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Westminster Hall

Volume 481: debated on Tuesday 28 October 2008

Westminster Hall

Tuesday 28 October 2008

[John Bercow in the Chair]

State Pension and Benefits

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

For the benefit of some Members, I have been asked to clarify the pronunciation of my constituency, as it seems to cause some difficulty. It is “Teignbridge”, with the first syllable pronounced “teen” as in “teenager”, not “tyne” as in somewhere in the north-east close to where my wife comes from.

This is a very important debate. We are talking about the basics for elderly people—about their income and how, often, they get by in the latter part of their lives. As Members of Parliament, we all have a lot of people who come to see us at our surgeries. Coming from Teignbridge, I certainly have a large number of people who come to see me about a wide variety of issues, particularly elderly people who are concerned about the cost of living, the rises in heating bills and so on.

In fact, Teignbridge is one of the constituencies that has a high percentage of elderly people. It is a beautiful constituency in the south-west. It has both seaside resorts and moorland, so there is quite a lot to attract people who, when they finish working, want to move somewhere to settle. When people retire, they expect to do so in some reasonable comfort. However, the tragedy for many who retire is that that expectation is often betrayed.

We can go back to the origins of the state pension system to examine its foundations and how it was funded, and we can blame people in the 1930s and 1940s for not having enough foresight to see that there would be a growth in the number of elderly people, that our longevity would increase and that we would have a greater percentage of people surviving into the latter stages of life.

Elderly people come to my surgery to discuss a wide range of issues with me, as I am sure they do with every other Member here. They talk about the council tax; in the south-west in particular, they talk about the rises in water charges. They are concerned about fuel and transport costs, although there has been some progress on transport with the concessionary bus fares scheme for the elderly. The funding of that scheme still gives rise to certain issues, which I have discussed with the Minister in the past in other guises.

Elderly people are also worried about heating costs, and some may be concerned about private pensions. The Government still have questions to answer about Equitable Life, the ombudsman’s review and what needs to be done about that issue. Elderly people are also concerned about post offices and their pension books, which they can no longer use. They may also be concerned about the pension credit, especially the difficulties in getting it. As MPs, we all write appropriate letters saying that a particular person has not been paid the pension credit, or asking if we can sort out it out for them.

The hon. Gentleman is aware—I am sure that he will be coming to this issue—of the fact that about a third of pensioners who are entitled to the pension credit do not actually claim it. Will he press the Minister to find ways to reach those people and to encourage more of them to claim their benefits, so that they can afford the high council tax bills, fuel bills and food costs that form a greater proportion of elderly people’s outgoings than those of ordinary families, which means that elderly people are hurt more by the current situation?

The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point, and I will touch on precisely that towards the end of my speech.

There may be other issues for elderly people in respect of annuities. I must say that I am slightly puzzled by certain policies on this issue. Perhaps the Conservative spokesman will explain later why the Conservatives are looking at only a suspension with regard to annuities. I thought that one was either in favour of something or opposed to it, and would either pledge to get rid of it or not.

I would like to take this opportunity to congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. I can reassure him that it is Conservative policy to remove the annuitisation rule altogether. However, while I am on my feet, may I ask him to reassure the Chamber that the leader of his party, the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Clegg), is aware of the true level of the state pension now?

I came here to debate an important issue about pensions; if Members just wish to make flippant points, that is fine. I asked a valid question of the Conservative party concerning the contribution of Lord Fowler, who talked about suspension; I was seeking clarity on a specific point. I am not here just to try to score cheap points off other Members—I do not believe that any of us should be here to do that—because that is an insult to the pensioners whose case we are here to argue in terms of increasing their pension and benefits.

The key to all these issues, and others such as TV licence benefits and the various benefits that pensioners have been given to help them, is having a decent pension. For most pensioners, that means having a decent state pension. This year, it is 100 years since the introduction of the state pension. I would like to quote from a speech that my hon. Friend the Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) gave at our party conference. I apologise for the references to “Liberals” in it; I hope that they do not cause too much offence. However, they are important in the context of what my hon. Friend said:

“In 1889 the Rev F H Stead, warden of the Browning Settlement, organised a meeting in Browning Hall off the Walworth Road in my constituency to start a campaign for a state pension. This led to the national campaign spearheaded by the National Committee of Organised Labour for a free state pension of 5 shillings a week. Within 20 years the campaign had succeeded. A state pension was piloted by Lloyd George when he succeeded Asquith as Chancellor in 1908. The first pensions were paid, through the post office, in January 1909. In 1908 when our Liberal forefathers passed the landmark Pensions Act, only a quarter of people lived to draw their pensions and on average lived only a further 9 years. A hundred years on, four out of five people live to retirement age - and on average 24 years more.”

Reverend Stead was formerly a minister in Leicester and most of the work on pensions was done not by the Liberal Government of the day but by Charles Booth, a philanthropist ship owner who lived in Thringstone in north-west Leicestershire, an area that I used to represent. The hon. Gentleman should therefore give credit to the movement that produced the old age pension, and not try to claim credit on behalf of the passing politicians of that era.

The hon. Gentleman has put on the record what he wishes to put on the record, but it is still the case that it was Lloyd George who responded to that campaign. It was not just the Reverend Stead who was involved; other people, including Booth, campaigned for the pension. I am not trying to take any credit away from any of those people. Indeed, I mentioned the National Committee of Organised Labour, which I understand was one of the key bodies involved in that campaign.

The centenary of the first state pension has been marked by a number of Government initiatives. The Government are looking at how to address some of the issues that I have referred to. We have had announcements in the last week about a boost for women—I think that it was described as an amendment to the Pensions Bill—and those changes are welcome. However, my basic contention is that they are simply not enough. The rises in the cost of living, heating bills and food bills are far outstripping what pensioners are receiving.

The September retail prices index inflation figure was 5 per cent., and the question is: will the Government honour their commitment whereby, by convention, the inflation increase for pensioners from April next year will be 2.5 per cent. or the RPI figure, whichever is the higher? I hope that the Minister will make it clear in this debate, rather than our having to wait until later, whether the increase will be at least 5 per cent. She needs to say, “Yes, at least 5 per cent.”, and she should then say, “I’m going to go back to the Chancellor of the Exchequer and argue for a bit more, because I have seen the research from the Institute for Fiscal Studies, which says that pensioner inflation is actually 7.3 per cent.” She should say, “I will go back and argue for more because I have read Age Concern’s briefing, which actually puts pensioner inflation at 9 per cent.” Whether one believes the 7.3 per cent. or 9 per cent. figure, what is clear from the simple mathematics I learned when I was at school is that both figures are greater than 5 per cent. If pensioners are not to be worse off in the coming year, we must ensure that their income rises according to the increase in their cost of living.

According to Department for Work and Pensions figures, there are 9,327,800 state pensioners. Of those, some 2,360,900 claim state pension credit, and some 2,693,300 million are more than 80 years old and claiming the over-80s allowance. What do they receive? For clarity, it is £90.70 for a single pensioner and £145.05 for a couple. I shall come to the issue of the take-up rate, but if a couple apply for pension credit, they receive respectively £124.05 and £189.35. The question is, why is it estimated that 2.5 million pensioners live in poverty? That is 19 per cent.—one in five—of pensioners living in poverty. In one subsection of those people, the Pakistani and Bangladeshi community, the figure for those living in poverty rises to 43 per cent. There is an issue about how we calculate who is in poverty, but we will return to that in a minute.

Some 2.7 million people claim pension credit, but 41 per cent. of those who are entitled to it do not claim it. That is a saving to the Government of £2.81 billion a year. On council tax benefit, 45 per cent. do not claim, which is a saving of £1.51 billion to the Government every year. On housing benefit, the figures are better, as only 18 per cent. do not claim, but that is still a saving of £770 million a year.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on the way in which he has started the debate and on his very incisive remarks. On the question of benefits that are not being paid, Help the Aged has produced research that states:

“Older people are missing out on £5 billion in income related benefits each year. Taking just Pension Credit alone”,

which the hon. Gentleman mentioned,

“those missing out would be on average £1,477”—

some £1,500—

“a year better off, were they to take up their entitlement.”

The hon. Gentleman takes a line from later in my speech and saves me having to repeat it. He is, of course, entirely right. He mentions a briefing from Help the Aged, and Age Concern and others have also provided Members with very good briefings for the debate. We ought to thank them not just for their contribution to the debate, but for their work, along with the National Pensioners Convention, in raising the pensions issue and other issues regarding elderly people all the time.

Poverty is defined as income that is 60 per cent. below the median national income. There is a difficulty: we can argue that, if it is always set at 60 per cent. below the median national income, we may not be able to achieve our target of abolishing it. It is fair to say that the Government should look at that point, but there must always be a proportionate factor; otherwise we would just argue that there was no poverty in the west and the only poor people were elsewhere. So poverty is relative. The question is how we measure it, and I cite those earlier figures with that caveat. It is very hard to come up with figures for the absolute poverty of some people.

If we define poverty as income that is 60 per cent. below the median national income, however, the definition of severe poverty has slightly more bite. That occurs when someone’s income is below 50 per cent. of the median national income, and I believe that 1.4 million people live in severe poverty. UK pensioner poverty is the second worst in the European Union. We can recognise that figure, because it is a matter not of relativity to income, but of absolute failure. We hear time and again, from politicians and from people who criticise the EU, that the pension systems in Germany, France and all Europe are not sustainable, but although we may have a sustainable system, in reality, our pensioners live in poverty and are worse off than all those in the EU, bar those in Spain.

Pensioner poverty, whether absolute or relative, is getting worse. Some 300,000 new pensioners were forced into poverty last year—822 pensioners a day—and the result is that more people are worried about money. I am told that, statistically, 16 per cent. admit that they are worried about money, but when I listen to the pensioners who come to my surgery, I suspect that that is a conservative estimate. They worry about their heating bills and many turn their heating down, but if they do so during a cold snap, there will be more cases of hypothermia. They also worry about their eating bills, and they will cut back. The Help the Aged briefing mentions how they will talk about a treat of a tin of soup for the husband, and how it is made to last a couple of days. Is that the sort of joy that we expect people to experience in the latter years of their lives—a tin of soup as a treat? If I were to ask Members here, or most people walking through the doors of the Palace, what they considered to be a treat, the answer would be rather more than a tin of soup.

On the issue of joy, one former Minister talked about pensioners needing to wear woolly hats in winter, so I admire the hon. Gentleman’s self-denying ordinance in not mentioning the meanest act of the Thatcher Government, which was to break in 1980 the link between pensions and pay in the economy, thus producing real poverty. In that light, does he believe that this Government, through the very able Minister present, ought to look at early re-linking, which is promised for 2012 or later, as one means of heading off some of the poverty that he so vividly describes?

I certainly believe that we should re-establish the link, and the hon. Gentleman is entirely right that the break of that link was a disgrace—it left many pensioners in severe difficulty during the 1980s and 1990s. The problem that we have now is how to address pensioners today. As I started by saying, we can blame the politicians of the ’40s for not having foresight, and we can certainly blame the politicians of the ’70s, ’80s and other periods for the policy mistakes that they made, but I am trying to concentrate on what the Minister can do today to try to address the issues.

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation, which does excellent work, has estimated that a couple needs £265.92 a week, but on the state pension, they get £145. On the link to earnings that the hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) mentioned, the White Paper has promised that the link will be re-established by 2012. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has calculated that, if we were to effect that measure now, rather than in 2012, it would cost £1.5 billion, and we could take 2 per cent. of pensioners out of poverty by 2017-18. The Institute for Fiscal Studies also estimates that, if all pensioners were paid the pension credit guarantee, it would cost £8.3 billion, and we could take 5 per cent. of pensioners out of poverty by 2017-18. Of course, even if we did that and even if the changes that the Government are about to introduce were in place, not all pensioners would receive a full pension.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies has calculated the cost of a universal pension paid on the basis of residency rather than contribution. The Liberal Democrats have advocated that policy for some time, and former Secretaries of State have discussed it in the Chamber and have indicated that they thought it a good idea, although it has never come to fruition. I suspect that the idea ran into trouble when it reached No. 11 Downing street. If we had a universal system and it were applied for everyone at the pension credit guarantee level, it would cost £20 billion. That sounds like an awful lot of money, but in the context of banks being saved and the international debt estimated at £2.8 trillion—the figures are almost too large—it is a drop in the ocean.

I accept that the Minister might say that we cannot afford £20 billion, but I would argue that, if we cannot afford that, we must look at what can be done. Perhaps the parties need to debate the retirement age and consider shifting it up a year or two, so that we can afford to pay people pensions. Perhaps we should scale the introduction of such a system. It is known that people who are over 80 years old have greater difficulties than those who have just retired. If we introduced a universal pension for those over 65, the cost would be £20 billion; for those over 70, it would be £15.9 billion; for those over 75, it would be £11.7 billion; and for those over 80, the cost would come down to £6.8 billion. If we brought in such a system for the over-65s, we would take 12.5 per cent. of them out of poverty by 2017.

The Minister will tell me that it cannot be done, but there is £5 billion of unclaimed benefit that could offset the cost. If we cannot increase pensions, we need to do more to ensure that those entitled to benefits claim them, as was mentioned earlier by the hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink). The Government have been missing their targets. The gap between the total number entitled to a pension and those who are actually in receipt of it was declining, but it is now increasing again. The question for the Minister is why can such benefits not be automatically paid.

I shall conclude by referring directly to the Help the Aged briefing paper on the issue. It suggests that the following options should be implemented:

“The Government should automatically give Council Tax Benefit to anyone in receipt of Guarantee Credit. The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) already holds all necessary data to implement this measure.

The Government should in addition automatically award Guarantee Credit to all pensioners for a month upon bereavement, asking them to put in a claim if they wish keep on receiving this benefit. This measure would cost the government an estimated £50 million a year, and would be highly beneficial to the many older women who suffer a substantial drop in income when their partner dies. Many pensioners in this position are unaware that this change in life circumstances makes them eligible for Pension Credit.

Finally, the DWP should match its data on people’s state pensions with HM Revenue and Customs data to identify those pensioners who are very likely to be eligible for means-tested benefits but who are not yet claiming, then deliver the benefits to them automatically. With the introduction of new data systems in HMRC in 2009, such an approach could be highly effective, especially for those pensioners aged over 75, whose incomes tend to remain stable or go down over time. Estimates have shown that full take-up of means-tested benefits by pensioners aged over 65 would reduce pension poverty among people in this group by 5 per cent, and would cost the Government an estimated £3.9 billion a year.”

Before the hon. Gentleman concludes, may I reiterate the point about council tax benefit, which has the lowest take-up of all the benefits? Help the Aged made the sensible suggestion that council tax benefit should be renamed council tax rebate and paid automatically—a cause that has received strong backing from Sir Michael Lyons in his report on local government funding and, more recently, from the Communities and Local Government Committee report on council tax benefit.

The hon. Gentleman makes a valid and fair point, which I agree with and which I hope the Minister will respond to.

On council tax benefit, does the hon. Gentleman agree that it would be better to abolish council tax and have a local income tax instead?

There are those who have argued for a suspension of the payment levels for council tax. I do not agree with them; I do not think that we need to suspend it—we just need to get rid of it. In my view, the local income tax mentioned by the hon. Gentleman would be the best way of doing so. That would certainly take the majority of pensioners out of the need to claim council tax benefit and help them effectively. It would also have the advantage of taking other people who are on low incomes and those claiming benefits out of the need to claim council tax benefit in an efficient way.

The remarkable thing is that, when the Inland Revenue set up its new computer system, it was thinking ahead, and believe it or not, the design of the computer allowed for local income tax to be phased in. The hardware is there, but the software is not yet there and, sadly, neither is the commitment from the Government or the Opposition—who actually gave us the council tax in the first place—to change the system.

In conclusion, I am asking the House to consider giving a large sum of money to elderly people, but is it any more than they deserve? Do we really wish to have a system that involves benefit claims here and there, a little gift of a TV licence or whatever and a bit of a heating allowance for the winter? Would it not be better to give all pensioners a decent state pension, and to do so until such time as we can correct the errors unfortunately made by those who established the system and get to a system in which people have their own pensions and are able to make provision for themselves?

Order. It might be helpful for hon. Members to know that I intend to call the Front-Bench winding-up speakers at 10.30. Therefore, if several Members wish to contribute, they will have to tailor their contributions accordingly.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Mr. Bercow. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Teignbridge (Richard Younger-Ross) for securing this timely debate. I do not have the incisive figures that he provided, but I shall set the scene in respect of some of the hardship that pensioners in this country face and then discuss a specific group of pensioners.

My hon. Friend alluded to the Institute for Fiscal Studies survey and the figures that it produced, which show that pensioners are particularly hard hit in these difficult times as they spend more on food and fuel. The particularly high inflation on those items hits them all the harder. If we delve into the figures a little more deeply than even my hon. Friend did, we find that the real inflation increase is 9.2 per cent. for single male pensioners, 9.1 per cent. for single women pensioners, and 7.7 per cent. for pensioner couples. The average is 6.7 per cent., which is a high figure. Put in the context of this debate, pensioners will be among the worst affected by the economic difficulties that we are facing, at least when it comes to inflation.

My hon. Friend implored the Minister in her negotiations with the Treasury to bid for more than the 5 per cent. base rate that we are dealing with now. I reiterate that plea from the Liberal Democrat Benches and hope that the Minister will consider using the higher figure for future increases in the state pension.

As the IFS report pointed out, the inflation rate will not always be higher for pensioners—indeed, it has not always been the case—but the circumstances of high food and fuel inflation have put pensioners in a particularly difficult position this winter, and the differential needs to be considered.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that this is not a matter of philanthropy for pensioners? They built this country and helped to give Europe the freedoms that it now enjoys. They deserve a greater share of our national income, yet, year on year through Conservative Governments and now a Labour Government, pensioners have received a diminishing share of the national wealth. That is a downright shame for this country.

I do not believe that any of us would disagree with that. The hon. Gentleman, who speaks for the UK Independence party, mentioned Europe. Notwithstanding that, I cite just one example from my constituency. I met a couple in the south of Ceredigion who have to grapple with whether it is worth while putting £5 of petrol in their car or paying £5 for a local supermarket to deliver their groceries. That illustrates some of the dilemmas that pensioners in this country face.

Pensioners on fixed incomes also face particular difficulty in paying council tax bills. I resist the temptation to discuss a local income tax—yawns were noticeable around the Chamber when it was touched on earlier—but it has been discussed by my party for many years. I do not expect the Minister to respond to the need for a fairer form of local taxation as that is not within her responsibilities, but I am sure that she will acknowledge that pensioners face proportionally higher council tax bills. I impress on her the need to reiterate the case in respect of council tax benefit. We heard from the hon. Members for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone) and for Castle Point (Bob Spink) about low take-up.

Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the reasons for the low take-up of council tax benefit is that a change in people’s circumstances means a change in the benefit payable? Pensioners are worried about the prospect, if their circumstances change, of suddenly being given an additional bill that they were not expecting to receive.

