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Westminster Hall

Volume 476: debated on Wednesday 21 May 2008

Westminster Hall

Wednesday 21 May 2008

[Mr. Joe Benton in the Chair]

Maritime and Coastguard Agency (Industrial Relations)

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

I am delighted to have obtained this 90-minute debate, which will centre around a dispute that has been running for some time. It has been one of my frustrations in recent years that it has been difficult to get any discussion at all of industrial relations within the Maritime and Coastguard Agency on the Floor of the House or even on the record.

My frustrations are shared by several right hon. and hon. Members who would have wished to be here today but cannot be for a variety of reasons. I mention in particular the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen), who has taken a long and active interest in the debate but is not able to be here because of a constituency engagement, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce), who is the Chairman of the International Development Committee, which is sitting at present. He has registered a substantial interest.

Although it is not a declarable interest in the normal sense, for the sake of completeness I should perhaps place on record that, as far as matters of search and rescue are concerned, I am a member of the national council of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, which works closely with the agency. It is also a matter of some family pride that my father was for many years a member of the auxiliary coastguard, which is now a volunteer coastguard, on Islay. He was an active and leading participant in many rescue operations off Islay and several cliff rescues throughout the 1950s and 1960s. When we speak about the coastguard, we tend to speak about the full-time paid members, and that is who I will rightly focus on today, but it is important to remember the contribution to the operation of the volunteers as well.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. I apologise that I shall have to leave about 10 minutes before its end. Is not one of the tragedies of this dispute that the volunteer section, which is so incredibly important, is suffering from a complete drop in morale as much as the paid section is, and that a speedy end to the dispute is vital to get the voluntary side back in line?

My hon. Friend makes that perfectly fair and legitimate point exceptionally well. The damage that is being done by the industrial unrest in the agency significantly affects the paid sector, but I fear that the damage to the cadre of volunteers will be much more significant in the long term. One can resolve difficulties in a paid sector by improving pay and conditions, but very different conditions apply when it comes to motivating a volunteer sector.

I am delighted that there is a good turn-out from all parts of the House today. I know that not everybody will be able to stay for the whole of the debate, but their presence is an indication that the issue is growing in political importance. I hope that the Minister will consider that when he argues the case with the Treasury for the flexibility and resources that might allow resolution of the dispute.

It is frustrating that in many ways the coastguard, which is an emergency service, is the forgotten service. Just about every Member of this House must have signed an early-day motion, tabled a parliamentary question or written to the Minister about the need for a marine Bill. I also feel passionately about that issue, but every protection, designation and law that is known to man, beast and lawyer will have absolutely no impact whatsoever if protection from a day-to-day service on the ground is not in place. When an oil tanker is drifting towards rocks, designations are meaningless. That is when the coastguard is needed.

I note from the Library debate pack that it is more than a year since I first raised this issue on the Floor of the House. If the Minister takes no other message from today’s debate, I hope that he will understand that the dispute will not simply go away. There have already been three one-day strikes among the coastguard staff. Morale has plummeted as a consequence and there is an immense feeling of frustration among the operational staff, but, from my contacts with coastguard offices and people who have e-mailed me, and from a recent meeting that I had with Public and Commercial Services Union branch secretaries, I can tell the Minister that there is a greater than ever determination among coastguards to see the dispute through.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the three days of industrial action. Would he agree that the coastguards who decided to take industrial action did so with extremely heavy hearts? I have letters and e-mails from coastguards in my constituency who say that the decision to withdraw their labour was agonising. It was not one that they entered into lightly.

It was not a decision that they entered into lightly. In fact, every step in the evolution of this debate has been one that the coastguards have said they do not want to take, that they would take any means available to them to avoid. It is a hallmark of the failure to manage the dispute properly that people who are so highly motivated in their work have been pushed into a position where they feel they have no option but to strike.

Would my hon. Friend agree that the danger with the strikes is not only their potential impact on our own coasts but overseas as well? Coastguard stations such as Falmouth in my constituency play a critical role in co-ordinating rescues that could take place anywhere in the world. The impact of the dispute reaches much further than simply our own shores.

That is an exceptionally fine point. My hon. Friend will be aware that the shipping in and out of the country that passes Falmouth in her constituency involves ships from all over the world. It is an exceptionally busy shipping area. The work of the Falmouth coastguard station is also of particular importance because it has a role in the co-ordination of anti-terror efforts. Those things could all be put at risk by continuing disputes.

I spoke to one coastguard who is proud of the work that he has done on civil contingency planning. That is something else that will be lost as a result of the dispute within the agency. It is clear that the effects of the dispute will reach far beyond the bounds of the agency itself.

Let me just finish this one point, which I have been trying to make for the past two minutes.

There is clearly an emerging view among the staff that one-day strikes are simply not sufficient. That does not mean that they will give up and go away but that, almost inevitably, there will be two, three or four-day strikes, perhaps over a bank holiday weekend. As a result, I have serious concerns because the agency may not be able to provide proper contingency planning for such an eventuality.

The dispute stretches beyond coastal constituencies because all MPs have constituents who visit and use the coast, and it is important that their safety is secure. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the roots of the dispute go back two years to a comparability study? The unions and management agreed to look at other emergency services and came to a conclusion that the management then cursorily cast aside. People in my constituency would be astonished to learn that what is on offer is a 42-hour week, £12,097 a year, £5.37 an hour—just above the national minimum wage—together with a below-inflation pay offer. No wonder that double whammy has triggered the sort of action and reaction that we have seen and heard so far. The offer is not acceptable.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, and I shall say more about that later. He has no need to apologise for being part of this debate, although he has a land-locked constituency, because the pattern of sea use these days is no longer confined to coastal and island communities, as would have been the case in previous generations. The sea is increasingly used for leisure, for example, by people who go from land-locked or inland communities to the coast for a day, a week or for weekends, or whatever. That has been a growing sector in sea use in recent years.

I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. I have been trying to visit Fifeness coastguard station in my constituency for some time, but I am told that I can visit only in the presence of a senior civil servant. Quite why that is necessary, I am not sure.

May I underline the point that my hon. Friend has made about recreational use and add to it a point about those constituencies in which the fishing industry is based? The reliance that the fishing industry is able to place on the coastguard system is fundamental to the success of fishing activity. Any departure from the usual high standards and the 365-day availability is a matter of considerable concern to fishermen.

My right hon. and learned Friend makes a good point. Leisure users of the sea can choose to go to sea, whether coastguard cover is withdrawn or reduced. However, fishermen, especially inshore fishermen, who work within exceptionally tight margins cannot choose because the financial imperative will force them to go out to sea.

I suspect that after this debate there might be a queue of senior civil servants wanting to take my right hon. and learned Friend to the Fifeness station but, if there is not, if I were him I would probably just go anyway.

I am concerned that, if we move to two, three or four-day strikes, the contingency planning will be stretched beyond credibility. The contingency planning for a one-day strike has been described to me by a coastguard manager as relying on string and sticky tape. I say to the Minister that string and sticky tape will not last more than 24 hours. I hope that he will be honest and realistic with the House and the general public about what contingency planning arrangements can seriously and properly be made before a longer strike. I hope that such a prospect will prompt the Government to act before the contingency planning is necessary. There can be no doubt, because it is now on the record, that if something goes wrong in the event of a longer strike as a result of insufficient contingency planning and there is loss of life or environmental damage, nobody can say, “We didn’t know. We weren’t warned,” because they have been warned here today.

It is worth reflecting on how we got into this position. There has been a history of low pay in the coastguard. If we go back far enough, historically, people were coming to the coastguard from the Royal Navy after retirement and, as a result of the substantial pension they brought with them, did not need the same level of pay. However, that is no longer the case and has not been so for many years.

Our coastguard performs a highly technical and highly responsible operation. If right hon. and hon. Members have not been in a coastguard operations room I would encourage them to do so at the first available opportunity. In many ways it is a bit like being on the deck of the starship Enterprise. The coastguard is a highly technical, skilled operation, the development of which has been a deliberate policy on the part of the Government, although we have not always found that easy. The closure of Pentland and Oban coastguard stations was part of a rationalisation process that relied heavily on that technical development. However, we must have people who are well-motivated and resourced to make the technology work.

The situation rumbled on, as the hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) mentioned, until about 2006, at which point there was a comparability study instituted by the management of the MCA, which instructed KIS Solutions Ltd. That study was never published and its contents and its analysis of the situation are known only to those who were party to the pay negotiations at the time. However, it demonstrated a gap between the coastguards and those working in comparable emergency services. That study was declared by the management at the time as being of no value, but no further specification of that was given and, as a result of that declaration, a below-inflation pay increase was imposed and the longer-term issues were not addressed.

In 2007, a new chief executive was appointed. Many of us hoped that that appointment would mark a new beginning in the negotiations and, for some time, it appeared that that would be so. At the instigation of the chief executive a pay benchmarking analysis was undertaken that was finally agreed on in October 2007. That analysis concluded that a coastguard watch assistant was up to £4,500 per annum behind where they ought to be. No figure was agreed for the coastguard watch officers, because the evidence was, in the management’s view—to use their terms—less compelling. Of course, it could be less compelling given the position with regard to the watch assistants. However, there is still plenty of scope for a fairly compelling case to be made.

It is worth putting on the record the figures that we are talking about. A coastguard watch assistant earns between £12,509 and £14,384 a year; a watch officer earns between £14,742 and £18,717 a year; and a coastguard watch manager earns between £19,744 and £25,702 per week—if only! I should, of course, have said “per year”. A watch officer and a watch manager routinely take control of major search and rescue co-ordinations. They also make the decision that the time has come to give up the search, which involves saying to the family of the person who is missing, “We are not going to find your loved one. We are giving up the search.” Right hon. and hon. Members might ask themselves whether they would be prepared to say that to a grieving family who do not know where their loved one is. Would they be prepared to do that for less than £15,000 a year?

We talk about comparability with the fire, police and ambulance services, but the comparability is not exact; in fact, the situation is even more acute for the coastguard. In respect of fire, ambulance or police operations on the ground, that is the point at which the control room gives up. It is different for the coastguard, where the operations room retains control of what is going on on the ground from beginning to end.

I hope that my framing the subject for debate quite widely is not lost on the Minister. I do not want this debate to be just about the dispute: it has to be about how we have got to this situation and what we are going to do in future, once we have got past the dispute.

On that point, does my hon. Friend agree that the nub of the issue is that this is not a dispute about annual pay, but about a six-year negotiation on regrading? Does he also agree—without wishing to be rude or disparaging to the Under-Secretary of State who will answer this debate—that a lot of right hon. and hon. Members fear that the dead hand of the Treasury lies behind the reason why the MCA, an agency of the Department, is unable to resolve an unfair arrangement?

I have no doubt that the resolution to this dispute will ultimately come from the Treasury. Equally, I have no doubt that the Minister has the key role in making the case. The benefit of this debate is that he can go to the Treasury and say that the issue is heating up politically and will not go away, so a solution must be found. In the present set-up, morale is on a downward spiral, and a large element of false economy is entering the equation. We are investing in training for watch officers particularly, only to see them take the training and then take their skills elsewhere where they can obtain much better remuneration.

In his answer to my recent parliamentary question the Minister said that the cost of staff advertising and recruitment had risen from £59,000 in 1998-99 to £252,000 in the year just ended. I have outstanding questions to the Minister about staff retention, but management has told the unions that between 2003 and 2007, 105 coastguard watch assistants left the agency and 51 of them had less than two years’ experience.

We must look ahead, and at why operational staff in the agency feel so demoralised and undervalued. The Minister may wish to reflect on the message that is sent to operational coastguard staff when the board of the agency does not include a single person with operational experience as a coastguard. When we have got through the present difficult period, we must take a long, hard look at the coastguard, and why we have got where we are. I welcome this debate as the first step in that process.

I shall make only a brief speech, to emphasise the point that I made in an intervention. During the six years of the negotiations, three grades—those of watch assistant, watch officer and watch manager—have been most relevant to the dispute. Following last autumn’s and this autumn’s increase in the national minimum wage, watch assistants will have to have an increase to bring their pay back above the national minimum wage. They undertake important and responsible work in the watch room, but their pay is just at the point of the national minimum wage, despite their having to go through one year of training. Further training is required for watch officers as they move up the scale.

Is it not the case that watch officers and watch assistants will be earning less than administrative officers in the same station? I have constituents who have taken a pay cut to move from being an administrative assistant to the watch side and have done a year’s training simply to have a more interesting job. Is that not asking too much?

My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point, and she has been assiduous in representing the interests of the Falmouth station, which has an important international role not only in counter-terrorism, but in co-ordination of rescues. It has provided an international co-ordinating role in many other parts of the world, and is an important watch station for the MCA.

The third grade, watch managers, are on the executive officer grade of the civil service pay band and are paid at the same level as an administrative manager, but they go through many years of training to achieve that grade and must satisfy more than 140 technical competencies before they are entitled to take on that role. Without wishing to disparage the skills of administrative managers, those technical competencies take watch managers to a level that clearly has no correlation or comparability with administrative managers.

I am greatly concerned about the present position. The evidence is apparent: one only has to look at the required competencies, the stress involved when dealing with extremely distressing situations, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) referred, and the work that staff must deal with daily, and then consider the grades, pay and rewards that they receive, to recognise that they have an extremely strong case for regrading. The dispute is not about pay; it is about grading.

Many years ago when I was a shadow Shipping Minister, the coastguard issue was very important. The hon. Gentleman is talking about intelligence in advanced search and rescue. I want to say through him to the Under-Secretary that it is essential to have a proper pay structure that recognises the detailed and courageous work that our coastguard does, not only in coastal areas, but serving constituencies in the centre of the country.

I am sure that the Under-Secretary heard that comment from a Government Member. I am also sure that he appreciates that there is sympathy for and concern about the issue throughout the House. We all want a resolution to what seems to be an intractable problem. I particularly want him to address that intractability.

There have been several comparability studies. Some have been published, and the unions are aware of some of them. Two were produced in December 2006 and September 2007, but the chief executive of the MCA wishes to talk to the unions only about the three-year plan, which does not address the problem of regrading of watch officers, watch assistants and watch managers, which is the nub of the dispute.

Those who work in the stations are concerned that the reason that the MCA senior executive and management wish to discuss with the union, not regrading, but only the three-year plan is that they do not have the competency or power to negotiate a solution to the problem. Achieving the number of staff required within the existing budget is a challenge for the MCA executive, and there is a sense that the dead hand of the Treasury is lying over that. My hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland was correct in his response to my intervention. I hope that we are given some evidence today that the Under-Secretary of State and his Department are talking to the Treasury and are seeking the finance required to provide the solution to this particularly intractable dispute.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) on securing the debate and on clearly setting out the issues and the solutions required. My constituency has the privilege of having the longest coastline in the country, so I am obviously concerned about the implications of the present dispute.

People who earn their livelihood at sea—fishermen, those who operate commercial craft or private craft—and leisure users place their lives in the hands of coastguards. Recent one-day strikes led to half the country’s rescue co-ordination centres being closed. Obviously, if the dispute is prolonged, it will be difficult to maintain the service. It is important to note that those were the first ever strikes by coastguards, so they are clearly not a militant work force.

The hon. Gentleman might recall that last year, 20 volunteer coastguard teams withdrew their labour and entered into industrial action in west Wales as a result of another industrial relations dispute involving compensation for my constituent, Brian McFarlane—a volunteer coastguard worker who had been injured on a cliff rescue. Concerns were raised about adequate compensation for coastguards who are injured. Uncertainty was created largely as a result of the attitude and communications of the MCA senior management team. Strictly speaking, therefore, this is not the first example of industrial action by coastguards.

My point is that the work force is not militant and that industrial action was only taken as a last resort, after years of negotiations.

Starting salaries for coastguards are extremely low. The basic grade in the operations room is a coastguard watch assistant. That role requires a year of training and assessments and examinations must be passed; however, on entry, coastguard watch assistants receive a basic salary of only £12,500 a year. Last October, the agency had to give them an interim pay rise, but that was to comply with national minimum wage legislation. The pay is extremely poor for the type of work that coastguards do. Theirs is a highly skilled and technical job which, importantly, helps to save lives at sea.

As we have heard, comparisons have been made between coastguards and the other emergency services—police, fire and ambulance. Those comparability studies found that, consistently, control room staff in the other emergency services that do a similar job have higher rates of pay. There is a compelling case for increasing coastguards’ pay to the same level as those who do similar jobs in the other emergency services.

It is patently obvious that if the MCA does not pay its staff a salary that is comparable to what they can earn elsewhere, they will leave. As other hon. Members have pointed out, staff turnover is high. Low salaries are therefore a false economy for the MCA in the long run, because the agency will incur the costs of training and recruiting new staff. That is on top of the problems of low morale caused by the present industrial dispute.

I urge the Minister to intervene in the dispute without further delay and to broker a deal to end it. That deal must not just solve the present dispute, but involve long-term regrading so that the pay of MCA staff is comparable with that of staff in the other emergency services. If that means securing more money from the Treasury, the funds will have to be found. After the dispute has been settled, the Government should have an inquiry into the management of the MCA to find out why there are such poor industrial relations and to ensure that industrial relations are not allowed to deteriorate again.

Coastguards do a vital and skilled job and deserve a fair rate of pay. The Government must broker a deal because the safety of people who use the sea depends upon it.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) on securing the debate. It is vital that the issue is given a thorough airing in Westminster Hall, and hon. Members from all parties have done exactly that.

I represent Stornoway, which is part of my constituency, and the importance of our coastguard office does not need to be emphasised for my constituents. On many winter days, the radio provides the first news of the morning and bulletins often begin with the words, “Stornoway coastguards say,” or “Stornoway coastguards are dealing with”—of course, that might be in English or Gaelic—showing that my constituents understand the importance of the work of the coastguard; indeed, many of them were surprised to find that coastguards are in their present situation.

While I was listening to the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Mr. Reid), I was reminded of my experience of listening to the coastguard as a fisherman—whether I was clearing nets or handling creels, work was often interrupted when Channel 67 broadcast the coastguard weather bulletins and other information. Those bulletins were welcome not just for providing a break in the work, but for the vital information that was given and for the fact that there was a reassuring voice.

People are surprised that the pay level of coastguards, who are held in such high esteem, has come to public attention. The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland talked about coastguards wanting to see the dispute through, but the coastguard and watch officers have no option but to see it through. Although pay rates have been mentioned, I will talk about them again. After one year of training, the starting salary for a coastguard watch assistant is £12,509. To put that in context, it increased in October 2007 only to meet the minimum wage, as the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute said.

The hon. Gentleman has been part of the campaign for some time. Does he agree that the worst thing that could happen for the Maritime and Coastguard Agency would be for the coastguards to give in at this stage, because the issues would not be tackled in the long term and the problems of low morale and lack of motivation would never be addressed? Those concerned have no option but to continue their dispute.

