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Commons Chamber

Volume 456: debated on Monday 5 February 2007

House of Commons

Monday 5 February 2007

The House met at half-past Two o’clock

Prayers

[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Work and Pensions

The Secretary of State was asked—

Pensions

1. What assessment he has made of the implications of the recent European Court of Justice ruling for the Government’s response to the parliamentary ombudsman’s report “Trusting in the Pensions Promise”. (118073)

As I made clear in my written statement on 26 January, we are giving careful consideration to the ruling of the European Court of Justice and the implications, if any, for the financial assistance scheme and the Pension Protection Fund.

The Government have ignored both the parliamentary ombudsman and the House’s Public Administration Committee. Now the European Court of Justice has ruled that the UK pension rules offer inadequate protection for workers such as those formerly employed by Scarborough coach builder Henlys. Could it be that the solution to the problem is being blocked by the Treasury until the new incumbent at No. 10 can come in and take the credit?

No, that is not true. This is a serious issue, and I do not think that the hon. Gentleman’s latter point was a serious contribution to the proceedings. We have put nearly £2.5 billion into the financial assistance scheme to provide taxpayers’ money to compensate those who have lost the most when their occupational pension schemes have collapsed owing to employer insolvency. That is not an insignificant response; it is an extremely positive response. It is worth bearing in mind that there were no such public funds available to support people who were caught up in these terrible situations before 2004. In relation to the Henlys scheme, in which I understand the hon. Gentleman has a constituency interest, I can tell him and the House that 38 members of the Henlys scheme have been assessed for support by the financial assistance scheme, and 32 of them are now in payment.

My right hon. Friend will be aware that the Select Committee, of which I am a member, has strongly recommended that the Government pay up. How much would that cost, and is it not affordable?

I am aware of my hon. Friend’s role on the Select Committee, and I remember clearly the day that I gave evidence to it. We have already published the estimates of the cost of a full compensation scheme, which we have made available to the House and outside. It would cost significantly more than the £2.5 billion that we have pledged to it. The Government have tried hard to be supportive of those who have lost the most, but we must also be mindful that we are using public resources in a compensation scheme, so we have to balance what is fair to the taxpayer with what is fair to those who have lost the most. We have tried hard to strike the right balance.

So far the Government have, as we have heard, ignored the conclusions of the ombudsman and the recommendations of the Select Committee, and they have now been criticised by the European Court of Justice. Can the Secretary of State give us a promise that if, in the upcoming judicial review, the courts in this country find that the Government have acted unlawfully in rejecting the recommendations and the findings of the ombudsman, it will be time for the Government to do the decent thing and bring forward a fair compensation package for the individuals in question? Will he give us that guarantee?

Of course the Government—any Government—will follow the obligations imposed on them by the courts and the due legal process. There is no question of our doing otherwise. On Wednesday in the High Court we will argue our case very strongly with regard to the way in which we have responded to the ombudsman’s report. In relation to the European Court of Justice case, it is worth reminding ourselves that the case is still continuing before the High Court in England. There is therefore an obvious limitation on what I can say today about how we might respond to any subsequent ruling by the Court.

The Secretary of State can be proud of both the financial assistance scheme and the Pension Protection Fund. However, does he accept that by not looking more carefully at the ombudsman’s ruling, he is undermining the Government’s attempts to establish trust in the long term in pension provision? Even if the problems go back a long time ago to a Conservative Government, by not meeting the ombudsman’s requests, we are undermining that trust.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her words of support in relation to the actions that we have taken—but it is simply not true that we have ignored the ombudsman’s report as she suggested. We produced an extra £2 billion-worth of public money to go into the financial assistance scheme after the ombudsman produced her report, so I do not believe it is right to say that we have ignored the ombudsman’s report. We have the greatest respect for the office of the ombudsman and we had the advantage of seeing her report in draft some considerable time before it was published. I can assure my hon. Friend, and every Member of the House, that we have given it the fullest and most careful consideration.

The Secretary of State talks about the financial assistance scheme as though it had a fixed cost; he said that the Government were finding £2.5 billion. Will he confirm, however, that the Government’s commitment under that scheme is in fact to pay, without limit, top-ups to a defined benefit level, and that as yet, they know neither the total value of the assets nor the liabilities of the schemes? Does he therefore acknowledge that the total cost could be much higher—or, indeed, much lower—than the figure that he has cited?

We have made significant provision, and tried to estimate the costs as best we can. Obviously we will have to keep the costs under review, and see what happens in practice. However, I believe that we have made prudent and adequate provision for the losses that those who are closest to retirement have sustained.

The point is that this is an open-ended, defined benefit commitment, and the state has already accepted that risk. Will the Secretary of State therefore reconsider whether forcing failed schemes to purchase annuities for members is the best use of those members’ funds? After all, the PPF is not forced to purchase annuities.

We certainly look continuously at all those issues. Personally, I think that it is sensible and prudent to require annuitisation in those circumstances, because that is a sensible way of managing risk for the long term. We are giving careful consideration to the wider issues raised by the European Court of Justice ruling, and to what that will mean looking forward to the future of the financial assistance scheme and the PPF.

Housing Benefit

2. How many local authorities did not achieve the performance targets for the administration of housing benefit in the last 12 months for which figures are available. (118074)

Average performance in housing benefit administration across all local authorities is improving significantly. Last year, four local authorities failed to meet the Department’s minimum standards for housing benefit administration, 38 councils were assessed as meeting only the minimum requirements, but 226 were providing a good service and a further 128 were providing an excellent service.

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer, but for more than five years, housing benefit in my constituency has not been administered efficiently by Waveney district council; on occasions, it has been disastrously bad. Despite some recent improvement, about half the local landlords will not now let their properties to people on housing benefit, and I am worried that some of the poorest people are being disadvantaged as a result. Will my hon. Friend monitor the situation carefully? Might the new housing allowance pilots provide the answer to the problem?

I can assure my hon. Friend that I am monitoring the situation carefully. I now see monthly reports on the performance of Waveney council, because there is clearly a problem there. The council had £1 million from us via the performance standards fund, and as a result it got its housing benefit administration up to about the national average in the early part of 2006. Since then, however, its performance has deteriorated sharply, which is having exactly the effects that my hon. Friend described. The council is now taking 64 days to process new claims, compared with the national average of 34 days. Officials in my Department met officials from the council last week, and made it clear that the council’s performance was unacceptable and improvement was urgently needed. We cannot see any reason why its performance should be so bad, and it is about time that Conservative-run council got its act together.

It is estimated that, in the year to March 2006, some £770 million of housing benefit was overpaid, almost £200 million of which was due to official error. How does the Minister intend to tackle that problem?

The latest figures, published last week, show that official error as a proportion of housing benefit expenditure is at a steady share of the total. I can assure the hon. Gentleman, however, that the fraud losses in housing benefit have fallen over the past four or five years by 47 per cent., and are now at their lowest ever recorded level. The biggest increase in error is down to customer error. I should point out that last year we recovered £300 million from the overpayment figure that he mentioned. My Department and the local authorities are together aiming to improve performance in respect of error in housing benefit, and I shall be launching our part of the strategy with the local authorities this week. This is part of the broad counter-error strategy, which I launched last month, designed to reduce error losses across the whole benefit system by £1 billion over five years.

Worklessness

Over the past decade, claimant unemployment in London has halved from 320,000 to 162,000, but we are determined to go further to build on that success in the next few months.

I am grateful to the Minister for his very brief answer—but the economic participation rate is much lower in London than in the rest of the economy. This is leaving us with a shortfall of about £5 billion of potential contribution to the UK’s gross domestic product. What is the Department doing to secure jobs for many of the people who are not participating in London’s economy, perhaps by encouraging foreign direct investment in deprived parts of the city, for example? What cross-departmental work is being done to co-ordinate those programmes, to argue the advantages of investment in public infrastructure, and perhaps to suggest that the Mayor should be responsible for skills training in London, so that we can achieve positive economic development in those deprived communities?

I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for his work in helping to stimulate the London labour market. In fact, until recently he had three separate jobs of his own: as the Member of Parliament for Croydon, Central, as a member of the London assembly, and—until recently—as a councillor in Croydon. In many ways, he is a one-man labour market all on his own.

However, the hon. Gentleman raises a serious point about the challenges that still exist in London. Two big initiatives, of which I think he will be aware, are about to be rolled out across the city. The city strategy pilots will address specific challenges in the two distinct areas of east and west London. Additionally, pathways support for incapacity benefit customers will roll out across the city by the end of next year. Based on the experience across the rest of the UK, that will be a real boost to economic activity in London.

What lessons do the Government draw from the fact that although 2.5 million new jobs have been created since they were elected, many have been filled by immigrants coming here and wishing to work? Given the stubbornness of youth unemployment in London with regard to moving downwards, might not the Government consider time-limiting benefit?

Given his experience in government at the Department for Work and Pensions and his more recent experience, my right hon. Friend is retaining a close interest in the welfare-to-work review, and he acknowledges that there has been real progress. As he said, 2.5 million more people are in work—and 29 million people are now in work in the UK.

I should add that less than 1 per cent. of those currently in our labour market are migrants from eastern Europe, although we would not get that impression from reading some of the popular press. There are real challenges, which are the subject of our ongoing long-term welfare review, in relation to what more we can do to support UK-born citizens in developing their skills in connection with the labour market. I do not want to pre-empt the outcome of the review currently being undertaken by David Freud.

Is there not a case for encouraging British citizens who do not speak English to learn English, so that they can access the workplace, make a contribution to society, increase social cohesion and improve community relations?

Further to the comments about time-limited benefits made by the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field), if, through a lack of language skills, British citizens unable to speak English do not access the workplace, should they not have their unemployment benefits cut off after 12 months? Is there not a great difference between a disability and an inability? Not speaking English is an inability, which can be overcome.

We are always considering ways to reduce the barriers to the labour market for all sorts of our customers, regardless of their circumstances, background, disability, skills level, age or place of abode in the United Kingdom. One of the issues is how we overcome the multiple labour market disadvantages faced by some of the hon. Gentleman’s constituents and mine.

Without wishing to repeat the point that I offered in response to my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field), I should add that we are awaiting the outcome of David Freud’s review on the long-term challenges of welfare to work. We can then have a sensible conversation about some of the points that the hon. Gentleman has raised, entirely reasonably, this afternoon.

The problem in my constituency is that whereas in recent months unemployment has been stagnant—slightly rising, in fact—the number of job vacancies for skilled employees has gone up. There is a mismatch. I know that that is not the Minister’s responsibility, but surely the Department for Work and Pensions must do something to bring together the people and skills that are necessary to address the problem in constituencies such as mine.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right; that is one of the significant and enduring challenges that we still face. More than 900,000 people are on jobseeker’s allowance, but there are 600,000 vacancies in the economy. We have to be smarter at matching those still out of work with vacancies in the economy.

Part of that is about skills but part is about how we market the jobs. In future, through Jobcentre Plus, we should market jobs with flexible opportunities and family-friendly hours so that we maximise every opportunity not only to put people into work but to ensure that they stay in sustained employment that pays and lifts their families out of poverty.

