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Westminster Hall

Volume 478: debated on Wednesday 9 July 2008

Westminster Hall

Wednesday 9 July 2008

[Mr. Mike Weir in the Chair]

Fishing Industry

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

It is good to see you in the Chair this morning, Mr. Weir. Perhaps you could have arranged a breakfast of Arbroath smokies for us to start our day with.

I shall concentrate this morning on Northumberland fishing and under-10m boats. Colleagues from other parts of the country will raise other matters. It is good to have the opportunity to look at the state of an industry that is experiencing serious difficulties. We are all interested in what the Minister has to say, and I hope that he will have adequate time to cover the points that will be made in the debate.

I am very conscious of the decline in our fishing industry in Northumberland in recent years. Traditionally, it is concentrated on two larger ports, Amble and Seahouses. The latter has nothing like the number of boats it used to have, and, in fact, Amble has outgrown it in the number of boats frequently fishing. There are also smaller villages such as Boulmer and Holy Island, and a few boats fish out of Berwick. Beadnell is traditionally a fishing area, but the industry has declined there. Many people still depend for their livelihood on the fishing industry, but if things go on as they are, the industry is in danger of virtually disappearing, apart from a few part-time fishermen.

That would be a serious loss to the economy of Northumberland and to the character of fishing communities and the villages from which fishing takes place. Visitors, who are an increasingly important part of the economy in our area, value seeing the fishing industry at work. Fishing assists tourism in our area and has a useful secondary effect, in addition to the production of food, which is the essential function of the industry. Locally sourced food and fish are important from an environmental point of view and, again, positive for tourism, because our restaurants and hotels can continue to serve local food. It is much appreciated by those who enjoy eating in the restaurants and hotels in my constituency.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman and congratulate him on bringing this important subject to the House before it rises for the recess. Like him, I have a small fishing industry in my constituency, which includes a number of very small boats. Does he share my horror at the fact that more fish are discarded in European waters—thrown back, dead, which does nothing for food production or the environment—than are landed legally every year? When are we going to tackle that?

I shall indeed talk about the discard problem, because it is a perverse effect of attempts at conservation policy that results in many fish being thrown back into the sea with little or no prospect of survival. The discard policy has many drawbacks, particularly for the under-10m fleet. Much the largest part of my local fishing fleet is in that group. Larger boats that were traditionally based locally tend now to operate out of Eyemouth and North Shields, from where many other larger boats operate. Recently, nearly all smaller boats in Amble have been fishing out of Eyemouth for prawns, where the prospects have been better in the past couple of months.

I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. He mentioned a number of small fishing ports on the Northumberland coast. He will also be aware that fishing continues out of Newbiggin, and that a small number of boats go out of Blyth. Does he agree that the under-10m boats are not the problem, and that, indeed, they could be the solution to the problem of unsustainable fishing? They are mainly family-run, and those families are determined to ensure that the fish stocks are sustained so that children and grandchildren can take over the boats. Does he agree that we should seek to increase the quotas on those boats, not reduce them?

I agree very much with the hon. Gentleman. Of course, I have meetings with some of the fishermen that he talked about, including the Newbiggin and Blyth men, and discuss fisheries in Northumberland with them. Those fishermen have small boats and are traditionally-minded. They want to see a future for their families in the fishing industry, but often the next generation says, “Look, dad, there’s not much prospect for us, so we’d better go in for something else.” The population of those in the fishing industry is ageing.

It costs at least £160 in fuel simply to take a small boat out for a day’s fishing. Fishermen are finding that they cannot even earn the cost of the fuel because they cannot land the fish that they catch, which are plentiful, and they cannot catch the fish that they are allowed to catch because they are not plentiful at the moment. One of the few things that helped our fishing industry to survive was prawns, but lately, in the immediate vicinity, they have not been especially plentiful. In previous years, they were helpful, and as I said earlier, some of the Amble boats have been going for prawns out of Eyemouth rather than fishing locally.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on securing this debate, and I apologise in advance for being unable to stay for the full duration. In my part of the world, the problem is not so much lack of fish, but lack of quota and the cost of fuel—many boats have to steam out 200 miles to be able to commence fishing. We use fisheries grants to assist with land-based jobs and the development of the fishing industry, but does he agree that it is crucial to invest in more fuel-efficient methods to help the industry through an extremely difficult period?

My hon. Friend makes an important point about a factor that particularly affects larger boats because of the distances that they steam in order to fish. However—I shall return to this point—there could be a problem if we simply make more, larger boats, and make them more fuel efficient and economical so that they can catch yet more fish, while the small, relatively fuel-efficient boats remain excluded because the larger boats have the quotas. There could be a danger in doing that. I am in favour of fuel efficiency for large and small boats alike, but we must be careful not to produce unintended consequences. The fishing industry has experienced far too many of those from all sorts of policies. Small boats could unintentionally be further squeezed by such a policy.

The right hon. Gentleman might well be coming to this point, but is not the real problem the unfair distribution of the quota? There is 3 per cent. for the under-10m boats, which make up 50 per cent. of the work force; and 96 per cent. for over-10m boats, which make up the other 50 per cent. of the work force. That is unfair. The Minister has expressed sympathy, but is it not about time that some action was taken to redistribute the quota?

I was coming on to the lack of quota for small-boat fisheries.

The situation became especially serious earlier this year—not for the first time—and came to a head in April and May, when fishermen in the north-east received notices that North sea whiting, skate and ray fishing would close; that North sea cod would be decreased from 2 tonnes to 100 kg per calendar month from Thursday 1 May; and that North sea plaice faced a similarly drastic decrease. The House can imagine the impact of that notice. Fishermen were saying, “There is absolutely nothing that we can go out for. If there are no prawns, what else can we do?” It led to anger in the fishing community and there were protests. Many people got in touch with me about their individual plight. I put some proposals to the Minister about what could be done, some of which are coming to fruition, although others are not. I hope that he will talk about those later. The notice led to despair in the industry, because people were not allowed to catch the fish that were there, but they were allowed to catch fish that were not there, and they would incur high fuel costs going for any fish. As I say, it was a moment of real despair.

That background relates to the problem of historical records. The Department had no data for the under-10 m fleet, and the quota problem mentioned by the hon. Member for Hastings and Rye (Michael Jabez Foster) derived from that lack of historical data. Fishermen in the under-10m fleet felt keenly that that was grossly unfair. They represent a significant number of those who earn their livelihoods from the fishing industry, but they have a ridiculously nominal element of the whiting quota, which is so important to them. That needs to change. We need an admission that the figures used to calculate the original quota for the under-10m sector were plain wrong: they were unfair, they did not reflect the well managed, small-scale historical fishing effort by the under-10m boats, and they have allowed a great injustice to persist.

There are various ways in which the problem could be solved. The under-10m boats could be given a period without quota, during which collection analysis could be carried out and they could be issued with new quota. Alternatively, that could be combined with a days-at-sea restriction on small boats. When a more general days-at-sea proposal was introduced, it was received with great anger by the fishing industry, but the situation is now so desperate that the industry is asking to be given a days-at-sea restriction so that fishermen can at least fish whiting, which they are wrongly excluded from fishing. The whiting fishery has been making a good living for the larger boats in many areas, which strengthens the feelings of operators of smaller boats about the subject. There is plenty of whiting around—indeed, it is difficult to avoid it as by-catch. One fisherman told me, “Whiting are positively suicidal in their determination to enter the nets when you’re trying to fish for something else, but you have to put them back in the sea.” That is a very unsatisfactory situation.

The situation could have been put right by using the Hague preference arrangement and doing a swap. The UK was allowed an extra 1,400 tonnes of whiting. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs carried out a consultation and suggested that the extra quota should go to the under-10m fleet. However, I gather from speaking to the Minister earlier that, tucked away in another announcement, which I shall discuss in a moment, was an indication that we have not made the progress that we want on using the Hague preference to get some whiting for our small boats.

All of that has had an impact on fishermen in my area. Two boats have been sold, and others have moved up the coast to Eyemouth for the prawn catch, although 44 boats from that area, as well as many others from as far away as Lowestoft, are already working those prawn grounds. Of course, prices for prawns are good, but it is unheard of for fishermen from Amble to have to work away from home for significant periods of the year. That is not the sort of fishery that the small-boat fishery is intended to be; it is intended to be a local, well managed, conservation-minded fishery.

The experience with mackerel has been no better. The fishery opened on 22 March, with 300 tonnes in quota for the under-10m sector in the Moray firth, but nothing at all for the under-10m sector in the north-east. That has been the case for the past three years. Small-boat fishermen fish for mackerel by hand-lining, which is as conservation-minded and low-efficiency a method as one could possibly imagine. However, currently—certainly until the announcement a few days ago—the only way that one can fish for mackerel was out of an unpowered rowing boat or sailing boat, so draconian are the restrictions under which the industry operates. Mackerel is very popular, but all the mackerel used in the restaurants in the north-east comes from Peterhead or Cornwall, so it is several days old by the time we get it. It must be refrigerated and transported over long distances, which is not good in terms of reducing food miles and encouraging local sourcing.

We had an announcement on the mackerel fishery last Friday, which is very late in the year. Under-10 m boats have been allowed an allocation of mackerel as the result of a swap, with mackerel quota being provided by producer organisations. I very much welcome that, but such a small quota tends to be used up very quickly. An added problem is that mackerel tend to move down the coast, so a high proportion of the stock is often caught by those who have quota before it ever reaches the area in which our local boats can catch it.

My right hon. Friend mentioned mackerel and Cornwall, and I should perhaps say that I was not talking about increasing capacity when I mentioned fuel efficiency earlier; in fact, I want to control capacity. However, fishermen from my area fish in the mackerel box and face constraints on the type of fishing method that they can use. Indeed, all the fish is caught by mackerel hand-liners, just as it is off the coast of Northumberland, as my right hon. Friend said. Does he not agree, therefore, that we need to reconsider the division of the quota? The vast majority of the quota—more than 90 per cent.—is taken up by purse seiners, one of whose boats can catch in a week what all the Cornish fishermen can catch in a year.

My hon. Friend makes an important point. That fishery is well sustained by the low-efficiency method of hand-lining, and if vast quantities are fished using excessively efficient methods—that concept might seem odd in other industries, but it is important in the fishing industry—we will all lose. Not only will the distribution of the ability to catch be unfair, but the stocks themselves will be damaged. There were other elements of the Minister’s announcement on Friday. He talked about North sea plaice, turbot, brill and herring, but he announced only limited developments, and they have come late in the year. By the time such announcements are made, fishermen have got into further financial difficulty.

The monthly limit for haddock for the under-10m sector is 3 tonnes. However, fishermen say that there is so much whiting in the sea that if they want to catch 3 tonnes of haddock, they will probably have to throw away about 30 tonnes of whiting because so much of it comes into the net at the same time. There is a similar problem with a big by-catch of cod in the prawn fishery. That indicates that the methods that we are using do not meet the conservation objective that everybody shares of ensuring that there are stocks for the future. That is the whole purpose of quota and fisheries policy, but if we throw so much fish overboard, we are making a nonsense of conservation policy.

Furthermore, if people need to sell a certain tonnage of fish to pay for the cost of the trip—the fuel and the basic income of, in many cases, just the two men on the boat—they must catch even more to have enough landable fish. They end up catching fish that they cannot land and throw it back in an increasingly difficult attempt to meet their bills. They do not improve conservation at all because they are throwing back into the sea fish with few or no survival prospects.

At the same time, fuel prices are a problem. Obviously, that is not a problem of the Government’s making, but they must consider it when they look at the industry’s future. Other Governments have helped their fishing industries more directly to meet the high cost of fuel. There are also cash-flow problems as a result of fuel duty, and those tend to hit small boats in particular. The Minister is aware that there is a lot of concern about the matter—so much so that he sent a letter to the Berwick Advertiser. He or his office must have pressed the button on his e-mail, because he wrote to explain why he was not giving money to help with fuel prices. He said:

“Even if I had found the maximum amount allowed, it would have given a typical trawler ONE MONTH’S worth of fuel—and then there would be no money available for another three years.”

I have to say that one month’s worth of fuel for a typical trawler would go an awfully long way in the under-10m fishing fleet. Those in the small-boat fishery who read that letter would think that the Minister had not quite realised how desperate they were, because although their fuel use is much more limited, they still face the severe impact of fuel prices.

Clearly, we all want fuel efficiency. We should not waste fuel in any industry, and certainly not in the fishing industry. I would therefore be glad to see the Department support improvements that prevent fuel from being wasted in the industry, but that would have to be handled in a way that did not squeeze the small boat sector; because those boats do not steam very far anyway—only relatively limited distances—they do not use fuel on anything like the same scale, and they fish efficiently. If it becomes economic for the largest boats once again to take large quantities of fish, that could squeeze the small-boat industry. The impact of any scheme to help with fuel efficiency must be tailored so that it does not squeeze out the small-boat fishery, but helps it to deal with its particular problems.

I want to take up the point about fuel efficiency. The right hon. Gentleman mentioned prawn fishermen, and I am sure that he is aware that, as a result of the quota restrictions, quite a number of people from Blyth and Newbiggin must steam 140 miles in a day, instead of the normal five to six, just to try to earn a living. Surely that cannot be right either.

Exactly. That is a further effect of the diversion of local boats to a more distant prawn fishery, which in turn results from the fact that they have not had quota to catch the fish that are there and that can be landed according to good conservation principles.

The Minister obviously knows that there are serious problems, and he is about to produce a consultation document, specifically directed, I understand, at the needs of the small-boat fishery—the under-10m fishery. It is supposed to be coming out this month, I think. The end of July is when almost everything tends to rush out from Government Departments. We all have to absorb it during August and make representations. I hope that that document will come soon. However, if we are getting into another long round of consultation like the one that we had about the Hague preference on whiting, and nothing much is to happen for a long while, I am afraid that more boats will be put on the market and more young people will decide there is no future for them in the industry. Time has to be allowed for a consultation process, but the situation may be more urgent than that. More boats would be sold now if there were a market for them. It is only because of the lack of buyers that more fishermen do not sell their boats. I do not know what we shall get in the consultation paper—perhaps we shall get hints from the Minister later—but the situation is serious and must be addressed with some sense of urgency.

Another matter that affects the industry in Northumberland—and the whole industry—is an aspect of the draft Marine Bill, with which the Minister has been very busy, and on which he recently carried out a presentation for Members. Some general matters arise, such as the position we may get into if we have protected zones in which we can control what our own fishing fleet does, but not what other countries’ fishing fleets do. That would be unacceptable, and I know that the Minister has that problem in mind.

In this context I want particularly to mention—I am sure it will interest the hon. Member for Wansbeck (Mr. Murphy) too—the proposal that the inshore fisheries and conservation authority for Northumberland should combine the existing Northumberland sea fisheries area with that of the North Eastern sea fisheries committee, which stretches down to Yorkshire. That proposal is universally regarded in Northumberland as likely to be very damaging to the Northumberland fishing industry.

The present Northumberland sea fisheries boundary is well recognised and understood, fits with local authority boundaries in the area, and has byelaws in relation to many species of fish that are very different from those of the adjoining area. An enormous travelling distance would be involved in dealing with an authority stretching down to Yorkshire, particularly for fishermen serving on the sea fisheries committee, and the representation of the Northumberland fishery on such a large body—bearing in mind that fishermen are only one element in the representation—could be very small. We might be lucky to get one person on the authority. We are only at the draft Bill stage, but I hope that the Minister will recognise the strong feeling that there should continue to be a conservation and fisheries authority for the existing area of the Northumberland sea fisheries committee, with its distinctive problems and needs. I hope he will heed that warning.

More generally, my warning is that very few people will be left in the industry if we do not ensure that in Northumberland the under-10m boats get the opportunity to fish for the fish that are there, and that they can do so in traditional and conservation-minded ways. That will require urgent action by Ministers.

I congratulate the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith) on securing the debate on a very important subject, at an important time. The small but, as anyone present can see, very select band of fishing-motivated Members of Parliament here for the debate have seen the industry go through many crises. Indeed, in my long experience it has had continual ups and downs and crises, including the shrinkage of the industry, the adjustment of the size of the fleet to stocks—a reduction of 60 per cent. in Scotland—and the closure of ports. It is interesting to note that Lowestoft went out of business at the time of the last fuel spike. Because the costs of the infrastructure were too high to be financed by the landings, the port effectively closed down for fishing. All those crises have happened over the years, but the industry was coming through. It was getting better organised: it was organising itself through the regional advisory councils and getting closer to the scientists. It was more effectively going for new investment and new methods.

However, that is now all thrown into question by yet another crisis—the fuel crisis to which the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed referred. Fuel costs have gone up 320 per cent. over the past five years. Since January they have gone up 40 per cent.—and they have probably gone up more since that figure was calculated, because they go up each month. It is now estimated that the fuel costs of the European fleet are 30 per cent. of the value of the fish that it lands. That is a burden that is too heavy to bear. I have not seen a crisis on this scale before. It is producing deep anger, born of desperation. This is a question of survival—the survival of a viable fishing fleet—not of trying to adjust policies.

There have been more dramatic events in the industry in Europe, where people are more volatile than they are here, but that anger and desperation is felt, and it produced a plea to the Minister, backed by a demonstration outside DEFRA a few weeks ago, not for a fuel subsidy—fuel subsidies have been paid in the past by the French Government in particular, but also by the Spanish—but for de minimis aid. That is the kind of aid that is allowed to a certain level in the common fisheries policy. It has already been paid in Spain, France and Italy, where effectively aid is being given to fishermen to fish in our waters and compete with our industry, which is not receiving aid. De minimis aid could be up to £30,000 per enterprise over three years. The industry asked for that and for relief from light dues. Ours is the only fishing industry in Europe that pays them. We have been asking for relief from them for years. The industry asked for help with the costs of the improvements required by the common fisheries policy, such as satellite monitoring, electronic log books and survey costs.

That was a desperate plea. The Minister, as can be seen from the dramatic headline in Fishing News, said no. He said he could provide some aid, and he has talked to us about that on different occasions, but he would do nothing on the basic plea for de minimis aid. The argument was that his hands were effectively tied, and DEFRA is certainly in a financial crisis. However, I have to point out to my hon. Friend the Minister that whenever the farmers have a crisis, whether it is BSE or foot and mouth or whether it is to deal with the recent mess made by the Rural Payments Agency, massive sums are provided by DEFRA—indeed, there is provision for an EU fine on that issue—but when fishing has a crisis, nothing is forthcoming. The Department always says before every round of decommissioning that it has no money and that it cannot finance a decommissioning round, but then suddenly money is produced. That is a conventional plea by DEFRA and Ministers, but it is a question of political will to produce the money that the industry needs to survive.

We obviously need to modernise and to concentrate on improving fuel efficiency. We need to encourage those forms of fishing that use less fuel. As has been pointed out, small-boat fishing is much more fuel efficient, and the distances travelled are far shorter. We need to encourage things such as gill netting and long lining that use less fuel, rather than beam trawling, which is also environmentally damaging. We need to modernise in all those directions, but we cannot get to that modernisation stage unless temporary aid is made available to see the industry through. We want an orderly transition. That involves helping the vessels’ crews and their communities.

I rarely speak well of the common fisheries policy. Indeed, my most apt description of it can be summed up in five words, four or which are “the”, “common”, “fisheries” and “policy”. However, we are seeing hopeful signs from Europe. The commissioner is putting forward sensible proposals.

Agreement has been reached on temporary derogations to the rules of the European fisheries fund to allow help by providing temporary relief, which is what our fishing industry needs during the transition period. More, and more flexible, decommissioning aid is needed. Aid is needed to encourage a switch to more environmentally friendly methods of fishing. Emergency aid is needed to cover the temporary cessation of fishing, which is the industry’s aim, because people cannot afford to put the vessels out to sea. That aid will be needed for up to three months, provided it is used as part of a restructuring plan.

Provisions should be made to help industry employees. They, too, are hard hit; if they are not going to sea, they are not earning. Their social security contributions could be temporarily reduced. That would be a gain for the industry, and it would help to support the fishermen.

We also need measures to promote the value of fish. I am not sure how it could be done, but it is clearly one of the stones between which the industry is pressed. The costs are increasing, but the market return—it is an option system—is not. The industry is squeezed between rising costs and stagnating prices.

It is clear that, in the long term, consumers will have to pay more for fish. We already import 65 per cent. of our fish. The costs will increase as the pound goes down and as competition increases. The consumer, thank heavens, is consuming more fish. We want them all to be as healthy as us. I am the product of a fish-and-chip diet: it has made me what I am today. We want people to eat more fish, but they will have to pay more for it, and they will have to pay more for domestically caught fish as well as for imports. I do not know how the prices will be increased, but that is clearly on the agenda. However, the point now is to act on the costs of catching.

