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Westminster Hall

Volume 462: debated on Wednesday 27 June 2007

Westminster Hall

Wednesday 27 June 2007

[Mr. Roger Gale in the Chair]

Abducted Israeli Soldiers

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Steve McCabe.]

May I say how pleased I am that we have the opportunity to discuss this important subject? This debate is timely, given that Monday was the one-year anniversary of the abduction in Gaza of Gilad Shalit; 12 July, next month, will be the one-year anniversary of the abduction of Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev.

It is worth briefly explaining the background to both abductions. In the case of Gilad Shalit, members of a collective comprising people from Hamas, the popular resistance committees and the Army of Islam tunnelled their way from Gaza into Israel and engaged in conflict with Israeli soldiers. As a consequence, two Israelis were killed and four were wounded; Shalit was wounded in the shoulder, abducted and dragged through the tunnel back into the Gaza strip.

In the case of Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, members of Hezbollah crossed from southern Lebanon into northern Israel and fought with an Israeli military patrol. As a consequence, three Israelis were killed and one was wounded; Goldwasser and Regev were abducted and taken across the Lebanon border. Shortly after, four more Israelis were killed in an aborted rescue attempt. The full extent of Goldwasser’s and Regev’s injuries is not known, but it is believed that one was in a critical condition and the other was seriously wounded.

That chain of events, particularly the kidnapping of the latter two soldiers, led to the recent 34-day war between Israel and Lebanon. That war had dramatic consequences: 1,200 Lebanese and 160 Israeli people died, countless others were injured and there was billions of pounds’ worth of destruction to homes, roads, infrastructure, factories and the like.

We all accept that the conflict in and around the state of Israel has been going on for decades—indeed, since its very establishment in 1948. I am sure that some would argue that the conflict had been going on for many centuries before then. Not a week goes by without a new story of death or destruction of some kind in the middle east—so much so that we are almost immune to the massive suffering, misery and tragedy that daily affects so many.

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that although it is certainly true that the kidnapping of the two soldiers was the spark that led to the war with Lebanon, the underlying reason for the war was Hezbollah’s build-up of arms, which were taken into Lebanon with the support of Iran and Syria?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her intervention. A number of factors led to the conflict, but it is fair to say that the Israelis revealed in an internal report that they were expecting an attack involving an attempt to abduct soldiers; they were therefore particularly trying to avoid that scenario. However, a number of issues are involved in this complex matter in the middle east.

The suffering and tragedy to which I referred were recently brought home to me and some present in the Chamber today during our recent visit to the state of Israel, when we saw at first hand some of the reasons for the conflict. One of the things that moved me immensely was meeting the parents and relatives of the three abducted soldiers. I will never forget the words of Miki Goldwasser, mother of Ehud: she said that when she eats, she thinks about whether her son is having any food, and if so, what food; and that when she goes to sleep at night, she wonders whether her son has any cover, and if he does and it falls off, whether there is anyone to cover him again.

The situation in the middle east is a volatile mixture, full of high tensions. The issue of the prisoners remains emotive for all concerned—Israeli, Lebanese and Palestinian—and it is at the very heart of the current crisis in the area. I make it absolutely clear: I am not saying for one moment that the release of the prisoners will solve all the problems; far from it. However, I am saying that the current tensions may well be lessened if the prisoners are released. The arguments for release are humanitarian and born of a genuine belief that the release would ease some of the tensions that simmer with deadly effect in the area.

It is also tragic that although there has been evidence that Shalit is alive—most notably, the release of the audio tape earlier this week, on the anniversary of his abduction—there has been no such indication as far as Goldwasser and Regev are concerned. The position is probably best summed up by Karnit Goldwasser, wife of Ehud, who said last November in an article in The Sunday Times:

“I am asking all who are helping with the Lebanese reconstruction to help us get a sign of life, a letter from him, or even better, a visit from an intermediary which would encourage him so much…So far we have had nothing.”

Perhaps, in the context of this debate, it is also worth mentioning the names of six other people, five of whom are Israelis: Zachary Baumel, Tzvi Feldman and Yehuda Katz have been missing since July 1982, Ron Arad has been missing since October 1986 and Guy Hever since August 1997. All five are listed by the Israeli authorities as missing in action. Although over the years there has been some indication that some of the men may be alive, to this day there has been no conclusive evidence confirming their true fate.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who is giving a moving account of the Israeli prisoners who have been held elsewhere in Gaza and Lebanon, and particularly of the pain of their parents.

I should like the hon. Gentleman to respond to this question. He said that the release of prisoners would help reduce tension. Does he also see that releasing rather more of the 10,000 Palestinian prisoners held by Israel—250 releases have been announced, but that is not many against 10,000—would also go some way towards releasing tension? Given that about 20 per cent. of the adult Palestinian population have been detained by Israel since 1997, making progress on Palestinian prisoners as well as on Israeli prisoners would certainly help reduce tension in the area.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making that point. A little later, he will note that I talk about prisoner exchange. However, UN resolution 1701, unanimously passed, calls for the unconditional release of the Israeli prisoners.

Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the main differences is that Palestinian terrorists being held by the state of Israel can all be visited by their families, and that those families know where they are, that they are safe, and that they are being fed? Perhaps some of the terrorist organisations might consider giving the same benefit to Israeli hostages.

My hon. Friend makes a valid point, for which I am grateful. The people concerned are human beings with families, and one would have thought that, no matter how much hatred and bitterness there might be in the conflict, it should be possible to provide basic information to families that their loved ones are alive and safe despite being kept as prisoners. Let me add that I know my hon. Friend to have been a doughty campaigner in the cause, and I give him due credit for that.

I mentioned five Israeli names, but we must not forget a sixth name—that of our own BBC reporter, Alan Johnston, who remains a captive in Gaza. Although we have evidence that he is alive, I feel sure that the whole House would rather have seen pictures of him without the belt full of deadly explosives strapped around his body.

To return to the Israeli soldiers, there has been comment about a possible prisoner exchange between the conflicting sides, as was mentioned by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden). It is fair to say, however, that there has been a more vocal conversation on a possible exchange for Gilad Shalit than for Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev. There is clearly a deal to be made; deals have happened in the past, and it is to be hoped that they can happen again. It seems that the issue is in deciding the precise number of people to be exchanged, as well as the categories of those people.

I know that the British Government have made efforts to secure the release of the Israeli soldiers. Will the Minister enlighten us, however, as to what precisely has been done and to what extent? For example, with which individuals and Governments has contact been made to try to bring pressure on the captors?

I was in Israel last week, and I saw the exact spot where the abduction of the two soldiers took place. My hon. Friend is addressing the important matter of Britain’s role, on which I am sure the Minister will want to respond. Given the not always entirely satisfactory role that we have played in the past—that of special envoy—does my hon. Friend agree that a country such as Turkey, which has excellent relationships with both Israel and the Arab countries, could be deployed in the role of envoy? He and the Minister might like to comment on whether there are efforts to encourage the Turks, with their special credibility in the region, to deal with the tragic human situation that he is describing so vividly.

My hon. Friend makes a point that is very valid in the context of the conflict. I have always believed that, when enmity has existed between two sides for a long period, it is often intermediaries who bring about peace. In the present context, Turkey is certainly a player with whom we ought to be speaking, as are some of the other people with whom we have been speaking for many years. Turkey ought certainly to be given appropriate attention, given that all sides have respect for that country, and given its possible role in achieving change in the region.

Will the Minister also say whether external organisations such as Amnesty International or the International Committee of the Red Cross have been contacted by the British Government? In his summing up, I very much hope that the Minister will say not only that appropriate pressure has been exerted by the British Government, but that our Government will continue to exert that pressure, because the tragedy is ongoing.

Our Prime Minister will today be stepping down, and as it is widely reported that he might well take on the role of middle east peace envoy, it is right that we should wish him well if he should indeed take on that role. Our good wishes go to him.

There are many people in the Chamber who wish to speak, and time is limited. Let me conclude, therefore, by urging the Minister to do all that he can to obtain the release of the hostages and to ease the tension in the middle east.

Order. I intend to call the Front Bench spokesmen from 10.30 am. On a quick assessment of the hon. Members who just rose, six Members wish to speak. I should be grateful if hon. Members on both sides would take cognisance of that and bear in mind the desire of others to speak.

I congratulate the hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Mr. Vara) on securing the debate, which is an important one, because it is vital that the names of the kidnapped and missing soldiers are not forgotten. Attention should be drawn to both humanitarian and political aspects of what has happened.

No one could fail to be both moved and deeply concerned by the kidnapping of the soldiers Eldad Regev, Ehud Goldwasser and Gilad Shalit. In the case of Gilad Shalit, there is some information and knowledge that he is still alive, and there have been some attempts by the Egyptians to mediate in securing his release, but it is particularly tragic that there is little, if any, information about the condition of Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser. I have listened carefully to the comments that the hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire made about his meetings in Israel and his meetings with the families of the missing soldiers. I, too, met some of their families—both here, in the House of Commons, and at a major rally that was held in Albert square in Manchester last year. It is impossible not to be moved by the anguish of what we hear.

It is important for everyone to recognise that behind what has happened is a complex political situation in which the rule of law does not operate. Only at the beginning of this month, there was yet another attempt by Islamic Jihad to kidnap more Israeli soldiers across the border from Gaza. That attempt was foiled, but it is clear that kidnap is being used as a weapon of war despite not being part of normal politics and government—an indication of the breakdown of political society in the Palestinian Authority.

I am not sure that enough attention has been paid to the fact that international norms have been simply ignored in relation to the kidnappings. The Geneva convention has been broken, and access and information have been denied. It is important that international organisations as well as governmental institutions take note of that, and make their protests loudly.

It is impossible, too, to ignore the impact of other players on what occurred. I refer particularly to the roles of Syria and Iran—not just in relation to the kidnappings but in the failure to resolve them, free the soldiers, and release information about them. I fear that, in order to solve the problems, there needs to be a resolution that might well be based not only on negotiated prisoner exchanges but on the co-operation of Syria and Iran, whose proxies are holding the soldiers and refusing to address humanitarian concerns.

During the past week or two, the political situation in Gaza has changed. We might be experiencing a new crisis, but with that new crisis might perhaps come new opportunities. I hope that all efforts will be made by this country, which has indeed been making great efforts to get information about the missing soldiers, and international bodies, to find out what has happened to those soldiers, secure their release and end the anguish of their families, who wonder every minute of every day what has happened to their loved ones.

I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Mr. Vara) on securing the debate. He, I and some others went to Israel about a month ago, and in the course of that visit we had an opportunity to meet the parents and relatives of the three abducted soldiers. It prompted all of us to seek an Adjournment debate, and I am delighted to have an opportunity to participate. He set out the background fully, and I do not wish to repeat it. It is all common ground.

The situation in Israel, on both the Palestinian question and its relations with adjoining Arab states, is immensely difficult. The difficulties are not one-sided, and everybody in the House accepts that anyone looking back over the past 40 years can see that mistakes and wrongs have been committed on all sides. Finding a way to a satisfactory and peaceful solution is a priority for all of us in Europe, and certainly in this country, as well as for many countries in the middle east.

In the course of the conflict there has been much violence. The point has reasonably been made that large numbers of people are held prisoner by the Israelis because of the belief and fear that they have participated in violence. That cannot detract from the evil that comes from hostage taking, which is a completely separate and discrete issue because it is contrary to every humane norm. What is happening cannot be dressed up with legitimacy even by saying that the aim is to take prisoners from the other side. It is a terror device: by removing people and concealing from others their whereabouts, state of health and fate, one country can try to exercise leverage over another. All right-thinking people view that with the utmost disgust.

That is what has happened in the case of the three soldiers. My hon. Friend made the point that, in the case of the two abducted by Hezbollah on the Lebanese border, we do not even know whether they are alive: one or both of them may have succumbed to the injuries that they appear to have sustained at the time of their capture. That makes it doubly reprehensible that there is no information about their whereabouts or fate.

There have been examples close to home, in Northern Ireland, of individuals who have disappeared and whose fate has never been ascertained. In recent years the fate of one or two has been ascertained and their bodies recovered. Denying relatives knowledge of the fate of those they love is one of the most corrosive things that can be done in human relations. How it could contribute to any equitable settlement of a difficult conflict is incomprehensible to all rational people.

The reason for the debate is not to pass a wide judgment on the difficulties of reaching peace in the middle east, the apparent meltdown into anarchy of Gaza or whether the Israelis have handled their relations with the Palestinian Authority sensibly, or vice versa, in the past five years. It is to remind people of the fate of the three young men, to reiterate the demand for information on them, which would go a long way towards curing the pain that their relatives suffer as a result of their abductions, and to reiterate that the abductions were unacceptable behaviour that cannot help to achieve long-term peace.

I hope that the Minister will be able to tell us what the British Government have been doing, although I accept the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for West Suffolk (Mr. Spring) that Britain may well not be best placed to intervene and that other countries in the middle east, such as Turkey, could do so better.

An aspect of the case touched on by the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman) is that to imagine that such abductions and acts of terrorism take place in isolation is wrong. There is clear evidence that other states sponsor and countenance terrorism. After all, the abduction of British naval personnel in Shatt al-Arab was in many ways of the same nature and quality as what happens elsewhere in the middle east, although fortunately with a rapid ending. The unacceptability of that behaviour is just as clear, so the Government’s ability to make the point forcefully to sovereign states may contribute to bringing such activity to an end.

I do not seek to pass judgment on difficult areas of conflict, but I call for a common humanity. At the moment that is singularly lacking from those who abducted these three young men.

I congratulate the hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Mr. Vara) on securing the debate. For once, I find myself in total agreement with what he says. It is a unique occasion. I also congratulate the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve), because I agree with him, as I have on other occasions. I also agree with what my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman) said.

I have the honour of representing the constituency with the largest Jewish population of any in the country, and the matter is of great concern to them. The fat file in front of me contains just some of the correspondence that I have received on the issue from my constituents. Indeed, it was one of the first issues that was raised with me after I was elected. I see from my file that within weeks of the 1997 election I was receiving correspondence on the matter and took it up with the late Derek Fatchett, who was the Minister responsible in the summer of 1997.

As far as I can see, the Government have engaged with the issue from the very beginning. Derek Fatchett told me that he had participated in a link-up with members of the Knesset on 20 May to mark Ron Arad’s 40th birthday and raised the issue on his visit to Damascus on 28 May, within a month of the 1997 election. It is important to recognise that while the debate has focused on the recent hostages, some people have been missing for well over 20 years with no information about their fate. Derek Fatchett wrote to me in February 1998 to say that he had met the families of some of those people when he visited Israel a few weeks earlier.

On the first day after the 2001 election I tabled parliamentary questions on the matter. By then, of course, we were trying to track down information on other hostages. In March 2002 we had a debate on the 500th day that Elchanan Tenenboim had been held by Hezbollah, and we should not forget his name or what happened to him and the others kidnapped at that time.

So it went on. Throughout the years we have had debates and parliamentary questions on the issue. I have raised it with a succession of Ministers: the late Derek Fatchett, as I have mentioned; Brian Wilson, when he was the Minister responsible; my hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr. Bradshaw), and my hon. and learned Friend the Member for North Warwickshire (Mr. O’Brien), and of course I and many others have raised it with the present incumbent. When President Bashar al-Assad visited the UK soon after he took office, it was raised with him by the Government. Unfortunately, that has all been to no avail. As has been said, we have had no information to speak of about any of the people involved, going back well over 20 years. It is important to recognise that some kidnappings go way back, not just to Ron Arad but before. Zachary Baumel, Tzvi Feldman and Yehuda Katz have been missing since 1982, 25 years ago. So I hope that the Minister will be able to give us some comfort that pressure is being put on not just Hezbollah and Hamas, with whom we may have little influence, but on other Governments in the area, particularly Syria and Iran.

Mr. Gale, you will know from your own work on Cyprus how distressing it is for relatives simply not to know the fate of people who are missing. In Cyprus, the situation has gone on for longer and a greater number of people have been involved, but the pain of Israeli families is no less than that of those who suffered in Cyprus. Since I was elected 10 years ago, I have met various relatives and families on many occasions. Their pain does not lessen with the length of time that they have waited for news. In fact, if anything, it gets worse.

What is absolutely cruel about the situation is the lack of information. It may well be that some of those who are missing—some for up to 25 years—are dead, but the relatives should at least be told that that is the case: give them closure. The lack of information is the worst part of all of this—the cruellest thing. Hezbollah knows what has happened to those people, and the Iranians probably know as well, yet they are using the lack of information about what has happened to loved ones as a weapon of terror, not against Israel, although the whole of Israel sympathises with the families, but against individual mothers, fathers and siblings. To focus the problems of the middle east on a small handful of people is utterly cruel, inhumane and wrong. If Hezbollah has a conscience—I very much doubt that it does—it ought to reflect on that fact.

As has been said, Israel has a large number of Palestinians in detention for whatever reason, and we can argue about the rights and wrongs of that, but at least the prisoners’ relatives know what has happened to them. They know that they are safe, and that they are being looked after and fed. The relatives are not subject to a lack of information about what is happening.

There is no doubt that this is hostage taking—there is no question about that. Hostage taking is a feature of modern conflict, but this is hostage taking of the worst kind. Alan Johnston is very much in the news. The BBC—quite rightly, as he is a BBC employee—nearly every day and certainly every week runs stories about the efforts being made by our Government, the BBC and non-governmental organisations to free him. We do not hear every day or every week about the fate of the missing Israeli service personnel. I suspect that our media have quietly forgotten about them, but they have not been forgotten in Israel or in my constituency, and they certainly have not been forgotten by their families.

I hope that the Minister will be able to tell us what efforts we are making at least to get some news of what is happening to these individuals, even if we cannot secure their release, which obviously we would want to do. When I met the Prime Minister last autumn, he was optimistic that we might at least be able to make some progress in respect of Corporal Shalit. Unfortunately, those efforts seem to have run into the sand. Let us hope that now, after what has been happening in Gaza, we will see some progress in his case. I very much hope that intervention by other states such as Egypt will result in progress being made, but something must be done to give closure, comfort and hope to the families.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Mr. Vara) for securing this debate.

I would like to offer my thanks to the Minister, because I know from public and private meetings that he is indeed doing everything that he can to secure the release of the hostages. Following a question that I put to the Prime Minister, I know that he, too, is doing that. Indeed, if the rumours are correct and his new job will be middle east peace envoy, I wish him every success in that venture.

More than one third of the electorate in my constituency are Jewish. In fact, I thought that I had the largest number of Jewish constituents, but that is for another day.

