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Commons Chamber

Volume 462: debated on Monday 2 July 2007

House of Commons

Monday 2 July 2007

The House met at half-past Two o’clock

Prayers

[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Work and Pensions

The Secretary of State was asked—

Pension Credit (North-West Leicestershire)

In February 2007, an estimated 3,650 households—4,470 individuals—in North-West Leicestershire were receiving pension credit, but the numbers eligible are not available at constituency level.

I am delighted that my right hon. Friend survived the shuffle and did not have to register with what has proved to be his new Department.

The recent report of the Public Accounts Committee into the DWP’s progress in tackling pensioner poverty highlighted a wide variation in benefit take-up rates around Great Britain, with the lowest rates in pockets of deprivation located in rural and otherwise prosperous areas. Can the Secretary of State tell the House what initiatives are planned to provide funding for community, voluntary and not-for-profit organisations in such settings to increase take-up among vulnerable and other hard to reach groups?

I am grateful for what my hon. Friend said at the beginning, and for his message of support. We constantly look at initiatives and opportunities, including the use of the voluntary sector, which can often play an absolutely vital part, especially in assisting senior citizens. Over recent years, we have visited 1 million households to try to push the pension credit out further. We are constantly phoning people, because it is now easy to take up pension credit over the telephone rather than having to fill out a form. I urge everybody concerned—those who may be watching the debate and colleagues throughout the House—to make sure that every pensioner in their constituency who may be entitled to pension credit is put in touch so that they can claim it.

I welcome the Secretary of State and his new team to the Treasury Bench, along with a couple of older faces—[Interruption.] Experienced faces.

The Secretary of State will be aware that many people who have lost their occupational pension over the past 10 years are concerned about ending up on means-tested benefits. As the new Administration are supposed to be listening and learning and changing policy, how does he intend to respond to the almost universal condemnation of the financial assistance scheme, and will he be able to respond positively when the Pensions Bill comes back amended from another place?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his welcome. I think he accepted the correction that an experienced team has joined the newcomers like me.

It has clearly been a scandal that people lost their pension as a result of their company going bust and taking the pension fund down with it. That is a scandal, but we have put £8 billion into providing assistance for people in that position and we shall continue to support them in a way that was never done before. We shall obviously consider the House of Lords amendments when the Bill returns to this place, but whatever issues need to be worked through we should recognise the big picture: £8 billion has been put in to rescue people from the plight they would otherwise suffer.

I, too, welcome my right hon. Friend. Although he did not get the job I wanted him to have, I am glad that he has a job that is so important for this country.

Whether in North-West Leicestershire or any other part of the country, it is clear that we must listen to people who represent pensioners in taking forward important cases, so I urge my right hon. Friend to sit down as soon as possible with representatives of the National Pensioners Convention, to get them on side in the work we are trying to do to make things better for all our people.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. The National Pensioners Convention plays an absolutely vital role in championing the interests of senior citizens. I was concerned to hear that apparently there was no Labour party representative at the last conference, which I think was in Blackpool. We shall have to put that right in future, because we want to work with the convention and other representatives from pensioners organisations to make sure that the policies deliver what is intended—justice for pensioners.

Employment (Disabled People)

We have a number of programmes designed to provide help to disabled people, and in the year to April 2007 those programmes supported more than 50,000 people both to get into and retain employment. We are currently reviewing our employment services for disabled people and intend to consult on our proposals later in the year.

I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. I am pleased that she is still in the same position as she speaks up very well for disabled people.

Has my hon. Friend made any assessment of the effectiveness of the pathways work-focused interviews for incapacity benefit claimants? Many of them are enthusiastic and keen to work but are understandably anxious because they feel the nature of their condition may not be fully understood. Recent DWP research seems to indicate that, too, so does my hon. Friend think that the carrot may be more important than the stick?

I thank my hon. Friend for raising that question. As she will be aware, one of the changes that we will implement—linked to the successful implementation of our pathways to work pilot—relates to the welfare reform proposals. Linked to that are the changes in the personal capability assessment, which will reflect far more accurately some of the issues that disabled people—particularly those who have a mental health condition—and their organisations have raised with us. Organisations and individuals told us, over a consistent period, that they did not feel that the personal capability assessment quite reflected the fluctuating nature of mental health conditions, and we worked with those organisations over a number of months to ensure that the new personal capability assessment recognises the issues that are particular to those with fluctuating conditions.

May I, through the Minister, welcome the Secretary of State to his new work? I hope that he is able to fit his new duties in around his job as Secretary of State for Wales.

What would the Minister say to Liberal Democrat Assembly Member Peter Black, who said this morning in the Western Mail

“benefits and disability payments discourage claimants from seeking work”?

Does she agree with him?

No, I do not. My apologies for not having read the Western Mail this morning; I was busy reading The Scotsman and the Glasgow Herald. May I correct a discourtesy? I did not thank my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North (Julie Morgan) for the kind words at the beginning of her question.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman agrees that we want disability benefits to be used to support people who have indicated that they want to move into work. That is why the new welfare reform proposals are so crucial. We recognise that many people who are on incapacity benefit, for example, want to get into work. The issue is not their express desire to get into work; the real difficulty is breaking down the barriers involved in their getting into work. Some of those barriers are created by attitudinal issues relating to employers and those in the community who look continually at what people cannot do, not at what they can do. The issue is about changing that perception and that reality.

I, too, congratulate the Minister on keeping her job and continuing her role as a champion for people with disabilities. I think that everybody in the House would agree that, where possible, it is more important to get people into mainstream employment than into sheltered employment, but what guarantees have we got, in the context of the changes that are coming to Remploy, that some of the vulnerable people in sheltered employment will not be forced into compulsory redundancy?

I thank my hon. Friend, not just for his question but for the sterling work that he did to support the Department for Work and Pensions team as a DWP Whip. I am delighted that he has not lost his voice. Having been in the Whips Office myself for an extended period of time, I know how difficult it is. Members who have been Whips sometimes feel as though they have actually lost the ability to speak in the House. He has clearly not lost either that ability, or his incisive style of questioning. I can reassure him that, first, the Remploy proposals are just that—they are proposals. Secondly, we have always been clear that we want to ensure that disabled people have a choice. Thirdly, we still see a role for supported factories. Finally, both the previous Secretary of State, the current Secretary of State and I have stated that there will be no compulsory redundancies for disabled people who are currently employed by Remploy. They will have protected terms and conditions, including a final salary pension, through to their normal retirement age. The proposals, however, are the subject of discussion between management and the trade unions at this time.

I, too, welcome the new Secretary of State to his post and congratulate him and his team of Ministers on their appointments. We look forward to a constructive engagement with them on the many important issues in his in-tray. The Freud report sets out a funding model for extending the reach of welfare-to-work programmes to include hundreds of thousands of people trapped on inactive long-term benefits—not least people with disabilities—by engaging the private and voluntary sectors. Can the Minister tell the House where the new Government stand on the implementation of the Freud report?

“The new Government” is a bit of embroidery; we are the same Labour Government who came in with the intention of tackling unemployment, reducing the barriers that many disabled people and those on long-term benefits had to put up with for many years, and turning round the situation in which the number of people put on incapacity benefit tripled during 18 years of the Conservative Government. Our intentions regarding the Freud report will be made entirely clear to both the House and the hon. Gentleman when we issue our response to it.

I appreciate the hon. Lady’s difficulty because she is serving a Prime Minister who has made it clear that he expects unswerving loyalty to the party line, yet the party line on this issue is not clear. The Prime Minister harangued David Freud in his office before the report was published. He then sat on a platform with David Freud and implicitly endorsed the report, after which his Chief Secretary wrote to the then Secretary of State to make it clear that he would not fund the implementation or piloting of the proposals in the report. After 10 years of Labour promises on welfare reform, may we please have a straight answer: when will we be told whether the Government will back Freud, or block him?

May I say, with the greatest courtesy to the hon. Gentleman, that he should at least give the Government true recognition for aiming to tackle some of the legacy that we inherited of people being placed on incapacity benefit and abandoned? The number of such people tripled under the previous Government. I would be interested to know which particular fly he was on the wall as he seems to be giving us chapter and verse on what happened during a conversation that was private to those who participated in it. Let me reassure the hon. Gentleman that he will find out our comments on the Freud report and the way forward when we issue our Green Paper on it.

The hon. Gentleman will find that out when we issue the Green Paper. I will not be held to a timetable by him.

I am delighted that my hon. Friend is still in her post as Minister for the disabled.

The Minister knows that 66 per cent. of the blind and partially sighted want to be in work, but remain outside work. Visage, Action for Blind People’s employment programme, and access to work, the Government’s employment programme, are excellent. What is she doing to encourage employers to take on board both those programmes and to persuade them that blind and other disabled people should be looked at never for their disablement, but for their ability?

I thank my hon. Friend for the kind comments at the beginning of her question. She has done an enormous amount to highlight the difficulties that those with visual impairment and blindness find when trying to move into work. I am delighted that she highlights the access to work programme. The Government have quadrupled the value of that programme since we took office in 1997, and some £60 million is spent on supporting people to move into work and retain employment.

My hon. Friend highlights the important point that there is under-employment among those with a visual impairment and blindness. We need to change employers’ attitudes—this links with the answer that I gave the hon. Member for Caernarfon (Hywel Williams)—so that they start to appreciate that disabled people bring skills and experience to the work force. We continue to do that through our general work, and later this year we will launch the “Employ Ability” initiative, which will focus on employers looking at people for what they can do, not what they cannot do.

3. What recent assessment he has made of the prospects of employment in Northumberland for people with disabilities. (146346)

Opportunities for disabled people both to get into and retain employment are better than ever in Northumberland and elsewhere. We have a substantial range of programmes to help disabled people to get into work and to help those in work to stay in work. As always, we are looking to improve our services so that people who want to work can work.

Is the Minister aware that even now Northumberland remains a difficult place for jobs, especially for disabled people? My constituents who work at the Remploy factory in Ashington are worried not only about their positions, but those of the people who might come after them. In an area where employment is not so readily available, should not the Remploy factory have a continuing role in some kind of training capacity to enable disabled people to go into employment?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for asking that question, and in that context. He is right to identify the issue of a continuing role for Remploy, but I remind the House that Remploy is not just about the supported factory network; there is also an employment services element. He might be interested to know that in the north-east Remploy factories, some 463 people are in the supported factory network, but there are nearly 300 in the employment services element of the Remploy operation. Remploy management are obviously negotiating on the proposals. I am not sure whether the right hon. Gentleman has taken up an offer to meet the chief executive of Remploy, but if he has not done so, I hope that he will.

Incapacity Benefits

Claimant numbers more than trebled between the late 1970s and mid-1990s. We have reversed that trend, and the position is very different now. New incapacity benefit claims have dropped by more than a third, and in the year to November 2006 the number of people on incapacity benefit was down by 38,000.

I welcome the Secretary of State to his new post and wish him well for the future. In my constituency, a large number of diagnoses made by GPs to determine eligibility for incapacity benefits are now going to appeal. What measures are taken to ensure that such diagnoses are accurate?

Obviously, we need continuously to monitor the situation, but the personal capability assessment remains the most robust system that we have devised for assessing incapacity at work. A number of cases—I think around half—succeed on appeal if they have been initially rejected under that process of assessment because there is then more information available than there was at the time when the assessment was made. We need to ensure that the system works fairly, that all the doctors involved are fully trained in applying the terms of personal capability assessment and that their reports are regularly monitored.

Will the right hon. Gentleman use the opportunity of his new arrival at the Department to look again at the way in which those who lose an arm and therefore do not have the use of a hand are treated compared to those who lose a leg? At the moment those who lose an arm are very much less generously treated and sometimes have great difficulty finding work.

