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Westminster Hall

Volume 472: debated on Tuesday 4 March 2008

Westminster Hall

Tuesday 4 March 2008

[Mr. Peter Atkinson in the Chair]

Free-range Produce (Animal Welfare)

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

It is a pleasure to be here under your chairmanship, Mr. Atkinson, and to have the opportunity to discuss the issue of animal welfare, particularly in relation to poultry and the chicken industry.

I admit from the start that I have never shown a great interest in animal welfare in the 10 or 11 years that I have been doing this job; many of my constituents have raised the issue, but it is not something on which I have spoken in Parliament before. Bluntly, my motivation for doing so comes from lying in front of the television after eating far too much at Christmas and watching the celebrity chefs, Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, on those excellent Channel 4 programmes that looked at animal welfare. My daughter Alice prodded me to watch the programmes. There is a generation of young children who take such issues to heart, but the programmes shown on the BBC and Channel 4 were excellent for broadening the matter out and for raising awareness among a much wider audience.

I should also praise the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which has continually raised the matter. Many Members will have been subject to its lobby campaigns—the organisation is extremely smart at arranging for constituents to participate in postcard campaigns. Its persistence has done great service to animal welfare.

Such issues are not a flash in the pan—they have been around for some time—and I do not think that those concerning the chicken industry will go away. The television programmes to which I referred have started a process that I believe will continue. Both the BBC and Channel 4 plan to make follow-up programmes, and the celebrity chefs to whom I referred will be fairly persistent.

Although the focus of the debate is chickens, there are many other animal welfare issues, and I apologise for the fact that I shall not be able to touch on them in the time available. I shall say something about the pig industry because it is lobbying Parliament today, and it has some animal welfare issues.

The chicken campaign is not only to do with animal welfare, but our health. The programmes made a strong case for the importance of healthy eating and the way in which the food that we eat is bred. Obviously, the matter is significant for supermarkets and retailers; for consumers, because of the costs involved in raising standards; and for Parliament and politics. I apologise in advance to the Minister because I recognise that some of those matters are not in his portfolio, but I hope he will be helpful in perhaps undertaking some cross-party work on them.

I rise early to thank the hon. Gentleman for those remarks and to pass on apologies from the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Jonathan Shaw), who is at an important conference today. He has asked me to stand in for him, so I am grateful for what the hon. Gentleman said.

The other overriding comment that I wanted to make before getting into the detail is that I do not wish to attack farmers, supermarkets or any particular industry. If we are to make genuine progress, it is apparent that the various sectors need to work together, albeit that there are conflicting interests at times, and there is a fair amount of anger among farmers about how supermarkets operate. We need to recognise that both sides have difficulties.

I should establish some parameters in the language that I will use. There is a danger that the term “free-range”, which is in the title of the debate, is overused. There is a misunderstanding, which I certainly fell into, that animal welfare campaigners are asking for free-range produce. That is not the case: well managed, indoor-bred chickens that meet high welfare standards are perfectly acceptable. The phrases with which I am more comfortable are “freedom food” or “welfare standards”. We should not fall into the trap of assuming that we are always looking for free-range produce, because the alternatives can be just as acceptable for animal welfare.

I should give some of the background statistics. I was staggered when my researchers told me that 850 million meat chickens are slaughtered every year in the UK, which is an enormous amount of chicken consumption. Around 98 per cent. of those are broilers, which are intensively reared in large, closed buildings, in which the temperature, lighting, ventilation and nutrition are controlled to ensure the highest and quickest growth possible. The chickens are designed and bred to put on weight rapidly and many of them have severe health problems as a result of the way in which they are farmed. In some cases, they are crammed in; the lack of space can limit their ability to move around and increase prolonged contact with soiled litter, which gives rise to painful ammonia burns to their feet, legs and breasts. That was graphically illustrated in the television programmes, which showed how the animals were treated. The light is kept deliberately low to discourage activity, but it is kept on all the time to encourage the birds to increase their weight as quickly as possible. However, the chickens simply do not get adequate rest. Many of the birds are kept in barren sheds with no opportunity to express natural behaviour such as perching, ground pecking and foraging.

Research shows that the consequence is poor animal welfare. In 2000, the EU carried out a groundbreaking study that looked at the link between breeding practice and welfare. More recently, as a result of a study by Bristol university, which was sponsored by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, we have more detailed information about the impact that production methods have on welfare. For those who were sceptical about the television programmes, that study, independently sponsored, sets out some alarming findings. For example, at a mean age of 40 days, more than 27 per cent. of birds showed poor locomotion, and 3 per cent. were almost unable to walk. The study’s conclusion said that

“a debate on the sustainability of current practice in the production of this important food source”

is needed. Will the Minister say whether the Department has had a chance to look at the study, as I would hope, and what it plans to do next? Does the Minister feel that the Bristol study should result in any particular activities? Both anecdotal and detailed research by universities shows that we have a problem.

What about consumers? We know that they are looking for change because there was an enormous change in buying practice in the two or three weeks after Channel 4 broadcast its programmes. I talked to the managers of the various supermarkets in Winchester in my constituency and found that they quickly sold out of welfare birds. Sainsbury’s had to buy free-range chickens from France, so we are aware that consumers are prepared to change their habits.

Is my hon. Friend aware that there is another loser in the pattern that he is describing? Will he ask the Government about the small caterer? They traditionally serve free range, but they find that because the supermarkets are buying up supplies, they cannot get a consistent supply, or that the price has soared. There is a premium of something like £7 for a free-range chicken or 10p for a free-range egg, which severely damages places such as the Wetland centre in my constituency.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that the success story behind that changing pattern has a downside. There is a shortfall because of demand. As ever in such circumstances, the supermarkets—the big boys—can dominate and set the price. In the next six months or so, we could see an interesting fluctuation in prices as demand makes things difficult. There is enormous potential for British agriculture to meet the demand. If we get things right, I hope that we will see prices come down to a more acceptable level.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. It is not a new issue; I chaired the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee inquiry into the policy some years ago, and the figures show that the scale of distress for chickens is still at a high level.

The hon. Gentleman referred to Winchester supermarkets. He might stand with a clipboard in the car park of any supermarket in the Winchester area asking people to sign a petition to improve the welfare of chickens, but although 80 per cent. of people are aware that chickens are kept in cruel conditions, because they have busy lives and their budgets are under pressure they may dip into the chiller cabinet and pick out a chicken from Brazil or Thailand, where welfare standards are even lower. There is a problem of public awareness, is there not?

I suspect that if I stood in the car park with a petition, I would be thrown out; that is the usual practice, at least when trying to do anything political. The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point, one that it is backed by the RSPCA. It said that 90 per cent. of respondents to its survey would be prepared to buy a high-welfare-reared chicken. Interestingly, when asked how much extra people would spend only 27 per cent. of them said that they would spend £2 or more.

The hon. Gentleman’s point is backed by statistics. As ever in life, many of us talk a good talk, but putting it into practice is something different. Sometimes that is the result of laziness and lack of motivation. I recognise, as did the television programmes, that for some families a very real financial cost is involved. I tried to change my habits recently in terms of the purchase price. In some supermarkets, a chicken costing £14 or £15 is expensive compared with the £4 chicken that one could buy.

The RSPCA runs an admirable freedom food campaign. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that indoor-bred birds with a freedom food label cost about £1 more than the standard bird. That leap in price is not enormous.

I agree. If one considers the way in which the various supermarkets choose to price their birds, one can see that some are at the high end. My slight suspicion is that they are using the current campaign to charge a little more for welfare birds. The hon. Member is right that the RSPCA’s work is practical. The RSPCA is also conscious of the costs involved, which is why many of the welfare tags that it attaches to birds and other animals come at a sensible price. None of this will work if we freeze out a large number of consumers.

I believe that there is an encouraging precedent. Similar arguments took place six or seven years ago on egg production, but practice has changed there. We have seen affordable welfare-raised eggs coming on to the market, and we have seen consumers changing their practice. We have seen the industry change before, and I am confident that we can get the prices right for poultry.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. Is he saying that the supply of a particular product encourages the consumer, or that the consumer is driving the change in practice? I believe that the consumer is king, and that British agriculture will deliver whatever the consumer demands.

That sounds rather like asking whether it is the chicken or the egg—or the egg and the chicken. I do not imply that my hon. Friend was trying to make that joke: self-evidently, both come together. The catalyst in this case is publicity; it has raised awareness and we have a really good opportunity on the back of the current media campaign to push forward and to get both sides to come together. However, as I said at the start, I do not say that one side is wrong and the other right. We must all work together.

Has the hon. Gentleman noticed a breach between chickens grown locally and those grown overseas, and whether there is an increasing gap between them?

I am not aware of an issue in relation to cost—I have not been briefed on the matter—but I am aware, and the hon. Gentleman will be aware, of the real difference in the welfare standards of poultry reared in this country and abroad. I am confident, as ever, that British agriculture meets the highest possible standards of welfare. If there was one simple message to come from the campaign, it is that one way to be reassured that one is getting good welfare-raised poultry is to buy British whenever possible.

I turn to the role of the supermarkets. As I said in response to the hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor), the supermarkets’ response to the current debate is variable. The good and positive news is that companies such as Marks and Spencer and Waitrose do not stock standard chicken, and that Tesco and others are desperately moving towards that position. That has to be the biggest and most encouraging change that we have seen. Bluntly, if consumers cannot get hold of poorly reared chicken it will change attitudes.

Supermarkets need to undertake further work on labelling. As the consumer walks down the aisle and looks at the labels, it can be hard to tell quickly which chickens have been reared properly. Some poorly reared animals are packed cleverly with pictures of a farm, a barn and lots of green grass. We need to standardise labelling. It would be helpful to hear the Minister’s thoughts on the subject. Much work has been done by the National Farmers Union and others with the red tractor campaign, but a little more needs to be done by the supermarkets, particularly if we are to have clarity about where chickens are sourced.

The supermarkets are helped by the work of the RSPCA and its freedom food campaign. The welfare standards developed by the RSPCA give me a great deal of assurance. When considering whether to issue a freedom food award, it takes account of animal welfare and advice from veterinary specialists. I believe that that provides a good model for change. The freedom food label is now used for eggs, chicken, duck, turkey, salmon, beef, lamb, pork and dairy products. The good news is that in 2005, about 6.5 million chickens were reared to the RSPCA standard; by the end of 2006, that figure had increased to 20 million. The latest figures show a further increase to 40 million. That is an encouraging trend.

We, as parliamentarians, could put pressure on all supermarkets to make a firm commitment to move towards sourcing their products from a higher-welfare standard by a certain time. Sainsbury’s says that it will do so by 2010; we should look for more public statements to be made by supermarkets.

I am conscious of the time, Mr. Atkinson, but I want to speak about farmers before turning to legislation and other matters important to us as politicians. As we know, farmers are often highly criticised on the matter of animal welfare. Three relatives of mine are farmers, and they spend most of their time with me on Sundays roasting me on the subject. I know that many of them would like to do much more when it comes to animal welfare, but they find themselves tied down in a number of areas.

I hope that the Minister will consider a couple of issues that concern the industry. I said earlier that the egg industry has been a good example of progress—to such an extent that 85 per cent. of eggs currently meet welfare standards. However, that has resulted in more demand being placed on British egg producers to produce eggs to that standard. However, I understand that there is a very practical difficulty, in that many find it difficult to get planning permission to expand, and to build on the extra land needed to produce eggs of that quality. The demand is there, as is the opportunity to make money, but planning in rural areas is becoming difficult. Will the Minister say something about that? It would certainly help British farmers to gain from this expanded industry.

I also wanted to make a point about the quality of British farming. One of the concerns of our farmers is that, as this country moves ahead in its welfare standards, that will leave the door open to poor quality, cheaper imports. If we, as politicians, along with the media and consumers are pushing for our farmers to improve welfare standards, we really have a responsibility not to let them suffer financially because of poorer quality imports.

That is one of the concerns that will be raised today when the pig farmers come to lobby Parliament. Stewart Houston, the British Pig Executive chairman, summed it up by saying:

“Two thirds of all imported produce would be illegal to produce in the UK as it does not meet our higher welfare standards.”

If that is the case, it must be very galling indeed for British farmers who are meeting those standards to discover that our supermarkets are full of products that do not meet them, which is putting our farmers out of business.

My hon. Friend makes a very important point about pork and pig meat imports into this country. Another important statistic to put alongside that one about imports is that pig production in this country has been reduced by about 30 or 40 per cent. That has increased the demand for the amount of pigmeat coming into this country that is produced in less than satisfactory conditions.

My hon. Friend represents a very large farming and rural community and he is obviously right. He will know, of course, that, at the moment, many pig farmers are losing up to £20 per pig, and that is not the type of job or industry that anybody would wish to be in. There are very few people who would produce a product where they lost that amount of money per item.

I will move towards a conclusion by looking at some of the legislative issues and some of the ways in which, as politicians, we may be able to address these problems. Legislation that deals with animal welfare is quite varied. The key piece of legislation revolves around the assured chicken production standards. These standards require that chickens have ready access to water, are nutritionally sound, have sufficient space and a hygienic environment, and have the freedom to express normal behaviour. However, if those standards are in place now, it is quite clear, given the studies that have taken place and some of the problems that exist, that they are not necessarily adequate. Many animals are falling foul of those standards.

As ever, the EU has legislated in the area of animal welfare. An EU Council directive— 2007/43/EC—gained political agreement in May 2007. That new EU directive will come into force on 30 June 2010. It sets out minimum standards for the protection of chickens reared for meat production. Now, that is obviously welcome in relation to most of Europe, where those standards needed to rise. The directive itself allows 42 kg of birds per square metre. However, the difficulty with the directive, and it is why I seek some reassurance from the Minister, is that British standards run way ahead of that standard already. Our standard is for 38 kg of birds per square metre. The perverse side of this EU directive is that it could allow a lowering of standards in this country if farmers were to comply with it. I seek some reassurance from the Minister that the Government will make it very clear to farmers that they need to stick by the British standard and not revert to an EU standard that would make animal welfare worse.

Another issue in relation to Europe is that there is a slight concern that there are some in the EU who are trying to delay the proposed ban on battery cages, which is due to come into force by 2012. Again, if the Minister could reassure me on that issue, I would be grateful.

There is also a slight problem with the House of Commons. Immediately after the television programmes on animal welfare were broadcast, I decided to table a parliamentary question to find out how much free-range food, including free-range chicken, we consumed in the House of Commons. I think that there are about 22 restaurants and bars in this place, so we consume a fair amount. The answer came back from the House of Commons Commission that, in fact, less than 10 per cent. of the food that we consume here is sourced from free-range goods. It seems to me that if we are trying to influence and persuade others of the importance of this issue, we could make a jolly good start by getting our own house in order.

In many cases, I think that we could solve this problem fairly quickly. The RSPCA has been very helpful in that regard and I am seeking at the moment to arrange a meeting between the RSPCA and the House of Commons Commission, which oversees food production for the Commons. Again, if the Minister could say something helpful to me on that issue, it might help me to arrange that meeting a little more quickly, because at the moment it seems to be taking a bit of time to arrange it. The RSPCA is certainly happy to come here with practical suggestions about how the House of Commons catering could do much more to get that figure for free-range food up from 10 per cent.

Another area in which I would welcome some support from the Minister is in trying to see what we could do to help with providing better quality food in our schools. Again, Jamie Oliver led a big campaign on this issue two or three years ago and the Government responded; that campaign was about trying to move children away from turkey twizzlers and towards eating more salads. However, there is still an alarming problem, in that much of the food sourced in our schools throughout the country is food that we would neither wish our children to eat nor food that we would purchase ourselves. From my perspective, having a couple of daughters who are now constantly on my case about this issue, the irony is that, when they go to school, they are probably eating food that they would find totally unacceptable.

In recent years, Hampshire education authority sourced its chicken for schools from Indonesia and I cannot begin to think what the animal welfare consequences of that decision are. I am pleased to say that, more recently, Hampshire county council has improved that situation and it is doing much more to try to source its food from other alternatives.

One of my pet subjects is that a lot of county councils still have their own farm estates and it galls me that one of the ways that we could make dramatic improvements in this area is to use those farm estates as the source for all food for educational institutions. However, that always seems to be too difficult and too expensive to achieve, which I find very disappointing.

The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point. Furthermore, one would see educational benefits from showing children how that food was produced. The issue relates to a fundamental theme that runs through all of the points that I am making, which is that there is a great opportunity for us to take a lead with British agriculture, sourcing these products locally wherever possible, as the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) said.

The good news is that some schools have changed practice. The Humphrey Perkins high school in Leicestershire is now one of the first schools to serve only free-range food. However, if the Minister could perhaps have a word with officials in the Department for Children, Schools and Families to see if there is anything that we can do to encourage local education authorities to change their practice in this regard, I would be grateful.

I have spoken for much longer than I intended and I apologise for that. A range of animal welfare issues affects consumers, retailers and ourselves as politicians. I have raised a couple of specific issues for the Minister to consider, but there is an open door now for real progress in this area. I hope that this morning’s debate will be a timely chance for us to take stock of where we are going on animal welfare and if, as politicians, we can use a light touch to help move animal welfare standards further on in a more positive direction, that would be welcome.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten) on securing the debate. He has raised some very important issues. Like him, I think that this is the first time that I have ever spoken on animal welfare issues in the House, although, unlike him, I did not see the recent television programmes on animal welfare that he mentioned.

I should probably start by outing myself, I guess, in that I have been vegetarian for nearly 27 years and vegan for 16 years, I think; the decision to become vegan, which, I think, I made in 1992, was one of those new year’s resolutions that I managed to keep. Obviously, therefore, I come to this debate with certain prejudices and I do not need to be convinced by watching the television programmes that others have been talking about.

Having said that, I very much welcome the interest that has been taken in this subject by people such as the celebrity chefs and the hon. Members attending today’s debate, and I also welcome the fact that the media have taken up the issue of the welfare of battery chickens. However, although it is great that the media are focusing on that one issue, it is only a small segment of some of the concerns that I have about animal welfare standards generally. There is a move towards industrial production of food; farming has become an industry. The sheer scale of production is enormous: as we have heard, 800 million chickens a year are produced in the UK. As that scale of production is replicated across the whole agriculture sector, I have real concerns about what that will mean for animal welfare standards.

I should say that I have no intention of getting anybody else to become a vegan, although a surprising number of my constituents are vegetarians. However, I hope that I can raise the issues of welfare standards and battery chickens, so that people can pick them up.

As we have heard, there will be a ban on battery cages from the beginning of 2012, but my concern is that enriched cages will still be permissible. If we look at the details, we see that such cages are only slightly larger than the battery cages that are legal at the moment. Although enriched cages have perches, the birds are still kept in very confined conditions, which means that they cannot fulfil their natural behaviours. We have gone a certain way down the road with battery cages, but the current alternatives are not particularly acceptable.

Barn eggs will, of course, still be legal. Although they are presented as an animal-friendly alternative, the birds can be kept in flocks of up to 16,000 to 20,000. Regulations state that there should be only nine birds per square metre, but studies have shown that as many as 15 birds can be crammed into that area. Birds often end up pecking each other featherless because of the distress caused by being so packed in. That is still a form of factory farming, even though the birds are not in cages.

