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Commons Chamber

Volume 477: debated on Thursday 12 June 2008

House of Commons

Thursday 12 June 2008

The House met at half-past Ten o’clock

Prayers

[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

private business

London Local Authorities (Shopping Bags) Bill (By Order)

Order for Second Reading read.

To be read a Second time on Thursday 19 June.

Oral Answers to Questions

Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The Secretary of State was asked—

Low Energy Technology

The Government fund the Carbon Trust to work with business to increase energy efficiency and administer the enhanced capital allowance scheme for energy-saving technologies. The Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform stimulates innovation through a photonics knowledge transfer network, providing support and guidance for manufacturers, especially small and medium-sized businesses. Both those schemes are relevant to low-energy lighting.

LED lights are super-efficient and emit virtually no heat, so they can help to reduce carbon footprints and fire risk, yet they are not included on the energy technology list to which the hon. Lady has referred. Would she be kind enough to agree to meet me and my constituent, Mr. David Linger from Kettering, who is an expert on the issue, to discuss the matter further?

I agree absolutely with the hon. Gentleman about the value of LEDs, and I can tell him that a new energy technology criteria list will be published, probably in a couple of months’ time. Some white LEDs will be on that list. Products that meet the criteria will be eligible to be put on the energy technology product list, which in turn makes them eligible for enhanced capital allowances. ECAs are administered by the Carbon Trust. That is really important, and I suggest that he ask his constituent to get in touch with the Carbon Trust as soon as possible. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment would be pleased to meet the hon. Gentleman and his constituent.

The attraction of LEDs is, of course, that 70 per cent. of the energy is converted to light, but unfortunately only 20 per cent. of the light normally escapes the bulb. What assessment has the Minister made of the potential of nanoimprint lithography to improve that ratio and make bulbs more effective, and what are the Government doing to support that new, growing industry, which has great potential to save the energy that is spent on light, which is a major consumer of energy?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his contribution. He is a well-known expert in the field, and he asks us many questions on the subject. As I have said, LEDs are potentially extremely valuable for their energy efficiency. We have a nanotechnology working group—

It is very small. I can assure my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) that LED technology is part of our considerations, and will continue to be so, because we think that it has great potential.

Kingsnorth

3. What discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform on the environmental impact of the proposed new coal power station at Kingsnorth. (210302)

I regularly discuss energy policy with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, but the decision on Kingsnorth will be for him to make, and I cannot comment on what he might decide, for reasons that I know the hon. Gentleman will understand. The environmental impact assessment is an important part of the process.

But does not the Secretary of State think that that undermines any policy commitments to low-carbon technology?

I simply say that no decision has yet been made on the Kingsnorth application, as the hon. Gentleman will be well aware. We need to develop carbon capture and storage technology across the world, which is why I am sure that he will welcome the fact that the United Kingdom is currently the only European Union country that has a competition on the go to demonstrate that technology on a commercial scale. With China building one new coal-fired power station a week, and with about 8 GW currently in construction in Germany, we need that technology to work, and I am sure that he will welcome the project.

My right hon. Friend will know that carbon capture technology is vital for our long-term future, but will he make sure that all of us in this country recognise that coal is our main indigenous energy source, and that without it, the lights will go out? We cannot ever have that happen.

Coal is currently responsible for a significant proportion of our electricity supply, and certainly a very large proportion of lights around the world are kept burning because of coal. That makes the point that if we are to make progress in reducing global emissions, we have to make progress on significantly decarbonising electricity production from coal. That is why the technology that we are talking about is needed.

Surely this goes to the heart of joined-up Government thinking on climate change. Given that the right hon. Gentleman’s fellow Secretary of State resisted amendments to the recent Energy Bill to mandate carbon capture and storage for new coal-fired power stations, can the right hon. Gentleman tell us whether DEFRA was consulted before that line was taken on the Energy Bill by his fellow Secretary of State? If the right hon. Gentleman was consulted, what did he tell the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform?

Nobody has yet been able to make carbon capture and storage technology work on a commercial scale. What is the sensible way to proceed? It is to demonstrate that it is possible to do that on a commercial scale. As the Prime Minister said in his speech in November, once that is shown to work, countries will have a decision to make about whether they wish to mandate carbon capture and storage technology, but we have to show it working on a commercial scale. I hope the hon. Gentleman, like other hon. Members, will welcome the fact that the UK is leading on trying to get one of those projects up and running.

My right hon. Friend knows, further to the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Tamworth (Mr. Jenkins), that we have a sea of coal underneath England. We need to exploit it and we need to get back to a better place than where the Tories left us when they closed down all the coalfields. Clean technology is available that can get the coal out of the ground and raise up communities again.

I recognise the point that my hon. Friend makes about the depth of feeling in those communities about what happened. The fundamental truth is that the remaining fossil fuels that we have on this earth, whatever form they take, will need to be carefully used in a way that does not add to the problem of global warming. We all understand that that is the case, and finding ways of doing that is the solution to making progress.

Does the Secretary of State accept that his answer will cause great concern to many residents in north Kent and in adjoining parts of south-east London, including mine, where there has been a consensus about the need for low-carbon technology and carbon capture in any new power station developments? It seems troubling to them that the Secretary of State has adopted a course that could open the door to development at Kingsnorth without a commitment to that carbon capture, in their backyard.

No decision has been taken on Kingsnorth yet, as the hon. Gentleman is well aware. That decision is for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform. The point that I have been making to the hon. Gentleman and to the House is that we need to develop carbon capture and storage technology and to show it operating on a commercial scale. That is why we are going ahead with the project.

The Secretary of State mentioned the global context and China, but what message does it send to the world if we on the one hand go around lecturing it about the need to reduce carbon emissions, and on the other teeter on the brink of ushering in the first new unabated coal-fired power station for a generation? Does that not sound like hypocrisy? Is it not fossil politics?

I simply say—and I hope the House will bear with me when I say it again—that no decision has been taken yet in relation to Kingsnorth.

With great respect to the hon. Gentleman, who intervenes from a sedentary position, first, E.ON itself has asked that no decision be taken while consultation takes place on carbon capture readiness. That will happen in the summer. Secondly, as the hon. Gentleman is aware, E.ON has put the Kingsnorth application into the competition as well. Those, I should have thought, were two things that he would welcome.

Greenpeace

I met representatives of Greenpeace on 7 January to discuss climate change, energy and the Marine Bill, and on 28 February and 2 June together with colleagues to discuss international climate change. The Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Jonathan Shaw), also met Greenpeace representatives on 12 May to discuss the forthcoming meeting of the International Whaling Commission.

In any of those meetings since May, did Greenpeace raise with Ministers the fact that Sizewell B’s nuclear reactor was closed down—“unplanned” was the word used by the official spokesperson for the industry—and that when the spokesperson was asked why and what the circumstances were, no statement was forthcoming? Is it not time that Greenpeace and the House were told what the circumstances relating to the closedown of the Sizewell B reactor in May—unplanned?

To the best of my recollection, that issue was not raised in the meetings to which I referred. I am sure my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform will take note of the point made by my hon. Friend.

In the meetings that the right hon. Gentleman had with the director of Greenpeace, did he hear the director of Greenpeace say, with regard to vehicle excise duty, that that

“is the kind of measure that gives green taxes a bad name because it does not change behaviour”?

Does the Secretary of State agree that the Treasury projections for the income from VED increasing exponentially over the years demonstrates that it is nothing to do with changing people’s behaviour, and that it is in fact to do with raising more taxes? If it was to do with changing behaviour, presumably the income from it would decline over the years to some kind of vanishing point. Is there not a fundamental disagreement between his Department and the Treasury on the subject?

The director of Greenpeace has not raised that issue with me in the meetings I have had with him, but the purpose of the changes put into the Budget was to make us all more aware of the CO2 emissions of our vehicles—both newly purchased and existing ones. Is it unreasonable in the world in which we live that that factor should be taken into account?

Does not Greenpeace support the idea that we have to rethink the way in which we use our cars and that taxation must play a part? I have argued for a counter-cyclical rebalancing of the fiscal state expenditure ratio to put more through taxes in the pockets of lower and middle-income earners, but on cars we have to wean ourselves gently off these Tory gas guzzlers and stop warming up the environment just because it suits the car lobby represented on the Conservative Benches.

The high price of petrol and diesel, because of the high price of oil, is bringing us face to face with the resource crunch. I think that every Member of the House acknowledges that. We wish to have the mobility that having a car gives us, but what will really be incentivised is more research and investment into non-polluting forms of car use, particularly electric car technology—and the sooner that comes, the better.

The Conservatives strongly agree with Greenpeace that an ambitious roll-out of microgeneration should be a key part of the UK’s climate change strategy, but to make that happen, we must have a comprehensive system of feed-in tariffs. On 20 February, before the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Secretary of State himself, like many on the Labour Back Benches, strongly supported the role of feed-in tariffs, so why did he roll over and allow DBERR to squash feed-in tariff amendment to the Energy Bill?

I do think that we should look into feed-in tariffs, which is why I welcomed the statement made by my hon. Friend the Minister for Energy earlier this year and why I welcome the fact that this matter will figure in the renewable energy strategy consultation that is shortly to be published. The evidence from other countries shows clearly that we should be looking at ways of encouraging microgeneration. The renewables obligation works very well for big renewables, but we need to find a way of getting more to happen at the domestic and community level. I look forward to that consultation, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman does, too.

When the Secretary of State meets Greenpeace on the next occasion, will he put on the agenda the question of peak oil? Is that not really the elephant in the room? If it is true, as BP says this week, that given the growing demand from China, India and other newly industrialising countries, there may be only four decades of oil left in the world and we are about to reach the peak, is it not necessary that everybody understands that? We need to generate a much deeper public debate about the finite nature of oil reserves.

In the light of the questions asked this morning, the director of Greenpeace is going to have a very long list of issues to be raised when we next meet. I agree completely with my hon. Friend that we are coming face to face with the consequences of rising demand and finite resources. As we plan for the future, it will be very difficult for lots of people as they try to cope with the consequences. That reinforces the case for taking action to prepare for a low-carbon economy; it is not an argument for putting it off.

Pig Sector

Estimates of pig farm incomes were published in January. The sector’s profits have been particularly hit by feed price increases. The average commercial pig farm is expected to show a loss of income of around £4,100 for the period between March 2007 and February 2008. Pigmeat prices have risen steadily in 2008. If that continues, we expect to see a partial recovery in profitability over the next 12 months, although global harvests and feed prices remain a key factor.

The pig industry is entering a crisis that goes well beyond cyclical variations. Even with the improvements in prices, the pig farmer is losing an average of £12 for every pig, with losses for pig farmers this year likely to total £170 million and more than 50 per cent. of the national breeding herd lost. Given that, is there not something extraordinary about the fact that supermarket prices are going up, and the primary producers are not benefiting? Yet again, is there not something seriously wrong with the supply chain which the Government would do well to look into?

We do recognise the difficulties faced by the pig industry, and DEFRA works closely with the British Pig Executive. Indeed, my noble Friend Lord Rooker attended a meeting this week. The pig industry has mounted a campaign, and I attended its conference in Norwich last week. I had a clear message for the supermarket suppliers, which attended the conference: they must take care of the primary producer. When Asda produces a pack of sausages for 16p, that does not help the primary producer. We must support the pig industry’s campaign. I am sure that all hon. Members will do so, because it produces a fine product and its animal welfare is good. We recognise that feed prices are an issue not just for British pig farmers, but for European pig farmers across the board, who also attended the conference. We are working closely with the industry and we hope to see prices increase. The hon. Gentleman makes his point about the primary producers well.

I endorse everything that the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) said. I attended the British Pig Executive emergency meeting in the House earlier this week to discuss this very matter. I realise that my hon. Friend is working hard on the issue, but may I encourage him to ensure that public procurement includes British pork and pigmeat products? I know that contracts have to be tendered, but if he could include animal welfare standards in the specifications, that would not only receive wide public support, but ensure that British pig farmers across the country reaped the benefit of the fine standards on their farms.

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. Of course we cannot restrict where people purchase their food from in public procurement, but we can put high welfare standards into the contracts. Many European countries will have high welfare standards, but I am sure that the British pig industry is confident that its standards will be as high as any other, if not higher.

Farmers were very pleased to see Lord Rooker at the meeting earlier this week. We all thank him for taking the trouble to attend, and we know that he takes the industry seriously. The Minister mentioned that it was not possible to restrict purchases, but it is possible to improve labelling. Since there is already a requirement for the country of origin to be labelled for fresh fruit, vegetables and beef, does he agree that there is no legal impediment to having the same for pork and pork products, and that that would bring a significant extra benefit for British farmers?

The hon. Gentleman is right. We are seeing improvements in labelling. Supermarkets and independent stores are increasingly using the strength of local purchase. One can often see pictures of the farmer and the farm that the produce came from. That helps the consumer to make informed choices. I can tell the hon. Gentleman and the House that new food information proposals have come forward from the European Community that, in the case of meat, would require the countries of birth, rearing and slaughter where these are not the same. I hope that those proposals will go some way towards addressing his concerns. The Food Standards Agency is consulting on the matter. I am sure that he and other hon. Members who are concerned about the pig industry, as well as the industry itself, will make a contribution to that consultation.

We have to support the pig industry, which has run an excellent campaign called “Stand By Your Ham”—perhaps hon. Members have seen the video, which is based on the Dolly Parton song and features leading members of the industry, including the fine gentleman Stewart Houston, chairman of the British Pig Executive. We do not want him to give up his day job and start singing—his singing is perhaps not up to Dolly Parton’s standards—but we do want him to continue leading the pig industry, which we need to support. We hope that we see better times this year and in years to come.

With the contraction of the British pig herd, more and more pork products are imported into this country, yet 70 per cent. of those imports are not up to the animal welfare standards that we expect in this country. If the Minister could do something meaningful for the pig industry in this country, it would be to ensure that pork is produced throughout Europe to the same high standards as in the UK.