The hon. Gentleman puts it well; the coastguards have no option but to continue the dispute. We have talked about there being a high turnover of personnel among coastguards and it will only accelerate unless there is thorough root and branch reform. I am sure that the Minister is well aware of the need for that.

As I mentioned earlier, listeners of the local radio have been stunned to hear the details of the low levels of pay that coastguards receive, and people have also been stunned to read about them in the local newspaper. Coastguards are held in high esteem and their work is seen as very important. I and my constituents were dismayed and surprised to find that coastguards are only on the minimum wage.

Coastguards have not taken the step of strike action lightly. Indeed, the 6 March strike was the first in their 180-year history. The reluctance they felt led to them breaking their strike by trying to ensure that people who were out fishing, those who were engaged in leisure-related activities or anyone who might need coastguard help were not in peril. However, they still tried to make their own distress known and I think they have done so. Their support among hon. Members today shows that their point has been well made.

The Minister will be aware of the rightness of the coastguards’ case. No doubt, he could use budget restrictions as an argument, but I urge him not do so, even though it may be tempting. He must use this debate to show the Treasury some steel because it needs to understand forcefully the problems and injustice that coastguards are facing and the situation they are in—I see the Minister is nodding. One of the Government’s watchwords is social justice, but the social justice shown to coastguard watch officers is not at the highest level.

I am concerned that the response to the pay settlement—the re-grading—is often to add the shift allowance that MCA staff receive to the basic salary. I hope that the Minister does not confuse the picture or deflect us by including the shift allowance, to which people are entitled because they work antisocial hours. We must concentrate on the basic salary for people’s grade, and not confuse the issue by including the shift allowance.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for a point well made. I am sure that the Minister heard it as well. We all know that the problem lies at the Treasury. The Minister must impress on the Treasury the need to deal with the matter properly. I urge him to stamp his feet if necessary—this is one he should jump in the ditch for.

Strike action was not taken lightly. Coastguard watch assistants, officers and managers have very solid support among MPs. A message should go to the Treasury and to the MCA about the strength of feeling among MPs. We feel that MCA staff should be treated fairly. They have a stressful job that they often have to do in distressing situations, as the hon. Members for Orkney and Shetland and for Argyll and Bute said. Their pay grading needs to match that of the other emergency sectors.

The most surprising thing for me when I first got involved in this matter was to see how staff are treated, especially given the job that they do. It is a linchpin job. They may be co-ordinating the RNLI from their stations, they may be co-ordinating helicopters and they are often the interface with the public. The level of pay they receive for that job is shocking.

The other message to the Minister is that the measures we have described need to be taken now. The situation is urgent; it is dire. Coastguards have gone on strike for the first time in 180 years. They cannot give up; as the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland said, this is not a time for string or sticky tape. It is a time for real, solid measures to be taken to ensure that we are not dealing with the matter again next year and that we can have conversations about issues other than the difficulty that people have in working for the coastguard.

I am grateful for the opportunity to put on record my support for coastguard staff in the dispute. I congratulate the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) on securing the debate, which is very important for many parts of the country. From speaking with constituents involved in the dispute, I am aware of the level of support in the MCA for the industrial action. I understand that in the ballot in December, 91 per cent. of those who voted did so for industrial action.

As many hon. Members have said, the problem has not come about overnight. It is a historical problem that has existed for many years in the coastguard service, where the levels of pay do not seem comparable to those in other parts of the public sector when we consider the skills, training and experience required in the posts. I therefore join other hon. Members in saying that we want not only a solution to the current dispute, but for the issue to be examined in the long term. It is not acceptable that emergency staff are having to take industrial action.

Today, I spoke to a constituent who is involved in the dispute. He fully supports the action, but he expressed concerns about the possible risks because there is only a skeleton service on the days when industrial action takes place. No one is more aware than those involved in the coastguard of the potential risks when industrial action takes place in such a service. That highlights the fact that it is an emergency service, and just as we say that members of the police service, the ambulance service and the fire brigade should be paid decently for the service they provide to the community, it is only right that we say that for the coastguard service, too.

I offer the Minister my support in any endeavours that he is making to secure funds from the Treasury. I do not think that the situation is of the Department for Transport’s making. The reasons for the present situation have arisen over many years. We have heard about the poverty pay in the service and the need to increase salaries as a result of the annual increases in the national minimum wage. As a Labour Member, I have to say that the fact that we have the national minimum wage means that at least those increases have been made. However, they highlight the fact that, for various reasons, we have ended up in this situation. I very much hope that attempts are made to get back round the table with the unions in meaningful discussions that will not only provide a solution to the dispute that we are dealing with today, but ensure that we do not have to have similar discussions in years to come.

I add my congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) on securing this very important debate. I confess that it feels a bit strange to be responding from the Front Bench to my hon. Friend, who used to be my boss in the transport team and probably knows considerably more about all things watery than I do. I pay tribute to the work he has done to try to force the Government into action to deal with the ongoing dispute. As well as securing this debate, he has questioned the Prime Minister, called for a parliamentary statement from the Secretary of State and tabled early-day motion 1188 on Maritime and Coastguard Agency strike action, which has been backed by 68 right hon. and hon. Members from no fewer than six political parties.

I also pay tribute to the work done by MCA staff, who save lives daily. I express my appreciation to Paul Smith, the MCA section secretary for the Public and Commercial Services Union, for taking the time to discuss the union’s concerns with me and providing us all with a briefing for the debate. I record my interest as an active member of the PCS all-party group.

I shall touch on a number of issues, many of which have been mentioned. I shall be interested to hear what the Minister has to say about the contingency arrangements for the strikes that have taken place and what action is planned to deal with any escalation of strike action. There has clearly been some difference of opinion between management and the PCS about the MCA’s ability to cope with the strikes.

In a written answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland regarding contingency arrangements, the Minister referred to the redeployment of “experienced managers”. I would like to hear whether those experienced managers were experienced in the operational duties to which they were redeployed during the strikes. Does the Minister accept that the agency muddled through the one-day strikes, and that staff in Shetland did not strike because they were concerned about the safety implications of staff being away from work?

In the same written answer, the Minister confirmed that the agency would approach contingency planning for any future strike action in the same way. Given that strike action is likely to escalate into a 48-hour strike, I strongly urge him to review that decision, because from the perspective of the PCS, although the agency may have been able to muddle through during a 24-hour strike, it will simply not be able to cope with a 48-hour walkout.

My hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland referred to recruitment and retention in the MCA. When it was first established, the coastguard was a very different organisation. It tended to recruit staff who were just finishing a career at sea in either the merchant navy or the Royal Navy. They came ashore with a pension and saw an opportunity to remain in the industry by taking a job with the coastguard. For many, it was a way of supplementing their pension. Since then, the job has changed out of all recognition, but the pay structure remains stuck in the 1970s. As a result, the MCA has a real problem with recruitment and retention. Yes, people are still coming into the service, but many leave within the first couple of years, fully trained and often going to better-paid jobs in which their experience is better remunerated. Between 2003 and 2007, of 175 new recruits, 41 left within two years and, as my hon. Friend said, of all staff leaving the service between 2003 and 2007, almost 50 per cent. left with less than two years of service.

In answer to another written question from my hon. Friend, the Minister confirmed that more than £1.1 million was spent on recruitment between 2003 and 2007. Some of that money would have been better spent trying to retain fully trained staff.

In the summer of 2006, management and the trade unions agreed during their pay negotiations that management would undertake a comparability study, examining pay levels in the agency and those of other emergency services and similar staff. It was understood that the work would delay the 2006 pay discussions, but it was thought essential by unions and management and therefore worth while. The work was undertaken by KIS-Solutions Ltd.

The report was produced on 6 December 2006. However, it was not published or made available except to those involved in the pay negotiations. Its analysis demonstrated that although a range of salary levels is paid to ambulance, fire service and police control room staff, who enjoy varying conditions of service, they have a consistent pay lead over MCA staff who work in operation rooms. In addition, levels of responsibility and accountability vary considerably, with MCA staff having the most involvement in ongoing operations. Management’s response was to dismiss the report, declaring that it was of no value. It proposed a below-inflation pay offer that did not maintain cost of living increases or address the long-standing problem of pay comparability.

Following the appointment of Peter Cardy as the MCA’s chief executive in June 2007, agreement was reached on carrying out a further comparability study. The final draft was broadly agreed by the PCS in September 2007 but it was rejected by Prospect, the other union involved. Joint work highlighted a shortfall in salary for a watch assistant, estimated to be in the region of up to £4,500, as has been mentioned by a number of hon. Members.

PCS has always been ready to accept benchmarking against the other emergency services, despite the fact that MCA staff maintain control of operations until their completion, quite unlike the police, the fire service and ambulance services. It is true that MCA staff do not handle as many calls as the other emergency services, but they have to make tough decisions about when to call off a search. Such decisions cannot be taken lightly. The agency accepts that pay levels need addressing, but it has failed to come up with a solution.

In December 2007, the unions were informed that management wished to make a pay offer that would cover a four-year period—one that would

“go a long way to addressing concerns over pay levels”.

However, it was never made because permission to make the offer was withdrawn.

The real sticking point is the Government’s current drive to keep down public sector pay awards. In January Peter Cardy said:

“Anything that we might want to do is constrained by public sector pay policy. So even if we had the money…We would not be in a position to pay more than the Treasury will allow us to pay.”

That merely confirmed what the Minister said in a letter to Paul Smith of PCS in November:

“You are aware of the Prime Minister’s and the Chancellor’s position on public sector pay, which applies as much to the MCA as it does to the rest of the Department and the Civil Service more generally. It is clear that the MCA will need to operate within the context of that wider pay policy and the need to control public spending.”

That is a smokescreen. The dispute is not about an annual pay award, although public sector workers are understandably concerned at receiving pay increases much lower than the increased cost of living. No; it is about long-standing pay levels that fall significantly behind comparable workers in the other emergency services.

I suspect that most people would be shocked to hear that some workers will get a pay rise in October simply to avoid falling below the new minimum wage. That is not acceptable. The Minister is a reasonable man. We need to hear from him that the Government accept that the dispute is not about this year’s pay award. It is about fairness, and ensuring that staff are paid a salary that reflects their high level of responsibility and is comparable to workers in other emergency services. We would like the Government to commit themselves to resolving the dispute. We would like the Minister to agree to a binding, independent review of pay for staff in the MCA.

I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) on calling this debate. The topic is important and, as a number of hon. Members have said, proper discussion of it by the House is long overdue.

Before getting down to the serious matter of pay, I wish to pick out three points that featured in the hon. Gentleman’s speech. The first is that the Government have been warned about contingency planning and the problems that may arise if things go wrong during a two-day or three-day strike. Secondly, because of the MCA’s structure, those in its top tier are, in a sense, professionally divorced. I do not attack any individual, but the top tier managers come from a different pool from those who work at the sharp end. That is a point for further thinking. Thirdly, I was pleased to hear the hon. Gentleman say that we must not lose sight of the position of the many thousands of volunteers in the MCA, of which he said his father was a distinguished member. I shall return to that subject later.

The coastguards have become the forgotten emergency service. Although 95 per cent. of all goods by weight imported into this country come by sea, few of us make more than a short ferry trip in a vessel. I bow to the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr. MacNeil) and his fishing experience. I have in my constituency a small group of fishermen who play an important part in the community. Day by day and week by week, we all see the activities of the police, the fire brigade and the ambulance service, but it is all too easy to forget the essential work of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency.

Almost everything that arrives in our shops or appears on our plates that has been imported has come by sea. The MCA is the glue that holds the whole thing together in the United Kingdom. It regulates our position as a flag state and as a port state; it inspects all British ships and keeps an eye on foreign-flagged ships entering UK harbours. However, our debate has focused on its most vital work, which is co-ordinating rescues. The 1,250 staff of the MCA answered more than 21,000 distress calls last year, with almost 50,000 seafarers potentially at risk.

When I visited my local coastguard headquarters in Dover—the visit was kindly facilitated by the Minister, who took some trouble to overcome the various complications mentioned by the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell)—I was struck by one image: a photograph of a group of volunteers, led by a full-time coastguard professional, abseiling down a cliff to rescue a young woman who had fallen over the edge. Normally, those who fall over the cliff do not survive. Miraculously, her fall was broken at 120 ft by a fridge that had been illegally dumped. If the House will forgive my levity on such a serious subject, it gives a new meaning to recycling! That case reminds us, of course, that MCA staff do not save only people out at sea.

The storms earlier this year, in which we saw three large ships founder, should help to focus all our minds on the dangers still inherent in the seafarer’s life. According to the MCA’s report, of the more than 1,400 ships registered in the UK, an average of 150 are involved in a maritime incident of some kind each year. To add a footnote to that, the bishop who is the head of the Apostleship of the Sea, in a moving speech in the Speaker’s apartments two or three years ago, reminded us that although a spillage of oil invariably gets national and international headlines for days on end, the deaths of mariners at sea frequently only make the smallest entry in the media. The coastguard is of course involved in both situations.

Coastguards must co-ordinate a bewildering number of different bodies when they answer a call, including the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, military search and rescue teams—there are plans for all rather than some of the helicopters involved to be operated by MCA by 2012—mountain and cave rescue teams for incidents on cliffs, and ambulance and fire crews. Kent Fire and Rescue Service is often involved in offshore work. In addition, coastguards have their own search and rescue teams on the coastline. The men and women of the MCA deserve our praise and admiration.

When visiting the Dover headquarters, I was mightily impressed with the way in which the people there, who are experts on the sea, used every kind of modern technology. The dual-tracking system, based on satellite tracking and radar, gives the lie to the idea of the old sea dog gazing through a telescope, although they also had a nice pair of high-powered binoculars—the mark 1 eyeball is always there as a back-up. We must accept that those people have been treated shabbily.

I am listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman’s remarks. At the beginning of his speech, he warned of the consequences of a two or three-day pay dispute. I should tell the Minister that anything that arises from the dispute could be really bad news for the Government. The PCS is looking for only £3 million to resolve the dispute, which seems like a small amount when we consider that the Treasury found £2.6 billion at the stroke of a pen last week.

I shall respond directly to the hon. Gentleman’s point toward the end of my speech.

Because of below-inflation pay increases, some staff have found that their salaries have slipped to minimum wage levels, as hon. Members pointed out. Police officers and firefighters have a starting salary of around £20,000, but coastguards start on little more than £12,000. The salaries for watch officers and watch managers are also very low when compared with similar positions in other emergency services. Inflation is soaring, so a pay rise of only 2.5 per cent. has understandably infuriated some of the most dedicated and professional men and women in the public service.

That has brought about the first three strikes in professional coastguard history—the Government should not be proud of that record—and has led to the haemorrhaging of staff. The latter has been referred to a number of times and I do not wish to repeat the detailed figures provided by the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Leech), but I echo the point that was made by a number of hon. Members on the increase in training and advertising budgets, which is money wasted. To clarify, money spent on training is not wasted per se—training is essential—but it is if it relates to unnecessary levels of turnover.

That is not the only area where the coastguard is being let down. Last year, volunteer coastguards went out on their first strike because the Government refused to give them proper insurance for their work. As a consequence, one coastguard who was seriously injured on a rescue mission up a cliff in Pembrokeshire—the injury was so serious that it cost him his job—did not get compensation worth even half his old salary, and that payment was only temporary. Coastguards rely on volunteers for a range of activities, but particularly for cliff rescue. Men and women are prepared to spend their leisure time training so that they can be on stand-by night and day to launch a rescue mission. The treatment of those volunteers is no way to keep their good will; they could easily vote with their feet and do something else in their spare time.

The management of the voluntary sector is another challenge for the MCA to face. My father was a coastguard auxiliary in an area that he knew intimately because he had worked there as a shepherd with other shepherds. However, there are no shepherds left in that area—the ground is largely unknown to the next generation, who do not know the cliff paths to the shoreline, for example. That range of local, highly detailed expertise will be lost.

The hon. Gentleman has put a point of considerable significance on the record. I shall not comment further because he made it so well.

Two groups of strikes—three days of professional action and a single volunteer strike—have taken place in a sector that has never before taken industrial action, which is an indictment of the Government’s approach to the coastguards. We know what has caused the problem: it is not the lack of an energetic Minister in post—the Minister knows that I have the highest personal admiration for him—but that the public finances are in a terrible mess. The official excuse used by the Government to justify the situation is that they need to keep pay increases down generally to fight inflation. However, inflation is running at 4 per cent. on the retail prices index, so offering only a 2.5 per increase means that the salaries of those men and women is reduced.

The sad truth is that we cannot make reasonable pay increases in some parts of the public sector because there is not enough money in the kitty. Borrowing figures for this year have risen exponentially. In March 2006, the then Chancellor of the Exchequer predicted that Government borrowing would be £25 billion in 2008-09, but within a year it had almost doubled to £40 billion. When the current Chancellor introduced his first Budget, borrowing was £43 billion, and by the second, emergency Budget, it had crossed the £45 billion mark.

The Government have run out of money and any incoming Government would be in the same situation—neck deep in debt. Because of the deteriorating state of the public finances, nobody is in a position to make a firm promise at the next election to raise coastguards’ salaries to a given figure. However, I can tell the House that I have had a fruitful discussion, given the extreme circumstances, with the Conservatives’ Treasury team, and I have their approval to say that if our party is elected, we will review the MCA’s position in the context of comparison with the other emergency services.

I am pleased to hear talk of a review, but have the Conservative Treasury team made any substantial promise of money? That is the nub of the issue.

The hon. Gentleman is right to ask that question. By agreeing to a review in the context of the other public emergency services, and knowing that the MCA’s position is different, the Treasury team have made a considerable concession. Clearly, no party or Government would give a blank cheque to a review and guarantee that any proposals will be implemented in full; they must first see what comes up in the review. Not because the sums involved are large—the hon. Gentleman and others have pointed out that they are small—but because of the precedent that any measure could set for other sectors, the transport and Treasury teams have agreed to hold a review in the context of the other emergency services.

That Her Majesty’s coastguards, both professional and volunteer, have felt compelled to go out on strike should be a source of considerable shame for the Government. The Minister knows that I do not blame him personally—the blame for our disintegrating economy lies a lot further up the ministerial pay scale—but he should apologise to the brave men and women who guard our coasts and take the responsibility of co-ordinating not only rescue operations, but the routine work beforehand. They deserve our gratitude, so it is sad to see them voting with their feet.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) on securing the debate. I also welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Benton.

Let me say how much the Government—and I personally—value the excellent work done by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency. The MCA is a complex UK-wide organisation with a world-class reputation. Its coastguards are renowned for providing an outstanding maritime emergency response and search-and-rescue service. Its marine surveyors are well respected throughout the industry for their professionalism and experience. All permanent MCA staff, supported by 3,500 volunteers, make a major contribution to the UK’s international high standing in matters of maritime safety, security and environmental protection. It is therefore particularly disappointing that the agency finds itself in the midst of protracted industrial action.

