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Commons Chamber

Volume 464: debated on Wednesday 17 October 2007

House of Commons

Wednesday 17 October 2007

The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock

Prayers

[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

private business

Transport for London Bill [lords]

Ordered,

That the promoters of Transport For London Bill [Lords], which was originally introduced in the House of Lords in the previous Session, 23rd January 2006, should have leave to suspend any further proceedings on the Bill in order to proceed with it, if they think fit, in the next Session of Parliament, according to the provisions of the Private Business Standing Order 188A (Suspension of Bills).—[First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means.]

Oral Answers to Questions

INTERNATIONAL DEVELOPMENT

Migration

1. What assessment his Department has made of the effects of migration on international development projects in Africa. (158517)

As chance would have it, I have with me an excellent DFID publication, which I can commend to my hon. Friend. It is called, “Moving out of Poverty: Making Migration Work Better for Poor People”, and it is the first policy paper of its kind to be produced by the Department for International Development. The report highlights both the positive and negative links between migration and poverty reduction and it encourages developing countries to consider its impact in their national planning. To provide just one example, it examines the positive contribution of migrants through remittances and support for development projects, while also examining the negative impact—the loss of skilled people and the damaging effect it can have on capacity building efforts in sectors such as health and education.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that fascinating answer—[Interruption.]—and I mean that most sincerely. However, the massive levels of migration in sub-Saharan Africa are among the biggest causes of poverty. In 2005, there were 15 million people in sub-Saharan Africa living away from their normal place of residence—in other words, 15 million displaced people, which is more than the combined populations of Berlin, Paris, Madrid and Rome. Surely we need to do far more to make it possible for people to stay where they were born and brought up so that we do not have a constant cycle of poverty and oppression.

My hon. Friend says that he is being sincere—and for the record, I have always known him to be so. [Interruption.] I will continue. As to the 15 million displaced people in sub-Saharan Africa, there are many causes: economic migration, bad governance, conflict, climate change, natural disasters, all of which cause people to believe that they have no option other than to leave and search for a better life elsewhere. Everything that DFID does in sub-Saharan Africa is aimed at addressing the root causes of displacement through poverty reduction, humanitarian relief, reconstruction work, efforts to promote participation and good governance and protection of human rights.

Let me provide a few examples. In 2006-07 alone, we provided some £220 million in humanitarian assistance to sub-Saharan Africa and we have allocated £64.5 million this year to the Africa conflict prevention pool. We are the largest donor to the UN’s central emergency response fund, contributing £42.2 million this year. We have also provided—[Interruption.]

May I draw the Minister’s attention to another excellent publication, produced by the all-party group on population, development and reproductive health? It found that there was a correlation between migration and civil conflict and population growth. Will the Minister add that to his list of causes and, in providing aid to the sub-Saharan region, will he take into account programmes to address the issue of population growth?

To confirm, we certainly look at reproductive health in our programmes and we will continue to do so.

Given the centrality of sexual and reproductive health to country-wide health plans, will my hon. Friend tell us how he is encouraging African Governments to prioritise that issue?

We have regular dialogues with African Governments on these issues and all our African programmes focus on them. That will certainly continue to be the case. My hon. Friend is quite right to raise the issue; we can never do enough in respect of it.

It is estimated that 250,000 people have left Zimbabwe for South Africa and 200,000 Darfur for Chad. As the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) says, unofficial figures put the estimate many times higher. This is a human tragedy on a grand scale: it is a human tragedy for the people involved; it is a human tragedy for the countries that have seen those people leave; and it is a human tragedy for the countries to which they are going. What more can the Government do to provide humanitarian assistance not only for the refugees but for the recipient countries, so that those refugees will face a little easier life when they arrive?

My hon. Friend—[Laughter.] I mean the hon. Gentleman, although I am sure that we are friendly. I can tell the hon. Gentleman that we recently gave £8 million to the World Food Programme. I outlined some of the measures that we are taking to deal with the issue in my earlier answer, but it is not possible for one country alone to deal with it. The international community must act together to produce the impact that is so desperately needed—the impact that both the hon. Gentleman and we would like to see.

Budget Support

The Department delivers poverty-reduction budget support to Ethiopia, Ghana, Malawi, Mozambique, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia, India, Nepal, Pakistan, Vietnam and Nicaragua. Poverty-reduction budget support is aid given to a partner Government to support poverty-reduction programmes, and is spent with the use of the Government’s financial management procurement and accountability systems.

It is good news that the Department is being given more money, but it is important to ensure that that money is spent in the best possible way. Is the Secretary of State aware of the World Bank’s assertion that the outcomes of some 90 per cent. of budget support are never audited, which means that we do not know the extent of its effectiveness? Is it not time for an independent and impartial body to monitor and assess the outcomes, as has been suggested by my hon. Friends on the Opposition Front Bench?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who brings real expertise to this issue, not least because of his service on the International Development Committee.

The Independent Advisory Committee on Development Impact is due to hold its first meeting in just over six weeks’ time, and I believe that that will give the hon. Gentleman some confidence that we take the issue seriously. It is also important to recognise the steps that we are taking on budget support in particular. The Department always conducts a fiduciary risk assessment before entering into budget support, we monitor performance regularly, additional assurance is provided by the internal audit department, and we undertake annual reporting which provides oversight through its corporate reporting and auditing mechanisms.

What funding, if any—direct or indirect, through international monetary funds—is given to the Sudanese Government? If there is such funding, direct or indirect, would my right hon. Friend consider withholding it until such time as the Sudanese Government act in accord with international law, in the context of civil conflict and more importantly and urgently in the context of attempts to bring a cessation to the abomination of human rights abuse in that country?

I find myself in sympathy with my hon. Friend, both because of the longer-term challenge of making progress with the comprehensive peace agreement in relation to the north-south conflict in Sudan and because of the pressing challenge of the humanitarian crisis in the Darfur region. We do give considerable humanitarian assistance to the people of Sudan. I recently visited the al-Salam camp in el-Fasher in northern Darfur and saw, for example, the hugely important work undertaken by Oxfam, a British charity, in providing water and sanitation in the camps.

As well as the humanitarian work that we are doing, there is an important diplomatic dialogue with the Government of Sudan, so that—along with signatories and non-signatories to the Darfur peace agreement—they are clear about their responsibilities. Those responsibilities include an immediate ceasefire, a cessation of aerial bombing and the facilitation of talks between all parties in important talks at the end of this month.

Will the Secretary of State acknowledge that budget support is an extremely important instrument for building the capacity of recipient countries, provided that strict criteria apply? Is he satisfied with recent developments in Uganda and Ethiopia which led to a cut in budget support, and does he feel that their Governments’ attitude to the opposition justifies the reinstatement at this stage?

I defer to the right hon. Gentleman’s expertise, given his examination of the issues in the Select Committee, but the fact that in certain circumstances—for example, the political crisis in Ethiopia—we are prepared to withhold elements of budget support testifies to the fact that we monitor extremely carefully the circumstances in which it is appropriate for funds to flow directly through Government systems.

That being said, I find myself in full agreement with the right hon. Gentleman’s observation about budget support. It is certainly pioneering. At times it involves risks which must be judged very carefully, but it can clearly develop a sustainable means by which countries can help themselves to emerge from poverty rather than finding themselves dealing with innumerable international donors with whom, in many cases, their Governments lack the capacity to engage effectively.

In circumstances where general budget support has been cut, as in Ethiopia, will my right hon. Friend consider very carefully other means of delivering assistance, so that we can help the poorest people in the poorest countries?

I can give my right hon. Friend exactly the assurance that he seeks. Budget support for Ethiopia was withheld in response to the political crisis in 2005, but we do not want the poor to suffer in Ethiopia as a consequence of the actions of Government. That is why, through the protection of basic services programme, we have continued to support development efforts in Ethiopia. In the last year alone, 1.2 million more children attended primary school. Over 70 per cent. of Ethiopia’s children are now in school, and all households in malaria areas will have insecticide-treated bed nets by the end of this year. Those are just two examples of our continuing commitment to the people of Ethiopia.

Health Services

The UK is improving health in Africa through multilateral aid, including the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, and through bilateral programmes. Fifteen per cent. of DFID’s aid goes to health, totalling some £800 million this year, which will rise as the DFID programme expands towards our target spending of 0.7 per cent. of gross national income by 2013. Last month, the UK launched an international health partnership to improve the effectiveness of international funding for health. Five of the IHP’s first-wave countries are in Africa. They are Ethiopia, Zambia, Mozambique, Kenya and Burundi.

I thank my hon. Friend for that response. I am aware that in Mozambique, for example, those who suffer from HIV/AIDS sometimes face the problem that, even if they have access to antiretroviral drugs, supplies run out and the treatment cannot be sustained. Equally, some people are faced with a stark choice of either paying for their drugs or buying food. What can DFID do to ensure that those who access treatment are sustained on it?

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. The UK is absolutely committed to the challenge of HIV/AIDS. That was one of the key elements of the agreement at Gleneagles. DFID has committed some £17 million in support to the Ministry of Health in Mozambique. That will help to improve, among other things, HIV/AIDS treatment, including the scaling up of access to antiretrovirals. Therefore, some progress is being made. In sub-Saharan Africa, the numbers on treatment rose tenfold from 2003 to 2006, from 100,000 to over 1.3 million. However, with only one in four in Africa able to access HIV/AIDS treatment, much more needs to be done.

Given that we are off track to meet the millennium development goal on maternal health—on the current trajectory, not only will we not meet it by 2015 but we will probably not do so in the next 100 years—what more can the Government do?

That challenge is recognised throughout Government. Recently our Prime Minister met the Norwegian Prime Minister to look at an initiative to deal with that problem. Africa is the continent with the highest maternal mortality rate—there are 830 deaths per 100,000 live births. All our programmes focus on those issues. I go back to the point that I made earlier: ultimately, the UK is one player. It is by different donor countries coming together that we will have the kind of impact that I know we would all like to see.

When I visited Swaziland three years ago, we were told by the Health Minister there that Swaziland had the highest incidence of AIDS in the whole world at 43 per cent., yet thousands of doctors and nurses from Swaziland were leaving to practise abroad. What help and encouragement can the Department give to doctors and nurses from Africa who are working in the west to return to Africa to help in the fight against AIDS?

Brain drain is a high-profile concern for Africa, and a major migration and development concern for the African Union. We in this country have a code of practice under which we will not attempt to recruit health workers from countries whose Governments suggest that that might be detrimental. We are currently looking into this matter via the Global Health Workforce Alliance, which is chaired by Lord Nigel Crisp. The Secretary of State has already met him and discussions are taking place. This issue is of the utmost importance to the Government.

According to Save the Children, the lives of 800 children a day could be saved if their parents did not have to pay for essential health care. Will the Department work with non-governmental organisations and civil society to ensure that the health partnership translates into real action on the ground?

We are absolutely in favour of sustainable partnerships of that kind, which is why the Prime Minister launched the international health partnership only in September. Its aim is to make improvements in the area that the hon. Gentleman raises, and to work on the concerns that he and others have articulated.

All the evidence suggests that educating women in sexual health not only leads to later pregnancy but has a direct and positive impact on the economic performance of their country. What is the Department doing to promote sexual health awareness in Africa?

DFID is carrying out research into sex education. We are funding a community randomised control trial in Tanzania to inform us about the health impact of different adolescent sexual health interventions—we are investing £1.4 million in that. I recently visited Yemen where the population growth rate is such that it will double in 16 years; we are concentrating there on education for young girls, which will have an impact. Education, including sexual education, is vital in dealing with such matters.

Further to the question of the hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane), the Minister will know that many British health professionals want to make a personal contribution in poor countries but are too often discouraged from doing so because time spent abroad is not accredited and therefore adversely affects pension accrual, for example. Will the Minister look closely at the policy that my party has proposed to set up a health systems partnership fund? That would make a modest but useful contribution to helping in this area.

The hon. Gentleman may be aware that we were already looking at that issue prior to his party’s announcement. I am happy to inform him that Lord Nigel Crisp, chair of the Global Health Workforce Alliance, is looking into the issue, and that the Secretary of State has already met him.

The Minister will know that our proposals would enable British health professionals to spend time in developing countries helping to build sustainable health systems. The proposals have been supported by VSO and many other NGOs, including the Tropical Health and Education Trust. As the Minister’s party is clearly in the mood for nicking Conservative policies, will he make it a priority to implement as soon as possible our health systems partnership fund?

I think that I have already alluded to the fact that, regardless of whether they are ours or are borrowed from elsewhere, we will pass forward all good ideas to Lord Nigel Crisp, who will be looking into these matters. On nicking ideas, the hon. Gentleman will next be telling us that the target of 0.7 per cent. of GNI by 2013 was his party’s idea.

Comprehensive Spending Review

4. What impact he expects the comprehensive spending review to have on his Department’s future spending plans. (158520)

With the increases in aid announced last week, Britain will deliver on the promises that we made at the Gleneagles summit in 2005 and make faster progress toward the millennium development goals. We will double aid to Africa, invest more in education and health, and increase our support for growth and good governance. We will strengthen cross-government work on climate change and conflict.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that answer. Can he confirm that the settlement in the comprehensive spending review means that the United Kingdom is now on track to meet the commitment to spend 0.7 per cent. of gross national income by 2013 on aid, and that at least half of all new aid will go to Africa, as promised at Gleneagles?

I can give the confirmation that my hon. Friend seeks—we are now on track to meet that 0.7 per cent. GNI commitment. We are the first Government in British history who have given a time scale by which we will meet the UN target, and we took a decisive and significant step toward that goal with the comprehensive spending review announced last week.

