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Westminster Hall

Volume 470: debated on Wednesday 23 January 2008

Westminster Hall

Wednesday 23 January 2008

[Mr. Martin Caton in the Chair]

Overseas Footballers

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Siobhain McDonagh.]

I asked for this debate not to demand that politicians and the Government get directly involved in running UK football, or any sport for that matter, but because, like many hon. Members, I take an interest in football. I care that the national games of England, Scotland and the other home countries are in good health, and when they are not, I want to ask key questions and initiate a debate.

Many hon. Members will remember that the English national side crashed out of the European championship rather ignominiously last year. At the time, under much criticism—not just from the media—the Football Association promised a root-and-branch review. It said that it would not be rushed into appointing a new manager and that it would do everything in good time, but within a few weeks, it had rushed to appoint a new manager and the root-and-branch review was apparently so deep that no one has heard of it since. The FA may be searching even now to find out what the roots are, but most of the spectators—the season ticket holders who turn out, day in, day out, year in, year out, and fork out lots of money—should have a part to play. I am concerned that their voice has not been heard. Many of them say that they do not know what is going on and that they are fed up with it. To allow this issue to disappear into quiet considerations among men whom no one really voted for and whom no one from the fan base seems to have any contact with would be wrong. Lord Triesman’s arrival presents an opportunity to initiate a debate, and I want to help. If nothing else, the House should at least ask questions and start a debate that reflects the interests of many people in the country.

I want to address two linked issues. The English premiership is peculiarly unique in many respects. I shall not focus on Scotland, because it has sorted out many of the issues that I want to discuss. The Scots’ team did incredibly well in the competition, and it was a tragedy that it did not qualify—not the other way around. Many relevant issues have been sorted out in Scotland, including its youth policy, and we may well have lessons to learn.

The English premiership is so dominant. The first issue that I want to address is the effect of training on the development of new, young English players coming through to the top sides. The balance of overseas players in the premiership seems to be out of kilter with almost everybody else. On training, the premiership declares:

“Young players must fight for first team places against some of the best players in the world. Those who succeed can be confident that they have been tested against the best, and deserve their places on merit”.

I worry about such statements, because they sometimes miss the point. Making youngsters from possibly every nation in the world compete at that age begins to limit the number of places available for young English national players.

The different attitudes on training are interesting. Alfie Apps, the European scout for West Ham has said that, in England, our clubs have put money into training and demanded that players develop quickly. Many clubs discard players at a very early age if they do not think they are up to the job—18 is normally the limit. Many overseas coaches are concerned that, on the continent for the most part, they persist with the development of young players until they are 22. Ironically, that is often the age at which English clubs pick up overseas players, having discarded their own at an earlier age.

Other interesting developments go hidden in the lack of debate. What is happening about the lack of premiership academies? It is staggering that more and more of them are taking overseas players at younger and younger ages, thus squeezing opportunities for young English players. Currently, 15 per cent. of youngsters attending academies are from overseas, and that number is increasing. Arsenal now has an academy in Africa, and Liverpool has forged links with MTK in Budapest. No less a person than Sir Trevor Brooking, for whom I have huge respect, has said that

“in five years’ time we are going to have a far more serious problem: can our English youngsters even get into the academies at Premiership clubs?”

I shall come to premiership numbers in a moment. If one watches carefully, one sees that the situation is beginning to mirror what has happened between the advent of the premiership and today—a slow squeezing out of English participation. If Trevor Brooking is worried about it, I think we all should be.

The current situation stems from a problem deep in the roots of youth training. When Juninho came here and saw our training, he said:

“This is a load of rubbish. It’s like learning to swim on dry land.”

He had a very poor opinion of the quality of training. Trevor Brooking made a telling point when he said:

“Only a small percentage of clubs—Manchester United is an obvious example

of an exception—

have full-time coaches working with the five to 11s.”

On the continent, people are really looking at football early on, trying to fish out players early and stay with them over a longer period; it seems that almost exactly the opposite happens here.

I am not a supporter of Manchester United—indeed, I gloried in Tottenham Hotspur’s great result last night, which will go down in the history books, I am sure—but one has to respect Alex Ferguson and Manchester United enormously, because the club’s player participation ratios are among the best in the premiership. Also, Alex Ferguson’s ability to bring on young players is worth considering. He criticised the rule that prevents English clubs from signing under-12s who do not live within an hour of the club’s academy and under-16s who live more than 90 minutes away, and he should have been listened to. Such matters could and should have been dealt with, but they have not been dealt with early enough.

On the pressure of training, Damian Comolli, the sporting director at Tottenham Hotspur, who knows something about this, said:

“Over four years between the ages of 12 and 16 a French boy would receive 2,304 hours of training”,

whereas in England, the amount would be 1,152 hours on average. The point that he is making is that the French seem to take training much more seriously, and theirs is much more skills-based. How much do we complain about watching a side that cannot keep the ball when it plays other international sides? That starts with training.

I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. We have four home nation teams, and not one of them will participate in the European championship this year. Does he agree that they had passion and commitment, but clearly lacked technique?

I am not setting myself up as an expert on technique; I am simply asking the questions that most fans are asking, such as the one that the hon. Gentleman asks. I think that Scotland has got to grips with some of the problems. If the English premiership were a bit more like the Scottish, I sense that there would not be the same kind of problems—he is right about that.

Let me come to the FA’s role. When I secured the debate, we asked the FA how much money is being invested and what it could tell us about the effectiveness of that investment. We hear an awful lot about football being a business. We constantly hear that it is a global business, that we are in competition and that it is all about business. I shall come back to that point in a moment. The FA gave us a global figure that £60 million a year is invested; £38 million into the grass roots, including £15 million to the Football Foundation charity. My point is that we cannot get any deeper than that.

If I were running a business and was training people, I would constantly assess the effectiveness of the training. I would measure it against the outputs and outcomes, not just the inputs. That is what I am worried about. It should be more public, and we should be talking about it. Clearly, something fundamentally wrong is going on, and it is only fair that every fan can get to the roots of that.

I return to the point that I began with: why do we have so many overseas players? What is the problem? I have to tackle head on the whole issue about the premiership being a business. I do not doubt that business is involved in it. Clearly, money is necessary to make these things run, and clubs must be as profitable as possible and run as businesses for that reason. But is football just a business?

Let me quote something from a press release that was included in the premier league’s documents that came over to me when I started talking about this debate. Page 1, which is normally where one places some of the most important, key, salient facts, states:

“Premier League has become much more than just the United Kingdom’s most popular regular sporting important economic agent, with a significant impact on employment, GDP and local economies...generates significant taxation revenues for national and local Government, giving the Government and local authorities a direct interest in the continued economic health of our competition.”

I could pick that up from pretty well any annual report published in the City. Where is the passion? Where is the idea that the premier league is about teams playing all the way up to international level? I have never been to a football ground where the chant has been, “Our price to earnings ratio is better than yours,” or “Your profit and loss is rubbish.” It does not make any sense to me. Imagine fans debating and chanting across at each other about financial figures. What a smart day that would be. They do not do that. Everyone screams about what is happening on the pitch, and it would seem that that should be the No. 1 point.

Football is not just a business, but, even if it were, we should examine the idea that it is a competitive, global business. Who is the premier league competing with, and on what is it competing? First, we are told that the number of overseas players involved in the league is all about competition—if we do not do it, the others will, and we have to compete. Let us look at first-team squads. The FA wants us to look at contracted players, but the truth is that many of them will never make it on to the pitch for the first team at all—they will not be seen on Saturdays or in cup games.

The proper comparison is with first-team squads around Europe. Only 37 per cent. of first-team squad players in the premier league hail from England. We are told that this is a competition, so what is the percentage in the other leagues? In La Liga, 61 per cent. of players are Spanish; in Serie A, 63 per cent. are Italian; in the Bundesliga, more than 50 per cent. are German; and in the French league, 62 per cent. are French. Those leagues seem to be competing on a different set of criteria. They seem to think that it is possible to have a successful league and national involvement.

Would the right hon. Gentleman agree that one of the reasons why there are so many foreign players in Britain is that most foreign players want to play in the premiership, because it is considered the best competition and it is where they get the highest wages?

I shall come to the highest wages point in a second, but let us consider whether the premiership is the best competition. I looked at some of the overseas involvement—I know that this question has been around for a long time. Who actually plays from those countries? One would think that they would be the very best—in other words, that our teams would be packed with people who play for their national teams. Should we think that? Of the 15 Spanish players in the premiership, five play for their national side; of the three Italians, none play for their national side; of the 34 French in the league, only 12 play for their national side; and of the German eight, three play for their national side. My point is that if the situation were exactly as the hon. Gentleman suggests, we would have nothing but top-flight internationals, but some of the top players who play for countries such as Brazil do not choose to come to the premier league.

I am not damning the premier league, but I am saying that we allow that statement to go out as if it were set in stone and biblical—it is not. I do not believe that our league is considered by players as technically any better than the others. Let us dismiss the idea that, somehow, this is a fantastic league with which none of the others can compete. In spectacle, it may be—perhaps the television side is—but in technique and for the internationals, it is not.

If the premier league is doing so well, it must therefore be exporting talent to every country. Is not one of the things about businesses that they want a fantastic export record? We could not find any English players playing in any of the European top leagues at present, but I found that 12 Italians are playing in Spain, three are playing in France and three are playing in Germany, and that off a high base of those who are playing in their own home league.

The hon. Gentleman is on to a good point when he mentions salaries. I looked at the salaries and was quite shaken. When the premier league came into being, the salary base was £54 million. By 2006, it had risen to £605 million a year, which was a compound increase of more than 1,000 per cent. In comparison, the increase in the national economy was 67 per cent. So there has been a huge increase in salaries.

Okay, let us say that, as it is a competition, we have to compete; the others are paying massive salaries, too. So I looked at that, because businesses must compete—and, of course, keep their cost base down. However, I found that the others are not paying massive salaries. In fact, if salary bills are converted into euros, in 2005-06, the premier league paid €1,235 million in salaries. In Italy, the figure was €806 million; in Spain, it was €739 million; in France, it was €541 million; and in Germany, it was €578 million. Do they know something that we do not? Do they know something that means they can get away with paying much less for their football players yet still retain some of the great players in their leagues? I do not know what other hon. Members think, but I am not aware that anyone would accuse Serie A of being a substandard league. I remind Members that it produced the World cup winner, and it produced the champions league winner last year. I do not think that one can safely say that that league is worse than the premier league.

Too much nonsense has been chucked around about the premier league and about why we must not touch it, why we must not have this debate and why fans must accept the fact that we need such high participation by overseas players because it is good for the game. My concern is that we do not examine the situation properly or ask questions. The fact is that no one else seems to be competing in the marketplace in which we seem to have set ourselves.

The big questions are for those charged with running the game. Why have we not done an in-depth analysis of what is going peculiarly wrong with the game in England and even in some of the home countries, although, as I said earlier, some of that is being put right? Why is it that we simply do not study the facts and ask questions about training? Why have we not asked about the quality of training in England? Why have we allowed ourselves just to bumble along like Mr. Micawber, believing that something will turn up? That seems to be peculiarly English, and it is time that it stopped. That must happen for the sake of all those who pay huge amounts for season tickets and who want their clubs to do well but who—like me and, I believe, all hon. Members in this Chamber—also share a passion for the game and for their national side and a belief that football is not just about profit and loss.

Football is not just about our clubs doing well. It is also about wanting one of the home countries to go on and, even if not to win the World cup or the European cup, at least to get within striking distance regularly, as other countries so often seem to do. There is that terrible, constant shrugging of the shoulders every time that international competitions come around. We talk about our wonderful players only to find that they simply do not succeed. Yes, football is a business, but it is not just a business—there is much more to it than that.

I congratulate the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) on securing this debate. He is a football friend of mine, and it is worth noting that there are at least five Members waiting to take part in the debate who play football regularly, as he does.

In his summing up, the right hon. Gentleman asked who is running the game. That is one of the keys to this debate. About half the premiership is in foreign ownership, and those people certainly do not care too much about how the England side is affected by the decisions that they make when running their clubs. When I decided to participate in this debate, I did not want to talk just about the England side, because I did not want to repeat the clever words used by the right hon. Gentleman. Instead, I wanted to talk about the growing inequalities in the game, which stem from the decisions that have been made by those who run the premier league. We all admire football; we watch it every week. However, the people who take ownership of clubs, and therefore make the decisions that affect our national side, come into football for financial reasons. We should not be surprised that they make short-term decisions, which are not directed at the aims of those who care about football.

We have to do something about the problem. Whenever we have these debates, the media say, “What do Members of Parliament have to do with football?” The right hon. Gentleman said straight away that it is not MPs’ job to run football. However, it is our job to look after our constituents. It is our constituents who, on a weekly basis, pay money for subscriptions to Sky, and now Setanta, who go through the turnstiles and purchase merchandise such as shirts and everything else that young people enjoy so much. It is our constituents who pay those massive sums, which eventually go back into football. Obviously, it is a wonderful if young players come here from Africa and go back—of course, they do not always do so—as multi-millionaires 15 years later and can help others. That is excellent, and we all praise such work.

I entirely agree with what the hon. Gentleman said about the importance of football in national life. It should also be pointed out that if the football industry ever criticises MPs for having their say, it should consider the enormous sums of national money that were paid into the game following the Taylor report into the Bradford City fire disaster 20 years ago. The proper running of what is a very large business, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) pointed out, is a matter for parliamentary scrutiny.

That is absolutely right. The hon. Gentleman represents Westminster—we are his constituents, I suppose, when we are in the House—but he supports Bury. The hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), who is sitting next to him, represented Bury for quite a while.

I was not sure which team my hon. Friend supported—I should know more about football. We have a Charlton Athletic supporter here, and I can see that there is someone listening to the debate in the audience—the crowd, I should say—who supports Arsenal. I was delighted that my team, Middlesbrough, beat Arsenal a few weeks a go. I wish that I had been with the right hon. Gentleman last night when Spurs knocked out Arsenal. I know what it is like to be as happy as that. I remember how I felt a few years ago when we beat Spurs on penalties on our way to the UEFA cup final. I thought about the right hon. Gentleman last night when I watched the game on television.

We care about football, and we also care about our constituents, who love football and their own team. Our constituents care about the long-term future of the game. We want our grandchildren to enjoy the game as we do now, which is why are here to participate in this debate. I was explaining how happy we were that youngsters from deprived parts of the world could come to the UK and end up as multi-millionaires. Many of them go back to help their own nations, and they spread some of their wealth around. However, it is not the ones who succeed whom we are worried about. As the right hon. Gentleman said, youngsters are brought from all over the world at a very young age, and we should be concerned about the ones who do not succeed. I should like to relate a story that I was told by the owner of a premier league club. A youngster was enticed away from his home club by an agent of some sort. He ended up going to a bigger club, but failed to get on, and I believe that his family split up as a result. He did not last at the club for more than six or nine months. We must therefore look after those youngsters as well as the skilled players.

The Government Whip, my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh), is a supporter of AFC Wimbledon, which is trying to climb back into the Football League after the original club, Wimbledon FC, relocated to Milton Keynes. AFC Wimbledon is run and owned by its supporters, which is a great illustration of how much people care about their own club. It is not just the rich footballers about whom we should care—it is the people who support the game. It would be surprising if families had to pay £50 a week to watch premier league football on television. I remember going to Arsenal a few seasons ago—I have already mentioned that my team beat Arsenal a few weeks ago—with three researchers, and it cost me £140. We lost 7-0 that day, which evens up things a bit.

We care about the long-term future of the game, which is why we are all here today, speaking on our constituents’ behalf. Those who run the game must listen to the fans as well as to the very rich owners to whom they answer and from whom they receive their large salaries. We are here today representing those fans, and I hope that some notice is taken of our debate.

Does my hon. Friend agree that there is a future for football trusts and that every football club should have a trust representative on their board? Celtic came down to London two seasons ago to play a pre-season friendly. The tickets for that match cost £40.

I accept my hon. Friend’s argument. I live 50 m from the corner of Brentford’s ground. Brentford is now owned by the fans, and Greg Dyke is a non-executive chairman. I have mentioned AFC Wimbledon already.

I pay tribute to the football authorities because the Football Foundation gives a lot of money to the grass roots. The Government have set up supporters direct, which has helped many fans to own or part-own their clubs. That is the first step. In clubs such as Brentford, the fans own the club outright. Brentford therefore looks to the long-term future for the fans, because the fans run the club. On that note, I will conclude.

I congratulate the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) on securing the debate, and I start by declaring an interest. As a Manchester City fan and season ticket holder for the past 24 years, I have to confess that all seven players that we signed in closed season were foreign. They have had a significant impact on City’s performance this season. The likes of Elano, Petrov, Corluka, Bianchi and Giovanni have certainly had a very positive impact on the fans.

As a Manchester United supporter, I welcome the hon. Gentleman to the debate. I know that there is a good rapport between Man United and Manchester City. I hope that he shares my concern about the 50th anniversary of the Munich air disaster and that, as a Man City supporter, he will put on the record his plea to all supporters to recognise the significance of that event, not only for Manchester United but for football in general. We hope that the minute’s silence will be dealt with appropriately in the coming weeks.

I thank the Minister for that intervention. I am very happy to put on the record my support for a perfect minute’s silence at the ground. I have concerns that a small minority of idiots will choose to ruin the minute’s silence and there is a case for having a minute’s applause, rather than a minute’s silence, to ensure that that does not happen, but unfortunately every football club has a few idiots who are prepared to ruin things for the vast majority of people. I implore all City fans to ensure that the minute’s silence is observed perfectly.

There is a good debate throughout the country about the impact that foreign players have had on the game. England’s failure to qualify for the next championships has increased that debate, but it is bogus to suggest that the influx of foreign players has led to the downfall of the England team. I strongly believe that we were knocked out of the competition not because we did not have decent players, but because the decent players that we did have performed poorly and did not perform as a good team. The talent available in the team should have been easily good enough for us to qualify from our group.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is quite likely that the focus of those players for most of the year is on winning for their clubs and that when they join the England party, that is a way of relaxing—without their knowing it; I do not mean that they do that on purpose. Does he think that there is some truth in that?

There probably is some truth in that. Many home-grown players take great pride in playing for their national team, but within our football structures, less importance is given to the national team than to local teams, and I think that the vast majority of fans prefer their local team—the team that they support—to do better than England. That is the case for many people. We certainly have in the premiership the players and the talent of English descent to have qualified for the next championships. Lack of talent was not responsible for us being knocked out of the competition.

I argue that foreign players in the premiership can have a very positive impact on the development of home-grown players. One example from my club is Michael Johnson. I believe that in the future he will be a long-term fixture in the England set-up—I hope that he will still be playing for Manchester City at the time, but I suspect that he will be playing for either Arsenal or Chelsea. However, we cannot escape from the fact that over the past few years, since the onset of the premiership, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of foreign players. Eventually, if the trend continues, it will become increasingly difficult for home-grown talent to push through and make it into first teams.

In the first season of the premiership, in 1992-93, only 12 foreign players played in the first round of fixtures and the total for the whole season was only 23, whereas last season in the premiership, there were 123 foreign players, and this season we have already seen 196. Clearly, the trend is significantly on the up. However, I do not get the impression when I go to the City of Manchester stadium that fans do not want to see top foreign players come to play in the premiership. Players such as Elano have had a massive impact on City and have improved the gates as a result, because people want to come to watch them. However, fans want to ensure that home-grown talent that is currently in premiership teams and that has come through the ranks, players who have been in the academy and managed to get through to the first team—like Micah Richards, Michael Johnson, Joe Hart and Nedum Onuoha—will still have the opportunity to get through to first teams in the premiership in 10 or 20 years’ time.

