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Commons Chamber

Volume 459: debated on Thursday 3 May 2007

House of Commons

Thursday 3 May 2007

The House met at half-past Ten o’clock

Prayers

[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Trade and Industry

The Secretary of State was asked—

Regional Development Agencies

1. What assessment he has made of the efficiency and effectiveness of regional development agencies in supporting businesses. (135424)

The performance of the regional development agencies against their targets is laid before Parliament every six months. The RDAs have delivered tangible benefits to business. In 2005-06 they helped create or attract almost 19,000 new businesses, supported 800,000 businesses through Business Link, and assisted more than 166,000 businesses to improve their performance.

One of the concerns that many of us have is that beneath those headline figures there is a lack of hard evidence and real performance analysis of the RDAs. For example, in the north-west they are funding 21 schemes but there is no significant evidence of any hard outcomes in terms of business. In London, the lack of transparency in respect of the schemes operated by the London Development Agency is such that it has sometimes been referred to in the press as the slush fund for the Mayor’s pet projects. Is there not a need for a consistent national template of target setting and monitoring? Otherwise, we might as well just open a suitcase full of money and throw it at them.

There is a consistent way of monitoring and ensuring that RDAs meet their targets: through the reporting against their targets to Parliament. We have also ensured that the National Audit Office has undertaken an analysis of the performance of the RDAs, and it has classified all of them as performing either strongly or very well. I suggest that the hon. Gentleman take advantage of the opportunity to look at the data before Parliament and then come back and give us some real reasons why he thinks that the RDAs are not performing.

Against the background of the high administrative costs of the RDAs—which was most recently revealed in the Richard report—is the Minister confident that it will be possible to co-ordinate their activities better to ensure that they do not, for example, wastefully duplicate each other’s activities in overseas markets and that they are able to provide a proper national service to national industries such as aerospace?

As the hon. Gentleman will know, because I gave evidence before his Trade and Industry Committee, we are working to ensure that there is much better co-ordination between the RDAs, particularly in relation to some of the major industries in the country. In respect of aerospace for example, they now have a common application form, a common monitoring form and a common assessment form. Therefore, although the money might come from different RDAs, for the industry there will be one form, and one gateway through which it has to travel. We are working hard to ensure that in the work done overseas there is proper co-ordination between the RDAs and UK Trade and Investment—UKTI.

Despite the Minister’s claims, there is significant duplication. At least one third of funding for regional business support is lost in bureaucracy; the Minister managed to overlook that. However, it also now appears that some RDAs are misusing their money. In March, the Economic Secretary to the Treasury launched a political pamphlet called, “Redesigning Regionalism”. That pamphlet said that the RDAs are wonderful and marvellous and should have more powers—and, indeed, that they should have more money. [Interruption.] It turns out that three of the RDAs spent £15,000 of taxpayers’ money on self-serving paper, so can the Minister explain—[Interruption.]

Order. The Minister does not tell me my job; I tell her what to do. There should be a question. I think there was the hint of one somewhere.

You are absolutely right, Mr. Speaker, and it is a good one; the Minister must be patient. Will the Minister explain, not only to the House but, more importantly, to the thousands of small companies whose corporation tax bills are about to rise, why the RDAs are spending taxpayers’ money to promote themselves instead of doing what they should be doing: backing businesses?

This morning we are finally getting the old Tory agenda. The RDAs are probably up for grabs again, as it appears that they will be part of the £21 billion of cuts that the Opposition want to impose on the country as part of their tax-cutting efforts. Let me also retort to the hon. Gentleman that although he repeatedly says that one third of the expenditure on business support goes in administration, that is simply untrue. He will know from the work that we have done that the proportion is less than 10 per cent., and that we are constantly trying to cut that. Are the RDAs right to engage in a debate on how best to devolve government to areas where we can have the best intervention to achieve the most effective economic success? Of course the RDAs have a role to play in that debate, and the hon. Gentleman knows that we are currently considering which is the best level, below national level, for intervention to be effective and to help us to continue to achieve the great economic growth and prosperity that we have achieved over the past 10 years.

Fuel Technologies

The Department supports a range of measures to encourage biofuels and clean coal technologies. These are important mechanisms, given our ambition substantially to reduce carbon emissions. More generally, the Government have provided some £500 million since 2002 toward research in, and development and demonstration of, low-carbon technologies.

Obviously I am grateful to the Minister for that helpful and courteous reply, but does he not agree that it is better to develop forms of energy generation and other technologies that cause less or no carbon dioxide emissions, rather than caning with extra taxation those who are merely doing what has been legal and acceptable for many years? I am referring in particular to those who drive 4x4s, which are very advanced and safe vehicles. Given that we can develop new technologies, why should extra taxation always be the answer? We should also be investing more in the safe disposal of nuclear waste.

And indeed we are spending a great deal on the safe disposal of nuclear waste through the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority. We need a range of measures to tackle climate change, such as low or almost nil carbon emission technologies. We will consult on nuclear energy and its future when we publish our White Paper later this month, and we are developing renewable energies. Significantly, probably 40 per cent. of global power generation in the foreseeable future will come from coal. Given that we will be burning fossil fuels, we need to develop clean coal technologies and carbon capture and storage, as we seek to demonstrate. So there will be a range of ways in which we tackle our climate change and global warming objectives.

The Minister will be aware that the Stern report suggested that some $16 trillion of investment is needed in energy infrastructure over the next 25 years. Ironically, the innovation needed might yet be the major contribution from the United States. Does this country have enough capacity to produce sufficient home-grown biofuels, or will we have to rely on imports?

I am advised that in theory, given our current objectives—under the terms of the road transport fuel obligation, for example, 5 per cent. of such fuel should come from biofuels by 2010—we have enough capacity. I am also advised, however, that in practice—this is the serious point—there will be a mixture of home-grown biofuels and those that we need to import. That raises a critical question about making sure that the environmental impact of such imported fuels is on the right, not the wrong, side of the argument.

The Minister will be aware that developing marine renewables is crucial. The UK should be the leading player in this field, based on its sub-sea industry. He will also be aware, however, that many such projects are stuck in prototype stage because of lack of financing. What work is he doing with private investors and banks to free up investment for this critical industry?

It is indeed a very critical industry, and as we were reminded earlier, Nick Stern’s important report referred to the economic opportunity for Britain to be in the right place, in the context of much of the renewables industry. The hon. Lady is right: there are great industrial opportunities if we are a leading country in this field, as we mean to be. As I said, £500 million has been invested in low-carbon technologies since 2002, and we are investing heavily in marine technologies, so that we can examine the potential of wave and tidal power. The renewables obligation, which we will reform to make it more sensitive to the new technologies, is another powerful vehicle. We have a range of measures in place to ensure that we can be a world leader in these renewable technologies.

Given the Minister’s reply to an earlier question and his announcement of huge investment in biofuels technology, can he tell the House what discussions he or his Department have had with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to encourage farmers to grow biofuels, and with the Chancellor to ensure that the taxation regime encourages the use of biofuels?

We received a report some time ago from Ben Gill, who obviously has a farming background, about the importance of biomass, and we will say more about it as part of the White Paper announcements. Of course we are discussing the issue all the time with DEFRA, and we are at one on this. It is an important mechanism to help us achieve our carbon emissions reductions. It is not the whole answer, but it is a new opportunity for the farming sector in the UK and elsewhere, and I recognise that.

Has the Minister seen today’s comments by the Renewable Energy Association that Britain is “a million miles away” from hitting the Government’s target on renewable energy by 2020? The REA says that the Government have “no credible plan” on how to achieve that target, and that for it to be met we would need a biofuel pump on every forecourt, a programme of major renewable energy projects and a massive energy efficiency programme in the housing stock. The Government have quietly dropped their earlier target of 10 per cent. from renewables by 2010. Is not the truth about the Government’s targets that although they are designed to sound ambitious, they will the end and not the means and are set so far in the future that the Minister and the Government will be out of office long before the target date—and someone else will have to pick up the pieces?

I certainly do not accept that last psephological point. We have long-term ambitions both to reduce carbon emissions and for the Labour party—[Hon. Members: “Where are they?”] It is not for me to answer that question. It is because we take our democratic politics and listening to people seriously that Labour Members are not here; they are where they should be.

I have seen some indications of the association’s report. It is a well-organised lobby group, but I am more interested in the facts, which are that this Government are taking renewable energy very seriously. It always helps if Conservative and Liberal MPs support wind farm projects, rather than opposing them. Big planning issues are also involved, and I hope that the Opposition will support us when we bring forward radical proposals for reform.

Salaries and Wages Insurance

4. Whether he has had discussions with (a) ministerial colleagues and (b) companies on the establishment of a national salaries and wages insurance scheme. (135430)

We are grateful for my hon. Friend’s question. No discussions about this issue have been held either between DTI Ministers and their colleagues or by DTI Ministers with companies.

I thank the Minister for that answer, but would he consider meeting the CBI and the trade unions to consider the situation? Many people have been made redundant in manufacturing industries—for example, from Rover, Peugeot in Coventry, and Jaguar—and they lose an average of £3,000 a year because they have to take lower-paid jobs. I hope that my hon. Friend will consider that point.

My hon. Friend raises an important point, but we do not have plans to consider the issue. It is our view that the UK economy is very healthy at present. Redundancies in 1997 were running at around 3 per cent., and that has fallen to some 2 per cent. on average. The Government’s arrangements to deal with people when redundancies occur—including Jobcentre Plus—are appropriate. The economy is healthy and we have more people in work than ever before. I am sorry that I cannot give my hon. Friend a more positive answer.

Business Support Schemes

5. When he expects to meet the Government’s target of reducing the number of business support schemes to 100. (135431)

About £2.5 billion of public money is spent every year on direct business support. Money is spent by central Government Departments, their agencies and local authorities. The DTI is leading the cross-Government programme to simplify the number of business support services from around 3,000 to no more than 100 by 2010. By reducing the number of schemes and the “back room costs” of providing business support, we will ensure that a greater proportion of the money spent helps business and will achieve more with the same spend.

I am grateful to the Minister for that answer. Is he not rather disappointed in it, and was he not upset when he learned from his officials that the simplification process would take so long? The array of available measures and schemes is so bewildering that, in my experience, it causes business men to go to their Members of Parliament to get help to find their way through it. Is it true that the administration of the schemes costs more than one third of the total made available for them? What is the compliance cost for businesses? Does the Minister have any quantitative evidence to suggest that the gains exceed the total costs borne by the taxpayer and, through compliance costs, by business?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman, in the same spirit as was evident in his opening words. When he was Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, he held a world record: of every three businesses set up, two went bust. In his first year in the post more than 24,000 businesses went bust, and by the time he left office more than 1,000 businesses a week were going bust, so he does not have a good record in supporting business. For every pound that UK Trade and Investment spends in business support, £17 of additional business is created. That is why this country has the largest inward investment and research and development portfolios outside the US. In every region of England, and in Scotland and Wales, the number of jobs is increasing, not decreasing—unlike in the Conservative years, when inward investment was at its lowest. Then, the UK was 24th out of the 24 OECD countries, and the Government of the day were prepared to close down British business instead of supporting it.

With 3,000 schemes administered by 2,000 public bodies, the Government spend an estimated £12 billion a year on business support, yet just 15 per cent. of small businesses have had any contact with the schemes. Does the Minister therefore agree with Martin Wyn Griffiths, the chief executive of the Small Business Service, that

“it is an incredibly complex system…an inaccessible business support system…that is inefficient and ineffective”

in all respects?

First, the Government spend £2.5 billion on these matters, and the money is welcomed by the business community. The reforms that we are making are successful, and the only scheme whose administration costs amounted to 30 per cent. has been closed down. The reforms will ensure that more money goes to front-line business, not less. This Government have a good record of investing in support for business. That support creates jobs, investment and trade for British business.

The absurdity of the schemes is illustrated by the fact that the Government want to reduce their number from 3,000 to a mere 100. Given that only 34 per cent. of locally run schemes have ever been assessed in any way for their effectiveness, and that most national schemes rely on customer satisfaction surveys alone, does he accept that the Government have no idea how to reduce the number of business support schemes, because they have no idea whether any of them were any good in the first place?

The hon. Gentleman’s question makes it clear that the Conservatives do not want to spend a single penny in support of British business. They do not support the continuation of the regional development agencies. The RDA covering Yorkshire and the Humber has rationalised 100 different support schemes into six, and as a result businesses in the area each day get support to help them export and retain employment opportunities. The hon. Gentleman should support that, not deride it.

Post Office

6. What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the safeguards established to oversee the Post Office reorganisation process. (135432)

Post Office Ltd and Postwatch are discussing the role of the new National Consumer Council in developing area plan proposals for local consultation. We expect to set out the agreed role in our formal response to the Government’s consultation.

Thousands of post offices have closed under this Labour Government. Moreover, the disappearance of Postwatch is on the cards and coincides with 2,500 closures over 18 months. Given all that, what customer guarantee can be given to people who use post office services in rural England, Scotland and Wales that the future watchdog will be more effective? How will people be assured that the sort of nonsense that I saw the other day will not happen again? A post office in York had been closed, and a new one opened after a local community campaign—yet the business was clearly a viable commercial operation, which should never have been closed in the first place.

Clause 16 of the Consumers, Estate Agents and Redress Bill replicates the provisions in the Postal Services Act 2000 that apply to Postwatch, which will ensure that the National Consumer Council has a specific function to investigate matters relating to post offices, and there will be a redress scheme. The hon. Gentleman and his party supported the amalgamation of those services into the new National Consumer Council. We are working hard with Postwatch to make sure that public protection and the consultative arrangements when Post Office Ltd makes its restructuring plans are as robust as possible.

In 1997, my hon. Friend’s colleague, now the Minister for Trade, intervened to save Ilford Crown post office, which was under threat from the plans of the then Conservative Government. Will my hon. Friend look closely at the bad announcement made last week by the Post Office that it intends to close the Crown post office in Ilford, and 70 others, and hand them over to WH Smith? That will not be good for my constituents, who at present can get a bus to the Crown post office; elderly people will have to walk long distances to the Exchange shopping centre.