I hope that I will be able to clear up at least some of the misunderstandings that have inevitably grown up around the facts of this case. As hon. Members know, the public sector pay envelope is tight. In that respect, I acknowledge the statement made by the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) and the commitment that he has from his shadow team. MCA staff are public sector employees, and their pay awards must be consistent with the Government’s public sector pay policy.

We are making the case that the coastguards’ pay levels are an historical exception. If the Minister could find the £3 million in his departmental budget—the roads budget, by contrast, is about £13 billion—would the Treasury allow him to pay it to the coastguards?

If the hon. Gentleman will allow me, I will return to the way forward later. If he will let me, however, I first want to lay out the position.

Under the 2007 pay deal, which was imposed in March 2008, MCA staff received an average increase of 3.8 per cent., with some individuals receiving just over 7 per cent. In addition, some staff received a non-consolidated pay bonus, while most staff received an element of performance-related pay. At the current rates of pay, as colleagues have said, a coastguard watch assistant—the most junior grade in the coastguard—who works only day shifts will earn between £12,509 and £14,384. However, most CWAs work a range of shifts and are therefore also entitled to a 25 per cent. shift allowance. Typically, staff at that level who work a range of shifts earn about £16,500 per annum, which rises to a maximum of almost £18,000. A coastguard watch officer with a couple of years’ experience who works a range of shifts will earn between £20,000 and £23,400. Of course, there are other benefits, including membership of the principal civil service pension scheme, with its range of guaranteed benefits for individual members and their dependants, as well as six weeks’ annual leave.

Much has been made of the comparison between the pay of MCA staff and staff in other organisations, but such comparisons are largely unhelpful because, in many ways, the MCA is a unique organisation. On closer examination, there are often significant differences between the roles and responsibilities of staff holding similar positions in apparently comparable organisations. One example is the number of emergency calls received.

Several hon. Members have suggested that contingency planning was put together with string and sticky tape, to quote the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland, but I can assure him that the arrangements have worked well. If there are longer disruptions, appropriate contingency arrangements will obviously have to be put in place.

I want to take the Minister back to something that he said 30 seconds or a minute ago about comparability. He seems to be moving away from saying that the work of the coastguards is comparable to that of other emergency services. Can he confirm that that is not the case? To my mind, there is a strong case for saying that there is comparability; indeed, if that were not the case, it is difficult to understand why MCA management would have undertaken so many exercises to establish where that comparability put its staff.

My point was that it is not as straightforward as saying that there is a simple comparison between the different organisations. For example, the coastguard receives about 23,000 emergency calls per annum, as one or two colleagues said. However, the fire service receives 690,000 calls, the ambulance service receives 2.7 million and the police receive 5.7 million. That is the scale of the calls involved.

I am sure that the Minister does not want to mislead hon. Members, but the MCA is a much smaller organisation than the others that he mentioned. Surely, he should quote the statistics per employee, not the global statistics.

I fully accept that. All that I was saying is that it is not that easy to draw direct, automatic, parallel comparisons—there are differences in scale.

I hope that the Minister does not try simply to pass over this issue. I entirely agree that the level at which pay should be set across the whole public sector is an entirely separate issue; the nub of the issues before us is comparability and regrading. Is he saying that, having looked at the report, he is content that the administrative assistant, administrative officer and executive officer gradings given to watch assistants, watch officers and watch managers are appropriate to those jobs?

What I am setting out, as I will explain in more detail in a moment, is what we believe is the way forward in terms of the skills and roles of coastguards.

In only one case did direct comparisons and comparators, as well as studies involving job roles in other emergency services, find a fair job match. In another case, there was a good job match between CWAs and firefighters in the most junior grades. There are therefore difficulties with those comparators, although I recognise that they have been put forward very strongly by the unions.

The numerical comparisons that the Minister makes are dangerous and spurious. We could look at the police force and say that rural policemen—certainly on some of the Hebridean islands in my constituency—are scrabbling around to look for cases, when cases are landing on people’s doorsteps in central London. Numerical comparisons are therefore in no way instructive. MPs and the PCS are saying that the value of the service far outweighs anything suggested by spurious numerical comparisons. If we do look at numerical comparisons, however, we should look at the number of cases per head. The MCA has 700 employees, but other organisations have vastly more.

I hear exactly what the hon. Gentleman says. The only point that I was making was that the comparators are not directly parallel or as simple as they might seem. However, I do not completely eliminate them as legitimate issues for unions and staff to put forward when seeking to show that certain issues should be addressed.

Does the Minister accept that one could argue that the coastguards have more responsibility than call centre workers in other emergency services because they deal with the emergency from the start to the finish, rather than just taking the initial call and passing it on?

Similar situations arise in other services—I would not classify them. I know that the hon. Gentleman did not mean to refer to call centre workers and that he was in fact talking about emergency call handlers with a very sophisticated role to perform. I recognise the duty that they perform in dealing with an incident from start to finish, which can be a very protracted process. However, that also happens in other emergency services, although perhaps not to the same degree.

The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland asked about the fact that there was no coastguard on the board of the MCA. The MCA’s executive board fully understands and appreciates what coastguards do. It includes a wealth of experience in the maritime sector, including as search and rescue practitioners, in some cases, as I think the hon. Gentleman knows.

The hon. Member for St. Ives (Andrew George) wanted an assurance that we are engaging with the Treasury. I assure him from my limited experience as an Under-Secretary that every Department in Government engages with the Treasury at every opportunity, just as every agency within the Department for Transport engages with Ministers to seek the best level of resourcing that it can get. Government Departments do that with the Treasury and the Treasury does it with the taxpayer. The climate at present is one in which taxpayers say they are being soaked too much. We may argue about priorities but even the Liberal Democrat leader said yesterday that we must cut taxes, and that involves priorities. I shall perhaps return to the issue of the direction of priorities, but as to the assurance that I have been giving that every Department engages with the Treasury, Government policy is well documented. The hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Mr. Reid) made a similar point.

I fully understand and appreciate what the Minister says about his engagement with the Treasury. I understand and appreciate, too, the way in which public sector pay awards are debated across the board—which is, I am sure, the nature of the Minister’s discussions. However, may I be reassured that the Department and the Minister have the freedom to engage in and resolve issues of regrading and comparability without recourse to the Treasury?

If the hon. Gentleman will allow me, I shall return to that point later in my remarks. I can tell him, in response to a question that was also asked by the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute, that the average increase for staff in post in 2008-09 will be in the region of 3.75 per cent., as compared with less than 3.5 per cent. for 2007-08. The MCA can target higher than average increases at specialists, and elsewhere where there are greater than average recruitment problems. Any changes to the MCA’s recruitment and retention data since the submission of the 2007-08 remit in January will be taken into account in this year’s remit by the Treasury.

The hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Leech) questioned the capability of managers to provide contingency cover during disputes. Many of the managers who provided support on strike days have practical experience of search and rescue techniques and practices. The hon. Member for Canterbury raised the question of the drop in morale, and the importance to the service of compensation. Volunteers are very important to the Department and to the MCA. We have carried out a review of their work and are working with them to implement the outcome of that review. For example, we have started to carry out further health checks, to ensure that volunteers carry out their duties with the minimum risk to their personal health. The MCA is now reviewing compensation arrangements and expects to make an announcement in due course.

The hon. Member for Manchester, Withington kindly said that I am a reasonable man, and suggested that I needed to do more with the Treasury. I think I can safely say that I am the only former emergency service worker present who has been on strike over pay against a Labour Government. I remember my own dispute and the nine weeks that we spent on strike, so my question is where we go from here. I have heard at first hand about the frustration and dissatisfaction that many staff feel about the pay structure. I probably should declare that I have family in the service, but I shall not say more, because it would be very unfair on my mum’s cousin if I said who and where he is. The trade unions have made their members’ views very clear, directly to me, and through the fact that many staff supported the recent strike action, which was the first in the history of the agency.

The chief executive and senior management of the agency are taking a long hard look at what can be done within the existing MCA pay structure to improve the situation for the most junior grades. For example, the review of CWA posts has resulted in some junior staff being regraded as watch officers, with a consequent uplift in pay. In addition, I understand that there have been discussions on a new pay structure, specifically for vessel traffic service operators. That does not change the fact that the public sector pay envelope is very tight and will remain so for the foreseeable future. We want people to be paid appropriately, particularly when taking on new tasks or increasing their work load, but that must be within the Government’s public sector framework. That means that management, staff, trade unions and Government need to be more inventive in using the resources that are available within the framework. For the MCA it means thinking long and hard about the work that it does, how it might need to be done differently in the future, and how the agency might need to be organised to do it more effectively.

Challenges are also being posed by new developments in the industry as a whole. There is no doubt that the maritime sector is changing. The increasing size of commercial vessels, developments in offshore renewable energy and the growth in recreational use of the sea all bring new challenges for the agency, in managing the sea safely for commercial and leisure users alike, and in new pressures on the specialists who make up the agency’s staff.

I do not think that any of us would really take issue with what the Minister says about the need for long-term reform. That is understood by the operational staff. However, we should have been having this conversation three or four years ago. Now morale in the agency is already through the floor. I want to hear from the Minister what he will do about changing that. Jam tomorrow just does not cut it any more.

I hear what the hon. Gentleman says, and have heard it from the unions. I understand the pressure that hon. Members, staff and the unions feel, and I acknowledge it. I shall try to explain where I think we shall go from here in my last few comments.

A broader remit and a more sophisticated use of available technologies will also lead to a demand for new skills and work practices. Those in turn will inevitably require a new pay structure. The MCA senior management have already made a start. There has been a fundamental reorganisation of the agency’s headquarters staffing structure, bringing together all its customer-facing parts. To improve the strategic leadership focus of the agency the chief executive is reducing the number of directors from five to three. To take things further to the point at which new pay structures might be developed, the current industrial action needs to be replaced by a willingness on both sides to talk about the future and the positive challenges that it could bring the agency. There are, I am sorry to say, no quick fixes available. The MCA management and unions need to sit around a table to discuss the relationship between pay and the future work of the agency. It would be very disappointing if maritime safety and the UK’s reputation as a well respected maritime administration were to suffer because of an inability to find a solution to the current dispute. It would be in no one’s interest for that to happen.

We had a comparability study in 2006, and we have the pay benchmarking analysis from 2007. People have been around the table and done the work, but the situation still gets worse.

I again acknowledge what the hon. Gentleman who secured the debate says. I must repeat that for this year the settlement has been imposed. We are interested in considering, as we have been discussing with other areas of the public sector, multi-year deals. For next year that is probably not practicable, because of where we are in the negotiating cycle with the Treasury for next year’s remit. We must get to grips with what we are putting into the Treasury, which means that the MCA and unions must work out exactly where they are going.

This year’s pay settlement was imposed, and so was last year’s, and so, I think, was the one for 2006. Is that how we are going to solve this?

Sadly, if we are unable to reach agreement on pay settlements, imposition is clearly the only way in which we can get the money that is available into people’s pockets, despite the dissatisfaction that individuals feel, because of the nature of pay dealings. I am not happy about the situation; neither, clearly, are hon. Members, nor the staff and unions. The management of the MCA are not happy either. They need to work out the demands for this year, and the new structures and skills, and make the bid for the upskilling of staff.

Minehead Driving Test Centre

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship once again, Mr. Benton. I am grateful for the chance to discuss this matter. I am delighted to see that the Minister is still here—it is a long day for him. The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) can go home; Minehead test centre takes over.

I promise the hon. Gentleman and the Minister that I will not stay for this debate as well, but I suspect that I know what the hon. Gentleman’s argument will be. I too have problems with the management of the Driving Standards Agency. If I were to stay, he might reasonably anticipate substantial support from me.

I thank the hon. Gentleman. He is not a local man, but they have cars in Orkney and Shetland, I suppose.

I look to the Minister for an old-fashioned common-sense approach—a commodity too often in short supply here in Westminster, I am sorry to say. This is not merely the story of one little driving test centre fighting for its own survival. In Somerset alone, the axe is poised to fall on several centres. The Minister has the demeanour of somebody who thinks that he knows the argument pretty well by now, as he has been wheeled out so many times recently to bat for the defence. As he dons his pads and oils his willow again today, I urge him to pause and put a substantial cricket box down his trousers too. I shall be bowling, I hope, with a sure eye and a lot of speed, but I guarantee no spin. I always leave that to the Government.

If the Minister asked his official driver nicely, I have no doubt that he could be whisked down to the bracing seaside town of Minehead, but he should be warned that it is a grunting pig of a journey once one leaves the motorway. Our so-called A road is, unfortunately, much closer to a Z road. The British economy may be going to pot, but Somerset’s roads have long since gone to potholes. The Australian outback and the dirt tracks of downtrodden Delhi offer safer driving conditions. Bumping and bending one’s way from Taunton or Bridgwater towards Minehead is like riding the wall of death on a unicycle. It is not funny; there have been endless fatal accidents.

On the A358 from Williton to Taunton, there have been an average of three deaths a month over the past five years, as well as 161 other casualties. The Liberal Democrats in county hall are Scrooge-like when it comes to running repairs. Her Majesty’s Government have not held them to account, and have looked the other way when we have asked them to make the council spend more money on the roads. As a result, the main road in question is becoming more like a human abattoir. That is not my phrase; it was coined by one of the many highly experienced driving instructors who dread the closure of the Minehead driving test centre. They know the score—they have counted the carnage among their pupils. I have been arguing the case for 10 years against what seems like a blind Government juggernaut: the Driving Standards Agency—the self-contained quango monster that seeks to do to driving tests what McDonald’s has done to gourmet cooking. If the DSA has any DNA, I can readily detect some of its genetic faults. It loves to move things around and sometimes, I suspect—I am sorry to say this, but it is common in other Departments—it does so just for the sake of the move.

When Minehead’s test centre was first threatened with closure in 1998, the DSA was based in Newcastle upon Tyne—a fine city from which I hail—but today the DSA is in Cardiff, so look out, boyos. Heaven knows what it cost to move that entire bureaucracy. The DSA’s blinkered ethos has not changed at all. It still has a “let’s offer less and call it more” mentality. It wants to cut radically the number of driving test centres throughout the United Kingdom and replace them with brand spanking new ones, but far fewer of them. That is being done partly in the name of efficiency and partly because the Government have agreed to sign up to new European driving standards, which will mean harder written tests and a more taxing time for motorcycle riders, who are far more vulnerable as road users.

I have no problem with making the tests more stringent, but I protest strongly about using the stiff new motorcycle tests as one of the key reasons for shutting my local driving test centre. We do not test motorcyclists in Minehead, and we never have, but of course it must seem so much easier to lump everybody together in one place and pretend that money is being saved. The brave new world of multi-purpose driving centres sounds so mouth-watering.

Here are some of the super, soar-away, sexy details about the DSA’s plans, taken this morning from its website:

“All customers will receive information on important road safety messages via LCD screens fitted in the waiting areas.”

Hurray, just what we always wanted. Here we are wetting ourselves in case we run over the white lines or an old lady, and the DSA wants us to watch grisly road safety films first. The website also says:

“Discussions are taking place around using the new centres to engage the local community in ‘safe driving for life’ initiatives.”

Oh yeah? I have not heard of any such discussions. That sounds like politically correct garbage. I have yet to meet a driving test candidate who ever went back to the driving test centre, except to take the test again. The website continues:

“It is intended that most car test customers will not have to travel more than our current travel distance criteria”.

That is bad grammar. It is also total bunk, because of the appalling state of the roads.

“Most motorcycle test customers should be able to reach their nearest test centre within 45 minutes, travelling no more than 20 miles”.

That is completely irrelevant, as I have said.

According to the website, there will be

“Off-road parking for customers”.

That is not actually a problem in Minehead. We have quite a lot of parking. There will also be posh new loos and showers for the staff. As any Blackpool landlady would say—the Minister and I have suffered it—“Shower, lad? You should have had a shower before you came.” We have all been there. The next one takes the biscuit:

“New furniture and fittings will enhance the customer experience”.

What are they talking about? When I took my driving test, I was far too worried about mucking up the three-point turn to notice the colour-co-ordinated fabric on the chairs in the waiting room, although it is a while ago now. Given the nervous state of most driving test candidates, cheap wipe-down surfaces might make more sense—stand by with the Dettol.

Unfortunately, the situation is serious. It has been 10 ridiculous years in the making, involving an ever-changing list of excuses for closing a perfectly good and popular local test centre. I ask the House to think back to 1998, when the famous song “Things Can Only Get Better” was still ringing in our ears. I am sure that we all remember it, although perhaps not in Crewe and Nantwich. The sight of Peter Mandelson humming along still gives us all the shivers, I suspect, but never mind. In 1998, Cherie Blair had not yet been on an overnight trip to Balmoral, and the Minister had no wrinkles at all, and perhaps even no grey hairs. With your permission, Mr. Benton, I quote the Driving Standards Agency’s excuse of the year 1998 for wanting to shut the Minehead test centre:

“Test routes are not considered representative of modern day driving conditions because they lack dual carriageways and roads with speed limits above 50 mph”.

Ten years later, we still have no dual carriageways, and 50 mph is the average speed between Minehead and Taunton and Bridgwater. That is what the signs say.

We also have incredibly dangerous roads. If we seriously intend to teach people to drive safely on such roads, surely the best and only way is to teach and test in the area itself, but the DSA wants to shut the Minehead centre and move everything to Taunton, to one of the flash new centres with road safety films and cloth seats. How are poor young drivers going to get to the test centre? Down the killer roads, of course, but when they take off for the test centre, they will not have a driving instructor next to them with dual controls in case something goes wrong. If the DSA gets its way, test candidates will be accidents waiting to happen on their way along some of Britain’s most dangerous roads. I am not talking through my hat—that is what the police and the most experienced driving instructors say.

I am afraid that one size does not fit all if one lives in west Somerset, and I would suggest that one size should not be made to fit all when flesh and blood are at stake. The DSA is putting itself at risk of causing people serious harm, or perhaps worse. We need to keep our test centre because—I am going to be crude—we need to keep death off our roads. Driving is not a luxury in my neck of the woods, but an expensive day-to-day necessity. The roads are in a poor state of repair, but it requires infinite patience to take a bus, because the county council has cut bus subsidies as well as being incredibly mean with fresh tarmac. If the test centre is shifted to the county town, the driving instructors will have to go too, and so will their customers. They will have to go to Taunton to take meaningful lessons, but it costs a lot of money to get to Taunton—more money. I am genuinely concerned about the possibility of some young people simply shrugging their shoulders and breaking the law instead. The whole country has a problem with unlicensed driving—that is not news. However, by moving the centre to Taunton we might be encouraging even more lawlessness, which nobody wants.