Three positive steps could be taken. I accept the point that it is not Government’s role to do this, but I think that it is the role of the football authorities to examine ways in which we can ensure that home-grown talent can still come through in the future. First, we should scrap the transfer window. I understand why it was brought in. It was brought in to protect the interests of smaller clubs, but it simply does not. People at clubs outside the premiership will say that the transfer window does not work. The transfer window means that transfers become more of a risk for clubs and they are looking for instant impact from the signings that they make in the transfer windows. Premiership teams obviously do not want to sell their players to their rivals, so teams are forced to buy either players from lower divisions or foreign players with a proven track record in the top flight of football, so obviously clubs are more likely to go for the foreign imports who have a proven track record.

Secondly, rather than trying to restrict foreign imports, we should have a high minimum percentage quota for home-grown talent in the academies to ensure that if clubs want to take lots of good young talent from abroad, they still have to take a very significant number of home-grown players in their academies and lower teams, so that those players have the opportunity to flourish in big teams.

Thirdly, we should consider levelling the playing field on the rules about transfers. Buying players from other English clubs almost always requires a massive outlay of cash, whereas if clubs buy players from the continent, they are often able to spread the payments over a much longer period. Because clubs are often strapped for cash, that is a far more attractive option. Surely that inequity cannot continue. A proper level playing field is needed so that it is not cheaper in the short term to buy players from abroad than it is to buy players from other English clubs.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) on securing the debate and on his excellent contribution to it. He summed up concerns that many people have about overseas footballers. There is great complacency in the national game, because it is regarded as the greatest show on earth; that is how the premiership is marketed overseas. My right hon. Friend made very good points about ensuring that the quality of training for our home-grown talent remains strong; indeed, it should be strengthened. We have much to learn from what goes on in continental Europe and possibly even from other parts of the world. There is a notion that we are attracting just the cream of the cream of players. In fact, we are getting players who are being paid a lot of money, but they may well be approaching the end of their careers.

Like all hon. Members who have made and will make contributions to the debate, I am a keen football fan and have been for almost the entirety of my 43 years. Certainly for the past 35 years I have watched the fortunes of my beloved Bury football club, to which the hon. Member for Feltham and Heston (Alan Keen) referred. I have to say that it has been a case of thin and thinner times, although we got an equaliser three minutes from time to deprive Bradford City of a victory last night, so at times there are small mercies in supporting Bury.

Great changes have taken place in the footballing world even in that 35-year time frame. I recall that in the 1970s, many footballing commentators said that the best talent was going overseas, to the detriment of the English game. We were not actually losing that many players, but some of the top players moved overseas: Kevin Keegan went to Hamburg; Liam Brady, who was Irish but who played in England, moved abroad; and other players left these shores, albeit in relatively small numbers. Of course, my right hon. Friend and people more generally now argue that there is perhaps too much overseas talent in this country, to the detriment of the national game. I accept that, in part, it is a matter of degree. A vast number of overseas players play here at the highest level of the game, which is inevitably a barrier to some of the young talent.

Another big problem is that there have always been overblown expectations of our national side. Back in the 1950s, the nation had its first footballing fiasco when we lost in the 1950 World cup to the United States of America. Three years later, we had the horror of losing for the first time against anything other than a home nation at Wembley. In a sense, expectations were ratcheted up still more by winning the World cup, as we did on home ground in 1966. The expectation is that winning the World cup is the rightful place of the England national side, but the fact is that only in 1990 has England made it even as far as the semi-final in a World cup.

On immigration and overseas players, there are a lot of EU nationals playing in the premier league, but they are increasingly playing right the way through the profession, including, in some cases, in the semi-professional game in this country. Of course, there is free movement of labour, so we cannot prevent such people from playing here, nor should we.

The hon. Gentleman has thrown up an interesting question and I would be interested to hear his view on it. Once an EU national’s residency rules apply, they would qualify to play for England. Does he think that it would be appropriate for people such as Almunia, the Arsenal goalkeeper, to play for the national side?

This is going to be quite a battle. My other great passion is cricket. Twenty years ago, the notion that we would have an England cricket captain by the name of Hussain might have been a horror to some of the purists of that game. Obviously, things move on, and rightly so. If Mr. Almunia wishes to make his home here and is committed to becoming a British citizen, he should have every right to play for the English national side or, indeed, the Scottish, Welsh or Northern Irish national side.

There are something like 250 or 260 overseas players on the books of premiership clubs, but there are virtually no restrictions whatever to the talent that premiership or other clubs can choose to employ. There are no wage, squad size or registration restrictions, and, post-Bosman, sometimes no transfer fees. Of course, that is in stark contrast to other games internationally; for example, baseball in the United States.

There are plenty of non-EU nationals for whom, potentially, employment restrictions are in place. Those of us who are keen football fans will have seen coverage of the Africa cup of nations. I suspect that we are at the thin end of the wedge. We are attracting and will continue to attract an incredible amount of top quality African talent to these shores, as well as South American talent. The recent controversy over the Watford player Al Bangura, a Sierra Leone national who was initially refused a work permit will, I suspect, be the start of things to come with regard to the debate over such matters.

I understand that the Minister will elucidate in his contribution at the end of the debate the plans afoot to limit the number of non-EU players. I understand that the Home Office tightened the rules as long ago as 1999, so that non-EU players applying for a permit must have either played for their country in at least 75 per cent. of its competitive A-team matches in the previous two years, or else it must be possible to say that they have contributed significantly as a special talent to the development of the game at the top level in the UK. Given my right hon. Friend’s concerns, will the Minister tell us more about the potential review of that legislation, and whether there are plans to tighten or loosen it in future?

The face of the national game has changed greatly. Again, I recall the low point in the 1980s, which I mentioned earlier. There was hooliganism and poor attendances, and crumbling, low-grade stadiums led to some of the appalling disasters that those of us who follow football well remember. To a large extent, the money from television has helped to transform elements of the national game. Today, the premier league is the most lucrative football league in the world, with total club revenues nearing £2 billion. The Sky TV deal money has cascaded in, as it were, even in recent years. Rightly, the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Leech) talked about the importance of the premier league, which was created 16 years ago. At that time, the Sky deal was worth what seemed like an astronomical sum compared with the deal negotiated by the BBC and ITV only a few years previously. It was worth £191 million over five seasons, but it increased to £670 million over four seasons from 1997, and to in excess of £1 billion over three seasons for the period that ended last year.

There is no doubt that the game is being marketed abroad. I travel abroad, and it is a joy to me to be able to watch live football matches in China or India. The game is being marketed as the greatest show on earth. The branding and marketing opportunities, particularly in south-east Asia—audiences in China alone are in excess of 200 million—are making an enormous difference. The colossal marketing and branding of our game has had a great impact on the amount of money that it attracts. I understand that football goes out to 202 different countries, which is greater than the membership of the United Nations, and that 500 million people frequently watch it.

I worry for the future of our game. I worry that too much of the money goes straight through to the talent, and I wonder how sustainable that will prove to be, particularly if Sky reaches saturation level in its coverage of the game. Although I accept that Setanta has moved in to some extent, it is a smaller interest in the broader TV game. Sky is almost a monopoly player, so if it wanted to put a cap on its coverage, it could be difficult for clubs to work down the talent’s expectations of the game.

We must also think about what would happen if the popularity of our game begins to wane internationally. Potentially, other leagues could attract great interest in China and south-east Asia or, indeed, other sports could begin to make more of an impact there. There is little doubt that football is the world game at the moment, but I worry that we tend to look on the past 10 years as the norm. As I said, I can well recall how unpopular football had become in the mid-1980s. It was not seen as a sexy sport; and, given the game’s problems, celebrities did not wish to associate themselves with it in any way.

The half-empty stadiums in recent weeks have been quite an eye-opener.

Interestingly, it is possible to say that season ticket holders actually mask the lower numbers. Fewer and fewer people watch FA cup matches because they have to pay so much extra money to see such games.

My right hon. Friend is spot on; in fact, he took the words out of my mouth. I was about to make precisely that point. The third round of the FA cup included a number of games between premiership sides. The match between Sunderland and Wigan in particular proves the rule, as it were. If that match took place in the premiership, the stadium there in the north-east would be more or less full, for the reasons that my right hon. Friend pointed out—in order to get a foothold, most people must buy a season ticket. Yet, although I suspect that rates were reduced because it was an FA cup match, only about 20,000 people went to the stadium. I worry that it might be starting something of a trend, particularly given the attraction of the bigger premiership clubs, which will move further and farther ahead in their appeal, because the more languishing premiership clubs have increasingly empty stadiums, particularly when matches are being televised. There is already some evidence of that.

My biggest concern is therefore how to ensure that the game attracts a younger generation not only of home-grown players but of home-grown fans. The great worry is that if we do not give some serious thought to the way in which our national game develops, we will find the next generation of consumers looking in a different direction. I now look forward to another Bury fan having his say on the matter.

It is a pleasure, Mr. Caton, to take part in a debate with such a knowledgeable group of good friends.

To the football authorities who may glance at this debate, I am sure that we would all want to make it clear that we speak as fans—perhaps knowledgeable fans, even very knowledgeable—and we accept that there is a gulf between those football people who are in the game and those like us who may have some knowledge but who are not in the game. However, that does not mean that we do not have valid concerns, on behalf of those whom we represent, about something that we obviously love. All who have taken part in the debate have a relationship with the game that is very deep.

I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) for leading the debate and for posing some important questions; his trademark is extreme thoroughness and being fully prepared to examine some of the difficult issues, which he did. I was particularly tickled with the idea that the chants on the terraces should be altered because of changing circumstances. My contributions would be: “Who is the accountant in black?”; “Who ate all the profits?”; and “Glory, glory, hallelujah, our off-field income streams go marching on.” I am sure that if we spent some time on it, we could work up some others.

I should put it on record that I think I heard my right hon. Friend converting pounds into euros—I never thought you would! It was a significant moment, but perhaps we should draw a veil over it.

All Members spoke knowledgably. In a sense, I take a similar position to my good friend, and hero to the all-party football group and the UK parliamentary football club, the hon. Member for Feltham and Heston (Alan Keen). His commitment to the game means that he still plays. He is slightly beyond the under-23 cap that he must have hoped for years ago.

If we are to have quotas on age, and if the England side has to include a 70-year-old—Mr. Capello, here I am.

If it was a quota on commitment, enthusiasm and downright love of the game, the hon. Gentleman would be in every squad that I could name.

I, too, support a club at the lower end of the league, my beloved Bury—I am wearing the team’s cufflinks today—but I have also had a long relationship with Manchester United, following its kindness and support for UK PFC, when we played a match at Old Trafford for charity many years ago. The team has always been helpful, which has enabled me to see another side to the game.

I went through an FA level 1 coaching course last year with Bedfordshire football association, for which I am grateful. That helped me to coach the game in Rwanda for a couple of weeks in the summer. I am grateful for the help given by the Football Association, which was terrific in supplying me with kit and knowledge. I was also involved in the small team that appointed Adam Crozier to the Football Association some years ago, when I was a head-hunter. Like many of my colleagues, I have seen the game from different levels.

This subject is not new for English football. It is often forgotten that the English game has always had people from outside playing a prominent part. Hardly any English clubs have been successful without the influence of Scottish, Welsh and Irish players. The Spurs team of 1963, which won the first European cup winners competition for these islands, would not have been anything without Danny Blanchflower or John White. Manchester United, which won the European cup in 1968, would not have been the same team without Dennis Law and George Best, Shay Brennan, Tony Dunne, Pat Crerand and so on.

One struggles to find an English club that has been successful without foreign talent. The great exception in our islands, as some will know, was the extraordinary Celtic team in 1967 under Jock Stein, which won the European cup not only with an all-Scottish team but with a team drawn from within a radius of 40 miles around Glasgow, a feat that will never be surpassed.

That foreign influence has always been an issue in how English players develop, and how to create a great national side, hence the discussion about whether there should ever be a Great British side. I hope that we will have one at the Olympics, but that must be an end of it. I believe that the four home nations should retain their individual identities for other competitions.

The scale of that influence is now so different from what it was in the past. The point is that it will not change, as many hon. Members have said. My right hon. Friend was right to pose the question, but it will not change. Fans want their clubs to be successful.

The investment being made in the game is such that the best players will always be sought, and they will come here for the higher wages. That will not change. However, there is a price to be paid. Part of our role this morning is to question how high that price should be. There is a price for the English national game and the quality of players able to play at the highest level in the premier league. It is not a matter that can be sorted out by politicians; it is an issue for the game itself, and a variety of suggestions have been made.

I strongly support the concern expressed this morning about the quality of coaching. There must be some reason why, if they have the skills, our players are not picked up to play in leagues all over the world. It is incredibly rare to find that. When our youngsters are small and playing in their grassroots competitions at home, is too much emphasis placed on competition? Are they trying to win little medals when they are six and seven? If so, they are subject to the pressure that they have to win—to get rid of the ball.

The problem is that coaches select youngsters who may not be good enough for the team because the parents want them to win—but the children want to play. Do we have to consider the parental pressure that is put on coaches? Is the link between those grassroots clubs, youth teams and the schools and academies of professional and non-league clubs strong enough?

We should pay tribute to the coaches. Football survives on volunteers at all levels, but the coaches have to assume a tremendous burden these days, working with youngsters, boys and girls, to advance the game. They deserve all our support. They should be encouraged to allow youngsters to play their natural game and to develop their skills. How is it that with “the finest league in the world” we are still searching for a left-sided midfielder? We have a game that cannot produce at the highest level those with interchangeable feet, able to play at the world level. That is extraordinary, bearing in mind the development of the game. If I were to concentrate on one thing, it would be that.

Other issues come in on the back of the immense amount of money that has gone into the game, and the introduction of overseas players. I, too, worry about the growing lack of competition in English football. For how much longer will fans watch a premier league in which only one of four clubs is ever going to win and in which the only competition is for the fifth spot and the UEFA cup spot. It is not good enough; it is not what football is meant to be.

I wish to ask my hon. Friend one small question. We talk endlessly about the premier league being the best, with everyone wanting to play in it and so on. When speaking about the quality of some of the overseas players in the league, it certainly goes beyond the top four clubs. There are questions about that, but there is a secret little link. Why do we pay such high salaries by comparison with the other leagues? Possibly, it is because of their lower level of skills. Many of the really top-flight international players have to be induced to come here to play; their national squads are reluctant to see them play in the premiership because they think that it ruins their skill levels.

My right hon. Friend expands on a point that he made earlier. We have to be honest. My hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field) was right, also, to question the arrogance of the English game in constantly believing that it is the world’s best, when the evidence is a little scant. It would be best if we were honest about the quality of the game here. There is no doubt that its excitement and passion are terrific and at the highest level it attracts fans who sell out the big stadiums and most of the big clubs have long waiting lists for their season tickets. However, we must query whether that development, and the lack of competition at the highest level, is good enough. Furthermore, as the hon. Member for Feltham and Heston said, there is concern about support being passed on through the generations, because of the cost now of taking your child to the game, which is how the game has survived and how most of us pick up our allegiances to clubs. That, too, is a worry.

What this debate has highlighted is not all the solutions, but that on behalf of fans we are concerned. There are some problems that the game faces, not least the number of overseas players, and if there are not to be Government solutions, will the game tackle some of the issues that we have all raised this morning?

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt). We have heard some very interesting and some very good contributions. I think that the hon. Gentleman managed to raise some salient points about the problems facing football and the state of the game within the United Kingdom, particularly in England.

I thought early on that the debate was going to become a “Let’s knock the Arsenal” debate. I say that as an Arsenal fan, so I already feel quite knocked enough after last night. So, please, I do not need any more knocking today.

The debate is about the employment of overseas footballers. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) on bringing the subject matter to Westminster Hall to be discussed, but it is a shame that the debate has such a narrow remit, because the issues and problems facing English football are not just related to the number of overseas footballers.

I must explain this point. It is not possible to have a debate on anything wider, because we had to narrow the subject down. It appears that we cannot widen the debate unless the Minister responds directly. I would love to have made the debate wider.

I was going to come on to that point; I had supposed that it was the rules of the House that have restricted us to the subject of this debate. Nevertheless, the debate itself, in its breadth, has not been so restricted.

Concentrating on the subject of the debate, I have some concerns. The idea that foreign footballers are the problem of English football is dangerous and misleading. The hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire made the point earlier that English teams have always relied on foreign footballers. As I said, I am an Arsenal fan and I remember a plethora of Irishmen—Brady and others—playing for the Arsenal. I also remember a plethora of Scots playing for the Arsenal and, of course, the hon. Gentleman mentioned the famous Georgie Best, who played for Manchester United. Non-English players have always been there.

The danger is that, if someone starts saying that only a proportion of foreign players will be allowed, where does one draw the line? If one looks at the current Manchester United side, the non-English players include Giggs, Fletcher, O’Shea, Evans, Van der Sar, Evra, Vidic, Ronaldo, Anderson, Saha, Park, Nani, Pique, Silvestre, and Tevez. Under Sepp Blatter’s rules, all those players would be competing for just five places. Should we make that six places, or seven? Where do we draw the line? Ultimately, what would be introduced is a form of discrimination against who can play for a team, and that discrimination would not just apply to people who are non-EU but would apply to EU players as well. As we have already heard, within the EU that would be against the current employment legislation.

The members of the Select Committee for Culture, Media and Sport are off today to Brussels to discuss the EU’s proposed White Paper on sport, which I am told has two aims. The first is to

“Bring sport into relevant EU policies in order to improve its use as a tool for EU policy. Most of these actions address the societal role of sport and the economic dimension of sport.”

The second is to

“Increase legal certainty regarding the application of the acquis to sport, as a contribution to improved governance in European sport.”

That may raise some concerns about the EU and why it is looking at sport and, indeed, what sport has to do with the EU, but I shall put those concerns to one side. However, the White Paper’s recommendations include the following:

“An analysis will be made of home-grown players rules to assess whether they do not conform with EU law.”

So the EU is already looking at, and is concerned with, discussions and proposals that may introduce restrictions on home-grown players.

As I said, we have had foreign players before and we have had them because there has always been freedom of movement. We have freedom of movement within the EU for employment and we have freedom of movement, certainly, within Great Britain—between Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales—and also freedom for players from Ireland to come and play here.

Provided a foreign player meets the immigration requirements and can get a work permit, there is nothing to stop them coming to work here. If they can get an immigration visa to come here, why should they not be allowed to play? Why should they be told that they are restricted in the number of places in a team that they can compete for? One would not allow that to happen in any other industry. One would not say, “Oh, we have x number of Members of Parliament. This is the British Parliament, therefore we will restrict it to the number of people who have been born and brought up here.” There are restrictions on who can stand for Parliament, yes, but they are not essentially to do with where a person is born. The danger with the home-grown players rules is that that is what will happen and restrictions will be introduced.

There is not a debate about the regulation of ownership of clubs. There are chants on the terraces about foreign ownership, and that is the one issue that does upset the fans, but no one is saying here that we should start restricting who can buy into a British club. I am looking around the Chamber and I do not see anyone saying that we should do that, because that would be in clear breach of all the financial regulations and the free market rules that we work towards.

Is anyone in the Chamber saying that we should not have foreign managers? If that were the case, the new England coach would be on his way home and we are not arguing for that. So why do we argue that, in the case of those who play for the team, there ought to be a restriction? That argument is illogical nonsense.

