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Commons Chamber

Volume 459: debated on Monday 16 April 2007

House of Commons

Monday 16 April 2007

The House met at half-past Two o’clock

Prayers

[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Culture, Media and Sport

The Secretary of State was asked—

Sport England

Sport England now holds a clear position in the sporting landscape with a primary focus on sustaining and increasing participation in community sport. It does this through promoting, investing and advising on sporting pathways, including sporting facilities. The new chair and chief executive are continuing the reforms to ensure that Sport England becomes a world class delivery agency, including delivering—as the hon. Gentleman will probably agree—the great performance yesterday in Bahrain in which young Lewis Hamilton set a record of three podium appearances in his first three races. I sent him a letter today wishing him well for the rest of the season.

I am grateful for that reply and I am sure that the whole House would wish to send our good wishes to Mr. Hamilton. Despite the lengthy reform review of Sport England, it has just suffered a £56 million cut, which the chairman, Mr. Mapp—the Minister’s lifelong friend—said was a cut too far and a true loss to community sport. He also seriously questioned the legacy from the 2012 Olympics. Does the Minister disagree with his lifelong friend?

The answer is simply yes. Sometimes friends fall out, and we fell out on this occasion. I remind the hon. Gentleman that under this Administration in the past five years, investment in community sport has increased by 40 per cent., and Government and lottery investment in sport and physical activity has been £4 billion since 1997. The new National Sports Foundation has attracted some £21 million investment, which is way beyond what is being done through Building Schools for the Future or the investment that local authorities are making in sport. Community sport has never had greater investment than at present, even with the small reduction in lottery funding as a result of the Olympics.

Can my right hon. Friend assure me that his tiff with Derek Mapp of Sport England will in no way affect the application that I made many years ago for a swimming baths at Bolsover? I hope that my right hon. Friend can tell me that everything is going well and that we are close to the date of an announcement. Perhaps he and I will be able to go for a swim together, and Derek Mapp might be able to come along too.

The cheque is in the post—on one condition, which is that my hon. Friend starts coaching an Olympic champion for 2012 from north-east Derbyshire or Chesterfield. I have no doubt that the new facility, which will—I am sure—now be realised, will start to provide benefits not only to the community, but to the elite swimmers in the area.

Does the Minister agree that Sport England suffers from two considerable structural handicaps? The first is that the amount of lottery money it gets has declined dramatically from the 25 per cent. envisaged by the Major Government to some 13 or 14 per cent. today, after the Olympic raid. The second is that it tries to deliver sport on a regional basis, whereas the Central Council of Physical Recreation says that sport in this country should work on a national and a county basis. Is it not time to follow the example of the Australians, who have had dramatic success in that area by delivering increases in mass participation through the sport governing bodies, based on schemes delivered in the communities?

It is unfortunate that the hon. Gentleman gives only half the story. When I spoke to the Federal Sports Minister in Australia a few months ago, he was very envious of what we have been able to do in our schools in terms of participation. In 2001, some 2 million kids were doing two hours of quality physical activity or sport a week. Today, there are 5 million. That is 6 million hours every week done by our children in our schools, and that is linked to the two extra-curricular hours.

What the hon. Gentleman does not say about lottery money is the contribution that has been made by the new opportunities fund of £0.75 billion which has facilitated more than 2,000 refurbished or newly built sports facilities up and down the country. The hon. Gentleman should give the whole picture, not part of it.

As my right hon. Friend is being very generous today, can he ensure that there will be a cheque for Chorley, which is looking forward to a much needed sporting village? What help and support can my right hon. Friend provide through his Department and Sport England to ensure that Chorley can be proud of quality facilities for the future of sport?

My hon. Friend does not have quite the charisma of my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner)—when he has had a little more time in the House he may be able to persuade as much as my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover. Jesting apart, the community sports hubs are one of Sport England’s developments in bringing in private sector investment in sport that we have never had before. Indeed, over the next period, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle) and beyond, under the leadership of Derek Mapp at Sport England, we will see a significant increase in investment through the private sector in good quality sports facilities up and down the land.

Coastal Town Tourism

3. What recent representations she has received on tourism in coastal towns; and if she will make a statement. (131506)

I regularly have meetings with representatives of the tourism industry, which includes the British Resorts and Destinations Association and the British Association of Leisure Parks, Piers and Attractions.

As Southend residents are already suffering because 20,000 people were left off the national census and a Select Committee report suggests that the Government have absolutely no strategy for assisting coastal resorts, will the Minister tell the House whether the Select Committee was right or wrong, and what further assistance the Government are prepared to give Southend residents?

First, my Department clearly has responsibility only for tourism in relation to coastal towns. However, I acknowledge the work of the Select Committee, and we welcome the report’s recommendations and are considering them. The hon. Gentleman might like to consider having a word with his unitary authority, which I believe is Conservative-run, as year in, year out, it has spent less on tourism: in 2002, it spent £835,000 but at the last recorded account it had cut that to £554,000.

Apart from the Government’s proposals for casinos, which will obviously increase costs in local communities, with increased crime and increased gambling addiction, what other plans do they have for the regeneration of coastal resorts?

Does the Minister agree that one of the problems—and one of the reasons why people choose to take their holidays abroad rather than in our excellent coastal resorts—is that often our hotels and bed and breakfasts are expensive? Does he share my concern about the practice in a lot of bed and breakfasts of charging on a per person basis, rather than hotels, where the charge is on a per room basis, which often means that people end up paying more for their holiday than they expected?

It is always interesting to hear Opposition Members making an argument against a free market. None the less, tourism this year will be worth about £86 billion to the economy. The numbers of visitors coming to England and travelling within England are at record levels; and in relation to the original question, I would point out to the hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) that in 1998 tourism in Southend was worth £135 million, but in the most recent figures, for 2004-05, the figure went up to £217 million.

2012 Olympics (Lottery Costs)

4. What assessment her Department has made of the likely effect of the cost increases for the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic games on lottery good causes funding for grassroots sport. (131507)

I obviously gave careful and close consideration to the impact on community sports clubs and facilities, and would like to set out clearly the assurances I have given them. First, there need be no impact on current lottery-funded projects, so secondly, no current lottery-funded community sport project need lose its funding. Thirdly, I remind the House of the commitment I have entered into with the Mayor of London: after the games when the land is sold there will be a profit-sharing agreement which will mean that the first call, after the London Development Agency has been repaid, will be that the lottery, too, will be repaid. Those are the commitments. I understand the concern in community projects, but my message to them is that we have addressed those concerns.

I thank the Secretary of State for her reply. Obviously, we all want the Olympics to leave a positive legacy for sport in our communities, but Sport Scotland has reported that the recent spiralling costs of the Olympics will lead to a further £7.3 million cut in funding for grassroots sport in Scotland. How can the Secretary of State talk about real benefits from the Olympics for grassroots sport when owing to her budgeting incompetence grassroots sport will face real cuts?

Presumably the hon. Lady subscribes to the manifesto on which she and her colleagues are standing in the Scottish election and which bears directly on the question; it welcomes the opportunity of the Olympics to boost participation through investment in community sports. That is precisely what the Government are ensuring.

In 1908, we introduced gold medals for culture in the Olympics. Can my right hon. Friend reassure us that there will be no cuts in the cultural part of the Olympics and that over the next four years we shall still be able to innovate?

The answer is definitely yes. My hon. Friend frequently comes up with imaginative and innovative ideas, and I hope that he will ensure that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Sport and I continue to have the benefit of his thoughts on this issue. It is important to view the Olympics not just as a great opportunity for sport, but as a great national and international opportunity for arts and culture. The cultural Olympiad begins next year, when Liverpool is the capital of culture and we become the host city after the Beijing games—it is a great opportunity for the whole country.

The Secretary of State has assured us that there will be no cut in current plans for lottery expenditure as a result of the Olympics, but can she give me her assurance that there will be no cuts in promised lottery funds, which might withdraw the funding for really important community projects, including the Stonehenge visitor centre?

I cannot give the same sort of categorical commitment because the whole purpose in establishing agreement on lottery funding as we did was to ensure that present commitments were met. What will be affected—but not until 2009—are prospective commitments and future plans. However, because of the safeguards that I outlined to the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson), those matters will be revisited once the lottery is repaid in 2013. It would not be convincing for me to give a categorical and blanket assurance, but I would expect that the vast majority of commitments currently entered into by the lottery will be seen through, regardless of the take in 2009 that will affect future commitments and future plans.

Will the Secretary of State pay tribute to those unsung heroes in sport—namely, local volunteers such as my constituent, Martin Devlin, whose boxing gym is bursting at the seams? Would it not be ironic if the greatest sporting spectacle that this country will ever have seen—the Olympics—were to deprive that boxing gym of its much needed extension? Will the Secretary of State meet me to discuss the matter further?

I am very happy to meet my hon. Friend, for two reasons. First, I hope to hear more about the community boxing club in his constituency, which is obviously providing an invaluable service; and, secondly, in order to underline the important potential for boxing as a sport—a particularly underestimated community sport—for young men. More broadly, I would like to provide reassurance that the lottery contribution to the Olympic special cause is not bought at the price of excellent community projects such as the one that my hon. Friend mentions.

Essential local services in my constituency, such as NeighbourCare and Speakeasy Advocacy, provide important and fundamental services to the elderly and people with learning difficulties, but they are already finding it difficult to secure lottery funding. What assurances can the Secretary of State give me and the people of Basingstoke that that situation will not get worse if there are further miscalculations about how much the Olympics will cost us?

There have been no miscalculations about how much the Olympics are going to cost. The budget has been set and it will be kept to. I would say to the hon. Lady that it is completely unrealistic to ask for the sort of categorical assurance that every single lottery application will be met. It depends on whether it meets the criteria for the lottery distributors and so forth. What the Government have done is to assemble an Olympic budget that will stand the test of time and deliver a legacy for this country. What we have not yet heard is what the Opposition’s alternative might be.

I hear what my right hon. Friend says about lottery-funded schemes, but will she comment on the suggestion that Sport England is to divert £26 million from the sort of schemes mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow (Mr. Hepburn) into the Olympics? Can she give us the same sort of reassurance on that front?

Yes, I can give my hon. Friend the same sort of reassurance. I do not recognise the figure that he mentioned, but as ever, I would be happy to meet my hon. Friend or help him to meet the chairman of Sport England in order to put his mind at rest about that.

Between now and 2012, the total cut in the lottery funding budget for grass-roots sports amounts to nearly £500 million. How does the Secretary of State square that with seeking to persuade the House that there will not be a reduction in participation for grass-roots sports? The Minister for Sport may say that Mr. Derek Mapp, who has been much quoted already, is wrong to suggest that the cut to Sport England is a cut too far. Is the Secretary of State therefore surprised that Sport England is now reducing its target for people participating in sport by nearly 200,000?

I simply do not recognise the claim of a cut of £500 million. That is the kind of financial probity that we have come to expect from the Liberal Democrats, which is why I am afraid that—[Interruption.]

Although I welcome my right hon. Friend’s assurances so far about current budgets, I received over the Easter recess several lobbies from grass-roots sports clubs, so the message is not getting through—something encouraged in some cases by what one might call mischievous local election candidates. Will she consider giving a written assurance or a co-ordinating body an assurance, so that local organisations will get the message properly?

My hon. Friend has done an enormous amount for her constituents in trying to get the message out clearly and to win community sports facilities, both through the lottery and other sources, for her constituents. Yes, I will certainly take any suggestions that she thinks might be helpful to overcome some Opposition Members’ misrepresentations.

In her statement to the House last month on the revised 2012 budget, the Secretary of State gave the broad headings for the new figures, but since then has failed to supply a more exact and detailed breakdown of costs. When will she provide an open, honest and transparent budget as a matter of urgency?