Given the right hon. Gentleman’s success in the spending round, will he confirm that the settlement that he secured will allow for the quadrupling of British aid to Burma, including provision for increased cross-border assistance, backing for the Shan Women’s Action Network and other women’s groups, and funds to assist the worthwhile and valuable efforts of exiled pro-democracy groups—all of which have been recommended by the International Development Committee?

Let me begin by paying tribute to the work of the International Development Committee on this issue and, of course, to the high-profile role that the hon. Gentleman has taken on it. I gave very serious consideration to the recommendations of the IDC report in the summer, and I made sure that there was a carefully drafted response that reflected my determination that there should be a significant increase in the work that we are doing in this area. In addition to the terms of the report and the Government response, we have committed £1 million more toward the immediate humanitarian challenges facing Burma, in the light of the terrible events that we have witnessed in recent weeks.

Sustainable Forestry

We are committing over £70 million for sustainable forestry in Africa, including £50 million for the Congo basin forest, to help improve governance, reduce deforestation and safeguard the livelihoods of poor people.

Does the Minister accept that although biofuels can help to combat climate change, unless they are introduced in a planned and sustainable way, natural habitat and forestry will be destroyed? What analysis has he made of the problem, and what steps will he take to resolve them?

I share my hon. Friend’s view that biofuels have an important contribution to make in tackling the impacts of climate change. He is right to say that the increase in interest in biofuels needs to be managed in a sustainable way. We are working with a range of partners, including the World Bank and the African Development Bank, to look at exactly this issue.

The Chinese are almost raping the forests in Gabon. What representation have this Government and the EU made to the Chinese authorities about the way in which they are abusing their mineral and forestry rights in Gabon?

My hon. Friend may not know, but we have been working closely through the European Union with a number of countries, including China, to address how we can improve governance of forests and conservation and reduce the rate of deforestation. UK representatives attended a conference at Beijing to look at exactly this issue, and to see how we can develop that relationship with the Chinese still further.

Zimbabwe

The situation in Zimbabwe continues to deteriorate as a result of the appalling corruption and wilful mismanagement of the Mugabe regime. We are, however, making a major contribution to humanitarian relief and working to protect the people of Zimbabwe from the worst effects of hunger and HIV.

I thank the Secretary of State for those comments. Given that more than 3,000 people die of HIV/AIDS in Zimbabwe every week, does he agree with me that the measure of success is not how much money is spent, but the number of people protected from infection and the number treated? Given those circumstances, what is he doing to ensure that British aid money is used to maximum benefit?

On the specific issue that the hon. Gentleman raises, we are providing HIV treatment to 50,000 people in Zimbabwe this year and helping to keep AIDS-affected children in school. Clearly, this is a hugely challenging environment in which to be working at the moment—significant migration out of the country is taking place, its Government are in a relative state of collapse and its economy is diminishing almost by the day—but I assure hon. Members that we are determined to continue to provide humanitarian support, today and tomorrow, to the people of Zimbabwe.

Has the Secretary of State seen the recently published report by Save the Children, which highlighted the plight of unaccompanied children, some as young as seven years old, crossing the border from Zimbabwe to South Africa? What is his Department doing about that? Has he had any discussion with the South African Government about that important issue?

I assure the hon. Gentleman that through various different channels we are in regular contact with the South African Government on those issues. It is clear that Zimbabwe no longer represents simply a challenge or the humanitarian crisis of one country; given the outflow of migrants, be they children or older people, it is a crisis for the entire region. I pay tribute to the work of the Independent Television News broadcasting organisation, for bringing the plight of those children to the wider attention of the British public in recent years, and to Save the Children. I assure the hon. Gentleman that we continue to work closely with regional partners, including South Africa, to ensure that our humanitarian effort is targeted towards those most in need. Indeed, we have in recent weeks announced £8 million more for the World Food Programme to try to address the hunger needs of such populations.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—

Engagements

This morning, I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others, and in addition to my duties in the House, I shall have further such meetings later today.

The owner of a local small business wrote to me yesterday, saying:

“I was made redundant…and started my own small business…I am approaching retirement and was hoping the sale would help support my pension which has already reduced by…the raid on pensions made by Gordon Brown.”—[Interruption.]

Under the new tax rules, my constituent’s tax bill will rise from £2,520 to £9,504. Can the Prime Minister tell him what he has done wrong and why he is being penalised?

We have cut capital gains tax from 40 per cent. since 1997, when the Tories were in power. We have, as the Leader of the Opposition acknowledges, the most successful economy. We have created 2.5 million jobs, unemployment is down today, and businesses are thriving.

My right hon. Friend will be aware that last Saturday marked the anniversary of the collapse of Farepak, in which 122,000 small savers were robbed of their money. I have just met the administrator, who tells me that she is unlikely to pay back any money before Christmas this year. In addition, none of the reports will be made public under law. Would he be prepared to meet me and my hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Mr. Devine) to discuss how we can speed up the process and get justice for the victims of Farepak?

What happened to Farepak was completely unacceptable. We have worked very closely with all those people who have lost money as a result of Farepak and we will continue to do so. I will be very happy to meet my hon. Friend and any other hon. Members who are concerned about Farepak so that justice is done.

In the past four years, the number of people who have died from the hospital-acquired infection clostridium difficile has trebled. Ninety patients died in one hospital trust alone. The Healthcare Commission said last week:

“where trusts…are under severe pressure to meet targets relating to finance and access, concern for infection control may be undermined.”

Will the Prime Minister now accept that the number and extent of his top-down targets are contributing to this problem?

It is because we are concerned about MRSA and C. difficile that in the past few weeks we have taken very special measures: isolation wards; we are about to appoint 3,000 more matrons; and we are about to do a deep clean of hospitals. The right hon. Gentleman raises the issue of targets and cites the Healthcare Commission, so let me quote to him what its chairman, Sir Ian Kennedy, has said:

“Targets or their equivalent are an inevitable feature of a modern 21st century healthcare system…The obligation to meet targets cannot be used as an excuse for failing to meet other managerial objectives.”

He also says—and I hope that the Leader of the Opposition will take this into account—

“targets are not to blame for the trust leaders taking their eye off the ball.”

He adds:

“Managers always have to deal with conflicting priorities and plenty of organisations…do it successfully.”

In other words, it is not targets that are to blame. We have got to invest in the health service. Will he invest in the health service as we will?

It is clear that the Prime Minister has not read the Healthcare Commission report. The report could not be clearer. On the Maidstone hospital, it says:

“senior managers were…reluctant to implement major infection control measures”

because of the need to meet targets. It was not just that one hospital. The report on Stoke Mandeville said:

“The achievement of the Government’s targets was seen as more important than the management of the clinical risk inherent in C. difficile. This was a significant failing.”

Almost one in two hospitals agrees that targets are getting in the way of infection control. The National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee both agree. What makes the Prime Minister think that he is right and they are wrong?

The right hon. Gentleman has not done his research. Targets are responsible for waiting lists, which were at a quarter of a million, being almost zero for those people at six months. Targets are responsible for a 17 per cent. fall in heart disease. Targets are responsible for a 40 per cent. fall in coronary disease.

The right hon. Gentleman quotes the Healthcare Commission. I have quoted Sir Ian Kennedy, who is its chairman, saying that targets are not to blame. Let me also quote the new chief executive of Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells NHS trust. He said:

“targets are there for a reason but that should not stop us from focusing majorly on patient safety, that is the number one priority”.

The Leader of the Opposition should recognise that the reason we can invest more in tackling MRSA and C. difficile is that we are spending more money on the health service. He voted against that spending.

Order. I hope that the hon. Member for Dudley, North (Mr. Austin) will not keep shouting. You have a difficulty in Prime Minister’s questions because you keep shouting. You should not do it.

It comes to something when you have to tick off the Prime Minister’s Parliamentary Private Secretary, Mr. Speaker.

The Prime Minister said that he would listen to people, but he is not listening to those working in the NHS. The Healthcare Commission quotes one senior manager saying that

“if anyone says the top priorities aren’t money and targets, they are lying”.

The nurse of the year, who resigned today, says that she is leaving because of bureaucracy, reorganisation and paperwork.

MRSA deaths have quadrupled. C. difficile deaths have trebled. If we are going to deal with hospital-acquired infections, does not the Prime Minister understand that he has got to listen to the people who work in the NHS?

It is precisely because I have been listening to the British people that we have put an extra £100 million into tackling MRSA and C. difficile. It is precisely because we are listening that since I took over this job we are now insisting that every patient who comes to hospital will be screened against the possibility of MRSA. It is precisely because we are listening that we are going to do a deep clean of hospital wards. It is precisely because I am listening that we are going to double the number of matrons.

None of that extra expenditure would be possible if we accepted the Conservative party’s plans on spending. It has a £6 billion black hole in its spending plans, which would mean deep cuts in the national health service. The Leader of the Opposition should listen to the experts on this matter, who are saying that targets are not to blame. We need investment and reform in the health service, and only we on this side of the House can do it.

If the Prime Minister wants to ask me questions, he should call an election. In the meantime, he says that this is all about how much he listens, so let us ask about the other important issue of this week and whether he is listening. His manifesto promised a referendum on the European constitution. The overwhelming majority of people in this country want a referendum on the European constitution. European leaders, the European Scrutiny Committee and his own representative on the European Convention all say that the new treaty is the same as the constitution. Will he tell us why will he not grant a referendum on that constitution?

I see that the right hon. Gentleman has given up on the health service now. Let us come to the European issue.

In 1992, every member of that shadow Cabinet refused a referendum on a far more significant treaty. The Foreign Secretary voted against a referendum on Maastricht. Why is this treaty different? It is different because it is not a constitutional treaty; it is an amending treaty. Why is it different? It is different because we won a protocol in the charter of rights, we got an opt-in on justice and home affairs, we got an emergency brake on social security, and we have exempted the security issues. All those changes have been brought about in the past few months, and that is why not one Government in Europe—apart from the one in Ireland, who are bound constitutionally to have a referendum on anything—are proposing a referendum on this treaty. Just as those on the Conservative Front Bench voted against a referendum in 1992, they should have the honesty to vote against it now. [Interruption.]

Order. Before the next question, may I ask the hon. Member for Peterborough (Mr. Jackson) to be quiet as well? He is not the only one, but if I get him to be quiet I am sure that the others will follow.

The Prime Minister called my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) the Foreign Secretary. I have to say to him that it is just a matter of time.

Let us be clear about what Labour’s representative on the European Convention, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart)—[Hon. Members: “Where is she?”] Where is she? She has probably been sent for re-education. Let us be clear about what she said:

“The red lines are red herrings. It’s a matter of trust and integrity. A referendum was promised. It should be delivered. If Labour can’t trust the people, why should the people trust Labour?”

It is a simple question: is she not right?

We will do what is right in the interests of the British people. If the right hon. Gentleman wants to trade quotes, he should listen to the chairman of his own democracy commission, who says that the proposal for a referendum under the Tory plans is “crackpot”, “dotty” and “frankly absurd”. I know that the Leader of the Opposition likes pre-rehearsed soundbites—[Interruption.] I know that he is good at PR—[Interruption.]

I acknowledge that the Leader of the Opposition is good at PR, but did he not go too far last weekend when he went to California and said in a newspaper interview:

“look at me and think of Arnold Schwarzenegger”?

That is the last thing on anybody’s mind.

People will look at the Prime Minister and just say, “Here is a man who breaks his promise.” Why does he not admit that the reason he will not have a referendum is that he is scared of losing it? Does he not understand that if he breaks his promise on this, no one will trust him on anything else?

If we were deciding whether to join the euro, we would have a referendum. If the treaty were the old constitutional treaty, we would have a referendum. Because it is an amending treaty that is not fundamental change, we have managed to negotiate red lines in Europe which mean that the national interest is protected. Britain will decide on justice and home affairs; Britain will decide on foreign policy where it is multilateral; Britain will decide on social security; and Britain will decide on national security. We will at all times stand up for the British national interest.

On Saturday evening, I sense that the nation will be watching its television sets as England plays South Africa in what has been an extraordinary Rugby world cup. I wonder whether the Prime Minister would like to send a message to the team.

I think I might be able to speak for the whole House here. I think the whole House wishes to congratulate the England team on a magnificent performance in reaching the final. I think the whole House wants to wish Brian Ashton, Phil Vickery and the whole team our best wishes for Saturday’s match. As someone who, like my hon. Friend, follows rugby, and met the England team recently, I wish to send our best wishes so that England returns with the world cup on Saturday night.

Does the Prime Minister agree with the comments of the Chief Secretary to the Treasury that there is a moral case for rewarding marriage through the tax system?

May I first of all say—and I think I speak for the whole House—that we send our best wishes to the former leader of the Liberal party, who is a distinguished parliamentarian? He is a man of integrity, he is a man of honesty and he is a man of decency. Let me welcome the shadow Chancellor of the Liberal party to his position as temporary leader of the Liberal party. If things go on in this Parliament at this rate of change, every single Liberal Member will have the chance to be leader of the Liberal party.

As far as the tax issues are concerned, it is because we recognise marriage in the tax system that we have made the changes that we have on inheritance tax; it is because we recognise marriage in the tax system that—[Interruption.] It is only possible because we recognise marriage in the tax system. But as far as children’s tax credits and child benefit are concerned, I believe that the duty of every citizen of this country is to support not just some children in our country, but all children.

I thank the Prime Minister for his gracious comments and for his welcome.

Both of us are happily married men, but why has the right hon. Gentleman crafted an inheritance tax system that discriminates against millions of unmarried couples and their children? And why is he lining up with the Tories to defend the principle that these families should not merely be condemned to the everlasting flames of hell, but should be taxed more on the way?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for letting me into the secrets of his marriage. It has always been the case that marriage is recognised in the inheritance tax system. I have not seen him making very detailed proposals to change that in recent years. As far as inheritance tax is concerned, if we took up his proposal and extended it to everyone, that would be a very great additional expense. I do not know how Liberal party policies would be able to cope with yet another spending commitment, because in the last few days we have had commitments to a border police force, high-speed rail links, more money to Visit Britain and reducing VAT on historic buildings—£18 billion of spending commitments in all. The most recent one that I want to draw attention to is more investment in bullying prevention; perhaps they should look at that as a party.

