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Westminster Hall

Volume 471: debated on Tuesday 29 January 2008

Westminster Hall

Tuesday 29 January 2008

[David Taylor in the Chair]

Cross-border Rail Services

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

I very much welcome the opportunity to raise some issues in this debate. I assure the House that I do not intend it to be what we in Scotland call a greeting meeting, where we just catalogue all the complaints. There will be some of those, but I hope that we can focus on what we can and should be doing to fulfil ambitions for the services. I say that with some feeling, as I represent a constituency that is literally at the farthest end of the east coast main line. In that context, may I stress to the Minister my earnest hope that he will make it clear that the east coast main line runs from London to Aberdeen, not from London to Edinburgh? That is a genuine concern, not least because it is London to Edinburgh when investment decisions are being made, but London to Aberdeen for operational services.

I hope that the Minister will understand that those of us who represent constituencies and stations north of Edinburgh are campaigning energetically for some commitment to improve the quality of the service, not least because if the time comes, as I hope it will, when we have high-speed links to the central belt, the north of Scotland will also have at least relatively high-speed links to enable passengers to access cross-border routes effectively.

Debates about cross-border rail routes have been going on as long as there have been such routes—perhaps 150 years or more. It is a matter of regret to me that I rarely travel on the cross-border routes, not from any prejudice against trains—quite the reverse, I enjoy travelling by train—but because, frankly, the journey times are impossible for somebody who travels as often and as regularly as I do.

As it happens, Aberdeen airport is in my constituency. It is expanding in both passenger numbers and services, but there are people who object to its expansion. They offer the usual arguments about pollution, noise and climate change. I point out to them that, although I am sympathetic to their arguments, the truth is that the airport is the lifeline communication for an economy such as ours.

I would like to believe that there is an aspiration to ensure that people have real choice and that surface transport, particularly rail, is a genuine, viable alternative for more people more often than is currently the case. For the record, the journey time between London and Aberdeen is between seven and seven and a half hours. Indeed, most journeys are in excess of seven and a half hours, and that is only the time from station to station. By the time one adds on access to the station, particularly city centre stations, and travel across London, one is talking about a journey of nearly nine hours, as compared with my air journey yesterday, which, even though delayed, was about four hours. I am sure Members will understand that there really is no contest when people have to make a choice.

At present, several issues have clearly caused concern and anger. The Minister will not be surprised to hear me refer to the disruption caused by the engineering works at Christmas time. Virgin has estimated that it lost £10 million in revenue, and 50,000 people were affected by the disruption and the fact that it went on well beyond the predicted time. Somebody sarcastically said, “We are back to BR,” but “BR” meant bus replacement rather than British Rail.

Dan Roberts wrote in The Daily Telegraph about the problem. To be fair, taking the whole article, he acknowledged that, given the age of the infrastructure, it is surprising that for much of the time our trains run on time and provide a reasonable service. The problem is one of predictability. He states:

“The perverse paradox of Britain’s bungled privatisation experiment”—

I do not expect the Minister to defend privatisation, as he and his Government were not responsible for it—

“is that railways are expensive and unreliable because they are so popular. There’s not enough slack in the crowded system to allow trains to route around maintenance closures. But rather than spend the billions needed to lay new track, Network Rail and its dysfunctional private counterparts seem happier letting rising prices keep demand in check.

Sadly, profits have little to do with operational effectiveness and everything to do with how poorly or otherwise the contracts are negotiated.”

A discussion that does not deserve mileage in this debate is whether Virgin, Arriva or National Express is better or worse, or whether Network Rail is responsible. We tend to hear enough over the airwaves of train operators blaming the track operator and vice versa—presumably the track operators blame the train operators for having the discourtesy to run trains on their tracks and generally making it inefficient for them to operate a network—but such debates do not really get us anywhere. What is really required is to bring all this together in ways that will meet the needs and expectations of passengers.

There are three passenger franchises covering the cross-border rail services: National Express on the inter-city east coast main line, Arriva-owned CrossCountry Rail, which took over the franchise in the past few months, and, of course, Virgin on the west coast. As they are relatively new services, it is not possible to evaluate them, although there is anecdotal evidence. No doubt in due course we will be able to determine how well they are performing.

Many people regret the passing of the Great North Eastern Railway, or GNER. The irony is that one of the most popular franchises lost its right to operate because of the failure of its parent company, not because of shortcomings in its operations. Indeed, it was the franchise that passengers put at the top of their preferences. The new franchise clearly has quite an act to follow, and we hope that it will maintain the standard.

The other problem is that since the new franchises have taken over, they have announced some of the biggest fare rises on all the routes. National Express East Coast fares will increase by 6.6 per cent., and CrossCountry by 7 per cent. Both increases are measured at the retail prices index plus 2 per cent. That is significantly above the average 5.4 per cent. increase across the whole network, which itself is above inflation, and may bear out the comments that I just read out from The Daily Telegraph.

The Government may argue that above-inflation fares are needed to enable services to be improved, but I believe that passengers would like services to be improved first, rather than think that they are paying for something that may not materialise. In any case, if we are serious about the long-term aspirations of developing the network and encouraging more people on to it, it is reasonable to expect that fares will not increase above inflation. Indeed, in an expanding network that was actively encouraging people to transfer to it, one would hope that, if anything, fare increases would be below the overall RPI.

There are some other worrying indications. I need to press the Minister a little more about the negotiations and terms of the contracts, about which I have had some correspondence with him and others. When Arriva CrossCountry came through as the winner of the franchise in July last year, it said that it would introduce an older fleet of trains and cut back on-board services such as toilets and shops. I was contacted yesterday by my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith), who would have been here were it not for the fact that his Select Committee commitments prevented him. He asked me to point out his concerns about the services that pass through his constituency, in particular through Berwick. He is appalled to hear suggestions that hot food services could be cut in standard class between Dundee and Penzance.

Evidence suggests that not many passengers take the whole journey on that train, but the train makes the whole journey and people have the right to do so, too. If people taking a significant chunk of the journey from Dundee to Penzance are told that they will be on the train for hours but that no hot food will be available, it is pretty poor provision. Perhaps the Minister will tell us what is happening. If the argument is that by not having hot food and having fewer toilets we can seat more passengers, it means that more passengers will be offered a poorer service. Are those the expectations? Is such provision within the contract that the Government negotiated? What is the justification for that? I hope that the bid was not accepted because it cost the least in subsidies, rather than because it met the balance between cost-effectiveness and passenger need. Will the Minister share with hon. Members how the Government balance the two factors of value for money for the taxpayer, in terms of a lower subsidy, and comfort and efficiency for the passenger? It is not right for one to be completely traded for the other. I hope that the Minister agrees.

Just this week, there was a demonstration by passengers on First Great Western, boycotting that railway, refusing to pay or using fake tickets. I do not want to make too much of that, but there are clearly pinch points where passengers feel aggrieved because, although they are paying, in some cases, significant sums to use trains, they are not getting the service they expect so, not surprisingly, their anger rises.

The Government, perhaps understandably, are anxious to control or reduce the subsidy given to the railways—we need a debate about that. However, that has to be part of a genuine public engagement about where the burden is shared. If it is simply a matter of the Treasury reining back on the cost of the railways and, in effect, offloading it on to passengers by saying, “We do not have the capacity anyway, so we can charge them more and more and actually it will be helpful if they go elsewhere”, that ignores the wider debate about climate change, pollution, congestion and so on.

One of the reversals of progress, compared with 150 years ago, or even in my lifetime—50 years ago, say—is that people used to be able to walk into a station, ask about the route and find out which fare, by whatever class they wanted to travel, provided the best value from A to B. That is no longer an option. The amount of questioning, effort and research that is needed to find the best route and the best fare is disproportionate to the result.

When I was researching for the debate, I was intrigued to see that one of Arriva’s commitments for its new cross-country franchise was to provide a website showing clearly the cheapest fare and the quickest way to make journeys. Can the right hon. Gentleman tell us whether he or his constituents have any experience of whether that website is up and running yet?

I do not know, although I will give a sample of fares for part of that route later. However, the hon. Gentleman makes my point. It is all very well saying, “We have a route—one route—and we can tell you exactly what the best fare is on it”, but many people travelling cross-border have to change trains and operators, particularly when going from north-east to south-west, or vice versa, and that is where the difficulties arise. That was true in Victorian times, too, but there was none the less an integrated timetable and fare structure, so it is not something that was possible only during the British Rail era.

The whole fare-pricing structure involves the price, the name of the ticket and its validity, any conditions attached to it, its variability and whether it is appropriate for the journey that people are taking. Increasingly, people are prepared to use the internet, hoping that it will have done the work for them, to search for the best fare. However, that is a matter of trust; people do not know how good the internet service is and the extent to which it has provided the right answer. In any case, they have to ask the right questions.

A considerable amount of research is still required to find the cheapest price. People have to book early in advance, if they can, for the cheaper, fairer prices that the Government say are available, but which are often buried in an obscure area, for an obscure train at an obscure time. If that is so, it is a meaningless option. The French have a “most recently bought” competitive fare, which enables passengers to know which fare people buy most regularly and how it compares with other fares.

As information is not available and people cannot find the best deals, journeying by rail is becoming increasingly beyond the means of the majority of people in this country, particularly if they are travelling, as I have sometimes tried to do, with a family, notwithstanding family rail cards and the like. My office priced a journey for a long weekend next month, travelling on Thursday and returning on Monday, from Huntly in my constituency to Bristol. That is not an unusual journey—it is not true that everybody wants to go to London—but the cheapest price for one adult is a saver return at £168.30 on a restricted ticket. When I talked to someone from my local newspaper about that, he said, “Don’t you mean £68.30?” I repeated that the ticket cost £168.30. A standard open return ticket costs £279, which is a pretty steep jump.

People can pay a cheaper fare if they have the patience and time to investigate the single fares on offer. Of course, that has become the great catch. Most people assume that if they are buying a return ticket there is a discount—a deal. However, increasingly, the way to find the best deal is to buy two singles, independently, from opposite ends of the proposed journey. If people do that for a return journey from Huntly to Bristol, they can find a return fare totalling £92, but the tickets are valid only on specified trains. That is a serious problem, because even people who are pretty clear about when they want to travel can find that circumstances change, and their whole ticket would be invalidated if that happened.

Just for the record, the train journey from Huntly to Bristol takes 10 and a half hours. According to the AA, the road journey takes nine hours and 55 minutes on 547 miles of road. Although I am not sure that I believe that figure, I shall use it for a comparison. Would a family, or even two or three adults, even contemplate a 10 and a half hour train journey that cost, at a minimum, nearly £300 and might cost £500 or £600, or would they take the car?

Although people can find competitive fares, it is not reasonable to expect them to do all the work themselves. There is no guarantee that they will get the most appropriate fare or deal for their circumstances. We need to take a much more radical look at how all these things are operated and reported on. That is not just my view. The Select Committee on Transport has, not surprisingly, looked into the matter and was pretty critical about what it found out in its sixth report of the 2005–06 Session, “How fair are the fares? Train fares and ticketing”. The Committee commented on the costs and said that

“on the whole, there is little doubt that walk-on rail fares in the UK are more expensive than in many European countries.”

It also criticised the lack of flexibility, particularly for walk-on fares:

“It is essential that when rail passengers walk up and buy a ticket immediately before departure, they do not have to pay over the odds. Fully flexible open fares may need to command a price premium over other less flexible tickets, but the prices now charged by many long-distance operators are absurdly high. The ‘see how much we can get away with’ attitude of operators has put the thumbscrews on those passengers who have no option but to travel on peak-hour trains, using fully flexible open fares. Such behaviour has brought not only individual train operators, but the passenger railways in general into disrepute.”

The Committee issued a rebuke about the complexity in unregulated fares. The Government have said that they are putting in place a simplified system, but it is not clear how effective it will be or whether long-distance operators will apply it. If the Minister can give an update about exactly what is being done to try to simplify the structure so that people can access and manage it, I would be grateful.

It is worth recording that, although things have improved, the three cross-border routes attract a high number of complaints. When I asked the Library for information, I was told that, in 2006-07, there were 1,229 complaints against the three train operating companies offering cross-border services, which outnumbered the 973 complaints made against all the remaining 18 train operating companies. There were more complaints against those three operators than the other 18 by a factor of four to three. I accept that the cross-border routes involve longer journeys, but given that many people do not bother to complain and only three operators and three routes are involved, it is indicative that there have been serious problems. However, I acknowledge that the figures seem to have improved.

The situation is not all bad. We have some good operators and some new franchises, but there is still some uncertainty. People want reliability, improved journey times and fair and competitive fares, but we have a long way to go, even within the existing structure, to deliver people’s expectations.

I turn to the vision thing, or perhaps I should call it the lack-of-vision thing. Many people have travelled on continental railways. People travel internationally, so they are aware of what other countries are doing, and they feel that the United Kingdom is falling embarrassingly behind. Japan sets a high standard in reliability, punctuality and cost. My parliamentary researcher, who went to a wedding in Japan over the Christmas and new year period, reminded me of how efficient the Shinkanseng—the bullet train—is in time and price.

I have made some comparisons between the UK and France. France may be the aspirational model, but it is our next-door neighbour and it is reasonable to ask why we are so far adrift from what the French have done. There is no doubt that what has been achieved in France has been the result of genuine political leadership, vision and determination. I shall give an example. The trip from Paris to Marseilles is about 411 miles, compared with 397 miles for the trip from Aberdeen to London. That is the distance as the crow flies, and I accept that the track does not follow the crow, but I am comparing like with like. The journey time is hugely different; from Paris to Marseilles, it is three hours and three minutes, compared with seven hours and eight minutes on a comparable line in the UK, so there is no contest.

Even given the favourable exchange rate, the TGV fare is significantly more affordable. The most popular, most bought fare is £36 return. Recently, I helped my daughter to book a summer rail trip from London to Avignon, which is a direct service that runs in the summer and takes five and a quarter hours. The return fare is £189, which is a fantastic bargain in time and price compared with anything in the UK.

When the Government commissioned a feasibility study on high-speed trains, as they did for their last manifesto, they estimated that £30 billion would be required for a high-speed Scotland to London line. When the White Paper was launched last July, the Secretary of State dismissed proposals for a high-speed railway and suggested that it would not be considered again until 2012, presumably because then we will have digested the Olympics and it will be after the next election. That is not a satisfactory response. The Secretary of State said:

“If the economics or the environmental calculations change, it is right that we consider them in due course”—[Official Report, 24 July 2007; Vol. 465, c. 695.]

I suggest that they are changing, and changing fast.

There are issues of climate change, congestion, pollution and economic diversity in the UK. My constituents and I consider ourselves to be major contributors to the British economy in terms of the goods that we supply, particularly food, to the home counties market. We are heavily engaged in oil and gas, paper and other industries. A high proportion of our customers are in the south of England, and communication with people and goods to the south is of mutual benefit, yet one has the impression that the south of England is quite happy, despite our balance of payments deficit, to import competitive products from the near continent rather than from the UK’s hinterland. Part of the reason for that is that the near continent has invested in high-speed rail links that are not available to the further parts of the United Kingdom.

That economic disadvantage hampers not only the parts of the UK that have the capacity to serve domestic markets, but our own economy, because it means that instead of using domestically produced goods, we are importing them. That is partly due to the lack of infrastructure investment. A fast rail link between Edinburgh and London would help to redress the north-south economic divide, and I am sure the Minister acknowledges that.

We should consider journey times in France, and what a high-speed rail link would do for the United Kingdom. Journey times to the central belt of Scotland could be only two and a half hours, which would have a huge impact on domestic capacity at airports, allow more international flights from domestic airports and reduce the number of journey connections. There would be benefits in reducing aviation, reducing pollution and increasing efficiency.

When I spoke to Virgin, the company said that there is substantial capacity to switch people from planes to trains on, for example, the Glasgow route. It obviously has an obligation to run its services, but it needs upgrades and improvements on the lines to do so. Its plea is for both parts of my submission: first, that we keep investing in existing services to cut down journey times and increase efficiency and reliability, or enable rail companies to do so and, secondly, that we have the vision in the long term to connect to a high-speed link as and when that investment is made.

It is easy to ask where £30 billion or more will come from, but that is where the political will comes in. It is a lot of money, but it can be spread over many years. Governments have a way with figures. When they want to show how much they have spent, they total a huge number of years and say that they are spending billions, and when they want to say how unaffordable something is, they do the same. When they want us to believe that identity cards are a great idea, they say that the cost is just a small amount each year and absorbable within the overall cost. It is a matter of will.

The chief executive of Network Rail favours such an investment—as he would. He talks about London to Glasgow, via Birmingham and Manchester, London to Edinburgh via Leeds and Newcastle, and London to Cardiff via Bristol. There is talk of a possible route linking London, Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds, Newcastle, Edinburgh and Glasgow, perhaps with a branch to Liverpool—[Interruption.]

Order. That is the third occasion on which the debate has been interrupted by an electronic device. Will all hon. Members and observers please ensure that such devices are switched off?

I apologise, Mr. Taylor. I assure you that my phone is now firmly off.

The argument is that we can invest in rail if we want to. Such investment would have a huge transformational effect on the sense of unity of the United Kingdom and its land area. As a Scottish MP who believes in the Union, I say to the Minister that a strategic focus of that kind is a classic example of what the Union can achieve. It will bind us together in a common interest rather than drive us apart.

I make no complaint about the fact that a significant amount of the funding for the railway network in Scotland has been devolved to the Scottish Executive and the Scottish Parliament. I do not quarrel with that because clearly they have more local knowledge. However, I hope that the Government will acknowledge that devolution does not absolve them of strategic consideration for rail services that affect Scotland and England. I do not mean just those that straddle the border, but linking services, too. It is not commonly recognised that, if one is in the central belt of Scotland, there is more than 300 miles of Scotland to the north. My home village of Torphins is 220 miles from the English border, but it is also 220 miles by road from Orkney. Such distances are really important, and railways contribute hugely to shortening those journeys.

I am not arguing for a high-speed link all the way to the north of Scotland, but for real investment in services across the central belt. We need a real commitment to invest in high-speed trains for journeys that include the central belt and we need investment in efficient connecting links. There would be little point in building a high-speed line that cuts the journey time from London to Edinburgh to two and a half hours, which would be comparable to what the French have achieved, if it then takes two and a half hours or more to get from Aberdeen to Edinburgh—a journey of little more than 100 miles—to connect with that service. There needs to be a comparable upgrade in all the services to enable such a high-speed line to work.

I want to make two small local points. One of them is within the remit of the Scottish authorities and the other is not, so I shall speak to the Minister’s colleague, the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Poplar and Canning Town (Jim Fitzpatrick) about it. Network Rail made a commitment to upgrade the Aberdeen to Inverness service and to provide for the possibility of a commuter rail link between Inverurie, the main town in my constituency, and Aberdeen, which would have huge benefits for consumers, at a cost of between £60 million and £70 million. Network Rail handed over that responsibility to the Scottish Executive who, so far, have shown no real will to pull together the money. They have argued that the project needs to be phased, showing a complete lack of understanding. The project does not lend itself to phasing, because the track, passing spaces and signalling have to be provided before the rolling stock can be introduced. Once those things are in place, the rolling stock is immediately required. I hope that Network Rail has not handed us a duff transfer.