We have led in Europe on welfare standards, and the industry will highlight that in encouraging people to purchase its products. At the conference that I attended in Norwich, we were joined not only by the supermarkets but by animal welfare organisations saluting the good work of the British pig industry, as well as by pig producers from other European countries. We want to ensure that there is a level playing field and that other countries catch up with our lead.

Food Supply

7. What assessment he has made of the implications for the security of the UK’s food supply of recent changes in world food prices. (210307)

The UK’s food security depends on a strong UK agricultural sector, diversity of supply and good trading links, particularly with our EU partners. We are currently more self-sufficient in food than we were 50 years ago, but we do need to respond to changing circumstances. I therefore intend to publish in the near future a consultation paper on ensuring Britain’s food security.

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s comments. The 2006 DEFRA study of food security relied essentially on the fact that the UK is a rich and open economy, and talked about reliance on world markets. The world is changing, however, and food prices have gone up, with the poorest people in the world and in Britain suffering most. Some of the world’s producers are beginning to consider restricting exports of food stocks. In that changed environment, is it not vital that we consider what technology can do domestically, and the possibility of self-sufficiency or at least increasing local supply to guarantee security, particularly for the poorest people in our country?

My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point. As circumstances change, we must be prepared to respond in the right way. Ultimately, it would be difficult to close ourselves off entirely from the rest of the world, because it is not just a question of the supply of food but of inputs such as fertiliser and oil to plough the fields and do lots of other things. The House will welcome the fact that our self-sufficiency rose slightly last year from 59 to 61 per cent. for all foodstuffs, and from 72 to 74 per cent. for food that we can grow. We need to take into account all my hon. Friend’s points.

Will the right hon. Gentleman be mindful of the need for food security in the medium and long term when he enters further discussions on common agricultural policy reform? Until such time as farmers in the UK can trade on the world market at reasonable prices, it would be very foolish to cut away the financial assistance that they currently receive.

We want the farming sector to be strong and profitable and to produce for the market. We should welcome the recent rise in prices for a number of products, albeit that some sectors have had difficulties because of the increased cost of grain. We are seeing the market respond to increased prices with increased production. That might mean that the recent big spike in world prices will decrease in the years ahead, but not come down to the previous level. We need to ensure that the common agricultural policy supports that process. Europe is 90 per cent. self-sufficient in food, and we import no more than 30 per cent. of our food imports from any one European country. Therefore, we have a diversity of supply, which puts Europe in a strong position to support itself.

I hear what my right hon. Friend says, but does he see an important role for local food chains now, and particularly for the idea that people should produce food at home as well as purchase it? Will he talk to his colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local Government about the importance of the garden, which has been underestimated, and in particular about reassessing the role of allotments, because many people would grow their own produce but have not had the opportunity to do so?

I agree completely. The year of food and farming is in part about doing precisely that, not least encouraging some of the younger generation to understand that food grows not in supermarkets but in fields, allotments and elsewhere. I think that there is a growing interest in where food comes from—the point raised in the earlier question—which can be seen in the growth of farmers’ markets and the efforts that some supermarkets are making to link the products that they sell with the farmers who have produced them. We should welcome that.

The Secretary of State gave a relatively reassuring response to the lead question, but does he not agree that the lesson to be learned is that we still should produce more of the food that we need here in the United Kingdom? In that regard, will he ensure that the Government do not penalise the farming industry through increased taxation, not least increased vehicle excise duty, because vehicles such as 4x4s are essential for farmers to transport livestock? Will he further encourage the superstores not to increase their profitability but to ensure that they treat the farming community in this country more fairly?

On the first point on farmers’ resources and the fuel that they use in their vehicles, of course they benefit from red diesel, which currently provides a significant amount of support. I take the hon. Gentleman’s point about vehicles. On supermarkets, farmers want a fair price for the product that they produce. That is why I think that the whole House will welcome the fact that we have seen an increase in prices relating to milk, beef and sheep in the past few months, which is one reason why many in the farming industry are looking at the future with greater optimism than for some time.

With a growing world population, growing world per capita consumption of food, the adverse effects of climate change and the pressure from biofuels, are the UK Government going to rethink their position on genetically modified crops?

The Government’s position remains that we should follow the science, and that is what we have done throughout. One particular issue that I raised at the recent meeting of the Environment Council is the speed at which the European Union gives approval for new varieties of GM products to come into the EU. That is highly relevant when it comes to animal feed. A considerable amount of GM soya comes into the country and is fed to animals already. One concern is that prices are higher than they might otherwise be because of the slow approval process in the EU. We should go with the science and the advice on safety, but it is important that, acting in the light of those two things, we provide support to farmers who want to purchase those products to feed to their animals.

If the Government are finally taking food security seriously, I am genuinely looking forward to the paper that the Secretary of State says he is going to publish.

Recently Lord Rooker admitted that Ministers took their eyes off the ball as far as the imposition of the integrated pollution prevention and control charges was concerned, on pigs and poultry in particular. What assurances can the Secretary of State give us that his eyes are firmly on the ball as far as two imminent issues are concerned: the proposed gold-plating by his Department of the nitrates directive and the proposed regulation of plant protection products, currently in Europe, which by his own officials’ estimate could reduce yields of domestic food production in this country by up to 30 per cent.? Will he tell us quite clearly not only that his eyes are on the ball, but that he will stop those things happening?

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that my eyes are very much on the ball. In relation to the second of those two issues, I raised that very point at the recent meeting of the Agriculture Council. The problem at the moment is that not enough of the other member states of the European Union seem to have woken up to the implications of what is being proposed. The United Kingdom is in exactly the right place in arguing the case that we have put and to which he refers.

On the first issue, we have had a consultation and will be responding in due course. We are very mindful of the implications of the nitrates directive for farmers, but I am also very mindful of the report just published by the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which says what I think we all know—that the rest of Europe has done it and we need to get on with it.

Fuel-poor Households (Hemsworth)

8. What steps his Department is taking to promote energy-efficient measures among fuel-poor households in Hemsworth constituency. (210308)

The Government have implemented nationally a number of measures to promote energy efficiency, such as the Warm Front scheme and the carbon emissions reduction target, which is an obligation on energy companies. Both schemes offer a range of insulation and energy-efficiency heating measures to vulnerable households who may be at risk of fuel poverty, and the community energy efficiency fund supplements those schemes in an area-based approach.

I am grateful for that response and for the Government’s work taking fuel poverty seriously. In the Minister’s constituency, like mine, many people are struggling to pay their fuel bills at the moment, so whatever the Government can do will help. Does she agree that the private sector could be encouraged to do more? Fuel bills charged by energy companies recently increased by 15 per cent., yet Centrica, for example, subsequently reported a 500 per cent. increase in profits, which caused much anger. Could private sector companies do more to help those who are fuel-poor partly as a result of the price increases?

As my hon. Friend knows, the Government are extremely concerned about high energy prices. As the Prime Minister has said, we are constantly examining ways in which it may be possible to assist.

The carbon emissions reduction target requires energy companies to deliver improvements in domestic energy efficiency. More than half of that investment, which is equivalent to about £1.5 billion, will be directed at priority groups—those on low incomes, the disabled and the elderly—covering everyone over 70 years of age. We must remember that all domestic consumers pay in the long term for the carbon emissions reduction target, so there is a limit on what the Government can do in further imposing on the energy companies. However, I hear what my hon. Friend says, and I hope that the companies act, because some voluntary contribution to meeting the considerable need at this time to assist the most vulnerable with high fuel prices would of course be extremely welcome.

I welcome the Government’s efforts to deal with fuel poverty today, in Hemsworth and elsewhere, but what are the Government doing to tackle fuel poverty in the future by creating renewable sources of energy in social and affordable housing, which would address some of our climate change problems and provide a complete answer to fuel poverty among poorer households?

The renewable energy strategy consultation will be released very soon. As the hon. Lady knows, the Government are paying a huge amount of attention to renewables. We are implementing more offshore wind energy than any other European country, and we are also examining many other ways in which more renewable energy can be produced. All that would benefit low-income households, because we are talking about national supply. The Government will continue with their programmes to help those who are most vulnerable and we are exercised about the fact that we need to ensure that poor people can afford to keep their homes warm and keep themselves healthy.

What is my hon. Friend’s view on the adequacy of the budgets for the schemes that she has mentioned, and for the decent homes initiative, in order to bring about the increase in energy efficiency that is commonly seen in Scandinavia, for example? Does she share my concern about the adequacy of the grant maxima under Warm Front? That inadequacy is leading to many poor people having to make top-up contributions to obtain energy-efficient installations.

Hon. Members have made many representations to my ministerial colleagues on the adequacy of Warm Front and the capital limit, and I can tell my hon. Friend that the Minister for the Environment has assured me that he is examining the limits, because we are aware of the issue. Taken together, Warm Front and CERT will deliver much more money for energy efficiency for the domestic consumer than in the previous three years, and we are already considering a strategy for beyond 2011.

The Minister mentioned Warm Front and CERT, but in constituencies such as Hemsworth, there is a household-by-household approach, with individuals applying and each company trying to find customers in different streets in the area. She mentioned area-based approaches. Should they not be the dominant approach? Is it not far more efficient to take a whole estate or neighbourhood and sort out its energy efficiency, rather than having one van going to one house, and another van going to another?

As I said, there are area-based schemes, and the Government have been piloting such schemes with local authorities. I visited a scheme only this week where the process is on an area basis, not household by household. We are learning from this experience; the schemes will go on for another three years, and are now self-sustaining. We will be able to apply those lessons elsewhere. The hon. Gentleman has a point, but at the moment there is sufficient scope for people to apply and to get the energy efficiency products and services that they need through the two schemes that we have in place.

Climbing (Coastal Areas)

9. What discussions he has had with the British Mountaineering Council on access to coastal areas for climbers. (210310)

We have held a number of discussions with the British Mountaineering Council on access to coastal areas for climbers. We issued a draft Marine Bill in April which includes provisions to improve public access to the English coast.

The Minister will be aware that Britain is one of the world centres for sea cliff climbing, with England alone having more sea cliff climbing than the entirety of the east and west coasts of the United States. Does the Minister agree that the way in which the British Mountaineering Council has managed wildlife restrictions over the past 40 years, in co-operation with conservation bodies, has worked well and is working well?

I am aware of the code of practice of the British Mountaineering Council, which ensures that its members are aware of nature conservation. It is important that we preserve sensitive and fragile biodiversity systems which are commonplace around our coast. The British Mountaineering Council is ambitious about increasing the opportunities to climb, and there will be more when the draft Marine Bill comes into being. We want to strike a balance between people’s access to climb cliffs and the preservation of important and sensitive nature conservation areas.

Under his brief of access to coastal areas the Minister is responsible for the “Discovering Lost Ways” project. As he knows, a number of pilot schemes are under way, which are getting seriously bogged down in bureaucracy and red tape. Can he explain to the House what has gone wrong and how he will sort it out?

There was not a great deal of discovery of those ways, to put it bluntly, so we have stopped that project. We will bring together all the relevant stakeholders to see where we go from here. The concern has been that the lost ways will be scrapped under the 25-year rule. We will not do that until we consider them properly; they are important bridleways and routes of access through our countryside. We will bring together the relevant stakeholders, and work with our agents, Natural England, to find a way forward to discover the right way.

Climate Change Bill

10. What recent representations he has received on the provisions of the Climate Change Bill; and if he will make a statement. (210311)

This year, we have received approximately 50,000 representations from members of the public, stakeholders and others on the Climate Change Bill. Most representations are campaign based, offering support for the Bill and encouraging the Government to strengthen it.

I am grateful for that reply. The Government grabbed the headlines by stating that they would cut CO2 emissions by 20 per cent. by 2010. That is an interesting date, because there will probably have been a general election by then, and the Secretary of State will not be in post to be accountable on those figures. Therefore, could I ask him to give the House an update before 2010 on the progress on meeting those targets? Does he agree that it is not just a matter of having long-term objectives? To keep the Government accountable, it is appropriate to have interim targets as well.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman—despite the somewhat unkind premise of his question—that it is important to measure progress, but the 2010 target was always very ambitious. On the basis of current trends, it seems likely that we will achieve about a 16 per cent. reduction in carbon dioxide emissions since 1990. As he will know, however, the United Kingdom will be one of the few countries to meet the Kyoto commitment; indeed, we will probably almost double it.

As for interim targets, the hon. Gentleman will have heard what my hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment had to say when he introduced the Climate Change Bill on Monday. I greatly regret that I could not be present on that occasion. We will set out an indicative range so that we can measure our progress year by year, bearing in mind that five-year budgets are sensible.

It has been well flagged up that the Climate Change Bill will include a clause relating to the banning or restricting of plastic bags. Before the Government embark on that route, if indeed they are planning to do so, will my right hon. Friend listen to representations from the packaging and film manufacturers? Having banned plastic bags, we do not want to turn to far more damaging materials, including imported materials such as jute and hemp.

Of course we will always listen to representations. We propose to take a power requiring those who issue single-use bags to charge for them. Let me be frank: environmental impact is an issue, but 13 billion of these things are distributed every year, and they are a symbol of a throwaway society. Public attitudes are changing. One big supermarket, Marks and Spencer, has recently reintroduced charges. We should not forget that 20 or 25 years ago most supermarkets charged for plastic bags. This is an important symbolic step. We hope that the industry will be able to demonstrate progress itself, but we will have that power, and if we do not see that progress we will use it.

Topical Questions

The Department’s responsibility is enabling us all to live within our environmental means. I am pleased to report that as of yesterday, under the single payments scheme, the Rural Payments Agency had paid £1.396 billion to farmers. That equates to 96.27 per cent. of the estimated total fund, and means that the agency has met all its payment targets for the 2007 scheme. I congratulate the agency’s staff on their efforts. I can reassure the House that they will continue to work hard to ensure that all outstanding payments are made as quickly as possible.

I welcome what my right hon. Friend has said. Given that the most important issue facing him as Secretary of State, us as Members of Parliament and society as a whole is climate change, and given that the United Kingdom is leading the way with the Climate Change Bill, what recent discussions has he had with his counterparts around the globe to ensure that other countries are doing their bit as well?

