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Westminster Hall

Volume 462: debated on Wednesday 4 July 2007

Westminster Hall

Wednesday 4 July 2007

[Derek Conway in the Chair]

Gambling Act (On-course Bookmakers)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mr. Alan Campbell.]

Thank you for allowing us to have this debate, Mr. Conway. First, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Minister on his new ministerial role and thank him for taking time out to come to the Chamber this morning. People might ask why we are having this debate, because bookies do not have a very good reputation with a lot of people. In fact, they are described as pickpockets who pay people the courtesy of allowing them to use their own hands. That is very unfair, because bookmakers bring a lot to racing, particularly through race track pitches. The last time I spoke in a debate like this, it was the week of Cheltenham and I gave out a tip for a horse, which came nowhere. What I did not realise was that half the staff who work in the Palace had bet on that horse, and some have not spoken to me since then.

I want to draw the Minister’s attention to a situation that is of grave concern to all bookmakers operating in the trackside betting industry. Under the Gambling Act 2005, hundreds of bookmakers throughout the United Kingdom stand to lose thousands of pounds in accrued business assets, because the Racecourse Association has decided that, as of 2012, it will no longer acknowledge a bookmaker’s list position. A bookmaker’s list position determines their choice of pitch, or pitches, on a race course. The higher up the list position a bookmaker is, the greater the choice of pitches on any given day. As one would imagine, the position of a pitch on the race course has a substantial effect on the revenue that a bookmaker can hope to make from the day’s racing.

Before 1998, such allocations were made on the system of inherited seniority, which enabled the priority of pitch allocations to remain within a given family of bookmakers. That outmoded practice was abolished in 1998, as it was rightly felt that it restricted access to new blood within the industry. Obviously, the concept of any system of inherited privilege should always be challenged in a just and fair society—I am sure that Members of the other place will wholeheartedly agree with that.

From 1998, the rules were changed so that a bookmaker’s list position, which at the beginning of that year was still based on the outmoded system of seniority, could be traded. Their greatest asset—the order in which they chose their trackside pitch position—could therefore be sold. That allowed bookmakers to realise the financial worth of years, and often generations, of hard work in the industry. To put that into a financial context, an official of the soon-to-be-defunct National Joint Pitch Council—the body that oversees the allocation of pitches— recently estimated the total value of bookmakers’ positions to be in excess of £100 million, a not inconsiderable sum of money.

The change in the rules has allowed established bookmakers to expand their businesses and others to enter the industry. As was predicted in 1998, fresh blood is entering the system and it has worked effectively. The RCA is no doubt aware of the worth of the pitches. Although it is right to say that it owns the physical pitch, it has previously had no say in which bookmaker occupies which pitch. If the RCA were to control the allocation of pitches, the accrued worth of years of hard work from bookmakers would transfer to it in the blink of an eye.

Many bookmakers have invested thousands, and in some cases millions, of pounds in their list positions. I do not believe that, when the 2005 Act was first proposed, the Government intended to deprive so many individuals of their commercial equity. An article from The Guardian, published on 21 June, mentioned a man named Barry Johnson who had spent £1.25 million to buy 34 pitches in the south and midlands. If we continue to take the present position, that investment, made months ago, would disappear come 2012.

If the RCA proceeds as it intends, from 2012, all pitch positions will be rented out on any given day to the highest bidder. That will leave independent bookmakers, regardless of their previous list position, to compete with the larger corporate betting companies that will, no doubt, take advantage of the new system. In practice, we could face a monopoly whereby the big three or four bookmakers would determine the prices not only on the high street but on the track as well.

Such a monopoly is not acceptable. To put it simply, many independent bookmakers will have no option but to leave the industry, as worsening pitch positions lead to a loss of revenue. Not only that, but their previous asset, their pitch position, will have zero value. That will render their investment, personal or financial, completely worthless. There is a great danger that our independent bookmakers will be priced out of the market by the larger, corporate betting companies, many of whom would, no doubt, pay whatever cost for the most prestigious positions on a race course. That would have a devastating effect on not only the independent bookmaking industry, but the image of horse racing in general.

For those who purchased their list positions after 1998 from established bookmakers, the position is arguably even more unjust. They have purchased their list position at considerable expense and they are being told, despite assurances in good faith when the purchase took place that their list position was for life, that those assets will be rendered worthless as of 2012.

Modernisation should not result in the loss of millions of pounds worth of accrued assets for independent bookmakers. When a business has been established and built by a family, either to pass on from generation to generation or as an asset to sell at a later date, surely it is only fair that that family can trade that asset itself. The RCA has made no provision for, or even mentioned, any form of compensation for the bookmakers whose assets will be worthless.

Horse racing remains one of the United Kingdom’s best-loved sports and events, such as the grand national, are enjoyed the world over. Our independent bookmakers are an essential part of the industry. They bring a lot of fun and competition to the race track. We in both Houses should do everything in our power to ensure that they can continue in their chosen profession.

I believe the RCA’s decision to ignore long-established and regulated list positions from 2012 is not in the spirit of the 2005 Act as intended. When the Act was first proposed, much emphasis was placed on the regulation of casinos. Certain consequences for other sectors of the gambling industry, particularly trackside bookmakers, were perhaps not fully considered.

I therefore urge my hon. Friend the Minister to revisit this important issue with the view to retaining the current system of list positions for trackside bookmakers. I fear we are in danger of doing a grave injustice to many individuals who have worked so hard in building up their livelihoods, and I encourage the Government—in particular, my hon. Friend—to address the issue with the utmost urgency.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Mr. Devine) on securing this important debate and the Minister on his appointment. I thank him for giving his time to an issue that affects the livelihoods of so many. I wish to join my hon. Friend the Member for Livingston in bringing it to the attention of the House, as I believe that it will have serious repercussions for thousands of people involved in the bookmaking industry.

A bookmaker’s position on a race course has a significant impact on the value of his business. The closer a pitch is to the finishing line, the greater the revenue is likely to be. The bookmaking community has always worked hard to regulate itself to enable the fairest possible system of pitch allocations on race courses. To allocate highly valuable pitches in the fairest manner possible, trackside positions are based on the pick list system, which, as we have heard, replaced the previous seniority-based system in 1998. Under that system, the longer a bookmaker had been operating, the greater their seniority and the better their trackside position.

Seniority could be handed down only from father to son, which adversely affected some of my constituents. That was why that method was felt to be outdated in the modern horse racing industry in the late 1990s. The pick system, which replaced seniority, enabled bookmakers to trade their positions on any given pick list with any other individual or business. In other words, their seniority could be sold.

Many of the bookmakers that make up our trackside bookmaking industry are family-run businesses that have built up their credibility and reputation over generations—in some cases, over more than 100 years of hard work. Their positions in the pick list reflect that. Due to the close-knit community of bookmakers, each one in an area is aware of and respects the positions of the others.

Unfortunately, as in many other family-run businesses that have been established for generations, the younger generation may not wish to continue in the industry. Many long-standing family bookmakers that had operated under the previous system took the opportunity of the new rules to expand their businesses further by purchasing positions on the new pick lists as other bookmakers left the industry. Since the most recent rule changes were introduced in 1998, bookmakers have ensured that each allocation is distributed fairly on any given racing day. The pick system has been respected, acknowledged and adhered to by every bookmaker in the United Kingdom.

Whenever there is a change in the law, as was the case with the abolition of seniority, it is right for the House to do all that it can to protect the assets of those affected. Such forethought was applied in 1998, when the initial positions on the pick list were allocated based on a bookmaker’s seniority. As most hon. Members present know, and as the Minister may be aware, there were some disputes about that allocation, but that is not the subject of the debate.

While the change in the law has resulted in much-needed new blood entering the bookmaking industry, it was seen as a natural evolution of the previous system. In fact, most bookmakers welcomed it. Their support was guaranteed because we as a Government had ensured that the value of their accrued assets was protected. In 1998 the Government acknowledged that it would be unfair for accrued seniority simply to vanish and evaporate when a bookmaker wished to cease trading. The Government-appointed Horserace Betting Levy Board allowed the trading of list positions, which meant that a bookmaker’s greatest asset—the position of his pitch on a race course—could be sold. The worth of a pitch position can often run into tens of thousands of pounds or in some cases, as we have heard, more than £1 million. A business that had been established for many years was therefore able to benefit from its accrued seniority by selling its list position. That system has worked successfully for almost 10 years and all the bookmakers work to the rule and respect it.

As we have heard, and as I have been told by several bookmakers in my constituency, the Racecourse Association will cease to recognise list positions from 2012 as a consequence of the coming into force of the 2005 Act later this year. That interpretation of the Act will cause many in the industry to lose assets that often constitute a lifetime’s work. Indeed, they have already done so simply because of the announcement.

Many bookmakers are family-run businesses and a list position can be handed down from generation to generation. The livelihood of children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of bookmakers has suddenly evaporated, which I am sure was not the intention behind the 2005 Act. Many in the industry see the Racecourse Association’s interpretation of the new rule and refusal to acknowledge pitch positions from 2012 as nothing less than industrial theft. I would hesitate to use such terms, but that is none the less a useful indication of the depth of feeling, as is the number of hon. and right hon. Members here today.

Perhaps a good analogy would be that the situation is the equivalent of owning the freehold on a home, only to be informed that not only has the freehold been rescinded, there are now only five years left on the lease. Any such property would be greatly reduced in value, if not made worthless. The situation has come about because the Horserace Betting Levy Board will no longer take any responsibility for the issuing of certificates of approval for bookmakers. Under the Betting, Gaming and Lotteries Act 1963, the price of admission to a race course for a bookmaker has been limited to five times the price of public admission to prevent race courses from charging unrealistic figures for the better-placed pitches.

Under the new Act there is no provision for a set amount to be paid by bookmakers to secure a pitch. That has allowed race courses to state their intentions to determine in commercial negotiations with betting operators the terms by which they will stand in relevant areas and where they will stand relative to one another. The result is that following the five-year “grace period” allowed for in the Act, from 1 September 2012 race courses will not recognise lists or transfers of picks between betting operators, and the current system of a pick list based on bookmakers’ seniority will be set aside in favour of one awarding placements to the highest bidder. Many family-run businesses will find themselves unable to compete with the larger bookmakers, which are very large organisations. Despite the positions of the family-run businesses on the pick lists, they will find themselves further and further down the track, with the correlating substantial loss of earnings and of the true flavour of the track.

For those who have bought their list positions from established bookmakers for considerable sums, the situation is even more distressing. Those who bought them at auctions held by the National Joint Pitch Council were given a clear indication that the placements would be secure for their lifetimes.

I am sorry to interrupt my hon. Friend’s speech, but this is a crucial point. What is the evidence that the NJPC told people that their pitches were for life?

The basis of the auctions that were held from the beginning of the 10-year period was that they were, in effect, selling freeholds. The people who bought pitch positions were not given any indication that they were buying them for 15 years. That is the basis of my argument. I appreciate the Minister’s point, but I challenge him to ask anyone who bought a pitch position in an auction whether they believed that they were buying it for a set term, or any term. If they were buying them for a 15-year term, not informing them of that at the time is tantamount to fraud.

The clear indication is that the bookmakers who are currently in good positions on a race course through their seniority, or through having paid for their pick placement from someone in such a position, could find their assets worthless. As I have said, they believed that they were buying their pitches in perpetuity. The 2005 Act makes no provision for protection of people in either scenario.

I wish to highlight the case of my constituent Adrian Pariser of Pembroke crescent, Hove, who trades as an on-course bookmaker under the name of Sam Harris. Mr. Pariser has an extensive family history in the bookmaking industry. He recently contacted my office to express his grave concerns regarding the soon to be implemented Act. He had problems at the introduction of the period and successfully challenged the position that he was given. I have already outlined how his concerns are echoed by many in the bookmaking industry. My constituents Don and Gary Morill are in a similar position. They have been in dispute over their original pitch positions for the past 10 years. They now feel that they have been hit by a double whammy—please forgive my unparliamentary language, Mr. Conway—as the value of even their disputed pitch will be taken away.

With pitch allocations switching to the Racecourse Association, the subsequent worth of the pitches will also transfer to the association. To put it simply, the association stands to make millions of pounds at the expense of the accrued assets of the very people who, arguably, are their most regular and long-standing customers. Ironically, the NJPC has been selling picks and gaining 6 per cent. commission on the auction sale, as I informed the Minister, plus a transport allocation of £150 a sale. Those sales continued up to and into this year. However, Caroline Davis, the Racecourse Association representative on the NJPC, said in an article in the Racing Post on Tuesday, 3 April, that the legislation that paves the way for change has been around for two years. During those two years, the NJPC has continued to auction pitches based on pick seniority, taking the commission and transfer fee.

I would also like to draw the attention of hon. Members to comments made in a letter written by John Stevenson, the chairman of the National Association of Bookmakers. Hon. Members may be aware that I have been critical of Mr. Stevenson in this very Chamber in the past. However, no one can doubt his depth of knowledge. In a draft letter to MPs, Mr. Stevenson estimated that the current value of pitches based on the pick lists is in excess of £100 million. Following implementation of the Act, those pitches would have no marketable value whatever. Mr. Stevenson’s conclusion is that the failure of the Act to redistribute the authority to provide bookmakers with a certificate of approval will allow a race course to confiscate bookmakers’ positions as of 1 September 2012. He also concludes that that could not have been the original intention of the Act. I am sure that most people in this Chamber would agree with that.

With the Act coming into force later this year, it is of vital importance that any potential avenues for genuine misunderstanding or even potential corruption be considered and addressed. I would therefore be grateful if the Minister, who is new to his post, could investigate the situation as a matter of urgency, and make it a high priority to identify what measures can be put in place to ensure that the agreed procedures for establishing placements for bookmakers can be continued.

The principle at stake is one of fairness for businesses that have for many years abided by current regulations and recognised the system of seniority. With the value of the pitches running to millions of pounds, it should not be the case that years of hard work by families or commercially-run businesses could be rendered virtually worthless. The intentions of the Racecourse Association will surely discourage many from entering the industry, contrary to the rationale behind the new rules that were introduced 10 years ago. If the Racecourse Association needs to raise greater revenue from bookmakers, there are alternatives that many consider to be more appropriate and fair; for example, a variation of the commission on sale position.

The outcome of the current predicament will have far-reaching consequences not just for the bookmaking community but for the general public. The traditional bookmaker is as much a part of the racing experience as the horses and jockeys. Spectacles such as Ascot and the Grand National are part of our national calendar. They bring in many thousands of tourists, and are watched and admired the world over through television and satellite coverage, which also brings much-needed revenue. As the Act will change the rules that govern how the bookmaking industry operates, it is especially important that confidence in the industry is retained, not just by the public but by those who work in it.

I support the broad outline of the Act. With the advent of modern technologies, the gambling industry has undergone many changes. It is only right that the Government acknowledge those changes and introduce legislation that best reflects the need to adjust and adapt so that this great sport, the sport of kings, may continue to operate throughout the 21st century. However, with the allocation of list positions no longer being recognised after 2012, many bookmakers in the industry are concerned that too much control of trackside betting and the associated assets will be in the hands of one body—the Racecourse Association. There is great worry that such unprecedented control would provide the association with a greater degree of commercial control over trackside betting than would be desirable in a free industry.

The consequence of the Gambling Act 2005 is that Britain’s 59 race courses will be able to take over ownership of sought-after sites in 2012 and then rent them back to the people who originally bought them in good faith. No distinction or preference will be made on the basis of the bookmaker’s previous list position, which, in some cases, was acquired through a century of work and trust-building in the industry. Obviously, the allocation of pitches will be awarded on a commercial basis to those who are prepared to pay the greater rent.

Perhaps I am being absurdly pessimistic, but I can envisage the end of the family bookmaker as a result of the Act. Bookmakers, many of whom are individual businessmen, will vie for their trackside position against huge, enormous betting companies that obviously have huge, enormous resources. Having paid for their list position once and been promised that it would be for life, they will find themselves once again at the mercy of big business.

It is fair to say that many of the well-established but smaller bookmakers will be unable to compete. If they were to be lost, an essential component of our horse racing industry would be lost for ever. It is the duty of this House to do everything in our power to ensure that that does not happen. The loss of recognised list positions would be grossly unfair to those who spent so long building up their businesses. It would be unfair to their children, parents, grandchildren and grandparents—to whole generations of bookmakers. Furthermore, it would leave them with no long-term financial security. A highlight of previous legislation was that it gave bookmakers something to hand on to their children.

I therefore strongly urge the Minister in his new position to consider the specific intent of the Racecourse Association, and to consider whether legislation should be amended so that list positions remain in the ownership of the bookmakers. The issue is causing a great deal of stress and anxiety to many in the bookmaking industry who want nothing more than to continue to work in the profession that they admire and respect. We have but a short time before the Act comes into force, so I would appreciate the Minister’s review of the issue.

2012 looks set to be a golden year for British sport, but it is important that it should be a golden year for all British sport, not just the Olympic sports. It is important that we do everything that we can to protect the livelihood and reputation of those who have given their life to the industry.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Devine) on securing this debate and thank him for doing so. He and the hon. Member for Hove (Ms Barlow) clearly laid out the case, so I do not intend to repeat it. As the hon. Gentleman might expect, the only place where I disagreed with him was at the beginning of his speech. The family bookmakers who are faced with the consequence of the 1998 reforms might now be in mind of the Duke of Wellington who, when faced with the Great Reform Act of 1832, said:

“Reform, reform—aren’t things bad enough already?”

We now have to deal with the consequences of changes made in the past 10 years. It is self-evident that we are faced with a substantial injustice, which, as pointed out, is in total estimated to be worth £100 million. Representations have been made to me about this issue, particularly by a classic family-bookmaking firm, Russell White and his son, John. Russell inherited the business from his father, so to my knowledge, at least three generations of people in the business have used the reforms to secure pitches. The value of those pitches is now estimated at £300,000; that is the size of the asset of which they will be deprived. If they seek to trade it now, under current valuations, they have already been deprived of a significant percentage of that amount.

The Minister intervened on the hon. Member for Hove to ask for evidence that the pitches were sold for life. If I were a lawyer defending his position in front of the European Court of Human Rights, I would not want to take his brief. As I have said, it is self-evident that there is a right to property and people have a right to enjoy their property, and it is plain that people are being deprived of that through the operation of the Gambling Act 2005.

The plain motivation of the Racecourse Association to obtain ownership of £100 million in assets under the operation of the 2005 Act will unfairly and unjustly deprive a group of people of a very significant asset, and that must be addressed. The case has been made extremely clearly by the hon. Members for Livingston and for Hove, and I will not repeat it, but something must be done, and if the Government do not do it, family bookmakers will be forced to take the expensive option of taking their cases to the courts. On the evidence that I have seen, I believe that they will have a clear legal case, because they have been unfairly deprived of their property. We should not be in the business of driving bookmakers down that extremely expensive and hazardous route, where the beneficiaries will be a group of people who are nearly as well respected as bookmakers: a bunch of lawyers. I sincerely hope that the Government can find a solution to the issue.

Thank you, Mr. Conway, for giving me the opportunity to participate in this important debate. Before I start my contribution, it would be remiss of me not to pass on my congratulations to the new Minister, who is a fellow Yorkshireman. His predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Central (Mr. Caborn), who was the longest-serving Minister for Sport ever, is also a Yorkshireman. He has an advantage over the current Minister: he is from south Yorkshire, rather than west Yorkshire, and as we all know, south Yorkshire is the best part of Yorkshire.

