels of responsibility. The Government want young carers to gain maximum life experiences from educational opportunities, health care and social care. Young carers should not be put under such a great burden in their caring that it has an adverse impact on their development and life chances. However, I accept that it continues to be the reality for many thousands of youngsters every day of the week.

Young carers do not tend to make noisy demands of Governments, local authorities or health services. Many are reluctant even to disclose the extra burden that they carry. Their needs are often entirely overlooked by all service providers in a locality. Young carers do not want to be categorised as victims, nor labelled as vulnerable. They form a group of often mature and thoughtful young people who frequently do what they do by choice, and they may be anxious that their loved ones will not otherwise receive the right level of care.

There is excellent voluntary work in the field, as the hon. Lady highlighted. That includes the young carers initiative. My Department is proud to fund that work, led by the Children’s Society, which does so much to offer information and training to young carers and to their families, and to promote their social inclusion.

The Government continue to play their part through clear guidance on the assessment of children in need. Issued in 2000, the framework for the assessment of children in need and their families was published with accompanying practice guidance. We have made sure that young carers are reflected in guidance on the Carers (Equal Opportunities) Act 2004. The Act arose from an excellent Back-Bench initiative, which the Government were pleased to support.

Local authorities are funded for their responsibilities towards children and towards families in general, and they are also funded through the carers special grant. It will be £185 million in 2007-08, and 20 per cent. of it is earmarked for children’s services, including young carer services, which will involve helping young carers to have a break.

However, the issues that really demand thought do not always concern money or the law, as the hon. Lady said. We must start to organise locally to make a reality of holistic approaches to families, and of outcome-focused and personalised approaches to the needs of children, including young carers.

I have mentioned projects in my constituency. I recently visited the Gloucestershire Young Carers organisation and saw that each young carer who is referred to it receives a home visit to assess their needs, and signposting to the appropriate service. There are 14 young carer groups in my county of Gloucestershire, which as a whole cater for carers between the ages of eight and 18. Several of those groups, such as the ones in Gloucester and Stroud, are split into junior and senior groups. I was particularly impressed to hear about some of the work that those groups do with Connexions services to address the needs of young carers in that age group and to tackle the likelihood of them becoming NEET—not in education, employment or training.

Young carers do not want to be labelled or patronised; they do want to be recognised, listened to, understood and respected. They do not want isolation, or to be seen as “victims”. They want what their peers want: the five key outcomes of “Every Child Matters”, which are to be healthy, stay safe, enjoy and achieve, make a positive contribution and have economic well-being. I know that there are calls for special teachers, school governors, health workers and so forth to have prescribed roles and targets with respect to young carers. I am always interested to hear of best practice in constituencies and local authority areas, and I would be delighted to hear of any that the hon. Lady is aware of in her constituency.

It is precisely because “Every Child Matters” is not just a slogan that we have so often resisted the creation of dedicated bureaucracy and officialdom around many vulnerable groups, including young carers. However, that is not the same as pretending that the needs do not exist, nor is it a recipe for not addressing them. We want a focus on individual children and their outcomes, not labels and deficits.

Our new school reforms will help, and they contain real opportunities to support young carers more effectively. Through personalised learning, teachers will tailor to an unprecedented degree what and how they teach to pupils’ individual needs. There will be tailored support for those who fall behind for whatever reason, and there will be much greater flexibility in learning, both in content and in accessibility. By 2008, all schools should be able to offer e-learning resources, both in and out of school. We are encouraging them also to make a personal online space available to every pupil.

We know the risks to young carers’ educational attainment. We know about the difficulties experienced by young carers at school, from absence and lateness to bullying and behavioural problems, which the hon. Lady has mentioned. It is clear that schools do need a strong awareness of the issues.

A lot of what the Minister has described will bring improvements, but we are not asking for rocket science. For the past few years, children have told us clearly and strongly that they need a teacher in their school who understands their problem and can give them the sort of flexibility that their responsibilities often dictate. I do not think that that is the unduly bureaucratic system that the Minister has warned against. A central recommendation that it would be good practice to have such a teacher in each school, properly trained and informed, would go a long way to assuaging many of the fears of young carers, notwithstanding the other improvements the Minister thinks he can bring about.

I entirely understand the hon. Gentleman’s points and where he is coming from. His is a heartfelt view, but we are not prescribing things from the centre for the reasons I have outlined regarding “Every Child Matters”. The practice is not to focus on particular staff for particular groups of children, but instead to ensure that every child does matter. Nevertheless, the hon. Gentleman makes an important point. It may well be that individual schools or local authorities wish to take a closer look at the matter. There may well be evidence of the practice working in places, and if that is the case, I would always be interested in hearing more and debating the issues with him. It is entirely fair for him to make such heartfelt points, but we have resisted dealing with the matter from the centre for the reasons I have already highlighted.

We must continue to promote awareness of young carers’ needs in other ways—for example, through personal, social and health education, the citizenship curriculum, the standards for qualified teacher status and anti-bullying guidance—so that all schools and teachers are aware of the needs of young carers. Young carers are likely to be present in every secondary school and many primary schools, but we cannot always identify them as individuals and thus offer them direct personal help. Understandably, not everyone is either familiar or comfortable with the issues. There is clearly a case for confidence-building measures, so that young carers know that it will be okay to ask a teacher, or whoever, for help. They need to hear that message from schools, and from local children’s services.