I am also disturbed by the way in which the DSA has ignored so many good, solid and constructive efforts in Minehead to keep the test centre in place. At one time, it appeared that the test centre would have to find new premises because its landlords—the local council—had other plans for the building. That might have been the DSA’s excuse for saying, “Okay folks, it’s time to go to Taunton,” but instead it paid lip service to the efforts made by the council—I praise councillor Keith Ross and West Somerset district council for trying to sort this out—the driving instructors and many others, including Minehead town council, to find alternative premises. The DSA did not attempt to discourage the search for new sites, but actively encouraged and urged us to look. Thus, it wasted everyone’s time, while pretending that it wanted to listen. With the help of West Somerset district council, no fewer than half a dozen workable sites were found and investigated, but the DSA said no to all of them.

For a whole decade, this blessed body, the DSA, has used a raft of different excuses to shut our test centre. There was the faint possibility of new European regulations, so we had a period of so-called consultation where all the arguments were advanced and the DSA ignored them. It tried to use the new motorbike tests as an excuse, but Minehead does not test motorbikes, and never has, as I said before. Now the DSA is relying on winning friends and influencing people with showers for the staff, and comfy chairs for the candidates. It stinks!

One other rather important point has been roundly ignored. The Minister’s driver is probably sitting at the wheel of his environmentally friendly Toyota right now. We all care about our carbon footprint, more so in the countryside, but this time the DSA has put its oversize carbon boots right in the deep doo-doo. The journey from Minehead to Taunton might look like a quick hop on a map, especially if one is sitting in the DSA’s Cardiff office, but in fact it is a gas-guzzling, stop-start trek from start to finish. I honestly suggest that the Minister tries it. It is dangerous, costly and a carbon nightmare.

I read the Minister’s speech on this subject after the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) asked about the situation in his area. I do not envy the Minister his task of finding something sensible to say about a very unpopular and senseless decision. To many of my constituents, the loss of the Minehead test centre could be a tragedy. It is not necessary; I promise the Minister that it has nothing to do with EU legislation; it could cause accidents; it may lead to lawlessness, and it could be the very opposite of going green. In fact, the only things in its favour are those wretched new comfy chairs. To many of my constituents, the DSA’s initials now stand for: dreadful, senseless and arrogant.

It is a pleasure to see you presiding again this morning, Mr. Benton. I congratulate the hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. Liddell-Grainger) on securing this debate, on the tone of his remarks and on the way in which he delivered them. I acknowledge that this is a big issue for his constituents.

I begin, however, by advising the Chamber that we have decided to develop a new national network of driving test centres to facilitate new European requirements for practical driving and riding tests. The new European standards support our domestic strategy for reducing road casualties—to reduce the 3,000 plus killed and 30,000 seriously injured each year on our roads. Furthermore, these centres, which are based on an updated design, are fully compliant with the Disability Discrimination Act 2005 and also support the Government’s wider sustainability agenda. They are better suited to delivering a modern driving test than much of the current driving test centre estate.

The new centres will have the appropriate facilities to deliver all other types of practical test for learner car, lorry and bus drivers and motorcyclists. The DSA did not own or lease any sites that could provide a sufficient area of hard-standing upon which to undertake the new manoeuvres. A programme of land acquisition and construction was initiated in 2005, and so far the DSA has acquired 41 sites. As an organisation that relies on test fee income for the provision of its services the DSA needs to ensure that it can deliver a cost-effective service that avoids unnecessary expenditure.

The provision of multi-purpose test centres is expected to cost in the region of £71 million, which will largely be recovered through increased fees paid by driving test candidates. In order to keep those fee increases to the minimum, the DSA must closely examine how it delivers its services, and seek more efficiencies in the way that it conducts its business. That will include reviewing existing driving test centre provision to ensure that, while the service standard is maintained, there is no wasteful over-provision of facilities. Regrettably, that means that some existing facilities have to close. We have concluded that between 40 and 50 MPTCs would be required to meet existing service standard criteria.

To maximise population coverage, however, and to minimise the number of candidates who have to travel further than specified in the travel criteria, we are seeking to develop about 60 MPTCs across the country. Where population density is between 101 and 1,249 people per square kilometre, candidates should not have to travel more than 20 miles to a test centre. In the least densely populated areas where the population is equal to or less than 100 persons per square kilometre, the practical test centre should be located so that most customers travel no more than 30 miles to a driving test centre. The service standard applying to the Minehead area is that most candidates should not have to travel more than 30 miles.

The driving test centre at Minehead is located in the offices of West Somerset district council in Blenheim road, Minehead, as the hon. Gentleman outlined. In February 2008, the DSA was informed that the council would be terminating the lease, ending the tenancy with effect from 1 September 2008. As he rightly said, alternative accommodation has been offered by the district council, which has been considered by the agency, but rejected, because the site does not offer the full range of adequate facilities required of a modern driving test centre.

The DSA has also looked at wider issues around locating a driving test centre in Minehead. In order to provide fair and efficient driving tests, it is essential that each driving test centre is served locally by a number of test routes that provide opportunities for candidates to demonstrate their ability to drive in a variety of road and traffic conditions. Unfortunately, the local driving test routes in Minehead are considered to be substandard. The inadequacy of test routes in the area has helped persuade the DSA that, regrettably, it can no longer justify having a test centre in the town.

In the case of the hon. Gentleman’s constituents, it is anticipated that the majority who currently attend the Minehead driving test centre will have access to alternative facilities at Taunton, which is some 24 miles away. Taunton has capacity to absorb the demand from Minehead without compromising waiting time targets. Minehead does not have any examiners based permanently at the driving test centre, and examiners from the Taunton test centre conduct the tests at Minehead. In 2007-08, Minehead delivered only 956 car tests. As a comparison, in the week commencing 24 March 2008, the following numbers of car tests were delivered from local centres: 18 at Minehead, 89 at Taunton and 117 at Exeter.

I understand the natural desire to practise driving in the area close to the test centre, but we are not persuaded that it is a sound argument when deciding where to locate driving test centres. In the interests of road safety, driving instructors should be teaching pupils to drive and not simply to follow known test routes. I know that that is not the practice of all driving instructors, but there is a minority who make pupils drive the test routes more than they should. The week before last, a consultation document was published on new testing and training regimes on the basis that we need to tackle the 3,000 deaths on our roads every year and the fact that only 20 per cent. of pupils pass the test first time.

Pupils should experience a variety of roads, and different traffic conditions and locations to prepare not only for their test, but their future driving career. Visits to the test centre need only be for pre-test familiarisation. As a multi-purpose test centre is being developed at Taunton, and is planned to open in February 2009, the future of the Minehead driving test centre was already under review. Because of the concerns about test routes and the need to ensure that the DSA delivers a cost-effective service, the likelihood is that the test centre would have had to close in any case. In that situation, the actions of West Somerset district council have simply accelerated the process.

It should also be noted that only car driving tests are delivered from the Minehead driving test centre. Motorcycle, lorry and bus driving test candidates from Minehead currently have to travel to Taunton or Exeter, which is 47 miles away. The hon. Gentleman is as aware as I am of the difficulty in rural areas of striking the right balance between the provision of a satisfactory level of public service and the costs that that service incurs.

In closing the Minehead driving test centre, I believe that the DSA has struck the best balance available. The hon. Gentleman has raised his concerns about learner drivers travelling from Minehead to Taunton on the busy A358 causing delays or accidents. As the DSA advocates safe driving for life, we would expect roads of that standard to be included by an instructor during the latter part of a candidate’s training regime. It is preferable that experience of that road is gained while candidates are accompanied by an experienced instructor rather than as an unaccompanied novice driver. Familiarity with a local road can only lessen the risk of them being the cause of an accident in the future.

The Minister is unaware of how dangerous those roads are. Let me give him a steer on the problem. The county council wanted to impose speed limits on the road. The police were so concerned that they refused to enforce the speed limit, against the county. It is such a bad road. We have the highest level of elderly people in the county and their driving is quite slow. Added to that, the country’s biggest Butlins is based in Minehead, which means that people overtake all the way along the road. As the Minister said, young learner drivers will have an instructor to go down to Taunton, but most of the time, they will be with a parent, a brother or a sister. I cannot stress enough how dangerous the roads are. The police cannot enforce the speed limits.

I take entirely to heart the hon. Gentleman’s comments. Although death rates on our roads have been reducing in line with the Government’s road safety strategy, death rates on rural roads have stubbornly not come down at the same rate. We have just given an extra £8 million to four rural county authorities that are beacon authorities in road safety. I will send the details to the hon. Gentleman after the debate. Those authorities have been successful in reducing their rates and we want to know what they are doing, and how they can spend the money to demonstrate even greater progress so that we can roll out their examples to other rural and county authorities to try to encourage improvements in performance. Varying the speed on certain roads is an engineering solution and is one way in which the police, county councils and road safety authorities should be able to deal with roads that are regarded as more dangerous than others.

I fully accept the points that the hon. Gentleman made about young drivers. They are why we are changing the driver training and testing programme. Too many young drivers, who are in the first six or 12 months of their driving careers, are disproportionately counted among the fatalities and serious injuries on our roads. They are not being trained to an adequate standard for a whole number of different reasons. People think that they pass a test because of luck rather than judgment. They are not being adequately prepared to deal with the risks on our roads, particularly on our rural roads. I do not underestimate the seriousness and the sincerity with which the hon. Gentleman raises the question about the road between Minehead and Taunton. If there is anything that we can do to help, we would be very happy to do so.

I regret that my response is not what the hon. Gentleman wanted to hear, but I hope that it has explained the background and the policy decision behind the issues, and I will send him the information that I promised him later this week.

Sitting suspended.

Liver Disease

[Mr. Martyn Jones in the Chair]

I am pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Derby, North (Mr. Laxton), who is chairman of the all-party group on hepatology, secured this debate. Unfortunately, he is unable to be here because he has had a minor operation in hospital that involved his mouth and it would have been a little difficult for him to deliver his speech. With the kind permission of Mr. Speaker, I have been asked to open the debate in his place, as vice-chairman of the all-party group.

We have only one liver, and it is a vital organ. Because I am a chemist, I have always described it as the chemical factory of the body. It processes all our waste metabolic products after the body has abstracted the vital carbohydrates, fats and proteins and the essential vitamins and minerals on which our life depends. If it begins to fail, a backlog of toxic chemicals throughout our system causes us all sorts of problems, and multiple organ failure results in death if those toxic products are not removed. We cannot ignore that vital organ—it is precious and, as I have said, we have only one.

Liver disease is caused by inflammation of the liver, or hepatitis, which can be provoked by alcohol or other drugs or by various viruses. It can also be provoked by antibodies directed at the liver. That is called auto-immune liver disease, and it predominates in women and is possibly genetically linked. Other causes of liver disease are excessive iron or fat deposition in the liver and a variety of much rarer diseases that are difficult to detect. Inflammation can become chronic and progress through cirrhosis of the liver, which is a scarring of the tissue, otherwise known as fibrosis, and has a high mortality rate, to cancer of the liver. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) will appear here to tell us more about cancer of the liver.

A number of viruses affect the liver, the most common being hepatitis A, B, C, D and E. Only B, C and D can cause long-term disease, and the hepatitis D virus can survive in our bodies only if we are also infected with the hepatitis B virus. Carriers of those viruses might not exhibit symptoms of the disease, and indeed they can be carried for long periods. There are simple tests to detect them, which can be followed by a liver function test if necessary, and even by a liver biopsy, which is not a pleasant procedure, or a less interventional procedure known as ultrascan.

There are two reasons for my interest in the debate, both of which arise from my interest in hepatitis C. Early in my parliamentary career, a constituent called David Fielding came to see me. He was extremely ill with hepatitis C, which he had contracted through contaminated blood transfusions. David was a haemophiliac. Tragically, his brother, who was also a haemophiliac, died after contracting the same disease in the same way. Eventually, David Fielding was admitted to the Manchester Royal infirmary. Just before Christmas one year, when he was in critical condition and expected to die, he and his long-standing partner decided at long last to get married.

Then David received what I expect was the best Christmas present that he or his family will ever receive. A call came from Jimmy’s hospital in Leeds, saying that at long last a matching liver had been found for him. The hospital had been looking for one for quite some time. He was rushed across the Pennines in an ambulance and thankfully, he is alive today because of that important liver transplant. Before the transplant, he looked awful. I met him several times and he was always yellow, full of the jaundice that people with failing livers experience.

I am pleased to report to the House that today, David is well and without the hepatitis C virus. He is campaigning to bring to the surface the truth about contaminated blood, much of it collected from prisoners in American jails, and has been to every sitting of the Archer inquiry, the results of which will be out later this year. I have given evidence to it, and I hope that our Government will take note of Lord Archer’s findings for the sake not only of David Fielding but of all the other people who are seeking the truth about the blood that transmitted to them viruses such as hepatitis B or C or HIV. An estimated 2,000 to 3,000 haemophiliacs received contaminated blood in this country before the Department of Health realised the huge risk of imported, contaminated blood.

My point in telling that story is to highlight the need for more people to register as potential organ donors. There is a staggering 500 per cent. projected increase in demand for liver transplantation in the next six to 10 years, which is a very short time span, and a similar projected increase in the incidence of liver cancer. Even with a vigorous organ donation campaign, there will not be enough livers to save all the lives that will be at risk. That is one reason why I have supported stem-cell research, which might allow us to grow tissues in the laboratory for the repair of organs such as the liver. Some 38 people die from liver disease every day in this country, and 100 people on the waiting list for liver transplants die every year. The huge shortage of livers for transplantation means that early diagnosis and treatment of liver disease is a far better option.

The second reason for my interest in the debate comes from my interest in the misuse of drugs. Whether they are controlled, prescription or over-the-counter drugs makes no difference. I am the chairman of the all-party group on drugs misuse. Some 80 per cent. of those who contract the hepatitis C virus, which I shall call HCV, do so as a result of injecting drugs and sharing syringes and other paraphernalia with other people. That is particularly the case in prisons, where we could do much more to prevent the spread of blood-borne diseases. Anyone in contact with the blood of an HCV or hepatitis B carrier is likely to pick up the viruses, as they are readily transmitted through contact with blood.

People such as David Fielding, who contracted HCV as a result of blood transfusions, have been extremely reluctant to campaign on the subject because of the stigma associated with it. However, the late Anita Roddick, of The Body Shop fame, who was a patron of the Hepatitis C Trust and contacted HCV as the result of a blood transfusion during childbirth, more than 30 years before the disease displayed symptoms throughout her body, was brave enough to campaign. HCV can lie undetected for such long periods without a patient feeling the symptoms, which start with dreadful fatigue, headaches and depression, leading to the other difficulties that I have mentioned. Anita’s husband has given the Hepatitis C Trust permission to use her image, and people will see posters advertising its work in the medical magazines and in public places throughout Britain. I wish to put it on record that we are very grateful to Anita Roddick’s family.

We chose to request the debate this week because it is national tackling drugs week—I shall be spending some time with the co-ordinator of our drug and alcohol team in Bolton on Friday—and because last Monday, 19 May, was the first ever world hepatitis day. It involved 200 patient groups in 15 countries and was co-ordinated by the Hepatitis C Trust, helped by all the organisations with an interest in liver disease.

Deaths from infectious diseases, cardiovascular diseases and cancer have been showing a strong downward trend in recent years, but, tragically, deaths from liver diseases in that same period have been showing quite the opposite: a strong upward trend. Sadly, the UK is the only developed country exhibiting that upward trend.

Obesity leads not only to diabetes but to fatty liver disease. Non-alcoholic liver disease may develop in people who have insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes. The condition is mostly preventable, of course, through exercise and by eating healthier foods, and I am pleased that the Government are paying attention to obesity.

I mentioned that contracting hepatitis C can result in mortality, as can contracting the hepatitis B virus, but excessive use of alcohol causes about 25 per cent. of liver disease, and more and more people are dying of it as a result. Younger people are starting to consume strong alcohol at an early age. Tragically, an increasing number of them, too, are being admitted to hospital with liver disease.

Many people with alcoholic liver disease are not actually alcohol-dependent, and they think that they are drinking alcohol safely when they are not. They are drinking alcohol at hazardous levels, and a change in their behaviour could save their lives. I am pleased that the Government are also concentrating on excessive alcohol consumption, otherwise known as binge drinking.

Deaths from alcoholic liver disease have doubled in the past 10 years. Patients with alcoholic cirrhosis are heavy users of expensive hospital resources. They occupy beds, including intensive care beds, that need not be occupied, and they require blood and various medical interventions from the national health service. All of that is avoidable. The NHS could make huge cost savings, and facilities could be released for those who have not made themselves ill in that way.

Heavy alcohol use in the person who carries the hepatitis C virus increases the risk of hepatitic cirrhosis 31 times, and the risk of developing cancer of the liver in an HCV-positive person with cirrhosis is increased seven-fold. The message is that drinking and hepatitis C together greatly increase the risk of mortality.

Everything that I am about to say about hepatitis C is probably true also of hepatitis B, but, sadly, there is not even a strategy within the NHS to deal with HBV. The Hepatitis B Foundation, which is calling for such a strategy, told me that the Department of Health has not carried out any research to ascertain the figures for the disease, but it estimates that there are about 320,000 carriers of HBV in the UK at present, many of them in a chronic condition. Worldwide, 350 million people are known to be chronically infected with HBV, and between 0.5 million and 1 million people die with the virus every year. It is second only to tobacco as a human carcinogen, causing 50 per cent. of all liver cancers. HBV can survive in dried blood for up to one week. It is 100 times more infectious than HIV, which may surprise people. Worldwide, the most common infection route is vertical transmission from mother to baby but, like HCV, HBV is a common disease among injecting drug users.

Fortunately, a vaccine is available for preventive treatment of HBV, but, sadly, the UK is one of the few countries in Europe that has not yet implemented the universal vaccination policy recommended by the World Health Organisation. In fact, 85 per cent. of countries throughout the world have already adopted it. There are reports that some doctors in general practice are charging as much as £160 for the vaccination—for a single HBV vaccination—probably in the belief that the patient will be reimbursed by their employer, which is not always the case. Fortunately, several drugs are available to treat HBV sufferers, but only about 1,500 patients are receiving such treatment in the UK annually.

The hepatitis C virus was identified in 1989. Such viruses are relatively new. HCV is the biggest cause of chronic liver disease in the world. It also damages kidneys, white blood cells and the thyroid gland.

I am interested in the point the hon. Gentleman made about the virus being relatively new. In his expert opinion, is the virus a new one or is it that we have only recently discovered it using new techniques? Is it new, or has it always been there?