We must have looked at different censuses.

I would like to associate myself with some of the words spoken by my friend, the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman). We must consider the situation from several different angles. The conflict last year did not start because hostages were taken. It started because terrorists were firing rockets into Israel on a daily basis, harming and killing civilians, and any Prime Minister of any country is duty bound to protect his citizens. The hostage taking was coupled with that.

I reiterate that I do not accept any comparison between prisoners in Israeli jails and the hostages. Israel has never released videos like the one that the terrorists released of Alan Johnston with bombs attached to his waist. There is no comparison, and we should not allow any comparison to be made. No sane-minded person wants war, but unfortunately we are dealing with a situation—I have said this quite recently—that involves Hamas, which has shown in recent weeks by staging a coup d’état that it is and always has been a terrorist organisation. Likewise, Hezbollah is a terrorist organisation. It has no regard for human life, whether it be Jewish, Palestinian or any other. In recent weeks, it has killed its own people.

Ehud Goldwasser, Eldad Regev and Gilad Shalit have been held hostage for nearly a year. We heard an audio tape this week on which Gilad Shalit asked for medical attention. The distress to their families and to anyone who knows them is apparent. I, too, visited Israel recently. Although I was on a private visit, I joined colleagues on some parts of their visit. We met Members of the Israeli Parliament from all spheres, including Arab Members. All that I heard was that if there is to be any gesture, sign or route to peace, hostage taking must stop, and the Israeli hostages—not just the three I mentioned but going right back to Ron Arad—must be released, or at the least their families must be told whether they are still alive.

The situation is intolerable, and no family should be put through it. The only thing I can say to the Minister is that I appreciate the efforts that he has made but I ask that they be redoubled, and perhaps involve other countries, as my hon. Friend the Member for West Suffolk (Mr. Spring) said. We must try to secure the release of the hostages for everyone’s sake.

The situation is no different from when our naval personnel were taken hostage by Iran a few weeks ago. Iran and Syria have questions to answer in that regard. If they want to be better thought of by the world, perhaps they should press for the release of the Israeli hostages. I hope and believe that everyone in the House prays for the safe return of the hostages.

I, too, join in paying tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Mr. Vara) for securing this debate. We might have been expected to seek a debate to draw attention to the situation of Alan Johnston. Indeed, my hon. Friend took particular care to mention his abduction on 12 March—more than 100 days ago—by the Army of Islam, and an enormous amount of attention has rightly been focused on his continuing captivity. The video that we were subjected to two days ago was a particularly grotesque example of what other hon. Members have described as the cruelty of such abductions.

There is a double crime in abducting a journalist. First, abducting anyone in this manner and holding them must be wrong, but to do that to the BBC’s Gaza correspondent—a journalist who works for an organisation that is committed to reporting impartially the events in the middle east—challenges the essential importance of the freedom of the press, and severely undermines the Palestinian cause. It is not surprising that journalistic organisations from around the world have united in condemning the abduction and mistreatment of Mr. Johnston.

This debate was called because the abductions of the three Israeli soldiers have not commanded the continuing attention in this country that the fate of Mr. Johnston has. That is partly because the time period has been longer. The three soldiers were abducted nearly a year ago—in fact, in Gilad Shalit’s case, over a year ago. I joined my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Cambridgeshire on a visit to Israel about a month ago and, like him, I met the parents of the abducted soldiers. I was struck by the fact that as time has moved on in this country the attention given to their plight has inevitably faded away. That is why it is so important that hon. Members discuss these issues and why I am particularly grateful to my hon. Friend for securing the debate.

It could be argued that soldiers are in a different position from journalists, who seek to report news impartially in a country, or from other civilians, and that they are legitimate casualties of conflict. I believe that that is entirely wrong and that abducting people in such a manner involves a special kind of cruelty. Throughout the history of conflict in the middle east there has been enormous loss of life and suffering on both sides—no one can deny that—but to remove soldiers or any individual in such a manner, not to inform their parents or relatives about what has happened to them, and to hold the families in a state where they simply do not know whether their sons are alive or dead, involves a special kind of cruelty. Indeed, in a sense, it is a form of torture.

It was immensely moving to meet the parents involved and to be reminded that the parents of two of these young men still do not know whether they are alive or dead. We now have information about the fate of Gilad Shalit and know that he is alive, but we should remind ourselves that this young man is only 20 years old. The anguish of those parents was particularly difficult to confront.

Does the hon. Gentleman recall the case of Yossi Fink? He was the son of British citizens who lived in Israel—his parents still live in Israel—and was abducted across the Lebanese border some years ago. Nothing was heard about him until eventually, sadly, his remains were returned to his parents many years after he had been kidnapped. The grief of his parents is still paramount.

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for reminding me of that. As has been mentioned, we should not forget that many other Israeli soldiers have also been abducted and their fates are still not known.

I particularly disagree with the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) who has now left the Chamber. He intervened on my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Cambridgeshire to suggest that the release of Palestinian prisoners held by the Israeli Government would in some way help to secure some forward momentum in the stalled peace process. I utterly reject what seems to me to be the sentiment behind his intervention, which suggested some kind of moral equivalence between what has happened to these Israeli soldiers and the people who are being held by the Israeli Government. These soldiers are being held contrary to the principles of international law, no access has been granted to them—the Red Cross and other international organisations have not been allowed to see them—and the UN has explicitly condemned the action. Those who suggest that there is some kind of moral equivalence are as wrong-headed as those who, for example, believe that Hamas should be rewarded for its recent seizure of positions in Gaza with immediate recognition by the west. Those are precisely the wrong conclusions to draw from such terrorist acts. In the words of Henry V, we must continue to emphasise that the abduction of soldiers in such a manner is

“expressly against the law of arms”.

We should not resile from that position.

During our visit to Israel—where we met not just Israeli members of Parliament but the chief negotiator for the PLO—I was struck by the extent to which there is a remarkable consensus of support building up among Israeli politicians and opinion formers for a two-state solution, and a desire to find a partner for peace. What is worrying is that the long dispute that we are all witnessing seems to have moved away from just a dispute over territory to a dispute over ideology. We must understand that some of the groups that lie behind these abductions do not have any desire to settle for territory but are pursuing an ideological war. Those groups must be dealt with accordingly.

This week it is fashionable to talk about red lines, but the one fundamental red line that we in the west and people in any part of the world who subscribe to democratic values should draw, is that terrorism will not stand. The manner of the abduction of Alan Johnston and of these three soldiers will not stand. I understand that that attitude may make negotiations difficult and raise all sorts of questions about the extent to which the Government can legitimately get involved in essential negotiations, particularly through third parties. Nevertheless, it is important that we in the House stand united and say that whoever the people concerned are—whether they are soldiers or journalists—it is totally unacceptable to remove them forcibly, deny them access to humanitarian organisations, refuse to answer questions about their welfare, parade them in front of the media in the way that has happened with Alan Johnston, and use them for the purposes of promoting terrorism.

I thank the hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Mr. Vara) for calling this important debate, which is particularly important in the context of recent events in the Gaza strip. I welcome the opportunity to discuss efforts to secure the release of the captured Israeli soldiers and the aftermath of events surrounding those captures. I wish to put it on the record that, as have other hon. Members, I pay tribute to the courage of Alan Johnston, the captured BBC journalist, and that the bravery of our correspondents abroad should never be forgotten by the House. I am sure that the Minister will want to bring us up to speed on efforts to secure his release.

Hon. Members will understand, however, why I want to concentrate on the subject of debate, which is the abduction of the soldiers Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser by Hezbollah, and of Corporal Gilad Shalit by the Popular Resistance Committee, which includes members of Fatah, Islamic Jihad and Hamas. Of course, that is totally unacceptable and in breach of international law. The seizure of those men, of course, is condemned by all parties in this House and by other national Governments and international organisations. We reiterate our call for the immediate and unconditional release of those men and call on all parties to abide by UN Security Council resolution 1701.

I was struck by the comments of hon. and right hon. Members so far that it is impossible for Members of this House to place themselves in that situation and to imagine the mental and physical strain of being held in captivity without any indication from the captors of when one might be released. I am sure that it goes without saying that we hope that the captives are being well treated and respected by their kidnappers, and of course our hearts go out to them and their families as international efforts to secure their release continue.

We must remember, however, that those Israeli soldiers are not the only individuals being held captive as part of continuing hostilities. It has to be said that Israel itself continues to detain a number of elected representatives of the Palestinian people. As democratically elected individuals, whatever we might think of their politics, they have a role in the efforts to find peace. I would therefore support pressure being put on Israel to set in motion negotiations for their release.

I listened carefully to the point that the hon. Gentleman just made about Israelis taking prisoners and putting them in jail. Is he making an equivalent to the abduction of soldiers, such as those being discussed this morning?

No, of course not. I am simply saying that this debate is not best served by pretending that the wrong lies entirely with one side. I think that other Members have accepted already that activities have been undertaken by both sides of this complex conflict that, quite frankly, have done neither of them any credit. In what I hope is a sensible and constructive debate, it would be wrong not to allude to the fact that some people feel equally passionately on the other side of the argument. If I have the opportunity to develop my argument, it will become a little clearer in a moment or two.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there is a very big difference between the taking of hostages, and people being held where their families can visit them, being fed, not being harmed and not being in distress—such as that caused by having suicide bombs attached to their waist and being paraded on television?

Of course I do. The debate is specifically about the three Israeli soldiers, as the Order Paper shows clearly. Although I think that it is right, as I said, to refer to the situation affecting the BBC correspondent Alan Johnston, I am certainly not planning in the short time that I have available to concentrate more on that than on the subject raised by the hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire—that of the Israeli soldiers. However, of course I accept that difference, and I think that I have explained the context in which I made my earlier point.

I want to mention the Egyptians. The Egyptian Government have been working to negotiate the release of Corporal Shalit and in late October of last year the Popular Resistance Committee announced that an agreement for prisoner exchange had been reached, under which Palestinian prisoners held in Israel, including women and children, will be released in stages, and Israeli soldiers handed over to the Egyptians. In fact, in December, Egypt’s President Mubarak declared that a deal was in its final stages. Reports now state that the names of specific prisoners to be swapped are yet to be finalised. I should be grateful if the Minister would inform the Chamber on how those Egyptian-led negotiations are progressing and perhaps on what the UK Government are doing to facilitate those negotiations.

Not surprisingly, there is considerable debate about the current situation in the Gaza strip and the resulting increased levels of tension, which make the ongoing negotiations for prisoner exchange even more difficult than they might have been. I ask also that the Minister gives us his Department’s up-to-date assessment of how the current situation in the Gaza strip affects the chances of Corporal Shalit being released in the near future.

In answer to a parliamentary question from Lord Turnberg in March of this year, Lord Triesman mentioned an unnamed facilitator working with all parties to secure the release of the two Israeli soldiers being held by Hezbollah. That facilitator was mentioned also in the UN Secretary-General’s report on the implementation of Security Council resolution 1701 in March 2007. I should be grateful if the Minister would advise the Chamber on what, if any, progress the facilitator has made and on what the UK Government are doing to help.

The report on Security Council resolution 1701 stated also that Hezbollah were not only stalling the release of prisoners but placing

“prohibitive demands for proof that the two Israeli soldiers were still alive”.

In December 2006, The Independent reported that at least one of the Israeli soldiers had been injured during the cross-border attack on 12 July, but Hezbollah have refused to allow access to the International Committee of the Red Cross or to the UN facilitator. It seems to me that the refusal of that basic humanitarian act by Hezbollah stands in marked contrast to the stance of Israel, which has allowed the Red Cross access to Lebanese citizens captured by the Israeli defence force and authorised that prisoners be allowed to write to their families. As other hon. Members have said, that makes a significant difference to the treatment of the respective captives. I should be grateful if the Minister would tell the Chamber whether any negotiations are taking place to encourage Hezbollah to allow the UN facilitator and the Red Cross access to the imprisoned Israeli soldiers, and whether he can report on any progress in those negotiations.

In addition to calling for the release of the captive soldiers, Security Council resolution 1701 calls for the disarming of militant groups such as Hezbollah. I understand that the stand-off in the refugee camp of Nahr El Bared between the Lebanese Government and the Fatah rebels continues. Although we respect the work of the Lebanese Government and the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon to disarm militias, we of course join international aid agencies in calling for a temporary ceasefire so that civilians and those who are wounded can be evacuated from the camp.

With regard to the disarming of militias, the UN Secretary-General, in the report on resolution 1701, stated that he is still waiting for the Lebanese Government to define a political process by which Hezbollah and other militias should be disarmed. Perhaps the Minister would inform us whether, during recent discussions with the Lebanese Government, that issue was raised, and whether they are close to creating such a political process. Will he also give us his assessment of how the disarming of militias in Lebanon is progressing?

The Minister for Trade, the right hon. Member for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney), in answer to a question on 5 July last year, stated:

“Israel has the right to take steps to secure the release of Corporal Shalit. Any military steps taken should avoid civilian casualties, abide by international law and observe the principle of proportionality.”—[Official Report, 5 July 2006; Vol. 448, c. 1152W.]

However, for many Members on both sides of the House, it is a matter of great regret that, during the Israeli bombing of Lebanon last summer, the Government refused to join other European countries in calling for a ceasefire. In the light of the tragic loss of life and property that ensued, does the Minister still believe that military action was an appropriate step to take last summer? Does he agree that any attempts to free Israeli soldiers now should be made through wholly diplomatic and peaceful means, not through the use of force?

I sincerely hope that all three Israeli soldiers return safely in the near future and that the militant groups that abducted them are disbanded. The Government need to ensure that, through the UN and the EU, we play an active role in encouraging engagement between Israel and Palestine, because unless they continue talking, a peace settlement will be impossible. I look forward to the Minister’s reassurance that the Government will continue to do all that they can to secure the release of those prisoners and to work for a lasting peace in the middle east.

I am grateful to have caught your eye in this important debate, Mr. Gale. I pay great tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Mr. Vara) for securing it and giving us the benefit of the first-hand knowledge that he and a number of my other hon. Friends have acquired from recent visits to Israel. In particular, they were able to meet and have discussions with the families of two of the kidnap victims and they have described poignantly the extreme anguish and hurt that their families are suffering. We urge all those close to Hezbollah and Hamas, which may be holding the three hostages and, indeed, Alan Johnston, to release them as quickly as possible. Many hon. Members have said that what is needed is at least some news of those four victims. It would provide huge reassurance if their families could be told that they are alive and well and being treated well. That would be a great step forward, and I urge all those holding them to do just that.

I am filling in for my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson), who, sadly, cannot be here today, although he normally deals with middle eastern affairs for the Opposition. The situation that we are discussing is particularly complicated, and this debate has been wholly constructive and almost completely unpartisan. The work of the House is often not viewed in that positive spirit.

We have repeatedly called for the release of the four hostages. I welcome the Minister’s statement in a press release of 25 June, remembering Gilad Shalit’s captivity. I join him when he states:

“Today marks one year since Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit was captured by Palestinian militants. Likewise, the fate of Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, captured from Israel by Hizballah on 12 July 2006, remains unknown. Our thoughts are with these men’s families, as they continue to deal with the daily uncertainty over the fate of their loved ones. We also condemn the release of today’s audio tape of Gilad Shalit which can only add to the anguish of his family.

We call for the immediate, unconditional and safe release of all three men. Violence only serves to further increase the tension and frustrate efforts to find lasting peace.”

We would all totally agree with that.

My hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) rightly said that kidnapping is beyond all the norms of international behaviour—all the norms that we would expect of a civilised society and under international law. We ourselves have taken prisoners in war situations, but we always treated them in accordance with the Geneva convention, and I urge all parties holding these people to do the same.

We deeply regret the recent attack on UN peacekeepers in southern Lebanon, which killed six Spanish and Colombian soldiers. The attack underlines the difficulty and danger of the work undertaken by UNIFIL—the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon. We must do everything that we can to ensure that Lebanon remains as stable as possible. We call on all parties to abide by UN Security Council resolution 1701, which, among other things, refers to

“the need to address urgently the causes that have given rise to the current crisis, including by the unconditional release of the abducted Israeli soldiers”.

That refers to Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev. We must give every possible encouragement to the Siniora Government to try to ensure that Lebanon remains as stable as possible.

In relation to all four cases, the Opposition urge the Government—perhaps the Minister is prepared to say something about this today—to keep all channels of communication open to all the parties. Those channels may be official or unofficial. We always did that in Northern Ireland and it produced results. Will the Minister say something about that? My hon. Friend the Member for West Suffolk (Mr. Spring) made the particularly important point that Turkey has a role to play. Indeed, any other countries that may be interlocutors should also be involved in the process.

Hezbollah appears to have increased its activity recently, particularly after the soldiers were kidnapped. We have seen the disturbing rise of Islamic militantism in Lebanon in the form of the Fatah al-Islam group. What efforts has the Minister made, along with colleagues in government and our American allies and EU partners, to secure the release of Israeli soldiers held captive by Hezbollah, and for the full implementation of resolution 1701? In particular, what impact have UK efforts to rebuild Lebanese security forces had on their capability to keep order in that country, enforce resolution 1701 and uphold the authority of the Lebanese Government?

There are disturbing reports that Hezbollah is succeeding in rearming by way of shipments from Iran over Syrian territory. That is in direct contravention of resolution 1701, which both Iran and Syria signed. What is the Government’s latest assessment of Hezbollah’s military capability and what action is being taken to secure Lebanon’s border with Syria? What progress has been made in Government efforts, beginning with the visit by the Prime Minister’s envoy to Syria last year, to persuade the Syrian Government to clamp down on such activity? Will the British Government make further contact at a high level with the Syrian authorities? What representations has the Minister made to our EU partners about the kidnapped soldiers and what action is the EU taking to secure their release?

The Opposition’s view is that, to achieve real results and the release of the kidnap victims, we should open up all channels. I have asked the Minister a complex series of questions in that respect. We should also, as part of our complex relationship with Iran, bring pressure to bear on Iranian financial support for Hamas, which was estimated last year at a staggering $250 million. Indeed, former Hamas Foreign Minister Mahmoud Zahar was quoted telling a German news magazine that he had personally carried $42 million in cash from Iran across the Gaza-Egypt border—thereby increasing the instability in the area.

The Opposition support the Government’s efforts to ensure that the Sharm el Sheikh summit this week involving Israel, Egypt, Jordan and Mahmoud Abbas and leaders from the Palestinian Authority brings about a further settlement and, in particular, the release of the kidnap victims. What action have the Government taken to prevent further divisions between the differing groups in the Palestinian Authority?