We have to accept that sometimes things can be done better. There is excellent practice going on, but there are times when the system does not work for young carers in the way that it should. We cannot accept, for example, cases in which adult social services visit the disabled parent and ignore or neglect their carer’s personal needs just because he or she is a child. Professionals cannot ignore the first-hand experience and knowledge of a young carer when compiling care plans for the adult.

Will the Minister reassure us that he will give some leadership and guidance to spread the best practice of teachers who are acting very well in schools? Will he do something about the fact that children are falling into a gap at the moment, however many pieces of paper he is pumping out?

That is a slight change of tone. I preferred the hon. Lady’s initial comments in which she did not speak of papers being pushed out, but of effective and worthwhile initiatives, not least the work with the voluntary sector that we have been supporting financially. She mentioned some of the grants that we have made available and the additional funding, not least the £185 million for the carer’s allowance, 20 per cent. of which is going to children. I was about to come on to some of those areas, and I am happy to do so whether or not her tone is slightly more heated than it was.

We must not fail in our duty to tell young carers about their entitlements. These are issues not of legislation or money, but of good practice and guidance, as the hon. Lady rightly said. Sometimes local solutions have to be found, based on individual circumstances. To take one example, we are not going to make special rules that exempt young carers from school attendance regulations, and I do not think that they want to be singled out in that way. However, such issues must be handled sensitively with due regard to individual needs. That will sometimes demand careful work between a young person, a parent, a school, social services and the education service. Sometimes an imaginative and a joined-up approach to the rules is required.

Such things cannot be prescribed from Whitehall, but there are some things that we can do. During the recent passage of the Education and Inspections Bill, which the hon. Lady mentioned, Lord Adonis wrote to peers about a number of actions he envisaged, such as an improved focus on the issues of bullying and attendance. Last October, we published a revised version of the Department’s guidance, “Advice and guidance to Schools and Local Authorities on Managing Behaviour and Attendance: groups of pupils at particular risk”. I know that that is a long title, but it is an effective document that reflects comments from the Princess Royal Trust for Carers. The document contains links to further more detailed information supplied by the trust.

Work is continuing on the revision of our anti-bullying guidance, “Don’t Suffer in Silence”, to include material on how to prevent and tackle the bullying of young carers, among other vulnerable groups. The document will be a web-based resource and will include links to voluntary organisations. It is one of a range of measures that we will be taking—

Water Projects (Nigeria)

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak on water projects in Nigeria. The all-party group on Nigeria, of which I am the chairman, has visited Nigeria twice in the past two years. During our most recent visit, we visited several communities for which the supply of clean water was a challenge. We know from statistics that such communities are far from unusual. According to UNICEF, fewer than half the people of Nigeria have access to safe water and even fewer have access to adequate sanitation.

As in so many other parts of the world, the Department for International Development has stepped in to help provide the most basic of human rights. Our group visited the Wudil water scheme in the northern Nigerian state of Kano to see the work for ourselves. Kano is one of five states where DFID, in partnership with the World Bank and the United States Agency for International Development, is seeking to deepen its engagement with the local state government, to build capacity so that local administrators can better meet the basic needs of the 9 million people in their care. Among the most fundamental of those needs is a supply of clean water. Kano sits on the edge of the Sahara desert. People spend hours walking through scorching sun to fetch dirty water from overused and polluted water sources. The results speak for themselves in indices such as child mortality, which is high even as compared with the high level elsewhere in Nigeria.

It is DFID’s responsibility to oversee the building of the water projects that are required for those people, but it is the job of the local government of Kano to ensure that those projects are properly maintained and regularly checked.

My hon. Friend makes a valid point. It is up to DFID to assist the local government there in providing the water supplies. However, given the experience that we shared on our visit to Nigeria, does he agree that there is a deep level of corruption in local government? That is the fundamental problem there.

My hon. Friend makes a good point. He is the secretary of our group and takes a great interest. I assure him that I will deal with corruption in detail later.

Perhaps more fundamentally, the government of Kano will not be in a position to supply the needs of those people unless it has full ownership and capacity, and an understanding of how to plan, implement and maintain the services by itself. DFID’s entirely practical aim, there as elsewhere, is to make itself redundant by working with the local state government and local people to implement pilot projects, before gradually stepping back from those communities.

An important example of how DFID does its work is in Wudil, which is a semi-urban, semi-rural region of 200,000 people in Kano. Wudil had a water pumping and distribution system in the past, but the legacy of neglect, corruption and skills flight that is sadly so common in Nigeria meant that the system fell into disrepair and decay. DFID stepped in to help local people rehabilitate and run the system, implementing a new management structure that has made the water distribution system more accountable and reactive to local users. The result is a public-community partnership that brings together the Kano state government, the state water board, the four local authorities responsible for the area covered by the scheme and the people of Wudil.

The basic engineering at the pump head has now been completed. I am glad to say that as a result the facility can now pump 10 million litres of water a day, as opposed to the 500,000 litres before the project began. Work is now under way to upgrade the supply piping, so that more of that water reaches the communities that need and so richly deserve it.

