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Commons Chamber

Volume 468: debated on Tuesday 4 December 2007

House of Commons

Tuesday 4 December 2007

The House met at half-past Two o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

London Bridge Station

1. What assessment she has made of the likely effect of Thameslink construction works on the ability of London Bridge station to handle trains terminating from south London suburban lines. (170384)

The final phase of Thameslink construction will involve complete remodelling of the track and platform layout at London Bridge. We are working with Network Rail to ensure that inconvenience to passengers is kept to a minimum while the works proceed.

Does the Minister agree that the building of phase 2 of the East London line would be helpful in ensuring that passengers going to the City who currently have to go into London Bridge, with the associated disruption, could use the East London line as an alternative? Does he consider that project to be good value for money, and will his Government support it financially?

The hon. Gentleman will, of course, know that phase 2 of the East London line is a matter for Transport for London. He is right to say that the line might provide some assistance for passengers otherwise inconvenienced by the work going on at London Bridge. However, there are alternatives that might provide the same kind of relief for passengers using London Bridge during the construction period. He will have to be patient, because in April next year Network Rail’s route utilisation strategy for south London will be published. That will contain a list of all the options, and I am sure that the one that he mentions will be given due attention by Network Rail and by the Government.

My constituents welcome the commitment to rail demonstrated by the Minister and his colleagues, as delivered by First Capital Connect and advocated by Bedford commuters association, which welcomes the start of the Thameslink project, with developments such as the one at Luton Airport Parkway station. It welcomes the promised extra trains that will be delivered—

That is understandable, but a supplementary question must be brief, and this is a little speech. Perhaps the Minister will answer the hon. Gentleman.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his support. Thameslink is a vital part of the high-level output specification that we announced in July, with £5.5 billion going towards a project that some suggested might never happen. It is happening, it is being built, and by 2015 it will have been completed, under this Government.

As the Minister is considering construction works in south London, will he confirm that he knew that the five international platforms at Waterloo station were due to be released at least five years ago—

Order. I apologise—I should have stopped the hon. Gentleman sooner. That has nothing to do with the question before us.

Victoria overground station—[Interruption]is also likely to be subject to major overhaul in the years ahead. Will the Minister personally ensure that the essential maintenance programme is properly phased, because presumably a lot of London Bridge traffic—[Interruption]will otherwise have to go to Victoria and Charing Cross?

That was nicely done, Mr. Speaker.

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that in planning the works Network Rail will make great efforts to avoid the inconvenience that he mentions. I cannot undertake that I will ensure personally that that happens; Ministers are not best placed to make such provision. However, he is right to say that lines to Victoria will be subject to some inconvenience and disruption during the Thameslink construction, and it is up to Network Rail to minimise that wherever possible.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the disruption caused to south London suburban services by the Thameslink construction programme will be avoided only if phase 2 of the East London line is built first, freeing up badly needed platform space at London Bridge? Will he meet me and other south London MPs to consider a proposition that would be in everybody’s interests?

As my hon. Friend knows, my door is always open—but I would correct him in at least one respect. The completion of phase 2B of the East London link is not the only way of relieving pressure on London Bridge during construction. As I said, the options for what Network Rail can do will be set out in the route utilisation strategy to be published next spring. The funding of the East London line, while a matter for Transport for London, will of course be considered as part of that strategy if it is seen that the construction of that phase would have a beneficial financial impact on works that would otherwise be funded by the Department for Transport.

Given that the route utilisation strategy consultation is due some time next year, one begins to wonder how many endless consultation processes we will have to go through. This process is called Thameslink 2000; it is now 2007. Will the Minister ensure that the consultation process does not lead to the programme being put into the sidings?

My first ministerial decision on taking office was to rename Thameslink 2000 as Thameslink. The hon. Gentleman is perhaps getting confused between consultation on two different issues. The consultation currently under way is the one on Network Rail’s route utilisation strategy. However, Thameslink is now being built. It is going ahead and will be fully funded in the next control period between 2009 and 2014.

The Thameslink development, the lengthening of platforms and the increasing of the electricity supply to increase capacity on the Southeastern network is very welcome in my constituency. When my hon. Friend is considering the route utilisation strategy, will he remember that south-east London is not served by the London underground? That means that there is a heavy reliance on overground rail services for commuters into central London. When he is considering the outcome of that process and the number of trains that might be serving central London, will he also consider that issue for people in south-east London?

My hon. Friend is correct, which is why the route utilisation strategy and the consultation process under way at the moment are so important to his constituents and those of many other hon. Members.

Carbon Dioxide Emissions

2. What contribution her Department is making to the Government’s strategy for reducing carbon dioxide emissions. (170385)

Transport has a vital role to play in supporting sustainable economic growth, but it is clear that it must also play its full part in the UK’s overall framework for reducing carbon emissions. That is why we are investing record amounts in public transport, providing people with better information about their travel choices, making fuels cleaner and vehicles more efficient, and leading the argument in Europe for including aviation in emissions trading.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for putting that on the record, as the Department is seldom given the credit it deserves for what it is doing to reduce carbon dioxide. Does she agree that measures that win public support are most likely to be effective? The measures that she is considering, such as introducing aviation into the emissions trading scheme, and the renewable transport fuel obligation, are far more likely to succeed than banning people from taking holiday flights and making them pay to park in supermarket car parks, which are the proposals coming from the Conservatives.

I thank my hon. Friend for his kind comments. It sometimes seems to me that the Conservative party is torn irrevocably in two different directions, and cannot choose between the two. He is right to point to policies such as the renewable transport fuels obligation, which, I can inform the House, make up nearly a quarter of the CO2 savings in the Government’s climate change objectives. I am clear about the scope to go further, and that is why the Department recently published a response to Eddington and Stern, which sets out the progress that I hope we can make.

But will the Secretary of State get a bit radical? Does she realise that unnecessary emissions are caused when a vehicle has to stop unnecessarily? Why does she not trial some of the schemes in force in the United States of America, where vehicles are allowed to turn on a red signal—over here, we would allow a left turn—and consider other schemes whereby during non-rush hour periods, traffic lights do not go to red unnecessarily but flash amber in all directions?

I think that the right hon. Gentleman is referring not to the report by the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) on economic competitiveness, but that of the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) on the environment, which illustrates how torn the Conservative party is. Of course, we are prepared to listen to constructive suggestions on all the issues, but to return to the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet (Dr. Ladyman), it is important that we are able to convince people that credible propositions are in place that are likely to succeed in reducing CO2 emissions.

We all want to reduce carbon emissions, and we have to balance that with the importance of air travel to regional economies. Would my right hon. Friend consider making the air route between Durham Tees Valley and Heathrow airports a public service obligation route to protect the prosperity of the north-east?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on championing the cause of his constituents. It is important that we maintain and revitalise regional air services in the UK economy, which is one of the reasons why, provided that the strict local environmental conditions are met, the Government support in principle the third runway at Heathrow airport. If we have more capacity at Heathrow to serve more regional destinations, it should become possible to re-energise local and regional economies.

In view of Transport Commissioner Jacques Barrot’s recent announcement on tracking containers, why have the Government chosen to exclude imports from the Climate Change Bill? Does the Secretary of State realise that goods travelling much of their journey to the UK by lorry have a much higher carbon footprint than those that travel the whole way by sea?

Of course it is right that we take any action that reduces CO2 emissions in a way that is cost-effective and delivers the maximum CO2 reductions consistent with economic growth. The Climate Change Bill, which is the UK’s framework for delivering substantial reductions in CO2 emissions—at least 60 per cent.—considers domestically sourced CO2. Of course there is an argument about how we treat imports, international aviation emissions and emissions that are not domestically sourced, but I hope that the hon. Gentleman will agree that we are leading the debate in Europe and beyond.

Bus Services

3. What plans she has to enable the public to have greater involvement in making decisions about local bus services. (170386)

Today I have published a consultation paper, “Options for strengthening bus passenger representation”, covering England. This follows our earlier commitment to consult on ways to ensure that bus users have their say when key decisions are being made, and to provide a more influential voice for bus passengers.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that, but will she ensure that when local authorities and local bus service providers such as Centro in Birmingham make rescheduling announcements, pensioners who rely on those services do not find them drastically cut at the stroke of a pen, and that clear consultation is put in place instead?

My hon. Friend is right to highlight some of the problems in his constituency. People feel strongly if a bus service is suddenly taken away, particularly if they have not been consulted. One of the options for our new bus champion body would be the ability to conduct research into what people want from their bus services and what they get from them. If necessary, the process can be about naming and shaming operators that do not meet the public’s expectations. That is what passengers want to see.

The Minister will be aware that one of the issues causing consternation to users of bus services in rural areas is the break-up of routes following the community drivers regulations. In a debate in the other place on 19 June, the Minister’s noble Friend Lord Bassam invited representatives of rural bus companies to meet officials to discuss the issue. Has that meeting taken place, and if not, when is it likely to do so?

I had a meeting with some of the coach operators and smaller bus companies in which we discussed that issue. One of the problems is that when the legislation was going through, representations were not made and evidence was not forthcoming about some of the potential problems down the road. The Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Canning Town (Jim Fitzpatrick) has also taken an interest in the matter. We have to bear it in mind that there is a safety issue, too, which is about carrying passengers, sometimes on quite long routes. We have to achieve a balance between ensuring that safety is properly covered and the need of operators to run those routes.

Is not the best way to get the public involved through the local democratic process? In particular, would it not be better if decisions on quality contracts under the new Local Transport Bill were made by locally elected councillors, rather than a quango composed of transport commissioners?

Perhaps it would be helpful if I explained the process that we would expect any approvals board to go through. We would want local authorities to carry out a consultation and make a properly costed proposal on how they wanted to put together a quality contract. It would then be for the approvals board to ensure that those costings were correct, that the consultation had been carried out and that the scheme was going to work. That will provide local authorities with greater certainty that they will not be judicially reviewed, and operators with the knowledge that the scheme has been properly considered before it goes ahead.

My constituents have made clear their position on the concessionary fares scheme. We have a problem because of our geography, in that many of my constituents need to travel across the border into Wales. I have tried to make my constituents’ views clear to the Welsh Assembly Government, but having received a somewhat unenthusiastic letter from the Deputy First Minister, I would welcome the Minister’s support, working with colleagues in the devolved Administrations, for making the concessionary fares scheme work more smoothly across the UK’s internal borders.

