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Westminster Hall

Volume 462: debated on Wednesday 11 July 2007

Westminster Hall

Wednesday 11 July 2007

[Mr. Mike Hancock in the Chair]

Poppy Crops (Afghanistan)

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

It is a pleasure to work under your stewardship, Mr. Hancock, and a delight to have the opportunity to open the debate. With Afghanistan and Iraq dominating our headlines, it is important that hon. Members get the opportunity to place on record their concerns and thoughts.

The challenges that face Afghanistan are immense, but I have deliberately selected one issue for us to consider. I shall therefore refrain from commenting on the size of the NATO force, which I believe is too small, and avoid mentioning the lack of co-ordination between the reconstruction agencies and the absence of a lead figure to unite operations. I shall instead focus on opium production and its link with insurgency. I should also like to put forward a possible solution—a proposal that I should very much like the Government to consider.

I shall first give some background. Progress has been slow in the five years since allied forces entered Afghanistan. The limited size of NATO’s forces, some of which are hampered by caveats, prevents the country from having the umbrella of security needed for a reconstruction operation of large enough scale to take effect. That is hampering the allied development and reconstruction efforts to improve the lives of many rural Afghans.

I do not wish to take away from the many success stories in Afghanistan, particularly in the north and west. A number of schools have been reopened and radio stations formed. Indeed, wind-up radios have been handed out in various communities to allow better communication with locals. Alternative livelihood programmes have been rolled out along with improvements to roads and transport. [Interruption.]

Order. It must be a mobile phone causing that problem. If somebody still has their phone on, may I ask them to turn it off? You do not all have to rush to your pockets at once. Mr. Evans looks like a guilty candidate. He has just grabbed his phone.

There have been advances in some areas, and we should pay tribute to the work that has been done. Unfortunately it is limited to parts of the country, and many people are forced to survive in the only way they know—by growing poppies. Failure to address the impact of the poppy trade has led to a revival of the Taliban, who profit from it.

The west and the international community have been slow to acknowledge the link between insurgency and poppy cultivation, even five years after entering Afghanistan. In the report that came from the previous NATO summit in Riga in November, there was one small paragraph that mentioned poppies. It stated:

“We recognise the linkage between narcotics and insurgents in Afghanistan”,

which was a good start, but it simply went on

“and will continue to support the Afghan Government’s counter-narcotics efforts, within ISAF’s mandate.”

I do not believe that that is good enough, and nor do many others. General James Jones, the former head of NATO, saw poppy crops as “Afghanistan’s Achilles heel”.

Some of the agencies that have been put together to try to combat narcotics operations in Afghanistan look good on paper. From the international perspective, there is the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, which is simply a monitoring and information service. It does not do anything to tackle drugs operations, it simply reports on what is happening. There is the Counter-narcotics police of Afghanistan, but it is only 1000-strong in a country the size of Spain. There is the Afghan eradication force, which is a successor to the central poppy eradication force, but it is only 700-strong.

There are various poppy elimination programme teams—about a dozen eight to 10-man teams that are spread around the country—but their impact is limited. There is also the Afghan special narcotics force, but that is also small considering the scale of the problem that it is confronting. From a financial perspective there is the counter-narcotics trust fund, which allows the international community to pour money into Afghanistan to combat narcotics. The structure is there, but it is far too small to deal with the scale of the problem that we face.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there has been a failure to think about how our aid policy can provide alternative jobs, which is a crucial part of countering both the insurgency and the growing of poppies? A policy of merely destroying the poppy crop can itself be a recruiting agent for the Taliban, whereas a strategy that tries to put jobs in place through an aid policy would not only counter that but extend the authority of the central Government.

The right hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. I pay tribute to his work on the matter. Eradicating crops is pointless unless there is an alternative for the farmers to pursue, otherwise we simply deny them their livelihoods and encourage them to look for another immediate source to put food on the tables to feed their families. That pushes them in the direction of the Taliban, which is exactly what we do not want.

Does my hon. Friend accept that one problem is that the project against poppy and drug production is Afghan-led? Corruption takes place at every level in a country as large and poor as Afghanistan. Even the police say that they earn only $70 a month. Their power to choose which fields to eradicate means that the wrong fields are being put out of production.

My hon. Friend makes an important point. On my visits to Afghanistan, I have been astonished at the levels of corruption that I have seen. We cannot be surprised, considering the decades of war that we have witnessed there. We cannot expect Afghanistan to turn overnight into a civilised, democratic society. That will not happen. If we look back at our own history, we will see that it took some time for us to wean out all forms of corruption, and it sadly exists at all levels in Afghanistan—local, regional and national.

I have seen reports that up to 17 of the 249 members of the lower house of the Afghan Parliament are former warlords and still benefit from the drugs trade. That problem will not disappear, and it is difficult for President Karzai to balance and to maintain the peace. If those people are not somehow included in reconciliation, they may challenge the Government and cause more problems.

Does the hon. Gentleman limit the corruption to Afghanistan? Is it not also in this country? Our failure to combat the war against the poppy trade effectively is having an effect here. There is corruption here, including in our prisons.

The right hon. Gentleman teases me to wander into an area that is beyond the scope of the debate, but it is important. Some 95 per cent. of the heroin that enters this country comes from Afghanistan. There is a market here for it, so there is a degree of corruption here for us to challenge.

Poppy cultivation in Afghanistan now accounts for about 50 per cent. of the country’s gross domestic product—about $3.1 billion. With no recognisable domestic market infrastructure, the black market is seen in many provinces as the only market. It is an interesting observation that in areas controlled by the Afghan Government, backed by the international community, production is either decreasing or stable, but where insurgency is strongest, it is for the most part increasing. That increase is staggering: Afghanistan now accounts for 92 per cent. of the world’s opium production. Last year, production grew by some 60 per cent., and, in Helmand province, by an amazing 169 per cent. UNODC reports show that around 109,000 acres are cultivated every year, and only about 5,000 acres are eradicated. We are not winning the war through eradication.

That approach also fails to win over the hearts and minds of farmers who view opium cultivation as their only reliable source of income.

My hon. Friend makes some good points about winning hearts and minds. Does he agree that there is an essential difference between the approach of the United States, which seems to involve slash and burn, in many cases rather thoughtlessly planned and imposed, and the Afghan-advised policy of a much more targeted campaign against poppy crops, and that that dichotomy is dangerous and plays precisely into the hands of the Taliban?

My hon. Friend, who is very knowledgeable about these matters, makes a valid point. We have seen an open argument between the United States and Britain on that very issue. I got the impression, having visited Washington in April, that the Americans are coming around to our way of thinking. They are now realising—unfortunately, through experience—that they are not winning hearts and minds by eradicating crops and thinking that the tough-stick approach will work. They are realising that there needs to be an alternative if we are to win that battle.

Certainly, in parts of Afghanistan, including Helmand province, our present strategy is failing for exactly the reason that my hon. Friend illustrates. The absence of security, the proximity to the border, the scale of corruption and the limited options for farmers mean that the challenge gets bigger each year. We have allowed Helmand province to become the supreme poppy grower of the world, responsible for producing one third of the planet’s heroin.

It is time for a rethink. It is time for the Government to regroup and to consider the matter again. Perhaps the Minister can confirm whether Britain remains the G8 lead nation for the counter-narcotics strategy in Afghanistan. We have 7,000 troops in Helmand province. They are well placed to lead any new initiative, and the current $1 billion spent on counter-narcotics could be better utilised. I wish to make a proposal in that respect.

Hon. Members will be aware that poppies can be turned into not only heroin but several recognised medicinal products, including diamorphine and codeine. Ironically, there is a shortage of diamorphine in this country. I found that out through a parliamentary question. Indeed, an established UN-licensed poppy scheme is already up and running in places such as Turkey and India. However, I do not believe that that should be a long-term goal for Afghanistan, and that is where I differ from several other interested bodies that have expressed thoughts on the matter.

The current situation in Afghanistan is too unstable for us to have any long-term licensing systems up and running. That would just lead to an increase in counter-narcotics. The scale of the problem would be uncontrollable. However, there is a way of temporarily honing the concept. If we were to visit Lashkar Gar and find a metal factory that was turning out guns, would we destroy the factory, or would we say to the people, “Why don’t you make tractor parts or something else?” The same applies to the poppy growers. They are able to make opium and heroin, but they can certainly make other products that could be of benefit to the international community.

I propose inviting farmers to sign up to a six-year programme. Each year, they would be required to replace one sixth of their poppy crop with another product. That would be repeated every year, eventually weaning them off poppy cultivation completely. Markets would need to be established to purchase the poppy crops and the alternative produce. Poppies would be turned into medicinal products locally and then exported. Farmers who failed to sign up to the programme would face immediate eradication of their poppy fields.

The proposal involves a carrot-and-stick approach. It must be introduced with the support of the local jirgas, which are the power bases in the towns and villages—something that has been ignored up to this point in the rolling out of democracy across the country.

Trying to think ahead, does my hon. Friend recognise that if his ingenious scheme were put into practice, the first reaction of the Taliban, who used to suppress the poppy crop when they were in power but now put themselves forward as the defender of the poppy farmers because they know that that rallies support for the insurgency, would be to offer a different sort of stick? Anyone who signed up to the scheme would face a different sort of eradication—personal eradication.

My hon. Friend makes a valid point. Indeed, there are several pitfalls, which I shall come on to. To answer his question immediately, the present remit of the international security assistance force is not to go anywhere near poppy crops. They are strictly forbidden to get involved with eradication of crops. That points up the lack of a co-ordinated strategy. Were a farmer to sign up to the scheme, the next thing that he would need to do is to have his plot of land somehow electronically labelled so that from the air it would be identified as part of the programme and therefore be encompassed by a security package. Then, the farmer would get not only protection from ISAF, but support such as improved irrigation systems from the non-governmental organisations and other operators that are in the area. At present, there is no co-ordination of any of that. If one were to ask any farmer whether they owned a strip of land that had poppies on it, the farmer would completely deny that they did. The first thing is to get the farmers on board.

My hon. Friend was absolutely right to point to that pitfall. Another challenge would be price elevation. The Taliban may well offer more money for crops. We need to face those issues. I suggest that the problems could be overcome by implementing my proposal, but it needs to be tested in a pilot scheme. That is what I am proposing today.

The important point is that, in the long term, we would deny terrorists the benefits from the sale of opium, and we would free farmers from the clutches of the Taliban. Almost half the country’s opium is produced in Helmand province, yet at present the eradication programme there is limited and there are hardly any alternative livelihood schemes in operation. There is no support for farmers whatever. Given that Britain has responsibility for security in Helmand province, it is well placed to conduct a pilot scheme such as I suggest.

The cumulative amount of European Union money, United States aid money and British money spent each year is about $1 billion. I believe that my scheme would cost in the region of $50 million to $100 million, which is one tenth of what is currently being spent. As we have seen from the year-on-year increases, the $1 billion is not very effective, but, if the pilot project were successful, it could be replicated in other provinces across the country.

As I said, financial support would be given to farmers. They would be freed from the clutches of the Taliban. The scheme would raise taxes for the Government, cut off the clandestine links, most of which are with Pakistan, and threaten the income of terrorists.

I do not believe that long-term licensing is feasible. We need a short-term solution, but one that will help farmers, provide them with a path without challenging their income, and, in several years’ time, lead to their growing the produce that they once were able to grow on a vast scale. Afghanistan had an international reputation for providing the world with pomegranates, peaches and dried fruits. In fact, it was one of the greenest areas in east Asia. That was prior to 1979, when the Soviets moved in. They realised that if they smashed the irrigation systems, they would cause so much pain to the locals that they would then become subservient to their new masters.

The hon. Gentleman’s proposal is interesting. I agree that exploring the alternative of licensing production for licit morphine and diamorphine purposes is attractive, but has he considered the consequences for the farmers themselves and the comparable incomes for licit production as opposed to illicit production of opium? How does he propose encouraging farmers to engage in the lawful type of production if the income for it is significantly less?

The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. The bottom line is that many farmers want to free themselves from the clutches of the Taliban. A pilot scheme would show that and certainly the farmers whom I met in Lashkar Gar want to be part of the community and to give up the subservience that they have to the terrorists. The farmers realise that that must be the case. We need to establish what the market price will be, but the billions of dollars that are spent every year will clearly have to prop up the market for some time.

The prices of the goods and the produce of which I am talking are certainly comparable in some areas. Some prices will be lower, but tonne for tonne, more money can be got for peaches than for poppies. We should say to farmers, “Come forward. Put out your hand and state, ‘This is my field’. We will buy your poppy crops off you in the first year, but we will help to double the size of your area if you plant another crop”. In the long term, farmers would actually gain more money, but they would also be free and be part of the community. We certainly get the impression that that is what they want. If farmers were not keen to remove the link between themselves and the Taliban and were content to receive the money and to continue living the existence that they have, this entire proposal would not be possible.

I know that the hon. Gentleman has been generous in allowing interventions and that that is preventing him from finishing his speech, but before he completes, I would like to mention the link between what he is saying and what the military experts in the field think is the strategy necessary to be successful in Afghanistan. As he knows, there is a small group based in the House called Poppy Relief, with which he is associated, as is the hon. Member for North-East Milton Keynes (Mr. Lancaster). That group has attracted people such as General Sir Mike Jackson for the simple reason that he does not believe that we can win in Afghanistan by thinking only in military terms.

Again, the right hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. Many military experts feel a sense of frustration. In fact, I met a colonel last night who was operating one of the provisional reconstruction teams in Mazar-e Sharif and he was frustrated because his remit was so tight and he was able simply to provide security. He so much wanted to do other things and help the communities, but was prevented from doing so by his remit and the fact that he can help only with security matters. General Jones also expressed his frustration with the situation. The absence of joined-up thinking that we have seen in Afghanistan has frustrated success and that is why we need a re-think. I pay tribute to the group with which the right hon. Gentleman has done so much work and I hope that the Government will listen to the comments that have come through, particularly from General Sir Michael Jackson. It is frustrating that we must wait until such characters retire before they can be more vocal with their thoughts.

My hon. Friend may be aware that I have just come back from Afghanistan where I and a number of my colleagues discovered that the capacity of the Afghanistan Government to deliver is weak. Part of the problem is that only a small amount of the money that the Department for International Development has so far given for alternative livelihoods has actually got to the farmers. That is one major problem. The second is that NATO’s remit does not involve destroying crops. That will have to be done by the Afghan army, helped by the Afghan police, who are incredibly weak at the moment and rapidly need to be bolstered.

My hon. Friend makes an important contribution. I had the opportunity to meet President Karzai, who said that he was not able to control the trade for the obvious reason that so many of his team are, on various levels, involved in it and there simply is not the capacity to deal with the problem. The country is too young in that respect. When I put the idea of licensing to him, he acknowledged that the country had passed a law that allows the licensing of poppy crops and that legally it can act. However, I was with General Richards and General Jones at the time, and President Karzai pointed back to us and said, “You need to do this. You need to pursue this”, and by “you” he meant the international community. He feels that on his side, much as he wants to take action, he does not have the capacity to do so. More importantly, many people would be upset if the scheme were rolled out, which is why it needs to be done carefully at a local level, rather than by a top-down approach.

I am conscious of the time I have taken, so I would like to conclude by saying that I have had an opportunity to put the proposal to the former Prime Minister and he acknowledged the difficulties that we have had. I certainly got the impression that he was willing to consider it in more detail. [Interruption]. I do not think that that is my phone this time.

It is calling me to endorse what I have just been saying. I acknowledge the work of the right hon. Member for Streatham (Keith Hill), who, through his staff, was very helpful in relation to this issue, and organised meetings in the United States with various senators and representatives from the Justice and State Departments, who also expressed much interest in and general support for this idea. We need to move from talk to action, which is why I hope that the Government will listen to what I have said today. Even the Afghan embassy officials were very interested in the proposal, as were others such as Paddy Ashdown, Richard Armitage, and General Jones—to mention just a few.

In conclusion, as I have mentioned, Afghanistan was once known for its agricultural exports, particularly pomegranates and peaches, but today it is labelled as the world’s opium grower. Only a programme that is supported by the farmers themselves and the local jirgas can succeed in a war-torn country where corruption is rife. The new strategy would give a focus to all participating international organisations and non-governmental organisations that can play a part in nurturing a new market infrastructure. The poppy problem cannot be solved in isolation, but it is integral to establishing peace and improving the livelihoods of the people.

More money and troops are certainly on their way, but the poppies keep growing. The former Prime Minister has conceded that our present strategy is costing over $1 billion a year, but that it is failing and that it would be wise to consider an alternative solution. I am aware that the new Prime Minister is making a statement on his priorities for the year and I hope that he will take time to consider this proposal. The window of opportunity in Afghanistan will not be open for ever and after the six years that we have been there many of the locals are asking how their lives have changed. We must face up to the fact that unless we challenge the issue of poppies we will possibly undo all the good work that we have so far achieved. I hope that I have given the Government some food for thought.

A number of hon. Members have indicated that they want to speak and I intend that the winding-up speeches should start at about 10.30 am. If there is not time to call those Members who wish to make a speech, I hope that they will make an intervention to enable the winding-up speeches to start on time.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) on his visionary, practical and courageous approach. We owe him a debt of gratitude for injecting a note of reality into a war that all sides have treated with an air of delusion and wishful thinking. I will not go as far as my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) and call the hon. Gentleman my friend, but I realise that we live in astonishing times where the walls of party tribalism are collapsing. In my party we are getting used to working with Comrade Sir Digby Jones and Comrade leuan Wyn Jones in the Welsh Assembly, and we hope that that will be productive. I find myself agreeing with a great deal of the document on drugs produced by the Conservative party because it at least acknowledges the failure of drugs policy since 1971 in this country. I am gratified to know that fellow Conservative Members of the Council of Europe are at least likely to vote for a new convention on drugs that I hope will go through the Council of Europe in Strasbourg in September.

The Minister should give a response of apology and contrition, but those are not responses that politicians usually give so I am not too optimistic about that. Instead, we will possibly hear the continuous manic optimism about the war that we have had from the Government and the Opposition for a long time. As many hon. Members will remember, we went to war for a very good reason: to ensure that the Taliban could not protect al-Qaeda, who were in the country, and that was entirely justified in my view. We also went into the war because 90 per cent. of the heroin on the streets of Britain came from Afghanistan and a solution to that was promised. That is hard to believe now. The situation after six years and after we, British taxpayers, have spent £260 million on the eradication of narcotics is that we have the highest harvest of poppies ever—an increase of 59 per cent. last year.

Furthermore, the price of heroin on the streets of Britain is the lowest that it has ever been—and still 90 per cent. of it comes from Afghanistan. In no way can that record be described as a success. There were successes on the way, but we always took three steps back. That is the bottom line now, and no one can pretend otherwise with any conviction.

We are seeing the Colombianisation of Afghanistan; we should look at what happened in Colombia when we believed that we could cut off the supply of drugs. For an argument better than anything that I can provide this morning, look to Lord Birt’s strategy unit report to the former Prime Minister, which said that it had not been done—it has never been achieved. If we did achieve a reduction in Afghanistan it would be the squeeze-balloon principle. There would be an increase in production in Myanmar, north Pakistan, Kazakhstan and so on, in the same way that reductions in Colombia, which have now been reversed, resulted in increases in production in Peru and Bolivia.