In parallel to the physical infrastructure, DFID is also helping to set up the human infrastructure that is needed to ensure the maintenance and smooth running of the water supplies. Community associations are being set up to represent the views of water users. Those associations will ultimately be responsible for both the collection and payment of mutually agreed fees for the water used in those communities. The system allows users at the grass roots full control over and accountability for the money paid and the services delivered. The scheme as a whole will be overseen by the Wudil region water supply association, which brings together elected representatives of the community, local government, traditional rulers and others. The scheme will be subsidised by the Kano state government, which will also pay for further rehabilitation work.

As I have said, the Wudil region water supply programme is just a pilot scheme. Unforeseen problems will inevitably occur, but by working through those it is hoped that the example set will allow other local communities to establish their own schemes. When we visited the Wudil water pumping station and talked to local people, we were made aware of the desperate need for more water provision schemes. There are several separate arrangements for the distribution and maintenance of water in the local regions, which involve all elected representatives from local to national level, including members of Nigeria’s Congress. That might sound puzzling to hon. Members, who would assume that the local elected representative should carry out the job that he or she was democratically elected to do. However, the sad fact is that local people do not feel that they can rely upon or even trust their local elected representatives to manage such tasks without those additional oversight mechanisms.

On the issue of democratically elected politicians, my hon. Friend will be aware of the forthcoming elections in Nigeria, which will make a fundamental difference not only to the way in which people live their lives in Nigeria, but to the western world. Does he have any confidence that the elections will be held and that they will be truly accountable?

My hon. Friend asks an important question. I hope and pray that the answer is: yes, the elections will be held and yes, they will be accountable. However, the sad fact is that although they will be held, they will not have the same accountability that we would expect in this country. It is for that reason that people such as ourselves have a job to do in raising the awareness of our Government and others, in order to help oversee the elections and see that they are as good as they can be.

The system of management adopted is undoubtedly more complex than might have been hoped for, but it is the only way in which local people will feel confident that the fees that they are asked to pay to run the water supply system are not spent foolishly, diverted to unrelated expenditure or even dropped off into somebody’s private bank account, as happens all too often.

Some days after our delegation visited the project in Kano, we visited another community called Iddo Sarki, which is just outside Abuja, the capital. There we saw what can unfortunately happen when the responsibility for water supply is left to the care of the local authority. We were shown several standpipes that had been supplied by the local government. Only two of six standpipes were in use, and even they were not working in anything like an efficient manner. We were told that the newest pumps had lasted for only a few days before breaking and that no one had ever fixed them. We saw that plastic piping similar to that which is used in guttering—very thin and unfit for purpose—had been laid partially below the ground in main thoroughfares. As one would expect, the piping had consequently been broken and become absolutely useless. Again, no one had come to relay or repair the piping.

We asked the people why they had not complained to their elected representatives and when their elected representatives had last visited their community. The villagers told us that they had not seen their elected representatives and that they had not been to the village. In fact, the only time an elected representative was seen or heard from was when there was an election and money was sent to the village to have a party. However, a party is no good to someone with no decent water to wash down the food with, even if they can afford it.

There is a serious problem in Nigerian political life, and a core reason why basic services are not being provided by authorities democratically responsible for communities such as those that we visited. I emphasise that our concerns are about not the original money, but what happens to it afterwards: people skimming off the top and diverting it to their own pockets. People then end up with thin piping—“conduit” as we would call it in this country—totally unfit for maintaining water pressure or, for that matter, having water run through it. The company that gets the job disappears and is never heard of again, a bit like the elected representatives. All that must be stopped. What are the UK Government doing to tackle the all-too-frequent corruption?

Another concern is that local officials lack the motivation to provide the services and local communities lack the sense of empowerment to demand their rights. In the case of water provision, there is a fundamental breakdown in the social contract between officials—both elected and appointed—and the people whom they are supposed to serve. Sadly, that is all too often true of the provision of many other basic services in Nigeria.

The problem of poor access to water, as was pointed out repeatedly at the World Economic Forum just last week, is largely a problem of weak capacity and poor governance. Obviously, that is a highly unsatisfactory state of affairs. Although measures being taken in specific instances by the Department for International Development to recreate a more positive relationship are most welcome, and will contribute towards a renewed sense of empowerment in Wudil, the role that DFID can or even should play in intervening in the fundamental relationship between the people and Government of Nigeria is clearly limited.

What role should the UK play in attempting to support an environment in which that fundamental relationship can become entrenched and improved? Groups such as the all-party group on Nigeria will continue to visit the country and talk to local people about their concerns. The group will revisit the communities that we have seen to find out how things have changed—hopefully, improved—since our previous visit. We will continue to write reports such as the one, soon to be launched, on the findings of our last visit and use them to ask the Nigerian Government what measures they will take to address the concerns expressed to us by the people we meet.

We can also work to ensure that when the elections mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North (Jim Sheridan) take place, as they are scheduled to do in April this year, they do so in a free, fair and transparent manner. What are the Government doing to ensure that they will be free and fair? Lastly, we will continue to support and champion the efforts of DFID and other agencies like it.