Equal Opportunities

6. What assessment he has made of his Department’s performance in increasing the number of people with disabilities in employment. (118078)

Through a combination of stable economic growth and our successful labour market policies, including pathways to work, we have increased the employment rate of disabled people by more than 9 percentage points since 1998.

I thank the Minister for that answer, but last year research by the Disability Rights Commission found that only one person in 10 with a severe learning disability had a job, and only two people in 10 with a mental health problem had a job. That research is supported by the increasing number of people I see at my surgeries who have suffered mental illness and find it difficult to get back into work. What are the Government doing specifically to target those very low rates of employment and get those people back to work?

The hon. Gentleman has given the House some valuable information—although it is, of course, not news to the Department for Work and Pensions. That is why the Welfare Reform Bill is currently going through Parliament. It is also why we have adjusted and reviewed the personal capability assessment. He is right in identifying people with fluctuating mental health conditions, whose needs—their support needs, in particular—were perhaps not taken into account. Those with learning disabilities are way at the edge of the labour market, in spite of the fact that many people with learning disabilities would like to get into a job. Indeed, I am buoyed up by the optimism that there is around the country about how many of those with learning disabilities can move into jobs.

A week last Friday, I was invited to speak at the launch of the roll-out of pathways to work in the Aberdeen area. It was an extremely good and positive event. People were very happy that pathways to work was coming to Aberdeen. However, as usual at such events, although some employers were present, there were not enough of them. What are the Government going to do to get employers involved in the whole process? Without them—without the jobs—what the Government are doing in getting people work-ready does not add up to very much.

My hon. Friend is correct. There are three elements to our welfare reform strategy. One is obviously the legislation. Another is how we have reformed the way in which we work, through Jobcentre Plus and various other programmes, especially in relation to disability employment. The third element, however, is the expectation of employers, which we are making a priority through our employers panels and by engaging with local employers and local employers’ associations, particularly in the small and medium-sized enterprises sector, where there are a great number of jobs to be had.

I was in another part of the north of Scotland when my colleagues were in Aberdeen, and in Inverness and Stornoway I saw fantastic examples of what is happening, including at the Shirlie project in Inverness, which works in particular with young people whose ambitions have been thwarted over many years because of a lack of expectations about what they could do. Given the right support, through pathways, they can achieve a significant amount in the employment market.

What example does the Minister think it sets to the private sector and other Departments that during the period in which the DWP has been tightening its belt as a response to the Gershon process, the number of disabled employees has shrunk by more than double the rate experienced by other employees? The disability equality duty came into practice in December, so when will the Government practise what they preach?

The hon. Gentleman highlights something that—as I think that in another forum he would accept—I have often highlighted, which is that the public sector has to take its responsibility for employing more disabled people. Yes, that includes my Department. It also includes the 44,000 or thereabouts public authorities across the country. I would not have thought that this was a party political point, as he seeks to portray it. It is to do with opening up employment opportunities for disabled people. The DWP is taking that responsibility very seriously.

As my hon. Friend will recall, local authorities used to employ people with disadvantages, and the jobs were almost ring-fenced—but compulsory competitive tendering forced them out of the system. What will she do to remind local authorities of the vital role that they can play in putting such people on the ladder to employment?

It is true that we used to have a quota system for the employment of disabled people, but I hope my hon. Friend agrees that that system became a ceiling for what they could achieve rather than a floor allowing them to move into other jobs. The new civil rights legislation removed the quota system, but as my hon. Friend says, we must think about how to encourage local authorities, and public authorities generally, to expand the opportunities that they offer disabled people in employment. The disability equality duty, which came into force only a few weeks ago, will start to offer some of those opportunities, and I expect significant improvement in the months and years to come.

Pensions

8. What recent representations he has received on the level of the Pension Protection Fund levy; and if he will make a statement. (118080)

My Department is in regular discussion with employers and the pensions industry, including scheme managers and members. We have received a handful of representations on the Pension Protection Fund levy, but its level is a matter for the board of the Pension Protection Fund. The board announced its proposals on 21 December, and consultation closed on Friday 2 February.

The Minister will be aware that while the overall PPF levy for 2007-08 is more than doubling to £675 million, the risk-based element is increasing fourfold. Does he share the concern expressed by commentators that overall the increase is greatest for the weaker schemes, which are least able to afford it? Does he recognise that the burden of paying the increased levy may, paradoxically, force some of those schemes into insolvency?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, there is a cap enabling the 5 per cent. of weaker schemes to be cross-subsidised by the rest of the system—but his question illustrates the difficulty of striking the right balance. On the one hand his party’s Front Benchers are saying that there should be more protection for people who have suffered as a result of failed company pension schemes; on the other hand, he is saying that the levy should be lower. The levy is only 2 per cent. of the amount that companies are investing in their pension schemes, and we therefore think it a reasonable burden to impose in order to give people the security that they need.

A constituent who came to my surgery on Saturday is due to retire in March this year. He said that he had been told five years ago by Caparo and a pension scheme that he was to receive a pension of £5,500 annually. He has now been told that the amount will be less than half that. Can my hon. Friend understand the depression that that man is experiencing now that all his plans for retirement have been undermined? What assistance can be provided for him, when the pledge that was made to him, which I have now seen, is to be so completely withdrawn?

I am surprised at those facts if the scheme qualified for the Pension Protection Fund, which generally gives people 90 per cent. of the pension that they expected to receive. I shall be happy to meet my hon. Friend’s constituent to discuss the matter, but I should point out that there is now a Pension Protection Fund for people who are saving in company pensions. That deals with what my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) said earlier about the need to restore trust in the system and reassure people that there is a safety net on which they can rely.

This is all about pension protection. What action are the Government taking to ensure that private pension schemes do not fail and collapse in the future?

That is a good point. At the same time as introducing the PPF, we have tightened the regulation by bringing in the Pensions Regulator, which has much tougher powers to ensure that schemes are properly funded. The hon. Gentleman will be glad to know that Watson Wyatt found recently that pension schemes are at their healthiest level since 1999, so it is working in practice: the Pensions Regulator does mean that pension funds are much better funded.

Dundee City Strategy

Dundee has now submitted its ambitious business plans. My hon. Friend will be aware that the Dundee Partnership wants to develop a more co-ordinated approach to support more Dundonians into work.

I thank the Minister for that response, and for his visit to Dundee 10 days ago to see the progress being made by the Dundee city strategy. Since 2001, Dundee has achieved employment growth of between 2 and 4.5 per cent. Credit for that must be given to Dundee city council, the Scottish Executive and the Government in Westminster, all of which are, of course, Labour led. Will he confirm his Department's continued support for the Dundee city strategy in providing new skills, new training and new jobs to maintain Dundee’s prosperity and growth?

We are determined to do that, and I thank my hon. Friend for his work in supporting the consortiums in Dundee in developing their plans. He will be aware that today the rapid reaction force that is looking into the proposed redundancies at NCR is meeting again. Obviously, we are determined to work with the city council, under the leadership of Jill Shimi, and others, to support more people to get a chance to work. Dundee has set itself the ambition of reducing the proportion of worklessness by 30 per cent. over three years. That requires a co-ordinated approach by all the agencies that my hon. Friend mentioned.

As part of that co-ordinated approach, and as part of achieving growth in an ever more globalised economy, the Minister will understand the need for lots of skills, not least in foreign languages. Although it is a devolved matter, can he assure the House that next time he meets his colleagues in the Scottish Executive he will put some pressure on them, if he can, to provide some additional resources to Dundee university to avoid cuts, not least in the modern languages department?

In anticipation of the hon. Gentleman's question, I had intended to say that because of the reasonable way in which he put it, I would spare him the lecture on why breaking up Britain would be bad for Scottish jobs—so I am left with a choice. However, I take on board the points that he made. That matter is not, of course, the responsibility of the Department for Work and Pensions, but we are determined to do all we can to support the Dundee labour market within the wider Scottish labour market, in a stable United Kingdom economy and UK labour market.

Benefits System

10. If he will make a statement on his Department's report “Getting Welfare Right: Tackling Error in the Benefits System”. (118083)

The Government published their error reduction strategy on 24 January. Building on our success in reducing fraud losses to their lowest ever recorded level, that strategy sets out a comprehensive and ambitious plan for reducing error in the benefits system by £1 billion over the next five years.

I thank the Minister for that reply. The report calls for ensuring that less money is paid out incorrectly, but says that that will rely on customer compliance. Does the Minister really believe that people who rely on that money will own up when they have been paid too much, especially if returning it brings them under further scrutiny?

As the hon. Gentleman will see if he studies the strategy carefully, there are three dimensions to it: prevention, or trying to stop error getting into the system in the first place; correction, or putting right error already in the stock of benefits; and compliance, whereby customers let us know about changes in circumstances that they are obliged to report to us because they have an effect on their benefit entitlement. A new compliance pilot is under way in Cambridgeshire. We will study carefully how that goes, but the early findings are very encouraging. Compliance will help us to achieve the £1 billion reduction in error across the system.

Can my hon. Friend tell me whether that initiative will extend to local authorities, where calculations are made in respect of housing benefit and council tax benefit? Their success rate is 80 per cent., so 20 per cent. of decisions made on those benefits are wrong. On Friday, the disability information advice line in my constituency raised with me the case of a housing benefit calculation whereby for the past six years a constituent of mine was paid £30 a week when she should have been paid £46 a week. That error was twice compounded by supervisory decisions. Will there be an initiative to deal with local authority calculations as well?

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. I want to reassure him that in devising the strategy published last week, staff in the Department worked closely with staff in local authorities. He is quite right that there are many linked decisions by the Department and local authorities, and the key to reducing error is to have more data sharing in the system. That is a crucial part of the strategy, and we are already putting in place an IT platform that allows DWP data to be transferred directly to local authority offices on a weekly basis.

Overpayments due to fraud and error in the four major benefits total a staggering £6 billion in the past four years. Overpayments due to customer confusion are up 50 per cent. in the past nine years, and last year alone, underpayments totalled nearly £1 billion, with £0.25 billion underpaid to disabled families. We all agree that we need a simpler, fairer system, so will Ministers recommit today to cutting complexity, and will they explain to the House why they allocated only five full-time staff to the benefit simplification unit and only two full-time staff to the error taskforce?

I am interested that the hon. Gentleman should choose to decry the work of those departments, because the benefit simplification unit has been in place since January 2006 and promotes best practice across the system. It has already achieved simplifications to the social fund, and it has aligned capital limits across all working-age benefits. The small team to which he referred is responsible for revoking 200 statutory instruments, thereby simplifying the benefits system. May I remind him of the record? Fraud is at its lowest ever recorded level, and it is half the 1997 level. It was cut by a further £100 million just last year, and error was reduced last year by £100 million. Sanctions and prosecutions have increased fivefold since 1997, and our strategy is broadly endorsed by the National Audit Office, so I can tell the hon. Gentleman: better my grip than his lip.

Child Support

11. What the expected level of outstanding Child Support Agency debt is that he proposes to write off in establishing the new Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission. (118084)

We have decided against seeking a general power to write off debt owed to the Child Support Agency. Where the parent with care or the non-resident parent is dead, or where the parent with care has asked for cessation of debt recovery, for example following mutual reconciliation, we have decided that it would not be sensible to pursue such debt. I do not expect those debts to exceed £50 million.

