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Commons Chamber

Volume 468: debated on Thursday 6 December 2007

House of Commons

Thursday 6 December 2007

The House met at half-past Ten o’clock

Prayers

[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The Secretary of State was asked—

Climate Change (Flooding)

1. What steps his Department is taking to ensure that measures are put in place to deal with the likely effects of climate change, with particular reference to flooding. (171730)

The Department has always encouraged operating authorities to take account of climate change in their planning of flood management measures. Our guidance was last updated in October 2006. It recommends a precautionary approach, but it is of course kept under review and will be further updated as the science develops.

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer, but I want to remind the House of the terrible damage suffered by my constituents in the June floods. I contend that the scale of the flooding would have been significantly reduced if the upland catchment area adjacent to my constituency had been in a sufficient condition to hold the water as nature intended. Will he commit the Department to extending programmes designed to restore upland blanket bogs so that they can fulfil their proper role as an important part of our natural flood defence system?

I thank my hon. Friend for her question. I know very well the part of the world to which she refers. I can go further than she asks. Together with the Environment Agency, as part of our “Making space for water” policy, we are researching the impact of moorland gripping—the name given to the draining of moorland peat bogs by digging ditches alongside them, as part of the wider land management agenda and consideration of its effect on flood risk. Early indications show that it can help, but not always. It is not quite as straightforward as that.

The Minister will understand that resources are to be a key element in the delivery of the Government’s flood prevention policies. Taking into account Sir John Bourn’s critical appraisal of the Department’s financial management structure and the £270 million of internal savings that it will have to make, as well as the fact that its administrative budget is £50 million overspent and that there is a £300 million disallowance fine hanging over it, what guarantees can the Minister give the House that the money that is designed to increase expenditure on flood protection will be delivered over the next three years?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman, and recognise the work that he does for the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. I can give him those reassurances. Of course, we have to balance our books, as he would want us to. That is the proper thing to do. I can assure him that despite the need to balance our books we can deliver the increases in flood defence expenditure, both capital and revenue. Importantly—this is something else for which he has called—we will do so with a long-term framework, as that is critical to the protection of the public.

In Germany, in four of the main Länder that are prone to flooding, local authorities have the powers to insist that planning applications will not even be looked at unless they contain flood protection provision. The Netherlands, a country with the highest level of flood protection anywhere, is now talking about surrendering 1 million acres of land back to the sea and having buildings that must be flood compatible. In each case, developers are made liable for the flood damage to which their buildings are prone. Is the Minister seeking to deliver any similar powers to local authorities in the forthcoming Planning Bill?

I thank my hon. Friend for the question, and recognise and commend the work that he is doing. We have talked about that work and I look forward very much to its production. The answer to the question is that we have planning policy statement 25, which gives powers to the Environment Agency to look at plans. We are monitoring the local authorities’ performance in that area to see whether it is sufficient. Clearly, there is a lot more to do and we will bear in mind his point about the lessons from Germany and the Netherlands.

The Minister also knows my constituency, having made a few sneaked visits to it. He knows that it contains many small villages with brooks and rivers. Some of them have drainage systems that are antiquated to say the least and some have suffered flooding in the past. Will he ensure that all the agencies, especially local authorities, which are responsible for cleaning up brooks and smaller rivers in rural areas, always allocate sufficient funds to proper cleaning so that unnecessary flooding does not happen when there is heavy rain?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question. I do, indeed, know his beautiful constituency—I know Byrne and Sons well.

There are different operating authorities, depending on the circumstances. For example, they could be water companies, drainage boards, local authorities or the Environment Agency. As part of the Pitt review, we have asked Sir Michael to make recommendations on how we can better co-ordinate matters to ensure that the policies are carried out and that drains are maintained for flood protection and the benefit of biodiversity, which is, in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, among the most beautiful in the United Kingdom.

Yesterday, the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs visited Lyon to examine the approach taken there to sustainable urban drainage. It was a useful visit—it is good to see the Chairman in his place this morning. We were impressed most by the comprehensiveness of the approach to tackling flooding, and the research money invested in finding preventive measures. Can we learn something from Lyon? What are the Government doing to ensure that we take the best from international examples?

I look forward to reading the lessons from the Select Committee. My hon. Friend’s account shows the value of Select Committees’ work. Indeed, his point was made yesterday at the meeting of the all-party group on water, especially by representatives of UK Water Industry Research. Of course, we can learn lessons; that is part of the review. I remind the House that the Government were consulted on such matters before the floods, in case anyone suggests that there has been a knee-jerk reaction—that would be completely unfair and uncharacteristic.

My constituency experience shows that, when flood protection systems are rightly put in place to protect our towns and cities, farmers consequently find that their land floods more frequently. Do the Government have any plans to introduce procedures whereby farmers are compensated for that to cover the obvious economic impact?

We are, of course, familiar with that issue. The use of meadows and fields, low lying and upland, in a co-ordinated flood management programme is part of our strategy, and it raises difficult questions about economic impact. Our policy is to use such land as part of a co-ordinated plan. Such usage is normally, although not always—I know of some instances to the contrary in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency—part of an agreed plan, where the land floods in any event.

Is not one of the most significant issues to arise from this summer’s flooding the inability of urban sewers to deal with flash flooding? What steps are being considered to deal with that problem, bearing in mind that the financial costs will be significant over a long period?

My hon. Friend, as ever, raises the most important point. There are two answers to the question. First, I am sure that the House agrees that we must not lose sight of the cause of the problem, which, in the long run, is climate change. That is why the Bali road map is so important for our country. Secondly, if the question was simply maintenance of drains, it would be straightforward; the task would be expensive and difficult, but straightforward. However, the capacity of drainage is also a problem. That is why the Government’s approach is to ensure, first, increased funding and, secondly, a long-term framework to effect a generational improvement in infrastructure.

Given that millions of people are at risk from surface water drainage, as the hon. Member for Nottingham, South (Alan Simpson) pointed out, what progress has the Department made on its previously announced policy, in response to “Making space for water”, to put the Environment Agency in an overarching strategic role over all flood risks?

Considering the £3 billion of losses that we now know occurred during the summer as a result of the flooding, are Ministers confident that the increase in the budget that has been announced fulfils requirements? For example, are the costs of the repairs to flood defences being met from the new budget or will there be a separate allowance? Is it the case that flood defence projects—

The hon. Gentleman raises some important points. We took the decision to delay the publication of our water strategy document until after Sir Michael had reported. That was a dilemma, I confess, but we thought it the right thing to do, so that we could take the lessons on board.

The hon. Gentleman is right: the estimated cost of the floods is £3 billion—I think that that is the domestic impact, not including the business impact. Again, that shows the need for climate change mitigation. As Sir Nicholas Stern reported, it is more expensive not to act than to act. Whether the level we chose is the right level, I do not know—my crystal ball is cloudy on that point. We do not know what the level of floods will be. However, I am aware that the £800 million that we allocated is even more than the figure of £750 million that Association of British Insurers suggested before the summer floods. However, all Governments would always want to spend more, because such decisions are difficult.

The whole House will sympathise with the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Ms Smith) on the damage suffered in her constituency and with people up and down the country. The Minister has said that funding will be increased, but is he saying that it will be increased everywhere except Yorkshire and the Humber? In his reply to me of 20 November, he admitted that there had been a cut in construction industry contracts of more than £8 billion over a four-year period. When he decides to visit the internal drainage board area, will he take the opportunity to go to the Bentley Ings, which takes the water from Sheffield and was instrumental in this summer’s massive floods at Toll Bar? Those river defences are cracking. They have had emergency repairs, but they need full repairs. Does he accept that the issue is to do with physical infrastructure as well as water retention, and will he ensure that there is a commitment to Yorkshire and the Humber, as well as other parts of the country?

I read the Yorkshire Post regularly—Saddleworth being in Yorkshire—and I saw the hon. Lady’s report. The serious answer to her question, however, is that she missed two crucial points in the parliamentary answer that she cited, which I signed off in the full knowledge that it would result in a press release to the Yorkshire Post. First, the amounts given refer to contracted expenditure, not direct expenditure by the Environment Agency. Secondly, she missed out the fact that the figure was a lot higher the year before and that over the years it has increased significantly. Expenditure did indeed contract in the years that she mentioned, but that is in the nature of engineering schemes of that sort. They cannot be turned on and off, and the budget has been increased.

Fish Discards

Discarding is a waste of a valuable natural resource, which has a detrimental impact upon the sustainability of fish stocks, and has significant social and economic consequences for the long-term viability of the fishing industry. We are working with the UK industry and with the Commission and other member states to tackle this effectively, reflecting the circumstances of individual fisheries.

Although this will not endear me to the fishing industry, may I ask whether the Minister recognises that there is widespread concern among consumers in my constituency about the conservation of fish stocks? The latest revelation about fish discards has hardly helped the matter. Can he explain why the 2002 EU community action plan to end discarding by 2006 failed and why we did not start that initiative when we held the presidency in 2005?

There will always be discarding. The nature of our fisheries is mixed. Indeed, there are about 36 varieties of fish in the south-west, and fishermen discard those for which there is no market. We are working with the industry on this, and looking at trials of new nets that would allow certain species to escape. We have also introduced a number of measures, including, for example, the consideration of real-time closures, and we are working with the industry to ensure that it identifies juvenile stocks so that they can mature before they are caught. We are working with the Commission and looking at action plans. We want to reduce discarding. Consumers in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency and throughout the country want to see reductions in discards. Importantly, however, discards in the North sea are an unintended consequence of an increase in stocks. We must also not forget the conservation element involved. Our decisions are taken on the basis of science.

I was heartened by the Minister’s original answer that he takes discards seriously. He will be aware that European fish stocks are worryingly low. It is an obscenity that, of all the fish that are caught, 17 lb are thrown back for every 1 lb that is brought back into port. While I welcome some of the measures that he has just mentioned, will he assure the House that, if they prove effective, our European counterparts in France, Spain and Portugal will have to abide by them as well?

The hon. Lady has mentioned a number of member states that have overfished. The Commission has come down very hard on them and fined them. We welcome that, particularly in relation to the overfishing of blue fin tuna. The Commission takes discards seriously; the Commissioner has gone on record on this, and we are supporting him in this process. However, there will always be discards, because of the mixed nature of our fisheries. There are some fish for which there simply is not a market, and others will be below the minimum landing size. It is unacceptable, however, to discard high-value stocks such as cod—hon. Members will have seen pictures of such discarding on television—and we need to work harder to ensure that that does not happen. That involves a partnership between ourselves and the industry, and working with other member states.

It is obvious that the present level of fish discards represents bad economics, but it is also very bad in an environmental sense, in that it is bad for the ecosystem of the sea. My hon. Friend has rightly pointed out that many types of fish are not usable at the moment. That does not mean, however, that they can never be usable. Should not we make a real effort to educate our consumers to use the types of fish that, historically, have been rejected? That would make a major difference to the practice of discarding.

My hon. Friend is quite right, and we are now seeing a change in what the consumer is buying. We are grateful to the celebrity chefs who have promoted fish such as red gurnard, for example. It is caught in the south-west and was once discarded but is now fetching a high price. Indeed, an official told me this morning that he had had red gurnard on the Eurostar when he went to Brussels, so it is not just being served in specialist areas; it is also reaching the mainstream. People can now eat red gurnard as they pass through the glorious Kent countryside in my constituency.

The Minister has said that there will always be discarding, but why should that be the case? Instead of being compelled to dump fish, should not fishermen be compelled to land everything that they catch? Should it not be an offence to discard undersized or out-of-quota fish? Such a land-all policy would give scientists a much better picture of what fish were being caught, and where. That would enable them to devise more accurate conservation and recovery plans. Is not that the way ahead?

My hon. Friend is right to say that we need to get a better picture of the total discards, and we have been working on that programme since 2002. It is important that we bring in measures to reduce the level of discards. All the European countries in the common fisheries policy have to discard fish, perhaps because they do not have quotas or because there is no market for some of the fish. What does one do with such fish? Either they are disposed of at sea, or an inshore infrastructure has to be put in place to dispose of them. This is a difficult issue, and we take it very seriously. As I have said, the Commissioner also takes it seriously. We need to improve, and that involves working with the industry and bringing fishermen and scientists together, as we have done under the fisheries science partnership over the past five years. I hope that we will see a continued reduction. It is important to remember that the discards are an unintended consequence of quotas. We are not taking as many fish out of the sea as we once did. In 1987, 187,000 tonnes of cod were taken out of the sea; this year, the amount was less than 20,000.

