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Westminster Hall

Volume 487: debated on Tuesday 3 February 2009

Westminster Hall

Tuesday 3 February 2009

[Mr. Bill Olner in the Chair]

Human Trafficking Convention

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

Let me introduce the debate by saying that, by and large, the Government have done a pretty good job regarding human trafficking. That strangely corresponds with the inauguration of the all-party group on trafficking of women and children two and a half years ago.

It is worth saying, for the record, what has been achieved since the group was formed in July 2006. A number of people and organisations have visited us, including the POPPY project and the Director of Public Prosecutions, Sir Ken Macdonald, who explained why so few charges and convictions are directed against traffickers. In October, we asked the director of children’s services at Manchester city council and the co-chair of the social services asylum taskforce why trafficked children go missing from social service care so quickly. In December, we heard about Operation Pentameter 2 and the police prioritisation of tackling human trafficking, received presentations by the head of the United Kingdom Human Trafficking Centre in Sheffield, and heard the chief executive of the Border and Immigration Agency speak about how trafficked children slipped through the immigration system.

In conjunction with the all-party group, the police launched the Blue Blindfold campaign in the House of Commons to raise awareness about trafficking in and around the United Kingdom. Officers visited the asylum screening unit in Croydon and immigration control at Gatwick, and I had the privilege of going with a Home Affairs Committee delegation to Ukraine and Russia as an expert. The group heard a presentation by the chief constable of Gloucestershire police, and a pan-European campaign to establish parliamentary groups such as ours in EU member states’ Parliaments to press Governments to take action against trafficking was launched at Speaker’s House.

While all that was going on, there were parliamentary debates and more than 100 parliamentary questions were asked. Since the formation of the group, the Government have done a great deal across the UK to publicise and make people aware of human trafficking problems. They announced the review of the current reservation on the United Nations convention on the rights of the child. The Council of Europe convention on action against trafficking in human beings was signed in 2006, but will come into force only this year.

I am sorry that the Minister for Security, Counter-Terrorism, Crime and Policing is unable to attend this morning. I am told that that is not because of the snow, but because he is speaking for the Government in the Policing and Crime Public Bill Committee. The House knows that he is committed to ridding the country of trafficking. I nevertheless welcome the Under-Secretary—not only have I always found her sympathetic, understanding and well informed, but I think we see eye to eye on the problems of new slavery. I realise that this subject is not her ministerial responsibility, and that she has been wheeled in at relatively short notice. She will enjoy fielding the range of questions that I will be asking; although she might not be able to answer some of them today, I know that she will write to me and members of the all-party group later.

Not only is the group a force to be reckoned with in the Commons, but it is also a force in the Lords. Baroness Butler-Sloss takes a particular interest, as a vice-chairman of the all-party group, in what is being done to tackle child slavery, and Baroness Nicholson who, as the Minister will know, virtually single-handedly caused the Romanian orphanages to close, has helped immeasurably with the plight of children in Iraq. We are, indeed, fortunate that we have such women of distinction serving as officers, including the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Clare Short), the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman) and my hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove (Miss Kirkbride).

One of the things we achieved collectively was to persuade the then Prime Minister, Tony Blair, to sign the Council of Europe convention on action against trafficking in human beings. That was, in fact, in March 2007, and nearly two years passed before its ratification, the week before Christmas. The Home Office said there was a delay because it was, understandably, the Government’s policy not to ratify until everything was in place. Now the Government have ratified the convention, there is another delay and it will not take effect until 1 April. Will the Minister explain what will happen between ratification just before Christmas and 1 April? How will 1 April be different from the situation just before Christmas? What will be the changes in Britain if someone who is trafficked is found either just before Christmas, just after Christmas, or after April?

May I ask the Minister some specific questions about the convention? I shall mention a number of articles. First, article 10 deals with the identification of victims. The European convention suggests that international good practice is that there is no lead department—a single competent authority—and that decision making should be devolved across a range of authorities at a regional and local level, so that it is closest to the location of the victim, rather than being hundreds of miles away. Support services could then be agreed, co-ordinated and provided quickly. For children, that would be through local authority children’s services.

Competent authorities are the key to getting support flowing to the victims of human trafficking as soon as they are found. However, the Government propose to make the UK Human Trafficking Centre in Sheffield the single competent authority, with decisions made by UK Border Agency staff inside the UK Human Trafficking Centre. There is now a groundswell of opinion from nearly every non-governmental agency that that is precisely the wrong way to proceed. Although the Government have delayed another three months, it is a great pity to get it wrong at the outset when there has been so much progress on getting the convention ratified. If the UK Human Trafficking Centre is, in fact, the only competent authority, the suspicion is that decisions will not be transparent because it is within the police authority and the immigration focus will be organised by the UK Border Agency—the UK Human Trafficking Centre will have a number of UK Border Agency staff. There will be no appeals process, so nobody will know what is going on.

Instead, the Government must ensure that decisions are made quickly and efficiently to enable the fast referral of victims to support services. Therefore, all local authorities, the police, the UK Border Agency and the UK Human Trafficking Centre should all be competent authorities. Perhaps the Minister will explain why we cannot have four competent authorities. I know that it is tidier to have one, but it will not work. It will not be good, and it will not get the support of those who are working in the field. That is the view of those who know what they are talking about, rather than of the officials, who often do not.

If the UK Human Trafficking Centre is the sole competent authority, there will also be operational problems. Let me give a vivid illustration. I did not believe that human trafficking would come directly to south Devon, but just before Christmas I became aware of the case of a young Czech woman, who was flown into Bristol airport—rather than London—and believed she was going to work in a gym or something similar. She was trained as a gymnast and a masseur dealing with sports injuries. She was collected from Bristol airport and ended up not in a gym in a salubrious hotel, but in a less salubrious brothel in the centre of Paignton. Needless to say, that is not in my constituency, but that of the hon. Member for Torbay (Mr. Sanders)—although it is a stone’s throw from mine.

I am glad to say that the girl was absolutely appalled by what she was asked to do. I think that she was raped at least eight or nine times on the first night that she was there. She managed to escape—I do not have the exact details—and went to a nightclub or pub at about 3 in the morning, where she sought refuge, asking the owner to protect and help her. So distressed was the lady in the club or pub that the owner called the police. No sooner had she done so than the owners of the brothel, two Czech ladies, arrived to drag the girl away. I am pleased to say that the brothel has been closed, the owners have been apprehended and the girl was rescued by the police, who behaved in the most impeccable way. They managed to find a hotel in Torbay that would take the girl, and they have flown her back to the Czech Republic.

Let me explain where the problem is. The first problem is that the detective inspector responsible for rescuing the woman said that although he was trained in dealing with victims of trafficking, no one else in his team was. It might be said that in Devon and Cornwall, one would not expect a large number of trafficked people, but only two officers in the whole of the Devon and Cornwall constabulary, which is 3,500 in strength, have been trained in the past 12 months in how to deal with trafficking, and one of those two has retired since then.

There are no more training courses. The UK Human Trafficking Centre ought to be running them for police forces all over Britain. If it is the only competent authority, it should be doing so. If it is not, why is the Home Office not inviting non-governmental agencies to run courses to train the police? Some very good non-governmental organisations work closely with the Government and are on Government steering panels. How is it that the Government plan to ratify the convention when one of our police forces in Britain has only two people—only one now—who understand anything about trafficking and can identify it?