I will show that I agree with many of the comments made by hon. Members from all parties by quoting part of a letter from one of my constituents who is an on-course bookmaker. He is called Mr. Chris Johnson and he lives in Harlington, Doncaster, in my constituency. He has been an on-course bookmaker for a considerable time. I will not read the whole letter, but those parts that I think are most relevant, as it encapsulates the problem of the current impasse that we face. I have, of course, recently sent the letter to the Minister’s predecessor and have not yet received a response, although I only sent it around three or four weeks ago. The letter states:

“Dear Sir, I am a racecourse bookmaker whose livelihood will be confiscated on 1 September 2012 as a consequence of the Gambling Act, which comes into force on 1 September 2007.”

The letter then goes into the history of the establishment of the National Joint Pitch Council, and I will carry on from that point. He says that the establishment of the NJPC was

“heralded as an opportunity to introduce new blood into the ring and to give bookmakers the comfort of a stable career option at the end of which they would have a marketable asset with which to finance their retirement.”

He continues:

“As a consequence bookmakers have invested substantial sums in buying into the ring and to date it is estimated that the value of bookmakers’ positions is in excess of £100 million. Many bookmakers have invested heavily into the ring, often financing these purchases out of savings or loans raised on the value of their houses.

During the drafting of the Gambling Bill it was decided by the DCMS that the levy board was to be abolished and hence it’s role in issuing ‘certificates of approval’, upon which bookmakers’ pitch tenure depends, disappeared and was not replaced by another mechanism. The Act provides for a period of 5 years, during which racecourses are restricted in the pitch fees they may charge, as has been the case since outlined in successive Acts, the latest being the Betting, Gaming and Lotteries Act, 1963.

However, as a consequence of the omission in the Gambling Act to replace the function of issuing ‘certificates of approval’, the RCA has interpreted this as allowing ‘the confiscation of bookmakers’ positions from 1 September 2012’… I believe that it could not have been the intention of Parliament for bookmakers to have their assets confiscated in this way.”

As hon. Members will know, the hon. Gentleman and I jointly chair the all-party group on racing. An issue that occurred to me while listening to the exchanges of hon. Members is that, when the measure was drafted, it was envisaged that the horserace betting levy would be abolished and therefore a commercial arrangement would need to be entered into between on-course bookmakers, race courses and the racing industry. As the levy will now continue, does the hon. Gentleman agree that we need to take account of that in the arrangements that will be put in place beyond 2012?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments, with which I totally agree—to some extent he has read my thoughts.

If I may, I will continue to read from the letter:

“The levy board has now been reprieved but is reluctant to continue with it’s ‘certificate of approval’ role, and, as a consequence, there is a need for the tenure issue to be placed in alternative hands.

I am 49 years of age and have worked all my adult life as a racecourse bookmaker, acquiring my first bookmakers permit in 1979. Many of ‘my’ pitches were ‘earned’ under the previous system, (i.e. prior to the NJPC taking over the administration of racecourse bookmakers and their positions). To attain an allocated pitch in those days the bookmaker (in person) had to attend at least 75 per cent. of the scheduled fixtures for that racecourse. As I’m sure you can imagine trading on some of these days in the poorest position within the ring was almost unworkable, but to attain a permanent position the attendance requirement had to be fulfilled, thus I consider I well and truly earned my right to trade at each individual racecourse.

In 1998 the National Joint Pitch Council (NJPC) became the racecourse bookmaking industry administrative body, and along with many afore-mentioned changes within the ring, introduced the buying and selling of bookmakers positions. This allowed ‘new blood’ to become racecourse bookmakers and also allowed incumbent bookmakers like myself to improve their position within the ring by trading up. This I have done at several racecourses, investing well over £65,000 on positions at different racecourses, giving me a total valuation of my pitch portfolio of around £140,000, this prior to the RCA decision outlined earlier. Not only has this decision robbed me of any financial return/retirement package but it has knocked at least 30/40 per cent. off of the current pitch values because the purchaser knows he has only a 4 and a half year tenure to attain a return on his investment. As such, people who invested in pitches are left ‘high and dry’ because no-one wants to buy racecourse positions now (even at vastly reduced prices) and will have no asset to sell in 2012.

I am not a university educated man but this decision by the RCA cannot be a fair and equitable one. Your government introduced the social charter and extended rights for the individual and as such ought to view this outrageous decision by the RCA totally unjust.

As stated above, when pitch reform was introduced we were given assurances that this would give career bookmakers certainty and security and provide them with assets to finance retirement. It would now appear that these assurances have been swept away by something that would not appear to have been intended by Parliament, which would appear to be a case of ‘the law of unintended consequences’.”

I think that that epitomises the current problem. They are the words of an actual bookmaker.

I should like to stress the difference between an on-course and an off-course bookmaker. The point has been made already that many on-course bookmakers are small, family businesses; often they are not the rails bookmakers that can be found at race courses—the “big four”, as they are called, or the other big on-course bookmakers. Many of them are very small, family businesses, and they all have a certain amount of character to them and add to the atmosphere on the race course.

I remember an on-course bookmaker from Great Houghton, which is a village next to mine, near Barnsley, in my constituency. He was known as “Smiler” Pearson, and he was a typical on-course bookmaker; he had a flat cap, as could be imagined, given that he came from Barnsley. His lips were usually white from the chalk dust. I am going back to the days when bookmakers had to chalk up the odds, to the days before marker pens, so his lips were always white. He earned the nickname, “Smiler”, because, as could be imagined, he never smiled, like a lot of bookmakers. As they rob people and take their money, they never smile, even though they have just taken someone’s last shekel. Those sorts of characters are endangered by the current situation.

It goes without saying that we need to reach a consensus, which is why it is very important that discussions continue between the on-course bookmakers association and the RCA. Indeed, the Northern Bookmakers Association, which has been in touch with me and is based in Ilkley in west Yorkshire—of course—is looking, as a compromise, for the reintroduction of the certificate of approval, either by the levy board, as it used to be, or by the new Gambling Commission. I should like to hear the Minister’s thoughts on that when he sums up.

I realise that this is an extremely difficult issue to resolve, and in many respects, I can understand the position of the RCA, which wants to maximise its product. We have 59 race courses in this country. Long may that continue! I think that the rest of the world admires the diversity of our race courses. We must ensure that every one of those 59 race courses continues to exist, rather than allow the closures that have occurred, certainly since the second world war, to continue.

I understand that the RCA wants to maximise its profits. Betting on race courses is under threat from wider sports betting across the industry. The race courses feel threatened by the current environment. I can understand that. Both I and the joint chairman of the all-party group on racing and bloodstock, the hon. Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway), were present last night at the centenary celebrations of the RCA. Obviously, it is 100 years old, and we hope that it will keep together and continue to do the good job that it does in representing race courses.

One thing springs to mind that I would like the Minister to consider, in the spirit of compromise. The legislation is new, but is there any possibility that the transition period could be reconsidered and changed to seven years and therefore extended not to 1 September 2012, but to 1 September 2014? That would require regulation and have to come back before the House, which could be a stumbling block, but in the spirit of compromise, I should like him to outline to us his thoughts on that point.

I have spoken for quite long enough now, Mr. Conway. I think that Members on both sides of the House will make the same points that have been made already. My main point is that on-course bookmakers add to the atmosphere of race courses, and I want there to be as many of them as possible on every race course in this country, because they add to the flavour of a day at the races.

Order. A number of hon. Members have indicated a wish to take part in the debate, and we need to call the Front Benchers to make their contributions at half-past 10. Hon. Members might like to bear that in mind during their contributions.

I shall be brief, Mr. Conway.

The on-course bookmaker is a unique feature of the British horse racing scene, and we put him at risk at the peril of racing, in my view. People who go to our vastly improved race courses have a choice: they can bet with the bookie on the course, or with the Tote. As I think that some here know, I have been an adviser to the Tote for some time, and the last thing that it would want to see is the demise of the on-course bookmaker. The competition between them is a vibrant part of the racing scene. I do not believe for one minute that anyone running a race course in this country wants to see the demise of the on-course bookmaker either.

Let us unite in the view that we must retain on-course bookmakers and the ability to bet on the Tote, which is a feature that does not exist in other parts of the world. If one goes to France, one can bet on the pari-mutuels, but not on the on-course bookmakers, which, quite frankly, apart from the fact that my French is not good enough to keep up with the commentary, I find a pretty miserable experience, compared with going to York, Newbury or Ascot, for example. Let us be clear about our objective.

It cannot be said that nobody knew that this was about to happen. It was put out originally in the Budd report, six years ago, and in the Government’s response in 2003. The Joint Committee that looked at the Gambling Bill, which I chaired, took evidence from the National Joint Pitch Council—we received a written memorandum from it—and oral evidence from bookmakers. The issue under discussion was not the relevant one at the time; the issue was the betting exchanges and the fact that the levy board was to be abolished, and probably the levy as well. That was the question.

I do not think that anyone quite knew the implications of this change. We have heard this morning about the funds that some bookmakers have paid for their pitches. We have all known for a long time that the current system is anachronistic and that generally there is support, even among bookmakers, for change. My right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) has campaigned on behalf of bookmakers in his constituency about those problems. In a sense, there was a need for change, which now has to be introduced in a way that is fair and preserves the racing scene that I have just described.

We need to take account of the fact that, as I have said, the levy was to be abolished, but now is not. On-course bookmakers have seen their margins reduced because of betting exchanges, which are growing. Of course, the abolition of off-course betting tax, which has been hugely beneficial to racing and off-course bookmakers, whose profits have grown, has put even more pressure on on-course bookmakers. There was a time when using an on-course bookmaker was the way to place a bet without paying tax, but that is the case no longer.

We must recognise those pressures, find a system for regulating this new market, provide security and continuity for those with pitches, achieve fairness, and ensure that pitches remain attractive. I listened to the hon. Members for Hove (Ms Barlow) and for Livingston (Mr. Devine), the latter of whom is to be congratulated on securing this debate. However, we must bear in mind also the need to ensure on-course attendance by those bookmakers, because, quite frankly—far be it for me to decry any one of Yorkshire’s nine race courses—a rainy day at Catterick on new year’s eve is a pretty miserable experience. I have been there many times on new year’s eve, and it usually rains and there are not normally many people about.

If we want those on-course bookmakers to remain, we must listen to their arguments. Ensuring their attendance is critical. We now have more than 1,500 fixtures on race courses—that is a hell of a lot of on-course bookmaker hours, and we need to ensure that they continue.

I agree with the hon. Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough (Jeff Ennis) that we need to achieve consensus. With regard to changes in the Gambling Act 2005, I would be surprised if the Minister’s response was that the Government would reopen the primary legislation, because, with all the other issues outstanding, it would be a can of worms. However, we need to achieve consensus. We have five years to sit down and discuss a way through these issues. I am sure that I speak also for the hon. Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough when I say that the all-party racing and bloodstock group is ready, willing and able to sit down and be a conduit through which those discussions can take place.

I enter this debate as a complete ingénu. I know absolutely nothing about racing. I have never been to a race course and have never placed a bet. I recognise that my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough (Jeff Ennis) knows a great deal more about this subject than I do, although I note that of the two Yorkshire Members—my hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway)—who have contributed so far, one suggested that Yorkshire is a nirvana and the other that it is a damp and miserable place on new year’s eve.

A constituent of mine, Martin Davies, came to my constituency surgery a few weeks ago. He is an on-course bookmaker and has invested a considerable amount of his own money, and his own future, in building up a business on the basis of buying pitches. I want to make a very simple speech really. I believe that people bought pitches in good faith from the National Joint Pitch Council, believing that they were doing so in perpetuity—not, I would say, for life, but in perpetuity, which is quite an important distinction, because they believed that they were buying them and would then be able to sell them to another person, who might die a long time after them, but that is completely irrelevant. People believed that they were buying something and that that was their property—an asset that they had bought.

I greatly welcome the fact that my hon. Friend the Minister has this new portfolio. I am sure that he will bring great wisdom to it, but I hope that he will take some time in arriving at a decision on this issue. From his earlier intervention, it seems that his argument will be that people did not reasonably believe what I have set out and that they should have understood somehow or other that they were not buying pitches in perpetuity.

My hon. Friend should not read too much into my intervention: it was to help me to understand the argument that my hon. Friend the Member for Hove (Ms Barlow) was making.

I am grateful to the Minister for that intervention, because it seems to me that it was entirely reasonable of people to enter into that expectation. The previous system was hereditary, so one could only assume that any subsequent system was likely to be for more than just a few years. Moreover, the new system was being sold to them as a fairer system, not a less fair system. The injustice of what seems likely to happen in 2012 is so manifest that any reasonable person would consider that anyone expecting that they were buying pitches in perpetuity held that expectation on a reasonable basis.

On top of that, nobody has yet shown me any evidence that the NJPC made it clear that there would be a final date when all the pitches fell into abeyance. At no point was it made clear to people that they were buying only a temporary lease. Indeed, I would say that although it was clearly a form of leasehold, it was that form of leasehold that is commonly known as virtual freehold in British law. I believe that that is what people were reasonably buying.

Consequently, there are two elements of failure in the system. First, I believe that the Racecourse Association, through an element of legislative jiggery-pokery, has in effect engaged in a process not of petty larceny, but of grand theft. That is, to be honest, what will be happening in 2012 if the abandoning of pitches is allowed to go forward. Secondly, Parliament has not fully done its job. Many areas of many Bills may be passed without our fully understanding the their implications and consequences but, as the hon. Member for Ryedale made clear, what we are discussing now was never the issue when the Gambling Bill was going through Parliament. Perhaps we should have known that this issue would come along. It is therefore incumbent on Parliament to put the problem right.

I say to my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough that he is far too nice—in many regards perhaps, but particularly in suggesting that a mere extension to seven years would be enough to appease people. If we were talking about 25 or 35 years, we might be in the right ball park, but people have invested dramatic amounts of their money and their livelihood in buying pitches, and for the slate simply to be wiped clean because of a piece of legislation that no one fully understood would be completely and utterly wrong. A mere extension to seven years would be wholly inadequate.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Mr. Devine) on securing the debate. It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), because my knowledge of this issue is probably inferior even to his own. I am not a gambler and have no specialist knowledge of the turf or turf accountancy, although I do remember, in the dim and distant past of my childhood, a favourite uncle skulking in back alleyways before his business became a little more legitimate. My knowledge, such as it is, was gleaned many years ago at my father’s knee as I watched interminable hours of racing on the BBC’s “Grandstand” while he followed the fortunes of the handful of horses on which he had bet a few shillings in those halcyon, pre-decimal days of black and white television. Such were his limitations as a punter that he was one of the few people who actually backed Foinavon in the 1967 grand national, as opposed to the many millions who claimed subsequently to have done so.

However, despite the fact that it might be said that I do not know a stirrup from a silver ring, I can recognise an injustice when I see one. Only yesterday, a constituent of mine who is an on-course bookmaker wrote to me about his concerns and the impact of what is happening not only on him and his family, but potentially on other businesses that he runs. That inspired me to speak for a few minutes today. I will not name him, because I have not had time to obtain his permission to do so, but his story is similar to many others that have been related today.

My constituent says in his letter:

“As a Racecourse Bookmaker I have recently been told that my investments are to be taken from me.

The RCA…have written to my trade associations informing them that under the 2005 Gambling Act they have been given the power to confiscate”—

that is the word he uses—

“all bookmakers’ pitches (seniority positions) from September 2012.

In 1998, when the NJPC encouraged me and all the other race course bookmakers to buy pitches with ‘the comfort of a stable career and the certainty of their investments’, I duly did just that and borrowed heavily to buy my pitches.

Since then I have worked very hard at gaining the respect and trust of customers, colleagues and officials and I have traded profitably every year. I have done absolutely everything that has been asked of me and now I am potentially going to lose everything without even any compensation. This cannot be just and I do not believe…a fair-minded Government would…allow such a travesty to occur.”

On my constituent’s behalf, I would like to put three questions that he put in his letter. Are the RCA statements correct? If so, was that really the Government’s intention? If not—this is the point made by all hon. Members—what plans are in place to rectify the position? My constituent continues:

“Many of my colleagues have had meetings with MPs”,

and the message has always been that that was not what the Government intended.

He says:

“If so, then no matter how small the size of the affected group…something must be done to put right such a wrong.

The strain of the events is already causing me major problems and I fear for the future.”

He goes on to explain that he runs a major manufacturing company—it is in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Minister, although he is a constituent of mine—and because of the way in which the investment has been made, he fears that there may be impacts on the company, which employs 100 people.

I can therefore only echo all the points that have been made by my more knowledgeable colleagues, including my passionate and hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda, and hope that the Minister will give my constituent and other people in the same position some comfort in his response today.

I did not intend to speak today, but I want to make two points. Before doing so, I congratulate the hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Devine) on obtaining the debate and the Minister, who is an old football partner of mine, on his new position. I feel a lot more confident now that he is here and I hope that that will be borne out.

I am no lover of the NJPC, which has been a shambles since the day it was set up. It has been badly run and it is partly to blame for what has happened. It should have seen what was coming, but it failed to do so. Its whole purpose is to represent the bookmakers, but it has failed to do so.

I want to raise two points that have not been mentioned. One is that race course owners embarked on the process that we are discussing some time ago, and that should have been spotted. Some were placing pitches well away from the main stand as a way of devaluing their ability to trade; indeed, on one or two occasions, pitches were placed by the car park. The attempts by the RCA and race course owners to devalue what pitch owners are doing is therefore historical, and the Minister must look at that. As the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) said, pitch owners have purchased a position. Their problem, however, is that it is more like a flying freehold because there is nothing underneath it. All that they have purchased is the right to trade in a position, but the race courses can place that position anywhere they like, which devalues it. That must be borne in mind.

My other point is that seeking the highest bidder opens the industry up to corruption. There is a huge amount of money swashing around in eastern Europe, and people want to launder lots of it. There are lots of stories suggesting that it is possible to launder money through British race courses. I warn the Minister right now that we will be on the edge of a really serious process of corruption if we do not watch it. One of the guardians of the industry is the little bookmaker who, by his very size, is not open to such corruption. It is worth carefully looking at the issue, because the race courses may not be bothered with it.

To conclude, I simply line up with everybody else in saying that the sad thing is that the people who should have been represented have not been. We are talking about the small people—the small business men—and if there is one thing that any Government should do, it is to stand on the side of the small people.

I welcome the Minister to his new post and I am sure that we all look forward to his response. So far, the debate has been very one-sided, and I will stay on the same side as everyone else.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Devine) on introducing the debate. I also congratulate the hon. Members for Hove (Ms Barlow), for Reigate (Mr. Blunt), for Barnsley, East and Mexborough (Jeff Ennis), for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway), for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) and for Pudsey (Mr. Truswell), as well as the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith).

The hon. Member for Livingston began by reminding us of what happened in 1998, when the list position arrangements were changed to allow trading in seniority positions. He welcomed that, although the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green has expressed serious concerns about it in earlier debates, including, most recently, on 14 March. As to which of the two is right, all that I can say is that the various constituents who have come to see me rather favour the view taken by the right hon. Gentleman.

However, we have moved on and we are now debating a separate issue, which has been well rehearsed in the debate. We are discussing the nature of the trading and whether people could reasonably believe that what was being traded was something that they held in perpetuity. The Minister rightly intervened on the hon. Member for Hove to ask whether people could reasonably have expected that to be the case—a point also raised by the hon. Member for Rhondda—and it is worth looking at that question. I will therefore concentrate largely on that issue in my brief contribution and I hope that that will help the debate.

As we know, the change in arrangements was introduced in December 1998. It is worth referring to clause 5 of the sales catalogue that was issued at that time, which says:

“The Buyer will be deemed to have knowledge of all matters which he could reasonably have been expected to find out given his knowledge as an Authorised Bookmaker and the exercise of due diligence.”