The European proposals are sensible. In fact, they are the most sensible proposals that I have seen from Europe for a long time. The drawback is that the costs will have to be shared by the nation states. The Department has been refusing to provide support for the industry, and it seems reluctant to share those costs. If they are not shared, it will be inequitable and unfair, as we will be competing against industries that are better supported and better financed than ours. Our industry will be shackled, and will find it difficult to survive, but it has to survive to inherit the catches that will come as the stocks are rebuilt. They will be rebuilt if we fish on a sustainable basis, but we have to work to that end. Meanwhile, the industry needs help.

There is a proposal to increase the de minimis payments—the Minister has refused to make them—from €30,000 per enterprise to €30,000 for each vessel, with a cap of €100,000 per enterprise. European fisheries funding will pay a substantial proportion of that, but it will have to be supplemented by national aid. That national aid must be forthcoming to see the industry through; it will be a major contribution.

In the view of those Members who represent fishing ports, such aid must be paid. The industry needs to be supported. We do want to see it die. Nor do we want to see our European competitors being financed and supported by their Governments, as they will inherit the fish stocks as they build up. We will have a short-term survival problem before reaching the long-term process of adjustment. European policy proposes financing it. The Minister has to act in concert with those European proposals, but we must bear an appropriate share to support our fishing industry.

I do not criticise my hon. Friend; he is an excellent Minister, and he has certainly taken steps to be in close touch with the industry and to bring it together. However, I do not want his hands to be tied when facing the need to keep the industry going through its present financial problems.

I know from a presentation that he gave that the Minister is keen on proposals for marine conservation areas. I regard fishing as being the best source of conservation at sea, because of its interest in sustainable catches from sustainable stocks. That is an effective way to approach conservation. However, the marine conservation areas are being sold to an environmentally concerned public as a means of stopping fishing altogether. I am now getting cards—financed, I think, by the World Wide Fund for Nature—demanding that marine conservation areas are used to stop fishing in a quarter of the North sea. That is impossible. It will be another nail in the coffin of the industry. Some are talking of a third of the North sea being turned into conservation areas.

In an incredible article, the all-purpose environmental guru George Monbiot said in yesterday’s edition of The Guardian that the best way to provide conservation was to stop fishermen fishing completely. He commended the example of the Spanish fishermen, saying that their going on strike was the best thing that could have happened. That is an unenlightened point of view, because fishing is an agency of conservation. We cannot have environmental advances like marine conservation areas that entirely exclude fishing, as they would stop its work of conservation.

I hope that the Minister will work towards a common fisheries policy that gives us sustainable fishing, that he will work towards the present Commission proposals of giving temporary support to the industry, and that he will ensure that the rigid framework of controls—days at sea, catch limitations, cod bans and so on—is reduced to a more simplified and sustainable system that does not shackle the industry. I hope that he will think not of fishing in the long term, but of the survival of fishing.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith) on securing this debate at a critical time for the fishing industry, which seems to be going from one crisis to another. The current one is not of its own making, but a result of the rapid increase in fuel prices, which is having a serious impact on fishing and many rural industries.

Fuel represents an essential—there is no way around that—and proportionally high part of a fishing vessel’s operating costs. However, the structure of the market is such that fishermen cannot pass on those increasing costs to consumers—a high proportion of the fish consumed in the EU is imported—because the processors and chains buying fish in the market, with their strong buying power, can access cheaper fish from outside the EU. It is fairly obvious that if costs are going up, but prices are staying the same, businesses are in deep trouble.

I hear what the hon. Gentleman is saying about costs and the price of fuel, but does he wish that only last week he had voted to support an amendment for a fair fuel duty regulator, which would have helped to solve some of the problems that he identifies and no doubt will continue to identify?

I suspect that you would quickly rule me out of order, Mr. Weir, if we went on to debate the price of fuel on land. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is perfectly aware that the amendment tabled last week by his colleague the hon. Member for Dundee, East (Stewart Hosie) would not have helped the fishing industry, because it does not pay fuel duty. However, he tempts me to enter a different debate.

As the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) pointed out, our fishermen are competing in the same market as French, Spanish and Italian fishermen who get help from their Governments. We are supposed to have a common fisheries policy whereby fishermen fish the same waters for the same fish and sell to the same market, but obviously there is unfair competition if other EU Governments give help to their fishermen, but the UK Government, as well as those in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, do not give the same help to our fishermen. That is hardly a common fisheries policy. If other fishermen receive state aid, how can our fishermen compete? I understand that the French and Spanish Governments have given their fishermen about £100 million of aid.

Every year, the EU sets quotas at a level so that waters can be fished sustainably, but there is no point in fishermen trying to catch that quota, if the cost of doing so is greater than the price at which it can be sold. It is important to recognise that if fishermen and businesses are forced out of work, those jobs are gone for ever. Fishing businesses cannot afford to tie up their boats for months, or even years, in the hope that the price of fuel will go down. If the fish are not being landed, the fish processing industry cannot sustain itself either, so it is important that we help the fishing industry through this crisis.

I hope that the Government will support moves in Europe to give Europe-wide help to the fishing industry and also support our own fishing industry. Fishermen need help to see them through this crisis caused by the price of fuel and to modernise their fleets to make them more fuel efficient in the long run. We are in a state of crisis, and if the fishing industry in my constituency is to survive, it needs all the help that it can get from the Government in Westminster and from the Scottish Government. I hope that both will listen to the pleas from the fishing industry and will help it both with emergency aid to see it through this crisis and to modernise the fleet and make it sustainable in the long run.

I congratulate the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith) on securing this debate. I want to make a few brief comments in support of his main thrust about the protection of the under-10m fleet. The Minister will know that a constituent of mine, Paul Joy, and others, recently set up the New Under Ten Metre Fishermen’s Association. For the first time, the under-10m fleet has a voice, which is important and necessary, because it has been under-represented in representations made to the Department in the past.

Why is that so important? I have said before, and I say again, that, as the right hon. Gentleman said, the fishing industry for small ports, such as Hastings and many others, is more important than the fishing industry per se. It is important for the wider economy. Could any of us imagine going to the Hastings seafront and seeing the fish huts there up for sale? That is what the Minister will soon see, if nothing is done to preserve at least this now minimalist industry in places such as Hastings. It is important for our heritage, terrorism—[Laughter.] It is also important for tourism. Although perhaps it was not such a bad point; I was going to talk about just how angry the fishermen are. I am not suggesting for one moment that they would resort to illegal actions by doing over the fishing Minister—I have steered them away from that option. They are very angry, however, because they see their livelihoods at an end. What they saw as an industry that just maybe their children would move on to does not exist anymore. That is a problem. We are only talking about the next five to 10 years, during which many of our current fishermen will be trading, but if they do not have an industry to pass on, the fishing industry in small ports will die. We might retain an industrial fishing industry, of some kind, but that important heritage that we love so much will be at an end.

What can be done? Not direct action, if it can be avoided! Seriously, however, unlawful action could be taken, because the fishermen cannot do anything else. At the moment, they go to sea and throw back more than they bring ashore. I think that it is wicked to destroy animals, whether fish or anything else, for fun—I take that view about hunting as well. Killing animals for food is fine, but doing so for waste is disgraceful, and I do not accept that any system should allow for such a thing. We need to address that problem.

I want to speak particularly about the under-10m fleet. I believe that this Minister is one of the best in the Government—he is very capable and he listens—but I want him to be bold and to take people on. I do not know what forces of darkness are preventing him from making the right decision, but I want to encourage and embolden him to do something for the under-10m fleet. He wrote to me last week sadly saying that he wanted everything done through negotiations. He agreed that there was an issue about the quotas—this is my main point. Of course, our share of EU quotas is too small, but within what we have it is simply outrageous that 50 per cent. of the work force representing the under-10m sector receives 3 per cent. of the total quota. I know that he will say, “Well, some of it is further out at sea and cannot be used”, but the bald facts are that the sector gets 3 per cent. of the total quota, but the 50 per cent. of the work force in the over-10m sector receives 96 per cent. of the quota. However one looks at the quotas, they are wrong and must be changed.

The quotas could be changed by a legal action, which is what NUTFA is now pursuing. That is a shame and unnecessary, because the Minister has the power to intervene. In his letter to me, he very reasonably—he is such a reasonable man—said that that is a matter for negotiation. But he told me that last year, and I was told the same by other Ministers in previous years. The time comes when we can no longer rely on negotiations between the industries to reallocate the quota but must step in and say, “This is so manifestly unfair that you must do something not next year, not after the consultation”—we hope that it will conclude at the end of this month—“but today”. In fact, it should have happened yesterday.

If that is not possible, let us be positive and say that the time has come when these reallocations have to happen. If they do not happen, I can say confidently, even though there are other lawyers here, that the industry has a very good case against the Government. If it be determined that the Government—not just this Government, but previous ones, too—have wrongly allocated this arrangement, massive compensation may have to be paid. That could be avoided if action is taken now.

I say to the Minister, “Please set free the under-10m fleets. Allow them to fish.” The fleets will not overfish; they cannot overfish—they do not have the capacity. The amount that the fleets can catch is so small that it cannot affect anything. In the meantime, they are finding it very difficult. If we tie one hand behind their back through the quota system, we surely should not deny them the opportunity of a lifeline. That may be a mixed metaphor, but that is the situation that they now face.

Finally, if we allow the under-10m fishing industry to be quota free, which I appreciate is rather difficult, the fishermen will not need subsidies or hand-outs. Such a move may even save DEFRA’s budget.

I see that we are slightly ahead of time. I hope to restrict my remarks to the time allocated to me, which will allow the Minister more time in which to respond.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith) on securing the debate. The manner in which he presented his constituents’ case this morning was a textbook example of how to highlight the concerns of the industry in his constituency. His speech was comprehensive and exceptionally well informed. With the possible exception of one small intervention, which I might address later, the whole debate has been characterised by a very high standard of contribution. That is true of most fishing debates in this Chamber.

My right hon. Friend made an exceptionally good point when he spoke about the cultural importance of the small inshore fleet, the under-10m fleet, particularly to the smaller fishing communities around the coast. If we lose that—we have lost it in so many places already—we lose not just the fishing industry but some of the unique selling points for tourism, and for the other industries that may take its place.

Another point needs to be made about the importance of the under-10m fleet. For a number of people, it allows a reasonable and achievable means of entry to the fishing industry, which is not open to them through the larger boats—the white fish and pelagic boats. To get into an under-10m fleet is an achievable aim for those young people who choose to make a living from the fishing industry.

My right hon. Friend expressed particularly well the general problem that faces the fishing industry: management is something that is done to it, not something that the industry feels a part of. My right hon. Friend said that the industry is not allowed to catch the fish that are there, but the fish that it is allowed to catch are not there. Does that not sum up the consequences of the fisheries management regime that we have endured in this country for so long? That was a thread that ran through so many contributions. Fisheries management—whether it is by days at sea or by quota and total allowable catch—will work only if it involves the industry at every possible level. The situation that hon. Members have outlined today about the historic problems with the quota for the under-10m sector is perhaps one of the most clamant examples of that. It is clear that had there been proper engagement with the sector at the relevant time, the situation that we now face would never have been allowed to happen.

The hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) spoke, as others have done, about the anger in the fishing industry. Like him, I spent some time with people who were demonstrating outside Nobel house when the Minister was meeting the fishing industry representatives. I subsequently spoke to a number of people from my own community. Those who have spoken about anger are absolutely right because there is a real feeling of impotence about the situation. People from the industry face increased costs, particularly for fuel. They are in the position of being market takers, rather than market makers. By that I mean that they are landing a dead product into an auction over which they have no control. As my hon. Friend the Member for Argyll and Bute (Mr. Reid) pointed out, they are part of a global and highly competitive industry. They are not able to pass on the costs. So, when the Minister asks—as he effectively did in the letter on the front page of Fishing News on 4 July—“Why should the fishing industry be treated differently?”, the candid answer is “Because they are in a different position.” They are not able to pass on costs in the way that other industries do. They are between a rock and a hard place, and they are not given the opportunities to fight their way out of that position.

The hon. Member for Great Grimsby spoke about the relatively small figures that would be involved, and he is absolutely right. Sometimes it is about sending signals. I fear that, at the moment, the signal that is being sent from the Government to the fishing industry is that they do not want to know, they are not interested and they have no solutions because they are not prepared to come up with the money.

A few weeks ago, it was put to me by a fisherman in Shetland that when Northern Rock got into trouble, billions could be found overnight. Here is an industry that stands on the brink, as a result not of its own mismanagement but of forces that are beyond its control, yet relatively small sums cannot be found.

My hon. Friend the Member for Argyll and Bute rightly focused on the problems faced by the fleet of one of his constituents because of increased fuel costs. I thought that he dealt very well with the intervention from the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr. MacNeil) about the applicability of a fuel duty regulator to an industry that does not pay any fuel duty. It was perhaps coincidental that the hon. Gentleman left the Chamber fairly quickly thereafter.

Finally, the hon. Member for Hastings and Rye (Michael Jabez Foster) spoke about the creation of NUTFA, the under-10m organisation. He also spoke about the anger in his fishing industry and the consequence of that now manifesting itself in legal action. I am tempted to say, Mr. Weir, that as a former practitioner yourself, you would say that legal action is not necessarily a bad thing, because the people who make money out of legal action are inevitably the lawyers. The hon. Gentleman’s point is that if political will and impetus can be injected into this debate, our learned friends might have to go elsewhere to earn their crust for that particular week.

Finally, I want to turn to the question of the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea’s proposals for a zero cod catch. One knows that it is summer when an ICES proposal is made for a zero cod catch in the North sea. It comes every year with monotonous regularity. The assessment this year is that a zero catch is necessary because even that would not restore cod stocks to a sustainable level by the start of 2010. That brings sharply to mind the fact that we must start asking ICES different questions, because the question on which it bases its answer results in the same assessment, year in, year out. Everybody knows that it is unworkable, and that a zero cod catch in the North sea would simply result in discard problems that will be worse than those that have been described today.

The fact is that because ICES is asked a particular question every year, it comes up with the same answer every year. And every year that sets off a spat between the industry, which says that it cannot cope with the proposal, and conservation groups such as Greenpeace and the WWF, which say how awful it is that the industry and the politicians are ignoring scientific advice yet again.

The scientific advice has to be put into a proper context. There has been a significant improvement in cod stocks in the North sea over the past five or six years as a consequence of many of the measures that have been taken under the cod recovery programme, yet year in, year out we get an assessment such as this. Can the Minister assure me that the proposal for a zero cod catch in the North sea will be resisted by this Government, and that he will look at how we might better frame the questions that are asked of ICES so that we do not have the same pantomime every summer?

I congratulate the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith) on securing this timely, important debate, and on the way he presented his arguments. Also, it is a privilege to follow the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael), who summed up the debate extremely well. I congratulate him on that.

Our fishermen risk their lives to make a living for themselves and to provide us with an important source of healthy food. On the radio on the way here this morning, it was made clear that deep-sea fishing is the most dangerous profession. The courage and bravery of our fishermen are too often taken for granted, and I take this opportunity to pay tribute to them.

At a time when domestic food security and food production are so important, we need a thriving, sustainable fishing sector, but serious problems are threatening the industry. Despite all the hardships that they face, those who work in the fishing industry in this country rarely protest; for example, we do not see the demonstrations and blockades that take place in France and Spain. However, UK fishermen came to London last month to demonstrate peacefully about the spiralling fuel costs that are eroding their profit margins and threatening the survival of their businesses. In the past year alone, the cost of fuel has doubled from around 31p per litre to 60p, with reports of prices reaching 70p in some places. The fuel cost per trip is in the region of 35 to 50 per cent. of gross earnings. As we have heard, with the costs of fuel reaching such heights, around one quarter of the fleet could find it uneconomical to fish, while the rest would continue to struggle. That would be a terrible loss to our coastal communities and, of course, to fishermen and their families.

The rising costs of fuel are not directly the Government’s fault—we have all acknowledged that today—and the problem is not unique to fishermen. I suspect that we are all being lobbied by hauliers, farmers, industry and the general public about the rising costs of fuel; but when our fishermen see their counterparts in countries such as Spain receiving support and de minimis aid from their Government, it is not difficult to understand why they feel let down by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. The headline on the front page of Fishing News—the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) held the paper up—says, “Thanks for Nothing”, which neatly sums up the fishing industry’s response to the Government’s attitude.

In his defence, the Minister has said that he cannot provide de minimis aid because it would mean having to

“find the money the fishermen want from public purse—competing with other priorities such as farming, environmental protection, or even projects to benefit fisheries.”

But there should be money for the fishing industry this year, in the form of the European fisheries fund: £97 million should be available for the whole of the UK, including £7 million for Cornwall and more than £26 million for the rest of England. That helpful information came from a DEFRA news release on 29 November. It is money that the fishing industry is supposed to use to invest in sustainable gears, more fuel-efficient engines and some non-fuel costs.

Our fishing industry should have been starting to receive some of that money this year, as fishermen in other EU member states will. The Minister proclaimed on 4 July:

“There is already…cash for the fishing industry on the table”,

but the money is not there now, when it is needed, because the Government failed to agree with the devolved Administrations and it failed to consult on and submit to the Commission its EFF operational programme by the deadline at the end of last year. Although the consultation process is finally taking place, moneys may not be paid out until later this year, after the Commission has approved the operational programme now being consulted on. That will leave our fishermen once again lagging behind their European counterparts. When the Minister responds at the end of the debate, it would be helpful if he could let us know when our fishermen will be receiving their share of the EFF. I would also welcome his giving us a cast-iron guarantee that the Commission is not likely to withhold some of the money because the operational programme was submitted late.

Another source of support that may be available for most of Europe comes under proposals on the block exemption of state aid, which are due to be discussed by Ministers next week. According to the Commission, the aid available under the proposals will be given on condition that it is in compliance

“with the relevant conditions established for similar actions under the European Fisheries Fund.”

That came from the Fisheries Commission press corner on 2 July. We are concerned that, once again, our fishermen will miss out on a pot of money and that DEFRA will decline to use the measures. It would be helpful if the Minister told us his views on the Commission’s proposals and said whether there will be any benefits for UK fishermen, how the aid would be used in the United Kingdom, and whether the fact that his Government failed to get the UK’s EFF operational programme approved will prevent the aid from being made available.

With fuel costs as high as they are, fishermen need to make the most of every journey. It is devastating for them to catch healthy, edible stocks but be forced to throw them back into the sea because they are prohibited from landing and selling them. Fishermen, anglers and the public are horrified by the practice and disappointed that the Government’s ambition is only to minimise rather than to eliminate discarding. The Conservatives are committed to introducing, with permission from the EU, a scheme that would end discarding and provide financial incentives for the fishing industry to become more environmentally sustainable.

Government action is also needed on the reform of the quota system. Vessels of 10 m or less, which make up around 75 per cent. of the fleet, still receive only about 3 per cent. of the annual quota. I welcome the formation of the National Under Ten Metre Fishermen’s Association and in particular the work of Paul Joy, whom I have met. Under-10 m vessels do not have the quota they need to fish and are struggling to survive because long-term reforms that they were promised have not been delivered. In the North sea, for example, it has been reported that 10m and under vessels pass over substantial quantities of mackerel, which they are unable to catch and sell to the food market. Quota swaps alone are not enough alone to support the industry in the long term.

The Minister since his appointment, and before him his predecessor, the hon. Member for Exeter (Mr. Bradshaw), promised to look into the quota problem. They claimed to be working towards a solution.

Would the hon. Gentleman commit to changing the quota system if he were able to make such a decision? That is, will he take quota from the over-10m fleet to give to the under-10m fleet?

I will not make any commitment until we win the election, which is not guaranteed. We do not even know when the election will be. We expect it at the end of May 2010—perhaps we will win, perhaps we will not—but the Government get everything else wrong, so we suspect they may get even that wrong. I cannot make such a commitment today.

That was definitely a no. I will not make any spending commitments. However, if we have to wait that long, I hope that there will still be a 10 m and under fleet for which we can change the quotas to suit. That is as far as it would be safe to go, given the time constraints of the general election.

The Minister’s predecessor had said that there would be a consultation on quota reform:

“in the second half of 2007”.—[Official Report, 16 April 2007; Vol. 459, c. 85W.]