I would be grateful to the right hon. Gentleman if he could provide me with any details, especially of his constituents and others whom he knows to be affected in that way. The situation will depend on the individual assessment, but we do not want to treat anyone unfairly. If he has any information that would enable us to deal with his question, I would be glad to receive it.

I welcome my right hon. Friend to his new position. We are doing a great deal of work to help those people who have only recently come on to incapacity benefit. What plans does my right hon. Friend have for people who have been on incapacity benefit for a great number of years, and who are not very confident about going back to work?

I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s welcome. As she knows, we are rolling out the pathways to work programme nationally over the coming period. In the Rhondda valley in south Wales, near my constituency, it has been hugely successful in getting people on incapacity benefit back into work. My hon. Friend is also right to draw attention to another matter, which is that the longer people are on incapacity benefit, the more likely it is that they will never come off it. That is one of the reasons we are addressing the issue of reform in the arrangements for welfare to work, especially in respect of disabled people, so that they have the opportunity to work, and so that we can encourage them to do so.

The Secretary of State will know that many people claiming incapacity benefit suffer from back pain and stress. Although those conditions are serious, does he agree that there is a small fraudulent element claiming that benefit, which needs to be investigated more? How robust will he be with people who are making fraudulent claims?

Obviously, anyone making a fraudulent claim should be identified and that should be exposed and dealt with robustly. As the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Mr. Plaskitt), has just reminded me, the number of fraudulent claims is down significantly, perhaps as much as two thirds. That shows that we are being tough on fraudulent claims, but we must also make sure that people are treated fairly.

I welcome my right hon. Friend to his new position. I am very pleased that he is at the Department for Work and Pensions. May I invite him up to North-East Derbyshire, where part of the first pathways to work pilot in Derbyshire took place, which was also the first in England, and the most successful in the country, obviously? We have a project in Staveley where the welfare rights organisations are working closely with Jobcentre Plus to identify the skills needs and the jobs that will be available in the next 10 years, which is one of the key elements in getting people off incapacity benefit and into work. If my right hon. Friend would like to come and visit the project, we will make him a cup of tea.

I thank my hon. Friend. As she voted for me for the deputy leadership, the answer to her invitation must be yes. I congratulate her on her wisdom and good judgment in that vote, by the way. She has identified an extremely important issue, and I will gladly look at the project when I come to her constituency.

Benefits ( Disabled People)

6. What measures he has introduced to simplify the assessment process of benefits for people with disabilities. (146349)

For people with health problems and disabilities, we will be introducing the new employment and support allowance, which will be a single benefit combining earnings replacement and the income-related elements. We are also committed to simplifying the claiming process for disability living allowance and attendance allowance customers, and have already made substantial improvements.

I am pleased to hear that. Is the Minister aware that disabled people have to answer 1,351 questions across 412 pages to get up to 10 benefits? Is she aware that less than 20 per cent. of those questions are unique, 40 per cent. of them are repeated at least three times, and 16 per cent. are repeated at least twice? She must agree that that is inefficient duplication. Will she please explain what she intends to do about it?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question, and I want colleagues to know that I discern a split in the Conservative ranks on the matter. The shadow Minister for Disabled People, the hon. Member for South-West Surrey (Mr. Hunt), said that there were 1,200 questions over 352 pages, which sits at odds with the statistics that we have just heard. We in the Government know that we must simplify benefit application forms, but we should not give the impression that every disabled person applying for a benefit has to answer all the questions that the hon. Gentleman highlighted.

We can play around with statistics, but the danger is that such a numerical approach may create a fear among disabled people that it is almost impossible to get through the benefits system. In fact, 2.8 million people in Britain claim disability living allowance. We try to make it as easy and as straightforward as possible. We work with organisations that will assist and support individuals claiming the benefit. We offer a form-filling service through the disability and carers service, and we offer a very supportive helpline. Yes, we need to look at simplification, but no, we should not—

I thank my hon. Friend for the way that she has supported the disabled people at Carlyon Print Service in my constituency, 23 of whom are out of work owing to the lack of foresight on the part of the local Liberal Democrat and Conservative council. Will my hon. Friend condemn that short-sighted move by the council, and ensure that when those people are making the transition from work in those sheltered surroundings back to unemployment, their benefits transition is facilitated as much as possible? May I invite her to the reception that I will be hosting for those individuals later this month in the House of Commons?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. I know that he has made a commitment to the Carlyon print factory in the face of the local council’s decision. I would, of course, be delighted to attend the reception. Jobcentre Plus and the DWP will do all they can sensitively to support his constituents’ transition from work to benefits and, we hope, back into work.

In the course of reviewing that assessment, will the Minister re-examine the anomalous treatment of those who are physically disabled and are perhaps in wheelchairs and those who are totally blind or severely visually impaired? At the moment, those who are visually impaired or blind do not qualify for the higher rate of mobility allowance. The Minister will no doubt have noted that more than half the Back Benchers in this House have signed my early-day motion on the subject, and I wonder whether she will reconsider the matter.

The hon. Gentleman and I spoke at the lobby of Parliament undertaken by the Royal National Institute of the Blind. We are engaging in discussions with the RNIB to consider the issues and to decide whether we can develop criteria that meet some of the RNIB’s demands in relation to people who are totally blind. I will, of course, keep the House apprised of the outcome of those discussions.

Although simplification of the assessment process for benefits, and especially for the disability living allowance, is important, the length of time that that assessment takes is equally important. The Princess Royal Trust for Carers in my constituency has told me that the process takes far too long. I appreciate that my hon. Friend may not have the figures to hand—I would therefore appreciate it if she were to write to me—but will she disclose the average time it takes to process a DLA claim? If she believes that the process takes too long, what does she intend to do to speed it up?

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. I do in fact have the figures to hand: the average clearance time for DLA claims under the normal rules is 36.8 days, and many claims are handled much more quickly than that. The average clearance time for attendance allowance claims is 16.6 days, which is just over two weeks. Those who apply under the special rules procedure—those who have a terminal illness or condition—have their claim turned around in five days.

I, too, welcome the Minister back to her post. Her length of service may soon rival the length of the forms filled in by disabled people. My hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South (Richard Ottaway) has referred to the complexity of the disability benefit system. The matter involves not only the frustration felt by disabled people in having to fill out those forms, but the barriers to work that those forms create. What would the Minister say to a young man in his 20s from Northern Ireland who has cerebral palsy and whose father told me at the weekend that his son wants nothing more than to be able to work? Because of the complex rules covering how much work that young man can do, he knows that if he works for more than four hours a week, his benefit will be docked.

Of course we recognise that the benefit system must support people who want to move into work, which is one of the reasons we have moved to the new employment support allowance. We use all sorts of means to get the message across to disabled people that there are opportunities in the labour market. I do not know the specifics in Northern Ireland, because, as the hon. Gentleman knows or should know, social security in Northern Ireland is managed discretely from social security in Great Britain. The matter is not as straightforward as he likes to make it out to be, and it involves more than simply reducing the number of questions, because many benefits need to be tailored to the needs and demands of the individual. We need the information to make the right judgment at the right time to get the right benefit to the right person as soon as possible.

Lost Working Days

The Revitalising Health and Safety strategy was set in place in 2000. It adopted a target to reduce the number of working days lost from work-related injury and ill health by 30 per cent. by 2010. The strategy is working. Taking ill health and injuries together, the number of working days lost per worker has fallen from 1.8 days in 2002-03 to 1.3 days in 2005-06. Over the past decade, total working days lost have fallen from 40 million to 30 million.

While that progress is very much to be welcomed, the absolute figures remain staggeringly large. Wirral, for example, has a relatively poor record in terms of getting people who have been sick and injured back into employment. Does my hon. Friend accept that getting back to work is the final step to full rehabilitation, but that to achieve that one must have employer, individual and Government working together? What more is to be done in that regard?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right about the fact that this involves everybody. Of course, we want to help people who have suffered injury or illness to get back to work. There is clearly a part for Government, which is why we have the strategy in place. There is a part for employers—small and medium, as well as large—with whom we work on the delivery of that strategy. In respect of helping individuals, training, advice and awareness campaigns are important. That is why we do a lot to promote the prevention of these things in the first place, and why the occupational health service regularly visits employers to help to promote best practice, such as the better backs campaign, which in itself has led to a reduction of 1.5 million in the number of working days lost as a result of back injury.

I shall not congratulate the hon. Gentleman on keeping his job, because more importantly I want to pay tribute to the hon. Member for Nottingham, East (Mr. Heppell) for being a constructive and terrific Whip on the Welfare Reform Bill, and to the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Mr. Murphy), who is not in his place, but who was an extremely thoughtful Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform.

The issue of sick notes is a big one, because it condemns too many of our fellow citizens to benefit dependency. Too often, sick notes are signed off too easily by some GPs. In January 2006, the Government’s Green Paper rightly said that the sick note culture needs to be tackled, and they proposed incentives to GPs to help people back into work through a reformed primary care trust contract and the use of employment advisers in surgeries. I wonder why those policies have not been implemented—

We got there eventually, Mr. Speaker. I thank the hon. Gentleman for his generous comments about my colleagues at the start of his question.

All the statistics show that the measures that we are taking are helping more people who have been the victims of sickness or injury at work to get back into work more quickly than before. In the past five years alone, the number of working days lost as a result of workplace injury has declined by 2 million, and those as a result of ill health at work by 7 million, so a total of 9 million extra days have been added to the economy. The measures that we are taking, in conjunction with the health service, are helping to reduce lost working days and to help more people back into work more quickly.

My hon. Friend is right to point to the fall in numbers, but that still equates to 100,000 full-time employees having a year off. Has he studied the system in Holland, where it is incumbent on employers, through legislation, to engage in rehabilitating employees who have fallen sick or ill? Getting greater involvement of employers, especially with occupational therapies, could have a major impact on the figures.

My hon. Friend is right that rehabilitation is important. It forms part of many of our discussions with employers and other organisations to help ensure that the services are available and that advice is given. He is right to identify rehabilitation as a significant factor in helping us do even better.

Employment Services

8. What recent representations his Department has received on the use of the private and voluntary sectors in the provision of employment services for benefit recipients. (146351)

The use of the private and voluntary sectors, alongside Jobcentre Plus, has provided our customers with access to innovative approaches to helping people back to work. Ministers and officials regularly meet representatives of the private and voluntary sectors. For example, the Provision Forum meets quarterly to share information, intelligence and ideas about the delivery of our successful labour market programmes.

May I congratulate the Minister on her new appointment? As she works with her right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to encourage him into one of the first U-turns of his premiership to support the Freud report conclusions, does she intend to follow the example of Holland, where private and voluntary sector agencies told the Select Committee when we visited a year ago that they succeed most in returning people with disabilities to work the earlier they intervene? In this country, people are not eligible for disability living allowance until they have been out of work for six weeks.

Well, DLA is not an out-of-work benefit for a start. I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind remarks but emphasise that, in the past 10 years, the private and voluntary sectors have been more engaged in supporting people back to work, especially in areas where people have particular challenges, such as disability and child care problems. I have been in the job for only a few days and I am examining the Freud report. He makes interesting points about the way in which we can increase the capacity of the private and voluntary sectors and consider different methods of bearing down on some areas where we can do better. Clearly, we have done well: 900,000 people are off benefits and more people than ever are in work. However, challenges remain and we are up for the task.

The private and voluntary sectors that work at the coal face do a tremendous job in helping shape new futures for people with disabilities. Would it not be a good idea for them to liaise with our friends who work with the DLA, examine the business process of delivering it and conduct the assessment at the coal face, working with the voluntary sector and the business community?

The Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Mrs. McGuire), reminds me that two different benefits are operating. However, I have heard the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Andrew Miller). I am only a few days into the job and I shall examine several matters to ascertain how we can perform better. I am sure that he agrees that some fantastic work is already happening throughout the country to support people with or without disabilities to get back into the workplace.