A lot of money is currently put into the sport; £40 million comes from premier league clubs for their academies and £9.3 million comes from the premier league itself. The problem comes with the way that the Football Association has run its youth training, as was alluded to earlier. The problem comes with the support that we give to the community clubs, the coaching and the investment in coaching in the UK, rather than at the higher level.

Ultimately, a player will rise to the highest level of competition that they can and if they are not good enough to play against internationals, they will not get to the top of the premier league. If one looks at Arsenal’s team over the last few years, it has brought forward, time and time again, young English players and ultimately they have gone off to be very successful with other teams around the country, but they did not get into the Arsenal first team because they could not compete with the skill levels of those other international players that were playing for Arsenal.

Those young English players were given the best coaching and every opportunity to play for Arsenal. Now, if they were given that opportunity and did not succeed, I have to say that there must be something else fundamentally wrong with English sport, not the fact that we have foreign players in our teams.

I would like to start by congratulating my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) on securing this debate. As he said at the outset, it is a matter of great regret that no home nation will take part in this summer’s European championship finals. Failure to qualify for a major international tournament in any sport can be put down to a considerable number of factors, but if structural issues within English football are indeed part of the problem, it is right that we should identify them and encourage—that is the key thing, as my right hon. Friend said—those responsible to take the necessary action. I therefore congratulate my right hon. Friend not only on securing the debate, but on the way in which he put his case.

We heard, too, from the hon. Member for Feltham and Heston (Alan Keen), chairman of the all-party group on football, and probably the wisest and most experienced voice of football in the House. I thank him for his contribution. The hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Leech), spoke about his own team, Manchester City, and we would all endorse his remarks about the Munich air disaster. We also heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field), who made some sensible comments about over-hyped expectations, which are a key problem affecting English football, and about the success of the premier league. We then heard from my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt)—another keen footballer and cufflink-wearer—who made some wise remarks about youth development, and he was absolutely right. Finally, we heard from the Liberal Democrat spokesman, the hon. Member for Teignbridge (Richard Younger-Ross), who laid out his party’s approach to these issues.

Hon. Members want to hear from the Minister, so I shall keep my remarks relatively brief. I do, however, want to lay out the Conservative party’s initial thoughts on the two key issues that have been raised—the premier league, and the dearth of English qualified players who are of sufficient quality to represent this country successfully. Before I do so, however, I want to make two preliminary points. First, during the two years in which I have served as my party’s sports spokesman, I have become ever more convinced of the need to empower national sporting governing bodies to get on and run their own sports without constant interference from the Government or anybody else. I am not naive enough to believe that that is always an easy course for Governments to follow, but I genuinely believe that it is the right way to proceed.

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that one problem in football is that we have two conflicting authorities—the FA, which should have the power, and the premier league, which does have the power?

No, I am not sure that I agree. The FA is clearly the sport’s national governing body, and it has responsibility for the English team. If issues need to be addressed, it is up to the FA to identify them and recommend the necessary action.

Incidentally, it is worth saying that there have been quite a few critical remarks about the FA this morning, and we should balance those by paying tribute to what it has achieved. Over the past 12 months, it has done three significant things: it has got Wembley open, and up and running successfully; it has implemented the Burns review, which was by no means easy and which quite a lot of people in football thought might be beyond the FA a year ago; and it has just signed a new television deal. It is therefore important to balance our remarks.

I am delighted—that is four reasons to celebrate the FA’s success on that side of the fence.

My second preliminary remark—and this point has been made by one or two Members—is that we should keep the issue in proportion. As I said at the outset, there are several reasons why we failed to qualify for Euro 2008, but chief among them is the fact that we failed to beat a sufficient number of teams during the qualifying rounds. We have discussed several other reasons—the number of foreign players, academies, structural issues and so on—but it is worth remembering that it is the basic failure to beat a sufficient number of teams on the pitch that caused the problems that we face today. I have every confidence that the appointment of Fabio Capello, who seems to be bringing a more professional approach to the top end of the national game, will have a considerable effect on football.

I want to move on to the two issues that underpin everything that we heard this morning: the premier league and the development of young players. We have, of course, been debating football, but the club-versus-country issue is not confined to football, and has recently been addressed in rugby and cricket. It is easy to be critical of the premier league, but, again, we should balance that criticism by recognising, as hon. Members have, that it is the wealthiest league in the world and is watched on television and listened to on the radio by more people across the world than any other league. It is a UK export with a truly global reach, as we have seen in India this week, to cite a recent example.

I am told, albeit by the premier league, that stadium attendances over the past 15 years have gone up by 60 per cent. and that the average occupancy rate now sits at a staggering 92 per cent.—figures that almost every other sport in this country would die for. I entirely accept what my right hon. Friend said in this regard, but the premier league is also a significant economic driver, with a considerable impact on local economies, and it generates huge revenue for the Treasury. Of course, all of that depends on what happens on the pitch, and much of the league’s success and, indeed, from my point of view, its fun comes down to the fact that it is such an uninhibited, unencumbered free market. My advice to anybody seeking to curtail that is that they tamper with it at their peril.

It is, however, perfectly reasonable to ask whether some form of restriction, whether voluntary or otherwise, would enable more English qualified players to gain the necessary benefits from playing top-level club football so that they stood a better chance of succeeding as internationals. I am not sure that intervening in that way would help, and there is the obvious problem of whether any quota system would be legally enforceable or practically workable. Furthermore, any possible restrictions might fall victim to the law of unintended consequences, and simply encourage big clubs to source their talent from Africa and south America even earlier. I am not sure that any of us would wish to encourage that.

Would there perhaps be an unintended consequence for the Scottish and Welsh teams? If players could play either for those teams or for England, they might opt for England because that would give them a greater income than playing for, say, Scotland, where they might be the first choice.

To be entirely honest, I not sure that anybody in the room or in the premier league knows what the unintended consequences of any intervention would be, which is precisely why that is such a dangerous track to take.

Any levelling-down, which is what the artificial selection of English qualified players would involve, would not be the correct response. The challenge for English football is to produce more young players of the calibre necessary to break into the top premiership clubs, so that they could hold their place there on merit and then get through to the national team. The key to unlocking this issue is therefore improving the supply line of young English football talent.

Time does not allow me to examine the various strengths and weaknesses of the supply line from schools, through clubs, academies and centres of excellence and on to the proposed new national football centre, although I am sure that we all welcome the news that that centre is going ahead. However, the 2007 Lewis review on youth development in football makes excellent sense, and if its conclusions had been implemented five years ago, I suspect that we would not be in the position in which we find ourselves today.

Incidentally, I suspect that all right hon. and hon. Members would join me in paying tribute to Richard Lewis. Not only has he been an excellent executive chairman of the Rugby Football League, which promotes truly community-based sport, but he has given up a tremendous amount of time—he is a wise and influential figure in the wider world of sport—to help with the FA review and the Sport England review, which the Minister will no doubt mention. We should all put on record our thanks to him for all that he has done. The Lewis review has identified a sensible way forward, and I strongly urge the FA, the premier league and the Football League to work together—that is crucial—to implement the review’s recommendations and see what difference they make, before turning to any other possible interventions, which may produce considerably less certain outcomes.

In conclusion, I again congratulate my right hon. Friend on securing the debate. There has been a wide measure of agreement about the problems and possible solutions. The Conservative party’s position is threefold. First, we strongly believe that the issue before us is one for the FA, not the Government or anybody else. As part of the FA’s root-and-branch review, I urge it to look at the issues raised this morning, to work with the premier league and the Football League and to produce a genuine plan of action as soon as possible. If that requires legislative action—I am not sure that there is any reason why it should—I am happy to put on record that we would, of course, offer our full support.

Secondly, I strongly support the recommendations in the 2007 Lewis review of academies and centres of excellence, as well as the FA’s decision to press ahead with a new national football centre. No one should ever pretend that it is easy to get young players to make the jump from club to international level, but the review’s recommendations are a sensible way forward.

Thirdly, unless there is a voluntary quota, which is unlikely, I would not support any artificial barriers to the selection of players in the premier league. The premier league is a fantastic national asset, and we should enjoy and cherish it, warts and all. The answer to this question lies in getting more youngsters into the top flight of the game. As so often in sport, it is a question of getting the structures right to service the national team—the academies, centres of excellence and the national football centre—then breeding a culture of success within the team, as the Australians have done so brilliantly in cricket, and as I believe the French did in football in the late ’90s. If that is done, I have no doubt that we shall qualify for the next World cup.

Welcome to the Chair, this morning, Mr. Caton. I congratulate my right hon. football friend—the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith)—on securing this important debate. Indeed, I congratulate all the hon. Members who have contributed; I consider them all parliamentary football friends. I am quite happy as Sports Minister, because in the past week about eight hours have been dedicated to sport in the House; that is unusual. We are often criticised for not being topical and not having our fingers on the pulse. The debate shows that we are indeed passionate about our football, on behalf of our football constituents.

I agree with the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent (Hugh Robertson) that we are not attacking the Football Association, the premier league or the Football League; we are making a genuine effort to get debate going about what should happen. I sometimes think, particularly in my present role, that the football authorities are a little bit sensitive when people start to raise issues about the game; we do so for its benefit.

I was interested in the speeches that right hon. and hon. Members made, and not least by the points raised by the right hon. Gentleman. My hon. Friend the Member for Feltham and Heston (Alan Keen) raised ownership and governance issues, and I agree with him about putting a supporter on every board, with the right support. That is the ambition of Supporters Direct—a movement that we are happy to support.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Leech) for his response on the Munich air disaster. I understand what he said about the minute’s applause. However, the issue is bigger than the two clubs involved and bigger than English football. If we cannot get across what the aftermath of the Munich air disaster meant to everyone, we shall sink low in the estimation of football supporters around the world.

The hon. Gentleman was right to talk about the positive impact of foreign players, particularly at Manchester City. I was interested in his suggestions about the transfer window not working as well as it might and particularly in what he said about the academies quota.

The hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field) talked about the new rules on European Union players and freedom of movement and about the Government’s proposals in connection with the points system for immigration. He will be pleased to know that the new system simplifies more than 60 current routes to enter the country into five tiers. Tier 2, for skilled workers with a job offer, covers footballers playing for UK clubs.

We have developed a special tier 2 sporting category for elite sportspersons and coaches, for those internationally established at the highest level, whose employment will make a significant contribution to the development of their sport at the highest level in the UK. Other tiers relate to sporting competition. I hope that will satisfy the hon. Gentleman that we are taking the right approach. He made great play of the impact of television money on football and its presence in the game at all levels. He makes a fair point about saturation and what will happen in the future. The football authorities need to take those points on board.

The Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) is another of my footballing friends; we have shared many games together. In fact, I should congratulate the parliamentary football team, which I understand won 6-2 yesterday against the Showmen’s Guild. I think that the parliamentary team has had a long successful streak.

The hon. Gentleman raised the issue of coaching and the debt that we owe to volunteer coaches throughout the country for their commitment to football. I want coaching to grow, and I want coaches to be held in the same esteem in the UK as they are in the United States, where a high-school coach is not only a high earner but a well respected member of the community. We need to apply the same principles to volunteers and to professionalise coaching in any way we can. I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on doing the level 1 coaching course.

I also congratulate the hon. Gentleman on going to Rwanda to show the power of sport and of football in particular to the wider world. This week I went to Nottingham to visit an organisation called Balls to Poverty, which is involved in taking footballs to South Africa. It has been very successful in the past three years and is now paying attention to the UK—including areas such as Nottingham, where there are difficulties with youth crime and gun and knife crime—using the same principles. That is the power of football working. The hon. Gentleman also talked about great teams and football’s aspirations and about the Celtic 1967 team of home-grown players.

My intervention on the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster was about residence rights and being able to play for national teams. He made some points about cricket and rugby union. My parents were from Yorkshire and Scotland, but I was born in Salford at the time when people could not play cricket for Yorkshire unless they had been born there. I always remember the great pleasure that other people took in telling me when I was a child that I could never play cricket for Yorkshire because I was not born there. The fact that I could not play cricket, and had no intention of doing so, did not come into it. They made the point that I would not be able to do so.

I am pleased to see my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Durham (Hilary Armstrong). She is a keen Sunderland supporter and keeps us abreast of all the things that happen to Sunderland, and the battle against relegation. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Teignbridge (Richard Younger-Ross) for his comments about EU restrictions and about the opposition and problems that we may encounter in Europe.

The hon. Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent really summed things up with respect to our unity of purpose and aims. We must ensure that we reach grass-roots level and support young players, and the Government have a role to play: by investing in school sport and providing coaches at clubs, we can help the premier league, the Football League and the Football Association.

I am particularly pleased about the appointment of Lord Triesman as the independent chairman of the Football Association. The Burns review has been implemented by the FA, and the future is still being considered. A continual review is taking place in the FA, and I congratulate all those who are involved. It has been a difficult period, with the move from the old FA council set-up to an independent chairman. I know that Lord Triesman will be a tremendous asset to the FA.

The defeat against Croatia upset us all. I was there on that eventful night, when we all had expectations that the team would do really well. Israel had done what it did on the Saturday against Russia, and we all expected a walk-over against Croatia. However, those of us at the game saw Croatian players who could hold the ball and hold the game up, and who showed tremendous skill, whereas, unfortunately, the England players looked as if the ball was a hot potato.

The tragedy was that not only England but the rest of the home nations failed to qualify. I said that night that there should be a root-and-branch examination of what is happening in football. It was a disaster in footballing terms, but also in economic terms. The failure of any home nation to qualify could cost the economy billions of pounds. That evening the causes were considered. The following day the FA announced a root-and-branch investigation of what was happening.

Yes, Mr. Capello is now here, and I am pleased about that. He is a world-class coach and we look forward to success for the England team, but things must go much deeper into what is happening at grass-roots and school level. I watch my grandchildren playing football. There is too much pressure and competition for results. There are too many parents who are pushy for their youngsters, not focusing on skill levels and people enjoying being on the ball and enjoying the game.

The impact of foreign players is important. The premier league is world class, for the reasons that hon. Members have set out. I understand the arguments that have been given. Quotas would be difficult because of European legislation, so I want the FA to lead a review and put together a board of people who will study football at grass-roots level and consider whether we get to players early enough. I hope that the Government will be involved in that through UK sports coaches and Sport England, to help the FA and the football authorities come to terms with the fact that we need to ensure that young players get support at the highest levels. Trevor Brooking said to me on several occasions that he thought that some of the TV money could be diverted into support for skills development and training, and I agree.

It is no coincidence that the Man United coach Carlos Queiroz said at a conference in Portugal recently that he was concerned and appalled about what he saw of the coaching of young players in England. We need to learn the lessons. I think that we have a glowing view of the past, and we all say that the ’70s were a great era for professional football—

Animal Welfare (Circuses)

It is an honour and privilege, as ever, to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Caton.

This is an important and timely debate. During the passage of the Animal Welfare Act 2006, the Government gave a clear commitment and undertaking to introduce regulations to ban the use of certain non-domesticated animals in travelling circuses. Lord Rooker has since noted that there is no reason why the regulations could not take the form of a general prohibition with exemptions on a species-specific basis. Yet in every week and month of Government dither and delay, the stress of animals incarcerated and exploited in British circuses continues. With countries such as Austria, Denmark, Israel, Singapore and even India banning such animals in their circuses, why are the British Government being so slow to act?

The Minister will know that there remains strong parliamentary and public interest in the matter. The circus industry says that there is no need for a ban, because if there were a welfare problem, there would have been numerous prosecutions under existing legislation. That is disingenuous. It is impossible for the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and local authorities to be present 24 hours a day, seven days a week, all over the country.

The industry says that banning circuses would damage the film industry. Again, I do not believe that that is correct. In fact, it is one of the industry’s weakest arguments. It is really saying that such a ban would damage its pockets. It also says that film makers would be moved eastwards to eastern Europe, where animal welfare standards are not as high. I agree that standards should be improved in some eastern European countries, but I contest whether the consequences of a ban would be as the circuses suggest. Paradoxically, it might drive up animal welfare standards, as the film industry would say in those countries, “We are prepared to work with you only if you improve your standards”. Some of the industry’s arguments are weak.

The industry says that it can regulate itself and that all that is needed is a dialogue with the Government, perhaps through the new system of Performing Animals Welfare Standards International, which the Minister will know about. It is interesting to note that, until the deliberations on the 2006 Act, there was no detailed discussion between the industry, the Government and animal welfare groups. There was always dialogue, but not in the detail that there has been since. I question whether the industry’s heart is really in improving animal welfare standards, as we all want.

I am not suggesting that people in circuses are deliberately cruel—of course not, although there are bad apples in every organisation—but I question their motive for wanting to self-regulate now, when little was done for many years. That is why the welfare renaissance is bogus.

As a libertarian Conservative, I do not really believe in banning things—I shy away from it—but history shows that even the most libertarian Conservative parliamentarians have voted for bans at some point in their careers, when the cause has been justified, which I believe this cause is.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for bringing about this important debate. We must all seek to improve standards of animal welfare in every possible way. Can my hon. Friend give the House specific examples of cruelty to, or a lack of welfare of, animals in circuses? If he can, I shall support him in every possible way. If he cannot, he will deny our children the chance to see the animals and be excited and intrigued by them, which develops people’s conservation wishes.

The Great British public, in whom I have great trust—we are all here as a result of their opinions—overwhelmingly want a ban on the use of non-domestic animals in circuses. I know that my hon. Friend is not suggesting for one moment that constant movement from one location to another in small cages is good for animal welfare. I am sure that he is not suggesting that being locked up in solitary confinement for long hours is good for the welfare of animals, whether our pet dogs or a lion or tiger. I take his point, but I do not think that children get any enjoyment from seeing the exploitation of such animals.

For the record, I am proud to be a trustee of the Born Free Foundation. There are well documented cases of cruelty, and I agree with the hon. Gentleman that there are such exceptions in every walk of life. Does he agree that it is hard to justify the fact that circuses are exempt from standards laid down for non-domestic and caged animals—for example, under the Zoo Licensing Act 1981—because they cannot meet them? Is that not a cause for concern?

It is, and the right hon. Gentleman was a distinguished Minister in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs for many years and has a long and illustrious track record of standing up for animal welfare. He makes an important point, which I shall come to later. There is a danger that circuses will benefit if we compare them with zoos. Zoos have breeding programmes for endangered species, are subject to strict regulations and have larger areas for animals such as lions and tigers. Given their itinerant nature, circuses cannot live up to those standards.

I return to the opinion of the Great British public—a good thing to return to. In a recent BBC News online survey, 79 per cent. said that they would like a complete ban on the use of non-domesticated animals in circuses. The Minister is a decent and honourable man, and I hope that he will not dismiss that opinion easily and that he will encourage his officials, who I am sure are equally decent and honourable, not to dismiss it either.

It may help Members if I say that four of Britain’s nine circuses use non-domesticated and, indeed, domesticated animals as part of their performances. Approximately 47 non-domesticated animals are exploited for profit in those four circuses. That is why they are so keen to hold on to them.

To return to the point made by the right hon. gentleman the former Minister, no defence can be made that vital breeding programmes, such as those in many zoos, are at stake or that there is a need to protect a certain endangered species. In my view, circuses use the animals simply to make money. In a modern, supposedly forward-thinking society, such antiquated and, some would say, barbaric practices should not be allowed to continue.

No hon. Member would like to be kept in close or solitary confinement. I am sure that the Prime Minister might have some recommendations for one or two of his colleagues, but it is not how kangaroos, lions, tigers and camels should be kept. It is clearly not normal. They are kept out of their natural environment and often separated from other animals. Most of them are social animals and interact with other members of their species.People say, “Don’t bring emotion into this argument,” but there is certainly emotion for those sentient animals; they feel emotion. Anyone who keeps animals or lives in proximity to animals know that the majority of those animals about which I have spoken are sentient and highly intelligent, and have emotions.

