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Commons Chamber

Volume 456: debated on Thursday 1 February 2007

House of Commons

Thursday 1 February 2007

The House met at half-past Ten o’clock

Prayers

[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The Secretary of State was asked—

The hon. Lady must wait until after questions, and then the business statement, and then the statement, so she has time for a cappuccino.

Local Authority Recycling

Recycling and composting of household waste has doubled in the past four years and more than tripled in the past eight years. Government support for, and engagement with, the poorest performing local authorities, as well as progressively lower landfill limits and the escalating landfill tax will all help to drive forward even higher recycling rates.

Impressive as the Secretary of State’s answer is, he will be aware of the considerable discrepancies between the policies of different authorities. Some recycle glass, but others do not; some recycle plastic, but others do not; some fine people if they put their rubbish in the wrong recycling bin, which is not helpful if we wish to encourage more recycling. As the Secretary of State prepares to publish his new waste strategy, what steps will he take to encourage a more uniform performance by local authorities further to increase recycling rates?

I am grateful for the right hon. Gentleman’s recognition of the Government’s impressive record, which was largely achieved before I arrived in the Department. I accept his point that we need to drive up performance across the country, but there are different ways of doing so in different areas to reflect local needs. It is significant that over 90 per cent. of local authorities offer kerb-side collection, and over 80 per cent. collect plastics as well as the more traditional recyclates. In the waste strategy, we will indeed seek to find ways of helping all local authorities to raise their performance. May I point out to the right hon. Gentleman an example of interdepartmental co-operation that he will applaud? In the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill, which has been introduced in the House, the development of joint waste authorities across metropolitan borough lines will help to achieve the consistency that he rightly seeks.

Will the Minister consider, too, the slightly perverse effect of the weight requirement on local authorities, which discourages the recycling of plastic and results in recycled paper being of much poorer quality because of the co-mingling of waste?

My hon. Friend makes an important technical point. As she suggested, there is a tendency, if we are not careful, to discriminate against the collection of high-volume but low-weight plastics. As I suggested earlier, the fact that 80 per cent. of local authorities collect plastics is a step forward, but I assure my hon. Friend that the issue is being looked at. We are keen in the waste strategy to make sure that any disincentives to recycling and collection are minimised.

Is it not the case that recycling rates would improve if more packaging were made of recyclable materials? What steps has the Secretary of State taken to encourage food producers, particularly the large supermarket chains, to adopt a more responsible approach by reducing excess packaging and, importantly, making sure that any necessary packaging is made from materials that can be recycled?

I hope that the hon. Lady agrees that the first priority is to reduce the amount of packaging, rather than to tackle the recycling potential. As for packaging that is required, may I point out that voluntary agreements to achieve an 80 per cent. reduction in packaging have been negotiated in part by my hon. Friend the Minister for Local Environment, Marine and Animal Welfare with some major supermarkets? All supermarkets have to meet the requirements of the packaging directive that we have implemented, but the hon. Lady made an important point about the recycling of packaging. As I recollect, 70 to 80 per cent. of packaging is recyclable, but it is important to drive that up as high as possible. The interest in her constituency knows no bounds, because one of my colleagues tells me that she conducts some of her surgeries in Tesco, and I am sure that she can take the recycling message to her next surgery.

Stockport’s Liberal Democrat council proposes to deliver 52 black bin bags—a year’s supply—to every household in one go, with no restrictions on the number of bags that people are allowed to put out each week. Will that help or hinder recycling efforts in Stockport?

When it comes to local matters in Stockport, I certainly take my hon. Friend’s views about the rights and wrongs of the situation into account, as he is a passionate campaigner for a more environmentally friendly and greener Stockport. From central Government’s point of view, it is important that local authorities pay suitable attention to the particular needs of their own areas, which is why we have not sought to impose a single Stalinist model for recycling and collection on the country. It is right that local authorities innovate, but they should do so in a sensible way, not a silly way.

Over the past year the Government have announced welcome plans to do more, at last, to promote recycling of school waste, but how will they judge the effectiveness of any of those initiatives if, according to the written answer given to me by the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills, the hon. Member for Gloucester (Mr. Dhanda),

“Central Government have not set any specific recycling targets for schools. There are targets for local authority recycling of household waste which does not include waste from schools. We do not know how much school waste has been recycled in the last 10 years”—[Official Report, 25 July 2006; Vol. 449, c. 1461W.]?

New schemes are great, but where is the visible follow-through, where is the rigour of reporting progress, and where is the accountability?

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. I applaud the hon. Gentleman’s concern to boost recycling rates, and I am sure he will be as pleased as I am that local authorities have been reminded recently that they have a duty to collect recyclates from schools, which has not always happened. As my hon. Friend suggested, one person’s rigour in reporting, which I think was the phrase that the hon. Gentleman used, is another person’s bureaucracy and form-filling. I am sure the hon. Gentleman would not want me to announce that I was sending a form to every school in the country asking it to weigh the amount of waste recycled. We will know success when we achieve more recycling by local authority levels. The percentages that I gave in answer to the right hon. Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack) are the sort of outcome that the hon. Gentleman should support, rather than denigrate.

Domestic Waste

The export of waste for recycling is not bad in itself because it reduces the amount of virgin materials used by the importing country and is often carried in ships that would otherwise sail empty. However, we are working to expand markets for recyclates in this country and to reduce our reliance on exports.

My hon. Friend will be aware of recent reports about the 200,000 tonnes of plastic that have been exported to China. Does he share my concern about the effect that that will have on local people there? What can he do to ensure that they are protected, and that we as a nation deal with our own waste and dispose of it ourselves?

It is a matter for the Chinese Government to ensure that proper consideration is given to the working conditions to which my hon. Friend refers. We ensure, as far as we can, compliance with international rules. It is not in the interests of China to import recyclable materials only to see them put into landfill. As I said in response to his initial question, it is better, particularly in overall climate change terms, that China, India and other emerging and growing economies make products from recyclable materials that we produce, rather than cutting down trees or using virgin oil to make those products.

But is it not a fact that we import an enormous amount of goods from China? I recall the container coming to the UK before Christmas laden with goods for us to buy as presents. Would it not be a good rule, therefore, for us to return all the packaging around those imported goods, so that the producers think twice about the amount of packaging that they use for goods exported to the United Kingdom?

As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State told the House, a number of initiatives and measures have been introduced, not least by retailers, to address the problems of excess packaging. What the hon. Gentleman suggests does happen. A significant proportion of plastic, paper and card packaging which comes from overseas is re-exported as recyclable material, as I said earlier, obviating the need to make new products from virgin materials, which can only be a good thing.

Single Payment Scheme

3. If he will publish payments made under the common agricultural policy single payment scheme by constituency. (117812)

Detailed analysis of all the payments made under the 2005 single payment scheme is not yet available. Once the remaining 2005 scheme payments have been completed, a decision will be taken on the level of detail that will be published.

Some £16 billion is paid every year to farmers and growers under the single payment scheme—[Interruption.]—£16 billion. In the interests of accountability and transparency, is it not time to identify payments at least by constituency?

Many farmers would like £16 billion to be distributed under the single payment scheme, but the figure may be one tenth of that. My hon. Friend raises an important point. He asked a similar question a year ago. He has rightly been saying that information should be available about the amount paid under the single payment scheme. As he knows, for the period up to 2005, we published regularly the payments to individual farmers. That is entirely reasonable. Our first priority, obviously, is to make sure that the payments are correct. Once we are sure that they are correct—[Interruption.] I made the point myself. I ask hon. Members to humour me for a moment. It is our first responsibility to make the payments correctly, but once they have been made, it is important that the information is in the public domain, and I should like that level of openness to continue under the new system.

The Secretary of State would therefore agree that if any figures were to be meaningful, he would have to be certain that the money was paid to the farmers who were entitled to payments in respect of the land which so entitled them in the year for which they were eligible and in respect of a product that they grew. Since none of those conditions is yet in place, it would be entirely fatuous to attempt to publish anything, but when they are in place, we would welcome their publication.

I have enormous respect for the right hon. Gentleman, but he could not have been listening to my last answer, in which I said that our first duty was to ensure that the correct payments were made and that we should then publish the information.

It would be helpful to members of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, on which I sit, and to other Members to have information of the kind suggested in the question. Could we not go further in respect of the largest decile of payments and publish the individual payments made to the very rich agro-industrial complexes that receive so much agricultural support?

I am sorry if the situation is not clear; perhaps I should have made it clearer. Under the system that was introduced by my predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Derby, South (Margaret Beckett), individual payments are published. My hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Martin Linton) asked about payments by constituency. We have not done that so far, not least because several farms, large and small, cross constituency boundaries. We do not want to create additional bureaucracy. However, the degree of openness suggested in the original question is important, and I know that my hon. Friend and his Select Committee share that view.

The Government’s preferred method of agricultural support is through the rural development programme and pillar 2 payments, yet the Department has failed to publish the English rural development programme for this year. As a result, new agri-environment schemes and local food processing payments are not being made. Is the Secretary of State content with that situation, and how long will it continue?

The hon. Gentleman has a conspiracy theory too far if he believes that it is the Government’s fault that the European Parliament, at the behest of the Conservatives, should have blocked the development of the rural development programme; that the European Commission’s plans should be stuck in the European Parliament, with the support of the official Opposition; and that the European Parliament should now be saying that 20 per cent. of the funds due to farming communities and rural areas should be blocked, again with the support of the Conservatives. That is not the Government’s fault but something that we are trying to resolve, and we could do with a bit of help from Opposition Members.

As the hon. Gentleman may know, the European rules are based on the percentage of the fund disbursed rather than the percentage of farmers who are paid. As I made clear in my statement in November, our aim is to meet the European Union requirement that 96.14 per cent. of UK funds are disbursed by 30 June. I am pleased to say that we are working hard with the Rural Payments Agency to deliver that. As I have said before, I will always keep the House informed on progress.

In his statement on the single payments scheme on 7 November, the Secretary of State told the House that a mere 1,700 farmers were still awaiting their final payments for 2005. Did he know at the time that in fact up to 20,000 cases remain unresolved? If he did know, why did not he tell the House, and if he did not know, why not? Why did it take an investigation by the Yorkshire Post to extract the truth about the scale of the continuing mess at the Rural Payments Agency? So much for his talk of openness. Is not this just the same old sleight of hand and spin? Is this the way to restore the confidence of the rural communities, and why should they believe a word he says any more?

It is very important that I answer this charge absolutely directly. The hon. Gentleman has rushed into print to accuse the Government of covering up information that he says was only exposed by the Yorkshire Post—a fine and wonderful newspaper, I should like to underline.

The hon. Gentleman’s allegation is that throughout the autumn the Government conspired to keep from the public and Members of the House the fact that the Rural Payments Agency, having made payments to farmers, was then open to farmers coming back and asking for corrections. I have with me a press release dated 6 September 2006—fully three to four months before the hon. Gentleman woke up to this story—the second sentence of which states:

“Around 19,000 SPS claims together with 7,700 claims with horticultural authorisations are being reviewed to verify whether adjustments are required.”

Some cover-up! That is a press release put on to the internet by the Rural Payments Agency. I suggest that the hon. Gentleman improves his research before he starts making allegations.

Fisheries

4. What percentage of the population of (a) cod, (b) sole and (c) plaice are expected to be removed from UK seas per year under new quotas. (117813)

It is not possible to provide a figure for UK seas because fish move around. Quotas are set for stocks in general and UK fishermen fish outside UK waters in the same way as fishermen from other member states fish inside UK waters. However, approximate estimates of the agreements reached on the stocks that the hon. Gentleman refers to would amount to removal of between 10 per cent. and 60 per cent., depending on the state of the stock. Of those stocks, the UK’s share of the total allowable catch ranges from 4 per cent. for North sea sole to 61 per cent. for west of Scotland plaice.

I am grateful for the Minister’s answer, particularly for his great perception that fish move around. I am also grateful for the advice that I have received from Mr. McDermott, who runs the excellent McDermott fish and chip shops, which have won many awards. Speaking as an urban Member, it is important for me to ask questions about fishing policy, though it is very often Members representing ports who ask such questions. Is not 60 per cent. a devastating take? Would we not do better to follow the example of the Norwegians, who manage their Arctic cod stock in the Barents sea in co-operation with the EU and Russia? By having that sense of possession over our own seas while being co-operative with the EU, we could secure more effective management of our fish stock.

I hate to inform the hon. Gentleman, but his Front Benchers have abandoned the policy of unilateral withdrawal from the common fisheries policy. I am told today by Dundee’s The Courier that the Conservative Scottish fisheries spokesman, Ted Brocklebank, is so outraged that he is planning his resignation. I suggest that the hon. Gentleman has a word with his Front Benchers.

