Skip to main content

Commons Chamber

Volume 458: debated on Wednesday 28 March 2007

House of Commons

Wednesday 28 March 2007

The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock

Prayers

[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

International Development

The Secretary of State was asked—

Clean Drinking Water

We will double our investment in water and sanitation in Africa, where the millennium development goal is most off-track, to £95 million a year by 2007-08, and then more than double our funding to £200 million a year by 2010-11.

The Department for International Development's global call to action on water and sanitation is pushing for more investment, for money to be better spent and for the right structures to be put in place to help to make that happen.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his answer. Does he agree that the voluntary sector and the Churches have a significant role to play in providing clean water in developing countries? May I bring to his attention one such project, which is run by Auchterarder parish church in my constituency? Through its endeavours, it is providing clean drinking water to 1,000-plus people in the villages of Debele Kejima, south-west of Addis Ababa. Will he take time to come to Auchterarder to speak to Stewart Robertson and other people from Auchterarder parish church to see the good work that they have done and are planning, and to see their future plans on sanitation and hygiene education, which are vital to developing countries?

I will do my best to accept my hon. Friend’s kind invitation to visit his constituency. I congratulate the members of the Auchterarder parish church on the efforts that they are making. In the fight to bring clean water and sanitation to more of our fellow human beings, we need all the help we can get.

As the Secretary of State will know, the Select Committee on International Development is about to publish a report on water and sanitation. Sanitation itself is often under-valued. It is key to achieving many of the millennium development goals. Will he undertake to ensure that his Department’s money goes to training and educating people in developing countries to enable them to deliver appropriately water and sanitation and to enable the millennium development goals to be achieved?

I accept the right hon. Gentleman’s point. I look forward to receiving the report when it is published. People tend to focus on water and to forget about sanitation. What we really need are taps and toilets. He is right that education is important. That is why, in investing in education, we ensure that we invest in toilets in schools. As we know, without toilets, girls will often not go to school as they get older. Those programmes include education about the importance of washing hands. On a recent visit to Malawi to see one such programme, we saw a brand new toilet block that we helped to fund with our development assistance. There was a big sign over the seat that said, “Now wash your hands.” That makes precisely the point that the right hon. Gentleman makes.

Further to that question and answer, may I ask my right hon. Friend to recognise the role of women in African villages in the management of water and sanitation projects? Will he in particular commend the health extension workers scheme, which the Select Committee saw in Ethiopia? We are prepared to provide much more money, but it is also necessary to encourage African Governments to make that a priority within their own spending Departments.

I could not agree more with my hon. Friend on the last point. One of the puzzles in all this is why Governments in some developing countries have not got the message more loudly about the importance of clean water and sanitation. In my experience, as she says, it is women in villages and elsewhere who are most concerned about that matter, not surprisingly, as they spend most of their day fetching and carrying water. If girls have to do that, one of the consequences is that they cannot go to school. We know the impact that that loss of opportunity has on the lives of girls. I assure my hon. Friend that we will continue to do all the things for which she asks.

I commend the Secretary of State for the work that he is doing on clean water. However, is it not true that the United Nations has 23 agencies dealing with water in one way or another? Would it not be better if there was much more focus among the donor communities and the organisations trying to help in that situation, so that we could really try to tackle the problem and some of the 6,000 children who die every day of diarrhoea would not have to die?

The hon. Gentleman is right. That is why, in answer to the original question, I said that we need to get the right structures in place. This year’s “Human Development Report” was all about water. It was a cracking report. First, we need one every year to keep our eye on the ball. Secondly, we need the international community to come together and say, “What are the gaps? How are we going to fill them?” Thirdly, directly relating to the hon. Gentleman’s point, we are arguing that in each country there should be one UN body that takes the lead. As a Government, we will put our money through the one UN body that is nominated in each country. That would be a powerful incentive to the UN system to get its act together. It is good that all those bodies take an interest, but when it comes to helping countries to make progress, they need one plan, one body and one way in which the international community provides help.

My right hon. Friend will be aware from the correspondence that we have had of the concern of many of my constituents about water issues in developing countries, and I thank him for his response on water privatisation in particular. What have his Department’s budgets been for water and sanitation over the past five years?

We have just published a further report looking at the total effect of our investment in water and sanitation, and in the last year for which the figures are available we spent bilaterally and multilaterally £242 million. I have a lot of correspondence about water and sanitation, which I greatly welcome. When it comes to public, private or community-led provision, I am interested in investing more of our money in what works to bring clean water to people, and that is where we should put our effort.

Is the Secretary of State aware that Norway has withdrawn its funding for the public-private infrastructure advisory facility, because its projects involving water have so often failed and been so widely criticised? How does the Secretary of State scrutinise the use of UK taxpayers’ money? If we are unable to do so effectively, is he likely to withdraw British funding from the PPIAF?

The PPIAF is having a real impact, not just in relation to water, but in other areas. The one example that I can think of is that it has helped to improve the availability of mobile phones in Afghanistan, which is good for helping the economy there to grow and develop. As I said a moment ago, in the end I am interested in investing money in what works. There are examples of private sector water provision that work and there are spectacular failures. There are examples of public provision that work and there are those that have been spectacular failures. The conclusion that I draw from that is that it does not matter so much whether it is one or the other, we should be putting cash, effort and time into what really makes a difference. I will assess our contribution to the PPIAF on that basis.

Hon. Members have come up with many useful suggestions that will improve the situation and my right hon. Friend understands the issues of water pretty well, but does he agree with Tearfund, which in its report “Making every drop count” states:

“But, first and foremost, ‘quantity’ of finance issues stand out as being absolutely paramount to the problem of increasing coverage in the country.”—

in this particular case referring to Ethiopia? All the improvements would make a difference, but can he assure me and other hon. Members that he will make every effort internationally to pump up the amount of money that is available to tackle the situation, so that we get somewhere near the 2015 millennium development goals.

I am happy to give my hon. Friend that assurance. That is exactly why in Africa where the problem is greatest, as I told the House a moment ago, we will double and then double again our investment. We need more investment, but we also need to help countries to be able to spend it. Apart from rural areas, the big challenge will be to provide clean water and sanitation to the growing cities and towns of the developing world, because in the next 50 years, first in Asia and then in Africa, that is where a majority of people will be coming to live. Just as in the 19th century in Britain local authorities were responsible for providing the sewers and putting in the taps, we need to find ways of getting more funding to local authorities in developing countries to make the investment and to regulate the provision of water and sanitation, because it is on them that the burden of dealing with the problem will fall.

I have recently observed in Bangladesh that it is possible to make progress on water and sanitation with, for example, microcredit schemes, enabling the manufacture of sanitation facilities in small, rural communities. The Secretary of State has admitted that DFID has not performed on the issue and has taken its eye off the ball. As my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Devon (Mr. Streeter) rightly pointed out, the UN has 23 unco-ordinated agencies working on water and sanitation, and the EU water initiative has been excruciatingly slow and mired in bureaucracy. For the sake of the 2.6 billion people who do not have access to water and sanitation, what steps is DFID taking to improve its performance, international coherence and donor co-ordination to ensure the replication of such schemes across the developing world?

The hon. Gentleman might give a bit of credit for the change that has been taking place over the past couple of years. It was the international community that took its eye off the ball, but that is beginning to change too. The World Bank is now investing more money, in part supported by our efforts, and we have a large programme in Bangladesh, which I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman had a chance to see.

The EU water initiative has been pretty patchy. Much more impressive is the EU water facility, because that allows countries to bid for funding to invest in the kind of things that I was talking about a moment ago, both rounds of which have been oversubscribed. In the global call for action, I am now arguing that we should embed funding from the EU in an EU water facility on a permanent basis through the next round of the European development fund, because it is about increasing the quantity of investment and about putting the right structures in place. That is why at the World Bank spring meetings we will have a gathering, at which Paul Wolfowitz will be present, in order to make progress.

Africa (Sustainable Forestry)

We are committing more than £73 million for forestry work in Africa, including £50 million announced last week by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor for a Congo basin forest fund. Our funding is helping to improve governance and secure environmental benefits, and potentially could help to safeguard the livelihoods of more than 50 million poor people.

Does the Minister accept that one of the important steps that could be taken is for the Government and the wider public sector to buy only legal and sustainable timber? Is he confident that the central point of expertise on timber procurement is properly resourced and that its messages are widely understood across the public sector?

I agree with my hon. Friend that there is much that the Government, through public procurement, can do to send strong signals about the need to use sustainable and legal sources of timber. At central level, the Government have set an example by setting out through the CPET what we want to see happen. We need to work with local authorities to help them see the benefits in that direction, and we need to encourage other Governments across the European Union and across Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries to do so, too. Yesterday, I met my Norwegian and Swedish counterparts and we are encouraging them to look at exactly that issue.

The Minister is right to say that there is huge importance in maintaining forestry—quite apart from anything else, to stop land slips and other forms of erosion. Has he had any meetings with the Waitrose Foundation, which is doing valuable work in southern Africa training people not only in horticulture and maintaining farms, but in sustainable forestry?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to highlight one particular benefit of forests. He may know that about 2 billion people worldwide depend on forests in some shape or form, so not only do donors and development agencies such as ours have a responsibility, we also need to work with the public sector, as my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Paddy Tipping) said, and with the private sector, to which the hon. Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) referred. I have not yet met members of the Waitrose Foundation, but if he wants to bring them to see me, I shall be happy to meet them.

My hon. Friend will be aware of the Secretary of State’s visit to the university of Wales, Bangor last year. When considering sustainable forestry in Africa, will he look at the work being undertaken at the university of Wales, Bangor on the impact on forests of climate change and elevated carbon dioxide levels?

I welcome the work that is taking place at Bangor and I know that my right hon. Friend’s visit was useful. I will of course discuss with him the research benefits that were explained to him, as my hon. Friend the Member for Conwy (Mrs. Williams) described. We need more effort from public sector and private sector bodies in terms of research into the importance of deforestation and what we can do to counter it. We need to work with bodies in the private sector and with other Governments around the world to step up the effort to combat deforestation.

British Aid

UK aid is subject to external scrutiny through independent monitoring by the Select Committee on International Development, audit by the National Audit Office and peer review by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. DFID’s policies and country programmes are evaluated by external experts and findings are published. However, we can and should go further, so I intend to establish a mechanism to ensure more independent evaluation of DFID’s impact and I will inform the House of my proposals in due course.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that answer. Assuming that he wishes to see recipient countries spend aid in an effective and accountable manner, when the Department is extending its aid reach into fragile states with often limited democratic credentials, why are the Government not doing more to show that they are responding and producing external scrutiny? Given that the Secretary of State says that the quality of governance has a huge impact on development, surely it is time for the Government to get its own house in order.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman listened to the answer that I just gave before asking a supplementary question that he may have written before he heard what I had to say. I accept entirely that we can do more to ensure that there is independent evaluation of the work that we are doing, but there is a considerable amount of scrutiny currently and in the more difficult places in which we work we take seriously our responsibility to ensure that we can demonstrate an impact. That is why, in those cases, we often do not give direct budget support, but provide assistance through programmes and projects in other ways.

I welcome the Secretary of State’s statement that he is going to follow Conservative party proposals to have an independent aid watchdog in this country. Does he agree that as the Department for International Development is set to double its budget, we owe the British taxpayer a zero tolerance policy on corruption in aid budgets?