I certainly hope that we can ensure that the concessionary fares scheme works smoothly. I have to say that it has been greatly welcomed among elderly people and people with disabilities. It will operate at a cost of about £1 billion a year. It is running now at the local level and it will be extended to the national level from April. Of course we want to see the scheme operating properly across the borders.

Does the Minister agree that such plans should be capable of being implemented as speedily as possible, should be meaningful and capable of delivering what local people want, and should be designed so that those local people cannot be unreasonably frustrated by appeals and recourse to judicial review by bus operators?

I assume that my hon. Friend is talking about the quality contracts scheme as opposed to the concessionary fares scheme. I absolutely agree, which is why we have tried to ensure that our approvals board is established to avoid difficulties and secure greater certainty—we can never reach complete certainty, but we can at least bring about greater certainty—for local authorities that proposals have been through an independent process and can proceed as quickly as possible. Local authorities need that certainty, and where bus operators may be withdrawing services from an entire area because they cannot meet a contract, we also need certainty that the proposals have been through an independent process.

Does the Minister realise the effect that the so-called 50 km rule is having on the provision of bus services, particularly in rural areas? In some cases, routes are being segmented, resulting in increased cost and inconvenience to passengers; and in other cases, routes may be axed altogether. Clearly, this is not a safety issue, because in order to comply, it is possible to change the passengers but not the driver. Will the Minister apply, as Finland has already, for a derogation to restore some sanity in this area?

As I said earlier, I have had discussions with operators about this issue. The Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Canning Town is having further discussions. Those issues were not raised when this was going through the directive process, and it is important to remember that this is about ensuring the safety of passengers as well as working conditions for drivers. Those should be put together, as the decision has been taken to make longer journeys safer for drivers and also for passengers. We should bear that in mind when we hear the hon. Gentleman saying that we should do away with it all.

My right hon. Friend will be aware that bus wars have broken out in Preston, with Stagecoach trying to muscle in on the town’s profitable routes. We are seeing races down the road and jostling for position at stops, which is putting passengers at risk. Would the Minister be willing to visit Preston to meet local authorities and representatives to discuss the situation? I am afraid that there will be injuries, and possibly even a death, if things carry on as they are.

I know that my hon. Friend has been extremely concerned about this matter. He raised it in an Adjournment debate last week, to which the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Canning Town, replied. I met the owner of Stagecoach recently and, having heard the representations of my hon. Friend the Member for Preston (Mr. Hendrick), I made clear my concerns about the situation. I do not know whether my hon. Friend is aware that the traffic commissioner has taken a strong interest in this issue and has taken the decision to convene a public inquiry into Stagecoach’s behaviour, which will start within the next two weeks. I will certainly keep in touch with my hon. Friend about this matter, and I would, of course, like to visit his constituency. It is also important to ensure that Lancashire county council, as the transport authority, is involved, in order to try to resolve what is clearly a very difficult situation.

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that local authorities and members of the community have the right to scrutinise bus companies’ accounts? I ask that because, like all of us, I want to ensure that the routes being subsidised are the routes that people need most, even if they are less profitable, and it has been suggested that subsidy is being put into profitable routes so that shareholders get a dividend.

I suggest that my hon. Friend respond to our consultation document, which deals with what the new body that we are establishing may be able to do. I imagine that some of the companies’ accounts are in the public domain, although some may of course be commercially confidential. My hon. Friend may wish to suggest, in response to our document, a method of making it more obvious where money is being spent and where routes are not being run.

Lewes-Uckfield Line

4. If she will make it her policy to support the reopening of the Lewes-Uckfield railway line. (170387)

Reopening regional or rural lines will not normally be the most effective way of delivering the capacity increases that, as the rail White Paper explained, are our priority. I nevertheless remain willing to consider any reopening proposal that is supported by a proper business case and can be funded privately.

I am grateful for the Minister’s supportive comments here and elsewhere. He will know that a strong cross-party campaign, backed by a professional board including members of Network Rail, wants the line to be reopened. Can he guarantee that if a business case is produced—and I accept the need for that—he will look sympathetically at the possibility of providing funds? Sometimes it seems that it is easy to obtain funds for new roads, but not funds for new railways.

I can certainly guarantee that we will look at the business case. Capital costs would have to be met entirely by the private sector, but as well as the private investment that would be needed for the rebuilding of the route, extra finance might be required to enable trains to run along it, in which case the Department would have to step in and decide whether there was a value-for-money case for those services. If a robust business case is supplied, however, I shall be more than happy to consider it, and ensure that my officials give it a fair hearing.

A strong argument in favour of reopening the link is the increased popularity of the existing service to Uckfield, but one of the consequences of that increased popularity is that hundreds of cars are being parked every day, very inconsiderately, in residential areas because of the lack of parking at the local stations. Will the Minister work with councils and the appropriate rail authorities to see how the problem can be addressed?

There is indeed a growing problem with car parking at Uckfield, complicated by the fact that existing land owned by BRB (Residuary) has been tied up in a five-year development plan of which only one year has elapsed. However, if the council is willing to re-examine a policy that, I understand, restricts access by cars to any feasible car park on the site from the high street, it may be possible to find a way of making progress on this important issue.

Concessionary Bus Travel

5. What steps her Department is taking to raise awareness of the entitlement to concessionary bus travel. (170388)

The Department for Transport will deliver a national publicity campaign, which will start in the new year. We will also provide travel concession authorities with a comprehensive communications toolkit, containing resources that can be adapted for local needs and including advertising material.

I am grateful for that response, especially as a member of the Public Bill Committee that aimed to ensure that the concessionary bus fare scheme would operate nationwide. In Crawley a good Labour council has provided the constituency with a concessionary scheme for decades, but will now be able to offer something far beyond the boundary. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is important for people to know that that will be happening very soon?

I entirely agree. We must ensure that the message reaches everyone who is entitled to use the new passes. I congratulate my hon. Friend’s local authority on the service that it has delivered until now, and I am sure that the whole House looks forward to the start of the nationwide scheme next year.

Is the Minister aware of the problem of who will pay for concessionary fares in tourist areas such as that governed by Harrogate borough council, part of which falls within Vale of York? The council will potentially be left with a shortfall of £1 million. Where is it supposed to find that money, which corresponds to a 10 per cent. increase in council tax?

We are aware that a number of local authorities are saying that they cannot afford the scheme. However, the Department’s calculations of the amounts that each local authority will receive have been generous, based on assumptions of take-up set against experience of the take-up of existing local schemes elsewhere. Additionally, the Department will supply £212 million next year, on top of the Government grants for the scheme locally, to make sure that all travel concession authorities will be able to ensure that the scheme is available to its residents.

Will my hon. Friend ensure that local newspapers, such as the Chorley Guardian, the Lancashire Evening Post and the Chorley Citizen, carry the adverts, because as older people read local newspapers, that will be a good way of clearly getting across the message that this Government have provided the concessionary travel?

I am sure that my hon. Friend’s local newspapers will carry his mention of their titles in their copy next week, and that will assist in getting the message across. We have built into the grants to local authorities an element of local communications funding, and it is to be hoped that the local travel authorities will be able to take advantage of that.

But as my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh) pointed out, the Government’s concessionary scheme does have some malign consequences. In Bromsgrove, for example, the local council has offered free parking to disabled and pensioner citizens, but that has now been put in jeopardy by the cost of the new national concessionary scheme. What do the Government think is better: local determination of transport priorities or their own national schemes?

Travel concession authorities can appeal in a number of ways if they are unhappy with the way in which the scheme is likely to be introduced in their area. There has always been discretion for travel concession authorities to offer a scheme different from the national one. What we are introducing next year, with hundreds of millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money, is a de minimis scheme that will apply right across the country for all pensioners and for most disabled people. This is a huge step forward for people right across the UK.

Railway Safety

6. What assessment her Department has made of the impact on railway safety of deforestation on chalk railway cuttings. (170389)

As my hon. Friend knows, this is a matter for Network Rail, which tells me that the company’s practice is to clear trees where they might endanger or delay trains.

Is my hon. Friend aware of the work of Professor Rory Mortimore of the university of Brighton, an international expert on geotechnical matters? In his report relating to my constituency he claims, with a lot of evidence, that because of the limestone structure of the cuttings, this could lead to dangerous slippages. Is the safety of passengers not a matter for my hon. Friend’s concern?

I am aware of the professor’s report; my hon. Friend supplied a copy of it to me during a meeting with her and her constituents, who have expressed concern about this issue. She should be aware—Network Rail has informed me about this—that the part of the cutting in question has been without vegetation for long periods in the past without the consequent slippages that she fears. However, although it is ultimately up to Network Rail, as a private company, to decide how to deal with this matter, I understand that it will have a meeting with her and her constituents later today to try to come to agreement on a way forward. It is incumbent on Network Rail to consult local residents where there is concern about such procedures. However, it is also incumbent on Network Rail to make sure that the railway is safeguarded and is free from the risk of such slippages. I would trust Network Rail to use its own scientific advice to come to the appropriate conclusions.

Concessionary Bus Travel

7. What estimate she has made of the costs of the national concessionary bus travel scheme for 2008-09. (170390)

I could refer the hon. Gentleman to the answer I gave a few moments ago. However, in case he was unable to hear that, let me tell him that the Government are providing local authorities in England with an extra £212 million next year for the national bus concession in England. This extra funding is based on generous assumptions about the probable cost impact of the new concession, and we are confident that it will be sufficient in total.

But what the Minister calls generous funding is actually less than the rate of inflation, when the operating costs of bus companies are rising by more than that, so is this not just another example of a scheme whereby the Government get the local council tax payer to fund one of their announcements?

We know that some local authorities are claiming credit for the introduction of this scheme and not giving any credit to Government. We are proud of the amount of money that we are giving, which, as I mentioned, is £212 million this year—it will be £217 million next year and £223 million the year after. Bus operators have the opportunity to appeal if they are not satisfied. So many more people are using buses as a result of our transport policies, and we regard that as a success.

Would the Minister care to congratulate Conservative-controlled Kettering borough council—of which I am proud to be a member—which is going to build on the Government scheme and ensure concessionary travel for pensioners at peak times too? [Interruption.]

