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Westminster Hall

Volume 458: debated on Tuesday 13 March 2007

Westminster Hall

Tuesday 13 March 2007

[Miss Anne Begg in the Chair]

Inter-city Rail Services

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

I am pleased to have the opportunity to address the House on an issue of great importance to my constituency and my city. The issues that affect Edinburgh affect other communities up and down the country, so I shall want to speak about some of the wider issues, draw some lessons and make some proposals.

I want to raise issues about the east coast main line, the cross-country franchise and the longer term future of the inter-city rail network in the UK. Those are vital links for Edinburgh. They are vital for business and tourism, and therefore for economic prosperity, as well as for family and friends. Some 2 million people in Scotland have links to families south of the border, so the long-term future of the rail network is important for them, too.

We are discussing the issue at a crucial time for the rail network. As hon. Members will know, the east coast main line is up for retender, decisions are to be taken about the cross-country franchise and there is an ongoing debate about the longer term strategy for the rail network. I will say something about that last point in my concluding remarks.

The service operated along the east coast by Great North Eastern Railway is recognised as of a reasonable quality. I agree with that. I frequently use the service—most recently yesterday—and there is a high rate of satisfaction among passengers on the line. The starting point has to be the retender. There should be no deterioration in any service provided by a new operator. Some of the operators who have been shortlisted for the new tender have in the past been associated with rail services that have not always been as popular with their customers as the GNER service has been. We do not want any deterioration in the service, and I would be grateful if the Minister can tell us what he intends to do to ensure that the starting point is maintained.

I want to see—I am sure that cities along the line and users of the line will want to see it, too—the retendering process used to improve the east coast main line service to benefit passengers up and down the route. I am grateful to have seen a recent report by Edinburgh city council that highlighted some of the difficulties that have arisen over the past few years because of what has happened to the operating and regulatory framework for the east coast main line since 2000. The council rightly states that

“since 2000 the long-term future of the East Coast Main Line has been uncertain. That is not a criticism of the train operator. The problem lies with the different (and changing) authorities charged with long-term stewardship of this asset.”

I agree with the comments from Passenger Focus, which has concluded:

“In the longer-term it is crucial that that the lessons from this affair are understood. Passengers are best served by long-term, mutually beneficial partnerships between Government, train operating companies and Network Rail.”

The Government have certainly shown signs that they recognise that—for example, in the strategy that they are developing for the railways—but it must be emphasised that a period of certainty and long-term planning is required, not only for the east coast main line but for the rail network in general.

The uncertainty is bound to have negative consequences. The quality of the staff on the GNER service is good. I am always impressed by their commitment to the service and the facilities that they give passengers. It surely cannot be good for the morale of staff to be uncertain of who their employer will be from year to year. No matter how good the staff are, that cannot help. As well as the intangible effects of such uncertainty, the possibility of improvement for the passengers as a result of the retendering process has not been fully taken up. The process has had a shorter term perspective, inevitably, over the past few years, notwithstanding the attempts to have a longer franchise introduced.

There have been two significant improvements in the service from Edinburgh—and that from Aberdeen, Miss Begg—to London over the past seven years. We have seen a welcome refurbishment of train interiors and the introduction of wi-fi internet, which is used by an increased number of passengers. However, although we had seen an increase in the number of direct services between London and Edinburgh, in 2007 that dropped back to the number that we had in 1996. Average journey times, which had increased to four hours and 42 minutes in 2005, have only now been restored to an average of four hours and 35 minutes, which is not a significant improvement since the service was first upgraded. As passengers will know, no trains are now running the regular four-hour service that was originally provided for when the service was upgraded back in the 1980s.

Clearly, a longer term perspective is needed. The issues cannot be addressed merely through short-term renegotiations. They need to be emphasised because they highlight the longer term perspective that we need to adopt in our policy towards the east coast main line. As far as the renegotiations are concerned, I endorse the shopping list put forward by Edinburgh city council to represent that community in the renegotiated franchise. It is a reasonable list of proposals, and I hope that the Minister will be able to give some suggestion that the Government will be faithful to it in the renegotiation procedures. First, there should be reduced journey times between Edinburgh and London. We need to see more journeys completed within four hours or just above that time, with commensurate benefits for the stations further north of Edinburgh and south of the city. That will mean that passengers in Newcastle, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland (Dr. Kumar), or in Stockton and Darlington can enjoy the faster services that they have a right to expect in this day and age. [Interruption.] I had better give way to my hon. Friend, as I think that he wants to intervene.

I am sorry. I misunderstood my hon. Friend’s indication of approval from his sedentary position. Those passengers, too, should have those benefits.

We want, too, to see a half-hourly service between Edinburgh and London throughout the day. At times of the day, there is a half-hourly service, but only for part of the day. As any transport operator will say, it is not only the length of the journey but the frequency and regularity of a service that attracts passengers to particular modes of transport. There must be a continuing requirement for Network Rail to continue to strengthen the overhead electrification network’s physical robustness and capacity. Anyone who travels on that line will know the dread announcement over the public announcement system that there is a problem with the overhead line somewhere ahead. If that happens, the journey can be extended by one or two hours, and sometimes by six, seven or eight hours. When the line was electrified in the first place, the system was not as strong as it ought to have been to cope with physical interruption.

On the theme of electrification, there ought to be a commitment to fill some of the gaps in the network that would be ideal candidates for electrification to allow the direct running of electrified, high-quality services between different points on the network. One proposal by GNER, for example, is the line between Leeds and York. It would allow much better use of the link to Leeds from the north, so that passengers from Newcastle, from the north-east of England and from Edinburgh and further north in Scotland could have a higher quality, more frequent direct service to Leeds, and ongoing connections from Leeds to Yorkshire and further points in that part of the country.

There is also a need to develop a clearer, simpler and cheaper fares structure. It has been reported on many occasions that it is often cheaper to travel by air than by rail for some important journeys in the UK. I am aware that if people book rail tickets well in advance, they can get tickets that compare favourably with even the cheapest budget air prices in the UK, but the fact is that at times the system is not easy to use, nor is it very flexible. Again that must be addressed in renegotiating the franchises.

A retendering process is under way. I would not expect the Minister to provide specific commitments today—if he wishes to do so, I certainly would not throw away the opportunity—but I hope that he will give some indication of how the Government will approach the issues, and that he will give reassurances that passengers, consumers and customers in my city and along the line have every right to expect.

I also hope that operators—no doubt they will listen to today’s debate or at least ensure that they are aware of the content of comments made by Members, and certainly those made by the Minister—will recognise that MPs from many communities up and down the country support my list of proposals, and that we expect operators to respond positively when they make proposals for the new tender.

Let me turn briefly to the cross-country franchise, another one for which negotiations are under way. Again, it is an important link for much of England and central Scotland. Specifically, given my interest, it is an important link for Edinburgh. In fact, 10 per cent. of all rail journeys from Edinburgh are on the cross-country service, and there are several concerns about it that affect my community and, no doubt, areas along the line as well.

The first concern is the possible transfer, as I understand it, of the Scotland to Birmingham service—more generally the service on the west coast main line—to the west coast franchise. There is concern that overall service levels should, at the very least, be maintained. Indeed, I hope that they will be improved.

There is concern about a proposal that more journeys will require a change of train at Birmingham. If that is to be the case, it is certainly important that there be a significant improvement in the services north of Birmingham to compensate for the fact that passengers would have to change at Birmingham for services to some points in the south of England.

Another concern that has been expressed to me by several passengers’ organisations and by rail passengers directly is the proposed transfer of the Edinburgh to Manchester trains to the TransPennine Express franchise. That is causing worries to rail users. At present, there are no guarantees that overall service levels on the route will be maintained, or, as they ought to be, improved. To be blunt, the present train service between Edinburgh and Manchester is not what it could be in terms of quality of stock and the time that it takes to travel between the two cities and, obviously, places en route. The journey time between Edinburgh and Manchester is not significantly different from that between Edinburgh and London, even though it is half the distance.

Clearly, if passengers are to be encouraged to use alternatives to air travel, they should be able to think that short journeys such as that from Edinburgh to Manchester are significantly better by rail, when they take into account the associated time of travelling to airports and so on, than by air. At present, the service does not meet that standard for journey times.

It is important to take advantage of the massive upgrading that has been done on the west coast main line when the new arrangements are put into effect. Money has been spent on that line. Surely, we should make absolutely certain that the route from Edinburgh to Manchester is able to use the tilting-train technology that is now used on the west coast main line so that there could be a significant improvement on existing journey times from Edinburgh to Manchester.

Of course, the issue is not just about the line between Edinburgh and Manchester and the stations along it. It is also about the connections from Edinburgh northwards and westwards throughout Scotland, the connections from Manchester to areas in that part of England and the links to Manchester airport. As I said, this is a matter of great importance, and I hope that the Minister will give us some indication of the Government’s thinking, particularly about the use of tilting trains in the new franchise.

Furthermore, the Minister should bear it in mind that TransPennine Express has no depot or crew facility in Scotland. If it is to be the franchisee, some provision must be made for a depot and crew in Scotland. Clearly, the potential for difficulties, particularly with early morning trains, will be magnified if the operator is not based in the part of the country where the route starts.

We would like, at the minimum, an hourly train between Edinburgh and the south of Birmingham, ideally with the flexibility to run trains every two hours to the south-west of England and every two hours to the south coast.

Another aspect that will become even more crucial if there is to be a break in the service at Birmingham such that there will be fewer through trains from Scotland to the south of England, is the need to maintain the current opportunity that cross-country passengers have to access lower fares across the franchise. If there will be a requirement to use different operators at different points in the service, there will obviously be a danger that passengers will not be able to access the same types of reduced fares that are available with advance booking and so on. That could have an effect on passengers travelling from Edinburgh to Gatwick airport, for example, or to Brighton, Portsmouth or Southampton. We would want some guarantees about the availability of low fares across the routes that are currently operated by the cross-country franchise.

Clearly, issues about the east coast main line and the cross-country franchise are important to Edinburgh and many other communities along the line, but, by the nature of the franchise negotiations, they are primarily short-term concerns. We are talking about making significant improvements with the existing routes, network and technology, and I recognise that only so much can be done in the short term under current franchise negotiations. I want to take a few minutes today to consider some of the longer term issues in respect of the future of rail services in Great Britain, with particular relevance to how they will affect Edinburgh.

One reason why we have problems in making the best use of the current rail network and in combining the need for faster services with the need for adequate services to communities en route is that capacity is limited. The welcome increase in rail passenger use has been accompanied by pressures on the capacity of the rolling stock and of the network. I very much welcomed the Government’s announcements about providing new rolling stock, but we cannot get away from the fact that we also need to address the capacity of the rail network itself—the capacity of tracks to take more, ideally faster, trains.

We must provide substantial extra capacity in the rail network to allow us to meet future demand in the next five, 10, 20, 30, 40 and 50 years. We should take the opportunity to provide increased capacity. It would allow passengers throughout Great Britain to use the type of high-speed services that our Edinburgh neighbours are used to but which in the rest of Britain will be enjoyed later this year only on the short stretch from St. Pancras to the channel tunnel, when the channel tunnel link is finally fully open and taking passenger services.

I am not one of those who believe that we can create a French-style TGV network simply by drawing lines on a map and spending tens of billions of pounds. We need to think of the economies involved and the business case to be made for such investment. It is all too easy to start playing amateur railway builder and planning the ideal rail system for the United Kingdom without thinking of the costs that would be involved.

In passing, I observe that we should not be too ready to criticise some of our European partners or other nations for developing high-speed rail networks. That policy is being adopted by more and more European countries, and by countries elsewhere in the world. I suggest that they cannot all be wrong in deciding that the development of a comprehensive high-speed network is the right way to go.

I accept that we cannot set up a high-speed rail network just because we think it a good idea. We should have good economic and transport arguments, and environmental ones too. The fact is that much work has already been done by the Strategic Rail Authority, and we also have the Atkins report. That highlighted the economic viability of high-speed rail links and a high-speed network for the UK.

It is important for the Government to indicate their long-term strategic approach to the development of high-speed rail links and to say, when they consider the long-term strategy for rail later this summer, whether high-speed rail has a role in the UK. I hope that the Minister will give us some indication of the Government’s thinking.

Last year, as hon. Members will know, the Eddington report was fairly sceptical about high-speed rail. I have to be blunt: I have heard much criticism of the report. I have read it in full, and if I had the time I would certainly take issue with a number of points in the analysis and conclusions.

My hon. Friend said that the Eddington report was sceptical about the north-south link, but I thought that it rejected the fast north-south link, although the reasons were not clear.

I am clear why Eddington rejected it, but his conclusions do not justify that rejection. For example, I do not agree with his analysis of the environmental benefits. He also gave insufficient consideration to the benefits of freight and passenger services making more use of the space that would be made available by new high-speed links freeing capacity on the existing network.

On a number of points, Eddington’s analysis is limited. However, even he does not reject high-speed rail. To some extent, he argues against what is described as a very high-speed rail network, but he really only considers the possibilities of high-speed rail networks that use such things as Maglev technology or those that would require investment on new networks throughout the UK. He does not consider in great detail the possibilities of a more incremental approach to the development of high-speed rail links.

To be fair, although I criticise Eddington, I qualify my criticism by noting that he concedes the point to a degree. At paragraph 4.174 he states that

“it is important to recognise that not all high-speed rail line options would be subject to the same issues. For those that do not involve relying on untested technologies and are targeted at solving proven congestion and overcrowding problems, higher and more certain returns are likely than for high-risk options on new links where demands are speculative.”

Again, he points out in paragraph 4.180 he states:

“It is outside the scope of this study to assess the detailed costs and benefits of specific high-speed rail options.”

Even with his scepticism, Eddington allows some openings for high-speed rail. Certainly the Government should give make it clear that they are prepared to consider a role for new high-speed rail developments. I accept that we do not want to adopt grands projets simply because they look good on paper—on the transport map of the UK—but neither should we be too modest in our ambitions.

To some extent, Eddington has an element of predict and provide in his thinking. He predicts where the increase in the rail demand will be, and then suggests that we provide in the areas where that increase is to be seen. In doing so, he does not take full account of some of the wider economic consequences. It is worth bearing it in mind that the consequence of taking Eddington’s approach to its conclusion is that we would invest in those areas where we are already investing heavily—particularly in the south of England—precisely because that is where the short-journey congestion identified by Eddington is concentrated.

If we are to meet future transport needs, we need more capacity—and not only high-speed capacity, but capacity for existing passenger and commuter services—which could be assisted by the proper development of high-speed links. An incremental approach might be best for Britain, with stretches of new line providing first phase improvements in the context of a larger strategic framework. For example, on the east coast main line we might have improved high-speed links between Newcastle and Yorkshire, which would also benefit the cities to the north of Newcastle and to the south of Yorkshire. That would provide a high-speed link for the network as a whole, but it would obviously provide immediate economic benefits to the core cities in central and north-eastern England.

That is a possibility, but I am certainly not going to draw my own ideal railway map. I only ask the Government to consider the possibility of taking an incremental approach to high-speed rail in the UK and not to fall into the trap of assuming that the only way forward for high-speed rail is to go immediately for the investment of £50 billion or £60 billion in some form of unproven technology.

We want to see faster services on the key inter-city routes. If we could bring the London to Edinburgh times down to three and a half hours or even three hours, and if we could bring the London to Newcastle time down to under two and a half hours or even two hours, competition with air would become much keener and rail travel more attractive not only for business passengers but for private passengers. We have seen such benefits on the west coast main line, where massive investment has resulted in a major shift from air to rail in the London to Manchester corridor; and we have seen some changes in the London to Glasgow services and elsewhere. There are clear environmental advantages in switching from air to rail when possible—and when good alternative services are provided on the rail network.

I had not planned to spend so much time on the matter, but it is important to many parts of the country. I recognise that the Government have made a massive investment in the rail network, and in the west coast main line in particular. We should take full advantage of that investment, for instance by allowing the tilting train technology to be used not only for the Glasgow, Birmingham and London services but also for the Edinburgh to Manchester services and others.

The west coast main line is another reason why it is best for Scotland and England not to separate but to stay together within the Union. For example, it is hard to believe that providing rail improvements up to the Scottish border would have been a priority for a Government whose responsibilities only reached as far as Carlisle. That is another example of how the links between Scotland and England are beneficial to both sides of the border and why those links must be maintained.

Let us learn from the success of west coast main line investment, the process of which, to put it mildly, caused difficulties along the way. Now it has been completed, we can appreciate the benefits of such investment and of having a strategic approach to our rail network. On the theme of developing the links between England and Scotland, what better year than 2007—the 300th anniversary of the Union—for the Government to announce that they are examining ways of developing new high-speed rail links between England and Scotland? That could be considered a new “Union railway” to underpin the links between England and Scotland. I hope that the Minister will give us, if not a commitment, an opening to such a longer term perspective and vision when he concludes the debate.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz) on securing the debate. I praise him for his speech; he has been on his feet for half an hour and has been very thorough. I thought that there would be more hon. Members here so I have prepared a speech that should only take a few minutes. While listening to my hon. Friend, I was reminded of the contributions that he made during our Labour Students days when he made long and exciting speeches. It is the first time that I have ever followed him in a debate in the House and it is a pleasure to do so some 25 or 30 years later in this Chamber. I am sure that he is happy to be reminded of the great socialist debates that used to take place in our party.

I wish to highlight some concerns that I have about inter-city rail links between the Tees valley and major cities in the UK. I shall concentrate on the east coast main line, which my hon. Friend mentioned and which at present serves Tees valley through Darlington station. I say “at present” because in a few months’ time open access train services directly to and from Sunderland, Hartlepool, Stockton and London will be introduced. That service will be operated by Grand Central Train Services and will be Teesside's first direct link with the capital for nearly two decades. If that service is as good as the other open access service on the east coast main line, which is now operated by Hull Trains, it will be a quality service easily accessible to travellers who may not otherwise travel by train.

I intend to focus on the totality of services on the east coast main line, which, after the west coast route, is the second busiest main line in the UK. I am aware that the Minister cannot comment directly on franchise matters that he will be called on to determine later, but there are concerns about the future of east coast services in relation to the forthcoming franchise round. My hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith voiced concern about the future quality of the service, which I share. I think that there is genuine fear about that issue. GNER currently provides an excellent service and has excellent staff—I travel regularly on the service between Darlington and London—but staff employed by GNER are worried about what will happen when the present franchise comes to end. I praise GNER staff for their professionalism and dedication; they provide an excellent service, but they are worried about their future. They are also concerned about whether the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations 1981 will apply to them. I hope that the Minister can respond to that important concern, because since the debate on the new franchise started those staff have raised their concerns with me every week and asked me to draw the issue to the Minister’s attention. I am here to make the Minister aware of their concerns and I hope that he will say something in relation to that.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for emphasising the concerns of staff. I am sure that he knows that, because of how the service is operated, many staff are based at the Edinburgh depots. They certainly share those concerns and I agree with my hon. Friend that they need reassurance. I too hope that the Minister can provide that reassurance today.

