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Commons Chamber

Volume 463: debated on Tuesday 24 July 2007

House of Commons

Tuesday 24 July 2007

The House met at half-past Two o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]


National Trust (Northern Ireland) Bill

Lords amendments considered and accordingly agreed to.

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Barnet and Chase Farm Hospitals Trust

1. If he will make a statement on the future of services at Barnet and Chase Farm Hospitals Trust. (151788)

Proposals for on how to change services to improve care for patients are for the NHS to decide locally. On 28 June, Barnet, Enfield and Haringey primary care trust launched a full public consultation on proposals to improve health care in the area.

While there are concerns about the nature of the consultation, it could provide a real opportunity to improve services in our area. There are fears that if there were movement of patients from Chase Farm to Barnet, the new improved services at Barnet would not be in place before any changes were implemented at Chase Farm. Can my hon. Friend assure me that new services will be provided before any changes are made?

Yes, I can. I am pleased by the welcome that my hon. Friend gives the proposals. I know that he has been closely engaged, meeting both local health service managers and his constituents. I assure him that it is very important that changes that result from the local discussions are made only once the services to which he refers are in place.

I understand that the Healthcare Commission report states that the trust does not have an identified budget for infection control training and that attendance at infection control training is being monitored. The Government said in 2004 that 1 million staff would get training in infection control. Why is that not happening, and is the Government’s decision to cut 10 per cent. from the education and training budget part of the reason for that failure?

As the hon. Lady knows, there has been a 9.4 per cent. increase in funds available to PCTs in the last financial year. I take it that she was referring to the Healthcare Commission’s report on hygiene standards at Barnet and Chase Farm—

The hon. Lady did not specify that, but I am glad that that is the case. We are concerned about that, and the commission also expressed its concern. As a result of its report, the trust is investing an extra £500,000 in cleaning wards, screening patients before admission and a prudent antibiotic prescribing policy.

Changes at Chase Farm hospital will have implications for other local hospitals, especially North Middlesex hospital in my constituency, which is just about to start a new PFI. Will my hon. Friend give me some reassurance that any changes that will have an impact on the North Middlesex hospital will be taken into account when that PFI gets under way?

It is important that all elements of proposed changes, including the potential impact on PFI schemes, are taken into account when such service changes are proposed. I expect that my hon. Friend is already intensely engaged in the consultation process to ensure that his concerns about the impact on his constituency are made clear.

Patient Choice

Patients have a choice of four or more local hospitals for elective care and 114 other hospitals through extended choice. From April 2008, patients can choose any hospital that meets NHS standards and cost, beginning with orthopaedics this month. In June we launched the groundbreaking NHS choices information service.

I thank the Secretary of State for that reply and for writing to me about the regulation of Chinese medicine, which was helpful in setting a timetable. Does he accept that real problems are caused by the fact that demand from patients is out of sync with the supply of services, especially in complementary and alternative medicine? Primary care trusts are not listening to patient demand. The situation is well illustrated in London, where the Royal London homeopathic hospital, which provides a range of services that go way beyond homeopathy, is being cut. If the Secretary of State really believes in patient choice, which is to be his flagship with his new broom Front Benchers—[Interruption.] Well, there are some new brooms, because all the old Ministers were sacked—[Interruption.] Well, most of them—a large proportion—were fired. Will the Secretary of State please consider issuing guidelines to primary care trusts to take patient choice into consideration?

In preparing to reply to this Adjournment debate, I looked carefully at the points the hon. Gentleman made in his letter to me but I am not persuaded of the need to issue guidelines at this time. It is clear to me that many more patients want the benefit of complementary and alternative medicine and therapies; indeed, the most recent survey showed a high percentage of patients looking for that. What general practitioners do is very much a matter for them; for instance, I understand that in the Newcastle primary care trust area 69 per cent. of GPs deal with complementary and alternative medicines, so I see no need to issue guidelines at this stage, but I agree with the hon. Gentleman that such medicines are becoming an increasingly important part of GP prescriptions.

The technology driving some of the new health service systems has started to bite and is having a huge impact on our ability to improve patient choice, as well as delivering many other health benefit outcomes. With the departure, shortly, of Richard Granger, who has done such a splendid job on behalf of the NHS, will my right hon. Friend ensure that his replacement is of that calibre and that there is no shift in the Government’s drive to improve health IT systems?

I shall meet Richard Granger just before his departure. My hon. Friend refers to an important area, where, as he says, we can extend patient choice and use new technology for the greater convenience of patients, citizens and clinicians, which is why it is important that we get the right person to replace Richard Granger.

How does the Secretary of State square his Government’s supposed notion of choice with the large-scale closure of maternity units, especially midwife-led units, thereby depriving many women of choice, particularly in Romsey and the New Forest?

There are two issues, the first of which is choice, which we want to extend. An important GP survey was published today and I made a written statement about it this morning. The second issue is maternity care, and recently, with the full support of the profession, we published “Maternity Matters”, which makes it absolutely clear that—as in so many other aspects of medical care—we cannot simply defend the status quo. We need to ensure that we configure our services so that we save the lives of more babies; for instance, in Manchester—although there is still an issue of contention that has yet to be concluded—there are proposals by local health care specialists and local clinicians to save the lives of 40 babies a year. Such evidence cannot be disregarded.

Are not more than 90 per cent. of people who use our hospitals satisfied and think that the service is good? Those who have criticisms want basic things such as better catering and cleaner facilities?

Yes, I agree with my hon. Friend. In addition, many patients would like to choose how they are operated on—for instance, non-invasive surgery. If their consultant is not au fait with the latest techniques and cannot carry out non-invasive surgery, the patient should be able to say, “I’m sorry but that’s the kind of operation I want”. That would be good not only for patient choice but for driving up standards among clinicians.

As the Secretary of State knows, it is the Government’s promise that in two years’ time every mother should be able to exercise full choice about the circumstances in which they give birth, be it in a consultant-led maternity unit, a midwife-led birth unit or at home. Will the Secretary of State tell us how many additional midwives he believes will be necessary over the next two years to deliver that promise of choice?

I cannot say that at this stage because it depends on how things pan out in every area, but it is clear that an increase in the number of midwives will be needed. If we are offering that choice to every woman in the country, we must ensure that we deliver on it with the right staffing in the right places, which means that we cannot pull a figure out of the air, but there is an area of consensus—even between the Treasury Bench and the Opposition Front Bench—on which we can work to make sure that things are properly implemented.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State, but I am afraid that I cannot see how, locally, primary care trusts and hospitals can deliver the number of midwives that are necessary unless there is at least some work force planning to make that happen. The number of midwives, and the number of training places in midwifery, went down in each of the past two years, and the Secretary of State must know that in the past five years the number of live births has gone up by 13 per cent., whereas the number of full-time-equivalent midwives has gone up by only 5 per cent. We are therefore more than 1,000 short of where we need to be now, let alone where we need to be in order to extend choice in two years’ time. So will the Secretary of State promise today that he will go back and look at “Maternity Matters” and put some of the work force planning into “Maternity Matters” that simply was not there?

I think the hon. Gentleman is right in his assumption that we will need to get the work force right. He is also right that this is non-negotiable; it has to be in place by the end of 2009. He is also right in pointing out that there has been an increase in the number of midwives since we entered government. Putting all that together, I undertake to ensure that we have the proper work force planning in place at the right time to ensure that we can meet the commitments set out in “Maternity Matters”.

Scalding Injuries

3. What discussions he has had with ministerial colleagues on reducing scalding injuries in the home. (151790)

I am not aware of any specific discussions with ministerial colleagues on reducing scalding within the home. However, the Department of Health supports policies and initiatives aimed at reducing and preventing the incidence of these injuries.

Keith Judkins, consultant anaesthetist at Pinderfields hospital in Wakefield and a member of the British Burn Association, tells me that every year 600 cases of first-degree burns are admitted to hospital, most of which involve children under five who have fallen into scalding hot bathwater, and each year 20 people die. A consultation to look at installing thermostatic mixing valves in the home is currently ongoing with the Department for Communities and Local Government. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that huge emotional and physical trauma costs, as well as the costs to the NHS, are taken into account in any analysis of whether to proceed with that measure?

I congratulate my hon. Friend, who has worked incredibly hard on ensuring that this campaign is drawn to our attention. I confirm to her that submissions will be made on that during the review of part G of the building regulations. I would go further and say to her that a vital role is also played by the third sector, and organisations such as the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents. We need to look again at how they are operating. None the less, I agree that both my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, and the Under-Secretary of State for Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, South (Mr. Lewis), as part of his responsibilities for older people, need to consider how we can address the shocking figures that she draws to our attention.

Of course, elderly people are also affected by scalding, and one of the most effective ways of dealing with that is to get more help into elderly people’s homes. Does the Minister share my concern that this year, because of the underfunding of Shropshire primary care trust, the taxpayers of Shropshire, through Shropshire county council, will have to pay an extra £650,000 for community care? Will she agree to meet me and a delegation of other Shropshire MPs to discuss this issue?

Surely the hon. Gentleman will accept that the PCT in his area has actually seen an increase in funding. Surely he would also accept that in dealing with this very important issue we need to look at resources in local government, in the health service and in the third sector and ensure that there is a proper response to advice and support, particularly for the vulnerable. Surely he also accepts that he cannot come to the House and support a party that wants to cut spending on the national health service and then plead for more money for his constituency.

NHS Review

4. What discussions will be held with trade unions in the course of the NHS review conducted by Sir Ara Darzi. (151791)

Lord Darzi and I are already discussing a range of issues with staff, patients, the public and key stakeholders including the trade unions both locally and nationally to ensure their full involvement in the NHS next stage review.

I thank the Secretary of State for his response. I advise him that the work of the trade unions in the past 10 years in helping to put in place the NHS plan and “Agenda for Change” is a model that should be adapted in the review, so that the unions continue to play a comprehensive and supportive role in making the NHS even better than it is today.

I agree with my hon. Friend. Indeed, Lord Darzi was in his constituency yesterday, while visiting Gateshead PCT, which might be just outside his constituency. He has also met the leaders of all the major trade unions, and I very much agree with my hon. Friend that the trade union input has been positive throughout the NHS plan and all the events over the past 10 years. This is a huge opportunity for us to re-engage with the work force, which includes, of course, their trade unions.

Representatives of the midwives told the Oxfordshire health overview and scrutiny committee the other day that proposals to downgrade services at Horton hospital from consultant-led to midwife-led were utterly unacceptable. Will the Secretary of State and his team listen to the advice of the Royal College of Midwives and the Royal College of Nursing on those reconfiguration proposals, or will they simply be brushed to one side?

They will not be brushed to one side, and the hon. Gentleman knows full well that those proposals are local and are led by clinicians locally. I announced in my first week in this role that I would pass on all cases referred to me by the overview and scrutiny committee to the independent reconfiguration panel, which is clinician-led, because it is very important that those issues are driven locally, by clinicians in the area. The Royal College of Midwives, which has been to see me already, has very eloquent spokespeople on this issue, and they will be listened to—of course, they will—but as for my involvement, it is right that politicians stay back and allow those working in the health service and those responsible for health care to lead the proposals.

May I inform my right hon. Friend that one of my local newspapers claims to have a leaked e-mail from a middle manager of the Queen Mary’s hospital trust that sets out plans to downgrade accident and emergency services, close maternity and paediatric services and make cuts of £60 million? Such headlines will make it very difficult for Lord Ara Darzi to enter into a meaningful dialogue with local people and consult on the shape of future local services. What is Lord Darzi doing to address those speculative headlines, which are making it very difficult to have a meaningful dialogue about the future of our services?

I understand the point that my hon. Friend makes, because such headlines are totally unhelpful. [Interruption.] Of course, they are driven in part by the Conservative party’s opportunism. I shall give an example of the paradox. A couple of weeks ago, the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) used an Opposition day to debate the very important issue of stroke care—it is absolutely essential that we debate such issues—and he quoted a National Audit Office report that came out in 2006 and said that, as a result of more efficient practice, £20 million could be saved annually, 550 deaths avoided and more than 1,700 people would fully recover who would previously have been disabled for life. We therefore have to change the health service to provide those kind of services. However, at the same time as pushing that, the Conservatives ask us for a moratorium on any change whatsoever. There cannot be such a moratorium, and we need to deal with the issues that my hon. Friend raises, not in headlines but in proper deliberative debate. That is what the Darzi review is all about.

Will the Secretary of State encourage Lord Darzi to engage one to one with all MPs in whose areas things are likely to change?