I am being encouraged by Labour Members not to congratulate the hon. Gentleman’s Conservative local authority, but that would be ungracious, so I congratulate him and his local authority. As I said in answer to the hon. Member for Bromsgrove (Miss Kirkbride), who is not in her place, some travel concession authorities provide more than the minimum scheme that we are introducing; but that minimum scheme is a big step forward on what went before.

The Minister is big enough to deal with matters, and I am delighted that he congratulated my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone). Will he deal with the question of rural areas and remote villages, where sadly there is little, if any, public transport? How can people in those villages, who often live on their pension or on a very low income, take advantage of this scheme, which I applaud? [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle) knows that I applaud anything good, even if it is introduced by the Labour Government. What will the Minister do for people in rural areas where there is little or no public transport?

The hon. Gentleman is being kind and generous enough to welcome what is being introduced in the Local Transport Bill. We have been doing what we can to support rural communities and rural bus services, and the Bill will deliver even more.

Order. The hon. Member for Gravesham (Mr. Holloway) is a newer Member of the House, but when a question is put he should remain within the Chamber at least until we get to the next one. He is not the only offender I have had to pull up a few over the years.

The Minister will, of course, remember that the principle of concessionary travel enjoyed support across the whole House. The key point was how it was to be funded. The trouble is that the Government’s sums simply do not add up. The level of increases in extra funding that he is proposing are less than inflation, and he will have received many representations from councils telling him that they will face deficits as a result of the scheme over the next two to three years. For example, Southampton city council estimates a deficit of £1.5 million—before a delayed appeal; the council is reimbursing at 67p in the pound and the operating company seeks 74p. All that will happen in a number of the scheme areas, because the Government have underfunded this, is that council tax will increase by more than 10 per cent.

That is the second time that that figure has been mentioned. Obviously it is a line that has been produced for these questions. As I have said, we are confident that our calculations on the amount of money needed to support the scheme will be more than adequate, and an announcement will be made shortly.

8. If she will ensure that the free bus fare scheme to be introduced in April 2008 will include scheduled community transport dial-a-bus and dial-a-ride schemes. (170391)

The national bus concession will be available on all eligible, registered local bus services, which can include some—but will include by no means all—community type transport services, for example, services that are provided under a section 22 permit, charge a fare and are open to the general public.

I think that I welcome that answer. The free local bus scheme has been wonderfully effective in our area, and we are looking forward to the national scheme. Will the Minister meet me and other colleagues to prevent the apparent anomaly that someone who is entitled to use the free national bus pass but who cannot do so because they physically cannot get on those buses may not be able to use it on a community transport bus service? Will she confirm that in an area such as Derbyshire, where the community bus services are scheduled, regular and responsive to demand, such people will be eligible to use the national concessionary bus fare?

I would certainly welcome a meeting with my hon. Friend and her constituents to explain the issue. If a community transport service is restricted to a particular group of people—perhaps people with disabilities or elderly people—it would not be eligible under the concessionary fares scheme. However, other community transport schemes are eligible, such as those in rural areas that are demand-responsive so that someone can be picked up at a particular time. Many dial-a-ride services operate in that way.

I think that I share the puzzlement of the hon. Member for Amber Valley (Judy Mallaber): we are not sure that the Minister’s reply is the one that we want to hear. In my area, the Mendip community transport scheme will cease operation next year, apparently because of a lack of funding. That scheme is the only option for many people who have no access to other public transport because it is a very rural area. A concessionary fare scheme is useless without a bus to ride on, so it would be helpful if the scheme applied to community transport schemes of that kind. I ask the Minister to look into that.

I am, of course, prepared to look into that. However, I re-emphasise that the changes to be introduced in April will not change the eligibility, so I am not clear why the hon. Gentleman thinks that the bus service will stop because of the new scheme. If a community transport service is open to the wider public, it can participate in the concessionary fare scheme. The Local Transport Bill will make changes that will make it easier for community transport services to operate by, for example, allowing the payment of drivers, which has been widely welcomed by the Community Transport Association because it will make it easier to run the type of services that we are talking about.

Quality Contracts

The proposals in the Local Transport Bill aim to make quality contracts a more realistic option for local transport authorities by replacing the “only practicable way” test with a new set of public interest criteria.

I welcome that comment, because locally elected integrated transport authorities should be able to choose whether to introduce quality contracts in their area. I wish to press the Minister on the role of the approvals boards, which have been mentioned already. Can she confirm that it will be the job of the approvals board to ensure that transport authorities have gone through the proper process in reaching a decision to introduce quality contracts? Those unelected approvals boards should not have a right of veto simply because they happen to disagree with the decision reached by elected local representatives on the transport authorities that quality contracts are the right approach for bus services in their area.

I shall explain how we see the composition of an approvals board. It will include the traffic commissioner, a transport expert from the area and a transport economist. The idea is that the approvals board will ensure that the local authority has gone through the proper process of consultation, but in addition the approvals board process will ensure that the scheme will work in practice, that the economics add up and that it is a viable service for the local area. It is about providing more certainty for local authorities that their decisions will not be judicially reviewed—although that cannot always be guaranteed—and for operators that a new scheme has been subject to independent scrutiny and is likely to operate efficiently.

Railway Overcrowding

Existing and future demand for rail travel was assessed in preparing the rail White Paper that was published in July. It was that assessment, and the associated need to tackle existing and potential overcrowding, that led to the capacity enhancements specified in the White Paper.

Several times in recent weeks, I have been delayed, squashed, boiled or left standing on the train between Cheltenham and London—an experience that is both common and expensive for many of our rail users. Will the Minister report progress on practical steps, such as the redoubling of the line between Swindon and Kemble, that might improve the situation?

Of course I sympathise with the hon. Gentleman’s experience, which is shared by many people commuting into London and the larger conurbations around the country, but the Government have committed to invest £15 billion in our railways in the five years between 2009 and 2014. If he wants to hear about practical measures, I can tell him that a rolling stock plan will be published early next year, and that 1,300 new carriages will be rolled out over that five-year period. Depending on the industry’s response, I hope that his constituents and the line to which he referred will benefit from that investment.

Topical Questions

I am delighted to answer. My Department has recently begun a major consultation on the expansion of Heathrow airport, subject of course to strict environmental limits. It has also invited bids for a new fleet of inter-city express trains. Later this week, I shall meet the US Transportation Secretary to discuss a range of transport issues.

What account has been taken of massive Government-imposed house building in the planning of train capacity in towns such as Leighton Buzzard, where the trains are already full?

I hope that is a sign that the hon. Gentleman and his party now support the Government in our attempt to build the houses that first-time buyers so desperately need. Given my experience at the Department for Communities and Local Government and now at the Department for Transport, I can assure him that the two Departments are joined at the hip when it comes to planning for more houses for first-time buyers. It is essential that we build sufficient capacity so that people can travel by train, road, bus or however they want to move around. In that way, we can meet the needs of a growing population, and of those who will live in the houses yet to be built.

T2. Will the Secretary of State explain why there are five mothballed platforms on the redundant Eurostar lines out of Waterloo, at a time when my constituents who commute into London from Bracknell are finding conditions so bad and overcrowded? When is she going to do something about that? (170375)

I am surprised that the right hon. Gentleman does not know that the property will become available to the Government only in March 2008, or that there will be a substantial infrastructure cost after that date as we remodel the railway to accommodate more domestic rail services. However, the ultimate answer to his question is that we have to invest in capacity. That is why the rail White Paper—which his party unfortunately did not welcome when it was published—proposes that an extra £10 billion be invested in additional capacity on our railways.

Has the Secretary of State been briefed by the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Canning Town (Jim Fitzpatrick), about the public commitment given on television last May to me and to my hon. Friends the Members for Basildon (Angela E. Smith) and for Dartford (Dr. Stoate)? We were told by my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet (Dr. Ladyman), who was then a Transport Minister, that following statutory consultation our constituents would be given a reduction of 90 per cent. on the Dartford toll. Not unreasonably, folk are beginning to ask when the Government will deliver on that commitment. Discuss.

As it happens, that is something that I have been discussing recently. I can assure my hon. Friend that I have been looking at a number of the options for the fulfilment of that commitment. We will issue a consultation paper very shortly.

Why has the Secretary of State not been prepared to defend in Parliament her plans for the expansion of Heathrow? That is the third time that she has made what she has claimed to be an important announcement away from the Dispatch Box. Is she simply running scared of answering to MPs who represent people under the flight path, and will she explain why she is proposing to disregard her Department’s own report on noise?

I am happy to come to the House at any time to talk about the importance of aviation expansion. Heathrow is subject to strict local environmental conditions. The hon. Lady must know as well as any other Member that our policy was set out in the 2003 air transport White Paper, which supported in principle a third runway at Heathrow, as well as a second runway at Stansted, subject to the strict local environmental conditions being met. Last week, or the week before, we published a rigorous scientific assessment of how those local environmental conditions might be met in certain circumstances. An oral statement is not normally made in such situations; however a written statement was laid in the House, and as the hon. Lady can see I am happy to discuss the issue on any occasion—unlike the hon. Lady, whose policy on it is not actually clear.

We believe that four key environmental tests must be met before any Government can take a responsible decision on the future of Heathrow. When the Secretary of State’s predecessor gave the go-ahead for T5 he stood at the Dispatch Box—at least he turned up here—and promised that flight numbers would be capped at 480,000. Will the Secretary of State admit that thousands who have to live with aircraft noise on a daily basis will feel wholly misled by that statement, which she is consigning to history before T5 is even open for business? Will she confirm that her consultation document contains no clear or credible guarantees on capping the number of flights at Heathrow? Is not the whole consultation a sham, because—

Order. Topical questions are for the benefit of Back Benchers, so I expect only one supplementary from Front Benchers, or two when there is an allocation, but the hon. Lady had about five in there somewhere. The Secretary of State should answer just one supplementary.