To return to the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink), many such animals are exposed to long journeys and continual forced movement—to constant caged motion and alien environments. The era of exposing those precious, sentient and often beautiful wild animals to diminished physical and social environments has to end. It is a blight on our nation’s humanity and character—a nation, supposedly, of animal lovers.

My hon. Friend approaches the issue with the most honourable motives, on which I congratulate him. However, will he provide examples showing how those animals suffer during their caged time? For instance, do they self-harm or develop obsessive behaviours? Are there any examples of that?

Again, I am happy to refer my hon. Friend to the RSPCA, which has a catalogue of evidence. It is interesting that one of the Minister’s advisers on the advisory group—I shall not name him, because it would embarrass him—said in an e-mail to me that there is no evidence of physical suffering among any of those animals. Earlier in the e-mail, however, he admitted that at some time in his career as a vet, he had treated some circus animals, so even the e-mail from a so-called expert was contradictory.

I shall put on the record what I call the industry’s hall of shame: Bobby Roberts Super Circus, Circus Mondao, Peter Jolly’s Circus and the supposed Great British Circus. There is nothing very British or great about exploiting such animals. I am not saying that circus owners or staff are cruel, although there are always bad apples in any organisation; I am saying that the conditions in which the animals live and the way in which they are forced to live are cruel. There are people who say that emotion should not be a part of the argument. There are no tears in this place today, but there are probably tears in the eyes of those animals. One might say, “Well, that’s very sentimental, Mr. Pritchard. We can’t take that very seriously.” But those animals are sentient, they care and they have emotions, so for people to say that we should not bring emotion into the argument is disingenuous. It is interesting to note that it is not permissible to bring emotion into the argument if we are for a ban; if people are against a ban, they are quite happy to bring in emotion.

What is clear, and what even the circus working group agreed, is that the status quo is not an option. The group did not conclude that the evidence of suffering of wild animals in circuses was “inconclusive”; rather, it said that evidence of the absence of cruelty was inconclusive. One academic on the advisory panel said that

“the absence of evidence of suffering is not evidence of the absence of suffering”.

Interestingly, that important and critical statement was omitted from the report, and I should be grateful if the Minister explained why.

The Government should allow the courts to test the robustness of the Animal Welfare Act 2006. They should not allow themselves, as a result of conflicting legal advice, to become fearful and fail to test the robustness of the Act. Indeed, it may be helpful to develop some case law on such issues, because it may recur with regard to pet fairs and other matters on which the Government deferred action during the passage of the Animal Welfare Bill in order to deal with them through regulations or at a later time. The RSPCA is right to suggest that section 12(1) of the 2006 Act allows an amalgam of different information and evidence—including 24-hour video evidence, which the so-called experts did not use—to inform decisions.

The welfare of animals in circuses was explored in detail during the Bill’s Committee stage. Does the hon. Gentleman agree with many of us who are concerned that the Government have backtracked on their promise, that the circus working group’s remit was fundamentally flawed because it examined only travelling, and not other aspects of circus life that can compromise welfare, such as training and performance?

The hon. Lady is right, and she has a track record: on the Floor of the House during the passage of the Bill, she raised similar issues. However, the Minister is an honourable man, and I know that he and the hon. Member for Exeter (Mr. Bradshaw), who led for the Government in Committee and holds similar views, do not want to be seen to be backtracking. They want to keep their promises. I shall address the issues that the hon. Lady rightly raised in a moment.

Some people say that circus animals are no different from wild animals in zoos. That is not so. It is not just a matter of constant travelling. Zoos allow their wild animals to roam, they have specified enclosure sizes, and the animals can meet other animals of their species. The zoo/circus argument is bogus and false, and I hope that the Minister recognises that. Some of the views held by DEFRA’s scientific advisers are contradictory. I mentioned one such view earlier, but I am conscious of time and I must try to edit my speech.

The 2006 Act already provides powers regarding

“any unnecessary cruelty or suffering to any vertebrate animal,”

and within the Act, animal owners have a “duty of care” to look after the welfare of animals in their care. To address the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point, owners have various duties: to provide a suitable place to live—I would question whether they have fulfilled that duty in the situation under discussion—to provide a suitable diet, with which I do not have an issue; to allow animals to exhibit normal behaviour patterns, which are certainly not encouraged if they are made to jump through hoops and so on, usually through fear; to house animals with other animals, or apart from them, if that is relevant, and there is no doubt that that social element is not provided; and to protect animals from pain, injury, suffering and disease. Those duties are part of the 2006 Act, and as circuses fail four of the five criteria, the Government should test the robustness of the measure through the courts to determine whether we can secure a ban.

People talk about the need for regulations. I am relaxed on the issue, although my first choice would be to go through the courts to test the Act’s robustness. However, if the Government opt for regulations, I hope that they will not fall for the belated offer from UK circuses to comply with the model regulations proposed by the European Circus Association. The time for trust in, and self-regulation by, circuses has passed. Can the Government trust circuses to put animal welfare before profits? Circuses claim that they are the victims of “unjust accusations”, but there is only one set of victims in circuses today.

The report by the circus working group states that

“there appears to be little evidence to demonstrate that the welfare of animals kept in travelling circuses is any better or worse than that of animals kept in other captive environments”.

That conclusion, however, supports the case for improving the welfare of animals kept in some zoos, not turning a blind eye to the problem and choosing the lowest common denominator to justify sitting on the fence. Wrongs are being perpetrated in zoos, and although the majority of zoos in this country look after their animals well, that does not justify inaction on welfare in circuses. At best, the findings of the CWG are severely flawed, as the hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Shona McIsaac) rightly said; at worst, the research is unsound. There are certainly piles of rhetoric, assertions and assumptions. “Inconclusive” is a key word that many people in the circus industry use, but the research is exactly that. We are in agreement, but the word should not be used as an argument to diminish animal welfare; it should be applied equally to both sides of the welfare argument.

A ban would not mean the end of Britain’s circuses, regardless of whether some or even no domesticated animals remained. Animal-free circuses, such as Cirque du Soleil, continue to enjoy huge success. I encourage the Minister and his officials to return to the progressive agenda and the spirit of the 2006 Act, and not to be the latest victims of highly-paid lobbying by the circus industry. They should acknowledge the will, not just of the Commons, but of both Houses. Dr. Mike Radford, the chairman of the working group, rightly pointed out that the decision on whether to impose a ban was entirely political and that, on this occasion, science failed to deliver what the working group set out to find. It was a political decision by this Government. I know that the Minister and his predecessor, the hon. Member for Exeter, want to fulfil their commitments to the House on this issue. It is a matter not only of consistency, but of trust. Can the Government be trusted on animal welfare issues, and will they fulfil their promises?

I congratulate the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) on securing this debate, and other hon. Members on their contributions. More Members are present than is ordinarily the case for a half-hour Westminster Hall debate, which reflects the widespread concern in the House about animal welfare. That is likewise reflected in British public opinion. We are rightly proud to be a nation of animal lovers, and we support high standards of animal welfare in Britain, which compares well with the rest of the world.

This Government introduced the first piece of animal welfare legislation for nearly 100 years. We have not been in power for all those 100 years—only for a handful. Nevertheless, we have a proud record, and it was good that there was a great deal of consensus on the issue, because it gave us the opportunity to introduce legislation. As hon. Members know, there is always a great clamour about which Bills to introduce and thus a lot of competition, but the Government prioritised animal welfare, and the measure was welcomed across the board.

I think, therefore, that some of the hon. Gentleman’s comments about broken promises and so on were a little disingenuous, particularly given that animal welfare organisations, and the RSPCA in particular, can now act before, and not just after, concerns have been raised about an animal’s welfare. That is a very important principle. We applied it to child care legislation before we applied it to animal legislation, and it is about using expertise and recognising the potential for animal suffering.

I congratulate the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) on securing this debate. Although I agree with what the Minister is saying, I receive more letters on this subject than on more obvious ones, such as the European Union. I hope that we do not let down our voters on this issue.

That does not surprise me, and I am sure that it is reflected in a lot of hon. Members’ postbags. However, we probably will not hear that from the Conservative party during the debate on Europe in the coming weeks in the House.

We have all received expressions of concern from our constituents, and we are pleased that the 2006 Act is in place, as it places on those responsible for animals a duty to promote animal welfare. That duty applies, too, to those responsible for the training and management of animals used in circuses. The Act has been in place for less than a year, but already the Department has received positive feedback that the duty to promote welfare has proved a watershed in animal welfare law. At long last, it is possible to take action before an animal is mistreated.

I am grateful to those sectors of the performing animal industry, including the circus industry, that have taken very seriously the implications of the Act and have taken positive steps to raise their standards. I am grateful, too, to those welfare organisations that are working with the industry to raise standards. Nevertheless, I acknowledge that the legislation put in place specifically to protect performing animals—the Performing Animals (Regulation) Act 1925—is inadequate. During the passage of the 2006 Act, DEFRA Ministers accepted that the 1925 Act needed to be repealed and replaced by a regulatory system that worked.

The recent DEFRA-commissioned report by Mike Radford and a group of distinguished academics on the welfare of wild animals in travelling circuses, looked at issues relating to transportation and accommodation. The academics reviewed scientific evidence produced by the industry and by welfare organisations. Colleagues have criticised the report, but they will know—especially my right hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley)—that DEFRA decisions are science-based. I do not think that we could have assembled more distinguished individuals than the academics and veterinarians whom we selected.

Does the Minister not think that it is odd, given the distinguished nature of those involved, that they did not meet to discuss the matter, and that the majority of the report was done by e-mail? I also point to my closing remarks, in which I referred to Dr. Radford’s opinion that the decision was political, not scientific. It is for Ministers to make a decision. When can we expect a decision on the further deliberations of the report?

I shall come to that point in the remaining minutes left to me.

The report concluded that there was insufficient scientific evidence that animals suffer as a result of their use in travelling circuses.

The hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) said that the status quo is not an option. I accept what the Minister says about the science, which is important, but this is the 21st century. The history of circuses and of gawping at animals that are doing tricks and are dressed up is not compatible with modern society.

I am grateful for my right hon. Friend’s intervention.

The report rightly noted that in the circumstances it would not be possible to use secondary legislation to ban the use of wild animals in travelling circuses. It also noted that the Secretary of State’s standards for modern zoo practice could form the basis for regulations to promote the welfare of animals in travelling circuses. We want to see improvements in winter quarters and travelling conditions, and we will undertake a feasibility study to see whether the regulatory system to promote welfare is workable. I expect that study to be completed by early spring. Ministers will have to consider it carefully and report back to the House.

Will the Minister give an undertaking that different experts and scientists will be involved in that feasibility study instead of the same old suspects?

If the hon. Gentleman wants to criticise highly-qualified and eminent academics, that is a matter for him, but it does not move his argument forward.

The study will involve DEFRA veterinarians, zoo licensing inspectors and economists talking to the industry, and seeing what safeguards are currently in place and what could be done to improve them. It will also take account of the views of animal welfare organisations. We have made it clear that we want to hear the views of parliamentary colleagues, which is why this debate is very welcome. We will look at the study and report back to the House. The 2006 Act has been in place for a year, and we need to take account of how it is promoting animal welfare. So far, the feedback has been positive. We will look at the feasibility study and report back in order to consider how to move it forward.

Does the Minister accept that the circus industry and those in the performing industry want regulation and are willing to work with the Government to find a sensible way forward without the banning of circuses?

Sitting suspended until half-past Two o’clock.

Pleural Plaques Victims (Compensation)

I am extremely grateful for the opportunity to debate this issue, which is at the core of a great many people’s problems. People feel very strongly and passionately about it, and I am delighted with the turnout from colleagues representing constituencies across the length and breadth of the UK.

Pleural plaques is a condition caused by asbestos passing through the lung and the pleura that protect it, causing a hardening of those pleura. In October, the Law Lords decided to deny victims of pleural plaques the right to compensation on the basis that the condition is symptomless and therefore is not compensatable. Bizarrely, the ruling went on to suggest that if a person suffers anxiety as a result of pleural plaques, it is caused by being told that they have it, rather than by the condition itself. That belittles claimants and causes increased anxiety, because they know that there is currently no chance whatever of redress.

There is significant evidence to suggest that pleural plaques are not the symptomless condition that the judges thought. The five judges were unanimous, and I accept that that makes their judgment difficult to overturn. However, legislation is needed to offer hope to the victims of the condition. The Scottish National Administration in the Scottish Parliament have pledged to introduce legislation to deal with this issue. I am pleased about that, because the victims do not care how they get compensation as long as they get it. My only concern is about the SNP leading people up the garden path, believing that it can overturn the decision or introduce legislation, only to let them down at the end. I sincerely hope that the party is sincere in its endeavours to overturn the decision.

The judgment talked about the condition being symptomless, but it also says that there is a physiological change—the body changes as a result of pollution from asbestos. Does my hon. Friend agree that although the physiological change may be symptomless, it has certainly been caused by pollution?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. He has a long history of dealing with such issues. I am no medical expert, but I refer hon. Members to the work of Professor Mark Britton and Professor Tony Newman Taylor, who are world-renowned medical experts on asbestos-related disease. They have confirmed that pleural plaques are not prevalent in the general male population and are an indicator of asbestos exposure.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. He mentioned the action being taken by the Scottish Parliament, which he has previously welcomed. I am sure that his fears about leading people up the garden path will not come to fruition. This is not a constitutional issue, but a medical one. When he presses the Minister, will he make the point that people with this condition who have been exposed to asbestos have an increased risk of mesothelioma and bronchial carcinoma? It needs to be impressed on the Government that this is not a theoretical or abstract debate; real issues are involved.

I thank the hon. Gentleman. He is absolutely right. I do not mean to be disrespectful when I talk about leading people up the garden path. If a genuine attempt to solve the problem for victims is being made, I hope that it is successful, because if it is successful in Scotland, a case can be made for the rest of the UK. We need the same commitment from Westminster as there seems to be in the Scottish Parliament.

For many working-class people such as myself, this is an emotive issue. Having spent years working in the Glasgow shipyards, I remember times when we could see asbestos dust floating in the air. The foremen would tell us to carry on working because it would not do us any harm. I do not blame the foremen or managers, because they were only doing as they were told. I place the blame squarely at the door of the companies that produced the stuff and asked people to work with it who did not know the damage that it was causing.

My hon. Friend is quite a bit older than me, but I guess that he was not in the shipyards before 1965, when asbestos was effectively banned. It has been known to be a poisonous substance since 1892, so he is quite right to say that the real guilty parties are the employers who exposed people to that substance when they knew it was dangerous.

My hon. Friend is right, and when they were exposed for doing that, they left the country and went on to expose people in underdeveloped countries to the same dangers, encouraging them to use the same substance. This is not just a UK problem; it is a global problem.

Will my hon. Friend also make the point that this issue is not only about private companies? A constituent of mine has told me about working in power stations in which lagging was hanging off, dripping with asbestos, and about being forced to work in state facilities in which that danger was lurking all around until relatively recently.

My hon. Friend is right. The private sector does not have a monopoly on making people work with asbestos dust.

We have a lobby next Tuesday, when some of my constituents will be coming down. They would want me to point out that this is not just about looking back at old industrial practices; it is happening right now. There are GMB union members working in the insulation stripping industry, trying to make life safer for our communities, and they need protection. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that they need to know that they will be able to get compensation if they suffer from pleural plaques?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right—there are people working with asbestos today. Unfortunately, symptoms will not materialise or be felt in their bodies until some years later.

I have details of friends, family members and colleagues whom I worked beside in the shipyards. Those who have been diagnosed with pleural plaques know exactly what could be the next step. I have attended too many funerals of people who were told that they had pleural plaques only for them to acquire full-blown mesothelioma. I am not talking only about people who worked in the shipyards on the Clyde. This problem is prevalent throughout the UK and in the underdeveloped world.

I vigorously disagree with the decision of the Law Lords that those who polluted with asbestos, namely the relevant companies, are not responsible for people developing pleural plaques or full-blown mesothelioma. The decision prompts the question, “Who is responsible?” Is it the irresponsible doctors who told sufferers that they had the disease? Is it their fault for telling people that they have pleural plaques, thus causing them anxiety? I find that a ridiculous supposition. Blaming doctors for telling people that they are unwell is absolutely incredible. The people whom I represent, including my friends and family, feel the same.

When farmers and livestock were affected by the foot and mouth and bluetongue diseases, Members of this House were up in arms and exercised themselves in demanding compensation for the animals that were destroyed to halt the spread of disease. I do not wish to denigrate the plight of farmers whose livelihoods were threatened or even ruined, but human beings who contracted a killing disease were not given the same attention by Members of this House or, indeed, by the Government.

The point that I am trying to make to the Minister is that the illness affects our people. The working-class men and women of this country are watching this debate, and they expect their Labour Government to sort out the issue. They want compensation for being exposed to damage to which others have not been subjected. I would dearly love to spread some asbestos dust on the Law Lords’ porridge in the morning to give them an understanding of exactly what the issue is.

A briefing that was recently put out by the Association of British Insurers states:

“Insurers are committed to paying fast, fair and efficient compensation to people who are injured or made ill as a result of their employer's negligence; in 2006, our members paid out over £1.2 billion in employers’ liability claims.”

I have to say that that is what insurers are meant to do. They take on premiums against a risk, and, if the event occurs, they have to pay out. The ABI claims that there is a new consensus among independent medical experts.

I do not want my hon. Friend to let insurers off the hook. I championed the Armley asbestosis victims in my constituency for 20 years. We took the insurers to court in 1996 and won the case, but they fought tooth and nail to avoid paying out. Hon. Members will find that much of that large amount of money is actually payment to liquidators to liquidate the firm rather than pay victims. The majority of the money has gone on corporate gamesmanship to prevent the victims from getting it.

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I can sense his emotion and anger. I can well recall the situation in Scotland when people were diagnosed as having mesothelioma. When they died, the claim died with them. The sad fact of life was that when the court case came up, the insurers would invite a doctor to sit beside them, and, from a distance, he would try to judge how long a victim had to live. He would then find the technicality to get the case cancelled, in the hope that the person would die and the insurers would not have to pay out the money. Fortunately, the trade unions saw that, and, through their campaigns, they managed to get the law changed.

The ABI claims that there is a new consensus among independent medical experts. I would say that there is no medical consensus, although there is, thanks to the House of Lords, a new legal consensus. The ABI states:

“Insurers will continue to pay compensation to people suffering from these diseases and to their families as quickly as possible”.

Why then are the insurers pursuing another challenge to block mesothelioma compensation? Trigger test cases, as they are known, are working their way through the courts. That is something that will become prevalent in the near future.

The ABI states that it wants to

“speed up the provision of compensation to people with serious asbestos-related diseases”

and it goes on about the £1.8 billion. I would simply say that if it is that keen, why not show claimants the money? Why not use the savings from the judgment and set up a fund of last resort for claimants who cannot trace an insurer?

On that point, would my hon. Friend agree that there is a case for setting up a scheme similar to the pension protection fund so that if a firm goes bust, when a former employee makes a claim at least the employee will receive the compensation that they are due?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. There should be some mechanism whereby people can trace their employment. Anybody who knows someone who has died from either pleural plaques or mesothelioma will know how difficult things are when they are diagnosed. They do not have a great deal of time to start tracing their employer. Some of them, particularly those who worked in the construction industry years ago, find that either their employers or the insurers have gone bust, and it is extremely difficult to get compensation. There is a case to be made for some mechanism whereby people can trace their employer.