Sadly, the situation that the hon. Gentleman described in his constituency is not unique. It is par for the course right across the country. The problem with NGOs doing the training is that the police must understand what the convention is about and the legal implications of giving protection to victims. It is not simply about getting them out of the situation that they are in; the police need training in advising victims of trafficking how they can be protected, give evidence and get ongoing support to remain in the country. Unfortunately, I do not think that many NGOs are equipped to give the police that sort of guidance. That is why I believe that it is up to the Government to provide that training, so that no police force in the country is deficient in it.

That will do; I am happy with Portsmouth, South. It can be Frome or Portsmouth, South. I apologise.

By all means, bring in lawyers to train the police, but most of the grass-roots intelligence and information that our Committee receives—it is extremely valuable—comes from the non-governmental agencies. I pay tribute to the quality of those that we have. I know that they do training—possibly not as entirely as the hon. Gentleman would like; perhaps it should be done in conjunction with them—and I am most grateful for his useful comments. However, there is no doubt that the training of the police must be a central feature of the implementation of the convention. Obviously it is early days, but I want the Minister to say that there will be a lot of training, that the UK Human Trafficking Centre will co-ordinate it and that the centre will also use non-governmental agencies.

I now want to deal with the second problem that emerged from the case in Paignton. To begin with, no money is allocated to repatriate victims of human trafficking who come from the European Union; there is only money available to repatriate victims who come from non-EU countries. So, if a trafficked person comes from Nigeria, the Government will find funds to send them back on a plane. I do not know if the Minister knows this, but if a victim comes from any of the 27 EU countries there is no Government money allocated for them. So there was the girl, desperate to get back to the Czech Republic, and there was no money to send her back.

Needless to say, I have a very ingenious and altruistic constabulary in Devon and Cornwall. Not only did the inspector who was put in charge of this particular case at 3 or 4 am find a very prestigious hotel in Torquay that would kindly accept this girl for the rest of the night, but he found the transport and air fare for her from the local police budget so that she could return to the Czech Republic.

However, let me explain to the Minister where the problem lies. Other than that hotel, where could the police have put that girl to ensure that she was safe? That is what we are concerned about. The police did not contact the UK Human Trafficking Centre in Sheffield, or at least the centre did not know of the case. If it had known of it, the only place that the centre would ever have recommended is the POPPY project. The POPPY project gets more than £1 million from the Government in London. It does a splendid job, but it is only in London and it is for girls of 18 and over.

In fact, the girl was over 18, so she could have been sent to London. However, just imagine her trauma: having thought that she was going to a gym, she finds herself in a brothel; she is rescued by the police, and there is nowhere that the police know of where she can receive the support, consultation, advice and reassurance that she needs. She does not know what is going on and she has no money.

In fact, once again the ingenuity of the Devon and Cornwall constabulary helped the girl. I think that the constabulary found some refuge for her in a church hostel, but that was not ideal. In this case, the traffickers had been arrested so they were not able to take the girl away from the refuge, but that is what can happen. The police were completely at a loss as to what to do with the girl, other than to use their own ingenuity, because it was the first time that they had had that problem in Devon.

I say to the Minister that every police force in Britain should be linked up to the UK Human Trafficking Centre; all the forces should know that that centre is the port of call, at any time of the day or night, for this type of problem, and the centre should have a list of refuges for every part of the country. There are very few of those refuges, but the centre should at least know where they are. Most important of all, however, the centre should have contact with the non-governmental agencies in every part of Britain that can assist with these matters. That was not the case in this particular situation.

I point out to the Minister that we have been talking about these issues for about two and a half years; the all-party group on the trafficking of women and children has been in existence for that time. We have asked enough questions and had enough debates. I was really quite appalled that just before Christmas there was still no network. Despite all that the Minister for Security, Counter-Terrorism, Crime and Policing has said, there was no network that the police could tap into in order to help this girl, no funds to send her back and, much worse, no linkage to the non-governmental agencies in any of the EU countries.

The Czech Republic has a lot of first-rate non-governmental agencies. If the Devon and Cornwall police had been linked in to the non-governmental agencies in Britain through the UK Human Trafficking Centre, they could have alerted the non-governmental agencies in the Czech Republic and ensured that someone from those agencies was there to meet the girl off the plane. That did not happen. This is obviously sub judice, so I will not go into further detail. All I will say is that the networking and arrangements that could have been made were not made. I mention that incident so that the Minister can ensure that such a case does not happen again. As the hon. Member for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Hancock) said, the matter is not confined to Paignton, but extends to Portsmouth as well.

The problem is that the Czech Republic takes little or no action on trafficking. It probably has close to the worst record of corruption in the EU, and little or no action has been taken to deal with the source of trafficking. Sadly, though, that is not unique. I am interested to know what happened to the people who were trafficking that woman. They were both Czech citizens in the UK. Were they deported from the country? What was the end result of the prosecution’s case against the brothel owners?

I am happy to answer those questions. I was mildly surprised to learn that the girl had come from the Czech Republic because the European Scrutiny Committee—of which I am a member—had been there before the Czech Republic took over the presidency. The Deputy Prime Minister told us that the amount of trafficking in the Czech Republic was so small that he did not consider it necessary to concentrate any time or resources on it, so there was a bit of a conflict. The problem is to persuade all the EU Parliaments to take an interest in such matters. After the European Scrutiny Committee visit, I met some MPs who said that they would be surprised if I found five Members of Parliament in the Czech Republic interested in discussing the matter.

Article 13 covers the recovery and reflection period. The Government decided to offer a 45-day reflection period to victims of trafficking. However, that is not nearly enough, although it is longer than the time outlined in the convention. I have spent time in a refuge in Rome, which is funded by the Catholic Church. It does a fantastic job in rehabilitating women who have been trafficked—many of whom are from Albania. The psychologists there said that a year’s rehabilitation was the minimum, but that three years is needed to get such women back into society so that they can play a normal part in it and get a normal job. Therefore, 45 days is a rather modest period. I also wonder when it starts. Does it start when the police find the victim, when they arrest them in the course of a raid or when they identify them as a victim of trafficking some time after they were initially discovered?

Before I move on to article 14, may I refer to something that the hon. Member for Portsmouth, South said? What has happened to the brothel owners? I am told that they have been arrested and that they are in custody subject to a prosecution, which can only be brought if the girl in the Czech Republic is prepared to give evidence against them. I am told that she is, but the costs and the organisation required are clear.

Let me go back to article 14, which covers residence permits. I am very interested in such permits and have seen them operate in Italy. The trafficked victim gets a year’s identity papers and that is sufficient for them to get a job. Many of them do get jobs. A friendly pizza parlour employed many of the girls who worked in the refuge. The owner was well disposed towards them because he found that they were very good workers, but they needed the identity papers to work. The Minister will know that most trafficked victims do not have passports. That is because their passports have either been destroyed or taken away by the traffickers, so they—especially those from Europe—have no identification. Some of the younger people crossing from China and Vietnam swallow their passports on that journey or flush them down the loo so that they have no passports when they come off the plane. If they have no passports and no identity papers they do not technically receive entitlement to health care or education. Will the Government ensure that some kind of identity card or paper is given to the victims of trafficking? That is another key point of the convention.

Article 15 deals with compensation for victims. That is an interesting issue. Hon. Members may remember that The Observer identified several cases six or eight months ago. It reported that sex slaves who had been trafficked into Britain were to receive millions of pounds for their “pain and trauma,” following a decision to compensate victims of people trafficking. The first payouts, of more than £140,000, were made early last year to four women who had suffered

“a sustained period of sexual abuse”.