Even with free-range eggs, there are concerns. The birds are housed in huge sheds, although they must obviously have outside access to be classed as free range. Often, the shed will have only a few small holes leading outside, and it can be quite difficult for some of the birds to access them, because of aggressive behaviour by other birds. Research by an Oxford university team in 2003 found that although free-range birds must, by law, be given eight hours’ access each day to the outdoors, fewer than 15 per cent. of the birds in very large systems, which hold up to 9,000 birds, could get outside in practice. We are therefore kidding ourselves if we feel that free range is the ideal solution and that we are meeting all the relevant standards just by classing something as free range. More than 75 per cent. of hens in the UK are kept in flocks of at least 20,000, so it is only the small producers who can guarantee that the welfare of free-range birds is being protected as it should.

There are other cruelties involved in mass production. Debeaking or beak trimming is carried out on a large proportion of laying hens, no matter what production system is used, and that includes free range. Birds are also fed artificial colorants so that their eggs have yellower yokes, and are required to produce more than 300 eggs a year, which is way more than a bird would naturally produce. As a result, the amount of calcium that birds must produce to make the egg shell means that they suffer from osteoporosis, although I do not quite understand the technicalities. Each year, about 2 million hens in battery cages die before the end of their natural lifespan.

Early-day motion 954 raises the issues brought up by the Jamie Oliver programme, including the gassing of the male chicks that are not needed. Two quite distinct strains of birds are produced in this country: those that are suitable for meat production and those that are suitable for egg laying. If the birds have been bred for egg laying, the male chicks will not be suitable as meat chickens and they are destroyed when they are a day old. The early-day motion rightly raises the issue of their being gassed, but other alternatives include a machine called an homogeniser, which minces the chicks alive. About 300 million male chicks are killed when they are a day old because they are no use to anybody.

The hon. Lady spells out very clearly some of the problems with labelling food as outdoor, free range and freedom food, but I return to the point that I made to my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester. One way to address the issue is for consumers to demand better prescriptions for production, and people have done that. Does the hon. Lady agree that McDonald’s, in serving only free-range eggs, is perhaps moving in the right direction?

As the hon. Gentleman can imagine, I am reluctant to congratulate McDonald’s on many things, but the more that producers and retailers can do, the better, although I would question whether some of the free-range produce meets the standards that it is expected to meet.

I want briefly to skim through a few issues relating to other forms of food production. Some 35 million turkeys a year are bred for food and they are kept in similar conditions to chickens. Many of them also die from starvation, infection and disease before they are ready to be slaughtered for food.

The House has debated the inhumane production of foie gras. Geese are force fed until their livers are 10 times the size of that of an ordinary goose, which makes breathing and walking difficult. We are told that it is not possible to ban foie gras imports under current EU law, and we should address that. Another issue that I have taken up with the Minister is the zero-grazing of cattle, which involves cattle being kept totally indoors and not being allowed out to graze.

Last year, I was involved in a campaign with Viva!, a vegetarian charity in Bristol. The campaign was aimed at farrowing crates, in which sows are kept while they are pregnant and weaning their piglets. It is impossible for sows to turn around in such crates or to engage in any of their natural behaviour. Farrowing crates are used for about 80 per cent. of the UK’s breeding sows, and that, too, needs to be addressed.

I want to turn now to a slightly different issue. We are trying to do what we can to address these problems in the UK and the EU, but where do we go in terms of the standards that we expect other countries to adopt? It is illegal under World Trade Organisation rules to ban imports into the EU on the basis that they do not meet the EU’s animal welfare standards. Although we can phase out battery cages in the EU, we cannot tell the developing world that we will not import its goods because they do not meet our standards. We need to address that at an international level.

The issue is particularly important given the rising levels of meat and dairy consumption in the developing world, particularly in places such as China. China’s meat consumption has gone from an average of 4 kg per person 40 years ago to nearly 60 kg per person today. It is estimated that China will reach US meat consumption levels of 125 kg per person by 2031, which, I am told, amounts to four-fifths of current world meat production. I would like to know what we can do internationally to ensure that such meat production meets the standards that we expect in the EU. Even India, where meat consumption is traditionally low, is massively increasing its consumption of meat, and poultry production is one of the fastest-growing segments of its agricultural sector.

Finally, the environmental consequences of increased meat production and consumption are just beginning to be recognised, and the Minister has probably come across that issue in his day job. It takes 9 kg of cereal to produce 1 kg of beef, so there is a real issue about the amount of agricultural land that we would have to use to produce animal feed if we moved towards the patterns of meat consumption that I have outlined. Together with the move towards biofuels, that is something that we really need to address.

In that respect, there is also the issue of water use. On average, I am told, it takes about 180 litres of water to produce a battery egg, whereas the poorest people in India use an average of only 10 litres a day. A slaughterhouse in Brazil uses 10,000 cu m of water each working day, but 25 per cent. of the country does not have access to safe drinking water. There is a real question about how we address such issues internationally and require countries to meet our standards. On that note, however, I will finish.

I could speak for a long time, but I shall not. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Atkinson, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten) on securing the debate, which has been brief, but nevertheless well informed and balanced, rather than hysterical. The problems highlighted by the television programmes to which he referred present us with challenges that are not easily solved. We all want the situation to improve, but there is a great potential for unintended consequences that could, in fact, make it worse.

There are no specific, legally binding requirements for the welfare conditions of chickens in this country, but we are moving towards EU regulation. However, as my hon. Friend mentioned, the problem is that in raising standards among EU colleagues, we risk allowing ours to fall. Strong welfare standards apply already to UK poultry, in the form of the red tractor scheme, which is a guarantee of high standards across the sector with regard to welfare, housing, feed, health and hygiene. The scheme includes requirements that birds should be given a decent amount of space and be tended by skilled staff. Those standards are independently inspected each year.

Livestock production can be managed in different ways, but the key to animal welfare is the person responsible for those animals and the staff whom they employ. The difficulty with labelling is that anything can be claimed, but whether it is being delivered is another matter, and it depends on the staff.

The difficulty with farming in general is that reduced margins for the producer mean reduced capacity to ensure that those doing the work— stockmen and others handling the animals—have the skills necessary to do their job well. The problem is that, in ensuring that standards are high enough, we might create an overbearing bureaucracy. One of the advantages of the red tractor logo system is that the standards are inspected independently every year without the need for an overbearing bureaucratic apparatus.

As we have heard, the RSPCA has pointed out that the dichotomy that is normally presented—battery farming versus free range—is often a false one. It should be commended for that. I am sure that many colleagues will agree that indoor poultry rearing can often be extremely humane and that, conversely, many chickens reared in nominally free-range circumstances live in extremely poor welfare conditions. As a cadre of politicians, our priorities ought to be to ensure high welfare standards for all animals, to enable farming to be viable and not unduly regulated, to safeguard our poultry industry, to ensure that consumers know what they are buying and to encourage them to buy produce that has been reared humanely.

Does the hon. Gentleman endorse the comments made by the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten) and those made in a debate that I led in this Chamber less than 18 months ago, which have helpfully been incorporated in the debate pack, on the importance of requiring that labelling be honest, open and accurate? So much of it is misleading. An animal can be bred to slaughter weight and slaughtered in a foreign country, shipped to Kent—or somewhere like that—wrapped or subjected to a minor process, and then described as “UK produce”. That cannot be allowed, can it?

I plan to cover that later, but I agree absolutely. It is vital that labelling is accurate and honest. One suspects that retailers—not least the all-powerful supermarkets—sometimes take advantage of the ambiguity in the system.

The UK is almost 90 per cent. self-sufficient in meat, poultry and egg production, which is an encouraging starting position from which to build on, given the Government’s stated concern about reducing food miles and ensuring food security. Any move to excessive and narrow regulation might easily prove counter-productive. Over the past few years, the volume of imports of poultry produce into this country has risen by roughly 10 per cent. each year. Clearly, one of the reasons behind that is that imports are often cheaper, largely owing to the fact that it can be cheaper to rear poultry in poor conditions. If we over-regulate in our desire for even better welfare conditions at home, we might simply add to costs to the industry here, thus making it less competitive, and therefore open the door to imports, the market strength of which sadly lies in sub-standard welfare conditions.

This is partly in relation to the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, East (Kerry McCarthy): if we go on like this, there will never be any change in the WTO rules, which quite simply are completely wrong. We should encourage countries exporting very cheap livestock to produce it for their own markets. That is how they will raise their standards. It is about time that we took on the WTO.

I could not agree more with the hon. Gentleman. We must take action and consider the role of the supermarkets and the all-powerful purchasers in the market. The drive for larger profit margins leads to increased pressure for reduced costs, which affects livestock farmers of all varieties, not just those in the poultry sector. The poorer welfare standards that result from that drive for lower costs, which often leads to sourcing from overseas, is the key.

To return to the point made by the hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor), supermarkets take advantage of the lack of clarity in labelling to exploit ethical demand without actually improving ethical standards. The position of the consumer is all important, but let us not understate the power of supermarkets in delivering what I hope that all of us in the House want achieved. It is clear that consumer pressure for better welfare standards and premium-priced eggs and poultry meat is growing and that they want to buy free range. Interestingly, recent research has shown that consumers were about five times more interested in animal welfare standards in the production of food products than about the impact on climate change. I make no editorial comment about that—it is just an observation.

The top end of the market is a minority one, not least because, unlike the average television chef, most people whom I represent are on a budget and cannot afford to purchase at the premium end of the market—or at least not often. We must ensure that the debate on animal welfare in food production does not become the preserve of the chattering classes. If we focus simply on the premium end, we risk ignoring the 98 per cent. of poultry meat and 68 per cent. of eggs in this country that are not free range, but which often are, and certainly can be, produced decently and humanely.

The RSPCA is absolutely right to concentrate on the animal welfare standards employed in commercial farming, rather than on specific systems, and to develop the concept of freedom foods, as my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester mentioned. It should be applauded for taking action that will help the vast majority of animals, not just those reared at the top end of the market. It is also right to press farmers to convert buildings to higher welfare standards.

Let me make a couple of brief political points. In light of that situation, the Government might like to reconsider their decision to abolish agricultural buildings tax relief, which will surely discourage farmers from developing buildings to meet the higher standards for which hon. Members have called. They might also wish to reconsider their excessive implementation of the nitrate vulnerable zones directive, which will add significantly to the costs to the poultry industry and put investment in facilities for higher welfare standards beyond their reach.

The movement towards higher welfare standards is led by the consumer. To that end, honest labelling is vital to ensure that we can make informed choices. Many shoppers trust British produce simply because it is British and they know that our animal standards are the highest in the world. It is an outrage that meat products from countries with worse welfare standards need only be moderately transformed or processed to qualify for the misleading label of “British produce”. In seeking to assist consumers to make the ethical choices that we increasingly want to make, it is crucial that the Government ensure honesty and clarity in labelling, and that high standards are maintained throughout the poultry sector—not just in an elite niche beyond the affordability of the majority.

Thank you for allowing me to speak in today’s debate, Mr. Atkinson. I should like to apologise on behalf of my hon. Friend the Member for Leominster (Bill Wiggin), who, unfortunately, cannot be present to speak on behalf of the shadow Environment, Food and Rural Affairs team. DEFRA is not my Department; I am a shadow Home Affairs spokesman. However, I focus on animal welfare in my job, so I am pleased to contribute to today’s debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten) on securing the debate, which gives us an important opportunity to discuss free-range issues combined with animal welfare. I shall make a number of observations on behalf of Her Majesty’s Opposition.

Since the House last discussed the issue at length, several strides have been made on free-range and animal welfare issues. However, I am sure that Members of all parties will agree that there is still much to be done. One of my high priorities since becoming a Member has been to campaign for greater standards of animal welfare. Fortunately, in my role as shadow Home Affairs spokesman with responsibility for animal welfare issues, I have been able to meet many organisations that are engaged in the vital work of caring for an amazing variety of creatures great and small. I thank all those organisations for providing me with the information on which I shall base my comments.

The issue of free-range produce and the animal welfare associated with the industry has rightly been brought to the House’s attention on several occasions. Broiler chickens and egg-laying hens have received much media attention of late, and an update on the national situation and a thorough review of what the European Union is doing on the matter are long overdue. Consumer culture in recent years has shown increasing compassion towards livestock that is reared in humane conditions, which I certainly welcome. For the most part, it has impacted positively on animal welfare, particularly that of chickens, cattle and pigs in Britain.

According to the 2007 report by Compassion in World Farming, the biggest change in broiler meat among supermarkets involved a general shift towards better welfare, which we all welcome. Similar comparisons can be drawn with cattle and sheep, most of which are given some access to pasture, especially during the grazing season, and with pigs, with many supermarkets now refusing to sell pigmeat that has been farmed with the assistance of sow stalls and farrowing crates. They are certainly positive steps forward, and credit is due not only to supermarkets and the media’s celebrity coverage, but to British consumers, who have exercised their right to buy produce involving high standards of animal welfare.

Nevertheless, my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale) pointed out in a similar debate in October 2006 that this is in fact a pan-European issue. It is all well and good attempting to promote free-range produce and to raise standards of welfare in the United Kingdom, but without the co-operation of the European Union, we risk alienating our farmers and forcing them to spend more and to forfeit competitive costs as they rear livestock to our own high standards of welfare. Meanwhile, our European counterparts undercut prices with no regard for the animals involved. That has been a problem for several years, and inroads have been made only recently.

I welcome the EU agreement of May 2007, which provided strict regulation concerning chickens that are reared for meat production, allied with the threat of action against anyone breaking the rules. Concurrently, the decision by some of our supermarkets to ban the import of low-welfare white veal and to sell only the high-welfare rose variety means that farmers do not have to send calves abroad. In turn, the animals forgo exhausting and traumatic overseas transportation, while farmers have an incentive to produce high-quality but financially viable meat.

On free-range produce, another area in which improvements will be implemented concerns the 1999 EU directive on the welfare of laying hens. I am sure that hon. Members know that directive 88/166 sets out a ban on conventional battery hens from 31 December 2011. There is strong public feeling against that cruel practice and, once again, it must be tackled not only nationally, but Europe-wide. Concurrently, however, the replacement of the battery environment with enriched cages by 2012 does little to quell the moral questions that many consumers have about the industry. It is a sensitive issue, not least because of the conflicting arguments made by the RSPCA and the National Farmers Union about the cost of increasing space for birds. I understand the difficulty that the UK farming industry faces as it attempts to balance animal welfare concerns with the public’s demand for cheap food. However, I was disappointed, as I am sure that others will be, to learn that well over 50 per cent. of egg-laying hens in Great Britain are still of a battery variety, meaning that there has been no substantial reduction in their number since the hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) spoke about the issue in 2006.

Industry figures that the hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) bought to light when speaking to a ten-minute Bill in 2003 showed that barn eggs cost only 8.5p a dozen more to produce, and that free-range eggs cost only 18.5p a dozen more to produce. Given that we consume about 180 eggs per person per year, that is a relatively small price to pay for ethical farming. In light of a reply to a parliamentary question tabled by the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker), I look forward to the European Commission’s report on the laying hens directive. It will be of great interest to not only myself, but—I am sure—a large majority of the public, who would like to know whether the UK will be prepared for the 2012 transition and whether it will offer protection to competitive British farming.

My final point relates to broiler chickens, which I mentioned earlier.

I might be intervening with regard to a point that the hon. Gentleman is about to make, but does he hope that the Minister will examine very closely the existing standards for broiler density? A sheet of A4 paper, which the RSPCA used to great effect in its weekend campaign, is the typical amount of space occupied by a 2 kg broiler chicken bred to slaughter weight. Some 100,000 of those chickens have been killed in the hour since this debate began—the numbers are 2.4 million a day, or 800 million a year. The standards are absolutely unacceptable, and if the broader British public were more fully aware of them, I am sure that they would press all politicians to raise standards much more quickly.

I certainly agree. The public are greatly concerned, but they have the power to purchase chickens that are bred differently. It is not only up to the Government and the European Union to examine the issue and to take necessary action that balances the needs of farmers and animal welfare standards. The public can vote with their feet and make their own decision about what they purchase and in which particular supermarket. I am sure that hon. Members know that broilers are selectively bred and reared for their meat, and that they weigh between 1.8 kg and 3 kg within just six weeks of hatching. That situation is horrendous when one considers that it would take five or six months for a chicken to reach that size naturally.

There are approximately 116 million broilers in the UK at any one time. According to a reply to a parliamentary question tabled last month by the hon. Member for Wansbeck (Mr. Murphy), more than 679 million broiler chickens and hens were slaughtered in England and Wales in 2007. That is only a marginal decrease from the number in 2006, let alone 2003. We should be doing more.

The RSPCA’s 2004 report “Behind Closed Doors” was highly critical of the industry. It said:

“The unnatural growth rate of broilers, together with the lack of space to move or exercise, encourages the birds to rest on the litter.”

The health and welfare of a bird correlates directly to the quality of the litter. Poor-quality litter can lead to painful, unhealthy and sometimes contagious conditions such as hock burn, breast blisters, skeletal disorders, lameness, heart failure, bacterial infections and bird flu, to name but a few.

Given that public concern for the welfare of such animals is at a high, I believe that the majority of consumers would be willing to pay a small cost increment to show their support for higher welfare and, in my opinion, to obtain better quality meat. It is commendable that the private sector has taken the initiative. The supermarkets have proved instrumental by stocking welfare chickens at reasonable prices, setting an example that the public sector can surely follow. We can only hope that with better EU co-operation we will see much higher standards domestically and internationally.

Britain has always proved to be a world leader in animal welfare and we should be no different in the matter of farm animal welfare. The steps that we have taken need to be furthered. Although the Welfare of Farmed Animals (England) Regulations 2007 show our intent, our greatest difficulty still lies in raising European standards without alienating the British farming industry. At the risk of repeating myself, I should say that we need to liaise with our European neighbours on the matter and perhaps take more of a leading role, with the welfare of the industry, individual farmers and animals firmly in mind. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response.

Thank you, Mr. Atkinson, for allowing me so much time to respond to this debate. So far, at least, it has justified the House’s institution of Westminster Hall debates. It has been an extremely well-informed and well-researched debate involving policy issues that resonate with the many members of the public who are concerned about the matter, not least the daughter of the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten), who is probably responsible for instigating this important debate. I hope that many members of the public will read the Hansard report. I wish that the newspapers would employ more parliamentary reporters, so that they could carry comments from debates such as this.

With all respect to the celebrities, Members of Parliament from all parties have been campaigning on the issue for many years, since before the celebrities discovered it—although, as has been said, the publicity that they can generate is welcome. However, I caution against the unintended consequences of such campaigns; the impact of the campaign on the quality of school dinners caused many parents to withdraw their children from school meals because they feared that the meals were bad, even after the school cooks had made them good. The point made in that respect by Unison, the public sector union, was strong. Nevertheless, the hon. Gentleman should be congratulated on raising this important issue and giving hon. Members the opportunity to debate it.

I shall answer hon. Members’ questions and then outline the Government’s policy. In that way, I can ensure that I have responded properly to the debate, although I am not sure that I can guarantee to answer the questions in order. I begin with that of my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, East (Kerry McCarthy). I was dying to know which new year’s resolution she was not able to fulfil, but she should be congratulated. She made a number of important points. She gave figures on the number of kilograms of cereal required to produce 1 kg of beef. That is hugely important, because it is a major reason—along with the implications of human-made climate change—why food prices around the world are rising as world prosperity rises, particularly in the far east, and human beings consume more meat and less cereal.