I agree with the hon. Lady. I take with the utmost seriousness my responsibility to ensure that every penny of our aid goes to where it is intended. Every Member of the House, regardless of what party they belong to, should be interested in ensuring that a rising aid budget has the best possible impact.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that part of the business of scrutiny of aid in developing countries must be carried out by the Parliaments of those countries and their public accounts committees? Will the Secretary of State tell the House how his new governance fund will be used to strengthen the capacity of Parliaments to do that work and scrutiny, and will our National Audit Office look at their reports and use them in its independent audit of his Department’s work?

I agree with my hon. Friend completely on that point. The governance and transparency fund that we are establishing will in part be used to support parliamentarians in building their capacity to hold their Governments to account. The Public Accounts Committee and the work of the National Audit Office are really good examples of how to do that. We enjoy the benefit of their wisdom and experience, and occasional probing from time to time. I do not see why our colleague parliamentarians and Ministers in developing countries should not enjoy the same experience.

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement. I hope that his Department will look in particular at evaluating the spend on orphans and vulnerable children. I wonder whether he would agree that the untying of aid from trade, and the introduction of the poverty focus by the Labour Government was probably the single most effective step in improving the effectiveness of UK aid.

I agree with my hon. Friend. They were important decisions, taken for exactly the right reasons. On spending on orphans and vulnerable children, one of the reviews that we have been carrying out has been into the impact of our approach to HIV and AIDS and that is one of the issues at which it has been looking.

Some £50 million of unearmarked aid will be given to the Afghan reconstruction trust fund this year. Having been a part of the process of paying that aid, I know that it involves handling large bundles of cash and taking them down to the provinces in Afghanistan. Given the current levels of corruption to be found in some provinces in Afghanistan, what specific measures are in place today to ensure that that money is being well spent?

The most important measure that is in place is the Afghan reconstruction trust fund, which is managed by the World Bank on behalf of all the donors that put in funding, including the United Kingdom Government, and it pays out only in response to certified expenditure. What is that money being spent on? As the hon. Gentleman knows, it is being spent on helping to pay the salaries of teachers and other public servants who are trying to build the capacity of the Government of Afghanistan to respond to the needs of their people.

The Secretary of State is aware that, over the last year, we have been pressing the Government to set up a truly independent aid evaluation process, so we welcome the answer that he gave just now—although I hesitate to point out to him that he gave exactly the same answer two months ago. Will the Secretary of State accept that the issue is about not only aid effectiveness, but development effectiveness and demonstrating results and outcomes so that taxpayers can have confidence that their money is being well spent?

I do accept those latter points, which is precisely why I have informed the House today that I intend to set up a mechanism. I said two months ago that I was looking at proposals. One of the things that we are doing is assessing the experience of other countries, such as the Netherlands, Denmark and Sweden, which have been addressing the same issue. It is important that we are all able to offer reassurance to the British public that Britain’s aid is making a difference, as it is.

We congratulate the Secretary of State on adopting this Conservative proposal.

Following cross-party support last year for the Bill introduced by the right hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Mr. Clarke), the Secretary of State is required to report to Parliament on the impact of Government policies on development and developing countries across the range of relevant Government Departments. Will he tell the House how he is getting on with that process and when he expects to be able to report?

We are getting on fine and we will publish the outcome of that work in the Department’s annual report, which will appear at the beginning of May.

Abolition of the Slave Trade

Last month, we published the booklet “Breaking the Chains”, which highlights the ongoing need to fight slavery and the clear link between modern slaves and global poverty. In October, in partnership with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the International Labour Organisation and Anti-Slavery International, we will hold a conference to explore what further action we can take.

I thank my hon. Friend for that response and commend the book to everyone. It is a sad reflection of society that it was just 200 years ago that we had to abolish slavery. However, it is also an indictment of today’s society that slavery still exists in all forms, whether that is child slavery or human trafficking. In India, with the Dalit system, individuals are paid just 80p a day and have to try to survive on that pittance. Does my hon. Friend agree that we will need to do an awful lot more before we can say that slavery has truly been abolished?

I agree that we have an awful lot more to do as an international community before we can start to say that modern slavery is coming to an end. My hon. Friend is right to highlight the specific circumstances of the Dalits in India. I hope that he will be reassured by our commitment to helping those Dalits to improve their circumstances through our efforts on primary education in India. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor committed a further £200 million of aid to invest in primary education, which is designed to help all Indian citizens, including Dalits, to access the education that they need.

Does the Minister agree that the practical step that the Government could take to mark the 200-year anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade would be to create in this country a human traffic commissioner who would be independent of the Government, as has been done in the Netherlands, to deal with the equivalent of today’s slave trade: human trafficking?

There is a series of practical steps that the Government can take, and are taking, to address modern slavery. One of the most obvious things that we can do is to continue to address poverty in Africa and the Caribbean, as we are doing. It is one of the reasons why Labour Members have spent so much time and effort trying to secure a debt relief deal. One of the benefits of such a deal is that debt relief in Nigeria will help to pay for an extra 120,000 teachers so that we can get another 3.5 million children in school. Such initiatives are probably the surest way to help to tackle modern slavery.

Darfur

The UK has committed £67 million to the African Union mission in Sudan since it was set up, including £35 million in this financial year. Our funds have covered vehicles, ground fuel and troop airlift, as well as personnel costs. We are ready further to support the political process, which is being led by the AU and the United Nations, both financially and politically. We are also pressing other donors to do more.

The pre-condition for humanitarian assistance in Darfur must be a proper resolution of the military conflict. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the Sudanese Government are both moving arms into Darfur and allowing their military planes to be disguised as being part of the UN humanitarian mission? In that context, is it not time for the international community to carry out proper military enforcement of the no-fly zone?

I share the concerns that my hon. Friend expresses about what is going on in Darfur. It is precisely for that reason that we are drafting a tough new UN Security Council resolution that will cover sanctions against individuals, improved monitoring of the violence and the extension of the arms embargo. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has said, we are looking at the capacity to ensure that planes cannot be used to bomb the innocent civilians of Darfur.

Given that the new United Nations humanitarian co-ordinator, John Holmes, has warned that morale among aid workers is so fragile that one security incident could prompt a humanitarian collapse, endangering the lives of tens of thousands of refugees and internally displaced people, can the right hon. Gentleman tell the House what particular steps he and his Department are taking to avert that grisly prospect?

We are continuing to provide significant humanitarian assistance. As the hon. Gentleman will know, we are the second largest donor in the crisis in Darfur. The second thing that we are doing is giving support to John Holmes in his task to get the Government of Sudan to stop putting obstacles in the way of the humanitarian effort. That is the goal that he was pursuing during his visit this week. The third thing that we are doing is putting pressure on the Government and the rebels to come around the negotiating table, because it is the banditry and general lawlessness that is the principal cause of the low morale and the difficulties that the humanitarian community is facing.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—

Engagements

This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in the House, I will have further such meetings later today.

Will the Prime Minister please look into the fact that my constituents in Ilford, North are faced with the prospect of having to travel for 35 minutes by car or for more than an hour by public transport to get to the nearest accident and emergency department under the present proposals?

I appreciate entirely the hon. Gentleman’s concern and he will know that no firm proposals have been made yet. His local health service has made a set of propositions or is engaged in consultations, and those—as it has said—will be based on the safety of constituents, especially those using emergency services. It is important that we recognise that some 26 public hospital schemes have been opened in the strategic health authority that covers his area, with a value of £1.7 billion. There are three schemes under construction and no fewer than 25 local improvement finance trust—LIFT—schemes for local services have been opened. So I understand his concern, but no decisions have yet been made on the proposals. The important thing will be to ensure that people get the very best care possible. The hon. Gentleman will also, I hope, recognise that sometimes it is in the interests of those who have suffered strokes, heart disease or trauma to be able to go to the best specialist services available, with the best paramedic care.

May I congratulate my right hon. Friend and the Government on the patience that they have shown in helping to bring about the restoration of devolution in Northern Ireland? May I also congratulate all of the parties in Northern Ireland on having the courage to take hold of the power that the people in Northern Ireland have placed in their hands? Does my right hon. Friend agree that alongside power goes responsibility, including the responsibility to set a reasonable level of public expenditure?

I agree entirely with what my right hon. Friend says and I thank him for his thanks to me and others engaged in that. I would however like to give my thanks to those who have shown such leadership in Northern Ireland and to the people who have shown and decided in the recent election that they want a future for Northern Ireland in which people from different perspectives can come together and share power on the basis of peace. That is a sensible and lasting solution for the people of Northern Ireland and I know that it is one that enjoys broad support across the United Kingdom.

May I join the right hon. Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth) in congratulating the Prime Minister on bringing the negotiations to a successful conclusion and also those who are taking part in power sharing? It has been difficult for them, but they are doing a brave and, I believe, a great thing.

There can be no excuse for Iran taking our Royal Navy personnel captive in Iraqi waters and holding them prisoner. They should be released immediately. The Prime Minister said that negotiations were entering “a different phase”. While he clearly must not say anything that jeopardises our personnel, can he tell us what that might involve?

I am sure that it is the position of everyone in this House that our thoughts are with our servicemen and the servicewoman and their families. Their safe return is our paramount concern.

However, let me be very clear as to what has happened here. These personnel were patrolling in Iraqi waters under a United Nations mandate. Their boarding and checking of the Indian merchant vessel was routine. There was no justification whatever, therefore, for their detention; it was completely unacceptable, wrong and illegal. We had hoped to see their immediate release. This has not happened. It is now time to ratchet up the diplomatic and international pressure in order to make sure that the Iranian Government understand their total isolation on this issue.

This morning, we published the details of the exact co-ordinates and position of our forces when detained. They were 1.7 nautical miles within Iraqi territorial waters. The master of the civilian merchant vessel has confirmed this. Initially, on Saturday, the Iranian Government gave us their co-ordinates for the incident. Those co-ordinates turned out to confirm that the vessel was indeed within Iraqi waters. After this was pointed out to them, they subsequently gave a different set of co-ordinates, this time within Iranian waters.

We are now in contact with all our key allies and partners to explain the incontrovertible fact that the seizure of the 15 British personnel was utterly without foundation and to step up the pressure on the Iranian Government to deliver their immediate release.

I know that the whole House, and I believe the country, will be grateful for that very full answer. As the Prime Minister said, our service personnel were operating under a UN mandate. Does he agree that, as a result, the UN should make it crystal clear to Iran that the present situation is completely unacceptable? Can he tell us the steps that he is taking to mobilise support in the UN and among our allies in the EU and NATO, and among sympathetic Gulf states, to maximise the pressure on Iran?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his support. We have been speaking extensively to all our key allies and partners. I spoke this morning to Prime Minister Erdogan of Turkey, who has been in touch with the Iranian Government. The German Chancellor this afternoon in her speech to the European Parliament will speak on behalf of the European Union, as Germany has the presidency, and make it clear that the European Union as a whole finds the situation entirely unacceptable and believes that these people should be released. We are also in close contact with our partners and other members of the United Nations Security Council, and of course, next week the UK assumes the presidency of the UN Security Council.

We are in touch with everyone within Europe, NATO, the United Nations and our key allies in the Gulf region. We will do everything we can to make the Iranian Government realise that this is a situation that can only result in one sensible and fair outcome—the release of people who were merely doing their job under a United Nations mandate.