I, too, welcome my hon. Friend to her new position. She knows as well as anyone that the voluntary sector has much to offer in employment services and many other aspects of the Department’s work. Although I acknowledge that it contributes much in cost efficiency, innovation and new and appropriate methods of tailoring services to individual needs, does she acknowledge that the large players in the voluntary sector should not have the game entirely to themselves? There is scope for local commissioning with smaller organisations in the voluntary sector when delivering services.

My hon. Friend makes a good point. Clearly there are issues about capacity and value for money. We must also recognise that many smaller organisations already provide the sort of niche services that are so essential to helping some people in the community who want to get back to work and need special support. I hope that, in the months and years ahead, we can combine the best of the large organisations, but ensure, through different means, including sub-contracting, that the niche services are fully supported. We are listening to concerns—the Department is very much in listening mode.

Financial Assistance Scheme

9. When he next expects to meet representatives of private pension schemes to discuss the financial assistance scheme. (146352)

I have no appointments as yet to meet private sector pension providers, but I hope to do so in due course. In the meantime, my officials are in contact with the various private sector providers.

I too welcome the hon. and learned Member to his new ministerial post. Is he aware that I represent a large number of constituents who are members of the Albert Fisher pension scheme and that, even after the Government’s changes, they are not going to receive their full pension entitlement? In other words, they will still be short-changed in their retirement. They blame the former Chancellor for the devastation caused to private pensions. Are they right to do so?

They are certainly not right to do so. The previous Government set in place a whole series of changes to pension laws, which caused all sorts of problems for the pensions industry. Before laying blame on the Government, the hon. Gentleman should take the mote out of his own eye.

Should my hon. and learned Friend meet representatives of private pension schemes, will he tell them that if they had not spent so much time on contributions holidays, there would not be the same need for a financial assistance scheme? Will he remind them that it is thanks to the efforts of the present Government that thousands and thousands of pensioners will now be able to claim compensation rather than die in poverty?

My hon. Friend is right. Contribution holidays, which were encouraged by some of the policies put in place by a previous Chancellor—now Lord Lamont—were part of the problem. This Government had to tackle the pensions mis-selling crisis that was also created by the previous Government. We created the Pension Protection Fund to deal with the problems of occupational pensions, we have put in place a new pensions regulator and we are helping 125,000 people through the financial assistance scheme. We will continue to put in place policies through the Pensions Bill to ensure that we remedy the various problems that were indeed caused by the previous Government.

I have two sets of constituents who have lost their pensions: people who worked for MG Rover and those who worked for United Engineering Forgings. Those who lost their pension from MG Rover receive the protection of the Pension Protection Fund, while those in UEF secure only the financial assistance scheme, which offers considerably less compensation. Will the Minister now put my constituents out of their misery by finally accepting the lifeboat proposal championed by Conservative Members that would provide equality of compensation to my two equal sets of constituents?

Perhaps the hon. Lady should listen to her own shadow Chancellor who said at a meeting of The Independent newspaper that at the Conservative conference,

“lots of Conservatives… come up to me and say we’ve really got to put more money into pensions”

He continued by saying that

“part of the test of whether we are ready for government is whether we can resist those additional draws on public expenditure”.

This Government have put forward a set of proposals in pensions legislation that will deal with many of the issues relating to people who have lost pensions. Also, the proposals in the financial assistance scheme create the right balance between the taxpayer helping some of those who are affected and ensuring that pensions get a reasonable deal. The basic minimum that we are guaranteeing is 80 per cent. If they are covered by the Pension Protection Fund, they will be able to receive 90 per cent., but we should remember that people covered by that scheme have to make a contribution—it is more like an insurance policy—while no contribution was made by people under the FAS.

I should like to welcome my hon. and learned Friend to his position. Can he tell me—or, if not, will he write to me—whether primary legislation will be necessary in order for people to access private pension schemes in the City?

As my hon. Friend knows, Andrew Young is undertaking a review. We hope to get an interim report by the end of July and then a final report towards the end of this year. We then hope to be able to identify what we can access in respect of available funds. One of the concerns about the lifeboat proposal is that it is really an unfunded commitment. The Conservatives are quite happy to make such commitments, but we are the Government and we have to deal with these issues responsibly. Whatever we propose has to be properly funded.

Occupational Health

10. What recent discussions he has had with the Health and Safety Executive on European Union legislation on occupational health. (146353)

Most recently, we have discussed the new European Community strategy on health and safety at work. This is a wide-ranging strategy for the next five years and we welcome it. The ideas that it contains fit well with our own existing policies and programmes.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that reply. Will he ensure that, in those talks, proper attention is given to workplace-related violence, particularly as it affects health workers, shop workers and transport workers, so that they can get proper protection and recognition of the injuries that they suffer at work?

My hon. Friend raises an extremely important point. I can confirm that, through the Health and Safety Executive, we issue sector-specific guidance to each of the sectors that she has just mentioned. Happily, that is helping to reduce the incidence of violence at work. Over the past 10 years, the number of incidents has fallen from 1.3 million a year to 600,000. Even that level is completely unacceptable, however, and that kind of violence cannot be tolerated. I recommend the freedom from fear campaign being mounted by the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers, which is aimed at countering violence in the retail trade. On 11 July, USDAW is holding a respect for shop workers day, which I hope that all hon. Members will support in their constituencies.

Leader of the House

The Leader of the House was asked—

Public Engagement (Debates)

18. What plans she has to make debate on the Floor of the House more engaging for the general public. (146363)

The Modernisation Committee published its report last week on revitalising the Chamber. The Committee made a number of recommendations which would make the business of the House more engaging for the general public by promoting greater topicality and greater clarity.

I thank my right hon. Friend for her reply and congratulate her on her appointments. I am very pleased to be able to put the first question to her in her new role. In order to make debates on the Floor of the House more engaging to the public, would she consider a greater role for public petitions? They are enormously important to our constituents, and often signed by thousands of people, yet they are usually presented late at night when hon. Members are rushing from the Chamber. Will she look at what happens in Wales and Scotland and perhaps take similar measures forward here?

I thank my hon. Friend for her warm wishes. She raised a point about petitions, and I will certainly look at that. I understand that the Procedure Committee has already looked into what happens in Scotland and Wales, and I will look at that too. The Procedure Committee has considered the question of petitions and produced a substantive report, to which the Government will respond. I should like to reaffirm the point behind my hon. Friend’s question. Petitions are an important link between individual constituents and their Member of Parliament, and between the people and the Government. They are also important for members of the public and for this House.

In congratulating the right hon. Lady on her appointment, may I ask her whether she will find time for a whole-day debate on the Modernisation Committee report, either shortly before or shortly after the forthcoming recess?

I hear the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion, and I know that the House will want to have enough time to debate these important topics. The House will be aware that the Prime Minister has also flagged up this important issue, and we will look at the hon. Gentleman’s request sympathetically.

I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend to her new post; it is great to see a moderniser in this role. One of the barriers to public engagement with this place is our Order of Business. It is obscure, to put it politely. In her new role, will she try to create a plain English, simple version of what happens here, so that citizens can know what we are talking about and seek to influence it?

I thank my hon. Friend for her kind welcome to me in my new position. I very much agree with her comments about the Order Paper. However, it is not just members of the public who find our procedures and the Order Paper baffling; some Members of Parliament—even quite long-standing Members of Parliament—could be forgiven for not understanding them. We have to move to plain English, which is why, when publishing the draft Bill on reform of the coroners system, I made sure that we had the legalese on one side of the page and plain English on the other, and we can make progress on a number of documents in that way. It is not only the public who do not understand; many of us do not either.

While fully supporting the request made by the hon. Member for Cardiff, North (Julie Morgan) about the debating of petitions, may I say that the House would more adequately engage with the public if more Back Benchers were called to speak in important debates? Does the right hon. Lady not feel, therefore, that considerable thought should be given to reducing the time taken by Front Benchers?

I know that this is something that the Modernisation Committee, of which the hon. Gentleman is one of the longest-standing and most respected members, has looked into, and it has made a proposal. The previous Leader of the House said that there were many proposals in that Select Committee’s report that the Government would be likely to back, and we will, therefore, issue our response shortly.

May I invite the Leader of the House to discuss with the Chief Whip the notice given to Back Benchers of Statutory Instrument Committees? Often, Members are given only 48 hours’ notice or less that they will serve on a Committee, which means that scrutiny is reduced to a charade. There is no earthly reason why most Government Departments could not flag up statutory instruments with two weeks’ notice so that people could volunteer who were interested in the subject and in providing scrutiny. That would be one of the great innovations of—

This is something that my hon. Friend has raised before, and I am happy to engage in discussion, including with the Chief Whip, who, although he gave no sign of it, was listening acutely to what my hon. Friend said.

May I also welcome the right hon. and learned Lady to her new position? I am sure that, like me, she will find it an enjoyable and satisfying role, and I look forward to working with her to protect the interests of the House and of all hon. Members.

It is, of course, important for our democracy that the public find debates in Parliament more engaging, but does the right hon. and learned Lady agree that the public will be more engaged with parliamentary debate if they think that they can trust politicians? For example, during the Labour deputy leadership campaign, the new part-time Leader of the House said “I agree” that the Government should apologise for the Iraq war. Now she says:

“I’ve never said the government should apologise”

over the Iraq war. Does she agree that examples such as that merely increase public cynicism and disengage people from Parliament?

If the right hon. Lady has something that has me quoted as saying that, she can send it to me. It is a pity, when we need to work closely together in the interests of the House, which is important for both sides and for democracy, that she should make that point. I would welcome her sending me any quote that said that. None the less, I look forward to working with her and with Opposition Members to make sure that the House works better. We need strong government, but strong government works better when it is held to account by a strong Parliament, and that is what I aim to achieve.

House of Commons Commission

The hon. Member for North Devon, representing the House of Commons Commission was asked—

Freedom of Information (Amendment) Bill

19. What assessment the Commission has made of the implications of the terms of the Freedom of Information (Amendment) Bill for the exercise of its responsibilities; and if he will make a statement. (146364)

The Commission has not made any such assessment. However, the Members Estimate Committee, as its minutes published on the internet show, decided on 29 January that the publication scheme for information about Members’ allowances that has operated for the past three years would continue, notwithstanding any change in the law that might arise from the Bill. On 21 May, the Committee reaffirmed its commitment to making sure that the public are properly informed about Parliament, not least through the publication scheme.

My hon. Friend will know that the information tribunal recently upheld a request that I made for information that the Commission had fought tooth and nail. As part of that process, it became apparent that the House of Commons Commission had resisted almost every request for embarrassing information. Does he agree that it is time for the Commission to examine its answering practices to ensure that it is compliant with the Freedom of Information Act 2000?

The Commission is not the body responsible for determining responses to such cases. My hon. Friend is mistaken in saying that we have not been replying: more than a third of such applications have been granted immediately. I understand that a tribunal judgment is awaited in one pending case and that options in relation to another will be considered as soon as possible.

Leader of the House

The Leader of the House was asked—

Oral Statements

20. If she will bring forward proposals to prevent Ministers briefing the media on the contents of oral statements before making those statements in the House. (146366)

The ministerial code makes it clear that

“when Parliament is in session, the most important announcements of Government policy should be made, in the first instance, in Parliament.”

I strongly support that principle. As the Prime Minister said at the weekend, Parliament should hear the contents of statements before the media do.

I welcome the Leader of the House’s comments, but is she aware that two statements that are to be made this week—one tomorrow by the Prime Minister on the constitution, and another on Wednesday on health—have been leaked to the press in advance of Members of this House hearing them?