The problem is that the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority, which paid out that money, gave away public money—taxpayers’ funds. Why cannot the law be changed to use money confiscated from traffickers to compensate victims? Why does the money have to come from the public purse? How much of the more than £500,000 confiscated from traffickers under Pentameter 2—the police operation involving every police force in Great Britain—has been given to victims? I know the answer—none of it. The money has gone into the Treasury.

The recovery-of-expenses provision in the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 could have enabled the proceeds from traffickers to fund support programmes for trafficked victims, but it did not. Does the Minister agree that we could add a new clause to the Policing and Crime Bill, currently in Committee, to allow the proceeds from traffickers to go to the victims? I would be grateful if she considered that. We could add a new clause when the Bill comes back before the House.

Before the hon. Gentleman moves on from articles 12 to 15, may I raise this point? He touched on the 45-day period, but he clarified earlier that the Government have not yet introduced that and it will be introduced only in April, along with the residency provision. It is important to understand why that need cannot be provided for now and whether a shortage of accommodation prevents the victims from being treated even for 45 days—I think everyone recognises that they really need a period of 90 days.

It is a pleasure to have a question from one of the three joint secretaries of the all-party group. We did have a problem in that regard. I think that, given that we had two secretaries, the powers here thought it was a bit excessive to have three, but I explained that the hon. Gentleman was a medical doctor and that given the subject of the group, it would be useful to have a medical doctor on board. For that reason we are, I think, the only all-party group with three secretaries.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. What he says is absolutely right. The Government’s approach is that they will give the women a so-called period of reflection—a strange phrase—but at the moment that is linked to whether they are prepared to give evidence against the traffickers, and many of them are terrified to give evidence. They have been warned of the consequences for their brothers and sisters or other members of their families of their giving evidence. The gangs are very powerful. If a girl has been trafficked into Britain and turns against the gang, she knows that she could be in for a very rough time for the rest of her life. The reflection period ought to be longer, ought to start now and ought not to be linked to giving evidence against the traffickers.

I shall move on to article 28 in the short time left—I know that many hon. Members wish to speak and I would be glad to hear what they have to say. There is a serious problem about how to treat vulnerable victims. The problem is that social services cannot treat vulnerable victims. The victim strategy is one of the biggest challenges facing the police. They can make arrests all right, but they cannot do anything further with the victims, such as putting them in social services care. Often, the children are released by the police, go back to the traffickers and go back on the streets or move on to another country. There is a big trade in trafficking between Britain and Spain. One merely needs to look at what is happening on many streets. Much of the begging in London involves young people, and women with babies, who are fluent in Spanish as well as English, but are not from Spain or Britain.

I have the privilege of participating in the police service parliamentary scheme. As part of my police duties, I went out on patrol with Baroness Butler-Sloss and the police in the Marble Arch, Edgware Road and Paddington area. We were looking for young Roma children overtly begging on the streets. Some 1,015 Roma children have been identified by police as trafficked from eastern Europe. They are organised by criminal gangs for the purpose of criminal exploitation on our streets: begging, shoplifting and the commission of ATM thefts. Some are under 10, the age of criminal responsibility.

It is a major problem for the police. They are trying to tackle it, but they cannot do so without greater help. The problem is that they can offer the children, whom they arrest in order to take them to a place of safety, little incentive to tell their story or testify against their traffickers, because the children do not see themselves as victims and have developed a relationship with their traffickers similar to what is known as Stockholm syndrome. They see their lives as ordinary rather than as lives of exploitation or slavery.

Local authority care is proving a major headache. The local authority where a child lives is responsible for the child’s care, but the child is often found on the streets committing crime in another local authority area. As the local authorities do not communicate with one another to arrange transfer of that child’s care, the responsibility falls on the police, who can offer no provision of care except a police cell, as they have been known to do at the Charing Cross police station. I have visited it, and I have seen what the cells are like. They are certainly not up to even the bed and breakfast standard. I would not wish a child to stay there for a single night. It is clearly not suitable.

The recent case of a child arrested by the West End Central police team in Westminster was rather indicative. Westminster has one of the best social services departments in the country, yet no one turned up to do an assessment. Westminster understandably claimed that with only one social worker on duty during the night, it was unable to assist, despite the fact that the police believed the child to be a victim of trafficking. That child was never placed in care but was released back into the community. Examples such as that make the implementation of the convention urgent and crucial so that local authorities can finally have practical guidelines, strategies and resources to deal with victims of trafficking, especially children.

On my police visits, I discovered a young woman in her teens in Marble Arch underground station. The situation was only too familiar. She knew that after five hours’ questioning in Marylebone police station, with an interpreter paid for at the public expense, she would be released back to her family in Seven Sisters. She said that it was her uncle, but we did not know. On that occasion, Haringey social services, again understandably, said that they could not take the teenager into care because she would abscond within hours and there was no place of safety to put her.

Furthermore—this is also significant for the Minister to understand—many such children are from Romania and Bulgaria, and there are no Romanian or Bulgarian foster families on the Government lists. That is something on which initiatives should be taken. As she will know, there is no POPPY project for children under 18; the project deals with adults, principally in London. The police can place children in local authority care only. The problem must be addressed. How can social services, which have enough problems dealing with children from our own country, deal with the children from every EU country who happen to be found on our streets? We have not got to grips with the problem, and the police are despairing.

The legislation on baby trafficking is not quite strong enough. It uses the double intention: it must be proved that the trafficker arranged or facilitated the travel and that the trafficker intended to exploit. Those two things are necessary. The police often have evidence that they did arrange and facilitate the travel, but cannot prove intent to exploit, or vice versa. That is especially true if the victim is as young as they often are and therefore unable to express themselves at all. The problem is that there is a gap in the legislation as it relates to babies. Clause 4(4)(d) of the Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants, etc.) Act 2004 states that a person is exploited if

“he is requested or induced to undertake any activity”,

but a child is not able to do that.

I wrote to the Home Secretary before Christmas after she suggested that I should send her a letter highlighting some of the non-governmental organisations that had the best possible practices in trafficking, and for the past two and a half years we, as a group, have worked with several of them. The problem they all have is funding administrative costs. They can always get grants to do research, run conventions or arrange training, but they do not have funds to underpin the administrative costs, which are modest but essential. I feel sure that the convention could be implemented better if the five NGOs that I specified in my letter to the Home Secretary were taken more seriously—it has been nearly two months since I wrote the letter, but I am sure she will acknowledge it soon.

NGOs are terribly cheap for what they do, as their work is invaluable. For every £1 the Government give, they probably get £3 more from private enterprise and other charitable trusts. I wonder whether the Minister, or at least her officials, could look at my suggestions and meet those organisations, because the convention could be implemented better in many fields if they were on board. The amount of money required by each of them is probably the equivalent of one civil servant’s salary from her Department. I am not suggesting that she should make redundancies, but that is the amount of money we are talking about.

The hon. Gentleman is a doughty campaigner on trafficking, and has put it on the map and done a great public service. On adult trafficking and the convention, Pentameter 2 revealed that many victims come from Africa and countries in the far east, such as China and Thailand, and that they are procured in a different way and have different problems when they come to this country. Is the convention sensitive enough to deal with the different issues that arise from the trafficking of adults from different countries and cultures?

My hon. Friend—I will refer to him as such because I expect him to come back to the party soon, as perhaps this is just a little mid-life crisis—is absolutely right that there are different approaches from different countries: the Vietnamese boys tend to specialise in growing cannabis and an enormous number of Chinese come for work, the largest figure in fact. All those people have an economic thrust in wanting to better themselves, and I am sure that there is sufficient flexibility in the convention.