However, for now I should like to ask the Minister a few questions. What audit checks are the UK Government carrying out to ensure that projects are completed properly? How do the Government ensure that the right money goes to the right people and is used in the right places? Are regular checks carried out before and after the completion of projects? Given the partnership with the World Bank and the fact that countries other than the UK invest in Nigeria, does the Minister agree that the United Nations should consider establishing investment rules to ensure that money is not embezzled, but used to benefit the people of Nigeria and other countries?

Nigerians should have the opportunity to lift their heads above everyday survival needs and demand the wider accountability that they so sorely deserve. That should be possible in a country so rich in natural resources and human potential. I thank the Minister for his time. I hope that he will take a few minutes to respond to the points raised by me and my hon. Friend.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, North-West (John Robertson) for the opportunity that he has given the House to consider development in Nigeria. I welcome his work and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North (Jim Sheridan) in continuing, through the all-party group, to keep Nigeria in the eye of the House of Commons and particularly that of the Department for International Development.

Let me repeat what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has already made clear: he welcomes and looks forward to the report on which the all-party group is working. He has already written to my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, North-West to say that he would be happy to meet him and other all-party group members to discuss the result of their recent visit and the prospects for DFID’s work in Nigeria.

As my hon. Friend said, the role of development and development agencies in Nigeria is particularly important, given the country’s huge population—140 million people, one in five of sub-Saharan Africans. If Africa and the world in general are to meet the millennium development goals—an aspiration that the whole House shares—Nigeria has to make substantial progress. As a Government, we have a responsibility to help the Nigerians with that. Progress has been made; my hon. Friend gave a number of examples of that, and President Obasanjo and his Government deserve credit for it.

However, my hon. Friend was right to highlight the scale of the development challenge that remains. Nigeria is off-track on most of the millennium development goals. As he made clear, its human development indicators are particularly shocking: one in five children dies before the age of five, and at least 7 million children of primary school age, most of them girls, do not go to school. Despite some recent advances, which we have supported, less than a third of children complete a full course of immunisation.

The root cause of the many challenges that remain in meeting the MDGs in Nigeria is the damage done to Nigeria’s economy, democracy and governance more generally by the years of military rule. The democratic Government, who were elected in 1999, have done much to create a stable environment, in which we hope, for example, that the gains made from the debt relief deal agreed in 2005 can be used extremely well.

We are beginning to see the fruits of the deal: last year, for example, moneys from debt relief helped to train 40,000 new teachers and retrain a further 145,000. My hon. Friend may also be interested to know that some of those debt relief moneys are also being used for investment in water and sanitation, an issue of particular interest to him and the all-party group. For example, money is being spent on bore holes, small earth dams and irrigation schemes in 12 river basin areas, which are tangible examples of the benefits of that debt relief deal for people in Nigeria.

The more stable democratic environment means that we are looking forward to a successful handover of power in May from one civilian President to another, the first time that that has happened in Nigeria’s history. As both my hon. Friends have made clear, that election process will be hugely important. The key to it is for us to see, and Nigerian people to endorse, the reform process that will go forward under whoever is the successful candidate. We need Nigeria to make better use of its own resources to deliver good-quality basic services. As a Government, through DFID, we can try to support that process. However, in the end, that better governance has to come from the Nigerians themselves, and there are encouraging signs.

On that point, does the Minister agree that some of the major oil companies have a shared interest in establishing a fair democratic society in Nigeria? To what extent, if any, does he think the oil companies can play a part in encouraging people to have a democratic, transparent election and creating some stability in the region?

My hon. Friend is right that the private sector, be it multinational oil companies or Nigeria’s own private sector, has a role to play and a responsibility to get involved in encouraging transparency, tackling corruption and promoting good governance. One of the most important ways in which it can do that, given the importance of oil to the Nigerian economy, is by supporting the extractive industries transparency initiative. The EITA process is backed by many Governments and private sector companies, and it is beginning to make a difference in terms of increased transparency, efforts to root out corruption and improvement in the use of auditing arrangements so that civil society can track how money raised through the exploitation of oil, for example, is spent and whether it is used for the purposes of all.

My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, North-West asked how we are supporting the elections. I hope that he will be encouraged to hear that we are working closely with the European Union and the Commonwealth to encourage international observation and to ensure that there is effective voter registration. He may not know that the voter registration process is due to finish today.

We are spending some £7 million to support the elections process. That support has two essential components. Some £4.5 million is going to a consortium of civil society organisations, and we are working with the media and political parties to put in place the necessary conditions for a smooth elections process. The other £2.5 million will help to ensure that the right organisations are in place with the right staff and the appropriate capacity so that the elections can run smoothly. Hence the spending on supporting the voter registration process, and ensuring that women participate in the elections and that there is good domestic monitoring on the ground during the elections.

When some of us were in Nigeria in November, we met the electoral commission. There was a certain amount of dissatisfaction with the registration process. I agree with the Minister that the elections should go ahead, but there are problems. There is no doubt that the commission is very ambitious in what it is trying to do, but I doubt that it properly registered 130 million people, which is roughly the number of Nigerians.

My hon. Friend is right to mention the ambition of the voter registration drive. He may be aware that voter registration was extended for a month to enable officials to catch up, given the slow start to the process. As voter registration is due to finish today, it is a little early to make a judgment on the effectiveness of the process, but I have no doubt that he and other members of the all-party group will want to explore the issue further with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, and I shall alert him to their interest.

