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Westminster Hall

Volume 474: debated on Wednesday 26 March 2008

Westminster Hall

Wednesday 26 March 2008

[Mr. Martyn Jones in the Chair]

Park Home Sites

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

The issue of park homes has been debated in this Chamber and in the House for a number of years. Different Governments and different Ministers have tried to grapple with the complex problems of those who seek a simpler lifestyle in a park home. I shall define what a park home is, because a lot of people, when they hear “park home”, have the idea that it is some little chalet by the sea. A park home is not a chalet by the sea. It is, by and large, a mobile home—what we used to call a caravan once upon a time—which is not a home fixed to the ground but one that rests on a pitch. I understand that to be the definition.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on bringing this important subject before the House. My constituency has the biggest and best park home site in the country; more than 1,000 people live on it. The homes there are not caravans, and they are not mobile. They are like small chalet bungalows. They are beautiful little homes that offer their residents an awful lot, as I will say if I catch your eye, Mr. Jones.

The point is that park homes are not fixed to the ground. That is important. They are mobile, and can be moved. Often, when they are moved, they are dragged rather than towed.

There are wonderful magazines that promote the purchase of park homes. I have here a magazine called Park and Holiday Homes. The picture on the front cover shows a wonderful little chalet-style property with big windows that probably measures 40 ft by 20 ft. Such homes are rather different from the sort of mobile home in which I was brought up. My parents had the misfortune to run into financial troubles, and we ended up living in a caravan—we called them caravans then—between 1964 and 1969. Ours was 22 ft by 7 ft. Modern ones are entirely different, and people live in them for entirely different reasons. For us it was the force of economic circumstance, or perhaps lack of economic circumstance—I am not sure which, but we were certainly forced—but nowadays people take a lifestyle choice to move somewhere beautiful to a home that is compact and easy to maintain, and often sold to them with the idea that they can be part of a wonderful community.

For many people, that is the reality. I can visit many beautiful park homes in my constituency that are located in an idyllic part of Devon—we all know that Devon is idyllic—where people wish to reside. However, not all of them are beautiful. There are some issues with the legislation, particularly concerning what sort of people should be allowed to run the parks. Some fail to run them fully and properly, and there is always debate about whether the people who run them should be fit and proper. On Second Reading of the Housing and Regeneration Bill, I highlighted for the House how one particular park owner, Mr. J. Small, dealt with the residents of his park.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. Does he agree that greater protection is needed for park home residents, particularly when they want to sell, and that communication of their rights and responsibilities could be greatly improved?

I agree entirely. I believe that Mr. Small may have purchased, or may be about to purchase, a site in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency. I recommend that he visits it to see how Mr. Small gets on.

Park homes, although they are predominantly in coastal and tourist areas, are not found only there. They are an inexpensive alternative for many people, but one of the things inhibiting mobility is continuing high commission on the sale of park home sites. Although it has decreased from 20 to 15 to 10 per cent. over the years, two-thirds of people who responded to the recent Government consultation supported the view that it should be reduced further to 7.5 per cent., or perhaps even lower. Is the hon. Gentleman disappointed that the Government have yet to respond to that suggestion in any positive way?

I hope that the Government will consider the issue again and respond to it. I note that they have consulted, but the question about the drop from 10 to 7.5 per cent. involved no corresponding rise in pitch fee. If one talks to those in the industry, they say, “We get our money from here, and we get it from there”—I shall come to the three main sources later—so they want to balance their income. If there is a cut in commission, as there probably should be, how should the pitch fee be adjusted to account for that loss of income? The Department for Communities and Local Government should be considering that, and perhaps some slightly deeper and more complex consultation should be undertaken. I am sure that the Minister, unless he wishes to intervene now, will respond in the—sadly—brief time available to him at the end of the debate.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on bringing the matter to the attention of the House, but I do not want to leave Mr. Small. Is the hon. Gentleman aware that I have two park homes in my constituency where Mr. Small behaves like a latter-day Rachman? He terrifies the residents, frightens the inmates and does none of the work that he has committed to do. Does the hon. Gentleman have any idea what we can do to drive Mr. Small out of our area of Teignbridge and south Devon?

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. I noticed some laughter when he used the word “inmate”, but some people on those sites do feel like inmates. They feel imprisoned, particularly if they are unable to sell their park home because of the park owner’s interference. I shall come to that in greater length and detail. If I may have an opportunity to progress, I shall come also to Mr. Small and what we might be able to do with him.

I used parliamentary privilege to name Mr. Small during a previous debate. He responded by saying that he did not think that I had ever been to Buckingham Orchard, the site that I named. For the record, I have visited it on probably a dozen occasions, although I do not have records beyond that. According to the Herald Express, Mr. Small responded:

“It is complete rubbish. If I thought it was somebody sensible saying all this, I might be concerned, but my mother always told me never to take any notice of politicians and clergy.”

I did not realise that our profile had risen to such a stock.

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that although Mr. Small may have no regard for politicians or the clergy there are court proceedings against him, as well as a number of judgments that are currently unsatisfied? That is an entirely different matter. As well as not liking politicians and the clergy, he is trying to flout the law.

The hon. Gentleman is slightly ahead of me, because I was about to say that it is clear that Mr. Small appears to have no regard or respect not only for politicians, but also for the laws that we pass and for the residents of his parks.

To answer the hon. Gentleman’s question, we can resolve the problem by introducing legislation requiring site licence owners to be “fit and proper people”. That has been raised on a number of occasions and certainly by the working party set up by the Government in 1998, which reported in 2000. One of its recommendations was that licensees should be “fit and proper people”. The Government’s response in 2000 stated:

“The Government accepts in principle that a licensee should be a ‘fit and proper person’”.

We tabled an amendment to the Housing and Regeneration Bill in Committee, and I have tabled another for Third Reading, requiring the Government to consider legislation defining a “fit and proper person”. I hope that the Minister will explain how he plans to make progress on that. He should bear in mind that some Members’ patience is stretched, given that the Government responded positively eight years ago to indicate that they were considering such an approach. I hope, therefore, to hear something positive and firm about how that will progress. From conversations with the Minister, I know that he is concerned about the situation, but I emphasise the point that some Members have been here several times before and had hoped for more progress.

Why the need for “fit and proper people”? The hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) described Mr. Small as a Rachman—

Indeed, although I am not sure that I would necessarily go along with that description, because it implies intent, and I am not sure that in Mr. Small’s case there was intent. In some cases, he has shown careless disregard for residents, but he has not deliberately tried to force them off the site. However, that does not mean that the hon. Gentleman is not right in saying that some park home owners have a policy of trying to force people off. I heard evidence yesterday about a site in southern England being stripped of park homes, one by one, with what appears to be a clear view on the part of the owner to constructing a bricks and blocks development when all the park homes have been removed.

I shall leave Mr. Small for a moment and read out a letter sent to me by a park homes residents association that does excellent work. I shall keep the location and the person anonymous, because I do not have their consent, but I can name the site owner. The person writes:

“My distress centres around a visit from Mr Asa Hartley at approximately 10.30 on Friday…informing me that the ground rent I pay must be increased from £84 to £105 per month and that my contract, which has been in place since 1990, must be changed.

I would stress that Mr Hartley was the epitome of politeness, and was in no way abrasive, however he was very persuasive. I am afraid that my advanced years and lack of understanding in legislative matters caused me to panic and I signed a document agreeing to comply with the new proposed arrangements. Mr Hartley took away my old agreement, saying it would be shredded and I would receive a new replacement.

Various people are now telling me that the Park Owner is not in order in making demands and that I took the wrong course of action.”

That is, of course, entirely true. Many park home owners rely on the fact that most people who move to park homes do so after retirement and that some of them are quite elderly, frail and easily intimidated by a persuasive, polite gentleman, who says things such as, “I am going to put up your park home pitch fee; if you disagree, I shall take you to court.” For many people, the mere threat of being taken to court is enough to make them comply and sign.

I, too, congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. Does he share my view that many people who purchase park homes have no understanding of the relationship between themselves and the site landlord and assume, as with normal property transactions, that they are caught up in landlord and tenant legislation, which does not apply to park homes?

The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. Many people purchase park homes with no legal advice, believing that the site is some ideal little park. It is rather like going on holiday—they think that they simply need to book their plot and go and live on it, and that everything will be ideal. It seems like an extended holiday; it is not a holiday, but a permanent residence. When taking out a long-term lease on a property, one would probably take legal advice. When purchasing a property, one would certainly take legal advice, from the estate agents, who have duties and things that they can and cannot do, and from solicitors. For park homes, people do not do that.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that part of the problem is that these dwellings—as I refer to them—are defined legally not as homes, but as chattels? We must change that.

I agree; that is part of the problem. The definition of a park home can be misleading. They are not deemed to be homes because they are not fixed, so their legal status is different from what it would be if they were built of blocks on the ground. The mere fact that some people brick up the gap around their park homes, which effectively fixes them to the ground, or that they build verandas and porches, which are fixed to the ground, should, in some senses, change the status of the home. Sadly, as the law stands, that is not the case, so the homes end up in limbo with regard to the protection afforded to an ordinary owner.

I, too, congratulate the hon. Gentleman on initiating this important debate. There are several park homes in my constituency, mainly around the River Crouch, and many people who have chosen to live there are retired. I reiterate the point about the 10 per cent. commission. For many people who decide to sell, for whatever reason, it rankles that they have to pay 10 per cent. commission to the site owner. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that many of my constituents would like that provision to be reviewed? I hope that the Minister, like me, listened to what he said about it and that there will be an opportunity to reconsider the commission.

I am sure that the Minister has heard those comments, because the issue needs to be considered fully. I have attended a number of meetings at many park homes—some large, some very small—in my constituency, and often I ask, “Do you want a change in the 10 per cent. commission?” Some people say, “Yes, because we are looking to move and it is a large sum of money to be taken from us”, but others say, “No, because this is my last home and, therefore, only the executors of my estate will have to pay that commission, and I would rather have a lower pitch fee in the interim.” There are arguments on both sides, so we need to consult on that point. On balance, I think that 10 per cent. is too high, but that going down to 2 or 3 per cent. would make the pitch fees too high. We ought to seek a compromise of about 6, 7 or 8 per cent.—that is the sort of figure we ought to be aiming for. However, it is a matter for consultation. It is for those who live in park homes to say what they want in consultation. I am sure that the Minister has heard our points and will respond later.

To provide a larger picture of the life that one can live if one happens to reside on a badly run park home site, I return to the issue of who is a fit and proper person. Buckingham Orchard was a problem site before Mr. Small bought it in 2001, shortly after I was elected. Over the years, I have not had much cause to praise my predecessor, Patrick Nicholls, but he worked on park homes issues, including Buckingham Orchard and other sites, and was part of a working group that came up with some sensible recommendations, some of which have been implemented, some of which we still await. I have a note dated 11 November 2005, when there were 79 units on the site, of which only 69 were on the licence. Mr.—

Mr. Small—shall I ever forget his name?—applied for an extension to the park. The planning authority and the councillors granted it in the belief that it would be in compliance with the 6 m rule. The local authority insisted on that, even though, in my view, the standards that it demanded involved such minor breaches that it was not worth the effort of moving a park home. Indeed, several local authorities take a different view from the one Teignbridge took at the time. Before Mr. Small had even completed the roads or reconfigured any of the old site, however, he moved new park home owners on to the new part of the site. Indeed, he moved owners not only on to that part of the site, but on to land that did not have planning consent because he had extended the boundaries—by accident and oversight, of course—and was then required to move them. The garages were non-compliant, and he was required to move some of them back.

For the people on the rest of the site, there began a long and slow process of making the site fit. Mr. Small would tell a resident that the park home was going to be moved but not exactly when, because between the two events there must be a signed agreement that the move can go ahead. He would eventually move the resident’s home, but if it was damaged during the process he would argue that that was down to their insurance, that it had nothing to do with him and that he had no responsibility for any of the damage. He denied that it was his fault.

The homes would then be put on a new site. It was not the home owners’ fault that historically, for some reason, their park homes were 5.9 m apart rather than 6 m apart. It was not their fault that the planning authority and the park home site owner allowed the park homes to be 1.5 m from a boundary rather than the regulatory 3 m; they were moved, and legislation should not allow someone who is forced to move in those circumstances to end up with a loss. Damage was certainly caused to their homes.

If one looks at park home magazines, one sees that many home owners have beautiful gardens. Being retired, they spend a lot of time on very small gardens, laying patios, building verandas, putting in small ponds, ornaments and plants, and spending money on plants from the garden centre; yet their gardens are sometimes totally trashed by the moving of a park home. It may be moved only 1 m or 3 m, but at the end of the day, their beautiful garden becomes, yet again, a pile of muck and rubble. That was the condition in which some gardens were left; they were destroyed but they were not put back.

The hon. Gentleman and I share a common campaign, and the name “Mr. Small” always results in me jumping up. Is the hon. Gentleman aware that of the three sites in my constituency, which are all well run, two are owned by Mr. Small? The hon. Gentleman is describing matters with which I am very familiar, because they have happened at the two park home sites in my constituency owned by Mr. Small. Torbay unitary authority is doing everything it can, and very well, with a full-time employee, to deal with the situation, but is the hon. Gentleman aware that in spite of that full-time official, the law is not strong enough to help a well intentioned local authority do anything much about the situation?

That is very much the case, which is why I am arguing for new regulations that would require licence owners to be fit and proper people, ensuring that if they did not comply with the site licence, it would be removed from them and they would be forced to sell up.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned that Mr. Small owns a couple of park home sites in his constituency, and the National Association of Park Home Residents advises me that Mr. Small and his family have a number of sites. I shall read the names into the record. They are Battisford Park homes at Plympton, Beauford Park at Norton Fitzwarren in Taunton, Beechdown Park, Totnes road in Paignton, in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, Bickington Park in Barnstaple, Brimley Gardens in Bovey Tracey in my constituency, and Brookmeadow Park, High street, Wroughton, in Swindon. I remember the former Member for Swindon, Julia Drown, complaining about Mr. Small and the difficulties experienced in tracking him down. We had some conversations then about the difficulties that the Smalls were causing on the site in her constituency.

Mr. Small also owns Broughton Park, Shoreditch, in Taunton, Buckingham Orchard, which I have already mentioned, in Chudleigh Knighton, Byways Park, Strode road, in Clevedon, north Somerset, Green Lane Park Homes at Breinton in Hereford, Hillside Park, Totnes road in Paignton—his other site in the constituency of the hon. Member for Totnes—Kingsway Park, Tower Lane, Tower road north, Warmley in Bristol, Manleaze Park at Cannards Grave, Shepton Mallet, Somerset, Moorland Park on Old Moorland road, Bovey Tracey, again in my constituency, Newlands Park on Sidmouth road, Aylesbeare, Ringswell Park, Middlemoor in Exeter and Woodlands Park in Tedburn St. Mary, also in my constituency.

I have never had any complaints from my constituents about Woodlands Park, but I know that Members have had problems with many of the other parks, so if the media pick up any of this story, I recommend that they have a look at those parks, talk to the residents and find out whether there is a problem with the management in their area. I am not saying that all those parks are badly managed, but in my experience and that of the hon. Member for Totnes, my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey), who sadly cannot be present, and others, Mr. Small has caused problems.

Mr. Small is not the only one, however. In relation to sales and commission, there are difficulties not only with the percentage fee, but with the requirement of the park home owner to determine who can buy, and move on to, the pitch. The Government amended the legislation, and they were wise to do so, because it had been recommended. However, they have not got rid of all the problems.

For example, Mrs. Hughes, a resident of the United States of America contacted me. Her mother, who lived at Buckingham Orchard but has since sadly died, had her park home valued by an estate agent at £60,000. She eventually sold it to Mr. Small for £10,000 and, to add insult to injury, I think he may have been entitled to take 10 per cent. commission on top. He did so, I believe, on the ground that the home was in breach of regulations—regulations that, to my knowledge, the local authorities had been telling him and the previous site owner to comply with for the past 15 years. Now, when someone wishes to sell, they are told, “You can’t sell, you’re in breach of regulation, therefore I am not permitting the sale.”

Mrs. Hughes was, I believe, defrauded of £50,000, if the valuation was £60,000. In my view, she was certainly defrauded of some money, but she is not the only one. I apologise for not having mentioned the next case to the Member in whose constituency it occurred, but I could not find the hon. Member concerned. I have a letter here from residents of a park home in Radcliffe on Trent. It says that Wyldecrest Properties Ltd is

“repeatedly putting obstacles in the way to prevent her”—

a person living there—

“from selling, as she is aware that legally she can assign a home to a new purchaser at the same rent as it is at present”.

In other words, Wyldecrest Properties Ltd is trying to put up the rent and the pitch fees—a point I shall come on to. The person was also told that her property could not be sold because

“It’s too close to other properties.”

Another park home in another part of the country is using exactly the same excuse to block a sale. In that instance, I do not know whether the park home owner could buy the park home at a knock-down price or not, but I suspect that might be the case.

I would like to reveal the other problems that people on these sites may face. I come back to Mr. Small again, because earlier I mentioned the site at Bickington Park, near Barnstaple, North Devon. In that case, the installation of a new home that had been sold was moved. One might think that if someone bought a new home, it would be fault-free. However, in this case the son of the people who moved there alleged that there had been incorrect installation of the home. I shall read from his letter:

“This is…the most serious issue of them all. Upon visiting the home, it was pointed out to a representative from Homeseeker”—

who provided the home—

“that some of the interior doors were not closing properly. Upon further inspection, he discovered a bulge in the floor. The Homeseeker representative was of the opinion that the axle stands on which the home stands were not placed correctly, and in addition there did not appear to be enough of them. He emphasised that it was the responsibility of the site owners to rectify this fault, but unsurprisingly the site owners are insisting that Homeseeker are culpable.”

Even when a new property is moved, which one would expect to be fairly straightforward and achieved in a competent matter, homes are badly installed.

I return to Mr. Small. A “Park Profile” for Somerset—I am not sure of its date—said that “Jeff”—that is, Jeff Small—

“was determined that his residents should settle into their new homes in peace and quiet and not feel as if they were living in the middle of a building site”.

Well, I hate to say it, but although that might make for good reading in a magazine about park homes, the reality for people in Buckingham Orchard is that they have been living on a building site for the last five years.

During that time, the local authority chief executive in the area and some of the other local authority officers have changed and the new officers are far more robust than their predecessors. However, the original local authority chief executive wrote to me to say that it would take several years for the work at Buckingham Orchard to be completed. That is not acceptable. It is not acceptable that we allow elderly people who have retired to what they hope will be comfort and quiet decent living to be subjected to life on a tip, and Buckingham Orchard at times was a tip, with wrecked park homes left piled up and rubbish strewn over empty pitches. That is not the quality of life that the residents expected; it is not the quality of life that they deserve, and it is not the quality of life that we should allow them to endure just because we are unable to come up with the right legislation to correct some of the problems.

I have a final point about pitch fees. Again, the Government wisely listened to the working group and introduced legislation on the issue. I must say that the Government were loth to introduce changes to the legislation in the first place and they said that they did not want to introduce them in the Housing Bill.

The Chief Secretary to the Treasury, the right hon. Member for Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper), who was at the time the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, stated at a meeting of the all-party group on park home owners that she would not introduce those changes. She was confronted by me and a Conservative shadow spokesman on housing—not the hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr. Goodman)—but we persuaded the Under-Secretary, as she was then, that we would not oppose the Bill and we would support it if the Government accepted the changes that we suggested. As they did not take up extra time, the Government introduced the changes. They are to be congratulated on that. It also shows that all-party working on some issues can be effective.