I cannot answer the question exactly, but the virus would have been around prior to 1989. It was detected in 1989 and researched, and we are where we are today. I do not think that it has been around for a very long time. We are still discovering new hepatitis viruses, and they have been given letters of the alphabet from A to E. We may be up to G now.

HCV is an enveloped ribonucleic acid of the flaviviride family and is incredibly difficult to destroy. It is capable of surviving in dried blood for up to three months—much longer than HBV. It has a high mutation rate, and it is thought that six strains, each with 40 sub-strains, currently exist, which are capable of spontaneous mutation. That is the problem. For that reason, it has not been possible to develop a vaccine for preventive treatment of HCV.

The Hepatitis C Trust believes that as many as 500,000 people may be infected with HCV in the UK, with 90 per cent.—certainly 80 to 90 per cent.—of them being completely unaware that they are carrying the virus. An estimated 130 million people are affected by HCV worldwide.

The earlier a person is diagnosed with HCV, the easier it is to treat them. Treatments are more limited for HCV than they are for HBV. Treatment for HCV is carried out through combination therapy. The complete treatment programme, which combines a daily tablet of ribavarin with a weekly injection of alpha interferon, costs an amazing £15,000, and not everybody is cured. About 55 per cent. of the people who undergo the combination therapy will be cured. The rest will not, and they may or may not live longer.

People tell me that the combination therapy is not very nice. I have spoken to several people who have undergone it. It lasts between six months and a year, and most people cannot work while they are undergoing it.

The cost is £15,000 per year, but I put it to my hon. Friend the Minister that the cost of a liver transplant, even if a liver were available to transplant into the patient, is considerably more than preventing people from getting HCV in the first place or treating them when they have been infected by it.

I am interested in my hon. Friend’s comparison of costs of transplants and so on. Would a person be healthier as a result of a transplant rather than the treatment? He said that the treatment was unpleasant, and that people are reluctant to have it.

While I am on the subject, would my hon. Friend support an assumption in favour of donation of organs after death? We do not seem to be progressing at all with receiving organ donations. I mention that because my second late husband, John Hammersley, died from liver cancer. I think that he would have been too old for organ donation, but it still grieves me to think that I was never asked whether my first late husband’s organs could be used. He died from injuries resulting from a motor car accident and was taken to hospital with me. We are lacking in this area. Will my hon. Friend explain his position on the matter?

I know of the tragic loss of my hon. Friend’s second husband from liver cancer. Although as a chemist I have limited knowledge of medicine, I am in favour of opting out of organ donation, rather than opting into it. That is a controversial topic in this place. I have carried an organ donation card for decades and renewed it recently to ensure that my name is still on the list, although I am afraid that I am almost 68 and my organs are a bit knackered compared with those of a younger person, so they may not be useful any more.

In March 2001, the Department of Health commissioned a hepatitis C strategy for England, which was released for discussion in August 2002. I am pleased that the hepatitis C action plan for England was published in July 2004. The all-party group on hepatology, which was formed only in 2003—in the presence of the late George Best, who was one of our original patrons—and the Hepatitis C Trust became concerned about the implementation of the Government’s plans, so we jointly published “The Hepatitis C Scandal” in March 2005 to voice our concerns about that area of clinical practice.

On 23 May 2006, we published the results of a survey of primary care trusts and NHS hospital trusts. Questionnaires were sent to all of them, and as we received the answers we marked the implementation of the plan on a scale ranging from one to 10—one being poor and 10 being the best. About 63 per cent. of PCTs responded, but only 8 per cent. of them demonstrated effective implementation of the hepatitis C action plan laid down by the Government, with a further 56 per cent. demonstrating that they had taken some action and the remainder—36 per cent.—demonstrating only minimal implementation of the plan in 2006. Where a patient lived at that time very much determined whether they received a diagnosis or, having received a diagnosis, treatment for hepatitis C virus infection. Indeed, our report was titled “A Matter of Chance”. In 2006, 65 per cent. of NHS hospital trusts responded, and 39 of the 85 hospital trusts reported significant delays for treatment. Waiting times varied from one week to one year, which is unacceptable.

Jointly, with the Hepatitis C Trust, our all-party group has just repeated that survey. Our current report, “Location, Location, Location”, was published on 14 February this year. About 84 per cent. of PCTs responded on this occasion. There has been a significant improvement since the last survey, but still only 36 per cent. of PCTs are implementing the hepatitis C action plan for England effectively this year. I am pleased to say that Bolton PCT—my own PCT—is one of the best, scoring nine out of 10 points. Unacceptably, 15 per cent. of the responding PCTs have demonstrated minimal or no implementation at all, while 49 per cent. demonstrated that they have taken some action. Mid Essex PCT scored no points, Dudley PCT and South West Essex PCT each scored one point, while Lincolnshire NHS Teaching PCT, Western Cheshire PCT and Newcastle PCT scored only three points. Those were the worst responders among the primary care trusts.

Some 59 per cent.—37 of the 63—of the NHS hospital trusts that responded reported that some of their patients had to wait more than three months for their first consultation at the hospital. In addition, they said that referral waiting times to see a consultant varied from three to 20 weeks and that patients waited a further two to 24 weeks for treatment to commence. Adding those figures together gives an unacceptably long period, which we need to reduce. Less than two thirds—62 per cent.—of responding NHS hospital trusts are confident that they will have the necessary infrastructure in place to ensure that all hepatitis C positive patients can start treatment within 18 weeks, which is the target for December 2008 set by the Government.

The Government’s action plan was launched more than three years ago and its limited implementation is putting a lot of people’s lives at risk, so we are calling for action now from the Secretary of State for Health in four ways. First, we want the introduction of a world-class commissioning pilot in the treatment of those diagnosed positive for HCV. Secondly, we want a good practice model developed for service organisation and delivery as part of a wider reform strategy for the diagnosis and treatment of HCV carriers. Thirdly, we want the Secretary of State to incentivise general practitioner HCV case-finding by inclusion in a quality and outcomes framework. Fourthly, we want the Government to conduct a national audit of GP practice for HCV, based on the model being piloted for cancer referral and diagnosis. Those campaigning on behalf of patients with hepatitis B virus want similar progress made by the Department of Health.

Consultants report that immigration brings in both HBV and HCV—their words, not mine—and they believe that we should be screening new arrivals who will be settling in Britain, not tourists I hasten to add, for both viruses, if not all the hepatitic viruses. Hepatitis B and C are ticking time bombs for the NHS, and in light of the evidence I have presented today, I think my hon. Friend the Minister will agree that we need to review both the diagnosis and treatment of those who could be carrying those viruses. They are readily transmitted, blood-borne viruses, so the more people who carry HCV and HBV, the greater the risk of further transmission, with the inevitable consequences for the NHS.

In respect of what my hon. Friend said about increased immigration bringing in more of these diseases, is he aware that a few years ago it was drawn to my attention that members of the Muslim community were reluctant to donate organs, which meant greater difficulty in matching organ donors to organ recipients? I was asked by the then district health authority to do a bit of campaigning with my Muslim community to encourage organ donation. Is it still going on or has it been allowed to slip? There is something in the Muslim religion that is a deterrent to organ donation, but apparently it can be got around with a bit of thought and imagination.

I thank my hon. Friend for raising that matter. It is a sensitive subject. I, too, have a large Muslim population in my constituency, as she knows. I have not personally discussed the matter with my Muslim constituents, but as it has been mentioned in the debate, I promise my hon. Friend that I will have such discussions. I am sure that the Minister and his officials have listened to what my hon. Friend has said. I hope that, in relation to what I have said already about organ donation, we can extend that conversation to the whole Muslim population throughout the country.

The prevalence of HBV and HCV and the mortality rate they both cause is now on the same scale as HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria worldwide, yet there is nowhere near the same level of awareness of viral hepatitis as of those other diseases. Additionally, there does not seem to be the political will to tackle it. A recent survey of Members of Parliament showed that one third of them think that there is a vaccine for hepatitis C when there is not, 44 per cent. do not know that hepatitis C can lead to cancer—yet it can—and half of them have been contacted by a constituent about hepatitis C. I am not blaming or criticising my right hon. or hon. Friends, but if that is the case among Members of Parliament, how can we expect our constituents to be aware of these dreadful diseases? I have also heard that many general practitioners are not fully educated in the facts I have presented to the House today.

In May 2004, a number of organisations associated with liver disease, including the British Liver Trust—a charity—and the British Association for the Study of the Liver published the “National Plan for Liver Services UK”, which I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister or other Ministers in his Department have seen. They published the document in an attempt to persuade the Government to develop a national service framework for this major area of clinical practice. What consideration, if any, has the Minister’s Department given to that plan?

In conclusion, I hope that I have demonstrated to right hon. and hon. Members today and to people outside Parliament, including those in the medical profession, that tackling these diseases—liver diseases in general, but particularly the hepatitis diseases I have mentioned—needs to be done much more ferociously; otherwise the ticking time bomb that I have mentioned will explode upon us.

I thank the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) for securing the debate. It is a shame that more hon. Members are not here to take part—I do not know whether that is because there are political imperatives elsewhere. The subject is important, but it is often neglected. We rarely hear people talking about liver disease of any type, so it will be interesting to explore some of the reasons for that.

The hon. Gentleman referred a number of times to the document “Hepatitis C: Action Plan For England”. I had a little bit of fun while preparing for the debate because I was aware that on 22 February 2007, the Government announced an update to the 2004 action plan. Much to my surprise I could not find that information on the Department of Health website. I asked my researcher to call the Department, which claimed not to have heard of the update. The Minister is looking in a rather worried way at his officials behind him; it would be interesting if he could clarify whether such a document exists. If it does—and I sincerely hope that is the case—does he share my concern that the document is apparently of such low priority that the officials we contacted were fairly clueless regarding its whereabouts?

As the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East said, the scale of liver disease is large. It is the fifth biggest killer in the UK, and the only one of the top five that is on the increase. More depressingly, the UK is the only major developed nation showing an upward trend in the number of deaths from liver disease. I do not know whether it is a help or a hindrance to read out some of the statistics, but I shall do so to reinforce the message about the scale of the problem. Up to 2 million people suffer from chronic liver disease in the UK, and most are unaware of their illness. In the past three decades, deaths from chronic liver disease have increased by eight times in men aged 35 to 44 years and seven times in women. In 2005, as many as 13,000 people died from liver-related conditions in the UK.

If those statistics related to any other illness, it would almost be a national scandal. I find it rather puzzling that relatively little attention is paid to the problem, particularly because it also relates to deprivation, which the Government claim that they want to tackle. I do not disbelieve that they want to deal with the problem, but it is worth considering that, in 2006-07, there were three times more liver-related deaths in the hospitals in the most deprived areas than in those in the least deprived areas. Among 25 to 49-year-olds, there were 10 times as many deaths in the most deprived areas as there were in the least. Therefore, when we consider some of the problems that spearhead primary care trusts are tackling, given obesity is one of the factors that can contribute to liver disease, it is important to get some of these messages across.

I shall concentrate most of my remarks on the more preventable aspects of liver disease. There are three main causes of the preventable type: alcohol, obesity and viral hepatitis. The hon. Gentleman rightly spent much time talking about hepatitis and the incidence of it. He was right to point out that, worldwide, the prevalence of hepatitis B and C in relation to mortality is on the same scale as HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria. Those working in the TB or malaria field feel that they play second fiddle to the HIV/AIDS debate, but nobody ever mentions liver disease in the same context. There seems to be no political interest in the subject. I do not know whether that is because there is a lack of an effective lobby group or if it is because we do not see large-scale pictures on our TVs of people dying. Perhaps there is a stigma about liver disease, because it is often associated with alcohol abuse. Nevertheless, the issue is something that we need to tackle.

Patient groups have united as the World Hepatitis Alliance and are asking Governments to sign up to something called “12 asks” by 2012—[Interruption.]

Thank you, Mr. Jones. Governments are being asked to sign up to something called “12 asks” by 2012, to recognise the impact of the disease and to commit to adopting measures that address the problem from a public health perspective. The UK Government have not yet signed up. Will the Minister tell us when they are likely to do so?

Despite the action plan on hepatitis C, diagnosis is often delayed. A common problem is that GPs know little about the disease and are poor at diagnosing it. That is probably compounded by the fact that there is a lack of specialist nurses to deal with the condition. The hon. Member for Bolton, South-East mentioned the survey conducted by the all-party group. I will not go into the full details of that, but I am pleased to see that some progress is being made. The most telling fact is that two-thirds of primary care trusts are still falling short on some aspects of provision. Steps to improve hepatitis C prevention, diagnosis and treatment must be a higher priority if we are to tackle the problem successfully.

There are some quite simple things that we could do. None of them on its own will make the problem go away or reduce it dramatically, but they could be useful. One suggestion is that we could test in prisons, because 9 per cent. of prisoners test positive for hepatitis C and 8 per cent. test positive for hepatitis B. If those people can be treated or made aware of their condition, we may be able to do something to reduce future transmission.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned drug usage. Again, there seems to be little effort to work directly with drug users on testing to see whether something can be done. I acknowledge that this is a difficult group to work with, but there are people with expertise in working with drug users who could get the message across to some of them.

I wholeheartedly support the sentiments that have been expressed about increasing the number of organs for donation. I say that not only in relation to liver disease, although liver transplants are a classic example of a procedure that has been shown to work; recipients have gone on to have many years of happy and productive life. Yes, the subject is controversial, but the House has shown in recent days that it does not shy away from tackling difficult issues. Personally, I would prefer an opt-out system, but I appreciate that not everybody shares my view. The comments made about ethnic minority communities were very interesting, because we must work with all sectors of society if we are to benefit them.

Recent estimates show that approximately 326,000 people have hepatitis B. I read somewhere that 85 per cent. of developing countries—I assume that it must have been developing countries because it is hard to believe that that is a global figure—have implemented a universal hepatitis B vaccination campaign. However, the UK operates only a system of selective vaccination for high-risk groups. When the Minister sums up, it would be helpful if he outlined whether the Government’s thinking on that has changed. In the past, because new incidences have often been in the immigrant community, the attitude has been that there is no point having a wholesale vaccination programme. Given that the disease is highly infectious and can spread quite rapidly, however, I hope that the situation is under regular review so that the public health impact can be assessed.

The Government are trying to tackle the problem of alcohol misuse, but whichever way one looks at the figures, they are quite a frightening statement about society today. The cost to the NHS of alcohol misuse is £1.7 billion a year. In 2005, 4,160 people died in England and Wales from alcoholic liver disease—a 37 per cent. increase on 1999. The figures for deaths from alcohol-related causes are even starker, with 4,437 people in England alone dying in 1997 and 6,517 dying in 2006.

I recently visited Southampton general hospital and talked to one of the consultant hepatologists. It was fascinating. He said that he could not really show me anything, but that he would just run through his patient list—his work load—for the day, because it was typical of the cases that he was seeing. Compared with 10 years ago, the people on the list were much younger, and there was a higher proportion of women. The other worrying thing was that one person on the list felt that it was pretty much bad luck that she was there at all. She was not a binge drinker and most people—particularly given the drinking patterns in the House of Commons—would not regard her as an alcoholic. This woman simply shared a bottle of wine with her husband every night, and if he is anything like my husband, he will have drunk the lion’s share. Like many others, this lady thought that a few units of alcohol were perfectly acceptable, but she is now faced with a problem.

I recognise that the recent Government campaign is all about trying to increase people’s awareness of how much they drink. I was looking at consumption figures from Office for National Statistics, which all had to be revised upwards recently. If one looked at the figures year on year, it looked as though there had not been much of an increase in alcohol consumption. However, the ONS suddenly thought, “Hang on a minute. We are all drinking from bigger glasses”—that is just the sort of thing that the Government tried to highlight—“and alcohol has got a bit stronger.” When it factored in the increased glass size and the increased strength of what people were drinking, it found that consumption rates had gone up by about 50 per cent., which was quite frightening. Most people are not aware of how much they are drinking. I welcome the Government’s campaign, but I hope that it will be backed by the compulsory use of labels showing the number of units in the bottle. I know that there is a voluntary agreement, but it covers only about two thirds of what is on the shop shelves. Compulsory labels would help those who are minded to do something about the problem to decide which wine to drink. They may just choose to drink a lower-alcohol wine because they can drink more of it.

The thorny question of alcohol taxation also arises, although I do not expect the Minister to answer questions on that. Last week, however, I went on a Health Committee visit to Norway, where the cost of wine is astronomical—indeed, the Select Committee drank far less on that visit than on any other I have been on. I do not think that any of us consider ourselves problem drinkers, but if people want proof that pricing can control the problem, our experience in Norway speaks for itself.

A lot of the European evidence shows that increasing tax—there are ways to do that selectively to target problem drinks—has the greatest impact on the behaviour of binge drinkers and those with a chronic drink problem. Such measures are unpopular, but we must consider them in the long run. We must, however, balance that with ensuring that pubs stay viable and do not go out of business. The good old-fashioned English pub provides a useful social function for those who may live alone and who want to meet friends.

The other cause of regret—I hope that this will be tackled later in the Government’s campaign on alcohol—is the lack of thrust behind efforts to tackle binge-drinking. To an extent, the problem is cultural: young people seem to think that it is perfectly acceptable to go out on a Saturday night and drink large amounts of alcohol. That seems to be the thing to do here, but such behaviour is just not cool in many other European countries. We have to work hard with our young people to change attitudes. That will not be easy, but we must find ways to tackle the problems if we are not to replicate them in the future. The younger people start drinking, the longer they will drink and the greater the impact on society will be.

I have not said much about obesity, because that is not what the debate is about. However, one of the messages that is not getting across to people is that being overweight increases their chances not only of developing diabetes or heart disease, but of dying much more quickly from another disease. I would also welcome a little more focus on that, perhaps from patient groups. It must be brought to the attention of MPs.

I want to end by saying that having an alcohol problem and liver disease does not necessarily mean the end of the world for everyone. Some people will die, and that is the end of it, but in some cases, if people stop drinking, their liver can recover and they can have many years of life. I have witnessed both outcomes. The problem is that it is extremely difficult to get access to alcohol rehabilitation services. In Southampton, the only alcohol-specific charity closed down. If one visits a drug and alcohol rehab centre, most of the workers will say that drink is a large part of the problem, but that it is much easier to get the funding and to treat people if there is a linked problem as well as the drink problem. If the Government are serious about tackling the issue, they must stop thinking that problems are always drug-related. They must ensure that there are resources for those whose drug of choice is alcohol, which is not regarded as a mainstream drug of abuse.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Derby, North on his contribution this afternoon, and on stepping into the shoes of the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East. I know the hon. Gentleman fairly well as a good friend of Gibraltar, and can only imagine that he must find his inability to speak the most difficult situation that he has been in for many a year.

I am the Member for Bolton, South-East, and the other hon. Member is my hon. Friend the Member for Derby, North (Mr. Laxton).