The Prime Minister says that there is absolutely no doubt that when our service personnel were taken, they were in Iraqi territorial waters. Given that UK forces are operating all the time in Iraqi waters and they are all operating under a UN mandate, will he make sure that they have clear rules of engagement? [Interruption.]

No, I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman has raised the issue of rules of engagement, because I think that it is important that we deal with it. First, I should make it absolutely clear that the rules of engagement do allow our forces to take whatever measures are necessary in their own self-defence. However, in my view, it was entirely sensible that those on the spot conducted themselves and behaved in the way that they did. They were coming down off the merchant civilian vessel, having checked it, and they were then surrounded by six Iranian vessels, which were heavily armed. If they had engaged in military combat at that stage, there would undoubtedly have been severe loss of life. I think that they took the right decision and did what was entirely sensible. Of course, we always keep the rules of engagement under constant review to make sure that we are carrying out our functions and protecting our people properly, but my understanding is that those who were out there and patrolling these waters believed that the rules of engagement are right.

It is important that we understand one other additional fact: by the time HMS Cornwall knew that our forces had been detained unlawfully by the Iranians, they were in Iranian waters, and again military engagement would have put a lot of lives at risk. I think that they took the right decision, and it is important that such decisions are left to people on the ground.

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the tax-and- spend policies of the Scottish National party for the coming Scottish Parliament elections, which would cost hard-working families in Scotland £5,000 each? What advice does he have for those who are tempted to follow the SNP into the abyss of separation, divorce and the break-up of the United Kingdom?

May I add my congratulations to those who have been responsible for making such progress in Northern Ireland?

In relation to Iran, I content myself simply by offering my support to the Government in their efforts to ensure the early release of our marines and sailors.

Why is it, as the Government’s own report demonstrated this week, that the poorest fifth of people in this country have a lower share of national income than they did in 1997?

As I was trying to point out to the right hon. and learned Gentleman last week, we have raised some 600,000 children out of relative poverty, and, I think, almost 2 million out of absolute poverty, but the percentage rise in incomes for the bottom 40 per cent., between 1979 and 1997, was way below that of the top 40 per cent. That has been reversed over the past few years, and a combination of a strong economy, tax credits and the minimum wage have delivered, for the first time in years, real reductions in poverty.

If the Prime Minister will not answer that question, perhaps I might try another. After last week’s Budget, does he accept that those earning less than £18,500 a year who are not eligible for tax credits will have to pay an increase in income tax? How fair is that?

Again, if I could ask the right hon. and learned Gentleman to look at the matter in the round, over the past 10 years those families have seen their income rise in percentage terms by more than the top people. [Interruption.] The Tories may shout, but they opposed every one of the measures to reduce poverty in our country. As a result of the investment in tax credits, families with children, in particular, have benefited enormously over the past few years. I agree with the right hon. and learned Gentleman that we have to do even more. That is why the measures announced by the Chancellor will actually take an additional 200,000 children out of poverty. All the time, as the economy grows, we have to put even more resources into tackling child poverty. This Government are doing it; the last Conservative Government did not.

As a result of last week’s Budget, by 2009 Scottish families will, on average, be £200 a year better off, and for poorer families the figure rises to £350. What does my right hon. Friend think will happen to the income of those same families if, by 2009, Scotland has embarked on the road to independence?

There is no doubt at all that the problem is not merely that taking Scotland out of the United Kingdom will lead to a huge economic risk for Scotland and for Scottish industry, which is so closely connected with the UK economy, but the fact that the tax and spending plans of the SNP would mean that families would be £5,000 a year worse off. In addition, the SNP has a 3p local income tax, which would also deliver lower living standards for precisely the people whom my hon. Friend is talking about.

Q2. Yesterday, I read that Sir Alistair Graham said that the Prime Minister had “undermined trust” in politicians and had “failed on ethical standards”, and that radical changes are needed to the ministerial code. In view of that, does he feel qualified to offer his successor advice on reviewing the code, given the lamentably low standards of public probity that the Prime Minister has presided over in the past 10 years? (130081)

I am afraid that I completely and totally disagree with Sir Alistair Graham. He is entitled to his opinion, but I am entitled to mine.

The Government have done a superb job in regenerating our inner cities, but is it not now time to put the same energy, commitment and resources into regenerating British seaside resorts such as Morecambe and Blackpool?

I agree that it is indeed important that we regenerate our seaside resorts. That is precisely why the regeneration package for Blackpool, for example, is so important, but all our seaside resorts benefit from a strong economy that has seen low interest rates, low unemployment and high employment, and not the disastrous boom and bust policies of the 18 years before us.

In his Budget, the Chancellor put up the rate of corporation tax faced by every small business in the country. Why?

Because overall it was better for business that we cut—[Interruption.] Yes, overall it was better for business that we cut the level of corporation tax, and we have now taken it down from 33p in the pound to 28p in the pound. We have also taken capital gains for small businesses down from 40 per cent. to 10 per cent., and that is why there has been such growth in small businesses in the past 10 years.

Someone needs to tell the Prime Minister that there are two rates of corporation tax, and the one for small businesses is going up. It will be paid by every firm in the country. When it comes to large companies, the Chancellor followed our advice and cut the rate and simplified the system, but when it comes to small companies, he did the opposite—he increased the rate and he has made the system more complicated—so why is he punishing small firms?

We are not punishing small firms. As I just pointed out to the right hon. Gentleman, as a result of the tax measures that the Chancellor has announced over the years—[Interruption.] Actually, according to the international surveys, the United Kingdom became the biggest recipient of foreign direct investment of any country in the world. [Interruption.] Well, small business also benefit from that, and if we look, for example, at the rate paid on capital gains by small business, when we came to power it was 40 per cent. We took it down to 10 per cent., which is a huge boost for small business. Let me say something else to the right hon. Gentleman: small businesses, like large businesses, benefit from a strong economy. Over the past 10 years, we have delivered a strong economy. The only experience that he has had as someone running our economy—[Interruption.]—yes, it was being present on Black Wednesday: hardly a great recommendation.

What business is interested in are the tax rates that it is going to have to pay now, and they are going up. The Prime Minister quotes the foreign direct investment figures, but does he not know that half of that is accounted for by one company—Shell—undergoing restructuring? Perhaps he ought to bother to read the Budget. The Forum of Private Business said that it would “further burden” them. The British Chambers of Commerce says that it is

“damaging for small and medium sized business”.

The Federation of Small Businesses said that those businesses feel “dismay”, and two thirds of small businesses say that the Budget will have a damaging effect. I choose to believe them, rather than him. The right hon. Gentleman has only 12 weeks left as the First Lord of the Treasury. Instead of the pointless search for the Environment Secretary’s backbone, why does he not use that power and withdraw that tax hike?

The reason why we got into the economic problems that we did when the right hon. Gentleman was working at the Treasury was that the last Conservative Government promised tax cuts and spending rises at the same time. What is his proposal now? Exactly the same—tax cuts and spending rises, which will lead, as they did then, to precisely the same result. We have a very, very clear choice between a Chancellor who has delivered the strongest economy on record—

Order. There is a lot of shouting. Mr. Stuart, you are doing very well at the shouting, so perhaps you can be quiet and set us all a good example.

As I said, we have a choice between a Chancellor who has the strongest economic record of any Chancellor in any main country over the past 10 years and a Conservative party that was a disaster economically when it was last in power and would be a disaster again if it ever got its hands back on the economy.

May I tell the Prime Minister that businesses in my constituency have welcomed the Budget enthusiastically, with the reduction in corporation tax, and that individuals in the constituency, particularly pensioners, have welcomed the increase in the threshold for tax and savings. However, there is deep concern among a number of my constituents that that economic prosperity will not prevail. What reassurance can the Prime Minister give me that after May constituents will not be faced with extra taxes, and that we will ensure the continuation of that prosperity?

Of course, as my right hon. Friend rightly implies, the single most important thing for all businesses is a strong and stable economy. The thing that wrecked so many businesses in the late 1980s and early 1990s was the second recession under the Conservatives. It is important to keep that stability going, which is why we reject the tax and spending policies of the Conservatives. Also, what would be a disaster for local business in Scotland is a 3p on income tax local rate.

Q3. Last week’s Budget cost Britain’s charities £70 million a year in Gift Aid. The Chancellor did not mention that in his Budget speech, he failed to mention it in the Red Book, and he failed to mention it in any of the Budget documentation. Was the Prime Minister informed, and does he approve? (130082)

I approve entirely of the Budget. Over the past few years, as a result of what the Chancellor has done, we have given enormous support to charities—[Interruption.] Oh yes, and what is more, we will give further support to charities in one very important way. We will allow charities to perform much more of the tasks previously done by the traditional public sector—for example, in the management of offenders. The hon. Gentleman and his colleagues voted against that when the Bill came before the House.

My right hon. Friend will be aware that by next year NHS spending will have tripled since the Government came to office. We have 85,000 more nurses and 32,000 more doctors. [Interruption.] Is it not true that the NHS is safe in this Government’s hands?

Opposition Members were asking, “Where has the money gone?” Let me tell them. We now have the lowest waiting lists and lowest waiting times on record. When we first came to office, people were often dying while waiting for their operation on the national health service. Today, they get it. We have had 100,000 fewer deaths from heart disease. That is where the money has gone. We are saving tens of thousands of lives in better and faster cancer treatment. That is where the money has gone, and it has gone, yes, in better pay for nurses, doctors and consultants—proposed by us and opposed by the Conservatives.

Q4. While the Prime Minister plans his lecture tour, is he aware that many servicemen and women whom he has committed to active tours overseas have returned in a traumatised state to barracks, alongside troops training to go on active deployment to the very same theatres? With five years until Selly Oak is fully operational, he surely still has the time to delay closure of the Royal Naval hospital Haslar next week, and to commission specialist military units in designated hospitals to provide proper treatment to our troops. (130083)

What the hon. Gentleman says is not correct. It does nothing for the morale of our armed forces for it to be said that they are not getting proper treatment—[Interruption.] Perhaps he will just listen to me for a moment. It is important for our forces that their families are not worried by completely inaccurate stories that their loved ones do not get the proper care that they should have. If the hon. Gentleman visits Selly Oak, staff there will tell him exactly what they are doing, with a military managed ward and the best specialist care. They will also explain to him why the decision taken by the last Conservative Government, though rightly, to close down Haslar is necessary and correct, because of the degree of specialist treatment that the troops need when they are severely injured. It is not correct to say that they are not getting excellent care from the Defence Medical Services, which are superb, and also from the general NHS staff, who are utterly dedicated.

No one wants too much central Government control, but what can we do about Conservative county councils like Kent, which has just squandered £300,000 supporting an airline that never took off, wants to set up a television station of its own, and is paying its chief executive more money than the Prime Minister?

That is an interesting thought for the future. Let me say to my hon. Friend that there is a very clear remedy in those circumstances, which is to vote Labour in the local elections.

