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Westminster Hall

Volume 486: debated on Tuesday 20 January 2009

Westminster Hall

Tuesday 20 January 2009

[John Cummings in the Chair]

Agriculture (South-West)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Jane Kennedy.)

I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Cummings, and thank you for finding the time to be here for our debate on the important subject of agriculture in the south-west. We must use this rare opportunity to discuss agriculture in Westminster Hall because debate on agriculture in the main Chamber has been almost extinguished. It is hard to remember the occasions on which we have talked about one of our major industries in the Chamber proper. I believe that there was a debate in July 2007, but that was on an estimates day on a Select Committee report. Before that, it was December 2002. Therefore, we are talking about seven years without a debate on agriculture in Government time in the Parliament of the United Kingdom. I find that quite extraordinary, not least because in the dim and distant past, when I was a spokesman on agriculture for my party, we seemed to talk about nothing else, but that was at a time of major political crisis due to the existence of various cattle diseases.

I want to cover a range of topics, none of which I will go into in any great depth. I hope that other colleagues will have the opportunity to do so. It is often the case that when I talk to farmers in my constituency, most of whom are dairy farmers—dairy is the predominant sector there—the main thing that they want to talk about, with good reason, is the weather. Last year, the weather was a significant factor in farming. It was the wettest harvest in living memory. Over the past few weeks, Somerset has had flash floods, one of which sadly took away my car in the process, about which I feel rather sore.

When farmers are not talking about the weather, they are talking about prices. Last year saw a small improvement in the general state of farm incomes in the south-west, which is very good news. None the less, it masks a deeper problem, which I will come on to in a moment. One of the difficulties is price volatility. Over the past year, wheat and cereal prices have yo-yoed. There has been a vast range of prices. They went up massively in the early part of the year and then plummeted towards the end of it. Was that because of weather conditions, the state of the harvest, or the agriculture industry? No, it was because speculators were playing the commodity market and distorting the realities of what is the genuine position of the state of production.

I do not believe that so-called speculators on the commodity farming markets—I used to be a managing director of a company that was involved in such work—can affect prices in such a way. If they did, the realities would come back and bite them very quickly. Such people provide the liquidity for farmers and producers to avoid unpredictable moves in prices. We should not blame the speculators.

That is the hon. Gentleman’s view, but it will not necessarily be shared by many in the agriculture industry.

At the time, people said that biofuels were the reason why wheat prices suddenly escalated at such a fast rate. If that was the case, why on earth did we have a crash towards the end of the year when the price of wheat fell precipitately? It does not make sense unless we look at the actions of the market.

At the same time, we have had an increase in the price of milk—until very recently—and livestock. On the face of it, that is very good news for the producer. However, if we look at the other side of the equation—the input side—we can see that the costs have been very much inflated. Costs of feed, fertiliser and fuel are still higher than they were a year ago.

Farming generally has still been able to attract credit. That has been of great value to people running farm businesses. Up until now, they have been able to maintain their cash flow. At the same time—perhaps inevitably—we have had an increase in debt in the farming sector. Although that suggests that the farming industry is fairly healthy and that people are making investments, it also raises concerns about vulnerability in the future. The average dairy farm has a borrowing of about £210,000. That is sustainable only if the income is maintained, but it is not if credit lines cease and income is not maintained. I have a particular concern about tenant farmers. They do not always find the banks quite as sympathetic as those who are owners of their land.

I am concerned that we do not have sustainability in all senses of the word and stability, and that we still have degrees of volatility in the markets, which is evidenced by the fact that milk prices were cut by up to 2p a litre at the beginning of the year. That is not as a consequence of the market conditions, because there is still under-production of milk in this country, and the exchange rate for sterling against the euro is favourable. Therefore, under a free-market system, milk prices should be at a sustainably higher level. That begs the question about the fundamental relationship between the producer, the supermarkets and retailers, and the processors, which are squeezed in between.

I will pre-empt the hon. Member for St. Ives (Andrew George) and say that we need an ombudsman. An arbiter should examine the inadequacies of the milk market, and the pig market, and I was pleased to be involved with the report published by the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs last week.

The hon. Gentleman will discover later in my comments—if he does not know already—that I agree with him. I will come on to that very subject.

Will my hon. Friend touch on my concern that the middle organisations—those that buy the milk from the farmers and sell it on to the supermarkets and other retailers—have huge contractual advantages over the farmers that amount to restrictive practices? Such advantages include the ability to change the price mid-contract. Does that not need to be examined because all the power in that relationship is held by the middle men—the marketing organisations—and very little by the farmers themselves?

I agree with my hon. Friend up to a point. We need to look at the whole chain of supply—I am trying not to pre-empt myself by saying something that I intend to say later—because the processors are often caught in exactly the same difficulty as the primary producers in their relationship with the retailers. The real strength in the commercial relationship lies with the retailers and the oligopoly that the major supermarkets constitute in this country. I shall come back to that.

My hon. Friend will say something about his position on this later, but because of the decoupled world in which farmers exist, they are much more market sensitive. He correctly identified a serious problem in the relationship between farmers and supermarkets, and nearly a year ago the Competition Commission recommended the establishment of an ombudsman. However, the fear is that that proposal would involve examining only the relationship between the supermarkets and the final supplier, not the relationship between the supermarkets and the primary producer. Does he agree that officials in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Minister need to talk about that with their colleagues in the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform?

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend, who has done a lot of work on this matter and who has very much led the way—and I will give up waiting till later in my speech to say what I think about it. We had a Competition Commission inquiry before the one he mentioned, the 2001 voluntary code of conduct for supermarkets, and the new, tougher code of practice in 2008, which the Competition Commission supposed would have some statutory bite. However, the commission cannot create the post of ombudsman. We need to take the responsibility for setting up a regulator who will be able to regulate the whole supply chain effectively, and ensure that the relationships are fair and transparent, which they patently are not at the moment. Contracts are often very unfair to primary producers. I am not talking only about the producers whom I represent in the west country, but about those overseas—this is a domestic and international issue. The sooner the Government are prepared to accept and act on that recommendation and establish an ombudsman with teeth, who can deal with the iniquities of the food supply chain, the better.

There are some positive things. There is a great deal of innovation in farming and there has been a great deal of improvement in farming practice, which includes things that were not even thought of a few years ago, including direct supply and using the internet to create niche markets for fresh, quality produce. The question is whether some of those innovations will survive the general economic downturn. For example, evidence is already in of a downturn in the veggie box market—many of us happily receive those each week—partly because people have been encouraged to grow their own produce, which is a good thing, but predominantly because the downturn in disposable income means that people feel that they cannot afford to make such commitments, which is unfortunate.

I want to deal with a series of serious issues that are on the minds of farmers in the south-west, which relate mainly to a fundamental question. The south-west is one of the key agricultural areas in this country and, actually, in Europe. Do we want a sustainable, profitable and self-maintaining agricultural industry that is capable of feeding the people of this country in future, or are we prepared to see it chipped away, constantly under threat and, eventually—this is my great concern—exported overseas to those who will not have the same commitment and values, and who will not be able to produce to the same standards?

If my dairy farmers were here, the first thing that they would want to talk about is bovine tuberculosis—I say that at the risk of provoking an intervention from the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew), who I know has strong views on this matter. The position in the south-west is completely unacceptable. In the first nine months of 2008—these are the latest figures that I have—12,383 dairy cattle were culled, so perhaps 16,000 cattle were culled in 2008 because they tested positive for bovine TB. That is absolutely scandalous. In 10 years, 200,000 cattle, at a cost of £600 million, have been culled. Whether we are talking about animal welfare, the health of the industry, the awful effect that the problem has on farms where reactors appear, the consequences for farming families or the cost to the taxpayer, a quite extraordinary thing is being allowed to happen. We in the south-west feel the effects of the problem, because half of all the cattle culled are in our area. It is very serious. We are seeing the front of bovine TB advance 10 miles a year, which is significant.

I cannot believe that it is right simply to wait and hope that something will happen. I have heard all the arguments and looked at the scientific data, and I maintain that it is important to act, not only for the welfare of the cattle population, but for the welfare of the badger, if we consider wildlife vectors. I find it inexplicable that we allow this situation to continue, especially when I go to closed farms where there has been no movement of cattle on or off the premises, and reactors appear in a previously healthy herd. Some say, “It’s all down to the farmers and how they move their cattle”, but that is not so. We must get past that barrier and start to deal effectively with the problem.

The hon. Gentleman will not be surprised that I am intervening on this subject. A badger vaccine will almost certainly be available next year. Does he agree—hopefully the Minister is listening—that, at the very least, we should roll that out as a major programme to dampen down the disease for other forms of vaccination? The debate, “To cull or not to cull?” is sterile, and it will not find the answer, as the Bourne report demonstrates. We need to get on and do something, but the answer has to lie with vaccination and probably, in the long run, with vaccinating cattle.

Waiting for a vaccine for so many years is like waiting for Godot. The hon. Gentleman is right that we might be nearly there with vaccines. If we are, vaccination needs to take place quickly. We cannot take half measures because the matter is too important and has too big an impact on the agricultural lives of our constituents to be delayed.

Even if a vaccine becomes available next year, which I think is extremely optimistic, it will be injectable. Will the hon. Gentleman stand with me behind the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) when he catches his badger to inject it?

Badger wrestling is a minority sport in Somerset, but I do not doubt that it goes on in some places. The reality is that a lot of badgers are being killed, whether we like it or not.

Whether that is legal or illegal, it is happening, and the sooner we find an effective, operable and practicable way to deal with the disease, the better.

I want to move on to nitrate vulnerable zones, but hon. Members want to intervene. I give way to the Minister.

This is a point of great interest to me. I was listening carefully, but I may have missed it. Would the hon. Gentleman have allowed the licensing of culling? He talks about finding effective measures to deal with disease. Can he bring any other measures to the table for us to consider?

The Minister has not been long in her post, so she will not have heard me say on a number of occasions that a targeted cull was the right thing to do and that it should have been done a long time ago, before bovine tuberculosis reached its present, almost endemic proportions. That has long been my view. It was in the interests of the badger population as well as the cattle population, and it would certainly have saved an awful lot of misery in a lot of places.

On nitrate vulnerable zones, I simply observe that after the massive expansion—although, of course, I have nothing against proper environmental controls—I wonder whether the scale of the enterprise is not having a deleterious effect on agriculture. Some 22,000 agricultural holdings are affected. The cost for a dairy farmer—an average of £50,000 a farm in cattle costs—is not insignificant. It may be a factor causing some dairy farmers to feel that enough is enough. I do not believe that we can afford to lose many more dairy farms. The herd has contracted and the number of holdings and of people working farms has decreased to the point where we are moving towards an unsustainable industry. That worries me, which is why we need to consider the matter carefully.

The sheep sector is not a big factor in my constituency, but there are concerns about electronic identification. I know how much electronic identification will cost, but the Department must answer the question of what it is supposed to achieve. Is it a reasonable and practical solution to the problems of traceability? I certainly understand the implications for responding to epidemics, but I, like a lot of people in the industry, am not convinced that it is a sensible way of dealing with the problem. Many people feel not only that the costs exceed the effectiveness but that the effectiveness is likely to be limited in any case because of the practical difficulties. Given his constituency, I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams) knows an awful lot more about sheep farming than me, so I shall not pretend to be an expert.

Nor shall I pretend to be an expert on the pig sector, although I have the distinction of having once been a pig breeder, albeit on a very small scale; I do not think four breeding Tamworth sows amount to a major agricultural undertaking. I have a great affection for pigs, which are wonderful creatures. I support the appropriately named hon. Member for South Norfolk (Mr. Bacon) and his Bill, which he introduced earlier this Session and which I was happy to co-sponsor, on food origin labelling. I am convinced that that is a big factor in the profitability of the pig sector and British pig products’ ability to compete effectively with imports.

We have extremely high welfare standards for our pigs. Thank goodness for that; it is something of which we should be proud and on which we, as a country, have taken the lead. If any domestic creature deserves proper welfare standards, it is the pig, which is almost the most intelligent of all four-legged animals—and of some two-legged ones—and a great delight. Given that we have such high welfare standards for pigs, we ought to let the consumer know that and not allow our excellent pig products, which are produced on welfare-friendly farms, to be undercut by those that do not conform to the same standards. It is long overdue, and it is time that we did something about it.

I endorse what my hon. Friend is saying. A few months ago, I visited a pig farm in Thornfalcon in my constituency, and I was extremely impressed by the welfare standards maintained there. The farm also used two slaughterhouses in my constituency, so the pigs were taken only a short distance to slaughter. I urge the Minister to take on board that it is absolutely right that consumers buying pork products should know the difference between that sort of production technique and the mass production techniques that often take place, with lower welfare standards, in other countries.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Thornfalcon is only two or three miles from my constituency, and I am pleased that he has had the opportunity to visit a pig farm there. We should be trumpeting from the rooftops what excellent standards of pig production we have in this country. If we can get good standards on farms, local abattoirs and local sale—supermarkets should be persuaded to feature local produce, and the growth of farm shops is a significant factor in our part of the world, as in many others—we would have a much healthier industry to look forward to.

I want to deal with a couple more matters before I give others the opportunity to participate. The first is set-aside, which is a difficult issue. It was a way to reduce production, and then it became a good in itself, because of its environmental benefits. Set-aside has now ended, and a sort of son of set-aside is being developed. However, instead of being developed for the right reasons, it is being developed haphazardly and supplanting environmental stewardship schemes, which are surely the right way—identifying good environmental practice on farms and paying premiums for good stewardship—rather than adventitious growth or retention of set-aside land that may be valuable for cereal production.

I am concerned that the south-west as a region still imports a significant amount of cereal foodstuffs and straw, which does not seem environmentally sensible. Wildlife and habitat concerns aside, it does not make sense to bring in heavy goods from outside the region to maintain livestock, when we can produce them ourselves on land within the region. There is an equation that the Department has not yet figured out and that it would do well to consider.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way once more; he is being generous. Does he agree that one of the uses for such land is community agriculture? Some people wish to keep their own animals or grow their own food. If that land could be leased to them, we would be more self-sufficient and could increase production sustainably. That seems a sensible way to go forward.

There is a lot in what the hon. Gentleman has said about community land, but I am not sure that I understand why it should be on set-aside land. When I was a county councillor many years ago, one of the great issues in Somerset was the county farms estate. Our predecessors tried to dispose of it en bloc, and we saved it. Since then, it has become much more difficult to maintain a viable county farms estate, but the principle behind it was a good one, because it allowed entrance into farming.

As the hon. Gentleman has said, even on a smaller scale, giving people access to produce on land is an excellent idea. However, I am not sure that I buy the thought that set-aside land should be used for that, as by definition it is not set aside after it has been brought into productive use. I will consider that suggestion further.

As the Minister knows, organics have suffered a terrible downturn in the past year or so, perhaps inevitably. I think that we are getting ourselves into a muddle on organics. A lot of people were encouraged to go into organics to obtain a premium on their products, a premium that has evaporated or is beginning to evaporate. I cannot see that the answer to that problem is to change the definition of “organics”, as some would argue. That is a self-defeating objective. Furthermore, I cannot believe that the answer is to import organically produced feedstuffs from the other side of the world to ensure that the whole scheme is productive. In environmental terms and in terms of the principles that underpin the organic movement, that also seems to be absolute nonsense. I do not have any answers to that problem. I simply point out that we have got ourselves into a terrible muddle on organics, at least in the short term.

I now want to address the issue of water. I mentioned flooding earlier, which is an issue that the Department ought to be looking at very seriously and putting its two halves together, as it were—those officials that are concerned with flooding and those that are concerned with agriculture. I am convinced that one of the major undertakings that we should address in the next few years, particularly in the west country and particularly in the Somerset levels, which is an area that I represent, is whole-river catchment management schemes. They involve setting aside water retention areas on agricultural land, where that is the most effective use of that land, and paying the price for that land, thereby allowing farmers to farm water, if that is the sensible thing to do in order to preserve our communities and prevent flooding further downstream. We need to address that issue in a much more urgent and holistic way. Such schemes are a real opportunity to do something for urban and village communities that suffer from flooding and at the same time to provide a basic income for farmers on land that otherwise may not be desperately productive.

I have raised my final point, which concerns bees, on a number of occasions without receiving satisfactory answers from the Department. I am very worried about bees, pollinators, the potential decline in the bee population in this country and the various diseases that are afflicting the bee population at the moment. I say absolutely bluntly that unless we do something about that problem before it gets any worse, there will be catastrophic economic consequences in the world of horticulture and agriculture, because we will lose a significant part of the pollinator population. It does not need a genius to work out that a small amount of investment in research now may reap enormous economic benefits, if it can prevent the sort of colony loss that we have seen elsewhere in the world. I implore the Minister to take that issue seriously and to do something about it as a matter of urgency.

I have taken half an hour on a canter across a wide range of aspects of farming in the south-west, but I return to the point that I started with. I just want to see a healthy farming industry in the west country. We have all the natural attributes that make that aim a possibility—indeed, it should be a necessity. We have the land, the climate and the people, and we should be feeding the nation. However, to do that we must have the right structures in government and in economics to make farming in the south-west work. As I have said, despite a very small improvement in the fortunes of some farms in the past year, I am not yet convinced that we have the sustainability and protection for good practice in this country that are needed to maintain farm incomes. I believe that some of the suggestions that I have made today will help that process, and I am interested to hear the Minister’s comments.

First, I congratulate the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) on securing this extremely important debate. I also want to say something that does not come very easily to me; I agree with virtually everything that he has said, both in general terms and with regard to the number of constituency issues and particular matters that he has taken the opportunity to raise.

I will not repeat the issues that the hon. Gentleman has raised, but it is perhaps worth recognising that I agree with so much of what he said on a number of very detailed areas, not least bees and bumble bees. There is a very interesting point, which the Minister might like to contemplate, about the linkage between bees, bumble bees, hedgehogs and badgers. There is a distinct ecological linkage there, which needs some further exploration.

This debate offers us the opportunity to do more than just take a moment to contemplate constituency issues and other detailed matters. It could form quite an important part of a much broader philosophical discussion, which we in this country, this Parliament and indeed this world ought to be having right now. I am very glad that the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, on which I have the honour to serve, has recently launched a heavyweight and important investigation into food and the way in which we, and indeed the world, are going to feed ourselves over the next 20, 30 or 40 years. In a moment, I will say precisely why I think that that debate is so important.

