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Westminster Hall

Volume 471: debated on Wednesday 6 February 2008

Westminster Hall

Wednesday 6 February 2008

[Frank Cook in the Chair]

Enforced Criminal Activity (Children)

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

I am delighted that the Speaker has given me the opportunity to raise this matter at an opportune time. Nearly two weeks ago, the national media covered an unusual raid in Slough, and the results have occasioned me to raise this matter.

I am raising a new phenomenon. Something is happening in Britain, and no one has grasped quite what it is. Like a good Agatha Christie—she was a constituent of mine, and her family lived on the River Dart—one does not see the full picture until all the jigsaw pieces are in place. Then the whole picture becomes clear. What is happening is that organised crime networks are trafficking Roma children into Britain and other EU countries, notably Italy and Spain, and using them to milk the benefits system and for criminal activities such as shoplifting, pickpocketing and ATM theft.

Children are sold by their parents to gangs. The gangs then demand money to traffic the children to another country on the promise of a safe return. The family enter into debt slavery with extortionate interest rates, the gang demands another child, the children are smuggled through Europe, or are simply flown into the United Kingdom with two adults, and are unchallenged at Gatwick or Heathrow as they have EU passports. They often fly to Luton, where there are direct flights from Romania. Children are trafficked through every airport in the UK, and they remain unchallenged.

If passports were at least viewed, officials would see when children have different names from those accompanying them. Even better, if they were scanned regularly, they would be detected. Children are placed with a family that is controlled by a criminal gang, and are forced to beg, steal and sell—The Big Issue is one recent example—on false identity cards. They are made to look after babies, and to beg with them. They are made to sleep on the floor, and must give everything they earn or steal to the family, or they are beaten. The benefits go back to the gang, which builds a comfortable and expensive lifestyle back in Romania and Bulgaria.

Examples arising from the Slough raid are sub judice, so I cannot raise them now, but they are blood-curdling in their cruelty. The police believe that there are between 1,000 and 2,000 trafficked Roma children in the UK. The important thing is that none of them goes to school, and they are not on any social service database. They are not cared for by foster parents, and they are completely below the radar.

This is a new phenomenon, and what we are witnessing has only recently dawned on our law enforcement officers. To put things into perspective, the Performance Information Bureau reveals a 786 per cent. increase in Romanian nationals accused of crime in the Metropolitan Police Service district, compared with the same period in 2006. The number of Bulgarian nationals accused of criminal activity has increased by 250 per cent. in the same period. This is the work of criminal gangs but, unlike most such gangs, they buy children and school them in the art of street crime. I believe that there are three schools dedicated to teaching criminal activity. I am not allowed to disclose where they are, but we know of at least two in Romania and the third is probably in Bulgaria. The twist is that many of those children are under 10 and have no criminal liability in this country. Although they are viewed as being too young to know that what they are doing is wrong in British law, they are not too young to be trafficked. They have either been sold by their desperately poor families to gangs that then train them, or, more likely, they come here as families, and carry out their activities as a family unit.

The Roma community has faced persecution for hundreds of years, and its members were victims of Nazi Germany. The conditions in which they live are among the poorest that I have ever seen, sometimes in decaying brick and mud huts without electricity, with heating provided solely by wood fires, and water having to be pumped from the fields. The problem is that they cannot find work, and are discriminated against by their host community. I believe that the Minister has been to Romania and seen some of those conditions, as I have. They are unbelievable in the EU.

Three or four years ago, the river in Chernavoda in Romania flooded and many of the brick and straw houses were destroyed. When I went there less than a couple of years ago, many of the houses had not been rebuilt and the families were living in makeshift barns, tents and wooden structures where one would not expect animals to live in Britain.

In Romania, the Government pay the Roma £6 in benefits per child per week. When the Roma families come to Britain, they receive £45 per child per week. That is a dramatic increase—eight times the amount they would receive in Romania. I doubt whether the Minister has any idea of how many Roma families are purportedly claiming benefit in Britain and being paid for by the British taxpayer, because there is no national database that records which families are claiming child benefit. I am told that Roma families move between local authority areas and claim again and again. I do not know whether that is true, but I would like to know whether it is. It may be fraudulent, but I believe that it is happening. If so, would the Minister tell the House what he will do to establish a national database pretty smartly? Until he does so, benefit fraud will milk the system, and the amount of money coming from the British taxpayer will continue to increase.

We are witnessing the infiltration of increasing numbers of Roma Gypsies who settle not just in Slough, where they rent terraced houses, but all over London. They move 23 to 26 people and often more into one house, and sleep in a similar way as back home. Entire families of six or eight people live and sleep cheek by jowl in one room. That is no different from what happens in eastern Europe.

I shall give an example of how Roma families move on. The original view was that perhaps 100 homes in Slough had criminal activity going on. On 13 December last year, Thames Valley police arrested three males and two females in a car outside an identified address. They were arrested for burglary offences. The arresting officers were from the traffic division and had little knowledge of Romanian organised crime methods. They spoke to the people at the address that then contained a whole family. When criminal investigation officers returned a few hours later to search the house, they found that it had been vacated. The entire family had moved out. Floorboards had been lifted, bedding sliced open, furniture turned upside down and all possessions and property had been taken. The speed at which the Roma communities move makes it very difficult to pinpoint and convict any of those involved in crime.

I wonder what the Slough health and safety officers think about that. Have they visited those premises? If not, why not? The addresses are known to the police. I suspect that it is because the officers cannot cope. Is the same true of Slough social services? Some 126 Roma children are suspected of being trafficked, of whom 57 per cent. have criminal histories. About 80 children were counted in Slough at the beginning of the year. The cost to the council tax payer is spiralling.

As regards the 10 children who were taken into police protection in Slough as a result of the Slough raid, only one child was returned to the address from which they were taken. The parents of three children flew in from Spain to collect them and the parents of two children flew in from Romania. Other children were reunited with parents from all over the UK. The children were aged between two and eight. The one thing that all the children had in common was that they did not attend nursery or primary schools or participate in any form of UK education. The Roma children whom I know are in their early teens and totally illiterate.

My hon. Friend mentioned that the police take children into care. He knows that the police hand over the children to the local authorities, which then care for them appropriately under the Children Act 1989. Local authorities have a duty to care for children, and few groups need more care than children who are trafficked for slavery, benefit abuse or, even worse, sexual abuse. Does he share my concern that the Government are not properly funding the local authorities to carry out that duty of care?

My hon. Friend raises a point that I would have raised until I investigated the matter. First, local authority social services do a very good job. The social workers, who are very hard working, have a problem dealing with the British alone. Landing them with foreign children from other EU countries puts a burden on them, with which most of them cannot cope. As a result, when they try to cope, they find that they are totally outmatched by the traffickers. When children are put into care, safe houses are not safe. The children go missing within hours. The director of social work in Manchester said that within minutes of children going into care, they are off. The traffickers are often waiting outside with their car engines running. The children walk out of the front door of a care home and into the car. Social workers cannot care for the children and they do not speak their language.

Most Romanian children cannot read or write, and cannot speak any other language. We have no care homes that are staffed by Romanian speakers. We have no foster parents who speak Romanian. The problem is out of control. There is no way we can cope with children in care. They are not in care and they are not in safe homes, because they just escape. The situation is devastating, and I am glad that it was raised by my hon. Friend. No matter that the local authorities have a duty to care for those children; our social services cannot cope with this problem.

The Slough example is not the only one. Haringey council spent its annual interpreters’ budget on Romanian interpreters in the first three months of this year. The authorities are failing because they are overwhelmed. The police do not have the resources permanently to disrupt the vast criminal networks. As the going gets easier for the criminal gangs, the trickle of Gypsies will increase to a flood. Free right of access across EU frontiers makes it possible for the first time for the Roma communities to come from across Europe. That form of trafficking is entirely new. Although the children are often with their own family, their family is mortgaged. They are debt-bonded to the criminal gangs, who are of their own kind and come from their own village.

The organised criminal network exploits the most vulnerable groups in their society. The families sell one of their many children for cash, and the child is expected to pay off the debt by crime. Non-payment of the debt by the child results in intimidation and violence to the family. If one goes to many villages in Romania, one can see hovels in one section of the town and beautifully built homes in another part. Those homes are being financed by the gangs’ activities in this country and others.

We have hundreds—and in time, thousands—of those families in Britain. Their sole aim is to milk the benefit system and to steal on the streets. I have personal experience of apprehending a Romanian teenager at Marble Arch underground station as part of my police duties under the police service parliamentary scheme. The girl had stolen goods on her but of insufficient value for the police to prosecute her. She had a return underground ticket, but no money. She was one of a group of teenagers whom we were unable to apprehend because of the speed with which they disappeared as soon as they saw the uniform.

The girl was taken to a place of safety at Marylebone police station, and we spent five hours trying to get information out of her; we could not. We had a Romanian interpreter—heaven knows at what cost—and she could not get any information out of the girl either. The girl was deft at not answering questions and pretending not to understand, when I knew that she could understand. She claimed to live with other members of her family, but refused to give her address. I pay tribute to Superintendent Gravett and his team, as well as to the Romanian police officers who have been seconded from Romania to Britain to help to get a grip on the problem. They are doing a great job, but they have not got all the pieces of the jigsaw together.

In his office, Superintendent Gravett and his team have already collected hundreds of pictures and names of children as they try to put two and two together. However, they are finding that it makes more than 1,000 as they struggle to cope with a never-ending barrage of numbers, new names, new figures, and new children who move from one country to another. Such children move much faster than any of our law enforcement agencies.

Haringey social services said that they could not cope with the girl whom we apprehended. They had no social workers or funds available. There were no foster carers who spoke Romanian, and there were no secure hostels. If there were, they would not have been secure enough for that girl. We arrested the girl at 3 o’clock. By 8 o’clock, the police let her go. She knew that that was going to happen. She was not going to give them any details. She said that she lived in a house with her parents. She did not disclose where that house was. I offered to accompany her home on the underground, but she would not have it, and she was able to speak English when she had to.

I believe that London society is now a sitting duck. It is a target for Roma-organised crime, which is spreading throughout the region. Against that background, one must look at the Metropolitan police service area and the increase in pick-pocketing, distraction theft and ATM crime since 1 January 2007, when Romania and Bulgaria acceded to the EU. Not just the Met district has been hit; other police forces across the UK are reporting increases in criminal behaviour in those categories.

The removal by the police of 407 Romanian nationals back to Romania resulted in a 29 per cent. reduction in pickpocketing and a 24 per cent. reduction in other thefts in Marylebone alone, which represented more than 6,000 crimes. We are witnessing the criminal exploitation of young children, most of them trafficked into this country through organised criminal networks. The British Transport police believe that Bulgarians are responsible for up to 80 per cent. of pickpocketing thefts on the London underground.

All that is trafficking with a difference, the difference being that instead of the trafficked person being sold to a third party, the trafficked child is often the down payment that the traffickers are holding for debt bondage. The child works to redeem their family’s debt, and the family then become engulfed in the criminal way of life.

The Roma organised criminal networks are unique in that their criminal patterns embrace—people will have seen this—the use of women with babies for begging, children for distraction thefts, young girls for shoplifting and young boys to steal cash by distraction. They are responsible for much of the UK fraud loss at ATM machines. In 2006, the fraud loss at ATM machines was £61.9 million.

What, then, is going on in Slough and as a result of Slough? Intelligence suggests that children and adults are being sold between gangs in the UK, as well as being trafficked into the UK for criminal purposes. There are a number of factual accounts on record that provide evidence of sales for £20,000 of one or more persons, including babies and very young children. There is a reason why the figures are so high. I find them hard to believe, and I have questioned the police about the issue on many occasions. They say that a talented criminally active child can earn approximately £100,000 a year for the gang. I just do not believe the figure, but I am told that I should accept it.

It is believed that more than 1,000 children were trafficked out just before the accession; 187 children have been identified as criminally active in London and across the UK. Their offending spans 32 UK police force areas. Some of the children have had up to 12 convictions since 2007. The adults have committed criminal offences linked to false asylum applications and benefit fraud. Organised criminal gang members are acting as appropriate adults for arrested children across the Metropolitan Police Service. Significant amounts of money are being transferred back to Romania. This is a very important point. It is a big business. One can see places all around London where people can send money abroad. Enormous sums are going from Britain to Romania, Bulgaria and the Czech Republic through those cash shops.

I know that my hon. Friend recently went to see the work of the Border and Immigration Agency. One extraordinary fact is that children under the age of four are being trafficked into this country. There seemed to be no purpose for that, but it was explained that, because they are not fingerprinted when they come in, they can be used repeatedly at Lunar house to obtain benefits for more than one person. Is that another way in which trafficked children are defeating the benefits system?

Surprisingly, my hon. Friend knows that what he is saying is correct because he was with me. The visit to Lunar house was quite enlightening and disturbing, as it showed how the system is being exploited by people who are far cleverer than the system. Every time the system changes, they are ahead of the game. I recollect that we heard about young men who pour alcohol on their fingers and set them alight to defraud the immigration service by preventing it from obtaining accurate fingerprints. That is how ghastly the whole business has become.

There is a big problem. The Government need to explore whether criminal exploitation of victims for gain by another is an offence. I do not want to increase the amount of law on the statute book, but I am not sure that that is an offence. Roma children are used for criminal exploitation in begging, pickpocketing and illegally selling The Big Issue, which is one of the things that they do. Their gangmasters get the money, but I believe that the gangmasters cannot be charged with a crime; instead the child is criminalised. Is that the case? Do we need a new law of criminal exploitation of others? There is a view that the current law may be insufficient to deal with that crime.

I wonder whether, if we were more intrusive at the points of entry right across the EU, Madeleine McCann might not have been able to pass through customs without a problem. I am talking not just about this country, but about other EU countries. They are not vigilant enough about children coming through with adults other than their own family, and even then, as we know, many of the passports are forged.

In 2006, crime from eastern Europe was negligible; now the situation is out of control. I warned of that on 24 November 2005 in a debate in the House. I said that

“one reason for delaying accession”


“the level of people trafficking, particularly child trafficking”.—[Official Report, 24 November 2005; Vol. 439, c. 1687.]

Despite that warning, we went ahead and brought Romania and Bulgaria into the EU. I welcome that, but we did not put up safeguards to ensure that the problem that I said might arise did not arise. Do not let us put our finger solely on Romania. There are Roma communities throughout Europe and they are not solely to blame. They are used by criminal networks and their vulnerability and poverty make them perfect targets.

I ask the Minister to take this very seriously. Roma communities have a different culture. They play by different rules, and they have utterly different behaviour from most others. They have a different approach to work. In the village in Romania that I visited, I was told by the Government officials with me that 97 per cent. of the people living there would not be working. We are unlikely to be able to offer solutions on how we can cope with the Roma problems until we understand them better. I have noticed that there is a total lack of social studies from the top universities about those communities and how we can ever integrate them. It strikes me that that is a tremendously important thing that we have overlooked. We are dealing with a different group of people, and we cannot hassle and harass them for their way of life, although it does impinge on our way of life and what they do is quite wrong. We have to understand how they operate and their motivations.

The Romanians whom I know in Romania are quite hostile to the Roma communities. They feel that they let the Romanians and the Bulgarians down. They are known for pilfering and criminality. The Romanians whom I know are very offended by what has been going on in Britain, and they want to put things right. Our aim should be to break the cycle of abuse. The Government should be saying loud and clear that they do not have the resources or knowledge to deal with those hundreds of children. The children with criminal records should be treated as victims of crime and repatriated with the support of reputable children’s organisations in the countries from where they come. We cannot send children back on their own, because they will just be recycled.

I pay tribute to the Romanian authorities, which are facing up to the problems. I shall describe the kind of case that they are having to deal with. One Roma child of 13 had a baby in Spain. The grandfather of that baby, who was about 34 years old, brought the little girl into Britain and was apprehended at Stansted airport. She was transferred to Essex social services. Will the Minister arrange for the Romanian embassy officials to gain access to visit that child—they have had great difficulty in doing so?

Perhaps I shall not lose sight of that point if the hon. Gentleman writes to me about it. I do not want to lose sight of a specific point on an individual case in the generality of the debate, and I would be happy to look at the matter and consider it.

I anticipated a helpful intervention, so I have assisted the Minister by tabling three questions—I shall draw the attention of his office to them.

In the past 18 months, the Romanian authorities have established greatly improved social care in Romania—it has come forward in leaps and bounds. They have closed the orphanages, they have a register of parents who want to adopt and they have established centres made up of psychologists, teachers and doctors. The latter are thoroughly underutilised, so there are plenty of places for children apprehended in this country if they are sent back to Romania. My information is that the Romanian authorities expect Britain to send the children and the criminal gangs back to Romania, and to be much more vigilant at ports of entry if such people attempt to re-traffic.

Also in the past 18 months, Britain has tried to place 18 children in foster care, but only four ended up in such care. They were placed in foster care away from danger, but they all ran off within 24 hours—one took all the electrical goods in the house—so that is not a particularly good idea. My hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) came up with a suggestion on those lines, but I should tell him that it has been tried.

I agree with my hon. Friend, but he missed the point that I was making. Essex county council and social services would claim that they do not receive sufficient funds from the Government to give proper care, set up safe houses and employ interpreters, nor to give the care that the children need before they are returned to their country, as they should be.

My hon. Friend has now made his point twice.

I do not want to describe more individual cases but, apparently, someone in the Home Office has on their desk three other cases in which the removal of children requires ministerial approval—I doubt that it is this Minister. At first, I thought that the decision would take three days; then I thought that it would take three weeks. I have now been told that it will take three months. The Minister should know about the failure of one of his colleagues to sign a deportation order, because the children concerned have appalling criminal records, and it would not be helpful for them to remain in this country.

What if we set up a national campaign to locate the 2,000 Roma trafficked children who are believed to be in the UK? I am worried about what the Home Office will do about them if they are located. How will we handle, say, 2,000 children if they are found by the police through Operation Pentameter, or through a trawl as a result of the Slough operation, particularly if it has taken three months for a Minister to sign only three deportation orders for children?

The media could help, but not by sensationalising the problem, as they have done until now. They could target not so much the unfortunate families who are tied up in the maelstrom of evil and vice, but the serious, organised criminals behind them: the gangs, the operators, those who make their money out of the very poor and who live in expensive new houses built with money made through stolen children. We need to focus on the exploiters. It is not a question of demand, as with women trafficked for sex; it is purely about financial gain, and it uses our society as a pawn.

We should set the matter on some scale. Some 1,000 bags are stolen in Westminster alone each month, but the human trafficking unit in London has—wait for it—only eight officers. Children of all ages are bought and sold. A four-year-old child has been caught stealing a wallet. A 12-year-old girl who has 11 different names and dates of birth has received 12 convictions this year, and she was involved in 45 other incidents in which she was not arrested because she is classified as a juvenile—there were 45 incidents when proceedings could not be brought because of that. The police time spent on that is appalling. It is not a new phenomena, but it is a serious human tragedy and it is happening within our own shores.