My hon. Friend will be aware of the impact of the burning of fossil fuels on the state of the ocean, on commercial fisheries and on quotas, so would he recommend that the hon. Member for Croydon, Central (Mr. Pelling) visit the exhibition on oceans and climate change, which is displayed in the Upper Waiting Room? Other hon. Members should also pay a visit—if they have not already done so—while it is on this week to observe the scale of the problem and, indeed, to see some of the very exciting solutions ventured by the Plymouth marine science partnership, which is conducting the exhibition.

Yes, I certainly would recommend that all hon. Members visit the exhibition that is sponsored by my hon. Friend. I understand that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is going there at 11.30 this morning. My hon. Friend and the exhibition make very important points about the connection between the health of the marine environment and climate change. Our seas play a crucial role in absorbing CO2 and there is a danger that increasing acidification of the seas will help tip the balance even more severely towards global warming. Some fantastic technological solutions are being developed in my hon. Friend’s Plymouth constituency, which will not only help to mitigate that, but provide solutions to promote absorption of CO2 in the future.

Does the Minister believe that there is a future for a fishing fleet catching whitefish in the United Kingdom? I ask that because the Minister with responsibility for fishing in Northern Ireland refused to give the tie-up aid for the Northern Ireland whitefish fleet. That will mean the decimation, the destruction and disappearance of our whitefish fleet. Is that policy the same throughout the UK?

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman has noted the comments of the representative of the Northern Ireland fishing industry after the December Council. He was full of praise for the agreement that was reached, not least because we managed to achieve a 17 per cent. increase in the quota for prawns for Northern Ireland fishermen. Prawns are their most important economic stock.

Of course there is a future for the whitefish fleet throughout the United Kingdom as long as we ensure that we do not overfish and exploit stocks unsustainably. The hon. Gentleman may have read in the Northern Ireland press this week, if the news was reproduced there, that the Government in the Irish Republic are planning a massive decommissioning scheme for their whitefish fleet in recognition of the problem that I outlined: in the past, our fishing fleet has not always been the right size for exploiting the stock.

Community Land Trusts

5. What plans he has to assess the use of community land trusts to underpin county council smallholdings. (117814)

The Government have always encouraged authorities to maintain county council smallholdings, and I am aware of the good work of organisations such as the community land trust at Fordhill farm and Stroud Community Agriculture in my hon. Friend’s constituency in supporting smaller agricultural holdings. The management of county council smallholdings is ultimately a matter for individual authorities to determine.

I thank my hon. Friend for his answer and for responding to the Adjournment debate a few weeks ago on the same topic. Like me, he perceives the value of county farm estates. However, will he continue to examine ways in which we can secure the future of those county farm estates? They are continually under review, which can sometimes lead to their sale. We must therefore consider solutions such as community land trusts. I hope that my hon. Friend and his officials will continue to investigate the matter.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his work on the matter over many years. He may be interested to know about community finance solutions—an initiative by Salford university, which is undertaking a national demonstration programme that will partly support several community land trusts in their work and help local people establish them when necessary. I hope that that may form part of the solution that he seeks. I am aware that Gloucester county council is examining the matter on a case-by-case basis as the portfolio comes up for renewal to determine what it will do. That process has gone on for a long time and must be left to local decision makers. However, we should all be interested in the model of community land trusts for the future of farming.

I am sure that the Under-Secretary joins me in acknowledging the role that county council estates play. In the event of selling county council smallholdings, will he examine the rights of sitting tenants, especially those of their sons and daughters, so that their future in farming is not overlooked?

I acknowledge the hon. Lady’s point. Sometimes tenancies are held in a family for generations but suddenly come to an end as the land is disposed of. She is right to highlight the matter as requiring closer attention. We believe that tenancies give farmers the flexibility that they need to adopt new practices. They also provide an effective way into farming for people who could not otherwise farm. Indeed, their origin is in encouraging people to farm who did not have the land and the means to do it. In one sense, when generations have continued on the same smallholding, it is the equivalent of bed blocking. However, we must acknowledge that the matter is a genuine concern for many families and we should enable the next generation to continue in farming.

Environmental Liability Directive

6. Whether he plans to make special provisions for sites of special scientific interest when implementing the environmental liability directive. (117815)

According to GeneWatch UK, 11 sites of special scientific interest in my constituency are at risk of genetic and toxic pollution, including one site near Eashing farm in Godalming, where there are plans for a quarry, despite the deep reservations of many of my constituents. Will the Under-Secretary ensure that the directive is implemented in a way that gives proper protection to wildlife? That is one of my constituents’ biggest concerns about the often unpopular quarries.

I understand the force not only of the hon. Gentleman’s specific point about sites of special scientific interest in his constituency but of the wider issue. The arguments in favour of a wider and of a narrower interpretation of the directive are finely balanced. In line with Hampton, Arculus and all our principles of better regulation, we should not over-implement EU directives in this country. [Interruption.] I am glad to hear support from the Conservative Front Bench on that. Equally, we wish to ensure that we meet our biodiversity target of restoring 95 per cent. of SSSIs to a favourable condition by the end of 2010. The consultation is a genuine opportunity for the hon. Gentleman and others in the Chamber to present evidence in support of the case for gold-plating, in this instance, if that is what they wish.

GeneWatch UK’s campaign to press the Government to extend the directive to all SSSIs and all biodiversity action plan species is supported by many Members of the House. Will my hon. Friend address that argument when he responds to the consultation taking place on the implementation of the directive?

Yes, the whole consultation is about that. Approximately 75 per cent. of SSSIs overlap—by area, not by number—with Natura 2000 sites and would therefore have some protection under the directive. I take my hon. Friend’s point that she wishes that to be applied to the protected species and habitats that we designate under SSSIs in this country. Strict liability, which the directive proposes, is a test that should be used sparingly. On the whole, the Government consider that when a person has sought and obtained a permit for some activity, or when the actions were clearly in compliance with the best scientific practice and information available, it is wrong to hold that person accountable should damage result. When damage was intentional or reckless, however, we already have powers under the SSSI regulations to take action to remediate and to prosecute the perpetrators.

I am concerned that the route being pursued by the Government may exclude three important SSSIs in my constituency, Mapledurwell fen, Pamber forest and Silchester common, all of which are highly valued by local residents. It has been useful to hear the Minister’s comments, but will he specifically consider cases put forward for protection? Mapledurwell fen in particular has been cited by botanists as the “richest half acre” of Hampshire, and I believe that it deserves more attention.

I am pleased to give the hon. Lady the assurance that she seeks: we will be considering the issue in relation to SSSIs. I want to correct one misapprehension under which she may be labouring. The greatest threat to SSSIs comes not from the sort of damage that it is envisaged that the directive would counter and remediate, but from inappropriate management, over-grazing and heather-burning of moorland. When the proposal as to how the Government should treat the issue first came forward, the regulatory impact assessment showed that the cost to small farming businesses might be 5 per cent. of average turnover. Although the costs are small nationally, as a proportion of small farm holdings’ turnover they are high. The Government had to come to a resolution on that fine balance when we put forward our interim position in the consultation. We have a position on our preferred status, but it is subject to consultation. A cost of £30,000, however, is a lot to a small farmer.

I am pleased that the Minister is clearly thinking hard about the issue and I hope that he will continue to do so because he may avoid the Government scoring yet another environmental own goal.

There is a real danger that the Government will squander an opportunity to enhance ecological protection. By excluding a large number of SSSIs and species listed under the biodiversity action plan, they are in danger of sending out a message that those do not matter very much. More specifically, as the Minister should know, the science of genetically modified crops is still being debated and the commercial and environmental dangers posed by the risk of cross-contamination are a matter of serious public concern. Will he therefore follow the example of the Welsh Assembly and remove the permit defence against strict liability in the case of contamination by GM?

The hon. Gentleman knows that we are consulting on that. I take positively his remarks about it being given serious consideration, which is what we wish to do. He will accept that devolved assemblies have the right to come to different conclusions. The different situations in England and Wales in terms of progress towards our biodiversity targets—in particular, towards their favourable and improving status in our SSSIs—mean that in Wales the traffic lights are showing red whereas in England they are showing amber-green, as he will know. There is a relevant difference, and it is appropriate that in different jurisdictions we consider the directive, the impact that it may make and the gold-plating that may result from it.

Fish Quotas

7. What discussions he has had with fishermen's organisations on quota levels for (a) larger boats and (b) smaller, inshore boats. (117817)

Ministers and officials meet fishermen’s representatives regularly to discuss quota levels. The Prime Minister recently met a delegation led by my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Michael Jabez Foster) to discuss the quota allocation between the fleet sectors.

Is there any unused sole quota in the over-10 m sector? If so, could that quota be transferred to help the small boat inshore sector, which could use it without damaging the stocks? Do we need a little more flexibility in the way in which we manage our national fish quotas?

We do use that flexibility and my officials work hard to organise the swaps that the hon. Gentleman advocates. I shall certainly consider his suggestion. My understanding is that there is a possibility that this year the quota may be under-fished in the over-10 m sector, in which case that might allow for some swapping. However, in previous years the allocation has been over-fished in both the under-10 m and over-10 m sectors. It is difficult to devise a system that could be made permanent without upsetting either sector. However, we try to be as flexible and helpful as we can be in instances when quota is not fully fished to benefit those who want to fish a little more.

What discussions has my hon. Friend had with representatives of the fishermen of Young’s prawns who this week chose to harvest their quota of prawns, ship them to Thailand to be peeled by cheap labour only for them to be shipped back again to be sold as Scottish prawns in the UK market? What pressure does he think could be brought to bear on companies that choose such environmentally unsustainable business models?

The pressure is being brought to bear on such companies not least by my hon. Friend in making that point in the Chamber. The case he refers to involves, I think, a Scottish company. If my recollection is correct, I am pretty sure that my Scottish colleague, Ross Finnie, expressed similar concerns about the sustainability of that activity when it first arose in the latter part of last year, as did the First Minister in Scotland, Jack McConnell.

The cod recovery plan can have an impact on fishermen’s quotas. What is the future of the plan and when will it next be reviewed?

Like the Minister, it is entertaining to observe, as it dawns on some political parties, that although fish may not be that bright, at least we know that they are just about intelligent enough not to have hang-ups about their nationality.

What are the Government doing to make a strong case for extending the work of the sea fisheries committees to 12 miles? We have discussed this before and I know that the Government are keen to achieve that. It would be useful to have an update.

As I have told the hon. Gentleman during our discussions, we are keen to explore the issue in the context of the general review of the common fisheries policy, which I believe is due in 2012. That does not mean that we cannot in the meantime make applications to the Commission for the extension of certain competences in agreement with the sea fisheries committees, but the arrangement would obviously have to be agreed at Commission level. Where there is potential for interference in the activity of other member states’ vessels fishing legitimately between 6 and 12 miles offshore, difficulties could be caused, but, as I have said, we are keen to explore the issue.

Is it the case that the Department has miscalculated the under-10 m quota, and that the Minister does not have the flexibility that he mentioned owing to the Government’s implementation of fixed-quota allocations for the over-10 m vessels? While he is apologising for those mistakes, will he also apologise for failing to encourage more English, Irish and Welsh representation on the board of Seafish?

Energy Consumption

8. What incentives he plans for energy companies to encourage them to help their customers reduce energy consumption in their homes. (117818)

The Government launched the energy efficiency commitment in 2002. It obliges gas and electricity suppliers to promote household energy efficiency, and is a key driver of reduction in energy consumption in homes. We doubled suppliers' targets after the first phase of the commitment, and they will rise by another 50 per cent. to 100 per cent. from 2008. We will maintain a supplier obligation in some form until at least 2020.

When I look at my electricity bill I see that for the first 197 units I pay about 15p a unit, and for the remainder I pay about 9p a unit. The initial amount of electricity that I use is the most expensive, and the more I use the cheaper it becomes. The standing charge has the same effect. Is that not completely the wrong incentive? Low energy use is being penalised by the tariff structure, while high energy use is being encouraged. Will my hon. Friend take up the matter with the energy companies? If we can encourage low energy use through the billing structure, we can also help to reduce fuel poverty.

My hon. Friend makes a good point. The Government are keen to encourage better billing and better information, and we need to look at tariffs as well.

My hon. Friend, who is a long-standing campaigner on these issues, will know that in the 2005 energy efficiency innovation review we mentioned the possibility of considering, after phase 3 of the energy efficiency commitment, setting a target for the reduction of absolute energy demand. We think that that is a model well worth exploring, and we shall be discussing it over the next few years to establish whether it would be feasible after 2011.

Does the Minister agree that the present cost of installing solar panels or wind turbines is prohibitive for many householders who are unlikely to see a payback on their investment? Has he made any representations recently to the Treasury, which today introduced a new air passenger duty without the authority of the House—a so-called green tax, but with no green benefits?