The other issue is rail freight. A very worthwhile effort to provide subsidy to encourage traffic from road to rail had led to the development of services into and out of Aberdeen. Asda, in particular, was bringing in food for its stores in the north-east and a consortium of local transport organisations was putting together an initiative, too. The rules of the franchise were that there had to be a stopover point in Scotland. As a result, the southward part of the service does not attract subsidy, which means that the service will become non-viable. I hope that Ministers will readdress that point. As I have said before, if we are supplying our goods to the home counties, it seems illogical to enforce a stopover point in Scotland to qualify for the subsidy. I hope that it will be possible for the matter to be concluded.

I have indulged myself, Mr. Taylor, on the grounds that I have not had a huge number of interventions. It has given me the opportunity to range more widely over the course than might otherwise have been the case. I hope that hon. Members will recognise the existence of some very serious issues. I do not suggest for one minute that the Government have no interest and no commitment and have done nothing. Such a comment would be unreasonable and unfair, and I wholly accept that a significant amount of taxpayers’ money is involved. Those of us who were sceptical about privatisation always acknowledged that would be the case anyway, and that achieving a balance was the issue.

I have avoided going into the whole argument about the structure of the railways because that is for another time, another place and another debate. To those who say that we cannot control everything, I point out that all we are concerned about are two issues. Can we have more reliable services, which run more quickly and are more competitively priced, and can we have an aspiration to provide rail investment that will put us on a par with the substantial investment that is taking place across the country?

I hope that the Minister will give us some answers, certainly on some of the detailed points that I have raised, although I am not sure that he will be able to answer my second question. However, that is the kind of vision that our country needs. I submit to the Minister that there is a very strong case for the United Kingdom to recognise that strategic investment of the kind I described benefits the UK economy and all its parts, reduces our balance of payments deficit, increases the efficiency of the distribution of people, goods and services within the United Kingdom and is probably one of the biggest single infrastructure developments that would put us in a competitive position with our continental counterparts. I urge the Government to look for that kind of vision. I am disappointed that so far they seem unwilling to do so.

Thank you, Mr. Taylor. It is a pleasure to see you in the chair this morning. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce) on securing this important debate. It is slightly disappointing that there are not more colleagues from both sides of the House with us this morning. Perhaps they are still stuck on a slow train from Scotland. My right hon. Friend was typically eloquent in sharing his concerns about rail services between Scotland and England and made a strong case for improving services. He pointed out that the east coast main line is not just London to Edinburgh. If we are serious about having good rail services, the east coast main line is providing services all the way up the east side to my right hon. Friend’s constituency and to Aberdeen.

The second point that my right hon. Friend made was in relation to the competition that rail services have from the airline industry. Certainly, Aberdeen airport has seen some significant investment and expansion of services that provide very stiff competition to the rail industry. I have to confess that I rarely use cross-border rail services to Scotland, representing as I do the constituency of Manchester, Withington. I am a regular passenger on the west coast main line, but only on the section between Manchester and London. Manchester benefits from a good service to London, which is to be expected given the massive investment in the west coast main line. That has reduced our journey time from Manchester to just over two hours for the quickest service. I have to confess that when I use the late service at night, I am very frustrated that it takes three hours. However, in comparison with what some of my hon. Friends and other hon. Members from other constituencies further north experience, I should be pleased that the journey is only up to three hours.

I am amazed that anyone from Manchester would still choose to fly to London, unless they are on a connecting flight out of the country. When it comes to speed and convenience, the train offers the best choice. However, the situation for services beginning and ending in Scotland is somewhat different. My right hon. Friend mentioned the mammoth seven-and-a-half hour train journey from Aberdeen to London. Yesterday, while preparing for the debate, I checked the journey times of train services from Edinburgh and Glasgow to London. I was amazed that, if I had wanted to take a train from Glasgow or Edinburgh to London this morning, the quickest trains from Edinburgh would have taken four hours and 20 minutes, the time from Glasgow would have been four hours and 25 minutes and the journey times for the vast majority of services from Glasgow and Edinburgh were more like five hours.

My right hon. Friend went on to compare those journey times with the journey times for high-speed rail in France. It takes just over three hours to travel the 400-odd miles between Paris and Marseilles, compared with seven hours to travel the 400-odd miles from Aberdeen to London. People can see the big difference.

If journey times are not enough of a disincentive to choose rail over air services, the increased cost of rail travel is a real and understandable concern for passengers. We can add to that the complicated ticketing structure, which often makes it difficult for passengers to get the cheapest deal. I accept that, if people do their homework, they can get cheap deals on rail services, but that is often quite a lengthy process and, despite the media attention and the report from the Transport Committee to which my right hon. Friend referred, many people are still unaware of the cheaper tickets that they can get hold of.

The relatively cheap cost of flights is a major attraction for passengers. One advantage of flying is that, when someone books a flight, they are guaranteed to be getting the cheapest flight available at the time when they book the ticket, whereas if someone tries to book a train ticket, there is no guarantee that they will get the cheapest ticket.

I will not fall into the trap of comparing the cost of the cheapest flight from Aberdeen to London with the most expensive open single first-class train ticket for the journey from Aberdeen. Having read the record of a previous Westminster Hall debate in which this Minister represented the Government, I do not want to give him the opportunity this morning to dismiss legitimate concerns about the disparity between rail and air fares. However, I have done my homework for the debate and the cheapest rail fare for a return journey between Aberdeen and London is £73.50 and the cheapest return flight costs £60.96. When we take into consideration the very limited scope of the cheapest rail tickets and how difficult it is to purchase them, it is probably reasonable to compare that cheapest flight price with the adult saver price of £117 return, which is almost double the cost and almost double the journey time.

Over the Christmas period, rail passengers suffered a double whammy. They suffered massive delays and disruption to services, and in January that was followed by big price increases, including inflation-busting increases, as my right hon. Friend said, of 6.6 per cent. for National Express services on the east coast and 7 per cent. for the Arriva-run cross-country franchise. It is to be hoped that those fare increases will result in improved services for passengers. My right hon. Friend made the very pertinent point that customers would like to see improvements in rail services before the prices are hiked up.

Following the announcement that Arriva had won the franchise, the Minister argued that the reason for the decision was Arriva’s commitment to increasing capacity on rush-hour trains—an increase of up to 30 per cent. in the number of passenger seats by 2009.

I just want to clarify that point. The hon. Gentleman is referring to the invitation to tender and the requirement in the franchising process for that increase in peak services. It was not part of one particular bid; it was a requirement of all bidders that they come up with solutions that would significantly increase capacity. I think that that should be put on the record.

I thank the Minister for clarifying the point, but certainly one advantage of the Arriva bid was that it intended to increase the number of seats available for passengers. However, that increased capacity comes at a price, because buffet cars and toilets have to be removed, and the changes to the timetable mean that a number of direct services to the south coast and the south-west of England from Scotland have been cut. That will lead to further increases in journey times and some disruption at Birmingham New Street.

I do not believe that anyone will disagree that the future of rail services depends on the investment that the industry receives, whether the money comes from the Government, the train operators or the fare-paying passengers. The cross-border rail industry faces a big challenge to be able to compete with domestic flights. At the moment, it cannot compete on journey times and it struggles to compete on price. The Minister may disagree about prices, but even when rail prices are competitive, there is a general perception that as a passenger it is cheaper to fly.

By 1997, there had been massive under-investment in our railways at the hands of the previous, Conservative Governments. I am willing to accept, and I think that my right hon. Friend accepted, that since 1997 there has been some progress, but so much of the investment in the railways—

Would the hon. Gentleman like to tell us when he thinks that the under-investment in the railways started? Did it start in 1979, 1945 or before then? If he is going to start his railway history by saying that the under-investment was from 1979 onwards, he ought to go and read some railway history, because that is not when the under-investment in our railway services started.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention and I accept that under-investment in the railways did not start in 1979. I can be forgiven for making that accusation about the previous, Conservative Government, as I was only eight years old when Margaret Thatcher came to power.

However, I argue that successive Conservative Governments from 1979 to 1997 made little attempt to reverse the decline in investment in the railways. Since 1997, there has been some progress. I am willing to accept that, but so much of the investment in the railways has been spent on catching up as a result of years of neglect and on investing in vital safety work. We would all agree that that is vital, but unfortunately it has often been at the expense of expansion of services.

The Government have promised £10 billion of extra investment over the next five-year period, but that will go only so far. The Liberal Democrats propose to more than double that investment through the introduction of a lorry road user charging scheme and an additional tax on domestic flights, except on lifeline routes. Those additional charges are expected to raise up to £12 billion of up-front investment from the revenue that would be generated over 30 years. That policy would have the added bonus of levelling the playing field between the airline and rail industries and would make it easier for the rail industry to compete on price.

We would also maximise investment from train operating companies by increasing the length of franchises to encourage investment. The Minister may disagree, but there is strong evidence that the certainty of longer franchises would boost investment. Most recently, Virgin proposed to acquire 100 more Pendolino carriages. For a £200 million investment in the west coast mainline, it wanted an extension of its franchise. Will the Minister say something about why the Department chose to block that proposal?

The Liberal Democrats are committed to a revolution in the rail industry. We are looking at detailed plans for network expansion with quick wins and longer-term goals, and we are committed to high-speed services to the north of England and Scotland. Rail will compete with air on a level playing field only when quick services to Scotland compete on journey times and price. Unless we invest further in improved services from north of the border, the danger is that excess demand will be taken up not by rail, but by airlines.

Thank you, Mr. Taylor, and like the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Leech), I must say that it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship.

I congratulate the right hon. Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce) on securing the debate. We had a broadly similar debate on 13 March last year. None the less, this is a timely debate because of some of the developments in the past year, including the double whammy at Christmas, which the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington described, and the re-letting of several of the franchises that affect cross-border services.

If one looks at the statistics most recently supplied by what I call the Scottish Executive, but who call themselves the Scottish Government, one can see that there were 2.6 million cross-border journeys originating in Scotland in 2005-06. Quite bizarrely, the number of cross-border journeys originating without Scotland was exactly the same, meaning that there were about 5.2 million cross-border journeys. In that context, one would expect the commitment to rail from the UK Government and the Scottish Executive to accelerate. However, when we look at the Scottish Government’s transport plans, we see that their transport spending on rail services is forecast to decrease—they say that they will spend less on rail in each of the next two years. That is important.

I agree with the right hon. Member for Gordon. He counted three cross-border services: the west coast main line, which is run by Virgin; the east coast main line, which is run by the new National Express franchise; and CrossCountry, which is run by Arriva. Of course, there is a fourth—the overnight sleeper is run by First ScotRail—and I shall make some remarks about that later. The right hon. Gentleman gave us an eloquent introduction. He is absolutely consistent in what he says on the matter. I looked at his website, and it is clear that his concerns are not new. He spoke to Ministers prior to the re-letting of various franchises last year to ask for assurances that the contract would maintain services to Aberdeen, rather than focus on links to Edinburgh. I could predict where his argument would go today after looking at his website; he has written about the case for high-speed rail links to the north, and he partially made that case today. I want to explore with the Minister some high-speed rail issues.

The right hon. Gentleman also sensibly pointed out the issue of finding the cheapest fare. Only in the past week have I succeeded in finding the website that tells people about those fares. I declare no interest as regards the website, but I am told that is now the website of choice for those who want to find the cheapest way to get anywhere. However, the right hon. Gentleman made the point that sometimes, people must combine three or four single journeys to find the cheapest fare; and, bizarrely, on one journey, it turned out that buying a ticket to Falkirk was the cheapest way to travel from Penzance to Birmingham. That shows that there are still some bizarre ticketing problems. They are the fault of the operators and Network Rail, not the Government. They cannot be laid at the Government’s door, but it is right for politicians to criticise the train operating companies for them.

I listened with interest to the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington. He will not be surprised to hear that, every time that people make a point about the period from 1979 onwards, I make the point that, according to rail industry statistics, investment has been falling since 1945; indeed, a lot of people claim that it has been falling since 1920. If he wants to read some excellent and impartial rail history, I guide him to books by Professor Huxley, who writes well on such matters.

The hon. Gentleman said that the Liberal Democrats are committed—he can correct me if I am wrong—to a revolution in the rail industry. There may be many things wrong with the rail industry, but neither Network Rail nor the train operating companies nor many other people want a revolution. We perhaps need an evolution toward some solutions, but do we need a major structural rip-up? We need to improve what we have, and I shall make some critical remarks about Network Rail because of its performance on the west coast main line over Christmas.

When I talked about a revolution in the rail industry, I was talking about services to passengers, rather than the actual network.

In the light of that clarification, I agree with the hon. Gentleman, as I am sure the Minister will. Ensuring that passengers get the very best services and getting railway system operators to focus on that is important.

The debate has fallen neatly into two parts: the current state of cross-border rail services, and the future prospects for those services. As has been rightly mentioned, the Christmas and new year chaos was simply unacceptable. Passengers from Scotland and the north of England were rightly angry about the delays, engineering overruns, the fare increases that they suffered, and, as much as anything else, the lack of consultation and notice. The train companies bear the brunt of that anger, but they have led the way in telling Network Rail to do something about its consultation. Tony Collins, the chief executive of Virgin Trains said:

“If they can’t guarantee”

the length of time that engineering works take,

“we would rather the completion date was put back”.

He went on to say that it is simply unacceptable for Network Rail to provide the sort of service that it provides to the train operators.

In the past two or three years, the train operating companies have borne the brunt of passenger criticism for what are usually Network Rail’s errors. Now that a number of institutional factors are no longer in place, I suspect that the train operating companies will not be prepared to take the brunt of the criticism and that Network Rail’s problems will be increasingly exposed. As I said in a debate in the House on 8 January, Andy Chivers, who covered the Liverpool Street area, echoed Tony Collins. He said that there had been a “major failure” of Network Rail operations over the Christmas period. On the west coast main line, 60,000 passengers had their journeys disturbed. As we know, the affected area around Rugby remained closed for about three days. The west coast main line is the busiest mixed-traffic railway—it carries both passengers and freight from south of Glasgow to London. About 75 million journeys are made on it each year. Mr. Collins, chief executive of Virgin, described the situation as a complete fiasco. Virgin’s managing director, Mr. Gibb, spoke frankly:

“This is a major inconvenience to…thousands of our customers”

Significantly, he added:

“I’m sure their patience, like ours, has now run out.”

If Network Rail cannot deliver that service to the train operating companies, people will increasingly ask why it is not more accountable and efficient. That is at a time when we are seeing a squeeze in the public sector because of a more difficult economic situation. A chief executive gets £465,000 and is awarded a bonus of £76,000, and the non-executive directors last year awarded themselves an 18 per cent. pay increase, at a time when our police force is being asked to accept a 1.9 per cent. increase. If Network Rail cannot get itself in order, the public and the train operating companies will increasingly ask the Government, “How are you going to make this company more accountable and efficient?” Disingenuously, Network Rail blames its contractors for the problems. I say that because the contracts for the work done at Christmas would have been put in place 15 months beforehand, on the normal basis for possessions. It is pathetic to blame the contractors when that amount of lead-in time was given. In the light of the lead-in time given, why were Network Rail’s contract management systems so poor?

There is a real issue about the performance of Network Rail. It claims that it would be easier to take those services in-house, yet the reality is rather different. The railway accident investigation branch report on the problems at Waterloo caused by two minor derailments in September and October 2006 rightly pointed out that those problems occurred when the operations were in-house. We can have no confidence in that solution.

One of the questions arising from the Christmas fiasco that the right hon. Member for Gordon will want answered today is whether the Government have been told by Network Rail that the west coast main line upgrade will be delivered on time in December 2008. That is the key to the cross-border services from Scotland.

Over the past year, we have seen one or two other developments in cross-border services. The awarding of the CrossCountry contract to Arriva last year gives some hope. I travelled on that service twice last year—once from Penzance to Birmingham and once from Plymouth to Birmingham. On both occasions, the train was already an hour late when it arrived at Plymouth, and it arrived at Birmingham an hour and a half late. I assume that it would have been two or three hours late when it arrived in Scotland. That is a regular service, and I am sorry to say that it is a relatively regular occurrence. Such delays are not acceptable.

One looks with interest at whether Arriva will be able to deliver on its promise of a 35 per cent. increase in seating. An increase in rolling stock will help people looking for the easiest way to plan journeys, perhaps on the website that I mentioned earlier. Arriva confirmed earlier this week that it is to lease 10 new high-speed cars from Porterbrook and others. That must be good news for the CrossCountry franchise, and good news, I suspect, for people travelling on that service. Getting extra cars on such essential services is the key to delivery. Mr. Cooper, managing director of CrossCountry trains, spoke of his firm’s “focus” and its “priority” of providing effective delivery; I hope that that will be justified with the introduction of those trains. Does the Minister intend there to be more of those trains on that franchise over the next four or five years?

The hon. Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz) initiated a similar debate last year in Westminster Hall. He made much the same points about the east coast main line that the right hon. Member for Gordon has made today about the west coast main line. He also raised some questions about services beyond his constituency in Edinburgh.

I hope that the Minister will speak about the future of services from London to Aberdeen and from London to Inverness, and what the upgrade prospects might be for those two services. The Scottish Executive said that they intend to electrify more lines. I understand that, north of Edinburgh, those two lines are not included in those proposals. I am keen to hear from the Minister exactly what discussions the Government have had with the Scottish Executive about including those lines in the electrification process. If they are not included, we shall suffer a problem that has already been identified—we may get a faster service from London to Edinburgh, but thereafter it will be very much slower.

In that context—perhaps the Minister will also answer this point—the hon. Gentleman will be aware that the Scottish Executive have mentioned a new Forth crossing at an estimated cost of £4.5 billion. I am not opposed to that crossing and I recognise the need for it, but does the hon. Gentleman not agree that an awful lot of money could go into improving rail services north of the Forth, which would reduce the pressure on the crossing and on the old railway bridge? Incorporating rail investment into that crossing would be a valuable addition.

I am sure that the Minister will wish to address that point.

I turn to the fourth cross-border service—the London-Scotland sleeper service. Is the Minister clear from his discussions with ScotRail that that service remains secure? What discussions have the Government had with ScotRail or the Scottish Executive to ensure that that service, which I understand has increased significantly in popularity over the last year or so, has future improvements written into its plans? Will the Minister clarify exactly what the Government have said to the Scottish Executive about their proposal to decrease the amount of investment in rail over the next three years?

The right hon. Member for Gordon touched on the vision thing. That is important, but we should not simply build an edifice for the sake of it. If we are to build a high-speed railway, we need to be quite clear why we are doing so. We must be clear that it will deliver the infrastructure needed to support the expansion of the economy over the next four or five years, and whether it will deliver the extra capacity that the railways will need over the next 25 to 30 years. Another part of the equation, of course, is the environment.