I can tell the Minister that there are other issues on which we need some all-party work and I hope that we can make some of the other changes that we need. He will find that there is common cause among Members in Westminster Hall today on some of those changes.

Pitch fees were changed so that the Government could allow other regulatory changes to be factored in. I believe that there is a site somewhere in Hampshire—I do not have a note of the name on my file—where the pitch fee review took inflation into consideration. There was an appendix of some of the additional costs. I shall list some of them:

“Costs of letters advising owners of C&LG fact sheet”—

the Communities and Local Government fact sheet—

“£0.28 / annum.

‘One off’ costs training / revision of M H acts…£0.22 / annum

Ongoing costs administration – 14 day notices…£1.25 / annum

Park home base fund…£21.74 / annum

Fire regulations…£1.77 / annum”.

I know that a lot of those costs may appear feasible, if perhaps a little petty—“£0.22 /annum”—but over a large number of sites in an area they add up. In addition, one would think that such cost for fact sheets would be part of the general administrative cost included in people’s pitch fees.

However, for the life of me, I do not know how the park home owners came up with the idea that they would charge “£15.76/annum” for “Additional maternity entitlement” regulations. I am at a loss to understand how someone can justify making that charge on people, in addition to their pitch fee, so that they can place their park home on a site.

I know that the Minister has an interest in this subject. He responded to the debate on Second Reading of the Housing and Regeneration Bill. I have also heard what he has said informally, as well as what he has said in Committee. I hope that he will respond positively when he is given the opportunity. There is cross-party consensus that something more needs to be done to protect park home residents, certainly on ensuring that fit and proper people run the sites. I hope that we can make progress and I look forward to hearing from him later.

Order. It appears that four or five hon. Members wish to speak. If they can all keep to about five minutes each, I think that I can get them all in.

Mr. Jones, I shall be brief, although the seriousness of the points that I will make should not be underestimated because of their brevity.

I have two basic points to make to the Minister. The first is that I recall, many years ago as a young butcher’s lad, making deliveries on Elland road in Leeds to the “pre-fabs”, or pre-fabricated houses. My question to the Minister is simple. The construction of a pre-fab, of which there were many in that area of Leeds at that time, and the construction of a park home are somewhat similar, and in terms of dwelling space and so on they are also somewhat similar. My understanding, which may be wrong, is that there is a different status in law for park homes. When the Minister is considering what to do, it seems that that legal status is a potential route for him to explore, because the pre-fabs were constructed, of course, immediately after world war two, allegedly temporarily but it was only 45 or 50 years later that they were removed, often with protests by the occupants. So I pose that as an issue for the Minister’s delectation.

I would like to make a second point. I do not claim to have the expertise with which the hon. Member for Teignbridge (Richard Younger-Ross) so eloquently introduced the debate, and I certainly have not done the same amount of research as him. However, I can smell injustice from a fair distance. When it comes to the park homes in my constituency, I can smell the injustice from here, because we have Mr. Adams, who is perhaps a relative, in some way, of Mr. Small—I do not know. Perhaps he is the bad cousin of Mr. Small, because Mr. Adams has been forcing people out of the park homes in my constituency at the cost of £1,000 per home.

It is fair to say that some of these issues have been hidden away because they are internalised within the self-described Gypsy community. Within that community, people have been removed from their park homes, and they are people who have lived there, or whose relatives have lived there, for many generations. In the Five Acres caravan site in Scrooby in my constituency, which is the worst example, a range of people have been, in essence, forced out for different reasons.

I have a key question for the Minister and it is also a question for the hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr. Goodman) on the Opposition Front Bench. My Conservative district council seems unwilling to take any legal action, despite requests from me and my constituents to take such action.

I seek clarification about the law in this area, and if my understanding of it is right, I shall seek action from the Conservatives about their recalcitrant councillors in Bassetlaw. I understand that when there have been serious breaches of the law, local authorities have the power—in essence, a duty—to take legal action on behalf of the relevant people. My constituents have requested that such action should be taken, but that has not happened.

After suggesting that the local authority was empowered to take action on this issue, I received letters from the chief executive of Bassetlaw district council, this year, suggesting that the illegal eviction of a resident from a park home is a private matter that should be resolved between individuals. Such cases often involve elderly people who have never been to court in their lives and who do not have the resources to do so. I am no expert in taking such matters forward, but it seems to me that if the law obliges the local authority to act, it should act. If my reading of the law is correct, and local authorities have those powers, they should use them. Two years ago, Bassetlaw claimed to have such powers. Will the Minister write to the council, outlining what its powers are and why it would be appropriate, if there have been clear breaches of the law, to use them?

I congratulate the hon. Member for Teignbridge (Richard Younger-Ross) on securing the debate, and on his consistent campaigning on behalf of park home residents across the country. I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann); I was born in his constituency, and well know many of the issues that he has raised. I, too, shall attempt to be brief, so I hope that hon. Members will forgive me if I rattle through the key points. Park homes play a significant role in providing low-cost accommodation, and the hon. Member for Teignbridge is right to highlight the prevalence of retired people who live in park homes. There are a significant number on the east Lincolnshire coast, particularly around Skegness and Ingoldmells in my constituency.

There are four key issues that I want the Minister and his civil servants to consider, the first of which is the pitch fee. Despite the relevant changes to the Mobile Homes Act 1983, a landlord in my constituency is trying to raise the pitch fee by 25 per cent., with absolutely no consultation with residents and certainly with no agreement. In another park, the landlord is attempting to impose a pitch fee increase that is above the retail price index, again without consultation. When residents resist, through the residents association, the landlord issues letters, via a solicitor, threatening not only to evict individuals but to shut down the whole park, by taking it to court, thereby evicting everyone. The Minister and hon. Members will understand that that causes great concern and consternation. The problem gets worse. An elderly couple is in dispute with that site owner, who used to be a residents association chairman. They have managed to obtain grants for a lift to help the wife get into her home, but the landlord refused to give permission for the works to be carried out while they were in dispute about the pitch fee. Those are the sorts of people with whom we are dealing, and that issue should be considered closely.

The second issue, which the hon. Member for Teignbridge has also mentioned, is the wheeze that some landlords use of adding costs for the provision of services such as road improvements, water and sewerage. In one park in my constituency, the sewerage system does not work properly and the landlord will not put it right.

The third issue, which my hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois) and other hon. Members raised, is the commission rate of properties that are bought and sold. I understand that good park home owners sometimes invest the vast majority of that 10 per cent. figure into the park to provide or better facilities and services to residents. More often than not, however, that is not the case. There needs to be much greater transparency, so that residents and residents associations, as the representatives of people who live on the park, can see how that money is being spent and whether it is going straight into the landlord’s pocket or is being reinvested into the park. It is important that residents understand what they are getting into when they buy on to a park, but that is not the case in my constituency—other hon. Members are nodding—where there is not a fundamental understanding. The point about legal advice that was made earlier is absolutely right.

The fourth area that the Minister should consider is the role of the local authority. There is no duty on the local authority to enforce when there is a breach of site licence conditions. However, I understand that, to some extent, because, ultimately, a local authority’s only sanction is to remove a site’s licence, in which case the residents would no longer be allowed to stay there and the local authority would have a duty to house them. Clearly, no local authority is going to do that, because of the additional cost.

Further changes to the 1983 Act are needed, but there are things that the Minister could do now, without changing the current law or introducing primary legislation. At the meeting of the all-party parliamentary group for the welfare of park home owners that the Minister kindly attended, he mentioned that he was considering a tribunal system. It would help if he were to update us regarding the implementation of a tribunal system by which disputes between landlords and residents may be resolved. It would also be helpful if his Department provided a simplified guide for residents about their legal rights, so that they understand exactly where the law stands on protecting their rights. His Department should also put more pressure on local authorities to implement existing law and should ensure that they enforce site licences, because that clearly is not happening across the country. Will he compile a list of park homes and owners for the public, so that people can see which park owners are doing their job properly and which are not? That would effectively be a name and shame operation.

In conclusion, it is clear that the current legislative structure is not working. It still allows inappropriate behaviour by many landlords to the detriment of park home residents, many of whom bought their homes in good faith but are not being allowed quiet enjoyment of them. I believe that the Minister is serious about looking into this issue, and he needs to look carefully at the issues that I have raised.

Time is short, so I shall be brief. I congratulate the hon. Member for Teignbridge (Richard Younger-Ross) on securing this timely debate on this ongoing issue. Many of the points that I was going to make have been made by the hon. Member for Boston and Skegness (Mark Simmonds), so I shall skate quickly over them.

I should like to put on record my thanks to those who have run the all-party group for the welfare of park home owners for a number of years. It was set up by Hilton Dawson, the former MP for Lancaster and Wyre, and now the noble Lord Graham of Edmonton does a lot of the work. It is one of the best all-party groups, because it brings people together, including—dare I say it—site owners and park home residents. The group is important, and we should listen to it.

Park homes are an invaluable source of good accommodation, largely for older people, so I do not wish to diminish them. I wish that the public sector were a little more involved with them, because moving into such homes is an ideal way for people to downsize affordably and with dignity. I know that there have been comments about the need to revisit this issue, but I congratulate the Government on grappling with it, after their initial hesitation. They have made changes in the Housing Act 2004 and the Mobile Homes Act 1983 (Amendment of Schedule 1) (England) Order 2006, which uprated the Mobile Homes Act 1983. Those changes have brought greater protection and transparency and have legitimised and formalised some of the paperwork that I know, having considered this issue over the years, was not in a good state. The situation is much better now.

In the late 1990s, I did a survey of my park homes—I have about half a dozen—and found that residents overwhelmingly want improvements to council tax, which is an ongoing source of anger. When and if the Government eventually look at changing council tax banding, I hope that they look at that. Park home owners feel that they pay unduly, given the communalisation of services. I know that it is probably above the Minister’s pay grade to talk about that now, but it is important that we encourage people to choose that form of living by giving them some incentives. Hon. Members have discussed pitch fees and commissions, so I do not need to say much more about them.

I shall finish with two sources of worry, one of which is current—I shall not mention names, as I have not checked whether I can. Given the nature of the people who live in park homes, it is obvious that there is a need, over time, for home improvements to deal with energy efficiency, accessibility and so on. I have just come across a case of a site owner who is basically saying that if the lady in question were to put in a stair lift, it would affect his public liability insurance. To me, that sounds like a bit of a ruse, but it would be interesting to know where park homes stand in respect of home improvement activity.

I have been the director of a care and repair agency for 20 years. It would be stupid if the work that that agency does with older people could not be done for those in park homes, because they are often some of the most vulnerable people. We need to ensure that the legislation in that area is working.

The second point of concern is the usual one. It is not so much about individual homes—in a sense, that is up to owners in liaison with site owners—but more particularly about how site improvements are made. It is sad that, by going on site, one can see where money has supposedly been saved—the state of the roads is poor, the sewerage is causing difficulties, and there may be problems with electricity and gas.

The question is how one forces site owners to recognise their responsibilities. Their response is, “I am sorry, I keep the pitch fees low and cannot afford to do the work.” That simply is not good enough. Some sites are dangerous because of poor maintenance, which is unacceptable. It would be interesting to know the degree to which the Government are prepared to put pressure on site owners to ensure general upkeep of the site. If that were done, we could encourage many older people to consider a park home.

It is always a pleasure to follow eloquent and decent MPs, such as those who have spoken today. I mention in particular the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann), who is a great campaigner. He always works assiduously for his constituents and always brings common sense and decency to this House.

I want to bring an alternative view and balance to the debate, because it is right to have balance in our debates. I have in my constituency Britannia Parks, which now owns Kings Park, perhaps the biggest and certainly one of the best park homes in the country. People who live there feel that it is as close to an idyllic community as they could possibly get, given their circumstances. A wonderful set of more than 1,000 residents live on the site. There are great staff who are caring and who work assiduously for the residents. The site is attractive: there are trees and a huge lake with fish in it, and there is a pond on the village green with ducks and geese on it.

It is a superb community, and residents take fantastic pride in their park homes, which are new. They are modern and extremely well insulated, and they are extremely well kept. The site facilities are all superb—better than most new housing estates, actually. The site is fenced with security on the gate, and people take great pride in their homes, gardens and environment.

I put that balancing view on the record, although I admit that there are rogue operators. I congratulate the Government on their recent legislation, which tackled many of the issues. I have met the Minister on several occasions, and I have taken the Kings Park owner to discuss the regulations with him. What we really need now is stricter enforcement of the existing regulations, and, of course, we also need the tribunal system. However, we should not be seduced into rushing at the 10 per cent. commission, which may be an error. Many people may take the view that they prefer to have smaller pitch fees and to pay the money at the end, when it is easier for them.

Park homes offer an alternative and a choice. I believe in offering people choice, but it must be informed choice. Several points have been made about ensuring that people are forced to get sound legal advice on exactly what they are entering into with a park home, but, provided that they get that advice, giving them a choice is a good thing.

Park homes provide affordable, low-cost housing, and offer a viable option for some people. They allow people to avoid rip-off bank and building society equity release schemes. Some of my constituents received £25,000, £30,000 or £40,000 from such schemes, but now they must pay back £160,000 or £180,000 they feel totally ripped off. Park homes give people a choice of avoiding that, even though there is a 10 per cent. commission when and if they sell.

Park homes create secure, close communities in which people know and care for each other. There are clubs and activities, and people, particularly those who become frail and vulnerable as they get older, can feel secure. Where demand for low-cost housing is high and there is a shortage of such housing, the Government should support good park home operators in the creation of sustainable communities. Pro-park home planning policies, the extension and intensification of existing sites, if appropriate, and consideration in national planning policy of the demand for such sites are needed. Planning policies at local level tend to be anti-park home, which is regrettable. Such homes have a part to play in the housing market. I am pleased that you have allowed me to make those balancing points, Mr. Jones.

In the two and a half minutes that I have to speak, I want to say, in congratulating the hon. Member for Teignbridge (Richard Younger-Ross) on securing the debate, that Mr. Small’s name is obviously wrong, because he is a Mr. Big given how the situation is developing.

My hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) has made a good point. My hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) also made that point to the all-party group on park home owners. He said that park homes are a life choice that many people make and should be encouraged to make. The problem is that, at present, because of the way in which the law is structured, and because of the inability of local authorities and other agencies to take action, people are actively discouraged from making that excellent life choice at a particular time in their lives. I want to suggest three ways in which the Minister could address that. Many of these points have been touched on.

First, on the sale of park homes, I shall describe a factual scenario. I am not dressing this up—it happened in my constituency. Somebody was selling their park home for a similar figure to the one mentioned by the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann). She was a widow, and had to go into residential care. She agreed a price with a buyer—£60,000 or £70,000, I believe—and, as required, they went to see the site owner. He said, “Absolutely fine. I agree that she would be perfect on this site. By the way”, he said to the purchaser, “when you come here, I will make your life hell. I will put more pitches close to you. I will remove parking spaces and put up the pitch fees as much as I can. I will be at you day and night.” That person said, “I’m not going to live here in the evening of my life,” and quit. The park home site owner then purchased the home at a knock-down price, and added insult to injury by charging 10 per cent. on the sale. I hope that the Minister will address that, because it is one of the greatest unfairnesses of the current system.

I also suggest that we consider tribunals. The Minister made some good points in a recent meeting of the all-party group on park home owners. I tried to amend the then Tribunals, Courts and Enforcement Bill so that disputes relating to issues such as residents’ associations—a problem in some park homes in my constituency—do not have to go to the Crown court and can instead go to a tribunal set up, for example, by the local authority. That is a much less difficult scenario for people to deal with.

Having made those two key points, my final point is that residents’ associations are still being subjected to unbearable pressure. People in park homes in my constituency have not been able to set up a residents association because of pressure by the park owner. That is unacceptable. I hope that the Minister will address these key points.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Teignbridge (Richard Younger-Ross), not just for securing this debate—I congratulate him on doing so—but for his constructive work in this area for a number of years. He has held discussions with the Minister in the hope of taking forward some of these issues, and he has participated in the all-party group on park home owners, which hon. Members have mentioned. The all-party group is a constructive and useful forum for moving forward on the issue of park homes.

My hon. Friend was keen to say that it is not always a sad story—people live happily on park home sites that are run well and park homes make a positive contribution—and he was right to do so. However, we are discussing this matter today, because that is not everybody’s experience. My hon. Friend clearly set out the problems, which he was keen to say may, in some cases, be down to negligence on the part of park owners rather than design. Hon. Members have mentioned park owners using the rules as they currently stand to intimidate or press residents to fit in with their plans. However, I am sure that there are park owners out there who see parks as a valuable source of income, which is the key driver for them. It happens not so much by design, but through negligence.

My hon. Friend has been an advocate of the concept of a fit and proper person. There may be questions about such a concept, if it is a disincentive for people involved. Having said already that much good can be done in providing park homes, in terms of people’s lifestyle choice, we would not want to impose artificial barriers that would prevent people from doing that. However, my hon. Friend is right to mention the concept, because often site owners do not just have one site, although some do. The gentleman that he mentioned—the infamous Mr. Small—has a large number of sites, as do many other owners, so they are significant people. Using the concept of a fit and proper person may be a way of looking at people who are such a significant figure in so many people’s lives.

My hon. Friend identified a range of problems: not just the obvious ones in respect of the financial issues to do with commission and increasing ground rents, but those to do with the moving of homes, which are the assets in which people have invested. People do not have so much control over the rest of the site—they accept that they are paying ground rent and that they are on someone else’s land—but they have invested in the home itself and, perhaps, in providing some extra facilities around it, as my hon. Friend has described. So it is extremely distressing and damaging for people to have that work undermined and their investment damaged in any way.

My hon. Friend also mentioned the lack of maintenance. Many hon. Members have experienced that in respect of homes in their constituencies, where the park home owner is not meeting their side of the bargain and providing a pleasant environment in which people can enjoy park homes.

The hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) talked about the legal situation in respect of particular local circumstances. The hon. Member for Boston and Skegness (Mark Simmonds) made a number of points, including the key point about transparency, which is important. People who are looking at park homes as a way of enjoying their retirement—we are, in many cases, talking about people in retirement—need to understand the issues. Although the written agreements that are a feature of this process have a part to play, he was right to identify the fact that more can be done in terms of the transparency of financial arrangements, in all the ways that those are applied, whether at the point of sale and transference of a park home or a site or in respect of ground rent or any other fees that are levied.

The hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) was keen to put the positive side of the case. Park homes are a positive lifestyle choice, and there is potential for them to do more in meeting housing need and allowing people to downsize, and so on. He mentioned council tax, which is a problem for park home residents. I am sure that the Minister will want to take that away with him, because it might not be a main focus of our deliberations today.

The hon. Members for Castle Point (Bob Spink) and for Newbury (Mr. Benyon) courteously made brief contributions. The hon. Member for Castle Point spoke about the positive side of the issue, particularly in respect of the large sites in his constituency. If I ever have the opportunity to visit those, it will be interesting to see the size of the community that has developed there. The hon. Member for Newbury mentioned a more formalised arbitration process to allow some issues to be resolved without recourse to the courts. As other hon. Members have said, we are often dealing with residents who do not have the financial resources to pursue legal cases and, even if they are able to get access to legal advice, with support, they may be distressed by that process, so they are not best placed to represent their interests or to put those things across effectively. Therefore they may rather acquiesce in the face of bullying.

