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Commons Chamber

Volume 461: debated on Tuesday 19 June 2007

House of Commons

Tuesday 19 June 2007

The House met at half-past Two o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—


In July the Department will publish the high level output specification, which will set out what we expect the railway industry to deliver in the years to 2014. It will be accompanied by a statement of funds available, setting out the funds that we expect to make available to the industry over the same period.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that Streatham to Mitcham Common is the longest line of track in London without a station, and that although I have been campaigning for 10 years for a station in Mitcham, the campaign for the Eastfields halt goes back to the 1930s? Does he share my delight that Network Rail intends to build a station there, and will he do everything he can to ensure that it is introduced at the earliest possible date in December?

I am fully aware of the tireless efforts of my hon. Friend in relation to a new station at Eastfields. She has a reputation in the House for her efforts on behalf of her constituents, and I know that the matter is of particular concern to a number of commuters, who are keen to see a new station on that route. She is right to recognise that ultimately a decision rests with Network Rail. I understand that there have been constructive and positive conversations with Network Rail, and I urge her to continue those conversations.

It is interesting that the Secretary of State says that the decision about a new station rests with Network Rail. Last Friday I had a meeting with Network Rail to discuss the new station in Corsham in the light of the very helpful letter that I had from the Secretary of State for Defence, who said that he was keen that the station in Corsham should open. The Network Rail people said that it was nothing to do with them—it was a matter for the Government or the regulator, but they were not quite certain which. Will the Secretary of State clarify whether he agrees with his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence that the new station in Corsham would be a good thing, and if so, who will take the decision to reopen it?

With the greatest respect to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence, I doubt that the terms of the letter to which the hon. Gentleman refers suggest that the decision is one for the Ministry of Defence or the Secretary of State for Defence. I am happy to look at the correspondence and we will be back in touch with him.

When considering future rail investment, will my right hon. Friend take a particular look at west Yorkshire and especially the lines that run through New Pudsey, Horsforth and Guiseley in my constituency, bearing in mind the relatively low level of investment per person on transport in Yorkshire and Humberside?

I am aware of the importance of rail services not just in one region, but in every region and nation of the United Kingdom. I am happy to give the assurance that we will consider the needs of every part of England when we publish the high level output specification in due course.

Will the Secretary of State consider the service given to rail passengers on a Sunday? Does he think it is acceptable that most train companies offer appalling services on a Sunday, which take far longer than any other train journey during the rest of the week, and charge the same price for them?

Of course it has been the case historically that significant engineering work has often been undertaken on a Sunday. It is right to acknowledge that as lifestyle, retailing and leisure patterns change, there are greater expectations of the network on a Sunday than was the case in a different era. I am sure Network Rail is aware of that, and I will make sure that the point is made to it, in light of the hon. Gentleman’s contribution.

Will my right hon. Friend ensure that any moneys paid into the public purse by rail operators are ring-fenced for use within the franchise area where the moneys were raised, for further improvements to the franchise and the benefit of passengers?

There has been some misapprehension on these issues in much of the commentary. I can give my hon. Friend the assurance that she seeks, which is that the money received from the franchise is ring-fenced in the budget of the Department for Transport. It is part of the ongoing sustained investment which accounts for about £88 million per week on Britain’s railways at present.

Given the threat of climate change, is it not time the Government got serious about high-speed rail from Scotland to London to get people out of planes and into trains?

With the greatest respect to the hon. Lady, it is about time the Liberal Democrats got serious. If she was serious about looking at high speed trains, she might recognise that there is a correlation between speed and energy consumption, and therefore that the easy assumption that in every circumstance a high speed train is the pro-environment choice does not bear scrutiny. These are serious matters. We are considering them in the Department and we will bring forward our recommendations at the time of the high level output specification in the summer.

Will my right hon. Friend talk to his Treasury colleagues to ensure that the East London line extension is completed—not only phase 1 which is under construction, with the operator announced today, but phase 2 to Clapham Junction, which requires another £75 million under the comprehensive spending review?

Many Ministers are keen to speak to the Treasury this week. I am happy to pass on the point that my hon. Friend makes.

I am sure the House is aware of the reports that this is likely to be the last occasion on which the Secretary of State stands at the Dispatch Box for Transport questions. May I offer him my thanks for a constructive relationship over the past few months and wish him well for the purges that we expect on the Government Benches next week. Can he tell the House, though, whether Britain’s trains will be more or less overcrowded by 2015?

First, I know that in the rail industry as in other walks of life, forecasting is an inherently challenging and difficult business. Clearly, the hon. Gentleman is in possession of information that I am certainly not aware of as we look ahead to the events of next week.

Let me deal with the substantive point, however. We have already recognised in the high level output specification discussions the centrality and importance of greater capacity on the railways. That is why I made it clear in March that as part of that statement this summer, 1,000 extra carriages will be provided for the country’s railways. At the same time, we are looking at a range of measures on infrastructure, such as platform lengthening, for example. I can give the hon. Gentleman the assurance that capacity will be one of the central challenges that the high level output specification will address.

It is a shame that the 1,000 extra coaches will not be with us for another seven years.

The Government are receiving higher premium payments from train operators, because they in turn are passing on substantially increased fares to passengers—increases that are well above the rate of inflation. Will the Secretary of State give a commitment today that all the extra money raised from passengers in that way will be spent on tackling the overcrowding crisis on our railways?

Let me address both the points that the hon. Gentleman has raised. First, he has suggested once again that the 1,000 extra carriages will not be available for a number of years. Let me correct that misapprehension, which I am sure is inadvertent, by confirming that carriages will be available on the network by the end of next year, which is 2008 rather than 2014.

Secondly, reflecting the earlier answer that I gave, we recognise that the premium payments that came in under the franchising system form part of the rail budget. I have already made it clear that one of key priorities for the rail budget in the years ahead will be capacity.

Bus Services

Last month the Government published a draft Local Transport Bill for consultation. It includes proposals to provide the necessary powers for local authorities to improve bus services, as set out in “Putting Passengers First”.

The proposals have been broadly welcomed in south Yorkshire, even to the extent that last Friday, almost 100 bus users turned out on the wettest day for 35 years to discuss the measures with the Secretary of State. Does my hon. Friend agree with me and those bus users, however, that the measures in the Bill could be improved by giving local authorities the right to introduce the quality contract without having to go to an unaccountable body?

My hon. Friend is indeed an effective campaigner, as has been mentioned before. Indeed, I know from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State that her work last week to promote a better deal for bus passengers by bringing them together with my right hon. Friend was extremely valuable. I congratulate Sheffield city council and the passenger transport executive on signing up to a voluntary quality partnership that will mean better bus services.

I can assure my hon. Friend that the draft Bill does indeed provide for better working partnerships between authorities and operators. It will give more powers to local authorities where needed, and it is important that where quality contracts are proposed, they are properly scrutinised, because they are for the benefit of all, and it is important that we ensure that they are in the public interest.

Does the Minister recall that on 21 May 1997, when the Prime Minister first answered Prime Minister’s questions in this Chamber, he promised the House that the Deputy Prime Minister, who then had responsibility for transport, would be carrying out a review on the question of bus regulation? Since then, we have progressed as far as having a draft Bill. During that time, however, the cost of travelling by bus has increased by 15 per cent., while the cost of travelling by car has fallen by 9 per cent. Does the Minister think that the Prime Minister should be satisfied with the progress that her Department has made in the course of the past 10 years?

I am quite sure that the Prime Minister is very pleased that we now have the biggest shake-up of buses for some 20 years and that we have a balanced package of measures in the Bill, which is basically about ensuring better services for bus passengers. In particular, I want to draw the attention of the House to the fact that, just last week, provisional figures were published showing that there has been a rise of 85 million bus and light rail passenger journeys, and that 80 million of those additional journeys are made in the English non-metropolitan areas. That shows that bus patronage is on the rise, due in part to the concessionary travel provisions introduced by the Government.

If we are serious about tackling road congestion, there needs to be a meaningful role for park-and-ride, linked into strategic and key bus services. Given that fact, what discussion is my hon. Friend’s Department having with the Greater Manchester passenger transport executive to ensure that that essential element is included in its transport innovation fund bid for Greater Manchester?

Discussions are under way on the TIF bid, which is to deal with congestion. I am sure that my hon. Friend and other hon. Members are aware that I recently had the honour of opening the new GMPTE offices in Manchester, and its commitment to improving bus services, tackling congestion and working for the people of Greater Manchester is commendable.

Will the Minister, or her successor, visit Kettering to discuss local bus services with local residents and to be briefed on the remarkable 23 per cent. increase in bus patronage in the past four years?

I am sure that I would be absolutely delighted to visit Kettering. Areas up and down the country have experienced great success in passenger growth. The Local Transport Bill is all about spreading good practice and making sure that the benefits are available, which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State saw for himself in Oxford yesterday.

I urge my hon. Friend to make sure that the new powers in the Bill are coupled with the continuation of the Government’s kick-start programme, which in Newcastle has given us a new, high-frequency bus corridor, the X47 in the north-west of the city, that has attracted thousands of new bus passengers. Sadly, however, the Liberal Democrat council in Newcastle failed for many months to carry out its part of the deal, which was highway improvements to support the scheme.

That is disappointing, if not unsurprising, news from my hon. Friend. The important point about kick-start funding is, as I am sure that the House is aware, that bus funding has almost doubled in real terms since 1997, which includes the kick-start programme. I cannot make a commitment today, but I assure my hon. Friend that we will put the matter under review.

The Government spend much of their time demonising the deregulatory provisions of the Transport Act 1985. If those provisions are so evil, why have the Government not included re-regulation in the draft Bill?

What an interesting question. We have had an apology from the Opposition about rail privatisation, but we have had no such apology about their action on buses. The draft Local Transport Bill, which I hope that the Opposition will support, will introduce a new regime that will put passengers first and deliver better punctuality. That will mean the further development of the community transport sector and the implementation of quality contract schemes through effective partnership working. The Bill is not about returning to the 1980s; it is about looking forward and providing bus travel not only for those who do not have a choice, but for those who do.

Since rail passengers have got an effective way of complaining if they do not get good service, is there a particular reason why bus passengers do not have the same provision?

I assure my hon. Friend that we are strengthening the role of the traffic commissioners, who are also being included in the assessment of quality contracts to use their expertise and time to best effect to improve bus services.

Rail Services

3. What recent discussions he has had with Network Rail on improving the track between Kemble and Swindon. (143382)

I am aware that the Swindon to Kemble section is single track and that that limits the number of trains that the route can accommodate. Network Rail’s business plan 2007 states:

“Redoubling the single track between Swindon and Kemble is being evaluated as the first phase of the Swindon-Gloucester-South Wales line upgrade for delivery in 2008/09”.

However, that remains a matter for Network Rail to progress.

I am grateful to the Minister for that response, but we need to hurry up that improvement. Some 220,000 people live in Cheltenham and Gloucester alone, and many more people in the area use the trains. There is a direct train only once every one hour 52 minutes; on many trains, people have to change if they want to go to London, a journey which can take as long as two hours 36 minutes; and an open return often costs £139. That is a very poor service between an important area of the country and London, so we need that improvement. Will the Minister redouble his efforts in persuading Network Rail to take on that project?

For every Conservative Back Bencher who complains about not enough money being spent on the rail network, their Front Benchers complain that we are spending too much. I understand the hon. Gentleman’s concerns about the line but, as he will know, it is currently served by 18 trains in each direction every day—a level of service that would be envied in many other parts of the country. However, it is entirely up to Network Rail to decide if and when to spend money on the project, and how much.