I do not think that the contents of the statements have been given to the press in advance—and I say to Members that it is important that they attend the Chamber to hear the contents of statements. In my view, whether it is announced outside the House that there will be a statement is of less importance than some other issues. The public should be made aware that there will be a statement, but the contents of the statement must be made to the House first, because the Executive is accountable to Members of this House and they should be the first people to ask questions of Ministers, rather than journalists and broadcasters.

I welcome the right hon. and learned Lady to her new post. Her predecessor was firm about Ministers abiding by the ministerial code of conduct, but is there not now a strong case for strengthening the code, for stopping it being under the sole jurisdiction of the Prime Minister, and for introducing in addition a code for Cabinet Government that respects the role of Cabinet Ministers within Cabinet?

The issues that I as Leader of the House must address include ensuring the following: that there is the right relationship between Ministers and this House; that Members have an opportunity generally to raise issues of concern to their constituents; and that Ministers with responsibility for matters come to this House and give an account of themselves. The other issues raised are, perhaps, not ones for me to address.

Counter-terrorism

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I would like to make a statement on the weekend’s events. First and foremost, I am sure that all Members agree that our top priority must be the success of the investigation and any subsequent prosecution. For that reason, we will all want to avoid speculating about the details of what is still a fast-moving investigation.

The facts as they have been reported to me by the police and other agencies are as follows. In the early hours of 29 June, an ambulance crew reported a suspicious Mercedes vehicle outside a nightclub in the Haymarket in central London. The vehicle contained significant amounts of petrol, gas cylinders and nails. Explosives officers from the Metropolitan police counter terrorism command were called and manually disabled the means of detonation. During the course of their investigation on Friday, police learned of a second Mercedes vehicle that was issued with a parking ticket at about 2.30 am on 29 June. The car was parked in Cockspur street, London, close to the location of the first vehicle. The second vehicle was taken to a pound in Hyde Park at about 3.30 am that day. The vehicle contained similar materials to those found in the first, including a significant amount of fuel, gas canisters and a quantity of nails. As with the first device, the vehicle was swiftly made safe by explosives officers. Police soon confirmed that the vehicles were linked. Further examination will reveal additional detail about the damage that the devices might have caused if detonated, but at this stage police believe they were potentially viable devices that could have caused significant injury or loss of life.

At 3.15 pm on 30 June, a Jeep Cherokee drove into a front door at the check-in area of the terminal building at Glasgow airport and caught fire on impact. One member of the public sustained minor injuries in the immediate aftermath of the incident. Police have confirmed that the incident at the airport was linked to the vehicles discovered in London. Investigations into these incidents have involved police forces across the United Kingdom. To date, six individuals have been arrested in connection with the events: one at Glasgow airport, a further two in Glasgow, two in Staffordshire—north of junction 16 on the M6—and one in Liverpool. One further individual of interest remains in a critical condition in hospital. Searches have already been carried out in at least 19 locations, but as I have already said, this is a fast-moving investigation.

I am sure that the House will want to join me in thanking all those involved in the response to these incidents: the ambulance crew, whose vigilance potentially averted an attack; the police, particularly the explosives officers who manually disabled the device in the Haymarket; and the Security Service. In addition, the response from the public and the business community, including staff at airports, has been excellent in support of the police and other emergency services. I would also like to thank colleagues in Scotland and, internationally, in the United States and in Europe for their messages and offers of support.

Since Friday morning, the Government have held four meetings of Cobra, which were chaired by the Prime Minister and me and attended by ministerial colleagues from key Government Departments, and the police and intelligence agencies. Our priority has been to co-ordinate the necessary responses to protect the public.

Turning now to that response under way across the country, the police have substantially stepped up protective security measures, including: high-visibility patrols, including armed response vehicles; the increased use of stop-and-search powers for vehicles and pedestrians; and increased physical protection around airport terminal buildings, including tighter controls on access roads and the installation of new barriers, in conjunction with airport operators and the Department for Transport. As ever, these measures are designed to maximise public safety while minimising disruption to normal life. This action supplements the substantial programme of work already under way to protect high-risk locations. Police counter-terrorism security advisers have already advised a range of crowded places in recent months, including over 450 major sporting venues and around 400 shopping centres.

As the House will be aware, the UK national threat level was raised from severe to critical on Saturday 30 June by the joint terrorism analysis centre. JTAC sets threat levels based on a comprehensive analysis of all intelligence relating to international terrorism.

Terrorism is a serious threat to us all. We must ensure that our resources, capability and legislation support our common endeavour to defend the shared values of this country from terror. To that end, we have doubled expenditure on counter-terrorism since September 2001. Work as part of the current comprehensive spending review will further assess the expenditure necessary. We have started a full consultative review of counter-terrorism legislation, with a view to a Bill later this year. This process will continue. We have refocused the Home Office, developed the Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism and established a weekly security board, which I chair, to co-ordinate the efforts of key Departments and agencies. Across Government, Ministers will work together to oversee the delivery of this complex package of measures.

Let us be clear: terrorists are criminals whose victims come from all walks of life, communities and religious backgrounds. Terrorists attack the values that are shared by all law-abiding citizens. As a Government, as communities and as individuals we need to ensure that the message of the terrorists is rejected. I very much welcome the strong messages of condemnation that we have heard throughout the weekend from community leaders across the country. It is through our unity that the terrorists will eventually be defeated.

In closing my statement, I would also like to express my admiration and thanks to members of the public in this country, in all our communities, for their patience and measured response to these events. My aim as Home Secretary is to allow the British public to live their lives as they would wish, within the law. The fact that people have been prepared to go about those lives as normally as possible this weekend sends the strongest message to those who wish to destroy our way of life and our freedoms that we will not be intimidated by terror.

May I start by welcoming the Home Secretary to her new post, especially in these uniquely difficult circumstances? She has handled this entire affair to date with a calmness and dignity on which I congratulate her.

I join the Home Secretary and offer the thanks and congratulations of the Opposition to our emergency and security services for their actions in stopping these evil acts, which were planned with the clear aim of taking possibly hundreds of innocent lives. Without the keenly observant eye of one ambulance crew and the rapid response of our police force and bomb disposal crews, we could have been discussing a major tragedy today.

I wish to single out for praise the civilians who intervened to support the police at Glasgow airport. Without their action in helping to subdue a subject, in circumstances of violence and extreme risk, there might have been a much worse tragedy. In these days, when the word “hero” is bandied around for the most minor of achievements, a real hero is someone who runs towards danger while others run away, and who puts their life at risk to help others. These people did that, and I formally ask the Government to consider recognising their action appropriately.

All that being said, we have been very, very lucky: only the actions of a few people, fortuitously in the right place at the right time, prevented us from facing more than one major loss of life in the past three days. Today is a day for unity, not for criticism, so I have only two questions—of which I gave the Home Secretary notice over the weekend.

On 22 April, a newspaper carried a report produced by JTAC that predicted a high risk of an attack at the handover from the previous Prime Minister to the current one. Despite that, the threat level was not raised above severe, which is the level at which it stands most of the time. Why was that, and what were the implications for the police forces and security agencies of that lower level?

Once alerted to the threat, it is clear that the agencies responded remarkably quickly. Although numerous threats have been foiled, on which they deserve our heartfelt congratulations, we must face the fact that three attempted atrocities have occurred without warning. That means that the Home Secretary will have the difficult task of reviewing the strategy and resourcing of the entire counter-terrorist effort. If that leads to a significant increase in the size of the single intelligence budget, and associated police budgets, in the current comprehensive spending review, that decision will have the Opposition’s clear support.

Over the weekend, the Prime Minister said:

“The message that’s got to come out from the British people is that as one we will not yield, not be intimidated. And we will not allow anyone to undermine our British way of life”.

We agree. But we should remember that the liberty of the subject is the defining characteristic of the British way of life. So we should not give it up without very good cause indeed.

I am very pleased that the current Prime Minister and the current Home Secretary have not reacted to this very real threat with hasty or knee-jerk responses. Handling this enemy will take very cool judgment, very careful analysis, and very thorough planning if we are to defeat them without giving up what we all hold dear. This will take a long time, and will need co-operation between the Government and Opposition—a process that has already started.

Let me conclude by repeating what I said on 7 July 2005. It was true then, and it is true now, and I see the Prime Minister nodding. Whatever the origin and whatever the motive of the terrorism that walks our streets,

“our response will be the same—the British people will not be cowed and the terrorists will not win.”—[Official Report, 7 July 2005; Vol. 436, c. 466.]

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his words of welcome and support. I very much appreciated, too, the support he showed me as I briefed him over the weekend. I strongly agree about the bravery of members of the public, alongside members of the emergency services, and I shall certainly look carefully at his suggestion about how we can recognise that bravery.

The right hon. Gentleman raised a particular point about press reports of JTAC analysis. Just as we must avoid speculation about individual details of this operation, so too must we resist the temptation to draw conclusions from leaks of individual bits of intelligence analysis. It is JTAC’s job to look at all available intelligence from home and abroad over a period of time to assess the threat level. The fact that the threat level for the past year has been severe is a symbol or representation of the serious level of threat that the intelligence suggested we face.

I would have a small disagreement with the right hon. Gentleman about it being a routine threat level—it is not; it represents a sustained level of threat and police and other activity has been commensurate with that.

I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman expressed support for increased funding. The doubling of such expenditure since 9/11 has of course enabled us to double the number of agents in the security services and to provide important support for counter-terrorism work in the police force, too.

Once again, I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his words; it is most certainly my intention to continue this important work in co-operation not only with Opposition Members but with everybody else in the country who can help us to tackle the threat of terrorism.

I am grateful to the Home Secretary for advance sight of her statement and for the updates she provided over the past few days as events unfolded. I welcome her to her new position and recognise that she had to deal with some early challenges within hours of taking it up.

I wholeheartedly join the right hon. Lady in recognising the vigilance of the public and the intelligence services, and the valour of members of the public, emergency services and police. That vigilance and valour, combined with an almost uncanny stroke of good luck, appear to have helped to avert the worst this time. Naturally, I, too, am delighted that neither she nor the Prime Minister appears, at the moment at least, to be invoking the events of recent days as a reason to argue immediately for new legislation. Does she agree that legislation is only ever a small part of our collective response and that excessive or ill-considered legislation can increase feelings of alienation and resentment, within precisely the communities we need on our side?

I strongly agree with the Home Secretary that unity is essential, not only to thwart criminal extremists themselves but to help to enhance a feeling of solidarity between and within our various communities. Does she agree that the long-term dilemma facing us all is how we can deal with the grievances of terrorist extremists without in any way legitimising them? Although there is never any excuse for such violence, does she agree that we need a calm, candid approach to our policies at home and abroad, to work out how best to bolster moderate Muslim opinion and successfully isolate the views of the criminal extremists, as the Prime Minister suggested this weekend?

Finally, in the light of the attack at Glasgow airport, will the Home Secretary confirm that pilot studies are under way for installing new vehicle access barriers at Victoria and Waterloo railway stations? In February, I asked what steps were being taken to roll out those pilots at other stations and airports and was told that a report would be completed in April, but I do not think it has yet been published. Can the Home Secretary confirm that the report is now complete and that it will be acted on with redoubled urgency?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments and the support he showed during our conversations over the weekend for the response of the emergency services.

I made it clear in my statement that I certainly do not see legislation as being the sole way in which we will tackle the threat of terrorism. Nevertheless, it is a very important way to address terrorism. That is why, as I suggested in my statement, I will take forward my predecessor’s proposals with respect to the counter-terrorism Bill that we hope to introduce later this year.

On the hon. Gentleman’s comments about the way in which we deal with extremism, I supported his second point, but I did not support the argument that it seemed that he was nearly making—that somehow or other a grievance, real or otherwise, could ever justify a murderous activity. If he was arguing—as I think he was in the second part of his remarks—that the task for us all, in all communities, is to isolate the extremists who propagate and carry out terrorism, I strongly agree with him. That is why work has already started in the Department for Communities and Local Government. Working with my right hon. Friends the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government and the Foreign Secretary, I want to renew and bolster that work, which will be crucial in addressing the threat of terrorism.