In responding to the issues more generally, park homes make a positive contribution. In respect of the park home sites in my large, rural constituency, in nearly three years as a Member of Parliament only one case has been brought to my attention—it involved the new owner of a park taking a slightly different view of parking permissions that the previous owner had been happy to allow. That was one of those vexed issues, but it was not the sort of problem that we have heard about elsewhere in the country. In the past, I visited a site in the south of England where such problems were occurring. However, I will not mention the constituency, because I have not had the opportunity to discuss that matter with the hon. Member concerned. There was great dilapidation of the site area, park homes were being removed and the owner seemed to want to replace them with new park homes with a view to the profit that was to be made. So he was running down the site to persuade existing occupants of park homes to move on and sell to him—again, at a knock-down rate.

We are talking about people who are often older and on fixed incomes, who are particularly vulnerable to the bullying and distressing actions that we have heard about—particularly in my hon. Friend’s constituency. I hope that the Minister will seriously consider my hon. Friend’s suggestion about a fit and proper person. If he feels that that is not the appropriate route to go down at this stage, perhaps he will be able to offer interim arrangements that may reassure people out there on park home sites who are suffering at the moment from unjust treatment. The hon. Member for Bassetlaw mentioned his ability to sniff out injustice at some distance. One thing that unites all of us here is our determination to see that anybody who is currently living in a park home should not suffer injustice.

Finally, I want to probe the Minister on commission and the consultation undertaken in answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten) in July 2007, when the Department for Communities and Local Government set out responses, and the balance of those responses, to the different options that were presented. There seemed to be a will to shift towards 7.5 per cent. commission and to consider other ways of creating income for park home owners, but the proposals that eventually emerged from the Department were to stick with the 10 per cent. I shall be interested to hear whether the Government will re-examine that, and on what the final decision was based, given that so many responders wanted a change.

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr. Jones.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Teignbridge (Richard Younger-Ross) on luring a small but select body of colleagues into the Chamber this morning for this debate—[Interruption.] It may not be as small as some bodies that come here, and there has been great interest in the issue. He spoke with great lucidity and charm when introducing the debate.

One matter that the hon. Gentleman has conveyed clearly, and to which other hon. Members have referred, is that people who decide to live in park homes have made a lifestyle choice, and devote considerable care to improving their verandas, tending their gardens, and building porches. They take great care of their park homes. That rang a bell with me, because for six months of the year my grandparents—they are dead now—lived in a fixed caravan on a park home site, so I have some small acquaintance from my summer holidays back in the 1970s with the park home lifestyle. Many of the hon. Gentleman’s observations rang true.

The hon. Gentleman introduced us to Mr. Small. My hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) described him as a latter-day Rachman, but the hon. Member for Teignbridge was more cautious and said that the Mr. Small showed a careless disregard for people who live in park homes on his site, and he listed some of those sites in detail. I am sure that the media in his area, whose interest he was trying to arouse, will not have missed that list—they certainly should not miss it.

What emerged during the debate is that, as all hon. Members who are present have described, there are other Mr. Smalls. There is clearly a difficulty. During the debate, I was reflecting on the fact that the whole arrangement for park homes is unique and difficult. The occupier owns the home, but not the site. The site owner can charge pitch fees and commission of up to 10 per cent., and they can try to block the sale of homes. We heard details of complaints about all those matters this morning. There is structural difficulty in the whole relationship from the start.

I thought that the idea of the hon. Member for Teignbridge of occupiers having to pass a test to show that they are fit and proper people—I am not a lawyer, but I believe that that phrase is well recognised in law—is worth exploring, and hon. Members will be interested to hear what the Minister has to say about that. It is worth looking back at the legislation, and at the tensions between site owners and occupiers. The tendency over the years has been increasingly to protect occupiers all the way through from the original Caravan Sites and Control of Development Act 1960 to the Mobile Homes Act 1983, which first gave security of tenure to residents.

There is agreement that there should be proper protection for residents, and that more should be done in that regard. I have referred to the idea of the hon. Member for Teignbridge about fit and proper persons. My hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegness (Mark Simmonds) made an important point about transparency, and I shall ask the Minister about that. Other hon. Members have referred to a tribunal system, which is being explored in discussions between the all-party park homes owners group and the Minister. We all want proper protection. It is clear from what the hon. Gentleman said about Mr. Small and other comments during the debate that there is a problem with unscrupulous owners.

It is important to add for the record that no evidence has yet been produced in this debate to suggest that the majority of owners run their homes other than decently, so it is worth pausing to reflect on a general law of life that often arises—our old friend the law of unexpected consequences. If we rush carelessly into action on, for example, commission, there could be a consequence in what the site owners do with pitch fees, and so on. Care is necessary, and I am sure that the Minister will refer to that.

To pick up a point that the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Dan Rogerson) has made about the Government’s consultation, it is worth reflecting on the figures. The Government received 834 responses favouring a reduction in the maximum commission from 10 per cent. to 7 per cent, and 161 responses favouring keeping it at 10 per cent. The Government have not yet responded favourably to the overwhelming majority of the responses to their consultation. We are, naturally, curious to know why. Do they believe that the number of responses was too low, or is there another reason? We look forward to hearing from the Minister.

In March 2007, the Government announced plans to improve transparency in the commission—the very matter to which my hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegness has referred. Will the Minister tell us when we can expect any planned changes to take effect? On site conditions and licensing, will he give the Chamber a timetable for the implementation of any plans to address difficulties with the current site licensing system announced in the Housing Act 2004?

This has been a good and useful debate. The hon. Member for Teignbridge should be congratulated on securing it and on his work more generally. We all look forward to the Minister’s reply.

I have enjoyed today’s debate, which has been excellent, and well chaired by your good self, Mr. Jones. I congratulate the hon. Member for Teignbridge (Richard Younger-Ross) on securing it, and I hope that he agrees that our meeting yesterday was productive and useful in setting out our respective lines, on which there is an element of consensus.

The debate has illustrated an important point, which is a key matter for many constituents of hon. Members here today, including the good constituents of Elmtree Park in Hartlepool in my constituency. The hon. Gentleman’s debate has provided a much-needed opportunity to discuss this matter, and the excellent contributions from many hon. Members have illustrated its importance. The subject is worthy of a debate longer than the 90 minutes available in Westminster Hall, and I would press for a three-hour debate on a Thursday afternoon to tease out in more detail the important issues that have been raised.

As other hon. Gentlemen have done, it is worth paying tribute to the work of the all-party park home owners group, which is excellently chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton (Mr. Olner), and benefits from the commitment and wisdom of my noble Friend Lord Graham of Edmonton—Lord Ted of Ed, as he describes himself—who is its secretary and driving force, and who is a fellow north-easterner. Support for the group and its members concern for park home constituents was demonstrated by the high turnout of hon. Members at the most recent meeting in November last year. I do not believe that I have ever seen so many hon. Members attend an all-party group, which demonstrates the strength of feeling about the matter.

The driver for today’s debate is hon. Members’ concerns about bad practices by owners of park home sites. I believe that hon. Members accept that those owners represent a minority in the sector and that most sites are managed by professional, competent people. That point was made well by the hon. Members for Castle Point (Bob Spink), for North Cornwall (Dan Rogerson), and for Wycombe (Mr. Goodman). In support of that view I am aware of the efforts of trade organisations to secure high standards of performance among their members and to promote good practice. However, as hon. Members have graphically illustrated today and as I can confirm from the correspondence that I have received in my role as the relevant Minister, professionalism is not universal in the sector. Indeed, I admit that standards of management at some sites are sometimes woefully inadequate and in some cases border on the criminal, as we have heard.

I start from the principle of wanting to incentivise good park home site owners, while penalising the bad ones. In a minority of cases, only enforcement with meaningful and appropriate penalties will change behaviour or drive unprofessional operators out of the sector. I acknowledge that further change is necessary, and I confirm my commitment to reforming the sector, specifically in the field of site licensing. However, we are not starting from a low base and, in a moment, I shall outline the improvements that have already been made to the sector.

It is right that I now address the central matter of the debate, site licensing. I recognise that there is a need to bring forward a comprehensive and effective system of site licensing to replace the scheme introduced under the Caravan Sites and Control of Development Act 1960. The comments of hon. Members have reinforced my conviction that something needs to be done to prevent unscrupulous individuals from operating in the sector. Action also needs to be taken where an individual has acted in a criminal manner that is relevant to their fitness to be engaged in the management of a park home site. Therefore, let me make it clear to hon. Members that I intend to introduce a licensing regime that requires managers of park homes and other caravan sites to be confirmed as fit and proper persons, and to have the relevant competencies to manage a specific and, as hon. Members have said, in some cases unique type of accommodation.

As mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann), I also want to ensure that local authorities have the right tools to enforce licensing requirements and that they are properly resourced to do so. We need to ensure that any regulation is light touch, that it is clear and easy to understand and that it will neither drive good owners out of the market nor discourage suitable other persons from entering it, which is a point well made by the hon. Member for Wycombe.

A new licensing regime must meet the needs of all, be comprehensive and work in the 21st century housing market. Park homes could have in increased role in addressing the need to supply suitable and affordable housing in the years to come. Therefore, before we embark on any detailed proposals, I think that hon. Members would agree that we need to consult on such proposals and assess their potential impact. I want to hear from residents, site owners, local authorities and their representatives about how we should take matters forward.

We cannot stand still on this issue. There is need for reform and although I fully understand that hon. Members are concerned that people’s patience has been stretched, I want to get it right. Knee-jerk or ill-thought-through legislation is rarely successful and often compounds the problem. We need to consider the specific details on matters such as licensing, the procedures to grant a licence, the fee regime, whether or not a licence can be transferred or assigned, how licences can be revoked on transfer of ownership or management, and other such detailed and technical matters. I hope that the hon. Member for Wycombe agrees that we should try to avoid unintended consequences or unworkable solutions.

I aim to get my response to the issue right, rather than having a race to Royal Assent. With help and support from residents and the industry, we will get it right, but it will take time. For that reason, the amendments to the Housing and Regeneration Bill tabled by the hon. Member for Teignbridge, which are due to be considered on Monday, are not the appropriate vehicle to take the matter forward. However, I hope that he and other hon. Members will accept my clear commitment to deal with the issue.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that. As I have said, I hope that he is clear about the commitment that I have made. I will keep him, the all-party group and the House informed on this matter.

In the short time available, I want to discuss my proposals on site licensing. As I mentioned earlier, they include a requirement that site owners or managers are fit and proper persons and that acceptable management practices that have been agreed with the council are in place. I wish to include a requirement that sites are or can be made suitable for the number of homes specified in the licence. I also want to introduce measures to increase the level of fines for breaches of a site licensing condition and, importantly, to give local authorities powers to refuse or revoke licences granted. I want to place a duty on local authorities to monitor compliance with the licences they have granted—my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw has mentioned that point—and require them to grant such licences subject to appropriate conditions. If sites are licensable and no licence is in place, either because it has been revoked or because an application has been refused, I want to introduce special measures requiring the authority to put effective and proper management in place.

Of course, the powers and duties on local authorities will need to be funded, and I intend to give them a power to charge a reasonable fee for the licences they grant. Again, close discussions need to take place about how much of that fee would be transferred to park home residents and whether that is appropriate. We have had an important debate about pitch fee reviews, and it is crucial that the burden is not passed solely on to residents. We want to make sure that the right balance is struck.

On the timetable for my proposals, I intend to consult on the matter later in the year. Again, I hope that the hon. Member for Teignbridge and the whole House are reassured on my absolute commitment to the issue. As I said earlier, however, I am sure that hon. Members will acknowledge that we are not simply starting from scratch. Significant changes to enhance the protection given to park home owners have taken place in the past few years.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the park homes working party, which was established in 1998. The working party is comprised of members from across the sector who consider the operation of the existing controls on park homes. It made 30 recommendations designed to achieve a fair and workable balance between the needs and interests of home owners and park owners. The Government responded in 2001 and an in-principle commitment was made to take forward 25 of the working party’s 30 recommendations. We have delivered on 20 of those, and the remaining five relate to site licensing reform. As I have mentioned, primary legislation is required to bring that reform into effect. The revision of the model standards for sites, which was also recommended by the working party will be published next month.

As has been mentioned, I appreciate that many park home residents have been frustrated with the pace of change and think that the October 2006 changes have not had the intended effects. Therefore, they have asked for further legislation to address some of their concerns. I ask hon. Members and park home residents to allow time for reflection and bedding-in so that the initial problems relating to the creation and enactment of legislation are identified and addressed. As I mentioned with regard to site licensing, short-term and knee-jerk legislation very rarely works and often compounds the problem.

I understand that the Minister’s desire to get this right means that we should not be precipitate in our approach. However, there is a sense of urgency in relation to this issue. I have been dealing with the problem for nearly three years, but it goes back further than that. There is a degree of urgency, so can the Minister give us more of a commitment on when these matters will be resolved?

In direct reference to the hon. Gentleman’s point, I was about to say that we need to be clear about our communication methods. The hon. Member for Boston and Skegness (Mark Simmonds) made a first-class contribution, in which he mentioned the importance of transparency. We are pushing further on that. It is important that residents are clear about their rights on who they can sell to, pitch fee reviews and the process of negotiation—the owner should not simply bestow changes from on high. They should also be made aware of residents associations, and I shall refer to that in a moment.

I am aware that professional trade bodies operate in the sector and that there are active residents groups. People involved with such groups give freely of their time, because they are committed to improving the lot of their members. Residents, site owners and local authorities need to engage with each other more effectively. In the first instance, the primary role for enforcing standards must rest with the local authority, and it should work with site owners to ensure they are complying with their site licences.

There are an awful lot of issues that I want to discuss, and I am disappointed that I will be unable to do so.

With the greatest of respect, I am unable to give way to the hon. Gentleman, because I have only a few seconds left. I will write to hon. Members on changing the law on property to ensure that park home sites have the same responsibilities as fixed dwellings. I shall also write to them on the Government’s policy on sales commission.

In conclusion, I condemn outright the bad practices about which we have heard today. I recognise the concerns expressed by the hon. Member for Teignbridge on enforcing better standards. I hope that I have reassured hon. Members with my commitment to bring forward fit and proper persons in respect of site licensing. The Government and I are committed to ensuring that we have a vibrant park homes sector.

Southwest One and IBM

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Mr. Jones. I am very grateful for the chance to bring the subject of this debate before the House. I shall raise extremely urgent matters that involve the public interest and may have grave implications way beyond the county of Somerset. I believe that public money is being misappropriated and I fear—I do not mince my words—corruption.

My concern relates to the creation of a new company designed to take over important responsibilities from local authorities and others without any proper scrutiny or accountability. The company is called Southwest One. People will not find it listed in the Somerset telephone directory. It has not yet submitted any company reports. It describes itself as a joint venture exercise between two councils and the multinational computer giant IBM. Its registered address is IBM’s UK base in Portsmouth.

A joint venture implies a partnership, but this partnership is far from equal. It is my clear understanding that IBM will continue to own 81 per cent. of the operation. There are nine members of the interim board, seven of whom are high-powered IBM executives. The company did not get where it is today through charity. Last year, IBM turned over $98 billion and made a $10 billion profit, so where is the democratic balance in the new joint venture?

Did the two Somerset councils bring their sharpest business brains into the fray? Did they heck. In fact, there are only two potential defenders of the public interest on the board, but I am afraid that they are woefully inexperienced and gullible Liberal Democrat councillors. Their forensic ability to tackle a global concern such as IBM is severely limited. One of them is nominally in charge of Taunton’s car parks. The other strums in a Yeovil jazz band and, I am reliably informed, can sometimes get a tune out of a didgeridoo. Half a million council tax payers are now represented by two rank amateurs. That is a joke. Both would be baffled by a balance sheet. They are the patsies of this bizarre outfit. It is tacky tokenism in the name of accountability.

When dealing with the delivery of local council services, top-class accountability is vital. The Government know that and we know it. Do not take my word for it: the Audit Commission has real concerns about shared service partnerships such as Southwest One. In January, it published an important report that stated:

“Councils should only deliver services through SSPs if they are prepared to manage them effectively.”

Effective management ought to mean an awful lot more than two well meaning volunteers on the board of the organisation.

The Liberal Democrats run Somerset county council and Taunton Deane borough council. Their leaders pay lavish lip service to working for the people, but if their words were worth a row of beans, they would have stopped this nonsense—this madness—in its tracks. Already Southwest One has taken over the employment of 800 staff formerly on the payroll of Somerset county council and Taunton Deane borough council. Interestingly, the payslips for those employees still come from the councils, but their long-term employment rights are now stunningly vague. They have been “guaranteed” that their jobs are secure, but the small print of the guarantee—believe it or not—is not available for inspection, even if they knew what was going on.

Southwest One is an outfit born in secrecy and reliant on secrecy. Trade unionists who ask responsible questions are branded traitors. Joe Stalin would have been proud of the company. Southwest One is destined to gobble up more than £400 million of public money providing just two councils with services over the next 10 years.

My hon. Friend has mentioned investment. Is he aware that the county council explanation of the scheme mentions Project Taunton, which is a regeneration project for that town? This is at a time when the county council is denying funding for much-needed improvement to the Somerset coast road, which serves the holiday industry north of Burnham-on-Sea up to Brean. Does my hon. Friend believe that there is a danger that the scheme will lead to more investment by the county council—based in Taunton—in Taunton, at the expense of the peripheral areas of Somerset? Does he believe that the county council is being open enough about its investment intentions following the project?

I thank my right hon. Friend for his intervention. He is, as usual, perceptive and to the point. Yes, I agree. The county council has always been Taunton-centric. His experience is greater than mine: he has been an MP for much longer. We all know that the council has stifled investment in other parts of Somerset. MPs such as me and many others, including, dare I say it, Liberal Democrats, have had concerns about that. My right hon. Friend is right. Why should the council be Taunton-centric? Surely Southwest One is part of the answer. They want to keep the money in the centre and not give it to the peripheries, such as Brean, Highbridge and Wells.

The creators promised that the scheme would save a lot of money—£200 million, which is the equivalent of a £20 million cut from existing budgets every year. Last night, I was bombarded with documents from Somerset county council hoping to convince me of the savings. I read them all. They all mentioned the magic word “guarantee”, but it is all aspiration; it is not an explanation of what is going on. Somerset people are being asked to believe in fairies, and we do not. Painless savings cannot be made unless there are real economies of scale, and they certainly cannot be guaranteed. In other words, many public authorities need to be on board to justify the cost, and even then some brutal job cutting will be needed as well.

Assuming that the instigators of the scheme were not complete idiots, there had to be a viable plan to get several local authorities involved at once. There was: Somerset county council’s bid to become a giant unitary authority. Last year, the council appealed to the Government for permission to take over the responsibilities of five district councils. It was a half-baked and stupid idea. The sums had not been done. It was said that there could be a saving of £27 million and that only 65 jobs would be got rid of—lunacy. The plan would have left Somerset people democratically unrepresented at local level and created the most unwieldy local government monster.