I am sorry to hear my hon. Friend’s reaction to the announcement from Post Office Ltd and WH Smith about the 70 franchise arrangements that will protect and save services for his constituents. Experience and the results of mystery shopper and MORI surveys on pilot schemes run by Post Office Ltd and WH Smith have been exceptionally high. I think that when my hon. Friend sees the arrangements in place, he and his constituents will also welcome the improvements in services. The vast majority of the 14,500 existing post offices and sub-post offices are run on a franchise or sub-postmaster basis, which ensures that the services can be protected for the future.

Conversely to what the hon. Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes) describes, the Crown post office in Daventry has not yet had an agent nominated for its forthcoming management, and there is a strong local rumour that it will shut altogether. Only this week, we have heard that rural sub-postmasters face similar pressures, being cut off at the knees and unable to deliver their services. Does the Minister at least agree that one of the great strengths of the Post Office is that it is a universal service? Long may it remain so.

Obviously, I am happy to agree. The Post Office provides an unrivalled service to our constituents right across the country, whether in urban or rural areas. That is why the Government have spent £2 billion since 1999 and why we intend to spend a further £1.7 billion between now and 2011 to make sure that the service, when it is restructured, will be on a sound financial basis for the future.

A postmaster in my constituency has told me that it would be rash to spend money on new stock or repairs while the office is under the threat of closure, and that he needs to know where he stands as soon as possible. Will the Minister report back at the earliest opportunity on the outcome of the Post Office consultation, and does he accept that rural post offices are finding it extremely difficult to conduct their business in the climate of uncertainty they face?

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. The uncertainty needs to be dealt with as soon as possible, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will make an announcement to the House fairly shortly, which will, I hope, put greater certainty into the arena. The hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) referred to rumour and speculation about closures, which we can understand, and where we can, we kill off such speculation, about which a number of Members have written to us. We refer such matters to Post Office Ltd, which is able to give certainty in particular areas where there are clearly no plans affecting major centres. The important thing is for my right hon. Friend to make his announcement, and then for Post Office Ltd and Postwatch to get on with the implementation of restructuring. We know that sub-postmasters across the country have been waiting a considerable time for that, which is why we want to expedite it.

EU Business Regulation

7. What estimate he has made of the cost of EU regulation to British businesses; and if he will make a statement. (135433)

The Government estimate that the total administrative burden on businesses, charities and the voluntary sector in England derived from EU legislation is approximately £6.3 billion. This estimate excludes the costs of EU administrative burdens on financial services, which are not available in this format.

Gunter Verheugen, the EU Commissioner, has said that the cost of EU regulations on EU businesses amounts to €600 billion, but the European Commission has said that the benefits to EU businesses of the single market amount to less than €200 billion. With the regulations costing three times as much as the benefits and with 90 per cent. of British businesses not getting any real benefit from the single market but facing all the costs of the regulations, is it not increasingly clear that British businesses would be better off out of the European Union?

This is a welcome day: all sorts of Jekyll and Hyde Tory policies are being announced by Conservative Back Benchers. I am delighted to hear a confirmation of what we all believe to be the view of most Conservatives—that they want to withdraw from Europe, with a massive cost to jobs, prosperity and the growth of the UK economy.

The hon. Gentleman attributed a figure to Gunter Verheugen, but I think that that figure alluded to another set of figures. The figure of £6.3 billion is an estimate accepted both by ourselves and by the Commission. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will be delighted to know that, as a result of the work being done by the UK together with the Netherlands and Denmark, we have encouraged the European Commission and the EU to look for a reduction of administrative burdens of 25 per cent. by 2012. That mirrors the ambition that we have in the UK, and it will mean more effective use of EU resources and regulations to support growth not just in the UK economy, but in Europe for the global economy.

Interdepartmental Co-operation

8. What recent discussions he has had with the Chancellor of the Exchequer on work undertaken jointly by his Department and the Treasury. (135436)

I think that we expected that response. What work has the DTI undertaken with the Treasury to address the problems with business taxation that were identified by the Tax Reform Commission last year when it said that

“the whole ‘tone’ of tax administration is becoming less friendly to business; and the system is increasingly complex, unstable and distorting”?

Does the Secretary of State think that this year’s Budget has made business taxation more complex or less?

No, I think that the Budget this year introduced a number of sensible reforms, particularly the decisions to reduce the mainstream corporation tax rate and the personal income tax rate. Those are very welcome reforms. The hon. Gentleman does have a good point about the administration of tax. That is why Sir David Varney, the former chairman of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, has been working to introduce a new system that will provide more certainty for business taxpayers. When businesses, for example, decide on a course of action, an acquisition, a development or so on, they can seek advice and have clarity as to how Revenue and Customs will treat their tax position. I think that that has been widely welcomed.

Small Business

9. When he next expects to meet representatives of the small firms sector to discuss measures to reduce the level of regulatory burdens. (135437)

I chaired the inaugural meeting of the small business forum, which comprises representatives from small business bodies and small businesses, on Tuesday.

I am glad to hear that the Minister did that. Does she agree with the calculation from the British Chambers of Commerce that the average British company now has to spend nearly £14,000 a year on implementing Euro-regulations? Is that not a staggering figure and an appalling waste of management time, especially in the small firms sector? Management time should be creating wealth. Is it not also a dreadful indictment of this Government’s record on small business? Is it not any wonder that small business men and women are now deserting this Government and coming over to the Tories?

Yet another Conservative who is promoting the idea that Britain should withdraw from Europe—

Such a move would cost the UK economy 3 million jobs, would massively damage our export markets and—[Interruption.]

I am sorry that Conservative Members do not like to be held to account. As far as small business is concerned, I will put the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) right. We now have 4.3 million small businesses in the UK. That is 600,000 more than we had when we came into government 10 years ago. The start-up rate is faster than ever, the growth rate is greater than ever, the sustainability is better than ever, and the productivity gap between small businesses in the UK and elsewhere in the world is reducing. That is a success story and he does ill to the small business sector by pretending otherwise. That is why most small businesses support Labour.

Rural Post Offices

I apologise, Mr. Speaker. As the House has no doubt gathered, I had hoped to answer several questions by this stage in the proceedings. I am glad that Question 11 has survived.

The consultation on the post office network finished on 8 March. I intend to make a statement to Parliament fairly shortly setting out the Government’s response.

I welcome the Secretary of State to the Dispatch Box and thank him for that reply. I was pleased when he made his statement to the House recognising the value of rural post offices and the contribution that they make to village life, particularly in rural areas such as the Vale of York. Does he share my concern at the widespread belief that the Government consultation process will lead to widespread closures of rural post offices? We have lost our banks, so the post office has a particular role to play in village life and is a lifeline. Will he therefore join me in encouraging people who live in rural areas to spend between £5 and £10 each week in their local post office and to use that post office, and will he back Conservative plans to allow more council work to be done through rural post offices?

On that last point, the hon. Lady will recall that when I made my statement to the House last December I said that one of the things that I wanted to do was to encourage more local authorities to use post offices if they could. Some local authorities are good at that; some are bad. The bad ones are spread across all political parties, so I do not think that she can enjoy any satisfaction in that respect.

In relation to the hon. Lady’s point about rural post offices, yes, they are important. I said in December that maintaining a national network is important, and we intend to do that. However, we must have regard to the fact that the Post Office was losing £2 million every week the year before last and that it is losing £4 million every week this year. We have to do something about that. I agree with her that the best way of saving any post office is to encourage people to use it. Sometimes there is a gap between the number of people who say they support the local post office and the number who actually go into it. I want to see a national network maintained and the proposals that I will make to the House shortly will, I hope, ensure that we do that.

I have about 120 villages in my constituency. Many of them are not at all looking forward to the statement, because they feel a great deal of trepidation about the small post offices in Somerset. The problem of settlement in my area is that we have a large number of villages that are geographically quite close, but quite distant by road and without any public transport. Will that be recognised in the Secretary of State’s proposals? The post offices are serving distinct communities and serving them very well indeed.

One of the things on which we consulted was the criteria for the location of post offices. I will be making a statement on that shortly. It is important to take account not only of natural barriers, such as mountains and rivers, but of the practical difficulties that sometimes arise. However, it would be wrong—I am quite sure that the hon. Gentleman has not done this regarding his constituency—to suggest that the present situation can continue without any change. We need to make changes. The National Federation of Sub-Postmasters itself has said that the present network is unsustainable and many postmasters say that changes that would maintain a smaller but perhaps more viable network could be the best possible future for the post office network.

Does the Secretary of State recall the grandiosely titled urban network reinvention programme of 2002, which was a long-winded euphemism for closing down about one in three urban post offices? This consultation is about closing down rural post offices. Why do not the Government get a real policy and set post offices and sub-postmasters free to work on their own without all the restrictions that are put on them? At the same time, they should give post offices proper Government business, as used to be the case—I recall that the Secretary of State had something to do with the Department for Work and Pensions at one stage—and allow individual post offices to flourish. At the moment, post offices are closing throughout the country, and many more will close after the statement.

Yes, it is the case that over a number of years—this process started under the Conservative Government—people have been choosing to have benefits, pensions, child benefit and so on paid into their bank accounts. People should have that choice and the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion that somehow all the changes can be reversed simply misleads people.

It is the case, too, that a number of urban post offices have closed over the past few years. I said in December that I thought that we needed to take a further 2,500 post offices out of the network through closure. However, they will not be exclusively rural post offices. We need to ensure that we have a national network with access criteria that guarantee that people have reasonable access to a post office. Most members of the public realise that the big problem facing post offices is the fact that over a number of years, fewer and fewer people have been going into them. The business level has thus fallen, so we need to address that. Unlike the Conservative party, we have public money available to support the network. The £1.7 billion that has been put into the post office network over the past few years has represented an important commitment, given that a national network is important to us all.

The Secretary of State is—I hope like me—often a very reasonable man. In that spirit of reasonableness, may I say that I was glad that the Government delayed their decision on the consultation on the future of the post office network until after Easter, and thus, perforce, after the local government elections, which has given the Department a proper opportunity to consider the large number of responses that it received? However, that has had the unintended consequence that the Government’s response to the Trade and Industry Committee’s report “Stamp of Approval?” is technically overdue. I commend the report to hon. Members and urge the Secretary of State to ensure that when he responds to the consultation—I presume that he will make a statement to the House next week or the week after—the response to the report is published at the same time, rather than a few weeks later, which I think is the Department’s intention.

I will have a look at that. As the House knows, the Government are not able to make an announcement in respect of the Post Office or anything else until the election period has finished. As I indicated earlier, I hope to make a statement fairly soon. I think that the Select Committee’s report was a good report. I hope that several of the hon. Gentleman’s colleagues who have asked questions today will have a good read of it before I make my statement, because it makes a lot of sensible points and recognises that we need to make changes. The present situation is unsustainable, so reform is absolutely necessary.

Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that given the social importance of rural post offices, especially to the elderly, the infirm, the handicapped and those without their own transport, the House should get together to determine a way in which the political parties, which are all interested in the matter, and the Post Office can agree a policy that would meet the concerns of most hon. Members, especially those who represent rural areas? Is this not an issue that might generate cross-party consultation and discussion?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman, but his words might fall on stony ground. I understand the temptation for Opposition parties to say, when there are post office closures, that it would not have happened if their party was in government, but most of us realise that successive Governments have wrestled with the difficult problem. There is less business going through the doors of post offices. We need to ensure that there is a national network. The hon. Gentleman makes a good point about the importance of post offices, particularly in rural areas, but also in urban areas; they provide a good service.

If I had accepted the advice that we should go for a commercial network, there would be only about 4,000 branches, and that would be ridiculous, because a large number of people, for one reason or another, cannot use banking services. That is why I want to maintain a national network. However, it is completely misleading for people to suggest that the present situation does not need change, and that we can carry on with mounting losses, which would have to be borne. It would be very nice if we could get consensus, but I suspect that on this issue, as with so many others, it is unlikely.

The Secretary of State rightly recognised that the best way to support local post offices is to encourage people to use them. Will he admit that before the Government started actively discouraging pensioners and others from drawing their pensions from the post offices, post offices benefited not just from the remuneration that they received from the Department for Work and Pensions for handling those transactions, but from increased use by pensioners and others? Consequently, it will cost the Government more to preserve the post office network by subsiding it than it would have done if the Government had continued to use them.

No, I do not agree with the right hon. Gentleman. He may recall that in the last year of the Conservative Government, when he was Secretary of State for Social Security, his Department was already considering how it could encourage more people to put money into their bank accounts. It was doing so partly because that would cost the Department less, but it was also concerned about the fact that the old giros were open to fraud—as he will recall, because he made lots of conference speeches about that. The only reason why he can say, “Well, that didn’t happen very much under my regime” is because he left office a few months later, but the process started when he was Secretary of State, and indeed before that, in relation to child benefit—so I do not agree with what he is saying.

All Conservative Members of Parliament must recall that they stood for election on the basis of a manifesto that endorsed the David James report, which called for an even greater transfer of money directly to people’s bank accounts. The right hon. Gentleman may not want to admit it publicly, but there is recognition that there have been profound changes to the way in which people do business and choose to receive their pensions or benefits. We need to respond to that, and we are prepared to back the Post Office financially, as well as in other ways.

UK Trade Balance

The UK deficit on trade in goods and services was £54.1 billion in 2006. Total UK exports, including goods and services, were £370 billion in 2006, up by more than 13 per cent. on 2005. The UK’s exports of services were £126 billion in 2006, up 10 per cent. on the previous year, and the UK’s surplus on trade in services increased by almost 22 per cent. between 2005 and 2006 to £29.6 billion. In 2005, the UK was second only to the United States in terms of both its inward and its outward foreign direct investment stocks, despite the fact that the UK accounts for only about 1 per cent. of the global population.

