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Commons Chamber

Volume 461: debated on Thursday 21 June 2007

House of Commons

Thursday 21 June 2007

The House met at half-past Ten o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The Secretary of State was asked—

Single Payment Scheme (Inspections)

1. If he will make a statement on the regulatory burden on farming businesses of inspections associated with the single payment scheme. (144182)

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, and before I answer, I have to say that the Secretary of State has asked me to thank you for your indulgence in allowing him to join our proceedings somewhat late this morning. As you are aware, he intends no discourtesy to the House but is delayed by his attendance at Cabinet, which, being the Prime Minister’s last, is scheduled to run a little longer today.

The single payment scheme requires two types of inspection: first, on whether the land is eligible; and secondly, on whether farmers comply with cross-compliance. Five per cent. of applicants are subject to a land eligibility inspection, and the four competent control authorities each inspect 1 per cent. of applicants under the cross-compliance requirements or standards for which they are responsible. The Rural Payments Agency is working to implement the Hunter review recommendations to reduce the burden of such inspections.

I thank the Minister for that answer and accept entirely the importance of compliance when disbursing public money. However, some inspections are duplicated. I give the example of a farm having a TB test, whereby all the cattle have to be brought in twice within four days, and then a month later being told that there must be a bovine inspection and all the numbers have to be taken again, although the processes could be done at a single time. Will the Minister impress on the Environment Agency, DEFRA officials and the State Veterinary Service the importance of co-ordinating programmes to eliminate duplication and so reduce the burden on farming businesses?

I am happy to give the hon. Gentleman that assurance. This is something that we have impressed on officials. The RPA is considering it and looking to co-ordinate inspections wherever possible. It is absolutely essential that we try to reduce the burden on farmers in the way that he suggests.

I acknowledge the Minister’s interest in reducing bureaucracy, but would he admit that for farmers such as myself—I declare my interest—the real problem with the scheme is that they are now faced with their third year of disfunction in terms of the delivery of payments, while at the same time any minor mistakes that they make in good faith in compliance with the scheme are disproportionately punished? [Interruption.]

An hon. Member: It’s Gordon Brown. [Laughter.]

Once hon. Gentlemen have recovered from the paroxysms of mirth that have overtaken them, I can say that I appreciate the point that has been made. I know that there is a perception that sometimes farmers are penalised for very minor infractions, but I think that it is a mistaken impression, and there are a number of statistics that would show that it is. In 2006, of the 5,500 inspections that were carried out under the SPS to determine eligibility of land, 1,370 minor breaches that fell below the penalty threshold were reported, and only 62 cases actually triggered penalties. I am aware that there is an impression out there that minor infractions are always punished, but a lot of them fall below the threshold. Comparatively speaking, the record of inspectors on getting it right is quite good.

Does the Minister accept that the number of inspections, with various agencies’ inspectors parading around farms, creates the danger of disease being carried from farm to farm? Surely there should be proper co-ordination. Farmers want to farm instead of having this endless bureaucracy and red tape.

I accept that we should minimise the number of inspections to which farms are subjected. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will know that the Hunter review, which reported in March this year, specifically recommended that Government should keep the number of inspections to a minimum and reduce the target time that each inspection takes. In 2005-06, the failure rate on inspection under the EU regulations was high, and an additional 800 inspections were therefore required, but in 2006-07 those additional inspections were not required. That is very positive because it shows that farmers are finding the way to compliance a lot easier than previously, which has the knock-on effect of reducing the number of inspections that are required under the rules.

The burden of regulations from DEFRA to business is £527.8 million a year, and 154 new regulations were introduced last year despite the Department’s claim that it was reducing the regulatory burden. There is now a perfect opportunity for the Government to lift that burden. At the moment, sheep farmers are required to put only one tag in a sheep’s ear. Are the Government going to continue the derogation allowing single tagging in sheep? It will save shepherds and farmers £15 million a year if they do not have to put a second, identical tag in a sheep’s ear.

The hon. Gentleman will know that discussions are being held with the European Union on that subject. He also knows that derogations are usually allowed by the EU for only a limited period. He mentioned the specific issue of sheep identification and tags. Let me shatter the myth about burdens. Of approximately 1,500 cross-compliance inspections carried out in 2006, only 71 breaches were reported, of which three attracted warning letters, 44 received a low 1 per cent. penalty, and 21 got a 3 per cent. penalty. Again, the burden is low.

Household Recycling

Our new waste strategy sets new and challenging targets to increase household recycling and composting, which has quadrupled since 1997. We expect further big improvements as part of the new strategy.

Given the wide variation between local authorities’ actions on household recycling, what steps is the Department taking to ensure that all local authorities are aware of best practice, implement it, are suitably encouraged to use it and empowered to do so?

My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the unacceptable differences in performance between local authorities. Some are already performing at the levels of our best European counterparts, whereas others hover just above single figures for recycling. We have a programme of engagement with the poorest performers and I plan to meet some of those in the weeks to come. Of course, they are all subject not only to our targets but to the landfill tax. If they do not increase their recycling and reduce their landfill, their council tax payers will pay a heavy price.

No, that is best left to local authorities as they know the circumstances of their area. It is not central Government’s job and I would have thought that Liberal Democrats agreed with that. We believe in devolution and allowing local authorities to determine the best way in which to collect their waste.

I am not sure whether my hon. Friend knows that Hackney council introduced compulsory recycling at the beginning of March. Recycling from street properties has increased by 3 per cent. since then. However, one of the challenges that remains for boroughs such as Hackney is how best to recycle plastics. Can he give some guidance about the Government’s progress in ensuring that that is cost-effective for councils throughout the country?

I congratulate my hon. Friend’s local authority on that improvement. Like several other local authorities in London, it has not always had a good recycling record and it is good to know that that is improving. We are recycling more and more plastics, not least because of the high oil price, which makes it more financially sensible for local authorities to recycle. The vast majority of plastics in the waste stream are now recyclable, but again, we believe that it is up to local authorities, working with organisations such as the Waste and Resources Action Programme, to devise the best schemes for their area, whether that means collecting plastics separately or together with other recyclables. I would encourage as many local authorities as possible to collect plastics. Indeed, the waste strategy includes new incentives to encourage the growth of plastics recycling by local authorities.

Will the Minister join me in congratulating the Havering branch of Freecycle, which is one of 412 branches in London? Freecycle is a website that facilitates the exchange of unwanted items—rather like eBay except that no money changes hands. The Havering branch saves 50 tonnes of household refuse from going into landfill every week.

I do congratulate the hon. Lady’s local branch of Freecycle. Third sector organisations play an important role in waste management and that role will be much bigger under the new waste strategy. It includes new measures to encourage third sector organisations, which can provide an important social benefit in an area and also tend to have better contact at community level to encourage people into the recycling habit.

The Minister will be well aware that household waste has gone up by something like 15 per cent. over the last decade. Should he not be tackling that and trying to reduce the amount of waste rather than increasing the amount of landfill tax that the Treasury raises?

I am afraid that what the hon. Gentleman says is not strictly correct. In fact, we have managed to break the link between economic growth and waste growth. In 2004-05, I believe that we had the first ever fall in the overall amount of municipal waste created. In the two years since then, it has been 0.5 per cent. growth, which is really very small indeed and far smaller than it has been historically. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that if we are to be tough with the waste hierarchy, the most important thing to do is to minimise waste. He will have noticed, I am sure, particularly if he has studied the strategy, that for the very first time we now have a waste minimisation or waste reduction target of 45 per cent. by 2020. That is quite a challenging target, but I am confident that we will meet it.

According to an answer from the Department of Trade and Industry earlier this week, 28 per cent. of civil amenity sites will be unable to process all the forms of electronic waste when the waste electrical and electronic equipment directive comes into force a week this Saturday. Given that one of the UK’s largest recycling firms has said that there will not be sufficient capacity to cope with the impact of the WEEE directive—a view echoed by the Local Government Association—what assurances can the Minister provide that the fridge mountain fiasco is not about to convert into a DVD, PC and TV fiasco? What assessment has he made of the possibility of increased fly-tipping over the summer months?

The figures that the hon. Gentleman has just given show that 72 per cent. of municipal sites are in a position to deal with the WEEE directive. He will know that this is an extremely complex area and that we have been working very closely on it with the DTI. My DTI colleagues tell me that they are confident that the sort of difficulties that the hon. Gentleman fears may arise will not arise, and I am confident in their predictions.

Dairy Industry

The prospects for the dairy industry are good, thanks to the current positive world market situation. Although there are challenges to come in the short to medium term, the UK industry is well placed to tackle them.

I think that the Minister must be living in a different world. The situation facing the dairy industry in this country is critical. Dairying is vital to UK agriculture—mainly in the west of England, but particularly in my own constituency of Macclesfield in the county of Cheshire. Despite the increase in feed and energy prices and the effect of modulation on dairy farming, the farming industry of dairying is receiving less per litre now than it did some years ago. In the last two years, more than 6,000 dairy farms have gone out of business, so is it not time that the Government woke up and sought to help a vital part of British agriculture? I believe that the Government should be condemned for what has happened to dairying in the United Kingdom.

I have the highest regard for the hon. Gentleman, who has always been a champion of his dairy farming constituents. He will know, I am sure, that the April farm-gate price for milk is the highest April price since April 2004. In fact, it reached the same level in 2004 and it has not been higher since before April 2001. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will know that there has been a significant surge in demand in the world commodities market because of the export controls imposed by Brazil and India and also, of course, because of the Australian drought. All those factors have contributed to the situation. Let me quote Barry Nicholls, the chief executive of Milk Link, who said it is

“unprecedented over the last 30 years to have the luxury of deciding where to place our milk.”

My hon. Friend could do no better than to make a submission to the Competition Commission inquiry into supermarkets. The reality is that dairy farmers are paid so badly because this particular trade has had a history of strong conflict. The biggest problem has been the complete lack of honesty in respect of how supermarkets operate and how they organise their pricing. I hope that the Minister will make a submission to that inquiry and call for some transparency and fairness in this matter.

I know that my hon. Friend will be aware of the recent move by a number of supermarkets, through various measures such as Localchoice suppliers of milk, to do deals with farmers to get local product into the supermarkets. That is giving farmers prices of up to 23p a litre for their milk. That is not as high as the historic levels of 10 or 15 years ago, but it is certainly a good deal higher than it has been over the past few years. Indeed, the Dairy Supply Chain Forum, which is chaired by my noble Friend Lord Rooker, met yesterday and all the stakeholders involved expressed what they called “cautious optimism” about the improved global market position.

Does the Minister agree that the prospects for the dairy industry, particularly in the western half of the country, would be greatly enhanced if there were a long-term solution to the problem of bovine tuberculosis? To that extent, may I seek his assurance that his Department will not be rushed into reaching a conclusion on future strategy in the light of the recently published report by the Independent Scientific Group? Will he assure me that due time will be given for all parties to meet and discuss those and other findings, and for the Select Committee to continue its own inquiry into the subject?

The right hon. Gentleman speaks with great authority in the House as Chair of the relevant Select Committee, and I would wish to give him all the assurances that he seeks. It is absolutely appropriate that the Government take time to look at what is, after all, an extensive piece of research going back over 10 years. We will certainly look at its findings and conclusions and give it weighty consideration. We also look forward to the report of the right hon. Gentleman’s Select Committee on the matter, and we shall obviously take that into account in relation to the Government’s thinking and policy formulation.