My hon. Friend also asked whether higher welfare standards in EU policy would not simply open us up to cheaper competition from third countries, and my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) intervened to mention the World Trade Organisation. The Government and this country operate under WTO rules, which do not allow member countries to ban imports of like products—those that are essentially the same as domestic products except for the method by which they have been produced. Discrimination against like products is a restriction on trade not allowed under agreed exceptions to WTO rules unless the lower welfare standards practised in the exporting country gave rise to safety concerns under the sanitary and phytosanitary agreement. That relates directly to the point made by both my hon. Friends. Of course, that is not to say that the UK Government do not promote changes in those areas, but there is a balance between consumer expectations and the Government actions that reflect them and the effect of protectionism on the needs of the developing world.

It is true that in the early days of common agricultural policy reform, the UK had clear objectives in raising concerns about animal welfare and the environment. Sadly, though, those concerns got lost in the wider competitive drive. Will the Minister assure me that the UK Government—as well as those of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, I hope—will ensure that they continue to argue the case with one voice that environmental and animal welfare standards are crucial?

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is passionate about those issues and agrees strongly with that point—as is known, he is a vegetarian. He will be representing the United Kingdom on the European Union Environment Council; indeed, he attended one of its meetings yesterday. The forthcoming CAP reform talks present the opportunity to push further on that point.

The supermarkets have outsourced much of their poultry meat production to Brazil, Thailand and elsewhere. Will the Minister tell us what responsibility he believes they have to ensure that welfare standards, even the lowish ones set by the WTO, are observed by the countries concerned? When the Select Committee that I chair reported on that area of industry, I was astonished by the negligent and blasé way in which supermarkets said that they visited their production units in Brazil from time to time after giving notice and being told which units to go to: namely, those with the highest standards. The supermarkets are useless in that regard.

My hon. Friend makes a strong point. We have had various discussions with supermarkets and the National Farmers Union on that issue. As I shall discuss in a few moments, labelling and consumer information are extremely important and are at the heart of our policy. We believe, and there is consensus on this in the House, that informed consumer choice is the modern way. If there is an advantage to having large supermarkets that control large percentages of the marketplace, it is that such policy levers can be made more easily available. I say that because it is a fact rather than because I welcome it.

Let me answer hon. Members’ questions. My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, East asked about the evidence comparing welfare in free-range systems with that in enriched cages. Various studies have shown that each system has strengths and weaknesses, as she pointed out. Industry figures show that mortality continues to be significantly higher in free-range systems than in other systems.

The hon. Member for Winchester asked about the research of the university of Bristol. That research, which was funded by DEFRA, found that the incidence of bone fractures over the life of a flock is reduced significantly in hens kept in enriched cages compared with those kept in barns or free-range systems. The LayWel research project, which is funded principally by the EU Commission, concluded that cage systems tend to provide a more hygienic environment with a low risk of parasitic disease, and that feather pecking is still a predominant welfare problem in commercial flocks in non-cage systems, with a prevalence of 40 to 80 per cent. The prevalence of cannibalism is lower, but up to 20 per cent. of flocks were affected in one survey, and up to 40 per cent. in another. The situation is not black and white. That brings me to the valid contribution that the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams), who is no longer in his place, made when he intervened on the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron). He said that the skill, knowledge and intention of the stockkeeper is the most important factor.

Enriched cages provide more space for the hen, as well as a nest, a perch, and material to peck and scratch. In recent years, the design of enriched cages has improved in the UK and elsewhere, with larger cages and colony sizes that allow birds to perform many more individual behaviours. Larger colony cages have been trialled by producers, and productivity and welfare results are positive so far. That is extremely encouraging. A DEFRA-funded project considered the effect of stock density and cages on the health, behaviour, physiology and production of laying hens. Further research into enriched cages is taking place, including a study to compare the health and welfare of birds in different types of enriched cages.

What will happen next regarding the DEFRA research? Does it simply help and inform the Department, or is there a specific Government response to it?

I shall come to that point shortly. First, I should like to address hon. Members’ other questions. I was asked whether the EU Commission had any intention of changing the date of the new system’s implementation. The answer is no. I recognise the point made by the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell), given his portfolio—there is a tie-over in animal welfare law. I was pleased to note that he is a full convert to the need for EU co-operation in that regard. He asked about the dates: there is no slippage in the implementation.

I was asked what the public sector food procurement initiative is doing to improve animal welfare. Our policy is to encourage public sector bodies to specify higher animal welfare standards. For that reason, we have developed a model specification clause that promotes farm assurance standards, including those of higher level schemes, such as freedom food. The model clause allows for bias when awarding contracts so that a higher weighting can be given to produce that meets higher-level standards. I was also asked about the PSFPI promoting the red tractor scheme. The Farm Animal Welfare Council considers that farm assurance schemes have resulted in greater focus on animal welfare. In the council’s view, even if that did no more than assure minimum welfare standards, the growing influence of regular audits required by farm assurance can only be of benefit to raising the awareness of both the public and policy makers.

My hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor), who is no longer in his place, raised the important issue of stock density. The directive will provide a level playing field for broiler production across the EU. Stock densities in some member states are well in excess of 39 kg per square metre. However, stock density cannot be viewed in isolation. An Oxford university study shows that husbandry and management factors are, within limits, more important than stock density.

The hon. Member for Winchester asked about planning and how it impacts on farms, and I am interested in following that up. Of course, we in DEFRA are not directly responsible for that, but if I could be furnished with further information on that, I shall take it up with my colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local Government. It seems as though there might be a blockage in the system or an attitudinal problem. He asked me to give him some encouragement before his meeting with the House authorities, and I am happy to put that on the record. I have a similar attitude towards the use of bottled mineral water. Perhaps he could raise that issue in his meeting. Thank you for allowing me that plug, Mr. Atkinson.

Let me lay out the wider policy issues. If there are specific questions that I have not covered, I hope that hon. Members will inform me of them so that I may follow them up. I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman has done much research for this debate on a non-partisan basis, and I should like to respond accordingly. The statutory framework under which we operate in England consists of the Animal Welfare Act 2006 and the Welfare of Farmed Animals (England) Regulations 2007. As I have said, the Government do not accept that extensive free-range farming is automatically better than intensive farming, which is not inherently cruel or unacceptable in and of itself. It is important to recognise that poor and good welfare can be provided by both intensive and extensive systems. The stockkeeper has the most significant influence on the welfare of livestock. As the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire, who is a farmer himself, said, the most important factors are the stockkeeper’s skills, abilities and intentions, not the system in which animals are reared.

That view was reflected by the Government’s independent committee, the Farm Animal Welfare Council, which produced a report last year on stockmanship. I urge hon. Members to familiarise themselves with it. It states that in any production system, the knowledge, skills, ability and attitudes of the stockkeeper are integral to the standard of welfare. Oxford university research—again, funded by DEFRA—investigating the complex relationship between the welfare of meat chickens and a range of stocking densities, concluded that husbandry, as well as management factors such as temperature and litter moisture levels, is, within limits, more important to animal welfare than density. I am not at all denying that density can be a part of the problem, but it is not the only part.

The Government spend £3.4 million a year of taxpayers’ money on research into animal welfare to try to ensure that the approach to animal welfare at home and in Europe has a sound scientific base. That money has supported a range of research, including research into the welfare of laying hens in different production systems, as we have heard. There is clear scientific evidence that conventional barren cages are detrimental to the welfare of laying hens. That is why the Government are so committed to banning their use across the European Union from 2012. On the other hand, the fact is that no scientific evidence available to us favours free-range systems over the other production systems that will remain legal after 2012.

Each system has its own strengths and weaknesses. Free-range systems can have the capacity to offer the hen more opportunities to display normal behaviour. However, as we have heard, there is evidence from both research and practical experience that free-range and barn systems can lead to higher mortality and increased occurrence of potentially painful fractures, and can involve a greater risk of feather-pecking, cannibalism and predation than the enriched cage system, which provides an increased space allowance, claw shortening devices, nest boxes and litter.

Both the FAWC report and a recent European Commission report recognise the benefit of enriched cages. The FAWC’s recent opinion on enriched cages concludes that

“all commercial systems of production for laying hens offer some compromise in terms of the hen’s welfare. However, well managed enriched cage systems are able to offer the potential for an acceptable balance between the requirements for the hen’s health and welfare, and public health”—

which we must never forget, of course—

“in combination with economic and environmental considerations.”

In forming that view, the FAWC considered the five freedoms. Although it considered that the enriched cage offers a severe challenge to the welfare of laying hens in terms of freedom to express normal behaviour, it recognised that freedom from hunger, thirst, pain, injury and disease are catered for as well or even better in a cage environment than in other commercial production systems. Similarly, the majority of hens in appropriately designed cages may be considered to enjoy more freedom from distress than is the case for many birds in other systems, particularly free range.

The debate over the benefits of one production system over another is complex indeed. Take meat chickens as an example. The different systems in which the birds are raised will involve different costs, different benefits for the welfare of the birds, different economic costs for the consumer and different environmental impacts. Extensive indoor and free-range systems using slow growth rates may have high welfare potential, but they may also lead to increased risk of exposure to injury, disease and environmental stress when compared with production systems that use higher stocking densities and modern, environmentally controlled houses. This is a complicated area, and it is part of the bigger debate on agriculture, its environmental impact and its contribution to climate change.

Consumers are absolutely right to care about the welfare of animals raised for meat production, and the hon. Member for Winchester made his points with great force. Consumers need to be able to make informed choices about their food purchases and decisions that are right for themselves. Current labelling helps them by differentiating between chickens from, for example, different production systems. The hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale put it very well when he said that it is all very well for some of us to preach about these issues, but that we have to take into account the cost pressures on individuals.

I thank the Minister for giving way one last time. He has been very generous. Of course, DEFRA is going through its own problems with cost pressures, as he knows better than I do. Would he say something about the impact of animal disease on the huge area of animal welfare? It cannot be completely without coincidence that the two things need to be looked at in tandem. Clearly, there is a problem with animal disease, and perhaps we could bear down on it if we were to look at higher welfare standards.

My hon. Friend makes a telling and accurate point. If I may say so, his intervention has hit the bull’s eye. The costs of dealing with animal welfare have been taxing the minds of Ministers in DEFRA in recent weeks. We must balance our budgets, notwithstanding the above-inflation increase that the Treasury was able to allocate to DEFRA, which, in turn, resulted from the Government’s successful economic policies.

To return to the debate, it is not for the Government to tell people what to eat. I believe that there is consensus on that. It is important to remember in the midst of this debate that the UK has a higher standard of animal welfare today than it has ever had before. In fact, we have among the highest standards in the world. We have been at the forefront of implementing higher welfare standards domestically, and we have been active on European and wider international levels.

The UK took the lead in encouraging Europe to follow it in implementing a ban on the use of veal crates. They have been banned in the UK since 1990, and a ban across the EU came into force at the end of 2006. The UK stopped the use of close-confinement sow stalls in 1999, and the EU pig directive was adopted in 2001. It contains several provisions to improve the welfare of pigs: minimum space allowances, access to environmental enrichment for all pigs, and a ban across the EU on the use of sow stalls by 2013. Given time, I could mention other policy measures that we have taken across the EU and, more widely, internationally.

Animal welfare is an issue to which the public pay increasing attention. Hon. Members may be interested to know that it tops the list in DEFRA postbags. It is of concern not just to young people, although, as we have heard, that is especially the case, and it is one that the Government take very seriously indeed. We believe that we are moving in the right direction in terms of the balance of the different policies that are available. There are no simple solutions, and, as I have tried to explain, animal welfare depends on a combination of stockkeeping skills and getting the right balance based on scientific understanding. That is why we carefully spend taxpayers’ money on research. We wish to ensure that we base our policies on sound science, as well as carry public opinion with us.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Winchester on securing this debate, and I shall pass on the points made in it to the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Jonathan Shaw).

Post Office Network (Lancashire)

Thank you, Mr. Atkinson, for allowing this debate to go ahead and for giving an hour and a half of your time this morning. This important debate relates to the whole of the United Kingdom, but we are talking about Lancashire, and there is no better county. Lancashire is a proud county—it is the red rose county. It is good to see that so many hon. Members—some are leaving, but some are joining us—have turned up today to show their commitment to the Post Office in Lancashire. It is important that we are allowed to express that view. Once again, I thank you, Mr. Atkinson.

The future of the post office network has come under considerable scrutiny following the announcement that 2,500 post offices are set for closure. This debate will focus on Lancashire and on the proposals put forward under the Lancashire, Fylde and Southport area plan, so we have two other areas to consider—it is important that we mention that. Under the proposals, 59 post offices—20 per cent. of the existing network—will shut, following the previous closures throughout the’80s and ’90s and up to the present day. The problem is that there is nothing new in this. However, we suffered due to the major closure programme in the ’80s and we are suffering now.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. He has raised an important issue in respect of the cumulative effect. Does he agree that, as post offices have been closed over the years, fewer people live within a mile of a sub-post office, making their lives increasingly difficult and putting more pressure on post offices in town centres, which may be equally inaccessible?

I cannot disagree with my hon. Friend. As somebody who lives in her constituency and who is a strong advocate of all the people, she knows better about such things. If we follow the programme of closures, the most vulnerable will find it most difficult of all to access a post office. Hon. Members must ensure that that point comes across loud and clear, and no one does so more than her.

My hon. Friend is making a powerful case, as ever, for the people of Lancashire. Is not the problem the scale of the proposal, which goes way beyond closing uneconomic post offices? For example, Longshoot post office in Haslingden in my constituency is successful and has a good business plan. There are 800 names on a petition to save it. In such circumstances, is it not time that the Post Office thought again?

I totally agree. My hon. Friend is a strong advocate for community post offices and for the people who use them. I could not agree more with him. He has been standing up for the Longshoot post office: he has made a powerful case in the past and will continue to make powerful representations in future.

It is important that this debate takes place. We are not saying, “Let’s save everything”, because that would be naive. We are trying to make a constructive case where there is room for manoeuvre and for decisions to be changed. Personally, I would go further: I would like to see no post offices closed, but even I have to be realistic about what we can achieve. We are here today to try to achieve something for post offices in our areas and for those in special circumstances, such as Longshoot post office.

Lancashire has been hit hard by the closures, as we have just heard, with more than a quarter of the post offices in the county closed since 2003. We have already had a big hit and, prior to that, throughout the ’80s, we were hit just as hard. That is an inordinate amount of closures for an area with a diverse population, a significant number of deprived areas and a large rural footprint to bear. We should also remember that, despite “Coronation Street” and people’s image of Lancashire being cobbled streets, the truth is that we have a large rural area. My constituency has 22 parishes in more than 80 square miles, with a large farming area. That is so from the south of Lancashire to the north. We have a great rural area, but we have the great urban areas as well, with a high concentration of people living in them. We ought not to think that Lancashire is purely a built-up area: we have a built-up area, but we have the rural areas, too. That is why it is not appropriate to hit Lancashire as hard as we are doing at the moment.

I am sure that hon. Members will wish to highlight individual examples in their respective constituencies. I should like to talk about the closure programme in Chorley in more detail. The Post Office has proposed five closures in the Chorley constituency. We have contacted the sub-postmasters of each of the post offices and three of them—in Charnock Richard, Withnell and Eccleston—have expressed their desire to close. It is impossible to try to keep those post offices open if the sub-postmasters wish to close them; after all, the buildings are theirs. Some may argue that they have a contract, but if they close the door there is not a lot that we can do about it.

It is a little bit ironic and a touch hypocritical—I will not say that it is childish—for the sub-postmaster at Withnell to ask people to sign a petition to save the post office. Why could he not have been honest and said, “No, it is time for me to go. I wish to close”? To do that under the banner of a Conservative councillor is rather silly. If the council and the councillor were more serious, they would be putting in more services to help to save the post office.

Of course, there is little that we can do when a sub-postmaster wishes to close. However, as we have heard already, we ought to get up and start shouting when a sub-postmaster wishes to remain in business and there is a strong business case to keep a post office. In such a case, the Post Office should reconsider its current proposals. For example, the Bolton street post office is successful: between 1,000 and 1,500 customers per week access it, sometimes increasing to 2,000 a week. That is a viable operation. It is an important post office. In fact, it is one of the few post offices where people can park directly outside, both in front and across the road, with a car park nearby too. It is wrong even to consider closing it, because there is so much parking. People cannot park outside many post offices these days. Bolton street post office is within walking distance for many, but parking outside is also available.

Many elderly residents living near Bolton street post office do not have access to a car—the area has low car ownership too—so it is difficult for them to go to the Crown post office or the one on Devonshire road, which is more difficult to access. The bus does not go from the Bolton street area to the Crown post office or the one on Devonshire road. We ought to reconsider the Bolton street issue.

In the area that I am talking about there are elderly people’s flats and old people’s bungalows, and many elderly people living to the south of the post office. It is critical that we stress the area to the south of the post office, because the alternatives are in the north. If people reach Bolton street post office from the south, they have a minimum of another half a mile walk north to the next post office. We have to emphasise Bolton street’s geographical position, because if the post office were closed people would have to go three miles to the nearest post office in the south. This closure has not been well thought out.

We must also consider new housing estates. Within five minutes’ walk of Bolton street—less than quarter of a mile—Multipart, part of the old Leyland Trucks parts centre, has been demolished, making way for new houses. In fact, 400-plus new houses will be built on that site, some of which will be low-cost homes. That area fits the plan of growing a post office, not closing it. Those 400 properties must be taken into account. The demolition has taken place and the builders are now setting about the reconstruction of houses in the area. That is additional development: houses are not being taken away; new houses are being put in. That is happening less than quarter of a mile away—only five minutes’ walk—from Bolton street post office.

In addition, several other planning permissions have being granted. The local development south of Bolton road has planning permission for 1,000 properties, which will be built as part of the Government’s plans under the old Commission for the New Towns, if anyone remembers that. We were a central Lancashire new town, and the Government left land for housing development. A new road was built, and to pay for it they gave that land, so the housing development is paying for the new bypass. Those 1,000 houses have not been taken into account, and that is a further reason why the post office should not close. That is all to the south, where there is no other post office for three miles.

I mentioned the 2003 closure programme. We were all led to believe then that that would be the end of post office closures, and I remind hon. Members that the Bolton road post office was the reason that the other post offices had to close. It is absurd that both the Moor road post office in Pall Mall and another south of Eaves lane were allowed to close on the ground that the Bolton road post office was an alternative. We cannot pretend that circumstances have changed between then and now. The fact is that customers were driven to the Bolton road post office, and now the Government propose to take that post office out of use. That is a farce and a disgrace; it is shambolic. The reason given is that it is a different closure programme, but that has nothing to do with it. The fact is that people were told to use Bolton road post office; because the Government have jiggled the figures, they now want to close the one that was recommended for use. Come on—let us have some reality in the Post Office. We need reality, because there has been none in the closure programme, which is nonsense.

When we look at the alternatives, they are not that good. I shall continue to argue against the Bolton road post office closure. The Crown post office is in the centre of town and, as we all know, Crown post offices are an important part of town centres. In Chorley, the Crown post office is key to the town centre. I do not believe that closing Bolton road post office will assist the Crown post office. We already have long queues in the Crown post office, which is well used because Chorley is a great place, and people love to shop there and to use Chorley market. The Crown post office serves not just the local community, but Wigan and other areas whose inhabitants want to shop in Chorley. As it continues to develop, the footfall through Chorley town centre continues to increase year on year, and the beneficiary is the post office.