As someone who has campaigned on this issue for 10 years, it is good to hear that it has now reached so-called GRIP 3, which will be known to my hon. Friend if to nobody else in the House. There is some optimism. However, I would like to know that there is a degree of transparency in the process. As the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson) says, this redoubling is greatly needed in Gloucestershire, and indeed in other parts of the region, so it would be nice to know that Network Rail will take advice from MPs and other interested parties to ensure that it gets a full view of the benefits that the upgrade could bring.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to express concerns about the transparency of such decision making. Network Rail consults extensively throughout the industry. I would recommend that he visits its website to get the latest on the precise identity of the consultees on this particular business plan. If he wishes to write to me, I am happy to pass on his concerns to the chief executive of Network Rail.

May I add my support to my colleagues from all parties in Gloucestershire on this important proposal? The redoubling of the line from Swindon to Kemble will deliver benefits in my constituency as well as those of my neighbours. Does the Minister agree that with passenger numbers on the railway network as a whole at their highest since the 1940s, such measures to increase capacity should be given the highest priority by Network Rail?

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s congratulations to the Government on their success in growing the network over the past 10 years. I would caution him and other hon. Members who have spoken on this issue by pointing out that the severe constraints on track capacity to the east of Swindon mean that although the work, if it goes ahead, will help to improve the reliability and performance of through services, it will be a much greater challenge to increase the number of services through to London.

Private Roads

Local authorities already have the power to bring unadopted roads up to the standard required for adoption. It is a matter of priorities for each individual authority to decide whether to do so, and there is no further role for central Government.

As my hon. Friend is aware, coalfield communities are disproportionately affected by unadopted roads, of which Derbyshire alone has 700. Will he agree to meet local authorities from coalfield communities to find finally some strategy to deal with that problem, which is not going away?

I certainly do know about the problem, because my hon. Friend has worked hard to ensure that Ministers are aware of it and of the specific issues. Of course, one of the ministerial team—these matters are usually dealt with by the Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln (Gillian Merron)—will be delighted to meet her. Our ability to get involved in this is limited, but we can help to try to identify the various opportunities for funding such schemes of which my hon. Friend’s constituency can take advantage.

The Minister says that this is nothing to do with central Government. When the new town corporations handed over the overspill London new towns to local councils, many roads were not adopted, and local authorities simply do not have the money to put those roads into the state that they should be in for public use. As it was the Government’s fault when those agencies did not do their job properly, can we look into the problem again to see whether there is any central money to solve it?

Local authorities might take advantage of various sources of funding for such schemes. The Department for Communities and Local Government offers several opportunities through regeneration funding. The local authority can use its own local transport plan funding, the integrated transport block and revenue support grant. It can even consider the possibility of using private finance initiatives and neighbourhood renewal funding. There are opportunities for local authorities to deal with this. If the hon. Gentleman would like to write to us, we will enumerate them and he can get his local authority working on an opportunity to put the problem right.

Wakefield is a coalfield community with more than 200 unadopted roads. As my hon. Friend knows, the legislation that governs adoption is outmoded, requires unanimity from householders and is normally defeated because of apathy and the cost to those householders. They wish to resolve difficulties only when there are problems with sewage or street lighting. Will he liaise with Ministers in the Department for Communities and Local Government to ensure that, as we embark on a programme of house building, we do not allow any more unadopted roads to be built on private estates and that, if they are built, planning agreements cover the costs of maintaining them in perpetuity and their adoption?

I will pass on those views to my colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local Government. My hon. Friend makes a good point and any new housing developments should take such matters seriously and ensure that the problem does not get worse.

Will my hon. Friend take it from me that he cannot pass the buck in the way in which he appears to have done? It is his Department’s responsibility that many people in my constituency and in Kirklees cannot get an unadopted road made up. May we have some leadership from him on the use of recyclable aggregate, which can often be used to make up the roads economically? His comments do not sit well when I have to face a Kirklees council that is run by the Tories with Liberal Democrat support, and it has to wait for a Labour Government to get its road done up.

I am sorry that my hon. Friend is cross with me, but there is little scope for central Government in the matter. It is for local authorities to decide how best to use their resources. We can make a variety of resources available to them, including regeneration funding and neighbourhood renewal funds. I am told that some local authorities have even used the home zone scheme as a way of moving matters forward. If the Liberal Democrat or Tory-controlled council to which my hon. Friend refers genuinely intends to resolve the problem, it has the mechanisms at its disposal.

Trains (Overcrowding)

We will work to increase capacity through the franchising process and in other ways. In particular, I announced on 14 March that the high level output specification, to be published in July, will include a commitment to 1,000 extra carriages. They will be targeted at the most congested routes on the network.

Does the Secretary of State agree that, in places such as my constituency, where junction 21 of the M5 is badly congested at peak hours, it is essential to have a high quality commuter rail scheme and that, for stations such as Worle, where there is bad overcrowding, we are moving in the wrong direction, with reduced rather than increased services? Will he make a commitment to people who wait for trains at Worle station and elsewhere in north Somerset that some of the resources that he mentioned will be targeted at the severe rail congestion there?

Doughty though the hon. Gentleman is in defence of his constituents, I doubt whether he would expect me to preannounce such specific elements from the high level output specification, which will be before the House in only a few weeks.

Let me make the general point that there has been sustained investment in our railways in recent years, in contradiction to literally decades of under-investment that we previously experienced. Transport Ministers used to claim that we had the most efficient railway in Europe. I regret that, all too often, that was code for the fact that money was not spent on maintenance or capacity, and we are therefore trying to catch up. That is why there needs to be additional capacity in the fleet and why we have announced 1,000 extra carriages. That is why we want sustained investment in the network and why it is sensible to present all the proposals at the same time in July. That is exactly what we will do.

Does the Secretary of State recognise that an announcement of the funding for the Reading station upgrade in next month’s high level specification output statement would contribute significantly to reducing train overcrowding on the Great Western main line?

I know that my reply will disappoint my hon. Friend. I passed through Reading station only last night when travelling back from Oxford. Much as I would like to assure him that, on the basis of outrageous congestion that I experienced, I will make an immediate announcement, I fear that I will disappoint him because I cannot make such an announcement at this stage and the station was remarkably quiet when I passed through it.

In all seriousness, my hon. Friend has made clear to me the concerns of his constituents about the high level of usage of Reading station. He has brought a group to the House of Commons to present his concerns directly to me and I assure him that we are mindful of them as we prepare the high level output specification.

Is the Secretary of State aware that Chelmsford has a significant commuting population and that railway journeys on One railway are unacceptable in respect of overcrowding during the rush hour? What specific and detailed advice can he give about how One railway can reduce the overcrowding and ensure that my constituents can travel to work as members of the human race rather than as cattle?

Obviously, there are steps that individual train-operating companies can take, whether it be train lengthening, with additional capacity being provided by additional carriages, or platform lengthening to facilitate those additional carriages, but there are specific requirements on specific routes. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that it would not be the right response simultaneously to suggest that we can have lower fares, a higher level of investment and lower taxes. Ultimately, there are two sources of funding available for the network: one is the rail fare and the other is the taxpayer. That is why the Government have, over many years, seen sustained investment in our railway, but we recognise that more needs to be done on capacity, which will inform the high level output specifications published this summer.

But surely my right hon. Friend—like me, he is a regular traveller—will understand that there are safety implications from the overcrowding of our trains. Is it not now possible in the modern age to restrict the numbers on trains, just as we restrict the numbers travelling in cars, planes and boats? We should restrict the numbers travelling on our trains because we are now reaching the point at which it is becoming unbearable. That problem really should be addressed by restricting the numbers that are allowed on our trains.

Of course, safety on our railways is a matter that we keep under constant review and there are appropriate bodies to advise us on the technical requirements of improving the safety regime on our railways. As to my hon. Friend’s point about what other steps can be taken, I made it clear back in March that we are making provision for an extra 1,000 carriages, which will go some way towards addressing some of his concerns.

Passenger Focus Report

6. If he will make a statement on the recent report by Passenger Focus on levels of rail passenger satisfaction. (143385)

The spring 2007 results from the national passenger survey show that there has been a small but disappointing decline of between 1 and 2 per cent. in rail passenger satisfaction in the last year. That needs to be viewed in the context of the steady improvement in rail passenger satisfaction experienced over recent years.

I think that the Minister is being somewhat selective in looking at the Passenger Focus survey. What area of dissatisfaction is he most concerned about—dissatisfaction with delays, dissatisfaction with value for money or dissatisfaction with reliability?

The passenger survey was undertaken in the context of steadily improving performance on the rail network. The industry is committed to achieving 89.4 per cent. reliability by the end of March next year and 90 per cent. the year after. In that context, with record amounts of public money being invested in the railways, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will agree that investment and not tax cuts should be the priority for the travelling public.

Will the Minister join me in congratulating Midland Mainline on its high-quality service and on the very high levels of customer satisfaction that are recorded in the survey? Will he reassure me and others in the east midlands and south Yorkshire area who rely on Midland Mainline services that they will not be unduly disrupted and that the quality of service will not be lost as a result of the new East Midlands rail franchise?

It is, of course, the Department’s aim to ensure that when any new franchise is introduced, passenger services continue as smoothly as possible. Inevitably, there will be timetable changes every December for every franchise. The new East Midlands franchise will be in place this summer and the new timetable for the new franchise will be introduced in December 2008. I expect service levels to be an improvement on what passengers currently receive.

The Minister knows that rail passenger satisfaction has improved greatly on the C2C Fenchurch Street service over recent years, but it could be improved even more if uncertainty about the franchise renewal were removed, so that the line could get on with making more investment in rolling stock to tackle problems such as overcrowding. What is the Minister going to do to remove the uncertainty about the franchise?

There is an ongoing debate in the industry about the length of franchises; the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to point that out. However, there is no consensus on how long a franchise should last. I am of the view that the present length of between seven and 10 years is appropriate, and that it does not serve as a disincentive to train operating companies in making the necessary investment. The idea of a 20-year franchise has been mooted, but that would not provide an incentive to improve performance, for example.

Does my hon. Friend agree that modern well-equipped railway stations contribute to improving levels of rail passenger satisfaction? Perhaps he thought that he could get through an entire Question Time without anyone mentioning New Street station, but I must ask him when he thinks we in the west midlands might get some good news on this project, which is vital for the entire region?

My hon. Friend is correct to say that the travelling experience is greatly coloured by whether the facilities at a train station are good or bad. As far as Birmingham New Street is concerned, I would love to be able to give him some cheer, but I shall have to ask him to await the announcement on possible funding for the redevelopment of the station that will be made in due course.

Did the Minister detect any customer satisfaction whatever on the state of the so-called Stansted Express? Seeing the state of our railways must be the most appalling introduction for foreigners coming to Britain. What are we going to do about that smelly, slow and unacceptable route?

The right hon. Gentleman understandably takes a close interest in these matters. His indignation would sound better, however, if he had not been complicit in the botched privatisation of the railways in 1993. The fact is that performance on our railways has gone up by 10 per cent. in the past five years, largely because of record investment by the Government in the railway network.


The Government are committed to increasing cycling; it is a healthy, environmentally friendly transport mode. We doubled Cycling England’s budget to £10 million last year and launched Bikeability cycle training earlier this year. The six cycling demonstration towns with which Cycling England is working have increased cycle trips by about 30 per cent. in just one year.

I thank the Minister for that answer. Does he agree that one thing that helps cycling is better cycle and rail integration—and that that is not helped by the attitude of some rail operators that do not encourage cycles on trains, and of some stations that prevent cyclists from bringing their bicycles into the ticket office?