Q5. The Prime Minister just talked about better and faster cancer treatment. The Royal College of Radiologists says that cancer victims should receive radiotherapy treatment within four weeks of having an operation. A constituent of mine who has been a nurse in the NHS for 40 years was operated on January and is now having to wait 12 weeks before she gets her radiotherapy treatment—a common waiting time in Kent. Can he explain why, in this vital life-saving area into which he has poured lots of public money, things for my constituents are getting worse, not better? (130084)

Obviously, I cannot comment on the individual case because I do not know about it, but I am happy to look into it. Given that the health service treats 1 million people every 36 hours, I am not suggesting, in any shape or form, that there are not people who do not get the care that they deserve or do not still have to wait too long. However, let me point out that within the hon. Gentleman’s strategic health authority there are over 4,000 more nurses, 600 more consultants, 400 more GPs, and 450 more dentists, if I may say. Moreover, there has been a massive investment in the health service that has meant that overall, whereas thousands of people used to wait 12 months, 18 months or more, now virtually no one waits more than six months.

I am happy to look into the individual case that the hon. Gentleman mentions, but the fact is that the whole business of waiting and access to the health service over the past 10 years has been transformed. We need to go further, and we will—by the end of next year, we will have an 18-week maximum waiting time for in-patients and out-patients, including diagnostics, and an average of seven to eight weeks, in effect ending traditional waiting in the national health service. There may still be cases, which are obviously wrong if they exist, where people are waiting too long, but it is surely important to balance that up with the overall picture, which is immensely positive.

In a statement to mark the 50th anniversary of the European Union, the Pope said that Europe’s moral, cultural and historical values were forged by Christianity, that the EU was denying those facts, and that any detachment from its Christian roots by Europe was a form of apostasy, not only from God but from itself. As a leading Christian in this place, would my right hon. Friend care to comment on the Pope’s view?

Frankly, I would not. I do not think that the Pope needs me as his spokesman, so it is better that he makes his statement and I make mine. I would say that we should be immensely proud of the values represented by the European Union, where we now have a unified Europe, east and west. Without in any way detracting from our firm, independent sovereignty as a nation, I think that the European Union has been good for this country over the past 30 years and good for Europe over its lifetime.

Q6. Does the Prime Minister accept that a commitment to exclusively peaceful means must of necessity include the dismantling of all terrorist structures, including the IRA army council? (130085)

The Independent Monitoring Commission is the body that is charged with deciding whether that commitment to exclusively peaceful and non-violent means is being adhered to. As the hon. Gentleman will know, it has a further report coming in the next few weeks. However, it has made its statement that the IRA is indeed abiding by that principle, and I think that it has the people best placed to make the judgment.

Q7. My right hon. Friend will recall that on 21 March 1993 the IRA exploded two bombs in Bridge street in Warrington, killing Johnathan Ball and Tim Parry. My close friends, Colin and Wendy Parry, have worked tirelessly over the past 14 years to build community relations in Northern Ireland and in the Republic of Ireland, and have made a unique contribution to the peace process. May I ask my right hon. Friend to redouble his efforts and work very closely with the right hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley), the Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Adams), my hon. Friend the Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) and the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) to ensure that the foundations that were laid on Monday result in a permanent peace in Northern Ireland and that Johnathan and Timothy did not die in vain? (130086)

I pay tribute to what my hon. Friend has done on this issue over the years. Now is an appropriate moment, even as we look forward in Northern Ireland, to remember Johnathan Ball, Tim Parry and also Bronwyn Vickers, who I believe was injured in the explosion and died some time later. We extend our sympathy to the families of all the victims of the troubles. In respect of Colin and Wendy Parry, they have shown a quite extraordinary spirit of forgiveness and determination to promote reconciliation. They can be very proud of the work that they have done over the years. It is interesting that the spirit that they represent has, ultimately, triumphed over hatred, discord and conflict. Surely that should give us hope for the future.

May I strike a note of consensus with the Prime Minister? On Monday, he said that the election campaign in Scotland was going “brilliantly”—I agree with him. In his latest brilliant foray into Scotland, he attacked Sir George Mathewson, the former chairman of the Royal Bank of Scotland as being “self-indulgent” and suggested that he was not a “real” business man. Will the Prime Minister tell me what is the more self-indulgent—someone of vast experience who speaks up for independence as being good for the Scottish economy and society, or is it someone who proffers vast loans in the hope of buying a seat in the House of Lords?

I did not criticise Sir George as a business man at all, but I criticised his view on independence, which I am entitled to do. Let me explain to the hon. Gentleman why I believe that separation is so wrong. Scotland benefits from the Union, just as England benefits from it. We are able to have a stronger Scottish economy with 200,000 more jobs and Scottish unemployment below the UK average for the first time in a generation. The hon. Gentleman’s policies would not just tear Scotland out of the United Kingdom—[Interruption.]

Order. The hon. Gentleman was heard because I allowed it; he will now listen to the Prime Minister.

Of course, the polls indicate that this is a real fight. People in Scotland will have to make up their minds whether they want the policy that the hon. Gentleman represents, which is separation—with all the risks that it entails, with tax and spending policies that would mean a £5,000 hit for average households and a 3p local income tax—or whether they want to continue with what has happened to the Scottish economy and living standards over the last 10 years, which has meant Scotland’s unemployment being below the UK average for the first time, 200,000 extra jobs and a booming Scottish economy. That is the choice and I look forward to debating with the hon. Gentleman from now until polling day.

Iranian Seizure of Royal Navy Personnel

I would like to make a statement about the current situation regarding the 15 British service personnel detained by Iranian forces on Friday of last week, and say that the Government are doing all they can to ensure that they are released immediately. I should say at once—I am sure I speak for the whole House—that our thoughts and prayers at this moment are with all our detained personnel in Iran and their families.

I would like to begin by explaining the facts of what happened last Friday and the actions we have taken since, and to share with the House some of the details about the location of the incident on which the Ministry of Defence briefed this morning. At approximately 0630 GMT on 23 March, 15 British naval personnel from HMS Cornwall were engaged in a routine boarding operation of a merchant vessel in Iraqi territorial waters in support of Security Council resolution 1723 and of the Government of Iraq. They were then seized by Iranian naval vessels.

HMS Cornwall was conducting routine maritime security operations as part of a multinational force coalition taskforce operating under a United Nations mandate at the request of the Iraqi Government. The taskforce’s mission was to protect Iraqi oil terminals and to prevent smuggling. The boarding party had completed a successful inspection of a merchant ship 1.7 nautical miles inside Iraqi waters when they and their two boats were surrounded by six Iranian vessels and escorted into Iranian territorial waters.

On hearing this news, I immediately consulted the Prime Minister and the Secretary State for Defence, and asked my permanent under-secretary to summon the Iranian ambassador to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. We set out our three demands to the ambassador: information on the whereabouts of our people; consular access to them; and to be told the arrangements for their immediate release. Cobra met that afternoon, as it has done every day since. On 24 March my colleague the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Lord Triesman, held a further meeting with the ambassador to repeat our demands. He has had several such meetings since that date.

At that first meeting the Iranian ambassador gave us, on behalf of his Government, the co-ordinates of the site where that Government claimed that our personnel had been detained. They were not, of course, where we believed that the incident took place but we took delivery of them as the statement of events of the Government of Iran. On examination, the co-ordinates supplied by Iran are themselves in Iraqi waters.

On Sunday 25 March, I spoke to Minister Mottaki, the Iranian Foreign Minister, as I did again yesterday. In my first conversation, I pointed out that not only did the co-ordinates for the incident as relayed by HMS Cornwall show that the incident took place 1.7 nautical miles inside Iraqi waters, but that the grid co-ordinates for the incidents that the Iranian authorities had provided to our embassy on Friday 23 March and to Lord Triesman on Saturday 24 March also showed that the incident had taken place in Iraqi waters. I suggested to the Iranian Foreign Minister that it appeared that the whole affair might have been a misunderstanding which could be resolved by immediate release.

In Iran, our ambassador, Geoffrey Adams, has met senior Iranian officials on a daily basis to press for immediate answers to our questions. He has left the Iranian authorities in no doubt that there is no justification for the Iranians to have taken the British Navy personnel into custody. He has provided the grid co-ordinates of the incident which clearly showed that our personnel were in Iraqi waters and made it clear that we expect their immediate and safe return. I should tell the House that we have no doubt either about the facts or about the legitimacy of our requirements.

When our ambassador and my colleague Lord Triesman followed up with the Iranian authorities on Monday 26 March, we were provided with new, and—I quote—“corrected” grid co-ordinates by the Iranian side, which now showed the incident as having taken place in Iranian waters. As I made clear to Foreign Minister Mottaki when I spoke to him yesterday, we find it impossible to believe, given the seriousness of the incident, that the Iranians could have made such a mistake with the original co-ordinates, which, after all, they gave us over several days.

There has inevitably been much international interest in the situation, particularly given our personnel’s role in a multinational force operating under a UN mandate. I have spoken to a number of international partners, including the American Secretary of State Rice, the Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan and the Saudi Foreign Minister, Prince Saud. We have also been keeping other key international partners informed, and I am pleased to be able to tell the House that many of them have chosen to lobby the Iranians or to make statements of support. I am particularly grateful to my colleague Hoshyar Zebari, the Iraqi Foreign Minister, who has confirmed publicly that the incident took place in Iraqi waters, and called for the personnel, who are acting in Iraq’s interests, to be released.

The Iranians have assured us that all our personnel are being treated well. We will hold them to that commitment and continue to press for immediate release. They have also assured us that there is no linkage between this issue and other issues—bilateral, regional or international—which I welcome. However, I regret to say that the Iranian authorities have so far failed to meet any of our demands or to respond to our desire to resolve this issue quickly and quietly through behind-the-scenes diplomacy.

That is why we have today chosen to respond to parliamentary and public demand for more information about the original incident, and to get on the public record both our and the Iranian accounts, to demonstrate the clarity of our position and the force of the Prime Minister’s words on Sunday 25 March when he said:

“there is no doubt at all that these people were taken from a boat in Iraqi waters. It is simply not true that they went into Iranian territorial waters, and I hope the Iranian Government understands how fundamental an issue this is for us. We have certainly sent the message back to them very clearly indeed. They should not be under any doubt at all about how seriously we regard this act, which is unjustified and wrong.”

The House might also be aware that, even if the Iranian Government mistakenly believed that our vessels had been in Iranian waters, under international law warships have sovereign immunity in the territorial sea of other states. The very most that Iran would have been entitled to do, if it considered that our boats were breaching the rules on innocent passage, would have been to require the ship to leave its territorial waters immediately.

We will continue to pursue vigorously our diplomatic efforts with the Iranians to press for the immediate release of our personnel and equipment. As Members of the House will appreciate, with sensitive issues such as these—as with the recent Ethiopian case—getting the balance right between private, but robust, diplomacy and meeting the House’s and the public’s justified demand for reliable information is a difficult judgment. I am very grateful for the support that the foreign affairs spokesmen of other parties, you, Mr. Speaker, and others in the House have given us over the past few days, and I hope that that will continue.

As the Prime Minister indicated yesterday, however, we are now in a new phase of diplomatic activity. That is why the Ministry of Defence has today released details of the incident, and why I have concluded that we need to focus all our bilateral efforts during this phase on the resolution of the issue. We will, therefore, be imposing a freeze on all other official bilateral business with Iran until the situation is resolved. We will keep other aspects of our policy towards Iran under close review and continue to proceed carefully. But no one should be in any doubt about the seriousness with which we regard these events.