There is not a single solution to terrorism. That is why I emphasised the need for resources, capability and legislation and the need to win the battle of ideas in order to tackle terrorism. On the specific point about security in train stations, some additional protective security measures, especially high-visibility policing, are being taken in some of our major transport hubs. I will certainly go back to the report that the hon. Gentleman mentions, pursue it, and perhaps contact him on the issue.

Twenty-three hours and 59 minutes after the horrific attack on Saturday, Glasgow airport was fully operational. No doubt that is down to the hard work of the staff, the management and the emergency services, but it is also down to the general public, who were extremely tolerant and understanding. Many of them will be denied compensation for the loss of their holidays, so will my right hon. Friend use her good offices to encourage the insurance companies and the travel agents to look sympathetically at any claims that may come from those people?

Finally, I travelled through Glasgow airport today and the public and the staff there had a clear message for the people of the UK and beyond. It was a simple request: “Will you all come back again?”

I completely agree with the points that my hon. Friend makes about the considerable hard work and stoicism shown by the staff and others at Glasgow airport, and I join him in congratulating them on that. I have no doubt that both the travel and insurance companies will have heard the plea that he makes on behalf of his constituents and others and I am sure that they will bear that carefully in mind. His point about returning to Scotland is important. I know that Visit Scotland is working hard to demonstrate that Scotland is open for business as usual. Given what a very beautiful country it is, I am sure that many people will want to take the opportunity to visit it as soon as possible.

May I associate myself with the comments of my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis) in relation to the Home Secretary? It must be a tumultuous time to be taking over the post. For my part, I think that she and the Prime Minister have spoken constructively, with a firm eye to the future—we obviously need to look at these things in an entirely different light, given some of the mistakes that have been made over the past five or six years on community matters.

Both the Haymarket and Cockspur street lie in my constituency, which also contains many of the country’s highest profile terrorist targets, and we must not forget that many residents live cheek by jowl with the embassies and other establishments in central London that are possible targets for car bombers. I appreciate that it is still very early days, but is the Home Secretary giving serious consideration to setting up a ring of steel to protect residents and businesses in the west end similar to that which has operated in the City of London over the past decade and a half?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments. I commend his constituents who live and work in that area of London for the way in which they responded to this weekend’s events. Of course, I would be happy to listen to any of his or his constituents’ ideas about how we can ensure their security. Immediately following Friday morning’s events, the police increased what they call protective security with high-visibility policing in the area. On threat levels, we will need to keep what is appropriate under review. High-visibility policing, the sort of measures that are already in place and vigilance, which is an important role for those who live and work in the area, are the most appropriate ways to address the threat.

I, too, welcome my right hon. Friend to her new and awesome responsibilities and congratulate her on the calm and effective way in which she has carried them out over the past few days. I also welcome the fact that she continues to review counter-terrorism legislation. May I express the hope that should it prove necessary to extend the time for which a suspect may be held for questioning, she will bring measures forward without any hesitation?

I thank my right hon. Friend. As my predecessor made clear at the beginning of June, we want to take forward proposals for the counter-terrorism Bill on the basis of consultation. He and my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made it clear that there might well be a case for examining the amount of time for which we are able to detain people pre-charge so that we ensure that there is the very best opportunity to bring successful convictions. However, if we were to go down that route, we would do so on the basis of consultation, a careful examination of the evidence, and ensuring that there was appropriate scrutiny.

Whatever the circumstances of present events, is the Home Secretary aware that in serious criminal cases involving terrorism that have recently concluded, there has been a strong connection between serious offences and the influence and transmission of extreme ideological religious views? Will she make countering that baleful influence a priority?

I agree that, in some cases, the transmission of what I would call extreme views—full stop—has led to at least part of the ongoing terror threat. As I suggested earlier, it is the responsibility of not only the Government but community leaders and others to isolate those extreme violent views, wherever they occur, and to ensure that we bolster the vast majority of all our communities who share British values, a respect for law in this country and all our concerns about countering terror.

If an important part of being British is agreeing about how we disagree, does the Home Secretary agree that we must ask the British Muslim community to condemn this barbarism without any equivocation or caveat—without any ifs and buts—because it is our only real ally against it?

I think that the support from our communities has actually been very positive. Whoever was involved in these attacks—of course, we do not know who that was—I acknowledge that those in our Muslims communities may feel that they are under the spotlight. In fact I was encouraged by the reaction from the Muslim community over the weekend. For example, Khurshid Ahmed, the chair of the British Muslim Forum, expressed

“support to the Government in raising the threat level”,

and

“pledged full support and co-operation…in tackling this menace”.

Haras Rafiq, the chair of the Sufi Muslim Council, called for communities to

“make a concerted effort to root out the dregs of society who commit such horrific actions, whose aim is nothing but to terrorise innocent human beings”,

and asserted that

“such actions have nothing to do with Islam.”

Those are strong positive messages and we need to work with members of the Muslim community who express views like that to isolate the very small minorities in any community who want to propagate hate and terror.

Is the Home Secretary aware that extremist fundamentalists have described the attack on the “Tiger Tiger” nightclub as an attack on slags? My daughter was there that night at a party of 18-year-old girls from a convent school who were celebrating the end of A-levels and an 18-year-old girl’s birthday. Dealing with a mindset that describes people enjoying themselves in London in such a way shows the challenge that this remarkably steady Home Secretary has to face. Does she share my utter gratitude and that of the parents of all the girls from St. Mary’s school, Ascot, whose daughters would not be with them today if it were not for the outstanding bravery of the bomb disposal officer who manually tackled the bomb? It is difficult to comprehend that bravery and it is even more difficult to express our thanks properly.

The hon. Gentleman does a very good job of expressing our thanks and the concerns and fears of those who had family, or knew of other people, involved in any of these incidents. He rightly identifies the need for us to be able to continue whatever we want to do in our everyday life, whether that involves attending nightclubs or going on holiday, free from the fear of terrorism and refusing to be intimidated by it.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on her new post and on all the steadfast work that she has done over the past few days. She will know that yesterday the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my right hon. Friend the Member for Salford (Hazel Blears), and I were in Birmingham, where 5,000 people from more than 250 mosques have congregated over the past two days. At that meeting, all of them unreservedly condemned this absolutely barbaric attack. Does she agree that that is the attitude of the majority of the Muslim community, that any policy grievances that anybody might have are not an excuse to carry out such an attack, and that we must tackle those people who continue to say otherwise?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I understand that it was a very good event that the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government and my hon. Friend attended. That is precisely the sort of positive work between and within communities that is an effective way to tackle terrorism, and I thank my hon. Friend for his comments today.

I represent the largest number of Muslim voters of any official Opposition Member of Parliament. Following the point just made, the Islamic religious institutions in my constituency condemn terrorism absolutely. Does the Home Secretary agree that the main driver of the threat that faces us is not foreign policy, as some have intimated, but the perversion of a great religion into a separatist political ideology? Does she also agree that that ideology must be challenged, confronted and rooted out in all our communities if the challenge to our way of life is to be defeated?

The hon. Gentleman makes a very important point from what is obviously a position of knowledge. I welcome the points that he makes about the strong message from the Muslim community; he is precisely right. Any attempt to identify a murderous ideology with a great faith such as Islam is wrong, and needs to be denied. That approach needs to be supported by all right-thinking people in the community—Muslim and otherwise.

May I also congratulate the police on the speed of their response? In my area that includes Staffordshire police, who have been working with the west midlands counter-terrorism unit and the Metropolitan police. I visited Chesterton in my constituency this morning, where two of those arrested rented a property. I spoke to the police yesterday and again today, and I know that Staffordshire police are holding various meetings with the local community throughout north Staffordshire tomorrow. My understanding is that none of those suspected originate from our local communities. May I urge my right hon. Friend to ensure that at this difficult time the police and all agencies continue the balanced approach, firm but not alarmist, in the interests of community cohesion in north Staffordshire and everywhere else in the United Kingdom?

It is, of course, not possible at present for us to know the origins or details of those who have been arrested, but I strongly agree with my hon. Friend in the approach that he identified. If there is anything that I or my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government can do to support communities in his constituency at this difficult time, I would be happy to do it.

At this difficult time, may I commend the Home Secretary and the Prime Minister on their new responsibilities and for the excellent co-operation between the UK Government and the Scottish Government? Since the attack in Glasgow and the attempted attacks in London, nobody should be in any doubt that terrorism is completely unjustified. The Scottish National party and Plaid Cymru join all other parties in condemning the attempts to kill or maim innocent people and undermine our democratic values. In recognising the integral, important and positive role played by the Muslim community in modern Scotland, does the Home Secretary share my appreciation of the strong condemnation across society as a whole of the latest outrages?

Yes; I join the hon. Gentleman in thanking the Scottish Executive and other officials in Scotland for the co-operation that there has been on what is clearly a pan-UK incident, which we need to work together to tackle. My conversations with the Justice Minister and the First Minister have been important in developing that understanding, and I entirely agree with the point that the hon. Gentleman makes about the strong condemnation from the community, and welcome it very much.

May I add my appreciation to the Muslim community in Scotland and its representatives for their immediate and unequivocal condemnation of the terrorist attack on Glasgow airport? I welcome the doubling of resources for counter-terrorism since 2001. What resources specifically have been allocated to Scotland, and have there been resources in addition to the block grant through the Barnett formula?

The responsibility for counter-terrorism is not devolved, so the doubling of those resources, particularly through the resources that have gone to the security service will, rightly, have benefited my hon. Friend’s constituents and those throughout Scotland.

The Home Secretary rightly said that there must be compliance with the law, but the question is: which law? I am sure she will understand that the root trouble in many cases—for example, with control orders, with seven terror suspects having disappeared under what are described as ineffective control orders—has led to a position in which the judiciary is making basic and fundamental public security decisions and has effectively taken those away from the Home Secretary on behalf of the Government. Will the Home Secretary, in her consultation and possibly earlier, please legislate to make certain that human life comes before human rights in this context, and that we legislate at Westminster, irrespective of the Human Rights Act, in order to ensure that we put the public safety first?

I very much look forward to the hon. Gentleman’s contribution to the consultation on anti-terrorism legislation. It is a full and open consultation and all views will be welcomed. The hon. Gentleman is, I think, referring to the European convention and he is, of course, aware, because I have heard it described from the Dispatch Box relatively recently, of the action that the Government are taking in the context of some cases currently being pursued, to make the case that it is possible both to fulfil the conditions of article 3, and alongside that, to recognise the need for national security and public safety, as he put it.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that because even a primitive car bomb can inflict colossal carnage, and because those responsible are clearly going for centres where there are large numbers of people, there are major implications for how we organise, manage and design major airports and railway stations in the future?

My right hon. Friend is right that we need carefully to consider the design of major transport hubs and other crowded places in both the short term and the longer term. The need to think about protective security is why the police have already begun to offer advice not only to large transport hubs, but as I have suggested, to sports stadiums, shopping centres and other places where there are likely to be large numbers of people. He is undoubtedly right that as methods of terror evolve, so must the means by which we protect our people against them.

In his major speech on terrorism last October and again over the weekend, the Prime Minister drew a justified comparison between the successful efforts to isolate and undermine the ideas of militant communism during the cold war and the effort that needs to be made now in respect of the doctrines that motivate such attacks. Will the Home Secretary tell us whether the research, information and communications unit, which it was announced in March would be set up for such purposes in the Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism, is in fact up and running, and whether the new Minister with responsibility for home security, Sir Alan West, whose appointment I warmly welcome, will have a role in connection with that unit?