Further to the point raised by the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew), has the Minister considered meeting representatives of the large supermarkets to determine exactly what their pricing structures are, and where he could intervene to persuade them to be fairer with milk producers? We are losing hundreds of milk producers each month and, at some point, there will be a shortage of supply. We could end up importing milk from France or elsewhere. That would be a ridiculous situation. I know that the Minister cannot enforce anything, but surely he can persuade the supermarkets to be a bit more honest, transparent and fair with producers.

Let me simply say to the hon. Gentleman that, of course, Ministers meet representatives of the supermarkets on a regular basis. I cannot give him an assurance that we will intervene in the price-setting mechanism as he requests, because we do not feel it is appropriate for the Government to intervene and set price controls in this area. I am sure he will also recognise that there has been an increasing dialogue between the supermarkets and representatives of the dairy industry, which has resulted in recent positive moves. I am sure he will accept that greater efficiency is still needed across the sector, and that the disparity in profitability within the sector is still far too high. The Government have invested some £130 million in this area to try to improve the productivity and efficiencies in the sector over the past few years.

Is the Minister aware that dairy farmers in general, and in South Staffordshire in particular, will be bewildered and distressed by the mind-boggling complacency of his answer? Will he think again about the answer that he gave to the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd), who asked not for intervention but for a commitment?

I am distressed that the hon. Gentleman, for whom I have the highest regard, thinks that I am being complacent in my response to the House; that is certainly not the case. I recognise—as do this ministerial team, the Government and the whole House—that dairy farmers have been through a very difficult period, and that they are facing extremely strong challenges from all the new demands that will be placed on them in the years to come. None the less, those are things that we have quite properly sought to help with, in the way that I have just suggested to the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd). I believe that that shows a commitment. The Government have tried to help the sector to become more efficient and to realise the benefits of value added and niche marketing.

We have a particular problem in the United Kingdom. Unlike our competitors, we consume 51 per cent. of our milk in liquid form. In France milk goes into cheese, yoghurt and other value-added products, which allows a better price to be obtained. However, there are signs that the world commodities market for skimmed milk and whole milk powder is improving. Indeed, there is now a shortage. I should have expected the hon. Gentleman to welcome the fact that, for the first time, export support from the European Union has been set at zero.

If the dairy industry is finding the situation so good at the moment, can the Minister explain why in this country we pay more for a bottle of mineral water than for a pint of milk?

I would always recommend that the right hon. Gentleman should not buy mineral water, but should stick to tap water. It is very good, it is much cheaper, and it is a good deal less carbon-intensive.

Notwithstanding the question from my right hon. Friend the Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack), Professor Bourne has said that the Government ruled out a widespread badger cull from the outset of the study by the Independent Scientific Group. Does that not prove that the consultation that took place more than a year ago was a complete waste of time? We know that the final report was on the Minister of State’s desk a month ago—

The Minister should read the ISG report, which clearly identifies the date on which the Minister of State received the final report. Ministers had a month in which to come up with conclusions, yet all that they have announced is further deliberation and delay. Moreover, it is four years since the Conservative party advocated the polymerase chain reaction test. It has taken four years—until next month—for research to begin on that.

Is not the record of the last 10 years one of constant delay and prevarication in dealing with TB, while taxpayers, farmers and cattle have had to suffer? When will the Department make some real decisions, and get a grip on this dreadful disease?

I find it difficult to respond to that, because it was not really a question. It was a rant, and uncharacteristically ill-judged on the part of the hon. Gentleman—in stark contrast to the contribution of the Chairman of the Select Committee, the right hon. Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack).

I am well aware, as is the whole House, of the cost of bovine TB to farmers and, indeed, the taxpayer. It is absolutely right that we should look at the ISG report. The hon. Gentleman made some remarks about the timing of the report. He will know that draft chapters are very different from a final report complete with recommendations and conclusions. That certainly did not arrive at the time that he suggested.

We will consider the report carefully, and will give it due importance in policy making. We will listen to the industry and take account of the Select Committee report, and we will make our policy decisions in due course.

Energy White Paper

We had a range of discussions at ministerial and official level across Government to agree the package of measures in the energy White Paper. Those measures will have a powerful impact on our carbon emissions goals.

The energy White Paper is enthusiastic about encouraging decentralised renewable energy generation. The main mechanism for that is the renewables obligation, which costs the average householder £7 a year on energy bills. At a cost of only £5 a year more, the German system—which is common in most of Europe—has been far more successful in stimulating investment in decentralised renewable energy generation. Although there is to be a reform of the renewables obligation—

Order. I must appeal to the House. This does not apply only to the hon. Lady, but the supplementary questions are very long. They should be short and sweet. I know that the hon. Lady can do that, but I think that the Minister can manage an answer to what she has already said.

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. I know of my hon. Friend’s interest in, and commitment to, feed-in tariffs. Our energy market is different from that of Germany, and our electricity is cheaper. There is no clear evidence that alternatives such as feed-in tariffs would produce a better performance. When we had a similar measure—the non-fossil fuel obligation—it did not really work for us; between 1990 and 1998 it delivered 770 MW, and the renewables obligation has done a lot better than that. Our proposals in the energy White Paper to band it will make it even more effective as a policy instrument in future.

My apologies, Mr. Speaker, for my phone going off like a rocket earlier; I meant no discourtesy to the House. I have a new piece of parliamentary kit that is more persistent than I expected; I thought that I had turned it off before I entered the Chamber.

The possibility of there being new nuclear build is anticipated in the energy White Paper, and that will have an impact on renewables. Has the Minister estimated by how much new nuclear might reduce the contribution of renewables in meeting our likely future electricity needs? I ask that in particular because the capital costs of building a nuclear power station are so great that the intention would be to run it constantly at full blast, in contrast to carbon capture and storage or coal, gas or oil stations whose outputs are variable.

The answer is that we need both if we are to achieve our climate change targets and move the UK economy on to a low-carbon basis. The Government believe that there is a case for nuclear new build and we are consulting on that, but we also have a strong policy framework to encourage significant growth in renewables. We want renewables to account for 15 per cent. of electricity by 2015. The simple answer is that we need both.

Following on from the question of my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Lynne Jones), my hon. Friend the Minister will be aware that 100 times more solar panels are fitted in Germany than in Britain, so is it not time to suggest to the Chancellor—who will soon be our new Prime Minister—that the cap on grants for solar panels should be removed so that we can invest massively in them, as Germany does, instead of some of the nuclear proposals?

One of the things that we are doing through the energy White Paper is doubling the size of the energy efficiency commitment, which is being renamed the carbon emissions reduction target—CERT. The doubling of the size of that scheme will provide opportunities for significantly more microgeneration in future. I am also aware that there are issues to do with making sure that suppliers stick to their commitments to make it easy for microgenerators to sell their electricity into the grid. All the major suppliers have stated their commitment to publishing transparent and easily accessible tariffs. Good progress is being made and we are continuing to work closely with suppliers on this important issue.

Did the Minister’s Department make representations on the Severn barrage proposal and its damaging impact on biodiversity and the environment? Is he aware that a meeting of the increasingly large and powerful body of objectors to this daft proposal will take place at Slimbridge in the next couple of weeks. Will he ensure that an official from the Government office for the south-west is present so that the serious objections of the environmental lobby can be properly put?

The Severn barrage proposal has been widely discussed for the best part of 20 years. The Sustainable Development Commission is considering it and is due to produce a report in September. I am aware of the potential environmental consequences of a Severn barrage, but I would also point out the potential benefits. A Severn barrage could provide up to 5 per cent. of the UK’s electricity. It would be a renewable source, and given what we know about climate change and our targets in addressing it, it is only right that we seriously consider this option and look at the benefits and costs in that context.

The trouble with the energy White Paper is that it flags up many interesting ideas, but totally fails to set a coherent strategy for ambitious implementation. Take combined heat and power, which has huge potential. Did the DEFRA team point out that exemption from the climate change levy, which is trumpeted in the White Paper as the principal policy incentive for more CHP, lasts only until March 2013? Given that it takes up to five years to get a large project up and running, the exemption for new projects is almost worthless. Is it not the case that the Minister’s—

I met representatives from the Combined Heat and Power Association earlier this week and they told me how encouraged they have been by the fact that the Government have been listening to their concerns. The hon. Gentleman raises the issue of the climate change levy exemption and we will need to look at that. We need to send the right long-term signals and the Government believe that CHP will be an important element of the UK’s energy mix for the future.

Bromborough Dock (Landfill)

Until my hon. Friend tabled his question, we had had no representations about that site. My understanding is that its owners stopped disposing of waste on it last August and have been restoring it. They have also applied for final closure, the conditions of which are being discussed with the Environment Agency and the local authority.

Does my hon. Friend understand that the people who live around that site have suffered from the loss of view caused by the mountain growing in front of them, from plagues of flies, rats and other pests and from smells from an associated water treatment plant? Now that the site has stopped taking landfill, will he do his level best to ensure that it is greened, topped off and made environmentally friendly as soon as humanly possible, and that it is given appropriate priority under Newlands 2?

I certainly understand the impact because my hon. Friend has just drawn it to my attention. He is right, and he makes a wider point about the environmental impact of landfill, which is one of the reasons why we are trying to move away from landfill as a major source of waste disposal. I will be in contact with the Environment Agency and the company concerned, Biffa, as well as the local authority, to try to encourage them to move as quickly as possible to agree the closure process for the site, which has to be done in an environmentally sensible way. It must not be closed too quickly without the right conditions, because that can lead to problems further down the road, which my hon. Friend’s constituents would not want.

Greenhouse Gases

6. What assessment he has made of the likely effect of the UK’s membership of the EU emissions trading scheme on future emissions of greenhouse gases. (144189)

The EU emissions trading scheme is a key part of our emissions reductions strategy. The scheme’s next phase will provide business with greater certainty, and we expect the scheme to deliver additional savings of 29.3 million tonnes of CO2 each year.

Will my hon. Friend ensure that the European Commission does not relax the tough national allocation plans in phase 2 and does its utmost to develop other schemes in other parts of the world, so that the EU is not alone in that particular approach to carbon reduction?

The Commission has already taken a robust approach to the phase 2 national allocation plans—NAPs—of member states, and I have no doubt that it will continue to do so. It is vital that we ensure scarcity in the market, and that is what will happen in phase 2. My hon. Friend is also right to point out the importance of the potential for linking the EU emissions trading scheme to other trading schemes that are being discussed in other countries. Certainly, the review of the directive that is taking place—in which we are fully participating—will allow that possibility. I want to see the growth of a global carbon market in the future, because that will be good for the world in limiting CO2 emissions. Carbon trading offers significant potential for low-cost carbon abatement.

A major purpose of the emissions trading scheme is to create a carbon price to guide long-term investment decisions. Will the Minister say whether the Government endorse the conclusion of the Stern report that the appropriate price would be of the order of £75 per tonne of carbon?

As a Government, we do not seek to set a particular carbon price—in a market mechanism, it is the market’s role to establish that. The Government’s role is to ensure sufficient scarcity, and that the market functions properly. The benefit of a cap and trade scheme is that setting a cap gives a certainty that carbon dioxide emissions are being controlled. The EU emissions trading scheme is a significant policy instrument because it covers about half of all Europe’s CO2 emissions. We want to make sure that it works even more effectively in the future.

The EU emissions trading scheme should play a part in helping Europe meet its commitment to derive 20 per cent. of total energy from renewable sources by 2020. However, the UK derives only 2 per cent. of its energy from renewable sources, and that is less than half the EU average. Does the Minister seriously think that existing policies give us any chance of getting anywhere near 20 per cent. in 13 years’ time?