The Minister has given figures that show things being turned around, but has he noticed a trend, in that the UK trade deficit widened in 2007? In fact, in February, it stood at £4.3 billion. Furthermore, our trade deficit with the EU widened further to £2.7 billion, with exports falling by £100 million, and imports rising by £300 million. That is of extreme concern to the United Kingdom. Will the Minister tell us what the Government propose to do about that?

Actually, investment in manufacturing has increased. In terms of international comparisons, we stabilised this year at about 2.7 per cent. of gross domestic product; trade figures in the United States are over 6 per cent. of gross domestic product; in Spain, they are 8.8 per cent.; in Portugal, 9.4 per cent.; and in Greece, 9.6 per cent. Throughout the whole period of Conservative government, the deficit was over 5 per cent. of GDP, so we have brought that deficit down, turned it around, and we have the most successful economy in the G8.

Minister for Women

The Minister for Women was asked—

Trafficked Women

15. What discussions she has had with ministerial colleagues on the provision of identity documents to female victims of trafficking. (135444)

Cross-government action on human trafficking is co-ordinated through the inter-ministerial group, of which I am a member. The issue of the provision of identity documents to victims of trafficking is dealt with by the Home Office, which is also a member of the group.

In view of the fact that so few women who have been trafficked come forward to give evidence against their traffickers—only 30 traffickers have been convicted in the past four years in this country for the trafficking of women, because women are terrified of coming forward as they think they are going to be sent back to their country of origin immediately—and bearing in mind the fact that 4,000 women come into Britain and are trafficked every year, does the Minister agree that the Government should now implement the Council of Europe convention on action against trafficking in human beings, which the Prime Minister trumpeted in January as something that we were going to sign, and which we did sign in March? However, it has not been implemented, and what needs to be implemented is that part of the convention that provides renewable residence permits to women who are trafficked. That allows them to stay here and feel secure, and thus allows them to come forward and give evidence against—

Order. I know that this is a quiet day in the House, but the hon. Gentleman cannot go on too long.

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that alongside the signing of the Council of Europe convention against human trafficking we produced the UK action plan on tackling human trafficking, which sets out in significant detail the way in which we will tackle precisely the issues that he mentioned, not just the specific issue of identity documents, but new guidance about how to work with victims, which will ensure both that front-line staff from a range of services can recognise the problem and provide support to victims and, crucially, that every police force deals with the issue as a mainstream issue, and not something that is separate. I suggest that the hon. Gentleman look in detail at the UK action plan, and we would be very happy to have further discussions with him.

I, too, welcome the signing of the convention and what the Minister said in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen). However, does she not agree that the measure goes very wide indeed in dealing with vulnerable people, giving them reassurance and access to services such as health and education? Will she particularly bear in mind in discussions with her colleagues the need to ensure that the full range of services are available to people who need them, and that public officials, whatever their department, are adequately trained to handle the sensitivities of the individual concerned?

I can give the hon. Gentleman that reassurance, as that precise approach is what we want, so that the issue is not just dealt with by a few people and a much wider range of front-line services understand the issues. He will know that last October we launched the UK human trafficking centre, which brings together a whole range of services that deal with trafficking in a way that has not been done by any other European country. We believe that that approach will enable us not only to develop our services but to learn better how to continue to improve them.

Entrepreneurs

Women’s entrepreneurship is a key element in the UK’s productivity and competitiveness. Each year, businesses owned by women contribute about £60 billion to the UK economy which is why, for example, we set up the taskforce on women’s enterprise. A national network of 1,000 female entrepreneur ambassadors is being recruited to support women setting up their own businesses.

I know that I have had a go already, Mr. Speaker, but I am due for another go.

I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. Does she share the concern expressed by the CBI and the Federation of Small Businesses that the recent Budget proposals to increase the small firms corporation tax rate is very damaging for entrepreneurs and definitely will not encourage female entrepreneurs? Does she agree that the majority of female entrepreneurs run non-capital-intensive businesses, and so obviously will not benefit from any increase in capital allowances? This is proving to be a very damaging and short-sighted Budget measure. Given her influence in the Cabinet, will she speak to the Chancellor before it is too late?

I am afraid that I cannot agree with the hon. Gentleman. As he knows, the main rate of corporation tax was cut quite dramatically in the Budget, for a very good reason, which is to maintain the competitiveness of the UK economy. At the same time, there were changes to the UK small business rate, with the intention of trying to encourage investment in small businesses. That is the right environment in which small businesses should be operating to incentivise investments within what is still a very competitive tax regime. The important thing is to get our rate of female entrepreneurship up closer to the rates in the US, for example. We have a huge challenge in trying to close that gap, but I am delighted to report to the House that we are making very good progress.

The Minister will be aware that one of the reasons why many fewer women are becoming entrepreneurs in the UK than in the US is their difficulty in accessing financing. She will know that women start with only about one third of the capital that men get and that they are charged higher interest rates; indeed, many are forced to resort to their credit cards. What strategy is she pursuing with the banking industry in order to change that fundamentally?

The hon. Lady makes an excellent point. It is sometimes more difficult for women to set up their own businesses than it is for men. One of the factors that could be involved is that they are getting a less good deal when they walk into a bank compared with a man in a similar situation. If that occurs, it is completely unacceptable. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Industry and the Regions is already conducting talks and is involved in negotiations with the British Bankers Association to find out whether there is a penalty involved in being a woman and to see what measures the banking industry might take to overcome that.

Equal Pay

17. What mechanisms the Government are using to achieve equal pay for men and women in the private sector. (135446)

Last month, the Government detailed a comprehensive programme of action being taken forward to tackle the gender pay gap in a report one year on from the Women and Work Commission recommendations. Key actions include the “exemplar employer” initiative, which covers a wide range of best practice on gender equality, including developing more part-time work at higher paid levels.

I thank the Minister for that answer. I am sure that she would agree that the issue of equal pay has been around for a very long time. Does she agree that it is a public scandal that there is still a 40 per cent. pay difference between men and women, and what is she going to do about it?

My hon. Friend is right. The 40 per cent. difference particularly affects part-time work, which is why it has been extremely important for us to focus on that issue. It is often difficult for women who want to reduce their hours to remain in a job at the same level owing to rigid working practices. I am pleased to report that the exemplar employers, of whom we now have more than 100 from a wide range of organisations, both private and public, are setting the pace on that issue and developing schemes that ensure that women can work fewer hours at higher paid levels. That is one important step to reducing the part-time pay gap.

I am pleased that the hon. Member for Coventry, South (Mr. Cunningham) highlighted the plight of part-time lower paid women, because we see in the media far too much of the high-profile, celebrity-type cases, and that is not really the problem. I appreciate what the Minister says about exemplar employers and entirely support that initiative. However, is she not rather disappointed that, although she can tell us what the Government have been doing in the past year since the Women and Work Commission report, after 10 years in power they have failed to put right a fundamental wrong in the British workplace and are still not making enough progress on it?

The hon. Lady conveniently forgets that the pay gap has been closing over that time. Of course, I am disappointed that it is not closing fast enough—that is why we set up the Women and Work Commission and have a range of actions to tackle the problem. The hon. Lady also forgets that it is important to demonstrate that there is a genuine business case for doing that. We have demonstrated that, which is why so many companies now recognise the benefits of tackling the issue and why we are making such good progress. I would have thought that she would welcome that a little more.

Equality Act 2006 (Sexual Orientation) Regulations 2007

18. What recent representations she received on the Equality Act 2006 (Sexual Orientation) Regulations 2007; and if she will make a statement. (135447)

Since Parliament passed the regulations, we have continued to receive many written representations from a wide variety of individuals and organisations. The regulations came into force on Monday 30 April, extending vital protections against discrimination on the ground of sexual orientation, which are on a par with the protections already provided against discrimination on the grounds of race and sex, as well as new measures that prohibit discrimination on the ground of religion or belief.

I thank the right hon. Lady for that reply. Does she realise that that consultation is perhaps an example of how not to conduct a public consultation, as shown by the amount of correspondence that all hon. Members have received? In a recent Adjournment debate, the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills, the hon. Member for Gloucester (Mr. Dhanda), promised that the position, especially with regard to adoption through the Catholic Children’s Society, would be reopened in Scotland. Will the Minister confirm that, if any such review takes place, the same procedure will be followed in England?

I am sure that the hon. Lady, alongside many hon. Members, has received a huge volume of correspondence. As she knows, strong views are held on each side of the argument. No one can question our commitment to scrutiny, debate and consultation. Indeed, I extended the time for consultation on that complex issue for five months, and I believe that we have ended up with a reasonable balance between ensuring that gays and lesbians in this country are free from discrimination and able to go about their daily lives free from discrimination, and freedom to hold and manifest a religious belief.

The hon. Lady knows that we have discussed the issue that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary raised in Westminster Hall. I understand that he has responded to a parliamentary question from her. She knows that negotiations and discussions with the Scottish Executive are a natural part of the deliberations of Government. Indeed, we take into account the views of all interested parties.

Royal Assent

I have to notify the House, in accordance with the Royal Assent Act 1967, that Her Majesty has signified her Royal Assent to the following Act:

Welfare Reform Act 2007

Business of the House

The business for the week commencing 7 May will be:

Monday 7 May—The House will not be sitting because of the bank holiday.

Tuesday 8 May—Opposition day [10th allotted day]. There will be a debate entitled “Action on Climate Change Begins at Home”, followed by a debate entitled “Mental Health Services”. Both debates arise on a motion in the name of the Liberal Democrats.

Wednesday 9 May—Remaining stages of the UK Borders Bill. A statement on Northern Ireland is expected before that.

Thursday 10 May—Consideration of Lords amendments to the Justice and Security (Northern Ireland) Bill, followed by consideration of a resolution on the rating of empty properties.

Friday 11 May—The House will not be sitting.

The provisional business for the week commencing 14 May will be:

Monday 14 May—Second Reading of the Concessionary Bus Travel Bill [Lords].

Tuesday 15 May—Opposition day [11th allotted day]. There will be a debate or debates on Opposition motions on subjects to be announced.

Wednesday 16 May—Motion relating to the home information pack regulations, followed by consideration of Lords amendments to the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Bill.

Thursday 17 May—The first day of remaining stages of the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill.

Friday 18 May—Private Members’ Bills.

The House will wish to know that the former Secretary-General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, has been invited to address Members of both Houses of Parliament on Tuesday 8 May at 12 noon.

Colleagues will also wish to know that the Taoiseach, Mr. Bertie Ahern, has been invited to address Members of both Houses of Parliament on Tuesday 15 May 2007 at 12 noon, to mark the restoration of devolution to Northern Ireland on 8 May 2007.

Both occasions will take place in the Royal Gallery.

I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall on Government motions will be:

Thursday 10 May—A debate on the report from the Health Committee on independent sector treatment centres.

Thursday 17 May—A debate on the report from the Work and Pensions Committee on the Government’s employment strategy.

Thursday 24 May—A debate on the report from the Joint Committee on Human Rights on human trafficking.

I thank the Leader of the House for giving us the future business.

One year ago, following the release of foreign prisoners, my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend, East (James Duddridge) tabled a question to the Home Office. He received no reply until yesterday, when he gave the Minister for Immigration, Citizenship and Nationality notice of a point of order. The Leader of the House was present when the point of order was raised. The reply said that the issue was a matter for the permanent secretary. Surely my hon. Friend could have been told that a year ago, and what does that reply say about ministerial responsibility?

Yesterday, Mr. Speaker said that Members were tabling a great many—possibly too many—questions, which the Leader of the House has also said previously. May I tell him that if Ministers gave proper answers the first time questions were asked, there would be no need for supplementaries? Will he yet again remind his ministerial colleagues of their duty to this Parliament?

On Tuesday, I and other colleagues celebrated the 10th anniversary of our election to the House, and, of course, we were all celebrating an important anniversary—that of the Act of Union. The Union makes us stronger and it must not be broken. The Leader of the House has previously said that he would welcome a debate on the Union, so when will that debate take place?

Today’s council elections have been marred yet again by concerns about postal voting fraud, with reports that 5 per cent. of postal votes have been discarded. That could leave thousands disfranchised. What is more, internet experts have described security for online voting pilots as “catastrophically weak”. Can we have a debate on electoral fraud?

The Constitutional Affairs Committee says that the Government’s reforms to the legal aid system risk “irreversible damage” to access to justice. The Committee calls the reforms “untested and unpiloted”. May we have a debate on legal aid?

Yesterday, the Prime Minister again refused an independent inquiry into the 7 July terror attacks, but the promised Intelligence and Security Committee report has its limitations. That Committee has no investigative powers and did not even receive evidence from the West Yorkshire special branch. Can we have a debate on the need for an independent inquiry?

The ministerial code says:

“Ministers cannot speak on public affairs for themselves alone. Collective responsibility applies. Any minister who makes a speech which deals with matters which fall within another minister’s responsibilities should consult that minister.”

In his recent Chatham House article, the Leader of the House argued that we need a “national story of identity” to achieve an integrated society. When did the Leader of the House consult the Home Secretary, or are these matters now the responsibility of the Leader of the House?

The right hon. Gentleman has been very keen to talk about his old jobs—and we have not even got to his next one—but before he moves into No. 11, he should concentrate on the job that he has now. After the historic votes in this House to reform the other place, he said that he would reconvene cross-party talks. When will those talks begin?

As the Prime Minister boasts about his legacy, one thing he has not discussed is the damaged relationship between Government and Parliament. The Prime Minister is rarely here, parliamentary scrutiny is contemptuously ignored and statements come second to media spin. Does the Leader of the House agree that the next Prime Minister must ensure that his Ministers show greater respect to Parliament and must restore the proper balance between Government and Parliament?

First, on the issue of unanswered questions at the Home Office, I made it clear in the evidence I gave to the Procedure Committee that I wish to see very prompt answering of all parliamentary questions, and that I do not wish to see any limit on the numbers of ordinary written questions that Members can table. However, I disagree with the right hon. Lady when she says that there would be no need for further questions if proper answers were given. It is certainly the case—I am on the record as saying this in the evidence I gave—that the quicker Ministers answer the questions and the fuller their responses, the less likelihood there is of further questions being tabled. I know that the right hon. Lady takes these matters seriously, however, and she must also be aware of the fact that there has been some industrial-level tabling, typically generated by researchers, which is quite separate from what we have been discussing. One way or another, it is a matter for the whole House, and its reputation, to deal with this issue without damaging the fundamental right of Members, particularly Opposition Members, to table questions in order to pin Ministers down and hold them to account.