I thank the Foreign Secretary for her statement. When she demands the safe and swift return of our Royal Navy personnel, she has the united support of the House. We support the Government in the firm but measured approach that they have adopted so far, as well as the announcement that she has just made about the freezing of other bilateral business.

Clearly the seizure of our personnel was unjustified, and the evidence that the Foreign Secretary and the Ministry of Defence have presented shatters the credibility of any claim that our personnel were operating in Iranian waters. The Government are right to use every diplomatic channel, and to have avoided early escalation of the matter beyond the publication of the evidence and what she has said in her statement. If this turns into a protracted dispute, this country is placed in the strongest moral and legal position by having approached the issue in this way. Is it not vital for Iran to understand that such actions only damage its standing in international opinion? This country’s response must be one that increases its international support.

I commend our forces for the difficult and dangerous tasks that they are undertaking in Iraq and its territorial waters, under a clear UN mandate, and in support of the stability of that country. I also welcome the Government’s action to keep the families of those involved—who are very much in our thoughts, as the Foreign Secretary has said—fully informed.

Can the Foreign Secretary say what justification was given by the Iranian ambassador or Foreign Minister for their failure to provide consular access to our personnel, or to reveal their location? Is it not unacceptable that British officials have not been given access to them? Has she received any indication of when that will finally take place? Have the Government managed to ascertain exactly who is believed to be holding them in custody? In their communications with the Iranian authorities, will the Government make it absolutely clear that any repeat of the mistreatment experienced by the British marines held by Iran in 2004 will be viewed with the utmost seriousness in this country?

The Government will be aware of speculation that some in Iran view the detention of British personnel as an asset that can be traded in for concessions. Have any demands been made by Iran—the Foreign Secretary did not mention any in her statement—in relation to their capture?

Can the Foreign Secretary indicate what effect, if any, the incident has had on the ability of British naval forces to continue to operate in Iraqi waters? On the rules of engagement, will she and the Defence Secretary be able to assure the House that any changes requested by those commanding our forces will be granted?

Three years ago, eight British personnel were seized by Iran from the Shatt al-Arab on the ground that they had violated Iranian waters. Will the Foreign Secretary say what conclusions were drawn from that experience? In particular, was any understanding sought with Iran, or offered by it, about the waters in which British naval forces operate, and about the fact that such operations pose no threat to the Iranian state? Will the Ministry of Defence look again at its configuration of forces in the area, so that the forces undertaking these tasks are fully protected, or better protected, or better able to deter interference with their activities?

We support what the Prime Minister has said about British efforts moving into a different phase. If agreement to release the personnel is not forthcoming in the coming days, will not the correct way to pursue their release be multilateral and through the UN, since Britain is operating under a UN mandate? Will the Government take all necessary steps to ensure that if the situation endures we will have the maximum support from the UN Security Council and the EU, which has very extensive trading and financial links with Iran and our many friends in the region? In that way, the greatest possible degree of international unity can be brought to bear.

Finally, the international effort to convince the Iranian Government to suspend their nuclear programme and return to negotiations passed an important milestone on Saturday, with the agreement of a Security Council resolution widening UN sanctions against Iran. Will the Foreign Secretary assure the House that that separate matter will in no way weaken our resolve, or that of other nations, to enforce those UN sanctions, so that nuclear proliferation in the middle east can be resisted?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his response to the statement, and for his concern. I am grateful for the very welcome co-operation that he has willingly given. He asked what justification had been given for withholding consular access and information about the location of our personnel, and so on. Nothing that I could call justification has been given. All that has been said is that investigations are continuing. I spoke to the Iranian Foreign Minister yesterday, and he said for the first time that consular access would not be given until the investigations were completed. Prior to that, delivery had been taken of the request for consular access, but no commitment had been given. We have been given no clear indication as to where or by whom our personnel are being held. I share entirely, as I am sure does the whole House, the right hon. Gentleman’s observation about the grave concern with which we would view any mistreatment.

To date no demands have been made by the Government of Iran. What has been said is that this is a technical but very grave breach of Iran’s borders, and that investigations into it are continuing. We do not judge that it will make a difference to how our people operate, but the right hon. Gentleman is right to say that if the commanders on the ground were to seek a change in the rules of engagement—which they have not done—that would be treated with the utmost seriousness.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about a range of people. We have contacted everyone we can think of who might have an influence, and sought to get them to bring that influence to bear. He may be aware that the Foreign Minister of Germany, which has the EU presidency at the moment, recently made a statement on behalf of the EU. I therefore assure the House that we will pursue every avenue and channel to try to bring this matter to a satisfactory conclusion.

May I echo the thanks to the Foreign Secretary expressed by the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) for coming to the House to make this statement? I also thank her for all the information that she and her officials have made available to us.

We share the Government’s anger and concern about this illegal abduction of UK service personnel. Our thoughts are with them and their families. It is outrageous that Iran has compounded its serious breach of international law by refusing even to confirm where the marines and sailors are held, never mind allowing the basic humanitarian requirement of consular access. This episode has been an epic misjudgement by Iran.

Does the Foreign Secretary believe that the episode is a one-off, designed to test British attitudes, or part of a deliberate strategy to ramp up pressure against all the coalition forces in the region? We understand that there is constant Iranian activity in those waters, but can she say whether there has been any change in the pattern since the illegal seizure last week?

On the diplomatic front, given Iran’s many complex political layers, can the Foreign Secretary tell us on which levels British diplomatic efforts are focused? As part of moving into the different phase, what formal assistance has been offered or is available from our European, American and other international partners?

Will the Foreign Secretary re-emphasise that nobody in Britain will accept links to any other issues—or, indeed, anything other than the swift return of the British service personnel and full Iranian compliance with all Iran’s international obligations?

I thank the hon. Gentleman, too, for his co-operation and that of his colleagues. There is no indication of whether this is a one-off event, or of the significance that it might have. We are not aware of any change in the pattern of Iranian behaviour in the Gulf. The right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) asked about the Iran nuclear file. The incident took place close to the vote in the Security Council but, I repeat, the Iranians have told us that they are not making a link between that and any other issue. I assure him and the House that that will make no difference to our determination. Indeed, it is a constant source of astonishment to me that it seems not to dawn on some of the authorities in Iran that behaving in that manner increases rather than diminishes people’s concern about how they would behave if they had a nuclear weapon.

The hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (Mr. Moore) asked me at what level we were operating. The answer is: at every level we can—official level and ministerial. Everywhere where there are levers to pull, we are pulling them. I am delighted to say that we have been offered wholehearted and strong support from our many allies to whom we have spoken. They have all expressed grave concern and been willing to try help in dealing with the Iranians. Indeed, they have done that.

I thank my right hon. Friend for coming to the House and making the statement. The Government should be commended by hon. Members of all parties for their approach to seeking the release of our forces, who were illegally seized by the Iranians. I echo her point about nuclear weapons. Many people will consider the Iranian action provocative and aggressive. More people around the globe will treat it as that the longer the Iranians refuse our legitimate demands for the release of our service people.

My right hon. Friend is right to say that that concern exists. The genuine gravity with which all those to whom my colleagues and I have spoken received the news, especially once we could explain clearly to them the strength of the evidence that we hold, was noticeable. Clearly, everyone was thinking through the implications of that behaviour for the whole international community.

All of us here fully understand the difficulties that the Foreign Secretary and her colleagues experience in dealing with the dysfunctional, pariah organisation of a Government in Iran. May I take her back to an earlier part of her statement, in which she mentioned support from others, including the United Nations? Is she confident, given the importance of speedy resolution, that the European Union and the United Nations would be prepared, at short notice, to step up to severe levels of sanction and embargo as a consequence of the action in Iran, and let Iran know in advance that that is where matters are heading if a speedy withdrawal does not occur?

As the right hon. Gentleman will appreciate, all those issues are under discussion. We are anxious to proceed in a way that will encourage Iran to realise that, as we have urged from the beginning, the best way to resolve the matter is speedily and peacefully. The presidency of the EU has made a statement. A meeting of European Union Foreign Ministers, which I shall attend, takes place this weekend. We will discuss those matters then. We are considering, through our mission in New York, whether there are ways in which we wish to raise the matter through the UN system.

I thank my right hon. Friend for coming to the House. We all wish for a speedy and successful resolution to the matter. Many serving and former serving naval personnel live in my constituency, and they understand only too well what the families of the detained personnel are going through. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we should emphasise the importance of the reason for the Royal Navy’s presence in the first place? It was not only protecting oil platforms that provide the income for the reconstruction of Iraq, but preventing any possibility of sabotage, which would have horrendous environmental consequences for the whole Gulf.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her remarks. I know that she speaks for her constituents. She is right about the environmental problems that could be caused by action in that part of the Gulf. However, as I am sure that she and other hon. Members know, approximately 85 per cent. of Iraq’s gross national product passes through that gateway. That is why those involved are acting not only in the interests of the Government and people of Iraq, but on behalf of the United Nations.

As our forces in the Gulf are operating under a United Nations Security Council resolution, Iran’s action is a breach not only of international maritime law but of that resolution. I do not understand why the Government’s first action was not to go straight back to the Security Council and secure a resolution ordering Iran to return our personnel whom it captured.

We chose first to deal with the issue bilaterally, and in a way that we hoped would be most speedily effective. Obviously we will consider the matters that the hon. Gentleman raises.

I thank the Foreign Secretary for her statement. In her discussions with the Iranian authorities, have they sought at any stage to raise the wider issue of sanctions imposed against Iran because of the dispute over its alleged nuclear developments?

No, the Iranians have not raised those issues. I say to my hon. Friend, with great respect, that the “allegation” comes from the International Atomic Energy Agency.

May my colleagues and I associate ourselves with the position of establishing international relations to try to bring the matter to a speedy and satisfactory conclusion? We give our wholehearted support to the Government’s endeavours to do that. Our thoughts and prayers are with the personnel and their families. The Foreign Secretary referred to getting the balance right between private and robust diplomacy. Will she assure hon. Members that there will be no attempt to go—or attraction towards going—down the route of accommodating any demands that Iran may make in trying to resolve the issue?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues for their support. Of course, we remain determined to try to ensure that the British Government’s policy is the policy that we should pursue. I repeat that up to now, the Iranians have not made demands. They have simply made an allegation, which we believe is now disproved, that their borders have been crossed.

May I add my words of appreciation to those of other hon. Members about the Government’s approach of attempting to avoid escalating confrontation? Our concerns must primarily be about the personnel who have been taken. All that the House can do at this time is offer its full support to the Government, and unite to provide maximum support for the Government’s endeavours. In addition, will my right hon. Friend say whether procedures have been reviewed to ensure that, as far as is practical, no ship can be isolated in such a way in future by any Iranian ship in the area?

I thank my hon. Friend for his remarks and his support. Of course we are considering all the implications of the matter. As for what he says about our handling of the matter in the initial stages, I even went so far as to point out to the Iranian Foreign Minister that the one thing that would certainly cause the British media lose all interest in the case would be the emergence of good news.

I commend the Foreign Secretary and the Foreign Office for the professional way in which they are trying to secure the release of the personnel. Does she accept that on past form Iran is unlikely to respond purely to diplomatic representations? Will she therefore discuss with other European Foreign Ministers, when she meets them this weekend, whether their countries, particularly France, Germany and Italy, would be willing perhaps privately to make it clear to the Iranian Government that, if they do not release the British personnel in the very near future, there will be a joint European response involving economic pressure and perhaps the temporary suspension of export credit guarantees to Iran?

