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Westminster Hall

Volume 464: debated on Tuesday 16 October 2007

Westminster Hall

Tuesday 16 October 2007

[Mrs. Joan Humble in the Chair]

Organic Food

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Ms Diana R. Johnson.]

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mrs. Humble.

The debate about food has become extremely polarised in recent years, with those who advocate organic farming condemning so-called conventional farmers for their use of chemicals and their damage to the environment, not realising that conventional farming has changed for the better in recent years. The reality is that the two sides of this polarised debate are closer together than they sometimes think they are.

The debate is timely for several reasons. The Soil Association’s organic fortnight was held in September and yesterday the National Consumer Council launched its second report, arising from its greening supermarkets project. In addition, the European Commission has introduced new Europe-wide laws on pesticides, which will be debated in a plenary session of the European Parliament on 23 October.

Organic farming is not just about returning to farming as it was before the green revolution, or before farming became industrialised as our populations expanded and the demand for food increased. It is actually a belief system that has its roots in the anti-science backlash propagated by the vitalists, who believed that life arises from, and involves, special life forces. The teaching of an Austrian spiritualist or mystic called Rudolf Steiner in the early 1920s gave rise to the modern organic farming movement. The early beginnings of organic farming have been captured in a recently published book, “The Truth About Organic Foods”, by Alex Avery.

In the early part of the 20th century, Fritz Haber, a German chemist, learned how to fix nitrogen from the atmosphere as nitric acid. Probably about 60 per cent. of the people alive today owe their existence to the application of nitrate fertilizers that are derived from that acid. Bosch, at the German company BASF, was able to commercialise the Haber synthesis to produce the nitrate required for ammunitions manufacture during world war one, when supplies of naturally occurring nitrates were cut off to the Germans. Unfortunately, as well as emitting carbon dioxide, the Haber-Bosch process emits nitrous oxide, which has an impact on climate change 310 times greater than that of carbon dioxide. Fortunately, nitric acid plants can be fitted with a cerium-based catalyst that reduces nitrous oxide emissions by up to 90 per cent. Inclusion of that gas in the EU’s emissions trading scheme would give European chemical companies an incentive to reduce their emissions of nitrous oxide.

The pioneers of organic farming believe that the synthetic nitrate fertilisers produce food that lacks vital forces imparted by animal manure. Steiner believed that the special forces possessed by animal manure come from far-away planets.

“Have you ever thought why cows have horns, or why certain animals have antlers?”

asked Steiner. He explained:

“The cow has horns in order to send into itself the astral-ethereal formative powers, which, pressing inward, are meant to penetrate right into the digestive organism....Thus, in the horn you have something well adapted by its inherent nature to ray back the living and astral properties into the inner life”.

That is where the movement began. I would not have believed that people pat cow dung into cow’s horns and bury them in the ground in the belief that they increase the vital forces in manure, until I saw the six recent television programmes in which one of the cast of “The Kumars at No.42” toured India. He went to an organic tea plantation in Darjeeling, where women sat on the ground patting cow manure into horns to produce special water to water on to the tea plants. If anyone thinks that that is fantasy, organic farmers still believe it, at least in certain parts of the world, today.

I think that my hon. Friend is talking about the biodynamic movement, which is very different from the much more generalist organic movement. As someone with a number of biodynamic farms in my area—Stroud is at the heart of the Steiner foundation in this country—I can share something with my hon. Friend, but there is a slight difference in emphasis.

I am always willing to learn, and I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention.

The 1970 Nobel prizewinner Norman Borlaug has reminded us that to produce all the manure required to replace synthetic nitrogen fertilisers we would require an additional 5 billion or 6 billion head of cattle, all emitting the greenhouse gas methane. Apart from extra grazing land, even more land would be required to grow the food for those cattle. How many forests would that destroy?

An English botanist propagated Steiner’s teachings, which were also adopted by Lady Eve Balfour, a boutique farmer who was the wealthy niece of Prime Minister Balfour. From world war two through to the 1970s she was the leader of the British and European organic food movement, and she helped to found the Soil Association, which is the largest organic trade and certification group in the UK today. Prince Charles and Lord Melchett, the policy director of the Soil Association, have followed in those footsteps.

Perhaps because of the influence of those people, the organic movement today is a powerful and popular movement. Whenever well-known people such as my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary, who described organic food as a lifestyle choice in a speech to the Oxford farming conference in 2007, or Egon Ronay, have raised questions about the hype that surrounds claims for organic food, there has been an over-the-top reaction, mainly from the Soil Association, so I realise that today I am skating on very thin ice. Nevertheless, we need a healthy debate about organic food and the often spurious claims made by organic farmers.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his speech so far, and on his promotion of a rational view of chemicals and chemistry, and, indeed, science, during his time in this House. I bought some organic food at the Abingdon farmers market yesterday, and was pleased to do so, but I did it in the belief that it might be better for the environment, because organic farming is less intensive, not because I believe any claims by the industry body, the Soil Association, that it has proven health benefits. I support the hon. Gentleman in what he says about recognising that the Food Standards Agency was right to point out that the health benefits of organic food are unproven.

I shall say something about that later.

A growing consciousness about the environment is fuelling sales of ethical foods in general. Ethical foods now include the following brands: Fairtrade, Leaf, which stands for Linking Environment and Farming, Freedom Food, which was set up by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and Red Tractor, which is run by Assured Food Standards. Prince Charles, of course, sells his organic produce under the Duchy Originals brand name. Sales of ethical food, including organic food, stand at £5.5 billion and are expected to rise to £7.5 billion by 2011. The public demand for ethical foods has resulted in the opening earlier this year of the American Whole Foods Market, in Kensington high street—a food boutique if ever there was one—and the rapid expansion of companies specialising in organic box schemes. There has been an explosion, too, in farmers markets selling free-range and local produce.

I am all in favour of greater profits for growers, which means cutting out the wholesalers, and I have always believed that cutting down the time food takes to get from the producer to the plate is good because it makes for tastier and more nutritious food for the consumer. The market has been driven by people’s increasing concern for the environment, and by people who increasingly feel disconnected from the origins of the food that they eat. As food has got cheaper and more disposable, people have valued it less. Food scares, whether real or imaginary, have encouraged consumers to buy what is increasingly sold to them by the media as the healthy option.

I acknowledge much of what my hon. Friend said in his usual rational and scientific way, but does he acknowledge that organic produce sold at farmers’ markets is at least grown locally or regionally to those markets? In fact, the vast majority of organic fruit and vegetables are imported, and they are often flown long distances. The environmental impact of that must be factored into the kind of equations that he is constructing. The airport in my constituency is the largest freight airport in the country. There are 160 or more freight flights a night over rural Leicestershire, sometimes in noisy aircraft, and many of them import food from the developing world.

I shall refer to that issue later.

Organic food is described by the FSA as

“a holistic approach to food production, making use of crop rotation, environmental management and good animal husbandry to control pests and diseases.”

There is

“restricted use of…fertilisers or pesticides”

and an

“emphasis on animal welfare”

and soil health. All organic food must meet minimum standards as set out in European Law. In the UK, the Soil Association is the main certification organisation. It claims that its standards are higher than those set by the EU. Of course, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has overall responsibility for regulating the organic food production and distribution industry in Britain.

Organic food and food produced by conventional methods must meet the same food safety standards as those set by the FSA. Among other tests, the FSA analyses all foodstuffs for residual pesticides and food additives. On average, it takes farmers three years to convert from farming using conventional methods to organic farming credited by the Soil Association. Many farmers produce organic food without going through the costs of the transfer or accreditation process, but they cannot legally call their produce organic. The Soil Association believes that organic food, which is produced to high standards, is tastier, more nutritious, and contains fewer additives such as aspartame and monosodium glutamate, than food produced by conventional methods, although 30 additives are permitted in organic farming. The association claims that organic food is pesticide free and contains no food produced from genetically modified crops, that organic meat is free of antibiotics, and that there are no hidden costs of production. It also claims that animal welfare is better on organic farms and that organic farming is good for the environment.

Undoubtedly, some of those claims are true, but non-organic farmers can also make them. Organic food is bought by some 75 per cent. of UK consumers, at least occasionally, but it makes up only about 1.6 per cent. of the overall food market. UK farmers are capable of producing 70 per cent. of the organic food sold in Britain, but produce only about 45 per cent. Sales of organic pork are actually going down because of the cost of organic feed, which is increasingly imported.

According to the Soil Association, organic food and drink sales in the UK nudged the £2 billion mark for the first time in 2006, an increase of 22 per cent. on the previous year. To meet the increasing demand for organic food, buyers source their foodstuffs in far away places such as Chile, Kenya and Israel. A debate is raging about the damage that flying produce in from all over the world does to our environment. The justification for importing food that way is that foods such as strawberries can be made available throughout the year for British consumers, and that producing them out of season in the UK would be extremely costly and would require heated greenhouses.

Although the Soil Association can control carefully the production of organic food in this country, it is doubtful whether it can assert the same degree of control in the many countries from which the UK imports its organic produce, which gives plenty of scope for fraud. Wal-Mart, for example, has been accused in the USA of selling “organic” food that was in fact not organically produced.

Yields of organic crops are considerably lower than in conventional farming and more land is taken up by organic crops. Should we encourage developing countries to grow organic crops when, in many cases, they have a problem feeding their rapidly expanding populations? There is also the question about whether growers in developing countries receive a fair price for the produce that they export to Britain. Yet more land is taken up by growing crops that produce natural pesticides such as, for example, chrysanthemums, from which pyrethrum is extracted in Kenya and Peru.

There is a growing realisation that industrialisation of farming has damaged the environment, and there is a return in conventional farming to planting hedgerows, which leaves buffer strips of land in which wildlife can develop and survive, and crop rotation is coming back big style.

Market gardening and farming was part of my life until I entered university in 1958. We produced organic food, although that was not our intention. It was difficult to keep aphids off the lettuce, and I dug many failed crops under as a result of infestation—we simply could not sell those lettuces. The only pesticide in the early 1940s was nicotine, which we piled and burned in our greenhouses. Similarly, we lost tomatoes to rust—a fungal growth on the stems of the plants— and our fruit was full of grubs and our root crops were similarly infested.

My father and others like him in farming and market gardening were extremely pleased when chemistry came to our rescue with its so-called green revolution, which delivered pesticides and herbicides that prevented the destruction of our crops by various pests and weeds. Yields increased remarkably, and our business became financially viable. How many organic growers in Britain could today survive if they were not surrounded by non-organic growers that keep pests off their crops—the so-called umbrella effect, which I believe to be real? I do not wish to go back to the good old days that I described of food production in the 1940s.

In the past 10 years there has been a 19 per cent. reduction in the volume of synthetic pesticides, as farmers switch to newer and better products. In any case, as I explained, the FSA regularly tests the levels of residual pesticide on all food, whether produced organically or conventionally.

In August 2007, the Crop Protection Association welcomed the Soil Association’s acknowledgement at Hay-on-Wye that organic farmers use pesticides, which it had denied for most of its existence. Indeed, copper sulphate, pyrethrum—a nerve toxin and potential carcinogen—and other chemicals used by organic farmers are probably more dangerous to the environment than the pesticides used in modern farming. Organic farmers would like us to believe that organic foods are uncontaminated by chemicals when they are not. The organic pesticide rotenone, which is sold as Derris powder, is highly toxic to humans, yet organic farmers are allowed to apply it right up to harvest. It persists for a particularly long period on olives and is concentrated in olive oil. Farm workers who spray solutions of bacillus thuringiensis, a soil bacterium that produces a protein that is toxic to caterpillars, have reported respiratory problems, and it causes fatal lung infections in mice, yet organic farmers insist that what is natural is safe and that synthetic chemicals are extremely toxic. That is nonsense.

Biocontrol of pests has been effective in some circumstances, especially for protecting high-value crops grown in greenhouses, but biocontrol often involves the importation of non-native species, with all the dangers that that might entail.

The idea of organic food has been hijacked by modern supermarkets to increase their profits. Indeed, according to research conducted by Morgan Stanley in 2005, organic food is 63 per cent. more expensive than food grown by conventional farmers. The notion that organic food is tastier than food grown by conventional methods is not proven. Similarly, according to the FSA, the president of the National Farmers Union, Peter Kendall, and others, there is little evidence that organic food is more nutritious.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the localist agenda is implicit in the organic debate and that supermarkets are hugely hypocritical given some of their processes? I am thinking in particular of an infamous case in my constituency—that of the Lampeter carrots. They were shipped to Peterborough for packaging and sent back to Bristol for sale, with obvious and serious carbon footprint implications.

I am afraid that carrots are a contentious issue with the Soil Association and with Prince Charles.

Milk contains higher levels of short-chain omega 3 polyunsaturated fatty acids if the cows producing it are fed on grass and red clover, but those do not seem to have the same health promoting benefits as the longer-chain omega 3 polyunsaturated fatty acids that are found in oily fish diets.

Nor are organic foods safer than conventional foods. Organic foods grown in soil fertilised with manure are at greater risk of being contaminated by mycotoxins, or fungi. Fungal toxins are a particular problem in organic foods because all effective fungicides are synthetic in origin and prohibited for use by the Soil Association. Copper sulphate and sulphur, which are used, are far less effective.

Organic potato crop yields are lowered to 50 to 60 per cent. of conventional potato crop yields because fungal diseases, such as the blight phytophthora infestans, affect the crops badly. The FSA has reported that organic corn meals have significantly higher contamination rates with the dangerous mycotoxin fumonisin. In some climatic regions, ergot, which causes ergotism—otherwise known as St. Anthony’s fire—is a considerable problem with cereal crops. It killed hundreds of thousands of people in Europe in previous centuries.

Eggs without the Lion mark are more likely to be contaminated with salmonella. A study in Denmark in 2001 showed that organic chicken is three times more likely to be contaminated with campylobacter than conventional chicken. Incidentally, it is also three times the price.

People who have eaten only organic foods during their lifetime are no healthier than the rest of us and do not live longer either. The pioneers of organic farming were idealists. They were anti-science and had an antagonism for market-driven capitalism. Ironically, their ideals have been hijacked today by the market economy.

The existence of magazines such as Organic Life suggests that the Foreign Secretary may have been right when, as the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, he said that organic farming and organic food sales were about a “lifestyle”.

I am not against organic farming—let me get that straight—but those who promote it should tell it as it is and not hide from the facts or mislead the public as they have done regularly in the past. Like all markets, the foodstuffs market, with its plethora of products and brand names, is becoming a very confusing area for consumers. We should not lose sight of the central message that a diet high in fresh fruit and vegetables, safely produced and affordable, and low in processed foods, with their high sugar and salt contents, is better for all of us.

I would genuinely like to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) on securing the debate, which is on an important issue. He has been through many of the issues that I wished to touch on and I shall try not to repeat what he said, but I will follow a generally similar line of argument.

I would like to say first, as my hon. Friend did when he finished his speech, that I am not against better welfare for animals or better production methods on farms and trying to produce a farming product, whether it is an animal or a vegetable, of as good a quality as possible, with the least damage to the environment. There is a general consensus that that is a good thing. Unfortunately, the label “organic”—which is a bit of a misnomer; as though there was some other kind of farming—has come to mean “good” and that all the rest is bad. That is inappropriate.

Before getting into the detail of what I want to say, I shall quote C. S. Prakash, a famous and distinguished plant biologist, who said:

“Organic farming is sustainable. It sustains poverty and malnutrition.”

That is the worry with following the line of argument that many of the people who lead the organic movement follow.

This debate allows us to explore two issues. First, what are the Government and the EU’s policies towards organic farming? Are they consistent? Is it right that we are putting subsidy and support into getting farms to transfer to become certified by the Soil Association, and is it right that that association is recognised as the certification agency? There is a larger issue, which concerns everybody in relation to the complicated issues that face people in this country and on the planet generally. How is science being helped to improve the difficult situations that people face in world farming and in trying to feed everybody on the planet and to ensure that people are not poisoned but have safe food? Those are the two main issues that my hon. Friend has allowed us to debate today.

I shall not repeat my hon. Friend’s points about Rudolf Steiner and his bizarre beliefs about biodynamic agriculture and forces, except to slander him some more by reminding people that the man did join the Nazi party as well as holding those other strange beliefs. There is no doubt that when Lady Balfour set up the organic movement and the Soil Association, it was his ideas that she had in mind.

In a sense, that would be completely irrelevant if the organic farming movement now was following sensible, rational, evidence-based policies, but then we get to people such as Patrick Holden, who ran the Soil Association. He dismisses the possibility and even the sense of having scientific tests on the claims that are made by the organic farming movement and the Soil Association. It is a similar position to that taken by the homeopathic movement. Basically, he says that organic farming is holistic, integrated and joined-up; therefore, it is not subject to scientific testing. That is mumbo-jumbo; it is hokum.

May I support the hon. Gentleman in what he is saying? I remember a debate at the Royal Institution to which Patrick Holden came. He said that there has to be room in public policy for an irrational approach and that a rational approach—a scientific approach—could not always be the way forward. I think that, when we are dealing with the livelihood of the competition to the Soil Association, the health and safety of food and, indeed, the future of our environment, we rely even more on a rational, science-based approach.

I could not agree with the hon. Gentleman more. Holden’s view is really an “Animal Farm” view of four legs good, two legs bad, because he clearly says that synthetic chemicals are bad and natural chemicals are good as though there is any difference. It is like the people who campaign against fluoride in tap water. People think that there is good fluoride, which is natural fluoride, and there is bad fluoride, which has come from an industrial process. They forget that all the fluoride atoms and ions were made 6 or 7 billion years ago in the centre of a dying nuclear star and they are exactly the same chemical. It is nonsense and leads to an irrational application of the principles.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East mentioned bacillus thuringiensis—I apologise if I have not pronounced that accurately; I shall call it BT for the rest of the discussion—which is allowed under the Soil Association’s rules.

A number of speakers have referred to the importance of taking an evidence-based approach. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is a pity that the FSA is not rather speedier in responding to evidence in areas such as food additives? Only under pressure from worried consumer groups did it acknowledge that certain E additives to food were likely to worsen the behaviour of children who, for instance, were subject to attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. The FSA, if it is the guardian of a science-based approach, is not always impeccable in what it does, is it?

My hon. Friend makes a point about timing, and we all wish for things to happen more quickly. I do not necessarily accept his point about the lack of objectivity of the FSA. It has a lot of information to gather and must get it right. I shall return to some of the FSA’s points.

