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Westminster Hall

Volume 475: debated on Wednesday 7 May 2008

Westminster Hall

Wednesday 7 May 2008

[Hugh Bayley in the Chair]

RAF Aldergrove

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

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Mr. Bayley. I know that it is a beautiful morning outside; nevertheless, we have our duties to do. It is a pleasure to have the opportunity to introduce this important debate.

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise a matter that is causing grave concern and anger in my constituency, namely the proposed cutbacks at RAF Aldergrove. If they are not changed, the proposals will have a devastating impact on many people in my constituency who rely upon the base as a means of providing much-needed employment. Many of those people, who have worked diligently and loyally there for many years through difficult and dangerous times, are civilian staff, for whom the prospect of relocating somewhere else in the UK is obviously not an option.

As I shall explain, the people whom I represent in the Antrim area feel let down by Her Majesty’s Government, having loyally supported the presence of Royal Air Force military personnel in their community for almost a century, since before there was even an RAF base there. Sadly for them, the Ministry of Defence has repaid that loyal support, offered so freely by the people of Antrim, by ushering in proposals that will add many of them to the unemployment statistics.

In common with those affected, I was absolutely shocked to learn the news through the media, rather than from the Minister or the military authorities. I therefore wish to oppose strenuously the decision to remove so many RAF personnel from my constituency and to expose the disgraceful and uncaring manner in which the proposal was announced. Absolutely no consideration was granted to a community that would feel decimated by the decision, which was taken without consultation. Now, they are rightly frustrated and angry at what they feel to be an abuse of parliamentary procedure and of common courtesy to elected representatives, whether myself as the Member of Parliament for South Antrim or Antrim borough council, which over the years has established an historic and fruitful bond with the RAF. In the past when the Government sought to impose such cutbacks, consultation and relief efforts for local communities were at least attempted. It seems that that is not the case for the people whom I represent. To many of my constituents, and to many people beyond the base’s immediate Antrim area, the cavalier manner in which the MOD made the announcement is galling. I shall provide some more detail on that, but first it is appropriate to put on record again the long and proud association that my constituency has had with the RAF at the Aldergrove site.

RAF Aldergrove is situated some 18 miles north-west of Belfast and adjoins Belfast International airport. In local Ulster parlance, the international airport is almost universally referred to simply as “Aldergrove”, which is the name of the surrounding area. That reflects the fact that the RAF base existed long before the commercial civilian airport. The station shares the Aldergrove runways but has its own separate facilities and helipad.

RAF Aldergrove first opened in 1918, before there was even a Royal Air Force, but it was not designated an operational RAF station until 1925. Its location made it a vital station for RAF Coastal Command during the battle of the Atlantic in the second world war. From the base, long-range reconnaissance aircraft were able to patrol the eastern Atlantic, searching for and destroying German U-boats. Local people are extremely proud of the base’s history and the front-line role that it had in the fight against fascism during the second world war.

Aldergrove was designated a dispersal airfield for the RAF’s V-bomber force in the 1950s and was included in a reduced list of 26 airfields in 1962. In 1968, a maintenance unit, No. 23 MU, was established at Aldergrove for the F-4 Phantoms in the RAF’s service, with 116 aircraft passing through on their way to front-line service. From 1991 until its disbandment in 2002, as part of the first MOD cutbacks to affect the base adversely, 272 Squadron operated Puma and Wessex helicopters from Aldergrove.

Aldergrove is currently home to a mixed force of 230 Squadron’s helicopters, which operate across the Province in support of the Police Service of Northern Ireland. One of the base’s main functions has been to provide designated air and aviation capabilities to support the police service in the maintenance of public order. When Northern Ireland descended into chaos in the early 1970s, it was via RAF Aldergrove that many of the much-needed military personnel arrived to prevent the escalation of the bloodshed and the complete collapse of society in the Province.

Although many people welcome the fact that a bit of normality is returning to Northern Ireland, does my hon. Friend agree that, in parts of south Armagh, the police say that there are still occasions when it is safe to go in only by helicopter? If the facility at Aldergrove is removed, it could impair police operations, particularly against the fuel laundering mafia that seems to have taken over south Armagh and is using semi-paramilitary tactics.

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. I certainly agree that the service that has been given to the police service through RAF Aldergrove has provided vital assistance against attacks and possible attacks from the people whom he identifies.

The proposal to relocate 230 Squadron will have a far-reaching and serious impact upon Northern Ireland. It is the only Northern Ireland-based squadron of the RAF. It was part of the RAF in Germany, operating the Puma HC1 there from 1980. Following the draw-down at the end of the cold war, the squadron was disbanded. As with many of the MOD’s decisions, the short-term advantages of saving money were outweighed by longer-term considerations of the defence of the realm, and the decision had to be reversed. The squadron re-formed at Aldergrove in early May 1992, again with the Puma HC1.

Today, 230 Squadron operates 18 Pumas. Those aircraft are rotated with 33 Squadron’s 15 Pumas to even out flight hours among the fleet—Northern Ireland-based helicopters have a much higher operational tempo. In 230 Squadron’s service, the main role of the fleet is tactical support for the security forces, mostly the British Army, to patrol either points or one of the military bases dotted around Northern Ireland. My hon. Friend made that point. A well travelled route for the Pumas, as well as for visiting Chinooks, is to the military base at Ballykinler in South Down. The squadron is well experienced in night flying, with almost a third of flights undertaken after dark.

The wide range of activities engaged in by 230 Squadron has entailed the engagement of a significant number of civilians in site-specific activities. It is those people who will be the most adversely affected by the MOD’s decision to move the squadron from its home in Aldergrove to RAF Benson. The move will result in 140 of the 420 civilian staff currently employed at Aldergrove being made redundant. The Minister has said in his correspondence with me that the Government have a long-term commitment to basing in Northern Ireland. That is not reflected in the decision to relocate 230 Squadron from its home in Ulster.

I welcome the fact that the MOD has said that 38 Engineer Regiment will be relocated, although we must remember that it is removing the regiment from another historic base in Antrim, the Massereene base. Even the MOD has acknowledged that that will not be enough to save the valuable jobs at Aldergrove that will be affected by the decision to withdraw 230 Squadron. We are facing the real prospect of 140 of my constituents losing their means of employment and support for their families because of this regrettable decision.

When I hear about such decisions, I seriously begin to wonder whether the MOD has any grasp whatsoever of the reality outside Whitehall. This country is engaged in two wars: we are bogged down in Iraq, where our troops are largely confined to barracks, and we are overstretched in Afghanistan, where, many contend, the lack of proper military equipment is costing the lives of many of our dedicated, heroic troops. Couple that situation with other military commitments elsewhere in the world and it becomes abundantly clear that our defence capability is overstretched and that we could be beyond breaking point.

How does the MOD respond to such a situation? By introducing a programme of sweeping cuts in which RAF Aldergrove is merely the latest victim in a long line of casualties. No doubt the Government will assert that defence spending is rising, but the clear and obvious truth is that it is inadequate to meet the challenges that we face. I agree wholeheartedly that soldiers who patrol dangerous streets in Helmand province must be assured of proper body armour and that failure to provide the best would be a shocking reality.

Some people might foolishly say that those who will lose their job or are otherwise affected by the RAF Aldergrove decision are only civilian staff, but the truth is that that devoted staff are important to performing a vital function at a strategic base of eminent value to the defence of this country in these dangerous times. The fact that the MOD considers them to be expendable is exactly the sort of slipshod and short-term thinking that saw 230 Squadron abolished and then re-formed in the early 1990s, because it was later proven to be a valuable necessity. I have no doubt that the MOD will live to regret the decision on RAF Aldergrove if it is not reversed now.

Our civilian staff perform a vital function in the defence of the realm, and to cast 140 of them aside in this manner is extreme folly. Dismissing 140 civilian staff is just as threatening to the defence of our country as dismissing 140 front-line soldiers, airmen or sailors. Our civilian staff provide the necessary behind-the-scenes back-up to allow our hard-pressed armed forces to carry out their duties. Among the 140 people who will lose their livelihoods as a consequence of the decision is an enormous wealth of talent and expertise that has been given over to defence of the United Kingdom. Sadly, those people are now to be treated shabbily by their employer, the Government Department charged with our protection.

I am pleased that the Government have indicated that there were no Northern Ireland-related political reasons for the decision. For too long, elected representatives and the people of Northern Ireland witnessed compliant Governments negotiate over the defence of the law-abiding people of Ulster with the representatives of brutal and murderous terrorism. Thankfully, in Northern Ireland, because people who once espoused the use of politically motivated violence have been made to commit to the rule of law and support for the institutions of the British state, the days of our Government negotiating behind our backs with those who want to remove us from our place of citizenship inside the UK have been ended.

Seemingly there is nothing so glamorous in the reasoning behind this decision. Instead, my constituents find themselves merely the latest victims of Ministry-inspired cuts. However, I would like the Minister to confirm that political considerations had nothing to do with the announcement. The vast majority of people in Northern Ireland from both main political traditions have grown sick and tired of the culture of side deals that the Government have operated since coming to power in 1997, particularly in the context of their kid-glove treatment of republicans. The Minister must detail whether there was any contact with any political party in the Province regarding this matter prior to the announcement’s being made.

For a good example of how the announcement has been spun for political purposes, one need look no further than the comments of my immediate predecessor as the Member of Parliament for South Antrim, Mr. Burnside. When the news first broke, he became hot under the collar and demanded to know why the First Minister of Northern Ireland—my party leader—had not been aware of the situation. Mr. Burnside made all sorts of party political comments. Quite why a member of the pro-Belfast agreement Ulster Unionist party believed himself to be on safe ground when denouncing military cuts, I do not know. After all, his was the party which, through its support for the joint declaration, presided over the demise of the three home battalions of the Royal Irish Regiment. It was only through the intervention of the Democratic Unionist party that those who were affected by that disgraceful decision were guaranteed an adequate redundancy package. His was the party that presided over and supported the demise of the Royal Ulster Constabulary and the massive reduction in police numbers that followed from it via the insidious Patten report.

On issues of national defence and safeguarding local communities, neither Mr. Burnside nor his party has a leg to stand on. Besides, this issue is far too important to be dragged into the mire by a defeated candidate seeking to make cheap political headlines to re-establish himself as a media presence in the constituency that he served so poorly during his time as its MP.

Mr. Burnside accused the First Minister of not fighting hard enough, but does my hon. Friend share my feelings about how the announcement was made? Rather than giving prior notice or even an opportunity for discussion in the House, the Government issued a written statement. That is not how such a far-reaching decision should have been announced.

I thank my hon. Friend for intervening once again. In fact, in many ways, that goes to the very heart of the problem, which is not only about 140 people losing their jobs but about 100 years of history and 100 years of support from the south Antrim community. Overnight, a decision to remove 1,100 people from my constituency was announced. Hon. Members should remember that it is not only the RAF personnel based at RAF Aldergrove who are affected, but their families as well. My constituency is losing 1,100 people who are active in the community and who give economic advantage to it.

The manner in which the announcement was made—my hon. Friend must have been reading my notes—leaves much to be desired. The story of the cuts hit local news and media outlets on Thursday 24 April. I happen to be the MP for the constituency most affected by the decision, but I heard about it on a morning news programme that was broadcast before the letter had been received and the written statement delivered.

There had been absolutely no consultation with those whose lives and incomes will be affected by the decision, and no consultation with the Member of Parliament for the area or the borough council, which has had a wonderful relationship and bond with the RAF at the Aldergrove base over 100 years. What sort of way is that to treat people? The first time many of my constituents heard about the decision was when they were driving to work. Frankly, it is a disgraceful state of affairs when people who have loyally served the Crown and their country and a community that has welcomed the RAF and other military units into their homes and hearts are treated in such a contemptible fashion by the MOD.

I want to place on the record the profound sense of hurt and offence caused by the MOD’s handling of the issue. Many people in the Antrim area feel aggrieved to have been treated in such an offhand manner by the Ministry. On their behalf, I am calling for an apology from the Minister today. It is incumbent on him also to inform us what protocols exist in the Ministry of Defence on making such announcements.

Many people were left flabbergasted by the manner in which the announcement was made. My constituents deserve—nay, demand—to know the Ministry’s procedures for disseminating information about matters of such public interest. What are the protocols for making important announcements such as this, which, if they are followed and adhered to, will have a serious impact on people's lives? It is hard to believe or to accept that the standard procedure for making major announcements such as this is to time them to appear in the press and on the airwaves and television on the day on which the local Member of Parliament receives his or her first item of correspondence about the matter from the Ministry, or that the removal of 1,100 people from a constituency should be announced in a written statement to the House, without prior notice and without discussing such an important matter with the local Member of Parliament.

The Royal Air Force operates an RAF community support website—rafcom.co.uk—but the people to whom I have spoken and who will lose their livelihoods as a result of this decision will need a little more than a website to help them out of the predicament into which the MOD has dropped them. They are now going to talk to the unions.

Let me make it perfectly clear that I do not accept this decision, which is foolish and will be regretted later down the line if it is not corrected now. I beg the Government to change their decision. My constituents are totally committed to RAF Aldergrove.

When examining the resources available at RAF Benson and RAF Aldergrove, it seems to me that Aldergrove is better equipped to meet the requirements being assigned to Benson. Why is there to be no outsourcing of work and responsibility from other stations to the well equipped Aldergrove? The comparative superiority of Aldergrove over Benson raises serious questions about the Government's motives. What we have before us are proposals to force through at Aldergrove in my constituency cutbacks that will cost 140 jobs in the Antrim area and lead to the removal of 1,100 RAF personnel and family members from the council area.

Is it possible that the fact that people of South Antrim do not have the opportunity to punish the Government at the polls for forcing through a damaging programme of job losses may have been a consideration in MOD thinking? I sincerely hope not, because that would be disgraceful. I trust that the Minister is in a position to provide hon. Members with a detailed explanation of the logic behind the decision. At the very least, my constituents deserve to know the Government’s motivation and logic for deciding to make 140 of them unemployed. I am deeply disturbed by this announcement, and I strongly urge the Government to re-examine it before proceeding.

During the coming days and weeks, people in my South Antrim constituency will be in a position to see for themselves just how seriously the Ministry of Defence takes its obligations to the communities in which it operates and from which its staff are drawn. It is a position that neither I, as their Member of Parliament, nor they, as loyal people who have faithfully supported the military’s role in Northern Ireland for many years, wanted to be in. The Government have said that they intend, via headquarters in Northern Ireland, to consult the trade unions on what the Government call “the management of civilian reductions”, which to the layman means job losses.

I urge the Government not only to consult, but to reconsider their initial announcement. The MOD must engage positively to ensure that necessary arrangements are put in place to help those most adversely affected by this decision, if the Ministry of Defence refuses to change course and the decision is implemented. It is essential that the MOD puts in place a comprehensive package of relief, not only by way of compensation and redundancy arrangements, but with a programme of reskilling to enable people to gain access to the employment market after their service at Aldergrove comes to an end. Given the loyal dedication and proud service given by the civilian staff and the faithful and enduring support offered by my constituents in Antrim, that is the bare minimum required of the Ministry of Defence.

We must bear in mind that many of those civilians operated during the years of trouble. They faced great personal danger and even a threat to their lives, but in a written announcement, their future is being cast aside and their jobs are being put on the heap.

It is a privilege, Mr. Bayley, to serve under your chairmanship. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South Antrim (Dr. McCrea) on securing this debate on an important topic in his constituency.

Job retention at military bases is often overlooked, because there is a tendency, particularly in Northern Ireland, to assume that it is an employment factor that was relevant during the troubles—of course, it was relevant, and it provided a sustainable backdrop for many people for 30 years. Hopefully, we are now reaching the point in Northern Ireland when a vicious page has been turned in a chapter of our history—we all hope and pray that that is occurring and that there will be no regress. That being so, the Government have a duty to assist Northern Ireland, whether in the case of the retention of RAF Aldergrove, which my hon. Friend and local people demand, or in the case of the adoption of other sites for utilisation in the local economy, which has been done in a few cases in Belfast and Londonderry and which could become an economic driver, if the MOD were flexible enough to allocate those bases free of charge to the Northern Ireland Executive. That has happened in a few cases, but it should happen in other cases, because we shall probably not have another such opportunity.

We have come through 35 years of tyranny and terror, and we are now almost in a hiatus with the economy still heavily dependent on the public sector, as my hon. Friend has outlined in relation to Antrim. We must promote the private sector in Northern Ireland, and this is a golden opportunity for the Government to assist communities in Northern Ireland. Retaining a base such as RAF Aldergrove and considering whether other bases could be handed over to the Executive for the private sector to provide sustainable, long-term employment will enable us all to enjoy a peaceful, prosperous and progressive Northern Ireland.

The base is associated with not only 30 years of trouble, but the 90 years of history from 1918 in which the RAF has been based in the Antrim area, so the issue goes far beyond the trouble. The trouble was a vital part—there was great personal danger—but when the nation called on the people of the United Kingdom, RAF Aldergrove was a vital part of the nation’s defence. I believe that my hon. Friend has referred to Massereene barracks. Another regiment is to be brought in and Massereene will be left vacant. I think that he was pointing out that the base should be handed over to the people of Northern Ireland, that is if the Minister does not change his mind—and I trust that he will—about RAF Aldergrove.

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. Indeed, one would have thought that 90 years of service would have merited more than simply the release of a statement. I would have thought that intensive consultation and discussion with the local Member of Parliament would have been a prerequisite. Perhaps the Minister will address that in his response.

In conclusion, I want the Minister to look at the overall concept in Northern Ireland and give a lifeline to Antrim and other places, such as Coleraine, Portadown and Belfast. If a lifeline were provided, the economy could be revitalised through a contribution from the Ministry of Defence. I hope that the Minister will review the MOD’s decision and assist us in our plight as we try to step out of a morass of violence and move into the 21st century.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South Antrim (Dr. McCrea) on securing this debate about an important issue in his constituency. The proposal will also have a spill-over effect on my constituency, because many of those employed in the civilian work force at Aldergrove live in the East Antrim area—indeed, a number of people have already come to my office to talk about the blow caused by the announcement. I would like the Minister to respond to a number of points. The fact that the announcement was made by written statement perhaps did not provide the opportunity for a closer examination of the decision and this debate at least gives the Minister the opportunity to respond to the relevant points that have been made.

I recognise that defence needs and public spending priorities change. I also recognise that the Northern Ireland economy needs to change—both speakers this morning have referred to that. The Executive of the Northern Ireland Assembly have prioritised moving away from public sector dependence to greater private sector involvement. That transition period will cause pain. The Executive already have grand plans to cut the public sector in Northern Ireland—for example, reviews of public administration, doing away with quangos, amalgamating councils and so on. That will move resources towards the private sector, but if on top of that, Northern Ireland receives a disproportionate reduction in public service employment from central Government at Westminster, the transition period will be made much more difficult and some areas will be badly hit.

As my hon. Friend the Member for South Antrim has mentioned, a decision about the Massereene site in Antrim has been made, and that will, of course, lead to reduced spending power as a result of a decrease in employment there. The loss of a population of about 1,100 people plus the civilian jobs that pump money into the local economy will have a downward multiplier effect at a time when changes and decisions are already being made in relation to public employment in the area by the Northern Ireland Executive.

The proposal will also have a sudden impact on local schools because a number of nearby schools are heavily dependent upon children from the base at Aldergrove. I cannot compare Aldergrove with other bases here in England, but I have toured the base on a number of occasions and seen its excellent facilities, which include not only workshops, hangars and mechanical resources, but excellent domestic housing facilities for service staff. After hearing about the conditions in which service staff are forced to live at some bases in this part of the United Kingdom, one must ask how far the total costs and benefits of the Aldergrove site were considered. How much of a business case was made and was Aldergrove compared with other sites in England before the decision was taken?