Certainly, the UK is starting from a low base when it comes to renewables, and no one is under any illusion—the 20 per cent. target agreed across Europe is extremely challenging for the UK and for all EU member states. We will have to look at the division of responsibilities that will determine the target to be set for the UK, but I emphasise that the measures on renewables in the energy White Paper envisage a significant growth in that sector over the next 10 years.

Climate Change

7. What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the climate change agreement between G8 countries reached at the recent summit. (144190)

Before I answer the question, Mr. Speaker, I hope that you will permit me to thank you and the House for allowing me to be a few minutes late for today’s Question Time. I was detained by the extraordinary nature of the Cabinet meeting that took place earlier. I am sure that the House’s tolerance is related to the fact that it understands that it takes a very long time indeed to enumerate all the achievements of my right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister, and still more time to cross the floods of tears now trailing down Downing street. However, I am grateful for the House’s tolerance over my lateness.

The G8 made unprecedented progress on climate change. It provided a vital signal to the United Nations framework convention process on the importance of early progress towards a global framework for emissions reductions beyond 2012—a process that I know has support right across the House.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that response. The G8 agreement was welcome not so much for its detail as for the fact that the USA was party to it. With Australia making similar noises, perhaps we can focus on the developing world, and in particular countries such as Brazil, India and China. What steps are being taken to bring those countries on board, and what assistance can the USA provide in its proposed role as a bridge between the developed and the developing worlds?

My hon. Friend makes a very important point. An important step was taken when the US accepted the science and the need for large global cuts. We now need to move on to the detailed and urgent discussion about the nature of the emissions reduction commitments that countries such as the US and Australia—which my hon. Friend also mentioned—need to make. There are, I think, 12 Bills currently before the US Congress, but it is worth pointing out that even the most ambitious of them would mean only that, come 2020, US emissions would still be at 1990 levels. Major issues therefore remain for the biggest industrialised countries, but he is right that we are more likely to get stronger action from the US and Australia if we can get some action from China, India and other developing countries.

I was in Sweden last week for a meeting of 28 countries brought together by the Swedish Government. Countries such as South Africa and Brazil are playing a pivotal role in helping to forge the basis of an agreement under which developing countries would take action appropriate to their level of development, consistent with the 1992 agreement. That agreement talked of common but differentiated responsibilities, with the richest countries doing the most but with the developing countries also playing a clear role.

I welcome the Secretary of State from his Cabinet meeting—I hope that it went well for him.

The right hon. Gentleman is confident that the Americans have accepted the science behind climate change, but is he aware that not long after the G8 summit George Bush commented:

“I told Tony that we’re deadly earnest…the fundamental question is how best to send proper signals to create the technologies necessary to deal with this issue.”?

Nicolas Sarkozy said:

“We could have done better.”

The Chinese science and technology Minister said that the G8 summit was not specific enough—

Order. Question Time is not an opportunity for Front-Bench spokesmen to make a speech. I am sure that the Secretary of State can manage to answer.

I said last week that the G8 agreement deserved one and a half to two cheers, so the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) is right to suggest that we have further detailed work to do. But the signals the President of the United States was talking about were not the smoke signals referred to by the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack); they were the signals that come from tight caps in developed countries to create a carbon price that drives technological innovation.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that everyone should be congratulated on the G8 agreement on climate change? I have just taken my Select Committee to China, so will he take it from me that many senior people in China are keen for partnership over climate change? They are concerned about their environment and they want to be engaged. They have huge research potential, so will he not undervalue—

Order. I remind hon. Members that I need to get through the Order Paper to help Members who have tabled questions.

I have only one thing to add to the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman), but it is an important point: nothing is more calculated to annoy Chinese and Indian colleagues than saying that we think they should start to take action. They are insistent that they are already taking significant action on energy efficiency and renewable energy, so with that caveat I strongly support my hon. Friend’s remarks.

Dairy Industry

8. What assessment he has made of the effect on domestic dairy farming of the growth in demand for dairy products in China. (144191)

The global dairy market is currently very positive, with demand outstripping supply and prices for all commodities at very high levels. That is beginning to be reflected in UK farm-gate prices, which are at their highest levels since 2004, with further increases expected. The UK dairy industry is actively investigating how it can benefit from the expansion of the Chinese market.

As the diet of people in China becomes increasingly westernised, is there not a great opportunity for UK dairy farmers to take advantage of that huge market? What steps are the Government taking actively to encourage British dairy farmers to access that market?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. As I am sure that he knows, last year the International Dairy Federation held the world dairy congress in Shanghai. Since then, Jim Begg, president of the IDF and director general of Dairy UK, has made a number of trips to China to promote the UK dairy industry. The hon. Gentleman may recall that I said earlier that our room for manoeuvre in the commodities market is slightly more limited than that of our European competitors because of the volume of liquid milk we consume domestically, which leaves much less for value-added products. None the less, there are real opportunities in China if we can get niche and branded products on to the Chinese market, which is clearly responding positively to such products. The hon. Gentleman’s comments about the change in Chinese dietary traditions and practices are absolutely right—it is a great opportunity.

Light Pollution

Stronger powers were provided to local authorities to tackle light pollution under the Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Act 2005, which makes light pollution a statutory nuisance and enables individuals to take private action through the magistrates court.

Because of light pollution, half our population never see the stars of the galaxy in which we live. The Government love to talk about the environment, but why have we been waiting since December 2003 for the promised extension to planning guidance statement 23 to deal with the problem, and save energy at the same time? When will the Government publish that important document for consultation?

The right hon. Gentleman is right: there has been a delay, which I very much regret. I suspect that as it is a Department for Communities and Local Government issue it is tied up with the overall planning reform announced in the planning White Paper, but like him I hope that is brought forward as quickly as possible. That does not mean to say that the Government have been inactive. We have allocated £600 million to private finance initiative schemes to improve the quality of street lighting to reduce the amount of lighting that simply goes up into the sky and spoils the view, as the right hon. Gentleman rightly says. Progress has also been made in domestic and sports facilities lighting. [Interruption.] My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has just reminded me that there is a climate change crossover, as well. Excessive illumination contributes to climate change. If the right hon. Gentleman is in London tonight, he may like to join in the “London lights out” campaign. I am sure that the House will be aware of the campaign—between 9 pm and 10 pm we are all expected to turn our lights out.

Does the Minister agree that one way to deal with the problems of light pollution would be for the Government to support the measures in my ten-minute Bill on tranquillity, which I introduced earlier in the Session? If the Minister is not willing to endorse the Bill at the Dispatch Box this morning, perhaps he would be willing to accept the principle behind it—that it is vital to measure tranquillity objectively and to protect and preserve it in future.

I hear what the hon. Gentleman says and I will certainly reflect on the appeal that he makes to me. I share his concern about the amount of noise and light pollution in society. The Government have taken measures through the Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Act 2005 and we will take further measures to address noise and light pollution. The quality of people’s lives is important and they expect politicians to address those concerns.

Battery Hens

Keeping laying hens in conventional battery cages will be banned throughout the European Union from January 2012. No new conventional cages have been brought into use since 2003 and existing cages have to have more space and a claw-shortening device.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his reply. Animal welfare campaigners are enthusiastic about the ban that will be in place by 2013, but they are nervous about rumours that there might be a delay. Will he assure the House that Britain will resist any delay? Does he welcome the actions of Sainsbury’s and Marks and Spencer in phasing out even enriched cages?

We certainly welcome any measures taken by retailers and private individuals to encourage the consumption of food produced in a more welfare-friendly way. I can give the hon. Gentleman the assurance that he seeks: the UK will remain robust in insisting that the European Union sticks to its current timetable for the ban on battery cages.

Coastal Erosion (Warden Bay)

13. Whether the coastal erosion plans for Warden bay include replanting shrubs and trees at the top of the cliffs. (144196)

The Forestry Commission visited Warden bay on 8 June to advise whether trees and woodland might be used to assist in managing coastal erosion. The commission has now written to the local authority and I will ask it to send a copy of its letter to my hon. Friend.

Is my hon. Friend aware that there was a 50-acre site of Dutch elm at the top of the cliff, which had to be taken down? That is one of the reasons why the cliff is a “C” shape. We are busy putting £865,000 of rubble at the bottom, but the top is also going. May I press him on who would fund putting trees and hedges back at the top?

I am certainly aware that there are cliff-top issues, particularly with regard to drainage. Planting shrubs can play a role in addressing that. I am not sure that that is necessarily the responsibility of the Environment Agency, which is funding the coastal erosion work. If my hon. Friend wants to have a discussion with me, I would be happy to see whether there are possibilities for future funding.

Carbon Dioxide Reduction

15. What guidance his Department is planning to give the public on the offsetting of carbon dioxide emissions. (144198)

In January, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs launched a consultation on establishing a code of best practice for carbon offsetting. The consultation closed on 13 April. We are considering the responses and we aim to have the code in place by the end of the year.

I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. According to a recent UN report, the livestock sector is responsible for 18 per cent. of greenhouse gas emissions measured in CO2 equivalents. That is more than cars, planes and other forms of transport combined. Given that the global production of meat is predicted to double by 2050 and milk production to grow almost as quickly, does he agree that urgent steps must be taken either to reduce the environmental impact per unit of production or to halt its growth? What advice would he give consumers who might be concerned about the environmental impact that the consumption of such products is having?

The livestock and dairy industries are an important part of the United Kingdom economy and will, I am sure, continue to remain so for a long time. I think it right that, like other sectors of the economy, the meat and livestock industry does what it can to address the issue of climate change and to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions. It is taking action to do that, but more action is needed. My hon. Friend makes a number of valid points, but eating meat is a personal choice and the Government have no intention of moving the direction that she suggests.

Does the Minister agree that although carbon offsetting is not an unworthwhile activity, the Government could do a lot more to cut household emissions of carbon dioxide?

As a Government, we believe strongly that carbon offsetting is an option, but it is not the only answer to tackling climate change. The best thing to do is to avoid CO2 emissions in the first place, and the next best thing is to try to reduce CO2 emissions, but there are some emissions that it is impossible in our daily lives to avoid or to reduce. That is where offsetting is a viable option. When people are thinking of taking their summer holiday this year, I would encourage them to consider offsetting their CO2 emissions. It is a good thing to do.

Business Advice (Rural Areas)

16. What support is provided by his Department for the giving of business advice to farmers and other rural enterprises. (144199)

Support to both urban and rural businesses, including farmers, is provided by regional development agencies, as part of their mainstream business support services delivered through the Business Link network. Those activities are funded through the RDA single programme. Support through the rural development programme for England, to make agriculture and forestry more competitive, will also be delivered through RDAs.

Will my hon. Friend explain in a little more detail how his Department will make advice to farmers available through the regional development agency for farmers who wish to diversify? I have 400 farmers scattered around the beautiful parts of the Aire, Worth and Wharfe valleys.

I am well aware that my hon. Friend is a keen champion of her local farming community. She will know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, in his speech to the royal show last year, spoke about farm diversification and the need to examine the barriers that farmers experience when trying to diversify their farm businesses. The report that has come back shows that 50 per cent. of farmers in England have some form of diversified activity, and for almost 60 per cent. of those farm businesses that income accounts for a quarter or more of the total farm income, so that is a key area. We will ensure through the rural development programme for England, administered by the RDAs, that axis 1 and axis 3 of the programme deliver about £600 million of benefit to rural communities, much of it to the effect that my hon. Friend mentioned.