I have recently visited the United States of America, attended the G8 Environment Ministers meeting in Kobe, Japan, been to South Korea, and had discussions with the Indian Science Minister, Mr. Sibal, who leads on climate change. I can summarise those discussions very simply by saying that there is a growing recognition of the need to act. How we construct a deal between now and Copenhagen so that enough contributions can be put on the table to enable us to make progress, in return for finance to help the developing and emerging economies pay for low-carbon development, is the central question that we face in our negotiations, and we all have a part to play in that regard.

T2. I hope, Mr. Speaker, that you will not mind my expressing my disappointment to the Secretary of State that no Minister or official from his Department attended the world food summit in Rome to make a DEFRA contribution to the agenda. Some three and a half months ago, the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs produced its report on managing bovine TB. The Secretary of State wrote to me asking whether he could have a little more time than the usual two months in which to reply to the report, so that a comprehensive policy could be developed and subsequently published. Has that work been completed, and will the Secretary of State assure me that it will be published shortly? Will he also make certain that the Select Committee has sight of his reply first, and that the contents are not leaked into the public domain? (210326)

I am very happy to give the right hon. Gentleman that assurance. I have taken the Select Committee report—and, indeed, this problem—very seriously, and we will publish our response shortly. On the right hon. Gentleman’s first point, as I am sure he is aware, the Government were represented at that conference by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development.

T4. Many of my constituents are worried by stories they are being told that their families could face huge bills for rubbish collection. What plans do the Government have for allowing local councils to charge for waste collection? (210328)

I am not at all surprised that my hon. Friend’s constituents have been worried about the possibility of huge charges. There have been scare stories in the tabloid press—fuelled, I am sorry to say, by a spokesperson from the Conservative party—that there could be charges as high as £1,000 a year. There is absolutely no truth in those stories. The Government plan to allow up to five local authorities to pilot incentive schemes next year. They would allow local councils to establish rebates for those who recycle most and to impose charges on those who recycle least. From the continental experience, we know that the right level for an incentive to influence behaviour would be about £50 a year. Any money—

May I say to the hon. Gentleman that it is not akin to a tax; it is technically a tax, but actually any money—[Interruption.] No, he should listen carefully. It does not behave like a tax. Any money that the local authority collects is returned to the residents. There is no revenue for the local authority. There is no revenue for the council in these schemes. They are revenue-neutral. Local authorities—primarily Conservative ones—have sought these schemes, and in polls the public say that they would be fair.

T3. In what year did the Government begin consulting on their proposed national noise strategy and, so as to get a topical answer, when will the national noise strategy be published? (210327)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question. He and I were founder members of the all-party group on noise reduction, and I am sure he will wish to join me in paying tribute to Val Weedon, who recently stepped down from her post at the UK Noise Association, where she did a lot of good work.

Since I was appointed to my post, I and my officials have been looking into the matter the hon. Gentleman raises. He will be aware that we published the noise maps, on which the Department did a huge amount of work. That was one of the largest IT projects ever undertaken, and it was successfully achieved. I was the Minister responsible, and it worked; it all went very well. We must concentrate on the noise strategy, and I hope that I will be able to bring it forward within the year.

May I return the House’s attention to something that not only looks like a tax, but acts like a tax? Can the Secretary of State confirm that under the Chancellor’s planned changes to vehicle excise duty the increase on a small car such as a Nissan Micra will be larger than on a Hummer? Does he think that that is green or socially just? We all know that the changes in vehicle excise duty will raise more than £1 billion to fill the black hole left by the Government’s incompetent handling of the economy, but will he remind us of the Treasury’s forecast of the cut in vehicle emissions resulting from the changes?

As ever, the hon. Gentleman presents only part of the story. He fails to point out that since the fuel duty escalator was abolished in 1999, revenue from transport taxes has fallen by 13 per cent. in real terms. I hope he agrees.

The Minister is obviously incapable of telling the House what estimate the Treasury has made of the carbon reduction benefit of this new tax. I can tell him that it is less than 0.5 per cent. of all emissions from road transport. When he next meets the Chancellor, will he remind him that the most environmentally unfriendly thing that can be done is to dress up stealth taxes as green taxes and hope to get away with it, because the people of Britain are not stupid? We want to see changes in the public’s attitude and behaviour, so will he tell the Chancellor that the only way in which attitudes change when the Government dress up stealth taxes as green taxes is that people dislike the Government even more than they do already?

What this exchange shows is that the hon. Gentleman knew the answer to his own question, and that exposes the fact that his motive in asking the question was to score political points, not to elicit information from us. I shall ask him a question in response: whatever happened to his policy that the polluter pays?

T5. Will the Minister reassure those of us who live on the Thames estuary about the integrity of the flood barriers and the capacity of those communities to withstand a possible surge from the North sea? There is growing concern that there does not seem to be an initiative to have a new Thames barrier to the east of London. (210329)

I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. In the studies of the Thames barrier, and flood and tidal protection for the Thames basin, we are actively working on that 70 to 100-year plan to ensure that the defences are in place. That includes consideration of a second barrier.

T6. I do not doubt the Secretary of State’s green credentials, but is he concerned that the closure of so many driving test centres across the country and the centralisation of such facilities into a few centres will create millions of additional and unnecessary car journeys, thus increasing CO2 emissions? Was it not unfortunate that the Government did not get a derogation from the European Union on this matter, as other countries did? (210330)

The hon. Gentleman asks a very reasonable question. Of course, a reconfiguration of centres and depots can create extra journeys, but what one finds on other occasions—our Department studies these traffic patterns, along with the Department for Transport—is that over time they even out. For example, the M4 bus corridor, which was opposed at the time by Conservative Members, has proved to be a success. However, we will have to examine the point that he has made.

T9. Since the big flood in York eight years ago, the Government have improved the flood defences for Rawcliffe, and Aquabarrier Systems Ltd has designed a flood barrier for Clementhorpe, which it has given to the city. When will the Environment Agency start work on improving the flood defences for Leeman road? When the water rose, 1,000 people and 700 soldiers toiled through the night to build a sandbag wall that was 1 km long. It protected 1,000 homes from flooding, but a permanent flood defence is now long overdue. (210334)

I thank my hon. Friend for his interest and his advocacy on behalf of his constituents. As he knows, the Environment Agency uses a risk-based approach to developing flood-risk projects, and, as a result, other work in his constituency has gone ahead before work in the Leeman road area. Many hon. Members will be familiar with that area, which is next to York station. A study of the flood risk in that specific area is being carried out, and the Environment Agency aims to report back in July. That will identify the options for flood-risk reduction, and the agency has set aside an allocation of £314,000 in its budget to progress any work identified.

T7. The EU’s proposals for recording individual sheep movements are completely impractical on hill farms. Recording each individual sheep movement is not necessary for disease control or food safety purposes, and recording batch movement would provide equally good results. Will the Government assure the House that they will do all they can to get the EU proposals amended so that they will be practical to implement on hill farms, which might have hundreds of sheep—perhaps even more than 1,000? (210332)

We know that sheep hill farmers are an important part of their communities. They help to ensure that we have the wonderful grazed landscapes that we all enjoy, but we need to ensure that the regulations do not have a disproportionate effect on our country, given that we have more sheep than most of the other European countries put together. We are working hard on that issue and when we are able to make an announcement, we will obviously do so.

Further to the remarks by the hon. Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth) about the new vehicle excise duty proposals, is my hon. Friend aware that many of my constituents appreciate the potentially positive impact that the proposals could have on the environment? However, is he also aware that many of my constituents are anxious about the retrospective nature of the proposals, in that a family might have bought a large but cheap second-hand car and will find that it will cost them a great deal of money?

My hon. Friend’s point is well understood. Some of my constituents—and I am sure that it is the same for hers—have been worried that the word “retrospective” implies that they will have to back-pay. I know that she understands that point, but I just wish to clarify it. It is not unusual for taxes to be retrospective in the sense that she describes, but the Chancellor is well aware of the point that she makes.

The Secretary of State referred to the excellent report published earlier this week from the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee on the nitrates directive. Does he recognise that the directive will place a significant financial burden on livestock and dairy farmers, and does he agree with the Committee and the Environment Agency that English farmers need similar financial assistance for the construction of slurry stores as is provided to farmers in Wales and Scotland?

To tell the truth about the nitrates directive, if we were starting afresh it probably would not look as it does now, but it was agreed a long time ago and I am not going to take responsibility for it —I was not around at the time. Having said that, we have consulted on what we need to do, because we must make progress. I am very conscious of the pressures that it will place on farmers, and that is why we will respond in due course to the Committee’s report. My hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment has been looking carefully at the issue so that we can try to minimise the impact while at the same time ensuring that we honour the requirements that Europe has placed on us. I have been keen to push anaerobic digestion, because that might be a way to provide some assistance.

Business of the House

The business for next week will be as follows:

Monday 16 June—Second Reading of the Children and Young Persons Bill [Lords].

Tuesday 17 June—Opposition day [14th allotted day]. There will be a debate on the Government’s plans for polyclinics followed by a debate on sentencing policy and the early release of offenders. Both debates will arise on an Opposition motion.

Wednesday 18 June—A general debate on European affairs.

Thursday 19 June—Topical debate: subject to be announced, followed by a general debate on defence procurement.

Friday 20 June—Private Members’ Bills.

The provisional business for the week commencing 23 June will include:

Monday 23 June—It is expected that there will be a statement on the European Council. Opposition day [11th allotted day] [second part]. There will be a debate on an Opposition motion, subject to be announced, followed by consideration of Lords amendments to the Sale of Student Loans Bill.

Tuesday 24 June—Opposition day [unallotted day] [first part]. There will be a debate on an Opposition motion in the name of the Democratic Unionist party, subject to be announced, followed by a motion to approve the draft Terrorism Act 2006 (Disapplication of Section 25) Order 2008, followed by a motion to approve the draft Terrorism Act 2000 (Proscribed Organisations) Order 2008.

Wednesday 25 June—Conclusion of remaining stages of the Planning Bill.

Thursday 26 June—A general debate on the draft legislative programme.

Friday 27 June—The House will not be sitting.

I wish to take this opportunity to inform the House that it is my intention that the subject for the topical debate on 3 July will be Zimbabwe. It may also be helpful to Members if I inform the House that Her Majesty the Queen will open the new Session of Parliament on Wednesday 3 December.

I thank the Leader of the House for giving us the forthcoming business and I probably share the feelings of the entire House in thanking her for the debate on Zimbabwe. I am sorry that it is only a one-and-a-half hour topical debate, but it is good that we will be having a debate on Zimbabwe in the House.

Last weekend, the number of troops killed in Afghanistan reached 100 and yesterday my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition asked the Prime Minister to make a statement on Afghanistan. The Prime Minister said that he was willing to keep the House informed. When will we have this statement?

Following last evening’s vote to give away civil liberties, there has been much speculation about what promises the Prime Minister had to make to win. So that hon. Members might be better informed before the debate on 24 June in the name of the Democratic Unionist party, can we have a statement from the Northern Ireland Secretary on the Government’s plans for expenditure in Northern Ireland?

Talking of the Counter-Terrorism Bill, on Tuesday, Members had only three hours to discuss 16 new clauses and about 60 amendments covering crucial issues such as post-charge questioning and control orders. That has become a regular practice. Ministers tabled at a late stage 218 new amendments to the Planning Bill and the sheer number of late amendments to the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill meant that major changes to the criminal law and to sentencing were not debated in the House. It is the responsibility of the right hon. and learned Lady to manage the business of the House, but it is becoming clearer with every Bill that is mishandled that she is struggling. Will she make a statement to explain what she is doing to ensure that important issues are given proper time for debate?

I have previously asked why the Government delayed publication of the poverty figures until after, first, the local elections and then the Crewe and Nantwich by-election. Now we know why. The number of children in poverty rose last year and the Government are even further away from meeting their child poverty target. Can we have a debate on the issue as a matter of urgency?

On 18 March, the Minister for Women announced a £1 million emergency fund for rape crisis centres faced with closure but, four months later, no rape crisis centre under threat has received a single penny of that money. So, can we have a statement from the Minister?

This week, the Governor of the Bank of England said that we were facing

“the longest period of financial turmoil”

in memory, yet the Treasury has been characterised by dithering and U-turns, not least on the 10p tax fiasco. There is little wonder that the director general of the CBI has said the Chancellor has “lost it” on tax policy. Can we have a debate, in Government time, on restoring confidence in the Treasury?

Can we have a debate on leadership in government? Since the Prime Minister came to power, the number of working days lost to stress-related illness in the civil service has increased by almost 11,000. Unsurprisingly, one of the two Departments where less time is being lost due to stress is the Treasury, which the Prime Minster left last June. Perhaps his reputation for upsetting secretaries, throwing mobile phones at the wall and reducing his closest advisers to tears is not the best way to boost staff morale. As the only other Department where time lost due to stress fell is the Foreign Office, perhaps the Prime Minister should ask the Foreign Secretary for lessons on leadership.

Finally, can we have a debate on management technique in government? It is today reported that, according to Downing street insiders, the Prime Minister’s “Don't panic” message to motorists was deliberately designed to achieve the opposite effect and to get people to panic buy fuel. [Hon. Members: “What?”] Yes. Perhaps in Brown’s Downing street army, when he, like Corporal Jones, says “Don’t panic, don’t panic”, his Cabinet hear the words of Private Frazer—“Doomed. We’re all doomed”.

The right hon. Lady asked about Afghanistan, and we all express our condolences to those who have lost loved ones in the fight against the Taliban. We must remind ourselves of the progress that their heroic work has helped to secure. The Prime Minister reminded the House yesterday that only 2 million children were in school in Afghanistan when the operation started, but that the figure is 6 million now, 2 million of them girls. We need to make progress on tackling the Taliban for the sake of the people of Afghanistan and because of the threat that their terrorism poses to the world. Statements to keep the House updated will be made as and when they are appropriate. I know that the Prime Minister addresses those matters whenever they arise at Prime Minister’s questions on a Wednesday.