May I assure the Minister and, indeed, the hon. Member for Croydon, South (Richard Ottaway) that the outrage at the phenomenon of discards is nowhere felt more greatly than in the fishing industry and fishing communities themselves, because discards are a consequence of setting quotas that do not accurately reflect the mix of fish to be found in the sea? May I suggest that if the Minister and his ministerial colleagues want to see a real reduction in discards in the coming 12 months, the best thing he can do is win an increase in the cod quota for our white fish fleet and, more importantly, ensure that sufficient days at sea are available to that fleet to catch the quota that he gets?

I am grateful for that question. I have been to Peterhead and met fishermen there, so the hon. Gentleman’s point is understood. As to the cod increase, on the basis of the scientific evidence from both our scientists and those of the Commission, we have negotiated with Norway in the EU-Norway negotiations an 11 per cent. increase in cod total allowable catch. That is allowable within the cod recovery programme, and we hope for a reduction in the amount of discards of that valuable species. There is often a direct correlation between increasing the TAC and reducing days at sea, so we have agreed a UK position on bringing into play a more sophisticated approach, including real-time closures—a voluntary agreement operating in the Scottish industry—and looking at the development of new nets, which will be trialled in the North sea later next year.

Is the Minister aware that the Fishermen’s Association Ltd has indicated that its members are throwing back into the sea six to seven-year-old cod, which were in existence before the cod recovery plan? Not only does that pollute the marine environment, but it is the most appalling waste. Does not that reinforce the special report of the European Court of Auditors, which said that the common fisheries policy was a complete failure?

I have just said that we are going to have an increase—a modest increase of 11 per cent., based on the science—in the amount of cod that we can catch, because the cod stocks have recovered. We are all familiar with stories from Newfoundland about fishermen going out to sea but finding that there were no fish left. We must have in place a regime, based on the scientific evidence, ensuring that we have fish today and fish tomorrow, both for us to consume and for the industry. We are working hard with the Commission and in partnership with the industry to ensure that stocks are conserved and available for tomorrow. We are in the common fisheries policy and we are members of the European Union, and in order to improve the common fisheries policy, we have to be part of the discussions and part of the argument, as this country always is, whether on the common fisheries policy or the common agricultural policy.

The Minister has led the House to believe that he is against discarding. He has used words such as “waste”, “detrimental” and others. In DEFRA’s 20-year plan, taking us to 2027, for marine fisheries—and, indeed, in the consultation response document—it is made perfectly clear that DEFRA has no intention to stop discarding. Despite his warm words, it looks like it is going to be a policy under this Government—the watchword for incompetence—for the next 20 years. When is the Minister going to stop discarding and stop leading people to believe that it can be stopped? When he uses words such as “immoral” and “heartbreaking” in The Daily Telegraph, is he talking about his Department or himself?

As I told the hon. Member for Bromsgrove (Miss Kirkbride), we will always have discards because we have a mixed fishery. Does the hon. Gentleman understand that? Also, there is no market for some fish, so what do the fishermen do with it? They discard it. What I said was that having to throw away valuable stocks such as cod was immoral, and that we needed to find better answers.

It is not the case that we are against all discarding. As I am sure the hon. Gentleman understands, if a fish is below the minimum landing size it must be discarded. In mixed fisheries they all swim together, so there will always be discards. In the case of valuable stocks such as cod we must find new ways of reducing the number of discards, such as real-time closures and better gear. That is what I said in The Daily Telegraph, and the hon. Gentleman knows it.

Food Producers

5. What discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues and the competition authorities on the role of food producers in the grocery supply chain. (171734)

The hon. Gentleman will know that the Competition Commission is currently conducting an inquiry into the groceries market. My colleague Lord Rooker wrote to the Commission when it opened the inquiry, listing some questions that he thought should be considered, and his letter has been published on the Competition Commission website. However, in line with the general policy of Government, neither I nor other DEFRA Ministers have had discussions about the inquiry with Cabinet members, or indeed with the competition authorities.

According to the provisional findings of the Competition Commission, published at the end of October, grocery retailers are transferring

“excessive risk and costs to suppliers”.

Moreover, there is already a concentration in the grocery sector whereby four major retailers control 80 per cent. of the market. That concentration is likely to increase, and the trend among supermarkets to move from effective use to unacceptable abuse of their power is therefore likely to increase as well. Does the Minister not accept that this is a matter for her Department, which should get a grip on it, that she should start discussing it with her colleagues in the Cabinet, and that the Department should prepare plans to ensure that suppliers are properly protected in the grocery supply chain?

I understand the points that the hon. Gentleman has made, and I know that he has taken a keen interest in these matters, not least in his constituency. However, I am sorry to say that it would be inappropriate for me to comment at this stage, when the Competition Commission has published only its preliminary findings and when there is an opportunity for those who participated in the inquiry to comment on their initial findings. I understand that the commission will report early in the new year, and when it has done so Ministers will give an appropriate response if recommendations are made to the Government.

I am sure my hon. Friend is aware that part of the major problem we face is the power of the big four squeezing down farm gate prices and putting farmers out of business. That kind of competition needs to be examined closely, as should the power of supermarkets that hold land and prevent other companies from using sites because they will not sell them.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I can tell him that the Competition Commission has concluded that some retailer landholdings and practices such as restrictive covenants may indeed hinder competition.

The commission says that a variety of means could be applied, and we will consider them at the appropriate time. It suggests that grocery retailers might divest themselves of their landholdings; that they could be prohibited from using restrictive covenants that reduce the likelihood of land being used by a competitor; that changes could be made to the planning system that would provide more opportunities for developments on the edge of town centres while maintaining constraints on out-of-town developments; and that it might be possible to introduce a competition test allowing the local position of grocery retailers to be considered in the making of planning decisions. Those are all important initial findings, and as I said, we will take them into account if and when recommendations are made to the Government.

Sea Defences

Tendring district council has developed proposals for investment in coastal defences. Those are being considered by the Environment Agency.

It is likely that unless action is taken the sea wall at Holland-on-Sea will soon be lost. If that happens, it will put the roadway and housing at risk. In view of that, will the Minister make a commitment now to begin phase one of the work that we had been promised back in 2003?

I have had a look at this specific case in response to the hon. Gentleman’s correspondence on behalf of his constituents. A grant of £400,000 was given in 2004 for the collapsed sea wall at Holland-on-Sea. The council itself spends some £550,000 per year recurrently on defences. It is not the case that an application was granted and then withdrawn; it is the case that the application that was subsequently submitted did not pass the new rules that had by then been put in place. However, as I have said, the Environment Agency is now looking at the future requirements in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency.

Sustainable Farming

8. What steps the Government have taken to encourage the farming industry to adopt sustainable farming practices. (171737)

The Government want farming to thrive while reducing its environmental footprint. We are supporting that in a number of ways, including through cross-compliance linked to common agricultural policy payments and the rural development programme for England 2007-13, which will invest £3.9 billion in farming and rural areas. I am pleased to announce that this programme has now been approved by the European Union and we will proceed to full implementation as soon as possible.

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer, but can he be more specific? What is he doing to make organic food both more available and cheaper for the consumer?

The organic industry is growing extremely fast. As my hon. Friend will be aware, we have our own action plan that aims to encourage the industry to ensure that by 2010 the share of the organic market coming from home-grown produce is equivalent to the share of the overall market, which is about 70 per cent. We are trying to encourage locally produced food and better information for consumers. Sales through vegetable boxes, farmers’ markets and mail order increased by 9 per cent. last year, and it is estimated that there are 550 farmers’ markets with a turnover of £220 million. It is clear, therefore, that consumers have an increasing appetite for organic produce.

But does the Secretary of State agree that one way to help British farmers—and Shropshire farmers in particular—is to have more transparently clear labelling not of where farm products were packaged, but of where they were sourced?

I agree. I am keen to pursue the fundamental principle that when we as consumers choose to purchase products, we have decent information about their origin. I am very happy to look at any proposals on that score.

May I ask the Secretary of State to look at the sustainability of livestock markets? Frome market—one of the biggest in the south of England—is within yards of the Wiltshire border. Wiltshire is in the bluetongue surveillance zone; Somerset is not. That means that animals can graze almost up to the border of the market and a new market could be opened in the next field, and yet animals from the east of the market cannot be sold in Frome market. Midges do not understand county boundaries; does the Secretary of State?

I have sympathy with the hon. Gentleman’s case, but the point about the control of bluetongue is that there has to be a line somewhere, and it is easier to follow county boundaries than to draw a circular line that cuts across them, because it is then harder for people to understand whether they are in or out of the zone. On the fundamental issue of bluetongue—we have previously discussed this in the House—in the end a balance must be struck on where to draw those lines. As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, we have consulted closely with representatives of the industry, and the stakeholder group is of the view that currently we should have the boundaries where they are, rather than extend them to bring the whole of England into the bluetongue zone. Obviously, winter is arriving, and there will be less midge activity. We are working on—[Interruption.] Well, I understand that, but the lines have to be drawn somewhere. However, as I have previously said, if the industry were to come to me and say with one voice, “Actually, we think now is the time to change the boundaries” I would look at that request very seriously indeed.

On food labelling, the Secretary of State could not do better than to examine the four Bills that the Government have blocked on that subject.

How can the farming industry be truly sustainable if it is to be treated differently from its competitors? For example, we rightly have strict geographical and movement controls, which ban the export of meat from parts of this country, whereas although the European Union’s Food and Veterinary Office has found serious problems with the traceability and compliance system in Brazil, we continue to import Brazilian beef. Is that fair and sustainable?

The EU has strict rules in relation to Brazil. Brazil is a big country, and foot and mouth is a problem in some parts of it, but not in others.

That is indeed the case here, but things are gradually returning to normal. I accept that the livestock industry has had an awful summer, and we have debated that at some length. The question is not whether Brazil should be looked at as one entity; the question is whether we have appropriate arrangements in place to ensure that imports come from areas where foot and mouth is not a problem.

Climate Change (China)

China will soon become the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases. China’s own national assessment report highlights the potential impact of climate change on its security, growth and development. A stronger national programme is being developed with targets to reduce energy intensity and to increase the use of renewables. The UK continues to work with China on initiatives for a global low-carbon economy and an effective international framework to tackle climate change.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. China is opening two coal-fired power stations a week, and it has coal reserves of 1 trillion tonnes. When President Sarkozy signed an agreement to open nuclear power stations with China, he said that because of their partnership it was more important to avoid confrontation over intellectual property rights than to make progress on this issue. Is it not time for Britain to share its knowledge about clean-coal technology with China and develop a partnership arrangement so we can tackle CO2 emissions?

That is exactly what we are doing through the near-zero emissions coal project, which is a joint EU-China project to develop and then to deploy carbon capture and storage. The UK will put in £3.5 million-worth of funding in the first phase, and we are working with other EU member states. China’s annual coal production is set to double to a staggering 5 billion tonnes a year by 2030. We must develop carbon capture and storage if the world is to have any prospect of obtaining the reductions in carbon emissions that are required. That is why there will be a demonstration project in the UK on post-combustion technology and why we are playing an important role in promoting this scheme with China.

China is seeking to move 400 million people from the country into cities over the next 30 years, and in that process it will build approximately half the new buildings in the world. Chinese homes are about three times less energy efficient than European ones. What are the British Government doing to facilitate the transfer of British expertise and technology to help the Chinese make those buildings as energy efficient as possible?

The hon. Gentleman has raised an important point. China is already an economic powerhouse and it will be the source of huge amounts of development over the next few years. The best thing that is happening is the growing awareness in China, on the part of the Government and the people, particularly the younger generation, that this process will create problems and challenges for China itself. China is coming to terms with the impact of pollution as a result of its industrialisation, and it is having to take action, including imposing tight controls on vehicle emissions.

My view is that intellectual property is not the problem when it comes to technology transfer; the problem is whether countries can afford the technology. China has undoubtedly been very successful in attracting investment from all around the world. As China’s understanding of climate change and what needs to be done develops—it will shortly publish its national climate change plan—we will continue to work with it to encourage it to take the necessary steps in China while trying to win its support for a new international deal.