Carbon Dioxide Reduction

17. What measures he plans to use to assess progress towards meeting the Government’s target for reducing carbon dioxide emissions by 2010. (144200)

DEFRA publishes annual statistics on UK carbon dioxide emissions, as well as verified emissions data and surrendered allowances under the EU emissions trading scheme. That information allows us to measure progress towards our emissions reduction targets.

The national audit has shown that the Government’s own buildings and refurbishment programmes have achieved only 9 per cent. of their target. Why is that?

It is clear that we. as a Government. need to do better in respect of the Government office estate. That is one of the reasons why in July last year we announced new sustainable operation targets for the Government estate, and why we have said that we want the Government Office estate to be carbon-neutral by 2012. To be honest, I think our performance to date has been a little disappointing. Although it has been good in places, it has been patchy, and the National Audit Office recognised that. We need to work harder at that, right across Government.

Would it not assist the Government in trying to reach their targets if the Government, Parliament, the Mayor of London and the Greater London authority were to switch off the lights in their buildings during the night?

There are a number of issues around that point, but, broadly, the answer is yes. In some cases, lights need to be on at night for cleaning purposes, but the Government have been considering how cleaning can be undertaken in daylight hours. We can do more on optimising systems to switch off lights when buildings are not being used, and a programme of work has been implemented across Government.

Business of the House

The business for the coming week will be as follows:

Monday 25 June—Motion to approve a Ways and Means resolution on the Finance Bill, followed by remaining stages of the Finance Bill (Day 1). It is also expected that the Prime Minister will make a statement following the European Union Council.

Tuesday 26 June—Conclusion of remaining stages of the Finance Bill, followed by a motion to approve a money resolution on the Off-Road Vehicles (Registration) Bill.

Wednesday 27 June—Remaining stages of the Tribunals, Courts and Enforcement Bill [Lords].

Thursday 28 June—If necessary, consideration of Lords Amendments, followed by remaining stages of the Concessionary Bus Travel Bill [Lords].

Friday 29 June—Private Members’ Bills.

The provisional business for the week commencing 2 July will be:

Monday 2 July—Opposition Day [15th allotted day]. There will be a debate on an Opposition motion. Subject to be announced.

Tuesday 3 July—Consideration of Lords Amendments to the Statistics and Registration Service Bill, followed if necessary by consideration of Lords amendments.

Wednesday 4 July—Second Reading of the Child Maintenance and Other Payments Bill.

Thursday 5 July—Remaining stages of the Consumers, Estate Agents and Redress Bill [Lords], followed by a motion to approve a European document relating to global navigation systems.

Friday 6 July—The House will not be sitting.

I thank the Leader of the House for giving us the future business. This may be the last time that he takes business questions. [Hon. Members: “Ahh!”] I thank him for the way in which he has always treated the House with respect. He will be able to look back on his term of office with satisfaction, because he has introduced many changes that will make parliamentary procedure more effective.

There is dissent on the Labour Back Benches.

According to the Prime Minister,

“if troop commanders want more equipment—for example, more helicopters—that will be provided”,

yet Colonel Bob Stewart has said that the Army

“have been asking for more helicopters forever”.

We now know that last year the Ministry of Defence was given the opportunity to hire military transport helicopters for Afghanistan, but despite the crippling transportation shortage there, Ministers turned down the opportunity. We have a debate later today on armed forces personnel, but can we have a debate on the lack of equipment for our brave and loyal troops?

Ahead of today’s intergovernmental conference, Downing street has said that there is no need for a referendum

“because we will not sign up to anything that breaches our red lines”.

Even if the red lines are not breached, however, we have been told that the Government will surrender the veto in 52 areas of policy and significantly weaken it in a further 10. The Government have no democratic mandate to do that, so can we have a debate on the need for a referendum?

The Public Accounts Committee has said that the Government spend £2 billion a year on consultants, and Ministers have been accused of sacking civil servants and replacing them with more expensive consultants. That is all because of the Gershon review, which the Chancellor set up to show how prudent he is. Can we have a debate on the Chancellor’s “Yes Minister” style of government?

Talking of the Chancellor’s style of government, I wish the Leader of the House all the very best in the forthcoming reshuffle. Indeed, I wish all Labour Members luck in the reshuffle—after all, this is the first reshuffle in history that has had Liberal Democrats sitting by their telephones. At last week’s business questions, the Leader of the House said that the Liberal Democrats try to avoid serious issues of government and always take the easy decisions of a party in permanent opposition. Yet the Labour Benches seem so devoid of talent that the Chancellor is offering Cabinet positions like knocked-off watches. Was the Leader of the House consulted on the decision to bring Liberal Democrats into government? For the benefit of his ministerial colleagues, may we have a debate on coping with redundancy?

Finally, this week we have learned yet more about the Chancellor’s style of government. We know that the current Prime Minister believes the worst of the next Prime Minister, and that when the two met, civil servants would be waiting for a decision and all they could hear

“was the crockery being thrown around the kitchen.”

But the most telling quote of the week was from a former Home Secretary, who said that the Chancellor believes that

“you can pass a law or make an administrative decision in central government and that will change behaviour”—

hardly a new kind of politics. The Chancellor believes in state control; we believe in social responsibility. May we have a debate on the Chancellor’s all-powerful state? Is not that the future with him as Prime Minister: the control freak, the grabbing hand, the clunking fist?

Before I respond to the right hon. Lady, may I first pay my own personal tribute to our dear friend Piara Khabra, who died two days ago? He will be much missed on both sides of the House. It is worth recording that he was the last serving Member of Parliament to have served in the second world war. He joined the colours for the Indian army, which is a reminder not only of his bravery but of the fact that hundreds of thousands of people from the Indian sub-continent—Pakistan, India and Bangladesh—fought, and many died, to save freedom in Europe— [Hon. Members: “And the world.”] And the world.

To respond to the right hon. Lady, I am certainly not speculating on where the future may lead. I love this job; I am ready to go on and on and on in this post. In return, I thank her for her courtesy and good humour. Owing to their responsibilities to the Commons as a whole, as well on behalf of the Government, Leaders of the House cannot do their job without the co-operation of the Conservative and Liberal Democrat Front Benchers and many other hon. Members.

It has been a great delight to me to be able to introduce a number of changes. My hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey) was right to say that it was not enough; in the Labour party, it is never enough. However, I hope that the whole House will by now have read the important report that the Modernisation Committee published yesterday morning, which proposes introducing a much greater degree of topicality into the proceedings of the House and to strengthen the role of the Back Bencher.

On defence, the amount of investment in defence is a result of a greater degree of sustained real growth in defence spending for more than 20 years. We have invested billions of pounds in new defence equipment for our armed forces. Since all equipment has to be used by, and is for the benefit of, our service personnel, I am quite sure that, without even very much imagination, the Opposition will be able to work questions about that into the forthcoming debate.

I have already said that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will give a full report on the proceedings of the European Council, which is taking place now. The red lines for the UK have been made very clear indeed; they were discussed and confirmed today in Cabinet. Rather than reacting to any proposal from the European Union like a Pavlovian dog, it would be worth the right hon. Lady reflecting that quite a lot of what appears to be in the draft articles for the amending treaty is to our benefit—not least a much improved voting system that will give us more weight inside Europe than we have at the moment.

What I find so surprising is the synthetic fury of the Opposition, when they have had plenty of opportunities to seek to influence their comrades in arms in the centre-right parties and yet have turned their back on that. It is extraordinary that the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron), the Leader of the Opposition, has refused to go to meet other members of the European People’s party, even though for the time being the Conservative party is still a member of it.

On the Public Accounts Committee and consultants, there is always an opportunity to debate PAC reports and I think the right hon. Lady will have noted that, although that spending is significant, it has been reduced in quite a number of Departments.

The right hon. Lady referred to speculation about conversations that have taken place, apparently, with the leader of the Liberal Democrats. It is not for me to comment on the Chancellor’s private discussions with the leader of the Liberal Democrats; they are private. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor made it clear that he wants to lead a Government of all the talents and he is very serious about that. Last night, for example, he established a new National Council for Educational Excellence, which includes Sir Terry Leahy and Sir John Rose, whose party affiliations are certainly unknown to me.

I suggest, if the right hon. Lady is feeling left out of the speculation, that she would have a greater chance of getting into a Cabinet of any kind if she were invited by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor—an act of unparalleled generosity. All she has to do is to send me her curriculum vitae and I will pass it on, with a high recommendation that she should be included.

My friend famously described the Liberal Democrats as the scavengers of British politics. Can he give me an assurance that if Liberal Democrats, or in fact members of other political parties, are brought into a Brown Cabinet, there would be a statement to the House beforehand?

In 1984. I think it remains a reasonably accurate description, and I think it is fair to say that it is one of the more charitable things I have said about the Liberal Democrats. We are a very broad church in the Labour party, and we are always open either to sinners or scavengers who repent.

I start by adding my tributes to our former colleague Piara Khabra, who was a decent, quiet, courteous Member of the House and will be much missed.

It is hardly our fault if the Chancellor of the Exchequer makes Cabinet formation into a form of “Britain’s Got Talent”. The Liberal Democrats undoubtedly have the talent; we just do not like the look of the Government. The Leader of the House has made it plain that sometimes he does not like the look of us either, despite the fact that he has been a very good Leader of the House, but can we find ways to help the Government? Here are three ways that we can be of assistance in the business of the next couple of weeks.

Yesterday the Secretary of State for International Development said that a new corruption Bill was needed “as soon as possible”. I have good news for the Leader of the House: we have a Corruption Bill before the House. It has gone through all its stages in another place. It could be put into effect within weeks. Perhaps he will find some parliamentary time for progress on the Corruption Bill, which stands in my name in this House, so that he can satisfy the Secretary of State for International Development.

There is a second piece of good news. The deputy Chief Whip in the Lords says that the Government are committed to tackling the issue of the

“disparity between…financial support…to victims”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 20 April 2007; Vol. 691, c. 459.]

of terrorism abroad and in this country. The good news is that the Victims of Overseas Terrorism Bill, which was originally introduced by Lord Brennan, has gone through all its stages in the Lords. So again we have a Bill that the Government can take up in order to make good their commitment.

Thirdly, we can help the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who has clearly cottoned on to the concern across the country that some of the richest people pay the least tax. I think that I even heard the Prime Minister, in a somewhat incoherent way, lending his support yesterday to the need for something to be done. If that is true, may we have an extra day’s debate on the Finance Bill, so that the Chancellor of the Exchequer can bring forward proposals for the end of taper relief on capital gains tax, which Liberal Democrats have proposed for some time, and therefore do something about the richest people paying less tax than those who clean their offices?

I should add to what I have just said by saying that some of my best friends are Liberal Democrats, but sometimes we must put our sense of friendship on one side when we are making decisions about what is good for the country. The hon. Gentleman says that it is not their fault that certain discussions have taken place. The problem with the Liberal Democrats is that it is never their fault because they never have to make decisions. It is an attractive offer to the Liberal Democrats, because it would give them a taste of government—I make no predictions; apparently, it is causing some minor discussion among them—and of decision making, if they found that comfortable. One of the difficulties that I have with the Liberal Democrats is that they seem to be people who volunteered for a lifetime in opposition. I spent 18 years in opposition, as did you, Mr. Speaker, but being in government is a lot better, and we can do things for the country.

On a new corruption Bill and the Victims of Overseas Terrorism Bill, our approach to all private Members’ Bills, as we showed with the Sustainable Communities Bill last week, is to look at them on their merits, regardless of who is their promoter, and that we will continue to do.