I have no doubt that there are economies of scale in bringing all those activities together, but, as my hon. Friend has asked, was a business case worked out for sourcing work done in England and bringing it to Northern Ireland? Aldergrove has the facilities, and it has excellent conditions for the personnel who work on the base. I have been in the houses of many of the personnel based at Aldergrove, and the facilities are first class. Will the Minister say whether it was simply a case of asking what savings could be made by closing Aldergrove, rather than looking at the opportunities to use such a cost-effective and well-resourced facility in Northern Ireland and considering whether some activities could be moved from other parts of the United Kingdom?

I would also like the Minister to indicate whether the MOD looked at the kind of adjustments that are already being required as a result of running down military bases across Northern Ireland? Historically, I know the reasons for that, and I am glad that we do not need the level of troop allocation to Northern Ireland that we did in the past because it shows that we are moving towards greater normality. As a result of the endeavours of members of our party, we are moving Northern Ireland away from a conflict situation towards a much more peaceful and bright future. That has necessarily caused adjustments to be made in constituencies all around Northern Ireland. I understand that this proposal is not related to the need to run down the security forces backing up the police in Northern Ireland and that it is part of the general adjustments being made.

As I said to my hon. Friend the Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Campbell), let us remember that this base is not a conflict-related base. For 90 years, it has been an RAF base and therefore we are not talking about the general issues that would relate to other bases, but about something that is for the benefit of the United Kingdom as a whole.

That is exactly my point. I understand the run-down and that there is no point in keeping bases that were purely needed for the service personnel who dealt with the troubles. However, it is gratuitous that on top of the necessary removal of bases that are no longer needed because of the greater normality in Northern Ireland, reductions are to be made to a base that has existed for a long, long time and that has provided a service not directly related to the troubles. Again, the Ministry of Defence should have taken into consideration the fact that we have already borne a sizeable reduction in personnel and bases in Northern Ireland. The local economy has suffered as a result of those necessary adjustments, but the adjustments to Aldergrove are not necessary—particularly if no cost-benefit analysis was done to see how money or work could be reallocated to Northern Ireland to offset some of the cuts that have already been made.

In the long term, as my hon. Friend the Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Campbell) has pointed out, some military bases could be used to regenerate local economies. The Minister has received considerable representations about the base in Omagh, which people wish to use for an educational facility, bringing together five of the schools in the area. That will happen only if the base does not have to go out at market rates and if the commitment that the Government made to turn over many of these bases as an asset to the Northern Ireland Executive is fulfilled and the promise kept. There are many other such bases.

In the long run, the contraction of the RAF may mean that there is no use for the base at Aldergrove. The adjustment over time is important. That time adjustment may well lead to the base being made redundant in the very long term, but the current reduction, coming at a time when we have had all the other reductions in the armed services in Northern Ireland, is a reduction too far. I am sure that there is considerable economic potential in the longer run, with the development of Aldergrove airport and the plans for the area around it, but given the changes that are already occurring in the Northern Ireland economy, the decision that we are discussing will have a detrimental short-term impact. I believe that it is to lead to facilities being relocated to less desirable facilities elsewhere in the United Kingdom and that efficiency will suffer. If the Minister can tell me differently and show us that the costs have been carefully considered and that there are considerable benefits, I suppose that we will have to examine those figures, but the decision has been a blow.

I think that the decision is indicative of the way in which the Government at Westminster sometimes treat Northern Ireland. I do not think that something as important as this would have been done without consultation in an English constituency. For the Member for the area to hear about the matter on the news, rather than there being prior consultation, and for things to be done outside the normal parliamentary procedure—it is fortuitous that we have this debate today—has been regrettable and causes people in Northern Ireland to believe that sometimes they are an afterthought in these decisions, rather than part and parcel of the proper way in which governmental decisions should be made. I hope that that is not because there are no votes for the Government party in Northern Ireland and that it is therefore felt that Northern Ireland can be disregarded.

Rather than there being no votes, there could be very important votes in this House from Northern Ireland at the next election.

When I said “no votes”, I meant for the particular party, as it has refused to stand in Northern Ireland.

Indeed. I hope that it is not the case that people feel that Northern Ireland can be disregarded in that way because the governing party at present is not organised in that part of the United Kingdom. We are part of the United Kingdom. We believe that we should be treated in the same way as any other part of the United Kingdom and that, when major announcements such as this are being made, a proper consultation process should be undertaken.

It is an honour to follow three great speakers. This is my first foray into Northern Ireland politics and I will tread carefully—Scottish politics is complicated enough, and I do not regard myself as an expert on that. Westminster Hall debates are an interesting discipline, because they force us to examine and explore issues that we might not explore in our usual work in Parliament, and it has been very interesting to discover the rich history of the RAF Aldergrove base.

I have been on the Puma helicopters that are based at RAF Aldergrove. With the Select Committee on Defence, I flew over Baghdad last year and witnessed the extraordinary professionalism of the crew and pilots on those craft as they flew us over the city. They moved at a fair lick through the suburbs of Baghdad, which was probably the right thing to do at the time. When we got into the green zone, about 27 mortars came over the wall in the space of an hour, and that was supposed to be the safe area.

I wish to cover four issues this morning. Many points have been made already, but I wish to rehearse some of the arguments. The first issue is the technical, military aspects of the decision—the reasons behind the decision from an MOD perspective; the second is the political significance for Northern Ireland and wider politics; the third is the economic impact; and the fourth is the social impact. All four aspects are extremely important and must be considered in their own right.

The significant history of the RAF base has been referred to. It goes back over 90 years, to a time well before the recent troubles. It played a role during the second world war in the battle of the Atlantic, when reconnaissance aircraft from the base searched for U-boats. For the V-bombers, it was one of only 26 airfields in the UK in 1962. So the base has played a very important role in the past, as well as in more recent times in Northern Ireland.

The RAF Aldergrove website, which I have been scrutinising over the past few days, clearly states:

“Aldergrove is now home to a mixed force of helicopters, which operate across the province in support of the Police Service of Northern Ireland.”

However, it is clearly stated on the BBC website, although not in the Minister’s statement to the House in April, that the cutback

“is unconnected with the peace process reductions in troop levels and base closures which were finally completed in Northern Ireland by the MOD last autumn.”

I find it quite difficult to believe that the decision is nothing to do with the peace process, when the role of the base was clearly to do with supporting the PSNI. I would therefore like the Minister to clarify whether the move is part of the peace process. Perhaps it is not part of the technical troop withdrawal, but is it part of the wider peace process? If it is, we should be open about that and make it clear in the statements.

If the move is connected with the military aspects, we need more explanation of why a single site is required now when that did not seem to be an imperative at an earlier stage, during the troubles. The Minister needs to be clear about the justification for the single site. If there is a requirement for a single site, which military experts may recommend, was Aldergrove considered—the excellent housing facilities there were mentioned—especially given that there is a profusion of military bases in the south-east of England? It may not be now, but that was part of the overheated south-east economy. Would it not have been better to consider Aldergrove as part of the job dispersal programme that the Government are keen on, so that the wider needs of the community in the UK as well as Northern Ireland were considered and not just the narrow needs of the MOD? Was wider consideration given, as opposed to the restrictive silo mentality that has often marked various Departments?

Was there a requirement for a single site? If so, why was Aldergrove not chosen, if it was considered at all? Will the Minister also explain why Massereene is being closed and why the Engineers will be going from there to Aldergrove? What will the Massereene site be used for? I would like the Minister to go into some of those matters.

I found the contributions of other hon. Members extremely interesting, as there are many parallels in my part of the world as the result of a transition from coal mining and dockyard operations to more private sector involvement. Such a transition is difficult, so it is important that we have a plan and that we do not have various Departments making different decisions at different times, without the whole picture being considered. It is important that the Minister addresses those points.

The second aspect is the political impact of closure. As we heard, there has been a bit of a political scrap between the various Unionist parties in Northern Ireland about who was consulted and who was not. If the Northern Ireland Executive are to operate effectively, it is vital that they are consulted and included in the decision-making process. Was the First Minister of Northern Ireland consulted? Why was the MP for the area not included in the early notification process? If he had been, he would have been prepared and ready to ask questions before the decision was finally announced.

Does the Minister find it significant that there will be no RAF base in Northern Ireland? That is an important historical point, which we should consider before making the final decision. There are many bases elsewhere in the United Kingdom, and the people of Northern Ireland will be puzzled about why Northern Ireland is the only place with no base. Some RAF personnel and the Army Air Corps will be based at Aldergrove, but it will be a significant change from having had an RAF base established there for more than 90 years to no longer having a base. That point should be noted and the Minister should reflect on its wider significance.

Various figures on how many jobs will be lost have been bandied about—mainly ranging between 100 and 140. Does the Minister have any information on that? What support will be put in place to ensure that those people have the best opportunities made available to them?

I apologise for referring to Scotland so regularly, but there we have the PACE—partnership action for continuing employment—team. Jobcentre Plus, local councils, the enterprise agencies and others get together as a hit team. They support personnel, such as those from the Lexmark factory in my constituency who have lost their jobs, and they provide round-the-clock support with CV writing and training; they also offer advice on what further training might be available elsewhere. Is similar provision made in Northern Ireland, and if not, can it be put in place? What role does the Ministry of Defence play in providing such support for people who are to lose their job?

We have heard that 1,100 personnel, families and support staff may move out of the area. If we were to lose 1,000 people from my constituency, we would know about it. We would feel the impact on the local economy, as people would no longer be spending money and would not be using the local post office, the local shops or the local library. What measures will be put in place to support the community? I do not know how widely dispersed those people are in the area, or whether they live close together.

The written statement about the massive change that will come about if the Minister goes ahead states that unions will be consulted. Removing 1,100 people from a community will cause serious economic problems, but there was no mention of consultation with the borough council or the community on how they would pick up the pieces afterward. The unions are to be consulted about the 140 jobs, but it seems that no one else has the right to be consulted.

I sometimes think that the 90-day consultation with unions is a proxy for real consultation; it is sometimes a bit too strict and does not enter into the spirit of the wider consultation that is required. We should look in a more holistic way at involving councils and others in the area in order to ensure that they understand the consequences and engage in a transition strategy to deal with the loss of 1,100 people. The hon. Gentleman makes a most relevant point. It is essential that the Minister explains what wider consultation there will be beyond the trade unions; consultation is vital, but it needs to be wider to cover the economic impact on the area.

We also need to ensure that mitigation measures are in place. What extra support can be supplied to councils and the enterprise agencies to ensure that alternatives, such as business start-ups, can be put in place? We need to utilise the skills not only of the base personnel who are to lose their jobs, but of those who support the base in the wider sense, as I have no doubt that there will be further job losses.

If I were to lose 1,100 people from my constituency, it would also have an impact on schools and hospitals and other health services. GPs and hospitals might welcome having fewer patients, but I am sure that the local school would suffer, as there would be a direct impact on class sizes—and perhaps on the school’s critical mass. I do not know what assessment has been made of the impact on schools and whether extra support will be provided to ensure that they do not fall below critical educational levels. If classes sizes are reduced to the point that they become too small, it will have an impact on the quality of learning. We need wider consideration to be given to that point.

I am grateful to an Alliance council member from the constituency of the hon. Member for South Antrim (Dr. McCrea), Councillor Alan Lawther, who briefed me yesterday on some of the local aspects of the issue. He was full of praise for the work done at RAF Aldergrove. He said:

“These staff have been integral in the normalization process within our society. They established good community links, worked closely with local sporting groups”—

across the spectrum, and not only from one part of society—

“and organized educational trips for schools.”

Indeed, his daughter took part in a recent trip to RAF Aldergrove, and she enjoyed seeing the aircraft and the base. I understand that science classes and other lessons take place in Aldergrove, which is part of the wider learning remit of schools. That, too, will be lost if community use does not continue. Will more formal programmes be established to ensure that those good community links are not lost? I understand that the local mountain rescue service operates from Aldergrove. What impact will the closure have in that respect?

I am disappointed to hear about the lack of consultation. I hope that it is not because none of the three main parties are represented in Northern Ireland. I hope that the Minister takes the opportunity this morning to put some of those things right.

I, too, am delighted to be here under your chairmanship, Mr. Bayley.

I salute the hon. Member for South Antrim (Dr. McCrea) for securing the debate, and for doing so so swiftly after the decision was announced. That is some achievement. I am also pleased to hear that the hon. Gentleman has been making common cause with my great friend David Burnside—it is good to see local politicians working together. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman’s constituents will appreciate the fact that he has raised the issue in the House and brought it to the attention of a wider audience.

I welcome the hon. Gentleman to the world of the United Kingdom. I hope that he will forgive me for saying so, but that he and his colleagues are somehow being singled out for such adverse treatment is news to me. Welcome also to the world of defence closures, which we on the mainland have had to live with for a long time. What he and his colleagues and many of us called the troubles over the past 30 or 40 years ensured that military facilities remained in Northern Ireland that might otherwise have closed earlier. He should therefore regard himself not as singled out, but very much part of the United Kingdom.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the manner of the announcement is very much to be regretted, and I am sure the Minister will respond to that concern. It is important that Members of Parliament are consulted in advance of decisions. There is a well rehearsed facility by which Members are taken to one side and briefed privately in advance, particularly when an announcement will affect a large number of jobs in their constituency. I add my voice to those of others, including the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Willie Rennie), who have said that the Minister owes the hon. Member for South Antrim an explanation in that regard.

Today’s debate brings home to us the fact that the decision effectively marks the end of 90 years of RAF presence in Northern Ireland. I do not want to let the event go by without recording my own tribute to the RAF, a service with which I am associated, as the Minister knows, having been commissioned in the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve, Britain’s last hope—in my case, not that of the rest of the RAFVR. All I would add to the history set out by the hon. Member for South Antrim is that the RAF presence actually began a year earlier than he said, in May 1917. Major Sholto Douglas MC DFC, a member of the Royal Flying Corps, was recuperating after being injured in France and was asked to survey sites in Ireland that might be suitable for creating bases for the putative RAF. One such site was Aldergrove. It is therefore 91 years almost to the day since Major Sholto Douglas discovered Aldergrove for the purposes of military aviation.

Reference was made to the importance of RAF Aldergrove during the second world war as an RAF Coastal Command base. Of course, in those times, bases as close to the Atlantic ocean as possible were needed, because aircraft had much shorter ranges than those that are available today. Aldergrove was well located for that purpose. The base was a V-bomber dispersal base in the 1950s, as was mentioned. I can tell the hon. Member for South Antrim that, as a trustee of the Vulcan to the Sky Project, I hope that we shall be able to display to him, his constituents and others in Northern Ireland the Vulcan bomber this summer, as a reminder of the part that that marvellous, iconic aeroplane played in our security during the cold war and providing the deterrent that kept the Russians at bay.

The hon. Gentleman made the point that the RAF in Aldergrove has been well supported by the local population. The public at large are suddenly recognising the huge sacrifice that is made in their name by the men and women of our armed forces, so the local population has a role to play. All service units are keen to ensure that they enjoy good relations with the local population, which the hon. Gentleman made absolutely clear.

I flew in a Puma in Northern Ireland under the auspices of the armed forces parliamentary scheme four or five years ago. Although it was not at the height of the troubles, nothing brought home to me the skills of RAF crews more than that trip, and they ought to be recognised. In the great tally of casualties of those who laid down their lives for the sake of the people of Northern Ireland and for the wider interests of the United Kingdom, 3,524 people were killed, of whom 505 were members of the British Army or Territorial Army, 301 were members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, and four were from the RAF. The four came from 230 Squadron, which is currently based at RAF Aldergrove. Three aircrew were lost in an airborne collision with an Army Air Corps Gazelle at Bessbrook Mill on 26 November 1992, and an Army major who was on a familiarisation flight was also killed.

It is important to recognise that not only the Army was involved in Northern Ireland. Just as it is today in Iraq and Afghanistan, the RAF is absolutely at the front line, in harm’s way, in danger and relying upon the incredible skills and courage of the pilots and crew of the aircraft involved in operations. Hon. Members may be interested to know that Bessbrook Mill, which was a converted linen mill, was the base in Armagh, I believe, in the heart of bandit country. At one time, it was the busiest heliport in Europe, with something like 600 flights per week moving something like 15,000 passengers per month. Those statistics encapsulate the extraordinary intensity of the military operations in which all three services—the Royal Navy was involved, especially in rotary operations—participated.

That brings me to 230 Squadron, which is the current serving squadron at RAF Aldergrove. It was formed at Felixstowe on the east coast of England on 20 August 1918 by combining three locally-based sea plane flights, and took up maritime reconnaissance over the North sea flying the Felixstowe F2A. To bring us up to date, the squadron moved to RAF Aldergrove on 4 May 1992—almost 16 years ago to the day—and formed the Puma squadron to provide service in Northern Ireland. It was a re-formed squadron, as the hon. Gentleman said, but it was effectively 230 Squadron. It undertook day and night duties in County Fermanagh, operating from St. Angelo airfield, and similar tasks in south Armagh, operating, as I said, from Bessbrook Mill, as well as Province-wide tasks.

The squadron was engaged in a wide range of operations and carried on in the Province until the cessation of Operation Banner on 31 July last year. During that 15-year period, it amassed in excess of 37,000 flying hours in the Puma. Twenty-six individuals were awarded honours and decorations, including 14 Queen’s commendation for valuable service in the air, seven MBEs, one OBE, one Air Force cross and one distinguished flying cross. Together with the other statistics I have given, that illustrates the commitment that those men and women have given to our country and the people of Northern Ireland.

The hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) said that times change, which they do, and acknowledged that the armed forces are under immense pressure—I have mentioned Iraq and Afghanistan. The RAF does not have enough people to undertake the tasks that it is asked to do. It is finding it difficult not only to recruit people but, more especially, to retain them. That is a problem because of the constant tempo of operations. It therefore comes as no surprise that the Government are seeking to minimise the commitment that they are calling on those people to make, and if Northern Ireland presents an opportunity to reduce the commitment, the Government will seize it. We should be in no doubt that those people are doing an tremendous service.

I have a few questions for the Minister—[Interruption.] The Minister is gesticulating from a sedentary position, but I have only about a minute’s worth of questions. We still have 20 minutes to go, so he is not going to get away with saying that he does not have enough time to answer questions from the hon. Member for South Antrim and the rest of us.

It is true that the base was not established to deal only with IRA-sponsored violence, and it has been there for 90 years. It would be helpful if the Minister told us whether any alternative uses were considered. Was consideration given, for example, to basing the long-range maritime reconnaissance aircraft—the Nimrod—at Aldergrove? I say that partly because the base is closer to the field of operations—the Atlantic ocean—as it was in the days of Coastal Command.

The troubles are not completely over, and there is still sporadic violence, as those Northern Ireland Members who have spoken will tell us only too graphically. The Army Air Corps will continue to operate from RAF Belfast, but does the Minister have any other contingency plans that he can tell us about?

The Royal Air Force presence at the Aldergrove site will continue, with a limited number of RAF personnel remaining there, but will the Minister tell us how many? Does he have any information about the role that they will play?

Finally, I make no apologies for ending my contribution by repeating that we in the House owe a huge debt of gratitude to all the armed forces, not least the Royal Air Force. The 37,000 flying hours done by one squadron alone illustrate the extent of the commitment shown by members of the RAF, as well as their unfailing sense of duty to their country and their courage in the face of considerable danger. We should not lose this opportunity to pay tribute to them.