I am grateful to the right hon. and learned Gentleman for his remarks, particularly in respect of my officials. I understand the point that he is making. It is not necessarily the case that Iran has not always responded primarily to diplomatic efforts. We will certainly keep those up at every level, but obviously I will discuss with my colleagues this weekend whether there are proposals that the EU can consider.

The only crumb of comfort in the Foreign Secretary's statement is that Iran officially is saying that there is no link with other issues. In her assessment, what link is actually being made in Iran with the arrest of the five Iranian diplomats at Christmas by the Americans, and with the 300 Iranians who are being held by the Americans? There appears to be a dispute between the State Department and the Pentagon about the merits of releasing some of those prisoners. Remarks have been attributed to General Petraeus, who has said that he is refusing to release them and that he intends to hold the prisoners

“until they run out of information or we run out of food”.

What is her assessment of the actual reasons for the seizure of our personnel? What is the popular mood in Iran?

Actually, there are two crumbs of comfort. One is that the Iranians also say that our personnel are fit and well and are being well looked after. Obviously, we very much hope that that is indeed the case. The hon. Gentleman asks me about other links. All I can say to him and to the House is that it was the Iranians who volunteered that they were not making any link between that and any other issues. Indeed, it was referred to more than once to me as a technical breach, but a very important technical breach. They are not making links; we would be unwise to do so.

I assure the Foreign Secretary that she has the full-hearted support of both Plaid Cymru and the Scottish National party in her efforts to bring about the early release of the sailors. Although we accept fully the Ministry of Defence’s account of the location of the ship, can she clarify that there is no ongoing dispute between the Iranian and Iraqi Governments about the exact location of the border?

No, there is none. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his remarks. There is no dispute between the Iranian and Iraqi Governments about the position of the border. Although I did not highlight this in my statement, the House will be aware that our account and our assertion that the ship and the personnel were in Iraqi waters is borne out by the captain of the merchant vessel that our personnel had finished inspecting and by an Iraqi fisherman in the area who first reported the incident.

I commend the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister on what they have told the House today. It is good that the House is united across all parties on the action that the Government are taking, but is not what has happened a very serious precedent? Is it not an act of piracy by a nation state? Not only is it an act of piracy, but the Iranians are denying the human rights of the naval personnel who are involved, in that they have denied them the right of access to consular and other authorities who may represent them. Are we in touch with the Russian President about the matter?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his remarks. Indeed, this is a very serious matter. As I indicated a few moments ago, it was most noticeable that, when we were discussing and explaining to colleagues from a variety of countries across the Gulf and beyond what had happened, everyone regarded this as a very dangerous and worrying precedent. I am not sure that anyone has yet spoken to the Russian President, but we are in touch with all allies and colleagues who we believe may be able to help.

There is no doubt that, while this incident has been going on, there have been at least two other incidents of explosive attacks against our troops in southern Iraq. Those devices seem to have come from across the Iranian border. Can the Foreign Secretary assure the House that we will continue to put pressure on Iran to stop that sort of behaviour to guard our soldiers' lives?

I can certainly give the hon. Gentleman and the House that assurance. We will not cease from maintaining what we believe to be the proper stance and approach to the issues that are raised by a variety of policies pursued by the Government of Iran.

The whole House supports the Government's strategy for recovering our personnel. The Foreign Secretary said that HMS Cornwall was part of a taskforce. Was it operating alone when the incident took place? Was close air support available?

I believe that HMS Cornwall was indeed alone. It has helicopters, so in that sense air support was available.

A year ago, when I visited HMS Bulwark, which was roughly in the same position as HMS Cornwall, I was told that we had completed our training of the Iraqi navy, which was to undertake the task of boarding parties. Why is it not performing the task of those boarding parties? Why are we continuing to do it with royal naval personnel?

I am not entirely sure whether the information that the hon. Gentleman has been given is entirely correct, but of course all the circumstances surrounding the matter will be reviewed as time goes on. However, he will understand that the first priority is the personnel themselves.

Will the Foreign Secretary have a word with the Secretary of State for Defence to ensure that in future no British forces operate in Iraqi waters—which are known to be extremely dangerous; past incidents proved that—unsupported and without appropriate protection and back-up? Could there not be other incidents in future—we very much hope not—and might this not be a dangerous precedent given that, possibly bearing in mind the current rules of engagement, there is no meaningful deterrent against the Iranians?

As I have said to a number of colleagues, all the circumstances of the case will of course be considered. There will be a careful review of the courses of action that the Government should pursue in future, but I repeat that the focus at present is on action on the diplomatic front to recover our personnel.

I thank the Minister for her extremely thorough statement, in which she said that she was assured that there was no link at all with other issues, bilateral, regional or international. However, my concern is that the President and his party have performed extremely poorly in domestic elections recently. What assessment has she made of the connection with that particular matter?

None, to be perfectly honest. Obviously, it is possible to speculate, but no real hints are being dropped and no demands are being made. It is said to be a one-off incident and we are treating it as such.

Although press and media freedom is important, has not it been completely irresponsible of elements of the British press and media to publish highly personal details about some of the individuals who have been captured by the Iranians, which inevitably will be used in their interrogation, when they will be without access to any of our consular facilities?

I can only share the concern expressed by the hon. Gentleman, which I think is felt across the House.

The Foreign Secretary will be aware that HMS Cornwall is based at Devonport naval base, which is part of Plymouth. Many of the 15 people will therefore be my constituents and those of the hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Alison Seabeck). Can she reassure us, particularly with the Secretary of State for Defence sitting beside her, that every possible support will be given to the families of those 15 personnel, who will be going through daily hell as the situation unfolds? Will she confirm that she either has or will make it clear that if any of those 15 are paraded in some public relations stunt on Iranian television, whether blindfolded or not, it will be seen as an act of the utmost provocation?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman and I know that he and my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Alison Seabeck) share concern for their constituents. We have tried to do what we can to support the families through a very difficult time. The Ministry of Defence has appointed a visits officer for each family and assigned a media shielder to try to help them to deal with the inevitable pressure, and particularly to deal with what may inevitably sometimes be inaccurate reporting. Further than that I would say only that, of course, all these issues are a matter of concern.

The hon. Gentleman raises the question of whether the personnel may be shown on Iranian television. There has been some hint that that might occur, and we have expressed grave concern. From the beginning, our meetings with the Iranian ambassador have included an expression of exactly the kind of concern that he identifies about treatment, humiliation and so on.

Points of Order

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Today at Prime Minister’s questions, the Prime Minister claimed that virtually no one was waiting more than six months for an NHS operation—

Order. That is not a point of order. The hon. Gentleman can seek clarification on such matters through, for example, parliamentary questions or an Adjournment debate. He cannot dissect through a point of order what the Prime Minister has done or has failed to do.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I am always grateful for your guidance. The Chancellor commissioned a comprehensive review of local taxation—the Lyons report, a more than 600-page tome—at great public expense to the British taxpayer. Having buried it on the day of the Budget, the Government have failed to give any idea of their response to that important report. I hope that you, Mr. Speaker, agree that that is unacceptable, and I wonder what you might be able to do to ensure that the Government give a proper response to the House on this very important report.

I will not be drawn into whether I agree with what a Minister says or otherwise. I am not allowed to support or criticise a Minister on anything with regard to his statement. I am not telling the hon. Gentleman what to do, but if he is unhappy about something, he and his parliamentary colleagues can make complaint by way of an early-day motion, he can take the matter up in Treasury questions, or he can table written questions for answer by Treasury Ministers.

BILL PRESENTED

Telecommunications Masts (Planning Control)

Andrew Stunell, supported by Tom Brake, Mr. Dan Rogerson, Lorely Burt, Annette Brooke, Mr. Mark Oaten and Mark Hunter, presented a Bill to amend the law relating to planning in connection with telecommunications masts and associated apparatus; to amend the electronic communications code in connection with telecommunications masts and associated apparatus and make further provision about that code; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 29 June, and to be printed [Bill 87].

Employment Assistance (Wales)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to empower the National Assembly for Wales to make provision about transport opportunities for long-term incapacity benefit claimants who have gained employment; and for connected purposes.

A couple of weeks ago the Minster for Employment and Welfare Reform came to my constituency to speak at an employment summit. Everyone who attended recognised that the Government, in partnership with the Welsh Assembly Government, had achieved enormous success in reducing unemployment in the south Wales valleys. In Wales as a whole there are now more people in work than ever before.

However, everyone at that meeting also agreed that there was still a lot to do if we are to achieve full employment. The pathways to work programme underlines the fact that the central task is successfully to tackle the issue of economic inactivity. Unfortunately, in the south Wales valleys, because of the legacy of heavy industry, a huge number of people are languishing on incapacity benefit. Those are people who were written off by the Tories when they decimated the coal industry and now this Government have the task of breathing new life once again into communities and individuals who have been ignored for so long. Let me be clear: we are not talking about people who are lazy or workshy, as some of the Tories would have it. These are proud people who have been treated with contempt by consecutive Conservative Governments. Our task today is to work with our people to provide support, encouragement and real opportunities.

Nowhere in Britain is the problem of economic inactivity more entrenched than in the area at the heads of the south Wales valleys. Recently, the Bevan Foundation indicated both the scale of the problem and some innovative ways forward. Undoubtedly, one of the problems in helping people off welfare and into work is the topography of the area. From Blaengwynfi in the west to Blaenavon in the east, there are what the writer Gwyn Thomas once called the gulches of south Wales—deep ravine-like valleys, running from north to south. The problem with such topography is twofold. First, it makes it very difficult for industry to locate, and secondly, it makes it very difficult for people to travel to work, especially if they have to travel east-west rather than north-south.

In one of the Welsh Assembly's Committees that looked at economic inactivity in Wales, the lack of transport was correctly identified as one of the main barriers to work. Transport was also referred to time and time again at the employment summit that I referred to earlier. Only the other day, a constituent explained to me how he was faced with the difficulty of travelling from his home in the village of Graig-y-Rhacca across the Rhymney valley to his place of employment just south of Ystrad Mynach. That is a classic example of how just one individual had difficulty in travelling east-west rather than north-south.

In many valley communities poor public transport is part of the fabric of life. A large number of communities do not have passenger rail links and in many cases buses do not service industrial estates and business parks. Where business parks are serviced, bus timetables rarely reflect shift-working patterns. Owning a car for many people is a practical necessity. Those unable to afford a car are frequently left immobile and isolated. Limited access to personal transport is a labour market barrier often cited by new deal participants.

In the long term, the answer is to improve public transport, and the Welsh Assembly Government, through their newly devolved powers, are working hard on that. In the short term, car ownership or access to cars is the only way to enable many people on benefit to secure employment. Of course we should be concerned about carbon emissions, but this is one of the rare cases where car ownership would have a positive social advantage.

In that respect, Working Links, a public-private partnership, is engaged in truly path-breaking work. In the valleys of south Wales, Wheels4Work and Wheels2Work are two unique loan schemes that provide cars, commercial vehicles and scooters free of charge to people requiring personal transport to enable them to get work. Today, the two initiatives have some 80 vehicles and have helped over 400 people into employment.