The problem is on the demand side. We, rather than the fields of Afghanistan, are sucking in the heroin and fuelling the problems on our streets in London, Chicago and so on. Afghanistan has suffered greatly because of our false policies and our delusion of omnipotence. The Minister spoke recently about this subject, so we know what he is likely to say this morning. He spoke about tackling corruption in Afghanistan—that is delusional. Anyone who seriously believes that they can eliminate corruption in Afghanistan—it is possible, but very unlikely that he believes it—should be treated and gently ushered away by men in white coats. It is totally unattainable. We cannot do it. Corruption is endemic; it has been there for centuries and will continue for centuries. Our other policies are very similar, and are not practical.

As I said, I support the presence of our troops in Kabul. Members present might recall a debate in Westminster Hall, in February 2006, before we went into the Helmand province. At the time, I believed that we had made great progress on reconstruction, women’s education and so on. We should consolidate that progress, which I believe is possible. However, it is not possible to ensure that Karzai’s rule extends to every corner of Afghanistan. Sending troops into the Helmand province was mission impossible, as it has proved to be.

Perhaps the Minister will reflect on his attitude when we went into Afghanistan. On 7 February, he answered a question about the progress that had been made on drugs. As always, his answer was true, but only partly so. He said:

“Last year saw a 21 per cent. reduction in the area of opium cultivation in Afghanistan.”

That is absolutely right. However, we saw only a 2 per cent. reduction in production. The area cultivated was cut down, but production went down by only 2 per cent. Since then, of course, things have got worse.

On the same day, I asked the Minister probably the most serious question that one could ask about this matter:

“A 20 per cent. decrease in the area cultivated but only a 2 per cent. decrease in the amount of heroin produced: are we not on mission impossible, sending troops into the Helmand province, and will that not result, perversely, in an increase of violence that drives local farmers into the hands of the Taliban?”

That was a plea to think again given the risks that we were taking. The Minister’s reply was a joke. It might even get a laugh this morning:

“No, but with respect to my hon. Friend, his policies would lead that way. It is not enough to assume that if people eat the right kind of muesli, go to first nights of Harold Pinter revivals…and read The Independent occasionally, the drug barons of Afghanistan will go away.”—[Official Report, 7 February 2006; Vol. 442, c. 727.]

That got some laughter in the House, but I do not think that the families of the 56 soldiers who died after going into Afghanistan, or those of the record number of people on our streets who die using Afghan heroin would find that very amusing. That was the flip response to the very serious requests and speeches being made. I believe that going into the Helmand province was a doomed mission, and said so at the time. That question needed a serious response.

Let us look at the figures. Before we were in the Helmand province, up to February 2006, we lost seven of our courageous troops, mostly as a result of accidents. Nearly all of the 56 who have died since we went into the Helmand province have done so as a result of conflict. And what do Ministers do when a policy cannot be defended? In a typical speech, I am afraid, in Washington, to an audience that I am sure was willing to be cosseted and comforted by his words, the Minister talked about an “holistic approach”, a “joined-up rule of law”, and a coherent, “comprehensive approach”—he mined deeply at the seam of clichés. Members do that. They do not come up with practical policies, suggestions for change or expressions of regret at the lives lost and money wasted in Afghanistan, but attack it with a barrage of jargon and clichés.

The Minister came up with one glimpse of reality. He said:

“We are all aware of the reports suggesting there are some people in parliament and in the government—

of Afghanistan—

“with links to the trade.”

Well, congratulations! As the hon. Gentleman knows, corruption in Afghanistan goes to the heart of Government. Not so much Karzai himself, whom we all admire, but the people he has appointed as police commanders and provincial governors are, in many cases, drug dealers, former warlords, warlords now, and, in one case, a paedophile. One man was singled out for praise last November in the House when I suggested that bad people were running Afghanistan outside Kabul. It was suggested that I was being disrespectful to Mohammed Daoud, whom the then Secretary of State for Defence described as a man of idealism on whom we could really rely. A fortnight later he was sacked and replaced by someone more acceptable.

If we really believe that we can root out corruption in Afghanistan—drugs and corruption are said to be two sides of the same coin—we are wrong. That is a mission that cannot be achieved. We must deal with the reality: we can defend the progress made around Kabul and the immediate area, but we will never succeed beyond that. There is absolutely no evidence that we can succeed. We know that in the Helmand province there is very little, if any, reconstruction, because non-governmental organisations will not go there.

It seems that the tribal walls are dissolving everywhere apart from in the hon. Gentleman’s own party, between himself and the Minister. I know that the hon. Gentleman agrees that poppy production can and should be redirected towards the production of diamorphine. Bearing in mind his comments about corruption in Afghanistan, with which I agree as a policy approach, has he considered the practical challenges and basis for redirecting poppy production towards more constructive uses, both internationally and locally?

Yes, indeed. That idea was first introduced to Parliament in October 2005 in early-day motion 749, which the hon. Gentleman and I both signed. It is an instantly very attractive idea because, as we know, there is a shortage of morphine and codeine in the developing world. A person in a third-world country with a terminal illness has only a 6 per cent. chance of getting the comfort of morphine. There is a case for greater production, an approach that has been successful in Turkey where there has been a move from illicit to licit production.

The Government appear to be moving on the issue, although hon. Members should not be too encouraged by that, because the Minister will turn down the idea this morning, as the Government constantly have. Nevertheless, there are signs of common sense breaking through. However, there is no justification for the Minister having said in Washington that there has been real progress on drugs in Afghanistan over the last five years. There has not been any real progress, and the Government must first admit the abject failure of current policies.

The approach of the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East is absolutely right. The Government’s position on that, as I understand it, is that it would not be a complete success, because some of the poppy production would escape from the poppy for medicine harvest to illicit markets. So what? It will happen anyway, because we cannot stop illicit cultivation altogether. As I said earlier, if we stopped it in Afghanistan we would have a squeeze-balloon situation in which production would be taken over in other countries. So the problem has to be solved here.

However, the hon. Gentleman’s approach would at least represent a chance to have peace in Afghanistan and to win hearts and minds, rather than doing what we have done with bombs and bullets. People are right that there have been differences between ourselves and the Americans on that. We have lost hearts and minds in Helmand province, and we are going backwards instead of forwards, at the cost of 56 British lives—with more to come.

The poppy for medicine proposal is entirely sensible and well researched, and the Government should consider it. There is still uncertainty even now, when we are not making any effort to destroy poppies. When the Taliban first came they were opposed to poppy growth—the farmers know that. Later, however, the Taliban rather cynically discovered that they could use the money from poppies to buy armoured personnel carriers and rockets. So they decided that poppy growth was appropriate after all and that, like other grown substances, poppies were a gift of God—a gift of Allah—that could be used for good or evil.

We should warmly support the proposals made by the hon. Gentleman, and I hope that the Government will have the courage to follow the direction that he has signposted.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) on obtaining the debate. I shall use the discipline that you and I have learned in the Council of Europe, Mr. Hancock, and finish my speech in four minutes, to give other hon. Members an opportunity to speak.

My only reticence about my hon. Friend’s suggestion is that it recalls the good old days of the Tory party conference when I was young. People used to speak against motions—such as for the return of the death penalty—because they did not go far enough. In the present instance, my only misgiving is that the pilot is just for one section of Afghanistan. If it is the right approach, it seems to me to be common sense that we should roll it out across the whole country. There are no two ways about it, the problem is huge.

This morning, I saw a BBC report about the eradication of the crop that referred to losing the poppy war. That is how it seems when we consider that Afghan farmers—or whoever it is—are chopping down the poppy crops by hand, yet we know how huge is the country and how large is the expanse that is given over to poppy production. The results achievable through chopping poppies down by hand are just a drop in the ocean, and will certainly not lead to eradication of the crop.

Spraying has been suggested as an effective way to control poppy production. That happens in Colombia, and we hear the same sorts of complaints from Afghan politicians as from Colombian politicians, who said that they were against spraying of crops because of the potential health hazard to farmers. It is difficult to control where the spray goes and legitimate crops might be contaminated.

The hon. Member for Newport, West (Paul Flynn) intimated that corruption is massive in Afghanistan. Members of the Afghan Government speak against crop spraying simply because—for whatever reason—they are a part of the production problem. They are themselves corrupt and they are taking backhanders. Having said that, it is difficult to put oneself in the position of those who are up against the Taliban. The Taliban are terrorists who intend to kill people; they are there to make people’s life impossible. None of us has to put up with the sorts of fear that farmers and other people in Afghanistan have to put up with. When the Taliban say “Jump!”, the response is “How high?”

There is another analogy with Colombia. We must never forget that Karzai’s Government does not have control of the entire country. I was part of a group that was taken to Medellin in Colombia, which is a city that the Government lost control of for a long time before regaining it. The fact that a country has one name does not mean that its Government have control everywhere, like the Government of the United Kingdom. Here, we introduce legislation and it is enforced fairly well throughout the country. That is not the case in other parts of the world, so a balance must be struck.

The suggestion made by my hon. Friend is a useful one. It was discussed at the Council of Europe, where it was also suggested that we buy up the entire poppy production of Afghanistan—a suggestion that you supported, Mr. Hancock, as did other Council of Europe members. The idea was that it would cost less to do that than to wage a war that we are losing. We know that the demand side is huge; some 11 million people are estimated to be addicted to heroin, of whom 3.3 million are in Europe, and I suspect that those figures are somewhat conservative. We must make a concerted effort to try to introduce policies that will be effective in Afghanistan.

I pay tribute to our troops in that country; they are doing a fantastic job. However, we should reconsider our policies on drug eradication, and my hon. Friend’s suggestions go a long way to making concrete proposals that I believe will be effective.

I start with a simple proposition, which is that the attempt to eliminate poppy cultivation in areas where security control has not been established will not succeed and is likely to fuel the insurgency. That has always been my view, and nothing that I have heard this morning has changed it.

There is a problem in our dealings with our American allies on the issue. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) on securing the debate and on proposing imaginative ideas that will certainly bear fruit if applied in areas where a significant degree of security control has been established. He referred to General Jones, the former supreme allied commander at NATO, whom I had the privilege of meeting at the Royal College of Defence Studies last year. I do not know whether his views have since changed, but I was dismayed by his emphasis on poppy eradication even at the expense of winning hearts and minds. I felt that that was absolutely the reverse of the right emphasis for our activities.

It is a technique of unrepresentative, militant minorities down the ages—when they cannot succeed in convincing the mass of the population or even a significant sector of it of the rightness of their cause—to look around for some other area of activity that they can use to seduce people to their side. As a number of speakers have said, that is why the Taliban, having sought to suppress the poppy crop when they were in control of Afghanistan, reversed their position as soon as they lost control of the country. They did so, not as suggested by the hon. Member for Newport, West (Paul Flynn), with some of whose analysis I agree, because they wanted money to buy equipment, but because they wanted to create a common interest between themselves as insurgents and a vast swathe of the population that is economically dependent on the poppy crop.

I have made a distinction between eradication in areas where there is a degree of security control and eradication in areas where this no such control. In areas where there is no security control, we are in danger of allowing ourselves to be diverted from the primary strategic military goal of containing and eventually eliminating the insurgency. We did not go into Afghanistan to fight the drugs trade, and I would be surprised if many of the people who took the decision to go into Afghanistan knew—or, if they did know, even gave a moment’s thought to the fact—that we would find ourselves cheek by jowl with the people who produce the crops that are behind a great deal of the drugs taken on our streets.

Has the hon. Gentleman entirely forgotten the rhetoric before the war? Dealing with the fact that Afghanistan was a centre of heroin production was not the main aim of the war, but it was certainly one of the sub-aims.

No, I have not forgotten that, because I never heard it in the first place. I entirely disagree with the hon. Gentleman. I remind him that 48 hours before the attacks on the twin towers and the Pentagon, General Masood was assassinated by people who were clearly part of the conspiracy. Why did they assassinate the man who would undoubtedly have been Afghanistan’s predominant and most effective leader in the event of an invasion? They did so because they knew that what was about to happen in America would inevitably lead to the invasion of Afghanistan because the conspiracy behind it was based there. Narcotics did not come into the question of the invasion at all, and if they did, they should not have done, because the invasion was an attempt to respond to, and eliminate the source of, the dreadful terrorist attack that took place. We must not allow ourselves to be diverted from that aim, for precisely the reason that the hon. Gentleman twice mentioned in his speech: even if we succeeded in completely wiping out the poppy crop in Afghanistan, do we think for one moment that the laws of supply and demand would not lead to crops being sown and harvested in countries that were even more inaccessible?

Several colleagues have been to Afghanistan and know far more about the issue on the ground than I do, because I have never been there. However, is not part of the problem the fact that the drugs trade is so rife because the Taliban sell what is produced to carry on terrorism? Drugs are an integral part of the war against terrorism.

The Taliban may make money from the drugs trade, but that is not what they need to carry on a successful insurgency. What they need is a number of willing recruits to keep the insurgency going and the support—passive or active—of a significant swathe of the population. The only way to defeat an insurgency, as we have learned over many years in a number of long campaigns, is to isolate the militants from significant parts of the population. If, by taking action to suppress the poppy trade, we create common cause between a significant part of the population and the militants of the insurgency—as we are—we will be sowing the dragon’s teeth and making our eventual success problematic. We must focus on the primary aim, which, if we are talking about winning hearts and minds, must be to avoid at all costs doing anything that forces people who would not normally be inclined to side with the insurgents to do so.

In areas where we have established a reasonable degree of control, a scheme such as that suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East would be of great benefit because it would act as a beacon and an incentive and might even send signals to farmers in areas where we had not established security control that there was a better future to which they could subscribe. However, let us make no bones about the fact that, as I said in my intervention on my hon. Friend, even if a farmer wanted to sign up to such a scheme in an area where the Taliban were still running rife, the first thing that the terrorists would do would be to kill him to intimidate the rest.

One point that has not been brought out in the debate at all is the fact that the problem of addiction is getting significantly worse in Afghanistan itself and even worse in Iran. Iran is co-operating with us on drugs eradication. Does my hon. Friend not believe that it is vital that we get a regional buy-in from both Iran and Pakistan if we are to succeed in Afghanistan?

I certainly believe that just as the Taliban seek to create a common interest with that part of the population that is dependent on the opium trade for its living, it would be immensely politically beneficial to see whether a common interest of the sort that my hon. Friend describes could be used to strengthen relationships with neighbouring countries. I therefore entirely support what he says.

I revert, however, to my central point: if an insurgency is to be defeated, it is vital that we do nothing to increase the insurgents’ appeal to large numbers of the population. We are engaged in a counter-insurgency operation, not a social engineering operation, and we must not confuse the two.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) on triggering this excellent debate. All speakers on both sides have expressed an interesting variety of views, and although hon. Members have not always been in total agreement, their contributions show that everybody cares passionately about this subject.

If we were ever in any doubt as to the seriousness of the situation that we are discussing, the resignation of the Afghan counter-drugs Minister and the record opium haul announced last month bring the situation into sharp focus. The impact of the crop spreads from the mountains of Afghanistan to the estates of Edinburgh in my constituency, and anyone who has seen the film “Trainspotting” will know exactly what I am talking about.

The 49 per cent. increase in opium production in Afghanistan has set a new record in world production. The country now accounts for 92 per cent. of global illicit opium production, while more than 12 per cent. of its population is involved in poppy cultivation. The opium trade is worth about $3 billion, although only a fraction of that goes into the pockets of farmers. It is estimated that the opium trade makes up about a third of Afghanistan’s total economy.

In a country as poor as Afghanistan, opium has a corrosive and corrupting influence on any institution that it touches. Other hon. Members will have read reports that some of the biggest drug barons are reputedly members of the national and provincial governments and even include figures close to President Karzai.

The scale of the problem is huge, and the question is how we approach it and what solutions we can offer. As other hon. Members have said, everyone accepts the scale of the problem, but there is major disagreement about the best way to tackle it. Eradication is one possibility, but a growing school of thought suggests that, as the situation deteriorates, the only course will be the aggressive eradication of poppy fields across the country.

The United States has been a key proponent of a more aggressive eradication campaign involving aerial spraying. If the only aim were to destroy the plants, perhaps that would be the best way to proceed. However, when between a third and a half of the Afghan economy depends on the opium trade, with 12 per cent. of the population involved and with unemployment already at more than 40 per cent., to adopt such a heavy-handed tactic would, in my view, be a social and economic disaster and would have massive knock-on implications for the security situation.

The sight of UK or US soldiers or even Afghan Government workers forcibly destroying crops and therefore livelihoods would provide an immediate boost to the Taliban recruitment propaganda. UK commanders routinely warn that an aggressive, eradication-based approach would drastically worsen the security situation. In Helmand, British military commanders have consistently warned that attempts to eradicate the poppy crop without providing alternative incomes will simply increase hostility to foreign troops and boost Taliban support. I support British officials on the ground who say that their priority is to attack the drug traffickers and their laboratories before embarking on a programme to provide Afghans with alternative crops.

The option mentioned by the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East is very interesting. It is one argument put forward by the Senlis Council.

I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman’s contribution, but I stress that my argument and the Senlis Council’s argument are not the same at all. There is an overlap, in the idea of taking advantage of poppy crops that could be turned either into opium or into medicinal substances. The council wants widespread licensing—almost legalisation—of poppy growth. I believe that that is not the long-term solution for Afghanistan. The country is too unstable. In addition, the Americans would not buy into that at all, and if the Americans will not support a scheme it will not happen, because they are putting in the most money.

I take the point, and stand corrected. I believe that there is a degree of overlap, but I accept that it is a separate argument.

Does the hon. Gentleman think it sensible to listen to the advice of an American Government whose own regressive drug policy resulted in 2 million people in jail—mostly blacks and mostly for using drugs?

The issue of the demand in Europe and the United States is a key part of the problem, and I shall come to that.

The hon. Gentleman is generous with his time. Another aspect of the matter is of course providing alternative crops to the farmers, which means that the crops must be bought globally. I have always believed in trade rather than aid and that we should make certain that the new crops would have free access to the European Union and other markets throughout the world.

That point is very well made. I feel that I am eating into the time that I have for my speech, so I shall not respond in detail, but the points that hon. Gentlemen have raised are all well made. The issue is complicated, and hon. Members have helped this morning to open up questions that I hope the Minister will answer.

Another crucial issue to consider before attending to any proposals to move forward with the poppy trade in Afghanistan is the relative incomes of licit and illicit opium producers. The average annual income per poppy farmer in Afghanistan was estimated by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime at approximately $3,900 in 2003. In 2004, owing to the fall in opium prices at the farm gate level, farmers earned about $1,700. The average field size per farmer in Afghanistan has been estimated at about 0.4 hectares. By comparison, data collected in Turkey in 2003 suggested that the average net income per farmer involved in opium poppy cultivation was just $50 to $100 per year, with an average field size range between 0.8 and 1.6 hectares. That does not inspire faith that a controlled legal market for opium would be appealing for Afghan farmers, who could still make far more money trading in the illicit market. That market will still exist throughout the world, as many hon. Members have said.

It would also be extremely difficult to enforce any changes that that approach would require, such as the identification of specific farming areas where control measures could prove sufficient for prevention of diversion, and which would be licensed by the Government for that purpose. I do not think that anyone would suggest that there is the infrastructure in Afghanistan to enforce that. I am concerned that in a country where legal institutions are sometimes not even capable of keeping accused drug suspects in jail, changes would serve only to blur the lines between legal and illegal opium and would provide new opportunities for corruption. As has been said this morning, corruption is not exclusively the domain of the developing world. We need only consider what has recently happened in this country with kickbacks and bribes to know that it is a global problem.

Different approaches undoubtedly have their merits, but I suggest that the spiralling drugs trade in Afghanistan is a symptom of the wider problem of the lack of security, strong institutions and the rule of law. As such, I believe it cannot be looked at in isolation from wider political and security concerns and regional differences. I believe that any attempt to combat the drugs trade that ignores those bigger fundamental problems will be doomed to failure. UK support for strong governance in the country, together with sustained aid and redevelopment and the provision of alternative lifestyles, is vital.