The Olympic Delivery Authority will publish its budget, which will be set out in full. At every turn, as the hon. Gentleman knows, the Government have been open and transparent in ensuring that the Opposition have access to the figures and, as importantly, that Londoners and people who will be affected also have access to them.

That will come as some news to my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent (Hugh Robertson), who is still waiting to hear from the right hon. Lady about this precise matter.

We have seen speculation in the media in recent weeks and in off-the-record briefings that the Chancellor is set to remove responsibility for the Olympics from the Secretary of State’s Department. If that were to happen, what does she think it would say about her handling of the games? Would she not take that as a personal failure and a humiliation for her Department?

One of the jobs of government is to deal with issues, problems and challenges as they arise, rather than being diverted by some of the rather fanciful speculation in the papers.

May I ask my right hon. Friend to ignore the whinging by Opposition parties, which were quick enough to jump on to the bandwagon for the Olympic games and now want to criticise? But may I go back to something that she said in her original answer about the knock-on effect of moneys going to other areas? In Scotland, we would very much like to see some of that money, particularly in Glasgow for our bid for the Commonwealth games in 2014.

As my hon. Friend knows, we expect to make a formidable and very important bid, and we will do precisely the same if it is one for Glasgow as we did for the Commonwealth games for Manchester. Of course, as I have said many times from the Dispatch Box, it is absolutely vital that we ensure that the whole country has the opportunity to benefit, as the people of the country have given such strong support for the Olympics.

Licensing Act

5. How many representations she has received on the impact of the Licensing Act 2003 on fundraising events for charities. (131508)

We have received a wide range of representations from community groups and not-for-profit organisations about the costs and processes involved in licensing events under the Licensing Act 2003 and we will continue our dialogue with those organisations to evaluate the effect of the Act.

My constituent Mr. John Sutton, who is chairman of the county fair committee of the rotary club of Kettering Huxloe, has written to me to express his understandable concerns about the cost—and the financial and other regulatory burdens on exclusively charitable events—of the new premises and entertainment licences. What firm plans does the Minister have to bring forward legislation to exempt charities from the new burdens that he has imposed?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, we are currently considering some of the proposals in Sir Les Elton’s report and will subsequently put those out for public consultation. The purpose of the 2003 Act was to introduce a streamlined system. It included charitable events for one simple reason: we had to make a proper assessment, regardless of whether the event was for charity, to make sure that appropriate conditions were attached to licences, to protect to the public. His constituent, Mr. John Sutton, acknowledged the fact that a charge would have to be paid. That does not mean that Daventry council could not make a contribution to that. As Mr. Sutton said,

“We will simply make the fair bigger and better than ever”.

In looking at the impact of legislation on charities, will the Minister also consider, in relation to charitable events that use microphones, the impact of the review of how the spectrum is going to be dealt with? As I understand it, there has been a further section of Ofcom’s review. Will he make sure that charitable fundraising events can continue without limitations on their use of the spectrum?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. I reassure her and other hon. Members that we are in dialogue with Ofcom about this matter and that we are in constant contact with organisations that will be affected to ensure that in the future the spectrum is allocated effectively, not adversely—which is what she is concerned about.

The Minister may be aware that my constituency is rural and semi-rural. There are 32 villages. Most have their own halls. Most of those are charities. None has a record of disorderly behaviour at any of its functions. The halls are run for charity and they—particularly the little halls—have been severely hit by the legislation. In his review, will he consider taking some of this heavy-handed legislation off those little village halls, perhaps starting with a de minimis level below which the legislation need not apply?

I understand the point that the hon. Gentleman makes. I wish to point out that 91 per cent. of village halls have a premises licence, which allows all kinds of regulated entertainment to take place. The purpose of the new legislation was to introduce a light-touch regime, bearing in mind that previously an appearance before a magistrate was required or there was a need to apply for different temporary provisions when offering a combination of entertainment. None the less, his point is well made and we are considering proposals for the future.

Film Industry

6. When she last met representatives of the British film industry to discuss public support for the sector. (131510)

I frequently meet representatives of the film industry and regularly consult a wide-range of representatives. Most recently, at the end of March, I consulted the International Indian Film Academy in relation to the promotion of Yorkshire’s successful bid—I add my congratulations in relation to that—to host this year’s Indian academy awards.

Although there have been some notable successes—in particular the film “The Queen”, which was recognised in the Oscars this year; we recognise that that was funded in large part by organisations such as ITV—the film industry operates internationally in a highly competitive environment. What are the Minister and his Department doing to ensure that British films will continue to be made in this country, not overseas, where it is frequently cheaper to make them?

I wonder whether the hon. Lady has had a chance to look at the figures for the film industry recently. She would see that—if we simply take last year alone—between 2005-06 and last year, the spend on film production in the UK was up by 50 per cent., and that inward investment last year in the film industry by companies that want to come to Britain to make their films was up by 83 per cent.

An important, but often forgotten, part of the film industry are the regional film archives. I went to visit the Yorkshire Film Archive over Easter. Will the Minister tell us what support is being given to film archives, and will he consider visiting the Yorkshire Film Archive to see the important work that it does?

Of course the film archive in the UK is an absolutely essential part of the UK film industry. In fact, we have the largest archive of moving film image in the world. This year, the UK Film Council will make £472,000 available to Screen Yorkshire for its work, and I understand that £45,000 of that will be given to the Yorkshire Film Archive.

The Minister paints a rosy picture of the state of the British film industry, but he knows full well that that success comes despite, not because of, the Government. After the frequent changes to film tax relief, not to mention the fiasco of the British film test, one director was moved to complain that the Government change the rules “frequently and arbitrarily”. Now, the abolition of sideways loss relief has led a leading film investor—

Will the Minister make representations to the Treasury about the abolition of sideways loss relief, which a leading film investor has said will put the British film industry seriously at risk?

It is a real shame that every time the hon. Gentleman speaks at the Dispatch Box, he talks down the successes of the film industry, which is one of the great successes of our creative industries. It is estimated that the film tax relief scheme introduced by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor will cost the Treasury £120 million a year to ensure that we have a sustainable film industry. I suggest that the hon. Gentleman should stop talking down the industry and recognise its terrific successes.

Digital Dividend Review

Ofcom plans to release a statement on the consultation on the digital dividend review this summer. Before then, I will have full discussions with Ofcom about the findings of the consultation.

The Secretary of State will know of widespread concerns about the possibly unintended consequences of the DDR on the programme making and special events sector, which are highlighted by early-day motion 531, which has been signed by many hon. Members, including me. Will she reassure the House that Ofcom will guarantee that sufficient quality and quantity of spectrum will be available to prevent serious damage to this wide-ranging, £15 billion UK industry, which covers, inter alia, performing arts, news gathering and many major sporting occasions?

I thank my hon. Friend for that. I know that the matter is of great concern to him—he has taken a leading role—and to right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House. There are two elements: the impact on what are essentially amateur events, such as community festivals; and the possible impact on professional theatre and other forms of entertainment. Ofcom has recognised the specific concern about the perceived—I believe that it is unfounded—threat to professional entertainment. It will carry out a separate consultation specifically on that to ensure that any unintended consequences are avoided.

The Government are determined to avoid the risks that early-day motions and other interventions have outlined. Obviously, Ofcom’s responsibility is to consider the market price that can be raised for spectrum. However, it was specifically put in the legislation that Ofcom would have to take account of the citizenship impact of any such decision. This is a good example of citizenship in practice.

Order. Perhaps the Secretary of State could use the microphone. It is not necessary to address individual hon. Members; perhaps addressing the Chair is the best way to do things.

I was fascinated by the Secretary of State’s reply. I assure her that the threats from the original proposals set out by Ofcom in its consultation document were not widely perceived, but very well founded. I am grateful to the Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, the hon. Member for St. Helens, South (Mr. Woodward), for agreeing to meet a delegation of users—including those involved in the theatre industry, the film industry, the music industry, news gathering, sports, and special events such as Live Earth—to discuss in detail the consequences for the sector. Does the Secretary of State realise that if the original proposals are not amended, the effective loss of radio microphones will have a devastating impact?

We absolutely recognise that. It is why we shall not allow the review to have an impact on the sort of community events that I described, or on the professional theatre and other professional entertainment.

Is my right hon. Friend concerned about one aspect of the digital dividend review? Freeview is now the most popular digital television platform and millions of people are being sold HD-ready television sets, but there is a real prospect that, unless something is done, most British viewers will not be able to watch the 2012 Olympics on high-definition television, whereas most viewers in the rest of the developed world will be able to do so.

That is precisely why the review is so important and timely. My hon. Friend will know that 70 per cent. of the potentially available spectrum has been allocated to freeview to enable the roll-out of digital television. The further availability of spectrum for high-definition television is a matter for discussion with the public service broadcasters, but technology and consumer expectations are moving fast and we have to make sure that we keep up with them.

Footballers’ Behaviour

8. If she will convene a meeting of football club chairmen to discuss the on-pitch behaviour of footballers and the example set for young sports participants. (131512)

First, I thank my hon. Friend for again raising this important matter, which we debated in Westminster Hall only a few months ago.

We can rightly be proud of professional football in this country. The premiership is now undoubtedly the best and most competitive football league in the world. That was underlined last week when Manchester United, Chelsea and Liverpool qualified for the champions league semi-finals. However, football players, who are idols and role models to millions of young boys and girls must understand the responsibility of the privileged position they hold. I have written to the chairmen of the professional clubs a couple of times now to make sure that they remind their players—and, indeed, their managers—of the fact that they have all signed up to the fair play charter, and of their responsibilities as role models in our society.

The Minister will know that the values that sport promotes—leadership, teamwork and fair play—are nowhere more important than in under- educated and poor constituencies, where there is often no male role model in the house and where parents and teachers struggle to communicate those values to children. Does he accept that the impact of the antics—cheating, cynical fouling and a lack of sportsmanship—that we see sometimes from a minority of professional footballers, who are role models for those youngsters, runs exactly counter to the efforts that parents and teachers are making? Will my right hon. Friend ensure that professional footballers, managers and chairs live up to their social as well as their sporting responsibilities?

I fully agree. We should remember that there are 40,000 amateur football clubs in this country—football is by far the most widely played sport. We should emphasise respect for referees from players on the local parks right up to the national stadiums. Many of us are fed up with the growing sport of referee bashing played by some managers, who spend most of the post-match interview defending the indefensible actions of their players. Managers should set a better example by accepting their team’s responsibility rather than berating referees, who do a pretty tough job, by and large, in a very fair way. I wholeheartedly agree with my hon. Friend.

To continue the theme of the Minister in acknowledging that the on-pitch behaviour of some players is the responsibility of managers, does he agree that boards of directors and the parasitic behaviour of some agents and others in the game are also involved? Obviously, I exclude Colchester United from those observations. Does he agree that, notwithstanding the elite performance of some premiership clubs, the state of football in this country all the way down to the grass roots is such that it is time we set up a royal commission on the national sport?

I do not think that we need a royal commission; we just need some common sense in the game. In rugby union, rugby league and cricket, do we get the professional players or the managers arguing about the officials in those sports? No, we do not. I thought that it was time to write to the chairmen—the chairpersons, I should say, because I think that there was one lady among them. [Interruption.] If they were all chairmen, I would call them chairmen. On the very point raised by the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell), I raised with the managers the issue of bringing back that type of discipline. Without mentioning one or two clubs in the premier league, there are some—

A recent report told us that schoolgirls as young as nine or 10 have given up all playground activity, including football and other games. We are not sure whether that is because of role models and the behaviour that has been mentioned by hon. Members, but the lack of physical activity undertaken by girls of that age should concern us all. Will my right hon. Friend take up the lack of activity at school among girls as young as nine and 10, and see what can be done to increase their activity in games at school?