BT is a pesticide allowed by the Soil Association that contains 130 toxins when sprayed, but the Soil Association does not allow genetically modified plants such as maize or soya to be used if one gene has been removed from BT and placed in the plant, although that is more specific in repelling particular caterpillars and beetle larvae. The Soil Association rejects the less damaging process and allows the more damaging one. That is completely irrational, as is permitting the use of copper fungicides and not other pesticides.

I do not agree with my hon. Friend about GMOs, as a rationalist view is emerging on the matter. On his point about science, we had an interesting session at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs yesterday to consider vaccination for bovine tuberculosis. The parallel is that we do not know whether we will find the answers. There is a pervasive view that science will always find the answers. If organic food, because it is unnecessary, is considered bad and GMOs good, some of us will reject that. It is far too simplistic, and the public are on to something when they themselves reject it.

I was really talking about the Soil Association’s inconsistent attitude. I do not think that the debate about GM foods is simple; there are many factors to be taken into account. I am arguing for a rational, evidence-based look at the issues, rather than one inspired by late 19th and early 20th-century mysticism.

There is no doubt that organic food is becoming more popular. It is claimed that it tastes better, is healthier and safer and benefits the environment. I think that most people agree that fresh food tastes better, but when the Advertising Standards Authority considered the academic studies and did its own tests, it found no taste difference between organic food and food not labelled as organic. Obviously, in some cases organic food will taste better and in some cases it will not.

Is it healthier and safer? In January 2007, my noble Friend Lord Rooker said:

“I repeat: no unsafe food is on sale. No one can claim that their food is safer than anyone else’s. Any unsafe food would be illegal if it was on sale.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 25 January 2007; Vol. 688, c. 1315.]

That is quite clear. One of the arguments given against the safety of non-organic food is that the use of pesticides is allowed. We have heard that pesticides may be used on organic food, but what is not usually mentioned in Soil Association propaganda is how much pesticide may or may not be present on organic and non-organic food. It is present in such small amounts that it is unlikely to do any harm. There is no evidence that it does any, and as Sir John Krebs from the Food Standards Agency said recently, coffee has many more naturally occurring residues than are present in food grown non-organically in this country.

Is not the hon. Gentleman’s last sentence the nub of the issue? Many plants in this world contain naturally occurring substances that are highly poisonous if taken to excess. If those substances had been invented by scientists rather than developing naturally in the plant world, they would almost certainly be banned.

The hon. Gentleman makes two pertinent points—one about the testing of natural or synthetic chemicals to know whether they are safe, and one about the dose. Those are the key issues, not some mysticism about where they come from.

The hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) said—and we would all agree—that we want an improved environment. One of the claims for organic farming is that it is good for the environment. An experiment called the Boarded Barns farm experiment was done in Ongar, Essex, comparing organic farming with integrated farm management and conventional farming. It found in virtually every case that integrated farm management was more productive, because 50 per cent. more land was often needed for organic farming—as well as more manure, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East said.

Rather surprisingly—the statistics are extremely difficult to obtain—it appears that integrated farm management, rather than organic farming, is better for biodiversity and bird life. One of the issues that the Soil Association and the organic farming movement often do not address is that organic farming requires an enormous amount of field ploughing, which destroys worms and makes it much more difficult for bird life to survive. In a parliamentary answer, my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, North (Barry Gardiner) mentioned

“the inherent environmental benefits delivered by farming organically.”—[Official Report, 16 April 2007; Vol. 459, c. 90W.]

I ask the Government to look at the Boarded Barns farm experiment and consider whether they can sustain and justify that position. I do not believe that it is justifiable.

There is undoubtedly a great uneasiness out there about science. It has been caused, for instance, by BSE and the problems 40 years ago with thalidomide. Those two issues caused a lot of damage and death—we do not yet know the extent of the damage—but it would be a mistake to replace scientific assessment with something else. The fact that science does not always get it right is no excuse for moving away from the scientific method.

One of the so-called successes of the Soil Association and the more extreme parts of the green movement—well, less extreme, I suppose—was the more or less worldwide abolition of the use of DDT following the publication in 1962 of Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring”, which was taken up by the Soil Association. It has been said that DDT causes cancer of the liver. “Silent Spring” said that it was responsible for the decline in this country of the osprey population, the decline of peregrine falcons and the thinning of eggshells. Latter inspection has showed that none of those claims is true, but DDT has been banned more or less around the world. Aid agencies will not support countries, such as Uganda, that continue to use DDT. Over time, that has led not to a relatively small number of deaths such as those from BSE nor—I would not want to minimise it—to the sort of damage done to a number of human beings by thalidomide but to millions and millions of deaths around the world, and especially in the third world. Nevertheless, banning the use of DDT is claimed to be one of the successes of the movement.

The debate is therefore a plea for people to take a rational look at the huge problems that confront us. We seem to have got ourselves into a situation in which the Soil Association has taken over, with the Government putting its members on quangos and certifying certain things, but what lies behind it and what it is doing is essentially irrational. I believe that we have lost the public relations argument—that we have lost the battle of spin—and that, in the short term, the rationalists have lost to the irrationalists. If that continues—if we try to approach the huge problems of global warming in the same way—then we will make the wrong decisions. That will be costly, and only the populations of richer countries will be able to afford to eat.

Again, I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East for giving us the opportunity to debate the subject.

It is a pleasure, Mrs. Humble, to speak under your chairmanship. I had not intended to speak but merely to support my good colleague, the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon), on this important issue. He spoke with typical expertise, and I am sorry that I shall not be able to stay to hear the responses to the debate. However, a couple of fresh points need to be made about the role of lobbyists.

First, I congratulate the hon. Member for Manchester, Blackley (Graham Stringer) on his contribution. He was absolutely right. I am delighted that he drew attention to the disaster that was the attack on using DDT as an anti-malarial, even for indoor spraying. It was never implicated in the allegations over the impact of wider spraying in agriculture, which were proved to be false. It is a tragedy that, even today, some developing countries are still arguing that they should have the tool of affordable and effective anti-malarial mosquito treatments such as DDT. There are still questions on whether the position of the Department for International Development in supporting those countries’ using DDT for indoor spraying is ethical and appropriate.

I turn to the role of those lobbying for organic food. I put my position on record. I enjoy eating organic food as an option. The choice should be available. I know that the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East is strongly in favour of consumer choice, and from our perspective no one is talking of restricting it. I recognise the efforts of organic farmers to make provision for animal welfare, which is important. I also recognise that organic farming is one form of less intensive agriculture, and that when the environment is under pressure or in danger from over-intensive agriculture, it can be a solution to environmental blight.

There is a question about whether—in practice and not in theory, because if we did things differently we would have enough food for the world—the world could afford to cope with the reduced yields that would be consequent upon a mass switch from intensive to less intensive farming, particularly those on the margins who might not get the food that they need.

I recognise the environmental benefits that could flow from organic farming as an example of a less extensive form of farming. However, as the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East stated, it is a multi-billion pound industry. The same questions, the same scepticism and the same rigour must be applied to lobbyists and industry trade associations for that industry as we rightly apply to lobbyists and trade associations for other multi-billion pound industries. I think of the pharmaceutical industry, which is “guilty” of producing drugs that cure people of their illnesses, not merely providing dietary choice. I believe that we do not provide that degree of oversight and scepticism about the organisations that lobby in the direct financial interests of their members—in this case, for organic farmers. The Soil Association is very effective at doing so. That is its job. However, it is not independent, let alone a scientific advisory group, but an industry trade body with a vested financial interest.

That is why we are right to ask why its view is given credence, unsubstantiated by recognition of what always happens in agriculture—for example, that there should be an impractical limit on the amount of coexistence of genetically modified products in low quantities in crops from organic farms. The European Union has a reasonable and practical limit and there has always been an adventitious co-mixing of different types of crop in agriculture, yet the Soil Association goes for a limit that is 10 times lower, which is almost impossible to meet and has never been applied in agriculture in other areas. It does so because it wants to do down competition from other forms of less intensive agriculture, such as the use of GM technology. The association has a right to its view, and it has no problems in expressing it, but the House and the media should apply due scepticism because of its vested financial interests.

I shall not repeat the remarks of the hon. Member for Manchester, Blackley about the association’s approach to science, but I take the opportunity to defend the Food Standards Agency against the allegation that it has been non-scientific in its approach to organic food or food additives. Based on science, the FSA has taken exactly the right approach in response to recent research on food additives. Indeed, the detail shows that there simply is not enough information to argue for bans on specific products.

Similarly, when Sir John Krebs, the chairman of the FSA and a constituent of mine, rightly pointed out that there was no good scientific evidence for a health benefit of organic food he was roundly criticised. Despite the fact that he is the independent, academic chairman of an independent agency that was rightly set up by the Government to give the public confidence, he was attacked for showing bias in pointing out what is now recognised—that there is no evidence base for health benefits from organic food. It has been alleged that the FSA had caved in to lobbying from non-scientific consumer organisations with various vested interests; I applaud the fact that the agency has taken that view.

As for vested interests, it is important to mention Prince Charles, as far as is permitted by the rules of the House. He is the heir to the throne, and he therefore does not allow himself to be questioned by Members of Parliament or the media, as is expected of every other player. For instance, Ministers have to be interviewed on the “Today” programme.

From a sedentary position, the Minister says too often, but I can go in his place if he wishes.

Ministers and others have to defend their arguments and they come before Select Committees to put their point of view, but Prince Charles does not because of his role. However, he has a financial interest in promoting organic farming, and he promotes organic food in his speeches and writings. That is fair enough—at least it is open. What concerns me is that the heir to the throne should seek to use his influence behind the scenes, in personal and private communications with Ministers that are not revealed under the freedom of information legislation. It cannot be right for someone to behave like that when they are in such a position—with a financial interest because of the work of their estate. As far as I am able, I question whether that can be right, and I urge those who advise the prince to bear in mind the issues that I have mentioned.

I conclude by once again thanking the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East for bringing the subject matter of the debate before the House. It is about time that we were able to put arguments for, as it were, the other side, and I apologise once again for not staying to hear the closing remarks.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs. Humble. I congratulate the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) on introducing the debate, which is a timely one. I did not anticipate that I would be speaking quite so early on, and I expected more hon. Members to contribute. However, my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) has entered the fray and made a valuable contribution. I anticipated that more hon. Members who support the organic farming movement would be present to put their point of view, but perhaps the reputation and rigorous approach of the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East on these matters deterred them.

The hon. Member for Bolton, South-East has been very fair in his remarks this morning. I do not think that any hon. Member present would want to imply that organic farming should not be an integral part of British agriculture. What we are saying is that organic food and organic farming should be subject to the same tests as for all food production, and that those tests should be carried out objectively so that the public can be assured that the food they are eating is safe and reflects the claims that are made for it.

I want to congratulate the organic movement and compare it in some ways with the fair trade movement. Those are two strands of agriculture that have really engaged with the public, and the great benefit that that has brought to the food industry in this country is that consumers have been encouraged to question the origin of food, the way in which it is produced, and the return that is given to the producers. That inquiring frame of mind is good for the industry, because we need consumers who are knowledgeable and capable of making choices.

As has already been said, organic food should be tested on a number of criteria. Food safety is one, and is a key issue. There is a lack of clarity in the claim that pesticides are not used—whether straightforward ones, or herbicides or fungicides. Hon. Members have given examples of certain substances that have been used in organic food production that have questionable implications.

I do not believe that the health benefits of organic food have been properly tested. I agree with the National Farmers Union that the organic food movement should not make claims against other forms of production. That is unfair. The hon. Member for Manchester, Blackley (Graham Stringer) said, I think, that no food should be sold in this country that is unsafe. Consumers should be able to have confidence that that is the case.

Animal welfare is another issue. Over the years, conventional agriculture has not had a good record on that, and if the organic movement has progressed the thinking on it, it has achieved a lot. I think particularly of the use of antibiotics in conventional agriculture —both to prevent disease and for growth promotion. That has led to antibiotic resistance that has implications not only in animal production but in human health as well. The same concerns apply to the use of anthelmintics in animal production.

I wonder sometimes why the organic movement is against vaccination in general but very much in favour of it in relation to foot and mouth disease. I have no doubt that that will be explained now that I have raised it in this debate.

A number of claims have been made on the environment, but the hon. Member for Manchester, Blackley was quite right to refer to the problems of deep ploughing in organic production as a means of weed control. In conventional agriculture, the move is towards minimal cultivation, with less energy use and less herbicide use too. Plants will not grow without nitrogen, so it has to be found somewhere—whether in organic or inorganic fertilisers or from nitrogen fixation by legumes. A standard organic rotation with the use of clover to build up fertility requires the ploughing up of the clover to allow planting of grain crops or cash crops. The plant breeding objective of trying to get nitrogen fixation into cereal crops has so far been unsuccessful.

Carbon emissions are an important issue. Current estimates of the contribution of British agriculture to greenhouse gases vary, but a figure of 7 per cent. has been proposed. Of that 7 per cent., however, it seems to me that at least 50 per cent. comes from nitrogen oxides that are made either in fertiliser production or as a result of emissions from the soil after the use of inorganic fertilisers. Some 33 per cent. is from methane, and perhaps only 16 per cent. from carbon emissions from fuel use and other sources.

It is questionable whether organic farming can contribute to lowering carbon emissions. Although the inputs are lower, and the energy use is probably lower, the output is lower as well. The thing to look at is the units of greenhouse gases produced per unit of food.

Another issue is taste and consumer preference, and I am all for customer choice. In my constituency is Graig Farm Organics. When I talk to the head of that organisation, he puts great emphasis on food handling—particularly of meat, so that it is not rushed from slaughterhouse to plate and so that time is given for carcases to mature and be presented to the customer in the best possible way. I am sure that the taste that is often claimed for organic food is very often due to its handling, and the same techniques could equally be applied to conventional food.

An issue that has not been touched on today but that will become more important is that of food security and of competition between the use of land for energy production and for food production. We should consider the absolute quantities of food that any one piece of land can produce, because there is going to be competition for that land for energy production as well as food production. I am very concerned about the destruction of the Amazon and other rain forests for the production of food and energy. If there is a reduction in food production because of a move to a less intensive system, we shall obviously need more land, which raises the possibility of more rain forests being destroyed.

The variations in certification are another issue. Although a unified scheme across the European Union provides at least a minimum standard—the Soil Association claims to have higher standards—without doubt in other countries certification is either less rigorous or less well observed. Organic producers in this country could be at a serious disadvantage if it is claimed that imported food is organic when it does not meet the same criteria as our food. Will the Government ensure that when food comes into this country it meets the same standards as are required from our producers?

A great range of agriculture is carried out in this country, from organic to very intensive, but there are a huge number of levels in between, too. Not only that, but nowadays, with the single farm payment and cross compliance, environmental considerations are at the heart of the Government’s support for agriculture.

I want particularly to mention LEAF—Linking Environment and Farming. It promotes a responsible level of input, so that it is not put on in excess. Farmers cannot afford to do that because of the costs of the inputs, and they also have a detrimental effect on the environment.

Organic farming has, I believe, played a valuable part in re-engaging the consumer with food production. Government support is needed to ensure that the demand for organic food is at least met in the medium term because of the costs of changing from conventional to organic farming. I also support the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East in urging the Government to ensure that all food in this country meets the same standards for food safety. It is only then that the customer can have confidence in what he is eating and can make the choices that are needed.

I am happy to serve again under your chairmanship, Mrs. Humble.

I want to congratulate the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) on securing the debate and on dealing with an important subject in such a reasoned way. I confess that when I was asked to come and speak on behalf of the Opposition on organics, I had a horrible feeling that I was going to listen to a series of eulogies on the benefits of organic farming and that I would feel that it was all very difficult. I think that most people know that I am personally slightly sceptical about the benefits of organic food, but I want to represent a balanced position and some of my colleagues take a different view on the subject.

The debate reminds me that a long while ago, there used to be car stickers that said, “Don’t criticise farmers with your mouth full”. Much of the debate reflects the fact that we are well fed and looked after, that we have got used to having plenty of food ever since the war and that we can give ourselves the sort of benefits and luxuries that organic food in some ways provides. I feel that the reasoning is slightly the same as that behind why people go out and buy branded trainers and T-shirts and so on. They might be twice the price, and there might be no evidence that they are any better, but it somehow makes people feel better that they have something with one of the famous brands on it.

We cannot get away from the fact that organic food is the fastest growing sector of the food market, which is basically, for obvious reasons, a stable market. It saw a 22 per cent. increase last year and passed the £2 billion mark. It is still a very tiny sector of the market, but, nevertheless, it is the only bit that is growing and it is very important. What has changed is that many of the farmers who are producing organic food and farming organically are not doing it out of some personal absolute conviction of the benefits, but because it is a market opportunity. A large vegetable and salad producer in my constituency already has 1,500 acres converted and more land in conversion. That is all going to lettuce, celery and such salad crops. That demonstrates the scale of the business.

Of course, the vast majority of our organic food is imported. The points that several hon. Members have made about the different standards around the world are extremely important. There are 11 different certification bodies in this country—I hope that that is right, but the Minister will correct me if it is not. In any case, it is a lot. That in itself worries me because, as we have already heard, they do not all have the same standards. We know that other countries in Europe operate on the minimal European standard and my understanding is that outside Europe, exporting countries simply need to be recognised as applying equivalent standards and inspection regimes. However, they seem to be a variable feast.

Ultimately, what worries me is the consumer. I passionately believe in choice, which has been mentioned several times, but that choice has to be based on accurate information. I seriously wonder whether, if we were to challenge a range of consumers who buy organic food, they would be aware that one packet of organic something or other might not be produced to the same standards as something else that was labelled organic. I strongly suspect that for most consumers, organic is organic, and the different standards are of meaningless consequence. I have a great concern about whether the consumer is being misled by the range of different organic standards not only in this country but in those countries from which we import a huge quantity of product.

I do not intend to waste the Chamber’s time by going into the rights and wrongs of organic food; other hon. Members have done a much more successful job of analysing those points than I would. However, we need to consider what comes next. Those who advocate organic food—many people have referred to the Soil Association, as it is the largest body in this country—would obviously like to see far more land converted to organic production and to put pressure on the Government, and the Opposition parties, to have policies that encourage organic farming. However, I cannot help recalling a few years ago, when there was a lot of support for organic farming and a lot of dairy farmers converted to organic milk production. The result was that the price collapsed as there was not the demand for organic milk at that stage, and the farmers found themselves having to sell highly expensive-to-produce organic milk on to the ordinary milk market. They lost a great deal of money, and to me the lesson of that is that if production is artificially stimulated ahead of demand, that invites trouble. I have a big question mark in my mind about whether there is a role for Government artificially to stimulate organic production any more than the market already does. Obviously, as I have said, it is a great market opportunity and if producers want to fulfil it, it is only right and proper that farmers, who are increasingly encouraged to consider what the consumer demands, should be able to do so.