The best hope of getting to grips with the opium trade is to win the battle for security in Afghanistan and assert the authority of the elected Government. Currently, the whole chain of government that is supposed to impose the rule of law, from the Ministry of the Interior to ordinary policemen, has been subverted. No matter what policy is decided in Kabul or in NATO, there will be no real change until the authority of the Government is increased. In that respect, the international community has a great deal to learn about the importance of involving the existing central authorities of the communities, the communal or tribal shuras or jirgas. It is there that, often, great authority is held. I believe that they will play a key role in any successful attempts to dissuade farmers on the ground from poppy harvesting.

To get to grips with the problem we need fully to understand why farmers grow opium. The annual opium poppy survey carried out by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime illustrates the point. When it asked farmers why they cultivated opium, in most cases the reasons were to do with the high price of the commodity. When farmers were asked why they did not cultivate opium, the key reasons given in almost 50 per cent. of cases were religion, the views of the elders and other traditional decision-making powers. The rule of law featured only as a secondary reason, if at all. Not only does that brutally illustrate the lack of any kind of government authority in many regions, but it surely tells us that, realistically, any moves to offer farmers alternatives to opium must involve local traditional decision-makers in a central role.

Before we can hope to control the drugs trade in Afghanistan, we need a far better and more complete appreciation of the reasons why poppies are grown in some areas of Afghanistan and not in others. What is also is needed is a greater active commitment to, and steady progress on, the elements of the Afghan Government’s national drug control strategy. Targeted eradication in places where farmers actually have a choice would be part of the programme, as would apprehending the big players rather than the petty traders. In the end, halting Afghan opium production also means reducing demand in Europe and other drug-consuming states. We in the developed world have to shoulder much of the responsibility for creating the demand for opium and heroin. Of the 11 million heroin addicts in the world, 3.3 million are in Europe. We have to accept that western society is fuelling the demand for opium.

Ultimately, any progress in Afghanistan is likely to be incremental and will involve a mix of targeted eradication and development, the stimulation of agriculture and the licensing of poppy growth. All those measures require the same elusive ingredient: a stable Government who control their own territory and borders. That is the key to controlling the drugs problem in Afghanistan. The drugs trade is a symptom of instability and unrest. Until that is tackled, any attempts to combat the opium trade will have little hope of success.

It is a pleasure to serve under your authority, Mr. Hancock. I warmly congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood). The matter that we are debating is an issue that he has taken up and driven forward with great effort and experience, and he is to be congratulated on what he has achieved.

I have a couple of general comments to make in addressing the issue, putting it into context and picking up points that several hon. Members have made. First, it is obvious from the language used by our ambassador, Sherard Cowper-Coles, and others, that if we are to succeed in Afghanistan, we are in for a long haul. People in Afghanistan and Pakistan are looking to see whether we, with the international community, are prepared to stay there for the long haul. If they think that we are not and suspect that what is happening in Iraq might happen there, they will not be prepared to do what we would like them to do and literally put their lives on the line.

Secondly, all hon. Members have talked about the sheer scale of the problems with security and dealing with the poppy crop. Those of us who have a little interest and background in the history of this kind of political situation and counter-insurgency campaign know that we are again talking about spending years trying to establish security and the authority of a legitimate Government. The question is whether the British Government, the British public and our allies are collectively prepared to put in that long-term commitment and to take some of the casualties that might be required—not only military casualties, but representatives from the Foreign Office and DFID, who have to go out into the field to carry out the kind of operations that we want.

Thirdly, it is interesting that General James Jones, who has been quoted on several occasions—my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East knows him well—said, when he gave evidence to the US Senate armed services committee on 1 March:

“Afghanistan’s most serious problem is not the Taliban, it is the alarming growth of its economic dependence on narcotics…The lead nation for this effort is the United Kingdom, and it is failing in developing and implementing a cohesive strategy to even begin to resolve a problem that will result in international failure in Afghanistan if not addressed”.

Those comments prompt several questions, not least regarding the fact that the United States of America is the leading international partner in Afghanistan. One could also question whether its anti-drug policy helped to create a problem. Nevertheless, the Government must be only too well aware of the American attitude. I do not view that comment in a negative sense; instead, I take out the part about developing and implementing a cohesive strategy.

I hope that the Minister will specifically address drug policy and my hon. Friend’s constructive suggestions. It would be easy to list all the reasons why my hon. Friend’s proposals should not go ahead—we could all do that. Indeed, I have a long list of such points, with which I shall not bore colleagues, but, given that we are all floundering around trying to find a positive potential solution, the Government should seriously consider his suggestions.

Where I disagree with my hon. Friend—this is to do with the chicken-and-egg problem of establishing security while allowing local economic development—is that, with the best will in the world, it would be incredibly difficult to have licit production within Helmand province, because the security situation there is probably too poor. However, that does not mean that there could not be a licit scheme somewhere else in Afghanistan. Such a scheme might provide an example to the Afghan Government and to people who live in other parts of Afghanistan where the security situation is less good.

Several hon. Members have talked about taking an holistic approach to the situation in Afghanistan. We all know that no single issue or policy has tended to work in the classic examples of counter-insurgency, even in so-called successful campaigns such as that in Malaya. I say “so-called” because the main reason for the success there was that we gave Malaya independence. However, there was a degree of co-ordination, and things were done then that we could not possibly do now.

There is a list of things that we could do in Afghanistan. The hon. Member for Newport, West (Paul Flynn) will be cynical about this suggestion, but I have no doubt that there are about 20 or 30 leading, known drug traffickers in Afghanistan, some of whom might well be related to or members of the Afghan establishment. If President Karzai wants the international community to stay for the long haul, he will have to show real courage on this issue. If he does not, the international community will have to lock those people up and take them out of action to show others that if they continue down that route, they, too, will probably face the same situation.

My hon. Friend’s comments about the Government are fascinating, but I recently visited Afghanistan with my hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown), and it was clear to me that the tendrils of corruption go to the highest levels inside the Afghan Government and penetrate to the centre of the Cabinet system. I applaud my hon. Friend’s sentiments, but the idea of removing the people he is talking about would necessitate a collapse of the current Government.

Yes, well, politics and war, as Major-General Wolfe said, before he was killed, involve an option of difficulties. I am saying that President Karzai might well have that option of difficulties. If we accept my logic and we are to have some success, we must remember that we are talking about the British contribution being on a long scale, lasting years. If we do not consider the possibilities and persuade President Karzai that he has to address these issues, the problem might ultimately be that we do not have a strategy, and British and American public opinion might then take the view that it is not worth the effort.

Does the hon. Gentleman believe that the situation in Afghanistan has far more in common with what happened in Vietnam than what happened in Malaya, and is likely to become a British Vietnam?

No, I do not. I think that Arthur Balfour was right when he said:

“History does not repeat itself. Historians repeat each other.”

As a former military historian, I am loth to use analogies, because they are often wrong. There is a serious crisis in Afghanistan, and this debate is about trying to find ways to resolve the problems. I hope that the Government will seriously consider the suggestions of my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East and use their good offices to persuade the senior member of the international coalition, the United States of America, that those ideas might be worth trying. They will not have a major, monumental impact, but they are positive, British and worth considering.

It is a pleasure to have you in the Chair, Mr. Hancock. I thank the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) for securing the debate. His contributions are always thoughtful, and I appreciate the original ideas that he has expressed and developed today.

President Karzai has said that, alongside terrorism, drugs are the biggest threat to Afghanistan’s long-term security and development. I do not agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, West (Paul Flynn) on many things, but I agree that corruption is fuelled by drugs and has an organic relationship with them, but is not entirely about them. We have heard that there are endemic forms of corruption in Afghanistan that reach right to the very top, and we have to live with that situation.

No, I have only a few minutes to reply to this important debate and the points made by the hon. Gentleman.

Counsels of despair might say that there is nothing we can do, we might as well get out now and try to be more insular about things, but I do not believe that we can go down that route.

I know from my five or six visits to Afghanistan—I remember going to Lashkar Gar before any of our troops were there—that it is impossible to tackle its problems today if we put off dealing with the drugs menace until tomorrow. The issue that we are debating is how we deal with it. Drug-related crime and corruption are rife, permeating all levels of society. As we have heard, the drugs trade and the Taliban insurgency are intrinsically connected in the south; there is a common interest in resisting Afghan Government authority and international forces. Afghanistan is facing another year of very high poppy cultivation, driven by the prospect of higher cultivation in Helmand.

Despite the almost unremitting gloom that we have heard in this debate, there are signs that things can improve and are improving in other parts of Afghanistan, especially the north and centre. In such areas, we must continue to help the Afghan Government to sharpen the delivery of their national drug control strategy.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) is no longer present, but I would say to him that there is a kind of facile wisdom—I am not sure whether that is the right way of expressing this—about alternative livelihoods. On my first visit to Afghanistan, I went to Feyzabad in Badakhshan province in the north-east of the country. It is a remote, beautiful area, where a farmer said to me, “Hang on a minute. You are rewarding the next farmer for growing poppy last year by giving him tools, fertiliser and seed. You are giving me nothing because I did not grow poppy last year.” The notion that there is an easy formula about providing alternative livelihoods is nonsense. I have seen alternative livelihoods being provided. The idea that our Government and the 36 other Governments who are involved in Afghanistan do not understand that there must be joined-up approaches to these things is nonsense.

No, I will not. My hon. Friend has talked for long enough.

I have seen simple schemes that we have helped to pay for. We do not go around advertising the fact that the huge amount of Department for International Development money—£120 million—that is going into Afghanistan is being spent by Britain; we do not put British flags all over it. The money goes through the Afghan Government. I have seen small schemes, whereby mule tracks have been widened into roads that can take four-wheel drive vehicles. That allows fruit to get to market more quickly and more easily, without being bruised when it arrives, people to get a better price for it and so on.

I take the Minister’s point about the bleakness of some of the views that have been expressed. When I was in Afghanistan two weeks ago, I was struck by the views of the ambassador, some of the UN staff and a lot of the military staff. I was broadly told, “Soldiers may be dying, civilians may be dying, the drug crop may be increasing, but we are making progress. Look in the north. Look in the west.”

Let us compare the situation with that of Northern Ireland. Remember how the cities of Belfast and Londonderry were improving, yet the border down in South Armagh was constantly turbulent. There is an analogy to be drawn. We are progressing, but it is costing lives and money.

I could not have expressed it better. We denigrate or ignore the progress that has been made at our peril. We could talk about many areas in this regard, not just Herat in the west, where I was shocked by the normalcy of life—trade was going on, there was prosperity and so on. In parts of Helmand, right in the middle of the turmoil, I have seen remarkable things happening. The sacrifices that have been made by our soldiers are not in vain by any means. A council of despair has told us that we are just another army dragged into another Afghan war, it will become our Vietnam and so on. That is an easy thing to say, but it does nothing to address the central problem.

We must be realistic in our expectations of progress. As the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East told us, tackling the production and cultivation of opium is a complex problem that requires a complex solution. As the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) said, ridding Afghanistan of this curse will take a generation, perhaps more. It took at least 30 years to reduce significantly the opium crop grown in the golden triangle. When I was in Assam a few weeks ago, locals told me that heroin is pouring down from there back into Bangladesh. This is a long-term problem. Should we do nothing about it? The hon. Member for Bournemouth, East says no, and that there are other ways of tackling it. We must examine those.

There are no short cuts to ending the drugs trade. As the hon. Gentleman said, we must be wary of silver bullet solutions. I do not believe that they would work, because I do not believe that a silver bullet solution exists. His continued engagement on the issue of drugs in Afghanistan is most appreciated. He acknowledges the difficulties in proposals for licit production there in the present circumstances, and he has some interesting and thought-provoking ideas about how to address the problems. He has raised them with us today, and my officials are studying them. I want to put it on record that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office will take them seriously. I am particularly struck by the idea that we could consider a pilot project, because that is one way of testing whether an idea could work.

The hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) said that we must be careful about the idea that large-scale licit production can take place in an area where there is no law and order and where one does not control security. Such a notion is spurious. We have heard about the huge markets for opiates and heroin that exist just across the border in Iran and in Pakistan. Large numbers of people are prepared to pay good prices. I have just come back from Quetta and the border town of Chaman, where I saw how incredibly porous the borders are and how badly equipped the Afghan frontier police are. There is a notion that this can be controlled as one might control licit production in Tasmania or Turkey. We have heard Turkey talked about as if it were Afghanistan. Turkey is not Afghanistan—Turkey is like a little New York compared with Afghanistan. Afghanistan is completely different—one has to go there to see it and believe.

The hon. Member for Edinburgh, West (John Barrett) touched on an important issue when he discussed “Trainspotting”. There is still a glamour attached to drugs—to cocaine and heroin. Successive Governments have been trying to tackle that at home. Farmers and politicians in Afghanistan and Colombia tell me, “If there was no demand, we would not be supplying it.” That is an important point to take on board.

We must examine all ideas and treat them seriously. I have almost no speaking time left, but I should say that we must continue to take a joined-up approach to this, as hon. Members have said. We must have certainty in respect of the money that is spent on development and on our attempt to fight the Taliban. The hon. Member for New Forest, East made the important point that we did not go to Afghanistan to stop the production and flow of heroin; we went there to fight the Taliban and to return the country to a state where it could live alongside, and as part of, the community of nations and not be a home for terrorists. Unfortunately, heroin is starting to finance those terrorists, so we must take both problems on at the same time.

Motor Insurance Database

I am grateful to Mr. Speaker for allowing this short debate on the motor insurance database.

There can be no doubt that the problem of uninsured driving is significant in the United Kingdom. It is estimated that one in 20 cars on the road is driven without proper insurance, and according to the Motor Insurers Bureau the consequence is to push up insurance premiums for honest motorists by £15 to £20 per person per annum.

Since 1946, the bureau, of which all motor insurers are members, has been obliged to pay compensation for injuries caused by uninsured drivers, so the greater the number of uninsured drivers on the road, the greater the cost to the rest of us. Clearly, everything possible should be done to deter uninsured driving, and to punish those who drive without insurance, so section 165A of the Road Traffic Act 1988 was welcome. The measure was introduced into the Act by section 152 of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005. Under subsection (3)(c), a constable is empowered to seize a motor car if he

“has reasonable grounds for believing that”

it is being driven without insurance.

Such a power is eminently desirable, and was generally welcomed by all parties. The motor insurance database, which is maintained by the Motor Insurers Bureau, is key to the implementation of the powers in section 165A. The database was established to enable the UK to achieve compliance with the 4th EU motor insurance directive. That was implemented in January 2003, and required the UK to create an information centre to facilitate easy identification of the valid insurer of any vehicle registered in this country.

It can be readily appreciated what a mammoth task it is for the bureau to maintain the database. It stores details on individual insured vehicles, fleets, motor trade and self-insured entities, and currently holds no fewer than 33 million records. Fundamental to the maintenance of the database is the active participation of the motor insurance industry. [Interruption.]

Order. I am sorry to interrupt you, Mr. Jones, but I suggest that someone must have a mobile phone that is not completely switched off because it is interfering with the microphone system. Could everyone ensure that their mobile phones are properly switched off?

All motor insurance companies are subject to an obligation to submit data to the database within 14 days of the

“inception, change, cancellation, lapse or renewal”

of all motor insurance policies, and penalties exist for failing to provide such details.

By virtue of regulations introduced in 2003, insurers are liable to a fine of £5,000 for failing to provide information, for making a statement that is known to be false in a material particular, or for recklessly making a statement which is false in a material particular. The target time for providing data to the database will be reduced to seven days from the beginning of 2008.

According to a parliamentary answer, already,

“94.4 per cent. of all appropriate records are provided to the…database…within seven days.”—[Official Report, 2 July 2007; Vol. 462, c. 924W.]

It seems at first sight that the database is being maintained to a highly accurate level. However, given that there are some 33 million insured vehicles on the roads and, based on the Department's figures, there is a 5.6 per cent. level of inaccuracy, it follows that the insurance details of around 1.5 million vehicles may not be accurately recorded on the database at any one time. That is hardly surprising because tens of thousands of motor vehicles change hands every day, and thousands of policyholders change their insurers to obtain a better deal. The consequences of such inaccuracy can be serious. I was first alerted to the problem, and was prompted to apply for this debate after I was approached some three weeks ago by my constituent, Mrs. Maureen Smith, of Rhos-on-Sea. Her story illustrates the difficulties that can arise from a database that is not accurately maintained.

Mrs. Smith had lent her car to her daughter, Mrs. Helen Parry. Mrs. Parry, who is 29, maintains her own motor insurance policy, which permits her to drive a vehicle owned by another person, with that person's consent. On her way home, which was only a few miles away, Mrs. Parry was stopped by North Wales police officers, who were apparently carrying out a routine check. The officers, on being given particulars of her identity, told her that a check on the database indicated that she was not insured to drive the vehicle. Mrs. Parry explained that, although the car belonged to her parents, she was insured to drive it under the terms of her own policy. The officers checked the database again and told Mrs. Parry that that was not the case because she was not insured, so they seized the car. She was relieved of the keys and was obliged to stand in the rain at the side of the road until her mother, the car owner whom she had called on her mobile phone, appeared on the scene. For the sake of completeness, I should mention that Mrs. Parry, who is a nurse, was at that time 20 weeks pregnant.

On arrival, Mrs. Smith told the police officers that, irrespective of their views of the legality or otherwise of Mrs. Parry driving the car, they were aware that she, Mrs. Smith, was insured to drive it and asked for her keys back. The police officers refused to return the keys, and Mrs. Smith was obliged to attend Llandudno police station, where she had to pay a £105 fee for the release of her own vehicle. At the same time, Mrs. Parry, her daughter, produced documentary evidence that she was indeed insured to drive the vehicle. By then, she had been issued with a fixed penalty of £200 and her licence had been endorsed with six penalty points.

To the immense credit of North Wales police, when they discovered the error, they arranged for Mrs. Parry's endorsement and penalty to be cancelled and for Mrs. Smith's £105 to be returned to her. To be fair to North Wales police, they went beyond the call of duty and presented her with a large bouquet of flowers.

It seems that the information provided by Mrs. Smith's insurers. Direct Line, to the motor insurance database, was erroneous, and I have since discovered that the details of around 400,000 motorists insured by that company had not been provided to the database within the required time frame, so it is unclear how many other policyholders have experienced similar difficulties. Direct Line told me yesterday that it has now supplied the required information to the database, albeit very late.

Another example of the problems that can arise from inaccuracies in the database was recently outlined to me by Mrs. Jane Groves of Liverpool. Last month, Mrs. Groves decided to change her insurer from Asda to the Post Office, naming her partner on the policy as an authorised driver. She did that by telephone, as many policyholders do. Two days after she had changed her insurer, her partner was stopped by the police, who had consulted the database and discovered that the Asda policy had been cancelled, but not that the new policy had been issued. Mrs. Groves's car was seized, and it was not until she received a faxed copy of her motor insurance certificate from her new insurer some two days later that she was able to recover her car. She also had to pay a release fee of £105, but so far has not had it refunded. Indeed, she may well never have it refunded because the seizure was legal as it was based on the information on the database.

I have asked the Home Office for the number of occasions on which vehicles have been seized under section 165A of the 1988 Act, but was surprised to be informed that that information is not collected centrally. I suggest that the Home Office should arrange to collate such information because I suspect that there may be a large number of such cases.