The hon. Gentleman spoke brilliantly today—and I am sure that he is a good friend of Gibraltar as well. I apologise for getting the constituencies mixed up.

The work of the all-party group on hepatology, and its reports, have been very useful not only to the House but also to those who suffer so much. Until I took on my Front Bench responsibility I was lucky enough to chair the all-party group on haemophilia, and would like to join in the call made by the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East for the Government to take seriously the current Archer inquiry, so that we can get to the bottom of the problems that so many people have had, through no fault of their own, because of contaminated blood. I pay tribute to the many groups that have been mentioned, in particular the Hepatitis B Foundation, the Hepatitis C Trust, and the British Liver Trust, which have sent us some excellent briefings. I share the concern that has been expressed that there are not more hon. Members in the Chamber for such an important debate.

The title of the debate encompasses myriad problems that can affect the liver. We heard about many of them, and I shall try to cover as many as possible. The Minister knows that I shall not take a party political line in this debate, but I do not understand the Government’s position on immunisation and inoculation, especially with regard to hepatitis B. I was a serviceman for many years and was inoculated, and my wife was an NHS employee for many years, and was also inoculated. It is obviously only in the more advanced parts of the world that inoculation is carried out, and I want to ask the Minister why the Government have not gone down that route. If he cannot answer now, perhaps he can write to us about the exact position.

Time has moved on; I have heard that initially there was concern about immigration, but as we have seen from newspaper figures in the past couple of days, immigration is rising fast, and the issue cannot just be ignored. We must address the question why, when other countries have taken protection against hepatitis B seriously, we do not appear to want to look at the problem. I do not say that it must be done; I am just trying to find out the reason for the situation, because there seems to be pretty good evidence to support taking action. We heard earlier that mutations occur, almost on a daily basis, I think, in the different hepatitis groups, although, as has been said, it is particularly hepatitis C that is affected.

Liver disease as a whole must be taken seriously. As we have heard, 38 people a day die of liver disease in this country. There are many different reasons for that. The liver is a remarkable organ. I am no doctor, although I think there are hon. Members present who are; but the key is that the liver can regenerate. A couple of weeks ago, a surgeon told me that he had removed 80 per cent. of a liver in an operation, and the liver had regenerated. It is a remarkable organ, which can do what most other organs cannot—repair itself, and regenerate. Bearing that in mind, it is frightening that so many people die of liver disease each day, and so many young people—particularly in relation to alcohol—are seeing consultants.

It is not normal for me to praise the BBC, but it has done some excellent research and produced an interesting report on the topic. It spoke to 115 consultants, 101 of whom responded. Seventy-seven said that they were treating patients under 25 years of age for alcohol problems affecting their liver. That is frightening. I am the father of daughters aged 17 and 19. One of them, who is at Portsmouth as we speak, studying marine biology, is, I think, trying to drink Portsmouth dry. I am told that the Royal Marines have tried to do it for several hundred years and not succeeded.

Absolutely; perhaps that will get some sense into her head.

There is a cultural problem with young people. I shall not be a hypocrite. I was in the military at 16, and I freely admit that we went out and had some beers on a regular basis. I stress the word beers. The groups of young people that my daughter goes out with talk quite openly about the fact that they drink before they go out—normally vodka—until they get to the tipping point. Then they go out and enjoy themselves. That can be done, I stress, only because the pubs are open so late. The Minister has heard me say this before, but a mixed message is going out to young people, because we have what is called 24-hour drinking which, although we know it is not 24-hour drinking, is late drinking, and is expensive. If young people can drink cheaply early on they do not spend so much money when they are out. However, they are already half smashed, to be perfectly frank, before they hit the pubs—not the clubs, but the pubs. That is a cultural and educational problem that we must deal with. If we do not address that with young people the NHS will never be able to cope with it.

We talk a lot about obesity problems, and that is quite right. We all need to work on that; I am working on it myself, and am on a sponsored slim as we speak, but it is massively important not to forget one subject while another is the focus of topical debates in the press.

A subject that the hon. Member for Romsey (Sandra Gidley) touched on earlier in the debate was the availability of organs for transplant. I have a particular interest in that, and have been asking questions, because I am worried that we shall begin to debate an opting-out approach to donation before we have found out how many available organs have not been used. As the Minister may be aware, I have asked parliamentary questions about the number of viable human organs available for transplant that are not used.

I recently received information from the East of England strategic health authority, which happens to cover my hospital trust area. It had 22 patients waiting for a liver transplant, but five viable human livers were not used, and were destroyed.

The hon. Gentleman’s figures are interesting, but we must be careful how we consider this matter. Clearly, he is aware that we cannot put any old liver into any recipient. A large number of organs need to be available so that appropriate tissue typing can be done, and then those 22 people on the waiting list will be able to receive an organ. It is a shame that some organs are unused, but that is the nature of what is available and what is needed. We have to get that right.

I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention. I am very aware that we need to match organs with people, so I went further and asked questions about whether that was the problem. We cannot have people saying, “We couldn’t find a match quickly enough.” The technology exists to keep organs viable for much longer. We just pack them in ice at the moment, which seems a bit archaic in the 21st century. Technology is being piloted at Papworth hospital that will allow us to keep a liver for much longer while we search for a patient whose requirements make them a match for it.

Let me just finish the point. It is not necessarily that we cannot find a match for the organs. Often, the organ deteriorates before we find a match, but the technology exists to assist us in that respect and I want the Minister to address why we are not using it.

I think that the hon. Gentleman has just answered my point. I was going to say that although I understand that what is taking place is a trial it is having good results and there seems to be a reluctance to adopt the technology in the NHS. Is the hon. Gentleman aware whether that was a national decision or whether trusts were just tightening purse strings and not purchasing anything new?

It appears that other countries have conducted the trials and the technology has been adopted. I am afraid that it has something to do with money. I understand that each unit costs about £10,000, but when we consider the number of organs involved and the fact that the NHS budget is about £110 billion, it is not a huge amount. That technology is a way forward and we must look to such technologies before pushing on to the public the great debate that may need to happen. We must be certain that we are using every organ that is donated. Very difficult decisions are taken when an organ is donated, and we must ensure that we use every viable organ wherever possible. The technology exists. Perhaps we need to consider seriously whether the Government can look at that or whether it is just left to a local trust—of course, we all know about the funding problems in different trusts throughout the country.

I apologise for coming into the Chamber late. I was talking to a reporter from The Guardian about articles that we would like to write on myths and cancer. Before people get to the stage of liver transplants, what about picking up the hepatitis viruses that cause the problem? What about developing a vaccine, as has been done in Cuba, to ensure that hepatitis B, for example, is eliminated from the population? Should we not go the way of prevention, rather than looking for livers that are compatible with individuals?

I completely agree. That issue was discussed earlier, but I understand that the hon. Gentleman is not a mind reader. An important point was raised. I understand from the experts that there are real problems with vaccines for hepatitis C, not least because, as we discussed, it mutates so fast. As a result, it is difficult to develop inoculation. I agree with the hon. Gentleman—we should use medicine before surgical practice wherever possible. I hope that the Minister will comment on that.

I apologise for mentioning something that had been discussed before. I do not know whether it has already been mentioned that about 80 per cent. of liver cancers are compatible with infection by hepatitis viruses. People sit up and take notice when the word “cancer” is mentioned, so I wonder whether the way to make politicians and Parliament sit up and take notice is to point out that the chances of getting a cancer—it may take 10, 20 or 30 years—are much greater in the circumstances that we are discussing. Early development of procedures, vaccines and so on might eliminate many of those cancers, which are viewed as rarer but still take thousands of lives down the line—not tomorrow, but in 10 or 20 years’ time.

Again, I agree that whatever we as politicians and the NHS can do in preventive terms has to be the answer to how we make progress. We have heard about how bad the situation is becoming in terms of people having liver problems, particularly as a result of hepatitis; I will come on to alcoholism and obesity. If we do not address those problems early, the NHS will never be able to cope—not to mention the personal impact on anybody who has cancer. If something is preventable, we should do everything possible to ensure that preventive measures are taken. I am sure that the Minister will agree.

Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease has been mentioned. I was very concerned when I read a report that a consultant from King’s College hospital in London had stated that the disease has overtaken alcohol and viral infections as the commonest cause of liver disease in Britain. That is quite a frightening situation, which we as politicians should address. The public do not understand just how dangerous obesity is and how the human body simply cannot take the things that we are doing to it. The liver is one of the only organs that is able to regenerate itself. If consultants today are seeing more people with that disease, which is related to obesity, the Government’s programme needs to be much more focused and sharp. We may need to scare the public into realising the dangers that they are exposing themselves to.

I remember vividly that when I was a fireman back in the 1980s in Essex, the first magistrates court put a driver in prison for drink-driving over Christmas. I think it was in 1983, after a huge Government and public campaign to show how dangerous drink-driving was and the effects that it had. Eventually, scare tactics had to be used. We had won the argument with most of the public, but people were still drink-driving—there are still such people today; sadly, we seem to be going in the wrong direction now—who needed to be frightened. They needed to be told that they would lose their licence and go to prison if they continued to drink-drive.

Public campaigns are quite gentle nowadays. We have talked at length with the Food Standards Agency about whether we should have GDAs—guideline daily amounts—a traffic light system or both. The public are an interesting group of people. They will not listen until they think that something affects them. It is important that a public education campaign explains how dangerous—indeed, terminal—obesity can be. The effects in terms of liver disease could be at the forefront of such a campaign.

This is a very important area, but one in which public awareness is limited. I agree with the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) that if we talk about other effects of liver disease—in particular, cancer—people might start to listen. That is what the newspapers are interested in today. We also need to start to talk about the damage caused to young people. We need a joined-up Government campaign. The Government need to come together on the different problems caused by liver disease. We cannot just talk about the different forms of hepatitis on their own. We have to talk about the effects of alcohol and of obesity.

People who have done nothing wrong—they perhaps had haemophilia and were given contaminated blood—need to know the truth about what has happened to them. I hope that the Government will listen to the Archer inquiry. I stepped down as chairman of the all-party haemophilia group when it first started, not because I was not interested in the group—I was a member—but because I took up Front-Bench responsibilities and I thought that there was a slight conflict of interest. I did not want to jeopardise the group in that way.

I congratulate the members of the all-party group on hepatology for the work that they are doing. It is an excellent group and produces detailed analysis. It is sad that the Government’s action plan is not being addressed, because it is a good one. The Government should ensure that primary care trusts and other organisations throughout the country are implementing the action plan so that we protect all members of the public, not just people who happen to live in a particular postcode and come under a particular PCT.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) on speaking in such a reflective and sensible way. He has highlighted an issue that frankly needs far more oxygen in order to have an impact on many families and individuals. I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Derby, North (Mr. Laxton) on securing the debate and on his work as chairman of the all-party group on hepatology over a significant period.

It is always good to see my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson). He has unique expertise on many of the issues that he brings to the House, particularly from a scientific point of view. The notion of needing to move the health service from a sickness system to a well-being system is at the heart of our vision for a world-class health service. It has been mentioned by the Prime Minister, the Secretary of State and Lord Darzi. When we publish the next stage review and the NHS constitution, we need to move from the rhetoric of moving from sickness to well-being and make it a reality. That must happen not only through our national policies but through the decisions, particularly commissioning decisions, made in every local health economy in every part of the country.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East referred to David Fielding. It is appropriate to remember that these issues involve human beings—we are talking about people’s families and their life expectancy—and it is important that we hear stories of hope such as that of David Fielding. Many listening to our debate may be extremely anxious about their future because they have HCV, so it was important to hear about the David Fielding case. It was also right to pay tribute to the courage of the late Anita Roddick. HCV carries a significant stigma, and the fact that a prominent and successful member of society was willing to talk about it was itself a significant contribution. Her family’s ongoing commitment to help with the issue is greatly appreciated.

The hon. Member for Romsey (Sandra Gidley) made a sensible contribution. She spoke about the Government’s commitment, and that of international institutions, to the notion of a world hepatitis day. If such a proposal comes before a future world health assembly, we will consider it. I raise only a slight caution; I think that all hon. Members are aware of it. With so many days and weeks now focusing on a variety of specific issues, the danger is that the notion will become devalued. We need to think carefully about the idea, but in principle I think that it makes some sense.

The hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning) made a non-party political, helpful and constructive contribution to the debate. I hope that he does not mind my saying so, but I wonder about the parenting skills involved in lecturing one’s daughter about her behaviour during a Westminster Hall debate. None the less, the hon. Gentleman made a serious point about teenagers.

I do not have a daughter. I have two boys, and I share the serious concern expressed by the hon. Gentleman. It is a major issue.

The hon. Member for Romsey and others spoke about children’s and young people’s perception of the dangers and risk of alcohol. Although we have concerns about drug abuse—by no means have we won the argument over the danger of drugs; we still have a long way to go—it is almost as if alcohol abuse is fashionable, has cachet, is trendy and is the norm for young people. We have failed to get across the message that if young people drink to excess it could have extremely serious consequences. It could affect their aspirations and the rest of their lives.

The hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead talked of scaring people. That has its place, but there needs to be a connection between explaining to young people why certain behaviour can have a detrimental effect and them seeing it as being relevant to their everyday lives and their future. The way in which we communicate those messages is crucial. If we are seen as a group of bland politicians lecturing the general public about what is in their best interests, we will not necessarily change behaviour. It is incredibly important for the Government to provide leadership on public health and health education, but the way in which we communicate the message has to be sophisticated and based on evidence of what works, and it has to be segmented to reach the different groups.

I completely agree with the Minister that a bunch of bland politicians is not the answer. The best answer is the sort of support that was given to the all-party group when it first started by people such as George Best. He was a role model and a face—someone that the kids could relate to. Some footballers may be bad role models, but some are good role models and we need to use the good ones to drive this forward.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman. However, we must be careful not to glamorise the issue. We have to be careful when picking role models and celebrities. The late George Best was an important figure, who demonstrated the relationship between his excess drinking and the consequences for his health, and there are others in that position. However, it is important to think carefully about health education and health promotion. We recognise that sending the same messages to different groups does not work. We need to take a sophisticated and segmented approach. I do not speak only of the Government; it is also about society, parents and schools. We have not persuaded a significant number of children and young people that excess alcohol can have a direct impact on their health and life chances. We should therefore seek some consensus on how to tackle these issues more effectively.

I completely agree that this is not about the Government—any Government—but about getting a consensus with the public in addressing this serious issue.

It is probably outside my portfolio to say so, but never mind. Adults who collude with young people who drink inappropriately should face serious consequences, whether they run off-licences or similar businesses or whether they are older brothers and sisters—or even worse, parents—who sometimes allow children and young people to drink excessively. I have heard of parents of 13, 14 and 15-year-old young people hosting celebrations and parties within the family home, who preside over situations in which it is acceptable for children and young people to drink excessively. The argument is that they are doing so in a protected environment, but what sort of message does it send out? We all have a responsibility for the messages being sent to our children and young people. Equally, our long history of lecturing and hectoring young people is failing. We have to reflect on the most effective ways of getting the message across.

I come now to the substance of the debate. The Government recognise the importance of liver disease as a public health issue, and the need to ensure that we have appropriate services in place to prevent, diagnose and treat its various forms. As we heard, liver disease is the fifth most common cause of death in this country, for both men and women. It is the only one of the big killers for which the mortality rate is steadily rising. The United Kingdom is the only major developed nation with an upward trend in mortality and we need to understand why.

In principle, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East said, liver disease is almost entirely preventable. The Government are concerned about the increasing incidence of and mortality from liver disease. A substantial programme of work is already ongoing to tackle liver disease and its main causes, which have been spoken about at length. They are alcohol, viral hepatitis, and obesity. In addition, as my hon. Friend is aware, we are considering the development of a specific programme of work on liver disease to cover health promotion as well as the full range of health services. To inform those decisions, officials have undertaken preliminary work on a range of things, including commissioning a rapid critical review of existing evidence on liver disease epidemiology, treatment and services; asking an ad-hoc group of experts chaired by Professor Ian Gilmore of the Royal College of Physicians to produce an overview report of clinical issues; and holding a series of informal meetings with key stakeholder individuals and groups.

That preliminary work culminated in a one-day workshop last week that was attended by health service commissioners, clinicians and representatives of patient organisations. The participants were asked to identify and prioritise areas for future action. It will be no surprise to my hon. Friends that the top suggestion was for an action plan or national strategy for liver disease—all contributors to the debate mentioned that.

Does my hon. Friend agree that liver disease as a cancer is part of the reformed cancer strategy? It is sometimes described as a rarer cancer, but, nevertheless, prevention is part of the reformed strategy. It should be inclusive and there should be joined-up thinking about the causes that lead eventually to cancer.

I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. The cancer strategy would be less than effective if we did not recognise the direct links between the two. If we develop a national liver disease strategy, a relationship between those two things would be essential.

We must also consider how such a strategy will fit with the next stage review, which we are working on, and how we can ensure better commissioning generally, throughout the country, of liver services. We are considering those things and will say more about what we intend to do in the near future.

I should like to clarify something that the hon. Member for Romsey said on the national plan for liver disease, because there is clearly some confusion. The 2004 national plan for liver disease was produced by the British Liver Trust and the British Association for the Study of the Liver. It is an important document—it is informing our consideration of a national strategy for liver disease—but it is not a Government or Department of Health document, so we have certainly not updated it, nor are we aware that anybody else has done so.

That clarification is important because I would have shared her concerns had the situation turned out to be as she described. We should be clear on where the plan originated and why it is impossible for the Department to update a plan that is not ours. She may need to speak to her colleagues to find out what specifically they were referring to.

There was a 2004 action plan on the Department of Health website, so I am even more confused now. Perhaps the Minister will get back to me in writing to clarify the matter.

I would be happy to write to the hon. Lady and other hon. Members, but I suspect that the appearance of the plan on the website does not necessarily mean that it was a Department or Government production. I shall seek clarification on the matter.

It is essential that we keep the all-party group informed of our intentions. My ministerial colleagues have a commitment to meet directly with my hon. Friend the Member for Derby, North in the near future, and he will be welcome to bring his colleagues with him to debate the matter.

More generally, we are concerned about the increasing incidence of, and mortality from, alcohol-related liver disease, and we are committed to tackling the problem. Identifying harmful drinkers as early as possible will help to avoid the serious damage that harmful drinking has on the health of the individual. Drinking also has a major impact on the wider community and society. We are all concerned about antisocial behaviour, which is increasingly fuelled by alcohol abuse, in our local communities.

The Department of Health launched only this week a much-expanded, £10 million sustained public health and education campaign to raise general awareness of units and the health risks of drunkenness. There will also be more help for those who want to drink less. A £3.2 million investment will establish a series of intervention and brief advice trailblazer projects in health and criminal justice settings. Those projects will identify people who drink at harmful or potentially harmful levels and offer them help and advice. As we know, there is a direct relationship between people who end up in the criminal justice system and alcohol abuse.