The EU should be finding funds and using resources to lift Roma communities out of their poverty, to train young people, to help them to get work and to give counselling and advice to those who are trapped in debt bondage. Why is the EU not giving substantial funds to Romania, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic and Hungary, all of which have Roma communities, and trying to lift them out of such poverty? I am very critical of the European Commission, because it has done absolutely nothing about the phenomenon, and it does not seem to have any will to help the countries that are tackling and wrestling with such problems. Gangs will thrive, people will be abused and they will remain the victims of unscrupulous gangs so long as the Roma communities are so poor.

I do not want what I have said to be interpreted as my not appreciating Romanians or Bulgarians or any other people. Romanians are law-abiding and highly regarded, and they are efficient workers—we must not tar them with the same brush as the criminal gangs. I must stress that there are Roma communities in Britain that are most definitely not part of the criminal networks. We want to reach out to them; they have every right to be here and we can welcome them.

Some police officers are beginning to despair. Our front-line officers do not see an end to the problem. If we cannot look after such children and families in Britain, which we cannot, they should be sent back and helped to re-establish themselves. If there is nothing going for them here, we must get them back, so that things get going for them elsewhere. If things get too rough, the Roma communities will go to another EU country—they will pack up, as they did in Slough, and within three hours they will be in another country.

The issue is a serious challenge to the Government and to our people. We are approaching a siege situation. The Government must tackle the issue as a potential major assault by criminal gangs on the United Kingdom.

Order. This is 90-minute debate. I am obliged to call the hon. Members who will make the three winding-up speeches 30 minutes before the end, so we have 22 minutes purely for comment from the floor. I ask those right hon. and hon. Members who wish to catch my eye to bear in mind that time limit as they make their contributions and accept and respond to interventions.

The hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) is a hero to many of us concerned with this issue. He is the closest we have to a Wilberforce—he is white-haired but he is still incredibly youthful and energetic. He has brought the issue up time and again.

I politely invite the House not to stigmatise Romas, which the hon. Gentleman certainly did not. In effect, it is Oliver Twist meeting 2008 on the streets of London. Communities that Dickens described 150 years ago are now living in Europe. They were left to their own devices under the hideous communist regimes, now finished. Now they are not able to adapt.

I remember as a young Labour activist—you, Mr. Cook, may recall this—that a similar concern was expressed 40 years ago about Roma communities in the UK, with councils wanting to chase them away. It required a community of liberal spirit to change the mentality—as much, let me say, among Labour councils as Conservative; I make no political point.

I very much agree with the hon. Member for Totnes about the need for greater European intervention. However, were I to stand up in the main Chamber and say, “Let us give the European Commission more money from the British taxpayer to work on the problem,” and if I suggested that money came also from other countries, I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman would join me in the Lobby, because his party has strong and clear views on Europe.

I shall compress my comments in order to leave time for others to speak.

I believe that we need a European bureau of investigation. I believe that we need enhanced police powers across Europe, but not based on intergovernmental co-operation. That simply means that, if a police force wanted to make contact with its opposite number in Romania, it would first have to come to Whitehall; requests would then have to be made to the relevant Department or Ministry in Bucharest, then the Ministry of Justice and finally the police unit. By the time that process had been gone through, every bit of information would have been leaked and everyone would know about it. We need increased European integration if we want to tackle the problem. If we do not, by all means let us stay as we are.

There are serious problems with Roma communities all over the United Kingdom. I can report that concerns have been expressed by councillor colleagues in Rotherham. One way to deal with them would be to insist, for example, that all European Union citizens should be on the electoral register before having access to any public services. If they want to put their kids in school, to draw down child benefit—that is allowed—to register with a GP, to have treatment in hospital, or to use any public service, they should be on the electoral register.

I would make that a new British law, combining access to public service with accepting the responsibility of having the vote. It is well known that EU citizens that live here can vote in our local and European parliamentary elections, just as British citizens living in Spain, France and elsewhere in Europe can vote in local and European parliamentary elections in those countries. That would be a starting point, but I ask the Minister not respond to it today, because it is not a matter entirely for his Department.

We need more material in the Romanian language. It is not that difficult a language to learn, but as the Government in their wisdom have axed the compulsory teaching of modern languages in secondary schools, Britain is becoming more and more of a monoglot community. That is not helpful, and I shall be pressing the Government to change their policy, but we need more literature to be produced in Romanian. I am sure that the Romanian embassy would help; there are many Romanians, academics and professionals, who could help. We need a helpline in Romanian, so that anyone seeking to escape from those criminal gangs could call for help immediately.

We need much tougher action on deportation. It is a huge myth that the European Union does not allow citizens to be deported from one EU member state to another. I could cite technical articles on the subject, but I shall not for the sake of brevity.

We certainly need to consider money flows; we need bigger controls, and our banks need to be much more vigilant. That will involve some interference in everybody’s right to keep their money secret. We are having a slight debate about MPs’ allowances and the level of secrecy that might be allowed in that respect, but what is sauce for the MP goose might become sauce for the citizen gander. We need more transparency in that respect.

We need more than one Poppy project. We praise it routinely, but Italy has 200 safe houses for those who want to escape from the clutches of criminal gangs; we have only one.

We also need to back swift economic growth. There was a Roma problem in many west European countries, including the UK, 30, 40, 50, 60 years ago—even 20 years ago. It has been eased thanks to economic development. That is what Romania and Bulgaria need more than anything else.

Above all, we need data. I was listening to a debate on the “Today” programme this morning between Professor Timothy Garton Ash—I am a huge admirer of his—and another gentleman, who was resiling from the idea of gathering data. I think that we have far too little data.

As the hon. Member for Totnes knows, I have a particular interest in the abuse of children who are trafficked into the UK as sex slaves. He focused on Roma, but the debate is about enforced criminal activity by children. The plain fact is that we have too many children—girls under the age of 18—who are trafficked into the UK and are made to work as sex slaves. I have a report of a young girl who, at the age of 12, was sold to a criminal gang in Albania, trafficked into England and forced to work as a prostitute. She said:

“For 16 hours a day, I had sex with men in dingy brothels and massage parlours. If I refused, I’d be beaten.”

There are many other examples.

In the other place, their lordships were recently debating the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill, which we debated two or three weeks ago. The language that they used about controlling the demand side for those sex slaves was truly appalling. Those horrible, dirty old men were talking about the oldest profession and saying that there was no problem to be solved; I was ashamed. I hope that as many people as possible read that debate, and realise how unrepresentative their lordships are of the British community.

I believe that more and more people are waking up to the problem, and want action to be taken along the lines acknowledged by the hon. Member for Totnes. The one country that has made a serious effort to gather data is the Netherlands. Dutch statistics show that about half the reported victims of sex slave trafficking are from central and eastern Europe—mainly Bulgaria, Romania, Russia and Ukraine—and a fourth of them are from Africa, especially Nigeria. The data show that victims are almost exclusively female, and that about 15 per cent. of them are below the age of 18. I have no reason to believe—my hon. Friend the Minister may want to comment on this—that the broad percentage figures would be different in the UK.

We need to look at the demand side. I am sorry, but as long as every man in the country—and every columnist, including Henry Porter and David Aaronovitch—defend having no controls on the demand side of sex, thinking it is their inalienable human right to go and have as much sex as they want with any woman they like on any terms they like and without being required to ask questions about the age or—dare I use this absurd word?—the provenance of these girls, we will not stop sex slave trafficking.

Finally, I refer to honour-based killings and honour-based violence. It is a growing problem in the British community, and it causes enormous distress to many young English or British citizens under the age of 18. In particular, I commend the new publication from the Centre for Social Cohesion called “Crimes of the Community: Honour-based violence in the UK”. It was written by Mr. James Brandon and Salam Hafez. They report that Saamiya, a 16-year-old girl living in a refuge in northern England, left home when her family threatened to kill her after refusing a forced marriage. She is quoted as saying:

“When I asked the taxi driver to drop me here”—

that is, at the refuge—

“he just asked me ‘where are you from’, ‘who’s your dad – does he know you’re here?’… All the Asian community knows about the taxi-firms – it’s like a network. There’s always someone who’s got a friend there who knows your dad.”

We must look at the problem of forced marriages. Lord Ahmed and Baroness Uddin produced a report on the subject some years ago and it needs to be revisited. They were quite clear in their condemnation of forced marriages. However, we now need to consider making forced marriage a crime. We must get into the ideology that justifies that behaviour, because it is based on ideological principles; it is no use just talking about it as something “cultural”, as if that excused it. It is a political, driven message that it is all right in certain communities to treat young girls as chattels, to oblige them to marry whoever the menfolk or the parents decide and if they should refuse to marry they are treated as outcasts and orders can be given to kill them. The police are good in dealing with the problem, but we need many more examples to break this evil habit finally, because it is another example of criminal activity involving young children.

I commend the hon. Member for Totnes for a very fine speech and for raising this debate in measured terms. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will seek to take the matter forward. I pay tribute to him; his dedication is second to none. He really is on top of the issue. However, let us now have more action, fewer excuses for not tackling the demand side of sex slave prostitution and more data. Let the Conservative party engage fully with Europe and support the giving of more funds and more power to the European Commission, and also support the Government in all their attempts to make the European Union work to tackle this problem.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship once again, Mr. Cook. It is also a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane).

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) on not only his speech today but the fact that he has driven the consideration of human trafficking in this House. Two years ago, human trafficking was not an issue, but now it is right at the top of the agenda. I am delighted that the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Gedling (Mr. Coaker), is here today, because I know about his personal commitment to dealing with human trafficking and the way in which he has battled behind closed doors in government. Everybody should be thankful for the Minister’s work.

I agree with much of what the right hon. Member for Rotherham has said. I will go on to discuss the sexual exploitation of children, but first, however, I must take him up on the confusion between the European Union and Europe. Europe is a lot bigger than the European Union, and there are many ways to give aid to Bulgaria and Romania—for example, some of the £10 billion a year that we give to the European Union could be diverted to do good things in those two countries. The European Union is doing quite a good job, but most of the money goes to French and Italian farmers. Of course, if we were out of the European Union, we would be better off, which would mean that we could direct that £10 billion to where we want it to go.

I want to address the issue of children being trafficked into this country for forced prostitution. A couple of years ago, when I was first notified of that problem by an anonymous letter posted through the door of my constituency surgery, I did not believe that child trafficking was happening. Since then, I have spoken to so many police officers and to so many people who have been trafficked that there can be no doubt that thousands of children are being trafficked into this country each year to act as prostitutes. Those children are, as they have been described already, sex slaves.

It was remiss not to mention at the beginning of my speech the drive to raise the awareness of trafficking, which has been helped enormously by certain parts of the media, which are following this debate very closely, and I mention Channel 4 in particular for its efforts in that field. I also pay tribute to the charities that work in the field, particularly ECPAT, which stands for end child prostitution, child pornography and the trafficking of children for sexual purposes. As there is only a short time available to me today, I recommend the booklet “Rights Here, Rights Now” by Jana Schilner and Chris Beddoe. It lays out in great detail the problem of child trafficking, and I know that the Government are taking seriously the authors’ suggestions on how the situation might be improved.

I know that this is an historical event, but two years ago the all-party group on the trafficking of women and children met a 17-year-old black girl, who was strikingly attractive, in the Palace of Westminster. Two years previously, she had been trafficked into this country at the age of 14 or 15. She came from Kenya on a direct flight, and she went through border control with a white, middle-aged man on a Kenyan passport that did not have her name or picture on it. As my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes has mentioned, we recently went to Gatwick to see the Border and Immigration Agency in action, and it promised us that that could not happen today, which is very encouraging. That young Kenyan was taken to Liverpool. After two days of forced prostitution, she escaped, came down to London, found someone who spoke her own language, was taken to the authorities and, luckily, was looked after by one of the leading charities in this country. Her story is the rare exception to the rule.

We have had some success in releasing such children from that terrible bondage. If an adult is freed from such a situation, they will be looked after pretty well. They will probably go to the Poppy project, which has secure housing where they will be well looked after while they get over that horrible experience, after which they can testify against the gang that brought them in. However, if a child is freed from such bondage, it is bad luck. If someone is 18, they will be looked after, but if they are 16 or 15, as the young Kenyan lady probably was, they will normally go to a local authority home in the area where they have been discovered, which is the area where they have been trafficked to or sold on to. By the way, it is extraordinary that people can be taken to a coffee shop in Gatwick and sold—literally sold—for £5,000 to somebody else before being taken to Liverpool, for example.

If someone is in the hands of the authorities, they should be looked after. However, such children are put with all the other children who are under local authority care in a home that everyone knows the location of. There are no locks on the doors, and they are back in the hands of the traffickers within a couple of hours, which is a complete failure of the system. When one talks to social services about that failure, they say, “Well, we can’t lock them up, because that is against their human rights.” So, it is against their human rights to stop them being retrafficked—even in local authority-speak, that is madness.

In this country—I know that the Minister has been examining this issue, but I press him to consider it further—we need to follow the Dutch example. In Holland, they have four large safe houses, which are secure and not available to the traffickers. In my view, if we lock people up for their own protection, it will benefit their human rights and stop that horrible trade. However, that point applies only if we discover the poor victims in this country.

The best solution is to stop the traffickers at the border. We have heard about the problem involving Kenya, which has been sorted out. Given the situation in the European Union, however, the Border and Immigration Agency does not have the powers to prevent people from coming in, which is a point that its representatives stressed to the all-party group when we visited Gatwick airport last week. The agency does not have the necessary powers, other than the power to check that the document that a person is travelling on appears to be sound. It cannot stop people and say, “Well, why are you coming into this country? Where are you going to go?” However, when I used to take young, teenage girls to America as part of my business’s training programme, the American authorities would always take them off and interview them separately for up to half an hour to make sure that what I was saying was genuine, which is the sort of thing that we need to do in this country to tackle the problem.

Liberal Democrat Members are grateful for the opportunity to discuss this important issue, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) on securing the debate.

There are two types of enforced child criminality. One involves the rare but incredibly shocking cases of children who are used by their parents or relatives to commit crimes. Such cases have been reported in the press recently. Clearly, they need to be dealt with completely differently from those of the thousands of children and young people who are trafficked into this country as part of what has rightly been termed modern-day slavery.

On the first issue, there are laws to deal with the despicable practice of parents exploiting their children and forcing them to commit crimes. Child protection procedures exist to ensure that children can be taken into care where such wilful neglect and abuse take place, and I would welcome the Minister’s comments and assurances on that.

More pressing, perhaps, is the horrendous issue of massive child trafficking and the criminal activities that children are forced into. That is the issue at the heart of this debate, and I hope to press the Government on what they are doing to place the interests of trafficked children—the victims—first.

The Liberal Democrats have long pressed the Government to ratify the Council of Europe convention on action against trafficking in human beings, because we believe that we must stop the barbaric practice of child trafficking. As the hon. Member for Totnes so eloquently said, such action is fundamental to preventing enforced child criminality. The Home Secretary has announced that the Government will ratify the convention next January, but it will have therefore taken three and a half years to implement a framework that we urgently need to address trafficking.

We must also act to secure the legal status of trafficked children. Children who are rescued from the clutches of enforced criminality should not face legal battles about their status while their future is secured, whether they are looked after in this country while they wait to give evidence or returned to their home country.

Prevention and detection on entry are vital, but if they are the main focus of our approach, we might neglect another important focus—identifying the victims who are already in this country and working out what care and support they should receive after they have been rescued.

My constituency receives a considerable number of people seeking asylum, and I am in regular contact with the Home Office, making direct representations on behalf of constituents who are trapped at the mercy of the Border and Immigration Agency. Incompetence and delay mean that such people’s lives are held in suspension as they wait for decisions, but those decisions are not being made—and that is just what happens in ordinary asylum cases. Regardless of the special training that is available, I shudder to think how this bureaucratic leviathan will deal with child victims of trafficking. Will it deal sensitively and appropriately with them? What is important is the victim-centred approach at the heart of the convention, which must drive our response to enforced criminality among trafficked children.

The United Kingdom Human Trafficking Centre co-ordinates the Government’s law enforcement response to this serious issue, and the Liberal Democrats wholeheartedly support many of its objectives. Indeed, there is little doubt that we will need a multi-agency approach if we are to break the back of the trade in people. Such an approach must bring together the energies of the various organisations—not only state organisations—that can have an impact on the issue. However, I have found little evidence of a similar or equivalent co-ordinated effort to bring together non-law enforcement agencies that focus on victims’ needs; indeed, that appears to be the missing link in the current strategy.

Law enforcement is the key part of our approach. In no way do I want to play down the necessity for appropriate law enforcement, but trafficked children are at the very edges of society and often far removed from the reach of the state. If the Government want to effect a positive change in a certain sector of society to tackle an issue, they normally have in place well established public servants, such as teachers, district nurses and social workers, to deliver that change. However, child victims of trafficking go out of their way to avoid contact with the agents of the state, whom they perceive as the enemy. A teenage prostitute is unlikely to go out of her way to reveal the full extent of her plight to a police officer, and such people will often disappear straight back to the trafficker, as has been said. They will have lived with the constant threat of violence and the repeated message that revealing details of their situation will lead to more violence, to retribution for them or their families and to certain repatriation.

If we are to reach victims, we must do more to spread the net wider and enlist the help and expertise of third-party organisations, such as non-governmental organisations, victim support groups and community-specific groups. They are the experts on the front line, and they are best placed to reach out to and engage with the victims of trafficking in a way that Government agencies simply cannot. I would welcome the Minister’s comments on that and an assurance that everything is being done to engage with the wider community to deal with child trafficking.

I was shocked to hear that one study, which has been mentioned, has shown that 183 out of 330 trafficked children went missing from local authority care. I listened carefully to the hon. Member for Totnes explaining why that had happened, but I am concerned to know what efforts the Government are making to find out from local authorities what went wrong.

The hon. Gentleman may say that, but that must be a defeatist attitude. Why did authorities find it so difficult to respond to the needs of such victims? When the hon. Gentleman pressed the Minister on the issue previously, the Government cited confidentiality as a reason why no further investigations were undertaken. Surely, however, nothing should prevent the Government from approaching local authorities and questioning them more generally about the problems of effectively helping the young victims of trafficking.

The borough of Haringey has been mentioned, and I was a councillor there for eight years. I was there at the time of Victoria Climbié’s murder, and I am all too familiar with the series of mistakes, omissions and failings on the part of the local authority. There were about 17 such mistakes, and if someone had intervened just once, that terrible, tragic outcome would have been prevented. If we are to avoid such tragedies, it is vital that we learn from local authorities’ failings, and I hope that the Government are willing to learn from the experience of local authorities, which deal with the issue at the coal face How can victim support models be developed without close engagement with local authorities, thus enabling us to learn from front-line services?

I have only two minutes left, so I turn now to the crucial issue of funding, which was mentioned by the hon. Member for Totnes. Projects that are funded specifically to help victims are few and far between, and funding is often guaranteed only for a short period where it does exist. That shows a lack of commitment to the important and ongoing work that such projects do, and I urge the Government to take a longer, strategic view of funding, not a piecemeal approach. In their marathon deliberations on the implementation of the convention, I hope that officials will get around to securing medium to long-term funding structures for such specialised organisations, because the problem cannot be solved with short-term funding that lasts only a couple of years. To build up the expertise and allow best practice to spread, projects of that kind must be given better financial security.