Very much so. More competitive sport is being played in school than has been played for many years, and football has a role in that. After “Bend It Like Beckham”, in excess of 1 million young girls and women have registered with the Football Association, and football is the fastest growing participation sport for young women, so in that respect it has done a first-class job. I repeat that there is more competitive sport in schools than there has been for many years.

Urban Regeneration

The role of culture in regeneration has recently been strengthened by a joint agreement signed by the Department for Culture Media and Sport, the Department for Communities and Local Government and a number of non-departmental public bodies.

During the Easter recess I visited Dot To Dot, a community arts project in my constituency. It has a good record of involving the community in its projects. A lot of its work is done with mosaics; it gets people from the community to put the tiles together, and it has found that when the mosaics are put up, there is a significant reduction in vandalism and graffiti. Does my hon. Friend agree that, when there is community ownership of that kind, we get the best out of cultural projects in urban regeneration?

My hon. Friend’s constituency has some real deprivation and culture is making a positive contribution, particularly at the Making Space centre in Leigh Park in Havant. We have moved forward from the days when culture was not on the table when planning and housing developments were under way. I look forward to visiting her constituency over the coming months to see what is happening there.

We are blessed in Crewe with a live theatre housed in an Edwardian gem. Does the Minister agree that what we really need is a little flair in connecting the theatres and the arts movement in the north-west, so that we can get some of the benefits of having so many bright people in the region, and can use them outside the large urban areas?

My hon. Friend will know that there has been an increase in funding to the arts of 73 per cent., and the lion’s share of that funding from the Arts Council has gone on theatre. I am happy to look into the theatre infrastructure in her area and into the wider arts community to see what more can be done with the Arts Council.

BBC World

I cannot say that I am surprised by that response, but will the Minister explain what the logic is of the BBC World Service radio programmes—I understand that there is now some television, too—being funded through a Foreign and Commonwealth Office grant? I recognise the great value of the BBC World Service to this country, but BBC World, which after all uses the growing medium of television rather than radio, is not funded in that manner. Is that not an anachronism that ought to be sorted out?

The hon. Gentleman makes what may seem to be an interesting point, but I think that he may be a little dispossessed of the facts. Of course we admire the work done by BBC World, as well as the work done by the World Service. The World Service receives £252 million through grant in aid from the Foreign Office, but BBC World is a separate operation. Unlike the World Service, it is a commercial operation funded by subscription and advertising revenues. As such, BBC World contributes to relieving financial burdens on the licence fee payer for the BBC overall.

Remote Gambling Summit

During the summit there was widespread agreement to co-operate further in a number of key areas to ensure that gambling remains fair and crime-free and that vulnerable people are protected. On 29 January, we published the summit communiqué. We are now inviting views on the scope and membership of an international working group to consider standards in these key areas, and my Department is in discussion with the industry, regulators and experts in other key sectors, including finance.

The simple truth is that online gambling is just about impossible to police, so does the Minister agree that the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s proposals to increase taxation on gambling in this country will drive more of the industry abroad and make it even harder for the Minister to regulate, which he and I both want.

Irrespective of the taxation issue, that international conference was attended by representatives from 35 jurisdictions, because of the very issues raised by the right hon. Member. It is true that it is not an easy issue, but at the conference, for which we called because of the problems of internet gambling, we agreed that we should have a framework of international regulation and governance that begins to address the three principles that I outlined. Irrespective of where the operation is, and in whatever country, it is important that people sign up to that charter, and that is what we are trying to achieve.

Electoral Commission Committee

The hon. Member for Gosport, representing the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission was asked—

Political Engagement

18. What assessment he has made of recent work undertaken by the Electoral Commission on political engagement; and if he will make a statement. (131439)

The Electoral Commission and the Hansard Society have recently published the results of their fourth joint audit on political engagement. However, the hon. Lady will know that the Speaker’s Committee has no role or duty to make a specific assessment of that or of other recent work undertaken by the Electoral Commission on political engagement.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his reply but, like me, he will have noted that that report showed that 70 per cent. of people were willing to sign a petition and that 55 per cent., which is about the same as the number of people who voted in the last election, had done so. Does he therefore think that the way in which the House deals with petitions from members of the public can be improved, and will he discuss with the House authorities how we can use petitions from our constituents more effectively?

The Speaker’s Committee has no specific role in examining those matters, but the hon. Lady makes a very important point. The growth in early-day motions in the House has led to an awareness that there are many ways in which people seek to draw issues to public attention, and petitions are one way in which they do so. She makes a valuable point which, I am sure, will be considered.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there is a need to engage younger people in the process, and should not greater support be given to the UK Youth Parliament, and excellent youth MPs such as Luke Springthorpe in my constituency, who do a great deal to engage young people? Perhaps we should even provide votes for them at 17 rather than at 18.

Yes; the commission informs me that it has enjoyed significant success in increasing young people’s interest in politics through activities such as advertising campaigns, educational resources, workshops and a grant programme. An independent survey of 18 to 24-year-olds found that 52 per cent. of them had seen the commission’s 2006 local elections campaigns, and 24 per cent. claimed to have voted because of them.

Will my hon. Friend give encouragement, through the Speaker’s Commission, to the Electoral Commission, to continue to encourage voters and potential voters to register to vote where they are, which will help young people and others to take part in elections, whether local or national.

Yes, the recent study of the Electoral Commission by the Committee on Standards in Public Life, and the Electoral Commission’s response, indicated that the Electoral Commission does indeed intend to devote more resources to electoral registration and the mechanics of voting.

Church Commissioners

The hon. Member for Middlesbrough, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—

Cathedrals

19. What assessment the commissioners have made of the effect of single stream funding on the operations of English cathedrals; and if he will make a statement. (131440)

The rationale behind the proposal is that funds might be more accurately matched to local priorities if some of the financial decision making were localised. By way of a statement, some dioceses and cathedrals have asked to test the proposal, which is one of a number under consideration as we contemplate the best use of the commissioners’ funds from 2008 to 2010.

The hon. Gentleman may know that a number of cathedrals feel very uncomfortable about that arrangement. Does he agree that diverting funds away from cathedrals to dioceses will weaken cathedrals’ ability to attract people of faith and of no faith at all? Does he agree that a centrally based body, rather than a diocesan-based body, is better positioned to give a strategic view on how funding should apply to cathedrals?

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman’s point will be taken into account in the consultation process. We are consulting the Association of English Cathedrals, the House of Bishops, the Archbishops Council and diocesan representatives about our spending plans, and we will consider very carefully the views put forward by the hon. Gentleman.

Will my hon. Friend say whether he thinks that consultation should take place directly with cathedrals, such as St. Martin’s in Leicester? I agree with the hon. Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) that there is a deal of unease that the proposals might weaken the way in which that cathedral has developed its community role in such a magnificent fashion in the past two decades.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend and to the cathedral to which he has referred. We will write to the cathedral directly and ask for its views. The single stream idea will not be imposed on anybody, but some dioceses have indicated that they might like to have a trial run. I welcome that, because we need to be creative if the Church is to enjoy maximum value from our distributions, as I am sure that he and the hon. Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) agree.

The English cathedrals have had a double whammy from this Government. First, single streaming will have a damaging impact. Secondly, have the Church Commissioners assessed the impact of the reduction in the basic rate of tax on tax-giving in cathedrals? An unintended consequence of lowering the basic rate of tax has been a substantial loss.

The hon. Gentleman’s question is broad and wide. With your dispensation, Mr. Speaker, I will take up that point with the commissioners and give him a proper answer, which may also end up in the Library.

Will the hon. Gentleman accept that one of the great glories of our English cathedrals is the quality of the music that they produce, which is at risk because of the proposals that are being considered?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for referring to music. One of the great features of my visits to Lichfield cathedral is listening to the music, and many cathedrals are renowned for their music. We often discuss the importance of our outstanding cathedrals and their ministry to the whole nation. This House pays tribute to the cathedrals, to their music and to all that goes on within their precincts.

Electoral Commission Committee

The hon. Member for Gosport, representing the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission was asked—

Electoral Spending

20. What progress the commission has made in its consideration of whether further regulation is required to differentiate more clearly expenditure spent on behalf of an individual candidate in a constituency and national expenditure spent on behalf of that candidate’s party in that constituency. (131441)

The commission has informed me that it intends to consult the political parties following the 2007 May elections to consider, among other issues, whether there is a need for further regulation on the treatment of party and candidate expenditure.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that election literature that names a constituency, that comments on issues in a constituency and that urges people to vote for one party and not for another should no longer be kept off candidates’ expenses, even though the candidates are not named?

The hon. Gentleman’s point does not precisely follow his question, in my opinion, but he has made his point. On the broader issue of funding, the Electoral Commission made its own recommendations in its study in 2004. The situation has moved on since then with the publication of Sir Hayden Phillips’s report. The matter is now in the hands of the parties to discuss that report and to find a way forward.

Church Commissioners

The hon. Member for Middlesbrough, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—

Clergy Working Group

21. What recent discussions the Church Commissioners have held with the Department of Trade and Industry on the work of the clergy working group. (131442)

The clergy working group, on which the Church of England was represented, produced a statement of good practice setting out minimum standards for the terms and conditions of service for ministers of religion. The Church of England has committed itself to those principles and the General Synod has drafted legislation that has been sent to DTI officials, with whom we regularly communicate.

Even accepting that the wheels of the Church grind slowly, does my hon. Friend agree that, given that we have been talking about this for some 10 years, it needs to move more quickly than it has? In so far as he can, will he encourage, through the clergy working group, other churches with similar problems to move equally quickly?

With regard to my hon. Friend’s latter point, I certainly agree to do that. He has campaigned consistently on this and is understandably impatient about the synodical timetable. I can assure him that the Church has made excellent progress with these complex matters, and with his support, and that of the House, we will ensure that they reach legislation as quickly as possible. I have to tell him, however, that within the Church “quickly as possible” means “not before 2009.”

Electoral Commission Committee

The hon. Member for Gosport, representing the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission was asked—

Electoral Administration

22. What plans the Electoral Commission has to exercise the powers given to it under the Electoral Administration Act 2006 to set and monitor performance standards in electoral services. (131443)

The Electoral Commission informs me that it is developing performance standards for electoral services. It is intended that the standards for electoral registration will be set in early 2008 and that the standards for elections will be in place for 2009.

I am grateful for that answer, but how can we ensure that during the current elections, pending the new performance standards, no electoral returning officer will make perverse decisions that are possibly against the law?

The commission informs me that it has no powers to compel performance improvement. Its powers are restricted to setting the standards and requesting information in order to measure performance against the standards. To put that in context, the Audit Commission has no powers to enforce particular regulations on local authorities; it does it by example. The Electoral Commission feels that it has sufficient authority to raise standards among electoral registration officers.

Constituency Boundaries

23. If his Committee will discuss with the Electoral Commission the effect of disparity in sizes of electorate on the constituency boundaries. (131444)

The Speaker’s Committee has no plans to do so. Responsibility for review of parliamentary constituency boundaries rests with the four parliamentary boundary commissioners, not the Electoral Commission.

Will the hon. Gentleman discuss with his colleagues on the Speaker’s Committee and the Electoral Commission the proposal that is on the agenda to bring under one umbrella somewhere the review of all the boundaries of parliamentary constituencies for Westminster in Northern Ireland, Scotland, England and Wales, in order to ensure that whatever way people vote and whatever constituency they are in, the same criteria apply across the country, and above all that votes are worth the same because the constituency quota is the same whether in Scotland, Wales, England or Northern Ireland?

The Electoral Commission has no direct role in relation to parliamentary constituency boundaries. As to how the review might be carried forward, the last review was carried through by Parliament itself. The Electoral Commission has no opinion as to whether it should be responsible for the review. The hon. Gentleman will have noticed that the Committee on Standards in Public Life also expressed a view on this issue.