I would argue strongly to the Minister that responsible authorised bookmakers did do their due diligence test, but that they certainly could not have been expected to know what would happen following the introduction of the new legislation and its erroneous interpretation by the RCA.

It is also important to note that the extensive conditions detailed in the catalogue consistently emphasise that the buyer is buying a title, which can be transferred only under the NJPC arrangements. Under company law, a title constitutes an asset given to the holder of that title. People therefore believed that they were buying a title, which is an asset, in perpetuity. They were further led to assume that that was the case because all the relevant documentation referred to an opportunity to buy into a prosperous new era. They therefore assumed that they had got something that would be of financial benefit to them.

Underpinning every statement in the documentation was the idea of establishing a profession with stability and longevity. The issue of obtaining a title was made very clear by the NJPC, which set out four principles in its documentation. Those principles included the establishment of relativity, the affirmation of procedure, the determination of location and security of title. That is absolutely clear, but that security of title is now under threat, which is having a huge financial impact on on-course bookmakers and particularly, as the hon. Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough rightly said, on the colourful, smaller family-owned businesses, which are now in serious difficulty.

Why has all this happened? Why are people under threat? I do not understand why they are under threat. I have not only read the Gambling Act 2005—I served on the Committee that considered it and I have looked back at the debates about it—but obtained the draft regulations relating to the relevant sections—sections 167, 168 and 355(1). The only relevant issue raised in the regulations relates to the five times rule, which paragraph 1(8) of part 2 makes clear will go after 31 August 2012. I do not understand, however, why that gives the RCA the right to make all the other decisions that it has made.

I therefore have a few quick questions for the Minister. First, is he aware that his Department has been informed of such concerns and worries over the past three years? Is he aware that a letter was sent to his Department as a recently as eight weeks ago, but that there has still been no reply?

Secondly, is what the RCA is doing in the spirit of the Act or does it run contrary to it? Is the Minister aware that the federation will have no choice but to go to the European Court of Human Rights, as the hon. Member for Reigate said? It will do that under the first protocol to the European convention on human rights, which relates to property rights.

Thirdly, was the working group that was set up in the Minister’s Department to ensure the smooth running of the Act given any remit to look at the issue before us? Although concerns were raised, I think that the Minister will discover that it was given no such remit. Perhaps he can explain why.

Finally, if the Minister has the opportunity, will he address an issue that has not been touched on so far? Bookmakers from other European countries, and particularly from Ireland and Australia, are involved in the issues before us, which means that there could also be EU involvement.

The hon. Member for Ryedale summed things up when he said that we need a fair solution. I served on the Committee that considered the legislation, and the present situation was not intended. We therefore look to the Minister not necessarily to find a compromise—indeed, we should not be talking about compromise because the proposal was not right in the first place—but at least to acknowledge that there is a significant issue of compensation to be addressed.

I, too, extend my congratulations to the Minister, and it will be a pleasure to face him on occasions such as this.

Like the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), I do not have huge experience of race courses or betting, but the hon. Members for Hove (Ms Barlow) and for Livingston (Mr. Devine) eloquently described what is quite a complex situation, and everybody who was unclear about the situation will now understand it fully.

There is no doubting the strength of feeling among the small independent bookmakers. We heard from my hon. Friends the Members for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) and for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway), my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) and the hon. Members for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), for Pudsey (Mr. Truswell) and for Barnsley, East and Mexborough (Jeff Ennis). The hon. Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough read out a letter that eloquently and articulately describes the real concern and heartache that small bookmakers feel. In a debate that is quite technical, it is important to capture that; what is happening is about real heartache, and the feeling of a group of people that they have, to date, been betrayed by the Government. I do not say that that was necessarily the Government’s intention, but without a doubt that is what they feel.

We have a system that, with a few exceptions, appears to work well, although my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green talked about concerns about corruption. I know that he has raised several times, and continues to raise, issues about the National Joint Pitch Council. No one likes change, and change is on the horizon, but there is concern that the change that is happening will not only strip small bookmakers of their £100 million of assets, but—this is something that engages many of us here today—allow competition from the large bookmakers to swamp those small family businesses that are so important in many of our constituencies.

A period of considerable uncertainty looms, and although I was not a Member of the House when the Gambling Act 2005 was passed, it feels as if the issue of on-course betting was not well considered at the time. It rather got lost in the controversy that surrounded casinos. It is very easy to dismiss concerns about change as simple unwillingness to change. I believe that, as we have heard from hon. Members this morning, the debate is about considerably more than that. The Minister asked for evidence—I know he came back to that point in a later intervention—but whatever the evidence, the perception and the reality is that the small bookmakers felt that they owned something, and they now feel that someone is about to take away what belonged to them.

The matter could go to court. Everyone could spend a great deal of time in court, including the Government. The small bookmakers could spend their last pennies on it, and whatever the outcome no one would be very satisfied at the end. Alternatively, the Minister could agree today to reconsider the situation, and leave the people in the Public Gallery—it is always good to see people listening to debates—with some reassurance that he will examine the issue with an open mind. The current situation is of exactly the type that gives all levels of government—I am not talking about the present Government or making party political points—a very bad name, when they wade in without understanding the issues on the ground and bring forward legislation, while the small players at the front get forgotten. That is particularly relevant in the context of an Act that has courted, and continues to court, controversy.

I know that the Minister would like quite a lot of time to respond, and I think that all hon. Members present for the debate, together with, as I have said, the people in the Public Gallery, are anxious to hear what he has to say, so I shall not take up much more time. Fundamentally I want the Minister’s assurance that he will reconsider, and look for a solution. I agree that we are not necessarily looking for a compromise, but want a solution. When debate on this matter is finally wrapped up and the Minister has considered it, people will need to feel that he has taken their concerns into account, and that they will not be stripped of something that they understandably feel belongs to them.

Order. Before I call the Minister, I remind him that the only people whom I see in this Room are Members of Parliament, and he must bear that in mind.

Thank you, Mr. Conway; I welcome you to the proceedings this morning. I thank right hon. and hon. Members of all parties for their words of welcome to me in my new ministerial role, and I am delighted that my hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Mr. Devine) was able to secure the debate.

It would be foolish of me to underestimate or to fail to understand the high level of interest in on-course betting and the emotion that the issue generates, not least because of the passionate speeches made here today by hon. Members, but also because of the many letters that my Department has received. I have read through the previous debates, and I understand many of the issues that need to be considered. My predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Central (Mr. Caborn), wrote to hon. Members about some of the matters that were raised in the previous debate. This is my first opportunity to offer my thanks to my right hon. Friend for his work as Minister for Sport. He will be a hard act to follow.

My hon. Friend the Member for Livingston, like his predecessor in the constituency, the late Robin Cook, has a great love for and appreciation of British horse racing. I share his enthusiasm for that great sport and for the heritage, tradition and characters that go with it. I have shared racing day experiences with many hon. Members who are present today. I agree that a key part of the experience of live horse racing is to be able to place a bet with a bookmaker on the race course. It is exactly because we want to preserve that experience and encourage more people to enjoy live racing that we have maintained in the Gambling Act 2005 the right of bookmakers to be allowed into betting rings on race courses to take bets.

Before I address my hon. Friend’s specific points, it might be helpful if I set out some of the background to the issue. The Horserace Betting Levy Board is a non-departmental public body that operates in accordance with the Betting, Gaming and Lotteries Act 1963, as amended. The board’s main functions are to collect payments from bookmakers and use them for the three statutory purposes that relate to the improvement of horse racing set out in the 1963 Act. Since 1972, the board has also had the responsibility for issuing certificates of approval to race courses. Race courses can be issued with a certificate of approval only if they provide a place on-course for bookmakers to carry on their business.

At the time in question, the National Association of Bookmakers had responsibility for the administration of betting rings, under agreement with the Racecourse Association. As has been mentioned, in 1997, after seven years of disputes, that agreement was terminated by the RCA. That is a fundamental point with respect to the relationships that have existed all the way through. To ensure that betting rings were properly administered after the termination of that agreement, the levy board instigated a review.

Following an extensive consultation, the review recommended that a new administrative body should be established to be responsible for the administration and conduct of on-course betting rings. That new body was of course the National Joint Pitch Council. That brings me back to the point of my intervention on my hon. Friend the Member for Hove (Ms Barlow), which was to arrive at an understanding of what the NJPC’s role had been. I am informed that it never gave anyone the lifelong entitlement to a pitch. There were always qualifications, particularly as the new legislation came in: people had to study the intention of the new legislation.

The NJPC is not a public body. It is a company limited by guarantee. The Department has no direct influence over its decisions. Its board includes a number of bookmaker representatives. Its functions are essentially administrative, relating to the conduct of bookmakers on race courses through the national pitch rules. Among other things, those rules cover the allocation of pitches to on-course bookmakers. It is a condition of the levy board’s certificates of approval that race courses observe the national pitch rules that the board has endorsed.

In late 1998, the NJPC also set up a system for the auctioning of pitch list positions. That was implemented at the request of the levy board to ensure greater freedom, transparency and accessibility in the on-course market. As we have heard, it replaced the old “dead men’s shoes” system, whereby almost the only way to secure a pitch position was through inheritance. The auction system was a mechanism for one bookmaker to sell a pitch list position to another. Agreement was reached with the levy board and the NJPC on those auctions.

My hon. Friend the Member for Livingston is right to say that under the Gambling Act 2005, the certificate of approval system will be replaced. From 1 September 2007, the new premises licences will be issued by local licensing authorities, which will have a duty to take into account the three objectives of the Gambling Act: keeping gambling free of crime; keeping gambling fair and open; and protecting children and vulnerable people.

The new system of licensing will be clearer, more transparent and more consistent than ever. It will focus on the regulation of premises, including race courses, rather than on their administration, and allow race courses and bookmakers to develop a mature, commercial relationship for the first time. That is entirely appropriate, because it is good for racing and for bookies, and it is in line with this Government’s aim of minimising bureaucratic burdens and allowing successful industries to run themselves.

It is not right to suggest, as some have done, that the Gambling Act itself does away with pitch lists. Although the certificate of approval system provided a certain authority to support the pitch list system, the lists themselves have never been recognised in statute. They do not—and never have—confer ownership of land to any of the pitch-list place holders, and it remains open for race courses and bookmakers to retain the existing system, or similar arrangements, if they so wish.

I freely recognise that the RCA’s announcement that it will cease to recognise the lists from September 2012 has caused great consternation among bookmakers, as has been said today.

When my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough suggested an extension of two years to 2014, I magically carried out a survey among pitch bookmakers and they unanimously rejected the proposal.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention—so quickly something rises and then is shot down. The spirit of what my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough (Jeff Ennis) is trying to achieve is the feel that I get from the tenure of the debate. We are alive to the concerns that exist.

Anyone who has followed the development of the Gambling Act will know that it has been characterised by frequent and thorough consultation, as has been said. We raised the issue of the administration of on-course betting in a consultation in 2000, and again last year. We received representations from bookmakers and race courses, and we examined them all closely. I know from letters that we have received from constituents that many are worried about the future of their bookmaking businesses post-1 September.

It is worth saying straight away that the Gambling Act itself does not threaten bookmakers’ businesses or livelihoods in the way that has been described. Let me explain why. As I have already mentioned, the mandatory and default conditions attached to premises licences continue to require race courses to provide a place on course for bookmakers to carry on their business.

It is worth reflecting on the position paper issued by my Department in 2003 on the licensing of betting premises, to which the hon. Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) referred. It set out the Department’s views very clearly. Paragraph 2.6 said that

“it would seem odd that racecourses should not be able to ask for market prices from on-course bookmakers for using areas of their land on which bookmakers are conducting a business.”

The paper went on to suggest that bookmakers would need a transitional period during which to recoup the value of their pitches and place their businesses on a profitable footing before the fully commercial system was introduced. We have honoured that proposal by providing a transitional period in the mandatory and default conditions: the five times rule will continue until 2012. For its part, the RCA has confirmed its current intention to honour the existing pitch list system for the same period.

I understand that the NJPC continued to run auctions for pitch list positions up to February this year. That was the NJPC’s own decision. I note, however, that in auctions since 2005, a clear warning has been given to potential buyers that they should familiarise themselves with the new arrangements set out in the Gambling Act before deciding whether to bid for positions. That is why I asked my hon. Friend the Member for Hove about that point. I am not unsympathetic to some of the things that she said, and I wanted to hear her view.

As the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) has said, we have facilitated an industry working group to look at the wider administrative issues that relate to on-course betting. There are copies of the group’s terms of reference and membership in the Libraries of both Houses. On the question that he asked me, I should make it clear that the working group, which is drawn from representatives of betting and racing, took a decision not to include consideration of this issue in its terms of reference.

I realise that the definitive nature of the RCA’s announcement has caused some alarm, and, in the spirit of continuing consultation and co-operation, I want to propose two areas for further action. First, I want the conclusions of the working group on the regulation and administration of on-course betting to be put out to consultation. Although, as I have said, the working group is not charged with examining the allocation of pitches, it is developing important proposals about an administrative framework to ensure the continuing smooth operation of on-course bookmaking, in the interests of the punter. I should like the proposals to be published and thus open to consultation for all interested parties as soon as possible. I make it plain now that I should also like them to enshrine principles of integrity, propriety and proper accountability.

Secondly, I want the race courses’ representatives and on-course bookmakers to sit down together to consider how the existing pitch lists and the new commercial arrangements after 2012 can co-exist. It is only right for a mature and modern industry to come to a sensible and workable conclusion of its own making. I say that not only as the new Sports Minister, but as a former Competition Minister in the former Department of Trade and Industry. We have tried to make industry become responsible for its own decisions and its own future.

There is clearly a divergence of viewpoint between what the RCA wants to achieve and what the on-course bookmakers want to achieve. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Ryedale for offering the all-party group on racing and bloodstock to facilitate those discussions. It is only by the bodies that I mentioned coming together that we can get an agreement. People have got the right to go to law, and nobody can take that away from these individuals.

I remember the Minister taking the Consumer Credit Bill through Parliament. He was keen to make the same point then: it is always best if the industry can manage its own affairs well. However, he always said that it was necessary for Government to reserve the right to legislate if necessary. Will he do the same in this case?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. He is right that that was the style of operation in that regard. The complexity in this case involves the change from the certificates to the licensing regime that we put in place, and it would make legislation more difficult. I am prepared to say that this situation needs to be resolved—it cannot and should not be left unresolved. Meetings should take place, and we will facilitate them. I am happy to meet hon. Members to discuss this further, although I am sending the message out loud and clear that it should be the RCA and the on-course bookmakers who reach an adequate conclusion, because that is the right way forward.

As I have said, I shall continue to monitor the situation. Hopefully, we can get the interests of the racegoer and racing put to the forefront, because, as I have found in my short time in this job, many other issues in racing will need to be addressed. Racing is clearly an integral part of our culture and society, and I will look to the horse racing authorities to play their part; a number of disputes seem to be taking place on several issues and we now need to bottom them out. I am prepared to play my part in that, in consultation with hon. Members. Although the reassurances that I have given today will not meet all the requirements of the on-course bookmakers, I hope that they show the intention: this was not about the Gambling Act; it is about the ability of the industry to sort itself out—I hope that that is what will take place.

Sitting suspended.

Yardley Green Hospital Site

I am grateful for the opportunity to have this debate on the future of the Yardley Green hospital site, and I am pleased to serve under your wise and experienced chairmanship, Mr. Conway. I welcome the late-arriving Minister and warmly congratulate her on her elevation to the position that she now holds.

The Yardley Green hospital site has generated huge concern and anger in the local community. The site is in my constituency which, notwithstanding the success of the British economy over the past decade or so, is still one of the most deprived in the country. Some areas still have unemployment of more than 15 per cent. and there is massive pressure on all public services in the Bordesley Green area. The primary and secondary schools in the area are full and the more popular ones are massively oversubscribed. The pressure on social housing is enormous, and there is ever-growing need for health and recreational facilities. There is also a high birth rate.

Against that background, the local population saw the closure of the Yardley Green hospital as an opportunity to address some of those issues. The hospital site is close to Heartlands hospital, which has expanded recently to take in Solihull hospital. There has also been expansion on the existing Heartlands hospital site. I had no issue with the health authority when it judged that, with the growth of Heartlands hospital, Yardley Green hospital was surplus to requirements, but there was a clear expectation in the community that the site would be used for much-needed affordable housing, a desperately needed new secondary school, expanded general health facilities including—this is important—day care mental health facilities, and recreational facilities that could be used by local people.

It therefore came as a total shock when the Heart of Birmingham primary care trust, in conjunction with the Birmingham and Solihull mental health trust, began a consultation with local residents on the possibility of the site being used solely for mental health facilities. Several meetings were held at which representatives from the mental health trust made presentations about the need for additional mental health facilities in the west midlands. Initially, it was pointed out that no decision had been taken and that the purpose of the consultation was to ascertain the views of local people. It was also pointed out that in addition to the Yardley Green hospital site, three or four other sites in and around Birmingham were being considered and that similar consultations were taking place.

At the meetings in Bordesley Green, there was overwhelming opposition from local residents to the suggestion that the site should be used solely for mental health facilities, because of the other pressing needs in the area. At those meetings, I made clear my opposition to the site being used solely for mental health facilities. I pointed out that I had had previous dealings with the mental health trust in respect of another site in my constituency and that, to put it frankly, I was not convinced that the mental health trust or the health authority were acting in totally good faith in giving the impression that they were conducting a consultative process.

Based on my previous dealings with the mental health trust, I pointed out that I believed that it already had it clearly in mind to put solely mental health facilities on the Yardley Green hospital site because it owned the land, so that that presented the cheapest option compared with the other sites that it said it was considering. Furthermore, the trust had already embarked on a programme of closing mental health institutions in the countryside around Birmingham so that the land could be sold off, extremely profitably, for executive housing irrespective of whether the mental health patients living in those institutions wanted that to happen.

As the consultation moved on, more information about the plans emerged bit by bit, and it was eventually made known that the mental health trust had it in mind to build a medium secure unit on the site to accommodate 80 clients in a locked facility. It subsequently came to light that that facility would be bordered by a 5.8 m-high fence. When the full facts became known, there was even greater opposition to the proposal from within the area, but the trust finished its consultation process and then announced that, on reflection, it had decided that the most appropriate site for such a unit was the Yardley Green hospital site and—surprise, surprise—it also announced that the other areas in the west midlands that were being considered wholeheartedly supported the facility being put on the Yardley Green hospital site.

Yesterday, I received a briefing—I suspect that it was intended not for me, but for the Minister—from Karen Helliwell, in which the mental health trust came up with a number of reasons why I should speak for the proposal today. The briefing is a collection of spin, half-truths, innuendo and downright slurs. I shall address one or two of them.

The briefing points out that 114 responses were received to the public consultation, including 39 from local residents and two petitions signed by more than 1,300 members of the local Bordesley Green community. It then said that the majority of the 114 responses to the consultation supported the proposals for a medium secure unit. Nevertheless, there was concern among the population. No reference was made to the 1,300 people who signed a petition, nor to the fact that the petition violently opposed putting a medium secure unit on that site. It also says that the facility is closest to the centre of Birmingham and Coventry. It is certainly closest to the centre of Birmingham, but Coventry happens to be rather a long way away, so again there is a massaging of the true facts.

Finally, I take most offence at the fact that the briefing refers to the community liaison group, which was set up to conduct the consultation, and had been meeting since 6 June 2006. It said that “the Community Development Worker”—to whom I shall refer in a moment—

“is responsible for ensuring that all the community issues are acknowledged. The last meeting was held on Tuesday, 29 May. In fact, members of the public have been put off attending the CLG meetings as they have been intimidated by protestors outside the meetings.”