The Eddington report said that there should be no plans to review the feasibility of high-speed rail until 2012. Will the Minister say whether that remains the position? In terms of the UK’s infrastructure development, there is a place for high-speed rail, but it will have to be combined with a number of other ongoing projects.

If we are to consider high-speed rail, it is unlikely that a London to Scotland link will be built in one go. We did not build the motorway network in one go; it was built in fragments. It is worth pointing out that the first fragment of motorway went from Preston to the coast, which was not the most logical part to build first. If one were to build the London to Birmingham section first, and then onwards, a total cost of £30 billion for London to Scotland would be about right. However, some good studies suggest that, with some help from the planning procedures, the first phase from London to Birmingham could be built for about £8 billion. It is clear that the City and private sources of finance would be, and will continue to be, available to the Government.

I emphasise, as the Minister knows—he has heard me say so several times—that the Conservative party is committed to undertaking a feasibility study into high-speed rail. It will answer some of the challenges of the next 25 years, especially on the infrastructure, and it will also help with freight. Alongside that, we will consider the taxation of foreign lorries. We must also compare the problems of having longer, heavier lorries against using rail freight. It seems to me that rail freight is important not only from north to south but also from east to west.

We have had a wide-ranging debate today on cross-border services. We have concentrated on the two matters that are crucially important: the services that exist now, including how they can continue to provide the best service and be improved; and also the future of those services. I look forward to the Minister addressing both of those points in his remarks.

I begin by congratulating the right hon. Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce) on securing the debate.

This is one of those occasions when we can perhaps spend a little more time in a slightly less heated environment than the main Chamber on giving some thought to these issues. I am delighted that the right hon. Gentleman was the sponsor of this debate, because he raised, in a methodical and reasonable manner, some of his concerns, which, as a constituency MP, are entirely legitimate. I did not agree with all of the right hon. Gentleman’s conclusions and I think that he said in his own remarks that he did not expect me to. However, he has raised some very interesting points. So, in the time that we have left, I would like to go through as many of them as possible.

The right hon. Gentleman first asked me to make it absolutely clear that the east coast main line franchise covers the whole of the route from Aberdeen down to London, and I am happy to make that clarification. When the franchise was handed back by GNER at the end of 2006 and we found ourselves in the position of having to re-let the franchise, it was made absolutely clear that the original specification on which the GNER contract was let would be the template for the new franchise, which, of course, included services all the way up to Aberdeen. That remains the case and will remain the case.

The right hon. Gentleman also talked about the aspiration of giving people a real choice, and that is a sentiment with which I entirely agree. In fact, looking at the coverage of transport policy in this country, one could be forgiven for assuming that the Government have some type of vested interest in, or some type of specific policy aimed at, achieving modal shift. I said in the Chamber a couple of weeks ago and I am happy to repeat it again now that the Government are not committed to trying to proscribe or persuade individuals from using one particular form of transport in favour of another form. That will probably come as a surprise to many observers, certainly to many journalists who write about this issue. What is more important than telling people to give up their car or not to use air travel is to give them a real choice. Where people do not have the choice between modes of transport, the Government must rise to the challenge. However, rather than simply telling people to switch from one mode of transport to another, the Government’s policy and the Government’s plan is to ensure that as many people in the country as possible—ideally everyone in the country—have a genuine choice of which mode of transport to use.

The right hon. Gentleman made a valid point that, in many parts of the country including his constituency, such a choice is not easily available, either to him personally or to his constituents. We must recognise that the facts of geography hold sway in some of these matters. Of course, given the choice between flying and getting a train from his constituency down to London, flying would be the preferred option. It would certainly be my preferred option, if I were in his shoes.

Of a Monday morning, I generally travel down to London using the Virgin west coast service, but on a Thursday evening I generally fly back to my constituency, on the purely logical basis that, on a Monday, I am less keen to see my private office staff than I am keen to see my family on a Thursday evening. For me, that is a choice of convenience and logic, and I hope that my private office staff are not particularly offended by that revelation.

That is a reasonable and logical choice for any commuter to make. In the right hon. Gentleman’s constituency, many people, when faced with the logistical difficulties of travelling by train, will inevitably choose to use airlines instead. Nevertheless, it remains the Government’s position that we want, as far as possible and as far as is practical, to give citizens of this country a proper choice.

However, in quoting from some of the media coverage—hon. Members will see that my grievance against the media is a constant theme of many of my contributions in this place—the right hon. Gentleman said that, given the age of the infrastructure, it is surprising that so many services run on time. I paraphrase; I am not sure which newspaper he was quoting from. There is an assumption, and a danger, that Members will copy or cite that example. There is an assumption that Britain’s infrastructure cannot be described in any other terms than to use the adjective “crumbling”. That is simply not the case, certainly not when it comes to the railway infrastructure, given the huge amounts of investment that have been made and the huge amount of successful work carried out by Network Rail on renewals on the railway network. We are a long, long way away from even a few years ago, during the Railtrack times, and certainly from the 1970s, 1960s and 1950s, when, as the hon. Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond) correctly said, Governments of both parties were responsible for ignoring and crippling the railway infrastructure with cuts in investment.

We are a long, long way away from that situation now and I just want to put it on record, because it is not said often enough, that, as far as railway carriages themselves are concerned, we have the youngest fleet in the whole of Europe. Yes, there are examples and comparisons that we can give that allegedly put the British railway service in a worse light than many of our European counterparts, but simply in terms of the age of our rolling stock infrastructure we have the newest, youngest fleet of any of the major developed countries in Europe. That is something that we should be proud of and it is something that we should ask all of our colleagues in all parts of the House to recognise, because that is a success story, and we should stop talking down the railway industry as though it is some kind of third world or banana republic failing system, because that is absolutely the opposite of the reality.

The right hon. Gentleman also said—I do not know if these were his own words or a quote from The Daily Telegraph—that Network Rail was “keeping demand in check”. That is similar to the accusation that the Government are trying to price people off the railways; if that is actually the case, we are doing a terrible job of it, given that 40 per cent. more people are now using the railways than was the case 10 years ago. I understand why these political criticisms are made, but there is not a single shred of evidence to suggest that any major line anywhere in the country is showing a decrease over the last 10 years in the number of people using it or is predicted to show a reduction in demand over the next five to seven years. On the whole, therefore, although I respect the view that the right hon. Gentleman expressed, he painted quite an inaccurate picture of Network Rail and its operations.

The right hon. Gentleman talked—inevitably, but understandably—about his concerns on fare increases, as did his hon. Friend, the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Leech). He said that passengers should reasonably expect fares to rise by less than inflation. Once again, to provide some clarity, the Government have said explicitly, in our White Paper, that the current regulation of fares—in other words, those fares that are regulated by the Government—will continue to be regulated by the existing policy of inflation plus 1 per cent. during the rest of the current control period, which ends in 2009, right up until the end of the next control period, which ends in 2014.

Of course, that will cause some challenge to some of our media detractors, who, year on year, sometimes month on month, like to announce front page news that there will be “inflation-busting fare rises”. If one wishes to put it that way, there have been inflation-busting fare rises since 2004, when this policy was introduced and we institutionalised regulated fare increases to be inflation plus 1 per cent. That policy will remain until the end of the next control period.

That policy is justified, given the under-investment in the railways that I acknowledge has happened under Governments of both parties since the end of the second world war. We have seen significant increases in investment since 1997—I do not think that any party in the House would query or challenge me on the fact that we have seen record investment in the railway industry since 1997—but that money has to come from somewhere. I know that it is turning into a bit of a cliché, but there are only two sources of revenue for the railway industry; the taxpayer and the fare payer. We have made a deliberate political decision that the balance should shift towards the fare payer in the next control period. The taxpayer will be expected to continue, and will continue, contributing a huge amount of investment, but it is only fair that the travelling public should make a contribution.

On the development of our high-level output specification, the Government faced the difficult question of where to allocate funds over the next control period. The £15 billion that is available for spending on the railways is an historically large amount, and we have decided to use £10 billion of that explicitly to increase capacity on the railways. Different political parties can disagree with our conclusions on that, and different priorities demand our attention—electrification, high-speed lines and the reopening of old lines have all been mentioned—but we have taken the deliberately political decision to make extra capacity our priority. The right hon. Gentleman may believe that some of the £10 billion that is to be used to increase capacity should be used further to subsidise currently unregulated fares, and that is of course a perfectly legitimate political position to take, but it is not one that I share, because that would not be a good use of public money. The demands on infrastructure and rolling stock are so great that the priority should be to spend the money on the 1,300 new carriages that are due for delivery in the next control period.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about the new Arriva CrossCountry franchise and the cutting back of services. Let me make it clear that the Department does not specify levels of catering on any of our franchises. I never received so many approaches from fellow MPs from all parties as I did when the GNER franchise was handed back. They were concerned about the future of the excellent buffet services that had been available on the GNER service, which were a luxury that I suspect they particularly enjoyed. However, I had to disappoint them by making it clear that we had never specified the level of catering on GNER and that we did not intend to specify the level for the new franchise. Similarly, we did not specify the level of catering on the new CrossCountry franchise. The right hon. Gentleman mentioned the hot buffet service, but the hot food service on other franchises, including Virgin West Coast, is available only at seat in first class, so the problems that he said affect the new CrossCountry franchise are quite prevalent in other parts of the railway industry. That is not necessarily an excuse, but nor is this something that affects Arriva alone.

The right hon. Gentleman talked about customer information, which is incredibly important. He is right that the current fare structure and the system for getting information about the cheapest available fares is completely unfit for purpose. We are working closely on the issue in partnership with the Association of Train Operating Companies. In October, the industry will produce the new fares structure that we have been working on with it. That structure will streamline all existing tickets into four main types. There will also be a new price promise, and we are working with all the train-operating companies to get their unanimous agreement on it. Essentially, that will mean that if a passenger buys a ticket and then discovers that they could have got a better value ticket for the same journey, the train-operating company will reimburse them for the difference. That does not happen at the moment. If we can reach an agreement with all the train-operating companies by October on implementing that process, it will be a major boost to the travelling public.

Will the Minister confirm whether that will include tickets that are bought on the train? Obviously, passengers on the train can pay only the full-price standard or first-class fare.

I ask the hon. Gentleman to wait until we make the announcement in October. I hope that there will be a clean slate in terms of the whole fare structure, the way in which customers buy tickets and the way in which they are reimbursed and protected, so that when confusion arises and people end up buying the wrong product, they are given appropriate reimbursement. The hon. Gentleman may well be right, but I do not want to pre-empt any of the discussions between the DFT and the train-operating companies.

My party would support the opportunity for people to buy the cheapest available tickets both on and off the train. I hope that the Minister will take that on board and raise it in his discussions with the train-operating companies.

I shall certainly pass the hon. Gentleman’s remarks to the team of negotiators who are working with the DFT and the train-operating companies.

Will the Minister clarify whether the four fares that will be put in place will all be dealt with under the regulated fare regime?

Some will, some will not. The fares are titled off-peak, super off-peak, anytime and advance. The fare regulation system will not be changing, and we do not expect to extend regulation beyond the types of ticket that we currently regulate, for the reasons that I set out. However, we shall try to ensure that it is clear to the travelling public which fares are regulated and which continue to be unregulated.

In the few minutes that I have left, I want to deal specifically with the right hon. Gentleman’s comments. He claimed that the Secretary of State had dismissed high-speed lines, although he later clarified what he meant by that. It is true that, in the high-level output specification in the White Paper that we published in July, we did not make a commitment to build high-speed lines in the next control period. However, I refer him to the excellent report submitted to the Department last year by Rod Eddington. He concluded that connectivity, which is sometimes used to justify building high-speed lines, is not a strong enough argument to justify the expenditure involved. He noted that most large urban populations are reasonably well connected and that travel times are not particularly impractical. However, he also said that meeting capacity demands between the major urban centres over the next decade will create demand for new corridors and that high-speed lines might be a solution. He also made it clear that new motorways might be a solution, although the Liberal Democrats might not be particularly comfortable with that.

We are talking, however, about big decisions, which involve big money, and the Government will make those decisions in due course. It would be wrong to say that the Department will be ignoring the issue until our announcement in 2012, because we will be doing a lot of work between now and then on whether high-speed lines will give value for money and are an appropriate response to the capacity demands that will beset us in the early part of the decade after next. It would be wrong to say that the Secretary of State has dismissed the case for high-speed lines; there are ongoing discussions about the issue within the Government, and it is still on the table. However, we will not commit to anything for the next control period.

I understand the excitement that was caused by the opening of St. Pancras and High Speed 1, which gave a tremendous boost to the image of Britain’s railway services, but it would be wrong to start coming up with public policy on the back of the hype. Regardless of the right hon. Gentleman’s admonition that large projects can be paid for over many years, we are still talking about very real money—£30 billion over 10 years—and it will have to come from somebody’s budget. We shall therefore take the necessary decisions in due course, although I accept that that is never quick enough for most people in the railway industry. None the less, the decisions will be taken, and we shall take our time about that because there is no need to reach a decision earlier than 2012. I am therefore confident that we will come to the right decision either for or against high-speed lines.

The right hon. Gentleman talked about the Union, and it is a pity that no Scottish National party Member has seen fit to be present for this debate. He is right that we are one country, and high-speed lines would provide, if not necessarily the economic boost that he spoke about, a very physical representation of the Union between Scotland and England.

Teenage Pregnancies

I shall begin with three brief stories. The first comes from my constituency last Friday, when I spoke to various older ladies about their experiences of teenage pregnancy and how they thought that it affected other people’s lives. One lady, in her late 40s, said to me touchingly, “I had a baby at the age of 16 and I absolutely love my kids, but it meant that I lost my childhood, education and most of my opportunities in life. I have rebuilt my life now, but I really wish that I had left it until later.” That happens to an awful lot of young mums in my constituency.

The second story was told to me by a teacher at Treorchy comprehensive. She was talking to one of the girls in her class, who was by no means stupid—in fact, she was quite clever—but who was having difficulties at home. She did not seem to be trying hard for her GCSEs and the teacher said to her, “Why don’t you try a bit harder, because this is really important for your future?”, and the girl replied, “Well, miss, there’s not much point, because I’m going to get pregnant next year”. The teacher asked, “What do you mean you’re going to get pregnant next year? You haven’t even got a boyfriend”, to which the girl replied, “It doesn’t really matter who the boy is; I’m going to get pregnant next year.” The teacher said to me, “The sad thing is that that is exactly what happened.” The girl got pregnant at 16 and left her education before completing her GCSEs.

The third story is about a 15-year-old constituent of mine, who has had her first baby—she is even thinking about having a second—and who said to me, “Well, the thing is I was doing really badly at school. I was being picked on and bullied. All the other girls hated me, and I didn’t have any friends. And at home it was miserable.” She told me all sorts of things with which I shall not delay the Chamber this morning. She said, “I just thought that if I had a baby, I would have a purpose in life, somebody to love and somebody to love me.” She will probably be quite a good mum—she is a lovely young woman. And of course many teenage mums turn out to be fabulous mums, against the odds, and often are so determined and capable that they can rebuild their lives.

None the less, I believe that teenage pregnancy is one of the biggest and most difficult problems facing constituencies such as mine. The map of teenage pregnancy in Britain is the map of poverty and deprivation. Last week, I put together some statistics, which, for the first time, were done by constituency, rather than by local authority. They show that the map is a consistent line of the poorest communities in this country. Britain, as a whole, has a poor record. We have the highest rate of teenage pregnancy in Europe. It is not just slightly higher than other countries—it is five times higher than in Holland, three times higher than in France and double the figure in Germany. In fact, only one country in the world has a higher figure than ours—the United States of America.

Some might say, “Why does that matter? It is always lovely to see a new baby, and with a young mum able to give the child all the care that she can”. In truth, it is bad for both the girl and the child. It is more than likely that the girl will never finish her education, get any qualifications or get work, and she is more likely to live a life on benefits and to suffer from significant mental health problems during the early years of her baby’s life. As one young boy in the Rhondda told me, “A life on benefits still means that you’re poor.”

There are problems for the children as well. The baby is likely to weigh much less at birth than those born to more mature girls. As a result, and because teenage mums are less likely to breastfeed, the children are more likely to have medical problems as they go through life. The pressures on teenage mums are such that quite a lot of their children do not end up receiving a full set of vaccinations or the medical support that they need during the first two years of life, which can result in further problems later on. Quite depressingly, a very high percentage of the daughters of teenage mums become teenage mums themselves. As wealth is inherited, so, all too often, is poverty.

As the person who holds the unenviable title of Member for the constituency at the top of the list for teenage pregnancy, I really appreciate my hon. Friend raising this debate and his courage in talking about the problem. He mentioned the intergenerational nature of teenage pregnancy. Does he accept that, marvellous though the work being done for pregnant women and young mums is, early intervention is the key to breaking the intergenerational cycle? For example, is he aware of the work that we are doing in Nottingham to create a change in culture? It aims to ensure that people receive the right pre and post-natal care, as well as intensive health visits. We are also developing the programme on the social and emotional aspects of learning at primary and secondary schools, and ultimately, as part of the early intervention package—

Notwithstanding your comments, Mr. Taylor, my hon. Friend was making a very important point about the need for all the different agencies to work together, which has very much been the thrust of the Government’s message over the past 10 years. Incidentally, I pay tribute to the Government for having spotted this as a significant issue, and for having sought to bring every measure to bear to tackle it. The difficulty for us is that other countries started to tackle the causes much earlier and were able to cut teenage pregnancy rates dramatically in the 1980s and 1990s. However, it has taken us much longer. We have cut them by 12 per cent. in the past few years, but that is not enough.

It seems that a very mechanical approach is being taken to this serious issue. Would it not be better to involve local groups in order to achieve more successful and relevant results in local communities, rather than adopting a one-size-fits-all approach, which clearly does not work in areas such as the Rhondda and the Isle of Wight?

Actually, I think that in some areas we do need to adopt a one-size-fits-all approach, because we should not be sending out mixed messages to young people—a part of the problem that I shall come to a little later. Also, the problem presents itself in different ways in different communities. For instance, as many youngsters in the Rhondda have pointed out to me, a youngster in Cardiff might find it very easy to access a sexual health advice clinic with anonymity and to buy contraceptives in the local branch of Boots, but in the Rhondda, it is almost certain that the woman behind the counter—it will be a woman—will know their mother. Youngsters are more intimidated in some areas than in others when trying to access contraception. Furthermore, of course, in rural areas advice centres might be so widely dispersed that access is difficult. Local authorities and the various agencies need to work together to find practical and workable solutions.

The Government have rightly pointed out that single people acting as champions on behalf of voluntary and public sector organisations can make a significant difference. Interestingly, in some areas teenage pregnancy rates have risen over the past 10 years—quite dramatically in certain places—but in others they have fallen dramatically. In one area, the figure has risen by 40 per cent., but in several others it has fallen by that much.