We can have as many action plans, cross-Government official project boards and ministerial groups as we like, but with each day of delay in implementing the key aspects of the convention, children continue to suffer. If the Government can move swiftly to get the Lisbon treaty into domestic law, they can shift a bit on the convention.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) for securing the debate and for the measured and detailed way in which he set out the problems of child trafficking and the exploitation of children for crime. I pay tribute to him also for his continued work as chairman of the all-party group on the trafficking of women and children, and his tireless efforts to ensure that the matter is brought to the fore, not only by way of consideration in the House, but by an emphasis on the interests of people who are trafficked and on bringing about change in the current insidious situation.

My hon. Friend painted a bleak, disturbing and distressing picture of the life outcomes of the children involved, and the concept of a family being mortgaged in such circumstances is a disturbing one. The fact that children face a life of enslavement at a time in their lives when they should expect to be nurtured, protected and supported is one of the worst, most disturbing and distressing aspects of any system imaginable.

My hon. Friend drew attention to various figures on the extent of the problem. There have been press reports of more than 1,000 Romanian children being trafficked—he mentioned an even higher figure—but clearly the issue is significant and serious, and it is right and proper that we should have the opportunity to debate it this morning. I hope that the Minister will give a favourable response to what has been a balanced and measured debate.

I pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane) for his indication of support for cross-border co-operation, such as work with the Romanian Government and our European partners. He may try to pigeonhole my party in a particular aspect of working with Europe, but I strongly believe that we need to work with our European partners. The problem is international, and we shall not solve it in isolation.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone) rightly highlighted the sexual exploitation of children. It is horrendous to hear stories of 12-year-olds being trafficked into a life of sexual exploitation and enslavement. Those stories give us a perspective on the real nature of such crimes. It was also right to highlight in that context the excellent Poppy project and the fact that the support and services it provides are not available to people under 18. That issue needs to be addressed and the correct support must be given to people who end up in such horrendous situations of trafficking and sexual exploitation.

The hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Lynne Featherstone) correctly highlighted the threat of violence against people who are trafficked—another aspect of trafficking that is related to enslavement—and the issue of funding security.

I want to press the Minister on basic child protection and the disappearance from care of children who end up back in the hands of those who trafficked them. The UN report to which my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough referred picked that up and highlighted the number of children who end up in care and then disappear to goodness only knows where. We heard in the debate how those children can reappear in a short time with different identities in different situations.

Research published by UNICEF shows that, in an 18-month period, 330 children were believed to have been trafficked into the UK and that 183 of them went missing from the care of social services. The Minister has been pressed on that point before. During the debate on people trafficking on 16 January, he said:

“A number of children whom we believe have been trafficked come into the care of the state and then go missing. That is unacceptable for all of us, and it gives us a policy dilemma in respect of what we should do.”

He added:

“We have issued and updated guidance to local authorities.”—[Official Report, 16 January 2008; Vol. 470, c. 1005.]

I suggest to the Minister that we are looking for more than guidance if we are to make a real difference and to put child protection to the fore. A horrendous situation exists in which children come into the protection of the state, but the state cannot deliver on its obligations to them; they should be protected.

A question arises with respect to what checks are done in relation to family members. In certain circumstances, children, having been arrested, are handed back to family members, but there is some evidence to suggest that those family members are not relatives but part of the criminal gangs. I should be interested to hear what checks are carried out to ensure that children are not being handed back to the criminal gangs that want to continue to exploit them.

Operations such as Operation Pentameter and the current Operation Pentameter 2 deal with the sex trade, but does their scope need to be broadened to take account of children who are being trafficked not just for sex but for other exploitation?

In the context of recent events, it is right to focus, as my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes did, on the Roma community and the significant issues that arise in that connection, but other children are being trafficked and exploited. Another example concerns the Vietnamese community and the cannabis factories that are being raided at the moment, and there are findings of children being exploited, misused and abused.

I think that it is agreed that the most effective mechanism to deal with the issue is to find ways of sending children back. I was quite disturbed when my hon. Friend commented on the three children awaiting deportation for three months because people are waiting for Ministers to sign the matter off. I urge the Minister to look into that, because such a hold up is disgraceful.

I understand that the Home Office has set up a working group to find out how children can be sent back to Romania within the constraints of the European treaty, but as we have heard from the right hon. Member for Rotherham, there should be no such constraints. I should be interested to hear what the working group is doing and what problems have apparently been identified that might prevent such action. Clearly, there is a need for greater debate, and more discussions and connections with the Romanian authorities. We do not want those children, once sent back to their country of origin, to return to what my hon. Friend described as the mortgaged state of enslavement and to end up back here shortly afterwards. What arrangements are being made to ensure that, if they are returned, the children will not simply be re-trafficked?

Conservative Members have highlighted the need for swift adoption and ratification of the Council of Europe convention on action against trafficking in human beings. Again, I urge the Minister to press ahead with that and to identify the necessary mechanisms, whether under secondary or primary legislation. He has our assurance that we want that delivered as quickly as possible. We also need to deliver on other practical measures to ensure that proper checks are made at borders, that we have a robust and effective border police force and that interviews of minors travelling with relatives are undertaken. These very serious issues deserve real focus and attention, on which I hope for more than just words. I want action taken to protect the children most in need.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) on securing this important debate and welcome all hon. Members present. We exchange our views and opinions on this important matter regularly, which is extremely important. I pay particular tribute to the hon. Gentleman, the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone) and other members of the all-party group on trafficking of women and children for the work that they do. I also pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane), who challenges me regularly on these matters. As hon. Members have rightly pointed out, we have made considerable progress on the matter, whatever the challenges that remain. This debate has often shown Parliament at its best in driving forward together to find solutions to a common problem that we all find horrendous. We must continue with that cross-party effort. Furthermore, I thank hon. Members for their comments about me and can reassure everyone that I shall drive the matter forward.

I intend to answer quickly a number of the points raised today and then come on to some concrete actions at the end of my remarks.

Of course. I am always willing to see people. If the hon. Gentleman wishes to ring my office and arrange that, it is absolutely fine.

If hon. Members do not mind, in running through some of the points that were made, I shall be brief, given the time available. I stress the point made by others that the problem is with criminality rather than particular groups of people. For example, we are not stigmatising all Romanians. As the hon. Member for Totnes pointed out, the crimes committed by such children are concentrated in certain areas, and police have taken robust and effective action, in partnership with others. Our intelligence suggests—the exact number is difficult to know—that there are about 180 such children involved in criminal activity in the UK.

I can reassure the hon. Gentleman that the United Kingdom Human Trafficking Centre is building a database to record all victims of trafficking—I think that he asked about that—which should help us to identify such children. The UKHTC will also co-ordinate research on trafficking, and a UK threat assessment is being carried out by the Serious Organised Crime Agency, which will cover threats from criminal gangs that force children to undertake criminal activity. Some of the information that he provided came from that threat assessment. However, it is work in progress and more needs to be done.

Roma families can claim benefits, but the fact that they are Roma is not relevant. They have no automatic entitlement to welfare benefits and in many cases would not be entitled. To answer another point, we do not record claims for benefits on the basis of nationality. Many Members mentioned the role of local authorities. We discuss such matters at great length with local authorities, particularly Slough borough council, which I commend for the work that it has done. We give more than £140 million to local authorities to deal with unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, and victims of trafficking are dealt with out of that budget.

The question of what to do with trafficked children who come under the care of the state raises fundamentally difficult issues. I shall put a scenario to hon. Members: if a year ago, or even six months ago, anybody had suggested that, as a solution to the problem of children going missing from care, those children should be locked up or put in a secure environment, the response would have been fundamentally different from those being given today. People are now so alarmed about the difficulty that the state has in securing the safety of those children that they are considering alternatives that they might not have considered just a few months ago. We are actively considering how to keep children safe in that environment.

We also think that instead of creating secure environments, maybe we should try to make environments more secure. I thank Chris Beddoe from ECPAT for that point. Although it might sound like we are playing with words, it takes the emphasis off jailing children who have done nothing wrong, which is a caricature that risks being painted, if we are not careful.

We published a document last week, one aspect of which dealt with the trafficking of children. We said that we would consider the establishment of specialist local authorities to deal with the care and support of children who are victims of trafficking. We thought that instead of having a multiplicity of local authorities across the country, we could have specialist local authorities. The numbers have not been determined, but we are considering perhaps 40 across the country. However, we are certainly looking to develop that work.

We have published new guidance on child trafficking. The hon. Member for Totnes asked about legal advice that I might have received on exploitation legislation. Generally, where an adult encourages or pressurises a child into committing a criminal offence, he may commit an offence of aiding and abetting. Furthermore, aiding and abetting includes procuring an offence by endeavour—to cause or seek to cause the person to commit an offence—which could include a person being forced, threatened or coerced into committing a crime. There might be ways, therefore, in which we can move forward on that.

We are talking to European colleagues about the integration of the Roma community, which is an important point, and we are considering the repatriation of children. Furthermore, we are trying to work with authorities overseas and looking at assessments of reception facilities in Romania and elsewhere. We have carried out major checks of, and made improvements to, the process by which children cross borders, whether from outside or within the EU. As we know, Paladin teams have been established at five locations and we are always looking to see what more we can do on that.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham raised the problem of honour killings and forced marriages, which are hugely important issues. As he knows, the Home Office and Foreign and Commonwealth Office have established the forced marriage unit. Clearly we need to do more on that and we will. Sexual exploitation is another important issue, the demand for which we need to tackle. He will know that we are looking into that as well.

The hon. Member for Wellingborough rightly mentioned the good work of various non-governmental organisations. On the issue of stopping children at the border, all children and adults who are not nationals of the European economic area are routinely interviewed separately, unless they are closely related. On the EEA channel, where there is a suspicion of trafficking, separate interviews are conducted. Since 2006, leaflets have been available for both EEA and non-EEA nationals explaining that officers might seek to establish the relationship between children and the adult accompanying them. However, he is right to point out that we must continue to be aware of that problem.

The hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Lynne Featherstone) will know that we are looking to ratify the Council of Europe convention as quickly as possible. I am also pleased to highlight the review of the reservation in the UN convention on the rights of the child. The hon. Member for Hornchurch (James Brokenshire) mentioned cannabis farms, which is an extremely important point. I also point out the issue of internal trafficking, which was highlighted recently by Operation Glover in South Yorkshire, where young children were being trafficked.

It is important in such debates that I say what I intend to do next. As a result of this debate, I shall meet again with the police to discuss criminal activity and with the Minister for Borders and Immigration to discuss individual cases and other points that were made. I am visiting Albania, Romania and Bulgaria in the near future and will speak to their ambassadors. Furthermore, the ministerial group will discuss this matter as an agenda item at its next meeting; it will be discussed both in the inter-ministerial group and in the meeting with stakeholders. I am also going to Vienna next week when I shall again raise the issue. I hope that those practical points will help to move the debate forward and I look forward to meeting with the hon. Member for Totnes in due course.

Dorset Fire and Rescue Service

This subject is important for my constituents and for the county. My right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) cannot be present, because he is down in Dorset, but I am pleased to see my hon. Friends the Members for Bournemouth, West (Sir John Butterfill), for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) and for North Dorset (Mr. Walter) here to support me in today’s debate. That shows, as I am sure that the Minister knows—[Interruption.]

Order. May I ask hon. and right hon. Members to vacate the Chamber, please, while they continue their personal conversations?

The attendance of my hon. Friends shows, as the Minister knows, the strength of feeling among many hon. Members from all parties about the funding settlement. The three-year comprehensive spending review has been announced, and the increases for Dorset fire authority amount to only 1, 0.5 and 1 per cent. over the three years, which compares with the average for fire and rescue authorities of 2.4, 1.4 and 1.4 per cent. There is also a wide variety of grants over the three-year period of between 2 and 18 per cent., so money is going somewhere, but it is certainly not going to Dorset.

The settlement means cuts for Dorset however one looks at it, which is one reason why my colleagues and I went to see the Minister. We were courteously received on 7 December 2007, when we put our case for more funding. Following that, the Minister asked us for more information, which was sent to him, but I understand that the authority has not had an answer yet to one or two points, so I hope that the Minister will address the points that the authority made at that meeting. On Thursday 24 January, the Government confirmed that there would be no change to the grant, so it looks like Dorset is locked in for three tough years. The authority had assumed for its planning purposes 2 per cent. growth over that period, but because it will not receive that funding, the shortfalls will be £278,000 in 2008-09, £437,000 in 2009-10 and £547,000 in 2010-11 compared with its projections.

Dorset is a large and beautiful rural county, but we also have a large urban population, which is centred on the towns of Poole, Bournemouth and Christchurch. Outside Bristol, Dorset comprises the largest conurbation in the south-west, which presents great challenges to the fire and rescue service. Dorset has a number of special features. It is a premier holiday destination, and the major influx of summer visitors increases the population to about 900,000, which increases demands on the fire and rescue service.

Dorset has the second highest percentage of retired people in the country, with 27 per cent. of the Dorset population being of pensionable age, which also presents challenges. The area also has a great deal of house building and housing growth, which inevitably puts larger demands on the fire and rescue service. Elderly people are the least likely to experience a fire, but when they do, it is the most likely category of fire to end in tragedy. There have been several incidents in recent years, and the county is doing much to ensure that smoke alarms and other preventive work is carried out, but the elderly population are a major challenge.

We also have high housing costs. All my colleagues are aware of how high housing costs are in the area, and those costs lead to houses in multiple occupation, which add to the pressure. There are many HMOs in urban areas in particular, and the risk of fire in them is high.

In Dorset, there are many commuters and a great deal of holiday traffic, which provides a major boost to the population, and there is also a high number of thatched properties. When I drive through the beautiful villages in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset, I see many beautiful thatched cottages, but if they catch fire, it is important to get a fire engine there as quickly as possible. The situation creates special challenges. In an earlier life, I was on the fire authority in Wiltshire, and the fire brigade used to show us a video of the big fires from the previous three months, in which thatched cottages always seemed to feature.

We have all enjoyed visiting Dorset, because it is a major centre for political conferences, but there is also major heathland, which must be looked after and where there are sometimes fires. We have Winfrith nuclear research centre, Bournemouth international airport, Wytch Farm BP refinery, and large petroleum depots, including the Ministry of Defence petroleum storage facility at West Moors, which is the largest canned fuel storage depot in the UK. Dorset will also be the second-largest venue for the Olympics, because of the yachting, which will present special challenges to the authority.

Dorset fire authority is not a large authority. It comprises about 800 people only, including firefighters and support staff. There are only 41 front-line fire engines, 34 of which are retained and seven of which are full time. The Minister knows that the efficiency of counties such as Dorset is based on the retained volunteers who allow firefighting to take place at a competitive rate, so with only seven full-time appliances, there is limited scope for the authority to make major savings.

The service, notwithstanding its poor funding, is a good performer, as the comprehensive spending assessment 2005 noted.

On that point, I have tried to raise the issue of performance with the Minister. I have written to him seeking a meeting, but he has not replied to me yet. Dorset’s cost per head means that it is the cheapest fire and rescue service in the country, so does my hon. Friend agree that the cuts are now going too far? With an 85 per cent. retained—voluntary—service, up to six of the 26 fire stations may be forced to shut because of the cuts that we must now endure.

My hon. Friend has made a good point. In 2007-08, in real terms, Dorset fire and rescue service received only £15.04 revenue support grant funding per head of population, compared with the average of just under £19. Of the 24 combined fire authorities, Dorset’s grant is the third lowest. Expenditure per head of population is measured by the BVPI 150—I do not know what that means, but it sounds very impressive—at £30.50, which is the second-lowest figure out of the 48 English fire and rescue services. Dorset’s service provides good value for money.

The Audit Commission has noted that Dorset fire and rescue service has comparatively low budgets and costs per head of population and that it achieves good overall performance. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East has pointed out, it is not a top-heavy service in terms of officers, it has very few full-time stations, and it must cover many hundreds of miles and a major urban area, all of which present major challenges.

Dorset fire and rescue service’s budgets are all zero-based, and the authority is extremely good at ensuring that it gets value for money. I know many members of the authority, and they are proud of what they manage to do, but the settlement will cause major difficulties. The authority has managed to keep council tax increases within 5 per cent., but the settlement provides challenges, and if the Minister is not going to surprise us with additional resources for this year, next year and the year after, there is the other issue of whether the authority will be capped. The authority has taken soundings from among the public, who put the issue of fire safety and cover high up the agenda, and may be willing to pay a bit extra to keep some of the fire stations online and all full-time stations working.

The settlement means that the authority faces a real challenge. The Government are pushing forward a great deal of the fire agenda, much of which requires investment. The fire safety initiatives, which we all welcome, will provide difficulties, and we have already mentioned the problem of crews and how savings can be made. Some 80 per cent. of the service’s budget goes on salaries, and the only way in which one can cut the figures that we have discussed is by cutting manpower, some of which would have to be at the sharp end.

There are seven whole-time fire engines to provide cover largely in Bournemouth and Poole, but also in Weymouth, and many of us fear that the authority will have to look hard at whether to keep them. In the meeting with the Minister, concerns were expressed by other hon. Members who cannot be here today about fire stations in their constituencies. Of course, that has a lot to do with the national framework.

The brigade does other things that are welcome. It works with children who have got themselves into difficulty by focusing them and getting them into fire stations to do particular tasks, which has been greatly welcomed. It also does something else that is to be much commended. There is an organisation called Streetwise in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, West, which warns children about the dangers of roads and various other things in order to make things safer for them. The fire brigade funds 14,000 children through the organisation’s safety centre, which is a national asset that many people appreciate. It does what we all ought to do—it prevents accidents involving children.

I know that my hon. Friend is president of the organisation, and I am happy to take his intervention.

I am not its president, but I am a trustee. Streetwise is a unique concept funded by three local authorities—Poole, Bournemouth and Dorset county council—the fire service and the police, together with charitable donations, which I try to help whip up with some recent success. We have built in a large warehouse a miniature village street with shops, houses and even a railway station, for which we managed to get the rail people to give us an engine.

All the local schoolchildren in Dorset go there at a certain age and are taught the dangers that exist in the home, on the street, on the heathland, in railway areas and elsewhere. In particular, they are taught fire and general safety. It is an enormously successful operation and the Government are very much in favour of it and want it to be rolled out all over the country, and we have been helping other authorities to do that. The fire service will not be able to continue its funding for that important organisation, which is to be visited tomorrow by the Princess Royal.

I thank my hon. Friend for that brief and comprehensive explanation of that asset in his constituency, which is an asset for all of us in Dorset. All local Members of Parliament are regularly invited to visit and see what progress is being made. The matter will have to be considered by those who are running Dorset fire and rescue, because money is tight. It is an initiative that is certainly worthy of my hon. Friend’s comments.

I have mentioned the Olympics. There will have to be some investment in advance. I know that the fire service has approached the Olympic delivery organisations for funds, including the police authority and the county council. It is not getting much joy at the moment, but investment needs to be made.