But should the Secretary of State not come clean with hard-pressed families? The CSA has admitted that £1.3 billion-worth of child maintenance owed by absent parents has not been paid, yet the Department has said that it is actively pursuing only some £500 million, which means that £800 million is likely to be written off. Can that possibly be right?

I think that the right hon. Gentleman is referring to the interim maintenance assessment liabilities that accrued between 1993 and the end of 2000, when we stopped making interim maintenance assessments. They were originally designed in the child support legislation to encourage non-resident parents to pay child maintenance, but they singularly failed to do so. We are not going to write off that debt, but it will be revalued, which is the sensible thing to do. I hope that we can recover about £500 million, and we will actively pursue that. I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that we should always be honest with voters and our constituents, and to some extent that money will be extremely difficult to recover, given the very nature of those cases. We have a stark and simple choice: we can either pursue what we think is recoverable and go at it hammer and tongs, or we can spend a lot of time and, I am afraid, a lot of public money, pursuing debt that we know is never going to be recoverable. That is the choice that confronts us. We have decided not to take the general power to write off debt, which is what Sir David Henshaw recommended, and we are going to give the CSA and its successor a range of tough, new enforcement powers that are unprecedented in civil debt recovery to break the culture of non-payment of maintenance which, I am afraid, has become widespread in our society.

The Secretary of State will know that it is encouraging to hear of the limitations that he has put on that particular process, but I hope that he also realises that many people—mothers, in particular—have spent many years going through the whole galling procedure of trying to recover money and are still being told to continue to fill in forms and have little hope of getting any kind of settlement at all. I hope that the Secretary of State accepts that that is an unacceptable diminution of their status—and that it beggars belief.

I agree that the record in respect of recovering debt that is owed to parents who are carers has not been good enough. That is why we have decided to replace the Child Support Agency with a completely different organisation that will have a different range of powers to break the culture of non-payment. As a result, there will be an important opportunity for Members to send out a signal of the kind that I am sure that my hon. Friend believes in—that although it is obviously the case that relationships end, the financial responsibilities of parents to their children never do. Unfortunately, under current legislation it has proved far too easy for people to escape their liabilities, and we are determined to clamp down on that.

Does the Secretary of State agree that one of the reasons for the high levels of outstanding CSA debt is the ridiculously long repayment terms that are given? A constituent of mine is owed £9,000 and she has been told that her ex-husband can repay it over 39 years. Will the CSA replacement body get tough on the maintenance cheats and enforce repayments over much shorter time scales, to make sure that the money gets to the children while they are still children?

Does the Secretary of State understand the anger of those parents who are owed thousands of pounds by a former partner and who subsequently find, when a child changes residence to that of that partner, that they have deductions from their own salary and hence lose twice? Does he agree that such cases should be a priority in respect of pursuing arrears?

Tomorrow, Conservatives will hold a specialist seminar on the future of child support and will look at debt write-off. Will the Secretary of State update the House on the growth in CSA debt? Figures show that outstanding debt is being reduced by £7 million a month but that new debt is growing by £20 million a month. Is that trend set to continue?

Yes it will, and I think that we have to be clear, honest and straight with people about that. It is accumulating at that amount a month because of the accumulated legacy of debt over the past 15 years, which, with the best will in the world, neither the hon. Lady nor anyone else in this place or outside has a magic wand to deal with. We are strengthening the powers of recovery. We have taken legislation through the House to remove the six-year limit that restricts our ability to pursue debt. We are taking a number of steps to enforce debt recovery more successfully and intelligently. My understanding is that the hon. Lady and her party support our reforms of the CSA to make sure that we make further progress, and I am grateful to her and her hon. Friends for that support.

In answer to the question, the Secretary of State said that he would allow parents with care to ask for the write-off of debt for parents without care under the new rules that he intends to bring in. Will that only be in cases where the couple have come back together, or will that be possible in all cases? Also, has he considered the impact on some parents with care who might be threatened or bullied by their ex-partner into taking up that measure?

I was referring to the new power to offset liabilities that have accrued while one parent was the non-resident parent and the other parent was the parent with care when those roles are reversed. That is a perfectly sensible way of dealing with such problems. That is how we intend that new power to be exercised, and I hope that the hon. Lady will support it.

Child Poverty

14. If he will make a statement on his Department’s progress towards achieving its 2010 child poverty target. (118087)

We have succeeded in reversing the long-term trend of rising child poverty and have made the biggest improvement of any EU country over the past decade. But there is more that we can do, which is why we are currently refreshing our child poverty strategy.

I thank the Minister for that answer. The outgoing Prime Minister is searching for a legacy. That legacy is that the UK has the highest proportion in Europe of children living in workless households, and that 3.4 million children live in poverty. The Government’s target to reduce by a quarter the level of child poverty recorded in 1999 was recently missed, so what confidence can we have that they can meet their target to halve child poverty before 2011?

The hon. Gentleman’s observations would have greater credibility had he acknowledged the progress that has been made. Under the previous Government, 210 children fell into poverty each and every day. Under this Government, 240 children are lifted out of poverty every single day. So while it is often lazily commented that there is no difference between the two major parties in this country, there is one difference that my party is rightly proud of.

Winter Fuel Payments

I thank the Minister for her answer, but is she aware that last November, my hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws) received a written answer from the Department of Trade and Industry saying that, rather than moving towards the target to eradicate fuel poverty by 2016, the number of houses in fuel poverty was due to increase by 1 million? Given that, what plans does her Department have to ensure that vulnerable groups such as pensioners and the severely disabled will not spend next winter in fuel poverty?

Of course, 11.5 million pensioner households receive the winter fuel allowance every year in November or December, and those payments are significant and well timed in order for older citizens to meet their heating bills. This Government do not have any apologies to make for ensuring that that £200 winter fuel allowance—it is more than £300 if a person is over 80—is paid regularly to older people’s households, particularly if one considers that, as recently as 10 years ago, the only thing that pensioner households could look forward to was a £69 pension and a £10 Christmas bonus.

What would the Minister say to my constituent Sue Woods, whose brother celebrated his 60th birthday in the autumn, did not get the fuel allowance and died before he was 61? Now, £200 is a lot of money for any family, but it is the principle that rankles with my constituent.

I can appreciate the disappointment of somebody whose birthday falls the day before whatever date we have as a cut-off, but there has to be a qualification date and that date is set. I appreciate that people cannot change their birthdays to suit the qualification date, but this is just something that we all have to live with—we are either on one side of the birthday threshold, or the other. The important issue is that when the hon. Gentleman’s constituent reaches the age of 61, he will receive his £200 winter fuel allowance.

Equal Opportunities

16. What steps he is taking to increase employment opportunities for older workers; and if he will make a statement. (118089)

The Government have put in place a range of measures to help older people to remain in, or return to, work. Since 1997, the employment rate of people aged 50 to 69 has increased by 6.7 per cent. We are tackling age discrimination through our “Age Positive” campaign, which promotes good practice and the benefits of an age-diverse work force to employers. Last October, we brought the age regulations into force, which introduced a default retirement age of 65, together with a right for employees to request to work beyond this age. We will be monitoring those regulations’ effect on the employment of older workers.

I thank the Minister for his reply and I welcome the increased opportunities for older people. A constituent of mine was very disappointed, on reaching his 65th birthday, to be told that he had to retire, and his request was not considered. Does the Minister agree that, as people are living for longer and in better health, employers’ perceptions of what is old will have to be revised?

That is absolutely right and it is exactly why the age discrimination regulations are so important. We try to communicate to people the benefits of having a work force with a range of ages because older workers bring all sorts of benefits, such as expertise and job loyalty. It is also worth noting that more than half the increase in employment overall has come from people aged between 50 and 69, and that more than a third has come from those over the state pension age. So real progress is being made in helping people to work for longer when they are older.

In tackling the problems of age-related discrimination in employment in the welcome way that the Minister describes, will he also pay particular attention to the need to tackle disability discrimination in employment? The older that someone gets, the more likely they are to be disabled, and disability discrimination can often be a major reason that older workers are not as welcome in the workplace as younger ones. Will he make sure that, in addition to the measures he has taken to deal with age discrimination, there are publicity campaigns aimed at disability discrimination among employers?

We obviously have to tackle discrimination wherever it happens. The pathways to work programme will help people in that situation, and Jobcentre Plus can help people with a range of measures whether their issues are to do with occupational health or disability more generally.

What advice can my hon. Friend give me to give the constituents who attended my surgery last Friday? They worked in an abattoir run by a Mr. Kenny Henderson, but a few days ago the factory door was locked against them. Many of them are in the older age group. They had to pay for their own protective clothing and knives and had also been paid less than the minimum wage for years. How can I initiate a prosecution?

Benefits System

We agree that the welfare system should be simpler, more transparent and accessible for all our customers, not least for disabled people. For those with health problems and disabilities, the new employment and support allowance will integrate into a single structure both earnings replacement and income-related benefits.

Does the Minister think that it is wrong that people who suffer from deteriorating conditions such as multiple sclerosis are still sent complicated forms from time to time when there is no prospect of them improving or getting better?

I hope that the hon. Lady will accept that in any benefits system there is a need for review, on a regular or irregular basis. I hope that she will also accept that sometimes the review process identifies additional benefits to which a person—she gives the example of someone with multiple sclerosis—may be entitled. We should not always put a negative slant on the review of disability benefits. The review process often picks up that someone may be entitled to additional support through the benefit system.

Leader of the House

The Leader of the House was asked—

Lords Reform

20. What representations he has received on the appropriateness of clerics sitting in a reformed second Chamber purely on the basis of their position in their religious organisations. (118065)

I thank the Leader of the House for his full answer. Will he accept my representation on the issue? He will recognise that the UK is the only democratic country to give seats in its legislature to religious representatives as of right. Giving seats to religious leaders, including those of the Church of England, as of right embeds sexism in our legislature, because of the male/female ratio of those leaders. If individuals are to be appointed, it should be on their own merits and not on the basis that they lead a particular organisation.

I have a number of things to say to the hon. Gentleman. First, we are by no means the only country in the world with the equivalent of a state Church, as many European countries have one. Secondly, we may be an exception, but we are also an exception in being the only country in Europe that I can think of that has survived for three centuries without a bloody revolution, occupation or the humiliation of neutrality in a just war. We can have lengthy discussions on the issue, but my view is that Lord Wakeham and his fellow commissioners were correct when they said:

“While there is no direct or logical connection between the establishment of the Church of England and the presence of Church of England bishops in the ‘second chamber’, their removal would be likely to raise the whole question of the relationship between Church, State and Monarchy, with unpredictable consequences.”

There would be very welcome consequences if we looked into that issue. My right hon. Friend said that we are not the only country that has a state Church. That is true, but England is the only country that allows its Church’s prelates to sit in the House of Lords. Representatives of the Church of Scotland, the Church of Ireland and the Church of Wales are not there, and they should not be there. Hands up all those people who are communicants of the Church of England—

Order. The hon. Gentleman should be quiet for a while and let the Leader of the House answer.