I agree with the right hon. Lady about the importance of the Union. There has been a debate on the subject in Westminster Hall, and I want to see a debate on the Union. I am in the middle of reading a biography of Benjamin Franklin, and I note that, in arguing that the small states would be protected by the constitution of the United States, he referred to the then quite fresh experience of the Scots. He said that, when the Union was joined in 1707, many Scots were worried that, like Jonah, they would be swallowed by the whale. However, Franklin went on to observe that, only 70 years later, it appeared that it was Jonah who had swallowed the whale, rather than the other way round. The Union has certainly been a very good deal for Scotland, as well as for England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

We have had a lot of debates about postal voting. We have introduced the Electoral Administration Act 2006, and the postal voting system has been tightened, as everyone who has made use of it will know. If there is a slightly higher rejection rate, that illustrates that the system is working properly. Speaking as someone who has exercised his right to a postal vote on this occasion, I believe that the system is now much better, as well as being easier to follow. The pilots are just that: they are pilots.

I am told that we are spending much more on legal aid this year than we were in 1997. The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) raised the issue of the inquest into the Berkshire train crash and the relatives of the dead. I spoke to my right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor this morning, and he is making every effort to ensure that those relatives’ inquest costs are to be met. There is a separate issue as to whether there should be an appeal by the Department for Constitutional Affairs on a point of law, but my right hon. Friend has assured me that that will not affect the payment of the costs.

The right hon. Lady raised the issue of an inquiry into the Operation Crevice trial and the 7 July bombings. She said that the Intelligence and Security Committee had no investigative powers. I think that what she meant to say was that the ISC had decided of its own volition to do without the services of an investigator. It had an investigator from 1999 to 2004, but decided for its own reasons not to recruit a further individual to the post thereafter. Having had to appear before the ISC over a nine-year period, both as Home Secretary and Foreign Secretary, I can assure her that the Committee has substantial investigative powers. In any event, its forensic scrutiny of the intelligence and security services and of Ministers is very detailed. In my view, it has got better and better over the years, working from a high start. She needs to bear in mind that this was a system that her party established by law in 1994, along with the intelligence commissioner and the surveillance commissioner. Those three institutions taken together—the ISC and the two commissioners—operate to provide better scrutiny of the work of the intelligence and security agencies, especially in such acute times as these, than takes place in many other countries that I can think of.

I gave my Chatham House lecture in January, and I am glad that it has reached a wider audience. There has been ample time for anyone who wishes to comment on it to do so, but it was entirely consistent with what the whole Government have been saying about their increased emphasis on the need for a concept of citizenship, and for citizenship education.

On the right hon. Lady’s seventh point, on cross-party talks, I was agreeing a note, which she was not to know, to her and the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) overnight—in between celebrating 10 years in a glorious Administration—

I was awake the whole time. We will not go into the rest of it.

The matter that the right hon. Lady raised is in hand, and she will get a note about it. On her last point about the relationship between the Government and the Commons, I hear what she says, but if she examines the record objectively, she will see that scrutiny of Government by the Commons is now stronger than it was in 1997. I could go through a long list of changes in procedure and improvements in the power of the House—including many more Select Committee inquiries, the Public Bill system that we have established and much else besides—which have strengthened its role. The number of parliamentary questions asked of the Government has also nearly doubled.

May we have a debate on post office reorganisations in Coventry? As my right hon. Friend knows, there is great fear among people in Coventry that the relocation of the Hertford street Crown post office to WH Smith will lead to a deterioration in the service. The relocation of the main sorting office to Northampton will also lead to a deterioration in the service and possible redundancies.

I will think carefully about the request of my hon. Friend. As he knows, the deputy Chief Whip is also a Coventry Member of Parliament. We will see what we can do.

I thank the Leader of the House for what he said about the Ufton Nervet rail crash inquests. As an aside, may I say that Benjamin Franklin was an exceptionally long-sighted individual, as befits the inventor of the bifocal lens? We opticians care about such things.

I fear that we need a debate on the European constitution. The Leader of the House may be aware that the Foreign Secretary responded to a question in Foreign Office questions on Tuesday to say that she had received and filled in a questionnaire from the presidency of the European Union on the British Government’s position on any future constitution or amending treaty. That means that the Chancellor of Germany, the new President of France, the Prime Ministers of Slovenia, Slovakia, Malta—and all the rest—will know what the British position is, but not the British public. Is it not time that the British public were let in on the secret as to the Government’s position?

We are used to almost weekly statements from the Secretary of State for Health on IT failures in the health service, but can we have a statement on the latest IT fiasco: the system for registrars of births, deaths and marriages, introduced at a cost of £6 million on 26 March and now withdrawn because it does not work? How many IT debacles must we have before the Government get their procurement right?

We shall soon have the new Ministry of Justice, but the allocation of responsibility is still not clear. Can we have a debate in the House on the structures and functions of the new Department? Given that the Secretary of State will be accountable not only for the electoral system—I share the view that we need to debate some of the recent operational failures in the electoral system as well as electoral fraud—but for the prison system, does the Lord Privy Seal think that the Lord Chancellor should be an elected Member and answerable to the House?

Lastly, in the context of the debate on the UK Borders Bill next week, will the Leader of the House find time to debate again the consequences for both national security and the security of our excise had the Conservatives won the vote on their amendment to the Finance Bill on Tuesday evening? That amendment would have taken away the power of arrest from 4,500 customs officers at our ports of entry, on the grounds, as the hon. Member for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois) put it, that there are usually police officers available. Does not the Leader of the House feel that that would have had serious consequences, and should be revisited?

The hon. Gentleman mentioned Benjamin Franklin and bifocal lenses. Bifocal lenses are valuable not only to opticians but, particularly, to those who—like myself—use them. What a great man he was. He also famously invented the lightning conductor, and all of us in politics should be extremely grateful for that.

I have seen many statements by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and, indeed, my right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe setting out our position on the new European constitution. I will send them to the hon. Gentleman if he wishes.

I understand that although the registration system has not operated well in some areas, it has proved perfectly satisfactory in a number of others. It is a matter of fact that—in the private as well as the public sector, sadly—IT systems sometimes take a little time to bed down, but once they do bed down they often produce major benefits.

I am considering whether there should be an oral statement about the Minister of Justice. As for the position of the Lord Chancellor, the hon. Gentleman will know that an Act passed three years ago—I think—provides for the Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs and the Lord Chancellor, as the same person, to sit in this House. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister—and the Home Secretary, in a statement at the end of March about the further split in the Home Office—made it clear that allowing any new appointee to the position to sit in the House of Commons was under consideration.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the UK Borders Bill. My evangelical role as Leader of the House and former Home Secretary is obviously working in his case. As we know, the Liberal Democrats are famously soft on crime: they wish to let large numbers of criminals out of prison and give the vote to those who stay, and to do much else of that nature. But here is the hon. Gentleman criticising the Conservatives for being soft on crime, and he is right to do so. The police cannot be everywhere, and removing powers of arrest from the border guards strikes me as ridiculous.

I note that “David Heath MP’s Crime Survey 2007”, a copy of which I have before me for the purpose of greater accuracy, contains questions on prisons and sentencing. The question “Do you think that prisoners should have a right to vote” is completely absent, but the questionnaire does say:

“The Lib Dems believe that sentences should mean what they say—life should mean life. Do you back this idea?”

It gives people the opportunity to say no, but I think the sense of the question is fairly clear.

Then—deliciously for those who have had to suffer the slings and arrows of criticism from the Liberal Democrats for 10 years about the introduction of CCTV, which they say is leading to a surveillance state, and other such nonsense—it asks:

“Which of the following crime prevention tools would you like to see improved locally?”

It offers “Better street lighting”, “More Community Wardens” and “CCTV coverage”, but gives respondents no opportunity to say that they would like the numbers to be reduced.

This is my last comment on the issue. Yesterday my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister brilliantly drew to the attention of a wider audience the Liberal Democrats’ commentary on our first 10 years in office, in which they commended our brilliant record. I have a copy of the printed text, which I think should be placed on the Table so that all can read it. It includes some lovely lines, which I know will be noted by voters. It refers to the “fruits” of investment by Labour in Britain’s previously “dilapidated public services”, and to

“In the NHS more staff, reduced waiting lists, better care in some areas such as cancer. In Education a schools building programme, better paid teachers, more books, and better equipment.”

In other words, vote Labour!

Does my right hon. Friend think that the time has come to revisit the question of whether the Intelligence and Security Committee should become a Committee of Parliament rather than one appointed by and reporting to the Prime Minister? He will recall that we debated the issue when he was Home Secretary and I was Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee, and he did not entirely rule out the possibility that that might happen at some time in the future.

I should add that I make no criticism of the Intelligence and Security Committee. I merely suggest that making it a Committee of Parliament might increase its credibility when it deals with controversial issues such as the one with which it dealt recently.

The Government have never ruled that out as a possibility from the day on which my hon. Friend started asking me questions about it, which I think was around 4 May 1997.

I am glad that my hon. Friend says that he makes no criticism of the ISC, because under successive chairpersons, certainly those whom I have observed—Lord King, Lady Taylor and now my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy)—it has been extremely effective. I have always said that making it a Committee of Parliament would not make much difference in practice, because it would have to meet in secret in order to do its proper scrutiny job, and there would have to be a way of redacting its unexpurgated reports before they were made public. I accept that there are arguments about the optics, as it were—about how the Committee is seen—and I think that those need to be borne in mind.

Now that the Prime Minister has announced his imminent retirement, does the Leader of the House agree that the House should pay a fitting tribute to him? May we have a full debate in Government time to try to divine what the Prime Minister’s legacy might be? Perhaps the Prime Minister could be asked to come and give a valedictory performance, and participate fully in the debate. Indeed, the Leader of the House himself might wish to participate as well.

The hon. Gentleman obviously has great affection for the Prime Minister, which is well deserved. Our brilliant investment in his area—which I happen to know quite well—in schools, hospitals, transport and so on goes before us; and the fact that whereas we ranked seventh out of the seven major industrialised countries 10 years ago, we now rank second only to the United States tells its own story.

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister gave a fantastic performance yesterday, and there will be many, many more opportunities for him to do so before any resignation takes effect.

Further to the Leader of the House’s earlier comments about the need for a debate on the European Union constitution, is he aware that the Minister for Europe is currently refusing to appear before the Foreign Affairs Committee to consider the subject? As he will know, given his own remarks about the importance of scrutiny, it is important not only for us to have a debate, but for the Foreign Affairs Committee to be allowed to do its proper job. May I therefore ask the Leader of the House to have a word with his right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe, and in particular to ask him for a positive response to the letter that is at this moment winging its way from his hon. Friend the Chairman of that Committee, with the Committee’s full support?

My right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe takes the House extremely seriously. I know nothing of the detail of what the hon. Gentleman has asked, but I am as certain as I can be that the story will prove slightly more complicated.

I should add—having debated the previous constitution endlessly, and having played no small part in ensuring that we were committed to a referendum on it—that the hon. Gentleman should calm down and not worry about this matter. Anything that is agreed in Brussels, even in draft, will have to be put before the House and scrutinised in every detail.

May we have a debate next week about Ministers’ use of the English language? For weeks now, on occasions too numerous to particularise, I have been asking the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government a very straightforward named-day question: whether she can tell me how many accredited domestic energy assessors and home inspectors there are in each local authority area, region and city in England and Wales. Week after week, I receive the following answer from the Minister for Housing and Planning, the hon. Member for Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper):

“I will answer this question shortly.”

I received that reply again today.

The scheme in question is due to be introduced on 1 June. Either Ministers know the answers to my question and are too embarrassed to give them because they would show that in many areas there are no energy inspectors, or they do not know the answers, which would presage chaos on 1 June. Would it not be more sensible to postpone the introduction of the scheme until October or thereabouts, when Ministers could be confident of being able to introduce the scheme without its being a shambles?

I think that rather than debating the English language, we need to secure a proper answer to the hon. Gentleman’s question, and I will do my best to do so.

One of the portfolios that I believe that the Leader of the House has not held is that of Environment Secretary. Does he agree that waste disposal is one of the most politically charged topics in the current local election campaigns, and will he therefore arrange for there to be a debate as early as possible and in Government time on waste disposal, allowing for a review of the landfill directive? Does he accept that the Government signed up to the landfill directive before we had alternative sites to landfill at which to dispose of our weekly waste collection? Also, why do the Government insist on blaming local councils for dispensing with a weekly collection and having fortnightly collections instead, as that is the result of the Government’s implementation of the EU landfill directive?

The hon. Lady has extensive experience of the European Union and the European Parliament, and she knows that directives such as the landfill directive cannot be agreed unless there has been the most widespread and lengthy debate, and widespread consensus as well. I cannot promise her a debate, although this is an important issue and I will certainly think about having a debate on it. Let me also say that the introduction of alternate weekly collections has, on the whole, worked satisfactorily. Recently, there has been a late introduction of a request for a debate on that, but such collections have been pursued by Conservative, Liberal Democrat and Labour councils, and by those subject to no overall control, and in many parts of the country—not big cities, where there are particular problems—they have worked satisfactorily. I certainly believe that any policies that achieve what this package of policies has so far achieved—which is ensure that people recycle much better and that far less waste goes into landfill—are good policies.