He also said that changes would be implemented before this year. However, since 2007 no proposals have been brought forward for consultation. The spring 2008 edition of “Fishing Focus” promised us, on page 4, that the Minister, as a result of a discussion paper being circulated:

“will be taking all of the points that fishermen raised into account as he develops his proposals.”

We all want to know when those proposals will be forthcoming and what will be in them.

In a written answer earlier this year, the Minister hinted that a decommissioning scheme could be introduced and that he would:

“be in a position to formally consult on the details of such a scheme in the summer of this year.”—[Official Report, 6 March 2008; Vol. 472, c. 2723W.]

It is now the summer and in a few minutes’ time the Minister will have an opportunity, which I hope he will take, to update us on whether there is likely to be a consultation on decommissioning soon and whether he has any long-term proposals to assist the 10 metre and under fleet and to reform the quota management system. As the Minister will be aware, his Department’s “Fisheries 2027, a long-term vision for sustainable fisheries” document states that in 2027:

“Access to fisheries continues to be available to small-scale fishing vessels, even if in some cases that is not the most economically efficient way of harvesting the resource.”

Unless there are reforms made sooner than 2027, I fear that there may not be much of a 10 m and under fleet left by 2027.

I acknowledge that reforming the quota management system has been made more difficult due to the apparently complete breakdown in communications between the Minister and his Scottish counterpart. On 6 February, in a written answer, the Minister stated that he had:

“no current plans to discuss quota management with Ministers in the devolved administrations.”—[Official Report, 6 February 2008; Vol. 471, c. 1288W.]

We have yet to receive confirmation from the Minister on whether the quota management change programme has now been abandoned and, if so, what will be put in its place.

When the Scottish Executive announced that it had issued a moratorium on fishing licence and quota transfers, the Minister admitted:

“I have had no discussions with my Scottish counterpart about the moratorium and was first advised of it late on Thursday 15 May, the day before it was announced.”

At that time, he had not yet made:

“a proper assessment of the implications of the moratorium”.—[Official Report, 3 June 2008; Vol. 476, c. 857-8W.]

It would be helpful to know where the Minister is on this issue now—whether an assessment has been carried out and what plans he has to improve the relationship between his Department and the Scottish Executive. It is not good enough for the UK industry to have the country divided and for there to be hostilities. We would also welcome an update on DEFRA’s response to the Welsh Assembly Government’s plan to take control of fisheries management and enforcement in Wales, and to create a Welsh fisheries zone.

Britain’s fishing industry has lurched from crisis to crisis under this Government. Despite the very cheerful characteristics of our Minister, the industry has lost confidence in DEFRA to take its concerns seriously and to act in its best interests. The cost of fuel is preventing fishermen from fishing; the quota opportunities are inadequate; discarding remains a problem; and making the lasting and necessary reforms to deliver environmentally sustainable fisheries seems to be impossible for this Government.

I begin by congratulating the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith) on the way that he presented the case for his constituents and the various fishing communities in his area in the north-east.

As the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) remarked, when we have these debates, they are measured. Concerns are expressed about particular parts of the fishing industry—as we all know, parts of the industry differ enormously from each other—and the hon. Gentleman and the right hon. Gentleman represent both ends of the fishing industry spectrum. We all attended the debate in December, when many hon. Members spoke about the positive features and the good prices that many of their fishermen were getting. I have not reread the transcript of that debate, but I do not recall hon. Members talking about fuel then; I do not remember fuel being a feature of that debate. Of course, quotas were discussed—my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Michael Jabez Foster) mentioned them—and concerns were expressed about various species and the quotas that would be allocated at the December Council. It can be seen from that that the issue of fuel prices has come upon us very quickly.

I am only too aware of the difficulties and pressures that fuel prices are placing upon the industry. Fuel prices have doubled in the past 12 months, not only for the over-10m fleet, which has less fuel-efficient vessels, but for the under-10m fleet. I believe that what is needed is a strategic approach that helps the industry to adapt to higher fuel prices. Unfortunately, there is very little that can be done to reduce the price of marine diesel. As has been said, marine diesel is already duty free for fishing vessels. The hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr. MacNeil), who is no longer in his place, is aware of that now; he did not seem to be earlier in the debate. The fishing industry therefore already has advantages over other businesses in relation to fuel prices.

I am asked by colleagues here and by the industry why I do not provide monetary help in the way that some of my counterparts in other countries, particularly my counterpart in Spain, have done. In my opinion, such short-term interventions and subsidies are of limited effectiveness and divert resources from longer-term efforts. I prefer to work with the industry to identify what can be done in the longer term.

The hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Mr. Reid) said that there is unfair competition. The de minimis rules say that the amount of money given to a business must not affect competition; that is the criterion. The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland knows that we are making that case on behalf of his constituents. We cannot have it both ways. The fact is that during the meeting on 3 June, I was asked to pay the maximum de minimis amounts. That would provide for the UK fleet one month’s subsidy at last year’s prices—prices vary, of course, but that was what I was asked for. I do not think that that is a short-term solution, or even a short-short-term solution. Hon. Members talked about such a move sending a signal, but it would involve tens of millions of pounds of public money and I really do not think that it is the best and most effective way of using public money. We must use it for sustainable reasons, not for a short-short-short-term comfort, as it were.

Would it not be a really good deal, because we would get 15 per cent. back from Europe? It is a good investment anyway for the UK.

The reason I wrote the letter to a number of regional and local newspapers, to which the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed referred, was that I was receiving letters saying, “Why don’t you go and get this European cash?” and I wanted to explain that there was not a pot of money that I was refusing to collect. Any such money would come out of national funds; it would come out of my Department’s settlement. There is no pot of money just sitting there; it comes out of the national pot.

I promise that I will not detain the Minister long on this point, which is about the question of short-term aid for long-term gain. If we allow the under-10m fleet in particular to go under, that will mean that there will be no money coming from these people in taxes or national insurance contributions; there will, in fact, be money being paid to them in unemployment benefit, and there will be an effect on the processing sector onshore. Surely that calculation must be made and some balance struck.

I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point, but as I have said, on fuel, we are talking about one month’s subsidy at last year’s prices. I will talk about the quota for the under-10m fleet in the remaining time allowed.

We are working with the industry to come up with new solutions to the present difficulties, and I am looking at how we can best use the European fisheries fund. The Conservative spokesman, the hon. Member for Leominster (Bill Wiggin), asked about that. At the recent Council meeting it was agreed that we would review the EFF so that it would become more flexible. All member states are now reviewing their programmes to consider implementation as soon as possible. The French presidency is keen to crack on with that. We are having those discussions now with our industry—it is also happening in the devolved Administrations—to ensure that we get our operational programme in quickly under a new guide that is more flexible and allows us to look at how we can help fishermen to adapt to the new environment of higher fuel prices. We are getting on with that work.

The high price of fuel mainly affects the over-10m vessels, but the under-10m vessels are experiencing problems in relation to quota. It is clear that there is an imbalance in parts of the under-10m fleet between the quota available and the capacity of vessels accessing quota. That has arisen for a number of reasons. In some areas there is insufficient quota for the number of vessels that wish to target available species, while in other areas there is sufficient quota but a small number of high-catching vessels exhaust it, leaving little or nothing for the remaining fleet.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye is a champion for his community. I know Paul Joy well and I have welcomed the National Under Ten Metre Fishermen’s Association, having met its representatives on a number of occasions. My hon. Friend rightly emphasises the importance of heritage and tradition for Hastings and Rye. However, he will appreciate that a number of vessels are catching a disproportionately high amount of the quota. I want to tackle that problem in my consultation.

The Marine and Fisheries Agency has successfully obtained swaps for the under-10m fleet. The right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed mentioned North sea whiting and cod quotas. There have been gifts of whiting quota—50 tonnes—which is helping his fishermen, and there is assistance on nephrops as well, which I worked with the MFA to bring them. The quota available for whiting is small. That is borne out by the increase in rental costs, which stood at £50 a tonne last year and are now £350 a tonne. We have made mackerel quota available as well. Additional quota has also been obtained through economic links. That mechanism will allow vessels operated by companies based in other member states to satisfy the criteria linking them to the UK. One way of doing that is for vessels to agree to donate quota to the under-10m pool. I have been working on that with the producer organisations over the past year, getting them to donate more regularly. That work is bearing fruit.

Although there are no easy answers or solutions, given the difficulties with quota available to the under-10 m fleet, I will be consulting shortly. What I am consulting on will not be new to the industry; I discussed my proposals with the industry in February and briefed a number of hon. Members on them. The object of the consultation is to ensure that as many fishermen as possible can access the pool viably and legally and in a place that has its foundations in the introduction of other measures that will put the industry on a firmer footing. In February, I said that I would run a decommissioning scheme to help under-10m vessels to leave the industry, freeing up quota for the remaining vessels. I am also setting up an access to fisheries taskforce with an independent chair. That group will have strong stakeholder membership, which will help to deliver practicable solutions on quota management and vessel licensing to ensure the industry's long term future. Those measures will represent an investment of £4.6 million.

I should also like to mention the important environmentally responsible fishing research pilot, the aim of which is to quantify all the components of the environmental footprint of commercial fishing vessels and charter angling boats targeting fin fish in inshore waters off England. Thirty vessels are taking part in the project, nine of which are in the north-east. The pilot will collect data across a range of indicators associated with the fishing operation, marketing and ancillary services. That information will fill key gaps in the evidence base for these activities, particularly on defining an acceptable impact of producing and consuming fish; on ensuring fishing activity contributes to local communities; on optimising economic returns from fish stocks; and on access to fish stocks by commercial and recreational users.

For the first year, the 30 vessels in the pilot scheme will be able to keep what they catch and will operate outside the quota system. We have permission for that from the Commission because it is a fisheries science partnership scheme. The pilot is costing us money: we are putting in the vessel monitoring systems. At the end of that year we will consider continuing for a further year. Then, we can properly assess what the under-10m fleet catches and, on that basis, discuss with the fishermen and the Commission how to proceed.

It is important to recognise that we have not seen the decommissioning in the under-10m fleet that we have seen in the over-10m fleet. I have to consider how many vessels there are versus how many fish they can catch, and I will have to consider making tough decisions on that after the consultation. I am putting in money for decommissioning and for the fisheries science partnership, and I will have to take some difficult decisions.

How are vessels chosen to participate in the pilot scheme—I am thinking particularly of fishermen working on under-10m vessels—and will its results generate any kind of basis for quota entitlement, which was previously said to be lacking because of the lack of historical data?

My colleagues in the Marine and Fisheries Agency identified 30 vessels in the English fleet that applied. Those are spread around the coastline and nine of them are in the north-east, mainly operating out of Hartlepool.

I do not have a great deal of time left, so I will answer the right hon. Gentleman’s point about the Hague preference. No, I did not give all that quota to the under-10m fleet. There are pressures on the over-10m fleet as well and other difficulties, but there has been some increase for whiting.

The right hon. Gentleman mentioned the Northumberland and North Eastern sea fisheries committees. There are 12 sea fisheries committees at the moment and we want to see a reduction. They agree that there can be a reduction and some savings, but where the amalgamations take place will be a difficult matter.

My hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) said that he wanted assistance to be given in a number of areas, including electronic logbooks. I have announced that over-40m vessels will receive financial support for electronic logbooks from next year; such vessels will be the first to receive such support. I am also discussing light dues with the Department for Transport. My hon. Friend also asked people to eat more fish. The good news is that red gurnard was on the menu in one of the House of Commons restaurants last night. It is important to recognise that we need to encourage people to eat non-pressured stocks. That is beginning to happen, but more needs to be done.

The hon. Member for Leominster mentioned the quota management change programme, which he will know was halted because the Administration in Scotland no longer wanted to co-operate. We have to co-operate. I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman supports the 2027 vision that we published last year.

The Government want under-10m fleets to continue, because of their importance to the cultural heritage of the communities in which they operate. We are putting in more than £4 million. I will make some difficult decisions. The fisheries science partnerships, for which the under-10m industry has asked for many years, are now in place, because although that industry does not have the same pressures in relation to fuel as the over-10m fleet, it suffers from a lack of quota. On the industry’s sustainability, we need to understand that, if we are to get additional quotas or operate outside them we need to make the case based on science and with the co-operation of the Commission.

Local Government (Norfolk)

It is a pleasure, Mr. Weir, to speak under your chairmanship.

Fortuitously, I obtained this short debate two days after the boundary committee published its draft proposals for local government unitary authorities in Devon, Norfolk and Suffolk. The Minister for Local Government has written to all MPs in those areas to stress the independence of the boundary committee and to say that

“there is at this stage in the process no role for government.”

I hope to put some arguments in this short debate to show that the Government have a crucial role, and I hope that the Under-Secretary will listen to some of my points and reply to my questions. If he is unable to do so today, perhaps he will write to me.

The purpose of my debate is to put down several important markers for the Government about the way in which the reorganisation is being conducted in Norfolk: the failure to provide any credible costings and the lack of local democratic accountability. Those markers are for the Under-Secretary, who will have to make a final decision in about seven months and for the National Audit Office, which may want to consider the financial and costing aspects at some stage. I see a civil servant frowning at that. He may live to rue the day that he made such an offstage facial expression. I hope that he has not had a bonus under the civil service bonus scheme. It is not a laughing matter for my constituents, and it might not be a laughing matter for the Public Accounts Committee. If matters reach judicial review, some of my questions might be useful at the audit level.

The Government have been preparing to push through proposals for unitary authorities for nearly two years. Like many Members of Parliament of all parties in Norfolk, I have been sceptical about the motives and whether better services and delivery would be provided for my constituents. Norfolk’s track record on consistency and transparency has not been good. In the autumn of 2007, the boundary committee led us to believe that, when it was eventually given ministerial guidance, which it did not have at the time, the status quo—two levels of authority—would be excluded and that there would be no cross-county border options. Indeed, the chairman of the boundary committee told the BBC’s “Politics Show East” on 26 October 2007 that he was not in favour of cross-border options, such as Yartoft—a combination of Yarmouth and Lowestoft—

“because once you start crossing county boundaries then it brings a much wider pattern of local government into place and that can be quite difficult”.

I initiated a debate on local government reorganisation in Norfolk on 20 November 2007 to express my concerns, particularly the problems associated with the Norwich unitary proposal, which seems to have driven the thinking behind the Secretary of State’s original proposals. Eventually, on 6 February 2008, the Minister for Local Government issued his guidance for the boundary committee, which stated, interestingly, that the Ipswich and Norwich unitary options were the trigger for the review, but at the last moment, somewhat to his surprise, the boundary committee was told that it would have to consider the Yartoft option. In other words, it would have to cross county borders, which the boundary committee had specifically excluded until then.

Over the past five months, the boundary committee has invited the district, city and county councils to come forward with unitary options. They did so, but most of them did so under sufferance, as most of them preferred the status quo. Only one district council—Broadland—did not come forward, because it believed that the status quo was the preferred option.

On 7 July, two days ago, the boundary committee proposed a single, unitary authority for the whole of Norfolk, including Lowestoft taken from Suffolk. The boundary committee said that the draft proposal would

“likely achieve the outcomes on which the government has asked for advice (affordability; value for money services; neighbourhood empowerment and engagement; broad cross section of support; and strategic leadership)”.

Is the hon. Gentleman astonished that both Norwich city council and Broadland district council—on which we collaborate in our constituency work—would be blown out of the water by the scheme? Both councils have proud records, and we do not know what would happen to all the services and the people who work for those services.

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point, and I shall return to it in a moment. Our constituents, in particular, will measure the options against the criteria that the Government laid down. I shall return to those criteria.

The boundary committee also saw what it called merit in two other options. The wedge option would, bizarrely, divide Norfolk with a line north-south from Sheringham to Diss. Everything to the east—Norwich, Great Yarmouth, Lowestoft and their hinterland—would be in one unitary authority. The rump Norfolk to the west—King’s Lynn and everywhere else—would be in the other unitary authority. The so-called doughnut—greater Norwich—would be a single unitary authority with the rest of Norfolk as a second unitary authority.

From the start of this exercise, I have been open about being a status quo man on the grounds that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. That opinion has been reinforced over the past nine months, and particularly over the past 48 hours by the boundary committee’s proposals. So far, the reaction of the majority of MPs and local councillors to those proposals has been sceptical or downright hostile. The hon. Members for Great Yarmouth (Mr. Wright) and for Waveney (Mr. Blizzard) were still in favour of the wedge on the grounds that that might be a chance for Yartoft to come about.

This is not just a matter of vested interests. There is genuine concern about whether any of the options will produce better local government for our constituents, with value for money. I do not believe that they will. I understand that the boundary committee’s preferred option of a single large unitary authority flies in the face of the Government’s recommendations about the size of such authorities. It would have a population of about 700,000, and the Government have concluded that any unitary authority of more than 500,000 would start to decline in terms of efficiency and value for money. I cannot think of another similar model elsewhere in the United Kingdom that is producing efficiency and value for money.

On affordability and value-for-money services, all the councils have spent several million pounds to participate in this exercise. So confident was Norwich city council in its unitary bid that it appointed a director of transformation at £90,000 a year and introduced a transformation scheme, costing another £300,000. A couple of post offices in Norwich could probably have been kept open with that.

My problem is that the boundary committee has admitted that it did not undertake any costings when considering all the options submitted. Those costings will be done only now, and will involve the three options. That is bizarre. No other area in the public or private sector would undertake that. The Ministry of Defence would not have a competition that involved eight or nine companies and put forward two preferred options, and then cost them. No private business would do that. That is a ministerial responsibility, and the Government will be held to account for it. It also flies in the face of the advice that the Government have laid down. For example, among many of the things that the Government have laid down to constrain affordability, they are clear that all costs incurred as a result of reorganisation must be met locally, without increasing council tax. How can the boundary committee at this stage have any idea whether council tax will be increased? There are other issues that I will not go into, but on affordability, the proposals seem to fall at the first fence.

There is also the matter of value-for-money services. The Government’s riding instructions that they gave to the boundary committee state:

“a new structure should deliver services characterised by: value for money, offering public services that are efficient, effective and joined up”.

Sadly, just in relation to one of the options, we know that Norwich city council has not had its accounts signed off by the Audit Commission for the third year running. Surely, on that criterion alone, the council should be ruled out of any unitary authority submission. I am amazed that the boundary committee is putting forward such a proposal, as I would have thought that both the Audit Commission and any judicial review would take that into account. The Under-Secretary will know about the history of local government reorganisation.

My hon. Friend is right about affordability and value for money. Has he considered the question of administrative efficiency? Instead of the current situation, if the proposal goes through, our neighbours just below us in Suffolk will have three councils trying to deal with one problem common to all of them: coastal protection.

As a member of the Public Accounts Committee, my hon. Friend makes a good point. Numerous other examples such as the one that he has given show how councils throughout Norfolk will be affected. Who will pay for the extra costs that will undoubtedly ensue—the taxpayer? We already know that a £25 million black hole has been revealed in the budget forecast for the Northumberland unitary council. That is in just one area. We have no idea what might occur in Norfolk. We have no answers to a whole raft of questions, and there is no way of making an assessment. I would be interested to know the Minister’s view on that.

A further point that I wish to raise is that of democratic accountability. From the beginning of the exercise, it was obvious that there is only limited enthusiasm for unitary authorities. With support from the Liberals and Greens, the Labour party in Norwich—not every member of the Labour party or every Labour Member of Parliament for Norwich—pressed hard for a unitary Norwich, preferably with enlarged boundaries. The Labour party in Yarmouth and Lowestoft pressed for a Yartoft solution, but the rest of Norfolk was either hostile or indifferent.

The boundary committee has made it clear that it is not into taking direct account of public opinion; instead, it talks of taking account of the opinion of stakeholders. The problem is that, in narrow political terms, the unitary authority has been rejected in the Norwich area. Labour councillors lost their seats on that issue in May 2007 and in May this year. Indeed, in Yarmouth, the Labour group leader, who is the most fervent advocate of the Yartoft solution, lost his seat as well. That is democratic accountability in the raw, rather than theoretical accountability. Those were real elections, and those of us who are elected representatives know that they are the biggest attention grabbers of all.

We have no way to assess local opinion, and that is wrong. Certainly, the view of local councillors and MPs should be publicly assessed and contested. There would be some merit in having a referendum on all the proposals across Norfolk, rather than just on the three that have been put forward. Our constituents should have their views and opinions taken into account. We are always talking about the democratic deficit, but the boundary committee’s way of carrying out the exercise is the worst kind of establishment quango methodology, and it has rightly enraged local opinion.