I will encourage Lord Darzi to deal on a one-to-one basis with all MPs. I am writing to all MPs to let them know where Lord Darzi, David Nicholson and the other 60 clinicians will be over the summer period, so that if any MP wants to turn up and perhaps give up a couple of days in Tuscany, he or she can go there and chat to him at leisure.

May I refer the Secretary of State to his Department’s press release on ministerial responsibilities? Under Lord Darzi’s name, it says:

“Lords business is being covered by a Lords Whip.”

I understand that Lord Darzi intends to spend little time in the other place, not to deal with any legislation and to answer few questions. Given that he is embarking on a fairly fundamental review of how the health service operates, dealing with the sort of issues raised by the hon. Member for Blaydon (Mr. Anderson), how on earth is Parliament supposed to hold him to account? Is this not precisely the sort of arrangement that the new Prime Minister indicated he opposed, whereby, effectively, Parliament is being sidelined?

With due respect to the hon. Gentleman, I do not think that that is the primary concern about health services. My belief is that Baroness Royall will cover many of the questions. She will be accountable on behalf of the Government. I know that the hon. Gentleman thinks a lot about these things. It is to everyone’s benefit to have someone of the reputation and skill of Lord Darzi, who will continue to practise two days a week, as well as meeting MPs individually and doing all the other things. He will continue to be a leading clinician in the health service and he will carry out the review, which will take up an awful lot of his time. It is innovative that not only do we have a clinician of his standing to lead the review—along with many other clinicians—we also have him as a Minister to ensure that, unlike with the Turner report or the Leitch report, we have someone in Government to carry the report through. That is of more interest to the public than who is answering questions in the Lords.

May I draw the Secretary of State back to the original question and ask him about his discussions with Unison in relation to the cuts around the country? Recently, the Secretary of State was quoted in the Health Service Journal as saying:

“We have listened a bit too much to the British Medical Association and not enough to unions like Unison.”

Interestingly enough, I agree with him. Perhaps he would like to listen to Karen Jennings, who is Unison’s head of health, and who said:

“These 600 compulsory redundancies will resonate across the NHS and strike fear into the hearts of local communities.”

The cuts are based on deficits, not clinical care. Will the Secretary of State step in and stop those cuts, which are affecting care in our hospitals?

First, may I welcome the hon. Gentleman, who is making his first outing at the Dispatch Box? I disagree profoundly with him and with other Opposition Members on this issue. As I understand it, they are asking for a moratorium on any change. [Interruption.] Yes, I read the seven steps. Step one was to have a moratorium on reconfigurations. Indeed—[Interruption.]

Indeed, the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron), who I believe represents David Cameron’s Conservatives—I am not sure whether that is the same party as the one to which the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) belongs—called at Prime Minister’s questions, on the back of the London review, for absolutely no further changes. Of course Opposition Members like to put out scare stories—that is part of their politics at the moment. However, the policy issue is that, with advances in medical science and new technology, and with changes in demography, we have to change our health service when it comes to issues such as stroke care, which we debated a couple of weeks ago, in order to save more lives. It would be perverse if we were to put a moratorium on saving lives.

Accident and Emergency Departments

5. How many accident and emergency departments are planned to be downgraded; and if he will make a statement. (151793)

Any proposals for major changes to services are for the national health service locally and are designed to improve care for patients.

There is a well-established and well-understood process for managing consultations on such proposals so that patients, staff, the public and other local stakeholders can have their say and help to inform decisions.

I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. Will he therefore undertake to publish the clinical basis on which the Government justify their decision to increase the minimum catchment area for an accident and emergency department from 300,000, as recommended by the Royal College of Surgeons, to 450,000, as recommended apparently by no one apart from his own Department, and explain how, by coincidence, that fits in with the proposed population that would arise if the accident and emergency department at Queen Mary’s Sidcup were to be closed, as revealed in a memo that was written by NHS officials and not by any Member of the House?

I suggest that the hon. Gentleman wait for the proposals that we are expecting from his local area. I am sure that once local health managers in his area publish those proposals, they will justify them on clinical grounds. A recent statement from the British Association of Emergency Medicine recommended that, in order to provide safe emergency services around the clock,

“there needs to be immediate access to intensive care, anaesthetics, acute medicine, general surgery and orthopaedic trauma”.

For the best use of resources, a figure of 450,000 was indeed mentioned, but this is not a one-size-fits-all issue. It will depend on the local circumstances. He should wait for the local consultation.

My hon. Friend may be aware that a not very sophisticated game is going on, with some members of some political parties in this House announcing that A and E departments are going to close when there is no question of them even being considered for closure. Immediately after an election, however, those same hon. Members suddenly announce that the departments have been saved. I hope that my hon. Friend will be a little less magisterial and a little more political and tell us firmly which A and E departments are going to close and which are unquestionably not going to. In that way, he will be doing us all a favour.

I do not think that I have ever been described as magisterial before, and I am always happy to be as political as Mr. Speaker will allow. Many of these decisions are made at local level and not by me, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has made clear, but my hon. Friend is absolutely right to draw attention to the fact that an awful lot of stir-mongering and scaremongering is going on out there. I could quote a number of examples, such as the A and E department at the Hinchingbrooke health care trust in Huntingdon. The hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) confidently predicted that that facility would close but, following recent consultation, a decision has been taken not to close it.

Will the Minister acknowledge that there has been no scaremongering in respect of the Princess Royal hospital in Haywards Heath, which is part of the West Sussex PCT? It has been proposed that the hospital’s A and E department be closed and its maternity services withdrawn. Clinicians and local GPs feel that that would be unsafe and unwise, although they accept that other reconfigurations need to be made. Therefore, will he assure me that the PCT will be forbidden from going ahead with the proposals?

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has said already that he will pass on to the independent review panel any proposed changes referred to by local scrutiny committees. He and I have both said that it is very important for patients and local Members of Parliament to engage in the consultation process, and that clinical concerns about proposals should be made plain. However, the driving force behind all the changes is the objective of improving care for patients. The technology is changing and, to save lives, local care should be given where that is possible and necessary.

My hon. Friend is no doubt aware of last Friday’s shocking decision by the University Hospitals of Leicester NHS Trust to withdraw from the Pathway project, which will have a devastating effect on service provision in Leicestershire. What steps is he taking to reassure the public and local Members of Parliament that services will be protected? When was he told of the decision, and will he meet a delegation of hon. Members to discuss this very important matter?

I should be happy to meet such a delegation, and I have already offered to meet my hon. Friend and the former Secretary of State for Health, my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, West (Ms Hewitt). The decision is shocking, yes, but perhaps not so surprising, given that the project’s projected costs had spiralled considerably. I can well understand the concern that he expresses on behalf of the people of Leicester, but I am assured by the local health service management that the funds originally proposed to be spent on the project will still be available to improve services in Leicester, and I look forward to examining, with my hon. Friend and others, how that can best be done for the future.

I cannot even start to describe how angry doctors, nurses, unions and patients in Scarborough are after last week’s announcement of 600 job losses at Scarborough hospital. That is one third of the hospital’s staff. Will the Minister come to Scarborough this summer to see for himself the effects that the cuts are going to have, and to let us convince him that we need to maintain full A and E cover at that hospital?

As far as I understand it, discussions on the proposals that the hon. Gentleman mentions have not even begun yet, but I am sure that the Under-Secretary of State for Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ann Keen), who is responsible for the heath service in the north-east, would be happy to meet the hon. Gentleman and the delegation to discuss the issue. As we said earlier, a difficult, tough decision was taken last year by our predecessor team. For years and years, we had a system in which a small number of health trusts were allowed simply to roll over deficits from one year to another, and well-performing trusts had to bail them out from year to year, but that is not acceptable or sustainable. Tough and painful decisions have had to be made in some areas, but I am sure that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will be happy to discuss them with the hon. Gentleman.

Will my hon. Friend confirm that the emerging strategy used in some parts of the country, and particularly in the capital city, is for health authorities to require the diversion of trauma and complex emergency cases away from accident and emergency departments to private hospitals and elsewhere? That kicks the feet away from accident and emergency departments that are already threatened, and brings about the closures that the bureaucrats want.

No—and the decisions are best left to the people whose job it is to deliver high-quality care, at value, to their local communities in a safe and appropriate way. If my hon. Friend wants to write to me with any examples of cases where there are such fears, and where that is having an impact on the quality of patient care, I will gladly respond to him.

NHS Reconfiguration

The NHS is changing because medicine and treatments are changing. If we do not keep up with the times, services will not keep on improving. Local services are changing for the benefit of patients, and that is what the NHS is there to ensure. That may mean changes to how surgery is delivered, who is admitted to hospital, and how effective community care is. There are so many issues involved in reconfiguration, which can make a huge improvement to patient care.

Will the Minister give an assurance to my constituents, 9,000 of whom have signed a petition on the subject, that reconfiguration will not mean the closure of the Peter Bruff ward in Clacton and District hospital?

What is important to local people is the consultation. I am aware that the hon. Gentleman was involved in that and has met representatives from his primary care trust to discuss the issue. That is what I encourage him to do, because that is what he believes in. He believes in local accountability, and that is what he has in his constituency. As a founder member of the Cornerstone group, surely he agrees with removing decision making from Whitehall and making it into local accountability.

In order to maximise the effectiveness of the health service, we have to ensure that we use to the full the considerable talents available to us in the NHS staff base. Has my hon. Friend yet had a chance to look at the all-party pharmacy group report on the future of pharmacy, and has she been able to make an assessment of how pharmacists could take the pressure off general practitioners and accident and emergency departments to improve effectiveness and efficiency in the health service?

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. Of course the skills mix in the health service is crucial to the changes that we can make to patient care. The advancements that pharmacists have brought about for us by operating out of health centres in larger supermarkets, and by being there to advise on many health issues, has generally improved the health of patients. As my hon. Friend said, the skills mix is crucial to future work force planning and the delivery of care for NHS patients.

Last week, the Worthing Herald reported that Worthing’s accident and emergency department had 1,258 admissions. That equates to 65,500 people visiting every year. Under reconfiguration proposals—not scare stories—the PCT proposes to close that accident and emergency department, and it expects people to join the car park that is the A27 and go to either Chichester or Brighton. How many of those people does the Minister believe are timewasters who do not actually need an accident and emergency department in the hospital of the largest town in Sussex?

The hon. Gentleman raises an important issue on accident and emergency services, but how could I possibly know who was attending the accident and emergency department without looking at the figures? I would expect the local management and the local PCT to do that, and I would expect the local MP to conduct a responsible consultation to ensure that patient care is delivered appropriately in the accident and emergency department. That is why reconfiguration of the health service can be good for patients, as I am sure he would agree.

As NHS configuration depends not just on clinical judgments and local opinion but on the financial consequences of the tariff system, does the Department have any proposals to review the tariff regime, which almost certainly undervalues accident and emergency work relative to specialist surgery?

All areas are for review, all areas are being consulted on and everything must be looked at to make sure that we are delivering good, effective patient care.

In-vitro Fertilisation

7. What the average cost of in-vitro fertilisation treatment in the NHS was in (a) cash and (b) real terms in each of the past 10 years. (151795)

I am sorry to hear that because my right hon. Friend must be aware that there are claims that regulation has added greatly to the cost of providing that treatment. Will she comment on the fact that regulation adds greatly to the cost?

I agree with my hon. Friend that regulation, which is very important in this area for safety, does increase costs. In the NHS those would be met from the clinical budget. I confirm that I am taking steps to ensure that information on the provision of IVF by each primary care trust, including information on local criteria, expenditure, social access and work on IVF, is available to us. The Department will make available later today the details of that work, which is funded by the Department in partnership with the Infertility Network UK to address the very points that my hon. Friend raises.

Women in Basingstoke still have to wait until they are 36 years of age to receive IVF treatment. For some who cannot readily conceive, that will mean more than a decade’s wait. What is the value of NICE guidelines to the residents of Basingstoke when the Hampshire primary care trust can so readily ignore them?

I am sure that the hon. Lady is putting her powerful argument to the PCT as it decides its spending on IVF—[Interruption.] If she calms down for a moment, I will tell her that I sympathise with the concerns that she raises about inequitable access to IVF, which is why I am undertaking work to make sure that all the access criteria and other issues that are raised in regard to IVF are properly dealt with in the local area. She should return to her PCT and make her powerful case to it, as I will do as the Health Minister.

When the survey is complete, will my right hon. Friend publish information about when each PCT will meet the NICE guideline that was published years ago?

Certainly, that would have to be part of the consideration. Some PCTs offer one cycle, and there is dispute about whether it is a complete cycle, while others offer different types of treatment. Those are matters that we will need to consider.