I can confirm that the RICU, to which the hon. Gentleman has referred, has been set up. It is in its early days, but it has been set up within the Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism. My hon. Friend the Minister for Security, Counter Terrorism and Police, Admiral Sir Alan West, and I will take responsibility for security and counter-terrorism. We will push forward on the need to counter the destructive ideology which the hon. Gentleman has rightly mentioned, and on all other elements of our counter-terror work, too.

A few months ago, I tabled questions in support of moves by the British Compressed Gases Association to try to restrict illegal sales of gas cylinders, which are usually second-hand sales, particularly on auction sites such as eBay. Unfortunately, such sales are not policed, and the association wanted to tighten the regulations surrounding such sales for a number of reasons, including the prevention of the use of such cylinders in terrorist attacks. Will the Home Secretary meet me, any colleagues whom she feels are appropriate and the chief executive of the association to try to move that issue forward?

My hon. Friend has made an important point. As I have suggested, once the immediate investigation of the incidents is successfully concluded, it will be important to examine in detail the lessons that we can learn, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform and I will want carefully to consider my hon. Friend’s point.

The Home Secretary is probably aware that some press reports have indicated that at least one of the people involved in those attempted atrocities was subject to a control order and that they are one of several people in that category who have absconded. Does she share the view of my constituents and many hon. Members that it is puzzling that the British judiciary tends to interpret the Human Rights Act 1998 in a different way from its counterparts elsewhere in Europe, particularly the French? Even when there is the prospect of deporting people to a jurisdiction that is prepared to guarantee that those people will not be subject to torture, the death sentence or anything like that, it is still not carried out. Does there not need to be consistency in how such multinational legislation is interpreted, and should not the Government take steps to ensure consistency of interpretation across signatories to the European convention on human rights?

I started my statement by emphasising the need not to speculate at this time on the nature of those involved in the incidents. I shall stick by that self-denying ordinance, which I think is correct, but no doubt there will be ample opportunity during my time at the Dispatch Box for us to discuss control orders and a whole range of other issues.

My right hon. Friend is no doubt aware that hundreds of passengers at Glasgow airport were confined aboard aircraft on taxiways and runways for up to seven or eight hours. According to reports, they included children from a school for those with special needs, elderly and disabled people and very young children. While recognising the demands of security, will she consider what more can be done to alleviate the distress caused to such passengers in any similar situation in the future?

Although I am very sympathetic about what must have been a very difficult situation for those passengers, the authorities were absolutely right, certainly in those very early stages, to put the security of people travelling into and out of Glasgow airport at the heart of their response.

I thank the Home Secretary for her statement. Will she enlarge on the timetable for future legislation? Would that be a Bill in the new Session, and would it leave time for draft legislation to be presented to the House, perhaps even before the rising of the House this month? May I reinforce the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis)—that we do not want to finish up in opposing Lobbies on measures of such importance, but that that depends on a proper understanding of what the Government are seeking to achieve, a proper understanding of the threat, and proper legal coherence in the legislation presented to the House?

I am recently enough a business manager not to upset my erstwhile colleagues by making rash statements about when legislation will or will not be introduced. I repeat that it is my intention—as my predecessor as Home Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Airdrie and Shotts (John Reid), announced at the beginning of June—to introduce counter-terrorism legislation later this year, but that will be after a process of consultation and after the Select Committee on Home Affairs and the Joint Committee on Human Rights have had an opportunity to examine our proposals. That will include an ability to share the detail of those proposals with Opposition parties and others. I certainly intend to continue with that commitment made by my predecessor.

I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend to her new post. Is she aware that, despite the shrill voices to the contrary, her resolute approach to the possibility of introducing new counter-terrorism legislation and to ensuring that that is done in a thoughtful and careful manner is also warmly welcomed?

I thank my hon. Friend for those words. It is certainly my aim, as it was having re-read the statement that my right hon. Friend made on 7 June, to carry forward plans for new counter-terrorism legislation on the basis of building consensus, as far as possible, and consulting as widely as possible on that.

I, too, congratulate the Home Secretary and all those involved in dealing with all three incidents. I wish to raise a narrow issue of airport security, on which I have had a series of exchanges with BAA. Queues of people waiting for security apparatus are choice targets in Iraq and a number of other areas. With the holiday season almost upon us, may I urge the Home Secretary to tell airport operators that allowing large queues to develop at security apparatus represents a huge threat to public safety?

I am sure that airport operators will have heard the hon. Gentleman’s point. As we have introduced increased security around airports in this short period, it has been important to work closely with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport. Work is also under way, alongside the Department for Transport, to examine the details of our implementation of security arrangements in airports. I shall bear the hon. Gentleman’s comments in mind as we take that forward.

May I first congratulate my right hon. Friend on her appointment? I lived through the terror of the Blitz during the second world war and I remember the stalwart courage of the British people in defying the Nazis. They went about their lives as normally as possible. The current generation of Britons will defy the present terrorists, just as their forebears defied the Luftwaffe’s terrorism. The message that the House must convey, primarily to those who are our enemies now, is that we will not tolerate the sort of activities in which they are involved and that we are as one, irrespective of our politics, in opposing them. We will support our people’s indomitable spirit in opposing terrorism.

My hon. Friend and I did not always see eye to eye in my previous job, but I wholeheartedly agree with his sentiments today.

I congratulate the Home Secretary on her appointment and wish her well, especially given the enormous task before her. Given the international perspective of the terror attacks, has she had any contact with overseas countries in the past three or four days? If so, which ones?

Yes, I have had the opportunity to speak twice to my United States counterpart, Secretary Chertoff. I have also spoken to the deputy commissioner of the European Union and my Spanish counterpart. I have plans to speak to other European representatives later today and early this week. In all those conversations, the consistent messages of support and the absolute commitment to working together throughout the international community to tackle terrorism have been very encouraging.

May I echo the comments of hon. Members throughout the Chamber to my right hon. Friend, and say that the calm and confident way in which she appeared on television has reassured the British people throughout our land? Everywhere I have been over the weekend, people have praised that. In her statement, she said that expenditure on counter-terrorism had doubled since 2001. Some of us believe that there should be a substantial increase in expenditure on counter-terrorism preparations. She will have much support from hon. Members of all parties in her discussions on the comprehensive spending review to secure that necessary funding.

I thank my right hon. Friend. The increase in resources that the Government have already put in place for counter-terrorism is symbolic of the priority that we give that work. I am sure that that will continue as we go through the next comprehensive spending review.

The attack on Glasgow airport suggests that ports and airports throughout the country are likely to continue to be terrorist targets. In the circumstances, does the Home Secretary agree that it is essential that police forces throughout the country should be able to maintain full complements of dedicated security posts? Will she work closely with police forces and police authorities to ensure that the funding regime is in place to secure that?

Yes, I can give that commitment. It is obviously important that chief constables can make appropriate operational decisions for their areas. However, given the increased investment and reviews that are already going on, I think that I can give the hon. Gentleman that commitment.

I, too, congratulate my right hon. Friend on the manner in which she has reacted in her first few days in office. Does she agree that we all have the responsibility to remain united—as united as we are today—against these murderous psychopaths who want to bring death and destruction to our country? Will she reject once again any idea whatever that these fanatics have any genuine grievance whatever to justify inflicting such terror on our people?

I thank my hon. Friend and I wholeheartedly agree with what he said. I am very encouraged by the clear views expressed around the House today that there is no justification for terrorism. That will continue to be my strong view.

What links this event to that of 9/11, Bali, Madrid and indeed 7 July is the very sad fact that all these terrorists were trained on the Pakistani-Afghan border. Does the Home Secretary agree that until we eradicate these camps, we will continue to have threats not only from home-grown terrorists but from abroad? If she does agree, what steps is she willing to take to achieve that?

I know that the hon. Gentleman has personal experience relating to this issue. I agree that there will continue to be a need to deal with the elements that fuel terrorist activity—either domestically or internationally. There is a whole range of ways to deal with that problem, from rooting out the radicalisation of people who are likely to commit terrorist acts, through to action that we need to take with our international partners to ensure that the international inspiration for terrorism in this country is also addressed. That is why there is such strong commitment across the Government—including all my ministerial colleagues—to ensuring that we address every cause of terrorism. We are committed to achieving that.

May I follow up that particular question? Does the Minister recall that during the IRA bombing of this country, the then Government placed restrictions on the freedom of movement of people both ways across the Irish sea? Is she considering similar measures to restrict people from this country going to those countries where there are known terrorist training camps and—even more importantly—to prevent them from returning to these shores?

I can tell my right hon. Friend that we do not have specific plans for putting those sorts of restrictions in place, but it is important to keep all those measures under review. That is part of what we are doing both in reviewing legislation and other work that we are taking forward.

Is there a danger that placing restrictions on car access to Heathrow will divert travellers and terrorist attention to the tube, where there are no body or bag searches and where there cannot be restrictions on vehicle proximity to stations?

It is obviously the case that those people who are expert in protective security—I believe that we are very fortunate in this country in having such considerable expertise, particularly in the Metropolitan police—need to keep under review where the immediate threat is most likely to come from and the most appropriate methods for dealing with it. We also have to continue, as I suggested earlier, to adopt the most appropriate and suitably robust approach to protecting the public, while also enabling life to go on and business to be able to carry out its operations.

I, too, commend the Home Secretary for her response—and, indeed, the response at all levels—to this incident. Does she agree that, apart from the murderous intent to inflict pain and injury on innocent victims, the intention of terrorism is also to disrupt people’s everyday lives and to disrupt the economy of our country? In that respect, while there must be a review of security, will she assure the House that it will be proportionate and risk based and that we will send a very clear signal to terrorists that we will not give in to terrorism at any level in this country?

I strongly agree with my right hon. Friend. He is absolutely right that, as I suggested in my statement, the strongest response to the terrorist threat is for the public to be vigilant but to carry on living their lives as law-abiding citizens, which they have the right to do in this country. All the measures that we adopt with respect to protection will take that important balance into account.

I should like to take the question asked by my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) a little further. Two years ago, the tube was attacked, and I have no doubt that it remains a vulnerable and desirable target for our enemies. A series of recommendations was made to improve tube safety, not least relating to the ability of the police and emergency workers to communicate between surface and tunnel. That is still not in place two years later. Why not?

I know that the hon. Gentleman has considerable expertise in fighting terrorist activity. I understand that progress has been made, particularly in respect of the Airwave contract and the communications issues that he has identified. Given my relative newness to this post, however, I will write to him with more details, and talk to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport about this matter.

I welcome my right hon. Friend to her new post. Her measured tones, and those of the Prime Minister, over the past few days have been helpful in ensuring that British Muslims know that they are not on trial as a community. That is an important message. She has emphasised that consultation on these matters will, quite rightly, take place across the Floor of the House. Will she ensure that all sectors of the British community are involved in that consultation, to avoid the kind of knee-jerk reactions that can stigmatise whole communities of British Pakistanis, British Muslims and, indeed, anyone else?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. As I said earlier, regardless of who is involved in the individual incidents, I understand that, at a time like this, the Muslim community can feel under pressure as a result of the incident and the publicity around it. My hon. Friend is right to say that that places on us a responsibility to consult as widely as possible as we take forward any action, and particularly as we consider legislative options. I have emphasised the consultation that will happen in the House and in the political sphere, but he is right to say that it also needs to include representatives of all our communities and members of the public. We need to give some thought to how we can ensure that that happens.

I join other hon. Members in welcoming the sure-footed way in which my right hon. Friend is approaching her demanding new role. In the broader review of strategy, will she take a careful look at the advice that has been given about flights over certain parts of London, including the City of London and this House, and over other symbolic sites in the country, to ensure that it meets the level of threat that is now emerging?