Church Commissioners

The hon. Member for Middlesbrough, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—

Parish Interregnums

It is a shame that the figure is not available, because we should know how many interregnums last for a substantial period during which many churchwardens and ordinary clergy are happy to take up the slack in parishes around the country. Will my hon. Friend pay tribute to the many clergy and churchwardens who are not only doing a fabulous job in their own parish but covering for others when there are prolonged periods without clergy in other parishes nearby?

Of course, we pay respect and homage to all those within the Church who do their job and do their duty, certainly as regards the case that my hon. Friend mentions. I would point out to him that churches often find that a period of interregnum results in the congregation becoming more vibrant as greater numbers of parishioners participate. However, his point is well taken.

Equality Act Regulations

25. What recent discussions the commissioners have had on the likely effect of the implementation of the Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations 2007 on parish ministries in areas of need. (131446)

The Archbishops Council has been giving careful consideration to the effect of the regulations and will be producing general advice. [Interruption.]

Order. It is unfair to the hon. Gentleman for hon. Members to make so much noise. I ask them to be quiet. There are only a few minutes to go.

I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s reply, but does he agree that it would have been better if there had been more discussion about those regulations and Members of this House had been allowed to speak on them before the decision was made?

That is of course a matter for the House authorities, not for me. I would, however, say that the regulations contain a set of exceptions for religious organisations, broadly equivalent to those in the Equality Act 2006, and it is for individual parishes to decide whether to take advantage of those exceptions.

Iraq

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement about operational events over the recess.

Before I start, I know that the whole House will want to join me in expressing my condolences to the families and friends of the nine servicemen and women who have lost their lives since the House last sat.

On 1 April Kingsman Danny Wilson and on 2 April Rifleman Aaron Lincoln were killed by small arms fire while on patrol in Basra city. On 5 April Second Lieutenant Joanna Yorke Dyer, Corporal Kris O’Neill, Private Eleanor Dlugosz, Kingsman Adam Smith and their interpreter were killed when their Warrior vehicle was hit by a massive bomb west of Basra city. On 13 April Private Chris Gray was killed in Afghanistan in a firefight with the Taliban, and on Saturday night two servicemen were killed when two UK helicopters collided north of Baghdad. An investigation is ongoing, but all the evidence so far indicates that that was an accident, not an attack.

Several personnel were seriously injured over that period in those and other incidents in Iraq and Afghanistan and they, too, are in our thoughts. That is a reminder of the risks faced every day by our forces on our behalf. I offer our gratitude and profound respect for those who have died and those who have been injured in the service of their country.

I am sure that the House will wish me in the time available to focus on the incident that has attracted the most public and parliamentary attention over the recess, namely the incident in which 15 of our personnel were captured and detained by the Iranians, and the events that followed. I will describe, first, the incident itself; secondly, how it was handled diplomatically; and thirdly, how it was handled in media terms, including the decision to allow serving personnel to talk to the media individually and to accept payment for so doing—decisions for which, as I have already made clear, I accept responsibility. Finally, I will set out how we intend to learn the lessons for the future.

Let me first turn to the incident itself. On 23 March HMS Cornwall was operating as part of the Coalition Task Force in the northern Arabian gulf, under the authority of a UN resolution. The task force is responsible for a range of maritime security operations, including protecting the Iraqi oil infrastructure and undertaking boardings to disrupt weapons smuggling.

At 07.53 Cornwall launched two boats, with a Lynx helicopter in support, with the intention to board MV Tarawa, a merchant vessel that had evaded a boarding the day before. En route, the Lynx flew over a different vessel, MV al-Hanin, and reported a suspect cargo. A decision was made to board the al-Hanin. The position was well inside Iraqi waters.

The boarding team boarded the vessel and, at 08.46, the Royal Marine boarding officer reported the ship secure. The Lynx was tasked to return to Cornwall. By 09.00 the helicopter was back on board and put at 30 minutes’ notice to fly.

At 09.04 one of the two Royal Navy boats reported Iranian Revolutionary Guard navy activity nearby. Very soon afterwards, one of the boats reported that the Iranians were “beside them”. By 09.06 voice communications with the boats were lost, and shortly after, all communications were lost. At 09.28 the Lynx was launched again and returned to the position of the al-Hanin. Initially it was unable to find the UK boats but at 10.05, one was spotted being escorted by Iranian vessels.

That concludes what I can say about the operational details. I am happy to answer questions, but there is not much more to say at this stage, until investigations are complete. I will say two final things. First, the Royal Navy is not currently conducting boarding operations, although coalition partners are, and the Navy continues to fulfil its other tasks. Secondly, I support the decision of the Royal Marine captain to order his boarding party to lower their readied weapons. As he put it, he judged that, if they had resisted,

“there would have been a major fight, one we could not have won, with consequences that would have had major strategic impact”.

Let me turn now to the diplomatic handling of the incident. The Iranians detained our personnel illegally, taking them first to an Iranian Revolutionary Guard naval base, and from there to Tehran. We made it clear, both directly to the Iranians and in public statements, that their detention was unacceptable and that they should be released immediately. We made intense diplomatic efforts to establish direct lines of communication with Iranian leaders, to prevent the situation from escalating and to resolve it quickly. It became clear that this alone would not be enough, not least because of the internal struggles within Iran as to who had control of the situation. We therefore galvanised the international community to put pressure on the Iranian regime. The Prime Minister has rightly paid tribute to those friends in the EU, in the UN, and in the region who supported us and condemned the illegal detention. I am in no doubt that this focused minds at the top of the Iranian regime.

Our personnel were released on Wednesday 4 April, after a predictable attempt by the Iranian President to turn it into a propaganda victory. But this should fool no one. Serious observers do not believe that Iran has emerged from this in a stronger position, and we should remember that our main objective—the peaceful resolution of the incident and the safe return of our people—was achieved, earlier than many predicted. And let me be clear: there was no apology, and there was no deal.

Let me turn now to the media handling of this incident. On Thursday 5 April, the 15 personnel arrived in the UK, and were debriefed and reunited with their families. The next day, six of the 15 held a collective press conference, organised by the MOD, which was uncontroversial. The controversy surrounds the relations between individual personnel and the media. The media had approached the families of the detainees while they were still being held in Iran. There were many offers of payment. These approaches intensified as soon as the 15 were released, and it was clear that the pressure would soon be transferred from the families to the individuals themselves. They were already aware of the criticism of their behaviour while detained, and some were intent on setting the record straight.

This left us with a dilemma. We had a duty of care to the individuals and their families, who were under intense pressure. On the Thursday, all those involved took the view that we should allow the individuals to talk to the media, and that we should support them through that process. I believe that all those involved in this decision acted in good faith and out of a desire to protect the individuals, to protect the service, and to protect operational security against the risks inherent in unofficial dialogue with the media. These were real risks, which have materialised in the past.

Once the decision had been taken to allow the individuals to talk to the media, this raised a second question: how to handle the fact that the media were competing for these individuals by offering substantial sums of money. This second question was considered by the Navy over the same short period. The Navy concluded that payments were “permissible” under Queen’s Regulations, and that in this particular situation it was “impractical to attempt to prevent” them. This was the position presented to me in a note sent from the Navy’s HQ in Portsmouth to my office on Thursday afternoon, and which was put to me on Good Friday. I accept in retrospect that I should have rejected the note and overruled the decision. The circumstances were exceptional, and the pressure on the families was intense. The Navy’s decision was made in good faith, and so was its interpretation of the regulations; but I should have foreseen that that attempt by the Navy, in good faith, to handle an exceptional situation would be interpreted as indicating a departure in the way in which the armed forces deal with the media.

Over the weekend I discussed the issue further, and on Monday I asked for further advice from naval chiefs and the Chief of the Defence Staff. I decided that we must review the rules immediately, and stop any further media payments to serving personnel until the review was complete. I informed the Prime Minister—which, as he has made clear, was his only involvement in this matter—and announced the decision in a statement.

Let me be clear to the House: I made a mistake. I have been completely open about that. To the extent that what happened between Friday and Monday has caused people to question the hard-won reputation of the armed forces, that is something I profoundly regret; but I remind people that precisely because that reputation is hard won, it is not easily undermined.

Those are the facts as I know them. Let me now turn to what happens next. I made clear on Monday the implications for the specific issue of serving personnel receiving payment—I made it clear that it must not happen again—but clearly there are other lessons to be learned from the whole incident.

The first aspect relates to the operational circumstances and factors leading to the capture of the 15 personnel. This was an unusual situation with wide and far-reaching consequences. To reflect that, I can announce that the Chief of the Defence Staff has appointed Lieutenant-General Sir Rob Fulton of the Royal Marines, currently the Governor and Commander in Chief of Gibraltar, to lead an inquiry. As a retired former commander of UK amphibious task forces, he will bring both expertise and objectivity to the inquiry.

The inquiry will cover all operational aspects, including risk and threat assessment, strategic and operational planning, tactical decisions, rules of engagement, training, equipment and resources. I expect it to take around six weeks. Clearly those conducting the inquiry will consider operationally sensitive material and it will therefore not be possible to publish all the conclusions, but they will be presented to the House of Commons Defence Committee in full. I am committed to ensuring that Parliament and the public have the full facts, but also—which is just as important—to ensuring that the Ministry of Defence and the services learn from these events and do not let this happen again.

In a similar spirit and in the same time frame, I can also announce that I will be asking a small team to take over the review of the media handling which I started last week. The team will consist of a senior officer and a senior MOD official, both unconnected with these events, and will be led by an independent figure with wide media experience. The review will draw on all relevant experience, not just this particular incident but other high-profile incidents involving personnel on operations.

I want to make it clear that the review is not a witch hunt. As I have already said, I take responsibility for this particular case. Rather, the review will seek to identify lessons and make recommendations on how to manage the complex issues involved. It will make recommendations on how to balance our duty to support our people with our duty of transparency, our duty to protect the reputation of the services and, most important, our duty to protect the security of our personnel in a demanding media environment.

I take responsibility for what happened last weekend. I have acted to put it right. I have acted to ensure that we learn the lessons of the whole episode, in a manner that allows full parliamentary scrutiny. As we go through that process, we should remember the most important point—which is that we got our people back safe, and on our terms.

Let me begin by fully associating the official Opposition with the sentiments expressed by the Secretary of State about the nine servicemen and women who died serving our country. Our thoughts and prayers will be with their friends and families, and the whole country should be proud of and grateful to them.

I welcome the Secretary of State’s statement, but like all Members, I deeply regret the circumstances that made it necessary. The statement goes to the very heart of our democratic system, because it poses the question “What are politicians responsible for?”.

No one expects the Secretary of State for Defence to have day to day knowledge, far less management, of naval manoeuvres in the Persian gulf, but the wider picture is a different story. It is only three years since naval personnel were illegally abducted by Iranian forces. It should never have been allowed to happen again, especially as the threat from an ever-more belligerent Iranian regime has increased rather than decreased.

How can it be that the incursion of Iranian forces was not detected by air or by the ship’s radar? If it was detected, why was it not communicated to our sailors and marines? If communications were lost at 09.06, as the Secretary of State said, why did it take until 09.28 for the Lynx helicopter to be relaunched? Perhaps more importantly, do we even have the right naval configuration now in the northern gulf? If the northern waters are too shallow for HMS Cornwall and if we still need to protect Iraqi oil installations and carry out searches on shipping in the gulf, should we not have more, smaller vessels to supplement the activity and properly protect our personnel?

I note that there are other countries continuing their UN duties of searching shipping in the gulf. I believe that the decision to stop the Royal Navy boarding shipping in the light of this incident sends exactly the wrong signals about our resolve and intention.

We welcome the announcement of an inquiry, but we want an assurance that there will be a chance for the whole of the House of Commons to debate its broad findings, not just the Defence Committee, for this is an issue of great national importance. As the shadow Foreign Secretary said yesterday,

“It has undermined the reputation of our armed forces at home and abroad”.