Thames Estuary

10. What assessment he has made of the risk of flooding in the Thames estuary following the recent alert; and if he will make a statement. (171739)

London and the Thames estuary are protected to an extremely high standard. Current indications are that existing defences provide a better standard of protection than previously thought and are unlikely to require any major changes until after 2030.

I thank the Minister for his reassurance on that point. Will he talk with his colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local Government and those dealing with the Thames Gateway to see whether an additional east London crossing, which might include rail and road, could also incorporate engineering works that would help to control flooding and tidal flows in the Thames estuary? That would give assurances not only to existing residents, but to people who wish to regenerate both sides of the estuary.

I have already done so, and on my hon. Friend’s urging will certainly do so again. The long-term plans for flood protection for the Thames estuary and London are extremely important, which is why we pay particular attention to them, and co-ordinating those with the Thames Gateway policies—as the Prime Minister announced in his speech on 29 November to the Thames Gateway conference—is of course a central part of the strategy. That is why we are working with the Department for Communities and Local Government to look at regeneration and integrating the schemes. It is a point that the hon. Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh) often misses.

Topical Questions

DEFRA’s responsibility is to help to enable all of us to live within our environmental means. I take this opportunity to draw the House’s attention to today’s written ministerial statement, announcing that there will be a badge for members of the Women’s Land Army in recognition of their contribution during the second world war. I also wish to congratulate the new Australian Government on their ratification of the Kyoto protocol.

I thank the Secretary of State for his answer and the announcement about the Women’s Land Army is good news indeed. They deserve that badge.

If a canal bursts its banks, there can be tens of millions of pounds worth of collateral damage as a consequence. The Secretary of State will know that past DEFRA cuts have meant that British Waterways has a huge backlog of canal maintenance. Can he tell us now whether British Waterways will continue to suffer the retail prices index minus 5 per cent. cuts, and when will it be in a position to say that its finances are finally secured?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind words about the badge for the Women’s Land Army, and I look forward to helping to distribute some of those badges next year when the final arrangements are in place and the surviving members of the WLA have come forward.

I accept the point that the hon. Gentleman makes about the maintenance of the canal network. As he will know, we have provided £452 million in grant since 2000 for waterways in England and Wales. Final allocations for the first years of the comprehensive spending review period have not yet been decided, but that will happen early in the new year, when we have considered all the representations that have been made, including the ones that he has made to me.

T2. Will my right hon. Friend outline Britain’s priorities in the climate change discussions in Bali and his hopes for the outcome of those discussions? (171756)

Our priorities are, above all, to gain agreement from all the nations of the world that we should embark on a process of negotiation for a new 2012 agreement to replace the Kyoto protocol, which is simply inadequate given the scale of the task. That has to be based on a recognition of the scale of the problem, and therefore the target that we are trying to achieve; binding commitments to reduce emissions from the rich countries; a contribution from the emerging developing countries, including those such as China and India, which are now significant emitters; a carbon market; flow of funds to developing countries; and action on technology, adaptation, deforestation, aviation and shipping. That is the list. There is a big responsibility on everybody who turns up in Bali, because the world will not understand if we leave without an agreement to start the negotiations that every single one of us knows that we need if we are to have any chance of dealing with this challenge.

T3. The Government’s desire for a major shift to the farming industry of the responsibility for the cost of animal health seems to be driven by DEFRA’s acute financial crisis. Does the Minister agree that a year in which we have had foot and mouth, avian influenza and bluetongue is not exactly the best time to consult on those matters? How will he devise a system that will be fair to farmers and their families across England, Wales and Scotland? (171757)

I understand my hon. Friend’s view, but it could be argued that there is never a right time to do it. One of the recommendations of Iain Anderson after the 2001 outbreak was that we should do precisely this and have a discussion with the industry. This is not the start of a process; it will be the resumption of the process, after a very difficult summer for the livestock industry—I grant my hon. Friend that point. I have said to the House before that my experience of dealing with these outbreaks has confirmed to me that this is the direction in which we should go. It builds on the relationship that we have developed with representatives of the farming industry in taking decisions about how to deal with bluetongue, foot and mouth, and avian influenza. I am seriously committed to sharing that responsibility with the farming industry. At the same time, it is not unreasonable to discuss how the costs should be equally shared.

May I endorse what the Secretary of State said about the importance of the Bali conference? I join him in hoping that it is successful. Does he think that the UK’s credibility in those international talks is enhanced by the fact that, back home, his Department is busily cutting the budgets of organisations engaged in tackling climate change, dealing with recycling, looking after nature conservation and protecting the environment?

As the hon. Gentleman will know, DEFRA’s budget is going to rise from £3.5 billion this year to £3.96 billion in 2010-11, which is a real-terms increase of 1.4 per cent. a year. That is the first point. Secondly, where is that money going? One example is increased expenditure on flood defence. We were asked earlier by the Chair of the Select Committee, the right hon. Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack), for an assurance that that money would come through and my hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment gave that assurance.

We are investing more in low-carbon technologies, including through the environmental transformation fund, both at home and abroad—in response to earlier questions. In the end, action on climate change is not just about the amount of money that is spent by Government. It is about getting the right framework. In particular, it is about shifting the huge amounts of private sector investment in a low-carbon direction. That is why the Climate Change Bill is the most important contribution. There is also the climate change levy, which the hon. Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth) and his party have opposed; the energy efficiency commitment; the carbon reduction commitment, which will be part of the Climate Change Bill; and the carbon market and the EU emissions trading scheme, which is the best hope that we have when it comes to resulting in change in the direction that we all want—a significant reduction in carbon emissions.

I wonder whether, prior to the Bali conference, the Secretary of State has had a chance to read the United Nations official report, which concluded on the Climate Change Bill:

“If the rest of the developed world followed the pathway envisaged in the UK’s Climate Change Bill, dangerous climate change would be inevitable”.

Earlier this week, the Secretary of State said that he would welcome an Opposition who came forward with ideas about how we could do things differently. I have an idea for him. Will he join me in welcoming proposals being put forward by the Conservatives today to revolutionise the way we invest in and promote renewable energy in this country?

I genuinely look forward to reading the proposals that the Conservative party has published. In the energy White Paper that was published in the summer there was a whole section on decentralised energy. This very morning, we are laying regulations to change the energy efficiency commitment, which I referred to a moment ago, so that microgeneration will be an eligible measure to support the new carbon emission reduction target. We recently announced a consultation to make it easier for householders to put microgeneration in without the need for planning permission. Microgeneration is eligible under the renewables obligation, and we are proposing changes in that regard. However, we will need to do more. I reiterate what I said earlier this week: we will look at what is required.

On the UN human development report—in answer to the first part of the hon. Gentleman’s question—I suspect that that chapter was written before the Prime Minister made his speech a couple of weeks ago, in which he said that the science is changing, the evidence is changing and we will put to the climate change committee the question, “Do our targets need to be up to 80 per cent. in view of that change?” Even the UN human development report would recognise that, when it comes to leadership and action, the UK is indeed leading the world.

T4. Will the Minister ensure that, from Christmas on, only turkeys will be stuffed, and not farmers? Does he agree that we need to recognise the importance of British farming by supporting home-grown products, with clear labelling and a greater use of the red tractor scheme? What help and support can he give in that regard? (171759)

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. Earlier this week, I attended the British Poultry Council awards ceremony in this House, at which the difficulties that the industry has faced this year were recognised. I was advised that sales were holding up and that British consumers were continuing to buy British poultry for its quality. Consumers recognise and want the Union jack label, and they are supporting the industry.

Information recently placed in the Library shows that Whitehall Departments and the services that they run are still not taking full advantage of British food in the public procurement process. British lamb prices are at their lowest for many years, so it is interesting that the Prison Service does not buy any at all. British food offers the very best quality and prices, so will the Minister ensure that all Departments are urged to take advantage of that?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that question. I agree that we can do more to encourage procurement from British sources in the public sector. For obvious reasons, it is not always easy for military forces abroad to access domestic markets, and that must be taken into account when the total sums being spent are considered. However, Whitehall and local authorities have the opportunity to buy British, and we are encouraging them to do so. In that way, we will secure sustainable food sources that are not just British but also as local as possible.

T5. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will know that shipping accounts for 5 per cent. of the world’s carbon emissions, a figure that is likely to rise by 75 per cent. over the next 20 years to a level that is twice that of aviation. Does he agree that the Bali conference must take that into consideration, and that it should be included in the agreement that will replace Kyoto? (171761)

I agree, and I mentioned shipping in the list of objectives that I gave in answer to an earlier question. We have not made as much progress towards achieving international agreement about how we should deal with shipping, bunker fuels and so on as we have with aviation. Indeed, the EU Environment Council later this month will discuss aviation’s inclusion in the EU emissions trading scheme, which I hope that we can achieve as quickly as possible.

T6. Will the Minister for the Environment confirm that a number of the flood defence projects that the Department has not yet approved have higher rates of financial and social return than many projects in other Departments that have secured approval? Surely the Treasury should provide the necessary funding so that the schemes can go ahead and provide the comfort and protection that many thousands of families deserve and expect. (171764)

I refer the hon. Gentleman to the comprehensive spending review announcement, which contained significant year-on-year increases in capital expenditure for both coastal and river and surface flooding. The necessary resources have been allocated for flood defences, and we can all argue different priorities when it comes to socio-economic benefits. However, I imagine that the hon. Gentleman’s constituents want to know whether they are safe from flooding. We believe that our plans mean that they have the best chance possible, given the science that we have available.

If he has not already done so, will the Minister study the impact of cheap Brazilian beef imports on the UK red meat market? He will be aware that Great Britain is the main market for red meat beef from Northern Ireland, where animal health is at a high level and where traceability and development are both good. Will he meet the Livestock Marketing Commission for Northern Ireland to discuss the 10-year plan that has been drawn up in consultation with his Department?

I am more than happy to arrange the meeting that my hon. Friend requests. We have been importing Brazilian meat for decades. We consume more meat than we produce. We have in place a range of safeguards for testing meats from not just Brazil but across the world. There have been inspections in Brazil. It is a regionalised country, and not every area has tuberculosis. The results of the most recent inspection have now come before the European Commission, which is considering them, and we will have discussions on them. We want to ensure that any meat or products that come into this country from anywhere in the world are as safe as possible and of the highest standard. If they are not, clearly we need to take action. That applies not only to Brazil, which is an important trading country for us. There have been about £700 million-worth of exports to Brazil this year, but we will make sure that there are safeguards in place as regards Brazil and all other countries.

Will the Secretary of State instruct the Environment Agency to conduct an inquiry into the safety of the lagoons at the Glebe mine in Stoney Middleton? In January this year, one of the lagoons burst its banks and flooded the whole village; a Minister visited the area afterwards. There are reports that another, larger lagoon is already leaking. Given all the difficulties and dangers regarding the pollution of the rivers and the flooding of the village, will the Secretary of State ensure that the Environment Agency holds an inquiry as soon as possible?

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for bringing the problem to my attention. I will look into it straight away, and I will come back to him on it.

A303 Stonehenge Road Scheme

I have granted an urgent question, but I inform the House that I expect debate on it to run for no longer than half an hour; the Front Benchers should keep that in mind.

May I begin by drawing the House’s attention to the written statement that I made earlier this morning? After serious consideration, and with deep regret, I have announced today that the planned improvements to the A303 at Stonehenge will not take place. I recognise that the decision will be a bitter disappointment to the House, the local community, and the wider heritage community. However, the estimated costs have risen from the original £233 million in December 2002 to £540 million. The main reason for the tunnel cost increase was the discovery, following detailed ground condition investigations, of large quantities of phosphatic chalk and a high water table along the line of the tunnel. That significantly increased the costs and the time scale for tunnel construction. In my judgment, the scheme can no longer be afforded within existing budgets.

However, working with all the relevant stakeholders, I want to make sure that every alternative, affordable option for protecting and enhancing Stonehenge is explored. I will co-chair the reconvened Stonehenge programme board on Monday, along with the Minister with responsibility for tourism, my right hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Margaret Hodge). The Department will now consult on the possible closure of the junction of the A344 and A303.

The day the scheme was first announced, the Minister for the Arts, Baroness Blackstone, issued a press release entitled “Stonehenge Will Be Reunited With Its Natural Landscape By 2008”.