There is also the question of helping individuals who want to work when they have particular disabilities or conditions. I cite the example of a constituent of mine, Anthony Wilson. Anthony is a young man who suffers from epilepsy. He found a part-time job in the next valley and was supported by Jobcentre Plus, but Jobcentre Plus was unable to help him with his transport costs. Because of his condition he needed a taxi to get to and from work. Working Links was able to provide assistance and 12 months later Anthony Wilson is still in work. Fortunately, in my area we have Working Links, which complements the work of Jobcentre Plus, but it does not have contracts everywhere, so there are gaps that need to be filled.

One of the features of the past couple of years has been the increasingly positive partnership between the Department for Work and Pensions and the Welsh Assembly Government. My suggestion is that we need to consider how best to deepen that relationship; the will is there but we need to look into how the relevant legislation and regulations can be modified and fine-tuned to enhance the relationship. We need to consider in particular whether we need enabling legislation to allow the WAG to intervene in DWP programmes to provide more transport opportunities. Under the Government of Wales Act 2006, the National Assembly for Wales has the opportunity to propose legislation that can then be handled speedily by Parliament.

I hope that due consideration will be given to my proposals. Problems due to transport difficulties are more widespread in the south Wales valleys than in any other part of the country. Devolution is about finding particular solutions to particular problems. This is a problem particular to the south Wales valleys, which is why I propose that consideration be given to the Welsh Assembly gaining the ability to intervene more proactively in the welfare to work agenda.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Wayne David, Mr. Don Touhig, Ann Clwyd, Mr. Dai Havard, Nia Griffith, Chris Bryant, Julie Morgan, and Chris Ruane.

Employment Assistance (Wales)

Mr. Wayne David accordingly presented a Bill to empower the National Assembly for Wales to make provision about transport opportunities for long-term incapacity benefit claimants who have gained employment; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 19 October, and to be printed [Bill 88].

Communications Allowance

I beg to move,

(1) That this House approves the First Report of the Members Estimate Committee 2006-07 (HC 319) on a Communications Allowance, and is of the opinion that provision should be made with effect from 1st April 2007 for a Communications Allowance in accordance with paragraphs (2)–(4) below.

(2) The allowance shall be for the purpose of assisting Members with expenditure incurred wholly, exclusively and necessarily in communicating with the public on parliamentary business, and the scope of the allowance shall be as set out in the First Report of the Members Estimate Committee.

(3) The allowance shall be at a rate of £10,000 per year for each Member, uprated annually in line with any increase in the Retail Price Index.

(4) The detailed rules and guidance for the Allowance shall be determined and reviewed from time to time by the Members Estimate Committee.

With this we will take the motions on Notices of Questions, etc. During September, Select Committees (Reports) and Parliamentary Contributory Pension Fund.

If I may, I will begin by offering congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Paddy Tipping)—[Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”]—on his appointment earlier today by our right hon. Friend the Prime Minister as Deputy Leader of the House, in place of my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, South (Nigel Griffiths).

I should like to deal first with the three motions that are pretty uncontentious, Nos. 4, 5 and 6. The motion on notices of questions in September makes permanent the arrangements that we agreed on an experimental basis last September for taking written questions during September. They seemed to meet the approbation of the House, so I hope that Members find the motion acceptable.

I apologise to the Leader of the House for intervening so early in his speech, but will he clarify a point in the second paragraph of the motion? It states that the

“motion to appoint tabling days and answering days… may be made by a Minister of the Crown.”

I assume that means just one Minister, in fact the Leader of the House, and not that each Minister in each Department can set separate days.

It is indeed one Minister. The reason why the motion was worded in that way is that the precise days in September we need to prescribe will need to take account of such things as party conferences, but the Minister will be the Leader of the House.

Motion No. 5 relates to Select Committee report embargoes and extends the embargoed period allowed from 48 hours to 72 hours to take account of weekends, publication on a Monday or on a Tuesday after a bank holiday, and so on. I cannot believe that we will spend a lot of time on that motion.

Motion No. 6 makes provision for the appointment of a beneficiary from the Parliamentary Contributory Pension Fund to the trustees. Sir Graham Bright, whom many of us remember as a distinguished Member of the House, has been suggested by the Former Members Association, which does good work on behalf of former Members, and I hope that the House will accept that nomination.

I come now to the communications allowance. Last November, as the report on the communications allowance sets out in paragraph 1, the House resolved by a majority of 91 to agree the principle of instituting a communications allowance. The Members Estimate Committee was asked to bring forward more precise proposals for the House to approve, which are before us today. The Committee set out what an allowance should cover, how it should operate and a proposed level. It proposed an allowance for the purpose of assisting Members

“in the work of communicating with the public on parliamentary business”—

as agreed by the House in November, with the scope described in its report and subject to rules and guidance updated from time to time by the Committee. It proposed that the allowance should begin at a level of £10,000.

The purpose of the allowance is, above all, to contribute towards public understanding of what Parliament is for and what it does—something which, as the Committee highlighted, has become a high priority. In 2004, the Modernisation Committee observed:

“It is beyond the influence of the House of Commons, let alone this Committee, to arrest international trends of declining participation and trust. However… it can do more to make it easier for people to understand the work of Parliament, and it can do more to communicate its activity to the world outside.”

In 2005, the Hansard Society Commission, chaired by Lord Puttnam, declared:

“Parliament should be an accessible and readily understood institution, a Parliament that relates its work to the concerns of those in the outside world… Parliament must be viewed through a far more engaged and informed public eye.”

In 2006, the Power report concluded that

“it is widely felt that MPs do not engage with or listen to their constituents enough between elections”.

One does not have to sign up to every one of those propositions to accept the basic message that it is important for the health of our democracy for the public to know more about what we do. A survey commissioned last year by the Committee on Standards in Public Life found that although 85 per cent. of people believed that it was “extremely” or “very” important for MPs to explain the reasons for their actions, only 23 per cent. of people believed that most MPs actually do so.

Can the Leader of the House clear up a point that is troubling me? If my memory serves me correctly, the original proposals for the motion we are debating were made in the aftermath of the 2005 general election, when it was found that certain Members of Parliament had possibly abused the paid-for postal system to make mass mailings. Can he relate that to what is being proposed today and reassure the House that the motion is not a retrospective justification for that misbehaviour?

It is certainly no retrospective justification for any misbehaviour. The hon. Gentleman may be aware that the Committee on Standards and Privileges, chaired by his right hon. Friend who is sitting behind him—

As ever.

The Committee investigated at least one complaint, possibly two, about a Member. I think that it found against the complaint and made some observations about the operation of the system in respect of paid-for envelopes. Another decision will be made in parallel with the proposal today, if the House agrees it—Mr. Speaker has already indicated that he will cap the provision of paid-for envelopes at £7,000. As I shall spell out, it will not be possible for Members to use the communications allowance—if it is approved—to purchase additional paid-for envelopes. Although this is a matter of some controversy across the parties, not least my own, I accept—and I have done from the moment that I got this job—that it is unacceptable for there to be no limit on the amount for paid-for envelopes.

Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that there is a disconnect with the public and that it is important for MPs to communicate with their constituents who contact them? I have received a referendum signed by 8,500 of my constituents on Canvey Island against a major accident hazard site that is proposed for the island and which concerns them greatly. The referendum had a massive turnout of 68 per cent. of the total voting population of Canvey Island, and 99.5 per cent. of the people voted against the proposed liquefied natural gas plant. That is now going to appeal. I must write to all those people to tell them what happened to their petition and what they must do next to write to the inspector to make sure that their rights are upheld. That is 8,500 people I will have to write to perhaps twice this year. How am I going to be able to do that within the allowances?

As it happens, and as the hon. Gentleman knows, I know his constituency, including Canvey Island, well. There are probably a higher number of hazardous sites in his constituency than in any other constituency that I can think of, certainly in the south of England. We all need to be grateful, even though we do not realise it, to the constituents of Canvey Island, because it is through those sites that such vital services are provided to the rest of the country. I have been trying to do the mental arithmetic: £7,000 should provide 21,000 or so envelopes, which would still cover his requirements. However, in addition the Members Estimate Committee makes it clear in its recommendations that, in such circumstances, he would be able to write to people who had written to him by way of a petition, and he would be able to make use of the communications allowance in so doing if he wished. Overall, it is a better and a clearer system. The problem about the paid-for envelopes was that their use just grew. There has been no proved allegation of abuse of the system, but it cannot be acceptable for any particular budget item not to have a cap on it.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that, far from a justification for high spending, the proposed financial cap of £10,000 and £7,000 represents a significant reduction in the resources available to higher spending Members, if one relates the figures back to the Members’ allowance table for 2005-06, where some of our colleagues managed to exceed £30,000?

Higher spending Members.

I should say to the hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) that the great advantage of interventions—some would say the only advantage—is that one can get the truth from the officials’ Box in answer to a previous intervention while one is listening to the next one. The accurate answer to his question is that he could both use the communications allowance and top that up from the incidental expenses provision and, I am told, to a degree from staffing virement. So, he will be all right. I care about his constituents.

If the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) will allow me to make a little progress, I will then give way to her and the hon. Lady for somewhere in Worcestershire.

Bromsgrove—a fine place.

The communications allowance will assist Members with making the idea of Parliament and the work of its Members better understood. The Committee explains that the allowance would cover costs for Members of

“engaging proactively with their constituents through a variety of media.”

The Committee continues:

“It could be used for the production of unsolicited communications…to help Members inform their constituents about what they have been doing and to consult them on key issues”

of importance to them locally. In better facilitating lines of communication between MPs and the public, it is important that the allowance is set up in a way that means that it does not become a propaganda tool used to entrench the position of incumbents. I know that the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May), the shadow Leader of the House, is concerned about that.

While we are on the issue of incumbency, I will just say, because I am sure that we will hear a bit more about this matter—it is at the heart of any argument between us and the Opposition on this matter—it is a simple arithmetical fact that, irrespective of party, the Government party will have more incumbents than the Opposition party. However, as the right hon. Lady knows as a member of the Members Estimate Committee, we have worked hard to ensure that the measure is not there to entrench the position of incumbents. In anticipation of her making any partisan point, which I am sure she will not, I would also say that I do not remember concern about incumbency ever passing the lips of any Conservative Member of Parliament when they were sitting on the Government Benches for 18 years.

What I do remember in those 18 years is how often we in the Opposition pleaded for more Short money. All our applications for Short money were turned down. So if the right hon. Lady thinks that she is hard done by as a member of the shadow Cabinet, she should have tried being in the shadow Cabinet for the 10 years that I was there, between 1987 and 1997. I record—I am sure that she will wish to bring this out—the extraordinary selfless generosity of this Government in not doubling, not trebling, but almost quadrupling the amount of Short money from £1.6 million in 1997 to £6.3 million in 2006.

Will the Leader of the House confirm that in addition to the changes to the Short money, the Government have also introduced the policy development grant, which is available not only to Opposition parties, but to the Government?

I accept that, but that is neutral as between the parties, unlike the Short money. I am not complaining about the Short money.

I notice that my generosity has been such that my hon. Friend is suggesting that I should resign.

Yes, I am sure that there is an even greater role for my right hon. Friend in the months to come.

In the spirit of sheer partisanship, will my right hon. Friend comment on the fact that the other thing that happened in the 18 years under the Conservative party was a ballooning in the budget for the Central Office of Information, to the extent that every council tax payer and every ratepayer in my town and across the country had a delightful little leaflet explaining the advantages—

Order. We ought to confine ourselves to the matters immediately before the House.