I echo my hon. Friend’s comments. The situation that he describes in his constituency applies to some wards in mine. He talks about percentages. Last Friday, I raised this problem with people at Salford primary care trust, who pointed out that the data on teenage pregnancy are two or more years out of date. If a health body adopts measures, it must be an issue. Will he impress on the Minister that, if the Office for National Statistics provided health bodies and others with more up-to-date data, we could observe more readily the trends and whether the action being taken is having a good effect?

There are some things on which I want to press the Minister, but that is not one, oddly, because there is a real difficulty in working out the teenage pregnancy rate, which is the most significant issue that we must tackle. The rate must be predicated on the number of live births—obviously, nine months after the pregnancy starts—minus the number of legal abortions. That is how the statistics are worked out, so there will always be some drag on them. The truth is that what happens in any one constituency does not matter, although in the Rhondda in 2006 there were 101 teenage pregnancies, and in Kensington and Chelsea there were just 11, despite more people living in the latter than in the former. The issue is not the absolute figures but the trend, which needs to move much more resolutely downward.

Teenage pregnancy is also a problem because it affects the most vulnerable in society. The most distressing statistic that I came across—I shall not bore Members with many statistics—is that 50 per cent. of teenage girls in care will become a teenage mum either while in care or within 18 months of leaving it. The state already takes care of those people, but they are the most vulnerable. If we cannot put things right with that group of young girls, we will have difficulty with others.

I was interviewed on Friday by ITV, and the journalist’s first question was, “What is the nature of the problem?” I told him, and he said, “So, what causes teenage pregnancy?” He then burst into fits of laughter, because he realised the intrinsic problem with his question. However, there are some root causes of teenage pregnancy, and they are where we need to do much of the work. First, in every conversation that I have had with youngsters in my constituency, they have said that their access to high-quality information about sex and relationships—I shall say only that phrase, “sex and relationships”, because the issue is not just sex—is minimal. None of the kids to whom I spoke had ever spoken to their parents about sex, which is very different from other countries in Europe, where most children receive their first information about sex and relationships from their parents—the right place.

Secondly, very few of those youngsters in the Rhondda said that they had effective—or, indeed, any—sex and relationship education in school. Some cited the single biology lesson in which they, as they put it, were taught how to put a condom on a cucumber, but none cited anything other than that. Indeed, some of the girls said that, when they had their first period, they did not know what was happening to their body, and that nobody had explained it to them. The situation was reflected in the Ofsted report in England, and in the Estyn report in Wales. Both said that, while there have been improvements in recent years in sex and relationship education, far too many schools still do not do it, do not do it well, are not prepared to do it, refuse to do it, or—more importantly, as many would say—start far too late.

There is no point starting sex and relationship education once youngsters are already having sex, and the truth is that, whether we like it or not, between one third and one quarter of young people in the UK have had their first sexual encounter before their 16th birthday—considerably earlier than in other countries in Europe. All the evidence suggests that good sex and relationship education is not just about the biological facts, but about putting sex in its context of relationships, commitment and personal development, and about giving kids an understanding that they have so much self-worth that they can make a choice for themselves about whether to delay their first sexual encounter, and say to a boyfriend, “No, I don’t want to have sex,” without the boy running away or the girl being thought of as frigid. All those issues are important, but they will work for youngsters only if education starts early enough—before they engage in sexual activity—and is consistent enough. It should not be just one lesson; one cannot do sex and relationship education in a single lesson.

My hon. Friend says that young people need the mental, social and emotional wherewithal to make the best of sex and relationship education. Does he therefore accept that that wherewithal comes from much earlier in the life cycle than when one is a teenager, or aged 10 or 11—that it starts almost from birth itself, and from proper parenting skills?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The country in Europe with the lowest teenage pregnancy level is Holland. Which country in Europe starts its sex and relationship education at the youngest age? The answer is Holland. Of course, education must start at an age-appropriate level. One is not going to go into everything at the age of six to 11, but many people say to me that, for a parent, it is difficult to start talking to one’s child at 13 years old about such matters if one has not started talking to them at seven or eight about why mummy and daddy love one another, and so on.

In Britain, we have tended to fight shy of sex and relationship education. I suspect that the Government will later say, “We think that sex and relationship education is very important; we are training another 2,000 specialist teachers, and we are determined to improve it.” However, the truth is that many schools just will not take the issue seriously unless we are prepared to put it on a statutory basis, so that, by the time every young girl gets her first period, she understands what is happening to her body, and so that every young person has all the information that they need to make good choices for themselves, such as delaying their first sexual encounter and not engaging in risky sex.

There are other root causes. Many young people drink a lot of alcohol now, and one worrying statistic is that girls, according to the latest figures, own up to binge-drinking more frequently than boys. All the good intentions that one may have at the beginning of an evening—about not sleeping with somebody, or about sleeping with them only if contraception is used—fly out the window at the end of the evening when everybody is drunk. We must do more to tackle the terrible problem not just of under-age drinking, which might be a couple of pints, but of serious binge-drinking among youngsters. There is also a lack of contraception and good advice for many youngsters in many areas of the country.

Social conservatives must take on board many of the points that I have made so far, but social liberals must take on board what I shall say now. Although it is not true that girls get pregnant to get a flat, because 90 per cent. of teenage mums live in their parents’ home or their boyfriend’s parents’ home, there is evidence of planned teenage pregnancies. The girl to whom I referred earlier was either so careless about whether she got pregnant that she did not mind whether she did, or she wanted to get pregnant because she could envisage a sense of self-worth if she became a teenage mum. That element of teenage pregnancy—especially in areas where there are many teenage mums pushing their babies in buggies down the street, and there seems to be no stigma attached to being a teenage mum—is part of the problem.

We social liberals—I include myself in that group—must recognise that the mixed messages are bewildering for youngsters. There is not only the mixed message of one set of rules for boys and another for girls. There is also the message that when a young girl does not do well in school and has a tough time at home, there is relatively minimal support for her; but the moment that she becomes pregnant, there will be a child psychologist, a local nurse and the doctor. As many girls said when I talked to them in the Rhondda, everybody is suddenly their friend. They go from being the female equivalent of Billy-no-mates—Jenny-no-mates—to everyone in the school suddenly being their friend, because no one wants to appear judgmental. That is part of the difficulty, alongside the fact that television, teenage magazines and pop music all sexualise children at a very young age today.

What should we be doing? The first thing to do is to help parents talk to their children. I am not a parent and probably never will be, but I know from speaking to others that starting to talk to their kids about sex and relationships is a difficult business. All the surveys show that many parents would welcome help and advice. The Government have produced advice online, and other advice packs are available, but in Sweden they send advice to every parent of a 13-year-old, saying, “These are things that you might consider doing: talking about sex, alcohol, drugs, smoking and your own personal lifestyle.” That is something that we should consider.

As I said, sex and relationship education needs to be much more comprehensive, and not just biological but about the emotional and perhaps spiritual aspects of sexual relationships. I also believe that, in the end, such education will have to be on a statutory basis, so that every school in the land provides it. Otherwise, it will not happen. We should also ensure that nurses in schools have a direct responsibility for spotting the girls who might be at risk and for counselling them about sex and relationships, so that they have a sense of self-worth.

We need a vibrant youth service in every area of the country, so that there are adult role models for youngsters to talk to about such things in an informal setting. We need to do more about supported housing, because all too often a young girl who needs a council flat will first be told that she can get one only if she is on her own and the boy is not there, so the dads are left out of the equation, which must be crazy. She is then dumped on a manky housing estate where there are a lot of other problems and given floating support such as someone coming to see her twice a week. No wonder such girls have mental health problems when their babies are two, because they do not have the personal resources to cope in such a situation. There should be supported accommodation, in which girls perhaps share cooking facilities, as has been tried in some areas. There should also be academic support, so that they can continue in education, medical support for the children, and an opportunity for the girls to get out to work when they are 18, 19 or 20. That might also help us to change the distressing fact that a large percentage of the teenage girls who become pregnant are already on their second pregnancy.

I have mentioned involving the dads, which is vital. One message that goes out resolutely to young dads is, “We don’t want you. We are not interested in you. The state isn’t interested in you, the girls aren’t interested in you—keep away.” That must be a disaster, and we must turn that message around.

Finally, we should help girls to get into work. That is not to say that every teenage mum should be working a full week by the age of 19, which would be crazy. In fact, it is quite probable that many of them should not work 16 hours a week, but if they are to have a chance in life, they need an opportunity to socialise not just with other teenage mums but with people in a work environment and to bring more money into the household. We need to make changes to the benefit system, so that more girls have the opportunity to do mini-jobs—perhaps eight or 10 hours a week—which the system currently penalises.

I know that the Government are doing many of the things that I have suggested, as are local authorities and primary care trusts—or, in Wales, local health boards—but the picture is patchy. In some areas it is a great success, and in others it is a terrible failure. The truth is that we have cut teenage pregnancy rates by 12 per cent. in the past 10 years, and perhaps we will be able to do more in the next few years, but we really need to fight harder to tackle the problem. The two key things are introducing statutory sex and relationship education in England and Wales and dismantling the mixed messages that effectively say to many young girls that it is a good idea to be a teenage mum.

There are challenges for social liberals and social conservatives alike. I know that there are challenges for social conservatives, because the Daily Mail disagrees with nearly everything that I have said. We must be resolute, determined and clear-sighted if we are to make a difference. I have set up the website, to which thousands of people have logged on, making recommendations, voting on what they think of other recommendations and saying which ideas are good or bad. If we halve teenage pregnancy in the Rhondda through that work and through what the Governments in the Welsh Assembly and here do, we will have done something significant to tackle the poverty and deprivation that has been handed down from generation to generation in my constituency.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) on securing the debate. I shall keep my comments brief, as I know many Members wish to speak on something that has an impact on every constituency, not just the Isle of Wight. There are more questions than answers, so I shall be glad to have the Minister’s view on a number of points that I shall make.

It is imperative that we separate the issues of under-age sex and under-age pregnancy from the more general one of teenage pregnancy. Surely, it is not the role of the state to put a stop to something that is legal. It may prefer to do so, but two people can have sex in their teens and be above the age of consent. It may be unwise, but that is different from being unlawful. Sex under the age of 16 is illegal, and under-age pregnancy stems from under-age sex. That is the matter that must be considered.

Young people need individual help, not group help, at the time when it is right for them, whether at the age of 10, seven or 14, rather than help that will be appropriate for some but not for all. Preferably, that help will be provided to children by their parents, who can give the best advice. Of course, I recognise that sometimes parents are not involved, so a second course is necessary, but I want children and parents to work together first.

Does the Minister believe that the state has a duty to prevent a legal activity just because it may lead to pregnancy in the post-16 years? I suspect that the Government are not considering changing the age of consent, so would it not be better for any strategy to tackle what is illegal—having sex under the age of consent—rather than the different matter of teenage pregnancy? It is interesting to see that the rate of teenage pregnancy, which includes figures both above and below the age of consent, has dropped recently, although it is still high when compared with that of other countries. I hope that we will learn from the Minister how far pregnancy rates have dropped for the above-16s, and, more important, for those in the age group below. Finally, I shall be pleased to hear the Minister tell us what plans exist to tackle under-age sex, which is the all-important issue.

I am delighted to have an opportunity to contribute to this excellent debate, initiated by my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant). The interest shown in the debate, particularly from Labour Back Benchers, certainly demonstrates how seriously we take the issue.

In a former role, the Minister for the Olympics, my right hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Tessa Jowell), once said that the best contraceptive for a young girl in her teens was a good prediction for her GCSE and A-level results. That seems to be a trite statement until we start to understand—as we are beginning to do—the complex nature of teenage pregnancy and what it can lead to. It is a dereliction of our duty as Members of Parliament not to understand that a pregnancy in teenage years is not something that we would want children to embark upon when they have the right choices before them and the right setting to make decent choices for their lives.

Of course the reasons why such pregnancies occur are complex. My hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda told us clearly that there are myriad reasons why a young girl may decide to become pregnant. That does not mean that such a decision has been made in a setting that is either nurturing or provides a sense of aspiration for the future. I utterly understand and respect that situation, and we need to tackle those issues seriously.

Unwanted conception leads to many problems, such as poor baby health and poor maternal emotional health. We have heard how isolation can lead to enormous difficulties and, of course, a poor economic outcome makes it hard to move on and recover from having a baby at such an age. However, it is not impossible to move on and many of us could tell lots of stories about fantastic women who have thrived and survived and gone back to college and done an amazing job for their children. We should not write off those women, but we should think about why they may lack the confidence to say, “I do not want to have sex at this age and I will not do so because I want to do well at school and show everyone that I can earn a living and be independent.” That is the situation we want women to be in and that is what we want for the future: self-confident, happy young people who do not feel driven into having sex at an early age, whether before or after 16. If sex is unwanted or not welcome at that time and women feel under pressure, we seriously need to address that situation.

Some adolescents need help in understanding the risks they are taking. They also need to understand their bodies and the way they work. In medieval times, it was acceptable for women to become pregnant at 15 or 16—we all know that happened—because that is when a woman is at her most fertile. Risk taking is much greater at that age and if we do not equip women—and, of course, the other part of the deal, men—with understanding, pregnancy will occur.

We must ensure that we inform younger children of the mechanics of pregnancy. I believe that we are now doing so and that there is no danger in informing children about how sex happens if it is mixed with clear information about relationships, respect and understanding. That is the recipe for excellent sex and relationship education in our schools. I certainly err on the side of compulsory sex education, but there is a quality issue in terms of its provision, which at present is incredibly patchy. I hope that the Minister will tell us how she will ensure that good authorities that are grasping the issue and doing well will share best practice with other authorities that are not doing so well.

In Crawley, we have had success in reducing teenage pregnancy rates and I am delighted. However, that was because the strategy was taken seriously. The constituency of Crawley is the most deprived part of West Sussex, which is a relatively well-off area, and that is reflected in the teenage pregnancy rates in the relevant tables. The focus of the strategy was on areas where most help was needed and it was delivered through the schools that were having the most difficulty and where the numbers of teenage pregnancies were higher than elsewhere. The strategy quickly led to a concerted approach from everyone who was able to provide sex and relationship education and it resulted in a huge reduction—20 per cent.—in teenage pregnancy rates from 1998 to 2005. I congratulate those who took part in that concerted effort, but we must not take our eye off the ball. It is easy to use the money that came with the strategy and the commitment of all those who had the opportunity to assist with it, but it takes concerted hard work to ensure that those figures continue to decrease.

My hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda is right about the role of men and boys in the whole process and it is ludicrous not to include them. If a young girl decides to continue with her pregnancy, she needs all the support we can provide. After all, we want babies to be housed and to ensure that they have a good outcome in their lives. We do not want babies to be hampered or disadvantaged in any way because of their start in life. The work at Broadfield children’s centre is amazing. It has a fantastic breastfeeding peer support group where some teenage mums are helping other young mums who decided to continue with their pregnancy to breastfeed their babies to ensure that they have a decent start in life. There is also a father’s group where many young fathers come together to discuss what it is like to become a father and how it is not quite the easy path that they thought it would be. There are some excellent examples that show how teenage pregnancy rates can be reduced and how we can support teenage parents.

There are many different ways in which we can tackle the problems, some of which are not immediately apparent. The Education and Inspections Act 2006 makes a commitment that children in foster care can go to the school of the foster parents’ choice. Such children will not simply be consigned to a place in an unpopular school, which will help enormously with outcomes for children in foster care. The issue of teenage pregnancy is not just about education; it is about the care, help and advice that children receive—it is not just about health or parents but about all those things.

When preparing for the debate, I looked at the teenage pregnancy strategy review carried out by an independent research team at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and it was clear that good practice is truly reaping rewards in some areas. Such good practice gives young girls confidence in their future and enables them to think properly about their choices. I hope the Minister will say that she wants more of that good practice and that she wants that strategy to be embedded in all our communities. With the revival and renewal of the Connexions service, we have a great opportunity to deliver good sex and relationship education. I certainly hope it will flourish in the future.

I join my hon. Friend the Member for Crawley (Laura Moffatt) in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) on securing the debate. He has already given a good analysis of some of the causes of teenage pregnancy and a clear exposition of what he believes are some of the solutions. I agree that factors such as binge drinking and the early sexualisation of children are increasingly becoming matters of concern. Such factors also make it more difficult for the Government to meet their target of halving teenage pregnancies.

My hon. Friend highlighted the stigma attached to teenage pregnancy, which is a difficult issue. Once somebody is pregnant and decides to go ahead with the pregnancy, it is important that they have support from people within their school or community. In the 1980s, particularly in some of the media, teenage mothers were stigmatised and demonised through stories about them becoming pregnant to get council flats and so on. We obviously do not want to return to such attitudes, but at the same time, there is the issue that my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda raised about its being acceptable and almost normal—the done thing—for young mothers in some areas, particularly on some of our more deprived estates, to be teenage mothers. There is a tricky balancing act.

I know people who had babies when they were teenagers. They have done a good job bringing up their children—great kids who are now teenagers themselves—and they are doing all that they can to stop them going down the same path as they did, because they know that it was incredibly difficult. Although they brought up decent kids, their lives have been fairly chaotic and they have always struggled to make ends meet. They have taken on jobs and then had to give them up because of child care or relationship issues—often, the relationship with the father of the children causes huge problems in their lives as well—so they know that it is not easy. As I said, they are desperate that their children do not go down the same path.

One of the things that the speakers so far have highlighted is that above all we must address the whole concept of young people’s emotional health and well-being. I agree. The Government highlighted that in their 2006 document, “Teenage Pregnancy: Accelerating the Strategy to 2010”. We must deal with the development of social and emotional skills, and I shall speak briefly about two projects that aim to do that.

Hengrove school in south Bristol—it is not in my constituency, so I have not had an opportunity to visit it—introduced a lunch-time and after-school drop-in service in September 2005. It is staffed by a school nurse, a child and adolescent mental health worker, a nurse from the Brook advisory clinic, an adviser from Connexions and a drug and alcohol worker. There were nearly 2,000 visits in the first year, mostly from 14 to 15-year-olds, and about a third of the visits were from boys. A third of the consultations were about sexual health issues. The service is anonymous: it does not ask for pupils’ names or record the visit within the system in any way. There are plans to roll the service out to the rest of the city. Projects that start to address the issues before a pregnancy occurs—before it becomes a problem—are really important.

Another Bristol project helps young mothers once they decide to continue with their pregnancy. The Meriton centre, which is a referral unit for young parents, provides education at GCSE level and also some post-16 education for about 75 young girls from the age of 13 upwards. I had the opportunity to visit the centre a few months ago to present awards for qualifications. The centre also offers vocational and personal enrichment courses, and it has an on-site nursery so that the babies can be looked after while the girls are studying.