I thank you for presiding over our proceedings, Mr. Bayley. I also thank the hon. Member for South Antrim (Dr. McCrea) for the support that he and his constituents have given, and continue to give, to the armed forces in Northern Ireland, and particularly in the Antrim and Aldergrove area. Aldergrove is a popular posting with the armed forces, and the units that have been, and currently are, based there have built strong links with the local community. I am sure that the units that will be based there in the future will continue to receive that support and will make the same endeavours to develop such links.

I join the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members in paying tribute to the role played by the RAF in Northern Ireland over 90 years. I very much welcome the strong connections that it has developed in Northern Ireland through, for example, the Aircrew Association, the Royal British Legion and the Air Training Corps, as well as through its frequent presence at airshows at Portrush and elsewhere. Again, I am sure that those links will continue.

I also join the hon. Gentleman and others in paying tribute to the Ministry of Defence civilians who support our armed forces in Northern Ireland. As I made clear in my statement about the end of Operation Banner on 25 July 2007, I recognise the role that they have played and their commitment. I had the opportunity to meet and talk to some of those civilians, and their dedication, as well as the personal difficulties that they faced over many years, is palpable. I take this opportunity to pay tribute to them and to make it clear that I recognise the essential role that they will continue to play in this new era, when we all hope that our military personnel in Northern Ireland will train for and undertake deployments worldwide.

At this point, I must say something about the consultation, because the hon. Gentleman was vociferous in his anger about the way in which it has been handled. I have no desire to upset him, because I have great affection for him; indeed, I admire him from afar from this side of the Chamber. I must tell him, however, that it is extremely difficult to know how to handle such situations. As the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) has suggested, I have announced many changes at bases and training establishments throughout England, Scotland and Wales in my time in this job. The idea that the hon. Member for South Antrim is somehow being treated differently, or that he is being treated differently because he cannot, like others, vote against the Labour party, simply does not stand comparison with the way in which other announcements have been dealt with. In a previous life, I tried to get the hon. Gentleman’s party to support the Government on the odd occasion, and I cannot remember ever having been successful, so his threats are a little empty and do not hurt very much.

The hon. Gentleman’s anger and the issues that he and other hon. Members have put to me raise the question of where Parliament sits in the consultation process. Do we tell Parliament at the start of the process, halfway through or at the end? That is enormously difficult. Where do our employees sit in the consultation process? Are they entitled to know right at the start, once we have developed plans? It has therefore been the norm to make a written statement about such changes, and I wrote to every single hon. Member who would be affected, including the hon. Gentleman’s colleague, the Assembly’s First Minister, the right hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley), to try to ensure that they were aware of my statement.

I cannot say how or why the story wound up in the press, or who was responsible, although it could have been the result of one of those letters or of something leaking from the Northern Ireland Office management establishment or the MOD structure in Northern Ireland. I am sorry for the anger that has been caused, but the hon. Gentleman has been treated in the same way as other people when we have had to review RAF locations, the basing of particular aircraft, changes to the training establishment and the rest of it. Generally speaking, we announce such things to Parliament; if we did not, we would be criticised for not doing so. We also announce them in written statements; if we dealt with them all in oral statements, we would be popping up pretty regularly, which would destroy the rest of the day’s business far too often for the liking of other parties and take up valuable time for scrutinising the legislative process.

Does the Minister not understand that this decision is being made by the United Kingdom and Westminster-based Parliament and Government? Given that there is one Member for the constituency, it is only natural for members of the community to say, “When did you, as my Member of Parliament, know? What part did you play in this decision?” The finger is pointed at the individual Member of Parliament, who has to be able to say, “I got it in a written statement.”

I understand those difficulties, and I have been subject to them myself in my role as a constituency MP. The hon. Gentleman is not the only hon. Member whose constituency is affected by this announcement—the Massereene barracks will be, too. I spend a large part of my time as a Minister writing to all kinds of Members of Parliament—sometimes to 50 and 60 at a time—who are affected by particular aspects of MOD life. I try to consult hon. Members to ensure that they are not left out of the loop or left in a difficult position like the hon. Gentleman. I do not know why he received the letter a little late, but perhaps he needs to examine his side of the chain of communication and not just point the finger at my side. However, there was no attempt or desire to put him in a difficult position.

We need to discuss the substance of the issue. I have set out the background, and I want now to set out the rationale for our decision to relocate 230 Squadron and the RAF supporting personnel from Aldergrove to RAF Benson; to explain the further garrison restructuring that that relocation has enabled; to expand on the reduction in MOD civilian posts in Northern Ireland and the potential redundancies associated with that; and to offer some reassurance, I hope, as regards our commitment to maintaining a military base at Aldergrove.

Puma helicopters, with which 230 Squadron is equipped, play a key role as part of our support helicopter force at home and on operations. They provide tactical troop and load movement by day or night, carrying up to 16 fully-equipped personnel or two tonnes of freight. Relocation of the squadron to RAF Benson, where 33 Squadron, which also operates Pumas, and 28 Squadron and 78 Squadron, which operate Merlins, are already based will allow consolidation of the Puma force and greater coherence in the support helicopter force. It will improve the capability of the fleet by co-ordinating all front-line Puma basing, training, forward fleet maintenance and personnel at a single base.

Hon. Members have asked whether I considered the reverse arrangement of using Aldergrove in that way, and yes, of course I did. One of my first questions was why not do that—why move people into the south-east of England, when potentially we could move them out? Had we considered that? However, the weight of facility and capability and the gain from consolidation into RAF Benson was considerable. To conduct the process in the opposite direction would mean moving training facilities that were well established and embedded, at huge cost, and creating an awful lot of nuisance from helicopter flights in Northern Ireland, which would not be welcome. The logical approach, from the military and consolidation point of view, was the move to Benson, by which the smaller part of the helicopter force would be consolidated into the much larger operation already at RAF Benson.

The relocation of 230 Squadron will free up significant facilities at Aldergrove. Those include not only office and hangar space, but family quarters, single living accommodation and welfare facilities of a high standard, as hon. Members have mentioned in the debate. Having reviewed the options available, we have concluded that we will make best use of the defence estate and deliver the best quality of life for our personnel if 38 Engineer Regiment, which will move to Massereene barracks in Antrim later this year, relocates to Aldergrove once 230 Squadron has departed. We will still use that good estate that hon. Members have talked about. Aldergrove will remain a base, although of course it will primarily be an Army base. It is only about five miles from Massereene to Aldergrove, so some people will want to go, and some facilities associated with Massereene will still be usable. The move will allow the consolidation of 38 Engineer Regiment’s technical and domestic accommodation on one site and enable the unit to benefit more fully from the additional facilities available at the larger site. As the hon. Member for South Antrim is aware, that will remove the requirement to retain the Massereene barracks. While he may regret that decision, I am sure that he shares the Department’s objective of making the best use of available defence estate and infrastructure and delivering the greatest possible coherence for our units and the best possible quality of life for our military personnel.

As to the matter of gifting the base, all I can say is that Democratic Unionist party Members know that their party leader raised the issue at Prime Minister’s questions, and they heard that the Prime Minister was prepared to meet him to discuss it. My view is that we need the receipt to pay for the many facilities and necessities in the Ministry of Defence. We are dependent on the estate. However, I cannot pre-empt the discussion that will take place between the leader of the DUP and the Prime Minister, and I do not know what agreements they will reach.

For staff whose posts are removed, such as those whose posts are associated exclusively with the security and maintenance of the Massereene barracks or for personnel unable to relocate to Aldergrove with 38 Engineer Regiment, everything possible will be done to find acceptable alternative employment in the Ministry of Defence. Where redundancies are inevitable, we will pursue voluntary release on compulsory terms, as we have done successfully in the current civilian draw-down associated with normalisation. It is our intention to make every effort to avoid compulsory redundancy. The Ministry of Defence will, in any case, remain a significant employer within the Antrim area.

The hon. Member for South Antrim has talked about 140 redundancies, but it will be much less than that. We want to retain many people at Aldergrove, which we want to develop. Some of the people who are associated with the basing at Massereene will be given the opportunity to redeploy, but their jobs will not exist if we close the Massereene barracks. However, that would involve fewer redundancies than the 140 figure that the hon. Gentleman has mentioned. We estimate that there will be fewer than 100 job losses. That, of course, will be subject to consultation with the trade unions, which is starting now.

Does the Minister appreciate the serious economic implications of the removal of the RAF personnel and their families from the constituency? The important points include not only the job losses, but the loss of 1,000 people and their buying power from the constituency.

The hon. Gentleman is right. Of course that will have an impact, but we are moving to a position in which we shall base 19 Light Brigade in Northern Ireland. The move into Aldergrove will facilitate part of that, so Aldergrove will continue to be used, and families will be based in Northern Ireland. Of course, the numbers will fluctuate, depending on whether those mostly Army personnel are deployed or home-based in Northern Ireland at any given time, but there will still be considerable activity at Aldergrove, which will replace what has gone on there to date, and there will be a commitment to the site by the MOD over a considerable time.

To deal further with the future of Aldergrove as a military base, the announcement in the House on 30 January 2006 by the then Secretary of State for Defence of the move of 19 Light Brigade from Catterick to Northern Ireland demonstrated our commitment to basing significant units in Northern Ireland. As the hon. Member for South Antrim may be aware, two key units of 19 Brigade are already in place: 2 Rifles in Ballykinler and 2 Mercian in Holywood. Further units will arrive over the coming months: 40 Regiment Royal Artillery, 38 Engineer Regiment, the Combat Service Support Regiment and the headquarters of 19 Light Brigade. Just as the relocation clearly demonstrates our commitment to basing in Northern Ireland, the decision to relocate 38 Engineer Regiment to Aldergrove clearly demonstrates our commitment to maintaining a base there.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for South Antrim for seeking the debate. I am sorry that he was upset about the consultation process, but the House was told the news in the normal way, following the normal procedures, and the hon. Gentleman’s constituency was treated in much the same way as the rest of the United Kingdom.

Thatched Roofs (Planning Policy)

I welcome this opportunity to raise the problems faced by many owners of thatched cottages and houses when the time comes to renew their roofs and they apply for planning consent. There are a number of players in the game: the home owners themselves, the thatchers who do the work and the farmers who grow the straw. The planners and English Heritage are the referees, and the man who makes the rules is the Planning Minister, whom I welcome to the debate. There are also many spectators: the visitors to and fellow residents of the many traditional villages in this country with thatched cottages, of which there are many in my constituency. They form part of our cultural heritage—a heritage threatened by the very rules designed to safeguard it.

Thatched roofs need to be replaced every 15 or 20 years. Until the last part of the 20th century, the choice of style and material for replacement was left to the owner and thatcher. Replacement was evolutionary, reflecting the availability of materials and the thatcher’s craft and style. In the past 20 years, intervention and control have begun to halt that evolutionary process. The balance must now be shifted away from conservationists, who have tried to freeze-frame the process, and back to owners and thatchers.

English Heritage now insists on a policy of like for like in materials and thatching styles for listed building consent. A cottage thatched with traditional long straw must be re-thatched with traditional long straw. However, that straw is becoming scarce due to changing farming practices. The problem is now critical as a result of the poor harvest last year. Re-thatching with any straw—whether long straw or combed wheat reed, as in Hampshire—is impossible, because there is none.

Farmers can increase their crop yield by replacing cereal straw for thatching with other crops. The rising price of wheat makes that shift yet more imperative. English Heritage seems reluctant to recognise the changing trends in cereal farming and will not accept alternative thatching materials, which are indistinguishable from traditional materials to most of us and last much longer. Its so-called guidance containing the like-for-like policy is being slavishly followed by planning officers.

My interest derives from a lady outside Andover who wrote to me thus:

“Dear Sir George,

As you are a highly respected MP with a good reputation for trouble-shooting, we are hoping you may be able to assist our somewhat desperate situation.”

I shall précis the next bit of the letter, but I wanted to read that first bit out in full. The lady’s home had been re-thatched in 1992. She applied to have it re-thatched again with combed wheat instead of long straw, as she was simply unable to get long straw. Planning permission was refused, although two years before, she had received listed building consent to re-do the adjacent barn in combed wheat, and other nearby properties, including listed buildings, use combed wheat. She continues:

“It would seem the decision of English Heritage to dictate that long straw must remain is ill-timed since there is none available at all this year… All we ask is permission to preserve our home in this way, since the availability of any long straw is impossible to obtain. We have lived here 25 years and now we see how the dips and gullies are appearing all too soon. Combed wheat straw is a far more durable method than traditional style, and English Heritage should be proud to see that there are some of us who fight for this way forward.”

The English Heritage guidance reflects the Government’s planning policy guidance note 15, which was published in 1994. I quote from paragraph C.29:

“Thatched roofs should be preserved, and consent should not be given for their replacement by different roof coverings… When roofs are re-thatched, this should normally be done in a form of thatch traditional to the region”.

However, Hampshire must now import its traditional thatch from Poland, leaving a substantial carbon footprint. Locally grown alternatives, such as water reed, are forbidden.

Shortly after the guidance was issued by English Heritage, it was challenged, not just by thatchers, who rightly argued that theirs was a dynamic and living craft that should reflect the availability of local materials, but in an article in The Building Conservation Directory:

“This issue has been made more complex by the imminent removal of the only two wheat varieties suitable for thatching and remaining on the UK National seed varieties list. It is illegal to trade and plant any seeds not on the current National list; to overcome the problem growers have been planting Triticale for both combed wheat reed and long straw thatching. This is a cross between wheat and rye. It has the advantage of being less susceptible to some of the climatic problems that have caused the poor harvest of other forms of wheat straw in the past two seasons. Many thatchers are now using it for combed wheat reed and the long straw style of thatching. On the roof, it is indistinguishable from the latter.”

The article reported on the national conference on thatching organised by English Heritage in 1999:

“English Heritage speakers acknowledged that, with poor harvest of thatching straw in recent years, many householders are turning to the traditionally more expensive water reed, principally because it has a reputation for longevity.”

I understand that it lasts twice as long as long straw. It was used in Scotland in the late 19th century, and it has been used widely for thatching in the past two decades.

An article in The Observer in March made the point well:

“Prices for home grown specialist straw have doubled in the past year and 2007 stocks are already used up. Foreign growers are unable to make up the shortfall because they have also suffered a disastrous year.”

The article quoted Bob West, a spokesman for the National Society of Master Thatchers:

“Within five years there will be no wheat straw left for thatching”.

Thatchers complain that some conservation officers have clamped down on alternatives, insisting that only traditional materials be used on listed buildings. In one case, officials allegedly ordered the home-grown substitute to be taken off the roof of an ancient barn in Sussex and replaced with Polish cereal straw. Typically, officials decree that roofs must be repaired with exactly the same materials as before.

There are signs in the appeal decisions that go to the Department for Communities and Local Government that planning officers’ excessive zeal is being tempered. In an appeal against a decision in west Dorset, the inspector said:

“I have already considered the possible differences in appearance created between water reed and wheat reed. Overall, I feel these would be small and from most viewpoints would be insignificant. The importance of retaining traditional forms of thatching must be tempered by the availability of good quality material. Local thatchers have confirmed that good crops of wheat reed are rare”.

My right hon. Friend might be aware that I was involved in that case and have been fighting a battle against English Heritage on the matter for some years. As always, he has been enormously tempered and sagacious in his observations, but does he agree that underneath it all, what we are actually facing is “Yes Minister”?

There is a patent absurdity in regulators trying to regulate the invisible. Nobody in west Dorset can see the difference between the two. My constituents observe that, in some cases, English Heritage backs the replacement of old farm buildings with modern monstrosities that no one wants to buy on the grounds that they are an interesting development, but then prevent others, as my right hon. Friend rightly says, from using home-grown materials to achieve a perfectly acceptable effect. Is it not an example in fact of regulation gone mad? Is not what we really require from the Department simply a sense of humour?

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his support, and I commend him for his efforts on behalf of his constituents. I agree: if ever there was an area ripe for deregulation, it is this one. I hope that the Better Regulation Commission will be invited to consider the thatching regime with a view to deregulating it.

In other decisions, inspectors have given weight to the quality and lifespan of water reed, but only after the appellant has gone to the expense of appeal. The flexibility should appear right at the beginning of the process: upstream with planning officers, not downstream with inspectors.

Another appeal is outstanding against the decision of South Cambridgeshire district council. I do not expect the Minister to comment on that, but I raise it as an example. In 2004, an appeal was lost to change the style of thatching from long straw to combed wheat reed. The property was then re-thatched in the long straw style using triticale, but the council have now imposed an enforcement notice specifically prohibiting any re-thatching using triticale.

I gave those examples to demonstrate that the current policy is inflexible, as my right hon. Friend said, unsustainable and in urgent need of review. As he pointed out, this area is crying out for deregulation. All the owners whom I have met and spoken to are passionate about doing the right thing for their property. They want to live in thatched cottages and maintain their value and historical integrity. They have taken advice from experienced thatchers who know their trade. They want a cost-effective and sustainable solution to the problem of roof replacement, but they find obstacle after obstacle placed in their path.

I have also spoken to thatchers, including one from Andover who told me this morning that a lack of good quality straw—long straw and combed wheat—due to bad harvests last year means that homeowners cannot replace their roof with the same material. Planning officers are not being flexible either with new builds or listed buildings needing repair, and English Heritage does not seem to accept newer, more robust cereals for thatching even though they might save the homeowner money in the long run. That restricts the types of material available to the industry. Indeed, some thatchers might go out of business because, although the work is available, the necessary materials are not, so they might not survive.

I want three things out of this debate, if the Minister is to emerge as the hero, which I confidently expect that he will. First, I would welcome a meeting with myself and representatives of thatchers, such as the National Society of Master Thatchers, so that they can explain to the Minister and officials with more eloquence than I can muster this morning both the problems and the solutions. I should also like English Heritage to be present at the meeting, because its role is critical.

Secondly, I would welcome an indication from the Minister that he is prepared to revise the section of PPG15 that I read out, which is now some 14 years old, with a view to replacing it with something more sustainable that takes account of available materials and is much more flexible. I hope that he will encourage English Heritage to do the same, because we need a policy that reflects the changes in agriculture and the dynamic nature of thatching. Thirdly, I should like the Minister to urge planners to be more flexible as from today and to listen to the advice that they receive from experienced thatchers in how they deal with applications and to recognise that, as resources, climate and economic conditions change, what was last placed on the roof might not be the most appropriate for the next generation.

Although I am a Conservative, I have never been called a Thatcherite. However, today, I find myself wholly aligned with those craftsmen and women, and I hope that the Minister can bring comfort to them and to the home owners on whose behalf I have spoken.

The right hon. Gentleman was Lady Thatcher’s Housing Minister; I did not realise that the post had had such a great effect on him.

I never thought that I would stand in this Chamber and celebrate the work of thatchers, but on this occasion I am very pleased to do so. I am pleased, and find it interesting, that you are presiding over the debate, Mr. Bayley, because you represent a beautiful constituency in York with real architectural gems. I am genuinely pleased that the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) secured this debate. He and I have only just finished the Housing and Regeneration Public Bill Committee, where my respect for him grew by the day, not only because of his huge housing experience, to which you have referred, Mr. Bayley, but because, frankly, he had the uncanny knack of simultaneously praising me and pulverising my argument. He has deployed the same skills today in raising the important matter of the current shortages and subsequent rising prices of cereal straw suitable for thatching, and related planning policies.

This issue affects a significant number of people. Some 24,000 thatched buildings are listed, and countless others are unlisted but located in conservation areas where local policies may impose restrictions on the materials used for re-thatching. The key theme of this debate was brought out by the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin)—the sensible and humorous exercise of planning controls. The Government attach great importance to the protection of the historic environment. Buildings are listed because of their special architectural or historic interest. Once lost, they cannot be replaced, and they can be robbed of their special interest as surely by unsuitable alteration as by outright demolition. They are a finite resource and an irreplaceable asset, and I think that we have a responsibility to protect such gems for future generations—something that you will know only too well, Mr. Bayley, with your constituency of City of York.