“This is a great day for Stonehenge”,

she enthused. The Minister before us today has had the unenviable task of admitting that the Government will never deliver on those high-minded promises. Will he tell us how much has been spent on the scheme that he is aborting today? Will he tell the House what impact the bottleneck has on the economy of the west of England? Will he acknowledge that the problem holds up road improvement and planning applications all the way to Penzance? Will he admit that Stonehenge’s world heritage status will be in jeopardy if the problem remains unsolved? Will he confirm that in July the British Government were called on by UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee to explain their lack of progress? Will he confirm that his proposal to close the A344 junction is subject to the agreement of Wiltshire county council? How likely is it that such permission will be forthcoming, given that the decision will drive more traffic on to the congested A303?

What will be the impact on local residents of the scrapping of the long-promised proposals for a Winterbourne Stoke bypass and a flyover at the Countess East junction? What has the Minister done to tackle rat-running through villages such as Chittern, through which satnav takes motorists frustrated by congestion on the A303? Above all, why have the Government taken 10 years simply to return to square one? In that time, the cost of the scheme has spiralled from £192 million to £540 million. Even now, their half-baked excuse of a proposal for the A344 may not happen, because there is no guarantee that they will receive the permission that they need from Wiltshire county council. That is one of the most notorious traffic bottlenecks in the country, and it impacts on great swathes of the south-west, which will feel betrayed by the announcement.

This is not just the latest in a long line of broken promises on road improvements. It is not just that £23 million of public money has been wasted. More than 5,000 years old, Stonehenge is one of the most famous sites in Britain and is well known almost everywhere on the planet. A world heritage site, it is the supreme achievement of a culture long since lost. Stonehenge—one of our greatest cultural icons—has been left in limbo for a decade as a result of the Government’s total inability to make a decision or deliver on their very clear promises.

The hon. Lady asked how much public money has been spent on the scheme, and went on to give a figure. I have no intention of adding to that.

The hon. Lady is right to say that the scheme has a long history. We added the proposed improvement to the roads programme in 1998. The scheme was taken to public inquiry in 2004. The inspector’s report was received in 2005, and it endorsed the improvement scheme. The scheme that we agreed in 2002, including the tunnel, had an approved cost at that time, as I said, of £223 million, which assumed a construction start date of spring 2005. Following the public inquiry, the Highways Agency reported in 2004 that the estimated scheme cost had risen to £410 million, for the reasons that I have given. Other factors contributed to the cost increase, including more stringent requirements for tunnelling work and rapid inflation in construction costs.

We concluded in 2005 that the cost increase was on such a scale that it was necessary to revisit other options to confirm whether the scheme taken to public inquiry remained the best solution. We therefore announced in July 2005 that we would defer a decision on the inspector’s report and set up an interdepartmental review of all the options. The review identified a shortlist of possible options, including routes to the north and south of Stonehenge. After careful consideration, we have now concluded that owing to significant environmental constraints across the whole of the world heritage site, there is no acceptable alternative to the 2.1km bored tunnel scheme. However—and I hope that the hon. Lady agrees with this—making the best use of taxpayers’ money is essential in the allocation of funding to transport schemes. When set against our wider objectives and priorities, we concluded that allocating more than £500 million for the implementation of the scheme simply cannot be justified. She may disagree, and decide that that should be a commitment in her party’s manifesto at the next election, but the Government believe that that amount of money is not affordable. We have therefore cancelled the improvement scheme today.

To address the hon. Lady’s specific questions, yes, the A303 is regularly congested. The regional transport board for the south-west has not given priority to that road. The regional financing arrangement that we implemented in 2005 allows local politicians to make local decisions and set their own priorities which the Government, on the whole, respect. Local politicians have not made the decisions that would allow early work to begin on the A303. The hon. Lady was right to raise the issue of UNESCO. I will write to UNESCO to explain the decision and what further efforts we will make to protect the world heritage site which, I agree, is of vital importance not just to this country but to the whole world.

As for the economic consequences of the continued congestion of the A303, I have been informed that, economically, the south-west is one of the fastest growing regions in the country. That does not mean that we should be complacent about congestion, but whenever the Government try to start a national debate about how we should deal with congestion, the Opposition are less than forthcoming and less than imaginative about how we should introduce demand management in the British economy.

The hon. Lady mentioned Wiltshire county council. I have been in discussion with my officials, who tell me that Wiltshire county council is looking with an open mind at the prospect of the closure of the junction of the A344 with the A303. I hope that we can make progress on that, and I hope that we will have her support and her party’s support in the proposal to close that junction. Given the announcement that I made today, that remains the best option in the short term for protecting that site.

The hon. Lady spoke about rat-running, which is a concern to anyone involved in any of the communities, let alone to a Transport Minister. I have asked for very robust transport modelling to assess the consequences of closing off the junction of the A344, and I can assure her that I will not approve any scheme that puts at risk the lives and the safety of people living in that area.

Will the Minister at least give us a timetable for coming to a decision on which option to pursue in regard to the A303? The decision has taken longer than it took to build the monument. Will he acknowledge that the overhang of the project has had the effect of crowding out funding for a series of schemes, including safety schemes on the A303 and dualling the remaining stretch of the A30 between Exeter and Truro that comprises a single carriageway?

Will the hon. Gentleman undertake that any scheme—it is bound to be major—that gets to grips with the problem will be funded outside the regional allocation for roads in the area? Will he please rule out the cheaper but frightening option of a cut-and-cover strategy for tunnelling in the area? Finally, will he give us his absolute assurance that he will engage with local people, as well as with the heritage associations, in trying to come to an appropriate decision for dealing with the road and the traffic congestion?

For clarity’s sake, I should tell the hon. Lady who has, I am sure, read my written statement this morning, that we are not proceeding with the tunnel scheme, the cut-and-cover scheme or any major capital improvements to the A303 at this stage. She speaks about the crowding out of funding for the A303. She may or may not be right about that. I understand the financing constraints in the south-west. However, a huge amount of money has been allocated by the regional transport board for a number of projects in the south-west, which will have a major economic impact in the south-west.

The hon. Lady spoke of the cheaper but frightening cut-and-cover scheme. As I said, that also has been discounted as an option. It was not the preferred option endorsed by the Government or by the public inquiry. It is not an option on the table today. She asked for engagement with local people. I can assure her that with respect to the proposed closure of the junction of the A344 with the A303 there will be extensive consultation not only with local communities, but with the local county council and other interested bodies.

Natural England has a responsibility for protecting the interests of sites such as Stonehenge. Will my hon. Friend ensure that he includes Natural England in any discussions about how best to protect and safeguard the future of such an important world heritage site?

My hon. Friend is correct. We deal with Natural England on an ongoing basis. My Department is in regular contact with it. It will be involved in any decisions that are taken.

May I take the opportunity to restate the Government’s genuine regret that we cannot afford to proceed with the scheme? This is not a proposal that I come to the House to report with a light heart. In an ideal world, we would use whatever money was available to proceed with the scheme. It is a matter of regret that we cannot do so. However, I genuinely believe that this is the right decision, given the economic circumstances and available budgets. If we were to use national funding for the scheme, that would mean some hard decisions about where to withdraw funding—for example, from the M25, the M62 or the M1. I suspect that such a proposal would not meet with much support in the House.

I commiserate with the Minister, who has been sent to the House to do his Secretary of State’s dirty work. Will he explain why he could not simply have taken out the most extravagant part of the scheme—the tunnel—and pursued some of the other options, which, after all, the previous Government had committed to providing at dual carriageway standard? Will he confirm that he is also ruling out the National Trust’s preferred option of a northern dual carriageway route?

As we look forward from the wreckage of the project, may I above all ask the Minister to ensure that he will instruct the Highways Agency to co-operate with the county council’s highway authority and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport to ensure that every option is tried to provide an improvement to the road network past Stonehenge—including, perhaps, electronic traffic management to improve traffic flows? Will he confirm that we will not just tinker with a few white lines here and there? We should do something a little radical, and not just completely rule out all improvements. To do that would be to the detriment of not only my constituents but the whole south-west economy—and, above all, the world heritage site of Stonehenge. Stonehenge remains a national disgrace, and that is the Government’s fault.

I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman, who has taken a necessarily close interest in the project. I do not want to lower the esteem in which his colleagues hold him, but in the past few weeks he has been very helpful to me as we have come to this decision. I am grateful for that.

The hon. Gentleman asked about other transport options. It would simply not make any economic sense from a transport point of view to progress the rest of the A303 improvements without the tunnel. That would not stack up in terms of economic benefits, and the business case for such a scheme would not be proven. That is why we have, reluctantly, come to our decision.

The hon. Gentleman also asked whether the northern route alternative was still an option. I have to tell him that it is not, as that is also outwith available budgets. On his third point, I should say that the road is the responsibility of the Highways Agency. Notwithstanding the requirement of the regional fund allocation to provide for major capital improvements, the Highways Agency’s responsibility is to provide basic maintenance and ensure, for example, that accident blackspots are addressed. The agency will continue to do that.

This morning I asked officials to look again at the A303 to find out whether we could provide any other measures, additional to those that we have already undertaken. I cannot make any promises at this stage, but I will, of course, keep the hon. Gentleman informed.

The A303 is the major east-west artery through my constituency, so I welcome the Minister’s suggestion that the consequences of this issue will be considered by local politicians. However, I remind him that the Government ignored the South West regional assembly on the A303 improvements west of Ilminster.

More importantly, will the Minister confirm that the A344 closure will merely make the problem worse on the A303? Furthermore, will he confirm what I just heard him say—that all the other schemes on the A303 are being abandoned as well? Does that mean that we will no longer see the improvements between Wylye and Mere, the next major scheme after Winterbourne Stoke?

On the hon. Gentleman’s final point, it is entirely up to the regional transport board in the south-west to decide its priorities. I have said in my statement that the major scheme improvements of the A303 as it affects Stonehenge will not take place.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the A344 closure and said that it would make the problem worse. An analysis and assessment of the exact repercussions on traffic will be part of the consultation on the proposed closure of that junction. I have already assured the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs. Villiers) that if I judged that road safety would be compromised by the measure, I would not approve it. I do not believe at this stage that the measure would necessarily worsen congestion on the A303, but if it were proved that that would happen, it would be taken into account during the consultation process.

Some years ago, I had the privilege of working for the director of the Royal Artillery at Larkhill, which is just a stone’s throw from the site. There was a Tory Government at the time. This issue was, of course, a long-running sore. I hear what the hon. Member for Salisbury (Robert Key) says—the site is a bit of a disgrace. We had an imaginative in-house solution: to move Stonehenge across to the green area in front of the officers’ mess at Larkhill. Is that a more realistic prospect than anything else?

There is a short and easy answer to that. There are no plans to move Stonehenge; I do not want to start any hares running on that. My hon. Friend says that he lived within a stone’s throw of Stonehenge; that would probably be a very long way.

Does the Minister accept that, as a former Transport Secretary who had plans to deal with this problem and as a local MP for 15 miles of the A303 to the east of the Amesbury roundabout, I was very sorry to hear his statement? Does he recognise that the A303 is dual carriageway all the way from the M3 to the Amesbury roundabout? Does he also recognise that it is an increasingly busy road with several planned business parks and other developments on its periphery? Is it really feasible for him to say that he has no proposals at all to deal with the traffic west of the Amesbury roundabout?

Apart from the fact that Stonehenge is next to this road, it is a road of regional importance. As with all such roads, any proposal for major capital improvements would involve the regional transport board making recommendations to the Department for Transport. He is of course right to say that he considered the issue in his role as a former Secretary of State for Transport, and it is a matter of regret that I have to report to the House that I have made the same amount of progress as he did.

The A303 is supposed to be the second most important strategic route to the south-west and is therefore of national significance, and its neglect over recent years has been deplorable. Given that this scheme has pre-empted a large amount of potential funding, and given the requirements placed on regional authorities by bundling a variety of schemes together to put them out of the price range that is available to them, preventing the progress of perfectly sensible schemes that are already planned, will he look again at proposals such as the safety improvements on the Sparkford to Ilchester part of the A303 in my constituency, which were ready to run in 1997 and which we are now told will be delayed until 2016?