Or, as The Sunday Times put it,

“Nations with unfriendly intentions towards Great Britain will have observed this latest episode with interest.”

Countries are inclined to take risks if they detect a lack of resolve. Does no one in the Government actually feel responsible for the national humiliation that we have suffered at the hands of the pariah regime of Iran?

But even if Ministers do not feel responsible for that, they cannot avoid the direct responsibility for the second fiasco; the media handling of the return of the captives. The eventual return of the captives, welcome as it was, was not a shock and the shambles around the media handling is unforgivable. The Government initially excused the decision—[Interruption.]

The Government initially excused the decision to allow stories to be sold on the basis that there was excessive media pressure and that stories would come out anyway. Yet we now know that the Press Complaints Commission offered to help the Government in preparation for this matter in advance but were snubbed by the Government. The Government initially told us, repeated by the Secretary of State today, that this was a decision for the Navy. But we know that that is not true. The Defence Council guidelines, published in 2004 after the death of David Kelly, state that for those seeking to deal with the media on national issues, authorisation should be obtained from the chief press officers in the directorate news organisation. Queen’s Regulations clearly state:

“Normally permission to express views on politically controversial issues will be refused. For any exceptions to this rule, the Director of Information Strategy and News will seek the prior approval of the Secretary of State for Defence.”

Queen’s Regulations also state that

“If there is insufficient time, the invitation should be refused.”

Does not that make a mockery of the Secretary of State’s version of events? He says that he was asked to note the decision. The truth is that he is asked to make the decision, as Secretary of State. He said that, over the weekend, he was not content with the analysis and he did not think that the Navy was either. Given that neither was content with it, why did it take almost 72 hours for the policy to change? The Secretary of State said previously that Downing street was not aware of the decision until the Sunday. Yet the Leader of the Opposition, the shadow Foreign Secretary and I were all aware on the Saturday. How can that be true? Is not the truth that the Secretary of State went back to his constituency without fully appreciating the importance of the decision he was making, and is not that the greatest indictment of all?

What I find most unbelievable is that a decision to allow stories to be sold could be taken without understanding the impact that that would have on the Army, the RAF and large parts of the Navy. For those in the Army in particular, which has taken the bulk of casualties and fatalities, to see unharmed naval colleagues profit financially caused anger, injury and offence. The hurt done to the families involved can only be guessed at. It was best summed up by the mother of one of those whose bodies were returned to the United Kingdom last week. She said:

“If you are a member of the military, it is your duty to serve your country. You should do your duty and not expect to make money by selling stories.”

In a more honourable time in politics, the resignation of a Secretary of State who had overseen such a humiliating fiasco on his watch would have been an inevitability. The Secretary of State said that he took responsibility, but the word “sorry” never passed his lips. When Argentina invaded the Falkland islands 25 years ago, no one believed that that was the fault of Lord Carrington. Yet he and his team resigned because it happened on their watch and they believed that the buck stopped with them. For them, that was a matter of honour.

We have asked a number of detailed questions of the Secretary of State. On the basis of his statement today, I believe that his position is becoming untenable as he cannot command the necessary confidence in his political decision making. That confidence is essential to the belief, morale and strength of our armed forces. His colleagues must make their own judgments. Ultimately, so must he.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his remarks in relation to those who have been lost while the House has been in recess. He speaks for all Members in what he says on that.

Anybody who has been following the hon. Gentleman’s comments over the past week could be forgiven for not being absolutely clear as to what his position is. Members will remember that initially he was accusing me of orchestrating this entire episode for propaganda purposes. A couple of days later he was complaining that precisely the opposite was the case—that I did not orchestrate the episode at all. Clearly, those claims cannot both be correct.

Many things have been said and printed over the past week. Some of them have been true and some have been untrue, but I have made my position clear throughout. I have described to the House my involvement in this process—and, indeed, also the involvement of the Prime Minister. I have said that I made a mistake. If that caused people to question the hard-won reputation of the armed forces, I deeply regret that.

It will, of course, always be the case that the hon. Gentleman will be able to find a word that I have not used, but it seems perfectly clear to me that I have expressed a degree of regret that can be equated with an apology and if he wants me to say “sorry” then I am happy to say sorry. It is possible to come up with any number of questions, but what is important is that we focus and learn from these circumstances. I intend to do that, and to get on with the job.

The hon. Gentleman also questions whether I have the confidence of the armed forces. He and others will need to ask the armed forces that for themselves. I can say that they should do so because I have confidence as to the answer that they will receive.

On operational issues, the hon. Gentleman raised a number of questions. In my statement, I made the point that because of operational security there is a limit as to how useful or appropriate it would be to debate such issues. In particular, he asked questions about why the UK has not recommenced boarding operations. Currently, advice is awaited from PJHQ—permanent joint headquarters—as to where, when and how those operations will be recommenced, and until I receive that advice, no decision can be made.

On the other issues raised, I suggest that they are precisely those that the inquiry should, and will, look at. I hope that Members were clear from the description in my statement that this inquiry has the right scope and is led by an officer with the right expertise and objectivity to ensure that the issues are looked into properly, to ensure that Parliament gets the answers it deserves and, most importantly, to ensure that we learn the lessons for the future.

I thank the Secretary of State for his statement and for notice of it. I echo his words of condolence in respect of the nine servicemen who have lost their lives and those who have been injured. The media coverage of this sorry affair has been a national embarrassment and the judgment that it would be right to allow those people to sell their stories has hardly been vindicated by the sort of reports that we have seen of one in particular complaining that he had had his iPod taken away and that his Iranian captors had called him Mr. Bean. That is not something that has covered the nation in glory around the world. The House will note that the Secretary of State has accepted some responsibility for those judgments.

The greater issues that need attention, and the questions that need to be asked now, relate not to the media coverage but to the original incident itself. Why was there inadequate cover? Why did the helicopter go back to the boat? Why, given that we are part of a coalition, were no other air assets available to help? Why were no other boats on hand? I understand that HMS Cornwall could not go in, but there are many craft between a RIB and HMS Cornwall. Why was no other support available in the sea? Following the previous incident, what sort of risk assessment had been made, and what lessons were learned?

Those are the sort of questions that the Secretary of State tells us will be addressed by the inquiry. We note that that has been set up by the Chief of the Defence Staff and is to be conducted by a former head of the Marines. Would it not be a valuable addition to have some political input, perhaps from Privy Councillors with relevant experience in that area.

It is those questions about what happened on 23 March that need to be answered and which should determine the fate of the Secretary of State for Defence. It would not be right for him to resign his post over the media coverage of those events while the Prime Minister and Cabinet who led us into the most disastrous foreign intervention in 50 years remained in post.

I do not intend to be drawn into a discussion that involves us sitting here, in the comfort of these Benches, and criticising the behaviour of young people whom we have asked to carry out a very dangerous job in dangerous circumstances—[Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] The hon. Gentleman asks several very pertinent questions and he is right that those are just the questions that the operational inquiry will have to consider. If the hon. Gentleman wishes to suggest questions for the inquiry, I would welcome that. I can assure him, from my conversations with the chiefs of staff—and in particular with the Chief of the Defence Staff—that it is already the intention that the terms of reference of that inquiry will reflect the broad range of questions that the hon. Gentleman poses. In passing, I should say that we will publish the terms of reference of the inquiry once they are settled.

The hon. Gentleman invites me to consider adding someone from a political background to Lieutenant-General Sir Rob Fulton, who is an eminently qualified person to carry out an operational inquiry, given his distinguished career in the Royal Marines and his own significant experience of operations. That would be entirely inappropriate. It is important that the operational matters are investigated by and recommendations made by people with the appropriate experience and expertise to do that. I cannot think of anybody from a political background who would add anything to those necessary ingredients.

Since the shadow Secretary of State for Defence mentioned the offer from the Press Complaints Commission to advise the 15 young service people who were risking their lives for their country but were totally inexperienced in dealing with the press, can my right hon. Friend say whether the PCC cited the example of a public servant—the chairman of the PCC—who as ambassador to Washington broke every rule in the book in selling his story to the press? There was no PCC investigation of that.

Somewhat surprisingly, in the short e-mail received from the PCC no mention was made of the issues that my right hon. Friend raises. However, the offer should be seen in its proper context and in its terms. I am grateful to the PCC, which helpfully reminded the MOD on Thursday 5 April that it was on hand to help, should the need arise. That was the actual offer. As a matter of fact, early on, the MOD had put in place comprehensive plans to ensure that each family was properly protected from media intrusion, and that protection, which is part of our duty of care, continues. Our media minders report that, despite the media pressure on the families, to date none of the 15 service personnel or their families has complained about media harassment. I remind Members that the rules of the PCC require the commission to satisfy itself that any complaint has first been dealt with by the editor of the newspaper involved before the PCC can take and exercise its jurisdiction.

The Secretary of State must appreciate that one does not have to be partisan to conclude that he has presided over a trinity of national embarrassment. He has already announced a public inquiry into the apprehension of the service personnel. He has apologised for the media handling, but he has not so far commented on the third national embarrassment—that certain of the service personnel, when they were apprehended and paraded on Iranian television, chose to apologise for their behaviour and for the fact that their country had—[Interruption.]

These are matters of grave public importance, because in the past service personnel have constantly been instructed as to what they should do when they find themselves in the hands of the enemy. Is the Secretary of State taking action to discover whether those service personnel were given proper instructions as to how they should behave, and will he try to ensure that in future, so far as it is within the power of his Department, British service personnel do not give unjustified apologies that merely embarrass not only the Government but their country?

As I have already said, I do not intend, from the comparative comfort of this place, to get into criticising the way in which young people behaved in circumstances of which I have no experience. However, that said, I accept the broader points that the right hon. and learned Gentleman makes. I can assure him that all but one of the service personnel involved were given the appropriate training, as far as I am aware. I am advised that that is the case; all but one of them was given appropriate training in how to conduct themselves in those circumstances. However, the people who debriefed the personnel, who have the interrogation expertise to make this judgment, have told me that in their view those young people deported themselves and behaved well within the bounds of appropriate conduct in the situation in which they found themselves. I am not in a position to make that judgment on their behalf, but I accept the judgment made by those with the expertise. In my view, there is no legitimate criticism to be made of those young people and I do not accept that the way in which they conducted themselves and the way in which they were opportunistically exploited by the Iranians for propaganda purposes causes any embarrassment to this country.

My right hon. Friend will be very aware that both Faye Turney and Arthur Batchelor are my constituents, so I was in close contact with the media during the course of their detention. Indeed, the media were camped outside a number of homes in my constituency and it became clear from my conversations with those people that they believed that the stories had already been sold before either Faye or Arthur left Tehran.

My right hon. Friend spoke about reviewing the regulations and ensuring that service personnel cannot sell their stories. How could the Government have controlled the leaking of stories via a third party? Clearly, the families were under the most pressure, so what specific support was given to the families: was it one-to-one, or did the families have to ask for it?

The specific support given to the families was the responsibility of the Royal Navy. Members will recollect that on the day the detainees were released, almost every single family expressed through the media its deep gratitude for the support received from the MOD and the Navy. These matters are continually kept under review to ensure that we are in a position to support families that find themselves in these very difficult circumstances. We can say with a degree of satisfaction that that part of the support passed without incident and certainly without controversy.

My hon. Friend puts her finger exactly on one of the complicating factors that created the difficult circumstances in which those who acted in good faith made the decision and interpretation of the regulations that they did. The view was taken—I understand this—that these stories would be told and that the likelihood was that they would be told in an uncontrolled environment where there would be some danger of risk to operational security. In my view, there can be no controversy about the decision to support the young people to tell their stories—just as the decision to support the young people who gave the press conference was the right decision to ensure that no operational risks would take place. The controversy arises from the issue of payment for those accounts of events, which is exactly what I have asked the review to look into. I will act on the recommendations of that review.