The shadow Leader of the House asked about yesterday’s debate and vote on the Counter-Terrorism Bill. I say again that the Government’s concern is for the safety of people in this country and for the protection of our civil liberties. The Bill was scrutinised by the Select Committee, there was extensive debate in the House, and now it goes to the Lords. I ask her to spare us her crocodile tears over civil liberties: we introduced the Human Rights Act 1998 against opposition from the Conservatives, who plan to abolish it. That legislation is one of the most important defences of civil liberties to have gone through the House in recent years.

The right hon. Lady raised the question of the programming of the Counter-Terrorism Bill, and of Bills more widely. It is important not to rewrite history, so I remind her of what my right hon. Friend the Minister for Security, Counter-Terrorism, Crime and Policing said about the programme motion:

“At the start of the process, quite properly, the usual channels asked for two days on Report rather than just one—they asked for and were given that, because of the importance of the matters covered by the Bill. Within that, they asked that one day be given over…for a full day’s debate on one clause.”—[Official Report, 10 June 2008; Vol. 477, c. 172.]

That request was also granted. There was discussion through the usual channels, and exceptional arrangements were made for a very important debate.

As for child poverty, there has been a substantial fall in the number of children being brought up in poverty since this Government came to office in 1997. However, we are determined to step up the momentum and that is why we have introduced further measures to bring even more children out of poverty. Last Monday, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families gave evidence on child poverty to the Select Committee, and next Monday the House will consider the Children and Young Persons Bill. That is a stark contrast to what happened under the Conservative Government, when there was a relentless increase in the number of children being brought up in poverty. I therefore regard the concern expressed by the right hon. Lady to be entirely phoney—as with so many of the issues that she raises.

The shadow Leader of the House asked about rape crisis centres. It might be a good idea if I had a further discussion with my right hon. Friends the Secretaries of State for Justice and for the Home Department, after which I shall write to the right hon. Lady with an update on where we have got with the extra funds that have been made available for distribution to rape crisis centres. I shall place a copy of that letter in the House of Commons Library.

As for the financial situation, I think that we all acknowledge that it is difficult, both in this country and internationally. We will take action at national and international level, make sure that we support the resilience of the economy and focus on what we can do to help family finances.

The right hon. Lady made what I think was intended as a joke about fuel supply, in respect of the tanker drivers’ industrial dispute. It is a serious issue and it is important to state two things. First, it is important that people do not fill their tanks more quickly than they would otherwise, thereby creating a problem of supply in petrol stations. Secondly, we express our hope that the two sides in the dispute will come together and reach an agreement swiftly.

Last summer, the Law Commission recommended reform of the law relating to cohabiting couples to avoid expensive and protracted court cases after the breakdown of a relationship. In March this year, the Ministry of Justice announced in a written ministerial statement that it would not change the law but that it would await the results of the introduction of the law in Scotland. Will my right hon. and learned Friend urgently hold a meeting with me to discuss that decision with Resolution, the family law representative body, and the Ministry of Justice to see what we can do to speed up reform to avoid thousands of people being left destitute each year when their relationship breaks up?

May I suggest that my hon. Friend has a prompt meeting on that important issue with the Secretary of State for Justice? I undertake to arrange that as soon as possible. My hon. Friend has raised the issue consistently over a number of years. I welcome her back to the House after her maternity leave, and congratulate her on a truly gorgeous baby.

I join the Leader of the House and the Conservative shadow Leader of the House in their tributes to our troops in Afghanistan. Many of our constituencies have seen people go to fight there, and we know the risks. Many of them have made the supreme sacrifice. We are proud of them.

On the matters the Leader of the House announced, will she—before the debate in the name of the Democratic Unionist party—put in the Library a record of all the meetings between Ministers and DUP Members since the Easter break, to save us all having to spend lots of public money on freedom of information exercises? We will then know exactly when the meetings happened, with whom and on what subject.

On the announcement about the next Queen’s Speech, can the Leader of the House confirm that the date for the new Session of Parliament is extraordinarily late? Is it not probably the latest start in normal times ever—certainly for the past 25 years? If so, is it an indication that the Government anticipate considerable difficulty in dealing with their legislation after the summer break? In that context, what is now the expected time in the Government’s programme for Royal Assent to the Counter-Terrorism Bill?

May we have a debate on relations between the UK and China? I have asked for one before, and it is obviously more and more important as the Olympic games come down the track. I hope that the Government will accept that it is important that the debate happens before the summer break.

Linked to a question put by the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May), may we have a debate on what is clearly the continuing widening gap between the rich and the poor? When I put to the Chancellor that the gap is now evidenced by the statistics, he refused to confirm or deny it, but the statistics are clear. I hope that the Labour party is still committed to narrowing the gap between the rich and the poor, so can we debate on why that is not happening?

If it is not, why not? It used to be. That may be why the Labour party is not as popular with its core supporters as it was in the past.

On internal House business, the Leader of the House obviously has plans to put to the House proposals for Members’ pay, pensions and allowances. I understood that Sir John Baker was due to report to the Government in May, although we have heard nothing of his report. May I assume that he did report in May and that the report is ready? If so, can it be published now and will the Leader of the House confirm—specifically following the comments made yesterday by the Chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life—that whatever view the Members Estimate Committee comes to, an independent body of authority will confirm that it is acceptable not just to Mr. Speaker and Members of the House, but to those who monitor the public interest outside this place, so that we are not in the embarrassing position of the House deciding on something that is immediately thought inappropriate by those outside who look after standards of public life?

On the point about meetings between Ministers and others, there are processes, by way of parliamentary questions, whereby information can be elicited. Such questions should be answered promptly and accurately, and a similar process applies with freedom of information requests. There are processes for asking about meetings that have taken place and what happened at them. The hon. Gentleman knows that civil servants are not present at all meetings with Ministers.

The hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes), like all Members, will have been in meetings with Ministers where civil servants have not been present.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether the date on which this year’s debate on the Queen’s Speech will be the latest ever. No, it will not be. In 2000, it took place on 6 December, so this year’s date is not the latest. He also asked when the Counter-Terrorism Bill will receive Royal Assent. There are very important measures on that most important of issues, and I hope that the Bill will go through the House of Lords, return to this House and receive Royal Assent promptly. Of course, we want it to have proper scrutiny, but we also want to ensure that those important new laws are on the statute book.

The hon. Gentleman asked about UK relations with China. There is an opportunity for him and other Members to raise further points when Foreign Office Ministers take oral questions on 24 June.

The hon. Gentleman also raised the question of the gap between the rich and poor. Of course, we remain committed to a more equal society and to narrowing the gap between rich and poor. If he looks at our public service agreements, which embody the objectives for work that takes place throughout Departments, he will see a number of PSAs that require action throughout the Government to narrow the gap between rich and poor in relation to educational and health outcomes and to income. [Interruption.] The right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) says, “It’s not working.” I just ask her to look at the relentless and growing trend of inequality between rich and poor and the growing number of poor people under the Government of whom she was a Member. I am prepared to—[Interruption.] At least the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) has been consistent on the issue. I am happy to answer his question, but I shall move swiftly on to Sir John Baker’s report.

Sir John has reported and I strongly thank him for the work that he has undertaken at the request of the House. Our resolution on 24 May asked him to look into the question of MPs’ pay. On the question of publication and debate, we are committed to debating the Baker report and to making decisions about an independent mechanism for reviewing pay, including a new comparator. We have made a commitment that the House will have an opportunity to debate these issues and to make decisions before the House rises for the summer recess. We are determined that the report should be published in enough time to give Members time to consider it and to propose any amendments that they would like to make to it.

Bearing in mind, however, that we also aim to debate the report on allowances from Mr. Speaker and the Members Estimate Committee, we thought it would be convenient for the House to debate that report at the same time as the Baker review—on the same day—so that the House could deal with all the issues at once. As we would like the reports to be debated on the same day, it would also be convenient for the House if we published the MEC and Baker reports on the same day. That is our objective. It might not prove possible, but in any event, we will go ahead and publish the Baker review to ensure that Members have enough time to consider it and to produce their amendments.

The hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey asked about independent scrutiny of the Members Estimate Committee’s proposals to the House. That has been the subject of much debate within the Committee—particularly among the three Committee members to whom the whole House owes much for the great deal of work that they have done. They have consulted Members, and the question is how we ensure that we have not only the right structure to pay for our offices, travel and London accommodation, but proper investigation systems, so that any misuse of those structures and any abuse of the system can be rooted out. Members have been debating that point with MEC members, and there has been discussion with the National Audit Office. The proposals will then return to the House. Once the MEC report is published, everybody, including the Committee on Standards and Privileges, will be able to look at it, and then it will come back to the House for a full debate and a decision.

As someone who, needless to say, is very pleased that the Labour party has been in office for 11 years, and who certainly wants to avoid the nightmare of a Tory Government, may I ask whether the Cabinet should not carefully consider whether it is wise to go ahead with the 42-days measure, knowing that the Lords will certainly reject it and that there will then be ping-pong between the two Chambers? Perhaps a statement could be made at some stage. Should not we all be united against the terrorist danger instead of having controversial and divisive measures that serve no purpose at all?

I agree with my hon. Friend that we should be united against the terrorist danger. The Government are determined to ensure the safety of the British people as well as to protect civil liberties. It was on that basis that we put our Counter-Terrorism Bill before the House. It was accepted last night and it will go through the proper processes of debate.

The right hon. and learned Lady is aware that the Government have made proposals to allow money to be spent on swimming and on swimming pools. That is to be welcomed—to tackle obesity and for many other reasons. However, in Minehead in west Somerset, we have had to lose our only public pool, for two reasons: first, the building is unfortunately not up to the job that it is meant to do; and secondly, the district council—which is under no overall control, so there is no political gain from my question—has neither the money nor the ability to reopen the pool in the near future. The Government quite rightly want to encourage people to swim and older people to continue to swim, yet for reasons outside our control we cannot do so. Therefore, would it be possible to have a debate about that issue, which is important not only to my constituency, but, I suspect, to many others throughout the United Kingdom?

There has been a substantial increase in central Government funding to local authorities, but the hon. Gentleman raises a point about swimming which is very important. Swimming is part of a major programme and we want to ensure that it can take place in all areas, so I suggest that he seeks a meeting between himself, his local council and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.

My right hon. and learned Friend will be aware that there was some coverage about the topical debate on knife crime last week. By their very nature, topical debates are important to our constituents, but the debates have a problem, because, often, not many Members can participate in them, hence the coverage that last week’s debate generated. Will she consider reviewing how we arrange topical debates so that more Members can participate and so that the media cannot distort what goes on in the House by suggesting that Members on both sides of the House are not in tune with what goes on in their constituencies, or do not share their constituents’ concerns?

My hon. Friend makes a very important point about topical debates. He is a champion of work against antisocial behaviour and criminality in his local community. I confirm to him and the House that we are reviewing the operation of topical debates, which have only recently been introduced. Several points have been raised, including not only how we choose the topic, but at what time during the week the debates take place. I shall report to the House before the summer recess. The question of the day on which they are held is under close review.

The Government continue to reject the call for compensation for veterans who suffered as a result of their participation in the British nuclear weapons tests in the Indian and Pacific oceans in the 1950s. Instead of paying expensive lawyers to defend the indefensible, could we have a debate on the Floor of the House so that we can hear Ministers’ reasons for continuing to refuse that group of ex-servicemen the apology that they so obviously deserve?

The Secretary of State for Defence and his team of Ministers will be answering oral questions on Monday; I suggest that the hon. Gentleman raises that issue then.

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that the horrible events at her family home at the weekend were a timely reminder to all Members that to confuse openness about our expenses—something that I thoroughly support—with the exposure of addresses of Members of Parliament is a mistake, and one that we should absolutely resist?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. Of course we want to make sure that public money is properly spent and that we are open with the public about how it is spent. However, the question of the publication of Members’ addresses raises an issue that is fundamental to the role of hon. Members in this House. No Member should have to make a choice between saying in the House what they believe to be right, and fearing for their and their family’s safety because of the publication of their home address. We will defend the right of all hon. Members to speak openly. That means that, while we are open about public spending, we do not put the addresses of hon. Members’ London homes in the public domain.

Last week the Leader of the House indicated, but understandably could not confirm, that there would be no rule change that would have the effect of allowing the disposal of defence estates to accrue to devolved Parliaments and Assemblies. Since then we have had last night’s important vote and the rumours surrounding it. Will the right hon. and learned Lady arrange for the Chancellor to rule out categorically any Treasury rule change that, whatever the merits of increased spending in Northern Ireland, would have the effect of a defence cut?

Treasury questions are not until 10 July, but the hon. Gentleman may find an opportunity to make his points in the Democratic Unionist party Opposition day debate or the defence procurement debate, which takes place on Thursday next week.

My right hon. and learned Friend will be aware that later this afternoon we will discuss opposed private business relating to the control of illegal street trading, including that of peddlers. I appreciate that my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) has pursued my right hon. and learned Friend assiduously on the issue, but I make no apologies for joining the hue and cry.

Given that the measures enjoy cross-party support and that councils and the police are having to put huge amounts of time and effort into tackling these issues, as well as lobbying us in this House, and given the time that we Members spend on the issue, is it not time for the Government to provide at least a legal framework that gives councils the discretion to introduce the powers when they think they are necessary, to protect local consumers and legal traders?

My hon. Friend makes an important point, which I am sure will be amplified in the debate later and considered closely by my colleagues at the Department for Communities and Local Government.

I thank the Leader of the House for arranging a debate on Zimbabwe, although I am a little saddened that it will come after the rerun of the presidential election in that country and that we are not able to emphasise the importance of a large number of election observers there to see that the election is free and fair.

I have a question for the Leader of the House about future business. Will she produce a report for the House to consider on the processes of programming and selecting topical debates? I believe that there is a requirement on both sides of the House for those processes to be reviewed, and I hope that a review of both will be announced by the Leader of the House in the relatively near future.

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has welcomed the fact that I intend the House to debate Zimbabwe on 3 July. I know that he was able to make the points that he so often makes in the House at a meeting earlier this week with Lord Malloch-Brown, who briefed hon. Members and Members of the House of Lords on Zimbabwe. I know that Lord Malloch-Brown found it useful to hear from the hon. Gentleman, who has a long-standing interest in Zimbabwe.