As the Church of Scotland is Presbyterian, it by definition does not have bishops. It is in a very privileged position under the Church of Scotland Act 1921. Its liturgy was laid down in the other place, as I recall from a lecture by the late Donald Dewar. We will have some big debates about the future of the House of Lords. If folk want to pursue the disestablishment of the Church of England, that is fine, but we should not do that by the back door and we should take account of the fact that most of the other faith groups want to keep some representation of the Anglican bishops in the House.

Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that further reform to remove clerics from the other place will not guarantee that Parliament is improved—quite the contrary? Does he accept that perhaps it is time to pause for thought and that the status quo might be the best way forward for the other place?

Opinions differ on this issue in all parties. I think that the hon. Gentleman’s party is committed to a substantially elected Chamber. I have a letter from one of his party leaders saying that that means 80 per cent. We will see whether that is backed by sentiment on the Opposition Benches. What I am seeking to do, and what I will make further announcements about quickly, is to provide an opportunity for the issue to be debated thoroughly and for the House then to come to a decision one way or another.

War

21. What consideration he has given to proposals for requiring the House’s approval for going to war; and if he will make a statement. (118066)

My hon. Friend is aware that the Government have considered and responded to the report of the Lords Constitution Committee, “Waging war: Parliament’s role and responsibility”. As I said to him during oral questions on 8 January,

“we have to ensure at all times and in all circumstances the safety of our service personnel, but subject to that and to emergency situations, I cannot conceive of a situation where the Commons should not have a key role to play in decisions in respect of going to war.”—[Official Report, 8 January 2007; Vol. 455, c. 19.]

You will recall, Mr. Speaker, that at the last oral questions there was a very positive and constructive response from both sides of the House on settling on a sensible basis the relationship between Parliament and the Executive in times of war. The House of Lords has now contributed its view, too. Does my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House agree that we are ever closer to a point at which a resolution or a statute will be put before this House, so that the matter can be resolved once and for all?

I hope so. I do not think that there is an argument of principle. Everybody accepts that when it comes to decisions in principle to go to war, the House, as the elected Chamber, has to make the decision. Everybody also accepts that there could be emergency situations and other circumstances relating to the safety of our personnel in which that decision would have to happen retrospectively, but I do not believe that it is impossible to square that circle.

I welcome what the Leader of the House has said and I endorse his sentiments, but may I press him again, as the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) did, to incorporate those sentiments in a firm resolution of the House, alternatively, in statutory language?

As the right hon. and learned Gentleman will know, in the Government response to the Lords Constitution Committee, we said that we were considering carefully what it had proposed, which is essentially a resolution that would lie on the Standing Orders. We are giving that further and active consideration at the moment.

I am grateful to the Leader of the House for his positive comments. I thought back to what he said on the last occasion, on 8 January, but I have to say that the idea of a developing convention simply will not wash, not least because we have a substantial deployment in Afghanistan, which has never been subject to a resolution of the House, although I and my colleagues on the Liberal Democrat Benches would vote for it. The matter of urgency, too, can be dealt with easily; it is in most European legislatures—for example, the instrument of Government that deals with it in the Riksdag in Sweden. Would it be worth the Leader of the House revisiting the Executive Powers and Civil Service Bill, introduced by my noble Friend Lord Lester of Herne Hill? That seems to be a potential statutory basis for the proposals that the Leader of the House is suggesting.

I have great regard for Lord Lester of Herne Hill—I am very happy to revisit what he said—but this is an issue on which senior officers and others in the Ministry of Defence are anxious, not because they want to bypass Parliament’s decisions, but because they do not want to get into the situation that other European countries have got into and which I have seen, where there is amendment to the rules of engagement by the elected Parliament. That can lead to risible circumstances—for example, some members of the NATO international security assistance force cannot do their job—so we must be careful. When we are asking our armed forces to put their lives in harm’s way in a number of theatres, we must be very careful to ensure that we take them with us, and that is something that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence is very anxious about.

This matter of war touches on the prerogative powers of Ministers and, as such, addresses the crucial issue of the balance of power between the Government and Parliament. For example, last week, air passenger duty was doubled without any approval from Parliament. What precisely is the Leader of the House doing to restore the balance of power between Parliament and the Government and to ensure that we, the elected representatives, can speak up effectively in the Chamber for the British people?

We have done a great deal to restrict and reduce the royal prerogative, which goes back to the powers exercised by the monarch before the Glorious Revolution and the Rill of Rights of 1689, and we should make further progress in that respect, but the hon. Gentleman is wrong about air passenger duty, because that is dealt with under statutes that have been passed by the House.

House of Commons Commission

The hon. Member for North Devon, representing the House of Commons Commission, was asked—

Printing Costs

22. How much was spent on printing (a) early-day motions and (b) written parliamentary questions in the last period for which figures are available. (118067)

The last period for which figures are available is the 2005-06 financial year, when the cost of printing early-day motions was £627,000 and of written questions approximately £1,464,000.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that answer, but there are 36 pages of early-day motions today, despite the fact that only two of them are new, having been tabled last Thursday, and there are seven pages of written questions. Would it not make far more sense for us to publish most of those on the parliamentary website, rather than every day in the Order Paper, so that Parliament does not look hypocritical when it tries to persuade people to save money and trees?

The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point. There has been huge growth in the popularity of early-day motions and in the number of written questions tabled, in consequence of which a lot more pages are being printed, but the Procedure Committee took evidence in December about just the sort of matters to which he is giving his attention, and I urge him to make any suggestion that he might have to that Committee in advance of it reporting to the House and making any suggestions that it might have for change.

Avian Influenza Outbreak

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement about the outbreak of avian influenza in Suffolk. Just after 5 pm on Thursday 1 February, the state veterinary service was contacted by a private vet who suspected an avian notifiable disease at a poultry farm in Suffolk. The farm near Upper Holton held 159,000 turkeys housed in 22 sheds. The vet raised concerns because deaths were taking place in one shed, containing 7,000 birds, beyond the normal frequency and rate.

My Department promptly enforced legal restrictions on the farm, so that no birds, people or equipment could move off those premises, preventing any possible spread of the disease. Arrangements were quickly made for a veterinary officer from the local animal health office to inspect the premises and take samples for testing by the Veterinary Laboratories Agency in Weybridge, Surrey.

Preliminary results were received late Friday evening indicating the presence of avian influenza of the H5 strain. At that stage, the pathogenicity of the virus was not known. My Department issued a press notice and alerted the poultry industry, stakeholders and the European Commission. In line with contingency planning arrangements, local and national disease control centres were established.

Further tests were carried out overnight, and based on the results received on Saturday morning, Fred Landeg, the deputy chief veterinary officer, confirmed the presence of H5N1 avian influenza. We imposed a 3 km protection zone and 10 km surveillance zone around the infected premises, to restrict movements of poultry and require their isolation from wild birds in those areas. In addition, we banned all bird gatherings—including fairs, markets, shows and races—across England, Scotland and Wales. The Great Britain poultry register was used to issue text alerts to all those registered.

By Saturday afternoon, the Veterinary Laboratories Agency had completed further tests and were able to confirm that this was the highly pathogenic H5N1 Asian strain, which has spread widely in recent years. My officials had been working closely with our established group of ornithological experts to establish what a proportionate and risk-based response would be to such a finding. Based on their advice, my Department imposed a wider restricted zone covering east Suffolk and south-east Norfolk, an area of about 2,090 sq km. Within that zone, we are requiring poultry and other captive birds to be housed or, if that is not possible, to be isolated from contact with wild birds. The Opposition and local MPs were kept informed by my hon. Friend the Minister for Local Environment, Marine and Animal Welfare.

On the infected premises, the humane slaughter of all the remaining birds began on Saturday under the supervision of the state veterinary service—once the Health Protection Agency had taken all necessary steps, through medication and protective clothing, to assure the health and safety of those carrying out that work. I attended a meeting of the civil contingencies committee—known as Cobra—this morning and can report to the House that we expect the culling to be completed today. Once the birds are slaughtered, the carcases are being transported under escort in sealed leak-proof lorries to a plant in Staffordshire where they are being rendered. Rendering involves the crushing and grinding of carcases, followed by heat treatment in a sealed vessel to reduce the moisture content and to kill micro-organisms. The leftover product from the rendering of the birds is then incinerated to ensure total destruction. There is full protection for workers at the site and the general public in the surrounding area.

The Department of Health and the Health Protection Agency have been fully involved in our response throughout. All the people involved have been issued with personal protection equipment and are being offered the antiviral drug Tamiflu and seasonal human flu vaccination. In addition, seasonal flu vaccination has been available for poultry workers since early January. The risk to the general public is judged by health experts to be negligible. In particular, the Food Standards Agency advises that there is no risk in eating any sort of properly cooked poultry, including turkey, and eggs.

At this stage, we do not know how the disease arrived in Suffolk. A full epidemiological report will be produced by our experts as soon as possible and made publicly available. The state veterinary service is carrying out rapid and urgent investigations both on the infected premises themselves and by testing poultry farms and collecting dead wild birds in the protection and surveillance zones. Outside the restricted zones, our programme of wild bird surveillance continues, with 4,000 birds having been tested in the last five months alone. I urge keepers of birds to be vigilant and to exercise good biosecurity. In particular, it is important that they act quickly and contact their local animal health office if they suspect disease.

From Friday afternoon, we have been working with the European Commission and leaders of the poultry industry and retail organisations, consulting them on the decisions that we have been taking and jointly tackling practical issues as they arise. That is in addition to my Department’s regular communications with the wider poultry stakeholder community through e-mail, telephone conferencing and the website. We have also been in direct contact with poultry keepers using the text messaging system of the Great Britain poultry register. Further written communication will be issued today.

Experience from previous outbreaks in Europe, and in this country in the past, has shown that in all cases where disease was found in domestic poultry, the rapid action taken to restrict movements, to house birds and, above all, to cull all the birds on the infected premises, has eradicated the disease without further spread. I am satisfied that the response in this case has been rapid, well co-ordinated and appropriate. Contingency planning arrangements have been developed over the last five years in an open way. The first avian influenza-specific plan was published in March 2004. These plans are updated on a regular basis—most recently in the updated plan that was published last December and which is available on the web—and thus far they have proven their worth. Our goals in this case are clear: to stamp out the disease, to protect public health, to protect animal health and welfare, and to regain disease-free status for the UK. I would like to record my thanks to all those who have worked so hard since Thursday evening from across Departments, delivery partners and the poultry industry, at the local, regional and national level, to help to achieve those goals as soon as possible.

I thank the Secretary of State for the statement and for advance sight of it. I also thank him for the open and responsible way in which he and his Ministers have kept the Opposition informed of progress and have kept in touch with local Members. Clearly, this is a blow to the poultry industry, but it is vital that it does not become a crisis. I agree with the Secretary of State’s four goals, set out at the end of his statement, and I suggest one more: to reassure the public that eating poultry is entirely safe. Is he in touch with retailers, for example, about that?

I join the Secretary of State in thanking all those involved in handling this problem for their hard and, no doubt in some cases, distressing work. Will he join me in congratulating Suffolk police, Suffolk county council and Waveney district council on demonstrating a high level of co-operation and on their efficient response to the problem?