The ending of taper relief on capital gains tax is under consideration and the hon. Gentleman will know, as the House does, of the Treasury Committee’s considerable and spirited evidence session yesterday.

I note that the business for yesterday and today has no votes and that that coincides with Royal Ascot. For the convenience of Members in future, would my right hon. Friend say which sporting events the usual channels regard as sufficiently important to influence the business of the House?

Yes, of course we will. My bid to my right hon. Friend the Patronage Secretary is to ensure that all games played by Blackburn Rovers during the week are high on the list.

When does the Government expect to receive the report of the Senior Salaries Review Body on Members’ pay and allowances?

I cannot give the hon. Gentleman a precise answer now, but it is due soon. I have certainly not seen it, but if I get better information than I have at the moment, I will write to the hon. Gentleman and table a written ministerial statement.

I join in the tributes to Piara Khabra. He was a member of the International Development Committee, on which I served for many years alongside him, as did the hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan). We all feel very strongly about his contribution to international development and the fact that he continued to be interested right up to his recent illness.

While one might debate the merits or demerits of the Iraq war—I still hold to the same view—there is a humanitarian crisis among the displaced people of Iraq, both inside and outside the country, and I would ask for an urgent debate on that subject. The Government have been severely criticised by those who deal with refugee problems owing to our meanness in allowing Iraqis who are in danger in their own country because they helped the coalition, to come to this country. If one looks at the list of countries into which Iraqis have been allowed, this is one of the meanest. I am sorry to use this opportunity to make that point, but I am afraid that it is the only way open to me, and I should like an early debate on that subject.

I understand the concern of my right hon. Friend and pay tribute to her for all her work to help those people. As she will know, we have made major contributions to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. On the specific issue that she raises, I will ensure that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is made fully aware of her concerns. We will look for an opportunity for the matter to be raised more fully on the Floor of the House.

May I ask the Leader of the House for an early debate in Government time on the adequacy of ministerial answers to written parliamentary questions? I am not complaining about the length of time that the Minister concerned took to answer the question, but the content of her answer.

Early in May, I tabled a written parliamentary question asking for the dates of meetings between the Lord Chancellor and officials at the Department for Constitutional Affairs—and the names of those who took part—to discuss the formation of the new Ministry of Justice and the relationship between the judiciary and the Executive. The answer that I received from the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. and learned Member for Redcar (Vera Baird), simply said that there had been eight meetings, which were not dated. I was not given the names of those who had attended the meetings, on the basis that to do so would inhibit the frankness and candour of discussion. I wrote back saying that that was not really an answer. After consultation with eight civil servants, she said that the answer remained the same.

Can we have an early debate about that? It is not good enough for Ministers to try to brush us off—

Thank you, Mr. Speaker, you will make me redundant shortly. I shall certainly follow up the matter. I am normally sympathetic to Members on both sides of the House who raise with me issues in relation to inadequate answers, and I usually get a better response for them. I am not particularly sympathetic, however, in the case of the hon. and learned Gentleman, because normal practice in giving information on the number of meetings—including mine—is not to say precisely who has attended them, as that could have a genuinely inhibiting effect on discussion.

In announcing the business, the Leader of the House mentioned that we would discuss the remaining stages of the Concessionary Bus Travel Bill. May we have a wider debate on bus services? The bus service between my constituency and James Cook hospital has been cut by its operator, Stagecoach, because the subsidy is not big enough. The links between North Tees and Hartlepool hospitals are also being cut because the subsidy is not big enough. Last year, Stagecoach made revenues of £1.5 billion, so it is aptly named, because its examples of highway robbery would make Dick Turpin blush. Can we therefore have a debate on bus services, the vital links that they provide to health services, and the risk to those from the gross profiteering of private operators?

We will certainly consider that issue. My hon. Friend will know of my right hon. Friend the Transport Secretary’s draft legislative proposals to provide better regulation of bus services outside London.

Will the Leader of the House confirm that changes in voting weights, and all the other matters to which he referred today, were included in the original European constitution, on which both the Prime Minister and the last Labour manifesto promised this country a referendum? Surely all the clever spin in the world about carefully constructed red lines cannot wipe away that commitment. If we are going to restore the trust that has been lost in the past 10 years, would not a full and open debate on the constitution and the constitutional treaty be a good place to start?

Throughout our discussions, I never thought that that very large constitution would change significantly the balance of power between the United Kingdom and Brussels. Notwithstanding that, because it was called a constitution and was a weighty document, we accepted the case that had been made for a referendum. The hon. Gentleman, and the whole Conservative party, must consider the fact that when the Conservatives were in office, they brought before the House the Single European Act and the Maastricht treaty, which, on any basis, provide for major and significant changes and shifts in the balance of power between the United Kingdom and Brussels. On those occasions, the Conservative Government refused any suggestion of a referendum—[Interruption.] It does not matter how long ago it was; the principle is the same. As for the voting system, it seems curious that the hon. Gentleman proposes an elaborate procedure for something that everybody in the House wants, and everybody in the country would support once they knew the details.

May I join the shadow Leader of the House in her kind remarks about the role of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, who has earned the respect of everybody in the House? May I draw to his attention one of the great successes of this Government: the renaissance in the regions programme money for art galleries and museums? In cities such as mine, many people—who would never have had access to museums previously, other than free ones—have gone to art galleries and museums for the first time in their lives because of that finance. If the Government accepted the proposal that seems to have been made to charge for museums and art galleries, would that make those museums and art galleries safe for the people whom I represent—or perhaps for the Etonians who inhabit the Conservative Front Bench?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his kind remarks. We are celebrating a renaissance not just in museum attendance but in the life of cities, including the great city of Manchester. One reason for that renaissance is that we have opened up cultural institutions in those great cities. The proposal from part of the Conservative party to charge for museum entrance, which was first introduced by a previous Conservative Prime Minister, Edward Heath, would undermine not only the renaissance of the cities but the education and cultural enjoyment of hundreds of thousands of our constituents.

Given the successful meeting between the leaders of Scotland’s Government and Northern Ireland’s leaders at Stormont on Monday, would not it be sensible to have a debate in the House to start to facilitate the inevitable further transfer of powers that are needed to govern both Scotland and Northern Ireland better for their respective peoples?

The devolution settlement for Scotland has been settled, and appears to be working well. It was always anticipated that it would lead at some stage to a change of control in Edinburgh, and so it has. As for Northern Ireland, it seems curious that even before the ink is dry on the new arrangements in Northern Ireland, the hon. Gentleman, from Scotland, should propose changes.

May we have a statement on the Communication Workers Union dispute? I know that it is not Government practice to get involved in disputes between employers and workers, but in this case we are a major stakeholder. Surely meaningful negotiation is the only way forward. It is unfortunate that the employers are deliberately misleading the public by saying that the postal workers are seeking a 27 per cent. increase, which is not the fact. Can we do something to get them round the table and talking meaningfully?

I understand my hon. Friend’s concerns, as does my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry. It would not assist, however, if the Government were to go back to the time of beer and sandwiches and attempt a resolution of this industrial dispute. The Government and the Royal Mail management have a constitutional relationship, and we are encouraging a negotiated settlement, which will be in the interests of the work force, the Post Office and, above all, customers.

May I join the tributes to the late Piara Khabra? He was a kind and caring man and will certainly be missed in the House.

Is the Leader of the House aware that an important delegation from Zimbabwe is currently in London representing a number of political parties, the Churches, youth and students? Before he leaves his current position—I congratulate him on the work that he has done since he was appointed Leader of the House—will he announce today that there will be a debate on the Floor of the House, in Government time, on the crisis in Zimbabwe, a country that is important to the future of central southern Africa?

Even if I am back next week in the same role, may I thank the hon. Gentleman, who is a distinguished and senior Member of the House, for all his co-operation with me, on the Floor of the House and especially in the Modernisation Committee. On the issue of Zimbabwe, we understand the concern. Subject to the usual caveats, we plan a full day’s debate on Zimbabwe on 19 July. I am sorry that that has taken some time, but it is now on the schedule.

May I, too, join in the tributes to Piara Khabra? He was the first person of the Sikh faith to be elected to this House and is therefore someone who will be remembered very fondly not only by his constituents but by the House.

This week, the British Board of Film Classification banned the video game, “Manhunt 2”, but on the same day there was rightly controversy about a new video game that shows footage of the abduction of James Bulger. There is a clear need for better regulation of the video games industry. Will the Leader of the House please tell us when he expects a statement to be made by the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport or by the Minister with responsibility for the creative industries, or when we may have a debate on the social responsibilities of those who make a huge amount of money out of these video games?

As Home Secretary, I had responsibility for the British Board of Film Classification, which covered such videos and games. My right hon. Friend raises a very important issue, and I think that the concern he expresses is shared across the House. We do not see sufficient social responsibility and understanding by the creators and purveyors of such games. I will of course ensure that my hon. Friend the Minister is made fully aware of my right hon. Friend’s concerns.

May I draw the Leader of the House’s attention to the fact that the Government have invested considerable funds in a new GP surgery in Dedham in my constituency, for which I thank them? However, will he find time for us to debate the surgery’s future, as the primary care trust has decided in its wisdom that it should never be opened and that the people of Dedham do not deserve their own GP practice despite the investment of all that money? Is it not an outrage that the health service should be wasting money in this way, and should not we have a debate to pressure the PCT and instruct the Secretary of State for Health to ensure that the surgery does eventually open?

I am grateful for hon. Gentleman’s thanks in the first part of his question. He illustrates how the doubling in real terms of spending on the health service has had benefits right across the country and potentially in his constituency as well. [Interruption.] I said “potentially”. I will of course draw to the full attention of my right hon. Friend the Health Secretary the apparent anomaly, to put it mildly, that he raises.

I join my right hon. Friend in paying tribute to our colleague and comrade Piara Khabra.

Today the Department for Communities and Local Government has published a statement on hot water safety in building regulations. Each year, 20 people die as a result of falls into and burns from scalding hot water, and more than 450 children under the age of five suffer third degree burns. That is about the same level of death and injury as is caused by house fires. May we have a cross-departmental debate in the House on accident prevention so that we can get across to people that if they wash their clothes at 40° C, they should also wash their children at the same temperature?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for all the work that she has done on this important issue, including the ten-minute Bill she introduced last year. There has been a written ministerial statement today, but I will certainly try to ensure that she has an opportunity to raise the subject on the Adjournment or in Westminster Hall.

I am sure that the Leader of the House, representing as he does Blackburn and Darwen, is aware of the concern in the Muslim community about the award of a knighthood to Salman Rushdie. May we have a debate on the honours system, and how that decision was arrived at?

I am aware of that concern. Let me offer a personal view. I am afraid that I have found Salman Rushdie’s books rather difficult and have never managed to get to the end of any of them, despite my basic rule that if one starts a book one has to finish it. I am afraid that his writing defeated me. Of course I understand the concerns and sensitivity in the community. That said—I am sure that this would meet with the approval of the whole House—there can be no justification whatever for suggestions that as a result of this a further fatwa should be placed on Mr. Rushdie’s life.

On a topical subject, does my right hon. Friend accept that the British Library and other museums in London see themselves as the main, if not the only, custodians of British culture, and that as a consequence thousands of children and their families in the northern region lack the opportunity to experience the greatness of some of the artefacts that represent their culture? I refer to the Lindisfarne Gospels, which are stored in the British Library, are regularly resting and are usually seen by five people a year, but when exhibited in the northern region invariably get more than 100,000 people looking at them. Is it not time that the House debated the greatness of British culture, but more particularly the importance of returning to their homes the artefacts of the regions of England so that the people of Great Britain can experience that greatness, as opposed to the five people a year in London who are doing so currently?