Hon. Members have gone through some of the contradictions about chemicals, pesticides and other things, and I will not repeat them. I strongly suspect that the consumer does not understand that and that the consumer believes that what organic means is that a product has not been treated with chemicals. That is a fundamental misunderstanding. However, the biggest issue is the confusion to which several hon. Members have referred between local food, fresh food and organics. There is a huge amount of confusion. I like to eat fresh food, and I like to eat local food. Personally, I am not worried whether it is organic or not because I think that freshness and the fact that it is local, which often goes with that, are far more important in terms of taste, quality and so on. Again, however, there is an issue here: some people have, perhaps, confused others unintentionally.

The hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams) referred to energy, which is very important to think about in today’s world. There seems little doubt that, overall, organics are friendlier to the environment in terms of energy consumption—estimates reckon they emit about 26 per cent. less carbon. However, that ignores the points made by the hon. Member for Manchester, Blackley (Graham Stringer) about deep ploughing and other issues about the environmental impact beyond the direct issue of carbon emissions.

Is the hon. Gentleman aware of a study carried out for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs by the Manchester Business School, which shows that in actual fact organic farming might be more expensive in terms of energy than conventional farming—the reverse of what he just said?

I confess that I am not aware of that study and I shall look it up readily later. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for drawing it to my attention. Perhaps that is the price of following a brief that came from the other side of the argument.

I want to touch also on the issue of food security, which has been referred to by a number of hon. Members. I take the view that this will be of increasing importance in this country. There is an apparent contradiction between lower yields from organics and the demand for more and more food production. I understand that the lower yields vary very much depending on the type of product. For salads, the difference is marginal—5 or 10 per cent.—and in dairy foods it is about 15 per cent. However, for bulk commodities, such as grain, the difference in yields between organic and conventional farming can be about 40 per cent. Obviously, that is a horrendously large number and would have a huge impact on food security.

Those are the figures for north-west Europe. The organic movement claims, however, that in much of the rest of the world, and particularly the developing world, there is virtually no difference. The movement seems to argue, therefore, that everything is perfectly all right. I would point out, however—I think that the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East made this point—that agriculture in those countries is very under-developed. They do not use what most farmers would describe as modern technologies to produce their crops and aid self-sufficiency. I think that if we all adopted the same standards, we would find the same difference in production across the world, which has huge benefits. That is why I started my remarks by saying that we should not criticise farmers with our mouths full. We should never forget that, ultimately, we need to keep people fed.

I want to touch on the issue of genetically modified foods as well, which obviously is a hugely vexed issue. I have little doubt that generally people in this country are completely opposed to it, which is why there are virtually no GM products on the market, although a lot of livestock products have been fed on GM foods. My personal view—I stress that it is a personal view—is that the organic movement will live to regret discounting GM foods in the way that it has done. I believe that GM foods have the potential to achieve a great deal of what the organic movement seeks to achieve—a reduction in the use of artificial chemicals to aid production. GM foods could do that. The obvious example is that if we could produce a wheat with its own nitrogen-fixing nodules, such as those in legumes, we could reduce massively the demand for nitrogenous fertiliser, which we have all referred to, in different ways, as one of the major agricultural emissions. I feel that the organic movement has made a fundamental error there. I do not know how long it will be before it thinks twice about it.

I was interested in the comment by the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East about the origins of organics. I am much more of a practical man, and was interested in the way in which he described the purpose of horns or, indeed, antlers—about how they are all part of the digestive process. I am lucky enough to own a small herd of pedigree highland cattle with very large horns and can see uses for those horns much more prosaic than aiding digestion, and sometimes I am on the wrong end of those prosaic uses.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on obtaining this fascinating debate. I shall pay him the credit of rereading what he has just said, which is not something that I often do, I must confess. It was a very worthwhile introduction. I believe strongly in choice, but that choice must be on the provision of accurate information. Like other Members, I object strongly to conventional farmers criticising organic farmers as a bunch of cranks, but equally I share strongly the views of everybody who has said that organic producers and the organic movement should stop suggesting that everybody who uses pesticides is out to poison the world. That is blatantly untrue. I am quite certain that if it had not been for the development of pesticides in the last 60 or 70 years, most of us would be going hungry today.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs. Humble, and to reply to this debate on behalf of Lord Rooker, who is the Minister with direct responsibility for the matter before us. In my view he is one of the best Ministers that any Government have been fortunate enough to have serving them. He is an incredibly successful and hard-working Minister.

I am in danger of agreeing with the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice). I suppose that I might be accused of pinching his policies if I say that I agree with his summing-up on the point about choice and the accusations and counter-accusations. My hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) is to be congratulated. This is the first debate in the House on this subject for two years. I wish that the media would report the debates in this House, and in this Chamber in particular, with greater coverage. I think that we have had a most stimulating and well-informed debate today.

My hon. Friend is a scientist, and it is characteristic of science not only that it must use deduction in order to make a point, but that it makes testable propositions. If a proposition is not testable, it is probably meaningless. The question that faces us, therefore, is: what methods do we use to test the claims? My Department tests its policies on science. We are one of only two Departments with our own chief science officer and a network of access to science that, in my experience, is unparalleled in environment Departments in countries of a comparable size—the United States is probably the only one that could claim greater reach.

Despite increases in recent years, organic farming remains a very small part of food and farming in our country. Some 3.5 per cent. of the total agricultural area is under organic management. The market for produce is between 1 and 2 per cent. of the total. Nevertheless, as I say, it has experienced phenomenal growth in recent years and is now, I believe, established as a permanent feature of the food and farming landscape. On the geographical coverage, in 1997—I pick the year because it is 10 years ago, and not in order to make a partisan point—the area under organic management in the United Kingdom was a little less than 51,000 hectares. By the beginning of this year, that figure was 620,000, of which just more than 120,000 were added by conversion. In other words, we have seen a twelve-fold increase. In 1997, there were fewer than 1,000 farmers of organic produce in the United Kingdom, but by the beginning of this year that number had increased to 4,600—we heard an example of one this morning.

As has been said, the retail sales of organic products in the UK are approaching £2 billion. The forecast is that that figure will grow steadily. The share of the organic market for produce that we grow here, supplied by home producers, also continues to increase.

The changes have been brought about by consumer demand, clearly, but also by Government action. So what about the points that have been made—what does organic farming deliver in the Government’s view? There is evidence that organic production is beneficial, on the whole, to biodiversity. The mixed farming practised under organic systems also contributes to the quality of the landscape and the beauty of rural areas.

The more general environmental picture, for example on the production of greenhouses gases, is less clear-cut, with claims and counter-claims. However, there is evidence that organic farming systems generally incur less energy use than conventional systems. I shall explain that point. As has been said, it is important to consider the production of fertilisers when calculating carbon footprints. One has to consider lifestyle. The question that has to be asked—the debate has brought it up—is: what is the balance between the environmental benefits of producing organic food and the benefit of the farming methods used, many of which could also be used in conventional, inorganic farming? That relates to my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East’s central point.

Organic farming has its proponents, of whom the Government are one because of the environmental benefits that we see from the evidence that is produced. I refer to the scientific studies that have been carried out, on which our policy is partly based: the DEFRA-commissioned study by Shepherd and others in 2002 and the English Nature-Royal Society for the Protection of Birds study of 2003 by Hole and others.

Organic farming contributes to the economic sustainability of rural areas. Research shows that organic farmers are open to developing new enterprises and marketing initiatives. Again, whether that is because of market conditions and the balances of consumer demand, rather than simply because they undertake organic production, depends on the farm and farmer involved. Generally, organic farms are better connected with those whom they supply and therefore with local consumers, food processors and wholesalers. So in rural economies, organic production generally provides more employment opportunities.

I referred earlier to the Boarded Barns farm study, which compared organic farming with integrated farm management and conventional farming. Is that part of the information base that my hon. Friend the Minister’s Department uses when it advises him on the conclusions that he is talking about? If not, will he examine the study?

I am told that it is, but the general point that I wish to make is that the matter is linked to the debate about life cycles and their carbon footprints. All judgments on organic produce must consider the alternatives as well as the amount of carbon produced in a life cycle. The debates on rainforests and fuel production and on food and fuel are a matter of balance. Transparency, information and scientific evidence are therefore increasingly important, which I know my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East, will welcome—as I said, he is a scientist. The answer to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Blackley, is that, yes, that study is part of the information base.

I was making the point that, in general, organic farming production in this country tends to employ more people than conventional farming because of the methods used. That is not to say that that is inherent in organic farming or that the methods that produce that greater employability cannot be applied to conventional farming methods. That backs up the important point that my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East, made.

Why do consumers want to buy organic food? I shall not be drawn into that debate, other than to say that there are a variety of reasons. Some buy it because of environmental and social concerns, some because they think it is better for them and some because they say it tastes better. Our policy is to respect the right of consumers to reach their own conclusions, but as yet there is no conclusive evidence that organic farming produces greater health and nutritional benefits. I repeat the point that my noble Friend Lord Rooker made in the other place, which has been referred to today: that if food were unsafe, we would not allow it to be sold, whether it was overseas organic food, domestic inorganic food or whatever its source was.

The Minister is right about food safety but, when the claim is made that food from a third-world country or a country outside the European Union is organic, or produced under organic conditions, surely we owe it to our consumers to be able to guarantee that it meets the minimum standards that would be expected in the EU.

Yes, we do, and our regime has been referred to. I am told that there are in fact nine licensing bodies. Of course, it is the job of the port authorities to do what they can. Such problems exist in relation to a wide range of products; I refer the hon. Gentleman to illegal logging and timber produce. There are many other products in relation to which one is at some disadvantage if one is not responsible for their production. Our methods and processes are based on European Union law, and such matters were one reason for the widening of the European Union.

There is little time to answer all the points that have been made. I apologise for that, but I believe that my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East, was seeking to air his views and make his arguments rather than listen to a statement of Government policy. He knows fine well what Government policy is. It is based on the principles of balance, consumers’ right to choose, transparency and the integrity of the products available to the consumer. Increasingly, conventional farmers tend to deride the organic farming sector less, and the organic farming sector tends to deride the inorganic sector less. We believe that the policy is a success story for the United Kingdom.

Organic production has made tremendous strides in the past decade in consumer recognition and the volume of production, although I do not dismiss the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire’s point that consumers need simplicity as well as transparency. The organic sector has become an established feature of the agricultural and food industries. More and more, consumers want to know that their food has been produced safely and in a way that treats farm animals consistent with good welfare. That is not to say that organic systems are the only farming methods that meet those aspirations, but they do tick the right boxes in the minds of consumers.

Progress in the next decade might not be as rapid as in the one just past, and a period of consolidation is likely. However, we can safely say that organic production has established a secure position for itself and that it will continue to progress. The lessons learned by each sector from the other are significant. I thank and congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East, for raising the issue.


It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mrs. Humble. This is the first time that I have spoken with you in the Chair. Little did I think, when we first sat together as colleagues on the Select Committee on Work and Pensions after I was first elected in 2001, that we would be here today. I know that if I move out of order on any point, you will swoop ruthlessly upon me, as you did in those early days of my parliamentary experience.

I welcome the Minister, who is moving to his place. As recently as July and August, I received letters on this matter from his ministerial colleague, the hon. Member for Glasgow, South (Mr. Harris), who appears to have been dealing with the matter to date. I am sure that the Minister will explain why it is he who is dealing with it today.

I am delighted to have secured the debate, which gives those Members whose constituencies the M40 passes through the chance to speak about it and any concerns arising from it. Not surprisingly, I intend to speak largely about a stretch of the M40 in Buckinghamshire that runs approximately from junction 3 in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve), who is here, up through junction 4 in my constituency to junction 5 in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington), who is also here, and then yonder into the deep beyond.

As I told the Department for Transport last week, the main issues that I want to raise today are noise and safety. I shall ask a few questions about the development at Stokenchurch, but will leave that issue largely to my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury, and I shall also ask a few questions about the development at Handy Cross roundabout. In order to explore all those matters, I have to delve into a little history, but the Minister, hon. Members and you, Mrs. Humble, will be relieved to hear that I do not intend to go too far back into mediaeval times, when the road to Oxford wandered, as it still does today, in a sense, from London to Oxford and back again through Wycombe.

I shall start in the 1960s, because what is now the M40 in the area that I am discussing was originally a bypass. As was the fashion of the time, the bypass was designed to pass very close to the villages that it was relieving, including not only High Wycombe in my constituency, but the villages of Bolter End, Wheeler End and Lane End. The first section was constructed in the late 1960s, in the days of the Wilson Government, as a dual-lane road from Handy Cross at junction 4 to Stokenchurch. That road was later designated the M40.

By the early 1980s—we move on from the Wilson period to the early Thatcher period—it was clear that the national motorway network required the extension of the M40 to Birmingham. By that time, environmental awareness was greater than it had been in the 1960s, so the extension from junction 5 to Birmingham was routed away from villages. The feeling in my constituency, certainly, and I think in those of my hon. Friends, is that because the section of the M40 that passes through our constituencies was built earlier, our villages are closer to the noise and disturbance than those near to the sections that were constructed later.

By the late 1980s, moving into the late Thatcher period, it was evident that the dual-lane section of the M40 would not do any more and that it needed to be widened to take the extra traffic. As the work was within existing highway limits, there was no public inquiry and no environmental treatment of the area other than tree planting at the roadsides. It has long been a local grouse in our area that that lack of environmental treatment contrasts with the landscaping and noise protection barriers that were erected between junctions 1A and 3 in the mid-1990s. That section is further down the M40, closer to London, and runs through the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson), who is here.

The widening was unsurprisingly followed by an increase in noise. At first, it was assumed locally that that was simply because of the increased volume of traffic, but it soon became evident that there was an additional factor. The old motorway was surfaced with “quiet” stone mastic asphalt, whereas the new, widened, areas were surfaced with so-called normal asphalt. Some compensation payments were made; indeed, I still get a steady trickle of letters about compensation payments.

Since that period in the late 1980s, traffic has increased further, causing yet more noise. I shall give some figures: 20 years ago, approximately 2,500 heavy goods vehicles a day travelled through that section of the M40; now, almost 3,000 pass through it each night—one every 12 seconds, I am told—which is a 24-hour total of up to 14,000. I pause to consider the number of people who are affected by the problem. I have already named the villages of Lane End, Bolter End and Wheeler End in my constituency, but I also want to mention and honour the work of the M40 Chilterns environmental group, a group of constituents from the section running from the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield all the way up through the Wycombe and Aylesbury constituencies into that of my hon. Friend the Member for Henley. The group has been lobbying Ministers, the Highways Agency, which it has met, and local MPs for at least three years. I shall come back to some of the group’s particular questions about noise.

According to a group publication, “Making the M40 a better motorway through the Chilterns”, by Nigel King, which I have here and which I perused closely before the debate to refresh my memory, 10,000 residents are affected by noise in the section between junctions 3 and 4, near Loudwater and Flackwell Heath in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield, and near Daws Hill in mine, and another 10,000 are affected between junctions 4 and 5 in the places that I have mentioned. My recollection of the distribution of those numbers is that there is a particularly large cluster of residents at Stokenchurch, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury, who will doubtless speak about that later.

Obviously, I cannot relate from first hand the constituency experiences of my colleagues, but I am frequently told by my constituents in Lane End that when the wind is blowing roughly westwards, pretty much the whole village is affected. Right at the top of my pile of papers I have only the latest correspondence from constituents who have quite rightly made their views known to me, as they have to the Department.

Mr. King calculates that the overall noise and visual pollution affects at least 25,000 residents in the whole area, and that people who live within 150 m of the motorway suffer very serious noise and pollution, which also affects—I say this almost as a footnote, but it is important—the walkers and riders who enjoy time out in the Chilterns, which is an area of outstanding natural beauty. He says that the noise can be heard more than 2 miles away. I should add that both Buckinghamshire county council and Wycombe district council in my constituency are sympathetic to the group’s aims.

According to Mr. King, SMA or quiet asphalt has been applied between sections 3 and 4, but that leaves 10,000 people affected by the noise between junctions 4 and 5. He says that SMA has been applied to 15 per cent. of the surface, and the Minister may be able to update that figure. I understand that SMA is usually applied in the left-hand lane where heavy goods vehicles tend to travel, but Mr. King makes the point that much of the noise is generated not only by lorries but by cars passing in the other two lanes that have not yet been treated between junctions 4 and 5.

In 2005, the Department published its M40/A40 route management strategy, which stated that the Department’s aim is

“to minimise the effects of the M40 on both the natural and built environment”

and that it wants

“to take practical steps to minimise noise and disturbance. This includes providing appropriate highway designs and making more use of noise reduction technologies.”

The Minister knows that the Highways Agency has identified fewer than 13 noise hot spots between junctions 3 and 8, and he also knows that the long and short of the matter is that the Department’s view is that they are not noisy enough to have priority treatment or to be treated before 2011.

I have some questions for the Minister to tease out the Department’s thinking. They have been put to me by the M40 group, and if he cannot answer them all today, I would be happy, as I am sure would my hon. Friends, if he would write to me. First, what noise measurements have been made recently in the affected areas, or is the Department simply relying on estimates? My hon. Friends can confirm that the M40 Chilterns environmental group has measured noise on the motorway, so it would be interesting to know whether the Department has regularly done the same.

Secondly, the group claims that the noise severity index on which treatment is measured is biased against rural and semi-rural communities, and argues that people who are as badly affected as people in non-rural areas do not receive the same treatment because they are present in less concentrated numbers. I am not in a position to take a view on that, but will the Minister say to what degree his Department has looked at the way in which similar indices are run in similar European countries to see whether they are roughly parallel, whether any lessons can be learned from the way in which that is done, and whether his Department is studying that?

Thirdly, the group claims that there is an anomaly in treatment. It says that noise levels on the M50 at Bromsberrow Heath are lower than on the M40 in the vicinity of Stokenchurch, but that Stokenchurch has not been treated and Bromsberrow Heath is in the process of being treated. If I send the Minister the group’s calculation, which is detailed, will he return it to me with his comments? The group is claiming that there is a question of equity.

Fourthly, the Highways Agency wrote to me in 2004 saying:

“Developments in lighting technology now make it possible to significantly reduce the amount of light that spills over from the motorway to the surrounding area.”

If the Minister does not have time to deal with that today, will he write to me explaining the basis on which his Department is reducing, and plans further to reduce, light pollution from motorways, which is also a problem in the affected areas that I am describing?