The Government’s chief scientist has said that we are better prepared for an outbreak of avian flu than any other nation. Bernard Matthews has also said that it works to the highest levels of biosecurity. Does that not make the causes of the outbreak all the more puzzling? Does not the Secretary of State share my concern that one of his Ministers has already said that we may never know the exact cause? Does it not make it extremely difficult to know whether the Government are taking appropriate action to prevent further outbreaks if we do not know how the disease got here in the first place?

It has been suggested that the outbreak may be related to wild birds, but has there been any increase in the number of dead birds being reported in the last five months? What plans does the Secretary of State have to step up the surveillance efforts? Does he think it purely a coincidence that a Bernard Matthews-owned farm in Hungary should recently have been hit by H5NI? What steps is he taking to eliminate the Hungarian connection from the inquiries?

The right hon. Gentleman states that following the notification to the state veterinary service on 1 February, arrangements were quickly made for a veterinary officer to attend and take samples. Will he be more specific as to what “quickly” means here—within a couple of hours or the following day?

The Secretary of State will be aware that in this part of Suffolk there are many people who keep a few chickens on their land. Is he satisfied that they are receiving timely and accurate information about what to do? What proportion of the total number of UK poultry owners does he believe is on the Great Britain poultry register? What stocks of H5N1 vaccination for humans do the Government currently possess? Health Ministers say that those may be used to vaccinate front-line health workers. What plans does he have to make the vaccine available to poultry workers, who may be even more in the front line? Is the Secretary of State satisfied that the arrangements for removing the culled animals and transporting them for disposal and rendering are sufficiently biosecure?

We all hope that the market for poultry products will not be affected by these events, but in the case of adverse market impacts, will the Secretary of State draw down the UK’s entitlement to EU support funding—something of great importance to an already beleaguered industry? What measures is the right hon. Gentleman taking to ensure that UK poultry exports will not be adversely affected? I have already seen a report that Japan has imposed a temporary ban on imports of UK poultry products.

Thus far, we support the Government and their agencies, the police and local authorities who are working so hard to tackle this outbreak. We extend our sympathy to poultry workers, who naturally voice concerns about their jobs and their welfare. Above all, we need an answer to the question: how exactly did this disease get here?

I very much appreciate the tone of the hon. Member’s remarks. His questions are wholly legitimate, and I shall try to go through them carefully.

The question of reassurance for the public is obviously an important one. We are conscious that messages have to be clear, and we have been trying to work with the retail industry and the poultry sector to give clear and consistent messages. Fortunately, we live in an age when information is widely available through the internet and other sources. I fully endorse the hon. Gentleman’s thanks to the long list of public servants who have been involved at all levels, and to people in private industry who have worked very hard with us in this effort.

One of the hon. Gentleman’s main points was about the causes of the outbreak, and he is absolutely right to say that getting to the root of it is a high priority. That is one reason why we have not dismissed any suggestions; we are pursuing all possible avenues of inquiry. It remains most likely that at the root of the problem there is a link with the wild bird population, but that does not mean that we should not pursue other avenues in a serious way, with the greatest of speed, and we are doing so. I will be happy to keep the hon. Gentleman and the House informed as the investigations by officials continue.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether “quickly” meant the following day. It certainly did not; as I said in my statement, as soon as the state veterinary service was informed of the difficulties, restrictions were immediately imposed, and the contingency plan went into action. He asked about the poultry register, and I am pleased to have this opportunity to tell the House, and hopefully through the House people more widely, that although there is a requirement on all those who own more than 50 poultry birds to register on the GB poultry register, it is open to all those with a smaller number of poultry birds to do so. If they do, they can avail themselves of the information that is quickly sent to all those on the register, and that would certainly be excellent. I do not have the figure that the hon. Gentleman asked for on the percentage of poultry owners who are registered, because, almost by definition, if they are not registered, we do not know whether they are there. We are confident that at least 95 per cent. of British poultry is on the register. However, I understand his point, and from my point of view, the more people who register the better.

I think that the hon. Gentleman may have missed something in my statement; I thought that I had made it absolutely clear that the Tamiflu vaccine was already available for poultry workers. We believe that that is the right approach, when combined with the wearing of protective clothing, which all our experts say is the most important measure, and the first line of defence. I am pleased to say that we are working with the trade unions on that, too. On compensation, I hope that he will understand when I say that our first priority has been to clamp down on the current outbreak, but of course we are keeping all options open in respect of future compensation arrangements.

On exports, the most important thing that we can do is act in accordance with our plan, which is widely recognised as being of a very high standard. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the Japanese example, which I have heard about. I think that I am right in saying that the industry’s export value is about £375 million to £377 million a year. The EU content of that is about £280 million to £290 million a year, so our first priority has been to ensure a secure line with the European Commission, and that has been done. Obviously we are working with those in Foreign and Commonwealth Office posts around the world to ensure that the message goes out clearly that we have very high standards, that we take the issue extremely seriously, and that we will stamp out the problem.

I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for Local Environment, Marine and Animal Welfare for keeping us informed over the weekend; it was greatly appreciated. I join others in thanking the local councils, Suffolk police and the local primary care trust for its work in respect of the emergency planning team over the weekend.

We know that bird deaths are not uncommon in rearing houses, and it would therefore be impractical immediately to raise a full-scale alert at every bird death, but as we now have this deadly virus in our country—that is, it has appeared here—does the Secretary of State think that we need to establish a threshold, a point at which local vets are immediately required to alert his Department, even if they are not sure that the problem is the virus? Finally, if there are no further outbreaks, within what time scale does my right hon. Friend envisage that the restriction zone, the surveillance zone and the buffer zones will no longer be needed?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making his points. It might help the whole House if I gave the figures for the deaths in the shed in question on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, which were given to me in percentage terms just before I came to the House. On Tuesday, the figure was 1 per cent., on Wednesday 3.6 per cent., and on Thursday 16 per cent. It was the leap to 16 per cent. that led the local vet, quite professionally and properly, to alert the state veterinary service. I am nervous of saying that there should be one figure below which everything is fine, and above which we would trigger full battle plans. In this case, the evidence presented to me shows that local officials and vets have acted in an extremely professional way, and that the leap from 3.6 per cent. to 16 per cent. rightly triggered concern.

My hon. Friend asked about the length of time beyond which we would be able to lift the restrictions. The requirement is 30 days and we will be seeking to achieve that as soon as possible.

My thanks to the Secretary of State for keeping us informed and for an early sight of the statement. A number of allegations have been made that factory farming may have been a contributory cause, based on research in Canada and on some of the findings of the Food and Agriculture Organisation. Will he comment on that?

Turning to the Government’s immediate reaction, will the Secretary of State explain a little more clearly what appears to have been a delay? Reporting by private vets has been mentioned. Has the Department issued guidance that sets out to private vets an indication of when they can be expected to report to the state veterinary service? According to the Minister of State, tests were not performed on Thursday evening. Why? Why did we have to wait until Saturday for the test results, given that presumably every hour is crucial when facing such a highly pathogenic outbreak?

Looking beyond the immediate response, will the Secretary of State comment on compensation for farmers and confirm that it will be forthcoming in this case under schedule 3 of the Animal Health Act 1981? I note that David Nabarro, head of the UN department co-ordinating the global efforts against bird flu, has warned us to expect more outbreaks in the coming months. What research have the Government undertaken into bird vaccines after the Cellardyke swan case, after which Sir David King, chief scientific officer to the Government said,

“The disadvantages of using the current vaccines far outweigh the potential benefits.”?

Is that still the Government’s judgment?

Is it not perverse that while the Department’s own website argues that this year’s emergency budget cuts were in part caused by additional bird flu spending, the impact of the cuts will fall in part on the Veterinary Laboratories Agency, which has lost £2.4 million in this financial year, and the SVS, which has lost £3 million? Is that not a short-sighted cut that the Secretary of State should now regret?

The hon. Gentleman asked about factory farming—his words, not mine. We have no evidence that the occurrence was linked to that.

The hon. Gentleman asked several questions about delay without realising or pinpointing what delays he was talking about. I thought my statement made it absolutely clear that as soon as the SVS had been notified, the process set out in the contingency plan— it is available to him, to other hon. Members and to members of the public—was set in motion. By 21.00 hours on Friday, preliminary test results revealed that it was the H5 avian flu. It is rather unfair of the hon. Gentleman—not to me, but to the officials who have been working at the Weighbridge laboratory—to suggest that they were somehow dilatory or not on the case. They worked very hard with the samples delivered to them. By Friday morning, there was a further development. By Friday afternoon, we had confirmation of the Asian link. On reflection the hon. Gentleman might want to recognise the hard work of these public officials, rather than attacking them on the basis of limited information, or at least limited judgment.

On compensation, it arises most obviously for the Bernard Matthews company in the current case. As the hon. Gentleman will know, compensation is available in the case of slaughter of healthy birds. In this case, that is a large majority of them and we are discussing that with the company. I am confident that we will come to an agreement, although both the company and the Department have focused on stamping out the disease as the top priority. It remains the case that our guidance about vaccines has not changed. In respect of the alleged cuts to the state veterinary service, the hon. Gentleman is simply wrong.

My right hon. Friend makes the point that the most likely explanation for the cause of the outbreak is wild fowl. Is it not just as possible and just as likely that purchasing turkey chicks from Hungary might be an important factor? Has he investigated that to see whether it happens with British industries?

There may have been one aspect of the question from the hon. Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth) that I did not answer, and it is linked—the so-called Hungarian connection. The chicks all came from within this country, so there is no Hungarian connection of that sort. The factory involved in the Hungarian outbreak was not a Bernard Matthews factory.

Does the Secretary of State accept that there is considerable admiration in Suffolk for the work of his Department, for Lee Howells and Suffolk county council’s emergency department, and for Wendy Mawer and what has happened with Waveney district council, contrary to the comments from the Liberal Democrats, which are clearly unsuitable, given the hard work that has been done overnight by those people? Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that the outbreak has been a tremendous problem for a large number of poultry keepers? Can he assure the House that he will be no less generous in his support than the French Government were in a similar circumstance, and that he will also look at the considerable extra costs that will be borne by Suffolk county council and the police, who have behaved extremely well and who are already carrying significant extra costs because of the sad circumstances earlier in the year? Lastly, does he agree that one of the reasons why we can expect many of our exports to continue is the sensible arrangements in the European Union, where our membership is extremely important in this matter?

I feel a strong sense of fellow feeling with the right hon. Gentleman, who is a former Minister of Agriculture—a small but select club. I take seriously his term “considerable admiration” for the hard work of officials, and I will do all in my power to make sure that his understanding and recognition of their work is communicated, because it will be respected and taken seriously. Any British Cabinet Minister must be somewhat wary of committing to French levels of largesse in public compensation. I am happy to debate that with those on the Opposition Front Bench, who have snorted at that prospect. I am encouraged by their new-found interest in seeking examples across the channel. I will look at the French levels, but we have our own practices in that regard. The poultry industry is a proud industry that is not a recipient of Government subsidy, and it is important that the shared responsibilities that are established be taken forward. I recognise the right hon. Gentleman’s strength of feeling about the situation of public authorities in Suffolk. We will certainly look at the situation, but as I said to other hon. Members, our focus, and that of all public authorities and private bodies, has been on stamping out the disease.