That is a direct slur and there is no justification for it. Indeed, Mr. Wilson, the project manager, wrote to me on 7 June stating:

“Since January 2007, we have seen a decline in attendance at the CLG meetings. It has become apparent that while some people have found the CLG to be helpful, other people have not found it a useful forum. We have therefore taken the decision to postpone the meeting next Tuesday, pending a review of our communications strategy and how the community liaison group fits in with that. We know that many people are anxious about the development”.

There was nothing about the meetings being called off, or about people not attending because, allegedly, they have been threatened or intimidated. However, I regret to say that that is the way in which the mental health trust has approached the issue—with a catalogue of spin, half-truths and innuendo.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. Does he recognise that across the River Cole, in my constituency, people are concerned about the same proposal? The record of consultation shows an absence of willingness to respond to community concerns about the proposals for change.

I thank the hon. Gentleman and entirely accept what he says. I am well aware that he has constituents who feel just as strongly as my constituents about the matter.

A planning application was submitted to Birmingham city council in February for outline planning permission. A petition of more than 1,000 people was presented and, in addition to the opposition that I had made quite clear at the consultative meetings, Councillor Shah, the Labour councillor for the ward in question, also objected to the application. The two Liberal Democrat councillors for the ward voiced their objections to the proposals at the consultative meetings, but one of them, who was a member of the planning committee, was not present when the application was considered on 8 February.

At the meeting on 8 February, the planning committee, which has a majority of Conservative and Liberal Democrat councillors because they are in alliance on the city council, gave outline planning consent. The sense of anger and frustration felt by the local residents has manifested itself ever since.

Councillor Shah, the local councillor, is not a member of the planning committee.

It is worth pointing out that the mental health trust had a paid community development worker who was involved in arranging the consultation process, and that surprise, surprise, he happened to be a Liberal Democrat councillor who represented the Springfield ward in my constituency, where the previous controversy over the location of the mental health facility arose. The two Liberal Democrat councillors for the ward did not seek to challenge the decision of the planning committee at the full council meeting, and by not doing so, many people locally believed that they betrayed the interests of their constituents.

Mr. Conway, forgive me, but I have given way twice already, and time is getting short.

Bearing in mind the small majority that the Con-Lib alliance had on the council, I should be amazed if the two Liberal Democrat councillors for the ward had been prepared to stand out against the proposals. They would not have been able to persuade the Liberal Democrat group within the ruling alliance that the proposals should not go ahead.

The reason why I raise this debate today is because the people of Bordesley Green are extremely angry and frustrated that their clear opposition to the proposal has been ignored. They have been poorly served by their local Liberal Democrat councillors, who had it within their power to stop the proposals going ahead. The land is public land, and while the ultimate decision about what is built on it lies with the local planning authority, the residents are looking for help from the Department of Health to try to prevent the medium-secure unit from being built.

I end by reiterating what I said earlier. It really is hard to appreciate the anger and frustration in the area. The people of the area appreciate, as I do, that mental illness is increasing, and that one in four of the population will be touched by such illness at some time during their lives. They have no objection whatever to the provision of much-needed general health facilities on the site, which would incorporate day-care provision and facilities for dealing with people who suffer from mild forms of mental illness, such as depression. However, to place an 80-bed, medium-secure locked unit surrounded by a 5.8 m fence in such an area, which is deficient in so many other needs, such as affordable housing, additional school places, general health facilities and community provision, is totally wrong. The site is the wrong site and I hope that the Minister will give some help and support to the local residents to stop that ill-conceived project going ahead.

Good morning, Mr. Conway. May I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook and Small Heath (Mr. Godsiff) on securing the debate? It is about a matter of great concern to him and his constituents. On the briefing to which he referred, if it was meant for me, I do not have it. However, I assure him that the briefing provided to me, as a new Health Minister, made absolutely clear the number of responses that were received, it referred to the two petitions and to the fact that they were signed by more than 1,300 members of the local community, and it made clear the way in which the local NHS has taken the consultation forward.

I understand entirely that such changes are at times difficult, and that they need to be fully explained. In my own constituency, those issues arise when there is change, and when there is a need to ensure that the full range of services that the NHS provides is available in our communities. I was grateful to my hon. Friend for referring to the fact that he does not question at all the provision of the full range of services, particularly in the mental health field.

My hon. Friend knows, and I shall make it absolutely clear today, that the development will provide a number of services, including the medium-secure mental health service. It will do so in a more attractive environment, bringing with it training and employment opportunities. He reiterated some of his concerns, and to do justice to his points, I know that he has vigorously engaged with the trust on behalf of his constituents as the proposals have developed during the 15-week consultation period. He touched on the point that it should be made clear that the approval of the plans came from the Birmingham city council overview and scrutiny committee, with support from the local primary care trusts. Every opportunity has been given to consider the other options.

My hon. Friend is right that in considering where it was most appropriate to locate those services, the health care professionals looked at a range of possible sites that were in NHS ownership, including the two existing medium-secure units. However, neither site had enough room for an extension, and they were incapable of providing the type of accommodation that the service requires.

I thank the Minister for giving way, and I take it from what she says that she confirms that the Government support the proposal as it stands.

The hon. Gentleman understands the issues fully, because he, too, has been engaged in the process. I am making it clear that they are matters for the local NHS to decide, and quite frankly, the Liberal Democrats cannot claim to have a policy nationally to devolve more power and decision-making to the local area—

No, I shall not give way to the hon. Gentleman; I shall finish my response to his point.

The Liberal Democrats cannot claim to have a policy to devolve more power and decision-making locally so that local people can determine the service based on local needs, which must be the right proposition, and then, when it does not suit the hon. Gentleman politically, claim something else.

No, I shall not give way. When the hon. Gentleman gets that sorted out, we can engage on this issue. The provision of services to people with mental health issues is an important matter, and it would be a travesty if we did not engage in a proper consideration of what that requires of us and what is happening locally.

Through the local consultation process, several changes have taken place in response to public suggestions. My hon. Friend touched on some of those changes, such as the change in the location of the building so that it will be away from some rear gardens. I fully appreciate that there are still people who want further issues to be settled, but any attempt to take the matter beyond the consultation process and appeal against the development would have to challenge the process undertaken. Anyone who wants to make such a challenge would need to get relevant advice about how such matters are dealt with locally and what remedies are available. I have no doubt that my hon. Friend has already considered those points, given his usual thoroughness.

I should like to put the development into a wider context, because this is a matter of balancing local needs and concerns against the wider reasons for the development being necessary. The proposals demonstrate that the NHS is responding to the public need for a spectrum of services; they are about providing for local people. The local mental health trust serves a population of 1.2 million people, some of whom will suffer from acute, severe mental illness, a small proportion of whom will need treatment in a secure environment.

No, I will not. I should like to finish this important point. People with acute, severe mental illness, some of whom will live in that community, need appropriate care as close to home as possible, because families and friends should be able to visit. Given that many patients already feel isolated because of their illness, a familiar environment is desirable. It is always difficult to strike the right balance between the best interests of the patients and those of the local community.

On that specific point, I understand the arguments about facilities being close to relevant client groups. However, the clients will come not only from central Birmingham but from Coventry and further afield. Secondly, I have never, during my time as a Member of Parliament, had a letter from the relative of someone in a mental institution complaining that they are having difficulty in getting to see their relative. I have, however, had numerous letters from the relatives of prisoners complaining that they find it difficult to travel to see them and asking whether I can get the offender moved closer to home. Therefore, I understand the Minister’s reasoning, but I have not had any complaint, locally, from the families of mental health clients, that they cannot get to see relatives in such institutions.

I shall tread carefully: I know that my hon. Friend is an assiduous and hard-working local MP, and that he therefore has contact with his constituents about many such issues. I must point out—I have experience of this as a constituency MP—that MPs are not normally the first port of call for the relatives of people who are suffering from severe mental illness, because they will be struggling with many things. However, I assure him that that is a relevant clinical point when considering how to make available the best treatment to those who have severe mental illness.

My hon. Friend talked about the wider geographical area. Of course, units of a certain size can provide detailed medical and wider support to individuals. I do not say that every unit is on the doorstep of every patient, but when balancing the many relevant issues, such as the availability of land on NHS sites and the needs of local communities, the local trust is charged with responsibilities to consider all those points in preparing local plans.

I am sorry; I have a few more points to make. In fairness, I must make some progress in responding to my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook and Small Heath, whose debate it is. As I was saying, my experience is that the local issue has great resonance, but the specific vulnerabilities and difficulties relating to the requirements of the patients under discussion might mean that we do not always get such letters from their relatives.

In order to provide a comprehensive mental health care service for local residents, the trust needs to ensure that it has sufficient medium-secure accommodation. At the moment, a third of local men who need medium-secure care have to go out of the region. I, too, get letters from people who are finding it difficult to visit relatives in a prison that is further away, but there are also issues relating to individuals being treated out of the region. It is important at least to try to close that gap. As my hon. Friend pointed out, the majority of men who will benefit from the unit are from the Birmingham and Coventry areas.

Part of providing appropriate care in medium-secure services is making sure that the level of security is right. That is often a concern. Medium-secure services need to have significant levels of security. Those levels of security must satisfy the Healthcare Commission, local commissioners and, in the case of anyone being transferred from a prison, the Ministry of Justice. The Department is shortly to publish a set of principles and high-level indicators for medium-secure services, which are essentially to set the standards for those services. I am sure that my hon. Friend will want to consider that as well when considering the development. Those standards will be in place by the time that patients are admitted to the new unit.

I hope that I have been able to give some assurance to my hon. Friend. I encourage him, although he does not need any encouragement, to continue to talk to his local health services and, importantly, to shape this development, recognising all the challenges and pressures, to the benefit of his local community. I have listened carefully to all his points, and I also considered carefully the submissions in preparation for the debate. This is a matter for the local NHS, but I assure him that some of the broader points that he has made about the future shape of the NHS will need to be taken on board.

Sitting suspended until half-past Two o’clock.

Hospital Services (Sussex)

May I welcome you to the Chair this afternoon, Mr. Conway? I also welcome the Minister to her new position.

I am grateful to have secured this debate on an issue that is probably arousing more passion and concern in my constituency and throughout West Sussex than anything else. There are hon. Members here from East Sussex and West Sussex who are all affected by the proposed reconfiguration of hospitals. We are grateful for this opportunity to make the case on behalf of our constituents and for the fact that this debate has brought the Minister here to listen to those concerns, which I am sure she will do. I should like to focus on West Sussex, in which my constituency lies, but my hon. Friends and other hon. Members might refer to the situation in East Sussex. I shall also keep my remarks as brief as possible, to allow everyone here the opportunity to take part in this short debate.

The situation in West Sussex is that the newly created primary care trust proposes to downgrade our three acute hospitals to one, so that there will be only one major general hospital for the whole county. That affects every hon. Member in West Sussex and some in East Sussex, and it affects me particularly, because my constituents use all three hospitals. I am therefore in a position to see how the proposals would affect the whole county.

The first thing that I should like to say about our objections to how the primary care trust has handled the process is that the justification for the proposals has fundamentally changed. More than a year ago, we were eventually told—when the strategic health authority and then the primary care trust admitted it—that the overriding reason for downgrading our local hospitals was a financial deficit in the health care sector in West Sussex and that it would get worse. The principal justification for the measures that the PCT said were needed was that it would no longer be sustainable to retain three acute hospitals for a population the size of West Sussex.

It is true that some clinical justifications for the change were set out at the time, but the overriding justification was clearly financial. Indeed, as a former chief executive of the primary care trust, Steve Phoenix, wrote to the West Sussex Gazette on 30 August 2006:

“The financial issues for West Sussex are very serious. Although the NHS will get more money, we are already in debt and there are major challenges in the way we receive funding.”

He continued:

“if we do nothing, we will have a shortfall of £94 million by 2008/09. This an impossible scenario. Our plans will involve significant changes to major hospital services. We must invest our funding in direct patient care rather than expensive hospital buildings.”

He could not have been more plain that the principal driver of the changes was the lack of funding available to the primary care trust that he perceived. That position was reinforced by the strategic health authority. As the chief executive of the strategic health authority wrote to me and other hon. Members on 31 July 2006 on the issue of finance:

“It is much better, and more responsible, to plan for a clinically and financially sustainable healthcare system, as we are doing.”

The new Secretary of State, whom I welcome to his position, too, said in the debate on access to NHS services yesterday:

“These reconfigurations are being driven by local decisions in local NHS trusts, and they are driven by clinical need, not by any financial constraints.”—[Official Report, 3 July 2007; Vol. 462, c. 853.]

However, he cannot have been aware of the primary care trust’s original justification for the changes that are taking place.

Nevertheless, it now seems that the financial arguments for downgrading our local hospitals have simply evaporated. The latest case scenarios that the primary care trust has published, along with the plan for reconfiguration of our hospitals, actually show that in five years’ time, in 2012-13, the local health care economy—that is, the West Sussex and Brighton PCTs and the three acute trusts—will end up with an annual surplus of £52 million. Let us deal with the argument once and for all: there is no financial case for downgrading our hospitals in West Sussex. The Secretary of State has now also said that there is no financial case for doing so. That crucial part of the argument for change and how the PCT has approached it for the past year has gone, yet the trust persists in the changes that it wants to make.

Now the argument turns on whether there is a clinical case for downgrading our hospitals, but those arguments are strongly disputed. Locally, they are disputed by consultants, who disagree about whether there should be only one major general hospital in West Sussex—an issue to which I am sure my hon. Friends will turn their attention. Nationally, we are relying on the evidence of some of the royal colleges, on which the whole future of two major hospitals could turn, simply because it is argued that the most serious accident and emergency cases ought to be treated in major centres. Given that there is no financial imperative for reorganising those major hospitals, it does not seem to make sense to put at risk major and much-prized local facilities simply to address that concern.

The concern of my constituents and of the whole population of West Sussex is about accessibility. In my area of West Sussex, the question is not about the size of the population served by the three acute hospitals or about the catchment areas, in the narrow sense; it is about whether those hospitals are accessible to a community, many of whose members live in remote areas. From one village—it happens to be called Washington—right in the middle of my constituency, at the foot of the downs, the distance to Worthing general hospital, one of the three hospitals affected, is a very reasonable eight miles, with a travel time of 13 minutes. If Worthing general hospital is downgraded, which is one of the options that the primary care trust has set out, the travel time could increase by two and half or even up to five times if patients have to travel to Portsmouth, which is one of the potential effects of the changes.

Indeed, in the document that the primary care trust published when the proposals were launched, it conceded that

“a minority of people may have to travel further”

for what it called “improved services.” However, we are talking about a population that is relatively elderly. According to the 2001 census, just over one fifth of West Sussex’s population was aged 65 years or over, which compares with an average of 16 per cent. in England and Wales. It is extremely difficult for elderly people to make regular visits to health care facilities that are further away. We are not just talking about travel times and safety for A and E services; we are talking about people who have to travel further for visits to facilities that are currently much closer.

The other day I met an elderly constituent of mine who lives in Storrington, in the middle of constituency, who has to travel a number of times of week to Brighton for radiotherapy, making a round trip of 41 miles on each occasion, with a travel time of 76 minutes. There is a huge amount of fear locally that, far from there being a greater provision of local services, which we were promised as part of the reconfiguration, services will be taken further away from the local community.

We have not seen the redeveloped local services that were promised as part of the reconfiguration, or any proposals for them. No assurance have been given in relation to one community hospital in Arundel, in my constituency. It simply does not make sense to say that acute hospitals might be downgraded and simultaneously to be unable to give assurances about the provision of community hospitals, on which people will presumably rely for more local services.

The absence from the primary care trusts’ proposals of an option for at least two major hospitals, which is what many clinicians and the public have asked for, is a significant omission. It makes the consultation paper a flawed one, and we asked the PCT board, unsuccessfully, to withdraw the paper until it could present an option that we felt should be considered.

I should like to convey to the Minister the strength of feeling in support of the three hospitals in West Sussex—the Princess Royal hospital in Haywards Heath, Worthing and Southlands hospitals and St. Richard’s hospital in Chichester. Some 300,000 people in West Sussex have signed petitions against the closure of those hospitals, and 25,000 people have marched. The Prime Minister may stand on the steps of Downing street, as he did last week, and say that he will listen to people and make the NHS a priority, and the Government may espouse the notion of patient choice, but what can any of that mean if the Government and the PCTs are unwilling to listen to the almost unanimous view of local people?

There can be no better way to demonstrate how people feel about the potential downgrading of their hospitals than to consider the Princess Royal hospital in Haywards Heath, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames), who has fought tirelessly to retain those facilities. The Princess Royal will be the hospital most affected by the proposals. Under any of the scenarios proposed by the PCT, it will be downgraded. Yet a consultation document published only in 2004 promised that, in reshaping A and E services and moving trauma cases to Brighton,

“It is important to emphasise that the vast majority of local people will continue to receive A&E services from their local hospital. So there is no threat to A&E at the Princess Royal.”

That promise was made not only in the consultation document, but to my hon. Friend on the Floor of the House by one of the Minister’s predecessors, the right hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (Mr. Hutton), now a Cabinet Minister. He told my hon. Friend on 16 March 2005:

“There is no question of A and E services being downgraded or becoming a minor injuries unit. That is not going to happen.”—[Official Report, 16 March 2005; Vol. 432, c. 383.]

When the Prime Minister speaks, as he did yesterday, about rebuilding trust in politics and reconnecting people with the political process, what can those words mean if Ministers feel able to come to this place, give assurances to hon. Members about the future of A and E facilities—an issue that could hardly be of more concern to local people—and renege on those promises within two years? That produces a sense of anger in my constituency and throughout West Sussex about how local people are being treated. They have no voice and they are not being listened to, yet they are being told by the Government that they will be listened to and that the NHS is now the new concern. How can the Minister square that circle? I urge her to recognise local people’s concerns about the issue and how the justification for the downgrading of our local hospitals has shifted and been undermined.

I am grateful to the Minister for listening to my case. I hope that she will appreciate the strength of local feeling and that she or one of her colleagues will take the opportunity to come visit the hospitals. The previous Secretary of State visited the hospital at Brighton, but did not visit St. Richard’s, Worthing and Southlands or the Princess Royal. If Ministers were to visit one of them, they would understand not only that clinical opinion is certainly divided about the merits of moving to one hospital in a county of that size but also that local feeling is strong. People have paid their taxes, and they feel that they are entitled to high-quality, local and accessible services. I think that they deserve no less.

Order. Understandably, a large number of hon. Gentlemen wish to take part in the debate. The Minister and the Front Bench spokesmen have indicated that they are prepared to cut down their usual time. If subsequent speakers can finish on the right side of five minutes, we shall hopefully get everyone in, but that is in your hands.

There is very little difference between the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) and me on this issue. I congratulate him both on securing the debate and on how he put the case, and I welcome the Minister to her position.

My constituency is in the grip of a pincer movement of threatened loss of services. At the eastern end, maternity services at Eastbourne are under threat. Most seriously, we face the potential or likely loss of accident and emergency services at Haywards Heath, a hospital that many of my constituents in the north-west look to. My constituents are angry and bewildered that at a time when more money than ever before is going to the NHS—I congratulate the former Chancellor on his record on that matter—cuts of a hitherto unseen extent are being proposed. It is difficult to square that circle.

I must make it perfectly plain that not only has the case for removing A and E at the Princess Royal not been made, but it is exceedingly dangerous and will be counter-productive in its consequences for my constituents and those of other hon. Members present today. We are given three options in the consultation paper, all of which involve losing A and E services at the Princess Royal. The PCT is asking us whether we want to lose an arm, a leg or both. We are not given the option of losing none of the bits of our body.