The Opposition warmly welcome—if it is to happen—the Prime Minister’s appointment as an envoy to try to bring about further stability in the middle east. That is obviously critical. If the appointment comes about, we wish him well.

This debate has been very constructive. I hope that, in the very, very near future, the kidnap victims will be released. The Opposition call wholeheartedly for all those who have information that could in any way lead to their release to come forward and act now with the authorities to secure their release and stop the ongoing anguish of the families.

I join hon. Members who have thanked the hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Mr. Vara) for the opportunity to discuss this extremely important issue. He described vividly what happened in this troubled region a year ago and what continues to happen now. I also echo the remarks of the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) in reminding us that that is one of the most important functions of these debates. Hon. Members have given eye-witness accounts and related to us accounts of discussions with people who are suffering and witnessing day to day the dreadful problems. The House should regard that as extremely valuable. I have enjoyed listening to hon. Members’ observations and I was struck by how important they are. The hon. Member for Cotswold is right that we as Front Benchers, and indeed the hon. Member for Cheadle (Mark Hunter), often do not get a chance to speak to people in that way, and I would like to have more systematic reports back from the many trips that right hon. and hon. Members make. That is very important.

The hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire described how Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit remains in captivity a year on from his abduction by Palestinian armed factions on 25 June 2006. Similarly, the fate of Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, who were captured by Hezbollah on 12 July 2006, remains unknown. The hon. Gentleman and colleagues met the families of some of those soldiers in Israel, and I extend the Government’s sympathy to them—our thoughts are with them at what must be a particularly difficult time. I also condemn Monday’s release of an audio tape of Gilad Shalit, which can only add to his family’s distress.

We have heard about many of the other grave issues. We know all too well of the litany of appalling incidents that have occurred in the region—Palestinians being held without charge, houses being demolished, rockets being fired at civilians and intimidating overflights. We also heard specifically about the kidnappings and their terrible consequences not only for those who are kidnapped, but for their families, who are denied any knowledge of the welfare of their loved ones. Kidnapping is a vile crime, as Alan Johnston’s family and friends will testify all too readily.

The Government utterly condemn the abduction of the three Israeli soldiers, and I take this opportunity to reiterate our call for their immediate and unconditional release. I fully underline my support for the efforts of those who have been working hard to secure the soldiers’ release, and particularly the UN. Acts such as these kidnappings are counter-productive wherever they occur, and drive a cycle of violence and retribution. This is a particularly difficult time in the middle east, and abductions serve only further to increase the tension and to frustrate efforts to promote peace and stability in the region through dialogue.

I am glad that the hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire raised the case of Alan Johnston, and many hon. Members have asked exactly what is going on. I would very much like to be able to tell everyone about the efforts that are being made, but much of what is being done must remain confidential. I can say, however, that the Palestinian Authority of President Mahmoud Abbas and the Israeli authorities have worked closely with our superb diplomatic representatives in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, our contacts in Ramallah and the Egyptians, who have played an important role in trying to secure Alan Johnston’s release, and I shall try to say a little more about that in a moment or two.

We especially condemn the release of Monday’s video, which can only add to the distress of Alan Johnston’s family and friends. Those holding Alan should release him. I cannot remember which of our colleagues said a moment ago that Alan has been a very fine reporter, and he certainly has. I find his kidnapping particularly perplexing because the Palestinian people cannot have had anybody who reported on events in such a vivid and clear way. Hamas is a repulsive organisation—a very nasty bunch of people—but even it recognises that Alan Johnston’s kidnapping sets the Palestinian people’s cause back considerably.

We understand some of the problems that beset the region, and they are not just ideological or religious; there is also that cloud of criminality. I saw that clearly in Belfast—not so far from home—where terrorist organisations began funding themselves through drugs, smuggling petrol, protection rackets and kidnapping. The members of the clan that is holding Alan Johnston are well known as guns for hire and kidnappers, and they have a nice little sideline in kidnapping. These are terrible people, and this is a terrible crime, and we are working hard to secure the release of Alan Johnston.

Let me now address the substantive part of the debate and answer some of the questions that have been raised about the soldiers who were abducted in Gaza and, separately, in northern Israel. Let me start with those who were abducted by Hezbollah in northern Israel. Securing the release of Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev remains a high priority for the United Kingdom and the international community. Since they were captured last summer, we have called consistently for their unconditional and immediate release and we have strongly supported international efforts aimed at securing it.

As part of the mandate set out in UN Security Council resolution 1701, the UN is leading negotiations to secure the release of Regev and Goldwasser. On 1 December 2006, the then UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, reported that he continued to make the unconditional release of the captured Israeli soldiers and the issue of the Lebanese prisoners detained in Israel a top priority, and I am glad to say that the current UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-Moon, reiterated that on 14 March 2007.

The hon. Member for Cheadle asked some specific questions about the UN facilitator. The facilitator was appointed by Kofi Annan as part of resolution 1701, and his/her identity has been kept secret. I can, however, say that the facilitator has had a range of contacts with Hezbollah since his appointment by Kofi Annan. He has met the Hezbollah leadership and emphasised the need for humanitarian access to the soldiers and for their release. So far, Hezbollah has—publicly at least—rejected his request, demanding instead the release of large numbers of prisoners held in Israeli jails, which goes beyond the framework of UN Security Council resolution 1701. Negotiations continue, and the facilitator continues to urge compassion in Hezbollah’s demands; in other words, he is trying to inject not only some humanitarian considerations and compassion, but some realism. We very much support the facilitator’s work.

The hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) put his finger on something important when he said—I tried to scribble it down, and I hope that I have recalled it properly—that the dispute was no longer about territory, but increasingly about ideology, and we must remember that in the case of the kidnapped soldiers. The hon. Gentleman is right that the activities of Sunni Jihadists, which the hon. Member for Cheadle also mentioned and which include Fatah al-Islam—the group responsible for the fighting at the Nahr El Bared refugee camp near Tripoli in the north of Lebanon—are a worrying development. These people are the self-appointed representatives of a movement inspired by the belief that there should be an Islamic caliphate from Manila to Madrid. It is a movement that considers the kidnapping, torture and murder of infidels and non-Sunnis to be a duty for jihadists if it assists in building that caliphate and destroying the structures and notions of sovereign states and democratic institutions, including the United Nations. It has murdered some of the best that the United Nations had, in Baghdad and since. Added to that mix, as hon. Members have hinted, we might consider the nefarious work of Iran and the Shi’a theocracies, which work ceaselessly to support the violence and terrorism perpetrated by Hezbollah and Hamas. Help is also being given to the Taliban in Afghanistan, although I cannot go into that in this debate, and our soldiers are being murdered too. I understand the hon. Gentleman’s observation. It is important to the discussion about what to do to get the soldiers out.

We continue to work closely with the UN, and have offered it the Government’s continued support as it works towards a successful outcome. What is needed as a first step, as hon. Members have said, is humanitarian access to the captured soldiers. That has been requested repeatedly by the International Committee of the Red Cross, which is a very important player. We second the call of the ICRC to Hezbollah and others to give that access.

Of course, the abductions by Hezbollah last summer precipitated a wider conflict with Israel. I was there during the terrible violence last July in Lebanon and Israel. I was in Palestine and Jordan and witnessed the horrific consequences of those kidnappings. As the hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire showed in his remarks, it is easy for such an event to spark off a calamity. A ceasefire was eventually constructed, but it took a lot of doing. It is very easy—the hon. Member for Cheadle raised the point—to call for a ceasefire; it is a different matter to construct one. I heard calls at the time for a UN peacekeeping force to fight its way into Lebanon. I would like to see nations do that. I have heard questions such as, “What militias have had their weapons taken from them?” Try taking the weapons off Hezbollah in southern Lebanon. It is an alternative Government—a self-appointed group of terrorists who act as if they are the Government of Lebanon. We must understand that Hezbollah has a hybrid relationship with Lebanon. It has Members of Parliament but it also has its own army. If it decides to go to war with Israel it drags Lebanon into that war. There should be in Lebanon, as the United Nations resolution made very clear, one Government and one gun—the Lebanese army, which should be the representative of, and controlled by, the Lebanese Parliament.

I have been watching, week by week—as we all have, I am sure—the majority in the democratically elected Government of Prime Minister Siniora in Lebanon being systematically murdered; its majority is being reduced by murder—and it is not just Members of Parliament who are being murdered by whoever is responsible. It just happens that the people who are being murdered at the moment are all anti-Syrian. I shall not add two and two and make five, but we should ask who is doing the murdering. In the last murder the victim’s son was killed as well, because those responsible knew that if there were a by-election the son would win it. That is how ruthless the opponents of democracy in Lebanon are. That is how ruthless Hezbollah is. Those Hezbollah hit squads are capable not only of kidnapping soldiers but, in sophisticated ways, of murdering even the most important people in Lebanese politics, such as Hariri.

I congratulate the Minister on his firm grasp of the complexities of the situation in Lebanon and the middle east generally. Does he share my concern about the continuing reports on the build-up of arms by Hezbollah in Lebanon since the ceasefire agreement, and the growing concern that, with such a build-up and the intention to start firing on northern Israel again, the seeds of a new conflict have already been sown?

It is an important question. I recently travelled to the Israeli border in Lebanon, an area to which the Lebanese army had not been for a long time, south of the Litani river. I spoke with General Graziano, who is in charge of the UNIFIL forces there. He told me that the forces had not intercepted any significant smuggling of arms across that part of the border from Syria into Lebanon, but that he had no way of knowing what arms had been smuggled across the rest of the Lebanese-Syrian border, especially in the north.

I am sure that many people are watching those borders carefully. Syria has said that if it sees, for example, German peacekeepers moving too close to the border, it will regard it as an act of war. That does not sound to me like the policy of a state that is interested in creating a sustainable peace in the region. General Graziano’s view was that in the interregnum between the creation of a ceasefire and the UNIFIL force’s managing to go down into southern Lebanon, Hezbollah had rearmed itself. Its Iranian and Syrian backers had ensured that it had its 107 mm rockets and everything else that it required, in case it wanted to begin once again to attack Israeli towns. That is a very worrying situation and my hon. Friend is right to raise it.

In the few minutes left of the debate, will the Minister say something about contacts that have been made with Hamas and about the release of Corporal Shalit? In particular, what discussions did the British consul general in Jerusalem have when he met Ismael Haniya, the Hamas Prime Minister? We know that the case of Alan Johnston was raised. Was the case of Corporal Shalit raised? What continuing contact is being made?

I am happy to speak about that. We have been working mostly, as the hon. Gentleman probably knows, with the Egyptians. They continue to mediate between the Israelis and Hamas towards the release of Corporal Shalit. We understand that the stumbling block continues to be the names and overall numbers of Palestinian prisoners that would be released in exchange. A very large number has been given. Recent events in Gaza are certainly one cause for concern in the context, but we continue to support the Egyptians in their efforts.

I think it was the hon. Member for West Suffolk (Mr. Spring) who said that it might be a good idea if Turkey were to become involved. We have been trying wherever possible to persuade the regional powers that they should become more involved. I was very glad, as the hon. Member for Cotswold knows, because we have debated this issue before, to see a renaissance in Saudi international diplomacy; it is very important, and I hope that they will put the kind of energy into getting Corporal Shalit released that they tried to put into the broader middle east peace process last month and the month before. I think that it is a good suggestion that Turkey should be involved.

By way of a precise response, our diplomats have not raised Shalit in face-to-face discussions, but only Alan Johnston. It was a UK consular issue.

Sentencing (Retail Crime)

First, I should like to explode some common myths about shop theft. There is a view that shoplifting is a petty or victimless crime of ordinary people taking a few bits off the shelves on impulse, and that it is not really criminal behaviour and shoplifters are not really criminals, but that is by no means the entire picture. We should all be concerned that shop thefts are increasing: 296,044 were recorded by the police in 2005-06, which was up by more than 14,200 on the previous year. Official figures show that shop theft increased by 1 per cent. between 2000 and 2006, but data collected by the British Retail Consortium indicate an increase of 70 per cent. in that period. That huge discrepancy could be down to under-reporting to the police.

We should also be concerned that there were 10,000 physical assaults on shop workers last year, 7,000 of which were linked to shoplifting. Behind those statistics lie horrifying incidents involving the assault and abuse of shop workers. I recently met two brave women who work in Asda. One of them had been the victim of an armed robbery, in which a gun was held to her head, and the other had been attacked with an axe. Since the attacks, they have felt frightened to go to work every day.

The local paper in my constituency, the Stockport Express, reported in March that there had been a spate of 19 armed robberies of late-night shops and off-licences. In April, there was an awful case in which a woman shop worker suffered horrendous injuries when she was hit in the face with a hammer for four bottles of vermouth and a few packets of cigarettes. Other Stockport cases that have recently been reported to the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers include that of a youth who attacked a shop manager when he was challenged for stealing beer. The deputy manager went to assist the manager, but the youth broke free and produced a hypodermic syringe, saying that he had AIDS, and started chasing staff members, before eventually escaping. In another case, a woman was confronted for stealing magazines and said that she was going to pay for them. When she was told to leave the store and not to return, she became abusive and threatened to come back and stab the sales assistant.

Sixty per cent. of violent incidents occur when staff attempt to detain criminals or to protect property from theft. Many shop workers are faced with that dilemma every day, and there are many cases of traumatised workers leaving their jobs. In order to deal with shoplifting, it is important to understand the link between it and other criminal activities, such as organised crime. Much shop theft is done by people who are desperate for cash to buy drugs or alcohol. A Home Office report entitled “Strengthening powers to tackle anti-social behaviour” said that people who commit retail theft are 85 per cent. likely to be drug users and to live “chaotic” lifestyles.

A recent report by the Centre for Retail Research found that the biggest shoplifters are men. It said that shoplifters are

“older, more organised and are often stealing higher value goods to order which explodes the myth of store theft being a largely opportunistic and ‘harmless’ offence”.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate, and she makes a powerful case. She said that there were 10,000 physical attacks on shop workers last year. Given those attacks, the antisocial behaviour in shops and the fact that some shoplifting is driven significantly by large-scale organised crime, is not it crucial that the full force of the law is brought to bear on the perpetrators of those crimes? Any signal that the seriousness of the offence of shoplifting might be downgraded sends entirely the wrong message. Would not it be good to get some reassurance from the Minister ahead of the national respect for shop workers day on 11 July that has been organised by USDAW, which has done much to campaign for shop workers on this issue?

I thank my right hon. Friend, and I agree entirely with that important point about the message that is being sent about the seriousness of shop crime. I know that he has a long record of campaigning for shop crime to be treated more seriously, both to make shops safer for shop workers and to make communities safer for constituents to shop in.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate. She makes an excellent case, particularly in highlighting the vulnerability of many female shop workers. Is not it incredible that, against that background, the Sentencing Guidelines Council should suggest that even persistent shoplifters should no longer be sent to prison?

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. All sentencing options should be open to the courts when dealing with shoplifters, and there should not be a presumption that offences are trivial before they are dealt with in court.

Shoplifting has also been linked to gun crime and terrorism. A report on Operation Trident, which investigated shootings within the Afro-Caribbean community, said that a generation of young people had moved from shoplifting to gun crime within six years. There have also been many reports of terrorists raising funds through organised shoplifting. Far from being a trivial offence, shoplifting may be a visible sign of a shoplifter’s more extensive criminal activity, or of his or her link to organised crime. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that many shop workers are assaulted, because they often have to challenge people who are not novices in crime.

If sentencing policy is to be effective in preventing retail crime, it is important to recognise that shoplifting is not the victimless, petty crime that it is portrayed as, and that shoplifters are often hardened criminals. It is also important that sentencing policy should take account of the fact that people may start as shoplifters but end up involved in more criminal activities. That is why it is vital that first offences are treated appropriately.

That brings me to fixed penalty notices for disorder. In 2004, the scope of PNDs was extended to include shop theft offences. Many people expressed concern that shop theft was being trivialised and put on the same level as parking offences or litter dropping. PNDs were intended to be used in cases of the theft of goods worth less than £200, and they were not meant to be used for repeat offenders. Victims’ views were also meant to be taken into account when deciding whether to use PNDs instead of prosecuting. More importantly, they were meant for first offenders, although the length of time since any previous offence could be taken into account. The idea was that they would provide a quick penalty for shoplifting and would discourage further offences, but regrettably they seem to have been much misused. Businesses claim that some offenders collect notices like parking tickets.

Police officers are not supposed to give on-the-spot fines to drug users. If a drug offender is not identified and is given a PND, they stand no chance of receiving treatment or coming off drugs. An offender who is given a PND will not be drug-tested on the scene and so probably will not be identified. That is important, because the reason that people are tested on arrest is to identify underlying problems and to stop the spiral of crime.

PNDs have a part to play in the overall system, but I remain concerned about their overall effectiveness and about the consistency of their use. The British Retail Consortium has dozens of examples in which police guidance on PNDs has been flouted, including cases in which multiple PNDs have been issued to persistent offenders, sometimes in the same day, and two cases in which PNDs were issued to offenders wearing electronic tags, one of whom was a previous employee and was on parole. Those are clear breaches of guidance, as PNDs should not be given to repeat offenders.

Other examples of guidance breaches include the issuing of PNDs to aggressive and disorderly individuals and to those using foil bags, indicating that the offence was planned. For those who do not know, a foil bag is lined with layers of aluminium foil, which enables the carrier to shoplift because it blocks out store sensors. PNDs have been issued in cases involving goods worth well in excess of the recommended £100 limit and even in excess of the £200 exceptional circumstances limit. In other cases, PNDs have been issued without the victim’s consent. Victims should not be pressurised into accepting the issuing of a PND simply because it makes life easier for the police. A PND disposal removes the possibility of the criminal court awarding a compensation order in the victim’s favour.

A recent survey of solicitors for BBC Radio 4’s “Law in Action” programme found that some people racked up as many as five fixed penalty notices in a matter of months without getting a criminal record. Parliamentary figures show that in 2004 only 2,072 PNDs were issued for shop theft. In 2005, the number leapt tenfold to 21,997. In the first six months of last year, the number was 16,807; new figures from the House of Commons Library suggest that it will rise to 37,463 for the whole of 2006. That could mean that PNDs have been effective and that more shoplifters are being caught, but it could equally indicate a level of abuse and that PNDs are being handed out like confetti. Even if we accept that PNDs are being issued legitimately to first-time shoplifters, it is staggering that only 41.2 per cent of related fines are paid.