Recently, several insurers have refused to pay out on mesothelioma claims. They now say that the wording of the insurance policies that they entered into with employers means something very different from what they accepted it meant for the past 40 years. The insurers are arguing that the trigger for the insurance policy to respond to a mesothelioma claim is not exposure to asbestos but development of the disease asbestosis itself. The obvious benefit for insurers who are using the trigger issue is that, if they are successful, they will escape liability completely. The problem for the victims is that there will be no other insurer to turn to, because by the time they begin to suffer symptoms of the disease, which is often or could be as much as 40 years or more after they were exposed to asbestos, many employers will have simply gone bust, as my hon. Friend said.

The effect of the trigger defence is to frustrate and delay the process of obtaining compensation for some terminally ill claimants, but it also introduces uncertainty about how employers’ liability insurance policies should be interpreted in mesothelioma cases. The insurance industry and its advisers know that, although perhaps not all insurers are presently using the trigger defence as accepted by the court. The rest of the insurance industry will fall in line, leaving our members, our constituents and thousands of other workers who develop mesothelioma deprived of their entitlement to compensation.

What should the Government do? Pleural plaques is a condition that affects thousands of ordinary working people. They were negligently exposed to asbestos, their lungs have been damaged, and they face an increased risk of fatal illness, about which they are genuinely worried. The decision of the House of Lords to deprive them of compensation should be reversed by legislation. Insurers should be forced to use any savings from the judgment—it is estimated that they stand at some £1.4 billion—to set up a fund of last resort for claimants who, through no fault of their own, cannot identify an insurer, or whose employer, again, through no fault of the claimant, has gone bust.

I have heard from people who are close to these issues that there is a reluctance by the Government to intervene in such cases because, as someone said, the disease is symptomless. People who go off sick with stress could perhaps claim similar compensation, but I think that there is a clear distinction between people suffering from stress and people diagnosed with pleural plaques. Pleural plaques is a tangible disease, the effects of which people can see. They can see what it develops into.

Does my hon. Friend agree that although pleural plaques can be detected only by X-ray, the disease causes irreversible damage to the lining of the lung, and that if such damage were done to visible tissue, obviously a compensation claim would not be denied?

Again, my hon. Friend is absolutely right. He has a long history of working in industries where asbestosis was prevalent at the time.

On stress, I stress the point—excuse the pun—that I can see no comparison between people suffering from stress in the workplace and claiming compensation, and those diagnosed with pleural plaques, which can lead to full-blown mesothelioma, and the anxiety that that then causes. Like many people, I am not keen to have a compensation culture develop in this country. However, we are not talking about claims for a sprained ankle or whiplash but a life sentence of breathlessness, pain and worry about the increased risk of developing mesothelioma or, indeed, asbestosis. One cannot help wondering whether the Law Lords are perhaps more interested in trying to keep the courts free of what they consider petty compensation claims than in serving justice.

I could say far more on the issue, and I apologise if at times I become emotional about it, but there is a serious problem that must be addressed by the Government. I know that time is moving on and that some of my colleagues, who have equally genuine concerns, want to make their own representations about what happens in their constituencies. I beg the Minister, who has a good track record in dealing with such important issues, to listen to MPs, trade unions and union lawyers. This disease has to be tackled. People who have contracted the disease should get the compensation that they deserve. I ask the Minister to look seriously at what we can do here at Westminster, and also to consider how a possible change in the law in Scotland will impact on the rest of the UK.

I appreciate that many hon. Members want to speak today, so I will be brief. I congratulate the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North (Jim Sheridan) on initiating the debate. As he has said, many hon. Members share his concern about the Law Lords’ decision. I believe that a very simple point needs to be made. Compensation for pleural plaques has been paid for nearly 30 years. The disease has been acknowledged as an industrial injury and many people have received compensation. Although the sums of money have been small, they are a just recognition of the fact that pleural plaques is an industrial disease.

The world’s largest asbestos factory was based in the town that I represent. Rochdale’s Turner Brothers manufactured the stuff and then exported it to different industries, which many hon. Members here represent. Hundreds of people in Rochdale have been diagnosed with pleural plaques, and they are now extremely concerned at the effects of the Law Lords’ decision.

Clearly, as the hon. Gentleman said, the Government should do something. Last year, when the issue of mesothelioma payments arose, they acted very speedily. In the Child Maintenance and Other Payments Bill, which is now being considered in the Lords, a mechanism was found to ensure that compensation was paid speedily. I put it to the Minister that she should consider allowing amendments to that Bill to be tabled in the Lords to restore a right that has existed previously.

We are not talking about something that has not happened before. It has been an established practice—developed by case law—to recognise that pleural plaques is a disease or an injury caused by exposure to asbestos and therefore that compensation should be paid. I hope that the Minister will listen to what hon. Members have to say and that she will introduce positive proposals to restore that right.

Like the hon. Member for Rochdale (Paul Rowen), I will be very brief. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North (Jim Sheridan) on securing this debate. Pleural plaques is an important issue, and we must impress upon the Minister that she needs to think about how she might change the situation. The Law Lords made their decision on 17 October, and it has impacted on every constituency. Pleural plaques is clearly the result of exposure to asbestos.

My hon. Friend referred to two experts—Professor Mark Britton and Professor Newman Taylor—both of whom have said that pleural plaques is not a disease that affects the general population; it is clearly the result of exposure to asbestos. They also say that, after 30 years’ exposure, a person will have calcified plaques. After 20 years’ exposure, there will be plaques, but they will not have calcified.

The Law Lords have accepted that there is a physiological change. The calcification, or the change to the lining of the lung, is a tangible change that can be shown on X-rays. It proves that asbestos has polluted the body. Under the concept that the polluter should pay, we should return to the situation in which compensation has been paid for 20 years.

There is no doubt that there is a link with mesothelioma. Although the letter from the Association of British Insurers, which my hon. Friend mentioned, refers to only 1 per cent. of people with pleural plaques developing mesothelioma, Professor Mark Britton and Professor Newman Taylor say that the number is between 1 and 5 per cent. They make it clear that an association exists between pleural plaques and the development of mesothelioma.

My hon. Friend and I met the laggers of London—there is a GMB branch for laggers—who are exposed to asbestos in their daily work. They pointed out that each year in their branch, 12 people are diagnosed with pleural plaques. They say that a significant number go on to develop worsening conditions, such as mesothelioma and cancer.

I hope that the Minister will think very seriously about how we can move the matter forward. My hon. Friend asked what the implications would be if the Scottish Parliament overturned the Law Lords’ decision. I hope that the Minister can give us an indication of the implications that that may have for England.

Like other hon. Members, I will be brief. Although nearly everything has been said already, I think that we need to say it again and again. Until the Government listen, justice will not be done, and this is a massive injustice to so many people. Many of my constituents who have come to me about this matter worked at Devonport dockyard. They have experienced, over a long period of time, a series of injustices, which are only now beginning to be put right.

Pleural plaques is a recognised condition. I hope that I do not have it; I do not want it. I do not think that any hon. Member would want it. If someone has it as a result of being irresponsibly exposed to asbestos, there must be some recognition of the fact that they have a condition. Just because we do not understand all that may happen does not mean that people may not have developed other diseases and illnesses because they have had pleural plaques.

I want to name a couple of my constituents who have contacted me. David Pearn suffers shortness of breath. His condition is very noticeable compared with other people of the same age. He cannot lead the kind of normal life that he would expect. Another constituent, Trevor Talbot, wrote a letter to me. He said:

“For me personally, having been proved to have the asbestos-related pleural plaque scarring whilst working with asbestos in HM Dockyard Devonport, I feel that it is an injustice that fellow working colleagues have had their claim settled in full while mine, which was in the process of being settled, has been stopped.”

Another constituent, Graham Whiting, said:

“Could I ask for your continued support for a change of policy on this matter by voicing this once again in the House of Commons. It does beggar belief that something that has been recognised as a debilitating disease for twenty years can be just thrown out.”

The sense of outrage and injustice is clear.

The insurance industry does itself no favours. It has been said that insurers are committed to paying fast, fair and efficient compensation, but while they drag out claims for as long as possible, they can spend as much money fighting any payout as they get in premium income. The process is far from fast or fair. It may be efficient for them not to pay anything at all, but not as far as my constituents and others are concerned. That behaviour does them no justice at all, especially given other rip-offs, such as paying protection insurance, and how people are dealt with in other respects. It is about time that the Association of British Insurers started to recognise that the industry has a bad and worsening reputation.

I am very pleased that the Scottish Parliament is challenging the Law Lords. The effects of asbestos are a terrible legacy of an industrialised Britain that we now know far more about. The nation has generated great wealth. We have done very well on the backs of a number of people who have worked in quite dangerous industries. It is time that we recognised that and gave them the proper compensation that is due to them.

Obviously, if the Scottish Parliament overrules the Law Lords, my constituents and others will say that it is a curious situation. People who worked at naval bases in Scotland, on the Clyde, will apparently be entitled to compensation, but those who worked in Devonport will not. That message should not be sent to those who properly served their country in an industry that has proved to be dangerous to them. It is time that the Government recognised that. If the Law Lords want to play with people’s livelihoods and lives in that way, we should not allow it. There should be a change and it should be soon. These people should get the justice that they deserve.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North (Jim Sheridan) on raising this issue and keeping it alive in Parliament. He has done so along with other colleagues, including my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham). Why is the issue important? This is not just a case of unfinished business in which the law has not quite caught up with the victims. My experience in the House is that, every time we take one step forward, we take two steps back. That happens in medical terms and in legal terms.

I represent Armley in west Leeds. The original JW Roberts factory was there from 1886 to 1956, spewing out dust on to the streets. The saga is well known. We got great coverage for our campaign in the 1980s, when it was discovered that that dust polluted people on the streets. We tried to take on the company that became Turner and Newall. We ran a 10-year campaign to identify the people involved. They lied—I want to make it absolutely clear that I am not speaking under parliamentary privilege—and told us that they did not have the records although they did. We discovered them.

At the same time, there was the great argument about medical evidence, to which some of my hon. Friends have referred. It was said that there was no evidence that asbestos was dangerous. Well, in Armley in 1922, Dr. Greaves took images—X-rays—of lung diseases to prove that there was a problem. Those very images of pleural plaques are still available in medical records; I think that they are in Edinburgh university’s medical college.

In 1936, the health and safety people turned up and told the factory, “Will you employ certain conditions to make sure people aren’t polluted?” but of course that did not apply to the company blowing the dust out of the windows and the air vent. The neighbourhood was polluted with no safeguards whatever and the company denied all responsibility.

To cut the story short, the factory shut in 1956 and more than 400 people got asbestosis. I think that I was the first person to use the word “mesothelioma” in the House, in 1988. It was still denied then that that had anything to do with asbestos. Medical reports were still going in saying that people had died of diseases such as bronchitis. Sometimes, the reports said, “Disease unidentifiable”. There was no acknowledgement that one fibre stuck in a lung would lodge there for 30 to 40 years, pregnant until it broke out in a terrible death. That was not accepted. The medical world was as responsible then as the lawyers are now.

We got to court in 1996, and we won the case against Turner and Newall, but it was taken over and it slipped the assets across to Federal Mogul in America. Federal Mogul decided to wrap them up in a little bundle and send them back to Britain in a little company that had the assets, because the judge said, “Put a pot aside to pay the victims.” What did that multinational do? It set up a shadow company, ring-fenced it and deliberately made it bankrupt and sent it into administration, so that it would not have to pay out because we had won the court case. We then campaigned for 10 years, from 1996 right through to 2006, but through all the processes, the lawyers managed it so that 16p in the pound was what a handful of victims got as a result. It was a whole mountain to produce a mouse.

At every move of the game, the company and the insurance companies used every trick in the book of what I call corporate gamesmanship to ensure that they did not pay out. That is the story of this issue. Why did it end up in the House of Lords in the first place? People wanted to draw back from the rights that workers already had; the payments were there, as other hon. Members have said. So we are no further along.

It is not right that I should say to my constituents, “Pack your bags and move to Paisley, because that is your only hope,” but that is in effect what we will be saying if the Scottish Parliament overturns the ruling. We have had to say already that, if people want treatment with Alimta, they should move to Scotland, because they can get treatment in Scotland that they cannot get here. That cannot be just. We cannot offer that as an answer to people who are victims. They were polluted through no fault of their own. It was not that they did not wear the protective gear that they were told to wear. In my area, they just happened to live in the neighbourhood and the dust was sprayed on them. It is not their fault, but the victims are still being blamed and all the onus is being put on them to try to secure compensation.

Victims are left facing a terrible, terrible death. Anybody who has witnessed, as I have, someone dying of mesothelioma or another asbestos-related disease will know that it is a terrible death for people to go through, and we are asking victims and families to go through that without any hope. When the decision came through from the House of Lords, victims and families were left with a sense of deep helplessness and hopelessness—there was nothing that they could do and nowhere that they could go.

Can the Government cut through this? Can we overrule the decision in some way? Can we pass a law to say that people can have the compensation and acknowledge that pleural plaques may well lead to mesothelioma? We certainly know that they are the result of exposure to asbestos through no fault of the people affected. We have taken decisions to ban the use of asbestos. Richard Doll spelt the position out. Deaths will peak in 2015 or 2018. We could count the number of people likely to be victims. We are not asking for an infinite pot of money. I am tempted to say that, if all the compensation payouts were £30,000—the original level—it would certainly not break the bank, and it would be a damn sight cheaper than bailing out some banks, not that I am opposing that. I am suggesting that, in the context of revenues and costs, it will not cost a large amount of money to alleviate the suffering of victims and their families.

It is appalling to say that the victims of asbestos are the worried well. It is an appalling abuse of people to use that expression. They are not the worried well; they are people who are sick through no fault of their own. I plead with the Government: please for once intervene. The Government ought to find a way to cut through the legal logjam that has been fabricated by the insurance companies and the companies behind the asbestos pollution to avoid paying out.

Very helpful suggestions have been made. Perhaps there could be a pot like the fund for pensions. Perhaps there could be a pot that would enable people to be paid now. What is most cynical of all is when companies say what was said to me by a senior insurance company representative, “Well, you do realise that this campaign will die out.” Well, it will, because the people will die. That is unacceptable and that is why it is imperative that we act now and press the Government to do their utmost to give some hope to the victims and their families.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North (Jim Sheridan) on securing the debate. The issue is so pressing in the areas that we represent. It would be wrong of me not to take part in the debate, given that I come from Tyneside. The incidences of death from mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases are running at something like two a week, so the relevant court’s decision and the lack of Government action following that decision have left many thousands of people feeling powerless and belittled.

Pleural plaques is a working-class disease. It is a scarring of the lungs caused by negligent exposure to asbestos in the workplace. Let us analyse what I have said: it is scarring of the lungs and, quite simply, a scar is an injury. People normally get scars if they fall over and hit their head or whatever. That may be caused by their own negligence. The difference with pleural plaques is that it is an industrial injury caused by the negligence of an employer.

In the majority of cases, it is said that pleural plaques will not go on to cause death—or, indeed, mesothelioma, which is a death sentence in itself—but the very fact that someone has been exposed to pleural plaques causes the worry that they could develop mesothelioma. If somebody lives where the Law Lords live in Surrey, Berkshire or wherever, they might never see anyone dying of asbestosis. They might never come across that. However, on Tyneside, where I am from, two people die from the disease each week, which means that people are going to the funerals of workmates every week.

It is not for Members of Parliament to come up with the solution—it is for the Government to act. Thank heaven that people in Scotland have seen the light and are leading on this issue. Our Government and our Minister should do the same and give compensation where it is due.

I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North (Jim Sheridan) on securing the debate and on the energy and determination that he has shown in pressing this issue, and that is reflected in the strength of the turnout. As hon. Friends have said, to make no contribution would be to let down many of our constituents, and I am sure that many people in the room feel the same.

We are discussing people who have suffered the cruel consequences of exposure to asbestos. Too many of my constituents suffer from terrible asbestos-related diseases and too many others have, sadly, died from them. It is totally unacceptable that sufferers, past and present, and their families should be denied compensation by huge insurance companies. It is clear from the insurance press that the industry breathed a huge sigh of relief at the prospect of avoiding multi-million pound compensation bills.

In the meantime, hundreds of people who have been diagnosed with pleural plaques must deal daily with the invisible but no less real scarring of their bodies, which was caused by their employers’ recklessness, and with the invisible but equally real heightened risk of developing a terrible and life-threatening disease.

I can only agree with those who regard the Law Lords’ decision on pleural plaques as perverse. The research on which they based their judgment seems to have led them to take too narrow a view. A fund of respected counter-research points to a different conclusion, and it is generally accepted that pleural plaques are an indication of exposure to asbestos.

Many people who present with pleural plaques—or, indeed, with more serious asbestos-related diseases, such as mesothelioma—have little idea until the point of diagnosis of the damage caused by their past exposure to asbestos. There is enough evidence to suggest that patients presenting with pleural plaques have a much increased risk of developing more serious asbestos-related conditions—indeed, they face a 100 per cent. greater risk than those in the general population.

The negligence of some employers in decades gone by has exacerbated the problem, and that negligence was recognised in the Law Lords’ judgment. Employers were aware of the potential risks, but did nothing about them. They, or their insurers, should be made to pay for that negligence.

It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that knowledge of the potential death sentence implicit in a diagnosis of pleural plaques must have an adverse psychological impact, given the ghastly nature of such conditions. Recognition of the difficulty of living with that knowledge and of the consequent mental anguish has, at least in part, been the basis of the hundreds of thousands of cases that have been settled over the past 20 or 30 years, and nothing has happened to change that.

The Government have shown that they are on the side of common sense and common decency by acting to reverse the Law Lords’ perverse decision on mesothelioma by amending the relevant legislation. I hope that enough has been said today to persuade my hon. Friend the Minister that the Government should intervene again to change the law on pleural plaques to match what any sensible person would consider right and proper.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North (Jim Sheridan) not only on securing this debate, but on his track record of defending working-class people’s rights since he first came to the House. People ask me why people such as my hon. Friend and I came to the Houses of Parliament, and the answer is because of such issues. If people such as us, who know the reality of working with things such as asbestos, did not stand up for those who have been exposed to them, their voice would not be heard in this place to the extent that it should be.

Last year, I was proud to be involved in the discussions on reversing the Lords’ decision on mesothelioma. It was a great moment for our party, our movement and our Government when we reversed that decision, because it was the right thing to do. Today, we should be celebrating last night’s announcement by the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence that it has finally thrown out all the appeals by those who wanted to stop the use of Alimta, which would increase a little the length and quality of the lives of those suffering from mesothelioma. But what are we doing? We are standing here talking about a disgraceful situation that has been brought about over more than a century.

As I said in my intervention earlier, people first said that asbestos was dangerous in 1892, but it took 70 years to make it formally illegal. What happened then? People kept on using it. We are discussing employers who have such scant belief in the sanctity of life that they use little kids to maximise profits in places such as Namibia. They put them inside giant plastic bags to stamp down the raw asbestos, so that more will go into the bags. If that does not show the kind of people we are dealing with, what does?

Thompsons solicitors told me about discussions that it had with civil servants in the Department about the impact of pleural plaques. Thompsons was told, “What are you worried about? It’s no more than freckles.” Well, the people whose lungs have been scarred think that pleural plaques are slightly more than freckles.

Like other colleagues, I am listening with great interest to my hon. Friend’s speech. Will he join me in pausing for a second to think what it must be like for people not only to know what mesothelioma does, but to live day in, day out with the knowledge that there is a good chance that they may develop it because of their pleural plaques? It must be horrendous to wake up with that thought every morning. Does my hon. Friend agree?