I endorse that comment. I think that I saw the Minster nod and that he will comment on that issue.

I wonder whether robust human resource policies on the part of the companies applying to run the east coast main line will be seen as an important scoring factor when the franchise is awarded. If they are, GNER staff will be greatly reassured that they will be able to carry on serving the public in their present role. If the Minister is in a position to take those matters into account, it is important that he provides a positive response.

I will move on to the upgrading and improvement of the main stations on the east coast main line, including my local station, Darlington. Before withdrawing from the franchise, GNER announced that it had begun a programme of station enhancement. However, I understand that the Department for Transport tendering document states only that it is “recommended” that bidders be encouraged to invest in stations, with a mechanism to ensure that they get a return over the long term, which could be beyond the term of the franchise. That seems to be a disincentive to potential tenderers, and I would be interested to hear the Minister's comments on the subject.

Such issues relate to the choice of the railway operating company, but that is only one aspect of the operation of the east coast main line. The line allows not only for current GNER operations, but for services run by other important rail operators, such as Virgin Cross-Country, First TransPennine and Northern Rail, serving the east and west midlands and the south- east. The line is also a key freight route. As I mentioned only a couple of weeks ago in this Chamber, as the Minister may recall, the line is crucial for the continued aspirations of the port of Tees and Hartlepool to become one of the UK’s premier container ports. It is also an important route for other bulk commodities that are important to Teesside, such as steel and chemicals, and for the conveyance of coal and post-related freight from the Humber to the big Trent power stations and inland container terminals.

As the Minister knows, there are problems of capacity on the east coast main line. I am aware that work is under way on route utilisation strategies for the east coast main line and, in a national setting, for freight. It is crucial that the findings of both rail utilisation studies are brought together so that the maximum benefits of future investment programmes can be dovetailed effectively.

Another, broader issue that I shall raise in this context focuses on the need to look afresh at possible new build for UK rail for the coming century. As I mentioned in the exchange with my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith about the Eddington report, I felt that the report rejected the concept of establishing a dedicated north-south link. I would be interested to hear the Minister’s view on that matter. Even in that context, other schemes could be examined that would ease the bottleneck on the east coast main line. The east coast main line has a number of handy routes that broadly run parallel to the main line, some of which are well known and are already part of the national network, such as the alignment between Doncaster and Peterborough via Lincoln. In my area, where the majority of the east coast main line is mainly or exclusively simple two-line running, there are important lines running from Northallerton to Stockton and from there to Ferryhill. Just further north of that last junction is a totally unused rail alignment—the Leamside route. If that were utilised, it would take pressure off the east coast main line all the way to Newcastle.

I hope that the revitalisation of such key, but under-resourced, links will be taken into account when the east coast rail utilisation study and the investment that will flow from it are examined. Work on such strategies would help to free up the east coast main line. One possible proposal involves the reopening of the old grand central line from west Yorkshire to the channel tunnel terminals. That line could run to full European gauge limits from day one. As well as easing congestion, it would provide more slots for regional services and would allow far more continuous high-speed running for the inheritors of the old GNER and Virgin Cross-Country services.

My hon. Friend kindly reminded hon. Members that I first met him some 25 to 30 years ago. Perhaps he might confirm that it is also some 25 to 30 years or more since the first suggestion was made in relation to the grand central railway. That indicates that clear decisions need to be made now, or in the near future, if we are to see long-term strategic benefits even 20 to 30 years from today. If we do not take the decisions now, our successors will be having the same debate 25 to 30 years hence.

I wholeheartedly agree with the sentiment expressed by my hon. Friend. We do not want others to be debating the subject in 25 to 30 years’ time, which is why we need some action from Government and some vision. It seems rational on the basis of cost and speed to utilise the existing capacity fully to meet the needs of the region.

The concerns about the east coast main line that I have raised with the Minister are genuine concerns that have been expressed by many. We should ensure that we retain the excellent premier league service that we already have. A lot lies in the Minister’s hands, and I hope that he will take seriously the issues that I have flagged up and ensure that we indeed continue to have a first-class service.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith once again on initiating the debate. I am disappointed that more hon. Members were not present. Nevertheless, those of us who have spoken have between us taken 45 minutes and we have contributed to keeping the debate live.

I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz) on having secured the debate, and I welcome the contribution of the hon. Member for Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland (Dr. Kumar). The debate is important and timely, coming as it does on the day when the Government have published their draft Climate Change Bill. In developing inter-city services we need to ensure that many of the issues that are raised by the Bill are addressed.

We are due to hear from the Minister later this year when the Government publish their 30-year rail strategy, and the present debate is important in helping to frame what my party believes are some of the key issues that we hope will be addressed in the strategic White Paper. Network Rail is currently negotiating with the Office of Rail Regulation on the setting of funding for the period from 2009 until March 2014, and those discussions frame the debate, as well. If we do not fund services, we will not get anything from them. I hope that the Minister’s response will put our debate on inter-city rail services in the context of those matters that I have mentioned.

We know that we face a 30 per cent. growth in passengers and freight over the next 10 years. That is a phenomenal increase that testifies to the investment that has been put into rail services, and to the fact that rail is now perceived to be a much more viable option and a better means of travelling. If one undertook a survey of most hon. Members, one would find that the majority travel here weekly by train.

Hon. Members have mentioned a number of short and longer-term issues on which I should like to set out the Liberal Democrat position. The hon. Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith mentioned fares. Earlier this year, the Evening Standard carried out a survey that showed that it is cheaper to travel by plane than by rail on most of the main inter-city routes. It cannot be right that plane travel should be so cheap, nor can that be acceptable in terms of encouraging environmental “goods” as opposed to “bads”—a debate in which we are all now getting involved. In the context of the proposals published by my party earlier this year and the debate that has been started by the Conservatives and by the Labour Government, I hope that we shall see taxation being used to encourage more people to take the train rather than the plane.

Having said that, rail fares have increased hugely in the past few years, and compared with those for other European countries the figures do not bode well. The cost of a return ticket from Madrid to Barcelona or from Berlin to Bonn—distances of 387 miles and 365 miles respectively—is some £63, whereas a first class return on the Manchester to London route costs £337, and even if one buys a standard ticket the cost is £119 at peak time. Those are not acceptable figures, so one of my questions to the Minister is: what is the Government’s policy on rail fares? I accept that investment has to be funded, but I hope that there will be a switch in the source of money, so that more people are encouraged to use rail rather than plane travel. We should be rationing slots on routes that can be served by fast trains.

There are currently two franchises out to tender—GNER and the cross-country service. The case of GNER raises some important questions about Government policy on letting franchises. My party’s view is that the current franchise period is too short. The investment figure of £1.2 billion that was expected from the original franchisee was far too punitive. I hope that when the franchise is let there will be a proper debate on the situation that led to the current operator pulling out, despite having contributed greatly to the service, as hon. Members have said.

As the hon. Gentleman says, there are a number of factors relevant to why the current franchise ended, and that is something that we need to examine. However, does he agree with me—perhaps differing from the views expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland (Dr. Kumar)—that one difficulty was perhaps the open access possibilities, which will inhibit long-term investment by franchisees in substantial infrastructure improvements?

The hon. Gentleman anticipates my next remarks. Clearly, one of the issues at the root of the withdrawal was the open access agreement that Hull Trains secured. I know that that went through the High Court, but if an operator is expected to deliver a premium as high as GNER was and it then faces competition through the development of other services that was not anticipated when the franchise was let—that is the key point—clearly that has a huge effect on the financial return that it can expect. The Minister is nodding his head.

I would not usually intervene at this stage, but the hon. Gentleman said that I was nodding my head. For the record, I was shaking my head.

We shall await the Minister’s comments with interest.

Once the franchise has settled down, with the seven and a half years that are left on the contract, there needs to be a serious investigation of what happened. I am sure that other hon. Members expect that when the franchise is re-let, it will cost more than the original franchise provided for. I return to the point that if we want investment in inter-city services and to get the desired returns, we need longer franchises than are currently being let.

Hon. Members have mentioned the cross-country franchise. The east-west cross-cutting link is a vital service, but there are concerns about the loss of through trains. The hon. Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith was right to say that if there has to be a change at Birmingham, we need to ensure that the fares are interconnected and that some of the cheap fares are not lost. If that is to happen, Network Rail’s provision in its next control period to redevelop Birmingham New Street to make it far more accessible is vital. I hope that when the franchise is let, that will be one of the projects that go ahead.

The Minister recently announced the inter-city express programme. That will be the largest single investment in rolling stock for a long time. Between 500 and 2,000 trains will be provided to replace the old high-speed trains from 2014. The HST has been the workhorse of much of our inter-city network. In procuring the new trains, why have we gone for diesel-electric? Such trains will be more expensive and, although they will be far more efficient than existing rolling stock, they will not necessarily be more efficient than electric-only trains. What work has been done to examine whether the rest of the inter-city network could be electrified? That could prove to be a much better investment than providing dual-fuel trains, which are heavier and more costly to run. That question needs to be answered.

I know that the Office of Fair Trading is investigating the role of train leasing companies. Who will own the new trains? Have we considered Network Rail being the provider of the trains, or will that be done through the train operating companies if they are given longer franchises? Many of us currently have serious concerns about the cost of trains and carriages provided by train leasing companies. I look at the rolling stock that serves much of Greater Manchester, which is 30 years old and has long been paid for. It is nonsense that we are having to pay £300,000 a carriage for trains that have long since been paid for and have seen better days. I hope that the Minister can give us some information on that point, because it is not mentioned in the documents provided.

I would also like an assurance that, in view of Britain’s record of designing and building trains, the new trains will be designed and built in the UK. There is concern about whether certain rail manufacturing companies will remain open. The order for the new trains could give us a vital opportunity to secure Britain’s manufacturing base.

The longer-term question is: what happens once we have provided that capacity? How do we take it further on a network that will not be able to accommodate any more trains? We need to have a proper discussion about the development of a brand-new high-speed train that serves London, Manchester, Birmingham, Glasgow and Edinburgh. Although Eddington may have pooh-poohed the idea, I believe that if we seriously want people from Edinburgh not to fly but to catch the train down here, we need a service that can travel between the two cities in under three hours, which will be deliverable only with a brand new line and a brand new high-speed train that can deliver such services. Whether that is a Maglev train or the French variant of the HST, we need to be carrying out investigations in that respect. We can deal with things with our existing network for the next 10 years, but if we are to continue to encourage people to use the train, we will need to develop those high-speed routes.

I thank everybody for the contributions that they have made. We have had a good opportunity this morning to take forward the debate about inter-city services.

Like the hon. Members for Rochdale (Paul Rowen) and for Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland (Dr. Kumar), I congratulate the hon. Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz) on initiating the debate and on his speech, which was a tour de force, examining the future of inter-city rail. It is disappointing that there are not more hon. Members in the Chamber this morning. As far as my party is concerned, the reason seems to be the inexplicable decision by my colleagues to go and listen to a briefing by my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) and my hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne), rather than coming here to listen to me—I cannot think why they decided to do that. However, it means that I have a rather longer time than is usual in such debates in which to speak. Last night, the Minister urged me to be brief. Today, he is urging me to be lengthier in my response. I shall try to take the middle course.

The extra time allows me to start my remarks by going through the history, which is quite interesting. The hyphenated Inter-City was introduced by British Rail in 1966 as the brand name for its long-haul express passenger services. It is instructive that British Rail, in one of its few moments of real clarity, introduced the brand name Inter-City and that that was taken up by the whole of Europe. The UK Inter-City reached the peak of its public awareness in the 1970s, thanks principally to those of us who are old enough to remember the “This is the age of the train” adverts, which were fronted by Jimmy Savile.

In 1986, the British Railways Board divided its operations into a number of sectors, and the sector that was responsible for long-distance express trains continued to use the brand name Inter-City. Following on from the adverts of the 1970s, we had the Inter-City 125 adverts, also fronted by Jimmy Savile. The name of that train reflected its top speed in miles per hour. We are not here to debate that today, as the hon. Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith made clear, but it is always interesting to examine how what was a brand name has become a generic name.

As everybody who has contributed to the debate so far has said, it is clear that demand for long-distance travel has been growing for many years. The capacity constraints that we face in the next 10 years we also faced 25 years ago. Demand for long-distance travel has been growing for the past 25 years. The Conservative Government recognised that and started a programme of extensive electrification and line upgrades in the 1980s. The east coast main line, to which the hon. Member for Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland referred, is the spine through the east of England up to Scotland. He will recognise that the electrification of the line to Leeds, Edinburgh and Glasgow in the 1980s significantly decreased journey times and increased capacity.

As has been rightly said, however, demand for long-distance rail travel continues to grow significantly, and all the major routes require substantial increases in capacity. The hon. Member for Rochdale quoted the popular statistic that the Corporation of London gave us last year, which shows that demand on the London commuter network is expected to grow by 30 per cent. by 2014. Similarly, Government statisticians suggest that the east coast main line, on which 2,000 passenger trains and about 250 freight trains currently run every day, will see a 40 to 50 per cent. increase in inter-city passenger traffic, a 30 to 40 per cent. increase in cross-country traffic and a 20 per cent. increase in the need for freight over the next decade.

We must ask, therefore, what will provide such extra capacity and what the Government intend to do, particularly on the east coast main line. There have been a number of suggestions. In 2000, Network Rail’s previous incarnation, Railtrack, planned to spend about £1.6 billion on the line to remove some of the bottlenecks. Over the past five years, we have seen the reconstruction of the station at Leeds and work in the surrounding area, as well as the overcoming of the bottleneck problems around Grantham. It is good that that work has been completed, but as the hon. Member for Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland said, we need a commitment from Network Rail or, through Network Rail, from the Government to increase line capacity. Several stretches of the east coast main line could be inexpensively converted from two or four tracks to six. Clearly, some of the bottlenecks on the line are difficult to relieve—the principal one being at the viaduct just outside Welwyn Garden City, where I was brought up—and it would be expensive to increase the line’s capacity in some areas. However, it is not true that moves to increase capacity on the line are being constrained wholly by the need for expensive land purchases, and many of the problems on the line could be overcome through inexpensive land purchases.

Although capacity is the pre-eminent problem facing the railway network, it is fair to say that other problems include over-prescription by the Department for Transport—last year, in a parliamentary answer, the Minister’s predecessor said that 14 civil servants were writing the timetables—Network Rail’s lack of vision, until relatively recently, as regards capacity increases, and the shortened franchise system, which acts as a brake on innovation and investment. Indeed, last July, as the hon. Member for Rochdale said, the Conservative party set out its belief that franchise lengths are too short and act as a brake on innovation and investment. If the Government take more premium out of the franchise period to recuperate their subsidy, one of the problems that we will have to accept is that the economic return to train operating companies during the life of a franchise will be shortened, and their ability to innovate and invest will be taken away. The lengthening of franchises is one of the key issues in terms of increasing capacity not only on the inter-city lines, but across the railway network.

The future of inter-city rail is also being constrained and that is likely to remain the case. The Evening Standard survey, to which the hon. Member for Rochdale referred, found that travelling by rail was not only more expensive than travelling by air, but that it was three times more so. A passenger on a typical rail journey creates one tenth of the carbon footprint of a passenger making the same journey by air. We therefore need to look not only at the economic consequences, but the environmental consequences, of pricing.

Despite the increased fares, however, anyone hon. Member who reads today’s debate pack or who looks at their postbag and at the articles in the newspapers will know that there have been several instances of passengers paying the full fare, but having to cram themselves on to their trains and stand for long journeys from Manchester, Birmingham and constituencies further north. In many cases, this year’s fare increases have been four times the rate of inflation, and we cannot expect people to keep making the environmentally friendly choices that we want to make if, at the same time, we do nothing to promote those choices.

Many people feel that they are being priced off the railways, and there is an indication that the industry thinks that that is a Government strategy. I should be interested to hear how the Minister responds to that. This year, Virgin and GNER have put up their average prices by more than 11 per cent., and one or two of my constituents on certain lines have faced fare increases of 56 per cent., which is hardly an incentive to go on the railways. If train operating companies are to be allowed to put through increases beyond the retail prices index plus 1 per cent., which the Government say is the standard fare increase this year, many people will want to ensure that companies deliver the necessary investment.

My hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) summed things up rather accurately when he said:

“Transport is one of Britain’s big headaches…We already know that major routes…are going to be full to capacity in ten years time. That’s why we have to start assessing…longer term solutions”.

During the Christmas recess, the Conservative party announced that it would undertake a feasibility study with engineering consultants and financial backers on extending the high-speed rail network across the country. We accept that that is not a short-term project, but the thinking needs to be done now if we are to attack the congestion problems of the next 10 years. We also accept that no Government are likely to wish to spend in one go the £50 billion or £60 billion necessary to build high-speed rail from north to south, and nor could they afford to do so. Equally, we accept that the project may need to be phased, but the construction of our motorway network was phased, and the route from London to Manchester was not built overnight. Indeed, the motorway network was spun off from an extraordinary beginning—the motorway to Preston, which was the first piece of the network in this country.

On 19 January, my hon. Friend announced that the Conservative party was undertaking a further feasibility study to address the congestion problems about which we are all hearing. The study will look at technology that would allow an eight-minute journey from Glasgow to Edinburgh and a 15-minute trans-Pennine journey. I refer, of course, to Maglev technology and the next generation of travel. That is the sort of medium and long-term thinking and feasibility study work that needs to be done now to ensure that we make improvements and overcome congestion constraints.

Last night, the Minister and I were in the House, and I spent some time going through the Government’s transport failures. I do not need to re-enact those today, because, as the Minister knows, I set them out clearly and extensively, and they are recorded in Hansard. My speech was somewhat lengthy, but the Minister made a very short speech, and I am sure that his speech today will be a little longer. None the less, we welcomed his announcement on 8 March that the process for procuring the new train fleet for the inter-city express programme has started. The Government set the programme up to work in conjunction with high-level outputs, and it potentially represents a significant development of the inter-city network in terms of rolling stock. It is certainly the most significant announcement on the development of inter-city services that we have had from the Government in the past 10 years and, to that end, they are to be congratulated.

Perhaps I can encourage the Minister to go a little further this morning, beyond his announcement of last week, and answer some more questions. The hon. Member for Rochdale put several, including some on the environment. He touched, of course, on ownership. With the railway leasing companies at loggerheads with the Government, and one company, Angel Trains, refusing to buy Pendolinos for the Virgin west coast operation, citing uncertainty about how it will recoup its investment, how does the Minister expect the process to work? Can he confirm today that he has spoken to the leasing companies about that, and that the problem has been overcome?

Will the Minister also confirm whether the Department has the sort of expert negotiators in procurement needed to undertake a programme of the size in question? Government and public sector procurement records for Governments of either political colour reveal that a constant issue has been a lack of experts. The Government procurement record has thus left us, particularly in the context of defence, doing deals that have cost the taxpayer rather more than they should.