Does the Prime Minister agree that the Treasury Committee, which is looking into Northern Rock, would have a lot more clout if only it could intervene before such financial dealings got out of control? Is he aware that the Notting Hill finance group has got another financial scam—to spend £3.5 billion of taxpayers’ money and raise only £650 million? That is another Northern Rock waiting to explode. And one of them has got previous—he was involved in Black Wednesday.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. There is a £6 billion black hole in the Conservatives’ promises. They cannot afford to pay for their spending commitments and are back to where they were in 1992—with more spending, lower taxes and less borrowing. Where did that end? It ended not only in Black Wednesday, but with 3 million people unemployed, public spending cuts and 15 per cent. mortgage rates. And the economic adviser to the Chancellor at the time is now the Leader of the Opposition.

Q2. The Prime Minister should be aware that the Royal Monmouthshire Royal Engineers regiment has sent more than 100 Territorial Army soldiers to Iraq in support of hard-pressed regular British soldiers. Will he therefore explain to the House why funding for the Territorial Army has been slashed by millions of pounds, and why the Royal Monmouthshire has been told that it can no longer recruit? (158503)

I shall immediately look into what the hon. Gentleman says about the Royal Monmouthshire, but I can tell him that expenditure on the defence forces as a whole is going to rise by more than £1 billion a year over the next few years. We have just made it possible for there to be extra commitment to equipment in Afghanistan. We will do everything in our power to support the magnificent men and women fighting for our armed forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, and I hope that that would be common ground between the parties.

Does my right hon. Friend share my concerns that obesity is the most important public health issue facing our nation today? Not only does it shorten the lives of sufferers but, ultimately, it affects the whole of society. Does he share my view that obesity cannot be tackled by Government alone, but will he outline the Government’s proposals to deal with this very important problem?

My hon. Friend is a doctor, and he brings to the subject a great deal of knowledge about the damage done to young children when obesity is allowed to go unchallenged. Not only must we deal with the advertising of unacceptable foods and persuade the food labelling authorities to make food labelling better to deal with those foods, but we must have a push on fitness in our schools. That is why we will move from two hours to five hours of sport a week in our schools over the next few years, and every young child will have the chance to enjoy a range of sports. That will be possible only because we are able to spend the money necessary to recruit sports teachers and improve sports education in our schools. That would not be possible if we had a £6 billion black hole in our finances.

Q3. Last Friday, I saw how moved the Prime Minister and the Defence Secretary were at the opening of the armed forces memorial near Lichfield. It has places for the names of 16,000 men and women who have lost their lives serving their country since 1945, but will the Prime Minister take this opportunity to clarify precisely how many troops currently in Iraq will return to the UK before Christmas? (158504)

I join the hon. Gentleman in paying tribute to all those who made that new national memorial possible. It is in the centre of our nation, so friends, relatives and families from all over the country can visit and pay tribute to those who have lost their lives since the second world war. As he rightly says, there are already 16,000 names commemorated in the stone of what is a most magnificent statue and memorial, which has been created using donations from large numbers of people. I hope that all Members of Parliament will be able to help their constituents to visit it.

The hon. Gentleman also asked about Iraq. As I have said before, the numbers go down from 5,500 to 2,500 by next spring. They go down from 5,500 to 4,500 and then to 4,000 in southern Iraq over the next few months.

Q4. In view of the appalling ongoing situation in Burma, I welcome yesterday’s announcement by European Ministers of stronger sanctions against that country, but I especially welcome my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister’s promise of aid if the Burma regime moves towards greater democracy and reconciliation. What more does he think that we can do to help the people of Burma? (158505)

I think that hon. Members of all parties in this House will agree that the Burmese regime is repressive, illegal and undemocratic. The sanctions agreed by the EU this week are an important way to deal with the export and import of timber, but we must move forward and look at investment sanctions as well. Members of the Burmese regime must know that unless they change, we will step up the sanctions against them. At the same time, we support the efforts of Mr. Gambari, the UN envoy who is now in the region. I hope that he will be given the chance to meet a wide range of people in Burma so that he can assess the situation.

My hon. Friend has taken a big interest in these matters over the years and, as she said, we are ready to support a reinvestment programme with funds so that the poverty, injustice and inequality that exist in Burma can be tackled if there is a move towards reconciliation and democracy in that country. Our strategy is not only to push the regime to change, but to offer to a new regime and Government our support for economic development and social improvement. I believe that all countries around the world, including China and the Asian countries, will be prepared to support that initiative.

Q5. This week an English Heritage survey found that 75 per cent. of respondents felt that seaside towns were shabby and unattractive, and that the Government should invest more to preserve what is distinctive about them. My constituency of Torbay works hard to upgrade its facilities and to make it an attractive place, and I am sure the same is true of all our seaside towns. What are the Government going to do to help the renaissance and regeneration of these important contributors to the British economy? (158506)

I happen to agree with the hon. Gentleman that we must do more for our coastal towns over the next few years. We must make them more attractive for tourism and we must aid their economic regeneration. That is why we have increased real-terms expenditure on coastal towns by nearly 40 per cent. over the last 10 years. As a result of employment growth, there has been a 12 per cent. rise in employment in coastal towns over the last decade, compared with 7 per cent. for the economy as a whole. Regional development agencies and local government will be given the resources that are needed so that we can regenerate, where it is necessary, the coastal towns that can serve our economy by being great tourist attractions as well as lovely places to live in.

Q6. Is my right hon. Friend aware that in my constituency 7 per cent. of people were claiming jobseeker’s allowance in 1997 and that the figure is now just 3.1 per cent.? Does he agree that the main reason for that success is the implementation by the Government of the new deal and the creation of better pathways into work? (158507)

There are two and a half million more people in jobs than in 1997. Two million people have been helped by the new deal since 1997 either to get training or a job. A large number of people are coming off incapacity benefit as a result of the measures we are taking. More single parents are going into work; there are now 700,000 single parents—not more than 1 million—on the inactive register. We have taken the number of people on income support and other benefits down by 1 million over the last 10 years, but that is possible only because we have a new deal that is able to help people get back into work. Unfortunately, the Conservatives would scrap the new deal. Let the debate begin: do we want a new deal that will help people to get jobs and equip them for the future so that British workers can get British jobs, or do we want a £6 billion black hole in public expenditure?

Q7. Is the Prime Minister aware that during the past year Army families were forced to call the Ministry of Defence special housing helpline 400,000 times? After 10 years of Labour Government, how does that dreadful state of affairs square with his pledge in Basra to uphold the military covenant? (158508)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising the question of Ministry of Defence accommodation, because as part of the spending round we have agreed that over the next 10 years £5 billion will be spent on accommodation. That is not simply for renovating existing barracks; it will also make it possible for young servicemen and their families to become owner-occupiers for the first time. I hope the hon. Gentleman will support the additional expenditure. I have to tell the Conservatives that when we decide to make additional expenditures on defence, housing and health—where I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, because he had to apologise for the Leader of the Opposition when the right hon. Gentleman said that hospitals would close—I hope that the Opposition, instead of having a black hole in their figures, will support that extra public investment.

Q8. Earlier this year, my right hon. Friend visited Ceres Power in Crawley, which is developing a low-energy fuel cell that will probably make sure that many of our homes have low-energy output in the future. In last week’s comprehensive spending review, the important environmental transformation fund was announced. How will Ceres Power and similar companies be able to take advantage of it? (158509)

I was very grateful for the chance to visit my hon. Friend’s constituency; she is a wonderful MP, representing the interests of her constituents. Last week, we announced that we will continue with our programme that is doubling science investment, and one of the major beneficiaries will be the environmental and energy industries. I see not only British inventions flowing from that but new British jobs in the years to come. Again, I hope that there will be all-party support for the rapidly increasing science budget so that British inventions can create British jobs for British workers.

Q9. Is the Prime Minister aware of the anger and concern about the proposed changes to hospital provision in south-east London, particularly the cuts and downgrades proposed to our own hospital, Queen Mary’s, Sidcup? Can he confirm that the consultation will not be a sham and that he will actually listen to what local people say—or is this just another example of London being let down by Labour? (158510)

I think that the hon. Gentleman will acknowledge that in London alone there have been 27 new hospital schemes over the past few years; there are 44,000 more NHS staff; there are 650 more dentists; and there is more investment going into the hospital service than ever before. I hope that he will not fall for the scare stories peddled by the Leader of the Opposition about hospitals that are not closing and about the effects of the Darzi report. We are investing more than ever in hospitals and the health service in London, and that is possible only because the economy is moving forward and we are able to create the wealth in this country as a result of a Labour Government.

Foresight Review of Obesity

The chief scientific adviser and his Foresight team have today published the report, “Tackling Obesities: Future Choices”, which pulls together the latest evidence and expertise on this vital issue and seeks to answer the question: how can we deliver a sustainable response to obesity over the next 40 years? Foresight exists to challenge existing policy, and the report is nothing if not challenging.

The report predicts that, on current trends, by 2050, 60 per cent. of men, 50 per cent. of women and 26 per cent. of children and young people will be obese. Incidents of type 2 diabetes are set to rise by 70 per cent.; attacks of stroke by 30 per cent.; and cases of coronary heart disease by 20 per cent. Obesity-related diseases will cost the nation an extra £45.5 billion a year.

The implications for those individuals who are directly affected are profound. An obese young man who remains obese, as most are likely to do, will die, on average, 13 years younger than his peer group. However, the report is based on current trends. Our destiny need not be pre-ordained, and we can buck those trends, provided that we are all prepared to take the necessary steps. Indeed, the work assembled for this project gives the UK a platform to become a global leader in tackling a problem that is challenging policy makers across the world.

In recent years, we have focused more closely on child obesity. Sure Start children’s centres provide parents with high-quality health advice in the crucial pre-school years. We now intend to start earlier still with the proposed nutritional grants for pregnant mothers. Over the past three years, the share of children on the school fruit and vegetable scheme who are eating five a day has increased from just over a quarter to just under a half. We have introduced tough new nutritional standards; we are investing almost £100 million a year to improve school food; and we have added an entitlement to cooking lessons on the national curriculum. We have established the national child measurement programme, which will provide the largest database of its kind in the world on children’s weight. In 2004, only half of all pupils did two hours of high-quality PE and sport every week; today the figure is 86 per cent. We are now raising our sights so that every child has the chance of five hours sport every week, backed by a further £100 million of additional investment.

Working with the Food Standards Agency and the food industry, we have introduced front-of-pack labelling, and we have worked with Ofcom to prohibit television advertising of foods that are high in fat, salt and sugar during children’s programmes. This was a bold measure, but we are determined to go further if the evidence supports the need to do so. We will therefore be reviewing the impact of the restrictions on the nature and balance of food promotion to all children, across all media.

The Foresight report endorses interventions such as these, but argues for an even bolder approach. The report says that although personal responsibility is a crucial determinant of our body weight, our environment also plays a vital role. The chilling reality is that modern life makes us overweight. As Sir David King puts it:

“We evolved in a world of relative food scarcity and hard physical work—now energy dense food is abundant and labour saving technologies abound”.

Modern transport systems, sedentary jobs and convenience food make life more comfortable, but also lie at the heart of this dilemma. In a sense, we are victims of our economic success. The pace of technological revolution outstrips human evolution.

Tackling this problem calls for a fundamental shift in approach. Although the report projects us forward 50 years, it does of course require action today, and many of the areas identified in the report cannot be tackled successfully by Government alone. I hope this report will trigger the national debate that is essential if we are to rise to the challenge.

The report highlights the responsibilities of employers to look after their employees’ health, which is in the interests not just of their staff, but of the business: enhancing performance and improving productivity. The report also shows how small changes to everyday routines can make a real difference. For instance, employers might look at providing loans for bikes, not just season tickets; subsidising gym membership, not just canteens; and even putting out fruit at meetings, rather than biscuits. But the report also points to more substantial measures—for instance, with the built environment. Local authorities must ensure that healthy living is built into the infrastructure of our towns and cities so that planning systems improve our health and well-being.

The report examines the availability of, and exposure to, obesogenic food and drinks. Front-of-pack labelling is now increasingly prevalent, but industry has yet fully to embrace the colour coding system. There is emerging evidence that the FSA's labelling system is more effective at informing consumers and I want to work with the industry to see this adopted, but the report underlines the expectation for change. I have also asked the FSA to conduct an immediate investigation into the use of trans fats, to examine whether there is more we should ask the food industry to do in this area.

The report talks about the importance of targeted public health interventions. There are regional disparities in the prevalence of obesity and I hope that primary care trusts will look at what more can be done through advice and training in health consumption and activity to help obese people to achieve sustainable reductions in their weight. Underpinning all this is an acknowledgment that Government must do more. We will develop a comprehensive cross-government strategy on obesity to respond to the evidence in this report. Because of the need for concerted action on a number of fronts, I will convene a cross-governmental ministerial group to guide our approach.

We will continue to focus particularly on children. More than 80 per cent. of obese 10 to 14-year-olds remain obese into adulthood. As part of the spending review, we have already set our ambition to reverse the growth in obesity so that, by 2020, we reduce the proportion of overweight and obese children to the levels in 2000. Ensuring that our health service is as focused on prevention as it is on treatment is already a priority, and obesity epitomises the need for that change.