Finally, I applaud the right hon. Gentleman’s continuing, if too lonely, support for the European Union on the Opposition Benches, and I hope he will win some converts to his cause.

Can the Secretary of State guarantee that my constituents are put at no risk whatsoever from the transportation of the dead turkeys to Pointon’s rendering plant in Cheddleton in Staffordshire, Moorlands? My constituents are concerned because in the past there have been occasions when animal parts and foul-smelling liquid have spilled from Pointon’s wagons and been deposited along the highway throughout my constituency and in Staffordshire as a whole. Could that happen in this case?

The answer to the first part of my hon. Friend’s question, on whether I can guarantee the health and security of her constituency, is yes. She also asked whether there was any chance of liquids seeping out of the lorries, and the answer to that is no. Intensive work has been undertaken in respect of the transfer of these carcases. A test is carried out on the lorry before it enters the Suffolk area. It is then sealed after the carcases have been put inside, and a further test is carried out. The load is then transported to my hon. Friend’s constituency with an escort. I can therefore assure her not only that every effort has been made, but that a foolproof system has been established. I think that I am right in saying that, in the past, lorries from other companies might have gone to the rendering plant, but on this occasion, only Pointon’s lorries are being used, and the company has been extremely helpful in co-operating with the Government on this issue. If it would be helpful, I would be happy to write to my hon. Friend to set out in detail the way in which we are ensuring that all the lorries are leak-proof and that other risks are eliminated.

Last year, there was an outbreak of avian flu in my constituency. May I reinforce the comments made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer)? The way in which the Department responded to that outbreak and kept MPs informed was very good indeed. May I also commend the Secretary of State for his comments on the time factor involved in the rise in deaths of chicks and on the way in which the vet reported this to the Department? I have to declare an interest here: Mr. Bernard Matthews is a constituent of mine. The feeling, at least in his company, was that there had been a degree of hysteria about this matter in the media. Finally, given that this is the third outbreak in about two years, does the Secretary of State believe that we are, unfortunately, going to see continuing incidents like this on an increasing scale? If so, what is the Department going to be able to do about it?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his comments. I hope that, as a Norfolk MP, he will recognise that we have tried to apply common sense in establishing the restrictions and the other zones in the most sensible way. The hardest question that he asked was about future incidents. I would not want to say that I foresaw rising numbers of incidents, not least because extensive measures have been taken by the Government and by farmers to improve biosecurity, to try to clamp down on that possibility. Equally, there are incidents around the world, so there are risks. It would be wrong for me to come here and say that there will not be any future incidents. However, we are working in an open way with all the interested parties to minimise Britain’s exposure, and to maximise the chances that, in the unwelcome event of further incidents, they will be dealt with extremely promptly.

May I thank the Minister for Local Environment, Marine and Animal Welfare, my hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr. Bradshaw) for keeping me informed of the incidents over the weekend? They are not in my constituency, but part of the restricted zone covers it. Is the Secretary of State comfortable with the fact that the restricted zone covers only 14 sq km? Does he consider that, because of the deadly strain of the virus, it should be extended further?

Perhaps I have been slightly ungenerous in not doing so before, but I am happy to thank my hon. Friend the Minister for Local Environment, Marine and Animal Welfare, who has done an outstanding job on this. I am pleased that he was able to get in touch with my hon. Friend the Member for Great Yarmouth (Mr. Wright). My own view—and that of the experts, which is more important—is that the restricted zones are the right size, shape and proportion. The publicity surrounding the issue will heighten awareness among all poultry owners and farmers, and that can only be a good thing, because it will reinforce the need for care to be taken at every level of the chain.

I congratulate DEFRA and all concerned on the professionalism with which they have dealt with this outbreak. Now that we have H5N1 in a large-scale poultry operation, will the Secretary of State discuss with the industry the possibility that it should have a self-imposed movement ban when disease is first discovered, and that such a ban should be maintained until such time as it can be proved that the disease is not H5N1? As I understand it, this outbreak occurred in a closed poultry unit. If that is the case, will the Secretary of State carry out a thorough review of biosecurity measures—once lessons have been learned—given that Bernard Matthews claims to operate to the highest standards in that area?

It is important that when the dust settles, which I hope will happen as soon as possible, we draw whatever lessons there are from the case. The right hon. Gentleman used the word “if” in respect of the closed nature of the premises. That is exactly what we are investigating; obviously, it is in everybody’s interest to find out exactly how the incident happened. If there are any lessons, we will certainly draw them.

To be honest, I cannot remember whether the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee has considered the issue. However, we would certainly welcome advice from the right hon. Gentleman and others on any lessons to be drawn.

The issue of compensation and who is responsible for it has already been mentioned. However, the Secretary of State will recall that there has been long-standing discussion about moving from the present situation to an insurance-based system. How far have those discussions gone?

My hon. Friend raises a good and probing question. It is fair to say that discussions are continuing; that is the line to take on the issue. The Government believe that it is important that the poultry industry operates without subsidy, independently, and takes responsibility. Equally, there are strongly held views about the rights of poultry owners. If an insurance-based system provided a third way, no doubt there would be many adherents to that approach. However, the direct answer to my hon. Friend’s question is that discussions are continuing.

I commend the action taken by the Secretary of State in banning poultry fairs, pigeon racing and so on throughout the UK. With that in mind, will he please assure the House that he and his officials liaise closely with their opposite numbers in the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly—and, crucially, with the chief veterinary officers in each country?

The steps taken so far have been commendable. I hope that the problem has been contained and I wish the Secretary of State and his Department well in combating that awful disease.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his support and careful words. At the Civil Contingencies Committee or Cobra meeting that I attended this morning, Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish officials were beamed in—[Laughter.] They were able to participate through the wonders of new technology and video conferencing. They are following the situation very carefully and I think that I am right in saying that statements are being made by the respective Ministers.

The hon. Gentleman raises an important issue. On a tiny point of detail, the ban covers Great Britain rather than the United Kingdom. In Northern Ireland, people are thinking about the links. However, as we speak the ban covers Great Britain only.

I am grateful for the Secretary of State’s response to my good and hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands (Charlotte Atkins), given the regular frequency with which blood, other fluids and parts of carcases are spilt along roads in my constituency on the way to Pointon’s.

I am told that, this morning, a vehicle travelling to Pointon’s had blood and other fluids spilling from it, although it was not necessarily one of those transporting the turkey carcases. Will my right hon. Friend give further reassurance that when those vehicles are escorted, the escort vehicles travel behind the lorries, making sure that nothing at all is spilt from them? Will he further reassure me that should such a thing happen, any transportation will immediately cease until an investigation is carried out?

I am concerned by what my hon. Friend has reported. He did qualify the incident strongly by saying that it may not have been associated with the case that we are discussing. Perhaps officials can follow the issue up with him promptly. I know of a case in which a tarpaulin or cover was not on a lorry, but that was because it was transporting disused machinery, not animals.

I can say that rigorous systems are in place for the lorries that enter the Suffolk area and before they leave it. I can also assure my hon. Friend that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs thinks that cars need to follow the lorries rather than preceding them if they are to see anything untoward. I shall certainly send him a copy of the letter that I am writing to my hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands (Charlotte Atkins). Perhaps officials can follow up the case with him because although the TV footage may seem alarming, it is sometimes of previous cases and it is important that people do not leap to the wrong conclusions. All my information is that that is being taken seriously and addressed rigorously.

As one of the dwindling band of former Ministers of Agriculture, I draw on the experiences of BSE and put the following to the Secretary of State. First, one has to recognise that the public are often uncertain about statements made by Ministers, and whenever possible one should use experts to reassure the public. Secondly, and differently, it is important to keep close to the European Union—the Commissioner, the relevant Ministers in the Council and the officials. If we do not and are not able to provide reassurance, they may well do things that go beyond that which we think desirable or justified.

I know that the right hon. and learned Gentleman speaks from bitter experience. I agree that experts who talk with the authority that comes from their profession are invaluable. The deputy chief officer who has appeared over the weekend, Fred Landeg, has done an outstanding job in being very clear with the public and in conveying quiet authority. Certainly we remain close to our European Commission colleagues. The European Union has held either a press briefing or a press conference today, which it would do as a matter of routine, in the course of which it commended the work that we are doing.

My right hon. Friend mentioned TV footage. It has been televised today that some farms within restricted areas do not appear to have taken their fowl indoors. Will he assure me and the House that if anyone is not complying with the regulations laid down, they will be dealt with immediately?

My hon. Friend raises an important point. The answer is simple: it is illegal not to respond to the requirements laid down; it is also deeply irresponsible if that is happening. It is vital that a strong message goes out from all of us that the restrictions have been put in place for good reason and that they apply not just to 90 or 95 per cent. of poultry owners, but to all of them. It is in all our interests that they are followed rigorously and carefully.

The Secretary of State has not been exactly clear about whether the Government will consider market assistance if the price of poultry meat plummets, as it has done on other occasions. During the last incident, the UK was the only member state that did not provide such support. Will he give us an assurance that the financial consequences of the Fontainebleau agreement will not deter him from drawing down such assistance, which would leave our poultry industry the most disadvantaged in Europe?

I hope I can be clearer: it is not the policy of the UK Government to second-guess the commercial prices that are found on the market. It is also the case that this country—not the Government or the House of Commons, but the people—has a strong record of looking carefully at the evidence, and when sales in other countries have plummeted in previous episodes, they have not plummeted here. It is important that a clear and sober message goes out from the House about the facts of the case.

Will the Secretary of State reassure us that all the birds involved in the outbreak were swiftly and humanely killed? Have he and his officials reviewed both the number and the location of the containerised gassing units used to control the outbreaks to ensure that we deal with birds humanely and quickly in any future outbreak?

My hon. Friend has raised an important point. In this case we were able to use adjoining facilities, which worked very well. As I said in my statement, we are on track for the culling to be completed today, which by historic and comparative standards is extremely quick work. I commend all those involved for their speediness, and if there are lessons to be learnt we will certainly learn them.

The largest private sector employer in my constituency is a poultry processor. The constituency also contains many small units of growers who serve that employer, as well as a number of other smaller businesses. Is the Secretary of State satisfied that if an outbreak occurred in Devon, where most poultry is reared outdoors for the organic market, and if all those birds had to be brought indoors, there would be enough flexibility in the planning system for temporary housing to allow the welfare of the birds to be sustained?

That is an important question, to which the short answer is yes. We are aware that common sense and practicality must enter into the equation, and we agree with those in the organic movement that it is important to provide appropriate protection for them as well as for others. I shall be happy to write to the hon. Lady with more details, but, as I have said, practicality enters into this, and I think we have the right systems in place.

Will the Secretary of State bear it in mind that as yet we have absolutely no certainty about the origin of swine fever or, for that matter, foot and mouth disease? Although we want to discover the origin of this disease, there is no guarantee that we will do so. Will the Secretary of State also bear in mind that on every single occasion on which the disease has struck in Europe, it has been contained by rapid, effective and properly publicised action? While we should prepare for the worst, there is every expectation that following the action that has been taken, we can contain the outbreak on that site.