The Crown post office is struggling to deal with the business that it already has. There are great proposals for the town centre with redevelopment and plans for a new shopping centre, which will bring even more people into Chorley who will access the Crown post office. Let us have a little common sense, and let us use it to ensure that we do not give 1,000, 1,500 or 2,000 people from Bolton road an unacceptable service, because the Crown post office is not capable of providing an acceptable service.

Charnock Richard is a small village and had a post office within a supermarket, which decided that it did not want the post office because it was not viable as it had only 50 to 80 customers a week—I am being generous. I understand that it costs money to operate it and that it does not make economic sense for the village to have that post office, but I care about those 50 to 80 people who use it. Charnock Richard has many bungalows for older people, who should not be neglected. Although the numbers may be small, they could access the post office through a mobile service.

My hon. Friends the Members for South Ribble (Mr. Borrow), for Hyndburn (Mr. Pope), for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble), for Morecambe and Lunesdale (Geraldine Smith), and for Pendle (Mr. Prentice), and even the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) have all come to hear this debate because they care about the post office. If a post office does not make economic sense, and closing it would leave a community without access to a post office, a mobile post office could serve all our constituencies, and would be viable and ensure that the people we represent, including the old and most vulnerable, would have access to a service. We must provide that access. That is a way forward, and we are not asking for the baubles to go with it. Far from it. This is a realistic debate, which recognises that, although I do not want any post office closures, if we are to have them we must put something else in place to ensure that we do not neglect the people whom we represent.

The advantage of a mobile unit for Charnock Richard is that it could serve other constituents. We must be realistic. We all know the value of the post office and what it brings to local communities. It plays a central role in local communities and provides a focal point for older and vulnerable people where they feel safe, where they can share problems, and where they can obtain help with the service that they are accessing or if they require other information about paying bills, filling in forms, and so on. We know what value sub-postmasters provide in the community. That is why post offices are important, and that is why we must consider their social impact as well as their economic role. Post offices are social providers, and that is why they are important.

However, taking the business case as it stands, the Government could make a significant difference to the future viability of the network. Unfortunately, we have seen withdrawal of services from post offices, and people are no longer encouraged to buy their car tax from the post office. They are encouraged to go online or to use any method other than the post office.

Using the post office always provided a good safety check. When someone turned up to pay their car tax, they had to produce up-to-date MOT and insurance certificates. As they were known by the people in the post office, a car could not be cloned, because more often than not everyone in the village knew what car they drove. That was local, personal contact, with the right ticks put in the right boxes. Face-to-face contact provided a security check to ensure that no one was cheating the system. Now, we are discouraging people from using the post office.

As for the BBC, what a total disgrace. It uses taxpayers’ money to produce programmes, but it shafts local post offices. That is totally unacceptable and disgraceful. It claims to want to be part of the community, but when it can be it becomes so remote that it is totally unacceptable. It must reconsider its position. It says that it is saving money, but for small change it is willing to sacrifice post offices.

Has my hon. Friend had similar representations to those from my constituents who find it difficult to renew their television licences because many providers who took over when the post offices lost the franchise have stopped dealing with television licences? Some of my constituents travel miles and miles to find somewhere to renew their TV licence.

That is absolutely right. There was no better advert for people to renew their TV licence than going to the local post office. They knew that that was where they got their TV licences. Now, they must dodge about and look for signs outside shops saying “PayPoint” but—my hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble is absolutely right—when they go in they are often told that the shop has stopped dealing with TV licences because it got fed up. When they ask why the sign is still up, they are told that it brings people into the shop, but it does not provide the TV licence. People are actually not buying a TV licence because we are making it so difficult.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on obtaining this debate. The issue is about more than the individual services that the post office is or should be providing, such as TV licences—although I fully endorse the provision of such services. The post office has lost not only the small amount of money that it received for handling the TV licence transaction, but the person coming into the post office who might have bought other services while they were there. A lot of post offices are small grocery stores and sell other things, so they have lost that business as well. The knock-on effect on post offices is much wider than losing the profit that they would have made on TV licences. Marginal post offices will be pushed even further towards the edge of the cliff, over which they will fall—if not this year then next.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely correct. If people are not going into a post office for a particular reason, they will not pick up something else when they are in the shop. We all know that. The mentality is to get people in and then sell another service to them and if people do not have access to the service that they require, it is another a nail in the coffin for post offices—as the hon. Gentleman said, if it is not this year, it will be next year.

If the BBC claims to be part of the community and wants to use taxpayers’ money, it ought to go back to its roots and allow people to buy their TV licence in post offices. The sooner it tears up the existing contract the better. The message for the BBC is this: start looking after the community. We represent taxpayers and at the end of the day they are the people who keep the BBC going through their licence payments and tax.

As I have said, it is important to note that every time a service is removed customer numbers fall and we are faced with more programme closures. We must be realistic and bring in more services. The vicious circle must end and rather than remove services, we must bring in new ones. More services must be given to the post office so that it becomes a viable business operation and at the same is able to play a vital social role. I cannot understand why we have had to badger, persuade and blackmail—although that might be taking it a bit far—to try to get banks to come into the post office. Banks have had no desire to do so, but now that we own Northern Rock there is no greater opportunity. Why not put branches of Northern Rock into the post offices? That would provide them with a viable business that can compete on the high street with other banks and would also provide a whole new customer range, such as customers who have never been able to access a building society or bank before. As you come from the north-east, Mr. Atkinson, I am sure that you agree that we must ensure that Northern Rock has a viable future.

However, such a proposal would also ensure that post offices have a whole new business. If Northern Rock is not put into all post offices, I suggest that there is no better building society than the Chorley and District building society, which is very profitable, well used, well managed and wins awards year after year. The Chorley and District building society would like to grow. At the moment it has three branches and it considers that nothing would be better than opening a branch within the local post office. That would help Chorley and District building society and give customers access to a building society and to the other products it can sell.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. Does he agree that a positive way in which what he is advocating could be achieved would be to put ATMs in all the post offices that remain open? The Royal Bank of Scotland has been actively doing so in Scotland, so should we not encourage the banks to do the same in England?

There is no problem with having ATMs in post offices, but I do not believe it would be the saviour of post offices—although as long as the ATMs are free it would go a long way to assisting most post offices. That proposal will not quite have the necessary impact. I am fully supportive of anything that will help, but I do not believe that ATMs are the panacea for the future of the Post Office. We must be more up front than that. As I have said, Northern Rock is a good example in relation to that—people could use its ATMs. However, there is much more that we can do, which is why it is important that we do tie up—whether it is with a local building society or a national bank. We need to ensure that the Post Office has true partners and now that we own a bank, we should make good use of it.

On local authorities, I notice that Lancashire county council sent a letter to MPs that states that it wants to save the Post Office. Well, let us be honest about Lancashire county council. If it wanted to, it could encourage more services to be provided through the local post office. For example, if someone has a parking fine, why should they not be able to pay it at the post office? The county councils can do so much more: for example, they are busy closing information centres in our constituencies, so why not provide some of that information through the post office? The postmaster could be used to provide access to the information and a rent could be paid to the postmaster.

By being more creative we can do so much to save post offices. Instead of just passing a resolution at county hall, let county councils face up to the problem. I am sure that the Minister will wish to comment on this, but there is nothing at all to stop the county council from subsidising the post office network. In fact, I believe that Essex county council has done so and that the closure programme in Essex has been put on hold. There are real alternatives and ways in which we can save the post office network. Local authorities can do so much more by making more services accessible through it. That would be a way forward. However, we cannot and must not forget the Post Office card account, which has been a huge success. That really is the future of the Post Office. If it does not have that service, we can say goodbye to virtually every post office. The Post Office card account is vital to the future of the Post Office and is without doubt the most crucial part of saving our post offices.

I shall end by making the following points as I do not want to take any more time. Local authorities can play a part and I ask county hall not just to engage in gesture politics by passing a resolution, but to be part of saving the network. Local authorities must ensure that if they care about the network, they put the work into it. Much more can also be done by district councils. This debate is about saving our community post offices and, as I have said, there is no stronger business case than the Bolton street post office in Chorley. I believe that other hon. Members will be able to put similar business cases. It is time for the post office network to wake up and listen to the communities that we represent.

It is, as always, a delight to follow my friend from Chorley (Mr. Hoyle), who made his case well. He speaks with great authority as he is a member of the Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Committee.

The BERRC. It has just produced a report on the post office closure programme. Like everyone else, I am dismayed by what is happening because the post office is part of the fabric of urban and rural life. When post offices close, it will virtually be impossible to recreate the network.

About 10 or 20 years ago, it was fashionable to get rid of parkies—park keepers. Parks and public spaces became no-go areas. Now everyone is talking about reclaiming public space and the park keepers are coming back because people have realised that the wrong decision was made years ago. Similarly, in recent years, there have been proposals to close police stations. The police told us that no one visited police station x in a little village in the middle of nowhere, but they did not realise that police stations are hugely symbolic. People see them as a place of refuge; they are part of the waft of our life and we need such institutions.

If such a thing has not been recognised by the Post Office and others, it has been recognised by our local newspapers in east Lancashire—Pendle lies in the east of the county and 500,000 people live there. The case has been championed by the Lancashire Telegraph, which had the front page headline, “Doomed: quarter of East Lanc’s post offices to close”. It also had photographs of all the post offices. Over the following weeks, there have been stories underlining how the closures will personally affect people.

The Carr Hall post office is in my constituency of Pendle. A local newspaper article says that Tom Lees’s 20-minute trip to the post office could soon take him nearly five times as long, because the Post Office wants to close his local post office at Carr Hall. He tells the paper that he has worked out that if the post office is closed, it will take him one hour and 37 minutes to get to the alternative post office that has been identified.

Another article has the headline “Hands off our sub post offices” and there is a photograph of my colleague the Member for Burnley (Kitty Ussher), who is championing the cause of the post offices under threat next door to my area. Other headlines include “Protestors vow to fight closure plans” and “Death of village!” Villagers in Higham have vowed to save their local post office. That article quotes Debi Archer, the postmistress, who took over the premises almost two years ago, as saying that the post office and shop form the heart of the community and that if they were taken away, the community would die.

“Post office closure fury” is a headline from Barnoldswick, the town where I live. The article states:

“Barnoldswick Town Council has condemned the Post Office’s plans to close its office in Gisburn Road”.

Barnoldswick is a town of 12,000 people. It has two post offices, so if the Gisburn road post office goes, it will have one post office for 12,000 people. Would someone from Post Office Ltd explain to me the rationale for that? No wonder people are infuriated.

I am sure that the Bishop of Blackburn does not do fury—[Interruption.] Well, perhaps he does in his private moments. He is, in his ecclesiastical way, upset. He said to the local paper:

“It is vital that this review process is a genuine consultation, not just a cosmetic public relations exercise to rubber-stamp business plans”,

and continued in that vein. The Lancashire Telegraph editorial picks up that theme, citing the Post Office’s response to people who have been handing in petitions. My friend from Hyndburn (Mr. Pope) talked about the post office in his neck of the woods, where 800 people signed a petition. The Telegraph editorial says that the Post Office has been giving the impression that those petitions do not carry much weight. It goes on to say that the consultation is a sham. That is the issue. We are marching people up to the top of the hill. We are giving them the impression that, through petitions and letters, they can change the result.

Is my hon. Friend aware that when the Lancashire Telegraph went to the headquarters of Post Office Ltd to hand in a petition, nobody came out even to accept it? Is that not a disgrace?

That is appalling. It genuinely shocks me to hear that people who would have spent a long time getting names for the petition should have been sent away with a flea in their ear, without even seeing someone to hand their petition over. That is, as my friend says, an absolute disgrace.

Let me return to the question of the consultation, because that is central. I should perhaps have said earlier that I wrote to all the postmasters of the post offices threatened with closure in my constituency—there are six of them. Let me say this in parenthesis. When I was first elected as the MP for Pendle in 1992, there were 28 post offices. We have already lost 10. The proposal is that we lose another six, so we will be left with 12 post offices out of the 28 that I inherited. Of course, that is not something that started in 1992; it has happened under Administrations of all colours.

According to the House of Commons Library note on post office numbers, there were 22,405 post offices in 1981-82, but now the number is down to just over 14,000. The Post Office and the Government want to get it down to about 11,500 and I think that the Select Committee has concurred with that. There has been a steady and relentless decline in the number of post offices throughout the nation year in, year out, but the rate of closure has been accelerating. Since the late 1990s, the net change has increased dramatically. In 2002, there were 345 closures and there were 262 closures in 2001, but in 2003-04, the number shot up to 1,278. In 2004-05, there were 1,352 closures. There has been a falling back since then, but the programme has been accelerating.

We do not need to be a mastermind to understand the pressures on the post office network. The banks have been vacating the high streets. The internet is now ubiquitous, and people pay their utility bills and so on via the internet. We have heard about TV licences. People can renew their car tax online. We have to recognise and accept that the context in which post offices are doing business has changed almost out of all recognition over recent years. As Lenin would say, “What is to be done?”

Let me say this to the Conservatives. I do not want to hear them saying, “We will keep the post office network at its present size,” unless they really mean it and will put the subsidies into it. Do the Conservatives want to see the post office network with 11,500 post offices, or at a level—I think that the Minister referred to this in his evidence to the Select Committee—at which only commercially viable post offices would exist, which would be about 4,000? When the Conservatives give commitments, as they do, to keep profitable post offices, are they talking about that bare minimum of 4,000? If not, how much subsidy will they put into the network?

As I said in my opening remarks, I believe that the post office network is a social good and that it should be subsidised. We subsidise all sorts of things. We subsidise nuclear power stations, for God’s sake. My friend from Chorley is shaking his head, so I think that we will carry on this discussion after the debate. Within the constraints of the competition rules of the European Union—I have to raise that this week, of all weeks—we should subsidise our post offices and we should make it clear to the people who use those post offices what the public subsidy is. It is not just to the individual post office, but to clusters of post offices. If we did that, people would realise how much public money is going in to keep those post offices alive. I very much hope that we can have some lateral thinking from the Post Office and the Government to keep this essential part of our social fabric in existence.

Order. I would like to enable all Lancashire Members present to speak, if possible. I therefore ask hon. Members to keep an eye on the time. The winding-up speeches ought to start shortly after 12 o’clock.

I will keep my remarks fairly short, Mr. Atkinson, and concentrate specifically on the issues in my constituency where four post offices are due to close. I will touch briefly on the issue of consultation. Unless local people are ready for or have anticipated the consultation period, six weeks is not an adequate time in which to consult. In my constituency, I wrote to everyone affected by the closures in the villages of Mere Brow, Much Hoole and Hutton. I invited them to write to me and to join me at a village meeting, which was a very good use of the communications allowance. I also wrote to 500 or so residents of properties near the Bent lane post office in Leyland, which is an urban post office. As a result of that letter, I received about 150 replies. At 5 pm last Thursday, I held a boisterous meeting with 80 to 100 local residents. Some very strong views on all four potential closures were expressed. From my point of view, hearing such views was very useful because it enabled me at the end of last week to put together formal objections that had to be in by Monday of this week. I want briefly to run through the results of that consultation on the four post offices.

The first post office is in Mere Brow, which is a small village of about 500 people. The whole area is very rural and the post office is open three days a week. Postwatch has expressed concern about the closure mainly because of the public transport problems of getting to an alternative post office. The two nearest post offices are in Banks and Tarleton, but there is not a good public transport system to them. I recognise that the existing post office, which is in someone’s home, is very small, but were that post office to close without an alternative, it would create real problems for people who do not have access to their own vehicles. At the very least, if that post office closes, the opportunity should be taken to use a mobile post office, and park it in the car park of the village hall, which is used a couple of times a week for pensioners’ groups. That would be an ideal way of ensuring that people who cannot get to an alternative post office at least have access to post office services.

The second village affected is Much Hoole where the post office is in the village shop. The previous owner of the business reduced the hours about a year or so ago. The new owner wants to increase those hours, but nothing has happened because of this consultation. The real concern that came across to me at that meeting of local residents was that if the post office was closed it could also lead to the loss of the village shop. That is something that the Post Office should seriously take into account when considering closures. It should look to see whether the reduction in the hours has led to a loss of business. If the shop was open longer, would some of that business return?

The village of Bretherton, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle)—it will be in South Ribble at the next election—lost its post office a few years ago. The residents of Bretherton were told that their next suitable post office was in Much Hoole. Therefore, they are now in the position of not just losing their own post office, but potentially losing the post office to which they have been directed. Residents in Much Hoole will have real problems accessing alternative post offices. The nearest one is in Walton Bridge, which is about a mile away. Access to it is across a busy main road, which is a problem for anyone with disabilities, and mums with young children find it difficult to use some of the footpaths in the area.

The third post office is in the village of Hutton. Again, it is in the village shop. The nearest post office is in a busy supermarket in the village of Longton. One could argue that that post office would be a suitable alternative, but I reiterate the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Chorley about access for people with mobility problems. The advantage of the post office in Hutton is that people with mobility problems can park right outside. It is not easy to park outside the post office in Longton because it is at the back of the premises. Access can be difficult because it is busy. Given the access problems at the Longton post office, the post office should look seriously at the implications of closing Hutton.

The fourth post office is in Bent lane, in Leyland. There are two other post offices in Leyland that could possibly be used. Both of them are on busy main roads, which makes it difficult to park outside. One of the issues that was expressed very strongly to me last week was that many residents with mobility problems would find it very difficult to access either of the alternatives. They like the Bent lane post office because they can access it in their wheelchairs or drive there and get in and out of the premises easily.

What struck me as extraordinary was that out of the 500 or so households that I wrote to, I received 150 replies, and with just three or four days’ notice of a meeting at 5 o’clock on a Thursday evening, 80 to 100 people turned up. That shows the strength of feeling that exists. The properties that I wrote to are in a block that is bordered on one side by the west coast main line, and on the other side by the M6, with main roads to the north and south. It is mainly elderly people who live there. There are a lot of bungalows and some shelter schemes. The passion in that area to retain the post office was clear on day one and was much stronger than I expected.

The Post Office needs to review the Bent lane closure and recognise how important the post office is to the area. It also needs to look at the future development of the old Royal Ordnance factory site. In Buckshaw village, which is being built, 600 or 700 properties are in my constituency; the rest of the development is in the constituency of my hon. Friend. What has come through to me, both from that meeting at which there were several residents of Buckshaw village and from letters that I have received, is that Bent lane is the obvious post office for Buckshaw village, which is an expanding development. My hon. Friend passed a letter to me that he had received from one of his constituents in his part of the village. When I spoke to the Post Office several weeks ago, it was clear that it had not taken into account the future development of Buckshaw village. There is no post office in the village, which will end up as a community of several thousand people. Such a community would usually be expected to have a post office of its own. If there is not to be one, the Post Office needs to look very carefully before it considers the closure of any of the post offices that are the obvious ones for residents to use.

I think that I have covered most of the points. I emphasise that I do not want to see any closures in my constituency and I have done all that I can to make the best case possible. The Post Office should be prepared to listen very carefully to the strong views of constituents.

Post office closures are nothing new. Long before I was an MP, I remember fighting a campaign to save Morecambe’s main post office from closure. The Conservatives were in power. The leader of the campaign against the closures—he fought a wonderful campaign—was my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, West and Hessle, now the Secretary of State for Health. My right hon. Friend the Member for Neath (Mr. Hain) and Glenys Kinnock came up to support the campaign. It is amazing how things change over the years.