My hon. Friends the Members for Glasgow, North-West and for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North discussed corruption, which is a key issue in Nigeria. Because of the concerns about it, we spend 95 per cent. of the money that we allocate for development in Nigeria outside of Government of Nigeria systems. For example, we work with UN and non-governmental organisations.

However, we seek to use our resources, as my hon. Friends made clear that we should, to support Nigerians in their efforts to reform their own systems so that they can bear down on corruption, and we are starting to see some encouraging signs. For example, people are being brought to book for corruption. My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, North-West will know that several governors are on trial or have been convicted and are in prison for corruption. He will know also that the former inspector general of police was convicted earlier this year and is in prison.

My hon. Friend will know, too, that there is good co-operation between the Metropolitan police, DFID and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office on dealing with assets that have been stolen from Nigeria and transferred to the UK. We have already returned some £1 million of assets that were seized from former governors who sent them to the UK. We have managed to give them back, and we will continue to support the Nigerians in that way.

My hon. Friend may also know that a Metropolitan police adviser has been attached to the Nigerian police force for 2006-07 to help with improvements in investigative techniques, as part of a 12-month FCO project that the Government are supporting. He will also know of our close work with the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission and our help in developing its capacity further. He may know of the work that we are doing to support the Nigerian Government’s due process unit in tackling abuse of procurement systems such as there has been in the past. That is not only to ensure that donor money, including that from the UK, is well spent, but to help the Nigerians to make better use of their own resources.

I come to the issue of water, in which my hon. Friend takes a particular interest. He may be aware that we supported a £26 million UNICEF girls’ education project in the six northern states with the greatest disparities between the number of girls and boys in school. In some schools in those states, girls’ attendance rates have increased by some 25 per cent. in just two years. Those girl students re-entering school who have been surveyed said that one of the most important factors in their decision and their family’s decision to send them to school was the project’s installation of improved water sources, which relieved them of the burden of collecting water for their families, and the provision of improved toilet facilities at school.

My hon. Friend is right to say that, despite the success of such projects, we are still a long way from everybody in Nigeria having access to the safe drinking water that they need, so we continue to provide other support as well. For example, a £15 million programme of direct support through UNICEF works in eight states to install water points and to mobilise communities to improve sanitation and practices. An estimated 500,000 people benefit from that work. As it has started to show successful outcomes, we have scaled it up, and the European Community is using the success of that project as the basis for an €80 million programme for rural water supply in six states. The programme is designed to help some 1,400 rural communities and 60 small towns in those states to get access to safe drinking water.

We are going beyond those specific projects. For example, we are working with WaterAid to determine how we can complement its strength in analysis and community mobilisation to support policy reform and strengthen the voice of civil society in the investment plans that the Nigerian Government have for water improvements.

My hon. Friend raised important points about water and sanitation, corruption and the outcome of the elections process. We shall remain closely engaged in working with the Government of Nigeria at federal level, with the states and also with local government to improve the quality of local governance, which, as he said, is ultimately a key to reform. We also want communities to develop their own voice and to argue for improvements with the three tiers of government. We shall continue to work with grass-roots organisations that seek to mobilise communities so that they have more voice in how resources are used.

I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State looks forward to the discussions that he is due to have with my hon. Friend and his colleagues in the all-party group, but I welcome this opportunity to set out briefly some details of how we are addressing the concerns that he raised.

Homelessness (A8 Nationals)

There has been an impassioned national debate about the benefits and burdens of the influx of people from eastern Europe since the EU enlargement of May 2004. Understandably, much of that has focused on the lack of Government preparedness given the unexpectedly large numbers that have arrived, from Poland and Lithuania in particular. The arrival to these shores of hard-working, committed, law-abiding young men and women who are willing and able to contribute to skilled, unskilled and semi-skilled employment in catering, construction, leisure and the hospitality industries, to name but a few, has clearly been a great boost to the United Kingdom’s economy. Indeed, without such an influx, the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s frequent boasts about strong and continuous economic growth would be somewhat muted.

There has also been a darker side to the monumental human tide that has come into our country, and it is those problems that I wish to address. In the run-up to EU enlargement almost three years ago, my local authority, Westminster city council, warned repeatedly of the increased dangers of nationals from the new EU accession countries ending up sleeping rough on the streets and adding to instability as well as fuelling crime and antisocial behaviour.

Around the time of enlargement, the leader of Westminster city council, Sir Simon Milton, wrote to the then Home Secretary to warn him of the risks. In addition, I have submitted parliamentary questions over the past year about those who are described as A8 nationals—for those unaware of that term, it refers to people from the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia; the other two smaller accession countries from 2004, Malta and Cyprus, are not included in the definition.

Naturally, those concerns have been compounded by the recent accession at the beginning of January of Bulgaria and Romania, the A2 nations, which have a total population of 35 million. Even during this month, we have seen evidence of many starting to arrive, although it is harder to track numbers as the coaches often come in via Germany. Last week some A2 families—not simply young men or women who were seeking work—pitched up at Charing Cross police station demanding accommodation. Although it is difficult to gauge exact numbers, five of the six people arrested recently in the Victoria area for persistent begging were from Romania.