The Government’s track record is one of the best in Europe, and it is now a question of implementation and of whether the new Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department will be as flexible and passionate as the Minister for Security, Counter-Terrorism, Crime and Policing has been. I do not know the answer to that, but we will keep an eagle eye on it.

I am interested to see that the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) is present. He is Chairman of the Joint Committee on Human Rights—there are so many Select Committees that it is difficult to keep up with them all—and much more of an authority on the international aspect of trafficking than I am. My understanding is focused much more on trafficking in Europe, but I know that the big problems in that regard come from the far east.

I have had a good run and given a few answers to a few questions, but I am sure that colleagues would now like to join the debate. I hope that the Minister, whom I am delighted to see, will be able to deal with some of those issues, if not now, then later, and make Britain one of the worst places—

I intend the winding-up speeches on this important subject to start at 10.25 am, starting with the Liberal Democrat spokesman, followed by the Conservative spokesman and then the Minister, so Members should exercise some discipline in the length of their speeches.

On a point of order, Mr. Olner. May I just say, so that the Hansard Reporters understand, that when I said, “the worst place,” I meant, “one of the worst places to traffic people”?

I congratulate the hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) on securing this debate and on his tour de force of a speech. I will take your comments to heart, Mr. Olner, because he did not leave a great deal for the rest of us to cover.

The Joint Committee on Human Rights, of which I am Chairman, has done a lot of work on the issue. We started an inquiry on it some three years ago and were all pretty horrified by what we found. The inquiry is still open, and we have been nibbling away at the Government throughout the period, as the hon. Gentleman has, to improve their response. Compared with three years ago, the situation now constitutes a significant and major improvement—I do not think that anyone would dispute that.

One issue that we raised in our report following the inquiry was the lack of hard evidence about the scale of the problem. That issue remains. Operation Pentameter 2 was helpful in that it found 167 victims of trafficking for sexual exploitation. However, the figures also show how difficult it is to track down the traffickers, because many operate out of private homes, and many victims are unwilling to co-operate with the police or simply disappear. Like the hon. Gentleman, I am particularly concerned about child victims of trafficking. Operation Pentameter 2 discovered 13, six of whom were returned to their home country. I am very concerned that not enough is being done to protect those victims.

A key issue on trafficking—the hon. Gentleman focused on victims, which I will address in a moment—is the importance of the police operation to track down, arrest and prosecute traffickers. I was concerned when I heard that the Government were withdrawing funding for the Metropolitan Police Service human trafficking team next year. I wrote to the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Tynemouth (Mr. Campbell), on behalf of the Committee on 9 December about that, and received a prompt reply from him:

“the Home Office has decided to provide additional one-off funding for the Metropolitan Police Service Trafficking Team”

for 2009-10. Everyone will agree that the team is the country’s leader but, obviously, that prompts the question: what will happen after that period? The reply stated:

“Human trafficking is now part of core business for all police forces. This funding is designed to enable the MPS to mainstream this work into its daily activities in a planned and organised fashion”.

The inference is that the money will not continue beyond the financial year. We were told that the idea is

“to find more efficient methods to mainstream this work effectively”,

but that is like trying to get a quart out of a pint pot. The MPS is always having its budget squeezed—London MPs have had lots of representations about that this year, as we do every year—and it would be very difficult for the team to be maintained in the absence of the relevant funding.

The hon. Member for Totnes did a good job when he spoke about victim-focused issues. I entirely agree with him on the recovery and reflection period. When we investigated the matter, my Committee recommended a far longer period than the 45 days that is currently provided.

I disagree with the hon. Gentleman on compensation to this extent: it is appropriate for the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority to pay the compensation, because to do otherwise would lead to significant delays. The CICA is slow enough as it is, but if we rely on the proceeds of crime, which might be seized much later than the orders are made, the victims would go uncompensated for even longer. That money goes into central funds. He had a point when he said that it might be useful to earmark it for particular projects of a more general nature, but it should not be for individual compensation—that would simply lead to delays and further problems.

The hon. Gentleman was right to point out the difficulties of accommodation. The Joint Committee received a note from the Home Office, in reply to inquiries that we made following a session last autumn with my hon. Friend the Minister for Security, Counter-Terrorism, Crime and Policing, saying that the Government are seeking to grant-fund 55 intensive crisis refuge places for victims in England and Wales. However, that will not begin until the next financial year, as the hon. Member for Totnes said earlier. It is difficult to understand why we have a hiatus of three months or so before such things are put into place. The hon. Gentleman also made the important point that the POPPY project does not cater for under-18s, so we have something of a lacuna in the provisions.

The Committee welcomes the decision to lift the reservations on the UN convention on the rights of the child. That is an important development, and I hope that it will lead to additional protection.

The ratification of the Council of Europe convention has been a long and painful process. The hon. Gentleman’s all-party group and my Committee were bashing away at it for some time, as were hon. Members in all quarters of the House. I do not know how many debates we had about the issue, but, eventually, they bore fruit, and, although the hon. Gentleman has highlighted many of the bad things that we have seen, dealt with and haggled for over the years, it has become apparent that we in the UK do receive international recognition for our good practice.

We have much to learn from other places, however, and my Committee, like the hon. Gentleman, learned much from what happens in Italy. He and I went to the Inter-Parliamentary Union special conference in Vienna last year. We both made presentations to people from around the world, and it was linked to the United Nations conference. In April 2008, I was invited to speak at the IPU assembly as its rapporteur on the issue of people trafficking. Again, I described the good practice in this country and what ought to be done in other countries, so we are able to put our experiences to good use around the world. This week, we have the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association conference, which will focus on trafficking. Again, the hon. Gentleman and I will participate in it to try to spread our good practice.

Although we beat up the Minister and the Government because of all the things that have not been done, we should not throw the baby out with the bath water. We should recognise that over the past three years, since the problem started to hit the news, we have moved on an awful lot.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen). He does not need to be reminded by anyone in the House of the debt that we owe him and his all-party group. In two and a half years, it has achieved an awful lot, and that is much to his credit. Even though I have disagreed with some of his views on the matter during that time, I congratulate him first, on his consistency, and secondly, on his determination to bring the issue to the fore time and again.

I am delighted to say that as a member of the Council of Europe, I am pleased that the United Kingdom has at long last ratified the convention. The big disappointment of UK colleagues on the Council of Europe is the failure of other member states not only to sign and ratify the convention, which is the easiest part, but to implement it. The real failure has been on the part of those countries that know they are the origin of so much pain and suffering, whether it is to do with children, organs or women, or the economic exploitation of men who are brought in for cheap labour. Those countries, with very few exceptions, know that it is going on, but little or nothing is done to offer protection to the trafficked women, children or others when they are returned to their country. It is a bitter disappointment to me, as somebody who has written reports on the issue for the Council of Europe, to see the abject failure in many countries of origin, where little or nothing is done to protect the victims on their return home or their family—to give them some assurance that the process will not be repeated.

I have interviewed people and seen at first hand the consequences, when people are returned—indeed, from the United Kingdom—simply to be recycled through the machine. They are trafficked once again out of Moldova, through Romania, into Turkey, the Balkans and then Italy, only to be returned yet again. I met one young lady who was trafficked five different times through seven countries, because her parents were held almost captive back home by the ringleaders. They were well known to the authorities, but nothing was done about it.