I think that I heard the right hon. Lady refer to the need for the proper expression of criteria on the subject in the local area. As a matter of principle, does she believe that such treatment should be uniform across the country or the subject of local discretion?

I believe that it is the role of a Health Minister, along with those who advise NICE, to set the standards for equitable access across the country. That would always be mitigated by local decisions on expenditure after proper consultation, but the matter that needs to be addressed now is what is available, how much it costs and how it varies across PCTs, and then how to deal with an issue that is important to so many people in this country.

My right hon. Friend will know that the science and practice of IVF treatment has moved on. More and more, there is a desire for single embryo transfer, which would reduce health hazards and be beneficial for both mothers and babies. The point has been made around the Chamber today that until we have a clear statement from the Minister about what one full cycle is—whether that is three single embryo transfers and whether that would be universally acceptable—single embryo transfer will not happen.

I congratulate my hon. Friend and the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley), who are members of the all-party group on infertility, which today published an excellent report covering many of those areas and which I have had a chance to consider. With regard to her specific point, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority is considering the matter and is to advise me of the precise points that are raised in the report. I will certainly make that information available to Parliament when I have it.

Patient Safety

8. What action has been taken to ensure that people with a learning disability are safeguarded in the NHS since the publication of the National Patient Safety Agency’s 2004 report, “Understanding the patient safety issues for people with learning disabilities”. (151796)

We have taken a number of steps, including the NPSA published guidance on supporting adults who have learning disabilities and swallowing difficulties; the Healthcare Commission audit of learning disability services; our work on developing a response to the report from the Disability Rights Commission; the establishment of an independent inquiry following Mencap’s report, “Death by Indifference”; and our commitment to refresh the White Paper, “Valuing People”.

I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s reply. The health inequalities of people with a learning disability have been well known for many years, thanks to the work of the Government, Mencap, the DRC and many others. What plans do the Government have to introduce annual health checks for people with a learning disability, and how is the treatment of those people to be monitored and evaluated?

I agree entirely with my hon. Friend—that has been a source of concern for some considerable time. We have evidence that the system is nowhere near good enough in terms of access to primary and acute NHS care. There is a commitment on the table to regular screening of people with learning disabilities, particularly where they are at high risk of particular health conditions. For example, we have had discussions with GPs as part of contractual negotiations on the question of a guaranteed commitment to screening. Unfortunately, thus far we have not been able to reach agreement on that issue, but it remains Government policy. Ensuring that the NHS, at every level, takes its responsibilities to treat people with learning disabilities as it would treat any other patient is a top priority—that is non-negotiable. We need to look at all the levers that are available to us to ensure that primary care and acute services treat people with learning disabilities as equal citizens as regards accessing the health service.

It is common for people with Down’s syndrome to have heart defects—they are born that way. In 1997, it was very difficult to get those conditions treated in the NHS. Will my hon. Friend join me in congratulating the Down’s Syndrome Association on carrying out its vigorous campaign in the early days of this Government, which has helped to change the culture of the NHS and introduce training for medical students about people with all learning difficulties?

I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. The access of people with Down’s syndrome to specialist heart care is absolutely crucial to their longevity and quality of life. A constituent of mine, Mr. Alan Quinn, has a daughter with a learning disability and Down’s syndrome who recently went into Alder Hey hospital for such heart surgery and had excellent NHS care. He is regularly keeping me updated with her progress. There have been tremendous advances in that specialist support, particularly for people with Down’s syndrome, but we need to do a lot better.

Dental Health

I thank my hon. Friend for her question, which gives me the opportunity to say that oral health in England is the best since records began. The proportion of 12-year-old children with decayed teeth fell from 93 per cent. in 1973 to 38 per cent. in 2003. Over a similar period the number, of adults with no natural teeth fell from 38 per cent. to 11 per cent. of the adult population.

I warmly welcome my hon. Friend to her new role, which is richly deserved. Does she recognise the beneficial effects of fluoridated water to dental health, given the stark contrast between the good dental health of children in the fluoridated Birmingham area and that of those in the Manchester area, which is not fluoridated? What will she do to encourage strategic health authorities to promote fluoridation in areas where tooth decay among children is unacceptably high? After 2008, for the very first time, the British Fluoridation Society will no longer benefit from central funding. I am concerned that strategic health authorities are falling behind—

I thank my hon. Friend for her comments. I agree that fluoridation of water offers the best prospect of reducing inequalities in oral health. That is why we have amended relevant legislation to give local communities a real choice on whether to have fluoridated water. I congratulate her on becoming known as a champion by the British Fluoridation Society, and for the work that it has done. Strategic health authorities will have guidance from our Department, but the consultation will remain local. I am pleased to say that funding has been acquired until the point at which we look at the issue again, but I assure her that we shall monitor the situation carefully.

Oral hygiene in England is of the highest standard, partly because of the advances of medical science. However, does the Minister agree that unless we can find a way of reviving the provision of dental hygiene on the national health service—in a county such as Wiltshire, it is virtually non-existent—those high standards of oral health will inevitably decline?

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on the work he has done in the area of dental care. Oral hygiene is paramount to the prevention of decay, and we have continued to train and re-train technologists and dental hygienists, and to encourage local PCTs to get involved in the commissioning of such work.

I welcome my hon. Friend to her new role. I am sure that she agrees that better dental health would be helped by better NHS provision, particularly in our poorer communities. I recently met a constituent who is training to be a dentist, and wishes to be an NHS dentist, but the practice she is placed with, which does NHS work, will take her on only if she solely does private work. That is because the NHS now pays for procedure, and newly qualified dentists take too long to do them. Is it not time that the Department considered requiring newly trained dentists to spend part of their career in the NHS? Otherwise, what is the point of the taxpayer paying to increase the number of training places?

My hon. Friend raises a good point. The contract that has been put in place recently is working well, but there is always room to consider everything and make progress, so I am very interested in his remarks.

The Minister’s predecessor, along with Teignbridge district council, the Teignbridge primary care trust, myself and a local dentist, helped to provide good quality dental care for anyone in Teignbridge who wanted it. I congratulate her predecessor’s work for the Department on that. The new Devon primary care trust, however, is telling dentists in Teignbridge that they have to take new patients from anywhere in the county, which will undo all the good work of her predecessor. Will she consider that issue and find a way to protect the services provided by the dentists of Teignbridge to local residents?

I suggest that as the local Member of Parliament, the hon. Gentleman engage in a serious conversation with the PCT and that a consultation is carried out with the local community. I am sure that that would help them to decide their future.

NHS Dentistry

Primary care trusts salaried dentists already provide services for patients in some health centres and I agree that including a wider range of NHS primary care dental services would definitely benefit patients. The dental reforms launched last year give primary care trusts greater flexibility to locate NHS dental practices in health centres—a practice with which I firmly agree.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on her new position. Does she agree that one of the traditional problems with retaining dentists in the national health service is that some choose to build up a practice using the NHS, only to turn around and tell their patients that they are going private, and that if they want to keep their dentists they must go private, too. The Stapleford care centre in my constituency has retained the surgery and has dentists working there on condition that, if they leave the NHS, they must also leave the surgery. I commend that as a model of retaining dentists in the NHS.

I thank my hon. Friend for that information. Stapleford health centre should be congratulated. It is good policy and practice, and the way in which health care could and should be delivered in future, when health centres share not only dentists, but pharmacists and all the aspects of health care that the community requires. That forms part of some reconfigurations, and is certainly part of Lord Ara Darzi’s review.

The Norfolk local dental committee told me that the new dental contract is “a shambles”. It also stated:

“In order to receive funding, Dentists are required to meet Government targets that leave them without the time they would like to spend on patients to provide appropriate preventative care.”

How would the Under-Secretary answer dentists in my constituency who feel let down by the system?

The hon. Gentleman should engage with the dentists and the PCTs. I am happy to accept any correspondence from him and give any assistance, if I can.

In autumn this year, a new local improvement finance trust—LIFT—health centre opens in Yeadon in my constituency. Will my hon. Friend ensure that Leeds PCT takes all the appropriate steps to provide the two dental chairs that have long been promised to tackle the shortage of NHS treatment in the area?

I suggest that the PCT look at excellent examples that are in progress throughout the country. I am happy to direct the PCT to examine those at any time my hon. Friend likes.

Children's Palliative Care/Hospice Services

11. What recent representations he has received on the funding of children’s palliative care and children’s hospices. (151799)

The Department has received 22 representations on the funding of children’s palliative care and children’s hospices in the past six months.

I know that the Under-Secretary will join me in paying the warmest possible tribute to those who work in and volunteer for children’s palliative care. I am grateful to the former Prime Minister for his personal help in getting the £27 million stop-gap funding and the review of funding for children’s hospices.

The Association for Children’s Palliative Care and the Association of Children’s Hospices want children’s palliative care services to be included in the national indicator for disabled children that is currently being developed as part of the public service agreements for the next comprehensive spending review. Will the Under-Secretary delight the House by saying today that he will consider that suggestion favourably? [Interruption.]

As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State says, I always delight the House. It is a good sign when the Secretary of State says that, but I am not sure whether any other hon. Members would agree. Although I might delight the House with such a commitment, it could be a seriously career-limiting announcement. Of course, decisions about PSAs will be made in the context of our comprehensive spending review settlement. However, the £27 million that we have made available, the independent review that we have commissioned and our commitment to publish a national strategy on palliative care for children, alongside the significant investment in supporting disabled children and their families, mean that the specific needs of palliative care for children will have a high priority in the period ahead.

To be realistic, given that the Government have broken their promise and failed to fulfil their manifesto commitment to double investment for palliative care, broken the former Chancellor’s compact with the voluntary sector by using charitable gifts to subsidise NHS care, broken their promise to implement payment by results for palliative care and continue to insult children’s hospices by funding them at 4.5 per cent. compared with 32 per cent. for adult hospices, will the Under-Secretary now steal and implement our policies of equal funding for children’s hospices and a national tariff for palliative care?

The problem with the hon. Gentleman’s point is that the Conservative party makes all sorts of uncosted spending commitments while simultaneously suggesting that it will cut taxes if it ever returns to power. That is an entirely disingenuous position. When the Conservative party was in power, hospices were expected to depend far more heavily on charitable donations. The Government have started to make significant state investment available for hospices for the first time, including a recent major capital investment. There is much more to do, but we will take no lessons from the Conservative party on hospice funding.

Infection Control

We already have the hygiene code and an action programme to tackle health care-associated infections, including MRSA. However, the issue remains a priority, and we recently announced an extra £50 million to support local initiatives for front-line staff.

I thank the Minister for her answer and I am pleased to hear that the issue is a priority. May I draw her and the House’s attention to the situation in our care homes, where cases of MRSA and clostridium difficile have doubled in recent years? Does the Department have any plans to tackle that growing problem or is it another case where, as with the report on nutritional standards in care homes, the needs of our elderly people in care homes are not being met?

The needs of elderly people in our care homes are a high priority, and they always will be to me. We have doubled our teams to help in acute trusts. We need to look at the same co-operation with social services for care homes because the incidence of MRSA in them is far too high. We have a lot to do on training and skills to see how we can correct that.

Sustainable Railways

With permission, I would like to make a statement about how the Government intend to strengthen the country’s railways over the next seven years and beyond. Our proposal is the most ambitious strategy for growth on the railways in more than 50 years. This statement is being made against a background not of decline or crisis, as in the past, but of remarkable success for our railway network.

Of course, anyone who travels regularly by rail, as many of us in the House do, will know that big challenges remain before our country has the rail system that it needs. There is no room for complacency, but the measures put in place since the Hatfield tragedy mean that our railways are safer than ever before. Reliability, which declined sharply after Hatfield, is improving strongly on most lines and passenger satisfaction has improved. There has been sustained investment in the network, such as in the modernisation of the west coast main line and in new rolling stock. The result is that more freight and more people are travelling by rail than at any time for 50 years.

Our challenge today is not about managing decline. Instead, it is about how we can build on that solid progress to provide a railway that carries more passengers on more and better trains, and on more frequent, reliable, safe and affordable services. That needs the Government, working with the industry, the regulator and passenger groups, to take action in three main areas: first, to secure continued improvements in safety and reliability; secondly, to achieve a major increase in capacity to meet rising demand; and, thirdly, to deliver sustained investment through a fair deal for passengers and the taxpayer. Let me take each in turn.