It is totally unacceptable for any of the boundary committee proposals to go forward and for one of them to be selected by the Government on the basis of their own criteria or a party political criterion that none of us knows about. I should add that the Government’s own democratic mandate must be in a pretty poor state at present if they have to force through something that the majority of public opinion in Norfolk will perhaps not accept.

I suggest to the Under-Secretary that he halts the boundary committee inquiry, because it is flawed in its terms of reference, in its ability to provide realistic costings and in the fact that there is a democratic deficit. The Norfolk single unitary authority, with its proposal for five local areas and 21 community partnership boards—what wonderful management speak—sounds like quangoism gone mad. If that option were to go forward, given the democratic deficit, I can well imagine that, in two or three years’ time, a future Government or council will come up with the idea that between the parish councils and county council there ought to be another layer of government just for the sake of purpose—not in areas but in what should be called districts. We would then end up resurrecting the current districts and two-tier system of government that, so far, has suited Norfolk exceptionally well. The Under-Secretary has a responsibility in relation to this. My colleagues and I have raised fundamental issues, and I urge him to take action now to restore confidence in government in Norfolk.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Weir. I congratulate the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) on securing the debate. This is not the first such debate on reorganisation that I have responded to.

The hon. Gentleman made some interesting points about local support for the schemes and what has been proposed by the boundary committee in Norfolk. I will not go into the detail of what has or has not been put forward because that has to follow a process. As he said, three proposals have been put forward—a favoured proposal and two alternatives—which will be consulted upon over the next 12 weeks. Full consideration must be given to those proposals and I am sure that all hon. Members here today will get their views across.

As hon. Members are aware, the boundary committee will report to the Government and we will consider that from the end of December and make our decisions in January. I do not want to cut across that process in any way, and I am afraid I will have to disappoint the hon. Gentleman by saying that I will not be calling for that process to be stopped or halted in any way.

I shall speak about why the process exists and why unitaries are making a difference where they exist. I hope that the hon. Gentleman and other local stakeholders will make sure that their voices are heard during the consultation process in the coming weeks. In relation to support, I note that even today—just this morning—there was the following quote in the local media in Norfolk:

“There is compelling national evidence for unitary authorities and in the medium to long-term, should the unitary authorities proposals come to fruition it would be of great benefit to all of our patients.”

That was a comment by Julie Garbutt, chief executive officer for the NHS in Norfolk. Peter Barry, president of the Norfolk Chamber of Commerce, has said:

“The Chamber is clear that it needs local government reform to provide the least level of bureaucracy, the least cost of administration, and facilitate the conducting of business across the region”.

He went on to say that to do so it must

“be able to attract both public and private sector investment for growth, it must enable a Norfolk wide lobby to improve skills, transport, technology, social infrastructure and the environment, lastly it must be capable of delivering a smooth transition from the current model to that proposed.”

In a moment. There is one more quote that I am sure the hon. Gentleman is eager to hear. It is from his chief constable, Ian McPherson, who said:

“The more straight-forward we can make the delivery of public services to the people of Norfolk the better, ie, through a single administrative tier.”

I, too, am familiar with that quote. Julie Garbutt, Peter Barry and the chief constable are fine public servants, but none of them is elected. The right hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke), a member of the Minister’s own party and a former Cabinet Minister, is elected. He called the proposal for unitary stupid. Furthermore, Ian McPherson, the chief constable, said

“There are significant issues if Lowestoft was to be policed by Norfolk”.

The hon. Gentleman is talking about one specific proposal. As he is aware, more than one proposal is being considered, although there is a favoured option from the boundary committee. I am sure that during the process, hon. Members will make further proposals. He is right to say that not everyone is totally satisfied.

The hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk does not believe that there will be any savings. I think that he has been quoted as saying that he thinks that such a move could cost local constituents £100 million. I am a Member of Parliament in Gloucestershire, where there is two-tier local government, and his area is not dissimilar to mine. I am sure hon. Members will accept that some confusion is caused among constituents by having one authority responsible for roads and another responsible for the humps on those roads, and by having one authority responsible for pavements and another responsible for the shrubbery on those pavements.

I have known that to cause some confusion among local councillors who serve on the authorities. I have even known the question of which authority is responsible for which powers to cause confusion among Members of Parliament, not least in debates in this Chamber. I do not think that anyone would seriously suggest in this day and age that no savings can be made by bringing those powers together.

My hon. Friend the Minister might not know the answer to this question immediately. Do boundary committee recommendations ever get turned over at a later stage in the process? Is there a record of that?

As I said, I will not prejudge what the boundary committee will come up with after its consultative process. It will make its recommendations, which will have to be considered by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State before being considered by the House. There is a democratic process that has to take place, and rightly so.

The hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk has spoken about a figure of £100 million. I understand that the combined one-off transitional costs for the seven areas that will undergo such transitions—Bedfordshire, Cheshire, Cornwall, Durham, Northumberland, Shropshire and Wiltshire—will be £138 million, so I have to disagree with the suggested figure of £100 million. I do not think that that is realistic. Those seven authorities anticipate annual savings of about £100 million.

A short time ago, I responded to a debate in this Chamber initiated by the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski). The plans for and the change to a unitary Shropshire authority have been led by local Conservative councillors. They have been at the vanguard of those proposals because they believe that they will result in annual savings of about £14 million to their local electors.

Will the Minister come back to the central point? Whether or not one agrees with the boundary committee is not the question. Whether or not it is supported by members of the Conservative, Labour or Liberal parties is not the question. Having declined to put forward perhaps eight or nine other proposals, how can it put forward for consideration three proposals for which it has done no costings whatever? From what I understand from my right hon. Friend Lord MacGregor, a former Treasury Minister, and from our questioning of the boundary committee on the issue, the costings will be undertaken by a private outside firm. That is not done in any other area of private practice or Government.

It is difficult for people to make costings when there is a plethora of proposals before them. The costings need to come now, when there are one, two or three serious options to consider. That is the appropriate time. To say that we cannot anticipate savings when there are currently two tiers of local authorities is not a realistic position. That is where the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk and I probably disagree, but I will go into more detail on costings in a moment.

I will try to respond to as many as possible of the points that have been raised. There is no role for Government at this stage in the boundary committee’s process. We have to go through the consultative process. Hon. Members are aware of the independence of the boundary committee. I am sure they will appreciate that at this time I cannot comment specifically on the draft proposals, although one point that has been made by hon. Members is about how the cross-border proposition came about. I can only assume that because two Members of Parliament who are also serious stakeholders in the process have been making such proposals, they have been considered during the process. [Interruption.] That is only an assumption on my part. It was the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk himself who said that two local Members of Parliament wanted to see a cross-border relationship.

On cost, we heard the figure of £100 million from the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk. Perhaps his views on that need to be fleshed out in greater detail in the course of the debate over the next 12 weeks. [Interruption.] If I am mistaken and the hon. Gentleman did not refer to £100 million in costs, I apologise to him. I do not see such a figure as being based in reality.

It is for the boundary committee to judge the affordability of any proposals for Norfolk. The committee has clearly stated that it has not sought at this stage to assess the affordability of its draft proposals, not least because of the resource cost to local authorities of providing the necessary financial information in relation to the large number of unitary patterns that were put forward during stage 1 of the process. It is difficult to do that when there are almost as many sets of propositions as there are Members of Parliament, and councillors who have their own views, too.

The Minister is generous in taking interventions. The Government set down some instructions and criteria for the boundary committee to work to. If it is not working to those, or it cannot explain how it came to its conclusions, what are we to think? When we met the boundary committee, it could not even define strategic leadership. Like pronouncements from the Pope, do these things just emerge? What are the criteria? That is what I am trying to get at.

I was not at the meeting with the hon. Gentleman and I do not want to do the boundary committee’s job for it. He makes a good point about being able to demonstrate the savings. That will be part of the committee’s role. It will need to do that, and now that it has narrowed the possibilities down to a favoured option and other variants to look at, it will have the opportunity to do so.

I assure hon. Members that all costs incurred as a result of reorganisation must be met locally without increasing council tax. That is an important point to make to reassure our electors. The request for advice clearly states that any change to a unitary structure should deliver value for money and be self-financing, so transitional costs overall must be more than offset by savings over a period—the payback period—of no more than five years.

We heard that there is a democratic deficit, as no one in Norfolk wants unitary authorities. Again, we have been clear on that issue. No proposals for unitary local government will be implemented unless there is a broad cross-section of support. Perhaps that will not be to the tune that the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk would like. We recognise that a change to a unitary structure might not carry consensus from or within all sectors. That’s life, unfortunately.

The hon. Member for South Norfolk (Mr. Bacon) has taken part in debates in this Chamber in which we discussed issues such as fire control. We may not have across-the-board agreement on such issues, but sometimes it is important to make changes where there is good support across the board. I mentioned the views of the local health service, the chief constable of Norfolk and others, and hon. Members agreed about the importance of those views in the debate that will take place. The chief constable has made his view clear, as have the East of England strategic health authority, the Norfolk Coalition of Disabled People, and Crossroads, an organisation that delivers personal care to enable carers in Norfolk to have a regular break.

It is not my role during the debate to say that a particular proposal should be accepted. I genuinely hope that all Members of Parliament will be involved in a constructive debate during the consultation process over the next 12 weeks. When the boundary committee has had the opportunity to consider what all hon. Members, their constituents and other stakeholders have had to say, I am sure there will be a positive set of proposals for the Secretary of State to consider at the end of the year, and I am sure the debate will go on, not least in this place. It is appropriate for hon. Members to have their say, but I hope I have got across the message that that needs to be done in a balanced way—

Sitting suspended.

Severn Barrage

I am delighted to have the opportunity to debate the economic costs of the Severn barrage. I am delighted also to have secured a debate of an hour and a half. I hope that all right hon. and hon. Members have the chance to speak.

The topic was carefully chosen. I do not want to discuss the biodiversity impact; that has been debated both here and in the other place. The Westminster Hall debate was instigated by the hon. Member for Northavon (Steve Webb), and there was a debate in the other place in December. I want to concentrate on the costs.

I bring to the attention of the House a report—the Minister knows of it—by Frontier Economics, which is a wonderful name for such an organisation. The report was commissioned by eight non-governmental organisations that are opposed to the barrage. I shall speak a little about some aspects of that report. I know that some hon. Members will want to talk about other matters.

I am delighted to see my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, North-West (Dr. Naysmith) in his place. If my hon. Friend catches your eye, Mr. Weir, he may want to tell us about the views of the port of Bristol and the impact of the barrier on that important organisation, which will save me the effort.

I hope that this will be the third of my recent successes—I like to help the Government whenever I can. The Minister was gracious enough to find time to allow the Climate Change and Sustainable Energy Act 2006 (Sources of Energy and Technologies) Order 2008 through last week. That order will allow ground source pumps to be part of the panoply of wonderful microgeneration activities that are now possible, and I am eternally grateful to him for that. I am also grateful to the Department for Communities and Local Government team, which listened to my pleas for community land trusts to be included in the Housing and Regeneration Bill. I am now going for a hat trick. The Minister will hear me appealing for changes to be made in the way in which we consider the barrage. I hope to move the debate forward. However, I am aware that others want to speak, so I shall not take too long.

In my part of the world, the barrage is controversial. Of all its possible effects, my constituency will probably face the greatest impact. We have a port—the wonderful port of Sharpness. I suspect that it would not survive, even if the great port of Bristol does, because of where the barrage is likely to built—if it is to be built. Even if it were built upstream, the barrage would still have an impact on Sharpness.

We also have the wonderful facility of Slimbridge, home of the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust. Although I do not want to discuss biodiversity, one cannot help seeing the downside of the probable impact of the barrage. I know that we have said that there are likely to be advantages as well as disadvantages, but we will not be able to recreate those wetlands. Tomorrow I shall be taking a canoe trip on the wetlands. That is completely irrelevant, except for the fact that I might come back if I am supportive of the wetlands; that would be better than being tipped out if I were to make horrible comments in support of the barrage.

We know the background. We have to do some big things to combat the threat of climate change. Whether we include in the Climate Change Bill an emissions reduction target of 60 per cent., or, as I hope, 80 per cent., we have to do those things at the very latest by 2050. We are therefore looking for a change in policy.

The Government are right to consider the various factors that need to be dealt with, including the entire range of renewables. I am always ready to argue the case for the regeneration of the nuclear industry. It is good to see the hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. Liddell-Grainger) in his place; he is a kindred spirit in that regard. We must regenerate at least the amount of electricity that we currently produce from nuclear power. As someone who has seen the Berkeley power station live and die, I recognise that nuclear has a part to play. That is not the subject of today’s debate, but it acts as a backdrop to what we should be considering, and affects how we can stack up the figures.

With the best will in the world, what is proposed is enormous. There are two main barrage proposals, the Weston to Cardiff and the Shoots barrages, and a number of alternatives. Even the more minimalist barrages will be huge projects. Huge capital expenditure will be involved, and they will give rise to huge obligations in terms of the amount of electricity that will have to be produced to get the right payback.

I do not have fears about that, although I tend to be an incrementalist. I believe that small is beautiful. However, there are times when we have to go for big solutions, as with the re-harnessing of nuclear power. I look back to my epiphany on this issue, which was the 1989 report. Sadly, I read it, but I cannot recall much of it. However, it was good. It was not like the latest report.

In researching for today’s debate I have looked at the papers that accompany it, and earlier investigations took place as far back as the early part of the 20th century, so the idea is nothing new. We have considered the possibility of a barrage many times. However, the 1989 report taught me two things. First, we were talking then about something that was impossible—it was make-believe—because energy prices then would not have allowed us to recover the construction costs.

I remember that the only way to bridge that financial gap would have been to build massive housing developments further up the vale. Thank you very much, we get 50,000 extra houses. Of course we need houses, and we need them in ever greater numbers in some parts of the country, but it was hardly an acceptable aspect of that proposal for houses to be built in order to get the barrage in order to get cheaper electricity. Of course, if we had built the barrage we might now be thinking slightly differently.

The biodiversity issue, which will always be at the back of people’s minds, keeps returning. The Severn is a very special water course. I would argue that it is the most important in Europe. It has the second highest tidal range, which is what makes it a good prospect for generating electricity, but the flora and fauna of the estuary is so important that we tinker—dare I say tamper—with it at our risk and with considerable concern.

I have been leading up to the Sustainable Development Commission report. It makes an interesting analysis, which will inform the later study. We are led to believe that it will take two years, but perhaps the Minister will tell us more about the schedule. I do not say that we should scrap that investigation, but I want to change its nature. I want it to put far more emphasis on alternatives to the barrage. However, the Government would look rather silly if they were suddenly to do a volte-face and say that they do not want an investigation.

I would like to know more about gaining access to the team, and how we might work with it. Those of us who do not want a barrage will want to ensure that we are able to make representations. At this stage, however, I am not saying that it would be wrong for the investigation to go ahead, because even though we had an investigation some 20 years ago, the figures need to be updated, and new techniques and new approaches ought to be considered.

Although the details were wrong, the SDC report included some interesting work on alternatives, as well as an examination of the implications of the barrage. It was long on words and short on recommendations, which is why the Government had to set up their own feasibility study, which will go into much greater detail on technical necessities, finance and biodiversity, which is always the backcloth.

To move away from the pure biodiversity arguments, the NGOs—including the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, the Slimbridge Wildlife and Wetlands Trust, the WWF and the National Trust, which are all reputable—commissioned the Frontier Economics report. Frontier Economics was asked to address the relatively narrow question of the justification for the barrage. In particular, it was asked to examine two questions regarding whether any justification could be contextualised within the current debate on the feasibility study. First, it looked at the Government’s role, and asked how they could or whether they should instigate such a project. Secondly, it looked at the costs of the project—we are talking about the economics of the Severn barrage—in relation to the alternatives and other forms of energy production. The study was not simply a sterile, limited analysis of the barrage versus other uses of the Severn, but asked whether we could find other ways to generate electricity.

It is important to separate the Government’s role of worrying about climate change and altering people’s mindset, and their role of driving the project forward. Of course—this will come as no surprise—Frontier Economics sees the Government’s role as crucial, saying that there can be no barrage unless the Government sign up to it wholeheartedly. However, there is a subsidiary question: to what degree must the Government consider whether they are doing the right thing at the right time? This is the premise of my argument: I do not want to leave the Severn alone, and I do not believe that the Severn is anything other than a wonderful opportunity for the generation of energy, but I have a big thing about the barrage. I do not see it as the solution, especially because I want much more activity and proactivity immediately.

I can offer the Minister an opportunity. There is a wonderful way to pull all the different threads together—we could look at the different possibilities on the Severn at the moment, which include using smaller-scale technologies on the river, lagoons, booms, river streams and underwater turbines. To pull those different technologies together, we need a location, to get synergy between companies. I have a wonderful location in mind—the old Berkeley nuclear laboratory site. Myself and others discovered that it is currently in splendid isolation and that the laboratory is all but gone. We looked at the idea of a renewable energy park, but, sadly, that has not yet got off the ground.

The site would be an ideal location for the kind of industries and firms that could generate alternative energies on the Severn. The offer is genuine and those things could happen now. We would have to talk to our colleagues in the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, but the Government can talk to themselves sometimes, even within the same Department, so we could make some progress on that. That is the offer. Will the Minister say whether that will be considered as part of the feasibility study? We cannot expect companies to operate virtually—we need locations and facilities in which they can work together. That could and should be happening.

We can look at the cost of the barrage in two ways. Clearly, we are simply staggered by the sort of figures that are thrown about for the initial, construction costs. The lowest estimate that I have seen is about £14 billion, but I gather that a figure of £23 billion has been introduced by Halcrow, which was commissioned by the Institution of Civil Engineers. That is pretty big money, and it would have to be justified. We must ask not only whether the project is technically possible and whether the money can be found in such difficult times for the building industry, because it would need to be properly funded—perhaps the building industry is looking for such a project at the moment—but whether there is a payback.

All the evidence shows that the barrage is a very expensive project. I am told—this is reinforced by the Frontier Economics study—that electricity will be produced at about twice the cost of solar energy, which is the most expensive renewable option. It does not compare at all with the nuclear option, which should be used as a benchmark. The barrage could be a very expensive form of electricity generation. I hope that we will get some definitive evidence on that, which is why I do not want to destroy the feasibility study, but to push it in the direction in which I think it should be going. There is a big question mark against the cost, which will be the kernel of the argument on whether we should push on with the project.

Like other hon. Members in the Chamber, I have been approached and lobbied by a variety of organisations, including the Bristol Port Company, Natural England—as the Government’s experts on the environment, it has considerable worries about biodiversity in relation to the project—and the different NGOs, representatives of which I have met individually and collectively. The Bristol Port Company said that, even at this stage, it has had no assurances or guarantees that ships will get through easily even if we go for the larger barrage between Weston and Cardiff. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, North-West (Dr. Naysmith) will talk about this, so I shall not go into any great detail, but the company is about to launch a huge investment project. It welcomes the barrage like a hole in the head, because it casts doubt on whether it can make Bristol a deep port. The terminal is probably the most important gateway to the country—much more important than any on the east coast—because it is not only close to the Bristol hinterland, but offers a rapid route to Birmingham.

I shall take no hostages to fortune on the issue. We should not look at the barrage as a barrage. We should look at alternatives and push the feasibility study in that direction, and recognise that the biodiversity costs are too great. We have a useful account from Frontier Economics, which I hope will feed into the process. We cannot avoid our responsibilities, however, and we have to do something; it is just that I would prefer to do something now. I am happy to work with other hon. Members, the Minister—obviously—all those companies that we want to generate electricity along the Severn and NGOs prepared to work with anyone provided that the threat of a barrage does not hang over them and the Severn itself. That is the offer, and I hope that the Minister will make some clear statements about how we can engage with the feasibility study team to ensure that there is a balance and to counter the belief that this is a done deal.

Some of the statements from the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform have intimated at the fact that we have to do something. The target of 4 per cent. plus of electricity generation is too good an opportunity to turn down, but I hope that we approach the problem with an open mind, because we could be producing more electricity sooner and at a lower cost than would be the case with the barrage.

I look forward to engaging on this matter, and I hope that the Minister will say how that can be done. I also look forward to hearing what other hon. Members have to say. I promised to mention my other kindred spirit, the hon. Member for Salisbury (Robert Key). On this matter, he and I are one—or rather we are twins. Like me, he feels that the barrage is not a good idea. He would have liked to have been here, but he is chairing a Committee somewhere else. However, if he were here, he would be arguing very strongly in support of my case.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) on securing this important debate and on the very fair way in which he set out much of the background to the issues that we are here to debate. I disagree with him on two points only—one small and the other slightly more substantive.