I think the hon. Gentleman is suggesting that the Government have some vested interest, or take some peculiar amusement, in creating congestion on any road. If there were an affordable option for relieving congestion on the A303, I would take it. I do not accept his suggestion that other funding avenues have been precluded by consideration of this scheme, but perhaps that is an argument that we can have another day. As I said, the Highways Agency is responsible for maintaining the road and for addressing any safety issues along its route, and it will continue to live up to its responsibility.

Has the Minister not realised that everyone who cares about the built heritage of this country regards the presentation and the preservation of this unique monument of international importance as a national matter, not a regional matter? Is it not a damning indictment that a Government who could squander £700 million on the dome are not prepared to face up to their responsibilities for that?

I suspect, Mr. Speaker, that you would be quick to call me out of order if I started a debate on the dome.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman is not suggesting that I or the Department for Transport have no consideration for the value that Stonehenge has in itself and to the rest of the country. It can be argued that Stonehenge is of national importance; the A303 is a road of regional importance. I am the Minister responsible for the Highways Agency, which is not responsible for Stonehenge. Having said that, I am entirely aware of the importance of the DFT and DCMS working together with all the necessary agencies to try to come up with a scheme that is affordable and protects this hugely important and, as the hon. Gentleman says, unique asset in the long term.

Representing Bridgwater means that I have some of the largest distribution centres in the south-west to the south of Bristol in my constituency. I get constant complaints about the level of lorry usage. To get the goods that we need, those lorries have no option but to come from the south coast. This announcement is a slap in the face for business throughout Somerset and the south-west. It will make things much more difficult, given that on certain weekends those lorries cannot move on Friday and Sunday nights because of the weight of traffic around Stonehenge. Does the Minister realise the damage that the Government are doing to business in my area by not allowing the scheme to go ahead?

I absolutely disagree with the hon. Gentleman, who is trying to make an entirely partisan political point. Given the record amounts of money that this Government have spent on transport infrastructure in the south-west in the past 10 years—considerably more than was ever spent under any previous Government by the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young)—I hardly think he can say that we are responsible for a lack of economic growth in the south-west. On the contrary, as has already been pointed out, the south-west is one of the fastest-growing regions in the country, and that is thanks to this Government’s investment in the transport infrastructure.

May I point out to the Minister that the far south-west is not sharing in that economic growth, partly because it needs investment in transport schemes? I welcome this announcement because it releases money within the regional budget to complete some important road schemes such as the Kings Kerswell bypass. However, given that Stonehenge is of national and international significance, any road scheme that alleviates problems around that area should be paid for by the national taxpayer, not out of regional allocations.

Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that any road solution should be paid for at any cost—that the Government should write a blank cheque? When the scheme was first proposed, the original price was about £223 million, £70 million of which it was rightly suggested should be met by DCMS. That was correct because, as the hon. Gentleman says, Stonehenge is a matter of national cultural importance. However, given the amount of the increases over the past few years, does he seriously believe that no matter what the cost of such a scheme, the Government and the taxpayer should pay for it? If so, that is a fairly legitimate point of view, but it is not one that I—or, I suspect, the taxpayer—would share.

This is more than a disappointment—it shows 10 years of failure. It is not just a transport issue—it also affects tourism. Tourism is Britain’s fifth largest industry, but the Government do not take it seriously. They are failing to harness the importance of this heritage site and major attraction. How many more years must we wait until we see an improvement to the Stonehenge area?

Well, the hon. Gentleman has his press release.

The planning permission that was given as part of the public inquiry included provision for a new visitor centre at Stonehenge. I understand that the current visitor centre is not particularly attractive, and I will work with DCMS and the Minister responsible for tourism, my right hon. Friend the Member for Barking, to progress plans for an alternative site for a world-class tourism centre. I hope that that will be up and running before the Olympics.

Earlier this year, I had the privilege of spending a day touring the landscape around Stonehenge with the National Trust, which looks after most of that historic landscape, and I met representatives of English Heritage, which looks after the stones. This world heritage site is scarred, almost destroyed, by a busy A road passing a few yards away from the stones. It is a national disgrace and a national problem, and the national Government should be tackling it. I reiterate the point made by the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack): a Government who can spend almost twice as much money as this on a white elephant like the millennium dome should be investing in the single most important historic site in the whole of the UK.

In the seven years to 2007-08, DFT spending on road and rail in the south-west more than doubled to £825 million. If the hon. Gentleman is saying, like the hon. Member for Torbay (Mr. Sanders), that no matter what the cost of the scheme the Liberal Democrats would meet it, I suspect that they are now regretting their policy of putting 1p on income tax.

Business of the House

The business for the week commencing 10 December will be as follows:

Monday 10 December—Second Reading of the Planning Bill.

Tuesday 11 December—It is expected that there will be an oral statement on the children’s plan, followed by a general debate on European affairs.

Wednesday 12 December—Opposition Day [4th allotted day]. There will be a debate entitled “Northern Rock and the Banking System”, followed by a debate entitled “The Military Covenant”. Both debates arise on a Liberal Democrat motion.

Thursday 13 December—Topical debate: subject to be announced, followed by remaining stages of the Crossrail Bill.

Friday 14 December—The House will not be sitting.

The provisional business for the week commencing 17 December will be:

Monday 17 December—It is expected that there will be an oral statement following the European Council, followed by Second Reading of the National Insurance Contributions Bill.

Tuesday 18 December—Motion on the Christmas recess Adjournment.

I thank the Leader of the House for giving us the future business.

Later today, the Monetary Policy Committee will decide whether to reduce interest rates—

Now, as we speak. There is serious concern about the property market in the context of an economic slowdown and problems in the banking industry, so can next week’s topical debate be on the housing market?

Back in July, the Prime Minister told the House:

“we seek…an all-party consensus on…new provisions for pre-charge detention”—[Official Report, 25 July 2007; Vol. 463, c. 843.]

that is, the 28-day issue. Yet without any consensus, the Home Secretary has leaked her plans to the media and released a paragraph-long excuse for a written statement. Shami Chakrabarti of Liberty says:

“It seems more like politics than policy-making”.

Why has the Home Secretary not come to the House to make a proper oral statement so that Members can question her on her policy? Every week, the Leader of the House tells us that she puts Parliament first; every week her colleagues treat Parliament with disdain.

The European Parliament has ruled that the United Kingdom is entitled to one more MEP. On the numbers, that seat should go to the west midlands, but it is rumoured that the Prime Minister wants to give it to Scotland for party political reasons. Can the Leader of the House confirm that the decision concerning which region gets the extra seat is based on fair representation, not party political calculation?

Dave Hartnett, the acting chairman of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, yesterday accepted that the recent data breaches

“indicate a wide systematic failure”.

There have been seven HMRC security breaches “of some significance” in the last two and a half years, but the Chancellor and the Prime Minister continue to hide behind their claim that there is no systematic failure. Why will they not take responsibility and get a grip? Will the Chancellor come back to the House to make a new statement in light of this new information?

While Labour politicians debate ditching the national anthem and changing the Union flag, the Prime Minister is about to break his manifesto promise and sign us up to the renamed European constitution, without a referendum. May I add my support to the European Scrutiny Committee, which is chaired by the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Michael Connarty), a Labour Member? The Committee says that

“the matters raised should be debated on the Floor of the House before the Treaty is signed…we therefore hold the document under scrutiny”.

May we have a debate, in Government time, specifically on the treaty? Last week, the right hon. and learned Lady said that she wants to

“reform and improve European scrutiny”.—[Official Report, 29 November 2007; Vol. 468, c. 444.]

She can make a start here.

Finally, it was reported this morning that Labour officials helped David Abrahams draw up covenants to hide his donations. Since the right hon. and learned Lady’s performance last week, we have found out that she failed to declare a £40,000 loan to the Electoral Commission. However, she told the House that she

“acted at all times within both the letter and the spirit of the law.”—[Official Report, 29 November 2007; Vol. 468, c. 435.]

I ask her again: when will she come to the House to make a full statement about her conduct and the lawbreaking in the Labour party?

The right hon. Lady raised the question of the housing market. She will know that we are concerned that there should be more affordable housing to rent and buy. That is why we have introduced a Bill on housing that will increase the supply of housing for families who need it. I look forward to her supporting that Bill, and to all hon. Members ensuring that their housing supply can be improved in their local authorities. She also mentioned interest rates. She knows that under this Government interest rates have been kept low and stable, whereas under her Government they rose to 15 per cent. and people lost their homes because of negative equity.

The right hon. Lady raised the question of the written ministerial statement that the Home Secretary issued to the House this morning, and the letter that she sent to the Home Affairs Committee. She knows that the Government’s position remains that we are concerned to ensure the security of people in this country. That is absolutely essential. We are also concerned to ensure civil liberties and appropriate safeguards for everybody in this country. We are seeking an all-party consensus and we are having talks in order to reach agreement so that we can protect safety and ensure civil liberties.

When the hon. Lady raises this question—[Hon. Members: “Right hon. Lady.”] I am sorry. When the right hon. Lady raises the question, it strikes me that whatever we propose and whatever this House legislates about, defendants and subjects have the protection of the Human Rights Act; but if the Conservative party were in government, they would abolish it. The House awaits the Select Committee’s report.

The right hon. Lady mentioned a number of issues about the European Parliament and European affairs. My hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House is having discussions on how we can do what we all agree we need to do: improve the scrutiny of European affairs. Indeed, the right hon. Lady has put forward 10 suggestions to that effect, and my hon. Friend has said that she has considered them and they are not all mad. [Laughter.]

Some of them are useful contributions to the debate, and I thank her for that.

The right hon. Lady also mentioned party funding. I answered questions about that at business questions last week, the House considered it during an Opposition day debate on Tuesday, the Prime Minister answered questions about it on Wednesday and the House had a further opportunity to discuss it during a debate on standards in public life yesterday. We have had a great deal of discussion in this House, but we are yet to see the Tories returning to all-party talks, and I hope that they will do so now.

May we have a debate in this House on the report from Energywatch that shows that people who use prepayment meters spend on average £195 a year more than those who pay by direct debit? That is an attack on poor people.

It is topical; people cannot afford their heating when it gets colder. I will take that as a suggestion for a topical debate, and I thank my hon. Friend for making it.

I start by returning to the issue of detention without charge. Given the huge importance of the issue, and the clear opposition of Liberal Democrats, the Conservative party, many Members in the Labour party and other parties, the previous Attorney-General Lord Goldsmith, the Director of Public Prosecutions and Lord West, the Minister responsible for security—until he was sat on—will the Leader of the House insist that the Home Secretary comes to the House on Monday to make the oral statement that this issue merits? A written statement attached to documents in the Library that are complex as well as controversial is not an appropriate way for the Leader of the House to honour her obligation to the House; she said that Ministers would report to the House first and answer questions. She must insist that the Home Secretary does so.

On a linked civil liberties issue, when will we have a debate on identity cards? Richard Thomas, the Information Commissioner, said yesterday in front of the Justice Committee:

“Keeping this massive database with records of every time the card is swiped through a terminal is distinctly unattractive and would increase the risks.”

Surely the subject of identity cards, and the nonsensical Government policy of pursuing them, is appropriate for a Government debate or a topical one between now and the end of term.

Given that the Information Commissioner also told the Justice Committee that, in the wake of the loss of 25 million names of benefit recipients and their families,

“It is important that the law is changed to make security breaches of this magnitude a criminal offence”,

may we have a debate on the legal implications of the use and misuse of information? In particular, can the Leader of the House and the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions explain whether the same principles apply to Ministers for revealing information about funds as apply to the tens of thousands of people who are prosecuted by the Department for Work and Pensions for not declaring sums that they have received and who are convicted in the courts up and down the land?

Lastly, may we have a debate soon—and then annually—on the relative position of Britain among the 30 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries? We recently came bottom in the league table of childhood happiness. We have been reported as dropping from seventh to 17th in our reading ability and from eighth to 24th in our maths ability. With 148 out of every 100,000 people in prison, we have the highest number of people in prison in the whole of western Europe. Why is it that on so many different occasions and different subjects Britain is now gaining the reputation of being one of the failing states of western Europe?