In my own city, a brothel was recently raided and some Chinese girls were removed. Those victims were out of the country within a matter of days. Where were they returned to? China. Anyone who knows anything about the Chinese system will know that their families will pay a very high price for their return. It was as if the women were to blame for their traffickers’ arrest. The prosecution of those traffickers has still not taken place. They received asylum here, have become British citizens and will not be returned to China. They will serve a prison sentence, if we are lucky, and then be back in the game.

The whole issue of what to do with the people who continue to perpetrate the trade needs to be reconsidered. It is no good allowing the people responsible for trafficking to be granted British citizenship. We should be able to remove it from them and they should be deported from the country. They should be forced to serve the length of their sentence in this country. We should not make any concessions to them at all, because the one thing that traffickers do not do is give any concessions to the people whom they traffic, whether they are children, women or men. One can read story after story, but when one physically meets these people and hears their stories first hand, distress does not even begin to explain how one feels. I have done so on numerous occasions and have felt sheer frustration and anger about not being able to do anything to save these people from the ongoing evilness that has surrounded their lives for so long.

My hon. Friend speaks with great passion. Does he agree that the tragedy has been—and I hope that the Government will change their policy—that victims are seen as immigration offenders and are removed even before there is any consideration of them helping with prosecution? Does he agree that it is a further tragedy that the funding for the Metropolitan police to deal with this vicious crime has been cut, as the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) said? At the same time, against official advice, the Government have decided to increase the criminalisation of the possession of cannabis, which will take more police resources.

I agree entirely with all that my hon. Friend has said. One has only to look at the case of the Chinese girls, who were deported before the case was even brought. They could not give evidence, but it was as if we had achieved a breakthrough because we had removed people who were immigration problems. As if those people had not been through enough, although they were victims, it was not considered what would be in their best interests.

My hon. Friend is also right about the lack of resources. We only need to consider the pitiful number of prosecutions in relation to trafficking that have taken place in this country. If we were really tackling this issue, there would be a damn sight more prosecutions than there currently are. I realise the time and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for saying that he would not take part in the debate to give me some extra time. I also checked with our colleague with no party affiliation whether he would make interventions rather than speak, so I am aware of the time issue.

I hope that the Government will put considerable pressure on the Council of Europe and the Council of Ministers to say, “Come on. Don’t just have good reports and nice conventions so that everyone can claim the moral high ground by saying they have signed and ratified them.” Conventions are not worth their salt if the situation does not get better and we do not start to prevent such things happening.

Has my hon. Friend any confidence in the Group of Experts on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings that will be set up? It has its first meeting in February and its purpose will be to monitor the implementation of the convention. Does he have any confidence that it will be able to do the job properly?

It is good to know that implementation will at least be monitored. Whether it is the right body to do the monitoring or it has the capability to do it remains to be seen, but I hope that a year after April there will have been a significant improvement in the situation in our country.

More importantly, as I said, the Government must press the Council of Ministers and the Council of Europe. The EU should particularly be pressed on the amount of support it gives to countries that are outside the EU—in Africa and the far east. Part and parcel of that support should be that if we give aid, they must do something about this trade. I hope that it is made clear to all the embassies in London represented through the various Government bodies that it is unacceptable for Governments in Thailand, China and elsewhere not to take action on this matter. The Chinese Prime Minister is here today begging us not to take action on trade, but we should be begging him to take action on trafficking. We should say that we want a real commitment from the Chinese to do something about it.

West African trafficking in children continues to take place and to persist. So many lives are lost in journeys of horror and despair from Africa through Spain, or across the Canary Islands. Every day, people’s lives are lost in the Mediterranean, in one way or another. People are thrown overboard when the hideous crafts that they are on are approached by military or police vessels off the coasts of Spain or Italy.

If one goes to Lampedusa, in Italy, one can see the horrendous problems being faced there. Although the Italians have tried desperately hard, they have a serious problem, as Italy is a hotspot for trafficked women. The Italians may say that their non-governmental organisations are working effectively. My hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) tells me that one reason why more of the men who procure women are not prosecuted is that many of the women are saved after clients report matters to the authorities.

It is estimated that, on any day in Italy, 10,000 underage girls are working the streets. If they each have five men a night, then 50,000 criminal offences are committed every day by Italian men and visitors to Italy, but there are fewer than a handful of prosecutions for illegal sex in Italy. If we took a fraction of the resources that are spent by men in Europe on trafficked women, and put that into the countries of origin of those girls, perhaps many of them would not, as the hon. Member for Totnes said, see this as a means of escape and betterment. We should be looking to do more in those countries of origin, but only when those countries give us a firm commitment that they will tackle this issue. That is the good thing about the Council of Europe’s convention. The bad thing is that many of the 40-odd countries that have signed up to it are not going to do anything about it.

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) and other hon. Members, all of whom are articulate speakers and campaigners on this issue. I shall restrict my comments to allow the Minister time to respond to the many points that have been raised, perhaps at the start of her speech.

Some 200 years ago, slavery was abolished by William Wilberforce’s campaign, but about 12 million people are now estimated to be living in slavery, at least half of whom are children and many of whom are trafficked. We have thus not eradicated that scourge yet. The statistics are very depressing. A May 2000 report from the university of North London estimated that between 142 and 1,420 women were trafficked into the UK every year. The range of that estimate underlines the point made by the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) about how difficult it is to obtain accurate statistics about the scale of this problem, even though we know that it is significant and alarming.

The profit from traffic in human beings amounts to about $7 billion a year. In financial terms, human trafficking is on a par with drugs trafficking, so that gives us an idea of the scale of the problem with which we are dealing. Estimates suggest that half a million women were trafficked into the European Union in 1995. Many Members have mentioned Pentameter 2. During that six-month operation, back in July 2008, 167 victims were found, including 12 children, and there were 522 arrests, with the seizure of £3 million-worth of money and assets. Those statistics lead me to my first question. Is the Minister in a position to confirm how many of the people who were arrested were taken to court and how many were convicted? What lessons have been learned from that operation, and are they now being implemented? UNICEF’s report found that 183 of 330 trafficked children who were put into care in the UK later went missing, which leads to further questions about what work the Government are doing with local authorities to tackle that problem and to ensure that children who go into care do not simply disappear a few days later.

The Council of Europe’s timeline for taking action against the trafficking of human beings dates back some years—the oldest reference I have seen was from November 1996—so clearly this situation has been ongoing for many years. A recommendation was put to the Council in 1997, and much action—through many early-day motions, reports and so on—has been taken in Parliament. Obviously, it is pleasing that we have now reached the point of ratification, but it a great concern that that has taken so many years. I am sure that the Minister will argue that the Government have been taking action on other fronts—perhaps the most recent example is action on prostitution in the Policing and Crime Bill. However, there is not a unanimous view on the likely effectiveness of their approach, and there is a risk that their proposals will simply push prostitution further underground, perhaps leaving women even more vulnerable.

We have also heard references to the reduced funding for the Metropolitan police initiative, the welcome establishment of the Human Trafficking Centre and funding for the POPPY project. However, as the hon. Member for Totnes underlined, the latter scheme is available only to over-18s, and because it is based in London, it will not be readily accessible to people in other parts of the United Kingdom. Some progress is being made, however, and I believe that 25 places are available on the POPPY project. Has the Minister assessed the demand for such a service and, therefore, whether there is a shortfall in the number of places? If there is a shortfall, what plans are in place to ensure that additional provision is made?

The convention has some clear benefits. The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Tynemouth (Mr. Campbell), confirmed in a letter that the Government believed that, in some cases, the 45-day period would be increased to 90 days or perhaps even longer. In what circumstances does the Minister expect the period to be extended from 45 days to 90 days or beyond? Various organisations, such as Amnesty International, are keen for the Government to deliver on that.