My hon. Friend clearly makes a point about the practicalities that many pensioners face. Many people become frustrated as they try to navigate their way through potentially complex forms, and there are also the practical difficulties that he outlined.

I shall reserve most of my remarks for a special group of people: ex-servicemen. It is not a small group—it represents a significant proportion of the pensioner population in this country. I pay tribute to the Royal British Legion, which is working with Age Concern on the Return to Rationing campaign. The campaign points out that 38 per cent. of ex-service pensioners report an income below the minimum required for healthy living, which is £7,072 per annum or £136 per week for a single person, and £11,200 or £216 for a couple.

The Government have a particular duty of care to ex-servicemen. As the hon. Member for Castle Point said, they made extraordinary sacrifices for their country. The campaign argues, with some justification, that the present tough economic conditions represent a return to rationing. The title of the campaign may well be emotive, but it illustrates some of the frustrations that many pensioners feel. They assert, and I agree with them, that the support given to those who served their country is simply not good enough. I am sure that we will all support the poppy appeal in the next two weeks and beyond, but we should strive to ensure that help for veterans is not confined to two or three weeks each autumn.

The situation is a matter of extreme concern, and I wonder what assessment the Minister has made of the Royal British Legion’s proposals. Among other things, it proposes making the 100 per cent. disregard of war pensions for council tax and housing benefit a statutory requirement. I know that local authorities have some discretionary powers, but there is a feeling that the disregard should be a statutory requirement. The proposals also include developing automated payment of council tax benefit to older people, and exempting recipients of war pensions who have a service-related injury or disablement from means-testing for the disabled facilities grant.

Veterans often find themselves in particular difficulties, and the package that has been proposed by the Royal British Legion goes some way to recognising that fact. The legion carried out a survey of ex-servicemen, and a picture emerged of difficult financial circumstances combined with, as we have already heard, a failure to claim all the benefits to which they are entitled. Some 71 per cent. of respondents said that they did not claim council tax benefit, and, of those, nearly one half said they found paying their council tax bill difficult.

Problems that are apparent elsewhere are all too often magnified for ex-service personnel. A survey carried out by the legion in June found that 15 per cent. of the veterans whom they contacted went without full central heating. Rising energy bills are a concern for many pensioners, but the legion’s figures are particularly eye-catching. They suggest that more needs to be done to help veterans pay their fuel bills.

The increase in the winter fuel payment is, of course, welcome, and I thank the Government for making that decision, but we must recognise the limited nature of the benefit. Fifty pounds is a welcome contribution, but, for many, it will make only a small dent in fuel bills this winter. Put crudely, energy prices have risen by 40 per cent. this year but the winter fuel payment has gone up by only 25 per cent. That is without considering the steady increases in fuel bills over the past few years: the winter fuel payment was frozen at £200 from 2000, when it accounted for one half of the average pensioner’s fuel bill, until 2007, when it accounted for just one fifth.

The Minister will be aware that many people, particularly those in rural areas such as the one in Wales that I represent, use heating oil or liquefied petroleum gas to heat their homes. They have faced even starker price rises, and although the price of heating oil has started to go down recently, the maximum price remains very high. I have to say that many people in the constituency that I represent do not have the alternative of different fuel suppliers. That is a real problem in rural Wales.

My hon. Friend makes a good point about heating oil and the difficulties in rural areas. Returning to his point on ex-servicemen and pensions, does he agree that there is a problem with spouses, particularly wives—or second wives—of ex- servicemen who have married post-1978 and who are not entitled to a pension? The sums provided to enable these people to get by when their husband or wife has died are small. It is seen as mean-minded that the Government are denying them that provision. That also applies to the police.

My hon. Friend has, with characteristic incision, made a detailed and valid point.

I want to end by mentioning the practicalities of the Royal British Legion’s campaign. My hon. Friend has set the scene clearly. I share his concerns about the fundamental priorities of the state pension. I do not deviate from his message in any way at all. The Royal British Legion and Age Concern campaign is modest but necessary. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say in response.

At a time when the banking system is in crisis and the future of many jobs, pensions and incomes is under threat, it is right that, in this debate, we are looking at the state pension and benefits for elderly people. Never before have so many people questioned those who are the guardians of their old-age pension, whether it is a private pension or a pension in the hands of the state. Yesterday’s newspapers revealed that workers’ pension pots have had £157 billion wiped off their total value in the last year. In 2007, the value of defined contribution pension assets stood at £552 billion. By October this year, that figure had dropped by nearly a third to £395 billion. That is happening now. What the future holds is anyone’s guess. In the midst of all this, people are still saving for their pension, but are fearful about whether their money is safe. Many of the elderly will continue to rely on benefits for the rest of their lives if they have little or no pension provision.

This debate has already raised a number of key issues. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Teignbridge (Richard Younger-Ross) on triggering this debate and raising a large number of points, for example, on pension credits, unclaimed benefits and the Age Concern briefing. I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion (Mark Williams) on his contribution, in which he mentioned ex-servicemen. I welcome the hon. Member for Glasgow, East (John Mason), who raised the important point about the need to scrap the council tax, which has been worked towards north of the border, but in respect of which the potential holding back of council tax benefits by the Government at Westminster causes a major problem.

In summing up for the Liberal Democrats, I am glad to say that my party has a proud tradition in this field—from Lloyd George to my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable). With the state pension being 100 years old this year, it is right that we consider a new pensions Bill fit for the 21st century. For all the talk, the commissions and all the many other people involved it took a Liberal Government to finally deliver the Old Age Pensions Act 1908.

I need a bucket, Mr. Bercow! The fact is that that pension was only paid to those over 70, was means-tested and was dependent on acceptable social behaviour and, certainly, a lack of fondness for alcohol. Is that the framework for a future Liberal Government’s improvement of the pensions system?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. However, my next sentence was going to be, “But life has moved on.” Today, our Treasury spokesman, my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham, continues to be ahead of the field, in his analysis of the current financial issues, the future for pensions and the way forward. This is in stark contrast to the Conservative shadow Chancellor, who has become the Sarah Palin of the Tory party, doing his best but convincing nobody that he has either a grasp of the problem or proposals for a solution.

The majority of today’s older generation now struggle to make ends meet as the gap between pensioners’ costs of living and the basic state pension continues to grow, with pensioners often disproportionately hit by increases in costs. The oldest, poorest pensioner households now face an average inflation rate of approaching 10 per cent., compared with around 5 per cent. for non-pensioners. The number of pensioners living below the poverty line in the UK has risen by 300,000, taking the figure to 2.5 million. Official figures show that first-time pensioner poverty has increased since 1998.

The anniversary of the state pension is rightly celebrated, but from its noble beginnings it has subsequently failed to reflect the growth in our national wealth. The rot set in in 1980, when Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Government broke the link between earnings and pensions, diminishing the value of pensions in relation to earnings. No hon. Member in this Chamber today could reasonably claim that £90.70 a week is enough for a single person to survive on.

As we have heard, the fact that the basic state pension is uprated only in line with prices means that, as pensioners get older, many also become poorer in relation to the rest of the population. The basic state pension is now worth 15 per cent. of average earnings, compared with 26 per cent. in 1979. We welcome the commitment to reinstating the earnings link, but clarification on the date—2012 or 2015—would be welcome. It goes without saying that, for us as Liberal Democrats, it cannot come soon enough. I hope that the Minister will throw some light on this issue.

Sadly, the most striking similarity with 100 years ago is the presence of means-testing. More pensioners are means-tested now than at any other time. It remains unpopular, demeaning and ineffective at getting help to those who need it most. I was not in Parliament in 1993 when the now right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr. Brown) declared that he wanted to end means-testing for the elderly, but I cannot help feeling that he was right then and it is right now.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one of the most straightforward ways of reducing the means-testing of pensioners would be to make the basic state pension payable at the guaranteed credit level of £124 a week? Of course, there are cost implications of doing that and it would need to be phased in, but it could be funded readily by two sources: first, through access to the national insurance fund and the surpluses in it and, secondly, and more substantially, by tackling more effectively the tax evasion and tax avoidance that is so prominent in the commercial sector in this country.

As the hon. Gentleman rightly mentions, there are a number of ways to get our pensions up to a decent basic level. I have no doubt that there is a substantial amount of money in the Government’s Budget that has not been used—it has been set aside for pension credit, and so on, and is earmarked for pensioners—but which the pensioners do not receive. So any way forward is a good idea.

The Government have admitted that their public service agreement target set in 2004 to increase pension credit take-up to 3.2 million pensioner households is unachievable and they have quietly abandoned that target. The latest figures show that the take-up of pension credit was about 65 per cent., or 2.6 million. In total an estimated 1.7 million people eligible for help are missing out. Often, the Government say that pension credit goes to those who are most in need, but those most in need are those who are entitled to pension credit but who are not receiving it.

We can argue about whether the low take-up rate is down to the complexity of the forms, the perceived degrading nature of having to apply for benefits or to people not knowing that help is available. However, make no mistake: whatever the reasons why individuals do not claim, it is not because they do not need the help.

As a result of over-reliance on means-testing, people are not only falling through the net in respect of pension credit. The take-up rate of housing benefit among pensioners, according to the latest figures, was 87 per cent., leaving up to 310,000 eligible people not claiming. Similarly, the take-up of council tax benefit among pensioners is languishing at 58 per cent., or 2.5 million, leaving up to 2.1 million eligible people not claiming. To put those two figures into perspective, this is even worse than under the previous Conservative Government.

Constituents have often told me that the Government are good at collecting taxes, but much less efficient at delivering help when people need it most. The pension credit is a case in point. It is difficult for me as a constituency MP to assure pensioners of the need to apply for pension credit when one in three awards is incorrect. All hon. Members will have had first-hand experience of the impact of that. The credibility of the whole pension system is called into question when fraud and error rates are so high.

Another concern about means-testing in the light of the Government’s proposals for personal accounts and the emphasis on encouraging saving is that there is no escaping the fact that extensive means-testing will erode the returns from savings, and reduce the incentives to save.

Does my hon. Friend accept that with the current reforms, pensioners are receiving advice on whether to buy extra years, but if they are entitled to pension credit, they are, perversely, better off if they do not buy extra years and, instead, rely on that benefit? The way to get people to save is to simplify the system and to provide a basic pension without the complications of credits so that there is an incentive to save, and that they keep their savings when they retire.

We must have a system in which it makes sense to make provision for years ahead, instead of the alternative of making no provision and hoping that the benefits system will pick up the slack. We cannot afford any more reasons for people not investing in pensions. The list is already long enough.

Among the many victims of the 10p tax fiasco were elderly people on low incomes, and hot on the heels of that was the news that pensioners now stand to miss out on hundreds of millions of pounds in benefits because the eligible backdating periods for pensioners claiming pension credit, housing benefit and council tax benefit have been cut from 12 months to three months, and for working-age claimants the period is being cut from 12 months to six months. Clearly, both are unjustifiable, given the additional lengths that people must go to to justify a backdated claim, but pensioners seem to be particularly harshly treated.

The group most failed by the current system is undoubtedly women. Like those a century ago, the poorest of today's pensioners are women, the vast majority of whom receive less than a full state pension. Many were badly advised about paying the small stamp or were unable to pay national insurance contributions, perhaps because they were caring for their families, or were in low-paid or part-time employment. We have had some welcome concessions from the Government this week, but there is still no help for women who have already retired and who are not receiving a full state pension, or those who have made less than a quarter of the full contributions and who currently receive no basic state pension at all.

As we see the failure of means-testing, I am confident that conventional wisdom will swing behind the idea of a citizen's pension at a rate that can genuinely deliver security and dignity in retirement for every citizen, and yet which is simple enough for everyone to understand. Such a pension system would be equitable and would not discriminate between men and women.

Of course, many of the issues raised today will be picked up as the Pensions Bill makes its way through the other place. It is vital that it is correct, because we cannot afford to get it wrong. At a time when hundreds of billions of pounds have been found to protect banks and bankers, it is time that the Government provided the same level of concern for our pensioners.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Teignbridge (Richard Younger-Ross) on securing this debate. As he pointed out, it is timely that we are debating the matter again—we recently had a debate on pensioner poverty in the House during Opposition time—and are discussing pensioner poverty in the anniversary year of the start of the state pension. I do not want to detract from the plaudits given to Lloyd George, but I remember that a member of the House of Lords at the time criticised the proposals on the grounds that they would sap the moral fibre of the nation. However, life has moved on.

I am a little concerned that the Liberal Democrats are now less in touch with the real issues affecting pensions. In my constituency, they rapidly went off the idea of a local income tax when it was pointed out that most families in Eastbourne would end up paying more than under the current system. Apart from the cost aspect, there is still a huge unanswered question about the residency test in the so-called universal or citizens pension and how that will be established. When it comes to being out of touch, the leader of their party is apparently massively ignorant about the true level of the state pension, but I am sure that that is now engraved on his forehead.

Sadly, we are debating this important issue against the background of the turmoil in economic and financial markets, and the downturn—perhaps “Brown-turn” would be a better expression—in our economy as the recession takes a grip. It is interesting to remember what the Labour party said in its manifesto back in 1997:

“We believe that all pensioners should share fairly in the increasing prosperity of the nation.”

Who could disagree with that sentiment, but is that what has happened under this Government? The other side of the coin is that as the recession takes a grip on the whole economy, we should be careful to safeguard older people, because they are likely to be hit disproportionately badly by economic problems compared with other groups in society.

It is worth repeating the point about pensioner inflation, which is a fact, because such a high proportion of pensioners’ disposable income is spent on council tax, utility bills, food, fuel and so on, so their real inflation rate is much higher. A figure of 9 per cent. was mentioned this morning, but an article the other day suggested that the true inflation rate might be 13 or 14 per cent. for pensioners. Age Concern in its excellent brief for this debate makes that very point. It says:

“In most years since 1987, the increase in the Basic State Pension has been broadly similar to pensioner inflation. However, since 2006 the real value of the Basic State Pension has been falling. In 2007 and 2008, even the guarantee element of the Pension Credit, up-rated each year in line with average earnings has not been sufficient to compensate pensioners for the real inflation they experience.”

That is a worry.

We have heard about means-tested benefits, and the Government have tested to destruction the ability of such benefits to get help to those who need it most. We have heard about the 1.8 million pensioners who do not claim the pension credit to which they are entitled, and we have also heard about backdating. It seems peculiar at this precise moment in the economic cycle to make it harder for older people, who, despite the best efforts of the Pension Service, often find it difficult to navigate through the process to obtain pension credit or other means-tested benefits.

One of the most important reasons for leaving in place backdating in excess of three months is that when a pensioner’s circumstances change—perhaps because of a bereavement in the family—changing a claim is not the No. 1 priority. It may be some months after a family bereavement before they get round to claiming an additional entitlement.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, but the Government have form. Shortly after they first came to power, they sharply reduced the backdating for some benefits. I believe that bereavement allowance was included, which seemed particularly harsh.

Another issue that came up is the link with average earnings. The Government are committed to that at some point, but are coy about saying when. They said that it might be 2012 or 2015, but that it must be affordable. As we head into choppy economic waters, the word “affordable” may become more significant. We joined some Labour rebels on 22 April in voting for an amendment to the Pensions Bill merely requiring the Government to say precisely when they would restore the link. However, Labour MPs were, of course, whipped to vote the amendment down. It may be that the Minister, whom I welcome to her new role, can enlighten us on that matter today and make a commitment in this debate, before she is too much in the grip of the Treasury.

As we head into these difficult times, my main point is that older people need reassurance. The briefings from Help the Aged and Age Concern make it clear that we are not only talking about the direct economic affects on pensioners, but their sense of isolation and depression, which we know is much more likely to affect older than younger people. Indeed, that also results in costs to the NHS and so on.

Before we take into account housing costs, we know that 2.5 million pensioners live in poverty, of whom about two thirds are women. That is happening in the 21st century and in the fifth richest country on the planet. The Government have form for trying to define away a problem. Recently, Ministers—although I hope this Minister will resist the temptation—have been prone to say that, as a result of their marvellous policies and a successful 11 years in government, pensioners are now less likely than other members of society to fall into poverty. Of course, that depends on what measurement is used. The House of Commons Library has kindly supplied information for me that shows that if one uses the before-housing-costs income measure, the equivalent figures for falling into poverty would be 23 per cent. for pensioners and 18 per cent. for the population as a whole—in others words, pensioners are more likely to fall into poverty than other members of society. As if that were not bad enough, recent Eurostat figures show that only pensioners in Latvia, Spain and Cyprus are more likely to fall into poverty than pensioners in this country.

As the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West (John Barrett) said, much of this issue depends on take-up. It is interesting that when pension credit was originally unveiled, the Treasury assumption was that 1.5 million people would never get around to claiming pension credit. As we have heard, some £5 billion a year of benefit that should be going to older people remains unclaimed. That is a huge amount, which, as the Institute for Fiscal Studies has said, could take 500,000 pensioners out of poverty at a stroke. That is a very arresting figure.

The Minister certainly has the time, but I wonder whether she has the inclination to talk about what is called automaticity—or something like that—which is the process of making benefit payments automatic. We all know that there is a huge failure to claim some benefits. I forget which hon. Member made this point, but the worst offending benefit is that for the council tax. In my constituency in Eastbourne, a lot of elderly people, particularly widows, own their flat or house. They are very cash poor, but because they are owner-occupiers they are totally convinced that they have no right to claim council tax help. That is precisely why, even among older people where the claim rate is low, owner-occupiers are the lowest category of claimants of council tax benefit. I know that the Government have been trying to look at how to bring in an automatic way to claim and pay benefits. It would be helpful to know what progress they have made so far and what other proposals they have in mind. I suspect that the Treasury is quite smug about the situation because it means that it can carry forward £5 billion from one year to the next.

Finally, I shall touch on what Age Concern has been doing. A while ago, it launched a campaign—I helped to launch it in my constituency, where we have an active Age Concern branch—on the subject of advice. One of the first things that local authorities up and down the country tend to do when times are hard and Government money is not available is cut back on advice services. It is painfully obvious to me that, despite our best efforts in advice surgeries, what older people need more than anything is good, reliable, trustworthy advice about what they are entitled to and so on. Coupled with the concerns about budget cuts in the Pension Service expressed in the Help the Aged brief, which was prepared for this debate, that is particularly worrying. The brief states:

“We believe this is a serious omission and sends out the wrong signal about the importance of local action on the ground to improve pensioner incomes.”

By that, it means that the Government are failing to include a local measure of pensioner poverty. None of the 198 indicators set out for local authorities relate to pensioner poverty.

We have talked about the huge problem of fuel poverty. It is estimated that there are 2.5 million pensioner households in fuel poverty already. According to any measurement, that figure must be increasing. We still have a disgraceful record in this country for excess winter deaths: there were some 22,300 last winter. As the recession takes a grip, one can only imagine how bad that situation will be this winter.