I am disappointed not to be given full rein, because I was trying to work out what the policy of the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs. Villiers) was—to back or to oppose the third runway, in principle. If she wants to stand up and tell us whether she is backing her right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood), or indeed—

T5. I just want to talk rubbish for a moment, if that is okay—[Laughter.]rubbish on the trains. Far too many commuter trains do not have enough capacity for collecting rubbish, so many people throw it out of the window and train companies never pick it up. On inter-city trains, rubbish is picked up at the end of the journey, but even though most of the rubbish is newspapers they are never recycled. Will the Minister write to the train companies to make sure that we have tidy railway lines across the whole country and that we recycle rubbish—even copies of The Times and the Evening Standard? (170378)

My hon. Friend knows that I have great respect for his tendency to be able to talk rubbish. He is right; litter can make train journeys far less enjoyable. I do not think it is necessarily the place of Transport Ministers to tell rail companies how to keep their trains tidy, but it is incumbent on the train operating companies to make sure that they do not lose their necessary lead as an environmentally friendly mode of transport. That applies not only to the energy and type of energy used to move the trains; it should also take account of the environment inside trains. My hon. Friend is absolutely correct.

T3. What can the Minister do to limit Network Rail’s unnecessary closures of rail lines for alleged engineering purposes? Does he agree that such closures can be excessive? For example, the line from Three Bridges to Lewes and Brighton was closed for an entire two-day period—a matter that I have been raising with Network Rail since last May although I have not yet received an answer. (170376)

The hon. Gentleman raises a valid concern. Network Rail’s intention is to move towards a seven-day railway, but that will not be possible while possession overruns continue. I was a victim only last month when I was forced to move from a Pendolino Virgin express at Wigan because of a Network Rail possession overrun. Having spoken in detail with Iain Coucher, the new chief executive of Network Rail, I can assure the hon. Gentleman that there are plans to make sure that possession overruns do not occur or that, when they do occur, they are far less frequent, but he is right to raise that concern. We cannot move to a seven-day railway until possession overruns stop altogether.

T4. Midland Mainline, the excellent train operator that used to run through my constituency, recently lost the rail franchise and now we have East Midlands Trains. I presumed that we were going to get a better service, but what has happened? We have seen a 7 per cent. hike in fares—the highest in the country—a reduction in the number of trains from both Wellingborough and Kettering at peak times, and the abolition of seat reservations for season ticket holders. How will that encourage people to travel by rail? (170377)

All the patronage predictions for the service that the hon. Gentleman refers to show that over the next seven years there will be an increase in the number of people who want to use it. If he believes that the Government should be in a position to micro-manage the railways, to dictate fares to train operating companies—there is a price associated with that—and to dictate exactly where and when trains should stop, that is an interesting policy, but I suggest that he discuss it with his own Front-Bench team first, because they are absolutely opposed to it.

T6. To be topical, Christmas and New Year are supposed to be a season of joy and good will for all people, but the celebrations come to an abrupt halt for people who are the victims of drunk drivers, for the families of those people, and indeed for the drunk drivers themselves. What will the Government do this year to minimise the number of people who are killed and injured on the road by drunks who get behind the wheels of vehicles? (170380)

The Christmas drink-drive campaign was launched last week to continue to ram home the message that drinking and driving do not mix. The whole House will agree that, over the last 30 years, drinking and driving has become socially unacceptable. However, as my hon. Friend points out, there are still too many people dying as a result of alcohol-related crashes—some 540 last year. The police will breathalyse twice as many people this month compared with any other month. We are spending £1.6 million on the Christmas campaign. We had a special campaign in the summer, on which we spent £3 million, that focused on young male drivers in particular. We will do everything we can to get the message across that people ought not to drink and drive, particularly at Christmas. I am grateful to him for raising that question.

The consultation on Heathrow that started last week could result in nearly a doubling of the number of flights. The Department for Transport is setting up a number of public exhibitions, but both Ministers and civil servants have refused to attend a single public meeting. Will the Secretary of State please tell her Department that we live in a democracy, and that when 700 people are probably going to lose their homes and thousands of people their half day of peace, they deserve to have a face-to-face discussion and proper engagement with decision makers? Will she please instruct her Department to agree to come to the many public meetings that are offered?

I congratulate the hon. Lady on having a policy on Heathrow, unlike Conservative Members. At least we know where the Liberal Democrats stand: total and utter opposition to Heathrow—unfortunately with a devastating potential consequence for jobs and the UK economy. But she is right to say that we ought to have maximum public involvement, which is why we are writing to more than 200,000 local residents who might be affected by the changes. My hon. Friend the Aviation Minister has regularly been seeing many of the individuals and groups involved, to give them the opportunity to voice their opposition or put their concerns directly to him and have them addressed.

T7. Will the Secretary of State of confirm that she is aware that a third runway at Heathrow will require the biggest removal of people in this country in modern times, and that the community of Sipson will be wiped off the map? Whereabouts in her consultation paper does it suggest where those who are forcibly removed are going to live? (170381)

The Tories are so divided on Heathrow that they should call in ACAS. On the one hand, we hear total opposition, and on the other, the Front-Bench team talk about strict local environmental conditions—[Interruption.]

Order. I am not going to allow the Secretary of State to talk about what the Front-Bench team have in mind; this is about what the Secretary of State has in mind. These topical questions are for the benefit of Back Benchers.

T8. Is the Minister aware that Norfolk is a very isolated county, which relies on the key trunk roads to connect it to the motorway network? The A47, which connects King’s Lynn to Norwich in the east and to Peterborough in the west, is a very old road that is in bad need of upgrading. When are the Government going to give it the same priority as roads elsewhere in the country? (170382)

I understand that the project in question has been given priority for expenditure between 2011 and 2015 by the regional transport board in the hon. Gentleman’s area. Of course, if other projects drop out of the programme, it is possible that that will be brought forward. We set up the regional funding allocation because we want local politicians to make decisions for their area, and to advise the Department for Transport accordingly. It is better that local decisions be made locally, and it is not incumbent on Ministers to overturn those local decisions.

T9. . Does the Under-Secretary share my concerns about recent media reports that certain charter airlines are flying longer distances than is necessary on some routes to avoid more expensive airspace? Does that not have a bad effect on our need to cut carbon emissions? (170383)

My hon. Friend is right to raise the issue of carbon emissions and aviation. We are leading the argument in Europe and internationally to try to include aviation emissions in trading schemes, so that we make sure that aviation pays the price for its contribution to damaging the environment. She mentions airlines that travel extraordinary distances to avoid paying some charges. That contributes to carbon emissions, and obviously it is not in line with what we would like.

Nimrod XV230

I am able to inform the House today of the findings of the Royal Air Force board of inquiry on the crash of RAF Nimrod XV230 in Afghanistan on 2 September 2006. First, I know that the entire House will join me in paying tribute to the 14 service personnel who lost their lives in that tragic incident. Our thoughts are with their families and friends, and with the men and women of the armed forces, who I know feel the loss of their colleagues very deeply. I would also like to pay tribute to RAF Kinloss. That close community was hit hard by the Nimrod tragedy, but it has maintained magnificent support for the Nimrod crews deployed in support of operations in Afghanistan.

I remind the House that the purpose of a board of inquiry is to establish the circumstances of the crash and to learn lessons. A board of inquiry is a statutory process under section 135 of the Air Force Act 1955 and is convened for any air accident. It makes recommendations to the chain of command on its findings; it does not seek to apportion blame. I am placing a copy of the board’s report in the Library, redacted only to withhold personal information that we are required to protect under the Data Protection Act 1998 and information that could prejudice the security and effectiveness of the armed forces.

The report is a detailed technical document. I am conscious that, in the time available for an oral statement, I will not be able to do justice to all the issues that it raises, so I am making a supplementary written statement that sets out the board of inquiry’s conclusions in more detail, along with a summary of its recommendations and the actions taken by the chain of command.

The board established that on 2 September 2006, RAF Nimrod XV230 took off from its deployed operating base at 09.13 hours, Greenwich mean time, on an essential operational flight. The initial stages of the mission appear to have gone according to plan. At 11.11 hours, approximately 90 seconds after completing air-to-air refuelling, the crew experienced almost simultaneous fire and smoke warnings. Smoke was observed in the cabin, and flames were observed from the rear of the engines on the starboard side. Shortly afterwards, the aircraft depressurised. The crew commenced emergency drills and at 11.14 hours transmitted a Mayday alert and turned to head for Kandahar airfield. At 11.17 hours, a Harrier GR7 pilot reported that the aircraft had exploded.

A combat search and rescue team confirmed that there were no survivors. Subsequently, the site of the crash was secured for as long as it was considered safe to do so by a combined force of Canadian and British units. As quickly as possible, the board of inquiry was convened and travelled from the UK to the operational theatre to begin its investigation.

The board of inquiry has conducted a thorough investigation with the material available to it. Throughout this process the board has been assisted by other independent agencies, including two air accident investigators from the air accidents investigation branch of the Department for Transport. It has been unable to identify with absolute certainty the cause of the fire. None the less, the board has deduced the most probable area where the fire started, and the probable causes of the events and factors that led to it.

The board of inquiry concluded that the crash was not survivable. The cause was a fire that most likely resulted from escaped fuel igniting against a hot pipe in a compartment near the starboard wing-fuselage attachment—the No. 7 tank dry bay, not in the bomb bay as some have previously suggested. The fuel probably gained access to the pipe through a gap between two types of insulation. The fuel most likely came from one of two sources: a pressure-relief device in the main fuel tank, which may have released fuel during air-to-air refuelling, or a leaking fuel coupling.

It is clear that the crew of Nimrod XV230 faced a series of complex and demanding emergencies. Throughout this incident they acted in an exemplary manner, calmly performing drills initiated by their captain in an attempt to save their aircraft. All are a credit to their respective services and to their families. I am sure the whole House will join me in honouring their bravery and their professionalism.—[Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”]

This was a tragic accident, but there were a number of contributory factors that the board has identified. Both fuel and hot air components are present together in the No. 7 tank dry bay. The underestimation of that hazard was considered by the board as a contributory factor. Further possible contributory factors that could not be discounted and which are subject to further investigation include the fuel and hot air systems maintenance policy, the age of some of the component parts, the lack of a fire detection and suppression system within the No. 7 tank dry bay, and the failure to consider the cumulative effects of a number of changes to the air-to-air refuelling capability when it was formally incorporated into the aircraft in 1989.

The board found no evidence that the maintenance or servicing conducted on the aircraft was a cause or contributory factor in the loss of XV230. It also concluded that, while the continued commitment to long-term operations places pressure on the Nimrod force, there was no evidence that this was a cause or factor in the loss of the aircraft.