The hon. Member for Totnes said—I think—that the Human Trafficking Centre would be the only specialist organisation able to investigate whether trafficking had occurred, but the look on the Minister’s face suggested that that was news to her. Perhaps she did not believe that that was necessarily the case. I hope that she will clarify whether the Government have made a decision on what a competent authority is and that she will bear in mind the view of a variety of organisations that specialist organisations should be involved. That is our best chance of helping the victims of trafficking early on.

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office explanatory note on implementation states:

“Primary legislation through an amendment in the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008 ensured that automatic deportation of victims of trafficking under the UK Borders Act 2007 cannot take place where it would breach our obligations under the Council of Europe Convention against Human Trafficking.”

Will the Minister clarify whether the counterpart of that would be that in some circumstances—I assume that there are no such circumstances—the automatic deportation of victims would be allowed because it was not in breach of the UK’s obligations under the convention? If there could be such circumstances, however, what would they be?

I will draw my comments to an end to enable the Minister to respond, hopefully in some detail. Clearly progress is being made in this area. However, there are concerns about the effectiveness of the convention. My hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Hancock) has expressed his concerns that the convention might simply be ratified by many countries, but observed by far fewer. I hope that the Minister can reassure us about the effectiveness of the monitoring organisation that will be set up, with the group of experts. Will it be able to ensure that the very large list of signatories, from Albania to Romania, observe the convention?

I think that we should offer more than the conventional pieties of congratulation on securing a debate to my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen). He and his all-party group have done extraordinarily good work in the past two and a half years. Unlike, frankly, most all-party groups, that group has moved the boulder a few inches up the hill, for which it deserves a lot of congratulations.

The Conservatives are grateful that the Government have at last ratified the convention. We called for ratification as long ago as the beginning of 2007, not least because of the powers of my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes to persuade me and the then shadow Home Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis). Having called for ratification for more than two years, it is good that we start 2009 with the position resolved. However, as has already been said, implementation of the convention is clearly key and the relatively slow progress that we have seen up to now is in danger of being repeated.

I have some suggestions and questions for the Minister. One important point, although it has barely come up in this debate, is that we should not merge debates and disputes about human trafficking with debates and disputes about prostitution. That point was briefly referred to by the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake), who speaks for the Liberal Democrats in this area. However, previous debates on this issue have been almost entirely about prostitution, which is obviously a hugely difficult and sensitive subject in itself. My fear is that if the debates get merged, action on trafficking might be delayed. Not all prostitutes are victims of trafficking and not all victims of trafficking are prostitutes.

For a few years now, many Members, including me, have been citing figures showing that one of the shocking changes in prostitution is that 85 per cent. of prostitutes working in Britain now come from abroad, and most are the victims of trafficking. However, in recent weeks and months, those figures have been questioned and there is now a legitimate debate about them. Therefore, I fear that framing legislation on combating prostitution might delay necessary moves against trafficking, which would be wholly counter-productive.

Mr. Jorgen Carling, who has studied the trafficking of Nigerian women to Europe, says that

“it is rarely possible to draw the absolutely clear line that policymakers want between ‘innocent victimhood’ and ‘willing participation’”.

There is clearly a spectrum, so I hope that the Government will not get drawn into merging the two debates on prostitution and trafficking.

I now want to talk specifically about trafficking. The steps that the Minister will take between now and April will clearly be welcome. As she has already heard from hon. Members from all parties, there will be some urging of faster movement and questioning about why we have to wait until April for the implementation of the provisions on the reflection period, the renewable one-year residence permit and the formal identification measures, which are the first steps that we are assured that the Government will take. I hope that she can give hon. Members an assurance that the Government will hit those target dates and address the practical problems raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes, particularly about the length of time of the reflection period.

I would also like the Minister to deal with enforcement, as people have legitimately questioned the effectiveness of the policy. So far there have been 92 convictions for trafficking for sexual exploitation, and four for trafficking for forced labour. In 2008, 19 people were convicted of trafficking for sexual exploitation and, of those, four received suspended sentences. In 2008, there were four convictions for trafficking for the purpose of forced labour. The average length of sentence for the offence of trafficking is 4.69 years and the maximum sentence is 14 years. The Home Secretary has said, in response to parliamentary questions, that since 2006 the Home Office has invested almost £4.5 million in the law enforcement response to human trafficking, and that 15 per cent. of the Serious and Organised Crime Agency’s resources are committed to tackling immigration crime, of which trafficking is a significant part.

Looking at those figures as calmly and objectively as one can, it does not seem that the amount of resources devoted to this is being reflected in the amount of effective enforcement activity. Even when the relatively few people who are caught and prosecuted go through the process, the sentencing seems relatively lenient compared with the maximum sentence that the Government have rightly put into legislation. I hope that the Minister will address those issues in her closing remarks.

Thirdly, I hope that the Minister can respond to the recent remarks of the French immigration minister, who said that the problems at Calais—of which trafficking forms a significant subset—are essentially Britain’s fault. He said that officials in London had failed to act against human trafficking and that there was poor border security at Calais. She and I are veterans of many debates over Calais, and everyone agrees that things have improved since the darkest days of the Sangatte camp and the large illegal movements across the border. I was not only disturbed by the remarks of the French Immigration Minister, but surprised. I hope that the Government were too, because if conditions at Calais are getting worse again, we will experience an increase in trafficking. Given the progress we have seen, that would be a significant and unfortunate step backwards.

In addition to the questions that I wished to ask the Minister, I have some suggestions. She has already heard from various hon. Members that the POPPY project, while doing good work, is clearly constrained and should be allowed to take in girls under the age of 18, and perhaps to expand its reach geographically. We have also suggested the need for separate interviews at all airports for women and children travelling alone, or with an adult who is not a parent, guardian or husband, so that identification is easier; for better co-operation between the relevant Government departments and SOCA, because the lack of a properly coherent approach has dogged this issue for many years; and to ensure that each police force and each local government authority has a strategy for dealing with suspected victims of trafficking, because as my hon. Friend said, those who think that trafficking victims are only to be found in our big cities are, sadly, wrong—this crime also takes place in small rural communities. We also suggest that a proper helpline should be set up to provide information to women who have been trafficked and those who suspect exploitation. As an overall point, of course, we believe that there should be a proper border police force and that that force should have the necessary powers to act effectively against trafficking, as well as other cross-border crimes.

In every debate that we have had on this topic, Ministers have had to curtail their remarks because responding to questions has taken longer than the time allowed, so I will conclude. I wish the Government well on this issue, but everything seems to be happening slowly and without enough of a sense of urgency. I hope that the Minister will convince us that that sense of urgency is now coming through in this important policy area.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Olner. I echo the comments made by the hon. Member for Ashford (Damian Green) about the role of the hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) and his all-party group. I will rattle through because, as the hon. Member for Ashford rightly said, I have an awful lot of questions to answer. I am always keen to take interventions but, given the time, I will try to get through those questions if I can.

The hon. Member for Ashford dangled something in front of me about the French Minister’s recent comments. It is important to make it clear for the record what happened with our French counterpart. He did not say that Britain was not doing enough. He was visiting Calais to talk to residents there about immigration issues. He said that we, meaning France and Britain, need to do more. That is not the same as saying that Britain is not doing enough, but we know how good stories for journalists can emerge from such comments.