I accept my hon. Friend’s concerns. Since late 2004, the Government have funded about 2,500 new cycle parking spaces at stations. However, there will always be constraints on the ability to accommodate non-folding bikes on trains at peak times. I believe that the train operating companies are the best placed to know where and when pressure on services exists, and they must be free to impose restrictions when necessary.

I call Rob Wallace. [Interruption.] I am sorry—I have a friend called Rob Wallace. I call Rob Wilson.

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. I am sure that we will become firm friends in a short space of time.

This week I shall participate in Reading’s cycle week, but Reading has a very poor cycle network that is neither safe nor fully integrated. What central funds will the Minister provide to address that deplorable state of affairs in my constituency?

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on trying to pin the blame for poor cycle routes on the Government. However, he will know that cycle facilities are entirely the responsibility of local government, using record levels of funds provided by this Government. I suggest that he engage with his local authority on this issue.

EU Emissions Trading Scheme

We have led the debate in Europe on this issue, and welcomed the European Union's announcement on aviation's inclusion in the EU emissions trading scheme in 2011 and 2012. However, we continue to press for an earlier introduction.

Assuming that introducing the measure would involve additional costs, may I ask the Minister to use her good offices to remind the major airline companies that they too have a responsibility to the environment, and that passing on any additional costs to the travelling public should not be an option at all, let alone the first option?

I understand my hon. Friend’s point. I know that he has a particular interest in the subject because Glasgow airport is in his constituency. Although other measures, including the offsetting of costs, are part of the mix and need to be considered, emissions trading guarantees a specific outcome in ensuring that an environmental contribution is made. We therefore believe that it is the best way forward.


The Minister of State was asked—


20. What steps she is taking to increase the period of time that prisoners spend on purposeful activity. (143365)

Commissioners are continuing to strive for improvements in purposeful activity across the prison estate that are achievable with the resources provided.

May I invite the Minister to join me on a visit to Reading prison, where blue-chip private sector companies are running extensive training programmes to guarantee jobs for young offenders when they complete their sentences? The programmes have cut reoffending rates from 70 per cent. to less than 7 per cent., turning lives around. Should the Government not be following that private sector-driven example of best practice, rather than allowing reoffending to cost the taxpayer up to £12 billion a year? Is that not a better idea than letting burglars and drug addicts out of prison early?

The hon. Gentleman will be pleased to learn that I visited Reading jail very recently, and saw the excellent work going on there. As he says, it is important to tackle reoffending and to ensure that as many providers as possible are available, whether they come from the voluntary, the private, or indeed the public sector. I hope he will support the Offender Management Bill, which his party is opposing as it goes through its paces in the House of Lords.

In the context of, in particular, younger prisoners who are restrained from any kind of activity, may I ask what the thinking was behind the Government’s proposal to change the rules on restraint, and whether and when we shall hear a full statement on that important proposal?

I know that my hon. Friend has taken a close interest in this issue. A statement will be made shortly, but I can say now that the purpose of the Secure Training Centre (Amendment) Rules 2007 was to prevent ambiguity. The primary legislation was very clear. We listened to what the coroner had to say to us, and changed the rules accordingly.

Does the Minister agree that one of the major barriers to giving prisoners purposeful activity is the fact that the sentences served are often so short that by the time they have been assessed, there is no point in putting them on a programme? Will he assure us that he will end the Executive early release of prisoners, to ensure that more of them are given the excellent training described by my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, East (Mr. Wilson)?

There is no Executive early release of prisoners. As the hon. Gentleman says, what we must do is cut reoffending, and we can do that by providing the right programmes to tackle it. The Prison Service is doing what it is doing and the probation service is doing whatever it can do, but reoffending rates are still far too high. One way of reducing them is through the Offender Management Bill, which the hon. Gentleman’s party is opposing.

Will the Minister join me in congratulating James Ewers and Pete Middleton, and all who took part in the Jail Guitar Doors campaign concert in Reading on Saturday? It raised more than £2,000 for the drug rehabilitation charity Turning Point, and to purchase musical instruments for some of the inmates of Reading young offenders institution.

I am happy to congratulate those who took part in the event, and wish the organisers well. Turning Point is doing a tremendous job in trying to tackle reoffending, particularly among young people. It is important for us to use every available tool to reach young people through music or the arts to try to stop them from reoffending, and we will continue to do that. I hope the whole House will support the programmes that we want to introduce.

Does the Minister not agree that although work and training, and the drugs-related programmes about which we have heard, are vital to stop criminals from reoffending, with the current overcrowding they are simply not available? If there is no purposeful activity and criminals are let out on to our streets with a “get out of jail free” card, will they not reoffend, committing crime after crime time after time?

Given the Chancellor’s refusal to fund the extra places that everyone knew were necessary for so many years, and given that the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, the right hon. Member for Delyn (Mr. Hanson), said only the other day that there were no extra funds, did it not take some brass neck for the Chancellor to stand up today and offer money for new places? How much confidence can the public really have that he will keep them safe?

We will take no lessons from the Opposition on prison funding. We have built 20,000 places since 1997, and last year we announced that there would be a further 8,000 places. We must tackle reoffending. We all agree that end-to-end offender management is the way forward, to stop people going into prison so that we do not need so many prison places. Let me ask the hon. Gentleman a question: why does he oppose the Offender Management Bill? We will build more prison places, and the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn will make a statement shortly.

Prison Population

21. What estimate she has made of the prison population on 1 July (a) 2008, (b) 2010, (c) 2012 and (d) 2014. (143366)

The Government recently published prison population projections up to July 2012. They are to be reviewed in August 2007 and are available on the Home Office and Ministry of Justice websites.

Why does the Minister think that the Secretary of State said, when the Ministry of Justice was set up just a few weeks ago, that there would be no further early release schemes? What has gone wrong? What message does this give to those who are fighting crime?

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has indicated that there will be no Executive early release schemes, and I shall mention that in my statement. What message on crime does the right hon. Gentleman wish me to give people? When his party was in office, the crime rate doubled, violent crime increased by 170 per cent., the chances of being a victim trebled, convictions fell by a third and police officer numbers were cut. That was the message from his Government. Our Government have a different message.

I know that my right hon. Friend is aware that there are 45 fewer women in prison now than a year ago, but the number has still doubled over the past 10 years. What does he plan to do to bring down the number of women in prison, and does he plan to adopt Baroness Corston’s proposals?

My hon. Friend will know that Baroness Corston produced a report on the female prison population, and we are currently considering it. The Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Redcar (Vera Baird), will examine the recommendations, and we warmly welcome them. We want fewer women to be in prison, and I am confident that we will be able to respond to the report positively—by late autumn at the latest, I hope.

I will get on with it.

As the Minister will be aware, the prison population has doubled over the past 15 years. Does he believe that it will double again in the next 15 years—and if not, why not?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, I will shortly make a statement on prison population projections and what steps we intend to take. I am confident that we can take a number of measures to protect the public and put serious offenders in jail, and also look at community-based sentences and work with sentencers to ensure that we manage the sentenced population effectively. We will need to build extra prison places, and we have plans to do so. I shall say more about that in my statement. I am confident that we can build extra places, manage the prison population effectively and make sure that we protect the public from serious and dangerous offenders.

When I was first campaigning to enter the House, in the run-up to the 1992 election, our party made a great deal of the fact that the number of prisoners had gone past the 40,000 mark, which at that time was the highest per capita in Europe, with the possible exception of Turkey. It has now gone past the 80,000 mark. Does the Minister attribute that doubling to a heightened level of criminality in the British population, or to a response to evidence showing that prison works—that is unlikely—or, which is more likely, are we pandering to the middle-market tabloids of the Daily Mail and Daily Express variety, and trying to obtain yet more votes from that section of the population?

I must tell my hon. Friend that if we are pandering to the Daily Mail, it is not working. The prison population has certainly risen. Overall, crime is down, convictions are up and the Labour Government are catching more criminals because of the greater numbers of police on the streets. Irrespective of that, I recognise the problems that my hon. Friend identifies. We want there to be better use of community sentences, and stronger community sentences. The Criminal Justice Act 2003 has given 12 orders which I hope will be utilised more effectively over the next three years than they have been, with a great deal of effort, over the past three years. I am confident that we can build extra prison places, manage the prison population in an effective and productive way to prevent reoffending, and build on community sentences to ensure that people do not return to jail or to offending once they have been through the criminal justice system.

I hear what the Minister says, but given that there are now 16,000 extra prisoners in England and Wales why should anybody presume that if Labour were in power for another seven years, there would not be the same rate of increase? What is the answer to the problem that not only do we still have more prisoners per head of population than any other western European country, but we have half as many again as countries of the same size and type—Germany, France and Italy? Are the British more criminal, or has the policy failed?

The hon. Gentleman will know from the statement made on 9 May that I have a great deal of sympathy with some of the points that he makes. We need to look into focusing more on community sentences, on drug treatment and alcohol orders, and on a range of measures such as—dare I say it?—home detention and tagging, because they can help to prevent reoffending as much as prison can. We have a rising prison population, and at 3.30 I shall announce some steps to deal with those matters, but I am confident that community sentences and guidance, and work with sentencers, will be among the key drivers in helping to reduce the prison population in due course.

The Minister was asked a perfectly straight question by my right hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (Mr. Mackay), and he has yet to answer it. He referred us to his website; I thought that we had questions and answers across the Dispatch Box, not via a website. Is the Minister not answering the question put to him because he knows very well that according to the projected figures, the prison population for the years in question will go way over 100,000 and towards 120,000, and he does not have any plans to cope with that sort of capacity?

I am grateful to the hon. and learned Gentleman for pointing out the content of my website, and I am pleased that he views it. I referred the right hon. Member for Bracknell (Mr. Mackay) to it because it is an important way of looking at the facts and figures that we have. I am happy to provide the hon. and learned Gentleman with figures on these matters. The ones that he mentions are projections, and as I said, we are planning to review those projections in August. I will shortly announce steps to be taken on prison population issues with which I suspect that he, even if not his Front-Bench colleagues such as the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis), will have some sympathy. [Interruption.] If the hon. and learned Gentleman would care to contain himself, I will report on these matters at 3.30.

Machinery of Government

22. If she will make a statement on the progress of her Department’s working group with senior members of the judiciary on the recent machinery-of-government changes. (143367)

We all know that this dreadful Labour Government have messed up the police service, and now they are about to do the same to the judiciary. Perhaps the Minister will tell the House whether, during those discussions with senior members of the judiciary, she has been able to reassure them that there is no constitutional problem, that their traditional independence will be preserved, and that they will not be compromised in terms of any sentencing?

There will be no messing up of the judiciary. Its independence is in statute passed by this House, under the Constitutional Reform Act 2005, and nothing is going to change that.

Was it not disgraceful that the Lord Chief Justice heard about the Ministry of Justice from the pages of The Daily Telegraph, and does my friend feel at all embarrassed that the judiciary were not properly consulted, as they should have been? Finally, has my friend read the report from the Public Administration—

It was short, but there was more than one supplementary—that is the point that I am trying to make. Try to use good manners; it is important. The hon. Gentleman will learn something after a few years.

As soon as it was a serious proposal to go ahead with the Ministry of Justice, as my hon. Friend will know from looking at the evidence given by the Lord Chancellor to the Constitutional Affairs Select Committee on 22 May, at that point arrangements were made to have a working group of the Lord Chief Justice, at which Department for Constitutional Affairs officials engaged in discussions in preparation for the Ministry of Justice. However, the most important thing is that section 1 of the Courts Act 2003 lays out the Lord Chancellor’s responsibility to ensure that there is an “efficient and effective” courts service, and the Constitutional Reform Act 2005 ensures the independence of the judiciary. Moreover, a concordat sets out the agreement on relationships between Ministers and judges. I am sure that all those things will have the full support of this House.