The unitary plan was driven by one dangerous but very determined individual. His name is Alan Jones and he is the chief executive of Somerset county council. Rather like Joseph Stalin, he does not give a fig about democracy. He is, in his dreams at least, a ruthless business man—a pint-sized Alan Sugar. If his unitary plan had succeeded, the core business of Southwest One would have been ready made, and those involved would have been laughing all the way to the bank.

However, the Government’s civil servants took one look at Somerset’s proposals and rejected them out of hand. They made no sense economically or democratically. Suddenly, the rug was pulled from underneath and the new joint venture company was left struggling for clients and credibility. A desperate bid for extra business was launched. Devon county council was approached, and Cornwall too—let us spread our wings; let us march to the periphery. Both, as I understand it, gave Southwest One an instant, and correct, thumbs-down, goodbye, you are the weakest link.

We all knew that Southwest One could not survive, let alone prosper, with the work of a single county council and a tiddly little borough council. It needed richer, fatter clients and, what is more, it needed them fast. Last Thursday, Avon and Somerset police finally signed up to a contract to become the latest member of this strange secret society. Soon it will hand over to Southwest One much of the boring back-room work, such as financial services, human resources, information technology, facilities management, procurement and even inquiry offices.

The police do not like to be seen cracking open the Bollinger; it tends to give criminals the wrong idea. The thin blue line had fixed grins last Thursday, and no wonder. The forces of law and order had paid rock-bottom, bargain-basement prices to join Southwest One. Perhaps they were the sprat designed to catch the mackerel. It is said that IBM wanted to bag as much back-room police work as it could from all over the UK, but no one will get this “buy one, get one free” deal in the future. Somerset county council and Taunton Deane council will have to cough up £40 million a year to transfer 800 people to the Southwest One payroll. Avon and Somerset police has 600 back-room staff, but they are all coming in at half the price. The police contribution is so small that it amounts to a bribe. If the police were not already in it up to their necks, I would be demanding a police investigation.

How did it all start? We are assured that it was from the purest of motives. Somerset county council wanted to save money, so a few years back, it invented a project called “Improving services in Somerset” (ISIS). It was a lofty ideal that no one could disagree with. However, if one examined the small print, one would find that most of it was missing. ISIS appointed a project director on a two-year consultancy to help get things going. The appointment was made under what is known as the “urgency procedure”, so the individual was given the job without going through the council’s normal strict selection process. Only two people were involved, one of whom was the county council chief executive—Stalin himself—Mr. Alan “Sugar” Jones. “You are hired,” he said.

The new project director was Sue Barnes, who had excellent qualifications and substantial experience in local government. Sue Barnes is a constituent of mine, and she happens to be married to Mr. Colin Port, the chief constable of Avon and Somerset police. At best, that is an uncomfortable coincidence. Although Sue Barnes was not an officer in the council, she was given unusual delegated powers to conduct commercial negotiations.

According to Somerset county council’s auditors, Grant Thornton, there was no “conflict of interest” in the odd relationship. Let the phrase “conflict of interest” echo for a second or two, while I continue to be struck by the irony of Grant Thornton’s language. At the same time as auditing Somerset county council’s books, that well-known accountancy firm was also responsible for vetting the books of the Avon and Somerset police force. Furthermore, I think that Grant Thornton was working on behalf of the Audit Commission when Somerset county council was awarded its four stars. Do we think that is odd or what?

It is strange how times change. Grant Thornton is no longer hired by the Audit Commission. All current investigations into Somerset are being handled by the commission’s own experts. I am told that this time, they are going through the books of Somerset county with a fine-tooth comb. Yesterday’s four-star council could be presiding over a five-star scandal.

I received a letter today from the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government in which she raises the connection with Southwest One partnership. She said:

“The arrangements that Somerset County Council and Taunton and Deane Borough Council have made in entering into the joint venture partnership are primarily a matter for them: you should certainly direct any concerns you may have about the procurement process followed to the councils concerned, or to the District Auditor.”

That sums it up. Even the Government see that something is not right. I do not blame the police authority for signing the deal with Southwest One. Given the deal that the police were offered, they would have been absolute twits to turn it down, but I remain deeply suspicious about Southwest One itself. For example, how did IBM become the preferred partner in the first place?

Originally, British Telecom and Capita produced detailed pictures. At least, they are home-grown companies. Capita has more hands-on experience of local government work than almost any other organisation. What was the competitive tendering process? We do not know the precise ifs and buts because of the extraordinary degree of confidentiality surrounding the whole affair, but we know that after any competitive tendering, there has to be an evaluation—the safeguard whereby local government officials can assure themselves that everything they have done is hunky-dory. I know that the Minister understands what I am talking about.

There is a specialist team in Government which does nothing else but evaluate councils. It is known as the “four Ps”, which stands for public-private partnership programmes. As the Government know, those guys are the experts and, more to the point, their service is free.

In the early stages of ISIS, the four Ps were called in, but when it came to vetting IBM, the Government boffins got an extremely cold shoulder; they were fired. Instead, the project director, Mrs. Colin Port—remember who she is?—recommended an entirely different evaluation process so, at an undisclosed cost to every taxpayer in Somerset, a private consultancy firm was hired. The consultancy company is called Maana, which is a Polynesian word that means “mature wisdom, with a hint of magic”—in other words, expensive eyewash.

The men from Maana previously worked for Suffolk county council. Guess what? Mrs. Port used to work there. It is always so much easier dealing with people we know, is it not? However, this time Maana was asked some searching questions about IBM’s business plans. The consultancy completed unedited reports that have never been made public, despite repeated requests made under the Freedom of Information Act 2000. Like so much of this appalling story, secrecy, underhandedness and deviousness rule.

However, there are some things that we know. We know that IBM was hired by the colleagues of the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to run the computer agency at the Rural Payments Agency. I know farmers who still have slight concerns about that. I know that the IT system used by the Rural Payments Agency is similar to the one that IBM wants to use at Southwest One. We also know that it is a hugely costly system with a track record of going wonky and not working. Are the vast consultancy bills a cock-up? Every time one asks, one is told something different. The system is embarrassingly German. There again, what is a few million Deutschmarks here and there? As a matter of fact, there is nothing wrong with the main IT system currently used by Somerset county council, and there never has been. It has been saving money. It could easily be expanded. More important, however, it is 100 per cent. British.

As of now, a team of geeks are working their hearts out to make the software work. The software was originally written to serve the city of Bradford. Now it is being converted to the functions of Somerset. We were promised that ISIS and Southwest One would provide an improved service and real jobs. The House will be interested to know that the important work of producing a new computer system for the two councils and one for the police authority is being undertaken, not in Taunton, Bridgwater or Wales, but in India. That is also a secret—like all the details of the contract that were signed at 5 o’clock on a weekend morning between Somerset county council, Taunton Deane and IBM. We are not allowed to see the small print, or even the big print.

We are obliged to take a few face-value promises and guarantees of savings. We are expected to believe the unbelievable, swallow the lies, and to turn a blind eye to the growing suspicion of dodgy dealing and underhanded deals. My purpose is to open up this issue so that the Government can do something before it is too late. We appear to be lumbered with an arrangement that ties the hands of politicians and people for 10 years, but the details are totally secret. That is inequitable. I do not think that any of us would disagree that the Minister and his officials have a duty to ensure absolute probity in the spending of public money.

The Minister could demand to see the detailed arrangements for all partners in Southwest One. Such partnerships are high-risk for the public purse unless there is a robust evaluation, monitoring and control system. Excessive secrecy inevitably erodes public confidence and inadequate democratic control washes it away altogether, which is why I want the Minister to consider this simple remedy: in future, such partnership arrangements should be subject to mandatory review by impartial organisations that represent, or report directly to, the Audit Commission and Parliament.

Southwest One is currently being investigated by the Audit Commission. I am respectfully seeking firm assurances that the recommendations of the audit will be fully implemented. The 10-year deal, which was pushed through by Stalinesque methods, is hazardous. The Lib Dems on the county council pathetically allowed it to happen—they did not even try to control the deal, and it could now tie the hands of all subsequent elected politicians regardless of their party.

I invite the Minister to investigate how one non-elected chief executive, Alan Jones, forced through such a mad, corrupt, barking scheme. Even Joseph Stalin did not go beyond five-year plans.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Jones. I should have said Mr. Martyn Jones—I am sure that you have nothing to do with the Alan Jones whom the hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. Liddell-Grainger) has mentioned. I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate, and the right hon. Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory) on his contribution.

As hon. Members are aware, the issue concerns effective partnership working to deliver services in Somerset, as the hon. Member for Bridgwater has made clear. He has not minced his words in the debate—he is well known for saying what he thinks, and he has certainly done so today. He agrees—it is important to stress this from the start—that local authorities are independent bodies that are accountable first and foremost to their local communities and residents. They must ensure that they act in a professional and responsible manner. In particular, they are responsible for the proper administration of their financial affairs within the framework set by legislation, which includes the duty of best value and public procurement law, and codes of practice that are issued by professional bodies such as the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy.

The hon. Gentleman has raised concerns about governance, employment rights, resources, money—he has mentioned a sum of £400 million—savings, his local constabulary and its involvement in the project, and the process of tendering. He has managed to fit quite a lot into a short Adjournment debate. Central Government cannot be involved in every action that councils undertake, and nor should they be. Rightly, Ministers and officials have not been involved in the development of the Southwest One partnership that has caused the hon. Gentleman so much concern. Therefore, the specific matters that he has mentioned can be answered only by Southwest One, Somerset county council and Taunton Deane borough council. If he has specific evidence—he has alluded to it—of financial irregularities or of a failure to follow due process in the development of the Southwest One partnership, he would be well within his rights to present it to the district auditor, as I am sure that he will. The district auditor is the right person to investigate such matters.

Central Government can and do facilitate the sharing of information and good practice about shared services, so that councils can make the most of the opportunities through partnerships with the private or third sectors, or other parts of the public sector. The Government believe that there are opportunities to be exploited from partnership working, and the hon. Gentleman agrees. A good, well run partnership can deliver a combination of the following: increase councils’ capacity to bring about transformational and radical improvements in service; enable a stronger focus on the needs of service users; secure valuable efficiency gains, including through economies of scale; help to break down cultural and organisational barriers to improvement; combine the skills and expertise of different partners; provide the means for innovation and flexibility, which would enable services to be delivered in a way that would not be possible for councils working on their own; and lever in new capital resources. However, I am sure that hon. Members have heard the concerns expressed by the hon. Gentleman and other local Members of Parliament about what is happening in their locality.

Councils also understand the benefits that can be enjoyed through partnerships that work. More than half of all councils say that they are engaged in, or are considering entering, a service partnership and that they expect to obtain savings of up to around 15 per cent. as a result. Pendle borough council is one such example. In 2005, it formed a partnership with Liberata Ltd to cover customer services, revenue and benefits, property services, information and communications technology, and human resources. Having listened to the hon. Gentleman’s contribution, he has a problem not with the principle, but with what has happened in his local area and the process by which it has happened. Pendle generated savings of around 12 per cent. of costs on the services that were transferred, improved service delivery through, for example, better council tax and national non-domestic rate collection and assisted in regenerating Nelson town centre through the construction of a business centre on a derelict site. That is one example of what can be done when local authorities get such partnerships right.

Of course, a partnership approach to service delivery might not be the best solution for improving value for money in every circumstance. Certainly, whether partnership working is the most appropriate means of improving the efficiency and effectiveness of a service depends on a number of factors, principally relating to the capacity and capability of a local authority. The recent Audit Commission report, “For better, for worse”, identifies a number of the factors that local authorities need to address to form a successful partnership. The report looked at partnerships that have lasted 10 or 15 years for delivering services such as council tax collection, information technology and property management. It examines why some partnerships have, and why others have not, generated all the expected benefits of partnerships with the private sector, which include greater flexibility, economies of scale, innovation, and risk and profit sharing. However, I heard what the hon. Gentleman said about the take-up of the partnership in his locality—he feels that two local authorities is a small level of take-up.

The capacity and capability issues that the report identifies include inadequate management of contracts, inappropriate risk allocation and a lack of proper incentives for partners to pursue shared goals. The report also makes clear the importance of flexibility in partnerships, so that they can adapt effectively to meet changing circumstances. I should like to add a caveat as a local Member of Parliament who is also a Minister. It is helpful, and in the interests of local authorities, to work with, and to give as much information as possible to, local Members of Parliament—I have always found that that is very helpful.

The hon. Gentleman has certainly put his views strongly in the debate. It is a matter for Southwest One and the local authorities, although I hear and understand what he has said. As he has outlined, he has also received a response from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. I shall watch to see how the matter progresses in the coming weeks and months ahead.

Sitting suspended until half-past Two o’clock.

Atomic Weapons Establishment Aldermaston

I am pleased to have secured this debate. We are a thin audience this afternoon; others have obviously found President Sarkozy’s attendance in the House a greater attraction than a debate on the future of Aldermaston, but there you go. I declare an interest in the matter: I am the national vice-chair of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and have been for some time. Indeed, I have been a member since the age of 15.

I was at Aldermaston on Monday afternoon, when a large demonstration of CND supporters and opponents of nuclear weapons surrounded the establishment at 2.30 pm to commemorate 50 years since the first Aldermaston march, to show our concerns about Aldermaston’s phenomenal cost and its continuation as a site for the development of nuclear weapons, and to protest against this country’s possible nuclear rearmament, to which I shall come in a few moments. The chair of CND, Kate Hudson, said in a New Statesman article on 20 March that

“you—like I on a recent visit—will probably be stunned by the sheer size of the buildings that are being constructed at the site. The new facilities will house a range of equipment, which will be used to simulate the effects of nuclear testing—so that new warheads can be developed without actually contravening the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which outlaws nuclear tests.”

She then goes on to describe the development of the new computer and all the costs associated with it.

I want to draw the House’s attention to a number of issues concerning Aldermaston, but I shall first go into a little of the history of Britain’s involvement with nuclear weapons. Britain was involved in the Manhattan project during the second world war; indeed, Sir William Penney was central to the project. After the war, the British were denied access to US nuclear secrets under the McMahon Act and the US refused to pass back many of the nuclear secrets developed at Los Alamos by British and other scientists during the second world war, so instead, the British set up Fort Halstead in the north Kent downs near Sevenoaks. It was an old 1892 fortress, one of a ring of fortresses around London. In 1950, the site was moved to a farm at Aldermaston, near the former RAF base. For many years, Ordnance Survey maps did not recognise AWE Aldermaston—it was just put down as Aldermaston farm—so demonstrators going there would look for the farm, and then they would see that massive place used to develop nuclear weapons.

Aldermaston is a huge facility by any stretch of the imagination. I have been there on many occasions for various demonstrations and have always been concerned by its size, but I am concerned above all by its cost and purpose. Nuclear weapons are expensive and extremely controversial. The nuclear weapons expenditure planned for AWEs between the financial years 2008-09 and 2010-11 amounts to £2.65 billion: £800 million in the forthcoming year, rising to £900 million and then £950 million. Over those three years, the Trident replacement programme will add up to another £900 million and other expenditure a further £2 billion, leading to a total expenditure on nuclear weapons of £5.8 billion in the next three years, excluding present running costs. Those are phenomenal amounts of money.

On 30 October, after I asked a question about additional funding and what it meant, the Secretary of State for Defence confirmed the figures that I just mentioned for additional funding from 2008 to 2011. The strategic defence review stated that AWE running costs in 1997-98 were £302 million. We are seeing a large increase in expenditure at AWE Aldermaston, and the intention in forthcoming years is to spend even more on it. The total spend on new investment from the main Ministry of Defence budget will be £1.35 billion. There are many other figures that I could quote, but I wanted to give those as examples of the huge expenditure on AWE Aldermaston and the development of nuclear weapons.

A number of issues have been raised by people who live in the area, environmental campaigners and others about the environmental impact of nuclear weapons, particularly the issue of Aldermaston and related facilities at Burghfield in Berkshire and the transport of weapons after development to the Clyde naval base, which is, obviously, a long way away. According to an MOD assessment dated 15 December 2004 and released to the then Green MSP Mark Ruskell in 2005, there was a risk of an “inadvertent yield” from a nuclear warhead, resulting in lethal doses of radiation. It said that “multiple failures” triggered by a vehicle pile-up or aircraft crash could mean that

“the nuclear weapon may not retain its single point safety nature”.

That is the main barrier to an accidental nuclear explosion. The MOD said that the risk was extremely low, and therefore acceptable

“when balanced against the strategic imperative to move nuclear weapons.”

The risk of an inadvertent yield, or a small nuclear explosion, was confirmed in a second MOD assessment obtained under freedom of information law and published in New Scientist in July 2006. The assessment again related to the danger of an explosion caused by an accident. A response to an FOI request by an anti-nuclear group confirmed that there was serious risk of a terrorist attack on the nuclear bomb convoy. David Wray, the MOD director of information, said on 4 May 2006:

“Such an attack…has the potential to lead to damage or destruction of a nuclear weapon within the UK and the consequences of such an incident are likely to be considerable loss of life and severe disruption both to the British people’s way of life and to the UK’s ability to function effectively as a sovereign state.”

That is pretty chilling stuff.

Another report, published in July this year, revealed that bomb convoys have suffered 67 safety incidents during the past seven years, including mechanical faults and equipment failures. The safety of nuclear bomb convoys is not,

“as far as I am aware,…subject to any independent regulation. The MOD will tell you that the convoys are regulated by their own internal regulators. In ‘Fact Sheet 6’ on nuclear safety provided by the MOD”

for a meeting,

“it states: ‘Where the Ministry of Defence is exempt, or the law does not apply, the Defence Nuclear Safety Regulator…provides independent internal regulation of the nuclear propulsion and weapons programmes, using near-identical processes and standards.’”

At the very least, we should be asking for independent external assessment of the risks involved and the dangers to the community. The report from which I am reading also raises many questions about the safety of Coulport and Faslane, but that is not part of today’s debate, although it is clearly linked to what we are discussing.

Moving on to the future of AWE Aldermaston, a great deal of money is being spent to develop that bomb-making facility. The warheads are transferred to Clyde and fitted to British nuclear submarines, which are then sent out on patrol. They form part of our ill-named independent nuclear deterrent. I have two huge concerns: first, about the development of the Aldermaston site, about safety at that site and the one in Burghfield and, in particular, about the danger from polluted waste from the building leaching into ground water and other bodies of water. The second concern is about the clear dangers involved in moving nuclear explosives along ordinary roads around the country—from Aldermaston several hundred miles to Scotland. We need to consider the huge safety issues involved.

What is it all for? This country is a signatory to the treaty on the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons, signed in 1970, which requires signatory states that are not nuclear powers or holders of nuclear weapons not to own or develop them, or cause them to be developed. In many cases, it has been fairly successful in achieving that aim. Those countries that are declared nuclear weapon states—China, Russia, France, Britain and the United States—are required to take steps towards eventual disarmament and to promote disarmament. I would argue, therefore—this argument has much legal back-up—that the development of a new generation of nuclear weapons, the expansion of the bomb-making facility at Aldermaston and the huge costs involved are in breach of the principles behind the non-proliferation treaty, because it requires us to move in the opposite direction. We are not moving in the opposite direction, but in the direction of developing a new generation of nuclear weapons.