Fifthly, and last in this section, what guidance has the Department recently published on the environmental noise directive, which the group has claimed for a while could affect noise treatment?

I shall turn from noise to safety. There has recently been a bad run of accidents on the M40 in the general vicinity of junction 3. The Sunday before last, a man was unfortunately killed in a four-car pile-up. The Minister may know that in July and August I wrote to his colleague, the hon. Member for Glasgow, South, about a previous accident and concrete barriers, to which I shall turn in a moment. I have looked at the accident figures, and Buckinghamshire county council notes that in the past three years there have been 78 casualties in Buckinghamshire and that 17 were between junctions 3 and 4. The Minister will know that the Highways Agency’s view seems to be that the M40 is not as dangerous on the whole as, for example, the M1. The council notes that no immediate road safety solutions have been identified for the M40, and that progress is slow. According to my local paper, the Bucks Free Press,, whose site I was trawling this morning to ensure that it still exists, conducted a survey that found that that stretch was the third worst in the south-east. I realise that the Highways Agency continually examines accident data to try to identify problem hot spots, but has it contacted about that claim, and what analysis has it made of the site’s figures?

One recent accident in the general vicinity of junction 3—not the one on the Sunday before last—involved crossover, which is largely what my correspondence with the hon. Member for Glasgow, South, was about. The Minister knows that the Department's view is that

“the overall risk to both road users and road workers will be reduced by the use of the rigid concrete barriers on the central reserve of heavily trafficked motorways.”

He said in a letter to me on 14 August that the Department's research programme for this year

“includes a review that could justify an acceleration of the concrete barrier programme.”

When is that review due to report?

I shall turn to two final issues. First, there is a proposal to close the M40 overbridge at junction 5 at Stokenchurch for up to nine months—my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury will talk about that in more detail—and that closure will be complete. It will not be the closure of just one lane, allowing traffic to pass from north to south. That is likely to send some traffic trundling on the highly unsuitable rural roads through Fingest, Frieth, Skirmett, Hambleden and other small villages in my constituency. My hon. Friend wants to know whether both lanes must be closed, because that will cause considerable disruption.

Finally, the Minister knows that Handy Cross at junction 4 is a large crossing point. It has been under a continual process of improvement work almost since I was elected in 2001. It is now crossed by even more lanes than before to ease the passage of traffic. What study has the Department made of the extent to which the changes are delivering the improvements that they were meant to deliver? What effect have the changes had, if any, on local traffic moving through A and B roads? With that, I shall take my seat. I look forward to the Minister’s reply.

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr. Goodman), I welcome you to the Chair, Mrs. Humble. I congratulate him on securing this debate. I shall not repeat at length everything that he said. Instead, I shall focus on several issues, particularly those that affect my constituents in Stokenchurch and, to an extent, in the village of Ibstone, which is south of the motorway.

Let me come straight away to noise. Noise nuisance from the M40 has been raised with me every year that I have been in this place. Stokenchurch is worst affected, more than any other village or hamlet along that stretch of the M40 in Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire. For years, the people of Stokenchurch have, in effect, sacrificed much of their quality of life in favour of allowing the national interest to prevail in the form of the M40 motorway, which is important to individual drivers and, obviously, to commercial hauliers. It is not unreasonable for people in Stokenchurch to say that it is about time they had a bit of consideration, given the disruption and nuisance in their lives as a consequence of what they acknowledge is something that is in the overall national interest.

It is not just me saying that Stokenchurch is worst affected. The Highways Agency commissioned an assessment of noise hot spots alongside the M40. The report was drawn up by Transport Research Laboratory Ltd in association with Halcrow and was presented to the agency in 2006. It clearly identifies Stokenchurch as the worst affected of several settlements along the south-eastern stretch of the M40.

The report gives Stokenchurch a noise severity index rating of 10.2, which is significantly higher than that accorded to any other settlement in the vicinity. The problem for my constituents is the way in which the NSI is calculated. The calculation gives considerable weighting to the size of the settlement affected, with a measurement of the number of people who are directly affected built in to it, so year after year my constituents are told, in effect, that they simply have to bite their tongues and put up with the nuisance.

The nuisance is not getting any better. As we all know, the flow of vehicles continues to increase: it now averages more than 90,000 a day. Some efforts have been made to reduce noise by installing noise suppressant road surfaces, but I understand that that has not been done across all the carriageways, even in the Stokenchurch section of the motorway, but only on those parts of the carriageway that have become worn. The attitude that the Highways Agency takes at present is simply to say to my constituents, “Sorry, it is tough, but you are too small to count for much. All we can do is wait until your stretch of motorway wears out. Perhaps we will put in a noise suppressant surface when we have to resurface for maintenance reasons.”

Such treatment of rural settlements contrasts with all the Government’s fine words about looking after the countryside as well as the town. This morning, I wanted to check that my memory of Government policy had not faded. I looked at what the website for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs says about rural proofing. It states:

“Rural proofing is a commitment by the Government to ensure that all”—


“its domestic policies take account of rural circumstances and needs…It is a mandatory part of the policy making process…Rural proofing applies to all policies, programmes and initiatives and it applies to both the design and delivery stages.”

Not only are my constituents failing to see the Department for Transport and the Highways Agency take such an attitude, but salt was rubbed into the wound when I received a written answer from the Minister’s predecessor, the hon. Member for South Thanet (Dr. Ladyman), stating:

“No action has been taken on ‘rural proofing’ the policy on reducing noise problems from the strategic road network.”—[Official Report, 16 October 2006; Vol. 450, c. 925W.]

There is a stark, blatant contrast between what the Government say on the DEFRA website about their commitment to rural proofing across the board, and what Ministers are actually telling me and what the Highways Agency is telling my constituents in Stokenchurch and Ibstone about the practical, day-to-day conduct of policy in so far as it affects them.

I would ask the Minister to review his policy on action against motorway noise, to deliver what the Government have repeatedly promised in respect of rural proofing and equity between urban and rural areas, and, as a priority, to ensure that decent noise-reducing resurfacing work is done on the sections of the M40 in Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire that have yet to benefit from that change. I would also ask him to take action to introduce further noise suppressant measures, whether bunts or fences.

At the root of the problem faced by my constituents and those of my hon. Friends is the fact that they are living alongside a motorway that was built many years ago to standards of design and environmental protection that nowadays would be regarded as utterly inadequate. If we were to build a new motorway today, we would introduce as a matter of course much more effective noise-reducing measures than were ever introduced on the M40, either when the first stretch was built or when the extension to Birmingham was built. It is time that the Government considered that legacy and took action on it.

Let me deal briefly with pollution. The area of the M40 around Stokenchurch is one of a small number of air quality management zones in Buckinghamshire. Pollution comes primarily from the motorway, so I was somewhat surprised when I saw an e-mail from the Highways Agency to the M40 Chilterns environmental group stating that the agency did not have any responsibility for contributing to an air quality management strategy once the zone had been identified. There seems to be a genuine problem with joining up different arms of national and local government so that collectively we can find a solution. Again, the problem is unlikely to get better. Traffic forecasts are not predicting a reduction in the number of vehicles using that stretch of the M40.

Finally, let me deal with the bridge at Stokenchurch. It is not an exaggeration to say that the announcement by the Highways Agency that it proposed to close the bridge entirely for between seven and nine months was met with horror in Stokenchurch and in the nearby village of Ibstone. I do not know whether the Minister has ever turned off the motorway at that junction, but part of the village of Stokenchurch actually lies to the south of the motorway, and if local residents want to access the centre of their own village, they must cross that motorway bridge. They have now been told that they will be able to walk or cycle over the bridge, which is not much good if one is in one’s 80s, and that if they want to go to their local shops, or visit their friends, church or the local school, they will have to undertake a long diversion either by going down the slip road and up the motorway to the nearest junction and turning round, or by going along narrow, winding country lanes of the sort that my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe discussed.

There is an issue about the proposal’s environmental impact. The Chilterns Conservation Board contacted me, and it is very worried that country lanes running through the Chilterns area of outstanding natural beauty will be harmed by the impact of diverted heavy vehicles. The agency’s proposal for the bridge’s complete closure has been met with strong opposition from the parish councils of Stokenchurch and Ibstone, as well as from numerous individual constituents. Stokenchurch parish council hopes to arrange a public meeting in the near future, and officials from the Minister’s Department and from the Highways Agency will be invited to attend.

What will happen about access by the emergency services to the southern part of Stokenchurch and to Ibstone? Has it been thought through? What will the impact be on school bus services, with, for example, children who are taken by bus from Ibstone to schools in High Wycombe? What about scheduled bus services? What about refuse collection? The decision has been sprung on local residents, and it amounts to enormous disruption to their everyday lives for a long period. From the point of view of the Highways Agency, I understand that to close the whole bridge for seven to nine months means that the work is likely to take less time and to be cheaper than if the agency carried it out while keeping at least one traffic-controlled lane open to all vehicles. However, the initial proposal simply gets the balance wrong. The agency has put its understandable interests ahead of the enormous disruption that will be caused to local people, and I ask the Minister to reconsider the plan and come back with a proposal that secures a better balance between the agency’s interests and those of my constituents.

Noise, safety and pollution will get worse not better if they are not addressed immediately. There are not only regular forecasts of year-on-year increases in traffic flow, but Government proposals for extensive residential development in Aylesbury and Milton Keynes, which mean that local authorities are starting to think in the medium to long-term about the need for a new trunk or major road from Milton Keynes and the Aylesbury area to the Thames valley. If that goes ahead, it will almost inevitably mean even more traffic flowing on to the M40 from those new developments. If we are to find a solution, that consideration must be built into the Government’s plans. It is in the interests not only of the residents, but of the country.

I am grateful for the opportunity to participate in the debate, and particularly grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr. Goodman) for having secured it. The title of the debate allows us to range fairly widely on the subject of the M40, although I shall confine myself principally to what I consider to be the three major issues: road safety, traffic noise and pollution.

The situation in my constituency is slightly different. The M40 starts in my constituency at the Denham viaduct, running through the constituency to junction 3 and then up to Handy Cross. The first section from Denham to the Loudwater viaduct was substantially improved when work on it finished about eight years ago.

I shall start on a complimentary note, because a great deal of investment was put into noise reduction during the motorway’s widening to four lanes along that stretch, and I receive very few complaints about traffic noise. However, I have some regrets. For example, I regret that when it was turned into a four-lane motorway, it was thought necessary, as a matter of obligatory safety, to put in road lighting. Visually, it has intruded on an area of sensitive landscaping, and I repeat to the Government what has become a bee in my bonnet: I simply do not accept the necessity of lighting four-lane motorways as a matter of immediate practice. It is rather extraordinary that we continue to do so when the signal that is sent out about energy wastage by the continuing willingness to put in lamp standards almost everywhere is utterly regrettable. I hope that the Minister will take that point on board.

From evidence that I have seen with my own eyes, I have absolutely no doubt that as a direct result of lighting motorways at night, the overall speed of vehicles rises by about 10 mph. That may be significant when we consider road safety. It is my general observation from driving along motorways throughout the country.

My other point about that stretch of motorway is that I regret the decision to build a motorway service area at the Beaconsfield roundabout, a development that will start very soon. It fills me with foreboding, because I simply do not think that the traffic congestion consequences have ever been fully taken into account. It will be an off-road motorway service area to the south of the junction on an extremely busy road, the A355 running down to Slough. In view of the existing congestion, the service area will prove to have been a serious planning error, coupled with the fact that the local police continue to tell me that they do not have enough resources to police the inevitable rise in crime that they foresee from its location. I flag those points up to the Minister; they have been a refrain of mine for a considerable period. Having said that, however, I return to my first point that the noise reduction measures along that stretch of the motorway have been very effective.

I contrast that fact with what happens the moment one reaches the Loudwater viaduct. The stretch from there to Handy Cross is also in my constituency, although as one goes up the hill to Handy Cross, the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe comes up on the southern flank. There is absolutely no doubt that that unimproved stretch of motorway, which is in the same condition as it was when the High Wycombe bypass was built many years ago, generates high noise levels. The matter is added to and complicated—this is not the Government’s fault, but we have to live with it—by the fact that the Loudwater viaduct, by its very nature, takes traffic over a valley at a high level. As a consequence, the motorway noise affects not only the houses that are adjacent to the motorway, but, I suspect far more, the property that is a considerable distance away. Indeed, I suspect that the houses further away—those on the flank of the hillside leading away from the viaduct—suffer far more from the noise than those underneath.

Let me just give the Minister a flavour of what I am talking about by picking a couple of quotes from my voluminous correspondence on the issue. First, I have a letter from a lady living in Taymar close in Loudwater, which I would not describe as immediately adjacent to the motorway. She says:

“The house is situated on a hill which must be at roughly the same height as the motorway. In the winter when there are no leaves on the trees the motorway is visible.

The noise is there all day and evening and can be heard behind double glazing. It must be unbearable for the people in the village who are situated closer to the road.”

In fact, she might be mistaken, because the noise near her property is probably greater, despite the extra distance.

Another lady who wrote to me is a nurse living at Clapton approach in Wooburn Green. She writes:

“The sound mostly reverberates from the Loudwater viaduct, along the valley, rebounding from the hills so that often the noise appears to come from all directions at once! It is no longer pleasant to sit out in the garden in the summer months and the unrelenting noise, particularly on Friday and Sunday night, makes it almost impossible to sleep.

I am not one given to complaining, but feel the situation is now so bad that if something cannot be done, my husband and I may be forced to move away from this lovely little community”.

I could quote many other letters in the same vein and I do not think that these people are exaggerating. The configuration of the road along this unimproved stretch is a serious issue for local residents, and although other issues further along also need addressing, the issue that I have highlighted is very marked.

Residents in Flackwell Heath, further up towards Handy Cross, are also affected by the motorway noise. There, the noise is a bit more classic in the sense that it just spills out over the motorway, depending on the direction of the wind. Again, the motorway surface is made from an old-fashioned material, and we have absolutely no noise-reduction protections along the edge of the motorway. As my hon. Friends have rightly said, the traffic volumes on the motorway have increased exponentially over the past 10 years, particularly following the completion of the Birmingham route, and what was previously a bypass is now one of the country’s major trunk roads.

I very much hope that something can be done quickly about this issue. In dealing with it, the problem has always been that the Highways Agency has responded by saying that something will be done some time in the programme, but that nobody is quite sure when. Action should be a higher priority, because the sheer number of people being adversely affected by noise nuisance not only immediately adjacent to the motorway, which is perhaps inevitable, but very widely around the Loudwater viaduct justifies it.

I want now to say something about Handy Cross. I would be pleased to see any statistical information that the Minister can provide about how the new improvements are working there, because that would be useful. I often go up the A404 to Handy Cross, and my impression is that the road junction works have brought about a marked improvement. There seem to be fewer traffic queues, and the environmental considerations that were properly taken into account have had a pleasant impact; indeed, the scheme has been well landscaped and is a credit to those who carried it out. Again, therefore, I am happy to say some warm words about what has been done.

Let me turn, however, to the issue of road safety in the area. As the Minister will have heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe, there was a fatal accident the Sunday before last on the stretch of the M40 that runs down from Handy Cross to the Loudwater viaduct. That followed a pattern of such accidents—17 was, I think, the figure quoted for the relevant period—which suggests that that stretch of motorway is particularly dangerous, although the Government may persuade me otherwise. Frankly, it is not difficult to see what the problem is. If one approaches the Loudwater viaduct from Handy Cross, one is on a sustained downward slope. As a result, anybody driving at 70—one must face the fact that people often drive through Handy Cross at 75 or 80 mph—will, without putting their foot further down on the accelerator, and unless they decide to slow up, be doing 90, 95 or 100 mph by the time they reach the viaduct at the bottom. This is also an area where it is easy to decide to overtake heavy goods vehicles.

On top of that, the road, which was designed as a bypass, has in it a bend that is probably somewhat sharper than anything that motorway engineers would construct nowadays. I am not saying that it is in some way impassable, but it does have a slight race course feel about it. I must say that that is in contrast to the descent to the Loudwater viaduct from the Beaconsfield end, which is largely straight and which, on top of that, was subject to major improvements when it was widened to four lanes. I am not surprised, therefore, to learn of the frequency of the accidents on this stretch; indeed, some months before the fatality that I mentioned, there was a serious accident, in which a vehicle was left hanging over the edge of the viaduct and over the warehouses and employment centres immediately underneath.

Something can and must be done to improve safety on this stretch. I am not an expert in these things, but I simply want to suggest a few ideas to the Minister. First, a concrete barrier down the centre of the road would undoubtedly reduce the risk of motor vehicles crossing the carriageway and going through the central reservation, because there are places where high-speed accidents and multiple pile-ups can take place. Secondly, consideration could certainly be given to the appropriate speed at which vehicles should come down the hill, to see whether something cannot be done to deter drivers from going so fast, which classically results in their vehicle running away with them as they come down the hill. That could involve speed cameras, average speed cameras and even—I would not necessarily be against this—reducing the speed on this stretch of the motorway to 50 or 60 mph under certain circumstances. I do not know what the solution is, but I am convinced that there is one and that it could contribute to reducing the risk that this stretch of the motorway poses. I suspect that such works would be independent of the noise-reduction improvements that I might also wish to see at the site.

I might add that I am no great fan of speed cameras, having had my 28 years of driving without being detected ended by a speed camera in my constituency a couple of years after I was elected. However, they have their uses, and on such a stretch, where there is a real safety issue, I would not be at all averse to introducing, above all, an average speed camera to keep drivers down to the appropriate speed limit for this stretch of road.

I am conscious that others wish to participate. I am grateful to the Minister for listening and I look forward to his response. I am sure that something can be done to improve safety. I am also sure that, generally, my constituents in Loudwater, Flackwell Heath, Wooburn Green and Wooburn Moor are entitled to have the Government come along and put in place a noise-reduction package for them.

First, of course, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr. Goodman) on securing the debate, and I support everything that he said. I also support virtually everything that my hon. Friends the Members for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) and for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) said, with the possible exception of the suggestion by my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield that we should have more speed cameras on the motorway—I think that I would need more argument on that before supporting it, although I do not necessarily rule it out.

I want briefly to make almost exactly the same point as my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury about a bridge. Before I do, however, I want to support the general point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe, which is that the motorway was never built to cope with quite as much traffic. If the Minister would like a graphic representation of that, he need only stand at the foot of the great Chiltern cutting, where my constituency begins. On any weekday evening, he can look up and see so much traffic struggling to get through that Khyber pass that the winking tail lights will resemble a flow of molten lava. That was never a sight that one could see 20 years ago or even, I think, 10 years ago. That is as graphic an expression as I can provide of the increase in the weight of traffic being experienced by people in villages along that stretch; they never expected it. I do not think that the engineers who designed the M40 ever conceived when they built it quite so close to those villages that that number of cars would be passing along it.