As there is not even agreement with the judges on interim working arrangements, let alone a long-term solution to what the Lord Chief Justice sees as a serious constitutional problem, is the Minister prepared to allow a situation to continue in which there is a real divide between the judiciary and the Executive, even about the implementation of the concordat in the Act that she has described?

There are interim working arrangements in place. The courts are working and the judges are ensuring that justice is done in the courts. The Lord Chancellor and the Ministry of Justice are ensuring that the court system is operating. Of course there are operational issues that the judiciary raised with the Lord Chancellor’s Department and are now raising with our Department, and those are being considered. I have seen the evidence that was taken by the right hon. Gentleman’s Select Committee, and obviously there will always be discussions between the judiciary and the Ministry of Justice, but I cannot see any point in adding to the situation through hyperbole.

I welcome, of course, the assurances given by the Minister of State about the importance of the independence of the judiciary, and it is, of course, protected by statute. Following the evidence given to the Select Committee, has the Lord Chancellor spoken to the Lord Chief Justice about this issue, because Committee members felt strongly that that personal contact between them would break this logjam?

I can reassure my right hon. Friend and the House that the Lord Chancellor is in weekly, sometimes daily, contact with the Lord Chief Justice. They have regular discussions, and that will continue to be the case.

The Lord Chief Justice and his colleagues also gave evidence to the Select Committee to the effect that if there were to be any meaningful assurance of judicial independence, there should at the very least be a ring-fenced courts budget. Can the Minister and her colleagues assure us that we will have that vital safeguard, as requested by the Lord Chief Justice?

There are two separate issues here. One is the resourcing of the courts budget within the Ministry of Justice. The courts budget is some £1 billion, compared with the legal aid budget of £2 billion, to which is added the prison budget of some £2 billion. Obviously, it is the responsibility of the Lord Chancellor, under section 1 of the Courts Act, to ensure that there is an efficient and effective system to support the carrying out of the business of the courts, and that resources are dedicated to that. As for the independence of the judiciary, that too is enshrined in statute and underpinned by the concordat.


23. How many prisoners left prison with a drug or alcohol dependency problem in the last 12 months. (143368)

Defining and assessing dependency is not straightforward, and records are not kept on the numbers leaving prison with drug or alcohol dependency. A comprehensive treatment framework is in place to support prisoners with a drug problem, with a range of services available for those with an alcohol problem.

It is a shame that the Government are not able to provide those statistics, because one in five people going into prison have a drug dependency problem. Many of them then have treatment in prison—detox and rehab. They start their treatment regime and then, when they leave prison, they go to the back of the queue and lose out on all the benefits that they might have experienced if they had been able to continue their treatment. If we are to tackle recidivism, is it not important that we ensure continuity of treatment for those people?

My hon. Friend makes an important point, and I appreciate the work that he does in his community to try to tackle drug use. He will know that prisoner health care has been transferred to the national health service through the primary care trusts, and there are now end-to-end programmes for people with drug problems. We have also seen a 997 per cent. increase in spending on drug problems.

May I make a helpful suggestion? Too many prisoners leave prison still addicted to class A drugs, and then reoffend. What about moving prisoners coming to the end of their time in prison into an established residential drug rehab centre for the balance of their sentences? That would save money and be much more effective. It would be cheaper than prison, and cost the country much less in the long term.

Again, I appreciate the work that the hon. Gentleman does in our courts and criminal justice system. It is important that we look at what works. As I said, there has been a 997 per cent. increase in spending on drug treatment. We are trying to find the best way to stop people taking drugs, and we believe that using the NHS is an appropriate way forward. We are also looking at what providers in the voluntary sector can do, and at what is best practice in this area, but I shall be happy to consider the suggestion that the hon. Gentleman has made.

Burial Facilities

24. If she will assess the implications of the Government's recently announced policy on burial law reform for the provision of burial facilities for the people of West Lancashire and other areas where there is a lack of burial space. (143370)

We understand the importance that many families attach to having a local cemetery. Our decision to enable the reuse of old burial grounds will provide local authorities with a further option when deciding how best to meet their communities’ needs at an affordable cost.

Does the Minister believe that West Lancashire district council should refund to its council tax payers the increased cost that they incur when burying their loved ones in cemeteries in neighbouring local authority areas? This is a tax on dying. It is being imposed on the council tax payers of West Lancashire with no regard to their ability to pay, while the local authority denies its responsibilities.

I know that my hon. Friend represents the considerable strength of feeling in her constituency of West Lancashire about the fact that local people are unable to bury loved ones in their own area. They have to incur the expense of travel, and are obliged to pay a higher price when they get to a burial ground outside their area. I know that she will continue to put pressure on West Lancashire district council. Under provisions announced in my written statement earlier this month, councils have additional options available to them, but there really is no excuse for not providing the burial services needed by local people.

Prison Population

I wish to repeat a statement made by the Lord Chancellor in another place.

The Ministry of Justice has been in existence for five weeks. I announced on 9 May my Department’s approach to penal policy. I announced that we would continue to protect the public by providing prison places for those whom the courts determine need custody, and that that would include asking the Sentencing Guidelines Council to review its guidance. I also made it clear that we should make best use of the best community sentences where evidence says that they reduce reoffending and offer more effective punishment, and that we would continue to deliver in line with the recommendations of Lord Carter’s 2003 review, including end-to-end offender management and public service reform.

Today, I wish to provide details to the House of how the Government will ensure that all those whom the courts send to prison can be accommodated. I will update the House on the detail of Lord Carter’s inquiry into prisons, announce the building of further custodial places, and set out further measures to improve the functioning of our prisons and to reduce reoffending.

We have made public protection from the most dangerous criminals a priority. We are bringing more offenders to justice than ever before—25 per cent. more than when we came into office. Those who commit violent or sexual offences can now receive an indeterminate prison sentence. The length of time for which criminals are sent to prison has increased, with the average custodial sentence in Crown courts rising by 25 per cent. between 1995-2005. As the House will know, more people are being sent to prison than ever before. That means that, overall, there are 40 per cent. more serious and violent offenders in prison than in 1997. Since 1997, the prison population has increased from 61,467 to 81,016 today, a record high.

Nationally, crime is falling. There are 5.8 million fewer offences than in 1997, but we know we need to go further. We have been working intensively with 44 of our most deprived communities, where crime and disorder are highest, to reduce crime still further. Early indications show that the work is making an impressive impact and crime is falling at twice the rate in those areas than the national average. The Government are determined that the public be protected from dangerous offenders, and that court sentences and other orders be obeyed.

In addition to those measures, we have taken steps to increase the resources spent on community punishments and interventions designed to address the causes of crime among offenders. Tough community sentences have been developed, which have proved more than successful in reducing reoffending. As I announced to the House in May, we shall, therefore, extend and expand such schemes.

We have built more than 20,000 more prison places since 1997, and we have a commitment today to build 8,000 more by 2012. We have increased expenditure on probation by 70 per cent. in real terms over the last 10 years and, as an example of our commitment to addressing the causes of crime, we have increased expenditure on drug treatment programmes in prisons from £7.2 million in 1997 to £79 million in 2007-08.

To help accommodate the current pressures, I can announce today that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer has made available new money to build an additional 1,500 places over and above the 8,000 already announced. We will be starting work immediately on 500 of those extra places and the first of the additional places will come on stream in January 2008.

As I announced on 9 May 2007, I have asked Lord Carter to look at the future of the estate and we will take decisions on the optimum timing and composition of the further 1,000 places announced today in the light of Lord Carter’s final report. I am today publishing the terms of reference for his review. As the terms of reference make clear, Lord Carter will look at the long-term future of the prison estate and at both the supply and demand of prison places.

Those additional measures will bring on more prison places, which are much needed. Currently, as I mentioned, the prison estate is near to full. To ensure that we can accommodate all those sent to prison by the courts, we will continue to rely on police cells, as a temporary measure, and where necessary court cells. I am personally grateful to chief constables in England and Wales for making police cells available to us where necessary and to the Court Service for more than 100 court cells to date. The use of police cells may be necessary until the end of this year at the latest, pending the increase in capacity from some of the 8,000 prison places coming on stream and then, at the beginning of 2008, from the additional prison places I have announced today.

In addition to increased prison capacity, I have authorised the issuing of guidance to prison governors to allow them to make wider use of the prison rules provisions to authorise release on licence for offenders who are coming to the end of their sentence. [Hon. Members: “Ah.”] The guidance will authorise release on licence, in accordance with existing prison rules, up to 18 days before their release date, for those who have been sentenced to a determinate prison sentence of four years or less. This is a temporary measure.

Let me be clear for all those in the House who are concerned—[Interruption.]

Let me be clear from the outset: release on licence is not the same as Executive release. Releasing people on licence means that their sentence continues. Release on licence will be granted only to those who meet the eligibility criteria set out in the guidance that I will place in the Library of the House today. The criteria specifically exclude offenders convicted of serious sexual or violent crimes, those who have broken the terms of temporary release in the past and foreign national prisoners who would be subject to deportation at the end of their sentence. Release on licence will apply only to those who are not released on home detention curfew and while on licence the offender will remain subject to his sentence and will be liable to recall. The guidance comes into effect on 29 June and I will keep its operation under review.

In addition, yesterday saw the launch of the new bail accommodation and support service, which will enable courts to make greater use of bail in appropriate cases. The accommodation will also be available for prisoners who are eligible for home detention curfew if they have suitable accommodation.

The measures I have announced today are designed to ensure that the Government will be able to accommodate all those the courts send to prison. We will respect and give effect to the orders made by the courts and we will protect the public.

I commend the statement to the House.

I begin by thanking the Minister for showing me his statement—20 minutes ago. Earlier this afternoon during questions, he was given the opportunity to tell us the projected prison population figures until 2014, but he did not—they would not have made good listening.

The Government have done nothing to plan for and provide adequate prison capacity. The Minister re-announces 1,500 new places, continued reliance on police and court cells, early release and greater use of bail. The Government know, on present rates, that there will be well over 100,000 prisoners by 2012. There are no indications that that figure is anything other than on the low side. There is no sign that the Government have done anything constructive—

Order. I say to the hon. and learned Gentleman that he should not be making a statement; he should be questioning the Minister. If he puts his case in the form of questions, it is acceptable to me.

You kindly, but not for the first time, anticipate me, Mr. Speaker. I am just about to ask the question. But let me just set that question in context.

The Minister says that the Government have built 20,000 new places, but several of these new prisons were contracted for prior to 1997, and does he really believe that the 20,000 new places will be sufficient to deal with the crisis of overcrowding? Will the Minister accept, not only that the current problem of prison overcrowding will continue, but that it has been both predictable and predicted by everyone who has thought about the issue for many years? His noble Friend Lord Carter, Anne Owers the prisons inspector, and even my right hon. Friend the shadow Home Secretary and I have warned the Government about this time after time. Did not the Home Office itself predict in 2001 that there would not be enough places for the expected numbers of offenders by the end of this decade?

Is it not clear that the only people who failed to react to what was happening and what was going to happen were the four Labour Home Secretaries and their Ministers, aided and abetted by the current Chancellor of the Exchequer, who on all the evidence, have done next to nothing? Why on earth did the Home Secretary claim last October in the House that my right hon. Friend the shadow Home Secretary

“has been making a dreadful, dreadful fuss because we are a couple of hundred short of maximum capacity”—[Official Report, 9 October 2006; Vol. 450, c. 38.]

instead of getting on with sorting out the mess?