I feel strongly that that is not what was agreed. When I had a meeting with the strategic health authority last year, I was promised that the options in the paper would include a status quo option, even if the PCT did not feel capable of recommending it. The option would be included, if only to allow the other options to be measured against it in terms of the clinical changes required and the financial costs. That has not been done. Similarly, with maternity services in Eastbourne, we were promised at an early stage that a status quo option would be included. It is only thanks to the hard work of campaigners who look to the Eastbourne district general hospital for services that a so-called option 5 is now being developed there.

The hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs referred to the financial case. He is right that the sands have shifted and the goalposts have moved on that matter, but it is worse than that, because there is a chance that what is proposed will cost the NHS money, not save it. The Princess Royal hospital in Haywards Heath is quite modern; it is about 15 years old. The Brighton hospital, which will be expected to take up the slack, dates from 1828. It is pre-Nightingale in how it was built and what it offers. Its car parking is insufficient; it is pretty inaccessible by public and indeed private transport. It is on the coast, so half its catchment area is in the English channel. It is not where one would put a hospital if one started from scratch, yet the proposal is effectively to close the emergency department in a hospital that is well situated in mid-Sussex and serves a wide population 360º around it, and to relocate services to Brighton.

That can be done only if money from the sale of land at the Princess Royal—it has been discussed—is used to provide new facilities at Brighton. But where is the sense in closing part of a recently constructed, 15-year-old facility and using it to bolster a hospital built almost two centuries ago with very little spare land, which it would cost a significant amount to develop? It makes no financial sense at all.

If we are to have any changes to our acute services and move towards community services, which is the Government’s intention—I accept that it is a sensible intention in so far as it can be delivered—that will cost money, too. We do not know how much that will cost. The hon. Gentleman is quite right that the community aspect has not been properly considered. I do not know what the proposals are for Lewes Victoria hospital—it is not clear what will be put there. If we are to have services taken away, we need to know before they are taken away and, as part of the consultation, what will be done to provide an alternative to the services that it is proposed will be removed from our acute hospitals.

The issue of accessibility, which is key, was also raised. I represent a rural area, including villages such as Newick, Chailey and Wivelsfield. My constituents are already concerned about the journey times to Haywards Heath, without taking into account additional journey times to Brighton. I am sure that the hon. Member for Wealden (Charles Hendry) will have a similar point to make about his patch. We talk about the golden hour in which to get people to hospitals. With the amount of traffic on the roads in east Sussex and the rural nature of many of the villages, I am not convinced that it could be guaranteed that people could get to Brighton within the hour. In clinical terms, it is simply not sensible to go down that route.

Public transport is pretty sparse in the rural areas, and the bus services that the Government want do not exist. Many of my constituents, who can ill afford it, end up taking extremely expensive taxi rides to get to hospital already. If they are going to be asked to take taxi rides to Brighton—or even to Hastings for maternity services—that will be an expensive business. It is not right to ask people to do that. I do not know the Government’s view on social exclusion, but they will make it worse through such proposals.

The pressure on the ambulance service has not been thought through, either. If we are to have people taken to hospitals that are much further away, by definition ambulances will be on the road far more, spending more time at each individual pick-up. Has the ambulance service been properly consulted? What will be the consequences for it? How many ambulances and ambulance drivers will we need? What is the cost of that? Has it been factored in? I do not think that it has.

I am not convinced by the clinical argument that we need to have these single centres and that it is not safe to have different centres. My constituents certainly believe that the arrangements are perfectly safe and are happy with them. In fact, many of them would rather go to the Princess Royal hospital in Haywards Heath than to Brighton, given half a chance. There is no question but that people in my constituency believe that the present arrangements are safe. If they are not safe, what happens in the north of Scotland, Cornwall or other places that are more sparsely populated? They seem to manage all right—with fewer people going through them as well, I say to the consultant who claimed that a certain critical mass of individuals was needed.

The matter crosses party lines. I am pleased to agree—I hope that I will—with the Conservative Members who will speak after me. It is good that we have seen a cross-party approach and I thank the hon. Members for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) and for Arundel and South Downs for the way in which they have approached the matter. In the north-west of my constituency, that cross-party approach has worked quite well. We need to go forward on that basis.

I note that although we have a vast turnout of Conservative MPs and 100 per cent. of Liberal Democrat MPs for Sussex in this debate, it is sad that none of the five Labour MPs who represent Sussex are here—[Hon. Members: “One is.”] I beg hon. Members’ pardon; 20 per cent. of them are here. I hope that they will realise that it does not help Brighton and Hove if Haywards Heath is closed down and services are removed from there.

I ask the Minister to listen to public opinion, which is strong in all our constituencies. If she does, she will come to the conclusion that the options that have been put forward, for the Princess Royal hospital in particular, simply do not wash.

I echo what the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) said. I am glad that this is a non-party, all-party campaign and I am sure that the hon. Member for Crawley (Laura Moffatt) would join us in our debate, were she in a position to do so. In Worthing, the local Labour party, Liberal party, Conservatives, the non-political and the media—the Worthing Herald and Splash FM in the lead, with the support of The Argus and the other papershave done a great job. I do not know how often the Minister has called a meeting of local residents to find that 6,500 people have turned up, and called another meeting to find that 8,500 have turned up—at a conservative estimate—but that is how keen people are to take part in the debate and to ensure that their voices are heard properly. Even more important than the popular voice and that of the patients are those of the doctors, nurses and support staff in our hospitals.

I shall make reference to one detailed paper that the Department of Health has seen. In the agenda contained in the primary care trust board papers for a meeting on 25 June, item 7 includes the heading “Financial Implications of reconfiguration documents”. Page 7 gives information that is not referred to by the primary care trust in any other paper that I have seen. That is a scandal, and I want the Minister to tell the strategic health authority and the primary care trust to reissue the consultation documents spelling out that under options 1 and 3 there will be savings to the national health service, which have not been taken account of, of up to £24 million even when scaled back by a factor of 50 per cent. It is shocking and misleading, and it is either a mistake or it is deliberate.

I want the Minister, if she can in the next hour or so, to get page 7 of the annexe to item 7 of the agenda paper on financial implications. If we are told that there are calculated figures of £13 million here or minus £18 million there, and a £24 million saving to the health service is missed out because it happens to affect a hospital outside Sussex and Brighton and Hove—Portsmouth, in Hampshire—that should be taken account of. If the Minister reads pages 1 to 6 on the financial implications, she will see no other reference to that information. It is contained in one box on page 7 and I bet that 999 in 1,000 will never have spotted it. I do not believe that the independent directors of the primary care trust board or the strategic health authority knew it. My local papers did not spot it, and neither did the experts who considered the options. That is not fair or plain dealing, and I hope that the Minister will ask the chairmen of the SHA and the PCT whether they knew it or whether it was known by the people on the executive side. Did the lead director know it and, if so, why was it not mentioned at the PCT’s public meeting? That is not right.

I now switch to a health meeting held in the House of Commons this morning. The health economist who attended said that there was no evidence that moving to massive acute hospitals makes a significant difference to outcomes. If the Minister asks the chief executive of the SHA, Candy Morris, for her recent exchange with Mark Signy, an acute medical specialist at Worthing, she will find a couple of things. First, when the clinical reference advisory group summed up what Mark Signy said in reference to acute medical admissions, it stated:

“Only 1 per cent. of admissions require a primary angioplasty and therefore this procedure would not influence reconfiguration.”

The chief executive put it out as:

“Only 1 per cent. of medical admissions require a primary angioplasty (indicated for a particular type of heart attack known as a ST elevated Myocardial Infarction) and therefore this procedure would by itself have a direct influence on local acute hospital configuration”—

a direct contradiction. We have to assume that it was merely a mistake, and the word “not” was left out. However, given the number of people who will have read that letter from the chief executive of the SHA, she should write a press notice to say that she agrees with the specialist that the procedure does not have that influence.

The Prime Minister has quoted Professor Sir George Alberti and Roger Boyle as saying that the fact that 500 lives a year might be saved around the country means that one life might be saved every eight months in Worthing and district. I argue for at least two acute hospitals in West Sussex. I am not arguing about whether the one hospital should be in Worthing or Chichester, but for two hospitals. The Minister should require the SHA to re-consult on the option for at least two hospitals, with accident and emergency and maternity departments, so that the public can be consulted on that. At the moment, we are left with good grounds for judicial review, which the Secretary of State must know about. From the beginning, the SHA wanted a review and said so. The lead director said so. I am grateful to Derek Waller of Arundel, who has made that rather plain in his analysis of the East Sussex and West Sussex papers.

I could say a great deal more to the Minister, but I will make this point briefly. No hospital in Germany that I know of has more than 3,500 births a year and yet our plans are to have 4,000 or 6,000 in one—a baby factory for West Sussex. I know of no argument that all the babies born in Worthing should be moved to Brighton. In fact, a lot of the movement seems to be the other way. The Minister ought to ask the SHA and the PCT whether they have consulted mothers and mothers-to-be on that and what the trends are.

On accident and emergency, if significant numbers of clinicians at Worthing hospital—I think that the same would apply at Chichester—believe that it is not just saving one life every eight months that matters but avoiding losing two or three lives a month because of people having to go on journeys, that is all the better.

I end with something rather personal. I came back on the day of the state opening of Parliament to find my wife in pain. A GP dropped his surgery and diagnosed an ectopic, and we got to St. Thomas’s hospital in eight minutes. If that had happened in Worthing after the plans had been carried through, my wife would have died. I do not think that I care about her more than other people, whatever their age, care about their spouses, partners, friends or neighbours. I want the Minister to make the PCT consult again on the two accident and emergency departments and two maternity departments and get the financial figures out in the open.

I intend to be brief, because my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) set out the basic case clearly and many other colleagues wish to speak. The hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) is a welcome supporter and has made a powerful case for the Princess Royal hospital.

This is the fourth time in seven years that the Princess Royal hospital has come up for review. That is no way to run a health service or look after patients, and above all, it is no way to treat the staff. The staff of the Princess Royal know perfectly well that there is absolutely no clinical evidence for the changes, although they have to be cautious in saying so.

On the face of it, the proposals are genuinely absurd. The Princess Royal is 15 miles south of one of the biggest international airports in the world and five miles or less from a busy motorway. It is in the centre of one of the fastest-growing parts of the United Kingdom, which has a rapidly increasing and increasingly young population. It sits in West Sussex, which, I do not have to remind the Minister, covers more than 770 square miles and has more than 750,000 people, a struggling transport infrastructure and a growing ageing population.

Infrastructure is about more than roads, railways, sewers and health and social services. It underpins national and local well-being. People in my constituency and elsewhere know that, and a powerful case will be made to the Minister, to whom I am grateful for saying that she would receive a delegation to talk about the matter. We will fight this every inch of the way.

Most importantly, the people in mid-Sussex, who have been through an awful lot with the health services in the past seven years, want an assurance from the Minister, if the so-called consultation is to be seen to be real—I know that she will intend it to be real—that the powerful, detailed and sustained views expressed locally will be listened to and paid attention to when it comes to the shake-up at the end of the process.

Finally, I urge the Minister to understand that there is nothing synthetic about the anger and disappointment that is felt not only in mid-Sussex but across the whole of Sussex. I hope that she will acknowledge that.

The debate is timely and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) on securing it. In the long period during which I have been a Member of Parliament, I have never had so many complaints and concerns and so much anger expressed to me about the state of hospital services as in the past few years—that is as they are today in West Sussex, let alone how they would be after the Government’s plans were put into action.

My hon. Friends have described vividly our concerns about the proposed depletion of hospital services, particularly in West Sussex. I do not want to repeat them, but I add that the model being proposed for the southern end of West Sussex has already been put into effect in the north end. Over the past 10 years or so, Crawley hospital has effectively been downgraded from an acute to a community hospital. Way back in 1998, a joint health care NHS trust was formed between Crawley and the East Surrey hospital at Redhill, specifically to provide synergy and specialisation.

We were assured that small amounts of care would be transferred from Crawley to Redhill and that that would be it—no more salami slicing. But then the salami slicer got to work again, and gradually more and more services have been taken away from Crawley. Now the only hospital that serves much of my constituency and the whole of Crawley is at Redhill.

It is no criticism of the wonderful staff at Redhill to say that it is a hospital in crisis. I have a sheaf of complaints, cases and concerns from relatives of patients who have died there in appalling circumstances. Its staff are utterly demoralised and it is in crisis. To meet the Government’s top-down targets, ambulances have been queuing outside A and E, so as not to get patients into the A and E queues, to make the numbers look better. The situation is intolerable and should not be allowed to continue. The proposals would make it much worse.

My hon. Friends the Members for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) and for Arundel and South Downs and the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) made a strong case for maintaining the Princess Royal as an acute hospital, and I totally support that. It serves some of the villages and communities at the eastern end of my constituency. Even as it is, it cannot serve constituents who live in the Horsham area, Crawley or villages as far away as Billingshurst, which are already uniquely inconvenienced in their lack of access to acute hospital care. Under any of the options proposed by the SHA and the PCT, that would get worse.

I wish to make a quick point about accessibility. We always hear the same thing when such proposals are mooted—that what is crucial is not how far away the hospital is and how long it takes to get there, but how quickly paramedics can reach people. That is true in some cases, such as cardiac cases, but it just is not true in others, such as strokes. A stroke is caused by either a clot or a bleed, and the treatments are diametrically opposed in the two cases. The critical thing in avoiding a person being permanently damaged is the speed with which they can be got to hospital and scanned. If a stroke is caused by a clot, as most are, and anti-clotting agents are introduced quickly, a stroke can be almost completely or, in many cases, completely reversed. Think of the savings in the cost to the NHS and society as well as the human cost of so many stroke patients not needing continuing care.

Accessibility really matters. If my constituents become totally dependent on East Surrey hospital and, I suppose, the Royal Sussex at Brighton, they will find them both inaccessible. A constituent of mine in Billingshurst who sustained a serious injury had to wait 45 minutes before the ambulance got there, and it then took another hour and a half to get from Billingshurst to Redhill to the A and E. Time was not critical in that case, but there are plenty of cases in which it is. I am told that the air ambulance cannot even land in Brighton, so the difficulties are not overcome by air access. The matter is serious.

My case is not only that we need to keep what exists but that we need more. We need to reverse the ill-judged changes that have seriously affected the Horsham and Crawley area. I would make the case for a new hospital to serve Horsham and Crawley. As the Government should know, much more housing is being imposed on the area. Indeed, the Prime Minister talks generally about imposing more houses, and none of us is against more housing development, but we do insist that there is a proper assessment of infrastructure needs, and hospital services are central to that. The case for not only keeping what we have, but reversing some of the changes that have been made is therefore increasingly powerful.

I urge the Minister to take this issue seriously. Several hon. Members have said that we are taking a non-partisan approach, and that is absolutely right. Other parties—particularly local Liberal Democrats—have supported the campaign against hospital closures and the case for a new hospital to serve Horsham and Crawley. I do not wish to make a particularly partisan point, but the local Labour party in both Horsham and Crawley has been conspicuous by its absence and silence, and that causes concern. I therefore urge the Minister to listen. The new Prime Minister has made much of his willingness to listen, and the Minister has a good opportunity to get brownie points with him—if I can put it like that—by showing that she is willing to look again at the course to which the Government are apparently committed, but which will be very damaging for a large part of West Sussex.

Order. Just to help those hon. Members who still want to speak, let me say that the winding-up speeches should really start at 3.30 pm, but my intention is that they will start at 3.40 pm, which might help those who still want to catch my eye.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) on securing the debate and on the way in which he introduced it. I agree very much with everything that he said and with other hon. Members who have spoken. I hope that the Minister will already be in no doubt that our constituents are confused and baffled. They hear the whole time that the health service is awash with money and that extra money is going in, but they see that health service provision in Sussex will potentially be devastated.

However, our constituents are more than confused—they are angry as well. They are partly angry about the process that has been adopted. In East Sussex, we have already gone through most of the consultation exercise, so we have a good idea of what will happen in West Sussex. What has happened has not been adequate. There is anger, for example, among the 15,000 constituents in and around Uckfield who get their health service provision in West Sussex. When the public meeting came to Uckfield, they could talk about provision only in Hastings and Eastbourne, which none of them access, rather than at the Princess Royal hospital. If they were to lose the Princess Royal, they would rather that their facilities were transferred to Eastbourne, but that option is not being made available. A completely arbitrary and unsatisfactory divide has therefore been created, when the issue should have been dealt with holistically across the county.

People are also angry at the presumption of closure. There is cynicism because they believe that the decisions have already been made and that, regardless of how strong their case is or how persuasively they make it, the decision will ultimately be to downgrade or close units at these important hospitals. There is also anger that the status quo is not being included, as it should be. We have had to fight for option 5 to be included at Eastbourne and Hastings, and there is now the whole issue of whether the status quo should be an option in West Sussex. I therefore hope that the Minister will take away with her the real sense of anger at the way in which things are being handled.

I also hope that the Minister will be seized of the fact that the proposals will have a devastating effect on many of our constituents. People at the southern end of my constituency face the loss or significant downgrading of maternity services at Eastbourne and the potential loss of the accident and emergency and maternity units at Haywards Heath. Those who live in the town of Uckfield can get to Haywards Heath in 15 minutes—that would certainly be no problem by ambulance—but it could easily take them one hour to get to Brighton. When I last went to Brighton, it took half an hour to get to the outskirts and 45 minutes—in absolutely dense traffic on clogged roads—to do the final three or four miles, and even an ambulance would be hard pressed to improve significantly on that time. We also face the loss of the homeopathic hospital in Tunbridge Wells, which serves many of our constituents in East Sussex.

We are moving in entirely the wrong direction. We are seeing pressure for new housing as never before, but those responsible are taking account only of known new housing and not of new housing that is inevitable, but which has not yet been allocated space. In Wealden, for example, we will be expected to accommodate 400 new houses every year for the next 20 years, but that is not being taken into account in the calculations. Based on such miscalculations, it is assumed that the number of people who will wish to access maternity services in Eastbourne will decline. That approach is fundamentally flawed and needs to be looked at again.

We must also be in no doubt about the consequences of expecting people to travel to Brighton, rather than to the Princess Royal in Haywards Heath. That extra hour or 45 minutes will, as colleagues have said, mean the difference between people surviving or dying. We recently had an impressive presentation by the head of the South East Coast Ambulance Service NHS Trust, who said that the ambulance service is brilliant at dealing with road traffic accidents, strokes and cardiac cases, but that it is not good at dealing with pregnancies involving difficulties. There are serious concerns that, if staff end up having to sort out a complicated pregnancy on a journey that is longer than would otherwise have been necessary, the well-being of the infant and the mother will be put at risk.

This country already does badly in terms of the survival rate for cardiacs. In Seattle or Finland, 50 per cent. of those who have a heart attack out of hospital are alive two years later, but the figure in this country is 6 per cent. The figure in Sussex and the south-east is starting to pick up, and we are seeing an improvement for the first time, but there is real concern in the ambulance service, which gave us those figures, that the figures will decline if people are expected to be treated in ambulances, rather than in the hospital closest to them.

If the Minister does come to Brighton, I hope that she will do so not just in the middle of the day, but on a Saturday night. I have been to the accident and emergency unit at 1, 2 and 3 o’clock in the morning, and I was appalled by the conditions. Transporting people for an hour more than is necessary to a massively overcrowded hospital in a busy city centre is not the right way to deal with people in emergencies. I hope that the Minister will respond to those issues. I know that she cannot give us the response that we want and say that the proposals will be put on hold, but I hope that she will say that our views will be listened to.