Last year, when the House debated the replacement of the Trident nuclear submarine fleet, we were assured that Britain adhered to the non-proliferation treaty and that there would be a further vote in the House on the development of a new generation of nuclear weapons. The figures that I just quoted indicate that we are spending several hundred million pounds every year on AWE Aldermaston, where a huge capital programme is going on that appears to be making way for the development of a new generation of nuclear weapons. None of that was subject to a debate in this House, other than in the debate on the Trident fleet. However, as I understand it, there has been no specific debate on the levels of expenditure at AWE Aldermaston. I hope that the Minister can throw some light on that and on the associated safety considerations.

We are talking about a facility that has grown like Topsy since the early 1950s, when it was opened as a research establishment before passing over entirely to AWE. There is now a large degree of public sector involvement in its development and running, hence the murkiness and secrecy surrounding it. Many brilliant people work there. When pressed, the Government often say, “Yes, we adhere to NPT; yes, we are in favour of nuclear disarmament; yes, we are in favour of peace negotiations; and yes, we would like a decommissioning laboratory to be developed.” What plans are there to use that skill, brilliance and intelligence at Aldermaston and elsewhere to provide a facility for nuclear decommissioning, rather than nuclear construction? Clearly, the skills are there to achieve that.

It seems to me, as it seemed to many others at Aldermaston on Monday, that we live in a world deeply divided between rich and poor that faces enormous environmental consequences from climate change and other massive problems. Does the fantastic level of expenditure on the development of atomic weapons at Aldermaston actually do anything to make the world a safer or more secure place, or does it merely feed huge sums of public money into the arms industry to create nuclear weapons? I hope that the Minister will say that we will never use them, but if that is the case, why have we got them in the first place? I remain committed to nuclear disarmament, because I do not believe that such weapons make us safe or secure. In fact, they make life more dangerous for the entire planet.

My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. Will he give us his opinion on nuclear power? Some, including myself, suspect that the new efforts to develop nuclear power are not about energy—that is not the best way to deal with the global energy challenge—but about producing fuel for a new generation of nuclear weapons? That might not be true, but it is my suspicion.

That is slightly wide of the question of AWE Aldermaston, but as my hon. Friend points out, there is a question about the weapons grade plutonium required for nuclear weapons, which can come only from reactors used in the civil nuclear power programme. I have always been very suspicious of the way in which we promote the development of nuclear power in this country, of our overt and covert subsidies of the nuclear power industry and of the fact that, however it is dressed up and presented, nuclear waste remains dangerous, live and lethal for at least a millennium. Exactly the same argument applies, therefore, to the waste produced in developing nuclear bombs, and to the whole manufacturing process. We cannot un-invent nuclear power and weapons and nor can we wish away the waste that we already have, but we can stop producing more of it, which I believe would be an important way forward.

In two years’ time, the non-proliferation treaty review conference takes place in Switzerland, and the preparatory committee, which meets every year, will meet at the end of April and beginning of May this year. When the British Government present their case to the preparatory committee, I hope that they will indicate that we will curtail the development and expansion of AWE Aldermaston and not develop a new generation of nuclear weapons, and that instead, we will offer the facilities for a decommissioning programme for other countries that also want to divest themselves of nuclear weaponry. That is not pie in the sky—it was hinted at in a speech made by the then Foreign Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Derby, South (Margaret Beckett), and in recent remarks by the Secretary of State for Defence.

I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say, and I hope that he will recognise that the debate about the development of nuclear weapons is important, given the levels of public money involved and the environmental impact. However, it is particularly important when one considers what we are actually doing at AWE Aldermaston: developing weapons of mass destruction. They do not make for a safer or more secure world but, I believe, for an infinitely more dangerous one.

It is very nice to serve under your watchful eye, Mr. Jones, for the second time today. I congratulate the hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) on securing the debate. Although he and I come at the issue from very different directions, I, like him, must declare an interest.

Last year, when we debated the replacement of Trident, the right hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond), now the First Minister of Scotland, in response to an intervention from the Conservative Benches, asked how we would like to have a facility like Faslane on our doorsteps in the Thames valley. If I remember rightly, I invited him into my bedroom—not something that I expected to do when I entered the House—because from there one can see, just across the valley, the rooftops of AWE Aldermaston. I own land in that part of the world, close to the AWE and extending right up to the fence of the Royal Ordnance factory in Burghfield. In that part of the Thames valley—Kennet valley—we have become very used to such facilities over the past half century. Not only do we have Aldermaston and Burghfield, but Greenham Common, where American cruise missiles were so memorably based back in the 1980s, is just up the road. I may refer to that later in the context of Aldermaston.

The AWE facility is in my constituency, and I suspect that shortly it will overtake Vodafone to become my constituency’s largest employer. I am a great supporter both of the centre of excellence that it has become, and of many of the wonderful people who work there and live locally. I am delighted that the hon. Member for Islington, North went to my constituency; I hope that next time he visits, he will let me know and we can have a debate with local people about that important facility in their area.

What first strikes people when they visit the AWE is the great emphasis on safety. Almost the first thing that I did when I was elected was to request a visit, with the assistance of the Minister’s predecessor; its purpose was to see the safety procedures for myself and be reassured, as best I could as a layman, that the site was as safe as possible for local people.

I was also shown around the museum, which is a horrific catalogue of weapons of mass destruction. Let us not forget that is what we are talking about. Whatever our views on nuclear weapons, they are horrific weapons of destruction, but in fact the man who showed me around was enthusiastic. When he showed me a small device that an aircraft could deliver in a battlefield scenario, I asked, “What would happen if the plane that was training with them crashed?” His reply was one of the best euphemisms I have ever heard; he said, “Don’t worry about that, sir. The casing on this device is designed to withstand a multi-penetration insult.” I have never come across a more fantastic euphemism than that, so I wrote it down in my book when I got home.

Nevertheless, we must remember what we are talking about: probably the most important issue that can affect the future of mankind, alongside climate change. The Atomic Weapons Establishment at Aldermaston, as I have already said, is a centre of excellence for science and engineering. Although I wish it did not need to exist, let us look at that positive fact, because an enormous amount of the skills from the work at Aldermaston have gone on to assist in the civil areas of science, plasma physics, engineering and many other civilian developments. Many of those advances would not have come about but for the dedication and professionalism of the work force at Aldermaston. The new Orion centre, which is possibly one of the new buildings to which the hon. Member for Islington, North referred, offers fantastic opportunities for non-nuclear weapons-type development of science and engineering, and I understand that there are great plans to involve a range of civil organisations in the work that takes place there.

As I said earlier, I wish that the Atomic Weapons Establishment at Aldermaston did not need to exist, but let us consider what is going on in the world in which we live. Let us talk about proliferation. We see the development of nuclear weapons in countries such as India and Pakistan, and in other areas such as Iran and North Korea. Who are we to say what kind of world we will be living in over the next 20, 30, 40 or 50 years, which is the time scale for the replacement of the Trident submarine fleet? No one in this place or beyond can second-guess exactly what kind of world we will be living in, and I cannot identify a single state or group of states that, as we sit here today, we would wish to threaten with our nuclear weapons. However, there may come a time when the deterrent effect of nuclear weapons might just secure the future for our children or their children.

May I gently remind the hon. Gentleman that all of Africa, all of Latin America and most of central Asia have already declared themselves nuclear weapon-free zones and have no plans whatever to develop such weapons or to invite people in to develop them? They see that as their contribution to peace in the world. Does he not agree that we should think about doing the same?

The hon. Gentleman has a problem with the whole concept of nuclear weapons, and we must disagree. I believe that the deterrent effect of nuclear weapons was one reason why we were able to face down the Soviet threat and to win what many people refer to as the cold war. I shall come on to the benefits of that in terms of Greenham Common, but it is simply not good enough to say that there are regions of the world which have stated, as we sit here today in 2008, that they have no intention of developing nuclear weapons. It is perfectly possible to acquire from other countries the ability to deliver some sort of nuclear device some time in the future, and I do not want to second-guess or gamble with our future interests or those of future generations, as members of CND seem able to do on a whim.

I do not want to interrupt the hon. Gentleman’s speech, but will he explore a little more the so-called deterrent effect? I think it has been massively overstated, but if it is so important, surely Iran should have nuclear weapons to deter other people from attacking it.

The hon. Gentleman is entirely wrong. We do not want potential rogue states developing nuclear weapons.

I am talking about a deterrent in terms of how we managed up until the 1980s.

Let us look—[Interruption.] I shall discuss why I believe that deterrents work. If the hon. Gentleman wants a living, breathing example of the peace dividend and the success of the policies of—he will not like me saying this, but I believe it is true—President Reagan and Margaret Thatcher in facing down the SS20 threat from the Soviet forces in eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, he should go to Greenham Common. On the site, he will see a decommissioned base, the longest runway in Europe, which has been ripped up to form the basis for the Newbury bypass, more jobs in peacetime industries, small businesses, and high-tech industries. That is no thanks to the peace women who stood at the door—

—or to the muddled thinking of CND, but with great thanks both to visionary leaders of the west and, I concede to the hon. Gentleman, to President Gorbachev.

We are moving off the point and I shall be ticked off in a minute, but I shall give way a final time.

Since the hon. Gentleman mentions Greenham Common, he should remember, as he acknowledges, that the long-running Greenham women’s peace camp was a beacon for peace campaigners throughout the world; it changed atmospheres and attitudes, and attracted people from throughout the world. Surely, it is in part a tribute to them that Greenham Common is no longer a nuclear base but mainly a park.

I link the demonstrations at Greenham Common with what took place at Aldermaston because they often took place on the same day, so it is relevant. However, I maintain that they bore no relation to the time scale of SS20 missile dismantling and the reduction of the threat from the Soviet Union. In fact, if anything, they delayed it because it gave some comfort to the Soviet leadership that there were people in the west who wanted us to disarm unilaterally. The hon. Member for Islington, North can turn to no better adviser on the subject than Nye Bevan, who said, “Do not send me naked into the negotiating chamber.” That is the best condemnation of the unilateralist approach that I could ever quote.

Despite the billions of pounds that we funnel into intelligence services and organisations throughout the world, most of the wars that have taken place since 1945 have caught us on the hop and taken us entirely by surprise. They include Yom Kippur, the six-day war—arguably—and certainly the invasion of the Falklands, as well as the invasion of Kuwait and a number of other conflicts in which both sides used large amounts of resources and suffered large numbers of casualties, with appalling consequences.

Those conflicts caught our intelligence organisations completely unaware, and I have no faith that our intelligence services can give us a guarantee that they now have greater ability to foresee aggression by rogue states or groups of rogue states. I would love to live in a world where Aldermaston could be decommissioned because there was no conceivable threat, but we must remember that the time scale for the maintenance of our nuclear deterrent requires us to start developing platforms such as the submarine fleet, which will come into service in 2022 and remain in service until 2050, and that is the period during which we will have to second-guess events.

I have spoken about Greenham Common. I would like to see Aldermaston decommissioned and real jobs replace the growing number of posts that are needed to maintain our nuclear deterrent. However, we must ask ourselves whether we want to second-guess the state of the world in several decades’ time. Can we be sure of our relationships with any other country over that time? Have those who supported CND in the 1980s not learned that unilateralism did not work then and that it will not work now or in the future?

On the point that the hon. Member for Islington, North made about the non-proliferation treaty, I respond that we are going in the right direction. We are perhaps not going as fast as any of us would like, but we will see the number of missile warheads reduced from 200 to 160. I grant that it is still a devastating amount of ordnance, but we are certainly going in the right direction. I have looked as closely at the issue as I can as a layman—I have received advice from the House of Commons Library, the Department and a host of organisations—and I believe that we are very much within the terms of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. I look with interest to see how the Government will approach the next round of talks on it.

I finish by paying great tribute to the people who have worked at Aldermaston over the past 50 years. They have done a difficult job in surroundings that are not at all glamorous. The dedication that they have shown has gone unthanked in many ways, so I was delighted when, at my behest, the previous Prime Minister, Tony Blair, paid tribute to their work in the House. The future of Aldermaston must be linked to our long-term appreciation of the threats faced by Britain and the world. Given that those threats are so uncertain, the excellent work that continues to be done quietly in that part of west Berkshire will remain a beacon for the rest of the world.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) on the excellent prosecution of his case. I also thank the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Benyon) for his extensive inside knowledge of Aldermaston.

We must commend and congratulate the peace campaigners on the past 50 years of protest at Aldermaston. Without doubt, they managed to put the nuclear issue at the centre of political debate in the past five decades. They had their first protest meeting in London in February 1958 and their first march at Aldermaston that Easter. They managed to ensure that the whole world sat up and listened to the call for nuclear disarmament, which, in those days, meant unilateral nuclear disarmament. They attracted people from across the political spectrum, including Quakers, church leaders, trade unionists, members of the Labour party and some members of the Liberal party.

That changed the atmosphere in the world, and it changed the debate about nuclear disarmament and the need for nuclear weapons. It was not so long before that the bomb had been dropped on Nagasaki, in Japan, so that was fresh in many people’s minds and fear about the threat of nuclear weapons gripped the world. It is therefore important to recognise that people must be allowed to continue to protest at establishments such as Aldermaston. They must have their free speech protected and their right to protest maintained, and any thought that those rights should be restricted in any way should be sent packing.

As I have said, the debate at that time was all about unilateral nuclear disarmament. In the 1980s, debates split my party, as it was then, and the alliance between those who were in favour of multilateral disarmament and those who were in favour of unilateral disarmament. The debate has moved on considerably since then and seems to be between those who are in favour of putting nuclear disarmament on the agenda and those who would rather brush it under the carpet. That is where the divide seems to be now.

This week, I had a look at the CND website and many of its publications, and the word “unilateral” does not appear that often these days. The debate now is about trying to get disarmament up the agenda and to build as broad a consensus as possible. That is where the hon. Member for Islington, North and my party have common cause. We believe that nuclear disarmament should be at the top of the agenda, particularly leading up to the 2010 talks. In that respect, I have been particularly impressed by Kate Hudson of CND, who takes an inclusive approach to nuclear disarmament. She includes as many people as possible in the debate, in contrast to the exclusive debates of the 1980s, when we had the unilateral tactic, rather than the strategy of trying to achieve disarmament.

The 2010 talks are coming up very soon, and the preparatory talks are being organised. Those talks will give us an important opportunity to consider the work that goes on at Aldermaston. We had quite a successful round of nuclear non-proliferation talks in 2000, and I commend the excellent work that Robin Cook did in that respect. However, 2005 was considered a major failure, and I hope that we grasp the opportunity that 2010 presents to run down nuclear weapons over time.

Last week, the Prime Minister’s security statement included a large section on nuclear disarmament, and he had some fine words to say about the issue. He called for the “control and reduction” of nuclear weapons and talked about

“ultimately freeing the world from nuclear weapons”.

He also said that we in Britain

“are ready to play our part in further disarmament.”—[Official Report, 19 March 2008; Vol. 473, c. 927.]

Those are great, fine words, but actions speak louder than words. Last year’s decision to renew Trident was premature, because we all know that it did not need to be made until 2014, when the main gate comes. That is all tied in with Aldermaston, because the new investment there is connected to the renewal of the nuclear deterrent. Obviously, we need to upgrade the facilities at Aldermaston, if we are to have an effective facility there, but there is no doubt that extra investment will tide us well now that we have decided to renew Trident.

At this point, I want to make the Liberal Democrat position clear. We are in favour of nuclear weapons and a nuclear deterrent, but we want to be in a position to negotiate those weapons away over time and, indeed, to be in the best possible position to negotiate them away in time. We regard them as a necessary evil at present, but we should negotiate them away over time. We accept that Aldermaston is part and parcel of the nuclear weapons system, and transportation to Coulport is something that we must accept. However, many questions must be asked about the transportation of the warheads to Coulport and the naval base on the Clyde, and I hope that the Minister will address some of the issues raised by the hon. Member for Islington, North.

It is vital to give everyone in this country absolute confidence that safety is the paramount concern. We need to make sure that the proper systems are in place, and I hope that the Minister will consider some form of independent external assessment for the regime. Obviously, security considerations need to be attended to so that no information can leak about when warheads are to be transported to Coulport, but I am sure that a system could be devised to give people such as the hon. Member for Islington, North and myself the confidence that safety is paramount.

The hon. Member for Islington, North raised the question of the amount of investment going into Aldermaston. It amounts to considerable sums—the figure of £5 billion has been mentioned. That is going on the new ORION laser, which replaces the HELEN laser and the hydrodynamic tester. I was in the fortunate position last year of being able to visit Aldermaston with the Select Committee on Defence. It was a very informative visit, in which top-class researchers showed us around the facilities. It did not mean an awful lot to me as a biologist. It seemed like an awful lot of expensive technical equipment in big caverns. However, there was in reality a lot happening on the site, and it attracts many top-class scientists. Part of the battle is making sure that Aldermaston, which is an essential part of the nuclear weapons system, is not deskilled, and that we attract the brightest and best to that facility, especially when we are, unfortunately, developing civil nuclear facilities in power stations. There will be huge competition for such scientists, and we need to ensure that proper investment is made in the establishment, so that safety standards are maintained and there is absolute confidence in the system.

I want to mention the sell-off of the British Nuclear Fuels Ltd part of AWE plc. That relates to the partnership between BNFL, Serco and Lockheed Martin. I understand that Serco, which is part of the Babcock Group, in which I have a constituency interest, and Lockheed Martin have been excluded from buying the BNFL part of the partnership. Is that so? Why was it necessary to exclude a well established British company from obtaining a greater stake in Aldermaston?

What plans do the Government have for a new warhead? I have seen written answers that state categorically that there are no plans for a new warhead, but the new facilities at Aldermaston will come in handy when a new nuclear warhead is developed. I want the Minister to explain a bit more about the process of extending the life of the current warheads, whether there are any problems in doing that, and what consideration has been given to any potential new warhead. Will we go down the route of having tactical rather than strategic weapons, which would be a retrograde step because they are more likely to be used?

We accept that Aldermaston is part and parcel of a nuclear deterrent system. I should like to see the day when the facility is run down, because we no longer have nuclear weapons. However, as long as we have them, it is part of the system.

I referred earlier to the premature decision on renewing Trident submarines, and the fact that the main gate decision did not need to be made until about 2012 or 2014. I understand the issues.

I note that the hon. Gentleman has said that we do not need to take the decision until 2014. I do not want to revisit the debate of a year ago, but is he saying that the Navy and everyone who advises on the replacement of those submarines are wrong, and that the Liberal Democrats somehow know better about when we need to start worrying about replacement submarines for the Trident fleet?

As I have said, I am a simple biologist and now a simple politician, but it is clear—I am using Government facts—that the main gate decision will be made in 2012-14. That is what the industrialists have told us. To make all the decisions last year was completely unnecessary. We could even have phased the decisions, rather than committing this country to a new round of nuclear weapons and an upgrade of the nuclear submarines, which is not required until 2012-14. The facts clearly show that. It is a question of the point at which decisions are made—whether they are all made now, or whether some can be made later. I am sure that the Minister accepts that the main gate decision will be made in 2012-14.

I raised the premature decision, because it has a significant effect on the 2010 non-proliferation treaty talks. If we go to those talks already committed to a new submarine and having invested considerable sums in Aldermaston, we shall not have much credibility in the talks. By rushing the decision last year, we showed that we do not have much regard for nuclear disarmament. The hon. Member for Newbury said earlier that in an unpredictable world we do not know what is round the corner. The logical conclusion from that is that we must always have nuclear weapons, because we can never predict the future. In that case, the Conservative position is Trident for ever. We shall always have nuclear weapons, if we take the view that we can never protect the future.