The small one is this: the hon. Gentleman said that his constituency is likely to be the most affected if the barrage is built, but I suspect that many would take issue with that. I am sure that his constituency will be greatly affected, but speaking as the Member for Weston-super-Mare, I can tell him that if the Weston to Cardiff barrage is built, a hulking piece of civil engineering will come ashore on the border between my constituency and that of my right hon. Friend the Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory). That could have a dramatic impact not just on biodiversity, but on the economy of a seaside town such as Weston-super-Mare. I am sure that we all agree that there is a great deal to play for—the potential impacts are both positive and negative, economic and environmental. It is essential that we appreciate that the stakes riding on this decision are incredibly high, and that it is therefore vital that the correct decision is made.

I respectfully disagree with the hon. Member for Stroud on a second, slightly more substantive point. He said very clearly that he starts from a position of feeling that the barrage is wrong. I, on the other hand, think it imperative that we find substantial sources of renewable energy in this country, and it is clear that the Severn estuary and the Bristol channel constitute one of the largest potential sources of renewable energy in Britain. However, I would like to keep my powder dry and wait until the Government’s two-year feasibility study has been concluded before deciding which of the potential technologies for harnessing that power would be best.

I think that the Government were right to realise that much of the work done up until now, by previous generations, on both the economics of the Severn barrage and the environmental impacts—let us not forget that the latter have very severe knock-on economic effects—is now out of date. That is partly because, as the hon. Gentleman said, construction techniques have changed and construction prices have altered out of all recognition, as we can all understand. Furthermore, our understanding of the engineering and environmental challenges surrounding the Severn estuary have also moved on dramatically.

Clearly it is right and sensible of the Government to say that, before rushing to judgment, we need a modern, up-to-date and scientifically and economically robust analysis of the different technological alternatives to harnessing the power of the Severn. It is vital that we get this right and take the time to evaluate the pros and cons of the different options, because the stakes are so high and because not only our children and grandchildren, but their grandchildren and future generations will be living with the consequences of the decision that the Government take at the end of the feasibility study.

I start from a different position from the hon. Gentleman’s, and think that the Government’s approach is right. However, I press the Minister to give us a couple of reassurances. It is clear from many of the submissions, including the one from Frontier Economics, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned, that it is neither right nor good enough merely to consider the alternative means of harnessing the power of the Severn. I accept that we need to understand the implications of each of the alternatives, but having done that, we must put our conclusions into the context of the other available sources of renewable energy that could be created, given equal amounts of investment, elsewhere in the UK.

We all know that many other potential sources of renewable energy are available—from offshore and onshore wind to biomass, biogas and so on. If a great many better options are available away from the Severn estuary, it is not good enough to say, “This is the best option for the Severn estuary, so let’s build it.” If we have what I suspect will be a fixed pot of money—resources never match the ideas on which they could be spent—we must remain open to the possibility that the feasibility study might conclude that the barrage is the best option for the Severn estuary, but that plenty of other options are available elsewhere in Britain, all of which are better, and that therefore nothing should be done on the Severn. We must consider that for the sake of intellectual clarity and honesty with ourselves and our constituents.

As I have said, I am coming at this subject with the preconception that we need to harness the power of the Severn. However, in spite of that preconception, let me say for the sake of accuracy, clarity and logic, we owe it to ourselves and to future generations who will be living with the consequences of this decision to ensure that we can look people straight in the eye and say, “We made the comparison not just in the Severn, but more widely.” I hope that the Minister can give me that assurance when he gets to his feet.

I would like to press the Minister on section 2, article 5 of the proposed European directive on the promotion of the use of energy from renewable sources. He and I have corresponded on and debated the directive already, but so far our discussions have amounted to an exchange of views without conclusions. In case people do not have the directive as their bedtime reading—if they do, they will almost certainly have nodded off trying to get through it—I shall provide a brief summary. If adopted, it would effectively give the Government credit for energy generated from a very large renewable energy project, such as the Severn barrage, which would be put towards the Government’s commitment to produce 15 per cent. of Britain’s energy from renewable sources by 2020.

The Severn barrage, however, is almost the only project that could qualify under the proposed directive: none of the other proposals for harnessing the power of the Severn could qualify under the terms in which the directive is written. The credit would start from the moment that construction of the barrage began, which would be about 10 years before the first watt of renewable power energy flowed from it. However, given that that would apply only to the barrage, and not to the other potential sources of renewable energy from the Severn, it might create a slanted playing field and an obvious incentive for the Government to choose the barrage, even if it is not necessarily the best answer, because of this accounting trick that would allow the Government to put the power generated towards their adopted target early.

It is clearly not in the interests of the credibility of this Government or any democratically elected Government to be open to a charge of fiddling their figures or indulging in accounting trickery. There will be no solid basis for justifying what will be an incredibly difficult and important decision if everybody looks at it from day one through the prism of believing, “Well yes, they would choose the barrage, wouldn’t they? They have this accounting trick, which predisposed them towards the barrage in a way that didn’t apply to any of the other options.” That would be an incredibly corrosive perception, which would undermine the validity of any decision that the Government took.

As I said, the Minister and I have discussed the matter and exchanged letters. Let me summarise the Minister’s response thus far—he will correct me if he thinks that I am mis-stating his position. While looking at me in a slightly pained fashion, he says, “Perish the thought that Her Majesty’s Government should ever take a decision on such a basis. That would clearly be wrong.” Obviously, that is very reassuring, but I am afraid that it does not necessarily deal with the problem that I am describing, because it will not convince many people outside this place or solve the problem of corrosive doubt—the belief that the system is fundamentally slanted in favour of a barrage. Given the low esteem in which politicians of all parties are held in this country, it is in the interests of everybody, including the Government, to ensure that justice is not only done, but seen to be done when Ministers take their decision.

I therefore ask the Minister when he replies to give me an assurance that the Government will seek either to change the directive so that it applies equally to the barrage and the other options that they are considering for the Severn estuary, or to ensure that it applies to none of them. It cannot apply only to one and not to the others. I am told that the directive is still in draft, and it is essential that no accusation of bias can possibly be made on this vital subject. I therefore hope that the Minister can reassure me of his good intentions.

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose), who made some interesting points—particularly the last one about the EU directive, with which I fully agree.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) on securing this important debate, particularly given its focus on the economic aspects of the proposed Severn barrage, which are often downplayed. It is important to emphasise the economic aspects because building a barrage is understandably an attractive option at first sight. It seems to offer in one big leap an answer to many of the questions about how we meet our commitment to generate much more of our electricity from carbon-free sources. The Government have an obligation to help the EU reach its target of producing 20 per cent. of its energy from renewable sources by 2020. Although estimates for the proportion of the UK’s energy that would be produced by the Severn barrage vary between 4 and 7 per cent., that would still go a long way towards meeting our target. When people throw in extra, often uncosted possibilities, such as new road and rail routes in addition to the barrage, the proposal becomes even more attractive.

It is not difficult to see why various proposals have regularly been suggested over the past 100 years or more and then dropped on economic grounds. The most recent large-scale assessment began in 1983, when the Severn tidal power group carried out an interim study; that was followed by another research programme, which reported in 1989. There followed five years of heated debate locally and nationally, in which I took part as the then chairman of the Port of Bristol authority. My task then, as now, was to remind people that an economic enterprise known as the port of Bristol underpinned thousands of jobs in an area far wider than just Bristol and that that enterprise would be markedly affected by a Severn barrage, particularly one that was constructed without locks of a size sufficient to accommodate large bulk-carrier ships.

In 1994, the then Government decided not to proceed with the proposal. In “Energy Paper 62”, they stated that that was largely because the scheme was thought to be uneconomic following the privatisation of the electricity industry, and because the environmental consequences were too great. It was also thought that the development of tidal energy would be very capital intensive and that predicting the outcome would be very risky, and both of those problems still apply.

I shall concentrate mainly on the effects of building a barrage on the Severn downstream of the port of Bristol, probably between Lavernock point near Cardiff and Brean near Weston-super-Mare. It should be noted that I am talking not just about potential effects, but about current effects, in the sense that today’s proposals introduce a note of uncertainty into development plans and therefore investment in the port, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud noted in his excellent speech.

Although I was either chairman or vice-chairman of the Port of Bristol authority between 1985 and 1991, when the port belonged to Bristol city council, I currently have no interest to declare in the port, other than as an honorary trustee of its pension scheme, which was put in place by the trade unions, by the way. In addition, the port system is partially located in my constituency, at Avonmouth, which also houses the headquarters of the private Bristol Port Company, which now owns and runs the port.

There can be little doubt that renewable energy sources are the way forward in terms of energy security and sustainability, and that the UK has vast wave, wind and tidal power resources at its disposal. I fully support research and development in those areas, as well as in alternative sites and different methods of capturing the strength of the tides in the Severn, such as lagoons. However, a project of this size, which has not been tried before, makes it essential that we first assess the full financial and environmental implications and costs.

In addition to concerns about the environmental and possible legal implications—particularly in relation to the EU birds and habitats directives—there are major concerns about the costs, which are estimated at £14 billion to £15 billion, as well as about the impact on the local economy. However, it is important to note that Bristol and the surrounding area have a thriving and diverse economy, on which the Severn barrage proposals would clearly have an impact.

Changes to tide levels and patterns could have a serious impact on local tourism. High tide levels mean that beaches are often far from the water at low tide—the hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. Liddell-Grainger) will no doubt mention that. The threat of flooding could also increase if the barrage raises water levels in some areas. Equally, a barrage would stop the Severn bore, which is a tourist attraction further up the river, towards Gloucester.

The estimated cost of £15 billion does not take into account land acquisition costs or the cost of creating new habitats, as EU law would require. As my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter) recently highlighted in this very room, a barrage across the Severn would create another economic and environmental problem by blocking the path of thousands of fish returning to the Severn and its tributaries, the River Wye and the River Usk.

As I said, however, my main concern is the impact on the Bristol Port Company and its customers. Bristol port is the largest bulk-cargo port in the southern half of England. It relies on its ability to accept very large, deep-draught ships to import materials at economic rates. It also has good transport links to the UK’s major population centres. The port handles 27 per cent. of UK imported aviation spirit, and changes to that could affect the aviation industry, to which Bristol has close links—Airbus and Rolls-Royce, which are heavily involved in the aviation industry, are both in my constituency. Bristol is also the UK’s second largest import facility for power station coal, and 30 per cent. of total UK animal feed capacity is located at the port of Bristol. In terms of deep-sea volumes handled, Bristol is the leading UK port for the import of motor vehicles. Also planned—this will mean further additions to trades at Bristol’s port—are a £500 million deep-water container terminal and several biomass power stations, which will be fuelled with imported woodchip. All those cargoes are viewed as important because of their strategic significance or the nationally significant volumes handled—or sometimes both.

It is not possible today to go into great detail about the potential and likely effect of a barrage on the port’s trade, as much of the argument is very technical. There is a lot of evidence from previous and current studies about the risks of deleterious effects on the trades that I have mentioned, and other more local ones. It is well known that there is considerable movement of both sediments and sands in the Severn estuary, and that the capability to model the estuary’s transport systems for sand and sediment remains rudimentary. However, there is a clear expectation that post-construction there will be increased deposition of silts, clays and sand banks, which will be bound to affect the deep-water navigation channels, which are, at present, self-scouring. There will also be changes in the sand banks and post-barrage reduction of water density and levels of water on high tides. It is only on those higher tides that deep-draft ships can access Bristol’s two major docks.

Any effective reduction of water would have an immediate adverse impact and make the port economically unattractive to a cargo owner. That is currently the case for fewer than 30 per cent. of tides, but the figure could rise to more than 50 per cent. of tides post-barrage. Should such an adverse impact arise, cargo owners would be faced with two alternatives. Those customers could use other ports, but many of the facilities needed for strategic bulk cargoes, such as deep water, storage land, pipelines, and inland road and rail transport simply do not exist at other ports. The second option would be to continue to trade through Bristol in smaller ships at a much higher cost per tonne per kilometre. That would certainly have an impact on the wider UK economy, but since Bristol’s trade is unsubsidised and operates in a competitive free market, it is not easy to predict what would occur in such circumstances. Those elements of the regional and national logistics chain that depend on the existence of a shipping route in the Bristol channel surely have a right to expect that that will continue to exist in a post-barrage era.

The effect of a Cardiff-Weston barrage will be to incur very substantial additional costs for navigation infrastructure—mainly for the adequate provision of locks, one of which may have to be in the middle of the structure and not landward as in previous proposals—maintenance dredging and shipping transits of the barrage. All that will almost certainly mean that the £15 billion cost currently suggested will be very much on the low side. In the light of the risks that I have just outlined, in addition to guarantees of adequate locks at the construction stage, it would be necessary to protect and/or compensate the Bristol region and port for unforeseen and unquantifiable post-barrage effects.

I realise that the current study includes other possibilities, such as lagoons and smaller barrages in other locations, and I look forward to the outcome of the deliberations. I have no wish to try to stop or affect any of that process, although I know that the Minister has said there will be an opportunity later this year to examine the proposals for anything that would stop them going ahead altogether, and lead to a decision that it is not worth while to proceed. I hope that a realistic assessment will be made later this year. Many of the points that I have made would apply to some of the other options, although not to all of them.

I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say on the matter. I had the pleasure of accompanying him to the port of Bristol a couple of weeks ago. Unfortunately it was very much a flying visit and we did not have a chance to talk about some of the things I have discussed this afternoon. I am grateful for the opportunity to do so, and to my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud for securing the debate.

It is a delight to follow the hon. Member for Bristol, North-West (Dr. Naysmith). I know that his heart is absolutely in the right place; we talk about the wonderful coastline that runs between my constituency of Bridgwater, Weston-super-Mare, Bristol and on towards Stroud.

One thing that concerns me about the proposal is not whether it should happen, but the idea, which I do not like, that something is to be created to affect targets. Targets leave us all cold in this place, for obvious reasons. I have just spent two and a half years of my life trying to get the Crossrail Bill into a workable form, which we have now done. That comes to £16 billion; it is funny how everything costs £16 billion. We know perfectly well that that is not going to be the true cost.

The cost of the Severn barrage is low. It must be low. No infrastructure project in this country has ever—regardless of Government—come in on time, and the cost will probably double. Let us say that the project does not commence for another decade, for all the reasons that we know so well; I shall come on to the Planning Bill. It is not possible to guarantee any costs at the moment.

I had a chat to Sir Robert McAlpine, which, at the moment, is one of the companies that would like to take part. Even that company said that in its experience of building many nuclear power stations and other huge infrastructure projects, none of the process goes smoothly. What worries me is that perhaps not this Government or the next, but a future Government, will use the fact that we must hit our targets under son of Kyoto—or daughter of Kyoto—as an excuse, as my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose) said. I do not expect the Minister to be able to answer that point, because it will not be on his watch. [Interruption.] The Minister, from a sedentary position, makes a valid point, and makes me blush. However, Members of Parliament representing constituencies around the coastline will have to bear the situation for generations to come: this project is long term, not short term.

I am interested in the fact that, already, the chattering classes are taking to the barricades. It is like “Les Misérables”. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds says, “Oh no, shock horror!” and the Environment Agency says, “Oh no, you can’t do it.” Everyone is appearing already, and we have not even got to the White Paper. They are all saying, “No, you mustn’t do it.” Well, hang on a minute—they are non-governmental organisations. They should be saying that we can do it if it is the right thing to do and we do it in the right way. Through the Minister and through you, Mr. Weir, I ask those bodies to shut up until we have given time for consideration of what is proposed. Like many hon. Members, I am sick to death of NGOs—before anything has been talked about or decided—telling us what we are going to do. This matter is another example of that.

I want to talk about tourism. Tourism is the life blood of the south-west, especially Weston-super-Mare. It is the same for much of Bristol, Stroud and Bridgwater and across the Somerset levels. The barrage would be an iconic tourist attraction. I know that that is not, and should not be, the main reason for building it. The point was ably made by the hon. Member for Bristol, North-West when he talked about the idea of sticking a road on it being uncosted. However, if it were built, it would be iconic. There is no doubt about it. It would put the south-west, with Cardiff on one side and possibly Weston-super-Mare or Wells on the other—my right hon. Friend the Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory) is not here—on the map. That should not be taken lightly.

A barrage would bring people to the south-west in the same way that Glastonbury tor does, or the docks in Bristol. Why not use that as part of the reason to consider the proposal? The financial input of the creation of the barrage would be phenomenal for parts of the south-west, Cardiff bay and all the rest of it. Cardiff would not have to rely only on “Dr. Who”. It could have something else to look forward to.

There would also be long-term problems. The flooding issue has been ably described, and it must be of concern. Bridgwater, in west Somerset, covers most of the levels, the gateway to which runs through my constituency and that of my right hon. Friend the Member for Wells. If there is any change to the water level or any dramatic change to the sand banks or how the water flows, it will come through our constituencies. I hope the Minister agrees that that is not acceptable in any way, shape or form.

Much of the levels—I do not mean to teach the Minister or you, Mr. Weir, to suck eggs—is at or below sea level. We have a finite time when the back tide and the wrong wind will prove to be disastrous for us. That is one area that the study must examine. As to the longer-term study, I plead with the Minister to look not only north of the barrier, up to Stroud, but south of it. One reason for me saying that is that the intakes for water at Hinkley Point, about which the Minister and I have endless conversations, are next to the River Parrett.

The Minister has been helpful with Hinkley Point, for which I thank him. I welcome all decisions that he is making in that direction at the moment, but it would be a shame to jeopardise what is an important infrastructure project in my constituency in relation to the long-term energy security of this country, or to do anything else that we might live to regret. Having said that I am castigating the NGOs, I am also arguing the other way round: we do not want the proposal to stop other things that are vital.

This comes down to the Planning Bill. No hon. Member can be in any doubt that the Planning Bill will go through. It will happen. That means that there will be a mechanism to force this proposal through, no matter what the chattering classes say. When that happens, we must be absolutely sure that it is exactly the right thing to do, so I come full circle.

The Planning Bill will be crucial in forcing the proposal through, because there will be many people who do not want it. People will be concerned about everything from a frog with one leg to what happens north of Stroud. They will also be concerned about the Severn bore. Those are all admirable things, but I suggest that security of supply of electricity for this nation is more important.

If we use the Bill to force the proposal through, which I think ultimately we will, I urge the House not to do so for the sake of expediency, for the reasons that hon. Members have given and those that I am sure my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Charles Hendry) and the Minister will give. This is a long-term commitment. If we get it wrong now, at all stages beyond we will get it disastrously wrong. The Severn barrage might not be built on our watch, but my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare is right: we are building for the future, securing supplies and securing the future of energy. If we get it wrong now, the legacy, which we will have to live with, will be disastrous.

I am grateful for your indulgence, Mr. Weir, and that of other hon. Members. I was chairing a Committee upstairs and I apologise for missing most of the debate, which is on a subject dear to my heart. I shall be brief.

The decision facing the Government is so great that, although it is of course entirely proper that they will consider all the evidence that they can possibly get, in the end it will be a political decision, and I bet it will be taken at Cabinet level. The decision, I believe, will be that the damage caused by building a Severn barrage, which would irreversibly and for ever change one of the most special estuaries in the British isles, will be rejected. That does not mean that I oppose the principle of generation of energy by water—far from it. I think, however, that the Government would be much better advised to avoid any serious consideration of blocking the Severn estuary in favour of concentrating efforts on various kinds of tidal barrage and tidal flow technology, which is short of development at the moment.

We must consider not only the biodiversity, but the history, the archaeology and the culture. It is the poetry. It is Shakespeare. Everything about England is tied up in the debate about a Severn barrage. Hon. Members on both sides of the House and from both sides of the Bristol channel have strong views about it, but it also affects every citizen of this country and, indeed, of the United Kingdom.

There is another practical thing that impresses me. Forgive me if my colleagues have already said it, but I do not believe that we will find an electricity generator willing to do this. Let us consider the experience of Électricité de France at La Rance in Brittany, where people are quite clear about the fact that they would never do it again. If the generators are not prepared to do it because it is not cost-effective, no one else will, and it would be quite wrong for the taxpayer to pay for the whole thing.