The starting point for the exercise of listed building control is the statutory requirement on local planning authorities, under section 16 of the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990, to have

“special regard to the desirability of preserving the building or its setting or any features of special architectural or historic interest which it possesses.”

That reflects the great importance to society of protecting listed buildings from unsuitable and insensitive alteration, and it should be the main consideration for local authorities in determining applications for consent.

As the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire has mentioned, guidance on the operation of the planning controls, insofar as they affect the historic environment, is given to local authorities in PPG15, published in 1994, which states:

“There should be a general presumption in favour of the preservation of listed buildings, except where a convincing case can be made out...for alteration or demolition.”

Again, as he has said, specific guidance on alterations to listed buildings, prepared by English Heritage, is annexed to PPG15. It makes the point that each historic building has its own characteristics usually related to an original or subsequent function, and that these should as far as possible be respected when proposals for alterations are put forward.

I think that the right hon. Gentleman quoted the following piece of guidance on thatched roofs, but I want to reiterate it, because I take a slightly different subjective view:

“Thatched roofs should be preserved, and consent should not be given for their replacement by different roof coverings… When roofs are re-thatched, this should normally be done in a form of thatch traditional to the region, and local ways of detailing eaves, ridges and verges should be followed.”

The words, “should normally be done” represent an important consideration, to which I shall return.

In addition to that annexe to PPG15, English Heritage has produced a detailed guidance note specifically dealing with thatch and thatching. It describes the three thatch types commonly found today—water reed, combed wheat reed and long straw—and makes the point that the material, in the form in which it reaches the roof, has a strong influence on the method and resulting appearance. The guidance note advises that, when a change of material or style is proposed, the onus should be on the applicant for listed building consent to explain the need for change. In turn, the local authority’s policy should be based on a thorough knowledge of local traditions of thatching. The policy should aim to recognise regional diversity, sustain materials and techniques, conserve the character of an area and protect material of archaeological interest.

That is the important background against which planning authorities exercise listed building control. I stress that it is for local authorities to take account of the available guidance but, ultimately, to consider and reach a decision based on the specific circumstances of each case. As the right hon. Gentlemen are aware, where listed building consent is refused, there is a right of appeal to the Secretary of State. Where listed building consent is granted, there is a wide power to impose conditions, which may require the preservation of particular features of the building, the making good of any damage following the works consented to and the reconstruction of any part of the building after the works, with

“the use of original materials so far as is practicable”.

Again, the last five words of the guidance are important.

PPG15 advises that all conditions must be necessary, relevant, enforceable, precise and reasonable in all other respects. Unless a condition fairly and reasonably relates to the circumstances of the building and its conservation needs, it could be ultra vires. As the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire has stated, the guidance clearly leans towards a replacing like-for-like policy as far as re-thatching is concerned—I agree with his interpretation. Again, I must stress the central point of my contribution: I do not think that wording in guidance, such as “should normally be done”, or

“so far as is practicable”,

which I have quoted already, is over-prescriptive. It gives planning authorities scope to take account of specific difficulties and circumstances at both national and local level.

The Minister has been enormously helpful. My ears pricked up earlier when I heard him say that he took a slightly different view. Does he think it practicable to expect someone to wait for 12 months before their roof is re-thatched in the hope that next year there is an appropriate harvest for the material on which the local authority planning department insists?

That brings me neatly on to my next point. I represent a constituency in the north-east in which there are very few thatched roofs. However, I have researched the matter and found there to be a range of views in the thatching profession on the future viability of the industry. Among the representations received by my Department in recent weeks, I have had letters from the National Society of Master Thatchers, to which the right hon. Gentleman has referred, and the Thatching Information Service. The society has expressed the concern, which was eloquently reiterated by the right hon. Gentleman, about the limited availability of suitable quality cereal straw. It says that the problem has been exacerbated by this year’s poor harvest coupled with what is referred to as the inflexibility of some local conservation officers in not allowing thatchers to work with other materials. It recommended that officers should relax their approach by, for example, allowing water reed to be used instead of combed wheat reed. The society also implies that councils are taking an even harder line than they have done in the past. For example, they will not allow roofs to be thatched with a wheat-rye hybrid called triticale—I hope that I pronounced that correctly, because the right hon. Gentleman did so superbly—which they say has been used for the past 30 years and is approved by English Heritage.

The Thatching Information Service has drawn attention to the need to protect straw thatching as a craft. It says that the poor harvest is not an uncommon occurrence in recent decades and should not give credence to those within the industry who, it says, have been trying for the past decade to dispense with it as a thatching material. It makes the point that relatively few straw thatched houses remain and that, if we wish to preserve their uniqueness and the method of thatching, they should remain under the like-for-like policy of local councils. It says that if we pursue an argument based only on economic reasons, straw is destined to be abandoned. If listed buildings are worth preserving in all their glory, the type of material and the way it is used must be wholly relevant.

Those may be extreme points of view, but there seem to be regional variations in the seriousness of the position. Representatives of the East Anglia Master Thatchers Association say that, although stocks of thatching straw are lower than normal, they do not envisage running out before the next harvest. Some say that they are switching to more ridge and repairs in the short term, delaying large straw re-thatches for up to four to five months, but not seeing any need for panic or unnecessary sheeting of roofs. Therefore, a wide variety of views have been expressed on the matter.

English Heritage’s guidance note encourages local authorities to evolve and publish local policies on the issue. It makes the point that owners and thatchers need to know as far as possible not only the actual policies against which applications will be judged but the reasoning behind those policies. Publication enables the policies to be debated in the light of research and the experience of all interested parties, which seems to be sound advice.

I do not understand why the Minister thinks that it makes sense to try to keep a particular material in place if no ordinary human being looking at two houses thatched with the two different materials could tell the difference.

We are preserving not only the visual effect, but the method of construction and the materials used—traditional materials must be used as far as is practicable. I think that that is a sensible approach. It is extremely important that we preserve not only the visual appearance of a building, but its traditional construction. I am obviously not making myself clear, so I will give way again.

On the contrary, the Minister is making himself entirely clear. He is also being entirely inconsistent. If it were the case that his listed building and English Heritage arrangements were intended to preserve techniques rather than appearance, he should surely be asking people to rebuild stone-built or brick-built houses using the same methods that people used in the 17th and 18th centuries. Nobody does that at present, so why is the Minister not changing the law to achieve that?

I disagree with the right hon. Gentleman. Such work is carried out with regard to some listed buildings. I maintain the point that visual appearance is crucial. I also think that it is not the sole consideration. When it comes to construction, other things are important as well. The main theme of my contribution today is that flexibility is necessary. None of us wants to see an erosion—quite literally—of the thatching profession. We want to see thatchers prosper as much as possible. As regards energy efficiency, thatched roofs are on the increase, because of the sustainable and green technique that is used for insulation.

Planning officers should have the flexibility to ensure that we preserve the historic environment as much as possible while taking into account local circumstances, which was eloquently mentioned by the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire with regard to shortage of materials and rising prices. I hope that that explains the point.

English Heritage’s guidance note also recommends that the relevant Government bodies and specialist organisations should investigate the supply of thatching materials and endeavour to remove some of the uncertainties that have distorted the market. It recognises that that is probably the most intractable problem facing the thatching industry and points out that, while the importation of foreign materials is not promoted under general conservation philosophy, it can be argued that those sources provide a degree of reliability. It says that the reasons for straw shortages need to be explored to create a climate that is more attractive to the specialist branch of agriculture and to experimentation with thatching strains.

None of that suggests that the Government or their specialist advisers have taken an extreme or excessively rigid line on heritage issues in compiling guidance on thatching and listed building consent procedures. As the right hon. Gentlemen know, I will not comment on specific instances in which a local authority might have refused consent, or adopted conditions, on grounds that the applicant might consider are due to an inflexible approach. In such circumstances, as I have mentioned, there is recourse to the appeals procedure.

I recognise that concerns exist about the present state of the market and the effect that that is having on the trade and, therefore, on owners of thatched houses. The important message that I want to get across today is that there should be full discussion and consultation with all concerned, including conservation and planning officers, owners, specialist bodies, trade associations and relevant arms of Government to resolve such difficulties as they arise.

That brings me on to the three points mentioned by the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire. I certainly agree to attend a meeting with relevant people, including him, not only because this is an important issue that needs to be thrashed out—so to speak—but because of my respect for him following his work on the Housing and Regeneration Bill. I am keen to meet him shortly to discuss the issues more comprehensively.

I am more reluctant on the right hon. Gentleman’s second point, which concerns revising particular sections of PPG15. The existing planning framework is appropriate and gives sufficient flexibility to take into account particular circumstances.

I put out PPG15 when I was Planning Minister. As the author, it is my view that the time has come to revise it. There would be no disloyalty if the Minister indicated that the time had come to move on.

When I was preparing for this debate—and also when we were working on the Housing and Regeneration Bill—I dreaded the right hon. Gentleman standing up and saying, “Well, I actually did that.” His authorship of PPG15 was exemplary, and the document should therefore be maintained as much as possible.

As I have said, the planning framework is flexible and can take into account local and specific circumstances. The crucial point is that the planning system should have that flexibility to take into account the sort of concerns that have been raised and to balance them against the need to protect the historic environment that is of such importance not only to owners of historic buildings but to the cultural identity of the wider community and country. I am keen to meet the right hon. Gentleman to discuss the matter further, and I am grateful to him for widening the debate today. I look forward to meeting him shortly.

Sitting suspended.

Democratic Republic of the Congo (Development)

I am pleased that we are having this debate. I wanted a debate on the Congo, and the question was whether the Department for International Development or the Foreign Office would reply to it. In reality the issue is coterminous, because we wish to examine the problems of poverty in the Congo and developments there and how this country and others can assist.

I have just returned from the Congo, where I was part of a delegation including my hon. Friends the Members for Falkirk (Mr. Joyce) and for Amber Valley (Judy Mallaber). The trip was funded by a combination of the Catholic Fund for Overseas Development, International Alert and Christian Aid. That is my declaration of interest. We are grateful to Stephen Carter, the secretary of the all-party group on the great lakes region and genocide prevention, who accompanied us and stayed on afterwards to visit some courts and observe some justice processes. He was extremely helpful in organising the visit and ensuring that we had a packed programme. I also wish to put on record our thanks to our ambassador in Kinshasa, Nick Kay, who was extremely helpful in arranging a lot of things at short notice and giving us a full briefing, and to the DFID representative there, Phil Marker, who was equally helpful and very supportive of our delegation.

I have the pleasure of representing a constituency that includes a Congolese community, many of whom have been in this country for a long time and are victims of the history of the Congo. I find it constantly depressing that one of the world’s greatest current conflicts is largely ignored by the world’s media, as are the good works done by many people in the Congo who are trying to bring about significant improvements and changes.

There is not time to go into the country’s history today, but we should be aware that Leopold’s rule in the Congo was among the most brutal anywhere on the face of the earth. It was a wholly extractive and acquisitive rule, intended simply to take out the natural resources. Such infrastructure as King Leopold and the Belgians developed was solely related to the extraction of the riches of the Congo. It was nothing to do with the internal development of that country. Sadly, that pattern has continued for a long time. With the new hope for a long-term period of peace, one hopes that the Congo’s resources will be developed for the benefit of its people rather than to be exported to the nearest coast and off to the rest of the world. However, we are quite a long way from that.

On independence, the country did not achieve the peace and concord that was due it. There was interference from outside and then a long period of Mobutu’s dictatorship, which was finally ended with the current elected Government. I shall return to that later, because it is important that we all support the development of a democratic process, accountable administration and an independent judiciary.

Our delegation came into the country through Rwanda and went first to Goma, in the east. It is difficult to comprehend from the outside just how devastating the war has been in the east of the country. In the past 10 years, 5.4 million people have been killed in the conflict there, which is far more than have died in Iraq and Afghanistan combined or in almost any other war in the same period. It is the biggest death toll by armed conflict anywhere in the world in the recent past. First world war proportions of death and destruction have been visited upon the people of the east of the Congo. As ever, the victims of war are the poor, children, women and civilians. Half of all those who have died in the conflict are children. During our visit, we met a number of organisations that are doing their best to support people and help them get through the terrible process.

One must understand what Goma is like as a town. It is potentially beautiful; it is on the east, next to the lake, and contains the remains of what I suspect are the holiday homes of various wealthy Belgians from the colonial period. Yet the streets are potholed, the administration is shaky at best, there are large numbers of refugee camps all over the town, there is constant traffic chaos and there are destroyed and blown-up buildings. In the midst of that, luxury hotels are in use and various fairly luxurious office blocks have been constructed. Goma is to some extent a frontier town, in which the civil war is being played out. At the same time, large quantities of minerals, particularly coltan but other precious metals as well, are being exported through Goma and either being flown from there or going directly through Rwanda. There is a sense of lawlessness about the place.

While we were there, there was a plane crash in which more than 80 people died. It was a wholly preventable accident. The runway has a lava flow across it from the volcanic eruption three years ago, and nobody has got around to removing it. Planes therefore have to take off using half the runway. As I understand it, the plane was unlicensed for that runway. It tried to take off, burst a tyre, was probably overloaded and ploughed into a lot of very poor houses alongside the airport. The local hospitals had great difficulty in coping, and but for the presence of an Indian United Nations force nearby, the death toll would have been far higher. One should pay tribute to the Indian army for what they did to save lives.

I found it depressing that we all immediately got calls from various media sources in this country to ask our views, what had happened and so on. Although they never said it, the subliminal questions from the news media were, “How many westerners were involved? How many tourists were involved? How many international business men were involved in the death toll?” It turned out that the answer was zero to all three. I checked the news media carefully when I came back, and the story had disappeared unaccountably from the media. That shows a quite disgusting sense of news values. If a light plane overshoots a runway in Florida, the world knows about it the next day. If 80 people die in a plane crash in the Congo, it is just one of those things that are ignored. I appeal to people in the media to have some sense of humanitarian values in their reporting of things.

As soon as we arrived, my hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk and myself went to a women’s centre, where we spent some time talking to women who were victims of violence in the war. Rape is a weapon of war in the Congo and those women had been brutally treated. They had been raped and injured severely, and many were disabled as a result. They were frightened to go out of the centre and were in a parlous and desperate situation. They treated us extremely well, but unless there is a legal process whereby legal judgment will take place against people who have committed rape and sexual violence, it will continue and probably get worse. Although I pay the greatest tribute to ActionAid and the other groups that are doing a great deal to support such women’s organisations and centres, a great deal more needs to be done. We raised the matter with representatives of the armed groups when we met them.

We also went to Mugunga II, a very large refugee camp which mainly contained women and children while we were there. There were large numbers of people living in tiny bender tents with a UN tarpaulin covering a few sticks, and food was brought in by the UN every day. They were doing their best to provide some degree of education for the children there. Within the camp, there was also some degree of medical support and some degree of activities to encourage people to keep their lives and families together.

There is a difficult decision that must be made by anybody who is operating refugee camps. Goma is probably one of the most fertile places in the world: it has very high rainfall, a very warm climate and fantastically fertile volcanic soil. It is possible to grow anything there very quickly. I am told that tomatoes come up in six weeks and any of us who have tried gardening in Britain will find that amazing. However, none of the people in the refugee camp are allowed to grow any food there, because those running the camp do not want to encourage people to stay in the camp for ever more. So there seemed to be something slightly bizarre and absurd about a UN truck arriving with rice and maize from the United States to feed people in the most fertile place in the world. The lack of security, the instability and the fear of returning to the villages are the factors that have led us to this crazy and completely illogical situation. So we must look seriously at the whole peace process and what is happening in the east of the country.

While we were there in the east, we met all the non-governmental organisations, and representatives of the European Union, United States Agency for International Development, the United Nations and, of course, DFID and the Foreign Office. We also met representatives of a lot of Congolese NGOs and they were very impressive people.

We also had a very long meeting with two of the armed groups that are currently on ceasefire following the Nairobi and Goma accords: the Mai Mai group, who are dealing with north and south Kivu, and the Congress for the Defence of the People, or CNDP. We had a meeting with both the groups, then they divided and we spent some hours talking to them separately.

At one level, everything that they were saying was logical, political and well-put, demands were made and so on. We then raised various questions with the armed groups: their use of violence; their treatment of women; their use of child soldiers; their arms; their equipment; their money and where it comes from; and how serious they were about a long-term peace process.

We are not the interlocutors who will bring about peace; we were there as a visiting parliamentary delegation. However, we obviously did our best to urge that a peace process should go forward. Having said that, if we do not seize this opportunity that is there now, following Nairobi and Goma and the ceasefire that is more or less holding at the present time, goodness knows what will happen in a year or two, further down the road.

In the east of the Congo, there are riches, potentially a lot of money and also an awful lot of weaponry, including guns. At the same time, only half the children—maybe even less—manage to go to school and the health service really does not exist for most people there. The prize for the people in the east of the Congo of a lasting ceasefire and a meaningful peace process is a very great one indeed, but it requires the co-operation of all the neighbouring countries, disarmament and, I believe, a continuation of an arms embargo on the country.

As I have said, the issues of justice, recognition and treatment of women are very important. As this is a debate about development, it is also important to recognise what help, support and assistance we can give.

I pay tribute to the DFID aid package—we spent a long time talking to DFID representatives in the country—and to the other support that has been given by Britain. I am also looking forward to reading Lord Mance’s report. Lord Mance has been to the Congo on an extended mission to look particularly at the treatment of women and the justice process that is going on there. Apparently, he is due to produce a report in July and that is very welcome; all the people that we met in the Congo were certainly very welcoming of his visit.

We then went to Kinshasa and had meetings with representatives of the National Assembly, the Senate and various Government Departments, as well as with representatives of many NGOs. All of us in our group had been to the Congo previously as election observers and we had watched the election process. Personally, I have no great criticisms of the voting process itself that I observed during the election, but I have concerns that an election campaign that was dominated by the very great wealth of two of the candidates and a lack of any kind of robust political debate will not necessarily bring about a very strong democratic result.

The reality is that the Congo is potentially a very rich place indeed, but it lacks the necessary political infrastructures to control the mining companies, the logging companies or anyone else. It is a question of building the capacity for the democratic involvement of the people; that process was a very important part of what we were looking at in the Congo and hopefully we will be looking at it in the future. However, unless we move some way down the road of the peace process, we will not get very far in building up that democratic involvement.

Before I conclude, I will look at some of the issues that are facing the country as a whole. First, although I have already said quite a lot about the peace process, it is essential that everyone recognises that, if they want to see the wealth of the Congo being used for the benefit of the people of the Congo, alongside peace and development in the entire region, supporting the ceasefire is important but so is supporting the development of democratic institutions.

Therefore, where people have been demobilised from any particular armed group, the provision of some degree of financial support for demobilised fighters to return to their village and have something to do there is very important, as has been done in Burundi and Rwanda. I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk will talk to some extent about security sector reform. Clearly, however, a very large Congolese army that is mainly unpaid but universally equipped with some type of gun should not be disbanded willy-nilly; instead, the members of that army should be given some incentive to resume normal civilian life. The experience of Iraq, where the whole army was disbanded without much thought for the future, has been pretty disastrous and I would not want to see the same thing repeated in the Congo. However, it is important to look at this issue of security sector reform.