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the question of the Home Secretary’s giving information about a further proposal for consideration to deal with extended detention. If I think that information that should have been announced first to the House has been announced on “Today” and has then been the subject of an oral statement, or if major policy has been announced without reference to the House, I will not accept that situation. That is my commitment. However, on this occasion I do not think that it would have been right for me to say to the Home Secretary, “Come to the House and make an oral statement.” No hon. Member tabled an urgent question, so clearly no one else in the House thought that there should be an oral statement. She has produced a written memorandum to the Select Committee and a written ministerial statement. The Home Secretary is very forthcoming to the House on these issues. She is a respecter of the House. She is not a spinner. She answers questions, and therefore I cannot agree with the hon. Gentleman that she has not respected the House and that I, as Leader of the House, should suggest that she come here. I simply do not accept that.

The hon. Gentleman also talked about identity cards and asked for them to be chosen as a topic for debate. His party has just chosen two topics for debate next week. Neither is identity cards: one is Northern Rock while the other is the military. Yesterday, there was a debate on identity in Westminster Hall—

Indeed it was. The House has opportunities to discuss that important issue.

The hon. Gentleman then launched off on to our being a failing state for children. My constituency is in the same borough as his, and is its neighbour. He will know, as all hon. Members do, of the huge change that there has been in the investment in children’s education. He will know that every secondary school and primary school has had capital investment. He will know that there are 40,000 extra teachers and 100,000 extra teaching assistants. He will know that there are more nursery places for children and that more young people go into further and higher education. He will know that we are moving on to increase the education leaving age from 16 to 18. I do not know on which planet he is living when he says that there is a failing state for children. The Government have made children and education a priority and I suggest that the hon. Gentleman listens to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families when he sets out the children plan in the House next week.

I congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend and the Prime Minister on the announcement that was made earlier today about a badge for land army girls. That is something that I have felt very passionate about. After the Bevin boys were rewarded, it was only right that the women who worked so hard during the war to keep the home fires burning and everybody fed should be honoured in the same way.

The whole House should recognise and pay tribute to the efforts of my hon. Friend, without whom that would not have happened. It was right that she brought the subject to the attention of the House and relevant Ministers and that she insisted and argued cogently that the efforts of the members of the Women’s Land Army should be recognised, just as those of the Bevin boys have been. Justice has been done because of her efforts, and I want to thank her.

When does the Leader of the House intend to come to the House to make public the recommendations of the Senior Salaries Review Body? The Government have had the report for more than six months. Members’ pay—I am concerned about hon. Members in all parties—is falling further and further behind. Is it not time that the Government came to the House, presented the report and allowed the House to debate the recommendations?

It is St. Nicholas’s day today, so I was expecting the hon. Gentleman to get to his feet. We will bring forward the debate for discussion, but I cannot say that it will be debated before Christmas.

May we have a debate on the plight of the Palestinians, particularly regarding the new middle east peace initiatives?

I know that that is a priority for the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister. I shall take that as a suggestion for a topical debate; the whole House is concerned about it.

Will the Leader of the House find time at an early date for a debate on an issue that those directly concerned find the most important of all, namely the availability of the drug Alimta for the treatment of mesothelioma? Is the Leader of the House aware that the drug has been approved by the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence and is available through some primary care trusts, but not through others who have taken legal action to prevent the requirement that they should use it? Does she agree that the debate might allow opinion from both sides of the House to bring pressure to bear so that the intolerable situation can be drawn to a conclusion?

I will bring the question that the hon. Gentleman has raised to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health. There will be Health questions before Christmas, so I shall give my right hon. Friend notice and perhaps the hon. Gentleman can seek to raise that point then.

Further to the helpful answer that my right hon. and learned Friend gave to my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Mr. Anderson) about the potential for a topical debate on the differential between the charge for those who pay for gas and electricity by direct debit and the higher charge for those who pay by other means, which is effectively a tax on the poor, will she add to that debate the need for the same consideration of telephone charges? Those who do not pay by direct debit can be charged up to £15 more. In the modern world, although the situation is not exactly the same as that for gas and electricity, the telephone is now a vital service for many people, particularly the elderly alone in their homes.

I will take the suggestion for a topical debate. On the question of the higher charges that are paid by those who can least afford them, in order both to stay in touch by using the telephone with standing charges and to buy fuel, my hon. Friend will be aware that we have done a great deal to lift the income of pensioners and families with children. We know that that is still an issue, and I shall bring it forward as a suggestion for consideration for a topical debate.

May we have an early statement from the Home Secretary about her intention to renege on honouring the police pay settlement in full? In it perhaps she could congratulate the Scottish Government, who have made clear their intention to honour the commitment in full and pay the Scottish Police force what they are entitled to. Does that not contrast the difference between the two Governments and suggest why the Scottish National party is 11 points ahead of Labour in Scotland?

I think the House will know that since the Government came into office there are more police than there were before and that they are better paid—and rightly so. The hon. Gentleman will know that the Home Secretary issued a written ministerial statement on police pay this morning.

Following on from the question that the hon. Member for Gosport (Peter Viggers) asked about Alimta, I am honoured to have been made patron of the East London Mesothelioma Society. I am proud of that. May we have a topical debate on the cancer reform strategy? We have not yet debated it.

That is a good suggestion for a topical debate. Our cancer plan has meant that mortality rates from cancer have fallen by 17 per cent. However, we all agree that we can do more, through not only treatment and caring for those who have cancer but early detection. The cancer reform plan is determined to do that. I therefore agree that it would be useful to have a debate on it in the House.

The Leader of the House has vital functions in defending Parliament on behalf of Parliament as whole. Does she accept that the European Scrutiny Committee report on the reform treaty is highly critical of the Government? Does she also accept that, as the Chairman of the Committee said last week, the report warrants discussion on a substantive motion on the Floor of the House before the treaty is signed, that the Government are not offering that and that the Leader of the House is therefore in derogation of her duties, which is a disgrace?

There will be a debate before the treaty is signed and a statement afterwards. The hon. Gentleman knows that we will spend many days on the Floor of the House debating the matter—we have set that out in our legislative programme.

I look forward to concluding the institutional changes that are necessary as a result of enlargement. It is important to revert to and stay focused on the agenda of the contribution that our membership of the European Union can make to our economy and our efforts to tackle climate change and transnational crime. I know that many hon. Members want to spend a huge amount of time discussing the structures—I acknowledge that structures are important—but many more people want to discuss the way in which we, as EU members, can improve matters for people in this country and Europe as a whole.

May I ask the Leader of the House to go further on the debate on the European Union on Tuesday? It will be the last time that the House has a chance to discuss issues before the Prime Minister is expected to sign the treaty of Lisbon. Will she ensure that an up-to-date version of the text of the treaty is available to hon. Members on Tuesday because that is the last chance to debate it?

Returning to the detention of terrorist suspects without charge, may we have a debate specifically about the separation of powers? The Home Secretary’s proposal appeared to involve votes by hon. Members effectively on whether individuals should be detained. Frankly, that is repugnant. It smacks of the institutions of the French revolution, such as the Committee of General Security. Is no constitutional principle safe in the Government’s hands?

We want to ensure that people are physically safe from the threat of terrorism. That is what we want to make sure is safe in the Government’s hands. I share Liberal Democrats’ concerns about civil liberties and I want to be sure that proper safeguards exist. However, the absolute bottom line is that we must ensure that we have the right provisions so that people in this country are safe and so that, if terrorists are suspected and arrested, they are not allowed to slip through our hands and perpetrate a terrible crime. I hope that Liberal Democrat Members will join us in acknowledging that. We are all concerned about safeguards and ensuring that the Home Secretary, the judiciary and the House have the right role. All those matters will be discussed.

Could the Leader of the House take it into account that, whenever a request is made to debate MPs’ salaries, it always comes from the Tory side? Most Labour Members believe that you can’t starve on £60,000 a year. If the taxpayer’s money is to be spent wisely, let us use it for such things as free personal care for the elderly in nursing homes. That is much more important than the inflated MPs’ pay that the Tories always demand.

I look forward to my hon. Friend’s contribution to the debate on the SSRB report when I can present it to the House.

Has the Leader of the House reflected further on choosing subjects for topical debate? It is now clear that the Standing Orders of the House do not place an obligation on her to make the choice. Would it not be fairer if the choice were made by Mr. Speaker or by ballot?

The hon. Gentleman will remember that the Modernisation Committee—[Hon. Members: “Just say no.”] I think I am probably saying no. The Modernisation Committee proposed that some Government time—we are not considering Opposition day debates—should be used to allow the Chamber to discuss issues of topical importance. The Committee suggested that that should be done through the usual channels, although the debates were to be an opportunity for Back Benchers. The Government gave their response and we passed Standing Order No. 24A, which simply provides that the topic will be chosen by the Leader of the House. I issued a written ministerial statement to outline my criteria for subjects for the debates. They are: the subject should be topical; the House has not had an opportunity to debate it; it is a matter of public policy; it is a matter of public concern, and it is of international, national or regional importance.

It is early days. We have had only three topical debates. We need to reflect on the matter in the new year in light of our experience of the debates, and ascertain whether we need to change the process and the Standing Orders.

However, one of my concerns is that the topical debates are supposed to be Back-Bench debates but, because Front Benchers make so many interventions and have many interesting things to say, many Back-Bench colleagues have not been able to speak in the important debates. I therefore want to consider how we ensure that there is more time for Back Benchers in the topical debates.

Norton Hill secondary school in my constituency, under the headship of Peter Beaven, has just had an Ofsted report. The school was deemed outstanding under each of the headings under which it was assessed. That is a highly unique status. However, although schools and pupils throughout the country have attained much better results under a Labour Government in the past 10 years, many pupils, especially those from more modest backgrounds who are in the first generation to go to university, still do not aspire to the very highest and most traditional universities. They avoid applying to, for example, Oxford or Cambridge. May we have an early debate on how to encourage those young people, who are now achieving terrific grades, to aspire to the very highest standards in our land?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. I congratulate all those—the head, the teaching team, the parents and pupils—involved in Norton Hill secondary school and acknowledge my hon. Friend’s support for it. However, his comments reflect the revolution in our expectations of the number of young people whom we want to go into further and higher education. The Tories were happy for only a few young people to go on to further and higher education. We believe two things: first, parents want the best for their children; secondly, in a globalised market, our economy needs the children to be the best, so higher education is essential.

Order. Eleven hon. Members are standing. I want to take you all, so let us have one brief supplementary from each hon. Member.

Cyberbullying is of major concern to many people. Several constituents have approached me, expressing anxiety about incidents of happy slapping, which have been uploaded on to the internet. Will my right hon. and learned Friend consider a debate on cyberbullying?

I will; and I will also suggest that it would be good for my hon. Friend to contribute to the new guidance on bullying that will be sent to education authorities and all schools, on which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families is currently consulting.

Should not the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions make a statement next week about the future of Mr. Paul Myners, the chairman of the personal accounts delivery authority, in the light of his controversial remarks on last week’s “Question Time” and, as importantly, the fact that, as we have now learned, he made substantial contributions to the Prime Minister’s leadership election campaign, even though we were told at the time of his appointment that he had made no political donations whatever?

I watched the programme to which the right hon. Gentleman refers and I could not see anything controversial about Paul Myners’s remarks. He said that we had an exceptionally strong economy with steady growth, which was down to the expert management of the Chancellor at the time, who has now turned into a first-rate Prime Minister. I could not see anything about that to disagree with.

May we have a debate on whether people should have to opt out of kidney transplantation, rather than opt in to it? My constituent, Mark Schofield, recently travelled to the Philippines in an attempt to buy a kidney for £40,000, when the one donated by his mother Jean failed. We are now at the stage where 380 people in Wales are waiting for kidney transplants. Could we consider moving the situation forward, to an opt-out rather than an opt-in?

I will draw my hon. Friend’s comments to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health. We all know that transplantation of a donated organ can transform the life of the recipient. We also all know that many people suffer while they are waiting for a transplant or even die before it becomes available. We know, too, that relatives of many people who would be happy to donate their organs often do not receive a request on their behalf. I will bring that matter to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health.

Tuesday morning will be the second anniversary of the Buncefield disaster, which destroyed many parts of my constituency. Sadly, two years on, we have had just one statement, on the Monday immediately after, but not one written or oral statement to the House. We have had planning blight; an inquiry is being held behind closed doors; the water table is contaminated; and now disfigured animals are being born, which the Government’s chief scientist has been informed of. Can we have the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs come here to tell us what is going on in my community and what is going to happen at Buncefield?