I believe the right hon. Gentleman is the fourth former Conservative Agriculture Minister to give me the benefit of his experience. I do not know the collective noun for a group of former Conservative Agriculture Ministers. A flock, perhaps.

I am happy to be reminded of that, but it is important to add that they were culled in a very humane way.

The right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry) has raised an important point. I hope that he will have a word with the hon. Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth), who asked whether it was reasonable to say that we might not find an answer. The right hon. Gentleman’s example of swine fever suggests that that may be the case. Suffice it to say that while we are determined to do all in our power to discover the origins of the disease because it is very important for us to do so, the right hon. Gentleman’s cautionary words have been taken to heart.

I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s support.

The news from the National Farmers Union over the weekend, following a survey of supermarkets, was that sales had not been affected. That is testament to the measured and open way in which DEFRA has handled the outbreak. My own feedback from farmers and farmers’ groups has been full of praise for the way in which it has been handled by DEFRA and the Minister for Local Environment, Marine and Animal Welfare. Does the Secretary of State agree that the only danger is that we shall talk ourselves into a crisis when one is not warranted?

I should like to enjoy the confidence in and praise for DEFRA’s work that the hon. Gentleman and others have expressed for as long as possible, but I do not wish to tempt fate.

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that the British public are taking a long, hard, sober look at the situation and drawing sensible conclusions. It is also important that the House is sending a relatively united message, and I commend the hon. Gentleman and other Members of Parliament for that. I believe that one or two Members have visited the site—I know that the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) has done so—and have seen the co-ordinated work that is being done locally.

The best thing that we can do for public confidence is obviously to stamp out the disease, and that is what we are determined to do.

The Secretary of State is aware that I represent a very large number of Bernard Matthews staff and that many of my constituents work in other poultry-producing farms. I was pleased to hear what he said about the inoculation of poultry workers throughout East Anglia. Further to questions from my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Angela Browning), does he share my concern about those free range producers who are now facing lockdown? Does he agree that their status as organic free range producers should not suffer any consequences as a result of events beyond their control?

The hon. Gentleman has raised a detailed but important point, which I am glad he has put on the record, although for reasons I will explain I may need to correct it. He raised the question of organic status, which is critical for organic farmers. There is no question but that that needs to be protected. My recollection is that there is three months’ worth of protection of that organic status. That is important in this case. I hope that that offers some reassurance to organic farmers in the hon. Gentleman's constituency.

It may help if I reiterate one point. While it is tempting to leap to the language of vaccination and inoculation, the best protection against the transfer of avian influenza is protective clothing. All the advice that I have had from the vets and scientists who attended the Cobra meeting this morning and the meeting in my room this afternoon is that that is the first line of defence, and an effective line of defence, too.

Is a clade analysis of this particular virus being undertaken? If so, will the Secretary of State publish the results?

I did not catch what the hon. Gentleman said, so either he can write to me or perhaps Mr. Speaker will call him again.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman—I am completely stumped by the googly that he has bowled me. I have not noticed that in any of the voluminous briefing that has been sent to me. The watching dozens in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will be petrified at the prospect that he has found something out that I have not. I will find out and write to him. Perhaps it will be of interest to the whole House if I place a copy of my answer in the Library, so that we can all deepen our understanding of the matter.

The right hon. Gentleman is aware that Tamiflu and general antivirals will be of little use if this virus mutates to cross species. What action are the Government taking to increase the capacity for the development and production of specific vaccines in order to protect human health if there is a cross-species mutation?

I think that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health addressed that matter yesterday and on previous occasions. All the scientific advice is that it is very difficult to develop a specific vaccine until the disease has started, so we are in a chicken and egg situation.

The hon. Gentleman shouts out “H5N1.” The danger of the pandemic involves a mutation between a human form of flu and the H5N1. It is that mutation that is difficult.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for the reassurance that he has given the hon. Members for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Flello) and for Staffordshire, Moorlands (Charlotte Atkins). The Secretary of State may be aware that the trucks that are being used for delivery have tarpaulin covers. What assurance can he give us that those tarpaulin covers are secure? In high winds, which thankfully we do not have today, tarpaulin covers become loose. Why cannot we have vehicles that are fully covered in metal to ensure that the sort of waste that the hon. Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands mentioned does not cause problems in this and other instances?

The hon. Gentleman conjures up an image of flapping tarpaulins as lorries trek down the motorway or even down the A34. I can assure him that these covers are tightly and strictly tied down at several points along the length of the lorry—I am happy to send him a diagram, if that will help, detailing the type of knot that is used. Clearly, it is strongly in our interest to use the highest-quality lorries. We are advised that the lorries that are being used are fit for purpose and are appropriate for that function. They do their job admirably, so I hope that I have provided further reassurance for the hon. Gentleman.

To pursue the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink), the Secretary of State mentioned that the Tamiflu vaccination for human influenza has been offered to everyone involved. He is nodding his head, but I urge him to look at the script of the statement that was given to hon. Members. I have a copy of a reply from the Minister of State, Department of Health, the right hon. Member for Doncaster, Central (Ms Winterton), who said:

“We have purchased 3.3 million doses of H5N1 vaccine which may be used to vaccinate front-line healthcare workers.”—[Official Report, 22 January 2007; Vol. 455, c. 1592W.]

May I inquire why, if a vaccine does exist, it has not been given to those who are involved in this tragic incident?

There are three things to say in response to the hon. Gentleman. First, the seasonal flu vaccine has been offered to the workers in this case. Secondly, the hon. Gentleman described Tamiflu as a vaccination, but that is not technically correct. [Interruption.] Just a sec—what I said in my statement was that it was an antiviral. He will find that it is correct to say that it is an antiviral treatment. Thirdly, there is the issue to which he referred. Our scientific and other advice is that protective clothing is the first line of defence, but it is right to offer the antiviral, too. We have not judged it necessary to utilise the other stocks that are available, because they are judged not to be necessary.

Orders of the Day

UK Borders Bill

[Relevant documents: the Fifth Report from the Home Affairs Committee, Session 2005-06, on Immigration Control (HC 775), and the Government’s reply thereto (Cm 6910).]

Order for Second Reading read.

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Last summer, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary launched the most radical shake-up ever of our immigration system. He was clear, open, honest and frank about the system’s strengths and weaknesses and how he believed it needed to change. Since last July, the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, North (Joan Ryan), and I have travelled the length and breadth of the UK discussing with front-line staff, as well as local business communities and public services, the way in which they think things should change in the years to come. As a result, over the next few months, we will introduce five important reforms that we will announce shortly.

First, we will introduce a new strategy to bring together government to tackle illegal immigration in the round, as recommended last year by my right hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham) and the Home Affairs Committee. Secondly, we will provide new resources to help double the budget for enforcement and for the removal of individuals who break our immigration laws. Thirdly, we will introduce new technology to count everybody in and out of Britain. Fourthly, we will establish stronger international partnerships because, in an era of global migration, it has become impossible for nation states to manage the issue on their own. Fifthly, the Bill will provide new powers for the border and immigration agency, which will go live in shadow form on 1 April this year.

The hon. Gentleman is not going to introduce something advocated by Liberal Democrat and Conservative Members—a single, integrated border force, encompassing police functions as well as the functions discharged by the immigration and nationality directorate. Can he explain why he rejected that option and whether it remains under consideration for introduction?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for those remarks and I hope that we will debate the matter he mentions both this afternoon and in Committee. I kept an open mind about proposals on it. I know that some of the plans from all parts of the House have been developed at the ideas stage but not necessarily at the detail stage. I am a keen reader of many Conservative publications, such as those of their national and international policy strategy group, and I noticed that the Conservatives recently said that they were aiming to make more detailed proposals, but at some point in the future. Although this matter has been talked about for many years on the Opposition Benches, it appears that details are still to emerge.

I addressed the matter with an open mind, but at a time when the terrorist threat to the country is so severe, I cannot justify a wholesale reorganisation—and disruption—of those agencies that are currently charged with securing our border. I recently visited the United States of America, which has embarked on such a reorganisation. Five years later, it is still not complete. Of course, when border agencies are reorganised, that simply creates another set of touch-points with agencies in-country. I think that one of the arguments that will emerge over the coming months is that, in our modern era of global migration and mass movement, it is difficult to separate the work of organisations that operate at the border from that of organisations that are responsible for in-country enforcement—or, indeed, from that of agencies such as the Serious Organised Crime Agency, which are responsible for helping secure our borders overseas.

The Bill gives us many of the measures that the proposals that the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) recommends would deliver, but without the disorganisation—without the creation of the prospect of disorder at the border.

I will give way once I have made more progress.

The Bill should not be dismissed as another immigration Bill. It is much more ambitious than that. It is part of an ambitious plan of reform that has been co-authored by many immigration and nationality directorate front-line staff. I do not believe—and nor do our officers and other staff—that we can secure our borders in this world of global migration without three measures: first, greater powers for front-line officers to help them secure the border; secondly, a concerted attack on organised crime, which might account for as much as three quarters of illegal entry into Britain; and, thirdly, a much more robust approach not only to detecting and removing those who are in the country illegally, but to attacking the causes of illegal immigration, which are the exploitation of vulnerable illegal labour by racketeers.

I wanted to interrupt the Minister a moment ago when he was talking about the local border authorities and the immigration authorities, which he said dealt with matters internally—I forget the precise term that he used. I sent to him last week an example of the lack of such joined-up administration. Some people who were illegally coming into the country were stopped by the Port of Tilbury police. The immigration officials at the port of Tilbury said that it was a matter for Stansted, and when Stansted was communicated with by my Port of Tilbury police, it said, “Let them go.” That scenario powerfully demonstrates the need for one joined-up co-ordinated border police force. Can the Minister explain what happened in that scenario? I shall refer to it later, if I catch the eye of Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Order. I think that the hon. Gentleman has already mentioned the matter.

I recently wrote back to my hon. Friend and I hope that he received that letter. I do not think that there is any excuse for the incident. However, the kind of problem that it presents would not have been remedied by the creation of a single border force. It is the kind of problem that would have been remedied by existing organisations having the necessary powers to do their job and by them benefiting from the increased resources that we propose.

One theme that runs through the Bill is the giving of a wide range of increased powers to immigration officers. We are giving them more and more powers that are quasi-police powers, yet there are not the same sort of remedies for complaints against, and supervision of, immigration officers as there are for police officers. Should that not be considered in the Bill so that it is understood what someone can do if an immigration officer uses the new powers, because if a police officer were using them there would be a clear route for complaint and supervision?

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. I shall come to precisely some of the protections that it is important to put in place in the next few months and in the years to come. However, there is a broader point that I hope he will welcome. If the IND is to become a stronger agency, it must become more open and accountable not only to this place but to the public. We propose to change the structure and pattern of regulation and inspection that the IND currently enjoys because I do not believe that 11 different regulators and inspectors are big enough and strong enough on their own to hold it to account.

I like very much what the Bill says about increased powers of deportation, but 14 per cent. of the prison population is made up of foreign nationals from 170 different countries. It looks as though we are jailers to the world. As the Minister knows, there is great fear about the possible influx of criminal gangs from eastern Europe because of the enlargement of the European Union. Will he assure us that the free movement of labour in the EU does not mean the free movement of criminal labour?