A further problem, of course, with the relevant stretch is, I am given to understand from excellent work done by the M40 Chilterns environmental group, that the spoil from the cutting was used to create a gigantic rampart through into Oxfordshire and the beginnings of my constituency, so that the noise could be more effectively dispersed throughout the villages. I cannot believe that it would now be possible—I imagine that it would be far too expensive—to turn that dyke into a trough, which is what it should have been, but I think that the villagers deserve some noise abatement. I am thinking in particular of Lewknor and Postcombe, and, above all, Milton Common, which is very close to the motorway.

I want to elaborate on the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury about what can be done in the interval provided by the repair of the bridges. We have a bridge at junction 7, which, as I am sure the Minister knows, will be repaired over nine months next year. As the Highways Agency acknowledges, that provides a golden opportunity to do something about noise along the relevant stretch. There will be traffic calming measures and bollards and a great deal of disruption. It seems to me that it would be sensible to consider that time for the erection of greater and more protective barriers to the sound pollution that is so greatly diminishing the quality of life of people in the villages. I hope that if the Minister cannot today come up with a precise answer about what he might consider doing in the nine-month interval next year, he may agree to meet me and representatives of the M40 Chilterns environmental group, to discuss a way forward and how we could use the opportunity next year to sort out the problem.

It is a pleasure to be here under your chairmanship this morning, Mrs. Humble.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr. Goodman) on securing what has been a very interesting debate on the M40. When I first read the title I was not 100 per cent. sure what issues would be raised. I imagined that the debate would be to do with the condition of the road surface; certainly, on occasion, when I must travel to London by road, I use the M40, and I am fully aware that the oldest sections of the road are in a particularly poor condition. However, when I read the debate pack prepared for us by the Library it became clear that many other issues might be raised, which, as a Member for a north-west constituency, I was not particularly aware of.

Suggested issues for discussion were concerns about the potential improvements around the Handy Cross area; the lack of service stations along the M40—although some of its service stations are considerably better than some on other motorways; and the potential impact on the road of developments around the Bicester area. However, I also thought that road safety issues were almost certain to arise in connection with the M40. Certainly, reading the website gave me an insight into concerns about safety on the M40. It advocates further use of speed cameras on motorways. I understand that there were 26 accidents on the relevant stretch of the M40 in the first six months of 2007. There are also more than 200 motorway accidents a year involving vehicles crossing from one side to the other, and the difference in the safety of metal or concrete barriers is clearly a matter for concern.

The hon. Member for Wycombe began with a brief history of the M40 and the evolution of the road from its original form into the connecting motorway to the midlands. He concentrated on the issue of noise, and its impact on villages nearest to the original stretches of the M40 before the motorway was expanded. He also talked about the widening of the motorway causing additional noise. I have had experience of that as a Manchester MP. When the M60 was widened it was necessary to cut down all the trees that were there to protect residents from the noise to make way for the extra motorway lanes. So I sympathise about problems connected with the widening. The hon. Gentleman also mentioned that the number of heavy goods vehicles had increased from about 2,500 a day to about 14,000 a day. Clearly, that has a significant impact on noise. He talked particularly about noise hot spots, but with some frustration that they were perhaps not noisy enough to be considered a priority for work on the road surface.

The hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members touched on the issue of light pollution. I was not sure whether he was suggesting that we should be better off without street lighting on motorways; I shall say more about that. Finally, he raised the issue of safety, which is of course paramount. I hope that the Minister intends to say something about the accident spots that several hon. Members have mentioned.

The hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) also raised the matter of noise. I understand his obvious frustration that the M40 is not considered a priority. He made an impassioned plea for the necessary resources to upgrade the road surface to deal with noise. He also went on to discuss in some detail the proposed closure of the bridge at Stokenchurch. That is another issue on which I can sympathise with hon. Members, because where work was necessary in my constituency, there was a debate about whether it was more sensible to close a bridge entirely for a short time, or to keep it open in one direction, which meant that the repair work would go on for longer. I shall be interested to hear from the Minister whether consideration has been given to the possibility of keeping half the bridge open, to ensure that it can be used throughout the repair period, and whether financial considerations were among the reasons for what has been decided so far. I see the Minister shaking his head, and I am sure that he will clarify the matter when he responds to the debate.

The hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve), with his usual eloquence, gave us a helpful lesson in geography as regards the beginning of the motorway. I must confess that I was unaware that the beginning of the M40 was in his constituency. He also discussed the issue of noise. However, I should like to take up his point on street lighting. I disagree with him about the lighting of motorways. I believe, and I wonder whether the Minister will say something to clarify the issue, that street lighting on motorways has resulted in better accident statistics. I accept that the waste of energy is an issue, but we could look at the use of solar power for street lighting on both local roads and motorways—it is used in my constituency. The first solar lighting in a park in the whole country is in my constituency.

I accept that there is statistical evidence that if a road is lit, the level of accidents is reduced. However, we must balance that against the enormous adverse environmental impact of street lighting, particularly in rural areas. Street lighting creates light pollution and an inability to see the night sky, and it sends an extremely negative message to the public about the availability of lighting in the overall context of energy use. For that reason, I should like to see a substantial reduction in street lighting. Interestingly, that is happening under financial constraints in my constituency, and I welcome it. Lights that have been in place on A roads for 30 or 40 years are being switched off, and the world does not seem to be coming to an end as a result.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention and I accept that we need to strike a balance but, from my personal driving experience, I believe that motorways with street lights are far safer than unlit motorways.

The hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson) reiterated a number of the points made by his colleagues on the Conservative Benches, but I was disappointed that he came out against the idea of speed cameras along the section of the M40 to which he referred; I felt that the hon. Member for Beaconsfield made a good case for the installation of an average speed camera on that section of the M40. From my own experience, I can say that it is an area in which it is easy for motorists, unintentionally, to increase their speed. Average speed cameras would have a significant impact in ensuring that people stick to the speed limit.

My final point relates to the fact that all who have spoken mentioned the problems of noise and safety, but no one suggested a solution that involved the reduction of traffic. Surely we ought to offer solutions that would reduce traffic on our motorways, such as better investment in rail services or a lorry charging scheme to reduce the amount of road freight. Clearly, traffic on our motorways will not be reduced unless we invest significantly more money in public transport and discourage lorries from using motorways. Lorries cause a significant amount of the noise about which hon. Members complained, so it is disappointing that none of them offered a solution to the problems that involved reducing the traffic on our roads.

I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Wilshire. I am disappointed that Mrs. Humble has left, as I intended to tell her about the excellent hospitality that we received recently in Blackpool at the Woodleigh hotel in Yates street, which almost rivalled the hospitality in Scarborough. However, having served with you on the Transport Committee, Mr. Wilshire, I look forward to serving under your chairmanship.

Having listened to the debate, I believe that I am fortunate, because I have not often experienced the 87 miles of the M40 between Uxbridge and junction 15 near Warwick. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr. Goodman) on securing the debate and on attracting such a distinguished array of Conservative Front Bench talent: I feel some trepidation on my Westminster Hall debut. As my hon. Friend said, one problem on the M40 is that, unlike motorways that were built from scratch, it is an upgrade of existing roads and bypasses, which means that it is in close proximity to many people and villages. As traffic has increased in recent years, the problems have worsened, so I hope that the Minister will address some of my hon. Friend’s questions.

The village of Stokenchurch is in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington). I am sure that the Minister has perused the Transport Research Laboratory report entitled, “An Assessment of Noise Hotspots Alongside the M40” and noted that it identifies Stokenchurch as the most noise-sensitive location on the motorway. My hon. Friend mentioned the noise severity index of 10.2 in Stokenchurch, which has a 2 km frontage on to the motorway. The next village to feature in the report is Lane End. It has a noise severity index of 3.1, which demonstrates the size of the problem in Stokenchurch. I hope that the Minister will at least tell us when the Stokenchurch section of the motorway is due for refurbishment or replacement, and whether that work can be fast-tracked and done slightly earlier.

My hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) spoke about the intrusive nature of lighting on the motorways and the implications for their carbon footprint. In my experience, although one can travel slightly more easily on lit sections of motorway, there is a moment, when the lighting ends and one’s eyes have not adjusted to the change, when it is difficult to see the way and to make progress. He also mentioned the issue of the motorway services that are due to open and some of the problems relating to them. I note that prior to the opening of new services, that section of motorway is, at 71 miles, the longest in the UK between services.

I am pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson), who has offered his apologies for leaving, was able to attend the debate and that his bicycle was not stolen again. He spoke about the high levels of traffic on the motorway looking at times like a molten lava flow. My research indicates that 90,000 vehicles a day use the M40. Motorways are the safest routes in the country and travelling on them is the safest way to travel, but the M40 between the Loudwater viaduct and Handy Cross in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield, is the sixth most lethal stretch in the UK. Two multiple pile-ups claimed the lives of four people last June and July, and the Thames valley safer roads partnership has begun a review to consider what measures can be taken to address that tragic problem. The cause of many accidents can be addressed by looking at ways of reducing congestion and we heard that a fourth lane has been put in place on a section of the M40.

I was perturbed on Monday to read that the Government might be cooling on road user charging, which could address some of the problems. If the project is to be aborted, will the Minister explain how the money used to employ 22 staff and engage 24 consultants on full or part-time work at the Department for Transport to look at road charging could be better spent? It would have been better to spend it improving the M40 than pay consultants and staff in the Department.

We heard about the fatal accident the Sunday before last, and in May three people were killed in an horrific seven-vehicle smash at Loudwater when a lorry careered through the central reservation into oncoming traffic. The hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Leech) said that there were 200 such accidents, but I saw a figure on the internet—it may not be true—of 432 crossover accidents a year, 70 per cent. of which involve cars. One way of addressing the problem is to introduce concrete step safety barriers instead of the standard steel barriers, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe said.

Steel barriers have many drawbacks, not least their resistance to impact. When they are damaged, they must be repaired, which entails risks that often result in injury or even loss of life for the crews employed to repair them. They are breached much more often than concrete barriers. The Minister will correct me if I am wrong, but I believe that there has been no case so far of a vehicle breaching a concrete central barrier. The majority of carriageways in the UK are fitted with steel barriers that meet the N2 containment specification, which is for a 1.5 tonne vehicle hitting the barrier at the standard speed and angle. An H2 barrier—a specification that concrete central reservation barriers would meet—would control the impact of a 13-tonne vehicle. Given that there are 44-tonne vehicles on our roads and that there have not been any breaches, in practice even larger vehicles may well be contained on the carriageway. In fact, I saw a report about a driver of a very large vehicle on the M25 who owed his life to the concrete barrier.

Concrete barriers have other benefits. In particular, glare is reduced from vehicles travelling in the other direction. If motorcyclists hit steel barriers they are often seriously injured, not by the steel safety rails, but by the posts that hold them up. Concrete barriers, which are solid, would reduce accidents on the opposite carriageway caused by people in vehicles passing the scene of an accident trying to see what is happening—the practice known as rubber-necking.

Although new motorways are fitted with concrete safety barriers and all the research indicates that such barriers are the answer to the problem, why is it that since 2005, less than 100 km of existing barriers on a total 3,240 km of motorway have been replaced with concrete barriers? The M40, particularly the stretches to which my hon. Friends have referred, would be a good place to trial the barriers to determine their impact on accidents. In addition, concrete barriers are maintenance-free. Even when an accident occurs, there is no need to turn out a team to close lanes and put in contraflows or whatever is needed to carry out the repairs.

In some cases, because one concrete barrier replaces two steel barriers, it may be possible to narrow the central reservation to allow more space for additional lanes or, if the hard shoulder system is operating, to provide more space for emergency vehicles. The issue of noise was raised. When the M40 was constructed, it was a concrete road, fitted with random grooves. It has been upgraded to a hot rolled asphalt surface, but that is not good enough to deal with the problem of noise near villages. Five places in particular were identified: Lane End, Bolter End, Cadmore End, Ibstone and Stokenchurch. Although the report identified the carriageways in their vicinity as requiring resurfacing, it concluded that could be done only when maintenance was scheduled and the road was due to be repaired.

Will the Minister tell us when the carriageways are likely to be scheduled for repair and whether, if that is an awfully long way off, he can, through his good offices, queue-jump a little bit, given the problems? I again congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe on managing to identify, through this debate, some of these very serious issues, to which I hope the Minister will respond positively.

It is a pleasure to see you presiding over our proceedings now, Mr. Wilshire, having taken over from Mrs. Humble, although obviously I agree with the hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr. Goodwill) about the hospitality of Blackpool.

May I say immediately to the hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr. Goodman), whom I congratulate on securing this important debate, that I should have offered apologies before the debate began on behalf of my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, who is unavoidably unable to be here to respond to the debate? As Minister responsible for highways, he will be fully briefed on today’s debate. I assure hon. Members that, should I not fully respond to the matters raised or questions asked, correspondence will follow to address the relevant points. However, I shall start with comments on noise, safety and the bridge works mentioned, before dealing with specific questions and points raised in the debate. I also congratulate the hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby on his debut as a Front Bencher in Westminster Hall today.

The M40 motorway between junctions 1 and 15 is part of the Government’s private finance initiative. It is managed by UK Highways M40 Ltd as part of a 30-year contract that commenced in 1997 and will end in 2027. The general strategy for maintaining the road is to replace the road surface layer as and when it comes to the end of its life, which is identified from regular pavement condition surveys. Overall, the condition of the surface is good.

I recognise the concerns of the M40 Chilterns environmental group—to which the hon. Member for Wycombe and others referred and which he actively supports—in relation to traffic noise from the M40. The Highways Agency installed noise mitigation barriers on sections of the M40 when it was widened between junctions 4 and 5 in 1991 and between the M25 and junction 3 in 1999. Since 2004, the agency has had a number of meetings and ongoing contact with the CEG regarding its noise concerns to clarify the agency’s position on noise.

In July 2006, the Highways Agency published a report entitled “An Assessment of Noise Hotspots Alongside the M40”, which concluded that all sites that were identified did not meet the national Hansard criteria for noise mitigation measures—noise fencing. There is a budget of £5 million a year, which enables the highest priority sites across England to receive noise mitigation works. The report recommended that a low noise surfacing material be used whenever maintenance is carried out.

Following detailed scrutiny of the Department for Transport’s and the Highways Agency’s budgets, Ministers agreed that the resurfacing of roads ahead of a maintenance need, for noise alleviation reasons, would not be allocated funding. The agency spends some £200 million each year on resurfacing work across the entire motorway and trunk road network in England. Although that is sufficient to maintain the network in a safe and serviceable condition, there is little scope for elective tasks.

Accident data for the M40, junctions 1A to 11, for the period 2004 to 2006 inclusive record an average of 234 personal injury accidents a year. That number of accidents equates to an average accident rate of 7.8 per 100 million vehicle kilometres, which is similar to the average accident rate of 8 per 100 million vehicle kilometres for motorways nationally.

The M40 has recently been the site of a number of incidents resulting in tragic loss of life. I recognise that any accident is highly regrettable, whether it involves serious personal injury or death. As a result, the Highways Agency implemented the traffic officer service on the M40 in early 2006 to manage incidents, reduce the delay to motorists and work in conjunction with the police to try to bring a speedy end to an incident and lessen the impact on the public.

The Highways Agency continues to analyse accidents on the M40 to see what measures can be implemented to improve road safety. The agency monitors the M40 motorway to identify accident cluster sites and, following identification of a number of potential cluster sites, it has undertaken in-depth analysis of those sites to develop measures to reduce the number of accidents at those locations. At junction 6, road markings were improved in December 2006, which will bring safety benefits. To anticipate a question from the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) about his speeding downward slide to the viaduct, I will check whether that area is among the clusters and write to him.

Following one incident, queries have been raised about installing concrete barriers on the Loudwater viaduct at junction 3. The Highways Agency introduced as policy the installation of concrete barriers in motorways’ central reserves in January 2005, after research by the Transport Research Laboratory found, as hon. Members have mentioned, that concrete barriers in the central reserve improve safety by reducing significantly the likelihood of crossover incidents as well as being essentially maintenance-free and unlikely to require repairs after a vehicle impact. The installation of concrete barriers is being phased in. They are specified for new road schemes, for road improvement schemes such as road widening and during major maintenance.

Various other improvement schemes have been completed or are being carried out this financial year. The most significant has been the recent installation of variable message signs between junctions 9 and 11. The signs meet the criteria for the provision of message signs and the automated motorway incident detection accident system, or Midas. The message signs at junctions 9 to 11 are now operational, and the Midas signs between junctions 10 and 11 will come online this month. The signs allow the national traffic control centre and the regional control centre to enable tactical and strategic diversions as well as warnings of inter-junction problems. The Government have also installed two message signs on each of the A34 northbound approaches to the M40 at junction 9 and the southbound approaches at junction 10. The signs warn of problems on the M40 and allow alternative routes to be taken.

Emergency central reserve crossing points have been installed at four locations between junctions 6 and 13 in Oxfordshire and Warwickshire to assist in releasing trapped traffic following incidents, and a study is being undertaken to identify additional sites. Additional crossing points will be installed as funding becomes available.

The M40-A404 junction at Handy Cross has suffered historically from high congestion and long queues, particularly during peak travel times. The Highways Agency carried out a £16 million improvement scheme that opened to traffic earlier this year, as has been mentioned. The scheme is essentially complete. Final adjustments to the traffic signals are required to link them to a control room so that they can be remotely monitored and the timings changed to suit traffic conditions. The agency expects the work to be installed and validated by the end of October.

Major roadworks are planned to the bridge over the motorway at junction 5, Stokenchurch, in late 2008 and 2009. Some of the bridge’s concrete is suffering from high chloride levels, causing the reinforcement to corrode from many years’ exposure to road salts. The affected concrete must be removed and replaced. During that time, the deck will be temporarily supported from beneath and will not be able to carry vehicular traffic. Pedestrian access will be maintained across the bridge. On the M40 beneath the bridge, three narrow lanes in each direction will be kept open during peak times.

Following a presentation to Stokenchurch parish council and comments from the local public, the proposed diversion routes during the bridge works have been reviewed. Changes are being discussed with the local highways authority and, if agreed, will be published shortly. Similar work to the bridge at junction 7 will need to be completed before work can start at junction 5. Work is programmed to commence at junction 7 in early 2008 and will continue for nine months. The bridge will have to be closed to traffic for six months.