The Government are also investing £650,000 in training which could, within 10 years, produce 60,000 new doctors trained to identify and advise or treat people who are drinking too much. Independent reviews into evidence of the relationship between the pricing and promotion of alcohol and harm, and unit labelling, including advice to women on alcohol and pregnancy, are under way. The reviews will form the basis of a public consultation later in the year and may require legislation in future.

Concern about the number of alcohol-related hospital admissions and the rising trend led the Department to put in place a new national vital signs indicator for the NHS from April to measure change in the rate of alcohol-related hospital admissions. That is the first national commitment to monitor how well the NHS is tackling alcohol-related health harm.

On viral hepatitis, hepatitis B and C are relatively uncommon in this country, with fewer than 0.5 per cent. of the general population being chronically infected with either. We are far below the global prevalence rate for hepatitis B or C of one in 12, as quoted by the World Hepatitis Alliance. That said, we cannot be complacent. The absolute numbers are significant and there are effective ways in which to prevent infection and treat those infected to prevent serious liver disease, as my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North pointed out.

In recognition of that, a comprehensive range of measures is in place to prevent and control hepatitis B and C infections, including screening of blood donations and viral inactivation of blood products; immunisation against hepatitis B for groups at increased risk of infection; antenatal screening for hepatitis B; services to prevent the spread of sexually transmitted infections; harm reduction services for injecting drug users, including needle and syringe exchanges; and drug treatments for chronic hepatitis B and C infection, as recommended by the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence.

The hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead referred to immunisation. An expert committee—the joint committee on vaccination and immunisation—is reviewing the hepatitis B immunisation programme to see whether it ought to be altered. Advice on that is expected later this year. He also referred to the problem of obesity. We have a constant struggle to educate and raise awareness among parents and young people on the impact of obesity. We need to look at how to get our message across more effectively than we have been able to do thus far.

Those are some of the new challenges facing the health service. In 60 years of the NHS, we have never been able to stay still because there are new and constant challenges. How can we spot difficulties before they explode and spiral out of control? The fact that we began focusing on obesity from a significant public policy point of view only recently begs some questions of our capacity to anticipate diseases, conditions and challenges far earlier than we do. Intervention and prevention at an earlier stage would be a far more effective way in which to tackle the problems than dealing with them once they become epidemics.

We recognise the importance of liver disease as a major public health issue and we have a range of measures in place to tackle it. However, we are concerned about the increasing incidence of, and mortality from, liver disease. Therefore, we are considering the need for an acceleration of our approach to the issue and the creation of a national strategy. It is difficult if every time we have a problem we reach for a national strategy rather than local solutions. However, the issue is so serious that there is a strong case to be made for a national strategy that influences commissioning and provision decisions at local level.

NATS (Luton)

I am here to talk about the NATS proposals and plans for the airspace over Luton. It is a supreme irony that we are discussing the proposals just after an announcement by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, relayed on our local radio, about noise maps for Luton. The noise maps form part of the national ambient noise strategy, which has an EU basis and whose purpose is to consider ways to manage noise issues and effects, including road, rail and air traffic noise, and to make noise reduction proposals as necessary. That is some timing: my constituents are being asked how their lives could be made more tranquil when we are in the middle of the biggest—and, I hope, the noisiest—row about noise and environmental impact that Luton has ever seen.

NATS proposes to change the flight paths over my constituency and swathes of Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire. According to NATS’s own estimate, the number of households adversely affected will increase by 111 per cent. under the plans. Let me make it clear that we are not discussing proposals from London Luton airport. I support the airport: it is our major employer, and it brings direct and indirect economic benefits to our town and the region. Like the rest of us, the airport authorities are consultees to the plans. I hope that as good neighbours, they, like my constituents and many colleagues and fellow MPs, will reject the plans. To do otherwise would alienate the local community, which broadly supports the airport, and scupper any good will for growth.

The NATS plans came as a surprise to many. Looking at the proposals, many of my constituents asked how NATS could possibly be mandated to create a detrimental environmental impact on Luton and the surrounding areas. NATS’s stated objective is airspace safety, but it also has a requirement to minimise impact on residential areas. NATS itself says:

“NATS has aimed to position routes to minimise the noise experienced by people and in particular to avoid centring routes over more densely populated areas.”

An innocent reading of the NATS leaflet on the Chilterns and Luton suggests that the good folk of my constituency and the surrounding areas will sleep soundly in their beds, in more ways than one. Many in Luton have not been able to lay hands on that leaflet, but it says that the noise preferential routes for Luton

“would be changed to minimise the population overflown, reduce future delay”

and so on. Nevertheless, buried in its documentation, NATS itself says that the Luton airspace area will be worse off—indeed, it will be one of the areas worst affected by the proposals.

Many of my constituents feel that we have been duped and dumped on, and we demand an alternative. We have been duped because the press releases and leaflets that NATS has issued have been wholly misleading about the impact on my constituents. When NATS launched the proposals in February, it claimed that the new routes would reduce the number of people overflown by 20 per cent. That is not the case. The real impact is a massive shift of aircraft noise from some areas to Luton and the surrounding areas.

At a meeting with NATS that I attended on Friday, the very real possibility was mentioned of a hybrid P-RNAV—precision area navigation—route, which would enable NATS to keep its overall big picture and avoid excessive noise over the hon. Lady’s constituency and mine. Will she commend that to the Minister as a workable way forward?

Indeed, I intend to do so when I explain the problems and the solutions. To say that my constituents have been duped by a sham consultation is an understatement. Meetings have been held with NATS—I am told that it consulted various local authorities, including Luton, in 2000 and 2006—at which the proposals were so unclear that no real response could be given. NATS has proposed no viable option, although, as the hon. Gentleman said, we believe that there is one. No alternatives at all have been proposed for our area, unlike other areas affected by NATS’s proposals. There is no mitigation for Luton, even though, according to NATS’s own documentation, the proposals are clearly worse for Luton than for any other area in the airspace review.

I was astounded to hear from NATS—a private company—that it does not believe that it needs to consult with those directly affected, namely local residents. It consults only with its key stakeholders, relying on councils to do the other consultation for it. Why should the poor council tax payer take on that burden? Some councils have done so, some have not, and some do not have the capacity. As a result of that and the misleading leaflets, my constituents, particularly in Luton itself, have been blissfully unaware of the potentially devastating impact on their lives. They could be sleepwalking into a nightmare.

The consultation has been misleading. It has signally failed to inform residents and thus to encourage responses from them. If they did not receive this hefty tome—none of my local residents did—or if they could not translate it, as it was so complex that even London Luton airport had to get an expert consultant to decipher it, the only way that they could possibly know about the impact of the proposals is by scouring the NATS website, assuming they have a computer. My hard-working constituents do not spend their days scouring the NATS website. We have not been properly consulted.

Even an especially keen constituent who got through all that and asked for the sound exposure levels would have to ask for that document separately. It says that the noise levels over the centre of Luton will be more than 80 dB. I am told that that is as high as in a noisy factory, where an employer would be legally required to provide hearing safety equipment. The areas in Luton nearest to departure and landing areas will be overflown at 90 to 1,000 dB, which is so loud that it is off even the scale that NATS uses in its document. By its own admission, NATS’s proposals disadvantage Luton and the surrounding areas.

It has not escaped our attention that the proposals look dangerously familiar. They are very similar to those put forward a few years ago, which would have taken much of the air traffic over the Harpenden and St. Albans area and routed it across Luton and the surrounding areas. We successfully fought off those proposals, but when I questioned NATS representatives about the consultation, they told me proudly, “Oh yes, we pre-consulted with certain councils, and as a result of that consultation”—pointing to the map—“we amended our proposals to take traffic away from St. Albans, Harpenden and Wheathampstead and move it over to Luton.” They pointed out the difference between what they had proposed to consult on and what they have proposed to us today. That is the nub of the issue. We are being dumped on by our neighbours. As a result of the pre-consultation, NATS has listened to some areas and not others.

In my constituency, the villages of Caddington, Slip End, Woodside and Aley Green will bear the brunt of increased aircraft noise if the changes are approved, and large swathes of the top, south and centre of Luton will be hugely affected. Some 70 per cent. of all the flights from the western end of the runway will be diverted over the rooftops of south Luton and closer to those villages.

The number of people suffering high noise levels around the airport will increase from 3,000 in 2006 to 10,000 when the new routes are introduced. As NATS itself agreed, none of that takes any account of further airport expansions in any of our surrounding areas. All of the assumptions are untested; the impact could be even more detrimental, because by its own account NATS has used a set of assumptions to change flight paths that cannot be assessed properly until after any airspace changes have been implemented. An addendum to the main document shows that 18,000 people will continue to be overflown by departures from Luton, to whom will be added a further 50,000. The day noise contour is about 57 dB, but no night flight noise contours have been given, although NATS has confirmed that there will be an increase in night flights.

All of that poses one question, to which I received no serious answer in the meeting that I held with NATS, which many of my fellow MPs from Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire attended. How, with these proposals, is NATS meeting its requirement to minimise the impact on residential areas, when it is shifting the impact, especially on the westerly departure route, from non-residential to residential areas? How is it meeting the Government’s requirements under the Transport Act 2000 to minimise the impact on residential areas? Clearly, there is no point in NATS telling me, as it did, that it will consider the overall regional impact but cannot provide a proper assessment for Luton and the surrounding areas, which are so densely populated. We are talking not just about decibels, but about people’s lives being turned upside down.

We need answers to some key questions: what is the point of making the changes now, when new runways at Stansted and Heathrow are currently under consideration, which means that the proposals will have to be changed again? If Brookmans Park is the bottleneck, which NATS says it is, why not just change flight paths affecting that location? If new routes are required to show the environmental benefits resulting from the change, why is the replacement westerly departure route to be implemented, when it is actually far worse than the existing route that it will replace? If the proposals go ahead, does NATS realise that Luton airport will be under significant pressure to close at night, which would reduce capacity by 10 per cent., thus negating the main aim of the changes, which is to increase capacity?

In my constituency, at least seven schools will be affected by the proposals, including our new academy, which is currently under the flight path and will be rebuilt as a brand new facility even further under it. Children at schools in the Farley and South area will have their learning affected by high decibel levels, with all the implications for their education.

Although it is argued that the proposed routes will create no additional air pollution—even though some of the new flight paths are significantly longer than the existing ones—the proposed routes will move pollution over people who do not suffer from it at the moment. Why?

Furthermore, having identified a problem at Luton, why did NATS not investigate the consequences of its proposals on night sleep disturbance? It could have done so. The sound exposure level contours were provided after the main consultation, and the populations under them could have been calculated, but NATS chose not to do so.

Let us consider the wider implications. The World Health Organisation has recommended a 60 dB external maximum noise level to avoid sleep disturbance. The 80 dB contour area, proposed here for the noisiest aircraft at Luton, is huge, and the approximately 70 dB contour is itself 10 dB noisier than the recommended level and twice as loud as the world health limit. As the WHO said, the health of populations cannot be guaranteed when noise exceeds 55 dB. And this in an area that already has some of the worst health deprivation, certainly regionally, if not in the UK. How can NATS and the Civil Aviation Authority justify the proposals, if the plans, as we have identified, are likely to affect 30,000 people in Luton and the surrounding areas at night?

We are one of the Government’s growth areas, so the proposals will impact on Government policy on development. We are regenerating Luton: the massive public and private sector regeneration in the town is estimated to exceed £10 billion by 2030. Frankly, Luton, which is a good place to live and work—that is how we try to promote it—will be blighted by the proposals, as people in our town centre, university and major companies will all find that the quality of their life and work is adversely affected. Of course, none of that was taken into account by NATS.

As the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) indicated, however, there is an alternative—it is a modest ask—that NATS itself says is viable. However, it was not included in its consultation document. That compromise will allow the retention of the existing westerly departure route, which will mean that the impact will be broadly the same as before the proposals, and less damaging to my constituents in the surrounding areas.

We are told that the main constraint to the proposals is that the new technology—P-RNAV—does not allow any turns to be made until the craft is at least one mile from the end of the runway, which means that P-RNAV cannot be used on the existing route immediately west of the airport. However, NATS representatives confirmed, both at the meeting to which the hon. Gentleman referred and subsequently, that it is possible to design a hybrid situation under which P-RNAV comes into operation two to three miles from the airport, thus allowing the existing system and noise preferential route to be followed for departures and arrivals.

There is no doubt that the current dispersal of aircraft within the current NPR is better for the local residents most affected than a concentration along the proposed new route would be. The highest concentration of residential properties is within the first mile at Luton, which should represent sufficient grounds for NATS to reconsider its proposals. NATS said that it would discuss that alternative with the CAA, but in case the latter needs reminding, it too has strong environmental requirements laid on it by Government under section 70 of the Transport Act.

I believe that my constituents, and many others in the surrounding areas, have been duped by the proposals and dumped on. We are now demanding that the CAA accepts the alternative, viable proposal, which will do what both NATS and the CAA are charged with doing by the Government and what the present plans patently do not do—namely, minimise the impact on Luton and the surrounding areas.

I begin by apologising for the absence of the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Canning Town (Jim Fitzpatrick), but important ministerial business has kept him away from the Chamber today. If, because I do not possess his level of expertise in this area, I cannot answer any of the points raised by my hon. Friend Member for Luton, South (Margaret Moran), I assure her that they will be answered in due course in correspondence. I hope that she accepts that.

As well as congratulating my hon. Friend on securing this debate, I compliment her on the way in which she made her case. Clearly she feels extremely strongly about this issue. If she makes her arguments as eloquently and passionately in her response to the consultation exercise launched by NATS, it will be difficult for NATS not to take into account her reservations and the points that she rightly makes.

Before responding to my hon. Friend’s specific points, I shall begin by restating that the Government’s commitment to sustaining economic growth and protecting the environment is at the heart of the Department for Transport’s aviation policy-making process, but a balance needs to be struck. As she rightly said, we need to tackle the environmental challenges, recognise the value of aviation in enabling people to take advantage of business and leisure opportunities and allow the industry to compete internationally. The role of any decision maker on airspace changes is to find the right balance.

I turn now to NATS’ terminal control north airspace change proposal. I must make it clear from the outset that that proposal is still subject to consultation under the CAA’s independent airspace change process. I understand my hon. Friend’s anger and that of the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous). My hon. Friend feels that she has been duped. She also asked if it was a case of whether NATS goes ahead with the proposals. She was right to ask that question, because a consultation exercise is under way and no final decisions have been made. I therefore do not believe that she is justified in feeling duped. The consultation exercise has been extended to 19 June.

My hon. Friend asked how the CAA can justify the proposals, but the CAA is not expected to justify the proposals, because the consultation is still going on.

I urge the Minister to look at the literature submitted by NATS, which suggests that the proposal offers a distinct advantage to the residents of Luton and its surrounding area. However, when one reads NATS’ own documentation, that is patently not the case. To me, that is duplicitous.

My hon. Friend’s comments are now on the record, and I am sure that they will be noted by the relevant parties.

As part of the regulatory process, the CAA may consider seeking the Secretary of State’s views on the environmental aspects of the proposal and then her approval for any change. Therefore, it would be premature and inappropriate of me to comment on the specifics of the proposal while it is still subject to the rigours of the independent airspace change process. That said, it might be helpful if I give some background on the proposals and the current consultation, and explain the procedures by which changes to UK airspace are made.

As my hon. Friend will be aware, NATS launched a 13-week consultation on the proposed terminal control north airspace change on 21 February. This area of airspace is one of the most complex in the world, with routes in and out of many major airports, including Heathrow, Stansted, Luton and London City, as well as smaller airports such as Southend and RAF Northolt. The current airspace infrastructure has accommodated growth at those airports over the past 20 years, but increasing traffic has led to congestion in the airways, resulting in delays and extra fuel burn, which impacts on the environment.

The proposed changes are designed to reduce delay while maintaining safety and improving environmental performance. I must stress here that the proposal is not associated with, and does not assume, any future development at Heathrow, Stansted or any other airport. It represents business as usual for NATS which, under the terms of its operating licence, is obliged to make the most efficient overall use of airspace and to meet reasonable levels of overall demand. To meet that requirement, it constantly reviews its airspace management, including procedures and applications of technology, and makes proposals for airspace changes where it believes they are necessary.

NATS’ consultation on the terminal control north airspace change proposal is the largest of its kind to be undertaken. The affected region has a population of 12.6 million people. As my hon. Friend pointed out, NATS is directly consulting more than 3,000 primary stakeholders, including MPs, county councils, borough councils, district councils, parish councils, environmental organisations, chambers of commerce, business organisations and aviation stakeholders.

At a meeting on Friday, NATS was gracious enough to concede that it had consulted Bedfordshire county council and South Bedfordshire district council on a route other than the one that it is now proposing.

I have every confidence that the hon. Gentleman will be able to pursue that in his own way. I do not want to be drawn into the rights and wrongs of how this particular consultation is taking place, lest the Government be accused of trying to influence it in some inappropriate way. I hope that he will understand that. His point, though, is clearly on the record.

Furthermore, in the run-up to the launch of the consultation, NATS arranged briefings for local MPs and national and regional media to set out the proposals and explain their likely impacts. To make the information more accessible for the general public, NATS has divided the consultation region into five areas. Consultation materials for each area have been colour coded to make it as easy as possible for people to locate the information directly relevant to their own location. The materials include a consultation document, an information DVD, summary leaflets for each of the five areas and a dedicated website.

My hon. Friend has concerns about the level of technical detail in the consultation document and supporting materials. I am sure that she agrees that it is appropriate that such information is made widely available to allow all parties to formulate their opinions on the proposal. In response to concerns expressed by some primary stakeholders and members of the public that there was not enough time for them to consider the details of the proposals, NATS recently announced that it would extend the consultation period by a further four weeks. Therefore the consultation, which opened on 21 February and had been due to end tomorrow, will now close on 19 June, giving interested parties and local residents a total of 17 weeks to consider the proposals and register their views.

I think that it might be helpful if I now say something about the procedure for making changes to airspace in the UK. Planning and regulation of all UK airspace is the responsibility of the independent aviation regulator, the CAA. The CAA must manage the airspace to meet the needs of all users, having regard to national security, economic and environmental factors, while maintaining a high standard of safety. The process for making changes to airspace is governed by the CAA’s airspace change process, known as CAP 725. Following review and consultation, a revised version of CAP 725 was published in March 2007.

The new guidance clarifies the roles and responsibilities of an airspace change sponsor, such as NATS, and those of the independent regulator, the CAA. It also provides significant detail on the activities of a consultation exercise, including what impacts are to be taken into account, how they should be measured and who should be consulted. A change sponsor is responsible for developing and consulting on a proposal for an airspace change, ensuring that it satisfies and/or enhances safety standards, improves capacity, and mitigates, as far as is practicable, any environmental impacts in line with the Department’s environmental guidance to the CAA.