In supporting the call of my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) for a debate in Government time to celebrate the 300th anniversary of the Act of Union between England and Scotland, which contributed in a major way to our country ruling the largest and best managed empire that the world has ever known, I also support the Leader of the House in that there is an abuse by a limited number of Members of the written question—I support the concern that has been expressed at the highest level on that matter. However, my question is one that I have asked many times of the Leader of the House. He has promised a debate in Government time this side of the summer recess on Zimbabwe. That country is suffering because the rest of the world is ignoring it. Is it not time that we came to the help of the hard-pressed and long-suffering people of Zimbabwe?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his comments on the abuse of written questions. On the Act of Union, I can think of many benefits that the Union has brought to England and Scotland and, perhaps, indirectly to the world; however, it might not be appropriate to major on the imperial consequences in quite the way that the hon. Gentleman does—although that is a matter for choice. If he will excuse me for saying so, such a slightly bombastic approach might explain why the Conservatives lose so many votes in Scotland.

I do not think that they like being called “Scotch” either—that word refers to eggs, does it not?

On Zimbabwe, I have promised the hon. Gentleman a debate, and I continue to do so. I talked yesterday to the relevant Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney), about pinning down a date on which he is sure to be able to be present.

Will the Leader of the House clarify what he said earlier about home information packs? Is there to be a statement and/or a full debate on this important subject? There is huge concern in my constituency about the security and cost implications of these packs, and especially about the media reports that inspectors will not be subject to full Criminal Records Bureau checks. Will such a debate or statement reconsider the timetable and regulations before they blight the housing market and the peace of mind of many home owners?

We thought that it would be for the convenience of the House to ensure that the order that results in HIPs being brought into force—or not—should be the subject of a debate and a vote on the Floor of the House, and that is what we will do.

I hope—and, indeed, believe—that the Leader of the House shares my pride in the long democratic traditions and leadership of this country, which got rid of serious electoral malpractice in the 19th century. Therefore, will he revisit the rather unsatisfactory response that he gave to my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May)? This week, the “Today” programme led on electoral fraud in postal voting. There was also an interesting “Insight” review in The Sunday Times of Labour electoral malpractice in Leeds. That is an issue of fundamental importance that affects this Chamber and our democracy. Our voting methods and the integrity of our voting system have been undermined under this Government. It is time that the Government put that right. May we have a debate as soon as possible on the integrity of the voting system?

I reject the burden of what the hon. Gentleman has said. We have sought, where possible on an all-party basis, to do two things: to ensure that there are greater opportunities for those who wish to vote to vote; and to tighten the system to ensure that there is less fraud than ever before. That was the purpose of the Electoral Administration Act 2006. It has ensured that there is a more efficient and effective system of scrutiny in respect of postal voting. We keep all such systems under review. That should be done on an all-party basis. I do not advise the hon. Gentleman to start a competition about whether any one party has a monopoly in respect of the bad people—a very limited minority of people—who seek to engage in electoral fraud. Sadly, there will be such a temptation for some bad people in all parties. It is our duty collectively to ensure that the systems are as tight and effective as possible.

The Home Office regularly publishes a report on reoffending of adults. The latest one, which it sneaked out, contained some startling information, such as that violent offenders were less likely to get a custodial sentence than non-violent offenders and that 82 per cent. of those who are on drug-testing and treatment orders reoffend. It also showed that the longer people spend in prison, the less likely they are to reoffend. Given the importance of these issues to our constituents, will the Leader of the House arrange for the Home Secretary to make a statement to the House on how those reports are shaping Government policy?

The hon. Gentleman needs to be aware of the fact that—when we have a debate, we will bring this to a wider audience—our record of cutting crime by 35 per cent. in the last 10 years compares brilliantly with the record of the previous Administration under which crime doubled, and, moreover, of the fact that while we have been introducing tougher sentences and more effective measures against criminals he has been consistently voting against them. His party voted against tougher sentences for murder and for sexual and violent offenders and persistent offenders, and against a new five-year minimum custodial sentence for unauthorised possession of a firearm and allowing new trials for murder if new evidence comes to light. Therefore, the Opposition need to sort themselves out before lecturing us about crime.

May we have a debate in Government time on Crown post offices? Is the Leader of the House aware that the Post Office recently announced that it was going to close the Crown post office in King’s Lynn? It occupies a proud and historic building at the heart of a thriving community, and it will be moved to a completely inadequate counter in WH Smith. Will the right hon. Gentleman support our local newspaper, the Lynn News, which is giving excellent coverage to the campaign, and the local campaigner, Maxine Tweed, who has launched a petition, and will he help me to support this campaign to make the Post Office see sense?

As it happens, I am aware of that post office in King’s Lynn, because when I visited King’s Lynn while campaigning some years ago I was given a print of the post office building. I note what the hon. Gentleman says and I shall draw it to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry. [Interruption.] The right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) is asking why I was given a print of the post office building. That is a good question, to which there is no obvious answer.

Policing in London

I beg to move, That this House do now adjourn.

The Government have elected to debate the policing of London this afternoon, in what I hope will be a constructive attempt to understand where we stand in terms of that important subject. Members will know that until 2000, my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw), who has just left the Chamber, was the police authority for London. On the first and only occasion that I criticised a Minister, I demanded that he abolish himself—at least so far as his role as the police authority for London was concerned. Happily, that has happened. He has not disappeared, which I am equally happy about—he is doing an excellent job as the Leader of the House—but it is right and proper that there are now in place other structures for scrutinising policing in London, instead of, as there had long been, a single individual who was a member of the Government.

As part of the process of the Home Secretary’s being the police authority for London, we used to have annual debates on policing in London. Since the inception of the Metropolitan Police Authority, the Greater London authority and the various other elements of that family, there have been no such debates. I thought it right and proper, and the Government agreed, that this House have at least the intermittent opportunity to discuss policing in London, and I am very pleased that we are doing so today.

I am sure that all Members will join me in congratulating at the outset the staff and officers of those agencies on whom the policing of London depends, and with whom Londoners come into daily contact—the Metropolitan Police Service, the City of London police and the British Transport police—on all that they do in defending the rights and public safety of people in London. It is their professionalism, dedication, watchfulness and response that secure for us the ordered society in the capital on which our individual and collective freedoms, prosperity and well-being depend. Beyond them, I pay tribute particularly to the leadership of Sir Ian Blair and James Hart—commissioners respectively of Police of the Metropolis and of the City of London—and to Ian Johnston, chief constable of the British Transport police. I also pay tribute to Len Duvall of the Metropolitan Police Authority, to Sir Alistair Graham of the British Transport police authority, and to the City corporation for its scrutiny and oversight.

As I said, we used regularly to have such debates. It is right and proper not necessarily to reinstate an annual debate—perhaps we can debate that issue, as well—but every now and then to provide scope for London Members in particular to have an extensive and wide-ranging debate, as I hope today’s will be, on policing in London.

May I endorse what the Minister said? It is important that we have regular such debates in the Chamber on our capital city, which is also a major region of this country. We welcome this one, but we would like an annual one on more general London matters, as we used to have. Although policing is very important, we would also like a general debate on the health service, education and other such matters. I was unable to make that point during business questions, so perhaps the Minister could make it to his colleagues.

Once I have sat down, I shall have extensive discussions with my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Canning Town (Jim Fitzpatrick)—if he is still here—who is the Minister with responsibility for London, to see whether a broader, state of London debate, rather than just a policing debate, should become an annual feature. As a London MP, I would certainly welcome that, and I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s point. As I said, debates on policing in London were held and were right and proper, because one individual was the police authority. My hon. Friend and I between us will ensure that this issue is raised with the usual channels.

My hon. Friend will of course be aware that since we came to power—we celebrated this week the 10th anniversary of this Labour Government—we have devolved power. For the first time, we have a Mayor of London and a Greater London authority. Given my hon. Friend’s close involvement with the GLA and the Mayor, he will of course know that they regularly debate policing, health and other such matters, and that they scrutinise the Metropolitan Police Commissioner. The Mayor also has an annual state of London debate and regularly opens up the GLA to scrutiny. Will my hon. Friend congratulate the Mayor and the GLA on the role that they play in scrutinising and discussing issues of huge concern to Londoners?

I certainly take this opportunity so to do—in fact, I was going to do that in the next paragraph of my speech. Giving London Members the chance to have a wide-ranging debate on all issues affecting London would complement, rather than detract from, the work of the GLA, the Mayor and the MPA.

Perhaps I might build on this point. Although we are very grateful for this debate on policing, could the Minister for Policing, Security and Community Safety and the Minister with responsibility for London discuss our ability to table questions on London? It is quite difficult to get the Table Office to agree to accept such questions, because the issues are devolved. However, unlike in Scotland and Wales, they are not devolved legislatively.

The hon. Lady makes a fair point, although in saying that I in no way traduce the work of the Table Office. As she knows, as a Minister I have not had many dealings with the Table Office of late. I do not doubt that I will do so again in the fullness of time, so I need to maintain arrangements and a relationship with the Table Office.

In 1998, the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) and I shared the great pleasure of serving for about four months on the Greater London Authority Bill Standing Committee. I said on Second or Third Reading that whatever we passed then would not, 10 years on, constitute the form and shape of the GLA, the MPA and the various other elements because by its nature, such legislation should be organic. I also said that, if there were to be—as I felt there should—a developing scrutiny role for the GLA, including of the police, that should not obviate or impede London Members’ ability also to perform that scrutiny function, not least because, as the hon. Member for Beckenham (Mrs. Lait) said, such matters have not been devolved legislatively. The combining of the two functions is to the greater glory of London and they are entirely complementary; they do not detract from each other. There is no turf competition between the MPA, the Mayor and the GLA, but this House also has a role to play.

Members do manage to table questions on London to the Home Office, not least regarding policing. Sometimes, I have to respond by saying, rightly, “Actually, you want to talk to Sir Ian Blair about that, not me.” I do not think that I have ever had to say that the MPA, the GLA or some other part of the family deals with that issue, rather than the centre, and I always try to answer such questions as fully as I can. However, I take the broader point that the hon. Member for Beckenham makes. In my view, the Mayor, the MPA and the GLA need to have a greater role in scrutinising what the Government do, but that does not obviate the role and duty of London Members of this House collectively to do the same.

Like my hon. Friends, I welcome not only the advent of the Mayor, the GLA and the MPA, but the work of the latter. As the difficulties arising from the recent debate on the local government Bill have shown, some people do not understand that the MPA is unique. Naturally, it is constantly compared to other police authorities, and some people constantly suggest either that the Mayor should chair it and forge that link all the more, that it should consist just of GLA members, or that it should be abolished and subsumed into the GLA’s functions. I do not agree. Although the majority of MPA members are also GLA members, and although the latter does a very important job in scrutinising the former, the MPA, thanks to its current wider and more representative composition, does a better job than it would if it consisted of just GLA members. For example, many MPA representatives of the black and minority ethnic community and of a range of other interests are not GLA members. The current blend of the two bodies works well, and it can develop and draw on expertise that goes beyond even the great skills base of GLA members.

I share the Minister’s view that the MPA’s consisting of more than just elected GLA members is a good thing, and that other expertise is valuable. I have always felt that logically, once the Government set up, as they rightly did, a Greater London authority, the Mayor—whomever it may be for the time being—should automatically chair it. Most of the public think that one of the Mayor’s key jobs is to ensure that London police do their job well. Security is clearly at the top of the agenda of many people in the capital city.

I do not doubt that. The hon. Gentleman will know that we have facilitated that, if the Mayor chooses to do it. It is a matter for him, but I know that he has the greatest confidence in the present chair, Len Duvall. It is right, however, that it should be an option for the Mayor to choose to chair the authority. Colleagues who have fought the last couple of mayoral and GLA elections will know that policing and law and order are significantly high on the agenda of those elections, in a way that they were not in the past, certainly in the days of the Greater London council.

As someone who has fought the last two GLA elections, I agree with the Minister’s point about the importance of policing and I have great sympathy with the points that he has made so far. However, on the issue of the composition of the MPA, the Minister will know that I moved certain amendments in Committee on the Greater London Authority Bill. I shall not repeat the arguments, but—unlike police authorities in the counties—the MPA precept makes up some two thirds of the total of the Mayor’s precept. That provokes concern about democratic legitimacy, as people might reasonably expect that the person who delivers two thirds of the precept should be the person in charge of policing. Is that an argument for considering some way in which the Mayor could become the police authority? If there was scrutiny by the Assembly, perhaps the parties on the Assembly might recruit more candidates from ethnic minorities, or we could have a special committee, which included co-opted members, to strengthen the lines of accountability.

I do not share that view, given that the MPA, as a police authority, is markedly different from authorities elsewhere. It is a regional police authority and cannot be compared to equivalents at county level elsewhere. Given the intricacies of the relationships and accountability flows between the Mayor, the MPA and the GLA, it is clear that the buck stops with the Mayor rather than with MPA members. I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on being returned twice to the GLA, with more success than the narrow squeak by which he got into Parliament. I congratulate him on becoming an MP—

We will see. To be partisan, although not politically partisan, I welcome another West Ham fan to the House of Commons. As a member of what has been called since 1997 the Friday club, I still mourn the hon. Gentleman’s predecessor, who is sorely missed.

If I may now address policing in London, I wish to touch on what has happened since 2000 and then consider some of the threats and opportunities that London faces. There is much to do on a range of issues, but the past seven years since the advent of the MPA have been, yes, challenging, but also years in which the Metropolitan police, the City of London police and the British Transport police in London have stood up to and met the challenges in ways for which Londoners should be very grateful.

Those years have seen sustained increases in funding. Uniquely—the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) made a point about the precept—that funding has been sustained through a combination of a significant local contribution and the central Government contribution. The Mayor made clear what he wanted to spend any additional police precept on and he also made clear the balance between the transport precept, the police precept and the other precepts. By any measure, he has delivered on the promises of safer neighbourhood teams on a ward basis throughout London.

I do not wish to bombard the House with statistics unduly and I shall try to limit my use of them. But I do want to set out clearly that the Metropolitan Police Authority has received an uplift in total grants of £827 million since its first year or an increase of some 51 per cent. It has needed that uplift for significant investments in people and infrastructure.