Needless to say it is central London—the most cosmopolitan melting pot in the country—that faces the greatest burden to its social services since the arrival of so many A8 nationals. That is particularly acute in relation to Romanians, for whom, unlike for Poles and Lithuanians, there is no significant settled UK community outside London. I should also stress at this juncture that the substantial increased work load has not lain exclusively on the shoulders of our local councils.

Earlier this month I had the opportunity of speaking at great length with Sister Ellen Flynn, the chief executive of The Passage, which is an institution that proudly proclaims that it has helped homeless people since 1980. That charity in Victoria, which is sponsored predominantly by the Roman Catholic Church, has provided for the less fortunate in our society since the 1860s and is situated close to Victoria street, albeit on the other side of the street from the Minister. The Passage works alongside central Government in trying to give a hand-up to those in need with a view to ensuring that the homeless for whom it cares can return rapidly to a self-sufficient life, reliant neither on the state nor charitable giving. It is an organisation that is only a stone’s throw from Westminster cathedral and only a five-minute walk from Victoria coach station, the preferred destination of many from Poland and Lithuania, and it has been under increasing pressure over the past three years. Naturally, neither The Passage, other charities nor Westminster city council are in a position simply to turn away those vulnerable A8 nationals who arrive in the country unable to support themselves.

Westminster city council has furnished the Home Office with a detailed report of the costs incurred in providing vital pastoral care and services. On several occasions, I have written to Home Office Ministers requesting future funding for additional police resources to tackle the increasing crime and antisocial behaviour related to the influx of A8 nationals. Approximately half of the funding needed has been confirmed and granted by the Department for Communities and Local Government, and I understand that at the end of last week the Home Office confirmed in writing that it would match that contribution to cover additional enforcement and repatriation costs incurred at a local level, which I shall describe in more detail later.

Without continued funding at that level, or perhaps even at an enhanced level, Westminster city council will be forced to make cuts in other areas of its work for the indigenous council tax-paying population. Let us remember that those outgoings are not of Westminster council tax payers’ making. To give credit where credit is due, I thank the Minister for the initial financial contribution. However, I have to say that we anticipate a worsening of the situation that I have described with the recent EU expansion and the freedom of movement extended to Romanian and Bulgarian citizens.

We have similar problems in my constituency. I had a meeting last week with Janie Kidston and Ania Majcherek of the Upper Room at St. Saviour’s church on Cobbold road. They deal with 130 homeless A8 nationals a day, serving them meals. We have the Broadway centre, which, I was told, on one day alone dealt with 20 new clients who were A8 nationals. Again, that centre deals with homelessness and those with addiction problems. It certainly seems to me, and I wonder whether my hon. Friend would agree, that the Government are starting to get a grip on the problem but that they need to do a lot more and to wake up to the extent of the problems that we in inner London face.

I endorse every word of my hon. Friend’s comments. I should emphasise that the issue is not merely prevalent in inner London. Although as I mentioned it is inevitable that, as we are the great melting pot of this country, it will be an issue for the local London authorities—not only for Conservative-run authorities, but for those run by the Labour party and the Liberal Democrats as well—it is also a national problem. I ask the Minister to keep a close eye on developments and to take on board many of the concerns expressed by voluntary organisations and local authorities, which are able to watch as such things develop. As I have pointed out, one of our biggest concerns about Romanians is that there is no large settled community, as there is for Poles and Lithuanians, outside London, and we are now seeing families, and not just young men and women who wish to work in London, coming here and throwing themselves on the mercy of our social services.

For almost three years, we have seen up to 2,000 A8 nationals arriving every week at Victoria coach station. Many—the great majority—have friends and relatives in London, and many come with assured accommodation and with employment sorted out. However, a small and sizeable minority arrive without any means of support. Inevitably, many are from the most vulnerable groups and their personal, physical and mental capacity have a tendency quickly to deteriorate. They sleep on the streets, as they have no income; they tend either to beg or steal, and quickly become engaged in alcohol-fuelled assault and violence. They often seek food from the soup runs in large numbers, which also causes a rapid diminution in the quality of life of the local residential community as a result of aspects of their antisocial behaviour.

Let me put that into context. Westminster city council received £297,000 additional funding from the Home Office in 2005—the last full year for which I have figures—to tackle the problems surrounding the arrival of nationals from the original eight accession countries. That money was used to cover repatriation costs for those who wish to return home—a significant minority—to try to allow those who come here to deal with the reality of what survival in the UK is like and to tackle the increase in crime and antisocial behaviour related to the influx. The funding was, of course, for only a single year. Central Government’s failure to fund local authorities properly and promptly—I suspect that Westminster city council is by no means alone in that regard—threatens such initiatives in future.

As the Minister is aware, the law prevents nationals from A8 accession states from accessing benefits provided by local authorities to residents, as well as state benefits such as income support, shelter and drug treatment services. That has exacerbated the likelihood of A8 nationals descending into street life, as they have no other means of support. I know from my own experience that homelessness agencies are swamped, and the feedback that I receive from them shows that the failure of the Department for Work and Pensions to facilitate access to employment services has worsened the plight of those vulnerable people.