Indeed, another constituent of mine has contacted me to say that recently he had a lucky escape from such a seizure, and I have also been told of a wedding party in Sheffield which was deprived of its vehicle on the way to church because of a similar problem. I am consequently grateful for having had the opportunity to highlight the problem today.

I repeat that I consider section 165A of the 1988 Act to be necessary and desirable. The database is an essential component in the drive to rid our roads of uninsured drivers. They are a menace to others, and they cost honest motorists hundreds of millions of pounds per annum. The problem lies not so much with the database, as with the way in which it is used by the police, and the promptness with which insurers update it. It is accepted that the database will always be less than 100 per cent. accurate; that must be the case, and there are many reasons why.

At the lowest level, there is the inevitable administrative delay while the insurer supplies the necessary information to the database to record the issue of the new policy. That normally takes place well within the target 14 days. Indeed, the seven-day target, which will be introduced in 2008, is already met in the vast majority of cases. However, there have been occasions—I have been alerted to one such incident by a constituent of mine, Mr. Anstey, of Old Colwyn—on which the insurers have failed to provide details of the amendment to the database for many weeks after the policy was issued. I have already referred to what appears to have been a flagrant omission on the part of a major UK insurer.

Certainly, penalties exist for failing to provide the information, but such penalties should be imposed far more vigorously to ensure that insurers comply with their reporting obligations. Further, although penalties exist for failing to provide the information, or for recklessly providing inaccurate information, penalties do not exist for providing inaccurate information negligently. Police officers ought also to be aware of the problem of delay and to exercise a degree of common sense and discretion when, for example, the policy has apparently lapsed very shortly before the motorist is stopped. Mrs. Groves’s case is a prime example, and in such cases, further inquiries ought sensibly to be made.

Police officers ought not to be heavy-handed in their use of the database. However, in many police forces there is a target-driven culture, with officers encouraged to amass a certain number of points during a particular period, and with a varying number of points given for various offences. Certainly, such a system prevailed in north Wales until recently. It amounts almost to an encouragement to police officers to seize the vehicle, issue the fixed penalty notice and leave it to the motorist to argue the toss later. That cannot be right.

Finally, I suggest that insurance companies that do not do what is necessary to help to maintain as accurate a database as possible by providing accurate information in a timely manner should be obliged to compensate motorists for losses incurred when a vehicle is seized as a consequence. The database, in short, should be treated as a very useful tool, but not as infallible; police officers should be told of the need to use it with discretion and common sense. There should, further, be uniformity in such guidance. Again, in an answer to a parliamentary question, I was surprised to learn that, at present, the issue is left to individual forces as an operational matter. If police officers do not use discretion, injustices of the sort experienced by Mrs. Smith, Mrs. Parry, Mrs. Groves and, I have no doubt, many others will continue to occur.

I am pleased to have had the opportunity to raise the issue in this short debate, and I look forward to the Minister’s response to my points.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Clwyd, West (Mr. Jones) on securing this important debate. He has reflected very well the experiences of his constituents, who obviously suffered some distress.

It would be helpful if I first said a little more about the motor insurance database. As the hon. Gentleman said, it was established by the insurance industry in 2001 as a way of trying to tackle some of the problems of motor insurance evasion. Like me, he knows that our constituents are very worried about the issue. We receive numerous complaints from people who think that in their street, there is a vehicle that is not insured. The issue causes a great deal of anxiety, and it is good that a system exists to try to tackle it.

Until the end of 2002, the data on the database were provided on a voluntary basis by the industry, but in 2003 the Government approved the Motor Insurers Bureau as the motor insurance information centre required by the European motor insurance directives. The role has been strengthened, because following on from that, it has become a statutory requirement for all insurers to provide the MIB with details of all motor insurance policies issued, together with details of all vehicles covered by such policies. There is also a legal obligation on policyholders to provide the requisite information.

The database is owned and operated by the MIB, which in turn is owned by the insurance industry. Apart from operating the motor insurance database, the MIB’s other activities include processing claims from the innocent victims of uninsured drivers and untraced—hit and run—drivers, under agreements with the Secretary of State. The bureau also acts as the UK green card bureau, dealing with claims from accidents caused by foreign motorists visiting the UK.

The main uses of the database are, first, to provide to a person injured as a result of an accident with a motor vehicle, details of the insurance company involved; and, secondly, to provide information to the police for enforcement purposes to tackle the significant social problem of uninsured driving.

The hon. Gentleman set out clearly the bad experiences of his constituents, which resulted from incorrect data supplied to the police by an insurer. The problem also occurred as a result of the insurer failing to update correctly the motor insurance database. Such incidents are distressing, and it is right that we and the industry do everything we can to minimise the likelihood of their occurrence.

The provision of data to the MID is the responsibility of the insurance industry, but it has made substantial efforts to ensure that the database is fit for purpose. It is also true that the insurance industry is exceeding our current data submission requirements by delivering 97.5 per cent. of data within 14 days. Almost 99 per cent. of all new records are on the database within 14 days, and 94.8 per cent. of all appropriate records are now placed on the database within seven days. It is ahead of our expectations to meet the target of 95 per cent. by January next year.

The hon. Gentleman is right that we should be concerned about the accuracy of the database, and ensure that it is fit for purpose. Fit for purpose includes accuracy and timeliness, of course, but we must also consider its effectiveness in tackling known problems, and the effectiveness of the safeguards that are built in to ensure that, as far as possible, experiences such as those of Mrs. Parry and the other people whom the hon. Gentleman mentioned are kept to a minimum or, we hope, completely avoided.

If we consider the figures, it is worth remembering that the police make some 3 million inquiries per month on the database, which is more than one per second, and that more than 1,500 vehicles per week are seized for being used without insurance. The number of vehicles wrongly identified as uninsured is not known, but the police have assured us that such instances are rare, and fewer than a handful of cases have been brought to the attention of the Home Office or the Department for Transport since June 2005.

Our view that police seizure powers and their use of the MID are working well is strongly supported by the drop in the number of claims made to the MIB by the innocent victims of uninsured drivers. As the hon. Gentleman said, the database and the system are fulfilling their key aim. In 2006, the number of claims dropped by 4.2 per cent., and so far this year, uninsured driving claims have similarly decreased. I am sure that he welcomes that.

The database is also an integral part of the checking process for motorists wishing to use the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency’s electronic vehicle licensing system, which depends critically on the MID. The system has made a difference for the 9.5 million motorists who have successfully used it. Our evidence so far suggests that the information provided by the MID is very good. For the police, it is proving extremely valuable in tackling the problem of uninsured driving.

As for safeguards, the police have every interest in not seizing vehicles incorrectly. Not only is it a waste of their time, but it incurs storage costs and creates bad public relations. We must accept that the police will do their best not to cause motorists unnecessary distress. The MIB helpline provides a quick way to obtain insurance information, but checks can still be made directly with insurers. The MIB also uses a system to audit individual insurers’ update performance and seeks to enforce increasingly tight standards.

I think that the hon. Gentleman recognises that it will probably not be possible to avoid every single incident. We must be realistic in acknowledging that. We should also recognise that such unfortunate incidents should not detract from the MID’s general assistance to the police in detecting uninsured drivers. It is always regrettable when a vehicle is seized in error, and I recognise the distress and inconvenience that it can cause, but we have one of the highest rates in Europe of uninsured driving. Seizing 1,500 vehicles a week sends an important message that people must be insured. Despite all that, he raised some important points, and I do not want him to think that the Government are in any way complacent about them.

Two of the cases that I described related to motorists whose details had not appeared on the database because of insurers’ negligence. Does the Minister think that in those circumstances insurers should offer compensation, and would she be prepared to consider a statutory amendment to effect that?

I shall come to that point. The insurance industry itself has agreed a contractual Government power to levy a penalty of up to £250,000 on insurers who fail to meet their obligations to update the MID. The power has been exercised in several instances. In addition, of course, any insurer that persistently provides wrong or late data will certainly suffer bad publicity. Insurers should be mindful of that, because it affects their customer base.

The hon. Gentleman’s suggestion that insurers should pay the costs of incorrect seizure is interesting, although its practicability would need to be assessed. We can all agree that there is every reason to encourage the insurance industry to get it right. With that in mind, I intend to write to the insurance industry about improving the submission of data to the database so as to minimise the type of problem that he mentioned and to ensure proper compliance in future. I will pass on his suggestions, ask officials to explore them with the insurance industry and reply to him with the results.

The Government are committed to tackling uninsured driving. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the Road Safety Act 2006 included powers for a continuous insurance enforcement scheme—a preventive scheme intended to minimise the likelihood of uninsured motorists using a motor vehicle—in addition to existing enforcement powers. My officials are working up plans for detailed regulations and will be consulting soon. I am sure that he will be interested in responding.

I hope that that reassures the hon. Gentleman that the Government take his points seriously. We will write to the insurance industry as well as undertaking wider measures to ensure that motorists take out insurance when they need it, because we are all aware of the distress that non-compliance can cause.

Sitting suspended until half-past Two o’clock.

Flood Prevention and Defence

A number of Members have said that they want to speak and I shall endeavour to include everyone, but Members should bear in mind that the wind-ups will start at 3.30 pm, so that might diminish their chance of being called. I hope that any interventions will be short. If we all work together, everyone who has said that they want to take part will have a chance to do so.

This debate takes place in the context of the devastating floods that affected much of the country in late June and early July, particularly my own region of Yorkshire and the Humber. Six people died, and according to the Environment Agency, 20,000 properties were affected by surface water flooding. More than 3,000 properties were affected by river flooding or a combination of that with surface water flooding.

This debate also takes place in the context of an increasing number of flood events—not only in the United Kingdom, but across Europe. The European Commission estimates that across the European Union between 1998 and 2004, there were 700 major flooding incidents, in which, sadly, 600 people lost their lives. Flooding is becoming more important on political agendas—not only in our own country, but across Europe.

Among hon. Members in the Chamber today, there is a great deal of expertise and local knowledge of these most recent floods and other flooding events that have affected various parts of the country, so I intend to keep my remarks as concise as possible and concentrate on five general principles.

I am secretary of the all-party group on flood prevention, which has met to discuss flooding problems since 2002. The first of the five issues that I want to raise is funding. Ministers are to be congratulated on increasing flood defence spending by more than £200 million to a total of £800 million by 2010-11. That was a speedy announcement. However, if we are honest we must say that if the floods had not happened, things would not have looked too good for the three-year spending review. Other officers of the all-party group on flood prevention and I have been meeting Ministers down the years; although major capital projects might have been protected, I was not too hopeful about flood maintenance being protected in the years ahead.

The new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, Central (Hilary Benn) and his Ministers now have the task of persuading the Chancellor to front-load that increase into the early years of the next three-year spending round, starting in 2008. In my own region of Yorkshire and the Humber, the projections are that spending on capital flood defences, as opposed to maintenance—of £15 million this year—will go down to just over £11 million next year, but will be £20 million the year after, £21 million the year after that and then a whopping £46 million, but only in 2011-12.

We need to bring that expenditure as far forward as is practicable. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and his Ministers must also ensure that the political focus and commitment to flood prevention last for years and do not ebb once the great floods of summer 2007 become part of political memory.

In 2000, there was a similar step change in flood defence spending following the floods of that year. Many communities benefited from improved defences—including Selby, whose £10 million defences will be completed next year. However, by 2005 the Government were cutting the Environment Agency’s flood defence maintenance budget; at £35 million this year, total spending by the Yorkshire and Humber flood defence committee is still below its £40 million peak of two years ago. As a result, start dates for work on improved flood defences in communities such as Leeds, Doncaster, York and Tadcaster have been put back time and again. Fewer than half the county’s existing defences are in a satisfactory condition.

In summary, the political task for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is to make it as politically unacceptable to cut the flood prevention budget as he did the overseas aid budget when he was Secretary of State for International Development.

I want to say one other thing about funding—that is, funding for the most vulnerable people, who did not have flood insurance because they could not get it or could not afford it. There must be many thousands of people in that situation. Again, the Government responded quickly; they said that there would be an extra £1 million for community care grants to buy the most basic essentials—cookers, fridges, new carpets, beds and bedding—for some of the poorest people in our society.

However, buried away in the Department for Communities and Local Government press release, issued on Saturday, was a statistic that to date—in the entire country, as I understand it—only £21,600 had been spent on such grants. Clearly, an awful lot of people are in need. Average flood damage for one house is estimated at £30,000. Now that the money has been allocated, it is incumbent on Ministers, particularly at the Department for Work and Pensions, to ensure that those eligible know about the community care grants and that they should apply for them. That means a lot of people, including everyone on pension credit—probably the majority of pensioners in those areas—those on jobseeker’s allowance and those on income support. As officers of the all-party group on flood prevention, one or other of us will ask every week how much of that money has been spent.

While the hon. Gentleman is on the issue of funding, I should say that I am sure he is aware that the southern end of my constituency is severely at risk of flooding from the sea and that nothing like enough money is being provided to protect the area. Worse still, environmental considerations are being used as an excuse for failing to find the necessary funding.

Does the hon. Gentleman not agree that the points system used to allocate funding is grossly inadequate? It is ludicrous that of the 44 points in the priority scoring system, both people and the environment should score 12 points—that is, both have equal weighting. Do the Government not need to address that? In most cases, people and their homes are surely worth far more than environmental considerations.

That should be the last long intervention. Members should be wary of the length of their interventions because of the number of people who want to speak.

The intervention was interesting nevertheless, Mr. Hancock, and reflected a point made by the Audit Commission in its recent report. I shall rattle as quickly as I can on to my fourth point, which I hope deals with the many rural communities that find it difficult to get the necessary flood defences.

I move quickly on to my second point. Who is in charge, particularly in respect of surface water flooding? Like me, many hon. Members will have stood in meetings in villages, towns and suburbs. The basic question has been about which among the Environment Agency, the Highways Agency, the district council—Selby district council, in my case—the drainage board or the water board is in charge of the relevant ditch or culvert. I stood in the village of Saxton, where six people suffered from surface water flooding, only last Friday. I shall not go into the technical solutions for that particular culvert and ditch, but they are known. The real question is about who will be responsible for carrying them out.

Interestingly, during the height of the flooding, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs started a consultation on the very issue of who was in charge of surface water management. There is one particularly telling sentence, which I hope to find during the course of my remarks. Basically, its gist is that the Environment Agency is responsible when it comes to river and coastal flooding, but it is not at all clear who is responsible when it comes to surface water flooding. In a second, I shall refer to a massively good analysis in the document about how surface water flooding occurs. Five options are listed in conclusion; one is that there should be a single authority for dealing with surface water management—perhaps a local council or a local drainage board. There are analogies to be drawn with crime prevention. Councils are responsible for co-ordinating all the bodies to do with crime prevention. Either councils or drainage boards should be responsible for co-ordinating all the bodies to do with surface water management and storm water.

The document analyses the causes of storm water flooding, such as compacted ground in urban areas. In car parks, for example, 75 per cent. of the rain that falls runs off into the system. It would be 10 per cent. in other areas. The capacity of the below ground drainage systems is typically designed with a one-in-30 annual probability of overtopping. The probability for highways drainage is just one in five. Both above ground and below ground systems often cannot drain effectively into the rivers in times of storm. We do not have as many storage facilities, sumps and so on, as many other European countries. Pipes and culverts collapse or are blocked. Ofwat has said that the water companies should spend £950 million to try to deal with those problems but only 0.1 per cent. of our sewer network is renewed each year. The assumption is that our sewers will last for 1,000 years and clearly some of them do not. That causes problems.

Also, 40 per cent. of our internal drainage systems mix sewage and storm water in times of storm. That causes tremendous problems for many of our constituents. If one authority was responsible for dealing with surface water and storm water, or at least for co-ordinating the other authorities, that would be an advance. On planning, we need to consider who is doing the co-ordination. The Government have made the Environment Agency a statutory consultee for new developments. Perhaps they should go further, and when the Environment Agency objects to a development there should be an automatic public inquiry, like in Scotland, before that goes forward.

With the best will in the world, the Environment Agency’s expertise is river flooding and coastal flooding, not surface water. Water boards often do not comment on individual planning applications. They might comment on a local development plan, but they do not comment on the sewage implications of quite major developments. Indeed, they do not have an incentive to point out the inadequacies of the drainage system because they would then be partly responsible for funding the upgrade. Under the Water Industry Act 1991, a new development can connect automatically to the public sewer and drainage system. If one body—possibly the local council, or the drainage boards in some areas—was responsible for dealing with surface water matters to do with both management and planning, that would be a significant advance.

I am aware of the passage of time, so I want to move rapidly on to three other points. First, as I represent a rural area I am aware of the role of farmers in helping with this problem and improving flood prevention. The right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) has been particularly vocal on the matter in recent weeks. My right hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley), who was a distinguished Minister with responsibility for flooding, has often spoken of the importance of flood meadows and of changing the incentives for farmers to manage their land so that they retain more of the flood water on agricultural land rather than letting it go into defended settlements. The Ouse water catchment strategy in my area is a model for encouraging that process and retaining more water in the dales and moors of Yorkshire rather than seeing it coming down rapidly into the settlement areas. The Environment Agency has to win hearts and minds when it adopts such a strategy. It has to win over farmers and provide the right incentives as well as to persuade communities such as Carlton in my constituency that the communities will be defended if there is a change of strategy. Nevertheless, it is an important issue to consider.

In reply to the hon. Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie), I mentioned that I would deal with the points system. Let me read the two lines from the recent Audit Commission report on “Building and maintaining river and coastal flood defences in England” that deal with that point:

“Less densely populated communities, which may flood repeatedly, have received lower scores because the number of households affected or the economic loss is relatively small compared to the cost of a new or improved defence. The Agency expects to address this problem with a new scoring system based on outcome measures.”

The Audit Commission does not go into any more detail. If the Minister could tell us when the scoring system will change and how it might affect rural communities, that would be of interest to many Members.

Secondly, in my area, we have tried to match funding in some communities. Following a campaign that lasted a decade and that was led by the parish council, the village of Elvington managed to get generous funding from both the city of York and the Yorkshire regional flood defence committee to fund a £400,000 scheme, which will be completed this year. It took an awful lot of effort and perhaps such joint funding could be encouraged rather more in the future than it has been in the past.

Villages in the Trent valley have been badly hit—small, rural communities. Is it not wrong that big urban areas should score on the point system while small local communities lose out? Ought we not to change the criteria for allocation?

That is a telling point. The devil is in the detail on this, is it not? Hon. Members would be interested to hear from the Environment Agency about how it intends to change the point system so that the needs of rural communities are better catered for.

I promised to be as brief as possible, so I shall move on to my final remarks, which are about information. The Environment Agency and many other bodies, including insurance companies—notably Norwich Union—have provided much more flood mapping in recent years. It is a valuable resource for people who are buying houses, looking to see whether they live in a flood plain and so on. As the Environment Agency has provided that information, it should be made widely available free of charge. There is an organisation called OnOneMap that tries to provide information to new home buyers and has been told that it cannot use the Environment Agency’s information. That information has been provided through taxpayers’ money and I understand that OnOneMap is a reputable organisation. It should be able to use such information, because it is of interest to consumers.

As regards information from the insurance companies, we have to be grateful that we live in a country where the majority of people can get flood insurance—for example, in the Netherlands, one cannot get river or coastal flood insurance. That is partly because of the partnership between the Government and the insurance industry. The industry says that as a rule, if someone has a one-in-75 chance, or better, of being flooded, it will insure them. There are lots of anecdotes about people who find it difficult to get insurance, even when they live in such areas. The Association of British Insurers needs to chivvy along some of the insurance companies a little more and to make it more clear who can be complained to. I understand that people cannot complain to the Financial Ombudsman Service unless they have a contract with an insurance company. The insurance companies are doing a good job by paying out as quickly as they can, but given that they have reached that agreement with Government they, too, have responsibilities and they need to deliver on insuring homes that fall into that category.