It is clear to me that some of the findings of the board of inquiry identify failings for which the Ministry of Defence must take responsibility. On behalf of the MOD and the Royal Air Force, I would like to say sorry for those failings to the House, but most of all to the families of those who lost their lives.

At the time of the accident, the Department took action to ensure that a similar scenario could not occur again on the Nimrod aircraft. Those measures have been revised as the board’s findings have emerged. The chain of command has accepted the majority of the board’s recommendations and continues to pursue the outstanding recommendations made by the board to enhance the safety of our aircraft.

The hot air system remains switched off so that there is no hot pipe against which any fuel could ignite, and we have an enhanced inspection regime to examine for any sign of fuel leakage. QinetiQ has conducted an independent investigation into the fuel system and confirmed that, in light of the measures taken since the crash, the fuel system is safe to operate. Air-to-air refuelling has also been suspended subject to further investigation. The Chief of the Air Staff’s professional judgment is that the Nimrod fleet is safe to fly. I have accepted his advice.

By its nature, the board was not in a position to go into the history of those arrangements or to assess where responsibility lies for failures. I do not underestimate the difficulties that face those responsible for assuring aircraft safety. Flying will never be risk-free. But I do believe that the families of those who died are due more of an explanation of the history than the board of inquiry could be expected to provide. I have therefore decided to put in place a review of the arrangements for assuring the airworthiness and safe operation of the Nimrod aircraft over its service life; to assess where responsibility lies for any failures; to assess more broadly the process for compiling safety cases, taking account of best practice in the civilian and military world; and to make recommendations.

I intend that the review should be led by a senior Queen’s counsel assisted by technical experts on aviation systems, who will examine all relevant papers and interview all those in a position to assist. BAE Systems, the aircraft designer, and QinetiQ, which supported the Department in consideration of the safety case findings, have agreed that the review will have their companies’ full co-operation. The review will be able to recommend a full public inquiry if that is considered necessary and will keep the families of those who died informed of progress. We will publish the findings of the review, subject to considerations of operational security. I shall make a statement shortly confirming the membership and terms of reference of the review.

All the families have already received lump-sum payments through the armed forces pension scheme or the armed forces compensation scheme and, where appropriate, ongoing pensions are now in payment. However, we are also in contact with lawyers representing a number of the families over additional claims for common law compensation. I have directed that those claims be assessed and settled as quickly as possible and I have directed that substantial interim payments be made to those families where appropriate.

I recognise that the board of inquiry report will be painful reading for many, but I hope that the families and friends will take some comfort in finding answers to many of the questions that arise after an incident such as this.

I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement and for the briefing earlier today.

This is a grim day. I echo the Secretary of State in conveying the profound condolences of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition and all Conservative Members to the families of those who lost their lives in this tragic incident, and in paying tribute to the immense courage and professionalism of the crew of Nimrod X-ray Victor 230, who gave their lives in the service of our country. Their role, and that of their fellow Nimrod crews, continues to be vital for military operations.

The tragedy should bring home to the nation the very real sacrifices being made on its behalf by the men and women of our armed forces, not least in the Royal Air Force, whose fixed-wing and helicopter crews are constantly exposed to danger on operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. I also thank the board of inquiry for completing an extremely thorough job in very demanding circumstances. Although it is clear that the board has been unable to establish definitively the cause of the crash, its analysis would seem to be as accurate as it is possible to be.

Two key issues arise. First, although the age of the aircraft itself may have been ruled out as an issue, the systems failures are clearly a factor of age and maintenance. With on average 40 fire-related incidents a year for the past 20 years and 52 fuel leaks in a six-month period last year, both the Royal Air Force and the manufacturer were acutely aware of the potential hazards arising from the Nimrod’s ageing systems. Secondly, the aircraft should have been replaced by the MRA4 four years ago. It is nothing short of a scandal that the new aircraft will not enter service for at least another four years.

As the Secretary of State confirmed, the report is detailed. Many detailed technical questions arise, but I shall confine myself to just six. First, why was the recommendation, made by BAE Systems in 2004, to install a hot air leak warning in the location of the hot air ducting rejected following an earlier incident involving another Nimrod? Secondly, is it true that the investigation carried out last year by QinetiQ found that repair teams were using out-of-date manuals and equipment, and that there was

“considerable loss of expertise and experience as trade specialists have left the team”?

If so, is not that an example of the dangerous run-down in Royal Air Force numbers, which are now 1,500 below strength?

Thirdly, since the hot air pipe running past the No. 7 fuel tank was effectively redundant because the requirement for an on-board systems cooling had reduced, why was not it removed or rendered inoperable before now?

Fourthly, the board finds that the fuel and hot air systems maintenance policy was a contributory factor to the loss of the aircraft. Why has guidance on ageing aircraft systems, which was recommended in 2006, not been issued?

Fifthly, if all air-to-air refuelling involving Nimrod aircraft is suspended, does not that seriously inhibit the aircraft’s ability to carry out its vital role in Afghanistan?

Sixthly, how does the Secretary of State intend to manage with the elderly fleet for the next four years, as fuel leaks continue to increase?

Does this tragic incident reveal the underlying truth: our armed forces are operating at a tempo well in excess of that for which they are resourced? I hope that the Secretary of State can dismiss as wholly untrue today’s press reports that the Prime Minister is looking for a further £15 billion of cuts to the defence budget.

Today, every serviceman and woman, together with their families, will look to the Secretary of State, in exercising his duty of care towards them, to stand up for them and demand that they have the resources to do the job.

First, may I thank the hon. Gentleman, who has an appreciation from his own service of the challenges that the Royal Air Force faces and the risks that are associated with the job that it does? His words will be welcomed by the RAF and especially by the families and communities that support it. They are appropriate words to recognise the scale and nature of the sacrifice that people are prepared to make and the challenges that they are prepared to face. I thank him for them.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the age of Nimrod, which, as he knows from the detailed briefing that he received, the board of inquiry raises and believes to be, in a limited respect, a contributory factor. The key issue, as I am sure he knows, about an aircraft is whether it is fit to fly. The board of inquiry confirmed that the Nimrod has a very good safety record overall. That is incontrovertible. As I said, the board of inquiry identified age as a contributory factor, but we need to consider that in the context of the whole report. It identified two components, whose condition may have been affected by age. Since the incident, the important thing is that we have removed the hazard by turning off the source of ignition, without which a fire is not possible.

I did not recognise the circumstances that informed the hon. Gentleman’s first question, but that may be a failing on my part. As with several questions that he poses, I am sure that he accepts that it falls squarely in the remit of the review that I have announced today. Those questions are entitled to an answer. They cannot be answered by the BOI and should be answered by a process of independent investigation, and I have therefore set up the review. The questions will be passed on directly to the principal reviewer when he is appointed. Indeed, any other questions that Opposition Front Benchers identify as needing to be asked should be fed into the process in due course.

In dealing with the comprehensive questions that the hon. Gentleman posed, let me deny that there is any truth in the story in the media this morning to which he referred. There is no truth in it.

On the basis of the BOI report and its conclusions, the three matters that one could have identified as contributory factors as a consequence of resources were considered and specifically said not to be contributory factors to the accident. They were: maintenance—not the system or policy of maintenance, but maintenance itself; servicing the aircraft; and operational pressures, about which the hon. Gentleman made, with all due respect to him, inappropriate observations. Those matters were all considered by the BOI, in an entirely independent fashion, not to have been contributory factors in the accident.

Finally, the hon. Gentleman raises the issue of operational effectiveness in the absence of air-to-air refuelling. That will of course restrict the amount of time for which the Nimrod can fly, but it can fly for nine hours without such refuelling. As he knows, other ISTAR—intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance—resources are being deployed to the operational theatre that could be used to gain the information that operations require.

I wish to express my condolences and sympathy to the family and friends of the fallen servicemen. The 14 men deserve our utmost gratitude and admiration for their service to the country.

I commend the Secretary of State for the way in which he delivered the statement: he always gets these situations right and strikes the appropriate tone.

I welcome the statement and the board of inquiry report, which is comprehensive and detailed. However, 14 months is far too long to wait, especially given that there is to be a further inquiry into this incident. That has not been fair on the families, who wanted earlier answers. Can the Secretary of State assure us that such delays will not be repeated in future?

Why were the warning signs—the significant increase in coupling and seal leaks in recent years, the blow-off fuel from tank No. 1 draping the side of the aircraft in previous sorties, and the gaps in insulation of the hot air piping—not heeded? Is not that a failure of the process rather than individual judgments?

I welcome the Secretary of State’s announcement of a review, which should help to provide some of the answers that the board of inquiry was unable to provide. Fundamentally, however, why are we still relying on an aircraft design that is almost 40 years old, is based on a failed civilian version and was originally intended for hunting Russian subs? Was the in-service date for the new MRA4 delayed because of failures by Ministers to make a decision? Are not the Government forcing the ethos of the armed forces to change from “can do” to “make do”?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his words of condolence and support for our armed forces, particularly for those most directly associated with the Nimrod force, who will find them welcome.

As I explained, the board of inquiry process is a creature of statute. It is required to take place, it is instructed by the commissioning authority, which is the command of the RAF, and it is entirely independent of Ministers and should continue to be so. It is an important process as it stands in that environment, uninfluenced by Ministers. I am not in a position to give the hon. Gentleman assurances in relation to the length of time that the board of inquiry has taken—about 14 months, as he said. As he will be aware, the commissioning authority reconvened the board when it had reported because there were unanswered questions that it wished to have answered. That is entirely how the process is intended to work. It is self-contained and does not report until it is complete. That is in the control of the board, and so it should remain.

Nobody should infer from what I have said that there is any criticism of the way in which the board of inquiry conducted its affairs or the time that it took. This was a very complex inquiry with a very small amount of evidence, and I think that it has done an absolutely excellent job with the evidence that was available in working out what most likely happened to the Nimrod XV230. I do not think that there is any room for saying that if it had done it more quickly it would have done a better or more appropriate job. I hear what the hon. Gentleman has to say about failures. He expresses in different words the failures identified by the BOI and that raise the questions required by the supplementary review.