The south-west plays an incredibly important role within the UK in agricultural terms, as the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome has mentioned. We have something like 1.77 million hectares of enclosed agricultural land in the south-west, which is an extraordinarily large quantity. In the south-west, 3 per cent. of our population is involved in agriculture, as opposed to only 1.4 per cent. elsewhere in England. We are one of the biggest areas in terms of dairy and beef production—a third of all of England’s dairy farmers are in the south-west. Of course, towards the east of the region, in my part of the world in Wiltshire, we also have significant arable production, so we have a significant contribution to make to the agricultural production of England. Therefore, we in the south-west have a locus to speak about a much wider issue—we have a locus to speak for farmers and agriculture across England—and I do not feel embarrassed about doing so.

It seems to me that the EFRA Committee and this morning’s debate must focus on what the world will look like in the next 30 or 40 years. We all know that the present global population of 6.5 billion will rise to some 9 billion by 2040. The World Bank says that global demand for food will double by 2030. Some 852 million people in the world today are chronically hungry; 2 billion people in the world today do not have enough to eat; and 2,500 farmers in India alone committed suicide this year because they cannot grow anything.

The world is running out of water and collapsing through poverty. Diet is changing across the world, particularly in China, where people are giving up eating rice as they move into the middle classes and prosperity and increasingly they are moving towards eating beef and western-type foods. Of course, that will mean that we must produce a vastly greater amount of those foods than we do at the moment. Furthermore, our strategic food reserves in the world are at a historic low. The figure eludes me, but I think that the strategic food reserve available to the world today is 30 days, which is the lowest that it has been for very many years indeed. In other words, it seems to me that, looking forward over the next 20 or 30 years, we are facing a massive food crisis that will affect all of us.

Of course, there is a read-across from food into other areas, such as climate change, which is another hugely important issue, the difference between east and west and the clash, if there is one, between ourselves and Islam. Those issues all interrelate and we should address them all holistically. I hope that the EFRA Committee will do so and that we will do so in this debate.

I notice, Mr. Cummings, that you are nodding. You are quite right in suggesting that we must focus entirely on the south-west and not range too widely. However, I merely made those few remarks as background information to what I am about to say with regard to farming in the south-west.

The counterbalancing aspect to those concerns about global food production must be our concerns about the environment. Of course, the change in the common agricultural policy in the past few years has increasingly been a move from subsidy for production, which came in after the war so that we could maximise the amount of food that we produced, to concern about the environment. Most of us much welcome that development. In the south-west, we desperately need to preserve the landscape and the environment, which all of us who live there love—it is why we live there. We are a small island, and we cannot afford to waste any of it, so we must be acutely aware of our environment. For example, I think of the south-west regional spatial strategy, which is imposing vast quantities of houses across our agricultural land in the south-west and doing a variety of other untoward things. We must be aware of that strategy and fight against it.

If our farmers in the south-west have historically been doing environmentally degrading things, we should stop them, but I am not aware of farmers who do things that are agriculturally degrading to the environment. Farmers are the guardians of our landscape. They are the people who truly understand and care about our landscape, and their interests depend on our preserving the landscape and countryside as it has always been. I do not believe that what they do is environmentally degrading, but if it has been, they must change their practices.

The pendulum seems to have swung excessively far in one direction. After the last war, we were told that the CAP had been introduced to maximise production—we needed food and wanted to become self-sufficient, so we needed to grow as much as we could. Over the years, that has gradually changed until, a few years ago, the CAP changed and the pendulum swung in entirely the opposite direction. Now, all that we are talking about is the environment and preserving the greenery. Many of the issues that the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome mentioned in his excellent speech come into this. One thinks of the pesticides directive that was passed so ignominiously last week by the European Union. If it became law in this country, it would desolate our arable land and reduce our arable production by a significant quantity.

On arable land, I think of the 10 m grass verges around all the fields in my area. I enjoy them very much, because I can ride around them, but is it sensible to reduce arable production by that much? Incidentally, simply allowing grass to grow around the edges of our fields does not seem to be all that environmentally sensible. We might as well just grow weeds. Are butterflies more important than starving people in India? That is the balance that we have to think about.

The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome mentioned the debate that we have been having in the past few years about badgers and TB. In my area, we have been decimated by bovine TB. Most sensible observers recognise the link between bovine TB in wildlife and that in cows. The Secretary of State recently decided, for his own reasons, to ignore the recommendations of the retiring chief scientific adviser to the Government, who recommended a cull of badgers. I strongly welcome the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee report into bovine TB, which came to the conclusion that a large-scale cull of badgers, under certain conditions, had a role to play.

That was the recommendation of the cross-party Select Committee, which included the hon. Gentleman, who is shaking his head like mad. The Secretary of State ignored its recommendation that a large-scale cull of badgers had a role to play in the south-west, and I regret that. It is as plain as the nose on one’s face that there is a clear link between badgers and bovine TB. To pretend that there is not, for the love of the cuddly badger, is simply ignorant.

The same applies to the worrying fact that bovine TB seems to be spreading to the deer population. The over-population of deer in my area is extraordinarily worrying—they are absolutely everywhere. That appalling over-population is not good for the deer or for cattle. That is another area in which environmental concerns seem to outweigh concerns for agriculture.

I came across another example in my constituency this week, in which a farmer had, for personal reasons, lost his cattle breeding records from four or five years ago. DEFRA stepped in and confiscated 78 cattle passports, thereby telling the farmer that he needed to keep those cattle on his farm until they died and then bury them on the farm and that he was not allowed to sell them in any circumstances. He could not bring other cows in or do anything, and it effectively put him out of business. Only under pressure from me did DEFRA, or the Rural Payments Agency at least, agree that it had the cows’ details and could therefore recreate the records from scratch, thereby allowing the farmer to go back into business. But, my goodness, what a situation to have—because a farmer did not have some bits of paper, he would have been put out of business had it not been for his MP’s intervention. That is another example in which political correctness, or environmental sensibilities have overweighed what we ought to be doing, which is growing food.

The whole issue of nitrate-vulnerable zones, which the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome has correctly mentioned, could have a devastating effect on dairy farms, if it is allowed to run its course. Another issue is the electronic identification for sheep, which could be devastating for sheep farmers. We have been told by DEFRA that 5 per cent. of our arable land is to be managed environmentally. That is another 5 per cent. of arable land that might well disappear from useful production. In all these areas, and in so many others, we as a nation, and we as a world, have to think about what we seek to do with our countryside in the south-west.

Of course, there is no question but that we must preserve the environment. I am not one of those who says, “Scrub the environment, let’s get on with making food.” However, as we look forward strategically, over the next 40 or 50 years, surely it is right to acknowledge that half the world is starving, that half the world is short of water and that those issues are going to get worse rather than better. With the current economic and world situation in which we find ourselves, including the issues in Pakistan, India and elsewhere across the middle east, those are catastrophes waiting to happen. Here in the UK, including in the south-west, we can make a contribution to avoiding the worst downsides of some of those catastrophes by maximising the amount of food that we produce. We have to find ways not to put farmers out of business or to put things right so that the environmentalists are happy, but to balance the two sides. The south-west is a beautiful environment, and of course we must preserve it, but at the same time, for goodness’ sake, let us find a way of maximising our agricultural production.

It is a great pleasure to take part in this debate. Let me start by putting on the record my interest in agriculture, as set out in the Register of Members’ Interests.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) on securing the debate. He is a champion of agriculture, particularly in the south-west, and is very knowledgeable about it. He also has great sympathy with it, and that came over in his contribution.

South-west England is a large and productive agricultural area, which is important to Britain, Europe and the rest of the world. It has about 1.8 million hectares, which is roughly 20 per cent. of the agricultural land in England, but because of its productivity, its importance to agriculture is disproportionate. If one looks through the statistics, one sees that the number of agricultural holdings in the south-west has increased. One would think that that did not make sense, but the detail shows that while many farms are coming together to form bigger holdings, others are being broken down into smallholdings and lifestyle businesses. That is the way that agriculture is going.

The hon. Gentleman is statistically correct to say that there are more agricultural smallholdings, but there is a direct relationship to the fact that after the mid-term review, the Government started allowing pony paddocks and other enterprises to be registered as agricultural holdings in order to claim very small sums of money. I do not think that the number represents any more serious farmers.

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, and perhaps we will have the opportunity to talk about such issues, and the Rural Payments Agency, later. However, in our area and in others in the UK, I have witnessed the practice of holdings selling small pieces of land, perhaps to recapitalise the main business, after which there are separate holdings on that land. That is a minor point, though, which I do not want to pursue.

My hon. Friend raised a number of important issues. The one that catches most directly the emotion of farmers across Britain, but particularly in the south-west, is bovine TB. There was disappointment that the Secretary of State, having taken account of the Select Committee report, decided not to pursue any further investigation into the possibility of using culling to contribute to the control of bovine TB. I have never believed that the slaughter of badgers would be the key issue that would eradicate bovine TB in this country. However, along with vaccination and better biosecurity on farms, it has a role to play. I have certainly not said that any such avenues of progress should be ignored. I think that the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) said that a badger vaccine might be available in the near future. I was interested to hear that, because it has been on the horizon a number of times but has never actually appeared. Will the Minister report on any advances in finding a vaccination and say whether she has found any way in which we can increase the speed of development, because such a vaccine has a part to play?

The available information increasingly indicates that the proactive culling of badgers leads to a reduction in breakouts on farms and, indeed, reduces the number of cattle that have to be slaughtered because they are reactors. Such studies are ongoing and follow the work of Professors Krebs and Bourne in looking at areas in which proactive culling has taken place. There have been real improvements in relation to that, and the Minister must take into account the information that is building up, because it shows that the slaughter of badgers could have a part to play.

The report that has been referred to advocated a further, larger-scale slaughter of badgers to test Professor King’s hypothesis that that would make a difference. It is still within the Minister’s compass to revisit that decision and see whether something can be done. I do not believe that any hon. Member would say that we should have a large-scale licensed cull of badgers throughout the UK, but we need to continue the work that has been done and build on that knowledge to see whether progress can be made. The geographical make-up of the south-west means that such a pilot scheme could take place there.

My hon. Friend paid due regard to dairying as an important part of agriculture in the south-west. There has been an increase in milk prices, but more recently there has also been a slight decrease. However, farmers are continuing to exit the dairy industry, and young people do not see the purpose of investing their finances, time and effort into dairying as a career, because there has been such a long and protracted downturn in the industry. There has not only been a reduction in the number of dairy farmers, but in milk production. That is particularly worrying for the future of agriculture and the future of young people in agriculture.

My hon. Friend also mentioned nitrate vulnerable zones, which is an issue that weighs heavily on dairy farmers. One can argue about whether the more recent proposals were proportionate in terms of how much they improve the quality of water, but the Minister could go to her Treasury friends now and see whether the tax allowance on agricultural buildings could be reintroduced. The great investment that people have to make in their holding could be mitigated to a certain extent, if they had tax allowances on the big capital investments that they are required to make. Indeed, in some European countries, capital grants are made available for farmers to invest in the infrastructure needed to deal with the effects of nitrate vulnerable zones.

A number of hon. Members have mentioned the proposals by the Competition Commission to have an ombudsman for the grocery trade not only for farmers, but for other small producers who supply large retailers. That issue is much broader than agriculture but it is important none the less. The recommendation has been made and the Minister has a role to play in talking to her Government and Cabinet colleagues to see how it can be progressed. Recent research by an academic from Cardiff university indicated that the net cost of the proposal could be as little as £6 million. That is minute in terms of the total financial turnover of the supermarkets. It is interesting that some supermarkets seem to oppose the idea of having an ombudsman, but others, who we perceive as being more benign in their relationship to primary producers, welcome it, because they believe there would be fewer adverse referrals of their behaviour compared with some of the more aggressive supermarkets.

I shall quickly discuss one or two other topics. A number of hon. Members have raised the issue of pesticides and the European Union decision. Following the vote in the European Parliament, it appears that Ministers in this country have said that they will not pursue the matter as vigorously as some of us would wish. There is undoubtedly evidence that if the matter were pursued in detail, the end consequences would be a large-scale reduction in arable production in this country—particularly of crops such as carrots and parsnips, which depend upon specific chemicals. I urge the Minister to be active in ensuring that if the regulations have to be introduced, the needs of horticultural production in this country are taken into account. If the regulations have to be introduced, it should be done over a long period, so that alternative products can be brought in.

Agriculture is often almost inexplicably contra-cyclical to the economy at large. At a time when the economy is on the downturn, agriculture is relatively buoyant because commodity prices are higher, the exchange rate is advantageous to agricultural exports and interest rates are lower. We have already heard that the average dairy farmer probably has borrowings of about £200,000, so a reduction in interest rates—particularly if it is passed on by the banks—is of advantage to that and other agricultural sectors. I urge the Minister and other agriculture Ministers regularly to meet the major banks in this country to ensure that the interest rate cuts are passed on. Although agriculture is going through a relatively benign period, it does not mean that the Minister can sit back and relax. Indeed, there is a real opportunity to work with those in the agricultural industry to ensure that they can use the skills and resources available—particularly in the west country, where we know the industry is so productive—to produce food.

The hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) mentioned the inquiry of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, on which we both sit. The terms of that inquiry relate to securing food supplies, not food security—there is a difference between those two approaches. World pressures—I will not stray too far down that line—mean that Britain has a duty and a role to play in not only supplying Britain but the greater world with food. We do not want some great five or 10-year plan from DEFRA, but we want encouragement and to ensure that regulation is kept to a minimum. That will allow farmers who have both the energy and the enterprise to produce food of a high standard and in an economical way to go forward and carry out that purpose. When sustainability became an in-topic, we were told to think globally and act locally, and that is what agriculture has the opportunity to do in the south-west, if it has the support of DEFRA Ministers.

I, like the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams), remind the Chamber of my declaration in the Register of Members’ Interests, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) on achieving the debate. I, too, was going to refer to the fact that it is a very long time since we had had any debate in Government time about agriculture. A few Opposition day debates have taken place more recently than the debates to which the hon. Gentleman referred, but, of course, they were not in Government time, and that is a great shame. I draw a contrast with the subject of fisheries, which is dealt with by the same Department, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and on which we have an annual debate, around the time of the annual Fisheries Council just before Christmas. We should at least achieve something similar for agriculture. We had the health check decisions only six weeks ago and there was no debate about them, yet they have a much more profound impact on agriculture than any Fisheries Council meeting has on the fishing industry, important as it is.

The hon. Gentleman made a number of points about farming in the south-west, most of which I identify with. I shall not try to go through all of them, because there are one or two other points to make, but I shall start with the most important issue, bovine TB. I am sorry that the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) has left the Chamber, not because I agree with him, as, generally, I do not on this issue, but because I know that he takes a close interest in it. There is no logic in continuing, year after year, to slaughter increasing numbers of cattle without addressing some fundamental problems. We cannot go on the way we are; the cost to the taxpayer is increasing year on year, and every time it goes up, the Government look at ways of paring the costs, and they do. We have seen it happen with compensation payments, because the Government have had to cut back to save money owing to the increase in the total cost of compensation. The Government are appealing against the Partridge case, in which the court held that the Government were wrong not to pay more money for the high-value, pedigree animals that were the subject of the case. We await the outcome of the appeal, but it could have further cost implications for the Government.

Hon. Members described how the incidence of bovine TB is getting worse year on year. The animal health section of what DEFRA calls its west region—incorporating more than the south-west, because it includes Hereford, Worcester and Shropshire—states that in the first nine months of 2008, 17,300 cattle were slaughtered as reactors, compared with 15,500 during the whole preceding year. Projected to a full year, that shows an increase of about 30 per cent. in the west region, and we cannot go on like that. I, like hon. Members who have spoken, have never pretended or suggested that culling badgers is the only answer, because it is certainly not; however, I think that to pretend that it is not part of the necessary package of measures is akin to hiding one’s head in the sand.

The Government should have accepted the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee’s recommendation, and they should also have used the opportunity to try to find a selective cull process. It is interesting that Professor King’s thesis was not to eradicate all the badgers in a particular area; simply reducing their population density would reduce the disease’s ability to survive in the long term, and that is very important. Those who accept, as I do, the need to cull badgers must make it clear that they are talking about not eliminating every badger area, but simply reducing the population to a level at which the disease cannot survive.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Professor King’s thesis about the over-population of badgers is backed up by a direct correlation between a sharp increase in outbreaks of bovine TB in areas such as my constituency and a vast over-population of badgers—and of ill badgers. Every night, when I drive through my constituency, I see dead, dying and ill badgers on the road; they are incredibly common. I see more badgers than blackbirds. Badgers are everywhere. There is vast over-population and there are huge quantities of TB, and Professor King is absolutely right.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I must move on to other issues, but before I do, I shall make one other point about bovine TB.

I fully recognise that the right hon. Lady took up her post only recently and has not yet had a chance to make an impact on what I know she accepts is a serious issue; however, I am astonished by the way in which DEFRA and the Treasury work out their funding and, in particular, their public service agreements. It is astonishing that DEFRA’s public service agreement with the Treasury, PSA 9, involves an incremental trend of 17.5 confirmed new incidents per annum. When I looked into what that meant, because, like a lot of these things, it is not easy to understand, I found that it meant that the rate of increase could rise annually by 17.5 confirmed new incidents. If, for example, there had been 250 confirmed new incidents in new parishes last year, and that is not far from the reality, this year there could be another 250—plus 17.5. In other words, the rate of increase could rise. Fortunately, the rate in reality is going the other way and the number of confirmed new incidents has declined over the past few years, for which we should all be pleased. However, it does not negate the fact that the PSA is absurd, and it is almost impossible to conceive of the Department failing to meet it. At the same time, there is the point that my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) made about the disease spreading at 10 or more miles a year, which brings me to a part of what I believe is an essential package: dramatically stepping up the testing process in what I have always called the frontier areas of the country—the areas into which the disease is moving—to try to identify and halt its progress, while addressing it in particular areas.

The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome spent some time discussing the dairy sector, because it is so important in the south-west, and he rightly said that that sector and, indeed, most of British agriculture is currently sheltered by the collapse in the value of sterling, primarily against the euro, but against other currencies, too. World commodity prices in the dairy industry have dropped by anything up to 50 per cent., and there has been a huge collapse in the price of skimmed milk and whole milk powders, and in the mild cheddar market. We are protected from that, but, as a result, I fear further price cuts, because, for other reasons, we hope that sterling’s collapse will not last forever. It may well reverse and, indeed, there are indications that it is beginning to.