I have found the quotation from annexe A of the consultation document, so rather than précis it, I shall read it. It states:

“While the Environment Agency has a general supervisory responsibility for coastal and fluvial flooding it certainly has no statutory role in relation to other forms of flooding and nor does existing legislation assign any specific responsibilities or duties. The roles of other organisations involved in flood risk management are also unclear.”

That is beautifully put. I have confidence that my hon. Friend the Minister and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will battle tirelessly to ensure that flood management and flood prevention remain as high up the political agenda in the next few months and coming years as they are now and that they will resist any attempts by the Treasury to claw back any of the money that has been promised.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan) on securing this timely debate. My constituency has not suffered in the floods of the past few weeks, but we suffered quite seriously in the floods of 2000, as did the neighbouring constituency of Lewes. The thoughts of my constituents are with the people who have been so terribly affected by the recent floods. Their hearts go out to them and they understand the devastation that has been caused and felt.

I wanted to make a brief speech to talk about what has happened since the 2000 floods and the lessons that can perhaps be learned from them. We were all terribly impressed by the immediate reaction. The then Minister, the right hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley), came down within days and toured the site. Shortly afterwards there was a meeting in Downing street, organised by the then Prime Minister, who brought in the leaders of all the affected local authorities and gave them an absolute commitment that lessons would be learned, money spent and steps taken to prevent such floods from happening again. He could not prevent it from raining—even that Prime Minister could not do that—but he promised to put in place relevant measures to prevent the flooding from happening again. We then had another visit from the then Minister, who echoed that promise at a meeting in his office to talk about the issues of concern. Since then absolutely nothing of concrete, literally, has been built to prevent future flooding. That is a great lesson that we must learn, because the same has been the case in many constituencies.

We had a consultation process and everybody agreed that what was needed was upstream storage to prevent a huge volume of water from coming into the town of Uckfield or the small surrounding villages that had been affected. A model was built, on which one hundred and something thousand pounds were spent, and it cleverly proved that if one poured water into the model, it would eventually come over the top somewhere. Without £100,000 being spent, we think that we could have told them that.

Now, nearly seven years on, there is a proposal for a small bund in the town, and I am encouraged by the approach that the Environment Agency is taking to that. It would stop minor flooding but not the type of serious flooding that we saw in October 2000. The reason why such flooding would not be prevented, we were told, is that we simply do not score enough points. Uckfield is a busy market town in the middle of Sussex, yet it does not score enough points because not enough houses were flooded. We need a system that takes into account the real needs on the ground.

Nearly seven years on, the flood risk remains and the likelihood has increased. We were told in October 2000 that flooding would be experienced once every 50 or 100 years but we now know that, with global warming and climate change, such events can be expected more regularly. People continue to have problems insuring their homes, because no defences have been put in place. Insurance companies have said, “We will insure your homes if money is spent on flood defences, but if not, we are not prepared to provide the insurance.” The biggest employment area in East Sussex, the Bell Lane industrial estate, finds it difficult to attract new investment because of the risk that businesses may again be flooded and destroyed. Above all, we want the Minister to say today that he will honour the commitment that was made by the then Prime Minister and the then Minister that defences would be put in place to prevent such flooding from happening again.

I wanted to be brief, because I am well aware that many other Members wish to speak. In opening the debate, the hon. Member for Selby said that he wanted to ensure that funding did not ebb once the great floods of 2007 started to be forgotten. That is exactly what happened to many of our communities that were flooded in 2000—we feel that we have been forgotten. I hope that the Minister will be able to assure us that he understands the commitment that was made by his predecessors and intends to honour it.

I, too, thank the hon. Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan) for raising this timely matter. He reminded me of a meeting that some of us, as officers of the all-party group, had with a Treasury Minister almost exactly a year ago. Our pleas for a little more money for flood defences fell on deaf ears. I echo the hon. Gentleman’s comments, and it is a little sad that we have had to wait for absolute devastation before getting more money. Having said that, I welcome the money.

In my patch, we have been relatively lucky this time, in that there have not been deaths or devastation on the scale suffered in other areas. I praise the defences that we have in place in my area. If and when we have further severe floods, I should like to invite the Minister to come and see, within a two-mile space, demountable defences, pallet defences and a bund, which are absolutely magnificent at protecting the town of Kidderminster from the River Stour, which floods frequently. The bund has a hole in it for the river to flow through, and the hole is big enough only for an amount of water that will not flood the town. The water flows back into an old marsh, where we will, I hope, see snipe breeding and kingfishers flying in the near future. The bund is a marvellous thing where geography allows it.

The defences have been no help at all with the recent flash floods. One housing estate in my constituency was devastated when 55 mm of rain fell on a relatively small hill and dashed down through the estate, under which is a culverted stream. The stream is called a critical ordinary watercourse, and I should like the Minister to explain what that is. It was certainly critical during the floods, because the culvert was entirely inadequate. The grids were partially blocked and were of the old style, blocking water as well as rubbish. I understand that there are new-style grids that block rubbish but let water come through over the top of it.

Another difficulty was that a road built at the outflow of the culvert acted as a dam, stopping the culvert discharging. Will the Minister ensure that all culverts—of critical ordinary watercourses and less critical ordinary watercourses—are examined for patency? It could not be all that expensive to renew the grids and make them of the new pattern that allows water through. I do not think that camera studies for patency would be too expensive. The Government should also consider, where geographically possible, the building of relatively small bunds to dam up the flow and protect culverted watercourses.

As well as the devastation of some housing estates, we had the absolute devastation of 45 places on the preserved Severn Valley railway. That has removed the major tourist attraction in my area and cut the income of people who depend on tourists coming to the railway. It is marvellous news that Advantage West Midlands has stepped in with a large sum of money to help restore the railway. Sadly, but quite understandably, that has been greeted with a fair amount of exasperation from people along the course of the railway whose houses have been utterly devastated and who are not getting the compensation that the tourist industry is getting.

The other huge problem is sewers, to which the hon. Member for Selby referred. I have been part of the all-party group on sewers and sewerage for some time, and I should like an update on the review of unadopted sewers, which cause tremendous troubles time and time again. I should also like a comment from the Minister on the help being given to the uninsured. Is there a survey of the number of people affected who were not insured? Are the people who were adequately protected able to renew their insurance at reasonable rates?

I have commented many times that I am puzzled about flood maps. The insurance industry’s flood maps of the major river areas seem pretty satisfactory, yet in the press there have been condemnations of the Environment Agency’s flood maps, implying that they are not the same.

I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan) on securing this timely debate.

My constituency has been devastated by the floods. Four towns in my constituency—Beverley, Hornsea, Withernsea and Hedon—have been affected, along with practically all the village communities in between, such as Thorngumbald, Ottringham and others up and down Holderness. In fact, at one stage, residents of Hornsea were cut off entirely by flood waters and were unable to get in or out. We often refer to the isolation of towns such as Hornsea and Withernsea in our ongoing campaign to protect community hospital services.

The local area including Hull received one sixth of its annual rainfall in 12 hours. In case I move on to any suggested or implied criticisms of authorities, it is terribly important that we recognise just how devastating the downpour was and that, no matter what preparations had been put in place, there would have been some flooding, and some misery would have been caused.

My constituents and I believe that more homes were flooded and for longer than was perhaps necessary. Like other hon. Members, I am asking the Minister to look seriously at the issue and to ensure that lessons really are learned and that there is follow-through. We all know the reality of political life—we recognise that attention is given to something but then moves on. Therefore, we are looking to someone of the Minister’s calibre and self-confidence at the Dispatch Box to maintain the issue at the level that it deserves and to see it through. I am confident that he, along with the Secretary of State, will do so.

I join other Members in offering my condolences in respect of those who tragically lost their lives, and I pay tribute to the heroic efforts—and there certainly were many—of those in the emergency and other services who went above and beyond what could reasonably be expected. Time and again, I met absolutely exhausted people from the council, from Yorkshire Water, from the Environment Agency and from the fire and police services working flat out. It was a real community effort. I also pay tribute to the community itself, which came together.

During the initial downpour, Humberside fire and rescue service received more than 3,000 phone calls and the police received a further 4,800 calls. When I toured the area on the first Wednesday after the flooding, I was struck by the generosity, kindness and unity of the people I met. Many people had to rescue each other.

One central issue for the Minister, which I believe has been taken on board—I have spoken to the Secretary of State about it already—is that no one agency is responsible for flood rescue. Clearly, that is ridiculous. The duty needs to be given 100 per cent. to the fire service, in my opinion. If the Minister has other ideas, I am sure we will all welcome hearing about them. The fire service needs to have the resources and equipment to ensure that its officers do not enter water in equipment designed purely for fighting fires. In fact, as I saw in Leven, boats were commandeered by local residents so that they could make rescues themselves, and that was despite the heroic efforts of those in the emergency services.

Hull, of course, has been terribly affected. The leader of Hull city council called it the “forgotten city”. Within 48 hours of his doing that, the floods Minister was travelling up the M1 to visit the area, and he was followed 24 hours later by the Prime Minister. I note in passing that I invited the Prime Minister to visit my devastated area in the East Riding of Yorkshire, but, unfortunately, he was unable to do so. In the first week, I invited the Secretary of State as well, but he also has been unable to visit. It would be appreciated if the Minister would come and visit our area, as people in east Yorkshire often feel neglected.

No one would begrudge the attention that is now being paid to Hull city council. It says that up to 17,000 homes—17 per cent. of the total number of households—have suffered damage, that more than 24 per cent. of the city streets have been affected, and that six Hull schools remain closed. It says that the estimated clean-up costs could run into hundreds of millions of pounds.

According to the East Riding of Yorkshire council, 2,500 homes have been affected. I do not yet know precisely the number of homes that have been affected in my constituency. The most conservative estimate is that at least 1,200 homes have been flooded out and have suffered severe damage. On the basis of the average figure given by the hon. Member for Selby of £30,000 per house, one can see that the cost of repairing damage to homes in just my constituency—an area that has not yet merited a visit by any Minister at any level—will be some £36 million. That is greater than the total regional budget for flooding, which, as the hon. Gentleman said, has suffered from cuts. I hope that the Minister will bear those facts in mind when he responds.

Much went right with the rescue and clean-up operations and, as I said, individual staff worked very well, but there was a distinct lack of communication and leadership, at least as perceived on the ground. I have spoken regularly to people from the East Riding of Yorkshire council. They feel that they have worked extremely hard—and I know that they have—trying to communicate through the local radio station, through the council’s website and so on. The point that I would make to them is that if the people at the receiving end do not feel that they have been communicated with—if Withernsea and Hedon town councils, and the parish councils of Leven, Burstwick and other affected areas feel utterly isolated and alone—the communication strategy has not succeeded. I hope that it will be reviewed.

I shall quickly pick up on some other issues. Yorkshire Water, which is responsible for much of the surface water drainage and has many of the assets to deal with it, was not invited to silver command in Hull until Wednesday, even though silver command opened on Monday at the beginning of the floods. Yorkshire Water was not actually invited until later. That is a small issue but one that needs to be addressed.

There is certainly a feeling on the ground that people did not come prepared. I shall be interested to hear the views of East Riding of Yorkshire council as we audit what happened. No one could come up with a bottom-drawer flood response booklet. Even if they were not trained, at least they would have been able to come out and make assessments. If the sewage is down, do we need portaloos, and how do we get them to where they are needed? Equipment did arrive, and people did come together, but there was a sense that problems had not been anticipated and that, in many cases, solutions had to be found by local communities rather than by the authorities to which they were looking for solutions.

As the Minister knows, in theory, the police take leadership in a flood situation, yet there was some confusion between the agencies, at least as far as people on the ground were concerned. I wonder whether he intends to review the issue of who takes a lead. I am no expert, but my personal feeling is that the council—the community leaders—is the most appropriate body to take overall leadership. It has the greatest range of assets. There may be many reasons why that is not the right solution, but we need absolute clarity about who is in charge, and who is supposed to rescue and who is not.

I am aware of the limited time and I have probably gone on too long already, but I wish to mention funds. The East Riding of Yorkshire council is not a shroud-waving council. It is very measured in what it says and does, but it estimates highway damage at between £5 million and £8 million. It lost a bridge at Spittal, highways and verges have collapsed, and ancient springs that have not been seen for a long time have burst forth. As the Minister knows, of the £14 million announced by the Prime Minister, £1 million has gone to the Department for Work and Pensions for, I imagine, some emergency help, £3 million has been put into highways, and £10 million is available for general purposes. Given that £5 million to £8 million is required in the East Riding of Yorkshire, we can see that the money is inadequate.

Six schools have been closed, five of which are not expected to open in September. Transport costs in a rural area such as the East Riding are immense. The costs of finding alternative accommodation are immense. The costs are huge. Where is the money to come from, and what will happen? The funding for the East Riding of Yorkshire council education authority is the fourth lowest in the country. Perhaps it has been driven by its financial needs, but it is recognised as the best financially managed authority in the country. What is it to do? If it redirects its capital budget, it will have to close down other programmes, which will impact on performance. If performance is affected, there will be cash implications.

I hope that the Minister will carefully consider the ongoing impacts, and that today he will commit to conducting an audit or assessment—I suppose that initially it will have to be a rough assessment—of, for instance, the damage to highways and other public sector assets. Once that information has been put together, I hope that he will make a commitment to give a funding boost to local transport plans in this year. That would probably be the appropriate way to deal with the matter.

Can the Minister also tell us what constraints there are on the supply of services? There is a limit to the number of contractors. The danger is that there will be sky-high prices if all the money is given this year, and that money will be wasted. Again, I would be interested to hear the Government’s response. Perhaps the work could be phased in over two years so that we can ensure that public money is best spent to that effect. I would be interested in the Minister’s views on that. I certainly support the view of the hon. Member for Selby that surface planning should be looked at by only one authority, whose only interest and incentive is to get things right and which has no conflicting interests.

There is also the important issue of the insurers, which I hope that the Minister will take on board. Whole streets and estates have been flooded out and ruined. The Government have been working with the Association of British Insurers, and the East Riding of Yorkshire council has provided accommodation for the insurers so that it can work with them. It is working with them on planning issues to ensure that whatever needs to be done to help people can be done sensibly. However, the insurers all have different ways of working; they are bureaucracies, and some are less flexible than public bodies. Where whole estates have been taken out and there is a shortage of contractors, it could take 18 months or two years to deal with the problems. If we do not have a rational system, it will not be this Christmas, but next Christmas before we get people back in their homes. Can Ministers work with the insurers, bang heads together and get companies to act in a united way? It must surely be cheaper for a contractor to come in and deal with the whole estate at once. That will also cut down on the costs involved in subsidising people to live elsewhere and it will certainly be good for people. If the Minister can play a role in that, that, too, would go down well.

My last point relates to the Environment Agency. I hope that the Minister will have a close look at the issue of Burstwick drain. The internal drainage boards have been saying for years that the silt at Hedon Haven, where the outlet is, is not being removed, so the drain does not empty properly, even at low tide. We have a highly tidal system, of course, so although the water will flow out at low tide, it will stop and back right up at high tide. The outlet has not been de-silted properly and the doors failed. The outlet was also designed to have pumps, but none has been installed. It took till the Friday for a large pump to come up from Somerset, and it was Friday evening before it was working effectively. There was a real danger that there would be more flooding on top of the misery that had already been visited on so many villages and on Hedon town. I hope that the Minister can look at that and at the fact that, according to the internal drainage boards, the drain has not been properly maintained.

I have put many questions to the Minister and I appreciate having had the opportunity to ask them.

Let me start by making it clear that there was damage and suffering across the country, which should remind us all of the importance of not claiming precedence for any one area in terms of its suffering. In that sense, it is unfortunate that Hull has claimed to be the forgotten city, because many areas have suffered serious flooding, and they include not only Hull, but the north and south banks of the Humber, Sheffield, Rotherham, Barnsley, Doncaster and elsewhere. We are all in this together, and it is important to remember that.

Let me refer briefly to what happened in Sheffield. I want to do so partly to place that on the record; we have so far been unable to do so. I note that my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett) is here today. It is important that we put what happened in Sheffield on the record because it underlines the significance of this debate about flood defence and flood prevention.

The industrial damage in Sheffield has been well documented in the media. Corus had to close. Georgia-Pacific, a paper mill in my constituency, is now up for sale. Cadbury Trebor Bassett was also affected. Meadowhall, one of the biggest retail malls in the country, is still suffering and is now only partially open. Furthermore, it is often forgotten that hundreds of smaller engineering companies depend for their business on larger companies such as Forgemasters and Corus. Some of those smaller companies were also underinsured.

Many jobs in the city are at risk. The city has regenerated over recent years and desperately needs the help promised yesterday by the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform. Those jobs are critical; indeed, the most important point over the long term is probably that we preserve them and prevent them from disappearing. The future of South Yorkshire’s economy is at stake.

It is often forgotten in all this that small charities and community centres are badly damaged in such circumstances, and they are not always well insured. The Newton Hall community centre in Chapeltown in my constituency was flooded twice, on Friday the 15th and Monday the 25th. People there are now worrying about whether they can continue their good work in the local community. In addition, the A6102 Middlewood road north suffered a 60 ft landslip and will, even with the best of efforts and immediate funding—the funding needed for just that one small stretch of road is in the region of £2 million—not be open until 2008.

One old people’s home in my constituency was evacuated twice, on Friday the 15th and Monday the 25th. Its residents are dementia sufferers, and their distress will be obvious to all, so I do not need to explain it. On top of that, a nursing home in Stocksbridge was flooded on Monday the 25th.

There were moments of light humour. One woman in Winn gardens described to me how she found a frog on her mantelpiece once the flood water receded, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside will remember that. However, residents from Mill lane, Deepcar, and Station road, Oughtibridge, were evacuated from their homes, and they are still not back. Most seriously of all, Falding street in Chapeltown was flooded twice, on Friday the 15th and Monday the 25th. It was flooded not by the River Don, but by a local beck, and that underlines the seriousness of the situation. The cause of that flooding appears to have been a blocked culvert, which underlines the point made by the hon. Member for Wyre Forest (Dr. Taylor), and I shall return to that later.

There were heroes in all this. An individual called Craig Stenton not only rescued a boy from the beck in Chapeltown on Friday the 15th and saved his life, but rescued a local family from Falding street on Monday the 25th. Members of the family could not get out of their house, so he took them out on his shoulders and in dinghies. There were heroes, and the situation brought out the community spirit.

What do we need to do? There are several things that we need to do, and my hon. Friend the Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan) underlined many of them. First, we need a rigorous reassessment of the flood risk. I got some maps for my area from the Environment Agency website. I live at the top of the Don valley and I am told that my flood risk is 0.l per cent. That proved to be true on Monday the 25th. The residents at the top of Winn gardens were told that their flood risk was low, and that, indeed, proved to be the case, because the flooding of Winn gardens stopped halfway up the estate. The people at the bottom of Winn gardens were told that their risk was very high—so far, so good. The people of Falding street, however, were told that their risk was moderate, and of all the residential areas in Sheffield, theirs suffered the most. They have nothing left of their homes—their floorboards and everything else has gone. I visited the area twice, and the memories of what I saw—the raw emotions of the residents of Falding street—will remain with me for ever. So, too, will the bitter taste that the contaminated mud and muck left in one’s mouth.