I was in the main Chamber a little while ago to hear the Secretary of State setting out the details of the health review, and what came out of that was a determination to listen. If the Minister listens to the doctors and clinicians in Sussex, rather than to the managers, she will find that there is no support for the measures that we are discussing; if she talks to the public, she will find that there is no support for them either. I therefore hope that she will say that any decisions must be put on hold while the Government carry out their protracted new review. I hope that she will tell us that any decisions must be based on what is wanted and needed locally and that, at the end of the day, they must truly be based on clinical need, rather than financial circumstances.

I shall try to keep my remarks as short as possible, given the throng of colleagues who want to contribute to the debate. I pay tribute to the save the district general hospital campaign, which I and others started 18 months or so ago. In particular, I pay tribute to Liz Walke and Monica Corrina-Kavakli, who are just ordinary mums who feel angry and upset about what is being proposed and who want the best for their children and for other mums who will have children in my constituency in due course. I should also stress the cross-party nature of the campaign, both here today and in Eastbourne; it includes all parties, as well as Churches and community organisations, all of which want the same thing. Thousands of local people have joined marches and demonstrations and signed our petition.

I want to make two or three quick points to the Minister, whom I welcome to her new role—she will be spending money for a change, rather than preventing others from spending it. First, there is the consultation process. There is a real danger that it is totally flawed and that it will end up in front of a High Court judge in due course. The clinical director of my local hospitals trust made it clear in November last year that the trust was looking at one maternity unit in either Eastbourne or Hastings—that decision had already been made. There is therefore a real worry within the campaign that the decisions were made long ago and that everything else is mere window dressing.

Secondly, there is the fact that the consultation in East Sussex went ahead, unlike the one in West Sussex, which was stopped for the local election campaign. We cannot understand what the difference was, given that we also had local elections in our neck of the woods.

Thirdly, there are the options: 1 to 4. Again, despite past promises, the four options all conceivably include shutting a maternity unit, either in Eastbourne or Hastings. We have been putting forward option 5, as the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) mentioned. All too often that option 5, produced by the campaigners and based on advice from clinicians—properly costed and thought through—has been treated as the poor relation. The PCTs have sent details of options 1 to 4 to GPs’ surgeries, but, alas, they have not so far sent option 5. As I asked on Monday at a public meeting held as part of the so-called consultation, if, as I believe, the overwhelming response of local people is for option 5, rather than options 1 to 4, will they be listened to? Will that make any difference to the final decisions?

My hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) mentioned in his speech the way in which the arguments have shifted. Money used to be the prime argument. Now we are told that the proposal is all based on safety. It is also being alleged locally that it is based on the support of clinicians. I am having real difficulty finding any clinician locally who supports the NHS proposals. Indeed, one of our leading local consultants effectively changed sides and said that he was unconvinced by the safety arguments.

The local GPs in Eastbourne have recently voted overwhelmingly against the options that are being proposed. It is total nonsense to suggest that the proposals have the backing of clinicians. Indeed, only in August 2004 a detailed clinical services review within the local hospitals trust for Eastbourne and Hastings concluded that a two-site maternity presence should be retained for those hospitals. The acid test should be, it seems to me, to ask the clinicians whether, if money were no object, a one-site solution would be safer than the present arrangements or something like them. I doubt whether any clinician could claim that things would be safer on that basis.

Accessibility has already been raised by one or two of the hon. Members who have spoken. I am told that the gold standard for the interval between deciding to perform a caesarean operation and actually performing it is about half an hour, according to the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists. It can take an hour and a half, on average, or more, to get a pregnant mum from Eastbourne to Hastings or from Hastings to Eastbourne. At present we have two units—in Eastbourne and in Hastings—and they are as safe as any in the country. Why change a system that works well already and delivers safe, reliable services to families and mothers?

Finally, I want to touch on what has been called the domino effect. At the moment, the only thing that has been consulted on in my area is the future of maternity services, but hidden in the small print is the promise of future changes to paediatrics and possibly to accident and emergency services. As we know, once consultant-led maternity and paediatrics have been lost, it becomes difficult to hang on to a proper A and E department. My deep suspicion is that the powers that be in the NHS are waiting to see how much fuss there will be about closing one of the maternity units in our area, before they move on to paediatrics and A and E. I am deeply suspicious about the motives in all that is happening.

I cannot stress too much to the Minister, with her new responsibility, the strength of local feeling on this matter. People are incensed in a way that I have not seen in my 15 years as the local Member of Parliament. They are worried and concerned, and deeply supportive of the idea of retaining core services, including maternity, at Eastbourne district general hospital. They also take the view that people in Hastings should continue to have the same services in their hospital.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) on securing this important debate, and I welcome the Minister to her new position, blinking in the sunlight after 10 arduous years in the dark corridors of the Treasury.

The more I learn about the NHS the more convinced I become that the principal problem facing the health service is the quality of its management. It is that poor-quality management that has led us, in the southern half of West Sussex, to the absurd position in which the West Sussex PCT proposes to decimate one of two leading major hospitals, either St. Richard’s hospital in Chichester, or Worthing hospital. Both hospitals rank among some of the most efficient in the country, and both have strong reputations for clinical excellence.

Nothing, however, demonstrates the poor management I have spoken of better than the financial arguments deployed by the West Sussex PCT and the strategic health authority. We were told in January 2006 on page 11 of the document “Creating an NHS fit for the Future”:

“Healthcare in Surrey and Sussex is not financially sustainable”.

The document went on to say:

“The NHS in Surrey and Sussex had an underlying deficit of about £100 m in 2004/5”

and the

“underlying position is likely to worsen after 2007/8.”

The graph showed a forecast deficit of something like £250 million by 2009-10. The S4 review—it stands for sustainable services for Surrey and Sussex; the NHS never misses an opportunity to create a new piece of jargon—demonstrated that

“the financial situation will get worse over the next few years if it is not addressed as the demand for healthcare continues to increase”.

On that basis, the whole reconfiguration pre-consultation process was started. It was the argument put forward by every NHS spokesman at the plethora of public meetings that were held in West Sussex in the past year. We were told that we had to live within our means, that the financial position was unsustainable and that we could not afford two major general hospitals with a full A and E service. It is odd, then, that when the West Sussex PCT board papers were published on Monday 25 June, we could, as my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs said, find no reference to ongoing deficits or the unsustainable financial position. Indeed, in the key document, “West Sussex Health Economy: Investment plan”, the figures show a surplus of £12 million for 2007-08 and a surplus of £29 million in 2008-09, rising to £52 million by 2012-13. Those are calculated on the assumption of the status quo, with no downgrading of either Worthing or St. Richard’s. Of course, there have been efficiency savings at both hospitals in the past year, but such savings do not turn a growing and large deficit into a surplus of the order of £52 million.

The problem is compounded by the issue of Littlehampton community hospital. That well-loved and supported community hospital is now a pile of rubble surrounded by a tall blue security fence. It was knocked down to build a 40-bed state-of-the-art community hospital, after a long and protracted consultation process and a detailed business plan that made it clear that such a hospital was needed and was financially viable. As a result of the projected deficit, which we were told about in January 2006, the rebuilding plan was halted, and the future of Arun’s community hospital was put in jeopardy and made dependent on the outcome of the West Sussex NHS reconfiguration. However, of course, there is no deficit. Yet there is no Arun community hospital in Littlehampton.

I ask the Minister to look into the case of that community hospital. We are told that it is Government policy to move health care closer to people’s homes. A huge amount of time and effort went into planning and designing the rebuild. The project is ready to go and it has just been put on hold because of the review, but it would be absurd if a review one of whose objectives is to move care closer to people’s homes were to conclude that Littlehampton and Worthing should have one less community hospital.

To conclude, I urge the Minister not to allow any of the three options proposed by the PCT. St. Richard’s and Worthing hospitals are excellent and efficient hospitals in an area with an increasing population and congested roads. They are loved by everyone who uses them or thinks that they might use them. People will not accept the downgrading of either hospital, and I urge the Government to overrule any such decision taken by the PCT in West Sussex.

A great number of extremely important points have been made this afternoon. It is very rare that one can stand up near the end of a debate and say that one agrees with just about every word that has been said, but in this case, across parties, I do. It is important that the Minister should understand that this is not a case of MPs going through the motions. It is an issue of deep concern to all our constituents, quite out of proportion to anything else that I have come across in the 10 years for which I have been an MP.

I want to add just a few extra points to those that have been made. First, who is really taking the decision? We were told 24 hours ago by the Prime Minister that

“power must…rest with local communities”

and that individuals and communities should not be

“passive recipients of services provided by the state.”

Today in the House, the Secretary of State for Health reinforced that. He said:

“Patients must have the chance to shape the kind of NHS they want, to say how they wish to access services”.

That is exactly what we are all demanding for our constituents in West Sussex and East Sussex.

It seems extraordinary that the Secretary of State can make remarks like that at a time when it is so clear in our part of the country that an overwhelming number of people do not want the reconfiguration to go ahead. We will find out whether the words of the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State are just window dressing. If they are not, 140,000 signatures on a petition for St. Richard’s hospital alone tell us immediately what the answer of any local community power would be. They would see no reason why Worthing hospital should not retain its accident and emergency; they would see no reason why it should not continue as it is. Let us find out in the next 18 weeks whether the words of the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister mean anything.

Let us take St. Richard’s hospital as an example. It is a fantastic hospital. Morale has held up very well, despite the pressure that staff have been put under in the past 18 months with the pig’s ear of a consultation process that we have had. Those in the local community feel that the hospital is theirs. There is a sense of ownership, which is a remarkable thing that should not be tampered with casually. St. Richard’s was identified as the best hospital in the south-east last year, and in the top 10 for low mortality this year. Its financial improvement last year was the best of any trust in the country. The latest in-patient survey by the Healthcare Commission placed it in the top 20 per cent. in the country, and its reference cost—if costs were the issue—is the lowest of any acute trust in the south-east.

What is the case for reconfiguration? What logic could there possibly be for downgrading a hospital of that class? My hon. Friends the Members for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) and for Worthing, West (Peter Bottomley) could make a similarly strong case for Worthing hospital, too.

My second major point is about evidence for all the reconfiguration. A goodly number of my colleagues have already alluded to it. The financial case has been dissected by my hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr. Gibb), and my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) accurately pointed to how the campaign by the primary care trust to close one or more of the hospitals has been retargeted around clinical evidence. But I believe we all know the truth, which is that demand will be managed downwards—that is, rationed by restricting supply. Fewer accident and emergency departments mean fewer people presenting. Ultimately, the reconfiguration is about money. We all know that that is the truth.

While we are on the case for reconfiguration, I would be grateful if the Minister defined in detail, in writing, what an urgent care centre is. I quite understand that she will not be able to do that today as she is new in her post. We sat opposite one another through the consideration of many Finance Bills. I welcome her, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton put it, into the sunlight of a spending Department rather than the drudgery of the Treasury.

Part of the so-called clinical case is that all our constituents will be better treated in the new urgent care centres, but a clinician said to me only recently, “We ask constantly for a definition of them but we discover that the emperor has no clothes. The PCT has no idea what an urgent care centre really is.”

My third point is about the criteria for the decision. What methodology will be used? I have heard scarcely a word about that. We talk in vague terms about access, cost, feasibility, quality, staffing needs and clinical needs. Again, I know that the Minister cannot supply this today, but it is essential that we should have at the outset of the consultation process the weighting that the PCT will ascribe to the different outcomes so that we can orientate our campaigns to save our hospitals around the weighting that the Government will direct—it will be the case that they will direct—the PCT to make in respect of each of the various key headings. Without knowing the weighting, we might find that we win the argument on, say, five headings, but because the PCT arbitrarily decides to give a 90 per cent. weighting to one of the others, our arguments will count for nothing at all. It is essential that we have that analysis of the methodology.

My last point is about my constituents and our campaign. The reaction in my local community to the threat of closure of St. Richard’s hospital has been quite amazing. It is extremely unusual for thousands of people to come on to the streets of Chichester about anything. They certainly did about this issue.

I do not think that they came on to the streets of Chichester about the poll tax, but that was before my time. I take the Minister’s point, but she may find that it acts like a boomerang. If she thinks the poll tax was a big issue, she will find that this is a far bigger issue than the poll tax ever was.

My constituents simply do not believe Ministers when they say that finance is not the issue, and that the decision will be taken on the basis of clinical evidence. They are absolutely convinced that finance is the issue and that many clinical concerns and all their wishes will be set aside. When I find so many volunteers such as one of the lead campaigners, Abigail Rowe, and so many clinicians such as my co-chairman on the campaign, Dr. Marjorie Greig, who are prepared to give up so much of their free time to work together on a campaign for St. Richard’s, and when I see the groundswell of support, I know that if local consultation means anything at all, St. Richard’s will stay open as now. I have absolutely no doubt that the same can be said for Worthing hospital as well.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) on initiating this debate and all hon. Members on having spoken so eloquently about the problem in Sussex. I welcome the Minister and congratulate her on being released after years of selfless and penitential toil on behalf of the nation’s finances.

Traditionally, hospitals grew up as a result of local need, philanthropy and pride, and only sometimes through strategic planning. Services evolved in hospitals usually as a result of a change in the requirements of the patients or the national health service. Much of that change, to be fair, has been relatively painless—I think of the closure of tuberculosis hospitals and the like—but we now live in an age of rapid and painful reconfiguration, which is reflected in debates in this Chamber. Recently, we have had debates about Hertfordshire, Teesside and now Sussex. The story is not only about closures. There have been some new and much-needed developments as well in some of the reconfigurations.

In essence, there are normally only four drivers for change, three of which are legitimate and one is clearly not. The three legitimate drivers are clinical, financial and demographic. The clearly non-legitimate driver is party political interest and things such as heat maps. Sussex illustrates all of them. It also illustrates—quite clearly, on the basis of the contributions of hon. Members—the pain, protest, anxiety and downright huge amount of political trouble caused when reconfiguration comes in sight.

Sussex is almost a textbook example not of how to do reconfiguration but of how things turn out under the current circumstances. All the classic ingredients are there. There are financial pressures and debts, which are clearly accentuated in many places by trusts running services on multiple sites. There are clinical arguments about neonatal mortality, accident and emergency services and the trade-offs between distance, capacity and sophistication, with which I am sure hon. Members are fairly familiar. Institutional rivalry and town pride are at play, and professionals and politicians are backing different outcomes. That was obvious in the comments made by the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs in introducing the debate.

However, ultimately, the inevitable solution—not the ideal solution—will be a decision by quango. Forget the consultation, whether it is good or bad. As hon. Members clearly believe, I accept that that process is often a sham, but even when it is not a sham, it is seldom decisive and is essentially ruled by quango. That is what the Government call local decision making, or decision making by local trusts.

On the consultation paper, does my hon. Friend agree that it is difficult for people in the east of my constituency and in Eastbourne to make a rational judgment about maternity services for Eastbourne and Hastings when they are unaware of what the proposals are for maternity services in Haywards Heath?

My hon. Friend is pointing out the weaknesses in the consultation process; often consultation is simply a preamble to do what people will do anyway.

Trusts are, in a sense, a slight misnomer because, although they are staffed by perfectly decent and qualified people, they are rarely ever trusted. Trusts in Sussex seem to fit the bill in that respect, as they span more than one community, which is always a difficulty, and answer to different masters and pressures. As is evident from the contributions made, the trusts do not reflect the democratic will, and it seems as though the NHS is deemed too complex for democratic decision making.

The hon. Member for Hastings and Rye (Michael Jabez Foster), who is not here, put these matters rather well in a quote that I read recently. He said:

“You can’t close local hospitals. People would rather have slightly inferior services that are local”.

To some extent, he has hit a raw and pertinent nerve in that comment. I know about the statistics on neonatal death, the shortage of paediatricians, the working time directives and the various pressures linked to that, the sophistication of first responders, the reduction in bed requirements, the cost of high-tech medicine and the preferences of the royal colleges. All of those factors are part of the debate. However, we Members of Parliament also know that communities want an easily accessible accident and emergency department, maternity care within reach and access problems addressed. In other words, there is a balance of consideration.

We are not calling for decisions to be made according to untutored populism or simple nostalgia, but we want an informed public debate and a democratically accountable decision made. Democratically accountable decisions can be tough—I do not think that is an oxymoron—but people would prefer to make decisions, rather than to have decisions imposed on them.

Essentially, we want decision making in which clinical outcomes are tested and scrutinised. We also want transport links and patient journeys to be reviewed, financial arrangements to be fairly and transparently laid out and patients’ preferences to be clearly identified. Catastrophically for Sussex, there is no mechanism whereby that can be done and that is the essential point of this debate.

The Government are calling for a review by Dr. Darzi, as they think it will be a kind of solution, but it is not a sure solution. I have been involved in debates in this Chamber about recommendations made by Dr. Darzi for Teeside that led to internecine warfare between Labour Members. I believe that Conservatives are promoting the proposal that the ultimate decision-making body should be the NHS board supported by HealthWatch, making representations on behalf of patients.

My personal view is that that is simply not good enough for the people of Brighton, Eastbourne, Worthing, Haywards Heath, Lewes or Bognor Regis. Those people have a right to a decisive voice in how their local services are configured, along with the responsibilities that that involves. I really believe that if people had a voice, this and so many issues that do not get much further than debate would not come to this Chamber, but would be resolved democratically at a local level, and we would not have to debate reconfiguration time after time, in relation to area after area. However, for the moment, we are doomed to go on doing so for quite some time.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) on initiating this important debate and welcome the Minister to her new position on the health team. This could be our first and last debate opposite each other.

I think that it is unprecedented for every single Member of Parliament for West Sussex to be present and to have taken part in a debate on this issue, apart from the hon. Member for Crawley (Laura Moffatt) who is rather straitjacketed by her position and is unable to do so. This is undoubtedly the largest single issue affecting every MP and every constituent in the whole of Sussex. It is unfortunate that the three Members for the Brighton and Hove area who are not constrained by being on the Government payroll, but who are affected by these consultations have not come here to add their comments on behalf of their constituents.

My hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs made it absolutely clear that the whole consultation has been shambolic and is based on a shifting justification. There is now no serious financial basis for the consultation and it appears that the £37 million projected surplus over the next few year for West Sussex primary care trust will not be spent on the health of patients in West Sussex. I strongly echo my hon. Friend’s calls for the Secretary of State or some of his Ministers to visit our hospitals and see our patients who are under threat.

The hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) reinforced the cross-party consensus of all the campaigns and, as he said, it is dangerous that these proposals are being put forward. My hon. Friend the Member for Worthing, West (Peter Bottomley) made it clear that the financial assumptions in the consultation are, in any case, seriously flawed. Every time we challenge the figures, we are not given a good response as to why such massive reorganisation is in the interests of our patients. Larger hospitals do not always make better hospitals, either from a clinical or financial point of view.

My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) described the proposals as genuinely absurd and pointed out the proximity of Gatwick and the other pressures that exist in the densely populated county that West Sussex has become. My right hon. Friend the Member for Horsham (Mr. Maude) mentioned the downgrading of Crawley, in which the hon. Member for Crawley was herself complicit. When services were transferred to Redhill, the residents around Redhill may have cheered the extra capital investment. However, they are now finding that the extra pressures of numbers on that hospital means that they cannot get into their own hospital because it simply cannot cope. If West Sussex loses some of these services, I fear that the same thing will happen in Brighton. The infrastructure needs that we have in West Sussex are severe and we should ensure that the infrastructure is there before we commit to taking on extra house building and experience the population pressures that result from that.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Charles Hendry) rightly pointed out the cynicism that accompanies these consultations and the fear that decisions have already been made. He certainly made a good point about travel times and the complications for problem pregnancies that could lead to very real dangers for the mothers involved. My hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) pointed out that it is ordinary people who have set up these campaigns of resistance. He mentioned the four options that people had in Eastbourne. We did not even have four options; we were restricted to three. There seems to be a commonality of missing options between the different consultations.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr. Gibb) challenged the financial savings and the statement that the deficits will not exist in a few years’ time. My hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie), who has led the campaign to save St. Richard’s from the front with great skill and aplomb, asked who is taking these decisions. Is it just managers who are doing the Government’s bidding and a case of the managers who wear the Government’s clothes having no clothes—to use the analogy of the Emperor.