Will my hon. Friend consider encouraging commercial energy supplies to provide packages of energy measures, including both energy efficiency measures and the installation of local energy systems, as recommended in the excellent Trade and Industry report published last week? Will he take account of the barriers to the installation of such systems to which the report refers?

My hon. Friend is right to mention the Select Committee’s impressive report. We shall want to give full consideration to the views expressed in it.

I have great sympathy with what my hon. Friend has said about energy packages. We need to see developments in that regard, and we also need to see more work involving energy service companies. In his pre-Budget report, the Chancellor announced that there would be more work of that kind. I think that decentralised energy systems offer significant additional potential for a reduction in both energy bills and carbon dioxide emissions, and the Government are keen to achieve both.

The average January temperature in Sweden is 7° below ours in the UK, but carbon emissions from Swedish homes are just 5 per cent. of their total whereas they are 27 per cent. of ours. Given that three quarters of the homes that we will be living in in 2050 have already been built, does the Minister accept that we need to be far more ambitious in addressing the energy efficiency of the existing housing stock than we have been so far, and how does he intend to ensure that a holistic approach is taken where the entire home, including the boiler, the windows and underfloor insulation, is tackled, rather than one that simply cherry-picks cavity wall insulation or loft insulation, as appears to be the case under the energy efficiency commitment—

It is true that at present under the energy efficiency commitment priority has been given to cavity and loft insulation. Those are the least-cost solutions. However, it is also right to point out that cavity wall and loft insulation are among the best steps that can be taken to improve the thermal efficiency of people’s homes. As the energy efficiency commitment develops further, and as we consider some of the suggestions of my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Mr. Blizzard), we will need to look at adopting additional energy packages and microgeneration measures in addition to standard energy efficiency commitment tools. All such measures are being actively considered as part of the EEC—energy efficiency commitment—consultation for phase 3.

Has the Minister seen the film on climate change produced by former Vice-President Al Gore? As he considers new proposals for the next phase of the energy efficiency commitment, would it not be a superb idea to send a DVD of the film to every household in the country, and could he discuss that with some of our energy suppliers?

I do not know whether it would be appropriate to send a DVD to every household, but that is an excellent and compelling film and it is available on DVD at a reasonable price. There might, however, be a case for sending a DVD of it to every secondary school; I think we should consider doing that. I want to point out the impact that the energy efficiency commitment is already having. About 10 million homes in Britain—6 million of them on low incomes—have already benefited from the energy efficiency commitment. As we are doubling the EEC and are looking to double it again, more homes will become more energy efficient. That is a good thing, and it will help us to achieve our carbon targets.

Given the Secretary of State’s sorry admission yesterday that the Government will not meet their manifesto commitments on greenhouse gas reductions given in 1997, 2001 and 2005, is it not perverse that they have now set their face against empowering local authorities to do better by setting higher domestic energy efficiency standards both in the weak draft planning guidance on climate change and by killing the Local Planning Authorities (Energy and Energy Efficiency) Bill in this House last Friday? Was that destructive and unambitious approach—

The hon. Gentleman is simply wrong. We are on target in respect of reducing greenhouse gas emissions; in fact, we are on target to achieve a 23 per cent. to 25 per cent. reduction in greenhouse gas emissions compared with 1990 levels. That is double the commitment that we had under Kyoto. We are one of the very few countries in the world—if not the only one—that is on track to achieve that. We will be able to achieve that because of the measures that have been taken, including the climate change levy, the climate change agreements and the whole climate change programme review, most of which were opposed by the Opposition.

Biodiversity

9. What discussions he has had with representatives of the Wildlife Trusts on the contribution of management of the landscape to promoting biodiversity. (117819)

On 31 October 2006, I met the chief executive of the Wildlife Trusts together with the chief executive and volunteers of the London Wildlife Trust at Camley street natural park, where I saw at first hand the valuable contribution of the Wildlife Trusts and congratulated them on their work and their contribution to the delivery of the England biodiversity strategy and the UK biodiversity action plan.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that answer. Is he confident that his Department’s biodiversity targets will be met, and how is he monitoring them?

On the target to achieve 95 per cent. favourable status for SSSIs by 2010, if my hon. Friend looks at the figures, he will find that this year, 73.5 per cent. are in either a favourable or recovering condition. That compares with a figure of 56.9 per cent. in March 2003, so he can see that considerable progress is being made. We are roughly on target, and we believe that we should still meet the target to restore SSSIs to a favourable condition by 2010.

When the Minister was in Derbyshire on Tuesday, did he take the opportunity to meet the Derbyshire Wildlife Trust? Had he done so, it would have explained to him its concerns about the recent incident at Stony Middleton, which I know he visited, and the quarrying that is taking place at Wager’s Flat, on Longstone Edge. Can he reassure the trust that the Government will take action to prevent this destruction of the countryside?

The right hon. Gentleman expresses his concern about the occurrence at Stony Middleton, where the lagoon gave way. Thankfully, on that occasion there was no loss of life and no one was injured, but it could so easily have been very different. He is absolutely right to say that, when I was in the area the other day and what had happened was made clear to me, I took the opportunity to visit Stony Middleton and to speak to a number of local residents. Unfortunately, I did not have time, in what was an extremely packed schedule, to meet members of the Derbyshire Wildlife Trust. However, I did, as I say, meet many local residents—as well as the park authority—who expressed clearly to me their concerns about what is going on at Backdale quarry and on Longstone Edge as a whole. I gave them my absolute assurance that, although this is in the first instance a local planning matter, we appreciate that it has real national implications. I explained to them that we wish to see a long-term solution to the problems that they are going through, but one that can be applied nationally.

The Wildlife Trusts recently published the excellent “A Living Landscape” booklet, which highlights the need to help wildlife adapt to climate change. When my hon. Friend met the Wildlife Trusts, did he discuss the specific measures needed to help UK wildlife adapt to the climate change that is already occurring, and which will get worse in future?

Yes, and in fact, about three months ago—on 2 November, I think—we held a meeting of the England Biodiversity Group, of which the Wildlife Trusts is a member. It attended that meeting, and the group is looking at how we can improve and refresh the strategy. It is a considerable time since the biodiversity action plans were put in place, and we have committed ourselves to refreshing them. The strategy now rightly places considerable emphasis on large-scale habitat restoration at an eco-system and landscape level. The document that my hon. Friend mentions makes the approach clear:

“we have been slowing the decline in biodiversity by protecting small oases of wildlife…Now, in the face of climate change, it is essential that we link these oases and restore our ecosystems”.

That is certainly the approach that we must take.

Supermarkets

10. What assessment he has made of the potential implications for farmers of the latest report by the Competition Commission on the power of supermarkets; and if he will make a statement. (117820)

The commission has set out its emerging thinking on its inquiry into the groceries market, including an initial assessment of the impact of retailer buyer power on primary producers. No conclusions have been reached so far.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that response. Was he as disturbed as I was to read the letter that the commission sent to all Members of Parliament? It said that the commission recognised that some farmers are experiencing difficulties,

“but there are fewer of these than we had expected.”

Will the Secretary of State tell the commission that in fact, a lot of farmers, especially milk producers, are really struggling? Far be it from me to advocate a return to production subsidies—I certainly do not—but one problem is that, since the ending of that system, the supermarkets have got away with pressing down the price of milk at the farm gate, which has caused milk producers considerable hardship. Will the Secretary of State have a word with the commission about that?

I really am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for asking that question and I hope that through my answer I can make a point to all hon. Members, including Opposition Front Benchers. Many hon. Members are concerned about this issue. The purpose of the Competition Commission’s letter was to signal that it has had very few—only about six or seven—specific examples to investigate and consider. It is appealing—and I join in that appeal and I hope that we can spread it around the country—for farmers with experience to get in touch with it. The obvious riposte is whether there is any danger in being open about those experiences, but the Competition Commission has given absolute assurances to me and others that any request for confidentiality will be completely respected.

It is obvious that farmers may have inhibitions about engaging in this process, but I hope that hon. Members will join me in assuring them that we have had strong assurances from the Competition Commission. If it is to investigate the issue properly, it needs more than the six or seven cases that it has so far been given. If we can get the message out that substantive evidence needs to be given to the commission—

I wrote to my local branch of the National Farmers Union and spoke with it early in January. Single payments are being eroded in many cases because those farmers that are involved in milk production have seen all those losses being swallowed up. I appreciate that little evidence has been offered so far, but what more can the Government do to assist farmers in making their case about unfair competition?

I applaud my hon. Friend’s initiative in contacting the NFU and suggesting that it provides information. I have two points to make to him. First, he will know that under the agriculture development scheme DEFRA has spent £1.3 million on trying to spread good practice in the dairy sector to promote innovation and ensure that as many dairy farmers as possible were able to follow the example of the best in the sector, who are making a real go of it.

Secondly, I repeat the point that I made in answer to the original question: without substantive evidence, the Competition Commission cannot investigate the issue. That has to be the focus now if we are to obtain the benefits of the independent commission that we have at our service.

That is fine, but if the Secretary of State truly shares the concerns articulated by my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson), will he invite in the heads of the supermarkets and tell them of the Government’s acute concern on that front?

The hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski), who chairs the all-party parliamentary group on the dairy industry, knows that when I met him before Christmas I told him that I had already met the supermarkets and made these points to them. I have also met individual supermarkets, because it is important to point out—as the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson) said when he asked the original question—that we do not wish to give the impression that we want to go back to the days of the Milk Marketing Board, with the Government, still less me, trying to set the price of milk. It is important not to give that message. It is also important that we recognise that responsible practice by the supermarkets offers huge advantages for consumers and producers. The emphasis must be on “responsible” and it is important that we look at the issue in detail, because different supermarkets have different practices. We must ensure that effective practices are developed on all sides, including the producer side and the retail side.

Renewable Energy

11. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry regarding support for the development in the UK of emerging technologies for offshore forms of renewable energy. (117821)

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State regularly meets the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry to discuss policies, such as support for offshore wind, marine and tidal renewable energy, where DTI and DEFRA both have a key role to play in their successful delivery.

While it takes an especially strong sea breeze to blow in Shepherd’s Bush, many of my constituents are rightly concerned about maximising renewable energy sources and minimising their fuel bills. What plans does my hon. Friend have to reform the renewables obligation and what effect is that likely to have on energy prices?

My hon. Friend is right to be concerned about energy bills. Reducing them through reduced consumption is a key element in achieving our target of cutting CO2 emissions by 60 per cent. by 2050. Renewable energy is another option, and some of the new developments of the south-east coast are very important. Renewable energy is a key part of the Government’s long-term plans for reducing CO2 emissions. We believe that the renewable obligation can reduce emissions substantially: we are currently consulting on how it should be banded and hope to be able to say more in the energy White Paper to be published shortly.

Local/Speciality Food Promotion

12. What support his Department provides for promoting the wider availability of regional, local and speciality foods. (117822)

We are providing an additional £5 million between 2003 and 2008 to support this important sector that contributes to the viability of rural economies. Buying food and drink locally and in season is also likely to mean that less energy has been used in its production. Buying food that has travelled less can also be a positive choice in helping to reduce transport emissions. More than 4,000 producers have already benefited from this support, which is delivered by Food from Britain.

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. Does he agree that supporting locally grown, seasonal food is good for the local economy and environment, and that it tastes pretty darn good too? If he has had the opportunity to taste locally grown Yorkshire produce, does he agree that it ranks among the finest in the world? Will he do all he can to support fine Yorkshire produce and make sure that it gets due recognition?

As ever, my hon. Friend hits the nail on the head. Locally grown produce has benefits for the environment, but the main thing is that it tastes darn good too. She makes a powerful case for the food produced in her area—and may she champion it for many years to come.

Business of the House

The business of the House for next week will be as follows:

Monday 5 February—Second Reading of the UK Borders Bill.

Tuesday 6 February—Remaining stages of the Justice and Security (Northern Ireland) Bill.

Wednesday 7 February—Opposition day [5th Allotted Day]. There will be a debate entitled “The al-Yamamah Arms Agreement and Related Matters”, followed by a debate entitled “The Government’s Failing Record on Crime”. Both debates arise on a Liberal Democrat motion.

Thursday 8 February—A debate on the future of buses on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Friday 9 February—The House will not be sitting.

The provisional business for the week commencing 19 February will include:

Monday 19 February—Motions relating to benefits up-rating, followed by a debate on “Human Rights: Values, Rights and Responsibilities”, on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Tuesday 20 February—Remaining stages of the Planning Gain Supplement (Preparations) Bill, followed by remaining stages of the Income Tax Bill.

Wednesday 21 February—Opposition day [6th Allotted Day]. There will be a debate on an Opposition motion, subject to be announced.

Thursday 22 February—A debate on a motion for the Adjournment of the House, subject to be announced.

Friday 23 February—Private Members’ Bills.