One area in which Home Office funding has been key—it is very close to the heart of the current commissioner—is the investment of £140 million in the C3i programme. That has upgraded call handling with the aim of better communications with the public, improved information for officers and a better match of resources in deployment. That global infrastructure investment is important, alongside the increase in communications at local ward level with the development of the safer neighbourhood teams. The concentration in three purpose-built central communication command centres has led, over two years, to 16 per cent. more members of the public getting through with calls and fewer 999 calls being abandoned, with an 87 per cent. response to such calls within 10 seconds. That has in turn led to more calls being resolved at first point of contact. The 999 interpreting service has been extended to non-emergency calls offering assistance to non-English speakers. The introduction of mobile data terminals to 1,500 response vehicles and new integrated borough operation functions for fast time intelligence and risk assessment means more effective response policing in the capital. Much of that work is still being implemented, but it is astonishing how getting things right at the first point of contact with the public—on the streets with the safer neighbourhood teams or in a 999 call—makes the subsequent resolution of issues more effective and efficient.

The number of police officers as of last September was some 31,000, or nearly 6,000 higher than in March 2001. Other than the Met, only three forces in England and Wales have a total number greater than 5,600, let alone have seen such an increase. Last September there were some 2,681 police community support officers and I understand that the Met has reached its target of 4,500 PCSOs for April 2007. There are more than 1,400 special constables—often overlooked, but very important—and more than 13,500 police support staff, an increase of nearly 3,500 since March 2001. Similarly, the Corporation of London has had an increase in total grants of £44 million or nearly 60 per cent. more in the same period.

Although there is much more to do, the figures for crime reduction reflect that investment. It is important that we look not only at inputs, but at the results of that extra investment in policing in London. Here, too, the results are on the whole impressive. Between 2002-03 and 2005-06, overall recorded crime in the Metropolitan police area fell by 8.9 per cent. and by 15.9 per cent. in the City, which equates to nearly 100,000 fewer victims of crime a year in London. In particular, recorded burglary fell 9 per cent., vehicle thefts by 21 per cent. and criminal damage by 15 per cent. I know, à la the King’s college report, that much of the decrease in the number of burglaries is because of greater awareness and better home alarm systems, but that should not detract from the police’s performance. I also know that better technology and more in-built mechanisms to prevent car theft have contributed to the fall in vehicle theft, but that should not detract from the success of the police in London and elsewhere in addressing that problem.

The Minister mentions recorded crime figures. Is he aware that between 2004-05 and 2005-06 the British crime survey has said that the percentage of crimes recorded by the police fell from 47 per cent. to 42 per cent.? Across the board, only 30 per cent. of crime makes it into police figures. Is he confident that he can draw such conclusions from a data set that does not come close to having half of the actual events included in it?

As I said, I do not want to use statistics too much today, and I certainly do not want to have a row about them. The interplay between recorded crime and the British crime survey has been known for a number of years—

In a moment—it is customary to allow a question to be answered. Many commentators now invoke the BCS, after the minor blip upward of 2 per cent. over the past few quarters, even though they spent the previous 10 years rubbishing it because they did not like the numbers that it produced. I take the point about the difference between recorded crime and the BCS, but we are finding that some low-level, high-volume crimes are being reported much more often now that the safer neighbourhood teams are on the streets throughout London. However, none of that detracts from the very good work being done by police officers in London’s 32 boroughs, and in the City, to drive down crime.

I spend a lot of time trying to use the media to convince people that crime in London is generally coming down, but does the Minister agree that much remains to be done? For example, the media often try to make things sound as bad as possible, and people in political parties put out leaflets suggesting that crime is worse than ever before to increase the fear of crime for party political ends. Should not all parties make sure that they do not exaggerate matters for cheap, local purposes?

Of course I agree with that. The hon. Gentleman has a slightly distorted view: he represents Southwark, one of the few areas run by the Liberals and where everyone else is in opposition. However, in the most non-partisan way that I can manage, I suggest that he looks to the mote in his own eye. The worst people in London for doing what he describes are the Liberal Democrats. I can give him chapter and verse about that, but I am not just a partisan politician and I do not want to miss his broad point.

Collectively—the media included—we should not indulge ourselves in playing up people’s fear of crime. Much remains to be done, though: I meet Sir Ian Blair regularly, and he would agree that, even though the changing nature of London society raises challenges in different areas, it is fundamentally wrong to over-egg the pudding. My borough of Harrow is never above 29 or 30 in any list of crime and safety, but the perception of crime there is through the roof. I love the Harrow Times and the Harrow Observer to bits, but if I took to heart everything that they say even I would never leave my home.

Everything is hugely exaggerated, but that does not mean that we should underestimate the fear aroused even by a lower level of crime, and we must not forget that very serious crimes can have a profound impact on localities. I take the point made by the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) about what people in the ranks of all parties do, but it is just that his party excels at such things. Our responsibility is to have a proper debate about law and order and crime.

The Minister is entitled to take credit for the improved crime figures. Communications have improved, and the safer neighbourhood schemes are making a difference. Even so, the figures show a clear problem with street crime, and particularly with young people attacking other young people and stealing phones, iPods and so on. Does he consider that there need to be changes to the present structure? What is his approach to that problem?

I do not dispute that, nationally as well as in London, crimes by young people on other young people are the hardest elements to shift. I shall say more about that later, but the record of the Metropolitan police in respect of street robbery initiatives is as good, if not better, than any other force. None the less, the matter remains very difficult: in every set of quarterly crime statistics, the number of such crimes seems always to rise, or at least not to fall as much as other categories.

However, I do not believe that crimes by young people on other young people can be resolved by yet another piece of legislation, and I would say that the same is true about crimes involving guns, knives and gangs more generally. After the latest horrendous round of crimes involving guns and knives in London, we made it very clear that we will do what is necessary in terms of legislation, but that our approach needs to be broader. We must look at how we do what we do, how we engage with young people and how we can work with communities to ensure that such crimes do not happen. We need to get it through to people that carrying knives is not clever or brave, or even terribly useful for purposes of defence, and that gun crime should be outlawed.

We also need to understand the consequences of the successes that we manage to achieve. For example, it is well known that the Trident programme in respect of gun crime in the black communities across London has been enormously successful. Now we have to consider whether our success with getting guns away from adults has led to even younger people getting hold of firearms and using them. I am not sure about that, but investigations are in hand. However, we must get the whole of society fully engaged in tackling knife and gun crime, and in tackling the crimes that young people commit against each other.

The theft of mobile phones, iPods, MP3 players and the other things that people in our acquisitive society carry around with them is a key element, but there is more to it than that. The hon. Member for Croydon, South (Mr. Ottaway) is right to say that we have still to crack all the problems of street robbery and the violent and non-violent crimes perpetrated by young people against each other. However, those are problems that need to be addressed collectively, with contributions from people in education and other disciplines.

Some formidable initiatives doing precisely that are being taken in boroughs across London run by all parties. A range of voluntary and community organisations funded by the Government are doing a huge amount of work to assist in that goal, and the police are looking at the matter in much more detail.

Earlier, my hon. Friend talked about the very welcome investment that has gone into the Metropolitan police. We all welcome those extra resources, but has any thought been given to how the extra policing needed by the Olympic games will be paid for? Will the money come from central Government, or will London ratepayers have to pay additional charges?

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport announced her spending plans recently, and they included the overall police and security budget. Sir Ian Blair and his Metropolitan police colleagues are looking at that in more detail, but the Government start from the premise that the games are national activities that happen to be taking place in London. As a result, central Government will provide the funding for them.

The starting budget for the Olympics contains elements to cover security at the sites being developed for the games, rather than policing. Over the course of this year, we will be firming up what the policing budget should be, and working out what needs to be spent now to ensure that the 2012 Olympics will be safe for everyone.

The games are a real opportunity for London’s police and population to celebrate everything that is so wonderful about London. After all, it is the only world-class city—and I say that with due respect to Tokyo, New York, or anywhere else. Those cities are very nice, but I am London born and bred.

The figures speak for themselves, but of course I accept that they do not tell the whole story. We must also take account of the impact of crime on communities, and work to develop new ways to respond to crime in London. However, murder is down by nearly 4 per cent., grievous bodily harm by over 6 per cent., common assault by nearly 10 per cent., and crimes involving offensive weapons by 8.7 per cent. In addition, gun-enabled crime is down by more than 11 per cent., Trident gun crime is down by 15 per cent., and knife-enabled crime is down by almost 4 per cent. Again, however, the Met faces daily the impact of each and every one of those crimes on communities and individuals.

The Minister has just said that common assault is down, but the figures for reporting that crime show a fall of only 9.7 per cent. whereas we would expect a far greater reduction—almost 20 per cent. Does he accept that those figures and the British crime survey figures indicate a proportionate rise in common assault?

No, I do not. As I have already said, there is interplay between the BCS and recorded crime figures, and the hon. Lady may not understand the component parts. The British crime survey measures individual responses to crime rather than crime reduction, but of course people can have a nice time quoting figures from either the BCS or recorded crime statistics to fit their argument. The reality is the interplay between the two, and the fundamental point that the hon. Lady misses is that they do not set out to measure exactly the same thing. The BCS is not a measure of recorded crime, which the police do in a different way. London deserves a bit better than a rather foolish debate about the interplay between the BCS and recorded crime figures.

The development of neighbourhood policing in London over the past five years is the jewel in the crown. It has different nuances for each borough, which is entirely appropriate. A framework of six, with one sergeant, two police officers and three police community support officers in each ward, is a far-sighted neighbourhood policing method. That the model may be adapted for different areas and that—shock, horror!—Bromley’s safer neighbourhood team may do things differently from Harrow’s or that the teams in Bermondsey and Tower Hamlets might work differently despite their proximity only goes to show the responsiveness and substantiveness of the model. As the teams bed in, I hope that boroughs will learn from each other about best practice rather than it being spread only from ward to ward.

Just as important as the visibility of the safer neighbourhood teams and the work they do on a daily basis are the imaginative ways in which they talk to and respond to the ward communities they police across London. The work of safer neighbourhood teams, either at ward level or in clusters of wards, can be extraordinarily powerful when aligned with environmental and other council services in the borough in a neighbourhood management approach.

The Metropolitan police has a good record on diversity over the past five years and a good story to tell. The work force are more diverse than ever before. One of the useful by-products of the development of the PCSO model is the increasing number of recruits from black and minority ethnic communities, especially in London; there is also a stronger gender balance than in the routine force. The same can be said of special constables, where the Met has exceeded its target of 25 per cent. recruitment from BME communities and achieved a figure of 30 per cent. Recruitment of police officers in London, especially from a BME background, remains a challenge, however, so I hope that with the advent of the National Policing Improvement Agency many of the issues formerly dealt with by Centrex will be looked at in some detail.

The British Transport police, too, does a fine job in London. The BTP is the responsibility of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport, but it would be remiss of me not to mention the service in a debate on policing in London. The BTP’s responsibility for our railway and underground systems is a discrete but significant task. The routine safety of passengers and their sense of security and well-being and the terrorist threat require a robust response. In a single year, London Underground carries more than 1 billion passengers and, on 8 December 2006, for the first time ever, carried 4 million passengers on a single day. The BTP certainly does not lag behind developments in the Met and other forces; it does a fine job.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the safer stations campaign has been extremely successful? The Mayor of London ensured that there were 89 more British Transport police and that stations were better lit, which has meant that people can travel more safely.

I agree absolutely. The BTP has interpreted neighbourhood policing by working with the Mayor to increase the BTP presence, with PCSOs, throughout the network, not least—so that I avoid being described as partisan for north London—on the south London rail network, where that presence may be needed more than on the tube, which is usually far busier. The introduction of such a scheme on Southern led not only to increased revenue for the rail company but a greater sense of security at work for rail staff—importantly—as well as for passengers.

Will my hon. Friend congratulate Southern and South West Trains, whose work in partnership with the local police, council and businesses, led to Balham, Earlsfield and Wandsworth Common stations all receiving accreditation and a safe station award? Not only does that make crime figures actually go down, but it makes passengers feel safer—a point which my hon. Friend referred to earlier. That is the twin challenge we face: being safe and feeling safe.

I am happy to congratulate the BTP in that regard and apologise to my hon. Friend for making his point before he was able to do so, which is something I did earlier, too.

The BTP has a key role working with the Metropolitan police to counter the ongoing threat of terrorism in London. Although no one says that things could not be better, the efforts of the BTP have achieved positive outcomes. Last year, total recorded crime on London’s railway and underground networks fell by 8 per cent. The detection rate for crimes of violence against the person and for robbery—two issues of real concern on the network—are up by 5 per cent. and 8 per cent. respectively. Finally in this section of my speech, the Airwave system is being implemented underground—an initiative colleagues may want to discuss.

I do not want to detain the House for too much longer, so I am trying to whizz through as much as I can to allow other Members to speak. However, it is right and proper in debates such as this for Ministers to take as many interventions as possible so that Members can make their points at this stage.

As I said, London is a unique city with unique issues, which bring unique threats. Terrorism is thus rightly an element in a debate on policing in London. The focus is across London rather than simply on the west end. The Metropolitan police has a strong role in the national dimension of the counter-terrorism effort, as well as specifically in London. The Met’s seven-point plan, Operation Delphinus, identifies the need to engender trust and confidence in all communities, which will in turn provide opportunities to create local environments that are hostile to terrorists. Delphinus will ensure regular contact with local partners, obtaining and disseminating information in compliance with the national intelligence model, as well as initiating a two-way dialogue to address community concerns—with the emphasis on two-way. We must ensure that all officers—whatever their role within the policing network in London—play their role in the counter-terrorist effort. Local forces will always remain the first responders in the case of a successful terrorist attack.

As I have said, gun and knife crime is a particular concern in London.

Before the Minister moves away from the issue of terrorism, may I return him to the subject of the Olympics, which was brought up by the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey)? As he knows, specific and detailed security plans were drawn up before the 7/7 bombings on the London underground, but to what extent will those plans be changed and reviewed as a result of what happened?