I would like to deal with an issue raised by the Opposition Front-Bench spokesman that I did not address—the in-service date for the replacement MRA4. That has been delayed by about seven years. The principal reason for the delay has been technical challenges in the design and production of the MRA4, and we have had to extend the period of service for which we plan to keep the present MR2 fleet in use. I have to say, however, that despite the age of this aircraft, it is still considered to be the premier maritime patrol aircraft in the world. In other air forces around the world, older aircraft are performing perfectly good jobs.

The age issue is relevant, as the board of inquiry identifies, but the most important question is whether the aircraft is fit to fly. Not only because of its very good safety record, but because of the application of the recommendations of the board of inquiry and the lessons learned from it, and the institution of further safety measures that have taken place as a result of our increasing knowledge—particularly of this incident—I am absolutely clear that the aircraft is airworthy and is fit to fly.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement, and I concur with everything he said about the bravery of the RAF crew. There is nothing new in the use of ageing aircraft, or the considerable extension of the life of aircraft, but by definition, older aircraft are harder to maintain, and the propensity for accidents to occur becomes greater. I wonder whether my right hon. Friend is in a position to do anything to bring forward the in-service date for the replacement of the Nimrod.

I thank my hon. Friend for reinforcing a point that I have now made twice, but which bears repeating. The calendar age of an aircraft is not an indicator of its operational utility, its condition or its remaining service life. The Nimrod is maintained to strict standards and if we did not have confidence in the aircraft, we would not allow it to fly. Moreover, it is common practice in military and civil aviation for what are known as ageing aircraft audits to be carried out to ensure the structural integrity of the airframe of an aircraft. A Nimrod audit was conducted in 1993 and reviewed in 2003. That process takes place every 10 years, and as an additional safety measure, we are extending the scope of the audit to consider the age of the internal components of the aircraft, such as the fuel system, as well as its structure.

As for the replacement Nimrod MRA4, the in-service date is still 2010. I have explained the reasons for the delay in bringing it into service. Although that is disappointing, it has been necessary to ensure that the technical issues that arose were resolved prior to production of the aircraft, which began last year. I am not in a position to suggest to the House with any confidence that that date could be brought forward, given that production of the new aircraft started only last year.

We have heard of the lack of a fire-detection and suppression system. Will the Secretary of State tell us what the review will cover? Will it be limited to the Nimrod aircraft, or will it also cover things like explosive suppressant foam in this and other aircraft?

Does there not seem to be a difference in approach to the safety issues that face us? When danger is discovered on the railways, no expense is spared to put everything right as early as possible. Is there a difference in approach when it comes to dealing with the armed forces? I hope that there is not. Will the review cover lots of different types of aircraft, and what will be the criteria on which the Secretary of State accepts or rejects any call for a public inquiry?

The issues that the right hon. Gentleman raises in relation to fire detection and suppression will of course be part of the review. Given the probable cause of the accident, had the risk from the hot pipe in that void of the aircraft been correctly estimated, it is almost certain that a range of options to reduce the likelihood of a fire would have been considered. The options may have included redesign, to fit a fire suppression system in the dry bay, as it is known, but it is much more likely that action to prevent the risk by removing the potential ignition source would have been taken, and that is exactly what we have done since the loss of the XV230.

The right hon. Gentleman asked whether such events are responded to appropriately when they occur. The decision to shut off that source of ignition was taken within a matter of days of the loss. There have been ongoing changes in relation to the safety of the aircraft in response to information as it emerges. We did not wait until the board of inquiry reported.

It is not my intention to conduct a wide-ranging review beyond the circumstances of this incident for a very good reason: I am conscious that part of the purpose of the review is to answer the questions that the families have, which are revealed by the board of inquiry. I am anxious—I have spoken to some of the families today, who also expressed this anxiety, which is perfectly understandable—that we should not have a process that delays the point at which they can achieve closure on the events, start to deal with their grieving and move on with their lives. I am very conscious of that. A further inquiry would of course be expected in the form of a coroner’s inquest into the incident. I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman will understand that I shall have to balance all those considerations.

In answer to the point that the right hon. Gentleman raised about whether we are concerned that the failings in the analysis and in the safety case for the Nimrod may have been repeated in other aircraft, we have asked those who have responsibility for safety cases to review them all in the light of the findings of the BOI, to ensure that there are no such failings in safety cases for other aircraft.

Order. I understand hon. Members’ concerns and interest in this statement, but I ask for a single question and a single response, so that more may put their questions.

I welcome the Secretary of State’s expressions of sympathy for the bereaved families in their dreadful loss. He is aware that they are looking for openness and transparency, yet were not included in the board of inquiry process. Will he therefore consider providing reasonable legal costs for those families, so that they can be represented at the inquest into the deaths on an equal footing with the MOD?

Because of the nature of a board of inquiry, it would have been entirely inappropriate for the families to be engaged in the process in the way that my hon. Friend suggests they could have been. The purpose of the board of inquiry was to identify what had happened and what lessons could be learned from that, in relation to the causes of the accident. I will consider to the issue that she raised in relation to the coroner’s inquest. I am conscious that coroners are independent of Government and that the process of a coroner’s inquest is designed to proceed in a particular way. I do not want to make decisions that change the character of a coroner’s inquest for reasons to do with the circumstances of an individual case, but I will give the issue some consideration.

I thank the Secretary of State for the advance copy of his statement and for the Ministry of Defence’s efforts in briefing the families and parliamentarians today. I also welcome the review that he initiated in his statement. The inquiry confirmed that the crew did everything that they could in the circumstances to save the aircraft. They were brave professional aviators to the last. That is recognised at RAF Kinloss, and by the entire service and civilian community in Moray. We pay tribute to the crew today.

The inquiry has found that the age of the Nimrod aircraft was a possible contributory factor to the crash in Afghanistan. That is a serious cause for concern as it impacts on the rest of the fleet, which is nearly 40 years old. Only recently, another Nimrod aircraft suffered a serious fuel leak and it has proved impossible fully to understand why it happened. It is also a cause for concern that the inquiry confirmed the loss of experienced engineering personnel from RAF Kinloss. Will the Secretary of State confirm that the Ministry of Defence will do everything in its power to restore confidence in the Nimrod fleet, which performs such a vital military role?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. I also pay tribute to him as the MP for the area in which RAF Kinloss is based for supporting those families and the community through a very difficult time and for the very responsible and professional way in which he has dealt with me over this very difficult issue. I have no hesitation in giving him the reassurance that he seeks. The safety of those who fly in these aircraft is our priority; it is not secondary to any other consideration. I have given careful thought to the issue of age and to all the other issues identified in the BOI as contributory factors. I am assured—and I accept those assurances—by those who have the vast technical ability and experience to understand these matters, and having gone into them in detail myself, that this aircraft is safe to fly and airworthy. I would not allow it to fly if I did not believe that to be the case.

May I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement about the inquiry, in which he said that all those in a position to assist will be interviewed? Will he confirm that that includes all service personnel who have relevant information and, indeed, ex-personnel who flew Nimrods in similar circumstances in the past?

I understand my hon. Friend’s point. Part of the reason for making this announcement is that, around this terribly tragic incident and in the time it has quite properly taken the BOI to come to its conclusions, there has been a lot of speculation and partial leaks of bits of information into the public domain. I know that some of it has been extremely distressing for the families involved. I am seeking to provide an independent comprehensive process of assurance to the families and others that the questions they want answered can be answered. I believe that that process can answer those questions and I am sure that a number of people will want to contribute to it. It is not for me to describe in detail from the Dispatch Box absolutely everybody who should be allowed to contribute to the process. The reviewer and those who support him will have to make that decision, but I am absolutely certain that he will want to speak to the category of person that my hon. Friend identified.

When we hear, as we did from my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth), explanations of the cost pressures on the number of personnel involved with maintenance and when we hear that decisions to fit fire-suppressant kits had not been followed through, it is very hard for Members to accept that cost has had no bearing on the maintenance of this aircraft. Will the Secretary of State explain what he meant when he said earlier:

“The chain of command has accepted the majority of the board’s recommendations and continue to pursue the outstanding recommendations”?

What does he mean in particular by “pursue the outstanding recommendations”? Why have all the recommendations not been accepted, or are there cost implications for them as well?

The hon. Gentleman will have time to read the BOI report in due course. All I am doing in this statement is reporting on that report. The three possible sources of contributory factors—maintenance, servicing and operational pressures—that could have been created by cost pressures have been discounted by the BOI. I have already said and will not repeat where the failings lie. In my view, those failings are best pursued in terms of investigation through the review that I will set up. That review will go back a considerable distance because it will need to. It will, of course, be open to the reviewer to consider where decisions may have been made in relation to cost.

There were 33 recommendations, 21 of which have been accepted outright by the chain of command and the implementation of eight of which is being actively considered. Four have not been accepted. On recommendation 5—a recommendation to determine the specific life of fuel seals—the judgment was that a better precaution would be to take mitigating action through an improved inspection regime and a targeted seal replacement programme. Experience shows that the life of seals varies, and that simply replacing the seals at an arbitrary point may introduce more problems and have a detrimental effect on safety. One recommendation, on the utility of parachute escape on a Nimrod aircraft, is not being pursued as it is not considered feasible. Recommendation 20, to review the design of the No.1 fuel tank, is not being pursued because it has been addressed by the limiting of the amount of fuel in the tank. Recommendation 28, to increase the stock of BOI kits, is not being pursued because BOI kits are available from other sources.

I welcome the announcement of the review. Along with other members of the Defence Committee, I met Nimrod crews in Kandahar earlier in the year. They are doing a tremendous job in very difficult circumstances. I also welcome the announcement that the families will not have to fight for compensation through the civil courts, and that the Secretary of State wants to settle very early.

Rumours are circulating in the aviation press that both BAE Systems and QinetiQ informed the MOD about the fuel problem two years ago. When the review takes place, will those rumours be thoroughly investigated? If they are accurate, we need to know why no action was taken, and also why the individuals concerned made that decision.

There is a very straightforward answer to my hon. Friend’s question. That is exactly the sort of issue that the review will have to investigate.

The review is of course welcome, but will the Secretary of State address himself again to the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot) about fire suppression systems? In particular, will the inquiry be able to examine American practice in this context?

I believe that the terms of reference of the review will specifically require it to look beyond our shores—beyond civil and military aircraft in the United Kingdom, and into the international field—when considering what recommendations to make.