Let me try, if I may, to give some reassurance to my hon. Friend by posing some questions to him. On his visit, did he and the other members of the delegation have the opportunity to discuss the £50 million that we have put into a multi-donor fund that is assisting with demobilisation and, crucially, reintegration of troops into society? Indeed, was he also aware that we have recently committed a further £1 million to assist in the demobilisation of the remaining 30,000 troops? In particular, was he aware that we hope that that £1 million will be specifically used to tackle the problem of the numbers of child soldiers who still remain in the Congo?

Yes, we were aware of that aid and we had that discussion about its use; I thank the Minister for that intervention. That support is very welcome indeed and obviously I hope that it is successful in its aims.

The peace process is central to everything in the Congo, but what is also central is to look to the future. As I have said, more than 5 million people have died in the recent past in this conflict and huge numbers of internally displaced people are either living in refugee camps around Goma or they have made their way to Kinshasa. Kinshasa is a difficult city, to put it at its very mildest. It is a very difficult place to administer: it has very large numbers of people who are homeless, including large numbers of young children; there are many children who are victims of war; and there are a lot of children, particularly boys, roaming around the city without very much to do and without any real means of support.

It is very hard to determine exactly the number of children in school, but it is probably rather less than half of the total child population. The schools themselves vary greatly between quite well run private schools, some quite well run church schools and some private schools that are not particularly well run—one wonders what standard of education those schools are providing for the children in them. There are also a large number of children who do not go to school at all.

There is no way that the millennium goal of conquering illiteracy by 2015 will be met in the Congo; with a growing population, the rate of illiteracy is probably rising rather than falling at the present time. So, a great deal must be done in that sector. To quote from a Save the Children document that the charity sent me, almost half of the internally displaced people are children and Save the Children believes that

“About 5.3 million primary aged children (6-11 years) and six million 12-17 year olds are out-of-school in the DRC.”

Therefore, we are talking about more or less 12 million young people who are not receiving any education at all in the country. Save the Children urges us to do all that we can to ensure that there is support for education in the Congo.

That leads to the question of what demands we make for the Congo’s future. I spoke about the peace process and education. Unless there is some stability in the Congo, education is unlikely to develop.

The health service is rudimentary. Those who happen to be near a town that has a large hospital and who are able to get to it get a degree of service, but many others get no health care or health services whatsoever.

What can we do from the outside? It is not a question of our telling the Congo how to run its affairs but of our recognising that there are humanitarian questions and that there is a humanitarian disaster. However, there is also enormous wealth in the country, which—should be harnessed for the good of all its people.

I spoke about the abuses of women, but there are many other human rights abuses, and the legal justice system is inadequate. We would like the UN Human Rights Council to have a new mandate for a permanent mission and observer in the DRC. The UN should have a presence in the country to recommend, assist and improve its human rights record.

The mineral wealth of the Congo has always been its bedevilment. In many ways, the country has been damaged by its riches. The Government of the Congo signed the extractive industries transparency initiative, which is an extremely important document. We had long meetings about it. Unless that agreement is carried out to the fullest extent, the corruption that goes with the mining industry and extractive industries will continue. DFID and other agencies have given a great deal of support to that agreement.

We raised several questions about the forest reserves and natural resources. The forests are massive. Congo has the biggest rain forest in the world, and there are huge implications for the whole planet if it is felled willy-nilly or if there is destruction of the forest ecosystem. The forest is also the livelihood of some 40 million people who survive in an entirely sustainable way within it.

A debate is taking place on the resumption or otherwise of industrial logging in the Congo. I have a copy of a letter sent to the Minister of Environment, Nature Conservation, Water and Forests. It was signed by a large number of people and calls for a continued moratorium on industrial-style logging, sustainable use of the forests and protection of the lives of the people who live in them.

The British Government have contributed a considerable sum of money through the Congo basin forest partnership to assist in tackling deforestation and promoting the sustainable use of the forests. I am sure that when the Minister replies he will say something about it. What has been done in that respect was wholly welcome.

We were confronted many times about the amount of money that western countries contribute. We spoke to people in the Assembly and so on about money given through DFID and other European sources. They said, “Hang on. The Chinese are here, and they are offering us billions.”

While it is understandable in an economic sense why the Chinese Government should want to make large loans that are to be repaid through mineral extraction in the future, there is a question about the kind of pressure or otherwise that the Chinese will put on administration, human rights and so on. Clearly, the infrastructure will improve. Major roads are being built, railways are being planned and so on. The Minister may want to say something about the relationship with the Chinese, which needs to be positive and constructive. In that way, things could get better, but the question is whether the country’s natural resources will be protected during a period in which mining and forestry activity will probably increase.

The UN’s programme in the Congo is the largest of any in the world. The UN was there before the election; it helped to bring about the ceasefire and the election; and it clearly is a major force in the country. Allegations have been made at various times about the behaviour of UN forces. I do not propose to go into them at present, but it is essential, for the good of the UN and the principle of having an international force to assist with peacekeeping, that if allegations are made, they are not covered up but vigorously investigated, examined and dealt with as appropriate. If there is no trust in UN forces, there will be no trust in anybody else either. I hope that the mandate of the UN Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo—MONUC—continues, but I also hope that there will be some transparency.

The UK has provided $60 million for the humanitarian pooled fund. It was presented while we were there. That is very welcome indeed, but we need to ensure, first, that our programme of support for the Congo continues; secondly, that the UN continues its work and that there are human rights monitors; and, thirdly, that we support capacity building and development of infrastructure in the country. That is crucial.

The DRC is one of the richest countries in the world, yet it has some of the poorest people in the world. They are victims of the most violent wars imaginable to anyone. It is up to us to do our best to support a peace and development process so that people can live decent, reasonable lives rather than live through the hell of one of the worst wars the world has seen since the end of the second world war.

I had no intention of speaking when I entered the Chamber, although I thought that I might make a couple of helpful interventions. It is important to put on the record, first, my thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) and my other hon. Friends who went to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Also, I wish to thank Stephen Carter, who is brilliant at organising trips to that part of the world.

It is so important that we, as British parliamentarians, keep in contact with that desperately difficult part of the world. We owe its wonderful people an interest and a commitment to try to do what we can to bring peace and stability to that bedevilled area. I do not intend to say much, and I apologise that I have to leave shortly after 3.30 pm, but it is important to put a few things on the record about the DRC and to highlight some of the issues raised by my hon. Friend’s brilliant speech.

I went to the DRC nearly five years ago and was shocked by the conflict and its aftermath. As someone who spends a lot of time trying to deal with the problems of Darfur, I think that it is difficult for us in the west to comprehend the scale and complexity of what has been happening in the DRC.

I begin, understandably, with the conflict. Although this is not directly part of his responsibilities, it would be good to hear an update from the Minister on what is happening in the eastern part of the country. How are the various peace talks—the Nairobi and Goma accords—working in practice? Are the National Congress for People’s Defence—CNDP—rebels associated with General Nkunda beginning to lay down their arms and find alternative occupations, rather than fighting?

On the role of the Interahamwe, I know that President Kagami of Rwanda is in this country at present. Clearly, the Rwandan genocide is also very much on our minds. When I went to Rwanda last year, the party expressed the clear view that we need to ensure that all is being done to deal with the Interahamwe and any overreaction from the Rwandan army, which has always been alleged and needs to be understood. One understands the reaction of trying to stop the Interahamwe coming back, but if that involves invading another sovereign nation, there will clearly be repercussions.

Another issue is the DRC army’s role and the degree to which it can cause problems. We understand the difficulty in trying to pacify areas, but the issue is how they do it and how they perform. Human rights are always uppermost in our minds.

Last but not least, allegations have again arisen recently about UN peacekeepers—Pakistani and Indian troops—involving themselves in trading and worse. That is unacceptable, but understandable inasmuch as if per diem troops are not paid or properly supported, they tend to take the law into their own hands. I was shocked when we went to Rwanda last year to find that Rwandan troops in Darfur had not been paid for a year. I hope that the Minister can give us good news about the basic responsibility of all those who are affiliated to the UN to ensure that MONUC is properly supported and the troops are paid.

I want to re-emphasise the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North that the losers are inevitably the poor and the vulnerable, particularly children and women. It would be good to hear what the Department for International Development is doing in the east of the country to provide greater protection for women and children, and what impact we are beginning to have in moving from a purely conflict situation to a development situation. What programmes are there to reduce infant mortality and to reintegrate child soldiers? I saw something of that when I went to Kinshasa, but given the huge distances involved, running programmes in Kinshasa will not make much difference to those who live in the east, so it would be good to have an overview of what types of activity DFID is responsible for, either alone or with the wider international community.

Is my hon. Friend aware that perhaps one of the most ambitious aims in the DRC is to begin to introduce free health care. Hon. Members will be aware of how difficult that ambition is, so I do not want to suggest that it will be an easy challenge, but we have begun to put in place the programmes to build the capacity for such support. Is my hon. Friend aware of that, and does he support it as part of the right approach to begin to end some of the terrible experiences that the DRC’s people have suffered?

I thank the Minister for that. I was aware of that aspiration, but it would be good to hear from him how it is beginning to pan out on the ground. Oak trees start from small acorns, and the reality is that when there is no health service, one must start by providing something in the way of a health service. It would be good if the Minister, not necessarily in formal debate but perhaps in writing to hon. Members who are interested or the all-party group, would indicate how the programme will open out, so that we can advertise it. It is good that the British Government are taking a lead.

An issue that always exercises me is violence against women. The DRC is not unique, but it is at the end of the spectrum whereby women have been deliberately targeted for all sorts of reasons, which has resulted in horrible consequences that one need not look far to see. Again, it would be interesting to know to what degree we would highlight that with an incipient health service. There are, understandably, always cultural and sometimes religious reasons for it being difficult to become involved with that, and particularly—I have tried to push for the joint African Union-UN force to go into Darfur—the degree to which we ensure that peacekeepers reflect the gender balance of an area and the way in which troops are at least trained to deal with violence against women. When I was in Congo, the force seemed to be very male-orientated, and we must ensure that there are sufficient women not only to talk to women who have been violated and worse, but, more particularly, to police such situations and to follow up inquiries.

As an officer of the all-party group on women, peace and security, which is known as the all-party group on UN resolution 1325, one of the proud things that this country has done—the hon. Member for North-East Milton Keynes (Mr. Lancaster) knows about this—is to try to ensure that we provide some element of education for all our troops on gender issues, so that we do not stumble into that and think it terrible, but go in with our eyes open and recognise that one outcome of any conflict, sadly, is that women will have been used as part of the conflict, which has never been more clearly demonstrated than in the Congo.

My hon. Friend is making a number of good points. I will take away his point about gender balance when monitoring missions, and I am sure that others will reflect on it, too. Is he aware that dedicated conduct and discipline teams are embedded in the UN mission in the DRC and, more generally, in other UN missions to help to ensure that the type of misconduct and human rights abuse that both he and my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) have described do not happen again? Is he also aware that all peacekeeping personnel must undergo training on UN standards of conduct relating to sexual exploitation and abuse? I am not downplaying past allegations, but I hope that my hon. Friend will take some reassurance from the UN’s upgrade in procedures on its peacekeeping standards.

I thank my hon. Friend for that. One comes to such debates to be educated, as well as to speak and, hopefully, to make sense. That is important, because it shows that the rhetoric of resolution 1325 is beginning to make a difference in organisations including the UN. It is good to hear, and I hope that because of the quality of our armed forces we play a key part in ensuring that we are available to do that training. That is something, if nothing else, that I can take away from the debate with pride.

My hon. Friend has more or less answered the points that I was going to raise. Nevertheless, it is worth while looking at some of the things that are beginning to be got right, and I hope that some of the bad news stories from the DRC can be balanced by things that are beginning to go right. We cannot fool ourselves: this is part of a long process, and many of the parties to it do not always have peace at the back of their mind. Conflict has always paid some people well, which, sadly, is why it continues to exist. Nevertheless, the UK, Europe and the wider world have an obligation and a duty to remain involved in the DRC. That is why the all-party group on the great lakes region and genocide prevention is so fascinating and important. Its work has allowed us to have such debates, and it can find ways of getting parliamentarians to that part of the world.

As I have said, I have learned from the debate. I hope that the Government will take the issues on board and that we will be able to do even more in the future.

When we in Europe look back at the atrocities of world war one and world war two and at the scale of death and destruction in places not so far from here, we often console ourselves by saying that such things could never happen again so close to home. In too many parts of Africa, however, the slaughter of the innocents still takes place on such a scale. Death and extreme suffering—whether caused by the gun or by easily preventable disease—are part of everyday life for far too many people in a part of the world that is more easily reached by plane than eastern Europe was 50 years ago. That is why it is good that we are having a debate about that part of the world that is not often in the news or on the television. I therefore congratulate the hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) on securing time to explore the issue further.

I want to pick up a couple of the points made by the hon. Gentleman, and I hope that the Minister will deal with them in his response. First, the hon. Gentleman mentioned that the Chinese are providing £8 billion of support to the DRC Government to build a railway, clinics and universities, and that the money will be repaid over 30 years in the form of minerals. How will that pouring in of untied aid or support for the country affect our approach to what should be happening in the DRC? Clearly, such straightforward commercial deals to improve the infrastructure will result in aid being more effectively delivered where it is needed; on the other hand, such money cannot be introduced without distorting what happens there, including aid-driven involvement.

Secondly, although I appreciate that the Government have announced that they will donate £50 million of British money to help to conserve the forest in the Congo, there have been reports—most recently in The Guardian on 23 May last year—of a group of rogues and vagabonds who may benefit from that funding. A range of corrupt individuals who have been involved in forestry in the Congo and elsewhere own sections of the forest. I give the Government credit for having ensured that DFID money has been effectively spent and has not worked its way into the wrong pockets and the wrong bank accounts, but The Guardian article about the individuals who may be involved in the forestry business in the Congo sent a shiver down my spine.

Let me reassure the hon. Gentleman—again through an intervention. I, too, saw that article, and I felt the same shiver go down my spine. Corruption is a serious problem in a number of sectors in the DRC, including forestry. We will put in £50 million down the line, and we are looking to spend £8 million on these issues. As part of that, we are looking at ways of making the spending of money generated by forestry more transparent and at ways of building up the effective governance of the forest sector. I hope that that is some reassurance to the hon. Gentleman.

It certainly is, and it is good to know that the Minister and I have the same concerns about such articles. However, action must be taken to ensure that the money of taxpayers in my constituency and other constituencies is being spent effectively. The Minister’s comments are certainly reassuring.

We have heard that the DRC has been brought to its knees by a civil war that has cost the lives of literally millions of people. Ceasefires have been signed, and false dawns have come and gone, but the country remains in the grip of a humanitarian crisis more than five years after the signing of the formal peace agreement to end the war. As a result, the DRC is now one of the poorest countries in the world and looks likely to miss many of the millennium development goals.

We cannot, however, simply talk about the need to increase aid in the DRC. As the United Nations millennium development goals monitor recently noted, the principal obstacle to the achievement of the MDGs in the Congo remains the continued instability in that land. Information collected by the International Rescue Committee shows that a staggering 5.4 million people have died as a result of the conflict between 1998 and 2007, and 1 million people have died since the signing of the peace agreement. It is not for nothing that the DRC has been called Africa’s first world war.

The DRC differs from many other places in that relatively few of these deaths are directly due to armed violence. The vast majority of people die from easily preventable and treatable conditions such as malaria, diarrhoea, pneumonia and malnutrition. Children make up less than 20 per cent. of the population but account for almost half—47 per cent.—of the deaths. It is one of the tragedies of the DRC that so many people have died quietly and unnecessarily, almost unnoticed by the international community. It is estimated that 1,000 people continue to die every day as a result of conflict and conflict-related issues. Many of those who survive are left with physical and psychological scars as a result of a brutal campaign of rape and sexual abuse. As in other conflict zones, the displacement of civilians has been a major problem, with 400,000 people displaced in the recent escalation of violence in north Kivu. The insecurity in the region makes it difficult for aid agencies to help displaced populations.

Modest progress was made last year on the political, security and humanitarian fronts, which has given some people in the DRC hope that the country will be able to break free from the circle of conflict and crisis. The elections in 2007 resulted in a relatively peaceful transfer of power, while an extended peacekeeping presence was able to prevent a number of major clashes among the disparate militia groups and armed forces. Significant increases in humanitarian funding have given relief agencies the muscle to make progress. In that respect, DFID deserves praise for its announcement in March that it was increasing funding for the DRC over the next three years. Despite that, conflict has again flared up in north Kivu in recent months, and lasting peace looks as distant as ever.

The Minister will be aware of the call by 63 non-governmental organisations last month for the full implementation of the Goma peace agreement, and I would welcome his views on their call for a high-level independent special adviser on human rights for eastern Congo to focus attention on protecting civilians at risk. I would also appreciate an update on what role we are playing, along with international actors, to help ensure that the agreement that has been reached does not unravel. Getting the parties to sign the agreement was an important first step, but there must now be political follow-through on the ground.

As other hon. Members have said, the war in the DRC contains a more sinister war against women. The hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) mentioned the problem of rape being used as a weapon of war, and there are tens of thousands of victims every year. Some victims are as old as 80, while others are as young as three. Women are raped in front of their villages and families by militia fighters who spill across the border from Rwanda and Burundi. Some women are killed outright by their attackers, while others are taken into the bush for service as sexual slaves. The atrocities are beyond imagination, and I will not go into great detail today, suffice it to say that rape with broken bottles, bayonets and lengths of wood is commonplace.

Hon. Members may have read an interview in The Economist with Denis Mukwege, a doctor treating women in the DRC. He reported that 90 per cent. of the women in some villages have been raped. He said:

“We are no longer talking about 100 women, or 1,000 women…We are talking about 100,000 women.”

These are not random acts by misguided or crazed individuals, but a deliberate attempt to dehumanise and destroy entire communities. What is the Department doing to improve security for women and girls? Mass rape thrives in the current climate of impunity, so ending conflict and instability, strengthening accountable state institutions and securing long-lasting peace deals that involve all militant groups must be a top priority.

There is also a grave need to ensure that the crisis does not spill over the border. So far, a degree of restraint has been shown in Kinshasa and Kigali, even if it is not always possible to control the more radical factions on the ground. However, the Congo’s natural wealth has in the past fuelled corruption—it will continue to do so, if that is not checked—as well as state collapse and conflict. Better regulation of the sector is not only a development issue, but a strategic one. Hon. Members will know that although the DRC has signed the extractive industries transparency initiative, it has yet to implement it fully. What is the UK doing to ensure full implementation of the EITI? I am thinking in particular of the inclusion of figures disaggregated by mine or project, rather than just by company or sector.

The persisting humanitarian crisis has been called

“the most complex, deadly and prolonged ever documented”.

In such a complex political environment, recovering from years of conflict will take many years, but a political solution, involving all parties, remains the only credible solution. I am sure that all hon. Members want to commend the Congolese and international aid workers on the ground across the DRC for their work in one of the most volatile political environments on the planet. In particular, I commend the International Rescue Committee for its extraordinary research work on mortality rates, and the International Crisis Group and Human Rights Watch for their efforts to keep the DRC on the political radar.

It is right that we should have this debate today. The continued fighting in the DRC and the resulting humanitarian disaster have not received the international attention that they warrant in this place or the media. Perhaps that is because the conflict has outlasted presidents and UN Secretaries-General; perhaps it is because it does not seem to threaten the world balance of power; or perhaps it is because it is not as easy to distinguish between the criminals and some victims as it is in some comparable conflicts. However, none of those is a good enough excuse for indifference or inaction by the international community. We have probably devoted more parliamentary time to the appalling situation in Darfur, and it is right to debate what is happening there. It is difficult to argue that the situation in the Congo is any less serious, or the outlook any less bleak. It would have been a fine thing to come here today and discuss logistical difficulties in aid delivery and how to increase the effectiveness of our aid. However, finding a political solution to the recurring conflicts is a precondition for development and must continue to be the top priority for all involved.