I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for 22 February, 1 March and 8 March will be:

Thursday 22 February—A debate on the report from the Quadripartite Committee on Strategic Export Controls: Annual Report for 2004, Quarterly Reports for 2005, Licensing Policy and Parliamentary Scrutiny.

Thursday 1 March—A debate on sport and young people.

Thursday 8 March—A debate on the report from the Constitutional Affairs Committee on reform of the coroners system and death certification.

I am grateful to the Leader of the House. On 1 March, can we have a St. David’s day debate on Wales, in Government time, so that hon. Members can examine Labour’s catalogue of failure there? Last year, the Government refused such a debate, saying that there was enough Welsh business in the House, so can we have a debate this year so that the voice of the people of Wales can be heard?

It has been shown that under this Government it costs more to send a child to nursery than to many public schools. Access to affordable child care is crucial for women wanting to get back to work, particularly lone parents, so can we have a debate on child care?

Can we have a debate on the costs of Government restructuring? Since 1997 there have been nine major reorganisations of the NHS in nine years, two of which alone cost £320 million. We have seen millions wasted on abortive police mergers, on setting up then abolishing the Strategic Rail Authority, and on setting up then abolishing social care inspection bodies. Now the Government want to spend up to £2 billion reorganising local government. That sounds like moving the deckchairs on a sinking ship. We should debate this utter waste of money, and show how the money could have been better spent on patients, passengers and services.

Linked to that, can we have a debate on joined-up government? The chief inspector of prisons says that one of the problems for the prison service is that money promised by the NHS for mentally ill convicts has not come through because of the “upheaval” caused by, for example, the reorganisation of primary care trusts. It is not just health care that suffers from all that restructuring. Will the Leader of the House ensure that the Chancellor of the Exchequer is available for that debate, so that he can explain how his decisions to freeze the Home Office budget and block new private finance initiative prison projects have contributed to the current crisis in our prisons?

The press report that the White Paper on Lords reform is expected next week, but it is suggested that it may not be supported by all members of the Cabinet. Will the Leader of the House encourage the Chancellor of the Exchequer to vote on this issue when the time comes? In the past nine years he has not voted on Lords reform, and if he is to be Prime Minister, we would like to know what he thinks about it. Perhaps his views, like those of the Northern Ireland Secretary and the International Development Secretary, do not accord with those of the Prime Minister.

Finally, I have a paper here containing details of a parliamentary campaign among Labour Members. It sets out the strategy outline, and which Members are willing to go public and which are not. However, it does not say what the campaign is. Some of my cynical colleagues have suggested to me that it is a deputy leadership campaign. I was more generous and assumed that it must be a campaign against Government health policy. May we have a statement on what this campaign is, so that other Members can get involved, should they wish to?

With the Chancellor blocking prison places, the Foreign Secretary blocking Home Office reform, the Chief Whip campaigning against health policy, Labour Members campaigning against each other, and the Deputy Prime Minister telling us yesterday that he is demob happy, is it not clear that the Government are in paralysis and that the only answer for the country is for the Prime Minister to go, and go now?

That was original.

The right hon. Lady asked whether there would be a St. David’s day debate. Yes, one is planned for 1 March, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales will be delighted to talk in great detail about Labour’s success in Wales. That includes, for example, 7,500 additional police officers. On health, which is a devolved issue, the Labour-led Welsh Government have done extremely well, providing 400 more consultants, over 7,000 more nurses and 100 more dentists since 1999. There has been an extraordinary increase in resources devoted to education, and 1,700 more teachers since 1998. Employment is at a record high, with 1.3 million people in work. It is a fantastic record and we are delighted to debate it.

The right hon. Lady asked about our child care policy. She leads with her chin, does she not? Child care was a lamentable failure under the Conservatives, whereas under this Government, with expenditure that they opposed, we have a good record on child care. Everybody in the country knows that it is thanks to a Labour Government that we now have tax credits giving effective support to families, a network of Sure Start programmes, children’s centres and vouchers for child care. That means that many more working parents can go back to work, where they wish to.

On the costs of reorganisation, my advice to the right hon. Lady is not to trade our reorganisations with hers. For example, there was rail privatisation reorganisation, for which her party voted and on which they all campaigned. It was one of the most catastrophic reorganisations, which we have had to resolve, and having done that—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone) may mock, but we brought Network Rail into public ownership and invested hundreds of millions of pounds, and the result is a 40 per cent. increase in the number of passengers travelling by train. Where there is a problem—as there is in the right hon. Lady’s area with First Great Western—responsibility for it lies with the train operating company, which she should remember, because she supported privatisation.

There are some proposals for the reorganisation of local government. A few years ago, local government was reorganised in the right hon. Lady’s county, just as it was partially reorganised in my county of Lancashire. Speaking for Lancashire, the transfer of responsibility for all services to a unitary authority has made a big difference to delivery on the ground, and the costs of reorganisation have been tiny by comparison.

On joined-up government, I read and listened carefully to what Anne Owers said about the relationship between the Home Office and mental health provision. There is a continuing long-standing problem, in that many of those who commit crimes also have mental health problems. That is a fact of life, but a great deal of work is going into trying to improve mental health provision inside prisons. As the right hon. Lady wants a serious debate about the problem, she will know that mental health practitioners are often reluctant to take on people diagnosed with mental health problems who happen to be in prison. My right hon. Friends the Home Secretary and the Secretary of State for Health are looking into the matter.

The right hon. Lady made some points about the Home Office budget being frozen. It has not been frozen. There are certainly restrictions on the growth of bureaucracy in all Departments—I thought that she was in favour of those—but capital building and the expansion of prison places have increased. The proof is that almost 20,000 additional prison places have already been provided in the past 10 years.

The right hon. Lady knows very well when the Lords White Paper is to be published, because I told her. She has been a member of the cross-party group on the Lords, where we have been seeking consensus when it is perfectly obvious—everybody knows—that opinion on reform of the Lords varies very much in all the major parties, and between this House and the other place. It is for that reason that we committed ourselves to a free vote on composition, which will include all Ministers, as we made clear before and at the election. There is not a Government view—

There will be a White Paper, because it is important that there should be a focus for the debate. There will be a statement on it, followed—as the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) knows very well—by consideration by this House, not once but twice, before the House comes to a decision, and there will be equivalent processes, which are a matter for the Lords, in the other place.

Will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on the UK’s continuing engagement with the Democratic Republic of the Congo? The country recently held its first elections for more than 40 years, observed by a number of Members and strongly supported by our Government. The DRC has come out of a civil war involving six neighbouring countries and the deaths of 4 million people, but it is little discussed in public debate and I have failed so far to secure an extended debate in Westminster Hall, so will my right hon. Friend consider finding time for that important debate on the Floor of the House?

I commend my hon. Friend’s interest in that issue, which is too often neglected in the public prints in the UK, even though that country is where the largest number of people have been killed in civil strife in the past 30 years. I cannot promise a debate, but I shall certainly consider her request.

It may be helpful if I point out that between the two debates on Wednesday 7 February we will seek a Division of the House, under Standing Order No. 118, on a motion relating to the Merchant Shipping (Inland Waterway and Limited Coastal Operations) (Boatmasters’ Qualifications and Hours of Work) Regulations 2006.

I listened carefully to what the Leader of the House said about the benefits of a unitary authority in his area, but is it not important that a statement be made on the process of local government reorganisation? I am aware that 26 bids have been submitted to the Department, including two from Somerset, where the Conservatives say that a county unitary is unthinkable, although next door in Wiltshire they are not only thinking of it, but bidding for it. The important issue is not the merits or demerits of reorganisation, but whether there is an opportunity to consider those bids properly. Is it sensible to do so in the middle of a hard-fought district council campaign? Will there be an opportunity for local people to give their views, or will only councillors, Members of Parliament and Ministers be able to do so, as seems to be the case at the moment?

May we have a debate on the British Library? It is one of our greatest cultural institutions. It is not a place of entertainment, so it is not a place where admission fees are appropriate. In the interests of scholarship, will the House ensure that the British Library is properly maintained?

In the light of today’s revelations about the improper pressure put on the Attorney-General to reverse an opinion, and given the reported views of the Minister of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs—herself a recent Solicitor-General—which are that public trust in the role of the Attorney-General has been undermined, and that his advice should be routinely published, may we have an urgent debate on the tarnished role of the Attorney-General?

Lastly, may we have a debate on e-petitions? I note the enormous success of the Prime Minister’s website, which allows people to sign petitions on all sorts of subjects, and I receive a profusion of them. I have one question, which is really a benchmarking exercise: how many signatures are required on an e-petition before anything actually changes?

On local government reorganisation, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government set out the process in the local government White Paper. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that opinions vary markedly on the issue, and not necessarily according to party. It so happens that it was a Conservative Government who agreed that Blackburn should transfer to a unitary authority in 1996, against the all-party opposition of Lancashire county council, so there is no party point to make. However, someone has to make a decision, because otherwise there will be paralysis and no change. There is never a right time to make such decisions. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman’s area has elections every year or every four years, but mine has them every year, so there will always be an election coming up, or an election that has just taken place; that is how it is.

We have increased the resources for the British Library, as well as museums, significantly, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport would not do anything to damage the services provided by the British Library.

I wholly resent and reject the implications of the hon. Gentleman’s remarks about my noble Friend the Attorney-General. He has carried out the duties of his office to the highest standards of propriety. The role of the Attorney-General is well settled, and I am glad that on 14 December the shadow Attorney-General confirmed the Conservative party’s support for the Attorney-General’s role, when responding to the Solicitor-General’s repetition of the Attorney-General’s statement about the suspension of the investigation of the Saudi matters. There is no way wholly to detach some considerations from the prosecution system, such as considerations of national security, and of national or public interest in the way that the Liberals suggest. Prosecutors are required by law to consider such matters. The hon. Gentleman ought to look abroad, at countries where prosecutors are allegedly entirely independent of Ministers, and see what criticism they are under, because they end up making political judgments, but are totally unaccountable in respect of those judgments. The Liberals would be screaming much more about the issue in that situation.

On e-petitions, the hon. Gentleman’s intervention was timely, because I have looked at the interest in e-petitions on the Downing street website, and I have talked to officials at No. 10 about the way in which those petitions could be linked to petitions in the House; that is an important function performed by the House. The hon. Gentleman will know that the Procedure Committee is conducting an inquiry on petitions, and I will arrange for the people running the Downing street website to talk to the Clerk and the Chairman of the Procedure Committee about how we can better link the two together.

May I draw my right hon. Friend’s attention to the number of signatures not just on petitions but on early-day motion 132, which raises the issue of illegal logging?

[That this House notes the problem of illegal logging, which is valued at 10 to 15 billion euros per year, costing producer countries billions in lost revenue, causes widespread environmental damage and loss of biodiversity, and increases carbon emissions; notes research by WWF which estimates that the EU is responsible for at least three billion euros of this and that the UK imports over 70 per cent. of its timber and is one of the largest importers of illegal timber within the EU; believes that the current EU Forest Law Enforcement Governance and Trade Action Plan is inadequate, as it does not prevent illegal imports entering the EU via third countries such as China; supports the recommendations of the Environmental Audit Committee for legislation to make it illegal to import illegal timber into the EU; further notes that Chatham House has reported that such legislation is WTO compliant; and, therefore, calls on the Government fully to support moves to introduce this legislation as a matter of urgency.]

I tabled the motion, which has been signed by more hon. Members than any other early-day motion. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is shocking that, despite the best efforts of companies such as Balfour Beatty, which has gone to great lengths to make sure that it procures sustainable timber, the UK is the third biggest importer of illegal timber? Is it not time that we had a debate in the House so that we can call on the European Community to introduce legislation to stop the import of illegal timber by the UK and the EU?

I certainly note my hon. Friend’s interest, and I congratulate her on the vigour with which she has pursued the matter. As she knows, there are a number of opportunities to raise the issue, including in Westminster Hall and on the Adjournment, and I will look at her request.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer has much on his mind at the moment, so we hope that he has not forgotten about his last Budget. Can the Leader of the House tell us when that event will take place—and in connection with that, is he as confident today as he was last week that today’s air passenger duty has completed all the appropriate processes in the House of Commons?

First, the Budget date will be announced in the appropriate way; the right hon. Gentleman has been in the House long enough to know that. I will try to ensure that I send him a personal billet doux with the details, in case he misses it. On his second point, the decision to bring the tax into force today was entirely lawful, proper, and consistent with previous procedures. I do not know why there are complaints from some airlines, because when they impose a fuel surcharge they impose it on passengers who have already booked a ticket and paid the fare.

That is true of the fuel surcharge, and it is a matter for the airlines whether they charge existing passengers for that tax or, as British Airways are doing, absorb the costs themselves.

Will my right hon. Friend consider a debate on the powers of local government? We read in the papers that local authorities may be given powers to erect more speed cameras. That may be open to misrepresentation by our opponents, so a debate would allow us to restate the case that Labour stands for the hard-working family and the British-assembled motor car.