The hon. Gentleman’s sedentary comment may or may not be correct.

I fully understand my hon. Friend’s sentiments. I will certainly ensure that the director of the British Library, as well as the director of the British Museum, is made aware of her views. As so much of our cultural and political life is centred on London, I hope that we may at some stage be able to develop a scheme similar to those that apply in some other countries, whereby at least once in a child’s school career they are able, paid for, to come to London to visit this House and some of the principal museums of the capital.

As one of the many attributes that make the Leader of the House an outstanding holder of his high office has been his realistic assessment of the merits of the Liberal Democrats, oft repeated at the Dispatch Box, how come, as the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s campaign manager, he did not manage to prevent the Chancellor from having a red face this morning?

I return the right hon. Gentleman’s compliment. I have already given the explanation. Of course, any sensible party leader has discussions with leaders of the other parties, as do I with my opposite numbers: I always have done and always shall, in whatever capacity I serve. The right hon. Gentleman has been a very distinguished adornment on the Conservative Back Benches, but if he too wishes to send me a curriculum vitae, I will see what we can do.

My right hon. Friend will be aware of the important decision made yesterday by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation that the HPV vaccine should be routinely introduced for girls aged 12 to 13. That is a very welcome decision, and I applaud organisations such as Jo’s Trust which have campaigned for it to be made. May we have a debate on that decision, given the other important issues involved, such as whether older girls should have the vaccine and the importance of stressing that regular cervical screening should continue?

That is a very important issue, because cervical cancer is the second most common cancer of women worldwide. In the United Kingdom alone, the lifetime risk of developing cervical cancer is one in 116, which is a high, not a low, risk. Of course we will look for an opportunity for a debate, perhaps on the Adjournment or in Westminster Hall. Meanwhile, I will ensure that my right hon. Friend the Health Secretary is fully aware of my hon. Friend’s remarks.

Will the Leader of the House reconsider his refusal last week to allow a debate on the Scottish block vote in order that we can discuss the particular discrimination against English students attending Scottish universities, who will be the only students in the entire European Union to have to pay the full fee, with the cost of abolishing it for everybody else being borne by English taxpayers?

The nature of the devolution settlement is, first, that it is asymmetrical and, secondly, that it admits that different parts of the United Kingdom will come to different decisions. That is also true—I am not, of course, making a direct comparison with the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the Northern Ireland Assembly—of local authorities, even those controlled by the same party.

Let me say two more things to the hon. Gentleman. First, notwithstanding the differential in fees, applications for English universities, where the fees are on a similar basis to those for English students in Scottish universities, are increasing. They are up 6 per cent., with no evidence—far from it—that those from lower socio-economic groups are disadvantaged.

Secondly, the hon. Gentleman made a point that I keep making to Conservative Members: it is rightly a fact of devolution, which I celebrate, that the Scots can make their own, different decisions in Scotland, and that is different from the previous position, whereby the decisions were also different but made in London. Time and again, he and I sat in the House in the 1980s and early 1990s, when separate policy was agreed for Scotland in London. That is inappropriate for what are now devolved matters. He should also remember that the money that is available to spend in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales is wholly determined by English Members of Parliament. Far from being excluded from those decisions, English members have 84 per cent. of the votes in this House. That is another reason for the asymmetrical, but in my judgment balanced arrangement.

I welcome the recent publication of the Home Office document on alcohol issues, but evidence suggests that alcohol problems in Britain, especially liver damage, are much worse than we imagined. It is also highly likely that instances of foetal alcohol syndrome are rising, given the amount of alcohol that young women consume, and given that some young women are possibly getting pregnant partly as a result of drinking to excess. Will my right hon. Friend make time for a debate on the Floor of the House about all such alcohol issues, given Britain’s growing and alarmingly serious problem?

I share my hon. Friend’s concerns about what appears to be increasing alcohol abuse, especially by young people. Even when he and I were young, youngsters sometimes drank to excess, but evidence suggests that that has now gone much further. Of course, I will do my best to ascertain whether we can find time for a debate on the matter.

As the right hon. Gentleman knows, I am one of the last people in the world to intrude on private grief. Provided it does not harm, my case may I join the hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) in calling for an urgent statement early next week by the Chancellor and Prime Minister-designate, so that we can warn and remind him of the sheer horror, which the Scottish Labour party had to tolerate for four or so years, of working with the Liberal Democrats? He needs to be reminded before he makes the mistake of a lifetime. They are a nightmare to work with because they cannot be trusted.

I will do a deal with the hon. Gentleman. I will pass on his remarks to my right hon. Friend the Chancellor if he will pass them on to the Blackburn Conservative association, which has just entered into a coalition with the Liberal Democrats.

May we have a debate on the unfairness of the airport duty tax? It is especially unfair to those of us who live north of the Watford gap. My right hon. Friend may know that the travelling public, including young families, who wish to go to America or elsewhere abroad have no option but to go through the hub airports of London. They therefore have to pay the tax twice. He knows that I have had extensive, unsuccessful discussions with the Treasury on the matter. Will he use his good offices to encourage the Treasury and the travel industry to get together and devise some solution to that discriminatory measure?

I understand my hon. Friend’s concern, but his continuing campaign is having an effect on the Treasury. I have a copy of a letter to him from the Financial Secretary, who states says that airlines can provide through-ticketing—if they do that, only one airline tax is payable, rather than two or more—and that the Treasury is keeping the structure of air passenger duty under review and taking account of my hon. Friend’s concerns.

Many months ago, Lord Leitch published his report, which the Government commissioned, on the nation’s skills. It made several important recommendations, in response to which the official Opposition, in the form of my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood), published a paper on economic competitiveness and, in my name, published our policy on apprenticeships. However, there has been a deafening silence from the Government. The response to the Leitch report has been delayed; meanwhile, 1.3 million of our young people are not in education, employment or training. Will the Leader of the House assure the House that the response to the Leitch report will be speedy and comprehensive, and that it will be made here so that all hon. Members can contribute to the discussion about it?

My memory may be defective, but I recall my right hon. Friends the Secretary of State for Education and Skills and the Chancellor making many comments about the Leitch report. We are also planning legislation on it, and we take account of sensible proposals, from wherever they come.

Today is midsummer’s day—the summer solstice. Had the Leader of the House been in my constituency this morning, celebrating the dawn of a new era at Stonehenge, he would understand why I am asking him for an urgent debate on the future of Stonehenge. It would enable us to consider the outcome of the meeting this weekend of the UNESCO world heritage committee in New Zealand, where Stonehenge is on the agenda because of the Government’s neglect of world heritage sites in this country, including the Westminster and Tower of London world heritage sites. Can the debate be held not with Ministers from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, who are blameless and embarrassed, or Transport Ministers, who wish the road to be upgraded, but with Treasury Ministers, who have blocked progress on the project under two Governments for 21 years?

That was uncharacteristically ungenerous of the hon. Gentleman, although I understand his concern for Stonehenge, which is certainly a world heritage site, in his constituency. I gently remind him that the Government have put huge additional sums of money into the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and the Department for Transport. The Conservative party, including him, voted against those additional sums.

As the Leader of the House contemplates his well-deserved and highly skilled migration to either No. 11 Downing street or even Dorneywood, will he spare a thought for my constituent, Mr. Sreekumar Nair and his family, who came to this country under the highly skilled migrant programme, have made a massive contribution to the community in Dibden in my constituency, but find themselves caught by a rigid new points system, which means that fulfilment of the promises that they were given about getting British nationality will now be much delayed, if it happens at all?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his compliments. I take them in the spirit in which they were intended, which I think was a fine one. I obviously do not have the details of the constituency case that he raises. If he gives me more details that will assist, I will take up the matter with my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary.

May we have a statement from the Secretary of State for Transport about why the Department for Transport has cut £1.7 million from the roads maintenance budget for Northamptonshire? If, on the way back to his Blackburn constituency, the Leader of the House would care to drive through Northamptonshire, he will experience for himself the £60 million backlog in road maintenance expenditure in the past 12 years. The current administration is putting that right with an investment programme, but central Government have consequently seen fit to cut its grant allocation.

It is the duty of all of us to represent our constituents, but the hon. Gentleman needs to be a bit careful. Current investment in road schemes—I bet this is true of his constituency—far exceeds that in previous years. Other places are competing for much needed funds, not least my constituency, where famously 4,000 holes in Blackburn, Lancashire were identified 40 years ago. Not all of them have subsequently been filled in.

Points of Order

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. You will know, and Members will have observed, that among the written ministerial statements to be made today, the eighth, listed under the name of the Secretary of State for Education and Skills, is about the “Care Matters” White Paper. When Members tried to collect the paper earlier—indeed, at 11.50—this morning, it was not available, yet it was released to the press at 11.30. That clearly shows disrespect for the House and it does not allow Members to consider these matters as carefully as they should be able to. I know that in the past, Mr. Speaker, you have taken a very dim view of these matters. What action can I take—or, more appropriately, can you take—to address the problem?

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I am inspired to raise a similar point of order. Before the statement on Tuesday, the shadow Defence team was promised it would have two hours to examine the media report arising out of the debacle of the capture of the sailors and the selling of their stories. In the end, we had only 45 minutes, so we really wonder what these assurances are worth.

That is a matter to do with the Government, so I advise the hon. Gentleman to take it up with them. Perhaps the Leader of the House will remark on the matter.

Further to the first point of order, Mr. Speaker, I am happy to take up the matter. My experience is that when this happens it is usually a mistake—albeit a mistake that should not have happened—but I will look further into it. Further to the second point of order, the rules or Cabinet Office guidelines suggest that just 30 minutes’ notice should be given of oral statements. Personally, I have always regarded that as inadequate for both sides of the House, as do my right hon. Friends. It is sometimes not possible to provide information other than at very short notice, but I will certainly take the matter up with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Back in 2002, I asked the Ministry of Defence whether it would agree regularly to place in the Library the monthly manning report, which is relevant to the debate that we are about to commence. I am grateful to the Minister of State for ensuring that this document finally arrived in the Library—just an hour or so ago. It is distressing, however, that before a debate of this nature, information is not made available to Members more timeously. I wonder whether you could use your good offices, Mr. Speaker, to persuade Ministers to make information more readily available.

“More readily available” is a big notion, is it not? What exactly does it mean? Some people might say that it means a week’s notice while others might say it means three weeks’ notice. The fact of the matter is that the hon. Gentleman has the information before him and is able to participate in the debate. I recall that when I was a Back Bencher I was given information even less than an hour beforehand, but I was still able to make a contribution. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will be able to do so as well.

Armed Forces Personnel

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Heppell.]

Since we last debated defence, 14 personnel have lost their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan. I know that the House’s thoughts are with their families and friends at this time.

I welcome this opportunity to open the debate on our armed forces personnel and the civilians who support them. Day in, day out, they work extremely hard for the nation at home and abroad. My central theme is that, in return for the things we ask of them and the outstanding work they do, our personnel must be properly looked after. Despite difficulties and challenges, which I am not going to deny, I believe that the Government are living up to their commitment to support them. I want briefly to cover a number of issues: operational welfare, military ethos, training and recruitment, welfare, manning, pay and accommodation, reservists, medical support, families, inquests and civilian personnel.