I could not agree more. I was actually coming on to the great disservice that the insurance industry and the employers have done us by peddling the idea that stress does not matter. In their view, people who think that they have the disease should not worry; indeed, they think that people’s doctors should not even tell them about it, and it is absolutely disgraceful that they could even consider that. The insurers say that the stress does not matter, but perhaps they are really worried that people will take them to court over the impact of stress.

In the late 1990s, after years of battling my trade union, Unison, the insurers had to give in and award £187,000 to a social worker who had been stressed out by work. Perhaps that is what the debate is really about; perhaps the insurers are worried not about people with scars on the inside or outside of their bodies, but about the people who are really suffering. I am a patron of an organisation that supports mesothelioma sufferers, so I know what individuals are going through and I do not need to imagine it. I meet such people regularly, and I know that none of us would ever want to be in their position. It is on our backs that we do something about this.

The ABI brief has been mentioned. Referring to the Lords judgment, it says that the

“conclusion was based on the new consensus… and this consensus represents good news”.

If I got a letter in the post tomorrow morning saying, “Mr. Anderson, you have pleural plaques,” I do not think that I would be jumping up and down saying that it was good news. If that happened, I could become one of the 90,000 people who will die in the next 13 years as a direct result of being criminally exposed to a dangerous substance. It therefore behoves our Government to do everything in their power to put that injustice right.

Like my colleagues, I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North (Jim Sheridan) and congratulate him—if that is the appropriate word in such a debate—on his work on this and other issues.

My hon. Friend and I come from a similar area, and as teenagers and young men, we saw family after family suffer the consequences of having done what they were asked to do by working hard for their country and their company. Subsequently, because of latent industrial diseases, the trade union movement has spent 45 or 50 years fighting for recognition of what has happened as a result of industrial processes. People who have worked hard and contributed have been damaged as a result, but there has never been a general acceptance of the fact that they should receive financial, social and medical recognition for the effects of their contribution.

The most recent judgment is the latest in a long line of judgments since 1924. There has been a failure to accept and recognise that exposure to asbestos and mesothelioma are deadly. The first case was reported to the British Medical Journal in 1924 by Dr. Cooke from the Wigan Royal Albert Edward infirmary. The lady concerned, Mrs. Kershaw, worked in a weaving shed in the constituency of the hon. Member for Rochdale (Paul Rowen). He was the first doctor to say, “This woman has died not of tuberculosis but of fibrosis caused by her exposure to asbestos dust.” Yet from that moment it has been a struggle to get where we have.

The present situation is incredible. Despite what I have described, I never thought that I should be asking in the House of Commons to have something back that had already been conceded. We are not asking for something new to be recognised. There has already been medical recognition, state recognition—by way of benefit payments—and recognition towards compensation. My worry is what will happen if we do not win this case and find a mechanism, as we have in the past.

In 1998, my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, West (John Battle) was the Minister for Energy, and he found a mechanism to upgrade the payments relationship for pneumoconiosis sufferers. We found a mechanism to deal with issues such as bronchitis and emphysema that has resulted in the biggest payouts on injury benefits that the world has ever seen, and the House found a legislative mechanism, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (David Heyes) mentioned, to deal with a recent perverse judgment by the Law Lords.

Perhaps we can find a mechanism to correct the decision that we are now discussing. If we do not, there will be debates here for the next 10 years arising from this judgment’s use in other areas, against other claimants with other injuries. Let us think of the progress that has been made on stress-related injuries in Britain since Unison, the National Union of Public Employees and others took on that cause. It has become accepted as fact that there are certain circumstances in which, if employers do not act in their employees’ interest, they will suffer damages because of stress. That is an accepted concept, but the Law Lords have gone out of their way to state in the judgement that, unless a physical injury is associated with the stress, no claim can be met. What does that mean for public sector workers who attend accidents every day and suffer trauma and stress? They have no physical illness, but there has been the capacity for more than a decade to compensate those workers for the stressful job that they do.

I am not a lawyer—I do not want to give the impression that I am—but lawyers and others have the unending capacity to take one decision and link it to other potential decisions. Therefore, what has been decided is important not only to the sufferers; it should make us recognise the importance of retaining what we have won. We must retain it: there are no grounds for not finding a mechanism.

I know that the Minister will want to respond, and I have one final point. If the Law Lords’ judgment is read in a common-sense way, it suggests that the plaques do not occur naturally in the body, but are caused by an industrial process, which the law recognises in judgments as a failure by the employer to protect the interest of the employee. What is missing is a common-sense judgment. The Law Lords have taken common sense out of the way they have dealt with it. They have cited, as the ABI has, the figure of 1 per cent. The figure of 1 to 5 per cent. is not relevant: what is relevant in the cohort is that 100 per cent. have plaques. However, it cannot be judged who, within the cohort, will go on to contract a debilitating disease that will kill within 18 months of diagnosis. So all must suffer 100 per cent., to the point when the disease transforms from a plaque into a cancerous fibre, followed by death. That is why the Law Lords’ approach is not a common-sense one.

We must put common sense back into the law, but in putting it back, we must put back something else. The courts have already recognised that negligence led to the disease. The state gave recognition, in relation to payments, and there was recognition through previous court judgments that the insurance industry had a liability to meet, which it was meeting. On that basis, taking a common-sense view—difficult as it is for the state to meet every claim in every circumstance—we should go back and deal with the cases that have been left in limbo and accept that the diseases have been caused by workers doing the one simple thing that they have been asked to do: work hard and look after their home community.

Those communities are devastated. Not every community in Britain faces the same circumstances. Those affected are from shipyard and mining communities. They are textile workers and those who worked in industries making products for other industries or who travelled around in the construction industry, building up our capacity to power our houses, shops and commercial enterprises. That generation is now suffering. The debate is an opportunity for us: if the Minister cannot respond as we would like her to do now, I hope that she will leave the door open for further discussions towards a solution, because a solution must be found.

I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North (Jim Sheridan) on obtaining the debate. The two most important points that have come out of it for me are, first, the fact that as a result of corporate manoeuvring people with a valid claim might be removed from circumstances in which they can make their claim good and, secondly, the point that several hon. Members have made about stress at work. The danger in the House of Lords judgment in the pleural plaques case arises largely at the point at which it becomes a discussion of psychiatric illness. That point came up in part in the debate, but it has not been discussed enough, so I want to spend some time on it.

I do not agree with those hon. Members who said that the judgment was perverse. I have studied this area of the law for 30 years. It was an entirely orthodox judgment of the House of Lords. The conclusions that were reached, except with respect to psychiatric injury, were entirely in line with what one would expect the Lords to say. It was orthodox, first, because it has not been possible to sue for anxiety since the 1860s. People can sue for psychiatric illness but not for anxiety. It would be a major departure in the law to allow people to sue for anxiety, although some people have argued for it. People cannot sue for future risks unless something has already happened to them—some symptoms have already started. That was a decision that the House of Lords took in 2005, after a lot of debate, in which there was, again, argument on either side, but, nevertheless in the light of what was decided in the Gregg case it is not unexpected that the House of Lords came down where it did.

On the point about there being no symptoms yet—there is internal scarring but no symptoms—the decision is, again, not unexpected. There is difficulty in measuring the loss until someone actually suffers from something. I should stress at this point that the House of Lords decision does not apply to people who have symptoms. The battle in the pleural plaques cases is not yet lost, for two reasons: first, the decision binds only on the law, not on the facts, and if new medical evidence emerges or new medical expert views are accepted, that will change the entire thing; and secondly, even on the law, the House of Lords left open the possibility of suing in contract rather than just in the law of tort. Lawyers are therefore not giving up on such cases at this stage.

The next point that I want to make is one made by the right hon. Member for Leeds, West (John Battle). Victims must wait until their symptoms start to develop. The problem with that is that by the time it happens many of the defendant companies will no longer exist, either because of the normal processes of commercial operation—they just go out of business—or, as the right hon. Gentleman pointed out, because they have figured out some corporate manoeuvre that lands all the liabilities on a corporate entity with no assets. We must take action to make sure that that does not happen. The idea of a fund into which defendant companies must pay, effectively insuring the victims against the insolvency of those companies, is one that the Government should take seriously.

I should like to make a point about psychiatric illness and the case of Mr. Grieves. Mr. Grieves was different from the other plaintiffs in the House of Lords case, because he had developed a recognised psychiatric illness—clinical depression—as a result of being told about his plaques. Psychiatric illness is different from general anxiety; it is a specific illness, and Mr. Grieves suffers from it, but, in addition, he was denied compensation. There have been unjust decisions on psychiatric illness for a long time—we could go back, for example, to the Hillsborough cases. That part of the law has become immensely complicated and, in my view, immensely wrong-headed. The Law Commission proposed reform as long ago as 1997. It said that judges should be given a chance to sort out parts of the law themselves, but they have not done so and the law has become more complicated and incomprehensible.

The two reasons given by the House of Lords as to why Mr. Grieves could not sue are wrong, and they are incompatible with modern views of mental illness. The first reason why the House of Lords decided that Mr. Grieves could not sue is that he was not a man of ordinary fortitude; in other words, he was more susceptible to mental illness than the average run of humanity. However, that is not an excuse in ordinary law. If the victim of an accident has brittle bone disease, the person who caused the accident would still have to pay out, and would be unable to say that the victim was not of ordinary strength. I do not think that the position should be different in mental illness cases.

In addition, the reason given by the House of Lords is based on a wholly wrong idea of the incidence of mental illness and the likelihood that a person will suffer from it. Between one in four and one in six people in this country suffer mental illness at some point in their lives—it is not unusual, so it is wrong to say that employers could not reasonably foresee mental illness. That idea is completely out of date, and it implies that Mr. Grieves was responsible for his own illness, which is not right.

That brings me to the second reason why Mr. Grieves was denied compensation. He was denied it on the basis of an argument that I believe is quite wrong, namely, that the real cause of his mental illness was being told by the doctor that he had plaques. That supposes that his mental illness resulted not from his exposure to asbestos by a negligent employer, but because the doctor told him the result of that exposure. That is not a good argument for not compensating him, as it is not wrong for doctors to tell people that they have pleural plaques.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for applying his legal expertise to the issue. I am trying to follow his argument carefully, but there is a crucial causal difference. Someone referred to freckles. A person could say that they have freckles because they were exposed to the sun. They might worry about their freckles turning into cancer and become anxious. The difference with plaques is that we know that the cause is asbestos, which is a banned substance, as we know that it is deadly. Without that root cause, there would be no reason to be worried, which is why the judgment is wrong.

Someone with plaques knows that they run a much higher risk of developing mesothelioma than the general run of the population—hon. Members were quite right to say that we are talking about a 5 per cent. risk rather than a 1 per cent. risk—so people who are told that they have plaques have a serious problem. They are told that their problem is a consequence of breathing in asbestos, to which they were exposed as a result of their employers’ negligence, so it is a different sort of case.

The argument that “the doctor did it” is not right but, according to some of the judges, that was why Mr. Grieves should be denied compensation. That argument was wrong. For 10 years, the Government have had on their desks a Law Commission document about the reform of the law on psychiatric illnesses. We need a reform of the law that takes into account what we now know about mental illnesses.

I am intrigued by the legal case that the hon. Gentleman is putting forward. I would never pretend to be a lawyer—I am aware of the saying that if one puts two lawyers in a room, three legal opinions will come out—but I am here as a legislator. If the hon. Gentleman believes that the Law Lords applied the law in an orthodox and correct way, should we as legislators not simply change the law?

I am saying that the orthodox parts of the decision have some long-standing reasoning behind them, but the decision on psychiatric illness is the latest in a long line of decisions that make no sense. Most people involved in the law know that that part of the law does not make any sense. The Government have had a Law Commission report for 10 years, and there is no doubt that legislative intervention on the law on psychiatric illness is not only required, but is being asked for by lawyers.

The law on psychiatric illness ought therefore to be reformed. Moreover, to take up the point made by the right hon. Member for Leeds, West, there must be a way of preventing employers from escaping their responsibilities by delay and corporate manoeuvre. It is a question of justice, but it is also a question of efficiency. The companies have imposed on the world costs that they have not paid for. Efficiency and justice demand that they pay.

We have had a passionate debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North (Jim Sheridan) on the way in which he presented his case. He has an impressive and proud record of campaigning on this and many other issues. I remember well the help he gave me some years ago when we had a major gangmaster problem in East Anglia. He brought forward a Bill on gangmasters, which had a profound impact on the problem.

This issue affects people in many parts of the country. Obviously, it affects the former industrial heartlands above all, but it has an impact on every constituency in the land. Indeed, my constituents in north-west Norfolk, which is a long way from those heavy industrial heartlands, have sent me letters on the issue. People who have retired to my area have written to tell me that they are very concerned about the House of Lords’ decision.

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

On resuming—

I was just about to say, before the Division bell went off, that I have recently received a letter from Mr. Legg, who is president of the Swansea boilermakers society. There is obviously a major campaign developing. I believe that Mr.Legg is actually a constituent of yours, Mr. Caton, so you will be well aware of the pressures that are building up. In fact, all MPs now know of cases in their own constituencies.

What we have seen in the last few years is a very successful campaign on behalf of those exposed to asbestos and dust. One has only to look at the measures that have been introduced, including the Pneumoconiosis (Workers’ Compensation) Act 1979, the action that has been taken to assist mesothelioma sufferers, the Compensation Act 2006, which stipulated that negligent companies had to be jointly and severally liable, and part 4 of the Child Maintenance and Other Payments Bill, which is going through Parliament now. We also have the Civil Procedure Rule Committee, which is examining a new practice direction to ensure a uniform fast-track system for all mesothelioma cases. So there has been impressive progress and indeed there is a great deal of public support for sufferers of any form of industrially caused lung-related illness.

Among the 1980 cases was Patterson v. MOD, in which the key finding was the theory of aggregation, which did not accept that plaques themselves could give rise to a claim, but when they were aggregated with risk and anxiety that could create an actual case. Indeed, the hon. Member for Rochdale (Paul Rowen) pointed out that many cases were settled, but not at high cost. We are talking about many cases settling at £4,000 or £5,000, up to about £10,000 or £15,000, so they did not cost the insurance industry a great deal of money.

On the other hand, we are talking about one of the most vulnerable groups of people in the country and those small amounts of compensation were actually bringing some relief to people at a time of great distress. It is very unfortunate indeed that we had a situation in place—we had a status quo, as the right hon. Member for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney) pointed out—that met with approval and satisfaction yet the insurance companies decided to take the test case to the House of Lords. However, the hon. Member for Cambridge (David Howarth)—my legal adviser from the Liberal Democrats—tells me that the law was, in fact, changed in another case and that the insurance companies had to take this test case.

So we had the two cases, Johnston v. NEI International Combustion and Rothwell v. Chemical and Insulating Company, and the conjoined cases. There certainly was a very substantial cost in bringing these cases and it is a great pity that they were brought. I was not surprised at the outcome when I saw all the evidence. Nevertheless, I was very disappointed indeed. I did not sit through the House of Lords case. I did not hear all the evidence, and I do not think that any of us did. However, when we had a system that was working perfectly well and we see that system turned upside down, it is indeed most unfortunate.

The only good thing that came out of all of these cases is that a great deal of medical expertise is now on the record. However, that medical expertise, it has to be said, is divided. In fact, a number of hon. Members—I think that among them were the hon. Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham), the right hon. Member for Leeds, West (John Battle) and the hon. Member for Jarrow (Mr. Hepburn)—pointed out that there are medical experts who say that pleural plaques are not common. Those experts include Professor Mark Britton and Professor Tony Newman-Taylor, who are two of the most pre-eminent chest physicians in the land and world-renowned experts on lung diseases, and they both confirmed that pleural plaques were not prevalent in the general male population and were an indicator of asbestos exposure. In other words, one cannot develop pleural plaques through passive action, or as the result of smoking or other activities.

However, there are other experts, for example Dr. John Moore Gillan, who is president of the British Lung Foundation, and Dr. Robin Rudd, who is a leading consultant, who are adamant that pleural plaques do not themselves form any malignant problems and do not themselves cause asbestosis to develop.

I would suggest to the Minister that we have a great deal of medical opinion out there, but it is divided opinion, and there is a need for a wider inquiry. May I suggest to her that she either sets up a royal commission on this subject or tasks the Industrial Injuries Advisory Council to examine the evidence urgently? She should also look at setting up a proper register of medical evidence. There is a great deal of evidence out there and indeed there is a large amount of factual evidence that can be pulled together, but it is not being pulled together in any worthwhile shape. It would be very helpful to have that information brought together.

I have to say that I was disappointed at the attitude of the Association of British Insurers. In its briefing to hon. Members, it said:

“We know that some have called for a new database to record the details of people with pleural plaques. The ABI rejects this proposal. It would not benefit people with plaques, and may cause anxiety”.

I do not accept that argument at all. We need more evidence and we need to have all of the facts properly recorded and when we achieve that, we will be well on the way to mounting a stronger case.

There is another point that I would like to make that flows from the opinions of the medical experts who have been commenting on this issue. They conclude that 1 per cent. of people suffering from pleural plaques suffer some form of inconvenience, pain or constant irritation; whether or not that suffering leads to anything more serious, those people experience that suffering anyway.

Of course, I dare say that sufferers would be able to mount a legal challenge anyway, but why should they, when the Child Maintenance and Other Payments Bill, which is going through Parliament, will help those people with mesothelioma? Would it not be possible to amend that Bill so that 1 per cent. of people suffering from pleural plaques could be immediately eligible for some form of compensation? That is an issue that the Minister should examine carefully, and it stems from a debate that took place on 3 December 2007.

One point that the Government will have to examine very carefully is what is happening in the Scottish Parliament. If the Scottish Parliament legislates successfully on this issue we could end up with some ridiculous anomalies. For example, we could have a company that has plants both sides of the border, with employees moving from plant to plant. Those resident in Scotland would be able to take action and mount a civil case, but those living south of the border would have no hope of doing so. Another example would be if someone was working for a Government Department, such as the MOD, with facilities both sides of the border. Again, people may be posted to different sites and different rules would apply for Scottish citizens than for people who are resident south of the border. I foresee significant problems. The Government need to tell us what contingency plans they have put in place and how they plan to address the problem. If legislation is enacted north of the border that puts residents of Scotland in an advantageous position, it will lead to even more anger in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

We have had a passionate debate, and I congratulate hon. Members on proposing it and on the way in which they put forward their arguments. We are talking about a very tough decision. A retrograde step has been taken and the status quo, which was working perfectly well, has been turned upside down. We need more information; we need that register and an urgent independent inquiry or commission to look into it. Furthermore, the Government must act, in another place, on the Child Maintenance and Other Payments Bill, which is being considered. If they take those steps, the Opposition will certainly support them.

Like the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham), I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North (Jim Sheridan) on securing this debate. This has been one of the most passionate and committed debates that I have listened to anywhere in Parliament. No one could leave the Chamber today in any doubt about the strength and depth of the feeling on this matter. The representations made by my hon. Friends, particularly on behalf of their constituents, were passionate, heartfelt and sincere, for which I thank them. Their arguments were incredibly persuasive. Having said that, my hon. Friend will know that I set out the Government’s position on this matter, on 29 October last year, in response to his written parliamentary question. We considered in great detail the judgment on the Rothwell case, at which point we decided that it would not be appropriate to legislate.