The document that was produced last week and started the debate is flawed. It was nine months late and did not have a fourth option, which we were promised would consider the possibility of keeping two main hospitals in West Sussex with at least accident and emergency and maternity departments or the status quo. The representations made by Members of Parliament, councillors, patients and constituents to the PCT asked for that option, which was ignored with breathtaking arrogance by the PCT. We wrote a letter that was signed by every Conservative Member in West Sussex and by every leader, mayor and chairman of every council in West Sussex and most Opposition leaders. The letter pointed out that the consultation was flawed and asked for it to be suspended until the fourth option was restored. Arrogantly, the PCT completely and utterly disregarded the letter when, interestingly, most of the non-executive directors of the PCT sent their apologies when the vital decisions were being made.

Henry Smith, the leader of West Sussex council, has made the county council’s view absolutely clear. He says

“This is a bleak picture of the future for health services in West Sussex, and the County Council rejects it totally.”

It is no surprise that we have such strong campaigns to save St. Richard’s, the Princess Royal in Haywards Heath and Worthing and Southlands hospitals. It is crazy that we are looking to downgrade hospitals in a county the size of West Sussex, which has 750,000 people and special needs for elderly people, in particular; some 4.6 per cent of the population of Worthing is over the age of 85—such people have additional needs.

I believe that, last week, the Brighton hospital had been on divert for nine days running simply because it could not cope with the pressure of patients arriving in ambulances. Regularly, there are ambulance queues outside that hospital, and it is a nightmare travelling to it. Yet the Royal Sussex county hospital in Brighton will be the major beneficiary of the downgrading of West Sussex hospitals, particularly the Worthing and Princess Royal hospitals. Despite the excellent efforts and hard work of the Brighton hospital’s managers and staff, it is struggling under the pressure of work. Can it make sense to apply further pressure?

Last year, some 63,000 people went to the accident and emergency department in Worthing, of which a large number were admitted to hospital. They did not need just a plaster; they needed serious attention. How can Brighton and Hove cope with those extra 63,000 people? It is also interesting that Worthing hospital will this year deliver some 3,000 births, and most of the increase is from mothers from Brighton and Hove having their babies delivered there.

Worthing and Southlands hospital, the Princess Royal hospital and St. Richard’s hospital, in Chichester, are good, cost-effective, and, as has been mentioned, well-liked hospitals. If it ain’t bust, don’t fix it, particularly given that we do not have a clue what will be put in its place. And neither do we know the displacement costs of the extra community activity that we have been promised. It is death by a thousands cuts! It is dishonest and unfair, particularly on the 3,200 staff at Worthing and Southlands hospital, and on those at other hospitals, over whose jobs there has been uncertainty in recent years. That is bad for local businesses, as the chairman of the South East England Development Agency said when he came to Worthing. Furthermore, it is bad for patients, staff and the NHS in Sussex. The “fit for the future” consultation document, which started all of this, is not fit for the future of our constituents. It is said that Sussex people won’t be druv. Well, we will not be druv; we will fight for the future of our hospitals. I hope that the Minister listens.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) on securing this very important debate and on his new position on his party’s Front Bench. I hope that hon. Members who have spoken will forgive me if I do not refer directly to them in the short time available. Clearly, there are issues of great significance here that affect not only his constituents, but those of all hon. Members who have spoken.

Issues raised by Members are always of great concern. Potential change can provoke very strong reactions, and striving to further improve services for local people can involve such proposals for change. That can be uncomfortable for many at first. We must ensure that while acknowledging the difficulties and tensions involved, we do not lose sight of the ultimate goals of the NHS at a local level when it introduces proposals to improve services. All Members want to improve clinical outcomes in our communities, which sometimes means making difficult choices. When we talk about reorganisation and improvement, we are talking about saving more lives, providing better and safer services, getting the best clinical outcomes for our communities and consulting with the relevant people.

The hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs is quite right: this is not about finance or saving money; it must be about providing safe, high-quality care. Changes are being proposed to reflect and respond to what the public are telling their local NHS. They want more convenient and appropriate services available at times and in places more convenient to them. The NHS must respond to a variety of drivers for change and ensure that it keeps up with changes in services. Those changes are not imposed by the Government, but are proposals for improvements made by the local NHS, based on local knowledge, experience and clinical expertise. When developing proposals, such vast consultation processes, which are necessary, must involve everyone fully, particularly, in this case, clinicians. Regardless of what hon. Members say, that is what has happened in this case.

The overwhelming clinical case for change has been made by independent experts, such as Sir George Alberti, the national director for emergency access. However, I recognise what the hon. Member for Worthing, West (Peter Bottomley) said when he quoted other views and referred me to other clinicians. Of course, people have very strong views. We are trying to determine locally how to produce the best outcomes and services and how to ensure that our constituents have the best chances, in terms of convenience and emergency care.

On a point of order, Mr. Conway. Is it in order for the Minister to quote Sir George Alberti, who, at a meeting with Sussex MPs, said that he would fight for two major hospitals in West Sussex, but then went back on that—for balance, I should say both?

I am saddened by the hon. Gentleman’s intervention and his aggressive pose in this debate. I have tried genuinely to listen very carefully to all the points that have been made. Any proposals for change that are a matter for the local NHS must, as is clear from today, have a message about the importance of making services relevant to local needs. Public consultation with all interested parties and stakeholders must take place in an informed and constructive way.

As the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) said clearly, the proposals have now been put forward and are based on local priorities, but now is the time for local people to have their say. Those proposals and that consultation, when it closes, will bring forward results and outcomes for discussion in public in the autumn. All of the complex proposals for Sussex need to be developed in partnership with a wide variety of people, including doctors, nurses, other health professionals, local authorities, voluntary groups and local people and patients.

No, I shall not give way. I have been very generous and this is a very complicated debate. In a very short period, I am trying to give a steer on how I intend to take the matter forward. The future of the proposals and the development of the service in the area are in local hands. The consultation and serious debate need to take place now and must deal with points raised by the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs. I take note also of the specific points made by the hon. Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie).

Will the Minister undertake to supply in detail written definitions of “urgent care centres” and “weighted criteria” on the basis of which the decision will be taken?

I intend to look at every single point made today, including those of the hon. Gentleman, and to respond appropriately. I have listened carefully to the debate. I know the strength of feeling that hon. Members have clearly and effectively expressed today. However, I find it a little odd that, in a debate in which Opposition Members have spoken about defending their current hospitals, the right hon. Member for Horsham (Mr. Maude) made a bid for another hospital, with no regard to the possible impact on hospitals such as the Princess Royal. We need to think carefully about this matter and take it forward with consultation in order to reach the right conclusions for those who live in the area.

HMRC Office (Kettering)

I thank Mr. Speaker for granting permission for this important debate and I welcome the newly appointed Minister to her post. She will respond to the debate in due course, but I want to leave her in no doubt whatever about the strength of feeling among staff at the local tax offices in Kettering, which is shared by local residents. They are outraged at the proposed closure of Kettering’s tax offices. Those offices have many loyal and dedicated staff who have provided an excellent service to the people of the borough of Kettering and further afield in north Northamptonshire over many years.

I had the privilege, perhaps unusually for a Conservative Member of Parliament, of joining the staff on their picket line on 31 January, such was the strength of local feeling. I had the privilege to present on their behalf a petition to the House on 26 February, with more than 400 signatories protesting at the closure plans. I also attended a meeting in Her Majesty’s Treasury on 10 May with officials including Mr. Michael Hanson and Mr. Brian Redford. I now have the privilege of opening this important debate.

In the main tax office in Kettering, there are 78 staff in total. Fifty-nine of them, or 75 per cent. of the work force, are female. Of those 59 women, 32 are part-timers, which is 54 per cent. In total, part-time staff in the Kettering tax office comprise 42 per cent. of the work force. Closure of the office would not only be a bitter blow to the local economy; it would very badly affect, in a totally unfair way, female employees. If Her Majesty’s Treasury has not already conducted an assessment of the inequality as regards the effects on male and female employees of the planned closure, I very much hope that it will do so in short order.

Kettering and north Northamptonshire are a part of the country that will probably have, in the next 15 to 25 years, one of the fastest rates of growth for houses, population and jobs of anywhere in the United Kingdom. According to the Government’s own plans, in north Northamptonshire, which includes Kettering, Wellingborough, Corby and east Northamptonshire, there will be an additional 53,200 houses by 2021, of which 13,100 will be built in Kettering borough. Also according to the Government’s own plans, an additional 43,100 jobs are needed in the local economy. North Northamptonshire needs from Her Majesty’s Treasury a vote of confidence that those plans will be successful and that the tax advice needs of all the new small and large businesses that are to be created in the local economy will have their own dedicated tax office nearby. It seems absurd that at a time when the Government are pushing through those housing expansion plans, they are in effect giving a vote of no confidence in the local economy by threatening to withdraw Kettering’s own tax office.

The staff are rightly outraged, because they are being told that they will be relocated to Northampton or Leicester, but it simply will not be possible for many of the staff to be relocated to those locations. As I said, many of them are female and, because of their child care responsibilities, work part-time. Many will have to give up their jobs at a time when the number of people unemployed in north Northamptonshire is approaching the number unemployed in 1997. Indeed, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone), the number unemployed now exceeds that in 1997.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for securing this exceptionally important debate. What he knows but perhaps the Minister does not is that my local tax office in Wellingborough is due to close as well, leaving no tax office in north Northamptonshire and adding to the number of people unemployed in Wellingborough.

That is an excellent point. I believe that some 170 staff are employed both in Wellingborough and in Kettering. The sensible thing for Her Majesty’s Treasury to do would be to combine those offices at the present Cytringan house location in Kettering, rather than relocating staff from Kettering and Wellingborough to Northampton. The reason for that is that north Northamptonshire is a major growth area, and people, businesses and individuals simply will not want to travel to Northampton to obtain expert tax advice.

Northampton is about 16 miles from Kettering, which does not sound a long way, but between the two towns is the A43 road, which I have to tell the Minister is the most dangerous and congested road in the whole county of Northamptonshire. At peak times in the morning and evening, it is like a linear car park from Kettering to Northampton. The travel time will be more than an hour. That is significant because in the meeting at the Treasury on 10 May to which I was invited, Mr. Brian Redford, the senior Treasury official there, said:

“An hour travelling time could be wholly unreasonable for a woman working part-time with caring responsibilities.”

I checked that with him at the time and it is exactly what he said. The point is that that will affect at least 32 of the 78 staff in the Kettering tax office at present.

The other alternative, which seems to have emerged rather later in the day, is relocating staff to Leicester. Leicester is even further away from Kettering than Northampton. It is possible for people to travel to Leicester by train, whereas there is no rail link to Northampton, but the car parking charges at Kettering station are already £5.50 a day. The train journey plus the travel to Kettering railway station plus the travel from Leicester railway station would in many cases take more than an hour and again would be impractical for most of the staff based at the Kettering office.

Of course, it is not only the staff who face those long and difficult journeys; it is also the people in Kettering who want to be able to speak to those tax experts about their complicated tax affairs. I have to tell the Minister that it is completely unreasonable to expect residents in Kettering to have to travel to Northampton to obtain the tax advice that they need. It would be even worse to insist that residents of Kettering go to the tax office in Leicester.

I know that the Treasury is saying, “Well, if we close the tax office in Kettering, we will have a customer-facing service that will be able to meet all the needs of local residents”, but I have to put it to the Minister that although I can see why she is saying that, the depth of expertise that exists in the Kettering tax office simply will not be available at a front-facing, limited customer facility in Kettering. In any case, the Treasury could obtain the economies that it needs by merging the two tax offices in Kettering and the tax office in Wellingborough on the existing Cytringan house site in Kettering. That building is a wonderful location on the outskirts of town. The cost of running it must be lower than that of running any tax office in the middle of Northampton or Leicester, and there is room for expansion and for files, storage and other facilities.

Other organisations in Kettering are looking into establishing offices nearby, such as the borough council, the fire service and the police service, as will other public services in the future. There is potential to develop a real public service centre that will be easily accessible for residents in Kettering both now and in the next 15 to 25 years, in which time the local population will increase by between one third and one half. The tax office needs to accommodate not only the existing needs of local residents, but the tens of thousands of new people who will live in north Northamptonshire and the businesses that will set up there in the next 15 to 25 years. Following my conversations with Treasury officials on 10 May, I do not believe that they appreciate the size of the growth in the north Northamptonshire economy or the demands that will be placed on tax advisers.

There is also the green issue to consider. Requiring the Kettering tax staff to travel to Northampton or Leicester is not environmentally friendly. Yes, they could get the bus to Northampton, but that is likely to take an hour and a half in peak times and it will be difficult to get to some of the proposed offices. Travelling by car along the A43 would be very environmentally unfriendly. It is possible to take the train to Leicester, but there are certain transport problems first with getting to Kettering railway station and then with getting from Leicester railway station to the office. In this era of climate change, requiring 170 staff from Wellingborough and Kettering to travel to disparate locations is not very environmentally friendly.

I am worried about the effects that closing the tax office will have on local customers, who need access to the excellent service that they have been able to use for so long. In welcoming the Minister to her new post, I add that she could establish her mark at the Treasury and win a lot of plaudits from the residents of Kettering if she were to consider the potential closure of this tax office and urge the Treasury to think again. This is a special case; yes, I would say that, as the constituency MP, but I genuinely do not believe that the Treasury appreciates the expected rate of growth in the north Northamptonshire economy in the next 15 to 25 years. Withdrawing Kettering’s tax office from the town at this time would send completely the wrong signal to its residents. We need more public investment in Kettering, not less, and to retain the loyal and dedicated civil servants who have provided such an excellent service to local people for so long.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone) on securing the debate on this issue, which is so important for the whole of north Northamptonshire. We all know that he fights valiantly for his constituents, but he has hit on an issue that affects many people and is not even in the Government’s interests. I also welcome the Minister. We are lucky to have such a highly respected Minister answering the debate, and I know that she listens to arguments. I add that we are not trying to make any party political points today. Also, I must declare an interest as a non-practising chartered accountant.

I have visited Cytringan house in Kettering. On the outside, it looks slightly like a Gestapo headquarters, because of the fencing, but inside it is a modern, out-of-town office that could easily be expanded. That is where the Government have got things wrong. It cannot be financially sensible to keep two highly expensive offices in Northampton open while closing three relatively cheap offices elsewhere in the county. It would be more obvious to have a centre at Cytringan house, although I do not want to lose my tax office on the Embankment. I do not know whether the Minister has the same problem as me: every Friday, about a third of my surgery is taken up with people who have problems with tax credits. When they go to the Embankment, they get advice that they find useful. We have a high level of deprivation in north Northamptonshire, and to expect people to travel by public transport to Northampton is unfair and means a loss of service to people in my area.

We are not asking for something special. The average public expenditure per head of population in the east midlands is £6,334, whereas it is £7,184 for the UK as a whole, so each citizen in north Northamptonshire gets, on average, 12 per cent. less public expenditure than the rest of the UK, yet we are talking about withdrawing public expenditure yet again from the Wellingborough, Kettering and Corby areas.

My hon. Friend touched on an important issue when he noted that many of the people who are employed on the Embankment could not travel to Leicester or Northampton. Never mind the green issues, which are real; it is ridiculous to ask young women, who may have families, to travel that distance and back every day. One might say that Northampton looks to be only a few miles away on the map—that is probably how the accountants do it; they probably say, “We’ll just have those two and knock those off”—but there are no easy transport links. It is much easier for my constituents to go to Kettering. The tax office there is just down the road from the hospital, so they could go to the hospital to have their hand fixed and then along to the tax office to have their thumb screwed. It is in a good location for both my hon. Friend’s constituents and mine. Indeed, it is not a bad location for people from Northampton, because they can just pop along the A14.

The matter needs to be reconsidered. We are not saying that there should not be rationalisation, but we do not think that the Government’s proposal is sensible. I hope that the Minister will look favourably on our comments.

It is a pleasure to be here with you in the Chair, Mr. Conway. It is even more of a pleasure for me because it is a real honour to be speaking from the Front Bench again after my chequered career of recent years. I compliment the hon. Members for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone) and for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone) on their speeches, and thank them for their kind comments and welcome. However, I must warn them that in every Department in which I have served, I have been responsible for programmes in which various Government and public sector organisations have undergone thorough reviews of the way in which they provide services and, in particular, the locations from which they provide them. What we are asking Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs to do as part of this programme is a very sensible and normal practice in government.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Kettering on securing the debate and on the way in which he presented his case. I would have been proud to have made such a speech when I was elected in 1992 and made representations to a Conservative Government about very similar issues. I assure him that having listened to his speech, I shall also read carefully in the record the case that he has made.

When the Inland Revenue and Customs and Excise merged, the Treasury recognised that the new, merged organisation had significantly more office accommodation than it needed. Indeed, HM Revenue and Customs told us that it had about 40 per cent. more office accommodation than it needed to support its operations across the regions. The annual cost to the Department of accommodation in the urban centre of Northampton is about £1.3 million. I hope that the hon. Gentleman agrees that the Revenue and Customs board is charged with the responsibility of reducing unnecessary cost. Both hon. Gentlemen have acknowledged that they are not against reorganisation per se, but against its affecting their constituencies.

Beyond that, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs is making significant changes to the way that it carries out its business. That has a further impact on these locations and the way in which staff are organised. Many customers now choose to telephone the offices or use the internet to file returns or make their claims, so it is right that the senior management examine all their operations to ensure that they are run as efficiently as possible. In some work areas, they see that need as best being served by concentrating work in larger units where the processes can be streamlined. In other areas, a more mobile work force are seen as the best solution to meet customer needs. Finally, there must be an emphasis on improving compliance by matching resources to the risks that HMRC deals with in particular locations. HMRC is ahead of schedule on its general efficiency programme, having made a reduction of 11,000 posts through a combination of restricted recruitment and voluntary early retirements.

Both hon. Gentlemen made the point about the advice that is available through these offices and on which their constituents rely. I emphasise that HMRC’s approach is to reduce its use of office accommodation by concentrating on the back-office functions and making them as efficient as possible, rather than on the public inquiry facilities. One of my predecessors in the Treasury, the Minister of State, Department of Health, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, South (Dawn Primarolo), who was speaking in this Chamber a few moments ago, made it clear that the network of inquiry offices must be maintained. Where an inquiry centre is to close because a lease cannot be renewed, for example, HMRC has been asked to re-provide the facility as close as possible to the current inquiry centre. That will be the case across Northamptonshire.

A point was made about the reliance of local businesses on a local HMRC presence. Very little of what HMRC is carrying out locally is related to local business need. The HMRC plans are predominantly about reorganising the back-office function and do not affect face-to-face services. The skills set of the staff in those front-facing offices will be maintained.

The new department has been asked to draw up plans to improve services and reduce costs over the next five years—that includes the current one. The Government will invest significantly in each of the next four years to improve Revenue and Customs services. That will involve up to £1.5 billion-worth of resources.

As part of the review programme, a number of commitments have been given by my right hon. Friend, and we will stand by those: all inquiry centres are to be maintained; staff will not be compulsorily moved from an office ahead of the completion of the review for that office; and staff will not be required to move to an office that is beyond a reasonable daily travelling distance.