The hon. Gentleman will know that programming was considered in detail by the Modernisation Committee, which reported on it in 2006; there is no reason to look again at the issue now. As far as topical debates are concerned, the hon. Gentleman will know that we are reviewing their operation. There is still an opportunity to make points to that review before I make my report, which will happen before the House rises in the summer.

I welcome the fact that there is to be a debate on polyclinics next Tuesday. Will my right hon. and learned Friend advise me whether it would be in order to refer to the British Medical Association petition presented to No. 10? I am sure that many people, including my constituents, were misled into signing that petition because they were told that general practices, particularly in rural areas, would close as a result of the changes. My hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Mr. Cawsey) and I met the North Lincolnshire primary care trust representatives, who said categorically that the funding for the new clinic in Scunthorpe is additional and that not a single practice is under threat. Will it be in order to emphasise that point in that debate?

It certainly will be. We are pleased that the Opposition have chosen the issue of polyclinics and GP services for the Opposition day debate. My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to point out that people are very concerned about primary care services. It is important that they should not be subjected to misinformation; that issue particularly concerns vulnerable and elderly people.

My right hon. Friend is right—we are talking about new, additional money. Some £250 million was announced last autumn for new GP-led health centres in every PCT area; that comes on top of the existing GP provision. Furthermore, there will be additional, new GP surgeries in the most deprived areas. That situation is different from that in London, where there was a long-term review, with a proposal for polyclinics that is the subject of discussion by PCTs in London today. My right hon. Friend is right: we are not imposing anything anywhere. We are, however, demanding high standards, greater access and good premises. We are supporting that with more funds and higher pay, and next Tuesday there will be not only an Opposition day debate but oral questions.

May we have a debate in Government time about compensation for members of our armed forces who have been injured in action? I know that the Ministry of Defence is currently reviewing the amount and type of compensation given to our brave servicemen and women. However, before that is put into practice, may we have a debate on the Floor of the House so that hon. Members can say how we feel our servicemen and women should be treated if they are injured?

The hon. Gentleman will have an opportunity shortly to raise that issue in MOD questions; in the meantime, I shall draw it to the attention of my right hon. and hon. Friends at the Ministry of Defence.

Following on from the previous question, my right hon. and learned Friend will no doubt be aware of comments about pay and conditions for our military. The Prime Minister announced that there would be a White Paper to consider that issue and the military covenant, on which the Royal British Legion has been campaigning for some time. Will my right hon. and learned Friend assure me that when that White Paper is published, the House will have an opportunity to discuss it so that we long-term supporters of the covenant will get the chance to have our say?

My hon. Friend reflects concern across the House on those issues. I will make sure that when the White Paper is forthcoming, we consider opportunities for it to be presented to and debated in the House.

May I ask the Leader of the House whether the Northern Ireland Secretary will make a statement early next week on the financial and other implications of the agreement made yesterday with representatives of Northern Ireland constituencies? It is quite plain that, aside from the pressure exercised on Labour Back Benchers, an awful lot of English pork is being shovelled into a very large Northern Irish barrel. We have a right to know something about the detail of that so that we can judge the propriety—I use my words carefully—of the influences that were brought to bear.

Like everyone in the whole House, the Government remain committed to peace and prosperity in Northern Ireland. That is the work to which the Government, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and his team of Ministers are committed. I deplore the smears and disgraceful slurs and allegations that the right hon. and learned Gentleman has made. He ought to know better.

A number of hon. Members, including me, have been raising various issues related to the beauty industry—issues ranging from nail bars to tattooing and tanning salons. We have been expressing our concern about the health aspects. There is a problem, however, in that the matter crosses a number of areas—the health of customers, the occupational health of employees, trading standards and the licensing systems of local government. Will the Leader of the House consider how the House could look at all those different aspects of the beauty industry together, rather than our having to try to pick them off one by one?

My hon. Friend makes a very important point, and I would add the Department of Health to the list of Departments concerned. Sometimes, the people receiving such so-called beauty treatments end up with their health being jeopardised. Perhaps I might have a meeting with my hon. Friend to discuss how we could take the issue forward so that the House can be given the opportunity to debate it, and so that we can bring together ministerial action on the issue.

May we have an urgent debate on the proposals of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs to slash the number of tax offices, and close all three in my constituency? The proposals would mean that my constituents would have to travel long distances for a face-to-face meeting with a tax inspector—over 100 miles in some cases. They also mean the loss of an awful lot of experienced tax inspectors. That is no way to run a fair and efficient tax collection service. The proposals should be withdrawn.

We want to make sure that HMRC operates as efficiently as possible, and that administration costs are kept to a minimum. More and more people are dealing with their tax matters online, but there is still an important role for face-to-face meetings, which the hon. Gentleman mentions. In respect of his constituency, I suggest that he seek an Adjournment debate on the matter.

In 2008, is it not appalling that sports and social clubs in my constituency still can, and do, discriminate on grounds of sex? Is it not about time that we had a debate on the subject in the House, with particular reference to mixed clubs that treat male members differently from female members, so that we can discuss how to bring about more equality in sports and social clubs?

I welcome my hon. Friend’s commitment to equality, which I share. He will know, as the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) and other Members in the House do, that we will bring forward an equality Bill. Later this month, I hope to be able to set out to the House what the Bill’s provisions will be, but I can say that the Bill will ensure that clubs that offer membership to both women and men will no longer be able to discriminate against women; they will have to treat men and women equally.

May I press the Leader of the House a little further on the question of statements from the Prime Minister on the strategy for Afghanistan, as did my right hon. Friend the shadow Leader of the House? We last had such a statement on 12 December, which is nearly six months ago. On that occasion, the Prime Minister gave us the broad strategy for winning Afghanistan in the long term, but since then I have obtained a paper from the Foreign Office, which I will place on my website this afternoon, and which demonstrates that things are not going according to plan. We are winning militarily, but we are in big trouble strategically. Only if the Prime Minister shows real leadership on the issue, and explains time and again to the British people and the international community what we are trying to achieve there, will we succeed. Will he show that leadership by making a statement to the House?

I do not accept that we are in big trouble strategically. There is international action, in which we are joining together with other countries. The hon. Gentleman may know that there is a Westminster Hall debate on Afghanistan next Tuesday. However, I know that there is concern on the issue across the House, and I will consider how we can find an opportunity to debate fully the important work of our troops, and those from other countries, in Afghanistan.

May we have a debate on the recent proposals to give additional money to carers to access respite care? Those carers will take up that money only if they can be assured of good quality care in residential homes. The excellent series on the Radio 4 “Today” programme last week on residential homes did not do anything to inspire confidence on the issue.

The series of programmes to which my hon. Friend refers—I agree that they were excellent—put the spotlight on an issue of growing concern. Over the next 20 years, the number of people aged over 85 is set to double. We are all concerned to make sure that those in residential or nursing homes have the best institutional care, and that those who are with their families are able properly to be supported by them, and that includes respite care. I will bring my hon. Friend’s points to the attention of my right hon. and hon. Friends in the Department of Health, and to the commission that the Government have set up to advise us on those important issues.

May we please have a statement on Government policy on Cuba? I know that the Leader of the House considers Fidel Castro something of a hero, and she may be pleased that it is reported this morning that Government policy on sanctions against Cuba may be changed as a consequence of buying off a couple of rebels on the 42-day detention vote. How does she think our allies will view foreign policy if our policy on Cuba is to be changed as part of a grubby deal to buy off a few Labour Back Benchers who are sympathetic to left-wing dictators?

Fortunately, I think I can rest assured that our allies will take no notice of the sort of points that the hon. Gentleman raised, and neither will I.

HMS Tireless

I should like to inform the House of the outcome of the board of inquiry on the incident on board HMS Tireless in March last year, in which two members of the Royal Navy—Leading Operator Maintainer Paul McCann and Operator Maintainer Anthony Huntrod—tragically lost their lives. Another member was seriously injured. Uppermost in our minds and, I am sure, the thoughts of the whole House are the families and friends of those killed and injured, to whom I would like to reiterate our deepest sympathy at this very difficult time.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence felt that the House should be informed of the outcome at the earliest opportunity because of the tragic nature of the incident, and because it is clear that the Ministry of Defence must bear responsibility for it. Indeed, the Secretary of State would have preferred to have made the statement personally. However, the need to complete the work required to release the board of inquiry, the commitments of the families and his need to attend a NATO meeting of Defence Ministers, at which important issues relating to operations in Afghanistan and Kosovo will be discussed, made that impossible. In those circumstances, I hope the House will understand his asking me to make this statement.

I would like to pay tribute to the very high levels of professionalism shown by all those involved in the incident on HMS Tireless, which, as revealed by the board of inquiry, should serve to reinforce our confidence in the willingness and ability of our armed forces to uphold the highest standards of behaviour and display extraordinary bravery in life-threatening situations. This is something of which we should all—especially the families—be justifiably proud.

The House will know that the purpose of a board of inquiry is to establish the circumstances of an incident and to learn lessons from it to prevent a similar incident from occurring. A board of inquiry does not seek to apportion blame. We have done everything that we can to establish the causes of the incident, so that we may learn the lessons from it. Running parallel to the board of inquiry, which was extremely thorough, there has been a full investigation carried out by a police taskforce, led by the Royal Navy police special investigations branch. That comprised military investigators and civilian detectives, and was assisted by the UK Forensic Explosives Laboratory and NASA in the USA. Those highly experienced investigators independently investigated the incident, and their findings are consistent with those of the board of inquiry.

The board of inquiry set out the background to an explosion in the forward escape compartment of HMS Tireless on 21 March 2007, while she was undertaking an exercise under the ice near north Alaska. The explosion caused the death of two of the ship’s company and filled the forward end of the submarine with smoke. Small fires followed the explosion which, had they taken hold and a major conflagration ensued, would have had even more serious consequences. Instead, however, the extensive training and preparation undertaken by all submariners proved their worth, and owing to the professional conduct of the ship’s company, and in particular the stamina and presence of mind of one member, who was already seriously injured, the incident was rapidly contained. The integrity of the submarine and the power plant remained secure at all times.

The board concluded that the explosion was caused by a self-contained oxygen generator—a SCOG—which had been wholly appropriately activated by one of those who lost their lives. It has not been possible to determine beyond doubt what caused the oxygen generator to explode. However, the board did identify the most likely cause as significant internal contamination of the generator’s canister with oil, probably enabled by cracking within the canister solids. Organic contaminants are a known hazard for these oxygen generators, which are manufactured with protective seals, but cracking had not been previously identified as a contributing risk factor. In the event, the board was not able to establish how any contamination occurred, but oil would certainly have been present in the submarine environment, and this, it says, is the most likely cause of the contamination.

The board of inquiry has exposed an inadequate appreciation of the risks of contamination and a number of shortcomings in the logistic handling of these generators. The shortcomings identified include SCOGs being left, unprotected, on the dockside and SCOGs being stowed on board submarines in a manner that left them at risk of contamination. The board of inquiry also found that there were a number of SCOGs that had previously been earmarked to be taken out of service which were returned for use on submarines. This was achieved by changing the paperwork. The board established that it could not be known for certain whether any of these SCOGs subsequently ended up on HMS Tireless.

These events are unacceptable and it is clear from the board of inquiry, and other work to date, that the Ministry of Defence must accept responsibility for what happened. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I therefore consider that it is right for me to apologise unreservedly, on behalf of the Department, for the actions or omissions that contributed to this tragic incident. I am extremely sorry, particularly to the families of those who lost their lives, and to those who were injured.

We have already investigated whether any of the shortcomings were such that criminal negligence was involved. The Crown Prosecution Service has advised that the evidence does not support a prosecution, although it directed that the Health and Safety Executive must be made aware of the findings. This has been done and the Health and Safety Executive will now examine the reports and recommendations and see whether an investigation is required under its own powers.

In addition, the Defence Equipment and Support organisation is carrying out a detailed investigation into the acquisition, manufacture, storage, submarine stowage and logistic management of SCOGs, to ensure that any further lessons are identified. Given that ongoing investigation, the House will understand that at this stage it would not be right for me to comment in detail on issues that remain the subject of an investigation.

We have taken urgent action to seek to ensure that there is no recurrence of this tragedy. All the board of inquiry’s recommendations have been accepted and have been, or are being, implemented. In addition, we put action in hand immediately after the accident to minimise the risk associated with oxygen generators. Their use has been tightly restricted to an emergency-only basis since the incident. These emergency oxygen generators are stowed separately and handled less frequently on board a submarine than those that were assigned for routine use.

All emergency oxygen generators have been inspected for any signs of damage or possible contamination since the incident. This is to ensure that risks are minimised, should oxygen need to be generated in the unlikely event of an emergency situation. Developments have already been made to upgrade the design of the canisters further to reduce risks, and we have already started to replace the emergency stocks with an upgraded design. We are also working towards developing an alternative solution to meet future operational requirements.

It will never be possible to eliminate every risk to those who serve our country in our armed forces so selflessly, but I can assure the House that my right hon. Friend and I do and will continue to do everything we can to minimise those risks wherever possible. I will make copies of the board of inquiry report available in the Library of the House. Action continues to implement its recommendations. I will update the House as further developments emerge.

I begin by thanking the Minister for advance sight of his statement and of the board of inquiry report. That is a long, detailed and thorough document which does not pull its punches. It is not surprising that it took longer than the originally anticipated four months to complete, but can the Minister explain why it has taken fully 15 months to complete, for the information not only of the House but above all for the families of those who lost their lives?

Paragraph 15 of the report states:

“Despite careful handling within service channels, the story broke in the media before all the next of kin had been informed and before . . . staff had been able to contact the next of kin of the remainder of Tireless’s crew.”

Can the Minister throw light on how that happened, and explain to the House what safeguards have been agreed with the media on not reporting military fatalities before the families have been told, and whether such safeguards were flouted on this occasion?

The report concludes:

“If it had not been for the outstanding efforts of”

the third crew member, the one who was injured,

“the consequences of this incident may have been much worse”.