I am advised that work done to date shows that a bridge closure is necessary. Part of the work will apparently involve demolishing the central pier and full-depth sections of the bridge deck. The deck will be temporarily supported for up to six months, which means that it is an engineering problem and not, as the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Leech) asked, a question of finances. I shall return to the points made about Stokenchurch in a moment.

The hon. Member for Wycombe asked five questions about noise. They concerned noise measurement, the question of bias against rural communities and EU comparisons, anomalies in different measurements, light pollution and environmental threats. On noise measurement, he is correct that measurements have not been taken. The report used modelling to assess noise, and Highways Agency policy used the noise severity index to prioritise sites in England. As he and others have said, that maximises funding to treat high-population areas. In other words, areas where many people are affected are obviously given priority.

I will have to write to the hon. Gentleman on his third and fourth questions. On his fifth, the Highways Agency is working with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. That work on the environmental threats is in draft. It is incomplete at the moment, but it will be published in due course. He also asked three other questions: whether the Government were in contact with Keepmoving, whether we could accelerate the concrete barrier programme and about the Handy Cross improvements. I shall write to him on the second and third questions. As for contact with Keepmoving, we have visited the website, but there is no official contact, as it is an unofficial website of the group.

Perhaps the Minister could write to me further to clarify whether the Department accept Keepmoving’s estimate that the area that we have been discussing—I think that it is junction 3—is one of the worst in the south-east.

I shall certainly be happy to write to the hon. Gentleman in due course.

The hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) asked about joined-upness and the six months’ closure. He asked whether the Stokenchurch decision had been sprung and whether the matter of emergency and other services, such as education, has been addressed. I have explained that engineering difficulties make keeping the bridge open impossible. The Highways Agency has tried to work with local people. I mentioned discussions with the local authority, which are still taking place, and the attempt to help reduce the impact on air quality. We will follow up with more information on that aspect in our written response.

The emergency services have been consulted and their comments taken on board to ensure the best possible response in the event that they are called on to assist residents in the neighbourhood. Alternative diversion routes are under review to minimise the impact, mentioned by Opposition Members, of the knock-on effects of the closure. The information will be published shortly.

I appreciate the generous comments made by the hon. Member for Beaconsfield on those responsible for the improvements that he praised, and I note his suggestions about road safety speed. As road safety Minister, I agree with him and not his hon. Friend the Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson). Perhaps that does not surprise him. I note his comments on motorway lighting. Clearly, it is a dividing line between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats and a matter that comes up from time to time. I shall write to him with information and the statistics on Handy Cross that he asked for.

This has been a well-informed debate. A number of important issues have been raised concerning hon. Members’ constituents. I apologise if I have not been able to answer their various questions as fully as they had hoped, but I assure them that we will write to them so that they have the fullest and best possible answers that we can give. I am sure that they will continue to press the Department for Transport. We shall continue to listen, and hopefully we shall make progress on a number of fronts.


I am trying to work out whether “Minister for Europe” includes Sudan; obviously it does. Perhaps a geography lesson or a new atlas would help me a great deal. If hon. Members are content to start, I call Mr. Drew.

Thank you, Mr. Wilshire. I am sure that by the end of the debate, the Minister for Europe will undertake as part of his responsibilities a visit to Sudan, which I am sure will want in due course to join the EU. I am delighted to have this opportunity to talk about our visit, and to see the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Susan Kramer). She was part of the triumvirate of MPs who visited Sudan during the recess with our friend in that respect, the hon. Member for North-East Milton Keynes (Mr. Lancaster).

We were accompanied by Michael O’Neill, the new special representative to Sudan—we were grateful that he could come along—as well as Chris Milner, the co-ordinator, and Peter Tesch, who for the purposes of the visit was historian, although he is many things besides. During our time in Sudan, we were accompanied by our ambassador Rosalind Marsden, whom I had met previously in Kabul. It was an important visit, and it came at an important juncture. We were warned that we went at our own risk, and just before leaving we were kindly informed that an al-Qaeda cell was looking to blow up an embassy in Khartoum. We therefore did not take up the invitation to stay at the British embassy. Nevertheless, we carried on. I have to say that security was impressive; never before have I enjoyed so much security, but I shall say no more about it.

I thank our supporting organisations—Christian Aid, CARE, Tearfund, Oxfam, World Vision UK and the Inter-Parliamentary Union. I thank particularly Jessica Irvine of the Sudan unit, who briefed us before we left and gave us some good sensible information about what we should be doing.

The purpose of the visit was to check on progress on the comprehensive peace agreement, but we could not go to Sudan without revisiting Darfur. It was my second visit to Darfur and my third to Sudan; I shall say more about it later.

The CPA is an important document. It brought to an end 20 years-plus of conflict, which had taken 2 million lives. Anyone or anything that imperilled the CPA would not be taken lightly by the all-party group on Sudan, which I chair. The document is also the model for what one hopes is future peace in Darfur—and, indeed, in the east. I shall say more later about the east; we did not have time during our week’s visit to go to there, and I hope that we can remedy that omission.

The CPA lays down clearly the progress that needs to be made. It covers the census and the elections—and eventually the referendum, which will decide whether the south stays part of a united Sudan or goes its own way. The programme has to be met by 2011. That is important in the context of Africa, but it is important also in the context of the wider world, such is Sudan’s position. I pay due credit to the Government for making it absolutely clear that they are in it for the long run, as there is no quick fix and no easy solution. If there were, we would have sorted out the problem many years ago. My determination, with others, is to keep going. If we can sort out the problems of Sudan, the rest of the world will follow in due course, such is its importance.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. I congratulate him on securing this debate, and on leading an incredibly important delegation. He may remember that when in Sudan we met some of my constituents and that their father, Mr. Mubarak El-Mahdi, had been arrested with 13 others for being engaged in a coup—supposedly, one assumes, because there were no public charges. That was cited by the Sudan Liberation Army as a reason for walking out of the national unity Government, as it demonstrated a lack of commitment to the constitution of Sudan. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that that case needs the attention of the Government at the highest level?

Yes, it does. The Minister will have heard that comment, and I know that the hon. Lady is making representations. Indeed, she had the opportunity to make direct representations while we were in Khartoum. I know that the Government will continue to listen to those representations and, I hope, will act upon them.

Since our visit, the CPA has come under even more pressure. Sadly, details reached us last week of the fact that the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement has withdrawn from the Government of national unity. At the very least, that is putting the CPA under a great deal of strain. It would be good to get the Minister’s view, on behalf of the Government, on how to get the SPLM back into the Government, even though we all know that that entity is sometimes more an institution of names than one with real power and authority. However, we have to stay with the CPA, because there is no plan B.

The United Kingdom has a long history of involvement in Sudan. That is why we have an obligation to stay with it. We are currently involved with some of the work of the Assessment and Evaluation Commission, playing a part with Kenya and Ethiopia. Again, I pay credit to the Government for the way in which they are trying to overcome the present impasse.

I offer five clear challenges. They are challenges not only for the Government, however, as they require the wider international community to play a part. Three of those challenges are crucial to progress with the CPA—and, in due course, to Darfur—and they need to be listened to and acted upon.

I start with Abyei, a part of Sudan where there is a great deal of tension. The Abyei boundary commission has made recommendations on how to demarcate the north and south, but the region is a key part of the country. The National Congress party believes that the commission overstepped the mark in giving its ruling. As well as the national conflict, a number of local conflicts between the Ngok Dinka and Misseriya, are adding to the problems in that part of the world. The danger is that it could be a touchstone for revisiting the conflict. Even if it stays local, it will be necessary to deal with it. Because the subject came up time after time, the delegation felt it important to report the situation in Abyei and to explain the need for mediation and eventually compromise.

The second key point is wealth sharing. The main problem is a lack of transparency on oil revenues. The Government of southern Sudan allege, quite openly and with a degree of forthrightness, that they do not know how much oil is coming out of the ground. It is therefore difficult to know how much 50 per cent. of that wealth would be. That needs to be sorted out. Even the special representative from the National Congress party in the north said when we met—he was very frank—that being able to have confidence in the National Petroleum Commission knowing the figures for oil production was still some way off. Of course, it has an international context because the Chinese may not be that keen to know exactly how much oil is being produced and where the revenue is going. That situation needs to be clarified; again, it is a crucial point of tension within the comprehensive peace agreement.

Thirdly, there is the question of security. The forces of north Sudan have yet to withdraw from the south. We heard a lot about the fact that the deadline of 9 July was not met. That was another source of tension. The Government of the south, through the SPLA, failed to meet its obligation to withdraw from Kasala in time. For those warring factions that fail to keep to their side of the agreement, history repeats itself. On the plus side, however, we saw some evidence of integration between the two armies to form a united army of Sudan.

To put all that in context, the key thing is how to get to elections next year in the absence of agreement on security by the Government in the north—whether the Government of national unity or indeed the National Congress party, which is the dominant northern party and the dominant party in the Government of national unity—let alone agreement by the Government of southern Sudan. Without such agreement there can be no elections, so clarity is vital.

There are two other points in my list of five, which relate purely to the south, although there is of course a wider context. First, we were disappointed to see how little development there was in the south. That was despite the efforts and investment in Juba, so it was worrying. We heard that 60 per cent. of SPLM revenue is being spent on military expenditure, and the SPLM was almost bragging about it. That shows the extent to which other elements of expenditure are being squeezed out, so we need to get investment into education, health, and water and sanitation, and away from excessive military expenditure. That comes back to the security situation.

The last point is that of tension within the south itself, and the need for a south-south dialogue. During our visit, I really came to understand for the first time that there are four different groups of people living in the south. There are those who live largely under the occupation of the Government from the north, and those who live under the SPLA and SPLN. However, there are also, of course, initially displaced peoples, many of whom have fled to the north of the country and now wish to come back from Khartoum and Omdurman. In addition, there are the refugees who left the country and are now trying to return. Each of those groups feels that it is the most vulnerable, most maltreated, and most denied of its rights. When all four groups feel disadvantaged, there is scope for, dare I say it, an explosive mixture.

There needs to be a revisiting of the CPA at the national level, therefore. That is not so as to change the CPA, but to give it the emphasis and support that it needs. As the hon. Member for Richmond Park said, sadly there is political repression both in the north and the south. I shall not give examples, but we all know the situation in the north, and there is evidence that the south has not achieved democracy.

We met Sadiq al-Mahdi again, the representative of the Umma party who is better known as a descendant of the Mahdi, who made quite clear to us his belief that it is only a matter of time before conflict breaks out. I know that he has gone on record with such warnings on many previous occasions, but he is probably near the truth, as we have seen in the Kajbar dam incidents, in which there was very severe repression of those opposed to what was going on.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there sometimes seems to be a lack of awareness of the tightness of the time frame for the resolution on the CPA? Without that, there cannot be a census. Taking the census will not be a quick process, particularly when half the year is rainy season, but without it there cannot be elections nor any referendum on secession, so the time frame is very tight.

I agree, and the hon. Lady’s comments stand in their own right. I am sure that the Minister will wish to respond.

On Darfur, I had previously visited the south but on this occasion we went to the west. We were genuinely shocked by the instability on the ground. Quite clearly, there are many warring factions. I shall not say how many different groups there are, but there are now so many that when UNAMID—the United Nations African Union Mission in Darfur—comes into formal operation, the task facing it will be far from a walk in the park. There is a view that when AMIS—the African Union Mission in Sudan—leaves, and UNAMID comes in its place, things will suddenly stabilise, but from all the evidence we saw that will not be as easy as some people pretend.

Haskanita, the most recent outrage in which 10 African Union troops were killed, was a dreadful episode that represents the reality of what is happening, which is caused by fragmentation and the amount of weaponry available. I applaud the work of the AU, as well as that of the UK in preparing for the UN. I dare say that it will involve a number of military personnel as well as the work that we are doing on the civil side. We need to work on the convergence phase of the road map and on making it clear that we need peace from the new talks. It is not just a question of whether Abdul Wahid will or will not go; there is a need to involve all the parties. I am not prepared to personalise things and to portray him as crucial. Clearly, he is popular in the camps, but it is not clear whether that is because of his not previously signing the peace deal or because he is a great and wonderful leader. I do not know. What is important is to get the peace talks under way and to get the UNAMID force in place as soon as possible.

We must also make sure that it is not just the military people who claim to speak on behalf of the Darfuri people in the dialogue that will occur, because there is a lot of resentment from other people who believe that their voices should be heard too. The fact that those other people have not picked up a gun does not make them any less important. There are many different factions that are not part of the military which should be listened to as well. That subject is a difficult one, and I hope that the Minister will have some good things to say about what we are doing to bring groups together.

Our tour was a whirlwind one, because Sudan is a huge country. In passing, I invite the Minister to review the early-day motion that I tabled yesterday and that was signed by the hon. Member for Richmond Park, which was addressed to the situation in the east. The peace agreement for the east was obtained a year ago, but at best it is shaky.

I conclude by welcoming both the opportunity to draw attention to Sudanese issues and the Government’s long-term commitment. The events in Sudan are not easy matters to deal with, but we must indeed draw attention to them and state our position that peace is the prerogative of all of us to pursue. I was disappointed by the news that, if anything, the CPA is once again under a cloud, which has an impact on Darfur as it does on the east. I hope that the Minister will have some good news, but we must be realistic. Sudan is not an issue that we can fix quickly.

I am delighted to serve again under your chairmanship, Mr. Wilshire. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) on securing the debate. The way in which he argued his case testified once more to the fact that Sudan is a country about which he, like all hon. Members, cares passionately. It was evidence too of his devotion, along with that of others, as he has given an enormous amount of personal time and political energy to maintaining the profile of Sudan and to continuing to keep pressure on the international community where appropriate and necessary. He is regarded in the House as one of those who is most active on Sudanese issues.

I am delighted also to see the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Susan Kramer), who participated in the delegation. In his comments, my hon. Friend spoke quite realistically of the security situation at the time of the delegation, and I am sure he will appreciate it if I put on record our respect and thanks to the team at the British embassy for the work that they do in a phenomenally important and occasionally very dangerous part of the world. I particularly thank our ambassador, Rosalind Marsden, and her team. We all appreciate the work that they do.

You were right to conclude, very perceptively, Mr. Wilshire, that Sudan is not in the European Union. If the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Meg Munn) had been in the United Kingdom rather than on ministerial duties abroad, she would have responded to the debate. Nevertheless, I am delighted to have the opportunity to respond.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud is right to say that the situation in Sudan, especially with the conflict in Darfur, is increasingly complex. That argument ran throughout his speech. The SPLM’s announcement on 11 October that it would suspend its participation in the Government of National Unity adds further complications to that situation.

The foundation for peace and stability throughout Sudan is, as my hon. Friend eloquently argued, the comprehensive peace agreement. The UK, as an integral part of the international community, remains absolutely committed to its implementation. As my hon. Friend knows, the CPA ended more than 20 years of civil war between the north and the south and is an important vehicle in bringing lasting peace to all parts of Sudan. Its full implementation remains important both for north-south relations and for resolving the conflict in Darfur.

My hon. Friend fairly assessed that the most important element of the agreement is the 2009 national elections. The international community must help to create an environment that will ensure that those elections are a success. The hon. Member for Richmond Park raised a fair point about the census. My information is that the rainy season ended two weeks ago, that the census has been delayed from November to January or February, and that while that time scale is still tight, it is achievable. I hope that reassures the hon. Lady, and I am sure that it is something that she will continue to raise with my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary.

There has been progress on the CPA, and a majority of troops have redeployed to their respective areas. Most of the CPA-mandated institutions have been set up. However, the political leaders in the north and the south must summon the political will and demonstrate strong leadership to resolve the most sensitive issues, especially now, when the political impasse has the potential to derail a peace that is allowing recovery and development in the south.

My hon. Friend may find it helpful if I outline what the UK Government are actively doing and what we are looking for. We want the north and south to dedicate the necessary resources to complete the national census in advance of the 2009 elections; for both sides to work to find a tenable solution to the border disputes in Abyei and other areas along the north-south border; and for both to continue to build a secure environment throughout the country, including full redeployment of troops to their respective areas. The Government of Sudan must allow sufficient political space for democratic activity.

On the specific point of the UK’s engagement on the CPA, we are focused on bringing the issues back on track and restoring faith in the agreement. The UK provided more than £60 million of development assistance last year in support of CPA implementation. We have also put £47 million into the multi-donor trust fund over three years, which will be split evenly between north and south Sudan. The UK also continues to press for more progress on CPA implementation through its membership of the CPA implementation oversight body, the Assessment and Evaluation Commission. We are working with partners to reinvigorate the commission and to keep the CPA on the international agenda.

The CPA is the bedrock of stability for the whole of Sudan: it is indivisible from the peace process in Darfur, which is one of the Prime Minister’s top foreign policy priorities for the Government. The situation in Darfur is appalling, as the international community has recorded. The UN has described the situation in Darfur as the greatest humanitarian crisis in the world. Many thousands have been killed, raped or wounded. More than 2 million people are displaced. More than 4 million people—two thirds of the population—are dependent on international aid for their basic needs. Those statistics convey only a little of the immense human misery that is being visited upon the people of Darfur.

The Prime Minister and President Sarkozy announced a joint initiative for Darfur on 20 July. It focused on four areas: rapid deployment of an effective peacekeeping force; movement towards political negotiations; preparing for economic recovery to show the people of Darfur that there are dividends of peace; and regional stability. We have already committed more than £73 million of bilateral funds to the African Union peacekeeping force. We have contributed more than £250 million in humanitarian assistance to Sudan since 2004, and we supported the implementation of an agreement between the Government of Sudan and the UN to allow full humanitarian access for non-governmental organisations operating in Darfur. We have also been a leading voice in building an international consensus on Darfur, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud was fair enough to say.

We sponsored the UN resolution in March 2005 that referred Darfur to the International Criminal Court. The ICC has now issued two arrest warrants in connection with alleged atrocities in Darfur. We continue to call on the Government of Sudan to co-operate fully with the ICC. We have encouraged China to play a more positive role in Sudan, and that is important. We have built up European support for tough measures and persuaded EU partners to give further funding for the African Union peacekeepers.

We sponsored UN Security Council resolution 1769, which mandated the first hybrid peacekeeping force in the world for Darfur, which will bring vital security. We are working with donors to prepare the ground for recovery. In September, the UN Secretary-General announced the start date for peace talks, which are to be held in Libya at the end of the month. In September, the UN and EU agreed to send a peacekeeping force to Chad. However, there are still a number of problems, as my hon. Friend mentioned. In recent weeks, fighting in Darfur has increased, leading to the murderous attack on peacekeepers in Haskanita—an attack that was rightly condemned around the world. The increase in fighting has affected vital humanitarian operations. Attacks on humanitarian workers, who do an incredible job in terrible circumstances, continue. As a consequence, the people of Darfur continue to suffer. That cannot continue.