I say to the hon. Gentleman—I mean this in the strongest terms—that the plans will be reviewed, reflected upon and analysed all the way up to and including 2012. That must be the case for security and policing. Much of what the Metropolitan police does between now and 2012 will be coloured and influenced by the multinational event that will take place then. That is the way to proceed rather than to have a blueprint of policing and security that was part of the bid book and that will not be deviated from at all. The plans must be organic and responsive, not least for the reasons that he suggests. I agree with him and happily give the assurance that the process will be ongoing all the way up to and including 2012. In the same way, other elements of policing will be coloured by the fixed event that will take place at that time.

I am grateful to the Minister for giving my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South (Richard Ottaway) those assurances, but may I raise another related point? The Minister has referred to the overground network in south London and that is relevant to those of us who represent areas that do not have a tube. However, as we develop a security strategy in the light of the greater potential risks with the Olympics and everything else, I hope that he and other Departments will take on board the importance of ensuring the security of the overground rail network just as much as the security of the underground. I say that given what happened in Madrid where the overground commuter network was targeted. We need to ensure that there is security at the sidings and depots, which are sometimes quite distant from London, where the trains are stabled and on the busy overground commuter lines. I hope that those points will be fully factored in.

I think that those points will be factored in. The commissioner is clear that the police and security plans for the Olympics must be all-embracing and London-wide and include all elements of the transport network. They must not simply be a police and security plan that covers the sites where events will be held and the transport corridors between them. The plans will be developed in the light of a particular focus being on London in August 2012 and in the run-up to that.

I could go on about several other issues, but I have probably spoken for long enough. Drugs are an important dimension of policing of London. If colleagues raise that issue, I will happily respond at the end of the debate. I wanted to touch on police reform and on productivity and efficiency on which the Met has a good news story. We need not only to bed in the neighbourhood policing model for London, but ensure that it is sustained. I will shortly hold a range of assorted workshops with the presence of the Metropolitan police. The workshops will not only deal with ways to reduce bureaucracy—about which we shall do what we can—and with the efficiency of the performance framework and targets set by Government, and how policing is aided rather than hindered by them, but with a range of other issues. Given the strength of the Met’s contribution to national policing, what happens in the Met will have implications elsewhere.

I wish to make two final points. Colleagues will know that the Home Secretary has announced a review of policing under the chairmanship of Sir Ronnie Flanagan. It will look at four key areas—neighbourhood policing, level 2 services, bureaucracy and local accountability—and all the issues associated with them. While the Government and other commentators struggle with local accountability, we all start from the premise that we need some form of local accountability to complement—not to challenge—the accountability that we have in London through the overarching strategic view that is provided by the Metropolitan Police Authority and the Mayor.

There are some strong and developing informal models—safer neighbourhood teams and local community panels—but as more and more resources and responsibility are devolved to basic command units and the boroughs, we should do more about the accountability of the police and other public services at the borough and BCU level. I do not know what the full answer is, but I do not think that it is borough watch committees all over again. I do not think that the answer is borough police commissioners who are somehow accountable for policing but not responsible for it, but I commend everyone for at least thinking through what the local accountability model should be to complement the strategic model provided by the Mayor.

I have long held the view that, as we now have safer neighbourhood partnerships in every borough in London as well as overall partnerships, the logic of having separate police and community consultative groups, which are leftovers from the era of the riots that Scarman inquired into, is past its sell-by date. We need one borough-wide forum in which the leader of the council, the person who runs the courts and any prisons in the borough and the police chief are accountable on a regular basis to the community—businesses as well as residents. I hope that Ministers will be positive about encouraging the review to consider a more streamlined system that will save many people a lot of time and money and that will be more effective.

I accept the point that there needs to be some sort of streamlining. The police and all other bodies must become much better aligned. However, I am not sure whether that will be done through the development of crime and disorder reduction partnerships, the local strategic partnerships when they are successful—they are not always successful—or through an amalgam of the two joined by local area agreements and extra funding from Government if people achieve targets. None the less, I agree with the starting premise that there needs to be greater accountability, but across function and not simply of the police at BCU or borough level. Councils increasingly have a huge role in all these matters and not least in the environmental and other issues raised by safer neighbourhood teams that are more properly the responsibility of the council rather than the police. As I have made clear, I am struggling to find the answer, but just know that there must be a greater degree of accountability and community response.

I am very grateful for the interventions thus far and hope that they presage a lively but thoughtful debate. I emphasise that we are not meeting today under the cloud of some great crisis. We can reflect on a good deal of success and, importantly, on a good deal of resilience and flexibility from the Metropolitan police and other police forces in London in responding to the needs of London communities as those needs grow, change and develop. The issues of policing London—now and in the future—are complex and policing can be done well or it can be done indifferently. I hope that the House will take this opportunity for what it is—a space to discuss and debate the issues of the day and the challenges of tomorrow in a constructive way.

I repeat what I said when I started. We owe a great deal to the men and women of the three forces that I have mentioned—officers and staff. I commend the commissioner, Sir Ian Blair, on all that he has done in terms of leadership and vision for the Metropolitan police and the men and women of the police forces throughout London. We rely on their skill, resourcefulness, integrity, willingness to serve and bravery on a daily basis. The House collectively—not just London MPs—and the country should be enormously grateful for the policing that they provide to London in such a selfless way, because that matters to the entire country. I commend to the House the Metropolitan police, the British Transport police and the City of London police for all that they do.

I join the Minister in paying tribute to the work of officers of all ranks in all the forces that operate in London: the City of London police, the British Transport police and, not least, the Met. The Met is the largest force in the country. It receives a quarter of the national policing budget and has approximately a fifth of all the sworn officers in England and Wales—30,000 out of 140,000. Any debate about policing in London therefore becomes quite an important index of the shape of policing in the rest of the country.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the 30,000 police officers in the Met. Does he accept that that is an increase of more than 20 per cent. on when the Mayor of London was elected and will he congratulate the Mayor on that?

I will come to the point that the hon. Gentleman raises later.

Founded by Sir Robert Peel in 1829, the original establishment of 1,000 officers policed an area within a 7 mile radius from Charing Cross and a population of fewer than 2 million. Today, as well as providing territorial policing for a population of 7.2 million and covering an area of 620 square miles, the Met has capital city functions such as policing national demonstrations and protecting royalty, diplomats, politicians and Parliament, and key additional responsibilities, including counter-terrorism. The performance of the Met is critical to the safety and quality of life of millions of our citizens—not just people who live in the capital, but those who travel to work here.

The Met and the Metropolitan Police Authority state their ambition to make London the safest major city in the world. That is a fine and proper ambition. They draw attention, as the Minister did, to recent falls in residential burglary, criminal damage, violence against the person and the total number of offences. I am happy to say unequivocally that those are welcome improvements. They should not be underestimated and I will say more about them shortly. But we must not be complacent. The overall story in London in the last decade is rather less impressive—to use the Minister’s word—than some of the recent developments suggest.

Yes, there have been significant falls in burglary and motor vehicle crime, but, as the Minister conceded, much of that is a consequence of technology that makes those crimes harder to commit. Those falls should therefore have been expected, as independent think-tanks have recently reminded us. In addition, the burglary rate in London is still 2.8 times higher than that in New York, for example. More seriously, according to the Met’s figures, there were just under 130,000 offences of violence against the person in 1998-99, but more than 182,300 in 2006-07—an increase of more than 52,000 or 40 per cent. in a period of roughly a decade. Is that an impressive record? In 1998-99 there were 2,285 gun-enabled crimes, but in 2006-07 there were 3,375—an increase of 48 per cent. Is that an impressive record? In 1998-99 there were about 26,000 robberies in London, but in 2006-07 there were well over 45,000—an increase of 74 per cent. The robbery rate has more than doubled since 1991. Is that an impressive record? I do not think so.

Those rises in some of the most serious crimes should be seen against the background of what has been, as the Minister quite correctly told us, a significant increase in investment in the Metropolitan police. Since 1997, budgeted net revenue expenditure has gone up from £1.8 billion to £3.2 billion. That is a huge real-terms increase of more than 40 per cent. We have to strip out the settlement last year of more than £250 million for counter-terrorism—for reasons that all of us in the House understand. But even if the additional spending on counter-terrorism is excluded, the budget has still increased by more than 30 per cent. in the last decade. It is Londoners who are largely paying for that increase in policing. In 1997 the police precept for a band D property in London was £63; in 2007-08 the police precept for a band D property in London will be £223.60.

In answer to the hon. Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush (Mr. Slaughter), who asked who should take the credit for funding additional police officers in London, my response is: Londoners. They have paid richly for that. In 1997 the Met received £162.7 million from precepts on local authorities; in 2006-07 the police precept generated more than £600 million. As the Minister pointed out, that extra funding has delivered almost 4,000 extra officers—up from 26,000 to 30,000—and 2,500 new police community support officers. The Minister told us that the Met has just hit its target to recruit a total of 4,500 CSOs.

That is welcome. But here is the story of the last 10 years: Londoners and London taxpayers are paying much more; resources have increased by a third; there are 8,500 more officers; there has been a 20 per cent. increase in the total work force; and yet overall crime—on the figures that were supplied to us by the MPA and the Metropolitan Police Service last week—is at the same level now as it was 10 years ago. There were 921,603 offences in 1998-99; there were 921,779 offences in 2006-07. So, with a 20 per cent. increase in the work force and a 30 per cent. increase in resources, the level of crime is the same. If I were a Londoner, I would say that that was not very good value for money.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned earlier the increase in gun crime. Does he agree that those of us on both sides of the House who, when the ban on handguns was introduced, said that it would make no difference to illegal guns on the streets, but only discriminate against law-abiding, decent pistol shooters who could no longer compete legally in this country, have been proved right?

I am not going to get drawn into the dispute about the ban on handguns. I will say later that I think that some of the changes that have happened in relation to violent crime were predictable and predicted. There has been insufficient action to date to deal with them.

There is an important debate to have about the value that people get for the resources that are put in. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right about the huge extra resources, and that was the view of ordinary Londoners and their political representatives across all parties. But could it be that it takes a while for the resources to have an effect? To be fair to everybody, including the MPA and members of all parties, the total crime figures have come down consistently for the last five years. They went up for the five years before that. We are where we were 10 years ago, but the trend now is much healthier than it was 10, eight or five years ago.

Yes, I was going to come to that point shortly, but I am happy to engage with the hon. Gentleman now. The case can certainly be made that the increase in police officers in the last few years and the introduction of safer neighbourhood teams has had a positive effect, both in providing reassurance to the public and in reducing some crimes. Other crimes have not been reduced; they have increased. We must address those serious issues. There are important questions about the number of police officers on the beat, their visibility and mechanisms to ensure that they can remain there. We do not know whether the trend is going to be sustained. It is important that we apply value-for-money tests to arguments that are put to us about falls in crime and that we see those falls in context. Before we pat ourselves and the MPS on the back too much for the performance over the last couple of years—I did welcome some of the reductions—it is wrong not to see that in the context of the last 10 years.

To jump ahead further, let me raise something of which the MPS does not like to be reminded: the comparison of the performance of the New York city police in the 1990s with that of the Metropolitan police during the past decade in which their resources have increased significantly. In the 1990s, there was a significant—42 per cent.—increase in the work force on the streets in New York, which was about twice the increase in London. However, crime fell by a huge 75 per cent. over that period, so there was a disproportionately large fall in crime in New York in the 1990s.

If we are going to have an informed debate, surely we must make the point that demographic factors were a far greater determinant of what happened to crime in New York than police resources. We need to ensure that we consider not only police resources and total investment, but a range of demographic, social and cultural factors that have an impact on levels of crime.

The hon. Lady raises an interesting point that is often made to argue against the impact of the policing changes made in New York in the 1990s. Factors such as changes to the abortion law are often cited as being responsible for part of the reduction in crime, but those changes also applied in the rest of the United States. A recent study conducted by an eminent criminologist that is summarised effectively in the latest Conservative party policy document on this issue—I am happy to send a copy to the hon. Lady—shows that at least half of the 75 per cent. reduction in crime in the 1990s could be attributed only to changes in policing. The two fundamental changes in policing were an increase in accountability regarding the management of data and precinct commanders—many of those lessons are being learned in London, but are yet to be learned in the rest of the country—and an increase in police numbers.

I know that my local Conservatives and Conservatives in the Greater London assembly have consistently opposed and voted against increases in support for the police in London. Do Conservative Front Benchers share that view? It is all very well for the hon. Gentleman to talk about value for money, but does he support the increase in the number of police officers and CSOs in London or not?

The hon. Gentleman does not seem to have spotted that I am making an argument in favour of an increase in police numbers. Increasing the number of police on the streets is important. It had an absolutely fundamental effect on the amount of crime in New York and it may be starting to have an effect on levels of crime in London.

Perhaps we can lay to rest this canard that is trotted out by the hon. Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush (Mr. Slaughter) and the Mayor of London—it seems to be believed by only the two of them. I have proposed most of the alternative budgets of the assembly’s Conservative group. Conservative alternative budgets and some of those put forward by the Liberal Democrats would have made more resources available for policing. For example, we suggested that if the Mayor cancelled the western extension of the congestion charge and the Uxbridge tram, several hundred more police officers could be made available to police London’s transport network, yet Labour assembly members rejected that proposal last year.

I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point. Since the hon. Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush and I seem to agree about the importance of investing in police officers on the beat, will he set out his position? Hammersmith and Fulham council is conducting an important experiment in which it is increasing the number of police officers on the beat by delivering 24/7 policing and massively strengthening the existing neighbourhood policing teams, which do not work across 24 hours. As the hon. Gentleman well knows, the council is increasing the numbers in two target wards by five times, so each team will have a total of 30 officers, rather than six. At the same time, the council is reducing its council tax. Does he support that particular increase in police officers on the beat?

If I get the opportunity to make a speech, I will deal with the hon. Gentleman’s point in some detail. He attended a conference at Hammersmith town hall to talk about the subject. The many members of the public who came to the conference expected to be able to express their views on policing, but instead listened to two hours of political speeches from five members of the Tory party that would have put Stalin to shame. The police and the public hardly got a word in—I hope that we are not going to hear more of that today.