In the past, tackling obesity has always been regarded as a matter of personal will-power, but as the report starkly demonstrates, people in the UK are not more gluttonous than previous generations and individual action alone will not be sufficient. Obesity is a consequence of abundance, convenience and underlying biology. Solutions will not be found in exhortations for greater individual responsibility, or in what the report calls the futility of isolated initiatives.

Let us begin the national debate here in Parliament today, and let us use the report to forge the consensus that will allow the UK to pioneer the new long-term integrated approach that the issue desperately requires. I commend the statement to the House.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement. Indeed, I am grateful—I hope that the House is grateful—to all those who worked on the Foresight programme and for their report.

The Foresight programme makes a clear argument: our human biology has not much changed, but our environment and our society have. We lead less active lives; we enjoy plentiful energy-dense foods. It has become normal to be overweight. It will become normal to be obese if we do not act now. Our response to this needs to change or the slide into obesity will create an epidemic of disease and the national health service will not cope.

The public health Minister, the right hon. Member for Bristol, South (Dawn Primarolo), called this a “wake up call”. If it is, the Government have been asleep for the past decade while the alarm bells have been ringing. When the Labour Government came to office, they abolished the target on obesity that was set in the 1992 “Health of the Nation” White Paper. In 2004, the Health Committee’s report on obesity said:

“On present trends, obesity will soon surpass smoking as the greatest cause of premature loss of life.”

In 2004, the Government abandoned their previous stance and set a target to halt the rise in childhood obesity by 2010. Since then, the rates have continued to go up, and what has been the Government’s response to that? It had been to push the target back from 2010 to 2020. Frankly, we can see why they have failed. The Secretary of State talked about the child measurement programme, but what is the point of a programme that does not lead to any action? Children are measured so that there is an ability to take subsequent action. This is the way in which the Government work: targets as a substitute for achievement when what we really need is action—not gimmicks or one-off initiatives, but a sustained plan. As the Foresight programme makes clear, that plan has to tackle the whole map of factors that contribute to rising levels of obesity.

The plan must start with nutrition in pregnancy and early years. There is no evidence that the Secretary of State’s voucher scheme alone will work. The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence has proposed guidelines for early years nutrition and all those proposals need to be supported. The plan must include the reformulation of foods. My colleague in the European Parliament, John Bowis, earlier this year led a parliamentary initiative to ban synthetic trans fats in Europe.

As the Government said earlier this year, saturated fats are the greater public health hazard. We need a supply chain initiative that will reduce fats, sugar and salt progressively and substantially. We must also promote good diet, targeting certain junk foods—today the Prime Minister called them “unacceptable foods”. Nutrient profiling that stigmatises all cheese as a junk food just forfeits credibility.

Three years ago, when the Government published their public health White Paper, I argued for a combined traffic light and guideline daily amount system of front-pack food labelling. The Government got it wrong then, and now we have several confusing labelling systems. Will the Secretary of State today agree that the Government will back a combined traffic light and GDA labelling scheme?

Will the Secretary of State commit today to a national research centre on obesity? Will he commit to a nationwide programme to identify cardiovascular risk? Will he commit to supporting proven exercise referral schemes? Will he commit to ring-fenced public health budgets so that we cannot carry on seeing such budgets being raided to meet national health service deficits? Will he explain to the House why the number of public health staff has halved? Will he explain why primary care trusts are not on track to have trained school nurses in place by 2010, as was promised? Will he tell the House why the lottery funding for community sport has been halved, when half the population do no sport and take no active recreation?

Today, the Secretary of State said that he will develop a comprehensive cross-Government strategy on obesity. Three years ago his predecessor said at the Dispatch Box that he would develop a cross-Government campaign on obesity. The words do not change, but delivery never takes place. For a decade, the Government have presided over an escalating public health crisis. A succession of gimmicks has had little impact. There has never been the comprehensive action that is required. The issue is not just about individual choices; it is about social responsibility—our responsibility for our health. It is about stronger families that give young people the guidance and self-esteem necessary to make healthy choices and lead healthy lives, stronger communities that promote activity and sport, and corporate social responsibility to promote good diet and cuts to fats, sugar and salt, and to ensure that affordable diets are on offer in the most deprived areas.

There is an analogy to climate change. In both cases, we need a cultural shift, technological innovation, a framework of legislation, and Government action, and we need individuals to respond. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition and the Conservative party have led the argument for a greener Britain through social responsibility. I can today commit the next Conservative Government to meeting our obesity and public health challenges, through social responsibility, to ensure a safer, greener and healthier Britain.

I echo the hon. Gentleman’s words about the work of the Foresight team. The review is a comprehensive piece of work. A group of experts spent two years formulating the evidence, and the review gives us an opportunity to become world leaders in tackling the problem. I really do not want to look back—

Well, I just think that the report deserves discussion in Parliament, rather than a simple Punch and Judy show. [Interruption.] Well, I do believe that. I believe that obesity is one of the long-term issues on which politicians have an obligation to forge a consensus. I do not expect the Opposition to be in power for at least another 20 or 30 years, but undoubtedly Governments will change. Undoubtedly the Opposition will be in power at some stage over the coming years—I leave aside the Liberal Democrats. We must forge a consensus on the issue that allows the British people to believe that whatever Government come along, there is a comprehensive, integrated strategy to deal with what the Foresight report says is one of the most profound dangers and threats that the world faces.

Having said that, I will go through the points made by the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) before I end my response by saying that I agree with much of what he said about the need to tackle the issue of good diet and the need to involve Ofcom more closely. Any objective look at what has happened in the past few years would suggest that, as the Foresight report recognises, the Government have taken a number of measures that are crucial to tackling the issues, and child obesity in particular. The first thing to say is that we commissioned the report. We set up the Foresight unit specifically to look at the issues long-term.

Secondly, we introduced the tough new nutritional standards that have been in place since September as regards the rubbish that was in vending machines in our schools. Over the past three years, the share of children on the school fruit and vegetable scheme who eat five a day has gone up from a quarter to just under half. Some 86 per cent. of school children now do at least two hours of high-quality sport or physical education. The Department for Transport is investing £15 million in the national cycling network, and 450 schools are due to benefit from that. We put £1 billion more into sport in this country. All of those measures and more are important, but that brings us back to the Foresight group’s comment about the futility of isolated initiatives. What we need is much greater integration, and the Government need to do more in that regard as well, but we need to forge a political consensus on the matter across the House.

The hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) says that we have abandoned the target for 2010. We had a fairly modest target of stopping the rise in childhood obesity by 2010. As part of a discussion of the latest round of public service agreements, and educated by the early draft of the Foresight report, we decided to be far more ambitious and say that rather than halting the rise, we should reverse it to 2000 levels. That will take longer than 2010, which is why the aim is to achieve the target by 2020.

The point that the hon. Gentleman makes about the national weighing and measuring programme is right. I agree that we need to give that a legislative push. From the early results, it looks as though we are getting about 90 per cent. compliance, but that must be properly tested.

I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman about ring-fenced budgets. I am surprised by his remarks. Opposition Members have been speaking about the need for the NHS to be separated from politicians, with no targets and with the money being handed down and local trusts allowed to get on with it. The right approach is for us to give the money out to health trusts and to make them responsible for dealing with the issue, ensuring that there are indicative measures. The proper place to put the emphasis on public health is through the operating framework. We will do that at the end of the year.

The hon. Gentleman’s other point—on public health staff—is a hardy perennial, and I was disappointed that he raised it in this debate. The number of nurses working in primary and community care settings has increased by 31,500 or 40 per cent. since 1997. That includes a 35 per cent. increase in the number of school nurses, so the number of people working on health in communities has increased enormously, as has the budget for public health and throughout the health service. All our aims are predicated on the massive increase in investment that we have put into the health service since 1997.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman about where the focus needs to be now. Indeed, I dealt with that in the statement. We need to ensure that we go further on colour coding and that we talk to the industry. We do not want to be attacked for unnecessary regulation. We want to persuade the industry, with the benefit of the report, that we all have a responsibility. Of course the Government have a huge responsibility, but so do others. If the Foresight report does not point us in the right direction, nothing will.

The humour from the Conservative Benches is wonderful, but the guffaws are slightly forced.

I thank the Secretary of State for early sight of the statement. He is right that the report must be taken seriously. Unless we take decisive action, the consequences for people’s health of obesity, such as diabetes and heart conditions, could be devastating and will bankrupt the NHS. It is important to stress that we should all take personal responsibility as individuals and as parents. Perhaps the three of us Front-Bench spokesmen should take part in the Great London run next year. I invite the Secretary of State to join me. I did it this year, and the Lib Dem health team is in pretty live condition—[Interruption]. Mr. Speaker, come to my aid. There is an awful lot of noise in the background.

It is also right that we should hold the Government to account for their action or inaction. Is this not a case of “here we go again”? In 2004 the White Paper promised a long-term strategy to tackle obesity, and Wanless urged joined-up thinking. In a high-profile announcement the Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform, the hon. Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint), who was a Health Minister at the time, was put in charge of tackling obesity. Now, after three years of inaction, what do the Government propose? They propose a three-year comprehensive strategy on obesity. I know that the Government are famous for repeating announcements, but to take three years to repeat the announcement seems to take the biscuit.

Indeed, take the fruit.

We also have the inevitable, rather vacuous claims that the UK can be a world leader on the subject, yet in the real world the problem is getting massively worse and the UK compares badly with most other countries. Why did Derek Wanless conclude that his 2004 recommendations had effectively been ignored? Why have the public health budgets been raided to stave off financial crisis in many parts of the health service? Why have we no idea about how much we are spending on public health? How on earth can we monitor it if we do not measure how much we are spending on it in a given year? Why has the number of public health consultants and registrars declined?

Why has the take-up of school meals declined by almost 500,000 in the past two years? Schools now have to weigh their children, but why is there no follow-up action to give the schools the opportunity to do anything to tackle the problem that they uncover? Is it not right that the top priority must be to tackle child obesity, both through more exercise and through better diet?

The report highlights the risk of polarisation of society between

“the junk-food eating, less-educated poor and functional food eating, better-informed higher classes”.

It highlights the importance of education, yet the statement is silent on the horrifying potential inequality in health outcomes between rich and poor. What is the Government’s strategy to tackle that? Overall, is this not one of the worst examples of great rhetoric not being matched by action?

I do not think the report is an example of that at all. The hon. Gentleman welcomes the report, so I assume he has read it. It was not I who said that it gives us the opportunity to lead the world on the issue. The report itself states that the work assembled for the project gives the UK a platform to become a global leader in tackling a problem that is challenging policy makers across the world. It points out that nowhere across the world is there a comprehensive strategy to tackle the problem. It identifies some important community initiatives, such as the North Karelia project in Finland, which had remarkable success. The report suggests that we consider setting up a similar project in a couple of regions or cities in the UK.

The report makes it clear that no one has a magic bullet and that there is no single answer. There is no use waiting for some kind of medical technology to produce a magic pill or tackle the issue. That is not going to happen. The report concentrates our attention on the need to rise above the political fray and to accept that mistakes have been made, although I do not accept the hon. Gentleman’s point. The science has moved on and our approach has moved on. One of the reasons why we commissioned the report and sponsored it is that we recognised that we were running to catch up on the evidence that the scientists were producing on the need to tackle obesity.

We can consider various initiatives. The hon. Gentleman mentioned health inequalities. The report states that the Government’s action in tackling health inequalities and climate change could help, because energy saving could help to encourage people to exercise more. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman says from a sedentary position—you two are such chums, Mr. Speaker, on unhelpful comments from the back—that the statement was silent on that. In my statement to Parliament, I set out what is in the report, picking out some of the issues. The statement the day before yesterday—there does seem to be one almost daily—pointed out that we will introduce 100 GP practices into the 25 per cent. most deprived areas to try to deal with the problem of under-doctored areas. The report points to a series of measures that need to be taken, and tackling health inequalities is crucial. The hon. Gentleman talks about the day-to-day banter that we sometimes have, but the report will have an important role in tackling these problems in the longer term.

The reduction in the take-up of school meals has also been mentioned, so let me point out yet again that the city I represent followed Finland’s lead and became the first to try to tackle health inequalities and problems with educational attainment by saying that every primary school pupil should be able to have a free breakfast, free fruit and free lunch. What is more, we did that before Jamie Oliver, and it had a remarkable impact. The programme is due to be assessed by Hull university, yet the incoming Lib Dem authority cancelled the scheme this year—[Hon. Members: “Ah!”] Yes, they abolished it. So much for free school meals as a means of tackling deprivation. The Lib Dems in Hull say that we have to introduce this nationally, but it is not a problem for Kingston upon Thames; it is problem for Kingston upon Hull, so the local authority should be involved in tackling it. It is a disgrace that the programme has been abandoned.

Putting all that aside, I hope that the Liberal Democrats—whichever leader is in charge of them this week, next week or the week after—will engage fully in the debate. I believe that the Liberal Democrats have a huge contribution to make to tackling some of these long-term problems—and the Conservative party does as well. As for the Great London run, I will consult shadow spokespersons to ensure that we all give the same answer!

May I congratulate the Foresight team on its excellent report and pay particular tribute to the work of the Minister for public health, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, South (Dawn Primarolo), who made an excellent speech at the launch this morning? I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State understands the frustration of people like me, who know how difficult it is to tackle this enormously complex problem of obesity, and that, like me, he recognises that the Government cannot solve the problem on their own. A whole societal approach is necessary, involving literally everyone in the country. Will he consider my wish list of the day? First, will he consider introducing a mandatory labelling scheme that could be agreed across the board—irrespective of whether individual supermarkets like it or not? Next, will he commit to having a school nurse in every single school, which would make a huge difference to the public health of the nation? Also, can I ask him to be even tougher on food advertising to children, particularly in respect of foods high in fat, salt and sugar, as that alone could make a considerable difference?