It is obviously important, when considering the level of threat, to look across a whole range of sectors to determine the appropriate response. I am sure that that will be happening in the areas that my hon. Friend has referred to.

I should like to add my thanks, and those of the Muslim community leaders in my constituency, whom I met yesterday, for the calm and considered way in which the new Home Secretary has dealt with this issue. Will she join me in thanking the staff of London Luton airport and the Bedfordshire police for the speedy and effective way in which they have managed to achieve security and efficiency of flights out of that airport? She might be aware, however, that there has been a dispute over the payment of the policing of Luton airport. Will she look at that—

I strongly agree with my hon. Friend that the work in all our airports, and all our police forces, has been exemplary. I am sure that the work at Luton airport deserves congratulation. I will undertake to look at the point that she has raised about funding. If she would like to provide me with more information about it, I will look at it in detail.

Doubtless, consideration was given on Friday and Saturday as to whether Saturday evening’s concert at Wembley organised by their Royal Highnesses in memory of their mother should go ahead or whether it was too much of a target. Absolutely the right decision was taken to ensure that it went ahead. Will my right hon. Friend join me in thanking Chief Inspector Mark Toland and the Wembley police force for their sterling work in ensuring that security was of the highest level while making sure that the inconvenience to my constituents in the local area was kept to a minimum? May I also say to her—

My hon. Friend is right. One of the tasks, of course, during the incidents was to look carefully at the events that were happening. I agree that the decision to carry on with that event, with the necessary security, was very important. It symbolised the fact that events carried on across the country, undeterred by the threat of terrorism. I was a little busy at the time, but I have the concert recorded at home and I am looking forward to having the opportunity to see it.

I join every other Member of the House in congratulating my right hon. Friend on the proper, measured and strong way in which she has dealt with the issue. She rightly said that the Muslim and Asian communities have condemned what has happened. Will she give us an assurance that she will consult them fully before any proposals are brought before the House? In particular, will she ensure that there is no adverse impact on the wider Asian community as a result of anything that she proposes in the future? Could she reiterate that this is a—

I strongly agree with my right hon. Friend. It will be a priority, as we introduce proposals and develop the legislation, to consult as widely as possible across all the communities of this country. It is precisely to be able to protect those communities that we will introduce this counter-terror legislation.

I join my right hon. Friend and my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North (Jim Sheridan) in saying how wonderfully our emergency services conducted themselves for the people not only of Glasgow, but of London, Liverpool and Cheshire—it makes me proud to be British. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that when information is given out at such times of crisis, Members of Parliament, particularly when their jurisdiction is involved, are contacted by the relevant services and by the authorities in charge of places such as airports?

I am sure that my hon. Friend will understand that, quite often, events move very quickly, and it is necessary to put measures in place as quickly as possible, but I will certainly undertake when such events happen to do my best to keep informed, and to ask the police to keep informed, civic representatives and particularly MPs.

Floods (England)

With permission, I should like to give the House an update on the serious flooding that has affected large parts of England and which will continue to have an impact for some months to come.

The flooding has claimed at least four lives, and the circumstances of three other reported deaths are still being investigated. I am sure the whole House would wish to express its profound sympathy to the families who have lost loved ones.

The Environment Agency currently has in place three severe flood warnings, 25 flood warnings and 55 flood watches in Yorkshire, the midlands, Lincolnshire and elsewhere. All the severe flood warnings are on the River Don in Yorkshire, where flood waters have not yet receded, despite considerable progress as a result of pumping. More than 300 people remain in temporary shelters, although many more have had to leave their homes and are in other temporary accommodation. The Environment Agency believes that it may be some days before the full all-clear can be given in those areas, and I should like to echo its warnings about the dangers of people going into flood waters unnecessarily. Police presence has been stepped up to counter fears about theft from properties, although, thankfully, there have been few actual cases.

Across the country significant efforts have been made by the Environment Agency and emergency services, with military assistance, to avert the risk of flooding to properties. The House will be aware that pumping of water from the Ulley reservoir has been under way for a number of days and has significantly reduced the risk of the dam collapsing. Work continues to shore up a flood bank to protect properties at Bentley, near Doncaster, and to remove water at Toll Bar and in Hull and the surrounding areas. In many areas, the worst of the immediate flooding has passed and clean-up operations are well in hand.

Fortunately, the heavy rainfall at the weekend has not added significantly to the flooding, and the weather forecast for the next few days is consistent with continued falls in river levels. However, further heavy rainfall is predicted for next weekend and I must caution that, with saturated ground and very high groundwater levels in some areas, further flooding might occur. The Environment Agency is working hard to ensure that all flood defence works and control structures are fully operational, including flood forecasting and warnings. Water levels in flood storage areas are being reduced as quickly as possible to allow capacity for any future flood flows. The emergency services are fully prepared to respond to any future emergency, with military support as required. I encourage the public to seek advice and to use the Environment Agency floodline or website.

Most electricity and gas supplies have been restored, although property-by-property checks are needed where there has been flood damage. Some flooded sewerage plants might remain out of action for several weeks, although steps are being taken to minimise pollution. Many schools are reopening, although some will be out of action for some time to come.

The Environment Agency knows of at least 3,500 properties that have been flooded from main rivers in south and west Yorkshire, Humberside, Lincolnshire, Nottinghamshire, Worcestershire, Shropshire and elsewhere. The final figure will be higher. When account is taken of flooding from surface water that has been unable to escape into drains and from groundwater, the total number of properties affected could be over 20,000. The Association of British Insurers estimates that the costs of flood-related claims could run to £1 billion. The costs to local authorities of responding to the flooding will be covered by the long-established Bellwin arrangements. More severely affected homes and businesses will take a considerable time to recover. Experience from the Carlisle flood suggests that some properties will not be fully habitable for many months, and that will mean that those affected will have to be temporarily rehoused.

I am sure that the House will want to pay tribute to the continuing heroic efforts of the many who have responded so magnificently to this exceptional rainfall. They include the staff of the fire, ambulance, police and other rescue services, our armed forces, local authorities, the Environment Agency, the voluntary sector and local communities—neighbour helping neighbour. I appreciate how hard everyone has worked; some people are very tired. I am grateful to them, and for the help they have received from other regions.

As the flood waters recede, we will move into the recovery effort, which will need support from across central, regional and local government, businesses and voluntary organisations. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government has today agreed that the Minister of State at her Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth (John Healey), will take the lead on this matter. He will co-ordinate Government support for the local authorities and other agencies which will deal with this major task. Both my right hon. Friend and my hon. Friend will be visiting affected areas later this week and will keep the House fully informed.

There will be lessons to be learned, and we will learn them. However, one thing was already clear before the recent floods occurred: the Government have always recognised the need to spend more on flood defence because of changes in climate, and we have increased spending from £307 million in 1996-97 to more than £600 million this year. I can today inform the House that we will further increase spending across Government on flood-risk management and defences to £800 million in 2010-11. I will, of course, keep the House informed if there are any further significant developments.

Before I welcome the Secretary of State to his new brief—and welcome his team, too—may I join him in offering my sincere condolences to the families and friends of those who, tragically, lost their lives in the floods, and in congratulating the heroic efforts of those in the emergency services, the NHS and local authorities who worked so hard to deal with what was a very difficult situation? Opposition Members also send our heartfelt sympathy to those whose homes have been ruined, whose businesses have been wrecked and whose lives have been put on hold by these wretched events.

The Secretary of State is most welcome to his new role. He has a reputation as a thoughtful member of the Government and he will need to put on his thinking cap at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. As he has already learned, it is one of those Departments where events have a nasty way of leaping up and grabbing the agenda. What has happened is particularly hard for him, as his constituency has been severely affected by the floods.

Where the Secretary of State and his team do the right thing, we will offer our wholehearted support, as there is a lot at stake in respect of the DEFRA agenda—too much for there to be party politics. We will offer our support when they do the right thing but, given what is at stake, we will not hesitate to hold them to account. We are not interested in playing the blame game on flooding—bad things just happen. The most that we can ever hope for is that we minimise the chances of their happening, and respond effectively and efficiently when they do.

Last week, the Chief Fire Officers Association raised a couple of issues. First, it warned that, despite its essential role in managing localised disasters, the fire service currently has no legal duties regarding flooding. This, the association warned, can make it difficult to get things done as quickly as it would like. Do recent events give the Secretary of State cause to rethink that? Does he think that there may be a case for involving the fire service in flood management on a statutory basis?

Secondly, the CFOA suggested that too many agencies were involved in handling the floods, and said that that had caused some confusion and overlap. A flood support centre has now been set up in Worcester to co-ordinate fire and rescue resources nationwide. Is that likely to be a permanent fixture, or is it merely a temporary arrangement?

Although the emergency services have done a sterling job, the damages, as the Secretary of State said, are still huge. The Association of British Insurers puts the cost of flood damage at £1 billion. Last week, the right hon. Gentleman’s predecessor promised to inform me of his estimate of the value of uninsured losses. Is the Secretary of State now in a position to tell us what that figure is and how it divides regionally? What support are the Government able to give those who are under-insured or uninsured? How much money has been allocated under the social fund in respect of these events, and how will it be distributed? What qualification criteria will be attached to any grants made? How much money is available to local authorities under the Bellwin scheme? Has the Secretary of State made an application to the EU solidarity fund to help with the restoration of vital infrastructure?

Turning to the question of flood risk and prevention, the Environment Agency has been warning for some years that increases in the amount of cash for flood defences have not kept up with increases in the rate of flooding. Indeed, according to some reports, cash increases have not even kept up with the real world. Reports that the proposed flood schemes in Leeds and York were shelved because of funding constraints are of particular concern. How many flood protection schemes have been shelved or postponed in the past two years because of funding problems?

We know that last year, because of financial difficulties at DEFRA, it slashed £200 million from its agencies’ budgets, including £15 million from flood defence work at the Environment Agency. According to the Environment Agency, that move was “tactical and opportunistic”. Can the new Secretary of State guarantee that under his management the agency’s flood defence work will be accorded a proper priority? I welcome his announcement this afternoon on increasing the budget for flood management in two years’ time. Would his Department’s funding problems have been so severe if the new Prime Minister, when Chancellor, had not repeatedly dipped into the Treasury’s contingency budget?

Does the Secretary of State not think that a good way of minimising damage from flooding might be to avoid building on flood plains in the first place? Half the post-war building in the UK is on flood plains, and a lot of new building is destined to be so built. At present, a quarter of all planning applications opposed by the Environment Agency still go ahead. Does he regard that as acceptable? As the Secretary of State knows, the Environment Agency was given new powers in January to refer such developments to him. Will he do everything in his power to see that the agency’s concerns are acted on by the Department for Communities and Local Government?

Finally, although we cannot prove that this year’s weather is due to climate change, all the expert advice suggests that climate change will increase the risk of flooding in the United Kingdom—by 20 times, according to the Government's own foresight report. Will the Secretary of State use the forthcoming climate change Bill to commit to an annual report on climate change adaptation measures? As the Stern review has stressed, the costs of dealing with the consequences of climate change will escalate each year, as will the costs of mitigating it. Does the Secretary of State agree that we need a step change in the approach that we take towards flood defences? Is this not a classic case of a stitch in time?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his very kind words about all the people who have worked really hard in response to the emergency, and about my arrival at the Dispatch Box in this new capacity. I look forward to working with him and his colleagues in the spirit that he has offered. I take this opportunity to welcome my new colleagues as part of the DEFRA team, because I look forward to working with them, too.

We are prepared to consider giving the fire and rescue services a flood rescue duty, if and when full equipment and training are in place—but they contribute enormously already, as I saw for myself in Doncaster on Thursday evening, when I talked to firefighters from that area and to some from Herefordshire and Wales who had come with high-volume pumps to help pump the water out.