The Minister last week mentioned a figure of between 500 and 2,000 carriages. Will he discuss what the number will be? Will it be closer to 500 or to 2,000, and what will be the evaluation mechanism? Clearly, the number could have a significant impact on what can be delivered. Also, if the inter-city express programme is supposed to complement the high-level output statement, would not it have been more sensible to announce the two together? Are the Government now considering speeding up their announcement of the HLOS, so that we can see how the inter-city express programme will complement it? I wonder, too, whether the first operational date has been set. I notice that we are hoping for some trains in 2012, but perhaps the Minister will comment on when there will be full operation. What infrastructure improvements are intended to go alongside the rolling stock procurement? In the Minister’s statement of 8 March there was no indication of any infrastructure improvements. The Government have some hopes for the success of the inter-city express procurement programme, but is not its impact likely to be lessened without the infrastructure improvements that other hon. Members have discussed this morning?

Before the hon. Gentleman sits down I would be interested in whether he can enlighten us about the intentions announced by the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) with respect to taxation on air travel. It is good to have a debate on the issues, but I should have thought that if there is to be such a taxation increase an obvious way to allocate resources would be to invest in rail services and more environmentally friendly forms of transport. It would be helpful if the hon. Gentleman said whether that would be a good way to spend such money; I think that it might be.

The hon. Gentleman might indeed think that a good way to spend money, and others might too. It is an interesting temptation for me to prejudge what money might be raised and how, when we are in government in a few years’ time, we shall spend it. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will understand my resisting the temptation, but I note what he says.

I want briefly to mention the invitation to tender for the inter-city east coast franchise. That was announced on 15 December and on 20 February the pre-qualified bidders were announced. I understand that the Minister cannot talk about the bidders or where they are in the process, but perhaps he can enlighten the House—because the matter is significant for inter-city travel—about when he expects the franchise process to come to some conclusion. Can he confirm that the bidders will bid solely against a Department for Transport specification, as I think he said previously? If not, what other process is being used, and what are they being allowed to put into the process? Earlier in the year the Minister said that he expected the Department to be able to raise the sort of premium, from the rebidding or the reallocation of the franchise, that was in the original franchise. Does he still have that confidence, and, if so, what safeguards will be established so that the new franchisee, whoever that is, will not suffer the same fate as GNER?

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz) on securing the debate. Before I respond to points that he made, perhaps I can start almost in reverse order by dealing with some of the comments of the hon. Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond). I feared, when he began his comments with a reference to 1966, that it was going to be a very long speech. Strangely, his quick history of inter-city rail services in Britain glossed over the privatisation of the rail industry by his party’s Government in 1994. He gave more mentions to Jimmy Savile than to the privatisation of the rail industry.

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will take this opportunity to intervene; I do not have that much time, but I should be happy to give way to him. He has made several critical comments. Can he confirm that any future Conservative Government will refuse to accept premiums from any bidder for a rail franchise? While he is doing that will he confirm that they would not necessarily go for the company offering the largest premiums?

I did not mean to avoid speaking about privatisation this morning; it could have taken us into a rather long discourse, and I thought that we were relatively constrained by time, so I did not head down that route. The Minister will I am sure want to confirm that use of the railway system has increased significantly since privatisation. As to premiums it is far too early for us to prejudge what would happen. We might of course choose an altogether different system for the operation of the railway network. It is not at all clear yet, so I shall resist the temptation from the Minister, rather as I did the interesting temptation from the hon. Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith.

I shall take that as a no.

The hon. Member for Rochdale (Paul Rowen) made a similar comment about premiums. He said that the premium required by GNER in the previous franchise was too punitive. I wonder if he understands that when an invitation to tender is issued, not only do the Government not specify a level for premiums; they do not specify whether a premium should be paid. I am not sure how the hon. Gentleman can conclude that a premium that was volunteered by GNER was too punitive. The term punitive suggests that the Government were in some way trying to punish the winning bidder for the GNER franchise.

I sometimes, in my darkest moments, envy the Liberals. It does not happen often, but I wonder what it would be like to have the luxury of being in a party that, never aspiring to Government, does not have to consider the consequences of policy or finance. We have seen this morning a typical example of Liberal Democrat wishful thinking on policy. The hon. Gentleman talked about fares and about its being cheaper to travel by plane than by rail. He gave a continental example. He did not point out that he was making a comparison of the most expensive peak fares in Britain with average off-peak fares on the continent. That is fair game in politics; I understand the point that he is trying to make. However, sometimes we should pay less attention to badly-conducted newspaper surveys in this country and more attention to the facts. However often we say that air travel is cheaper than rail travel, simple repetition does not make it true. Often newspaper surveys do what the hon. Gentleman has done this morning. They take the cheapest advance flight on easyJet or one of the cheaper airlines and compare it with the same journey by rail, for which they take the first-class, pay-on-the-day fare. Of course those fares will be more expensive than advance purchase fares on the cheaper airlines. The hon. Gentleman fails to take into account airline tax and the fact that there is sometimes an additional charge for baggage on flights. Also, the cost of travelling from a city centre to an out-of-city airport, on the Heathrow Express for example, is never taken into account.

I understand the Minister’s point, but let us deal with real facts. A first-class ticket from Manchester to London is £337 by rail and £319, including tax, on a British Airways full-rate fare. That is a clear example without any reduction in fares. That clearly is not right.

I do not accept the hon. Gentleman’s comparison.

The hon. Gentleman said that fares have increased hugely in the past few years. There are two points to make on that. First, because of the control that the Government have exercised in the past 10 years, regulated rail fares, which the majority of rail passengers use, are 2 per cent. cheaper today, in real terms, than in 1996. He says that that is a huge increase, but I think it is a decrease.

Secondly, is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that the Government should increase the subsidy to railways in order to reduce the fare that passengers pay? That is a perfectly legitimate policy, which I might embrace wholeheartedly if I were a Liberal—hypothetically, of course—knowing that I would never have to implement it in office. It is a lazy argument simply to say that every passenger should be even more subsidised than they are.

Does the Minister accept that if we had longer train franchises, we would be able to get investment without having to raise such huge sums through fares?

There will be plenty of opportunities to explore the nature and structure of the franchise system. There is no accepted consensus within the British rail industry on the length of rail franchises. Different people in the industry will give different answers on that. If we were to increase the length of franchises and there was a particularly profitable franchise, we would be in a position to double its length but not to accept any premiums from the company that was chosen to run it. That is an absurd policy position.

Before I move to my main remarks, let me have one more go at the hon. Gentleman. He asked whether the new trains for the inter-city express programme will be built in Britain, and made it clear that he thinks that the Government should deliberately choose a British company to manufacture the new trains. I absolutely sympathise with that view because I share his concern for British manufacturing. However, his party is known in the House as being particularly pro-European—arguably more so than the other two parties. Is he saying, as his party’s Front-Bench spokesman on transport, that the Government should deliberately seek a prorogation from European procurement rules that oblige Britain to seek the cheapest possible tender from throughout the European Union? Is that the Liberal Democrat party policy? If so, it is quite courageous, but I suspect that he has not cleared his comments with the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell).

I shall not take an intervention on that point, but will let the hon. Gentleman consider it. Time is moving on and I have only six minutes left to reply to my hon. Friends who spoke.

My hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith raises an important subject. Our inter-city services are the backbone of Britain’s rail network and make an essential economic contribution by connecting our most important city centres quickly and efficiently. The record growth of Britain’s railways in the past decade is well-documented. Inter-city services have played a significant part in that growth. More than half of all rail travel is for distances of 50 miles and above. Indeed, it is in such longer-distance markets that rail is strongest. Although rail accounts for only 2 per cent. of journeys overall, it accounts for more than five times that percentage for longer distance journeys. It now completely overshadows the short-haul air market to as far north as Manchester and Yorkshire and competes effectively as a mode of travel to Newcastle.

Rail used to have 40 per cent. of the market share for travel from London to Manchester. That market share rose to 60 per cent. after the west coast main line upgrade was completed, and is expected to grow to 80 per cent. when the 2008 timetable is implemented. Interestingly, rail is used as much, if not more, by those who own or have access to a car as by those who do not. Sensibly, many drivers choose instead to let the inter-city train take the strain. Is that the phrase to which the hon. Member for Wimbledon referred earlier?

In terms of origin and destination, London dominates the inter-city market, just as it does rail in general. However, in considering our important inter-city and inter-urban links, we must not forget cross-country services or the TransPennine Express. Those services provide valuable long-distance connections and have the secondary function of supporting key commuter markets. That happens on all the mainline radial routes into London, but cross-country services also pick up commuter traffic around Bristol, Birmingham, Manchester, Sheffield and Leeds, making these routes some of the most crowded on the inter-city network at peak times. In the past 10 years, the average trip length on inter-city services has fallen by 10 per cent., which shows that increasing numbers of commuters are now using those services and mixing with long-distance business and leisure travellers.

The House will be aware that the Government are re-letting several inter-city franchises. Bids for the new cross-country and east midlands franchises have been received and the Department is undertaking a detailed and rigorous evaluation of them. The inter-city east coast invitation to tender went out last week.

The cross-country market has changed significantly in the past five years, as the number of journeys on those services has grown spectacularly from 12 million journeys a year in 1997 to 20 million last year. Most of that growth was in the core section between Bristol, Reading, Birmingham, Leeds and Manchester. About 10 per cent. of cross-country journeys are more than 200 miles. In the past five years, the average journey length has decreased by 20 miles, which suggests that fewer very long-distance journeys are being taken, and that there are more short to medium-distance travellers.

By responding to those changes, the new franchise will bring several key benefits to passengers. I hope that these points address some of the concerns raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith. There will be increased capacity on the core sections where trains are busiest, and services will run to a clock-face timetable to improve predictability and reliability. The frequency of services will be maintained on the core routes, and timetabling improvements will simplify train operations and should lead to improved timekeeping for all new cross-country services.

My hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith raised his specific concerns about cross-country services between Manchester and Scotland. They will cease in December 2007, but the TransPennine Express Manchester airport to Cumbria service will be extended to central Scotland. Service frequency between Manchester and central Scotland will remain as it is today and journey times will, at the very least, remain similar to those now, with the possibility of accelerations. Simply put, that service is not being downgraded.

Before I step up a gear and try to speak at 350 words a minute, I tell hon. Members that I am more than happy to address in writing later any points that I am unable to address today. As there are less than two minutes left, that it is highly likely to happen.

I want to reassure my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland (Dr. Kumar), who asked about the uncertainty hovering over the heads of GNER employees. As I said in the House last Tuesday in transport questions, GNER employees will be protected by the TUPE regulations.

The circumstances of the re-letting of the inter-city east coast franchise are such that the specifications for the new franchise will broadly continue the existing operation, including cross-border services and those north of Edinburgh, with the addition of the London to Leeds half-hourly service that will start in May 2007. I suggest to my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith that there is no need for an inquiry into why GNER lost its franchise. That fact that its franchise was taken away is evidence that the Department for Transport will continue to act robustly when any franchisee fails to meet its obligations under the franchise contract. That is an essential function of the Department, as we are responsible for ensuring that passengers get the best possible value for money.

Cultural Diplomacy

I am delighted to have secured this debate on the fundamental importance of cultural diplomacy in international relations. A large number of colleagues are interested in participating in the debate, so I shall try to keep my remarks relatively brief to allow them the opportunity to do so.

Although we are doing a great deal of good work in this area—work of which we should be immensely proud—we could and should be undertaking extra activities that could have lasting benefit. Anyone doubting the fundamental importance of culture in international relations should consider the international outrage sparked following the destruction of the Buddhist statues in Afghanistan or the appalling lack of protection of Iraq’s cultural heritage following the invasion in 2003. Both of those cultural events had a huge impact on international relations: one strengthened support for our approach in Afghanistan while the other added to doubts about our approach in Iraq.

There is nothing new in the link between culture and international relations, after all, the Romans expanded their empire through a mixture of military might, which might be termed “hard power”, and the spread of culture, which some have called “soft power”. There is a strong case for having a cultural aspect to our diplomacy, not as an add-on or as subordinate to hard power, but as a fundamental part of our diplomatic activity.

My personal journey in this area started more than a year ago when I interviewed Neil MacGregor, the director of the British Museum, for an article in The House Magazine. I discovered through that conversation that under his leadership the British Museum, which was established by Parliament in 1753, has made great strides; among other things, there have been moves for it to become increasingly multilingual and to increase its collaboration overseas. The British Museum has been significantly involved in the opening of the new capital museum in Beijing and has provided the national museum of Kenya in Nairobi with materials illustrating that country’s culture in the context of surrounding nations. The British Museum took no lead in that project, allowing the Kenyan curators to make their decisions entirely independently.

Some have suggested that in taking a passive role in international collaborations the British Museum has missed the opportunity to let people around the world know about Britain and its history. Mr. MacGregor’s reply was particularly instructive:

“What they will come to know is that this country has, uniquely, a vision of its place in the world which is not about controlling, promoting or dominating with its own culture…We are an enlightenment institution, not an imperial institution.”

The British Museum’s commitment to internationalism has placed it in the spotlight in recent years: it played a leading role in cataloguing both the looting of the national museum in Baghdad and the destruction of the archaeological sites following the allied invasion. Perhaps there can be no better example of the crucial role of culture in international relations than the fact that the British Museum maintained close curatorial connections even in the worst days of relations with Iraq—it also did so in the case of Iran—which meant that when the museum in Baghdad was looted, the natural place for colleagues there to turn was to the British Museum. That did not help with re-establishing order in Iraq, nor did it prevent the insurgency, but it will have brought much-needed prestige to Britain among Iraqi academics and others who appreciate how highly we value their culture.

We could be doing many more things along the lines of the examples that I have given. We could use cultural talent to build up our international influence and prestige. As I have said, the British Museum is not the only successful example; the British Council and the BBC World Service are two of the jewels in the crown. The BBC’s global brand is one of objectivity and independence from Government—exactly the sort of structure for cultural diplomacy for which I argue. We want to reflect Britain, rather than the British Government.

The British Council carries out excellent work in 109 countries. We should be undertaking far more activities such as its “Turning Points” exhibition, which was held in Tehran in 2004. It was the first western arts exhibition in that city for more than 30 years. Such arts events have no specific foreign policy objectives, but that exhibition was opened by the then Foreign Secretary and Iran’s culture Minister, bringing those two people together at what might be termed a relatively low-profile event. Had it not been for that platform, they might not have met and there might not have been the opportunity for the diplomatic dialogue that ensued to take place.

What more should we be doing? A few weeks ago, Demos produced the excellent report, “Cultural Diplomacy”. Its authors argue that

“today, more than ever before, culture has a vital role to play in international relations.”

The report’s subtitle makes the challenge clear:

“Culture is a central component of international relations. It’s time to unlock its full potential…”.

That is right.

In our world of increasing globalisation, where communications are instant and international boundaries are less and less meaningful, we can develop, through culture, a shared identity that will show commonality above national identity. That is exactly what the British Museum, the BBC World Service, the British Council and many others are doing, and we need to do more of it on an international scale.

I want to suggest a series of relatively small changes that could be made; these are extensions or additions to what we are doing. We should start by including, as a matter of course, leading cultural representatives on all foreign delegations. When such inclusion has happened it has been incredibly successful, but no invitation is systematically sent to the heads of our cultural institutions. Some might say that such a move would mean a relatively frivolous addition to already large foreign delegations, but that perception would be wrong.

I have mentioned the link between the British Museum and the national museum of China. It came about because the Prime Minister was accompanied on his trip to China in 2005 by the head of the British Museum. The attendance of the Museum’s head allowed the first ever cultural agreement between a British institution and China to occur, the signing of which was overseen by the Prime Minister and the Chinese Premier. As well as providing a useful platform for diplomatic dialogue, the agreement had the additional benefit of paving the way for us to have the terracotta warriors in London this autumn. Leaving aside the importance of relationship building and of improving our international image, surely we would all agree that giving ourselves the opportunity to view those fantastic Chinese artefacts means that that trip was well worth it.

Bringing our cultural representatives along on foreign trips does more than just facilitate agreements; it demonstrates the commitment of the UK Government to cultural heritage. Valuing the cultural heritage of another nation is a straightforward way of acquiring influence and prestige. That is why I was delighted to see a further recommendation in the Demos report, that

“the FCO should ensure that all diplomats being sent to priority countries…are properly schooled in the culture of their new environments; this should be done on a programmatic rather than an ad hoc basis.”

If we believe that valuing other countries’ cultures is important, we should demonstrate that by asking more foreign dignitaries who visit our country to see our sites of cultural importance—places such as the Victoria and Albert museum, Stonehenge or even my world heritage city of Bath—and to attend cultural events from the Notting Hill carnival to those in the Royal Opera House. That would make cultural links easier to build because it would be clear that our Government are proud of our cultural institutions and events, and that we are aware of our cultural strength. When that has happened, it has been incredibly successful. For example, when the Iranian Vice-President opened the Jameel gallery in London he met the then Foreign Secretary, the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw). That was an informal meeting, but the museum event provided the platform for diplomacy at a time of high international tension when an official meeting between those two men would probably not have taken place.

Our commitment to culture could be well demonstrated during the forthcoming London Olympic and Paralympic games with the planned cultural Olympiad. That is a huge opportunity for our cultural sector and one that we cannot afford to miss. The eyes of the world will be on Britain in 2012 and the time either side. We must ensure that we do all we can to facilitate cultural exchange.

Will the hon. Gentleman expand his comments, because I, for one, am worried that the cultural Olympiad will be a massive missed opportunity? As I understand it—perhaps the hon. Gentleman will confirm this—most of the budget will go on the opening and closing ceremonies. There seems to be no programme for widening the cultural opportunities of the Olympics.

The hon. Gentleman is right to express concern, but I am not sure that his view is entirely correct. We have spent a lot of time discussing issues relating to the sporting activities of the Olympics, and to date there has been relatively little public debate or planning for the cultural Olympiad. However, I am assured that work is now going on.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to say that if we think of the Olympic and Paralympic games as merely a sporting event for a brief few weeks, mainly in London, it will be a huge, wasted opportunity. I want a cultural Olympiad that starts now, continues to 2012 and beyond, and involves people in all parts of the country and from the huge range of cultures in this country, as well as the additional cultures that will visit us during the games. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to say that we must do everything in our power to ensure that we do not miss that opportunity.

I was delighted that one example of where progress is beginning to be made is the first signed agreement for a training camp facility in the United Kingdom in advance of the 2012 games. That agreement is between Bristol and—

Not Bath, but the Kenyan Olympic team. That deal includes a training camp, but also involves developing educational, economic and cultural links between Bristol and its surroundings, and Kenya. Progress is being made.