I shall provide some background to that case, then respond to the specific matters that were raised. I hardly need to explain what pleural plaques are. They are small, localised areas of fibrosis caused by exposure to asbestos. They do not normally cause any significant symptoms, although they might indicate a slightly increased risk of developing an asbestos-related disease. I understand that that figure is closer to the 5 per cent. mentioned by some of my hon. Friends, rather than the far less significant 1 per cent. suggested by the ABI and others.

As has been said, over the past 20 years, it has been possible to sue for negligent exposure to asbestos leading to the presence of pleural plaques. Compensation was based on High Court decisions in the early 1980s. However, as the hon. Member for Cambridge (David Howarth) explained, a test case finally reached the House of Lords to establish the exact situation. Earlier High Court decisions were not challenged, so the question of whether it was legally right that those pleural plaques should be compensatable never reached the consideration of the Court of Appeal or the House of Lords.

The problems began when the Rothwell case was finally brought to the House of Lords, which considered the case very thoroughly. As the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk said, the Lords had access to detailed medical information that we do not have, and reached a unanimous decision that upheld the earlier decision of the Court of Appeal, which was that pleural plaque does not constitute actionable or compensatable damage. As has been explained, however, it also confirmed that if someone with pleural plaques develops a recognised future condition, such as mesothelioma, they would have a claim in relation to that disease.

The House of Lords decision was based on two fundamental principles of the law of negligence: first, that compensation in relation to negligence is payable only if there is actionable damage; and, secondly, that compensation is not payable simply for the risk or the worry that something might happen in the future. The hon. Member for Cambridge developed the point in relation to the Law Commission’s proposed reforms of the legislation on psychiatric illness, which, as he explained, have been on the table for some time. The Chamber might like to know that the Government have undertaken a consultation exercise on the Law Commission’s proposals and that those responses are being analysed. We hope to publish our response in due course. We have not forgotten about it; it is being dealt with.

Does the Minister agree with the insurance industry, which advised doctors that the best way to avoid pleural plaques becoming a stress-related matter is not to tell the patient that they are suffering from them?

Any doctor told to behave in such a way would rightly stick to their professional and principled position on the treatment of their patients. It is grossly irresponsible to suggest that doctors should not tell patients what illness or disease they have, nor explain in detail the consequences. It is disappointing that the insurance industry even thought to suggest such a thing. I am worried that, as a result of the House of Lords decision, the insurance industry may now question people diagnosed with pleural plaques about their liability. I have even asked for information on that. I am very concerned that the insurance industry may increase people’s insurance payments, in the light of the position taken by the House of Lords, and I would like an investigation into that to ensure that it does not go down that road.

A number of hon. Members have mentioned the situation in Scotland. The hon. Member for North-West Norfolk is absolutely right; if the Scottish Executive act on their announcement after the House of Lords decision, it would make things very complicated. We have asked for information from the Scottish Executive about progress on the matter, and I am afraid to tell my hon. Friends that silence was the great reply. We have not heard much about what progress, if any, they have made.

In many respects, Scottish law is very different from the law in England. The hon. Gentleman asked about people living in England, but working in Scotland, and about Scots living in Scotland, but working in England, who have pleural plaques. Because the law in England says that there is no compensation, they will not achieve what they think they might achieve. The issue is very complicated, but we will watch it with interest, and if the Scottish Parliament finds a way of dealing with it, we will examine that very carefully. I agree that it would be unacceptable in such a situation for people in one part of the United Kingdom to receive compensation and others in another part not to do so. That would be inequitable.

Why are we waiting for the actions of the Scottish Parliament before we act? Why does Parliament not take the lead, do something about it, and let the Scottish Parliament follow us?

Because we have accepted the House of Lords decision and we do not think it would be appropriate to legislate. In conversations with hon. Friends who have raised the issue and campaigned on it, including my hon. Friends the Members for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North and for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham), we considered the idea of a register, which the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk mentioned. However, from discussions with the TUC, the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers and others, it does not appear that a register is appropriate. I understand the commitment and passion shown by hon. Members and the campaigning that they have undertaken, and it would be inappropriate for me to close the door on further discussions about what else might be achievable. I need to involve colleagues from other Departments that would be directly affected by any change in the law, if any were to be made. However, the Government’s current view is that a change in the legislation is not appropriate; it would change the law of negligence so fundamentally that it would not be an appropriate process.

I accept what my hon. Friends said about the issues, and if, as the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk said, for example, the Industrial Injury Advisory Council considered the issue in more detail and decided where pleural plaques should be placed in the definitions of industrial injury, we might be able to reconsider our position. I make a commitment to my hon. Friends that the door is not entirely closed. It does not seem appropriate currently to legislate, but I shall return to the Department and examine whether there is a way of reviewing the industrial injuries process to determine whether action would be appropriate. People were compensated with relatively small amounts of money, and the House of Lords decision, having overturned that decision, has made life more difficult for others.

If the Minister is going back to speak to her officials and take some advice about the issue, will she also consider taking some independent advice, particularly from the trade unions and their legal representatives?

My hon. Friend knows that I have met, and we will to continue to meet, the trade unions about that and other issues in this area to ensure that we get the situation right. The trade unions have been very open with us, as we have been with them, about the right way forward.

I understand the passion and commitment that my hon. Friends have brought to the debate, and I have deep sympathy with them and their constituents. However, it is not appropriate to overturn the House of Lords judgment, given that it was unanimous and given that the matter was dealt with in that manner. Nevertheless, I am more than happy to continue to hold discussions with my hon. Friends to determine whether there is a way in which we can help and support people such as their constituents, who have been suffering as a result of industrial injuries and pleural plaques.

UK Bird Registration Scheme

I was delighted to succeed first time in securing this Adjournment debate on the future of the UK bird registration scheme, which was introduced under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. The scheme, which is held in high regard by conservationists in general, and by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds in particular, has acted as an effective deterrent to nest robbers and people who wish to profit from the illegal taking of birds in the wild. However, its future has been put in doubt by moves within the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to deregulate section 7 of the Act as part of a Treasury initiative to move to full cost recovery on all registration schemes. I, the RSPB and hon. Members from all parties sincerely hope that the Minister will resist it.

It was somewhat remiss of me not to have congratulated my hon. Friend the Minister on her long overdue promotion to Government ranks. She is a close colleague of mine, and we worked together until recently on Labour’s parliamentary committee. She is a passionate conservationist, a politician of substance and not the sort of Minister who will be pushed around by mere accountants in the Treasury. I have no doubt about it. That should have sealed it, anyway.

On the substance of the debate, I shall set out the case for retaining schedule 4 to the 1981 Act, which provides for the bird registration scheme, and I shall challenge the arguments for deregulation. The Minister knows that any good public policy must be based on evidence, and I shall highlight some of the evidence that she has already received from the RSPB, the Joint Nature Conservation Committee and the majority of the countryside agencies.

DEFRA argues that taking schedule 4 birds from the wild poses no conservation threat to the species concerned, and that the national wildlife crime unit has not identified it as a priority, although I must say that that statement has been taken out of context. The argument misses the point about registration, which is, in combination with DNA testing, a tried and tested method of deterring criminal activity, and a major wildlife crime enforcement success story.

Does my hon. Friend agree that if the wildlife crime unit is to mount a successful prosecution, it needs to know where birds should be and to whom they should be registered? It does not matter whether it has DNA, because all that proves is the lineage of the bird. It cannot prove where, and in whose care, the bird should be.

My hon. Friend has considerable experience of the issue, and she is absolutely right. I shall tease out that point later—a point that the police have made in their response to the consultation.

Had the NWCU existed between 1975 and 1995, it would certainly have selected illegal taking, particularly of high-value birds of prey, as an enforcement priority. Prior to the registration scheme coming into effect, up to half of all peregrine falcon nests in the Lake district were robbed annually. That was an outrage, and the scheme has helped put an end to much of it. Only with DNA fingerprinting, which the scheme made possible, have the enforcement agencies managed to reduce such criminality.

In 1993, police investigations in just six cases using DNA evidence found that 13 per cent. of all peregrines declared as captive-bred in that year were not actually related to their supposed parents. There was widespread abuse. A string of high-profile convictions between 1992 and 1998 using DNA evidence led to a dramatic decline in criminality for offences involving peregrines and goshawks, dropping from an average of more than four convictions a year to less than one. The number of peregrine nest robberies has also declined in line with that drop, which all hon. Members welcome.

Most illegal activity that is investigated in connection with schedule 4 birds involves the laundering of young wild birds through fraudulent claims of captive breeding, and uses legitimately captive “parents” as a smokescreen. Since the advent of DNA fingerprinting only one case has not relied heavily on registration data. It is highly likely that without it, the remaining cases would not have been possible. As my hon. Friend said, the schedule 4 bird registration breeding records held by DEFRA are often the key information that allow the police to obtain a search warrant in the first place.

After a thorough scientific review, using criteria agreed by all stakeholders, the JNCC has listed the species that it believes, without the scheme, would suffer illegal taking at a level likely to have a detrimental impact on wild bird populations. Critically, the police have advised that in the absence of the registration scheme, there would be a lower likelihood of any successful enforcement action being taken. That is clear and sound advice, and DEFRA would do well to heed it. I contend that to abolish the bird registration scheme would mean the return of the nest-robbers.

As my hon. Friend has outlined, the origin of the proposals is the Government’s drive for deregulation. The evidence that he is giving demonstrates that the cause of conservation is well served by the scheme. Surely he therefore agrees that it would be short-sighted to sacrifice it on the altar of deregulation, especially considering the million-plus voices for nature that are behind it.

I do not know whether my hon. Friend has had sight of my speech or has telepathic powers. I was about to say that the DEFRA stakeholder consultation on the review of schedule 4 sought responses from all stakeholders. The Hawk Board claims to represent 25,000 falconers, but only 21 responded, and only four of those stated that they wanted the bird registration scheme scrapped. There does not even appear to be a groundswell of opinion in the trade, if the numbers are to be believed. Of course, one must weigh that against the million-plus membership of the RSPB, all the major stakeholders and countryside agencies and the police, who have made their view crystal clear.

I commend my hon. Friend on the strength of his case and on bringing the matter before the House. Does he agree that for legitimate owners, registration acts as a form of insurance? As he has said, there is no support at all for removing registration. When considering whether to get rid of any regulation, the key consideration should be whether it serves a sensible purpose and whether it is fit for purpose. This regulation does and is. As my hon. Friend said, our good friend the Minister is a strong environmentalist, and she should return to her Department and tell it to think again.

That is right. “Go back to your Departments and regulate” will be the message from this debate. Many of us came into the House to regulate. We regulated in the employment market to end poverty pay and introduce a statutory minimum wage. Many years ago, we regulated to stop small kids being sent up chimneys. There are many examples of regulation being for the good. I object to the Audit Commission’s perverse neo-con ideology that all government and all regulation is bad. It clearly is not, and as my right hon. Friend says, the regulation in question works.

May I make a little more progress? The Minister has been very generous and agreed to reduce the length of her speech, but it is important that she has a chance to respond.

I shall set out the three arguments that are being made for deregulation. It is said that controls under the convention on international trade in endangered species are an effective substitute for bird registration, which they are not. It is said that the EU’s wild bird import ban negates the need to include exotic species in schedule 4, which it clearly does not. It is said that enforcement could take place without the schedule, which it could not.

I thank my hon. Friend for his generosity in giving way; I know the passion with which the matter is addressed by the Members present.

Does my hon. Friend agree that we need the regulation to monitor not people who hold birds legally but those who are on the verge of criminality and using birds for expensive trading, holding them almost as a form of currency? If we do not know where the birds are, we cannot check the trading and illegal movement of them.

I agree. To pick up the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith), the legitimate bird trader has nothing to fear and can only benefit from integrity in the system, both in the value and antecedents of the products in which they trade. That perhaps explains why there was such a minimal response from the trade to the proposal to get rid of the registration scheme.

DEFRA has accepted, in its consultations in 2002 and 2006, that CITES controls cannot replace bird registration because CITES is a wildlife trade regulation that does not have the essential element of possession controls that the 1981 Act has. Once a specimen is sold under CITES controls it becomes untraceable, and the system does not maintain the detailed breeding records needed for DNA profiling inquiries.

DEFRA appears to be arguing that the Commission’s decision to ban all wild bird imports from October 2005, as a measure against the spread of avian flu, has somehow changed the landscape for bird registration to the extent that no non-native species should be considered for inclusion in schedule 4. That is nonsense. The schedule 4 species list proposed by the JNCC in December 2004 and subsequently submitted for public consultation was based on a rigorous scientific review, using criteria agreed by stakeholders, conservationists and bird keepers themselves. The species proposed are all globally threatened birds, specifically those threatened by trade, and include some of the most critically endangered and beautiful birds in the world. They include the Spix’s macaw, which is extinct in the wild, the blue-throated macaw, of which there are fewer than 100 wild pairs, and the Bali starling, of which there are fewer than 20 left in the wild. Any trade in species with such perilously low global populations could have a serious impact on their conservation status. I know that my hon. Friend the Minister would not want her fingerprints on any decision that led to that. For those reasons, it is essential that the Government accept the JNCC’s advice and place those endangered birds in schedule 4 to the 1981 Act.

With regard to whether effective enforcement could take place without schedule 4, the police have made clear their views in their submissions to the review. As we all know, enforcement budgets are extremely tight, and experience has shown that many cases will not be investigated. Because of the prohibitive costs of DNA analysis, they will not be considered a police priority when balanced against other Government crime reduction and detection targets. Considered against competing Home Office priorities and cost benefits, many wildlife investigations will not even get off the ground, because of high cost and an uncertain outcome—an outcome that would be made more uncertain if schedule 4 and the registration scheme were not in place.

Registration is strongly backed by the police, all the statutory countryside agencies and the JNCC. The revised JNCC-recommended list of schedule 4 species includes 42 that, in the absence of registration, it considers would be likely to suffer levels of illegal trade that could have a detrimental impact on wild bird populations. The stakes are high for biodiversity, and that would be simply unacceptable. The JNCC has also proposed the inclusion of globally threatened birds, in support of the UK’s international nature conservation obligations and as a mechanism for monitoring captive populations of invasive, non-native species such as the ruddy duck.

The regulatory burden on the trade has been given as an argument for deregulation, but the burden on bird keepers and dealers has already been considerably reduced following previous consultations. In 1994, about 15,000 were removed from the list, substantially reducing the regulatory burden on keepers. Following the 2002 review, the burden was further reduced when the need to register each bird every three years was removed and marking requirements were simplified. Registration impacts on about 2,000 bird keepers, but the effects of increased nest robberies would be felt by 2.85 million birdwatchers and could have economic consequences. For example, many of us will have enjoyed the beautiful countryside, vista and bird life at Symonds Yat. The peregrine nest there, which used to be regularly robbed, attracts 55,000 visitors a year. They contribute £551,000 to the local economy. There is a biodiversity, conservation and economic argument not to remove regulation that works.

Finally, on cost recovery, DEFRA is clearly under pressure to recover the full cost of running the scheme. A possible way of resolving that is to add more species to schedule 4 and introduce a sliding scale of charges to reflect the conservation status, market value and vulnerability to illegal trade of those species. The registration scheme has been essential to locating and identifying birds for DNA testing to allow enforcement authorities to check captive breeding claims.

I urge the Minister to accept the recommendation of her parliamentary colleagues present and the conclusions of the JNCC, police, major conservation organisations and the RSPB. The bird registration scheme must be retained with the list of 42 species proposed by the JNCC. It has served the country well and is an essential tool to maintaining biodiversity and tackling wildlife crime.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter) on securing the debate and I thank him and my other hon. Friends for their contributions. I must remind him that the Government’s decisions on these matters relate to England alone, because they are devolved to Scotland and Wales. I will, however, work with those Administrations as far as is practical so that we have a common British approach.

I am proud of the Government’s record on protecting the environment, particularly on conserving birds of prey. Information provided by Natural England indicates that in the past 10 years, no populations of birds of prey in Britain have declined, and that many, such as the peregrine falcon, the red kite and the buzzard have increased. I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend that no action should be taken that could put the conservation status of those iconic birds at risk.

The registration of certain birds held in captivity is required by the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. My hon. Friend has given information showing that from that time, there has been a fantastic amount of wildlife crime, including the taking of eggs from nests. We believe that the Act has led to a great deal of progress over those years, and that it was not the bird registration scheme in itself that resulted in a change of practice. However, the scheme exists and is administered by animal health. Under the registration scheme, every person in Britain who keeps a bird of a species listed on schedule 4 must register it with animal health, for which they pay a small fee.

The cost to DEFRA of administering the scheme is approximately £350,000 a year. A further estimated £100,000 is spent by those who have to register the birds and on fees for keepers, of whom there are 1,730. As my hon. Friend said, Treasury policy requires us to take rapid strides towards full cost recovery for such administrative operations.

Some schedule 4 birds are also subject to controls under the convention on international trade in endangered species. If people wish to trade in CITES-listed birds they must apply to animal health to do so. A bird keeper may therefore have to make an application to register a bird and a separate application for a CITES commercial use certificate before selling or displaying the bird.

I am intrigued, as I know the Minister would have been several months ago, by the concept of Treasury policy. I am not quite sure from where the Treasury party is elected. Given the pressures on DEFRA budgets to move to full cost recovery for registration schemes, does the Treasury pay to DEFRA any fines that DEFRA is able to take or achieve in a court for breaches of wildlife legislation, or does the money go to the Treasury?

My hon. Friend probably knows the answer to that question. It is a matter of debate as to how Departments relate to the Treasury, but I advise him that we are under an obligation to do what I said we have to do. In fact, the latest review was prompted by the National Audit Office, so we have to consider it.

I have given the future of the scheme a great deal of thought over the past few months, as my hon. Friend knows. I have received many submissions from hon. Members, most of whom are hon. Friends and are in this Chamber today. As a result—again, as he knows—I convened a meeting of all the interested parties so that I could hear their views on the scheme. I am sorry that my hon. Friend was not there. I understand that he was otherwise engaged in his other passion, which is fishing—not on the river bank, but in the debating Chamber.

As my hon. Friend said, the future of the scheme has been the subject of much discussion for some time, and conservation and enforcement bodies have been keen to retain it or even enhance it, as they perceive that it offers several advantages. He set out what he believes are the advantages, and asserted that the scheme has a great deterrent effect.

I am sorry to have to tell him that it has not been possible for us to ascertain how the deterrent is actually working. We have not been able to bring evidence to bear, nor have we been able to get the JNCC to present us with the level of proof that we require of it in respect of what it believes to be the threat to the conservation status of the birds. We have had to return to it for further advice, which of course we have done.

I am sorry, but I cannot. It is impossible for me to take interventions in the amount of time that I have left.

If we continue with the two registration schemes, keepers will be charged some £90 for each bird if they have to get a CITES export licence and a bird registration document. That enormous increase would be required under full cost recovery. The consequence of a move to full cost recovery is the danger that birds will not be registered and that the trade will be driven underground, which is clearly not what any of us would want.

In November last year, my Department consulted on whether the regulatory burden could be reduced without compromising the sustainability of wild bird populations. The consultation explored whether the current system of registration was the most appropriate to effect controls on the species listed on the schedule, and also which species should be listed. Officials presented several options ranging from outright abolition of the scheme to revisions of the list of birds requiring registration, based on the advice of the JNCC.

Since the consultation closed we have banned the import of birds because of avian influenza. That was put in place in July last year and is likely to remain in place for the foreseeable future. In effect, it bans the commercial import of birds into the UK from countries outside the European Union and, as a consequence, there is no rationale for including such species on the bird registration list. If a bird has been imported illegally, it is highly unlikely that the keeper of the bird will register it, so there is absolutely no case for having those birds included in schedule 4.