A debate has been going on for some years about whether it is better to educate teenage mothers in separate referral units or whether they should be kept in mainstream schooling. Dr. Nona Dawson of Bristol university carried out a study in 2003 and concluded that it was better to take young mothers out of mainstream education because of factors such as bullying in class, particularly by boys, difficulties in arranging child care and teachers not taking the girls’ aspirations seriously and, in effect, cold-shouldering them. She came to the view that units such as the Meriton centre were a better way of educating teenage mothers.

The Meriton is incredibly successful. It has twice made it on to Ofsted’s list of outstanding providers of education. Last year’s report stated:

“The Meriton Centre is outstanding in all major respects.”

It has an

“outstanding curriculum with extensive links to other organisations”,

and it offers

“an exceptionally wide array of courses … The students … achievements over very short periods of time are excellent and they all leave with good quality qualifications.”

One should bear it in mind that most of those young mothers arrived at their situation because they had more or less dropped out of mainstream school anyway. They would not have achieved good GCSE results, or any GCSE results at all. It takes a while for the Meriton to convince them that it is worth attending, but within six to eight months on average, and despite having given birth in the middle of that period, they achieve qualifications that are broadly average for Bristol.

The project that my hon. Friend refers to sounds similar to Books and Babies, which is just outside my constituency but serves it. It is a wonderful project, and I have been impressed by the staff there. They have enormous dedication and, I suppose, personal love, but one of the difficulties is that the services stop when the mother reaches the age of 16. A big difficulty for 16 to 18-year-olds is that it is difficult to get adequate child care facilities at many schools and colleges.

I am aware that child care is an issue. The Meriton offers post-16 education. It is important that support is offered at least until the age of 18.

Let me briefly give a flavour of what the Meriton is doing. I have been given various reports published by the centre and some of the achievements make inspirational reading. One young girl says that she attended a teaching assistant course—I believe that six young mothers have now qualified as teaching assistants. She wrote that she now has a job in a school and is working with a young boy in year 4 who is mildly autistic. One senses that she feels that she is making a difference to that young boy’s life. She has a job that she values, and she feels that she is contributing something.

The Meriton also offers sports leadership courses that involve teaching netball and rounders at primary schools. It has linked up with the university of Bristol law department, where real-life law cases are discussed and the girls are taught to analyse social issues. The centre put on a performance of “The Wizard of Oz”; there are sports activities and it produced a radio show and is helping to build a catering van for the farms for city children project. All sorts of good things are being done—it is not just about getting GCSEs. The centre is also undertaking work to educate other young people about the realities of young parenthood.

There is an organisation in my constituency called the single parent action network—a national organisation that receives a significant amount of lottery funding—which works with older single mothers. Again, the self-esteem they get from being involved in projects, gaining qualifications and receiving hands-on support and life coaching is incredible.

It is a real shame that we are talking about helping people only once they get into difficulties. I believe that my hon. Friend the Member for Crawley referred to that point. We need to look at what organisations such as the Meriton and the SPAN study centre do to build people’s aspirations, boost their self-esteem and help them cope with life, to determine whether we can do something to reach young women in particular, but also young boys, whose attitude is incredibly important. We must try to learn those lessons and build them into our school curriculum at a much earlier stage.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) on securing this important and timely debate. I fully endorse his comments and the comments of my hon. Friends the Members for Crawley (Laura Moffatt) and for Bristol, East (Kerry McCarthy).

I acknowledge that County Durham and my constituency, the City of Durham, do not have the worst teenage pregnancy rates in the north-east. The rates are on a downward trend, but I want to contribute to this debate because it is important that we continue to focus efforts on securing greater reductions in the number of teenage pregnancies. The reasons for doing so have already been outlined.

It is worth reminding ourselves that, although teenage parenthood can be a positive experience—we need to note that, and I echo the comments of my hon. Friends about not stigmatising all teenage mothers as bad or failing mothers—we know that the experience frequently brings with it negative consequences for the teenage mothers themselves and their children. Not only are there negative health consequences, including mental health problems, but problems with longer-term health outcomes. Teenage mothers are also more likely not to continue with education, to have no qualifications by the age of 33, to be in receipt of benefits, to be on a low income and to experience housing difficulties.

Young fathers, as we have already mentioned, are similarly affected. It is important that, when we talk about teenage mothers, we must remember that there are teenage parents, too, and we need to focus a lot of our attention on young men as well as on young women.

There are negative consequences for children, in terms of low birth weight and higher mortality. There are lower breastfeeding rates among the group about which we are talking. There is also a higher risk of poverty, poor housing and poor nutrition, and, significantly, a greater likelihood of the children of teenage parents becoming teenage parents themselves. Clearly, we should stop that cycle, if at all possible.

Figures for my area have been reducing ahead of the local target and a great deal of credit for that has to go to the local tackling teenage pregnancy partnership board. Hon. Members have already explained that, if this multifaceted issue is to be tackled, a number of agencies, as well as parents, will need to respond. The local partnership board in Durham includes the primary care trust, Connexions and bodies dealing with health, housing, education, youth and community services and the voluntary sector, which specifically target this issue. The board is overseeing a strategy that concentrates on the key issues, including sex and relationship counselling—it puts those two things together—and that approach is being rolled out in respect of sex education in all the schools. However, the work does not take place only in schools. Schools are important and a key point of contact for the group that we are talking about, but so are other settings, such as doctors’ surgeries or youth projects.

There is also a strong focus on building self-esteem in both the young men and the young women who fall into the at-risk groups. There is huge evidence that, where young people’s self-esteem and aspirations are raised, teenage pregnancy rates are reduced dramatically. There is also better support, both for teenage mothers—it is important that they are supported—and those in the high-risk groups. Looked-after children have been defined as a significantly at-risk group, and there is a specific project focusing on young people in care and working with young women in care to try to reduce teenage pregnancy rates. Ongoing consultation is carried out with young people in the area involved. Because all the agencies have bought into the partnership board, they have made it a priority, in all their work, to reduce teenage pregnancy rates. Clearly, this has to happen if there are to be successful outcomes locally.

I pay tribute to the work of children’s services in County Durham and the way in which that department has worked with the PCT to bring effective children’s centres into the city. Three new children’s centres have been established in the past year and another two are planned. These centres are important, because they are a local focus, not only for work with teenage mothers, but for work with the at-risk group. They operate early intervention programmes, through Sure Start, and they have a worker who reaches out to the high-risk groups, including young men. That work is having a certain degree of success locally. Health visitors based in the children’s centres are working with young mothers and fathers and encouraging the groups involved to talk more widely in the community, not necessarily about the disbenefits of the situation that they are in, but about what hard work it is to bring up children, particularly in limited material circumstances where there is a high level of poverty.

All the agencies involved agree that the main task is to sustain the downward trend and they agree that that is the biggest challenge, because a group of people remain almost stubbornly resistant to any efforts made to try to reduce pregnancy rates. However, we have to consider further what needs to be done to tackle the problem with that group. I should like to link that thought with some of the discussions that we were having yesterday about extending apprenticeships and vocational education. Those at greatest risk of teenage pregnancy are disengaged from education at an early age and they feel, as my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda outlined graphically, that there is nothing for them and no other future for them except to go down the route of having a child who will love them and who they can love back, giving a meaning to their lives.

We have to raise aspirations and, if we are to do so with the group involved, we have to engage them in education and training in a way that we have not done previously. That means ensuring that those who already have a young child or are pregnant do not leave education and that various packages are worked around their needs, with flexible education, training and part-time employment available, or support through the benefits system, allowing them to continue their training.

We want to prevent that group from becoming teenage parents in the first instance and that means having education that means something to them. Rolling out apprenticeships is important and so are the diplomas for 14 to 19-year-olds. We need to offer wider-ranging education and support packages for those who are seen to be failing at an early stage. We also need much more investment in young people’s services, so that those involved are better connected locally, because although young people can get support sometimes, it is not clear where they should go in the first instance. There needs to be a clear point of contact for all young people, so that they can get a wide range of support services when they need them.

I echo the comments made by my hon. Friends. We live in a society that is sexualising young people very early and in which it seems easy for lap-dancing clubs to get licences, but difficult to stop them from being licensed. We need to broaden our focus on teenage pregnancy and look at some of the wider societal issues. However, we should not stop focusing on the specific issues that affect young people. We need all the policies that we can put in place to raise aspirations and keep our young people in education for as long as possible.

I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant). This has been an interesting debate and I have not heard anything in hon. Members’ speeches that I disagree with.

The United Kingdom had the highest level of teenage pregnancy in western Europe in 1998 and, as far as there are up-to-date comparable statistics, we are still in the same position. However, the Government have to be praised for having the first teenage pregnancy strategy, which is attempting to co-ordinate and tackle both the causes and the consequences of teenage pregnancy. Teenage conception rates have fallen to their lowest level for 20 years. This morning, we have heard about some excellent projects, but—there is a big “but”—back in February 2007, the Office for National Statistics issued figures on teenage conception rates in England for 2005, which showed very little improvement on the previous year, and even a rise in the number of under-16s becoming pregnant.

The big question for the Minister is whether the strategy’s targets will be achieved. They are to halve the under-18 conception rate by 2010; to get a downward trend in the under-16 rate; to increase the proportion of teenage parents in education, training or employment by 60 per cent. by 2010; and to reduce their risk of long-term social exclusion. There must be general agreement that progress towards those targets must accelerate.

It is interesting to note the variations between local authorities, and it makes sense for the Government to work with what might be perceived to be the worst-performing local authorities in terms of targets, because it is sensible to share good practice, but there must obviously be respect for the particular needs of local communities. I remember the figures for my area being announced in 1998 and the feeling of great shock at the figures for the whole of Dorset because, unexpectedly, they were relatively high.

Much work has been undertaken in my area, and Bournemouth and Poole primary care trust has made steady progress in reducing under-18 conception rates. I asked the PCT what were its most effective measures. The first was outreach work to target young people at risk—for example, women with chaotic lifestyles, looked-after children and known sex workers. The second was condom distribution in particular settings, such as youth centres and Connexions centres, and—I emphasise this—where a trained professional was on hand. An additional measure was working with a group of local pharmacists who issue morning-after pills. They have been trained by the PCT, and do follow-up work and monitoring. If the user gives permission, they can be referred to a specialist nurse.

In my constituency, if the morning-after pill is obtained from a chemist rather than a family planning clinic, it costs £23.80, and for many young girls that is simply not an option. A scheme has been introduced whereby the chemist provides the pill free and the cost is refunded. Would the hon. Lady like that scheme to be extended more widely?

We must face up to the problem. The idea of the morning-after pill is unpalatable to many people in the wide world, but when we hear about binge drinking and its consequences, we must find practical solutions as well as changing the long-term situation. Local tots-to-teens programmes are rather good in changing or influencing attitudes.

The Government have identified key factors for reducing teenage pregnancy. For example, the active engagement of all the key mainstream delivery partners is important, as are a strong senior champion, effective sexual health advice services and the prioritisation of sex and relationships education. The Minister will not be surprised that I want to home in on that point for a few moments, because I have taken every opportunity since coming to the House to raise the subject of compulsory sex and relationships education, which must be appropriate for the age group and for both males and females. That is really important, especially relationships education.

In a survey of 20,000 teenagers conducted by the UK Youth Parliament, more than half rated the teaching of sex education in school as poor, very poor or merely average, while only a quarter said that it was good. Furthermore, nearly half of those questioned said that they had never been taught about the effects of teenage pregnancy and would not know where to find their local sexual health clinic. The survey also revealed that 55 per cent. of all 12 to 15-year-olds and 57 per cent. of girls aged between 16 and 17 had not been taught how to use a condom. Of all those who took part in the survey, 43 per cent. said that they had not been taught about personal, social relationships at school. We should also note the rise in sexually transmitted diseases. The study by the Government’s teenage pregnancy unit cited poor sex and relationships education as a reason for high levels of teenage pregnancy in general.

Not so long ago, Davina McCall hosted a television programme in which she went to Holland with teenagers and teachers to look at what happens there. Sex and relationships education was very up front, and we know that it has not led to rising teenage conception rates. The Minister was interviewed for that programme, and I hope that she will be more positive about considering whether to make that important subject compulsory.

Another reason for arguing that such education should be compulsory is my concern about child abuse. If a seven-year-old is being abused at home or within the family, how can they know what is normal behaviour unless they are taught that at school? It is vital that such education is undertaken by qualified professionals and I agree with the Government that it must be of high quality. Currently, we are not equipping young people to make health decisions about their lives. We must offer them better opportunities, so that education must be compulsory, but it is important that relationships and parenting, as well as sex education, are included. Only then can we hope to support young people effectively.

I agree that parents need support in talking to their children, and that point also came out in the television programme. That has always been a focus of mine, for a number of reasons. However, a multi-faceted approach, as well as education, is important. We know that we must have action because of the poorer outcomes that teenage parents and their children experience, and we have heard about that clearly this morning. When considering the factors for our high teenage pregnancy rate, we see the early alienation from school and education. We must ask why. Are girls being offered the right sort of courses, and do we still have gender stereotypes? I recently met a young girl with the YWCA. She said that, at school, she had wanted to do car mechanics, but she was laughed at. That is still happening now. She is now settled with her two-year-old, and she has started her car mechanics course, but why could that not have been available at school? It was what she wanted to do.

I agree with the many hon. Members who have said that having a child when a teenager can be a positive experience, and we must work towards that. Teenage mothers who have a positive experience may have an extended family or a positive partner relationship and they may be in employment or are supported in education. That is what we must aim for. On the other hand, we must think about those teenage mothers who end up receiving means-tested benefits, being locked into the system, and not having any qualifications or incentive to take up extra hours’ work. We must be clear that teenage pregnancy accompanies social exclusion, but does not need to cause it, and that much more can be done.

I want to highlight one or two points that the YWCA has made. It identified the excellent care-to-learn scheme, which supports teenage parents in work, but it is worried about the age at which the support is cut off. A teenage mother may not necessarily get her act together and be back in education by the age of 20. It may take longer, so why cannot the care-to-learn scheme be extended?

Similarly, when supporting young people into work, child care is all important. The Education and Skills Bill will present many challenges, but the role of teenage mothers must be considered. Given that they will be among the cohort, it may be more appropriate for them to re-enter education or training at a slightly older age, and I hope that flexibility to enable that will be built in.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) on securing this debate. It has given us the opportunity to hear a number of thoughtful and compelling speeches from hon. Members on both sides of the House. The hon. Gentleman painted a powerful picture when he related the first-hand experiences of some of his constituents. He mentioned the sense of lost opportunities that they had when they became mothers at a very early age. He may or may not know that I was brought up very close to his constituency and I know, first hand, the challenges faced by those tight-knit communities in the south Wales valleys.

The hon. Gentleman also referred to the correlation between the map of poverty and deprivation and the one of teenage pregnancy. He quite rightly said that the two echo each other, but I urge him to consider the aberrations that exist. Some would suggest that pockets of teenage pregnancy problems exist in all constituencies throughout the country, and that is something that we should remember. The hon. Gentleman drew on his experience with tight-knit communities and talked about the importance of having a consistent message delivered in the most appropriate way to yield the best results for people locally.

My hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) reiterated the point that individual support is needed to reflect the community in which these young people live. Whether we are talking about a tight-knit community in the south Wales valleys, or a different type of community in the Isle of Wight, each has its own needs. It is important that we deliver solutions that reflect the needs of the children and the parents in those areas.

The hon. Member for Crawley (Laura Moffatt) talked about the importance of the aspirations of young women. I could not agree more with her point. I am sure that she is aware of the YWCA campaign, which stresses the importance of careers advice for young people. The hon. Members for Bristol, East (Kerry McCarthy) and for City of Durham (Dr. Blackman-Woods) both picked up on the importance of supporting young parents, and ensuring that they do not accept that teenage pregnancy is a social norm. That particular point was made very powerfully by the hon. Member for Bristol, East. The hon. Member for City of Durham talked about the importance of involving fathers at an early stage.

The Government clearly have a strong commitment to cutting teenage pregnancies. Their 10-year strategy started in 1999 and they have spent more than £250 million on trying to halve conception rates. Therefore, there is clearly no shortage of ambition from the Government in this area, which is critical in determining the life chances of young people in this country. Yet in the six years between 1999 and 2005, and after a lion’s share of expenditure going into this area, we have seen the conception rate among the under-18s fall by just over 11 per cent. That is devastatingly little progress given the Government’s commitment to reduce the inequalities that exist in the country and to give young people the best start in life. The stark facts remain that we have one of the highest rates of teenage pregnancy in western Europe, with more than 20 girls a day becoming pregnant in this country. While we welcome the modest progress that has been made, the Government surely should be looking to change their approach to enable them to reach their target. I will echo the question that was asked by the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke). Do the Government feel that their target is achievable?

I will turn now to two areas that we have not touched on in the debate. I know that the Minister has looked in detail at the growing crisis in sexual health among teenagers. Last year, the UNICEF report showed that too many young people are sexually active too young. In the report, four out of 10 15-year-olds said that they had had sexual intercourse. The figures from the Office for National Statistics confirmed that one in three 16 to 19-year-olds does not use any form of contraception. Little wonder that we are not seeing much progress on the pregnancy rates and that we are seeing an alarming growth in sexually transmitted infections among teenagers. The Health Protection Agency’s figures show that the incidence of herpes has grown 13 per cent. among 16 to 19-year-olds. The diagnoses of genital warts have also grown among this group.

Abortion is another issue that is worth considering. I know it is a highly charged topic among hon. Members. When one looks at the figures, a trend emerges that is of concern. Abortion now seems to be used more regularly among a specific group of women. I am interested to hear what the Minister has to say about that. Despite a 16 per cent. fall in conceptions among under-18-year-olds, we have seen an increase in abortions. Even more worrying is the 40 per cent. increase in second abortions. Perhaps the Minister can outline the Government’s response to that problem and tell us what plans there are to tackle it. There are no Department of Health guidelines for abortion clinics or other organisations to provide contraception services immediately following an abortion. Perhaps that void could be filled and constructive advice offered to that group of women.

Despite the very well thought through 10-year plan and the significant expenditure, why are the Government so wide of the mark? Perhaps it is because the Government have found it hard to deliver on their policy beyond increased access to contraception, which we all know is only part of the answer. As my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) noted, when the noble Lord Darzi in the other place announced the Government’s pilot scheme that allowed pharmacists to offer the contraceptive pill over the counter, any such proposals need to be subject not only to professional advice but more effective sexual health education. We must encourage young people to take more responsibility for the decisions that they take about their relationships, sexual intercourse and contraception otherwise we will not see the results that we all want to see.

In 2006, the Minister identified sex and relationship education in schools as the key to lowering under-18 conception rates, particularly as school is a primary source of information for young boys. Yet the Youth Parliament’s research, which the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole has gone through, shows that there is still a woeful shortfall in what is being delivered on the ground.