I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman’s thoughtful speech. Does he agree that the ultimate irony of the Olympics is that on one hand the sporting events could have a huge effect on cultural diplomacy, but on the other hand the lottery is being drained and many of the cultural organisations that could do what he suggested will be drained of funds between now and 2012?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that issue. We hope that in a couple of days the Government will announce their revised budget for the Olympics and explain how they will pay for some of the undoubted cost overruns. I have no doubt that there will have to be a serious debate on whether there will be yet more raiding from the lottery good causes. I want to put it on the record that, for the reasons that the hon. Gentleman gave, it would be a disaster if we took a further top slice from the lottery good causes to pay for any Olympic overspend. It would seriously damage the opportunities for that cultural development, and many other opportunities that are critical to the legacy that we all want from the 2012 games.

If we are to have the real benefit that other hon. Members also want, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office must co-operate with the Olympic organising bodies and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and must include cultural representatives in any plans for a British diplomatic effort in 2012 and the years around it. There will be Olympic handover events in Beijing and London following the 2008 games and, as the Demos report suggests, they could be used as a vehicle for improving UK-China relations, with staff from UK cultural institutions being seconded to work alongside our embassy staff in Beijing on the UK’s public diplomacy strategy for the games, and returning after the games to advise us on preparations for the London games in 2012.

There is still more that we could do. For example, more British exhibitions could tour the world, not least in countries that we need most of all—for example, Brazil, India and China—and where we must do more to cultivate long-lasting cultural relationships. Those countries will be among the superpowers of this century and, if their citizens hold a high opinion of us because of the cultural groundwork that has been done, that will have huge diplomatic and economic benefits with increased tourism, foreign investment and sales for our cultural exports.

However, the current infrastructure in those countries means that touring there is often prohibitively expensive. Organisations such as the Royal Ballet can afford to tour to international destinations only when they receive a good financial deal from the promoter. If we want our ballets to be seen in countries such as Brazil, China and India, we must find ways of ensuring that they can afford to go there. Negotiating trade agreements and encouraging investment from those soon-to-be-superpowers will be much easier if we have laid that important cultural groundwork.

I am enjoying the hon. Gentleman’s thoughtful and constructive speech. He knows that a problem with exhibitions travelling in this country, let alone abroad, is insurance and what to do to ensure that they are properly protected. He also knows that we have made advances during the past 10 years in ensuring that the environment is right for exhibitions in Britain and that they are insured. Has he thought about how that might be extended to travelling exhibitions abroad, which he suggests might be increased?

I am rather looking to the Minister to come up with some suggestions, which is why he is here to respond to the debate. He is right to say that insurance is a key issue, but it is not the only one. There are all sorts of challenges for owners of artistic artefacts on display, and I know that he has been involved in discussions about that. Many of us were amazed to hear about the painting that is being moved from the Uffizi gallery in Florence to Japan, and the huge structures that have had to be designed to ensure that it is transported safely. The cost of that project is astronomical, so there are key issues to consider. I do not profess to have hundreds of solutions to the problem, but I am delighted that the Minister at least acknowledges that we must examine the issue.

I note that the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) is going to provide a solution, and I look forward to hearing it.

Indeed, I am. Does not the hon. Gentleman agree that one good way of enabling cultural institutions to tour abroad is for commercial companies in this country with an interest in another country to sponsor an organisation? For example, the English National Ballet could be sponsored by a bank that is doing well in south America, and if we could persuade insurance companies to undertake some sponsoring, perhaps they would cover the insurance, too.

All Members will be grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his suggestion. They will know about examples of such activity taking place already, and, of course, encouraging others to follow those examples is a sensible way forward.

Above almost anything else, there should be far more co-ordination within the Government and more collaboration between the Government and our various cultural institutions. The FCO, the Department for International Development and the DCMS all carry out cultural diplomacy, but their attempts are not well co-ordinated. They must work together and provide cultural institutions with information about local partners or the best way of carrying out international activities, so that we can participate in as many cultural exchanges as possible. The Minister may say that the public diplomacy board, which was set up in light of the Carter review of public diplomacy, already provides that service. I agree that it is a step in the right direction, but it does not go far enough. Its panel members come from the FCO, the British Council and the BBC World Service, but there is no one from DFID or DCMS—two key Departments that disseminate and sometimes directly fund cultural diplomacy—and that is why something broader is needed.

We should not do any more than work with cultural institutions, because cultural diplomacy should not be a propaganda tool. Our cultural institutions, such as the Victoria and Albert museum and the BBC, are so well respected because they are independent and their foreign partners know that they are dealing with an institution that will not automatically prioritise the needs of the British Government. We do not want to send our institutions off to carry out the Government’s policy aims; instead, we must let the institutions decide the exchanges in which they wish to take part and the partners with whom they want to liaise. By all means, we should advise the institutions of the countries that they should prioritise, help establish contacts and help them with funding and insurance problems, but we should manage neither their relationships nor the messages that they send out. As I said earlier with reference to the BBC, such work should reflect Britain, not the British Government. If we provide our cultural institutions with the opportunities, they will get on with the job.

If we carry out my suggestions—no doubt colleagues will suggest others—what will we get out of it? We should not expect instant results, and they will not be easy to measure. We do not have any way of knowing how important our cultural strength is to securing a deal, nor the amount of extra money foreign investors invest because of what we do, but we cannot ignore the issues. There is no benefit in ignoring the strength of cultural international relations, because to conduct affairs without a policy of cultural diplomacy would simply allow misconceptions to continue without challenge.

The Demos report says:

“At the start of the 21st century, and as new players and technologies come to dominate, there is a significant risk of the UK sitting on its cultural laurels and being overtaken by other countries, such as China and India, that understand the value of culture in public diplomacy and are committing significant resources to it.”

I have suggested some of the possible ways forward, and I am sure that other Members will add more, but without further action, we are in real danger of failing to exploit fully our fantastic position as one of the very best cultural nations.

Order. I should like to call the Front-Bench spokespeople at midday, so if the Back-Benchers who are standing would bear that in mind, we will get everybody in.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) on securing the debate. I have sent four letters to Mr. Speaker in the past four weeks requesting a debate on soft power, because it is a very important part of cultural diplomacy.

I have been most influenced by Joseph Nye’s book on soft power. I was lucky enough to meet him at Harvard university just before Christmas, and we have not fully understood the way in which cultural diplomacy and soft power can work together. In the forthcoming spending review, I bet that the one activity to be cut will be all the cultural diplomacy and soft power touches, because we cannot see them. I should like to see the cultural diplomacy budgets across Government, and I should like to see them itemised. Do they amount to 1 per cent., 5 per cent., or 10 per cent.? It is easy to do that for tanks, weapons and missiles, but it is less easy for cultural diplomacy, but if we are to realise what soft power can do in the world, we must see those budgets.

Although I agreed with most of the hon. Gentleman’s speech, the British Museum has let us down badly in two ways. First, it does not fully understand the globalisation of cultural diplomacy. One can hardly move but for the Gulbenkian museums and other museums that have spread worldwide, and I look at the Getty museums and the way in which they have developed not only in their own country, but overseas. We must take the British Museum out of its current location. Why cannot we settle the Elgin marbles dispute by locating the British Museum in Athens, so that it is jointly owned and the marbles are permanently on loan? There must be a satisfactory resolution to the Elgin marbles dispute, and there must be a similar resolution to the dispute about the Maqdala treasures from Ethiopia. They are the oldest Christian relics in the world, and they sit in a cupboard in the British Museum. That is not reasonable; they belong to Ethiopia.

I do not want to induce a heckle from the Minister about a spending commitment, but it may not be the British Museum that has let us down. The Louvre’s work in Dubai has been undertaken in partnership with the French Government, and although I wholly support the proposals being made by the hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Derek Wyatt), they cost money and they need Government support.

The French have a very different view of soft power. The British Council’s budget is embarrassingly small compared with what the French give, but we should examine what we do with it, because we do 10 or 15 times more than the French do through their equivalent.

The British Museum’s board must think about the globalisation of the space that we call cultural diplomacy, and the Tate must do so, too. It is fine having the Tate in Liverpool and in Cornwall, but we need it in India or in Kenya, and in the next 10 years, we must galvanise the idea of a shared culture and a shared diplomacy. We need a different viewpoint from the one that currently emanates from the Government.

I always struggle to find the location of cultural diplomacy in any embassy or anywhere that I travel, which is a shame. That is partly because we disaggregated the British Council from the museums under Mrs. Thatcher, and although the British Council quite welcomes it now, at the time it was a mistake. I chair the all-party British Council group, so I am probably president of its fan club. What it does is extraordinary, but I shall come to that later. My main worry is that, in the spending review, the one activity to go will be cultural diplomacy.

How could a more sophisticated cultural diplomacy policy work? Let us start with the English language. Almost 90 per cent. of the internet is in English, so we must make the British Library the global space for learning, knowledge and understanding on the net. However, we cannot do so without much more investment in the library’s digitisation. Although Microsoft has been unbelievably generous in providing £100 million, it is not enough. We need £100 million every year if we are going to realise that aim. If we do not do it, the Smithsonian Institution will, and that would be a great loss, because the British Library is the oldest, deepest library in the world. We must galvanise it and create an online version.

I am sorry to interrupt such a fascinating speech, but will my hon. Friend say how he would get round the problems of copyright in digitisation?

There are several ways round that. One is the creative commons approach that Lawrence Lessig of Stanford has proposed. A second way is for authors to give back their copyright, so that the British Library could hold it. There are a couple of different ways, although it is tough for the first 70 years after death. The issue is complex. Although this is for a different debate, we need the equivalent of an Ofcom for intellectual property.

I rise briefly to say that in my intervention I should have declared an interest in that I am published author.

Well, I have written six books too, so there.

The teaching of English in the British Council has been stopped in Russia, but what on earth would be wrong with setting up an online English language laboratory, which we have never done? The same applies to immigrants trying to learn our language here. The easiest thing for us to do would be to put Dorling Kindersley together with Berlitz, the BBC and the British Council and to create a body that could carry out online English language teaching. That would be so simple and so much cheaper than all the things that we currently do throughout the world. Every year, 2 million people come to learn English, yet we still do not have an online language centre. That is a great mistake.

People have referred to the British Museum, the British Library, the Tate and the National Gallery, but they are not yet world-class institutions and they do not serve us as well as they should overseas. We need to find the budgets, but we also need to ensure that one person on their boards of trustees is responsible for cultural diplomacy. We would then know who to target when we needed to.

I am sorry to interrupt my hon. Friend, but I am not sure about his statement that the Tate, the Victoria and Albert Museum and our other great institutions are not world class. Is he trying to say that they would become world class if they put the pictures hanging on their walls on the internet? Frankly, I cannot think of anything more crass than the notion that putting pictures on the internet somehow increases the value of an institution in the eyes of the world.

I rise nervously to answer the former Minister for the arts who said one or two things about the Turner prize.

Perhaps it was the Turner prize that I remember, then. I think that the Minister misunderstands, because I do not mean that. I mean that the Tate should be overseas as a physical entity. That is what the Gulbenkians and the Gettys are doing, and that is why they are successful.

We do have three stunning world-class institutions, one of which is the British Council. We are asking it to open more offices with less money, but cultural diplomacy simply does not work that way. We cannot expect the British Council to do more on schools in Brazil and China and to open more offices but then say, “Bad luck, you’ve got less money.” I hope that the British Council will not face cuts in the spending review.

I should also like to mention the Open university, which is probably the most unsung hero overseas. For example, it has educated 5 million Africans, including MBAs for 21 of the 23 Ministers in Ethiopia. The Open university was the result of Jennie Lee and Harold Wilson’s work. It is an astonishing organisation and I am proud to be a graduate. What we are trying to do with the Open university, the British Council, the BBC and others is to create an online primary school for Africa in five languages. That project is simple and cheap, costing probably less than £300 million, so would it not be wonderful if the Department for International Development, the Treasury and the Department for Education and Skills could get behind it and see what a difference it would make to cultural diplomacy? What more can we say about the BBC’s brilliant World Service, which is stunning? Nevertheless, it faces cuts, too.

In the past we have granted scholarships. They started at Oxford with the Rhodes scholars, and we now have the Gates scholars at Cambridge and the Chevening programme, all of which bring people here. However, there are none going the other way. That is nuts. If we are going to get our younger people to connect to what is happening in the world, we have to give scholarships the other way. Internally, we have taken Arabic centres from the middle east to Exeter, Durham and Edinburgh. That is fine, but studying the middle east in Exeter is not quite the same as Frank Gardner being in Cairo, Qatar or wherever else. We need to give joint honours between educational institutions if we are to develop cultural diplomacy at a profound level. We cannot keep bringing people to this country; we have to go abroad.

I say that because I shall be leading a group of academics to India at Whitsun to look at the computer science system there. Our computer science graduate numbers are declining, but in India and China they are increasing. We need to twin Imperial college, Oxford, Durham and so on with the great computer science centres in India and China. We need joint honours. We do not need people to board a plane, do two weeks on a campus in Singapore, Beijing or Shanghai and then say, “Hey, I’ve got a British university degree.” We need a real change in how we see cultural diplomacy. We need joint institutions, joint honours and so on. Indeed, when the Secretary of State for Education and Skills said yesterday that children are going to do French and German in primary schools, I had to have a hollow laugh. What about Chinese and Spanish, perhaps? We have got to tune into the global space and get the present generation of primary school children to learn world-class languages.

Finally, I have a few quick points to make. Please look at sport. Please look at carbon trading. Please look at Web 2.0, especially in connection with intellectual property rights. Look at what Gilberto Gil has done for Brazil by freeing up all rights out of Brazil and Portugal for all music and all literature. That has been an absolutely stunning success. Why can we not do things like that?

The only thing to say about the Olympic games is that we should not think about what they can do here. We should think about what we give back to the Olympic movement through the cultural Olympiad and to the rest of the world after 2012, which includes bringing back the medals, which until 1924 we used to give in music, philosophy, art and poetry. I shall stop there, as I know others are desperate to speak.

I am grateful to be called and I shall be brief. I congratulate the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) on his choice of such an important topic and on giving such a good speech. I agreed with almost everything that he said, but I should like to make a few comments.

First, the cuddly element of the hon. Gentleman’s speech—that cultural diplomacy enables warring factions to come together and that substantial work therefore needs to be done by Foreign Ministers of those parties—is not really the best argument for cultural diplomacy. The same can be said for funerals. I remember well that when General de Gaulle died my father was the ambassador in Paris. The event was regarded as a working funeral. My father’s timetable over those three days was blocked from end to end with meetings with important people with whom the British Government wished to do business, but in Paris not in London. Let us therefore move away a little bit from the cuddly element of cultural diplomacy. Cultural diplomacy should be what it is: a brilliantly successful form of diplomacy with a hard edge attached, and that hard edge is the British national interest.

I agree with the hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Derek Wyatt) that we have remarkable and brilliant institutions in this country, including the BBC World Service, the British Council, the Royal Shakespeare Company, the arts, the theatre, music and, above all, the English language. Indeed, we have such an astonishing portfolio to use in cultural diplomacy that it is almost embarrassing. My point to the Minister is that as power shifts inexorably from the west to the east, which it is doing, perhaps faster than any of us recognise, and as the Foreign Office rebalances its dispositions to reflect that—which I hope it is doing and, from reading its annual reports I believe it is doing—so we need to shift our balance of cultural diplomacy to reflect those interests.

I agree very much with what the hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey said about teaming up our great academic institutions with institutions abroad. However, his list of scholarships left out Churchill scholarships, which send hundreds of people abroad and are one of the most remarkable and brilliant memorials to my grandfather. They have achieved so much for people in this country and their interests. The scholarships have enabled people to discover things for themselves overseas and overseas people have learned things from them.

I so admire the work of the British Council. When I was a Defence Minister, I always tried to call on British Council offices when I was abroad. One cannot be other than awestruck by what it does and the value for money that it gives. Incidentally, I know that the Minister will understand that the same applies to defence diplomacy, which is also an extraordinarily important part of our portfolio of diplomatic effort. Every time we go abroad, we find people who want places at the staff college at Sandhurst and other great British military institutions, which are able to offer very limited numbers of places to foreigners. However, what they are able to offer is greatly appreciated and the service is in great stead overseas.

Finally, I too am a great fan of Joe Nye. All my political life since I read his book about soft power and listened to him talking about it, I have been deeply influenced by what he said about the use of soft power. What has happened in Iraq and military adventurism generally means that the rise and use of soft power will be even more important than it ever was. Of course it has to be backed by the ability to deliver a good punch if we need to do so, but it is to soft power that the modern world is best suited—something fully networked and integrated. For example, we could do far more things with our cultural diplomacy through the Commonwealth, which is surely one of the greatest unexploited institutions.

I entirely support the speech made by the hon. Member for Bath. It is extremely timely and I agree wholeheartedly with it. I urge the Government to make the diplomatic, cultural and defence diplomacy effort much more co-ordinated, as the balance of power shifts inexorably from the west to the east.

I am grateful for being allowed to speak, particularly as I arrived late; my apologies for that. I should like to make a few remarks to follow the excellent contributions that I came here to hear.

I agree with everything that has been said about the importance of soft power, which will become more and more important; I agree with the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) very much on that. I pay tribute to all the institutions to which the hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Derek Wyatt) also paid tribute, such as the BBC and the British Council. They are wonderful and precious British institutions that we need to cherish and continue to fund adequately.

I have not heard so far about how we project soft power. The traditional view is that we exercise it through institutions, such as the British Council and the BBC World Service, that are focused specifically on projecting overseas. However, in the modern world we also have to consider what we do here. It would be a mistake if we thought that our great universities and cultural institutions—our theatres, museums and so on—had to project their presences overseas to be able to project soft power. What is important is that people will focus on what happens in this country much more than they ever used to. We do not necessarily only need the British Council, with its offices overseas, to make people see what we can contribute as a nation and to enhance our status in the world, which, as many much more distinguished contributors than I have said, is increasingly important in the whole business of diplomacy.

It is important that in this country we fund our great universities adequately and bring students here. We do not have to work that hard to enshrine English as a global language; it is already that. We need to enshrine excellence in this country. That must be the foundation. I am sure that shortly my hon. Friend the Minister will talk about funding; I hope that he will bear it in mind that there is a seamless web between what we do with our great cultural institutions in this country—they are world class and we need to keep them so—and what we do in projecting soft power overseas.

I am grateful for the opportunity to take part in this debate and I congratulate the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) on securing it. As he pointed out, the reason why cultural diplomacy is high on the agenda is the publication of the Demos pamphlet on the issue. I should like to take a few seconds to praise the work of John Holden and Demos. In the world of the policy wonk, it is probably the leading think-tank contributing to debates on culture.

An important conference on the Demos pamphlet was held in the Victoria and Albert museum; delegates were surrounded by Raphael cartoons. The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport made a keynote speech on the importance of cultural diplomacy. It is interesting to note that her speech does not appear on her Department’s website. Will the Minister jot a note to her to tell her to put it there so that a much wider audience is made aware of the importance that the Government put on cultural diplomacy?

I echo the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames), which were to an extent echoed by Sir Richard Dalton, our former ambassador to Iran. He was at the conference that I mentioned, and made the point that one must not load too much of a burden on cultural diplomacy or expect culture to have an enormous impact on foreign relations. At the end of the day, our Foreign Secretary can still always pick up the phone and speak to another Foreign Secretary, regardless of whether they have met at an exhibition. However, that is the only note of caution that I inject.