That brings me to the issue of the power of the supermarkets, with which I always associate the power of the producer because I think that they are opposite sides of the same equation. I shall not go into any more detail about the issue of an ombudsman, because other Members have made the point and I support the approach; however, we must look at the share of the retail price that the producer receives. I draw a comparison with Germany, where, over the past 10 years, the retail price of milk has risen gradually but the supermarkets’ share has remained the same. Reports in this country indicate that while the retail price of milk has risen, the supermarkets’ share has gone up far faster than the retail price, to the detriment of the producer. When I look at the reasons, I cannot help feeling that we arrive at the issue of the power of the producers, through co-operatives, farmer-owned businesses or wherever we want to call them, which are much more powerful in Germany than they are in this country.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right; the issue is about the power of the producer. However, that power is amplified not only by horizontal integration through co-operatives, but by vertical integration through links. Is that not also a failure of this country’s structure—that we have such weak vertical integration?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. Not every dairy producer likes the comment that I am about to make, but I have made it before: the industry is still paying the price for the immense security that it achieved under the milk marketing boards, which stultified both innovation and any need for the industry to become competitive. We are also paying the price for falling behind Europe in innovation and the development of new products. So many of the high-value dairy products on supermarket shelves are imported because we are years behind in innovation and highly efficient modern production techniques, although the situation is improving.

On the power of producers, it seems odd that although the EU is constantly striving to put its fingers into all sorts of areas of national life, we have completely uncommon approaches to competition law. This is not a debate about the future of Europe, but the Minister and I will be debating another issue this afternoon where it is ridiculous that the EU is getting involved. Not everybody is aware that Arla, the big Danish milk co-operative, commands in excess of 80 per cent. of production in Denmark. Nothing of the sort would be allowed in this country. Even New Zealand, which is held up as the epitome of the free market, has co-operatives with huge market shares that would be prevented by the Office of Fair Trading in this country. Much more work must be done in that area.

I will mention quickly a couple of issues before giving the Minister plenty of time to respond. The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome mentioned the important issue of food labelling. I am relieved and pleased that the Minister and the Secretary of State have come round to recognising the strength of the argument. I was astonished at the Secretary of State’s speech on the subject at the Oxford farming conference because for years DEFRA has resisted any effort by the Opposition and individual hon. Members to address the issue. I hope that the conversion of DEFRA Ministers will lead to action.

As has been said, my hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk (Mr. Bacon) is reintroducing the Food Labelling Bill that has already been blocked four times by this Government. I hope that they will give it a fair wind and that we can have the legislation on honest labelling about the country of origin that we need. If the Government block the Bill again, it will demonstrate the vacuousness of the Secretary of State’s remarks last week in Oxford.

The issue of set-aside has been raised. I strongly support environmental measures in agriculture, but we have become too committed to the regulatory approach. I fear that that is down to the attitude of Natural England. Set-aside produced environmental gains by accident. It was not the intention. It is important that those gains are retained. However, it would be far better to do so through encouragement and stimulus such as the entry-level stewardship, than through the threat of a stick if a certain percentage of land is not set aside, as the Government are suggesting.

Nitrate vulnerable zones make a nonsense of the concept of regulation. Four national muck-spreading days are laid down in statute. Regardless of the weather, the land, the slope and so no, muck-spreading must be done on the allotted day and not on the day before, even if the weather is more propitious. That is absurd. The Government should have done a far better job of getting derogations in Europe. I accept that the measure is based on the nitrates directive, but in my view that is obsolete and should be updated as soon as possible and the changes backed up with modern science.

Finally, I endorse what has been said on pesticides legislation. I credit the Secretary of State, who has been robust in his comments on the subject in this country. We are not privy to his comments in Europe. However, I exhort the Minister to ensure that DEFRA seeks every opportunity to mitigate the impact of that legislation on British agriculture. The impact would be devastating for all specialist crops, such as field-scale vegetables and salads, and for mainstream arable crops. That would be bad for the south-west, for British farming and for the British consumer. The biggest absurdity is that it would still be legal to import products produced using those chemicals from outside the EU. That drives a coach and horses through the whole enterprise. I urge the Secretary of State and the Minister to maintain their robust approach.

This has been a useful debate and I share the view that we should have more debates on the subject. It would be beneficial to debate regional or national agriculture in the Chamber for a whole day.

I grew up not in the south-west, but in God’s own country in the north-east. I lived in a small village outside Darlington that has sadly become a suburb. I shall explain why this is important to the south-west in a moment. It was surrounded by market gardens and by arable and dairy farms. My next-door neighbour raised Labradors as a hobby so we would occasionally visit the large Winyard estate on Teesside. My happiest childhood days were in the summer months, when the sun always seemed to shine. We would cross neighbouring farmland dressed in T-shirts, shorts and wellies with at least four Labradors who, for a bit of extra excitement, would occasionally set up a rabbit. I must add that they never caught them. That is one reason why it was such a great joy to be invited by the Prime Minister to serve as the Minister with responsibility for agriculture in this House. The post allows me to get involved in issues of intense personal interest.

Having listened to this debate, I understand that these issues are of immense interest to hon. Members who represent rural constituencies. I compliment the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) on securing the debate. He and the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) among others have drawn attention to the lack of debate on such matters in Government time. We now have time that can be allocated to such debates. There will be a debate in Government time on food on 29 January. I am happy to make representations through the usual channels that more Government time be provided to discuss agriculture.

My able predecessor, Lord Rooker, brought to the job not only a tremendous level of experience, having served in the post for a number of years, but a depth of understanding for and empathy with farmers, which was much appreciated. Having a Minister responsible for this policy area in this House means that we will have more opportunity to debate these issues. I will make such representations to my good friends in the Whips Office.

At the outset, I acknowledge the essential job that farmers in the south-west do for us all. They have a strong tradition of producing quality food that we all enjoy. I accept that they often work under difficult conditions. The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome began by commenting on the weather. I know that last year’s harvest was particularly difficult with about twice the normal level of rainfall in the region. He alluded to the serious flooding in October and December. He may know that a small Environment Agency project is underway to gauge the extent of the problem and to discover how changing the management of agricultural land could control run-off when there is heavy rainfall. If he does not know about that, I can provide him with details after the debate.

But it is not all bad news. Despite the poor weather, we estimate that wheat and barley production in the region have increased by almost one quarter, to 1.4 million and 611,000 tonnes respectively. As the south-west has approximately 1.8 million cattle, half a million pigs and 3.2 million sheep, livestock diseases are a serious issue for the region.

Hon. Members have not touched on bluetongue, but the threat is still present. The Government and the core group of industry stakeholders still believe that mass vaccination is best and will be rapidly achieved through a voluntary approach. Farmers must continue to vaccinate. Significant quantities of vaccine are still available, but, as I said at oral questions last week, farmers also need carefully to consider the risks and check the health and vaccination status of animals they buy from within the UK and from abroad.

I accept that bovine tuberculosis is a serious problem for farmers in the south-west. I take the matter seriously and am committed to tackling the disease. Soon after coming into the Department, I asked that among the visits to farmers and the farming community that were being discussed for me, at the very earliest opportunity I be given a chance to meet farmers who have been affected by the disease. Consequently, my second visit was to the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew), who has left the Chamber, at which time I had the opportunity to listen to a group of farmers from mixed backgrounds, both tenant farmers and farm owners, who described the impact of the disease on them and their businesses.

I am glad that the right hon. Lady is speaking directly to farmers who are affected. May I suggest that it might be a good idea to reinstate what was a matter of practice every year a few years ago, which was that agriculture Ministers attended the Royal Bath and West show? The Minister would have direct contact with a large number of dairy farmers who have been directly affected, and her presence would be appreciated. The practice seems to have gone out of fashion in recent years, but it could be usefully reinstated.

I am interested in that invitation and shall ask my officials to get details about the show. I hope to visit the south-west soon. Given the distance, it would seem sensible to spend more than one day there, if parliamentary responsibilities allow it. We have discussed several issues this morning that affect the south-west in particular, so the visit would focus not only on the impact of bovine TB although that would be one of the focuses.

I realise that the decision taken by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State not to allow the licensed culling of badgers is unpopular with many farmers. Hon. Members may disagree with it, but they will know that it was based on a wide range of factors, including scientific evidence, the practicalities of delivering a successful cull, discussions with farming, veterinary, wildlife and conservation groups, the conclusions of the independent scientific group on cattle TB, and the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee report.

The Government do not deny the link between cattle and badgers. There is no denying that the badger species is susceptible to the disease and reacts to bovine TB. Measures in place that aim to reduce the spread and incidence of the disease include regular testing, zero tolerance of overdue tests and pre-movement testing.

I listened carefully to what the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire said. I shall look again at the public service agreement targets to which he alluded. I understand the stark reality of the thousands, if not tens of thousands, of cattle that are being slaughtered, and the fact which farmers have pointed out to me on numerous occasions that some cattle do not actually have the disease but react to the tests. There is added grief for owners if perfectly healthy cattle have to be destroyed.

I would like to reassure the House that we continue to invest in ways to eradicate the disease: £20 million will be spent over the next three years on vaccine development, and the bovine TB eradication group was established in November. I want the Government and the industry to work together on eradicating the disease, and I am pleased with the positive engagement there has been with that group. It has agreed that it needs to consider different approaches for different areas. It wants to look at the spread of the disease at the edges of high-incidence areas, and the various drivers and risks, and seek to define the overall aims for each of those areas in order to focus its work programme.

Although a licensed cull of badgers has been ruled out, I seek to reassure colleagues that I very much want to encourage the eradication group, and that my mind is open to all the suggestions that might be made for finding solutions to this appalling disease.

Changing the arrangements for sharing the responsibilities and costs of animal health have been under consideration for some time and would be of enormous benefit to the south-west of England. We hope to consult in the near future on specific proposals.

The economic downturn is of concern to all of us, and farmers are no exception. However, we can assume that the demand for food will not be as volatile as for some other products, but the impact of recent financial shocks on personal pension plans may be a problem for some farmers. The National Farmers Union conducted a useful survey of some 400 of its members to assess the impact of the credit crunch and the availability of credit to farmers. It produced some encouraging results that bear out the comments of the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams) that, counter-cyclically, farming and farmers are not as badly hit by the availability of credit. They appear to receive better treatment than other UK businesses when they seek credit.

Some other factors will help farmers. The reduction in the base rate will help all businesses by reducing the cost of borrowing, and farming stands well placed to benefit from that. The current exchange rate is good for exporters and increases all farmers’ income from EU payments. The Rural Payments Agency is making good progress on completing its single payment scheme targets. I gave information about that last week at oral questions so will not reiterate it today.

I shall not go into detail on electronic identification, as we had a separate debate not that long ago on the subject. As the time remaining allows me to deal with only one other matter, I shall reserve it to touch quickly on food labelling.

However, the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome expressed his interest in and concern for bees. All that I will say now is that I hope that the Department will soon be in a position to make an announcement that will be of great encouragement to all those Members who have written to me expressing their concern about the decline in bee numbers. We need to be concerned about all pollinators, not just bees. Therefore, I hope that the imminent announcement will be welcomed by both sides of the House.

Labelling is one of the hottest topics to do with food at present. I am working hard with officials to see what we can do, given the constraints under which we have to work—constraints in respect of the free flow of imports across Europe with which we would all agree. However, there are things that we can do to improve labelling of country of origin. In particular, I hope that the pork industry will be encouraged by some announcements that I expect to be able to make very soon. They will bring forward benefits, perhaps not going quite as far as the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire—

Local Press

I advise hon. Members that some seven people are trying to catch my eye and in order to give them all a fair chance, perhaps they could be brief.

I want to put on record my thanks to Mr. Speaker for granting me this important debate. I am so happy to see so many hon. and right hon. Members in the Chamber, because this is an important issue. I shall try to be brief, but I have important issues to flag up regarding my area.

I am sure that all hon. and right hon. Members in the Chamber agree that a thriving local press is essential for a healthy democracy. We may not always agree with the views and opinions of the local paper serving our constituency, but most of us would regard local papers as representative of our communities and of their needs and aspirations. It is clear that this role is now under threat as never before.

Recently, the chief executive of one of my local newspapers described the situation as a “perfect storm” engulfing local press. The situation is now so severe that many titles may disappear unless corrective action is taken. So today, in this debate, I want to raise two important, simple matters. First, I will outline the pressures and threats facing local titles. Secondly, I will suggest some remedies that, with the co-operation of our Government, may provide some help for our local press to survive.

I shall say a few words on problems and causes. What has caused the current situation? First and foremost, it is the economic downturn. The headlines in the online magazine for the local press, “Hold the Front Page”, illustrate the current situation effectively, and I shall provide a few quotations from a sample that I took last month: “Gutted reporters facing forced relocation”; “Yorkshire weekly closes—Ripon Gazette sister paper ceases publication”; “Reporters sacrifice pay to save colleagues—Journalists offer to reduce their hours to prevent redundancy”; “Brand new editor handed redundancy notice”; and “Daily newspaper to close after 25 years”.

The area that I represent has not escaped these cutbacks. On Teesside, we are served by two excellent daily and evening local newspapers—The Northern Echo, based in Darlington, which is a regional paper, and the Evening Gazette, based in Middlesbrough. Both papers were founded in the heyday of Victorian provincial newspapers and have served our communities through war and peace, boom time and recession. I know that the reporters and editors on those papers are determined to continue doing just that for the coming century, but editors and managers on both titles have been forced to ask for redundancies and axe branch offices, which is a move that many journalists and I feel will affect story generation and sourcing for the worse.

The Northern Echo, has had to axe some of its sister “Advertiser” series and reduce editions, and the Middlesbrough Evening Gazette has asked for voluntary editorial redundancies. The same problem is affecting local free sheets, one of which—the Cleveland Circuitnearly ceased production, but the heroic work of the couple who own and manage the paper rescued it and it is now appearing again on a regular basis and will, I hope, do so for a long time to come.

The economic downturn has not led to a circulation drop. Indeed, many people want to know how their region is fighting back. However, over a longer period there has been a steady loss of readership that cannot be ignored. The British provincial press has seen a 51 per cent. drop in circulation since 1989. Coupled with that, there has been a significant drop in advertising. Display advertising from the local high street is down as the retail crunch bites. The staples of local advertising have been adversely affected as people withdraw from the property market, recruitment is put on hold and car sales stagnate. The internet has also hit sections of the readership, and fewer younger readers are staying loyal to what the bloggers call the dead-end press.

There are other pressures, too. For instance, there is a serious and as yet hardly unreported threat of big increases in the price of newsprint paper. Yet the need for good, honest local reportage is greater than ever. Look at the alternatives. Local and regional TV is going under the axe and ITV is, to all intents and purposes, decimating its regional coverage, which has led to an outcry in the House but has seemingly been rubber-stamped by Ofcom. Instead, we will be left with very broad coverage of regional news.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way and congratulate him on securing this important debate. The regions of England are well represented in the Chamber, and I am sure that hon. Members support the comments that the hon. Gentleman is making.

The hon. Gentleman’s point about the ITV cutbacks resonates strongly in Wales, a country where plurality is all the more important, whether it comes from the local press, the national press or ITV. Does the hon. Gentleman agree—he is making the point strongly—that it is welcome when, for instance, the BBC cuts its local website proposals, because it allows the local press the opportunity to diversify and put their local newspapers online?

I totally agree with the hon. Gentleman, who has made an important point about diversity. I am with him all the way.

My hon. Friend mentioned a moment or two ago the threat of the internet, but in many ways it is an opportunity. At the Society of Editors conference, it was suggested that local and regional newspapers should collaborate in the development of a search engine. That would not necessarily rival Google’s 40 per cent. of advertising revenue, but something there is struggling to get out. My local paper, the Leicester Mercury, an excellent regional paper, has a website called “This is Leicestershire” that could do with development. A collaborative, alternative search engine might be helpful in maintaining the local and regional press, which we know is necessary in this country.

All I can say to my hon. Friend is that I am sure that there is a lot of innovation in different parts of the country. However, I am only highlighting what is happening in my area. All sorts of new ideas have been tried, but the local press is still facing difficulties. Well done to the Leicester Mercury for the progress that it has made, but not everybody can do the same thing. I know that opportunities are there, but I am trying to highlight what is happening on my patch, because it is highly serious.

In my area, regional news means coverage from southern Scotland down to Scarborough compressed into about 20 minutes’ airtime. Radio is little better, excepting licence-fee-paid BBC local radio. Now most independent local radio news coverage outside the BBC is little more than national agency feed from the Press Association read out over the airwaves.

As hon. Members have mentioned, we must not forget the internet. The internet was—admittedly, some years ago—seen as a new and free open house for local news and comment, but most local blogs and comment sites have become a means for those who merely shout the loudest to express their views. So we have a paradox: people want local news, but increasingly the only in-depth and reliable coverage comes from our existing local titles, which are currently under threat.

The hon. Gentleman has spoken about other media, and I agree with him. Will he go so far as to agree with me that without the local printed press, local democracy would not be able to continue as it exists today, which would be a great loss for our country? Also, has he seen that early-day motions 502 and 503, which were tabled last night, follow that theme?

I have not seen the early-day motions, but that is the point that I am trying to make. In my area, some of the satellite offices of the Evening Gazette and The Northern Echo have been closed down. If offices close, stories that would have been picked up in the past will not be picked up. That is precisely why we need local media and local satellite offices, which help newspapers to keep stories local. I am glad that for once I agree with the hon. Gentleman.


I shall propose a couple of solutions, because it is no good my simply raising the issues. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister would like to hear some solutions and suggestions, and I hope that he will take them up. Can anything be done to prevent this dreadful situation from having devastating consequences for our local news? It is clear that there is a case for some form of rescue package for local papers that are struggling, but we have to ask what, in practical terms, can be done. Of course, the local press themselves must adapt to changing circumstances, as my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) has said. It needs to move away from a lazy reliance on simply inputting press releases from the local councils, the nearest big football club or local businesses.

Indeed. The business managers must show that they can adapt, attract new advertising streams and become relevant to young readers. However, even the most hard-headed and innovative business managers will need help, if they are to come through this difficult time. That was the point that I was trying to make to my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire.

I thank my hon. Friend for being so generous about giving way. Will he accept that there is a paradox, inasmuch as many of the main groups that own our well loved titles are extremely profitable? They may be less profitable as a result of the credit crunch, but they have been extremely profitable. However, the people who report the news—the reporters—are paid abysmally. If one asks those who work in the newspaper industry or even in the spoken media, one finds that what they earn is appalling. In addition, people on work experience are increasingly used as a substitute for fully employed people, and there is virtually no apprenticeship scheme left. If there was investment in good journalism, would that not be the answer to many of the prayers about keeping the industry going?

I have not asked my local journalists what they are paid, although I am sure that my hon. Friend is well informed. Now that he has raised the issue, I will ask them, and perhaps I will be able to deal with his comment.

There are small things that can be done, and perhaps a couple of big things. Let us take the small things first. The state, at both local and national level, is a big spender on advertising. Can we harness that advertising power, so that it helps both our local papers and our local communities? The Government recently announced a big cash boost to the work of the Department for Work and Pensions and the Jobcentre Plus network, so why not make part of that boost conditional on jobcentres booking space in the local papers in their area to advertise jobs and training courses? There is always a lag between new benefits or changes to benefits and take-up. Again, why not require the DWP to publicise such information in local papers, which have a much greater reach than any DWP information sheet or pamphlet?