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West (John Barrett), and to speak under your chairmanship, Mr. Bayley. I congratulate the hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) on securing this timely debate. He gave an excellent opening speech, providing a broad perspective on the current situation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. That highlights the importance of first-hand experience; he gave a very clear view.

I was intrigued by the hon. Gentleman’s opening comment about whether the debate he applied for would be replied to by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office or the Department for International Development, because it was a coterminous responsibility. I might go even further, and argue that, although the Ministry of Defence has no direct responsibility, if we were to consider what, for example, the British Government are doing in Afghanistan, we should take a more comprehensive approach; the third string to our bow would be the role of the United Nations in the Congo, which the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members touched on. I intend to explore that issue.

I was very encouraged to discover that Nick Kay is our ambassador in the DRC. He was the chap who was responsible in Helmand, for the last two years before going there. He will have first-hand experience of how that comprehensive approach can come together to maximum effect. The hon. Member for Islington, North also gave an excellent summary of what needs to happen in the justice system, to ensure that justice is given, and of the greater efforts needed on demobilisation.

I did not say, but perhaps should have, that one problem is that, until now—and probably still—the police, soldiers, magistrates and judges are largely not paid. If public servants are not paid their only source of income is either robbery or corruption. Unless the justice system is properly funded, it is unlikely that proper justice will ever be available.

That is a very fair point, which the Minister will probably pick up. It clearly needs to be addressed.

The hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) also made an excellent contribution, albeit rather unexpected by him. He has shown a considerable interest in the subject for some time and is widely regarded as something of an expert on the region. His comments about violence against women were incredibly well made, and that is something to which I shall return. His comments about the need for gender balance in the UN forces were also well made. I have had some experience of that world, as the hon. Gentleman knows, and although it is easy to aspire to that goal the practicalities of an attempt at gender balance are quite different, not least because all too often there are national caveats from contributing nations, which will not allow women to be part of UN teams. The hon. Gentleman also mentioned the need to mentor police and armed forces. I guess that I would look to the Minister to find out whether he felt we should be considering with reference to the DRC the sort of role carried out by British military advisory teams in Sierra Leone. Perhaps, if it was not something that came directly from the British Government, that model could be used to help things move forward.

The hon. Member for Edinburgh, West also made a very thoughtful contribution and I shall return to some of his points, but for my own part I intend to raise three things, broadly along the lines of the comprehensive approach that I have mentioned. Those are DFID’s programme; where we are with the DRC Government—especially the poverty reduction strategy paper and the country assistance paper; and the role of the UN in the DRC. I hope to make some positive suggestions about how that role might be enhanced.

DFID has been very active in the DRC and the increase in aid to the country from £5.56 million in 2001-02 to about £75 million in 2007-08, along with future pledges of up to £130 million a year, is welcome. However, given that there is still considerable conflict in the country, I want first to ask the Minister whether he can offer some reassurance about how the money is being spent. Given, too, the concerns about corruption that other hon. Members have raised, how can we ensure that that will not be a factor affecting DFID spending?

The hon. Member for Islington, North outlined the broad problem in the DRC quite well. Part of the impact of the conflict is that it is not directly visible, but is none the less devastating. Large-scale displacements, violence and human rights abuses, as well as impoverishment, have caused tremendous psychological suffering and a deterioration of the social fabric, breaking up families and other solidarity networks. As a result, many traditional safety nets no longer function effectively. The deterioration of education and health services during the war years has dealt a powerful and lasting blow to the well-being of the population and their capacity to recover.

Overall, the DRC is likely to miss most of the millennium development goals by 2015. Detailed statistical information is lacking, but available indicators suggest that the conflict has caused development in reverse in the social sectors. Life expectancy is 43 years. The DRC’s human development index has declined by more the 10 per cent. in the past 10 years. Detailed study of the MDGs reveals that target 1, to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger, stands at just 71 per cent. For target 2, to achieve universal primary education, there is no current status. In 1990, the figure was 54.5 per cent., but we do not know where things stand today. Target 3 is to promote gender equality—a factor raised by the hon. Member for Islington, North; once again there is no current status. We do not know where things stand as far as achieving that goal.

The question of gender equality is linked to the large number of dispossessed young men who hang around, particularly in Kinshasa, but in other cities too, who grow up with no family structure or boundaries, just trying to survive. Unless education, including some degree of social education, is available to them, the violence now happening against women will be replicated again and again. Investment in education in all its forms is a top priority.

The hon. Gentleman has got it exactly right, and I will return to the topic of education in a moment. We must ensure that such violence is not simply replicated.

Target 4 is to reduce child mortality. It has already been said that half of the 5.3 million deaths in the country are of children under five. The child mortality rate is currently 205 per 1,000, which is exactly the same level as in 1990. Target 5 is to improve maternal health. There are currently 990 deaths per 100,000 live births, so we are simply failing to achieve that target.

Despite a Government who have set out a bold agenda for development, an integrated international community funding development system in the country assistance framework and numerous peace agreements over the years, combat between rebels, militants and the Government army continues at an alarming rate. In turn, the conflict has led to intolerable suffering for the million or more DRC citizens who have been displaced. Child soldiers have been mentioned, and around 11 million children under the age of 17 are currently not in education. It is obvious that the majority are not child soldiers, but a substantial number have been or are currently serving as child soldiers to the militias. A recent report by the Institute for Security Studies has suggested that children between the ages of 11 to 17 are favoured because they are more susceptible to indoctrination. It is imperative for the DRC’s future that its future doctors, bankers, architects, nurses and teachers get back into the education system. We should highlight activities such as the Royal Society of Chemistry’s “archives for Africa” programme because they are an excellent way of trying to give education facilities directly to countries, such as the DRC, that otherwise simply would not have them.

On health, the UN news platform—the Integrated Regional Information Network—recently suggested that between half a million and 1 million people die of malaria every year in the DRC. According to its sources, more than 5 million people a year are infected with malaria and despite drugs being sold up to 10 times cheaper than the internationally recommended retail price—thanks to partnerships with key international organisations—they are still not readily available to the majority of the DRC’s population. Indeed, with 70 per cent. of the population living on less than $1 a day, the drugs are still out of the price range of many people. The alarming rate at which refugee camps have sprung up means that effective sanitation and clean water are not a luxury many people escaping from rape, torture and killing are provided with.

In the Kichanga camp, there is only one water pump for 5,000 people and no latrines. If we are going to get serious about meeting MDGs 4, 6 and 7, we must rectify simple development problems such as that.

I am listening to the hon. Gentleman’s comments and I agree with pretty much all that he has said. I am sure that he has considered the scale of the problem. The UK Government are arguably the largest bilateral donor. My hon. Friend the Minister recently mentioned the £50 million put into the pool to which the MOD, the FCO and DFID all contribute. The scale of the problem in the Congo is enormous and there is only so much any one country can do, which is why the EU, the UN and other potentially large donors—it is notable that the French and to some degree the Belgians were the biggest donors on record—should do more. Essentially, this is a matter for the international community, rather than just the UK solving the MDG goals.

That is a fair point, and I hope that my comments are balanced. I should also pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman, who has a keen interest in this subject. I am attempting to be balanced in my comments and am simply saying that DFID has done a good job in the DRC. I commend it on that, but there is much more that all of us can do. The British Government have a role to play as a leader to try to draw together the other nations to ensure that more is done in the region. The hon. Gentleman referred to that point.

Time is quite short, so I will move on to talk about peacekeeping, which was mentioned by all hon. Members. As has been mentioned, the United Nations has its largest peacekeeping force in the world stationed in the DRC. There are about 17,000 UN troops and approximately 1,000 police. Although progress has been made, it is clear that the United Nations Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo is spread too thin and is finding it difficult to defend civilians. The hon. Member for Islington, North also raised concerns about the potential crimes that have been committed by the UN. Although I do not want to discuss that in detail, because I understand those crimes are being investigated, I would like to make some sensible suggestions about how the UN could do more in relation to peacekeeping.

First, we could insist that the Security Council approve peacekeeping missions with rules of engagement designed to protect civilians from grave harm. The Security Council can in theory exercise that authority under chapter VII of the charter, but in the past, council members have attempted to water down peacekeeping operations. That has meant operations have not always happened when perhaps they should. Secondly, we should challenge UN member states to increase their support for the rapid and effective deployment of peacekeeping missions in the world’s most troubled regions, such as the DRC. A report by the US Council on foreign relations released last year summarised the problem. It stated that

“The enduring problem of the UN peacekeeping ability is the inability to field forces in sufficient numbers when it counts.”

Existing forces lack the ability to respond rapidly to emerging crises and suffer from a deficit in military doctrine and expertise specifically to protect civilian populations. The hon. Member for Stroud mentioned that point. Perhaps the Minister could comment on whether he believes that Britain should exert leadership by channelling more of its international development budget into funding for training, equipment and the deployment of a new breed of regional as well as UN peacekeepers? Perhaps we should consider having forces that are prepared to engage in peacemaking in order to prevent massive human rights abuses—that may be a step too far, but it is at least a thought.

Thirdly, we must greatly enhance the peacekeeping capacities of regional organisations. We should begin with the African Union. The UN charter is clear on that point, under chapter VIII article 53, the Security Council has the authority to support the efforts of regional organisations committed to promoting international peace and security. Will the Minister say whether he feels enough is currently being done in that area? Perhaps finally the Minister could outline whether he feels that the current level of UN peacekeepers is adequate and whether he believes greater work should be done in investing in mentoring schemes for the police and army, as mentioned by the hon. Member for Stroud.

As we know, a new Government were elected in 2006 and despite heavy fighting, democratic elections took place. Notwithstanding the comments of the hon. Member for Islington, North, since their election, the DRC Government have promoted a policy of containment and appeasement. In line with international wishes, they have highlighted the importance of holding free and fair elections. It remains a continuing problem that, unless we can reintegrate some of those militia forces into the DRC army or demobilise them completely, they will continue to contribute to the conflict.

Following the signing of the Goma agreement between the Government and 22 armed militias, the Government have set up a peace programme for eastern Congo—the Amani programme. They have appointed Abbé Apollinaire Malu Malu, a Catholic priest, to spearhead the efforts towards peace. That has been seen by many in the DRC as an important stepping stone towards peace in eastern Congo, especially north and south Kivu. However, to date, the Amani programme has achieved very little. It is crucial that the DRC Government and the international Government work together to move from rhetoric on paper to strong action.

The DRC Government have recently published the poverty reduction strategy paper—PRSP—which will be partly funded by the country assistance framework. The CAF is a common strategic approach for economic assistance to the DRC in the post-election period. It has been drawn up by key international donors and the DRC Government. The PRSP emphasises the need to break with past practices to ensure a dramatic improvement of living conditions throughout the country as a condition for sustained peace and eventual economic recovery. The PRSP builds on the 2001 interim PRSP and enjoys broad support among all key constituencies.

What is most appealing to me regarding the PRSP is the manner in which it has been drawn together. Each district produced its own PRSP drawn up by local consultation with faith-based organisations, labour unions, non-governmental organisations, women’s groups, youth associations and community representatives. Those were then amalgamated into provincial-level PRSPs and were eventually made into the national PRSP. In total, around 35,000 people participated in drawing up a grass-roots- based development programme. We should congratulate the DRC Government on that. We should also congratulate DFID on the role that it played in achieving that aim. One hopes that we can achieve the same in Afghanistan, where a similar process is taking place.

The aims of the PRSP are to promote good governance and consolidate peace; to consolidate macro-economic stability and economic growth; to improve access to social services and reduce vulnerability; to combat HIV/AIDS; and to promote community dynamics. Those are all worthy aims, but I should be grateful if the Minister outlined exactly how DFID will continue to channel its funds to ensure that they are met.

I join other hon. Members in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) on securing the debate. As ever, it is a pleasure to have the opportunity to respond to his questions and those of other hon. Members with an interest in this topic.

The hon. Member for North-East Milton Keynes (Mr. Lancaster) raised a series of issues that have considerable resonance in the context of the DRC, but are also of wider strategic importance in relation to peacekeeping. I will write to him to set out in more detail our view of the current peacekeeping capacity of the UN system and the efforts that we are making to improve that capacity. We do not believe that there is enough peacekeeping capacity worldwide at the moment, and it is incumbent on the entire international community to meet that challenge. As the hon. Gentleman said, part of that must be to raise the capacity of regional organisations such as the African Union, with which we are already working and we intend to continue to do so. I will happily write to him with more detail.

The hon. Member for North-East Milton Keynes mentioned British military assistance training teams. My instinct is that the Congo would be unlikely to succeed in a bid in that respect, because those teams are in great demand all over the world, but does the Minister agree that security in the Congo is the No. 1 priority, the greatest imperative, and that there are things that the UK Government could probably do that do not involve providing military assistance but that could help in time to improve the region’s security? For example, we are heavily involved in EUSEC—the European security co-ordinating body in the Congo—and there are things that we can do as civilians in that theatre. In another theatre that the hon. Gentleman mentioned, Afghanistan, we could be involved in training and similar efforts to facilitate other trainers going out there, for example, to assist with security capacity in the region, but it does not have to be military assistance. Ultimately, DFID has a big role to play in that.

I agree that we can do more on security sector reform and more generally. It is also appropriate to make the broader point about the need for more peacekeeping capacity, at least in the strategic context. My hon. Friend refers to broader ways in which we could engage with security sector reform. Given his long-standing interest in this area, he may be aware that we are working on a comprehensive programme to tackle security sector reform, which we estimate will cost collectively £80 million. We are not yet able to launch such a programme: the detailed design work is still under way. However—my hon. Friend and other hon. Members may not be aware of this—we have already given significant funding to help with different elements of improving security, not least during the transition. We provided support to enable the police and justice systems to begin to develop, so that they could handle security during the elections. No one would say that the elections in the DRC were perfect, but most international observers would agree that they went better than many would have expected. Some of the work that we did with the UN Development Programme, for example, in helping to put in place effective election security, was undoubtedly important.

In the defence sector, we are working on the demobilisation and reintegration workstreams that are needed, particularly if we are to tackle the problem of child soldiers and, more generally, demobilising those who have been part of conflict. A key challenge that we face, to which all hon. Members have alluded, is building up an effective justice sector that can end the culture of impunity in the DRC. Again, we have been providing support with a range of organisations to begin to develop what is a fledgling sector.

The other strategic point that the hon. Member for North-East Milton Keynes touched on but did not go into detail on related to reform of the operation of the UN development system. The UK, through DFID, with Foreign Office colleagues, has been championing that with some success. The humanitarian pooled fund, to which a wide variety of donors contribute and which has NGOs on the board, is, after some initial problems, working effectively and helping to ensure that all donors work together to tackle the many different problems in the DRC, so instead of many individual programmes, there is now better co-ordination. UN development system reform is by no means complete, but that is one area in which there has been success.

Christian Aid has recently pointed out that, from to time, it can be quite difficult to find where the UNDP has added value. By no stretch of the imagination does this apply to all parts of the UNDP effort, but in some cases, it might be worth examining whether there is scope for funding to be given directly to local NGOs to perform roles on the ground, because that gives some of those very competent local NGOs much greater buy-in to the process than if the funding comes through the UNDP. Often, it makes perfect sense for things to be co-ordinated in that way, but there is sometimes scope, from time to time, for funding to go directly to those NGOs, and it is worth while the Minister, from time to time, having a look to see whether that might be possible.

I accept that point. We need to have a series of ways in which we fund organisations to respond, but NGOs, as well as other aid agencies, need to co-ordinate much more effectively than they have done in the past, not only in the DRC but in a range of other development and humanitarian situations. Helping to establish pooled funds is one way to help to incentivise better co-ordination, but I take my hon. Friend’s point that, on occasion, we need some of the more traditional funding routes to be available to NGOs.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North said, there has never been a better chance to help the democratically elected Government and the people of the DRC to achieve the permanent end to conflict and the routes out of poverty to prosperity that all hon. Members want to see. As my hon. Friend made clear, the DRC matters, not only because its 60 million people deserve much better than they have had to date, but because that vast country, with nine neighbours, is of huge strategic importance: it is vital to the stability of central Africa.

The DRC is also of international importance in the context of the fight against climate change. The Congo basin forest, which straddles 10 countries although the vast bulk sits within the DRC, is the second largest tropical rainforest in the world and is suffering deforestation at an alarming rate. Again, the international community needs to work with the Governments in all 10 countries, but particularly the DRC, to begin to slow down that deforestation. In that context, the Congo basin forest fund, for which my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has set aside £50 million and which we will launch shortly with the support of COMIFAC—the Commission for the Forests of Central Africa—countries and, we hope, with other donors, is potentially of huge importance to helping to achieve that objective.

I support the fund that has been set up, which is very welcome. Will the Minister also say something about what is being done to prevent the sale of illegally logged tropical hardwoods, many of which emanate from the Congo basin and which find their way into the furniture factories and on to the building sites of western Europe, north America and China? This is not easy, but unless we choke off the sales of that illegally logged timber, the deforestation will continue apace.

My hon. Friend raises an important issue. He may be aware of work being driven by the European Union, in which DFID has been playing a part, on forest law enforcement, governance and the trade agenda. The EU seeks to create incentives for developing countries such as the DRC and others to improve the governance of their forest sectors, to demonstrate that the timber supplied to international markets is from a verifiably legal source. The EU is considering what further steps it can take beyond providing simple resources to support improvements in governance, and we are working with it to identify further ways to help curb the trade in illegal forest products.

The hon. Member for North-East Milton Keynes asked for evidence of the continuing successes that have resulted from the aid we have already given. Through our programme, we have already provided funding to help to vaccinate more than 1.2 million Congolese children against killer diseases. We have been working on education and on health, as I said earlier. We have provided supplementary food to some 350,000 people; we have ensured that about 70,000 children were treated in feeding centres; and we have provided medical assistance directly to some 23,000 victims of sexual violence. We have also supported the provision of 1 million bed nets, which will protect approximately 2 million people in the DRC from malaria every day.

Infrastructure is another key issue for the DRC. Our funding has helped to ensure the reopening of a key road from Ubundu to Kisangani. Trade has increased dramatically as a result, with 33 times more agricultural produce moving along it. Again, that is a direct result of our DRC funding.

Hon. Members will, I hope, be pleased to hear that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is to visit the DRC shortly to see the situation for himself. We hope that he will be able to go to the east, to see for himself how the peace process has developed. As hon. Members know, a peace conference took place in Goma early in January. It produced not only a ceasefire, but a series of resolutions and reports on the causes of conflict, and it set out possible solutions.

The hon. Member for North-East Milton Keynes referred to the Amani programme, the follow-up mechanism to the peace conference. He rightly noted the appointment of Abbe Malu Malu, who I am told is an extremely impressive individual. He is leading at the commission on peace and security, and he is the national co-ordinator of the Amani programme. The commission, which includes representatives of all armed groups, is making slow but positive progress. We seek to support that conference. We have had a diplomat stationed in the east since November, to support the conference proceedings and to help with the follow-up, and we have seconded a stabilisation adviser to MONUC—the United Nations mission in the DRC—to provide further support following the conference. More generally, we have provided some £35 million in humanitarian assistance, the bulk of which went last year to eastern DRC.

I hope that I have been able to reassure hon. Members that we are continuing to follow closely events in the east. My hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North is keen to take matters forward, and clearly, much more needs to be done in the DRC. That is one reason why we have a rapidly growing programme.