I join the hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Derek Wyatt) in praising the work of the British Council, which does a remarkable job. I was lucky enough to visit Iran last year and to see the work—cross-cultural work, if you like—done there on a very limited budget by the British Council. I talked to a number of Iranian students who had had the chance to study in England. It is important to recognise that the council is not simply a cultural, but an educational institution. Its work spreads far and wide. The diplomatic work of getting young people to experience our culture and vice versa is of immense value.

I should like to make a few suggestions. I hasten to add that they are neither spending commitments nor policies, but the thoughts of a young man new to Parliament and to his brief as the shadow arts spokesman for the Conservatives. First, I entirely echo the hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey. I have a dream: I would love to see the Tate, the British Museum or the Victoria and Albert museum have buildings—physical presences—in some of the major capitals of the world, be they Delhi, Beijing or even, in future, Tehran.

We think nothing of having an embassy as a venue in which we can carry out our diplomatic work, although I add a huge note of sadness: some of the great buildings that the British own in capitals around the world are being sold off simply because our Government understand the price of everything and the value of nothing. They take an extremely short-term view.

I share the hon. Gentleman’s dream. I praise the work of the British Museum, which has an increasingly valuable programme with China, highlighted by the hon. Member for Bath. I hope that that will increase.

I shall reveal again my obsession with websites in saying that I had a scoot around the websites of the Tate, the V&A and the British Museum. Perhaps the disappointment of the hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey comes from the fact that those websites simply do not talk about the work that the institutions are doing. The Tate is doing remarkable work in Syria, but, as far as I am aware, a person looking at its website would be completely unaware of that. Our institutions need to shout about the things that they do.

I also recommend that the Minister follow the example of the two main Opposition parties—here am I and my hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown), shadow culture spokesman and shadow foreign affairs spokesman respectively, while across the Chamber are the hon. Member for Bath, the Liberal Democrat shadow Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, and the hon. Member for Cheadle (Mark Hunter), the Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesman. We—and they—work in harmony together as an example of joined-up government. Sadly, no Government culture Minister is present at this debate. I believe that the Department of Trade and Industry, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and even the Department for International Development need to work together to co-ordinate.

It is interesting that tonight in New York Malcolm McLaren will promote the British music industry under the DTI’s auspices. Our cultural institutions need a one-stop shop, as recommended by the Demos pamphlet, whereby if they have a proposal and want to do something abroad they can walk through one door and have the expertise of all four Departments available.

Another important factor is the signing of cultural memorandums of understanding with other countries. I was told by a director of one of our museums two months ago—I wrote about it on my blog—that we do not have a cultural memorandum of understanding with India and that was one of the reasons why an important exhibition of Indian art sourced in the UK was unable to go to India. I confess that I do not understand the technicalities, but I offered the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who I know reads my blog, the advice that when he went to India he should sign a cultural memorandum of understanding with India. It would be interesting to know what the position is. It is telling that the Indian high commissioner in this country has sent hon. Members catalogues of the Chola bronzes that are on show at the Royal Academy of Arts. That is an example of a diplomat who recognises that his role is to promote Indian culture as well as the hard strategic interests of India.

It would be interesting to hear the Minister’s thoughts and reflections on our work with UNESCO. Many of the museum directors who I talked to and who are involved in the international museums organisations say that Britain does not pull its weight in UNESCO. That organisation offers a huge opportunity for us to shape the international cultural climate. Perhaps we do not take it seriously enough; I would be interested to hear the Minister’s views.

In some of my interventions, I have said how I feel about the importance of the cultural Olympiad. It is an enormous scandal that the Big Lottery Fund turned down proposals to revamp Exhibition road. There are huge opportunities to build or create cultural icons and institutions in the run-up to the Olympics and that would leave a huge legacy across the country and provide an enormous welcome mat for the millions of people who will come to this country.

Parliament will debate cultural diplomacy more frequently. The Tribunals, Courts and Enforcement Bill is being considered, and it provides an important snapshot showing the importance of getting the balance right between allowing exhibitions to come to this country and protecting the rights of those who feel that the cultural icons on show have been stolen from them. Later this year, I hope—perhaps the Minister can enlighten us on its progress—we will debate a cultural property Bill, allowing Parliament to show that in all our diplomatic efforts we will respect the cultural property rights of other countries. I shall be brief, because my hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold, as shadow spokesman for foreign affairs, will wind up for the Conservatives, which gives an example of our close working relationship as we take forward our thoughts and proposals on cultural diplomacy.

I compliment my hon. Friend the Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) on securing the debate. As other hon. Members have said, he has raised a number of important issues and concerns that are worthy of serious debate and a proper response.

Britain has a varied and impressive culture in so many areas—in history, art, music, literature, film, theatre, dance, science and sport, to name just a few of the more obvious. I contend that promoting that culture can and should be done internationally as an integral part of foreign policy in the form of cultural diplomacy. Cultural diplomacy should always show the rest of the world who we are and our ideals, beliefs and values. As the recent incisive Demos paper on cultural diplomacy said:

“Cultural exchange gives us the chance to appreciate points of commonality and, where there are differences, to understand the motivations and humanity that underlie them.”

The value of cultural diplomacy seems especially relevant in the light of today’s global developments and challenges.

The image of the United Kingdom as an aggressor held by so many countries across the world, especially in the middle east, needs to be combated. If it is not, it will prove to be detrimental to the long-term diplomatic position of the UK and will compromise many of our international objectives. That belief can be shaken only through cultural dialogue, and only through cultural exchange can we hope to understand the countries with which we wish to have long and stable relationships.

I believe that in liberal foreign policy, in its true meaning, cultural exchange can deliver three important things. First, it can encourage communication. Secondly, it can help to build positive relationships. Thirdly, it can allow the cultural norms of peace and diplomacy to flourish. As it creates good communication and positive relationships, cultural diplomacy is essential in creating a new thinking on the growing number of issues that can be tackled only through international co-operation—the environment, terrorism and global citizenship, to name but three. In the light of the growing acceptance of the importance of cultural diplomacy, will the Minister confirm that efforts to promote it will remain integral to foreign policy strategy?

Of course, cultural diplomacy is not a new idea. The British Council, the British Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum and many other institutions have successfully initiated cultural exchanges for many years. They are adapting and responding to conditions worldwide. The British Council recently created a £20 million programme in the middle east, and the British Museum’s Africa programme reaches 20 African countries.

It is true that other countries threaten to outpace the UK. For example, France recently created a new agency—Cultures France—with an annual budget of some £20 million. China is loaning the largest collection of terracotta warriors ever seen to the British Museum for an exhibition this summer, but as other countries realise the importance of cultural exchange and the long-term influence that soft power can achieve, this is not the time to rest on our laurels. We need to support the institutions in their work and to ensure that enough funding is available and continues to be available for museums such as the British Museum. That funding is needed to allow them to continue to loan exhibitions and expand their programmes, and to allow other museums to become involved internationally. Will the Minister confirm that funding for cultural institutions, and in particular for the international exchange of culture conducted by such institutions, is recognised as hugely important? Will he assure us that he is doing everything possible to protect the budget and, where possible, to increase it?

An important aspect of cultural diplomacy is the promotion of the huge variety of British culture. We need to break down national stereotypes and, as the Demos paper stated, to challenge

“the perception that a country’s political leaders and their policies are identical with the views of their citizens.”

That is all the more important because of the damage done to Britain’s reputation by our invasion of Iraq. Although money needs to be invested in institutions that engage in cultural diplomacy, the Government cannot be prescriptive about how that money is spent or about the message that the institutions are supporting. They need to be seen to be independent, or we risk cultural exchange being mistaken for cultural imperialism and propaganda. Will the Minister confirm that any extra funding that might be given to such institutions in future will not be tied to specific targets that might limit their flexibility and status as institutions independent of Government objectives?

As we recognise the concentration on improving British Council services and the BBC World Service in the middle east, is there not a danger that if we concentrate too much on the middle east that could suck away resources from other areas of the world? That can be seen in the recent cuts to the British Council in Latin America, which could be an important region in 15 or 20 years’ time.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. He makes a valid point about priorities, which of course is what the art of government is all about. However, the debate that my hon. Friend the Member for Bath has introduced today is intended to place cultural policy firmly on the agenda and make it an integral part of what the foreign policy of this country ought to be. If the debate succeeds in doing nothing more than raising the profile of these issues, it will have succeeded.

The Government need to facilitate, not to direct, cultural diplomacy. They need to involve leading cultural professionals in the foreign policy-making process and include cultural professionals in diplomatic visits. They also need to create a framework that allows the organisations that are involved to collaborate and to co-ordinate their activities.

Cultural diplomacy is relevant not only to high culture but to popular culture, including music, films, dance, sport, fashion, comics and websites. It is by appealing to the population at large, including youth, that Britain has a chance to change the way that it is viewed by other cultures. As other hon. Members have said, we should use technology to do that. The internet and podcasts are just two ways of disseminating modern and traditional culture to the next generation. India, as hon. Members will know, is particularly successful in that respect, with Bollywood cross-over movies and bhangra dance hits getting young people all over the globe interested in Indian culture. I ask the Minister to confirm that funding will continue to be available to cultural institutions to commission, buy or manage examples of modern culture that are needed to reach the younger international community.

In conclusion, an effective foreign policy strategy is one that can adapt to new levels of complexity and the challenges of the current climate. To meet those challenges, it must include cultural diplomacy. With the upcoming 2012 Olympic and Paralympic games in particular, there has never been a better time to foster understanding of and good will towards Britain, and to encourage communication and build positive relationships with other countries. Let us be sure that we are doing everything that we can to seize those opportunities.

There have been some excellent, thoughtful speeches in this debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) on initiating a debate on a subject that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (Mr. Vaizey) said, the House will be debating much more in the future. The hon. Gentleman’s speech was timely and thoughtful, and there were several other thoughtful speeches to which I hope to have time to refer.

It is perhaps not a commonly known fact that the grandfather of my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames), when in opposition in the immediate aftermath of the war, was one of the people who persuaded the then American President that the present United Nations regime should be set up. It is worth remembering that the universal declaration of human rights stated in article 27:

“Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.”

That right, which was enshrined in the declaration, is fundamentally important, and it is for all nations of the world.

Throughout history, all the great empires have had great cultural diversity, which they used to further their diplomatic efforts. Britain, of course, was one of the great industrial powers of the 19th century. Its industrial might has declined, but I venture to suggest that its cultural diversity, through all the institutions that we have heard about today, is still as great as it ever was. The great thing about cultural diversity is that it involves people-to-people contact. It should not be Government to Government. It was, I believe, the hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Derek Wyatt) who said that the BBC prides itself on being, not an organ of the British Government, but an organ of the British people. It is superbly successful throughout the world.

Some things will change cultural diplomacy and the world faster than anything else. I entirely agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex that the world is changing from west to east at a huge pace. Unless one visits China, India and Russia, it is very hard to imagine how quickly the world is changing. It is changing in terms of trade, tourism and educational exchanges. Above all, the thing that will change the world the quickest is quicker communication through the internet, which has already been referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage. The Chinese, who currently block the BBC World Service internet site, will find it difficult to carry on doing so after the Olympics in 2008. The expectations of more than 1 billion people in China, and more than 1 billion people in India, will get greater as time goes on, but the Olympics in Beijing will do more to change China than anything else in its recent post-war history.

India, likewise, is changing at a huge rate. It has a young, vibrant population, as do several other large nations such as India, Turkey, Mexico and Brazil. Those people will drive those economies, which will become the world’s next tiger economies.

I entirely agree about the need for universal education. Education is changing the world hugely. I have a daughter who has just graduated from Oxford with a degree in Latin and Spanish and is now teaching Spanish in a rough school in south London on the Government’s teach first programme. I entirely agree with the comments of the hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey that we should focus on the languages of the world that are spoken the most: Mandarin, Spanish, Urdu and Arabic. We should be concentrating on those languages, not on German and French, the languages of our next-door neighbours, because they simply are not spoken enough. I accept that great literary works have been written in them, but if we want our youngsters to have influence in the world, they should be speaking those other great languages.

May I take this opportunity to assure my hon. Friend that Didcot is leading the way in my constituency, with St. Birinus and Didcot girls’ school both now teaching Mandarin?

I am delighted to hear that. I, too, can cite an example in my constituency. There is a Chinese academy within Katharine Lady Berkeley college, which is a state comprehensive school. Indeed, I took the Chinese ambassador to visit the students at the academy. He spoke to them in Chinese, and they were absolutely delighted. I also took him to the Royal Agricultural college in Cirencester, which has a huge number of Chinese students. Again, they could not believe that the Chinese ambassador had taken the trouble to visit them.

We should be participating apace in cultural and educational exchanges, and I agree with others who have said that we should encourage our educational institutions to form satellites in other countries. I saw some world-beating scientific research facilities in Qatar. American universities—Texas and others—were involved, but at that time no British universities were participating. We could do a huge amount in that respect.

On the Olympics, I would like to return to my intervention on the hon. Member for Bath about lottery funding. Lottery funding for the Olympics is all very well, and we totally support the games and are delighted that they are coming to London in 2012. However, I would say through the Minister, who said in an unworthy sotto voce intervention that this is a spending pledge, to other Ministers that they should get a grip on the Olympic budget. There would then not be a need to raid the lottery.

I am concerned—others have mentioned this—that several smaller cultural institutions and performing bodies will be starved of funds because of the diversion of funds to the Olympics. We need to concentrate on a tightly run Olympics with a proper budget and a legacy that will endure. I understand that some of the Olympic buildings will literally be pulled down after the Olympics. That is a great shame. We should be able to devise and design better infrastructure than that.

I totally agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage that cultural diplomacy requires joined-up government, including not only the Foreign Office and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport but the Department of Trade and Industry and several other Government Departments. After all, it was the present Government who invented the term “joined-up government”. They do not seem to be practising what they preach. I am delighted to be joined by my hon. Friend, the Member for Wantage who is the newly created DCMS spokesman for our party. I believe that we can all see from the quality of his speech this morning that he will go far in our party, and I welcome him here today.

I totally agree with those who say that we should encourage more scholarships worldwide. My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex mentioned the tremendous tribute to his grandfather of the Churchill scholarships, which send youngsters throughout the world to gain experience that they would not be able to get otherwise.

I shall now sum up, as I want the Minister to have plenty of time to reply to the debate. We all recognise the value of cultural diplomacy. We know from history what happened when the iron curtain started to come down. It was the efforts of the BBC World Service and the British Council, slowly making contacts in Russia, people to people—I cannot emphasise too strongly how important that is—that started to change hearts and minds. I worry a little that Russia is starting to go back on that: the British Council recently tried to open an office somewhere in the Russian interior and it faced huge obstacles in the form of health and safety regulations. Russian officials hardly know what health and safety regulations are. I do not know the status of that office today, but I hope that it has managed to overcome the Russian bureaucracy.

The hon. Gentleman says that it has closed. That is a huge pity, and I hope that the Foreign Office has made strong representations about that.

One can travel around the world and see so much good being done by the British Council. The hon. Member for Glasgow, North-West (John Robertson) and I recently went to Nigeria, where we saw the excellent work being done in Kano, a very remote part of the country. The British Council was bringing young people together so that they could begin to talk about the problems in their lives.

The importance of cultural diplomacy is a growing theme, and the Government must take hold of it. The Foreign Office is beginning to alter its approach, as more or less every embassy and consulate has a cultural officer. However, as I said in a speech the other day, everything depends on how the Foreign Office applies its resources. It has 30 consulates in the United States of America and only seven in China. Given that China’s influence in the world is changing, the Foreign Office too will need to change. The BBC World Service and the British Council recognise that; they have closed stations in Europe and opened some in the middle east. However, I entirely agree with the hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey: it is worrying that we are not devoting resources to south America, because some of those countries are the real powerhouses of the world to come.

Cultural diplomacy is an activity whose time is coming. The Government and the British people can use it to great advantage if it is considered intelligently and in a joined-up way. The Government can do much more.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) on securing this debate. I have known him for a long time, and I enjoyed today’s debate as much as I have enjoyed any in this Chamber. We heard visionary suggestions from the hon. Gentleman and from my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Derek Wyatt) about how we should take the matter forward. I am glad to have the privilege to try to answer some of the questions that have been raised.

Cultural diplomacy is a significant subject, as we heard from almost everyone who has taken part in the debate. Cultural or public diplomacy is hugely important, and we need to work hard to continue to get it right. I assure the House that cultural diplomacy is a key component of our public effort. As we heard, we have outstanding assets in our cultural institutions, our higher education sector and our scientific community. All those offer channels through which we can conduct our public diplomacy.

I shall try to deal with some of the issues that have been raised. The hon. Member for Bath gave the good example of Neil MacGregor’s attitude and his belief that the British Museum ought to reach out to other countries and cultures. The hon. Gentleman summed it up by saying that we have to use our cultural talents to build up our international prestige. That is true.

Before I turn to the more visionary suggestions made by my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey, I should say this. I do not know exactly how many embassies and missions I visited last year—I think it was 35 or 36—but I have always been passionate about art and I always have a mooch around to see what paintings they have on the walls. They are often huge walls, and the pictures are seen by thousands of people every year. The number of 17th and 18th century naval battles that are depicted on those walls is depressing. The number of gloomy portraits from worthy but not very inspiring British artists of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, too, is pretty depressing.

It has always struck me, and I know that the hon. Member for Bath would agree, that one simple way to start—as he said, it would not cost a great deal—would be to use our cultural talents to build international prestige by hanging some contemporary British art. We have some of the finest contemporary artists. I am not talking about the assemblage rubbish that we so often see in the Turner prize shortlist. I am talking about a lot of tremendous art that comes from our art colleges. We should be trying to reflect contemporary British art.

If I do not see naval battles on the walls, I see pictures by Patrick Lichfield. They are lovely pictures, but it is a portrait of Britain like that shown in “Midsomer Murders”, as if we all live in thatched cottages or dreamy country houses. It has nothing of the dynamicism about which my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey spoke.

I remember being in Beijing and asking which countries China considered to be the most creative. I noted that we were not mentioned. They spoke of the United States—a military power—and of Japan and Germany. I realised after a while that, as far as they were concerned, cultural strength came from car production. I pointed out that most major car companies have British designers, and that the brilliance of the design of components, and often the manufacture of the most scientific pieces of engineering are British. The hon. Member for Bath was right that we do not emphasise that. We are hopeless at it. We do not sell ourselves as we should. My hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey made some brilliant suggestions about how we should be projecting ourselves. We should celebrate the fact that our great institutions are producing great designers, great artists and great musicians.

The hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) was being a very good parliamentarian and giving everyone else a chance to speak; I was surprised that he did not talk about the enormous impact of British music around the world. I know that he is passionate about it and particularly about those of our orchestras that go abroad. When people in Beijing told me that Germany was a great creative power, and far more creative than us, I asked, “When did you last listen to a German pop group?”