They were successful and Morecambe Crown office is still open.

The staff recently told me that they had concerns about what will happen in 2011. Even people working in the Crown post office network do not feel secure in their employment. When I worked on a post office counter more than 25 years ago, I felt that I was in a secure job. People were well trained and quite well paid. That is certainly not the case at the moment. People feel very insecure and morale is low. We must bring some stability to the post office network.

In the years that I have been in Parliament, a lot of business has been taken away from the post office network. Some of it has happened through the natural changes to the way in which people live. More and more, people have pensions paid through bank accounts, and some people pay their TV licence through the post. The changes have been difficult, but the Government have failed to find new business for post offices. It is a shame that we had such a strong network throughout the country that could have been used as a Government agency; it is a wasted opportunity.

However, we are where we are, and we have been through closure programmes. In 2003, I did not oppose all of the closures that were proposed for Morecambe. Some of the urban branches were close together, and it was hard to put up an argument why they should not close. I told my constituents at the time, “Use it or lose it,” which is still the case with some post offices. I am not fighting to save every single one—some have a very low number of transactions and cannot be justified—but the programme has gone too far. The Government are in danger of losing the public service ethos and simply treating everything as a business, but the Post Office is about public service, particularly in rural communities. I represent a large rural constituency, and I know how much villages in it value their post office services.

Everyone agrees that the current consultation has been a bit of a sham and people do not feel that their views will be taken on board. There is strong opposition to the closure of three post offices in my constituency, and we must wait and see whether the Post Office takes the valid objections to that on board. The local newspaper, the Lancaster Guardian, is mounting an excellent campaign to champion the post offices’ cause, because many village post offices around Lancaster, and many in the city itself, are threatened with closure.

I should like to say something about those three post offices in my constituency that are wrongly, mistakenly, being closed, beginning with Nether Kellet, which is a small village. The post office there is the village store, so if it closes, the village loses its shop, which is important. I represent a tourist area, and the post office acts almost as a tourist information centre for people who go through the village. The nearest branch, in Bolton-le-Sands, is difficult to get to—there is no reliable public transport and people would have to change buses to get there. Such a journey is out of the question for pensioners and people with disabilities, who are the core of the people who use the Nether Kellet branch. People who have no transport, who may have lived in the village for years and years, or those who can no longer drive, need the service and to use the shop and post office together.

Post offices in villages provide human contact during normal working hours. People know that if they have a problem, they can go to the post office and find someone in an emergency, or if they simply need some support. Village offices play a vital role for the community. The Post Office should look seriously at the closure of the Nether Kellet branch.

Another office, Kellet road in Carnforth, is very different. I know the sub-postmistress, Debbie Buckley, well—I worked with her more than 25 years ago. She and her husband Paul have a thriving business, they are really good with people, and their shop and post office is successful. It serves a community in which there is some deprivation and a large number of elderly pensioners; it serves a large estate in Carnforth. People use it—it is not uneconomical; it is a very successful business, so I have no idea why the Post Office is closing it. The Post Office will tell me that that information is commercially sensitive, but I know the person who runs the office and what the figures are, and there is no way that it should be closed.

Finally, I should mention the third office. The chairman of the parish council, Michael Rothwell, talks about the matter better than I can. He writes:

“Geraldine…As requested I have listed some of the issues which would affect Yealand if the Post Office branch is closed…The following facts are relevant…The Monday morning session is the most important as it links the Coffee Stop in the village hall. The two together are an important focus of village life…The Yealand Post Office is in the village hall and fits well with the Post Office model for their Outreach scheme…The village hall has parking just outside the door and has disabled access. Parking at Warton Post Office”—

the nearest office—

“is extremely difficult, even for badge holders…The only bus service is Carnforth Connect. Funding is guaranteed only until March…Without the Post Office there is a risk that the Coffee Stop would no longer be economic. The Coffee Stop funds a monthly newsletter for The Yealands, so if the Coffee Stop ceases, so does the newsletter…There are strong community benefits to retaining the Post Office service, even if it is only on Monday mornings.”

That is not too much to ask because the office is so important to the village. I ask the Post Office to look seriously at the closures in my constituency, because I think that they are wrong. We will see how good the consultation is and what the Post Office comes back with.

Given the lack of time, I shall not go through the individual post offices in my constituency that are proposed for closure; rather, I shall pick up on the key themes that have emerged in the debate. I congratulate especially my hon. Friend the Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle) on securing the debate, and all Lancashire Members who have taken the time to attend.

I listened with interest when my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) spoke about the petition that his newspaper established because the Blackpool Gazette has collected several thousand signatures. I was appalled to hear that when the staff from my hon. Friend’s newspaper went to present the petition, there was nobody there to accept it. I shall be in touch with the editor of the Blackpool Gazette to find out what he experienced, because it is appalling practice for the Post Office not to recognise the strength of local feeling that is so well put together by our local newspapers.

The debate has highlighted the cumulative effect of several years of closure programmes, and I especially endorse the comment made by my hon. Friend the Member for Chorley about the post office to which people had previously been referred, but that is now designated for closure. That is exactly what has happened in Blackpool. My local post office in Homefield road closed in 2003-04, and I was told to go to the Red Bank road branch. What is now being proposed for closure? Red Bank road is. In practice, the cumulative effect will be that more and more Blackpool residents go to our central post office.

The Minister knows from correspondence with me and my colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, South (Mr. Marsden), that the relocation of our central post office to the basement of WH Smith is entirely unsatisfactory. Sadly, before Christmas, an elderly constituent of mine had a fall going down the stairs into that basement and died a few days later. I have also had many complaints from people who cannot use the lifts. WH Smith put a new lift in, but the two lifts are not sufficient for the elderly, people with a disability, and parents with pushchairs, who all want to use it. It is claustrophobic in the basement. The sub-post office closures will mean that more and more people use the basement in WH Smith, which is inadequate.

The consultation in Blackpool—the same applies to some extent in Morecambe—does not take visitors into account. Red Bank road post office is just off the promenade and is used by visitors as well as local residents. What are they going to do in future? That also applies to the Lighthouse post office in Fleetwood.

Finally, we have spoken about business being taken away from post offices, but the Post Office is trying to attract new business. It has announced the introduction of a Christmas savings club following the Farepak fiasco and I have seen adverts on the television for new insurance products. Surely this is a time when we should be standing back and saying, “Let the Post Office build up that new business.” Let us not take away these essential facilities at this point. We should be backing post offices, not allowing them to close.

I take note of what you said about wanting to start the wind-ups at 12 o’clock, Mr. Atkinson. I hope that I will be allowed 60 seconds to answer the question posed by the hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) which was, to quote Lenin, “What is to be done?” Yesterday, I was standing only a few feet from Lenin’s tomb in Moscow, so perhaps I can have the opportunity to say what can be done.

The first thing is to stop the closure programme, take a breath, and see what can be done. Hon. Members have mentioned initiatives that could be introduced in post offices: local authority services, Government services and private services, including banks and mortgages. All sorts of things, including the TV licence, could be introduced in post offices.

Everyone knows that post offices are vital, and everybody knows that not all are economic. It is not communist to want to save them—it is common sense. We know that subsidies will be necessary if the branch network is to stay open. I agree with the hon. Member for Pendle that once it has gone, it will be gone for ever. It is like the railway structure of the 1960s. People say, “My goodness, if only we could reintroduce it,” but we cannot—it is too late. Let us at least value what we have, and not do away with it.

We know that there is a cost, but we also know that there will be a tremendous cost if we carry on with the closure programme. There will be a cost to our villages and towns, to our elderly people, to those who do not have transport, and to those in rural areas who do not have a regular bus service. All that should be put into the mix before the Government allow one more post office to close.

I had offered to be slightly brief so that more Members could speak, but the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) was so extremely brief that I have all the time that I need.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle) on securing the debate, which is on a very important issue. Hon. Members from every part of the country are concerned about it, and there is widespread anger about the post office closure programme. It is probably the most important matter raised in my constituency. The hon. Gentleman spoke about a number of post offices in his area. He also spoke about low car use in his constituency, saying that the closure of post offices would have a particular impact on the vulnerable.

The hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) spoke about the impact of closures on rural areas, as did the hon. Member for Chorley. He also said that post offices were a social good. The hon. Member for South Ribble (Mr. Borrow) said that the process would result in the loss of village shops, as did the hon. Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (Geraldine Smith). The hon. Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble) spoke about the petitions that she has been collecting and the cumulative effect of closures in her constituency.

My hon. Friend the Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh) was keen to speak today, but unfortunately he has had to attend a Select Committee hearing in Burnley. However, he has told me how concerned he is about the loss of two post offices in his constituency. He feels that they are based on poor data and that they will have a real impact on the elderly.

There is widespread anger about post office closures but, as the hon. Member for Pendle said, post offices closures are not a new phenomenon. Since Labour came to power, 4,000 have been closed. The Government now propose closing a further 2,500, and 3,500 were closed when the Conservatives were in power.

Another theme in the debate, which echoes the feeling in my constituency, has been that the consultation is a sham. The Minister has said at Question Time that in the rare cases when a local campaign manages to save a post office, the Post Office will be required to close another next door. Communities have a real sense of helplessness. They do not wish to arbitrate with the Post Office on which post office ought to be closed; they want to feel that the Post Office will listen to their case for the local post office.

There is also great frustration that six weeks is not long enough for a community, working with the council and local businesses, to put together a package to save a post office. When questions have been asked in the House, the Minister has made it clear that the presumption will always be for closure because most post offices are not viable. He has clearly said that there is a hidden subsidy. There is a real sense that it does not matter what people want; they will never be able to put together a package to persuade the Post Office that the local post office ought to be saved.

The hon. Member for Chorley said that Lancashire is being hit hard, but I suspect that hon. Members from across the country will say that every area is being hit hard. For example, Brent had 40 post offices in 1997. We now have 30, with another six set to close. That is a 40 per cent. reduction. We, too, have a diverse and deprived area. Many people do not have a bank account, and the queues at the remaining post offices are appalling. A common theme—it has been raised by hon. Members—is that even if a closure does not have a large impact on the immediate area, it can have a greater impact on neighbouring post offices.

In the hon. Lady’s constituency, a much higher concentration of people live in a much smaller area. We have geographical size, and closures mean that people have to travel much further to the next post office. That is why we have been hit so much harder than other areas.

I did not mean to suggest that less pain was felt in the hon. Gentleman’s area. I was making the same point that other hon. Members have made: we are all angry about the impact of closures on our constituents. I understand what the hon. Gentleman and others say about travel, particularly in rural areas. There is also a cost to the environment, which is never taken into account by the Government when they consider the impact of a closure programme.

Several hon. Members mentioned the impact of a closure on a particular shop, but closures in my constituency can affect small parades of shops. We tend to lose the whole parade because of the loss of footfall. A number of reports have considered the impact of post office closures on local areas. The New Economics Foundation suggests that for each post office closed, the loss to an urban area is an average of £277,000. The Government are saving only £45 million from the closure programme. If we add up the additional costs associated with closure, I wonder just how much of a saving is being made. For example, a loss of £277,000 to the local economy must be a loss of between £47,000 and £50,000 in VAT to the Government.

There must be all sorts of other hidden costs. In a rural area, studies commissioned by the Government suggest that for every £1 in subsidy, there is a £2 to £4 benefit to the rural economy. We have spoken about the impact of closures on the vulnerable, but they can also have a big impact on small businesses and local areas.

The loss of a post office is one of many losses about which my constituents feel strongly. We are losing things that are seen as a community’s hubs and centres. For example, we have lost many health centres, and police stations are now proposed for closure. That is in addition to the post office closures; and only last week jobcentre closures were announced. There is a real sense that all the places where people go for face-to-face advice and help are being closed.

It surprises me that the Government are going through this pain for such a small sum. In the bigger picture, £45 million is small change, especially when one considers that Royal Mail Group paid its board just over £4.5 million in bonuses. That would be more than enough to save all the post offices in London that have been proposed for closure—and, I suspect, those proposed for closure in Lancashire that have been mentioned today.

The Government have no long-term plan to save the network. Only 7,500 post offices will be required to meet the access criteria that the Government have set with the Post Office. It is as if the Government are managing the decline of the post office network. When we reach the end of the present 2,500-closure programme, are they going to stop there, or will they carry on whittling the number down until we reach 7,500? Worse still is the spectre of the 4,500 post offices that are financially viable. The belief seems to be that closing post offices that are not financially viable will force the footfall into those that remain, but I doubt whether the evidence supports that. It is more likely that a substantial proportion of people will simply change their behaviour. They will stop using post offices and use other services, including online services. All that will happen is that we will see a progressive downfall of the Post Office, and of course there will also be an impact on Royal Mail. Will people who run small businesses really stand in a very long queue in a post office that is several miles away from their area? I suspect that they will just use a competitor.

Several hon. Members said that the Government have systematically reduced the services that are provided by the Post Office. There is real uncertainty about the Post Office card account. Some 3.75 million people use that service at the moment and it will be devastating if the Post Office loses the contract for it.

We really need a full, proper and long-term plan for the Post Office. For example, we need a plan to ensure that the Post Office card account is more flexible, that ATM machines can operate from post offices, and that post offices have an opportunity to diversify their business. I think that post offices should be separate from the Royal Mail so that they have an opportunity to work with the Royal Mail’s competitors. For example, why cannot post offices be set up as depots to pick up parcels from a number of different delivery companies?

People throughout the country are immensely frustrated by this closure programme. There is a real sense that the Government do not understand the important social asset that post offices are and that they have no long-term plan for securing something that is valuable to the community. However, although the Conservatives have been campaigning in their local constituencies to save post offices, they have no long-term plan either. They have no plan for investment in the Post Office and their actions smack rather of opportunism.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Atkinson. I welcome the Minister, although I do not envy him, because I cannot remember a debate in my entire time in Parliament in which the Government’s actions have been so fully condemned by so many Labour Members. The programme of closures that the Government are embarking on is clearly highly unpopular and I am not sure that it is entirely wise.

I pay great tribute to the hon. Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle) for securing this debate. He made a cogent case about the situation in his own constituency, which bears many similarities to the situation in my own constituency, as I will demonstrate later. At the outset, I should say that my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Charles Hendry) usually speaks for our party on these matters, but he is tied up in a Public Bill Committee elsewhere. I am sure that the Minister will understand that.

I offer my condolences to the residents of Chorley who use the Bolton road, Chapel lane, Charnock Richard, Eccleston Bridge and Withnell Mill post offices, which are to be closed, and to those other residents in Lancashire who use the 54 other branches earmarked for closure. In my local media, I have described these closures as being worse than the Beeching railway cuts of the 1960s. As has been said elsewhere, in many areas people now wish that they were able to open those branch lines that were closed, and indeed I think that one or two of them will reopen. The same may well be true of some of these post offices; in 10 years’ time, I suspect that one or two of them may well reopen.

Of course, as the party spokesman it would be unwise of me to claim that the Post Office network could feasibly have remained unchanged. However, as the hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) suggested should happen, the Opposition would have embarked on a period of lateral thinking about how the post offices could have been used more viably. The hon. Member for Chorley mentioned the BBC contract, and there has also been the driving licence contract. There are lots of other ways in which the Government could have encouraged greater use of all the post offices. County councils could have used them for all sorts of services and the district councils could have used them for residents to pay council tax.

With a little lateral thinking, there is no reason why more post offices should not become more profitable. I mentioned the provision of ATMs in post offices earlier in the debate; one could think even more laterally about that issue. Why could not one have an individual ATM programmed so that the Post Office card account could be used for benefits claimants to draw cash in their own area? There are lots of possible innovations, but we have seen nothing from this Government about how they might make the Post Office more viable.

In its area plan proposal for Lancashire and Fylde with Southport, Post Office Ltd reports that 33 per cent. of residents in the area live in rural communities and it is those communities that will be hardest hit by closures. I am sure that those residents who will be affected by closures would like to understand the thinking of the Government on these closures, when they are saving a mere £140 million and then investing £1.7 billion in restructuring. That really is the politics of the madhouse.

My constituency is due to lose seven post offices, all of them in rural areas, and the rural bus service is particularly useless. Would my hon. Friend agree that the social importance of the post offices in these villages cannot be underestimated? The post office is a place where local people gather and converse, and if that centre is to be closed, a very important social tool in villages will be destroyed.

My hon. Friend made an effective short speech, proving the old maxim that the shorter the speech the more effective it is. His intervention is also absolutely spot on. As I have said, village post offices are the glue that holds rural communities together. So much is transacted in the post office that goes far outside the post office’s normal business. If somebody is sick, it is the postmaster or postmistress who knows about it and gets something done. If somebody is in trouble, one way or another that news comes through the post office. That network is what the Government are destroying in this process of closures. I entirely agree with the hon. Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (Geraldine Smith) about how much people in rural areas value their post offices.

I come now to one or two of the more technical aspects of the debate. The access criteria that the Government have produced for closing these post offices are flawed in many ways. The Government have not taken into account geographical features. If there is a very steep hill, how can one ask an elderly person or somebody in a wheelchair to get to their nearest post office? The post office may be only 3 miles away, but if there is no bus service or there is a bus service that goes only once a week, it might as well be 30 miles away. The 3 miles is measured as the crow flies, but very often the distance is much more than 3 miles if one has to walk or go by car. Furthermore, as has already been said in this debate, the programme has not taken into account the businesses that might well be damaged by the closures.

I have a post office in my constituency that serves 10,000 people, 750 new homes are about to be built near it and yet it is scheduled for closure. The hon. Member for Pendle says that one of the towns in his constituency will have only one post office for 14,000 people. In Cirencester, if the two post office closures go ahead as proposed, there will be one post office for 17,000 people. The people of the Cotswolds will gather in Cirencester on Saturday for a stamp-buying exercise. It will be interesting to see what happens to the centre of Cirencester then and whether Post Office Ltd takes note that that crowded post office will not be able to cope if the other post offices in Cirencester close.

As has already been made clear in this debate, there is evidence that if one post office that is scheduled for closure is saved another post office has to close. I hope that the Minister will be able to confirm today that that is not the case. However, if it is the case, I ask him sincerely how he will campaign in his constituency, how the Prime Minister will campaign in his constituency, and how the 20 Ministers will campaign in their own constituencies. I hope that they will not use their undue influence to keep their own local post offices open at the expense of those in other constituencies.

As has also been mentioned in the debate, the consultation period is simply not adequate. Six weeks is simply not enough time to get people motivated to protest and to find real hard evidence as to why their post office should not be closed. In the Cotswolds, 12 post offices are either scheduled for closure or for an outreach service, some for as little as two hours. There is a post office in Stratton where the postmaster has been offered £100,000 if he will retire and he still wants to keep the post office open. Last month alone, his turnover was £468,000 and yet that post office, which also serves 10,000 people, is scheduled for closure. We are closing some of the most profitable post offices, which really is the politics of the madhouse.

The hon. Member for Chorley rightly points out in his early-day motion 763 the importance that post offices play as focal points for their communities; my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) has also made that clear. The hon. Member for South Ribble (Mr. Borrow) said that he has organised local post office meetings in his constituency at very short notice. I had seven such meetings two days after the closures in my constituency were announced. Up to 250 people attended each of those meetings. I have another one scheduled for this Friday, where people will express their real anger. I have also received more than 500 letters about this closure programme. All of this evidence shows how unpopular the closure programme is.