We also need to consider the consequences for the landscape of other parts of the United Kingdom, especially the western highlands of Scotland, of shipping aggregate on the scale necessary to build a Severn barrage. There is nowhere else it could come from unless we brought it in by sea from China or somewhere. In the western highlands recently, I was devastated to see the damage done to the landscape by the decision to allow quarrying on a grand scale on the west coast of the highlands, which is one of the most beautiful parts of the world, let alone the United Kingdom.

If this proposal were to proceed, I would be one of those who was protesting very loudly indeed, and I believe that the public protest would far outweigh the arguments of those who think it a good idea. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) for giving us the opportunity to air our views.

I join other hon. Members in congratulating the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) on securing and introducing the debate. The issue has been around for an awfully long time. I went to school on the Welsh side of the Severn. It is curious that no Welsh Member of Parliament is seeking to take part in the debate. I am now a Member of Parliament for the other side of the Severn, in Bristol, and it has been a hot political issue locally for the past two years. I was pleased to take part in a discussion that involved politicians from both sides of the estuary in the summer of 2006—appropriately, it took place on the paddle steamer Waverley right in the middle of the Severn.

We have to balance many factors when considering this issue. There is the topic of climate change, which is easily the most significant contributor to my postbag and e-mail inbox. There is the UK energy mix and security of supply. There are the costs of any scheme. There is the opportunity cost in terms of the effect on habitats—the natural environment—and of course, there is the debate on the different engineering solutions that may be appropriate. I hope, however, that there might be agreement on the fact that it would be foolish not to have a serious exploration of whether it is possible to balance all those things and harness the power of the Severn. The very challenging targets that we have to meet have been mentioned. It is commonly accepted that the barrage or any other solution may contribute 5 per cent. of the United Kingdom’s electricity supply in the future.

The hon. Member for Stroud focused today on costs. The Government have commissioned their own feasibility study, which has several strands. Different consultancies and pressure groups will be considering engineering, the habitat and the transport opportunities, but the Government have specifically engaged PricewaterhouseCoopers—incidentally, I obtained my professional qualifications with PWC 15 years ago—to consider the questions of ownership and finance. Can the Minister give us an early indication this afternoon of when he expects some of the strands of the feasibility study to report to the House? Will they all come together in 2010, or can some progress reports and interim studies be laid before the House to inform our debate over the next two years?

We have already heard from one set of Government advisers—the Sustainable Development Commission, which recommended last year that the barrage should be entirely owned and managed by the public sector. Will the Minister say whether he or the Government accept that premise, or whether PWC is considering the questions of ownership and commissioning as well as the actual costs, wherever they may fall?

Many other factors and constraints will need to be weighed up that are relevant to the economic viability of a barrage, lagoons or any other engineering solutions. One factor is the capacity of the national grid to transmit the electricity that could be generated from such a major scheme to the places where it is needed. You may be aware, Mr. Weir, that there is already a fear of a capacity constraint in relation to bringing power down from Scotland—where there is great potential for harnessing the power of the wind and perhaps waves as well—to the centres of population much further south of the border. I wonder whether the national grid is geared up now to transmit 5 per cent. of the UK’s energy to the areas where it is needed, which may be well away from the Severn.

Another capacity constraint relevant to the economics of all this will be skills. Various figures have been bandied about for the number of jobs that could be created as a result of the construction and operation of the barrage. One press report that I read in preparation for today’s debate even mentioned the figure of 40,000 jobs, but does the UK have sufficient engineering skills to carry out such a major operation? It will probably be the biggest construction project that this country has ever carried out. Arguably, it will be bigger than the channel tunnel, and it will probably be the biggest construction project since Victorian times. Have we enough young people who are enthused enough to take on the subjects relevant to engineering, and are we doing enough to ensure that engineering graduates go into the profession for which they have trained, so that they will find it a lucrative career?

Frontier Economics has recently published a report, which was the impetus behind the hon. Member for Stroud initiating the debate. The report was commissioned by organisations such as the National Trust, the WWF—both of which I belong to—the RSPB and a coalition of angling organisations, all of which the hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. Liddell-Grainger) rather disparagingly referred to as the chattering classes. Those organisations have made an incredibly important contribution to this debate and to the national debate, and they would be failing in their duty to their members if they had not commissioned such a report. We should thank them for doing so.

There were two central headlines in the report, one of which referred to the estimate of the cost, which is £15 billion. Once a large figure is quoted in public, it often gets repeated over and again and it begins to gain currency. Will the Minister comment on whether £15 billion fits within the window of the Government’s current cost estimate and whether PricewaterhouseCoopers could produce an assessment of the cost? However the scheme is financed, the budget for the cost will remain the same.

Frontier Economics also says that there should be no Government subsidy or involvement in the operation of the barrage, in direct contradiction to the findings of the Sustainable Development Commission last year. Matthew Bell, the author of the report, said:

“It is hard to think of reasons for the public sector to build or operate a barrage which would not be equally applicable to many other projects and assets that sit in the private sector.”

Given the pressing economic conditions, will the Minister tell us the Government’s current assessment of the private sector’s ability to finance such a major infrastructure project, especially as the private sector is expected to finance a new generation of nuclear power stations, along with other renewable sources of energy? Will there be enough private sector investment around in the next 10 to 15 years to bring this project to fruition?

The hon. Member for Bristol, North-West (Dr. Naysmith) —perhaps I could call him my hon. Friend—referred to local economic conditions of the Port of Bristol, about which he and I care. I am also a former member of the docks and airports committee of Bristol city council. He and I used to disagree on whether it was suitable for the city of Bristol to own the Port of Bristol or Bristol airport. I am pleased that both are now prospering in the private sector. There are ambitious plans for the Port of Bristol to expand still further. The Bristol economy could benefit from another £3 billion of investment, which I would not want to jeopardise.

Will the Minister give both myself and the hon. Member for Bristol, North-West the local assurance that the feasibility studies will consider the effects of a barrage, lagoons or any other engineering solution on the viability of the ports that lie upstream from the likely line of a barrage? That would include Bristol and, presumably, Cardiff and Newport as well. In particular, will the studies consider the effects on the silting of the channel, the depths of the channel and the morphology of the mud banks?

This debate, which has been running in its new form for the past two years, has been given more impetus by the serious way in which we are tackling the challenge of climate change. Many previous debates on the subject, going back to Victorian times, have closed down with no action. I hope that we have made a decision on whether to proceed with the scheme by 2010. I am completely open-minded about the engineering solution, but I hope that, in 10 or 15 years’ time, we will see the natural power of the Severn contributing to the sustainable power that this country needs for the future.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) on securing the debate and on the very balanced way in which he introduced it. We have seen the House of Commons at its best this afternoon. We have seen a thoughtful, well informed and impassioned—if one can be thoughtful and impassioned at the same time—debate that has dealt with the real issues in a constructive way. Hon. Members have been willing to consider both the evidence and the facts. That is the right way for us to proceed at this time.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Mr. Liddell-Grainger) was perhaps a little harsh toward non-governmental organisations. A consultation process is under way, which is exactly the time when people should be expressing their views, especially if there is a cut-off point in the course of that consultation at which the project might be brought to an end, and therefore they would wish their views to be known at an earlier stage.

Nevertheless, it has been a very good debate. There has also been a sense of déjà vu—a feeling that we have been here before. My hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Robert Key) has probably seen these debates many times over his long service in the House. Some 20 years ago, in the 1980s, millions of pounds was spent on studies considering these matters, and here we are, at it again.

During the course of the debate, we have heard that there are two principal themes. The larger one, costing some £15 billion, would produce about 8.6 GW, or 5 per cent. of our electricity supply, and would save about 5.6 million tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions, based on a comparison of gas and electricity generation being displaced. That does not take account of the immense amount of carbon that would be emitted in the course of constructing the project. The second and smaller plan would cost about a tenth of that amount, but would generate about an eighth of its power—about 1.5 GW. Therefore, we have two alternative schemes, but we need to add in the other options as well, such as the lagoons and the cost of doing nothing.

The Government’s approach has been broadly correct. They have considered those options and are deciding on a way forward—if there is to be a way forward. We must recognise the extent to which this is an issue that divides opinion among experts, environmentalists and public opinion. We must have a thorough and watertight case—probably not very watertight, otherwise it would not work very well—that stands up well to careful scrutiny.

The hon. Member for Stroud said that the Government must do some big things if they are to achieve their renewables target. We need to be convinced that the Government will do those things for the right reasons and they will not be giving the go-ahead to massive investment in technologies that are there to meet an artificial and arbitrary target agreed with the European Union. We need to know that they are doing it because it is the right thing to do.

There is a suspicion that the Government have already made up their mind about the project. My hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose) made the point that that was because they would be allowed to have a credit with the EU which would start on the first day of construction, years before the scheme produces any energy at all. The Minister must allay that suspicion, because people need to be clear in their mind that the decision will be based on facts, and facts alone.

The Government are right to consider all the options, such as the two main barrage options and the lagoon prospects, and then to make a decision that takes into account their impact on both local communities and the environment. The importance of tourism to the area has been mentioned. The Government need to look at the benefit that extra tourism would bring and at the costs of putting in place the infrastructure that it would generate as well. Infrastructure would include new rail links, road links and the facilities that would be required to make tourism sustainable. They also need to consider the economic implications for other businesses in the area.

I take on board the comments made by the hon. Member for Bristol, North-West (Dr. Naysmith) about the port of Bristol, which is a very important facility. As he said, it is probably the port closest to the centre of England, so many miles of road usage are avoided by using the port. If we find that the port cannot get the new freight coming in because of the draft level being reduced, that would be very damaging indeed. I know that there are plans to build the largest container port in Europe there. The risk of jeopardising that potential investment and the great environmental benefits that that could bring has to be taken into account as well.

The hon. Member for Bristol, West (Stephen Williams) talked about the national grid connection costs. The total costs of those projects need to be taken into account, and I hope that that is what the Government will do.

It would be interesting to look at the scope for tidal lagoons, as some people say that they may be the way forward. It is an intriguing possibility. Not one has been built, so many people are trying to estimate what their value and cost would be. People’s views differ: some say that they would cost less but generate more electricity for the scale of the investment; others say that they would be less efficient. We need some clarity from the Government’s consultation process that will enable us to understand exactly the different benefits of different systems. We need robust answers, and I hope that they will be provided.

It is absolutely clear that opinion settles on two different sides on the matter. There are those who say that the barrage will create an enormous number of construction jobs—perhaps 35,000—of which, it is estimated, half could be in the greater Severn area. On the other hand, although the barrage could be the greatest building project ever undertaken in this country, a lot of the work would be done overseas. My understanding of the construction process is that massive cement structures would be built around the world and then floated in, anchored to the sea bed and gradually drawn down. The project would involve an enormous proportion of Europe’s cement construction facilities and would last for many years. There may be no carbon price for the electricity generated by the Severn barrage, but by that time, as the emissions trading scheme moves into its later stages, there would almost certainly be a carbon price for the production of cement.

We know that the construction costs will be high, but there are those who argue that because the lifespan of the barrage would be 100 to 120 years, the average lifetime costs would be quite low compared with other technologies. On the other hand, there are those who say that barrages are an inefficient and costly way of generating power. The load factor is expected to be 22 per cent. That does not compare favourably with offshore wind, which could have a load factor of 35 or even 40 per cent.

The comparative costs must be taken into account. Frontier Economics has estimated that electricity from the Severn barrage would cost £127 MWh compared with £55 MWh for wind. Tidal stream technology is thought to indicate a cost of between £60 and £100 MWh, according to the Carbon Trust, and it could provide up to 10 per cent. of the UK’s electricity demand. Greenpeace and others suggest that tidal lagoons would involve lower costs. Indeed, only solar photovoltaics and fuel cells are thought to have a higher cost per megawatt hour than a large barrage. According to Frontier Economics, producing 17,000 GW of output—the installed capacity of the barrage—from wind or from combined heat and power would cost £900 million, at a cost per unit about half that of the Severn barrage. Many issues must be taken into account and assessed in the course of the study.

I hope that the Minister will also be clear about his attitude to public funding for the project. If the evidence is that there is a case for the project but that it cannot be done with private sector investment alone, would the Government be inclined to give support? I realise that we will be in government by the time the decision is made, but I would be interested to know what the Minister’s view is now. Does he see funding being delivered through the system of renewables obligation certificates, or through feed-in tariffs? How does he think the project should be funded? At this stage, we need some clarity about how the Government think that it could be done.

Will the study also take account of how the money could be used in other ways? The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds has estimated that £15 billion to £20 billion spent on things such as energy efficiency measures would make a much more significant contribution to solving energy demand problems in this country. Has the Minister considered whether the money could be spent on energy efficiency measures and what the reductions in demand would be?

There are those who claim that the Severn barrage will help against flooding. Again, there are two sides to the argument. Some say that a barrage would reduce flood risks, and some say that it would increase the risk in other areas. We can make decisions on the project only if the Government reach a final conclusion on which of the positions is correct.

We also need to be clear about how electricity would be generated. The barrage would produce two surges a day. Peak flow would be for about one and a half to two hours during those surges, which will often come at the wrong time of day. As power cannot be readily used at 3 o’clock in the morning, we would have to find a way to store it. That could mean converting it into hydrogen or holding the flow back and then allowing it through later, by which time the tide may be coming in again and its impact would be massively diminished. Alternatively—this seems bizarre—the base load nuclear power stations could be turned off to allow the surge to come through at that moment. Those issues all have to be taken into account.

We are entering an exciting and constructive debate. The idea has caught people’s imagination. As a boy, I heard about the Severn barrage—I am obviously younger than the Minister, who was probably a teenager at that time. It was thought to be an idea that was bound to come in good time, but the more one thinks about it and the more evidence one takes, the more one realises that there are real challenges that need to be overcome and assessed.

The Frontier Economics report concluded that

“under a range of plausible scenarios, a large barrage on the Severn is expensive compared to alternative ways of generating renewable electricity…there appears to be sufficient capacity to use other technologies to meet the barrage’s output and Government’s targets.”

We must ensure that this investment decision is made because it is the right one, not because it is part of a design to meet European targets. The onus is on interested parties to prove the case for a barrage, not the case against it. We have seen a great deal of evidence from those who are concerned about it, and we have seen an enormous amount of enthusiasm from those who are in favour of it. Most of us want to be open-minded and to judge the project on the facts. We must judge it on the facts and not on emotion.

This has been a useful debate. I noticed that the hon. Member for Wealden (Charles Hendry) in his characteristic way asked me a question and then predicted that he would be in government by the time it was answered, but he was clearly too modest to publish the answer in a White Paper. That would have been immodest but consistent with his aspirations for government.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew), as others have done, on securing this debate. His thought-provoking speech prompted a useful short debate, which has been entered into in the right spirit.

Our decision on a tidal power scheme on the Severn is some way down the line yet, for good reasons which I shall outline. We are carrying out a feasibility study to look at the costs, benefits and impacts of a tidal power scheme, which could be a barrage in one of several possible locations, or a lagoon or lagoons. It could involve another technology—ideas are being put to us about other technologies—or a combination of schemes. My hon. Friend asked for reassurance that we are not looking only at a barrage. As for successes with the Government, he was looking for his hat trick. I think that he is probably on about two and a half out of three, but I should not encourage him much further, given his well articulated opposition to the barrage.

Only when we have completed our study and analysed all the issues, including the costs, will we make a decision on whether to support a scheme and, if so, on what terms. The decision will be taken in the context of our wider energy and climate change goals. I shall not say too much about them, but there is always a danger that if we discuss one approach, whether nuclear power, windmills, the Severn barrage or lagoons, people think that we are forgetting the other things. Of course we are not.

For fundamental reasons relating to the nation’s energy security as well as the need to tackle climate change, we have made a bold and right decision about nuclear power. We are demonstrating the technology of carbon capture and storage, and we have published ambitious targets, but the targets will not distort the decision-making process for the barrage. I heard the concerns voiced about renewable energy, and we should consider the barrage in that context.

I shall not say more to the hon. Member for Salisbury (Robert Key) about climate change, because I am sure that he will agree that unless we tackle global warming, the geography, climate, flood levels and poetry of Shakespeare’s England will be rudely unsettled by climate change. Doing nothing is not an option, but I am not sure whether in respect of this project it would be right to consider the flood tide in the affairs of men—and, to be up to date, women.

Let me say more about where we are on the Severn tidal power scheme, which is certainly an important option to consider. Come the time, the decision will be an important one. As we heard, with its 14 m tidal range—the second highest in the world—the Severn estuary has the potential to provide 5 per cent. of the country’s electricity needs from a renewable, indigenous resource. We need to examine the estimates, but that would be a huge contribution to our goals. Of course, once a barrage is built—if it is built—it could no doubt be there for a century or more, producing clean and green energy.

That is why, back in 2006 when I was running the energy review, I asked the Sustainable Development Commission to look again at the potential for tidal power in the Severn estuary. Its report last year concluded that tidal power can indeed be generated in the estuary within sustainable development principles. However, as the commission advised, much more work needs to be done before a decision can be taken on whether or not to support a tidal power scheme, hence our feasibility study.

We need to do much more work on the potentially considerable environmental impacts of such a scheme, and I take the ecological issues involved here most seriously. The estuary is, after all, of international nature conservation significance and we must take the time, through our strategic environmental assessment, to gather a detailed evidence base to ensure that we understand the impacts of any barrage scheme. We also need to consider the regional, social and energy market impacts. Of course, we also need detailed, up-to-date—I emphasise that they must be up to date—cost estimates for the potential schemes, and therefore a new economic assessment.

Let me say a little more about the economics. The SDC report began the process for us. The SDC estimated the key costs and benefits of two potential barrage schemes using the data available; however, those were old data. Construction costs were £15 billion for a Cardiff to Weston barrage and £1.5 billion for a Shoots barrage. The SDC considered the unit cost of electricity relative to other renewables, in a similar approach to the Frontier Economics study that my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud mentioned, along with potential ownership options. The SDC also began to consider the regional economic impacts.

However, as the SDC made clear, there are significant limitations with these assessments, as much of the available information is out of date and in some cases incomplete, with the last detailed studies dating back, after all, to the 1980s, as we have heard today. The SDC called for further work to address the gaps in information and that is what we are doing through the feasibility study.

We are revisiting in detail all of the issues that the SDC looked at: costs; financing and ownership options; and regional economic impacts. As I said at the outset, we are not just examining two barrage options; we are considering a full range of possibilities, including lagoons and other technologies for which there are no current cost estimates. In the course of the study, we will also be making detailed assessments of all shortlisted schemes, considering all the associated costs and benefits, such as environmental impacts, flood benefits and regional impacts.

The hon. Member for Wealden asked about the economics. When we have the final arithmetic about which we can be reasonably confident, of course we will assess it against other uses of that money that could produce renewable energy or, more broadly, policies that help us to tackle climate change. That will be a sensible approach and I hope that people will accept that that will be the Government’s approach. It is worth noting here that the Frontier Economics report only considered one barrage option—the Cardiff to Weston option—using previously produced cost estimates in reaching its conclusions. An analysis that includes other options and that uses new estimates may reach different conclusions. We will have to wait and see.

The report does not “scale up” the International Energy Agency cost estimates for wind. To meet our 32 per cent. central renewable electricity scenario, we are likely to need an additional 28 GW of wind, of which 14 GW is offshore. At this scale, some higher-cost installations will be needed, beyond those included in the estimates calculated by the IEA. This is not a criticism of the IEA; rather, it is a reflection of how radical our renewable energy goals are. Our analysis for the renewable energy strategy suggests that the costs of electricity from a Severn tidal power scheme are comparable with the costs of offshore wind, but we need to refine and revisit that judgment. Having said that, before we can make an accurate comparison we must, of course, complete all of our work through the feasibility study.

The Frontier Economics and SDC reports both presented views on the roles that the public and private sectors should have in any potential tidal power project. Those are important matters, and that is why we have already appointed PricewaterhouseCoopers to consider options for ownership and finance. With respect to the hon. Member for Wealden, I cannot say more about those options today; we need to do the work first. We will be looking at a range of potential ownership and delivery options, from publicly led, as the SDC recommends, to private ownership, as the Frontier Economics report suggests. We need to assess how best to manage the different risks associated with each project, to ensure that it is delivered in a framework that results in value for money, and to take account of the implications for wider energy policy in terms of delivery and ownership structures. We need to acknowledge that, owing to risks that may be best managed by Government, the private sector would be unlikely to develop a project on its own. I therefore believe that it is right that the Government lead the feasibility study, but that does not necessarily imply Government ownership.