Will the Secretary of State acknowledge that the new generation of Nimrod aircraft being built in Woodford, in my constituency, are technically and operationally far superior to the aircraft currently in use? Given the present operational difficulties and resulting bad publicity for the aircraft, has he a message for the 1,200 dedicated workers who are employed on the new MRA4 project?

The new MRA4 is exactly that—a new aircraft, which has been mostly designed as new from first principles. It has modern design features and safety standards including complete refurbishment of the fuselage structure, bomb bay doors and tail assembly, along with other significant safety features. Moreover, 94 per cent. of the parts are new, compared with those of the MR2. I understand that the aircraft is now in production. Testing and commissioning processes will then be necessary. From the information I have received—this is why I signed a production contract last year—those responsible for construction have faced significant technical challenges, but have overcome them and will be producing a world-class aircraft.

We are all desperately sorry about the 14 servicemen who lost their lives in this incident. The Secretary of State has come to the House to apologise for specific failings which he has identified, and for which the Ministry of Defence must take responsibility. What are they?

They are the failings that are spelt out in the BOI report, which I listed in short in my statement. They can be found in more detail in the expanded statement that I have placed in the Library of the House, and which will be available to Members. They are specifically failings in relation to the failure of the safety case to identify the nature of the hazard of the collocation of the hot pipe and a possible fuel leak.

The Secretary of State has confirmed that the fire-suppressant system lies at the heart of the inquiry, but bearing in mind that there are more than 40 fire-related or smoke-related incidents every year on Nimrods, surely the Secretary of State owes it to the House—and, indeed, the RAF—to explain why not one, but two, reports highlighting the problems and dangers as a result of the absence of a fire-suppressant system were ignored. The Government should come clean and say why those important reports were ignored.

Let me say two things to the hon. Gentleman. First, there have been fires on board Nimrods—there is no question about that—but this is the only incident of a fuel fire on board a Nimrod. Secondly, the hon. Gentleman ought not to leave the House with the impression that there are no fire-detection and suppression systems fitted to the Nimrod MR2, because there are: it contains a number of fire-detection and suppression systems, which are fitted as appropriate to areas of the aircraft where a potential fire hazard has been identified. Now that the BOI report has been completed, the Nimrod IPT—integrated project team—will consider forms of hazard investigation as part of the Nimrod safety case. If there was indeed a failure to fit fire-suppressant systems to the bomb bay—and I do not accept that that was a failure—that will be just the sort of issue that the review will need to look at. That is precisely the sort of question it must answer, and it would be inappropriate of me to anticipate the outcome of the review.

The Secretary of State is aware that Europe is trying to have a military aviation authority. Will he explain why Rolls-Royce, which has been pushing the Government to accept this standard for years, has been ignored? Will the Government sign up to the European military aviation authority, to bring military aircraft in line with civil aviation? If there is a problem, what is it? Will the Minister sign up to this as soon as possible?

I shall consider the issue the hon. Gentleman raises. I am not in a position today to give him a detailed response, but I shall write to him on it.

I congratulate the Secretary of State on the way in which he has made the statement today, and also on the fact that he has highlighted the bravery and professionalism of the crew. All parents of RAF personnel are concerned when their children go into fields of operation. We are very proud of their bravery, but we expect the Government to do everything they can to make the equipment as safe as possible. I note that the Secretary of State said in the statement that the age of some of the components might be related to the accident. Has he instigated a programme of speeding up the replacement of components?

In respect of those components that were identified as aged and that might have been contributory factors, we have instituted specific changes to the maintenance and inspection policy. I thank the hon. Gentleman for his words of support for a service that I know is close to his heart for the very obvious reason he explained.

Opposition Day

[3rd allotted day]

Political Parties (Funding)

We now come to the debate on the Opposition motion on the funding of political parties. Mr. Speaker has selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister.

I beg to move,

That this House notes with concern the corrosion of public trust in democracy following the recent succession of scandals over the funding of the governing political party; regrets that a comprehensive package of proposals to reform electoral law was not achieved by the inter-party talks owing to the refusal of the Secretary of State for Justice and the Labour representative, Mr Peter Watt, to accept a comprehensive cap on donations; observes the unhealthy increase in back-door state funding through the £6 million of funds allocated to special advisers and the funding of over 3,000 press and communications officers across Whitehall and its quangos; asserts that the Communications Allowance is an unhealthy extension of taxpayer funding for party propaganda that advantages the governing party; and calls for a comprehensive package of reforms to restore public trust and to support a vibrant local democracy and voluntary activism, which must include an across-the-board cap and annually a genuine individual choice for union members on whether they wish to donate to their favoured political party.

This motion is in two parts. The first refers to the current admitted lawbreaking, and the second refers to the need for—

I would like to finish my first few sentences before giving way, if the hon. Gentleman will permit me to do so. I shall then be happy to give way.

The second part of the motion refers to the need for comprehensive reform of party funding to restore public trust in the political process. It is important to separate the two parts. The fact that one party admits having broken the law, as it stands, is no reason—

The fact that one party admits having broken the law is no reason to change the law. The events to which I shall return in a moment provide no reason to reform the law—it should merely be complied with. Let us be clear that we are not talking about oversights or late declarations. We know that such things happen—they probably always will—and no system is perfect.

The Secretary of State for Justice will doubtless say that all this is being inquired into. That is meant to be reassuring, but one of the inquiries is being undertaken by a former Labour party general secretary—so we know that it will be totally impartial. Another inquiry is to be carried out by the former Bishop of Oxford. Although he is undoubtedly admirable and intelligent, this situation is the last refuge of the desperate. I doubt that when he was appointed to the Bench of Bishops he was told that he would need to be qualified in electoral law and forensic accounting.

We wish the former Bishop well as he endeavours to peel away the layers of onion skin to disclose whose money this really was and how many people knew that the donations from Labour’s third largest donor were being illegally declared.

Let us consider Mr. Mendelsohn, who was personally appointed by the Prime Minister to raise money for the election that never happened. We are told that Mr. Mendelsohn sat next to Mr. Abrahams at a dinner in April, and according to Mr. Abrahams he knew at that time that the donations were being hidden. Mr. Mendelsohn admits that he knew, albeit from a later date, that the source of the donations was being hidden, but he maintains that he did not know that that was illegal, although he was uncomfortable—

I shall give way in a moment. So uncomfortable was Mr. Mendelsohn that a mere two and a half months later he wrote a letter—not to the Electoral Commission, as one might have expected, but to Mr. Abrahams. He says that he did so as a prelude to putting matters right. It was doubtless coincidental that the letter was sent on the very day that The Mail on Sunday contacted Labour with evidence of the lawbreaking.

I am most grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way. On the question of illegal donations being made to political parties, will he confirm that Lord Ashcroft is domiciled in the UK for tax purposes and can therefore lawfully make donations to the Conservative party?

I can confirm unequivocally that any donations made by Lord Ashcroft or any companies associated with him are entirely permissible. I just say to the hon. Gentleman that he should be a little careful where he is going—[Interruption.]

Only one party is being accused of lawbreaking and only one party’s leader has admitted that the law was broken—just in case the hon. Gentleman has not got the message, it is his party.

Let me be clear that I am accusing the right hon. Gentleman’s party of lawbreaking, because Lord Ashcroft is not domiciled in the UK for tax purposes and is therefore a foreign donor. Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm whether or not Lord Ashcroft is a foreign donor?

Just in case the hon. Gentleman did not hear it, I said I can confirm that any donations made to the Conservative party by Lord Ashcroft or his companies are completely permissible, properly declared and on the record. The leader of the hon. Gentleman’s party—the Prime Minister—who promised that things were going to be cleaned up has admitted that his party broke the law.

The right hon. Gentleman will no doubt have seen the article in The Daily Telegraph today by Rachel Sylvester in which she says that yesterday she made a telephone call to ask whether Lord Ashcroft is resident in this country and whether he pays tax in this country. Rachel Ashcroft—[Interruption.]

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. Rachel Sylvester, a journalist for a Conservative newspaper, says that the public has the right to have precise answers to those two questions. So without dodging or evasion, are the answers yes or no?

I could scarcely have been more unequivocal than I was. If the right hon. Gentleman has evidence of any impropriety, he will no doubt provide it. The simple fact is that there is no evidence: our donations have been properly made and properly declared, and all have been made by permissible donors.

Order. We are having a debate, but it is getting far too noisy in the Chamber, and that is unfair to the right hon. Gentleman who is speaking—[Interruption.] Order. Others will seek my protection if they are shouted down.

If further interventions from Labour Members are of the same quality, I would prefer not to waste the House’s time.

Does my right hon. Friend share my concern about the potential tax liability of people who have, knowingly or unknowingly, received moneys from Mr. Abrahams in a potential partially exempt transfer, or have a matter to report to the Inland Revenue in terms of their own tax affairs? Are they not now in a very vulnerable position as a result?

My hon. Friend makes the point clearly that when it comes to concerns about propriety only one party has admitted breaking the law—the Labour party—and that has many more ramifications.

My right hon. Friend should continue with his forensic analysis. It is obvious that the Labour party Chief Whip has got the rough trade out, but they are cocking it up.

I do not think that my hon. Friend meant that rough, but he has given great offence to the hon. Member for Ealing, North (Stephen Pound), who is very sorry to be left out. I shall respond to my hon. Friend’s invitation to continue, although I understand why Labour Members want to distract attention from their current concerns. That is understandable, but they will not get away with it.

The most unbelievable part of the saga is the contention that neither Jon Mendelsohn nor Peter Watt knew that the practice was illegal. I have to say that that is literally incredible. The requirement to disclose the identity of donors was the central feature of the 1999 Bill that became the Political Parties, Elections and Referendum Act 2000, and that is not some arcane technicality, byelaw or obscure rule. The breach of that requirement is a criminal offence, and anyone involved in political fundraising knows that. It is page 1 of the fundraising manual. Labour functionaries know that; after all, they publicly complain about donations made by—

It may be that the point that I am about to make is the one about which the hon. Gentleman is so excited.