The state—now that the state helping people is fashionable again—could help with training for journalists, too. We need to recognise that the newspaper industry has been a leader in the provision of in-service training and distance learning. That is provided by the National Council for the Training of Journalists—a body whose running costs are underwritten by the regional newspaper industry. However, I am told that that work needs to be enhanced to reflect multi-media convergence across the whole industry. That would help to deal with the consequences of the economic downturn, but it would mean higher costs. It is difficult to give precise figures for the cost of trainees in the first few years of their careers, but I am told by the Society of Editors that it could be £15,000 to £20,000. The pure training element need not be high, as newspapers increasingly take graduates who have paid for basic courses.

I come now to the big suggestions, and at this point two important words enter the debate—public money. We need to ask whether there is any reason why local newspapers should not compete with electronic broadcasters for financial support. Such newspapers provide the crucial public service of keeping a community informed about itself. I am well aware that this question is very sensitive in the local newspaper industry. Many editors and owners would once have dismissed it out of hand, because they were concerned that strings might be attached to a requirement to produce so-called public service content. Some would have seen that as a threat to editorial autonomy. However, I am not sure that they would reject such an approach at this time, especially if any public help came from external third parties, rather than from the state itself, and with the type of safeguards historically guaranteed to the BBC. There are precedents for that elsewhere.

In Norway, a state subsidy scheme for local newspapers has existed since 1969. The subsidies amount to between 2 and 3 per cent. of the total annual turnover of the press. Moreover, subsidies are directed particularly towards newspapers in difficult market positions. To be eligible for support, the newspaper must have a general news profile and an editor who adheres to the editor’s code. That code, set up by the editors association and the publishers association, gives guarantees for the independence of the editors.

I have no problem with state help. After all, as Alan Rusbridger said in The Guardian recently:

“Who is to say that Channel 4 (not to mention some aspects of the BBC output) is any more deserving of state funding than those responsible for the sometimes humdrum, but essential, task of keeping people informed about what their local councils, courts, police, health and fire services are up to?”

My approach would be based on these principles. The resource for such aid would come from the digital switchover surplus. As the Minister knows, a new auction of parts of the spectrum is coming up. That is to be managed by Ofcom, which has been charged with a duty to ensure that spectrum is not wasted. There is real money here, too. Previously, and famously, the Government did very well when they auctioned the third generation mobile phone spectrum licences, raising £21 billion for the Treasury. Now, with 16 national licences available for auction, the Government can expect to raise a fair amount of cash. Alan Rusbridger estimates that the cash from the ITV part of the equation could be £60 million, while the digital surplus element of the BBC licence fee could amount to a further £130 million. Why should local newspapers not be in with a shout for some of those revenues, rather than the money merely being shuffled around a limited pool of broadcasters?

Ofcom’s most recent review of public service broadcasting sketches a number of scenarios for covering nations, regions and local communities. That includes a network of local and regional TV news providers as well as an idea for newspapers to combine with others to provide cross-platform content, including nightly TV bulletins. It also suggests that present competition restrictions could be reviewed, which would involve asking the Office of Fair Trading to assess whether local newspapers could be viewed simply as part of a wider media market. I argue that that pool should be managed by a third party rather than a Government Department. Ofcom is a possibility, or, if it does not have the machinery in place, regional development agencies in England and equivalent bodies in the devolved parts of the UK might be appropriate, because they are perceived to be value free and in those terms would be acceptable to editors.

There are issues about the balance of help that goes to small, local newspapers, as against help for titles owned by bigger media plcs. Of course, checks and balances would be needed to prevent the bigger and better-resourced media groups from hoovering up the pool before the smaller groups can get their applications finalised. As a further guarantee, any receipts from that pool must be seen to be wholly additional to internal media group funding and not used as a way to reduce corporate support.

I know that a lot of hon. Members want to take part in the debate, so in conclusion I have tried to highlight the problems and difficulties facing our local newspapers. I have made some far-reaching suggestions to the Minister, and I fear that if those ideas are not considered, we could be in serious danger of seeing the collapse of a large part of our unique local press. I am not trying to be dramatic, but that would certainly be disastrous. I know that the Minister has listened carefully to what I have said. Local newspapers are the lifeblood of our communities and part of our cultural heritage. They are absolutely essential for our areas and towns, and once lost they would be difficult to restore. Certainly in my area, The Northern Echo is an excellent regional newspaper and the Middlesbrough Evening Gazette has been serving our people for nearly 150 years. The Minister should take my suggestions very seriously, as I have expressed the concerns of people in my area and the spirit of what our local papers are saying and the worries that they have.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland (Dr. Kumar) on securing this important debate. For me, the importance of local media is about scrutinising Back Benchers and ensuring that we are accountable to our constituents. As the debate was starting, I received a text message from somebody in my constituency to say that there is now a campaign among the local media to find out how Shropshire MPs will be voting on the issue of MPs’ expenses. Constituents are being asked not to vote for MPs who vote to withhold that information. I love that sort of scrutiny. It is essential to have a mechanism for local people to challenge their MPs and for the newspapers to do that vital job.

In Shrewsbury we have two excellent newspapers, the Shropshire Star and the Shrewsbury Chronicle. In the Lobby, there is a correspondent, Mr. John Hipwood, who works for the Shropshire Star and other newspapers. He is always in the Members’ Lobby on Wednesday before Prime Minister’s Question Time, asking us what we have done during the week, probing and scrutinising. I always look forward to my interactions with Mr. Hipwood in the Lobby, and it is important to have somebody in the House of Commons who scrutinises what we do and reports back to our constituents in an impartial way. We need more than MPs’ propaganda through their newsletters to constituents.

I depend on my local newspapers, the Shrewsbury Chronicle and the Shropshire Star, for highlighting the outrageous way in which the Labour Government are treating Shropshire. They help me to raise issues that are pivotal to the people of Shrewsbury, such as the fact that every child in Shrewsbury receives £3,300 per annum for their education. In other parts of the country, particularly in Labour seats, that figure is £9,000 or £10,000—three times what my children in Shrewsbury get. As a result, village schools are under threat from closure.

The hon. Gentleman recognises that newspapers are impartial. Does he share equal enthusiasm for the way in which local papers lambasted the former Conservative Government when they tried to introduce a poll tax?

I look forward to next year, when the Conservative party will get into power, and I expect my local paper to be as critical in its scrutiny as it has been with the Labour Government.

Sometimes, there are controversial issues. Yesterday, I met the chief executive of Veolia to talk about an incinerator in my constituency—or a “waste to energy facility”, as people like to call it nowadays. Such issues are complicated and emotional. People raise health issues, and it is the role of the local newspaper to try to crunch all the information and present it in the most effective way.

I agree with the hon. Member for Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland, who secured the debate, about the need for Government to spend more money on local newspapers. I concur totally with the concerns that he raised about advertising spending having decreased significantly over the past six months. As a result, papers have, for example, had to cut the number of photographers whom they employ, because of the lack of advertising money. Obviously, I would put a caveat on that—I do not want any more Labour propaganda, which is spewed out all over the place in the media. However, it is good to put relevant campaigns through the local media.

The hon. Gentleman makes a lot of sense. Has he considered using his communications allowance to promote the take-up of pension credit, which I have done in my constituency? That is very helpful for a local community. On a more substantive subject, does he note any difference between the free press that is delivered weekly, which often addresses vulnerable people, and the paid-for, daily local press?

I concur with the hon. Gentleman. With the help of my local newspaper, I am initiating a conference in Shrewsbury, with experts, to interact with the senior citizens forum, which is 5,000 people strong, and help people understand more about pension credits. I know that many people in my county are not getting what they are entitled to.

In order to define the lexicon that the hon. Gentleman is using, are we to understand that all information that the Government produce and publicise, perhaps in relation to the Department for Work and Pensions, is propaganda, while anything that comes from Opposition parties is a clinical and objective assessment? Is that how he reads it?

It is important for Opposition MPs to highlight in a public way their concerns about Government spending, particularly in the run-up to a general election when there is a massive peak in such spending. It is a strange coincidence, but there seems to be a correlation between an imminent general election and the amount of Government spending. Of course it is our duty and responsibility to scrutinise whether all that information is totally unbiased, and it is very important that we do that job.

The remainder of my remarks will be brief, Mr. Cummings, because I know that you want to ensure that everybody speaks. The Shrewsbury Chronicle reports the views of its readers and the work of MPs, MEPs, and county, borough, town and parish councils. That is a very important point. We are talking about not only MPs but parish councils. I represent a rural constituency, and my local paper reports on rural, parish matters, which is very helpful especially for senior citizens living in isolated areas who might otherwise be unable to find out about various vital, local services, such as meals on wheels.

The local editor, Mr. Butterworth, has worked with political, business and health officials to improve the town. That has included campaigns to save the town swimming pool and to get signs put up for Shrewsbury on certain main roads—before I became an MP, I asked the Highways Agency how we could get a sign for Shrewsbury on the M6. It had a sign for Telford, but not for Shrewsbury. It said, “No chance; no, no, we’re not going to do it!” The local newspaper ran a concerted campaign saying how important it was for Shrewsbury to be recognised as the county town of Shropshire and to have a sign on the M6. It initiated a cross-party campaign; now thanks to the Shrewsbury Chronicle, Shrewsbury finally has a sign on the M6 directing people to our beautiful, historic town—it is, of course, one of the most beautiful in the west midlands, and I highly recommend it for summer holidays.

The Shrewsbury Chronicle has also been involved in a campaign for flood defences. However, its most successful campaign was “Let’s grow for it”, which concerned Shrewsbury’s bid for the Britain in Bloom competition. The town not only won the national title for the first time in 25 years, but won the European and world titles—yes, we hold the town in bloom world title! Not only are we beautiful, but we have lots of beautiful flowers.

In the past 12 years, the paper has raised more than £5 million for various charities, which has helped to build a new Macmillan cancer centre and a new diabetes unit at the Royal Shrewsbury hospital, and it has provided a new vehicle for the Red Cross to use in the county, a much-needed extension for the local hospice, a vehicle for a children’s hospice and a new head and neck cancer unit at the Royal Shrewsbury hospital. The paper was recognised for its efforts when the editor, Mr. John Butterworth, was awarded the MBE for services to journalism and charity in last year’s new year’s honours list. The paper has also organised many competitions, such as hanging-basket, shop-window and tots of year contests—I entered my own beautiful daughter, Alexis, in the tots of the year competition. Regrettably, she did not win—

We shall not go into that. However, she is a very beautiful little girl.

In conclusion, the hon. Member for Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland has secured a very important debate, and I acknowledge the work that he has done to highlight the issue. I look forward to hearing from the Minister what tangible things he has planned to help our local media get through this difficult financial time.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland (Dr. Kumar) on securing this important debate and on being determined that a Minister from the right Department should answer it.

This is a very difficult time for local newspapers; it is important not only for business, but for community cohesion, that they continue to serve communities, especially given that, as has been said, local government can communicate through local newspapers. We are fortunate in Croydon in having two strong newspapers, including the Croydon Advertiser, which has a long tradition of service to the town. For a great deal of time, a famous editor, Geoff Collard, managed to represent the town as well as report on it. These days, newspapers face some difficult challenges in addition to the economy and possible competition from the BBC. Croydon has much violent crime, on which the Croydon Advertiser rightly reports. However, it faces the difficulty of potentially killing the golden goose by having to report on such very difficult issues.

Although local newspapers play very important local roles, they are often part of significant media organisations. The Croydon Guardian is part of the Gannett group, which is a US media organisation, and the Croydon Advertiser is now part of the Daily Mail and General Trust stable of newspapers having been sold by Trinity Mirror. Interestingly, when it was sold, it was advised that the readership was 20,000, which is less than a third of what it was more than 15 years ago. That is a sign of the challenge facing local newspapers. Gannett has managed, through the Guardian series, to conglomerate a number of local newspapers, in the way indicated by the hon. Member for Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland. In some ways, that is very efficient. Indeed, in south London, as a local media organisation, the Guardian series employs more than 80 journalists and some 300 people working full-time on their 23 weekly newspapers.

In the world of the web, the Croydon Guardian has been particularly successful, because its online media now reaches a monthly audience of more than 275,000 people. Thus the BBC’s proposal to spend £68 million on the creation of 65 local news video sites represents a real challenge to those newspapers. Currently, the resource provided by the BBC for local reporting in Croydon is very modest—just one journalist, who is a lady called Evadney Campbell—and its approach is very responsible. However, it is understandable that private-sector providers feel threatened by the potential of being crushed by the size of the new investment.

Those unwelcome developments come at a time when local media need to counter several threats to their future. First, there are the structural, industry-wide changes as part of the media migration to the web. Secondly, Newsquest in south London has operated websites for it newspapers for more than 10 years, and it continues to innovate and invest in a way that provides for an exciting digital future. However, the severity of the current economic climate is having a real impact on its core revenues—most notably, on job and property advertising. Thirdly, in the mind of the Croydon Advertiser and the Croydon Guardian, there is Government-induced support for local government to withdraw advertising from independent providers through the establishment of local authority news channels and publications subsidised by public and third-party funds. Those two papers have been very critical of Croydon council over the significant increase in its advertising spend that does not go to local media, but is spent directly.

I am mindful that other Members wish to speak, so I shall only take a further two minutes. Local papers can play a real role in giving local communities a sense of identity. If local newspapers leave, much of that sense of identity will go. Many local newspapers campaign on social issues. I am impressed by the work done by journalists on both my local newspapers, such as Harry Miller, Neil Millard, Aline Nassif and Kirsty Whalley. Such people campaign on important issues that are vital to our community—for example, they deal with issues involving the families of victims of knife crime—but given the pressures and the limited pay and resources, it is very difficult for local journalists to pursue such interests.

Local newspapers must be responsible. I congratulate the approach taken by the Gannett newspaper group to remove sex trade adverts from its newspapers. That is something that has yet to be followed by the Croydon Advertiser and something that I urge it to do. The Croydon Guardian has been lobbying hard on green issues on behalf of south London business. Those are all important concerns.

Finally, on a more light-hearted note, I thank the Croydon Guardian for publicising the charity-giving, prize-giving process related to the competition for the best Christmas lights in Croydon, which was the very heart of Christmas light provision within the United Kingdom. Providing such publicity shows how newspapers can support their Members of Parliament and local communities.

This has not been a happy new year for my local press. The Ealing Times closed before Christmas. In early January, Trinity Mirror cut its editorial staff for London and the south-east from 96 to 80. For those papers covering my constituency, that means a cut of about a third. The situation is somewhat unusual in that Trinity Mirror owns both the remaining newspaper groups, the Gazette and Chronicle series. On 7 January, it told the UK Press Gazette that all the titles will have one centralised subbing and production hub and one centrally managed photographic team. It said that journalists will be given laptops, mobile phones and new software. It did not mention desks.

Effectively, one centre will cover areas including Surrey, Buckinghamshire, and north, south, east and west London. No semblance of a local newspaper or independence will remain after those cuts. That is very sad. Both the Fulham Chronicle and the Ealing Gazette have long histories going back over a century, and a loyal readership that has been sorely tried over the years. Despite their common ownership, they have remained fully independent and great rivals. The quality of journalism has never been better in the 25 years that I have been reading and contributing to them. There has been a combination of experienced editors and sub-editors, and enthusiastic journalists, such as Steve Still, Rebecca Kent and Michael Russell on the Gazette and Tom Shaw and Saffron Pineger on the Chronicle. I make no criticism of them at all. What is said about the pay levels for local journalists is absolutely right. Staff turnover is high because people cannot afford to live on the salaries that they are paid.

Although it is right to say that the recession and unfair competition are the reason for the decline of the local press, the seeds were sown some time ago. The fact that Trinity Mirror and other publishers put their shareholders before their journalists and readers means that when one picks up a local paper, it no longer is that. There are a couple of pages of local news, and then one suddenly finds oneself into the next borough or county in what is effectively syndicated and generalised news. For that reason, sales inevitably go down, and the decline becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. As one or two of my hon. Friends have said, investment is the answer to selling more papers and producing a better product. The successful newspapers that remain in London are the ones that contain genuinely local news that people wish to read.

I also want to draw attention to the growth of the yellow press or, as in this case, the yellow, blue and red press. Under the guise of producing information, all local authorities and parties publish what is effectively political propaganda to keep the ruling party in power. I am not talking about the traditional council publications—they are dire in the extreme—that contain information about the mayor’s engagements and are produced by one hard-pressed information officer. Probably the only thing on which I agree with Boris Johnson is getting rid of The Londoner. He did that because it was absolutely useless.

Touché. I recognise that. It has to be said that Boris Johnson did not need The Londoner because the Evening Standard is the house journal of the Conservative party and will print whatever he says in any event. However, I am not talking about such publications, but the much more sophisticated type of publication that replicates what local newspapers used to do and pretends to be a local newspaper that imparts impartial news. Several local authorities in London are now doing that, including Hammersmith and Fulham.

Why is that the wrong thing to do? First, it provides desperately unfair competition. Local authorities have huge resources with which to pay the hidden costs. They pay two or three times the amount to the journalist, and their terms and conditions are marvellous compared with those of the local press. All the costs of distribution, overheads and so forth are hidden. We are talking about hundreds, if not millions, of pounds of expenditure on promotional activity of such a kind. That is bad.

In an aggressive marketing campaign, Hammersmith and Fulham council can say, “Your local press sells 3,000 copies a week, we can deliver 80,000 copies free through your door, and we will give free personal ads and we will undercut any of the advertising rates.” Of course, that will lead to the demise of the local press. One may say that that is sad, but it is the way of the world.

I end on the point with which my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland (Dr. Kumar) started: local democracy depends on a local press. If there is no scrutiny by local newspapers, as is the case in many parts of London, no one is keeping an eye on what is going on in the town hall, and that leads to abuse and corruption.

Last summer, the editor of the council newspaper wrote a very insulting article in the UK Press Gazette about the local newspapers, and he defended his paper by saying that it was not propaganda and that

“you won’t find many pictures of councillors in our paper.”

The UK Press Gazette correspondent counted 17 photographs of councillors in the last edition. A Labour councillor counted, in total, 150 photographs of Tory councillors before they found one of a Labour councillor. That is the sort of imbalance that we are talking about. That example may seem trivial, but we also see the promotion of unpopular council policies, attacks on anybody who is in an opposition role, whether it is the EU, another tier of Government or the Government themselves, and—this is perhaps the most insidious angle—no criticism whatsoever of the local council however unpopular its policies.