Given this scenario of closures, it is likely that it will be the younger and, ironically, the more mobile residents who will be the first to move out of the affected areas when these changes occur, because they are the people who are able to move. It will be the poor, vulnerable, elderly and disabled who will be left in these isolated rural areas without the services of a post office.

I want the Minister to answer a number of simple questions. A number of post offices are scheduled for outreach in Lancashire, while eight are scheduled for outreach in my area, and I want some assurances. We are talking about not only the post offices that will close under the current programme, but the many that have been offered very limited outreach—one post office in my area has been offered only two hours. For how long is the funding for outreach guaranteed? How will it be modified if the outreach proves not to work or is insufficient? Is what is happening now merely a prelude? Will outreach be provided this year, with the post offices that receive it likely to be scheduled for the next round of closures?

As the hon. Member for Chorley and his constituents, the residents of the Cotswolds and people across the country know, the present round of post office closures has been badly managed and will cause devastation to local communities. The financial calculations do not make sense, the access criteria are too limited and the consultation period is too short, but perhaps the Minister can reassure us that that is not the case and that the closures will not be as bad as we imagine.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle) on securing the debate. I congratulate all the Lancashire Members present on expressing their views and I very much appreciate the concern that they have shown in pursuing their constituents’ feelings about the proposal to close post offices. Five post offices are scheduled for closure in my hon. Friend’s constituency, and other hon. Members spoke about the closures in their constituencies.

I concur with my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice), who pointed to the expertise in this matter of our hon. Friend, who is a member of the Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Committee. The Committee has looked into these issues in some detail—most recently in the report that it published just a couple of weeks ago—and my hon. Friend brings an impressive knowledge and expertise to the debate.

My hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble) concluded her speech by saying that we should back the Post Office, and that is where I would like to begin. The Government do back the Post Office and we will have backed it to the tune of £3.7 billion by 2011, which includes past subsidies starting from 1997 and current subsidies going forward. I do not want to be partisan in a debate that affects hon. Members from all political parties, but there was no subsidy at all under the previous Government.

It is not a question of the Government turning their back on the Post Office or not backing it; the Post Office is undergoing huge change because of the changes in people’s lifestyles, which my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle and others mentioned. We are talking about a difficult process, and I have no doubt that it is unpopular, but the change affecting the Post Office would be a great deal larger if it were not for the Government’s support and subsidy to the network.

When we take into account the direct costs to local post office branches and the costs of central infrastructure support, such as IT, cash handling and other services, which are not paid for by the sub-postmaster or sub-postmistress, it becomes clear that three out of four post office branches lose money for Post Office Ltd, which is why the commercial network on its own would have only about 4,000 branches.

Significant Government support is therefore going into the post office network. Nevertheless, at just over 14,000 braches, the network was judged to be unsustainable, by not only the Government, but the general secretary of the National Federation of SubPostmasters, who said:

“Although regrettable we believe that closures are necessary to ensure the remaining Post Offices… thrive in the future”.

Let us look at some of the figures and at why the Post Office is in such a difficult position. Post Office Ltd lost £174 million last year, or £3.5 million a week. The hon. Member for Brent, East (Sarah Teather) referred to staff bonuses, but paying none of those bonuses would cover the Post Office network’s losses for only about 10 days. What would it do after those 10 days? The network loses £3.5 million a week; every day the Post Office is open for business, it loses £500,000 or more.

There has been a significant decline in custom. Some 4 million fewer people visit post offices every week, compared with just a few years ago. Past closure programmes have been mentioned, but 1,000 sub-post offices in urban areas are competing for business with at least six other sub-post offices within a mile of them, and that is at a time when the number of customers is falling.

The decline in customer numbers is influenced by huge changes in people’s lifestyles, which we all know about. We tend to think, for example, that one of the core services that post offices offer is the capacity for pensioners to pick up their pension, and a number of pensioners do that. However, I should point out that eight out of 10 pensioners have their pension paid into their bank account, so about one in five are picking up their pension at the post office. I do not know what all the hon. Members present intend to do if they reach retirement age and live to a glorious old age, as I hope that they will, but the number of new retirees choosing to have their pension paid into a bank account is not eight out of 10, but nine out of 10.

Have the Government done enough to look for new business for the Post Office? The network can fulfil a really good and helpful function by bringing Government agencies close to people.

My hon. Friend makes a good point, and some of the suggestions for new business that she and other hon. Members made during the debate are being taken up. Hon. Members mentioned free ATMs, and I am happy to say that 4,000 free-to-use ATMs are being installed in post offices. Hon. Members also asked why the new Post Office card account cannot be used at ATMs, but I am happy to confirm that it will be possible to use it at ATMs. Such new business ideas are important, and we should give the Post Office management credit for some of the—

I shall come to Northern Rock. We should give the management credit for some of their innovations on foreign currency, insurance and so on. My hon. Friend mentioned Northern Rock, and I should tell hon. Members that the Post Office already offers a mortgage service to the public. There is therefore new business and there is support through Government subsidy. Even given those two factors, however, the Post Office still faces the difficulty that three out of four branches are running at a cost to it.

Will the Minister answer one key question? If one post office that is scheduled for closure remains open, does that mean that another post office must close?

The reason why that has happened in a number of cases is that the average cost to Post Office Ltd of post offices that are scheduled for closure is £18,000 per branch per year. If one is saved, therefore, the Post Office must find that saving somewhere else. I can confirm to hon. Members, as I did to the Select Committee, that that will not happen in every circumstance, but that is why it happens in some circumstances.

Time does not permit me to go through much else, other than to say that I understand the feelings that hon. Members have expressed. We are talking about a difficult process, which is being driven by lifestyle change, and I can assure hon. Members that the Government are committed to continue supporting the Post Office in the years to come.

Proposed Eco-town (Ford)

[Mr. Greg Pope in the Chair]

I am delighted to have secured this debate on the concerns of many in the Littlehampton and Arundel area about the potential proposal for an eco-town at Ford and Climping in West Sussex, just south of Arundel, which includes parts of my constituency and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert). We both support measures resulting in sustainable, eco-friendly communities on brownfield sites with the support of the local community. However, the aforementioned proposal most decidedly does not have the support of local people. Nor does it have the support of Ford, Yapton and Climping parish councils, Arun district council, the planning authority, West Sussex county council or the South East England regional assembly.

We understand that the Government have received nearly 60 applications and that they will shortlist about 10. In other words, they will decide the sites, scheme, size and number of houses—all outside the established planning framework. No doubt the Minister will claim that the plan will go through the planning system, but that is not an accurate description of what will happen. The Government will make the decision first about the site and size of the development, after which they will consult the public and instruct regional assemblies to incorporate it into their regional strategies. Over all of that lies the threat that property developers could ask the Secretary of State to call in their application to decide on it or to use the powers in the new towns Acts.

The main proposal for a Ford eco-town is simply a hastily rebadged plan by property developers that was being promoted before the Government announced their eco-town initiative. The proposal was considered by Arun district council as part of the local development framework last year and rejected for not being the most sustainable. That was for a range of reasons, in particular infrastructure problems, of which the most notable is the poor road system: the A259 is congested and the A27 is unlikely to see a bypass around Arundel before 2016, at the earliest, and even that is unlikely. That stretch of the A27 is usually congested as the dual carriageway is reduced to single lanes.

That coastal stretch of West Sussex is already contributing significant new house building, with 1,350 houses being built in Bognor Regis and 700 houses in Littlehampton already under construction. Given the existing level of housing planned, the traffic modelling shows the A27, and all the minor roads feeding from it from Arun district, failing well before 2026. Evidence and research also shows that there were better sites in the area that were far more appropriate than Ford for further development. The inspector’s report from the examination in public last year recommended sites that were extensions of existing urban areas, rather than rural Ford, which, despite a small brownfield area resulting from a wartime aerodrome and a small light industrial park, is still essentially very rural.

A huge amount of work has gone into that local development framework process over the past two years, including consultations and more than £250,000 of consultants’ fees. It seems odd that all that high-quality and careful work to determine the most appropriate sites for development can be overturned from Whitehall at the stroke of a pen on the basis of very little research or evidence, other than drawing a few lines on a map. Even on the basis of the Government’s own criteria set out in their eco-town prospectus, the Ford eco-town proposal comes nowhere near fulfilling the criteria.

The first essential requirement, set out on page 14 of the prospectus, reads:

“Eco-towns must be new settlements, separate and distinct from existing towns but well linked to them.”

If the Minister comes to the area, he will see that it is located between two east-west trunk roads in open land and on a flood plain. It is just to the south of Arundel, which is a unique, historic, hillside town, and immediately adjacent to the existing villages of Yapton and Climping. There is no scope to produce a separate and distinct community. An eco-town of 5,000 or more houses would essentially become an extension of Arundel and create a conurbation linking Arundel to Yapton.

Climping parish council, in its letter objecting to the proposed eco-town, which was sent to the Minister for Housing, the right hon. Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint), set out the infrastructure problems of the area, including poor public transport and over-crowded schools. Barbara Edge, the chairman of the council, concluded her letter by saying:

“The Arun valley south of Arundel has remained unspoilt and beautiful for thousands of years. It is a haven for wild life and a recreational breathing space for our intensely overdeveloped coastal area. To destroy any part of the valley would be an act of betrayal to future generations.”

Damaging that beauty would also have economic consequences. Littlehampton is a seaside town. It has beautiful sandy beaches and a river that attracts leisure craft. It is just a few miles from Arundel with its cathedral and castle and the wonderful surrounding countryside. Tourism is still a big employer in the area. Building on the flood plains between Climping, Ford and Arundel would damage a key feature of that beauty and the attractiveness of both Littlehampton and Arundel to tourists.

Our opposition to the proposal is not nimbyist. One of the concerns that I and Arun district council have is about the effect that such a large-scale development would have on the current regeneration plans in Bognor Regis and Littlehampton. In particular, about £500 million is being invested in Bognor Regis and that potential investment could be threatened by this eco-town proposal, diverting the focus and resources away from the coastal towns. The Minister should be clear that there is widespread and fierce opposition to this proposal and that people in my constituency do not want the Ford eco-town to appear on the shortlist.

In a letter of 13 February to the Minister for Housing, the chairman of SEERA raised a concern about eco-town proposals in the south-east:

“Few of these have local authority support and you need to understand the concern councils feel about the process for moving these developer-led bids forward… A great deal of time and effort has gone into preparing the draft South East Plan and the Local Development Frameworks… It is, therefore, a matter of considerable concern that the bidding and selection process associated with Eco-towns has, to date, been independent of the spatial planning process.”

The Minister’s response to that concern would be appreciated.

Finally, I would like clarification of the point made by the Minister for Housing in her speech at Earls Court on 27 February:

“I want to assure local authorities which include an eco-town in their future housing plans that it will, of course, count towards their future housing targets”.

That contradicts everything that we have been told by civil servants and others, and the thrust of the Prime Minister’s comments that it will create further housing. Whether or not the numbers count, our opposition to the Ford eco-town proposal will continue, for all the reasons that I have given concerning the suitability of the site. However, clarification on that point would be helpful.

I hope that the Minister will be left in no doubt that there is universal opposition to any plans for an eco-town at Ford. Should the development appear on the shortlist—I hope that it will not—it will trigger the start of demonstrations and protests by the people of Ford, Climping, Yapton, Littlehampton, Arundel, Bognor Regis and beyond as we seek to maintain the environment and protect plans for the regeneration of seaside towns.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr. Gibb) on securing the debate, and I am grateful for the opportunity to speak briefly in it. Ford village and most of the airfield on which an eco-town might be sited are currently in my constituency. Following a boundary change at the next election, they will largely be in the constituency that my hon. Friend represents, but they will still be of huge interest to my constituents and to neighbouring villages.

First, I echo my hon. Friend’s point that in this country, there is a need for more housing—particularly more affordable housing. The inability of young people, in particular, to get their feet on the housing ladder is a serious concern, not least in the south-east, and one which Members on both sides of the House share. Already, 58,000 new houses have been proposed for West Sussex over the next decade. That would represent a significant increase in housing, and there are already substantial concerns about the availability of infrastructure to support house building increases on that scale.

Secondly, the eco-town, which would add to the housing numbers that have already been announced through the regional assembly, would be located on a site that Arun district council, in its consideration of the housing framework, has already rejected. The real concern about the eco-town proposal is its serious subversion of the normal planning process. There is an established planning framework for making such major decisions about housing. It is evidence-based, it includes a large number of stakeholders and the public, and it is subject to independent scrutiny. The eco-towns idea sits outside the system entirely, and it is misleading to say that it will be processed through the planning system.

Effectively, the Government want to make the decision first and then consult the public. Then, they will instruct the regional assemblies to incorporate the eco-towns idea into their regional strategies, with the threat that if private sector backers make an application, the Secretary of State will call it in for her decision, or seek to use provisions in the new towns Acts. Effectively, the Government are saying that whatever the decision of local authorities or the established consultation procedures, they will be able to drop those towns, irrespective of concerns, on to the local community.

It is quite wrong to set aside the views of the local planning authorities, which have to take decisions based on their local knowledge, about where to allocate what is already a very large number of houses. Indeed, it is wrong to subvert the decisions of the regional assembly. Why spend millions of pounds of public money on evidence gathering and analysis at all levels—from district through county to the regional assembly—only to have the results wholly overridden by fiat, or by diktat, from Whitehall? That lack of proper local accountability and decision making is of particular concern.

Thirdly, I echo the anxieties of my hon. Friend about the serious infrastructure deficit locally. The A27 Arundel bypass is long-awaited; indeed, there has been a clamour for it for decades. It has consistently fallen out of the programme, and it was about to be implemented 10 years ago, but it was dropped. The earliest that it can be brought into the programme is 2016, and without an Arundel bypass, it is impossible to conceive that there will be sufficient infrastructure to support a new town on the scale of Ford, which would need that road link to connect it to the outside world.

It is not just the inadequacy of roads that is a concern, but the inadequacy of public services, such as schools, as my hon. Friend said, and hospitals. There are proposals to downgrade local hospital services, including maternity units and accident and emergency services, and there appears to be a disconnection between, on the one hand, proposals for a very substantial increase in housing numbers and, on the other, a failure to upgrade infrastructure. It would be necessary to upgrade or preserve the infrastructure even if the housing did not materialise, let alone if housing numbers were to grow so substantially.

I also echo what my hon. Friend said about the impact of an eco-town at Ford on the regeneration of coastal communities. The proposal is absolutely not the way to achieve that regeneration—indeed, it might threaten it. There is significant and, perhaps to some, surprising deprivation along the south coast, which has been partly caused by the lack of infrastructure. The eco-town proposal would do nothing to address the issue; indeed, it would be to the detriment of existing regeneration plans. There is strong opposition to the scheme from Arundel town council, Ford parish council and Yapton parish council in my constituency. They feel that they are being shut out of the normal planning processes, and it is to that subversion—the subversion of proper examination—that I hope the Minister will address his remarks.

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr. Pope. I thank you for your hospitality a couple of weeks ago when I visited your constituency. We had a great time, albeit a very rainy one, but I enjoyed it.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr. Gibb) on securing the debate and the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) on contributing to it. I know that they are assiduous workers for their constituents, and I pay tribute to the manner in which they have advanced their case today.

Both hon. Gentlemen know that shortly, once an initial assessment has taken place, we will announce the proposals for eco-towns and for public consultation. They know also that while the assessment is under way, neither I nor my ministerial colleagues can comment specifically on any scheme. I know that some developers have already publicised their bids, but that is a decision for them rather than for the Government. However, I should like to reassure the hon. Gentlemen—this is the main thrust of my response to their contributions—that there will be considerable opportunity for consultation before the process is complete, and that we will take every opportunity to engage with local authorities and the public during that time to ensure that all views are heard. I shall say more about that process in a moment, because it is the key. However, first, I shall provide a little context and explain why we are committed to providing more homes that are affordable and sustainable.

May I suggest that a huge amount of taxpayers’ money could be saved because I can tell the Minister now that the consultation process that he mentions will reveal total opposition from the public, all parish and town councils in the area, and Arun district council? Why proceed with announcing Ford as part of the shortlist if that is going to be the result of the consultation process?

When my Department replied to oral questions in the House last week, I mentioned that the consultation will not take place in a smoke-filled room behind closed doors. It will be a complete part of the regional spatial strategy and the local development framework process, which is right and proper. On the merits and disadvantages of the Ford eco-town proposal, I reiterate that because of judicial reviews and call-in by the Secretary of State, I cannot possibly comment on any individual schemes, as the hon. Gentleman will understand.

I was pleased with what the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs said about affordable housing. I am glad that he recognises the massive need for us to address the issue nationally and in his constituency. Affordability pressures are nationwide. We can no longer duck the need for more affordable housing, because if we do, we will let down future generations of families and young people throughout the country. All regions are experiencing major increases in the number of households, and the question of affordability is particularly acute. For that reason, by 2016, the Government want 240,000 new homes to be built every year to keep up with the demand caused by increasing life expectancy, rising aspirations and the increasing number of people living alone.

I was particularly interested by the comments made by the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton about affordability in his area and in West Sussex. The problem is particularly acute in his constituency and that of the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs. The coastal towns, as he said, have areas that are relatively low income for the south-east, yet house prices are very high, averaging about £234,000 in West Sussex as a whole. The average weekly wage in Arun district is one of the lowest at £428, and average earnings are about £542 a week in coastal West Sussex. In 2007, the average house price in West Sussex was nearly 10 times the average annual income. The situation is worse in the neighbouring district of Chichester, where the ratio of the average house price to the average salary has reached 12:1. On that basis, it is fairly clear that we need to do something nationally as well as locally to address the acute need for affordability.

The Minister is right about house prices in West Sussex. Will an eco-town reduce house prices in the area?

No, it will not, but it is a question of providing greater choice and supply. That is important. I have seen a similar situation in my own region of the north-east, and it is certainly acute in London and the south-east. Do we want to ensure that people do not have choice, so that they have to move out of their own area, thus reducing its prospects for economic sustainability until the only people left are increasingly older and more affluent? I do not think that that is particularly sustainable for every area.

There is a need for a greater supply of affordable housing in the hon. Gentlemen’s constituencies. I must be blunt with them: recent evidence shows that that has not been provided. The need for affordable housing has not been addressed, and I shall give a couple of examples. Ford supplied 14 units of affordable housing in 2006-07, or 4 per cent. of its total completions for that year. In West Sussex as a whole, the total figure was 458 affordable homes, or 19 per cent. of the total. The draft south-east plan recommends a target of 40 per cent. It is clear that we need to do a lot more to ensure that the need for affordability is addressed and that young, hard-working families doing their best in life and playing by the rules have a chance to get on the property ladder and own affordable homes.

The Minister is right and we do not disagree with him on that point. The issue is where the new houses should be built. Gill Brown, the leader of Arun district council, said:

“After years of study following detailed technical advice set by the Government that has cost taxpayers a small fortune, and after an independent inquiry, we have a regional policy for the South Coast based on economic regeneration aligned with the sustainable extension of existing urban areas.”

That extensive work is based on evidence and research, not a Minister simply deciding in Whitehall with the stroke of a pen where the building will happen. We accept the argument, but the question is where the building should be and where it will be most sustainable, and the work on that question has been done.