There is no national system for recording PNDs—the figures are collected by individual police forces—so it is not possible to say how many have been given to repeat offenders. Police forces are supposed to record the issuing of PNDs on the police national computer, but there is evidence that that does not always happen.

A report from the Office for Criminal Justice Reform published in February 2006 confirmed that the way in which PNDs are issued is not consistent from area to area. The report refers to the poor quality of notices, which are mainly hand-written, and to problems with recording information on the police national computer. Those things make it easier for an offender to get away with multiple offences, because they could, for example, move between police authorities.

On a national level, the jury is out about the effectiveness of PNDs as a deterrent for would-be first-time shoplifters. The recent announcement that police will be able to defer payment of PNDs for shoplifting for three to six months has been met with consternation because of the message that it sends out. I understand that deferments will take place only when the police feel that a community will benefit from the shoplifter signing, by way of an alternative, an acceptable behaviour contract. I welcome that, because it will enable us to pay some attention to underlying social problems, but it is important that people have confidence that deferments will be effective, which means having confidence that PNDs are being used effectively. Before the measure is introduced, will the Minister undertake a thorough, national evaluation of PNDs? Such a review would include collecting information on the extent to which guidelines are adhered to, including on the recording of offences; the number of people who reoffend having been issued a PND; and what action is taken against the high proportion who do not pay PND fines. The evaluation should also include evidence from stakeholders.

There is anecdotal evidence that criminals move into retail crime because there is less risk and penalties are lower. I should like to see an assessment of whether the perceived weakening of punishments for shop theft is making retail premises more attractive to thieves than domestic properties such as houses and cars.

The Sentencing Advisory Panel is currently drafting advice to the Sentencing Guidelines Council, which it is expected to publish in the autumn. The proposal to remove or cap custodial sentences for shop theft at 16 weeks for even the more persistent offenders has caused anxiety among businesses, especially when combined with the increased use of PNDs. It will be helpful if the Minister confirms that the full range of sanctions under the criminal justice system will remain available, from PNDs to antisocial behaviour orders and drug treatment orders, and custodial sentences of whatever length a court believes to be appropriate.

This year, the national respect for shop workers day, which is organised by USDAW, will be held on Wednesday 11 July. To emphasise the important part that local shops play in the life of the community, the theme of the day will be that safer shops make for safer communities. A shop that is the target of persistent crime and antisocial behaviour is not a safe place for staff or customers.

Communities would benefit if reducing retail crime, including shoplifting, was made a key police performance indicator. Will the Minister consider that? It would encourage local crime and disorder partnerships to use the full range of their resources and available measures to tackle retail crime. I congratulate the Government on introducing a wide range of measures that may be used to tackle retail crime, including shoplifting, but there needs to be better co-ordination at both national and local level. Will the Minister consider writing to crime and disorder partnerships to draw their attention to the available measures?

As a result of my concerns, I would like the Minister to consider instituting a review of the current and future sentencing framework for retail crime. The review should involve all the major stakeholders, including USDAW, the British Retail Consortium, and big employers such as Morrisons and Tesco.

Nobody wants a situation in which the retail environment is increasingly seen by thieves as a place where they can act with impunity. Preventing crime and antisocial behaviour in and around stores and shopping centres is vital for the regeneration and strengthening of our communities, and for the well-being of shop workers and customers.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey) for her positive contribution on the issue of retail crime. I also thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith) and the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone) for taking part in the debate.

First, I declare an interest: I am a member of USDAW, the shop workers’ union, as were my father, mother and grandfather, so I am fully aware of the support for USDAW’s campaign to tackle retail crime.

The Government take retail crime seriously, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for bringing it to our attention today. We recognise that retail crime causes disruption to retailers and involves the threat of physical violence to staff, and that it can have a knock-on effect on communities and, by increasing costs, on consumers. When I worked for the Co-op in Plymouth and south Devon many years ago as a retail manager, losses from shoplifting were of great concern to the organisation, in terms of both the knock-on costs for consumers and the company’s profit margin, so I take my hon. Friend’s points seriously.

Sadly, there has been an increase in shop crime from 275,000 cases in 1995 to a little under 300,000 cases in 2005. I hope that I am able to assure my hon. Friend that the Government take the matter seriously, by pointing out that only 2.6 per cent. of those convicted of theft from a shop were sentenced to imprisonment in 1993, but the figure had increased to 19.5 per cent in 2003.

My hon. Friend made some valid points about the impact of the threat of violence that shop workers bear as a result of shop-related retail crime, and she gave some extreme examples from her constituency. I take the issue of violence against shop workers very seriously, as do the Government. There are a number of measures available in the criminal law with which to deal with violent behaviour, and I hope that they will be used accordingly. Guidelines issued by the Sentencing Guidelines Council ensure that courts take account of the seriousness of offences, and sentences will reflect the fact that violence is an aggravating factor.

The Government are working with the Health and Safety Executive and other key stakeholders to help reduce incidents of workplace violence, primarily through the partnership on work-related violence, a stakeholder group. We want to target those sectors, including retail, in which there is the greatest risk of violence to staff. As a constituency Member of Parliament, I recently visited my local Co-op in Flint and spoke with USDAW members at a local level, and I support the USDAW campaign. Violence against shop workers is totally unacceptable, and I give a commitment from the Government that we fully support USDAW’s “Freedom from Fear” campaign, through which the union is collaborating with employers, local authorities and the police to help promote the health, safety and well-being of shop workers. Sadly, many retail business do not report crime to the police. I hope that we can encourage people to report that crime to the police when they discover it.

According to the Sentencing Advisory Panel, research has shown that the average sentence has increased during that period from 11 months to just under 13 months. More people are in prison for longer periods now than 10 years ago, but there are still more offences, and we must address that problem.

We must consider whether prison is always the most appropriate venue for someone who has been convicted for certain crimes. That involves fine judgment. I share the message from my hon. Friend and my right hon. Friend that it is unacceptable for the courts not to have the full sentencing options for organised crime, persistent offenders and violence-based crime, but for some people a community-based sentence with action on some of the issues that my hon. Friend mentioned, such as drug and alcohol abuse, may be appropriate to help them not to reoffend. The Government are trying to ensure that we take action to prevent reoffending by people who are currently undertaking activity that is distasteful to all of us.

In community terms, that means that sentencing can involve individuals being subject to intensive supervision, surveillance, unpaid work, curfews, drug treatment and alcohol referral orders, which might help to prevent reoffending. Many women are involved in shop crime, and prison may not be the most appropriate place for them. I take my hon. Friend’s point that sentencing is key.

We are considering the question of custodial sentencing. On 24 August last year, the Sentencing Advisory Panel issued a consultation paper on sentencing for theft. The consultation closed towards the end of last year, and is being examined by colleagues. Recommendations will go to the Sentencing Guidelines Council and will ultimately come to Ministers. I take very seriously my hon. Friend’s strength of feeling on behalf of her constituents and her union that we must maintain a range of sentences appropriate for the crime.

My hon. Friend also referred to penalty notices for disorder. They were introduced under the Criminal Justice and Police Act 2001 to target low-level offenders, not to avoid the issues of high-level sentencing. PNDs were designed for a speedy response to minor incidents, if we can define them as such, of shop theft. Serious and violent offenders will not and should not be issued with PNDs, and my hon. Friend is particularly concerned that we look at alternative solutions.

Since November 2004, the police have been able to issue PNDs for an offence of retail theft that is normally under £100. Since the start of the scheme in 2004, we have issued 400,000 penalty notices, and 61,000 were for shop-related theft. There are problems with that—I must be honest with the Chamber—because there is a difficulty about the payment level of some fines, and the lack of continuity if individuals commit crimes, for example, in Greater Manchester and then in Cheshire.

I am aware of the concerns raised by the British Retail Consortium about the inappropriate use by some forces of PNDs for repeated and prolific shoplifting and those with drug and alcohol problems. We must review those issues positively, and we are already taking steps to examine the effectiveness of the PND scheme, and to consider an action plan to evaluate it. I hope that my hon. Friend will be party to discussions about that.

We are also looking at how we record offences. All penalty notices for recordable crimes are logged on the police national computer and while there is no central record of criminal convictions, the information is used as intelligence by local police forces to ensure that they operate positively I agree that a 24-hour national facility for the police to check for previous PND issue notices is necessary. That is why the Ministry of Justice and my colleagues in the Home Office are considering introducing a national PND database from 2009 to allow forces to track individuals, and to determine whether PNDs are the most appropriate penalty or whether there should be referral for further action in due course. PND payment rates and fine enforcement are a difficult issue and we still have some difficulties in enforcing those fines, but I hope that we can look at that.

I hope that my hon. Friend agrees that our approach is not making retail premises more attractive for thieves. We have jailed more thieves, and we have issued penalty notices to many people who would not have had them previously. However, as I said, recorded shop crime has, sadly, increased. We must look not only at existing options for custody and community sentences but at new disposals to deal with low-value shop theft, which formerly went unpunished. Since 2004, PNDs have been available, but we must look particularly at individuals who have a low level of reoffending and how to deal with them with other out-of-court disposal options.

We have introduced conditional cautioning, which is available to the police and the Crown Prosecution Service. A simple caution has been used for a long time, allowing the police to deal quickly and simply with people who have admitted to a less serious offence. It records individuals, and again the purpose is to try to reduce reoffending in total. Under the Criminal Justice Act 2003, the police and the Crown Prosecution Service can offer adults aged 18 and over conditional cautions with attached conditions covering drug and alcohol treatment. I hope that that will prevent reoffending in the longer term.

Retail crime is important, and my hon. Friend made a number of valid suggestions. She mentioned the police key indicator, which is a matter for my hon. Friends in the Home Office, and I will draw this debate to the attention of my colleagues there who deal with the police. There is no appetite in the Government for expanding the key performance indicators, but I will draw the matter to my hon. Friends’ attention.

My hon. Friend asked whether we would agree to examine the calls from USDAW, the British Retail Consortium and major employers such as Morrisons for a review of sentencing for retail crime. They have been active in pressing the Government, Home Office Ministers and now the Ministry of Justice to look at the police response to shop theft as well as sentencing options. We are trying through the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Mr. Coaker), to ensure that we examine those issues seriously. We are considering an effective review of the PND scheme, and there will be meeting on 24 July involving my Department and the Home Office to consider these issues.

My hon. Friend asked whether we could contact crime and disorder reduction partnerships. I hope that we can do so as part of the business crime strategy, and widen understanding of available penalties and what the Government can do to help with crime reduction, as well as giving greater prominence to the need for local crime and disorder reduction partnerships to tackle business crime. I will certainly consider, with Home Office support, highlighting the importance of business crime in public service agreements. My hon. Friend stated clearly and coherently that we must consider that as a key issue for the future.

We will look into the advent of local area agreements, which I hope will mean that, more than ever before, funding decisions will be made at local level, and that the crime and disorder partnerships can consider how to support positive developments in working with shopkeepers, businesses and the police to reduce the level of crime by having high-visible-impact, targeted actions in the community at large.

I shall be happy to meet USDAW, if my hon. Friend wants to investigate that possibility, to discuss the wider issues of sentencing for retail crime. We will shortly face the outcome of the Sentencing Advisory Council’s consultation and the guidelines and comments following that.

From my perspective, my hon. Friend’s points have been extremely valid. Retail crime affects us all, and it is often a hidden crime. It puts up costs for consumers and creates difficulties for staff who work in stores. It attacks the profits of British businesses, and the Government should not tolerate that. As the Minister for sentencing, I must consider how we can most effectively prevent that crime. That means a menu of options, from imprisonment through to community orders, according to the severity of the crime.

I thank my hon. Friend and my right hon. Friend for bringing these matters to the Chamber today, and I hope that we can continue this debate positively outside.

Sitting suspended until half-past Two o’clock.

East London Line Extension

I shall be bold and leave my phone off during this debate. I do not know whether everyone else will follow my example, but we live in stirring times that may distract a few people from this very important debate. I am glad to see in the Chamber hon. Friends and colleagues who are giving their minds over to the issue.

I am glad of this chance to put the case for the East London line to the Minister at a time when she and her colleagues at the Department for Transport are having talks with Transport for London and with the Treasury, which is preparing its comprehensive spending review for the autumn. She knows that phase 1 of the East London line is going ahead, and that phase 2 is dependent on further funding from the Treasury in that spending review. She may remember that I last raised the issue with the Secretary of State at Transport questions only last week, and he promised to pass my point on to the Treasury. I need hardly tell the Minister present that I shall make the same request of her. I should not want to leave Treasury Ministers in any doubt about the importance of the project to Clapham Junction, south London as a whole and the entire London region.

Few infrastructure projects can claim that their price tag has gone down since they were first discussed, but the East London line phase 2 can, because its cost was first put at £250 million. The most technically difficult and expensive part of phase 2 is known as the Dalston curve. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier) will explain what it is.

My hon. Friend is an even greater expert on it.

The curve will be accomplished alongside phase 1, although it is technically a part of phase 2, so the additional cost of phase 2 is now only £100 million, which includes an allowance for contingencies and for rolling stock. The pure infrastructure cost is now only £70 million, and the scheme has become so cheap that it may fall below the Treasury’s radar. Treasury Ministers may not even have heard of it, which is why I feel that it is necessary to make absolutely sure in the Chamber today that the Minister and her colleagues at the Department for Transport are fully aware of the project, its importance to London and the importance of ensuring that the comprehensive spending review provides sufficient capital for TfL to proceed with the scheme’s second phase.

I am sure that the Minister will remind us that TfL now has responsibility for its own priorities, and I fully support the devolution of that power to TfL, which has done a million times better job of taking the project forward and looking after London’s railways than the late and unlamented Strategic Rail Authority. TfL has many competing priorities, from cooling overheated tube tunnels to the Thames Gateway bridge, but the Mayor of London has assured me that he is fully committed to the East London line extension project, and that he regards it as one project in which phase 1 should be followed seamlessly by phase 2.

TfL has also assured me that it is fully committed to phase 2, and that it has been able to advance the project completion date, which was due to run from the end of phase 1 in June 2010, taking three years to complete by June 2013. The last time we discussed the project, I pointed out that the date meant that the project would end 10 months after the completion of the London Olympics, which would have been a missed opportunity to say the least. However, now TfL is talking about a completion date—if the finances are available—of December 2011, which is nine months before the Olympics. That would make a lot of sense for the Olympics, for people from south London travelling to the Olympics, and perhaps for special trains running from the Olympics tennis tournament at Wimbledon to the main Olympics at Stratford. Who knows?

I pay tribute to TfL’s Ian Brown and Peter Field, and its commissioner, Peter Hendy, for their commitment to the scheme, and the energetic and imaginative way in which they have pressed ahead with it. They have been able to advance the project by nine months, which demonstrates their commitment to it. However, they can complete phase 2 only if they receive sufficient capital grant from the Treasury. Phase 2 has always been dependent on the comprehensive spending review, because it runs beyond the time frame of the original spending review. That is why we are making the case today.

I am sure my hon. Friend agrees that because Transport for London is a relatively new body with a very good double A credit rating, it is a very good and sure investment bet for the Treasury. TfL counts the paperclips, but seriously, as a public body, it is a model of how to manage finances. Does he not agree that the Treasury ought to consider funding TfL for the extension?

I fully agree with my hon. Friend, and I shall make a few comments about the scheme’s value for money later.

First, some people might build their case on the fact that we made a promise in our 2005 manifesto to

“support…the extension of the East London line.”

It is important that we carry out that promise, but I accept that we must make the case at every level—in value for money, transport, regeneration and social terms. There are strong arguments on each ground, and I shall allude to them briefly.

When the London underground was first built, it left out many poorer parts of London. It stretched far out into the suburbs of Hertfordshire, but it did not get as far as Hackney, and it hardly made it across the river into south London. On top of that, the middle classes have tended to migrate along underground lines, which reinforces that fact. Lord Rogers once said that if one wanted to know where the middle classes live in London, one should look at an underground map. That is not completely true, and we can think of exceptions, but it is true that many parts of London were left off the tube map when the underground was first built, and that they have suffered ever since. They include most of south London, such as Battersea, Clapham Junction, Southwark, Peckham and Lewisham, and parts of north London, such as Hackney and Finsbury Park.

The East London Line Group, a consortium of local authorities that support the scheme, is launching a campaign on Monday called “Connect South London”. The group points out that most of south London is poorly served by the underground, and that it suffers badly as a result. It suffers economically because all the railways go in a purely radial direction to London termini, which is okay for getting to and from work but useless for getting around town. People find it much more difficult to get to shops, restaurants and entertainment centres in south London than in north London.

The campaign launch will be held at Battersea arts centre, which is one of the best arts centres in London and a regular pick of the week in Time Out.

My hon. Friend from north London agrees with me.

The arts centre suffers because Battersea does not appear anywhere on the tube map. Tourists, and indeed many north Londoners, simply cannot work out where it is, even though it is near a railway station.

The network will be launched in November. In December, the current East London underground line will be closed while works for phase 1 of the extension are carried out. When that is complete, it will form part of the London overground network.

Phase 2 is our particular concern today. It is an extension described by the Mayor as the regeneration express, because it will link all the deprivation hot spots of south London—including Deptford, Peckham, Camberwell, Brixton, Clapham North and, of course, north Battersea—and put them all within easy reach of the docklands. Almost 168,000 people live within 15 minutes’ walk of those stations, one in six of whom live in the most deprived parts of London.

When both extensions are complete, the London overground will have 60 stations covering 20 boroughs and connecting 80 per cent. of the most deprived parts of London. The extension will bring rapid transport to both the docklands and the City, as 14 per cent. of City jobs are located within a mile of the planned Shoreditch High Street station.

That is the social and regeneration case. I turn to the transport case, which is particularly important when discussing phase 2. Only when phase 2 is completed and the whole line is built will London have an orbital route—an outer circle that transport engineers have been discussing for the past 30-odd years. The orbital network will make it possible for the first time to travel across and around London without going through the centre. It will help not only Londoners but commuters and through-London travellers who want to avoid the centre. For instance, they will be able to get off a Southampton train at Clapham Junction, go around the orbital and catch a Hastings train from Peckham, catch a Glasgow train at Watford or go to Finsbury Park to catch a train on the east coast main line, if my geography is right. They will be able to do all that without needing to go through the centre, alight in a congested terminus, get on the congested Circle line and fight their way through the crowds.