People who live close to rivers, becks, streams, the sea and the coast need the best possible information and assessments from the Environment Agency. We therefore need a reassessment—perhaps in recognition of climate change—of what the genuine risk may be. That risk needs to be more widely publicised, and we need a debate about the issue. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs also needs to front-load its spending on flood defence and flood prevention. However, it needs to allocate that budget according to a rigorous assessment of risk and in a transparent manner—we need a debate about what is necessary and where the priorities are.

If we had asked any citizen of Sheffield whether they thought that they would ever be flooded, they would have said, “No, we live on a hill.” Sheffield is built on seven hills, and nobody thought that it would ever be flooded. We have never suffered this before. The only other great flood in Sheffield was in 1864 and was the result of a dam bursting its banks because it had not been properly engineered or finished. However, we have never suffered before the flooding that we experienced recently and we need a reassessment of the risk.

We need to do more to make home owners and tenants aware of the level of risk that they face, and to give advice on how to minimise that risk. A pilot scheme is under way at the moment involving a £500,000 flood resilience grant from DEFRA. That is being tested and entails advising people on how to protect their homes from flood with water-resistant floors and walls, putting sockets higher up the walls to protect the electrics, and so on. Members of the House need to be made aware of the outcome of the pilot. If it proves to be a worthwhile exercise, and to save money in floods, we should roll it out, and I look to DEFRA to provide the funding.

We need to examine water management infrastructure again. My hon. Friend the Member for Selby pointed out that drains are the responsibility of local authorities, rivers and becks are the responsibility of the Environment Agency, and sewers are the responsibility of the water boards. That does not make sense. We need an over-arching body to oversee the maintenance of those waterways, and I agree with him that the local authority is probably the most appropriate body. However, we need to reconsider how effectively local authorities maintain their drainage systems. The comprehensive performance assessment includes in its performance indicators the cleanliness of public space and the condition of unclassified roads, but not the maintenance of the drainage system. My hon. Friend the Minister was a local government Minister so he may understand what needs to be done about that. Perhaps he will pass the message on.

We need a flood defence strategy that gives the necessary protection and gives insurers no excuse to refuse insurance to anyone in this country who lives in a potential flood area. We need to work with the insurance companies to ensure that they stick by their statement of principles and that the Government’s work is, if hon. Members will excuse the pun, watertight, with the result that the insurance companies will come up with premiums that are manageable and affordable for everyone.

I live in S6 in Sheffield. I phoned up for a renewal of my insurance policy last week and was refused insurance even though my flood risk is less than 0.1 per cent. DEFRA needs to do something to ensure that the Association of British Insurers gets a grip on what is happening with insurance companies, and that they stick by their statement of principles.

Finally, I want to mention the moorland management project that my hon. Friend the Member for Selby referred to. It is true that much of the water that came down the River Don on Monday 25 June originated in the Peak district. We have degraded our blanket bogs to the extent that they are now emitters rather than absorbers of carbon. They have been drained, over-grazed and polluted by the acid rain from Manchester and Sheffield, and, although my hon. Friend the Minister lives on the wrong side of the Pennines, he at least understands the problem. DEFRA needs to put more money into moorland management and the restoration of the blanket bogs, because, more than anything, along with adequate drainage systems and flood defences, it is the restoration of our natural moorland habitats in the Pennines that will probably protect large parts of the urban populations in the north.

We have eight minutes, so, if the remaining two hon. Members who want to speak before the Front-Bench spokesmen take four minutes each, everyone who wanted to will have been able to contribute. Can we play fair by each other?

Yes, I agree that we should all try to give each other fair time.

I welcome the remarks of the hon. Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan) and congratulate him and the hon. Member for Wyre Forest (Dr. Taylor) on their work with me on the all-party group on flood prevention, which has been very useful.

I entirely endorse the points that the hon. Member for Selby made, and do not need to go through them again. Suffice it to say that I associate myself with his remarks and the five points that he made, which were well put together. Although I was planning to make comments on a general basis, wearing my all-party group hat, I shall, given the time, limit myself to comments about my constituency.

I want to associate myself with the comments of the hon. Member for Wealden (Charles Hendry), who said much of what I would say, substituting Lewes for Wealden. In 2000 we had some severe flooding and everyone in Government was caught unawares. The then Deputy Prime Minister said that he had had a wake-up call, and we were promised all sorts of action. I am sad to say that that has not materialised. The DEFRA budget was under considerable pressure from the Rural Payments Agency fiasco and foot and mouth disease, and the budget was cut. It is very welcome that £200 million more has now been provided; it is good that the Government have done that. However, we need more, because the money put into flood defences is more than repaid by the avoidance of floods. The cost-benefit ratio is enormous. When floods happen, as they have in Hull, Sheffield and elsewhere, the cost to the public purse is fantastic. Money spent on flood defences is money well spent, and I am surprised that the previous Chancellor did not identify that.

We must not lose sight of the issue, now that it is once again high on the agenda.

Lewes has been divided into six cells, only one of which has been dealt with, despite the fact that the floods were enormous and caused mass devastation with hundreds of people out of their homes. The flooding devastated the financial centre of the town and even now only one cell of the six has been repaired. The Cliffe area in the middle of the town, which is its financial and shopping centre, has not been protected, because the points system says that not enough people live there. It does not matter that the whole town depends on the Cliffe area; the points system does not allow it to be dealt with. That is a disgrace.

My message in the four minutes that I am allowed in the debate is that the people of Lewes were given a commitment in 2000. We were told that the needs of Lewes were recognised, as were those of other communities that had been flooded. That commitment, following the then Deputy Prime Minister’s wake-up call, has not been adhered to. He rode off into the sunset, and Lewes is still without flood defences.

I want to hear from the Minister, first, that the Government will give more attention to adaptation, because although they have rightly talked quite a lot about climate change and getting carbon emissions down, they have not focused enough on adaptation measures to deal with the climate change that is inevitable. Secondly, I hope that he will say that he recognises that communities were flooded in 2000 and that they need to be dealt with. We all greatly sympathise with the communities that were flooded in 2007, which must be dealt with too, but let us not forget about those that were flooded seven years ago, which are still waiting for action.

You and I, Mr. Hancock, are used to having only four minutes to speak, from serving the Council of Europe. It is a good discipline. I agree with almost everything that has been said this afternoon, and I will not repeat it.

I want to begin on a positive note, by saying that the flood defences in Malton and Norton that were installed following the terrible floods of 1999 and 2000 actually work. Malton and Norton were not flooded on the occasion of the flooding in North Yorkshire two or three weeks ago. Sadly, the same cannot be said about the town of Pickering. Like Malton and Norton, it was to have a flood defence scheme following what happened, particularly in 2000, but no such scheme has been built. Pickering has now been flooded no fewer than six times in nine years, and the most recent flood was the worst of all, with many more properties affected, including many that had never been flooded before.

A flood alleviation scheme for Pickering is gathering dust on a shelf in the Environment Agency in York. It will take some time to design, let alone build, some of the flood defences that will be necessary after what happened in the past three or four weeks, so some of the new money could be directed, I should have thought, at schemes that have already been designed. I honestly feel that it is Pickering’s turn.

I want to make four points about future policy, because this is a debate about policy. First, we must have regard to frequency in relation to where we build flood defences. We need to treat the smaller market town communities equally, and not be diverted into thinking that because more homes were flooded on the most recent occasion of flooding, all the money should go to the urban areas. That is the worry of my constituents in Pickering. Secondly, we need imaginative solutions. A diversion costing £50,000—which has been put to the Environment Agency—would have saved nine homes and two businesses, I understand, from being flooded in Pickering this time. Yet the flood damage is far more than the £50,000 it would have cost to build it, which shows that we need to be more imaginative.

Thirdly, there is no question but that river management and maintenance must be improved. The maintenance of the River Derwent is little short of a disgrace. A farmer came to see me on Saturday and asked whether I had realised that the water was not draining away from the Derwent basin. I said that I had noticed that there was a lot of flooding in the fields, which is ruining the wildlife. The farmer then told me—I have asked for this to be verified and maybe the Minister can help us find out the answer—that the Kirkham sluice gates are now permanently closed because of disrepair. If that is the case, it is completely unacceptable.

We need to manage waste water and sewerage better. There is much policy discussion these days on combating global warming and climate change, and rightly so, but we are doing nowhere near enough to counteract the effects of climate change. This matter is urgent and is doing huge economic damage to our society. Restricting capital resources in the way that Government policy does, is a false economy. There are at least £1.5 billion worth of insurance claims, but they will not give everybody restitution. Money spent on flood defences would secure people’s homes, prevent damage and give people the security and dignity of knowing that they will avoid this experience in the future.

I am pleased that the Prime Minister has announced that the budget for dealing with floods will increase by £200 million. That was the size of the total flood budget at the time that the Labour party came to power. However, a larger increase is still needed, for which I hope that there will be cross-party support.

I shall say one thing about the case for public funding. Some community benefits cannot be bought by individual citizens, for example public health or environmental protection. Protection for flooding is a clear example of that. In a terrace of houses, one householder cannot protect himself from flooding, and the same applies to communities as a whole. There is a case for social solidarity in relation to this issue; we all benefit, so we should all contribute. There is a misunderstanding about that approach because people sometimes say that those who live at the headwaters of a river face no risk of flooding and therefore they are not included in the national bargain. However, of course, they are at risk because the water that falls where they live flows down the river. It is the river that keeps them dry and it flows through downstream areas. That is why everyone in the country has a mutual social benefit in having decent flood protection and alleviation measures in place. That is also why there is a case for yet more public expenditure on this issue.

Thank you, Mr. Hancock, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I will try to be as brief as possible to give the Minister time to reply to the many interesting and important issues. I have two key points to which I should like the Minister to respond.

The first key issue is that of the co-ordination of flood defences and flood prevention. The reality is that in many areas there has clearly been surface water flooding. For example, in Hull, which I visited last Tuesday, the floods were simply caused by an enormous inundation—4 in—of rainfall in one day. Monsoon levels of rainfall overwhelmed an already high water table caused by the large amount of rain in the previous weeks and overwhelmed the drainage system. In addition to that, I am told—I would like confirmation from the Minister on this—that one of the pumping stations operated by Yorkshire Water could not operate at full capacity because it was not proofed against the inundations suffered in that area.

There are a number of clear lessons to be learned. One is that we need to bring the water companies into the planning process and ensure that it is properly co-ordinated. Local authorities, drainage boards, the Environment Agency, the water companies, and therefore Ofwat, all have a responsibility for prevention and flood defence measures in low-lying areas. The hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr. Stuart) pointed out that Yorkshire Water was only invited to silver command on Wednesday and that there has not been joined-up thinking between the relevant bodies. The truth is that the Government were aware of that some time ago because in March 2005 in its first response to the Autumn 2004 consultation exercise “Making Space for Water” the Government clearly stated:

“So as to facilitate an holistic approach that is risk-driven, the Government will work towards giving the Environment Agency an overarching strategic overview across all flooding and coastal erosion risks.”

That must obviously include surface and ground water flooding. The timeline at the back of the Government’s response clearly states that there should be an

“Extension of Environment Agency’s strategic role to other forms of flooding and coastal erosion—legislative and organisational considerations”

and a consideration of the impact. The timeline for that was due to finish at the end of 2006, but such is the revolving door of Ministers going through the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs—usually on promotion to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office after some incredible mishap—it seems that nothing has happened about completing that. I know that the Minister is new to his role, but it is terribly important that he does not just say what the Government said in 2005, but that he delivers the joined-up co-ordination that is required.

The second point that I shall make in the one and a half minutes remaining to me concerns the budget. The truth is that last August there was a £14 million cut in the flood defence budget. We know the consequences of that from the evidence that Barbara Young, the chief executive of the Environment Agency, gave to the Select Committee on Public Accounts. She said:

“one of the casualties of our cuts mid-year last year was the pace at which we were able to do catchment flood management plans.”

Ultimately, that had an effect on capital expenditure because there were delays in, for example, feasibility work. Whenever that has been raised in the House, Ministers say, “But the capital budget was not cut.” That is a disingenuous response because the truth is that the overall flood management budget was cut. I am told, and it has not been denied by any DEFRA Minister in either of the two statements that have been made, that the Treasury was on the prowl and was waiting for more cuts just before the latest floods. Indeed the Environment Agency sent out to the regional boards a document requiring them to plan on

“flat cash in line with our current 2007/08 baseline”—

this was sent out last month—

“with any growth limited to capital investment”.

The truth is that the only reason that we have had a U-turn and an increase in the budget to £800 million, which I am delighted about, is precisely because of the recent floods. It is crucial to establish—again perhaps the Minister can enlighten us on this— whether the Treasury is up to its old tricks on the budget. It has given us an £800 million figure for 2010-11, but no figure for next year or the year after. The last time the Government announced a substantial increase in the flood defence budget they did exactly the same thing; they made a big increase in the last year of the three-year plan and had a low build-up to it.

From what we have heard today, it is clear that a much more substantial commitment to public funding for flood defences needs to be made and to start as soon as possible. This issue needs to be far higher up the Government’s list of priorities. More people have been killed in the floods over the last few weeks than in the terrorism incidents that have perhaps unfortunately overshadowed the need to plan for flooding. The fact that the flooding incidents happened slowly, unexpectedly and less dramatically than the terrorist incidents does not mean that they are any less of a serious matter of national security. Climate change means that we will have more enormous inundations and monsoon-like rainfalls and it is precisely because of that that we need to ensure that we are properly prepared. The Government are not properly prepared either in terms of co-ordination or budgets and it is about time that they were.

This is a timely debate and I congratulate my constituency neighbour, the hon. Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan), on securing it. He has touched a chord. All of us would wish to remember not just the loss of life, but, as the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Ms Smith), said, the loss of possessions, the intrusion into homes and those removed from their homes for some time.

In particular, I hope that the Minister will comment on the losses in rural and farming communities, where insured losses are estimated at £10 million, but where uninsured losses will probably reach £15 million. I join those who have paid tribute to the emergency services.

The Chief Fire Officers Association labelled the non-joined-up thinking after the flooding as “institutional confusion”. Will the Minister say that there should be an end to the confusion and that there should be one lead body and lead Department? At the moment, too many Departments are involved—DEFRA, the DCLG, the Department of Health, the Home Office, the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, the Treasury and, potentially, the Cabinet Office, through its resilience responsibilities.

Let us consider also the local response by district and county councils, unitary councils, internal drainage boards, environmental health services, social services, private insurance companies, the Environment Agency, the Highways Agency, and the police, fire, ambulance and health services. If we learn nothing else from the tragedy of the most recent floods, can we please end this confusion and have one lead body? I would argue that one of the emergency services—the fire service would seem to be a good start—could work with and co-ordinate everyone else. We need also one lead Department.

Will the Minister ensure that we learn those lessons? My hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) has mentioned already the flood alleviation scheme in Pickering in his constituency, but a further three such schemes in north Yorkshire have not gone ahead, about which the Minister should perhaps feel a little embarrassed. One is in Thirsk in my constituency. Another scheme would have benefited the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr. Stuart) and residents living in Hedon and Burstwick, near Hull. The Hull tidal surge barrier was perhaps the biggest such scheme and would have helped the whole of the Hull area.

On 18 January, a press release on the Environment Agency’s website promised that those schemes would go ahead. For his own benefit, the Minister might like to find out why the schemes for Pickering, Thirsk, Hull, Hedon and Burstwick did not go ahead. I think that it detracts from the excellent work of the Environment Agency and all of the emergency services when we learn that those schemes were due to happen this year, but did not proceed.

Furthermore, will the Minister look at the abysmal and flawed warnings that are often given? The Environment Agency relies on very modern equipment and asks people to refer to its website. From the houses that I saw in Toll Bar, however, I do not think that a home computer was top on the list of priorities for home furnishings. For the most part, people did not have access to home computers. Many people, if they were not at home, did not receive flood warnings, either by phone or mobile phone.

Can we consider an updated system, such as the one that worked very well after the floods in 2000 on the outskirts of York—in areas such as Rawcliffe in the Vale of York—where parish councillors acted as voluntary wardens and went round giving flood warnings? I understand that in Toll Bar, the police were wandering around giving flood warnings as the floods were actually entering people’s homes. That is another lesson that we have to learn. We need the most modern and effective system for reaching people in time so that they can evacuate their homes and take their possessions with them.

On planning permission, the Environment Agency is a statutory consultee, but will the Minister take the Government one step further and give it the power to block planning applications in inappropriate places such as on functional flood plains? It simply is not fair that the owner has to be aware of it, and I do not think that it is relevant to make the developer liable either, which was a question put to the Prime Minister today. Let us consider the Thames Gateway, where it is proposed to build houses and blocks of flats on stilts. If we know that they are going to flood, is it really fair to invite people to live in them? I ask the Minister to look very carefully at how those planning decisions are made.

On affordability and availability of insurance, for many people in deprived areas, insurance can literally be unaffordable. Toll Bar, in particular, is a very deprived area. It is a former mining community. I think that many parts of Hull and Sheffield might fall into similar low-income categories. It is not out of a lack of good will that people did not want to insure their homes; they had to make a lifestyle decision and they felt that they could not afford insurance.

Will the Minister ensure that in future cover is extended to those who have been flooded and remain at risk of flooding? Some businesses in north Yorkshire suffered hugely between 2000 and 2005. Will he ensure a level playing field? I welcome the support that the Government are giving through business grants to areas of south and east Yorkshire, where businesses have suffered. However, I believe that that money should be made available to others. May I provide him with the names and addresses of businesses that suffered between 2000 and 2005 because either they did not have insurance or they have not gone back to operating full-scale businesses such as dental practices? May I make representations to him about that? I hope that he will have regard to them and take them on board. Also, given the losses and heartfelt pleas made today, will he promise a full Government inquiry into the damage caused, and look at how much was caused because flood defence schemes, such as those mentioned today, did not go ahead?

I gather that many pumping and electricity stations are built in areas prone to flooding. Sometimes, pumping stations are not functioning because the electricity substations are flooded. Perhaps that is an additional point for the Minister. I know that that happened in Selby and Beverley. I hope that he will take that on board.

Finally, allowing the Minister plenty of time to wind up, may I ask him to promise to streamline the decision-making process and put one body in charge in order to remove confusion, and to have a one-stop shop for advice so that people know who to turn to for sandbags, skips and portaloos? That will enable victims of flooding, on the day and in the following months, to know exactly who to turn to. Furthermore, will he have regard to waterlogged land that has been contaminated? I know that a partial derogation has been granted, which the farming community welcomes strongly, but will his Department also allow farmers to enter waterlogged land that may be set aside, so that they can salvage what crops they can? There is perhaps a misunderstanding there. If they do so, farmers might infringe cross-compliance rules for flooded land that is set aside.

It is absolutely true that £14 million was cut from the flood budget. Let us remind ourselves why that money was cut: because the Government failed to implement the single farm payments on time. It is perverse that through the fault of one part of the Department, other areas, up and down the country, have suffered subsequently.

Will the Minister review the fact that farmers are paying a levy to internal drainage boards to drain ditches and other areas such as the outflow of main tributaries? Many of the rivers that flooded have not been dredged for years and are full of debris and choked with plant matter that prevents and impedes water flow, and the result is flooding of farmland.

On a positive note, one of the Minister’s predecessors, the right hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley), enjoys in his own constituency a pilot scheme whereby flood alleviation scheme money is provided—partially, I think, through the EU European development fund—to allow upstream land to flood. The scheme allows farmers to be reimbursed for the resultant loss of land from production. It seems rather bizarre that a former Minister with responsibility for flooding has such land. Will the Minister say whether we can have some of that money in the rural areas that we represent, and will he ensure that the schemes, if successful, are trialled throughout the country?