I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point, but I reiterate that 4 per cent. of all homes built in 2006-07 were classed as affordable. That cannot be sustainable in terms of providing suitable accommodation for hard-working young families who want to get on the property ladder. The area must do a lot more to address the situation.

We need to address the big issue of affordability, but this is about not simply more homes, but greener homes, which is where the eco-town concept comes in. Eco-towns are a different approach to providing homes incorporating the highest standards of sustainability and green features from the start. The schemes offer a tremendous opportunity to revolutionise the way in which we plan and deliver towns, as well as to change radically the way in which people travel, work and live. I suggest that they will be exemplar communities from which other towns and developments can draw.

In the hon. Gentleman’s excellent speech, he mentioned the eco-towns prospectus, which was published alongside the housing Green Paper and says more about what we expect of the new places. They must be designed to meet the highest standards of sustainability, including low and zero-carbon technologies and good public transport. I know that transport is an issue that concerns him, and I shall return to it in a moment. The towns must also lead the way in design, facilities and services, as well as community involvement, which the hon. Gentlemen have made clear is particularly important. Only schemes with the potential to meet those criteria and to work best in each location will be considered by the Government to have the potential to be eco-towns.

Sustainable transport is essential to the new towns. Proposals must clearly demonstrate how the towns will encourage reduced reliance on cars and a shift towards other, more sustainable, transport options. We are looking for high-quality offers on accessible public transport and developments designed around the needs of pedestrians and cyclists, and we will expect transport plans to be drawn up for each scheme outlining how the transport aims can be achieved both within the eco-town and in its links to surrounding towns and villages.

In the prospectus, we highlighted many good examples from Europe, as well as exciting developments on a smaller scale here in the UK, that could help to shape the eco-towns. We have asked the Town and Country Planning Association, the Royal Institute of British Architects, the Prince’s Foundation and the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment to bring their considerable expertise to bear on the eco-towns. We are looking across Government at the proposals’ potential impacts on the environment and the road and rail network—I understand that there are particular concerns about the A27, which I will take on board—and assessing how they will deliver on plans to link to other centres and employment in the most sustainable way.

We will need to look carefully at the transport implications of all proposals during the public consultation period. The Department for Transport will ensure that sustainable transport is properly incorporated in all eco-towns and will be looking for employment, educational and community facilities within easy access of all homes, as well as public transport and walking and cycling facilities of the highest level within and beyond the sites. We expect all developers to focus their efforts on delivering sustainable transport and smarter choices.

I have mentioned more homes, which is important both nationally and, from the statistics that I have read, in the constituencies of both hon. Gentlemen. We also need greener homes. There has been an enormously positive response to the concept of eco-towns—we have received about 60 proposals. I suggest that that demonstrates an appetite for the programme and for the concept. However, as we have heard in this debate, there is uncertainty in some areas about eco-towns. The hon. Gentlemen have expressed their concerns on behalf of their constituents most eloquently. I reassure them that the process that we are undertaking is robust and transparent, and, crucially, that it will include full public involvement.

We are considering the proposals across Government and with agencies to assess, in particular, whether there are potential problems of flood risk or scarcity of natural resources, and to consider their possible effects on the natural environment: the green spaces that we all have the right to enjoy, protected landscapes, and the species that inhabit them. In the case of eco-towns, we are looking for innovative proposals that will enhance our biodiversity and improve the natural environment by integrating green spaces into new towns. I stress that only the best proposals will make it through the process. We will be publishing the shortlisted proposals for eco-towns for consultation shortly—indeed, almost imminently. That will allow us to conduct a full and comprehensive public consultation with communities, local authorities and stakeholders.

Although I do not have time to say more about the process, I am more than happy to write to the hon. Gentlemen to articulate the situation at length, as I know that it causes them concern. We are carrying out an initial assessment of the sites for eco-towns involving the relevant Departments, such as my own and the Department for Transport, and their agencies, including transport and environment agencies. The purpose of the assessment is to find out whether there are any issues with proposed sites that are so significant and such show stoppers that the Government could not support those locations as eventual eco-towns. Issues might include accessibility to public transport, or landscape constraints in terms of special protection and flood risk. We are also taking soundings from our partners in the regional assemblies and regional development agencies and, to address the point made by the hon. Gentlemen, seeking the important views of the local authorities that will be affected by the sites.

Alcohol-related Crime and Antisocial Behaviour

It is a pleasure to have you in the Chair, Mr. Pope. Last year, my constituent, Mr. Garry Newlove, was brutally murdered in a crime that was fuelled by alcohol. Fortunately, his murderers have been sentenced, and the details of that crime are so well known that I need not go through them again today. His case provided the latest and most appalling example of the problems that alcohol-fuelled crime and antisocial behaviour are causing to our communities.

Such developments are not new, and I do not argue that Warrington is worse or better than anywhere else in that respect. Indeed, attempts by some sections of the media to present the town in which I am proud to live as some kind of war zone have caused deep distress to many of my constituents, not least the vast majority of decent and hard-working young people, whose voices are often not heard on this issue. Nevertheless, we know that all communities face this problem. I have raised the issue in the House on several occasions and have spoken on a number of measures that the Government have introduced to tackle it. I have also been out with police and community support officers in my area, to see what problems they face on the ground, and I have discussed with the chief constable the problems that some of his officers have to deal with. I am convinced that we need to do much more, because we all know what is out there and we all know the cost.

The Government’s 2004 alcohol harm reduction strategy estimated the cost of alcohol-related crime at £7.3 billion. The 2006-07 British crime survey showed that there were 1 million violent incidents in which alcohol was a factor, and that in nearly half of violent incidents, the victims believed that their assailants were under the influence of alcohol. As my hon. Friend the Minister knows, there are crimes and other effects that cannot be quantified. The effects are there for old people who feel tormented and frightened, for people who do not feel at peace in their own homes and for a number of our young people, who are frightened to go into certain areas at night because of the risk of getting involved in violence or in antisocial behaviour.

I do not suggest that the Government have not tried to tackle the issue, as they have done so repeatedly. Nevertheless, we still have a problem. That is because it cannot be tackled only by the Government; it is the result of profound social changes and only by working together will we be able to deal with them.

Our relationship to alcohol has changed. It is cheaper in real terms than ever before, and is more widely available. Also, we have become more tolerant—I would say far too tolerant—of the effects of binge drinking on our society. If we add to that the fact that supermarkets use alcohol as a loss leader to get people into the store, and that the drinks industry makes alcoholic drinks targeted directly at young people, we start to see how difficult the problem is. All that is fuelling our epidemic of binge drinking and under-age drinking.

I want to comment particularly on the effects of young people drinking. I want to make it clear that we are talking about a minority of young people. All the figures show that fewer young people are drinking, but our problem is that those who are, are drinking more. That minority—the 18 to 24 age group of binge drinkers—is fuelling most of our alcohol-related crime and disorder. On top of that, in my constituency and in many others we have a problem with under-age drinking. I suspect that we all know, in our own areas, the retailers who sell to children who are obviously under age, or turn a blind eye to those who are under age.

However, our problem is not just with retailers; it is also with the parents. I was horrified to hear from police in my area about incidents such as when a group of youngsters had been gathering on a field causing problems and a parent drew up in a car and unloaded cartons of lager for them. The police have also been berated by parents for bringing home young people who are clearly drunk and a risk to themselves and others. Most of us would be horrified by that, but a small minority of parents behave in that way.

To their credit, the Government have legislated to tackle the problem. We have banned minors from drinking on licensed premises, and allowed trading standards officers to use minors to make test purchases of alcohol to catch those selling to people who are under age. We have also given the police more powers to deal with premises that are in breach of licence. Recently, the Home Secretary announced that there would be further powers for police to tackle drinking in public and another crackdown on under-age drinkers, and there have been more announcements today about the review of the licensing laws.

We can see the scale of the problem from what happened last autumn, when the police cracked down on under-age drinking, and 21 forces seized 3,700 litres of alcohol, including wine, spirits, beer, alcopops—the lot. That matters because people who have been drinking are much more likely to be involved in a crime, even when all the other variables are taken out of the equation. It matters because alcohol has been a factor in a number of really hideous crimes and because it contributes to people’s feeling of insecurity, day to day. What we are dealing with can range from the minor, such as drunken yobs shouting outside houses in the early hours of the morning, which I suspect that most Members have experienced at some time or another, to really serious crimes, and yet we have not found the answer. I do not think that my hon. Friend or anyone else would claim that we have. If there were a magic bullet, any Government would have used it by now.

One reason that we have not found the answers is that the problem cannot be dealt with through the criminal justice system alone. It is absolutely right that we need severe penalties for people who breach the law, but we also need a change in the culture so that binge drinking and selling alcohol to children becomes just as socially unacceptable as we managed to make drink-driving. It used to be perfectly acceptable to drink a lot and then drive your mates home, but it is not socially acceptable any more because we changed people’s perceptions and we have to do that with this issue as well. That requires action right across Departments. My hon. Friend is answering for his own Department, but I am sure that he would be the first to say that action is required elsewhere as well.

We have to start in schools. When I ask the Department for Children, Schools and Families about alcohol education in school, I am told that it is delivered as part of general anti-drugs education, through personal, social and health education. I do not doubt the good intentions, but as the mother of someone who has recently left school, and having spoken to other young people, I think that our children get far more education about the effects of illegal drugs than about alcohol, and we must bring that into the equation. I am glad that the Department is reviewing that as part of its children’s plan, but we must ensure that we have proper, targeted programmes and people who are properly trained to deliver them. Preaching at young people does not work; we have to find the right strategy.

We also need more training for teachers and for education welfare officers, to identify where alcohol might be a factor in young people truanting or behaving badly. When the Minister and I were teachers, we would hardly have expected that, but the number of 11 to 15-year-olds who drink has doubled since the early 1990s, so the problem is seen more often.

It is true that if young people get involved in crime, and alcohol is a factor, we need to intervene early, before they go on to commit more serious offences. I was pleased that the Government accepted the changes that I suggested to the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill to allow courts to make orders not only for drug treatment but for alcohol treatment. The difficulty is that we do not yet have enough treatment centres, particularly those that deal with young people. I know that the Department of Health is looking at that, but treatment must be available.

It is unfortunate that, as well as having to deal with the young people, we also have to deal with their parents. I spoke about some of the cases that the police in my area have come across. We all have a duty to ensure that we try to teach our children to behave and drink responsibly. I urge the Government to think seriously about a hard-hitting advertising campaign targeted at parents about the effects of alcohol-related crime, and the effects on young people, both the victims and the perpetrators. We must get the message through to the minority who do not heed it at present. I welcome what the Home Secretary said about using parenting contracts to deal with the matter, but we also have to look at penalties for those who will not get on board, and who persist in not dealing with their children, despite best efforts to advise them and to get them to change their behaviour.

We also need more enforcement of the existing law. The Licensing Act 2003 gave local authorities far more power to deal with premises in breach of their licence, but those powers are not always used. We need to get the message over that they need to be used more.

I also want a strengthening of the law in certain areas, particularly in respect of the sale of alcohol to under-age youngsters. Currently, the offence of persistently selling alcohol to minors is only made out if someone is caught doing it three times in three months. That means that the police and trading standards officers are tied up with watching particular premises, but also that if the retailer does not offend for three months but then does so again, they start from scratch. The maximum fine is only £10,000, but if the police and local authorities impose a closure order for 48 hours and the person involved accepts it, the criminal offence is discharged. Considering the mayhem that is caused by under-age drinking in some areas, that is not good enough. It does not automatically trigger a review of the licence, although it is true that a resident or relevant authority can ask for one. I hope, from what I have heard this morning, that the Government are planning to change that, but I urge them to go further.

I would like a “two strikes and you’re out” policy: if someone sells alcohol to someone who is under age, they get fined the first time and lose their licence the second time. If we did that, people would start to ask for identification, and we would get a proof-of-age scheme. Many people who work in small shops, often women who are intimidated, would find that much more reassuring. Owners would put in security measures to protect their staff because they would know that, if they did not, their livelihood would be gone. It is as simple as that.

We must also tackle the drinks industry. One supermarket recently suggested dealing with prices through the Competition Commission, and there is merit in that, but there is much that supermarkets and other retailers could do now. They need to stop discounting cheap lagers and similar drinks, sometimes selling them cheaper than water. They could stop stacking them near the entrance, and they could ensure that they ask for ID if there is any doubt at all about the age of the person who goes into the shop to buy them.

We must also deal with those parts of the drinks industry that persistently market to young people and target alcoholic drinks at them. The alcopops and cheap ciders that are often sold in nice packaging, in blue and green bottles, are not targeted at adult social drinkers but directly at the young. We need to review the rules on the advertising and promotion of such drinks.

We also need to look at the duty. One can buy ciders that are 8 per cent. proof, far stronger than many beers, for about £1.99 for 3 litres. That situation really cannot be sustained for much longer. Young people, whose tolerance for alcohol is lower anyway, get hold of such drinks and get drunk very quickly.

As I said to my hon. Friend at the beginning of my contribution, I know that the Government take the matter seriously, and that they are doing what they can to tackle it, but we need more action across government. We need firmer penalties for those who breach the law, and we need to ensure that we work hard to change people’s perceptions and views so that we can tackle a menace that is blighting our communities and making not only our older people but many of our young people feel unsafe. We must remember in all of this that many of the victims, as well as the perpetrators, are likely to be young people. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Pope. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, North (Helen Jones) on her speech. Without over-egging the pudding, I thought that it was excellent. It was thoughtful and provocative as well as constructive. I hope that many people, not least her constituents in Warrington, get the opportunity to read it.

My hon. Friend is right to point out that despite horrific events—she referred in particular to the murder of Garry Newlove—the vast majority of people in Warrington, including the young people, are decent and law-abiding. They look to us to do as much as we can to deal with common problems. I thought that she laid out many interesting ideas, and I hope to respond to some of her points as well as setting out the Government’s broader strategy in respect of this matter, which affects the whole of our country.

As my hon. Friend said, we need a variety of approaches to tackle the problem, from prevention to making people face up to the consequences of their behaviour. I have always thought that one of the great follies of public policy is that one is seen to be at one end or the other of a spectrum. I know from debates and, if she does not mind my saying it, from her teaching career, that my hon. Friend has always taken the view that if someone breaks the law, there must be a consequence. It must be appropriate, of course, but there must be one. We should follow that principle in public policy.

However, trying to change things through criminal justice system sanctions, important as that is, is not sufficient. We have to look at other measures, whether prevention, working with parents, as my hon. Friend suggested, or whatever. A range of policies from different parts of the spectrum is required to bring about real change.

To digress slightly, the point that my hon. Friend made about parents is one of the great issues that confronts us today. What can actually be done about the minority—not the majority—of parents who are irresponsible? This almost sounds trivial, but how can we pass a law that says that parents must take responsibility for their son or daughter and not allow them out on the street late at night, or that they must make sure that their children do not drink irresponsibly? As my hon. Friend rightly said, it is difficult to pass such a law. However, we must look at parenting contracts and measures such as that to ensure that parents who refuse to face up to their responsibility take more responsibility.

The national alcohol strategy, “Safe. Sensible. Social.”, sets out a clear programme of action to tackle alcohol-related crime and antisocial behaviour. Priority actions in the strategy include tougher enforcement through a series of targeted campaigns to wipe out sales to under-18s; advice and guidance to parents; robust enforcement, which is essential, of the 2003 Act to clamp down on irresponsible alcohol promotions and irresponsible retailers; and targeted enforcement and support for offenders through alcohol arrest referrals to change individuals’ drinking behaviour. As my hon. Friend said, it is important that we extend the availability of that sort of sanction.

Another part of our strategy is challenging the public’s acceptance of drunken behaviour through a new multi-million-pound communications campaign. I take on board the point that my hon. Friend made: in addition to targeting problem drinkers and problem situations, we should also look at how to ensure that parents are involved in that communications campaign. I shall see what we can do about that.

The strategy is also about ensuring that the alcohol industry plays its part in reducing harms by considering the effectiveness of its codes of practice and strengthening them, if necessary. Those priority actions will help us to achieve our public commitment to see fewer alcohol-related violent incidents, fewer people experiencing drunken rowdiness in their areas, including Warrington, fewer admitted to hospital for acute alcohol-related illnesses and fewer children drinking alcohol.

We have made some progress, as my hon. Friend says, and fewer children are drinking. However, those who are drinking are drinking more. We have launched alcohol referral pilots in Ealing, Cheshire, Liverpool and Manchester, where advice will be provided to those who have been arrested for alcohol-related offences. To date, 758 individuals have received referrals. We will shortly be rolling out those pilots to 10 new areas.

We have achieved significant reductions in test purchase failures from more than 50 per cent. in 2004 to the current level of 14.7 per cent. to ensure that ever-decreasing numbers of children are able to get access to alcohol illegally. We are continuing to carry out various enforcement campaigns, including, as my hon. Friend said, recent campaigns related to confiscating alcohol from young people.

It is important that local partnerships work together to tackle crime and antisocial behaviour. We recently sent out an alcohol strategy local implementation tool kit, which gives people information about the tools and laws that are currently available to them to deal with alcohol-related problems. Again, as my hon. Friend said, it is crucial to ensure that existing law is enforced, irrespective of new laws that are needed. I take her point about the need to improve the law, particularly in respect of one or two areas, but we also need to enforce the existing law more robustly than at present.

I wonder whether my hon. Friend has talked to his colleagues in the Government about what figures they keep on the reasons that licences are lost. I have asked questions, but it seems that we keep few statistics on that so it is difficult to know how the relevant powers are being used. I always ask, “When did you last hear about a place that lost its licence for serving people who are persistently drunk?”, because that is an offence.

My hon. Friend is right. I will consider that, because I am concerned about it. Far more premises should be losing their licences for persistently selling to children. The fact is that even if they are found to have persistently sold alcohol to children three times in three months, I understand, from the figures on the last campaign, that the number of premises losing their licences is only in the low 20s. That is not a sufficient deterrent. That is why the Government have made some announcements on that subject, which I shall come to in a minute.

Some 500 designated public place orders have been made, allowing local authorities to give the police enhanced powers to confiscate alcohol from people drinking in public. Given that local authorities can simply designate an area for a public place order, I should have expected far more orders to be used. There are often complaints that adults, not to mention children, are drinking in public, causing huge problems in town centres, or wherever. A local authority can designate areas with a designated public place order and the police can then confiscate alcohol from adults, if they believe that it is causing a problem. I do not understand why there are not hundreds more such orders. My hon. Friend will know that Brighton, for example, has made designated public place orders, and other seaside resorts and various towns make those orders, which give the police additional powers.

As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport set out this morning, the introduction of the 2003 Act has not led to the widespread problems that some feared. Although crimes involving violence may have reduced over the evening and night-time period, the evidence also points to increases in offences reported during 3 am to 6 am.

To deal with some of the points that my hon. Friend made, the Government remain determined to address the issues under discussion, and have announced new initiatives to protect the public, including a new yellow and red card alert system that clearly outlines the consequences of breaching a licence, changing the offence of persistently selling alcohol to a person under 18 from three strikes to two strikes in three months and utilising existing powers to identify a problem premises. We will make it easier to review premises where local intelligence suggests that there is a problem. We will support the police and local authorities to identify problem hot spots by ranking geographical areas and concentrations of premises on the basis of the risks that they present to crime and disorder, public nuisance and children. That will allow licensing authorities to exercise more caution and conditions when issuing licences, to withdraw licences wholesale in such areas, which I think that my hon. Friend would welcome, and it will permit local authorities and police to target enforcement resources more effectively at problem hot spots.