Last week, I was in the Falklands, where I was privileged to attend commemorations for the 25th anniversary of their liberation. I heard many tales of courage and sacrifice. Today, as then, our young men and women are making huge sacrifices against determined enemies in order to help people who cannot help themselves—this time, however, not in the wind and wet of the south Atlantic, but in the heat and dust of Iraq and Afghanistan. Our operational success in those theatres depends fundamentally on our people. It depends on their courage, their professionalism and their unstinting dedication to the task in hand.

I know that our forces are stretched and I know that tempo is one of the key concerns of our personnel and their families. Some are away for more time than they should be. I fully appreciate all of that. About 1 per cent. of the Royal Navy, 5 per cent. of Royal Air Force personnel and 13 per cent. of the Army are currently exceeding separation guidelines. That includes the Royal Marines, the infantry, the RAF Regiment, the support helicopter force, medics, logisticians and engineers.

The work that our personnel are undertaking in Iraq and Afghanistan is important. When I visit them, it is clear to me that they understand that. What I want to stress is that when we are able to reduce commitments, we will. In Northern Ireland, political progress has allowed us to reduce our force levels by around 8,000 when compared to levels in 2003. The reduction of our military operations in Bosnia and the wider Balkans has meant that we now have only a small number of personnel—just over 200—compared with more than 10,000 eight years ago.

Of course, matching personnel to commitments is difficult in an uncertain world, and the present tempo of operations makes it particularly challenging. At the moment, the advice from the chiefs of staff is that we can cope with current commitments, but we cannot assume that this will remain the case and we will clearly have to watch it closely.

In view of what the Minister has just said, will he tell us what proportion of those deployed on active service, particularly in Afghanistan and Iraq, are actually in the Territorial Army? To what extent is the Territorial Army being used in active theatres and what impact does that have on the advice that he is given by the generals?

I intend to come to that. I mentioned that I was going to talk about the reservists, so if the hon. Gentleman will bear with me, I will comment in more detail later.

How does the Minister square the freeze on promotion for lieutenants in the Royal Navy with the drive towards acquisition of more aircraft carriers and warships? What long-term impact will that have on recruitment and retention?

I intend to come on to recruitment and retention as well. I am sure that the hon. Lady is only too well aware that the configuration of the future fleet in respect of modern warships requires substantially fewer people to serve on them. I cannot recall the figure offhand for the Astute vessels, but I suspect that it is in the region of 90 or so fewer per vessel. That clearly has an impact on the overall structure.

I am not giving way in the middle of answering a question—and I may not even give way to the hon. Gentleman at all.

As I was explaining, the impact will be felt among those who believe that their career paths may be temporarily stalled. All that has to be taken into account, but this is a point of readjustment as we look towards the future Navy. As I say, that will apply to the new types of warships that will come into play, including the new aircraft carriers, which we look forward to joining the fleet—[Interruption.] I will give way to the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis).

I knew he would, Mr. Speaker. Although the newer warships require fewer personnel when they go to sea, is it not planned that they should have double crews in some cases in order to take advantage of the fact that they can stay at sea longer? I think that the Minister’s point about fewer personnel is a little less clear-cut than he makes out.

I agree with that. There are wider issues concerning personnel profiling. As to the sea swap concept, I witnessed the trials currently being held when I was down in the Falklands. HMS Liverpool is there and it was being manned by the crew of HMS Exeter. Many identified with their mother ship. I am sorry, I meant HMS Edinburgh is in the Falklands, not HMS Liverpool. Many of the crew felt that they should have been on their mother ship. Issues have to be addressed, but I tried to explain to the personnel that this was a genuine attempt to ensure that we maintain our capabilities at sea for as long as we can. It seems to me much more sensible in principle—though whether we can deliver in practice may be more difficult—to keep ships on station. Who knows what may happen at any particular time? It would be wrong for a ship to be sailing home only to be turned back, when it could have been on station. So there are issues that are being addressed, and all of them will have an impact. They are not easy to resolve, but none the less, we are seeking to address them.

I was commenting on the level of commitment in the armed forces, and I pay tribute to those who have served with distinction and those who continue to do so. At the same time, it is right that where there is evidence that behaviour has fallen below these high standards, we must follow up and take appropriate action. Last week’s House of Lords judgment in the Al-Skeini case provided helpful clarification on the application of the Human Rights Act 1998 in Iraq. Subsequent media coverage suggested that this ruling would impose an additional constraint on our personnel. That is not the case. The criminal law regulating the conduct of our forces remains the same: wherever they are serving in the world, they are always subject to English criminal law. That is not affected by this judgment.

One of the cases that forms part of the Al-Skeini judgment is that of Baha Mousa. We are reviewing the evidence presented in the associated courts martial of Corporal Payne and others, before deciding how best to proceed in relation to the events surrounding Mr. Mousa’s death. I am sure that the House will appreciate that I cannot comment further at this stage, as the legal process in the case has yet to conclude.

Let me now turn to issues of operational welfare. We must ensure that the people undertaking these dangerous operations have the support that they need while they are away. I am pleased to say that, over the past few months, we have made further improvements to the operational welfare package. For example, the telephone allowance in all operational theatres has been increased from 20 minutes to 30 minutes per week. The number of phones available will increase by 20 per cent. and the number of internet machines by 50 per cent. by the autumn. By the end of next month, internet access will be eight times faster. There will be areas in an operational theatre where this cannot be delivered, but our serving personnel understand the reasons for that.

We have just announced the latest increase in operational allowances for personnel serving in Iraq and Afghanistan —a further 3.6 per cent. uplift—taking the total to £2,320 over a typical six-month tour. Thirty-six thousand personnel have benefited from the operational allowance, and they deserve every penny.

In the last financial year, we spent £42 million on operational welfare. This is a significant improvement on the £12 million provided in 2001, when the operational welfare package was introduced. In addition, we are constantly working on ways to improve the force protection for our personnel on operations. Sadly, we cannot protect against all threats at all times. However, we have authorised spending of some £380 million on force protection urgent operational requirements in the last financial year alone. This is part of the £750 million spent on urgent operational requirements since 2003.

Let me turn to the important issue of military ethos. The expectations of our service personnel are high, and so they should be. Like young people everywhere, they aspire to do better and to go further and faster than the generation before. They are less prepared than their predecessors to accept without question some aspects of service life, such as shared accommodation, poor equipment or inadequate remuneration. They want and expect a work-life balance between doing the job they love and spending time with the people they love. But they are every bit as professional, committed and effective as the generations who have gone before. This is a tribute to them, and a tribute to their training.

On the point of support for people who have lives to lead as well as a duty to perform, how are the armed forces coping with the fact that they now have many more women serving in them, which is a sheer delight? Many of those women are officers, and many also have family roles and maternity roles. How is the Army coping with the fact that they need training and promotional opportunities equivalent to those for everyone else, which at the same time accommodate their woman’s role of having babies and bringing up families?

I will be honest with my hon. Friend. If anything, we are perhaps behind the curve in terms of what is happening in the normal working environment throughout industry and elsewhere. That is probably because of the nature of military life, historically and otherwise. I will mention the success that we have had in recruiting females into the armed forces later in my speech, but we have to begin to look at this issue imaginatively; there should be no glass ceiling. There are too few senior military personnel who are female or from ethnic communities. We need to find sensitive ways of dealing with this. It is a matter of life choice for female entrants to the armed forces, in terms of what they want to do with their career and how they want it to progress. I meet many female serving members of the armed forces who are of an exceptionally high standard. They are a great exemplar, whether in the RAF, the Royal Navy or elsewhere. My hon. Friend has raised an important point, and we need to give proper and due attention to the matter in the time ahead.

Military training has to be robust, challenging and demanding. Ensuring the right balance between looking after new recruits and giving them the training that they need for operations on the battlefield is not easy. We have had to learn from the tragedies of Deepcut. One of the keys to success in this area is greater transparency and external evaluation. In March, we welcomed the publication of the Adult Learning Inspectorate report, “Better Training”, which set out its findings on the progress that we have made. This independent assessment said:

“In summary, great improvement has been made over a short space of time”.

It also noted that

“while further improvements are required in certain areas the change has been significant.”

We are now working with Ofsted to ensure that external audit of our progress continues.

In many ways, the real judges of the quality of what we do are the recruits themselves. I have placed in the Library of the House today the results of an independent poll of recruits recently received from MORI and referred to by the Adult Learning Inspectorate in the “Better Training” report. More than 24,000 questionnaires were returned. The headlines are that 89 per cent. of trainees would recommend others to join their service, 88 per cent. said that they felt a sense of achievement at completing their training, and 84 per cent. felt that the staff had done all that they could to help them. I accept that not all the feedback was positive. There is scope for improvement and we have already taken steps to improve areas highlighted within it. But this grass-roots report is further evidence that we are listening to the views of recruits and using the information to improve our training environment.

We are also acting to improve the status and quality of our trainers. Much of our training is acknowledged as world class. We want to make sure that all of it is. A few weeks ago, the new Army staff leadership school officially opened in Pirbright. It will promote, teach and disseminate best practice among instructors and trainers in the armed forces. Our training needs to move with the times. That is one of the key points behind the defence training review, which we are now implementing. This will ensure that our services which fight together also train together, where that makes sense, and that they do so in modern facilities. But it will also ensure that initial training, which is key to service ethos, remains in the hands of the single services. The proposed world-class academy for specialist training at St. Athan, scheduled to be opened in 2011, is a prime example of the high standards that we set for our training requirements.

A few of us were privileged this week to attend a course at Shrivenham. One of the interesting topics that we discussed was the overlap in the training arena between officials and experts in other Government Departments—for example, the Foreign Office and the Department for International Development. What discussions does my right hon. Friend have with his colleagues in those other Departments to ensure that a proper, integrated approach is taken to enable officials in the Departments to contribute properly to our war-fighting efforts?

That is one of the great successes of the defence academy at Shrivenham. It is truly multinational, as I am sure my hon. Friend saw, and that involves integration among not only NATO allies and associated friendly countries but other countries with which we want to share a global interest. All those countries can participate in the courses. My hon. Friend asked about other Government Departments. In any post-conflict situation, whether related to peacekeeping or something short of peacekeeping, there has to be a comprehensive approach that involves all the agencies of Government having the best possible understanding of each other. We are encouraging that approach. I know that those who participate in the courses find them of great benefit, as do those who serve in the armed forces. I do not know which course my hon. Friend undertook, but whatever the level, participants increasingly understand that they must work in concert with other Departments. That is one of the key areas of improvement.

There is no doubt that we currently face a difficult recruitment and retention environment. Our manning strategies focus on four aims: attracting more recruits, encouraging more to stay, using those whom we have more effectively, and reducing the commitments that they face.

On the first of those aims, I can report some success. In 2006-07 we recruited 97 per cent. of our increased target—an increase of more than 1,000. That equates to 1,210 extra people, including 300 more female recruits, and compares to a 96 per cent. success rate in the previous year. This year’s Army recruitment figures are up 12 per cent. on last year’s figures. Infantry and Royal Artillery specific recruiting initiatives during 2006-07 have paid dividends, with 25 per cent. more enlistments for each arm than last year.

While recruitment is important, retention is equally important or more so. Turnover is healthy for any organisation, but we do not want to lose highly skilled and experienced people. Owing to the quality of our service personnel, they are in high demand throughout industry when they leave the services. We must ensure that we have measures in place to encourage our people to stay.