It is a very sad state of affairs if that is the Conservative party’s position. It is certainly the Labour Government’s position. The Government also claim that they cannot predict the future, so therefore we shall always have a requirement for nuclear weapons. Thus the Prime Minister’s powerful words last week about ridding the world of nuclear weapons are rather hollow. I cannot see a day, if those two parties have their way, when we will have no nuclear weapons in this country, because we shall be unable to predict the future. That is extremely sad. It will be very difficult to go to the NPT talks when we have already made a commitment to spend an extra £4 billion on replacing the nuclear submarines, seven years prematurely.

It is bizarre that leading American politicians lead the way in the debate now, such as former Democrat Senator Sam Nunn, who said recently:

“Reducing the risk posed by weapons of mass destruction is not the agenda of one political party. It is a deeply held desire by leaders of vision and courage of every political stripe. We hope that others who are concerned about these issues will work with us on the large area of common ground that exists to find ways to reduce risks associated with these weapons.”

Even Republicans are on board as well. Senator Richard Lugar said:

“The proliferation of weapons of mass destruction is the number one national security threat facing the United States and its allies”,

and Republican Senator Pete Domenici said:

“We have a very simple choice: we can either spend money now to reduce the threat or spend more money in the future to defend ourselves after proliferation has occurred.”

Those people recognise that the issue should be at the top of the agenda. If we are to get to the stage where we no longer need Aldermaston, we shall have to pay attention to those guys in America and put the issue at the top of the political agenda rather than hiding it away in the Prime Minister’s statement on security last week. When was the last time the Prime Minister made a keynote speech on nuclear disarmament? He may have something up his sleeve, but I doubt it. I should like the Minister to respond to my concern and that of my party that the Government do not really regard nuclear disarmament as a top priority. I believe that they should change their mind very quickly.

I shall directly address the point made by the Liberal Democrat spokesman, the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Willie Rennie), about the long-term future. When he asks of the Conservative party, “Will we always have nuclear weapons?”, the answer is, “Yes, as long as other countries have nuclear weapons too”. That is not a controversial viewpoint; that is the key point about unilateral nuclear disarmament that has resonated throughout the debate for the last half-century.

Twenty-five years ago, when I was working professionally in this sector and was arguing the case both for the replacement of Polaris by Trident and for the deployment of Cruise missiles at Greenham Common and Molesworth, I commissioned a series of opinion polls that asked that very question: “Do you think that Britain should continue to possess nuclear weapons as long as other countries have them?” The answer that came in time and again throughout the 1980s, at the height of the second cold war, was as follows: two thirds of people asked said, “Yes, we should continue to have the nuclear deterrent as long as other countries have nuclear weapons”; about one quarter said, “No”; and usually less than 10 per cent. of those asked—it was usually a single figure number—were undecided, because it is indeed a very polarising issue.

A couple of years ago, I asked the right hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (John Reid), the then Secretary of State for Defence, what polling evidence the Government had on such questions. The interesting written answer came back, on 3 November 2005, that the Government had last conducted a poll a few years earlier, in December 2003, and that

“Overall, some 66 per cent. agreed that the UK should retain nuclear weapons while other countries retain theirs, with 21 per cent. disagreeing”.—[Official Report, 3 November 2005; Vol. 438, c. 1261W.]

So we can see a pattern continuing throughout the decades showing that about two thirds of the British people think that, as long as other countries have nuclear weapons, we should continue to possess them, and I believe that they are absolutely right to think that.

I just want to tease out the hon. Gentleman’s logic on this issue. Does he think that all countries everywhere in the world should have nuclear weapons to protect themselves from all the other people that may have nuclear weapons at some point in the future, and does he think that we should conduct an opinion poll to assess the popularity of arming the whole world with nuclear weapons?

I really thank the hon. Gentleman for entering into the spirit of the occasion. He and I have debated these points many times, so my response now will not come as anything of a surprise to him. I do not accept that there is an equality between stable democracies that have certain weapons systems, and lunatic dictatorships, which should not have them. I believe that there is no inconsistency in saying that it is perfectly acceptable for a democracy to be armed with a certain weapons system and a lunatic dictatorship to be denied it. I do not accept that there is an equality between dictatorships and democracies.

By way of example, I cite the attitude that we had towards Russia when it was a totalitarian Soviet state, and that we had when it ceased to be one. As soon as the dictatorial and aggressive element went out of the Russian political system—perhaps temporarily but hopefully permanently, despite recent adverse indications—we straight away stopped worrying about the Russian nuclear arsenal, except in one respect. Because we were no longer afraid that the Kremlin might use that arsenal aggressively, we began to worry instead that remnants or elements of that arsenal, including individual nuclear devices, would leach out and into the hands of other groups and regimes that would not hesitate to use such weapons aggressively if they could get their hands on them. So what matters is not the nature of the weapons themselves, but the nature of the regimes or groups that control them. It is perfectly acceptable for democracies to have these weapons while denying dictatorships the same right.

I also want to tease out the hon. Gentleman’s logic a bit further, because I presume that he will now go on to make the justification for Aldermaston and the nuclear weapons systems as a deterrent. However, if the democracy of the UK can have them but the mad dictator General Galtieri could not, can he explain why the deterrent factor did not work regarding the invasion of the Falklands?

I am absolutely delighted to explain that point to the hon. Gentleman in the following terms; indeed, if he would like to investigate them in more detail, they are fully covered in an essay that I distributed at the time of the debate on Trident last year. I am only sorry that he did not read it on that occasion; had he done so, he would not have had to ask me this question. The answer is that nuclear weapons deter a certain kind of threat—they deter countries from menacing us with weapons of mass destruction. They may deter some countries from menacing us in other ways, too, but they cannot be relied upon to do so. There was never the slightest possibility—and General Galtieri knew it—that we would use nuclear weapons in response to such a level of aggression as the invasion of the Falklands.

However, that is not to say that, just because nuclear weapons could not deter a conventional invasion of the Falklands, they serve no purpose. What the hon. Member for Dundee, East (Stewart Hosie) should ask himself is this. Supposing that we had had no nuclear weapons and that General Galtieri had had even a small number of them, would we then have dared to respond conventionally to his conventional invasion of the Falklands? The answer to that question is almost certainly not.

Let us return, however, to the main subject of the debate, which is Aldermaston. I wanted to start off by addressing the question put squarely by the Liberal Democrat spokesman, the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife, and tell him what he wanted to discover about Conservative party policy. I think that I have done that in no uncertain terms.

Therefore, let me say belatedly, Mr. Jones, what a pleasure it is to take part in this debate under your chairmanship. The last time that I served in Parliament under your chairmanship was on that memorable Welsh Affairs Select Committee from 1997 to 2001. You were a superb Chairman of that body, and I am sure that you will go on to establish an even more outstanding reputation as a Chairman on the Speaker’s panel, as you evidently are intent on doing.

It is quite extraordinary that we should have embarked on the winding-up speeches in a debate on the future of nuclear weapons with something like 40 minutes still left to run, in a debate that was due to last one and a half hours. One could never have envisaged that happening in the past, and I must say that the hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) made a gallant attempt to explain this in advance—one might call it a sort of pre-emptive strike—by referring to the visit of President Sarkozy this afternoon. Dare I add that the visit of Madame Sarkozy this afternoon must be a huge draw away from Westminster Hall?

However, I think that the reality of the lack of interest in this debate on the part of the vast majority of Members lies somewhere else. It is that most people know that this argument is over. They know that the Labour party is not going to do what the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman), one of its most prominent Back Benchers and a former shadow Foreign Secretary, said it would not do: it is not going to revisit the site of “the suicide”. What he was referring to, as we all know, was

“the longest suicide note in history”.

That is the manifesto of 1983, when the Labour party, under the leadership of Michael Foot, committed itself to getting rid of all our nuclear weapons while other countries continued to possess them. That commitment was a crucial factor in a landslide defeat for Labour in 1983, which was repeated in 1987.

The “suicide” to which the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton referred in the debate last year about nuclear weapons was the electoral suicide of the Labour party, and the Labour party is not going back there. The reason why it is not going back there is the figure that I quoted earlier, which has been so astonishingly consistent for so long in opinion poll after opinion poll, showing that two thirds of the British people think that it would be “suicide” to give up nuclear weapons while other countries continue to possess them.

Since the hon. Gentleman is speaking for the Conservative party, perhaps I can bring him round to what its views might be on the non-proliferation treaty and the review conference coming up in 2010, because we are, after all, committed to long-term nuclear disarmament by our being a signatory to that treaty. All Governments have claimed adherence to that treaty.

The hon. Gentleman and I ought to consider going on the stage as a professional double act, because he seamlessly carries me forward in my argument. He has referred to article 6 of the non-proliferation treaty, which I shall now read out, as I do in all debates on this issue. It states:

“Each of the Parties to the Treaty undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.”

The last part about

“general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control”

is always left out when CND supporters quote article 6, as it means worldwide conventional disarmament. Article 6 requires us to do three things, one of which is to end the nuclear arms race at an early date. Britain has never been involved in the nuclear arms race, and nor have France or China. Each of those three of the five recognised nuclear powers in the non-proliferation treaty regime has followed a policy of minimum strategic nuclear deterrence, which means that we are content to have a tiny proportion of nuclear devices, in comparison with the superpowers, because we know that having even that small number is enough for strategic nuclear deterrence purposes. Russia and the United States were involved in the nuclear arms race, not the UK.

Article 6 also requires us to try to negotiate a treaty for worldwide nuclear disarmament and for worldwide conventional disarmament. Nothing in the article requires us to give up all our nuclear weapons before other countries do the same or before achieving a world Government to prevent an outbreak of conventional war on a grand scale—and by God, it was on a grand scale before nuclear weapons came along. Many more people were killed by conventional weapons in world wars one and two than died in Japan in August 1945. I venture to suggest, although I shall never be able to prove it, that many more would have been killed in “world war three” by conventional weapons or other countries’ nuclear weapons if the good people of Aldermaston, as well as the scientists, the people in the Royal Navy and the people in the Royal Air Force before them who constitute the strategic nuclear deterrent of the United Kingdom had not done their work so well. I appreciate the opportunity that the hon. Member for Islington, North has given me to pay tribute to the real peacekeepers of the cold war and, I trust, the post-cold war period—the men and women of Aldermaston and of the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force before them.

I shall conclude soon, but first I shall address a few of the points that the hon. Gentleman made. He talked about the cost of Aldermaston. I refer him to a written answer that I received in December 2006 when I asked the Secretary of State for Defence

“what the running costs have been of the strategic nuclear deterrent in each of the past 10 years”.

The answer was that they had ranged between

“3 and 5.5 per cent. of the annual defence budget.”—[Official Report, 4 December 2006; Vol. 454, c. 87W.]

Of course, 3 per cent. or 5.5 per cent. of the annual defence budget is a large sum of money, but as a proportion of the defence budget, it is small. If there is a strategic justification for a weapons system, what more justification can one have than that it will deter others from using such a weapons system against one? Then, it is a small price to pay.

I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Mr. Benyon) on his excellent speech and the way in which he focused on the fundamental point about the unpredictability of conflict. He was absolutely right to pick on the conflicts that he mentioned: super-sensitive Israel was taken by surprise in 1973, and we were taken by surprise by the invasion of the Falklands in 1982. He was right to say that everyone was taken by surprise in 1990 when Saddam attacked Kuwait. He could also have mentioned that the world’s only superpower was taken by surprise by 9/11 in 2001. I could cite examples from further back in history to show that when warfare breaks out, more often than not, it has not been predicted. It is a big mistake to assume that because weapons can do terrible things, the good guys should get rid of them regardless of what the bad guys do.

Finally, I shall address the Liberal Democrat contribution. Of course, CND says little about unilateralism these days, and tries to blur it in a general point about nuclear disarmament; it has always done that. I remember Bruce Kent arguing that he was both a unilateralist and a multilateralist, but one cannot be both. Either we keep nuclear weapons as long as other countries have them, or we say that we are going to get rid of them whether other countries have them or not. We cannot marry the two, and I know on which side of the argument my party and I stand on this life and death issue.

Thank you, for presiding over our debate, Mr. Jones.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) on securing the debate, and I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak on this issue. He will be aware that the atomic weapons establishment is not only about Aldermaston and Burghfield, but that important work is also conducted at the nearby Blacknest facility. Many people are unaware of the invaluable contribution that Blacknest makes to the verification of nuclear test bans in support of the comprehensive nuclear test ban treaty organisation.

I take this opportunity to pay tribute to the contribution that AWE’s work force, suppliers and partners have made to its success over nearly 60 years of operation. It is a world-class centre of scientific and engineering excellence, staffed and supported by individuals who are dedicated to the delivery of vital outputs in a safe, secure and efficient manner.

Just down the road from AWE, on an industrial estate in the town of Thatcham, is a centre of excellence that is also doing wonderful work to police the nuclear test ban treaty. The International Seismological Centre is close to Aldermaston, and I ask the Minister to add it to Blacknest while he is showing his appreciation for the work done there.

I was not aware that there was a separate facility doing the seismological work; I thought that it was done at Blacknest. The hon. Gentleman obviously has much more local knowledge than me, so I bow to him in that regard.

My hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North will be aware of the recent speculation about the safety arrangements at AWE, and I assure him that safety is of paramount importance at all times. The AWE is subject to rigorous safety regulation and licensing by the nuclear installations inspectorate, and the Ministry of Defence has its own internal defence nuclear safety regulator. The AWE has an excellent safety record, which is underpinned by clear safety assurance arrangements within a highly regulated environment.

My hon. Friend and other hon. Members talked about the convoys, and all kinds of lurid stories have been told about the possibility of accidents and so on. However, my hon. Friend knows, and we must make it clear that, first, the convoys are essential; secondly, they are kept to a minimum and, thirdly, there is a separation of material to ensure that no armed material is moved. The risk of an explosion would thus be non-existent. The encasement of the material is such that it would take an awful impact to do any damage at all.

I am more than happy to consider outside verification of safety procedures, as the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Willie Rennie) suggested, although he recognised that a lot of risks are involved. The convoys have been deliberately targeted and are the subject of ongoing attack. I will do nothing that reduces the safety of the convoys. Their security must be taken into account along with any desire for an additional layer of inspection.

The point made by the Liberal Democrat spokesman and me is that there ought to be an independent inspection following any incident. We are all naturally suspicious of internal investigations in any field where the results remain internal. External independent examination is simply a matter of good practice. The Minister is aware that there have been incidents and safety concerns. None of us wants accidents or disasters, but we want some degree of transparency and independence in inspection.

There have been incidents. My hon. Friend said that there have been 67, so the idea that this all takes place in secret and nobody can find out about it is put down by his knowledge that there have been 67 incidents. I would have thought that fact shows that a rigorous reporting regime is maintained to ensure that every single incident, no matter how minor, is reported and logged and the information made available through parliamentary procedures. It therefore finds its way into the public domain.

As I said, I would not be unhappy in principle to see outside verification. I accept what my hon. Friend says about the unease with internal investigative procedures. However, that must be balanced against the fact that convoys have been deliberately and consistently targeted over a period of time. The security of the convoys, the routes that they take, the time that they leave and the methods that they use are essential to their safety. That must be put on the other side of the balance.

The AWE takes its responsibilities to the environment seriously. It works closely with the Environment Agency, which monitors its environmental operations. More widely, AWE is committed to implementing measures that will make a real difference in a range of areas, such as energy efficiency, water usage, recycling and habitat protection.

In the strategic defence review of 1998, the Government made a clear commitment to maintaining the effectiveness and safety of the nuclear deterrent. That included making the necessary investment in facilities at AWE. In 2006, we outlined our commitment to continue the programme of investment at AWE to ensure that we maintain the existing warhead for as long as necessary and to enable us to develop a replacement warhead if that is required. That important investment will continue into the next decade and is expected, at its peak, to be the equivalent of about 3 per cent. of the current defence budget.

In compliance with the comprehensive nuclear test ban treaty, we are committed to maintaining the existing Trident warhead stockpile safely and effectively throughout its intended in-service life without recourse to nuclear testing. That commitment is supported by replacement facilities such as those necessary for handling high explosives, enriched uranium and non-nuclear warhead components. My hon. Friend complains about some of the expenditure at AWE, but in part it is used towards our commitments under the nuclear test ban treaty.

Notwithstanding its pivotal role, AWE is, as my hon. Friend is aware, one organisation among the many that contribute to maintaining the UK’s nuclear deterrent. Our four Vanguard class submarines maintain the UK’s posture of continuous at-sea deterrence with one submarine armed and on continuous patrol at all times.

I assure my hon. Friend that the Government recognise the democratic right of individuals to participate in lawful and peaceful protest. Such activities have taken place at AWE and other defence establishments for many years, and I have no doubt that they will continue—possibly with his participation—in the years to come. However, any protester action that could compromise the safety or security of our establishments will always necessarily be dealt with appropriately.

On Easter Monday, approximately 1,400 protesters assembled and marched around the perimeter fence at AWE Aldermaston.

That is arguable. There were no reported offences and no arrests were made, although two people were arrested the previous day for breaching the establishment byelaws. The policing was a joint operation and an effective job was done. The protesters were allowed to protest in a peaceful and safe manner and operations at AWE were not impeded. I echo the acknowledgement of Thames Valley police in respect of the co-operation that they received from the organisers of the protest in maintaining a peaceful and lawful demonstration.

There was good co-operation between Thames Valley police and the organisers. The demonstration went extremely well, but I dispute the numbers. There were 5,000 tickets sold for coaches to the protest and, as far as I am aware, they were pretty much full. The figure of 1,400 shows the usual optimism of the police. However, the day passed off extremely well and the protest was very effective.

I have never known an occasion when the organisers of a demonstration and the police have agreed on the number of people who turned out. I do not think that will change in the future.

I assure my hon. Friend that we remain committed to working towards a safer world in which there is no need for nuclear weapons. However, we must ensure that we protect ourselves and future generations appropriately and effectively against possible future nuclear threats. The Government’s commitment to meeting our obligations under the nuclear non-proliferation treaty has been reiterated many times, most recently by the Prime Minister when, last week, he announced the publication of the Government’s national security strategy:

“Britain will be at the forefront of diplomatic action on nuclear weapons control and reduction”.—[Official Report, 19 March 2008; Vol. 473, c. 927.]

The hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife tries to say that the Government do not give commitments to multilateral nuclear disarmament. All politicians have crafted words around the issue and in a minute I will attempt to expose the hon. Gentleman’s words. The hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis), speaking for the Conservatives, said that Britain should maintain its nuclear weapons until and unless every other country gets rid of theirs. The hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife, said that he would spell out the Liberal Democrat position: they want to negotiate the weapons away over time. Is there any difference between what has been said by the spokesmen for the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats? There is no difference in substance, only in word-smithing and emphasis. There is an attempt to blind with words, but what on earth is the difference between saying that we will try to negotiate nuclear weapons away over time, and saying that we will maintain them as long as other countries have theirs?

I will give way to the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife so that he can explain that point.

As the Minister knows, this debate is about political priorities, and how much time, effort and political capital are put into certain issues. The Government and the Conservatives briefly mention disarmament, but their priority is to defend the nuclear weapons system and the need for it. I wish that they would spend a bit more time talking about disarmament and putting it at the top of their priorities and efforts, so that we could have a nuclear-free world rather than just talk about it.