Informed by the consultation, the airspace change sponsor must then submit its proposal to the CAA. The CAA then assesses the formal proposal against regulatory requirements, including environmental objectives. The CAA will then either approve or reject the proposal. If the CAA considers that a proposal might have a significant detrimental effect on the environment, it is required to advise the Secretary of State for Transport of the likely impact. It must also advise of plans to minimise that impact and to refrain for making the airspace change without first securing the approval of the Secretary of State. To put it clearly, airspace changes are only made when it is clear, after consultation, that an overall environmental benefit will accrue or when the airspace management considerations and the overriding need for safety allow for no practical alternative.

My hon. Friend raised the valid issue of aircraft noise. Let me assure her that I recognise that, at local level, noise is a significant concern. That is why the CAA’s revised guidance on the airspace change process includes substantive guidance on a range of environmental requirements, including noise, air quality, tranquillity and visual intrusion. Furthermore, the guidance states that airspace changes should aim to introduce modified routes that overfly as few people as possible. However, I am sure that my hon. Friend will appreciate that the development of UK airspace has to take place within a number of immobile constraints, such as the geographic location of airports. For that reason, it would be impractical to prevent altogether overflying of populated areas, including schools.

I wonder whether the Minister could ask his colleague, the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Poplar and Canning Town (Jim Fitzpatrick), to write to the hon. Member for Luton, South (Margaret Moran) and myself to say whether there is any objection to aircraft flight paths going over a wider area, so that the same people do not have constant noise all the time. Do the Government have any objection in principle to that? Will he get his colleague to write to the hon. Lady and me?

I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister will write to the hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend in due course.

In closing, I repeat that I cannot comment on the terminal control north airspace change proposals while they remain subject to consultation under the independent airspace change process. I therefore urge my hon. Friend, the hon. Gentleman and all other interested parties to register their views with NATS, the sponsor of the change, by responding to the ongoing consultation which, as I have said, will now remain open until 19 June. Once again, I congratulate my hon. Friend on the campaign that she has run and on her clear concern for her constituents and their quality of life.

Rail Network

I am pleased that the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Glasgow, South (Mr. Harris), will respond to this debate because he understands railways very well; he is enthusiastic about them and has been in his post longer than most of his predecessors.

There was an age of the anorak when bewhiskered men met over pints of mild in pubs to discuss schemes for reinvigorating the railways to pre-Beeching days, while comparing timetables with one another. Many schemes were thought up, many were impractical and some were doable, but in those days there was widespread frank indifference and scepticism at the Department for Transport. At the time, there were severe problems with the railways. Network Rail—Railtrack as it then was—had substantial financial problems and was more concerned with managing its property portfolio than the railways, which led to its ultimate demise.

I was a member of the Select Committee on Transport and I remember how preoccupied we were in those days with the problem of financial overshoots and the difficulties surrounding the railways as they were, without considering how they might be or how we could progress. To be fair, the Government were coming to terms with the after-effects of railway privatisation—the fragmentation of the system, running franchises, ensuring that the public interest was protected and so on. They were genuinely worried, as was the Treasury, about financial overshoots in the industry—in those days they were an horrific and appreciable headache. When the current Chancellor was Secretary of State for Transport, he talked about cutting down the railways and not transporting fresh air around the country. The perspective taken on the railways in those days—the age of the anorak—was negative.

That was replaced by what I can only describe as an age of relative optimism. When I first came into Parliament, I had many conversations with Network Rail, which told me insistently that its sole job was to run the railways as they stood, according to the Government’s specifications. Subsequently, the organisation started to be more positive, and to talk about growth fund, expansion and increased capacity. It started to talk proactively about what the railways might be, rather than what they were at the time.

That was against a background of capacity problems. It was obvious that having been a financial black hole, the railways were becoming a significant success, but capacity problems arose because, whether due to the difficulty of getting around in cars or whatever, it was clear that more people wanted to use the railways and the infrastructure and stock were not coping well, so overcrowding became an issue. At the same time, it was evident that profitability was up, along with ridership. Crucially, confidence was also up; there was substantial confidence in the railway system and what it could be compared with what it had been.

At around the same time, I remember attending meetings in this place and elsewhere when people talked in heady ways about what could be done to increase capacity in the railway system. I attended a conference with the Minister where Christian Woolmer and the usual folk from Transport Times made bullish and positive noises about what could and should happen. Clearly, there was and still is a degree of private financial interest in the railways. Firms such as the Kilbride Group and so on sensed that the railways could be a financial winner rather than a financial loser, and both the Government and the private sector started to look forward rather than backwards, or simply at maintaining the existing infrastructure and railway system.

A number of positive ideas came from that. Some were relatively modest—for example, ways of increasing capacity without involving major new investment. There was talk about increasing capacity by doing simple things such as lengthening platforms and having better interchanges so that people would find the railways genuinely more useful, particularly if they also used other modes of transport. There was also talk about increasing rolling stock, having new and longer trains, and so on. Quite simple things were thought to be a way of dealing with capacity without great financial significance; for example, better timetabling so that trains would be more convenient and the timetables for various franchises would dovetail beneficially.

I have heard, but not seen, that the devolved Administration in Scotland is planning to build new lines or to reopen old lines that have lain fallow. Rail schemes have started to appear in regional transport plans. When regional transport forums were set up, it was uncertain whether transport plans involving rail were within their remit, but some introduced them and were not discouraged by the Department for Transport. Merseyside in Lancashire, where I live, was delighted that schemes such as the Olive Mount Cord were reinstated, because it was long overdue. Quite ambitious projects, such as Crossrail—I suffered it in the sense of having been on the Committee for longer than I can account for—went ahead, which was a good sign of confidence and optimism, although we have yet to see Crossrail. At the same time, rail utilisation strategies emerged. They are an invitation for Network Rail and its partners to take a long view of the railways and to think about how we can use them better and make them genuinely more useful for the travelling public.

However, in reality and despite all the optimism, adjustments, variations and minor developments, many good schemes are stuck in the sidings, and there has been little real progress in extending the network. Some schemes have a sound commercial basis, indicating that we can add substantially to network functionality and give people additional reasons for using the railways. I have thought long and hard about why that is so. Part of my explanation, but perhaps not the complete explanation, is that there is no method for progressing good schemes that would enlarge and extend the railway network.

I was a member of the Standing Committee that considered the Railways Act 2005, when the right hon. Member for Harrow, East (Mr. McNulty), now the Minister for Security, Counter-Terrorism, Crime and Policing, made two comments that have stuck in my mind to this day. He said—although I have never had any further intimation of this—that the Department for Transport was investigating small-scale railway schemes that might or might not be of use to the railway network as a whole, but that had been cashiered by Beeching and afterwards. He said that research was being conducted, but I do not know whether it has seen the light of day, and I have certainly not seen it. That was intriguing, because I was interested in one such scheme.

Another point made by the right hon. Gentleman stuck in my mind because it seemed so counter-intuitive. We were dealing with a number of clauses covering the closure of railway lines. There were at least 20 clauses on how to do that, and on the procedures that had to be followed. In my innocence, I asked why there were no clauses about how to reopen a railway line, which must be equally problematic. I do not know whether the right hon. Gentleman was just being sardonic, as he is often inclined to be, or just saying what he thought, but he answered, “Well, the reason why we don’t have such a clause is because everybody knows how to do it. It is all very straightforward.” I think that Hansard will verify that he said something very like that.

I thought to myself that that had not been my experience. It appeared to me that a new railway scheme designed to extend existing services, rather than merely complement them, needed the compliance and support of a number of crucial partners. For example, it needs a fair wind from the local councils. It must fit in with their strategic plans and transport interests. It needs the co-operation, endorsement, imprimatur and research capacity of Network Rail, which is the only body that can say how much the scheme will cost. It needs a compliant and helpful set of signals—not railway signals—from the operator of the franchise in the area in question, which has to say that there is a solid and decent commercial case for the proposal.

Such a scheme needs to be embedded somewhere in regional transport plans. We all know that these days if something is not in a strategic plan, it generally does not happen. Regional transport forums progress schemes at an almost glacial pace, but if we want a scheme to succeed it is better in the plan than not.

A scheme needs the co-operation of local transport authorities, which sometimes have cross-boundary disputes. A relatively ambitious scheme might cross the boundaries of more than one local transport authority, and they have to be singing from the same song sheet. The scheme that I shall briefly mention later needs the co-operation of both Lancashire and Merseyside.

A scheme needs the carriage providers—the rolling stock leasing companies—to provide the assurance that stock of the right kind can be provided without appreciable additional running costs. Above all, it needs the support and endorsement of the Department, which is sometimes lacking. I once described the process as being like knitting fog, and I do not renege on that. A scheme needs, and in many cases fundamentally lacks, a leader and driver of change. For something new to be established, there has to be somebody with a direct interest in pushing it forward and uniting the disparate partners who need to co-operate.

I can illustrate that point with reference to my pet scheme. I am sure that many Members have pet schemes, and I suppose that if this were a one-and-a-half-hour debate, they would be here to speak up for them. Mine is called the Burscough curves, and is outside my constituency but has an impact on it. As far as I can see, it is self-evidently doable. It has been discussed with about 20 Transport Ministers over the years, but I and most people in the area still believe that it is deliverable.

In essence, the scheme involves uniting two stations that are in the same town and separated by about a quarter of a mile. The town is growing and becoming more prosperous, and it is an important part of both the Merseyside and Preston commuter belts. The scheme would join the Lancashire and Merseyside rail systems. Putting the curves in would have the real benefit not just of establishing better communication between two stations in one town but of joining two networks that are otherwise severed. There would be a link from one of the stations in Burscough to Southport, joining up the disparate spokes of the Merseyside electrical system, which is quite distinctive, being a third-rail system.

It is not my finding but that of Network Rail in its rail utilisation strategy that the scheme would dramatically increase the utility and use of the Preston-Ormskirk line, which is not overused. My constituency interest is that it would support access to Southport, because transport links are crucial to the prosperity of the Southport economy. It would reduce commuter flow to Liverpool by car and resolve the demonstrably poor linkage between the Preston and Liverpool city regions. Everyone agrees that there are a lot of good things about it.

In its rail utilisation strategy, Network Rail identified a clear gap in provision from Southport to Preston and to Ormskirk. In the local transport plan, Merseytravel has identified the need to link Liverpool, particularly its northern suburbs, with Preston and the central Lancashire city region. The Lancashire local transport plan identifies the need for a direct link from Preston to Southport, and in a recent consultation Sefton council identified those links as critical to the future of Southport as a retail, tourist and service centre.

However, the scheme is not happening. That cannot just be because of the cost, which would be £12 million at most. By the calculation of many people, not just of the anorak persuasion but those with hard commercial heads, there would be a 10 per cent. return on investment, which is well within the Department’s accepted figure. It cannot be lack of research, because plenty is being done. It might be because of cross-boundary issues and the lack of a single champion, or it might be because of other schemes that Merseytravel has cooking at the moment, such as the Kirkby to Headbolt lane and the Bidston to Wrexham connections. Those schemes are turning out to be more costly than we thought.

However, the reason why the scheme is not happening might be that the Department—not the Minister—needs to take a degree of ownership of such schemes and promote and encourage them. I am well aware that the unseen hand of the Department reaches over railway affairs on quite a local basis. I know that at times it appears to be hands-off, but its grip on the west coast main line, including in the reordering of stock, is well testified to, as I hear from the operating companies. Its involvement in the northern franchise, which comes from my constituency, is also a known fact. We were expecting new carriages rather earlier than we shall get them, which I understand is because the Department intervened to suggest that the new stock would be better sent elsewhere. I do not want to make any enemies, but the Department’s influence may be more pervasive than it might own up to.

I understand the Department’s anxieties and the squeeze on Government capital, and I understand such things as the high cost of signalling and the fear of cost overruns, although I point out that the Public Accounts Committee recently established that cost overruns are not unique to the railway sphere. They are just as evident in relation to roads. However, like other schemes, the one that I mentioned has a business case, the support of all the relevant partners and the prospect of increased functionality, more passengers, environmental gains and so on. If it still does not happen, something is going wrong and I would like to know what.

I know that we have community rail partnerships, with stations being prettied up, smiling volunteers and nice brochures. I am glad to see those brochures; I read them and enjoy them. However, the acid test of the new optimism, if it is still about, is that we get new or reinstated track, increased utility and more cars left at home. With all due respect to the Minister and the Department, we cannot point to that at present.

I begin, perhaps unusually, by congratulating you, Mr. Jones, on being able to stay in the Chair so long in this stifling heat. I wonder whether it is some kind of dastardly plan by Government and Opposition Whips to encourage Members not to be here but to be in Crewe instead. However, we will struggle on. I also congratulate the hon. Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh) on securing this debate. Such debates are very important for the rail industry, and it is the kind of debate that I enjoy. Despite the heat, I am glad to be here.

However, I begin by disagreeing with something that the hon. Gentleman said at the beginning of his comments. I assure him that the future of the railways is still the subject of intense discussion by men with beards and glasses of real ale, as much as it was in the pre-Beeching days, but perhaps with less effect. I am delighted that he acknowledges, albeit with some reservations, that the British railway system is a successful enterprise, in stark contrast with previous years. I thank him for his generally positive analysis. He reminded us that he was a member of the Crossrail Bill Committee. I should have known that, of course, by his pallor after having been hidden away for 21 months looking at the Bill. The House and the Government are grateful to all the Members who served on the Committee. He mentioned that every MP has a pet scheme, and mine is Crossrail.

The majority of the hon. Gentleman’s comments focused on the lack of reopening of new lines, and I want to address that before I come to my prepared comments. He takes a positive and genuine interest in the railways, and I know that he will be familiar with the White Paper that was published last July, “Towards a sustainable railway”. We made it clear in that publication that although we want to grow the railways—they are growing—we did not anticipate the opening of new lines in any kind of planned way at all.

The reasoning behind that is sound, and I have said this to the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) who speaks on transport for the Liberal Democrats. On one level, the opening of a line, of itself, creates no extra capacity unless there are train carriages to operate on it. The priority of the high level output specification that formed part of the White Paper is a massive step change in capacity on our railways; namely, the 1,300 new carriages that we are committed to procuring through the franchise process between 2009 and 2014. In essence, those carriages are already spoken for.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the allocation for Northern Rail, and I shall return to that later. A new railway line would not have any extra carriages if the carriages are already spoken for, so it is far too simplistic to say that growing the railway network in that way would result in any major benefit in terms of capacity to hard-pressed—literally, in many cases—commuters.

The hon. Gentleman said that there is no real method for progressing schemes. He may not remember this, but, as a Back Bencher, I too was a member of the Standing Committee that looked at the Railways Bill, which later became the Railways Act 2005. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Security, Counter-Terrorism, Crime and Policing was the Transport Minister in charge. I remember the exchange to which the hon. Gentleman referred, when he asked my right hon. Friend about the clauses for closing railways and noted the absence of any for reopening lines.

That is an entirely valid point to make, but I think, having been in this post for nearly two years and having seen for myself some of the processes that exist—in some cases, as a result of the 2005 Act—that processes for reopening lines do exist, although they are not particularly transparent and obvious. The fact that no authority or investor has taken up the challenge so far is less down to the lack of process and more down to the fact that no private company in partnership with the local sponsoring authority has yet been able to come up with a business case robust enough to justify the fairly significant levels of investment that would be required for such schemes.

The hon. Gentleman said that several schemes have had a robust business case attached to them, but it is not enough for there to be a robust business case attached to the construction of a new piece of track. That alone is not enough to justify the investment. What also has to be considered is which train operating company will provide services on the new piece of track, and whether those services will require extra public subsidy. The public subsidy that is almost always required in such circumstances must be taken into account in drawing up a cost-benefit ratio for any particular scheme.

I will tell the hon. Gentleman what I told a group of people who came to see me in my office a few months ago. They were campaigning in conjunction with the hon. Member for Lewes for the reopening of the Lewes-Uckfield line in the south of England near Brighton. Basically, they proposed a public-private partnership deal that would mean, in essence, that the Department for Transport would not have to put its hand in its pocket for the capital costs or for revenue costs following resumption of services on the line. I said to them that if they made the figures stack up, if they were willing to put in the investment, and if they could produce a business case that justified their optimism, I would consider that a step forward. I would certainly not stand in the way of such a scheme. At this stage, I have not seen evidence that sufficient progress has been made on that line, although I understand that more work is being done as we speak.

The Government and the Department have no vested interest in standing in the way of such schemes. It is only right and just that we point out that if public money is to be called on to sustain new services on a new line, we have the right and the duty to say that it can be spent only if it will actually produce value for money.

The hon. Gentleman made some points about Northern Rail. He is right, of course: the Department does not claim to be a hidden hand in the railway industry. I am careful to point out that the Department does not write timetables, although we are often accused of doing so, and that we certainly do not specify what type of rolling stock individual franchises must use, except in very unusual circumstances where there is a changeover of franchise, but that, nevertheless, there is a role for it in the management of franchises. The Department has officials whose responsibility is the oversight of individual franchises. That is necessary, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would not criticise it. Given the levels of public money involved in the franchises, it would be odd not to have that oversight.

However, I can tell the hon. Gentleman that, aside from the fact that Northern Rail receives £1 million of subsidy every day of the year and therefore is the recipient of the largest amount of subsidy of any of the rail franchises, it is also due to receive 182 new carriages from the high level output specification commitment. I would be interested to know how he divined the information that there was an intention to offer new carriages to Northern Rail but that subsequently a decision was make to revoke the offer, because my understanding is that Northern Rail actually does particularly well in terms of the number of carriages going to it. As far as I can remember, and off the top of my head, it certainly does better than the majority of the franchises, as it is one of the largest in terms of train movements.

I thank the Minister for that information. In fact, my informant, who fairly clearly worked out the figures, is the supplier of the carriages. However, to revert to a previous point the Minister made, I believe that everybody, anoraks included, accepts that a business case must be made. However, looking in from the outside, there is a sort of opaqueness as to what a business case sometimes needs to look like to satisfy the Department. One gets the sense from time to time—perhaps it is wrong—that the goalposts move, and that the hurdles that any scheme, even those not requiring subsidy, needs to get over are significantly higher every time it looks as though something might be done.

That is a valid point. I know that there is a lack of clarity, and a lack of confidence among many sponsoring authorities about what they actually need to produce in a business case. Let me make this offer: officials in the Department are willing to offer advice to any sponsors who need essential information about what needs to be included in a business case.

I reject the accusation that we have not grown the railway. More people are using the railway today than at any point in the history of the railway, outside wartime. That is a huge achievement of this Government—

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