All of us who have been in local government know how mad people can feel when they have been criticised by the local press for making a mistake, but that is the price of public office. If the only source of local information in an area is a publication that only ever presents the local authority in a good light and suppresses anything that is counter to that, then that is a very serious attack on local democracy and one I ask the Government to consider.

Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that the council newspaper to which he referred was started by the previous council, which was a Labour council, and despite the propaganda in that local paper, it failed to keep in office a woeful Labour council that had racked up the council tax?

The hon. Gentleman does not do himself any credit. Given his tone of voice, he could well get a job working for the local paper that my Conservative council produces. That is absolutely not the case. I do not want to be hypocritical about the matter. I have run a local authority, and local authorities produce publications. I am not saying that that is necessarily a bad idea, but it must be clear who is producing them and from where their information and views are coming. I am talking about a piece of subterfuge that prevents the public from knowing the truth in a locality. The hon. Gentleman would do well to follow the example of Boris Johnson rather than the insidious example that I have given. If that is the view of the Conservative Front Bench, that is to be regretted.

I am sorry that that intervention has caused me to take so much time. This is a serious problem, which is growing partly because of the recession, but principally because of the actions of some local authorities. At the moment they are mainly Conservative and Liberal Democrat, but I make the point against any local authority that wishes to subvert democracy in such a way.

Order. Three hon. Members are seeking to catch my eye, so I advise Members that we must start the winding-up speeches at five minutes past 12.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland (Dr. Kumar) on securing this debate. He was right to say that newspapers are the lifeblood of our local communities. They have an important role, because they provide a source of local news and advertising that is not replicated anywhere else, and include such things as court reports, reports of council meetings, and the achievements of local people, schools and groups. Also, as all hon. Members will know, they are an important medium by which to get our message across to our constituents, and also by which our constituents hold us to account.

Local newspapers are also important when it comes to holding Governments to account. I can speak from both sides of the fence, because as well as being in Opposition here and in the Scottish Parliament now, for eight years my party was in power in the Scottish Parliament, when local newspapers held us to account. It can be uncomfortable, but there is an important role for local newspapers in our democracy.

Local letters pages are an important source of local debate. As other hon. Members have said, importantly, local newspapers run campaigns on behalf of their local communities. They are often champions of local communities on a range of issues, which the internet and video media would never replicate. Local newspapers are embracing new technology, and nearly all have web pages these days, but running campaigns and providing information cannot be replicated by the internet.

Newspapers are socially inclusive. The price is still relatively low, and they are placed in local libraries, so people who perhaps do not have access computers can go to their local newspapers and read the paper for nothing.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the people least likely to be able to access other forms of media or the internet, such as the elderly, are completely reliant on local newspapers?

My hon. Friend makes an important point: newspapers are very important for the elderly.

What can the Government do to help? They could do a lot by advertising—I am talking about public information, not propaganda. For example, they could advertise advice on where to apply for benefits such as pension credit, healthy living campaigns, notices of road closures, and consultations on planning applications and traffic management scheme proposals. Such things have got to be advertised in the local press. Simply putting planning applications, and traffic management and parking proposals, on the council’s website is not good enough.

In the recession, there will be pressures on the public sector to cut back in all areas, and it could be tempting to cut back on advertising. However, I would urge the Government—they could encourage the whole public sector to do likewise—not to cut back on advertising in the local press. That is an important means by which the public sector can get its message across and engage with local people, and it is important for the survival of local newspapers, which are heavily dependent on advertising. Clearly, the recession has meant that commercial advertising is decreasing, so public sector advertising is important.

I am delighted that the BBC Trust and Ofcom have come out against the BBC local video news proposals. They would have meant unfair competition, so I hope that we have seen the end of them.

My message to the Government and the whole public sector is this: promote the local press, ensure that it is protected from unfair competition, and use it for advertising and consultations. Local communities and our democracy need a free, independent and vibrant local press.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland (Dr. Kumar) on securing this important and timely debate. Regional and local papers are facing exceptionally hard times. I intend to talk about York’s local paper, The Press, but it is clear from other hon. Members’ contributions that the problem affects local and regional papers the length and breadth of the country.

Last summer, The Press made 23 redundancies, including 4 journalists, which was a cut of more than 10 per cent. of the work force. Two years before that, nine journalists were made redundant. This month, The Press announced that it will no longer print in York and that, instead, it will print the paper some 40 miles away in Bradford. All the printers’ jobs at York will go, although I hope that some of them will be able to transfer to Bradford—that is currently under negotiation between the management and the trade unions. This month, the posts of editor and managing director were combined, in a new post of managing editor.

At one time, The Press had a Lobby correspondent here in Parliament. I am deeply envious of the situation in Shropshire where such a post has been maintained. I know, Mr. Cummings, that we are not supposed to pass comment on who is listening to our debate, but one only has to look at the Press Gallery to see how lean the regional media’s presence is at Parliament.

I do not want to cover ground that colleagues have covered, but the local and regional press face two enormous challenges: the economic downturn and the pressures of technological change. Twenty-seven years ago, when I ran a small, independent television production company that made programmes for Channel 4, or whoever would buy them, I introduced, for the first time in television, a telephone phone-in. I dread to think where that has led, and I am horrified to see rigged telephone polls and premium-rate calls being used to fleece viewers. Twenty-three years ago, when I was first selected as a Labour party candidate in York, The Press was printed by letter press by the hot metal process, but moved to offset litho and bought the new presses in its new works in Walmgate, which are sadly going to be scrapped, as I said.

Technology will not stop, and its advance cannot be wished away. I believe that we will still have printed newspapers in 20 years, but that there will be a rather different content. Electronic media by that time will be more user friendly and better for distributing news, but I believe that the Government need to support local printed newspapers through the transition. For instance, the state could, appropriately, invest in training.

I will not because we have limited time.

I have spoken to local journalists in York and the regional management of Newsquest. Of course, there is no appetite for public subsidy, but the company would welcome more Government and local government advertising, as my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland said. There are some legal requirements on public authorities to advertise things such as planning applications, road closures, other legal notices and so on, but I should like the Government, local authorities and public bodies such as health trusts to advertise more jobs in local papers. That could be made a statutory responsibility. If it was, regulation of charging regimes would be necessary, because many local papers have monopolies as paid-for printed papers in an area, but that could be resolved by negotiation between the Newspaper Society and the Government.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush (Mr. Slaughter) said that local authorities, health trusts and other organisations that publish their own reports should use local papers to print supplements instead of producing parallel publications. Rather than issue our own parliamentary reports once a year, which are paid for by the communication allowance, MPs could do something similar.

There needs to be a public debate about the scope for public funding for independent, private sector media. As I said, I see no problem with greater public sector advertising or with support for training. Public ownership of independent local papers would, I think, be wholly unacceptable—Pravda and Izvestia did not live up to the English translations of their titles, “Truth” and “News”, so public ownership is out. However, a case can be made for some degree of cross-subsidisation. When I produced programmes for Channel 4 in the 1980s, hundreds of millions of pounds of Channel 4’s revenue came from a levy on the ITV companies, and the fact that the Broadcasting Act 1980 guaranteed most of Channel 4’s revenue—it was my most important customer—did not in any way undermine my editorial freedom, or that of Channel 4.

My programmes were pretty political. In 1983, shortly after the Live Aid concert, one programme made the case that famine in east Africa was not just bad luck or an act of God, but the result of climate change brought about by human behaviour. That is now a commonplace, but more than 20 years ago it was seen as a dangerous, left-wing idea. I made a programme about miners’ wives at Bentley colliery during the miners’ strike, documenting how they fought back by writing and publishing poetry.

[Hywel Williams in the Chair]

The only time I faced direct censorship from Channel 4 was when a passage was removed from a light entertainment show. I had offered Channel 4 Ben Elton, French and Saunders, Rik Mayall and others at a knock-down price as they were performing a charity concert to raise funds for Nicaragua. I had added a small political insert explaining where Nicaragua was and why funds were being raised, and that was regarded as unsatisfactory, but on artistic rather than political grounds.

I would like the Government to investigate jointly with the Newspaper Society whether there are opportunities for cross-subsidising printed newspapers from e-media, perhaps by using some of the advertising revenue from the internet or putting a levy on broadband service providers.

York has had a local newspaper for 288 years. The York Mercury was founded in 1721. By 1725, we had two local newspapers. State advertising has a long history in local newspapers. In 1789, advertisements were placed in the York press for tenders to build solitary confinement cells at York castle, then used as a prison. We need to ensure that local newspapers have a long future, and I certainly want to be able to celebrate the tercentenary of the local press in York in 12 years’ time.

It is appropriate that you have taken the Chair just as I am about to speak, Mr. Williams. I add my congratulations to those already offered to the hon. Member for Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland (Dr. Kumar) on securing the debate. I hope that this is the start of the campaign and certainly not the end. The job losses in the regional and local press over the past 20 years amount not to tens or hundreds, but probably thousands, and the loss of several of those newspapers will have had a detrimental effect on local communities.

I want to touch on three areas. First, to be local to a place one has to be located there. Any place more than 10 miles outside my constituency is foreign land, so the locality of local press is an important point. They provide a drop-in point. Old-age pensioners were mentioned. They like to drop in to talk and have that personal contact with the people in the office. Without that, the opportunity to drop in their messages will be lost. For groups that advertise in their local communities, such as schools and theatre groups putting on shows, losing that personal contact and the understanding of the press people who cover it, who know what the shows and the people are about, is an important loss.

Secondly, the most important thing that we are currently losing is the draw of politics. The point about how we are attacked in the press has been made, but that is democracy. Hon. Members have spoken many times in the House about the importance of encouraging people to be part of political debate. That is what the local press allows, but the national press does not see that and does not have that personal contact. The loss of the local press in a locality means the loss of that democratic process and, more importantly, of the involvement of the individual. The multi-nationals that have now taken over so many of our smaller newspaper groups are putting profit above everything else. We understand that profit has to be made, but they must understand that in the longer term they will lose all their profits because their papers will disappear.

Thirdly, within the next 12 months there will be more amalgamations of small newspapers, so that they will have one editor and two or three journalists. They cannot survive in that way. I urge the Government to listen to the ideas that have been suggested today, especially those from hon. Members who talked about the Government investing in local press and newspapers. Perhaps we as MPs should also learn to invest more of our time and effort in promoting local press. It is difficult sometimes, and I guess I have suffered as much as any at the hands of the press, certainly in the letters page, but that is something we have to put up with. If we put our heads above the parapet, we are there to be shot at. I therefore urge the Government to please do all that they can to support this important part of our media.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland (Dr. Kumar) on securing this extremely important debate. I preface my comments by declaring a vested interest: my daughter, Emma, is this week sitting her exam for the National Council for the Training of Journalists, so I hope we can do something to alleviate the problem that has been so well outlined.

The hon. Gentleman claimed that the economic downturn has caused this situation, but I disagree. The local press has been shrinking for some time. I will not rehearse the problems that have been more than adequately explained by other hon. Members, but I do want to mention the lack of journalists, because that is hugely important. I would like to sling in a word of praise for two regional newspapers in my area, The Express and Star and The Birmingham Mail, because they have fantastic editions that are very local and extremely well produced.

I would also like to look briefly at free newspapers. Several hon. Members have said how important those are as a source of information and advice for older people. In Solihull, we are blessed with three free papers, of which one tries to run three editions with one journalist and a part-timer. That is what the situation has been cut to there, and that is the Observer. We also have the Solihull News and the Solihull Times, but apart from a couple of journalists, their main area has now been moved to Fort Dunlop in the centre of Birmingham. The hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Davies) stated how important it is that local journalists are on the patch, and that is a big concern.

Does the hon. Lady agree that sometimes those small one-man bands are real heroes in the community because they address and deal with vulnerable groups and make information available to them?

Indeed, they are heroes and heroines alike.

I want to focus on solutions. The hon. Member for Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland suggested that using the digital switchover spectrum licensing money as public subsidy might be an appropriate way to go forward. That would be a big step, because the press in this country has been unsubsidised for 200 years. However, when hon. Members look at the example of the BBC, I hope that most of them will agree that it has done a reasonably good job in maintaining balanced coverage. I do not feel, however, that simply throwing money from an amount for a one-off digital switchover will solve the problem. The market is fluid, so how would we decide which papers to subsidise?

I shall propose a couple of solutions. In response to the withdrawal of local newspapers, local people in some areas are actually doing it for themselves through community newsletters. I am referring not to a local authority’s party political rag, as mentioned by the hon. Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd’s Bush (Mr. Slaughter), but to those produced by the true, local people on the ground who do it for the love of it and because they want to keep their neighbours informed.

A year or so ago, when we were sold the BBC online video idea, which has now been withdrawn, we were told that local people would be able to send in video clips. We would all submit video press pieces, in a sort of “You’ve Been Framed”, although hopefully without so many faux pas. The proposal was withdrawn to enable the BBC to concentrate on its existing network services, but also because, in some cases, it would have killed the local commercial media.

To return to the subject of the web, newspapers, the BBC and all the news media are trying to swim in the same pool. It is an important pool, particularly for younger readers; it is where a lot of younger people get all their news, or a great deal of it. However, there is a shortage of local reporters, who are being lost at an alarming rate.

Does the hon. Lady agree that the current circumstances in which the local press finds itself are damaging to what used to be the traditional training ground for journalists—young people brought up in the local community who had immersed themselves in it and had a depth of knowledge? If we lose the local press—the Crewe Guardian in my constituency has lost its satellite office, and the Crewe Chronicle is having to make freezing measures—we will lose those young people and the ability to scrutinise the local community and local politicians who work there.

I could not agree more. I have a proposal for the Minister on which I would like his comments. Can the BBC not use existing local journalists in a joint venture website? There would be benefits to that. It would keep local journalism alive and kicking, it would be attractive to advertisers and more interesting, varied and local, and it would create a synergy beneficial to both.

How does the hon. Lady respond to the fear that such a website would put the same pressure on local printed newspapers as the now-defunct BBC proposal to sink £68 million into local website reporting?

I understand that the threat was to newspapers’ website operations rather than to the newspapers themselves. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will agree that there will always be a place for written rather than online newspapers in this country.

The Communications Act 2003, which might be a barrier to such co-operation, is due for review in 2009. Let us seize the opportunity to consider a partnership between the BBC and the local press to produce an online news service far greater than the sum of its individual parts.

I am grateful to speak under your chairmanship, Mr. Williams. I shall be as brief as I can in order to allow the Minister to respond, but the brevity of my speech should not be taken as an indication that I underestimate the problems faced by our local press.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland (Dr. Kumar) on securing this debate. I hope that I will not wreck his career by saying that I regard him as a personal friend. He has one particular attribute that I would like to put on record: he is the only Member of the House to have read the seminal “History of British Steel”, written by the late John Vaizey, my father. For that reason, he will always have a special place in my heart.

I would also like to give some brief parliamentary time to my own local newspapers, as so many local newspapers have been praised. The Herald, the Oxford Mail and The Oxford Times are owned by Newsquest Media Group and provide a superb local service, led by their brilliant editor Simon O’Neill, the inscrutable Derek Holmes, editor of the Herald and one of the most brilliant young journalists working in newspapers today, Emily Allen.

Speaking of the history of local newspapers, last week was the retirement of Ian Townsend, our Wallingford reporter, who had reported in and around Wallingford, Thame and so on for the past 50 years. Two or three reporters like him—Mike Hambleton and Gordon Rogers spring to mind—have retired from my local newspaper in the past couple of years. It marks the passing of an era. I do not think that we will see again local journalists who spend 50 years with local newspapers reporting on a single area. That is perhaps a cause for regret, but time moves on.

Local newspapers are under enormous threat, but it is worth remembering what a sizeable chunk of the media they still constitute. There are some 1,300 local newspapers across the country; 40 million adults read a local newspaper at some point during the week; 40,000 people work for local newspapers; and local newspapers still generate about £3 billion in advertising revenue, although the figures are probably dropping sharply. I gather from the Newspaper Society that the figures look bad. Although the official report has not yet been published, I understand that there has been a 20 per cent. drop-off in advertising revenue in this quarter alone.

One can play chicken and egg deciding what has caused the problem. I agree with the hon. Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt) that the problem has been brewing for many years—people’s reading habits are changing, and the internet is turning everything on its head—but as the hon. Member for Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland has pointed out, it is now a perfect storm. The problem of having to compete with changing technology has been exacerbated by the deep recession that we are entering.

Two or three things could help local media. As the hon. Member for Solihull has said, Ofcom is reviewing the ownership rules for local media, and I understand that the review is due this year. The review is urgent, and perhaps Ofcom should bring it forward. I am not sure when it plans to begin or publish the review, but the matter is urgent and the review should begin now. Dominant local newspapers are still prevented, for example, from owning local radio stations. When the Communications Act 2003 was drawn up, there was a balance to be struck on the domination of one media owner in a local area, but given the parlous state of local newspapers—and, with the growth of the internet, the huge range of different sources from which local people can get information—those rules now look out of date and need an urgent review.

Reference has been made to the BBC Trust’s interim decision to prevent the BBC from investing £68 million in local video. I understand that the trust will state whether that decision will be confirmed on 25 February. I call on the BBC Trust not to allow the BBC to bring back the local video proposals in another guise. My party campaigned against them, as did other parties, because we recognised that the BBC had the opportunity to invest public money without any commercial pressure into local video, which would have been an enormous threat to local newspapers seeking different ways to continue to grab readers’ attention and gain revenues.

A lot has been said about the need to use Government advertising to help local newspapers. In that sense, this debate is reminiscent of the debates that all of us have had in the House about the future of local post offices. Will the Government recognise that local newspapers, despite being owned by private companies, are an important community resource? Are Ministers prepared to work hard to ensure that as much legitimate Government advertising as possible goes into local press?

In that light, I would be interested to know the Minister’s views on the Killian Pretty review, which advised that local councils should no longer have an obligation to publish planning applications in the local newspaper. I can guess what his view might be, because the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families—the Deputy Prime Minister—has effectively said that he opposes that reform, so I assume that the Minister, whose career is on an upward trajectory, will agree.

I have the utmost respect for the view of the hon. Member for Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland that digital switchover money, of which there will be a surplus, should be used to support local newspapers. Plenty of media outlets will be looking for that money to support them—possibly Channel 4, possibly broadband. Indeed, we will know next week, when Lord Carter publishes his review, the Government’s view of that digital surplus.

Although local newspapers can be supported by reforms made in this House, their salvation ultimately lies in the hands of the newspaper groups and the local newspapers. There is an argument that, as with many industries, including the music industry, local newspapers have been slow to catch up with the implications of the internet. I am grateful that I do not have to run a local newspaper, because it is an extremely difficult job, but local newspapers must completely rethink their business model. They have relied on property advertising and car advertising, and even without a recession a lot of that advertising is going on to the internet, particularly national websites that allow people to type in their postcode and find a local car or house that they want to buy. So local newspapers must rethink their business model, but if they can do so, that would put them back at the heart of their communities, because the unique selling point that they have is a strong relationship with local people, local MPs—as we have seen in this debate—and local businesses. They can become an important community resource.