I thank my hon. Friend for his customary constructive comments and for giving us a good lead-in during Prime Minister’s questions. I join him in congratulating our right hon. Friend the Minister for public health and, indeed, the Minister for sport and the Minister for Children, Young People and Families, all of whom were signatories to the report’s foreword. My hon. Friend makes a very important point about the inability of Governments alone to tackle the problem. The report makes that point repeatedly and eloquently, which will provide a huge boost to my hon. Friend’s other point about the need to convince those involved of the need to produce a better food labelling scheme. I am not saying that I am going to push anyone into anything, but as Bob Dylan once said,

“You don’t need a weather man to know which way the wind blows.”

As far as school nurses are concerned, we cannot commit to one for every school, but our plans relate to clusters of schools and we intend to follow our successful approach to school sport. We want the expertise to be present in order to benefit a number of schools in an area.

May I advise the Secretary of State that I believe that there is an obesity pill, so his earlier comment was perhaps ill informed? In connection with the increased hours for sport and exercise in schools, will the Secretary of State ensure that team games—not just any exercise—are provided in school? We need team games, which I believe are the best for keeping young people fit, and to have team games, we need sports fields. Will he therefore remonstrate with local authorities because, under the learning communities programme, schools are merging and selling off the sports fields? That is happening in my village of Poynton, where the Vernon infants and junior schools are combining. I am in favour of the merger, but not of selling off the sports field, which is currently part of the infants school and adjacent to the junior school. Will he contact the authority to make it clear that this must not happen? We need playing fields if we are to provide more recreation, exercise and sport in schools.

The hon. Gentleman is right that there are various pills around, but they have not proved to be particularly successful. The report points out that they have had varying degrees of success, but that no single medical solution is likely to come along and solve all the problems.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman about the need for team games and sports. There was a period in which it was felt in the education world that competitive sports were somehow bad for children. That is ludicrous and it should go back to whichever strange opinion former it stemmed from. It is essential to have sports, including team sports.

School sports field are important. This year, for the first time in many years, there was a net increase in the number of sports fields opened rather than closed. The policy that we introduced insists that no school can get rid of a sports field without the express permission of the Secretary of State, and only then if the money received for it is going to be reinvested into sport, fitness and education. I believe that the hon. Gentleman will welcome that policy, as he will welcome our extra £1 billion investment in sport.

As my right hon. Friend knows, I take a great interest in increasing the level of physical activity in response to obesity. Building on what the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton) has just said, will my right hon. Friend commit to ensuring that the single delivery system for sport, physical education and activity across the country—the county sport partnerships and others—becomes more heavily involved with primary care trusts? I offer the Secretary of State the opportunity to visit Leicestershire county sports partnership, which I chair, as one example where the local PCT is heavily involved in our activity.

Will my right hon. Friend also work with the Department for Culture, Media and Sport to define clearly the roles of Sport England and the Department of Health? There are some difficulties, of which the attitude to walking is a good example. It is a great way of getting people to start to take up physical activity and then move into sport. That was demonstrated last week when it was found that 40 per cent. of people taking up sport in north-west Leicestershire did so as a consequence of walking. Will the Secretary of State try to bring those two elements together and clearly define who takes responsibility for which part of the governmental programme? That is crucial to delivering the first steps in tackling adult obesity. We can tackle child obesity if we get school sport right.

The answer to my hon. Friend is a very simple yes. What he says is crucial and the talks with the DCMS have already started. My hon. Friend has made an enormous contribution to sport in this country and I believe that he can make an important contribution to the work that is now under way. As I mentioned earlier, the Minister for sport, the Minister for Children, Young People and Families and the Minister for public health are working closely together. The new cross-Government initiative will involve everyone in government. I believe that my hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough (Mr. Reed) has a very important role to play, and we will be in touch.

I find it a bit odd that the shadow Secretary of State criticised the Government for abandoning and relaxing targets when, only an hour ago, that is exactly what the Leader of the Opposition called on the Prime Minister to do. On the question of the futility of isolated initiatives, my right hon. Friend has accepted the need for an integrated approach in central Government, but does he also accept that, in reality, it is at local authority level that the integration will have to take place? Only the local authority and the children’s trusts can seriously integrate and influence health, schools, leisure, youth services, land use planning and transport planning. Does he agree that this will be a real test of the Government’s commitment to ending simple top-down government and to decentralising more? Will it not also be a real test of the ability of children’s trusts to deliver and, indeed, of the commitment to achieving all five outcomes in the “Every Child Matters” agenda?

I do agree with my hon. Friend. I do not know whether he has had an opportunity to read the report yet, but the Foresight group says precisely what he has said—that it is at local government level, where initiatives in Finland and other parts of the world have been hugely successful, that we can establish what could be described as an embryonic facility to test measures that may well be necessary throughout the country.

The group also makes the point that planning is central, especially local authority planning. Cities must be planned on a particular basis. They should not be like Los Angeles, where people take the car to buy a pint of milk. We should look towards 2050 and the world beyond, and plan for that world now. That is why my right hon. Friend the Minister for public health and others are in touch with the Local Government Association to talk through the issue and try to identify areas—Bury might be one of them—where we can try out some of this integrated work at local level.

Is not the dismal truth that the problem has occurred on this Government’s 10-year watch? As much as anything, it is about a failure to inform effectively.

Does the Secretary of State agree with Peter Hollins, chief executive of the British Heart Foundation? He says that the report

“is hardly a wake-up call. Repeated reports like this… should have had alarm bells ringing in Whitehall long ago”.

Is it not clear that we must now consider not just the level of calories, but the degree to which food is processed? Will the Secretary of State take that into account when he considers labelling?

Finally, what advice is the Secretary of State taking from the United States, which has an even larger problem than we have? Will he examine that problem very carefully?

I do not accept what the hon. Gentleman says. I do not blame earlier Governments. The Foresight report looks back at many, many years. A useful section considers the approach to smoking over the years and notes that although there has been a big public health success in that regard under Governments of different persuasions, it was preceded by a long route that began in the early 1960s with information, proceeded to more intervention, and concluded with regulation providing for smoke-free areas. It would not have been possible to implement such regulation back in the 1960s: there would have been public outrage. The Foresight group’s point is that obesity is a long-term issue which has not arisen under any particular Government’s watch. Indeed, it is a global problem.

I was disappointed by the hon. Gentleman’s quotation from the British Heart Foundation—it may have been taken out of context—because the report adopts the most comprehensive approach possible. Scientists have examined the matter scientifically. I did not have a chance to reply to a question from the shadow Secretary of State, who asked whether we would put together a team of experts or something of the kind—

We plan to keep the same team together to work on the project, although I do not know whether the building in which they are housed will be called a research centre.

The way in which food is processed is central. We can learn lessons from the United States, which does indeed have a far greater problem, although we will soon have as great a problem here if we do not do something about it. My right hon. Friend the Minister will talk to her opposite numbers in the United States during her visit, which will take place shortly.

Will the Secretary of State stress the importance of personal responsibility to the campaign? Information about diet, nutrition and the importance of exercise is available wherever we turn, and it is difficult to understand how the message has not already reached everyone in the country. No adult in this country is force-fed, and adults must take responsibility for what they choose to eat, but parents must take responsibility for what their children eat. They cannot transfer the responsibility to schools. Our schools are doing a very good job with the meals and exercise that they provide, but parents can give their children exercise in the form of sporting activities at the weekend, and they must take responsibility for that.

If the campaign is to succeed, we cannot constantly provide excuses for people. Obesity is not the fault of Government, the advertising industry, the food industry, schools or the health service. People must take personal responsibility.

I could not agree more with the hon. Lady on one very important point. The Foresight report says that this is not just a question of individual responsibility, although it does not suggest that it is not an element. What the authors want to tackle is the view that the problem is merely about people who eat too much, and has nothing to do with the way in which society is organised. They point out that because our biology has not kept pace with technological advances, the amount of energy that we take in is not matched by the amount that we expend. That is an important point, particularly because obesity gives rise to bullying, which affects youngsters in this position.

The hon. Lady is, however, absolutely right about the amount of information that is available. What we must ask is why, if all that information is there, people are not acting on it. She is also right about the need for parental responsibility. The fact that mothers were passing fish and chips through the railings at that school in Yorkshire is thoroughly depressing. Ensuring that youngsters become used to a healthy diet from a young age depends on their having that healthy diet at home as well. There is a two-way education process, involving parents as well as others. I think that the hon. Lady’s question, which will be encapsulated in Hansard, is the very first important contribution to the debate.

May I pursue what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson)? Does the Secretary of State accept that one reason why children eat more fast food and ready meals than they should is the increasing time pressure on ever busier parents? If he does accept that, what steps will the Government take to implement flexible working and other family-friendly policies so that parents can go home and cook more wholesome food for their children?

That is precisely why I personally took legislation through the House introducing the right to request flexible working, which at the time was attacked by the trade unions because it did not give a right to demand flexible working, and by some, although not all, sectors of business on the grounds that it imposed a burden on business. In fact, it has been remarkably successful: 80 per cent. of requests are accepted without the need for any process, while a further 10 per cent. are accepted following discussion about how more flexible working can be accommodated.

The first six months of a child’s life are crucial. The report mentions breastfeeding in that context. Paid maternity leave has been increased to 26 weeks and more recently to nine months, and eventually it will be increased to a year. Men now have paid paternity leave. All that is essential to the debate. The hon. Gentleman ought to look at the record. I do not want to make a political point, but I will in the sense of reminding him that the Conservative party opposed those proposals.

We need to expand that flexibility. We have already extended it to carers, but I believe that we should now extend the right to request flexible working much more widely, perhaps as part of the debate on obesity.

I was heartened by the Secretary of State’s answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson). He appeared to downgrade the role of personal responsibility in his statement when he said, “In the past, tackling obesity has always been regarded as a matter of personal will-power”. Is it not clear that we all learn and that we do not need a red light on a packet of crisps to tell us that they are fattening? There is no reason why we should not have the occasional packet of crisps, but if a parent gives a child a packet of crisps at breakfast, morning break, lunch, tea and supper, the child will clearly have an obesity problem. Is the Secretary of State perhaps a little nervous of making it clearer to the public that it is first and foremost up to them, not Governments, to change their personal behaviour?

We are trying to make clear the role of personal responsibility. The report speaks of an obesogenic environment, suggesting that modern life and the way in which the world now works make people fat, and that that must be tackled on a much wider basis than individual personal responsibility.

I am sorry if I downplayed personal responsibility. I am merely drawing attention to the report’s observation that in the past, when Governments wanted to tread on this territory, the first response was always “nanny state” and the second was that it was up to individuals to deal with the problem. According to the report, if Governments proceed along those lines, the issue will never be tackled successfully. Personal and parental responsibility are an essential part of tackling it, but there is a much wider issue that must be addressed by all elements of society, with Government taking the lead.

As someone who used to work in marketing for a supermarket chain, may I tell the Secretary of State that proposals to ban so-called junk food advertising on television and to introduce a state labelling system will not make any difference to childhood obesity? They will simply be another triumph for the nanny state. May I suggest that he stops those measures that make it sound as though the Government are doing something but that will make no difference whatever, and instead promote the individual responsibility line outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson)?

It is not either/or, and individual responsibility alone will not work. If the hon. Gentleman has a chance to read the report, which was written by eminent scientists, he will see that it makes it clear that food labelling and advertising form a crucial part of tackling the problem. In my view, the reason why advertising restrictions should go much further is that about 70 per cent. of children watch television programmes outside the traditional children’s viewing times. I think that that is making a big contribution and will make a bigger contribution, but it is just part of the answer. The hon. Gentleman says that it is either/or, but that does not take us any further forward in the debate.

Is the Secretary of State aware that many hard-working local general practitioners have been trying to run programmes to tackle obesity in their local areas for many years? In fact, my local GP, Dr. Andrew Brewster, who is an excellent GP, recognised the problem some years ago and developed an innovative and successful programme in my area. However, the big problem was that he could not get the funding from the NHS or the primary care trusts to run the programme, so he had to get the money from drugs companies. Does the Secretary of State agree that, for real change to happen, local GPs must be properly funded and supported to tackle obesity?

The GP the hon. Gentleman mentions could make a contribution to the debate. Of course primary care is essential to tackling the problem. I am not sure when the GP had problems with funding. An enormous amount of funding is going to GPs—indeed, we are often criticised for too much funding going to GPs, so I will be surprised if there is a problem at the moment in accessing money.

The hon. Gentleman is right, however, that GPs and primary care have as big a responsibility for prevention of disease as they do for tackling it. That is why we announced that there would be 100 new GP practices in the 25 per cent. poorest areas and 150 GP-led health centres around the country. As well as providing greater access, they will all have a responsibility on prevention as well as cure. I am sure that the GP the hon. Gentleman mentions would welcome that. It seems that he has been doing that work for many years. We want to see that replicated throughout the country.

Points of Order

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. You will be aware that at 9.30 this morning there was a very important Westminster Hall debate on a subject close to the heart of the Labour left wing and the Liberal Democrat party in particular, namely, arms exports. For the first time in such a debate that I can recall, there was no Front-Bench spokesman present from the Liberal Democrat party and, needless to say, there was no Back Bencher either. Given that the Liberal Democrats persistently like to style their Front-Bench spokesmen as shadow Secretaries of State, will you clarify once and for all that they are no such thing and that, therefore, if they wish to continue absenting themselves from debates, it will be welcomed by Government and Opposition alike?

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. It is only a gentle point of order, but I wonder whether you have had a chance to look at the packaging material involved in the announcement that the Secretary of State for Health has just made. At a time when we are all trying to cut down on wasteful packaging, is it sensible to have the document in a half-empty box, in which a lot of junk food could probably be accommodated? Is not obese packaging the last thing we need?