Another important point is that the completion of phase 2 and the East London line will have a very good effect on the rest of the transport system. It is projected that 6 million people will shift from buses, cars, the tube and other rail services on to the line, and another 2 million new trips will be made that were not possible or feasible before. Because it will take pressure off Victoria and London Bridge by re-routing lines around them, if it is delivered before Thameslink works at London Bridge commence, it could significantly reduce the disruption to rail services during the construction, making it particularly attractive to TfL.

ELLX2—I have not referred to it that way before, but it is easier than saying “the East London line extension, phase 2” every time—will carry 8.7 million passengers, and the East London line as a whole will carry 48 million. It will lead to 400,000 fewer car journeys annually and 470 fewer tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions, as well as cutting journey times for millions of Londoners.

I shall come to the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch about value for money. We must remember that it is costing £500 million just to renovate one tube station, Victoria, to take more passengers. How much better value for money would it be to let people get off the train before Victoria and go much more directly to where they want to go, at a fraction of the cost? Much more could be achieved within relatively low cost margins in transport project terms. All that is required for ELLX2 is a small amount of new track between Surrey Quays and the proposed Surrey Canal Road station, some improvement to existing railway lines and an increase in train frequency. ELLX2 is a quick win with huge dividends for London transport. For those who want the technical argument, the benefit to cost ratio is 1.7:1.

As though that were not enough, an important population argument can be made. London’s population is predicted to increase by 800,000 by 2016. That will be the highest growth rate that London has experienced since the Victorian era, and I need hardly say that the Victorians knew what to do about increasing population. They built the underground system, the trains and railway termini and our sewer system; they built infrastructure at a fantastic rate. If we are now to experience the same level of population growth, it stands to reason that we should be carrying out major infrastructure projects, and ELLX2 is the cheapest, the quickest and the best.

The East London Line Group calculates that the population in the four south London boroughs through which ELLX2 will pass can be expected to grow by some 116,000 between now and 2016. That is more than the entire population of Cambridge, or indeed of Lincoln, I say to my hon. Friend the Minister, in just four boroughs. It is important to accommodate that growth—20,000 more people in Wandsworth, 25,000 in Lewisham, 30,000 in Lambeth and 40,000 in Southwark.

I look forward to hearing from my hon. Friends representing north London constituencies. I am sorry that my immediate neighbours cannot be here. Hon. Members will understand. The south London branch of ELLX2 will run through the constituencies of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Tessa Jowell), both of whom are unable to speak as members of the Cabinet—

They are at the moment. They are probably sitting behind their telephones. They are precluded from joining debates such as this, but I know that they have strong views on the issue. The hon. Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond) is here as well, so we have another south Londoner to join the debate, but I am sure that colleagues will understand why they are not all here. It does not understate the scheme’s importance.

I shall start with Clapham Junction. It is the busiest railway station in the country—indeed, probably in Europe—and it is an anomaly bordering on injustice that it has never been put on the tube line. We have waited 100 years for Clapham Junction to be put on the tube line; people have been campaigning to connect it for at least that long.

Does my hon. Friend agree that another good reason to put Clapham Junction on the tube line is that, thanks to Transport for London and the Mayor, children can travel free on the tube but must pay at least £1 to travel just one station from Clapham Junction?

My hon. Friend hits the point exactly. Since the London Underground has been part of TfL, it has been part of a London system that not only includes cheap and free fares for young people but has been reclaimed for Londoners. The railway system is still struggling to come to terms with its role as a means of transport for Londoners around London. I applaud the Department for Transport for devolving more power to TfL, and I regard the launch of the London overground as a big step forward in making London’s railways work for Londoners.

There are 1,300 people in the Clapham Junction area who work at Canary Wharf. It is one of the biggest local employers, even though it is on the other side of London. A huge regeneration area in north Battersea will benefit from a Clapham Junction-Docklands link.

As a railway station, Clapham Junction is already bursting at the seams, and passenger growth at the station is expected to be 30 per cent. higher in the next 10 years. The new route will offer an opportunity to serve the huge population of 12,000 in north Battersea who are remote from stations because of the 1.8 mile gap between Clapham Junction and the next station. I shall certainly work—with Wandsworth council, I hope—to make a business case for a station between those two. The Mayor has already promised to prepare a business case for a station at Brixton, where there is a gap of 1.9 miles between stations. The populations of Battersea and Brixton live in precisely the kind of areas that would benefit from a regeneration express; given the role of the extension in promoting regeneration, it is difficult to see how they could be left out and not get stations.

I shall say a word about Denmark Hill and Queen’s Road Peckham stations, which are in the constituencies of my right hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich and West Norwood and my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham, who are unable to take part in this debate. They have an equally strong case for a link between their very deprived communities, docklands and the City. Their constituencies have high proportions of ethnic minorities and are among the most deprived communities in south London.

The hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) has said that the East London line has the greatest potential for regeneration at the least possible cost, and he is right. Some 125,000 additional jobs would be within 16 minutes’ travelling time of Peckham, for instance. The same applies to Surrey Canal Road, a new station in Deptford—right next to Millwall football ground, and that will no doubt have advantages. The station will be in a regeneration area, for which tens of thousands of new homes and jobs are planned.

In conclusion, the Clapham Junction link—or, as we refer to it in my part of the world, ELLX2—is vital for the whole of south London. It is a quick-win transport project that delivers economic growth, accommodates population growth and adds much-needed access to Canary Wharf and the huge number of jobs being developed in east London. The East London Line Group, a consortium of London boroughs led by Archie Galloway of the City of London, has been campaigning for the East London line and continues to campaign for ELLX2. It has made what I consider a reasonable request: that the Government should end the inevitable uncertainty of the past few years and give the second phase of the East London line project the approval that it needs as a part of the comprehensive spending review.

It gives me great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Gale. I have to take issue with one point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Martin Linton); he undermines his case by suggesting that anyone might want to travel on the East London line to see Millwall play—people might think that that is an argument for not having it. My constituents are happy to see Arsenal and West Ham.

Did the hon. Member for Battersea (Martin Linton) not make an excellent case? A lot of people probably try to get away from the area when Millwall are playing.

That is a fair point. Those people are welcome at Arsenal or West Ham—or, indeed, in Hackney. I shall canter through some of the reasons why people may wish to travel to my constituency of Hackney, South and Shoreditch, on the East London line. However, it is worth remembering that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea has said, Hackney has long suffered as the inner London borough north of the river without tube connections. I should say that although one of our postcodes is N1, in Hackney we consider ourselves to be emphatically in the east end of London.

We have not had a tube station. If we look at a map of London and mark the tube stations, there will be a blank spot in the shape of the borough of Hackney. I think that we can claim the one staircase at Old Street station, in Shoreditch in the south of my constituency; the rest belongs to the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn).

There may be two staircases at Manor House, which is in the constituency of Tottenham.

We in Hackney have not had a tube. We have battled a long time for the East London line; we have taken on the great and the good, including the Prince of Wales, who was keen for Bishopsgate goods yard to be listed. I am a veteran; I have the scars of those campaigns on my back. One of my constituents told me, “Ever since I have been in Hackney, the East London line has been about four years away.” Well, for that constituent and the rest of us, it is now less than four years away—in June 2010, we will have the East London line in Hackney. It is almost unbelievable, and a fantastic achievement.

Of course, the line will be part of the new London overground system, thanks partly to our colleagues at the Department for Transport, who gave the powers to the Mayor; it will be run by Transport for London so that it is genuinely part of London’s transport network. In London, we have long suffered from the difficulties of having disjointed rail services that are not part of the system. We still have battles over the use of the Oyster card; that affects many of my constituents, who travel on overland railway lines, including the North London line. It is important that that comprehensive overview and comprehensive running by one organisation should continue.

I have said for a long time and still believe that the biggest single triumph since the formation of the London government—the Greater London authority, of which I was a member from 2000 to 2004—is the existence of Transport for London. We have seen the results of giving power, through the Mayor and Transport for London, to Londoners so that we can determine our own transport future. I shall mention those results; I am sure that the Minister is well aware of them.

Phase 1 of the East London line brings us a new station at Dalston Junction, close to the North London line station of Dalston Kingsland, and links that to Haggerston, Hoxton and Shoreditch, slicing through the western part of my constituency. That is an important link to south of the river. However, it only goes so far; we also look forward to seeing the second phase of the extension so that my constituents can travel backwards and forwards and avail themselves of the facilities and jobs in other parts of London—just as, hopefully, people will travel to Hackney as well. We also need to recognise the Treasury’s role. We are always asking it for things, but it is worth thanking it for its confidence in Transport for London.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea said, that bit of phase 1 is not the only one that we are going to see. By February 2011, there will be a link from Dalston in my constituency to Highbury and Islington, which is on the cusp of the constituencies of my hon. Friends the Members for Islington, North and for Islington, South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry). For my constituents, that will be a vital link to the Victoria line, which they currently access mainly by the North London line, which runs west to east across my constituency.

Tribute has been paid to a number of the people who have so far delivered successfully on phase 1 of the East London line extensions. In the past, I chaired a transport working group to improve the facilities at Finsbury Park interchange. I have seen and battled first hand with the many difficulties of delivering decent transport projects. I say to my hon. Friend the Minister that that was a model of some of the difficulties that we face, although in the end there was a good result, as my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North, who represents the area, knows.

We have seen great discipline in the East London line and the East London Line Group, which is led by Archie Galloway of the City of London. All of us involved never asked for more than we felt was the minimum needed to get the line on track. Although many of us would like all-singing, all-dancing stations and other extensions around the tracks and the immediate stations, we have been cautious and united in asking only for what we actually need.

We can sort out the other things in other ways; the Department for Transport has put in money for a concrete platform that is being built at Dalston station, and that will help fund other things. However, we have not asked for many extra things such as extensions to platforms, although in some places we need them. We have been very disciplined.

I pay particular tribute to Ian Brown, who has taken up that baton from the East London Line Group. He is an officer of Transport for London and has shown that transport projects in London can be delivered on time and on budget. My hon. Friends, others and I have battled for many years, as did people before us, to get the extensions. It is thanks to Ian—his determination and “can do” approach—that the project was delivered. The political framework was there, through the Mayor and the Government, but he should be applauded in this place for his work.

The East London line—the extension that we know is coming and the one that we hope is coming—will do a great deal for my constituency. The Olympics will take place partly in Hackney, South and Shoreditch and that gives us an opportunity to boost tourism and visitors. My hon. Friend the Member for Battersea mentioned Battersea arts centre, that small venue south of the river—

Will my hon. Friend not show the same generosity of spirit as her neighbour, our hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn), by conceding that Battersea arts centre is one of London’s premier arts centres?

I am sure that my hon. Friend will forgive me when I say that I believe Hackney to be the centre of the universe. It is, of course, the home of the Hackney Empire, one of the great Frank Matcham theatres, which was recently renovated and which provides one of the best and most diverse programmes among London theatres. It attracts diverse audiences that include many people from the local area who—often for cost reasons—cannot access a west end theatre.

It is home also to Ocean, which is currently darkened, but which we hope will reopen as a major London music venue. I remember talking to Hackney’s cabinet member for regeneration, a certain councillor Guy Nicholson, who was in Tottenham Court road one day and who heard a young couple who were keen to go and experience the facilities at Ocean, which were then open. They asked the man at the tube station how to get to Hackney, and he said, “Well, you hop on here, you get to Bethnal Green, and then I think you get a bus, but I can’t tell you which one.” At that point, the couple looked at each other and decided that it was too much hassle and that they would not bother.

Does my hon. Friend not look forward, like me, to the day when we will be able to go to the Hackney Empire, get on a London overground at Hackney, Hoxton or—what is the other one called?

Indeed. “In ‘ackney, ‘aggerston and ‘oxton, underground ‘ardly ‘appens.” As I was saying, people would be able to get on an overground train and go right round to Clapham Junction and see something at Battersea arts centre.

My hon. Friend is clearly determined that he and I launch a joint tourism battle for visitors to the London Olympics. My point, however—I think that he would say the same of his constituency—is that whether we like it or not the tube map is the way in which many people find their way around London, because of its simple approach. I happen to be chair of the newly formed all-party parliamentary group on urban walking, so I am aware that there are 40 pairs of stations in London between which it is quicker to walk than to travel by public transport. Nevertheless, first-time visitors to London and Londoners outside their own area do not always necessarily know how to get to places. I look forward to the time when people know that they will not wait longer to hop on a train than would be the case with a tube. The trains will be timetabled, but the waiting times will be akin to tube waiting times.

As well as the venues that I have mentioned, people can visit Sutton house, which just last weekend celebrated its 500th anniversary. It is a National Trust property and a real jewel in Hackney’s crown.

I shall not make a bid to put the Charles Cryer theatre in Carshalton on the map. Does the hon. Lady agree that one of the big challenges for Transport for London in relation to the East London line is to make people aware of it? People are focused very much on the underground map, so TFL will have to work hard to raise people’s awareness that the service is available.

I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman. Along with the mayor of Hackney and others, I launched a campaign to get Hackney on the map, and we have tried to ensure that the East London line will be on the maps that are on the tube and in other places. Currently, the North London line is marked in faint background on the larger maps, but we have pressed for it to be a link that is shown on every tube map, so that when people buy or pick up a map at a tube station every single version shows the line.

It is important to recognise the importance of including those lines. I ran a small competition, and young Frankie from my constituency drew me a picture of how he thought the East London line should look. That was very gratifying, but we need to make sure that it is not just a child’s picture but something real and meaningful to people, so that they can tap into it. The London overground branding is a step in that direction.

When I first stood for election to the position of MP, and also when I was in previous roles, I campaigned on the platform of creating London’s outer circle line, of which the East London line is a part. The branding will help to deliver that.

People might not be aware that Hackney has a plethora of art galleries and that we are the home of creative industries and of artists. We believe that we have more artists than any other local authority area in Europe. That is difficult for anyone else to challenge, so we continue to say it. We certainly have very many, and I believe that when the mayor of Hackney was asked whether he would consider a council tax or rates rebate for artists, such as they have in Ireland, he was not very happy at the idea of losing quite so many council tax payers, so a rebate will not be a runner in Hackney.

We have wonderful parks. My constituency is very similar in size to that of my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North, which is geographically the smallest in the country but which feels bigger because of its parks. There is a new lido in London Fields, which is a full-length outdoor swimming pool that has recently opened thanks to the mayor of Hackney’s input. It is a real destination—estate agents are now including it in their particulars. London Fields station is on a different line, but it has increased its passenger numbers since the opening of the lido. I hope that, when the East London line opens, people will make the short hop to the lido from the stations on that line as well.

There are Broadway market and Ridley road market, which are very different in nature but which are both places that people want to visit. We have our destination shops too. There is a Burberry outlet store, which means that Hackney councillors are remarkably renowned for having very smart coats at civic events, and there is Primark. I kid you not, Mr. Gale, but when I am on a bus in Hackney with people who look lost, they are usually looking for one of those two places, if not the Hackney Empire. We hope that all those many and varied attractions are facilities that people will be able to travel to on the East London line.

Neither should the interrelated benefits of the Olympics and the East London line be underestimated. Hackney will gain a new media centre from the Olympics, which we hope will be a major venue for creative businesses and media after the Olympics. Although I am sure that most hon. Members would love to have every national journalist live in their constituency and hop to the neighbouring offices, I would be happy if many of them were content to live in Battersea and travel the short distance to Hackney on the East London line.

My hon. Friend the Member for Battersea referred to the Dalston curve, the exact ownership of which my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) and I have disputed—as an argument among friends, that is. The curve is important because we needed to get a link to Highbury and Islington. There is also an important issue on the two Dalston stations that will be created, and some creative thinking is happening in the excellent TfL team. That is directed to linking up Dalston Kingsland, which is slightly to the north and west of Dalston Junction, to the new Dalston station, which is on the south-eastern corner of the junction.

So far, the £1.4 million that has been invested in London overground is remarkably good value for money. The benefits that I have listed are merely those that apply to my constituency, and it is important to highlight the overall benefits that will flow from the scheme. We need the southern link, to complete that London outer circle line for which we have been pushing for a long time. At the moment, we can go so far and then we sort of stop and have to hop on a bus or an indifferent train station. Putting everything together will give a coherence that London has long needed and that makes sense. It will make London a place that really is for everyone to visit, rather than a place where people on the outer lines stay in their own borough.

As has been demonstrated today, MPs might be territorial. Constituents, however, are not; they need access to jobs and facilities, and the scheme will assist in that. If the second phase comes about, there will be 16 trains an hour between Dalston and Surrey Quays, which will be significant for waiting times. It is clear that, if people conceive of the service as a tube, they will be more likely to use it.

That brings me to the important issue of what in jargon is known as modal shift, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea referred. I shall not repeat his arguments, but London is growing, and we need to ensure that people move from a tube system that otherwise will be very overcrowded—a number of us experience that every day—to other modes of transport. The line will provide a vital outlet for some of that overcrowding. We should also ensure that more people start cycling. That already happens in Hackney—we have twice the number of cyclists of other London boroughs, so that Hackney really is the home of London cycling. We should make sure that people walk more as well. However, the extension would mainly shift people out of cars; about 400,000 fewer car journeys will take place.

There was a hot debate about the introduction of the congestion charge. It might have achieved a certain amount for inner London congestion, but some of the worst London congestion is in outer London, which is why phase 2 of the East London line extension is particularly important. To be parochial again, it will reduce the journey times from Hackney to Peckham for my constituents by 10 to 15 minutes, which is significant.

If the second phase were to receive £100 million, that would be money well spent. If the decision is made soon, money will be saved, which is why the issue is critical to the current spending round. Some of the preparatory works could be done in tandem with the works currently being carried out in phase 1.

In summary, the project is a real win for the Department for Transport. As I mentioned, transport projects can be notoriously difficult to deliver on time and on budget, as the many negotiations between the different public bodies, transport bodies—some public, some private—and political interests carry on. In this case, however, there is absolutely solid political determination across the parties, across the relevant geographical area in London and between the local authorities and the Mayor. The project is cost-effective and will be even more so if it is carried out quickly, and we have the benefit of a tightly financially disciplined Transport for London and the disciplined team led by Ian Brown. I have been in public life for more than a decade and seen several projects that have not been well run or very successful. However, if the Minister wants a good, winning project to hand on to her successor, if not for herself, I can assure her that the East London line will be genuinely well run and successful and that it will deliver for thousands of Londoners, including in my constituency.