Peace in the eastern Congo is clearly essential for many obvious reasons. Is my hon. Friend aware of any better contact between the DRC and the Governments of Burundi and Rwanda? Unless there is good cross-border co-operation and without agreement on what is to happen, the return of former fighters to their homes could result in the tensions continuing and the possibility—one hopes not—that conflict will break out again.

Let me say publicly that we are engaging diplomatically with both Governments about the tensions, and we will continue to do so. We are engaged diplomatically both in-country and in-capital there and in the east, and through the various other opportunities for conversations with key Ministers from DFID and the Foreign Office.

We will provide some £70 million this year, £100 million next year and £130 million by 2010-11. Our focus is to support the people of the DRC in building a capable and accountable state to tackle the culture of impunity in sexual and gender-based violence and more generally. We must help the people of the Congo to achieve a peace dividend. We want to continue our work to reopen the road network, which has been largely devastated by the conflict, and we want to improve access to primary education—a key issue raised by the hon. Member for North-East Milton Keynes. In that context, we are considering how to provide further funding to bring school fees down—indeed, we want to have them abolished. The third element of our strategy will be to continue to focus on tackling the remaining conflicts and their impact, hence the continuing large portion of humanitarian assistance that we seek to provide.

All Members spoke of the terrible sexual and gender-based violence that has occurred in the DRC. We are providing a range of support to tackle the devastating impact of that violence, including medical treatment and psychosocial counselling for victims. Our efforts to reform the security and justice sectors are an important part of that process. We have been lobbying for further efforts in the capital to ensure that all senior Ministers in the DRC Government take action to ensure prosecutions, including of those members of the security forces who are responsible for abuses. As I said, we need to establish a new culture to replace the present culture of impunity. We need a culture of accountability in which the perpetrators of these appalling abuses are brought to justice, so that those who might be tempted to use similar tactics in future will know that there is no hiding place.

I congratulate the all-party parliamentary group on the great lakes on the relaunch of the UK-DRC parliamentary friendship group that resulted from its recent visit. I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is looking forward to launching DFID’s new country plan for the DRC in a joint event that the all-party parliamentary group will be hosting shortly.

A series of questions were asked during the debate. I have not had to time to answer them all, but I shall reflect on those questions and provide written answers to all who participated in the debate.

Flooding (West Oxfordshire)

I am well aware that these debates are predominantly introduced by Back Benchers, but there are times when a particular issue dominates a particular constituency. That is true of west Oxfordshire, my constituency and the floods of last July—not only the problems and clear-up that took place, but the fear that flooding could happen again. In fact, in villages such as Clanfield, Bampton and Kelmscott, it has already happened again. I went back there to see people and businesses that were affected by floods all over again in January. I must say to the Minister that every time that there is hard, big rainfall in west Oxfordshire, the fear starts all over again that rivers will burst their banks, that there will be flooding, and that businesses will be hit again. There is a large-scale concern about that.

What is more—the real reason for having this debate today—is that there is an element to the local concern that I do not believe is automatically covered by the general debates about flooding that we have in the House. I want to major on the concern about rural communities. In a nutshell, our concern is that because rural communities inevitably have fewer homes—even if there is wide-scale flooding, fewer homes are actually flooded—and a relatively sparse population, we will miss out on the help, the flood defences and the compensation.

I shall briefly set out what happened and some of the specific problems that the experience of my constituency highlights, and end by asking the Minister some questions. Clearly, what happened was exceptional. I say to all my constituents who suffered that everybody knows that some flooding was inevitable after rainfall on such a scale. People accept that. We saw the largest daily total of rainfall at Brize Norton in my constituency since 1968. Some 1,633 homes flooded internally and many more had flooded gardens or garages. People saw on their television screens clearly what happened in Witney, where the water came right over the bridge and up the high street, but they did not necessarily see what happened in some of the smaller communities such as Clanfield, Ascott-under-Wychwood, Shipton-under-Wychwood, Milton-under-Wychwood, Bablock Hythe, Asthall, Kelmscott and many others. When we look at the claims for flood grant, we see that about 55 villages were flooded, some incredibly severely. We are not talking about water up to knee level; in some cases it was 5 or 6 ft high in people’s houses. People were frightened that lives would be lost.

The floods had what the district council described in its report as a

“devastating impact on many businesses in West Oxfordshire”.

Some 265 business were flooded, some of which are only just reopening. Tourism was hit hard: major attractions such as the Cotswold wildlife park lost hundreds of thousands of pounds. We have to learn the lesson that when such things happen there is a danger of the whole of GB plc looking like it is shut. I hope that the Minister is looking at how to ensure, in the aftermath of flooding, that we advertise and promote British tourism strongly, which will ensure that people realise that the country is open again.

During the floods, some 150 residents were taken to rest centres and there were untold acts of bravery by rescue services, who performed magnificently, and by members of the public. I shall never forget seeing the biblical scenes of the scale of floods: cars and houses were completely overwhelmed, and in Bablock Hythe, for example, mobile homes floated away. The council distributed 40,000 sandbags and helped enormously with the emergency response and community support. That is the first lesson that I for one learned from the floods: when it came to working with local businesses, organising volunteers and deploying the local knowledge, West Oxfordshire district council, which is one of the smallest district councils in the country, did an extremely good job. I sometimes fear that some in Whitehall think that small district councils are part of the past. I can absolutely assure the Minister that on the evidence of its response to the floods, West Oxfordshire district council did an extremely good job. The fact that it is a small council actually helped, because it was in touch on the ground: it knew the networks and the volunteers and how to get the RAF to help. The council knew its area incredibly well.

The Minister will be reassured to know that some systems worked well. The bronze control was established at the district council office and the silver command at the police station in Abingdon. I visited the bronze control and I thought that the system worked extremely well.

On learning the lessons, no one is saying that the flooding was completely avoidable. Everyone accepts that such events will happen, and most people accept that, with climate change, they are likely to be more frequent. People understand that flash floods are particularly difficult to protect against, but people in my constituency want to know that everything that can be done will be done to reduce the impact of such floods in future. They are not satisfied that everything is being done. There is a general perception that everybody is talking a good game about flood defences and what we need to do for the future, but people fear that not much is actually happening.

Some of the specific problems are covered in Sir Michael Pitt’s first report, but others are not. Clearly, there is a need for better early-warning systems. The Minister should know that such systems really matter on the small rivers as well as the big rivers. Telemetry systems are needed. Both the Windrush and Evenlode rivers flooded progressively, going all the way down the river. There was no early-warning or telemetry system, and they could have made a difference. For example, people in Ascott-under-Wychwood were flooded to a depth of almost 5 ft, yet they had no warning from the Environment Agency or Met Office. Again, those people are not naïve: they know that that level of rainfall will cause a flood. However, as the district council concluded in its very good report on the floods,

“half an hour can make a significant difference to saving property and safeguarding homes and lives”.

That is why those early-warning systems on small rivers are needed.

It has also been suggested that we need a higher categorisation of risk that is issued only in exceptional circumstances, because experience shows that too many warnings are issued for low-grade risk, so people become complacent and fail to react. The Minister will be aware that there is a growing insurance problem as people come up to the time when they try to renew home insurance. For example, some with an OX28 postcode are being refused. What does the Minister propose to do about that?

In the time left, I should like to focus on two major points. The first concerns the work of the Environment Agency, and the second, as I said, is about the potential discrimination faced by rural communities when it comes to flood support. On the Environment Agency, when one talks to people who have been flooded, one question keeps coming up again and again: why has so little been done to clear out the ditches, dykes and culverts, and why is there so little dredging of rivers and streams compared with the past? I am not a scientist and I am happy to listen to the arguments, but I am not convinced that they are all old wives’ tales. There is truth in them, and such activities can make a difference.

That was really brought home to me at a meeting in Witney of a new body called the Witney flood action group. After repeated questioning, we got the agency to admit that the river had not been dredged for a long time and that the level of the river bed had risen as the silt was laid down. A number of people who have lived in the town for a long time can say when the last dredging and de-silting took place and how the river has changed. The agency must take that point seriously.

That brings me to my concern about the agency, which arises from dozens of meetings with home owners, farmers, councillors and those living in affected communities. My concern is partly political and partly operational. On the former, the agency gives too great a weight to animal habitat and not enough to human habitat. As the council’s report put it:

“Examples are the refusal or reluctance to remove fallen trees from drainage channels, refusal to allow removal of beds of ditches and rivers and a reluctance to consider improvements to existing systems. In many areas these conditions have been considered to have contributed significantly to the level of damage caused by the flooding by prolonging the flood and increasing the water levels”.

I echo absolutely everything that my right hon. Friend is saying, because we had extensive flooding in Vale of White Horse in south Oxfordshire. People in the vale say exactly what people in west Oxfordshire about the clearing of ditches and brooks. I propose—I think that the Environment Agency could do this—to provide a map showing who is responsible for what. That seems to be part of the problem. Some of the ditches and so on are on private land, so the agency says that it is not responsible. The map could say who is responsible, so that people could get on with the job themselves.

My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point. There is uncertainty about that. On some occasions, the Environment Agency has been responsible for clearing; on others, it has not given permission for the necessary clearance. There are too many examples of people saying, “I cannot clear out this ditch, because I’ve been told that I would be disturbing important habitat.” Of course habitat is important, but in the end, we must try to protect households from flooding.

The operational part of my concern is that, even if the Environment Agency wanted to do more, it is not clear that it has the resources or the people to do it. A detailed report from Brize Norton parish council put it like this:

“Many areas of EA maintained rivers in West Oxfordshire have not received maintenance for years. The EA are now compiling another report. When this report is completed, will action follow? Or will it be the same story of a cash starved EA that there is insufficient funding to carry out the recommendations of the report?”

That sort of concern has been expressed again and again.

It is not just a matter of money; it is also a matter of co-ordination. One of the most fascinating things that I heard was that, when we finally pushed the Environment Agency to explain what it would cost to de-silt a section of the Windrush river in Witney, the agency said that it would cost £1 million. It turned out that 90 per cent. of that was the cost of dumping the silt in a landfill. It is crazy, when there is such a need for fertile soil, that that silt should have to go into a landfill. The Government say they want action, but the tax system is preventing it from happening. We need co-ordination.

There is a case for looking again, as I know the Government are, at how we co-ordinate responsibility for flood prevention. Although the Environment Agency does that at national level, it is less able to do so at local level. It might be more appropriate for district councils to co-ordinate, as they have the knowledge, the ability and the passion about their local areas to sort it out. I do not want to be unfair to the Environment Agency—it has been very helpful locally with meetings, it has worked closely with some of the groups set up and it has real expertise—but as we read in today’s report by the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, there is a critical shortage of field engineers that must be put right.

My biggest concern is the potential disadvantage at which rural communities are being placed. The current Environment Agency scheme for flood alleviation works involves a scoring system that makes it impossible for any rural community in west Oxfordshire to apply for help. Witney, the largest conurbation affected by floods, scores just nine points under the scheme, whereas the minimum threshold for qualifying is 21. To put it simply, we in west Oxfordshire were hit badly, but we are unable to bid for help under the scheme. Compared with large cities such as Hull, where thousands of houses were flooded, we will never be able to compete on a cost-benefit analysis basis.

That is my concern. The council is working hard and the Environment Agency is working hard. Everyone is working hard, having meetings with town and parish councils in the affected areas and coming up with ideas and proposals, but will any action be possible? We will come up with plans for bunds, balancing ponds and new flood barriers, but in the end, will money be available if we must compete with the big cities that were flooded? At the moment, it does not look as though it will. I plead with the Minister, not to give us all the answers—although I am sure that he has some of them—but to go away and think about how we can help the sparsely populated rural communities that were hit.

One solution might be to consider the severity rather than just the extent of the flooding, and to try to measure that differently. Another might be to hold back some funds for sparsely populated areas, because—at the danger of repetition—we will never come up with as many flooded houses in the whole 400 square miles of west Oxfordshire as some cities can. Could we aggregate the number of houses flooded in the whole district, aggregate some of the small schemes that have been proposed and apply that way? That is the most important question for the Minister, and I hope that he will consider it.

Farmers are another concern in rural areas. A number of farmers whose land has been flooded over and over again have come to see me. They are worried about water being left on the land for such long periods, which is bad for habitat. I am sure that the Minister will be able to bring us up to date on what he is doing to work with farmers on that problem.

I end with a few questions about funding streams. On the Bellwin scheme, it is obviously welcome that district and county councils have a system to get back some of the money that they have spent, but there have been problems with Bellwin. I shall mention two. One is that for small district councils, a threshold of £18,000 spent is quite high, especially if they must spend it twice, once in July and again in January. At the moment we are advised that they must cross the threshold twice. It would be fairer if they had to cross it only once. The other problem relates to the county council. The total cost for Oxfordshire of dealing with the floods was about £4.5 million, yet the repairs that qualified under Bellwin cost only £1.2 million and were therefore under the threshold, as some of the spending on things such as schools, roads and bridges does not count under Bellwin. I hope that the Minister will reconsider that, because we in west Oxfordshire are being hit twice: once by the cost to the district council and again by the cost to the county council.

I see that time is up. I am unused to making such speeches, as you know, Mr. Bayley, but I hope that the Minister can give us some answers about the work of the Environment Agency, how we might focus better on flood prevention and what work needs to be carried out locally. Above all, I hope that he can examine the issue of how to help small, sparsely populated rural communities. They have suffered badly; they have shown extraordinary courage and bravery in dealing with it; and they want to know that the Government are on their side.

It is a pleasure to serve under you in this debate, Mr. Bayley, not least because of your local knowledge due to the fact that your constituency adjoins that of the hon. Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh). Congratulations are due to the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) for securing this debate. It is one of the strengths of our parliamentary system that senior politicians have constituency interests and can raise them. My experience is that one can test policy best as a constituency MP rather than a Minister or shadow Minister.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for the work that he has done with the Environment Agency. He has chaired a number of local meetings with officials from the agency and the district and county councils in his area. I thank him for acknowledging on behalf of his constituents the severity of the rainfall that weekend last summer. It was an exceptional event, and I am grateful for his acknowledgement. He said that his constituents live in fear of repeat flooding, and I understand that.

I shall cut to the chase in the time available. As a Member of Parliament, the right hon. Gentleman wants answers for his constituents, so I shall try to give him some. On the crucial point about rural versus urban, it is true that during the past two decades there has been a deliberate shift in focus from the job of land drainage to the job of flood protection. That gives rise to the arguments heard by MPs—they are not old wives’ tales; they are often based in truth—that drains are not cleared as frequently as they used to be. That is because we focus on targeted flood prevention measures rather than simply land drainage. As he said, the two are of course interrelated, particularly where flood debris is carried into rivers. The central charge that there is a bias in favour of urban against rural is fuelled by that fact, but flood risk is the main criterion that we use among those that he listed.

The point-scoring that the right hon. Gentleman mentioned applies to new flood prevention schemes: physical schemes such as re-channelling rivers, improving the height of flood defences and so on. However, that does not mean that money is not spent nor action taken in constituencies such as his. For example, in his area, the major scheme to clear the silt between the Bridge street arches begins in the first week of June of this year, about which I think that he has been in correspondence with the EA.

As the right hon. Gentleman rightly pointed out and the interim Pitt report highlighted, we need to co-ordinate the EA, as the strategic body, the resources, in some cases, of internal drainage boards—although I do not think that that is applicable in west Oxfordshire—and the district and county councils. A scheme is already under way for the removal of restrictions in the culvert of the Hailey road drain. We are examining whether we can create storage ponds at the top of the Hailey road drain, which has also been looked at by the agency. The district council is pursuing drainage improvements with the landowner—private landowners are part of the equation in many of these localised schemes—of the Aquarius development. Furthermore, the county council, with the EA acting on behalf of the Highways Agency, is clearing the Burwell meadow drain culvert beneath the A40. And there are a number of other schemes, details of which I can pass on to him after this debate. Although I understand where the accusation about the rural-urban divide comes from, in practice, the concentration on flood defence and targeted measures means that rural, or more sparsely populated, areas do not get overlooked. I give him that reassurance.

The right hon. Gentleman asked a number of other specific questions, which I shall answer before giving the outline picture. He can read yesterday’s Hansard on our very good debate that covered many of the national policy points. I say that having noticed that the press bench is especially full today—I cannot imagine why that is! This is just one of many debates that we have had on localised flooding. However, he is absolutely right: we intend to publish maps, so that the public know about schemes in their areas and can get the information that they need.

As the right hon. Gentleman knows, the early warning system did not work last summer, as a result of two things: first, the sheer speed at which the events happened—there was no time to get the door-to-door information our there—and, secondly, frankly, because it was not expected. That last point is not a criticism. I have praised the district and county councils and the agency before, and, indeed, I visited the area in Oxford, further down the river basin, on that Sunday. None the less, flooding on that scale was not expected. We are putting in place the new telemetry systems in the Evenlode and Windrush to measure water flow in order to provide that early warning. I can give him that reassurance.

The right hon. Gentleman asked whether the severity of floods should be a criterion. It is indeed a criterion. He mentioned insurance and the OX28 postcode, which I shall certainly look into, because our statement of principles agreed with the Association of British Insurers attempts to ensure that every household can get insurance. On the operational points, the fact that the silt incurred landfill tax, which amounted to £900,000 of the £1 million, is clearly unsatisfactory. Following the public meetings and representations received on that matter, we are examining alternative ways in which to dispose of the waste. It is foolish to put it in a landfill site, although I expect that the Exchequer would like the revenue and, no doubt, his constituents would benefit from the landfill tax credit scheme introduced by the then Prime Minister, John Major—and a jolly good scheme it is in Saddleworth, I can tell you!

The right hon. Gentleman mentioned the Bellwin scheme and West Oxford district council. I think that he is right. Owing to the local knowledge of the district council, it can target its work very effectively. It was a very wise decision not to go ahead with the unitary authority in his area, because then that would not have been possible. I do not remember which Minister took that decision, but my goodness it was a wise one! The problems with Bellwin beset any scheme with a threshold. We take some pride in the speed in which we got the money out their. I know that it was not fast enough for his constituents’ requirements, but it was very fast compared with comparable efforts. Of course, we were boosted by the £30 million from the European Union solidarity fund announced yesterday by the Minister for Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth (John Healey).

The Minister for Local Government, the hon. Member for Wentworth led the House to believe that we will get £110 million for the country to spend on flood recovery, for exactly the reasons that my right hon. Friend set out. How will the Government make up the shortfall? We have actually received less than a third back from that. I understand that that formed part of the budget, because the Government rightly assumed that they were getting it.

I am afraid that is not as simple as that. I am not trying to duck the question. I refer the hon. Lady to the written ministerial statement. For the purposes of this debate, I simply make the point that money has been made available in different forms through the Bellwin scheme and now through the solidarity scheme. West Oxfordshire district council received a total of £728,121—it always amazes me that we can be so accurate—which consisted of £663,500 from the flood recovery grant and £64,621 from the Bellwin scheme itself. The right hon. Gentleman mentioned the importance of future policy. As he knows, the interim report from Sir Michael Pitt has been accepted, and its key point is the strategic co-ordination with the Environment Agency in the various local authorities.

I thank the Minister for giving a detailed reply rather than a boilerplate reply. May I push him one more time on the cost-benefit analysis? He was right when he mentioned the schemes being considered in and around Witney to help with the flooding. However, the concern remains—I completely understand this—that when the crunch comes, and we measure up against thousands of houses and £1 million being spent elsewhere, smaller towns and villages will find it difficult to compete. Will he consider how we can ensure that the cost-benefit analysis can advantage—or at least not leave out—the rural communities?