I recognise the danger of local councils putting out newspapers, but I counsel the hon. Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd’s Bush (Mr. Slaughter) that, if the Conservatives are re-elected in Hammersmith and Fulham, it will be because they have cut the council tax by 3 per cent. every single year while improving services. I look forward to hearing from the Minister.

It is a pleasure, Mr. Williams, to serve under your chairmanship and that of Mr. Cummings.

I would like to begin by warmly congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland (Dr. Kumar) on securing this debate on a topic that affects many local communities right up and down the country. A thriving local press is important to the health of local communities and local democracy. Although I agree with my hon. Friend that we may not always be happy with the views of the local newspapers that serve our constituencies, I do not think that there is a single MP in this House who would deny that they have a key role.

We have had an extremely good debate with contributions from the hon. Members for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski), for Croydon, Central (Mr. Pelling), for Argyll and Bute (Mr. Reid) and for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Davies), my hon. Friends the Members for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd’s Bush (Mr. Slaughter) and for City of York (Hugh Bayley) and the Opposition Front-Bench spokesmen the hon. Members for Solihull (Lorely Burt) and for Wantage (Mr. Vaizey). There were also a number of interventions.

Given the limited time, I do not intend to take any interventions, because I want to respond to the key points that have been made in the debate. I agree with the hon. Member for Wantage that the primary responsibility for local news organisations lies in their own hands and that they must respond to changing market circumstances. Four other key points were mentioned in the debate—competition, advertising, training and financial support—and I want to cover them in my brief contribution.

As has been touched on in the debate, we all recognise that we have seen at least two technological revolutions in the industry in the past 30 years or so. The first revolution was in printing, with the move away from compositing typesetting and hot metal, and the second revolution has been the creation of the internet and the world wide web. Both those revolutions have brought about massive changes to print news media at national, regional and local levels.

As other hon. Members have done, I want to plug my local and regional news media, namely the Express & Star and its sister newspapers the Dudley Chronicle, the Birmingham Post and Birmingham Evening Mail, and Newsgroup, which is part of Newsquest. Those newspapers are all strongly campaigning newspapers and all hon. Members who have contributed to the debate recognise the fundamental importance of campaigning local news media.

The challenges that the industry is facing obviously relate to the current economic circumstances and wider structural changes. On the short-term cyclical factors, the current downturn that the country is facing has resulted in advertising revenues for all media coming under severe pressure. Overall advertising expenditure is currently predicted to decline by 6 to 12 per cent., and newspaper advertising revenue is predicted to decline by 12 to 21 per cent. in the next 12 months. As more than half the income of regional presses derives from advertising income, that factor alone will create pressure on business models. At the same time, we have also seen the key raw materials of newsprint increasing in cost by 20 per cent. in the past year.

As has been indicated, we are also seeing some major structural changes. The hon. Member for Wantage mentioned some figures about the structure of the industry at the moment. I just want to point out that, although online readership of local newspaper websites is rising, the physical circulation of print is suffering year on year—it is declining by about 5.2 per cent. Furthermore, the share prices of two out of four of the major regional news groups have dropped by more than 95 per cent. in the past 12 months. Classified advertising revenue in the regional and local press is estimated to have fallen from £1.8 billion in 2007 to £1.4 billion in 2008. There are major challenges, and publishers are responding to them head-on. For example, the Guardian and Telegraph media groups have created new newsroom structures to facilitate the efficient gathering and distribution of news to a variety of media.

Turning to competition, although the market for news content has changed significantly, the need to ensure the plurality of our news content remains. However, achieving that goal presents major challenges, given the changes that are taking place. I am aware that where titles have become unsustainable, publishers have considered it impossible for existing media groups to sell titles to each other, even though they might find synergies, because there are takeover or competition implications. I believe that the impact of competition law in this sector is worthy of further consideration. As hon. Members will be aware, there is a review planned by Ofcom, which is scheduled to take place during 2009.

My hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland also mentioned the potential role of advertising. As he is aware, the advertising of health, education and other jobs, as well as statutory notices issued by public sector bodies, has moved substantially to websites that are owned or operated by or on behalf of the relevant public services. Those public services are seeking to achieve the best value for taxpayers and also to reach a wide cross-section of the community. Those are laudable objectives, but that development has clearly had an impact on traditional print media. The Government will obviously reflect on the contribution that my hon. Friend has made during this debate. However, there is a real difficulty given the nature of the technological change that we are seeing in society today. Of course, newspapers are now facing the costs associated with transforming their businesses from a single format paper product to take advantage of those new challenges of communication.

I also want to refer to the comments that my hon. Friend made about training. The issue of training the work force is important. Last year, publishing joined the sector skills councils network and is now part of Skillset. Skillset, with input from the publishing sector, is currently examining the skills required for the sector to take full advantage of the opportunities and challenges offered by digital technologies. My hon. Friend will be aware of the Train to Gain programme and the flexibilities that have been granted by the Government in its operation particularly to help companies during difficult economic times, including local news organisations.

The final issue that I want to mention is financial support. My hon. Friend raised this issue, as did other hon. Members, and it is a complex one, given the requirement that freedom of editorial control must not be threatened by state intervention. I want to reassure him that such support is being considered within the Digital Britain initiative, which Lord Carter of Barnes is taking forward. My hon. Friend will also be aware of the announcements that were made yesterday about additional support for the banks to ensure that they maintain lending, and of the support that was announced last Wednesday, through the enterprise finance guarantee and the working capital scheme. Those schemes are available respectively to companies with an annual turnover of up to £25 million and up to £500 million. They are applicable right across industrial sectors and therefore would include local news organisations. So there is support out there and there will continue to be support.

Military Vehicle Design

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr. Williams, for this debate on military vehicles. My initial involvement in defence policy came about in July 2004, following the statement made by the then Secretary of State, who is now the Secretary of State for Transport, entitled “Delivering Security in a Changing World: Future Capabilities”. My interest and concern were first sparked, as the Minister will know, by fears about the future of the Cheshire Regiment, but they then progressed to defence matters in general and protected vehicles in particular.

Although we are now in the first decade of the 21st century, the design and procurement of vehicles does not fill one with confidence. I am neither an engineer nor an expert in physics, but I understand the general principles behind the design of vehicles that reinforce the protective element in certain types of warfare, such as counter-insurgency. History is a great teacher, and it is such a tragedy that lessons that were learned the hard way in previous conflicts appear not to have been studied by those who now make decisions about procurement.

I have been unable to visit Afghanistan yet, as others have done—I know that the Minister has been on numerous occasions—but my efforts are entirely motivated by the desire that we should prevent unnecessary loss of life by keeping an open mind and using a little common sense. I sought this debate because I am totally convinced of the need to change the mindset of those at the top, including the military, the civil service and politicians, about counter-insurgency, where mine warfare and all its variants are rife. If that mindset could be changed, and if they applied certain well-proven principles, the death and injury toll could be reduced, tactical advantage could be gained, and a genuine sense of security could be given to the Afghan people.

In my debate of 10 June 2008 on counter-insurgency, the Minister said that we need to look at what has happened in the past 20 years. In fact, Ministers and the Army should look back well beyond that time frame, which is relatively short in defence terms, to the Rhodesian conflict—let us face it, that is a tragic country now—as well as to Oman and Aden, and even back to the second world war.

My theme throughout has been consistent, and is based on simple engineering and physics. I refer to the principle of blast deflection rather than of blast absorption. The V-shaped hull of the Mastiff vehicle deflects the force blast, whereas the addition of massive armour to a flat platform acts to absorb it. Interestingly, the new steel armour on the Ministry of Defence website virtually proves my point, because it has been designed with holes that will, in effect, deflect bullets. Both of those types of vehicle are now in theatre, and the testing question is this: in which type would you prefer your son or daughter to be transported, or to be transported yourself? When the previous Secretary of State visited Basra, he rode in a Mastiff. That was very appropriate, given that he was credited with ensuring that that vehicle was procured in the first place.

One aim of insurgents, in seeking to win the propaganda war, is to send back a steady trickle of dead bodies. If we accept unnecessary casualties, we might lose support on the home front, which would work against our objective of winning. There was an incredible loss of life and vehicles in world war two due to mines, but by the time of the Oman conflict in the early ’70s, the V-shaped hull was protecting the cabs of lorries, providing more protection than we have today. The Omanis were well equipped with vehicles, strike aircraft and helicopters; if only we had that capability today.

Then there was the Rhodesian situation, during which 80 mine-protected combat vehicles were built by 1978. The vehicle was developed on a modular concept, whereby different bodies could be fitted, but one of its best features was its cross-country capability. That is an example from 30 years ago of a vehicle with high protection and manoeuvrability, which the South Africans further developed into the RG31, but many people today say that it is impossible to provide anything similar. Currently, the US-armoured vehicle manufacturer Force Protection is building, as a private venture, the Cheetah, featuring the same basic technology as that developed by the Rhodesians.

The Chief of the General Staff was recently quoted in the media as saying:

“If there was a better vehicle, a smaller vehicle, out there we could get our hands on quickly, or could have got our hands on quickly…we would have done so.”

A problem for parliamentarians is that we do not always have access to information about the types of vehicles in which soldiers are killed or injured. Also, we cannot find out the weight of certain vehicles. When I asked the Secretary of State for Defence, in a written question,

“what the unladen weight is of (a) the Snatch Vixen and (b) each of its variants”,

the reply stated:

“I am withholding the information requested, as its disclosure would, or would be likely to prejudice the capability, effectiveness or security of the armed forces.”—[Official Report, 17 November 2008; Vol. 483, c. 154W.]

That is strange, because I had previously been given, in answer to another written parliamentary question, the weights of the WMIK, or weapons mounted installation kit, the E-WMIK and the M-WMIK, or mobility weapons mounted installation kit. It is also strange, because the Army website states the weight of both the Panther and the Jackal. Furthermore, only a week last Monday on 12 January, the Channel 5 programme “Warzone” stated that the Vixen weighed more than four tonnes, so I got my answer. I suspect that that four tonnes is the same increase in weight, from the Snatch to the Vixen, as when the M-WMIK was armoured to become the Jackal. The decision to deny a Member of Parliament an answer to a perfectly reasonable question probably has more to do with preventing the likes of me from suggesting an alternative. The Minister is grimacing somewhat at that remark.

In the interview that I have quoted, the Chief of General Staff said:

“If you are committing young people to battle they have to be given the best, and when circumstances change, they have to be given the best again.”

That statement should be applauded, as far as equipment is concerned, but the same cannot be said with enthusiasm for vehicles, other than the Mastiff and the Ridgback. The circumstances changed in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and the MOD was badly caught out to think that it could replace the Land Rover variants with only the disastrous Pinzgauer Vector, which I understand was the Army’s choice. I well remember being hauled over the coals for suggesting, at a briefing in the MOD, that that vehicle was dangerous, but the out-of-service date for the Vector is now 2015, which is an incredibly short period. That rather backs up my initial remarks.

Any new vehicle is tested in theatre in no uncertain terms—previously by insurgents in Iraq and currently in Afghanistan. A Mastiff vehicle was disabled after six stack mines exploded, but it was soon functional again and there was no loss of life. No wonder the enemy has given up on that vehicle and we are seeing it undertake many tasks for which it was never intended.

I am not saying that every vehicle requires a V-shaped hull, but when our forces are sent into areas where mines and explosives are prevalent, Ministers, civil servants and commanders have a duty to make sure that the right vehicles are available. To hide behind talk about a certain type of vehicle not being available is simply not good enough. It is surely a question of will. After all, if Force Protection can design and build the Wolfhound in 90 days, a replacement for the Snatch Land Rover could undoubtedly be provided—although that is with the proviso that the finance is available. I seriously question whether the powers that be know what they want or, as the past has often proved, have they got it horribly and expensively wrong? The UK has run into a cash crisis that is second to none, and we must ask where the funds will come from.

The policy of adding armour to convert a vehicle, rather than designing for purpose, has been repeated time and again. It happened with the Land Rover, the Panther, the Pinzgauer Vector, the M-WMIK being turned into a Jackal and now the Viking. As a result, weight is an increased factor, the vehicle’s manoeuvrability is decreased and the chance of being flipped over by a mine strike dramatically increases. Some people might accuse me of not wanting protection for our troops, but my answer to that is that such vehicles did not have the right design in the first place for the purpose for which they were intended. The addition of armour to those vehicles thankfully decreases the number of deaths, but it often increases the number of terrible injuries, about which the public are not fully informed.

Let us consider the Warrior, which I understand is to have additional underbelly armour added and is already low to the ground. The blast can be prevented from penetrating the hull of the Warrior, but that runs the risk of turning the vehicle over. The mindset seems to be that if a tank cannot take a blast, nothing can. Tanks and other infantry back-up vehicles were designed to take on other tank formations, but if I were in Afghanistan, I would rather be in a Mastiff than a Warrior any day. On tracked vehicles, the Viking was used because the Marines had nothing else. It will be replaced by a larger version of the same type, the Warthog. There are advantages and disadvantages to tracks versus wheels, but I cannot understand why if a mine-protected tracked vehicle is required, it cannot be produced quickly—to say it cannot be done is simply absurd.

We are constantly told that there is no alternative to the Snatch Land Rover—an assertion which I vigorously dispute. Let us examine the situation regarding Force Protection’s Cheetah vehicle. More than a year ago, I asked what consideration had been given to that vehicle. The answer stated that

“The Cheetah has been considered for a protected patrol vehicle programme. It did not, however, meet a number of key user requirements.”—[Official Report, 10 December 2007; Vol. 469, c. 55W.]

Further questioning resulted in the following response:

“The Cheetah vehicle did not meet the minimum internal space”.—[Official Report, 18 February 2008; Vol. 472, c. 87W.]

Follow-up questions last February about the Panther, which only has side exit doors, versus the Cheetah, which has a rear exit, elicited a further reference to internal space. Yet, where precisely are those 401 Panthers ordered in 2003—now weighing 7 tonnes—100 of which are supposed to be operational? Perhaps the Minister will answer that when he winds up.

Again, last December, at a briefing for Members of both Houses, we were told that one reason why the Cheetah was unacceptable was because it took a fully kitted-out Fijian soldier—in other words, a very large chap—some 40 seconds to get in or out of the passenger door. However, if the vehicle can take the blast, someone would stay in it and get out of the killing zone altogether as soon as possible. In many vehicle designs, the soldier would have to evacuate the vehicle, which would probably be badly damaged anyway.

Back in November 2005, I highlighted the issues relating to another vehicle when I asked the then Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (John Reid), if the Buffalo vehicle designed with the V-shaped hull principle would be introduced for action against roadside explosive devices. The answer was that an assessment had been carried out on the vehicle, but there were no plans to procure it. Yet exactly three years later, in answer to another question concerning the Talisman project, I was told that the Buffalo would be purchased to counter improvised explosive devices as part of a three-vehicle package. Although I was delighted to have flagged-up the Buffalo issue, why did it take so long to recognise its attributes and get it into service?

Those examples show that different tactics have to be used with blast-absorption-type vehicles compared with blast-deflection vehicles. I wonder whether that has been recognised. I do not believe that those who gave the December presentation understood the difference and, as they also indicated a preference for low-profile vehicles—presumably the physical height of the vehicle must be a priority—the safer design of blast deflection is completely ruled out. That is surprising, because one would think that the greatest priority is to save the lives of soldiers whenever possible.

I also asked about the relative dimension specifications of the Cheetah and the Snatch Land Rover. I have since discovered that the measurements provided in a written answer on the Cheetah were based on an old and now non-existent specification. The Cheetah has recently been changed—it is now much lighter and has better armour and mobility. I respectfully suggest to the Minister that the MOD should re-examine the Cheetah and revisit the decision not to consider that vehicle in the light of the facts that I have just put in the public domain. In addition, I do not take kindly to receiving inaccurate replies to written parliamentary questions—I would use a different word from “inaccurate”, if I were not trying to stay in order this afternoon, Mr. Williams.

Having the correct vehicle for the job is crucial. Tactical advantage and manoeuvrability were lost in Iraq with the Snatch Land Rover having to be replaced by the Challenger tank. In Afghanistan, the first battle for Garmsir was unsuccessful when Vikings were used, but the day was won when Warriors were correctly used—although I understand that that vehicle is now being used as a transporter, which is not its role. I can never understand the view of those in the Army who say, “We are soldiers and therefore we expect casualties” without appreciating the political reaction back in the UK. The conflict also needs to be won on home ground. If public support wanes as a result of a growing casualty list and a war being waged at a considerable distance from the UK, considering such a war is also a drain on resources at a time of great economic hardship, the cause may be lost.

I do not accept that suitable vehicles cannot be procured. There should be better co-operation between the operational and procurement side of the Army, and a clear definition of what is required. A company such as Force Protection could then be approached—as, indeed, could others—to produce what the UK needs in double quick time using commercial parts. For example, in relation to the Iveco Trakker Hovertruck, which is a half-track vehicle, the commercial technology exists to convert the half track back to conventional wheels, depending on whether there are summer or winter conditions. More intelligent procurement of vehicles that are better designed to include protective and practical features gives a great tactical advantage. As a result, the death toll will not be seen to be mounting. We will also be seen to be winning the conflict and hearts of minds both here in the United Kingdom and in Afghanistan.

Nothing succeeds like success. While paying full tribute both to the professionalism and bravery of our soldiers, as ever supported by their families and friends, and to their achievements against the odds, we should ensure that our armed forces are provided with what is required to finish the job with the minimum of casualties.

May I congratulate the hon. Member for Congleton (Ann Winterton) on securing this important debate and say how enjoyable it is, once again, to listen to her? She knows that we both have an interest in the subject which goes back many years, and I credit her work in this area.

It would be remiss not to use this occasion to note the bravery of Corporal Richard Robinson of 1 Rifles, who lost his life at the weekend. All the thoughts of Members from all parts of the House will be with his family and friends, and I am sure that the hon. Lady will associate herself with those thoughts.

Can I set out our approach, which the hon. Lady will recognise? It is to give our commanders on the ground a range of vehicle options, and great strides have been made in providing that range. I shall put on the record the number of different vehicles that are now being procured for the Iraq and Afghanistan theatres. They are the Mastiff, the Ridgback, the Jackal, the Vectra, the Coyote, the Husky, the Wolfhound and the Warthog; don’t ask me who thinks up the names, Mr. Williams—they are clearly imaginative. In addition, we have the WMIK, the Viking, the Snatch, the Snatch Vixen and, soon, the Panther, which I shall refer to in a minute. It is important that we, as politicians, do not second guess the commanders but give them that range of vehicles. It is up to them to choose which vehicles are used for particular missions, taking into account the threat and the task at hand.