Thank you very much, Mr. Deputy Speaker. We will pass lightly over that. I promised to give way to the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire.

On the subject of the sums that taxpayers will have to pay, the Leader of the House may remember that when we debated the issue on 1 November, I did some arithmetical calculations on the back on an envelope and suggested that

“the proposed allowance could be an additional £6 million of taxpayers’ money”.

His response was:

“I do not believe for a second that the net cost will be as the hon. Lady describes.” —[Official Report, 1 November 2006; Vol. 451, c. 312.]

However, we find in the booklet that has been produced by the Members Estimate Committee that

“it is estimated that the total annual cost of the Communications Allowance would be about £6 million.”

When the House voted on the matter last time, it was under the impression that the cost would be less. What is his opinion of that figure? It obviously was not too difficult to work out. It is a huge amount of taxpayers’ money and, in my view, it is not warranted.

The maximum gross cost is easy, arithmetically, to work out: it is 650 times £10,000. We can all do that sum, can we not? What I was disputing was the idea that people would spend up to the maximum. That is not the case for other allowances. I understand that, in general, other allowances are spent at the level of about 90 per cent.—I have just had semaphore confirmation of that from the Box. It also needs to be borne in mind that an estimate—these are only estimates; time will tell whether they are correct—has been made of a possible saving of £400,000 in respect of those who currently draw allowances above the £7,000 limit. Even if the cost were to be at the £6 million level, I happen to think that it would be money well spent. I quote in my support the hon. Member for Croydon, Central (Mr. Pelling)—a Conservative Member—who said in the debate on 1 November:

“It is too easy to dismiss the proposed allowance as extra money for Members of Parliament, when it is actually an initiative that would put a cap on irresponsible behaviour.”—[Official Report, 1 November 2006; Vol. 451, c. 381.]

I believe that.

I would like to refer to the Leader of the House’s previous answer. Although Members have not been found guilty of misusing their allowances, some have had to reimburse the Fees Office for envelopes that were used mistakenly. Why has the right hon. Gentleman chosen the amounts of £7,000 and £10,000 for these allowances? Were the figures pulled out of a hat?

Order. The right hon. Gentleman keeps referring to direct contact with the Box. We do not normally do that in the House.

And I should know that after a few months in this place. I will seek further elucidation from my deputy.

Let me answer the question asked by the hon. Member for Bromsgrove (Miss Kirkbride). I am not aware of any circumstances in which Members have been required to return envelopes, although that does not mean that they do not exist.

In the end, the setting of the allowance was a matter of judgment. We judged that the sum was relatively modest and reasonable. The decision on advising Mr. Speaker—this is his decision, not ours—on the maximum that could be spent on paid-for envelopes was taken using the judgment that the amount would cover the majority of Members. That amount is the point at which the normal bell curve distribution starts getting very skewed. The mean expenditure is £4,500 to £5,000, so the amount would cover most Members’ activities.

Will the Leader of the House explain why he did not await the judgment of the Senior Salaries Review Body on this allowance, which happens with all other allowances?

This is a new allowance. I was not aware that we were required to await the judgment of the SSRB in respect of new allowances. I have written and given evidence to the board about the fact of the allowance, which is my responsibility. I think that this is an appropriate way of doing things. I am not sure that the SSRB would have been in a better position to make a judgment. I happen to believe that it is important—I hope that he agrees, as Chairman of the Standards and Privileges Committee—that we put a cap on the paid-for envelopes.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Sherwood (Paddy Tipping) on his appointment. Some of us remember that in an earlier incarnation, under the tutelage of the right hon. Member for Derby, South (Margaret Beckett), his mellifluous tones had a soothing impact on the House in all sorts of difficult circumstances.

On the use of the allowance, will the Leader of the House clarify the position on the content that broadly would and would not be permissible? Paragraph 10 on page 4 of the Members Estimate Committee’s report, which is on the scope of the allowance, states on the one hand that unsolicited mailing may be undertaken, but on the other it cites the caveat that the material should not promote one party or denigrate another. What if Members of one party, conscious of controversy surrounding a particular policy, were to seek to craft letters to go out to their constituents, perhaps en masse, that made no reference to another political party or its position, but were simply an attempt to trumpet the merits of that policy? Could the allowance be used and potentially abused for that purpose?

I hope that the hon. Gentleman, whose ingenuity goes before him, will excuse me if I do not offer arbitration on specific examples. I think that the rules are fairly clear. Although the line between what is parliamentary and what is political is a fine one, it is pretty clear in practice—everyone understands the difference. I will come on to describe what the allowance is for and what it is not for.

As I understand it, £7,000 of the allowance may be spent on stationery and pre-paid envelopes, which will leave about £3,000 for other things such as websites—[Hon. Members: “No.”] If I am wrong, I am sure that I will be corrected. Will the Leader of the House examine the situation at election time regarding websites that are funded by what is essentially taxpayers’ money?

An important aspect of what we are doing is tightening the arrangements for websites quite considerably.

Yes, and then I am going to provide information to the House—not that I have been failing to do so up to now.

Of course, it is information that I require. Let me bring the Leader of the House back to the answer that he gave to the hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink). When the Leader was talking about spending more than the £7,000 limit on pre-paid envelopes, I thought that I heard him say, with nods of approbation from others who might or might not be in the Chamber, that other allowances could be used to increase the spending on pre-paid envelopes beyond £7,000, which would make the limit a nonsense. As I understand it, paragraph 19 of the Members Estimate Committee’s report clearly forbids the issue of pre-paid envelopes beyond the £7,000 limit. Is that correct?

The hon. Gentleman is correct—he says what I hope that I said. It will be possible for Members to use the allowance to pay for the postage of communications above and beyond the £7,000 for pre-paid envelopes, but it will not be possible to use any other allowance to pay for additional envelopes over the £7,000 limit.

We were advised that if we wanted the staff to have effective control, we would have to set the limit at £7,000—full stop. If the system does not work properly, I am sure that the House will be able to review it in due course.

Allow me to give the House further information, which, after communing through the ether, has now arrived—this shows the power of prayer to those who dispute it. A few hon. Members have been asked to repay costs for pre-paid envelopes to the Serjeant, usually because of a misunderstanding about the rules. The sums are usually small: the cost of a few hundred envelopes.

I am reminded that I wrote to the SSRB in advance of discussions on the allowance. It gave its blessing and said that it would return to the matter in its evidence when the triennial review is published in the summer.

This is a relatively short debate, but I have already been speaking for 24 minutes—I have been taking interventions for 22 minutes and speaking for a couple—so I will canter through what the allowance is not for and what it is for. It is not for party political advocacy or for Members to undermine the reputation of others. It is not to give incumbents an advantage over challengers. Accordingly, the report states that the allowance would not be used for fundraising, encouraging people to join a party, campaigning for or against a candidate, or advancing arguments to promote a particular political party or organisation. As I have said, the boundaries between parliamentary and party political work can be difficult to draw, but we all understand where they lie. The Department of Finance and Administration and the Fees Office are accustomed to handling the distinction in respect of constituency reports and newsletters, which are sent out by Members on both sides of the House and are a useful initiative.

All members of the MEC who have considered the matter know that there are occasions when Members on both sides of the House make mistakes. That is especially a danger in respect of the ever-changing world of websites, in which the rules have not kept pace with developments. The MEC saw evidence of websites of Members of all three major parties that were not in accordance with the current rules. If those websites had been submitted as a hard-copy draft of an annual report, they would never have got past the Department of Finance and Administration. In fact, I do not think that anyone would have had the cheek to put them forward. However, the websites were in place and using public money for purposes other than parliamentary purposes.

Websites that are funded from the communications allowance should be used only for parliamentary purposes. To ensure that there is much better control, we have decided to make the rules clear and to say that it will not be acceptable for Members to allow publicly funded web pages to be contained in another domain or website, and vice versa. Members will have a parliamentary website, and they may have separate websites if they wish to fund them from other sources. Parliamentary websites will close down when Parliament is dissolved after a general election is called.

A website must comply with the same rules on the content of material as any other publication, and it must contain on the home page a statement that it is funded from parliamentary allowances. Any links to other sites must make it clear electronically that the reader is leaving the parliamentary-funded website. However, websites are becoming increasingly sophisticated and it is important that the MEC should have asked the DFA to monitor website content so that the MEC can be assured that the allowances are being used for the stated purposes.

As I have said, we have proposed a level of £10,000 per Member, and we think that that is reasonable. It will go hand in hand with the establishment of a cap on envelopes. Most—including me—spend an average of between £4,500 and £5,000. Most Members fall on the normal distribution curve, spending between £2,500 and £7,000, but some were spending considerably more. That will now end. The estimated take-up is about 90 per cent.

The Leader of the House has talked about his own postage, which is average. Does he believe that in communicating with his constituents in Blackburn he will need the use of the £10,000 additional communications allowance?

I may do. To make the reverse of the incumbent’s point, I am lucky enough to represent a single town and to have served it for a long time—I am now in my 28th year. It has an evening paper that circulates in only five constituencies, and the BBC has wisely sited Radio Lancashire’s headquarters in Blackburn rather than any other town in Lancashire. All that makes communication with constituents easier. Serving a single town makes it much easier for me to hold open-air meetings, as I still do, in the centre of town and to hold residents’ meetings around the town—

That is true. If I represented a series of villages, communication would be more difficult. I have, for the first time ever, sent round an annual report, approved in every particular of course by the Fees Office, and it seems to have been well received. People have been interested to learn what I have been doing and how to contact me at my surgeries. Rather than increasing my incumbency support, it has just led to a much higher demand on my staff in terms of my surgeries.

The administration of the allowance will be run by the Fees Office and draft rules have been set out in the booklet. They will be revised from time to time.

Although the proposal is advantageous to me, as to all of us, I have the most profound reservations about it. It will be an exercise in shameless self-promotion. It will be used to tell people how wonderful we are, and that will be paid for by our constituents. It is a worthy objective, but I caution my right hon. Friend that it may do more harm than good.

I very rarely disagree with my hon. Friend, but I disagree profoundly with what he has just said. I do not happen to think that the annual report that I sent out for the first time was in the category that he describes, nor is the work that the hon. Member for Castle Point described. He said that he had received a petition from some 8,000 of his constituents expressing concern about the siting of a liquid petroleum gas terminal on Canvey Island. My hon. Friend may not know Canvey Island, but I do, and it already has many similar sites. Responding to that is not shameless self-promotion; it is doing a Member’s job. I resist my hon. Friend’s suggestion, which is not worthy of him.

Rather than the proposal being advantageous to Members, does the Leader of the House agree that our constituents might find it advantageous to them for us to tell them what is going on, keep them involved and give them another means of contact with us? Like me, he will know no Members who would knowingly abuse the system. It will be up to Members to use the system with good will. We are all honourable Members and we will all do that.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman. The House will credit me with spending 18 years in opposition without complaining about that fact, except within my party, or about the Government’s use of incumbency. Nor did I suggest that the voting system had disadvantaged us. I thought that we were in opposition because we had failed to convince enough voters to vote for us and we needed to change our ways. We all need to be concerned about the distance between the electors and the elected, and if we are to improve that we must not just ask for support at elections, but explain to people what we are doing between elections and provide them with reassurance.