The chief fire officer, Darran Gunter, who has been helpful in providing us with information, has made it clear that when the Olympics come around, he will have responsibility from a safety perspective for all the ocean-going yachts and the activities that take place on the water outside Weymouth. The Dorset fire and rescue service does not own one boat, yet the Government are cutting the budget. How on earth is it supposed to carry out its task?

My hon. Friend has raised an important matter. A water-borne firefighting capacity will need to be developed to deliver the 2012 Olympics in Dorset.

I hope that I have clearly set out the fact that we have an efficient brigade that is run predominantly with retained firemen and that is not highly funded, but that still delivers good performance. It faces real budget challenges in the next three years, which means that worthwhile initiatives may have to be reviewed. We may lose a whole-time fire station in order to make economies. All of us in a large and beautiful rural county are concerned about the future of our fire service. I know that the Minister courteously received us at his Department and has listened carefully to the debate, and I hope that he will dwell on the case that my hon. Friends and I have made.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Poole (Mr. Syms) not just on securing the debate, but on the measured way in which he has put his points across, not just today but when I met him and many of his colleagues who were able to attend on 18 December; it was an all-party delegation, and my hon. Friend the Minister for Schools and Learners was there.

It is good to see you in the Chair, Mr. Cook. I know that you take the matter seriously with regard to the fire authority in your part of the world. I regularly read your comments on fire service settlements in your local media.

I turn to funding for Dorset fire and rescue service. It will receive grants of £10.8 million in 2008-09, £10.9 million in 2009-10 and £11 million in 2010-11. As the hon. Gentleman said, those are increases of 1.5, 0.5 and 1 per cent. The floor mechanism that protects authorities from low settlements will enable Dorset to benefit in the first two years from upratings of £296,000 and £80,000. The hon. Gentleman will understand that there have been many submissions from around the country about whether the floors should stay where they are or be raised or lowered, but they will benefit Dorset in that respect.

I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman in a moment, but I was just going to comment on his point about retained firefighters, who are important professional members of our community, not volunteers. It is important to get that point across. I shall also go into a little more detail about the budget increase. It is not a cut; it is an increase. As I have said to the hon. Gentleman, I accept that it is a tight package to deal with in the next three years, although I hope that the three-year settlement will provide some stability.

I am grateful to the Minister, but “tight” is not the right description. “Unworkable” and “wrong” are better descriptions. Will he explain what Dorset could have done to copy Nottinghamshire, which will have an increase of 17 per cent.? What did we do wrong not to get that sort of increase? Why have we been hit with a simple increase of 2.5 per cent., which is completely unworkable, as we have heard?

I shall explain the system that is in place and the measures that are taken into account in the formula. On cuts versus increases and the three-year programme, I shall not revisit the arguments of the past about the effective 45 per cent. increases, from when the Government came to office until 2011, compared with the real-terms cuts before then. I want to make progress and say some positive things to the hon. Member for Poole about how to take matters forward, not least on the Olympics.

I shall give way, but then I need to make a little progress, because it is important that we get into some of the detail.

Absolutely. Will the Minister tell me why a combined fire authority, such as Dorset, gets a much lower percentage increase settlement that one such as his own in Gloucestershire, which is a county authority?

I shall happily come to that when I talk about the formula in a couple of moments.

The authority has benefited in the past from additional resources from the new dimension programme. As a result, it has been provided with an instant response unit and a high-volume pump. The programme is worth about £200 million across the country and is additional to everything else that is happening for our fire and rescue services. That piece of kit has been particularly useful in recent months, as our fire and rescue service meets some of the new challenges that we are likely to see more of, not least flooding.

In addition to the significant investment made through the new dimension programme to equip fire and rescue authorities to deal with major incidents, Dorset has received more than £375,000 in grant funding to support training for and the accommodation of new dimension equipment. We anticipate that there will be further funding of that nature for Dorset.

Dorset fire and rescue service is also set to benefit from Government investment in the Dorset emergency services partnership initiative. That is an excellent example of partnership working between local fire and police authorities. I understand that the project is well into its construction phase. It will provide a police headquarters in Poole, a fire and rescue headquarters and fire station at Poundbury, near Dorchester, and a further fire station at Marshes End. In all, a £57.38 million private finance initiative credit has been allocated by the Government to fund the capital elements of that scheme.

We are providing fire and rescue services with additional funding on top of their allocations of formula grant. Dorset and the other authorities will receive shares of £35 million and £45 million of capital grant in 2009-10 and 2010-11. Obviously, the breakdown of that money has still to be calculated, but it is important to remember that, as tight as the settlement is, capital resources make a real difference on the ground.

In addition to the funding that I have outlined, we are providing about £1 billion in additional investment to assist fire and rescue authorities through national projects such as Firelink and Firecontrol, which will deliver a more resilient control system. They will also deliver a wide area radio network across the fire and rescue service that supports the service in responding to major emergencies, including natural disasters, industrial accidents and terrorist incidents.

I made a commitment to the hon. Member for Poole when we met in December, when he referred specifically to the Olympics. I have asked my chief fire adviser, Sir Ken Knight, to engage with the chief fire officer in Dorset to consider resilience issues in relation to the Olympics. He is quite happy to do that, and I look forward to seeing that engagement soon.

We are committed to funding any net new burdens that arise from the fire and resilience programme. We expect all authorities to continue to make efficiency savings to improve service and provide value for money. Like all public services, the fire and rescue service must meet the expectations of taxpayers and Parliament on continued improvement and value for money. We have set the fire and rescue service a different efficiency savings target from the rest of local government. It is expected to achieve savings of £110 million over the three-year spending review period. That is about 1.6 per cent. a year, compared with 3 per cent. a year for local authorities. The target recognises that the fire and rescue service does not have large administrative functions that can achieve efficiencies through business process re-engineering in the same way that local government can. Dorset fire and rescue authority reports that it achieved cumulative savings of £411,000 in 2005-06 and £985,000 in 2006-07.

The Minister has been generous in allowing Members to intervene, but he still has not answered my basic question about why Gloucestershire and Nottinghamshire are receiving increases of 5.8 and 17 per cent. respectively, whereas Dorset, which is the most efficient fire and rescue service per head of population in the country, is getting an increase of only 2.5 per cent.

I was coming to that. The formula takes into consideration population, poverty indices and coastline. I appreciate the comments of the hon. Member for Poole about its being a holiday destination and about the difficulties and challenges attached to that. That consideration has benefited Poole. I have looked at the increases of recent years. The hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) talks about Gloucestershire, but I am sure that it, like every other authority in the land, would like an even better settlement. In recent years, the Dorset settlement has been 3.75 per cent. in 2004-05, 4.1 per cent. in 2005-06, and 2.7 per cent. in both 2006-07 and 2007-08. Those are all above-inflation increases, but it is a tight settlement.

Will the Minister confirm that the formula is devised on statistics produced by the university of Warwick that are regarded locally as being badly out of date and as not taking into account the cost of living in the conurbation in particular? In the statistics, Dorset is considered as though it is part of the whole south-west, thus distorting the figures that apply to us in the south-east Dorset conurbation.

I understand that Dorset is taken into account as a locality, but, as with every formula, there will be people who approve of some aspects and disapprove of others. It is right and proper for us to review the formula, and later this year, we will start a process, with the Local Government Association, to consider the formula for future years. I am sure that Dorset and other authorities will want to be part of that process.

The recent Audit Commission report on the performance of the fire and rescue service found that all authorities are achieving efficiency savings, but that no service is achieving its top rating in providing value for money to the communities that it serves. Fire services need to address more complex efficiency issues, such as matching resources to risk and demand.

I am pleased that the Minister mentioned the Audit Commission’s report, because it said that Dorset fire and rescue service

“has the highest percentage of indicators in the top quartile nationally”.

It was also the commission’s No. 1 case study for high performance and good customer satisfaction. Is that not worth something?

It is worth a lot in my book, but it is not an aspect that is utilised for the formula. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that we have had a range of representations from across the country on the best fit for the formula. Some authorities will be happy and some will be less happy with how the cake is cut. The right thing for us to do is to review these matters over the years. We will go into a process of doing that with the LGA, and I am sure that Members of Parliament and their local authorities will want to be involved and will make submissions and representations.

I am pleased that Dorset is making good and sustained progress in delivering positive results for its communities, particularly for people with disabilities and for children and young people. The hon. Member for Bournemouth, West (Sir John Butterfill) mentioned Streetwise; he has mentioned it to me before, and I know that it is a good initiative. We want to change the fire and rescue service, so that it does more of that kind of community work. In recent years, it has undergone a transformation and modernisation. We now have the lowest number of fire deaths since 1958, and there have been massive reductions in house fires in recent years not only in Poole, but right across the country. We must continue to reform the service and to work with our hard-working firefighters, whether full-time or retained, to continue to make those improvements for the long-term.

Sitting suspended until half-past Two o’clock.

Waste Recycling

It is a delight to be speaking under your tutelage again, Mr. Cook. I am sure that you will keep us in order and tell us when to stop talking and move on.

Waste recycling excites the membership of the Norwich Labour party general committee much more than issues such as the bugging of the odd MP’s conversation or MPs’ expenses, on which we go rather quiet. If someone mentions recycling, everyone is an expert. Everybody uses it and knows something about it—people know where it is done better or worse, which country is best and so on. That is exciting, because it means that people care about how society gets rid of its waste, and, gosh, there is a lot of it around. We see packaging outside supermarkets—we saw it strewn all over College green yesterday afternoon—and wherever one looks, there is waste paper, waste resources and packets, so we have taken up the issue of how to prevent it.

I shall not go back to 20,000 BC, when activity was first recorded in this area. I shall not give a 20-lecture course on the subject, although once I got into it, I could see 20 lectures looming. Who knows, if things go wrong at the next election, that is where it might all end up—a nice little lectureship somewhere, perhaps Oxford, talking about waste recycling.

The passion is there, and it has been much amplified by the Government in the past few years. We have recognised that landfill is not sustainable. There are various estimates of how long landfill space will last in this country; for example, the Local Government Association has said that it will last for less than nine years.

There is real concern about recycling hazardous material. If toxic materials are dumped, it is easy for them to cause environmental problems. It was only in 1970 that recycling and its relationship to the environment were highlighted in the political life of this country. Mobile phones should be discarded in the right place and not just thrown behind a hedge. The batteries contain substances such as cadmium, palladium, beryllium and lead, all of which could be deposited in landfill and would, of course, contaminate the soil and cause various environmental dangers.

I want to pay a compliment to the Royal Society of Chemistry, which has probably inundated hon. Members with information about the research that it is doing on green product design, domestic waste, water waste, electronics waste and energy production waste, and the kind of research and technology that it is developing through its skilled membership—chemists and others—to try to handle these problems. This is a growing field with lots to learn and lots being done, and I shall amplify that point.

Of course, the key issue is the effect of waste on climate change. Most countries now accept that reducing carbon dioxide emissions is absolutely important to people’s welfare not only in the next few years but now and very much in the future. That has contributed much to the recycling debate. Whenever one talks about recycling, it is not long before somebody talks about climate change.

Recycling old materials obviously uses less energy and creates less CO2 than extracting new: 1 kg of aluminium saves approximately 11 kg of carbon, and 75 per cent. less energy is needed to make something out of recycled steel than to make it out of new. All in all, it is said that recycling in Britain reduces the nation’s carbon emissions by about 10 million to 15 million tonnes, which is no mean feat.

The United Kingdom dumps more waste in landfill sites than other European countries—it has been estimated that 22 million tonnes are dumped. Our record is not as good as that of other European countries, but recording the data develops arguments about how we measure progress. I was excited by this debate and went with two of my workers in the Norwich office to look at a site just outside Norwich, at a place called Costessey—they pronounce things differently in Norwich. We saw how the council is surging ahead and improving its percentage standards; we saw the lorries coming in with the rubbish and being weighed; and we saw bales of recycled paper and so on being transported not only to other parts of the United Kingdom but to the world.

We now recycle more than 23 per cent. of our household waste, which we have been very positive about, but it has been estimated that 60 to 70 per cent. of all household waste could be recycled. According to official figures, we still lag behind Germany, Holland and Belgium, where more than 50 per cent. of household waste is recycled, but that does not mean that we will not catch them up very quickly.

Of course, people have questioned certain practices. There are numerous examples of councils sending waste to China and India, which involves CO2 emissions. Some of those ships have come from there and would have to go back, so we are not adding to emissions in that sense, but we are certainly not handling the problem here in the United Kingdom. We want to know whether waste is recycled once it reaches those countries, and whether the quality of the recycled material is low or high. That factor must be considered in any assessment of how well we are doing, or in comparing ourselves with other countries or comparing different parts of our own country. Once markets develop in areas such as China and India, there will no longer be a demand for poor quality, contaminated waste, and we will have to do something ourselves about the problem. The future will be challenging on that front.

The Government have taken a positive approach and have ambitious targets—40 per cent. in 2010, 45 per cent. in 2015 and 50 per cent. in 2020. We want to ensure that support is given to local councils, which handle such matters, so that they can reach the targets. There are no penalties involved, but there is incitement to do something, to take up the challenge and to see how recycling can be done. That requires local leadership and looking at best practice in different parts of the country. Of course, I would say that Norwich is well up there in the top three. It is in bronze position, but aiming for the gold standard. That approach involves not only Norwich, but all the councils in the Norfolk area—all seven of them—working together in a kind of partnership, which I shall discuss later. The forthcoming Climate Change Bill will give us a chance to look at the issue in depth, and to use financial incentives at council level to encourage greater recycling. There are examples of that in Switzerland.

In this country, the landfill tax has been a major incitement to getting on with the job of recycling. It went up by £1 a year from 1999 and £3 a year from 2005, and it is due to increase by £8 a year from this April, which was announced in the last Budget.

Mobile phones are being added to the waste electrical and electronic equipment regulations to prevent phones from ending up in landfills and thereby polluting the environment. Those are some of the positive things that are happening. If one wants to dispose of a mobile phone, there is now a mechanism that involves phoning the local council to get rid of it. Of course, some of our young people want to get rid of a phone every week, which is a problem in itself. I just have to say quickly that I heard somebody the other night around the corner from their home phoning their Mum to run the bath water. Mobile phone conversations reach great heights, and one can understand the necessity of people changing their phone every week to ensure that Mum gets important messages.

The Minister said on 2 January that councils are

“helping in our battle against dangerous climate change”

with their recycling efforts. On 15 November, she stated:

“The case for reducing the amount of waste we all produce is clear—it is damaging the environment and contributing to climate change.”

We are all on board and things are beginning to move.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on obtaining this debate. This is almost like an away day for the second floor of Portcullis House, in that the Minister, the initiator of the debate and I are all immediate neighbours. My hon. Friend has focused on the domestic and the local, but there is a national strategy, and we also need to look at business. The Government have had a great deal of success over the past three years with their national industrial symbiosis programme, which diverts waste from landfill at 13p a tonne and reduces carbon dioxide by a similar amount for similar reductions. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is important to sustain that sort of investment, which is a classic example of best practice in Government projects at work?

Of course I agree, but I am beginning to think that my hon. Friend has got hold of my notes, because that is exactly what I was about to move on to. The Portcullis House paranoia continues, because other hon. Members who are based in Portcullis House are in the Chamber.

Most waste comes from the commercial sector, and much more could be done about that. The treasurer of the business resource and efficiency waste partnership—BREW—has asked the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs to develop the programme and to return to businesses £284 million of the additional receipts from increases in landfill tax for three years to encourage and support resource efficiency organisation. That programme is beginning to move forward. The national industrial symbiosis programme, as my hon. Friend has said, brings businesses together to recycle waste and to create a sustainable waste management industry. I will discuss later how that can be taken forward, and whether it will be.

There is still a lack of education among the public. As I make my way to the station every Monday morning, it is interesting to see where young people live. Their green bins, which take bottles, are always absolutely full to the brim with bottles rolling on to the pavement. Outside the houses of nice people like me is one bottle of wine in our poor little empty bin—I joke, of course. Nevertheless, it is interesting to see from their waste bins how people live their lives. One can see that not only from e-mails that are not properly destroyed, but from the sort of wines that people have been drinking. One can almost tell where they got their bottles.

There is a lack of education, because people still do not know what to put in their bins. Our trip to the Costessey plant outside Norwich was precipitated by meeting people at a local fayre—that is how it is spelt in Norfolk villages—and they talked to us about what people put in their bins. In my area, we have two bins, but we are about to have three, as in many other parts of Norwich, because the programme is being rolled out. We were putting the wrong things in the wrong bins, and if we do so we may receive a yellow or red card. That is to educate people and to tell them that they must do better. It is easy to know where to put bottles, but more difficult with yoghurt tubs.

A major lesson in Norfolk—this may seem simplistic—is that we must not flatten cans because of the way in which they are separated from paper and other items. If a flattened can is put into the bin, it does not get taken out by the process, and ends up with newspapers and so on. It was worth going to that marvellous centre to learn something. One can always learn more about recycling.

We had a huge battle about incineration at the same site, and various quangos and groups fought to prevent that. I shall not go into the arguments about dioxins, gases and potential hazards, but the public did not want it, and they will now have an alternative, greener and friendlier destruction process. However, I saw in today’s paper that there is a threat that local politicians may be trying, sneakily, to bring back the possibility of incineration. There is a threat of an incineration plant in Suffolk. Incineration is popular with many people but, like wind turbines, there is no guarantee of introducing them, because the public have a feeling about incineration, rightly or wrongly. The public must participate in the process and understand why items must be separated. Open days and trips around recycling plants, of which there are quite a few in Norwich, are good for people to see how the process functions.

There have been consultation papers and co-operation between organisations to try to develop the industry in the United Kingdom. I am proud of the situation in Norwich and Norfolk. At the Costessey plant, I met Bob Wade from Broadland district council and Steve Jenkins, the local authority contract manager at Norfolk Environmental Waste Services Ltd. Throughout Norfolk, recycling figures are high at above 25 per cent. Where they have been low, as they were in Norwich until recently, they have suddenly increased and smashed through the barrier set by DEFRA, which I believe was 20 per cent. How was that done? Paper, cans and bottles are collected every two weeks by a door-to-door service. Garden waste goes into brown bins, and bottles into green. There are banks for textiles, plastics and bottles, and about 20 centres with Tetra Pak banks for apple and orange juice cartons. It is quite exciting to learn about that, and how much waste we produce in society.

There are small differences from one local authority to another, but Norfolk is leading the way. How do we do that? NEWS recycles dry waste, and it has a V-screen, which is a device to separate waste materials by shape. It separates paper from other materials, and newspapers and magazines from mixed paper. Unwanted material goes through electromagnets, and eddy currents separate steel and aluminium. Those materials are bundled and sold in the UK, and they can be seen outside the plant, where they are properly separated and available to produce high-quality products. The plant also handles plastics, and the various materials are used to make newspapers, cans, fibres for plastic containers, fleeces, and even duvets. They can be used to make a range of things, but if waste is not separated properly, a low-grade material is produced with cross-contamination, much of which goes to the far east, where we hope that it is handled properly.