On annuities, I was pleased that yesterday during the debate on the Pensions Bill my colleagues in the Lords proposed that there should be a temporary relaxation of the compulsory annuitisation rule. At the moment, those coming up to 75 are facing huge turmoil in the markets and will be required to set their income for the rest of their lives. I am therefore very annoyed and upset that the Government have set their face against a temporary relaxation of the compulsory annuitisation rule. I am surprised that the Liberal Democrats apparently did not support us in the Lobby in the Lords last night. That is a great shame because, at this stage, we should be doing everything we possibly can to help those who are retired or coming up to retirement.

The Government’s priority should not be to help bankers or financiers; our older citizens deserve not to be lost sight of among the present turmoil. Frankly, we need to ensure that we do not have the situation that we have had in my constituency where retired constituents have had to choose between spending their winter fuel allowance on fuel, council tax or grocery bills.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Teignbridge (Richard Younger-Ross), first, on the lesson on how to pronounce the name of his constituency, which I am sure none of us will never forget, and secondly, on securing the debate, which, as he said, is very important. Hon. Members have made some interesting contributions. The hon. Gentleman pointed out that this subject is not only important because many older people, some of whom are pensioners, come to our surgeries, but because we are all aware of the enormous changes that are taking place in our society.

Demographic changes are, in many ways, hugely welcome because, of course, people are living longer, are leading more active lives and are enjoying fruitful later years. However, that also presents certain challenges. I think that half the population will be over 50 by 2050, so it is important that we look to the future as well as consider some of the points made about the immediate issues facing pensioners. At the moment, there are about 12 million pensioners in this country and we spend about £80 billion of public funds supporting them. That means that some £12 billion a year more has been spent on pensioners than would have been the case if 1997 policies were still being pursued.

We have heard a lot today about means-testing and form-filling, but I start by saying that I make no apology for the fact that the Government’s strategy since 1997 has been to target help on the poorest pensioners, while providing a solid foundation of support for all. I say that because when I was elected in 1997, we faced a crisis nearly every winter as a result of the meagre cold weather payments that were made available. There was no winter fuel allowance as it exists today. People, particularly women, were living on the very lowest incomes. It was a commitment of the Government I supported to do something about that and to help the poorest people. In 1997, it was almost as if age was a proxy for poverty. The Government were determined to tackle that.

The targeted measures that we talk about, such as pension credit, have helped to lift 900,000 pensioners out of relative poverty. We spend £12 billion more on pensioners each year than we would have done if 1997 policies had been continued, and about half of that— £6 billion—goes to support the poorest third of pensioners. In 1997, the poorest pensioners lived on £69 a week. Today, pension credit means that no one must live on less than £124 a week; the figure is £189 for couples. That is a rise of more than one third in real terms.

Points were raised about increasing the basic state pension. When we talk about the figure of £124 a week, we must not forget that 1 million pensioners on pension credit also receive help with housing benefit—on average, £61 a week. Some 1.6 million pension credit recipients are also in receipt of council tax benefit. That is about £14 a week. When we consider the overall help that reaches the poorest people, we have to be wary of saying that a blanket approach of £151 a week will solve all the problems, because it will not solve the problems of those on the lowest incomes. In fact, it would reduce the assistance that they receive. It is important that those who advocate a blanket approach recognise the effect that that would have on the poorest pensioners. To forget that is to do an injustice to the help that we are giving at the moment.

Today, the poorest pensioner households are £2,100 a year better off. Age is no longer a proxy for poverty. That is real progress and a record of which the Government can be proud. We have been comprehensive in our approach. Winter fuel payments were £20 in 1997; now, they are £400 for over-80 households.

I thank my right hon. Friend for giving way on what is an important point. The winter fuel allowance has had a dramatic effect on poorer pensioners in my constituency. The Minister will know that on a number of occasions over the past 18 months I have raised on the Floor of the House the 25p age addition for pensioners over 80. That has remained static at 25p since 1972, when it was introduced by the Heath Government. In 1972, people could buy 2 lb of cheddar cheese with 25p; now, they cannot even buy a second class stamp. Of course, more than one third of all pensioners over 80 now pay income tax. That is a credit to the Government as well, but by having the weekly allowance, that third of pensioners over 80 are paying income tax on the 25p, so they are receiving 20p a week. The Government should consider scrapping the 25p age addition and, say, putting £50 on the winter fuel allowance. Will the Minister take up that suggestion with her Treasury colleagues for future consideration?

My hon. Friend has campaigned vigorously on that matter and I suggest that he meets me to discuss some of the proposals that he has advocated. At present, we have no plans to change the system, but I would be most interested to hear his wise, as always, counsel on the matter.

I note the Minister’s point about what the Government inherited in 1997. I also note that we heard nothing from Conservative Members on policy and on what they would do in terms of commitments. However, Department for Work and Pensions research shows that, in 2006, 50 per cent. of pensioners on low incomes relied on handouts from family and friends. That suggests that although the Government might have done something, they have not yet done enough.

I want to come to the take-up of benefits. We have to be careful with the language that we use in this area. The term “handouts” might be a little derogatory when applied to the support that people might be giving to their own family members. It is important to emphasise that people are perfectly entitled to the assistance in the form of pension credit and help with council tax. We have to be careful when using the word “handouts” and others as though implying that somehow people are not deserving of the help. Some families may support their elderly relatives. That should not always be regarded as charity; it is something that families may wish to do. We have to be careful about the language that we use.

I was referring to winter fuel payments. In 1997, £252 million was being spent to support pensioners in cold weather; now, we spend £2.1 billion. There is free off-peak bus travel, to which the hon. Member for Teignbridge referred. There are free eye tests, free TV licences and free swimming. We have tried to provide all those things on a comprehensive, universal basis because we think it important to recognise that the discussion about older people is about quality of life as well. This is not only about benefits and payments. Other things, such as free bus passes, are about recognising the importance of quality of life.

There are huge challenges as a result of demographic changes in society. That is why, in the last two pension Bills, we have made a huge change in how we will be helping people to save for their retirement in the future. There has been welcome cross-party agreement on the changes that we wish to bring in. They will make a big difference to women saving for their retirement as well. I join the hon. Member for Teignbridge in paying tribute to Baroness Hollis with regard to the recent changes that she made and pressed for, which the Government have accepted. I am referring to the change in the conditions for voluntary national insurance contributions. We will see a radical shift in how we approach saving for retirement in the future. The changes that we are making constitute recognition of the demographic changes that are coming, but they are also about fairness, equality and justice.

While on the subject of future changes—a subject raised by a number of hon. Members—we have legislated to reintroduce the earnings link for the basic state pension. We are committed to restoring the link with earnings by 2012, or at the latest by the end of the next Parliament. As a result, the basic state pension should double in value by 2050, more than if the current uprating policy is continued. As I say, that is legislated for.

I have spoken about raising the basic state pension to £151 a week—a sum called for by a number of organisations. The first problem is that many pensioners would be worse off as a result, as it would reduce our ability to target help on those with the lowest incomes. There is no doubt that it would also cost an additional £30 billion a year in the first couple of years. That would be a huge commitment. I do not know whether the Liberal Democrats are making such a commitment today, and I doubt whether the Conservative party has made such a commitment.

We have invested much more money in pensions. We have allocated much more money to support pensioners, but we cannot ignore the fact that the call to raise the basic state pension to £151 a week would carry additional financial burdens. Nowadays, in many ways the pensioner population reflects the wider population. As I have said, pensioners will not necessarily be on relatively lower incomes than those in other parts of society.

One important subject that was raised in the debate was how to encourage the take-up of benefits. It is true to say that people dislike complexity. They crave simplicity, which is why we have made it much easier to calculate pension credit awards. We have also made the system more automatic. With one phone call, people can claim pension credit, housing benefit and council tax benefit without the need for a signed claim form.

The hon. Members for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) and for Ceredigion (Mark Williams)—I may need another lesson on pronunciation—and the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West (John Barrett) spoke of automaticity. We want to work closely with organisations like Age Concern and Help the Aged to maximise the take-up of benefits. I was in Macduff two weeks ago with Age Concern, considering what more could be done to encourage people to take up pension credit and council tax and benefits.

I asked about automaticity when first being briefed on these issues. Some people feel it to be a slight invasion of privacy if their details are seen to be handed over, particularly when they are told that they may be entitled to a benefit. However, we need to balance that against what we do now, which we will continue, with one phone call giving people access to all the benefits.

We make direct contact with people if we feel that they may be entitled to extra help, sometimes just sending letters. However, some people feel that that it is up to them to make a claim, and they do not necessarily want interference. All the time, we are considering what else can be done to ensure that people take up their benefits. All ideas are welcome. Members of Parliament, too, have a role to play in helping people. It is good to see some of the schemes that people have adopted. However, we sometimes need to be careful.

The hon. Member for Ceredigion spoke of veterans. It is absolutely right to say that, for them, we need to take a cross-Government approach, as I know from my work at the Department of Health and the Department for Transport, particularly to ensure that veterans are able to take up their entitlement. We are supporting them in doing that.

Several hon. Members referred to the Institute for Fiscal Studies report. I recognise what they said about inflation, but the report suggests that, over the long term, average inflation for both pensioners and non-pensioners is almost identical. It shows that pension credit is worth about £430 more a year than if it had been uprated by the inflation index used in the report since 2001, and that the basic state pension is worth about £340 more a year than if it had been uprated since 1987 by the report’s inflation figure. We need to look carefully at the statistics to ensure that we target help where it is most needed, as I have suggested, yet at the same time we are investing more in our pensioners, with the £12 billion extra that we are providing.

A number of hon. Members, particularly the hon. Member for Eastbourne, mentioned the current economic climate. It is important to say that pension funds are long-term investment vehicles. Fluctuations in financial markets will affect the value of assets in the short term, but it is the long term that is important. We would certainly encourage people to realise the importance of saving for their pension. It is one of the most effective ways of saving for security in retirement, and I hope that all hon. Members endorse that view.

The hon. Member for Eastbourne also raised the matter of annuities. We have considered the points that he made, but I have to say that the vast majority of people buy annuities well before the age of 75. Only 5 per cent. of people delay until after the age of 70, but it tends to be the wealthier pensioner. We did look at the matter, but the industry indicated that temporary suspension would be particularly unworkable.

It has been an interesting and wide-ranging debate. I hope that I have been able to illustrate that we always do everything that we can to support our pensioners. The Government have a proud record in that respect—one that I believe is appreciated by pensioners. The changes made since 1997 pay due respect to the important contribution that pensioners make to society. However, we will continue to work with pensioners and pensioner groups to ensure that we are doing all that we can to support them.

Inland Waterways

The next debate, as hon. Members will know, is due to start in just under a minute at 11 o’clock. It might be helpful for Members to know, just before I call the hon. Member whose debate it is, that no fewer than nine Members have indicated to me in writing that they wish to speak from the Back Benches on this very important matter. Hon. Members will know that I am always to keen to include as many Members as possible, but they are perfectly capable of doing the arithmetic for themselves, and a certain self-denying ordinance will be required.

I am very pleased that so many hon. Members have found the time support the debate and grateful for the opportunity to talk about the vital issue of the future restoration of our waterways network. I welcome the Minister to what is his first debate on waterways, and I hope that this is one of many on inland waterways to which he will respond. He has already demonstrated his enthusiasm for canals by booking a holiday in February on the Shropshire Union canal. That shows real enthusiasm, and it should demonstrate to him the work that British Waterways has done on flooding. I hope that his visit is not too interrupted by inclement weather. It is probably just as well that he has recently announced an extra £1 million to help British Waterways, which is welcome.

Britain has a wonderful asset in its inland waterways. Some were built more than 250 years ago, but the canal age was well and truly over by the middle of the last century and the vast majority of freight movements were transferred to rail and road. The network fast became disused and fell into disrepair. However, a small band of dedicated individuals saw a future for our canals and rivers. They formed the Inland Waterways Association. Their drive, vision and enthusiasm ensured a renaissance for the canals and the waterways system. More than 500 miles of waterways have been restored to use, and a further 500 miles are currently under active restoration. Every weekend, groups of volunteers around the country work to restore more of our historic waterways network. IWA volunteers have created a waterway recovery group, which has been actively engaged in restoration since the early 1970s. Indeed, they brought my local canal, the Caldon, back from dereliction in 1974. The IWA provides volunteer working parties and logistical and expert help to waterway societies up and down the country. More than 31,000 boats travelled on the waterways network last year, and 11 million visitors, including anglers, walkers and cyclists, used the towpaths.

The Government have played a key role in the waterways for a long time. I should like to remind the Minister that the waterways were first nationalised in 1947—I can do so now that nationalisation is back in fashion. Unfortunately, those early years of nationalisation did nothing to protect the canals from closure and disrepair. Only in the late 1960s did the Government begin to recognise the recreational value of the waterways. However, the outstanding contribution that waterways can make to both regeneration and the environment was recognised only when the Labour Government launched “Waterways for Tomorrow” in 2000.

We all support the use of public and private money for the renovation of waterways. The hon. Lady refers to the events of eight years ago, but I hope that she recognises that in many of our cities—I speak for London, but the same applies to the centre of cities such as Birmingham and Manchester—there has been a huge amount of renovation, with the public and private sectors working together, much of which predates the important initiatives that I am sure she will address.

The regeneration has been brought about by a huge partnership between the Government, local canal trusts and volunteers, who had the vision to research and create feasibility plans for many of the important developments around the country in the past eight years.

Will my hon. Friend, who is the IWA parliamentarian of the year, confirm that British Waterways has been working steadily towards self-sufficiency and reducing its reliance on grant? Does she agree that the hit that it has taken—a real-terms reduction of 30 per cent.—since the peak funding of the second canal age in 2003-04 is too rapid to absorb with other commercial activity and diversification? Is not that the issue?

Absolutely, and I must say that flattery will get my hon. Friend everywhere. It is true that the Government grant is still 40 per cent. of British Waterways’s income, and it will therefore remain an important part of its income for the medium if not the long term. The huge dive in the grant has had a tremendous impact on its ability to respond to maintenance needs and its aspirations to expand the network.

Waterways produce nearly £500 million-worth of benefit each year to this country. That is a fantastic return for the Government, who put in between £60 million and £70 million a year. The benefits are delivered to local people and communities and make a real difference where local authorities are willing to embrace the opportunities.

I strongly support what the hon. Lady is saying. In my local area, the complete restoration of the Montgomery canal, which is currently separated from the rest of the network, would create 340 new jobs and generate more than 1.5 million visits to the area. That would generate about £20 million in visitor expenditure every year. Does she therefore agree that investment in the canal network pays for itself surprisingly quickly and that it would be an excellent way for the Prime Minister to fulfil his promise of directly reinvigorating the recession-bound economy?

I hope that the Prime Minister listens to the debate, because the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that the amount of money that goes into the canal network for restoration pays for itself many times over, not only for a few years, but for decades to come.

Government funding rose steadily from the mid-1990s, creating what has been described as the second canal age. The Government grant to British Waterways, which is the custodian of the largest network of waterways and historic buildings in the UK, peaked in 2003-04 at more than £76 million; but as my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) indicated, it then took a dive. When the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs reviewed the performance of British Waterways between 1999 and 2004, it found that it had achieved a step change in the condition, management and reliability of the inland waterways infrastructure, that the safety backlog—not the total backlog—had been eliminated and that six major restoration schemes, which created more than 200 miles of new navigation and the associated urban and rural regeneration, had been completed.

The hon. Lady makes a good point on the peak in funding, but is she not concerned that the change in funding that led to many schemes, including the Lancaster canal restoration project, which had got off the ground and was making huge progress and promised to bring vast amounts of investment into south Cumbria, brought an emphasis on maintenance rather than developing and extending schemes? Is that not possibly a waste of the money that has been invested so far? Does she agree that the best thing is for the money to come forward to ensure that the new schemes and the restoration of old canal ways such as the Lancaster northern reaches can be fulfilled?

I should certainly like the money to come forward, but I do not think that the other money that has been invested would be a waste, because local canal trusts and volunteer bodies are so determined to get the projects off the ground that we are talking about a delay rather than an end to the prospects for those developments. The schemes are such good value for money that they should be brought forward.

The money that was invested produced many new developments, such as the Millennium link and the famous Falkirk wheel. Since 2004, grants have been severely reduced. Inevitably, that has impacted on British Waterways’s works programme, and it must also have jeopardised its target of a vibrant expanded network by 2012. From wanting to expand the network, British Waterways is now having to retrench and focus only on maintaining the existing network, as hon. Members have said. Without continued improvement, confidence in the future of the network will leach away, thus damaging prospects for private sector investment, particularly in such difficult economic times.

We have already seen the impact of the credit crunch on British Waterways’s income. The downturn in the property market has made it impossible for the organisation to sell two very big development sites for about £9.5 million. The BBC recently cited the canal centre of Birmingham as an area that has seen the greatest fall in property values. Such falls must also apply to other city-centre developments around canals, and that is bound to hit British Waterways’s income. Even before the credit crunch, British Waterways had pulled out of schemes, such as the Cotswolds canals restoration. Funding is very tight. We risk losing the huge benefits of investment in our canals if maintenance is not sustained.

British Waterways has a long-term aim to become largely self-sufficient. At present, the Government grant still represents some 40 per cent. of BW’s income, and is critical to achieving its works programme. Any year-on-year underspend will lead to increased costs, because any maintenance that is not undertaken now allows minor problems to deteriorate, so that they require major works in the future. Any cutback is counterproductive, putting at risk the tremendous progress made before 2004. There will always be a need for some Government grant to contribute to British Waterways’s income in recognition of the wider public benefits generated by the waterways. In its report in 1989, even the Tory-dominated Environment Committee recognised that that was the case. That is why the extra £1 million that was announced for BW this month is so welcome.

I am listening very carefully to the hon. Lady and believe that she talks a great deal of sense. However, I am disappointed that she occasionally adds a misplaced party political tinge to her remarks. She was wrong to suggest that the revival of the canals has occurred only since 1997. The Kennet and Avon canal, the Wiltshire and Berkshire canal and the Cotswold canal, which the Labour Government have been responsible for pulling the funding on, all started their revivals long before Labour came to power. Therefore, will the hon. Lady acknowledge that this is not a party political but a cross-party issue?

Enthusiasm for canals is a cross-party issue. However, the amount of funding that has gone into British Waterways and other authorities has massively increased since we have had a Labour Government.

The Environment Agency, which operates about 20 per cent. of the network, is in a similar position to British Waterways. It is handicapped by a large maintenance and navigational improvement backlog. The Environment Agency currently receives some £14 million in grant in aid but the estimated cost of completing the backlog of capital work to its waterway structures is said to be £30 million. Therefore, structures, such as locks and moorings, have not received the routine maintenance that they need to ensure that they remain operational.