The debate has demonstrated—if it needed demonstrating—the value of Members of Parliament to their constituencies. The knowledge and experience that has been fed back is very important, and the fact that members of the public have an MP for their area is also important—regardless of the party to which that MP belongs. My hon. Friend the Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan) has done his constituents and the House a great service in obtaining the debate.

I am conscious that I shall not be able to answer all the questions that have been raised. Several hon. Members have accepted that fact, and I apologise in advance for it. I am well aware that many thousands of people will be reading Hansard online and in more traditional ways to see what is going on and to see the Government response. It is right that I should take the opportunity, as has my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, to put on record the sympathy of all of us in these terrible circumstances for the loved ones of the bereaved.

In the time available I shall try to answer the thematic points and then move on to the specifics. On funding, none of us knows whether the recent floods were caused directly or indirectly by climate change or whether they were simply exceptional events. We know, however, that similar tragedies have occurred around the earth, such as in Karachi in Pakistan, where 250 people have been killed in the past two weeks through exceptional flash floods, and in southern Australia, which has experienced the most severe drought on record. I do not know whether those events are connected, although it seems likely that they are.

We can predict flooding from coastal erosion and from the interaction of tides and waterways with some degree of accuracy. Hon. Members have spoken about that. It is possible to review the flood plain situation too. However, it is important to understand, and to say to the public, that nobody can predict where the next floods will take place.

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

On resuming—

Thank you, Mr. Hancock, for chairing the debate, which has been exemplary. I was about to rebut the allegation of the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Chris Huhne) about funding—he mentioned the in-year reduction in the non-capital budget. There has not been a U-turn by the Treasury. The flat cash assumptions that are made across Government—some are better and some are worse—are part of the spending review period. When one is profiling capital expenditure, it would not be wise to front-load it in years one or two. The hon. Gentleman will know, from his knowledge of economics, that the planning of capital expenditure requires a lead-in time. Having said that, all hon. Members have welcomed the extra money that has been provided.

Let me warn both the House and members of the public who might be following this debate that, as hon. Members have said and as the chief executive of the Environment Agency and its chairman, with whom I had a long conversation in preparation for this debate, have said, it is not possible to predict where the next flood will be. The recent floods were, in some parts, surface water floods. The Environment Agency does not set out to tell us where floods are going to take place, because that is not known. It can tell us only the likelihood of floods in certain places. Given our experiences, particularly the nature of the flooding in South Yorkshire, one would never have imagined that there would have been severe floods in the Pennines. If the House is asking me to provide funding for all eventualities in the light of that background, I must say that it is not possible to do so. However, funding increases were set out in the announcement made by the Secretary of State.

In all tragedies, disasters or, indeed, malicious acts where the Civil Contingencies Act 2004 is triggered, there is a lead agency in the immediate response—the gold command—and usually the chief constable is in charge. Hon. Members who recall debating that Act will know that that is required in order that agencies come under a single command and control structure. Such a structure is in place.

The hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr. Stuart) spoke with great knowledge of his area and the response, and, as he indicated, both the perception and the reality are important. The truth is that this country is in its early days of civil contingency and civil resilience response under the gold command structure. One should always remember that the lead Department complements the response structures that are in place through the Cabinet Office and the Department for Communities and Local Government, whether we are dealing with a terrorist bomb, a flood, foot and mouth disease, a fuel supply crisis or something else.

We have improved enormously as a country in that co-ordination. It can always be better, and that is why the lessons-learned exercise, which we are under a statutory obligation to carry out, covers both the lessons learned from our knowledge and information on the flooding and the lead-up to it, and the response of the agencies, be they public, private or voluntary. All hon. Members are invited to take part in that lessons-learned exercise. Indeed, the Government take the attitude that it is not only necessary but desirable to have an open mind about that. We can always learn lessons, but we cannot predict accurately the next flood or incident.

It is also worth putting on the record the understanding that I believe exists among officials, in the agencies and among Ministers about the psychological and human impact of flooding as well as its physical impact. My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Ms Smith) spoke movingly about her experience—I am sure that hon. Members on both sides of the House could share such experience. Civil resilience planning requires, above all else, public resilience. It requires the common sense of the British public, and that has been evident in spades in this response. No amount of planning can compensate for that.

Farms, businesses and homes have been damaged by some of the most severe floods and exceptional circumstances. Two main points have been made, one on the funding and the other on the lessons learned. I hope that hon. Members will accept that those have been understood by the Government.

The hon. Member for Eastleigh asked a number of other questions. Water companies are involved in the planning exercise. I do not know about the specific circumstances to which he referred. The hon. Member for York—

I am well aware of the difference between my hon. Friend the Member for City of York (Hugh Bayley) and the hon. Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh), both of whom speak with experience about flooding because of where their constituencies are. She asked about access to fields for farmers, and I hope that she will be pleased to learn that the Secretary of State has addressed that issue today. She asked that one lead agency be in charge. The lead agency for the flood defence preparation and for the immediate response is the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, in terms of Government agencies. The lead agency on the ground is the gold command; it takes authority in the area.

My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough raised questions about the lessons learned and the need to front-load cost to flood defence—

Order. I am afraid I must intervene. I should like to thank the Minister and all the hon. Members who took part for the courtesy that they showed the Chair and each other during a useful debate.

Benefits Office (Portobello, Edinburgh)

I am grateful for the opportunity to bring to the House the case for keeping open the Jobcentre Plus benefits delivery centre in my constituency—a benefits centre acknowledged to be one of the most efficient in Scotland.

It might be helpful if I sketched out a little of the history of benefits delivery and processing on the east side of Edinburgh. Until a few years ago, there were two offices that people living in Portobello and the surrounding area could visit in connection with unemployment and benefits: a jobcentre in Windsor place, Portobello, and a social security office, Phoenix house, on Portobello high street.

Following the 2004 spending review and the Gershon report, the Department for Work and Pensions was obliged to reduce the number of its staff by 30,000 full-time equivalent posts by the end of March 2008. Half of those—15,000 full-time equivalent staff—were to come from Jobcentre Plus. An efficiency programme was put in place, and about 630 offices were earmarked for closure, among which originally were both Portobello offices.

I was pleased that the efforts made by myself, as the local Member of Parliament, and by the trade union, the Public and Commercial Services union, led to the Government pulling back from the proposition that Phoenix house would be one of the offices to be closed. Talking to managers in the Department for Work and Pensions at Edinburgh level, Scottish level and head-office level proved to be constructive. At the time, the chief executive of Jobcentre Plus was David Anderson; so far I have not yet sought a meeting on this issue with the new chief executive, Ms Lesley Strathie.

This is the first time that I have put this issue on the record in the House of Commons, but I must say that I was not at all happy about the final geographical distribution of offices throughout the city of Edinburgh implemented as part of the Jobcentre Plus roll-out. It is true that the representations made by the union and I resulted in the retention of the office at Phoenix house, Portobello. The site is a good one: the building was purpose-built by the then Department of Social Security; it is highly accessible by public transport; and there is a good availability of staff.

What I deeply regretted, and still do, is that the decision was taken that Phoenix house would cease to be an office that is open to the public, and that my constituents from Newcraighall, Craigmillar, Niddrie, Portobello, Craigentinny and the greater Portobello area could no longer visit it for advice and help. Given the deprivation in the east of the city and the number of cases being handled per week at Portobello, which is significantly more, for example, than at the Wester Hailes office, a better balance would have been to have had an improved facility at Leith—a good public office, as exists now; let me emphasise that—and to retain the office in Portobello as a centre also open to the public.

My constituents now have to go to the Edinburgh High Riggs office or to the Leith office. That aside, the important decisions that were taken maintained a configuration of offices that still saw a role for the vital Portobello Phoenix house office. No longer open to the public, the Portobello office has become a benefit delivery centre, dealing with social fund claims. It is by no means a small office. It is a significant operation in Portobello, with about 95 staff. The team processes social fund claims; indeed, from 4 June, all social fund applications in the Edinburgh, Lothian and the borders area have been processed at the site.

Given the backdrop of where the Government are going nationally, with benefits processing being done at large centres, the decision to do all social fund processing for Edinburgh, Leith and the borders area at Phoenix house is wise and constructive in the circumstances. It is now a settled and practical arrangement that is wholly consistent with the existence of major processing centres at Bathgate and elsewhere.

My hon. Friend the Minister will be aware that we are in the middle of a sharp contraction of DWP staff in the Edinburgh area. Her colleague, the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Mr. Plaskitt) wrote to me in May to advise me that the debt management unit with 28 jobs at Argyle house in the centre of Edinburgh in my constituency will close in March 2008.

When the Department was closing the Castle terrace office, which was also in the centre of Edinburgh in my constituency, the staff were offered the opportunity to move to the large processing centre at Bathgate in west Lothian or to Portobello. Clearly, that was an important career decision, which I understand had to be made at the end of last year. At the end of the process to facilitate the closure of the Castle terrace office, a number of staff indicated that they would accept redeployment to Phoenix house, Portobello. The senior DWP official informed them that Portobello was

“a long term feeder centre with the emphasis on the long term”.

Knowing the Minister’s interest in good industrial relations, and her concern that we treat people decently, I am sure that she agrees that the undertaking to staff is important. Those people are now working at Portobello. They moved there because they viewed it as a good prospect for the future. I repeat that they were told that it was

“a long term feeder site with the emphasis on the long term”.

No doubt they were aware that the Portobello office is highly efficient and is recognised as such at a Scottish level, so they would have assumed that the jobs that they were moving to were reasonably safe.

Everyone to whom I have spoken, including the Jobcentre Plus senior management, has praised the efficiency and skill of Phoenix house staff. They are highly able people and many have decades of experience in their field. I am conscious that the Minister and the Secretary of State moved to their Department only a couple of weeks ago, but I am sure that the Minister will already be familiar with the way in which Government policy on contributory and non-contributory social security benefits is being implemented in Scotland.

I received a letter dated 7 June from the Jobcentre Plus district manager confirming that the transfer of the processing of all social fund applications for the entire Edinburgh, Lothian and the borders area to the Portobello office was to be completed on 4 June. That was good news, but unfortunately the letter went on to inform me that the office was to be closed because all that work was to be moved to Glasgow Springburn by March 2008.

It is remarkable that any Department should treat its employees in that way. If that had happened in the private sector there would be an outcry. I doubt whether a single Member of Parliament or trade unionist in this country would regard the proposal as fair and reasonable. Let us be clear: the work is being taken away from one of the most efficient offices in Scotland.

The plan is to reduce the number of sites in Scotland dealing with benefit claims to eight mainstream benefits processing centres and two social fund processing centres with no sites in Edinburgh. Under the new plan, all social fund applications for the Edinburgh, Lothian and borders area will be transferred to Glasgow. We can reasonably assume that virtually none of the Phoenix house staff would find it practical to transfer to Glasgow. As is standard practice, staff have been told that efforts will be made to redeploy them.

My hon. Friend will probably set out some of the packages and additional money that will be available if people are prepared to travel longer distances and alter their child care arrangements. Obviously, the Government are making money available to try to facilitate people moving to other offices, but it will not happen in Edinburgh. Frankly, I think everyone realises that without one of the 10 major benefit delivery centres being located in Edinburgh, there is little prospect of those civil servants being able to stay in public service. Most of the staff are too young for early retirement, and the reality is that most of the 95 staff will be made redundant if the plan goes ahead.

Let us consider the proposal from the point of view of efficiency and the public purse. Under the plan, an efficient office will be closed. Dozens of redundancy packages will be paid out and, over in Glasgow, new staff will have to be recruited from the street and trained for the work. I am sure that anyone looking at the proposal would conclude that there is little sense in it. The expense of redundancy packages, recruitment and training will be large and entirely unnecessary. That is not an acceptable way to treat employees.

Staff have worked at Phoenix house on the basis that it was a long-term prospect. They have put in place the social fund operation and are running it well. Now, just as the transfer of the area’s social fund work is completed, the Phoenix house team is told that it is to lose its jobs and that new staff are to be recruited elsewhere.

I remind my hon. Friend that some staff moved to Phoenix house precisely because it was seen as a long-term prospect, and the DWP told them that a few months ago. The job losses will be devastating for the staff and their families, and the closure of such a large operation will be bad news for the local area because the staff bring a lot of business to local shops and banks.

The staff who lose their jobs will have great difficulty in finding comparable work. It is important to understand that Edinburgh is not homogenous. Like most of our cities, there are areas of affluence with strong economic growth owing to the strength and stability of the UK economy. I believe that that economic growth—in Edinburgh it has been predominantly in the financial sector—is because of the long-term management over the past 10 years by the former Chancellor of the Exchequer, now the Prime Minister. However, the recent growth—I think my hon. Friend knows this—has been predominantly in the west of the city, and the jobs that are going are in the west of the city and in the central area.

If my hon. Friend has had the time to pore over the statistics and compare Edinburgh with other cities in the United Kingdom, she will have grasped that it cannot be overlooked that a large number of people in Edinburgh are dependent on the benefits system. As Jobcentre Plus points out, the region

“also contains several Wards at the lower end of the poverty spectrum”.

The east of the city holds some of the most deprived areas in Scotland. The most recent Scottish index of multiple deprivation report showed that the most employment-deprived place in Scotland is Craigmillar in my constituency, an area that I have had the privilege to represent in Parliament for more than 30 years.

Whichever way we look at the proposal to close Phoenix house, it is unacceptable. Ninety-five people, many of them highly experienced staff, will lose their jobs. That is clearly bad news not only for the staff, their families and the local area, but for the work of Jobcentre Plus and the DWP. The proposal makes little financial sense, entailing as it does so much unnecessary expense, and it makes little sense to service delivery, because it replaces an efficient operation staffed by fully trained personnel with a new office staffed by new recruits.

I am grateful for having had the opportunity to raise the matter today, because it is an important issue in my constituency and beyond. I am grateful for the opportunity to put the case for Phoenix house, the Portobello benefits delivery centre, today. I very much hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will take into account what I have said, so that the proposal will be reconsidered.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, East (Dr. Strang) on securing the debate. I have had several conversations—one by phone and one in person—with him before today, and from my correspondence and meetings with my predecessors, who are now the Minister for Europe and the Financial Secretary to the Treasury, I know that my right hon. Friend has been a strong advocate on behalf of his constituents and their future at the Portobello office. I have listened very carefully to his points today, and although I do not think that I can deliver for him what he most wants, which is the retention of the Portobello site, I hope that I can reassure him about some of the actions that we are taking, and certainly convey my understanding of some of his queries about the suggestion of a long-term future for Portobello with the transfer of the social fund operations to that site.

I shall explain the way in which we support people both through employment advice and support, and through support for people in receipt of benefits. There used to be two very different services, the Employment Service and the Benefits Agency, and they were brought together to form Jobcentre Plus to strengthen our welfare-to-work system, which is based on the needs that people who access the service have for a one-stop shop. It is also based on the use of IT and on the better development of our approach to personal advice and support, so that we can be more efficient in the turnaround of benefit applications and provide better quality advice for people who want to get back to work.

We have transformed the way in which our services are delivered to customers, partly through the increased use of telephony services, and the almost complete roll-out of new Jobcentre Plus offices, which are a world away from those of the past, where often the desks and chairs were chained to the floor, and there was a high counter over which one would engage with staff. Now, the offices are much more user-friendly and open, and we can only thank the staff who have helped us through the process of providing that different environment. It pays huge dividends for staff and for people who use the services.

In September 2004, the then Secretary of State announced that, as part of the modernisation of Jobcentre Plus, benefit processing would be centralised to 81 sites throughout Great Britain by 2008. At the time, more than 650 sites processed benefits, which illustrates how significant an undertaking centralisation is. Why do we want to do so? Primarily, it is to support our customers. The centralisation to larger sites enables Jobcentre Plus to be much more responsive to customer inquiries. It also enables greater consistency of process to tackle the variations in the way in which claims are processed and the time they take, it enables staff to develop more in-depth knowledge and experience, and it enables 25 per cent. of benefit delivery centres’ resources to be dedicated to telephone teams, which provides greater opportunity for customer contact. The response from customers suggests that the changes have been gratefully received, but there is always room for improvement.

The structure will also deliver benefit payments much more efficiently through cost savings on management and overheads, and it will allow the Department for Work and Pensions to make better use of its estate. To date, 54 benefit delivery centres have been opened throughout Britain, and we have moved our benefit delivery from almost 400 sites. In Scotland, we originally identified eight sites, which we have been converting to benefit delivery centres. We hope to complete the centralisation of that process by March 2008. We announced in 2004 that Portobello was not one of the sites selected to become a benefit delivery centre, and therefore it was scheduled for closure. I shall explain some of the reasons why.

When we made the decision, we looked at several factors, considering where the new larger centres would be, and whether the existing building could seat 100 to 250 people, which is our preferred size for capacity, delivery and savings. We also took into account the costs, our ability to retain staff, and our ability to redeploy staff in the sites that would close. Portobello has a smaller seating capacity for benefit processing, and it is acknowledged that there is very little scope for easily securing extra space. I know that my right hon. Friend has strong views on this next point, but moreover, the buoyant nature of the Edinburgh labour market and the fact that, as the Scottish capital, there are many other Government jobs in Departments and in the Scottish Executive, meant that compared with other locations, staff there had more redeployment opportunities. In addition, the closure of Portobello will also generate more than £500,000 every year in estate savings.

Back in 2004, we knew that centralisation would be a significant undertaking. To maintain customer service during that period, processing teams in some sites have been retained on a longer time frame to provide tactical support until transformation nears completion. Since January 2007, when income support, jobseeker’s allowance and incapacity benefit processing migrated from the site, Portobello has been processing solely Edinburgh social fund work for exactly that purpose—to provide transitional support.

I am grateful for that response, and I hope that there will be an opportunity—although not today—to look into the alleged £500,000 of savings, taking into account the huge cost increases that will be generated this year and next.

Staff were told in the autumn that they could move to the Portobello long-term feeder centre—with the emphasis on “long-term”. Portobello is a highly efficient operation and, as I have tried to argue, it fits in pretty well with the rest of the set-up. It handles all the social fund applications for the Edinburgh, the borders and Lothian areas. I hope that my hon. Friend will address that point, because it is fundamental to all civil servants in Edinburgh.

I shall try to respond to my right hon. Friend’s point. In his contribution and just then, he raised the point about the use of a “long-term” feeder centre, and I have asked about it. The advice that I have received is that feeder sites were envisaged to be in place only from 2004 to 2008, the period of transition, and that no guarantees were given for them beyond March 2008. However, I am happy both to write to him about that point, and to look into the use of the phrase “long-term”.

I also have a copy of the letter that was sent to my right hon. Friend on 7 June. It clearly says that the processing of social fund applications at Portobello is an “interim measure”, taking place

“whilst we complete the Benefit Delivery modernisation plans, which will see the final proposed destination of Social Fund for Edinburgh, Lothian and Borders move to Springburn in Glasgow by March 2008.”

As I said, my understanding, which is based on advice, is that that was always envisaged as part of the transition process.

We do not expect the closure of the Portobello office to have a detrimental impact on our customers. Face-to-face services are provided from our jobcentre in Leith. Customers contact the Portobello office by telephone only; no face-to-face service is provided there. Moving the work to the larger benefit delivery centre in Springburn will involve only a change in telephone number for our customers, and calls for crisis loans are free from a land-line.