The Labour party has publicly complained about donations made by unincorporated associations, such as the Midlands Industrial Council, although those arrangements are signed off by the Electoral Commission and the membership of the MIC has been made fully public. Despite that, Labour made a complaint to the Electoral Commission and received a response. A letter to the then Labour party chairman from the commission cleared donations by the MIC and explicitly referred to the central legal requirement that no one in the Labour party now claims ever to have heard of. The letter was sent in October last year, and states that the Act

“requires that where a donor passes a donation to a political party via an agent, the agent must tell the party the original donor’s details so that the party can, first, establish that the donor is a permissible donor…and second, record the donation with the Electoral Commission as coming not from the agent but from the original donor.”

Now, it is possible that the letter went only to the chairman of the Labour party and was not seen by the then general secretary or by anyone involved in fundraising and that they have all been operating in complete ignorance of what I repeat is a central provision of the 1999 Bill.

I do not want the hon. Member for Ealing, North (Stephen Pound) to feel left out, so I shall give way to him first.

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way. To be described as “rough trade” is rather a step up for me. He has been speaking about the transparency of donations. Many of us were amazed to hear about the Midlands Industrial Council, from which many Opposition Members receive as much as £20,000 a year. In the spirit of frankness that he is espousing, will he support the release of the names of all the members and donors of the MIC?

I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman will have to go back to the drawing board, as we disclosed all the names at least a year ago and they are in the public domain. I give way to my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood).

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. Does he agree that a governing party in these circumstances should not misread the mood of the nation or the House? The nation expects an honest statement of everything that has gone wrong and of what the party will do to put matters right, as well as a little humility.

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. The simple fact is that Jon Mendelsohn and Peter Watt must have known that the donations were illegal—

According to Mr. Mendelsohn’s own account, he knew from September that the donations were illegal. Surely it would have been completely extraordinary for him not to have told the Prime Minister, whose personal appointee he is, that there was a serious problem—

Order. I do not know what the right hon. Member for Horsham (Mr. Maude) intends to do about giving way but it seems, Mr. Simon, that he is not going to give way to you. Some quietness would therefore be of help.

I will give way in a short while, but I want to finish this passage in my speech.

Peter Watt, the Labour party’s former general secretary, sat with the Justice Secretary in the discussions that we held over recent months with Sir Hayden Phillips. He pressed for greater powers to be given to the Electoral Commission to probe exactly the issue that we are debating today—whether donations had been paid through proxies. He was Labour’s registered treasurer as well as its general secretary. Before that, he was the party’s legal and compliance officer, and the rules and laws that we are discussing are the stuff of what a compliance officer deals with, day in and day out.

I have a simple question for the Justice Secretary. Can he really say to the House that he believes Peter Watt’s claim that he did not know that the practice was illegal? He must know as well as we do how hollow that claim must be.

On knowing or not knowing, with hindsight can the right hon. Gentleman tell me why the Tory party did not know that Asil Nadir was a crook who stole £400,000 from shareholders? Why did the Tories not send the money back? Why did they take $1 million from a Chinese drug baron? They never sent that money back either. Who is on the moral high ground now?

We know that things are getting really difficult for the Labour party when the House’s ancient historian has to come to its rescue. That is ancient history.

The Justice Secretary was the Prime Minister’s campaign manager, so can he tell us what he knew about the attempted donation by Mrs. Kidd on behalf of Mr. Abrahams to the Prime Minister’s leadership campaign? The Justice Secretary was not ignorant of the law; as he often tells us, he took the 1999 Bill through the House so he knows very well what the law required. Will he tell us today what he knew about the Abrahams donation proffered through Mrs. Kidd? What conversations did he have with his fellow campaign manager, Chris Leslie, who having, as he put it, “torn up” the cheque, helpfully passed Mrs. Kidd’s details to the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), now deputy leader of the Labour party? It is to that hospital pass that I turn now.

The longer this saga goes on, the more unanswered questions arise. The right hon. and learned Lady’s husband is the treasurer of the Labour party. Her defence is that she took donations only from people her campaign knew personally or who were registered donors to the Labour party, so who at Labour headquarters did her campaign call to check Mrs. Kidd’s identity? How was it that Baroness Jay, on behalf of the Environment Secretary’s campaign, knew that Mrs. Kidd was not the true donor and that it was some kind of proxy donation? If both Peter Watt and Jon Mendelsohn knew—as they admit—that Mrs. Kidd was not a bona fide donor, anyone at Labour headquarters who was equipped to respond to such a check on Mrs. Kidd’s identity must surely have known that she was not the real donor.

I turn to the curious incident of the illegal donation—we now know for sure that it was—to the Scottish leadership campaign of Wendy Alexander, or, as we must now call her, the human shield. Here again, there are more and more unanswered questions. There was clearly an illegal donation. Mr. Gordon, who solicited the donation, said he thought it came from a UK company and was therefore permissible. It then emerged that the campaign knew that there was literally a question mark over the donation; it appears in a schedule of donations, with the word “permissible?”—with a question mark—attached to Mr. Green’s name. We read that the schedule apparently originated from Wendy Alexander’s husband’s computer.

At first, Wendy Alexander said she did not know about the donation. That is not true. How do we know? Because it turned out that she had written a thank-you letter to Mr. Green, to thank him not for a donation from his company, but for his donation. If that were not enough, the letter seems to have been sent to his home address in Jersey, so it rather gives the game away. It is not for us to speculate about Wendy Alexander’s position, but we note that the message has gone from Downing street for her to stand at her post lest the fallout is even closer to Labour’s high command.

I am impressed with the right hon. Gentleman’s assiduous attention to detail in naming donors. Will he answer a question for me? How is it that Coleshill manor, the campaign headquarters of the Conservative party, is funded by the Midlands Industrial Council? It is described by the right hon. Gentleman’s leader as an intricate part of the Tory party but it is registered with the Electoral Commission as a regulated donee—

Can the right hon. Member for Horsham (Mr. Maude) explain why there is such an intricate web of finance for that centre? Why is it not straightforward and easy for people to understand?

The hon. Gentleman is struggling a bit, as I think the House can appreciate. All those arrangements are registered with the Electoral Commission, which has been through them all and has approved them. There is only one party here that has admitted breaking the law, and that is his party.

I turn to the discussions that have taken place over the last 18 months under the chairmanship of Sir Hayden Phillips. These followed discussions between Tony Blair and my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) in March and April last year, in the aftermath of the revelations about loans. We have consistently argued for comprehensive reform that would deal finally with the perception that large donors have undue influence on political parties. I have to say that Tony Blair seemed to share that view.

Dealing with that perception requires, above all, a cap on donations. Everybody now agrees that a cap of £50,000 would accomplish that. But there is an important point here: the cap has to apply to all donations, from whatever source—whether individuals, companies or trade unions. Sadly, it has gradually become clear that Labour simply could not agree to genuine reform. As Tony Blair’s authority ebbed away and as he finally departed the scene, it became clear that Labour is so deeply in hock to the trade unions that it would not be allowed to accept even minimal reform.

I will give way in a moment.

The key to this is trade union affiliation fees. I want to set this out very clearly. It is not straightforward territory and it is important that it is properly understood. Trade union affiliation fees currently funnel £8 million to Labour. We are invited to agree that those fees should escape the cap on donations because, it is claimed, they are individual donations. [Interruption.] I see Labour Members nodding sagely and thoughtfully, but that claim is about as far from the truth as it can be.

Trade union law requires a union member to be able to opt out of paying the political levy, but in most unions it is incredibly difficult to opt out and members are not told of their rights. [Interruption.] If hon. Members will contain themselves and remain patient, I will disclose the evidence for that. If union members do happen to find out that they have that right, they have to be quite extraordinarily tenacious to exercise it. Of 17 trade unions that have online application forms, only three mention the right to opt out of the political levy. It is true that a small minority of union members—

I want to finish this passage, if the hon. Lady will forgive me.

A small minority of union members have succeeded in opting out of the levy, but polling has consistently shown that fewer than half of trade union members vote Labour. More than half vote for parties other than Labour. It beggars belief that those people are cheerfully making a voluntary contribution to a party that they do not even vote for. Indeed, it emerged during our discussions that a Liberal Democrat MP was surprised to find in the post a ballot paper for Labour’s deputy leadership election. [Interruption.] We do not know who that hon. Member voted for. Completely unknowingly, an MP elected for a different political party had become a member of the Labour party as a result of the supposedly voluntary donation.

It does not end there. In most unions, if someone does succeed in opting out of the political levy, they do not even get any money back. Their union subscription remains completely unchanged. The truth is that in most cases—not all—the money given to Labour under the guise of affiliation fees is entirely in the hands of the trade union barons. After all, it is the trade union leaders who decide how many affiliated members they are going to declare. Let us look at the numbers. Unison is one of the unions that does put the right to opt out up front on the application form. More than half its members have exercised that right and decided to opt out. Other unions, such as the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers, and the National Association of Colliery Overmen, Deputies and Shotfirers, declare that 100 per cent. of their members pay the levy, with no opt-outs whatever.

Even that is not enough for two of the biggest beasts among Labour’s paymasters. Amicus and the Communication Workers Union both calmly state that more than 100 per cent. of their members pay the political levy. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Djanogly) for his research on the subject. Amicus shows that 109.4 per cent. of its members pay the political levy, and the CWU declares that 104.1 per cent. of its members do; I am sure that that would not have happened in the Health Secretary’s time at that union. That shows what a sham the situation is. We are expected to allow what are plainly block donations by the trade unions to be treated as individual voluntary donations. It is laughable.

As the discussions drew on, it became increasingly clear that Labour was simply not committed to delivering, or able to deliver, on Tony Blair’s promise of comprehensive reform. We went the last mile in an attempt to secure agreement. Eventually, it emerged that Labour was intransigent, even on the most basic of changes. We suggested that the right to choose whether to pay the levy should appear on the membership application form. We thought that that was completely uncontroversial and would go through on the nod. The law requires a right to opt out; and what could be more simple, straightforward and obvious than putting a little tick-box on the application form, so that one can make that choice when filling it in? We put that proposal forward—uncontroversially, we thought—and the answer was no. The proposal was unceremoniously rejected. There was no argument about it and no explanation of why it was turned down—just a flat, straightforward no. That tawdry story need not be the end of reform. We would rejoin the discussions tomorrow if the Prime Minister showed that he was serious about real reform, but so far he has not done so.