The two offices in Kettering that have been mentioned accommodate nearly 100 staff, and I understand the concerns that staff will have. In the entire urban centre, it is expected that over the next three years about 10 per cent. fewer staff will be needed than are currently employed. That is not a reflection on the staff currently working in Kettering; I join the hon. Member for Kettering in saluting the skills and experience that they have and the service that they provide to the public. It is worth bearing in mind that the number of public sector jobs in Kettering has increased by more than 2,000 in the past 10 years and the number of such jobs in Northamptonshire has increased by nearly 13,000 in the same period.

I will examine the statistic that the hon. Gentleman cited about the unemployment—I will do the same with regard to all his comments—because I was particularly drawn to it. I understand the concerns that people working in the area will have if the offices relocate. Such concerns relate to the following: the extra travel time that will be involved for some; the availability of transport links from people’s homes; the environmental consequences of more journeys being made by road; and the impact on the local economy. He has raised exactly those issues.

For just those reasons, I have asked HMRC’s senior management team to undertake the process of consultation in each of their offices, and to assess the impact of the proposals on customers, staff—that includes equality issues, which I shall discuss in a moment—local communities and diversity. I have asked that issues of equality and diversity be explored as part of that feasibility process. I am always happy to welcome Conservative Members to the debate on equality—they are welcome recruits—to ensure that equality is maintained.

Only after the completion of a detailed impact assessment reflecting those factors is a decision taken on whether to close an office. HMRC intends to provide as much flexibility as it can for staff to work part-time hours, alternating working patterns within the constraints of rationalising its office network. All proposed changes of location or work will be subject to a discussion between the individual member of staff and their manager to see whether arrangements can be made to support staff in their work-life balance.

Throughout the programme, the senior management in Revenue and Customs are committed to being open with staff, explaining the options available to individuals and exploring how their expectations can be matched with the need to make the operations more efficient. These are not easy decisions and they can be made only once all the facts are known.

HMRC recently announced decisions on its review of urban centres in outer London and the south-east. I wanted to cite that example to both hon. Gentlemen. As part of the support process in implementing those decisions, those staff will go through a detailed process with their managers. I can report that as a result of the representations made during the outer London and south-east consultation process and further feasibility work that was undertaken by HMRC, the initial proposals set out for consultation were revised. My point is that we are listening to the representations, and where a strong case is made, we are prepared to reconsider the proposals.

I am most encouraged by the Minister’s remarks. The obvious solution to this problem is to combine the tax offices in Wellingborough and Kettering at Cytringan house in Kettering. When she studies the statistics, that will leap out at her. Staff are uncertain, so I must ask her when the decision is expected.

I am coming to that in a moment. I shall want to consider the words that have been said in this debate, and the representations that have been made by both hon. Gentlemen, both today and previously, such as in the letters that the hon. Member for Kettering has written. The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Corby (Phil Hope), has also written on this matter and we have received a wide range of representations from trade unions and the public. I shall want to consider all those things carefully. I cannot yet give the hon. Gentleman a time frame because I am still catching up on what the issues are and I want to understand them before a decision is made.

The proposals are still under consideration and consultation. Final decisions have not yet been made. All the information that has been provided during the consultation, including the petition that I understand was presented to Parliament, will be considered before an announcement is made.

I welcome this debate as part of our commitment to consult before taking final decisions. This is a long-term programme that will deliver a more responsive and efficient service for taxpayers and claimants in the long term. We have placed a heavy responsibility on HMRC and I have been pleasantly encouraged to see the care that is being taken over these decisions by the senior management team. The consultation exercises are the vehicle for taking into account the views that have been expressed today by hon. Members, and the views of staff, trade unions and the public. I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman raised these matters today.

Order. Before I call the next debate, may I apologise to the Chamber for the fact that from time to time we hear the loudhailing from outside? I shall report it to Mr. Speaker, but hopefully it will not distract us from our deliberations.

Air Passenger Duty

I am delighted to have secured this debate on air passenger duty double payments, which the Government and the airline industry should examine urgently. I welcome the Minister to her new position and am confident that, if anyone can help to find a solution to the problem, she can.

I have pursued the issue for some time and exchanged a great deal of correspondence with the Minister’s predecessor, but without securing a satisfactory outcome. That is not a reflection on the former Minister, who always listened carefully to my constituents’ concerns, but we never achieved the necessary firm action, and I hope that in the days and weeks ahead we shall be able to change that.

Most hon. Members know that air passenger duty is an excise duty that was introduced to help to address the increasing environmental damage resulting from increased air travel. The duty is charged on the carriage of passengers flying from any United Kingdom airport on an aircraft with an authorised take-off weight of more than 10 tonnes or with more than 20 passenger seats.

The purpose of this debate is not to question the nature of the duty. Like most people, I accept that some changes are necessary in the provision of services, but what concerns me and my constituents, and many other people who travel abroad and who live in areas outwith easy reach of London, is the double charge with which they are often hit. Many regional airports offer a limited number of international destinations, and passengers are often routed through Heathrow, which is the central hub for UK international flights, from a regional airport to catch a connecting flight. Those living in Scotland, the north of England, Northern Ireland and, in some cases, Wales are often hit with a double or even triple charge because they must take two domestic flights to and from London and their long-haul flight. The Government’s provisions to tackle that inequity and to ensure that passengers pay air passenger duty only once are fine in theory, but do not work so well in practice, resulting in many people being hit with the double whammy.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. Many of his colleagues have tried to find an answer to the problem.

People in my constituency, which borders my hon. Friend’s, are charged £40 to go to London and then £40 to go to New York. They may have scraped and saved to obtain the most economic flight to New York, only to find that they must pay an extra £160 per person to travel both ways. Is it fair that those who can least afford it suffer the most?

I thank my hon. Friend for his contribution, which is absolutely right. He gave a detailed example of the costs that are inflicted on people, some of whom have struggled not just for a year, but for many years to be able to go on the holiday of a lifetime, and who then have to pay the additional tax.

The guidance on air passenger duty, published by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, outlines the rules to assess whether a flight is connected and states that, if the departure of the second flight falls within 24 hours of the scheduled time of arrival of the first flight, it is connected. Airlines can also issue through-tickets whereby all flights on a journey are covered by a single air passenger duty payment. Unfortunately, those measures are not always compatible with the realities of modern air travel. For the most part, only larger airlines, such as British Airways and British Midland, offer through-tickets, and not everyone is fortunate enough to be able to pay the amount that those airlines charge on flights to and from London on top of their long-haul flight, particularly if they have young children travelling with them.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. Is he aware of the good example of our hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian (Mr. Hamilton), who has arranged the family holiday of a lifetime to Florida, including both his children and grandchildren? The extra payment just to get from Scotland to London will be approximately £1,000 on top of the price of the holiday.

My hon. Friend makes a valuable point, and I am sure that if my hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian (Mr. Hamilton) could have been here—he is occupied with other important business—he would have given a graphic example of just how the tax affects families north of the Watford gap.

Many families throughout the UK save for months to afford a holiday abroad and, to reach their holiday destination, they must travel via Heathrow. They have no choice. To save money, many of those families use budget, no-frills airlines such Ryanair, easyJet and Flyglobespan. It is often impossible to obtain through-tickets on those airlines because many of them fly to London’s other airports such as Gatwick, Luton or Stansted, rather than to Heathrow, to reduce their own costs. Travellers then make their way to their connection at Heathrow. That is not taken into account by the air passenger duty regulations.

I am concerned that families in Scotland, the north of England, Northern Ireland and Wales must pay more for their holidays simply because of where they live. The Government have long been the champion of the family, yet families are being hit hardest by the inequity of having to pay the charge for each member on each leg of their journey. I call on the Government to work with the airline industry urgently to review the regulations to ensure that people from northern areas of the UK are not discriminated against. If that is not done soon, there will be an increase in people travelling to European hubs to avoid paying double charges, which would impact negatively on our airline industry, and that was never the Government’s intention.

The financial gain brought into our capital by Heathrow and other airports will be threatened if that occurs, and I ask the Minister to meet all interested parties for a full and frank discussion of the many complex issues surrounding this problem. That may not be easy because obnoxious airline owners may be unwilling to sit round a table and find a solution, but it is important that the effort is made.

The air passenger duty was introduced for the best of reasons, and the Government should be commended for their long-term view. However, it is important that any action taken by the Government is fair for everyone we represent. Airline and travel industry representatives are present today, and they are as keen as anyone to try to find a satisfactory solution, but I am not suggesting for a minute that the task will be easy.

I have met Treasury officials a couple times to try to sort the matter out, and I am sure that they understand the problems that have been identified by my hon. Friends the Members for Glasgow, North-West (John Robertson) and for East Lothian (Anne Moffat), but there must be ambition, keenness and appetite to get heads together to find a solution so that families who have saved up for holidays are not hit by the double or triple whammy of the airport tax. I do not think that that was the Government’s intention when they introduced it.

I once again congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North (Jim Sheridan) on securing the debate and on his contribution. I shall broaden some of his points and discuss fairness. I have no doubt that the taxes had nothing to do with the Treasury’s wish to collect money; it was obvious that they were to do with climate change. However, the planes would fly whether the taxes existed or not and, in fact, with low-cost airlines, more and more flights take off from our shores daily.

I shall discuss the aspirations of my constituents. I do not have one of the most affluent constituencies in the land; in fact, it contains a couple of the most deprived and poorest areas of the country. However, those people have aspirations, too––aspirations to see the world and to sample the good things that other, much more affluent people, have the opportunity to sample. But suddenly, a family of four has to pay £160 extra if they wish to fly from Glasgow to New York via London. Why would they want to fly via London? The fact is that there are very few flights from Glasgow direct to New York. They could take them, but they would still pay extra money. Almost all the cheap flights go through London, and in some cases, through other European cities, too. When we are discussing fairness, I sometimes wonder whether we have considered this country’s hubs and the people who use them.

British Airways has cut many of its flights. It is trying to put its finances in order, and some of us believe that it is not so much interested in Britain anymore, but looking more towards the international market. That may or may not be true, but plenty of airlines wish to secure slots abroad. In doing so, they want to fly from the hub where most people are situated, so they attract their planes to those hubs. By attracting their planes to them, they make money for the airport that they leave from, for the airport that they stop at while waiting for the other plane, and for the destination airport on the way back. I do not think that that is fair to the people who can least afford it. I want my constituents to be able to fly from Glasgow direct to New York, thus saving half the tax money.

I also believe that the then Chancellor, now the Prime Minister, did not foresee the problem that such practice would cause outside London. The money that he receives affects the aspirations of my constituents. They want to go on holiday, and they want to take their family, but as my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North mentioned, they may have to save up for years to get that holiday. The people who have been saving for three or four years now find that they have to save for perhaps another year. However, people who have the money can go whenever they please, because they can afford it.

The aspirations of the poor are once again hit, but the aspirations of the rich are once again met, because they can afford to meet them. Our party is not in power to do that. We must consider the issue and think about the aspirations of every person in this country. We want to broaden their horizons just as the horizons of people who can afford it are broadened. My hon. Friend the Exchequer Secretary should reconsider the issue. I am not worried about the tax in general but people certainly should not have to pay twice, and if they travel from the isles or the far north, they certainly should not have to pay three times what somebody from London has to pay to take the same flight.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North (Jim Sheridan) on his success in securing this afternoon’s debate, which is about an important topic. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, North-West (John Robertson) for his contribution, and my hon. Friend the Member for East Lothian (Anne Moffat) for her earlier intervention.

I shall do my best to soothe some of the worries, although I am not sure that I can produce the solution that my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North would wish for. He was right, however, to acknowledge that air passenger duty was introduced to address the environmental concerns about air travel, and I welcome the fact that all my hon. Friends welcome the tax from that point of view. They have understandable issues, however, with the way in which it is being put into effect.

To put it on record, air passenger duty is a way of pricing aviation’s carbon emissions, and of helping to ensure that the industry pays the costs that it imposes on society at large with its pollution. The Government are committed to that principle, and I am glad that my hon. Friends agree with it. The air passenger duty will limit carbon emissions from aviation. They are a growing problem, and they are expected to grow in importance as more flights occur. The rate rise that was announced in the pre-Budget report will save the equivalent of 750,000 tonnes of carbon per year by 2010-11, which will be the equivalent of taking 400,000 cars off the road, so it will have a positive effect, for the purposes for which it was introduced.

Air passenger duty is paid by aircraft operators on all passengers departing from UK airports, with higher charges for flights outside the European Union reflecting the fact that longer journeys are more polluting. There is an exemption for passengers who are in transit—the issue for debate today—and transfer through the UK. There is a concession for passengers with connected tickets for more than one flight, but the way in which the concession works is causing the problems. For those passengers, the APD that they pay will depend on their eventual destination, but it will be paid by the carrier that provides the first leg of the journey.

I shall not explain the detail of that exemption, but if hon. Members are interested, it is set out in the Air Passenger Duty (Connected Flights) Order 1994. My hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North correctly identified the way in which it works, and I do not intend to repeat it. However, it is important to emphasise that the concession is not restricted to passengers who book all their flights with one airline. Any airline can offer through-tickets, including for passengers who have connected flights with different airlines, if the airline collects enough information both to link the tickets and to account to Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs for the connection between the tickets. Many airlines offer that service to their passengers, including a number flying from Scotland, such as BMI and British Airways, and if they do, the double payment, as my hon. Friend characterised it, does not occur.

However, I accept that for their own commercial reasons, not all airlines wish to offer the service to their customers. In the case of the point-to-point airline, the concession does not apply. Since I realised that I would be having this debate with my hon. Friend, I have thought about the issue and the way in which the concession could apply. I must confess that I have not come up with an answer yet, but I am interested to hear whether he has one.

Without the necessary information to link a passenger’s first flight to their second, which is the information that exists in through-ticketing, it simply is not possible to treat the flights as one journey for APD purposes. Aircraft operators are required by the law to account for the correct amount of APD to Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs—whether or not they pass the charge on to their passengers. Unless the airlines can identify for themselves and assure Revenue and Customs that the flights are genuinely connected, it is clear that the concession cannot be used.

The existing framework allows the aviation industry to avoid what has been described today as double payments, and all airlines can use the concession if they are willing to collect the required information. Any airline or aircraft operator from any part of the UK can offer the concession to its passengers.

My hon. Friend the Exchequer Secretary has been extremely positive up till now, but the problem seems to be that the airlines are of the view that if they try to operate through-tickets, they would have to pick up any administration costs. Their view is that the taxes are Government-led, so the burden of administering them should not fall on the airlines. Therein lies the problem. I do not profess to be a professional in the travel industry, but if we can get the professionals together—that is, the Treasury team and the airlines—perhaps we can come to some sort of conclusion.

I am happy to keep thinking about that. However, the only way that I have so far been able to think of for point-to-point operators to provide the relevant evidence to Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs is the collection of information and proof from each individual passenger who travels with them on the first journey about where, if anywhere, they are going to fly next, since some point-to-point passengers obviously do not take a further journey, while others catch connecting flights. From the point of view of getting tax revenues and liabilities correct, there must be proof of where all those passengers who travelled on the first stage of the journey subsequently went. Traditionally, that has been proved by through-tickets and linked tickets. I am not sure how most passengers would react to their point-to-point airline asking them where they were going next, even if it was willing to do so, or asking them for proof, for tax purposes.

I just want to get right what I think my hon. Friend the Exchequer Secretary is saying. What she is saying is that if somebody can prove that they are taking more than one flight, they can claim back—

They cannot, then. Just as people who buy goods in certain countries can claim the tax back before they leave the country, by submitting their bills, is there no way of doing something similar, so that somebody who can prove that they had made two flights and been charged twice could claim it back, not necessarily at the time, but in writing later on?

There is only one problem with that very good suggestion: the air passenger duty falls on the airline companies, not individual passengers. Therefore, it is up to the airline companies whether to pass that cost on to their customers. Although my hon. Friend makes an extremely good suggestion, it does not fit with the structure of the tax.

I should like to reassure my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, North-West that the amount of air passenger duty that would be payable on, say, an economy flight from Glasgow down to Heathrow or Stansted is £10, not £40. For long-haul flights, the air passenger duty rate is £40, so the extra cost for an individual who did not get a connecting flight from Glasgow to Heathrow and then on to Florida, for example, would be £10, not the £40 that my hon. Friend quoted. The extra costs are not quite as bad as those in the example that he gave, because flights in the European economic area are charged at £10 for economy and £20 for business class. The only way to get to his example of £40 would be for two adults to travel business class, which I suspect is not likely, given what he said about his constituents. The costs are there, but they are not as substantial as my hon. Friend indicated.

Also, all flights from the highlands and islands have been exempted already, because of the remoteness of the area. Therefore, there are not three payments of tax if one travels from the highlands and islands. The first flight, into Glasgow, is exempted, while the cost on the second flight, if it is a domestic flight in economy class down to London, is £10 and the cost for a long-haul flight is £40. The extra cost from the inability to through-ticket in that example is therefore just £10, or £20 if one goes the other way. We have to bear that in mind when we consider the administrative changes that it might be reasonable and relevant to introduce.

We know that some point-to-point airlines choose not to get involved with the extra administration and responsibilities implied in through-ticketing, particularly because they would have responsibilities for hotels and so on, if the ongoing flight were cancelled. From some of their business plans and niche marketing, I understand why point-to-point operators at the low-cost end of the market might not wish to get involved in those responsibilities and why they therefore do not offer through-ticketing.

I do not know whether it would be workable, but one simple solution could be for people to be given a receipt at the first point of travel—that is, at the regional airport—saying that they have already paid the tax, which they can then show during the second part of their journey.

I would have to think that through, but I am not going to do so on my feet—that would get me into significant trouble very quickly. I am happy to consider all my hon. Friend’s suggestions, but he must remember that the tax is organised so that it falls on the first carrier. In a point-to-point situation, there is only one carrier. We have discussed how difficult it is to get information about what a particular passenger may then do. With through-ticketing that is not a problem, because everything can be proved; but again, the point is that the tax falls on the first carrier. If there is an onward flight, we have to get evidence for the through-ticketing concession to bite. That is the nub of our problem.

As I said, I am quite happy to keep an open mind about the issue, but such matters often turn out to be more complex than people imagine. We need to remember that although the costs are there, they are not as high as some people thought. A person travelling to Florida will incur the £40 cost for long-haul flights anyway, wherever they travel from in the UK.

My hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North also said that we need to keep the tax under review, and we certainly do. When the tax was first created, low-cost airlines and point-to-point operations did not really exist. Other issues have also arisen in the development of the airline industry that are beginning to challenge some of the categories for the cost of air passenger duty, particularly the economy and business class distinction. As a result of the increasing range of products being marketed by airlines—including business class-only flights and premium economy seating—we are consulting with the industry on definitions of classes of travel in air passenger duty. We must be careful to ensure that in responding to changes in the aviation industry we do not make air passenger duty more complex to operate.

On the increase in point-to-point services, we do not believe it appropriate to check and record the onward plans of each individual, to confirm whether they have connecting flights. For the amount of tax liability that that would save for individuals, it would be a big burden to place on point-to-point operators, many of which rely on their light touch and low costs to keep their operations profitable, according to their business models. If we require operators to do that, point-to-point carriers would, in effect, be compelled to become through-carriers.

I am grateful to the Exchequer Secretary for giving way again. As I understand it, there is an appetite in the travel industry to try to reach a satisfactory conclusion, because it is in the industry’s interests for people to travel. My hon. Friend is surrounded by some of the best brains in the civil service. If they had the same appetite for coming to a satisfactory conclusion, we could find a way forward. Will she agree to meet the travel industry?

I am more than happy to keep such issues under consideration, if anyone can think of a solution that does not impose business models that are not commercially welcome on particular airline operators. I have an open mind, and if anyone has any suggestions, I would be happy for them to get in touch and let me know about them.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Five o’clock.