We are calling on all sides to commit to an immediate cessation of hostilities, to engage fully in the political talks being led by the African Union and United Nations, to allow the humanitarian workers to do their jobs and to facilitate the rapid deployment of the peacekeeping force. We have an obligation to alleviate the suffering in Darfur, but we cannot do that without full implementation of the comprehensive peace agreement. Only then can we work towards the lasting peace of the whole of Sudan. With the help of our international partners, we will work with the people of Sudan to show them that there can and will be peace.

I want to put on the record the Government’s determination on the fundamental importance and unique nature of this international crisis. I will, of course, bring to the attention of my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary the specific comments that our hon. Friend the Member for Stroud raised this afternoon.

Military Covenant

Like many people born after world war two, we hoped that war was going to be a thing of the past, but since then we have seen war and conflict in many parts of the world, from the Falkland Islands to the Balkans, and now in Iraq and Afghanistan, where the list of dead and injured increases daily. Those men and women look to their Government to deliver their side of the covenant between them and their country.

“When people sign up to our armed services, they show that they are prepared to put their life on the line for their country. In return, they should be certain that they and their family will be looked after appropriately.”

These were the words of a constituent of mine in a letter to me. That idea will form the crux of the debate today, and I hope that no one in this Chamber would dispute the sentiments of my constituent. Instead, we need to discuss whether we are meeting our obligations to our armed forces, and, if we are not, what we must do to remedy this.

It is important to note at the outset that significant efforts have been made in recent years by the Government, and where Ministers have made positive changes, I commend them. However, that ought not to disguise the fact that certain aspects of the military covenant are not being delivered. I believe that we need to make some real and substantive changes if we are to say honestly that we are meeting those obligations.

I pay tribute to the work of the British Legion, which has done so much to raise the profile of the issue and to focus this debate. I shall make an effort to keep my remarks relatively brief because I want to give the Minister as much time as possible to answer the points that I shall raise. I pay tribute also to a number of my constituents, including Sarah Benett, Tim Gregory and Philip Howard, who have written to me, along with many others, on this subject.

I shall focus first on the issue of fair and just compensation for injuries or illnesses caused by service in the armed forces. This is a key area of concern raised with me by my constituents. As hon. Members will be aware, the armed forces compensation scheme introduced a fundamentally different method for compensating those who have suffered injury or illness as a result of service. When the Government introduced the compensation scheme in April 2005, few people would have said that the system was not in need of an overhaul. Many of the changes are positive and have made a real difference, but in too many respects introduction of the AFCS has resulted in an erosion of the support provided through the military covenant.

For me and many of my constituents, the most pressing of those changes is the way in which the burden of proof in a compensation claim falls at the door of the claimant and their family. Instead of giving the claimant the benefit of the doubt, cases are decided on the balance of probabilities. Hon. Members will be aware that before the compensation scheme was introduced, the burden of proof in such cases lay—quite rightly—with the Secretary of State. I have yet to hear a convincing argument for why it is right that soldiers should have to prove that their injuries were a result of service. I find it quite extraordinary that the Government should take that position, and I look forward to the Minister’s explanation.

In 2003, the House of Commons Defence Committee commented:

“Because of the special risks that Armed Forces personnel are required to run, and because they are likely to be involved in situations of great uncertainty, with uncertain effects on their health, we continue to believe that the onus should remain on the government to prove that service was not responsible for causing or worsening a condition for which a compensation claim is made.”

I doubt that many people here today believe that that is asking too much, and yet earlier this year, the Ministry of Defence said:

“The ‘balance of probabilities’ standard of proof is the accepted approach in other occupational schemes as well as in the civil courts.”

I am afraid that the accepted standards of the civil courts cannot simply be transferred to a military context. For example, how are soldiers supposed to provide “reasonable, reliable evidence”, especially following involvement in a battlefield situation? I would like to know also what service personnel ought to do, given that very often they cannot provide full medical records.

My second point was articulated ably by the Defence Committee in 2003:

“Armed Forces personnel are also put in an unusual position by the fact that their medical records are in the hands of the employer against whom any claim for compensation will be made. There is no doubt about military doctors’ honesty, but it is wrong in principle that they should be put in the position of creating the documents on which compensation claims will be based while at the same time relying for employment on the very employer against whom those compensation claims will be made.”

This is set against a backdrop of military record keeping that even Ministers have acknowledged is less than perfect.

I would appreciate the Minister’s comments on a number of other issues related to the compensation scheme. Members will be aware that the compensation scheme allows for three injuries only to be claimed if all of the injuries have resulted from the same incident, and that the lump sum awarded for each injury reduces with each one claimed. That effectively means that people are suffering from injuries, but are not being compensated for them, for which the only reason is that they were more seriously injured than the compensation scheme allows for. I simply cannot see any principled justification for not fully compensating armed forces personnel for each and every injury sustained in a single incident.

I take issue with the time limit imposed on service personnel’s claims for compensation. The time limit for an initial claim under the compensation scheme is five years from the date that the injury occurred, or from the date that medical treatment for an illness was first sought. There can be no justification for setting time limits for claims. The military covenant outlines a lifelong duty of care, and, therefore, all time restrictions should be removed from the scheme. Again, I look forward to hearing the Minister’s comments on that point.

On access to health, the military covenant states:

“Only on the basis of absolute confidence in the justice and morality of the cause, can British soldiers be expected to be prepared to give their lives for others. This unlimited liability on the part of the individual in turn demands collective responsibility of the nation for the welfare of all servicemen and women, serving and retired, and their dependants.”

More recently, in April 2007, the Chief of the General Staff, General Sir Richard Dannatt, confirmed that this

“means a continuous duty of care. Once a soldier, always a soldier”.

Again, I am sure that no one here would dispute the sentiments behind that statement, and I am aware that great strides have been made in recent years. However, there is more that we have to do in this respect. For example, the often misdiagnosed mental health problems that are an ever-growing issue will have to be tackled. I am aware that the Government are supporting a number of initiatives in this area, and I would appreciate an update on those from the Minister today. It is vital that we pay particular attention to the provision of mental health services for veterans, and greater investment will be required if veterans are to receive the care that they deserve.

It is not only in this country that veterans feel that they have been left to their own resources. Some years ago, I was involved in a project in the United States in which I had to interview a number of homeless people, including former military personnel who felt that they had not received the support to reintegrate into everyday life. They had mental and physical health problems, and a number of them felt that they had been left on the scrap heap. We must ensure that that does not happen in this country.

A number of constituents who have contacted me referred to apparent mistakes that were made in the weeks and months following the death of a friend or family member in the services. Although the death of a family member will always be an impossible time for the families involved, there are things that we can do to ease hardship during this time. Some time ago, the family of a young soldier who had died in Iraq contacted me to say that the information had leaked early from the Ministry of Defence to the press; under normal circumstances, they would have been given 24 hours before the name of the young soldier was released. That information had leaked out and the mother and father, who were constituents of mine, were doorstepped the next morning by the tabloid press. I raised that issue at the time.

I am not implying that that was a deliberate move, but mistakes are made and families suffer. When parents, wives, brothers and sisters have lost loved ones, all efforts must be made to ensure that they are given the support that they need. Sometimes the system breaks down and nothing can be done about it, but I think that there are too many examples in which, after the event, people feel that greater support could have been given.

Again, owing to the nature of death in service, many cases are referred to the coroner for an inquest. However, it is not acceptable that 121 families in the UK are still awaiting inquests, 21 of which are for deaths that occurred before May 2006. The inquest into the death of Corporal Allbutt, which occurred in March 2003, was heard on 9 June 2007—more than four years later. That is plainly unacceptable, and I hope for a detailed update from the Minister on the backlog and on any progress towards reducing it.

Inquests can be very confusing for the families of service personnel, particularly for those without knowledge or first-hand experience of the legal system or the military, because deaths in service can, by their very nature, be very complicated. In 2006, in the conclusions of the review into the deaths at the Princess Royal Barracks, Deepcut, Nicolas Blake QC made the following recommendation:

“As part of the Military Covenant with the soldier, the MoD should ensure that the family of a deceased soldier have access to legal advice and, where appropriate, legal representation prior to, and during, the inquest or fatal accident inquiry.”

I should like to hear from the Minister today that we are on our way to providing a system of legal support that families can rely on if they need it, not merely a system that they can access in “exceptional circumstances”, as is currently the case.

Every Wednesday at Prime Minister’s Question Time, the Prime Minister reads out the names of soldiers killed in combat. When men and women are prepared to put their life on the line for their country, the least that we can do is to ensure that there is a proper support system in place for them and their families. My constituents, the Royal British Legion, service personnel and their families up and down the country and beyond will have listened to this debate. They will want the Minister to leave them in no doubt that he and his Government are prepared to honour the military covenant, and to commit the resources required to give people serving their country what they deserve. All that they are asking for is what is fair. They will settle for nothing less.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West (John Barrett) on securing this debate on the important topic of the military covenant, following the launch of the Royal British Legion’s campaign. Of course, I pay tribute to our men and women in uniform, who are an absolute credit to the nation and to their families. People who have paid the ultimate price or have been injured, and their families, should always be in our thoughts. I hope to be able to give the hon. Gentleman a clear statement about our commitment to, and efforts to support, our serving personnel and veterans.

I pay tribute to the Royal British Legion and the other ex-service organisations, with which I, both as a constituency MP and as a Minister, have had a long relationship, for their work in supporting service personnel, their families and veterans. The well-being and support of our serving and former personnel is a top priority for the Government. This is a good opportunity to hold the debate, because I can set out what the Government have done. At the Royal British Legion campaign launch, it was almost inevitable that the press would focus on what it considered to be the negative aspects of our support and differences of opinion, rather than give a fair wind to the overall support that we give our service personnel.

There is not enough time to set out all the improvements that the Ministry of Defence has made to the way in which we look after our people, so I shall focus on the Royal British Legion’s “Honour the Covenant” campaign. Before I do so, I shall spend some time setting out in detail what the MOD and the Government have done in recent times, especially the past year.

We have seen the best pay rise in the public sector— 3.3 per cent. for everyone—with the lowest-paid private soldiers receiving more than 9 per cent. The operational allowance, which was introduced last October and backdated to April 2006, has been raised to £2,320 for a six-month tour. There is an improved operational welfare package for troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, with more free telephone calls—30 minutes a week—and better internet access, including another doubling of terminals, which was announced last week, and the introduction of a wi-fi service. There is also a welfare package, both for injured staff who are back in this country, and for their families during their stay in hospital.

Service personnel deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan will benefit from a tax-free rebate of £140 on the cost of their council tax, and we will make further improvements. We have announced a comprehensive modernisation of terms and conditions of service for Gurkhas, and financial retention initiatives for the hardest-pressed groups, in which there are pinch points, were awarded this year: £10,000 for the Royal Marines, £4,500 for the infantry, £50,000 for air crew and £20,000 for nurses in return for agreed lengths of extended service.

Our resettlement package, on which, again, the press do not want to focus, for service personnel returning to civilian life has been improved, and the National Audit Office this year said that the package was at the forefront of the best international practice, with about 94 per cent. of service leavers finding work within six months. There has also been significant investment in new equipment. We have just announced an extra 140 Mastiff vehicles for our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. In total, we have spent more than £1 billion on force protection such as new weapons, body armour and helicopters. Having just returned from a visit to Afghanistan, the clear and overwhelming message from our armed forces personnel is that their personal equipment is the best that they have ever had. We therefore do not pay lip service to the principle of the military covenant. We recognise, support and reward those people who put their lives on the line for the security of this nation.

To address the issue in more depth, the armed forces compensation scheme, which was introduced in 2005, provided for lump sum payments to be made for the first time. In addition, injured service personnel receive a tax-free, index-linked income for life when they leave, which, in the case of the most seriously injured individuals, can amount to hundreds of thousands of pounds over a lifetime. If an injured member of the armed forces is not expected to work again, the income is based directly on their service salary. The scheme is relatively new, and we need to learn from our experience of the cases that arise today. I have made it clear that we will keep the scheme under constant review, but we have already reviewed the rules that apply when an individual suffers more than one injury in a single incident—the most serious multiple injuries, on which there has been much focus recently. As a result, we propose to increase the lump sum benefits that are paid to the most severely injured personnel. Although we need to consult more widely, that would mean that the most seriously injured individuals, such as Lance Bombardier Ben Parkinson, would receive the full award of £285,000. I stress that the lump sum is only part of the overall package of financial support. There has been a lot of focus on the lump sum, but it is just one part of the overall financial support. It includes a guaranteed income, which will, for those who receive the full lump sum, amount to hundreds of thousands of pounds.

The scheme is not capped like the criminal injuries compensation scheme: it is important to clarify that point. For example, one of our personnel who suffers the most serious injuries and receives the maximum amount of £285,000 will receive a significant income for the rest of their life. Someone on £25,000 would receive a guaranteed income payment of £21,725 a year, index-linked and tax free for life. Again, that is a substantial package, and it is not capped in the same way as payments under the criminal injuries compensation scheme. Subject to consultation, we aim to bring those changes into force before the end of the year, which demonstrates our commitment to our most severely disabled service personnel.

The hon. Member for Edinburgh, West made several points about the burden of proof. The standard of proof is based on the balance of probabilities, which is the accepted approach of schemes such as the criminal injuries compensation scheme. The work is not particularly onerous for the claimant, because the MOD undertakes most of the tasks by gathering evidence. No case should fail when there is reasonable, reliable evidence that the injury is due to service. More than 70 per cent. of in-service claims were successful in the first year, and we keep the scheme under review. I told the Royal British Legion that if it gives me examples of people who fail to secure the compensation payment to which they are entitled, I shall consider those cases. We were recently given a small number of cases, which we shall consider to see whether there is any problem in the scheme itself. We will continue to review the scheme.

The hon. Gentleman also mentioned the issue of time limits—again, the scheme is more generous than civil litigation cases—and spoke about the special nature of our armed forces. The armed forces compensation scheme sets a limit of five years for claims, compared with three years in civil cases. The five-year limit can be extended for certain late-onset illnesses, including cancer and mental illness. Additionally, time limits can be extended when the claimant cannot submit a claim within the time limit because they are suffering from a physical or mental illness. Again, we shall keep that under review.

We provide expert medical treatment and care to injured personnel on the front line, as I recently saw for myself when I visited Camp Bastion in Afghanistan. In the UK, the Royal Centre for Defence Medicine at Selly Oak in Birmingham and the Defence Medical Rehabilitation Centre at Headley Court in Surrey are models of clinical excellence. The military-managed ward at Selly Oak is now operational, and I visited it a few weeks ago. The overwhelming feedback that I had both from patients—the armed forces personnel—and their families was that excellent treatment and care was being provided. As the Chief of the General Staff said, there is nowhere better than Selly Oak, and Headley Court has a world-class reputation.

We recognise the vital role that families play in patients’ recovery, so the MOD provides both family accommodation and funding to help with accommodation and travel costs for families visiting injured personnel. I welcome the help provided by Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association Forces Help with family accommodation at both Selly Oak and Headley Court. I believe that our forces are best supported by the long-established partnership between the Government and ex-services organisations in the charitable sector, with each partner contributing what it does best.

We ensure that there is a proper transfer of care when personnel are medically discharged, we manage individuals’ resettlement, and we provide welfare support from a case officer who monitors the most seriously disabled personnel for at least two years after their discharge. That is a fairly recently innovation, but we need to do more and improve the provision, because many people are involved in care and resettlement, and we need to ensure that the co-ordination works well.

One issue that has been given particular focus is mental health. We recognise that mental illnesses, including post-traumatic stress disorder, are serious and disabling conditions which can, however, be treated. Research that we commissioned showed no significant difference in health problems faced by personnel on operations in Afghanistan and Iraq and personnel who are not on deployment, but it showed a slightly higher level of mental illness among reservists, which we are addressing. Our focus is on prevention, recovery and rehabilitation. We have measures in place to increase awareness and mitigate disorders, including pre-deployment and post-deployment briefings, support, assessment and, if required, treatment during and after military operations. We also arrange a period of decompression to help service personnel unwind after an operational tour.

All service personnel who are injured on operational deployments are entitled to the same level of medical treatment and support, whether they are regulars or reservists. The recently introduced reserves mental health programme provides assessments for reservists and, if they are diagnosed with operational mental health conditions, they are offered out-patient treatment at one of the MOD’s 15 departments of community mental health. The mental health of veterans has been a focus for both the public and the press in recent months. Successive Governments have shared the view that the NHS should be the main provider of health care for veterans, but we recognise that many health professionals have limited experience of dealing with symptoms resulting from military experience. We commissioned important research into delayed-onset post-traumatic stress disorder and, separately, into suicidal behaviour among discharged personnel. Both projects are due to report early next year.

My Department and UK health agencies, with the help of Combat Stress, have developed a new community-based mental health service, which will be piloted across the UK from this month onwards. The service will provide GPs with regional NHS networks of expertise in military mental health, helping them to respond to veterans’ problems locally. The pilots will run for two years before they are evaluated and rolled out nationwide. In the interim, we have expanded our medical assessment programme, which is based at St Thomas’s hospital in London—just across the river from Parliament—to include an assessment of symptoms acquired by veterans in operational service since 1982, and to provide help, where appropriate, for service personnel in prison. That is a major step forward in support. The clinician in charge, Dr. Ian Palmer, served as a military medical officer, and is a consultant psychiatrist. He is therefore well qualified to provide service both to any veteran who is seeking expert advice and to their GP. The MOD also funds war pensioners undergoing remedial treatment at homes run by the charity, Combat Stress. We have agreed a phased increase in the fees that we pay—the overall figure will rise to 45 per cent. from 1 January 2008, which is a significant rise in support—to enable those homes to enhance their capability to treat veterans.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned inquests, and I am well aware of the distress, discomfort and upset that delays cause families. Of course, inquests are a key part of the process, as relatives want to know what happened to their loved ones. They are intended to establish who died, when, how and why. They are not adversarial, and legal representation is not usually necessary. If families want legal representation but cannot afford it, they can apply to the Legal Services Commission, which is part of the Ministry of Justice, for financial assistance. We give as much information as possible to families, but we redact information to ensure the security of personnel deployed on operations and to protect personal data. However, we provide non-redacted reports to coroners to help them decide which witnesses to call. The Oxford coroner has praised the MOD for the high level of support that he receives.