In the past four years, there has been a 24 per cent. increase in the number of boats on the network and an 18 per cent. increase in visitors. That is a fantastic achievement, but satisfaction with the waterway network is falling. Only 49 per cent. of boaters say that their experience of the waterway and its upkeep is good or excellent. That is a dramatic drop from the previous year, in which 66 per cent. of boaters held that view. However, boaters are not the whole story. They represent only 3 per cent. of the visitors to the waterways. None the less, without the boats, much of the colour and vibrancy of the waterways is lost. Boats are an essential component of a living waterways network.

My local Inland Waterways Association branch has reported to me that real difficulties are beginning to be encountered by boaters who have to operate a large number of gate paddles on the Cheshire locks. Of course, winding lock gear requires a degree of physical effort, but the problems are well beyond the usual. With so many locks causing problems in the same area, it will not be long before boaters learn to avoid that stretch of the canal.

The canals in my constituency in north Staffordshire represent real opportunities for regeneration. We have seen the successful completion of a four-year project, costing £6 million, to improve the towpaths and access points on to the canals around Stoke-on-Trent. That huge investment was paid for by the regional development agency and by European money, but, sadly, that positive partnership is not so evident elsewhere.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Joan Walley) will speak about the Burslem port, but my local Tory council has sat on an in-depth feasibility study to restore, extend and develop the Caldon canal in Leek for more than one and a half years, and nothing has happened. Such restoration work would open up a real opportunity to develop the south side of Leek, especially as the Caldon canal runs side by side with the Churnet Valley heritage steam railway. It could be a real honey pot for visitors and local residents alike, with the towpath used as part of the local “Walking the Way to Health” programme and the Beatrice Charity’s trip boat providing children with special needs and wheelchair users the chance to get out on to the water and into the beautiful Staffordshire, Moorlands countryside.

Leek should learn from the experience of Llangollen in Wales, where the development of a mooring basin has massively boosted visitor numbers to the market town. Sadly, local IWA members are still struggling to get the development of the canal into Leek’s local development framework. Many people in Leek are unaware that the canal comes into the town, because the canal terminus comes out behind a scrap yard on an industrial estate. There is not even a sign to tell visitors about the delights of Leek a few hundred yards away. Yet when my dedicated IWA volunteers have organised local canal festivals, the place is alive with boats, music, activity and history. There are also plans to bring to life the Uttoxeter canal by opening a 13-mile stretch from Froghall in my constituency to the wharf in Uttoxeter.

I felt a real fellow feeling when the hon. Lady talked about the Leek canal terminus behind the gasworks. The Aylesbury canal basin is behind the Inland Revenue offices, which is probably even more of a disincentive to casual visitors. Does the hon. Lady agree that there are real fears in places such as Aylesbury, which are on arms of canals rather than through routes, that they may be the first candidates for reductions in maintenance and renovation expenditure? Often, as in the hon. Lady’s constituency and Aylesbury, the redevelopment of the canal is an integral and key part of wider urban regeneration projects. Without the canal restoration, the viability and the attractiveness of those urban renovation projects is under threat.

I could not agree more. There are real concerns that cul-de-sac canals, such as the Caldon and the one that the hon. Gentleman mentioned, are second class, because they are not on the main network. In fact, they are delightful and provide a fantastic experience for local people. I am aware of that point, which I have raised on many occasions. That is why we must continue to fight for our own local canals and work alongside the enthusiastic volunteers who have brought many canals back from the dereliction of the 1970s. The extension to the canal in Uttoxeter could be a great gem of a development. Sadly, it has not yet got off the ground, but I hope that it will do so soon.

I realise that many hon. Members want to speak, and in concluding, I want to ask the Minister about several issues. First, will he seek to do what many Waterways Ministers have failed to do in the past—retrieve money from other Departments to help with the restoration and maintenance of the current network of waterways? We all recognise that many Departments have an interest in the canals, with respect to health, education and regeneration, and that those Departments should make some financial contribution. Will the Minister also commit himself to the expansion of the waterways system, in line with “Waterways for Tomorrow”, which was published in 2000 and which he and his Department are now, I believe, reviewing?

Will the Minister also encourage job creation, during this period of economic turmoil, by helping organisations such as the Inland Waterways Association and local canal trusts, such as the Caldon and Uttoxeter Canals Trust in my constituency, with grants for maintaining and restoring the waterways network? The IWA has recently shown what good use it puts its money to by stepping in with £175,000 to save the Woolsthorpe top lock on the Grantham canal from closure, following the partial collapse of the offside wall to the lock last year. British Waterways considered the matter, but decided that it could not afford to rebuild the wall and proposed that the lock should be filled in. We do not want to go back to the bad old days when local and other authorities left the canals to dereliction. That would be a dreadful backward step, so I ask the Minister to help the waterways network to continue to move forward.

Order. I remind hon. Members that the Front Benchers who will make the winding-up speeches will be called at or very close to 12 o’clock, and I appeal again to hon. Members to help me to help them.

I thank the hon. Lady for securing such an important debate, and—on behalf of us all, so that we do not all have to repeat it—I welcome your chairmanship of the debate this morning, Mr. Bercow. I reckon that if we do about four minutes each we should just about all get into the time, so I shall do my best to stick to that.

I have a personal fondness for canals and I am sure that we all share either childhood or, as in my case, more recent memories of family holidays on a canal. My previous involvement was when I was sponsor Minister for Manchester and Salford; part of the great revival of those cities happened through Michael Heseltine’s initiatives in the city centre and the development that was done there. I should like to discuss two issues relating to my constituency—one from each side of it, geographically.

Perhaps I may introduce the new Minister to the excellent work of the Bedford and Milton Keynes Waterway Trust. His predecessor, now the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Jonathan Shaw), paid a visit to it in July to see its work. That work is to enable the waterway to extend from the River Great Ouse in Bedford to the junction with the Grand Union canal in Milton Keynes. It will connect the waterways of East Anglia with the main canal network running through the country. It is a key part of the growth area strategy in the region. The Minister will know that Bedfordshire has had to accept a very large number of houses; to make that in any way bearable a leisure and working facility such as the new canal will make a great difference.

I want to pay tribute to the extraordinary coalition that has come together: the county council, with Mid Beds district council and Bedford borough council, Milton Keynes council, the mayor of Bedford and the Members of Parliament in the area—the hon. Member for Bedford (Patrick Hall) has been very supportive of the work that goes through his constituency, and my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mrs. Dorries) has also been supportive. It is a tremendous coalition. I pay tribute particularly to Jane Wolfson and David Fowler of the Waterways Trust for everything that they do. I hope that the personal support from the Minister’s predecessor will be reflected in the support that he gives. I invite him on behalf of the trust to visit the area as soon as possible, to see the work that is being done.

The second issue is rather more contentious and concerns the flooding on the other side of the constituency that we experienced in 2003, and the absence of effort by the Environment Agency to deal with it. There is a fundamental issue affecting the agency and the internal drainage boards in the United Kingdom—particularly those in low-lying areas. The agency goes by a mantra that says that dredging is not the answer to flooding. Those who have spent their lives and careers on inland waterways in the east of England would disagree. I am indebted to Barry Easom, Dick Bennett and members of the Bedfordshire and River Ivel internal drainage board for their advice in relation to this matter, and I put it to the Minister that it is time the Environment Agency’s policy was changed. I hope that he will help with the matter.

Watercourses that are naturally slow, which is the case in low-lying areas such as the east of England, do not have the flow of water that moves the silt. Accordingly they need the work to be done. The lack of such work by the Environment Agency in recent years has been very damaging. The agency claims that it spends £34 million a year out of its budget of £600 million on maintenance activities; but only £3 million a year is spent on desilting, and a further £8 million on vegetation clearance. Where does the rest go, and why is more work not done on desilting? My constituents still fear that flooding may result in the future. After the floods of 2003 a study was commissioned—it has still not reported because it has been repeatedly delayed, year after year—to find the answer to flooding in the area. I should like to know when that work will be completed. The catchment flood area management plans were promised in September 2008. The date has now been pushed back to 2009 and still there is no sign of relief for constituents.

I have three requests to put to the Minister. First, I should like him to ensure that the Environment Agency will begin to listen to advice on dredging in areas such as the east of England; to ensure that work on the Ivel will be moved forward; and in due course to confirm his personal support for the Bedford and Milton Keynes new canal.

Four minutes is indeed a very short time in which to say how much we welcome your being at the helm of our debate, Mr. Bercow, and to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands (Charlotte Atkins), who has done so much work to promote inland waterways throughout the country. We owe her a huge debt for obtaining the debate.

I want briefly to pay tribute to the many volunteers who, as my hon. Friend mentioned, have worked tirelessly to bring our waterways to the standard that they are now at. I hope that our debate will be a fitting tribute to two of those volunteers—the late Mr. and Mrs. Osborne, who did a great deal of work to give young and, particularly, disabled people the opportunity to get to know the waterways around our area—and that it will help to bring about the actions they would have wanted. I look for progress on that to the new Minister, who I am sure enjoys the waterways throughout this country, like many hon. Members.

There is a huge number of hon. Members present for the debate, and I hope that they will take time from their busy schedules to enjoy holidays on the canals and bring tourism to those canals, and to the towns and villages of north Staffordshire. I hope that they will help us to get the message across to everyone that the waterways are a vital part of our infrastructure and that today’s debate must bring about a step change towards getting inland waterways at one with regeneration and tourism.

I want briefly to flag up three issues—one is that despite the extra investment given by the Government, there is none the less continuing underfunding of British Waterways. We need to think about that from the point of view of continuing daily maintenance, without which the waterways will start to crumble and will not be the attraction we need them to be. Staffordshire, Moorlands constituency borders Stoke-on-Trent, North, and my hon. Friend and I share the wonderful Caldon canal. The Endon boat club, which we both visited almost two years ago for its 50th anniversary, reports that dredging is getting to be non-existent. Its members fear that the Caldon canal is getting shallower and shallower.

We heard about the extra £1 million that the Government have found, but we need something in the region of £400,000 just to improve the towpath between Stockton Brook and Endon, and other associated towpaths in the area. We must, through whatever budget and despite the difficult economic times, find that money as a means of getting people back into work and improving infrastructure. I would like the Minister to be aware that I have been trying my best for 12 months to liaise between British Waterways and the local authorities in order to get them to recognise that general maintenance needs to be improved. It is still not being done to the satisfaction of the Endon boat club, and I await action on that.

Local residents near the Trent and Mersey canal by Westport lake in my constituency take great pride in their new estate, and local people enjoy the facilities on offer there. British Waterways and Stoke-on-Trent council are making a joint effort to build a tourist centre. I must report that despite the fact that it is a state-of-the-art, green tourist centre that will do much to improve facilities for everyone using the area, British Waterways tells me that, due to a long period of non-performance by the contractor,

“we have had little choice but to terminate the contract. We have kept our colleagues”

at Stoke-on-Trent city council

“(as future owner) informed of the problems as they have arisen. We are now about to retender the remaining work to completion, however due to the poor performance of the contractor there is a shortfall on the remaining available funds and the cost to complete.”

That is exactly the point of this debate. By hook or by crook, one way or another, money must be found to complete the work undertaken.

My last point relates to regeneration and tourism. There is not enough time for me to mention it now, but on previous occasions I have referred to the Burslem port project. In Burslem, another town in the Potteries, there is an opportunity for regeneration. A housing market renewal programme is being planned and there are infrastructure plans that keep alive hope of recreating the former Burslem port, but enough attention has not been given to the regeneration process, to which I have contributed. We have not got the progress that we wanted and that we feel would have been in keeping with the feasibility study done back in 2005 of adopting the scheme within the area development framework.

In addition to the questions asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands, I ask the Minister not only to address the issues of ongoing maintenance but to consider how he can relate to all his regional Ministers. Will he have talks with our regional Minister for the West Midlands to ensure that we can deliver on regeneration and restoration of our inland waterways as part of a wider economic, social, environmental and health agenda?

I will follow the example of my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) by not congratulating you, Mr. Bercow, on chairing this debate. I thank the hon. Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands (Charlotte Atkins) for initiating it.

I shall describe, through the canal system in my constituency, where I think the Government need to act and where they do not. I take on board the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington), who mentioned canal arms. The Market Harborough arm is a cul-de-sac, but although there have been times when that part of the canal system was in danger of silting or of not being properly maintained, commercial development in the basin at the far end of the cul-de-sac, in the town of Market Harborough, has attracted investment, housing and commercial premises around the basin. That has consequently increased the use of the waterway from the main section of the canal into Market Harborough, a waterway of about five or six miles that is now used fully. However, there is a danger that if the amount of money available directly from the Government, through British Waterways or through private interest groups, is cut back, that section of the canal will fall into disrepair, to the disadvantage of those who live and keep their boats on the canal basin and the general upkeep of the canal as a whole.

The Harborough arm comes from Foxton, forming one of the great wonders of the modern industrial world. The Foxton steps are a series of about 10 locks that come down from the waterways in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone) to run north through Harborough towards Leicester. Next door to the steps is the inclined plane, which for a brief period during the early 20th century enabled boats to be lifted or lowered between the top and bottom of the locks without taking the lengthy time required to go through each of them. That is now a subject for potential redevelopment, but it will be hugely expensive. I hope that the Government will not configure the finances of British Waterways and the waterways system as a whole so as to inhibit those who are interested in the trust behind the redevelopment and restoration of the inclined plane from carrying on their work.

The area around the locks in Foxton has become an important tourist and commercial centre in a way utterly fitting for that part of rural Harborough. I urge the Minister not only to come and look at the site of the Foxton locks but to encourage British Waterways to carry on with the good work that it has been doing over the past few years. There was a time when the buildings around the Foxton locks were falling into disrepair because of a lack of investment and maintenance by British Waterways; I am afraid that at one point I was reduced to describing the state of the buildings as worse than some of the bomb sites that I had seen in Bosnia. That acted as a spur, and I congratulate British Waterways on the tremendously innovative and thoughtful way that it has redeveloped the area around the bottom of the locks, the locks themselves and the lock-keeper’s cottage at the top, which is now part café and part education centre for children. I commend British Waterways for its successful work in the Foxton locks area.

However, British Waterways would not have done it with only Government help. It had the good sense to go into the private sector to find partners. At the bottom of the locks, there is now a highly successful pub called the Foxton Locks Inn, run by two constituents of mine, Bob and Stephanie Hamblin. They took on the lease for the pub, which belongs to British Waterways but has been developed through the assistance of a commercial brewer, Scottish and Newcastle. It was not until British Waterways realised that it did not keep pubs but managed waterways and allowed a commercial enterprise to come in and help that the project got off the ground. Now both the inn and the waterways draw people in. I commend that project to the Minister and ask him to urge British Waterways and all those interested in the preservation of our waterways for tourism and commercial enterprises to consider how Foxton locks has developed.

Another example of public-private partnership involves a couple who live close to Foxton locks, Tony and Mary Matts. They have run a boat hire and maintenance business for years, and they have done tremendous work in keeping boats on the water and attracting people to rent them daily, weekly or longer. It is a yet further example of the sensible way that private and public money can be used to the public benefit.

It is not controversial to say that we are in the middle—perhaps at the beginning—of a difficult financial period. I do not imagine that there is a huge amount of additional Government money to be spent on British Waterways or the waterway system as a whole, but I urge the Government not to suppress private interest in that public aspect of rural life. It is vital and it needs encouragement. I urge the Government and the Minister, who is new to his job—I congratulate him on it—to drive private interest into that aspect of the public sector.

Thank you, Mr. Bercow. I think that I might pull some time back.

I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands (Charlotte Atkins) on securing yet another debate on this issue. I almost get a feeling of déjà vu, being here again. My constituency is rich in canals and canal history, with the Ashton, Peak Forest and Huddersfield canals all meeting at the centre of Ashton-under-Lyne, at the Portland basin. In Failsworth, the Rochdale canal has been reopened, thanks to millennium funding.

I should like to mention the ambitious plans of the Hollinwood canal society, which aims to restore the canals through Daisy Nook country park, reconnecting them to the Ashton canal and creating a new link to the Rochdale canal. That has always been an ambitious, but nevertheless worthy, aim. Those of us who have been involved with it have known that we were in for the long haul. Sadly, the uncertain economic future is likely to add to the time scale. Faced with that uncertainty, it becomes all the more important to preserve the lines of disused inland waterways to ensure the possibility of future restoration. The Hollinwood branch is severed in two places by the M60 motorway, but local optimism about the scope to restore it has been given a boost by the new link to the Ashton canal and by the reconstruction of the first short section of the Hollinwood canal to the new Droylsden wharf.

It is nearly three years since I promoted a Bill on this issue, and I want to put in a shout for the restoration of its aims. My Bill would have obliged planning authorities to consult all those concerned with inland waterways when drawing up development plans and when determining planning applications that might have consequences for the line of an abandoned waterway. The problem is that planning policy guidance on waterways is not mandatory. I am thinking in particular of planning policy guidance notes 12 and 13, both of which are loosely worded. Leaving it open to a planning authority to decide to protect the line of a waterway means that it may decide not to. Leaving open the interpretation of what are “viable options” for waterway restoration is similarly subject to variation from one local authority to another. In these more uncertain economic times, I urge the Minister to reconsider tightening up planning laws and guidance, so that we can at least protect the routes of abandoned waterways until resources can be found to enable their restoration.

I am conscious of time, so I shall cut to the chase. First, I congratulate the hon. Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands (Charlotte Atkins) on securing the debate. I agree entirely with her analysis of the value of the waterways and about the importance of continuing investment in the maintenance, development and reopening of waterways.

The Chesterfield canal was built between 1771 and 1777. It is important historically, as far as the Houses of Parliament are concerned, because all the stone that was used to build them, in the 1830s, travelled down the Chesterfield canal before being loaded on to coastal ships and carried up the River Thames to this site, where it was unloaded and used to build the magnificent building in which we work every day. In 1906, after a long and active life, the roof of the Norwood tunnel, which is roughly in the middle of the canal, collapsed. Since then, the 26 miles of canal on one side of the tunnel was used as a working canal until 1962 and has been used as a leisure canal since then. However, the 20 miles of canal running from the tunnel into Chesterfield became derelict.

That could have been the end of the matter. Part of the canal at Killamarsh was filled in, and a small housing estate was built across the line of the canal. Derbyshire county council bought a section of the land in 1987, not to restore the canal, but to put it in a culvert, underground, so that it could build a bypass across the site. That bypass has been planned since 1936 and still has not been built, but we live in hope in that part of the constituency. When I moved there in 1979, for my first teaching job in Chesterfield, I bought a house at Tapton, overlooking the canal, and it was a stagnant ditch. As a history teacher, I used to take my pupils through chest-high weeds and grass looking for bits of canal, bridge and other traces that could be seen in the undergrowth.