It is extremely important that, as part of any enlargement, there is greater co-operation between the police and frontier forces of accession states, and I am glad to say that we have enjoyed tremendous co-operation from our colleagues in new member states. We have benefited from their expertise on our front line—our primary and secondary lines—in the UK, and later, I shall talk about some of the measures that we will put in place to expedite the cases of foreign national prisoners in our jails who actually should be at home.

How many seaports and airports currently have seven-day-a-week, 24-hour cover—surveillance and personnel in attendance—and how many will need that cover to get control of our borders?

I recently provided a parliamentary answer on that matter, and I will happily dig out the Hansard reference for the right hon. Gentleman. As he knows, in an island nation, there will always be ports that do not warrant 24-hour, seven-day-a-week cover. At the last election, I remember listening on the radio to the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin), who is not in his place, as John Humphrys was interrogating him remorselessly on the plans for precisely how a ring of steel might operate. The conclusion that the right hon. Gentleman reached was, I think, the same as mine: that patrols of entry and of exit will have to be conducted on an intelligence basis, to a degree. Systems such as e-borders, which, through access to advanced passenger information, will assist us in counting people in and out, will help, but there will not be much of a substitute in the near future for intelligence-led controls.

As my hon. Friend knows, the Select Committee on Home Affairs, under successive Chairmen, has supported the broad principle of a border force. He has set out the reasons why he does not want to do that now, but would it not be sensible to use the Bill at least to align the powers of immigration and customs officers, so that our front-line staff at the borders have the same sets of powers and can be used interchangeably on different operations? Short of a border force, that would allow much more flexible use of our vital front-line staff.

It is possible, under the existing measures in the border management programme, to undertake a degree of alignment in operational capability, but the measures that we propose are a start towards introducing such alignment. Following the work that we did with our partners and front-line staff, those were the powers that they believed to be important.

I shall make more progress before I give way again.

In clauses 1 to 4, we seek to provide additional powers to front-line immigration officers at border control, in order that they can do their job. At the border, for the first time, we propose that immigration officers should have the power to detain individuals who are the subject of an arrest warrant or who may be liable to arrest by a police constable. The Bill recognises that the role of the immigration officer is changing and is increasingly important in the wider battle for security.

My hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) asked about some of the measures on oversight that will become important in the months to come. We will need to modernise some of the guidance that is provided for immigration officers, at present set out in chapters 31 and 38 of their instructions. We will also have to develop statutory rules for short-term holding facilities, including for holding rooms. All immigration detention facilities are subject to independent oversight by Her Majesty’s chief inspector of prisons. In addition, we have asked independent monitoring boards to set up mechanisms so that they may provide oversight too.

Secondly, the Bill provides new powers to tackle the modern day slave trade—the people trafficking and human smuggling that may have cost up to 2,000 lives en route to Europe in the last decade alone. Through this Bill, foreign nationals helping people to enter the UK illegally, for whatever reason, will no longer be able to hide behind the fact that they perpetrated their crime abroad. They now stand to be arrested should they come to the UK or to be extradited from abroad to face prosecution here.

We are also strengthening our prosecution powers to make it clear that facilitators or traffickers who are active in the secure areas of our ports can be arrested—for example, those who dispose of documents after arrival. The issue of smuggling and trafficking is fundamental to the future of immigration control and I am glad that, over the past few months, right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House have made that argument. It is a field of work that demands international solutions. In the IND review that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary launched last July, we committed to working jointly with European and international partners to tackle the challenges of global migration, including cross-border criminality. The Bill is, therefore, important in helping us to deliver some of those commitments because facilitation is often carried out by those involved in organised crime, including networks involved in smuggling other items, such as drugs, weapons or worse.

I welcome the provisions in the Bill to tackle those people who seek to make profit out of human misery or people trafficking. My hon. Friend will be aware that there are major concerns—as I learned in Ukraine when I visited that country recently—that those who are trafficked are often given relatively little support. They can return to their countries of origin only to fall into the hands of a different set of traffickers. Does his Department propose any measures that will prevent that cycle of repeat abuse?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on the work that she has done in this area and the consistent way in which she has underlined this issue to Ministers. The Bill is but a first step to help us ensure that we have the powers to tackle the problem. Other measures are part of our reform programme, whether that is the work that we are undertaking on the convention, which my hon. Friend will know well; the work we are doing through the European Union; or the work we are doing with the Department for International Development to ensure that we are fully exploring the opportunity to develop facilities in foreign countries to stop the problem at the root.

The Minister will understand that, in Felixstowe, which is Britain’s largest port, various aspects of the border protection provision used to work well together. However, the actions of the Government have removed the ability to work locally and everything has to go through a central point, so it takes longer to do any of the work. Can the Minister guarantee to look at the issue again to make things more efficient?

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for that intervention. It is something that I would be anxious to support, because the direction of reform that we seek to make in the IND and the border and immigration agency is not centralisation, but devolution. That is why we will produce proposals to regionalise the IND in the months to come. The IND needs a much stronger connection with the communities that it serves. It simply is not possible to achieve joint working locally without a much stronger connection to local communities.

Nobody doubts the commitment of my hon. Friend and my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary to trying to sort out the mess that is the IND, but my hon. Friend has just talked about a fundamental review and decentralising the IND. How can he do that when there will be a cut in his budget? He will have to give away some of his resources for the Prison Service to be managed. We want a more effective system, and obviously the Government feel that we should have more legislation, but we actually need the implementation to be more efficient. How can he do it without the money?

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his intervention—[Laughter.] My right hon. Friend knows that I will take advice from him any day of the week at any time of the day or night and I will always seek to profit from it. As he knows, we are always looking for more money in our bit of the Department, which is precisely why I will shortly produce proposals to double the budget for enforcement and removal.

It will no doubt have occurred to my hon. Friend that the Government’s regions often follow riparian boundaries; for instance, the south-eastern region includes Gravesend, Tilbury is in the eastern region, and London is next door to my constituency. Will we have a situation in which somebody in Gravesend says, “I can’t come over because it’s another region”? Will a person in Rainham be unable to go down to Purfleet? The Minister’s proposal fills me with horror. While he is at it, can he deal with the West Lothian question? Why do clauses 1 to 4 exclude Scotland? Surely the issue is not devolved.

Let me deal with my hon. Friend’s second question first. The advice of the Attorney-General and of Scottish advocates is that the powers that we propose relate to devolved matters and would therefore require a Sewel motion. As there are only seven international ports in Scotland, compared with 44 in England, Scottish Executive colleagues have proposed an operational solution to the problem, which they have talked through with the Association of Chief Police Officers in Scotland and with which I am satisfied.

On my hon. Friend’s first point, we obviously have to work with existing ports as they are. We will not allow arbitrary lines on a map to divert us from our intention of seeking to secure the border. We will work closely with operators when we devise solutions.

The third set of provisions, clauses 20 to 27, provides us with a range of measures to shut down the exploitation of illegal migrant labour. We cannot secure our borders unless we take that on. The Bill therefore builds on the Immigration, Asylum and Nationality Act 2006 to make it more difficult to employ people illegally and to increase the penalties for doing so. The Bill extends existing powers of search and arrest to the new offence of knowingly employing an illegal worker. It introduces new powers for immigration officers to seize cash suspected of being gained during the commission of an offence under immigration law. We ask, too, for the power to sell assets once we have seized them as part of a criminal investigation, following the forfeiture of such property to the Secretary of State by the courts.

As we toughen the regime for businesses that break the rules, we must make it easier for employers to double-check who is who and who has the right to work. At present, that is too complicated. Up to 60 different documents could be proffered as evidence of entitlement to be in this country and to work, so clauses 5 to 15 would change that situation by phasing out insecure 20th-century forms of identification and phasing in a single biometric identity card for foreign nationals. The Bill therefore introduces powers to make regulations requiring those subject to immigration control to apply for a biometric immigration document. We will start to issue those documents in 2008 and roll them out incrementally thereafter.

As is right and proper, we will return to the House each time that we wish to extend the power to a new category of third-country national.

Can the Minister tell us—if he would care to listen—whether this part of the Bill adds to, subtracts from or merely replicates what is already in the Identity Cards Act 2006?

I hope that we will have that debate at length in Committee, but these clauses and powers will add to the provisions already in law.

Often the people who end up with the most complicated problems are those whose status is not absolutely clear and where the Home Office takes a very, very long time to decide their status. Can the Minister assure us about the time that decisions to issue such documents and to clarify people’s status will take in future?

That is an extremely important point, which has been put to me by right hon. and hon. Members over the past few weeks, and I will talk about it in a moment. Suffice it to say that, because of the issues that my hon. Friend alludes to, we will not seek to introduce overnight the cards for the estimated 3.9 million third-country nationals who are in Britain today. In fact, we will seek to phase them in over a number of years, beginning from 2008. However, such a document allows us to phase out many of the insecure documents in circulation, giving employers and benefit providers the benefit of being able to know whether the person presenting themselves is who they say they are and has the right to work.

A further point that has been made to me over the past few weeks is whether there is any possibility of the police being able to stop someone in the street and demand to see their biometric immigration document. That is not the case. Clause 5(1) limits the powers to take biometric samples and to make checks for immigration purposes and procedures. Regulations will establish the grounds for verification, but there is no intention to give the police the power to stop and search someone who they believe is a foreign national.

I understand that, under the stop-and-search rules, officers are currently constrained to needing reasonable suspicion that someone is about to perpetrate a serious act of violence or is conveying stolen or prohibited articles, but that must be based on current and accurate intelligence. Suspecting someone of just being a foreign national and stopping them to ask for their documents is subjective and therefore an arbitrary use of power, which is subject to certain remedies.

The Minister made the point that the cards will be used in certain circumstances. Of course, the briefing notes and the research document suggest that the cards will be used in relation to nationality or immigration issues, but that could involve employment, access to benefits, health care, education, following arrest and on imprisonment. There are a large number of occasions when a biometric card would be checked. Is that not the case?

Yes, but there is a requirement to check certain documents already, so the only change is that we are making it possible to check a secure document, rather than a insecure one.

Given that the basis on which people gain entitlement to welfare is changing and that it is crucial if the host population is to continue to support welfare that they believe that it is not being misused, will the ID card be used also as an entitlement card to gain access to both health care and social security?

That is the foundation that the Bill will put into place. Obviously, the rules that govern the way that services are accessed are set out in different kinds of regulations and laws, which different parts of the Government have in place, but there are a number of services that require public servants to check whether someone has an entitlement to them—good examples are the issuing of a national insurance number, secondary health care and certain local authority services provided under other immigration laws—so we are seeking to put in place the power for both employers and public services to validate and verify whether the document belongs to the person who presents it and whether it is current and in force. The Bill provides an important platform, but it does not provide everything. The regulations and rules for other public services will need to be modernised as the biometric immigration document becomes more widespread.

I apologise to my hon. Friend for arriving after he started to speak. Some concern has been expressed to me about whether the provisions will be extended to children under the age of 16. Will he tell the House his intentions in that regard? Under the Identity Cards Act 2006, those aged 16 and under are not covered.