I absolutely accept that it is up to commanders to choose which vehicles they should use for specific missions, but if certain types of vehicles are not available to them, they are somewhat stuck. May I suggest to the Minister that those in the Ministry of Defence should go back to the time of the Rhodesian conflict, when the Land Rover was converted with a V-shaped hull and provided a very fast cross-country vehicle. That is thinking out of the box, and, sometimes, that is what should take place.

Having, as a Minister, hopped over to the other side of the fence, I have learned in more detail how decisions are taken. One thing is clear, and I must put it on the record: decisions on procurement are taken jointly between Ministers on the advice, and with the support of, the chiefs. It is important to recognise that fact. The decisions on the types of vehicles that are available are not taken in isolation from the military advice, or support, of the service chiefs, and the decision on how those assets are used on the ground ultimately has to rest with individual commanders.

I must say that no vehicle can guarantee complete protection. The balance that commanders strike, and the judgment that they use, on the ground is down to them. Another important point is that this is not just a matter of procuring a new vehicle that will carry people from A to B, because a lot of technology is now needed for vehicles on different operations, which needs to be taken into account. It is not about going into a showroom and buying a vehicle off the shelf. I do not suggest that the hon. Lady has said that, but some commentators have said it.

I congratulate the Ministry on the urgent operational requirements process, which very quickly introduced into theatre the vehicles that I have just named. Turnarounds have been done very quickly—some in fewer than six months—and I credit not only the MOD team but everyone involved in the procurement process.

The hon. Lady talked about finance, but finance is not an issue. We have spent some £4 billion on urgent operational requirements, some £1 billion of which went on the new fleet of vehicles. That money is not from the MOD budget but from the Treasury reserve, and the Government are committed to ensuring that finance is not an inhibitor to providing the best that we need on the ground for our troops. The National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee looked at the UOR process and were congratulatory about it.

I turn to the issue of how we should determine the types of vehicles that ought to be deployed in Afghanistan. Again, the decision is down to individual commanders, but we are up against an ever-evolving threat, as the hon. Lady recognises, and we cannot design a single vehicle for every single use. As she has said, I have been to Iraq and Afghanistan and seen the Mastiff vehicle, including one that, having run over a mine, provided great protection to the individuals inside it. She has referred on several occasions to the V-shaped hull on the Mastiff and other vehicles, which is important, but it is not the sole driver in terms of protecting our troops in a vehicle—armour is important, as are tactics and the manoeuvrability of vehicles. On the threat of improvised explosive devices, the electronic counter-measures, which, as she would expect, I shall not go into, are very effective in saving people’s lives. The issue concerns not only the armour and the V-shaped hull, but a suite of effects that we can use to protect the men and woman who serve on our behalf.

The hon. Lady is right that there is a difference between blast absorption and blast deflection, but the type of protection used on any vehicle is driven by its capability and the way it has been designed to meet the threat that it faces. One thing that I found in Afghanistan and Iraq is that commanders need a range of vehicles, because, although the Mastiff is very good, if we tried taking it down some small streets in rural Afghanistan, we would find it very difficult, which is why we need a range—

I shall come on to that in a minute. We need to offer a range of vehicles, but I shall now turn to the Snatch Land Rover, which has been the subject of much informed and ill-informed comment in the press. When I was last in Iraq, I asked commanders whether they needed Snatch Land Rovers, and they said yes, because it is about manoeuvrability—

I do not accept that. The point is about manoeuvrability, and the Snatch Vixen’s added protection will improve that capability.

I have seen Panther being modified at Vickers on Tyneside, not far from my own constituency, and it will be deployed in the spring. It has a specific task as a command and liaison vehicle, and I am not sure that it would meet the hon. Lady’s suggested task. She has also mentioned Cheetah, but I am told that it is too small for the suggested task. It has been trialled, but there is no such vehicle in service in any nation at all. I accept that perhaps we need to look for alternatives, but the Cheetah has been looked at.

The hon. Lady has said that the answers to some of her questions were misleading, but that was not the purpose of our answering in the way in which we did. We must be careful not to put too much in the public domain.

Again, I thank the hon. Lady for raising this important subject. I consider her a friend of the MOD, in terms of ensuring that we get what she and I want, which is the best protection and equipment for our servicemen and women in Afghanistan and Iraq. I assure her that that is what the MOD and I, through my involvement as a Minister, want. Our records to date show that we have delivered a wide range of vehicles, that finance is not an issue and that we have ensured that people get what they want.

Child Prostitution

It gives me great pleasure to introduce this discussion on the important subject of the grooming of children for prostitution. Little did I know that there would be two significant events today: the inauguration of a new American President and my debate on an issue that has emerged in my constituency—something that goes to the heart of every politician’s life. I find that the biggest national issues come from the grass-roots experiences in the communities that we represent. That is not a bad rule.

I chair the Children, Schools and Families Committee so this is an important issue for me. However, long before I chaired that Select Committee, I ran an important campaign about the remarkable situation that the penalty for bringing a child into prostitution was lower than that for running a disorderly house. Many good colleagues in the House at that time campaigned for a change in the law. Since 2003 there have been more significant penalties for people who draw young people into prostitution.

I raise this matter today because it is an issue in west Yorkshire and in my constituency. I believe that it is also a national issue. The Coalition for the Removal of Pimping, known by the interesting acronym CROP, has a very active branch in west Yorkshire, based in Leeds. It has accompanied two or three of my constituents who have faced the traumatic experience of having a daughter as young as twelve taken into a way of life that leads to sexual manipulation and in some cases prostitution.

I will not go into too much detail, but the Children Act 2004 places specific responsibility on social services to safeguard and promote the welfare of children in the area. Sexual exploitation has been a critical challenge to safeguarding children with long-term implications for children and families. That legislation and the five outcomes for children outlined in Every Child Matters show how important the welfare of children is to this Government, to all parties and to all parliamentarians. I celebrate the introduction of a Department for Children, Schools and Families with a remit that runs across any Department if the concerns of children are involved. The Sexual Offences Act 2003 introduced many new offences to protect children from sexual exploitation including meeting a child following sexual grooming, paying for the sexual services of a child, causing or inciting child prostitution or pornography, arranging or facilitating child prostitution or pornography and controlling a child prostitute.

This is not a pleasant subject to discuss, but we must discuss it. There have been high-profile “Panorama”-style exposés on these problems. However, I listen more to the parents who find themselves and their children victims to this kind of exploitation. Families are also exploited. I want to put it on the record that even 12 years ago, during my research for the original campaign, I was horrified to find unscrupulous men—always men—in every town and city with a sophisticated methodology and technique for grooming children into prostitution.

The more I talked to experts in the field, the more convinced I became that there was no dominant ethnicity among the perpetrators. They came from different ethnic backgrounds in different towns and could be white, black or Asian. Some, such as the British National party, have tried to make this a racial issue. I do not believe that it is.

There are unscrupulous men in every town and city using this sophisticated technique. The more I considered it, the more I found it akin to the sophisticated psychological techniques used by sects in America and to a lesser extent in this country to get vulnerable people into their organisations by brainwashing them, changing their personalities and entrapping them.

The entrapment of a young girl often follows that process. A young man in a flashy car—perhaps an old-fashioned expression—will drive around a school looking at and talking to young women. In the end, one girl will accept a lift in the fancy car. There follows a process of giving presents, taking the young person out without their parents’ consent to venues that they would not usually go to at their age, meeting with friends in the local park and introductions to alcohol and drugs. The next stage is a sexual relationship, usually with a person the young girl assumes to be her boyfriend. Sadly, that introduction leads to the young man passing the girl on to an older generation or a wider circle of men. The road to drug addiction, alcohol dependency and prostitution at an early age follows. This is not unusual or a one-off, but something we know about.

In introducing her Safeguarding Runaway and Missing Children Bill, my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, South (Helen Southworth) was concerned that a significant number of runaway and missing children were vulnerable to the sort of treatment that I have described.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate and on giving hon. Members another chance to discuss this important issue. Does he agree that children without family support are particularly vulnerable to predatory adults? Does he also agree that those in the care of children’s services are often targeted by predators who think that they can be exploited because their families are not immediately available? How does he think the police and children’s services can win the confidence of such young people so that they can be safeguarded, while gaining the intelligence and information that is needed to identify and tackle the predators?

My hon. Friend knows that I agree with her point. The Children, Schools and Families Committee is just concluding a major inquiry into looked-after children or children in care. The report will be out in about a month. We have found that the perpetrators actively try to find out where vulnerable young people are placed, especially if they are in institutional care or just coming out of care at 16 and going into relatively unsupervised accommodation. She is absolutely right that that is a significant element.

Many young people in care are more vulnerable, but I want to put on the record something that has been brought to my attention by the Coalition for the Removal of Pimping and other charities. Many cases involve girls from what one would normally call conventional homes: homes with good, supportive parents, with both parents at home, and with brothers and sisters who have successfully got through this difficult age and stage. The men who prey on children have great skill in identifying vulnerable children, whatever their background. However, I absolutely agree that some children are more vulnerable than others.

My colleagues in the House will know that I would not ask for a debate of this kind to say that children’s services and social services are awful, or that the police do nothing. That is not why I have raised the subject today. A large amount of good guidance have been provided by the Association of Chief Police Officers, and for several years—certainly the past 10 years—valuable pilot projects have been done in places such as Sheffield, Nottingham and Oldham. I believe that I am leaving one out; perhaps someone might correct me. Oh, I forgot Blackburn. I apologise for missing out such an important town.

Where such projects work, they work very well indeed. I cannot help comparing them with my hon. Friend’s campaign for runaway children, which develops sophisticated networks of people who are concerned about the issue. The local authority, the police and everyone in the circle network and do the job well. They understand the problem and the need to work in a co-ordinated and meaningful way, and the network works very well indeed. What is needed to deal with the child prostitution problem is absolutely the same.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. I am not clear on whether he is saying that the problem is getting worse, or simply that we are more aware of it, that there is better reporting, that we know more about it, and that therefore we might conclude that the problem occurs more often and affects more children.

I am delighted that my hon. Friend made that point, because I was just coming to it. The problem is getting worse, and it is getting worse because of technology. There is no doubt—all the research shows this—that children are now more vulnerable through the internet, through mobile phones, and through greater mobility in every sense: communications, transportation, IT and so on. In a strange way, the new technologies make a child more vulnerable; for example, in respect of bullying, as we know from the research that the Select Committee did. Technology is not always helpful.

Furthermore, technology helps the men to keep in constant communication with young girls, and constantly to badger them, push them and remind them about meetings. They are able to talk to them when they are in the bosom of their family, in their own home, in their bedroom or with their parents. One hears stories from parents about men who are constantly phoning, pushing, and trying to stimulate some kind of reaction, often oblivious to the feelings of the parents. The violence that is threatened to parents who get between such a man and a child is also a problem. The situation is getting worse in a very real way.

What I am calling for today is not some silver bullet or magic wand. I am asking the Government to take the matter more seriously, and to ensure that the good practice in Blackburn, Sheffield and other places is rolled out in every police authority area. I do not think that my police force in west Yorkshire takes the matter as seriously as does the police force in south Yorkshire and other areas, but that is my particular worry.

In every place where the problem is taken seriously, the work of the children’s services and the police is co-ordinated, and a network is set up. Some of our wonderful children’s charities are good partners in such work, as they have knowledge and expertise. It is not always a matter of saying that the problem is down to the Home Office, the police or the local children’s services agency. The team is important, and if it works sensitively with parents and schools, and brings teachers and parents into the coalition and network, there can be great success. I know that there has been success because effective prosecutions have taken place and men have received long sentences.

In a bit of the world out there, one hears people say that the girls are asking for it, that it is their own fault, or that there must be something lacking in their background. I reject all of that. A child is a child, and one of the great dangers in our country today is that there are pressures from technology and much else to shorten childhood. For example, some rather silly colleagues of all parties want to bring the voting age down to 16. I would fight to maintain the position that a person is a child until 18 because it gives enormous protection to them.

The ambivalence in our society, which says that someone is a child until 16 in some areas but until 18 in other areas, is dangerous. Girls are pushed or inveigled into prostitution, then become criminalised before they are even 18. I know that the police are reluctant to proceed: a young woman in such a position will get two cautions and so on. That is all very well, and I know that some charitable foundations have recommended that the age of criminality for prostitution should be raised to 18. I am not sure about that, but I would like a good discussion about it. It seems strange that children who are manipulated, coerced, and inveigled into a life of prostitution through drugs, drink and all the psychological tricks that are played on them can then find themselves criminalised as prostitutes before they are 18.

I do not want to prolong the debate, except to say that we must protect children. A small voice out there says that it is not a great priority, but I believe that someone who grooms a child, whether a teacher in a classroom, someone on the internet, or a man in a flash car outside the school, is a groomer. I do not like them. They are criminals and should be treated as such.

I thank and congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) on securing this debate. I welcome the opportunity to discuss the important issue of safeguarding children from sexual abuse and exploitation. We are all aware of how important it is to him, and I commend his work in this area. He is not only an assiduous constituency Member of Parliament but has considerable experience as Chairman of the Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families.

I completely agree that safeguarding children is an absolute priority and that the exploitation of children is completely unacceptable in today’s society. My hon. Friend is right to raise attention to the problem, whether it occurs locally, nationally or, indeed, internationally. I hope that I can give assurances in my remarks that the Government take the matter seriously and give it the highest priority. Whatever community it occurs in or comes from, exploitation of children is simply wrong.

My hon. Friend has raised concerns about problems in his constituency and has mentioned the success that Blackburn and other cities have had in tackling a similar situation. He asked whether the success in those cities can be rolled out across the country. In relation to the events in Huddersfield, I am aware that a number of police operations are still ongoing. I am sure that my hon. Friend appreciates that I am not able to go into the details of any of these ongoing operations, because I do not want to put them at risk. However, let me be clear that police forces work closely with social care services departments throughout the country in relation to sharing information and intelligence on this problem. Such joint working is critical in supporting vulnerable children and young people at risk of exploitation and stopping abuse.

Local safeguarding children boards are responsible for ensuring that local procedures are in place to safeguard and promote the welfare of all children in the area and for monitoring and evaluating the effectiveness of local partners in implementing those procedures. “Working Together to Safeguard Children”, the main inter-agency guidance on safeguarding, highlights sexual exploitation as a key area of concern that should be covered by local safeguarding children board procedures.

Does my hon. Friend have the figures now, or could he provide them at a later date, on how many successful prosecutions there have been in each policy authority area? That would be helpful, because it would be an indicator of how serious and sophisticated the police effort is. The sophisticated groups and gangs that perpetrate such crimes need sophisticated techniques to catch them.

I shall certainly seek that information and will perhaps send it to my hon. Friend later. But let me say that it is important that we have a sophisticated response to this matter. I hope that I can illustrate that the response ought to be sophisticated, locally and across the country.

We are very concerned about the issue of trafficking—it is a form of trafficking—of children within the borders of the United Kingdom. We know, as my hon. Friend has highlighted, that it is often teenage girls who are targeted for exploitation and then trafficked between and within towns and cities. This is completely unacceptable in this day and age. Some girls are lured away from their families and are subjected to horrific violence and abuse. Often the girls often have no idea where they are in the UK at the end of the process.

The Government are committed to tackling this problem and, through the national action plan on human trafficking, we will improve the way in which professionals identify and deal with problem of human trafficking both between countries and within our own borders. To help with this, the United Kingdom Human Trafficking Centre has established a multi-agency group to co-ordinate this work and assess the scale and nature of the problem across police forces. Operation Glover in 2007 was an example of successful operation against the organised criminal sexual exploitation of 33 children aged between 12 and 15 in the midlands. The ringleader received a total of 10 years for multiple rapes. This was a good example of co-operation and intelligence sharing between children’s services, the local police and the UKHTC.

The United Kingdom Human Trafficking Centre is continuing its work to highlight this crime among potential victims. For example, in conjunction with the Home Office, the UKTHC has produced a DVD to alert teenage girls to risk of sexual exploitation and trafficking. We hope that the video will soon be available with a learning and resource pack for teachers and youth workers.

As my hon. Friend knows, the Government have done a great deal over the last few years to improve child protection. We have introduced dedicated child abuse investigation units into all police forces and rolled out specialist sexual offences officers and rape prosecutors in every area. We are working with the Association of Chief Police Officers on building a suite of performance indicators for the police in their role as child abuse investigators and we hope to incorporate those into the assessment of policing and community safety next year.

We established the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre in April 2006. This law enforcement agency brings together police officers, child protection experts and IT specialists from across the public, private and voluntary sectors. Its national remit includes gathering and co-ordinating intelligence on high-risk child sex offenders and helping to track them, both in the UK and overseas.

As my hon. Friend said, the Sexual Offences Act 2003 introduced new offences to protect children from exploitation, including the specific offence of meeting a child forsexual grooming and causing or inciting child prostitution or pornography. In addition to this, the Home Office continues to work closely with the Department for Children, Schools and Families and the Ministry of Justice on child protection and issues. In September 2008, Bedfordshire university published a report commissioned by the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice that scoped the current criminal justice response to child sexual exploitation.

Another illustration of how Departments are working together and joining up the issues to protect children from this form of abuse is guidance published by the DCSF with the Home Office on consultation on children missing from home and care. My hon. Friend rightly paid tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, South (Helen Southworth) and I am pleased to join him in praising the work that she has been doing. The consultation and guidance published by the DSCF and the Home Office will alert practitioners to the fact that, often, sexual exploitation is the reason for some children going missing. The draft guidance has just been launched for consultation and the final version will be available in the spring. It will be critical that those working with children can read the signs and know how and when to intervene.

The Government guidance “Working together to Safeguard Children”, published in 2006, sets out how organisations in England should work together to safeguard and promote the welfare of all children. Later this year, we will be publishing new guidance on safeguarding children and young people from sexual exploitation, supplementary to “Working Together”, following extensive consultation in autumn last year.

This is all music to our ears. However, there is a real point to be made. First, consultation and guidance is all very well, but the resources must be there on the ground for the police to find things out. Good policing is expensive. Many of the girls involved think these men are their friends and will not give evidence against them, so we need quite sophisticated techniques. These are children and they are easily intimidated.

Secondly, families need children’s services quickly to get into the home and give them support. In a case in my constituency, a 14-year-old child was pinpointed by these men and, by the time social services or children’s services came in, the child was 16 and pregnant and prone to alcoholism. That is seriously slow movement, is it not?