What sort of Government demand that the courts send more offenders to prison, and for longer, but fail to provide the places to put them in? What sort of Government, after 10 years in office, look and sound surprised that the prison population has risen under their watch from under 60,000 to over 81,000, and that offenders are now having to be housed overnight in court cells, and for several nights in police station cells, and even kept in prison vans outside court while they wait for their cases to come on? And, Mr. Speaker, did you not hear this Minister say that he was pleased to announce that he was going to invite the police to do that until the end of the year?

There are prisons that have turned away prisoners because they have no more room. Why, if the Government thought it right to have 20,000 more inmates, did they not plan and build 20,000 more places?

The Home Secretary said last year that he would provide 8,000 more places by 2012. On the Government’s own projections, that will not be enough. But the Chancellor, the next Prime Minister, has not signed the cheque. Where are these places going to be, what will they cost in terms of building and staffing costs and when will they be ready?

To provide temporary accommodation, why have the Government not found the prison ship that they sold at a loss not so long ago? Why have they not made any use of redundant military camps, former secure hospitals and other available accommodation? Why did they not do these things last year or the year before that?

Watching the Government’s handling of this growing crisis has been like watching a train crash. Why have the Government been hapless bystanders and not taken decisive action? Is it because the Chancellor, driven by political rivalry, has refused successive Home Secretaries the resources needed to address the chronic lack of prison spaces? Is not the crisis that we now face a failure of design, for which the Chancellor bears responsibility? We heard today from Manchester that he will ensure extra fast-build prison places to address the problem. But why—if the Labour Chief Whip, the right hon. Member for Redditch (Jacqui Smith), would stop chattering—why, if the resources are available, were they not made available in time to prevent this predictable chaos? How much is the Chancellor providing? How many places will be built, and when will they be available? Are these not likely to be fast-fill prisons that will soon demonstrate the short-term nature of this Government’s approach?

The Government briefed the press this morning that they will release prisoners early. The Minister confirms that. Why then did the Lord Chancellor say quite the opposite over lunchtime on Sky television? The Government did that before, with tragic consequences for far too many innocent victims. In previous years, as they released inmates early from open prisons, they transferred unsuitable offenders from the secure to the open estate. Will the Minister undertake to the House in terms that he will do no such thing again?

We know that the police and the probation service, which are already overstretched, cannot keep their eyes on more released offenders. Every probation officer is already supervising between 20 and 80 offenders. Are not the public entitled to conclude that the Government’s strategic and day-to-day management of our prisons has been not just stupid, reckless and incompetent, but shamefully irresponsible? Do they not see an exhausted Government, who, as a direct result of their failure to plan and act, have increased reoffending, reduced public safety and wasted huge sums of taxpayers’ money? What do the Government offer but yet another review? Are there no limits to the Government’s inadequacies—

Order. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. and learned Gentleman, but I laid down a rule that there would be five minutes for questions and he is reaching six minutes. So, I think we will cut his comments short and let the Minister reply.

I am grateful to the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) for raising some issues. May I put him straight on one thing? He said that I am reannouncing 1,500 prison places, but I am not: I am announcing new money—£80 million—from the Chancellor of the Exchequer for 1,500 prison places. That is over and above the 8,000 places we have already committed to for this period. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) can chunter all he likes, but that is money that the Government have voted for, raised taxes for and will spend. I challenge him and the hon. and learned Member for Harborough to say where that money would come from in the context of tax cuts for the future.

The hon. and learned Gentleman is quite accurate to say that there are projections that show an increase in the prison population. I accept that. I have already indicated to him in questions that we intend to review the figure in August 2007. We have a building programme for 8,000 places already and 1,500 places have been announced today. We are committed to raising the number of prison places, but we are also committed to things that I know that—deep down, secretly—he supports, such as looking at better community sentences, ensuring that we get people out of prison by reducing reoffending, and looking at people who have under 12 months to serve to see whether we can make sure that they do not reoffend in the future. I know that he believes in that, although the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis) takes a different view. I hope that the hon. and learned Member for Harborough will support us, not just in building the necessary prison places now, but in looking at the issues related to preventing reoffending in the long term.

The hon. and learned Gentleman helpfully suggested we consider prison ships or redundant Army camps—as if they were things that the Government had never thought of, examined and tried to do. The issues are difficult. We have looked at the ideas and they are not practicable in the short or long term. What is practicable is building proper prison places, putting in, in effect, extra prison resources, and looking at sentencing and community-based sentences.

The hon. and learned Gentleman mentioned the Lord Chancellor. The Lord Chancellor has ruled out early release; he has ruled out Executive early release. Pressure has been put on us to take that step, but we are not undertaking Executive early release. Early release is letting people out. They are not under licence and we do not have control over them. For a small number of people, we have put in temporary transitional licence arrangements to bring them home in the last few days of their sentences. Those people do not include serious and dangerous offenders. I hope that the hon. and learned Gentleman will support that.

Can the hon. and learned Gentleman recall May 2005, when his party fought an election on a manifesto committed to the James review, which contained £35 billion of spending cuts? That was not a question of resources going to deal with issues in our communities. He needs to remember that.

Given the pressures on the prison population, the measures that my right hon. Friend has announced are clearly a sensible and balanced package, but we need to look at the longer term. He spoke about the 25 per cent. increase in the length of sentences passed by the courts over the last few years—often against the wishes of Home Secretaries and Lord Chief Justices. In many cases, those sentences are for crimes where there is no evidence that the increase produces better public protection or a bigger reduction in offending. What discussions are taking place with the Sentencing Guidelines Council to make sure that judges are using the punishment of imprisonment correctly and, secondly, that we make greater use of restorative justice—

Order. I am sorry to interrupt the right hon. Gentleman, but I have told another hon. Member that one supplementary question is enough.

My right hon. Friend makes several important points. As he will know, my right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor has already written to the Sentencing Guidelines Council to ask it to examine several matters relating to long-term sentencing. We certainly need to examine how we can mange supply and demand in the longer term through sentencing policy. Such a complicated and difficult issue requires serious consideration. We are willing and able to undertake that with the judiciary in due course.

My right hon. Friend mentioned restorative justice, and the Ministry of Justice has already undertaken several pilot projects. I know from my experience in my previous job in Northern Ireland that that can have a significant impact on reducing reoffending. One of the Ministry of Justice’s purposes is to examine sentencing across the board and the variety of penalties that might arise from other Departments’ legislation. We are acutely aware that extra legislation can often put pressure on prison places. We will continue to look at that and I hope that we are making progress.

I thank the Minister for his statement. He will know that several of his announcements for the future are welcome, but as a new Minister in a newly created Department, does he accept that today’s announcement was the absolutely predictable end to a sorry story of failed policy over the past 10 years, that the situation is an embarrassment to the departing Prime Minister and undermines the criminal justice system, and that the announcement will do nothing of itself to prevent reoffending, or to reduce the number of offenders? Does he accept that each of the four Home Secretaries saw this coming, but clearly did not take adequate action to prevent it?

Does the Minister agree that we need to address now the categories of people who are in prison, but should not be there? Is the number of foreign prisoners going down quickly, either at the end of sentence, or by agreement? Will we have secure places for the mentally ill—not just the 1,500 places that exist in mental hospitals—in which people will be treated for a mental illness instead of being locked up in a prison that does nothing? Will he implement Jean Corston’s proposals on women who do not need to be in prison so that such women can be placed somewhere they can support families and be rehabilitated? Will there be a speedy increase in the number of places for people with drug problems who would do better in secure rehabilitation centres instead of crowding our prisons? Given that we know that the numbers are approaching record levels, will we have from today a change to the crazy policy that has seen prison numbers and reoffending going through the roof and a realisation that unless we bring prison numbers down, rather than building more prisons, we will not be giving the public what they want: less crime and, above all, less reoffending?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who has a thoughtful approach to such issues. One of the Ministry of Justice’s prime jobs is to try to prevent reoffending. We need to examine several long-term solutions, such as how we can have an impact on drugs and alcohol treatment, how we can work in the community, and how we can invest more in giving additional treatment to people in prison. However, I cannot get away from the fact that the public need to be protected from the growing number of serious and dangerous offenders. We are examining how we can build extra prison places. Our strategy involves building prison places and examining the wider issues of community sentencing and the way in which to prevent reoffending.

There is work to do on foreign national prisoners, whom the hon. Gentleman mentioned. There are still people in prison who need to be deported back to their home countries, or transferred to the immigration estate. The Ministry of Justice needs to work with its colleagues in the Foreign Office and other Departments to make progress because the small yet significant issue needs to be addressed.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the report by my right hon. Friend Baroness Corston. I said during Justice questions that my right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor and I welcome the Corston report, which we intend to examine in detail. The Lord Chancellor has tasked the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Redcar (Vera Baird), with looking at the details of the report to determine not how to reject the recommendations, but how and when we can implement them. It is our objective that there should be fewer women in prison. With the benefit of that report, we can achieve that over time, with difficulty, with resources and by examining the prison estate as a whole as part of Lord Carter’s review. I have already said that I expect the Government to respond to that report by late autumn at the latest, and I very much hope that we can do that.

Finally, in the Criminal Justice Act 2003 we put in place drug treatment orders and alcohol orders, which we need to examine more imaginatively and use again in the future.

The only area in which our views do not chime with those of the hon. Gentleman are his views about my right hon. Friends who have previously held positions in the Home Office. They were faced with difficult issues and had to make difficult decisions in respect of not only the prison estate, but terrorism and other matters. They did the best job they could in difficult circumstances. As the Ministry of Justice, we have assessed those issues, targeted a way forward and got the resources from the current Prime Minister and the future Prime Minister to see those proposals through, and I commend them to the House.

My right hon. Friend says that the issue of foreign prisoners is small but significant, but may I suggest that it is quite large? Will he confirm that about one in seven of the prison population is of foreign origin? Cannot more be done to arrange for them to serve their sentences in their countries of origin?

I accept what my hon. Friend says. In answer to the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes), I was referring to foreign prisoners who have served their sentence and are awaiting deportation. There are a small but significant number of those. I fully accept what my hon. Friend says in relation to the number of foreign prisoners in jails in England and Wales. We need to look imaginatively at how we can get those people to serve sentences in their home countries, and we need to take action on that to reduce that number of individuals. I have been in post five weeks. We have looked at a number of key significant issues, and that is one to which we need to return. I am sure that my hon. Friend’s contribution to that debate will be of great help.

As the crisis was both foreseeable and foreseen, can the Minister confirm that each of the past four Home Secretaries to whom he has just paid tribute asked the Chancellor of the Exchequer for the money required to provide the additional prison places that were necessary, but that the Chancellor of the Exchequer turned a deaf ear to those requests and refused to make the money available?

There are continuing demands on public expenditure, as the right hon. and learned Gentleman will recognise. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer has already committed to a building programme for an additional 8,000 places. He has committed today to a further 1,500 places, 500 by January. We have dramatically increased the resource spent on the probation service. Since the right hon. and learned Gentleman was Home Secretary we have increased the resource spent on drug treatment, alcohol treatment, young people’s offending and other issues in the community. It is brass cheek for the right hon. and learned Gentleman, who went into an election committed to a manifesto to cut spending on the Home Office and put it into education and health through the James review, to come to the House and tell me to spend more money on prisons and prison services. While we are speaking of the right hon. and learned Gentleman, in his last year in office, 1,100 people absconded from prison—

Order. The Minister is in order to speak about the history of a Government Department. He was not in order when he was talking about a manifesto. Does he want to continue?

Will my right hon. Friend go into a little more detail on his comments about extending and expanding tough community sentences and their success in reducing offending?