The Government launched the teenage pregnancy unit as an integral part of delivering such vital education. Yet the unit’s staffing level has been cut from 16 people to three-and-a-half people. Is the Minister convinced that that will give her the effective support that she needs in this important area? Sex needs to be put into the context of relationships and emotional development, as the the hon. Member for Rhondda pointed out in his report. To be successful in cutting teenage pregnancy, improving the understanding of contraception needs to go hand in hand with an ethos that builds up the confidence of young people to see that early parenthood is not the only way to adulthood. Parents and schools have a critical role to play in working with our young people to establish that confidence and ethos and ensure that more young children can go forward and have successful lives. I congratulate the hon. Gentleman again on securing this debate and hope that his contribution to his party’s efforts will help to improve the situation.

I add my congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) on his article and on securing the debate. Indeed, I congratulate all hon. Members on the thoughtful and committed contributions that they made on a very important subject.

My hon. Friend and my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Dr. Blackman-Woods) and others were right to point to the consequences of teenage pregnancy. I might say to the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) that that is why the Government are so concerned not only about under-16s but about over-16s if they become pregnant. Clearly, it is right to be concerned about the very vulnerable young people under 16, and we are, but some of the disadvantageous consequences also apply to young people aged 16 to 18 and can affect them for the rest of their lives, so it is right that the Government are taking a lead across the board.

Many of my hon. Friends and the hon. Members for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) and for Basingstoke (Mrs. Miller) outlined some of the consequences, with which we are all familiar. The infant mortality rate for children born to teenage mothers is 60 per cent. higher; the rate of smoking is three times as high; teenage mothers are much less likely to breastfeed; and the rate of post-natal depression, which my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham mentioned, is three times as high. That is not to mention the legacy of low expectations, wasted talent and, often, very poor prospects for the babies. Clearly, that is not the case for every girl, but generally those are the consequences.

That is why we need to focus both on cutting the rates of teenage pregnancy across the board and on supporting those who do get pregnant in ways that do not encourage teenagers to accept the idea of pregnancy as a career choice. We need to do that for a very practical reason as well: 20 per cent. of teenage pregnancies are second or subsequent pregnancies, so there is a real prevention imperative in focusing on young people when they get pregnant. Those principles have been at the core of what we are trying to do. That involves effective prevention—including early intervention, which was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen), who could not stay for the end of the debate—as well as targeted support for those who get pregnant, including the fathers of those children.

Nationally, the rates have been coming down. They are not coming down as fast as I would like. None the less, we have to put the issue in context. Hon. Members compared Britain with other European countries. The fact is that this country has had higher rates of teenage pregnancy for the past 30 or 40 years. Before 1997—for the 25 years before that—there was very little difference between us and most other European countries, but during the 1980s and 1990s, those countries focused on this problem, so they have had 30 years of dealing with it. We have had only 10 years of a Government who have made that a priority. None the less, I am not complacent, because I think that it is a very important topic.

Nationally, there has been progress: 80 per cent. of local authorities areas are seeing a reduction, because they have had a national strategy that we want them to apply to their local areas. It is not a one-size-fits-all approach, but we do need them to take the resources and the intelligence and learning that we have given them and apply that locally. If all local authorities were performing at the level of the top 25 per cent., we would have doubled the reduction nationally and would be well on our way to the 2010 target. There is no magic bullet at local level, despite views expressed on both sides of this Chamber. We need to get local areas to drive this action as hard in every place as they are doing in the best. I am talking about a strong national strategy delivered locally, by local authorities, primary care trusts, schools and voluntary organisations together.

What that strategy has been designed to do is, first, encourage parental engagement. All the research that we have done says that young people prefer to get their advice from their parents, and the evidence shows that, when they do, they start getting involved in sexual activity later, and when they become sexually active, they are much more responsible about protection and contraception and they have much more self-respect and respect for others. That is about engaging parents through the time to talk initiative and the helpline and about schools enabling parents, and we will want to consider some of the ideas mooted today.

Secondly, as hon. Members have said, schools must take a lead. That is where young people are every day. I expect schools to take the lead in garnering consensus among parents and governing bodies that sex and relationship education in schools should be taught to a high level. We know that it is not everywhere, although we have heard excellent examples and I have seen excellent examples of schools that are making creative strides forward. We know that provision is patchy. That is why we have initiated, in the first instance, a review about how we can make delivery of such education more secure and ensure that it is of much higher quality and is delivered more consistently across the piece.

It is good that the Government are reviewing sex and relationship education—incidentally, I hope that the same will happen in Wales—but will the review allow for putting it on a statutory basis?

That is not a primary focus of the review but, as my hon. Friend knows, we are doing the review very much in conjunction with young people; the Youth Parliament was mentioned. The issue raised by my hon. Friend is not the primary focus. The review is about delivery and quality as a first step forward, but I am sure that we will be asked to consider that and we will have to consider what people say.

Nationally, we have had a number of very effective awareness campaigns, with which hon. Members may be familiar. Indeed, they have been so good that they have won awards. The campaigns called “Are you thinking” and “Want Respect? Use a condom” for older teenagers have been based on three messages. The first is delay, delay, delay, particularly for younger young people. Secondly, when young people do become sexually active, they should use protection and contraception. The third is respect yourself and respect others. Those are important cornerstones.

Youth workers and social workers are also important. The areas that have been most effective have shown that where workers across the piece feel comfortable talking to young people about sex, that is more effective. The next element is access to health services and contraception, including in schools if that is appropriate; they make that choice. Another element is addressing underlying factors such as alcohol, poverty and low aspirations—all the issues that hon. Members raised. A further element is support for teenage mothers, and not only through specialist provision. My hon. Friend the Member for Crawley (Laura Moffatt) mentioned children’s centres and there is support for teenage fathers there.

That is the national strategy, but it depends entirely on effective delivery at local level. Where the best local authorities are doing well, they are doing spectacularly well. People can look in any region at the variation in performance. The under-18 conception rate in Barking and Dagenham is up 18 per cent.; in Hackney it is down 26 per cent. In Tameside it is up 11 per cent.; in Oldham it is down 27 per cent. In Torbay it is up 10 per cent.; in Poole it is down 23 per cent. I could go on. Some of the most deprived areas have achieved some of the most dramatic reductions: the rate is 21 per cent. down in Newham, 30 per cent. down in Thurrock and 24 per cent. down in Darlington.

Let me say where I perhaps do not agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda. He did not say this today, but he said in his written piece that he feels that reducing teenage pregnancy is an intractable problem. The evidence from the local authorities that I mentioned tells us that it is not an intractable problem and that, if we can garner senior championship from directors of children’s services, chief executives of PCTs, schools and parents, we can make tremendous inroads into the problem locally. It is a question of people using the national strategy to drive progress in their area.

That strategy is making progress. It is patchy. We need to up the pace if we are to meet the 2010 targets, but, as I said, if all local authorities were performing at the standard of the best 25 per cent., we would be on our way there. There is no doubt that, apart from any other, moral imperative, the investment that we have made in reducing teenage pregnancy is cost-effective, because for every £1 spent, we are saving money further down the line in terms of consequences. Because all local areas need to grasp the challenge, I will publish again today the rates for local areas throughout the country, by region, so that hon. Members and people in those local areas can compare the best and the worst performing local authorities and, I hope, bring their support to bear to get those local authorities that could do better actually to do better and help us to make more rapid progress.

Disabled Adults (Employment)

I am glad to have secured the debate and to see the Minister of State here on behalf of the Government. I hope to push this important issue higher up the agenda, as there are, sadly, many issues still to be dealt with, many statistics that expose the scale of the problem and many talented and able individuals who are unable to make the contribution to society of which they are capable.

Before I go into details about the United Kingdom, it is worth spending a few minutes discussing how life is for people elsewhere in the world who have the same problems but often lack the support that exists in the UK. We must never forget that in many countries, disabilities end the working lives and careers of many people. Their employment prospects disappear when often avoidable problems take their toll. Many adults suffer from lost limbs because of land mines and cluster bombs, and many others lose their sight through preventable illnesses such as river blindness. Having seen at first hand the results of such problems elsewhere in the world, I have been left with a stronger determination than ever that we can offer something much better in this country for those who are fighting for a fair deal, often on several fronts.

Last week, I attended a reception organised by the hon. Member for Glasgow, North-West (John Robertson), and was moved by the experience of an individual who described graphically what it was like to lose his sight and how it affected his employment. I wish the hon. Gentleman well in presenting his 10-minute Bill on employment retention later today.

Leonard Cheshire recently produced a report, “Disability Poverty in the UK”, containing many statistics showing the scale of the problem. I do not have time to go into them all today, so I will simply advise people to read the report. It looks particularly at poverty and disability, but there is one section on employment.

Employment is often the glue that holds life together. It provides income to maintain a certain standard of living and, for many people, a social structure, and it results in improved health and well-being. People in employment contribute not only to the Treasury, through taxes, but to society through their work. Why then do we have an employment rate among disabled people of about 50 per cent. and rising? There are several reasons, many of which I shall address today. I hope that the Minister will reassure the House that the tide can be turned, because there is a growing problem.

Many children with disabilities now live longer, which means that in the future, for all the right reasons, there will be an increase in the number of adults with disabilities who want to enter the work force. We must be as ready as possible to remove many of the barriers that exist today.

Barnardo’s at Caern house in my constituency works with children with disabilities and last Friday, I saw at first hand that excellent work. Those children need to know that they have a future in the workplace as valued members of society. I congratulate employers such as the Royal Bank of Scotland on their generous support to Caern house, and I hope that they will continue to show such interest throughout the working life of those children, who will look to major employers for a future as valued members of their work forces. Why is it that some employers will go as far as eastern Europe to fill a vacancy but are reluctant to interview someone in a wheelchair? How many work forces would be more understanding of the disability issues of their colleagues and friends if they could break down those barriers?

The first issue on which I want to press the Minister is the scale of the problem. Will he monitor progress annually on a number of key indicators of disability poverty in relation to employment, such as the employment rate among disabled people, broken down by impairment group? Will he monitor the percentage of disabled people of working age who are in work; not in work, but looking for work; and not in work and not looking for work? For those in work, will he monitor what they are paid in comparison with non-disabled people? Such information is at the heart of ensuring that we can monitor what progress is being made and work out how to increase the rate of progress. One place to start is in Departments, which ought to be beacons of best practice, but sadly that is not the case. Even the Department of Work and Pensions has a staff base of only slightly more than 5 per cent. disabled people, compared with 13 per cent. in the work force in general.

Before we can have any meaningful debate on the issue, we must deal with the inference that disabled people are unemployed because they do not want to work. That simply is not true. Disabled people are twice as likely to be out of work compared with non-disabled people, but those who are out of work are far more likely to want to work than non-disabled people. Neither is it always true that disabled people cannot work. Certain disabilities will rule out certain jobs, but the majority of people with disabilities have a great deal to offer, and it is up to employers and the Government to play their part in ensuring that society benefits from those skills.

The new deal for disabled people, the extensions to the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, pathways to work and access to work programmes have all gone some way towards achieving those aims. I very much hope that the Welfare Reform Act 2007 will encourage the adoption of more flexible responses to those who are building up slowly to returning to work on a regular basis. Such people could be encouraged to volunteer, without having to risk their benefits. I welcome the recent consultation on improving the specialist employment support available to those with disabilities, and I look forward to feeding into that process. However, I am sure the Minister will accept that, despite those initiatives, much more must be done to remove barriers and raise expectations among employers and employees of what disabled people can achieve in the workplace.

I am sure that I was not alone in being disturbed by the rhetoric of the Conservative party’s announcements on welfare to work, particularly the simplistic and headline-grabbing pledge about reassessing all incapacity benefit claimants. Whether that was mere posturing remains to be seen, but it would be a significant backward step to abandon the growing consensus on the need for support and training and instead lurch towards compulsion and sanctions. To take such an approach would be to misunderstand that often the barriers preventing disabled people from working are social in nature and require action from the Government and employers as well as from individuals.

The pathways to work proposals have been a key method of helping disabled people move into work. There is now a consensus, which I fully support, on the advantages of using private and voluntary sector providers in this area, provided that we have clearly defined objectives with stable contracts and funding. At the moment, many of the most successful employment programmes are run outside Jobcentre Plus, and it makes perfect sense to bring together best practice in the voluntary and private sectors and attempt to roll out similar schemes nationwide. However, we should not forget that it has proven difficult to transplant services that have worked well on a private or voluntary basis into the social services.

A key reason for the success of many voluntary and private schemes is that staff do not have the power to stop benefit payments if claimants say the wrong thing. Programme participants can therefore develop much more open, honest and productive relationships with advisers. The problem with Jobcentre Plus is that it plays the role of gatekeeper to benefits access, as well as the role of supporting people into employment. I draw the Minister’s attention to the Australian system, which has successfully separated the Government’s role as purchaser and regulator of services from their role as direct providers through public sector organisations. That approach has significantly improved outcomes. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s views on it.

We need to remove not only the barriers preventing disabled people from working and believing that they can contribute, but the barriers—both real and imagined—that employers still have about the cost of employing a disabled person. That is one crucial area in which employers can and should act, not just because of their responsibilities under the Disability Discrimination Act, but because there is a pool of talent out there waiting to be used. More than a third of UK businesses have hard-to-fill vacancies, but 3.4 million disabled people are out of work and at least 1.5 million part-time disabled workers work below their skills potential, as detailed graphically in the Leonard Cheshire report. It does not take a mathematician to see that there is potential to improve matters.

Support for disabled people to enter the job market is crucial, but it makes far more sense, socially and economically, to retain people in their current job if they develop a disability and to provide employers and employees with proper support to negotiate the necessary transitions. Will the Minister comment on the recent claim by the Employers’ Forum on Disability that 9 per cent. of employers may be breaking disability law by failing to make reasonable adjustments to the workplace to keep disabled people in employment?

A major job is to improve awareness of the access to work scheme—currently one of the Government’s best kept secrets. That is both praise and criticism: the scheme does a lot of good work, but there is a real lack of awareness among employers of its existence—about 80 per cent. of small and medium enterprise employers are not aware of it. For every person currently helped through access to work, there is, according to the Government’s figures, a £1,400 net benefit to the Exchequer, and a £3,000 net benefit to the economy. However, helping disabled people into work should not be about saving money. We have a moral obligation to spend any savings on supporting disabled people who, for whatever reason, cannot work. They are too often condemned to a life of low aspirations and even poverty.

On employment retention, I commend the work of the hon. Member for Glasgow, North-West. I hope his Bill will go some way to help the 25,000 people who leave their employment because of illness or disability each year. On that point, what does the Minister think about introducing a right to rehabilitation leave? I suggest that taking time off work to learn to deal with a disability is a “reasonable adjustment”, as required by the Disability Discrimination Act 2005. Formalising that as an entitlement to rehabilitation leave, allowing both the employer and employee to adjust to the disability, and making adjustments to allow people to remain in work, would make things clearer and simpler.

Although we all rightly emphasise the financial, health and social benefits of work, it is important to stress that forcing disabled people into bad jobs is not the name of the game. A revolving door to demotivating jobs at the bottom of the labour market is not the right answer to increasing labour market participation. The high rates of people who take part in the new deal for disabled people twice or more suggest that is currently not the case; disabled people are more likely to be in low-paid or part-time work and are paid less than non-disabled people on average. For the mantra “Work is the best route out of poverty” to be true, we need to ensure that the work is sustainable, suitable and decently paid. On that point, I would appreciate an update on the “In work, better off” consultation process.

We need to move away from the rather patronising inference that we do disabled people a favour when we legislate on such matters, because removing the barriers that currently prevent disabled people from finding or remaining in work is a duty of employers and Government. However, more than that, we need to refocus the way that we see the debate. By getting more disabled people into meaningful long-term work, we will all benefit—society, the Exchequer and the individual. If we are serious about tackling the ignorance and prejudice that many people still have about disability, by far the best thing that we could do is to allow more disabled people the opportunity to show what they can do in the workplace. If more workplaces better reflect society as a whole, and if we ensure that we provide conditions that will bring out the most from each individual, we would do more to address the problems of ignorance than any initiative or guideline from Whitehall.

I saw that at first hand in my own constituency when I visited the Remploy factory, where a group of people do an excellent job producing high-tech goods that compete on the open market. People with a wide range of disabilities work together. They make a contribution to society and the economy to benefit both themselves and everyone around them. It was a joy to visit the factory to see those people at work. I congratulate the Government on what they have done, and I hope that the Minister can take things forward, keep the issue high on the agenda and ensure that the talent out there is used to benefit both the individuals concerned and society at large.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West (John Barrett) on securing this important debate. I thank him for giving me the chance to make my first speech in my new role. I agree with much of what he said, including what he said at the end of his speech about the benefits that further progress could bring to our economy and society.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for what he said about the Government’s record. Since 1997, we have delivered the biggest extension of disability civil rights that the UK has seen. Our vision for disabled people and our strategy to address the problem of continuing inequality were set out in the Prime Minister’s strategy unit report, “Improving the Life Chances of Disabled People”, which was published in early 2005. We made a commitment in that report that

“by 2025, disabled people should have the same opportunities and choices as non-disabled people”,

and that they should

“be respected and included as equal members of society”.

We have made some important progress since then. We established an office for disability issues, which reports to the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Mrs. McGuire). It will drive forward a cross-Government strategy and provide a source of knowledge and expertise on disability. The office is currently leading a major cross-Government review of independent living. In its annual report last month, it said that, by the time of its next annual report, it expects be able to say that the Government have ratified the UN convention on disability rights, which we initially signed in April last year. In addition to the ODI, we have established Equality 2025, which is a new advisory group that brings the voice of disabled people into the heart of Government.

The Disability Discrimination Act 2005 signalled a cultural shift within Government and the wider public sector and, in particular, introduced the new disability equality duty, which came into force in December 2006. The duty places a statutory obligation on all public bodies, including local authorities, to promote equality of opportunity for disabled people and to tackle discrimination.

The hon. Gentleman drew attention to data about my Department’s performance on the employment of people with disabilities, which was fair. The figures he mentioned may, to some degree, undercount the accurate position, but he made an important point: my Department and the Government need to do much more and to go much further than we have been able to do so far. We are on the right road, but we have much further to go. We all have a great deal to do before we will be able to say that disabled people have true equality in the labour market and that they are in a position to participate fully in society.

I agree about some of the key issues that the hon. Gentleman highlighted. We believe that work is a right. For too long, far too many disabled people have been written off as incapable of work and consigned as a result to a life on benefit. That is bad for them and bad for the economy. We need to change social attitudes, remove the barriers that have been placed in the way of disabled people and improve the employment-based support available to them. I recognise that the current wave of change can be unsettling for some, and we need to be sensitive to that. However, we need change so that we can deliver better opportunities for disabled people, which includes enabling them to move into work.