We do want to intervene early and effectively. Of course, as my hon. Friend says, there is inevitably a resource issue in respect of such matters, but it is also about making it a priority for police forces and local authorities and making them aware of their responsibilities. In making it a priority, the resources that they have—as well as those that they request—should be put to best effect. Therefore it is important that we give them guidance. My hon. Friend will also accept that police forces and local authorities to some extent are local and independent in their response. We can get them to the place that he and I want them to be at by working with them, rather than by making a dictate from on high, which I know he is not asking for.

The issue of grooming of children for sexual exploitation is a real one that we take seriously. A lot has been done over the past few years to give the agencies the power and resources to tackle all forms of sexual abuse and exploitation. We will continue to work hard in partnership with children’s services, the police and non-governmental organisations to do all that we can to support children and families to protect some of the most vulnerable people in our society, because that is what it is about. At this point, I draw attention to the wider debate about prostitution, which focuses on vulnerability. We should also, at all times, ensure that we are in a position to enforce the law and punish those responsible.

Simon Slade

I applied for the debate and was enormously pleased to secure it, because those of us who have been involved in this matter have been trying to obtain some redress and ensure that some attention is paid to the tragic case concerning the death of Simon Slade, a constituent of mine. His parents are also constituents of mine and first came to see me at a surgery in my constituency. It was a harrowing interview. I found that the parents of an obviously much-loved son had had to go through the appalling circumstances of their son’s death and the subsequent twists and turns that the officials involved in the case went through—in some cases, their actions were of a rather callous nature. I intend to lay that out for the Minister, whom I welcome to his position.

The details are simple. Simon died at approximately midnight—it is difficult to know exactly when—on 11 January 2007 after he fell between an outgoing train, which had some of his friends on board, and the platform at Gidea Park station. Since his death, Simon’s parents and I have tried to ascertain how their son was able to fall between the train and the tracks, given the guidelines on the gap between trains and tracks. In the course of our investigation, it became apparent, which horrified me, that on the night of his death there had been a catalogue of errors involving National Express, Network Rail and, subsequently, the British Transport police and the rail accident investigation branch, about which I shall enlighten hon. Members.

Early on the morning of 12 January, three officers from the British Transport police broke the news of Simon’s death to the Slade family. They began unbelievably insensitively. I wonder whether we can put ourselves in the position of the parents. The officers went to them and asked procedural questions, functional questions, without much regard to the fact that they were dealing with the death of their son. Then the officers put pressure on Simon’s brother to go with them immediately to Simon’s flat to search for a suicide note, so convinced were they that the incident had been some sort of suicide attempt. They left Mr. and Mrs. Slade in the position of having to cope with the tragic news, having told them that he had committed suicide, which they did not believe. What a shock.

When the officers returned with the other son, one of the officers compounded that crass behaviour by pretty much accusing Simon of committing antisocial behaviour on and around the railways tracks that evening prior to his death. Apparently, there had been a report of someone throwing stones at windows by the track. They had made their conclusions already and they told the parents pretty much that it was Simon’s fault; he was messing around and trespassing. It turned out that they had got their cases mixed up and someone else had been trespassing, but they had made that assumption. That is one of the reasons why no immediate investigation took place: it was to do with a trespasser and they were convinced that they knew what the circumstances were.

What a way to behave. Let us put ourselves in the position of the Slades. As if it was not enough that they had to discover that their son had died in tragic circumstances, they then had to listen to strangers, officials, speaking in quite unbelievably strong official language, telling them that their son had been committing an offence at the time of his death and that anyway he was trying to commit suicide. What a great start to their knowledge of their son’s death.

As a result of that inefficiency, Simon’s death was not investigated by the rail accident investigation branch. It was not informed because it did not appear to be necessary to inform it at the time. It is incomprehensible that when subsequently the RAIB learned the details of the accident, it still chose not to conduct an investigation. When I asked the RAIB about that, its stated reason for not conducting an investigation was that it is required to investigate only serious accidents that have an impact on railway safety regulation or management. By the way, I think that all of that is relevant in this case.

I put it to the Minister that we should not get away from the fact that a young man’s life was lost in an accident on a railway that could have been prevented, as he will discover. I am astonished that the RAIB did not see that as grounds to launch an investigation. In fact, what happened when I went to see representatives of the RAIB with the Slades would be almost funny if it were not tragic. They got in such a state about seeing the Slades that they had to be put in a separate room. They were not sure whether they could see the Slades with me or whether they should see me by myself. They were deeply uneasy about the idea of being confronted by the Slades—whose case this is. We went through an almost 1950s process of official language as excuses for not wanting to see them. In the end, I managed to resolve the situation, but it was absurd.

Clearly, the most dangerous times at a train station are, first, when a train approaches the platform and, subsequently, when it departs. However, despite that immutable fact, it appears that there are no guidelines or rules concerning commuter safety during that process for those manning the stations. They are literally not responsible any longer for that critical and dangerous period with regard to passengers.

It appears that, on the fateful night, the train dispatcher at Gidea Park, having signalled to the driver of the train that he could leave, believed that he had fulfilled his duty and was so intent on returning to his cabin as quickly as possible that he did not stop to watch the train out of the station. He went at a fairly high speed, I understand, back to the cabin and shut the door, even though, as he knew at the time, there were people still on the platform. Had he remained on the platform and seen the train go out, he would most likely have seen Simon fall, because it was while the train was moving that this set of circumstances was happening.

I understand that the dispatcher subsequently said by way of explanation—the Minister will no doubt know about this—that he was scared to be on the platform at night and wanted to get back to his cabin for his own safety. In the subsequent investigation and inquest, it turned out that his action on the night was covered, or should I say excused, by the fact that dispatchers do not have to watch trains out of the station.

Ironically, when the inquest jury and the coroner went to look at Gidea Park station to try to see how the incident had happened, the same official on the platform took particular care to watch the train in and out of the station, even telling members of the jury to stand back as the train approached and left. However, according to the rules that he is governed by, he is not meant to do that; he does not have to. The role of the dispatcher is steeped in confusion, so much so that the coroner got confused about what that role was. Dr. Elizabeth Stearns said:

“The Inquest was led to understand that train dispatchers are supposed to watch the train until it has completely left the station and thus no longer presents a hazard…It would seem to me that the training of train dispatchers should…stress the need to observe all trains until they have completely cleared the station, and that this tragic accident could be cited in the training course to emphasise how important this might be.”

That point has been made by the Slades on a number of occasions. However, in response to that and to the Slades, the RAIB expressly stated that the dispatcher is not required to do that. It does not believe that the dispatcher had any particular responsibility for the people who were on the platform that evening, regardless of the way the dispatcher subsequently behaved when the coroner arrived. I ask the Minister this question: would it be such an onerous task for a dispatcher on the platform to spend an extra 45 seconds simply observing what is going on and giving instructions, in a similar way to what we often see on the London underground? But no, that is expressly not required.

As a result, Simon lay on the track for a further 50 minutes before he was eventually found. He was still conscious at that point, although a further three trains had gone through the station, so how he was conscious is utterly beyond me. Let us try to imagine the horrific nightmare that his parents have to face—their son was lying on the track and three more trains came through before he was discovered. Had the dispatcher spent 40 or 50 seconds, or a minute between trains, to walk along the platform and have a look around, he would probably have heard the groans from Simon Slade who was lying there. If a dispatcher is concerned about his personal safety, that raises other issues for the rail company to deal with. However, what is the point of having somebody on the platform if that person has no duty of care towards the passengers—or customers as we are now rather pointlessly meant to call them?

The RAIB further stated that changing the responsibilities of train dispatchers would go beyond the duty that train operators owe to their customers. However, if something prevents injuries—or worse still fatalities—I would argue, as would anybody in their right mind, that it does fall within the obligations of the train operators. I am astonished that those companies, which owe their success and revenue to commuters, are unable to admit when they have been negligent and refuse to learn from tragic cases such as that of Simon Slade. We have hit a brick wall of refusal in almost every area.

It is clearly absurd that the training of dispatchers does not stress their duty of care towards the passengers who use that service, and I contrast that with the behaviour of London Underground, which I use a lot in the evenings. Surely, as a result of this incident, one thing that the Slade family have been fighting for should happen. At the very least, the “Station duties and train dispatch” rule book should be amended to include that duty of care requirement for all people dispatching trains.

Yes, Simon had been out celebrating, and I dare say that he had had a few drinks—that is why he chose to use the train rather than drive, which is what we are meant to do. However, one of the reasons given for not carrying out an investigation was that Simon had consumed a large amount of alcohol. That was a contrived excuse as it was pointed out that Simon’s behaviour

“was not that which one normally expects.”

I do not know which world the train companies are living in. Of course there will be people in train stations in the evenings who have perhaps been out celebrating and had some fun. Simon was by no means incapable—far from it—and his friends would testify to that. However, I am not in the game of trying to figure out how much he did or did not drink. My point is this: does the life of someone who has had some alcohol cease to be as important as someone who has not? It is an absurdity to make the excuse that because he had drunk alcohol and his actions were strange, the dispatcher did not need to be so careful. It is being used as an excuse for not carrying out a full investigation, as is the claim that he had been trespassing and that he had committed suicide. Rather than accept that they had failed in their duty of care, the officials have sought throughout to blacken Simon’s name in front of parents. That is an outrage.

On visiting Gidea Park station, Mr. and Mrs. Slade noticed that there were no signs warning of the gap between the train and the platform. When Mr. Slade queried that, he was informed that National Express was under no obligation to warn commuters of the gap since the measurements were within the guidelines. The guidelines state—I looked this up—that a gap must not exceed 350 mm. The gap at Gidea Park was 355.6 mm. But who is counting? It is a ridiculously big gap. Why was no risk assessment carried out on that at the time? It is not good enough for the company to excuse itself by saying that it is under no obligation to warn passengers. Anybody who works at or goes to Gidea Park station knows that there is a big gap. Why does the company not put signs up and tell everybody? If the dispatcher was really sharp, he could tell people over a microphone.

This is not a party political issue, it is an issue of common sense. Wherever possible, more must be done by rail operating companies to avoid fatalities and injuries being sustained by commuters. As I understand, 29 people were injured in 2008 alone, and basic changes such as increasing the number of staff on platforms, making cursory checks of the platforms and introducing better signage or a mechanism to reduce the gaps between trains and platforms should have been looked into. Even delivering an audible warning about the imminent movement of a train could prevent accidents from occurring.

I would like to commend the Evening Standard on its campaign for safer stations, which I utterly support. As a result of that, and perhaps because of some internal movement within the companies, both Silverlink and Chiltern Railways have increased the manning of their stations, which I applaud. National Express has utterly failed to do that. However, if companies increase the manning of their stations, they ought to introduce a duty of care or there will be little point.

There is no reason why the safety procedures that we see actively followed every day on London Underground cannot be duplicated to a larger extent at railway stations. When I began work for this debate I had a number of calls, one of which, sadly, was from a father who was concerned because his daughter had fallen into the gap next to the platform on 9 January 2009 at Clapham Junction station. She sustained only minor injuries as I understand that someone managed to hold her up, but how many other people risk their lives, or are unaware of the risks that they run, due to the lack of duty of care on behalf of the rail companies?

George and Jean Slade have asked for nothing more than for people to own up to where they have failed and to put the problem right. They started the organisation Mind That Gap to raise awareness of the spaces in between trains and platforms and the danger that they pose. They have not allowed the questionable treatment that they received—which was appalling at best—deter them from striving to ensure that no family has to go through the suffering that they have endured.

Having worked on this case for a considerable length of time, I must say how impressed I have been by the dignity and decency of two good people, Mr. and Mrs. Slade. They have been wronged. I will say that again—they have been wronged by the companies and officials who had a duty of care for passengers and ultimately for their son. What happened on that night should never happen again. Up to this day, the Slade family have yet to receive even an apology from any of the organisations involved in the case. It is time that those responsible owned up, stopped the backsliding and took responsibility for their failure to act.

Let me congratulate the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) on securing this debate and, importantly, on the words that he said about this sad incident. I would like to offer my condolences to the family and friends of Simon who, as the right hon. Gentleman said, died two years ago. Like other hon. Members, as a father I can only imagine the experiences suffered and effect that such tragic consequences have had on the Slade family. I genuinely understand their desire to ensure that it does not happen to other families and individuals.

Although these words may not be of great comfort to Mr. and Mrs. Slade, travelling by rail is one of the safest forms of transport. The investigation by Her Majesty’s railway inspectorate concluded that Mr. Slade’s death was an accident, and that was confirmed by the coroner’s verdict of accidental death.

I will attempt to answer some of the points raised by the right hon. Gentleman. As a result of its thorough investigation into the circumstances of Mr. Slade’s death, HMRI concluded that there was no breach of health and safety regulations. That investigation gathered evidence from witnesses and physical evidence from the scene, including CCTV footage of Mr. Slade’s actions with his companions before the tragic accident. A separate investigation by the British Transport police and a case review by the Crown Prosecution Service concluded that there was no basis for bringing a prosecution. I realise that Mr. Slade’s family will disagree with those decisions, but two organisations involved with safety, plus the coroner’s jury, have concluded that this was an accident and that the railway companies were not at fault.

In his opening words, the right hon. Gentleman raised an issue about British Transport police and the way that this incident was initially handled directly with the family. I shall pass on those comments and follow them up to ensure that lessons are learned in the handling of tragic accidents. I shall raise that point with ministerial colleagues and the British Transport police, and find out whether lessons have been learned and steps taken to avoid such situations arising during what are very difficult times.

The accident was not initially reported to the rail accident investigation branch. It was believed that there was a trespasser and that they were one and the same. However, once it was established that that was not the case, the incident was reported to the RAIB, which has since written to the relevant parties reminding them of their duties in that regard. In April 2008, Mr. Slade’s family contacted the RAIB about the accident. Having learned that the accident did not involve trespass, the RAIB conducted a preliminary examination of the incident to determine whether it should investigate. The conclusion of that examination, which included a review of the police evidence and the report from Her Majesty’s railway inspectorate, was that an investigation by the RAIB was not appropriate as it was unlikely that it would improve the safety of railways and prevent future accidents. That conclusion would have been reached whether or not the reporting process had worked correctly.

I am aware that the actions of the train dispatcher on duty on platforms 3 and 4 at Gidea Park have been investigated, with the conclusion that he acted correctly. The dispatcher checked that passengers had finished boarding and alighting the service before giving the driver the signals to close the doors and then to move off once the doors had closed safely. It was not part of his duties, as set down in the railways rule book, to observe the train’s departure from the platform. In any case, there is no means of quickly stopping a train in such circumstances.

The Minister makes the point that it was not within the dispatcher’s duties, as set down, to observe the train’s departure, and that anyway he might not have been able to stop the train and therefore the initial accident. However, Simon Slade lay there for a further 50 minutes. Had the dispatcher witnessed the accident, he might at least have been able to prevent what followed. A further three trains went through the station, which more than certainly ensured that Simon Slade died that night. That is an important point. Those rules should be changed so that dispatchers have to stand for an extra 45 seconds or so to see the train out.

I understand the right hon. Gentleman’s point. The Rail Safety and Standards Board considered a change to the rule book. I shall come to that in a moment.

No one saw Mr. Slade run down the platform after the train began to depart from the station, fall over and disappear down the gap. As a result, he was not found for a considerable length of time, which is deeply regrettable. The rules and regulations laid out for dispatching trains at Gidea Park and all driver-only operation trains make clear the systems, requirements and key operations in place. The train dispatcher and train driver are required to communicate with each other. The three key modes of indicating that it is safe to move away are: “train ready”, “close doors” and “right away”. The latter is communicated after the dispatcher has checked that people are not half on the train or caught in any way and that the train doors have closed. The “right away” signal gives the all clear to move when nothing further inhibits the train’s departure.

In the Slade case, the coroner wrote to the RSSB after the inquest, inviting consideration of changes to the relevant part of the rule book concerning train dispatch. The RSSB is an independent industry body whose role is to facilitate the development of, and a consensus on, standards within the rail industry. It put the request to the relevant industry standards committee of experts, which considered it and decided that no action was appropriate at this stage.

The right hon. Gentleman referred to the gaps at Gidea Park and asked, “What is 5 mm? Who’s counting?” Well, the investigation was. It found that the gaps at the station all fell within the standards laid out by part 2 of the railway safety principles and guidance, to which he referred. Precise measurements are laid out to determine whether a gap is acceptable. However, gaps between trains and platforms at stations are a safety necessity in their own right. They ensure that trains, especially those passing through at speed or larger freight services, do not strike the platform or affect passengers waiting for a stopping service. Industry standards and guidance recommend what the maximum clearances between platforms and the footplates on passenger trains should be, and Network Rail applies those standards when building new platforms or making significant changes to existing ones. As Her Majesty’s railway inspectorate found, when investigating this case, the platform-train gap on platform 4 at Gidea Park fell within the accepted parameters.

I can assure the right hon. Gentleman and all those who read and listen to our deliberations that the railway industry is not cavalier about such sites and the issues to which we refer—gaps and required spaces and so on. Where there is a severe problem, the operators must take action to mitigate it, such as making warning announcements for passengers or marking the platform. We must remember that the gap at Gidea Park fell well within the requirements laid out in the safety regulations, so there was no need for a passenger announcement. Anyway, an announcement about minding the gap would have been for those alighting at the station, not for those getting on. Where mitigation measures are insufficient, the industry is required to make physical improvements, as it did at Southall before Heathrow Connect services were permitted to stop at that station.

Where possible, we have taken the option to have level access. Modern trams, the Jubilee Line extension, Heathrow Express and the docklands light railway all provide level access as they serve platforms dedicated to them, as will be the case in the tunnel section of Crossrail.

Every year, more than 2.1 billion passengers enter and leave trains on the Network Rail and London Underground systems. Taking the Network Rail figures for 2007, and London Underground’s for 2006-07—to give a typical year—there were eight passenger fatalities involving moving trains and station platforms on those two networks. Six of these fatalities involved trains entering stations, and hence were not affected by the gap between train and platform. The other two accidents were the incident involving Mr. Slade and one at Haddenham on 13 February 2007, when a passenger got out of a train and then either lowered himself or fell into the space between the end of two carriages while the train was stationary. In the latter case, the coroner returned an open verdict.

I want to ask the Minister’s opinion. He has told us what the independent body said about not changing the rules, but does he think that it is common sense to have rules that prevent the dispatcher from watching a train out of the station to check that the passengers are clear of it? In is own personal opinion, would it not be common sense to change those rules?

Under guidance laid out in the rule book, dispatchers check that the train is clear to move off from the station.

In summary, I genuinely understand the concerns and depth of feeling about this case. I have made it clear already that we will take steps in relation to the British Transport police and keep under review the situation concerning railway safety—

Sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(11)).