An overview of the current situation makes for depressing reading. Towards the end of 2006, a detailed and comprehensive count of rough sleepers in Westminster revealed that nearly one in two were A8 nationals. That demonstrates an alarming trend in the number of A8 nationals living on our streets.

Again, I give credit to the Government for what they have done—in this context, it is only fair. The recent trend contrasts with a reducing trend in the number of other rough sleepers, a decline that is testament to the effectiveness of public and voluntary sector interventions, including the Government’s work on rough sleepers, which paid great dividends in the streets of central London for most of the first nine years of the Labour party’s time in office. Many of the 300-odd rough sleepers counted in 2006 were Polish males, some of whom had been here for many months with little prospect of securing work and no recourse to public funds or social care assistance. The problem is inevitably reduced during winter months—a significant number go home because it is so cold—but those who stay are acutely vulnerable. They need to be looked after properly.

Voluntary homelessness organisations are at breaking point because they have been inundated with requests for assistance and sustenance, leaving them less able to meet the needs of what might be described as their core client group. Many of those organisations have a range of support issues and they do not receive public funds. Sadly, in preparing for the debate I found that many local homelessness agencies have been forced to withdraw services from new arrivals from the accession states whom they deem to be not vulnerable. Given that the majority of arrivals are fit young men, very few qualify for support.

Westminster city council works incredibly hard to tackle the needs of new arrivals, and over the past year, via funding secured from the Home Office under the invest to save scheme, it has managed to prevent nearly 400 A8 nationals from slipping into long-term rough sleeping. That increased funding allowed a secondee from the Department for Work and Pensions to be employed, who assisted more than 100 individuals in securing work. As a result, additional police community support officers were able to assist the existing police team in reducing the antisocial and criminal activities associated with rough sleeping.

The Minister may be aware that, even when it was not my party’s policy, I have always supported the police community support officers initiative. In that regard, they have done a tremendous job. Again, I thank the Home Office for its support. With 2,000 people arriving every week at Victoria coach station, short-term funding was vital in retaining the extra policing staff and interpreters required to manage the influx. However, a long-term solution needs to be found. In the meantime, I simply ask that the burden of looking after the homeless that arrive in this country does not fall so disproportionately on central London council tax payers.

I take the opportunity to express a more general concern about the availability of housing in the capital. Paradoxically, despite the influx of skilled and semi-skilled workers from across the globe, London has the highest unemployment of any region in the UK. The fact of the matter is that many of those in London without a job are simply unemployable. They often have chaotic lifestyles. The great majority of London’s unemployed lack the skills, the aptitude or the application to hold down a job of any description. However, many of them live in scarce council or social housing, where they benefit from security of tenure. As a result, the growing polarisation between rich and poor, which has been a characteristic of central London life for some years, is rapidly becoming an issue throughout the capital, and even beyond the M25.

The London economy cannot cater for those without the skills and application to play a part in a globally competitive workplace. Our scarce social housing needs to be reserved for those working in the public sector or in relatively low-paid private sector jobs who make a contribution to the community at large. Indeed, many nurses, teachers and police officers who work in my constituency cannot afford to live within the boundaries of Greater London. The time is now right to enable central London’s local authorities to offer council tenants, and potentially others in social housing, financial incentives in return for surrendering security of tenure on such scarce housing stock. Only then might London enjoy the balanced communities that will enable those dedicated people who provide such vital day-to-day services to live near where they work.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field) on securing this debate on homelessness among A8 nationals in England, and particularly in his constituency. He and his local council were both keen to raise the subject. As he said, the majority of A8 nationals registered to work in England are doing so. Indeed, Home Office statistics show that 97 per cent. are in full-time employment. That contributes significantly to the UK economy. In general, A8 migrants are young, well educated and often willing to work in lower-skilled jobs. Many perform key tasks in public services, or work on major construction sites or in agriculture or tourism.

The Minister is right about the generality of A8 nationals who are coming here, but many homelessness cases involve older men in their 30s or 40s with a limited knowledge of English. Typically, they come from eastern Poland or rural Lithuania, but they come to Britain under false pretences—not their pretence, but the false advertising and the marketing documents that are sold to them. Not only the young are involved; some of those in real difficulty in my constituency are middle aged.

The hon. Gentleman is right that it is not only the younger and better skilled who face problems. Many have lower skills or, as he said, have poor English or face other challenges. It is important to ensure that we address both problems. We need to respond to the needs that arise, but we must also try to discourage people who are not able to support themselves or take up employment from coming here in the first place. That is our clear policy approach.

I shall continue my response to the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster. Although the overall impact of migration has been positive for Britain, the focus of today’s debate is the small number who have been unable to access employment to support themselves and who therefore find themselves on the streets. Some may find themselves on the streets temporarily and are swiftly able to get back on their feet, perhaps with a good chance of getting a job. Others should not have come here. Perhaps they are too vulnerable or are for other reasons unable to take advantage of job opportunities in the capital and elsewhere in the country. Instead, they may need help to return to their home countries.

The Government welcome nationals of countries within the European economic area, including the 2004 accession countries, who wish to come here to work or study or who are otherwise self-sufficient. As from 1 January 2007, when Bulgaria and Romania joined the EU, the Government decided to limit access to our labour market for nationals of those countries for a transitional period.