The hon. Gentleman has raised the issue previously. It is an important issue for his constituency, but it also raises national concerns. I take the points that he has made and will raise them with the relevant Ministers. I will write to him and place a copy of the letter in the Library, and hopefully we will see further action on that.

Notwithstanding our Government’s generally good record on animal policy, there is growing public concern that unfinished business remains in areas such as animal husbandry and animals in the laboratory. It is for those reasons that a number of us tabled early-day motion 480 yesterday, on a cross-party basis, which calls for an animal protection commission to drive forward improvements in that area.

[That this House notes the growing body of scientific evidence showing animals to have complex mental and emotional lives; considers all vertebrates and possibly some invertebrates to be conscious, feeling beings with an interest in living, avoiding suffering and experiencing pleasure; acknowledges that each animal has inherent value and is worthy of serious moral consideration; considers respect for animals to be indicative of the level of civilisation; is concerned that policy-making is led by industries that inevitably compromise animals’ welfare and interests, and thus the most essential interests of animals and the public's concern for their protection are given insufficient consideration; endorses the Prime Minister’s call for constitutional reform that entrusts more power to Parliament and the British people’; notes that there is no Government body whose primary purpose is to protect the interests of animals in policy-making; and calls upon the Government to establish an Animal Protection Commission or similar body, answerable to Parliament via a Minister, with a remit which includes the ongoing examination of the ethical status and rights of animals and how they are affected by policy-making, the facilitation of genuine public participation throughout policy processes which affect animals, and the development of a cross-Government agenda for animal protection.]

Could the Leader of the House take this as a submission for a debate on that early-day motion?

We recently had legislation on animal health, and I know that there is concern throughout the House. While we continue to have farming and the opportunity for experimentation on animals for necessary medical research, there is always a concern about animal safety. I will bring my hon. Friend’s point to the attention of my right hon. Friends the relevant Ministers.

One year on from the horrific murders in Ipswich, can we have a debate on what the Government are doing to improve the safety of vulnerable prostitute women?

I will take that as a suggestion for a topical debate. Ministers across Government are concerned to ensure that women are not vulnerable. Many of the women involved in prostitution are brought here from abroad, and we have raised the issue of human trafficking in the European Council. Also, many of the women on the streets suffer from alcohol or drug abuse and mental health problems. I shall bring the issue to the attention of my hon. Friends, and perhaps the hon. Lady could raise it in a Westminster Hall debate.

Can we have a debate on the recent decision by the Law Lords to deny compensation to victims of asbestos-related disease? My right hon. and learned Friend may be aware that the Scottish Parliament has committed itself to overturning that decision. I sincerely hope that it is genuine in its endeavours. Will my right hon. and learned Friend assure the House that if the Scottish Parliament is successful, the same effort and commitment will be applied throughout the UK for victims of asbestos-related diseases?

I agree with my hon. Friend’s point, particularly on the effect of the recent House of Lords judgment on pleural plaques, which is being studied. We want to do everything that we can not only to prevent people from suffering from industrial disease, but to compensate and support those who have tragically had their lives ruined simply by working in unhealthy workplaces.

When we next consider party funding in this place, will the Leader of the House give consideration to the propriety or otherwise of the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s appearance this week at a Labour fundraising event hosted by Deutsche bank, which is a party to the consortium hoping to take over Northern Rock? Does she think that there is a possible conflict of interest in that issue?

I am sure that there is no conflict of interest. The appearance that I would like to see is that of the Conservative party at the all-party talks.

May we have a debate on the provision of post offices here in the Palace of Westminster? Why do pensioners in the villages of Sandsend, Ruswarp and Fyling Thorpe in my constituency have to travel more than 3 miles to a post office, whereas other pensioners such as the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) have the benefit of three post offices within 100 yd?

The hon. Gentleman raises an important issue, which is a concern throughout the House. He will know that up to 2009 there will be £1.7 billion-worth of extra investment in post offices. This is a time of big change in post offices. They are important to local communities, and there was a debate in Westminster Hall either last week or earlier this week, so the issue is constantly debated in the House.

Further to the highly pertinent inquiry from my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton), may I ask the right hon. and learned Lady why the long-awaited and much delayed report by the Senior Salaries Review Body cannot be published and debated next week? Given that the matter has been raised several times with her, not least on 5 and 26 July, on 11, 18 and 25 October and on 8 and 15 November, by right hon. and hon. Members in all parts of the House, including the right hon. Member for Warley (Mr. Spellar), would she concede that it is high time we discuss the matter, that it would be intolerable to slip out the report quietly with Government recommendations during the Christmas recess and that she would of course contemplate doing no such thing?

I would contemplate doing no such thing; the hon. Gentleman can be assured that there will be no slipping out of the report over the Christmas recess. I know that the House is eager to see the proposals and to debate and vote on them, and there will be an opportunity for that in the new year.

Will the Leader of the House find time for a debate on the recent local government finance settlement, so that we could discuss two things in particular? One is the severe—

Order. Perhaps I am mistaken, but if the hon. Gentleman is referring to the local government finance settlement, that is the next statement coming up. We have a Minister coming to discuss that matter, and the hon. Gentleman might catch the Deputy Speaker’s eye at that stage. However, perhaps he is talking about something else.

Thank you very much, Mr. Speaker. We are indeed about to get a local government settlement. Can the Leader of the House make special representations in that settlement, so that we secure one that represents all the unfunded items that the Government keep loading on local authorities, which in turn will increase the council tax, which will have a severe impact on some of the poorest in our society? Perhaps the Minister for Local Government, who is standing beside you, Mr. Speaker, will take that into account.

The Leader of the House will know that there has been confusion about the arrangements for the Government Equalities Office. She will also know that I wrote to the Prime Minister about this matter. On 8 November, the Prime Minister replied to say that he would arrange for the Leader of the House to reply to me directly. I know that the right hon. and learned Lady takes the issue of timely correspondence very seriously, but I have yet to have a reply from her. Might she be able to indulge me with a reply before Christmas?

The answer to that is yes. I have received the hon. Gentleman’s correspondence, and he will get a reply this afternoon. In regard to the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown), I wonder whether he was practising his question before putting it to the relevant Minister.

Mrs. Carter, a lovely lady in my constituency, suffers from spinal stenosis and is in a lot of pain, if not agony, most of the time. She normally goes to Northampton general hospital four times a year for treatment to alleviate the pain. The last time she went was in June, but she has now been told that she cannot go again until the middle of January, although she is suffering in agony. The reason for the change is apparently so that the hospital can see new patients first. With apologies to Mark Twain, would it be possible to have a debate in Government time entitled “ Lies, damned lies and NHS statistics”?

Obviously, it is important that all hospitals and health services have the right processes and give the right priority to patients. The hon. Gentleman has raised a point that should be the subject not of a debate in the House but of a complaint to the relevant trust or local primary care trust. It is a matter for them, rather than for the House. I know that the hon. Gentleman regularly raises questions on the health treatment of his constituents, and I therefore hope that he will strongly back the extra investment that we have put into the health service in his area over the past 10 years.

Local Government Finance

With permission, Madam Deputy Speaker, I wish to make a statement about local government finance in England. For the first time ever, this is a three-year settlement. I am today able to confirm for each authority for each of the next three years not only allocations of formula grant but allocations of the new working neighbourhoods fund and 60 other specific grants, from eight Government Departments.

In total, Government revenue funding for local authority services will be, in the years 2008-09, 2009-10 and 2010-11, £70.4 billion, £73.5 billion and £76.7 billion. These are increases of 4 per cent., 4.4 per cent. and 4.3 per cent. respectively. This continues the sustained real-terms increases for local government under this Government. By the end of this comprehensive spending review period, local government will have received a real-terms grant increase of 45 per cent. since 1997.

Formula grant, which includes revenue support grant, redistributed business rates and the police grant, will total in each year £27.5 billion, £28.2 billion and £29 billion, representing increases of 3.6 per cent., 2.8 per cent. and 2.6 per cent. respectively. Every authority will receive a formula grant increase in every year. In addition, we expect of local government the same 3 per cent. efficiency savings each year as the rest of the public sector. Delivering that would mean that councils would have an extra £4.9 billion over the spending review period, which they could use to improve services or to cut council tax pressures.

We have worked closely with local government and its associations over the past two years to assess cost pressures and the scope for efficiencies. This settlement takes account in particular of the pressures on adult social care and on waste. Local government told us that it wanted certainty, flexibility, equity and stability in funding, all of which are delivered by this settlement. On certainty, we are providing a three-year settlement, not just for the core grant but for 61 other central Government grants and for regeneration funds. On flexibility, we have pooled 38 of the 61 specific grants into the new area-based grant, worth £4.7 billion by 2010, three quarters of which was previously ring-fenced but will be no longer. We are also transferring £900 million a year from other specific grants into formula grant. Local government also wanted less bureaucracy from central Government, so we have radically streamlined the new performance framework for local government, with a single set of under 200 national indicators, down from about 1,200.

On equity, we consulted local government over the summer on making the method of grant distribution fairer. My conclusions are set out in the further consultation paper that we are publishing today, but let me highlight these points. Following a major review, we were able to introduce a new and improved formula in each of the areas of social care in 2006. For the past two years, we have been damping two of those formulae. I now propose to end the additional damping and fully to implement the social services formulae. The overall system of grant floors, which we will retain, will ensure that that unwinds quite gradually over this and the next spending review periods.

I also propose to make the system fairer to authorities with a relatively low council tax base. Those authorities will have much greater difficulty than others in coping with spending pressures. I therefore propose to increase by 2 per cent. the proportion of the blocks for relative needs and relative resource within the available total.

We have made significant progress with regeneration in many of the most disadvantaged areas of the country. The new £1.5 billion working neighbourhoods fund replaces the neighbourhood renewal fund and builds in the Department for Work and Pensions deprived areas fund to create a single fund at local level. As we set out in the sub-national review, we are concentrating that funding on tackling worklessness in the most deprived areas. Sixty-six local authorities will receive funding from the working neighbourhoods fund for three years, and the 21 authorities that currently receive neighbourhood renewal funding but do not qualify for the new fund will get two years of transitional funding.

On stability, we consulted on aspects of the area cost adjustment. I propose some changes, to reflect more recent evidence, in the weights given to labour and business rates costs. However, I have decided not to implement any changes in the geography of the area cost adjustment. The consultation proposals covered only a few areas, and the financial turbulence involved did not seem justified by the relatively minor refinements that would result. I therefore intend to take advantage of the next three years to conduct a full review of the area cost adjustment, which will begin after the House has debated and approved this settlement.

I also propose no change to the expenditure base of the formula for fire and rescue. I have concluded that the last few years have been an untypical period for the service, making spending patterns an uncertain base for a formula. Again, I propose to conduct a thorough review of the formula. That will begin in the new year. Grant floors damping is the main way in which we ensure stability of funding for councils over time. Though some argued for the opposite, we will continue with the system of floors, which ensure that every authority receives a formula grant increase in every year of the comprehensive spending review period. In setting floor levels, I have struck a balance between providing an increase for all authorities and allowing formula changes to come through. For each of the three years the floors will be: for fire and rescue authorities and shire district councils, 1 per cent., 0.5 per cent. and 0.5 per cent.; for authorities with responsibilities for education and social services, 2 per cent., 1.75 per cent. and 1.5 per cent.; and for police authorities, 2.5 per cent. in each year.

To deliver this three-year settlement, we need to use the best and latest data available on a consistent basis across all authorities and we need to deploy it at the time we calculate the three-years figures. For population, those are the population projections produced by the Office for National Statistics in September, which take advantage of improvements in the way in which migrants are counted. The majority of the councils in our consultation wanted us to use those figures.

In recent years, however, the UK has seen significant demographic changes, not least in the pattern of people’s mobility. Those changes clearly create new measurement challenges. We are determined to build on recent improvements, while recognising that there is no single, simple or swift solution to those challenges. I can confirm today that the national statistician will now bring together central and local government to work on ways to improve population survey data and to make greater use of administrative data.

Ten successive years of above-inflation grant increases from this Government—continued throughout this spending review period—plus tough capping action have helped bring down council tax increases. Keeping council tax under control remains a high priority for the Government. We expect the average council tax increase in England to be substantially below 5 per cent. next year. Let me be clear: we will not hesitate to use our capping powers as necessary to protect council tax payers from excessive increases.