Safety has improved and reliability is back to the levels seen before Hatfield, even though we are running many more trains. Those who work on our railways deserve credit for their focus. The White Paper sets out how we intend to continue reducing the risks to passengers and staff on our railways. We also intend to build on the improvements in reliability. Currently, 88 per cent. of services arrive on time. By 2014, I want that figure to reach 92.6 per cent., through investment in new rolling stock, maintenance and equipment, which would make our railway one of the most reliable in Europe. For the first time, we will require the industry to concentrate on cutting by one quarter delays of more than 30 minutes, which cause the most inconvenience to passengers.

As safety and reliability have improved, passenger numbers have increased, and overcrowding has become a real issue for many commuters. The White Paper contains the biggest single commitment for a generation to increasing the capacity of the railway through more services and longer trains. By 2014, we will have invested £10 billion to make this happen. Starting now, and over the next seven years, we will see: 1,300 new carriages to ease overcrowding in London and other cities such as Birmingham, Cardiff, Leeds and Manchester; £600 million of investment to tackle bottlenecks at Birmingham New Street and Reading stations; the £5.5 billion transformation of Thameslink, which provides a vital north-south artery into and across London; and new plans put in place for the development of each of our main lines, including the next generation of inter-city trains and signalling. The Government are also committed to ensuring that we close no rural lines in this period.

This continued investment will provide nearly 100,000 new seats for passengers on inter-city and commuter trains to our major cities. Our proposals will accommodate a further seven years of record passenger growth and, at the same time, start to tackle some of the worst overcrowding on some of our busiest services. There will be some 14,500 more seats in the peak hour on Thameslink alone and, while Crossrail remains subject to financial and parliamentary approval, it has the potential to deliver a similar scale of improvement for east-west services in the capital.

The White Paper also outlines other improvements that groups such as Passenger Focus tell us passengers want. These include a radical simplification of the fares structure and the modernisation of tickets to allow people to use smartcards; a further £150 million to be spent on 150 stations in the towns and cities outside London that form the backbone of the national network; better and safer stations from Wolverhampton to Dartmouth, Cleethorpes to Swansea, and Barking to Chester; and support for Transport 2000’s idea of local station plans so that people can better access the railway and make it part of a greener travel choice. We are also investing £200 million in a strategic freight network that will help to reduce the congestion on our roads and the environmental impact of moving goods.

Sustained investment will be needed to underpin all this. Having fought its way back on to a stable financial footing following the demise of Railtrack, it is essential that the industry maintain financial discipline. Both passengers and taxpayers have suffered the consequences of financial crises, and we will not allow a return to those days. The challenge is to deliver the sustained investment that the rail system needs while continuing to protect passengers, but we must also strike a fair balance between the call on taxpayers and fare payers. We are determined to continue to protect passengers, so any increases in regulated ticket prices will remain capped at the retail prices index plus 1 per cent. Such tickets account for over half the use of the railway and include season tickets and saver fares.

There has been some recent debate about unregulated fares, which operators can vary to respond to customer demand. Some unregulated ticket prices have therefore increased. I will monitor this closely and today I am committing to give Passenger Focus more say in the specification of future franchises before they are tendered. At the same time, many other tickets have been discounted. In fact, about 80 per cent. of passengers do not use the headline-catching first and peak tickets, but buy either a regulated ticket or a discounted product. A significant number of those fares have fallen in real terms over the past 10 years, with many deals cheaper in cash terms than they were under British Rail.

The result is that many more people are now choosing to travel by rail—some 340 million more passengers each year than in 1997. This strong growth also means that the railways need less taxpayer subsidy. In the difficult years of Railtrack, it was the taxpayer who footed the bill. The proportion of subsidy funding nearly doubled in five years. It is right that we now seek to return it closer to historic levels. I believe that we are meeting our goals of protecting passengers and achieving a fair balance between the taxpayer and the travelling public, while delivering the necessary investment that we all agree is necessary.

Today’s White Paper sets out our ambition for a railway capable of carrying double the number of passengers and twice the amount of freight by 2030, with modern trains and a network whose reliability and safety are among the best in Europe. This is not a White Paper that rests on distant promises of all-or-nothing projects. Schemes such as new north-south lines may have their place, and we will consider them if and as the need arises. This is a strategy that seeks to deliver real improvements that reflect passengers’ priorities and that builds on the real achievements and successes of our rail system over the past decade.

Twenty-five years ago, our railways were advertising “This is the age of the train”, but it was against a background of falling demand and chronic underinvestment in trains and infrastructure. Perhaps that claim was premature. If we can build on the progress of the past 10 years, with sustained investment and increased capacity while harnessing the full environmental gains of rail transport, we will be entering a new and exciting era of rail travel. This White Paper is a resounding vote of confidence in Britain’s railways and I commend it to the House.

First, may I say that we welcome progress on Thameslink, Birmingham New Street, Reading and longer trains and platforms, but that I fear that the House should restrain its enthusiasm until we have seen contracts signed and the work actually under way?

I have to press the Secretary of State on a number of important issues. When it comes to Thameslink, Birmingham and Reading, has the budget definitely been committed for the whole of those projects or are they dependent in any way on the outcome of the comprehensive spending review? Is the whole of Thameslink 2000 now fully funded or only the northern parts? Are the 300 new carriages trailed today part of the re-announced inter-city express programme or are they in addition to it? Does the Secretary of State intend to keep the cap on saver fares or not?

Above all, what has happened to Crossrail? The Secretary of State told us that she does not believe in distant promises, but yet again it is another false dawn for Crossrail, which is getting more distant by the day. Apparently, it does not feature in the Government’s plan for the next 30 years of our rail system—despite announcement after announcement by Ministers, despite £254 million spent on preparation and despite a clear commitment from the previous Prime Minister. Today’s statement is a slap in the face for Londoners and for the City of London, for which no amount of warm words from the Prime Minister can possibly make up.

The point is that we have heard all of this before. Today’s hefty slab of paper is the latest in a long line of ever denser and longer strategies, reports and initiatives on transport from this Government. If the travelling public could get around on paper promises, there would be no delays, no overcrowding and everyone’s journey into work would be blissfully smooth every day—but they cannot. In the last year alone, we have seen commuters go on strike, toilets ripped out of carriages to provide extra standing room and fares hiked by 20 per cent. on a main route into London.

The reality is that the Government have announced and re-announced virtually all the initiatives that the Secretary of State has outlined today. We were promised Thameslink 2000 so long ago that the former Deputy Prime Minister was still in charge of transport—never mind Thameslink 2000; at this rate, it will be more aptly named Thameslink 3000. Even now, we are getting only part of the scheme that was promised. As for Birmingham New Street, the Government pledged to tackle bottlenecks in the west midlands seven years ago. Longer platforms and 1,000 of the 1,300 carriages mentioned today were actually promised last year. Not one of those projects has been delivered, so why should we believe the Secretary of State now?

The Blair years have been a litany of broken promises, from which the current Prime Minister cannot distance himself. What about the three-and-a-half hour journey time from Edinburgh that we were promised, or the light rail schemes in Liverpool and Leeds, not to mention the north-south high speed line? What happened to the pledge on safe and secure travel when there has been a 43 per cent. increase in the number of victims of violence recorded by the British Transport police? And this is a good one: seven years ago, the Government promised “improved commuter services”, “less overcrowding” and “reduced delays”; today’s announcement is therefore an admission of their complete failure to fulfil that promise. Even after fiddling the timetables to meet limp public performance measure targets, more than one in 10 trains in this country run late.

Thousands of commuters face standing for their entire journey every day of the working week. The overcrowding that blights lines into our major cities is reaching a crisis point that is seriously undermining our quality of life and competitiveness both north and south. The Secretary of State claims real achievements and successes today: well, tell that to the commuters packed so tight in the morning rush hour that if it were animals being transported, it would be a criminal offence to move them in those conditions. Tell that to the passengers on the 6.35 Bedwyn to Paddington service or on the 7.59 Durham to Newcastle service or indeed on any of the other lines that suffer from chronic overcrowding.

We now come to the biggest let-down of all. Let us remember what the Government’s 10-year plan promised:

“We will seek real reductions in the cost of rail travel”.

Each of the three latest franchises awarded by the Department for Transport will clobber customers with fare rises of nearly 30 per cent. by 2015. Many families are feeling the pinch because of stratospheric fare increases—racing ahead of inflation—inflicted by the Department. In the light of the increases that we have seen over recent years, today’s announcement of a fair deal for passengers is, frankly, laughable. The one thing we can guarantee from the Government’s plans for the railway is that there are more rail fare hikes to come. They try to point the finger of blame at the train operating companies, but the real culprit is the Secretary of State, who now has a more intrusive role in our railways than in the days of British Rail.

Today does not usher in a new era on our transport system any more than the rest of the reports, strategies and studies that we have had from the Government in the past decade. The truth is that the Prime Minister cannot blame anyone but himself for the state of our transport system, because the extortionate fare increases for grossly overcrowded trains are his fare increases. The transport broken promises are his broken promises. The Metronet public-private partnership fiasco is definitely his personal fiasco, and the transport failures of the past decade are all his failures.

For a moment, I thought that the hon. Lady might actually welcome some aspects of the White Paper. However, I must proclaim myself disappointed. I thought that she might welcome the significant progress that has been made on our railways. I thought that, for once, we might have a constructive and forward-looking approach. I am very disappointed that she is mimicking the approach of her predecessor, who admitted that, in the Tory party,

“we’ve not had a clear transport strategy”

in recent years and that

“we’ve had tactical positions”.

The absence of long-term strategic thinking is characteristic of today's Tory party.

Let me deal with the specific questions that the hon. Lady asked at the beginning of her comments. [Interruption.] She asked a few, I tell my hon. Friends. She asked whether Birmingham New Street, Reading and Thameslink were fully funded. They are fully funded in the next output period. She asked whether the 300 carriages were in addition to the 1,000 already announced. They are in addition. Nearly 50 of the 1,000 were accounted for by inter-city carriages. She asked whether saver fares would stay regulated. It is intended to have regulated fares, although, as passengers want a simplified fare structure, it is right that we introduce clear categories of fares that apply across the railways and that everyone can understand. In fact, if we ask passengers what they want, we find that they want to be able readily to compare prices and to know that they are getting value for money. That is what we intend to enable.

The hon. Lady suggests that there is nothing in the White Paper apart from previous promises. She seems to have forgotten some of the history—it was this Government who had to clear up the mess of the botched privatisation. Network Rail has managed to get a grip on costs for the first time, so we can enter the new funding period seeing steady growth, improvements on reliability, on safety, on performance and a massive investment in new capacity. I wonder what her alternative would be.

The hon. Lady says that we have not committed today to Crossrail. The Government are committed to that project, which would enhance capacity on the main east-west corridor and ease crowding on services to Paddington and Liverpool Street. As she well knows, the Crossrail Bill is being debated in Parliament and we are considering whether Government funding can be matched with private sector funding. As the Chancellor recently said of the private sector contribution,

“The verbals are great and if we could cash them in, we’d probably be building two Crossrails”

by now. We must pin that commitment down.

The hon. Lady accuses the Government of ripping seats out of trains, but, as a result of the White Paper, 100,000 more seats will be added to trains. How many will be ripped out? Zero.

The hon. Lady asked why there is no north-south high-speed rail link. I certainly do not make any apology for that. Our approach is based on making targeted investments in the services that matter most for today's passengers. We do not want to spend huge sums of taxpayers’ and fare payers’ money on risky, expensive technologies that do not deliver what we need to meet passenger demand. I am surprised that it is her policy to commit to a north-south high-speed rail link. [Interruption.] If it is the policy of the Conservative party, perhaps it should be honest and say so, rather than the hon. Lady now trying from a sedentary position to dissociate herself from it.

Let me deal with fares. I am pleased that the hon. Lady has today backed off the policy that she held only a few days ago of challenging the idea of premiums from train companies being invested to achieve the capacity that our railway system needs. It is important that we get the balance between the interests of taxpayers and fare payers right, but also that we deliver the investment in capacity that rail travellers need. If the hon. Lady has an alternative to our proposals, I would like her to stand up and state what it is, because I have heard nothing today that challenges our position.

This is the most positive statement in 50 years on the growth and development of Britain’s railways. It sets out in detail what we commit to doing over the next seven years to 2014, as well as our long-term strategy—and it also goes beyond that. In order to address the long-term transport challenges we face, hard choices are required, not warm words. The Tories do not even offer a credible Opposition, let alone a programme for Government.

The Government have poured in large sums of money to rebuild the system and have started with a clear view, and they are to be congratulated on coming forward with a strategic policy to cover the next 20 years. However, the Secretary of State will still be dependent on many privatised monopolies running under unimaginative franchises for the delivery of the policy, and she might like to examine where the additional capacity will come from, how many of those companies are capable of delivering that, and how we can plan for a good fare structure when so many of them are determined not to let their passengers know where advantages lie.