The French Minister was there to reassure Calais residents. He has since spoken to the Minister for Borders and Immigration, my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, East and Saddleworth (Mr. Woolas), to make it clear that he was not criticising the UK. My hon. Friend will continue, as will the Home Secretary and I, to work with the French Government to ensure that we maintain controls at Calais.

The hon. Member for Ashford raised the issue of trafficking in general. I will touch on local strategies and local issues, which were raised by the hon. Member for Totnes. I was interested by the comments about children and how to identify them at the border. Clearly, biometrics help. We are already preparing one case for prosecution involving a child identified by the new biometric system for visas and foreign national identity cards. I am sure that that is one reason why the Conservative party will eventually come around to the idea that identity cards help on a range of issues, including this one.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Totnes, who raised a number of important points. As it is his debate, I will do my best to focus on answering as many of those points as I can. I apologise in advance to any hon. Members whose questions I do not answer. I will write to them if I cannot reach their questions.

This is an opportunity for me to set out what work the Government have done on the issue. The implementation of the Council of Europe convention plays a crucial role in our overall strategy. Clearly, human trafficking is an important crime. It is important that we create an environment hostile to it in the UK, identify victims and take action as appropriate. We unveiled an action plan in March 2007, as hon. Members will be aware, and updated it in July last year. Ratification of the Council of Europe convention is the first of 85 specific actions laid out in the plan.

Hon. Members raised the issue of time scales and delay. We have to get 85 specific actions right. We have got to make it work. I am sure that hon. Members will agree that making it work is what is important. I am impatient, as we all are, to ensure that proper action is taken. It is no good rushing headlong into something unless we make it work properly. We are making good progress. I thank hon. Members across the party divides for their support. We continue to bear down on traffickers and to offer help and support to their victims. The convention will help us in both those areas.

Last July, the Home Secretary announced the results of Operation Pentameter 2, the largest UK-wide police operation against trafficking for sexual exploitation. It succeeded in recovering 167 victims of trafficking and made 528 arrests.

Hon. Members, particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore), raised the issue of scale. By its nature, that is difficult to quantify. We need to keep investigating and catching people. In response to the hon. Members for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) and for Ashford, who asked about the numbers of people convicted, I can say that so far 94 sex traffickers have been convicted. Although the headline figure on trafficking for illegal working is only four, many more have been convicted for related offences, including rape, kidnapping and facilitation.

I am keen to ask the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Tynemouth (Mr. Campbell), to write to hon. Members with more detailed figures. It is important that we do not run away with the idea that no action is being taken on illegal working—action does not always come under that heading. It is important that we recognise there is more than one way to skin a cat. We have to get these bad people out of the system, and if we can do it by other and more effective means, that is fine by me. We do not need to dance on a pin head about which particular type of conviction we bring as long as these people are caught.

We have also established the UK Human Trafficking Centre, as hon. Members have mentioned. It is a multi-agency organisation, and that fact is worth stressing. Although it is a centre—the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington asked whether I agreed with the description of it as a single centre—it is important to recognise its multi-agency nature. It is a central point of co-ordination for intelligence, analysis and operational activities. In addition, it works closely with law enforcement agencies throughout the country, with the Government and with non-governmental organisations.

There was a suggestion that we would be getting an annual report at the end of the financial year from the UK Human Trafficking Centre. Is that still going to happen?

That sounds like a sensible suggestion. I shall make sure that I clarify the position with the Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Tynemouth, and get him to write to my hon. Friend to confirm whether that is the case.

In addition, we have already invested £5.8 million in the POPPY project over the past six years to provide high-level specialist support for victims trafficked for sexual exploitation. That includes safe accommodation, advocacy and access to counselling, legal advice and interpreting services. This year we are giving £1.3 million to that project. I must slay the myth that the POPPY project is London-focused. It is based in London, but much of its work, which we are funding, is to capacity build outside London. It started during Operation Pentameter 2 and continues. I was interested to hear the comments of the hon. Members for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Hancock) and for Totnes about how well, or otherwise, it is working in their areas. I will highlight the issue to the Minister for Security, Counter-Terrorism, Crime and Policing, my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Mr. Coaker), to ensure that the project is working as effectively as it should.

The Home Secretary has a letter from me detailing five NGOs that receive no money from the Government; the POPPY project gets it all. It should be more fairly distributed.

I will ensure that the hon. Gentleman receives an answer to his letter very soon. We are still considering the matter, but the POPPY project has been given Government money and work has been done to regionalise that. Not all NGOs want to be so closely associated with the Government that their core funding comes from the Government, so it is clearly a matter for discussion. We are still considering the matter and I will ensure that the hon. Gentleman gets a letter fairly soon.

As part of our efforts to ratify and implement the convention, we have made some significant decisions, including the granting to victims of the 45-day reflection period, but longer if necessary. I think it was the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington who asked how we would decide whether it should be longer. The answer is that it depends on individual circumstances, and that is why we need to rely on the expertise of the UK Human Trafficking Centre. I am happy to write to him with more detail on how such decisions would be made, or to get the UKHTC to do so. We also offer one-year temporary residence permits in certain circumstances. Both measures go further than the minimum standards outlined in the convention, which are for 30 days and six months. We have therefore already set the bar higher, and I hope that European colleagues will learn from that.

We are also setting up a national referral mechanism. It will be a nationwide system that will enable the proper and consistent identification of victims to ensure that they receive the necessary care and support. That applies to all victims of all ages—children as well as those over the age of 18. I hope that that addresses some of the points made by the hon. Member for Totnes about co-ordination and access for local forces and services. We will be making announcements in the near future about how that will work. We are working out the full details, but we will work collaboratively with all key external organisations, including non-governmental ones, whose expertise, as the hon. Gentleman said, has proved invaluable throughout, whether on the action plan, Pentameter or the convention.

We have made an announcement on the competent authority function. There has been some concern about having a single competent authority, but we are considering something that is multi-agency and we are working closely with other partners. It is important that we set off with a body that can do the job well and effectively, but, once things have been going for a while, we can always look at how it is working. If hon. Members have issues and concerns, we will be keen to review the situation, and we will study the work of the all-party group and others. However, it is important that we start as we mean to go on, with an organisation that can do the job effectively, identify victims and provide support. Several organisations can refer to it. If the police find someone, they can work with a local non-governmental organisation, and that body can refer to the UK centre. It is important that we get that right.

The competent authority will be based at the Human Trafficking Centre, and that will be the key, central point of contact. The UK Border Agency is a separate but linked competent authority. The link with immigration is important, because trafficking is often raised during an asylum claim. It would be foolish to decouple the two issues. Immigration is not always an issue, but that is a sensible approach, and in my work on immigration, the issue often arises.

On immigration, I asked whether there are circumstances in which the automatic deportation of a trafficking victim could take place if it were not in breach of our obligations under the convention. I hope that the Minister will clarify whether there are any circumstances in which that might happen.

We are applying the rules of the convention. It would not be our intention to deport anyone who was identified as a victim, but I can obtain further clarification, if necessary. I think it is clear, however, that if somebody is identified as a victim, we would not intend to deport them. Many victims choose to return voluntarily, and we have assisted voluntary packages to help those young women—they are mostly young women—to return to their families, which is actually where they want to go. It is important to differentiate between deportation and removal, and voluntary removal is often beneficial for the victim.

I shall try to rattle through the many questions that were raised.

I am afraid that I shall not give way, because I have only two minutes to answer several questions.