How different the area is now, 30 years later. In the 1970s, local volunteers decided that it should not stay as it was, and in 1976 they created the Chesterfield canal society, which became the Chesterfield canal trust in 1998. They have renovated whole stretches of the canal, beginning with Tapton lock and visitor centre, just below where I used to live. Over the next 20 or 30 years, they worked through a sequence of sections. Just two weeks ago, JCBs began excavating at the site of a 19th-century canal terminal in Chesterfield that had long since been filled in. The site is being excavated to restore the canal basin so that the canal will have a proper terminal. The private sector is now heavily involved in what used to be solely the activity of a fantastic group of local volunteers. Private developers can see the advantage of having a waterside development along the lines of similar successful developments in Leeds, Birmingham and, to a limited degree, Sheffield.

All the progress on the canal is due to local volunteers who believed in the impossible. Through their realistic plan, they are close to restoring the whole length of the canal and re-linking it to the national network. Derbyshire county council has reversed its original position, and has been an enthusiastic supporter of the canal since the 1990s. Chesterfield borough council, of which I was a member for 12 years, and Brimington parish council, of which I was a member for four years, have also helped the canal. Grants have come from various sources, and the private sector is now involved, but none of that would have happened without those fantastic local volunteers. Various hon. Members have paid tribute to similar activities in their areas.

Chesterfield is a narrowboat canal, and will never realistically carry any commercial cargo, so why is all that important? There are two reasons, the first of which is quality of life. The canal is a linear lung out of Chesterfield. On any weekend or summer evening, the towpath is full of people walking, cycling, fishing and watching the birdlife. What was a derelict and abandoned industrial valley has been completely regenerated. The second reason is economic regeneration. A major private company is looking to redevelop the whole area where the original canal basin was, just off Chesterfield centre, with housing, offices and shops, bringing jobs and restoring quality of life.

In conclusion, I should like to echo the points that all hon. Members have made so far, including the hon. Lady in her opening comments. Whatever the economic pressures as we enter a recession, the Government must not take the short-sighted option of reducing funding to the waterways, because they are important for quality of life and for long-term economic regeneration.

I am grateful to you for calling me, Mr. Bercow, and I shall keep to my four minutes. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands (Charlotte Atkins) on securing another debate on this issue. She is a true champion of the waterways, and totally deserves the Inland Waterways Association award. I welcome my hon. Friend the Minister to his position. No doubt, he realises that his portfolio will be an interesting one.

The Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has investigated this issue twice in the past few years. In our first investigation, which I had the opportunity and good fortune to chair, we looked into the role of British Waterways. However, the result was that BW pulled out of the Cotswold canals partnership, so I am not sure whether I would like to repeat that experience. That is history, and I do not want to go back over it, but history carries on in some respects. I should like the Minister to look into a particular issue. A key part of the partnership’s operation was Brimscombe port, and moneys were made available by the South West of England Regional Development Agency and ended up with BW. Given that it has withdrawn from the partnership, I am concerned that it is trying to sell its stake in Brimscombe port. Will the Minister look into that urgently and ensure that it does not happen? The stake should instead be passed to the two remaining key partners, the Cotswold Canals Trust—a wonderful organisation—and Stroud district council, which has taken lead of the partnership.

Will the Minister also look tolerantly on the partnership’s request for money? That need not necessarily be in the form of a grant, but could be in relation to contaminated land. It could also be related to the use of canals as a key part of our climate change strategy. There might be environmental moneys that could be made available. We want to continue to lock in Heritage Lottery Fund moneys of £11.9 million. The parties who remain in the partnership are adamant that they want to see the project through, and they intend to do all they can to ensure that that happens, notwithstanding BW’s decision.

I could go on to discuss many other matters, but instead I shall give the Minister a list. I encourage him to discuss some of those issues—perhaps in private initially—with hon. Members present and with those who belong to the parliamentary waterways group.

The list of issues that I have is rather long, but they are issues that the Minister may wish to dwell on. The issues are in no particular order: employment practices; housing policies; mooring fees; bridge openings and replacement of bridges; executive bonuses; the link with the ports that British Waterways owns; and last but not least is the issue that the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) referred to, which is flooding. I think that our waterways can be part of the solution to our flooding problem, but unless we look at their maintenance, they will be part of the problem.

In conclusion, I would like to think that we have a clear policy and that BW in particular and the other partners will continue with the reopening of our waterways. That is something that BW has stated in its strategy—not just the maintenance of existing waterways, but the reopening of disused waterways. It would be helpful if the Minister was to restate that the aim of reopening waterways was the Government’s intention, because there has been some questioning of whether it is still the policy. I will say nothing more, because I have taken my four minutes already.

I would also like to congratulate the hon. Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands (Charlotte Atkins) on her excellent speech and on the comments that she made.

I intend to be very brief. I wish to talk about the Rochdale canal. It was one of the canals that fell into disuse in the 1940s but it was later restored. A lot of volunteers worked on the canal and fought for its restoration. It secured millennium funding and was reopened in 2000. I would like to pay tribute to Frances Done, the former chief executive of Rochdale council and a member of the Waterways Trust, for the work that she did. Four local authorities are served by the Rochdale canal: Rochdale; Oldham; Manchester, and Calderdale. They have a maintenance programme in place and they contribute to it.

The big issue about the Rochdale canal is that, in order to get it reopened for the millennium, minimum funding of more than £25 million was secured, but it was always understood that there would be additional funding and at least £11 million of additional work was identified as being necessary. The cuts in the British Waterways grant are having an effect on the ability of British Waterways to deliver that restoration work. Therefore, I invite the new Minister to come to the Rochdale canal. If he comes, he will see a vibrant restoration, from the heart of Manchester right into the Pennines. However, it is absolutely vital that the extra £11 million of funding is secured.

The second issue that was not resolved in the rush to get the canal reopened for the millennium was giving the canal a proper water supply. The two reservoirs that used to serve the canal are now owned by United Utilities Water and although they are not used for domestic water supply, United Utilities Water still refuses to relinquish them. I hope that the Minister can put pressure on United Utilities Water, because one of the issues about the canal, when it is open, has been a lack of water supply. It is vital for the future of the canal that it obtains that water supply. I will finish there. I hope that the Minister will look at those points.

As we continue this tour of Great British locations, I want to bring the House’s attention to Ellesmere Port. The recovery of the town was centred on the work undertaken in creating what is now a National Waterways museum. If that work had not been carried out, the recovery of the town, including the development of the fantastic retail complex around Cheshire Oaks that brought in 7 million day visitors last year, simply would not have happened.

I know that the Waterways Trust is not immediately part of the direct responsibilities of my hon. Friend the Minister, but it is struggling to maintain its important museum network. The Waterways Trust museums, including the one in Ellesmere Port, are after all centres of national collections that have been described by experts as being important in their locations. It is not just a case of picking up a bunch of exhibits and moving them to another place. They are important locations, because the three Waterways Trust museums are, of course, part of our national heritage. The work that is being undertaken around our waterways by the Waterways Trust and the huge network of volunteers have made a fundamental difference to the community that I represent.

More recently, the junction between the narrow canals and the Manchester ship canal has provided an exciting location that Peel Holdings, which owns the Manchester ship canal, is using as a major focus of regeneration, and it is now one of the approved areas where the Government are allowing the expansion of housing on a waterfront. It is an enormously exciting opportunity. However, what is missing from that development—and my hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands (Charlotte Atkins) touched on this issue in her opening remarks—is the lack of joined-up thinking between Government Departments. The issues that we are talking about today spill over from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport to the area of education, involving a range of Government Departments and indeed the private sector too.

As part of the recovery of our economy, we need to look at some of the things that have happened to parts of the waterways network in the past few years and learn lessons. Yes, the waterways can be used as levers for recovery, but they are not just levers for recovery; they can also be levers to encourage new and exciting tourism opportunities and social opportunities for our own communities on the canal network, utilising the canals in a way that simply has not been envisaged before.

This is a huge opportunity and the Government would miss it at their peril. Therefore I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to work very closely with his colleagues in all the other Departments that have related interests in the waterways network to come up with a joined-up solution to what is a challenging problem but one that it would be very worth while to tackle.

I would like to thank my constituent Mr. Tony Lenten and the Inland Waterways Association for their briefing for me today. I agree with almost everything that has been said in this debate. We are all here because we have a passion for the waterways of this country, which are part of our heritage and our future.

The Grand Union canal flows through my constituency, which is dominated by a new town, and the canal is the link between the rural community and the urban community. For many people, it is the only piece of countryside that they see. The other day, when I was fishing on the canal, it was a pleasure to see a kingfisher fishing smack bang in the middle of the new town. That is a hallmark of the canal’s cleanliness.

However, I have some concerns about the future. Since 1946, some 500 miles of canals have been reopened and I understand, from the briefing that I have had, that another 500 miles are subject to works that may go ahead or that are actually going ahead at the moment. In my constituency, the biggest blight on the Grand Union canal is silt. What worries me is that, as funding gets tighter and tighter for British Waterways, we are not protecting what we already have. If we do not protect the existing canal structure, whatever we do in the future will be cut off by this blight or plague of silt that is going on now.

I have lived in my constituency for seven years and I have fished on the Grand Union canal since I was a young child. In all that time, I have not seen any dredging going on whatsoever. I was fishing on the canal at the weekend and I can tell the Minister that the main Grand Union canal going up through Hertfordshire is only about 18 inches deep. Silt is a major problem. We want more traffic to use the canals and we might want to transport heavy goods to the supermarkets that are situated right by the edge of the canal in my constituency, but the problem is that those goods simply could not get there, because ordinary pleasure craft are bottoming out in the canal on a regular basis. As I say, silt is a major issue.

Therefore, as we look forward and try to keep our canals as part of our heritage, we must be careful. Funding is tight and British Waterways should look after what it already has before it invests too much in something that we may not be able to hold on to.

Order. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. Two more Back Benchers still wish to contribute, and I will crack open a bottle of champagne if I, or my successor, is able to ensure that both are able to do so.

Thank you for squeezing me into the debate, Mr. Bercow. I shall make three brief points in support of the main argument that we need to open up more of the network, rather than just maintain what we already have.

Many points have been made about the regeneration of our cities as a result of canal investment, and I remember trying to navigate the Birmingham canal in 1980 as part of a family holiday, but giving up on the attempt. Now, of course, the canal is at the heart of Birmingham’s regeneration, as are canals in relation to Salford Quays and Sheffield. Sheffield’s quays have been redeveloped as the canal has been opened up, and the redevelopment is not as limited as was earlier suggested. At most times, the quays in Sheffield are packed with canal boats.

The two other points that I shall make have not been touched on too much in the debate. The first point is about wildlife and wildlife corridors. Canals represent wildlife corridors that reach into the heart of many urban areas, and the concept of the wildlife corridor fits neatly with the living landscapes concept that the Wildlife Trust has developed. We therefore have an opportunity to build the natural environment, to cut carbon emissions and so on if we invest in our canal network. The issue is not just about the environment and carbon emissions, however; it is about enjoying wildlife for its own sake. My brother takes his family on canal holidays two or three times a year, and they enjoyed their first sighting of a kingfisher only last year. It was an amazing experience for them.

The tranquillity of the canals makes them a genuine holiday option, and we should not underestimate the opportunities for tourism that result from our investment in the canal network. It is tranquil, calm and offers unique insights into our countryside. Kevin Spacey recently cited the canal network as one of the top landscapes in the British countryside because of the opportunities that it offers for a unique landscape experience.

My second and final point is about walking opportunities. We are going to open up the coastal network via the draft Marine Bill, which I hope will be in the legislative programme, and we have established the right to roam on our moorlands and in our countryside. So at a time when we are extending access to walking, would it not be ironic if we were to lose some of those opportunities because we failed to invest in our canal network? Some 50 per cent. of the population can access canal towpaths within 10 minutes. The opportunities for access and, on top of that, disabled access are particularly relevant to our canal network. On that point alone, we should invest in our canals.

Let us open up more of the canal network. It would be short-sighted not to do so in terms of regeneration and the health, environment and tourism and economic development agendas. Investment, please. It is not expenditure; it is investment.

Thank you, Mr. Bercow, I shall buy you the champagne myself.

[Ann Winterton in the Chair]

The Montgomery canal restoration is an exemplar project of sustainable waterway restoration and regeneration, stimulating local and regional regeneration through a major contribution to the visitor economy and to the canalside’s economic development. The only problem is that there is a missing link of 13 km, which would join Shropshire and Wales. Making that link work requires a strategic partnership, but I am glad to say that we have universal agreement to the Montgomery canal conservation management strategy, whose partnership vision states:

“To restore the Montgomery canal as a flagship model of sustainable canal restoration with a strategic focus on rural regeneration. To protect the canal’s unique environment and heritage through research, management and excellence in design. To increase access for all through interpretation with the promotion of tourism and educational use.”

I am sure that the project is achievable. It is one of only 11 that British Waterways has identified as a “priority one” for restoration throughout the UK, and the only one in Shropshire, the west midlands and Wales. As such, I invite the Minister to visit it. It is just around the corner from his constituency and on the way to Rochdale via Ellesmere Port. He will be most welcome, and he will be shown a winning project. So, as he does his round-robin tour of British canals, I hope that he will not only come and learn, but make the sort of commitments that will really make our British waterways thrive.

It is a pleasure to take part in this debate under your chairmanship, Lady Winterton, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands (Charlotte Atkins) on obtaining it. She, among several other hon. Members, has been a champion of this country’s canal network, and every hon. Member who has the fortune to lead a debate about canals can be assured of the support of many other hon. Members. That shows throughout the United Kingdom, and in England and Wales in particular, not only the importance of the canal network to industry in the past, but its potential in the future, which has been well demonstrated this morning.

The hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) mentioned several inquiries that the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs undertook recently. I shall not go back over the issues that were raised throughout the report and in its conclusions, but I should tell the Minister that if we are to make the most of the resources that the Government can put into British Waterways, there must be a good relationship between British Waterways and the sponsoring Department. It has improved over the past few years, but it is something that I am sure the Minister will want to work hard at, because the waterways will benefit when the relationship is going well.

The key theme of the debate has been the difficulty in prioritising maintenance or restoration when the amount of money available to the canal network is limited. Several Members have pointed out the importance of ensuring that silt is removed from the waterways, otherwise they become unavailable to, and unsuitable for, boats. Somebody said that only 3 per cent. of canal visitors visit on boats, but they add to the liveliness of the canals, and canals without boats would be only half the facility that they currently are, and present only half the attraction that they currently present.

Another issue that the Minister, whom I welcome to his new post, will take on board is the vast amount of volunteering that goes on for British Waterways. Much of the progress that has been made would not have been made without volunteering, so he must take it on board and ensure that it has the encouragement that it has had in the past and will need to have in the future. One strength of British Waterways has been its ability to bring together partnerships to achieve its objectives. It has worked with public bodies, such as local councils, and with the private sector. Often, when a canal is improved, the value and importance of the land on either side increases, but one problem that has not been properly addressed is how British Waterways can take advantage of the increase in value of the land that borders the canals. The private sector benefits in many instances, but British Waterways has not yet found a way to ensure that at least some of the value of its investment is returned.

Several Members have taken advantage of this opportunity to speak about their local canals, and I must say something about the Mon and Brec canal. The Minister will know that just recently, it suffered a massive breach, and it has taken more than £1 million just to mend it, but a health and safety examination of the canal has shown that other work needs to take place, so we are putting together partnerships to do that. I know that some funds for other developments have been lost to the Mon and Brec canal, but the Minister has been invited to visit many canals, and I guess that it is the nearest one. His predecessor indicated that he was willing to go along, but I should much prefer the present Minister to do so when there is water in the canal, rather than when there is not, so perhaps we can find a time when he might do so.

There are a number of issues that hon. Members have indicated the Minister should look at. One is whether, at a time when funding will be tight, funds could be made available by other Departments that might have an interest in canals. The Department of Health has been mentioned, but the Departments for Transport and for Culture, Media and Sport also have a real interest in the network, and some money could be found within those Departments and allocated to the canals.

Ongoing maintenance has been mentioned, but I was particularly taken by the reference to involvement in local government planning as regards safeguarding the routes of canals. Many canals are now cut across by developments, which could have been avoided so that those canals could be opened in their fullness. Both rural and urban areas are connected by canals, and the hon. Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands made a powerful point about restoration of that part of the waterway network that is still derelict. At worst, a derelict canal is a dirty ditch, but it can be a high quality piece of water that can provide many facilities by promoting biodiversity, stimulating the property market alongside waterways, boosting local tourism industries and making this country a better place to live. The hon. Lady has made a good case for restoration, which will take a relic of the industrial past and turn it into a sustainable feature for the future.

May I welcome you, Lady Winterton, and say how fortunate we are to have been so splendidly served by two excellent Chairmen this morning? I welcome the Minister to his new position. Perhaps he will say why it is that after the last reshuffle, apart from the Secretary of State, every single one of the ministerial team for his Department was replaced. I wish him well, and I hope that he will stay a while longer than his predecessor.

I warmly congratulate the hon. Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands (Charlotte Atkins) on securing the debate. She spoke with great authority, knowledge and eloquence, and identified a number of issues that other hon. Members also rowed into. In particular, she mentioned the multiple roles that British Waterways is expected to play. It is the UK’s largest navigation authority, and I think that we forget that it cares for about 3,540 km of historic canals and navigable rivers—a tall order indeed. It is responsible for navigation, recreation, fundraising, and, in answer to what my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) said, I believe that British Waterways has an adaptation role to play in preventing and alleviating flooding, and in adapting to climate change generally. I wonder whether the Minister will respond to my hon. Friend’s point about the work of the internal drainage boards. Bedfordshire is exemplary in that regard. Why have the Government cut the Environment Agency’s budget for maintenance? That is causing great concern up and down the country.

The hon. Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands and other hon. Members drew attention to the fact that British Waterways is markedly supported by volunteers. We have heard that demonstrated today, in what has been an interesting Cook’s tour of English canals—we will all be looking to our diaries to see when we should visit. Reference has also been made to the co-operation of district and borough councils, county councils, the Mayor, the Environment Agency and the Inland Waterways Association. In addition, as my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) said, there is a role for the private sector—notably, in running the local pub. Indeed, British Waterways will increasingly have to rely on the private sector for future financing.

Having come from the European Parliament, one thing that has always struck me is that the inland waterway network of this country is a jewel, but together with coastal shipping, it is frequently overlooked and under-utilised in many ways. If one considers the political lobby of inland waterways in other European countries such as Holland, France and Germany, one realises that our inland waterway network could have a much greater role to play.

The underlying thrust of the debate has been the amount of funding that navigation bodies such as British Waterways have, and how they manage the inland waterways with those limited funds. Will the Minister respond to the fact that in the most recent comprehensive spending review, navigation bodies have been given flat cash for the next three years, and will therefore come under increasing pressure? I would like to quote his predecessor, the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Jonathan Shaw), in the excellent Select Committee report that a number of hon. Members have referred to this morning. He said that

“the actual canal restoration is never commercially viable and has to be supported almost entirely by public or volunteer funding. In many cases canal restoration creates increased, albeit marginal, future maintenance costs for British Waterways.”

I shall restrict my remarks to three questions, and ask the Minister whether he will re-visit the Government response to that report.