NEWS is an arm of Norfolk county council, but it operates as a private company and receives no direct financial or operational input from the county council. Not only is it economically sustainable, but it makes a profit, which goes back to the council to help with other services. I must declare an interest, because I once did some work on air pollution for NEWS when I worked at the local university. I discussed how far microbes might travel on wind currents across the Norfolk countryside and whether houses in a certain small village would be contaminated and so on. I believe that NEWS used that information in some of its composting endeavours.

Something is happening not only in Norfolk, but throughout the country, and when one sees it at first hand, one feels proud that recycling is part of an important political agenda. All the district and city councils have signed up to NEWS, and they have similar recycling practices and separation. That was initiated by NEWS, which was a group of individuals who were enthusiastic about doing something. NEWS is not a profit-making organisation—none of those individuals is a millionaire—and there are no shares. That is not a Northern Rock situation, because NEWS was just a group of people who believed in climate change, and that leadership, á la Alex Ferguson, is important. When people have a desire to make something happen, they sit down, go through all the problems and manage to get there, and NEWS has done that.

NEWS has a red and yellow card system, with brown bins to recycle compost and green waste. Initially that happened only in some areas, but NEWS has now managed to wheel it out throughout the county. It has alternate weekly collections, and the top recycling councils nationally have introduced alternate weekly collections or other methods. They have increased recycling percentages, and reduced the amount of waste going to landfill.

That is pretty good, and a real start. I was brought up in a culture where waste was thrown over the shoulder, but I live in a very climate-conscious house, and I cannot drop anything without being told, “It goes in there.” That is important.

My hon. Friend mentions alternate weekly collections. He will be aware that the Opposition and their pet daily tabloids have run continuous campaigns to suggest that alternate weekly collections are damaging to the health and environment of the neighbourhood and should be ended forthwith. Will he say how important such collections are in Norfolk and Norwich? That type of approach can work and produce high levels of recycling without incurring great costs.

That is absolutely true. I am not saying that it was easy at the start, but it has worked out. People know exactly when the collections take place. They save the material, keep it in different sub-boxes before putting it in the collection cans. It is part of an education. When people really believe in something, they will work through the process. I hope that we do not end up with a weekly collection because it will mean that drinking has increased, and we want to cut that down as well. I do not want people to think, “I must fill up my box this week because they are coming.” A little bit of discipline can be quite a good thing, and alternate weekly collections work well.

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that there is nothing magic about alternate weekly collections? What we must ensure is that each community devises a recycling scheme that is right for that community and does so with due regard to local people’s lifestyle and habits. It should not devise a scheme simply because it is under financial duress from central Government. All too often, systems are chosen because of the financial settlement and not because of what is right. In London, I have recyclables collected from my doorstep twice a week. At home in the country, the council has just switched to an alternate weekly collection, not least because of the financial implications of doing anything different. I welcome the driving up of recycling, but alternate weekly collections are only one way of doing that.

I do not think that that is a serious political issue, and we should not score points off each other. As the hon. Gentleman said, it is about what can be achieved in a local community. He may need to have his recyclables collected twice a week in London. He may drink twice as much as someone else.

I know. The hon. Gentleman may eat twice as much as well. It is what works for people. This has not been motivated by a financial incentive. Getting the collections to happen in the first place was the main problem in Norfolk. I do not mind whether the collections are once or twice a week as long as we can afford them. The more that recycling takes place, the more money there will be to help the local system to work. Money has to be spent on paying people to collect the recyclables in the early hours of the morning and so on. The more that we can encourage people to recycle, the better it is. That should be our priority, not point scoring. We should not have to say, “We do it twice a week. You only do it once a week.” That is a silly game that we must not get into. The issue is bigger than that, more political, more important and achievable.

Commercial interests in the private sector have been a problem. I visit Asda in Norwich once a month. One week, the bottle banks vanished and three more cars appeared in their place. I will not call that irresponsible, but it shows the kind of attitudes that develop in the supermarket climate. I will say more about that later. The national industrial symbiosis programme has tried to provide businesses with contacts to improve their recycling record. I think that supermarkets have a heck of a lot to do. They produce a lot of packaging and bottle waste. They need to work in partnership in a non-competitive way with a view to saving the planet and harnessing all the extra packaging that they produce. That is what it is all about.

Following the intervention by NISP, some 1,200 tonnes of paper sludge from a paper manufacturer have gone to a worm farm. NISP runs seminars in which it educates people. I welcome that kind of initiative. More and more of it is happening. It does not matter who does it as long as it is getting through to the public and into the business centres and they are taking up the issues.

Plastic bags are a problem. I sat through a Labour party general committee meeting for two-and-a-half hours and listened to how one handles plastic bags in different supermarkets. Behind my house in Norwich, there is a great “green” grocer’s shop, which sends some of its profits to the Green party. It sells a very good jute bag, which can be used again and again. That is quite positive. The shop also sell paper bags at knock-down prices.

There is also the case of Modbury in Devon, which became the first plastic bag-free town. Such initiatives illustrate that the spirit is there. Spreading the message is what it is all about. Progress has been piecemeal. Certain sectors of the retail trade do not care about saying, “Do you want to put your newspaper in a bag?” I do not want to put my newspaper in a bag.

Before my hon. Friend leaves the point on plastic carrier bags, I just want to say that there is evidence to show that in some areas, such as Ireland, in which there have been attempts to restrict the use of plastic bags, the production of plastic—plastic film and plastic containers—has increased dramatically. In Ireland, when people could not get a carrier bag in supermarkets, they simply bought a plastic bin liner to carry their goods to their vehicles. The life analysis of a plastic bag compared with a paper carrier bag always comes out in favour of the plastic bag.

I do not know whether my hon. Friend is saying that the plastic bag comes out on top in terms of financial cost or cost to the planet.

That may be the truth. I still think that it is better to reuse a plastic bag than to get another one. There is no substitute for reusing and recycling the same thing. Sainsbury’s provides a good example of the cynicism that can be seen in the sector. Anya Hindmarch, the queen of bag land, designed a fashion bag accessory rather than a useful tool for recycling. It was sold at £5 and it can be bought on eBay now for £350. To be seen with one of those bags was really cool and in, and they were sold on the basis of recycling. The idea was that, once 200 or 300 people bought the bag, it would not be a fashion icon any more; everybody would have it. There was a cynicism and salesmanship that went on there, which we must be careful about. We want to reduce, reuse and recycle.

Some countries tax plastic bags. China has abolished them. New York has a different emphasis, compelling the companies that use plastic bags to put in place schemes to recycle them. We need to compare our record with those of other nations, which may take a more interventionist stance. Some small successes have been made in that area. When it comes to industrial recycling, we must ensure that the Government keep making progress. They will need more support, more help and more money. I hope that the Minister will deny the report in The Guardian yesterday that stated that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will make a 25 per cent. cut to the budget of the waste and resources action programme despite its rather impressive record of saving 4.6 million tonnes of waste from going to landfill, and turning 5 million more people—12 per cent. of the population—into committed recyclers. I hope that the national industrial symbiosis programme and others will be given encouragement.

Let me finish by saying that we must examine many problems in the Government’s programme, which I think we can. We have a problem with incinerators that will not go away. We need to provide strong leadership to the local councils and ensure that they are funded for their different programmes. We need to give them more support at any level of recycling to provide new machines, new technology, more of the Royal Society of Chemistry stuff to develop new technologies, the best recycling strategies, and give them the powers to do that.

We should make the targets smarter. Shipping poor-quality products overseas to the far east is not a long-term strategy. We need to examine that. We need to consider the function of organisations such as NEWS. I cannot understand why, if it is a success—I ask the Minister to examine its record and what it has done—we cannot roll out the work of such an organisation throughout the country. We must increase the resources to deal with commercial waste, because that is still a major problem. NISP and WRAP should be maintained and strengthened financially; I hope that they will not be cut back.

We are making progress with very good targets. We can be proud of what we have done on recycling up to now. We are moving in the right direction, although as yet we are a long way from where we want to be. I am proud that I am in a county that is part of the movement to recycle waste, and that I can play a part in that politically and as a citizen. I know that people are worried about claims of a nanny state. I am not too worried about being part of a nanny state if it brings about the saving of the planet and all the advantages that go with the new recycling policy. The concern about the environment and climate change justifies all the efforts that we put in, be they successful or not. We must not allow this opportunity to improve our recycling record to go to waste.

Order. This is a 90-minute debate and I am obliged to call the first of the three Front-Bench speakers 30 minutes before its termination, so we have 29 minutes left for comment from the Floor. I ask right hon. and hon. Members who wish to engage in the debate to bear that time limit in mind when making their contribution and when accepting or responding to interventions.

Thank you, Mr. Cook; I will bear that in mind. I congratulate the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) on introducing this important debate.

I served on the Select Committee that looked into refuse collection, but I have a more personal, eccentric, almost spiritual interest in this topic. I dislike waste: I keep old bits of wood and metal just in case they ever come in useful, which is usually not the case; I discard old clothes with reluctance and sometimes under protest; and I treasure old machinery, keeping it in use in a one-man battle against entropy, seeing such manufactured goods as the embodied mind of old engineers. I even lament the piles of perfectly usable equipment that we see in scrapyards up and down the country. In fact, at the moment I am endeavouring to respray my own vehicle, which is 14 years old and has gone round the clock. I am the sort of person who has an old analogue TV in their garage. Worse still, for 30 years I have treasured a fog lamp from an Austin Westminster, which I am reluctant to throw out in case somebody comes past who wants it—so far, that has not happened, but perhaps if I give it some publicity here, somebody will offer for it.

Thinking about all that, I wonder whether it is rational behaviour, sentiment or signs of incipient insanity—I have not got round to hoarding loose bits of string and paper yet, so I suppose I am not that bad. I believe that the things that I have mentioned constitute useful waste. Being entirely rational, we could define waste sociologically as surplus material or property that we do not want—the richer people are, the more that they have. Then we could divide surplus material—waste, as I have defined it—into what would have a use for someone else, what we can reprocess and what we cannot do either of those things with, which we simply burn or bury. It is the last category that we are now driven to reduce, because either the material decomposes and emits carbon dioxide, methane and so on, which results in environmental damage, or it does not—for example, plastic—in which case it hangs around causing environmental and cosmetic damage.

There is waste that is useful but for which no users are available in any convenient way. There is material that is reprocessable, but the processes through which that is done are not economically viable or worth anybody’s time. Outside the developing world, the rag-and-bone trade of Steptoe and Son is not as lucrative as once it was. Now, however, given the environmental imperative, much can be done about the issue.

We can obviously improve networks, enabling demand and supply to come together better—car boot sales, eBay and so on do precisely that. Better communication is also important. For the Government, there is a role through regulation and support for recycling industries, producers and end users to do something about what is and what is not economically viable. That is an extraordinarily important part of the Government’s work.

The Government surely have another role, in getting the producers of the stuff—the primary producers; the people who create the stuff that ultimately becomes waste—to refine and reduce their production processes. Clearly, if we were to cut the number of plastics that are produced, we would improve the feasibility of recycling plastics. If we increase the durability of cars, which we have done quite dramatically—we see hardly any rusty cars on the road these days—we do something about the waste at the end. Car manufacturers are now checking that each piece has a use beyond the life of the car.

Such reduced production has a double benefit. If we produce less and industry produces less, we have a double win, because there are fewer emissions. Self-evidently, however, it is not in everybody’s interest to do that. Toyota has just cut production of its cars, and Toyotas are some of the most durable cars on the road. It has simply made its cars so durable that people replace them less frequently than they did. If it is not in everybody’s interest to have recycling, reuse and reprocessing, there has to be a strong role for the state in encouraging that.

There also has to be, because there will be conflicts of interest, a constant and serious assessment of the costs and benefits of the whole process—a cost-benefit analysis—because false environmental virtue is a possibility. There are green gestures that offer very little in the way of genuine green effects. That might involve lorries loaded with lightweight uncrushed plastic bottles rattling around the country belching out all sorts of emissions, 4x4 owners making the odd trip to the tip with half a dozen bottles or the introduction of heavier packaging and more waste because plastic has been phased out—I am sure that the hon. Member for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Illsley) will make that point later.

Everybody assumes that the key agents—the people who have to sew all that together—are national and local government. They work directly under the landfill directive, which is an effective sledgehammer, but the use of that sledgehammer can lead to environmentally questionable behaviour. I wonder whether authorities collecting garden waste, which can adequately be composted in the garden, is as environmentally defensible as it might be.

There is good and diverse practice. The hon. Member for Norwich, North illustrated that point with examples from his own patch, but the system is not as good as it might be. Across the piece, there is insufficient planning and initiative. The hon. Gentleman made the point that sometimes there is not sufficient engagement by business and in particular by retail business. There is insufficient policy join-up.

I shall illustrate the point with a case from my constituency. We have recently changed to alternate weekly collections, and there has been a huge increase in demand for plastic recycling, because that makes up a big element in the residual bin collection. However, we are locked into a contract with a collector who is not contracted to do that work, who is not funded to do it and who does not have the crushing machinery necessary to do it economically. We have a waste disposal authority that has no particular plans to reprocess any plastic when it is collected, and I have to say that there is a persistently unhelpful attitude from local supermarkets. We have damned the supermarkets already in the debate. I wrote to them all saying, “What more can you do other than offering space in your car park?” The answer from my local supermarkets was not a lot—in fact, nothing at all.

Thinking ahead to what we will face in the future, a predictable volume of stuff is going into the waste stream, and we can all see it coming. I am thinking of cathode ray tube monitors from computers, analogue TVs, VHS recorders and so on. We understand the waste stream better than ever and can predict what will happen.

We do not have anything other than a patchwork of provision across the country. People say that that is bound to be the case because localism is the name of the game at the moment, and local authorities must decide things as they see fit, according to what their citizens demand. However, even if we agree with that, as I think we largely do, we still need local engagement on the part of national companies—I refer again to the supermarkets—and good Government support for local recycling initiatives, both public and private.

I know that there are problems with state aid rules, but let me give one simple example of what I mean. An innovative firm on the Wirral, not far from me, has set up a factory that uses a mechanism to reprocess CDs and DVDs, which we all receive in huge volumes from newspapers and from organisations that feel that MPs will look at their information. Huge quantities of those CDs and DVDs will end up in the waste stream, and I do not know what happens to them then. In the case of the factory near me, however, CDs and DVDs, which are made from polycarbons, are reprocessed, which is a valuable initiative. It may not necessarily go anywhere, and it would be some time before it was developed across the whole country, but the fact that it has not been developed is a matter of regret. Although we have good practice and a great deal of sound local improvisation, we need the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to take a strong lead to orchestrate our efforts.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) on securing the debate and on his interesting and entertaining speech. I agree with him about the strength of public interest in this important issue and the fact that that is a good sign of public concern about the sustainability of the environment in general. We are all increasingly aware that recycling can make a huge contribution to the conservation of resources and energy, and that must be the first line of defence and action against climate change. As he said, we are making progress, but there is still a long way to go in reducing landfill and in increasing recycling to the level of the best of our European neighbours.

I want to raise a few points by way of questions to the Minister, who is committed to dealing with these issues. First, to follow on from the points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North, will she say more about the action that the Government are taking on commercial and industrial waste, which is an important dimension of the challenge that we face? In particular, has she considered imposing a ban on the landfilling and incineration of material that can be recycled or composted? Looking to the future, those are the sort of issues on which we need to be giving the right signals.

My second concern is about what can be done to improve the recycling of aluminium, which it is particularly important to recycle, given that a lot of energy is needed to produce aluminium from its ore, bauxite. Recycling it would therefore make significant energy savings and help to combat climate change.

That raises the vexed question of incineration, which my hon. Friend mentioned. When municipal waste is incinerated, aluminium in the form of cans, foil and so on is rendered useless and non-recoverable. I would be grateful if the Minister explained how the expansion of incineration can be reconciled with improved rates of aluminium recovery and, indeed, with our concern about climate change.

I would also like to ask the Minister whether she foresees waste incineration, like other industrial processes, being subject to some kind of carbon pricing. In Oxfordshire, the county council proposes to build a 200,000 tonnes a year incinerator. On reasonable assumptions, and using the Government’s 2007 shadow price for carbon emissions of £25.50 a tonne, that would result in an annual charge of about £5.1 million, which would rise substantially as the shadow price went up in future years. At the moment, that environmental cost is not factored into the decision on incineration. Does she agree that it should be?

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree not only that it is right to incorporate the shadow cost of carbon into such calculations, but that the shadow cost that the Government are using is much lower than the one recommended in the Stern report, so the real picture is even worse than he suggests?

I take the hon. Gentleman’s point, but it would be fair to point out that the Government envisage costs rising significantly in the future, which reinforces my point that we should factor in the real future cost of emissions from burning such volumes of waste in incinerators. Of course, we should take the best independent advice on the appropriate price.

Finally, do the Government intend to encourage, or even force, industry to recycle much more packaging by increasing the targets in the packaging regulations? We are waiting for the Government to make an announcement on that some time soon, and if the Minister is unable to make an announcement this afternoon, it would be helpful if she told us when she will be able to make one.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) on securing the debate and I am grateful for the opportunity to say a few words in the next few minutes.

I want to follow on from the point on which my right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith) finished. He mentioned levels of packaging waste, and I should declare an interest as the chairman of the all-party group on the packaging manufacturing industry. My first point on packaging waste is that only 3 per cent. of it goes to landfill, while the rest is recycled or dealt with in other ways. A minimal amount of packaging therefore goes to landfill, and it is difficult to see how increasing the targets will bring any further benefits. We have a bigger problem with household waste and particularly food waste, because we waste about 30 per cent. of the food that we produce, and it all goes to landfill.

My main point, however, relates to recycling systems, which my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North mentioned. One problem is that the recycling targets placed on local authorities are completely different from those placed on industry. As we have heard, different systems are in place throughout the country. The good news is that about 98 per cent. of the country is covered by local authority recycling systems, but the problem is that they are all slightly different, and different authorities collect different materials in different parts of the country.

We therefore have different targets. Local authorities are required to collect recycling materials in terms of their tonnage, whereas industry is required to recycle in terms of specific sectors and materials. It does not matter, therefore, how local authorities collect materials, which are simply jumbled up in collection systems throughout the country. When they arrive at industry facilities to be recycled, therefore, they are often unusable, which is why so much is sent to places such as China, as my hon. Friend said. I therefore ask the Minister to look at ways of bringing the recycling systems into sync with the collection systems and of getting local authorities to collect materials in such a way that they can be recycled.

I shall give a couple of examples. My local industry in Barnsley is glass containers, and the first bottle bank, as it was called then, was introduced on 24 April 1977 in Barnsley. We should rename them glass banks, of course, because contrary to the opinion of my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North they do not always collect only wine bottles; other glass items can be recycled as well. It was a way of collecting glass to be reused in the glass industry, because glass is a perfectly recyclable product. A glass bottle is melted, and it reconstitutes itself as glass. The problem is that if the colours are mixed together the glass all comes out green. If clear and flint glass or clear and amber glass are mixed, they turn green. Given the number of green bottles that we import into the country from wine-growing areas, we are awash with green glass, and the stuff is unusable for recycling except in road materials.