I would be delighted to try to arrange such a debate. We do indeed stand for hard-working families and for British-manufactured motor cars. The number of cars manufactured in this country is very high; it is not quite at its peak, but it is approaching that level. May I tell my hon. Friend that we have speed cameras because of concern for hard-working families, as we wish to ensure that families, particularly children, are safe from speeding motorists?

It is clear that to avoid continuing Government paralysis the Prime Minister must retire soon—so will the Leader of the House assure us that he will quickly introduce the orders for parliamentary boundary changes, so that when the Chancellor of the Exchequer becomes leader he can fight the election on the new boundaries?

I promise the right hon. Gentleman that I am involved in a spirited discussion with the Department for Constitutional Affairs about introducing the boundary change orders. I have been told that the problem is printing and binding delays—[Hon. Members: “Oh!] I am not convinced that that is the reason, and I am pursuing the matter with vigour. I repeat my commitment to the House that the orders will be introduced in good time for a general election. Everyone knows that by law it is not open to Government to seek to amend the orders, and we shall not do so.

May I draw my right hon. Friend’s attention to early-day motion 791, which highlights the plight of hundreds of my constituents who still await a decision on a flood defence scheme seven years after their houses were flooded?

[That this House notes that it is now seven years since hundreds of residents along the Water of Leith in Edinburgh suffered severe flooding; further notes that the City of Edinburgh Council speedily drew up a flood defence scheme which it submitted to the Scottish Executive for approval; further notes that a report was submitted from the public inquiry into the scheme in September 2005, and that a decision on the scheme has been awaited ever since; and urges the Liberal Democrat Minister for Environment and Rural Development, Ross Finnie MSP, not to delay any further in reaching a decision, but to approve the scheme as soon as possible in order to end the uncertainty endured by residents in the affected area.]

Will my right hon. Friend support the call for the Liberal Democrat Minister for Environment and Rural Development, who has been sitting on the plans for two years in the Scottish Executive, to make a decision so that my constituents’ uncertainty can be ended?

Yes, we put large sums of money into flood defences. I am sad that the Liberal Democrat Minister in Scotland has been sitting on his hands for the past two years, but it does not surprise me, because it has always been clear to me that people join the Liberal Democrats only if they are congenitally incapable of accepting responsibility and making decisions.

Last week, the Leader of the House kindly agreed to a debate on the Act of Union. Will he make sure that the motion covers the West Lothian question, so that a Minister can explain to me from the Dispatch Box why it is fair and democratic for Scottish Members of this Parliament not to have a vote on health services in Perth, while, almost perversely, they can vote on health services in Penrith and Penzance? Why should the people of England put up with that for a minute longer?

I sometimes wonder why the House should put up with the hon. Gentleman for a minute longer—but I am a generous man. What I said was that I would consider the request, but there have already been debates on the West Lothian question, which is central to the issue of how we bind the Union or whether we wish, as he does, to destroy it. Equally, he could ask why, within the Union, Members from England have a dominant role in the financing of the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly. As I said two weeks ago, the system is asymmetrical, but it is very fair, and it takes account of the fact that, as he knows, proportionately, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland represent only 16 per cent. of the United Kingdom’s total population and resources. English MPs, whatever their party, wholly dominate spending decisions that affect Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. I think that that system works, and I am in absolutely no doubt that if a referendum on independence were held in Scotland it would be wholly rejected.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that on 24 February, the British National party will effectively be recognised as a trade union by the certification officer? May we have an urgent statement from the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry that that organisation will not be allowed to exploit employment laws to spread its obnoxious policies?

I shall certainly look at the point made by my hon. Friend, and ensure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State writes to him.

Will the Leader of the House allow us to have a debate on access to drug treatment for sufferers of ultra-orphan conditions, which are extremely rare. Last March, the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence proposed that the Department of Health introduce different guidelines so that it could review those drugs, which are necessarily more expensive, as the costs are spread among fewer patients. Last year, however, the Department rejected the NICE proposal so that sufferers of rare conditions in Britain have no prospect of access to new treatment. May we have a debate, because that is not the right way to progress the issue?

Of course I understand the hon. Lady’s concern. Health questions will take place next Tuesday, and she has not missed the deadline, so I suggest that she table a question. There is, I think, cross-party agreement that the NICE arrangement for independent assessment of new drug treatments is sensible, and better than the alternative. Whoever is in government, there are critical and difficult questions about whether to approve drugs and make them generally available. That is the reality, but I am aware that some individuals at the margin are disadvantaged and are in a difficult position.

Will my right hon. Friend make time for a debate on the independence of the civil service, particularly the duty of hon. Members not to attack civil servants unfairly? May I draw his attention to the case of Mockbul Ali, with whom I believe he has been in contact? Mr. Ali was attacked by the Conservative party in its recent policy document on national security, but he could not answer, so perhaps we ought to address that in the House.

That is a good idea. Having read that Conservative document, which is an assemblage of various allegations off Google, I thought that the attack on Mr. Mockbul Ali, who is an official who worked for me in the Foreign Office, was wholly unwarranted and unworthy of the Conservative party. As far as I could see, his only offence is that he happens to be a Muslim working as a civil servant. I hope that the Conservative party will withdraw that, and much else in that document.

I draw the attention of the Leader of the House to early-day motion 108 concerning the Epsom and St. Helier NHS Trust.

[That this House recognises the vital role which the St Helier Hospital plays in providing healthcare services to residents of the London boroughs of Sutton and Merton and of Surrey; notes with alarm that the Epsom and St Helier NHS Trust has been asked to make cuts of £20 million over the next two years; expresses its concern at the growing body of evidence suggesting that the hospital may be closed or that significant cuts will be made to hospital services; acknowledges the widespread support for the hospital from local residents; notes that any closure of services would have a significant impact on local people, resulting in longer travel times, inconvenience and a lower standard of care; and calls on the Government urgently to guarantee that the full range of existing healthcare services will continue to be provided at sites within the London Borough of Sutton.]

May we have a debate on the freedom of information rules that have been used by the trust to refuse to disclose information about the pay-off made to the former chief executive of the trust, which is believed to be about £600,000, at a time when the trust is cash-strapped and being forced to make cuts in both beds and clinical staff?

If the hon. Gentleman wants to pursue the matter in an Adjournment debate, he is aware of the opportunities. As he knows, under the Freedom of Information Act 2000, which I introduced as Home Secretary, if the health trust has indeed turned down the request, as he says, those who make the request have a right of appeal to an independent tribunal. I hope they are pursuing that.

Will the Leader of the House investigate an allegation that I received recently about the treatment of Public and Commercial Service Union members following an incident in Parliament square yesterday? The PCS members drove in an open-top coach along Whitehall and through Parliament square and parked in Horse Guards parade. Those who came off the bus were asked by the police to give their names and addresses because African drums and a megaphone had been used as they drove through Parliament square. Is that not a heavy-handed approach to demonstrations outside Parliament, as the bus was merely passing through? I am sorry that I have not put the allegations in writing, but I have been able to verify them only in the past 20 minutes.

I have many responsibilities, but the investigation of complaints against the police is not one of them. The hon. Gentleman knows, and can advise his constituents, that there are obvious well-tried routes laid down in statute by which, if they are concerned, they can make a complaint against the police.

My right hon. Friend knows that the Government have done much to change the law governing rape and sexual offences. May we have a debate on the subject, to enable us to highlight some of the remaining anomalies? For example, a constituent of mine was refused compensation through the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority on the absurd grounds that she had not suffered violence.

I understand my hon. Friend’s concern and I will do what I can to see that there is an opportunity to debate the matter. He will know that under the criminal injuries compensation scheme, there is some limited right of appeal. I cannot comment on that particular case, but I say to the House as a whole that it is widely accepted that under changes that we have made in the past 10 years, treatment of rape victims has improved considerably, to the extent that more rape victims are coming forward to make allegations. One of the results is that the proportion of so-called stranger rapes to acquaintance rapes has changed. The vast majority—getting on for 90 per cent.—of the allegations now made are so-called acquaintance rapes, where the issue is not whether intercourse took place or the identity of the alleged assailant, but whether there was consent. That is very difficult to prove or disprove in court.

May we have a debate on MRSA, even though the House has just had one? In the opening comments of the Secretary of State for Health in the recent debate on MRSA, she cited a visit that she had made to the Royal Marsden hospital the previous day. The Royal Marsden hospital has one of the lowest MRSA rates in the country, and she attributed that to the use of hand rubs, different coloured aprons, and electronic records. What the Secretary of State failed to mention, even though there were several interventions about hospital nurses’ uniforms—

Order. This seems to be an extension of the debate last week. We cannot have that. The hon. Lady should ask for a debate about the matter, not put the case. Perhaps I could help her by suggesting that if she felt that the Secretary of State was not as well informed as she should have been, the hon. Lady could ask for a debate.

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. The Secretary of State was not as well informed as she should have been. The Royal Marsden does launder uniforms. Could we therefore have another debate?

As the Speaker said, the hon. Lady has already started the debate. There are Health questions next Tuesday, so she can table a question to the Secretary of State for Health today for answer on Tuesday.

When we had a drugs tsar and he produced an annual report, we used to debate it on the Floor of the House. I gather that in the very near future the Government are to review the national drugs strategy. Is it not time that we debated that important policy area again on the Floor of the House?

I accept the importance of that matter, and I will give consideration to whether we can have such a debate on the Floor of the House.

May I add my voice to those calling for a debate on the process of the restructuring of local government, including the cost of that process? Ministers throw about glib phrases about it being cost-neutral, which most people understand to mean very expensive indeed. This matter needs considering before we proceed.

It is being looked at before we proceed. Areas may decide that they do not want to move. It is always an issue of controversy, but from my own constituency experience, although there were some marginal restructuring costs, the benefits to my constituents, whatever their political affiliations, of changing to a unitary authority have been huge.

May we have a debate on the new £625 million contract for premiership football games to be shown overseas? As far as I can see, the only change that the contract will make is that premiership footballers’ basic salaries will change from £20,000 a week to £60,000 a week. That is obscene. None of the money is flowing down the game to the grass roots, and the gap between the premiership and other lower leagues, especially the one in which Hartlepool United plays, is getting wider. As a Blackburn Rovers fan, will my right hon. Friend arrange time to discuss the matter so that we can redistribute that wealth across football in general?

My hon. Friend makes an extremely important point. We look to the premier league to ensure that, with the additional funds, it makes football, whether in the premiership or lower down, more accessible to individuals so that they can go to the grounds. I am indeed a Blackburn Rovers fan. I had the misfortune to go to the away end at Stamford bridge yesterday, and paid £45 for the privilege of watching Blackburn Rovers being beaten 3-0 by Chelsea. I may be able to afford £45, but it is a great deal of money, so there is a real issue. I am pleased to tell my hon. Friend that Blackburn Rovers are, as ever, in the lead and have already taken steps to lower their prices to attract more people to the game, because the game as a whole, and the premiership offer, will suffer grievously if people see empty stadiums. That is what has happened in other countries. One of the reasons why the premiership is such a saleable product, so to speak, across the world is because of the fans who turn up week after week and support not just the glory teams, but the real teams in any of the leagues.

May I say to the Leader of the House that that did not seem to have much to do with the business of the House?

May we have a debate on why the Prime Minister will not answer questions about the loans scandal? I asked him about it yesterday, and he said that the answer was obvious. It is not entirely obvious to me why he cannot say that he is innocent, or that he has complete confidence in the people who have been arrested. If the answer is the really obvious one, I do not see how he is still Prime Minister.

The hon. Gentleman is a lawyer. It is perfectly obvious why the Prime Minister cannot answer such questions while there is a continuing police investigation.

May we have a debate on equality and balanced reporting in our press and media? Although it is right and proper that we should take every measure possible to stamp out racism and sectarianism, I am somewhat concerned that my sensitivities are being ignored. As someone who is often described as a white, fat, half-bald man, I am genuinely concerned that my views are not taken into consideration. Can my right hon. Friend suggest a way in which my sensitivities can be addressed—or do I just need a wee cuddle?

The aim of equality legislation is to take everybody’s sensibilities into account, including those of my hon. Friend.

Will the Leader of the House arrange for a debate on the growing sad army of NEETs—young people between the ages of 16 and 24 not in employment, education or training—whose numbers have rocketed since this Government came to power? With demand for unskilled labour falling, there is a real chance that we are creating an underclass. That is incompatible with social responsibility, social cohesion or social justice, and it deserves the House’s earnest, ardent and urgent consideration.