According to the latest figures available, on 1 May the total full-time strength of our armed forces was 176,920, some 96.4 per cent. of the requirement. The Royal Navy was manned to 94.7 per cent. of its requirement, the Army to 97.5 per cent., and the Royal Air Force to 95.1 per cent. I do not think that we have hit 100 per cent. in the modern armed forces. It certainly has not happened in my time, and it had not happened for some time before that, if ever. It would be an unusual development, for reasons that I will give shortly.

It is interesting that the Minister gave percentages rather than the actual numbers. Is it not the case that the targets have changed over the past few years? While the Minister may indeed be achieving percentages of 95, 96 or 97 per cent., the goalposts have moved in order for him to do so.

That is true. That is why I said that we had probably never achieved 100 per cent. Whatever the target, it is bound to be difficult to meet. The size of a service will be defined by the military requirement, and those targets can vary. In this instance they have clearly moved downwards on the basis of best assessment.

Although the targets were lower, hitting them proved difficult for a variety of reasons, not least the strong base of the economy and demographic factors which can have an adverse impact. More young people are going into higher and further education. A number of other related issues made it difficult to achieve maximum recruitment.

I agree with much of what the Minister has said. It is true that we are trying to recruit in very different circumstances from those of 15, 20 and certainly 50 years ago. Perhaps, however, the Minister could elaborate on the difference between recruitment and retention. The huge effort to get people into the armed forces is generally successful, but unfortunately it is much tougher to keep them there. The Government, and indeed the House, must focus on that.

I am coming to the issue of retention. Voluntary outflow from the armed forces has remained steady for the past few years. It has always been feared that a haemorrhage will follow any conflict, and two conflicts are taking place concurrently at the moment. I have mentioned tempo and the breaching of harmony guidelines, but we have not experienced the haemorrhage that we feared. I am not saying that problems do not exist within specific trades—they do, and we must deal with them—but the voluntary outflow has remained steady, which must be an indication of something. Of course it must be monitored carefully and constantly in case it moves in the opposite direction.

For that reason, we have financial retention incentives for the infantry, the Royal Marines, the Royal Navy, RAF air crew and certain medical posts. For instance, we have one for specialist nurses. There are also “golden hellos” for medical and dental officers and specialist nurses. All those will have to be kept under review. Sometimes problems arise before they can be dealt with. We aim to be alert enough to pick up indications that a change is taking place and introduce incentives in advance. However, we must ensure that neither “golden hellos” nor financial incentives distort other aspects.

Retention often involves those in middle management such as sergeant-majors and staff sergeants, who are invariably married with children. As one who represents a not insignificant military community, I can tell the Minister that housing is crucial. I know that he is about to talk about this subject.

Wives and children put great pressure on such middle-management personnel if their housing is not up to scratch. A constituent who came to see me the other day, a staff sergeant, had waited six months for important structural repairs to be carried out in his children’s bedroom. If that had happened to another constituent with a registered social or local authority landlord, we would be jumping up and down. It is not fair or acceptable for armed forces personnel to be in such a position.

I agree, and I shall say something about the state of accommodation shortly.

We need to use our people as effectively as possible, which means freeing up as many as possible for the front line and cutting bureaucracy and overheads. We now have an excellent record in that regard. All three services are rationalising their headquarters staff. The headquarters of the Commander-in-Chief, Fleet and the Second Sea Lord have merged, saving 450 posts, and the planned merger of the headquarters of the Commander-in-Chief, Land and the Adjutant-General will save about 340. The creation of the new air command will save 1,000 posts by this time next year.

Implementation of the future Army structure continues to make good progress. A good example is the formation of the Rifles Regiment. The restructuring is on track to be completed by the end of 2008. It will provide more people for the specialisms that are in greatest demand, and more stability for Army personnel and their families.

Although our people do not join for the money, we must ensure that they are rewarded fairly for the work that they do. About £350 million more will be spent on military pay and allowances this year than last. The total amount for pay and allowances is about £7.5 billion per year. This year’s armed forces pay award was the highest for four years, and was worth 3.3 per cent. across the board. We concluded that a much larger increase was needed for the lowest-paid. Their pay rose by 9.4 per cent., giving them an extra £1,350 per year. For those in the next-lowest pay range, the increase was over 6 per cent. The pay increases were well received by serving personnel, and were entirely justified.

Let me now deal with the issue of accommodation. Ensuring that our people and their families have a decent standard of accommodation is extremely important to sustaining their morale, and to recruitment and retention. We have an increasingly good story to tell, at Colchester, Tidworth, Glencorse and other areas where modern facilities have been provided, and more are planned. Nevertheless, as was pointed out by the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry), too many remain substandard.

Under investment goes back decades, and improving the position is now a priority. Some £700 million was spent on improving military accommodation in the last financial year, of which £500 million was spent on maintenance and improvement. This year we expect to spend £870 million, of which some £630 million will be spent on maintenance and improvement. The challenge is huge. There are 71,000 houses on hundreds of sites in 16 countries around the world, 49,000 of them in the United Kingdom. Obviously we cannot put the position right overnight, although that does not justify examples such as that given by the hon. Gentleman. As any householder knows, the need for maintenance never stops: maintaining all those estates is like painting the Forth bridge.

We hear, very clearly, how money is being invested, but what the armed forces in my constituency want is a permanent home base. They do not want to be moved around, and they do not want their children to be moved around. In what way are we accommodating that requirement?

The restructuring of the Army—for example, the restructuring of regiments—will create a change in roles. Previous Administrations and chiefs of staff ducked ending the arms plot; although it was transparently obvious that that needed to be done, they did not do so, but we have tackled that. That can be embedded by establishing larger garrisons or super-garrisons, but it will take time; large investment is needed to establish them. As we begin to examine the totality of our estate, that will free up areas of opportunity which will allow us to set up super-garrisons. That will not happen overnight, but it is essential that it does happen and we are committed to doing it.

Is no consideration at all being given to allowing members of the armed forces, like other citizens, to have part-ownership of their property, so that they can take that capital with them when they retire?

I am about to come on to that point, but let me say for now that I agree that we have to come up with imaginative solutions to such questions. The work/life balance must figure highly in our considerations on what we do for our armed forces.

On accommodation, in the past six years we have raised the proportion of service families housing at the top standard from 40 per cent. to 59 per cent. Only 138 of some 49,000 family properties are now at the lowest of the four standards, although that is 138 too many. Of those, 60 will be upgraded as part of this year’s programme, 25 are planned for future upgrading, and 14 are due for disposal. The remainder will be addressed as part of wider plans to be determined in consultation with the services.

More than 20,000 new single living-bed spaces have been delivered in the past six years. Another 20,000 will follow in the next three years. Much of that provides single rooms with en-suite facilities.

We are helping people who want to buy their property to do so. We have secured key worker status for service personnel in London, the east and the south-east. The first soldier moved into her new accommodation under the key worker scheme at the end of May.

I also wish to refer Members to the statement made earlier today by the Minister for Housing and Planning and the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for Halton (Derek Twigg), announcing that the Government have decided to change the legislation on the use of the “local connection” at the earliest opportunity. We recognise that current legislation can disadvantage personnel in terms of access to social housing by preventing them from building up “local connection” points. Many Members have expressed concern about this issue, and today’s announcement underlines our determination to ensure that our personnel are treated fairly.

Our reservists are an important and valued part of our armed forces. They are playing a distinguished role in current operations. About 300 reservists are serving in Afghanistan, and 400 are serving in Iraq. I am most grateful to them and their employers for their support. Having reservists serving alongside our regular forces provides some of the best leadership training on the market. Reservists from the NHS play an important role in providing the first-class medical care that our personnel receive in operational theatres.

The budget assigned to our Territorial Army has slightly decreased—I did say that I would not deny that. That was not an easy decision to take, but it must be put in context. Last year, we spent about £350 million on the TA. We plan to reduce that by £2.5 million this financial year and by the same amount in the next financial year. I am advised that that will in no way adversely impact on the operational ability of the TA or its support to current operations. The savings are against areas such as recruiting of some specialist units and the running of annual conferences, and savings will also be made by reducing the number and frequency of TA competitions.

I intend to explain at length to the Minister how that will adversely impact on the TA. Will he at least acknowledge that, because of the nature of the TA, a £5 million cut in its budget is equivalent to a £50 million cut in the budget of the regular Army?

I will listen to, and then read with interest, what the hon. Gentleman has to say, as he has personal experience in this matter. Ministers make judgments based on the best advice they receive. There are financial pressures which must be addressed if we want to do certain things; it is often the case that if we want to do something, we therefore cannot do something else. The hon. Gentleman has already upbraided me on this issue. I am sure that he will make a strong argument in our debate, and what he has to say will be absorbed. If there is a case to answer, it will be answered.

Leaving aside the practical implications of the cut to the TA budget that the Minister is announcing, what signal does he think he is sending out to it by doing that at a time when we are using the TA for operations more than we ever have in the past?

I am conscious that that might send out a negative signal. As I have said, we must carefully consider all such issues. However, we are making changes across the board and any one of them—such as one involving the Royal Navy, for example—could be construed as negative. Our overall aim is to improve the quality of delivery in its totality. That is why I am explaining our plans at length. It is interesting that no Member has intervened to congratulate us on any of the good news that I have announced. However, I do not wish to disregard the negative comments that have been made.

I will keep a close watch on what happens in respect of the TA. We have restructured it following an extensive consultation process, to try to make the TA more properly integrated into the one Army concept. Over time, that will play out greatly to our advantage. The advice that I have received does not suggest that this will negatively affect recruitment. If it does, however, that will have to be attended to—although it must be said that other factors might also be responsible for any decrease in recruitment. I am sensitive to the comments that have been made, and this decision was not easy to take.

Operational medical care is first class. We have recently opened a new field hospital at Basra, and another at Bastion will follow in July. Their facilities would not be out of place in any modern district hospital in the UK. The dedication and commitment of the people in the Defence Medical Services is outstanding. The priority for our wounded personnel is that they get the best possible treatment. That is why the Royal Centre for Defence Medicine, based at the University Hospital Birmingham NHS Foundation Trust, is the main receiving unit for casualties evacuated from operational theatres. In the Birmingham area, they can benefit from a concentration of five specialist hospitals, including Selly Oak, which is at the leading edge in the care of polytrauma, one of the most common types of injuries that our casualties sustain.

Those who criticise the care given to military patients without recognising the excellent treatment that the vast majority of them receive do a huge discredit to the armed forces and NHS medical personnel. They directly affect their morale, and they would do well to think more carefully about the ramifications of their unbalanced reporting and commentary. I wish to emphasise that point because it is serious: such criticism impacts on those who provide outstanding service at a very difficult point of delivery.

I want specifically to address the recent criticism of the treatment that our personnel receive in theatre. It has been said that the standard of care in theatre is worse than it was 40 years ago. That is not true. The standard of today’s medical support is vastly higher than what was provided in the Falklands war—let alone in the Vietnam war. It has been alleged that wounded British troops are being evacuated from the battlefield more slowly than 40 years ago; that is a false allegation. It is not a fair comparison. No country, including the United States, can match the Vietnam time scales in Afghanistan because the distances are far greater. But it is not a simple question of flight time. We have adapted our procedures in Afghanistan to send advanced medical care to the casualty, rather than wait for the casualty to be brought to the field hospital. In no other conflict, and as far as I am aware in no other Army, is a consultant-led medical team routinely deployed to the casualty scene so that advanced care can be delivered at the casualty site and during evacuation. Combined with huge advances in medical technology and treatment, it means that casualties are now surviving injuries that would certainly have killed them 40 years ago.