The hon. Gentleman told us that he is young, but even I am acquainted with that group. It is not a contemporary group; it is almost as old as my favourite group—Steely Dan. However, we must wake up to the fact that we do not celebrate our talents sufficiently.

I shall deal, if I can, with a number of the suggestions that have been made. My hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Mr. Wills) raised an important point in his short contribution when he said—I summarise—that he was not that concerned about British universities opening campuses abroad. I tend to agree with him as that is a big financial risk. Nottingham university is the only university with a real campus abroad, which, if I remember correctly, is near Shanghai. Many British universities have a presence abroad, but the route that they have taken, as the hon. Gentleman rightly emphasises, is to try to attract people here so that they can maintain a reputation for excellence. That means that the world’s top 50 universities are still dominated by American and British universities. I am sure that he will agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey that the last thing we should do is rest on our laurels regarding that issue.

We talk—this country does so constantly—about the days of mass manufacturing that we will never go back to, about not having a steel industry that compares with that of China or Brazil and about not having a coal mining industry like that of the past. We must now live off our brains and our wits. We should ensure that although we promote excellence in UK educational institutions, as my hon. Friend said, we might be missing out on opportunities by not thinking about our presence overseas. We do so at our peril and we must be awake to that issue. That is the real value of what my hon. Friend has said and we must be careful that we do not miss a trick in dealing with that.

On the important point made by a number of hon. Members about joined-up Government, as hon. Members will know, the Public Diplomacy Board chaired by Lord Triesman now meets frequently. Lord Triesman is passionate about a number of aspects of culture in this country and is a good chair for the board. The British Council and the BBC World Service are involved with the board, and I take the point made by hon. Members that other interests should also be included. The only drawback is where to limit the number of organisations that are represented on such boards. The Public Diplomacy Partners Group—a dreadful title—is chaired by VisitBritain and is comprised of the BBC World Service, the British Council, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, the Department for Education and Skills, the Department for International Development, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Ministry of Defence, the Northern Ireland civil service, the Office of Science and Innovation, the Scottish Executive, UK Sport, UK Trade and Investment, UK Visas, VisitBritain, Visit London, the Welsh Assembly and an independent member. I am sure that organisations are missing from that list, but it is enough to demonstrate that the board is very big. Having sat on the original creative industries task force—one of the worst titles ever invented—I remember how difficult it was to start to drill down to issues that might make a difference to how we portray and sell ourselves abroad and hon. Members are right to emphasise that we must get joined-up Government right in relation to that issue.

Joined-up Government is important and I have a great deal of respect for the Minister’s colleague, Lord Triesman. It is good news that he is chair of the Public Diplomacy Board. However, I gently suggest to the Minister that we need to hear more about the board’s decisions, deliberations and, particularly, what it has managed to achieve. If the board will be the gateway for the Government’s efforts on joined-up Government in relation to diplomacy, we would like to hear more about it.

That is a very constructive suggestion and I will certainly pass it on to Lord Triesman. The hon. Member for Wantage (Mr. Vaizey) mentioned the need generally to make information available on our websites. He also usefully suggested that if the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport makes a significant speech about our cultural relations with other countries, it should be on the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s website as well as on that of the DCMS website.

That is an important point and I am sure that my right hon. Friend, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport will be interested in that.

The debate was initiated by the hon. Member for Bath and therefore I will return to some of the suggestions that he made. He said that Foreign and Commonwealth Office diplomats should be educated in the cultural heritage of the country to which they will be posted. That is a good suggestion. We try to do so already, but I will admit that the system is a bit ad hoc. Generally speaking, if our ambassadors and high commissioners are not passionately interested in the culture of the country in which they represent the UK, they are by the end of their tours of duty. If that is not the case, they become bad ambassadors and high commissioners. The hon. Gentleman was right to emphasise that issue. We try to train ambassadors and high commissioners in that area and run extensive pre-posting courses at the Department, which is an important part of the work that we do.

I think that most diplomats who are posted overseas are educated in the language of that country. The language of a country forms a passport to its cultural heritage.

That is an important feature of the work that has been done and I pay tribute to the way in which languages are taught in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. I would love those courses to be expanded to outside the Department. I remember telling the Foreign and Commonwealth Office that I would like to perk up my German. When I was at Mountain Ash grammar school my German teacher used to bribe me to stay away from classes because I was so useless at German and was a disruptive influence—my teacher was very beautiful, actually. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office said that I could have German lessons for £3,500 to which I said, “Hang on. I’m the Minister who is supposed to be able to communicate with countries abroad”. It is extraordinarily that even that small request could not be met. Perhaps the problem is that we do not value foreign languages highly enough. Maybe that is the case; I am not sure. Important suggestions were made by several hon. Members to rethink the kinds of languages that we place emphasis on and we are doing so. I have seen changes in my constituency where there is a shift towards learning Spanish as opposed to some of the other European languages. Of course, all the schools in my constituency also teach Welsh.

Although we can squabble about how we control the budget and on what it should be spent, I completely agree that the Olympics will provide a great opportunity for us to emphasise the importance of cultural diplomacy. The hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) said that he hoped that some of the buildings will remain in place. The Olympics will be a great opportunity for British architecture. We have some of the greatest architects in the world and I certainly always rue that such great events produce wonderful buildings which are then taken away. I hope that that concern will be heard outside of this room and I very much agree with the hon. Gentleman’s point.

I was intrigued by a suggestion of my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey. As everyone will remember, he was a fine rugby winger who played for England. He did not play for one of the great sides—we used to smash them every time we played them—but he was a tremendous winger—[Interruption]. I thought that he was wonderful. The hon. Gentleman suggested that we ought to give out gold medals as we did in the 1920s for more cerebral pursuits at the Olympics. That is a great idea and I see no reason why we should not do so. Coming from him, the world will sit up and listen to that idea—particularly as he had terrible knees.

I am suspicious of the idea of a cultural Olympiad and have never been a great supporter of cultural competitions. I always fear the increasing and creeping influence of the charcoal-shirted brigade that decides what constitutes good and bad culture. We are returning to the days of debating—

United States (Climate Change Policy)

I am very happy to have secured this short debate, Mr. Caton—not just on my own behalf but on behalf of the right hon. and learned Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram) and the hon. Members for Nuneaton (Mr. Olner) and for Wealden (Charles Hendry). With them I recently travelled through several of the United States under the auspices of the British-American parliamentary group, and a very instructive visit it was.

Before I come to the main part of my speech, let me put on record my appreciation of the consular staff who made the visit possible. Not only did they ensure that the arrangements went smoothly, they provided excellent briefings to inform our discussions. I mention in particular Judith Slater, the consul general in Houston, and her aide for the purposes of our visit, Lindsey Bartlett. When we travelled on to North Carolina, the consul general from Atlanta, Martin Rickerd, was responsible. One member of his staff deserves particular mention—Cindy Groff-Vindman, who is the scientific officer. It was essential that we had the kind of informed briefing that she and others were able to give us.

The visit covered Santa Fe and Albuquerque in New Mexico. We then went on to meet “big oil” in Houston, and continued to Raleigh and Durham in North Carolina, where we met a variety of people from academia, the private sector and the US Environmental Protection Agency. I want to recount the experiences of the visit, because in its entirety it was very instructive as to the positive influence that Britain does indeed have on United States policy on this subject.

There is a great black hole in Washington. We often have the impression that the Administration’s game is the only one in town—and in that particular town, it is. However, it is certainly not the only game that we ought to be playing—there is already a much broader one to be played across the United States, and we are a part of it.

New Mexico is led by a dynamic governor—Bill Richardson. Unlike the President, he is well up to speed on global warming. New Mexico is in a western consortium that includes California, Oregon, Washington and Arizona and is intended to address what those states recognise as a major global challenge. Many of us would say that it is perhaps the foremost global challenge.

We had a host of meetings in New Mexico, including with the public regulatory commission, with members of the state’s climate change advisory group, with the very forward-looking mayor of Albuquerque, Martin Chavez, and with an excellent cross-section of locally based research and development institutions. As well as the three local universities, those institutions included the Sandia national laboratory and the famous Los Alamos national laboratory. The private sector was also well represented. The focus in all the meetings was on how to cater for climate change and for the changes that are taking place all around us every day, on how to mitigate somehow the worst effects of those changes, and on how to effect the switch to new technologies that are appropriate for the future. The meetings were very informative. All the bodies represented were working on climate change and global warming, or on energy policy, or on a combination of them.

We were left in no doubt of how seriously the bodies that were represented all took the problems that face the planet, and of their determination to overcome those problems in a considered and consensual way. All were appreciative of the lead that has been offered to the United States by the British commitment in the field. That was a constant refrain that was repeated time and time again both at a governmental and at an academic level. When I say “governmental”, I am talking about state and municipal government; unfortunately, the jury is out on what the present national US Administration might or might not do in its remaining term of office.

None of our party had any doubt about the sincerity of the people who were involved—either in their focus on the real issues behind global warming or in their determination to steer a new path for the United States, whether Washington is on board or not.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing a timely and enormously important debate. I wonder if he might say more to reassure my constituents, and those of other hon. Members, who are deeply concerned about climate change and who are very depressed when they look to Washington and to the attitudes of the current Administration. How does my hon. Friend think that our Government can work more closely with the positive and forward-looking state administrations to try to find more constructive ways to engage the United States as a whole in tackling climate change?

The short answer is that we already are, but we do not talk about it. People of my political perspective are often accused of being anti-American, but that is just not true. Because we take issue with the Administration on what we see as its sins of omission—as well as those of commission—we are portrayed as anti-American. That is absolutely not the case. I was deeply appreciative of what was happening outside of the beltway, in the rest of the United States. I shall come to that shortly, and I shall make some remarks about our effect on it.

Our meetings in Houston were different—they were meetings with the big oil companies. We met with Exxon, Marathon and BP. It was, I think, only a few days before our meeting with Exxon that it had at last accepted as a company that climate change is a major issue and a fact of life. It had been in total denial till then, but it remained remarkably laissez-faire about its own role in turning that danger round. It struck me as extremely complacent even about where its own interests lie, never mind those of the planet.

On the other hand, Marathon struck me as far more dynamic in its assessment of how to respond to the challenges. I was taken by the realism of the executives, although they still had a reflex obeisance, as it were, to the judgment of the boardroom—they still seemed a little in awe of whatever the board had decided. I understood why that was, but it seemed to be slowing down the genuine dynamism of their response. Nevertheless, they are doing a lot of good stuff.

Happily, I can also report that BP has taken a lead in the oil industry in looking for alternatives to oil and coal for power generation. Under the aegis of its alternative energy section, BP now has alternative power generation options that are operative on five continents, and I was genuinely and pleasantly surprised by how well it is doing. Its practical lead includes an investment of $8 billion over 10 years that aims to reduce its own carbon emissions by some 24 million tonnes per year. That will not be the end of the problem, but it is a hell of a start, and it certainly points in the right direction. Hopefully, BP will tow the rest of the oil industry behind it. BP operates in Texas, California, Colorado and North Dakota, and it is setting the agenda on carbon-neutral power generation in each of those states.

At that stage of the visit we were in Texas, which is a remarkable place, as anyone who has ever been there will know. I have been there several times, and it is a state apart from the rest—literally and metaphorically. On its own, it is the sixth-largest emitter of carbon in the world, and it has a reputation for not giving a damn what the rest of the world thinks. The current governor has fast-tracked the process for the building of 19 new coal-fired power stations. Happily, however, if somewhat unbelievably, a venture capital company has now put in a bid to take over the plans for the power stations and turn them into green installations. I have to say that, if venture capital is going in that direction, that is where the future lies, and it is a good sign for all of us.

Nevertheless, there is a battle going on with the climate troglodytes in Texas, as elsewhere in the States. The major cities are all on board and are taking their lead from here. The mayors of Houston and Dallas are among the mayors of 17 Texan cities—including the beacon city of Austin, the state capital, which is very green—who are challenging the carbon-producing utilities. Indeed, Houston has modelled its climate change partnership on that of London. That is a practical example of how what is happening in Britain is having a very benign effect on thinking in the States.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate, because there is nothing more important to the evolution of an international solution to climate change than the evolution of policy at superpower level, in the United States. The defining feature of his narrative so far is the freedom to manoeuvre that local states have within the US system. Did he come home with any strong feeling about what changes we need to implement in this country to give local authorities more responsibility and more power to seize the agenda and innovate?

The short answer is no, because we are comparing chalk and cheese, to be honest. Even when we talk about Texas, we are talking about a very light-handed governorship. They are very good at executing people, but not at executing positive changes in respect of policy on, for example, climate change. I should mention that representatives of both Houston and Austin were at the US-UK climate change and urban areas conference, which was held in London, so I can say to the hon. Gentleman that there is an interchange. There is obviously a community of interest, but whether we can pick up positively from a completely different system is another question.

Finally, we went to North Carolina, where we met politicians, academics and, interestingly, representatives of the Environmental Protection Agency. That was only a couple of days after President Bush had made his totemic visit when he finally seemed to recognise, in his very particular way, that there was a problem that had to be faced. It remains to be seen what he does about it, but the evidence of state and municipal level eagerness to seize the moment was stark. The inertia of Washington was not seen as an excuse for doing nothing. Time after time, in North Carolina as in Texas as in New Mexico, appreciation was expressed for British influence and groundbreaking British initiatives on carbon emissions.

There is a natural historical affinity between North Carolina and the UK which is reinforced by regular interchange between academics in the field of climate change and environmental issues generally—and probably in many other fields—at institutions such as Duke university and Cambridge university. That reinforces a very powerful and positive message from the UK. In fact, we constantly heard people at that level, including the civil servants in the EPA, saying how embarrassed they were by the failure of the federal Administration to act. That is the key. They see us as willing to act and to tackle the problems, while their own Administration appear to be in denial.

That is changing, however. Names such as Kerry, Lieberman and McCain are appended to one or other of the five pieces of legislation before the US Senate to deal with the issue. We also know that every declared candidate for the forthcoming presidential election states that they will prioritise climate change in their Administration if they are successful, so it is only a matter of time—although we do not have much time on our side—before the world’s hyperpower gets on board, and I have every confidence that once it does, things will shift.

Companies are also engaged. BP is in a consortium with DuPont, Duke Energy and others in the US climate action partnership. Such engagement is not entirely disinterested on their part. They can see the business opportunities, and we should emphasise more that there are great business opportunities for companies in changing their own policies.

We should forget our mythical special relationship with the US regarding foreign policy and military strategy. It just does not work, but on the issue that we are discussing today, the special relationship is special and does work, and we could have a very beneficial effect, greater than we are currently having, if we focused on this area. That would be good for progressive Americans—believe me, there are many of them—it would obviously be good for the planet, and it would be rather good for British businesses if they got behind the changes that are taking place at the grass roots.

The other thing that the Government can do is to appreciate the work being done by our consuls general, who are taking our message to the American heartlands. That work should not simply be supported; it should be boosted. Washington and New York are not the only games in town. States such as California and Texas are global players in their own right and may well lead the United States down one path or another. It is rather odd when somebody such as Arnie Schwarzenegger is way in advance of much of the thinking that seems to take place, even in official circles in the UK. Nevertheless, he has been driven on by a state that is somewhat enlightened on these issues. I remember that back in the 1970s I got a shock when I had to take my New York-registered car for a test on its emissions. Even then, California set the trend for the whole of the United States. I suspect that that is what will happen: the states will lead the federal Government by the nose down the righteous path, if you like.

This is not a party issue in the United States. In our own small way, our delegation could easily present a unified view on the issues to our American hosts. What was most important was to convey to them the reality of the situation from a British perspective. For their part, the Americans were equally bipartisan on the salience of the issue. Of course, there are backwoodsmen there at all levels, as there are here, but our emphasis and the diplomatic efforts should be reinforced. Those efforts would be seen as more relevant and would certainly be far more productive if the pretence that everything can be done inside the beltway were dropped—it cannot. At times, inside the beltway is in a state of atrophy, and certainly on this issue it has been for quite some years, but that has not stopped what is going on elsewhere.

Anybody who has read Sir Christopher Meyer’s account, “DC Confidential”, would come away with the belief that our ambassador in Washington spends half his time looking after his personal interest rather than looking after the interests of Britain and pushing British policies. That charge cannot be levelled at the people we met out in the field, who were working incredibly hard and doing a tremendous job, making the linkages, bringing people together and selling a very positive message on this issue. When I spoke to colleagues about our visit, that was the impetus behind our attempts to secure this debate: to ensure that the Government recognise not only what is happening on the ground in the United States, but the work being done on their behalf out in the sticks—out in the heartlands. We want the Government to reinforce those efforts.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Kilfoyle) on securing the debate and thank him for sharing the experiences and insights gained from his recent British-American parliamentary group trip to the United States. He is surely right to point out that the complex web of contacts that we have at state and local level in the United States is a key feature of the special relationship that we have with that country and it is, I think, not always as widely appreciated as it should be.

Climate change is an international issue, with a truly global impact. The United States is responsible for approximately 20 per cent. of global greenhouse gas emissions. Its domestic emissions are forecast to rise by up to 30 per cent. over 1990 levels by 2012. Although it decided not to ratify the Kyoto protocol, it participates in the United Nations framework convention on climate change, and many countries, both developed and developing, pay close attention to its position on climate change. As such, it is a key country in negotiations on a future framework to follow on from the end of the first commitment period under the Kyoto protocol.

In the UK, we passionately believe that the scientific and economic case for action to avoid dangerous climate change is clear. Continuing with business as usual will mean that emissions continue to grow and that the stock of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere could reach 550 parts per million as early as 2035. That concentration is likely to lead to a temperature increase of between 2 and 4 deg C, which would have profound implications, although I do not have time to go into them today.

For the first time, last year’s Stern review demonstrated conclusively that we must meet the challenge of taking action in both economic and environmental terms.

On that point, part of the great value of the Stern review was that it gave us an opportunity to export the message that the Minister has just outlined to the United States, where concerns about the economic cost of dealing with climate change appeared to be holding people back from engaging with the Kyoto process. Sir Nicholas has been to the United States since his report was published to preach that message, but is there any evidence from his trips to suggest that the message, particularly as regards economic action, is hitting home?

The economic message is hitting home in the United States and, indeed, elsewhere across the world. The Stern report has been hugely influential and has proved quite conclusively that the costs of inaction, which it put at between 5 and 20 per cent. of global GDP, are far more than the costs of taking action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in a timely and efficient manner, which would be in the region of 1 per cent. of global GDP. That is a really powerful message.

The UK’s strong action domestically has enabled us to be at the forefront of the international debate on tackling climate change. Since 1990, the UK economy has grown by 40 per cent., while greenhouse gas emissions have fallen by 15 per cent. We are therefore on course to achieve double our Kyoto commitment of a 12.5 per cent. reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.