The hon. Gentleman raises an important topic, and I will certainly think about whether we can have a debate on it. He will know that part of the purpose of the proposal by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Skills to extend the compulsory education age from 16 to 18 is to deal with that group. We have invested a huge amount of money, for example in welfare-to-work programmes, to provide better opportunities for many such youngsters. I accept that this is a matter for all parties. Because the number of unskilled jobs is declining, we have to work hard almost to stand still in providing opportunities for those who previously would have worked as factory labourers but for whom such opportunities are no longer available.

Could we have an urgent debate about the treatment of British citizens in Saudi Arabia during haj visits? On 9 December the 36-year-old wife of my constituent, Rafiq Gorji, was killed in a coach crash, and he was dragged along the ground, suffering burns to his hands, head and back. When I met the deputy Saudi ambassador yesterday, he referred me to the British ambassador in Riyadh. I spoke to our excellent ambassador there, who clearly stated that this is a matter for the Saudi Government. I know that my right hon. Friend set up the haj committee, and I have spoken to Lord Patel. However, this is a friendly country with which we have strong relations, and it is surely in the public interest to ensure that the case is dealt with. Could we therefore have an urgent debate?

I accept my right hon. Friend’s concern and ask him to send my personal condolences to the family concerned. It is a very distressing case. The Minister for the Middle East has already written to tour operators to draw their attention to the terrible consequences of this accident and the need to enforce regulations on bus safety and bus drivers’ hours. I will ask my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary to raise the matter with the Saudi Foreign Minister.

Can we have a further debate on affordable housing, which remains a priority in Milton Keynes? Does the Leader of the House understand my constituents’ frustration, given that last summer the Government trumpeted the introduction of a new £60,000 house, which we discovered this week had gone on sale for £189,500? Is that what he calls affordable?

I know that it is a dereliction of my duty. I accept the criticism, and I will consider my position. What else can I say? It is an abject failure. [Interruption.] Here comes the Opposition Chief Whip.

I understand the hon. Gentleman’s concerns about high house prices—for first-time buyers in particular—which we all share. However, we have a done a great deal—rather more than the previous Government—to try to ameliorate the situation.

I hope that the House would agree, Mr. Speaker, that the private religious views of yourself, myself, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, and even the Leader of the House, are not and should not be material to Government policy. If the Leader of the House accepts that, may I put to him again the question that I put to him last week? Can we have a debate on the role of religious organisations in delivering public services, with particular regard to whether it would be sensible for them to agree not to discriminate against service receivers or their employees, or to proselytise or harass when delivering welfare, social and other public services, after which they can make their contribution?

As I said last week, I greatly respect the hon. Gentleman’s views, if I do not altogether share them. There are plenty of occasions on which he can raise this matter. For example, the issue of faith schools, and whether their head teachers should be required to adhere to that faith, is regularly debated in this House. As a liberal western democracy, we should absolutely respect people’s right to hold, or not to hold, religious opinions. At the same time, most of us believe that we should take account of our country’s history and the important contribution that faith groups make, not only to private worship but to public services.

The Leader of the House will recall that the Prime Minister showed great courage, generosity and good sense in giving £27 million to the children’s hospice movement to replace the falling off of national lottery funding last year, and in setting up a review to secure fair funding for it. That review is coming to an end, and its recommendations will be presented to the Minister concerned at the end of February. Will the Leader of the House look to hold an early debate after that so that the House can show its strong cross-party support for the children’s hospice movement and its fair funding?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the approbation that he offers to the Prime Minister, who is very committed to this issue. I cannot promise a debate, but I will certainly ensure that his views are made known to the Prime Minister and to the relevant Minister.

MSC Napoli

With permission, Mr. Speaker, this statement is to update the House on the events leading to the beaching of the MSC Napoli at Lyme bay, east of Sidmouth. It follows my earlier written statement to the House on 25 January.

During severe weather conditions on the morning of 18 January, the MSC Napoli, a UK-registered vessel, suffered flooding in her engine room on the French side of the English channel. The MSC Napoli’s master took the decision that the danger to the vessel was sufficient to order the crew to abandon the ship. All the crew were successfully rescued by UK helicopter from royal naval air station Culdrose. The marine accident investigation branch is carrying out a full investigation into the causes of the structural damage.

The English channel is a zone of joint responsibility between France and the UK as regards maritime pollution incidents. There is an Anglo-French joint maritime contingency plan, which is usually referred to as the Mancheplan. The French and English authorities were faced with a large container ship known to be carrying a cargo that included potentially hazardous materials and to have more than 3,500 tonnes of fuel oil on board. Particular account had to be taken of the strong advice from environmental experts that the ship’s cargo and oil would need to be recovered and should not be left to sink in deep water. The effects of sinking in deep water would have been serious long-term environmental damage. In the first instance, there would be the strong possibility of a large release of oil and spreading of the cargo caused by the trauma of the vessel striking the seabed. In any case, the oil would have escaped and found its way on to many beaches on both sides of the English channel for many years, whereas in shallow waters the hydrocarbons and other pollutants could be recovered as soon as possible.

In line with the Mancheplan, French authorities led the initial response to the incident, liaising closely throughout with the UK Secretary of State’s representative for maritime salvage and intervention—commonly known as SOSREP. French tugs arrived on the scene promptly. A French Government intervention team went on board the vessel. Having made an on-scene assessment of its condition, experts concluded that its state was such that it was unlikely to survive prolonged exposure to severe weather conditions. To prevent a serious marine pollution incident, the French and UK authorities decided that the vessel should be towed to a place of refuge where she could be dealt with in a controlled manner. The need for a place of refuge and its location are always driven by the circumstances of an incident, including the weather, the size and condition of the vessel and the potential threat posed by the vessel and its cargo. Taking all those factors into account, the French authorities were unable to identify a suitable place of refuge on the French coast within about 200 miles.

All other options were on the UK south coast from Falmouth to Portland. A full risk assessment was carried out to determine a location providing best shelter and chance of survival to offload oil and hazardous cargo. None of the main ports, including Falmouth and Plymouth, had sufficient depth of water. The Falmouth harbour-master reported that the vessel could have anchored outside the harbour, but that Falmouth could not handle or store containers. Moreover, transit to Falmouth, because of the direction of travel and the state of the sea, would have exposed the casualty to severe stress. There was no safe option to enter any south coast port.

An anchorage with good shelter from south-west winds was needed. The most suitable option was Portland because it affords shelter combined with good access to port facilities and, later, the potential for moving the ship into the inner harbour. It also meant that the vessel could be towed in a direction that minimised the stress on its hull. A tow was attached on the evening of 18 January. However, in the early hours of 20 January, the cracks on both sides of the ship worsened and the stern of the ship started settling lower in the water. It became clear that the MSC Napoli would not reach Portland. The priority was to keep the vessel intact, as there was real concern that it might start to break up.

That concern was urgent and a decision had to be taken without delay. In accordance with the UK’s national contingency plan, environmental groups and local authorities were consulted. Moreover, through forward planning, which is an integral part of the UK system, SOSREP had the necessary knowledge about the suitability of locations as a place of refuge for this vessel. SOSREP decided that the only viable option was to beach the ship in shallow water, where there was a greater chance of successful salvage, and decided to turn the vessel towards an identified beaching site in the shelter of Lyme bay. SOSREP regularly updated me throughout the incident.

A small amount of fuel oil leaked during efforts to beach the ship and a boom was deployed to contain the leak. Booms were placed across the rivers Brit and Axe to help prevent oil entering. A relatively small amount of oil has leaked from the MSC Napoli since it was beached. On 24 January, 10 tonnes of oil leaked from an air pipe on the vessel and was sprayed with dispersant. Two French oil recovery ships remain on scene. An offshore boom is available and additional workboats carrying oil dispersants are in the area. There are daily aerial surveillance flights.

The MSC Napoli was carrying approximately 2,300 containers, of which 157 contained potentially hazardous materials, including perfume, pesticides and batteries. The contents of all containers have now been identified. Altogether, 103 containers were lost overboard, 57 of which were washed ashore, and we are searching for the other 46. Sampling of sediments and marine wildlife in the area began on Tuesday. As of Tuesday, 900 live oiled birds had been handed to the RSPCA, while 700 had been found dead.

Salvors were engaged at a very early stage in the incident. It was necessary for some work vessels and equipment to be brought from Rotterdam and these were despatched at the earliest possible opportunity. Work on removing the Napoli’s bunker oil is continuing apace. About 2,600 tonnes of bunker fuel have been removed. The salvors are averaging 20 tonnes per hour and we expect to have removed most of the remaining fuel by the end of Sunday.

The process of removing containers from the MSC Napoli is also underway. As more containers are removed, the stress on the ship’s hull decreases, as does the risk of break-up. A crane barge is removing containers and passing them to a container barge that can take them ashore. Every precaution is being taken to ensure safety. It is expected that the removal of all the cargo will take between five to eight months to complete.

As of 4 pm yesterday, 70 containers had been removed and we expect to move more at a rate of around 30 containers a day. The bad weather that hampered operations initially has now subsided and the current forecast is calm weather for the weekend. The Maritime and Coastguard Agency has been liaising with the local fishing community to ensure that the route of the barge does not cross any deployed fishing equipment. Once all containers are removed, the ship itself will be salvaged. It is impossible to predict the challenges faced by the salvors. At worst, the entire operation—pumping out the oil, lifting off the cargo and removing the ship itself—could take 12 months. However, every effort will be made to bring this incident to a successful conclusion as soon as possible.

Volunteers have offered help to the MCA and local authorities. While we appreciate these offers, we are strongly urging members of the public, for health and safety reasons, not to join the clean-up operation. We have all seen footage of people removing items from the beach. As a result, the beach at Branscombe was fenced off and made secure. Because substantial progress was made with the removal of the litter from the beach, Branscombe beach, west has now been opened to the public and regular patrols are in place to ensure the quick recovery of any washed-up goods. Local police have contingency arrangements in place to prevent a recurrence of last week’s behaviour.

SOSREP is continuing to lead the response to the incident. Our thanks are due to that representative and all those working with him to bring the incident to the safest and swiftest conclusion practicable with the minimum possible impact on the environment. SOSREP’s decision in respect of a place of refuge and the salvage operation was entirely transparent and thoroughly professional.

It is worth recording that the European Commision’s senior maritime official, Fotis Karamitsos, last week endorsed our SOSREP system, which he regards as a model for other EU states. He supported SOSREP’s decision to beach the MSC Napoli rather than tow it to port as originally planned, because it

“diminished the risk of catastrophe”.

I receive daily reports on the situation from SOSREP. I am reassured that the national contingency plan has enabled us to take prompt and appropriate action. I am pleased to see the co-operation between SOSREP and all the parties concerned, including the French authorities. This incident has once again demonstrated why the UK’s SOSREP arrangement is so much admired by our international colleagues.

I am grateful to the Minister for allowing me to see an advance copy of his statement. He has taken a close personal interest in this matter from the beginning. I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Mr. Swire) whose commitment as the constituency MP has been exemplary.

The House should congratulate the French authorities, SOSREP, the Maritime and Coastguard Agency and the Environment Agency, and, above all, the men and women of royal naval squadron 771, who bravely took on mountainous waves and gale force winds to save the 26 crew members. The rescue exemplified the highest standards of the Royal Navy. It was executed amid waves higher than the helicopter itself. When we see press reports stating that the men and women involved may be given a bravery award, I want to ask the Minister whether he really believes that such courage and commitment should be rewarded by handing over Britain’s elite RAF and royal naval search and rescue operations to a private finance initiative, with uniformed people just embedded in it.

Moving on to the vessel itself, once the marine accident investigation branch has finished its inquiry, we will need to know how it was that a ship given a clean bill of health in Antwerp only five days before, almost cracked down the middle off the coast of Devon. Indeed, it appears that there have been concerns about this vessel since it ran aground on a reef in the Malacca straits six years ago.

Had the Napoli been out in the Atlantic when her sides cracked open, the main story might not have been the looters at the bay, but the tragic death of 26 seafarers. Yet this was a British registered vessel. It was our duty as the flag state to make sure she was seaworthy. The inquiry must answer questions about that. Can the Minister also reassure the House that the British coastguard carries out sufficient port state control inspections of foreign flagged vessels visiting UK ports, as is our duty under the Paris memorandum of understanding?

Do we know yet whether there is evidence to suggest that human error played any part in the accident? Last year, Steve Allum of Aon Global Marine—one of the world’s specialists in marine risk—warned that, due to the employment of under-trained but considerably cheaper crews,

“the possibility of human error is significantly higher and will inevitably lead to increased accidents”.

A ship crewed by people from eastern Europe, the Philippines, Turkey and India must surely have suffered from language problems and possibly training problems, too. Will that be investigated?

Although the beaching of the vessel at the world heritage site of Lyme bay caused understandable and widespread concern—indeed, dismay—this was, as the Minister says, the only feasible place to shelter the boat. The worst outcome would have been for the vessel to have sunk in the open sea. In its fragile state, had it been towed away, it would have had to face the gale side on and would almost certainly have broken up—with horrendous environmental consequences.