BILL PRESENTED

Elected Representatives (Prohibition of Deception)

Adam Price, supported by Lynne Jones, Mr. Dai Davies, Mr. Peter Kilfoyle, David Taylor, Dr. Richard Taylor, Mr. Angus MacNeil, Mr. Elfyn Llwyd, Hywel Williams and Andrew George, presented a Bill to create offences in relation to the publication of false or misleading statements by elected representatives; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 19 October, and to be printed. [Bill 162].

Access to Pension Protection Fund Benefits

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision for the accessing of Pension Protection Fund benefits by people under the age of 50 who are suffering from a terminal illness; and for connected purposes.

For nearly all of us, contributing to a pension will be the most significant financial decision we ever make. Throughout our working life until the day we die, we will either be building or receiving a pension. Contributing to a scheme provides us with security for the future. It enables us to provide essential items such as food, warmth and housing, as well as allowing us fully to participate in society, economically and socially.

It is therefore distressing that, earlier this decade, thousands of people saw their savings vanish after their pension schemes went bust and were unable to meet their commitments. To avoid a repetition of that, the Government in April 2005 established the Pension Protection Fund under the Pensions Act 2004. Funded by an annual levy on defined-benefit and hybrid pension schemes, the PPF provides compensation to those whose pension schemes have become insolvent.

The fund has proved to be an invaluable safety net to thousands of workers who would otherwise have lost substantial pension savings. However, as a compensation scheme, the PPF has its own set of rules, which are set out in part 2 and schedule 7 to the Pensions Act and in the numerous statutory instruments made under it. Legislation specifies the level of compensation to be provided, and that is not necessarily the same as the person would have received had the pension scheme not wound up. In short, the PPF does not mirror the rules of individual pension schemes, and it is for that reason that I am proposing the Bill.

Significantly, the fund contrasts with final salary pension schemes and does not allow early payment of pension savings, for whatever reason, to anyone under the age of 50. For a specific set of people under 50 years of age—those diagnosed with a terminal illness—those rules are simply unreasonable. It is my belief that legislation should be amended so as to lift the current bar on payments to those aged under 50, if they are terminally ill.

As the Incomes Data Services pensions service explains, many pension schemes will allow unreduced early payment of a pension on ill health grounds. It states:

“In a final salary scheme, members who retire early often find that their pension is reduced to take account of the fact that it will be paid for longer. But if early retirement is due to ill health or incapacity an immediate pension is usually payable and this is unlikely to be reduced for early payment.”

A parliamentary written answer confirmed PPF rules regarding ill health pensions. It stated:

“compensation to scheme members who have been awarded an ill health pension is calculated in the same way as compensation to any other scheme member of the same age.

There are no provisions to enable scheme members to claim ill health pensions from the Pension Protection Fund once the PPF has assumed responsibility for a scheme.

However, any scheme member may take early payment of their compensation at a capped level of 90 per cent. from age 50, subject to actuarial reduction.”—[Official Report, 21 November 2005; Vol. 439, c. 1679W.]

As well as provoking inevitable feelings of grief, anger and loss, having a terminal illness can be expensive, often in ways that may not have been expected. That includes the cost of prescriptions, a special diet, child care or travel to hospital. In addition, money may be needed to make adjustments to an individual’s home or to pay for making out or amending a will.

It might easily be the case that people in their 30s and 40s could have made anything between 15 and 30 years of payments into a scheme but do not qualify to receive benefits under the PPF rules, even though their original scheme would have paid out. For anyone aged under 50 and terminally ill, savings taken on by the PPF simply disappear. Only when an individual dies will payment be made to their spouse or civil partner. That situation is set to get worse in the next few years. In a fact sheet on early payment of compensation, the PPF confirms that before April 2010 the earliest age at which payment can be made will rise from 50 to 55, to comply with the Finance Act 2004.

The PPF covers 10 former pension schemes, but many more schemes are undergoing assessment. It is estimated that by the end of 2007-08, the PPF is likely to be responsible for an additional 65 schemes. Some 100,000 employees are members of schemes currently being assessed to see if they qualify to be rescued. Among them are 38,000 former Turner and Newall employees, whose scheme failed after the engineering company went into administration in 2007.

The Turner and Newall case provides a good example of why change to existing legislation is so necessary. That company, once the world’s largest manufacturer of asbestos, ran factories in Rochdale, Washington, Widnes and Trafford Park, where many employees worked with asbestos every day. Working with asbestos can lead to asbestosis, lung cancer or mesothelioma. Employees were never told of the dangers to their health, and hundreds have been badly affected by working with asbestos products. Sadly, it is not difficult to imagine that some might well develop a terminal illness before they reach the age of 50. If that is the case and if the PPF covers Turner and Newall’s pension scheme, terminally ill employees under 50 would not be entitled to a penny of compensation. When Lord Whitty recently raised this issue in the other place—I refer Members to column 121 of the record of the House of Lords debates of 6 June 2007—the Government argued that existing legislation ensures the PPF is uncomplicated and provides greater certainty about both payment levels and the affordability of the fund.

The financial assistance scheme makes payments to individuals diagnosed as terminally ill on provision of evidence that they are unlikely to live longer than six months. The six-months criterion is very harsh and it is extremely difficult for doctors to give any indication of precisely how long a patient might live. That period should therefore be extended to 12 months.

It might be useful to look at the cost incurred by the FAS in paying compensation to terminally ill individuals. When I contacted the FAS recently, I was told that that information was not recorded. Similarly, the Office for National Statistics advised me that pension schemes rarely document payments to terminally ill members, as that occurs so rarely. It is therefore reasonable to conclude that the cost of paying out to terminally ill claimants is somewhat modest, if it is not currently recorded for the FAS. Basic logic supports that assumption when one considers that pensions for the terminally ill are paid for a shorter period due to their reduced life expectancy. The FAS might also provide a useful model with regard to administration and process.

In respect of eligibility, a definition of terminal illness could be based on that used by other appropriate organisations. The Association of British Insurers uses the following definition in their best practice guide to critical illness:

“Advanced or rapidly progressing incurable illness where, in the opinion of an attending Consultant and our Chief Medical Officer, the life expectancy is no greater than 12 months.”

Appeals against decisions could be referred to the PPF ombudsman, as is currently the practice for eligibility appeals. Of course, the precise definition of eligibility can be discussed and drawn up with the PPF board. The important point is that ill health benefits are allowed to be paid, which can only be enabled once existing legislation is amended.

The experience of the FAS and the lack of data held regarding terminal illness and pension schemes suggest that the PPF will not be inundated with requests for early payment based on ill health. That, together with the relative ease of determining an individual’s state of health via medical certification, suggests that the task of assessing and processing the extra applications would not be excessively burdensome.

The proposed change is relatively modest. The Pensions Act 2004 should be amended, and individuals who are certified as terminally ill and aged under 50 should be allowed to access their savings as they would have done had their scheme not gone bust. In order not to provide too broad a provision, it could be restricted by reference to the discretion of the PPF board. This modest amendment would be of enormous significance to individuals in their last precious days. I ask the Government to consider extending the safety net to those who would draw immense comfort from it.

I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Mark Hendrick, Mrs. Janet Dean, Barbara Keeley, Mr. Doug Henderson, Mr. Elliot Morley, Jim Dowd, Lynda Waltho, Mr. John Heppell, Tom Levitt, Mr. Ian Cawsey, Mr. Neil Gerrard and John Mann.

Access to Pension Protection Fund Benefits

Mr. Mark Hendrick accordingly presented a Bill to make provision for the accessing of Pension Protection Fund benefits by people under the age of 50 who are suffering from a terminal illness; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 19 October, and to be printed [Bill 162].

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. This morning I secured a debate in Westminster Hall on defence exports, and many of my hon. Friends joined me in attending it in order to try to hold the Government to account on an important decision that has been taken and which concerns the Ministry of Defence. The Government sent along, however, a Minister from the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, who did not appear to know anything about the subject. Can you advise me, Madam Deputy Speaker, how Members are to hold this Government to account on such an important issue when they send along a Minister from a different Department?

Order. It is, of course, entirely up to the Government to decide which Minister attends any debate in this House. At the end of day, any Minister is still a Minister within the Government and has responsibility.

Opposition Day

[20th Allotted Day—First Part]

Foot and Mouth/Bluetongue

We now come to the main business: the Opposition day. Mr. Speaker has selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister.

I beg to move,

That this House notes the swift action taken by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to impose movement controls when foot and mouth was first confirmed on 3rd August, in contrast to the Government’s failures in 2001; is alarmed that the outbreak originated from a laboratory site financed, licensed and inspected by the Government; notes that warnings about the inadequacies of the facilities at Pirbright were ignored; condemns this negligent approach to biosecurity; urges the Government to accept its responsibility for the situation facing farmers caused by the subsequent controls which for many has been compounded by the outbreak of bluetongue disease; and demands that the regulatory body for facilities using dangerous pathogens should be fully independent of the facilities’ major customers.

I remind the House of my interest declared in the register.

For those of us who were involved in the catastrophe of 2001, the news on 3 August of another foot and mouth outbreak was a body blow. To be fair to the Secretary of State, he was open and helpful to my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth), myself and affected colleagues. He gave us access to his vets, and he and the Minister for the South East kept us informed. We are genuinely grateful for that collaboration. One should also point out that much of what happened predated the Secretary of State’s appointment, but as is so often the case on such occasions, he was the unfortunate person left holding the parcel when the music stopped. I also acknowledge the swift action that was taken to clamp down on the disease by banning animal movements—a welcome contrast to the costly delays of 2001.

Early on Saturday 4 August, a farmer telephoned me and pointed out that the outbreak was near Pirbright. My immediate reaction was, “So what? That’s just a coincidence.” How wrong I was. Nobody realised then that this had been a disaster waiting to happen for five years and that the trail of incompetence led all the way to Downing street. As far back as 2002, an Institute for Animal Health review, commissioned by its owners the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, stated:

“Some of the laboratories are not close to the standard that would be expected in a modern biomedical facility.”

We also know from the Spratt report that from 2003 there had been concern

“that pipes were old and needed replacing, but after much discussion between the Institute, Merial and DEFRA, money had not been made available.”

The report also contains a letter from Merial dated 20 July 2004 setting out specifications for improvements to the drainage and referring to an unspecified quote for the work. The reply from DEFRA simply stated that the proposals would appear to meet DEFRA standards for the safe transfer of the waste. That letter was dated 2 August 2004. Yet last week the Secretary of State told the House that

“until the state of the drains was drawn to our attention, and everybody else’s, as a result of the HSE investigation, nobody thought that they were in such a condition. That happens to be the truth.”—[Official Report, 8 October 2007; Vol. 464, c. 44.]

As there is now incontrovertible evidence that DEFRA knew about the state of the drains as far back as 2004, will the Secretary of State explain how he can claim that it did not know until September 2007?

In Spratt’s final remarks, he says:

“There was evidence of a lack of urgency and ownership of risk at all levels, resulting in the failure to take appropriate decisions on the funding for essential improvements in safety critical infrastructure. This was particularly documented in the series of letters and reports from the biological safety officer of the Institute in his attempts over four years to get agreement on funding for the replacement of the effluent pipes.”

Spratt also made it clear that DEFRA inspectors had confirmed that the drainage system was part of the category 4 containment system. He said that the pipes were old and appeared not to have been subject to regular, thorough inspection. Even during the past 18 months, there had been two incidents—both reported to DEFRA—where virus was released into the public sewer. So we have a catalogue of reports, recommendations and pleas for help regarding the drainage system. The Secretary of State cannot claim that DEFRA did not know. Some people certainly did, and the House should be told who they are.

However, it does not stop there. We find that in the years following 2002—with just one exception—DEFRA cut funding to the institute. As Spratt said, money had not been available. In January this year, the director of the institute told Radio 4:

“We are trying to deliver a Rolls-Royce service for surveillance in the UK but really we’re being funded more and more at the level of a Ford Cortina. Essentially, we are flying by the seat of our pants.”

Last week, the Secretary of State claimed that the vehicles were on the site

“because work is under way to spend the money on renewing the facilities at Pirbright. Some £31 million of that money has already been spent”.—[Official Report, 8 October 2007; Vol. 464, c. 44.]

Yes, £31 million, out of a Pirbright redevelopment scheme fund totalling £121 million, is indeed a lot of money, but it is not actually relevant. In a written answer to my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey, the Minister for Science and Innovation said:

“Tenders for the drainage scheme of around £220,000 were received in October 2006.”—[Official Report, 1 October 2007; Vol. 463, c. 2346W.]

That work was approved in March and commenced in July. On 5 September, inspectors confirmed that the work had been completed. I quote:

“The institute has already completed relining of the effluent pipes with a polyester lining, blocked off disused drains and sealed the manholes.”

So for £220,000 and six weeks’ work, the disaster to the British farming industry could have been avoided.

However, DEFRA has another role. Under the specified animal pathogens order, it has to license such facilities. That includes meeting its own containment requirements, which the health and safety report clearly states were not met. Yet in December 2006, DEFRA inspected Pirbright, and according to Spratt,

“some issues relating to bio security were identified”.

I remind the Secretary of State of Spratt’s statement that the pipes did not appear to have been subject to regular, thorough inspection.

So why will the Government not publish that report? Is it because it is clear that the licence should not have been renewed? It seems odd that, despite the drains having been repaired, the licence is now suspended. Talk about closing the stable door after the cow has been shot! Are we really facing a foot and mouth outbreak for the second time in seven years because a facility had been licensed by DEFRA that should not have been? What is really hypocritical is that, if this had been a dairy farm or a shop selling food, it would have been prevented immediately from continuing in business until the problems were put right.