I have just been advised by the Clerk that there is a further 15 minutes to run on this debate. I am sure that the Minister could find time to take further interventions from hon. Friends.

I have exactly six minutes.

In our view, there is no rationale for including on schedule 4 the birds that are now prohibited from import.

The primary purpose of schedule 4 at its inception was to aid the conservation status of certain native birds thought to be at risk from illegal take. The role of the scheme changed over time with the addition of a number of non-native bird species that were also subject to the convention on international trade in endangered species controls. With a ban on the import of species from outside the EU, it became clear to us that the future of schedule 4 should be judged on its relevance to the conservation status of wild birds within Britain. In essence, I think that is what my hon. Friend wants to achieve.

Last March, DEFRA asked the JNCC to provide fresh evidence in light of the important change. The evidence that we asked it to give us was to be based on the strict test that

“the wild population is so small that even the taking of a very few individuals would have a detrimental impact on the conservation of the wild population.”

While the JNCC did not favour such an approach per se, its revised advice recommended 16 native species of birds, which is very much reduced from the numbers that my hon. Friend has quoted and the current list of 59 species. The JNCC list contains seven birds of prey and nine other species. The issue became whether bird registration was a proportionate burden for the keepers of these particular species. In order to assess that, issues such as the value of the species, their longevity and any demand for keeping needed to be taken into account. It is obvious that there is no point maintaining birds on this list if nobody is collecting or trading in those particular species.

Having taken all those factors into account, there is merit in maintaining the bird registration scheme in England, but for a very much more limited number of birds. Pending further discussions with my counterparts in the devolved Administrations, that number should include species such as the goshawk, the golden eagle and the marsh harrier. I do not believe that a conservation case can be made for all the other species that are currently listed.

The peregrine falcon may well be increasing in numbers nationally, but there are hotspots in the UK, including the area that I represent, in which the peregrine falcon is completely absent. Wildlife crime is rampant in the north-east Peak district. Surely taking the peregrine falcon off the scheme would send out the wrong signal to people who want to commit wildlife crime?

I agree with my hon. Friend that the peregrine falcon is a valuable and iconic bird that could potentially be the subject of wildlife crime. However, we have no evidence to prove that having peregrine falcons and other birds on schedule 4 has resulted in preventing crime. We believe that much else has changed, particularly the captive breeding of birds. The trade can be supplied legitimately and properly from the birds that are bred within this country and from where trade occurs from that stock, which is here.

Therefore, I say to my hon. Friend that I see merit in having the scheme. I have written to the devolved Administrations—peregrine falcons are obviously very important in Scotland—to see whether we have listed the right birds to remain on the scheme. That is the position that I propose today and more work needs to be done. I am at the end of my time.

No, I am sorry.

I see merit in retaining the scheme. It is my intention that schedule 4 provisions should continue, but that there should be fewer birds on the list. We will see whether we can simplify the two systems of registration, CITES and bird registration, to ensure minimal burdens on keepers.

Television Reception (Rushden)

It is a pleasure, Mr. Caton, to serve under your chairmanship. I hope that we have saved the best for last.

I thank Mr. Speaker for granting a debate on the great mystery of Rushden—the whodunnit of Rushden, and probably the crime of the century there. It involves deception and lack of reception. It involves large organisations, cover-ups and conspiracies. We know who the suspects are. One is the Government, in their shining offices in Whitehall. The other is a developer in Rushden—or is it the council in Thrapston, or even the regulator in his shining offices in London? Or, as I think possible, is it the European Union and the European Commission in Brussels?

There has been a huge theft. It has affected hundreds of people in my constituency who have lost financially and lost their quality of life. It is on such a large scale that it is inconceivable, but like many such things, it has been allowed to drift. It involves the theft of the television signal in The Hedges and the roads around it in Rushden.

I have been stumbling around trying to find a solution, more like Inspector Clouseau than Inspector Morse. Now that I know which Minister is to answer the debate, I am sure that she will rise like Sherlock Holmes to explain the crime, how it happened, who the victims are, what compensation there will be and how things will be put right.

The loss of the television signal in The Hedges was brought to my attention by Councillor Carol Childs, a member of Rushden town council who lives on that road. I praise Mrs. Childs for her efforts. She has campaigned tirelessly for the past year to try to get something done to help the people in her street. Indeed, I know that she is following this debate closely.

When I was told of the problem, I contacted East Northamptonshire district council, the relevant planning authority. The chief executive of the council confirmed to me in a letter of 22 November 2006 that television reception was not considered a material consideration in the determination of a planning application for two large industrial warehouses to be built behind The Hedges.

I had hoped to receive help from my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone), who had a similar problem in his area. I would like to say that he has been abducted and cannot assist in this debate, but he has been detained in a Select Committee meeting, which, in a way, is just as bad.

Planning consent was granted to the developer without considering the potential loss of television signal to householders adjacent to the new development.

I go back to what actually happened, and to the autumn—not of last year but the year before. On one evening, the good citizens of The Hedges were watching their normal evening programmes—probably watching the excellent programme on the Parliament channel, which gives the people raw politics without distortion—and they went happily to bed knowing about the state of the country and what was happening. In the morning, they got up, switched on their television sets—and nothing. Well, some of them got a wintry scene, with snow going across their sets, but there was no picture.

It sounds as though it might have been a minor thing that could have sorted itself out the following day, but it did not. What did the people of The Hedges do? Just as we would have done, they assumed that it was a problem with the television set, so many of them rushed out to buy new sets, or to see whether a repair man could sort it out. Of course, that was pointless. It was nothing to do with their equipment. The television signal had been stolen.

The developer—a major developer, not a small one—admitted that TV signal interference sometimes happened with buildings of that size due to the materials used in construction, but it did not provide any remedial action on the residents’ behalf. The developer claims that it is not its fault if the planning authority did not take TV reception into consideration when granting planning consent.

Ofcom was also involved at that time, because East Northamptonshire district council thought that it should have dealt with the matter, as it had in other cases. Ofcom, however, said that it was a matter for the local planning authority, so the buck had already been passed from one organisation to another, with none of them taking responsibility or owning up to the crime. That led me to table parliamentary questions to the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport about the role of Ofcom when a television signal is lost or badly impaired due to new construction. The then Minister, now the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, replied that the issues that I had raised were the responsibility of Ofcom, and passed my queries on to it.

The chief executive of Ofcom wrote a letter to me on 21 February that makes the matter even more confusing. It states:

“OFCOM has no statutory powers to investigate situations where television reception is disrupted by physical structures such as tall buildings…We do recommend that planning authorities should take potential disruption to TV reception into account when considering planning applications for large structures, although there is no statutory requirement on them to do so.”

Although I have been told by the Government and the planning authority that the problem is Ofcom’s responsibility, Ofcom clearly states that it has nothing to do with it. I suppose that, like many regulatory authorities, it does not want to take responsibility for anything.

The letter raises an important point. Ofcom says that there is no statutory obligation on planning authorities to take TV signal disruption into account when considering planning consent. That needs to be addressed immediately, and I shall refer to that later in my request to the Minister. I am not getting anywhere very quickly with the various organisations all blaming each other and none of them taking responsibility for solving the problem for my constituents. A public meeting was held in Rushden, which was well attended by affected residents and local councillors. I praise Councillor Andy Mercer, the able and hard-working leader of East Northamptonshire district council. He got involved with the mystery and tried to solve it. I am grateful to him for all his work on this issue and many others in my constituency, where he has been at the forefront of my “Listening to Wellingborough and Rushden” campaign.

Following the well-attended public protest meeting, a petition was formed, which I presented to Parliament on 15 March 2007. I thought, “That should do the trick; the Minister will respond and the matter will be resolved.” The petition urged the House of Commons to ask the Secretary of State to initiate an investigation into the matter with the aim of finding a solution that would restore a quality television signal. The Secretary of State’s reply was taken largely from the letter I received from Ofcom. The only new piece of information given by the Secretary of State was that:

“it is open to households to negotiate with the developer about remedial action to provide householders with alternative means of receiving TV services.”

So, we are asking the victims of the crime to negotiate with one of the chief suspects. That is a novel idea. Once again, we are led around in circles. The planning authority blames Ofcom. The Government blame Ofcom, although they say that Ofcom is powerless to do anything about this issue anyway. Ofcom blames the planning authority. The developer refuses to take any responsibility because planning consent was given. All the while, my constituents are losing out. My constituents have lost their TV signal, yet they are still being forced to pay the TV licence fee.

Another hard-working local councillor, Councillor Robin Underwood, contacted the ombudsman, yet it washed its hands of the matter and said that it had nothing to do with the ombudsman. After a number of other parliamentary questions that I tabled to the Secretary of State regarding guidance to local planning authorities, I had still got no further in seeking a solution to the great Rushden mystery. Then it came to me in a flash of genius that Inspector Morse would have been proud of—it must be the fault of the European Union. Clearly, as we are part of this transnational, unaccountable superstate, it loves interfering in everything that we do. Surely, as TV signals do not recognise national boundaries, the European Union must have rules on the matter.

As luck would have it, later today in the House of Commons we are considering European Union document No. 15869/07. Lo and behold, it is entitled “Communication”. Surely this was it. This would be the solution to our whodunnit, but alas no. When I looked at the document, I saw that it was the usual incomprehensible Euro-babble promoting intercultural dialogue. My constituents in Rushden are worried not so much about intercultural dialogue as about when they will next be able to see “EastEnders”. Despite nearly 16,000 new European regulations last year, not one will solve the theft of the TV signal in Rushden, but I suppose the European Union cannot be guilty, as the Commission would not even know where Northamptonshire was.

Enough is enough. Solving the Hound of the Baskervilles mystery was easy for Sherlock Holmes, and I know that in a little while the Minister will solve this whodunnit. For more than a year, my constituents have experienced organisations that should take some responsibility denying responsibility, blaming others and passing the buck. It is not so much a case of Colonel Mustard in the library; it is probably the developer in Rushden or the Government in Whitehall. It is a whodunnit with no obvious solution. Perhaps they are all guilty, as in “Murder on the Orient Express.”

The buck has to stop somewhere, and unfortunately it has to stop with the Government. Only the Government are in the unique position of being able to introduce legislation so that the theft of television signals does not happen to others. Only the Government can intervene on behalf of my constituents with the developers to find an immediate solution. Only the Government can urge Ofcom to lay down statutory guidelines for planning authorities to use when considering proposals for large developments and the effects that they might have on existing television reception. Furthermore, in case planning consent is given and there is a problem with television reception, a condition of the planning consent should be that the developer must correct such a problem.

My hon. Friend the Member for Kettering, if he had been here today, would have said that in his situation, in which a wind farm was put up that later affected the television signal, the wind farm put it right. As we have heard, however, there is no legal requirement for it to do that. Only the Government can ensure that my constituents get a refund on their television licence fee. For more than a year, they have dutifully paid for the television licence, but received no signal whatever. It is a whodunnit. It is a crime. There are victims. I look forward to the Minister, or Sherlock Holmes, solving it.

I think I shall be Hercule Poirot this afternoon, or perhaps some woman detective.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone) on his success in securing this debate and on his graphic and passionate description of the problems that his constituents face. It goes without saying that once people have paid for their television licence, they expect to be able to access their favourite television programmes. We all know that televisions are an important part of people’s lives. In fact, the most recent Ofcom figures suggest that, on average, people watch about three and a half hours of television each day. Public service broadcasting is the most popular end of the market, with public service programmes making up two thirds of viewing. I can readily understand that the inability of his constituents to receive analogue signals will lead to huge discontent and have every sympathy with the position in which they find themselves.

The hon. Gentleman raised the issue several times with several people in several organisations, and although it is nice to think that the buck stops with the Government, particularly in the context of a Westminster Hall debate, there is actually a clear statutory framework. I was rather surprised when preparing for today’s debate to learn that the elements of that framework have not been used, and I suggest that he might like to think further about that.

The hon. Gentleman might ask why I am answering the debate, because, in essence, this is a planning matter—it sits firmly in that realm. I hope that if I set out the respective responsibilities of all those with an interest in the problem, it may help him to help his constituents.

First, the issue is about management of the spectrum, and that includes reception and interference. I realise that the hon. Gentleman knows this, but, just to put it on the record, those are the responsibilities of Ofcom, not the Government. Ofcom operates within the terms of the Communications Act 2003. Under that Act, as he pointed out—I believe it was stated in a letter that he received from Ofcom—Ofcom does not have statutory powers to investigate situations where television reception is disrupted by physical structures such as a building. The reason for that is that the powers lie elsewhere. It is not that the powers do not exist but that they lie within the planning regime, where they can be used flexibly and appropriately.

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

On resuming—

After calling myself Hercule Poirot at the start of the debate, I have decided to re-christen myself Miss Marple.

I was dealing with Ofcom’s statutory power before the sitting was suspended. Ofcom does not have a statutory power to intervene when television reception is disrupted, because that power is vested elsewhere. It would not be sensible to have a legislative duplication of authority across different bodies.

That is an interesting statement, because East Northamptonshire district council says that Ofcom has the power to investigate under the provisions of the Wireless Telegraphy Act 1949, and that it has used the power in previous cases. However, for some reason it has refused to do so in this case—it is passing the parcel.

I shall write to the hon. Gentleman. He will have seen my officials shaking their heads, and it is the first that I have heard of the matter.

The powers are vested with the local authority. As the hon. Gentleman told his story, it struck me that the local authority had not used its powers properly in the past, and it is not using its existing powers. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State wrote to him about remedial action, but the authority is simply not using its power, and I fail to understand why that is the case. I sincerely urge the hon. Gentleman to go back to his local authority on those matters.

I said that this was planning matter. Ofcom recommends that planning authorities take into account the potential for disruption to TV reception when they consider planning applications for large structures. As the hon. Gentleman said, the situation is not unique. He raised the issue of the wind farm in Kettering, and similar issues were raised when the new Wembley stadium was being built. We know about such circumstances and we have a legislative infrastructure in place. We want to be sensitive enough so that local authorities operating at the local level can take the appropriate action to meet local circumstances.

Ofcom publishes technical guidance on the effects of tall buildings and structures on television reception, and that guidance appears on the BBC website. The Department for Communities and Local Government has responsibility for planning, and it might be helpful to reiterate for the record—the hon. Gentleman can look this up in Hansard—the planning policy on interference from buildings. Planning policy guidance note 8 on telecommunications sets out the Government’s policies on different aspects of planning that should be taken into account by local planning authorities as they prepare their development plans. The guidance can be material to decisions on individual applications for planning permission appeals, and it recognises that large structures can cause disruptions to analogue television reception. It states that local planning authorities

“will need to satisfy themselves”—

that is what puzzles me—

“that the potential for interference has been fully taken into account in the siting and design of such developments, since it will be more difficult, costly and sometimes impossible to correct after the event.”

It continues:

“If it is clear, by the nature of the development, that disruption to television reception will be a significant problem, the solution may be for the developer to incorporate a television relay (repeater) or cable system. However, a practical remedy may not always be possible. In this case, where broadcast transmitters are involved, there should be full consultation with the broadcasting authorities before such a course is adopted.”

I quoted that document at length, because it sets out how the situation should be addressed. Although there is no statutory requirement for local planning authorities to have regard to television reception, it can be a material consideration. Whether it is relevant to the decision-making process will vary across the country, which is why it appears in guidance only. If local authorities are concerned, they have a range of options. Obviously, the best thing is to hold pre-application discussions with the developer to ensure that the planning details are acceptable. If they do not go down that route, they can impose conditions on the grant of planning permission, and they have a power to enter into specific planning obligations. For reasons that are not clear to me, DCLG prefers local authorities to impose conditions rather than obligations, but that is a technical matter. It is for local planning authorities to determine the appropriate course of action depending on the circumstances of the case.

It is not possible to attach conditions after planning permission has been granted—I think that that might be the problem encountered by the hon. Gentleman’s local authority. That is why it was suggested that remedial action could be taken. I understand that there have not been successful negotiations between the developer and the local authority. I further understand—this puzzled me, too, when I read the version of the story that was given to me—that his constituents have complained to the local government ombudsman, who concluded that the council was not at fault. Clearly, that is a decision for the ombudsman, and it has already been taken. However, I was puzzled by the outcome of that particular investigation.

Where can the hon. Gentleman go from here? I am afraid, having reached this point, the options are not as easy as I would like. His constituents could seek redress through the courts, if they are unhappy with the planning authority’s decision—I accept that they are—although I appreciate that that is expensive and that they would have to seek legal advice first. Technical options are also open to them, but those, too, would come at a cost—I am sorry to be the bearer of bad news. For example, they could obtain the public service broadcasting channels, plus many more, via satellite. I accept that that involves a subscription. However, satellite is also available with a one-off payment, and that may be a route that some people can go down. Freesat from Sky is available, and Sky has recently launched a product called Sky pre-paid, which retails at £75. In spring this year, BBC and ITV will launch their own versions of Freesat, which will provide guaranteed subscription-free access to their digital services, again for a one-off initial payment. I understand that Virgin Cable also serves the Rushden area, although using that service involves the payment of an ongoing subscription. Those are all the options available to the hon. Gentleman’s constituents that would enable them to receive those TV services.

I simply say to the hon. Gentleman that he ought to approach his local authority, or indeed the regional development agency, to see whether or not, in the circumstances, they could provide assistance in ensuring that his constituents have access to those services. I certainly know, from my previous job in the former Department of Trade and Industry, that in a number of areas where access to TV services was limited because of rurality, the RDA played a role in ensuring that people living in very remote areas were given some form of subsidy to enable them to access TV services. I would suggest that the hon. Gentleman investigate that route further.

I am very grateful to the Minister for the helpful advice that she is giving. There is one other piece of advice that I wonder whether she considers is appropriate. When a major developer undertakes developments throughout my area, presumably it makes substantial profits, so would it not be reasonable to expect it to pay 100 times £75. Is that the way forward?

My hon. Friend is helping me with that question. That would not be unreasonable, and I would expect—I am a former member of a local authority, and I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman is, too—the local authority to negotiate with the developer to ensure, through the section 106 arrangements, that the disbenefit experienced by the hon. Gentleman’s constituents is put right through an agreement with the developer before planning permission is granted.

I also must tell the hon. Gentleman that when his region switches to digital in 2011, the situation is likely to continue in respect of digital terrestrial services, as the digital signals will be broadcast from the same transmitters that broadcast the analogue series. There is only one piece of good news for those constituents who have problems with “ghosting”, which happens when the analogue television signals are reflected by buildings or other tall objects, leading to multiple pictures being layered on top of one another on the TV screen. After switchover, ghosting should not be a problem, because of the technical characteristics of the digital switchover.

The final option for the hon. Member for Wellingborough’s constituents would be for the community in some way—through the town council, the district council, the county council or whatever structure—to build and operate a low-powered TV repeater transmitter. The cost will vary, depending on the precise situation, but it is likely to be in the range of a few hundred pounds to a few thousand pounds. Such transmitters require a licence, so the hon. Gentleman should advise his constituents to get in touch with Ofcom if they wish to pursue that option further. The hon. Gentleman will also know of the digital switchover help scheme. It might be appropriate, particularly for people who are over 75, seriously disabled or registered as blind or partially sighted—those groups are eligible for help under the scheme—as it could provide a subsidy for those people for the switchover.

I feel huge sympathy for the position in which the hon. Gentleman’s constituents find themselves. I hope that my comments have helped them. I think that there is a clear route forward. The hon. Gentleman should not have got to the position that he is in, but having got there, he must look forward and I hope that he will find a solution on behalf of his constituents.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes past Five o’clock.