I understand that point. Of course, we face a real policy dilemma, if not paradox. In part, the answer is geography. In order to protect downstream towns, one can provide flood storage areas in meadows and so on upstream. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, that is why our flood plans are not based on administrative district boundaries. The other part of the answer is that the risk of flooding is the main criterion. When one looks at surface-water flooding as well as river flooding, one will realise that the one in 20, one in 40 or one in 100 risk is weighed into the considerations, after which the other criteria then come into play.

I face a dilemma of how to balance the value of homes. The houses in one area might have significantly higher values—I always use Poole as an example, although it is probably unfair to stereotype it—than those in areas such as Leeds, for example. I do not want to stereotype Leeds either—if one looks, one can find an apartment in the centre of Leeds for £500,000. However, those criteria have to be balanced. I am keen to reassure hon. Members that that is well understood—that came up in yesterday’s debate as well. It is the land drainage as opposed to flood-risk prevention that gives rise to some of the concerns. My plans, which I have worked through with Pitt, are to smooth that out so that everybody, including the right hon. Gentleman’s constituents, will know what the assessment of risk is, where it is and what the Government, the agencies and the councils are doing, and what they plan to do, about it. That is in the context of increased public expenditure—rising to £800 million in the third year of the comprehensive spending review. Is it enough? That is an open question.

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for raising the debate and for the way in which he has conducted himself. I hope that I have given him answers that he can pass on. If I have not, I am sure that the Oxford Gazette—

Of course, the Oxford Mail. How could I forget? It will put me right—I have the article in front of me.

4.29 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

Green Belt Policy

Today, the Campaign to Protect Rural England issued a press statement headed, “Green Belt loss a daily reality despite government pledges.”

From my point of view, that is a timely coincidence with this debate, and I should like to place on record my thanks to the CPRE, both nationally and locally, for providing me with background material.

I want to put the debate in context. Green belt policy has existed formally for more than 50 years, and it has performed its functions well. Some of the most important purposes for designating land as green belt are to protect the countryside around towns and cities from urban sprawl, to encourage the regeneration of neglected sites within towns and cities and to prevent towns from merging into each other. Of course, the most important feature of green belt land is its openness.

People prize their local countryside, and the public see development and urban sprawl as the biggest threats to the countryside. The crucial element of green belts is the permanency of their boundaries. If boundaries are shifted, the incentive provided by a designated green belt is lost, because developers and land speculators have only to wait for more greenfield sites to be opened for development, rather than making better use of urban land.

The Government have repeatedly stated their commitment to protecting the green belt. The right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) pledged to Parliament on 5 February 2003 that he would

“maintain or increase green-belt land in every region”.—[Official Report, 5 February 2003; Vol. 399, c. 275.]

On 11 July 2007, the new Prime Minister announced that the Government would:

“continue robustly to protect the land designated as green belt.”—[Official Report, 11 July 2007; Vol. 462, c. 1450.]

There have also been supportive statements in the Government’s White Paper on planning, “Planning for a Sustainable Future”, which was published in May 2007. For example, recommendation No. 9, “Green Belt/Green Space”, states:

“The Government is committed to the principles of the Green Belt and will make no fundamental change to policy in this area. Existing Government policy (PPG 17) already asks planning authorities to proactively plan for the protection and enhancement of valued green space in towns and cities, including efficient and effective countryside.”

On 2 May 2007, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, who was then Minister for Housing and Planning, wrote me a letter stating:

“Let me also reassure your constituent that the Government remains committed to the protection and the enhancement of the countryside and to the key principles of the green belt. Strict planning controls on green belt land are in place and there remains a general presumption against inappropriate development within green belts. The Government has no intention of making fundamental changes to Green Belt Policy.”

In an earlier letter, she stated:

“With regard to your constituent’s concerns about green belt land the Government has made clear that we believe strongly in the key principles of the green belt. There remains a general presumption against inappropriate development in the green belt and I would like to make clear that the Government has no intention of weakening this high level of protection.”

In the same letter, the Chief Secretary also stated:

“Kate Barker is also clear that in taking forward further reforms the importance of consultation and democratic accountability must be respected.”

During the Radio 4 programme, “Any Questions”, on July 13 2007, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government was quizzed very closely by Jonathan Dimbleby. She said:

“I can be absolutely clear that the current protections for the Green Belt will remain as they are and we’re absolutely determined to do that”.

Jonathan Dimbleby pressed her further and asked whether

“Green Belt might have to be invaded, as it were, to build houses?”

The Secretary of State replied:

“I’m being very clear that the current planning protections for the Green Belt will absolutely remain.”

Jonathan Dimbleby pressed her even further, and the Secretary of State replied:

“No, I think I’ve tried to be as clear and unequivocal as I can be and say that the current protections for the Green Belt will remain.”

So why do I , the CPRE and my constituents have such great concerns?

I accept that the section of the 2007 White Paper that I have quoted refers to reviewing green belt boundaries. For example, regional planning bodies and local planning authorities should review green belt boundaries as part of their regional spatial strategy and local development framework processes to ensure that they remain relevant and appropriate, given the need to ensure that any planned development takes place in the most sustainable locations. Also, there are recommendations to local authorities in drawing up their development plans.

On the positive side, it is possible to identify green belt gain. A large area—47,300 hectares—of green belt in the south-east has been re-designated as the New Forest national park, which has been widely welcomed. The most recent green belt statistical release from the Department for Communities and Local Government, which was issued in January 2008, shows that since 2004 the total green belt area has grown in the north-east, north-west, south-west and Yorkshire and the Humber. Significant new areas of green belt have been created in Durham and to the west of Newcastle since 1997. Otherwise, most of the increase appears to be due to more reliable mapping by local authorities of green belt land. The statistics also show, however, that since 2004 the total green belt area has shrunk in East Anglia and in the east and west Midlands.

On the negative side, there is also a more worrying trend of significant losses of green belt land to development. Between 1997 and 2003, an average of 1,100 hectares—nearly 4 square miles—was lost each year. From 1997 to 2005, 45,240 new dwellings were permitted on green belt land. The Government approved development involving the loss of 1,300 hectares between 1997 and 2001.

Since the creation of the DCLG in May 2006, the Secretary of State has decided 48 planning applications involving development in the green belt. From those, 16 significant developments have been allowed. The loss of green belt land raises serious questions about the Government’s commitment to green belt policy in practice, despite overall gains on green belt in some regions. Great concerns are emerging that regional plans will lead to further significant losses of green belt land in years to come, and that they will particularly affect those parts of the green belt that are nearest to our major towns and cities, which are the ones that we need the most.

My specific interest is, of course, the south-west. The draft regional spatial strategy for the south-west was submitted to the Government in April 2006. The Secretary of State is expected to publish proposed changes for consultation this summer, following the panel report in January 2008. Both the draft RSS and the panel report proposed amending the general extent of all three green belts in the south-west to allow a number of urban extensions to accommodate housing development.

The RSS also proposed several extensions to the green belt to compensate for land lost to urban extensions, but the panel report rejected that proposal due to lack of justification. That was despite its being clear that the report’s recommendations and the RSS will lead to significant losses of green belt land. Was it not a Government promise that replacement land would be added to the green belt in the event of development on green belt land?

I would like to focus further on the south-east Dorset green belt. Up to 8,550 dwellings could be built on it. The RSS proposes urban extensions, with 2,400 dwellings spread over sites at Corfe Mullen, Wimborne, Ferndown and Christchurch, and there will be further losses of green belt around Bournemouth. In addition to supporting the RSS proposals, the panel report went further and added another urban extension of 1,500 homes to north Bournemouth and one of 2,750 dwellings to Poole, which is of particular interest to me as it is in my constituency. A further 1,000 dwellings are also recommended for green belt land in semi-rural east Dorset.

A major concern that I have previously raised with Ministers is the democratic deficit. For example, the democratic East Dorset district council, which is the relevant planning authority, voted to reject the proposals for development on green belt around Corfe Mullen and Wimborne. On the 700 homes for Corfe Mullen, the parish council, separately but in conjunction with an interest group called Keep Corfe Mullen Green, did a survey of the whole parish. There has been a total disregard of the value that people place on their local green belt.

The panel report recommends that Purbeck as a whole should have an increased housing allocation of 5,150 homes—above the 2,100 already agreed, and including 2,750 homes on a site that happens to be in my constituency. No democratically elected council asked for the latter recommendation—the inspector responded to a landowner’s desire to build. Indeed, the proposal was opposed by all democratically elected councils. Three action groups have recently been set up. Sustainable Matravers held a public meeting that more than 400 people attended, and Lytchett Minster has an action group, as does Upton. The strength of feeling is enormous.

Members should consider what Purbeck is like. It has an enormous amount of valuable heathland. Natural England, of course, does not want development impinging on it or close to it. Purbeck has a world heritage coastline, which is an area of outstanding natural beauty. With all those restrictions in quite a small area, many consider that it would be impossible to fit an extra 5,150 homes into Purbeck and protect the green belt. If the housing numbers are not cut, our green belt will be gone. A flexible, moveable green belt is a non-existent one.

Drilling down further, the 2,750 homes are basically an urban extension. Like the conurbation of Bournemouth and Poole, its tentacles will reach out to engulf the two villages of Lytchett Minster and Lytchett Matravers, yet the green belt is supposed to provide a band that enables distinct communities to survive. With that level of development, the character of the local area will be destroyed, and our close knit communities will lose their many advantages. The land, which is predominantly agricultural, is perhaps becoming rather more important as food prices rise. It supports valuable wildlife, including, I am told, nightjars.

One resident wrote:

“Tourism an important source of income for Dorset. People come to see our countryside, as well as our coast. We will lose the ambience that brings people to Dorset for tourism. With no infrastructure provided, roads will be totally clogged up. If extra roads are built, that puts pressure on our environment and SSSIs.”

The agricultural land provides vital carbon sinks. There has to be a balance between urban growth and policies to reduce our carbon footprint. I understand that peat bogs are most effective in capturing carbon dioxide but that agricultural land is better than heathland. There would be a significant loss of agricultural land on the urban fringe.

Interestingly, the principle of the urban extension is supported by Poole, whose pace of development is rapid and above its targets. It has outstanding opportunities to build on brownfield sites.

I appreciate that the Minister cannot reply today to the specific points that I have raised on the panel’s recommendations, but I would like some answers in respect of general policy. First, are the Government still committed to protecting the green belt? Secondly, do they agree that a key purpose of having green belt policy is to protect the countryside around towns and cities from urban sprawl? I hope that the Government share my opposition to large-scale, unsustainable developments that would absolutely smash green belt policy. I hope that central Government targets are not being pursued regardless of the impact on the green belt or local democratic accountability.

I also hope that the Government will support much-needed housing for local young people. We need small developments and incremental change, and we need some additions to our villages. Lytchett Matravers, for example, is a thriving village. It has two pubs, a post office and shops, and it has development—sometimes 100 units a year, sometimes 40 a year. That is the type of development that is needed. Otherwise, there will be more and more pressure from people buying second homes and moving in.

My final request to the Minister relates to our previous debate. I request a meeting with him or one of his colleagues, the chief executive of Synergy Housing Group, which is responsible for the main housing trust, and members of Purbeck district council to discuss funding for affordable housing. I appreciate that we cannot talk about the RSS, but there are things that we ought to be getting on with, and I shall give just one example. The council owns some land on which it wishes to build properties. Natural England has clocked that the land is within the 400 m limit, and its answer is for the council to buy land elsewhere. That is fine in theory, but it means that the local housing association via the Housing Corporation needs more money to provide much-needed social housing in my constituency.

I hope that the Minister can answer all my questions today.

I am pleased to see you again so soon, Mr. Bayley. I congratulate the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) on securing this debate. She mentioned the debate in December last year about housing in her constituency, which touched on affordability pressures and the designation of land in her constituency. I enjoyed that debate, and I enjoyed her contribution on a similar theme today. The hon. Lady has provided hon. Members with a valuable and timely opportunity to consider the relationship between the protection of green belt land, the need for more housing, and the role of the regional spatial strategy.

Green belt policy is an important part of planning, and, as the hon. Lady said, it has served us well for many decades. As she did in her excellent contribution, I think that it would be useful to set the green belt policy into some sort of context. The idea of a green belt was introduced in the 1930s, primarily as a device to help planners to forestall inappropriate development and to avoid the piecemeal joining-up of discrete communities by means of unplanned, so-called ribbon development extending into the countryside. It also served to preserve the openness of that countryside, to which the hon. Lady referred. In essence, that remains its role today, when the pressures on land are even more intense.

Perhaps the key point in any discussion about green belt planning policy is to acknowledge that it is a planning designation, as opposed to some sort of assessment of the quality and biodiversity of the land. It was not intended or planned to be a nature or landscape conservation measure, although I fully recognise that biodiversity and the countryside benefit incidentally as a consequence of green belt designation.

The objectives of green belt policy remain similar to what they always have been: to check the unplanned and unrestricted sprawl of developed areas, to prevent neighbouring towns and urban areas from merging into one another—the hon. Lady mentioned that—to assist in safeguarding the countryside from encroachment and to preserve the special character of our historic towns. Another objective, which is often overlooked in discussion of green belt policy, so I was pleased that the hon. Lady mentioned it, is to assist in the regeneration of our urban communities by encouraging the recycling of derelict brownfield and other urban land. The intention is strategic. If any other designation is required on a particular stretch of land, such as a site of special scientific interest or an area of outstanding natural beauty—that will interest the hon. Lady, given her constituency—that designation and whatever protection it confers would be imposed on top of green belt status, which does not override or compromise them.

This is a timely debate, and it is worth using the opportunity to dispel the myth that is often put about that this nation and its countryside are being concreted over by building on green belt land. As the hon. Lady said, it was mentioned in some parts of the media only this morning, so let me clarify the position. Some 13 per cent. of England’s land mass is designated green belt. Urban land, which is defined as any tract of land of more than 20 hectares with at least 1,000 inhabitants, amounts to 8.8 per cent. of England's land mass.

I want to take the opportunity to counter the notion that the green belt is somehow shrinking, as was reported today. On the contrary, as a result of active compliance with our planning policy framework, the amount of green belt land continues to increase. Since 1997, the amount of green belt land has increased by about 33,000 hectares. In the south-west alone, there is around 109,640 hectares of green belt, despite the reclassification of much green belt as national park land and, as the hon. Lady acknowledged, the adjustments made after the introduction of more accurate digital mapping. Let me be clear: the Government’s target is that we should sustain the area of designated green belt nationally, measured by region, during the period 2008-11.

I want to talk about pressure on green belt, particularly from housing. The Government’s policy on planning for housing, as set out in planning policy statement 3, is extraordinarily clear in my view. Priority should be given to bringing previously developed land back into development if it is in a suitable location. The national target is that 60 per cent. of housing should be built on brownfield land. Current performance against that target is 74 per cent. The target is delivered by local authorities through the planning system, reflecting the particular circumstances of regions and local areas, so different localities may establish different targets. The judgment on what is appropriate in the hon. Lady’s constituency in the south-west will be different in my constituency in the north-east.

In May last year, the planning White Paper, “Planning for a sustainable future”, reinforced the Government’s commitment to the key principles of green belt, which are set out in planning policy guidance note 2 on green belts. The hon. Lady mentioned the words of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, and it is important to reiterate them. He said:

“I assure the House that we will continue robustly to protect the land designated as green belt.”— [Official Report, 11 July 2007; Vol. 462, c. 1449.]

We have no intention of making fundamental changes to green belt policy. As the hon. Lady said, green belt policy has served us well for around half a century, and will continue to do so.

As the hon. Lady is aware, regional spatial strategies prepared by regional planning bodies set the framework for green belt policy and settlement policy for each region, forming the strategic context for local plan making. However, I want to clarify matters. Policies in local plans—not the decision of any regional planning body—establish the detailed boundary of green belt areas. Moreover, as the hon. Lady is aware, under our plan-led system, when a local planning authority's development plan documents contain relevant policies, planning applications must be determined in accordance with that plan unless material considerations indicate otherwise.

In the context of development control, PPG2 explains the key policy, which is a presumption against inappropriate development on green belt land. PPG2 allows for some development within green belts—for example, to support agriculture or forestry, or to allow for limited development in existing villages. The hon. Lady mentioned those themes. Other development should not be approved, except in very special circumstances. The strength of the criterion has been confirmed in a number of recent legal cases. In practice, very little green belt has been lost. In 2003, the latest year for which we have figures, less than 0.1 per cent. of land designated as green belt was developed for residential use.

I hope that I have painted for the Chamber and particularly the hon. Lady an accurate picture, which is not often portrayed, of a country that has more green belt land than urban developed land, where the amount of green belt land is increasing year on year, and where the subsequent development of green belt land is minuscule. Only in exceptional circumstances may green belt boundaries be amended through the development plan process, and only after public consultation and independent examination.

I know that that is a matter that greatly interests the hon. Lady, who spoke eloquently about it during her Adjournment debate in December, as well as today, so I want to spend the time available considering that, bearing in mind the constraints that she has acknowledged—that I will not discuss specific circumstances in the south-west regional spatial strategy.

My constituents’ concerns are that the examination in public has come up with 2,750 houses, and that that is a Government diktat from Westminster because of the overall target for the number of new homes. If the Minister could dispel my constituents’ fear that the new homes will be imposed because of Westminster diktat, I think they would be much less concerned.

The hon. Lady is tempting me, but I will not be drawn into specific circumstances. The end-of-sitting Adjournment debate in the House tonight is about the south-west regional spatial strategy and she may be able to intervene on the hon. Gentleman who has secured the debate. However, I will not be drawn on the specifics.

The examination in public is the mechanism by which regional spatial strategies prepared by the regional planning body are submitted in report form for assessment and, if necessary, revision. The examinations are formal events, not a forum for hearing representations, which should have been made by that stage. They comprise consideration of the report by an appointed panel, which invites a range of people to speak, but only those whose participation is, in its view, necessary to secure an effective examination of the strategic issues. As my noble Friend Baroness Andrews explained to the hon. Member in her letter of 19 February, the aim is to select participants who, between them, represent a broad range of viewpoints, thereby enabling an equitable balance of opinions in a discussion of the soundness of the draft regional spatial strategy. I know that that has worried the hon. Lady, and I hope that the point that Baroness Andrews and I have made reassures her.

All in all, any proposal to change the boundary of a green belt and any development proposal for land in the green belt, whatever its scale, is subject to stringent tests. The Government fully recognise the pressure on green belt land from development. Sufficient housing to meet our needs has not been built for something like a generation. As a result, there is a fundamental mismatch between the supply of housing and the demand for housing. That is having an impact on affordability; not least, in the hon. Lady’s constituency, as she mentioned in her debate in December, and the south-west region as a whole. That has the effect of putting home ownership out of the reach of many and we need to address that.

I have already mentioned that PPS3 includes the notion that housing development should be prioritised towards previously developed land. However, national planning policy recognises that some greenfield land—undeveloped land that may or may not be needed for green belt—may be needed for some development. PPS3 puts the responsibility on local authorities to decide where to locate housing, to identify sites and to manage brownfield sites back into development where possible to minimise the call on greenfield and designated green belt land.

Green belt policy has served the country for well over half a century and has helped to prevent or minimise urban sprawl. It has protected the countryside from inappropriate, speculative and unplanned development. In the past decade, we have seen an increase in the amount of land designated as green belt. The leakage from development on green belt is extremely small, and there is a growing and accelerating trend towards development on previously developed land. Despite the pressures on land as a result of our need for more housing, I am convinced that the planning policies and framework that we currently have in place serve us well in relation to the retention and extension of the green belt.

In closing, let me reassure the hon. Lady by categorically stating that green belt land will continue to be protected in an extremely robust manner by this Government.

Question put and agreed to.

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