The quality of what we are now recycling is not very good. One of the biggest glass companies in this country is called Owens-Illinois, which recently bought United Glass. United Glass has a plant at Harlow in Essex, which I visited many years ago to see how it recycled its glass products. Owens-Illinois refuses to use the glass recycled from that plant, even though it owns it, because it is of such poor quality. It goes elsewhere to find a recycler that it wants to use in its glass production. There is thus an idea that we are co-mingling and not getting the synchronisation right between what industry can recycle and what is being collected. We have heard already that some local authorities do not recycle some materials that others will. Plastics is one example of a material that many local authorities will not recycle, although it is a valuable product when it is recycled. We should be doing a lot more to collect and recycle that product.

We need to improve. I have recently been given a press release on behalf of a company called Catalyst, which has made an estimate of what the cost of incineration will be as a consequence of the Government’s waste strategy. It states that to meet

“the Government’s objectives, as laid out in their Waste Strategy 2007 paper, the level of incinerated municipal waste will have to increase from 3 million tonnes per year today to 11.5 million tonnes by 2020—and this requires investment of circa £5 billion in some 50 plants.”

Incineration is something that many local authorities do not want on their doorstep, as my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North pointed out, but unless we recycle more, because we are running out of landfill, incineration is becoming the only alternative. It will require major investment.

I have one or two final points. The first is about lightweighting. The Government have made much of the idea that industry should lightweight products and packaging. Lightweighting simply means making something lighter. A bottle such as those we have before us today could be made with thinner glass and a certain number of grams of glass could be taken out of the product. It seems a very good idea, and one wonders why industry has not already done it. It would mean that industry used less glass to produce a unit—a bottle. The problem is, on a life cycle analysis, that because the product is lighter it is more fragile, and so in transporting the product the pallets, carriers and containers must be stronger. More energy is used to produce the pallets to carry the lightweighted product, so in the end we do not really save anything through lightweighting.

The plastic bag issue that is coming before Parliament is a popular one. My hon. Friend mentioned the plastic bag-free town in Devon, a local authority has a Bill before Parliament on the issue, and there is talk of China and New York banning plastic bags. Yes, everyone would like a reduction in the number of plastic bags littering our country. However, we must act so as to achieve what we set out to achieve, and not do as Ireland did. The tax on plastic bags meant that people did not buy them, or some supermarkets did not make them available, yet the production of plastic increased, because people found other types of plastic container to use as a substitute. We must encourage people to cut their use, or use alternatives, and not simply ban them outright or tax them, with the result that people look elsewhere to meet their needs.

I add my congratulations to those already offered by other hon. Members to the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) on securing the debate and, as ever, displaying great technical knowledge of the subject. He is right to highlight our poor position in the international league table on recycling and waste, but he is also right to give credit where it is due to the Government for some important initiatives.

There is a question that politicians are always asked at the hustings, which they slightly dread, about which of their opponents’ policies they support. My two stock answers—with respect to the Government, at least—have always been Sure Start, which I have always thought is an excellent programme for early intervention in children’s lives, and the business resource efficiency and waste programme, which is an imaginative programme that has done important work on improving waste resource efficiency and recycling.

The waste strategy contains many positive intentions and ideas, but in general it has not gone far enough. BREW stands out as an initiative that is working very well. I think that the Prime Minister agrees with me, because on a recent visit to China he used the national industrial symbiosis programme as a model, encouraged the Chinese to follow with a similar programme of their own and offered them our expertise in doing so. That programme clearly has the backing of Ministers at a very senior level, which is important, because, as the hon. Member for Norwich, North has stressed, household waste is a minor part of the overall mix—I think that it comprises less than 10 per cent. of UK waste—whereas BREW uniquely addresses commercial and industrial waste.

NISP’s performance is certainly dramatic. The hon. Gentleman has quoted some statistics, but NISP says that it has saved UK industry more than £70 million, attracted £66 million in private investment for reprocessing and recycling, diverted 1.7 million tonnes of waste from landfill, eliminated 285,000 tonnes of hazardous waste and reduced carbon dioxide emissions by 2 million tonnes.

NISP has also commissioned independent consultants to look at its performance. Scott Wilson consultants reported last year:

“The Programme’s ability to contribute to the seven cross-programme comparable BREW metrics”—

if hon. Members will excuse the language—

“puts NISP at the forefront of delivering the economic and environmental benefits to the UK and exceeds any similarly BREW funded programme.”

Thus NISP is probably the most effective part of the overall BREW programme.

The waste and resources action programme, which has been mentioned, is a little more difficult to evaluate. It makes great claims about recycling capacity, including the claim that an additional 9.9 million people in England are now committed recyclers. It also claims £182 million of investment levered into the recycling sector from commercial sources and increased industry turnover in the recycling sector of £1.3 billion. Of course, it is not entirely clear how much of that is due to WRAP alone and how much to other factors, but it has done some very specific work with the Olympic Delivery Authority, Sheffield city council schools projects and elsewhere with demonstrable benefit.

In a spirit of cross-party co-operation, I shall quote Conservative-controlled Gloucestershire county council, which credits WRAP with helping it to increase recycling in Gloucestershire by 9 per cent. over the past two years from 21 to 30 per cent. with the help of £467,000 of funding in awareness-raising and public engagement activities. In a less cross-party spirit, the increase might have been a little higher, if Cheltenham borough council had not fallen into the hands of the Conservatives a few years ago, because although the Liberal administration, having inherited a domestic recycling rate of 9 per cent. from an earlier Tory administration, nearly tripled the rate to 26 per cent., two years after the Tories regained control, sadly, no new kerbside recycling has been added to the Liberal Democrat initiatives on paper, tins, bottles and green waste, and the percentage has risen to only 28 per cent.

In fairness, however, even to the Conservative-controlled administration, there is a general problem in Gloucestershire in co-ordinating the best response locally between different councils, which the hon. Member for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Illsley) has mentioned in a different context. The issue is about ensuring a high quality, cost-effective and co-ordinated recycling response across different areas. The Minister perhaps needs to consider how to assist local councils to bring together effective waste partnerships that move forward, because there seem to be barriers.

The statistics highlight the variation between different businesses and local authorities. Real political will is required to drive the issue forward, so it is alarming that WRAP is meeting the Secretary for State today, according to reports, to discuss budget cuts of 25 per cent. or more, and it has already made 31 staff redundant. NISP is also concerned. It has expressed the fear that overall funding for the BREW programme, from which it gets its funding, could drop precipitately from £125 million per annum to as little as £60 million.

I asked the Minister about that in a written question on 7 January, to which she gave the rather cryptic answer that

“future spending…will be carefully balanced with other departmental priorities”.—[Official Report, 7 January 2008; Vol. 470, c. 68W.]

I assumed that that meant that the Minister simply did not know about the issue at the time, but in the light of the meetings that are taking place today—the Secretary of State must have been briefed on the situation—perhaps she will clarify the funding situation for WRAP, NISP and the BREW programme as whole, because I am sure that the figures exist.

Where has the sharp downturn in funding come from? It was not flagged up in last year’s waste strategy, which mentioned continuing support for the BREW programme, and it was not flagged up in the DEFRA annual report. DEFRA has a £3 billion budget, but it is difficult to spot any specific plans for BREW organisations in the report, which does not include specific projections on landfill tax revenue. There was a clue in the Budget in March last year, which said that there would be an increase in landfill tax revenue. The Budget included lots of bold environmental claims, and it gave the impression that everything in the garden was rosy in relation to Government support for environmental initiatives. Nowhere was the crisis in funding anticipated, and the sector was not prepared for it, so where has it come from?

An article that appeared in The Guardian seems to answer the question. It said that there was potentially a £1 billion hole in the DEFRA budget over three years and that DEFRA and its agencies

“failed to find sufficient savings to meet a £300m shortfall from April. The ministry is still more than £100m short despite cuts”,

including those that are planned within the BREW programme. The reason is not difficult to find, and there are some reasonable excuses. The EU single farm payments have been more expensive than expected, and DEFRA had to set up contingency funds to cover the outbreaks of foot and mouth disease, bluetongue and avian flu. Those things were obviously necessary, but why can the Government as a whole not provide contingencies for such unexpected developments?

There is a parallel with the crisis in the NHS two years ago, when it was decided that deficits had reached a critical point and had to be cleared within one year. For some reason, that unexpected development had to be funded from within the Department of Health, and there was no possibility of transferring funds from other Departments. There seems to be a complete lack of joined-up government and contingency planning for unexpected developments. Perhaps that reflects a view in the rest of Government that waste recycling is an optional extra and a bit of a luxury, which translates into a lack of ambition in DEFRA.

That might be unfair. Last year, the waste strategy had much to commend it, but it also had many gaps. Most dramatically, reduction, as has been highlighted by my hon. Friend the Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh), which is absolutely at the top of the waste hierarchy, was left out. We need not only to recycle more, but to reduce the need to recycle. The waste strategy promised a progress report in spring 2008 on actions and target solutions to reduce the impacts of products across their lifetime. Thanks to global warming, spring will reach us earlier than expected this year, so perhaps the Minister will tell us that the report is imminent or when it is due. Perhaps she will even tell us what will be announced in the report.

I suggest that the report should contain a few measures to tackle the producers and manufacturers of packaging and some of the packaging waste that we see in our waste bins every week. Why not attack some hard-to-recycle materials to reflect the cost of carbon at manufacturing level? Why not introduce a tax on plastic bags, perhaps learning from the Irish example and the risks associated with that approach? There are plenty of examples around the world of economies that exist without so much plastic bag packaging, including the United States of America, where paper bags are much more the norm. Frankly, if George Bush’s America can manage that, I do not see why we should not be able to shift in that direction. To give them credit, retailers such as Tesco seem to appreciate the problem and try to reduce the billions of plastic bags that they use.

I do not think that the United States’ record under George Bush on climate change is the best that the hon. Gentleman could have selected. If one looks at the carbon footprint and energy used in the production and transportation of paper bags, one sees that they exceed those of plastic carrier bags. I agree with the hon. Gentleman, but we must find a way to reduce the amount of plastic or the number of carrier bags, but in doing so we must not end up affecting climate change in another way.

The hon. Gentleman has made an important point. The matter is not only about carbon, because we are talking about waste that is going into landfill sites, the countryside and the environment around us, which will take many years to degrade, if it degrades at all. That one supermarket produces 4 billion plastic bags each year is an environmental disaster.

Other ideas could be included in the report, such as the right of return, which would mean that retailers and manufacturers should be required to take back packaging from customers. There are examples of good practice, such as that of Sony. I am looking at you, Mr. Cook, but I thought that I had 10 minutes. I hope that I am right.

I detected that you were impatient for me to finish, Mr. Cook, but I thought that I had a full 10 minutes left.

I apologise for that, Mr. Cook, and I shall finish shortly.

The two examples of best practice are the Sony initiative, which involves using what are effectively the equivalent of cardboard cartons to package things such as mobile phones, and the Dual System Deutschland scheme, by which people can package excess packaging in a bag and have it collected. That scheme was launched in 1991; it uses only 300 staff in the whole of Germany, and it has been very effective. We need to expand waste recycling and reuse programmes, not cut them back.

I shall endeavour to be as brief as possible. This has been an interesting and stimulating debate and good ideas have come from hon. Members both sides of the House. I congratulate the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) on securing the debate.

Waste is a complex and diffuse issue—it does not lend itself to simple answers. There are so many different elements to the waste sector, and it is difficult even for politicians to generalise. To summarise the main issues that came out of the interesting speeches from the hon. Members for Norwich, North, for Southport (Dr. Pugh) and for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Illsley), and the right hon. Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith), we need the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to do more. There is a clear requirement for leadership. Progress has been made, but, across the board, we are not moving at a sufficient rate, and there is no strong line from DEFRA, to quote the hon. Member for Southport, to pull all the different threads together. We need that and a real sense of vision and leadership at the centre.

Weighed against that is the fact that local communities must be able to forge their own solutions that are right for them in their part of the country. However, that does not negate the need for a compelling and ambitious vision at the centre.

As has already been pointed out, rather than work on an ambitious vision and providing that leadership, DEFRA is not meeting urgently today to hammer out a plan to tackle our nation’s waste, yet it has prime responsibility not only for waste but for the whole climate change agenda, which we all agree to be the most pressing and important problem facing humankind in the 21st century.

Today, the Secretary of State has convened a crisis meeting to address chronic mismanagement and overspending in a Department that, from media reports, appears to be falling apart. Despite making cuts of almost £200 million since April last year, DEFRA needs to cut a further £100 million from its budget in the coming weeks. That is not a sign of a Department rising to the huge challenges that clearly face it. Given the growing awareness of climate change, it is extraordinary that the Department should be trying to cut its cloth in that way, but in many ways the fault lies within.

We should not be allowed to believe that the majority of last year’s cost overruns were simply the result of unavoidable acts of God such as flooding, or bird flu. Much of the overspend was avoidable; it was the direct result of Government mismanagement. We learned this week that the waste and recycling sectors will bear the brunt of much of that DEFRA incompetence.

For instance, the business resource and efficiency waste partnership has already been mentioned. It seems likely that its spending will be cut by more than half, despite the fact that it has been responsible for more than 2 million tonnes of landfill diversion, 1.8 million tonnes of CO2 reduction and cost savings of £40 million last year. WRAP, which promotes recycling measures to reduce the use of landfill, confirms that its funding is to be cut by 25 per cent. Indeed, this week it issued more than 30 compulsory redundancies.

That is not the work of a Department that is in charge of its agenda and forging ahead. It is the work of a Department in retreat and in disarray. Although the Government are making much of their international leadership on climate change, they are undermining some of our most effective and efficient emissions reduction programmes.

Across the waste agenda, the Government are getting things wrong, and the results are plain to see. For example, the number of recorded incidents of fly-tipping has increased by 290 per cent. over the past two years. The United Kingdom has one of the highest levels of landfill in the EU, and 22 per cent. of our methane emissions, a gas that has 23 times the greenhouse effect of C02, is emitted from decomposing landfill. Why is more of that pollutant not being trapped and used for energy generation? It is not good enough to make the renewables obligation available for methane. Companies that are polluting in that diabolical way should not be rewarded with renewables obligations. They should be penalised for allowing those gases to escape.

Thus we see that the climate change agenda is becoming ever more closely wedded to the waste agenda. It is increasingly clear, in part due to the good work being done by DEFRA and the Minister to raise public awareness about climate change, that the British people not only care about climate change and want to feel informed about it, but want Ministers to take action.

It is clear that people care about the environmental impact of their lifestyle, which means that they want to produce less waste and recycle more. It is appalling that 20 tonnes of waste are produced for each tonne of consumer goods sold in Britain. However, we have seen a gradual but steady improvement in domestic attitudes to recycling and composting. I believe that people are trying to make a positive change in the teeth of often unhelpful and certainly indecisive Government policies

We rightly worry about waste because of its impact on the immediate environment, the global environment and climate-changing emissions. However, that increasingly obscures another issue—that of the unsustainable and inefficient use of resources in the first place. We must start seeing waste not as a problem to be solved only at the end of the pipeline, but as one that needs to be dealt with much farther upstream. The life-cycle of raw materials and products, how we design, make and use the consumables that we enjoy and how we dispose of them need to be addressed.

We need to take a far more holistic view of waste. That means reducing the amount of waste that we generate. We should be looking for ways to reduce packaging and to tackle poor product design so that product life spans dramatically increase and recyclability is enhanced. The reuse of waste is also vital. Useful and valuable items, such as building materials, furniture, white goods and computers should be taken out of the waste stream and reused. Indeed, the right hon. Member for Oxford, East raised the issue of Government action to prevent the incineration of recyclable materials, and I would be interested to hear what the Minister has to say in response. He certainly hit on an important thread.

I give a topical example of how an enlightened approach to waste can deliver a cost-effective and easy win. The London fire brigade is moving its headquarters to new offices in Southwark. Faced with the challenge of what to do with 6,000 items of furniture, weighing over 300 tonnes, which had to be removed from its old offices on the Albert embankment, the brigade developed a sustainable waste strategy that resulted in 69 per cent. of its furniture being reused, 27 per cent. being recycled and 4 per cent. being used for waste to energy—and 0 per cent. being sent to landfill or incinerated. That resulted in the brigade making savings of about £100,000, which illustrates the fact that saving on waste can mean financial savings—in this case, money that will be better spent helping the fire brigade to protect people and the city that it serves.

Most important, however, we must convince business and local government to see all waste as a potential raw material in an increasingly resource-scarce world. We should be providing a framework in which innovators, entrepreneurs and companies can find ways to convert waste into new and valuable commodities. The economics of recycling are clear. If we simply meet European directive objectives, we will need to treble the recycling and composting of waste. That raw material is estimated to have a market value of £590 million a year to the UK economy if it is recovered from the waste stream. We want the Government not to dither, but to start providing clear leadership.

Local empowerment and public consent are the key, as is the empowerment of business. The Conservative party appreciates the huge part that the market, industry and technology have to play in revolutionising the waste sector. The Government will solve our waste recycling problems—in tandem with the private sector, entrepreneurs and industry—only if they set out long-term policies to give business and local authorities the confidence to take new approaches and to make long-term investments.

Waste companies should be recognised as innovative businesses that create useful and valuable products out of waste. Regulations should be streamlined to reflect the changing attitudes to waste. For example, as soon as the regulations on waste management handling were changed under the waste management licence, industrial composting grew by between 40 and 50 per cent. The waste industry should not be restricted by the cumbersome over-regulation of waste disposal that does not recognise the value added by the industry. We need a clear, long-term objective.

Why cannot the Government see waste recycling as an opportunity to make Britain safer and greener, and an opportunity to generate new wealth and economic health for Britain in the process? We all need to recognise the opportunity to find profit and growth where previously we saw only waste and rubbish. In an increasingly resource-scarce world, where climate change is the overwhelming imperative, we desperately need DEFRA to get a grip on itself, and to provide the leadership that we all deserve.

I have only a few minutes to answer all the questions posed by the six Members who spoke, so I shall write to any whose questions I do not answer.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) on securing this debate and for the great enthusiasm with which he presented his case. If one becomes a keen recycler, I know that one really wants to do more. Many of the points raised by right hon. and hon. Members will be extremely helpful to the Government, and I shall take account of all that has been said—although perhaps not the criticism of our waste strategy made by the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker). I can tell him that our waste strategy for 2007 was enormously and enthusiastically received by all who were consulted. Indeed, it is moving on the way in which we deal with waste at a tremendous pace.

As we know, each year, we generate about 100 million tonnes of waste from households, commerce and industry. Most of that waste ends up in landfill, where the biodegradable part of it causes emissions of methane, which, as others have said, is a potent greenhouse gas. However, the overall waste is greater than that amount; there is also the absolute waste of those raw materials and, of course, the valuable energy that has been used in extracting, processing and making goods.