There has been good progress. The employment rate for disabled people has increased by a full 10 per cent. The hon. Gentleman said that it is about 50 per cent.—48 per cent. for the third quarter of last year is the most recent figure that I have seen. In spring 1998, it was 38 per cent., so there has been a big jump, which is very encouraging progress. The number of disabled people in work has also risen, from 1.8 million in spring 1998 to 2.8 million, which is the latest figure. That mainly reflects the higher employment rate, but it also reflects the amount of self-reported disability in the work force. If disabled people had the same employment rate as the population as a whole, another 1.5 million disabled people would be in work, which would be good for them, good for the economy and good for everybody. We must all share that ambition—certainly, the hon. Gentleman and I share it.

Opening up employment opportunities for disabled people lies at the heart of our policy. It is a critical test of how far society is breaking down barriers to social exclusion. In the Green Paper “In work, better off: next steps to full employment”, published in July 2007, which was mentioned by the hon. Gentleman, we set out specific measures that we need to take to achieve our long-term aims. They include achieving an overall employment rate of 80 per cent. and the eradication of child poverty. We also need to extend the opportunity for employment to all, including disabled people, if we are to achieve those aims.

The Welfare Reform Act 2007 embodies our approach to helping more people on incapacity benefit to realise their ambition of a return to work and our conviction that disabled people and people with long-term health conditions have a right to work and to the support and opportunities that will enable them to exercise that right. That is critical to our programme for providing opportunity for all.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether rehabilitation leave could be seen as a reasonable adjustment under the Disability Discrimination Act 1995. I think that it could. Indeed, rehabilitation leave is given as an example of a reasonable adjustment in the code of practice published by the former Disability Rights Commission. Of course it would depend on the circumstances, but as the commission pointed out, it certainly can be a reasonable adjustment.

Just as we needed to reform the framework of disability rights, so we need to reform the benefit system to reflect our more modern aspirations. From October this year, the employment and support allowance will replace incapacity benefits for new customers. Instead of focusing on what people cannot do, the new benefit will focus on what they can do and how they can be supported to do it. The revised gateway test for the benefit—the work capability assessment—will assess a person’s capacity and, taking into account the other barriers that the person may face, will help to identify interventions that would support a return to work.

As the hon. Gentleman said, the pathways to work scheme has dramatically decreased the number of people taking up incapacity benefit, who as a result are able to return to work more quickly. We will invest £1 billion in that programme over the next three years so that interventions will be available to as many people as possible, including support to help them manage impairments or health conditions.

We are also looking at new and innovative ways of delivering our services. For example, when I was last a Minister in the DWP a couple of years ago, we started placing Jobcentre Plus advisers in GP surgeries, through the pilot for our pathways advisory service. That initiative proved popular and has been well received by patients and GPs. The advisers have been supporting GPs or offering advice to their patients and, when appropriate, referring them to our wider range of provision. The pilots were on a small scale, but some strong local partnerships have been established. I am pleased to say that we are extending the pilots so that we can learn as much as possible and make the most of that new way of working. That point chimes well with the ten-minute Bill to which the hon. Gentleman referred, and which is promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, North-West (John Robertson) and will be debated in the House this afternoon. The Bill would ensure that, if people encountered disability or ill health, their chances of staying in work would be maximised and they would not needlessly have to leave their jobs.

Our wide variety of specialist disability employment services has opened up work options for many disabled people across the country. We have seen people develop their skills and confidence in open employment and in supported businesses. However, we need to go further still if we are to have a better, more consistent quality of service, and a clearer focus on the individual needs of every disabled person, recognising that there is a great variety of circumstances in which people need help. We are looking at how better to join up our services with those provided by others, including local authorities, and to improve the way in which our disabled customers can move from social services and education and to seek work that is appropriate to their interests and skills.

We launched a public consultation last month, outlining our proposals for improvements to our specialist disability employment services, and it will run until 10 March. I am pleased to hear that the hon. Gentleman will be responding to that consultation, and I hope that he will urge his constituents, including the organisations in his constituency to which he referred, and those of his colleagues who have an interest in the employment needs of disabled people, to consider and respond to the consultation.

We need to carry employers with us. The hon. Gentleman was right to say that they have a significant opportunity, because they are able to recruit from a large and diverse pool of possible staff. We should ensure that they can recruit from as wide a pool as possible, and not inadvertently limit the potential of their organisations by failing to tap into some of the potential of that pool of talent. Many businesses already employ disabled people and have good policies to support that work, and they are reaping the rewards.

However, research published by my Department last year highlighted the fact that although employer awareness of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 and employer attitudes towards tackling discrimination have both improved over the past few years, there is still a long way to go. I agree with the hon. Gentleman about that. We cannot simply hope that employers will change their perceptions of disability. We need to engage with employers and to support them. We need to work with them to open up more job opportunities to disabled people, and at the same time ensure that disabled people have the right support and the skills needed to apply for suitable jobs, to be successful in their applications and to be able subsequently to stay in those jobs. That will be a key focus of our future activities; for example, through our cross-Government health, work and well-being strategy and my Department’s EmployAbility campaign, we are working to engage employers, to explain the costs and benefits and to provide practical help to assist them in supporting their staff.

It is true that employers do not always understand the requirements placed upon them—the hon. Gentleman referred to data from the Employers’ Forum on Disability showing that employers do not always understand the needs of their customers or the support that might best help their employees to stay in work. We are committed to helping to improve that understanding and the support that is offered. Such support does not have to be difficult or expensive to introduce; it is often about making simple changes to workplace patterns and management practices rather than costly specialist equipment.

A practical example of our work with employers is the new jobs pledge, which aims to help 250,000 people currently on benefit to move into jobs through the new local employment partnerships. The Prime Minister, speaking yesterday at a major conference with employers at the Queen Elizabeth II conference centre over the road, reported on progress with those partnerships. More than 400 firms have now signed up for them, and negotiations are under way with a further 500.

I spoke yesterday to a number of employers, who were very positive about the help that they were receiving from Jobcentre Plus under the new partnership arrangements. I had the opportunity to sign a new partnership agreement with the chief executive of the fast-growing airline Flybe. I hope that many more partnership agreements will be put in place and that disabled people will be among those who benefit from the opportunities that result. We are building on the findings of the Leitch report on skills, working with the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills and the Learning and Skills Council, both of which were involved in yesterday’s conference, to make the ambitions set out in that report at a reality.

The hon. Gentleman asked how we were getting on with the “In work, better off” programme. He will be aware that we have conducted a consultation on that topic, and I refer him to the document “Ready to Work”, our response to the consultation, which was published in December. We are also consulting on the future of our specialist disability programme.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving me this early chance to set out our progress and our aims, which he shares. I welcome his interest in the subject, and I look forward to the opportunity to debate it further with him and others over the months ahead. I hope that I have made clear to the hon. Gentleman and to the House my commitment and the Government’s to equality for disabled people and to providing the employment support that they need and deserve, and to which they should rightly be entitled.

Alcohol Services and Rehabilitation Centres

It is always a delight, Mr. Marshall, to sit under your chairmanship, because, with your great experience and understanding, you know how important it is that Members of Parliament get the opportunity to raise individual but important questions in Westminster Hall.

On 8 March 1736, Mr. Pulteney rose to his feet in the House of Commons to speak against Sir Joseph Jekyll’s motion for a duty of 20 shillings per gallon to be laid on all spirituous liquors. He said:

“I believe it will be admitted by every Gentleman, that the constant and excessive Use of spirituous Liquors among the inferior Rank of our People, is a Practice which has of late Years grown to a monstrous Height, and it will be as generally and as readily admitted, that this Practice is dangerous and mischievous to the Health, Strength, Peace, and Morals of the People; and that it tends greatly to diminishing the Labour and Industry of his Majesty’s Subjects; therefore I believe we shall all agree in this, that some Method ought to be taken for putting a Stop to this Practice...The Distilling Trade is a Business which has been earned on by Royal Authority for about an hundred Years, and that it has been not only highly approved, but very much encouraged by several Acts of Parliament passed since the Revolution…There is not now an Inn, an Alehouse, or a Coffeehouse in the Kingdom, but what owes a great Part of its Profits to the Retail of such Liquors: By which Means there are now such Multitudes of Families in the Kingdom who owe their chief, if not their only Support to the distilling, or to the retailing such Liquors, that they very well deserve the Care and the Consideration of a British House of Commons.”

In other words, not a great deal has changed and the liquor industry still has an extraordinary powerful lobby in the House of Commons.

Some time ago, the Cheshire coroner, who is a most caring and considerate man, became so concerned by the rise in alcohol deaths within the county that he commented publicly. He made it very clear that, in his view, the doubling of deaths from alcohol, particularly among women, was not only a public health matter of great concern but something that should concern us all. He linked that doubling of deaths specifically to the numbers of cases that he was being required to deal with among young people, as well as among those who might be said to have reached the age where their abuse of themselves was somehow inevitable. Not only should his views be taken extraordinarily seriously but we ought to think about the impact of what we have been doing in this area.

Addiction is never easy to deal with. When I was a young and impressionable doctor’s wife, I had a rather sad feeling that, if one gave people support, that support would automatically lead to their ceasing to be addicted to particular substances, and of course alcohol is even more addictive than some drugs. However, the reality is, of course, that those who need a particular support or crutch and have become wholly dependent on alcohol need a lot more than encouragement. They need specialist services and consistent support in their homes, and then, over a period of time, if they are lucky, they will hit that moment when they can at least be weaned away to the point where they are no longer destroying themselves. That is not an easy moment to find, but it will never be found if, as a nation, we are not capable of producing those support services that are absolutely essential.

We accept that we have a very real problem with drugs and the Government not only discuss that problem quite consistently and openly but seek, with great vigour, to make it plain to the general public what the implications of drug addiction are. However, somehow or other—I believe that it perhaps began with my generation—alcohol is not regarded in the same way as a deadly poison.

Please do not misunderstand me; I like a drink. I like good wines, good brandies and good whiskies, although they do not always like me. Perhaps the advantage of living long enough is that one’s constitution begins to deal with things that one’s brain ought to have dealt with but has not.

However, the reality nowadays is that people not only routinely drink much more heavily than people did when I was young but they indulge in specific, targeted and I would have thought enormously boring bouts of binge drinking. One no longer needs to look too harshly at what is going on in Crewe and Nantwich to wonder about the changing social ethos and habits of people. It is almost impossible to walk from my office to the station in Crewe without passing 50 bars and pubs and they are all, of course, open for many more hours than they were originally.

One of my constituents came to me because, very sadly, she had lost a dearly loved son in a very sad set of circumstances; his death was due, of course, to alcohol abuse. He was young and she felt, rightly, that if there had been support services at the moment that he desperately needed them, he would have had at least a fighting chance of surviving. She then began to ask me what we were doing about the coroner’s remarks; what attitude the Government were taking to the provision of support services, and what was happening in my local health services. After all, the Government will not escape responsibility; if the Government are responsible for lowering the taxes on alcohol and for making it easier for people to drink, they must also seriously consider the downside of those policies.

How much are we spending in the education services for young people to encourage them to understand the damage and the very real destruction that alcohol can bring to individual families? How many beds are available, for use by consultant psychiatrists and by others within the hospital service who are specifically trying to deal with alcohol as a problem? Is it possible to admit people from accident and emergency departments into particular beds?

In parentheses, I would say that it is not just in Crewe and Nantwich that we have this problem. While dealing with someone in the London system within the last 12 months, I was told that the advice that he was given—in this case, it was from a consultant physician—was, “If you have sufficient money, admit yourself to this private unit, because there is no mental health or alcohol service available within the London region.” I must say that I would not admit a dog that I was fond of into the private unit that that doctor recommended, so I have very grave reservations about whether we are dealing with this problem on the best possible basis.

In Crewe and Nantwich, we have, with the agreement of the local county council and the local health services, very specialised assistance. It is, of course, provided on a voluntary basis. Central Cheshire Alcohol Services derives its money both from the local county council, which is soon to be dissolved, and from the health service partnerships. Because of the Cheshire and Wirral Partnership NHS Trust, there are two nurses who are paid directly by the trust but who are managed on a day-to-day basis by the charity.

Those nurses cover a very large area and they have a lot of experience of providing support services. They also try very hard to work in partnership with the health service, the local authorities and the third sector organisations. However, the rise in the number of referrals to them paints a very alarming picture. In 1991-92, they had 182 referrals; that rose by 2003 to 590 referrals; it rose further in subsequent years, first to 687, then 807, and by 2006-07, the number of referrals had risen to 905. Furthermore, those referrals are just the smallest percentage of the cases that the nurses have to deal with.

It is clear that the demand for services totally outweighs the resources. There are 70-plus people on the Central Cheshire Alcohol Services waiting list for support. Although the organisation receives uplift money from the health service, there has even been some debate about whether it should still have access to the same number of beds.

There is clear evidence that binge drinking is on the increase, but there is no consistent education programme in the schools in my area. Furthermore, the mental health issues created by alcohol mean that mental health services are constantly being called on, but they will intervene only if the client has a severe and enduring mental health problem. Yet, alcoholism can result in real mental problems.

There appear to be no national targets for alcohol, and nor does there appear to consistent funding to support such targets. What is more, the Government have made it easy to access cheap alcohol. In Crewe and Nantwich, there are now many superstores where it is easy to buy not only beer and spirits, but any kind of alcohol, no matter how damaging it is. We are told that the supermarkets do their best to monitor trade, but only last week, a gang of youths, including several small children as young as 10, endeavoured to knock down the back door of my constituency office—luckily, it is made of steel—and all of them were drinking vast amounts of alcohol. Whatever safeguards we have in place, therefore, they are clearly not working.

Staffing numbers have not kept pace with the demand for services, and large numbers of volunteers are being used. When I raised the issue of alcohol services with the PCT, it was concerned. It has just opened a health centre in the middle of Crewe, so it is aware of the need to respond with all sorts of services. However, when people say, for example, that an alcohol liaison service is available in accident and emergency, we have to ask what it is doing. Does it have the right routinely to refer people to beds after triage? Does it accept that people have a long-term problem and will need specific detoxification and residential provision? Is such provision available? Have we looked at the need for services or at the commitment of the various partners to address alcohol harm across Cheshire? Are we convinced that services are co-ordinated? Unless there is a specific, targeted and well-understood commitment to provide highly specialised services, we shall allow large numbers of people to destroy themselves without having attempted to rescue them when that was still possible.

This is not a new problem, as the House of Commons record shows, and nor is it not understood. There is a powerful drinks lobby in this country, which has persuaded this Government and previous Governments that the extension of licensing laws and the availability of cheap alcohol are not only acceptable, but that they are the way forward, if we are not to be overtaken by events. The industry spends a fortune on advertising its wares, so it is aware of the need to recruit more drinkers.

Above all, the industry has created problems in many of our small towns and cities on Friday and Saturday nights, when groups of people—they are not only young people—inevitably become involved in all sorts of public disorder. We are familiar with the sight of young girls and young men who are virtually insensible. There are constant problems for the police, and there are the difficulties faced by those who want to use their town centres without experiencing the atmosphere created by drinking. Many of my constituents experience problems simply because of the general disorder that drinking creates, and that should not be acceptable in this day and age.

I am not saying that we should nanny people or organise their lives, but we must accept that the cost to this country’s economy and social ease and the effect on the quality of our constituents’ lives is largely determined by social problems to which we have contributed. We desperately need to accept—certainly in my area—that more money must be spent on alcohol services and that more problems must be confronted. Above all, Her Majesty’s Government must take responsibility. There is a direct link between the decisions taken by the House of Commons on fiscal and national health service matters and on the provision of services and what happens on the Crewe road on a Friday night. However, I know that this very intelligent and helpful Minister is going to say that she will solve some of those problems for me immediately.

I wish that I could give such absolute commitments to my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody). However, let me congratulate her on securing this important debate.

I want first to look at what is happening locally and to set that in the context of regional and national plans. I also want to look at each of the levels that my hon. Friend rightly identified: discouraging excessive drinking and ensuring that services are available in the community, that interventions take place to discourage drinking where it occurs and that the appropriate treatment is available in the complex and often tragic cases that my hon. Friend mentioned.

I am aware that Her Majesty’s coroner for Cheshire has raised concerns about the number of cases with which he has dealt involving alcoholic liver disease or alcohol as the primary cause of death. His experience contributed to his critical view of the services being provided, and he urged Cheshire county council to ensure that there was appropriate funding.

It might be helpful if I quickly describe the services that exist and say what will happen next, before moving on to the wider issues. Services based in the community receive referrals from GPs and others, and staff see clients at the service or in the client’s home, depending on the circumstances.

The care pathway is delivered in several different ways: through information provided in GP practices, by Turning Point, to which I think that my hon. Friend referred, in the custody suites used by the probation service and in hospital wards. Identifying problem drinkers and where brief interventions should take place is a comprehensive way of tackling the issue. As my hon. Friend said, however, we also need hospital-based intensive care or an appropriate parallel residential setting.

All of that was in place, but since the coroner’s letter, the PCT has been working to identify additional resources, and those include another £100,000 for this financial year and £250,000 for next year. Before the coroner’s intervention, the PCT had a contract for in-patient beds with providers. As I said, we need to ensure that the right balance is struck and that people have access to both the community service and residential provision, because we need a complete care pathway and complete support, where that is necessary.

The PCT must consider, and is considering, the number of beds that it needs and where the appropriate care should be provided. Evidence shows that community detox is more effective under certain circumstances, but that when other related medical complications are involved, and needs are far more complex, residential care supported by community services is necessary. The PCT is taking forward its budget and local delivery plans, including through local area agreements, which will address wider activities, such as work with schools and young people, in appropriate locations, as my hon. Friend mentioned. It should continue to invest more money in this problem.

A few of the questions that my hon. Friend raised remain unanswered, particularly those on the interaction with accident and emergency admissions of people needing those beds. I have asked the regional director of public health to look into, and report back to me on, that matter specifically, the relevance of which extends beyond the problem before us today. I shall be happy to share that information with my hon. Friend when I receive it.

We would all agree that a variety of support services must be available across the board. My hon. Friend touched on the unfortunate increase in the number of health complications and deaths, many of which are preventable, resulting from alcohol consumption. We must look very carefully at the interaction between community care services and support and, increasingly, at such treatment and rehabilitation in a care setting. I admit that the level of service provision does not meet these emerging and complex needs, not only in her area, but elsewhere.

Let us consider more widely what we can do about the direct transmission belt, so to speak, that my hon. Friend mentioned, from strategic health authorities back to central Government. The NHS in the north-west undertook a stocktake of alcohol services and is now working with local primary care trusts to find ways of taking forward some very positive plans for tackling alcohol harm. The report confirmed that excess consumption of alcohol has a major impact on the lives of those in the north-west and identified a reduction in the number of deaths in the region caused by alcohol as a very high priority. However, it also found that PCTs in the region felt that there was a culture of excessive drinking, which created major barriers to addressing the health problems caused by alcohol.

The Government office for the north-west and the Department of Health are working together through local area agreements and through local alcohol strategies, which are a priority for the NHS. They will continue to build on and develop local partnerships and to prioritise action at all levels, to encourage those who enjoy a drink to drink sensibly and those who feel that their drinking is becoming hazardous or harmful to seek help. If possible, that will be done in a community setting, but of course the acute treatment of complex cases should be dealt with in rehabilitation centres.