As my hon. Friend knows, under the 2003 Act there are 12 community-based sentences that we can use, including alcohol treatment, home detention curfews, measures related to drug treatment and other sentences. I need to ensure that we expand the public understanding of the benefit of those schemes. They are tough schemes that prevent reoffending, often much more effectively than does prison. As I am trying to do, I need to visit the probation service, sentencers and the Prison Service and promote the idea that community sentencing has a value. In many cases, particularly for low sentences, it is much better at reducing reoffending and it makes community pay-back visible to people in the community. I want to ensure that we promote the benefits of community sentences both to the offender and to the community, for the simple reason that they prevent reoffending. That means, ultimately, that somebody’s garden shed will not have been broken into; somebody will not have been robbed on the street or mugged; and that some event will not have happened that would have caused crime to rise. I support the general drift of the approach that I think my hon. Friend would wish me to take.

The Minister mentioned this matter in his statement. The hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) said that one in seven prisoners were of foreign origin, and it is estimated that up to 25 per cent. of prisoners currently being held should not be there—low-level repeat offenders, people with medical problems, dysfunctional people and people who are not a danger to the community. Will the Minister’s Department undertake an urgent audit to see what kind of numbers can safely be released on to the street?

We are very aware of the foreign prisoner issue, which my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) mentioned. We have an ongoing review that is trying to get people repatriated to their country of origin. The over-stayers issue is equally important; it is a small but significant issue that I mentioned earlier. I certainly want greater emphasis on the point that the hon. Gentleman has made. We need to look at people on sentences of less than 12 months. Although prison can work, for some people who serve two, four, six, eight or 10 weeks, the level of intervention that can take place in prison cannot particularly help in getting on to the path of reduced reoffending. What we can often do through community sentences is bring people face to face with their crime and its consequences, and give community payback, which is also proved to have greater success in reducing reoffending in due course. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will support us in pursuing those objectives.

Has the Minister had an opportunity to read the written evidence given by no fewer than 43 different organisations to the inquiry of the Select Committee on Home Affairs, entitled “Towards Effective Sentencing”, much of which argued that there is a range of sensible, workable alternatives to prison that will not put the public in danger?

My hon. Friend raises a very important point. I appeared before the Committee—two weeks ago, I think—to give evidence on behalf of the Government, and I am returning at the end of the inquiry to give further evidence. One of the matters on which I gave evidence was the need to put in prison people who are dangerous, violent or sexual offenders, so that the public can be protected from them. Equally, I emphasised the need for an examination of strong community sentences. We already have in place a very large number of community sentences. I think that we should increase that number if we possibly can and encourage sentencers to do so, not because such sentences reduce the prison population, although being honest, they do, but because they reduce reoffending, which is the most important consideration in bringing forward those ideas.

The Prison Service is full of young men, three quarters of whom have serious alcohol and drug addiction problems; about 60 per cent. of whom come from broken homes; and many of whom have the reading age and numeracy age of a child of 11. What this is really all about is the fact that the Government have known all along that that pool of people has been getting bigger and bigger, and it is therefore no surprise that the prison population has been rocketing, because the Government have done nothing about mending that.

I respect the right hon. Gentleman very much, and I respect his contribution to the debate on tackling some of the causes of crime, such as poverty, social exclusion and dysfunctionality, which very often are contributors to crime issues, but I have to say that I disagree as to how we should approach the matter. I happen to believe that public investment in tackling some of those issues is key and should be increased and looked at in the round. I happen to believe—we can debate this to the ninth degree—that ultimately the Conservative party will continue to reduce public expenditure, which will have a knock-on effect in dealing with some of those issues and in tackling crime.

I understand where the right hon. Gentleman is coming from. He and I know that we need to tackle dysfunctionality, social exclusion and long-term drug issues in particular. We can do that outside the criminal justice system in social policy, and we can do it, in my view effectively, in the criminal justice system through prison. Particularly, we can do it through some of the 2003 criminal justice orders, which will help in the community.

With prisons bursting at the seams and a new Department in charge, this is a watershed at which certain fundamental principles can be re-evaluated. Will the Minister say whether he intends to examine the key performance indicators within which the Prison Service is required to operate, because in the past organisations such as the Prison Reform Trust have criticised the KPIs, arguing that they do not measure whether the needs of the prison population are being met in respect of the distance that prisoners are kept from home and time spent out of cells? Will he revisit that matter, which will respond to sensitive involvement by the new ministerial team?

As my hon. Friend will know, I have been in post for five weeks. I need to examine a number of issues with the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Sutcliffe), who has done a good job in the past year. We will examine the performance of the Prison Service with Phil Wheatley and the Prison Service and the National Offender Management Service. The Prison Service is doing a good job of meeting the objectives set by the key performance indicators. We need to keep the matter under review, and I will certainly consider some of the issues that my hon. Friend has mentioned.

Does the Minister accept that in the past 10 years four Home Secretaries have responded to media pressure by taking away discretion on sentencing from the courts and putting them under pressure, which has dramatically increased the prison population to almost double what it was when I was Home Secretary, without paying the slightest heed to the inevitable moment when they would hit the buffers and there was no accommodation? Although I do not know what the new Ministry of Justice is for, except perhaps to make the Minister an innocent victim—he has made a statement about a fiasco for which he is plainly not responsible—will the new Department produce a change of culture in which the platitudes about community sentences and making prison only for those who need it are turned into reality by returning proper discretion to the courts and ensuring that prisons are used only for violent, dangerous and recidivist criminals in conditions in which there is some hope that some of them will be rehabilitated?

I am grateful for the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s concern for my innocent victimhood. I do not regard those ideas as platitudes. I believe in community sentencing and considering how we can prevent reoffending in the long term. We are doing a considerable amount of work and putting extra resources into drug treatment orders, which is much more than what happened when the right hon. and learned Gentleman was in office. There is a big problem with drugs in the United Kingdom today, and we need to examine imaginative ways to deal with it. Drug treatment orders are important.

We are doing a great deal of work on the type of person who is likely to become an offender. When people enter the criminal justice system, they have often gone too far down the line to get them out of it. Perhaps we can achieve a cross-party consensus on some of those issues, and I hope that the right hon. and learned Gentleman uses his influence on the liberal tendency in his party to make that happen. We can make a difference, and I hope that we will.

As one who does not read the Daily Mail and who views the prospect of 100,000 of my fellow citizens being incarcerated more as a source of national regret than a symbol of political virility, may I compliment my right hon. Friend on having discussed the alternatives? May I draw his attention to the problem of secure accommodation and bail hostels, particularly in west London, where there are no vacant places today. I appreciate that the Minister launched a programme yesterday, but what hope can he give to those justices of the peace who want to place people in bail hostels but who are unable to do so?

My hon. Friend has raised an important point. As he has mentioned, yesterday the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South, announced an increase in the number of bail hostels in the course of this year. The bail hostel places programme will provide approximately 1,000 extra places in the course of this year, and I hope that we can examine the pressures in areas such as west London and make that figure a reality. Those 1,000 places are not cheap, and they are paid for through taxation. We make that our priority; other parties may not.

Is the Minister aware of the contribution to prison overcrowding made by the growing length of time spent in prison by unconvicted remand prisoners? In particular, there has been a big growth in the population of young offenders institutions since 2001. The issue is not more prison places, but more efficient courts.

There is a range of issues. I accept that many people are held on remand, in some cases for very long periods. Again, I cannot generalise. Some people are held on remand because they may ultimately be convicted of serious violent and sexual offences, and the public need that element of protection during the course of the trial process, which can be very long. I hope that in many cases the Ministry of Justice can serve an important function in considering the criminal justice system in terms of the supply side of prisons and community sentences, and in the efficient management of the Courts Service, so that we help to reduce some of the delays that mean that people spend a long time on remand before their conviction or acquittal.

Last week, my constituent, Kenneth Milburn of Enderby, was jailed for five years for illegal possession of handguns. The judge said that the crime did not merit a jail sentence and that he jailed him with “great sadness”. That was the result of poor legislation passed by this House. Mr. Milburn threatened or harmed nobody, and he is unlikely to reoffend. Will the Minister look at that case so that perhaps we can free up a place in prison for a burglar and let out Mr. Milburn, who is unlikely to harm anybody, and who is deaf, 63 and in ill health?

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will accept that I am unable to comment on individual cases that he may bring up. I do not know the details of the case or the circumstances in which the judge considered it. However, the gun legislation is in place for a positive reason—to help to reduce gun crime and its impact. If the hon. Gentleman wishes to write to me with the details of the case, I will look at them and respond as positively as I can.

Does the Minister agree with staff at Dorchester prison, which I recently visited, whose assessment is that one of the main points of entry into prisons of illegal drugs and other contraband is through abuse of the release on licence system? In effect, what happens is that somebody who is released on licence loads themselves up with drugs in every available orifice, commits another offence, and then goes back into the prison having been used as a camel so that the drug material gets in there. I was told that that is the main means by which drugs are now getting into Dorchester prison. In that case, why is the Minister extending the system?

I accept the hon. Gentleman’s point. We need to tackle drug trafficking into prisons, perhaps through a range of measures given the variety of means whereby those drugs get in. Under the current system, 405,259 releases on temporary licence took place in 2005, of which only 339 are failures. The modest extension of the scheme that I announced today will involve about 1,400 individuals. I take the hon. Gentleman’s point very seriously. We need to tackle drugs in prison, and there is a range of ways in which we can undertake that. The Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South, is working hard with the Prison Service to do so. If the hon. Gentleman wishes me to, I will certainly look at some of the evidence regarding the prison in his constituency.

Given that more than 60 per cent. of the 12,000-plus people in our young offenders institutions suffer from speech, language and communication problems that prevent them from accessing education courses, and that the reoffending rate in that category is approximately 80 per cent., will the Minister display real courage and vision in agreeing that every such institution in the country should employ a speech and language therapist so that we can tackle the problem whereby people go into and come out of prison uncommunicative, uneducated, untrained, unqualified, unreformed and unemployed?

The hon. Gentleman makes an exceptional point. A large element among the people who are in prison today face the problems that he mentions. Through his all-party group on speech and language difficulties, he is doing significant work to raise those issues in Parliament. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary and I have given him a commitment to consider the matter in detail. It is important that we raise the basic literacy and numeracy levels of people entering prison. We need to create, as I hope we will, greater employability for them on their release, because employability, confidence, literacy and numeracy are the keys to preventing reoffending.

Is this not yet one more blow to honesty in sentencing—the relationship between the nominal sentence and the time spent in prison? For example, how long will someone who receives a sentence of six months’ imprisonment spend in prison if they are released either under the provisions that the Minister announced or home detention curfew?

Again, I cannot go into the details. The reply depends on many factors, including a risk assessment that the prison governor undertakes and the crime that the individual committed. The statement made it clear that serious and dangerous offenders and a range of others will not qualify for any scheme. We will ensure that, when possible, individuals who are reaching the end of their sentence and can return home earlier under licence can also, if recalled in the event of any breaches, be helped to reintegrate into the community at the end of their sentence to help with some of the pressures that we face in the Prison Service and that they face in their daily lives. I cannot comment on the particulars but, if the hon. Gentleman examines the scheme in detail, he will realise that it is effective, operates already and will not pose the danger to the public that many people believe.

Iran (Detention of Naval Personnel)

On 16 April I announced that the Chief of the Defence Staff had appointed Lieutenant-General Sir Rob Fulton of the Royal Marines, currently the Governor and Commander-in-Chief of Gibraltar, to lead an inquiry into the operational circumstances surrounding the seizure of 15 of our personnel on 23 March. I also announced an independent review of the media handling of the incident and its aftermath, and subsequently confirmed that it would be led by Mr. Tony Hall, chief executive of the Royal Opera house and formerly the BBC’s director of news and current affairs. I am grateful to General Fulton and Tony Hall, who have both completed their respective reports to tight deadlines with all the professionalism and candour that was expected of them. I am now informing the House of their findings, as I undertook to do.