We will be hearing many lectures on Stalinism from the Labour Benches over the next few months. I am sorry that the Home Secretary is not in the Chamber to hear the hon. Gentleman’s remarks. Hundreds of people attended the summit at Hammersmith. There is massive support for the pilot schemes that the council are introducing to put more police on the beat at less cost to the taxpayer. However, it appears that the hon. Gentleman does not support the policy.

May I ask a very parochial question? Will the hon. Gentleman speak to his colleagues in Hammersmith and Fulham and ask them to ensure that the policing teams stop crime, instead of encouraging criminals to cross the bridge into Barnes, which is in my constituency? That pattern of behaviour is driving those on our side of the river absolutely insane.

If the experiment is successful, perhaps other boroughs will decide to invest some of their resources in the people’s priority—reducing crime—rather than complaining about experiments.

May I bring my hon. Friend back to his original comments about policing numbers? An interesting article in “Metline”, the London police officers’ magazine, says that following increased investment in the US in homeland security, many states that had seen a decline in crime have experienced a dramatic rise. That suggests that a change in resources for the front line can move the trend both ways. Crime goes down when there are more officers, but up when there are fewer.

My hon. Friend’s point gives us a warning. With the honourable exception of those people who do not seem to support an increase in the number of police officers on the beat, hon. Members will have to ensure that neighbourhood policing is anchored, with its resources sustained and police officers remaining in position. Given funding pressures, the frozen Home Office budget and calls to increase spending on security, as has happened in the United States, there is a danger that neighbourhood policing will not be anchored. Enhancing local accountability is therefore important because it is one of the most potent ways of ensuring that people get the officers on the beat whom they are entitled to expect. They have wanted that for a long time, even though national politicians were slow to catch up with the idea.

People believe the simple truth that officers on the beat not only reassure communities, but reduce crime. There is now empirical evidence from this country to support that view. After 7/7, officers were transferred from some outer London boroughs to inner London so that people could be reassured by additional police officers on the streets. The transfer resulted in a big drop in crime in those inner London boroughs. That demonstrated to the establishment, which had denied people for so long the increased officer numbers on the streets that they wanted, that more officers were an important factor in reducing crime.

The hon. Gentleman says that he is in favour of local accountability as a means of anchoring neighbouring policing, but he said earlier that he was unhappy with the idea of Londoners having to share the cost of additional policing. Is it possible to support local accountability while simultaneously opposing local financial accountability?

The hon. Lady misunderstands me. I was making an argument about value for money and pointing out that the increase in resources that is claimed for London has largely been funded by London taxpayers and council tax payers. They want a return on their investment. Value for money in our public services is an important concept to which we Opposition Members subscribe, even if the hon. Lady does not.

The fact is that London remains a high crime area, although we may have arguments about statistics. I would say to the Minister that I believe, and we have formally proposed, that the time has come to put the publication of the statistics on an entirely independent basis. The Statistics Commission criticised the Home Office for the way it spins the figures that are produced, but we should also consider the fact that there are two different measures of crime. The British crime survey is valuable in some respects but problematic in others because it does not measure key crimes. There is also the problem of the trading and spinning of statistics once they are published by the Government. That makes it difficult for everyone—Members of the House, commentators and, most of all, the public—to know what is really going on. If we are to measure the performance of police forces fairly, we should have robust and independently produced measures of crime in which we can all have confidence.

We propose that responsibility for the figures be taken out of the Home Office and given to an independent body. That would assist us greatly in debates such as today’s, and it would enable Members of all parties to make points without the basis of their claims being challenged. Let me tell hon. Members a few home truths about crime in the capital city which cannot be disputed. There is 30 per cent. more crime in London than there is nationally. We might expect that in a capital city with a large concentration of people and a great deal of economic activity, but people are also 30 per cent. more likely to be mugged in the capital than they are in the rest of the country. That is despite the fact that there are far more police officers in London. The average population per officer outside the capital is 372; in London it is 239, or, to be fair, 262 if we allow for the commuters who travel into London every day.

As we heard, the detection rate in the Met has improved in recent years, and, in fairness, that is a significant improvement and should be welcomed. It is good news, if the fact that 78.9 per cent. of crimes are undetected can be classed as good news. However, it remains the case that the Met’s detection rates are consistently worse than those of other metropolitan police forces, even though crime levels and trends across urban forces are similar. That is an important discrepancy that we should debate. Greater Manchester police’s detection rate is more akin to the national average of 24 per cent., and that is significantly higher than the rate in London.

I welcome the improvement in the Met’s detection rates, but we should be cautious about how that improvement has arisen. There are two particular concerns that I shall draw to the House’s attention. First, it appears that an increase in sanctioned detections has been achieved partly through a significant increase in the number of cautions issued by all forces, including the Met. For example, in London last year the police issued more than 14,000 cautions for serious crimes, including assault, robbery, burglary, car crime and hard drugs offences. The cautions were then counted as sanctioned detections, enabling the police to claim that their performance has improved, but I doubt very much whether the victims of those crimes would consider the offenders to have been really been brought to justice.

The second way that forces may be improving detection rates is by considerably increasing the number of penalty notices for disorder that are issued. I do not have to hand the figures on the number issued in London, but there has been a significant increase nationally, so I can confidently say that there will have been a big increase in the proportion locally, and that may well correspond with a falling-off in the number of offenders brought to justice who are accounted for through convictions in court. If we consider that half of those penalty notices are not actually paid, in the first instance, by the person who has been given the fine, it is deeply questionable whether penalty notices should count towards the number of offenders brought to justice at all. Some of those enforcement tickets are being used to deal with matters such as serial shoplifting, although it is quite inappropriate for them to be used in that way.

My hon. Friend is making a powerful case—[Interruption.] If Labour Members will listen, they will find that it is a powerful point. In my constituency, people feel that offenders are not being brought to justice, and although the figures that have been published are going down, people feel that criminals are not being punished, and are getting away with it. That is the point that my hon. Friend is making powerfully.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, and I agree with what he says. The Labour Members who appear to be disagreeing need to tell me whether they think that someone who is given a penalty notice for disorder and a fine for an offence, and then does not pay that fine, should count as an offender brought to justice, because that is what is happening. If we were victims of those crimes, however minor they may seem, would we be happy for them to be accounted for in that way? Yet that is one way that forces are increasing their detection rates, so there is a distortion.

That distortion emanates from one of the biggest problems affecting policing: the increasing amount of central direction and the increasing number of targets placed on the police, as on other public services. Those targets and the excessive reporting that goes with them damage morale in police forces. They also make the police perform to targets and undertake what they might otherwise think were not particularly valuable policing activities. Fishing for easy detections, as opposed to tackling more difficult offences, is exactly that kind of distortion. Before we debate the issue again, we need figures that demonstrate what proportion of the increase in detections amounts to offenders being brought to justice, and what proportion is accounted for by administrative devices. Without the figures, it is difficult for us to judge.

I welcome not only the specific falls in crime in the Met area in the past few years, but the recent improvements in trust and confidence in the Metropolitan Police Service, as measured by its opinion surveys. Those are important, too. However, the fact is that more than a quarter of Londoners still do not feel safe walking alone in their area after dark. Four out of 10 Londoners do not have confidence in London policing, and they do not feel that the police do a good or excellent job. Some 12 per cent. have a fear of violence in their local area. We may say, “That is only 12 per cent.,” and of course it is perfectly possible to put the figure the other way round and say that the overwhelming majority of people do not have a fear of violence, but it still means that there are 900,000 people in our capital living in fear of violence, and that is unacceptable. That suggests that reversing the high tide of crime remains a fundamental challenge for the Met, and the commissioner was unwise to suggest last year that people now leave their doors open because they feel safe in a way that they have not done for 25 years. Frankly, to put it as kindly as possible, that was a little previous.

Certainly, in my constituency, people do not feel safe leaving their doors open. I assume that the statistics that my hon. Friend just read out about people’s attitudes do not include information gained by interviewing children who are 16 and under. We know that a huge number of the victims in London are secondary school children, and presumably, had statistics on children been included, the facts would have been much more negative.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and one reason why there is a problem with the British crime survey, and other surveys that interview adults and not children, is that so much crime, particularly robbery, is committed against younger people, and we are not picking that up. That is obviously a problem.

Is not the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Justine Greening) made about young people reinforced by the fact that the deputy Metropolitan Police Commissioner, who stood in for the commissioner at the last Metropolitan Police Authority meeting, provided members with information that there had been a worrying increase in the number of cash-in-transit robberies and a movement away from snatches? In particular, concern was expressed that more young people are involved in cash-in-transit robberies, rather than the snatching of mobile phones that took place in the past. In other words, they are snatching more valuable property, and does that not cause concern that we are failing to capture the full extent of the involvement of younger people, for all the reasons set out by my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert)?

That is an interesting point. One aspect of performance in relation to crime in the past year about which we should be concerned is the increase in robbery. The Met, to be fair, drew attention to that itself. My hon. Friend is right that a big component of that increase relates to cash in transit, not personal robberies. It is often characterised as crimes such as the snatching of mobile phones and so on, but it can be crimes against businesses that result in harm to employees. It is something about which the security industry is increasingly concerned, and it probably merits a separate debate in future, because specific action may need to be taken. In particular, those crimes against businesses need to be recorded separately so that we can monitor what is going on.

Next week or the week after, a substantive conference will be held at which banks, individuals involved in the security industry, and, importantly, local authorities will come together. I would be very happy to make sure that Members who have participated in our debate and have expressed concern about cash and valuables in transit receive a record of the outcome and any subsequent actions.

I am grateful to the Minister. I think that I recall receiving an invitation to the conference, which I hope to attend. As ever, I look forward to his contribution.

The hon. Gentleman was about to complete his sweep of different types of crime, but may I just ask him whether he agrees that there is a worrying trend? It is apparent not just in London but in other places—it is, however, absolutely clear in London—that the crimes that have gone up in the past 10 years and are most worrying are all violent crimes: murder, gun-enabled crime, robbery, violence against the person and rape. There will be an endemic problem in our society if we do not turn that around, as the problem of more people being more violent more often is afflicting both London and the rest of the country.

The hon. Gentleman is right. The fall in many crimes, as the Minister conceded, was expected because of technology, but the increase in other crimes, such as mugging, is particularly serious and worrying for the public. The fact is that the Government knew that that was going to happen, because a strategy document produced by the Prime Minister’s strategy unit in December 2002 noted that London had a particular problem with mugging and street crime. It noted that mugging occurred principally in 10 London boroughs—the figure is 60 per cent.—and that an increase in violent crime was likely. We should have seen that coming to a greater extent than we have done, but everyone in the House would concede that the solution to the problems does not lie just with the police. I agree with much of what the Met commissioner said in his interview in The Guardian this morning, and that the solutions are wider than a simple question of enforcement. Enforcement is important, as, of course, are sufficiently robust penalties, which the Government have now accepted in relation to knife crime. Police officers on the streets are important, but what is going on has wider societal implications, which my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) has constantly tried to impress upon us. The solutions lie in what the Prime Minister used to want to discuss—the causes of crime—so the point made by the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) is well made. I suspect that we will be preoccupied with the issue a great deal in the next few months.

I have been talking largely about the importance of getting police officers on to the streets, and I welcome the fact that, in London, the development of neighbourhood policing teams funded by Londoners, with one sergeant, two police constables and three police community support officers in 630 wards has been rolled out ahead of schedule. In 87 wards, the number of PCSOs will increase further, which is important if we are to develop the kind of policing that the public want and that operates successfully in Chicago, for instance, as I have seen for myself in the Chicago alternative policing strategy, on which much of this is modelled. There is still a problem with the visibility of police officers, and the survey to which the Met and Metropolitan Police Authority drew attention shows that, astonishingly, it is still the case that less than half of London’s population see a uniformed presence on the streets every week.

The development of neighbourhood policing must address that problem. One way in which we can ensure the effectiveness of neighbourhood policing teams is to take a resolute—and, I propose, steely-eyed—look at the effectiveness of PCSOs and what they do. PCSOs are an important development and component of neighbourhood policing teams. I understand the reason why PCSOs should not have certain powers—it is to avoid their abstraction into police stations and to maintain a constant presence on the streets—but it is important that people see PCSOs engaging with them. There are specific problems to which commanders are alive and that need to be addressed. For instance, is it really necessary for PCSOs always to patrol in pairs? The Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Sir Ian Blair, proposed at one point that there should be proximity policing so that police officers and PCSOs could patrol on either side of the street. They would still be in safe reach of and each other, not only would that effectively double the police presence on the streets but it would encourage them to engage with the community much more. Given that the Government have legislated to allow greater powers to be given to PCSOs, we will have an ongoing debate about the extent to which PCSOs should be given greater powers to make them more useful while avoiding their being taken back into police stations.

That leads me to reform. In the past, we tended to have a debate about the need to increase the visible police presence on the streets, thinking that that purely involved an increase in resources and the hiring of more police officers. All political parties fell into the trap of believing that that was the only way of increasing the presence of police officers on the streets. However, a considerable diversion of police officer time as a result of the bureaucracy and the way in which they have to record and process crime confronts the police.

Accountability does not have to be bureaucratic. The fact that, on the Government’s own figures, police officers spend more time filling in forms than they do on patrol is a problem, and I thought that it was understood by Members on both sides of the House.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way—he has been generous in accepting interventions. Does he not accept that one reason why there were so many miscarriages of justice in the 1970s and ’80s was the lack of paperwork by police officers? One reason why there are far fewer miscarriages now and why the public have more confidence in the police is the paperwork that they have to fill in, whether it is notebooks, the paperwork for the transfer of a prisoner from a cell to a custody suite, or interviews that are recorded. Those are some examples that protect the police from allegations of miscarriages by the public.

I would caution the hon. Gentleman against making the argument that all the paperwork is essential to ensure the proper operation and monitoring of what the police do. We all agree that there should be transparency and accountability in officer performance. The introduction of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, for instance, was an important development in