Nevertheless, the ship has offloaded significant hazards into the sea. Will the Minister say something about containers that may still be floating at sea? It is good to hear that most of the rest of the fuel will be cleared by Sunday, but is there an estimate of the extent of the residue?

Mercifully, we have heard reports of only 1,500 oiled birds and 600 corpses so far. That is modest in view of the potential scale of the damage. I salute the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and the RSPCA for their efforts. Has the Minister commissioned an environmental impact assessment on the marine environment, especially the Lyme bay coral reefs and bird life?

May I urge, as my hon. Friend the Member for East Devon did before, revisiting our ancient salvage laws? Surely earlier action could have been taken against the unacceptable looting, which rightly caused so much public disgust.

I end where I began in congratulating the Royal Navy and all the various agencies, French as well as British, on a magnificent rescue and a successful damage limitation and clean-up operation.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his constructive comments and join him in congratulating the RAF crew. I agree that they were magnificent in the way in which they carried out the rescue under difficult circumstances. It required huge bravery.

The hon. Gentleman went on to ask whether we should examine the organisation of air-sea rescue and whether it was appropriate to include it in a PFI. That is a continuing process, on which we are working with the Ministry of Defence and the RAF. The RAF will be an integral part of any future arrangements that we might devise. However, we have a duty to ensure that services are cost-effective. I guarantee that there will be no compromise on safety or the service that air-sea rescue offers.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned other issues, several of which related to the possible causes of the accident. I am sure that he understands that I cannot speculate on that. The marine accident investigation branch will carry out an independent study, as it always does into all marine incidents, publish its report and place it in the public domain. Its investigation is unfettered and will identify the cause of the accident. If it could have been addressed by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, that information will be put in the public domain and appropriate action will be taken.

I was glad that the hon. Gentleman agreed that Lyme bay was the only appropriate place to beach the vessel. By doing that, we avoided a much worse environmental catastrophe. Although I appreciate that local people are distressed, I hope that they are reassured that beaching the ship on Lyme bay was better than the alternatives.

There is an on-going search for the remaining containers. We suspect that the vast majority sank around the boat and sonar investigations are trying to identify them. There was a report of a container afloat further down the coast and that was investigated. Many reports are coming in of goods at various points along the coast but most turn out not to relate to the incident. I assure the hon. Gentleman that every effort is being made to identify floating containers, especially when they might be a hazard to shipping.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the salvage laws. When we conduct a wash-up on the matter, we will decide whether we need to reconsider laws but, at the moment, I feel—I put it no more strongly—that the laws existed and people had powers but did not understand that sufficiently quickly. Perhaps we can learn from that.

May I also thank the Minister for an advance copy of his statement and echo other hon. Members’ sentiments about the role of the RAF? As has been said, the catastrophe could have been much greater.

Has the Minister read the interview in today’s Western Morning News with Robin Middleton, who is the Government’s representative in the area? He states that the cargo ship has fractured completely. If that is the case, what assessment has been made of the effects of further pollution in the event of the vessel giving way entirely? The local fishing associations are worried about that.

We have a rule that the polluter pays, but second-order issues, such as costs incurred by local authorities, have been raised with me. Will the Minister assure us that all those costs will be met once the incident is sorted out?

Concern has rightly been expressed about Lyme bay and its ecological importance. Does the Minister agree that the provisions of a marine Bill would have given the bay greater protection? Does not the incident make the case for identifying known refuge areas? Perhaps that would have prevented Lyme bay from being affected to such an extent. Will the Minister confirm that the MAIB’s terms of reference for its inquiry into the Napoli incident include consideration of that? I understand the points that have been made about the conditions and the reasons for choosing Lyme bay, but I am sure that the Minister understands local concerns about the effects of that. Will the report therefore consider whether alternative ports could have been used? Will the MAIB investigation hold hearings in public?

Does the Minister know that, three days before the Napoli was grounded, Devon county council asked for better protection of its coastline? Will he meet councillors and local Members of Parliament to discuss what can be done better to protect it?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his constructive comments. I am afraid that the Western Morning News is not normally served with my breakfast.

Clearly, I shall have to put that right in future. I have not read the report to which the hon. Gentleman referred but I have spoken to SOSREP since he gave the interview, and he was concerned that some of his comments might be taken out of context. I believe that he was trying to explain to the journalist that the vessel had suffered significant damage and that there was a risk of further break-up. Consequently, he appropriately put together several contingency plans based on what might happen under those circumstances. One hopes that they will not be necessary. Every time a container is taken off the ship, the stress on it becomes less and the likelihood of break-up or further damage is reduced. I hope that we can get through the process without further major spillage. If we can get all the oil off by the end of Sunday, the risk of serious oil pollution is minimal. Plans are therefore in place if the worst happens, but that is not expected at the moment.

Local authorities should make an appropriate claim through the civil courts for the recovery of their costs. We will support them in that. We have spoken to the owners’ representative and been informed of their views. They are being constructive and helpful and do not appear to penny-pinch in any way. I am therefore confident that we can resolve everybody’s claims satisfactorily.

A marine Bill would have made no difference to the incident. Such a measure would not alter SOSREP’s decisions in such circumstances. When SOSREP is faced with the possibility of environmental catastrophe if a ship is allowed to sink in deep water, he has to take account of myriad things. Of course, he will consider the environmental sensitivity of a particular area, and weigh up whether less sensitive areas are an option. Ultimately, however, he must make sure that the vessel can either be put into a harbour safely or beached safely. A marine Bill would not have made any difference, and nor would any other device that Devon county council has been asking for to protect that stretch of coastline. By taking action we have protected the coastline, as the area would have suffered from pollution for many years to come had the vessel been allowed to sink at sea.

May I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Interests as the convenor of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers parliamentary group?

The House is now aware that the vessel was British-flagged and that it was grounded in 2001. Is the Minister also aware that maritime unions have blacklisted the company that owns the vessel because of its operations, standards and practices? May I suggest that it is now a matter of urgency that we look again at how British flagging procedures secure the health and safety of working practices on British-flagged vessels?

I understand my hon. Friend’s concern over the issue. He and the unions with which he often works have made representations to me about the issue previously. I can tell him—perhaps I should also have said this in response to the question from the hon. Member for Rochdale (Paul Rowen)—that the MAIB investigation will consider all the factors that contributed to the event. If it turns out that the management, crewing or communication among the crew of the vessel was responsible, or that the MCA could have done something better to prevent the incident, that will emerge in the findings, which will be published in the accident report. I assure my hon. Friend that action will then be taken.

As the local Member of Parliament, may I pay tribute to the excellence of the contractors working around the clock on the beach in Branscombe who have already removed 50 tonnes of scrap metal and have 100 tonnes to go? The Minister is absolutely right: it should be said loudly and clearly that Branscombe is open for business. I urge Members to come and see that for themselves during their Easter and summer holidays. It is a great place, and they would get a warm welcome.

Given the principle that the polluter pays, to whom should my constituents make claims if they have suffered loss of bookings? Whom does the Minister think would make up the shortfall, if there is any, both in the short and the longer term?

First, I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for the way in which he has represented constituents and for his constructive approach to the issue. None of us would have liked this type of accident in our constituency, and he could have been forgiven for getting angry about it, but he has not done so; he has dealt with it professionally and appropriately.

The hon. Gentleman is right to pay tribute to the contractors and to say that Branscombe is open for business. I understand that the vessel is something of a tourist attraction at the moment, and I have no doubt that the businesses of Branscombe are cashing in on that. In the spring and summer, I hope that people throughout the country will continue to take their holidays and visit there, and I hope that many Members of the House do so too. When the risk of pollution has passed, I hope that the sight of the vessel offshore will act as a tourist attraction to bring more people to the village.

If anyone has any difficulty in understanding to whom they need to make an appropriate claim, they should, of course, take advice. If the hon. Gentleman wants to discuss such issues on behalf of his constituents in future, I would be happy to meet him to ensure that everybody knows exactly what they need to do.

The Minister rightly praised the RAF and the coastguard, but he was remiss in not congratulating the salvors who are working 24 hours a day. But for their fantastic work, the disaster in Lyme bay would have been much worse.

Given the history of the vessel, why was it not taken into Falmouth or Plymouth? If that action had been taken, rather than going past Torbay and the entire length of the Jurassic coast to get to Portland, the vessel would never have had to be beached.

The vessel did not go to those ports because the direction of travel of the wind and tides at the time was such that the assessment was made that it would not reach them. As I said in my initial statement, there is no provision at Falmouth for the offloading of containers even had the vessel managed to reach there. The decision taken was appropriate. Such matters are always judgment calls. There will always be people who, with the benefit of hindsight, say that the vessel could have gone here or there. The man in command must make the decision in a short space of time, however, and he must do what he thinks is best. That is what SOSREP did, and I am afraid that we must back him when he does that.

On the salvors, I did thank SOSREP and his team. Indeed, his wider team consisted of much more than salvors: it included environmentalists, the owners’ representative, people who were brought in from the MCA, and others who were brought in to make recommendations on tides and the inventory of the cargo so that we knew exactly what we were dealing with. It has been a real team effort, and the salvors have been very professional.

I should also particularly thank the French authorities. The French Minister, Monsieur Dominique Perben, telephoned me the next morning to thank us for our efforts. He has continued to make resources available to us for the rescue, and we have had a further conversation since then. The resolution of the issue has been a good example of teamwork not only in SOSREP’s team but internationally.

May I thank the Minister for the effective way in which he has kept my hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Mr. Swire), me and the hon. Member for South Dorset (Jim Knight) informed about the matter? I visited the beaches affected in West Dorset last week, and I was delighted to see that they have all been properly cleared, as well as being impressed by the people doing that work.

I gather, however, that about 20 per cent. of the oil remains to be taken off the vessel. The Minister will be aware that a fairly large number of oiled birds have been beached, particularly in Abbotsbury in my constituency. I hear that that oil has been taken off by a hot-tapping procedure. Does he feel that it will be removed from the vessel without further environmental damage to the east in my constituency?

Again, I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his constructive attitude. He will be aware that, at one point, we thought that his constituency would have the benefit of the vessel. He faced up to that with equanimity, and I can tell his hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Mr. Swire) that he did not tell SOSREP to move it down the coast; that decision was taken entirely by SOSREP.

I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman has visited the site: I am glad that it is now being cleaned up, and we need to keep it that way. As one of his colleagues has suggested that Ministers have not visited the site, let me put on record that I visited the salvage operation team on Monday, and the Minister for Local Environment, Marine and Animal Welfare visited an RSPCA site to see the operation to clean up the birds. We made those visits privately, so that we did not create a media scrum and detract from the real work going on. The right hon. Gentleman is right that there have been a number of oiled birds, but that is always the case. Although the number has increased, it has not done so dramatically, but any further damage must be dealt with.

On the issue of hot-tapping, the oil remaining on the vessel is in a difficult tank to reach. The process is slow, and the oil is very cold and thick, so it must be warmed up before it can be removed. I am as confident as I can be that it will all be safely removed by the end of the weekend. Of course, things can go wrong, but, thankfully, it looks like the weather will be okay. Once all the oil is off the vessel, I think that we will be able to say that there will be no serious environmental consequences as a result of the incident.

Points of Order

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Yesterday in Prime Minister’s questions and again today in business questions, the Prime Minister and the Leader of the House refused to answer any questions on the cash for honours investigation. Given that no one has been charged in the investigation and given that there is no sub judice, surely Ministers can answer questions about a matter of supreme public interest.

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. This morning in Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs questions, the Department’s officials allowed a question on discussions by Ministers with the Indian Government on climate change, but transferred my question on what discussions they had had on tropical rainforests, a key factor in relation to climate change. Given that I am sure that Environment Ministers would like to discuss that very important part of their remit with hon. Members, can you advise me how that can be proceeded with so that DEFRA officials allow this important subject on to the agenda for discussion with Members?

I am afraid that that is a matter for the Department. I suggest that the hon. Lady pursues it with the relevant Ministers.

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. When I voted for the Equality Bill, I voted with good intentions. However, nowhere in the Bill did it say that it would compromise the beliefs of the Catholic Church. Christianity has been here for more than 2,000 years and it will be here for a long time after this Government have gone. If I could vote again on that Bill, I would not do so. Will you advise Members on how they can be better informed about what will be contained in a Bill in future?

That is not a point of order. It is a matter of debate and argument. It is inappropriate to put that to the Chair.

Defence in the World

[Relevant documents: The Fifth Report from the Defence Committee, Session 2005-06, on the UK deployment to Afghanistan, HC 558, and the Government’s response thereto (Sixth Special Report, Session 2005-06, HC 1211), and the Thirteenth Report, Session 2005-06, on UK Operations in Iraq, HC 1241, and the Government’s response thereto (Twelfth Special Report, Session 2005-06, HC 1603).]