I expect to have some early cost estimates and findings from the financing and ownership report in the autumn. These findings will feed into our internal decision later this year on whether to proceed with phase 2 of the study. I will happily discuss the new information, when it is available, with hon. Members through our Parliamentary Forum on the study. We will also publish the report, following that decision. What I am saying is that, fairly soon, if we see any big show-stoppers, the show will stop. We will not continue with the feasibility study if it is clear that that would be foolish.

Of course, we also need to consider the regional economic impacts of a tidal power scheme, and we expect to appoint consultants later this month to lead this work for us. We will look at both the construction and operational phases and investigate the impacts on the regional economies of Wales and south-west England, and on specific sectors and activities, including, importantly, the region’s ports.

Let me say something now about Bristol port. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, North-West (Dr. Naysmith) said, we both met representatives of the Bristol Port Company; we had some useful discussions with the owners and took a good look around the port, which I found invaluable. One of the issues that the owners raised with me was the need for locks in a barrage. That is clearly an important matter and one to which I am sympathetic. I am looking into what is possible in terms of committing to locks soon, but we cannot provide guarantees on lock specification without considering the consequences for the technical and engineering aspects of a tidal power scheme. After all, we also cannot say at this stage that the tidal power project, if it goes ahead at all, will be a barrage.

I listened to my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud talking about a possible testing site. We are investing in other testing sites, but I am happy to discuss his ideas further.

The hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose) also spoke. I looked across at his beautiful constituency from Brean down only recently and I think that I waved to him on the beach; I am not sure about that. No, no—he was attending to his duties; local reporters could be here. He is very concerned about the draft directive, and I want to reassure him. It is a draft directive. We are looking at the 5 GW threshold, perhaps to argue that it could be reduced to less than even 1 GW. The feasibility study will look at seven tidal power projects against other options, based on standard cost-benefit analysis.

In brief, I want to reassure the hon. Gentleman that it would be outrageous for anyone to think that, just because we need to hit a target and to be flexible about that, we would somehow give the go-ahead or favour a project on this scale. I am happy to discuss the matter with him, because I really want to reassure him that that is not where we are in our considerations. What we are saying is that, if large projects in Europe that are being built are a year or two late surely it is not unreasonable that they could count before the target, but not before time. They would not provide full benefit until the project is commissioned.

Can we talk later, because I have only got two minutes left and there were one or two other things that I wanted to say?

One thing that I wanted to say to the hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. Liddell-Grainger) is that I heard what he said about non-governmental organisations. I think that it is a pity that any serious organisation can make up its mind about a project of this sort now, in advance of the feasibility studies. In the long term, the environmental impacts of climate change will be devastating and the more of us who can keep an open mind, the better. However, I will not say more about that issue, because I think that I ruffled a few feathers, when I spoke about it the other day. I ask all hon. Members and all those with an interest to keep an open mind, as I will, until we have developed our evidence base and are in a position to make an informed decision on whether the huge potential of the Severn estuary should play a part in meeting our energy needs.

Finally, as we approach the hour, I would like to say that I want to keep in contact with all the various interests, including all the voluntary organisations and industry interests. I certainly want to remain involved with Members of Parliament and I look forward to our continued dialogue through the Parliamentary Forum, the next meeting of which is likely to be on 24 October in Cardiff.

Child Poverty

Usually, on such occasions, I am delighted to see my right hon. Friend the Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform, but I hope he will forgive me if I express a little disappointment today. When I submitted my request for the debate, I was hoping that a representative of the Department for Communities and Local Government would answer.

Only a few weeks ago, my right hon. Friend joined us for an excellent Westminster Hall debate some three hours long on the Work and Pensions Committee report on child poverty. I am sure he will listen to today’s debate and answer with his usual courtesy and skill, but I would have liked to involve the Department for Communities and Local Government, because so far it has not been clear what its involvement, if any, is in respect of child poverty.

I was told that my debate would be responded to by a Minister from the Department for Work and Pensions, because it leads on child poverty. Perhaps the Minister will clarify that when he responds, as I have been told at various other times that the Treasury and the Department for Children, Schools and Families lead on child poverty. It would be useful to know where the buck stops. Furthermore, I gather that a Cabinet Committee is examining child poverty. Certainly, the cross-departmental child poverty unit is considering it. Is the DCLG represented anywhere in those discussions?

I regret that I did not request a 90-minute debate, which would have given the Opposition Front-Bench spokesmen the chance to respond. I notice a Conservative Member on the Opposition Benches. Perhaps he will intervene at some point. In a 90-minute debate we might have heard the Conservative party spokesman explain exactly why their party leader seems to believe that being fat and poor is people’s own fault. In case anyone accuses me of misleading the Chamber about what the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) said, that came from a Daily Mail headline. In my view, if you live by the sword, you die by the sword.

To make a more serious point on the same subject, when we debated child poverty in Westminster Hall a few weeks ago, referring to the Work and Pensions Committee’s report on child poverty, I mentioned the dangers of focusing on what I described as “the dysfunctional poor” and on what some people call emotional poverty, rather than on material poverty. There is a danger that what the right hon. Member for Witney has been saying in this past week feeds into that agenda and, in doing so, does many people living in poverty a great disservice. I hope right hon. and hon. Members present will indulge me if I dwell on the point for a moment longer.

The right hon. Member for Witney said:

“We talk about people being at risk of poverty, or social exclusion: it’s as if these things—obesity, alcohol abuse, drug addiction—are purely external events like a plague or bad weather. Of course, circumstances—where you are born, your neighbourhood, your school, and the choices your parents make—have a huge impact. But social problems are often the consequence of the choices that people make.”

He jumps from talking about people’s being at risk of poverty and social exclusion to talking about obesity, alcohol abuse and drug addiction. Perhaps I have got it wrong, but it looks to me as though he is portraying people who live in poverty as drinkers, drug-takers and junk food eaters. That conjures up negative images, not images of decent, hard-pressed families trying to make a little go a long way and not images of a single parent struggling to find child care, working for the minimum wage and paying a fortune in rent to a buy-to-let landlord.

There is no mention of external factors that might be completely beyond a family’s control. When the party led by the right hon. Member for Witney was last in government, child poverty tripled, and that was, by and large, due to the huge increase in unemployment. That cannot be laid at the doorstep of people who unfortunately lost their jobs during that time.

I mentioned the speech made by the right hon. Member for Witney on my blog and received a comment saying,

“As the son of an electrician and a dinner lady, I can confirm much poverty is voluntary.”

I am not denying that some people—some parents, in this context—make the wrong choices in life and that some do so recklessly or selfishly without any regard for their children’s well-being, but 50 per cent. of children living in poverty have a parent who works, many more have parents who want to work, and the vast majority of parents of children living in poverty want to do what is best for their child and will put their child's needs and interests above everything else. I put that on the record because it needs restating.

I should like to move on to the real subject of the debate: what can be done locally by local authorities to help fulfil the Government’s child poverty agenda and help us meet the targets, which we have set for ourselves, of halving child poverty by 2010 and abolishing it within a generation. I shall rattle quickly through some of the areas where councils could and should be doing more.

Housing benefit administration has been a problem for decades. It is undeniably a barrier to seeking work and a cause of poverty when people move back on to welfare from work. Sometimes, councils take too long to process claims and sometimes, they get it wrong. Often, claimants get it wrong, because the system is too complex or too confusing, or they have too much else on their plate to cope with making a claim at a particular time.

Being able to pay the rent and keep a roof above their heads is one of the most important considerations for parents in making the decision to move from welfare into work and being able to provide for their family. However, not enough is done to publicise the availability of in-work housing benefit. Although Jobcentre Plus advisers can tell people about it, the fact that people do not realise that such a thing exists often means that they are reluctant to go anywhere near Jobcentre Plus, thinking that they are in the housing trap because they could not possibly afford to cover the rent if they went for a low-paid job.

We know that for many people, particularly lone parents, moving from welfare to work can be something of a revolving door. They start work, find it difficult to cope, move back on to benefits, struggle to make ends meet, look for work again, and so the cycle continues. That is when the bureaucracy of the housing benefit system defeats them, with new claims taking too long to assess and delays in payments pushing families even further into poverty. That is a major deterrent, for example, to people taking on temporary or seasonal work, because they dread what will happen when they have to move on to housing benefit at the end of it.

I have had representations from parents with mental health problems, who feel particularly anxious about the time that it would take to get their benefits reinstated if they could not cope with moving into the world of work.

The hon. Lady is talking about exactly the matter that I came to ask her about. I agree with what she says. I have experience of that in my constituency. Does she agree that part of the problem is that there is no flexibility built into the housing benefit system, and that people are either receiving something or not? Does she agree that we ought to be seeking some transitional provision—I accept the difficulties of doing so—that enables people to put their toe in the water, go back to work and come back out again if they have to, without having sacrificed everything in the meantime and without the bureaucratic nightmare that she describes?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I agree. I am sure the Minister will be able to tell us a little more. We have considered introducing a taper for out-of-work benefits, so that lone parents, particularly, can receive some money to make the transition while they are meeting the new costs of going into work. That could be done with housing benefit.

In Bristol, Jobcentre Plus and the council have established joint working pilots, with the aim of speeding up communication between housing benefit administration and the work-related benefits side at Jobcentre Plus. However, I have long been of the opinion that housing benefit administration is not best placed with local authorities. The system would be able to give people a much better service if all the benefits administration were placed in one area—with the DWP, locally. Doing so would reduce bureaucracy, give claimants one point of contact and make it easier to compute better-off-in-work calculations.

As we move to a more sanctions-based benefits system for people, including lone parents when their child reaches a certain age, and as we tighten up the incapacity benefit regime, particularly when people drop out of work or refuse to take work, we need people who understand the financial situation of those on benefits across the board. That is difficult to do when the council is doing one thing and Jobcentre Plus is doing another. Perhaps the Minister can say something about that.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for requesting, and I congratulate her on securing, the debate. In respect of the DWP’s changing the regime for incapacity benefit and for lone parents, I have been encouraged about the way that the councils in Leeds got together with Jobcentre Plus and the primary health care trust. However, would it not be better if local authorities looked at pulling together a much more complex response to poverty? I shall give a practical example.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the system is totally insensitive to part-time low-paid workers who are also full-time carers—usually women—who are in poverty? Unless we support the caring system, with councils and social services getting together with Sure Start, the Department for Work and Pensions, Jobcentre Plus and the health care system, and adopt a holistic approach from the bottom up, we will not eradicate poverty.

I could not agree more with my right hon. Friend, who I know has a real interest in the subject. Without joined-up working at the local level, we will not be able to tackle child poverty. That is why I wanted the debate.

The concrete facts of how much money a person receives is not the only factor affecting whether they live in poverty. Rather, that is determined by the daily facts of their lives and the difficulties they experience, such as not being able to get a bus to where they want to work or not having the right child care or respite care. There is a range of issues, and virtually every department within a local authority ought to bear them in mind.

A major concern is the provision of affordable social housing. Not much needs to be said on that, because it is obvious that housing costs are a major deterrent to people seeking work, particularly in London, but in other areas of the country as well. Many councils are trying to address that, but much more could be done. I know that the London Child Poverty Commission is particularly focused on housing.

Local authorities have a key role to play in economic development and regeneration. When I last spoke on the subject, I mentioned that Bristol has a major city centre retail development that will create around 4,000 new retail jobs. That development is flanked on one side by three of the most deprived wards in Bristol, including the most deprived ward in the south-west, which is in my constituency.

The figures that the Joseph Rowntree Foundation published after looking at the south-west in 2005 show that 26 per cent. of children in Bristol were living in households claiming out-of-work benefits, compared with a national average of 21 per cent. In Lawrence Hill ward, to which I have just referred, the percentage of children in those circumstances was 55 per cent., although that is probably a massive understatement, as many of the people living in that ward are refugees and failed asylum seekers who are outwith the system.

Those wards are on the doorstep of the city centre retail development, so the local authority has a role to play in ensuring that some of those jobs are filled by those living in the most deprived areas. My checklist for those local authorities includes affordable and reliable child care, including workplace crèches; expansion of children’s centres; advertising of the child care element of the tax credit systems and in-work housing benefit; extended school hours, with breakfast clubs and after-school clubs; greater provision of skills training and classes in English for speakers of other languages; and perhaps better support for informal child care arrangements. Local authorities are not necessarily the providers of all those services, but they are certainly in the driving seat when it comes to local strategic partnerships and as the organisation that pulls things together at the local level.

Local authorities need to do more to child poverty-proof their policies. The Child Poverty Action Group recently introduced a toolkit on its website, which I hope can be disseminated to local authorities. Local authorities need to give due weighting to child poverty when handing out grants to the voluntary sector, which can obviously play a major role in supporting families living in poverty to move into work and cope with some of their other circumstances. They can build on programmes such as Sure Start and the family intervention project, which we have in Bristol, for tackling more difficult family issues. I would like to see Bristol bid for one of the new child poverty pilots.

I would also like local authorities to collect data on children whose parents are serving custodial sentences, as very little is currently collected. Again, I appreciate that that is outside the Minister’s remit. The needs of those children are often overlooked. They are sometimes placed in temporary care with unsuitable foster parents or with relatives and friends, and they are slipping through the net. When I have tried to find out what local authorities are doing to assess how many children are in those circumstances and what can be done to help them, I have drawn a blank.

In Bristol, the local authority has a role to play in protecting the children of failed asylum seekers, who live in the most severe poverty. There is a question about what we should do with children of parents who do not have leave to stay in the country and have exhausted all legal avenues. They are not allowed to work or study, but because of the situation in their home countries, they are unlikely to be deported. In Bristol, we have anything up to 20,000 Somalis. Not all of them fall into that category, but a significant number do, and the vast majority of those people will not apply for the available hardship support because they do not want to sign up to return home. Those families and children are living in absolute destitution, and if the local authority does not step in, it is left to the voluntary sector to do so.

Finally, councils have a role to play as local education authorities. One of the frequent problems that arise when parents move from welfare into work is that they suddenly have to meet the cost of school meals. Why are more councils not following the example of Hull by offering free school meals to all pupils? I know that the Liberal Democrats scrapped that policy in Hull, but it certainly seems to have been successful when it was operational.

I have already mentioned the extended school programmes. There is a case for reviewing the length of school summer holidays so that parents would find it easier to balance chid care and work. Schools also have a role to play outside their normal remit, because they are often the main contact point with parents and can act as a conduit to offer them advice on job opportunities, benefits take-up, child care, ESOL and other training, perhaps by letting local advice centres do outreach work on their premises.

Some of the schools in my constituency already do excellent work on that front. They have coffee mornings for parents to attend after dropping their kids off at school, and the parents can sit and listen to those who have come in to talk to them about their concerns. Some of the parents who come in are quite isolated, perhaps having arrived in the country pretty recently. Those programmes in schools are the best way of reaching such women. Obviously, it is not only about the parents, but about equipping children with basic literacy and numeracy skills, ensuring that they leave school with good qualifications and encouraging them to stay on in education and training. Only by doing that will we break the inter-generational cycle whereby a child born into poverty is far more likely to end up living in poverty as an adult.

I served for five years as a councillor some time ago. In preparation for the debate, I had to refresh my memory and get up to speed on some of the ways that local councillors operate. I found that I was engulfed by a deluge of performance indicators, national indicators, public service agreements, local area agreements and local strategic partnerships. I found an awful lot of plans, charts and boxes being ticked or not ticked.

I did not find a sense of commitment to the idea that local councils ought to be responsible for tackling child poverty, or that improvements were achievable if they played their part. Regardless of whether councils have adopted national indicators or others in their local area agreements, they should be addressing child poverty on a daily basis and it should be at the heart of their work.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, East (Kerry McCarthy) on securing the debate. The commitment to eradicate child poverty by 2020, which was first set out by Tony Blair in 1999, has animated much of what the Government have done since. I vividly recall the commitment to that goal underlined by the then Chancellor when I was first appointed a Treasury Minister in the summer of 1999, and that commitment continues to be at the heart of what the Government are doing.

My hon. Friend asked how that policy is being led in the Government. The public sector agreement, which is the key target, is led by the Treasury. We also set up a child poverty unit, which is jointly responsible to the Department for Work and Pensions, the Department for Children, Schools and Families and the Treasury. The Cabinet Committee is chaired by the Chancellor. The Department for Communities and Local Government is represented at a senior level on the officials’ child poverty board, and officials in that Department work closely with the child poverty unit. I think that that is the right way to handle such things. The unit does a great deal of good work, and it needs to work with DCLG and other Departments across the Government because this drive is so central to so much of what we are doing. I welcome the consistent and thoughtful support for the target that my hon. Friend shows in much of her parliamentary work.

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way, particularly as the debate was secured by my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, East. By way of pulling that work together, could the child poverty unit give advice or an instruction to local government to set up the same kind of integrated committee locally to drive the campaign and work to get rid of poverty at the base? That might be happening nationally, but I am damn sure that it is not happening locally.

That must be a matter for local authorities to determine, and I shall comment on what local authorities are doing. It is right to highlight in this debate the importance of local authorities’ contribution. Ending child poverty cannot be achieved by central Government alone. Local authorities, voluntary sector organisations and employers all have a role to play. We have made good progress during the past decade, but we need to do a lot more. Local authorities need to think “family” and to recognise the extent to which their policies and work impact on families and child poverty. Local authorities must lead local action, harness the resources of local communities and support parents to enter and stay in work.

I am pleased that the commitment to tackling child poverty is reflected in a number of local area agreements that have just been concluded between the Department for Communities and Local Government and local authorities. That process gives local authorities and those who work with them the flexibility to find local solutions to local problems in the light of local circumstances.

Our current measure of child poverty in local area agreements is the proportion of children who live in families dependent on out-of-work benefits. We can produce that data at local authority level, but we are working on a combined measure to include both in-work and out-of-work poverty. By early next year, we expect to be able to publish data on both the current measure and the new one at individual local authority level, and our commitment is to publish that annually. That will enable comparisons to be made between different areas, and make it possible to track progress locally, year by year.

More than 40 authorities have selected the child poverty indicator as one of the 35 for inclusion in their local agreement, and more than 20 with relatively high levels of child poverty, including Bristol, as my hon. Friend knows, have selected a range of indicators that will have an impact on breaking intergenerational disadvantages in the future—for example, the take-up of child care in low-income families, under-18 conception rates and narrowing the attainment gap in education. In Bristol, officials from a number of Departments will meet Bristol Partnership in the coming months to discuss in more detail Bristol’s plan within the local area agreement to reduce child poverty.

It is encouraging that so many local authorities have taken up the issue in their local area agreements. We are building on the new local focus on child poverty by challenging local authorities to develop their own approaches, particularly in areas where national policy is not yet achieving the desired result. It was announced in the Budget that we are setting aside £125 million for child poverty pilots, one strand of which is funding for pilots to enable local authorities and their partners to design, develop and test new ways of tackling child poverty. My hon. Friend said that she would like her local authority to participate in that, and this summer we shall be inviting local authorities to express interest in taking part in the pilot schemes. We envisage the project being launched early in 2009.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to underline the importance of housing in this debate. In the separate strands of the child poverty pilots announced in the Budget, housing is a key theme. Poor housing certainly aggravates poverty, and children growing up in poor housing are, for example, 25 per cent. more likely to suffer severe ill health and disability during childhood or early adulthood.

We have made good progress. We have ended the long-term use of bed and breakfast for families in temporary accommodation provided under the homelessness legislation, and we now want to halve the number of households in temporary accommodation to just over 50,000 by 2010. The data that I have seen suggest that there has been good progress in Bristol.

We are also investing more in homelessness prevention, but I completely agree with my hon. Friend that the prompt delivery of housing and council tax benefits is important. We have worked hard with local authorities to cut processing times, and the national average time for processing new housing and council tax benefit claims has fallen from 56 days in 2002-03—I am embarrassed to say that—to 26 days in the last financial year. I am told that, in Bristol, the time has fallen from 44 days in 2005-06 to 30 days in 2007-08, with further improvements expected this year. My hon. Friend is right in saying that it is an important target for local authorities to encourage people to have the confidence to move into work.

Picking up the interesting point raised by the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin), we need people better to understand that housing benefit is available for those in work on low incomes. People often believe that, when they move into jobs, they will automatically lose all housing benefit and will not be entitled to anything, whereas they are frequently entitled to housing benefit, albeit a smaller amount. We need local authorities to help us to make people aware of that.

I agree with the Minister’s point, which the hon. Lady also made, that people need to know that they may be entitled to housing benefit in work. The Minister referred to 20, 30 or 40 days’ delay. Does he accept that, if someone goes into work and finds that it does not work out, so comes back out, and perhaps goes back in a month later before coming out again, they may have three or four conflicting positions on benefit as a result? That bureaucratic mess can end up with claims for repayment and all sorts of other problems. We should not be satisfied with a 30-day delay. We need a different system.