Let me also say that if the Secretary of State gives me the entire £150 million to employ a good architect to rebuild Crewe station, I could deliver for her a sparkling 21st century station of which we would all be proud.

I will certainly consider that as the first representation on how the £150 million should be spent. As my hon. Friend knows, we will now go through a process of iteration with the industry—Network Rail and the train operating companies—on how the money can best be spent to deliver the additional capacity that is needed. We will involve Passenger Focus before the future franchises are re-tendered and let so that it can have a say on fare policy and other specifications that are of concern to passengers.

The statement has been a disappointment. There has been a failure to recognise that there is huge pent-up demand for rail. Those of us who truly believe in the green agenda and saw the statement as providing a chance to divert passengers from air and road to rail consider it to be a missed opportunity. I therefore wish to ask the Secretary of State a number of questions.

What is new in the statement—what has not been announced before in the 10-year Transport Plan 2000, the Strategic Rail Authority plan 2002 or the Network Rail business plan 2007? What new funds have been committed over and above what has previously been announced? The director general of the Association of Train Operating Companies, George Muir, has said that funding for longer trains can be expected to come from “growing passenger revenues”. What proportion of that will come from increases in passenger numbers and what from increases in passenger fares? Some commuters have experienced 20 per cent. fare increases. What are the statement’s implications for unregulated fares, and for increases in them?

The Secretary of State said that no seats would be taken out to provide additional capacity. Will she pass that information on to South West Trains, which seems hellbent on removing seats from stock on the lines that pass through my constituency?

An answer to a question I tabled earlier this month contained the admission that the cost of driving had decreased by 10 per cent. in real terms over the past 30 years while the cost of using buses and the railways had increased by more than 50 per cent. Given the importance of climate change, as highlighted in the Stern report, how much will be diverted from internal flights and roads to rail? What shift of freight from road to rail will there be under the strategy? Is the £200 million new money, and what will it buy us?

Which of the bottlenecks identified in the Network Rail business plan 2007 are not addressed or funded in this strategy? Thinking of my own constituency, I would be grateful if the Secretary of State could tell us what is to happen to Waterloo and Eurostar. It is extraordinary that we did not have more detail on Crossrail, especially when the opportunity presented itself to confirm the Government’s commitment to adequate funding to take the project forward.

Given that the 2005 Labour manifesto promised us high-speed rail, why are the Government ignoring the Atkins report on high-speed rail that has already shown that north-south capacity around Birmingham will reach capacity by 2014? That presents only a tentative possibility of looking at that line seriously.

I note that the Secretary of State promises better and safer stations from Wolverhampton to Dartmouth. She might be interested to know, from Wikipedia, that no railway has ever run to Dartmouth. The town does have a railway station, but it is now a restaurant. There is a steam railway that runs Thomas the Tank Engine. I make those remarks simply to try to illustrate that there is so much in this report that is clever phrasing: will the Secretary of State be kind enough to tell us what it will actually deliver?

I am also disappointed by the hon. Lady’s contribution. She gave no recognition to the fact that the White Paper will deliver safer, more reliable trains. It targets investment on those lines where overcrowding is worst and will allow passenger demand to grow by 22.5 per cent. over the next seven years, so that 180 million more people can use the train every year—a huge contribution, not only to the environment, but to the economy.

The hon. Lady asks what is new in the White Paper. I can tell her what is new—1,300 new carriages and the major projects, such as £5.5 billion on Thameslink. The hon. Lady went back to the 10-year plan, and I will deal with that. The 10-year plan was launched before Railtrack spiralled out of control as a result of the botched privatisation, which is, as I am sure all hon. Members would now agree, a credible analysis of the situation. Network Rail has now regained control and, for the first time in recent history, we are entering a period in which we can predict safely both a rising number of passengers using the train and significantly funded investments that are deliverable. Of course the rail regulator will assure himself of that before we commit to, for example, precisely where the 1,300 extra carriages will go. There is also the £550 million investment in Birmingham New Street and Reading stations, the £150 million for medium-sized stations up and down the country, and improvements to track and infrastructure across the railway.

The hon. Lady asked two questions about the implications for fares. As a result of Railtrack and the botched privatisation of British Rail, the taxpayer subsidy rose significantly towards 50 per cent. last year. It is right that as costs are re-gripped and taken under control by Network Rail the level of taxpayer subsidy should fall towards historic levels. As a result of the strategy that we publish today, we envisage that that will reduce towards 26 per cent. in line with historic norms.

It is right too to recognise—I hope that the hon. Lady does so—that 80 per cent. of passengers now use regulated fares, which are capped at RPI plus 1 per cent. Some discounted fares are significantly cheaper, even in cash terms, than they were in 1997. Indeed, the average price per kilometre travelled has risen by only 3 per cent. in real terms since 1991.

The hon. Lady asked about the environment. The biggest single impact that we can have on the environment is by providing more capacity for passengers to use the railways. The White Paper is geared not only towards improving reliability, but to significant and major investment in delivering greater capacity. The industry has committed itself to come up with carbon reduction targets by next year, and for the next output control period we will set—alongside safety, reliability and performance targets—specific carbon targets and commitments.

The hon. Lady asks about added seats. I have already said, in answer to the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs. Villiers), that 100,000 new seats will be added as a result of the significant investment we are making. She asks about freight. We are confident that rail freight will continue to grow over the next 10 to 15 years and that we can use the productivity element of the transport innovation fund as a potential funding stream to enhance the strategic freight network. We are making available an extra £200 million for the development of the strategic network.

The hon. Lady asks about the high speed rail link. Such a link would cost £30 billion and would not be delivered for 20 years, but it is right that we examine the case for it and that we continue to explore options and keep it under review. If we had £30 billion—the hon. Lady may have that much money but I do not at present—there are ways of spending it that will better deliver more, and sooner, for current passengers than a high speed rail link could ever do. If the economics or the environmental calculations change, it is right that we consider them in due course. The railway White Paper and the funding statement will deliver an improved railway for today’s passengers and accommodate an increase in demand of almost a quarter over the next seven years. That should be welcomed.

If my right hon. Friend wants to see the difference between a Labour Government and a Conservative Government running the railways, she should look at the west coast main line. Will the extra carriages announced today mean that each Pendolino train will have an extra two carriages? I am rather disappointed at my right hon. Friend’s dismissal of high speed lines. We have a high speed line that works—from the channel to St. Pancras—so there must be a case for a north-south line, because there will be major capacity problems on the west coast main line by 2014.

I hear my hon. Friend’s representations on behalf of the west coast main line. I know how important the project is to him, and the modernisation of the west coast main line will of course continue during this funding period. Precisely where the extra carriages will go will become clearer after negotiations with the industry, which will continue over the next few months. I know, too, of my hon. Friend’s commitment to the north-south high speed rail link. If we had £30 billion we could have funded the equivalent of the west coast modernisation several times over. The issue for the Government is what the best use of that money is today. In future, the environmental or economic calculations may change so it is right that the Government keep the matter under review, but today is not the right time to make a commitment.

While I wait with bated breath for tomorrow’s statement on motherhood and apple pie, will the right hon. Lady tell me what I can tell my constituents who use Wolverhampton station? Precisely how much of the £150 million will be spent on the station? When will it be spent and what will be done with the money? May we have some specifics?

From a sedentary position, my right hon. Friend the Minister of State whispered that we had the motherhood statement last week, so I am sorry to disappoint the hon. Gentleman.

The hon. Gentleman makes the case for Wolverhampton, and I acknowledged in my statement that Wolverhampton should be funded for infrastructure improvements. They are, of course, the responsibility of Network Rail but I understand that Wolverhampton has an extremely strong case.

The Labour party in Scotland made proposals for operating train passenger services on a not-for-profit basis. Will the Government consider allowing Network Rail to operate passenger services on a not-for-profit basis, particularly where franchises are failing?

When the railway is entering an unprecedented era of growth, it would not be right for the Government to suggest that the answer to any concerns about railways is to restructure them. Network Rail has never advanced a proposition for running not-for-profit railway services, but if at any time it did so, the Government would consider the proposal.

In her statement the Secretary of State announced increases in the capacity of the railway system, and the House always welcomes such statements. She said that over the next seven years we will see

“the £5.5 billion transformation of Thameslink”.

Is she aware that I also announced the go-ahead for Thameslink? If she looks at Hansard for 27 February 1996, she will see that I said:

“On current plans, Thameslink 2000 services can be expected to start within six years.”—[Official Report, 27 February 1996; Vol. 272, c. 724.]

Who has been holding it up?

Clearly, the right hon. Gentleman had his own role to play in failing to deliver Thameslink, but today I can say for the first time that the Government have set the money aside to fund the Thameslink programme. The first improvements should come on before the end of the control period that we have set the funds aside for today, and there will be further improvements in due course.

May I say how much we welcome the improvements in the west coast main line? Labour Members who travel on it regularly know what a real difference it has made. But in looking at the plan ahead, will my right hon. Friend look at the role of local services, because if we have the extra use on the west coast main line, we need to improve local services along the line? It is no use just having an improved Crewe station if we do not have the improved services right the way east-west cross-country. Will she meet the north Staffordshire community railway group, who I met yesterday, to discuss passenger transport, to see how we can develop the investment in local services that are needed in north Staffordshire?

My hon. Friend makes an important point, and the Rail Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, South (Mr. Harris), has already offered to meet her and a delegation on this issue. It is important that we develop local services, and indeed rural services where there is demand for those services. This is the first White Paper that I know of that has said on the Government's behalf that there will be no closures on local or rural lines. We have also set aside some of the new carriages to meet increasing demand on those lines if that demand occurs, but my hon. Friend will be very happy to meet her to discuss it.

Can the Secretary of State confirm that the works to convert platforms at Waterloo International for domestic use by December 2008 will now go ahead under these plans? Can she also confirm that her Department will now press ahead urgently with the feasibility studies that are required into all other options at Waterloo and its approach routes, to remove all bottlenecks to the use of longer trains, which is the only way to remove the overcrowding suffered by so many on London suburban routes?

I can tell the hon. Gentleman that Waterloo is identified as one of the railway stations in London that need significant infrastructure to enhance their capacity. He mentions the feasibility options that could enhance that further. I think it is right that we take time to consider those. I am very happy to meet him to discuss them if that would be useful.

I am delighted that my right hon. Friend has raised the issue of regulated, unregulated and discounted tickets, but will she impress on the rail companies the need to use modern technologies such as smartcards and mobile phones for the sale of those tickets?

Yes, my hon. Friend is absolutely right. I understand that the first franchise that will offer the use of smartcards will be delivered in 2009, and following on from that experience we intend to see smartcards introduced right across the network. They have the potential really to simplify the experience for the passenger in the future.

London Bridge is one of the stations that has also been identified in the output period, so between 2009 and 2014 there should be improvements in that service too.

I represent the inner-London commuters who get on the trains when the carriages are already full and the seats already taken, so I warmly welcome the 1,300 extra carriages and the 100,000 extra seats. If my right hon. Friend wants to do even more to ease congestion in central London, will she also ensure that Transport for London is funded to proceed with the routes that avoid the centre of London, such as London Overground and the East London line phase 2, which will connect Clapham Junction to the tube system?

My hon. Friend makes his case very eloquently. Of course, I will consult him and, indeed, other interested parties during the development of those lines.

I welcome much of what the right hon. Lady has told the House this afternoon—in particular, her clear admission that the nationalised railways suffered from chronic under-investment in trains and infrastructure. From that, the House can only infer that she now admits that privatisation was absolutely necessary and that any of the improvements that have occurred in the past 10 years could never have happened without the investment that privatisation brought. Will she now admit that the political interference of the past 10 years, particularly that brought about during the reign of the former Deputy Prime Minister, has held back the progress that could have been made but has not been made in the past 10 years?

I was preparing myself to congratulate the hon. Lady on her wisdom, but I do not think that her comments will have much resonance with the public if she says that the success of the railway was somehow to do with privatisation, rather than recognising the fact that Railtrack lost control of costs altogether and that it was ultimately the taxpayer who ended up footing the bill of an additional £1.25 billion a year before we had to introduce Network Rail to regain control of costs and to start to make improvements in our railway system.

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s commitment to rural lines, which will certainly please the residents of Barton-upon-Humber in my constituency. With all due respect to my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody), I will fight her tooth and nail to ensure that Cleethorpes gets a fair share of the £150 million for station refurbishment. However, are there any plans to increase the capacity on the trans-Pennine route, which services Cleethorpes?