Therefore, when we published our waste strategy 2007 document, we put that strategy firmly in the context of climate change. Reducing waste is part of the contribution that we must make in our great mission to hold back dangerous climate change. Our aim must be to reduce waste by making products with fewer natural resources and therefore break the link between economic growth and waste growth.

Therefore, minimising waste is even more important than recycling itself and it is the next step that we all need to take in tackling waste. To that end, DEFRA has adopted a challenging new target of reducing our residual waste per person to half what it was in 2000 by 2020.

I am glad to say that residual waste has decreased and less waste is going to landfill. However, there is still a very wide gap between the best and worst performing authorities. The lowest percentage of municipal waste landfill in 2006-07 was just 7 per cent., but the highest was 93 per cent. The gap between those figures demonstrates what the challenge is.

Let me turn now to Norwich. Its recycling rate, according to the latest statistics that I have for 2006-07, was just 18 per cent. As the overall rate in England for that year was 31 per cent., I must tell my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North that Norwich was not one of the best performers. However, what is important is that that figure of 18 per cent. represents an increase of 3 per cent. Furthermore, from what my hon. Friend has said today, the most recent figures for Norwich, which of course have not yet been validated by the Department, will show a further increase in that rate. So I congratulate the local authority in Norwich on that and I am delighted to say that the way in which it is progressing, with alternate weekly collections and collections of new streams of waste, is very important indeed. I say that because we know that, of the highest performing councils on recycling in the country, the vast majority collect residual waste one week and recyclable waste the following week.

I will not have time to address the other questions if my hon. Friend intervenes now. Let me just say that the local authority in Norwich is making the right type of progress and taking the right kinds of action, and we are very appreciative of that work.

It was suggested earlier that there was a financial pressure coming from the centre to get councils to adopt alternative weekly collections, which I think should not be called “alternate weekly collections” because the councils collect every week; they just collect different things each week. There is not financial pressure from the centre; instead, there is a sensible desire for business efficiency on the part of the councils themselves. Clearly, if the councils have less residual waste to take to landfill, they will save on the costs of landfill. That is why that efficiency drive makes a great deal of sense. I am also delighted to learn about the Costessey plant, which I understand will turn food and garden waste into compost.

Let me now answer some of the questions that were put to me. A number of hon. Members raised questions about plastic bags. I can tell them that the desire of the Government is to end the free giveaway of the single-use bag. We do not believe that a tax is likely to be the best way forward. We are consulting; we have a forum coming up with all the retailers, in order to have a further discussion with them. The progress that has been made to date, which people may have noticed and commented on, has been made as a result of the Courtauld commitment, whereby we have reached an agreement with 92 per cent. of the grocery chain to reduce the environmental impact of those plastic bags.

Paper is not a substitute for plastic, and my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Illsley) explained why that is the case. It is the single use of the bag that is the problem. It is symptomatic of a throwaway society and we must end that practice.

A number of right hon. and hon. Members raised issues about BREW, WRAP and NISP. I am not in a position to tell them this afternoon the final outcomes of our discussions on finance. However, I would say that, just because particular work is done at a particular time does not mean that that particular work should continue. These programmes have been about innovation, encouraging businesses to adopt new practices and bringing businesses together. Therefore, much of that work has set a pattern and it is more than reasonable that business itself begins to engage in that pattern. People should not believe that, because, for example, WRAP has had to issue notices, all that change will necessarily come to fruition. Decisions have not yet been taken, and it is reasonable that we have had conversations with our delivery bodies.

I was asked about the recycling of plastic. It was suggested that there was a lack of co-operation by retailers. The landfill tax escalator is the tool that the Government are using to persuade commerce and industry that they should divert waste from landfill. The serious increases in price will mean that commerce and industry will be driven into carrying out more recycling and we are working with them on recycling plastics in particular.

I was asked about Government support for local recycling. Again, I would like to refer to the situation in Norwich and in Norfolk, because I obtained the figures for that area for this particular debate. In 2006-07, more than £1.5 million of Government funding went to that area to help to raise the performance on recycling and composting. In the current financial year, which will end soon, the same amount—more than £1.5 million—was again given to the area to promote that work. That is the type of support that the Government give. Sometimes, that support is given directly and at other times it is given through WRAP. That support has been given through the waste performance efficiency grants.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith) asked about a number of issues relating to commercial and industrial waste, including a ban on the incineration of products and materials that could be recycled. In the waste strategy 2007 document, we said that we would consider such a ban. We would expect aluminium to be collected separately, and indeed we are talking with industry about the streams of metal waste in particular.

Briefly, I would like to return to the household sector. We are enabling people to recycle more easily. We are providing powers in the Climate Change Bill for five pilot projects, so that local authorities can examine incentives for reducing waste, and the rate for the national recycling of waste, as set out in the waste strategy 2007 document, will rise to 40 per cent. by 2010, to 45 per cent. by 2015 and to 50 per cent. by 2020. Although achieving those increases is incredibly challenging, we believe that we are on target and that we will reach the first of those major objectives by 2010.

We are also recycling new streams of waste. Earlier, right hon. and hon. Members referred to electrical and electronic equipment. Through the waste electrical and electronic equipment, or WEEE, directive, we are dealing with that issue and it is important that we do so, because UK households are throwing away around 1 million tonnes of that type of waste every year.

With WRAP, we have launched a programme to deal with food waste. We aim to achieve a reduction of 100,000 tonnes of food waste by March this year. As a society, we are throwing away a third of all the food that we purchase, so food waste reduction is an important new area for waste reduction.

The waste strategy 2007 document will encourage local authorities to collect different types of waste separately, including food waste. In particular, we are putting money into encouraging the use of anaerobic digestion, so that we can have a win-win situation whereby we take away the food and green waste, put it into a digester and then it can, I hope, be used both in agriculture and to produce energy. Furthermore, batteries are the latest product on which we are consulting, because each household is throwing away an average of 21 portable batteries every year.

In conclusion, we are placing a greater responsibility on businesses for the environmental impact of their products and operations. We are placing a strong emphasis on waste prevention, with householders reducing their waste, for example, through home composting and use of food waste, and we are encouraging business to help consumers, for example, by using less packaging. Packaging recycling has doubled over the past 10 years. People perhaps do not realise that industry is ahead of the householder in that regard and much more progress has been made in the industrial sector. Finally, we are issuing a challenge to see recycling extended outside the home and office and taken into public places, such as shopping malls.

New Home Buyers

I intend to raise a number of issues concerning the difficulties experienced by many people buying newly built houses or flats. Those problems are legion. They can range from houses not being built on time or not being made available to the purchaser, sometimes for years after the date on which they were meant to be; defects in the building work that are not repaired in spite of repeated requests and demands from the purchasers; problems with the estate as a whole; and problems with the property management companies associated with new build developments. Those problems often affect those buying new build homes at the time when they are most under pressure, owing to the personal and financial stress involved in buying a new home.

I am raising this matter today, because a large number of new build properties—mainly, but not exclusively flats—are being built, or have been built recently, in my constituency. Over a number of years, I have been approached by constituents who have had problems with new build housing such as those that I have described. Indeed, I first raised this issue in Parliament in April 2002, less than a year after I was first elected. I am glad to have the opportunity to raise the matter again, but the fact that I am obliged to do so illustrates that much action is still required to deal with a problem that has been raised with me on many occasions in my constituency. However, consumer organisations are also concerned and see it as a problem affecting the entire UK.

As I said, particular issues have been raised in my constituency, and I shall describe in more detail a particular case raised with me recently. However, I emphasise that the problem exists throughout the UK. Extensive research on the matter has recently been conducted by the consumer group Which?, the National Consumer Council and the Scottish Consumer Council. It shows that as many as 90 per cent. of those who buy new build homes are left with snagging problems, such as faulty wiring, badly fitting doors, leaking windows or more serious problems. More than a quarter of new build property developments are described by their purchasers as being of poor quality.

As I have said, this issue has been raised with me on a number of occasions, over a number of years. However, the particular case that led to me raising the matter today was brought to my attention by a constituent of mine who lives in a development called Corinthian Quay, undertaken by Elphinstone builders, on Lower Granton road in my constituency. I shall quote briefly from her e-mail in which she first raised the matter with me shortly before Christmas:

“I would like to draw your attention to another matter that has been a source of constant worry and stress to me for the past 2 and half years. I bought a new apartment off plan in Feb 2005 and have had nothing but problems with the builders - they have been very uncommunicative and unhelpful… We have been lied to on numerous occasions and been told that the build would be ready again and again when it was obvious it would not. We sold our properties on the strength of what they told us and ended up at in rented accommodation for 8 months (at great expense)”.

The e-mail also states that

“when one thing is fixed we find another. Many of the other residents have experienced horrendous problems eg sewage coming up through baths and sinks onto carpets, ceilings collapsing and many other problems. The resident above us is currently experiencing his 4th water leak and water is seeping into our apartment”.

I shall not read her e-mail in full, because it would take too long. However, the crux of the matter comes in her final comments:

“We feel that we have more rights buying a packet of crisps than a £285K luxury apartment. We have paid the builder and we are not getting what we paid for. We moved to a new build so we would not have any problems - we now have more problems with this build than we have had with all the older properties we bought put together!”

That highlights one constituent’s problems, but, as my research shows, the same problems—although perhaps not as bad as in that development—affect many people in many parts of the country.

My constituent’s comments about having more rights when buying a packet of crisps than when buying an new house touch on one the central problems in dealing with the issue. For many people, a new home—possibly a new build home—will be the biggest purchase of their lives. However, practical remedies are not available to them as consumers to enable them to deal with problems that can arise when buying such a property. That contrasts with the simplest and cheapest items that one might buy in a corner shop, when consumers benefit from legislation, such as the Sale of Goods Act 1979, which, of course, does not apply to new build homes. As a result, consumers have fewer legal rights than if they bought a packet of crisps in a local shop.

One problem is that the purchase of houses or flats, whether new build or older properties, is covered by property law. There are differences between Scotland and England, but the general point is still a reasonable one. Property law is governed essentially by the rule of buyer beware, which gives consumers much less protection than they would have if they enjoyed legal rights similar to those that apply under the 1979 Act.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. Has he had difficulties with factoring companies as a result of such sales? We have had major difficulties with companies such as Greenbelt Group Ltd and Ross and Liddle taking constituents of mine to court. They were charging up to £400 a year for a service that they did not provide.

My hon. Friend makes a good point. Problems can arise with factoring companies or property management companies—or however they want to describe themselves. Certainly constituents of mine have raised such concerns, although the case that I just referred to did not involve that problem. However, it is certainly an indication of the kind of problems that arise for many people living in new build flats in particular. Action needs to be taken, perhaps at a devolved level in my hon. Friend’s case, or at a UK level. That problem needs to be attended to.

On the extension of consumer protection to the buyer of a new build property, the problem was recognised by the Housing Improvement Task Force set up by the Scottish Executive some years ago. In 2003—five years ago, which illustrates part of the difficulty—it reported:

“We believe that caveat emptor”—

the buyer beware principle—

“may need to be qualified in respect of new build developments, where the sale is not between two private individuals and where the builder is in a similar position to other commercial providers of goods and services who are expected to comply with consumer protection legislation”.

That highlights another problem faced by those buying new build properties. In effect, they must accept the developer’s terms, or they do not get the house. They have no alternative or room to negotiate for a better deal.

The developer will normally have a standard builders missive or contract. In theory, in some circumstances, the purchaser might be able to withdraw from a contract to buy the property and get their money back, but that is not normally a realistic option in practice. It is not much use if people have had to wait for years to get their property, and then they find that their only option is to try to cancel the deal, dump all their furniture in the street and start all over again. That is not a realistic option for most people who buy new build property, or indeed any property, even though it might apply in theory in some cases.

We need changes to the law to give people who buy newly built houses or flats much greater consumer protection, and as my hon. Friend the Minister knows, it is a UK-wide problem, because consumer protection is a reserved matter for the UK Parliament. Aspects of it relate to devolved legislation, but the consumer protection aspect requires action at UK level. Although I refer to cases in Scotland and in my constituency, the problem applies UK-wide, and the consumer organisations have requested a change in the law at UK level, which I certainly support.

There must be changes in the law, such as providing people who buy new build flats or houses rights similar to those under the 1979 Act. However, there must also be important changes in practice, too. Many organisations have agued that the standard new build missive must be much fairer to buyers. For example, there should be a specific entry date, rather than a vague entry date that is not worth the paper that it is written on.

My colleague, Helen Eadie MSP, recently submitted a Bill to the Scottish Parliament designed to bring about precisely that change to the law to ensure that there is a specific entry date for new property. However, she has been advised—whether correctly is open to discussion—that because of the consumer protection provisions, it is a reserved matter for the UK Parliament, so she can no longer pursue it as a private Member’s Bill in the Scottish Parliament. Again, the situation indicates that we need action not only at Scottish level, but at UK level. We need action to ensure that, when people in Scottish constituencies are affected, the two levels of government work together to find a solution. Furthermore, there must be better self-regulation by the housing industry, as the consumer organisations have said. I do not have time to go into that issue, but it is another part of the solution.

Having made some suggestions for change, I recognise that other proposals might be introduced to deal with the situation. I first raised the issue almost six years ago, and there has certainly been a great deal of talk, but not much action. Recently, however, the Office of Fair Trading has begun an investigation into the issue—an important step that I hope will result in an improvement in the situation for people who have such problems with new build property.

The first round of consultation by the OFT has concluded, but I have been told that it would welcome the submission of evidence of such problems. I shall certainly be submitting to the OFT examples from my constituency, and if any of my constituents watching the debate decide to send me information, I shall submit that, too. However, I should ask that people in other constituencies do not send me information, because when I raised the issue previously, I received correspondence from throughout the UK. That illustrates the problem, but the evidence should nevertheless go to the individual’s MP.

The OFT is carrying out a study, so I am sure that the Minister will tell us that he wants to wait for its report before the Government come to a conclusion on the matter, which I understand. However, I ask him to assure us that, when the OFT reports, the Government will act urgently to make changes to give proper consumer protection to people who buy newly built homes and flats and who find that they have such problems. In particular, as an MP representing a Scottish constituency, I ask him to ensure that the appropriate UK Departments get together with the appropriate Scottish Departments, the relevant consumer organisations and legal and trade interests to ensure that the action that I have called for is implemented throughout the UK.

As I have indicated, apparently, this involves some complex areas of law, which may have caused the delay in taking action in Scotland in particular, but we cannot wait too much longer for action—not much longer at all, I hope. The number of new build developments is increasing in most constituencies—certainly in mine and in that of my hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Mr. Devine) more than in others. Therefore, we cannot wait for action indefinitely. We want it soon, and I should like a commitment from the Minister that the Government recognise the seriousness of the problem and that they will take early action, including on the issues that overlap the Scottish and UK levels of government. Co-operation between the various interests should resolve that overlap, and I am sure the Minister agrees that it should not be an excuse for inactivity.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz) on obtaining the debate and on his assiduity in pursuing the issue for the time that he has. It is clearly important to his constituency and to my hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Mr. Devine), given his intervention.

I listened in particular when my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith read out that extract detailing the frustration of his constituent. No one who has ever bought a home could fail to be sympathetic to the frustration that his constituent has endured. My hon. Friend raised two broad areas of concern for new home buyers: snagging and the rectification of faults, and delays in completion. He made specific requests about the OFT study, and I can assure him that, once we have seen the study, we will ensure that its conclusions are discussed with officials in the Scottish Executive. I welcome my hon. Friend’s writing to the OFT directly, and I shall bring his remarks to the OFT’s attention.

Will my hon. Friend the Minister also include the role of factoring companies in his discussions with the OFT? Companies such as Greenbelt Group take over the common land and own it in perpetuity, so regardless of whether they provide a good service, people have to pay and the companies have a monopoly, which is totally unacceptable, as I am sure my hon. Friend will agree.

I hear my hon. Friend’s concerns, and I am happy to draw them to the OFT’s attention. I should also be happy if my hon. Friend would like to meet separately to discuss them.

There are already some initiatives regarding the two areas of concern that my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith discussed. The Council of Mortgage Lenders has introduced a revised finalling procedure, under which lenders will not release the mortgage funds on a property until a satisfactory final inspection has been completed and confirmation has been given that a full new home warranty will be in place on or before the entry date. It follows a similar initiative in England and Wales that was successful in reducing the number of failed pre-handover inspections. There have also been discussions between the Law Society of Scotland and Homes for Scotland—the umbrella organisation for the home building industry in Scotland—about standard terms for the builders missives, the conveyancing contract.

Those initiatives will be helpful in addressing the issues that my hon. Friend has raised, but he will recognise that such matters fall within the purview of the Scottish Executive. I have no doubt that the Executive will be interested in what the OFT has to say. I hope that he recognises that I am not in a position to comment at length on matters that fall within the responsibility of the Scottish Executive, but I repeat that I will ensure that the outcome of the OFT study is discussed with Executive officials.

I accept that my hon. Friend the Minister cannot act on matters within the purview of the Scottish Executive, but I reiterate that Helen Eadie MSP has been advised by the legal officers of the Scottish Parliament that she cannot introduce legislation on an entry date, because it falls within UK reserved competence. I hope that the Minister’s Department will consider that before it assumes that it is a Scottish Executive responsibility. I am concerned that we could end up with years of argument between the two levels of government about who is responsible, and we do not want that to happen. I hope that he will ensure that his Department notes that there is some argument about where responsibility lies.

I note my hon. Friend’s intervention, and I have heard his point about the discussions that have taken place in Scotland between Helen Eadie MSP and the Scottish Executive. I would be happy to receive direct representations on those discussions from either my hon. Friend or Ms Eadie herself.

My hon. Friend also mentioned a matter on which I do have specific and immediate responsibility for consumer protection: the Sale of Goods Act 1979, from which, as he rightly said, the purchase of homes is excluded. I hope that I can clarify why that is so, but I first wish to indicate again our welcome for the work that the OFT is engaging in. It is examining the home buyer’s purchasing experience and the fitness for purpose of new homes. It will consider the consumer protection and redress that are available, including the consumer legislation that applies, and whether changes are necessary. We expect that study to report in the autumn. My hon. Friend asked for early action, but he made an assumption that I do not wish to make. However, I assure him that we will give early consideration to the outcome of the report, particularly any recommendation that falls to my Department.

On the 1979 Act, there is not an exceptional omission or exclusion for housing. There is a much broader pattern and structure of how property law, covering land and buildings, is recognised. The law relating to property is distinct, forming a separate body of legislation and jurisprudence, reflecting the importance and value of transactions in land or property. As my hon. Friend will no doubt recognise, for transactions in land, it is particularly necessary that there should be clarity about exactly when ownership passes from one person to another and what is, and is not, included in any transfer. Property law has developed distinctively to meet those needs. Consumer law in general therefore does not apply to transactions in land or buildings, albeit with one significant exception.