This is a tight settlement, but it is fair and affordable. It delivers the certainty, the flexibility, the equity and the stability that local government wanted. We know councils are capable of innovating, managing change and improving efficiency without having a disproportionate impact on their council tax payers. The challenge and onus now is on councils to demonstrate the leadership to deliver just that. I commend the statement to the House.

I begin by welcoming the Minister’s courtesy in sending me a copy of his statement. The technicalities of such a statement do not come alive in an instant, so it is appreciated when we have a little time to prepare. There was a bit of a glitch in getting the statement to us, but we will not make too much of that.

The Minister, who is a fair man, will know that his statement today will have been heard with more than disappointment in town halls up and down the land—not to mention the massive silence behind him—and not just by councillors themselves, but by the communities they represent and those who will be affected by what he has said and what he has not said today. Will he confirm that he has just announced another round of inflation-busting council tax increases for the long-suffering taxpayer? Over the last decade, we have predicted rises in council tax, which successive Ministers have dismissed at the Dispatch Box. Each year, the accuracy of our predictions has comfortably outscored the Government’s.

Does the Minister agree with the leader of the cross-party Local Government Association who said this morning that he was estimating inflation-jumping 4 to 4.5 per cent. increases? Will he confirm that the three-year settlement means an extra £208 on the bill of a band D home—a whopping increase of 122 per cent. under Labour? That will push council tax at band D through the £1,500 barrier by the next general election. I do not think that the Minister, who at the conclusion of his statement seemed rather proud of 10 years of Labour, has that much to be proud about. Is he aware of a survey released by a leading building society today showing that under this Government council tax has become the most unpopular tax in Britain—a pretty competitive league to top?

Conservative Members welcome the move to three-year funding, which this statement represents. Making this change must be helpful in planning budgets, but it also makes crystal clear the precipice that the Government are pushing local authorities over. The good news about councils having some certainty in their budgets is balanced by the bad news that they now know what it is they have to be certain about: a front-loaded increase of 1.5 per cent. this year, with rises of only 0.7 per cent. and 0.6 per cent. for the following two years at best, or just 1 per cent., 0.1 per cent. and a cut of 0.1 per cent. if private finance initiative commitments are removed. This statement is a cunningly worded invitation for reduced services from councils and higher bills for taxpayers. Does the Minister acknowledge that, tough as the first year is, the real screw and ratchet is applied in years two and three?

For young and old, and especially for those in receipt of elderly care and those paying council tax, today’s statement marks a further chapter in the long, slow but certain betrayal of people’s hopes and expectations from this Government. They will listen not just with disappointment, but with real anger as the small print unfolds in classic Labour fashion over the next few days and weeks.

The headline 1 per cent. increase in real terms over the next three years will be only the first meaningless figure to fall. Will the Minister confirm that that figure bears no relation to the cost pressures being suffered in, for example, adult social services, where expected real-terms expenditure growth appears to be double the funding increase provided? The “gradual unwinding” of controls on social services spending that the Minister speaks of in his statement does not address the urgency of the problem and will leave floor authorities in London and the south-east much worse off. Is the Minister aware that one head of social services has told the Local Government Association that these pressures require a 4.6 per cent. real-terms increase, and, tellingly, that the service provided by that council is now

“on the edge of human rights and dignity levels”?

Other services such as waste and highways are running similarly ahead of the measure of inflation used. Will the Minister introduce a measure of inflation relevant to the services provided by local authorities and use that measure instead? Will he confirm that the Government are cutting the amount of funding given to the local authorities business growth incentive scheme—a cut of £850 million over the next three years? Is that not just a back-door way of forcing councils to raise the money through new supplementary business rates, increasing the burden of taxation on firms? Have the Government any awareness of what is happening to shops and businesses out there on the high street and how these rises will damage them?

We acknowledge some limited progress towards allowing more apparent local control over budgets through the release from ring-fencing and other controls of some £5 billion by 2010-11, but does the Minister agree that once again there is sleight of hand as the money is being shifted into an opaque pot called “area-based grant”, with a say not only for a council, but for other public bodies and Government’s own regional offices? Can he confirm that on table 2 of specifics and general grants 2010-11, the area-based grant actually drops by 2.4 per cent.? Given that this grant has been trumpeted as an important new initiative, why is there to be a significant reduction?

The Lyons review, about which we have heard much in previous statements, but nothing at all today, said that

“an independent and authoritative voice is needed to provide better information on funding to inform the public and parliament about the impact of new burdens on local government and the evidence of future pressures”.

Michael Lyons said that because he felt an unanswered question was undermining public confidence in local government. Who is really responsible for the rises in council tax: is it the council or is it the Government? Each blames the other, so with the public losing out in the tit-for-tat discussion, Lyons proposed that we should tackle this with a simple, transparent mechanism. Why is there nothing in the statement about that and why is no initiative being taken?

We have come to learn that there are frequently reasons why the Government choose not to reveal information to the public—usually because people will not like what they are not being told. Is it not the case that the Government have chosen to dismiss this recommendation out of hand, because they know the answer to the question about who is responsible for nearly doubling council tax during their time in office? It is a case of “Best when we are putting up taxes; best when we are blaming others; best when we are Labour”—[Interruption.] I will get better back-up next year.

What representations has the Minister received about the new national concessionary fares scheme—merely the latest example of a national idea underfunded by this Government? Does he realise that the scheme makes financial sense for councils only if no passengers apply for it?

Why is the Minister only now bringing together local and national Government to discuss population movement and migration? This phenomenon has been leading to unacceptable strain on key public services such as schools and social services. Why has nothing been done, apart from the setting up of a meeting?

The Secretary of State—

It is inflation-busting grant rises that I have announced today, not inflation-busting council tax rises. I am proud of the 10 years of a Labour Government. I am proud of the commitment that we have given to local government. I am proud of the fact that, to date, local government has received a 39 per cent. real-terms increase in funding from central Government, and I am proud of the fact that that is in stark contrast to the 7 per cent. real-terms cut that local government had to endure for the four years of the previous Government, before 1997.

This is a tight settlement. It is a tight settlement for local government, and it is a tight settlement for central Government. But there are areas of central Government, including work and pensions, revenue and customs and enterprise, which have experienced year-on-year cuts, not the year-on-year rises that I have been able to announce for local government today.

The hon. Gentleman asked me a number of specific questions. Let me try to answer them. He asked whether I had heard from the heads of social services departments, and quoted one in particular. Let me quote the response of their representative body to the comprehensive spending review. The Association of Directors of Social Services said:

“Today’s CSR announcement is clear evidence that the Department of Health has truly recognised the importance of social care…today’s figures and settlement show that the vital contribution our social care services make to the overall wellbeing of so many hundreds and thousands of older people is beginning to win the recognition it deserves”.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the local authority business growth incentive. I introduced it from the Treasury, and we could not have been clearer from the start that it was a three-year scheme that we would review and seek to build into the mainstream funding system—which we will do over the spending review period, and for which purpose £150 million is allocated over that period.

The area-based grant is a larger fund than the current area fund. As a result of my proposals, more funding streams will go through it. Each will be a single payment made each month to local authorities, and all will be un-ring-fenced.

I was disappointed to hear the hon. Gentleman’s grudging comments on concessionary travel. I would have expected him to welcome the fact that 11 million pensioners and disabled people will benefit from free travel. I was also disappointed that he did not recognise that we are providing the funding—over £200 million in each of the coming years—and doing what local government wanted by paying it as a specific grant rather than through the formula.

The settlement builds on our strong track record of commitment to and funding for local government over the past 10 years, which is extended further through this spending review period, but it is not just about cash. Local government asked for certainty, and we have delivered it. Local government asked for greater stability, and we have delivered it. Local government asked for greater flexibility, and we are delivering that too.

Finally, let me return to the point with which the hon. Gentleman began: his council tax rise predictions. There is a certain regular choreography about the annual settlements. We have heard before from the Opposition their predictions of settlements and their impact on council tax. In 2004 the hon. Gentleman’s boss, the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles), predicted a 6.7 per cent. increase; the increase was 4.2 per cent. The following year he predicted a 7.1 per cent. increase; the increase was 4.5 per cent. I could not find any predictions for 2006, and I thought that the hon. Gentleman might have learnt his lesson—but the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) obviously has not.

Increased funding and capping action have delivered three of the four lowest council tax rises in the past three years since council tax was introduced in 1993. That combination—real increases in funding for local government, and a determination to take tough capping action as necessary—will continue over the next three years.

Order. A great many hon. Members are hoping to catch my eye. There is business to follow this, so I am minded to ask for a single brief question and a short answer from each of them. More hon. Members may then be successful.

Do the Government accept that their failure to implement the social services formula fully has resulted in Wirral metropolitan borough council losing £8 million a year? Can the Minister guarantee that despite the other changes that he has announced, Wirral will gain that £8 million in each of the next three years?

My right hon. Friend follows these matters in detail, and I am disappointed that he has not recognised and welcomed my announcement that we will fully implement the formula and remove the double damping. He may be interested to know that the formula grant increases for his local authority will be 5.1 per cent., 3.7 per cent. and 3.4 per cent. over the next three years, and that next year alone Wirral will receive £24.5 million extra in central Government grant.

I start by thanking the Minister for providing a copy of his statement in advance—but I am afraid that that is where the thank yous finish. There were no surprises in the statement, just bad news. Social care, teachers’ salaries and equal pay remain underfunded, while capping and the dreaded council tax remain in place. There was an opportunity to reform the council tax completely and replace it with a tax based on people’s ability to pay, but that opportunity was squandered, and the most unfair tax of all continues to exist. Council tax, which in the past 11 years has increased by 86 per cent. in the Minister’s constituency and by nearly 60 per cent. in that of the Secretary of State, will continue to hit the most vulnerable hardest, and to rise at a rate above the rate of inflation.

I welcome the fact that there has been a start at reversing the trend towards greater ring-fencing, which has accelerated under the Labour Government. I also welcome the cut in performance indicators, and the stability provided by the three-year settlement. That, however, does not outweigh the bad things in the statement.

Let me ask the Minister three specific questions. The Government have at long last recognised that migration is an issue. Can the Minister say when he expects the national statistician to produce proposals that will enable migration figures to be taken into account more rapidly in the allocation of grant? Will he confirm what I think he said—that he will ensure that any funding formula changes take account of the fact that the metropolitan fire and rescue services deal with the most vulnerable and deprived inner-city areas, with all the associated costs? Finally, what real average increase in council tax does he expect in the next financial year?

I regret the fact that the Minister is still observing the pretence that local government Ministers come to the House dressed in Santa costumes to deliver bountiful settlements that will pay for the turkey and the trimmings. They do not, and he did not today. This settlement might just about pay for a battery chicken, but it will not even cover the cost of the gas needed to cook it.

Where does one begin, Madam Deputy Speaker? The vulnerable in our system are, of course, protected by council tax benefit, whereas the same is not true of the hon. Gentleman’s party’s proposals for a local income tax. The Liberal Democrats will not tell us how they will calculate the local income tax and they will not tell us who it will hit, but the risk is that there will be big increases for the working population, who will not be protected as they are at present. Sir Michael Lyons recognised those flaws, which is why he did not recommend the implementation of a local income tax. I am quite sure that when we see the detail of the Liberal Democrats’ proposals they will not add up, because the Liberal Democrats’ sums never do.

Let me turn to the three questions the hon. Gentleman asked. On migration, I will send him a copy of a relevant report, as he might not have seen it. The national statistician set up and led a taskforce looking into how we can improve the analysis of migration figures, which reported in 2006. She will now lead action, involving local and central Government, on ways to implement those improvements, through, for instance, improving survey data and the greater use of administrative data. On the fire and rescue service, the hon. Gentleman is concerned about inner-urban areas and I hoped he would recognise that my decision not to rebase the formula will be of assistance in that regard, but he did not. On council tax levels, the hon. Gentleman will understand that, quite properly, they are set by local councils: it is for local councils to determine those levels. We expect them to be substantially below 5 per cent., and we will take tough capping action in the new year if that is necessary.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on scrapping the double damping, which was iniquitous, immoral and had no intellectual basis; that is of great benefit to many people in our constituencies. Will he confirm that as Conservative-controlled councils such as Havering and Redbridge in London will benefit from that, this is nothing to do with a north-south divide, but is actually about making sure that the money follows the need, so that councils such as mine will be able to tackle the inequalities that still exist in our country?