It is a pleasure to join in this debate, and I genuinely compliment my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Martin Linton) on his incredibly hard work on the issue and on the effective campaign that he has waged to ensure that the line links through to Clapham. I totally support his campaign and I hope that the Minister will understand the importance of extending transport in that way and the opportunities that it will offer.

I also say a big thank you to my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier) for the time she spent as a member of the Greater London authority. She worked incredibly hard at the difficult job of co-ordinating lots of competing interests around Finsbury Park station, none of which wanted to co-operate with one another most of the time, although they eventually all did. The station now has a refurbished exterior, and Transport for London is at last investing £40 million or £50 million in completely rebuilding the station to make it compliant with the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 and to improve its interior and security. That did not happen for nothing, but because a lot of people worked very hard over a long time. Now that we have an effective London authority, which can make such investments, things can happen, which must be some kind of success.

I have been in the House long enough to remember the dark days when the Greater London council was abolished and London Transport was grossly underfunded. We could not get decisions about anything out of anybody and we spent most of our time campaigning against closures—the idea of campaigning to open things was like something from fairyland. I therefore pay warm tribute to my two hon. Friends for their incredibly hard work on this issue and I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch will be present when we reopen Finsbury Park station in a few years’ time, once the rebuilding work has been done.

It is also worth placing on the record the fact that the extension of the East London line—as part of an outer London overground circle railway, which is a good idea—has been a dream for a long time. Shortly after I was elected in 1983, the then Member for Stepney, the late Peter Shore, asked me to join him in signing a blocking motion against a private Bill so that we could protect the route of the East London line. He said, “There’s no chance the Government will give us the money for it at the moment, but if we can at least protect the route, there’s a chance of getting the money at some point in the future.” One should therefore pay tribute to those who have taken such a farsighted view of the subject.

We now have Transport for London and the development of London overground. London overground’s leader, Ian Brown, is very good, and the idea of branding something as London overground to promote real transport integration in London is an important one. As my hon. Friends said, strangers to London do not generally go somewhere if they cannot easily find it on the tube map. If somewhere is not on the tube, they do not go there, because although they can understand the tube map, they have difficulty with anything beyond that. Transport for London has introduced the idea of London overground, which will make using the various routes more acceptable and ensure that there is much better information about buses, routes and so on. In that regard, I hope that we will have a more comprehensive London travel map. I am pleased that the North London line is on the tube map in a semi-tone, but why the North London line and nothing else? [Interruption.] I see an excellent map appearing before me in glorious Technicolor, so there we go—I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea for that. I hope, therefore, that the rebranding will be accompanied by improved information systems.

I want to say three or four quick things about the East London line extension. First, it is happening, and that is welcome. The work is being done at the moment, and one can see it going on day to day, and that is welcome. As has been said, I represent Islington, North, and people in my constituency use Highbury and Islington station—the station entrance is actually in the constituency of Islington, South and Finsbury, although Canonbury station, on the North London line, is in my constituency. I was worried when I saw that the work from Dalston to Highbury and Islington had been put down as part of phase 2. I am always alarmed when something is labelled “phase 2”, because it sounds as though it is in never-never land—“Phase 2? Yes, that’s some time in the future.” I am pleased to say, however, that we now have clear undertakings from Transport for London that the phase 2 link to Highbury and Islington will follow on immediately from the completion of the expensive works necessary to reopen the Dalston curve, and that has been endorsed by the Mayor.

I endorse again what has been said about the need for a lot of imaginative thought to be given to the stations. If that does not happen, we will end up with two stations very near each other on broadly the same routes. We need slightly better thought to be given to that, and I am sure that that can be achieved.

I have raised on many occasions, and I do so again now, the question of possible links to Finsbury Park, although I realise that that is not part of the immediate scheme. Although Highbury and Islington provides a good link to the Victoria line and the line through to Moorgate, it would be very useful to use existing tracks to run services to Finsbury Park. That would give us the possibility of a link to the Victoria and Piccadilly lines, as well as to a large number of overground services, including all the east coast lines. If we are after reducing pressure on the inner London termini, any link to Finsbury Park would be a great advantage. That will not happen immediately, and I recognise that there are complications, but such a link is not impossible, and I hope that the Minister can at least give me some comfort and some idea of whether the Department is looking at the issue.

Does my hon. Friend not regard it as inevitable that many people will not take a train to a London terminus in future, but get off at a hub station three or four miles short of the terminus and use the outer circle to get to another hub, thus avoiding the need to travel through central London, which will become even more congested? In addition to all the local benefits, putting Finsbury Park on the London overground system will therefore have a great benefit for through-London travellers.

My hon. Friend makes a good point. The problem with London’s transport system has always been that it is radial—all routes run in and out of central London. It was presumed 120 years ago that most people wanted to travel from outer London to work in central London, and that might have made some sense at the time, but it simply does not make any sense now. As a result, there are real problems with car congestion the further one gets from central London, because the orbital routes are so ineffective and inefficient. Creating an orbital railway is part of that issue, but we need to go a lot further. We also need to go a bit further out. Enfield to Barnet should be an easy journey, but it is not, and there are plenty of other examples from all around London.

I listened carefully to the intervention by the hon. Member for Battersea (Martin Linton), who was surely making the point that one of the great disappointments of phase 2 is that Wimbledon has been left out, even though the original plan was to include it. It would have been an obvious place to include. As a hub station, it could have relieved Clapham Junction and allowed people to move around the London overground more easily.

That is a fair point. I am reluctant to discuss south London in too much detail, because there is a bit of territorial trouble, and I am doing my best to be fraternal to my colleagues in south London. Yes; it is an obvious point that we must see what is happening as part of a stage in the process of developing a much better transport system around London. If we are to reduce car congestion and pollution, it can only happen by means of a much better public transport system—partly through information and partly through usage, but above all through improved developments such as the one that we are discussing. I remain a strong supporter of the East London line extension and I pay tribute to those who have brought it thus far. I look forward to its opening.

I hope that the Minister will be able to give us good news on the Clapham link and all the other benefits that that will bring to south London. If there is to be good news about it, it will make an awful lot of sense to have the work done before the Olympics. There are all kinds of obvious reasons for that, but no doubt we shall hear whether it will be possible.

There are two final matters that I want to ask the Minister about. First, Transport for London owns the route—although Network Rail owns the tracks, in some cases—and has made the capital expenditure for the trains to run on the East London line. I have raised this question with the Mayor and with TfL and I raise it again now: why is it, then, necessary to bring in a private operator to run the trains, when London Underground and Transport for London have proved themselves very capable of running the underground system and the network in general? I am concerned that we seem to be moving along a route of creeping private finance running the service.

Like my hon. Friend, I have looked into the matter, but although in Hackney we think about what is happening as the East London line bringing the tube to Hackney, it is not, of course, the underground. It is not akin to adding on a bit of the underground line and extending the service of its trains. The extension will use a different gauge and different types of trains, and there is not really the expertise in Transport for London to run that. Surely it is better just to get on with it and provide it. I am concerned that my constituents should have a service, and that it should be properly managed, contractually, by the public sector, rather than about exactly who will run it.

I agree that we want the service; that is why we are all here. London overground is a new development. I welcome it. I just question why it is necessary to bring in a private operator to do the work. I believe that a lot of expertise is available to make sure that the service is properly run. I make this point because I strongly believe that if the public own something and pay for it, they are also quite capable of running the service. We run the underground very efficiently.

My final point is that what is happening is a new departure for Transport for London—the taking of some overground facilities, as my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea pointed out, into its orbit. That is very welcome. Ian Brown has proved a very good leader of the whole operation. I hope that the attitude and mood in the Department for Transport is one of preparedness to concede that it makes a lot of sense to bring as much of London’s rail network as is reasonable and feasible under one roof, so that it can be run with linked timetables and services. I see the current project as the first of what I hope will be many good developments in London, when London overground takes over other routes in other parts of London. There should also, where appropriate, be transfer of stations. Finsbury Park is an obvious example of one that it would be helpful to transfer to Transport for London, because the majority of the services there are related to Transport for London in some way.

We are in a good period. It is exciting, but I hope that the Minister will give us some good news.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for mentioning the issue of Transport for London taking over more London railway routes. Although he would not claim any expertise on this, I think that the point is particularly relevant to south London, where, because there are so few tube lines, many local stations have developed on a radial basis, and are of little use. However, there are some lines that could easily be taken into an overground system, such as the one from London Bridge to Victoria via Crystal Palace. Also, no doubt, some of the lines in the Mitcham and Hackbridge area could serve Londoners better if they were controlled by TfL in the interest of Londoners, rather than being thought of as appendages to commuter routes into London.

That is a very good point. I study old railway maps and think about those matters quite a lot. It would make sense to encourage many of the routes in south London into orbital use. There are real opportunities for development of that kind. We greatly under-use our overground railways in London, and with more imagination we could achieve what my hon. Friend describes.

I welcome everything that has happened so far. I hope that the Minister will be able to give us good news on the extensions, and I hope that she will bear in mind the point that I made, which I consider a serious one, about the longer-term option of a link to Finsbury Park. That would improve the ability of that station to act as an effective regional hub for transport interchange.

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Members for Battersea (Martin Linton), for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier) and for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn), who have made an articulate case on behalf of their constituents for the East London line and extension. I thank the hon. Member for Battersea for initiating the debate and drawing the matter to the attention of the House. Clearly, he regrets that Battersea is not on the map, but I think that today’s debate has, if nothing else, put the Battersea arts centre on the map.

The hon. Gentleman has done a good job of drawing the attention of the House to the fact that the cost of the phase 2 extension is relatively small. When I say that, I note that it is clearly the prerogative of Labour Back Benchers to request from the Government additional funding that is not currently supported by the Government, in a way that the Opposition may not be able to do. We must be much more serious in our approach and cost our budgets accordingly. However, I hope that the Minister will respond positively and identify how the funding will be secured.

We have heard a lot today about the Dalston curve. I was wondering whether it had anything to do with the bagel shop at the end of Reighton road where I used to live in the late 1980s. I am pleased to hear that it is actually about extending the East London line to Highbury and Islington station. I know Dalston very well, having represented the area as a councillor in the late 1980s when there was a campaign to extend the tube line, rather than the train line, to Dalston. That was 21 years ago, and I am pleased that 21 years on we are nearly there—albeit that the destination is slightly less than four years away; it has taken some time.

We campaigned for it then mainly because of the regeneration benefits and improved transport links that would result. Those arguments are still extremely valid today, and the hon. Member for Battersea has made a very good case both for the transport benefit, including reduction in the pressure on key stations such as London Victoria and London Bridge—something that my constituents, who use both stations, would appreciate—and for the orbital rail routes. I only regret that in my part of south London, where there is no tube—there is no tube station in my constituency or in the borough of Sutton where I live—we do not, either, have the orbital rail links that would be needed, ideally to places such as Kingston and Richmond or Beckenham and Bexley. There is a need for those routes and I hope that if the East London line extension proves successful and London overground can get it on the map and make people use it, so that it becomes a central feature of the transport network in London, that will strengthen the case for extending orbital routes in south London through to west London.

The hon. Member for Battersea highlighted the regeneration impact of the developments; 80 per cent. of the most deprived parts of London would be served. That would be a fantastic opportunity for creating ease of travel for people who wanted to find jobs in other parts of London, and would be extremely welcome.

It is worth briefly considering the wider London transport context. The East London line would contribute significantly, but we are awaiting a big decision on Crossrail. I agree that the cost of Crossrail is of a different order of magnitude, but it would create 40 per cent. of the additional rail capacity that London will need by 2015 to accommodate the extra 800,000 people who are soon going to be living in London. That would be a huge contribution. The relatively small-scale improvements that will come from the East London line extension could be swamped if those 800,000 people were trying to get on to that line and we did not have the capacity that could be provided by extra routes such as Crossrail. We will need Crossrail as well to support the project.

Hon. Members have set out clearly the time scales for the project, both phase 1, which, as the hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch said, will be complete by 2010, and the proposed phase 2, which would provide an additional link from Clapham Junction to Surrey Quays. That would be welcome and mean that a lot of the commuters going principally to London Victoria would be able to avoid the centre of London. As someone who travels almost exclusively by public transport, I would welcome being able to go through to London Victoria or London Bridge.

At the beginning of his comments the hon. Gentleman said that in his position he cannot plead for extra money as firmly as Labour Members have. He said that he has to be more careful. He is about halfway through his comments. I stressed to the Minister that there was good cross-party support, so will he make his party’s position on the funding of the scheme a little clearer?

The hon. Lady will be pleased to hear that I am certainly going to do that in a way that I hope will satisfy her. It will relate to ways and means of funding other projects such as Crossrail.

Phase 2 of the project would make a huge contribution and provide an additional link. To pick up on the hon. Lady’s point, an opportunity has been missed in London in such projects as the Jubilee line extension, from which huge benefits have been derived by businesses and commercial premises along the route. They have benefited from the increase in the value of properties, which have become that much more attractive because of the improved transport connections. Whether in relation to Crossrail or projects such as the East London line, it is surely not beyond the wit of man or woman to identify a way of capturing the increased values of properties. That might be by asking businesses to contribute over a period of time—

Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.

On resuming—

We were discussing finance and I was touching on the point that many freeholders and businesses clearly benefit very substantially from infrastructure improvements in the vicinity of where they operate. It is high time that the Treasury showed some flexibility to allow some of those profits to be captured. Whether it is through businesses in a voluntary way, as with Crossrail, supporting the concept of a supplementary business rate or through land value taxation, we need to capture those profits. At the moment, the taxpayer pays but sees no return; others make the profit. I hope that that addresses the concerns expressed by the hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch about how the project would be funded.

The Minister may have had an opportunity to consider the report that the RMT—the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers—commissioned from Peter Raynor on the East London line and its concerns about the privatisation, as the RMT put it, of the line. I do not necessarily share those concerns and that is clearly not the subject of the debate, but I hope that the Minister, if she cannot deal with the point now, will consider writing to hon. Members present to inform us of the Government’s view on that report.

Clearly, the East London line extension and phase 2 would contribute very significantly to the transport infrastructure in London. We have seen the potential for increasing the number of passengers on that line from 10 million to 50 million. I hope that the Minister will respond positively to the requests that have been made and perhaps confirm that if the Treasury is not willing to fund the proposal itself, it might show some flexibility to allow other means to be used to raise the funding needed for this important transport project.

Order. The question has quite reasonably been asked, in the light of the Divisions, when the debate will finish. The answer is 4.39 pm.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Gale, and to participate in this important debate. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Battersea (Martin Linton) for introducing it and for making the case so clearly for his constituents and for the line. I enjoyed immensely the contributions by the hon. Members for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) and for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier). I enjoyed the hon. Lady’s insights into a number of things, but particularly into the shopping habits of her constituents, which I am sure were interesting to us all.

I have to declare an interest up front. I am the Member of Parliament for Wimbledon, and the East London line extension was originally designed to come to Wimbledon in phase 2. It would have made more sense for it to come to Wimbledon. Wimbledon should be the secondary transport hub in south-west London to Clapham Junction. It was unfortunate that the Mayor, with a lack of wisdom, vetoed that on the basis of cost—that point is highly significant and I want to return to it.

The withdrawal of the proposal to take the East London line to Wimbledon led to Merton council withdrawing from the East London Line Group. I note that the Mayor has said that, with the East London line extension, it will be easier for people to get quickly and safely to Olympic venues. I was just thinking, “Isn’t it a shame that my constituency doesn’t have some sort of summer sporting event that 100 countries around the world televise, that 1 billion people watch and that 400,000 attend? Isn’t it a shame that my constituency won’t be one of the major Olympic venues, hosting—I don’t know, perhaps the Olympic tennis tournament or something?” Perhaps then the Mayor would consider that bringing the East London line extension to Wimbledon had some merit.

Wimbledonians are, understandably, pretty angry about the situation. I have already made the point that we consider that Wimbledon should be the secondary transport hub in south-west London to Clapham Junction. That would have the great advantage of relieving pressure on Clapham Junction. The example has already been cited: people could get off at Wimbledon and go round the orbital side, particularly if they were coming from the south. It would also increase capacity. In addition, thousands of my constituents travel every day to jobs in east London, principally at Canary Wharf and in the City.

I cannot pretend to sympathise with the hon. Gentleman’s view that the line would be better routed to Wimbledon through Dulwich, but I suggest to him that the interests of his constituents might equally be served by pressing for the extension to Clapham Junction to be extended through Southfields to Wimbledon. Under plans for Crossrail 2, that route has already been investigated, taking trains up through Southfields, East Putney and Wandsworth Town to Clapham Junction. Surely that could be started at the time of the Olympics, to create a quick link between the events in Wimbledon and the main arenas.

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s intervention. Certainly that is one of the things that we considered. Equally, I believe that TfL is considering again the Hackney-Chelsea line; a minor consultation document has already been issued. However, none of that takes away from the point that the East London line extension could as easily have come to Wimbledon in phase 2. I am not asking the hon. Gentleman to support me in that case at this stage—I am sure that he is very happy with where it is going at the moment.

To return to my point, a number of my constituents travel to work in the east. The Mayor, in his initial plans for housing for London, designated the borough of Merton as an area of housing development. We have talked about populations that would benefit. The populations that would benefit include those of Longthornton and Colliers Wood, which are not technically in my constituency, although part of Colliers Wood is, and of South Wimbledon, which is.

We have heard the arts tributes. Wimbledon theatre has the seventh largest stage in London. The Polka theatre is the only south-west London theatre dedicated to children. The area also has the Cannizaro festival, the Wimbledon literary festival, which I am pleased to be attending the opening of this evening, and Wimbledon college of art. All those and other places in south-west London indicate a thriving arts community.

Does the hon. Gentleman advocate that the extension to Wimbledon should be pursued? If so, is he adopting that position in his capacity as the Member of Parliament for Wimbledon or in an official capacity? If it is in his official capacity, is it an officially funded bid?

I declared an interest at the beginning of my speech. I am speaking as a constituency MP before I move on to my comments as a Front-Bench spokesman. I accept, with great disappointment, that Wimbledon will not be part of the phase 2 extension, so there is no funding implication to my remarks. I am deeply upset about this matter, but am not embittered and certainly am not blind to the benefits of the scheme.

The phase 1 extension of the East London line north to Dalston Junction and south to New Cross should be open by June 2010. The further extension to Highbury and Islington will open in February 2011. It is proposed that phase 2 will extend services further west to Clapham Junction via Surrey Canal Road, where a new station is to be built. We have heard from hon. Members that there will be an extra four trains an hour, thus increasing dramatically the frequency of the core section.