In the light of that, does the Minister wish to revise the statement by a Ministry of Defence source, reported on 22 March 2007—two days after the incident—that

“the vessel was never in any danger”?

Also reported early last year, soon after the incident occurred, was the tribute paid by Commander Breckenridge, the commanding officer of the submarine, to the crew member who was

“injured by the initial blast and thrown to the deck . . . recovered himself despite his injuries, placed an emergency breathing mask on his face and, in complete darkness and zero visibility due to the smoke, extinguished the numerous small fires in the compartment and allowed access to the fire-fighting and medical teams.”

The report reveals that owing to the buckling of the bulkhead doors, it took 44 minutes before anyone was able to get into the compartment, and the conditions in which that seaman was operating can barely be imagined.

The injured submariner who is reported to have acted so heroically has not been named in the report. I wonder why that is. Is he one of the seven submariners who have been honoured with their commander-in-chief’s commendation so far? Is he to be separately honoured? If he cannot be named for security reasons, does the Minister agree that that should not prevent his bravery being appropriately rewarded?

Turning to the self-contained oxygen generators, I understand that these have been fitted in Trafalgar class submarines since 2001. Will the Minister tell us whether they have also been fitted to the Vanguard class submarines that carry the nuclear deterrent; if so, what is the status of such SCOGs on these particularly important vessels in the Royal Navy?

We understand that, on this occasion, the accident occurred some distance away from the nuclear reactor in the submarine, but are SCOGs fitted to other parts of the submarine that are closer to the nuclear reactor? How near was the explosion to the cruise missiles—conventionally armed cruise missiles, which are the standard main armament of Trafalgar class submarines such as HMS Tireless—and how near was it to other explosive hardware carried by the submarine? Are there any other combustible products deployed on Her Majesty’s submarines similar to SCOGs to which similarly lax procedures as described by the Minister have applied?

The report identifies

“shortcomings in the acquisition, manufacture, transport, storage, stowage and logistics management of SCOGs”.

In detail, the recommendations state that

“The existing population… should be withdrawn from service”—

the Minister has given us an update on that—but they also draw attention to the fact that

“MoD-approved quality control checks and acceptance processes”

should be

“introduced to ensure that the manufacturer supplies sodium chlorate candles that are free from contamination and physical damage.”

Will the Minister explain why those checks were not carried out previously? The report also emphasises:

“Logistics management for the SCOG replacement must ensure that guidance is clear about when the equipment is to be designated unserviceable”.

It seems inexplicable and unacceptable that no passed sell-by date was clearly applied to these combustible products—probably with fatal consequences for the two sailors.

The report states:

“Sufficient approved stowages should be identified”,

which suggests that there were not enough stowages for those dangerous products in the submarines, so I would be grateful if the Minister updated us on that point. If, as I have already alluded to, the bulkhead doors jammed shut, that is really a design fault that I would not have thought could happen in a modern nuclear-powered submarine.

Significant sections of the report have been redacted, perhaps out of consideration for the families. Is the Minister satisfied that the arrangements made for the return of the deceased to the United Kingdom were handled correctly?

Finally, I would like to say that the tributes to the two young men have shown what outstanding personalities they were. Paul McCann, from Halesowen, was a keen sportsman with an inspirational personality, who was about to leave the service to marry his American fiancée last August. Tony Huntrod from Sunderland was a live wire with great charm and a fine sense of humour. They both join the roll of more than 5,000 submariners commemorated in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Peter Viggers). We should all be very proud of them and very grateful to them and their families.

I shall try to answer as many of the hon. Gentleman’s questions as I can. The report took 15 months to complete. We have been everywhere in the effort to understand the detail of what happened. When I first approached the matter without knowing the detail, I wondered why it was taking so long and I was worried about the impact on the families. We went all the way, however, and even involved NASA—these vessels and the expertise associated with them are associated with the space programme—in order to understand all the ramifications. In the circumstances, I am sure that everyone would agree that thoroughness was more important than timeliness, although it is indeed unfortunate that these things take as long as they do.

We struggled to make contact with the families, and it took longer than it should have done. Record keeping was part of the difficulty. None the less, that does not excuse the media behaving as they did. I wish that they always honoured—they often do—our kin-informing processes. We should all encourage them to do so, not only because of the distress caused to the individuals concerned, but because of the worry caused to the whole of the rest of the fleet in this case, or to our people on operations in other cases.

On whether the vessel was in any danger, I am assured that it was not, but that does not detract from the fact that the conflagration could have been far worse had it not been for the actions of one particular individual. As I said, he was injured at the time, yet he struggled on and did a magnificent job. He has not been named because the wishes of that individual must be paramount over the views of anybody else. It is up to the individual himself how he wants to handle this.

The problem was not, contrary to what has been reported, the jamming of the bulkhead door; it was another door into the compartment that jammed and took 40-odd minutes to get open. That door has been replaced by a mesh door, which will now be rolled out throughout the fleet. The board of inquiry exposed other issues about the adequacy of the equipment on board to break into the compartment in an emergency. That is being looked at and the recommendations are being implemented.

On whether there are other combustibles, I cannot give the hon. Gentleman an answer. I will look into it and come back to him as soon as I am able.

On whether the SCOGs were beyond their sell-by date, they have a 15-year life expectancy and the Navy imposes a 10-year life expectancy in order to put some redundancy into the position. These SCOGs were introduced only in 2003, so the sell-by date of the equipment is not an issue here, although I have said yes about other serious issues.

Stowage on board submarines was one of the issues flagged up. The generators for emergency use are stowed in different circumstances in different conditions and are not moved on and off submarines, so they are in good condition. As I have already said, they were all inspected. The generators used to add to the oxygen requirements, however, are routinely removed from submarines and have not been stowed on submarines where they would be safe from contamination from oil.

There were issues about the handling of the bodies which have caused great distress to the families concerned. I do not wish to go into further detail on that, although there are lessons to be learned. I have discussed the matter privately, as has the Chief of the Naval Staff, with the families.

It goes without saying that no one gets any joy out of speaking in such a harrowing debate as this one. I join my right hon. Friend the Minister in expressing condolences to both the families of the deceased. I have dealt with one of the families—that of the late Mr. Huntrod—and I would like to place on record my great appreciation of the courtesy and caring attitude of the Minister in his dealings with my office. I thank him most sincerely.

I thank my hon. Friend, who has done his job as a constituency Member of Parliament. It is only right that he should be served properly by a Minister in these circumstances.

I thank the Minister for making the statement today, giving an unreserved apology and accepting the Ministry’s responsibility for what has gone wrong. When there is a responsibility of that sort, it is right to accept it, and I commend him for doing that today. I also pay tribute to Paul McCann and Anthony Huntrod, and echo the condolences that have been offered to their families.

I know from having been on board a Royal Navy submarine that the culture of safety is paramount in everyone’s mind. I welcome the assurances that we have been given that neither the vessel nor the nuclear power plant was at any point endangered, even if that was, in some sense, down to the heroic actions of one individual.

I have not had access to the report, only the statement, for which I thank the Minister. He talked at considerable length about the oxygen generators and has described the measures that will be taken to try to ensure that the problem does not arise again. I would like to ask him about a slightly separate matter. Ever since the incident, accounts have emerged that it happened close to some of the sleeping quarters on board the submarine, that members of the crew emerged from their sleep, in understandably minimal clothing, into a smoky and hot atmosphere, and that adequate supplies of breathing equipment and points to plug it into and fire-retardant clothing were not available.

Those shortcomings, as well as the points that the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) made about the lack of next-of-kin information being readily available, cause me some surprise, as they both seem fairly basic. I would welcome from the Minister an acknowledgement that such problems have been identified and a description of what steps will be taken to remedy what sound like fairly straightforward but rather important shortcomings, both on the Tireless and any other vessel.

I apologise to the hon. Gentleman: it was certainly my intention that he, like the official Opposition spokesman and the Chairman of the Defence Committee, receive the board of inquiry document along with a copy of my statement. If that has not happened, I can only apologise to him. He will be able to get a copy of the document from the Library, although I appreciate that it is now too late.

The hon. Gentleman raised issues relating to sleeping quarters that are covered in the board of inquiry report. There are sleeping facilities in every part of our submarines—submarines are not endowed with a great deal of space, as anyone can see when they go on board. Yes, there were issues. There is an emergency oxygen capability, which it seems some members of the crew did not use: the issue there is their confidence in those emergency provisions. There are also plug-in oxygen providers: we need to increase the number of access points, as the board of inquiry has proposed, in order to prevent delays in accessing that second safety measure in good order and good time. The hon. Gentleman can see those matters set out in the board of inquiry document. I can only apologise again for his not receiving it.

On next-of-kin informing, we took longer to get to people than we should have. We went to addresses that proved to be incorrect, which caused distress. That is a problem, and we must try to do better.

I, too, thank my right hon. Friend for his full statement to the House. As others have said, uppermost in our minds must be the families. I was therefore pleased to hear my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, North (Bill Etherington), who has dealt with my right hon. Friend’s office in connection with one of the families, say how sympathetic he has been.

We have also heard about how the submariners have been appropriately honoured. We in Devonport have a proud record of serving the Navy’s submarines and service ships. However, I am deeply disturbed by the content of some of my right hon. Friend’s statement, particularly in respect of the logistical management of such important items. I appreciate that he can say only a limited amount while the Health and Safety Executive and the Defence Export Services Organisation are looking into the situation. However, will he offer an assurance that the HSE will take a wide view of how such matters are handled? Many people who have worked in Devonport will be shocked by what has come out today. The whole community will want to know that the same thing cannot happen in any other aspect of logistic management, as well as the specifics of what he has reported today.

My hon. Friend will find when she reads the board of inquiry report that it exposes the fact that in recent years some complacency in dealing with SCOGs appears to have crept in. SCOGs are not an integral part of the submarine, but they are a considerable item and there should have been a full appreciation of the dangers inherent in the equipment. We must understand that and in our internal investigation ensure that we leave no stone unturned in understanding what went wrong. The HSE has jurisdiction in the workplace in the United Kingdom. It will do what it chooses to do, having received all the advice and information. We will of course fully co-operate with the HSE in any investigation that it might choose to hold. However, that is a matter for the HSE. I have no control over it, and rightly so.

Tributes have rightly been paid to the men who died and to the men who did so much to fight the fire. Does the Minister agree that the work that they were doing was no less important or inherently dangerous than the work that our men and women are doing on our behalf in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere in the world, and that we should honour their memory and the sacrifice that they have made? The Minister said that there had been developments to upgrade the design of the canisters and to replace emergency stocks, and that the Ministry is developing an alternative solution to meet further operational requirements. What effect has that had on the deployability of our submarine fleet and how long will it be before the new arrangements are fully in place?

The right hon. Gentleman asks us to do what we ought to do, which is recognise, first, that all submariners are special people to put themselves in such circumstances. The operation that Tireless was involved in, under the ice near the North Pole, is about as close as anyone can get to the cutting edge of capability, which we need to maintain. We must also appreciate the skill and bravery of all involved, not just those who were injured.

On capability, we have removed standard SCOGs from almost the entire fleet. Instructions have been given to use none at all, other than for an emergency. I am told that under-the-ice operations are still possible—SCOGs are a secondary oxygen-generation system. I am not sure whether our capability is effective at the margins—I would have thought that it is—but we are working to put in place a new system. The new SCOG, with improved resilience to damage, is already arriving, but it will be used to replace the emergency SCOGs. The new system that we are considering will be used as the back-up oxygen-generation system.

As a humble former guardsman, I pay tribute to my former sister service. Those of us who have the honour of being friends of submariners or former submariners are not at all surprised that that very special breed of men were so brave in doing their duty. One particular brave man does not wish to be named, and that is typical of submariners.

One part of the Minister’s statement worries me. Although he says rightly that nobody who serves in our armed forces can be guaranteed that they will not be injured or lose their life—they know that when they join; we all knew that—losing one’s life to possible neglect or the fiddling of figures, which clearly took place in relation to the SCOGs, is a different matter. The Minister has said that he does not know whether those SCOGs were on the boat when it was on operations, but fiddling the figures and the documentation—for a reason that he has not told us, but that we can all assume is financial—seems astonishing. That is especially unfair to the families and loved ones of those who died, as the very honest report and very honest statement by the Minister have exposed.

The Minister says that the Crown Prosecution Services does not think that a prosecution could take place. Can he elaborate on why that is? Is it because there is insufficient evidence, or is there another reason—public interest, perhaps? Could not the MOD take a civil case against the contractors if they have been negligent in their duties?

I understand the desire to do so, but we cannot jump to conclusions on blame. The question why those SCOGs were returned for use must be part of the investigation. We cannot scapegoat an individual without fully understanding the facts and waiting for the outcome of that investigation. We do not yet know what the circumstances were, and we need the investigation to find that out and expose any issues.

We have not had 14 months. We have had an ongoing police investigation and board of inquiry, and one cannot pre-empt or interfere with a police investigation; one must wait for it to finish. The police investigation has examined whether there was criminal negligence on anyone’s part. The Crown Prosecution Service has told us that there is not evidence to support a prosecution. The further inquiry might expose blame, but let us please wait for that inquiry before jumping to any conclusions.

Both the Minister and my hon. Friend the shadow Minister have rightly paid tribute not only to the crewmen who lost their lives but to the injured crewmen who bravely contained what could have been a far more serious incident. Patrolling under the ice is perhaps the most challenging environment for any submarine. In that regard, is it not heartening to note the comments of the commanding officer at the time with regard to his entire ship’s company, who

“acted in a totally professional manner throughout, dealing with the incident calmly and to the highest standards you would expect of the service”?

The uplifting parts to read of this deeply disappointing document are those that describe the incredible job that the ship’s company did in tackling the incident. I am not the slightest bit surprised by that, having been the Minister for the Armed Forces for slightly less than a year, because I see that extraordinary state of mind displayed throughout the armed forces, and it was certainly displayed on that occasion.

Radioactive Waste

With your permission, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I would like to make a statement on the White Paper, “Managing Radioactive Waste Safely: a Framework for Implementing Geological Disposal”, which I am publishing today.