How do the Government intend to implement the recommendations of the report, particularly the fifth and sixth recommendations? The Committee called for

“Defra, in cooperation with British Waterways and other interested government departments….[to] develop a transparent mechanism to score and prioritise public investment”.

The Government were dismissive and said that they did not agree with that recommendation. The Select Committee went on to say:

“It is likely that BW will need increasingly to rely on income from canalside developments in the future. A reduction in restoration projects involving BW may therefore in the long term adversely affect BW’s move towards achieving an even greater degree of financial self-sufficiency.”

The Government responded negatively, stating:

“Unlike regeneration projects adjacent to the existing network restoration projects rarely produce new income streams and usually impose additional costs”.

In summing up, will the Minister answer the conundrum that lies at the heart of the debate called today and previous debates? The conundrum is this: restoring a canal creates spending on restoration in a particular instance, but it creates increased maintenance costs for the future. Maintenance of a newly restored waterway therefore implies increased expenditure, which perhaps the Government or British Waterways do not have access to. If he responds to that point, in what has been one of the best attended debates in my parliamentary career, he will have served the House extremely well this morning.

I would also ask the Minister to say what lessons have been learned from the fact that British Waterways had to withdraw from the Cotswold canals partnership, without consultation. Clearly, as was reflected throughout the debate, where we are so heavily reliant on a public-private partnership for investment, British Waterways needs to work more with voluntary and local bodies.

May I end on a positive note? I commend British Waterways in particular for its work on and financing of Prescott lock, which I had occasion to visit recently. I think that it will do a huge amount to prepare London for the Olympics in the construction phase. We all wait with bated breath to hear the Minister respond to those points.

I thank you, Lady Winterton, and your predecessor, Mr. Bercow, for being excellent stewards of this debate. It is one of the best attended sessions that I have seen in Westminster Hall for quite some time, and that reflects the passion, commitment and knowledge that people have displayed in their contributions.

I shall do my best to deal with as many points as I can, but Members will understand if I do not address them all in the limited time available. I have noted the concerns and will try to return to them, not least the dozen or so invitations that I have had to tour the country and visit all the canals. We have had 12 speeches plus the contributions from the Front-Bench spokesmen. There have been at least half a dozen interventions, and all the concerns have been noted.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands (Charlotte Atkins) on securing this excellent and well-timed debate. It is good that I am able, early in my ministerial career and new responsibilities, to address some of these issues. I am aware of her long-standing interest in the subject and that she was named parliamentarian of the year by the Inland Waterways Association earlier this year. Members are sometimes shy when we remind them of such things, but the honour is well deserved in this case. She has brought knowledge and insight to the issue.

I briefly turn to my hon. Friend’s contribution. She mentioned nationalisation in 1947, and the pivotal role of collaboration. Regional development agencies, local authorities and others must come together to drive forward investment in waterways, whether for restoration or new developments and so on. That is pivotal, and I shall return to it in a moment.

Many Members picked up on the role of volunteers, and the fact that if we did not have them at the instigation of nationalisation many decades ago and also now, we would be in a far worse position. That is worth recording.

I welcome this opportunity to reconfirm the Government’s commitment to the inland waterways. It is a commitment that I believe was recognised in the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee’s report on British Waterways, which was published in July this year. I do not think that anyone can doubt that we have seen a remarkable renaissance in the fortunes of Britain’s waterways over the past decade. My hon. Friend referred to the second canal age. The waterways are in a better state today than they have been since before the second world war.

Government investment in inland waterways has been considerable. Over the past decade, we have invested some £750 million in British Waterways, and the Environment Agency has spent more than £42 million over the past three years in maintenance and capital repairs to the waterways infrastructure. As has been mentioned, the waterways, which include the canals, navigable rivers and the broads, provide a range of economic, social and health benefits and so on. They have a vital role in supporting cross-Government agendas for social inclusion, conservation of heritage, the environment and regeneration. Many excellent examples have been given today of how that is done.

Restoring our canal network enables us to enhance those public benefits in new areas around the country, including, as has been mentioned, adding connectivity in some cases. Let me make it clear that I therefore fully support the concept of further restoration. However—this is a big “however”—when it comes to priorities for my Department’s funding, we must ensure that the waterways maximise public benefits while delivering an affordable, sustainable network within the total funding available. That involves difficult decisions by the Government and British Waterways on the strategic approach to getting the best benefits from our waterways. Our commitment is clear, but it does not mean that we can avoid difficult decisions.

The recent Select Committee report acknowledged the usefulness of the strategic steer that was agreed with British Waterways to provide it with greater clarity about the Government’s priorities for the network. We can divide the priorities for the waterways in England and Wales into three areas. The first is maintaining the existing network in satisfactory order to deliver the range of public benefits. The second is achieving the longer-term vision shared by the Government and British Waterways of moving towards greater self-sufficiency. Members will agree on the need to put the network on a long-term, sustainable footing. The third is delivering the range of additional public benefits, which are not divisible from maintaining the network—they go hand in hand. The Government place great importance on all those areas, but the first one—maintaining the existing network in satisfactory order to deliver the range of public benefits associated with it—must be paramount, not least as we consider the current economic climate.

We are concerned with all three areas, but we have to maintain and drive forward the existing network. That is reflected in the approach that we take with the Environment Agency, which itself needs to implement a sustainable and affordable strategy for waterways management. In the strategic steer to British Waterways, we also made it clear that the Government remain supportive of its ambition to expand the network. That would make an additional contribution to achieving the public benefits that I have already mentioned.

The strategic steer reflects the fact that there is a gap between what British Waterways needs to maintain a steady state, and current income from all sources; hence the need for it to concentrate its resources on the existing network. That includes, as has been mentioned, the need quickly to repair breaches such as the one at Stourbridge, where British Waterways will need to spend an additional £1 million on repairs. It must be right that British Waterways prioritise its resources to deal with unpredictable events that can have a significant impact on people’s enjoyment of the existing network and on all those whose livelihoods depend on it.

The EFRA Committee recommended that the Government should develop a mechanism to score and prioritise public investment in canal restoration, taking into account the benefits created and the agreed principles on how financial risks should be borne, and the Government noted that. The Select Committee also raised concerns about British Waterways bearing most of the financial risk for the restoration of canals. It rightly commented that canal restoration can directly bring all the benefits that we have described, and its view was that the risks should be spread more widely among the public sector.

The Government agree with part of that recommendation but not the first part. As we said in our response, decisions on restoration projects are best taken at a local or regional level, not least because funding has to be raised at the local or regional level.

Without imparting any criticism of British Waterways, my concern is that its pulling out of the Cotswold canal project led to a loss of trust in the future. How would the Minister respond to that?

The difficulty was the rapid way in which the decision was made. I believe that everybody would have preferred to have more time and the ability to put in place the right structures, but British Waterways was faced with an immediate challenge, and we must recognise that. It was a difficult dilemma but a classic example of one of those hard decisions. Faced with the predicament of repair, as it was, how should it move ahead? I take the hon. Lady’s point, and I believe that British Waterways would also say that, in an ideal situation, it would want to spend more time putting in place the right structures. Sometimes things happen in such a precipitous fashion that one has to take rapid action, but I understand the hon. Lady’s question.

Involving central Government in funding decisions and adding a potential new tier of bureaucracy to the process to achieve a national framework on directives and funding would therefore not be appropriate or practical. However, we agree that further consideration should be given to how financial risks are borne. Investment by British Waterways in restoration projects is a matter for the board because its job is to manage risk and balance the books. It has mechanisms in place that enable it to prioritise its contribution to such projects. Under the DEFRA deal with British Waterways, the Department has agreed not to micro-manage British Waterways, and the board has agreed to manage risk and to be accountable for its decisions.

The Select Committee also raised concerns that the long-term financial strategy of British Waterways was constraining its enthusiasm for restoration projects and expansion of the network. This again brings me to the need to make hard choices. When planning its activities, British Waterways must consider financial implications. It needs to keep it in mind that, unlike regeneration projects adjacent to the existing network, it rarely owns the land alongside restoration projects and such projects rarely produce new income streams. They tend to go to local communities and councils.

Some of the projects that have we seen are the Manchester, Bolton and Bury canal, the Liverpool canal link, the Droitwich canals and the Bow Back Rivers construction at the new Prescott lock, which I hope to visit shortly. Even if it cannot make a direct contribution to restoration work, British Waterways still does all that it can to facilitate restoration projects.

In conclusion, we can be proud of what has been achieved over the past 10 years. This debate shows the passion that is still there and the need to drive forward on maintenance and, where we can, on expansion and further restoration. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands for securing this debate at such an early point in my ministerial career. I welcome it very much, as well as the enthusiasm and knowledge of Members. Our waterways will continue to deliver a full range of public benefits, and I am determined that the public will continue to enjoy those benefits now and in the future.

I assure Members that I have made assiduous notes on concerns that I have not been able to address in detail, and I will certainly take up invitations and offers of occasional meetings with Members.

NHS (Bromley and Orpington)

As the Minister will be aware, this is the second time that I have asked for and succeeded in getting an Adjournment debate on this issue. I called for this debate, first, because there is still a great deal of concern locally about the problems of Bromley and Orpington hospitals and, secondly, because the Government should be aware of that concern at ministerial level, because they have to play a significant part in the resolution of these problems if they are to be resolved satisfactorily. My colleagues, my hon. Friends the Members for Beckenham (Mrs. Lait) and for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) supported me in calling for and getting this Adjournment debate because they, too, are concerned about the situation in our local hospitals.

Before I say anything else, I should say that I believe that the Bromley Hospitals NHS Trust is full of dedicated people who are doing fine work. [Interruption.] I am glad to see the Minister nodding. My sole concern is to see that they are put in a management and financial framework where they can be as good as they aspire to be, both from their professional point of view and with regard to the interests of the people of Orpington and Bromley.

I am always anxious to help the Minister give satisfactory replies. I want to summarise my five requests at the beginning of my speech rather than at the end, in the hope that this will further help him to come up with satisfactory answers when he replies. First, I want to see the merry-go-round of short-term six-month appointments at the top of the Bromley Hospitals NHS Trust management ended and a proper management team appointed with at least a three to five-year view. I have been saying that for a long time and it is time that the Government took notice of that fundamental point.

Secondly, the question of the treatment centre at Orpington should be considered not solely from a short-term financial point of view, dealing with making short-term financial savings, but from the point of view of clinical requirements, particularly taking into account that the Princess Royal university hospital has for years been working at total capacity—well above the 85 per cent. capacity that is considered optimal. Orpington treatment centre can make a contribution to achieving that aim.

Thirdly, the trust should be given challenging, but not impossible, financial targets. In that context, bringing down last year’s £18.5 million deficit to zero in one financial year was always unrealistic, although I accept that that was embraced by the interim chief executive. Fourthly, providing that the trust makes progress—I do not want to let it off the hook in making progress on dealing with the operating deficit—the Government should be prepared to make a financial arrangement that allows it to deal with its £100 million of overhanging debt, and with the structural and financial problems arising from the private finance initiative.

Fifthly, I hope that the Government will be sensible about asking Bromley to meet the national target of 18 weeks for referral to treatment, which all trusts are supposed to meet by December, given that the starting point for Bromley Hospitals NHS Trust at the moment is that that standard is met in only 57 per cent. of cases. It is asking a huge amount of the trust to go to 100 per cent. in the next two or three months.

Those are my five requests that I want the Minister to focus on in his reply to my speech. The main hospital in the trust is the Princess Royal university hospital, which was opened seven years ago as one of first PFI hospitals. Also in my constituency is Orpington hospital, which is very much older but which, five years ago, had a treatment centre built for elective orthopaedic surgery: knees, hips, hands and feet, and so on. That treatment centre had an additional theatre built only two years ago, which was opened by the current Secretary of State for Defence.

The Minister was in Orpington yesterday, I think. I do not know whether he had the opportunity to visit the treatment centre at Orpington hospital. [Interruption.] He says not and I understand why; diaries sometimes prevent such things from happening. None the less, that would have been an opportunity for him to see in situ what an excellent facility this is.

Bromley Hospitals NHS Trust has accumulated a deficit of £100 million. Last year it lost £18.5 million as an operating deficit. The trust commissioned a report from an independent expert in financial management, Mr. Michael Taylor, into how it got into this mess. That report, which was published recently, is, I am afraid, damning and spares no one: not the previous management, the board, the primary care trust, the London NHS or the Government. One saving grace was that the previous management’s passion for high clinical standards was applauded.

I want to focus on the handling of the proposed closure of the Orpington treatment centre, since that is causing great concern in Orpington and because it is an example of how things are going wrong. As I have said, the Orpington treatment centre was opened five years ago; it has been universally praised and the theatre was expanded two years ago as a consequence of its success. The centre meets all the Darzi requirements for having elective surgery quite separate from acute and emergency services.

As the Minister knows, under an exercise called “A picture of health for south east London”, it is proposed that the centre should, despite its success, be transferred to Queen Mary’s hospital, Sidcup, which may be losing its accident and emergency department under that same exercise. It was expected that it would be two or three years until that proposal became operative. In March the Bromley Hospitals NHS Trust said that it would like to keep the treatment centre open in Orpington. However, in July, which is not that long ago, the new interim chief executive said that the Orpington treatment centre should be closed. A press statement said:

“Incoming Chief Executive Michael Marchment has pledged to make savings whilst maintaining high quality patient care: ‘We can close operating theatres without having an impact on patient care by improving the way that we work. The most efficient way of doing this is to close three theatres at Orpington Treatment Centre and bringing the staff and equipment to the Princess Royal University Hospital’”—

not, it may be noted, at Queen Mary’s, Sidcup, but at Princess Royal university hospital. The press statement continued:

“Bromley Hospitals is in discussion with staff about the closures which will be in place by the autumn.”

I think that the trust suddenly realised that it was possibly not taking account of the consultations under “A picture of health”, because on the following day a further press notice was issued:

“However, we recognise that such a move will require discussion with staff, and Bromley Council Health Scrutiny Committee, and possibly consultation.”

I think that there were some quick second thoughts there.

It seemed then that the centre was going to close in the autumn. At that point, one of my constituents, Mrs. Julie Mott, started a petition that has gathered nearly 19,000 signatures, which is a huge number, as the Minister will be aware, given the numbers of signatures gathered in such situations. I have nothing but admiration for Mrs. Mott and her supporters, who have truly performed a public service.

There were second thoughts and we learned that the treatment centre closure was postponed until January 2009. When I rang the chief executive of the primary care trust, not 10 days ago, he still thought that it was closing in January. However, we learned subsequently that the closure was going to be brought forward again, to 30 November. There was consternation about that and, once again, the date was revised. Mr. Marchment has said in a letter to me that the closure would not now take place until well into the early part of next year.

A press statement yesterday went further and said that the treatment centre will not close until 31 March. Obviously, I wholeheartedly welcome that decision to postpone the precipitate closure, but there have been four decisions in four months on when the centre will close. That smacks of incompetent management that is not in control. One can hardly imagine how the situation could have been handled worse than it has been. It has created uncertainty, and that is bad not only for staff morale but, I am told, for staff retention, which is extremely important. Clearly, people are concerned about the uncertainty and different decisions being made almost from week to week about when the centre will close. What are they expected to do when teams are broken up and people receive offers from elsewhere? Uncertainty is a matter of great concern.

The reason for the proposed closure is that it is alleged that the treatment centre is losing £1 million a year, and that that will be saved if it is closed. Whenever the suggestion is made to bring the closure forward, the argument is always that closure will save £1 million a year, which would make a contribution to the current year’s savings. When it is suggested that closure should be delayed, the argument is that capacity can no longer be met. The original decision was based on the idea that there was enough capacity for the Princess Royal university hospital to meet the needs if the Orpington treatment centre is eliminated.

The capacity point is important. At the last board meeting on 24 October, it was said that 350 patients would have to be farmed out to other hospitals, including Hillingdon, which is a long way from Orpington, to Ilford and to various private hospitals, because they could no longer be dealt with if the Orpington centre were closed. However, I have a copy of an internal memo in which those 350 patients suddenly became 700. The memo is dated 23 October, the day before the board meeting on 24 October, and says that

“in order to meet the 18 week target we will need to substantially increase the numbers of patients on the waiting list that we are sending out to the private sector to upwards of 700 patients.”

When the board met the day before the memo, it said that only 350 people would be involved. It seems that the board does not know what is going on. The Taylor report accused the board of not knowing what was going on in the hospital, and this seems to be yet another example of that. Things have not improved. Will those “upwards of 700 patients”, in the light of yesterday’s decision to postpone closure of the Orpington treatment centre, still be sent out to other private and public hospitals? Perhaps the Minister knows. I certainly do not know, and no one in Orpington seems to know.

Clearly, it is difficult for the Bromley Hospitals NHS Trust to meet the financial target of reducing its operating deficit to zero, and to meet the national waiting list target of reducing referral times for treatment to 18 weeks when that is achieved in only 50 per cent. of cases. That is asking the trust to do the impossible. It is almost asking it to do the splits, because the targets are in opposite directions.

Another reason for the treatment centre to remain is that last night, under the “A picture of health” proposals, the statutory joint committee on health overview and scrutiny referred all matters, under the statutory procedures, to an independent review by the Secretary of State. It called for that at last night’s meeting, and I draw the Minister’s attention to the statement, which he will receive shortly. It says:

“The JHOSC has serious concerns about the recent decision of Bromley Hospitals Trust…to relocate surgical services from the Orpington Treatment Centre to the Princess Royal University Hospital. This option was not included in the consultation document for the A Picture of Health Proposals. BHT took this decision without prior consultation with the public or the local overview and scrutiny committee despite the decision taken by the JCPCT on 21st July 2008 to move these services to Queen Mary's, Sidcup.”

There is a clear conflict between the medium-term plan and the trust’s immediate decision.

I want to make a few more points before the Minister responds. First, I mentioned the circus of interim chief executives. We have had four; three were there for less than six months, and one lasted slightly longer. That is deeply unsatisfactory. I am always told that the reason is that there is a proposed merger in the air with another trust, or perhaps two trusts, so contracts cannot be sensibly negotiated. On the other hand, if we had taken the sensible view and put someone in place two years ago, they would at least have gone two years down the track, and if they could turn round the mess that the trust is in, they could cope with an additional trust if that is what happens.

Secondly, on consultation, section 242(2) of the National Health Service Act 2006 says:

“Each body”—

that is, hospital trusts—

“to which this section applies must make arrangements with a view to securing, as respects health services for which it is responsible, that persons to whom those services are being or may be provided are, directly or through representatives, involved in and consulted on”

any changes. The minutes of the meeting on 24 July, immediately after the announcement of the premature closure of the Orpington treatment centre, say:

“The Nominated Representative, Health and Social Care Forum expressed concern that the proposal to close theatres at the”

Orpington treatment centre

“was made without consultation with members of the public.”