Although consumer law and the statutory rights attached to consumer transactions do not generally apply to the purchase of a new home, it does not follow that the consumer is lacking in rights or redress when purchasing a new home. It is true that, on occasion, the buyer of a new home is in a weaker position than the builder. My hon. Friend may be aware of cases in which the developer has had standard terms prepared for the contract and not been willing to amend them. If there is unfairness in such standard terms, it can be addressed through the Unfair Terms in Consumer Contracts Regulations 1999. Under those regulations, a term that is found to be unfair is not binding on the consumer, and the Office of Fair Trading can take action to have standard terms altered if there is a view that they are unfairly weighted against the interests of the consumer. The purchaser of a new home therefore has rights and redress if a contract is not properly performed.

The most used remedies under the 1979 Act—the rejection of unsatisfactory goods by the purchaser or replacement by the vendor—are most unlikely to be appropriate for a dispute about the construction standards of a new house or flat. The contract can be annulled in extreme cases, but it is essentially tied to the property in question, and replacement with another house or flat is probably not realistic and may be undesirable for the buyer. I suggest to my hon. Friend that it is not surprising that the 1979 Act remedies are not appropriate, because they were framed for quite different situations. As I have indicated, we have an open mind about the possibility that new rights could be created for the benefit of consumers if the existing balance of rights and redress is found to be unsatisfactory.

My hon. Friend mentioned the suggestion by the Housing Improvement Task Force that it might be necessary to amend the rule of caveat emptor in relation to new build homes. Of course, any new legal provision that confers rights or imposes implied terms will, in some sense, qualify the simple rule of caveat emptor. I have no difficulty in principle with that idea but, as I hope my hon. Friend will recognise, we will want to hear what the OFT has to say on that in its report.

I say again that I am sympathetic to my hon. Friend’s concerns and particularly to the views of his constituents who have written to him about their experiences of buying new homes. I hope that he recognises that the situation that he described—that someone has more rights buying a packet of crisps than buying a new home—is not accurate, but we understand the frustration of people who have had bad experiences with rogue builders. That is one reason why the OFT is conducting its market study.

I recognise the need for us here in London, in the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, with our responsibility for consumer affairs as a reserved issue, to discuss the Scottish experience of the matter with the Scottish Executive. I have also offered to meet my hon. Friend the Member for Livingston about the issue that he raised, and I am happy to receive representations from Helen Eadie or my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith, on what Ms Eadie has discussed with the Scottish Executive.

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

Cetacean Mortality

On resuming—

I am delighted to have secured this opportunity to debate something that stirs the passions of many people around the coast of the UK, but also inland. When the Minister visits my constituency and other parts of Cornwall and the south-west early next week, I hope that it will be possible to continue the dialogue that we are commencing today.

As I shall explain in a moment, the issue certainly creates an environment in which there is much uncertainty. Perhaps it is appropriate to use a Rumsfeldism: there are many known unknowns, and probably as many unknown unknowns, when it comes to the science that surrounds the marine ecological system and our knowledge about the extent, population, health and mortality of cetaceans, which, of course, are the whales, dolphins and porpoises around our coast.

I should acknowledge at the outset the contribution of the Minister’s predecessors—the right hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley) and the hon. Member for Exeter (Mr. Bradshaw), who is now the Minister for the South West—and their work in this field. My conversations with them and with European Commissioner Joe Borg indicate a degree of sympathy and concern, although progress to achieve results is particularly slow.

I should also acknowledge the interest and co-operation of fishermen and fishing organisations in my part of the world. The Cornish Fish Producers Organisation and its chief executive, Paul Trebilcock, have co-operated in trying to achieve a better understanding, despite the fact that many accusations have been thrown at fishermen. They have allowed observers on their boats and assisted with investigation and mitigation measures to reduce cetacean by-catch. I believe that the Minister will be meeting Edwin Derriman, chief executive of the Cornwall Sea Fisheries Committee, next week.

On the environmental front, many organisations have taken a passionate and deep interest in the matter, including the Cornwall Wildlife Trust, particularly Dr. Nick Tregenza and Joanna Doyle, and many other national and international organisations, including the World Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace, Silver Dolphin marine conservation and diving centre at Penzance, the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society and Marine Connection.

I want to paint the background. The vision of a thriving marine environment and sustainable, economically viable fisheries is at the heart of what I believe the Government want to achieve, and I hope that the Minister will expand on that. One prominent issue that is hampering the achievement of that is the incidental by-catch of cetaceans in fishing gear. By-catch, which accounts for thousands and possibly tens of thousands of cetacean deaths worldwide each year, poses a major threat to the conservation of small cetaceans throughout the world’s oceans and is widely recognised as one of the most serious environmental impacts of modern commercial fishing. Apart from the direct impact on cetacean populations, by-catch may affect the structure and function of marine ecosystems at population, community and ecosystem levels. I believe that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has identified and acknowledged that.

Dolphins and porpoises are particularly good biological indicators of the status of the environment in which they live and can indicate problems in the food chain brought about by overfishing or changes in environmental conditions. Looking at the impact on dolphins and porpoises around the Cornish and south-west coasts involves looking primarily at the impact of the offshore industry, particularly of pair trawling—predominantly a French industry, but it involves a few Scottish boats—and the set nets around the inshore waters of Cornwall and the south-west. An indicator of the seriousness of the concern that many people have, particularly environmentalists in the area, is the bottlenose dolphin. I raised that issue in a parliamentary question to the Minister last Thursday.

The number of bottlenose dolphins had recovered in the area to an estimated 16 or 20 in 1991, but has fallen, following a further stranding at St. Ives last year, to six. They are fascinating creatures, and local Admiralty charts show dolphin pools where fishermen have seen dolphins fishing for themselves by pushing shoals into a bay and then catching the fish as they try to escape. They use intelligent methods of fishing, which make them a fascinating source of study.

In recent years, many innovative approaches have been put to the test in an attempt to reduce by-catch in set net fisheries particularly. Potential by-catch mitigation techniques include gear modifications, such as acoustic deterrents or pingers, on which I hope the Minister will comment, and fisheries management, such as seasonal and geographical closure of specific fisheries.

Under the EC habitats directive, the Government are obliged to monitor cetaceans around our coast. The main aim of the directive is to promote the maintenance of biodiversity by requiring member states to take measures to maintain natural habitats and wild species at, or to restore them to, a favourable conservation status by introducing robust protection for those habitats and species of European importance.

The directive requires member states to introduce a range of measures, including protection of species listed in its annexes, to undertake surveillance of habitat and species and to produce a report every six years on its implementation. The Government have designated two sites on the Moray firth and in Cardigan bay as special areas of conservation for bottlenose dolphins in accordance with the UK’s obligations under the directive.

The UK participated in major European surveys of small cetaceans in the European Atlantic and North sea—the SCANS, or small cetacean abundance in the North sea and adjacent waters, I and II surveys—in 1993 and 2005, which were unable to detect inshore bottlenose dolphins off south-western and Cornish coasts. We are not aware of any formal systematic surveying of bottlenose dolphins in south-western and Cornish inshore waters.

There was a significant difference in the SCANS. In 1993, the common dolphin population in the Celtic sea was estimated to be approximately 75,000. By the time of SCANS II in 2005, it was less than one third of that, but that reduction was attributed to better counting methods rather than a decline. Given the wide variability in those figures, I want to emphasise the unreliability or uncertainty of the data with which we are dealing.

With the movement of common dolphins into southern waters, it has been very noticeable that around 2,000 a year are caught in inshore fisheries in the Celtic sea. Apart from the bottlenose dolphin groups in the Moray firth and Cardigan bay, there are other groups, including those around the Cornish and south-western coasts. It is estimated that they colonised the Cornish coast some time after the last ice age, about 12,000 years ago, but died out in the second half of the last century because of organochlorine pollution. That is now much reduced, and they recolonised those coastal waters in 1991. They have been monitored by local agencies, and their decline has been noted.

All those matters are a cause for deep concern with a significant loss of cetaceans around our coast. Environmental scientists—certainly the Wildlife Trust—have been working very productively with fishermen, both inshore and offshore, to try better to understand the science. Other efforts include the tagging and dropping of dolphins at different distances from the shore, so that we get a better understanding of which fisheries the strandings are likely to come from. It seems that offshore by-catch is most likely to be masked because of the distances that the carcases must travel to be stranded on the coast. It sounds logical, but science is needed properly to understand the issue.

On 8 October last year, the Minister responded to my letter of 7 September. He stated:

“The latest UK and international figures indicate that these have remained steady in UK waters over the last decade and are higher than for most of the post World War Two period.”

He goes on to state that

“these by-catch totals are on their own unlikely to represent a major conservation threat to dolphins or porpoises.”

However, that is on the basis of what is known within the UK. The biggest threat to dolphin and cetacean by-catch in the western approaches comes from French pair trawlers. As the Minister knows, I have been in contact with the French embassy about that issue. It has been rather slow in co-operating with me over the years. However, the French ambassador has now said that the French Government have completed their annual report on the implementation measures contained within European Council regulation 812, which has been sent to the European Commission. They are indicating to me that they wish to co-operate.

The Minister has given me figures—I would say that they are rather unreliable—about the extent of by-catch within the industry. However, no attempt has been made to cross-tally those figures with those held by other European states. We need to know whether the by-catch estimates for common dolphins will prove to be significant in the light of the recent SCANS II survey, which I have mentioned and which shows that the Celtic sea common dolphin population is about one third of the previous SCANS I survey estimate.

I know that the Minister seeks to address those issues, and I look forward to his response with regard to monitoring the problem. There is a wish within the community in Cornwall that the environmentalists and wildlife experts and enthusiasts co-operate with the fishing industry to monitor the health and mortality of the cetacean populations and to investigate mitigation measures, such as closed areas or the development of more sophisticated and more effective pinger systems.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. I, too, am waiting to hear what the Minister says. One of the saddest things was in the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society report, which has been sent to all UK MPs. Unfortunately, for our Government, it evaluates the efforts that they are making and states:

“The issues evaluated include fisheries by-catch (2/10), chemical pollution (4/10), noise pollution (1/10), boat traffic (1/10) and climate change (3/10)”

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, if we are to stop the decline in our cetacean numbers and provide the right sort of habitat, the Government must do considerably more? Their intentions are good—everybody’s intentions are good—but the issue is one of delivery. I hope that the hon. Gentleman agrees that that is what we are looking for from the Minister today.

The hon. Gentleman is saying that there is a great deal of disputation as well as an attempt on the part of the partners involved in this process to try to find common ground, so that they can work together to find solutions. Clearly, if the fishing industry is prepared to work with environmentalists, that is an important first step. The Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society has offered constructive remarks, as well as reasonable criticism. We want to encourage the Government by praising them when they do well and castigating them when they are not making fast enough progress.

Will the Minister tell me how the Government are fulfilling their obligations under the EC habitats directive to monitor bottlenose dolphins around the Cornish and south-west coast? Given the significant uncertainty and varying estimates of population and the health and viability of many species, what plans do the Government have to adopt more accurate measuring methods?

Have the Government fully evaluated acoustic monitoring, which has been used successfully in locations such as the Baltic sea and New Zealand and developed locally in Cornwall? How does the new estimate of common dolphin numbers impact upon the UK’s assessment of current by-catch figures and the effect of by-catch on dolphin populations in the north-east Atlantic? In the absence of a porpoise special area of conservation around the UK, will the Government consider monitoring porpoises acoustically in existing special areas of conservation and around the Isles of Scilly, which also fall within my constituency?

Will the Minister advise on any potential funding streams to help to support the monitoring and experimental mitigation projects? What discussions have the Minister and his Department had with the European Commission, and the French especially, about the implementation of the European regulation that I mentioned earlier? What further efforts will the Department be prepared to support with regard to further pinger trials, the use of closed areas and other measures?

When the Minister comes to Cornwall next week, he will notice that people want to work co-operatively with each other and the Government.

I congratulate the hon. Member for St. Ives (Andrew George) on securing this debate and on the way he has presented the case. He referred to people’s passion about these wonderful creatures. He referred to the dolphin report compiled by the Wildlife Trust in his area. I have received a copy of it and we applaud the work of the Wildlife Trust.

We must ensure that the issue of cetaceans, dolphins and porpoises remains in the public eye. Pressure is brought on Government and questions are asked both by hon. Members in this House and by outside organisations. I argue that we have a good track record. The shadow Minister, my friend the hon. Member for Leominster (Bill Wiggin), who follows me around, said that there is still more for us to do. We might not be as good as he expects, but that is all part of the cut and thrust of this debate. I welcome it.

What the hon. Member for St. Ives says in raising those issues is important. It is important that we are held to account. I am pleased that he has called this debate. I look forward to visiting his wonderful constituency and meeting the folk down there. I hope that we have the opportunity to discuss the issue.

We know that the seas around the UK host more than 25 species of whale, dolphin and porpoise. Some of those species make their home in our waters, while others are welcome seasonal or occasional visitors. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the seas around his area in the south-west of England are rich in cetaceans; they can play host to as many as 14 different species. Those species contribute to the UK having one of the richest marine environments anywhere in the world, and I share his concerns. It is important that those species are properly protected.

Effective conservation of those species and the marine environment are key parts of DEFRA’s over-arching goal of living within our environmental means. We want to ensure that we are operating within environmental limits and have healthy marine ecosystems and marine wildlife. Many whales, dolphins and porpoises are very mobile and part of a wide-ranging species. To be effective, conservation measures must be taken at international as well as national level.

The hon. Gentleman rightly mentioned the world’s population of cetaceans and asked what we can do about that. Obviously, there are more constraints in that regard than in relation to our own waters, but I suggest that those involved in illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing are most likely to be involved in the by-catch of dolphins.

We are involved with the European Union. I am referring to the Commission’s policy to ensure that there is better reporting and that better processes are in place so that we can reduce illegal and unreported fishing in the world. Companies such as Youngs Bluecrest in Grimsby will be able to demonstrate, from the trawl to the processing factory, where their fish have been caught. There are standards, which is important, not least because the consumer wants to ensure that there are good environmental standards. That is part of the equation. If we can reduce illegal fishing across the world, there is likely to be a correlation with the amount of by-catch and we will reduce dolphin mortality in that way.

What conversations and discussions has the Minister had with his European counterparts, particularly the French, whom I mentioned earlier? They tell me that they are following the 2004 regulation, but I have not seen much evidence to show that they are taking measures to reduce dolphin by-catch in the pair trawl industry.

I just wanted to give some perspective on a wider scale and explain what we are trying to do with the common fisheries policy in engaging countries, particularly African countries, that are subject to massive illegal and unreported fishing. They do not have the resources to police their fishing areas properly. I will come to the French in due course.

We know that populations of some cetaceans in UK waters have remained steady over the past decade, but we must not be complacent. That is why the UK has been among the most active of countries in taking steps to ensure that these highly valued species are properly protected.

Cetaceans in UK waters are protected by both domestic and European legislation. The Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 and the habitats regulations offer a strict system of protection for cetaceans in our territorial waters. Last year, we introduced the Offshore Marine Conservation (Natural Habitats, &c.) Regulations 2007 and that strict protection now extends to our offshore area.

The UK is a party to the agreement on the conservation of small cetaceans in the Baltic and North seas and to the convention for the protection of the marine environment of the north-east Atlantic. That is the OSPAR—Oslo and Paris—convention. We continue to be committed to achieving the aims of those agreements through co-operation in research and management measures to conserve cetaceans.

In addition to delivering strict legal protection for cetaceans and co-operating under international agreements, the UK Government have provided some £5.3 million of funding for cetacean research since 1995. To obtain a clearer picture of cetacean abundance and distribution, we have contributed £500,000 to two important survey projects: SCANS II and the CODA—cetacean offshore distribution and abundance—project. Those studies have provided us with a clearer understanding of the abundance and distribution of cetaceans in both UK and European waters.

To understand better the causes of cetacean mortality, approximately £2.3 million has been spent on a scheme for recording the incidence of stranded cetaceans around the UK. That ongoing research, co-ordinated by the Institute of Zoology, provides important data on trends in cetacean mortality. It is the most comprehensive and well funded scheme of its type in Europe. I will ask for details of it and provide that information to the hon. Gentleman. I am sure that he will find it interesting. The reports from the research over the past three years suggest that the level of strandings has remained relatively constant. In fact, preliminary results for 2007 suggest a decline in the number of reported strandings that equates to 200 animals.

Although abundance estimates tell us that populations of studied cetaceans in UK waters have remained steady over the past 10 years, our research on strandings tells us that those species continue to be impacted by certain human activities. We realise that the by-catch of cetaceans in some fisheries is a problem. The Government are committed to working towards reducing that cause of cetacean mortality. That is why we provided an additional £1.6 million for the period 2000 to 2005 for research into cetacean by-catch and associated mitigation measures. Again, that research is ongoing.

In 2003, we published the UK small cetacean by-catch response strategy, which set out our approach to addressing cetacean mortality through fisheries by-catch. Since then, we have continued to work at home and in Europe to implement measures to mitigate the causes of by-catch. The UK has a comprehensive by-catch monitoring scheme, which allows for observers, to which the hon. Gentleman referred, to monitor levels of by-catch per haul in a number of fisheries. That work gives us a better understanding of which fisheries are impacting on cetaceans. We use that information to make annual reports to the European Commission on observed by-catch levels in various fisheries.

The UK’s last by-catch monitoring report to the European Commission estimates that between 2005 and 2006, 460 to 730 porpoises and 410 to 610 common dolphins were killed in pelagic trawl and static net fisheries off south and west England. The abundance estimates that we have for harbour porpoises and common dolphins in UK waters suggest populations in the hundreds of thousands. Given those estimates, the level of by-catch monitored does not suggest that by-catch by the UK fleet represents a significant conservation threat for these species in UK waters.

Does the Minister accept that some of these populations are not as migratory or mobile as perhaps some of those estimates suggest? The decline of some of the very localised inshore populations gives cause for concern. I hope that he will support efforts to research that issue and to support the Wildlife Trust in doing so.

We need to ensure that we have the best available information. I will certainly have that further conversation with the hon. Gentleman when I go to the south-west.

With regard to activity by French fishing vessels, it is of course for each member state to monitor its own vessels and to report back to the Commission. We have taken the unilateral action of banning pair trawling, as the hon. Gentleman is aware. We argued our case vigorously, but the Commission did not support that. We will continue to argue our case in Europe because we believe that that is the right thing to do. I will keep the hon. Gentleman and, indeed, the House apprised of our progress on that.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned pingers. Research is being done on that. There is not an effective pinger system at the moment, although we expect new developments, which we want to trial with the industry. His point about co-operation is key to reducing by-catch mortality. There must be a partnership and it must be one of mutual understanding from all sides if it is to be successful.

We must be vigilant in addressing other potential threats to cetacean populations. There has been work to assess the potential impact of undersea noise, for example. The Joint Nature Conservation Committee has published guidance for operators in the oil and gas industry. The habitats directive imposes important regulations for conservation purposes.

We have in place a number of different strands of legislation. Our commitment is shown by the money that we have put in. We do not rest on our laurels. We know that there is more work to do. There is pressure on the Government. That is right, because these beautiful creatures need conserving and preserving and we want to see their populations grow.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for initiating the debate. It was a necessary one for us to have in the House and I look forward to having discussions with him in the beautiful county of Cornwall next week.

Question put and agreed to.

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