To tackle wider antisocial behaviour associated with alcohol consumption, the Home Office will introduce legislation as follows: to increase the maximum fine from £500 to £2,500 for anyone not obeying instructions to stop drinking or to give up their drink in a designated public place; to make it easier for the police to disperse antisocial drinkers, both adults and children, from any location—if necessary, we will change the law to make that happen; and to extend the use of acceptable behaviour contracts for young people caught drinking in public to require them and their parents to attend a session with an alcohol specialist to try to address the problem. I think that my hon. Friend will be pleased about that. In addition, we will extend alcohol arrest referral pilots so that under-18s may also benefit from a brief intervention from a trained worker. That will help deal with young people drinking in public who may already be involved in criminal activities. However, we recognise that more needs to be done.

Although young people are drinking less, it is worrying that those who do drink are drinking substantially more and are doing so more often. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary recently outlined the Government’s wish to see greater use of parenting contracts if poor parenting is identified as an issue when alcohol is confiscated from under-age drinkers. It cannot be right that nearly half of all children obtain alcohol from home. That is simply not acceptable.

We are fully aware that enforcement alone will not be enough to tackle drinking by young people. As such, the Department for Children, Schools and Families will shortly launch a youth alcohol action plan to set out the Government’s proposals further to tackle under-age drinking. That includes dealing with the cultural change, not only with children but across the board, that my hon. Friend mentioned.

Just as parents have a role to play, so do those who sell alcohol. The Government are fully committed to tackling those who sell alcohol irresponsibly. Alcohol retailers, pubs and clubs should manage their establishments safely and deal with their customers responsibly or they should be dealt with. We welcome the work that is being done throughout the country, but more needs to be done. As we know, the industry wants the irresponsible minority to be dealt with and we should deal with such people robustly. Throughout the country we are seeing what can be done, through schemes such as Citysafe in Liverpool and the Think 21 campaign in Cambridgeshire, when agencies work together to try to tackle the problem.

We will be investigating the way in which retailers offer and advertise cheap alcohol. My hon. Friend will be aware that the Department of Health is currently reviewing that. The Home Office is also reviewing the alcohol industry social responsibility standards and will report by the end of this month.

I thank my hon. Friend for her contribution, for the way in which she has represented her constituents in Warrington and for driving forward this debate. Although we all enjoy a drink—at least, many of us do—there can be no excuse for drinking that leads to violence or to some of the behaviour that we see on our streets. The public in this country have said, “Enough is enough”; they want to see tough, robust action and we will take such action as a Government.

Norfolk Fire and Rescue Service

I am grateful, Mr. Pope, for the opportunity to bring this important matter to the House’s attention today.

I am aware that the Minister recently met the head of Norfolk fire and rescue service and Norfolk county council cabinet members. Despite that meeting, several serious concerns affecting my constituency and others in Norfolk were raised during my recent visit to the service’s headquarters.

I want to put on record the fact that my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) has indicated his support for my concerns, which also affect his constituents, but, alas, he cannot be here today. I am grateful for the support of my hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk (Mr. Bacon), and I acknowledge the fact that the service’s headquarters is in his constituency. I pay tribute to the chief fire officer, Richard Elliott, and the county council cabinet member with responsibility for fire and community safety, Richard Rockcliffe, and thank them for their time in keeping me briefed.

Many of the challenges facing Norfolk fire service have been brought to my attention, and relate specifically to the rural environment in which it operates. Of the 41 fire stations servicing the county, only two are staffed entirely by full-time firefighters, and a further four are staffed by a combination of full-time crew and retained firefighters. All the county’s remaining 35 stations are crewed entirely by retained firefighters. In all the county’s rural areas the service relies wholly on retained crews.

As the Minister knows, retained duty firefighters respond to calls on a needs-only basis, and are often employed full-time in other occupations. They are trained to deal with the same range of incidents as their full-time counterparts. As the statistics show, Norfolk’s fire and rescue service would be nothing without them. The problem lies in recruitment and availability of retained firefighters. Provision of cover is proving a huge challenge, leaving some rural areas insufficiently covered. Outwell and Downham Market in my constituency are particularly badly affected. The chief fire officer told me that it is not unusual to have 10 fire engines unavailable during the working day due to crewing and availability problems. In Norfolk, difficulty in recruiting retained firefighters stems in part from the evolution of rural industries and agriculture.

With mechanisation and modernisation, fewer people are employed on the land, and businesses have moved away or closed down, thus reducing the pool of suitable people whom the fire service can target for retained duty. Employers are increasingly disinclined to give employees the necessary time to carry out their duties, not least because of the cost and inconvenience of unplanned or lengthy absences by members of the work force. Does the Minister agree that it is time to provide employers with proper incentives to release staff to work as firefighters instead of continuing to rely on their good will? Few outside the fire service understand how important the retained duty system is for our safety. They do not appreciate that by signing up they could save the life of a family member, friend or neighbour. How does the Minister respond to calls from the fire service for a national campaign to raise awareness of the system and build better links with business?

The service’s funding is important. Norfolk does not have a precepting fire authority and cannot raise money through council tax. The county council funds fire and community protection alongside other key services. It received an acceptable settlement this year, but the challenges of delivering adequate services across a vast rural area remain. The fire service is, of course, a priority, but so are adult social care, education, planning and transport infrastructure, to name but a few. Extra pressures on both the fire service and the council include a growing elderly population, and an increase in the financial burden of dealing with flooding and associated demands for water rescue.

On the challenges of the increasingly elderly population, at a recent meeting the council’s fire and community protection review panel confirmed that fire deaths in Norfolk are almost entirely of elderly people or those living alone. That is a bleak statistic. Prevention is vastly more effective and less dangerous or costly than dealing with a fire. The service is doing what it can to educate and inform people of the risks of house fires.

Building regulations require mains-operated smoke alarms to be fitted to all new dwellings or dwellings that are substantially altered, but there is no law to require people to fit smoke detectors in their homes in other circumstances. I welcome the television campaign to persuade the nation that smoke alarms should be fitted in every home and regularly maintained, and I have used my columns in constituency newspapers to press home that point. Does the Minister agree that it is a great pity that Norfolk fire service has a large stock of smoke alarms, which the Government have supplied, that it cannot afford to fit, because the cost of that work in a rural area is prohibitive? Will the Minister give careful consideration to funding a one-off campaign to fit those smoke alarms, rather than leaving them to collect dust in a warehouse?

The assistance of Norfolk fire service in water rescue is increasingly demanded and expected, although it has no statutory duty or funding to carry out this work. Coastal and inland flooding is becoming frequent, and in my constituency flooding in the Norfolk fens shuts roads with worrying regularity. The service does not have specialist water rescue teams in place, but there is an urgent need for them. I understand that a national review of the possibility of establishing water rescue as a new statutory duty has been undertaken. If flood water rescue were a statutory duty, Norfolk county council would receive the investment that it desperately needs to provide extra resources to the fire service for water rescue equipment and training. The county council has provided some money from an already limited budget, but the fire service is looking for greater Government commitment of money and recognition that this is a serious issue that must be addressed. I hope that the Minister will give favourable consideration to that today because I am sure that he understands the problems facing us not just in Norfolk, but throughout the country.

I come to the plans for regionalisation. The Government are planning to close the Hethersett centre in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk, and to move control to Cambridgeshire in a value-for-money exercise. Norfolk county council is concerned that the cost of that move is spiralling out of control. The cutting-edge technology used at Hethersett is the envy of firefighters throughout the country, and it seems crazy that the Government want to close the centre and to move control to Cambridgeshire. I cannot believe that that regionalisation is anything but a cost-saving measure, and I am extremely concerned that the high level of delivery that we currently receive in Norfolk could be jeopardised. Will the Minister assure us today that regionalised control will not lead to a decline in the efficiency and technological capabilities of the service? Will he also assure us that value-for-money measures will not be pursued at the expense of the quality of service provision?

At the start of this year, for the third consecutive year the Audit Commission concluded that Norfolk county council continues to provide a “good” well-performing fire authority. However, inspectors also recognised that pressure on the county council’s budget was challenging an already low-spending service. Norfolk fire and rescue service has already met efficiency savings above national targets. I urge the Minister to assure the service that it will not be penalised for its own efficiency in terms of future funding.

Finally, has the Minister had any discussions with ministerial colleagues from the Treasury or Department for Transport on the issue of rebated fuel for emergency service vehicles? A report published by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs in December 2005 states:

“vehicles used by the emergency services, armed forces, and local authorities are not automatically entitled to use such rebated fuel”.

Significant expenditure is committed to fuel costs for specialist vehicles, such as fire engines. With recent fuel price increases, that cost demands an ever growing proportion of the total budget. Yet, as with other emergency services, the fire service is prohibited from using so-called red diesel, on which there is a beneficial rate of duty. Does it make sense for taxpayers’ money to be given to the fire service to buy diesel for fire engines when tax and duty will then go back to the Treasury? Will the Government reconsider the case for specialist equipment, such as fire tenders, so that the tax saving can be committed to front-line emergency service cover—not only in Norfolk, but across the country?

Norfolk fire and rescue service does an excellent job in difficult circumstances and I hope that the Minister will see it in his gift to ensure that that service continues in a more efficient way that suits the population better. Will the Minister give assurances to my constituents that performance will be maintained and that they will not be put at risk because they live in rural areas that are costly and more difficult to serve?

I will make a very brief contribution. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Norfolk (Christopher Fraser) on securing the debate. He highlights an important issue, of which the public are not widely aware. The general public do not necessarily realise, although you may be aware, Mr. Pope—as is anyone working as a retained firefighter and their employers—that many of the people who put their lives at risk and help to protect the public are teachers, business people, factory workers, hospital porters, bricklayers and agricultural workers. They protect the public and are firefighters on the side and they do so on an exceptionally good value-for-money basis. It costs £1 million to crew-up a fire engine if it is serviced by full-time personnel and only about £70,000 if it is crewed by retained firemen. Does the Minister think that that ratio is sufficiently startling? I think that it is and that it is exceptional value for money. It might be worth the Government going the extra mile—or raising their game—to protect the retained fire service.

The figures that my hon. Friend quoted demonstrated that it is not unusual to have 10 fire engines unavailable in Norfolk at any one time because the available crew is absent for understandable reasons, such as pressures on employers who are unable to let people go because of the nature of modern employment and how it has changed. That suggests that the system is beginning to break down. If it were just one or two unavailable engines, it would be fair enough, but 10 fire engines are unavailable on a regular basis, which suggests that the Government need to do more in terms of recruitment, advertising and campaigns to encourage participation in the retained fire service. Otherwise, the Minister will have to bite the bullet and pursue the alternative, which would cost him and his colleagues a great deal more money.

My hon. Friend mentioned regionalisation, to which there are advantages and disadvantages. I have heard people talking about that issue from both perspectives. Like my hon. Friend, I want reassurances from the Minister that if regionalisation goes ahead and the control centre in Hethersett is closed, the quality of the service will be maintained.

Finally, the subject of water rescue deserves a mention. Most people find it extraordinary that there is not a statutory duty on the fire services to rescue people. We all know about the Royal National Lifeboat Institution at sea, but the fact that there is no statutory duty in relation to our inland waterways suggests—I know that this is not the case—that the Government think that protecting the public if they fall in a river is not sufficiently important to be backed by the force of the law. That is not necessarily the Government’s position and I invite the Minister to respond to that point and say what their position is. Surely, if it is worth protecting the public, it is worth doing so whether they are on land or in a river. We should not end up in the ludicrous situation of the Health and Safety Executive threatening to prosecute fire services because a retained firefighter standing on the edge of a river bank decides to jump into a river and save somebody rather than consult the rule book first.

I thank the hon. Members for South-West Norfolk (Christopher Fraser) and for South Norfolk (Mr. Bacon) for their contributions to this important debate. I put on record the fact that good and admirable work is done by not only the fire service in Norfolk—the hon. Gentlemen know about that work—but fire services right across the country. I congratulate those involved on the recent settlement, which over the next three years will amount to 8.7 per cent., 6 per cent., and 5.3 per cent. That will stand the county’s authority in good stead to invest in the fire and rescue service. The hon. Gentlemen can correct me if I am wrong, but the figures that I have on the strength of the local fire service in Norfolk show that numbers have risen from 430 in 2001-02 to 479 in 2005-06, which implies that the local authority takes the matter of protecting local residents seriously.

Over the next three years, the Government are investing in not only a substantial settlement, but the new dimension programme, of which the hon. Member for South-West Norfolk will be aware, given that he talked about flooding. Across the country, £200 million will be put into new dimension equipment, including the high-volume pumps that were used effectively in the floods of last summer, not least in my constituency of Gloucester. The pumps were also mobilised to the eastern coast when we had the recent surges and threats of flooding, which thankfully did not materialise.

I know that the new dimension equipment that Norfolk has received includes a high-volume pump, an urban search and rescue unit and the funding of—this might sound amusing but it is very important—a search dog, which will be based in Norfolk. There will also be an instant response unit for mass decontamination and four prime mover vehicles, which I announced earlier this year. Hopefully that will make a real difference to equipping Norfolk for not just the challenges that we have traditionally expected the fire and rescue service to face, but new challenges.

Does the Minister accept that Norfolk has special circumstances? We have suffered for a long time because flood problems that have been alleviated upstream have been pushed down to Norfolk. Does he also accept that Norfolk is a large area in which to operate one pump? If there is a problem on the coast, it cannot be used in the fens—much of my constituency—which is at sea level.

The hon. Gentleman is more aware of the local geography than me. I was about to come on to that issue, as well as the importance of fire control and where that will be of real benefit to Norfolk. I will discuss those matters in a few moments, but first I shall respond to a couple of important points that were made about the retained duty service.

It was only a few months into my time as the Minister responsible for fire and rescue services that we had the tragic events in Warwick. As hon. Members will know, four men lost their lives, all of whom were retained firefighters. I was quite disturbed by some of the reporting in the media. I know that the hon. Members for South-West Norfolk and for South Norfolk will agree that it is important for us to say that retained firefighters are in no way either part-time or in the second division. They are incredibly important to our fire and rescue service and they do a terrific job in rural areas, in particular.

I meet regularly with representatives of retained firefighters. I quite recently met Adrian Hughes, the president of the Retained Firefighters Union, and its general secretary, John Barton, to take on board many of the considerations. We have also been involved in a number of reviews, including to look at some of the issues that the hon. Member for South-West Norfolk raised around business and business support. The results of the research have shown that employers are pretty keen and enthusiastic about the work of the retained firefighters. I think that there is more that we can do as a Department, in our relationship with these businesses, to get across the message of just how much we value those people and how important it is that businesses allow these retained firefighters to do their work in local communities. I will impress on my colleagues and officials in my Department that retained firefighters do an incredibly important job.

With regard to fire control, the hon. Gentleman is quite right to say that a lot of complex technology already exists in Norfolk. Such technology will allow us to use satellite navigation systems to find the closest fire engine to an incident and to trace the incident, whether it has been reported from a mobile or a land line. Norfolk has been a trail-blazer for us with the fire control project, which is a £360 million national project to ensure that all 46 fire and rescue services have the same kinds of technology. Fire control is continuing to develop.

Just a few weeks ago, I was working with a key agency: the European Aeronautic Defence and Space Company. Technology is moving on and will provide Norfolk with even more technical support than ever before. It is important to get across the fact that there are two areas from which Norfolk will benefit, although it does not benefit from them at the moment. My constituency experienced bad flooding, and despite the fantastic work that was done in our tri-service centre, rescue workers were overwhelmed by the number of calls. Those calls had to be taken by other control centres around the country. Because those control centres are all on separate networks at the moment, the calls could not be automatically relayed back to the gold command in Gloucester. Some of the calls ended up being faxed in on pieces of paper, which is not satisfactory for a 999 system.

Under fire control and the new control centre, which will serve the east of England and the rest of the country, nine regional control centres will all be on one system and will all back each other up. The system will therefore be much more resilient. If there is exceptional demand in Norfolk, or anywhere else, the new system will enable all regional controls, which will be networked to each other, to talk to the control room in the hon. Gentleman’s county.

The hon. Gentleman understandably says that this should not be about savings. He is quite right. It should be about technology, resilience and saving people’s lives, and that is what it is about. However, it will also result in savings in the order of 25 per cent.

May I go back to the point about an overwhelming number of calls coming into a fire service? As things currently stand, if there is a demand for a lot of services in Norfolk, Norfolk fire service is quite within its rights to call upon the facilities of other services. However, I do not understand how the Minister’s nine regional control centres differ from what we have at the moment and how that makes the system more efficient. It would be different if he was saying—I suspect that he is not—that he will man it with nine times as many people to cover the calls. I cannot understand how the system will be any better than the one that we have at the moment.

I can correct the hon. Gentleman on that. At present, we have 46 different control rooms, and very many of them are on different systems. That means that there is not the same kind of capacity if one of those control rooms receives a lot of calls. The nine regional controls will all be on the same system and will be able to back each other up and talk directly to the one that has been overwhelmed. That is a key difference. The system will be much more resilient. It will also allow for the cross-border mobilisation of an engine and will move the nearest engine to the scene of the incident. All that will provide our firefighters with the best system that this country has ever seen, and also, I believe, the best system in the world, which is what they deserve.

The hon. Members for South-West Norfolk and for South Norfolk mentioned water rescue, which is a very important issue. It is something that my chief fire adviser, Sir Ken Knight, is looking at. The issue of a statutory duty is important. Within our calculations and considerations, we must consider three points. First, we find the fire and rescue service to be a can-do service, as was the case in my constituency during the floods. We had fire and rescue services from across the country coming together and getting on with the job without the need for a duty. We must also bear in mind whether, if there is a duty in place, it will stop rescue services—whether they are from the voluntary sector, such as the Royal National Lifeboat Institution or others—from attending and supporting the fire and rescue service, because all of a sudden, they will know that it is not their responsibility, but that of somebody else.

The Minister talks about the RNLI or whoever. At sea, one can understand what he is saying, but on our domestic waterways, who is it from the voluntary sector who he imagines will be dissuaded from turning up who otherwise would? Will we have members from the British Heart Foundation or Barnardo’s running out into the street from their shops to jump into waterways to save people?

That brings me neatly on to the third of my three points. Any agency or organisation will be within its rights to say, “Actually, it costs us money to do this. You have the statutory duty, so here is the bill.” That is another consideration that we have to take on board. Having said that—

It does not matter who it is. We are talking about circumstances that have not happened. I am trying to explain to the hon. Gentleman the considerations that it would be remiss of us not to take on board before making these judgments. Hence, Sir Ken Knight is looking into the issues around a statutory duty. We will shortly report back to the House, so the hon. Gentleman will be able to make his comments then. Sir Ken Knight’s report will be ready soon. He needs to take on board all these considerations.

The hon. Member for South-West Norfolk also talked about prevention and smoke alarms. My Department has funded about 1.3 million smoke alarms for people’s homes. I am very proud to say that such a preventative role is at the heart of what the fire and rescue service does. It is important that chief fire officers and others continue with such work because it saves lives and has got us to the position in 2008 in which we can say that we have the lowest number of fire deaths that this country has seen since 1958. The good work that is taking place in Norfolk and the rest of the country must continue. The prevention work must be seen as not an aside, but a mainstream part of the fire and rescue service.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at one minute to Two o’clock.