The White Paper follows the work of the independent Committee on Radioactive Waste Management—CoRWM—which recommended in July 2006 that geological disposal, coupled with safe and secure interim storage, was the best approach to the long-term management of higher-activity radioactive waste. It also recommended a voluntarism and partnership approach as the best means of working with communities to help to identify a site for such a facility.

The Government accepted those recommendations and consulted on a framework for implementing geological disposal in June 2007. A summary of responses indicating support for the proposed approach, including on how the voluntary partnership approach would work alongside site screening and assessment criteria, was published in January this year. Today’s White Paper confirms our approach.

We are therefore inviting communities to open up discussions with Government—without commitment—on the possibility of hosting such a geological disposal facility at some point in the future. To support that invitation, we have today opened a dedicated website, which can be accessed via the DEFRA website. I am also writing personally to every local authority in England to tell them about the invitation.

The House might wonder why communities should be interested in hosting a facility. A facility will not proceed unless it is safe, secure and environmentally acceptable. Its construction and operation will be a multi-billion pound, high-tech project, which would contribute greatly to the local economy, providing skilled employment for hundreds of people over many decades and bringing benefits for industry, infrastructure and local services. Many of those benefits would remain after the facility had been sealed.

In addition, any community that ultimately hosts a facility will fulfil an essential service to the nation and would expect the Government to ensure that the project contributes to its well-being. To that end, other benefits might be identified and developed through discussions between the community and the Government. Along with the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, we want to talk to any community that might have an interest in that. Any such discussions would be exploratory and would carry no commitment to hosting a facility. We want to build trust.

Indeed, let me be clear that communities which open discussions with Government will not automatically end up hosting a facility. There will be clear decision points at which progress can be reviewed, with safety, environmental impact, cost, affordability and value for money taken into account before decisions are taken to move on. The final stage would involve the local decision-making authorities deciding to proceed so that the Government would make an informed decision on a preferred site.

The other issue is the waste itself. Discussions will need to take account of the amount and type of waste destined for disposal. We are today also publishing the latest UK radioactive waste inventory, which gives the current estimates of waste and other materials that could become waste in future. Estimates of the amount of waste will change over time as operational arrangements change and we find better ways of minimising waste. New nuclear power stations might also be built. We will therefore adopt a flexible approach to the design of the facility and a transparent process for updating the inventory for disposal.

Geological disposal is the internationally preferred approach for managing such waste and is being adopted in many countries, including Belgium, Canada, Finland, France, Germany, the United States and Sweden. It is likely to take several decades until a disposal facility is ready, but moving forward now towards a permanent solution is the right approach. It allows us to take decisions about disposing of waste that we have created or will create, and not place that responsibility on future generations. Today we are taking another significant step forward in dealing with that legacy, and I look forward to working with all those who can help us in the task.

I thank the Secretary of State for his statement and for the advance sight of it.

The challenge of dealing with the legacy of toxic nuclear waste has dogged successive Governments for more than half a century. We strongly support the Government’s recognition of the urgent need to find a sustainable long-term management option to tackle the problem. I say “management option” rather than “solution”, because the only solution to the potential dangers of nuclear waste lies in hundreds of thousands of years of gradual degradation.

I pay tribute to the Committee on Radioactive Waste Management and particularly its chairman, Professor Gordon MacKerron, for the thoughtful way in which it has approached this complex and sensitive issue. It is important to note that the committee’s work related solely to legacy waste—the stuff that we already have, not the stuff that we might create if new nuclear power stations are built. I am concerned that the Government have muddled up those two distinct issues.

That matters because it is accepted that the taxpayer faces a huge and growing financial liability for dealing with the existing waste—£73 billion at the last count, I think, although the Secretary of State may wish to update the House on that figure—but it is not accepted that new nuclear plant should receive subsidies, hidden or otherwise, from the taxpayer. The Conservatives have made it clear that any new build will have to cover its own costs, including the costs of managing waste. The Government have now sent a confused message. Will the Secretary of State take this opportunity to clarify that, as they have said before, it is not the Government’s intention to subsidise new nuclear capacity or the consequential waste management need arising from it?

On the specific questions, how many local authorities have already approached the Secretary of State with a view to discussing the matter? Did the Government consider identifying areas with suitable geological sites and approaching the relevant authorities, rather than writing to every council in England? It is essential not to compromise the geological security of the exercise for the sake of a local deal.

What is the position in relation to Scotland? How many repositories does the Secretary of State believe we are going to need? What happens if no communities come forward to take on the responsibility? Is there a plan B? What will be the role of the unelected Infrastructure Planning Commission? Which arm of the Government do the envisage taking the final decision on where to locate a geological storage facility?

It may seem ironic that this announcement, involving as it does the payment of inducements to people to persuade them to do what some might describe as the Government’s dirty work, comes the day after the controversial vote on the terrorism legislation. However, in this context, that approach may well be justified. We need collectively to deal with the problem of existing nuclear waste responsibly, safely and as soon as possible.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for the spirit and content of his response, with the exception of his last point. I know that he takes these matters seriously. I echo his thanks to Gordon MacKerron and to CoRWM for the work that they have done. I also pay tribute to Professor Pickard, who now chairs CoRWM in its new guise.

The Government have not sent a confused message on new nuclear build. Indeed, we consulted on waste from new nuclear build as part of the nuclear consultation. We have said clearly that companies involved in building new nuclear will have to build up a fund to cover the costs of decommissioning and waste management, and we are going to set a fixed price, which will include a significant risk premium, to cover the costs of accepting new waste and contributing to the cost of building a geological facility. The hon. Gentleman will know that the nuclear liabilities financing assurance board will oversee the process.

The truth is that in the past we tried an approach of scouring the country to find places. The last time it was tried, the final site identified in the mid-1990s was turned down by the inspector, and the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer), who was then Environment Secretary, confirmed that decision. We have to find a new method that is based on winning consent. That is why I thought it sensible to write to all local authorities. It is for them to decide to come forward. I assure the hon. Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth) that there will be no compromise of geological security. Indeed, once expressions of interest have come in, one of the very early stages is to screen those areas to see whether they would be suitable. As for the final decision in the process, we are minded to put that into the new planning arrangements, although the House is still in the process of considering them.

The Scottish Government have decided not to participate; they will continue with near-site, near-surface storage. That is entirely a matter for them. The Welsh Assembly Government support the process, but have reserved their position on whether they wish to host a facility. Any expression of interest in Wales would have to go to the Welsh Assembly Government for consideration.

On the hon. Gentleman’s point about communities that decide to come forward, I think, and I hope that the House will agree, that it is not unreasonable for those who say, “We are prepared, potentially, to host this facility on behalf of the nation,” to receive support and consideration for doing that. That is the right approach. When hon. Members have had a chance to read the White Paper, they will see the very careful step-by-step approach that we are taking to win trust, build confidence and be open with information, so that communities have up until the very last minute to say, “Thanks, but no thanks.” I think that is the right way to do it.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on making that final point. The whole question of nuclear waste has been bedevilled by a lack of trust in those who have the stocks of waste. It is not actually the Government’s dirty business, but the whole nation’s dirty business. If we are to move beyond the current situation and have a long-term and secure solution, the concepts of voluntarism, trust and proper partnership are fundamental and vital to ensuring that the nation can entrust both the Government and other partners to do this necessary job for us all. My right hon. Friend is to be congratulated on the spirit in which he has introduced the White Paper.

Order. I do not think that a question was included there. I call Steve Webb.

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I thank the Secretary of State for his statement and for advance sight of it.

I want to raise four issues with the right hon. Gentleman, the first of which is safety. Ten years ago, the British Government Panel on Sustainable Development said:

“How to dispose of radioactive waste safely in perpetuity is one of the most intractable problems currently facing industrial countries. There are major scientific and technical difficulties with permanent”

storage underground. Ten years on, can he tell us whether those technical difficulties have been definitively resolved? If they have not—my question on plan B is slightly different from the one posed by the hon. Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth)—and there are technical and scientific difficulties that cannot be resolved, what is plan B?

My second question relates to interim arrangements. According to the White Paper, the storage will not be available for perhaps 20 years or more, but new nuclear will be up and running before that. Is it the intention to store the waste from new nuclear on site at the new nuclear plants? Will the Secretary of State confirm that that waste will be more radioactive than the waste coming from existing plants? Should people be worried by the thought of high-level, highly radioactive waste being stored on site at lots of locations around Britain? In a terrorist age, should we be concerned about that?

The third question relates to the spiralling cost of clean-up of legacy waste. As has been said, the figures keep escalating. First, it was £56 billion and then it was £73 billion; another £10 billion here or there and soon we will be talking serious money. When will we get to the end? When will we know definitively how much the clean-up of the legacy waste will cost? We cannot keep having a few more billion added all the time. Does it worry the Secretary of State that the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, which is responsible for this matter, keeps losing its senior staff? What is going on at the NDA?

My final question is about the contribution of new nuclear to the costs of the repository. The White Paper says that the repository would have to be bigger if new nuclear goes ahead, especially if big new nuclear goes ahead. Will the Secretary of State confirm unreservedly that the whole incremental costs of a larger than intended store will be fully met by the new nuclear providers?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for those important and constructive questions. On safety, it is fair to acknowledge that the whole country has had the benefit of electricity produced by nuclear power for a long time. Nothing in this business is absolutely definitive, but our understanding has moved on.

The approach of deep geological disposal is supported by the Royal Society, as the hon. Gentleman will be aware, the Geological Society and the Royal Society of Chemistry. CoRWM looked long and hard at the matter, as he will also be aware, over two and a half years and it came back with the view that that is the approach to take. As I have already said to the House, it is the approach that, I think, 25 other countries are taking, including those that I listed. The right thing to do is to pursue it, because it is the way in which we are going to seek to deal with the waste. The straight answer to his question about what we will do if that approach does not work is that we will have to think about it then. However, the whole world is taking the approach of deep geological disposal to safe storage, which is why we intend to pursue it in the way that I have set out.

Waste from new nuclear build will initially be stored on site—it depends on the nature of the waste and the design of the reactors. On the cost of the clear-up, the honest answer is that until one knows the size of the facility and the nature of the surrounding geology, we cannot definitively say that it will cost a considerable amount of money.

I thought that the hon. Gentleman was slightly unfair to the NDA. I pay tribute to Ian Roxburgh, the outgoing chief executive, for his work since 2004, and I welcome the appointment of Richard Waite, who is taking over as interim chief executive. The NDA will play an important part in taking the work forward in the months and years ahead.

I remind the House that, 32 years ago, Lord Flowers published the report that resulted in the original work undertaken by Nirex. Owing to an act of cowardice by the Conservative Administration, that programme was frozen and the development of an underground research laboratory was stopped. At that time, we were the world leader, but we have now slipped behind. It is vital that we push forward with a long-term solution based on the best available science, which indicates that we should create a deep repository.

I commend to my right hon. Friend the work done in Finland, where a decision was reached among competing towns. Will he ensure that all authorities where the geology is suitable are not only properly informed at local authority level, but subject to proper community engagement, because there is a huge benefit in the creation of scientific jobs?

I agree with my hon. Friend. We should draw on experience from all parts of the world—indeed, continuing research and development will be part of what the NDA does.

The way in which the process is taken forward at local level will be extremely important, which is why the White Paper proposes that community siting partnerships should be established to bring together all local interests—local authority representatives, the local Members of Parliament, representatives of public services, residents’ groups, NGOs and wider local interests and the NDA. We will support that process, because it is important that there is a local body to take the process forward step by step through receiving information and consulting the community to ensure that local agreement is expressed through the decision-making body, the local authority.

I apologise for not answering the fourth question asked by the hon. Member for Northavon (Steve Webb). I had already answered it in my exchange with the hon. Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth).

In welcoming the Secretary of State’s statement, it is important that potential volunteers understand what is meant by a “safe” deep geological repository. Given the problems that the last so-called “safe” repository had in gaining the inspectors’ approval, will he tell the House what the definition of “safe” will be? In a letter to me, the Minister for the Environment has stated that

“there will be an accompanying process of progressive assessment of potential sites”,

which is different from the “screening process” that the Secretary of State mentioned in his statement. When will information on the progressive assessment of potential sites emerge to guide communities on whether they should volunteer?

A clear system has been implemented to regulate the process. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, it involves the nuclear installations inspectorate, the office for civil nuclear security, the Environment Agency and, when it comes to the transport of waste, the Department for Transport. All that will be overseen by CoRWM as an independent body offering scrutiny and advice, and nothing will happen unless the regulators are satisfied that a site is safe.

When a local community expresses interest, the first stage will be to decide whether the subsurface is suitable. Following an initial assessment, if the site is not deemed suitable, the expression of interest will clearly be unable to continue. If the site is deemed suitable, the community can decide to participate in the next stage of the process, which involves more detailed examination of the geology, consultation and surface investigations. There will be a final stage before serious money is spent and serious underground operations begin, which will allow the community to say, “Thanks very much, but we don’t want to participate,” or, “Yes, we want to move on to the next stage.” I hope that the right hon. Gentleman feels that the steps set out in the White Paper offer the reassurance that he is looking for.

I remind the right hon. Gentleman that I was here in 1982 and 1983, when Nirex introduced proposals for the disposal of low-level nuclear waste in shallow sites, one of which was in my constituency. On the back of that experience, I want to say three things. First, I am sure that deep-site disposal is the best way forward, subject to geology. Secondly, it is important that there are actual, tangible benefits to the local communities where the sites are located. Finally, sites should be identified in places that are already familiar with the generation of nuclear power. For example, I am not trying to identify Sellafield as a site, but the communities around Sellafield are familiar with the generation of nuclear power, which is an important consideration.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman has a lot of experience, and I am grateful for his support for the principle and practice of deep geological disposal. I completely agree with him about tangible benefits, which are only fair and reasonable to consider. We should not be surprised if those communities that already have the familiarity that he has described choose to come forward, but it is important that that choice is made by those communities rather than by our saying that we think that those communities should host the site.