We have talked about funding for all that, but we have not yet had the timetable, part of which is inextricably linked to funding. The June 2007 briefing note from the East London Line Group says that phase 2 could be operational by the end of 2011, but according to the TfL investment programme, it is planned to follow the 2012 Olympics and Paralympics. One answer that I seek from the Minister is which of those is correct. I expect that the answer will depend entirely on whether she can give us any comfort regarding funding.

I accept that the scheme will bring great benefits: 168,000 people will potentially benefit from living within 15 minutes of a station, as will the 80,000 people who work within 15 minutes of those stations. The ridership is expected to grow to an estimated 8.7 million within five years. It is estimated that the environmental benefits will be a reduction in total traffic congestion of 400,000 vehicles and in carbon dioxide emissions of about 470 tonnes per annum. Those are significant benefits.

If our capital is to continue to be the world’s greatest city, we must continue to expand and invest in our public transport network, but we must also ensure that those schemes offer value for money. The East London line extension is one such scheme—London needs it in order to continue to be the economic powerhouse of the UK, and it offers value for money—but it is not the only scheme.

I accept that it is difficult to group priorities, but the scheme is predicated to have a cost-benefit ratio of 1.7:1, which is lower than that of several other schemes. It is impressive, but not as impressive as others. Will the Minister tell us about the scrutiny of those sorts of cost-benefit ratio, and what part such scrutiny will play in the consideration of various London schemes? Notwithstanding that, the important point is that which was made by the hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch—40 per cent. of those who live within 1 km of several stations involved in the scheme live in some of the most deprived areas of London, so the scheme will have a huge overall benefit for social inclusion.

By the time it is finished, the London overground service, which is a combination of the North London line and the East London line, will have involved a total investment of £1.4 billion. Obviously, that is going on infrastructure such as new trains, new staff and new stations.

I shall dwell on stations for a moment, because it would be interesting to get a commitment from TfL about stations. The Mayor has said that every station should be manned during its hours of operation and should have improved CCTV, but that is proving to be something of a hollow promise and a joke in many parts of the underground system. No one was manning my local underground station, which I use on most days if I come via the underground, rather than the overground, during the later hours of operation on Monday night. One supposed benefit of the scheme is that all the stations will continue to be manned; along with the funding promise should come a promise from TfL that it intends to do that.

I understand from TfL that the London overground will have staffed stations that are secure, which is a great improvement on the current situation.

Yes, but the hon. Gentleman will accept my premise that London Underground says that it has that at the moment, and that simply is not true. Indeed, it is shutting 40 more ticket offices, which will inevitably mean that there is a threat to passengers and staff. I accept that that promise is in the London overground document, but it is not being met at the moment, and we need to be absolutely certain that it will be kept.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there is a difference with underground stations? I have been in the control room of underground stations and have seen how effective CCTV can be. One can see everything that is going on at the station from the control room, so people are not needed in every part of the station. There might be concerns about access to tickets, but more people are using Oyster and the number of people who need to purchase tickets is reducing. It is right that TfL should look into that matter, although we might not agree regarding the outcome.

I take the hon. Lady’s point, but there is, none the less, a commitment for stations to be manned. One can look at CCTV pictures all one likes, but if there is an incident and one is in the control room and there is no one on the station, and the transport police are some way away, then one cannot get to the incident.

Going back to funding, TfL—or, more properly, the Mayor—spent sums of money last year that did nothing to improve the lot of the travelling public. It is particularly important to consider a few things that he spent money on and whether that money might have gone some way towards alleviating the request for Government funding. For example, the Mayor gave the previous chief executive of TfL a golden goodbye of £1.165 million and a consultancy contract worth £737,000, but no one at TfL knows how often he turns up or even whether he is turning up.

That is only £2 million, but let us consider other elements of the Mayor’s profligacy. Last year, he spent £210 million on consultants. That is twice the cost of the East London line phase 2 extension. For that £210 million there has been not one extra passenger, metre of track or new train. That £210 million profligacy could easily have funded the extension to Wimbledon or built the scheme that we are discussing twice.

However, let us concentrate, because phase 2 is unfunded and currently has no time scale. It is expected to cost about £100 million, of which, we have heard, about £70 million is for the infrastructure. I have three or four questions for the Government, and therefore the Minister, which I hope will bring some clarity at the end of the debate. Will the funding for the phase 2 extension be included in the HLOS—high level output specification—which involves Network Rail, and inside the comprehensive spending review? Will she confirm that the HLOS is due on 18 July?

Will the Minister also confirm that the East London line extension is one of several other south-east schemes, including those involving Thameslink, Reading station, Crossrail and Waterloo station? Will she give some indication of the criteria that she is using to assess those schemes, particularly in relation to the total funding requirement and value for money?

Will the Minister confirm that any announcement on the East London line extension will not be one similar to that on Thameslink, which simply contained the Transport and Works Act 1992, but will be accompanied by funding announcements? Finally, will the Minister look at the total cost of the scheme, which is a mere £100 million? It is an extremely manageable sum in terms of the overall budget for the railways. Will she therefore assure us that the Department for Transport will press the Treasury to find the money?

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Martin Linton) on securing this debate, which provides a further opportunity for us to talk about rail services in London, and particularly the proposals for the funding of phase 2 of the East London line. I am aware of the numerous representations that my hon. Friends the Members for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier) and for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) have made to my ministerial colleagues in the past regarding the importance with which their constituents regard the project. They stand to accrue interests and benefits from it.

Having listened carefully to my hon. Friends, I can say that I regard them as a powerful triumvirate—I was going to describe them as a three-headed campaign machine, but I think that “triumvirate” is more diplomatic and better reflects their contribution to the debate. Led by my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea, my hon. Friends have made a persuasive case in terms of value for money and regeneration, and the social, economic and leisure benefits of the scheme. I heard the debate about whether the Hackney Empire or Battersea arts centre should come out on top, but clearly there is a question about whether people should be fighting about that. The point is that Londoners and visitors should be able to move easily around the city, and to enjoy the many benefits of living in or visiting my hon. Friends’ constituencies.

I am grateful for the generous words spoken by my hon. Friends about Transport for London, the Department for Transport and the Government. The Government showed foresight by giving TfL the powers and funding to do the work that Londoners and visitors have long sought.

Mr. Ian Brown was mentioned several times. I was wondering whether he would be declared as the newest member of the Cabinet—he has plenty of support in the Chamber. However, I suspect that he is committed to the job that he is doing, as are the whole team at TfL, and the officials at the Department for Transport and other Departments. I am grateful to my hon. Friends for their comments. I recognise that phase 2 of the East London line extension is particularly important in the light of developments on the London overground network.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea pointed out, the extension would complete the last piece of an orbital rail network for London. Indeed, it would significantly improve the accessibility of deprived areas of the city. I like the term “regeneration express”, which was borrowed, I believe, from the Mayor of London. That is what we are about.

As I said, the funding and autonomy provided to TfL by the Government have produced dramatic improvements throughout London’s transport network. Although my hon. Friend’s constituents may not yet have access to a London Underground station in Battersea, they have much improved bus services and a steadily improving heavy rail network. As he and others predicted, I am bound to say that deciding when and whether any particular transport scheme goes ahead is a matter for the Mayor and TfL. I understand that, at present, there are no guarantees on phase 2. The Mayor and TfL need to reassess their budgets and transport priorities for the spending review this year. I assure my hon. Friends that the East London line extension phase 2 is being discussed in the spending review, but I should say that it is one of a number of London transport projects that TfL would like to take forward. I wish to put on record an assurance that I shall draw the Mayor’s, TfL’s and the Treasury’s attention to the constructive and persuasive points that have been made in the debate.

I listened carefully to the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch about the importance of information to people who travel overground as well as underground in London. From the quality of her contribution, I now know that it is not only a matter of extending the line, but about working with the extension. I am grateful to her for making that point.

I am sympathetic to the points that have been made, and I was interested to hear about the “Connect South London” campaign run by the East London Line Group. On orbital travel, it is important to encourage passengers to choose routes other than those that go through central London, but volumes of passengers travelling in to main hubs are probably far larger than the number of people who will travel orbitally. My hon. Friends made the point that as hubs develop and properly integrate—that is the key—to the TfL network, they will have a significant impact.

The Minister will have heard my remarks about the possibility of joining the East London line to Finsbury Park station to develop the sub-regional hub. I should be grateful if the Minister would give some indication of her views on that, and on the related matter of transferring stations to TfL.

That is not in the current plans, as my hon. Friend is aware. However, the Government are committed to the devolution of London transport services. That is evidenced by the creation of TfL and the powers that have been further devolved to it following the White Paper on “The Future of Rail”. It is possible that there may be further devolution in future.

On the timetable, TfL will take responsibility for the North London railway in November, and we will see a gradual improvement of services. The East London line extension opens in 2010, and the Dalston curve, which will connect east to north London, will open in 2011.

Concerns were raised about the use of the private sector once the East London line extension is complete, and I can tell the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) that I shall be happy to write to hon. Members about the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers report. It is for TfL to decide how it specifies and operates services on the East London line and the forthcoming extension.

It is incorrect to suggest that TfL’s current plans mean that the East London line is being privatised—that is not the case. The infrastructure assets that make up the line will remain under the ownership of TfL and Network Rail. TfL will also own the rolling stock on the route. A concessionaire will be appointed to run the services on the line and, unlike the national rail network, the revenue risk attached to services on the East London line, including income from fares, will remain with TfL, which will also set fares. I hope that that is reassuring.

I shall be happy to write to hon. Members on the issues that I am unable to address today because we are short of time. In conclusion, the Department will continue to work with TfL, Network Rail and other stakeholders to examine opportunities to enhance London’s rail network for Londoners and visitors alike.

Transformational Government

We are here at a transformational moment in history. I am of course referring to the fact that the debate is an extreme rarity in the House—it is only the second debate on transformational government that I can remember from the past three or four years. There is, by the way, another little event going on elsewhere involving a new Prime Minister which, I guess, means that the assembled masses are elsewhere. I shall perfectly understand if the Minister has to respond to a pager message from No. 10, because he is extremely worthy of aggrandizement and I would not deny him a move up the greasy pole, but I hope that some of our Cabinet Office Ministers will remain in post for some time because one issue with transformational government is the need for continuous leadership.

The masses are not here for this debate on transformational government, because it is not a sexy subject but a techie, geeky subject. Far too often, the debate concerns IT and technology, rather than the real purpose of transformational government, which involves outcomes for people. That is what I want to focus on, because transformational government is about using IT as a tool to achieve the best outcomes in public service delivery for all our people, but particularly those who need public services most. The issue is fundamental to all MPs, and we must get that message across.

I know that the new Prime Minister is committed to this agenda. He commissioned David Varney’s report, and I am sure that he will implement it with all speed when he gets his feet under the desk at No. 10. I want to speculate beyond Varney, and on where the transformational government agenda should go next. I am chair of EURIM—the European Informatics Market—which you know well, Mr. Gale, as one of its founder members and a great supporter. We are doing a Select-Committee-style inquiry into transformational government, which is a subject that crosses Departments and sometimes falls between the cracks of Select Committees. In my short contribution, I want to say a few words about some of the policy strands that need to be brought together, and which we will explore in that inquiry. I also want to ask the Minister some questions.

Transformational government is about using technology to achieve the best outcomes for our communities, particularly those who need our public services most. It is an intensely political debate. People have told me that there is consensus on what transformational government is about, and there is to a degree. We all want our public services to provide greater value for money and greater efficiency, and we all want to ensure that we can use technology to free up resources for greater front-line working and to ensure more streamlined service delivery.

However, I believe passionately that politics is about trying to ensure two things. First, those who need our services most should receive excellent quality public services. That is hard to provide in a joined-up way. Secondly, we should create confidence in our public services so that everyone has a buy-in to them. In the modern world, people expect 24/7 services from the private sector. They want services when they want them and where they want them. They expect efficiency, value for money and technology. Public services should deliver no less, and preferably greater excellence, so that there is a buy-in from the big tent—the middle classes—while enabling more resources to go to those who need them. I do not want to aggrandize the subject too much, but the agenda is about the future of public services.

What issues should we address? First, there are a couple of myths and legends. Too much of the debate about transformational government focuses on failed Government IT projects. One can look at Government computing weekly every week and find a litany of disasters, but that is not the whole story. There are excellent examples of what works both in central Government—in the Department for Work and Pensions I cite pension credits—and in local government. A recent exhibition by EURIM and SOCITM—the Society of Information Technology Managers—exemplified some of the good work, particularly in local government, to join up service delivery.

I heard from a carer who was over the moon that the help that her father received from social services and the national health service was linked seamlessly with help from carers with one point of contact, so that she did not have to run around. More important, her father did not have to run round to a number of agencies to receive the care and support that he needed. There are some good examples, but too often we hear about the failed examples.

Let us be clear. There are failed examples in the private sector, and many of the largest and most complex IT projects are in the private sector. Some work extremely well—for example, Voca for financial services and BT for commission billing. Some projects are immensely complex, but we do not hear so much about the many private sector projects that fail.

We must learn. Many EURIM reports and a recent Public Accounts Committee report picked up some of the lessons that we still have to learn after all this time. First, IT skills are scarce in the public sector, and we must nurture and retain them. There is concern in the private sector about the skills shortage in information and communications technology, which must be addressed urgently. Secondly, continuity at the top is required at both ministerial and senior civil service levels. Thirdly, we must look at projects involving incremental changes rather than a big, centralised bang. In that context—dare I say—are identity cards, although I support them, and we need clarity of outcome. Those are some of the lessons to be learned.

In terms of where the agenda goes next, I want to suggest three strands that should be integrated if we want to transform—I emphasise “transform”—Government and public services. The first is social inclusion. All the strands fall neatly within the Cabinet Office’s remit, which is a happy coincidence. If we are to transform, we must have social inclusion at the heart of everything that we are doing.

We have had processes, e-envoys, tsars and so on to look at life episodes and the equivalent of the moose licence—let us go online and do whatever is easiest, whether it is relevant or not. We must be more sophisticated, and look at services that need to be joined up, but which are complex and include the most difficult problems. I chair the all-party group on domestic violence, and a social enterprise within the equalities network that I am involved with is an online domestic violence project. In a crisis, a domestic violence survivor must contact between eight and 10 different agencies, which often give the same information over and over again. Survivors may have to cope with losing their home and the whole terrible situation while trying to care for their children. If we target such a complex problem rather than picking on the easiest subjects, and make the technology work for that person, everything else will follow.

The digital divide or social exclusion in technology has been written and talked about for what feels like millennia. The issue is not lack of hardware—certainly not in my constituency. Hand-holding rather than hardware is needed. We proved that again in the Womenspeak project with the Hansard Society and Women’s Aid in 1999. We targeted the hardest to reach—domestic violence survivors. The first people online were Irish women travellers in the north-west of England and Bangladeshi mums in my constituency, neither of whom would normally go anywhere near public agencies or talk about their situation. They were online using technology, and the Bangladeshi mums are still using that technology to learn online. We were able to reach out. It was said that those people would never go online and never participate, but they did because they had support and we ensured that that was available to them.

We must target the hardest to reach and ensure that we have genuine joined-up service delivery for those with the most complex problems. Of course, we must get certain services online because we need to shift the easy services online. Forty per cent. of people now do their tax online, which is great because it releases resources for the front line and those most complex problems. Social inclusion is one strand.

Diversity and choice in public service delivery is another policy imperative that we must discuss, involving appropriate service deliverers to meet the needs in the community. Social enterprise is another Cabinet Office priority. Do we have models that enable us to ensure that social enterprises can deliver those services? Are IT suppliers and projects geared to dealing with that mixed economy? That is a question to the Minister.

A third strand is democratic delivery. In any private sector company, people build up relationships—R2R—and get feedback on their services. That is basic. It should be integral to transformational government, and I believe that it is coming. However, we should do more than that if we want to build up public confidence, which means that we should involve people who use our services online not only in helping us to maintain the excellence of public service delivery, but in designing and having a say in those services.

Again I quote Womenspeak, because in a legislative and parliamentary context, the evidence that we received undoubtedly helped to influence at least seven pieces of legislation, not least the domestic violence legislation itself. We could use it as a model to think about ways of engaging people in designing public services.

I pose some of those questions to the Minister. Are we geared up to tackle the issues that I have raised? We still have issues about data sharing, largely because of ignorance about the Data Protection Act 1998. However, there are some good examples, so why do we not learn from them and spread them? There are in public service delivery too many nay-sayers who use the Act to prevent joined-up services.

We must also consider ways in which we can ensure that when cost savings are delivered through IT projects, and the cost is attributed to one Department but the benefits are shared throughout several, we have models that enable us to evidence that situation, so that it can be built into the comprehensive spending review process. I understand that it does not happen now, but it will be fundamental if we are to join up service delivery and end departmental-itis.

We must also have some resource—a small pot somewhere—to encourage innovation and democracy in public service delivery. I hoped that digital challenge would be part of that process; I was involved in the early discussion with the Institute for Public Policy Research. Sadly, however, it is not, as we hoped it would be, a pot for innovation, experimentation, learning and the rolling out of good practice. There is excellence in some of those areas, particularly at a community level. I hope that even if the Minister has a very brief life left in the Cabinet Office before he goes on to greater things, he will take some of those messages back with him.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, South (Margaret Moran) for initiating the debate. She is a great believer in the possibilities of using technology to improve service delivery, she is a serious commentator on the issue, and she has shown a great commitment to positive and productive dialogue with Ministers on the issue. I, like her, think that today is an appropriate day to debate transformational government. Yesterday, I challenged the Cabinet Office press office to give me the communications plan for the debate, but I fear that even its talents may keep us from the front pages tomorrow. We will do our best.

The issues are important for quality of life and for good government. My hon. Friend rightly said that they are not only about IT, but about change to the way in which things are done, services are delivered and, I hope, change for the better for the citizen who is in receipt of the Government’s service. Change is rarely easy. The systems that we work with are complex, we are dealing with large numbers of people, and the services that we provide are often critical. They are not things that we can afford to get wrong. A private company may take a risk on launching a new product, and the customer may buy it, they may not. However, if we are talking about paying people benefits or pensions, we must get it right for their livelihoods, so great care must be taken to ensure that we get it right.