The draft Climate Change Bill, which I am delighted to say was launched this morning, proposes that we put into statute the UK’s target to reduce CO2 emissions by 60 per cent. by 2050 and by 26 to 32 per cent. by 2020. That will be the first time that any Government have legislated to put into statute a legal framework for managing CO2 emissions. The Bill provides a clear, long-term, credible framework and gives businesses and individuals greater clarity about their planning and investment so that we can deliver changes and achieve a low-carbon economy.

In the United States, climate change has risen significantly up the political agenda over the past two years, and, as my hon. Friend clearly outlined, the UK has participated in the debate that has been going on there. The significant focus that we placed on climate change during our G8 presidency led us to host the “Avoiding Dangerous Climate Change” conference in February 2005. The Gleneagles dialogue process that we set up following our G8 presidency has created a helpful space in which to have informal discussions about how to tackle climate change and the United States has been a key participant in that process. The US has also continued to participate in discussions on climate change as part of the G8 process and it took part in discussions during the 2006 Russian presidency and the preparatory process for this year’s summit at Heiligendamm under the German presidency.

The past year has seen the debate on climate change intensify in the US. That is true not only of the science of climate change, but, as I have outlined, the economics of action on climate change. Stern has played a pivotal role not only in the US, but worldwide in stimulating the debate that we need about the costs of delaying action as against the costs of acting now.

The ambition that the UK has demonstrated in its plans for phase 2 of the EU emissions trading scheme, and the European Commission’s work in enforcing tighter caps on other member states, have shown that action can be taken now. It is important to remember that although there is no coherent federal problem to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, individual US states are leading the way in addressing climate change.

The UK is pleased to be involved with and to support the development of initiatives such as the regional greenhouse gas initiative, a collaboration involving nine north-eastern states in a cap-and-trade scheme. The RGGI is intended to be expandable and flexible, and it is open to other US states and Canadian provinces.

I will not, because I need to answer some of my hon. Friend’s points.

We are collaborating effectively with California on climate change and energy following the Prime Minister’s visit there in July 2006 and his joint announcement with Governor Schwarzenegger. In particular, we are offering practical help and experience on emissions trading.

We very much support the western regional climate action initiative that California, Washington, Oregon, New Mexico and Arizona announced in February. We and the European Commission are also exploring the potential for linkages with the EU emissions trading scheme. We want to see the emergence of a genuinely global carbon market, but if that is to happen, it is important to ensure that trading systems have the capacity to be linked. The UK will receive a delegation from California in early April to continue our close work on the development of emissions trading and other climate change policy instruments.

The UK’s perceived global leadership on climate change means that we have also been asked to respond to interest at city level in the United States. In 2005, the UK played a role in promoting action at city level in the US and internationally, when London hosted the first large cities climate change summit, with participation from five major US cities. The initiative has now grown to include 40 cities globally, and 12 US cities will participate in this year’s summit.

I should also mention the Clinton climate initiative, under which former President Clinton and the mayors of San Francisco and Los Angeles are taking forward work on climate change.

The changing political environment internationally and domestically—particularly at state and sub-state level, as my hon. Friend highlighted—is leading to a shift in business opinion in the US. American industries are beginning to take steps in the clean energy and green technology marketplace, and my hon. Friend mentioned several examples. The US business community is developing its position on climate change, and business leaders such as Jeff Immelt of General Electric and Jim Rodgers of Cinergy have called for long-term regulatory certainty and market-led mandatory policies. Although the majority of US industry still favours nothing beyond voluntary action, a number of blue-chip businesses, such as Caterpillar, Johnson and Johnson and Intel, argue that it is not enough. Therefore, it is not only the general political climate in the US, but the business climate that is changing, and the business community rightly sees increasing opportunities not only in developing new technologies, but in the carbon market.

I should also mention the work of major UK business groups and our contacts through international business, because organisations such as the CBI and the corporate leaders group reinforce the positive and progressive stances that US industry is increasingly taking. Our religious and faith leaders have also taken up contacts and discussed responsible stewardship of the planet’s natural resources with their US counterparts.

British legislators have also engaged in the debate on climate change. Last month, the president of GLOBE International from the UK chaired the third G8-plus-five legislators forum, which was hosted in the Senate in Washington. The forum brought together legislators from around the world, plus business leaders and civil society organisations. The discussions were positive, and I hope that they will help to prepare the political space for action on climate change by the G8-plus-five Governments. UK ministerial and official visits have also reinforced the UK’s message in the US on the wider implications of climate change.

Across a range of issues, therefore—at the legislative level, the state and local levels and the business level—we have a web of contacts. We are working with, and giving appropriate support to, those who want to take action on climate change, and we shall continue to do that.

In addition, we have a UK-US energy research and development memorandum of understanding, and my hon. Friend mentioned the importance of energy. There are currently three active projects under the memorandum of understanding and they are jointly funded by the US and UK. The US is also interested in collaborating with the UK to harmonise standards on renewable fuels and particularly biodiesel, and we continue to work closely with the US on those issues.

It is clear that there is a lot more work to be done if we are to secure international agreement on a post-2012 framework.

Policing (Northamptonshire)

I rise on behalf of my constituents in Kettering to discuss policing in Northamptonshire, and I thank Mr. Speaker for allowing me to do so, and the Minister for listening to my constituents’ concerns. Law and order and the fight against crime are the No. 1 priority for Kettering residents. There is huge concern about criminal activity and antisocial behaviour, at every level, and I am sad to report that many residents now do not report more minor crimes because they believe that nothing appropriate will be done about them. That is true in the towns in the Kettering constituency, and across Northamptonshire, but also in rural areas. Ahead of the debate I received a letter from Mr. Paul Tame, the east midlands regional environment and land use adviser to the NFU. He made the good point:

“Many farmers in the county have lost confidence in the police to detect and deal with the high levels of rural crime, much of which goes unreported because land managers feel, rightly or wrongly, there is no longer any point in reporting incidents. I know the police are under pressure from all sides but we do not feel that enough resources are expended on solving and combating rural crime in the county.”

That, I am afraid, is a widespread feeling in the rural community. However, it would be remiss of me not to praise officers in Northamptonshire for their hard work. I spent 22 days last year on the police parliamentary scheme, with the Northamptonshire force, and I know first hand how hard police officers work and the effort that they put into their role. I thank them for their endeavours. Nevertheless, things are serious for policing in Northamptonshire. As always, I suppose, it comes down to finance. Yes, record amounts of money are spent on police there, but there are problems with the way the funding is allocated.

This year, with the roll-out of the safer community teams and the expansion of the Government’s police community support officer programme, there are an additional 25 PCSOs in the county, bringing the total to 163. That is 50 short of the Government’s original target of 213. However, although we have 25 more PCSOs we have a net loss of 11 police officers, as well as 28 support staff, to pay for them. I have raised that situation in the House many times and the Policing Minister is on record as saying that it is not Government policy to replace police officers with PCSOs. Nevertheless the effect of Government policy in Northamptonshire is precisely that.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on obtaining this debate and standing up for the people of Northamptonshire, as he always does. Is not the crux of the issue—so it appears to my constituents—the fact that we are losing police officers and getting more police community support officers, and the Government are trying to get policing on the cheap?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend and congratulate him on all the hard work that he does in this place to represent his constituents’ concerns. Our constituencies are both covered by the north Northamptonshire basic command unit area and, going by our experience, we will have more PCSOs on the beat, but we will also have fewer police officers. Recruiting and paying a PCSO is less expensive than recruiting and paying a full-time police officer. I know from first-hand experience that PCSOs do a wonderful job and are dedicated to their task, but they are unable in law to arrest suspects. They can only detain them while they await the arrival of a police officer with full powers. Residents are rightly concerned that they see fewer such officers on the streets of Wellingborough and Kettering.

The police authority is bending over backwards to fund the roll-out of the safer community teams. The early signs are that the community teams are working extremely well, but the police authority has had to dip into its reserves to the tune of some £600,000 this year. An extra £500,000 has been made available from the county council and the police authority has also identified efficiency targets of £3 million for 2007-08. However, it simply is not enough, and next year will be worse than this year, with, currently, the likelihood of a £5 million gap. The police authority has done extensive research on how it will fund policing in Northamptonshire, and has made projections to 2011 on the basis of the following assumptions: an annual increase of 2 per cent. in the central grant support; an annual precept increase of 5 per cent.; general inflation at 2 per cent.; pay inflation at 3 per cent.; and the continuation of the Government’s PCSO grant at 75 per cent. When it has crunched all its numbers, which it has made available to the Home Office, the shortfall by 2011 is some £20 million. That is the potential crisis facing us in Northamptonshire.

Of course, the force is already overstretched. There are about 490 people per police officer, whereas the England and Wales average is about 370, so already in Northamptonshire each police officer must do far more than the national average. That is before taking into account the huge increase in the county population that is projected by 2031. As a result of the Government’s housing expansion programme, Northamptonshire has been included in the Milton Keynes and south midlands sub-regional spatial strategy growth area. The population of Northamptonshire is due to rise from 660,000 people today to just short of 1 million by 2031. Today Northamptonshire has 1,347 police officers. To keep the police officer to population ratio the same, it will need just short of 2,000 police officers by 2031. There is very little evidence at the moment that the Government have the plans and strategy in place to fund that expansion in police numbers.

When the population rises, council tax and precepting will bring in additional revenues, but those are historic revenue streams, after the event. The Government need to identify some funding ahead of the increase in population, so that police numbers in relation to population do not get worse. It is alarming to think that with that increase in the population there will, unfortunately, be an increase in the number of crimes committed in the county. At the moment just short of 70,000 crimes are committed a year. On present trends that will be just short of 100,000 by 2031. Antisocial behaviour will increase likewise. People are very worried; we do not have enough police officers now, and the number is already starting to fall. Things are likely to get worse before they get better.

I want to focus today on the matter of prolific and persistent offenders. They are particularly nasty individuals, who commit the bulk of crime throughout the country. That is especially relevant in Northamptonshire. In the north Northamptonshire basic command unit area, probably about 50 individuals commit the bulk of the crime. At every opportunity, when I was taking part in the police scheme, I asked officers what could be done for policing in north Northamptonshire if those people were somehow taken out of the equation. Every officer, at every level, said, “There would be no problem at all, Philip, because those people commit the bulk of the crime. If they were locked up or taken out of the equation we could concentrate on the zero tolerance measures that everyone wants.”

I bring to the House’s attention the case of a persistent and prolific offender, whom I shall call William. The police had to jump through hoops to bring him to justice. He is a real person, but I have disguised his identity. He is a 26-year-old male with 20 convictions for 62 offences. He was released from prison in early October after serving just under four years in prison for burglary and possession of controlled drugs. In October, after his release, the Kettering area suffered a significant increase in dwelling burglaries—double the number of the previous month. Police intelligence indicated that William was responsible for those burglaries. At the end of October, William and an associate were arrested on suspicion of burglary after, bizarrely, voluntarily handing themselves in at their local police station. They were released on bail pending further inquiries.

Six days later, William was arrested again on suspicion of carrying out another burglary in Kettering. That home owner was able to name him as the offender. In custody, he was searched and found to have a knife concealed in his underpants. He was then further arrested for being in possession of an offensive weapon and charged with that offence. He was bailed to appear in court and released. Within two days, he was arrested again and charged with witness intimidation because he had visited the burglary victim’s home and made numerous threats, including that he would burn the victim’s house down.

On another occasion, William was arrested for breaching his bail after being stopped in Kettering within his curfew time. In his possession was a bladed article. When he appeared before the court, the remand application was turned down, despite his long record of bad behaviour, and he was bailed to his brother’s address in nearby Corby. However, that was in direct breach of his brother’s tenancy agreement. His bail conditions also included a curfew and the conditions that he should not visit Kettering except to attend court and should not communicate with the victim.

In early November, police officers acting on received information attended an address in Kettering and found William asleep in the rear of a vehicle, in direct contravention of his bail conditions. He was searched and found to be in possession of a small quantity of jewellery and some white tablets. He was arrested on suspicion of the handling and possession of controlled drugs. In a further search, in custody, a piece of foil with what appeared to be heroin stains was found in a cigarette packet hidden in his trousers. In his cell, he tore apart his mattress and was charged with criminal damage. He also refused to move his arm from the hatch on his door and assaulted a police officer when police attempted to move his hand. He was charged with assaulting a police officer and held until his court appearance in early November, when he was at long last remanded in custody by magistrates.

Regrettably, four days after initially being remanded in custody, William was released on conditional bail by magistrates at his next hearing. Again, his bail conditions specified that he should not enter Kettering. The bail address was that of a relative in Northampton who confirmed to the police that William did not have permission to live at his address. A statement was taken, and William was again sought for breach of bail. Two weeks later, he was found hiding at an address in Kettering and arrested for breach of bail. In addition, a warrant was issued when he failed to appear at court on 15 November, and he was wanted for questioning about further burglary offences. When he was brought before the courts, he was finally remanded in custody. Eventually, at the end of February 2007, Northampton Crown court sentenced him to a total of 27 months in prison for burglary and other offences.

Throughout the period that William was at large, not only was he was arrested six times, but police intelligence and crime patterns suggest that he was criminally active. Substantial police resources were used to try to curtail that activity, but that would not have been necessary had he been remanded in custody earlier. That example was very detailed, but it shows how a known persistent and prolific offender alone accounted for a doubling in the burglary rate in Kettering when he was released from prison. The police had to jump through hoops to bring him to justice, including by arresting him six times.

Having drawn that case to the Minister’s attention, I ask two things of him. First, will he please find the time to meet the commander of the northern Northamptonshire basic command unit to discuss how the police and criminal justice systems can get to grips with known persistent and prolific offenders in a more time-efficient manner? Secondly, given the huge scheduled increase in population in Northamptonshire by 2031, will he meet the Milton Keynes and south midlands inter-regional police board to discuss how on earth we are to overcome the under-funding of the police in Northamptonshire? They should also discuss sensible funding increases for the next 25 years.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone) on securing the debate and on opening it so eloquently, and I thank him for the way in which he put his points. I shall address his last points first. I am sorry to hear about the problems with the prolific and persistent offender he mentioned. I can imagine the frustration that his constituents and others must have felt about that case. Such matters are a concern, but they are for the courts to deal with—not me.

Of course, I am happy to meet the BCU commander whom the hon. Gentleman mentioned. I am also happy to meet the police board, but I need to check that that is appropriate in terms of ministerial responsibility. As I say to my office, I will always meet people to discuss matters, even if the outcome is not what they want. Sometimes, the least that MPs want is to put to Ministers the case of their constituents or area, which is perfectly fair and proper. I am happy to meet them for that reason if I can.

The hon. Gentleman has properly spoken out for his police force, and I am grateful for this opportunity to put on record the Government’s perspective on the funding of Northamptonshire police. I shall give a few statistics to set the debate in context, and I apologise to the hon. Gentleman if he has heard these figures before, but it is important to go through them.

The grant settlement that the House approved earlier this year, without a Division, provided all forces and police authorities, including Northamptonshire, with an increase in general grant for next year of 3.6 per cent., which is above the rate of inflation. Since 1997-98, Government funding for Northamptonshire police has increased by more than 55 per cent., which equates to 22 per cent. in real terms. That is an unprecedented investment in the police service of which we can all be proud. The results of that investment are clear to see. Northamptonshire now has 1,325 police officers, 148 more than in March 1997. In the same period, the number of support staff increased from 554 to 989—an increase of more than 78 per cent. Those support staff enable officers to be released for front-line duties, where the hon. Gentleman’s constituents and hon. Friends want them to be. Northamptonshire also has 62 police community support officers. As hon. Members know, they have been an innovation under this Government, and I shall say a bit more about that later.

We should consider outputs as well as inputs, because these results are also impressive. In the past year, overall recorded crime in Northamptonshire fell by 7.9 per cent. That is a big and impressive drop, notwithstanding the point made by the hon. Member for Kettering about people not recording crime. There was a particularly welcome fall in violent crime. I, like him, pay tribute to all in Northamptonshire who have contributed to achieving that impressive result—not only the police but others who have been involved in the various partnerships. I am sure that he is aware that crime fell by 11.5 per cent in the northern basic command unit area, which includes Kettering. We are talking about big reductions in crime as well as the issues that he has raised.

I shall say something about the distribution of Government funding to the police. Some police forces have suggested that they are relatively under-funded when compared with others, so it is worth setting out the principles. As the hon. Gentleman will know, funding for police forces is based on a formula that was drawn up in conjunction with the Association of Chief Police Officers and the Association of Police Authorities. It takes account of the demographic composition of the population, including wealth and employment status, together with factors such as population density. All those elements are factored into the relative needs formula, which forms the basis of the distribution of the available funds between the police authorities in England and Wales.

Funding has never been based purely on population; indeed, a moment’s thought would demonstrate why that would be a very inaccurate way to determine the relative needs of different police authorities. The operation of the formula is subject to a damping mechanism to ensure that no forces suffer a dramatic change in funding from one year to the next.

The hon. Gentleman comes from the same region as I do, so he will know that some in the east midlands complain because, as a result of the damping mechanism, their forces receive less than they are strictly entitled to under the funding formula. That point was made by several hon. Members in a recent Westminster Hall debate on funding in the east midlands. I know that the hon. Gentleman attended that debate. Northamptonshire, in fact, gains from the operation of the damping system. In 2007-08, it will receive £600,000 more than it would if the funding formula were to be fully applied.

My hon. Friend the Minister for Policing, Security and Community Safety has made it clear on a number of occasions, including during the debate to which I have just referred, that we are very willing to engage on a cross-party basis to see whether we can come up with a system of police funding that is equitable and ensures that we get the best possible services across England and Wales. That is notwithstanding the fact that there will always be a debate about the amount.

We are clearly prepared to have an ongoing discussion about this. We have held several very informative meetings with hon. Members, chief constables and representatives of police authorities. I am happy to reiterate the point that I made at the beginning of my remarks: Ministers’ doors remain open. There is a need for dialogue on these issues to accompany the party political point scoring in which we sometimes indulge.

I shall say something about the future. We have made it clear that following the successful introduction of a two-year settlement, we intend to move to a three-year settlement covering the years of the next comprehensive spending review—2008-09 to 2010-11. As the hon. Gentleman said, the Home Office will receive a flat-rate increase over the CSR years. No decision have been taken on how the overall pot of Home Office money will be distributed between the various services that the Home Office supports, and I am not making any announcements about that today.

What I can say is that there are real pressures across all areas of Home Office business, and the days of the police receiving above-inflation funding increases are probably over. The funding that we have provided in recent years, to which I have referred, has put police finances on a very sound footing, on which they can build. We will also be looking to the police to make substantial efficiency savings. They have made very impressive productivity gains and efficiency savings in recent years. That work must continue to ensure that the maximum possible resources are devoted to front-line policing.

The hon. Gentleman suggested that the recruitment of PCSOs has had the effect of reducing the number of police officers. May I again clarify that PCSOs are not a replacement for police constables? They are an additional resource for the police service in support of the implementation of neighbourhood policing. May I say to the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone) that they are certainly not policing on the cheap? They play a distinct and complementary role. To be fair to the hon. Member for Kettering, he paid tribute to the work that they do.