My emphasis is different from that of the hon. Member for New Forest, East when defending our position against that of other countries, but surely there is logic in looking at the world as it actually exists, not as we would want it to be, in considering the effects of any decision that we take. If that is not sensible, I do not know what is.

My hon. Friend the Member for Leyton and Wanstead (Harry Cohen) asked, “If there is a deterrent value to nuclear weapons, why not Iran?” I can only say that we must look and think seriously about the possible effect of an Iranian nuclear weapon. Would it make the world or the middle east safer places? Would it discourage proliferation? What would be the response of Saudi Arabia, Turkey and other countries in the middle east? There would be massive destabilisation.

What has been the reaction to the UK’s significant reduction in our holding of nuclear weapons since the Labour Government came to power? Very little, because nobody has really felt threatened by our nuclear weapons. Yes, for good reasons, we have managed to encourage other people to look at their own responsibilities and we have managed to reduce our nuclear weapon capability to one system and to reduce hugely the size and power of the deterrent to the absolute minimum possible, but we have done so without having a huge effect elsewhere or a response from other nations, because other nations do not feel that we threaten them. That is why my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State recently made a speech in Geneva about some of the practicalities of making multilateral nuclear disarmament a reality. It is all right talking about it in some grand way, but developing systems and methods of verification in which all countries, irrespective of their capability, can have confidence is extremely important if we are to enable the reality of multilateral nuclear disarmament at any future point.

My hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North asked why we cannot get AWE people working on those aspects of the nuclear debate. They absolutely do—they are already there. The work that is being done in Blacknest, along with what was proposed by the Secretary of State and the work that we are doing with Norway, which is a non-nuclear power, to try to develop methods of verification that will enable confidence in genuine multilateral disarmament are real contributions to taking the debate forward.

What is the Minister’s reaction to the problem that in the non-proliferation system that he says the Government support three nuclear weapon states—Israel, India and Pakistan—are not signatories to the non-proliferation treaty? Is it the Government’s position to encourage all three to join the non-proliferation system? Also, does he think that the increase in nuclear warheads in Israel is a destabilising factor in the whole middle east region?

My hon. Friend has probably spent more time on the matter than I have, but my understanding is that Israel does not acknowledge that it has nuclear weapons. Of course I will encourage all states to join the international system to try to develop confidence and capability in a framework in which we can tackle nuclear proliferation and, I hope, move towards a situation where we could, at some point, achieve a nuclear-free world, but that is an optimistic look at the future.

Meanwhile, as we said clearly in the discussion on the White Paper last year, we must be aware of the defence needs of the UK in an uncertain world. It takes time to develop nuclear weapon capabilities and delivery platforms such as submarines, yet if we look back 10, 15 or 20 years, we can see that there were completely and utterly unpredictable developments. We only have to look backwards to see that we cannot look forward. The climate is very uncertain, and the future is not clear. Unless we wish to deprive a future generation of the ability to protect itself with a nuclear deterrent, we have to take decisions well in advance. That is why I thought at the time that the Liberal Democrat motion to replace the submarines, but not yet, was so disingenuous.

Does the Minister accept that his own documentation on the issue clearly states that the main gate for the construction of nuclear submarines is between 2012 and 2014?

We go through a process with all defence procurement, and main gate is part of it. An awful lot of work needs to be done before main gate, and I hope the hon. Gentleman does not think that work ought to go ahead without parliamentary approval. To suggest that we do not need to approve decisions until we come to main-gate decisions is not tenable.

The Liberal Democrat argument is appallingly disingenuous. Apart from anything else, the submarines have to be designed, and it was spelled out absolutely clearly why a process of 17 years from beginning to end was necessary. The only point the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife could make that could possibly stand up would be, “Okay, Parliament will have a debate and vote to design the things, but then it has to have another debate and vote to decide whether to start building them”—in other words, the main gate that he keeps wittering on about.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that.

My hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North raised a point that I need to respond to—he would want me to put this on the record. The UK produced a new design of nuclear weapon to coincide with the introduction into service of the Trident system. The warhead was designed and manufactured in the UK by AWE, although it was decided on cost-effectiveness grounds to procure certain non-nuclear warhead components from the United States. The design is likely to last into the 2020s, although we do not yet have sufficient information to judge precisely how long it can be retained in service.

No decisions have yet been taken on whether, or how, we will need to refurbish or replace the warhead. Such decisions are likely to be necessary during the next Parliament. To inform them, we will undertake a detailed review of the optimum life of the existing warhead stockpile and analyse the range of replacement options that might be available.

The spending on AWE—I shall try to reassure my hon. Friend about this, if nothing else—does not pre-empt such decisions. They are yet to be taken, and will be taken in the manner that I have just explained. I thought that he would want me at least to put that on the record.

To sum up, I am pleased to have been able to respond to the debate on this important issue. We are focused on maintaining the right balance between a commitment to strive towards a world free of nuclear weapons, and the need to protect our citizens in an unsafe and uncertain world. Within that context, AWE has served our nation and our allies well, and I am sure that the skill and dedication of its work force, suppliers and partners will continue to serve us in the future.

High Street Shops (Planning)

It is a pleasure to speak in this debate under your chairmanship, Mr. Jones. I am grateful for the chance to raise the issue of high street shops in my constituency.

Battersea has a long high street, only the first part of which is called Battersea High street, which ends in a market. The second part is called Falcon road, and the third is the main shopping street in Clapham Junction, which is probably the biggest shopping centre in south-west London. I am concerned only with the last half mile of the high street, which is known as Northcote road, a popular, traditional high street with a market and a lot of small independently owned traditional food shops, including bakers, butchers, fishmongers, a cheese shop, an Italian deli and patisseries, as well as a lot of wine bars, restaurants and coffee shops. It also has a bookshop, a music shop, a toy shop, a kitchen shop and even a honey shop. Nowadays, there are a lot of expensive clothes shops, including children’s clothes shops, as might be expected in an area that has been known for the past 15 years, at least, as “Nappy Valley”. As long as people have the money to shop there, I do not think that I am exaggerating when I say that it is one of the nicest shopping streets in London.

There is a problem, because the national chains want to move in and cash in on the street’s popularity. Landlords are responding by raising rents, with the result that they are threatening the very food shops that make the street popular in the first place—in other words, they are in danger of killing the goose that lays the golden eggs. We have already lost some popular food shops, after their leases came to an end or the rents were doubled and, in some cases, trebled, and those that remain are feeling the squeeze. They either have to pass on the cost of their higher rents to customers, if they can, or move; those are the only options.

The street has already lost a post office because of the high rents. The last postmaster retired in 2006 and although the Post Office advertised the vacancy several times, it could not find an applicant who could afford to take on the franchise. That post office has now been written off as part of the current consultation.

Over the 18 months to two years since the campaign started, we are seeing ever more upmarket clothes shops, which may be fun for some people to shop in but are in danger of squeezing out the food shops that give the street its character. That is not at all what people want. The Northcote road action group was set up in 2006, and 250 people, both shopkeepers and residents—more residents, of course, than shopkeepers—attended its inaugural meeting. Some 7,000 people signed a petition presented to the council by Prunella Scales, a local resident.

Wandsworth council has called in a consultant to report on what it can do through existing planning powers. It already has a strict planning regime on the street. The first 50 shops or so are in a protected secondary frontage and the council can refuse non-retail use, if the proportion of retail falls below 60 per cent. The next 50 shops have slightly less protection. Then there is a middle section of the street. The far end of the street is classed as an important local parade. So the council uses the current planning powers to try to support the character of the street.

The planning system allows the council to prioritise retail over wine bars and estate agents, at least in most of the street, and if it is possible to do that more effectively by re-zoning the street or changing the zoning, we should do so. There may be some leeway for giving greater protection to retail shops by extending the protected secondary frontage further down the street, but planning law will never allow the council to favour independent shops over chain stores or small shops over bigger shops.

I am more concerned about what cannot be done through existing powers. We would need a change in planning laws or regulations, because the council and local councils are pursuing everything that can be done through existing powers. It is my job to pursue those things that cannot be done. I hope that the Minister will apply his mind to what changes can be made in the law to give councils the powers that they need to protect food shops in popular shopping streets.

The problem is by no means unique to Northcote road. Other streets, such as Portobello road and Marylebone High street, face similar problems. There may be many more, for all I know, in other parts of London or in other cities, but these are the only streets that I know about which are victims of their own success. The popularity of such a street becomes a problem, because it brings in so many national chains or other shops that squeeze out the shops that were there originally.

Marylebone High street has found a solution to this problem; it has retained that old villagey high street character, with its own butchers, bakers, chemist and all the shops that people would expect to find in a traditional high street, despite being close to Oxford street. Some of those shops might be quite expensive, but at least when people walk down Marylebone high street they feel that they are in a traditional high street with a good range of food shops. What is unique about Marylebone High street is that all the shops are owned by one man—Lord Howard de Walden—who knows that it is not only in the residents’ interest, but in his interest as the landlord to keep a butchers and a bakers in the high street, so that people can continue to do all their shopping in the same street. That solution is not available in Northcote road, where no landlord owns more than a dozen shops and most are individually owned, so no one person has an interest in keeping a good mix of shops in the high street. Left to their individual devices, all the landlords naturally rent their shops to the highest bidder, without any consideration of how that affects the balance of shops in the street.

Portobello road is, of course, famous and draws people from all over London and probably from outside. Kensington and Chelsea borough council set up an inquiry involving people such as Terence Conran to see what can be done to protect its character. It came up with 54 recommendations, which were mainly things for the council to do or for shopkeepers to do themselves, but about a dozen were recommendations for Government action, and some of those are worthy of the Minister’s consideration.

The first thing is to protect small food shops by putting them in a special planning category. One could then stop chains from buying up shop fronts and creating big shops by requiring planning permission to knock two shops into one. That would require a definition of a small shop to be in place—the inquiry group suggested 80 sq m—and any plan to increase a shop’s size above that limit would require planning permission. One could also prioritise food shops over coffee shops and internet cafes, which has been a particular problem in some high streets, as they take over sites from food shops.

Behind such measures, councils need to be enabled to make diversity of shops one of the reasons why they can turn down a planning application. Otherwise, they will be powerless to do anything other than stand by and watch as a much-loved high street turns into a row of wine bars, with all the problems that creates for the neighbours, or into a row of expensive fashion boutiques, which, although they are not objectionable in themselves, are not helpful because people cannot eat clothes.

If there is nothing but boutiques or rows of estate agents—as in Lavender Hill—it is no longer a high street. That is what has started to happen on Northcote road. As much as I would like the council to use its existing powers to the utmost—there are still ways in which it can do more—it does not have the power to stop those trends, once they take hold.

I shall mention a couple of suggestions that have been made. Wandsworth council is keen for more powers for retail conservation areas, which could be used more effectively to protect existing high streets. A number of organisations have suggested expanding the small business rate rebate scheme, which would favour smaller shops, regardless of their ownership. That would help to correct the balance, which can get out of kilter when large chains try to move in. I have nothing against large chains, and I appreciate that in planning law it is impossible to have a satisfactory definition of what a chain is. A small individually owned shop may set up a branch in a neighbouring high street and become a chain, but it should not be thrown out of the original high street simply because it is part of a chain. It would be a penalty of success if belonging to a group of more than one shop was a reason to refuse planning permission.

We must find other ways—proxies—to provide a distinction to enable planning authorities to control the tendency for large chains to take over shopping centres, push out individually owned or characterful shops and create a high street identical to one somewhere in the London suburbs. One can walk down several high streets, see exactly the same shops and wonder which particular high street one is in. Northcote road is nothing like that yet; it is a characterful shopping parade. People love it for its character, and they want to preserve that. I fear that the fundamental problem is that the planning system leaves too much to the whim of the market and gives too few powers to the local community to defend its own high street.

Of course, I fully accept that shops come and go—they always will. I am not making an argument for or against town centre shopping. I am not an opponent of supermarkets; on the contrary, I like to shop in them myself. However, I am saying that we must be alive to new trends such as those in places such as Northcote road. Many people there want to be able to shop for everything on their own high street. Such people are not particularly price sensitive. They do not mind if the small individually owned butchers that they go to charges a little more for a leg of lamb, because they value knowing the butcher and being able to discuss with him how he has treated the meat, how he cuts it and what his cooking recommendations are. People know that they and the butcher are part of a community.

That is the high street many of us know from our childhoods, and it is how the traditional English high street is described in history books. It is ironic that there was a time when the only people who did not shop in the high street were wealthy people, who shopped in Harrods food hall. Now, those at the lower end of the income scale shop at Asda, and those at the higher end prefer to shop on a traditional high street. However, this is not solely a matter for one income group, because the high street is one of our traditions. Although I do not wish to detract from the need for supermarkets, we ought to be alive to fact that many people want to preserve their local high street. In relation to this example, huge numbers of people have signed petitions, campaigned, and attended protests to defend their high street. What people do not have, and what I hope the Minister will point us towards, are the planning powers that would enable them to defend those high streets.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Jones, and it is a long time—about five hours—since I last saw you. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Martin Linton) for his thoughtful contribution to the important issue of the future of our high streets.

It is difficult to overestimate the importance of our high streets and town centres—whether they are larger cities, market towns or small villages. The places that provide goods, services and amenities for our day-to-day needs are much more than just places to shop or work, to which my hon. Friend alluded. They also provide the focus for our civic and cultural life and are at the heart of our communities. When I or other Ministers talk about the importance of place-shaping, a vibrant high street and town centre is at the heart of what we mean.

That is why the Government are committed to providing a suitable and appropriate framework to help develop and maintain thriving high streets and town centres. I hope that my hon. Friend and others would agree that the past decade has seen a welcome renaissance for thriving town centres. I grew up in the 1970s and early 1980s and I remember the ghost towns that were caused by economic depression. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, there was a tendency for planners to concentrate on out-of-town development. Independent retailers in towns and cities struggled because of the emergence of retail parks. Town centres virtually shut down at 5pm and became cultural deserts and havens for crime.

In the past decade that situation has been turned around. The proportion of new retail development in and around town centres has increased from less than 25 per cent. in 1994 to around 40 per cent. in 2005. Most of the top 50 retail centres have received a new major town centre retail scheme. I was in Birmingham recently, for the Labour party spring conference, where there is the exciting and vibrant Bullring. Manchester is a fantastic northern city that has smart new shops and high-quality public spaces. Other areas, such as Reading, have new developments in the pipeline to maintain their competitiveness.

A significant amount of retail development is now planned for smaller and medium-sized centres, as well. To see the difference such a development can make, I suggest that people have a look at Corby. I was there recently and it has a fantastic, positive and optimistic future, which is largely thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Corby (Phil Hope). Corby has ambitious plans regarding an Olympic swimming pool and other Olympic facilities, and a fantastic theatre. Other successes will build on the positive work of Willow Place, which is at the heart of the town. That is the model that we need to take forward.

The turnaround over the past decade that I have mentioned is the result of a number of factors. A favourable economic climate over the past 10 years has helped to provide confidence and has ensured that previously boarded-up properties in our town centres have become vibrant areas in which to shop, relax and work. The planning system has also been important in leading to a turnaround. We have maintained a strong planning policy over the past 10 years, and we have sought to promote the vitality and viability of town centres and to ensure that they meet the needs of the entire community in a good environment that is accessible to all.

Our planning policy statement 6, “Planning for Town Centres”, asks local authorities to plan proactively for how they want their area to develop, and to take the lead in preparing a shared vision for town centres in partnership with business, retailers and the wider community. Good development plans can be immensely powerful. They can effectively target the range of specific challenges that different places face. If local people want to preserve the character of their high street, as in the case raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea, development plans can seek to provide a mix of uses in high streets and limit the size of new shop units. If local people are worried about a dwindling number of local shops, and independent retail units have been converted to other uses— such as estate agents, takeaways, cafés and offices—without regard for the wider impact, development plans can oppose that trend.

If parts of a town centre need regeneration and investment—that does not necessarily apply to my hon. Friend’s constituency—development plans can prioritise them. As he said, it is important that local authorities use their development plans to create development opportunities that are suitable for businesses of all sizes, large and small. In introducing the debate, he cited examples of places where local planners are doing exactly that. I am impressed by the way in which some places have used the wider range of tools at their disposal to translate plans into reality. I encourage all local authorities to consider that approach and to use the tools available. I shall outline some of the further tools that we have put in place and the methods that they can employ.

Where it is justified in local circumstances, planning authorities can use planning conditions, when granting planning permission, to control the size of shop units and the goods to be sold in them. They can seek financial contributions under new development proposals, where justified, to help regenerate secondary shopping areas where many smaller shops operate. Where it is necessary and appropriate, they can use conditions to prevent changes of use that would not otherwise need planning permission.

In some cases, local development orders and directions under article 4 of the Town and Country Planning (General Permitted Development) Order 1995, which remove permitted development rights for certain designated areas, may be helpful in managing development. Local authorities can also use compulsory purchase orders to help achieve their objectives—for example, to ensure that key sites within or on the edge of town centres are brought forward for development, in line with their vision and strategic ambition for those centres. They can work with businesses to create business improvement districts to spearhead the regeneration of shopping areas.

Our policies promote the use of those tools to enable local authorities to manage development more effectively and to maintain and promote a locally distinctive mix of uses. I therefore strongly suggest to my hon. Friend and to hon. Members more widely that local authorities already have a wide range of planning powers available to help them protect and promote diverse and vibrant town centres.

That said, I accept that, with 60 per cent. of retail development still outside town centres, there is still some way to go. That is why we intend to improve the effectiveness of our town centre planning policy, as we said in last year’s White Paper, “Planning for a Sustainable Future”. We will shortly publish for consultation limited revisions to PPS6. Those will maintain a strong “town centres first” approach and introduce a new impact test, which will replace the current need and impact tests and enable local authorities to assess more effectively the impact of out-of-town development proposals on town centres. We will strengthen the way in which policy is designed to promote competition and improve consumer choice and retail diversity. We propose to introduce additional guidance to help local planning authorities apply our policies and make more effective use of the planning tools available to them.

I would like to make it clear that small independent retailers remain at the heart of our vision for town centres. We do not want a greater number of larger stores being developed where they may not be appropriate and where their impacts are significant, at the expense of small businesses and traditional high streets. As my hon. Friend rightly said, successful high streets need to offer something diverse and distinctive, which includes independent stores and multiples. We want a productive retail sector, which gives consumers a real choice in obtaining the goods and services that they need and want. On environmental and health grounds, I personally would like more local produce from independent retailers to be sold in our high streets.

We will therefore continue to work closely with our stakeholders, including organisations such as the Association of Convenience Stores and the Federation of Small Businesses, to ensure that we strike the right balance in the policy changes that we make. We look forward to hearing everyone’s views in response to our forthcoming consultation—I encourage my hon. Friend to contribute to that—and to continuing the helpful dialogue that we have had so far with stakeholders.

We are preparing a new planning policy statement on planning for economic development—PPS4—which sets out a policy framework for how planning authorities should positively and proactively plan for sustainable economic development, including retail, that is responsive to the needs of businesses both small and large.

We will publish very shortly our proposals for taking forward the review of sub-national economic development and regeneration. That includes proposals for a stronger local authority role in economic development, including a new statutory duty to assess local economic conditions. That would improve the evidence base to inform the sustainable community strategies, local planning policies and local area agreements. It would also improve the understanding of how economic development can better support regeneration priorities in a given area and the conditions required for businesses, including retail businesses, to flourish.