I begin by stressing that the two reports are very different in nature and therefore require different handling. Mr. Hall’s review is a public document, which is today placed in the Library of the House and published on the MOD website. As I made clear in April, General Fulton’s report is classified, because it addresses operational and tactical issues, which cannot be discussed in public without increasing the risks to our forces. Nevertheless, those events and the issues that they raise are legitimate subjects of parliamentary and public concern. To balance those factors, I decided that I would give a broad outline of General Fulton’s findings to the House, but that the full report would be given to the Defence Committee. That has been done; I leave it to the Chairman and members of that Committee to comment today as they see fit.

General Fulton highlights the complex and dynamic nature of the northern Gulf as an operating environment. We are there as part of a coalition maritime force carrying out a variety of demanding tasks against a backdrop of wider and rapidly evolving international issues. His report is impressively thorough. It has looked at every aspect of the incident, and others that may hold valuable lessons. To complete the report, he has carried out lengthy interviews with all the people involved and at every level of the chain of command.

Hon. Members urged that specific matters should be considered, and I would like to tackle some of those points to the extent that I can do that, consistent with the constraints of operational security that I mentioned.

First, General Fulton considered the events on the Shatt al-Arab waterway in June 2004. He concluded that, although there were some broad similarities in the circumstances, the events were different, and that the requisite lessons of the time were learned and applied. Secondly, he considered the rules of engagement and confirmed that they were entirely appropriate for the task and remain so today. Thirdly, his report is clear that the event was not the result of equipment or resource issues, including helicopter availability, the size and suitability of the Cornwall or the size and armament of the boarding party’s boats. The coalition force commander in the Gulf has reiterated that he is content with the capabilities deployed by the UK but, as ever, we keep that under review. Finally, General Fulton confirmed that the presence of the BBC on HMS Cornwall was not a factor in any of the operational decisions taken on 23 March.

General Fulton has, however, identified some shortcomings. This was a coalition operation—hon. Members will not need me to spell out the merits of that—but clearly there is a cost in terms of added complexity. Despite that, it is vital that the procedures that we all share can adapt rapidly to change in such a complex strategic environment. General Fulton’s report has identified some faults in that respect, and we are addressing them with our coalition partners.

General Fulton has also identified some specific national shortcomings. The central lesson is that we must improve our ability to identify and assess the risks that this complex environment generates, and to train and posture our forces accordingly. He noted the need for improvements in a range of areas: in the handling of intelligence, in communications, in doctrine and in training—both individual and collective.

On training in particular General Fulton notes—and this is worth repeating—that the Royal Navy’s generic training for operations remains world class. By the time a Royal Navy ship deploys on operations, it is well prepared for a wide range of potential roles. However, the report does identify a need to improve some training specific to particular tasks, including boarding. Furthermore, it recommends that in future we deploy specialist rather than composite teams for boarding operations—a recommendation that we have already acted on. General Fulton also recommends that we ensure that we learn quickly from the experience of other nations operating in the area and get better at sharing information with them.

Above all, General Fulton’s report concludes that the events of 23 March were not the result of a single gross failing or individual human error, but of the coming together of a series of vulnerabilities, many relatively small when viewed in isolation, which together placed our personnel in a position that could be exploited by Iran. His conclusions suggest that there is no case for disciplinary action against any of the individuals involved—[Interruption.]—but his report emphasises that many of those individuals could have done more to prevent what happened. In that respect, it identifies some failings, both collective and individual, which the Royal Navy’s chain of command will consider and deal with.

General Fulton recommends a range of actions to address the shortcomings that he has identified. An action plan has been drawn up and a number of measures have already been taken, allowing us to recommence boarding operations in April, and further measures are under way. The Select Committee on Defence has been briefed on the action plan, but as I indicated at the start, there is a limit to how much I can say to the House. I can say that I, together with the chiefs of staff, are content that General Fulton’s report and the resulting action plan will ensure that our people are properly prepared for future operations.

I turn to the Hall review, and let me say at the outset that we accept all of its recommendations. In my statement to the House on 16 April, I made it clear that the intention of the review was not to embark on a witch hunt focused on apportioning blame for the decision to allow media payments to the returning detainees. Like the Fulton report, the Hall review confirms that it would be wrong and counter-productive to focus on finding individuals to blame for these events. What was needed was a calm and dispassionate assessment of what happened in order to learn the lessons and to improve the ability of the MOD and the services to handle similar events in future.

Tony Hall makes it plain that on the question of whether payment should have been made for individual stories, there was a

“collective failure of judgement or an abstention of judgement”

within the department allowing that to happen. In my earlier statement to Parliament, I accepted that failing as my responsibility and apologised to the House.

I welcome the report’s clear recommendation that media payments to serving military or civilian personnel for talking about their work should simply not be allowed. That confirms my announcement on 9 April of an interim ban on acceptance of media payments. Work is now under way to make detailed amendments to service and MOD regulations and guidance to reflect that conclusion. The report further identifies that work is needed to establish a clearer policy on the naming of individuals and their families in such cases. That work, too, is already under way.

The report also identifies some broader themes. Perhaps most crucial is the huge change over the past 25 years in the context in which media coverage of operations takes place. Media access has increased significantly and the agenda has changed. The focus on the individual, for example, inevitably clashes with the service ethos of group first, and the desire to present instantaneous news from the heart of the action can conflict with the need for operational security. That means that, although it is clearly in the interests of the MOD and the media to co-operate, tensions exist. We need to manage those tensions better, and we need to rebuild confidence between the MOD and the media. The report also makes it clear that we need to help the media to develop a better understanding of defence issues so that they can be set in context.

The report recommends that, for the future, the lead for the media handling of such episodes should lie clearly with the MOD, rather than with a front-line command or a single service. It also recommends some strengthening of what the report notes is a relatively small central press office. The report also makes clear a number of recommendations on the need for clearer decision-making processes. I accept those entirely. Unequivocal understanding of who should sanction what is essential. The recent capability review, published in March, also highlights that, and in response we have already been looking at how we can clarify responsibilities and improve accountability within the Department.

I hope that it is clear that we have sought, wherever possible, to learn the lessons from this difficult episode, both operationally and in terms of media handling, and to be open and accountable in so doing. We have had two reviews: one independently led, and today put into the public domain; the second, of necessity, classified, but shared with the Defence Committee to ensure proper parliamentary accountability. Both are very thorough and professional. Both offer clear, detailed recommendations, all of which we accept, and many of which are already well in hand. Both are focused on the future, determined to help ensure that we do not make these mistakes again. The Chief of the Defence Staff and my permanent secretary will take the lead in implementing the recommendations. I expect the great majority to be implemented by the end of this year, and many of them sooner than that.

I will end by saying that I know that we have the best armed forces in the world. They are respected everywhere for their bravery, their professionalism and their ability to get results. Some have argued that this incident has dented their hard-won reputation, but I do not believe that to be true. Their reputation is more durable than that. These reports will help us to maintain and enhance that reputation, and I intend to ensure that we succeed.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for his statement. He will be aware that I returned from the Falklands with the Minister of State, the right hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Mr. Ingram), at lunchtime, and that I have therefore been unable to see a copy of the report or to have a full briefing on it. I am grateful to the Minister of State, however, for his oral briefing in the middle of last night somewhere over the Atlantic. If I stray into operational elements covered in the report, I hope that the Secretary of State will understand that that is utterly unintentional.

The seizure of our naval personnel caused great anger across the country, not least because of their subsequent treatment at the hands of the Iranians. We are not seeking to name scapegoats today, however; that would be in no one’s interests, least of all those of our forces on deployment. However, the House must know that Ministers have asked all the relevant questions and that all remedies have been undertaken to minimise the risk of such an event happening again. It is also important to avoid giving the impression that no one is to blame for what was a national embarrassment. I am sure that the Select Committee will want to consider the report in great detail in the months ahead. Over the past few days, I have had the chance to speak to a large number of Royal Navy personnel, many of whose views concurred closely with those expressed in the Fulton report.

I would like to raise a number of specific issues with the Secretary of State. It is clear that the frequency of successful and unresisted boardings produced a diminished sense of danger, so that the equipment used on the occasion that we are discussing was deemed suitable. Is he satisfied that, in an increased state of alert, we have sufficient alternative and additional equipment available? Is he convinced that the helicopter cover is now sufficient, both in platform numbers and hours allocated, for the task of boarding? On intelligence, is he satisfied that information from UK and other sources is sufficient to warn of an increased risk of attack, above and beyond a necessarily high base line, given the approach and activities of the Revolutionary Guard? He also mentioned training. Will he tell the House more about where in naval training the failures have occurred? We are pleased that, in future, specialist teams will be used for boarding. It is, after all, dangerous work, not work experience.

There is an issue that I think the whole House needs to discuss, that of embedded media. Can the Secretary of State tell us, as a matter of fact, whether the BBC crew was still on board HMS Cornwall when the seizure took place? The authors of the report clearly do not believe that the presence or otherwise of BBC personnel was a factor in our operational decisions, but what about the other side? What about the Iranians? Does not the presence of live television crews in a place where we know the Iranians are constantly considering attacks provide a potential incentive for them in the knowledge that they have a ready media audience in attendance? Does that not deserve far more attention in the future?

The whole report is scathing about the Government’s approach to media handling. The Ministry of Defence did not take control, therefore the media set the agenda. It would have been sensible to involve the Press Complaints Commission, but the Government refused the offer. There was a collective failure of judgment. Many people could have said no to the sale of individual stories, but no one did so. Ultimately, that is the Secretary of State’s job.

One final issue needs to be raised—Labour’s handling of MOD press since 1997. There are 229 people in the Government’s communications department at the MOD. This Government abolished uniformed single-service press officers in their attempt to control and politicise MOD press, and it is clear that they could not even do that competently. The Conservatives believe that the abolition of uniformed single-service press officers was a mistake, and an incoming Conservative Government will reverse it.

As I have said, I believe that the Government’s handling of the whole crisis, especially the media aspect, made a national embarrassment incomparably worse. The Secretary of State has already apologised to the House for his role in the media handling, and naturally the House accepts that; but the whole House will expect it not to be repeated. Our forces are the best in the world, and they certainly deserve better.

I think that I can deal with all the points raised by the hon. Gentleman. I do not think that any of them transgressed the border between what we can discuss in the House and what cannot be discussed for reasons of operational security.

Let me say at the outset that mistakes were made—of that there is no doubt—and I have accepted full responsibility. There are matters that must be put right, which is why I was determined that we would conduct the two reviews whose results I have announced today. I asked for the faults to be exposed and for recommendations to be made on how they could be corrected, and I believe that both General Fulton and Tony Hall have done that for us. I intend to see this through, and will see through the operational side with the supervision of the Select Committee.

The hon. Gentleman raised the issue of resources. That was addressed in the report. As I said in my statement, the report makes it clear that the incident did not result from equipment or resource issues. Indeed, the coalition maritime commander has explicitly said he is content that he has the resources required for the tasks that he is given; but, as ever, we keep resources under review. I have said many times that we will always seek to give commanders the resources they need for the job that we ask of them, and we will keep those resources under consideration as part of our continuing review.

There has been a great deal of speculation about helicopters, but the bottom line is that if the helicopter had been asked to stay at the scene, it could have done so. There is sufficient helicopter support for these operations. That issue, however, comes within the broader continuing review of resources.

Was there an intelligence failure? General Fulton’s inquiry centred on exactly that sort of question. Clearly, any failings in this regard would be operationally sensitive, but I can tell the House that there were shortcomings, which will be addressed through a plan overseen by the chiefs of staff. The Select Committee has been briefed in detail, and I do not intend to go into any further details.