I thank my hon. Friend for her comments. I hope that she will have noted that Cleethorpes is one of the stations that is likely to benefit from infrastructure improvements, and I am sure that she will continue to press her case over the coming months. It is right that, over the next few months, the Government take time to consider where the investment for that additional capacity is best directed—where the extra carriages will go. I hear what she says about the trans-Pennine express. We will consult the rail regulator, Network Rail and the train operating companies to decide where those carriages are best targeted and come back to the House with a plan by January.

I welcome the extra investment in Cardiff, Reading and Birmingham New Street, which will be very good news for passengers in many parts of my country. However, is there any intention in the White Paper to devolve further powers over the railways to the Welsh Government? In the last White Paper, that happened with Scotland and included responsibility for London to Glasgow and Edinburgh services operating in Scotland. That has not happened in Wales, with the result that 60 per cent. of inter-city services in south Wales, for example, are entirely unaccountable to the Welsh Assembly Government. Will she agree to hold an urgent meeting with the new Transport Minister in the Welsh Assembly Government, who, as luck would have it, is the leader of my party?

I am certainly glad that the hon. Gentleman welcomes the investment in Cardiff station, which will receive £20 million to improve its infrastructure, thus also relieving the bottleneck at Reading station, where very significant investment will transform Reading station’s potential to operate as an interchange and improve the reliability of all the train services in Wales and elsewhere that use Reading. I am afraid that I cannot promise him that I will somehow reopen the devolution settlement today, but I hope that he rests assured that we take the interests of his constituents seriously.

At least one of the two Reading MPs is here to applaud the Secretary of State for having the wisdom and foresight to announce the long-awaited upgrade of Reading station. It will improve platform capacity, deliver service improvements and help to tackle the chronic overcrowding that is making commuting such a misery on the First Great Western main line, but is she aware that it will also remove the dreadful Cow lane bottlenecks, which are a blockage in west Reading for both motorists and bus passengers? The statement is a win-win for Reading and a win-win for Labour.

I thank my hon. Friend for his comments and pay tribute to him. Over the past few months—indeed longer than that: over the past five years—he has championed the cause of his constituents and made a strong case on behalf of all commuters who use Reading station or whose train line depends on Reading station. The £425 million that the Government are committing today will transform the prospects of people using Reading station and will improve the frequency and reliability of trains into London.

Has the Secretary of State had a chance to visit Derby station? If she has, she will have seen that the platforms look like a setting from world war two. When will Derby station be refurbished?

I have had the opportunity to visit Derby station and the right hon. Gentleman makes his case with passion. Today’s White Paper commits the Government to £150 million for 150 medium-sized stations. There is also other funding available for stations that do not qualify as the top 150 priorities. It is for Network Rail, together with the train operating companies, to decide what the priorities are and I am sure that he will continue to make his case to them.

I very much welcome my right hon. Friend’s commitment to Thameslink, which serves my constituency and is the line on which I have commuted for 38 years—perhaps I should declare an interest. The £5.5 billion for Thameslink contrasts rather markedly with the £200 million committed to rail freight. Will she give further thought to more substantial investment in rail freight, particularly on strategic routes? That would not just take traffic off our road, but might take freight traffic off fast main line passenger routes and free them up for faster and more frequent passenger trains.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to draw the attention of the House to the importance of freight and the need to deliver a strategic freight network that will allow the use of freight rail services to increase over the next seven years. The Government’s £200 million will really help that process. There are those who argue that we should have dedicated freight lines—I think that he is one of them. The issue for the Government is how to make the best value-for-money investments while delivering the objectives. I understand that not only do strategic dedicated freight lines cost a significant amount of money, they do not maximise the potential to relieve congestion on the busiest routes, because they do not alter the peak hours commuter congestion periods on passenger lines. We have to target our money appropriately to make the best use of it, but of course we keep the issues under review.

Seven years ago, in the 10-year plan, the Government said that they would bring forward schemes to ease bottlenecks, particularly in the west midlands. Will the right hon. Lady look carefully at the rail service and facilities improvement plan generated by my borough of Walsall, which highlights the Stourbridge-Walsall-Lichfield line? It connects Walsall with Stourbridge and thence the south and south-west, and with Brownhills and Lichfield for connections to Yorkshire and the north-east. The former Strategic Rail Authority in its land use planning guide cited the line as a potential capacity provider to ease congestion across the west midlands rail network. Anything that the Secretary of State can do to bring forward the revival of the Brownhills-to-Lichfield line, and so on, would be mightily welcome.

I will of course look at any proposal that an hon. Member puts before me, but I urge the hon. Gentleman to think about the potential costs of any improvements that he may suggest, because, ultimately, they have to be funded either by the taxpayer or by the fare payer—or we will be unable to deliver the investment. I have yet to hear a plausible exposition of an Opposition policy that would enable greater investment in capacity.

I warmly welcome the proposal to invest £425 million in Reading station, but will my right hon. Friend please make sure that the beneficiaries of that investment are not just passengers who live to the west of Reading, but those on the inner commuter lines of First Great Western? In my constituency, for example, three years ago there were 10 fast trains to Paddington during the morning peak; now there are four.

My hon. Friend makes her case well. I can assure her that the very significant investment at Reading station will have implications for her constituents, and I expect the reliability of trains on those routes to improve as a result of it.

I, too, welcome the investment in Reading station. It will certainly improve services to the west as, absurdly, the bottleneck means that the fast train to Bristol is frequent held up at Reading, even though it is not even meant to stop there. However, will the Secretary of State consider bringing forward investment in and around Bristol Temple Meads station? Resignalisation of the lines in the area will enable the underused branch network around the city, including the Severn Beech line, to be expanded, and the line to Portishead to be reopened. That would reduce significantly the number of cars coming into Bristol city centre, and the carbon emissions that they cause.

The Government, in conjunction with Network Rail and the train operating companies, always take seriously questions to do with whether a rail line should be reopened, whether extra carriages should be added to a particular service or whether a station needs to be enhanced to deliver improvements. However, I hope that the hon. Gentleman has cleared his plea for more money with his Front Bench, as I do not yet understand how the Liberal Democrat sums add up.

Whether it is for reasons of economic efficiency, global warming or simple traveller comfort, my right hon. Friend is absolutely right to give priority to investment in the railways over the next seven years and beyond. I do not want to reopen the debate about the devolution settlement, but she has considerable influence in Scotland and I put it to her that the provision of a modern rail connection into Glasgow and Edinburgh airports has to be a priority. Will she use her good offices to encourage the Scottish Executive, the railway interests and BAA, the airports’ owner, to make that investment?

I am afraid that I cannot give my right hon. Friend that assurance. He knows that those issues are for the Scottish Executive and not Westminster politicians—

Where airlines have a particular responsibility, it is clear that there are commercial decisions that also need to be made.

Like other hon. Members, I have been lobbying on my constituents’ behalf in respect of the First Great Western main line, so the news about the improvements at Reading is very welcome. Will the Secretary of State say when they will be completed, and update us on other important improvements, such as increasing capacity at Oxford and improving access to Paddington? Finally, what is the prospect of getting a station at Grove?

It is remarkable how representations from Opposition Back Benchers differ so profoundly from what Front Bench say. Opposition Back Benchers have welcomed what is in today’s White Paper, and even added to the proposals by asking for more investment and capacity improvements, but I have yet to hear those on the Front Bench make a credible proposition about how they would fund the improvements. We have set aside more than £425 million for Reading station in the control period from 2009 to 2014. That will deliver significant improvements for the hon. Gentleman’s constituents.

The proposals in the White Paper will be widely welcomed, but is my right hon. Friend aware that, for Londoners, the test of the rail strategy will be what happens with Crossrail, which has been promised for so long? We know that the Government are committed to Crossrail and that the necessary legislation is going through, but the project’s credibility among Londoners will depend on their being able to see concrete funding plans. When Crossrail is in place, perhaps we can move on to Crossrail 2, with the underground being taken all the way from Hackney’s glittering spires to downtown Chelsea.

My hon. Friend is right that Crossrail is incredibly important to relieving overcrowding at some of London’s busiest stations and on the tube, and that it could make a real strategic contribution to passenger movements across London. The Crossrail Bill is going through the process of being considered by the House, but in the meantime it is right that the Government work with the private sector to try and make sure that the project is affordable and properly financed.

The very welcome refurbishment of Chester station has commenced, and in the past 12 months there has been a 30 per cent. increase in the number of passengers using the station. However, that has highlighted the real need for additional car parking there. Many of my constituents drive to Crewe or Runcorn to catch the train, so will my right hon. Friend look at trying to speed up the provision of extra car parking?

I thank my hon. Friend for her comments. Chester will benefit significantly from the proposals that I have set before the House. She mentioned car parking, an issue that is being raised with increasing regularity across the country as demand for rail services increases. On the whole, such issues are dealt with by Network Rail in conjunction with the relevant local authority. I am sure that she is making her representations to those bodies directly, but of course I am happy to pass them on.

Is the Secretary of State aware that for the first time in many years, my constituents in Worcestershire can plan their journeys to London and Oxford with complete confidence, because the railway line is closed, thanks to the floods? Will she use this respite period to put pressure on First Great Western to improve its abysmal level of service, and on Network Rail to improve its infrastructure and maintenance work on the line, and to bring forward as quickly as possible the business case for the redoubling of the line between Worcester and Oxford?

I assure the hon. Gentleman that as recently as last Thursday, First Great Western met my hon. Friend the Rail Minister. First Great Western has an improvement strategy in place. I hope to see it commit to delivering on its franchise agreement, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman and other Members of the House would welcome that.

I welcome the statement and the reiteration of support for the railway network. Will the Secretary of State say something about reopening the many closed railway lines in England, and the possibility of reopening enough routes to allow an east-west line to be formed? That has long been campaigned for, would not be expensive to introduce, and would mean a huge improvement to passenger and freight networks. Will she give us some hope on the question of when that might happen?

I have to tell my hon. Friend that those are predominantly issues for Network Rail. It has the necessary planning powers in place to put aside disused rail lines for future growth purposes, if it thinks that that is the right thing to do. It considers proposals on a case-by-case basis, and I am sure that it will have heard my hon. Friend’s representations.

I notice that the statement said that there is to be a welcome focus on passengers, and a greater involvement with future franchises. Given the unhappiness with the First Capital Connect franchise, will there be any revision or renegotiation of franchises about which people are deeply unhappy?

I can tell the hon. Lady that the franchises currently in operation are already delivering benefits for passengers. We hope to improve on that in the coming seven years as we accommodate a massive increase in demand—180 million more people are to travel by rail every year. Of course, as we go forward, we want to make sure that passenger concerns are right at the heart of the franchising process. That is why I intend to make sure that Passenger Focus has more input in specifying the franchises in future.

Will my right hon. Friend go for a truly integrated transport system, and do more about car parking facilities in all stations? I have travelled the length and breadth of the country, and no station that I visit has the necessary car parking facilities. Will part of the £100 million, or £150 million, which has been designated for 150 stations go on car parking?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that local authorities ought to have integrated transport plans that take into account not only bus usage, but local train stations, how people access those stations, how links are made, and whether people can drive to the station, leave their cars and use the train. However, it is right that those issues be determined locally, rather than in Whitehall. I am sure that he will want to take up the issues that he raised with his local authority and Network Rail.

The Secretary of State referred to the non-closure of rural lines. Will she give a guarantee of investment in places such as Norfolk, where efficient rural rail links are an absolute necessity?

I can give the hon. Gentleman that assurance. There will be no rural line closures in the next seven years. Beyond that, of course, there needs to be flexibility in place, so that we can make sure that rural lines can respond to passenger demand. We are also providing new rolling stock to increase capacity on rural lines, where that is needed.

I add my welcome for my right hon. Friend’s announcement of a £600 million investment to tackle bottlenecks at Birmingham New Street and Reading stations, but may I press her a little more on the Birmingham New Street aspect of the announcement? Will she confirm that the investment is only the first tranche of money, and that it is simply the rail component of a much bigger project that needs to be funded if, at New Street, we are to achieve the benefits that are so vital for Birmingham and the west midlands? How will the project be taken forward, and what will the responsibilities be of different Departments and Government agencies in taking it forward?