We know that DEFRA knew about the state of the drains four or five years ago. We know that it failed to fund the improvements—indeed, it cut the funding. Despite that, it went ahead and continued to license facilities that were rotten. It has cost the taxpayer well over £20 million, and rising. It has cost the English farming industry at least £100 million, and rising, and for Scottish and Welsh farmers the situation is just as serious. The potential damage, especially to our uplands, could be devastating.

What farmers need to know is, who is going to pay the price. When will somebody in DEFRA be accountable for this latest fiasco? Who will ultimately carry the can? Will it be the Prime Minister who, as Chancellor, cut the funding? Will it be the various Secretaries of State who ignored the warnings? Will it be the institute, or some inspector? No, we know that, as always with this Government, it will never be their fault. It is never their responsibility. Never resign, blame somebody else—that is the culture. The can, of course, is being carried—by the poor farmers up and down the country who cannot sell their stock, buy new stock, pay their bills or see a positive future. Already, farmers are deciding to quit the industry. They can take the weather; they can take decoupling; they can even take the vagaries of the marketplace, but they cannot—and nor should they—take the negligence of an incompetent Government.

We all know that this is a dreadful situation—as, indeed, a number of other animal disease outbreaks have been. However, will the hon. Gentleman, to be fair, acknowledge that this Government have spent a great deal of money on research into vaccination? Let us consider the example of tuberculosis, into which we had a number of inquiries. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman shakes his head, but is he aware that the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee is looking into the money that this Government are spending internationally on this issue? Of course the Tories do not want to know—they do not spend any money.

I am very willing to engage the hon. Gentleman and anybody else on the subject of the incompetent way in which this Government have handled the tuberculosis business, as well, but that is not the issue facing us today.

Perhaps I might return the hon. Gentleman to foot and mouth, which is the worry for most of my farmers. Does he share my concern and that of many people in Somerset that infected carcases are being taken from the area of the foot and mouth outbreak and into my constituency—into the heart of dairying country—for disposal? Does he agree with me that that is an unnecessary and avoidable risk?

Any risk is worrying, and I can well understand the hon. Gentleman’s concern, which has been expressed by many others. I hope that the Secretary of State will address that issue when he responds.

I listened to the Secretary of State address the House last Monday on the issue of the pipes in Pirbright. I remember that he said categorically that, although it was possible that pipes were faulty, it could not be guaranteed that that was the cause. Given the evidence that my hon. Friend has presented to the House today, does he agree that the Secretary of State must acknowledge that fact today, for the record?

Anybody who has read the Spratt and the Health and Safety Executive reports will have come to the conclusion that my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) has reached. It is stated clearly that that is by far the most likely cause; no other substantive alternative cause of infection is ventured. I can well understand why the Secretary of State does not want to admit that. I am sure that thousands of lawyers are on his shoulder, pressing him not to do or say anything that could be construed as accepting responsibility. However, I do not think that there is any doubt about how the situation was caused.

As a dairy farmer close to the exclusion zone, I must refer Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Interests. The Institute for Animal Health, at Compton, is in my constituency, so a lot of scientists—past and present—live there. There is great anger among them at the fact that the Government are ignoring the way in which they go about their business, which is world renowned. They believe that the Government just want to dip in and out of the science and get a quick-fix solution. The actual solution is to look at the whole biology of these pathogens, but the scientists are prevented from doing so by the manner of their funding.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that. As I pointed out earlier, the director of the institute said that he is funded to run a Ford Cortina, when in fact, he is trying to run a Rolls-Royce service. That entirely sums up and fits with what my hon. Friend has just said.

So far, I have addressed the causes of this outbreak; let me turn now to the handling of it. The initial decisions were right, but there have been a number of problems in the detail. There was a desperate lack of communication. Farmers near the initial outbreak were wondering what was happening for days and days before they were contacted.

Does my hon. Friend agree that one problem that DEFRA has, and which Whitehall has more generally, is assuming that everybody is connected to the internet? We may have to be, but a lot of my farming friends are not and are simply left in the dark.

My next sentence was going to be, and will be, that DEFRA appeared to assume that every farmer spent their whole time studying the internet; I have obviously known my hon. Friend too long, or he has known me too long.

There was also confusion about footpath closures: whether to close them, and whether or not they were closed. There was no contingency plan to deal with casualty and dead animals at the hottest time of the year. Later, during the second cluster, we heard of different policies in different places: cattle killed on one farm, but not the sheep; goats being missed between adjoining slaughtered flocks; and, worst of all, the shooting of cattle from helicopters because they had broken out of a pen in the evening.

That raises the issue of why the country was declared free of foot and mouth only for further outbreaks to occur just days later. Last week, the Secretary of State said that infected premises 5 had had the disease for

“three or possibly four weeks”.—[Official Report, 8 October 2007; Vol. 464, c. 48.]

However, he said that he was not pointing the finger at anyone. Is that because of statements by the owner of premises 5 that DEFRA inspectors had been on the farm and missed the disease? Is it because by 20 September it was clear that this was linked to outbreak 1 and that it should have been followed up, but was not?

The Secretary of State cannot say that DEFRA emerges with credit from the handling of this outbreak. There is no getting away from the fact that it was handled better than last time, but it would have taken a superhuman effort to have done worse. The Prime Minister says that the public will judge him on what he did on foot and mouth disease. He is right that he will be judged, but it will not happen in the way that he imagines.

My hon. Friend has been generous in taking interventions. On Saturday, I had a meeting with farmers in east Berkshire who have been affected by foot and mouth, some of whom have had their cattle slaughtered. My hon. Friend the Member for Windsor (Adam Afriyie) has also met them. In addition to the issues of lack of communication and lack of consistency, they raised a biosecurity issue to do with DEFRA’s Pirbright establishment: that topsoil was being removed from around the broken drain, which was the source of the first outbreak, but DEFRA apparently has no records of where that topsoil was taken.

As my right hon. Friend knows, I am aware of that meeting and those allegations. Many more exist, and I suspect that other colleagues will make them during this debate. To be fair, the Secretary of State has set up the Anderson committee to examine the matter. It is essential that all those issues are considered by that Committee, and that Dr. Anderson is rightly given the information to make a proper examination to see whether there was even more incompetence than we imagined.

I have two questions for the hon. Gentleman. Would the Opposition have vaccinated in this situation? Why is the handling of bluetongue mentioned in the motion, because the Government have done nothing wrong in that instance?

I am coming to bluetongue. On vaccination, we would have taken more notice of the scientist who told us that the pipes were damaged in the first place. We have made it clear that in the circumstances that have arisen, we would not have vaccinated, but that option would have been in the locker had the disease got further out of control.

Even though the export ban has been lifted, at least notionally, and markets and movements have resumed in much of the country, the crisis in British farming is horrendous. The Secretary of State has said that returning to normal is the best solution—nobody would dissent from that—but does he believe that that is what has happened? Merely switching on exports or movement does not solve the problem. The market overhang from weeks of movement restrictions is dire. Millions of animals should have gone by now—hundreds of thousands of sheep in our hills that are eating precious forage reserved for the winter, cull ewes, light lambs and fat pigs—and all that means a calamitous fall in prices. With no live exports, bull calves are again being shot at birth. Lamb prices are up to 50 per cent. lower and those of finished pigs are also well down, while massive rises in the price of feed are having to be contended with.

I point out to the Secretary of State that the bulk of the UK pig industry is within the zone that cannot yet export. Probably 40,000 cull sows are now on farms. They are blocking up pens, costing money and are effectively worthless. Even if they could be exported, it would take many weeks to clear the backlog. The welfare disposal scheme via the fallen stock scheme that he announced last week, should be extended to cover sows within the whole zone from which exports are banned. That could be done, and I suggest using £1 million of the £2 million that he has allocated for promoting meat consumption. Important as that is, it is no use promoting something that is wasting away.

On pigs, has the hon. Gentleman noticed something that was brought to my attention by a small farmer from Muchelney in my constituency: the limited movement orders for pigs were available only to those producers who were in established pyramid schemes? That means that small farmers, who perhaps bought from weaner stocks in order to fatten and sell on their premises, were not able to move their pigs. Why should there be that distinction between small producers and large producers?

As the hon. Gentleman probably realises, I am not in a position to give the answer to that question. I suspect that it might have something to do with traceability. I hope that the Secretary of State will tell us about that.

Will the Secretary of State also tell us what discussions he is having about relaxing the export controls? The huge area of the country from which exports are banned includes the abattoir that slaughters 70 per cent. of cull sows in this country. What is he doing about the 21-day rule? It is tying up farms, which, at this time of the year, are selling finished stock and normally buying new stock. That measure is in addition to the separate 20-day rule about general movements.

Will the Secretary of State speak to the Commission about one other aspect of foot and mouth control? Will he draw the contrast between the strict rules that it has imposed in this regard and its far more lackadaisical attitude to imports from Brazil? Both measures are designed to prevent the spread of foot and mouth, yet, despite a damning report from the Irish Farmers Association about the lack of traceability, the lack of vaccines and the non-use of ear tags, the Commission equivocates about Brazilian imports. In short, the regime, be it for Britain or Brazil, should be equally tough against foot and mouth.

I always listen carefully to the hon. Gentleman, because he commands great respect in the House on farming issues. He has talked about the Government paying the price and about the compensation that they have announced. In fairness, he has suggested that it should be used in alternative ways. Is he suggesting that there should be a greater compensation scheme, and, if so, to what amount and paid to whom?

If the hon. Gentleman holds fire, I shall come to that.

I turn to bluetongue, which hit us in September. Again, the initial actions taken were correct, but it rapidly became obvious that the consequences were going to be horrendous. We were told that stock could be moved to slaughter in the control and protection zones, yet nobody in DEFRA seemed to have realised that there were not enough slaughter places to slaughter the stock. I was told by a senior civil servant, in front of Lord Rooker, that licences would not be issued to allow stock from the control zone to go to the abattoirs because of European rules, yet that is now what is happening. Countless pedigree stock—cattle and sheep for which this is the peak sale time—cannot be moved, yet in France, a combination of an insecticidal regime and blood testing is being used to allow that to happen.

I know that bluetongue is a changing picture and that as new cases occur, problems of movement controls perversely become less of an issue. Bluetongue could be even more devastating economically to our livestock industry than foot and mouth. That is why vaccines are so crucial. Will the Secretary of State tell us what discussions he has had with the developers of vaccines about future supplies? Why has Merial been stopped from further development, despite the drains at Pirbright having been repaired? If he is to have any chance of preventing the spread of bluetongue across central and southern England and Wales next summer, he must ensure that enough vaccine doses are available as soon as possible. If stock is not protected before next year’s midge season, there is no chance of containing this disease.

Finally, let me turn to the issue of support for the industry. Last week, the Secretary of State announced a 30 per cent. supplement for the hill farm allowance. We had already said the previous week that we would have made it 50 per cent., but the gesture is right. He spent £4 million on other measures. He then announced, as if to a fanfare, the lifting of regulatory burdens. He wanted to increase the public procurement of British meat. We agree, but by my reckoning he is at least the fourth Secretary of State to say so and still only 3 per cent. of the lamb sold to our armed forces is British.

The Secretary of State announced a four-month delay in the requirement for hauliers to have a certificate of competence. It is a ludicrous requirement anyway and should be abolished. He announced a derogation for the amount of nitrogen to be spread on nitrate-vulnerable zones, but the crisis is now and no amount of nitrogen will make grass grow in the winter.

Finally—and I can hardly believe this one—the Secretary of State announced a one-month extension to a consultation. I can hear the sighs of relief as the red tape burden is lifted from farmers’ shoulders—I think not. That last cynical point is at the heart of the matter. For all its sins, the old Ministry of Agriculture knew that its role was to support and promote British farming. DEFRA’s role is to control and regulate. There is no natural empathy with or understanding of the farming industry, and no knowledge of the structures of the industry that realises that a restriction here has a knock-on consequence there. Where are the men and women who understood those things and who realised that animals keep growing; that grass is finite; and that if one cannot export pig shoulders, the price of the whole pig collapses?

Most importantly, where are the people who know that disease will wait for no man? It will not wait for a committee. It will not wait for the resolution of a turf war. Four years was too long to fix a drain. How many more times must this once proud and valued industry be ripped apart by an incompetent Government?

I beg to move, To leave out from “House” to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:

“expresses great sympathy with farmers and the farming industry and acknowledges the difficulties they are facing as a result of the outbreaks of foot and mouth disease and bluetongue; recognises the work that has already been done by the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Animal Health, farmers and their representative bodies and others in containing foot and mouth; agrees that the priority for the Government must be to work with the farming industry and others to support the resumption of market activity as quickly as possible; and notes the steps the Government has taken to deal with what happened at the Pirbright laboratory site.”

I welcome this opportunity for the House to debate foot and mouth and bluetongue, further to the statement that I made on Monday last week. I recognise the very real interest and concern on the part of many right hon. and hon. Members. We know that this could not have happened at a worse time of the year for the livestock industry. All livestock farmers have been affected and for many, things are very hard. I have met farmers and their representatives and they have left me in no doubt about the difficulties that the industry is facing. That is why, in responding to what the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) said, I want to set out before the House the action that we have taken to try to deal with the two outbreaks and to assist the farmers who have been so badly affected.

Why is it that the Secretary of State’s speech on Friday 5 October contained details of compensation for Scotland and Wales, but on the following Monday there was no mention of compensation for anyone other than English farmers?

Well, I heard someone mutter the words “the election”, but I take this opportunity to put it on the record in the House, as I have outside, that there is not a shred of truth in the allegation that any possible election had anything to do with any decisions relating to funding for foot and mouth. Colleagues have discussions and options are considered, and in the end the Government decided as I told the House in my statement on 8 October. I will return to that issue if the hon. Gentleman will bear with me.