We need to do more, although we have introduced housing benefit run-on, which helps to deal with exactly that problem and has removed the difficulty for some people.

I want to draw hon. Members’ attention to the fact that we have been working with half a dozen local authorities and with Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs—tax credits are also important—on improving the service for people who, as the right hon. Gentleman said, move frequently in and out of work. There have been real difficulties in quite a number of cases. Turning benefits on and off quickly and more effectively is a key enabler to encourage people to take the first step into work and to feel confident about doing so, or perhaps to take up short-term work. I am pleased that my Department, the HMRC, the Treasury and the Local Government Association have recently agreed to extend this more joined-up approach nationwide. The six local authorities that we have been working with have shown considerable improvements in reducing processing time for housing benefit and tax credits. We want those benefits to be extended nationwide.

I should have liked to make a number of other points, but I shall make one in response to what my hon. Friend said about 4,000 jobs being created in central Bristol. Local employment partnerships between Jobcentre Plus and employers are starting to have some real momentum in providing opportunities for disadvantaged jobseekers—lone parents, people on incapacity benefit and people who have been out of work for a long time. In fact, the week before last, for the first time, 1,000 people went into jobs through local employment partnerships, and so far, a total of just over 12,000 have done so. The target is 250,000 by the end of 2010, so I hope that quite a few employers in Bristol will have local employment partnerships in place and agreements with Jobcentre Plus.

The deal is that Jobcentre Plus invests to equip disadvantaged jobseekers for the jobs becoming available, and employers undertake to ensure that those applicants get a fair crack at the jobs with, for example, work trials, guaranteed interviews and mentoring after appointment to ensure that people who may have been out of work for a long time get a good chance of moving into employment.

My hon. Friend was right to refer to the importance of education. The take-up of free schools meals is low among the poorest pupils, and some local authorities have examined the reasons for that, addressed the problem and increased take-up. We would like all schools and local authorities to do that. My hon. Friend was also right to remind hon. Members that local authorities have the power to provide free meals for all.

Invaluable support is being provided by children’s centres and children’s trusts. Adult services in local authorities need routinely to think “family”, rather than focusing only on adults’ needs.

Post Office Closures

It is a great pleasure to have secured this debate on the impact of the post office closure scheme on my constituency of Torridge and West Devon. The debate has excited a considerable amount of attention in my constituency—indeed, a number of postmasters and postmistresses have travelled up to listen to what the Minister has to say. Mr. and Mrs. Jeanette Hendrie are the postmaster and postmistress of St. Giles in the Heath; Mrs. Shirley Hoskin is the postmistress of Meeth; and Mrs. Naomi Nardi is the postmistress of Bridestowe village. They are all here because of their acute concern about not only the fact that their branches have been identified in the Post Office’s closure proposals, but the way in which the consultation has been handled. I shall devote my opening remarks to those issues.

My constituency is among the worst affected in the country by the closure proposals. Post Office Ltd has proposed closing 45 branches in Devon and replacing 38 with an outreach service. Torridge and West Devon will bear a disproportionate number of those post office closures—five branches are to close outright and a further 15 are to be replaced with outreach services. Therefore, 20 post offices are to close in total, which represents a disproportionate number of the already disproportionate number of closures that Devon will have to bear. In fact, 35 per cent. of post offices in my constituency are to be closed. Only one other constituency in the country—Hexham, I think—will have to sustain a larger closure rate.

Despite the target that Post Office Ltd has set of only affecting on average 18 per cent. of services in any area, Devon as a whole will lose 22.8 per cent of services, as 83 branches are to close. I submit to the Minister that a number of bodies, including the county council and Postwatch, are concerned about the growing evidence that Devon has had to sustain a far harder blow from the axe—a far keener burden of the closures—than any other closure area to date. I would be grateful if the Minister and his Department examined that concern in the light of the fundamental importance of fairness. If closures in other parts of the country have not met the Post Office’s targets, it is quite wrong for post offices that feature down the list, particularly in the vulnerable rural areas that I represent, to have to sustain an unequal burden of the closure programme.

From the start of this process, I have argued that local people need to show Post Office Ltd why they so desperately need their branches. The first point that the Post Office has made in answering questions from Members of Parliament is that there has been no or very little response to the consultation. I am glad to say to the Minister that that has not been the case in Devon, and it has certainly not been the case in Torridge and West Devon. Thousands of people have made relevant, well informed and well argued submissions to the Post Office about why their sub-post office branch should not close. A flood of letters, e-mails and phone calls from across the constituency and county has inundated my office and the network change team. Astonishing numbers of people have flocked to public meetings in the affected villages. Postmasters who I know and those who are here today have said to me that they have been deeply touched by the depth of support and affection expressed for the service that they provide across the community.

As I have already said, the consultation and closure scheme has been conducted in a way that has attracted expressions of grave concern about its competence and fairness, not only from Members of Parliament but from the country council and Postwatch. Let me give the Minister some examples of why the communities I represent fail to have the confidence that the consultation ought to inspire. In St. Giles on the Heath, where Mr. and Mrs. Hendrie operate the shop and post office, the proposal made by the network change team indicated that it was not the last shop in the village. In a remote, isolated, rural community, such as parts of the constituency I represent, whether the post office is the last shop in the village is clearly an important consideration. Of course, it is not a decisive factor and it is certainly not a conclusive factor, but, as the network change team has indicated to me, it is something that must be properly taken into account. There could be an argument about whether it should be a decisive factor and the argument could also be made—it is one I would adopt—that the Government should have said that if the post office is the last shop in the village, that ought to be a disproportionately influential factor when considering whether to save it. I will come to that point in a moment or two.

The Post Office identified that there was another shop in St. Giles. In its proposal, which was circulated around the parish—most of the post offices and shops have a number of parishes dependent on them—it said there was a farm shop in St. Giles. That caused a considerable amount of consternation among residents in the village because they had not been aware of a farm shop. If it existed, it was not well advertised and none of the local inhabitants of the village or the parish knew of it. The truth is that a local will say that, when driving up the road between Launceston and Holsworthy, one can see there is something called Box Shop farm. Of course, what had happened was the Post Office team had driven past, seen Box Shop farm, swapped the words farm and shop, and thought it was a farm shop.

That might seem to be an amusing anomaly, but the Post Office is asking hundreds of people to accept the loss of what they regard as their staff of life—the lifeline and heart of their community and a facility on which the elderly, the infirm and the disabled depend—on the basis of a drive past that is superficial in its assessment of the impact on that community. The Post Office team considered that a sign meant they did not have to worry about the post office being the last shop in the village—and they did not even bother to go in.

I am sure that the Minister will agree that that is an astonishingly superficial approach and one bound to inspire the deepest distrust and cynicism from the communities that have to suffer as a result of such incompetence. There is no other shop in the village of St. Giles but the “Pint and Post”, which Mr. and Mrs. Hendrie operate, so by losing the post office, it is almost inevitable that the village will lose the shop.

Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.

On resuming—

I shall do my best to resume in mid-flight, as it were. I was talking about the superficiality with which the consultation and, worse, the assessment of the impact that closure would have on communities seem to have been carried out by the Post Office in Torridge and West Devon and in Devon as a whole. It is worth observing that Postwatch has told me—indeed, it said as much in its written representations to the Post Office, which, I suppose, eventually escalated to the Secretary of State—that the scheme in Devon appears to be one of the worst. I said worst, but Postwatch would say that the scheme was not as well put together as those in most if not all other areas of the country.

The experience of the people in St. Giles is one example, but let me deal with the experience of the people of Meeth. The other day I had the great pleasure of visiting Meeth; I go through it frequently because the main road between the north and south of my constituency, the A386, passes through it. It is a fast road: cars are frequently seen passing through at 60 mph and sometimes even faster. Juggernauts and 40 ft lorries go past and through the village almost every hour, yet the Post Office has proposed that the post office, run by Mrs. Hoskin, should close and that the village should have a mobile post office instead, which will park in a lay-by about 600 yd out of the village, around two blind bends.

As the Minister will appreciate, the village has a large proportion of elderly and infirm residents. Indeed, my constituency has a disproportionate number of the elderly among its population. Based on the 2001 census, 28.3 per cent. of households in Torridge and West Devon are comprised only of pensioners, compared with a national average of 23.71 per cent. That is simply one indication of the deprivation, both geographical and otherwise, that communities in my constituency are suffering. Yet, the inhabitants of Meeth—the elderly, the frail, the infirm, and even the young—are being asked to walk around two blind bends on a main road, 600 yd out of the village. There is no pavement or walkway, and not even a grass verge. It will be a death-trap.

When confronted with the astonishment at the proposal, the Post Office simply says, “We haven’t really worked it out yet.” That, too, does not inspire the confidence that the programme and consultation should inspire. Many of the decisions that have been taken in my constituency and, no doubt, in others in Devon, are extraordinary, even inexplicable. Eight shops that are the last in their village are scheduled to go, and many, including Bridestowe, which is run by Mrs. Nardi, are successful.

Mrs. Nardi’s post office business has increased for the past six years. Only a few months ago, the Post Office awarded the shop the ability to deal with foreign currency such as euros. It had to hit a minimum criterion of business to do that. One hundred and fifty self-employed people and businesses depend on it. If there is an example of a sustainable rural branch, it is Bridestowe. It is in the upper 46 per cent. in customer numbers compared with similar concerns around the country, which is an impressive achievement.

There has been an overwhelming response from people in widely dispersed communities and parishes around Bridestowe, all of whom depend on that post office. I met a gentleman of 101 years of age from a care village and residential home who came out to visit the branch to show his support. It is not to be supposed that these post offices and the people who depend on them will conceivably be able to rely on a mobile solution that might visit their village for but an hour or two, at an inconvenient time, on a wet and rainy day, or even a day of snow and cold, as villages around Dartmoor such as Bridestowe so frequently experience.

The councils, the postmasters and mistresses and I have made detailed, well argued—I hope—submissions to the Post Office. We hope, given that the decision is being taken now, that the Post Office will listen not only to the pleas, but to the arguments that have been put to it, which are based on facts, statistics and detail.

It would take too long for me to give the details of each of the threatened post offices in my constituency. Shebbear and Buckland Brewer, among others, are successful. Indeed, in cases such as St. Giles, villages have received public money for the post office. Some £27,000 of public money from Devon Renaissance was spent on regenerating the post office in Buckland Brewer, yet it is scheduled to close. Why was that money given? It was given because the authorities that looked at the need for rural regeneration in that area—I appeal to the Minister—decided that there was such rural deprivation that they ought to spend nearly £30,000 of taxpayers’ money to bring the shop back to life. Now the Post Office says, “We will kill it.”

That is an astonishing misuse of taxpayers’ money. Three years ago, £27,000 of taxpayers’ money could be spent, but now the Post Office is ignoring not only the fact of that expenditure, but the fact that it was spent because of objective evidence of rural deprivation. Bridestowe is the 20th most deprived parish in England. Something like a dozen parishes in my constituency are in the top 500 of 32,000 such parishes in the country. On geographical deprivation terms and criteria, it is clear that many of these vital post offices would not close.

What about Postbridge in Dartmoor national park? There is a statutory duty on the Government, under section 62 of the Environment Act 1995, to consider and foster communities on the high moors, in the national parks, yet the Post Office has come along, apparently without the Government knowing, and proposed to close Postbridge post office, which is miles from the next post office, and to replace it with a van. How are those things compatible? Will the Minister explain how they are compatible with Government policies to tackle rural deprivation and look after high moor and national park areas, where communities are exposed and isolated on hillsides? How is it conceivably compatible with Government policies to foster the rural economy and encourage diversification?

What are the 150 businesses that surround Bridestowe parish and Bridestowe post office, which are served so well by Mrs. Nardi, to do? What are the businesses such as Hookways coaches in Meeth, which pours parcels and post into the Meeth post office, to do? What are the businesses and people around St. Giles supposed to do? St. Giles was given public money only a few years ago for the same reason as Buckland Brewer, namely, its deprivation and rural isolation. It does not appear to the people I represent to be joined-up thinking or that the Government’s priorities are being taken into account by the post office closure proposals. That is why the consultation so fundamentally lacks the kind of authenticity and sincerity that would command the confidence of those whom I represent.

I should like the Minister to answer this question. Why does the Post Office deny to the communities that I represent the financial figures that would help them to fight their case against the closure of critical facilities in the community? Four criteria are applied to the closure of post offices; one is access, another is the financial benefit to the Post Office. Try how communities might, they cannot winkle out of the Post Office those desperately important financial figures, which would help them to answer their question: what is the Post Office saving by closing the branch in Ashwater, or Bridestowe, or Shebbear, or Buckland Brewer, or Chillaton?

I am going to do something that has not been done to date, but I have considered it carefully. I wrote the other day to the Post Office chief executive, Mr. Alan Cook, asking for the financial savings that the post office would make from the closure of each post office. Mr. Cook told me that he will give me the figures because Ms Vennels, who is the network director, told the Business and Enterprise Committee that they would be given, but he said that he would like me to keep them confidential. I do not intend to keep them confidential. I intend to adopt the privilege of a Member of Parliament in this Chamber to say what he thinks is right in the interests of his constituents. However, before revealing them, I have decided to ensure that each of the postmasters and mistresses whose branches are affected consent and agree to the course that I propose to take today.

I have been told by the Post Office that it does not want me to reveal the information, and I have been told—indeed threatened—that if I do, it might not reveal such information to Members in the future. However, given that only a handful of Members know of the availability of such information, and having spoken to the Chairman of the Select Committee, I do not think that that is a profound deterrent.

I say, therefore, to the communities that I represent, to you, Mr. Weir and to the Minister that closing the post office in Ashwater will save the Post Office £6,000 a year. What is the community in Ashwater to make of the fact that they are to lose the last shop in their village—a village 9 miles from the nearest other viable facility—for just £6,000 a year? Of course the Post Office does not want people to know the figures, because there will be an uprising of outrage that for £6,000 a year, communities will lose the social cement and glue that is the essence of the survival of their village. The closure in Bridestowe will save the Post Office £8,700, and yet hundreds of businesses and several thousand people in the area depend on the post office. It is wrong that those figures are being kept from public view.

Each of the persons whose figures I have mentioned have consented to—indeed want—me to say what the savings are. The truth is that the savings are paltry in comparison with the damage that they will cause to the communities that I represent. It is simply wrong that those figures are being kept from communities so that they cannot assess the true value to the Post Office of their loss. The closure in Chillaton will save £10,800; the closure in Meeth £11,300, and the one in St. Giles £10,500—paltry figures! And I am concentrating on areas where vital shops are being lost. There might well be a case for closing a fragile office with 20 customers a week, of which there are a number in my constituency, but why are we closing these vital lifelines to communities?

I would like the Minister to answer those questions and to say whether it is right for Torridge and West Devon to sustain so disproportionate a burden for so paltry a saving. What does he make of the consultation based upon so superficial an impact assessment? I have given him just a few examples. Why has there been no assessment of the impact on the rural economy of closing Bridestowe when it is the Government’s policy to encourage the rural economy? There has been no such assessment or depth of research, and no thorough examination of the impact on rural economies, communities and deprivation.

This has been a botched process driven by cost. The real and underlying driver of cost is being concealed from the communities, which is why with due deliberation and consideration I have decided to go public with some of those figures. The truth is that my communities and postmasters want them to be known.

I shall do my best in the little time available to me to answer the hon. and learned Gentleman’s questions. I congratulate him on securing this debate and on presenting his arguments so well on behalf of his constituents. He spoke eloquently and passionately about the challenges that face his constituency as a result of its deeply rural character.

The Minister for Employment Relations and Postal Affairs, who could not be here today, has no role in decisions to close or retain individual post offices, which is rightly—in our judgment—a matter for Post Office Ltd, following local consultation, involving Postwatch, local people, MPs and other representatives. The post office closures in Devon are part of a wider programme announced in May 2007 by the then Department for Trade and Industry. Under the network change programme, up to 2,500 post offices will close and 500 new outreach services will be established, taking the network to around 11,500 branches. There will be roughly similar numbers of closures in urban and rural areas.

Before addressing the issues raised by the hon. and learned Gentleman, it is important to set out the background to the network change programme. It involves substantial numbers of post office closures and has understandably given rise to much concern and protest. However, the network is facing significant challenges: it is losing about £500,000 a day; it has 4 million fewer customers a week than just three years ago; and three out of four post offices run at a loss to Post Office Ltd. If the Post Office was run as a commercial network, there would probably only be about 4,000 branches. Some very rural branches have so few customers that the cost per transaction is £17.

Faced with all that, the Government are not walking away, leaving the network to decline, with no plan for where or how branches would close, but have provided a subsidy of £150 million a year. That supports 7,500 non-commercial branches that would otherwise close and is part of an overall programme of public support for the Post Office of £1.7 billion up to 2011. I hope that the hon. and learned Gentleman agrees that that is a considerable sum. It is precisely because we recognise its important social and economic role that the Government are committed to a national network with reasonable access to post office services and are investing such financial support.

Governments also have a duty to the taxpayer, however, including the hon. and learned Gentleman’s constituents and mine, so the subsidy cannot be unlimited. Across the whole country, the subsidy is very considerable, including for rural areas. I appreciate his concern about the number of proposed closures in his constituency. However, out of 71 existing post offices in Torridge and West Devon, Post Office Ltd is proposing the outright closure of just six branches—about 9 per cent. of the total—two of which are mobile van services available in each village for just 30 minutes a week. Those villages are Buckland Monachorum and Peter Tavy—I apologise for the lack of a south-west accent.

Alongside those six branch closures, Post Office Ltd is proposing that a further 16 branches be replaced with outreach services, as part of the 500 new outreach services being introduced nationally to mitigate the effects of closures in rural areas and to provide a more cost-effective means of continuing to provide post office services in areas that would otherwise lose them. Under Post Office Ltd’s area plan proposals, 92 per cent. of customers in Devon will see no change to their nearest post office, and 99.4 per cent. of the county’s population will either see no change or will remain within one mile—as measured by road distance—of an alternative post office branch.

It is important to be clear about what the consultation process is about. It is not a vote or referendum on whether particular post offices should close, but about ensuring that Post Office Ltd has the best available knowledge on which to make informed decisions about which offices should close. It is about how that is to be done, not whether it is to be done. The decision to reduce the size of the network was taken in May 2007. I will ensure that the Post Office is made aware of the inaccuracy that the hon. and learned Gentleman has drawn to my attention today—I took that point about shops very seriously.

None of that means that there can be no change in the plans. For example, in Devon, nearly 17 per cent. of the initial closure proposals were changed as a result of detailed pre-consultation input from key stakeholders, including Postwatch, which is the consumer body, before they were put out to local consultation. Across the 26 area plans for which Post Office Ltd has announced its final decisions, 54 closure decisions have been withdrawn, with 32 alternative branches proposed for closure.

I note the hon. and learned Gentleman’s concern about the need to consider the potential impact on the Dartmoor national park, and I understand that the park authority has been consulted and has submitted its views on the Devon area plan proposals as part of the local public consultation.

The hon. and learned Gentleman mentioned the availability of financial information. It is difficult for Post Office Ltd to give specific detailed financial information for individual branches, without breaching commercial confidentiality or obtaining the sub-postmaster’s permission, but Post Office Ltd has confirmed that the average saving to the Post Office of a branch closing is around £18,000 per annum. In rural areas, the average saving is about £13,000.

The average saving in my constituency is less than £10,000, and in many of the cases in which the shops are closing, we are talking about £6,000 and £8,000. In each case, I have secured the assent of the postmaster to give the information. Can the Minister say why, when the postmaster has given consent, the Post Office should still want to maintain confidentiality?

The Post Office is running a business and has rivals of different types, but the hon. and learned Gentleman has chosen to make the information available.

This process is not easy, and I appreciate the concerns raised by the hon. and learned Gentleman, who has argued his case well. Our policy is designed to achieve a managed reduction in the network’s size and to ensure reasonable access to services across the country, with the aid of new outreach services. The only point that I will add is that the public can make a difference. One reason for the difficulties that face sub-post offices—whether in my constituency or the hon. and learned Gentleman’s—is that although many members of the public will sign petitions, they are not using sub-post offices in sufficient numbers. Where people want to maintain local services, they have a duty to use them.

The sitting having continued for two and a half hours after half-past Two o’clock, it was adjourned without Question put.

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