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Liz Blackman.]

I am grateful for the opportunity to open this important debate on defence in the world. Let me start by paying tribute to the work of the UK armed forces, the Ministry of Defence’s civilian staff, members of other Departments and members of the services, including the police and the Prison Service, who are deployed around the world, working in difficult, often arduous circumstances, defending our interests and security. We owe them a great debt of gratitude.

Rarely in recent years have we had demonstrated so clearly the role that our armed forces play in the world. Right now more than 20,000 personnel are overseas working in the defence of the UK, its people and its interests. We are undertaking two major campaigns and a host of other tasks to deliver security, enable development and reconstruction, build confidence and strengthen the security capacity of our friends and allies. Nowhere are those aims more relevant, or the challenges to them more pronounced, than in Iraq. I was there yesterday—my fourth trip in the nine months that I have been in this job. As ever, I was immensely proud of the work that all our people are doing there, both civilian and military, working together to improve the life of the Iraqi people.

The 12 million Iraqis who voted for peace and opportunity remain resolute in the face of far too many days marred by sectarian murder and terrorist atrocities. The politicians who represent those people tell me that Iraq is making progress—frustratingly slow perhaps, but outside Baghdad and the surrounding areas the situation is far from the hopelessness that is often played out on our TV screens, although it is understandable that those incidents of violence attract the attention of our media. That is not to say that all is well. Security is still the No. 1 problem, but perhaps what people back here in the UK do not realise is that 80 per cent. of the violence is concentrated within 30 miles of Baghdad. That is why I have welcomed the US and Iraqi Governments’ new plan for Baghdad without any sense that it is inconsistent with our approach. The security situation there demands it, whereas in the south the environment is different.

I met Prime Minister Maliki and a number of Ministers from across the Iraqi Government and discussed the new Baghdad security plan with them. Their energy and commitment to making the plan work was both impressive and, to some degree, inspiring. They are behind the plan, and they tell me that the people are behind the plan, but it is up to them to make it work. It has to be an Iraqi-led plan, using significant Iraqi resources, if it is to succeed. While the US is putting in more troops to help support the plan, the Iraqi army is increasing its presence in the city and will be right beside them. In addition, the Iraqi Government are investing $10 billion in reconstruction and infrastructure projects. The investment is crucial because, as I have said so often about Iraq and Afghanistan, the answers are never purely about what the military can do. That is why this plan has to be a plan for all Iraqis, Sunni and Shi’a alike. Consequently, I welcome Prime Minister Maliki’s pledge that sectarian interference will not be tolerated.

I was in Baghdad during the festival of Ashurah and met Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, who told me that that morning he had been to speak at a celebration of the festival in a part of the city where a Sunni shrine and a Shi’a shrine are close together. He told me with some pride that thousands of people from both sides of the sectarian divide had gathered to celebrate without signs of trouble. He is a very devout man and has witnessed many festivals of that kind, albeit all too few when Saddam Hussein ruled Iraq, but it was clear to me that the experience had moved him.

In recent days there has been talk of a split between us and our American allies. That is simply not true. I met several of the top US generals in Baghdad, along with Ambassador Khalilzad. Our goals—the UK goals and the US goals—remain the same: to help the Iraqis build the capacity to protect and govern their society. But Baghdad and Basra are different places. There is less violence in Basra and, by and large, the violence is of a different nature, without the poisonous sectarianism that infects Baghdad.

Operation Sinbad is drawing to a close in Basra. It has had some measurable effects, and public support for the operation is good and reported violence is down markedly. That is not just a glib assessment. I spoke to young soldiers who told me of the measurable difference in the attitude of the people. They are responding to our support and take comfort in knowing that we are prepared to take on the murderous militia, much of which we believe is funded, trained and equipped by Iranian elements.

I agree with all that the Secretary of State has said so far. However, did he not find it alarming that the remarks of the United States ambassador created the impression that there was insufficient communication between the United States and the United Kingdom on whether the UK should gradually withdraw its forces and hand over control to the Iraqis?

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his support. I know that it comes from a substantial knowledge base of what is going on in Iraq. I admit that I was disturbed by the interpretation of the part of the interview with Ambassador Khalilzad that was extensively reported in the UK. I was less concerned when I read the whole interview, and I was entirely reassured when I had the opportunity to spend time with the ambassador and to satisfy myself that he fully understood what we were doing. Indeed, he had been part of a process of discussion over many months about the application of our strategy for Basra. Part of the problem may be that there is sometimes a tendency to abstract parts of sentences or whole sentences from extensive interviews and to over-interpret them. In essence, the problem arose because Ambassador Khalilzad honestly conceded that there was not agreement on the detail of the plan at that point in the discussions. That was interpreted as being disagreement when it was just an indication that discussions were ongoing.

The right hon. Gentleman will probably already know that very senior officers are embedded deeply into the command of all the coalition forces throughout Iraq. They are greatly valued, not just by our American allies but by the Iraqi Government, and they play a significant role. When I was in Iraq General Lamb, the senior British military representative in Iraq and currently No. 2 to General Casey, was in charge of the coalition forces. He was the commando because General Casey was out of the country. Against that background, the idea that there was no discussion and conversation between us and our allies about our operational plans is fanciful. Let me reassure the right hon. Gentleman and the House by saying that over-interpretation of one part of a very detailed interview may have misled us all for a short time.

At the start of Operation Sinbad our forces were leading the way, but by the final stages the Iraqi army was out in the lead. That is a sign of progress. It is not a guarantee of success, but it is progress that the people of Basra can see. As well as the improvement in the security situation, thousands of jobs have been created through investment in both short and long-term projects. For example, $12 million has been invested in date palm farming, and Operation Sinbad has created about 25,000 short-term jobs along with the hope of more than 3,000 permanent jobs. More than $30 million has been invested in the improvement of water and electricity supplies. The operation has concentrated on the “last mile”, conveying those vital services to people’s homes and schools. When, in due course, that work is married up with the long-term investment that the Department for International Development has been responsible for making and overseeing in Basra’s water and electricity infrastructure, the benefits will be delivered to homes, schools and other buildings. So things are getting better.

The Staffords—as the Staffordshire Regiment is known—are on their second tour of duty in Basra, and the thoughts of Staffordshire people are with them. We wish them a safe return home. My right hon. Friend has mentioned Operation Sinbad several times. The next major review of our troop levels in Iraq will take place after it has finished. Will my right hon. Friend give us a rough idea of when it will finish and how long the review will take?

When I was in Basra I met the Staffords, and no words are good enough for me to describe my pride in the work that those young people are doing in very difficult circumstances. But—I ask my hon. Friend to convey this to their families and others in his constituency—their morale is high, and they are very proud of the work that they do. They tell me repeatedly, “This is what we are trained to do.” They know that they are the best in the world at doing it, and they are right: they should do their work with pride because they are brave and professional. Of course, their families will want to know when those young people will be coming home. Our wish is that they come home safe. I shall say something about the dangers that they are facing, because I think it appropriate for us to be candid about the difficulties that they face as well as the good work that they do. There will be the normal roulement, and of course they will come home.

My hon. Friend asked me specifically when we will have reviewed and assessed our troop strength following Operation Sinbad. We are involved in the process at the moment. Part of the purpose of my visit at this time was to assess, in the later stages of the operation, its effect and the difference it has made, as far as that is measurable. I do not think my hon. Friend or the House will have very much longer to wait, but I ask Members to be patient. I would rather not give a specific date at this stage, because we are assessing conditions rather than anticipating an event.

Is the Secretary of State satisfied that the confidence of the Iraqi people in their own defence forces has some longevity, and will remain after United Kingdom forces pull out of Basra? Is he sure that they believe in the integrity and honesty of those forces? Might the only reason that they have confidence in them now be that a substantial number of United Kingdom forces are there to police their activities? Is the Secretary of State concerned about what will happen between the public in Iraq and their armed forces once we leave?

The complexity of the hon. Gentleman’s question is betrayed by the time that he took to ask it. It is difficult for me to give a specific answer, but if he will be patient I will say something about the Iraqi security forces and will try to give him an idea of the improvement that I think is taking place. However, the short answer to his question is that it depends on who is asking—as in every environment—and it depends on which forces are being asked about. Some people have confidence in the Iraqi army; some people have confidence in the Iraqi police. One of the problems with trying to test opinion, as we do in that country, is that people tend to be optimistic. When they are asked the simple question, “Are you confident that your own forces can deal with these issues?”, a large number will reply that they are, which is partly an expression of desire rather than of real confidence.

There are still difficulties. Progress is being made, but it is difficult progress in difficult circumstances. We must be honest and candid. There comes a point at which we must transfer responsibility to the troops so that they take it and learn from it when they are in the lead or on their own, as they were in the later stages of Operation Sinbad. As I have said, things are getting better, but they have not yet reached the point at which conditions will be right for transition. Local governance must be strengthened further and the security situation needs a great deal more improvement. While it is encouraging that the Iraqi army has been able to take the lead in Operation Sinbad, we must remember that it is a very new and very raw army that still has much to learn. Our military training teams are doing fantastic work, as I saw with my own eyes. They tell me that there is a problem with absenteeism and discipline, but they also say that every day that they spend training the Iraqi army they see improvement, and every day the army becomes stronger and better trained than the day before. Our troops tell me that they believe that training is one of the most crucial things that they are doing in Iraq, and that it will help the country’s future.

As many Members will know—some have also been to Iraq—we have much to do to improve the Iraqi police, and in particular to reduce corruption.

Will my right hon. Friend say something about infiltration of the police forces and the army? Has he any evidence of that?

There is no doubt that there has been infiltration of the police force by militia elements in the south-east of Iraq. That is why an important part of Operation Sinbad, as we moved across the city, was to concentrate on attempting to clear out those elements police station by police station. Only two days ago, I spoke at some length to the head of the police training team, an assistant chief constable by the name of Dick Barton. [Laughter.] I do not find anything amusing in that. It is the man’s name, and he does a sterling job.

Mr. Barton certainly has special talents. I have engaged with him on my visits, and I now have significant confidence in his assessment. He made an interesting observation to me about—this will be counter-intuitive to most Members—the value of the involvement of one lawyer in improving the rule of law in Basra. Police officers probably do not do this often, but he was effusive in his compliments for the contribution that that lawyer had made in putting backbone into the judicial and prosecution processes. Perhaps as a result of my professional background, that chimed with my view that building up the justice system and the rule of law is crucial to our ability to make, in particular, the police forces effective.

I have digressed, but I shall now address the specific question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, South (Mr. Cunningham). He wanted to know about the level of infiltration. That was high, but the assessment of the very experienced police officer I mentioned was that currently 90 per cent. of the police are good officers who are willing to serve the people of Basra and Iraq, although he also said that 10 per cent. of the police still needed to be dealt with.

Our police teams have been systematically visiting police stations, helping to bring them up to scratch. There has been significant improvement. It must be said that on Christmas day we disbanded the notorious serious crimes unit in Basra, which was the most corrupt part of the police and was at the heart of the death squads. We demolished the police station as a physical and visible sign to the people of Basra that that unit had gone. There has been significant progress—it has been difficult to achieve, but we are moving in the right direction. However, as I always say, there is still a long way to go.

I agree that between 80 per cent. and 90 per cent. of those in the police force and military want a safe and secure Iraq, but is the Secretary of State aware of a Pentagon report that states that about 80 per cent. of the make-up of both the police and the military are former Ba’ath party members? Does he concede that it was a mistake to disband the Ba’ath party in the way that was done after the invasion, not least because that got rid of not only good police officers and soldiers, but 80,000 teachers and 80,000 doctors?

Anyone who knows anything about Iraq knows that the de-Ba’athification process has been retrospectively regretted for its zealousness. There is an ongoing process with the Iraqi Government in respect of how that process can be tempered, or how people who have significant talents—particularly those with deployable skills that are necessary for Iraq in the future—can return to public life. However, we should not underestimate how difficult that is for a substantial number of the people of Iraq. We should thank God every day that we did not have to live through the process that many Shi’a people had to live through. It is difficult in such circumstances to get the balance right, and we should understand that and not be so quick to judge some of the errors that were made. However, the hon. Gentleman is entirely correct that part of the consequence of de-Ba’athification and of how it was carried out was that it took out of public life people who were capable of making a positive contribution. Getting the right balance on that through the process of reconciliation is one of the great challenges that the Iraqi Government face. We need to support them through that, and we are doing so in the best way that we can.

Hon. Members might be interested to learn that some of the people who have knowledge of our experience over the past 10 or 15 years in Northern Ireland have been going out to Iraq to speak to Iraqi politicians—and in particular to Ministers and Prime Minister Maliki—about the lessons that we have learned from the processes of reconciliation in w