On behalf of Plaid Cymru and the Scottish National party, I associate myself fully with the Secretary of State’s expressions of condolence.

Many of us believe that the Secretary of State should have declined to accede to the MOD request immediately he received it. Does it not presuppose a problem with military discipline? Should he not have gone back to the top brass and told them to remind the young people of their obligations and order them not to speak to the media?

I have admitted my mistake in relation to that matter and the answer to the hon. Gentleman’s question can be seen by my actions subsequently, when I did just that.

The Foreign Office and other parts of the Government who secured the release of our people from unjustified detention should be congratulated. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] However, those people in the United States and elsewhere—the neo-cons—who wanted to create some kind of military confrontation out of this crisis were not providing good advice. Will the Government continue to work in a measured, diplomatic and calm way to deal with the very difficult problems presented by this disgusting regime in Iran and its manipulation of the media? This will surely not be the last of the attempts by the Iranians to win propaganda victories. The reality is that we face very serious problems in that region and so does the rest of the region and the rest of the world.

As I have said before at the Dispatch Box, in my view Iran represents a strategic threat to the region by its behaviour, not least given the evidence that elements in Iran are interfering in Iraq, as well as the relationship with Hezbollah and, indeed, with terrorist and insurgent forces in Palestine. My hon. Friend is quite right that Iran has to be made to face up to its responsibilities. The Government’s efforts have concentrated on working with the international community, with our partners in the region and with others whom we worked with to secure the release of the detainees, and we will continue to do just that to ensure that the Iranian Government face up to their responsibilities.

All the real losers in this sorry business are the men and women of the Royal Navy, who are hanging their heads in shame, as one of them said to me yesterday. Will the Secretary of State confirm that he will ensure that the media inquiry looks at the reasons why, unlike the Army, the Royal Navy continues to refuse to have a permanent, professional media-trained staff to handle this sort of incident? Given that that has been the responsibility of the Second Sea Lord from start to finish of this sorry business, can the right hon. Gentleman confirm whether or not the Second Sea Lord has offered his resignation?

I have no evidence to suggest that the absence of that skill at that level in the command chain in the Navy contributed to the circumstances. It will, of course, be a matter that may come out in the review, in considering the support that individual services need to support their people in this modern media environment. I have no intention of discussing the status of the Second Sea Lord. As far as I am concerned, today is about my accountability to Parliament, and I have accepted my responsibilities.

My right hon. Friend may have anticipated having to endure a heavy barrage this afternoon, but from my perspective, it seems as though most of the shells were blank and all of them singularly ill-aimed. Does he agree that, while hell hath no fury like a tabloid editor outbid by a rival, those very editors would surely have been constructing headlines along the lines of “Hero hostages gagged” if they had not been allowed to speak? May I ask my right hon. Friend, in continuation of the calm, sober and dignified statement that he has made to the House this afternoon, to leave this matter to Lieutenant-General Sir Rob Fulton, to concentrate on his vital task as Secretary of State for Defence and not to be further distracted by this irrelevance?

My hon. Friend, in his own inimitable style, puts his finger on part of the complexity of the environment that we now live in. In particular, supporting young people and their families in that environment if they are exposed, as these young people have been, to such newsworthy events is a significant challenge, and part of my responsibility and part of my intention, as I continue to lead the MOD, will be to ensure that we put in place the support that is necessary to ensure that we can protect our young people, to the extent that we can, from the complexity of those challenges and support them through the difficulties in which they might find themselves in future, because the one thing that is certain is that, as operations continue, the pressure on people to sell their stories to the media will continue.

Is the decision to return the Lynx from the area of the boarding party the standard operational procedure for air support for such boarding operations? Why was HMS Cornwall—a batch 3 Type 22 frigate equipped to carry two Lynx helicopters—deployed in that war zone with only one Lynx helicopter?

Having a helicopter observe a compliant boarding was not required by the standard operating procedures. The Lynx was available and was used for the initial stages of the operation, in line with previous experience. Once the boarding party was aboard, the Lynx was tasked to return to the Cornwall. The helicopter did not remain above the al-Hanin not because of the availability of helicopters, but because operational procedures did not require it to remain. The answer to the hon. Gentleman’s question about why the Cornwall was deployed with the resources that it has is that that followed the assessment of the resources that would be needed to do the job.

My right hon. Friend was quite right to come to the House at the earliest opportunity to give us an account of what happened in Iran. In all the fuss over the last week about the sale of the stories to the media, one fact seems to have been forgotten: our naval personnel were seized illegally and in an act of provocation by Iran, and their release was secured only by the success of British diplomacy. After my right hon. Friend’s statement, Britain’s best interests would be served by all of us condemning Iran for its action and reaffirming our support for the men and women of the British armed forces—the finest armed forces in the world—who deserve our backing as they continue our struggle in the middle east.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his contribution. We should not forget that Iran detained our people illegally and that as a result of bilateral and multilateral pressure it was forced to return them without any form of deal and without the apology that the Iranian Government craved to save face. While the events of the last 10 days have not been satisfactory, they do not change the fundamental position. The Iranian Government know that they lost this propaganda war and so do the other countries of the region.

The Government’s position seems to be that shallow-draft fast patrol craft cannot safely be deployed to the Gulf because they lack air assets, but given that Cornwall’s Lynx helicopter, on this occasion and for whatever reason, appears to have been as useful as a chocolate fire-guard, will the Minister revisit his decision to dispose of three minor war vessels that are tied up alongside in Devonport, pending the outcome of his review?

As with all military operations, the use of one capability over another involves a trade-off. As the hon. Gentleman points out, smaller vessels would inevitably not have many of the capabilities of HMS Cornwall and vice versa, which may have been relevant depending on the scenarios that we were dealing with. This is certainly an issue that the inquiry will consider—I will ensure that it does. I know that the Chief of the Defence Staff wants it to be one of the issues that the inquiry will consider. It is clear that minesweepers are not the answer, because they lack the speed required and are too lightly armed for this work.

I consider the Secretary of State a man of the highest integrity and of considerable humility—a quality that is missing too often in the House. He has said that he is sorry and we should leave it at that. Since the Navy does a very useful job in Iraq in patrolling the coast and protecting the oil infrastructure of the country, and in preventing smuggling, will he assure us that that operation will continue with our full backing?

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for her opening remarks. I appreciate them greatly. Coming from her, they are all the more valuable to me. It is our intention to continue to make a contribution to the taskforce that carries out those maritime operations in the north Arabian gulf. I have visited one of our ships out there to see how important that work is. There has been a concentration on one aspect of their work in the House today, and understandably so, but substantially the Cornwall is there to protect a really important part of the Iraqi oil infrastructure: the oil terminal. That is why the Cornwall, and ships of that class, are the appropriate ships to be there: because of the nature of the work that they need to do. We should not forget that, on occasions, 85 per cent. of the GDP of Iraq comes out through that terminal. It is crucially important to the economic welfare and development of Iraq. It is not our intention to abandon that very important work that we currently carry out with the United States and the Australians, as well as with the Iraqis themselves.

The sad long list of names that the Secretary of State for Defence read at the beginning of his statement demonstrates that, while the House talks about sailors selling stories, soldiers face death and danger on a daily basis on the streets. Yet still they do not have the correct armoured vehicles in which to patrol and they expose themselves to unnecessary danger from Iranian weaponry and munitions. When will those soldiers get the tools to do the job?

I respect the hon. Gentleman’s views on these matters because of his experience in, and contribution to, our armed forces. He regularly engages with me on such issues and knows my commitment to ensuring that we live up to the undertaking of giving our commanders what they need to do the job on the ground. He also knows the advances that we have made in the past 12 months on getting additional protected vehicles in place, especially in southern Iraq. However, the experience of the attack on the Warrior makes it very clear that the type of device that is being deployed against our forces is such that it is unthinkable that we could find an armoured vehicle that would stand against that and with which we could do a job. As he knows, this is about not just vehicles, but tactics, intelligence and other operational requirements. As events over the weekend have shown, all those things have improved exceptionally in Basra. Our troops there are literally fighting back against the risks with significant success.

As far as I am concerned, we should be packing their bags and bringing them all back home. However, may I ask the Secretary of State a question about the Royal Marines who were captured? They never went running to the press like the Royal Navy did, so were there different orders for the Royal Navy and the Royal Marines?

I am sure that my hon. Friend knows that both the Royal Marines and the seamen are members of the Navy, so the same rules applied to both. The decisions that people made in relation to the offers available were a matter for them. I do not have the detail of who was offered what, and even if I did, I do not think that it would help the question of my accountability to the House to discuss such issues.

My hon. Friend’s views about our operations in Iraq are well known. It is my intention that those who serve in our armed forces in Iraq will come home as soon as possible, but that will be when the conditions are right and we can say that the Iraqi forces are able themselves to address the threat that continues to exist in that part of the world.

Should the Secretary of State have been more mindful of the thousands of the people in the armed services, including special forces, and in the intelligence community who have to accept the discipline that they do not talk to the press about their work? They are helped in doing so if the rules are clear and undermined if stories are sold. There are many difficult decisions that the Secretary of State has to take, but surely, given the predictable outcome, this was not difficult.

People should be clear that the same Queen’s Regulations apply to all three services. It was to ensure that there was not differential interpretation of the regulations in the future that I structured the announcement that I made on Monday in such a way.

The news management of returning detainees is nothing new, as anyone who read John Nichol’s account in yesterday’s edition of The Observer would know. When he returned in 1991, he was told:

“ministers have decreed that former PoWs will attend a mass press conference and relate their experiences”,

whether they wanted to or not. He wrote that a few days later “someone changed their mind.” I do not need to remind people that the Ministers in 1991 belonged to the so-called honourable Conservative party—I do not recall hearing calls for resignations. Of course, what has changed is the climate, because we now have mobile phones that can send pictures instantly. Will the new regulations that my right hon. Friend will introduce take such new technology into account?

That is part of the changed circumstances that will be addressed by the review. Without any great furore, we are regularly treated to the broadcasting on our media of film that has clearly been taken on mobile phone cameras by serving personnel in the heart of operations, and nothing like such concern has been expressed about that. Perhaps, just as the whole of the 1991 episode revealed, it is long overdue that such issues are addressed in the way in which I have set out.

The Secretary of State has said that he is awaiting a signal from PJHQ in respect of the recommencement of boarding operations. Is that something for him to note, or to decide?

We will restart boardings when PJHQ has reviewed the operational environment and has issued further direction on exactly when, where and how such operations should take place. My understanding is that that matter will come to me for decision.

I realise that one or two Conservative Members are former cavalrymen, but there seem to be far more hon. Members looking down on the situation from very high horses. It seems likely that some parts of the Queen’s Regulations will be examined, but does my right hon. Friend agree that, whatever the regulations eventually state in black and white, it is essential that senior officers and Ministers have fair room to exercise their proper judgment?

As someone said from a sedentary position, that is a good question. It is true that the inflexible application of regulations sometimes results in inappropriate outcomes. However, a far more important part of the lesson of last weekend is that clear consistency regarding the interpretation of the regulations is needed across all three services. I am determined that that will be achieved. It is important that those who serve in the armed forces know exactly where they stand and that there is no doubt about whether they should be required to resist the sorts of payment that were put in front of those young people.

What we cannot escape is that we endured an operational humiliation at the hands of Iran, followed by a self-inflicted humiliation for the reputation of the Royal Navy at the hands of its own board. These wretched events are symptomatic of a collapse of the covenant between the nation and its armed services. The Secretary of State must give serious consideration to whether in the present circumstances, having given the apology that he has given to the House, he is the right person to try to repair and put that covenant back together.

The hon. Gentleman exaggerates in several respects. First, not all operations are successful. As senior military officers often say to me, in the vocabulary that he will recognise, “the enemy get a vote”. That is why we need to review the operation and those of a similar nature to ensure, to the extent that it is ever possible to do that, that what happened does not happen again. However, I do not accept that the operation was a humiliation for the Royal Navy.