Has anyone calculated the cost of such provision to the NHS—not only of the straightforward services, but as a result of attacks on staff and the effects on accident and emergency departments?

I do not have a figure to hand. However, my hon. Friend is absolutely right; over the course of people’s lives, the cost of excessive alcohol consumption is huge, whether as a result of higher hospital admission rates, alcohol-related crime, absence from work, school exclusions of young people consuming alcohol—regrettably—teenage pregnancies or road traffic accidents. In fact, I have just been handed the figure: the approximate cost to the NHS is £1.72 billion. That is truly phenomenal.

Regrettably, my hon. Friend’s views are well-founded. At 23 per cent., the north-west has the second highest level of binge drinkers in England; more people in the north-west die from alcohol-related illnesses than anywhere else in the country, and it has the second-highest number of alcohol-related hospital stays. There is no doubt that excessive alcohol consumption contributes to poor quality of life, shortens many lives and results in huge costs to families and communities, and eventually to the economy and the NHS.

To understand the breadth of the problem, the Government undertook an alcohol needs assessment research project—the first ever assessment of specialist alcohol treatment in England and of what needs to be done to improve available treatment. As a result of that study, the Department intends to monitor every year the availability of services in each PCT and to look specifically at collecting information for the first time on the specialist treatment that needs to be provided. That will begin on 1 April 2008.

What do we need to do here in Westminster? Although the collection of information, the commissioning of services and the investment of money are important steps, it will take time to turn the problem around. It has been a long time in the making. However, the Government are taking a number of other steps. The joint public service agreement target with the Home Office will address the more complex and wider problems associated with excessive alcohol consumption and interventions at that level. Furthermore, a new education campaign will start in the spring aimed particularly at encouraging young people to drink more sensibly.

Last week, the Department announced that an independent review is to be carried out of the relationship of alcohol pricing and promotion in off-licences, supermarkets, pubs and clubs to alcohol consumption and harm. I hope that the review’s finding will be received from the experts in July of this year, at which point we will assess the need for action, including regulatory change. We have agreements with the alcohol industry on the labelling of alcohol products, particularly in regard to health advice. In addition, the Prime Minister has made it clear that he is reconsidering the 24-hour licensing laws, which have been operating for number of years now, and evidence of whether they are connected to the problems that we are discussing.

Locally, a great deal is being done with extra investment, examining the issues that my hon. Friend has raised, and I shall be happy to discuss further developments. The strategic health authority will keep an eye on the situation and ensure that not only in her primary care trust, but in others, matters are taken forward. The Government are taking the necessary steps to get proper advice to people.

Military Operations (Information)

It is good to see you in the Chair this afternoon, Mr. Marshall. It has taken some time to secure this debate about the release of military information, which I believe is an important subject not just for the military, but for others, including the family and friends of people serving overseas. We have heard much comment in the media over the past few months about how the military and their tremendous achievements in both Iraq and Afghanistan need to be appreciated by people in the United Kingdom. I question whether the military do enough to encourage that situation, and the purpose of the debate is to highlight the fact that they could do more and do it better. That point has been accepted none the less, and as a result, parades and receptions have been held to welcome back troops from active service overseas. We must never underestimate the contribution that they have made, and continue to make, in some of the toughest fighting since the second world war. My admiration for our troops is boundless, and I am relieved that the UK can still attract the calibre of young people who, with appropriate training and experience, are every bit as good as their forefathers.

However, the world has changed considerably and the shots are now called by a media that do not necessarily give a fair and accurate summary of what is happening in the field. Competing priorities and competition from other news stories can drive accurate reporting of operations off the front pages and television, but, using the Musa Qaleh operation as the basis for this debate, the only competition for news during that period was the missing person presumed dead for five years following a canoeing incident on the north-east coast—someone who was subsequently discovered to be very much alive.

A great opportunity was lost by the military to capture the imagination of the public, and it was lost under the camouflage of NATO, ISAF—the international security assistance force—the Afghan army and operational security. Although media information would have had to be shared with those organisations, none of them has any interest in, or responsibility for, the reaction of the British people to the battle of Musa Qaleh. Although the powers that be quite naturally wanted to promote the Afghan national army and the Afghan Government, the Ministry of Defence should have had as its priority the promotion of news to the British public, not least because it is important for the recruitment and retention of personnel in our armed services.

The families of serving personnel in Afghanistan, who had an obvious interest in developments, had to resort to foreign media and even to the Taliban for progress reports during the Musa Qaleh operation. The only information on the MOD website was an 82-word news article published on Friday 7 December 2007, which was replaced by another short article of 139 words the following day. It was left to newspapers to provide adequate coverage. For example, Rupert Hamer, the Sunday Mirror correspondent, gave details about what was happening in Musa Qaleh while accompanying the British Brigade Reconnaissance Force. At this point, I offer my condolences following the deaths of Jack Sadler and Darryl Gardiner and the injuries incurred by the reconnaissance force.

That event could prove to be the turning point in the whole Afghanistan war. There was a long build-up to the taking of Musa Qaleh and most knew that it was happening—certainly the Taliban did. When the important flow of news is deliberately hidden behind the excuse of operational security, the Army pays a high price in the loss of good public relations. However, sensibly handled news, which would also have been picked up by the Taliban, could have been used to the advantage of the allies as it has so often been before. Just as the military operation for Musa Qaleh was meticulously planned and executed, so should have been the public relations exercise. The news of the steady push up the Sangin valley by British and Afghan forces could have been fed to the media, together with appropriate photographs, rather than the few outdated ones that were used. The purpose of the operation, the importance of the strategy, the breaking of the Taliban’s hold on the drugs trade and the sheer intensity of the battle, which took place over the weekend of 7, 8 and 9 December 2007 could have been explained.

The flow of good material, backed by photographs and video footage, could have dominated the British media for several days, sending out a very clear message about the achievements of the military. Instead, we had a complete public relations disaster in so far as a valuable opportunity was lost, very little material was available and virtually an information vacuum followed. However, we know that British forces are still harrying the Taliban, holding and rebuilding positions that have been taken to make it more difficult for the insurgents to re-group in the spring, and the complete lack of sympathetic coverage is not the way for the military to gain the enthusiastic backing of the British people.

If the Minister replies that the reason for the void is operational security, I shall feel like screaming, because I do not accept it. The situation was caused by a total failure of the military and the MOD to understand the power and importance of good public relations in informing the public about what was happening. It is as important to take the British people along with us, as it is to win the battle on the ground, because if that is not achieved, the calls for withdrawing from military action could escalate, with the result that recruitment and retention become ever more difficult.

In a further article, which was published on 23 December 2007, Rupert Hamer wrote:

“The reason they”—

the Brigade Reconnaissance Force—

are so busy is that the Taliban, through a network of informers the soldiers call ‘dickers’, monitor their every move.”

The Taliban know exactly what is happening: they have mobile phones to get information, and they use them in the same way as the foreign press, which, for example, phoned residents in Musa Qaleh to find out what was happening on the ground. “Operational security” appears to have been used damagingly against our own side in that case, rather than against the enemy.

What can be done about the utter failure to use public relations to the UK’s advantage? When operating in a joint force, such as NATO, ISAF, the Afghan national army or any other, it should be made clear from the outset that if British forces are to take part, the British should handle the dissemination of news and the public relations agenda, and not rely, as happened recently, on other organisations to make the running. If British forces are to be used anywhere in the world, the moral obligation to keep the British people informed should be fulfilled, and that obligation should form part of our covenant with the military.

It is important to give the maintenance of good public relations a prominent role at all levels of training. Officers need to understand that it is vital to win the hearts and minds of the public—particularly commanders in the field who are responsible for making the decision to release information to the media. All pre-deployment training should include public relations training, because it is almost as important to inform the public as it is to win the battle.

However, the strategy cannot work unless a thorough overhaul of the chain of command is undertaken to decide how best material can be released, because I suspect that, as in all large organisations, there are blockages. The Ministry should be at the forefront of the release of news material; it should not lag days behind, or be dictated to and led by other media sources. Recent events have proved that the MOD is not at the forefront of reporting the activities and successes of our forces. In the case of Musa Qaleh, publicity could have been prepared in advance alongside the excellent military planning and successful execution. The superb co-operation between allied forces and the brilliant performance of the military went almost unrecognised because the British people were not told the full facts about what had been achieved, for the simple reason that the release of media information was never an integral part of the overall planning.

With the relatively small military force that the United Kingdom now has, it should be possible to know where every man and woman comes from, not just where they are based. Very few local newspapers follow the progress of service personnel originating from their area, because little information is given to them, yet local media, including newspapers, radio and television, command a greater circulation and coverage than the national media. There are so many exciting things going on in the military that a string of inspiring news stories about local people could go out to local communities. That would be a low-cost way of getting across the message about our armed services, and it would give youngsters an incentive to seek such a career. Too often, the only military story found in the local media is when someone is killed or injured.

The MOD should be the driving force of media coverage, and its website should be at the forefront at all times. I realise that that would put out of joint the noses of a few media outlets, because they rely on exclusives, but many have their own reporters and photographers embedded with our forces and get more detailed, precise and personal exclusive stories from them. In an operation such as Musa Qaleh, the MOD could have held briefing sessions supported by its website. The simple fact is that news that should have come directly from the military did not. I doubt whether the MOD ever got it in the first place.

It is no good the military moaning about a lack of public support when they do not go out of their way to inform the public. They have material in abundance, and not just about war-fighting, which they could provide to the news media. They cannot blame anyone but themselves for the failure to get the message over to the nation as a whole. I appreciate the fact that running any news outlet, whether a website or a blog, is not easy. To be effective, one has to update it continually, be ahead of the game and understand and promote the flow of stories. Some of the regimental sites are often out of date, but the MOD, given the authority to get on with the job and with a small, dedicated team, could be a pathfinder and lead by example. With the right will and determination, it could be done.

A written parliamentary reply on 18 December stated that the Ministry of Defence directorate of public relations comprised 69 personnel. I cannot work out why the smallest service, the Royal Navy, has the most, but there must be a reason. Perhaps the Minister will be able to tell me what it is.

I hope that the Minister, the military and the MOD will take the debate seriously and set about reorganising the whole operation of news coverage, the release of news to the media and the monitoring of coverage. The motivation for the effort is to benefit the military, of whom we are all immensely proud. If undertaken well, the project would assist all our armed services.

There is much good will for our serving Army, Navy and Air Force personnel, which must never be taken for granted. Would not the parades of returning servicemen and women have meant even more to the public if their operational tour had been well covered in the local press throughout their deployment? The purpose of insurgency, which the UK is trying to counter, with great difficulty, particularly in Afghanistan, is not only to take control of an area but to undermine those who oppose it and to destroy support for foreign troops in their home territory. The calls for withdrawal then intensify, but the best way to counter them is to have established an excellent narrative and communication with the British people, who support the armed services for their professional and unselfish service on behalf of our country and its people.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Congleton (Ann Winterton) on securing the debate, and I thank her for what she said. I agree with some of what she said, but not all—I have my earplugs ready—and I do not agree with some of the conclusions that she drew. I hope that I might be able to persuade her to my view at least partly. The matter is complex and important, and it has an impact on our operational effectiveness and force protection, so I welcome the opportunity to respond on a subject to which, you will not be surprised to hear, Mr. Marshall, I attach the utmost seriousness.

Before I respond to the specific points raised in the debate, I am sure that those present will wish me to pay tribute to the professional, dedicated and courageous men and women of armed forces, serving in Iraq and Afghanistan among other operational theatres.

We face a complex dilemma in handling information on live operations. We are often faced with trying to manage two generally conflicting pressures. First, we have a responsibility to the public and, even more importantly, to the families of our service personnel, to keep them as fully informed as possible about the activities of our armed forces. The public have a right to know what our armed forces are doing in their name, and there is a proper expectation that there should be sensible debate about and scrutiny of our armed forces’ activities.

I shall give way to the hon. Lady later, if she will allow me to put a few things on the record first.

We manifestly cannot seek to control what the media report, nor should we. A free press is a vital organ of democracy, and as such we should and do seek to engage proactively with the media. First and foremost, for the reasons already mentioned, that is the correct thing to do. Moreover, it represents operational pragmatism. Our enemies certainly put their side of the story; regularly it is deliberately slanted or falsified, but it is a story none the less. There is a risk that, in the absence of proper facts, such propaganda becomes established public perception, which is manifestly not in our interests.

I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman later.

The second pressure is our overriding responsibility to protect operational security. We ask much of our armed services personnel and put them in positions of threat, danger and pressure, and I am simply not prepared to countenance anything that might exacerbate those risks. The premature release of information heralding our intentions or activity on current operations amounts to precisely that.

There is no simple template that we can use to get the balance right. Often it is highly situationally dependent. For example, on occasions it is right to make public in advance details of an operation. That might be necessary to ensure that civilians have an opportunity to move away from areas of military activity, thereby minimising the risk of civilian casualties. Equally, surprise is a key principle of military operations, acting as a force multiplier and providing considerable force protection, and it can be critical to success. Achieving it is difficult and necessitates a much more restrictive information release policy. Such a policy cannot, of course, prevent ill-informed media speculation and rumour-mongering, but we cannot advocate the sacrifice of operational security on the altar of bad journalism. The hon. Lady said that our top priority should be the promotion of news to the British public. I do not underplay that, but our top priority, despite the fact that it makes her want to scream, has to be operational security.

May I confirm that I did not say it should be the top priority? Of course, it should not be the top priority. I said that if one knew someone fighting in the battle of Musa Qaleh, for example, one would not get any information on the MOD website that had not already been put out in the local press directly from correspondence in the field. One might not know what was happening from the MOD website or from the military in any way, but might know it from elsewhere. If the MOD and the military put out the facts—if they drove a news agenda that suited them—it would benefit operational security and would certainly benefit those at home who are concerned.

If I misheard the hon. Lady, I apologise. She did say, however, that the Taliban knew “exactly” what we were planning to do.

That is what the hon. Lady said. The only word that she said that I have difficulty with is “exactly”. The Taliban did not know exactly what we were going to do. This issue needs to be judged on the outcomes. In the Musa Qaleh situation, the Taliban were well bedded into a civilian area and were aware that an attack was imminent. They paraded themselves in front of the world’s media, saying that they were up for it, ready for it and capable of defending the situation. The outcome was, tragically, that we had two British casualties—but only two—and low numbers of casualties within the Afghan army and among civilians. Then, in front of the world’s media, whether they cared to report it or not, the Taliban fled. I cannot get my head around how anyone can say that that operation, taken in the round, was not a success.

First, may I apologise for my late arrival? I absolutely take the points that my hon. Friend has made. I pay tribute to the gallantry and leadership of Brigadier Andy Mackay and the 52 Infantry Brigade in the seizure of Musa Qaleh, and I deeply regret the deaths and casualties that came with that. The brigadier’s counter-insurgency strategy is clear. He is no fool and he makes it obvious that G5 and the communication of operational intent to the enemy are key tools in his armoury. That outstanding brigadier has been let down badly at MOD level, and I should like to know why there is no single service chief in charge of public relations, as there used to be.

How we structure ourselves is an issue for debate, as it has been in the past and will be in the future, but I refer the hon. Gentleman to the points that I have made about our overall first priority in this case. The outcome is clear for all to see. I want our armed forces to have the opportunity to let the British public know exactly what they are doing on the public’s behalf and what their capabilities are, but that has to be put into context. Operational considerations have to come first and always will. I agree with the hon. Lady about exploiting the regional media and about stories on local men and boys. I am not sure that we do enough in that regard. It is not MOD policy to do anything other than exploit that, but whether we do it as well as we could is worth considering.

Making judgments on this issue is far from easy and requires careful co-ordination up and down the chain of command. We should therefore be careful about drawing conclusions on the basis of partial information, especially when that is done with the advantage of hindsight.

Against the background that I have given, let me say some more about the Musa Qaleh operation. It was complex, multi-faceted and involved a large number of troops drawn from many nations, with Afghans at the vanguard. It was critical to the operation’s success that we obtained and maintained the support of the people of Musa Qaleh in the face of a determined campaign of intimidation by the Taliban. It was therefore vital that we adopted a proactive information campaign. That was subject to detailed planning and was achieved in part by embedding two journalists in the UK units that were providing support to the Afghan forces. The journalists provided reports to newspapers and TV stations in the UK and internationally.

Embedding journalists in military units enables us to afford them access to military operations that simply would not be possible otherwise. In return, we expect them to be responsible in their reporting and not to breach operational security or endanger our people. Evidence suggests that the Musa Qaleh operation is a prime example of such a relationship of mutual trust working well. The embedded journalists did not publish their first reports until 9 December—two days after the original announcement that the operation had commenced. Their journalistic responsibility was subject to particularly sensitive influence, as they were embedded in the patrol in which Sergeant Johnson of the 2nd Battalion the Yorkshire Regiment was tragically killed on 8 December by a suspected mine strike. I am pleased to say that they did not report that incident until Sergeant Johnson’s family had been told, through the appropriate channels, and an appropriate period of grace had been observed.

The decision to embed journalists was the right one. They played an important part in ensuring that media reporting of the operation was generally factual and properly balanced, and they did not breach operational security or ignore the needs of the next of kin.

Will the Minister assure me that all the lessons that were learned from the aggressive handling of public relations in Northern Ireland are now thoroughly understood in relation to current operations?

I can never give blanket assurances like that, and the hon. Gentleman knows it. One has to learn all the time. Collective memory can sometimes be short. We have to pick up and relearn the lessons of history. Surely, we must try to embed in the armed forces, the MOD and any other organisation the ability to pick up and relearn the lessons that need to be learned and the ability to adapt quickly. So, no, I cannot tell him that every lesson that was learned over 30 years of complex, dangerous operations in Northern Ireland has been learned and remembered by the individuals in the MOD. We have to stay on top of that, and he has to help us to stay on top of that through the processes that we are undertaking today.

I emphasise what I said to the hon. Lady earlier. I agree with much of what she said, but I have concentrated on some of the issues on which I do not agree. I believe that the Musa Qaleh operation was totally successful from beginning to end. We cannot sort out all the ills of our media, but I agree with her reasons for securing the debate.

The Government know that public support and understanding of the activities of the armed forces are important to their long-term success. To that end, we have a duty to share as much information as we can about their work. We should and do, not least through stories about local men, concentrate on regional media and have a regional plan, much along the lines described by the hon. Lady. Moreover, public relations are factored into pre-deployment training, as would be expected. However, we must not confuse the issue. Operational security has the casting vote; it is and will remain the overriding factor that determines whether it is reasonable and safe to release information. That is as true a principle in the Musa Qaleh operation as elsewhere. Any alternative will endanger the lives of our troops. I simply am not prepared to do that, and I am certain that the hon. Lady would not want that either.

It being Two o’clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the sitting lapsed, without Question put.