I pay tribute to the work that my hon. Friend has done in championing the cause of Birmingham New Street. I know that he and his colleagues have made their case strongly with the Department and others involved in the process. I can confirm that £128 million will be delivered by the Department for Transport for the railway improvements at Birmingham New Street, which are desperately needed. I also know that Birmingham city council has put forward plans for a much more ambitious scheme that would secure regeneration benefits for the area as well. The £128 million that we are pledging today is without prejudice to that larger scheme going ahead. In a way, the message for my hon. Friend’s constituency is that the first hurdle is cleared. We will assess any future scheme on its merits if a value-for-money case can be made.

Can the Minister confirm whether any money for the 154 railway stations is to go to Devon stations, or whether the reference to Dartmouth is a just a misleading mistake? Will there be an increase in capacity between Exeter and Waterloo? That will be vital, particularly during the construction phase of Crossrail.

There will be an increase in capacity at Waterloo station, which I think will serve Exeter too. Some £150 million has been set aside for middle-sized stations. Clearly, there will be a process of iteration with Network Rail and other interested parties about where that money is best targeted. Those are decisions rightly taken by the industry, rather than set from Whitehall. I hear the case that the hon. Gentleman has made, and I will happily forward it to those concerned.


With permission, Mr. Speaker, I would like to make a brief further statement to update the House on the serious flooding that is affecting central and southern England. I apologise to those on the Opposition Front Benches for the short time that they have had the statement in advance, but as I am sure Members will appreciate, the situation is changing rather fast.

Cobra met yesterday evening and again first thing this morning. The most serious issue that we have been facing is the potential flooding of the Walham switching station, which would result in power cuts to hundreds of thousands of people and the potential further loss of pumped water supplies. I am pleased to tell the House that this has so far been avoided, thanks to the heroic efforts of the Environment Agency, armed forces, fire service and others who built the temporary defence around the site on Sunday and who have been working to pump water out since.

Although the Environment Agency advises that the River Severn has now peaked, the weather outlook remains unsettled. This includes the possibility of further heavy rain in the flood-affected areas in the days ahead. Those on the site will continue to do all that can be done to protect Walham, and we have been making contingency arrangements for continuity of essential services and supplies, should the need arise.

I am also able to report that the Castlemeads electricity substation has now been brought back into operation, so restoring power to more than 48,000 properties in Gloucestershire. There remain 223 properties in Tewkesbury without power, and it is hoped to have them reconnected later this afternoon. There are also 134 properties in Gloucester and three in Cheltenham which are without power, I am advised.

However, this emergency is still not over and the River Thames continues to cause concern. There was further flooding in Abingdon last night, but no additional significant flooding in the rest of Oxfordshire is now expected. There will, however, be peak flows during the next 24 to 36 hours further down the river, and flooding in Henley, Reading and other riverside properties to Marlow and Windsor may be unavoidable. The Environment Agency is continuing to make efforts to reduce potential flood damage and an evacuation centre is being prepared in Reading. The Jubilee river has protected several hundred properties in Maidenhead.

A total of 140,000 properties remain without mains water following the flooding of the Mythe water treatment works at Tewkesbury. Distribution of water is now the priority. Since yesterday, Severn Trent has deployed about 500 bowsers, and the company says that that will rise to 900 by tomorrow morning. Eighty tankers are available to keep those bowsers and static tanks topped up, and a further 20 tankers are being organised under mutual aid agreements. Three million litres of bottled water a day are being made available, and the Army is helping with distribution. Priority is being given to hospitals and vulnerable groups. Advice is being issued to householders on how to cope with the loss of mains water supply. Severn Trent does not expect full water supply to be restored for some days. However, it hopes to gain access to the Mythe works today to assess the situation and to make a start on putting a flood barrier around the works to enable water to be pumped out. That should allow work to start on restoring the plant as soon as possible.

I am only too aware, as are all Members of the House, of the very considerable human distress that many people are experiencing, with homes and businesses ruined. I want to pay tribute to the extraordinary community effort as people are helping their neighbours. The Minister for Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth (John Healey), visited Gloucester and Tewkesbury today, and the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Jonathan Shaw) was in Reading this morning.

I informed the House yesterday that the revised Bellwin rules will assist local authorities in the areas affected to cover the costs of dealing with the flooding and its immediate aftermath. I can today tell the House that the Government will supplement the existing £14 million flood recovery grant fund with up to a further £10 million, which will be made available to affected local authorities on the same basis.

Finally, I will be holding a briefing meeting for Members of Parliament of constituencies affected in the Moses Room at 5.30 pm today. Officials from the Environment Agency, civil contingencies unit and other departments will be there to provide further details of what is being done, to answer questions, and to pick up particular issues that I know Members will wish to raise. I hope that this will be helpful.

I thank the Secretary of State for his statement and welcome the increase in the flood recovery grant fund—although in the greater scheme of things, it does not look like it will go very far.

The whole House will be very relieved to hear about the better situation at Walham, and I know that the Secretary of State will wish to keep us informed as matters progress on that front. I thank him for the way in which he has not only kept the House informed of events so far but gone out of his way to keep in touch with hon. Members whose constituencies have been badly affected by these events.

Once again, our first thoughts are with the thousands of people whose lives remain on hold as a result of these terrible floods, and with the emergency services and local authorities who are continuing the struggle to contain the problem and to mitigate its impact on local communities. I am pleased to report to the Secretary of State that experience and feedback from our own Conservative-controlled local authorities is that the relationship with the Government and their agencies on the ground, in dealing with the immediate crisis, is working pretty well. I also pay tribute to the local media in the affected areas, particularly local radio stations, which have become a vital source of information and advice.

As the Secretary of State said, the immediate crisis is by no means over, as the surge in the Thames heads eastwards into Berkshire, threatening further destruction, and many thousands of people in Gloucestershire remain without access to fresh mains drinking water. My hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson) advises me that there have been problems with the delivery of bowsers to people without mains water. Is the Secretary of State satisfied that that situation is now properly managed? My hon. Friend also tells me that food supplies in the town are running low, as it remains cut off from the surrounding road and rail network. Are there emergency plans in place to deal with food shortages if they start occurring?

It is becoming increasingly clear, I am afraid, that last year’s £14 million cut to the Environment Agency’s maintenance budget, together with a general failure to maintain watercourses, may have played a part in increasing the risk of flooding in the latest floods and in the floods in the north last month. Can the Secretary of State give an assurance that that issue will be addressed by the independent inquiry? These events have posed serious questions about the vulnerability of our public infrastructure. Will he ensure that the inquiry also looks at the siting and resilience of key water and electricity installations? One lesson is already clear: it is folly to build water and power plants in places where they can be taken out by floods.

The devastating impact on farmland, and the knock-on consequences for food prices, is becoming clear. I strongly endorse the suggestion made yesterday by my hon. Friend the Member for Leominster (Bill Wiggin) that the floods make it all the more essential to speed up payments from the Rural Payments Agency. Given the increased risk of extreme weather events, it is essential that our systems and structures are fit for purpose to meet the challenge. Will the Secretary of State ensure that in the next review of water prices, Ofwat takes proper account of the need for water companies to upgrade the physical capacity of their networks? Of course nobody wants to pay higher bills, but recent events have dramatically illustrated the huge costs to the wider community of underfunding investment in water infrastructure.

On costs, has the Secretary of State applied yet to the European Union solidarity fund for assistance? Will he undertake an urgent assessment of the likely total cost to public funds of repairing or replacing damaged infrastructure, such as bridges, roads, and railway assets, and buildings, such as schools and hospitals? Will he also resolve the uncertainty as to how that work is going to be paid for? Will he clarify the maximum amount that an individual council can apply for under the Bellwin scheme?

As I said yesterday, we welcome the announcement of an independent lessons-learned review, rather than the originally planned review that was to be conducted by the Cabinet Office. However, is the Secretary of State aware that a review of exactly the same name was carried out after the floods in 2000, and that it reported in March 2001? In the light of today’s crisis, is it not fair to ask whether lessons from that review were actually learned? In fact, will the Secretary of State make an early statement on how many of the various recommendations from previous lessons-learned inquiries have been implemented? So far, we have identified at least 25 different reports published since 2000 by public authorities, Departments and Select Committees, all of which have made recommendations and issued warnings about our country’s readiness for extreme floods.

Once the floods are finally over, and the media interest has moved on, local communities will be left with the lonely and miserable task of clearing up, and people will be left trying to piece together a semblance of normal life. It is likely that many will effectively remain homeless for months. Will the Secretary of State consider supporting an initiative to put those who are now in emergency accommodation in touch with others who are generously offering to house them? Above all, local councils and people with flooded homes are worried that, with the holiday season approaching, they will be left to cope with the aftermath on their own and with inadequate resources. What measures is the Secretary of State taking to ensure that there is no let-up in support for the flood-stricken areas in the coming months?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his welcome of the additional funding, which is of course in addition to finance that will be made available under the Bellwin scheme. There is no maximum to the Bellwin scheme; once a local authority goes above the threshold, 100 per cent. of the costs of dealing with the immediate aftermath is made available for up to six months. I am also pleased to hear from him that in his experience, and that of other hon. and right hon. Members, the emergency co-ordination arrangements have worked pretty well on the ground. That reflects my experience, as I told the House yesterday, and it demonstrates the degree of planning that has gone into ensuring that those services work effectively when such events occur.

On the question of water bowsers, I spoke to the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson) about water distribution—last night, I think; a lot has been happening. We are keeping a close eye on the issue because I know from talking to the Gold Commander late yesterday evening that everyone on the ground is anxious that the promised number of bowsers materialise in the right places. That is the responsibility of the Severn Trent water company. We are continuing to follow that up, which is why the armed forces are helping with the distribution of water. I have already raised the question of food supplies in relation to Tewkesbury because I got a message earlier today from the hon. Gentleman, and we will have an opportunity shortly to follow that matter up with those responsible for the operations, in the briefing to which I have already alluded.

The hon. Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth) is absolutely right on the matter of public infrastructure, and we discussed that yesterday. Of course, one of the lessons is to look at appropriate siting and protection of infrastructure—for obvious reasons. Water treatment plants, such as Mythe, which was already lifted above the side of the river, have to be located next to rivers because that is where they draw their water from. It is evident that big bits of infrastructure and, in some cases, small pumps, might be taken out, but cannot therefore do their job. Those lessons need to be learned.

On farming and the impact of the flooding on many farmers, we are in contact with the National Farmers Union. I take the hon. Gentleman’s point, which the hon. Member for Leominster (Bill Wiggin) made yesterday about the Rural Payments Agency. We are keen to try to speed up the way in which the RPA works, but, as I said yesterday, the most important thing for me is to keep the promises that we have made and look to improve performance in the light of what has happened.

We need to consider longer-term costs. To apply to the EU solidarity fund, an assessment has to be made of the total costs of dealing with the emergency. They are not all evident yet.

On infrastructure, it will not yet be possible to know whether some bridges have been so badly damaged that they need extensive repairs or replacement. As I said yesterday, those decisions will have to be made in consultation with the relevant Department.

The hon. Member for East Surrey is right that there have been several reports and recommendations. Let me say a word about “Making space for water”. We set up that programme in 2004 precisely because the Government realised that the complex co-ordination of the response to surface-water flooding and river flooding was a problem. The Government response was made in 2005. The coastal overview has already been announced and is going ahead. We aim to have policy decisions on the inland overview in place by 2009, but we wrote to all the stakeholders—the Environment Agency, water companies, local authorities, drainage boards, flood forums, the Association of British Insurers; all the bodies that have an interest in dealing with flooding and surface-water drainage—to say that we were considering giving the Environment Agency a strategic overview and asking for their views. Fifteen urban drainage pilots are already starting and the next step is to consider risk mapping. As I said yesterday, the interim results of the review will help inform that.

On the hon. Gentleman’s last point about housing, I am sure that local councils have heard his comments—and what is doubtless being said in local areas—about people’s willingness to provide accommodation to those who have been displaced. I will ensure that that is raised.

I apologise for having to leave slightly early today.

I thank the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister for their tremendous efforts and for personally telephoning me to keep me in touch and hear my concerns. I also pay tribute to the people who saved Walham power station, which was crucial.

My hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth) mentioned the problems with bowsers. We do not have enough and I should like to mention the areas that are deprived of water. They are: Deerhurst, Apperley, Sandhurst, Hucclecote, Twyning, Dumbleton, Southam, Toddington, Oxenton, Great Witcombe, Brockworth and Snowshill—and, indeed, Northway, despite what the website says. That is a long list of villages in my area that do not have enough water. I am informed that there are large tankers at Ashchurch barracks, which could be used if a direction were given to the Army at the barracks. I understand that it is waiting for a decision. I would be grateful if the Secretary of State looked into that urgently.