I wish to begin by addressing the comments that have been made about the Pirbright site, because that is where the foot and mouth outbreak began. As I have said before, it should not have happened, I am sorry about the great effect that it has had, and I am determined that it does not happen again.

Following the initial confirmed case on 3 August, it became apparent—

Before the Secretary of State moves on to the causes, could he return to the issue raised by my hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) on the response to my question about the drains after the statement last week? The Secretary of State said that

“nobody thought that they were in such a condition. That happens to be the truth.”—[Official Report, 8 October 2007; Vol. 464, c. 44.]

I am struggling with that definition of the truth. We know that Merial wrote to DEFRA about the drains in 2004. We know that the then Department of Trade and Industry had commissioned tenders to repair the drains a year before. How can the Secretary of State honestly maintain that the truth is that nobody knew?

I will respond directly to that point, if the hon. Gentleman will bear with me.

It became apparent the day after 3 August that the Pirbright site was the potential source of the outbreak because of the type of virus identified—01-BFS-67. That is why we commissioned the Health and Safety Executive and Professor Spratt to lead a team of experts in reviewing biosecurity. We also took steps as the regulator to require the Institute for Animal Health and Merial to take action as concerns were raised with us by the HSE during the course of its inspection, including remedial action on the drainage system. I published both of those reports on 7 September.

However, as the HSE report, the Spratt report and the DEFRA epidemiology reports made clear, we may never be absolutely certain as to exactly how the foot and mouth virus escaped from the Pirbright site. But the drains, the flooding and the construction work—ironically, there was construction work on the site precisely because the Government are investing a considerable amount of money in improving the facilities at Pirbright—do seem to be the most probable chain of events, and I have been clear on that from the beginning.

The Secretary of State is a decent man, but I fear that he is avoiding answering the question that I asked—

In that case, when he answers he might like also to deal with the point that DEFRA inspected the site in November 2003, August 2004, September 2005 and December 2006, after the work on the drains had been commissioned, and found—according to the Minister involved—no major biosecurity issues. What does that say about the competence of DEFRA’s inspections?

In the Government’s response to all of these reports, I accepted the recommendations that were made. They are being implemented and an improvement is planned. Since 7 September, the HSE and DEFRA have carried out further joint inspections. All of the essential work will need to be completed before IAH and Merial can resume full operations.

I shall return to the issue of bluetongue and a potential vaccine from Merial a little later.

We are now requiring of Merial that all the virus that it produces should be inactivated before it reaches even the first part of the drainage system. That will require a heat treatment facility and it needs to put that in place—[Interruption.] Well, that is a factual description of what is happening in response to the question about when Merial will be in a position to resume work to try to find a virus to deal with bluetongue. We need to be satisfied that that has been done before it can resume its full operations.

I shall deal directly with the charge by the hon. Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth) that warnings about conditions at the facility had been ignored. The first point that I want to make is that the IAH has been inspected, as part of its Specified Animal Pathogens Order—SAPO—licence, on a regular basis under the arrangements that were set up in the early 1990s. The institute was required to take action as a result of those inspections and submit reports on progress. However, at no point was it the view of the inspectors that the IAH was unsafe in its operations.

On the issue of the drains, DEFRA—as the regulator—was indeed consulted about plans for their replacement, but we were not aware that they were leaking. That is a very important point. Nor, to the best of my knowledge, was anyone else. No scientist who I know of has said that the drains were damaged. If the hon. Gentleman can draw my attention to any scientist who did say that, I would be very interested, because that is what he claimed. As soon as we became aware of the damage—in August, as a result of the HSE’s work—action was taken.

It is not the case that live virus was released into the public drainage system, as the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire suggested in his remarks. There is no evidence of that at all. So that the House understands, let me say that the Pirbright site has a two-stage process to ensure that all virus is completely inactivated before it goes into the public drainage system. The IAH and Merial had their own separate arrangements, which then fed into a shared pipe, and a second-stage belt-and-braces treatment process took place to deal with any effluent before it went into the public drainage system.

Why had a discussion taken place about the replacement of the drains? It had occurred because they were old, and because of concern about their capacity and about surface water potentially coming into the system, but not because of concern that the drains were leaking. As Professor Spratt makes clear in his report, safety depends not on the age of the facility but on the procedures carried out.

As regulator, DEFRA was consulted about the specification for the replacement of the drains; we were not asked for funding to replace the drains, and nor would we have been. As I said to the House last week, one would not ask the regulator for money to improve or replace one’s facilities, any more than a factory that was inspected and found not to be up to scratch would ask the HSE to give it some money to improve its facilities.

The Government accepted the findings of the reports of Professor Gull in 2002 and Dr. Cawthorne in 2003 about the need to upgrade the facilities at Pirbright. Following the development of a costed proposal, the Government decided in 2005 to invest £121 million in new facilities at Pirbright, which, it should be acknowledged, is fundamentally important to our fight against animal diseases throughout the United Kingdom—in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Of that money, £31 million has already been spent on the site. With respect, therefore, nobody can credibly argue that a lack of funding to be spent in Pirbright was the problem.

Had the drains been thought to be the overwhelming priority for action on the site, no doubt some of that £31 million would have been used to replace them, but that was not the case. I accept that that raises a question about prioritisation: if people felt that that was the priority, why was that not a factor in decisions about the £31 million expenditure? I agree that the issue needs to be examined. That is the reason why the second review that I have set up—I shall come to the other one in a moment—which the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council will carry out into IAH, will look at funding, governance and risk management.

The Secretary of State is putting a robust case, but is he telling the House that there will be no resignations at all in his Department as a result of this fiasco, which could have cost our country billions of pounds? [Interruption.] It is a shame that the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) is shouting across the Chamber. This has been a disaster for our country, and the Opposition expect some resignations over the matter.

I hear what the hon. Gentleman says. There have been no resignations, and there will be none. I will tell him who takes responsibility: I take responsibility. As the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire said, I happen to be the current Secretary of State. As I have done throughout, I am trying to set out for the House the steps that I have taken, accepting that responsibility, to put right what has gone wrong. I am sure that the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski), who is a reasonable man, will accept that the whole system of regulation for protecting against risk—whatever we are discussing—has evolved over time, and that one of the most important factors in determining how systems are changed and improved is learning from mistakes. Things did not go right, and I am determined that we learn from the mistake.

Unfortunately, some of us have acquired a lot of expertise in drains over the past couple of months. Following the episodes in the summer, does my right hon. Friend agree that we need to consider new arrangements at a range of different sites, including establishments such as Berkeley in my constituency—a former nuclear station—given the likely threat of floods hitting us again in future? Will he assure me that not only biosecurity but structural measures will be increased to ensure that such episodes do not threaten us time after time?

I am happy to give my hon. Friend that assurance. In accepting the recommendations of the HSE and Spratt reports, we have issued an advice note to all the institutions handling both animal and human category 3 and 4 pathogens, which will be followed up by a series of inspections. In relation to flooding, a lessons-learned review is being undertaken by Sir Michael Pitt. When such things happen, what do most people want? I accept that some people want a head on a stick, but the most useful and important response is to learn the lessons, make sure that there is not a recurrence and put a better system in place. I am determined to do that.

In the light of the Secretary of State’s comments, will he take a serious look at the arrangements in this country for meat composting, which open up a risk of not only foot and mouth but swine fever, avian flu and a range of diseases? Will he consider in particular the fact that the process is allowed on livestock premises, because farmers in my constituency are asking that it be confined only to industrial premises?

I am happy to consider the issue raised by the hon. Lady. If I may, I shall respond directly to her, if that would be helpful.

The right hon. Gentleman is an honourable and decent man and comes to the problem with fresh hands as a new Secretary of State. Hypothetically, if he had been Secretary of State presiding over such matters for the past five years, would he have resigned?

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for putting that hypothetical question to me. All that I can say is that I was otherwise engaged during those five years, as I am now engaged in the task that has fallen to me. I shall exercise my responsibilities to the best of my ability.

I shall give way to the hon. Member for Clwyd, West (Mr. Jones) and then to the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire, and then I would like to make progress, as I know that many Members wish to speak.

The Secretary of State has dealt at length with the question of the degree of knowledge or otherwise of those managing and regulating the Pirbright establishment of the defects in the drains. But does he not accept that, irrespective of the degree of knowledge, those who manage and regulate any establishment that is built to contain, and does contain, a substance that is inherently dangerous—and that will cause great damage if it is allowed to escape into the environment—must per se be liable for whatever damage is caused?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that those who regulate and license, and those who have the responsibility, in this case the IAH, of ensuring that the terms of the licence are adhered to—that is an important distinction, and together those provide the appropriate safeguard—have a responsibility. But I have seen no evidence that anybody acted negligently, and that is why I responded to the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire as I did previously. It is clear, however, that things did not go right, and that is why we have taken steps to put them right. I shall deal with another part of that action in a moment.

The Secretary of State has repeatedly said that, despite what I have stated, there is no evidence that DEFRA knew that the drains were in such a bad state of repair. Contrary to what he said, I am sure that I did not use the word “damaged”, and never meant to suggest that—[Interruption.] Actually, if one reads the full Spratt report, the drains were damaged by tree roots. But given that the Spratt and HSE reports both indicate the dire state of those drains and prior flooding incidents, does not the Secretary of State find it odd, as an objective and sensible man, that at no stage during all the exchanges of correspondence—taking into account Spratt’s comment that the drains did not look as if they had been thoroughly inspected—did anybody in DEFRA ask what the drains were like, why there was a desire to replace them, whether it was urgent, whether it should be done quickly or why an inspector had not opened a manhole and stuck his head down? It defies belief that that could have gone on without anyone asking those fundamental questions.

We will both be able to check Hansard to find out whether the hon. Gentleman used the word “damage”. However, the point is important because the description of what went on that I am putting before the House rests importantly on the fact that, because of the combination of events that had taken place, nobody knew that the drains were in the condition that it turned out they were in by the time the HSE investigated them in April. [Interruption.] The letter from 2004 was about replacing the drains because people recognised that they were old. However, the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues will not find in that correspondence people saying, “And by the way, we think the drains are leaking.”

The hon. Gentleman raises a fair point, which I want to come to, about the nature of the inspection regime. I grant him his point about what kind of inspection of category 3 and 4 containment systems should take place. The steps that we have now taken, and the requirement that we are putting on Merial to ensure that all the virus that it puts into the system is inactivated before it gets to that bit of now-lined drainage, raise the question of what the arrangements for inspecting category 3 and 4 pathogen handling laboratories should be.

For that reason, there is an issue about the respective roles of the regulator, the funder and the customer; Professor Spratt made a recommendation on that. That is why on 7 September I announced that Sir Bill Callaghan was to carry out a review of the regulatory framework governing the handling of category 3 and category 4 animal pathogens. He has now started, and he will report before the end of the year.

DEFRA is both the regulator for the 1998 order and a customer for the important services, including diagnostics and research on foot and mouth and bluetongue, provided by the Institute for Animal Health at Pirbright. As I have already said, with hindsight my view is that that arrangement is not satisfactory. The Callaghan review will consider what the right arrangement to replace it should be. That is another instance of the Government’s determination to learn from what has happened.

I feel that I must take the Secretary of State back. The House is entitled to an answer to the question of whose responsibility it was to know the condition of those drains. In all honesty, it is not good enough for the House to be effectively told that it was an accident and that nobody was responsible for knowing their condition.

Under the 1998 order, the responsibility is for the licensor and regulator to specify the outcome that has to be met; that is the purpose of licensing and regulation. It is the responsibility of the licence holder to ensure that those requirements are met.

All the people involved in the work—and the people at the IAH and the inspectors who work for DEFRA are conscious and dutiful—did what they thought was right in the circumstances. Nobody thought, and this is the point, that the drains were leaking in that way. There was a confluence of events—a not-completely-inactivated virus coming into the system, heavy rainfall, a rising water table, a bringing to the surface and traffic because of the building work. The HSE review and the Spratt report say that that is the most credible explanation. The point that I am making to the hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) is that we learn from such experiences. It is fair to ask whether we should have a system in which pipework that is part of a critical system gets inspected. I accept that point.

I turn to the handling of the outbreak. I thank the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire for his comments on the swift and effective action that DEFRA, the animal health authorities and partners in the industry have taken in trying to control the problem. Our contingency plan recognised the lessons of 2001. I hope that the House will feel that how we have responded to the outbreak this time around shows how we have applied that knowledge. Our priority, of course, has been to contain and then eradicate foot and mouth. That is why the national movement ban was brought in straight away on the evening of 3 August, a decision also taken at the same time by the devolved Administrations. We have carried out extensive surveillance, which, in the second phase of the outbreak, has gone beyond the European requirements by inspecting and testing animals. We are now 75 days into this outbreak. We have had only eight cases, all in Surrey. We want to keep it that way so that we can control and eradicate the disease.

It may seem a small point, but the Government have consistently said that the second outbreak has been only in Surrey. That is not the case. Farmers in Berkshire have also had foot and mouth outbreaks and cattle stock there has been culled as a result. Will the Government please say “Surrey and Berkshire”?

The Secretary of State has been extremely generous in giving way.

One matter is troubling me. He says that the institute is not liable for the costs of the damage because nobody was negligent. However, as I understand it, the general proposition is that if a landowner has potentially dangerous material on site and it escapes, the landowner is responsible for the consequences. One obvious example of that is in respect of domestic animals. The Secretary of State knows well that if a horse escapes from a site, the relevant landowner will be responsible even in the absence of negligence. Indeed, the Secretary of State’s own Department is considering changing the law to address that point. I do not understand how liability can be avoided, given that the virus escaped from a Government institution.

I said that I had seen no evidence of negligence, but I did not advance an argument about what liabilities might arise from what has happened. I am not a lawyer; others are much better qualified to follow the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s argument and take a decision about whether they want to use that remedy.

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