I cannot respond to a debate on high streets and town centres without referring to the concern about the potential implications of the recommendations arising from the current Competition Commission inquiry into the groceries market. As my hon. Friend will be aware, the commission has provisionally recommended that a “competition test” should be introduced within the planning system when local planning authorities are assessing planning applications for new large grocery stores and supermarkets. It is important to place the commission’s suggestions in context. Its provisional decision, made last year, stated that it was not intending to make any further changes to planning affecting grocery retailing, as the Government have already set out revisions, to which I have referred. The commission’s proposals are provisional. I stress that we need to see what the commission recommends when it publishes its final report on 8 May.

If the commission recommends that a supermarket competition test should be introduced, that would require significant changes to the planning system in England, and we would need to consider carefully what that would mean for business, local authorities, consumers and communities before we could accept such a recommendation and make further changes to the planning system. I reiterate that we await publication of the report on 8 May.

My hon. Friend has raised important issues. I hope that I have demonstrated that the Government recognise that small shops make an important contribution to the character, diversity and vitality of our high streets. Planning can play a key role in promoting retail diversity in our high streets and fostering the conditions that enable small shops to thrive. Local planning authorities have a wide range of planning tools available to help them plan proactively for the needs of their high streets, large and small. Robust, locally specific and proactive local planning policies that are based on a clear evidence-based local vision are an essential part of that toolkit. It is critical that local authorities and others use those tools effectively.

We have put in place a range of planning policies and statutory instruments that help to ensure diverse and vibrant town centres. We are introducing further proposals to help local authorities still further in achieving that aim. I am keen to do what I can to assist my hon. Friend and others to ensure that we have vibrant and thriving town centres and high streets.

Recycling (Plastics)

I fear that the debate that we are about to have will be slightly overshadowed by President Sarkozy’s address to the joint Chambers of Parliament. I must apologise to the Minister, because I am sure that she has a marginal preference for listening to President Sarkozy rather than me—in fact, I think I have a marginal preference for listening to President Sarkozy rather than me—but the fact is that plastics are fundamental to modern social life. I find myself sounding rather like the character of Dustin Hoffman’s future father-in-law in “The Graduate”, who, when discussing his future son-in-law’s prospects, looks at him very earnestly and says, “Plastics, my son, that’s the future.” I have great empathy with the Dustin Hoffman character, because my father has been very involved, as a chief executive, in the plastics industry and that message has certainly been pointed out to me from time to time.

The reality is that plastics are crucial to our lives. They are light, versatile and extremely durable, and they take many and various forms. They are also chemically inert, which is good for medical uses, culinary uses—we have all used plastic utensils for eating food—food packaging and other things. The electrical industry and the construction industry make very heavy use of plastics. We could have a full half-hour session just listing the various things, including the microphone in front of me, that involve plastic in one way or another, but I will hurry on.

Chemical inertness is one reason why people take against plastic or dislike it, but it is not the only reason. Fundamentally, people dislike things made of plastic for cosmetic reasons; they do not like the look of them. I have a plastic glass in front of me, but people often prefer to drink out of glass glass, particularly if they are drinking beer—I have been told that beer tastes completely different out of a proper glass rather than out of a plastic cup. It is mainly the chemical inertness that generates the problem and the animosity to plastic. It is the reason why it lingers around and the reason why, when it is disposed of, it gets in the way.

In the Daily Mail a few weeks ago, we saw some graphic photos of bits of plastic in strange foreign seas that had started off in British supermarkets. If we sit in the countryside for any length of time and look around, it is not unusual to notice a plastic container that has been left by a picnicker. It will remain there until someone clears it up.

The city is littered with plastic in one form or another. In landfill sites, there is always an element that does not disappear. It is not bulky, however, and does not take up a massive amount of space. In one sense, therefore, it is not all bad. Something that is not biodegradable, that hangs around and is chemically inert, does not react and does not leak methane and other gases, even if it is left in landfill, is a positive thing in favour of the plastic industry. The plastic industry is not slow to point out that benefit in its products. Plastic does not generate the same amount of greenhouse gas in landfill as other materials.

The industry also points out that plastic is an eminently reusable and recyclable material. It will add to that the entirely fair argument that the carbon footprint for plastic containers is relatively low. For example, plastic packaging reduces the weight of packaging in general. I am told that the amount of plastic used to package any one utensil is being reduced all the time. Although we have all heard arguments about little electrical gadgets such as USB sticks being wrapped up in enormous quantities of plastic, by and large, the weight of plastic used to package goods across the piece is genuinely reducing.

The production of plastic involves a less high-energy process than the creation of other materials that are a substitute for plastic. For example, an intense amount of energy is used to generate glass products as opposed to plastic products. The plastic industry also points out the clear environmental benefits of plastic, particularly plastic packaging. It points to the fact that we waste far less food than we used to. Food is biodegradable and produces gases that are hazardous to the environment. Plastic not only makes the food last, but it protects goods from breakage and ensures that they do not get damaged on their way to sale, which is a good thing in itself.

The down side of plastic is that it enables people to move food that much further, increases the amount of food miles, and ensures that products that we would not ordinarily eat travel from places such as Africa and South America and get to our shops. While that is a culinary benefit, it is not necessarily an environmental benefit because of the CO2 emissions involved. I do not know how we can assess the overall carbon footprint of plastic, but we have no reason to think that it is any more damaging than some of the alternative products that we might use for the same purposes. That said, we must note that plastic—the use and disposal of it—features very heavily in the environmental debate, even if that debate appears to be centred on issues such as global warming. It features very prominently in environmental policies of various parties and Governments. All are keen to do something about plastic bags, whether prompted by the press or by the consumer.

There are reasons for that focus on the industry at this particular time. One reason that I can identify with, and which I have observed within my local council area, is the fact that if there is a drive on recycling and if people are encouraged to waste less and reprocess what they can, refuse collections can be altered to enable them to do that and to encourage and incentivise them. One refuse system that is well used by councils is the alternate weekly collection, which often excludes plastic as a recycled material. When looking at their residual waste stream, householders will look at plastic and say, “This forms a very large and substantial part of that.” They will urge their councils to do something about it and include it in the items that are recycled. However, there are obstacles to that, and I will enlarge on them in a minute.

The second reason for the particular concentration on this material as an environmental hazard is the fact that plastic waste is more visually intrusive. It is certainly more highly coloured and more easily noticed than most other forms of waste. Therefore, there is a general demand to reduce waste plastic. Clearly, recycling plastic must come after avoiding unnecessary use of plastic and plastic containers in the first place.

When I was queuing up to buy a newspaper in WH Smith the other day, I was horrified to see people who were not buying much more than a newspaper—perhaps a newspaper and a pencil or a packet of cigarettes—habitually being offered a bag. In times gone by, they would have put their goods in a bag that they had with them, stuffed them in their pocket, or just carried them out. The habitual reminder that they did not have a bag to carry their goods in was there and was slightly disturbing.

I have quizzed the Minister at the Dispatch Box about Sunday newspapers. Such papers bang on a lot about how desirable plastic recycling is, but they are delivered in a non-reusable plastic bag—the broadsheets in particular. They often omit that fact. The first stage, therefore, is to avoid unnecessary use. The second stage is to encourage reuse, and clearly the supermarkets are doing that. Most hon. Members will have been invited to their local branch of Asda and been asked to pose with various plastic bags that are being put to second, third and fourth use. That is totally desirable and quite the thing to do.

Much of the drive and discussion concerning plastic bag taxes and many of the campaigns against unnecessary packaging are designed either to deter unnecessary use or to encourage reuse, both of which must stand ahead of recycling. Those are well worked-up themes and ones that we all applaud and have no problem with. I do not see any particular problem in developing those types of initiatives. We would all be hypocrites or capable of self-deception if we thought that we could easily dispense with plastic. When I am handing out political literature, as I do from time to time, to people who are eager to distribute it on my behalf, I find a reusable plastic bag extraordinarily useful. I do not know how I would manage leaving bundles of “Focus” on people’s doorstep without using a plastic bag. It would be dishonest and hypocritical of me to visualise a day when we could totally manage without them, because managing without them might mean that we have to use substitute materials that create other environmental problems.

There will therefore always be demand for recycling—it will not go away. That demand is quite legitimate, whether from the public—society in general—or the Government. The debate is about the fact that the demand is hard to satisfy, and I am looking for and expect a positive response from the Minister in that respect. It seems that there is a triad of problems—collection, processing and a lack of mature markets for the recycling product—all of which require some sort of attention.

Of the three, I am most familiar with and informed about the first, namely collection problems. Plastic is light and needs crushing, but there is not much weight in a lorry full of plastic bottles. To collect plastic, one might need several lorries to make several trips, which adds to the cost. We are all familiar with the overflowing plastic bottle banks in supermarket car parks and how difficult it is to educate the public to crush the bottles to make more room in the containers. We have also seen how people indiscriminately, despite notices, put any plastic in the banks, any how, thereby contaminating the waste stream. Many lorry journeys are involved in the removal of plastic from people’s doorsteps, and there is much corruption of the waste stream. Clearly, one obstacle, which I am not sure we can easily get over, is to educate the public about different kinds of plastic, how to deal with them and how to put them into the appropriate waste stream.

This shows the level of public ignorance—and my own. I learned only the other day that every plastic is in fact identified by a particular number within a certain type of triangle. I did not believe it at first, but I found that it was true when I looked at different plastics. Apparently, the European Union, in its wisdom, decided at some point in time that if plastics were to be produced, it would be good to put markers on them so that we would know which is which. I am debating plastic recycling in the House of Commons, and I learned that only the other day—the public’s learning curve will be that much sharper and steeper if recycling in general had a well informed public effort behind it.

Secondly, on the processing problem, often, when we have collected stuff, we need to separate, crush and bale it, which requires equipment. Some local authorities have got the situation well organised. For example, pretty well every district council in the Hampshire area can collect plastics, because the waste disposal authority there is ready to use and process it effectively. The same situation does not prevail in my area. We are dependent on Merseyside waste disposal authority. I have asked several times what it is doing to help the collection authorities better to recycle plastic, but I have not been given a clear answer. However, it has an extensive private finance initiative investment programme ahead. Processing needs critical investment, and there is a substantial difference between Merseyside, which does not get that, and Hampshire, which does.

The third problem is markets for end products. There are many burgeoning and innovative recycling industries growing up at the moment in the UK. I came across one of them in the Wirral the other day, which deals with the CDs and DVDs that newspapers and other organisations send us ad nauseum, for which we have no place. I have no doubt, Mr. Jones, that you put every single one that you receive on and look at it carefully before disposing of it, but many of us do not have the time to do that, and we simply dispose of them. There are huge quantities of such items hanging around in the world, and a firm in the Wirral recycles what I believe are called polycarbons. However, it is not obvious that there is a ready pipeline for such items—perhaps charity shops could be used.

I tend to agree with Peter Smith of the British Plastic Federation. He summed up what I am trying to say. He has stated that recycling rates depend on the collection, sorting, recycling infrastructure and the economies of scale of strategic waste management, but we do not have those things in the UK. He added, charitably, that the federation welcomes the recent announcement by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs that it will consider joint waste authorities to ensure more joined-up thinking on those aspects of waste management. If that were to happen, it would be applauded.

I am not saying that the situation is negative. There have been appreciable successes, and the Minister would be right to refer to them. Only 2.6 per cent. of polyethylene terephthalate bottles were recycled in 2005, but now 21 per cent. are. Some 22 per cent. of plastics are said to be recycled—I am not sure whether that is 22 per cent. of all plastics or 22 per cent. of plastics that the public throw out, or whether that involves the break down of commercial and private waste. There has certainly been an increase in the use of plastics whether in fuel or fillings. Sadly, there is much work to be done. We seem to be engaging in the unnecessary process of collecting plastic for recycling and sending it to China, where something is done so that it can be sent back to us as bin liners. That does not strike me as the sound thing to do, if we are seriously concerned about global warming.

I am told that 100 per cent. of Ribena bottles are made of recycled material, that 40,000 tonnes of post-construction polyvinyl chloride have been recycled, and that a great deal is being done, but we need more than a tokenistic approach to plastic bags. As the industry says, the plastic bag tax in Ireland has had mixed results. The actual quantity of imported plastic has increased, bin liners have been substituted for other kinds of plastic bag and non-reusable materials have proved to be heavier to shift around, which has added to the carbon footprint of goods. The chief executive of WRAP has said that a simple levy on plastic bags in Ireland only made matters worse. She said that people underestimate how many plastic bags are used to put out for recycling that are substituted by plastic bin bags, and that we must remember that taxes and levies can have perverse effects, such as making people use more plastic.

There is much more to do, but it requires—I think the Minister will be sympathetic to this plea—a strategic role for the leadership in DEFRA and not a simple, knee-jerk reaction from the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh) on his wide-ranging speech on the nature of plastics, their uses and the opportunities that they provide for us, but also on the problems associated with them.

The hon. Gentleman said that he is not sure how to calculate their overall carbon footprint. The Department is now very much engaged in such work, because it is clear that we must prioritise climate change and make judgments about all sorts of materials in that light. He said that he thought that political parties, Government and consumers focused on such matters and that people very much want to do something with the plastics that they handle, and he referred to alternative weekly collections. I should like to put on the record that it is important that people understand that there are weekly collections in alternative weekly collection areas. It is weekly dry recyclates—one week with the normal practice, and residual waste the next. People are not being denied the free collection of their materials. Those collections have apparently increased our recycling rates—the top recycling authorities have such arrangements.

The hon. Gentleman spoke about his local difficulties. I understand that Sefton will have a trial in August of plastics collection, which the Government appreciate. He referred to people in WH Smith—I do not want to name only that shop, because so many other retailers offer people free plastic bags. He will know that we are now committed to ending the free give-away of carrier bags of any kind. We hope that retailers will do it by voluntary agreement, having already pledged to make significant changes on the matter by the end of the year, but if they do not, we will legislate. The Irish experience has not been properly analysed. We know that the number of bags given away has been reduced by 90 per cent. It is not tokenistic; it is an important symbol of our throwaway society. The hon. Gentleman discussed litter, and Ireland originally acted because of its litter problem. It has had some success, and we want to emulate it. We also want to respond to what consumers are telling us: they want to see an end to bags.

The total amount of plastic waste arising in the UK is estimated at about 5.9 million tonnes per annum. Non-packaging plastics account for 64 per cent. of the overall plastics arising in the waste stream, originating mainly from the construction, electrical, transport, furniture and agriculture sectors, to which the hon. Gentleman has referred. Plastic packaging waste forms a minority of the waste stream, but it is undoubtedly of greatest concern to consumers.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs funds the Waste and Resources Action Programme, which does a great deal of work to increase recycling and to find markets for recycled products. WRAP is working with a contractor to demonstrate recycling of waste electrical and electronic equipment plastic back into new WEEE products, and will report later in 2008. A project in the automotive industry that we consider important is the reprocessing plant announced by MBA Polymers. It will be capable of handling 60,000 tonnes of plastics from the motor industry. As the hon. Gentleman has said, there is also a plant that processes DVDs and CDs. There are many initiatives.

Has there been any discussion with the plastic industry about reducing the number of different types of plastic? They all have a little triangle on the back, but there are about 10 different types. That must make recycling difficult.

Indeed. Many discussions have been held on many issues, and my hon. Friend is right to point to that one. It would be much easier to deal with collection and reprocessing if there were fewer types of plastic. Then we could look for more obvious markets and ways to make new products from recyclates. The Government are not in a position—no Government would be—to force people to use only a limited number of plastics, but it is highly desirable, and we have had discussions along those lines.

The hon. Gentleman said rightly that demand is hard to satisfy, but I can tell him that there has been a substantial improvement in local authorities. More than 90 per cent. of UK local authorities now offer some sort of plastics recycling service, and more than 50 per cent. of UK households can now put plastic bottles in their kerbside recycling box. Some 25 per cent. of plastic bottles used in the UK are now recycled, compared with 2001, when the collection rate was only 5 per cent. The UK recovered about 22 per cent. of all plastic packaging in 2006, and the Government are committed to doing more. About 2 million tonnes of plastic packaging are produced every year, and most of it is still not recycled. We need to find ways to do much more.

The targets for recovery and recycling of plastic packaging have recently been increased, and we expect the plastic target to rise from 24.5 to 26 per cent. this year with further improvement. I am aware of the confusion that consumers can experience when trying to decide whether plastics can be recycled, and we know that we need to make it simpler for them. We want more convergence between local authorities on what materials they will collect for recycling, including plastics, but we recognise that there are still gaps and variations in what is collected at the kerbside.

I have also asked the Advisory Committee on Packaging and WRAP to work with the Local Government Association, the packaging industry and retailers to develop practical proposals to increase collection rates for plastics. The hon. Gentleman referred to the lightweighting of plastics. He is absolutely right that that is one of the successes of the European directive and the transposing regulations, which require producers to minimise packaging. It is important progress, but we would like to see more of it. WRAP is undertaking a number of trials to see what scope there is for further recycling. They are wide-ranging and aim to understand the best ways to handle plastics from the environmental, economic and technological perspectives. The programme is investigating three main areas—collection, reprocessing, and end markets.

I shall give a few examples. Last year, as a result of funding from WRAP, the London Development Agency and the private sector, the first UK plant to recycle PET into plastics suitable for food packaging opened. The plant has the capacity to recycle 35,000 tonnes of waste plastic. Another project looking at trays used for chicken led to a 17.5 per cent. reduction in the use of polypropylene in that product. A large-scale trial of HDPE milk bottles with Dairy Crest, Nampak and Marks and Spencer found that it was possible to make bottles with 30 per cent. recycled content that performed to the same standard as bottles made from virgin plastic.

The hon. Gentleman referred to sending recyclates to China. Because the ships bringing manufactures to this country tend to return to China empty, it is not wasteful to send plastic recyclates to China, as they enable China to use recycled material, with great savings over raw materials. WRAP also recently started a project to undertake trials using a number of technologies with the aim of understanding the best ways to handle mixed plastics. Different recycling and recovery options are being considered as part of that work, including reprocessing mixed plastics into new plastics, incineration, chemical treatment and even turning mixed plastics into a form of diesel. WRAP has just completed the first 10 trials and will hold a conference in June to disseminate the results and discuss the way forward. The next steps from those projects are to scale up one or more of the best technologies to a commercial scale and work with local authorities and householders to raise awareness of the best ways to collect waste plastics for effective and high-value treatment.

Whatever progress I describe today, and whatever innovations the hon. Gentleman and I refer to, there is no doubt that we need to do a great deal more. DEFRA has at least the aim to develop a strategy. We now have projects within all the major waste streams, including a plastics project that will consider all aspects of plastic waste and how to advance reuse, recovery, minimisation and recycling of that important material. We need greater public awareness that plastic bottles include cleaning bottles, shampoo and conditioner bottles, trigger sprays and a raft of household goods. We need more kerbside collection, more bring back provision, more careful bottle design to ensure recyclability and increased recycling and reprocessing capacity in the UK.

Consumers can also play their part, and we urge them to do so by refusing products, reducing and reusing, and by acting appropriately according to their local recycling provisions. Much can be done. Not enough has been done, but I assure the hon. Gentleman that we, as a Government, and the Department are determined to do much better on plastics in this country.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at one minute to Five o’clock.