Earlier this year, it became apparent that despite falling case loads in Scotland, our benefit delivery centres would have a shortfall in capacity, so we reconsidered the possibility of creating a delivery centre in Portobello. However, the same constraints and considerations that applied in 2004 still apply, so we decided to put the additional centre needed for Scotland in Aberdeen. That took into account the potential for redeployment, which was felt to be far less in Aberdeen than in Edinburgh.

We know that our staff in Portobello, in common with many other sites from which we are moving work, have concerns about the changes. Of course they do. Staff have been aware since 2004 that the site would not be a benefit delivery centre, and I hope that we have endeavoured to keep them as informed of developments as possible while centralisation has progressed. The union PCS has also been kept up to date regarding all plans and decisions for Portobello.

On 23 May, managers and staff were informed about plans to complete the modernisation of our services in Scotland, and we began the gradual migration of social fund work from Portobello to Springburn benefit delivery centre near Glasgow. It will be completed by March 2008. I understand my right hon. Friend’s concerns about recruiting extra staff to carry out work at Springburn when staff will be available at Portobello. However, there were good reasons for that decision. Migrating work between other benefit delivery centres in Scotland has enabled the redeployment of approximately 400 staff members from other parts of the Department. We need sites of that size to generate the economies of scale necessary to provide acceptable customer service levels on a reduced budget.

As my right hon. Friend will know, the Edinburgh labour market remains buoyant. I understand that the employment rate is higher than in the rest of the country and the unemployment rate is lower. It is the UK’s second and Europe’s sixth largest financial centre—Royal Bank of Scotland, HSBC and Standard Life all have their headquarters in Edinburgh. The financial services and construction sectors have experienced their highest levels of growth in the past financial year. We hope to offer opportunities for redeployment into other civil service jobs, but we also know that the skills and training of the centre’s staff are very portable into other work environments.

Despite uncertainty about the future, the permanent staff—Portobello has 84 permanent and 11 temporary staff—have continued to make a valuable contribution, and I do not want to take anything away from that. There is no question about their work, commitment and service delivery. The question is whether it is as efficient as it could be within the context of what we want to deliver for our customers and the constrained budgets that all Whitehall Departments face in delivering services.

I acknowledge that some public sector work is moving out of Edinburgh, but I challenge my right hon. Friend’s suggestion that the Portobello staff have little chance of finding alternative work. As well as the technical expertise needed for benefit processing, they have developed a number of transferable skills—IT, administrative proficiency and the ability to build constructive working relationships and deliver good customer service, often to some of our most vulnerable customers.

When the Minister talks about moving to alternative jobs in Edinburgh, does she mean jobs in the public sector?

Obviously, we will consider opportunities for redeployment in the public sector. Despite the fact that some public sector jobs are leaving Edinburgh, it is the Scottish capital. As well as Whitehall Departments and the Scottish Executive, it has a number of jobs into which public sector workers could redeploy that provide far more opportunities than in other parts of Scotland. That was part of our consideration. I have talked to senior managers in Jobcentre Plus about how important it is that we engage during the months ahead about future possibilities and support for staff as the changes take place.

EU Constitutional Treaty

I am delighted to be under your authority once more, Mr. Hancock, in this important debate on the case for a referendum on the EU constitutional treaty. It could not be more topical. Today, The Times quotes Mr. Barroso, President of the European Commission, as saying:

“We are not the United States of Europe—we are unique in the history of mankind! Sometimes I like to compare the EU as a creation to the organisation of empires. We have the dimension of empire, but there is a difference. Empires were made with force with a centre imposing diktat. Now what we have is the first non-imperial empire. We have 27 countries that fully decided to work together and to pool their sovereignty. I believe it is a great construction and we should be proud of it.”

The article’s next paragraph, even more tellingly, says:

“Nervous aides to the former Portuguese Prime Minister inquired after his press conference whether this description might feature in British media reports.”

They need not have asked. Clearly, it was going to feature in many British reports about exactly what that European politician had to say.

It is important to listen to what European politicians say, because it appears—I hope to expand on this later—that while the Government are saying one thing to the British people, politicians throughout Europe are proud of what they are creating in the European Union. They are not ashamed of parading it and advertising it as something that their people want. From what I can make out after talking to people from other EU countries, they do want to advance it. The big question—it is why I secured this debate—is whether that is what the British people want. That might not be the case. I do not know. I shall not pre-judge what the British people would say in a referendum; I only ask that they get that referendum in the first place.

This debate follows a week in which our new Prime Minister vowed to give

“more power to Parliament and the British people”.

However, the Labour party is going back on its manifesto promise, asserting that the treaty is not a matter on which the people need to decide. Ruling out the referendum in that manner shames the Government at the same time that it removes power from the British people, contrary to what the new Prime Minister said.

If the treaty is so good—we have been told on many occasions that it is a good treaty, and that it is what people want—then let us have a referendum to establish it. We were told that we would have one before the treaty referendums in France and the Netherlands, and we know what happened there. For France to say no is quite spectacular, and it should be listened to. The Dutch said no as well.

Dropping the word “constitutional” from the title does not mean that the promise of a public referendum on the subject can be broken. In two elections for the European Parliament and a general election, the promise of a referendum has been in the manifesto. It is disingenuous to play with words as the Government have done and to think that what is happening now is just an unimportant tidying-up exercise. Who would think that Tony Blair, in his dying days as Prime Minister, could renege so easily on that promise? It does not astound me that politicians in this country are held in such low esteem when a Prime Minister and a Government can promise a referendum, hold that promise through two elections and throw it away in their dying days. That is shocking.

The new Prime Minister even said that there was no need for a referendum, because there was no referendum on the Maastricht treaty. However, the new Foreign Secretary admitted that that treaty involved a smaller transfer of power and that the constitutional treaty would give away much more. More important than that, there had never been a promise of a referendum on the Maastricht treaty, so no promise was broken. However, there was a promise that the British people would have a vote on this constitutional treaty, and it is being broken.

We hear talk of red lines—and, of course, we should protect our human and social rights, foreign policy and tax benefits. However, that has always been the Government’s position. Everybody else is concerned about the rest of the treaty, the part that the Government seem determined to brush under the carpet. That smacks of back-door politics. The majority of other European leaders have been candid in their appraisal of the new treaty. I have managed to snatch a copy of Le Monde from the Breakfast Room; I shall put it back immediately after this debate. An article in it mentions Jo Leinen, a German Socialist who welcomed the outcome of the intergovernmental conference, which, according to him,

“préserve en grande partie la substance du traité constitutionnel”.

Broken as my French is, even I understand what that means: the bulk of the constitution has been retained. Angela Merkel said on 25 June:

“The fundamentals of the Constitution have been maintained in a large part”.

Steinmeier, the German Foreign Minister, said that the treaty would

“preserve the substance of the constitutional treaty”.

Spanish Prime Minister Zapatero said:

“A great part of the content of the European Constitution is captured in new treaties”.

Bertie Ahern said in the Irish Independent of 24 June:

“I think it likely that a referendum will be held…thankfully, they haven’t changed the substance—90 per cent. of it is still there.”

Danish Prime Minister Rasmussen said:

“That which really matters—the core—is left”.

Finland’s Europe Minister said:

“There is nothing from the original institutional package that has been changed.”

EU Commissioner Margot Wallström said:

“It is essentially the same proposal as the old.”

Just a couple of weeks ago, I was in the Council of Europe when Hans-Gert Pöttering, the President of the European Parliament, said that the substance of the treaty remains. I think you were there, Mr. Hancock, when he said that in the chamber. Mr. Pöttering was somewhat disappointed at the fact that the symbols and hymn were not to be retained as part of the constitution. However, MEPs speaking in Strasbourg yesterday accepted that they will change the procedures of the European Parliament to ensure that there will be a place for the flags and the hymn. Irrespective of whether they are in the treaty, the flag and hymns will play an important part.

How is it that the leaders of Germany, Spain, Ireland, Denmark and Finland, as well as an EU Commissioner and the President of the EU Commission, can see that nothing has changed? It is a case of “cannot” or “will not” from our Government. What is important is that while our politicians here tell the British people that there are fundamental differences between what is being put before us now and the constitution, all those other politicians tell their people throughout the whole of Europe that nothing much has changed and the constitution’s substance has been retained. Either the Government here are not telling the truth to the British people, or all those European politicians are not telling the truth to their people. What is certain is that both sides cannot be right.

I have received from the Minister two parliamentary answers to questions about how many letters he has received on this issue and the main differences between the two treaties; frankly, neither answer says much, and I suspect that there will be a lot of that in the next couple of weeks.

We know that under the new constitutional treaty, there will be an EU President, that an EU diplomatic service will be rebranded as the “External Action Service” and that the EU Foreign Minister will instead be named the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. According to Bertie Ahern, that is the original job proposed but with a long title. We will still be signing up to cut our power to block EU legislation by 30 per cent. There will be a European public prosecutor, and safeguards on enhanced co-operation will be removed. There are new powers of veto for the European Parliament in 50 new areas. There will be new, increased EU powers over social policy, economic co-ordination, employment policy, trade policy, public health and public services; increased power for Europol; new powers for the European Court of Justice over asylum and immigration; the end of the veto on legal migration; and a new mutual defence commitment.

Given the time available, I have mentioned only a selection of the changes, but make no mistake, the British public will be hugely affected. They should be consulted. It looks as if the Government believe that if they ignore the issue long enough, it will go away. On 23 November 1990, Margaret Thatcher said of Labour Members:

“For them, it is all compromise, ‘sweep it under the carpet’, ‘leave it for another day’, and ‘it might sort itself out’, in the hope that the people of Britain will not notice what is happening to them, and how the powers would gradually slip away.”—[Official Report, 22 November 1990; Vol. 181, c. 451.]

How right she was then, and how disappointing it is that now, 17 years later, the Government have not learned from their past mistakes.

The Conservatives have long campaigned for a referendum; we believe that the British people want one. As I said, European leaders have admitted that the new treaty is essentially the same document as before. I believe that we now have a Prime Minister who can show himself to be different from his predecessor. We know that he has been trying to do that at every stage. I have seen more of the right hon. Gentleman in the House of Commons Chamber since he became Prime Minister than I saw our former Prime Minister in the past 10 years.

We know that the new Prime Minister is trying to show that he is a House of Commons man. He has already said that he wishes to give a greater say to the British people. He has promised to listen, and he now has the opportunity to state that he has done so and will give the referendum that his predecessor always promised to the British people. If the new Prime Minister wants to ensure that his Government have any credibility and if he is serious about restoring faith in British politics, he could do both by simply changing the policy of the outgoing Prime Minister and bringing in the old policy—that the British people will have a vote.

As I said, I am not here to prejudge the outcome of a referendum on behalf of the British people. The Government believe that the constitutional treaty will be good for the United Kingdom and I suspect that all the other European Union leaders feel exactly the same. The Irish will get a vote because that is part of their constitution; I believe that the Danish will have a vote as well. All I am asking the Government is that they should stick to the referendum that they promised, and that will be the thrust of everything about this debate until, I hope, the Government change their mind. Let the people decide, and when they have made their decision, let us listen to them.

I am delighted to serve under your chairmanship once again, Mr. Hancock. I was not aware of your deep personal interest in and experience of the matters being debated, to which the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) alluded. I am also delighted to welcome the hon. Member for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois), in his informal Front-Bench post for this debate. I should also like to put on the record my welcome for my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Mr. Turner). This debate, in this interesting period, is his first outing in his new role. He has a deep personal interest in the issues and will serve the Foreign and Commonwealth Office well.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Ribble Valley on securing this debate. I know from experience how assiduous he is on this and many other matters. Debates are often more heated as a consequence of his involvement; on occasion, of course, they are more enlightened. I hope, perhaps, to differentiate between those two characteristics in my response.

First, I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving me another opportunity to state absolutely that the constitutional treaty, as was, is no longer on the table. The draft intergovernmental conference mandate agreed at the June European Council specifically states:

“The constitutional concept, which consisted in repealing all existing Treaties and replacing them by a single text called ‘Constitution’, is abandoned.”

Before the European Council, the UK made it absolutely clear that what was needed was a conventional amending treaty, like the Nice, Amsterdam and Maastricht treaties and the Single European Act, none of which required a referendum in this country. The reform treaty will amend the existing treaties, allowing important institutional reforms and improving the functioning of the European Union.

We also set out four central demands in those deliberations. First, on the charter of fundamental rights, we secured a legally binding protocol that was specific to the UK and applicable to the British courts and to the European Court of Justice. The protocol confirms that a binding charter will have no new impact on UK domestic law and will create no new powers for the EU to legislate. In particular, the charter will not extend the ECJ’s or national courts’ power to challenge or reinterpret UK employment and social legislation, nor will it change the rights that we already apply in the UK through the Human Rights Act 1998.

With regard to criminal law and police and judicial processes, we obtained an extension of our existing opt-in rights on migration, asylum and immigration issues. We can therefore opt in to individual measures, where it is in our interests, or stay out, if we want to.

I thank the Minister for his kind words earlier. I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) on securing this important debate. The charter of fundamental rights has seven titles, or chapters. Can the Minister confirm that the IGC mandate exempts us from title IV of the charter of fundamental rights but not from the other titles?

The draft agreement exempts us from all chapters—that is my understanding of the position that we reached. We are exempt not only from chapter IV but from the others, too. The European Scrutiny Committee has rightly taken a keen interest in that, and of course that conversation will continue. I hope that that reassures the hon. Gentleman.

As I was saying, in respect of criminal law and police and judicial processes, we obtained an extension of our existing opt-in rights. Further to that, we secured a provision that allows us to insist on unanimity if we have concerns that a proposal will affect important aspects of our social security system. Finally, the common foreign and security policy will continue to be treated separately from issues covered under the first pillar Community method. Unanimity voting will remain the rule. We also obtained a declaration stating that the treaty

“will not affect the existing legal basis, responsibilities, and powers of each Member State in relation to the formulation and conduct of its foreign policy…and participation in international organisations, including a Member State’s membership of the Security Council of the UN.”

The posts of Commissioner for External Relations and High Representative will be amalgamated in a single job—the Union representative for foreign affairs, not a Foreign Minister. The Union representative will operate within a policy framework set by EU Foreign Ministers by unanimity. So, our red lines were secured and that is another reason why the reform treaty is not the constitutional treaty by another name, as the hon. Member for Ribble Valley suggested.

The treaty introduces other measures that the Government support. I want to set the record straight on some of those changes, which do not represent a threat to the UK or a fundamental transfer of sovereignty. The new treaty confirms for the first time, explicitly, that national security is the sole responsibility of member states. There are new powers for national Parliaments to object to Commission proposals on subsidiarity grounds. The reform treaty will formalise the EU’s legal personality, but a declaration will confirm that that does not authorise the Union in any way to legislate or act beyond the powers conferred on it by member states in the treaties.

The treaty does provide for some extension of qualified majority voting, as the hon. Gentleman said. In the most sensitive areas—justice, home affairs and social security—the UK has the right either not to participate or to insist on unanimity. A number of other qualified majority voting measures, such as those about rules within the eurozone, do not apply to us.

Will the Minister confirm that the new constitutional treaty contains a measure for a self-amending treaty and that

“The treaty will include mechanisms that will enable the treaty to be changed without the need for fresh treaties and IGCs”?

As I understand it, the hon. Gentleman is referring to the ratchet clause and the passerelle. I understand that any move of that nature will always have to happen by unanimity, so the UK would have an effective veto in any case. I hope that that reassures the hon. Gentleman.

The treaty provides for some extension of qualified majority voting. On the most sensitive areas—justice, home affairs and social security—the UK has the right to participate or to insist on unanimity. It is worth remembering that qualified majority voting is often in Britain’s interest. The biggest move to qualified majority voting came with the Single European Act, which allowed the creation of the single European market. More recently, we have secured liberalising reforms, such as the services directive, through qualified majority voting, and they would almost certainly have been blocked had we relied on unanimity.

A fixed term, two-and-a-half-year presidency of the European Council, accountable to the leaders of the member states, will replace the current rotating six-monthly arrangements, boosting the EU’s efficiency. This new treaty will allow the EU to move on to focus on the issues that really matter: energy security, climate change, tackling terrorism and organised crime, and making Europe more effective internationally in an era of globalisation.

One of the things that struck me before I came to this job less than two weeks ago was the extent to which a debate about Europe was an endless conversation, important though such conversations are, about structures and powers. It is entirely right that the structures and powers should be in balance and appropriate. Before I took up this post, however, the debate about Europe was, for me, about delivery. It was not about the issues for which we, who are all elected, have a passion from our different perspectives. I hope that once the reform treaty is resolved we will move away from a conversation that seems to rely on a sense that the major problem in the EU is a democratic deficit and towards a better assessment of how we will move away from the bigger problem, which is the delivery deficit. The fact is that on occasions in the past under both parties that have been in government, visionary words and bold statements were too often not transformed into action on the ground that helped to improve people’s lives.

Unlike the hon. Gentleman, I am not ashamed of saying that I am positive about Europe. I am not ashamed of saying that we should co-operate across national boundaries when it makes good sense to do so, adds value to the UK national interest and can improve the lives of our citizens. There is an enormous list of examples of where that is the right and proper thing to do.

On climate change, we achieve much more by working together with our EU allies—the Germans, the French and others. We can also achieve much more through a united effort on relations with Africa, justice, trade and economic liberalisation. We can achieve an awful lot more on reform that is good for our economy. It is in the interests of the United Kingdom’s economy, prosperity, employment and social justice for there to be a more liberal, flexible and economical model that delivers the type of economic improvement that there has been in the UK in recent years, with a record number of people in employment. I think that I recall rightly that more than 90 million people across the EU are economically inactive. To me, that must be one of the great challenges.

We do not surrender our individual policies or seek a uniform approach to overcoming problems in our sovereign states, but we can learn from one another and co-operate when that is the right thing to do.

Will the Minister confirm that we will still have a referendum on the single currency if the Government decide that we should enter it? Secondly, I do not dispute what the Minister has just said. As a member of the Council of Europe we co-operate with and talk to 47 countries, not just 27. I feel a lot for the 20 countries that are outside the European Union and seem to be ignored and unable to obtain access to some of the things that the Minister has just spoken about. They have the same aspirations for themselves and their peoples and want them to share in wealth and learn from good practice. The only good practice that they will not learn from this Government is that when a Government promise a referendum, they should not renege on that promise.

As the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke), who I understand chairs the democracy taskforce in the Conservative party, said:

“I think the idea we have a referendum…is frankly absurd…some of the Eurosceptics will have demanded a referendum just about the date on the top of the piece of paper, but they are flogging away, I think, at a dead horse.”

Today the dead horse has been dragged out of the stable and flogged again. I suspect that its carcase will be taken from the stable regularly in the next few months. The fact is that the treaty is a traditional amending treaty, and we have not held referendums on such treaties.

I hope that I can overcome at least some of the concerns raised by the hon. Gentleman. The European public prosecutor will have to be agreed to by unanimity, and the UK does not see a need for such a body, so I hope that that matter will perhaps not find its way into the hon. Gentleman’s future speeches.

On the observations of other member states and prominent politicians across the EU that the hon. Gentleman mentioned, what they have signed up to, as they are entirely entitled to do, is not the same approach as that of the United Kingdom’s, which has a series of opt-ins, protocols and specific arrangements that the UK secured as part of its negotiation on the reform treaty.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman again on securing the debate, which I am sure will be continued, and on securing a copy of Le Monde. I see from reading through Hansard that this is at least the second time that he has done so—in the previous debate he secured a copy from the House of Commons Tea Room. I hope that he returned it and will do so again today. I look forward to continuing this conversation in the weeks and months ahead.

Thank you all for your participation in the debate.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at thirteen minutes past Five o’clock.