The timing of inquests is a matter for individual coroners, who are appointed and paid for by local authorities. My Department has a dedicated team to improve liaison with local coroners and to avoid delays. We provide payments for two members of the family to attend pre-inquest hearings as well as the inquest itself. We recognise how upsetting the delays caused by the repatriation of all service fatalities through RAF Brize Norton were for the families. We have therefore funded the appointment of deputy coroners to clear the outstanding inquests and, from 1 April 2007, repatriations have taken place via RAF Lyneham in Wiltshire, where there is no backlog. We continue to make quarterly statements to the House on progress and provide significant funding to the Wiltshire coroner for the task.

Accommodation is another matter on which there has been a great deal of focus, and of course we accept that some accommodation is just not good enough for our service personnel. However, we have plans to spend a significant amount of money—£5 billion—in the next 10 years. We have invested £700 million in accommodation in the past year alone, and more than 1,200 quarters were upgraded to the highest standard last year. A total of 20,000 new en-suite single bed spaces have been delivered in the past five years, and a further 20,000 will be delivered in the next three years.

As an example of the progress that we have made on family accommodation, this financial year, we will make improvements to 5,000 service family homes, including substantial upgrades to more than 600 of the poorest properties. We have also achieved key worker status for personnel in the south-east, and the MOD has introduced other initiatives to help the armed forces with house purchases. Service personnel may need access to social housing, and we have announced our intention to change the relevant legislation to ensure that they are not disadvantaged by the usual requirement for a connection with the local area, which has been the subject of much discussion. We recently announced another £80 million to improve our housing stock.

I have focused on the role of the MOD in upholding the principle of the military covenant, but I am often asked about the contribution of other Departments, such as the contributions of the Ministry of Justice on inquests, the NHS on the care of both serving personnel and veterans, the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills on training and the Department for Communities and Local Government on the provision of key worker housing. I am determined to develop even closer co-operation with those Departments to ensure that we provide an effective response to needs.

Beyond Government, society as a whole has a part to play. We should be imaginative and do what we can to encourage tangible acts of support rather than mere words. All parts of society have a role to play: commerce and industry, local government, charities and the public at large as well as the Government. Some organisations have already risen to the call to recognise the bravery and commitment of our service personnel. Local authorities and councils, the Royal Mail, football clubs and the City of London have offered their support. The Royal British Legion plays an important role in Project Compass, which helps homeless ex-service personnel to find work placements. I hope that the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members will join me in promoting the need for greater public recognition of the huge contribution of our armed forces in often very difficult operations.

The Government take seriously their responsibility for caring for the needs of our armed forces personnel and veterans, as I hope I have outlined today. The Chief of the General Staff, Sir Richard Dannatt, agrees and has said that the military covenant “is not broken.” I accept that there are areas in which we can improve our performance, but I believe firmly that the support that we give our armed forces is better than it has ever been. I look forward to continuing our close working relationship with the Royal British Legion and the other ex-service organisations so that we can build on our work and what has already been achieved.

Midlands Engineering Industries Redeployment Group

This debate is focused on a service that I support for two historical reasons. First, at one stage in my business career I had to handle a large-scale redundancy exercise. The task of dealing with just more than 60 people and their various experiences of what was mostly a traumatic event in their lives taught me that expert resources are required to assist with a redeployment of personnel caused by changes in company strategy or, worse still, by dramatic changes in the viability of a business.

At that time, my company was wise enough to employ dedicated, skilled, outside teams to provide that support, but many businesses choose instead to handle those tasks from within their own resources. Often, they do it cheaply and without the level of expertise that is required to deal with the very different responses that many employees have.

That was a personal background. The second reason is that I took part in the Rolls-Royce taskforce after the events of 9/11 when there was, predictably, a dramatic reduction in the marketplace for aircraft engines. Rolls-Royce, many of whose employees live in my constituency, had to downsize its business sharply and announced redundancies. That exercise not only introduced me to some of the techniques that were available to a forward-looking business such as Rolls-Royce to deal with such circumstances—they were impressive, and I commend them—but highlighted a tragedy. Here was a world-leading company with fantastic employees who had tremendous skills in engineering, but at the end of exercise, which was extremely successful in finding employees other occupations if they wanted them, 70 per cent. of them found their future earning potential outside engineering, so many of those incredible skills were lost to the sector and to our economy at large. It struck me at the time that we could surely do better than we did even with the tremendous work that Rolls-Royce put in and the resources that it set aside to help people find new careers.

Why is this subject important? I am someone who does not believe that our economy will be based on selling mobile phone services in the future. I think that we will have to make things and that our expertise and heritage in engineering is not a liability but a strength that we should build on. Analysis of the skills need in our economy shows that hard-to-fill vacancies are particularly high in engineering-related activities such as metal production, construction and vehicle maintenance. When we analyse the skills shortages reported by employers, exactly the same picture emerges, a picture with which we are familiar on an anecdotal basis, that it is increasingly difficult to obtain high-level skills, and that many employers have to compete vigorously to obtain those skills. Yet, it came back to me how many of those people had drifted away from the sector to find other occupations, perhaps because they were not given some basic support that would have enabled them to stay.

A resource is being wasted at a national level—a resource that surveys within the industry show is required. Let us look at the problem strategically. The traditional experience of long-term employment with one employer is long gone and we should not regret its passing. We will increasingly see work forces flex according to market conditions; that is the only way for us to maintain competition in our country. The ability to produce competitive products and to innovate into the future will rely on a substantial amount of that flexibility, so there is no point in mourning the past. However, we will increasingly find more cases in which companies have to change direction, alter their work force profile and reduce head counts, often at the same time as other people are looking for similar skills. They may not be looking for precisely the same skills, but they might be close enough to be abridged by appropriate training.

The Anglo-Saxon model of industry implies competition over the work force, the raiding of other organisations for trained staff, and limited intelligent sharing on labour requirements beyond the limited surveys that I have quoted from because many people would see it as giving some competitive advantage to a competitor. The outcome is that training is not seen as a long-term commitment and that skills are lost in transition. Companies will lose those skills as they change and many of those skills will be lost to the sector altogether because there is not proper information sharing at appropriate times. In the more dirigiste continental model, there is much greater direct state intervention to subsidise the labour pools in which displaced employees are held awaiting future vacancies and are subsidised by the state. That is extremely costly, blunts the whole process of management and removes accountability, which is not a desirable outcome either.

The Midlands Engineering Industries Redeployment Group attempts to address this issue using the theory of clusters and by looking at businesses of common interest who can share information and support one another on matters that are not critical to their competitive advantage. The Minister will know that much of the theory on clusters stems from Italy and focuses on groupings such as the ceramic industries of northern Italy, which have been highly successful partly because they share large amounts of intelligence and compete only over certain aspects.

MEIRG has established a voluntary cluster network for fostering information exchange to facilitate labour planning and provide modest, targeted state aid in training and redeployment expertise. The costs are limited: about £500 per individual. That is modest indeed compared with how much my company paid for various expert services, 15 years ago, to support people in a major redeployment exercise. In just two years of existence, MEIRG has established a network of 520 employers across the midlands with interest in this sector. Some 380 employers have received some assistance from it, and nearly 3,000 employees who were affected by structural change have been given help. More than 800 employees have been helped with specific skills development, which involves identifying through personal interview the kind of skills that they need to acquire to enhance their ability to remain in the sector or close to it.

As a result of that work—I said at the start that 70 per cent. of the employees who were displaced from Rolls-Royce in 2001-02 left the sector—the retention rate in the sector in the cases in which MEIRG has intervened is 50 per cent., on average, and has reached 80 per cent. in some cases. Obviously, those figures vary, and it is difficult to measure these things tremendously precisely because the mix of skills will inevitably vary from business to business, as will their ability to port those skills around. Nevertheless, it is an encouraging and substantial improvement on previous experiences even those with high-quality employers such as Rolls-Royce, which invested a substantial amount of money in helping employees to move on.

MEIRG provides highly skilled people and a low-cost, mobile, internet-based service. Basically, a big truck turns up at a company and locates there, and interview facilities, support and advisory functions are provided to the employees who are affected. That has been shown to work well, as many employers in such circumstances do not have the capacity to do such things. Training is then procured on the basis of a personal assessment. There is not a quick-fit, generic approach but instead a personal assessment of the individual’s needs and the kind of things that they are prepared to commit to, and then training is procured from third parties.

The scheme received a commendation from the European Restructuring Forum as an example of best practice in Europe, and I could give many individual references. I shall pick just one from a Saint-Gobain employee who benefited from the programme. I shall not name the gentleman involved. He stated:

“I feel that MEIRG could not have done any better. The training was top class and so was the trainer. The best instructor I have ever come across. The back-up by MEIRG was second to none and the extra week enabled me to gain two more qualifications, i.e. TIG coding.”

I do not know what that is, but I am sure that it was important to him, and that is the point. He concluded:

“I would like to say thank you very much”.

I also have several testimonials from employers who have worked with MEIRG. There is no compulsion involved. Employers do not have to use the service or join the network. They do so from choice and because they believe that they work.

At present, MEIRG is working with the Lear Corporation—I believe it makes car seats—in Nottingham, where 500 people will lose their job, and it has assisted in recent large-scale redundancies in Leicester and Chesterfield. MEIRG has had critical input from Rolls-Royce—it is no accident that there is a linkage. Key personnel give their time freely to it, and the experience that I referred to—the large-scale downsizing at Rolls-Royce—was obviously one of the influences in establishing the service. My own union, which is now called Unite—it was probably still called MSF when the scheme was first considered—has been strongly supportive in a general sense but also in providing key personnel who give their time to support MEIRG. There is consensual activity across the brief: employers and trade unions reflect on the work and recognise its importance and value.

I would like to pay tribute to the people who have given their time: Phil Derges works at Rolls-Royce but makes a substantial input, my constituent Mark Tiltley, who is a Unite representative, Jan Staley, who is the project manager of MEIRG, and her deputy, Jane Kenney. They provide an excellent service.

I have told Members how good the service is. Now, what do we do about it? Why should we care? First, funding is not guaranteed. MEIRG is currently seeking continuance support from the two regional development agencies for the midlands. I would welcome the Minister’s noting my and my colleagues’ strong support for the organisation, and carrying it to the agencies when they reflect on bids. At present, uncertainty is placing future work at some risk.

Secondly, we need to reflect on the example and the successes. The fact is that MEIRG shows that such a scheme works in engineering.

I join my hon. Friend in commending the work of MEIRG. It is an excellent, professional organisation. My hon. Friend has not mentioned the work that it does in schools to persuade students that engineering is a good profession. The paradox is that European funding is available, but unless the East Midlands Development Agency and Advantage West Midlands make decisions quickly, the project will have short-term financial difficulties. I ask the Minister to speak to the two development agencies.

I thank my hon. Friend and would repeat what he says.

I was saying that the scheme provides an example to other sectors. If it works in engineering, it could work in other sectors, too. And, obviously, if it works in the midlands, it is logical that it would also work in other parts of our country. We have much to learn from the experience, and it offers models that we can use in the future.

I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for South Derbyshire (Mr. Todd) on securing this debate. He made a good case for the value of the work of the Midlands Engineering Industry Redeployment Group, and I am pleased to have the opportunity to respond.

There is no doubt at all about the continuing importance of engineering to the nation’s economy. One of the things that I have found encouraging since taking on the role that I have played since June is the extent of the growing recognition around the UK among organisations such as the Engineering Employers Federation that engineering and manufacturing are doing well. The UK is the sixth largest manufacturing economy in the world, and there is a growing sense from evidence, not just from the EEF but from the CBI and the Chartered Institute of Purchasing and Supply, that the industry is doing well.

It is striking that today the UK makes almost twice as many cars—some, of course, in the east midlands—as it did 25 years ago. That is one of the points that I shall make tomorrow at the lobby on manufacturing that will be held at Parliament. Unite, the trade union to which my hon. Friend referred and of which I, too, am a member, will be involved in it.

The industry is particularly important to the area in and around my hon. Friend’s constituency. There is a cluster of world-class engineering companies there. They are of the greatest importance—he made several references to Rolls-Royce—and make a substantial contribution to the economies of the locality and the region. I have some figures: in the east midlands region, the engineering sector accounts for about 6.5 per cent. of the region’s gross value added, which is, contrary to what people usually think, a higher proportion than was the case 10 years ago, when it was 6.3 per cent. The regional development agency forecasts that growth in value added in the engineering sector will be higher than the economy-wide average during the next decade. The latest estimate is that engineering accounts for 4.5 per cent. of full-time equivalent employment. In the east midlands, that is expected to increase slightly to 4.9 per cent. in the next decade. There is no doubt at all about the importance of the sector in the regional economy, and it is important as well to recognise and, indeed, to celebrate the growth in the region.

However, my hon. Friend is right to remind the House of the structural change that has affected the industry. That is why I am pleased that we have been able to have this debate and that the House has had an opportunity to learn lessons from the experience and success of MEIRG. The debate has shown the real advantages of partners coming together to find a way to develop and deliver a service that is widely recognised as having a major impact on competitiveness and on the long-term future of companies’ employees. I would like to join my hon. Friend in congratulating Unite and the other partners involved in MEIRG on their efforts and achievements. My hon. Friend mentioned a number of achievements, which impress me. Almost 3,000 people who were faced with structural change in the industry are being supported and more than 800 of them are being helped to develop skills. Almost 400 employers, mostly small and medium-sized enterprises, have been assisted. As my hon. Friend said, sector retention rates have been 50 per cent. routinely and sometimes up to 80 per cent. compared with a more typical figure in the industry of 30 per cent. It is not surprising that MEIRG has been selected as an example of European best practice in the management of structural change.

My hon. Friend reflected on his own experience of serious and difficult restructuring in a firm in which he worked. It is right to acknowledge how hard it is for people who are affected by restructuring exercises. He quoted one of the people who has benefited from MEIRG’s work, and I noticed another:

“MEIRG supported me through a very difficult time in my life. Being 50 plus and facing redundancy the support from MEIRG to obtain a professional qualification in Health & Safety has proved invaluable. It makes you feel that someone does care about an individual at a time of crisis. Thank you.”

That conveys some of the emotion surrounding matters such as restructuring that we talk about rather forensically, but which create difficulties for and affect the lives of a large number of people.

In discussions with members of some of the Scandinavian social democrat parties they said that if they cannot save particular jobs, they can save people. That is the idea behind the initiative. There will be change and restructuring because of the pressure of globalisation and the ferocity of international competition facing engineering and other UK industries and companies, but we must support the people who are affected by that restructuring, and MEIRG has done an impressive job.

My hon. Friend was right to point out the need for continued flexibility, and that will be no less prominent in the engineering sector in the next few years than it was in the past few years.

I mentioned figures showing that growth in the engineering sector in the east midlands is set to continue. A number of economic challenges face the sector in the region, as well as throughout the UK. Recruitment issues regionally, such as hard-to-fill vacancies, are significantly higher than the UK average, and skills gaps are evident in a number of key subsectors, including mechanical, aerospace and materials.

I join my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Paddy Tipping) in paying tribute to MEIRG’s work with schools to encourage young people to consider a career in engineering. That is an important task for the next few years. Engineering and manufacturing do not have an attractive image for people in schools. We must change that, and ensure that the image reflects the reality of the impressive successes in the sector in the east midlands and elsewhere.

International macro-economics and shifts in labour patterns have heightened the vulnerability of engineering companies, particularly those with an international profile, to labour market opportunities in other countries, such as eastern Europe and further afield. Rolls-Royce has recently decided to relocate a research and development facility to Dresden rather than in the UK.

There is absolutely no room for complacency. My Department recently consulted on business support simplification because we want to declutter the large number of streams of publicly funded support available to business, which have been estimated to be around 3,000. We want no more than 100 by 2010, and we want to ensure that support is demand-led, and that it matches the needs of employers and their employees. Intervention in recruitment and redeployment will certainly be part of the package of the retained streams, and although they are designed primarily to help individuals, they encourage businesses to recruit from groups that would otherwise be disadvantaged, so they assist in companies’ recruitment and challenges.

Lessons can certainly be learned from MEIRG’s experience, and applied more widely. The internet-based redeployment facility has been impressive, and allows individuals to know about a wide range of engineering-related vacancies and employers to advertise current job vacancies. That has worked well, as has the mobile resource centre—I understand that it is known as ERIC—to which my hon. Friend the Member for South Derbyshire referred. It can be located with a particular company to provide extensive training facilities and sophisticated technology. It can also be used by companies experiencing restructuring and at short notice to provide redeployment advice and services to businesses and employees. Two examples of individual testimonies have been given in this debate, and I have read other feedback from users, including employers.

At national level, the National Skills Academy for Manufacturing, which was set up in January 2007, is working to raise the sector’s global competitiveness by developing top-quality, fit-for-purpose solutions to training and development needs. There is no doubt that we need more of that in future. Like MEIRG, its focus is delivery-led, and aims to meet employers’ needs and to add value to their businesses. The East Midlands Development Agency is investing £429,000 in a three-year initiative to develop a regional branch of the National Skills Academy for Manufacturing. That important initiative will be chaired by Rolls-Royce and supported by a range of businesses, together with the university of Derby and Derby college.

We are committed to ensuring that the support that businesses need is available to them when they need it. The model that MEIRG has pioneered and developed has been an important addition to our understanding of what needs to be done, what can be done and what works in restructuring with innovative approaches to redeployment, reskilling and upskilling. I am pleased that the European Union’s EQUAL programme and EMDA have been able to contribute financially to MEIRG, thereby allowing new approaches to be tried, tested and developed. We must learn from that. Support for business as a result of the business support simplification programme and the Leitch review objectives on skills provide extra focus on the areas on which the Government should concentrate. I recognise that this is certainly one of them.

My hon. Friends have spelt out clearly their aim to ensure that funding for MEIRG continues beyond its current cut-off point in March next year. I cannot offer any commitments on funding, but I note the point that my hon. Friends made, and can go a step further and say that I will write to the chairs of the two RDAs involved to draw their attention to this debate and to my recognition of the importance of MEIRG’s task. We must then await the decisions that those two bodies will make now that their spending settlement has been announced in the Chancellor’s pre-Budget statement last week.

I acknowledge that MEIRG has substantial support, as this debate has demonstrated. There is a desire to ensure that the good practice that it has developed is not lost, and I know that consideration is being given to securing funding to take the project beyond 2008. I can only wish those efforts success, and thank my hon. Friends for taking the trouble to draw the Government’s attention to MEIRG’s achievement.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at two minutes to Two o’clock.