You will be relieved, Mr. Gale, to know that I shall not go through all the Government’s IT and transformation projects, but I shall make a few general points and pick up on a few points that my hon. Friend raised. As she said, the record is better than some reports and impressions suggest. There are significant successful examples of the change that technology has enabled: millions of benefit payments are made accurately every week, which sustain millions of families; online payment of car tax has been taken up by about 9 million people so far; online tax returns were filled out by almost 3 million people last year, an increase of some 45 per cent. on the previous year; and I am sure that my hon. Friend regularly visits schools in her constituency, as I do, so she will have seen the IT investment there, which places us ahead of many other countries, given its scale and intensity. It is crucial in helping pupils expand their own horizons and future opportunities. I could go on, but they are some of the successful investments and projects that have been made.

I agree with my hon. Friend that the Government must respond to the changes that are taking place in other parts of people’s lives. If goods and services are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, it is immensely empowering. People are booking flights online, so fewer go to travel agents and they are downloading music and taking part in social networking sites at a time of their own choosing, all of which is empowering. Owing to the transactions that can be carried out, the old concept of opening hours is rendered obsolete. If people are being empowered in the private sphere, the state has a duty to respond, and to try to do things that fit with people’s lives.

The issue is not just about the internet and we must remember that one third of the population are not online. In the provision of services, they cannot and should not be left out or left behind. Even as we use IT to make service better, we must get the right mix of service delivery channels, so that people who need personal or face-to-face help can still get it. Like my hon. Friend, I believe that we can combine the two effectively by doing the easy things online and concentrating face-to-face help more on the locations where it is needed than it has been in the past.

Another crucial issue, which I spoke about earlier this week, is time—the citizen’s time and the country’s time. If we can improve services through the application of new technology, we can give people more time spend productively, and if we can organise our staff time to maximise the use of new technology, and if their time is spent more productively, there will be national benefits.

I agreed with my hon. Friend when she spoke about social inclusion and the people to whom the issue is important. There has perhaps been a stereotype that Government service improvement enabled by IT principally benefits the cash-rich and time-poor—what might be called the BlackBerry man or woman. It certainly does benefit hard-pressed, busy tax-paying citizens—so it should, because public service should respond to their needs—but it is also critical to those further down the income scale, who often find themselves in more contact with different parts of Government than those who are a bit better off. If technology can enable service to work better and, as my hon. Friend rightly said, reduce the need for people to tell the same story over and over again to department A, department B and department C of their local authority, that is a significant gain.

The issue is relevant across the income scale. I believe that if we can reduce the time it takes for hard-pressed people to access the benefits and opportunities that they need, that in turn will empower them to take opportunities that they might not otherwise have been able to. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise the aspect of social inclusion. I reject the view that Government and IT cannot go together, that they will always fail and, implicitly, that we would be better off not trying. It is in the public’s interest and the country’s to make progress.

Questions have been raised about the governance of some projects. We have a duty to ensure that we get the governance right—I shall say something about that in a moment—but we also have a duty to be wary of a default nostalgia for the status quo. Paper systems, boxes of files and so on are not always the best way to run things. Change is often difficult, but equally, the status quo is often not perfect.

I welcome my hon. Friend’s comments about a Select Committee-type approach. It is always good when she and other Members of this House show an interest in exploring such issues and contributing positively to a dialogue with Ministers. We have our official Select Committee structure, of course, and one or two Members might say that that is their turf, but maybe I should not comment too much on that.

My hon. Friend mentioned significant life events, an important issue that David Varney mentioned in his report. She may know that my colleagues at the Department for Work and Pensions are working on a project called “Tell Us Once” to examine some of those life events. Considering it from that end of a telescope—from the point of view of a citizen’s experience—is exactly the right way to do so.

I shall blow the trumpet for a moment for my local authority. I recently visited a bereavement centre in Wolverhampton. It is in some ways a pioneering project. I believe that the DWP knows about it and is learning from it. When a family must go through the painful process of registering a relative’s death, the bereavement centre offers a range of services to notify the different departments and Government agencies that must be informed in the event of a death. One of the employees summed it up well when I visited. He said, “Our approach is to say, ‘We’ll do that for you.’” If we take that approach more during those significant moments when a family finds that it must contact government a great deal, that will be a step forward.

I endorse what my hon. Friend said about private and third sector involvement in the delivery of public services. It is one thing for the state to be responsible for ensuring a good outcome in public service; it is another for the state always to have to provide it directly. I do not believe that the two are the same. I chair the Public Services Forum. We have invited the Minister for the third sector, as well as representatives of the CBI and the Business Services Association, to recent meetings to discuss the third sector’s involvement in public service provision. That dialogue, not only with direct state and state-employed providers of public services but with other providers, is important.

To enter a little into the political frame, what the Government will not do is retreat from responsibility for ensuring good outcomes. It is one thing to hold the view that different providers can provide public services; it is another to say that the state should retreat from areas of responsibility. This Government are not likely to do so.

I absolutely endorse the Minister’s last point. Ensuring good outcomes for our communities is fundamental to good government and good governance. Will he say something about how the social enterprise action plan, for example, integrates with the transformational government action plan? It is difficult to see how the two mesh together and how we can ensure that capacity is built into social enterprises for them to be part of the mixed economy and to deliver transformational government in the way that we are discussing. As secretary of the all-party group on social enterprises, I have a particular interest—

Never let it be said that the Cabinet Office is not a seamless and coherent Department, or that one part does not work closely with another. I assure my hon. Friend that the Minister for the third sector is an active and loud voice on the third sector’s behalf, and that he is working with the sector to identify and deal with any barriers that might exist to its involvement in the field.

We are always trying to improve the governance of projects. We have published the transformational government agenda and established the Chief Information Officer Council. We are taking forward the recommendations of the Varney review and concentrating the number of Government websites to make them easier for the public to use, and we will keep trying to improve the governance and management of such projects. We are aware that the Public Accounts Committee recently examined the issue and made recommendations, to which we will respond in due course, but for today, I stress that the matter is crucial to the quality of public services. Our twin duties for the agenda are to be both ambitious about what we can achieve and rigorous about how we manage implementing it.

To reinforce the point, the Minister has not mentioned—I appreciate that he has limited time available—the democratisation of public service delivery. I commend to him a project with which I am involved, and of which I have been the architect for some time, called Kidspeak. It involves children’s charities talking to children online about their experiences of domestic violence and the services that they receive. Could he look at some of those examples and integrate them into the transformational governance programme?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. I point her to the recent report “The Power of Information”, commissioned by the outgoing Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. Even today, the Cabinet Office website is inviting comments from the public on the issue of time and public service. Online dialogue is extremely valuable.

Rail Services (Devon)

In the short time available, I hope to touch on a couple of issues relating to health and safety concerns about the rail service provided in my constituency. Time permitting, I shall then talk about some general issues and concerns about the future of rail services for those who commute to, travel to or holiday in what has always been known as glorious Devon. It is known as that because 1930s British Rail advertisements for services to the west country were emblazoned with words urging people to travel to “glorious Devon”.

My particular concerns relate to two stations in my constituency, Starcross and Dawlish Warren. It could fairly be said that the issues that I am raising with the Minister are for Network Rail to resolve, but they have been raised with the company for a number of years. We may be making progress on some of those issues—on others, we may not. I am hoping that, because of his influence with Network Rail, the Minister can say that health and safety concerns should be paramount and that disabled access and the ability to get on to trains are a concern to him as a Minister.

Starcross is a small station on the banks of the River Exe overlooking east Devon. It even has a connecting ferry service across the river. The station platform is straight until it bends in its latter half. The station had served its local community without problem for a number of years. In an effort to shorten travel times and improve the service, the rails were banked through the curved section of the platform to allow the trains to travel faster. The trains subsequently stopped on a banked curve.

The result was twofold. A gap was opened up between the platform and the train and because of the tipping motion and how they are banked, the trains sit higher above the platform than they used to. As a consequence, there is a large gap that makes it difficult for anybody with walking difficulties to get into or off trains. Anyone with a severe such handicap would probably avoid using Starcross as a station if they could. Constituents tell me that because of the difficulties on the platform, they prefer to use the bus service or their cars to travel into Exeter or down the line towards Dawlish or Teignmouth.

The resolution to the problem is straightforward. Most of the trains that stop—99 per cent. of them—are at most only four carriages long. The platform is designed for trains of eight or 10 carriages, so all Network Rail has to do is stop the trains halfway down the platform. Ian Coucher kindly visited my constituency and we considered a number of issues together. He accepted my point and said 18 months to two years ago that the company would consider the problem. However, it has still not come back to me, and that is why I bring it to the Minister’s attention today.

The platform does not need to be raised, as was originally proposed; the halt sign needs to be put halfway down, and a shelter and some lighting need to be moved—that is all that is required. I would have thought that, given the effect on those using the service, such changes would be small change. There would be a difficulty in respect of the occasional high-speed train that stops at Starcross, but that could probably be accepted by people with a disability; they could get used to using only one end of the platform.

I ask the Minister to ask Network Rail about that station and others with difficulties of access and safety which colleagues in the House have raised with me. The safety aspect is that small children, dogs or others could fall into the gap between the train and platform. Some pets already have.

The next station down the line is another small halt at Dawlish Warren, where, I am pleased to say, some changes have been made—trains stop closer to the shelter, making things slightly more convenient for passengers. However, there is a different safety issue at the station. The Dawlish Warren area includes a bird sanctuary, a popular bathing beach, an amusement arcade and other facilities that local tourists like to visit. All that is accessed via a small tunnel, through which ambulances and fire engines cannot go to service the other side. However, there is a crossing, to which Network Rail and its predecessor have refused emergency vehicles access. The company’s argument is that it is a health and safety issue and that it would be dangerous to allow such vehicles to use the gate. However, I argue strongly that if anyone is fit to judge health and safety risks and whether to use a crossing, it is the emergency services. I am fairly certain that a way could be found for that gate to be used by them; it could be pulled back to allow them to access the Dawlish Warren area.

The current situation is not without risk. I say that for two reasons, one of which is personal. Sadly, a good friend of mine, Councillor Bill Buckle, had a heart attack and died while walking on the warren. The ambulance had to stop on one side and its crew had to leg it nearly half a mile across the sand dunes to Bill, who was dying. Vital minutes could have been saved if the gate had been accessible. It is unlikely that the buildings destroyed by two fires on the warren would have been saved by the fire crews getting there that much quicker, because of the nature of the fires, how quickly they spread and the fact that the buildings were structured with timber. However, the fact that there have been two major fires there highlights the need to allow full appliances to gain access to the warren.

I have corresponded with Network Rail on the issue and it is totally intransigent about it. When the Minister has opportunities to discuss funding with Network Rail, will he ask about its health and safety record on such matters and what health and safety improvements it thinks need to be made? Is there any chance of the Minister asking the company, or even insisting, that it give greater priority to such health and safety concerns?

Not all the concerns are easily reconciled. There are concerns about the walk along the sea wall between Teignmouth and Dawlish. Sadly, there is not an easy solution to some concerns and some compromises have to be made. We have to accept that; I am not saying that the world should be wrapped in cotton wool in such instances. However, in the two cases that I have outlined, there are clear examples of how things could be done.

I mentioned the sea wall. The last time I was fortunate enough to secure an Adjournment debate in this Chamber, we discussed the sea wall at great length. For the record, I should say that there has been progress on the issue. Network Rail has indicated that it believes that maintaining the line along the sea wall—the one through Dawlish and through to Teignmouth—is the best option. The line featured spectacularly on the BBC’s “Coast” programme three weeks ago. Sadly, I did not get to see it and I have not been able to see a recording, but the waves crash over the line. Network Rail believes that the line can and should be maintained as the best link to the west of the county and Cornwall, and for those areas it is essential that the line remains open. I am glad of the company’s continued investment in and commitment to that service. However, there are risks from weather change, as we have seen from the horrendous storms that have affected some northern parts of the country this week. No matter what pre-planning is done, services will be always put out of action for a period by such storms.

On that point, it is always better to have two options to access a destination than just one. I am not seeking a firm commitment now, but I ask the Minister to consider representations that might be made to him by the regional development agency and by others to consider the cost of reopening the old line from Okehampton to Plymouth. That would provide relief in the event of problems with the other line, and the same would be true in reverse in the event that there were problems with the small commuter service, because the coastal alternative could substitute.

Let me say something else about relief. One of the Bills that has been making its way through the House is the Crossrail Bill, although, from the faces of the hon. Members who emerge from the Committee sittings, it appears that progress on it is slow. I make no comment on the benefits or otherwise of the Bill, because Crossrail is not a matter on which I have particularly strong views. However, my constituents are concerned about the impact of Crossrail on their ability to get in and out of London.

Again, I do not press for firm commitments one way or the other. However, will the Minister consider what could be done to alleviate the potential problems that might exist, in particular during the construction phase? Two thoughts come to mind, both of which revolve around the capacity of Waterloo and whether it can be improved. First, some alleviation could be achieved from improvements to the Exeter to Waterloo line, which are in any case much needed for the benefit of the service to the west country and Devon. Secondly, if First Great Western maintains its service to Reading, why cannot feasibility studies be undertaken to consider improving the line from Reading to Waterloo? There is already such a service, but it is one that could perhaps be made even better.

I hope that the Minister will respond positively to the matters that I have raised.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate and on getting to the Chamber on time following his endeavours in the Westminster boat race. I am delighted that he did not fall in.

The hon. Gentleman raised some important issues and I shall address some specific ones before moving on to some more general comments. I understand that there might shortly be a Division, so I shall try to keep my comments brief. He is understandably concerned about health and safety in stations in his constituency—particularly at Starcross. He prefaced his own comments by correctly pointing out that that matter is one more for Network Rail than for the Department for Transport. However, I shall be happy to make representations on his concerns to Network Rail at my next regular meeting with the chief executive designate, Ian Coucher.

As the hon. Gentleman said, health and safety matters are normally dealt with by Network Rail, by the train operating companies—in this case, First Great Western, or occasionally by the Office of Rail Regulation, which is the industry safety regulator. However, he has made his case extremely well, and I should be more than happy again to raise the matters that he has mentioned with Network Rail. I say that particularly in light of the fact that the hon. Gentleman invited Ian Coucher to his constituency 18 months to two years ago, yet still nothing seems to have materialised.

The hon. Gentleman takes a pragmatic and realistic view of what can and cannot be achieved on the budgets that are available to the railways. The Department for Transport subscribes to the so-called low-hanging fruit theory, which is the theory that it is often better value for money to spend fairly modest sums to achieve modest change to infrastructure, because that can result in disproportionate benefit to passengers. I know that he subscribes to that theory too, so I am more than happy to encourage Network Rail to pursue that course and find out whether the stop sign on the platform can be changed so that people can enter and leave trains more easily.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the lack of emergency access at Dawlish Warren. I extend my sympathy for the loss of his friend—I am unhappy to hear of any such incidents. Again, the matter is one for Network Rail and perhaps for the ORR.

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

On resuming—

The hon. Gentleman also raised concerns about the Dawlish sea wall. I am aware of concerns that the main line between Exeter and Plymouth, which runs along the sea wall in the Dawlish area, is, as he said, vulnerable to storms and flooding. Some have been pressing for the reinstatement of an inland route to allow services to avoid the Dawlish area in the longer term, but that is a matter for Network Rail rather than for my Department. I apologise to the hon. Gentleman if that sounds like a recitation of buck-passing. Network Rail continues to monitor the likelihood of risks to the safety and operational integrity of the railway in the Dawlish area.

The hon. Gentleman referred specifically to the reopening of the Okehampton to Plymouth line. There is a well established process in the Department whereby, provided that the initiative for the opening of a line comes from local stakeholders such as local authorities or business interests, that they work with Network Rail and that they provide a robust business case including an explanation of where the finance will come from, the Department should and will look sympathetically upon it. He would not expect me to undertake today to reopen the line.

If the hon. Gentleman has raised any issues that I cannot respond to directly, I shall be more than happy to write to him. More generally, I can say that after a number of difficult years Britain’s railways are a success story. Performance has improved and Network Rail and the train operators have a renewed focus on punctuality. The franchise system is delivering; more than 1 billion passenger journeys were made last year, 40 per cent. more than 10 years ago, and we have the fastest-growing network in Europe, with that strong growth expected to continue.

The hon. Gentleman will have heard me say on a number of occasions that in the current control period we are spending £88 million a week on the network. Network Rail has embarked on a nationwide infrastructure renewal programme worth more than £2 billion a year. We are basically running to catch up on the decades of under-investment in our railways by previous Governments of both colours.

Increased investment in such initiatives as integrated control centres has improved punctuality to pre-Hatfield levels. In the past 12 months, more than 88 per cent. of trains have run on time, as measured by the industry-standard public performance measure. Further improvements are targeted for March 2008. The rail industry has committed to achieve 89.4 per cent. on the public performance measure by then and 90 per cent. a year later.

The hon. Gentleman’s constituency is served by First Great Western. I have said on a number of occasions, and first in this Chamber, that it is not my role to defend First Great Western—I am not the Minister for FGW. I am determined that appropriate action will be taken to ensure that its performance improves substantially. There is evidence that the worst of the problems experienced at the beginning of this year have abated to an extent, but the situation remains poor. I shall continue to look for further improvements to match those elsewhere in the rail industry.

First Great Western, Network Rail and other train operators in the area, including freight train companies, have an important part to play in improving performance. Under its existing franchise, First Great Western is contractually committed to spending substantial sums on improving the reliability of its whole train fleet. Following problems earlier this year, it has also published in conjunction with Network Rail a recovery programme comprising 40 additional action points.

As the hon. Gentleman will know, the First Great Western franchise is not just about long-distance services. Its local services in the west of England are an important part of it and serve the needs of commuters, tourists and other passengers travelling to towns, villages and cities in the area, including key regional centres such as Bristol, Exeter and Plymouth. They also provide connections to longer-distance services to London and other parts of Britain. I confirm that the new franchise also commits the company to a series of reliability modifications to all the trains used on the west of England services. Their passenger accommodation and exteriors will also be refreshed.

Network Rail is carrying out a lot of work to improve performance in the area. It is renewing and improving its infrastructure across the whole area in which First Great Western operates train services, including on lines in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency. That covers track, signalling systems and civil engineering structures such as bridges and embankments. It is perhaps in that context that I shall raise the issues that he has raised today. I meet Network Rail regularly to discuss performance across the network.

I do not wish to embark on a more general discourse on the state of the railways that might not be entirely relevant to the hon. Gentleman’s concerns, so I shall end with a commitment to raise with Network Rail the matters that he has mentioned in a bid to speed up the work that, understandably and correctly for a constituency MP, he wishes to be done in his constituency.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-four minutes to Six o’clock.