The minutes also state that the chief executive

“proposed to meet with the Local Overview and Scrutiny Committee to discuss the future of the OTC.”

That committee will be the relevant committee of Bromley borough council, but that does not meet the requirements of the Act. The council should have been consulted anyway, but the local scrutiny committee should also have been consulted under the national health service legislation. In any case, that meeting did not take place until September, when he originally wanted the treatment centre to be closed.

The people of Orpington and Bromley are intelligent, with a close knowledge of their health services. They want them to succeed, and I suggest that the flimsy consultation was a serious mistake and that that course should not have been followed.

On capacity, independent analysis by the Library shows a strong link between hospital ward overcrowding and the spread of deadly hospital infections such as MRSA and Clostridium difficile. Trusts with a bed occupancy rate higher than the Government’s recommended optimum level of 85 per cent. had a much higher rate of both C. difficile and MRSA. Research suggests that in 145 NHS organisations the level is more than 85 per cent., and in some it is more than 95 per cent. The Minister is well briefed on the subject, so I am sure that he knows that Bromley Hospitals NHS Trust has had the highest level of overcrowding and capacity. That should be addressed in any action that is taken.

The latest development is that I and my colleagues received a letter from the primary care trust indicating that the commissioning of acute care is to be merged. It is one of those letters that says that things will substantially change, but that nothing will actually change. One receives those curious bureaucratic letters from time to time, which are profoundly unsatisfactory. Lord Warner will address a meeting on Thursday, which suggests that mergers between local trusts will be proposed. All I can say is that this is the worst possible time for such structural change. People want a calm period and to be allowed to do their jobs properly. In the light of that, I look forward with immense interest, as do the people of Bromley and Orpington, to the Minister’s response.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Horam) on securing the debate, and I join him in paying tribute to NHS staff, especially those in Bromley, whose hard work and dedication across the NHS are delivering a better quality health service than there has ever been. That has benefited not only his constituents, but people across England.

Before addressing the specifics of the changes to the hon. Gentleman’s local hospitals, I shall set out the context for those changes. During 60 years of the NHS, society, technology and medicine have changed beyond all recognition. It is important that our health service also changes and evolves to meet those challenges. Today, more and more conditions can be treated and cared for at home or closer to where patients live, in their local community. More services are therefore being provided outside the traditional hospital setting. Hospital care itself is also changing. If we go back 20 years, most surgery almost always required days or even weeks in hospital. Today, the majority of surgery is done on an out-patient basis and patients can be at home and in their own bed on the same day.

As medical science has advanced, our doctors and surgeons have become ever more capable of extraordinary feats of clinical care. There is a growing need for that expertise to be located in centres of excellence that bring together specialists from a number of different areas to work together as a single team. Given those wider trends—more community-based care and the need for greater specialism—the old way of doing things, which involved a local general hospital providing most of the care for a population, is not necessarily the safest or most medically effective way to treat patients. That is the context against which the reorganisation of health care in outer south-east London is taking place.

The other important thing that I need to make clear is that decisions on how local services are organised are no longer made by Ministers in Whitehall, and rightly so, but by autonomous NHS professionals on the ground—at least, that is the case in England. I should like to take this opportunity to commend the collaborative approach that has been taken by the primary care trusts and acute hospital trusts involved in the outer south-east London reorganisation. Given the local concerns and in some cases rivalries, it is no mean feat that they have managed to come up with a set of proposals that they believe will not only ensure safe and high quality services for the people of their boroughs, but put the NHS in outer south-east London at long last on a stable financial footing.

The process of drawing up the proposals, which are called “A picture of health”, has been led by doctors and other health care professionals and, as the hon. Gentleman is well aware, has involved extensive public consultation. The clear view of the clinicians involved is that, although many services can be devolved further out into local communities, the speciality or complexity of other services means that they need to be concentrated on three sites—rather than the current four sites—to make the most of available expertise. Under the respected surgeon Professor Sir George Alberti, an independent national medical advisory team reviewed the proposed changes in south-east London and said:

“It is obvious that no change is not an option. This has been stressed particularly by hospital clinicians… We support the view of concentrating acute services on fewer sites as soon as possible.”

As I am sure the hon. Gentleman is also aware, in July, the joint committee of the four PCTs involved agreed to recommend a variation of one of the four options that had been considered during the public consultation. The Queen Elizabeth hospital Woolwich and the Princess Royal hospital Bromley—his own hospital—will both become major admitting hospitals. University hospital Lewisham will become a medically admitting hospital and Queen Mary’s hospital Sidcup will become a borough hospital. That will lead to an enhanced role for his Princess Royal hospital as the major acute hospital that serves the people of Bromley and, more widely, Bexley.

The enhanced services will include improved maternity services, with more options for mothers, such as a midwifery-led maternity unit and the extension of consultant cover for the traditional maternity wards. There will also be an expanded critical care facility, improved specialist rotas for medically ill patients, who will be admitted under a specialist in their condition, and an increase in accident and emergency capacity, including increased numbers of senior medical staff to serve that speciality. The local NHS said that it believed that that solution would deliver the most clinical and non-clinical benefits to local people.

As the hon. Gentleman has said, and rightly so, the NHS in south-east London has faced serious challenges for a number of years. As he also noted, when we announced last week the early achievement of the historic milestone that, on aggregate across England, 90 per cent. of admitted and 95 per cent. of non-admitted patients receive treatment within 18 weeks, Bromley primary care trust was one of only five PCTs in England performing below 80 per cent.; in fact, it was the worst performing PCT in the country. That trust is receiving a high level of assistance from both the London strategic health authority and my Department’s intensive support team to resolve those issues. Urgent recovery action is under way with the trust and the local health community. It will be extremely challenging for the trust to improve performance sufficiently to meet the December targets, and for that reason, the plan to repatriate surgical work from the Orpington site to the Princess Royal university hospital in Farnborough has been deferred to 31 March.

I also note, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman did himself, that the Healthcare Commission annual health check, which was published two weeks ago for Bromley Hospitals NHS Trust, rated the trust as only “fair” for the quality of services and “weak” for the use of resources. That is a deterioration in its performance from 2006-07, when it was rated “good” for services and “weak” for the use of resources.

The annual health check is an important independent tool for measuring performance across the NHS and identifying areas for improvement. The Department is working with the Healthcare Commission to take action against trusts that have performed badly, such as Bromley. Any trust that scores “weak” in either quality or finance must prepare an action plan that details the steps taken and further plans to address weaknesses. All of those plans will be monitored and trusts will be revisited in the new year.

Does the plan that the Minister says that the Bromley hospitals trust must produce include referring 700 or more patients to private hospitals in the area, or not?

I am afraid that I cannot give the hon. Gentleman confirmation of the exact figure; that is a matter both for the acute trust and Bromley primary care trust, which, as commissioner, has the responsibility for achieving the 18-week target. What is important for his constituents is that they get the same quality and speed of service as everyone else in the country now expects. If treating patients within 18 weeks means that Bromley PCT has to refer more patients or give them the choice of being referred to an independent or private sector provider that is not something that should be sniffed at. That is about delivering high quality care and the 18-week target to his constituents—something that people in the rest of the country already take for granted.

On that point, I recognise that giving people an option of where to go for their treatment is not to be sniffed at, as the Minister has said. However, there is concern about whether alternative sources have the right kind of equipment to deal with the complicated hip and knee operations that the Orpington treatment centre has—for example, the laminar flow equipment at Orpington is not available in some of the private hospitals. I do not wish to exaggerate that matter—I am sure that people do their best to give excellent treatment wherever they are—but, none the less, there is a real local concern that the alternative treatment might not be as good as the treatment that they would have received at the Orpington centre.

It is not for me to second-guess the decisions that are made correctly by commissioners locally. They will be cognisant of the need to ensure that his constituents get their treatment within 18 weeks, which is something that they should be able to expect and is something that people in most parts of the country already enjoy. However, as the hon. Gentleman rightly says, we must ensure that that treatment is of the highest quality. Many patients already choose alternative providers—for example, independent treatment sectors, voluntary sector organisations and charitable institutions—that give high-quality treatment, including some providers in his area. Indeed, sometimes that treatment is of a higher quality than that of local providers. I do not want to be dogmatic about that matter, because it is right that that decision should be left to his local commissioners in the PCT.

The hon. Gentleman also mentioned the critical report into financial management and governance at Bromley hospital that was published on 25 September. As he will be aware, the chairman of the board has publicly apologised for the corporate failings outlined in the Taylor report. There is now a new board and none of the executive or non-executive members of the board who were identified in that period of corporate failure remain on the new board. The hon. Gentleman will know that, for some time, his trust has been one of the most financially challenged in the organisation and that south-east London as a whole contains the most financially challenged health economies in the country.

The financial position of all trusts across London, including those in south-east London, continues to be monitored closely by the provider agency in NHS London. That monitoring process includes monthly reporting for each trust and escalation meetings between NHS London and the trust if forecasts change. Bromley Hospitals NHS Trust forecast out-turn position as presented in the 2007-08 final accounts was a deficit of more than £17 million, but the forecast out-turn position as presented in the 2008-09 plans is for a £203,000 surplus. As the hon. Gentleman recognised, that will be a challenge, but NHS London continues to work with the trust to look at further ways to save costs and to ensure that plans can be put in place.

There are many more points to which I need to respond, but in the minute that I have left, the most important thing to say is that the trust’s new chief executive has a high reputation across the NHS. I urge the hon. Gentleman to take part in the meeting of chief executives on Thursday—all MPs in the area have been invited—and to engage in the discussions taking place about the future organisation of management, which will have a vital impact—

Newbridge Memorial Hall

I sought the debate to draw attention to the restoration of the Newbridge Memo, in my constituency. That extraordinary building, which includes a 1920s art deco cinema, is not a museum as so many other miners institutes have become. It is the living, pumping heart of the town of Newbridge and the surrounding area. It is open seven days a week, and 28 local organisations use it for everything from tea dances to meetings of the Royal British Legion.

The Memo’s dance floor is said to be the best in Wales. Over the past eight decades, great names ranging from the Joe Loss orchestra to James Dean Bradfield and Nicky Wire of the Manic Street Preachers have played there—James Dean Bradfield used to serve behind the bar. Tom Jones had a pretty rough time when he sang there at the start of his career. One of the Memo’s bouncers went on to become head of news at ITV. Ricky Valance, the first British singer ever to have a number one in the United States, with “Tell Laura I Love Her”, is a local lad and performed at the Memo only last year.

The Prince of Wales visited. He asked that his visit be extended to more than two hours and said that he would come back to reopen the Memo when the restoration was complete. The Memo was runner-up in the final of the BBC’s “Restoration” programme. Hundreds of Newbridge folk marched behind members of the local colliery band and others to Hampton Court palace for the final. The Memo is no royal palace, but it is the palace of the valleys. Ruth Madoc, the actress, named it that when asked where her palace would be if she were Queen of Wales. She said, “The Newbridge Memo.” The Memo was used as a key location for the shooting of the film “Very Annie Mary”. “Flick”, starring Faye Dunaway, was partly filmed there, and last year it played host for the filming of a full-length episode of “Doctor Who”.

The Memo or, to give it its full name, the Celynen collieries institute and memorial hall was built and paid for by the pennies of miners and their families. It was built in memory of the boys from Newbridge who went to the great war of 1914 to 1918 and never returned. The name of every serviceman from the town who answered the call to serve our country is listed on the walls of the Memo—not just those who gave their lives, but everybody who was ever called to the colours from that town. I think that that is probably unique.

After such a build-up, one might ask, “Why this debate?” Well, the answer is simple. The Friends of Newbridge Memo need money to carry on the restoration. They need £4.9 million to start and they have been turned down by the Heritage Lottery Fund. Let me say at this stage that I am very disappointed that no Minister from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, which after all is the Department responsible for the HLF, could be bothered to reply to this debate. However, I am hugely encouraged by the presence of my constituency next-door neighbour—he represents Caerphilly—and good friend the Under-Secretary of State for Wales. Although the Wales Office has no direct responsibility for this matter, I know that, with him and the Secretary of State for Wales, my pleading will not fall on deaf ears.

I am very glad to be able to pledge my support for the cause. People throughout Wales took an interest when the Memo was on television. It was an interesting programme and it was very disappointing that the Memo came second. Does the right hon. Gentleman share my disappointment that so much lottery funding is being diverted from Wales? The sums required in this case could easily be met from the £107 million that I understand has been diverted from Wales to the Olympics.

I will certainly come to that point shortly. It is a matter that I wish to develop in my argument.

Both Ministers in the Wales Office come from true working-class stock and know only too well the debt that we owe the mining communities of Wales. Just as the whole community came together to build the Memo in the first place, they now rally behind the Friends of the Memo and their chairman, Howard Stone. The Friends of the Memo are all volunteers. All give endless hours of their time and all make a contribution to the quality of life of the people of Newbridge that is beyond measure. Their last application was turned down by the Heritage Lottery Fund, but they have not been deterred. They have already embarked on a second bid with determination and grit. My worry is whether the pot will be empty when their bid goes in. So much money for good causes has been diverted to the 2012 Olympics—as I well know as a member of the Public Accounts Committee—that I fear the cupboard will soon be bare.

The permanent secretary at the DCSF and David Higgins, chief executive of the Olympic Delivery Authority, appeared before the PAC on 14 November 2007. The PAC was told that the national lottery fund would have to contribute £2.17 billion to the Olympics—an increase of £675 million. Surely that cannot be good news for projects such as the Newbridge Memo, which need lottery funding so badly. We heard in the PAC that a £5 billion error had been made in estimating the true cost of the Olympic games, and the national lottery—or should I say worthwhile projects such as ours—will pay the price for that error. I am concerned that the Heritage Lottery Fund will be squeezed, that people who work hard to restore amazing buildings such as the Memo will become discouraged and that those worthwhile projects that celebrate working-class history will be lost for ever.

The 2012 Olympics will, I am convinced, be a time of great celebration and success for this country, and I want the Olympics to succeed, but I hope that those celebrations will not leave a bitter aftertaste for the Memo if our further bid is to fail. The truth is that funding for causes such as the Memo has been pillaged to help the Olympics and that has to stop now. Today, I am seeking a cast-iron assurance from the Government that no more lottery money will be siphoned off, thus putting projects such as the Memo restoration at risk.

I said earlier that the Memo was the palace of the valleys, and so it is, which makes me wonder: if it were a royal palace or a great family’s stately home, would it be treated better by the Heritage Lottery Fund when bidding for money? This palace celebrates the history not of royalty or great families, but of the working class of Britain—the people who put the word “Great” into Great Britain. Sadly, many people no longer have an idea of how important coal mining was to the communities that we grew up in. It is important that the restoration of the Memo goes ahead, because for some of us it is our last link to the historic past of the valleys in which we were born.

It is important to support the social and historical heritage of working people embodied in such places as miners institutes. They are fast disappearing from our towns and villages. If we want to prevent that, we must ensure that when restoration projects are proposed, the funding bodies give a fair share to those projects as they do to stately homes, palaces and castles. Many of those institutes have either gone to rack and ruin or become one of the many faceless Wetherspoon’s pubs that we see throughout the country.

I am determined, as are the Friends of the Memo, that we will not let that happen to the Newbridge Memo. Even though the Memo lost out on the £3 million prize from the “Restoration” programme, they made an application for £4.9 million to the Heritage Lottery Fund. Following advice from the officers of the HLF to turn the restoration into a two-phase project, they made an application for £3.2 million, which was turned down by the HLF trustee board.

I met Jennifer Stewart, head of the Heritage Lottery Fund in Wales, following the failure of the last bid, and I was told that there was nothing wrong with the bid but the Memo lost out because there was just £6.5 million left in the pot because of funding having to go elsewhere. I thank Jennifer Stewart and her team, because they have been very encouraging and supportive to the Friends of the Memo, who, as I said, are all volunteers. I spoke to her only this morning, and she told me how impressed she had been that the Friends of the Memo, having been turned down by the HLF just recently, have come back determined to fight back and make a further bid. They have a very positive approach. Jennifer Stewart is encouraged by that, and so am I. What concerns me, however, is the criteria used by the Heritage Lottery Fund when judging bids. Indeed, when I asked that very question of the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, I was told:

“The Heritage Lottery Fund assesses all applications against its strategic aims. In addition, the Heritage Lottery Fund considers project planning and delivery, projects costs and partnership funding, long-term viability and value for money.”—[Official Report, 15 September 2008; Vol. 479, c. 2024W.]

Does the Newbridge Memo not have long-term viability? Of course it does. Does it not give value for money? Yes, of course it does.

I am sorry, but I still do not understand how the Heritage Lottery Fund can decide that one project should be judged more worthy than another. Perhaps it should apply common sense—although I remember my mother saying to me as a lad, “Son, in life you’ll find that sense isn’t that common.” A little common sense should be applied, so that if two projects of equal merit are being considered, preference or added weight ought to be given to projects in county boroughs such as Caerphilly—I share the borough with my hon. Friend the Minister—that have not had their fair share of lottery funding.

The Memo has probably had one of the highest profiles of any heritage project restoration in Wales. I am sure that the hon. Member for Caernarfon (Hywel Williams) will confirm that. It is seen in headlines almost every week. However, the popular vote seems to count for nothing for the trustee board of the Heritage Lottery Fund. The borough of Caerphilly has had just 38 Lottery awards, totalling £566,000. It is the second lowest supported area of Wales. We have been let down. All we want is a fair share so that that wonderful project can go ahead.

In a couple of weeks, we will be marking the 90th anniversary of the end of first world war. The historical importance of the Memo needs to be recognised, of course it does; but more important is the fact that the Memo is no museum. It is the very heart of a very special town. The people of Newbridge and the Memo deserve better treatment with the new bid. I hope my that my hon. Friend will have something encouraging to say. I invite him and the Wales Office to stand shoulder to shoulder with me and the community of Newbridge as we make a renewed bid for funding to restore the Memo. It is a palace for the valleys—a palace for working people to enjoy and celebrate. It deserves a great future.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig) on securing this debate and on his tireless campaigning for the restoration of the Newbridge memorial hall.

On Friday evening, I chaired a public meeting in my constituency of Caerphilly—as my right hon. Friend said, I am a neighbour of his—the purpose of which was to encourage members of the public to join together to save the Caerphilly workingmen’s hall. In giving guidance to the meeting, a speaker from the Coal Industry Social Welfare Organisation went out of his way to pay tribute to what had happened in Newbridge. He said that it was a good example to follow and a model of good practice. That is certainly true: the community as a whole pulled together in support of the Memo. We should all take note of the fact. It is something of which to be proud.

The Newbridge memorial hall and institute—the Memo as its affectionately known locally—is an historic expression of the collectivism that made the south Wales valleys truly special. It was paid for by the local miners; and it was, and remains, one of the finest statements of south Wales when coal was truly king. Not only did it have a fine library and reading rooms, there was also a superb cinema decorated in the art deco style, a large dance hall and four billiard rooms.