Regulations are in place to ensure that EEA nationals cannot come to the UK who have no intention of supporting themselves, nor will they be able to access the local authority housing and homelessness assistance funded by the UK taxpayer. Those who are working or self-employed, and their family members, are eligible to apply for assistance, but proper safeguards are important to ensure that the programme works as intended.

The Department assesses the impact on homelessness services and on housing overall. Last August, research published by Homeless Link evidenced the issues of A8 nationals when using homelessness services. It suggested that, where there is an impact, it is mainly on London homelessness services rather than at a national level. The vast majority of people using homelessness services were able-bodied young men who were fit for work and who might, as I said earlier, be able to access jobs if they were given the right support. It is important to recognise that many people may not start off as vulnerable, but, if they live for long periods on the streets and face very difficult circumstances, they can become vulnerable and get into particularly difficult circumstances over time. That is an issue that agencies need to respond to.

The most recent rough sleeper counts in Westminster suggest that there are around 30 rough sleepers on the streets from the A8 countries. It is important to look at the scale of the issue that we face. It is clear that Westminster faces many of the greatest pressures associated with homelessness, which is why we provided £6.6 million for next year in homelessness grants to deal with the wider issues. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that huge progress has been made in dealing with rough sleeping, preventing homelessness and helping people off the streets and into proper accommodation.

The investment put in alongside homelessness strategies has made a huge difference and the strength of those strategies has been that they focus on the individual causes of homelessness and on individual needs. Rather than adopting a blanket approach, consideration has been given to the particular circumstances of the individual homeless. That is the key to addressing the problems of people from A8 countries who are homeless.

The Homeless Links research is to be welcomed as it provided important evidence regarding the impact on services. My Department has used that research when working with the local authorities in central London most affected by homeless A8 nationals. We have also used it to work across Government. The issues are wider than homelessness and include access to employment advice, which is important. The Department has worked with colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions to look at issues around access to jobcentre services, including Jobcentre Plus facilities. Many people are economic migrants who are looking for work, and help getting them into employment can prevent homelessness.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the invest to save programme set out by the Home Office a few years ago. That provided £257,000 to Westminster city council, spread over a number of years, to implement a package of measures, including working with The Passage, and there was some success in working with that group. Part of that work included supporting people to return to their home country if it was inappropriate for them to provide for themselves or become self-sufficient here.

The Department for Communities and Local Government has given £100,000 in this financial year to continue to support A8s and my ministerial colleagues in the Home Office have just confirmed that they will provide an additional £100,000 for 2007-08. In particular, that will provide interpretation services and dedicated police community support officers to assist and advise vulnerable people from the A8 countries.

We have also announced an additional £140,000 this year to other central London local authorities, including around £20,000 for Hammersmith and Fulham, which was in recognition of the potential impact on homelessness services from A8 nationals. Additional funding this year is, of course, on top of more than £20 million of grant funding from my Department to London boroughs towards the prevention and reduction of homelessness.

A further £8.7 million has gone directly to the voluntary sector in London, in which many people work directly with the street homeless. It is important to recognise that the vast majority of investment that goes into homelessness services is about addressing the needs of those who are most vulnerable and who may have been in the capital for a long time—either long-standing residents or people who have ended up in London after travelling from other parts of the country. The number of A8 nationals who need support is still small in proportion to the number of homeless people being helped across the capital.

On 24 October 2006, the Government announced a package of measures on managing migration to the UK. Last December, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government met local government representatives to explore some issues facing the sector in managing migration. Many towns and cities, including Westminster, are keen to work with us on developing best practice and in taking forward the work of the Improvement and Development Agency and the Audit Commission to ensure that residents can work as part of a programme and address the issues raised by migration.

We know that migration can have a hugely positive impact on local economies, and to provide support for local services it is important to ensure that the issue is handled, addressed and managed in a way that can benefit all the community. The newly launched Commission on Integration and Cohesion will look at how local authorities and community organisations can play a greater role in ensuring that new migrants learn English and contribute to our economy.

The hon. Gentleman raised wider issues around housing pressures in his constituency and across the capital in general. He will know that the Government strongly feel that we face housing pressures—not simply in London, but across the country—as a result of the ageing population and the fact that more people are living alone.

There are a series of reasons for the growth in housing demand, and the impact has been to push up house prices. House building across the country has not kept up with rising housing demand, so it is important that we increase the number of new homes built each year. Nationwide, we need to build around 200,000 new homes a year and we should be building more private, shared ownership and social housing. We need all three types of housing, and that is also the case in London.

The hon. Gentleman raised the particular challenges faced by those on middle incomes or those who are public sector workers. They can find themselves pressurised in high-cost parts of the capital where they earn too much to be eligible for social housing, but simply cannot afford the high house prices. That is why we have supported the expansion of shared ownership.

Local authorities should also look at other measures, such as supporting mobility to other parts of the capital and to other areas. It is also important to recognise that people from every income group have needs and that we should ensure that we are helping those on lower and middle incomes at the same time. We have asked John Hills to look more widely at the long-term approach to social housing to ensure that we have mixed communities. We need to build more homes of all kinds in the capital and across the country to meet housing needs for the future.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at one minute to Two o’clock.