On the hon. Gentleman’s other point, the people must judge my record in the whole of the past year. This is a challenging time for the MOD—perhaps the times are always challenging for the MOD—I have an important job to do, and I intend to get on with it.

It is very refreshing for a Secretary of State to come to Parliament, to admit full responsibility, to say that he is to blame and to say that he is sorry. I congratulate my right hon. Friend on doing that. I genuinely want to ask him, because it is the sort of question that the public will be asking, if a Secretary of State has made mistakes and admits that he has done something wrong, what sort of mistake does it take for him then to decide that he should offer his resignation? I am asking for my right hon. Friend’s view.

My hon. Friend’s opening remarks are no mean praise and I accept them in the spirit in which they are offered. I decline her invitation to set out the parameters and thresholds for ministerial resignation.

I welcome the Secretary of State’s contriteness in now—belatedly—accepting the principle that service personnel join up to serve their country, not their pocket. Nevertheless, it remains disturbing that the 15 captives, who included two officers, were so easily manipulated into making apologies that were not due. I suggest that, instead of trying to wash his hands of the whole incident, the Secretary of State should accept that he is ultimately responsible for the armed services. He should examine the situation carefully to ensure that it does not happen again, because it has been a disgrace to this country.

I accept my responsibility, but I say very clearly, as I have already done twice in the House, that I do not think that I or anybody else in the House should volunteer themselves into a situation in which they can condemn those young people for their behaviour, and for their exploitation in circumstances of which, as far as I am aware, nobody in the House has any experience at all. The hon. Gentleman asks that I accept responsibility; I have accepted responsibility, and there is nothing belated about my doing so. I have nothing further to add in relation to the conduct of the young people involved.

A constituent of mine was one of the 15 members of our armed forces captured by Iran. May I say to my right hon. Friend that the overwhelming feeling in my community is one of relief and joy that the safe recovery of those brave people was secured? My constituent chose to say very little to the press, but of all the other commentators who have piled in on the issue, both inside and outside the House, is it not a pity that more did not choose to thank those responsible for, and involved in, the peaceable resolution of the matter?

Clearly, in securing as we did, through the means by which we did, the safe return of the people concerned, the Government were doing their job. I have to say that in my time in government, I have long moved away from expecting anybody to recognise something as being other than what is expected from the Government, and that is exactly how it should be. May I take the opportunity to pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s constituent, whose identity I do not know, for the service that he has given, the job that he was doing in difficult circumstances, his ability to sustain himself in detention, and the way in which he has conducted himself since he returned?

Modernising Medical Careers

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement on the progress that we are making in relation to modernising medical careers. As I explained to the House in my written statement on 27 March, the independent review group continued its work over the Easter recess, which included making two important announcements to applicants for training places. Copies of those announcements are being placed in the Library today. The review group decided that it would be wrong to abandon the process of interviews now under way and concentrated instead on how to change the process in order to meet the needs of junior doctors and the NHS as a whole. Furthermore, it concluded that the problems that have arisen relate in the main to the implementation process, and not to the underlying principles of modernising medical careers.

Following the review group’s recommendations, recruitment to general practice training programmes, which has not generally given rise to problems, will continue as planned, although the timetable may need to be revised to make sure that it is co-ordinated with the revised timetable for other specialties. The review group is undertaking further work on recruitment to academic medical programmes, and it will make a further announcement on that shortly.

On recruitment for speciality training, which is where most of the recent problems arose, the review group’s statement on 4 April sets out the changes needed. The group’s proposals have the support of the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges and the British Medical Association and are now being implemented by the NHS with the postgraduate deaneries. For applicants who have already been shortlisted, all interviews already conducted in round 1 will be honoured and the outcomes will count. Eligible applicants will also be able to revise their preferences later this week in the light of published competition ratios, and they will be offered an interview for their first preference post, if they have not already had one. Eligible applicants who were not previously shortlisted will also be able to revise their preferences and will be guaranteed an offer of an interview for their first preference.

We expect job offers to begin to be made in early June, but not all jobs will be filled at that point. There will then be a second round of recruitment for applicants who do not get a job in the first round. That second round will be based on a revised short listing and interview process, which will include a structured CV.

This has been a time of great distress for junior doctors and their families, and I apologise to them unreservedly for the anxiety that has been caused. I believe that we now have the right way forward for this year’s recruitment to general practice and speciality training, and that applicants can be confident that they will be treated fairly. I want to record my thanks to Professor Neil Douglas and his review group for the very considerable amount of time and expertise that they have already contributed. They will continue their work and, as I have said previously, we will publish their final report. I want to thank, too, the NHS consultants and deaneries who are being asked to conduct a large number of extra interviews within a short space of time. We will keep the timetable under review. The Health Departments in the other home countries will be making their own announcements on the arrangements that apply there.

Finally, the review group was set up to deal with this year’s recruitment process. We are now some two years into the modernising medical careers programme that began with the successful launch of foundation programmes in 2005. The time is now right to undertake a wider review, to clarify and strengthen the principles underlying MMC and to ensure that, where necessary, we make further changes for future years. Historically, Britain’s medical education and training system has been rightly regarded as second to none. The creation of a competence-based training system that is widely accepted remains the right way forward, but all involved must be confident that the pursuit of excellence remains at the heart of the system. I am therefore establishing a second independent review to consider those and other broader issues. I am very pleased that Professor Sir John Tooke has agreed to chair the independent review. Sir John is dean of the Peninsula medical school, chair of the Council of Heads of Medical Schools and chair of the UK health education advisory committee. We are working with Sir John on the terms of reference and membership of the review, and I will make a further announcement shortly. Modernising medical careers is a UK-wide programme, so the devolved Administrations will be fully involved in the process. We will, of course, publish Sir John’s report.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for her statement and for the chance to see it beforehand. I am glad that she volunteered a statement on this occasion, instead of being dragged to the Chamber, as she was on 19 March. She has had to eat three helpings of humble pie this afternoon—first, in making an apology, which she should have done on 19 March, but I am glad that she has done so now; secondly, in saying that at least in the second round of interviews there will be access to a structured CV, which, she maintained, would be true in the first round, when she spoke to the House on 19 March; and, thirdly, in accepting the need for a further strategic review, which she has not been willing to concede previously.

In her statement, the Secretary of State said that it was the implementation process that went wrong, not modernising medical careers itself. She is right that MMC has attracted support in principle, including from the Opposition, but questions about implementation were raised by the British Medical Association and the royal colleges, which she and her Department have overridden—if only she had listened. When Professor Alan Crockard resigned as national director of MMC he said that the medical training application service

“was developed and procured by the Department of Health outside my influence.”

He went on to say:

“From my point of view, this project”—

namely, MTAS—

“has lacked clear leadership from the top for a very long time.”

Subsequently, when Professor Shelley Heard resigned as the MMC national clinical adviser she said that the principles that the Secretary of State says have so much support

“have been lost in the detail and acrimony of a recruitment process which should have supported and not driven it.”

There have therefore been two resignations by people who hold others responsible. Who, then, does the Secretary of State hold responsible?

The way forward this year is still fraught with difficulty. Does the Secretary of State believe that it is sustainable to offer applicants up to four interviews in the first place, but to make them choose only one? She said that the second round will be based on a revised shortlisting and interview process, including a structured CV. Does that mean abandoning the absurd scoring system for shortlisting? Will interviewers in the first round have access to a full CV and references or, as I understand it, will the first interview still be conducted on the same basis as was first proposed, with all the attendant problems?

Will the Secretary of State say how many posts will be available—18,500 have been loaded on MTAS so far, and there were originally 33,000 applications? What are the two respective figures now?

Clearly, there were more applicants than the Department expected. On 19 March, I asked the Secretary of State whether she would create extra training posts by reclassifying trust grade posts. Will she now confirm that her Department has subsequently asked trusts to do as I proposed? And how many such posts is she willing financially to support?

Will the Secretary of State ensure, not least by creating new training posts, that the lost tribe of senior house officers are not forced into a dead end? She must know that they were disadvantaged under the MTAS scoring system, and if they do not gain ST3 posts this year, they will be ineligible in future years. For example, she must know that 1,829 surgeons have been shortlisted for ST3 posts and that only 534 posts are available. Will the Secretary of State promise that they will be able to access training posts this year, even if only on a one-year basis, and that they will be eligible for run-through training posts next year and potentially the year after, so that there is a viable transition for them?

Finally, I welcome Sir John Tooke’s appointment to head a full review, which we also called for. It is time for the medical profession to reassert its responsibility for the education and training of future medics. MMC is needed to reflect a changed world in which trainees are no longer expected substantially to deliver NHS services, but the principle has been undermined by lamentable implementation. The Secretary of State and her Department must accept responsibility for that, and in the light of the appalling shambles that they have made of the situation, will she promise to listen and to let the medical profession give the lead in future?

The hon. Gentleman referred to the recent resignations from the MMC team. My colleagues and I regret the resignations of both Professor Alan Crockard and Professor Shelley Heard. They are both distinguished figures in the field of medical education and training, and I am sure that they will both continue to make a contribution.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the MTAS system and to what he described as the “absurd selection criteria”.

The development of the selection criteria and the scoring system was undertaken by members of the medical profession in consultation with all key stakeholders as well as the Department of Health. That is, of course, being reviewed, which is one of the reasons why we have the review group under Professor Neil Douglas, which is now looking at the details of round 2.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the number of applicants. As I have previously told the House, we received just over 32,000 eligible applications, the great majority of which came from people who are already working within the NHS in one capacity or another. He referred to the number of training posts and, in particular, run-through training posts, and I hope that he agrees that the number of training posts needs to be shaped by the needs of the national health service and future developments in medical technology. As part of the Department’s work with the review group, we asked the service some weeks ago to look at the number of training posts that it was making available in different specialties to see whether it wished to change either the number or the level at which those training posts become available.

The hon. Gentleman asked me to listen to the views of the medical profession and, I hope, the deaneries and others involved in medical education, which is precisely what we have been doing over many years in developing MMC, over the past two years in the successful introduction of the foundation programme and in recent weeks in this difficult transition year and the first year of implementation of full speciality training. I remind him what Dr. Jonathan Fielden, the chairman of the British Medical Association central consultants and specialists committee, has said:

“Having heard the major concerns of the profession and considered all available options we have now produced a practical solution deliverable in England.”

We can now

“move on and appoint the best candidates to the right posts to train and treat patients.”

Dr. Jo Hilborne, chair of the BMA’s junior doctors committee, says:

“We have worked hard to find a practical way forward which treats applicants fairly.”

The training group of the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges says that it has achieved its aim of maximising choice for applicants applying to modernising medical careers without compromising patient safety by overburdening the service.

That is why I said with confidence that the work of the review group and the changes that we have made, on the basis of its work, to this year’s process have the full support of the medical profession.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend, first, on the establishment of the full review and, secondly, on her fulsome apology to those who have been affected. Will she confirm that in addition to the obvious need to get it right for the individuals concerned, it is important that the Department now concentrates on raising the morale of all those affected? Morale in the health service is worth an enormous amount of resource and of those individuals’ personal commitment, and so many of the young people affected feel that they have been neglected and, in some cases, let down by the system.

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. There is no doubt that because implementation in this first year of full transition to the new system was not in any way adequate, several of those highly committed junior doctors do indeed feel let down. I, and others, have fully acknowledged that. That is why enormous efforts are being made, particularly by consultants across the service. I am very grateful not only to consultants but to the service as a whole for ensuring that those consultants can be released from their normal commitments for the additional time that will be needed to interview the additional applicants who will now get interviews. That will ensure that all applicants are treated fairly and that the best people are appointed to training programmes and posts within the NHS, which is what all of us would want for the patients whom we all serve.