We are taking a different approach to a long-standing problem. The right hon. and learned Gentleman is right that the problem has dogged Governments of all colours for a long time. It seems to the Government, and I hope to the House, that the right way to make progress after such a long time is by being open and direct, by giving information and by taking such matters stage by stage.

The Secretary of State is aware that I look after Hinkley Point nuclear power station, which is in my constituency. He is also aware that EDF Energy has bought 86 acres next to the power station and that there is a low-level waste storage plan, which has not been enacted yet, for the Hinkley Point site. He knows that the provision of deep storage will take some time, and I suspect that in his heart he would like the site to be at one of the existing nuclear facilities, as has been suggested by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg). Does he see low-level waste storage facilities being bumped up to take high-level waste? Will he insist that companies such as EDF Energy build a local storage facility on site for high-level, medium-level and low-level waste? Will he set out how he envisages places such as Bridgwater in west Somerset will negotiate and who will do the negotiation on behalf of the Government?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, arrangements are already in place to deal with low-level waste. Those arrangements are working well, and the new facility that I have discussed today is not designed to take low-level waste, apart from a small amount that cannot be disposed of, principally due to the concentration of specific radionuclides. All the issues that the hon. Gentleman has raised in respect of new build would have to be considered, if a proposal were to come forward. However, the proposal is principally about storing intermediate and high-level waste in a way that allows us safely to dispose of it in the future. It is also important that we reassure people in the interim that we can, as we have been doing for 50 years, find ways of safely storing waste.

On the storage of nuclear waste, will the Secretary of State confirm whether that will require planning permission? If so, will the matter be decided by the local authority involved, or will it be given to the new infrastructure commission that the Government are seeking to introduce through the Planning Bill?

Any proposal to establish a facility would indeed require planning permission. The straight answer to the question is that the Government have not yet taken a final decision on how that would be done, but we are currently inclined to apply the new planning system to that decision.

The Secretary of State has been accused of mixed messages on this nuclear repository, but that is a bit unfair. He has been quite clear that he does not know how much it will cost, when it will be built or where. Two questions remain unanswered, however. To pick up on the point made earlier, while we wait for the new repository, are current nuclear power station sites that do not store high-level waste going to be asked to do so? Secondly, when the repository is built, how much foreign nuclear waste are we expecting to accept? Are the Government going to make Britain the nuclear dustbin for the rest of the world?

We do not intend to do that. Until the facility is built, high-level nuclear waste will be stored as it currently is. It is not our intention to take waste from elsewhere. This proposal is about dealing with our own legacy waste and any new waste that may result from a new nuclear build programme.

At what depths would the high-level radioactive waste be buried? Would the Secretary of State be a little more helpful in outlining the volume of such waste that might be expected in the next 50 years?

The advice that I have received is that it could be placed between 200m and 1,000m deep. It will depend very much on the nature of the geology in the chosen site, and vaults and tunnels will be involved. The studies that have been done so far refer to the figure of 1 sq km for low-level and intermediate-level waste, and 3 sq km for high-level waste. The straight answer is that until we know the precise location, it is hard to give a definitive answer to that question. It will clearly need to be adequate to do the job.

Cabinet Office Assessment (Documents)

With permission, I would like to make a statement about events relating to the loss and recovery of two Joint Intelligence Committee documents.

The Joint Intelligence Committee, which is situated in the Cabinet Office under the chairmanship of Alex Allan, provides intelligence assessments to Departments across Government. An employee working in the JIC assessment staff left two documents on an early-morning commuter train on Tuesday of this week. Although the documents do not contain the names of individual sources or specific operational details, they are sensitive high-level intelligence assessments. The individual concerned informed his superiors about the loss of the documents on Wednesday morning and they called in the Metropolitan police who began an urgent investigation.

On Wednesday afternoon, the Cabinet Office was contacted by the BBC, which told the Department that the two documents were in its possession. The nature of the documents was made clear to the BBC and it was requested that it did not broadcast the contents of the documents, and that they be returned. The original documents were handed back to the Metropolitan police on Wednesday evening. There is no evidence at this stage to suggest that our vital national security interests have been damaged or that any individuals or operations have been put at risk. However, the police investigation is continuing.

This was a clear breach of well-established security rules that forbid the removal of documents of this kind outside secure Government premises without clear authorisation and compliance with special security procedures. These rules are a clear part of the operating procedures for handling matters of this sensitivity. All individuals on joining the assessment staff are given a formal briefing on the rules by a specially designated security officer. That formal briefing is supplemented by clear, written instructions provided to the individual, who has to sign a statement to indicate that they have read, understood and will comply at all times with the rules.

In this case, no authorisation was sought for the removal of the documents. The official concerned has been suspended from his duties as part of a standard civil service disciplinary procedure. The chairman of the JIC, Alex Allan, has confirmed that there are clear rules and that they were not followed in this case. But in order to provide the reassurance that all necessary procedures and safeguards are in place, the Cabinet Secretary has asked Sir David Omand, former permanent secretary for security and intelligence, and former permanent secretary at the Home Office, to carry out a full investigation of the circumstances of the case.

Given the nature of the issues, I have asked Sir David to keep the Intelligence and Security Committee, which has a particular role in security and intelligence issues, fully informed. All JIC staff have been reminded by the chairman of the JIC of the fundamental importance of following all security procedures in full, and similar steps are being taken across government for those handling sensitive, intelligence-related material.

It is a matter of utmost concern to the Government that this breach of security has happened. We will take all steps to ensure that all individuals who work within the Joint Intelligence Committee staff observe the procedures that are necessary for security. We will continue to do everything necessary to safeguard sensitive intelligence material so that we safeguard the British national interest. I commend this statement to the House.

The Minister was absolutely right to come to the House at the earliest opportunity to make a statement, and I am grateful for sight of that statement.

The Prime Minister said yesterday that we should take no risks with national security. There can be few greater risks than the casual abandonment of top secret intelligence material on a train, posing obvious risks both to national security and potentially to the safety of our armed forces personnel. There can scarcely have been a graver breach of intelligence and security procedures than this case. That al-Qaeda do not today know precisely what Britain knows about its activities and, more importantly, what Britain does not know, is entirely due to the responsible way in which the BBC has behaved, and reflects no credit whatsoever on the Government.

This lamentable lapse of basic security awareness and procedures raises a number of specific questions for the Minister for the Cabinet Office, and I would be grateful if he would respond to them. How quickly did the BBC alert the Cabinet Office to the loss? We assume that it was almost immediately, but I would be grateful for confirmation of that. When was he personally aware of the problem? When did he inform the Prime Minister of the problem? What steps were taken immediately when the loss of the file was known on Tuesday?

Were these two documents the original, numbered copies of the document—obviously, it would have been a breach of procedures for them to be allowed out of the Department in such circumstances—or were they illegal photocopies made in breach of the established existing procedures? What reason could there possibly be for this official to remove such files, apparently to read on the train? Why, now that such powerful encryption is available, are documents of such an extremely high level of security printed on paper at all? It may be too early for the Minister to say this, but he may be able to give some indication: will anybody be prosecuted under the Official Secrets Act? Was he aware of there being a problem with information security in the relevant part of his Department, in the JIC, before the incident?

There is clearly a major systemic problem with data security at the heart of the Government, and the saga goes on. In November last year, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs lost 15,000 records of Standard Life customers, followed by the loss of 25 million data records. In December, 18,000 personal records from the Department for Work and Pensions were found at a contractor’s home. In December, the Secretary of State for Transport admitted that 3 million driver records were lost, apparently in Iowa. Also in December, NHS trusts lost 168,000 confidential records. The Ministry of Defence lost three laptops, stolen from the boot of a Navy officer’s car, containing sensitive personal details of no fewer than 600,000 people. In January, hundreds of DWP records had apparently been dumped on a roundabout in Devon.

It is not as if there had not been forewarning of the risks. Two years ago, the Walport report called for the Government to improve data security, warning that leaks of personal data would damage the Government’s reputation. More than a year ago, in February 2007, General Sir Edmund Burton, the Cabinet Office’s own adviser on information assurance, said:

“What keeps me awake at night is that, with some notable exceptions, across government there’s too little awareness of the scale and breadth of the risk facing us at the moment”.

Just last summer, at about the time when the Chancellor assumed his current responsibilities, Lord Coleman raised concerns in his report on data security, saying

“adequate mechanisms are not yet in place”.

Obvious and dangerous issues arise from this kind of failure to comply with basic procedures, and the fact is that there may be—I should be grateful for the Minister’s comments about this—a real problem with civil service morale, leading to laxity in the way in which procedures are not complied with.

The Cabinet Office has responsibility for information security across the whole Government, and the Minister for the Cabinet Office is its ministerial head. I am sorry to have to say that there is no evidence that he takes this crucial part of his responsibilities nearly seriously enough. When we have asked questions in the past, he has allowed his junior Ministers to reply on this crucial issue. It is clear that he did not even read the Coleman report when it was published last summer. Does he understand that he must himself take very direct personal responsibility for this latest shocking failure at the heart of his own Department? Ministers cheerfully claim credit for anything good that happens, but all the failures are someone else’s fault. Does the Minister understand that this buck really does stop with him?

My reason for coming to the House at the earliest opportunity was precisely to inform it of what I know about this serious situation, and, indeed, to take responsibility on behalf of the Government for sorting it out.

Let me deal with the questions asked by the right hon. Member for Horsham (Mr. Maude). Some, obviously, will be the subject of the continuing investigation by the police, and also the investigation by Sir David Omand.

The right hon. Gentleman asked when I was informed, and when the Prime Minister was informed. We were both informed yesterday afternoon. Then, fairly quickly, I spoke to Alex Allan, the chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee. The right hon. Gentleman also asked whether the copies of the documents that were returned were the original copies. They were, but obviously the police will investigate the question of the originals and how they found their way from the train where they were lost on Tuesday to the BBC.

Why did the individual concerned remove the documents? That is and should be a matter for the current investigations, but, as I have said, I think that it is an important point. There was a clear breach not simply of the rules, but of rules to which people sign up when they join the assessment staff.

The right hon. Gentleman asked why copies of such documents were provided. A very small number of copies are provided, some of them for people who attend JIC meetings. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, information security of all kinds is not without its risks, although I take his point about the need to minimise the number of documents that are produced.

Obviously I shall not go into the details of any prosecutions or any other action that is to be taken. That is a matter for the police.

The right hon. Gentleman asked whether I was aware of any problems relating to the work of the JIC. I think that the JIC does an extremely good job for our country, and I was not aware of any problems.

There were clear rules in this case. I have set out those rules, and the way in which people sign up to them when they go to work for the assessment staff. This is a case in which those rules were not followed, and it is a matter of deep regret that they were not followed. As I have said, the rules are in place; but to provide the necessary reassurance, we have asked Sir David Omand to consider whether any more can be done to provide the necessary safeguards. We will of course await the outcome of his investigation.

I think that the right hon. Gentleman’s point about civil service morale was slightly beneath him. Civil servants do an extraordinary job, particularly in the intelligence services. I do not believe that that is the reason why the documents were left on a train.

I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will help us to ensure that we can have the information security that we need.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for coming to the House at the earliest opportunity. When issues of this kind arise, Ministers ought to make themselves available to answer questions in the House. However, I am somewhat concerned about one part of my right hon. Friend’s statement. He said there was “a clear breach of well-established security rules that forbid the removal of documents of this kind outside secure Government premises”. Members of the House of Commons who serve on the Intelligence and Security Committee have to go to the Cabinet Office to read the documents there. They may not be removed. Why on earth does someone who works in the Cabinet Office need to remove documents at all?

My right hon. Friend has raised an important point. I can tell him that there are circumstances in which people must have meetings outside secure premises and documents need to be transferred from one place to another, but the most stringent rules exist, although I will not go into the details. As for the briefcases and other secure items in which documents are carried, I can reassure my right hon. Friend that it is exceptional for documents to be taken out of the building. Authorisation needs to be sought, and if it is given, it is given only in the most secure circumstances. As I said earlier, it was not sought in this case.

All of us are probably appalled that we have to be here today because of a breach of security on this scale. A tribute has been paid to the BBC for its prompt response, but perhaps we also owe a tribute to the finder of the documents, who could presumably have taken them to some other less responsible parties, perhaps in return for remuneration. Thank goodness the person who laid hands on them had some good sense.

We are all aware that this is not the only loss of information—the leader of my party, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Clegg), counted some 37 million pieces of personal data that went missing last year—but I have to say that this is on a different scale and of a different order, and perhaps we should not conflate the two issues.

I noted the slight irony that the Department that the Government have asked to review data-handling procedures is the Cabinet Office. Looking at one’s own home first may, in fact, be an appropriate step.

I have only a few questions to add to those that have already been asked. It is, perhaps, possible to be almost too glibly certain that the documents never passed into the wrong hands, and I hope those conducting the investigation will consider that carefully rather than dismissing what happened as simply chance and accident. Although I think we all overwhelmingly believe that that is what it must have been, any other possibility should not be ruled out at this early stage, and I ask for this possibility not to be mentally dismissed or treated in a trivial way.

Both the BBC and The Guardian have reported that, under strict procedures—the Minister mentioned some of them—officials can take secret documents out. Perhaps we need to know a little more about what those procedures are in order to have an idea of whether or not they made sense in this case. A mere locked box, for example, does not seem terribly appropriate.

The main question that I want to ask, however, is this: to what extent are the procedures fine while the culture is not? A much more casual culture can easily develop, in which someone dumps the contents of an in-tray into a briefcase to read or to work on at home, having lost the sense that certain key documents carry real importance and real concern. At that point, even if all the procedures are in place, if the culture has led to the loss of that sense—and I doubt that this was a one-off; the loss may have been, but I bet the taking home was not—a much more fundamental problem exists, which must be examined.

Let me pick up something that was said by the right hon. Member for Horsham (Mr. Maude). I am anxious that this episode should not become a slur on the civil service as a whole. Presumably, it involved someone who made an error or did something wrong at a—

At a very senior level. We do not need to treat this incident as suggesting that the civil service at large is not conscious of these issues. However, I would like the question of the culture to be thoroughly addressed.