PCSOs are most effective when deployed as members of teams led by police officers, providing a highly visible and responsive presence. They are generally concerned with community engagement rather than enforcement, as that area of work remains, for the most part, the preserve of sworn police officers. This is the nub of the debate about how we use police officers and PCSOs.

I am sure that a debate will take place in Northamptonshire, as it will in the rest of the country, about the appropriate balance between police officers and PCSOs. The police service is actively recruiting PCSOs. That is rightly a matter for local decision making, which is why we have changed the funding arrangements for next year. Determining the best mix is far better done by the local chief constable, his local commanders, community representatives and the police authority. I am sure that that is what is happening in the hon. Gentleman’s area, as it is in areas across the country.

I appreciate the good intentions on PCSOs. Does the Minister recognise that although it is not the intention, the effect of the Government’s funding rules is that Northamptonshire has ended up with more PCSOs but fewer police officers? It was never the Government’s intention that that should happen.

Again, this is the nub of the debate. We have had this debate before, but I should say something that is worth repeating. If there is local decision making, money is not ring-fenced and people are allowed to have greater flexibility over how they spend it, different decisions will inevitably be made about how it is spent and about the distribution between different areas of work. Across the country, some areas of work would be fully funded by the police and huge activity would be undertaken, but other specific areas of crime would not be as fully investigated or would not be as fully dealt with as possible. This is a matter for local decision making, because such things are best done at local level.

I am confused because my local police told me that PCSO money was ring-fenced and they did not have local decision making as to how they spent it.

The commitment in respect of 24,000 PCSOs was going to be ring-fenced, but we moved away from that. Instead of telling forces next year that they would get an additional sum but would have to spend it to move towards the target of having 24,000 PCSOs across the country, we changed our approach so as to put the money into the general policing pot. That will give forces the flexibility next year to determine how to use it, and I hope that that answers the hon. Gentleman’s question. We could have kept that money ring-fenced, and the numbers of PCSOs would have continued to rise, but we decided not to, because we felt it more appropriate to allow local decision making to apply.

The result of that decision is that the Northamptonshire police have been allocated £2.8 million towards the cost of neighbourhood policing in 2007-08. That is an increase of 33 per cent. over funding in 2006-07. The force will have 138 PCSOs in 2007, which is an increase from 40 in 2006 and will contribute to the roll-out of neighbourhood policing across Northamptonshire. I cannot remember the exact number but we are not talking about the figure that the hon. Member for Kettering would have added on to the 138 to be Northamptonshire’s part of the 24,000.

There will not be an expectation to increase PCSO numbers further, although the force is free to do so if it wishes, depending on local needs and circumstances. We have therefore extended much more flexibility for local decisions to be taken, both to Northamptonshire police and across the service generally. That is important because community safety is a shared responsibility and local decision making, with the involvement of the community and local partners, is crucial to the success of neighbourhood policing.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Kettering on securing this debate, the hon. Member for Wellingborough on his contribution and Northamptonshire police on the work that they have done. I look forward to having the meetings that the hon. Member for Kettering requested, so that we can continue the dialogue about how best to take things forward. May I also ask his constituents, as well as others in Northamptonshire and across the country, to report any and every crime to the police, because that way we can get a true picture of what is happening, and the police can divert the necessary resources accordingly?

Maritime Sector (Liverpool)

The maritime sector in Liverpool is recognised as being an important economic driver for the country, region and locality. That is acknowledged by the Department for Transport, the Northwest Development Agency, the North West regional assembly, “The Northern Way” and the Merseyside local authorities. In this short debate, I want to draw attention to some important issues, the recognition of which is essential if the sector is to develop its potential.

Mersey ports processed more than 42 million tonnes of cargo in 2005, making it the fourth largest port operation in the United Kingdom. A 350 per cent. increase over the past 20 years is part of the growing success story, and more than 87 per cent. of all north-west port cargo tonnage is handled on the River Mersey or the Manchester ship canal. The regional implications are clearly significant.

With more than 100 global destinations, the port is the key gateway for UK trade with north America and a global gateway for UK industry. It leads the way in deep-sea carrier-operated feeder services hubbing to Liverpool from European ports. In 2005, it handled containers from more than 100 non-EU countries, which led to three new deep-sea-direct container services calling at the port.

More than 5 million tonnes of cargo passes annually between Liverpool and Ireland, as well as an increasing number of passengers. Welcome investment by Norfolkline has increased Liverpool-Belfast and Liverpool-Dublin business. The port’s hinterland has the highest concentration of cargo-generating activity outside London, and more than 60 per cent. of the UK’s manufacturing capacity lies within a 200 km radius. The average distance covered by road vehicles operating from Liverpool is substantially less than from the south-east ports, which is important environmentally as well as economically.

The port of Liverpool is a strong economic driver, creating a maritime sector that is the largest outside London according to the recent economic impact survey carried out by Mersey Maritime. In 2004-05, the sector generated 20,500 full-time jobs in Merseyside, rising to more than 26,500 when indirect impact is taken into account. The sector’s output reached £2.5 billion, adding £698 million to household incomes and creating the highest gross value-added of any port in the UK. It is likely that the maritime sector accounts for at least 5 per cent. of gross value-added in Merseyside. Employment in the maritime sector is diverse, and includes ship repairs, logistics. engineering, transport, warehousing, professional services and training. Three major companies’ head offices and Maersk’s main regional office are in the city centre. The port of Liverpool currently shows increasing activity, increasing business and increasing numbers of diverse jobs with local and regional impact.

I want to draw attention to two important new developments that are bringing additional opportunities to Liverpool, and I want to ask whether current developments and decisions will allow those new opportunities to be grasped fully for the benefit of local people, for the region and for the country. First, the acquisition of the port by Peel Holdings creates a unique situation. It means that Liverpool port, the very successful John Lennon airport—the fastest-growing airport in the country—and the Manchester ship canal are under common ownership. That creates a unique, integrated port complex that has led to the concept of a super-port, and the possibility of transferring a substantial amount of container trade from road to water via the canal to port Salford with significant environmental benefits. The super-port concept has arisen from the new ownership, and includes the possibility of a new port complex.

Secondly, I want to draw attention to the setting up of Mersey Maritime in 2003 with Jim Teasdale as chief executive. That private sector-led initiative is working with the public sector and has brought new vigour and focus to the maritime cluster. It works with local businesses, companies, the maritime sector, shipping companies and transport. It is about showing the importance of a cluster of maritime excellence, and about developing the possibilities of that cluster for the economy, as well as promoting shipping. The initiative is innovative, full of enthusiasm and doing excellent work.

I have some key questions about whether the greatest possible opportunities presented by that situation are being taken up. Will the Department for Transport recognise the port of Liverpool’s importance in its national ports review, or will it, as many fear, concentrate on further development of south-east ports? That is not just a regional question; it is a national question about developing the potential of all regions in the United Kingdom. The issue is highlighted in the Transport Committee’s recent report on the ports review, which draws attention to the importance of supporting ports outside the greater south-east to enable both national and regional development to be maximised.

Recognising the port of Liverpool’s importance means investing in infrastructure to facilitate freight and passenger access by road, rail, and water. When will the Olive Mount Chord rail project be delivered? When will the issue of inadequate rail loading gauge be addressed? When will road access be improved?

I have raised those issues in written questions, and a reply on 15 January confirmed that the Highways Agency believes that the existing road network is inadequate to cater for the port’s expected growth. When will that inadequacy be dealt with, and when will changes be made?

The £10 million cruise liner facility currently under construction is vital and welcome, but further major investment is required. Will the Government back Mersey Maritime’s ports growth strategy?

Will the Government approve the post-Panamax terminal application, which is essential if we are to attract trade with the far east? The terminal would enable shipping services to call at Liverpool to service the north-west and the northern regions, thus increasing regional competitiveness, so it is an issue not only for Liverpool, but for the wider region. I raised the issue in a written parliamentary question, and I received a reply today, stating:

“A decision on the application for the Seaforth River Terminal Harbour Revision Order will be announced as soon as all the necessary statutory procedures have been completed.”—[Official Report, 13 March 2007; Vol. 458, c. 20W.]

I should be pleased if my hon. Friend could indicate when that completion might be.

Will the Government, the regional development agency and local authorities back the super-port concept in order to maximise the benefits of the airport, port and ship canals being under single ownership, while working with regional distribution centres near Warrington? The super-port would require the post-Panamax facility, and in the long term, a world cargo centre at John Lennon airport.

Will there be continued support for the innovative and successful Mersey Maritime initiative, which focuses on developing maritime clusters as centres of excellence? That energetic body has achieved significant success, working with 820 local companies and 19,000 employees. It has succeeded in a great deal of its work, which included the initiation of much-needed skills training and the commencement of apprenticeships. It has promoted innovative ICT projects to make businesses more efficient, of which Liverpool university’s advanced internet methods and emergent systems—AIMES—project to improve the tracking of goods is just one example. I recognise that the Government are not solely responsible for the sector, and I recognise the support that they have already given to the port of Liverpool and the maritime sector. Locally, Mersey Docks and Harbour Company has to provide a replacement landing platform for Merseytravel’s successful cross-river ferries, because it has been absent for more than a year following an accident on the previous landing stage.

Other players include the Learning and Skills Council and the Department of Trade and Industry, and I hope that they will continue to work with Mersey Maritime and with others. The Northwest Development Agency has already played an important role, recognising the maritime sector in its regional economic strategy, and the North West regional assembly continues to work very hard on transport policy development.

At this time of change, I ask my hon. Friend to assure me that regional policy will not only continue, but strengthen. It means developing policies that reach beyond the city regions, and backing the Northwest Development Agency, the North West regional assembly and “The Northern Way”, which is inter-regional. Transport decisions must follow regional strategies; Network Rail and the Highways Agency should be required—as part of their remits—to invest in regional policies, and Government investment decisions must back regional policy.

Liverpool’s maritime sector has a proud history. Indeed, efforts are under way to restore HMS Whimbrel, the only surviving escort ship from Captain Walker’s second world war north Atlantic hunting group, transport it from its location in Egypt to Liverpool and use it as a tourist and educational facility. Similarly, plans are being assessed to bring SS Manxman, the last steamship operating between the Isle of Man and Liverpool, from its berth in Sunderland to Liverpool. I hope that the Government-backed agencies will support both projects.

Today’s debate focuses on the potential of the port of Liverpool as an increasingly important economic driver for the locality, region and country. The report by the Transport Committee, “The Ports Industry in England and Wales”, concluded:

“A national framework for port development will stand or fail on the strength of its ability to bring port development and traffic to the regions. Within the national policy, each individual area should be allowed to develop those aspects of the industry that are best fitting to their unique geographical advantages and access to markets.”

I hope that my hon. Friend can assure me that the Government will continue to assist Liverpool in achieving that ambition.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman) on securing this debate. I know that we always congratulate Members on securing these Adjournment debates, but on this occasion, I genuinely mean it, because although I have the pleasure of representing a Kent, channel port with its own maritime tradition, I am of course from Liverpool, and I am well aware of the maritime tradition on the Mersey. Indeed, I spent six months working for the Ministry of Agriculture inspecting the ships that called into the Mersey back in the early ’70s, and I suspect that I serviced one of the very last ships to enter the Albert dock in its guise as a working berth before it became a tourist attraction.

I am delighted that my hon. Friend has raised such issues, that she has brought the Mersey’s proud maritime tradition to the attention of the House, and that she continues to make such a strong case for our support. Given my background, I hope she accepts that in the Government, she has a willing ally who is only too keen to see the Mersey prosper.

The maritime sector faces exciting and busy times, and the Government are working hard to deliver a new wide-ranging UK ports policy, to which my hon. Friend has referred, and to which I shall return to it in a moment. At a European level, the European Commission is simultaneously working on a new wide-ranging European ports policy, and I am delighted that Liverpool is playing its part in that work, too. The port of Liverpool gave a presentation on port financing at one of the Commission’s consultation workshops in February, and in the European Union’s maritime green paper, which is now out to consultation, the Commission rightly recognised the importance of maritime clusters such as Liverpool in developing a modern, dynamic and sustainable maritime economy. The Government and the Commission recognise the lead that Mersey Maritime has taken in promoting that vision.

As my hon. Friend said, the expansion of trade—particularly containerised trade—has been very strong. She also pointed out that from 2000 to 2005, the port of Liverpool grew by 10 per cent. overall, and by 17 per cent. in containers. There are many difficult issues associated with distributing increased volumes of goods on our small island, so against that background and through the new ports policy, we are seeking to provide a better framework for sustainable port development until 2030. Consultation took place last year, and since then we have had the benefit of a report by the Select Committee on Transport, as my hon. Friend pointed out. I am grateful to the Committee on which she sits for expediting its inquiry in order to allow the findings to be considered in the context of our ports policy review.

My hon. Friend asked several times during her contribution whether I would take into account the Committee’s findings, and all I can say is that, if I had not wanted to take them seriously, I should not have asked the Committee to expedite its report so that I received them before I made the decision. Although the report will not be completed until the summer, I hope that she accepts that I genuinely intend to consider all its findings closely.

My hon. Friend mentioned the extremely interesting and exciting concept of the Merseyside super port, and I can envisage the way in which it will attempt to exploit the synergies of the different transport modalities; the airport, the sea port and the canal. The Government and Europe will watch its development with interest, and I wish it well. The Merseyside super port gives the opportunity not only for economic development and the successful growth of business on Merseyside, but to expand considerably the sustainable transport of goods by allowing different modalities for transporting goods to genuinely interact, so that people can take the most sustainable route. I certainly wish the super port concept well.

I also wish Mersey Maritime well, which my hon. Friend mentioned. My understanding is that it has been formed by the commitment of private and public sector partners throughout Merseyside and has the shared vision to create a world-class cluster of maritime businesses. Mersey Maritime represents a cluster of more than 500 businesses employing 6,000 people in Merseyside, with an annual turnover of £1.3 billion. It aims to promote and develop excellence in all maritime-related activities in Merseyside and to represent the interests of existing and new cluster members. In the European Union maritime green paper, the Commission rightly recognised the importance of maritime clusters such as Liverpool in delivering a modern, dynamic and sustainable maritime economy.

I applaud the way in which Liverpool has responded to that challenge, integrating its rich maritime past with a modern, forward-looking maritime sector. I wish it well and hope that it succeeds, from the point of view of both the maritime sector in this country and Merseyside. The fact that Mersey Maritime represents 6,000 people and 500 businesses in just one maritime city shows just how important the maritime sector is to the UK economy in general. I fear that the maritime sector is a part of the economy that is often overlooked by the media. In fact, it has become the third biggest export earner in the UK, having overtaken aviation. The significant growth in the maritime sector—in terms of the UK-owned fleet, the number of ships registered to the red ensign, the amount of money that the sector earns for the UK and the number of people it employs—is one of the Government’s unsung success stories. Anything that Mersey Maritime can do to continue to contribute to that will certainly have my full support.

Another aspect of what Mersey Maritime is trying to achieve concerns training, as my hon. Friend said. It is vital that we make big investments in the skills of people who work in the maritime sector. That does not mean just the skills of people who go to sea, but the skills of people who work in our ports and the other industries that support our seagoing and portside activities. I am aware that £1.75 million of funding was secured last month for an initiative to promote and enhance maritime training on Merseyside, through a Mersey maritime institute. I congratulate Mersey Maritime on pulling that together with the support of Wirral council. The funding has come from a range of sources, including £656,000 from the single regeneration budget, which is funded by the Northwest Development Agency and administered by Wirral Waterfront, and £656,000 of European funding. I also understand that the private sector has committed nearly £450,000 in support of the project, so well done to all concerned.

So far as the timing and the subject matter of the ports policy review are concerned, I hope to have the review available in the summer. I would not have asked the Transport Committee to expedite its findings were I not to take them into account. Peel Ports has also made a significant contribution to the consultation document, which will be taken into account. I assure my hon. Friend that I intend the port policy review to set a framework for the successful growth of the ports industry throughout the United Kingdom. The review will not focus simply on the south-east or southern ports. Rather, it will genuinely consider all the ports, what is needed to make them all successful and what support each of them needs. The review will also take into account the findings of the Eddington report, which made significant comments about how we link our ports and airports into the strategic network, as well as other decisions that the Government are committed to making on the planning regime and how we respond to the Stern report on climate change.

I refer to my entry in the Register of Members’ Interests. As the Minister knows, the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers holds its maritime seminar this afternoon, at which he will be speaking. Everybody welcomes the investment in training in the maritime industry in Liverpool, but will he address the continuing decline in the number of British seafarers being employed on ships based in Liverpool? Will he also address the low pay among foreign nationals on those ships, because of the non-application of the Race Relations Act 1976, minimum wage regulations and so on, and say what action the Government are taking on those matters?

I am indeed speaking at that seminar this afternoon. One of the things that I was going to say was there for the first time—but which I will now tell the Chamber instead—is that we are today launching the consultation on how we should reform the Race Relations Act to deal with that issue.

Broadly speaking, there are three options. First, we can stay as we are now, although that is not much of an option, since it would lead to us infracting European Union rules. Secondly, we can change the Act so that everybody from the European Union or at least the European Economic Community will have to be paid the same rates. Thirdly, we can change the Act so that everybody who serves on a British ship will have to be paid the same rates. One likely consequence of the latter option would be that a lot of ships currently under the red ensign might flag out of the country. That must be factored into our considerations. At the request of the maritime unions and the Chamber of Shipping, I am allowing a six-month consultation. They believe that if they are given six months to work together, they can come up with a solution that is acceptable to everybody. I have acceded to that request for that very reason.

We get everywhere, I am delighted to say.

My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside talked about rail and road access. She made a plea for the Olive Mount Chord, which is one of the schemes that was identified in December’s announcement on the productivity transport innovation fund. We are working with Network Rail to take forward work on the detailed case for TIF funding, although it will not surprise my hon. Friend that I am will not make an announcement today. We will continue to place heavy weight on the recommendations of the region about how much ought to be spent on road access through the regional funding allocation. It is important to us that we take a strong lead from the regions.

My hon. Friend also asked about the Seaforth river container terminal, which concerns the decision about the post-Panamax berth, and asked some questions about other harbour revision orders. Again, I am afraid that I am not in a position to give her any information about that. It is important that harbour revision orders are made after the proper due process. For that reason, as the policy Minister in respect of shipping, I am not allowed to be involved with the harbour revision orders. One of the other Ministers takes responsibility for that. Such matters are kept completely secret from me, so that I am free to comment on policy matters without being seen to have influenced planning decisions. However, my hon. Friend will hear those decisions just as soon as they have been through due process and can be made properly.

These are exciting times for the Mersey, I am delighted to say, and I very much wish it luck. So long as Liverpool goes on to win the European champions league and such developments continue apace, there will nobody happier than I—or, I suspect, most other scousers as well.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at one minute to Two o’clock.