On the demise of the coal industry, the memorial hall and institute went into decline. However, because of the vision and hard work of local people, working alongside my right hon. Friend, their local MP, enormous progress has been made in making the Memo the focal point of community life in Newbridge. It is heartening and inspiring to see people in the community working so hard for such a good cause.

I am pleased to say that the hall is once again returning to its former glory—its former central community position. My right hon. Friend referred to the large number of organisations that now make use of the hall’s facilities. A good example is that family events are now taking place there. A Halloween party is due to take place this weekend, and a ghost-hunting event is taking place in November for those of a more open and inquiring mind.

We should not forget the passion and hard work that went into the campaign that saw the Memo winning a place in the final of BBC’s “Restoration” programme in 2004. With real dedication and sheer hard work, the Memo saw off some strong Welsh competition from Llanfyllin union workhouse and Cardigan castle, and it came close to winning the final prize. Although it lost in the final to the Old Grammar School and Saracen’s Head, a 15th century school building and tavern, in Kings Norton, Birmingham, the Memo nevertheless captured the interest of the nation—including the Prince of Wales. I am pleased to be able to say that members of my family, many of my constituents and I all cast votes with enthusiasm. As my right hon. Friend would say, they voted early and often.

Programmes like “Restoration” have renewed interest and pride in our communities and their history. We only have to think of the time, effort and determination of the campaigns, whether successful or not, to see the pride and dedication that people put into them. Who could not agree that it re-instilled co-operation and hard work across the community? History is made real once again by that collective effort. That is not happening only in Newbridge; it is happening elsewhere in Wales and throughout the length and breadth of the United Kingdom. Indeed, I venture to suggest that the Memo has reinstated the values that had originally paid for and built the hall and institute. In an age when there is always some trouble or story of woe on the news, it is extremely heartening to hear the value of community shining through.

The Memo’s importance as a historic structure has been recognised through all that hard work. Cadw, the Welsh Assembly’s historic monuments body, has funded the first phase of repair, focusing on the roof and associated works—lead work and waterproofing against the elements. I am told that major restoration works to secure the building and make it the focus of the community will cost in the region of £3 million. The Heritage Lottery Fund has also provided funds through the project planning grant scheme to support the cost of developing specialist reports to help the conservation repair works. Owing to the nature of demand-led funding such as that of the Heritage Lottery Fund and because other projects also required similar sums, it was not possible to fund the Memo project during that funding round.

The Olympic Games have been mentioned. I emphasise that they are not the London Olympics or the English Olympics: they are the United Kingdom Olympics. It is only reasonable to expect all members of the UK, in one way or another, to make a contribution to ensuring that the 2012 Olympics are successful for the whole country.

Whenever we mention the Heritage Lottery Fund, we are talking about intense competition. For example, during the last funding period bids were made that amounted to more than five times the available resources; it is not simply that support is not being given by the lottery. The fact is that such competition is a good thing. People who are enormously enthusiastic are trying to tap into the Heritage Lottery Fund to ensure that their bids are successful. However, in January, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, when he was at the relevant Ministry, gave a cast-iron commitment that no further lottery resources would be going to support the Olympics. We should take note of that.

Although the Memo’s bid was not successful in June, it is important that we recognise that all hope is not lost—far from it. I understand that the Heritage Lottery Fund has discussed the application with the Memo’s trustees and the reasons why the bid was not initially successful. The trustees will be submitting a second bid next month for consideration in early 2009. I also understand that an important meeting of the Heritage Lottery Fund board of trustees will be taking place in November and that due consideration will be given to the bid then and afterwards.

On the remarks that the Minister made on further lottery funding for the Olympics, I emphasise that I believe that the Olympics are for the whole country, and we want them to be a huge success. However, if the Prince of Wales can come and spend two hours at the Memo, why is it not possible for officials of the Heritage Lottery Fund, who sit in London to take decisions, to come to look for themselves? I have invited them, but I have not had a positive reply. Will the Minister and the relevant Secretary of State intervene and get those people, who take their decisions far away in London, to see for themselves what a jewel that wonderful building is? It is used seven days a week, so they can come any day.

My right hon. Friend makes a very good point. When I have visited the Memo in the past, I was enormously impressed with the building, but more by the work that is being done there by the local community. I shall give him an assurance that I will immediately make representations to officials of the Heritage Lottery Fund, so that they do not consider the application in abstraction but go down to Newbridge and the Gwent valleys to see for themselves what a good project it is and its well worked-out plans.

Moreover, I am sure that, like me, the House collectively will wish the Memo every success this time around in securing the funding that it needs to return the building to the heart of the community, not as some kind of mausoleum, but as a practical manifestation of the strength of community spirit in Newbridge. I am sure that we all hope that the bid will be successful in the not-too-distant future.

Sitting suspended.

Chinese People’s Liberation Army

I am delighted to serve under your chairmanship, Lady Winterton, and to have the opportunity to raise this important issue in Westminster Hall.

On 4 June 1989, the tanks of the People’s Liberation Army rolled into Tiananmen square. The massacre that followed, according to official Chinese figures, resulted in 241 dead and some 7,000 injured. However, the BBC and students say that there were in the region of some 3,000 dead. At the time, the west was shocked; indeed, Lord Kinnock said that it was a crime against humanity. Ever since, there have been serious question marks against China and its human rights record. Today, China supports arms sales to the Zimbabwe regime of Robert Mugabe, and there was recently an attempt to move arms on to the African continent. It is involved in supplying Iran—up to $7 billion-worth of arms in 2004. More recently, close to the time of the Olympics, we saw a brutal suppression of the peoples of Tibet, and continued persecution of Christians and Muslims in the country.

What did the European Union and the United Kingdom do at the time of Tiananmen Square, and what have they done subsequently? At the time, EU member states got together and passed the Madrid declaration of 1989. The declaration has some important points, which I would like to place on the record. It involved a breaking of diplomatic relations and, effectively, a stronger form of trade sanctions. Included in the declaration was a clear and separate measure, which referred to

“interruption by the Member States of the Community”—

the European Community—

“of military co-operation and an embargo on trade and arms with China.”

It could not be said clearer than that. In addition to that, continued resolutions of the European Council—as recently as 2006—have kept in place those measures.

At the conclusion of the EU Council meeting in December 2006, the council reaffirmed its willingness to continue working towards lifting the arms embargo on the basis of the European Council conclusions of December 2004. However, the council continues to have serious concerns about the human rights situation in China and deeply regrets that there has been little progress in a number of areas.

I spoke to an official from the European Commission a couple of hours ago. He agrees that the measure is still in place. He said:

“The measure of interruption of military co-operation and the embargo on sale of arms are part of the same thing. It remains resolutely in place.”

For some reason, the United Kingdom has chosen unilaterally to break the embargo. In August, a member of the People’s Liberation Army passed out of Sandhurst. That is the same People’s Liberation Army that was involved in the massacre at Tiananmen square, and has been involved in suppressing the Tibetan movement. This is apparently all being done, as we saw in responses to parliamentary questions, without the knowledge of Ministers in the Ministry of Defence or the Foreign Office. According to written answers, the MOD officials did not even consult UKRep in Brussels or the Foreign Office. Apparently, the embargo was broken as part of the wider Whitehall initiative to encourage better relations with China.

In order to break the embargo and to allow members of the People’s Liberation Army to attend Sandhurst, a safeguard was put in place which said that the training will be kept under review

“and these limited engagements will stop if there is firm evidence that any skills or knowledge we provide have been misused.”—[Official Report, 17 September 2008; Vol. 479, c. 2250W.]

How they will find the individual officer cadets from Sandhurst in the huge People’s Liberation Army, in a huge country that is not renowned for its freedom of information and freedom of movement is beyond me.

After a series of parliamentary questions about what the bilateral programme was, I finally received an answer. The programme will include

“senior leadership engagement, high-level command and staff training…disaster management training, peace and support operations.” —[Official Report, 23 October 2008; Vol. 481, c. 474W.]

The total amount of funding allocated in support of the programme for financial year 2008-09 is £465,000.

I cannot understand what the Chinese People’s Liberation Army is going to teach us—or what we are going to teach it—on command and staff training. Perhaps we will teach it how to invade an island off its coast that it wants back. When we talk about “junior leadership training” or “peace and support operations”, perhaps we will be assisting it in dealing with its troublesome groups in Tibet that it finds so easy to put down. I found that objectionable. At the bottom of that answer, the Minister says:

“I am withholding a copy of the bilateral programme agreement as its release would, or would be likely, to prejudice international relations.”—[Official Report, 23 October 2008; Vol. 481, c. 474W.]

First, we have a right to know what has been signed, especially when it is in contravention of the EU arms embargo. Secondly, we have to ask, “Whose relations could be under threat?” We do not have to look far to realise that our relations with the United States, our closest military ally and trading partner when it comes to military and aerospace equipment, will come under stress.

In a number of speeches dating back to 2005, the Assistant Secretary of State for Political and Military Affairs, John Hillen, cautioned that any action by the EU to lift its embargo on arms to China would

“raise a major obstacle to future US defense cooperation with Europe…I think we can count on it: should the EU lift its embargo, the US Congress will legislate.”

I know from representing many thousands of workers in British Aerospace, from travelling to Washington and from my previous life in the aerospace industry that the United States is serious about the steps that it would take should Britain, or the European Union, decide to engage in arms sales and military co-operation that would threaten the important relationship of trust between the United Kingdom and the United States. I have to ask why the Government are following such a line. What are they playing at? We have established through written answers that officials in the MOD did not check with the Ministers. Having spoken to a number of previous Secretaries of State for Defence, they find such an answer to be rather odd because in their experience any agreement to send personnel to military training establishments in the UK with the remotest hint of controversy would usually go via a Minister for approval. I find it incredible that the MOD did not check, or engage in discussions, with the Foreign Office—the very body of this Government that is charged with representing us in Europe and at European Council discussions. What we have done is dangerous because a number of countries in Europe have less moral regard and would be very keen to sell arms to China. Therefore, it weakens our case in the European Council that we should not engage in arms sales to China.

I suspect that the Government have been caught with their pants down. Effectively, they were not aware of the details of the Madrid declaration and were happy to play around at the edges. However, that is a dangerous game to play. It is a very silly game to play if we think that we can tinker at the edges with a country such as China. As we speak, it has intelligence operatives in this country trying to spy on our defence industry. On a number of occasions, it has successfully penetrated the US military programme.

Why will the Minister not publish the bilateral agreement and place it in the Library? Why is it that no one in his Ministry knew what was going on at the time and left it to officials? Perhaps he can tell us why he thinks that it is better to upset some of our US allies on this issue? We have a long history of trust in the intelligence and defence communities in the US. At this very moment, US officials are trying to agree a trade treaty to allow British defence firms better and preferential access to the US market at the cost of our European allies. Why pursue this silly measure that will only antagonise our relationship and do no good at all?

I congratulate the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Wallace) on securing this debate on the United Kingdom’s bilateral military engagement programme with the Chinese People’s Liberation Army. Judging from his 11 questions of the past six weeks, it is clearly a subject of great concern to him and his constituents, and I welcome the opportunity to put on the record the rationale for our ongoing bilateral military activities.

Following the Tiananmen square massacre in 1989, the European Union rightly registered its disapproval by issuing the Madrid declaration, which included measures such as the halting of military co-operation, an embargo on defence sales, the suspension of bilateral ministerial and high-level contacts, the postponement of new co-operation projects and reduction in cultural, scientific and technical co-operation. However, the China of 2008 is not the China of 1989. We have to take into account the significant social and economic progress that has been made over that period. Infant mortality rates are down; life expectancy is up. There are more than 5 million university graduates a year in China. People are free to choose their own employment. People can now marry whom they wish and travel abroad, and limited elections have been introduced at village and community level. Only the week before last, the temporary regulations that permitted greater media freedom during the Beijing Olympics were made permanent, although only for foreign media.

We still have great concerns about China’s human rights record, however, and we regularly raise those concerns—including some of the issues that the hon. Gentleman mentioned, such as Tibet—with the Chinese authorities. We want significant progress in areas, such as political freedom and judicial independence, and we are keen that China should ratify the international covenant on civil and political rights. I believe that we will have more success in influencing China’s emergence as a responsible global player through a policy of proactive engagement than by seeking to coerce it through isolation.

Although there has been no formal lifting of the Madrid declaration of 1989, many of the measures have outlived their usefulness, both for the United Kingdom and for other member states. However, the most significant measure, the arms embargo—the hon. Gentleman at one point tried to give the impression that we were selling, or were prepared to sell, arms to China, whereas we are not—remains in force and the United Kingdom is one of its strictest adherents.

Against that backdrop, the bilateral programme that the Ministry of Defence operates with the Chinese People’s Liberation Army is coherent with Government strategy and the military programmes of other EU member states and the United States. It recognises that China is a growing regional military power, with a key role to play in the continued political stability of the region through activities such as the six-party talks with North Korea. The programme also recognises that China already makes a significant contribution to United Nations peacekeeping operations and has the potential to offer much more. To put that in context, the most recent United Nations statistics show that China has more than 2,000 military personnel deployed in 10 locations, placing it 12th in global troop contributions and making it the greatest contributor among the five permanent members of the Security Council.

We conduct a programme that comprises a two-way flow of high-level visits, lower-level training events and exchanges. Such activities generate greater knowledge of each other’s capabilities, intentions, culture and ethos, which we hope will lead to increased mutual trust and a reduced risk of misunderstanding and strategic miscalculation.

We also try to encourage China to sustain and increase her contribution to peacekeeping operations. However, we recognise that there is a balance to be struck to encourage the development of a military force that is willing to make a positive contribution to global stability, rather than one that might abuse its military strength. Put simply, our engagement programme is designed so that it will not provide skills with any applicability to internal repression or that will upset the strategic balance in the region. That is achieved through our continued adherence to the EU arms embargo, by limiting the scope of the programme and by reviewing the use that the People’s Liberation Army makes of the training that we provide.

Our senior leadership engagements develop trust, but they also offer the opportunity to explore possible areas of mutual benefit face to face. The limited command and staff training offered in the United Kingdom exposes senior People’s Liberation Army officers to a military who are accountable for their actions and embrace the international law of armed conflict. Junior leadership training, such as the attendance of cadets at Sandhurst that upset the hon. Gentleman so much, achieves similar ends.

We use the principles set out in the consolidated EU and national arms export licensing criteria to guide us in what support we offer to the Chinese. On that basis, it is appropriate to allow Chinese military personnel on to courses that have direct relevance to peacekeeping operations. Other examples include the border security programme, which facilitates co-operation in global counter-terrorism, and the peace support operations programme, which introduces students to British Army peace support operations doctrine and training. There are also areas of military co-operation that have a clear benefit for the wider global community. An example is the sharing of hydrographic survey data, which offers increased safety to international maritime traffic in the region.

The Chinese offer us reciprocal opportunities to send military personnel to China, although it is difficult to take advantage of lower-level training courses, because the majority are conducted in Mandarin and we have few military personnel with the necessary language skills. However, we send officers to the national defence university’s annual international defence symposium, which is conducted in English and includes students from around the world. I am sure the hon. Gentleman, as a former serving officer, will recognise the value of such shared international military opportunities.

The hon. Gentleman’s recent questions, which he has brought up again in his speech, highlight his concern that our military activities might be out of step with those of our European neighbours and that—this is a particular concern—we are upsetting the United States of America. That is not the case: our activities and involvement with the Chinese military are very similar in scale and scope to those offered by France, Germany and the United States—all countries with which China has a close involvement. Our defence attaché in Beijing liaises with the attachés of our allies to ensure that our practice remains coherent with theirs, and the programme is reviewed at a regular pan-Whitehall China strategy meeting. We will continue our military engagement unless there is evidence of any misuse of the skills or knowledge that we provide.

The hon. Gentleman alleged—saying that it was dangerous and silly—that we have not consulted our European partners and the United States, or even the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. None of that is true; our engagement with the Chinese Liberation Army is known to and shared with them, as is theirs with us. The suggestion that we risk a major upset with the United States authorities, or with France or Germany, all of which are doing the same thing, is palpable nonsense.

The Minister clearly has not read all the parliamentary answers that he has been given; he has been reading the questions but not the answers. What came out from the answers was that there was no discussion with the Foreign Office or with United States representatives on the issue. The record will speak for itself.

The thing that I find amazing, coming from a Government who are so European-focused about many things, concerns the Madrid declaration: right or wrong, the part of it that is absolutely clear, which specifies the

“interruption by the Member States of the Community of military cooperation and an embargo on trade in arms with China”,

is not a unilateral option that one can pull out of. If the Government wish to break it—there has been pressure to do so for many years—that must be done together. The European Commission officials to whom I spoke this morning are absolutely under the impression that military co-operation goes hand in hand with the arms embargo. If it is the Minister’s intention and the Government’s to remove that as well, they should say so.

I have made this as clear as I can: there is no intention on the Government’s part to remove the arms embargo. We are strict adherents to it. That requirement remains wholly justified in today’s scenario. We try to ensure that none of what we offer the Chinese involves any training or transfer of capability that would give them the ability to upset the regional balance, such as the kind of skills and abilities necessary to manage an invasion of Taiwan, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned. That is not within the scope of anything that we do. We do not provide the Chinese with anything that could be used for that or for internal repression.

The hon. Gentleman repeats the allegation that we do not talk to or consult the FCO, despite the fact that he has been told in writing and orally in this Chamber that a pan-Whitehall China forum meets regularly to discuss our engagement with China. Our defence attaché in Beijing is closely aligned and talks regularly with all our allies, including the United States of America, and would make certain that any misalignment of our involvement with the Chinese People’s Liberation Army was brought to our attention immediately and addressed.

The hon. Gentleman’s concerns are ill-founded. I do not know what his purpose is. If he is trying to stir up trouble between us and the United States, there is really none to be stirred up. I hope that what I have said satisfies him to some degree, although I doubt it.

I am not trying to stir up trouble; I am trying to prevent a threat to our defence industry and our long, historical relationship with the United States. Yet again, I shall read out an answer from the Minister himself. My question was:

“To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what discussions he has had with EU counterparts on the military training of Chinese nationals within EU member states. [224109].”

The Minister’s answer was:

“My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence has had no discussions with his EU counterparts on the military training of Chinese nationals within EU member states.”—[Official Report, 29 Sept. 2008; Vol. 479, c. 2438W.]

To me, that is a clear answer.

The hon. Gentleman read out the answer. The question asked what discussions the Secretary of State has had, not what discussions the British Government have had. If he puts that into context, he will realise that his concerns are—

No, I will not give way again. I hope that my explanation reassures the hon. Gentleman that military engagement with China is properly thought through, appropriate and coherent with our allies’ efforts. The fact that a military as large as the People’s Liberation Army place such great value on the training, doctrine and experience of our much smaller armed forces reflects great credit on our military. I am sure that he will join me, if not in anything else, in acknowledging our armed forces’ deservedly high reputation for military excellence.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at six minutes to Two o’clock.