On the question of too many agencies, I have to say that that is not my experience from the meetings and discussions that I have had every day since I took up post on Thursday. It seems to me that the agencies that need to be there are party to those discussions and, more importantly, are taking action. The system appears to have worked pretty well, and has been well co-ordinated, so I do not recognise the problem that was identified by one chief fire officer.

The flood centre has been set up in response to the particular circumstances we are facing. I do not yet have an estimate of uninsured losses. As soon as I do, I will provide it to the hon. Gentleman and to the House. On help for those who are not insured, which is a real problem—in one of the streets in a very poor area that I visited on Thursday, it was estimated that some 50 per cent. of households did not have insurances—leaflets have been produced and distributed. Staff from the job centres have been in the rest centres offering advice. Crisis loans are available for those who have left their houses with literally nothing, and there are community care grants. There is £170 million in funding for the latter and a contingency reserve. They are available for people on jobseeker’s allowance, income support and pension credit, but there is—as the hon. Gentleman will know—a capital limit.

The money that will go to local authorities through the Bellwin scheme will depend on the costs that they incur above the threshold, so I cannot give an estimate at this point. On the EU solidarity fund, the rules are that one can apply when the costs exceed either €3 billion or more than 0.8 per cent. of gross national income. I am not aware that we have yet reached that threshold. If we do so, it is something that we would consider.

The hon. Gentleman asks whether there will be a proper priority for planning new flood defence schemes. Well, a new priority will certainly be given, not least because of the increase in funding that I have announced today, which all hon. Members who have constituencies where flooding is a problem—that includes mine, as the hon. Gentleman pointed out—will welcome. On the building of houses on the flood plain and other places where there is a risk of flooding, planning policy statement 25 clearly states that the Environment Agency must be consulted, and it has the power to ask the Government Office to call in applications where its advice is not being taken. I will indeed undertake to look at how that is being applied.

Finally, the hon. Gentleman is right to say that the flooding may be a consequence of the changing climate with which we all have to deal. I will look at the suggestion that has been made about reports on adaptation, because it is something that we are all going to have to learn to live with.

I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend to his new appointment. He will find that it is never dull in DEFRA. Does he agree that still only very few people are on the Environment Agency flood warning system, and will he raise awareness of it? In relation to the work that is being done by the Environment Agency, people often look for someone to blame in these circumstances. Will he join me in emphasising the huge commitment of those who have worked round the clock to deal with this emergency, some of whom are invisible—such as those who operate the internal drainage board systems, which also contribute to dealing with floods?

I very much welcome both my right hon. Friend’s points. First, the flood warning system is a good one, as I know from personal experience. I urge everyone to get plugged in to it, because it gives people notice and enables them to take action in such circumstances. Secondly, I agree that, faced with such difficulties, some people do get angry, and it is hard to say about what we saw last week, “This is pretty unprecedented.” The current estimate is that such things happen once in every 150 years. The truth is that, with rainfall at that level, even the best defences in the world are likely to be over-topped, and rivers will overflow. We have seen the consequences of that.

As the mood of the House reflected, it is absolutely right that we pay tribute to those who have worked incredibly hard over the past few days. If I may use the expression, they have bust a gut to help people who are distressed because of what has happened to their homes. We should applaud them for their efforts and continue to work with might and main to help those who have suffered.

On behalf of the Liberal Democrats, may I also join in the praise of those in the emergency and other public services who have struggled with the aftermath of the flooding, and extend our sympathy to all those families who have lost loved ones and whose property has been affected by the flooding? I also extend our best wishes to the new Secretary of State on his appointment to what is an increasingly crucial job of national security as well as environmental aspects.

Does the Secretary of State accept that the cause of the floods in Hull, Doncaster, Sheffield, Leeds, Shropshire and elsewhere was, overwhelmingly, the failure of storm drains and sewerage systems to handle the enormous rainfall? It was therefore surface water, not traditional fluvial or coastal flooding. Will he now review the requirements placed on the private water companies to provide adequate drainage in co-ordination with their regulator Ofwat? Does he recognise that the Government’s last statement on the subject, “Making Space for Water”, has become substantially outdated since these events? Will he also ensure a mapping of flood risks from surface water, not just fluvial and coastal flooding? Will he publish a list of towns and cities that might be at risk of flooding as a consequence of similar extreme weather events?

The Liberal Democrats welcome the substantial increase in flood defence spending announced by the Secretary of State. Previous announcements of big increases in spending, however, have been substantially delayed, as the chief executive of the Environment Agency testified to the Public Accounts Committee recently. Will the Secretary of State therefore tell us the path of the welcome build-up to £800 million in 2010-11? In particular, what figures has he now agreed for 2008-09 and 2009-10? Does he also agree that the increase highlights how ludicrous it was of his Department to cut flood defence spending by £15 million last year?

Will the Secretary of State confirm that his Department and the Environment Agency were asked by the Treasury, as recently as two weeks ago, to make cuts of £20 million in their budgets for next year, before the floods struck? Is the belated and grudging conversion to the need for more spending just another example of the new Prime Minister’s lamentable failure to understand the significance of climate change? Does not that show a devastating lack of foresight on his part?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for the kind words at the beginning of his speech, although it went downhill thereafter. I simply do not agree with what he has just said. When I have come to the House to announce a significant further increase in expenditure on flood defence, it is pretty churlish of him to have a go at the new Prime Minister; I would hope that the House would welcome our determination. Many Members in the Chamber represent areas that have been affected by flooding, and all will welcome the increase in investment.

I accept that the system was overwhelmed; that is true. The hon. Gentleman is right to draw attention to the considerable impact of surface water, as well as river flooding. As I indicated previously, however, even the best defences in the world will sometimes be over-topped and overwhelmed by such concentrated rainfall. The arrangements put in place are therefore not at fault. In the end, the cause is a lot of rain, and the House needs to recognise that.

I have already said that there are other lessons to be learned, and we will do so. I cannot, with respect to the hon. Gentleman, undertake to forecast which places might be likely to flood in the future because that depends on where it rains and what happens, but I accept that further work needs to be done to improve the quality of the information available about where particular properties are at risk.

We will publish the path to the figure of £800 million in 2010-11 later, but I want to correct the hon. Gentleman on one point. We did not cut the capital budget for expenditure on flood defence, and it is important that I make that clear to the House.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State referred to the uninsured and he will know that people can be uninsured either because they are too poor to obtain insurance, or, like some of my constituents and his, because they are facing their third flood in three years so that their premiums have soared and they cannot afford them.

The Minister of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth (John Healey), sent out a letter today stating:

“The provision of additional help to the uninsured would undermine the incentive for households to take out insurance, but will be considered on an ongoing basis.”

Will my right hon. Friend undertake such consideration or reconsideration urgently, and much more sympathetically than just with regard to essential items? Will he assure us that the Department is speaking to the Association of British Insurers to persuade the insurance companies not to raise premiums to such an extent that further people are uninsured?

We will certainly give the maximum help that we can under the arrangements that I have outlined through both the crisis loans and the community care grant. There is a real issue, which I am sure my hon. Friend would acknowledge, that if the Government were generally to compensate people who were not insured, people might draw the conclusion that they did not need to insure themselves because in the end they would be bailed out. But he makes a really important point about the cost of premiums, and I undertake to talk to the ABI, both in relation to responding as quickly as possible in providing assistance to those who are insured in regard to the current emergency, but also in relation to what might be done in future to deal with the problem that he has rightly identified.

On behalf of myself and the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, I congratulate the Secretary of State on his appointment. We look forward to our dialogue with him on flooding and other matters.

Sir David King, the Government’s chief scientist, produced a foresight report that counselled us to take into account extreme weather events when looking at flooding issues. Most people would say that June’s weather has been, to say the least, extreme, so will the Secretary of State think about asking Sir David King to chair an expert group as soon as possible to re-examine our preparedness for extreme weather events and, in particular, the models that exist to enable us to predict the effects in the light of the welcome increase in funding to ensure that it is applied in the most effective way?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman, who so ably chairs the Select Committee, for his kind words, and I look forward to working with him and members of his Committee on all the matters for which I now have responsibility. I am happy to go away and think about his suggestion; I said that I wanted to learn the lessons. There are a number of matters on which we will need to reflect and I will add his proposal to the list.

When my right hon. Friend talks to the ABI, will he also mention that, in 2002, 200 families in my constituency were rendered homeless by the floods at Stockbridge, and more than anything else that their situation was exacerbated by the attitude of just one major insurance company, which I will not name? However, I threatened to do so at the time, and that was the only thing that led it to exercise its brain to sort the matter out. One elderly lady was out of her house for a year because the insurance firm insisted that she accepted the lowest tender, which meant that cowboys took over and worked only part-time. It was only when I threatened the company that it took action and employed some decent workers. Will my right hon. Friend mention that?

I am concerned to hear about that case after the previous flooding in my hon. Friend’s constituency. If Members have concerns about the way in which insurance companies or others are responding to the floods, and they think that I can be of assistance, I ask them to get in touch with me, as I shall be happy to raise such issues with the ABI in general, and if necessary in serious cases, with particular companies, too.

I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on his ministerial appointment, although I am sorry that he is leaving the Department for International Development where he has done such a splendid job.

As the right hon. Gentleman indicated, a great majority of the houses I have visited in my Lincolnshire constituency in recent days were uninsured against flood. It is a serious and urgent problem, which is difficult to resolve. People were uninsured not because they were feckless, but because they had repeatedly been refused insurance cover, and the few who thought they could obtain it could not afford the high premiums. In addition to crisis loans, which are welcome but will worry people who do not want to get themselves into debt repaying them, will the Secretary of State hold a meeting with the insurance industry as a whole to see whether there could be some form of Government subsidy for such uninsured flood groups? As the Prime Minister said in another context, the first duty of a Government is to protect their citizens, and that applies to flooding as well as to terrorism.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind words. I have moved from dealing with one group of farmers—in the developing world—to another group here in the UK, some of whom I met at the Royal show this morning.

The hon. Gentleman raises an extremely important point. The Government have worked with the ABI over time to ensure that the possibility of insurance is available to most homes, but I know that does not cover all properties so I recognise the dilemma that he raises of people who cannot get insurance. As I said in answer to a previous question, I undertake to add his point to the list of issues that I shall raise with the ABI.

Exactly a week ago, my constituency of Rotherham and the wider borough were turned into a maze of lakes, rivers and streams where houses, roads and shops had stood. I pay tribute in particular to the work of Rotherham council in co-ordinating relief help and to the chamber of commerce, which has not been mentioned, but has been out and about helping to dry out business properties. I have three specific questions for my right hon. Friend.

As vice-chair of the all-party flood prevention group, I welcome the Secretary of State to his new post and I welcome, too, his thoughtful and caring approach. Obviously, I welcome the extra money for flood alleviation. In my area, the problem this time was not the big rivers but surface water, so I should like to suggest just three things for the Environment Agency to—

Order. I point out to the hon. Gentleman and to the House generally that this is the second statement today. I am anxious to call as many people as I possibly can but I have to protect further business. Unless Members are brief and ask only one question at a time and the Secretary of State gives reasonably brief answers, an awful lot of people will not be called.

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Will the Secretary of State encourage the Environment Agency to carry out camera studies of culverts under new builds and to look at the new type of grids that are more effective and let water through more easily, while holding back extra detritus?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind words. I shall willingly raise both issues with the Environment Agency.

I welcome my right hon. Friend to his post. I welcome, too, the support he has offered the people of south Yorkshire. Last Friday, I visited a large number of constituents who were badly traumatised by the flood. That experience persuaded me that I shall have to continue to press my right hon. Friend to ensure that support is delivered as quickly as possible to people who need it. Will he talk to the ABI on the varied experience that is already materialising in relation to insurance claims? Will he ensure that—