The generic training given to the Navy through FOST—flag officer sea training—was considered to be world class against the test of the review, but a shortcoming was identified in relation to the need to train for specific tasks, particularly boarding. That is exactly what has been addressed, as well as the issue of there being specifically nominated boarding parties instead of the way in which they were previously put together.

The BBC was present on HMS Cornwall at the time. General Fulton’s reputation goes before him, and I am sure that all who know him know that he has done a thorough and professional job. He has come to the view that the BBC’s presence had no operational effect.

I shall now turn to the Hall report and the media—

The hon. Gentleman asks about intelligence; I have already addressed that issue. There were shortcomings in respect of intelligence, which have been dealt with, but I shall not go into the detail of them in public for obvious reasons.

I realise that my reply is lengthy, but a series of questions were asked to which I should respond. At the heart of the Hall report is the judgment that the MOD, as opposed to the single service, should have taken responsibility for the media and for the media handling of the captives when they were returned. I accept that recommendation and that analysis. However, although that judgment is correct, it does have the benefit of hindsight. It was the view of those planning to receive the released captives that they should be received back into a military environment. The same analysis informs a lot of calls for us to receive injured servicemen back into a military environment, in order to enable them to recover from the trauma that they have been through. The view was taken, which I agreed with at the time, that it was right to bring these people back into a service environment. However, as the Hall report makes clear, there was at the time a media storm, and the level of media demand outstripped the ability of that environment to cope. I accept that, and I also accept that we need to make sure that that never happens again.

An offer from the PCC came on the day of the captives’ release. The Hall report recommends that there should be engagement with the PCC in developing the ability of our media shielders to support people through the early stages of such a process. I also accept that recommendation. It is entirely different from what was offered to the MOD, and which it did not respond to. The Hall report does not conclude that single-service press officers should be reinstated, but it does say that there should be more engagement of a higher level of military personnel in the MOD press centre and the communications operation. We will act on that recommendation.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for his statement and for his briefing to colleagues last night. We should also be grateful to Tony Hall for giving us this report on the media handling. However, I still hold the view that I have held throughout: the media handling is something of a red herring.

The Secretary of State has taken responsibility, which is right because permission for the revelations could only have been given by him or in his name. I simply seek a reassurance from him that among the lessons that are learned will not be a temptation to gag military officers from talking to the press in the course of their ordinary duties. Some of them have intimated to me that they occasionally feel that that is the case.

The Secretary of State has told us that the Fulton inquiry was thorough; I have no reason to doubt that, and I entirely understand why it cannot be published. However, there are a number of unanswered questions. We gather from the statement that there was not a problem to do with equipment or lack of helicopters, that there was not a major intelligence failure and that there was not any particular serious error anywhere in the line of command. In that case, what exactly did go wrong? Did the Royal Navy simply fail to comprehend the level of threat that the Iranians posed? If so, that was in stark contrast to our land forces in Basra and on the border, who understood only too well what the threat was—and, indeed, that has been discussed many times in this House.

The Secretary of State says that lessons must be learned quickly from the experiences of our partners. Do the other nations involved in this work use constant air cover? It remains to me unfathomable that these dangerous operations could be taking place in contested waterways without a greater degree of air cover than seemed to be available within the coalition at the time.

This report seems to conclude that everyone was to blame a bit but no one was to blame a lot. Mercifully, this turned out in the end only to be a national embarrassment; it could have been a complete disaster. Who exactly will step up to the plate and accept responsibility for what happened?

I will step up to that plate, and have done. I take responsibility for what happened—that is my job and my responsibility. I do not think that we will serve any purpose by seeking to identify other individuals to blame, when a perfectly professional report, carried out by a man of integrity, has said that this set of circumstances came about because of a combination of factors.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to say that the situation could have been much worse, but the fact is that it did not develop into something much worse. There is some credit to be given to those who secured the return of these 15 young people much more quickly than many informed commentators said could be done, in a situation in which the Iranians did not get the public apology that they so craved for their own propaganda purposes, and in which their own behaviour and illegal activities, exposed across the region, diminished their standing in the region among those countries whom they most tried to impress by these actions.

The hon. Gentleman asked a number of questions that I will seek to answer quickly. It is not our intention to gag the armed forces; however, they are in a difficult position. We need to find a balance between openness and risk to security. The overriding ethos of the services is the putting of the interests of the whole above those of the individual. Every single individual in the services who seeks to engage with the media takes on that challenge, which is why there is a clear and unequivocal rule that if a member of the services wishes to engage with the media, he or she requires permission so to do. Some are barred by contract from so doing, as the report reveals. This is all very sensible, but a significant degree of communication goes on between members of the armed services, the media and the public. We are not going to move back from that openness, but we will have to manage it against the various challenges, particularly those to security.

On air cover, I cannot give the hon. Gentleman details on the operating procedures of every country that operates in the Gulf, but I can tell him that they do not always board with air cover. It largely depends on where they are in the operational area, and I am not going to go into the details of that.

Order. Because of timetabled business that will follow, may I please ask that Back Benchers now ask just a single question? A brief response from the Secretary of State might ensure that more Members are called.

I thank my right hon. Friend for setting out the report before us today. As a member of the Defence Select Committee, I concur with the view that it is a thorough and professional report, to which is attached an action plan. Can he tell the House whether and how he will report on the fulfilling of the important milestones attached to that report?

I thank my hon. Friend, who is in a privileged position in the House in having had access to the Fulton report, and the other members of her Committee for taking on the responsibility of being the arm of parliamentary accountability in this unique process—unique, at least, in my experience. Exactly how we will proceed from where we are to the point of completion, at which we can draw a line underneath this issue, will be a matter for discussion between me, as the Secretary of State, and her Select Committee. However, I fully expect that the Committee will continue to play a role in ensuring that we see through the action plan that we have shared with it.

I am particularly grateful to the Secretary of State for giving me advance sight of the statement, and the Defence Committee is grateful to him for showing us in confidence the full report by General Fulton. We will need to consider that report and the Secretary of State’s statement today very carefully indeed. If we are to be able to assure the House that the lessons learned from this incident have been fully implemented, it places a great responsibility on us and on the Government. Will the Secretary of State, on behalf of the Ministry of Defence and of the Government, pledge to work with us and to give us—in confidence if need be—all the material that, in our judgment, we shall need in order to be able to give the House that assurance?

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman and to his Committee for taking on that onerous task, and I recognise that there will need to be a continuing relationship. He and his Committee know that where I can share information with the Committee across the range of my responsibilities, I have done so. They have always respected the confidence that the Department and I have placed in them and I welcome that relationship. I will have to consider the very specific question that the right hon. Gentleman has asked me, just as he will have to consider the terms of my statement and the report before deciding further. However, he may rest assured that that would be my aim, and if it is possible for me to do that while at the same time preserving the security of those on operations, I will see it through.

I have no doubt that the media handling of this matter was a failure and an embarrassment, but it is of secondary importance to the operational effectiveness of our forces and the security of our serving men and women in the Gulf. I welcome my right hon. Friend’s decision to share the Fulton report with the Defence Committee. There has been much speculation that there were two areas of failure, with first, the lack of appreciation of the threat that the Iranians posed and, secondly, a failure of communications. My right hon. Friend alluded to both in his statement. Can he assure the House that the lessons learned from this will be part of the training regime for all those who are now to be deployed in the Gulf?

I can give my right hon. Friend an unequivocal assurance on that point, and I thank him for his support.

Is the Secretary of State aware that the armed forces personnel clearly needed training and instruction that they did not have, and that the rules of engagement were clearly wrong? Is he aware that this feeble and evasive statement cannot be the end of the matter? I, for one, as a former Chairman of the Committee that considered what became the Armed Forces Act 2006 and a member of the Defence Committee, prefer not to be excluded from consideration of this issue and intend to find ways to pursue the matter elsewhere.

I of course respect the hon. Gentleman’s position as a Member of this House. In handling this report in this way, I sought to square the issue of confidentiality and the secrecy that was necessary to protect operational security with parliamentary accountability, but I recognise that I do not have the last word in relation to that. I agree with the hon. Gentleman about training, but I fundamentally disagree with him about the rules of engagement. The Fulton report contains no criticism of the rules of engagement, nor does it suggest that they were inappropriate for the operation that was being carried out. In fact, it says the contrary.

I believe that it is important to remind people that nobody died and that 15 young people came back alive. The Secretary of State has acknowledged, as he has on previous occasions, that there were mistakes and shortcomings. Surely what we need now is to draw a line under this and to implement the recommendations. Can my right hon. Friend refute the suggestion, made by an Opposition Member from a sedentary position, that we have a Mickey Mouse navy? We have nothing of the sort and that view is not shared on this side of the House.

I have no hesitation in accepting my right hon. Friend’s invitation to confirm the view—which almost every hon. Member and many across the world share—that the Royal Navy rightly enjoys a world class reputation. No matter how much damage anybody thinks that this one incident has done, I do not think they believe that it has changed that reputation.

The Secretary of State must agree that this incident was a very serious operational failure indeed. If the captain of one of Her Majesty’s ships were to run it aground on a sand bank, he would be arraigned before a court martial. It seems astonishing to me that the right hon. Gentleman can come to the House with a report by General Fulton—which clearly has been staffed to death by the Royal Navy—and say that the affair is over and that we should draw a line under it. Does he accept that that shows a woeful and shameful lack of leadership and grip on his part and on the part of his Department? Will he tell the CDS that he has better things to do than take part in ill judged public relations stunts that involved welcoming back from the disaster a crew who should have spent two days at home and then been sent straight back to their ships?

I have no doubt that the hon. Gentleman’s words will be heard by the CDS and others, and no doubt either that his plan is that they should be. I have complete faith in General Fulton’s integrity—

With respect to the hon. Gentleman, it did not sound like it. I have complete faith in General Fulton’s integrity. He prepared and owns the report, and no one else sought to influence or shape it. It comes to the honest conclusion that a combination of factors led to the unfortunate and terrible circumstances of an event that I accept ought to have been avoided. We should look forward to make sure that it never happens again, but the House must accept that, for decades and generations, we have been asking young people to do very dangerous things in very dangerous and difficult circumstances, and that sometimes things go wrong.

The families of the hostages from Plymouth were very appreciative of the welfare and emotional support that they received during the crisis, but there was a view that the people offering that support did not have the necessary media training. If a similar event were to happen, will my right hon. Friend ensure that family members and others are shielded from the media by people who understand the media? My constituents are also grateful for the offer from the PCC.

We will consider the PCC training recommendation with a view to acting on it, but I know from the reports about the families that have come back to me how grateful they were for the support that they received during the crisis. When their family members were returned, many said unequivocally that they had been well supported by the generic help that the MOD had been able to offer in facilitating help from the services. The report reveals that, when it came to helping the families, we sought to have in place an officer representing the service and a person acting as a media shield. It may be that both should operate in the same chain of command, and be given support with their media skills. That seems to be the recommendation made by Hall, and I intend to see it through.

When I used to serve, a long time ago, the operational chain of command was always clear. I hope that it is still clear now, as it meant that people in command took responsibility when something went wrong. With respect to the Secretary of State, I maintain that we cannot move on until the people who made the mistakes in this instance are seen to take responsibility for them. I urge the right hon. Gentleman not to pretend that he can defend them. The people in the operational chain of command know what they were up against. If they have failed, they should take the responsibility for doing so.

Those in the operational chain of command know their responsibilities, but I am sure that they will take on board the rehearsal of those responsibilities by the right hon. Gentleman.