I thank the Secretary of State for the advance copy of her statement.

The Secretary of State’s apology is welcome, as is the announcement of the wider review, although I think that most people will be confused about how many reviews we how have. Could not this whole debacle, which has so sapped morale in the profession, have been avoided by proper piloting and better engagement with professional groups in listening to concerns that they have been expressing for a very long time?

The statement asserts that there is no problem with the underlying principles, yet goes on to say that the wider review will

“clarify and strengthen the principles”.

Is there a problem with the principles, or not?

Has there been any assessment of the cost of the recovery operation and the impact on patient care of thousands of additional interviews over a six-week period—and, indeed, of whether it is logistically possible?

The Secretary of State highlights the support for the review group’s proposals, but does she accept that many people do not support the plan? Does not Remedy UK have a powerful case in that the process remains deeply flawed, with so-called rescue interviews taking place later and possibly with different panel memberships? That is not a fair interview process. The statement refers to second-round interviews using a

“revised shortlisting and interviewing process”.

When will the details of that be known? Is it not remarkable that no reference is made to the massive mismatch between the numbers of applicants and the numbers of training posts available?

What will happen to those who do not get posts? It is still not clear quite how many there will be; I heard the answer to the previous question. Has not there been a total failure of work force planning whereby thousands of expensively trained dedicated professionals may be left without specialist training posts? Will those issues be part of the wider review? The Secretary of State said that there were likely to be some extra training posts. When will we know whether that is so, and how many there will be?

Will the Secretary of State include in her review a thorough analysis of what went wrong and who is responsible for creating this crisis in the first place?

The hon. Gentleman refers to the two reviews. We established the independent review group under Professor Neil Douglas to deal with the situation that had arisen this year. The absolute priority was to sort out the problems that had arisen with this year’s applications in order that posts could be filled, as they must be, for August, when the current posts, by and large, come to an end. That was what we had to focus on and that is what we have done for several weeks since the scale of the problem became clear.

However, we also need to ensure that we learn broader lessons for the future. As I said, I believe that the principles underlying modernising medical careers are sound, which is precisely what the review group and many others have said. However, particularly in the light of what has happened this year, we need to consider how those principles can be further reinforced and how their implementation can be further strengthened, and we are inviting the second independent review group, under Professor Sir John Tooke, to examine, for instance, some of the specific issues that have been raised about the degree of flexibility in the run-through training programmes provided under MMC.

The hon. Gentleman asks whether the new approach to round 1 interviews would be logistically possible, given the number of additional interviews that will now have to be conducted. The view that the Department, the review group and others take is that it is logistically possible, but only with considerable effort. That is why I referred, in response to the comments from my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett), to the fact that the service around the country will in many cases need to release consultants from their planned activities in order to make time available for the additional interviews. That is why we are keeping the timetable under review.

The hon. Member for North Norfolk referred to Remedy UK and those who had suggested that a more radical change should have been made for this year. Let me refer him to what the review group said on Wednesday 4 April:

“Serious consideration has been given to all of the options available, including a full and detailed analysis of pulling out of the current selection process completely. In the end, it was simply not a credible option. It would be impossible to place the best candidates in posts and fulfil the service needs in time for August using the old system of recruitment. We believe we have come up with the best available solution for England.”

That conclusion of the review group, as I said, has been endorsed by the medical royal colleges and by the BMA.

The hon. Gentleman refers to the prospect or the possibility of unemployment among junior doctors. Although he did not fall into this trap, let me take the opportunity to refer to the thoroughly misleading statements made in recent weeks about the prospect of thousands of junior doctors finding themselves without work. That is complete nonsense. As I said in response to points made by the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley), the great majority of eligible applicants are already working in the service.

Of course, there may be situations in which somebody who has applied for a run-through training programme is not successful in obtaining that and will therefore need to continue in the staff job or, in some cases, to apply for a staff job. The review group is working on the nature of the support that we need to give people in that position and will want to make further announcements.

Last Friday, I met a senior house doctor who was speaking on behalf of a number of his colleagues from a variety of professions in the NHS. He said that, as far as Scotland was concerned, much ground had been recovered but that it was vital for all concerned that UK-wide progress could be made. Can my right hon. Friend assure me that ongoing efforts will be made to ensure that the progress that has been made in Scotland will be mirrored right across the country?

I can certainly give my hon. Friend that assurance. Obviously, we are dealing with far larger numbers of applicants in England than the NHS is in Scotland, but that is why we have established the review group and why we are so determined to ensure that we implement its proposals in a way that is fair to junior doctors and other applicants and that reassures them after the anxiety and distress that have been caused. My hon. Friend referred to senior house officers, and it is worth recalling the enormous difficulties that the old training system caused, particularly for SHOs, who, on various occasions, have notoriously been described as a “lost tribe” and who often had to apply for a new job every six months without knowing whether they would be able to continue their training in their chosen specialty.

In today’s post, I received three glossy brochures about different parts of the NHS and a letter about PCT reorganisation, which reminded me that the strategic health authority in my part of the country takes 10 per cent. of the money that goes to the hospitals and the SHA together. Is not the truth behind this crisis that there is not enough money to appoint decent doctors with appropriate experience and training because the Secretary of State’s priority is to have an NHS suitable for the glossy brochure industry and for all these reorganisations?

That comment is not at all worthy of the right hon. Gentleman. It is a bit much for him to allege a lack of funding for the training and employment of doctors when the Government of whom he was a part starved the NHS of funds for nearly two decades and when we are training and employing more doctors, nurses and other health care professionals than the NHS has ever had before.

When I saw the leader of Stafford’s junior doctors last week, she said that there was broad support for the standardisation that this system brings, and for it being an online system. Sadly, however, she also told me of the all too many instances of great distress being caused by the system. These included stories of people having their choices, and their family ties and personal circumstances, ignored, and of people who felt so disillusioned that they did not even believe that their applications had been properly read before a decision was made. Should not such situations be ironed out of the system? Should not the Secretary of State give an assurance that, in the second round and beyond, there will be greater respect for the individual circumstances of every applicant?

The cases to which my hon. Friend refers are exactly what led us to establish the review group and to change the process for this year’s recruitment and training programmes. A critical aspect of the way in which we are now moving forward is that every applicant will be guaranteed an interview for their first preference post. I have no doubt that, when applicants decide their preferences, they take into account the location of the various posts available as well as the specialty within which the post is offered. Similarly, when the service makes decisions on job offers, they will be matched—as far as possible—to the first preferences that have been indicated by all junior doctor applicants.

Remedy UK and Mums 4 Medics have done valiant work to try to bring together the concerns of doctors in training and their seniors. Will the Secretary of State, either now or very shortly, announce the e-mail address to which people can send their concerns, including the possibility—or, in some cases, the certainty—that some doctors have had their answers dissociated from their own application and were considered on the basis of answers given by other people? That is one of the real worries that has not yet had the attention that it deserves. Doctors should be judged on their own applications and CVs, not on those of others.

Various allegations about applications being wiped from the system have been investigated and found not to be true. For instance, the allegation that 1,300 or 1,500 applications had been lost turned out to refer to the number of applications from people who were ineligible for training programmes; applications from eligible applicants had not been lost from the system. I have not heard any accounts of people who believe that their details have been lost from their application and someone else’s details substituted. If the hon. Gentleman gives me the details of those cases, I will ensure that they are properly investigated.

Last autumn, I wrote to the Secretary of State expressing concerns about this year’s implementation. The reply from the then Health Minister, Lord Warner, indicated that my concerns were misplaced, so several weeks ago I wrote back to the Secretary of State’s ministerial team pointing out that the implementation was not going well, to say the least, and asking whether anyone responsible had been disciplined as a consequence. I have not received a reply to that question.

I do not wish to know names. I do not wish to hear that the Department does not believe in a blame culture, because that would be avoiding responsibility. I do not wish to hear that it is time to move on. What I would like to know from the Secretary of State is whether any disciplinary proceedings are in train or concluded against anyone whatsoever for these problems; if so, how many; and if not, why not.

As I said earlier, once the problems became apparent our absolute focus was on sorting them out. That has been and remains the priority. But as I also said earlier, of course there are lessons that we need to learn from what has gone wrong this year, and that will be a matter for the independent review group. As far as I am aware, no disciplinary or performance management steps are being taken in the Department, but no doubt that can be considered as appropriate.

As one who is currently undergoing treatment in the NHS, I pay tribute to the medical care that I have received. However, I also wish to convey the anger that a number of junior doctors whom I have seen when I have been in hospital—not just my constituents—have expressed to me about the way in which the whole debacle has arisen, and the fact that so many of them are now considering taking their careers abroad.

The Secretary of State’s earlier answer to a question about possible unemployment was slightly disingenuous. It may be true that nearly all those involved are currently employed in the NHS, but if they cannot see their careers advancing in the NHS, they will take their valuable skills abroad—skills that we have paid to give them.

There are now two groups of people: those who have already been interviewed for their first choice and those whose applications for interviews for their first choice were originally rejected, and who will quite rightly be given them after the Secretary of State’s review. There is concern in both groups about whether the interviews will take place on an equal basis. Can the Secretary of State assure us that those who were originally refused interviews and who will be given them now will be interviewed on exactly the same basis, and against the same criteria, as those who were interviewed on the first occasion?

There are more training places for junior doctors now than ever before. As for the important issue of applicants who were not given interviews during the initial shortlisting process and who will be given them now, of course I can assure the hon. Gentleman that all applicants will be treated fairly and equally. I am sure that the House would expect nothing less of the interviewing panels.

Let me also take this opportunity to wish the hon. Gentleman a speedy recovery.

I understand the Secretary of State’s problems. She has to accept the opinions of the sources that feed information to her. However, I want to make her aware of the grass-roots feeling of senior consultants in the NHS who oppose the views of the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges.

I have received no fewer than 40 letters in the last four or five days from senior consultants involved in medical training, and with only one exception they have said three things: that the national selection process has failed, that despite the review the morale of the juniors is still at rock bottom, and that the only answer is to scrap the medical training application service. Some have suggested ways of filling the posts by 1 August even if MTAS is scrapped.

I always listen carefully to the hon. Gentleman’s views on these matters, but I must stress to him that the review group, which includes some rather distinguished members of the medical profession, has looked very carefully at proposals from various quarters for scrapping this year’s system and returning to the old system, or doing something else in order to fill the posts by August. As I said when I quoted from the group’s statement of 4 April, it concluded that that was simply not credible or possible. On that basis, we need to move forward and I hope that all consultants involved in education and, in particular, interviewing for training places will, despite the difficulties, be able to make the necessary time available to ensure that candidates are treated fairly and that the NHS can appoint the best people.

We have heard evidence from Government Members this afternoon of a great deal of complacency about how this whole situation occurred. May I ask the Secretary of State about the scoring system? The right hon. Lady said in her statement that it was created in conjunction with the medical bodies, but those bodies have indicated that it was imposed on them. Who will bear the cost of this debacle? I hope that it will not be the professional bodies. Will she let us know how much this has all cost?

I am advised that the scoring system was devised with the full involvement of the medical profession and others. No doubt that is one of the issues at which the wider review that I have announced today can look. Clearly, regardless of how it came about, the system needs to be looked at for the future, since so many objections have been made to it now.

At this stage I do not know the additional costs of the changes that need to be made for this year. I have said that there will be some practical problems for the service in making consultants available and freeing them from their normal duties so that they can take part in the additional interviews. We will need to see what the additional costs will be, and in conjunction with the review group we are doing everything possible to keep them to a minimum.

May I ask the Secretary of State about nurses? There are currently nearly 75,000 students training on nursing courses who will graduate over the next three years. What assurances can she give the House that when they finish their courses in the summer they will not find themselves in a similar position to the many doctors about whom we have heard today?