I also hear reports that two premature babies were airlifted out of the area but died on the way to hospital as a result of the floods. I understand that another person is missing. Those are the tragic circumstances that we face in Tewkesbury. I therefore ask the Secretary of State to consider whether the recess could be delayed. I know that that will not be popular, but, given the circumstances, I ask the Prime Minister to consider whether a delay to the recess would be in order, or at the very least, the same access to Ministers as they have been good enough to make available so far.

On the bowsers, I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman can attend the briefing at 5.30 pm. If he cannot, will he please give me a list of all the locations so that I can take it with me to the meeting and relay it so that action can be taken?

Secondly, the whole House will very much regret what happened on Saturday morning when a pregnant woman in Tewkesbury requested medical assistance. When it became clear that the paramedics would not be able to reach her because of the floods, RAF search and rescue was called and a helicopter carrying an experienced paramedic was immediately diverted to the scene. The mother and the unborn babies were taken to Cheltenham general hospital, but sadly the babies did not survive.

On the hon. Gentleman’s final point, I give him an absolute guarantee that Ministers will remain accessible even though the House has risen. I hope that the contact and the relationship that has been established—it is a practical relationship, to try to deal with the practical circumstances that all hon. Members representing constituencies affected are trying to deal with—will continue whether the House is sitting or not.

Those of us on the Liberal Democrat Benches would like to join others both in expressing sympathy for those affected and in praising the emergency services. The staff who saved the operation of the Walham switching station are due for particular congratulation. It is also good news that an assessment of the Mythe works is under way. I understand the difficulties in doing this, but will the Secretary of State give an indication of the likely timescale for bringing Mythe back into operation, however tentative that assessment might be? Coming hot foot from his constituency, my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) has just informed me that flooding seems to have started in Oxford. I wonder whether the Secretary of State was aware of that and whether he can say anything about the potential in that area, because he was clearly not anticipating any significant extra flood damage further down in Oxfordshire.

What arrangements will the Government now make to protect critical infrastructure, such as the national grid switching stations and water treatment plants in other areas, should we unfortunately face similarly enormous inundations over the rest of the summer? How many sites throughout the country are at risk of facing the same sort of problems as those that the Walham switching station and Mythe water treatment works have faced? Can he make a tentative first assessment? How many pumping stations are at risk of encountering the same kind of flooding and inoperability that might have occurred during recent events, and which certainly did occur in Hull? As the emergency enters its fifth day, can he assure us that the emergency services are receiving proper back-up from outside the counties affected, so that their no doubt exhausted staff can be given proper breaks and time for recuperation?

Yesterday the Secretary of State said in reply to me:

“On the strategic overview…the sensible course of action is to reflect on that in light of the review that will be undertaken”.—[Official Report, 23 July 2007; Vol. 463, c. 569.]

Do I understand from his answer to the hon. Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth) that preparations and the continuation of that policy will in fact continue, as he seemed to imply today? After all, the delays seem unjustified, given the 2004 consultation exercise to which the Secretary of State referred, “Making space for water”. Is the Secretary of State aware that the Government of which he was a part at that time stated that the

“Extension of EA strategic role to other forms of flooding and coastal erosion—legislative and organisational considerations”

would be complete by the end of 2006? That was in the timeline of the Government’s response, in their March 2005 statement. DEFRA’s report of March 2006 states:

“The existing legislation that governs urban drainage has resulted (unintentionally) in an over complex system with diverse responsible bodies”.

Does he accept that the policy came about because of that and because

“responsibilities are unclear and at times conflicting”?

What happened to the Government’s efforts to deal with the problem? Why did they fail to deliver? Was it because of the wholesale change in ministerial staff, which has meant that there has been no follow-through? Does the Secretary of State accept that moving every Minister—or, indeed, sacking Ministers—is no way to run a Department, as there is then no political or institutional memory from March 2005? What is the point of participation in a consultation exercise or a review if it leads to precisely nothing? What arrangements has the Secretary of State now put in place to ensure that when his Department says that it is going to do something, it actually does it?

Yesterday, the Secretary of State repeated his mantra that there had been no cut in the capital budget. However, there was a cut in the overall flood defence budget. Will he confirm that those cuts—

Order. I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman could now bring his remarks to a conclusion. We really are in difficult circumstances with time today.

Will the Secretary of State confirm that those cuts worsened the situation found by the National Audit Office when it reported that the Environment Agency had failed to meet its target of maintaining 63 per cent. of England’s flood defences in target condition?

On Mythe, Severn Trent Water says that a full restoration of services could take between seven and 14 days. It is difficult to say for sure, because that will depend on what it finds when the water is pumped out and it discovers how much damage has been done to the equipment. There has indeed been flooding in Oxford. As I said earlier, we are not anticipating further extensive flooding, but that really depends on exactly how the flow of water comes down the system.

I can tell the hon. Gentleman that an assessment of other critical infrastructure—down the course of the Thames, in particular—has been carried out, because Cobra asked about that. We have been advised that there is nothing that needs to be worried about, given the pulse of water that we have currently. There is a longer-term issue about infrastructure in general, to which I have already alluded. With great respect to the hon. Gentleman, however, it is not possible for me to answer his related question on whether I could identify any other infrastructure that might be at risk from further flooding and extreme weather in the next few weeks and months. If he will kindly tell me where it is going to rain, I might be able to answer the question. I can confirm that the emergency services are receiving mutual aid from other services, which has allowed staff who are very tired—the hon. Gentleman was right about that—to have a rest.

On the “Making space for water” strategy, I emphatically reject the charge that we have let it lie. I have already said—and I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman did not appear to be listening—that we have already made arrangements to put the coastal overview in place. We have been dealing with this since 2004, and we recognise that it is a problem. Building on what I said yesterday, I said today that we were getting on with it—the consultation has taken place—and that we will also draw on the lessons to be learned from the review that is now being undertaken.

If the hon. Gentleman is able to draw to my attention any flooding that has taken place because the flood defences failed at the level that they were meant to protect, I will undertake to go away and look into that. However, many of the flood defences were overtopped. The National Audit Office acknowledged the progress that the Environment Agency had made in trying to improve the maintenance of flood defences, and that is something that the agency will continue to work on.

Order. While recognising Members’ concerns about what is happening in their constituencies, may I please ask them to limit themselves to one supplementary question? I hope that that will enable us to accommodate a greater number of contributions.

I thank my right hon. Friend and all his ministerial colleagues for this statement and for treating this matter so seriously. I also pay tribute to all those who have performed so well in such trying circumstances over recent days. Will he consider the request from Gloucestershire county council for funding up front to meet the huge costs that are already being incurred? Will he also urgently look into the situation at Severn Trent? There is certainly misinformation about who is to have their mains water supply turned off, which is causing problems. It is also completely unacceptable to say that it will take up to 14 days to get people back on to mains water when there are other water suppliers in the area. Wessex Water and Bristol Water supply customers in my constituency, and I am sure that in this day and age it is possible, in an emergency, to tap into that water supply and get households, farms and businesses back on to some form of mains supply. It is catastrophic that people should be without water for 14 days.

I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, who will be allocating the funding announced today according to need, will seek to do so as quickly as possible. Secondly, if there is any confusion about who has lost water supply, I will take the matter further if my hon. Friend provides the details. Thirdly, I share my hon. Friend’s concern that Mythe should be brought back on line as quickly as possible—a point that I have already made to the Severn Trent company. I have also already said to the chief executive that if he needs any further assistance to make that happen, we will give it.

My constituency is located further downstream and, unusually, the peak flows are expected in 48 to 72 hours in areas such as Datchet, Horton, Wraysbury and Old Windsor. The Jubilee river has protected Maidenhead, but channelled the water further down. Given that the Environment Agency has said that it needs £1 billion to deal with flood defences in the UK, and that it does not quite have that budget, I seek the Secretary of State’s assurance that he will re-examine the vital lower Thames protection scheme.

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the Environment Agency has a process through which the priority of schemes is determined, and that the formula is currently under review. The Jubilee river has done its work, but I acknowledge that it protects one part of the area rather than elsewhere. That shows how interrelated the movement of water is and that protecting one area can have a knock-on consequence further down the line. On the question of funding, the £1 billion a year was a sum that resulted from a foresight study looking ahead over the rest of the century. If my memory serves me correctly, I think that the case was that we should be working towards the £1 billion a year by 2024. The House will be aware that we will already have got to £800 million by 2010-11—13 years earlier.

I thank my right hon. Friend for keeping the House so well informed, and also for the money made available to north Lincolnshire, which has been used very wisely by North Lincolnshire council to help flood victims. Does he agree that it is not the case that reports are not being acted on? Going back to 1998, the Bye report led to improved contingency arrangements, and “Making space for water” brought about changes in planning and institutional change, and strengthened the role of the Environment Agency. There have been huge improvements over those years. Although the Government are involved through the public sector, it is important to recognise that there are private sector players, particularly in respect of infrastructure. I welcome what my right hon. Friend said about the inquiry and the need to look further into co-ordination and adaptation of the central infrastructure in flood risk areas.

I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend for that contribution, particularly as over recent years he played such an important part in helping to implement the steps that he has mentioned. It is precisely because of the complex interrelationship, including with the private sector, that we are taking this work forward. Everyone has to play their part in dealing with the problem.

May I echo the comments about the importance of local media, particularly BBC Radio Oxford? Given that I spent Sunday afternoon filling sandbags in East Challow for use in Abingdon, will the Secretary of State look urgently into ensuring that sand and sandbags are in place in the towns most likely to be flooded in future?

I happily give the hon. Gentleman that assurance. My hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment has already encountered that issue on his visits to affected areas, and we will certainly look further into it. It is one important lesson that can be learned. I echo what the hon. Gentleman said about local radio, which is often the best-informed source of advice and information about what is going on and what people should do.

In Nottinghamshire, much of the flooding was caused by localised torrential rainfall, which simply overran the surface water systems. The Secretary of State has already pointed out the diffuse responsibilities involved. May I press him to take early decisions about a lead agency and, in the review, to take account of new solutions such as sustainable urban drainage systems—SUDS—and the factors that hinder their implementation?

I am very happy to give my hon. Friend assurances on both those points. Clearly, it is important that we should make progress as quickly as possible and that we should look at how, practically, those responsible are going to improve surface water drainage, given the experience that we have had.

Will the Secretary of State, whose conduct has been exemplary and who talked movingly about the human tragedy, discuss with the Chancellor the possibility of the Government launching a fund by putting £10 million down to help private individuals? Others could then add to that. It might be a good idea if those in the House had the opportunity to contribute.

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point about what further assistance can be given to individuals. As the House may be aware, the Red Cross has issued an appeal today, which covers all the victims of the flooding—victims both of the recent events and of what happened in Yorkshire and Humberside and elsewhere. I am sure that the public will want to contribute generously to that. There is also the funding that the Government have made available previously, what I have announced today, and the funding available under the Bellwin rules.

Although I appreciate that my right hon. Friend's immediate thoughts are with the crisis in the south and in the midlands, does he accept that in the longer term he and his colleagues should look into trying to stop potential lasting damage to local economies? A welcome help fund for small businesses has been set up by Yorkshire Forward, but the chief executive of the chamber of commerce has already said that it has identified quite a lot of small firms that, although insured, are often not insured to replace damaged equipment with brand-new equipment, and are certainly not insured for loss of business. There is a risk to hundreds or even thousands of jobs in the Sheffield area. That could also damage the complicated supply chain in the engineering industry. I wonder whether the Government could eventually give some thought and attention to what they can do to help.

I know that my hon. Friend is meeting the Minister for Local Government to discuss that very issue tomorrow. He draws attention to one of the consequences of the flooding that has hit Sheffield particularly badly, including its industrial base. We will try to draw on those lessons and to talk to the insurance industry about the points that he has raised.

When I left Oxford at 3 o'clock, the water was rising on the Botley road, in the Osney island area, and on roads off the Botley road, which the Minister for the Environment visited on Sunday; we were grateful for that visit. I hope that the Secretary of State is right, and that there will not be additional significant flooding. It is not clear how many properties will be affected. However, those properties have been flooded in 2000, 2003 and again this year. There are no longer floods every 40 years or every 20 years; instead there have been three floods in seven years. Can he see his way to giving an assurance that the Environment Agency budget will be front-loaded over the period that he envisages to give urgent protection to frequently flooded areas, because they will need it?

As I said to the House yesterday, I will be looking at how we phase the increase to the £800 million as part of the comprehensive spending review announcement. I do not know, in the case of the particular properties to which the hon. Gentleman refers, whether the Environment Agency has yet done any work on what a scheme may look like. I undertake to make inquiries about that, as he has raised it with me.