I cannot comment on the individual case that was mentioned, but I commend the work of Devon and Cornwall police and hope that the measures we are introducing mean that there will be easier routes in. Front-line police, UK Border Agency staff and all new staff in police forces are being given training that will raise awareness. Other training packages are in place, and I shall happily write to the hon. Gentleman with details about them.

The hon. Gentleman raised the issue of support for returning a victim home. I have mentioned the EU returns programme, and we are drafting amendments to extend voluntary return for EU trafficking victims as part of the immigration Bill that will be introduced after the Easter recess. I am sure that his all-party group will be keen to analyse that.

I have covered the fact that we provide a residence permit. The hon. Gentleman also discussed the proceeds of trafficking and the Pentameter 2 results. The policy is that 50 per cent. of asset recovery goes to the police and the Crown Prosecution Service, and that is important for ensuring proactive enforcement. The CPS can, however, ask for a compensation order, so that the victim receives some money from the offender. We do cover some of the issues that the hon. Gentleman has raised, if not all of them.

It is important that we recognise that the convention is part of an ongoing process. It is a continuous exercise. From 1 April, I will see two interesting deliveries: first, the next stage of the process and, secondly, the happy result, I hope, of my pregnancy. I hope also that I have reassured the hon. Member for Totnes, in particular, and other hon. Members that the Government are taking the necessary steps to tackle the issues that he has raised. We are not complacent about the issue, and nor should we be.

Garden Land Development

It is a great pleasure to have secured this important debate on garden land development, which has been hotly debated in the Commons for some time. I wish to go through a chronology of the kind of debates that we have had on this subject over recent years, and to raise some matters from my own constituency. I shall also draw on other issues, on which hon. Members may wish to reflect.

It is a great pity that the Conservatives do not seem to have put forward a Front-Bench spokesman because I am discussing matters that they, too, need to address—[Interruption.] The spokesman is arriving as I speak, perhaps having been persuaded to come by the note that I dropped into their Whips Office outlining the issues that I would be raising.

Garden land development is a hotly debated subject, which is partly because we know that the planning system is largely fuelled by greed rather than need. The system itself has to balance the various pressures that are on both planning committees and authorities. In particular, I am referring to the pressures on valuable—especially from a developer’s point of view—garden sites in exclusive parts of our towns and cities, and in smaller towns and villages. Clearly the pressure for such development, which concerns all parties, is something that local authorities are struggling to cope with.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate and I hope to contribute later. Does he accept that it is not just the exclusive areas of towns and cities that are under pressure, but all sorts of areas, and that they deserve equal protection?

I absolutely agree with the right hon. Gentleman that we are not just talking about exclusive areas. I was making the point that developers’ interests are acute in areas in which the potential inducements of greatly increased land values are particularly large.

Just picking up on that point, does my hon. Friend agree that part of the attraction of garden development for many developers is that they can buy one house and then put in place nine properties—flats and so on—without having to provide any affordable housing? They thus choose such land over larger developments, which have to include affordable housing, which has a significant impact on all neighbourhoods.

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point that has been highlighted in many debates in the House. I am sure that the Minister will take it on board and comment on it later. If there is a wish to produce affordable housing on garden land developments, there is a problem, because such developments often fall below the quota level that a local authority requires to be able to insist that a proportion of the properties are made available for those needing affordable housing.

I also congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate, and I apologise that I will not be able to stay for the whole debate. Does he agree that one of the real issues here is the fact that back gardens are effectively known as brownfield sites, which makes their development easy? In that regard, may I draw his attention to my private Member’s Bill, which will be considered on 8 May, entitled Land Use (Gardens Protections Etc) Bill, which would deal with that by zoning gardens as green, which is what they are?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for saving me from having to highlight his work. As I have indicated, this issue concerns people in all political parties and has been hotly debated for some time.

The hon. Gentleman is right to make the extremely good point that planning is driven by greed not need. Not only do developers not have to provide affordable housing in such circumstances, and not only do they often cram in blocks of flats without gardens or parking, which causes problems for neighbourhoods, but they do not have to make a contribution towards infrastructure around those sites, such as new roads. That is yet another attraction for them, and a reason why we should try to give special protection to such garden sites.

The hon. Gentleman is right, of course. Depending on the scale of the development, it can be difficult for local planning authorities to insist, through a section 106 agreement, that developers make a significant contribution to infrastructure. The Government have said that they have given local authorities the power to apply 106 agreement obligations to developers in such circumstances, but many local authorities have found it very difficult to address the real infrastructure implications of many such developments, especially when there is additional pressure on parking, amenity space and other things within town centres.

By securing this debate, my hon. Friend has demonstrated once again how effectively he represents his constituency in this place. Does he recognise the difficulty faced by local councils that are forced—owing to the likelihood in many cases of losing on appeal—to permit small developments with no affordable housing, but at the same time are not allowed to provide large-scale affordable housing, even in mixed developments? Furthermore, housing associations cannot build the affordable housing that is desperately needed as a result of the Government’s failure to provide affordable housing over the past 10 years.

My hon. Friend raises a point that places this debate in the context of the need and desire—I share that desire with the Government—to meet affordable housing need. There is a significant difference between what is happening with garden land development, which largely—certainly in my part of the world—makes a nil, or if anything a miniscule, contribution to meeting the desperate need for affordable housing, and the kind of schemes required to meet that need. In areas such as mine, those schemes are extremely difficult to bring forward. There is an astronomical difference between house prices and earnings in such places, so particular skills and efforts are required, primarily on the part of public authorities, to meet the sort of affordable housing need that he rightly highlights.

Garden land development is at the heart of middle England, which is in part why it is so hotly debated. It concerns a group of people on which all political parties direct a tremendous amount of political focus, hence the tremendous effort by certain parties to expend what is arguably a disproportionate amount of political time on trying to win the argument, to present themselves as the saviours of garden land and to reassure affected neighbourhoods that they are on side. There is plenty of opportunity, therefore, for claims, counter-claims, point scoring and bandwagon jumping.

Having got over the first hurdle of taking various interventions, I hope to give a potted history of what has been happening in recent years, an assessment of the impact of the difficulties of classifying gardens as brownfield sites, and the primary problems associated with garden land development. I shall then examine the origins of the modern-day trend towards garden land development and give a short narrative on issues that I have raised over the years regarding garden land development and similar development in the small market and rural towns in my constituency. I shall also scrutinise closely some of the more recent campaigning before coming to my concluding remarks.

With regard to chronology, these issues have been debated many times. I particularly commend my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt) for having listened to and been engaged in many debates in the House on planning and development. On 19 July 2005, following the general election, she introduced a ten-minute Bill entitled the Local Government and Planning (Parkland and Windfall Development) Bill. She hit the nail on the head when she proposed amending planning policy guidance note 3 to designate gardens as greenfield land, with an exception for extensions into back gardens. She suggested that such land would be developed last under the sequential test and highlighted the importance of protecting parkland and amenity land in town centres.

On 1 February 2006, the hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark) introduced a Bill that was similar, but more narrowly focused on private gardens. On 20 October 2006, my hon. Friend’s Bill had its Second Reading debate, which was preceded, on 21 June 2006, by an Opposition day debate led by the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman). The Opposition motion began:

“That this House shares the concern of communities throughout the United Kingdom over the scale of residential development on garden land”.

A number of issues were set out, particularly with regard to the designation of garden land as brownfield sites.

On 2 February 2007, the Second Reading of a private Member’s Bill introduced by the hon. Lady, the Land Use (Gardens Protection etc) Bill, was debated. On 18 March 2008, she introduced, under the ten-minute rule, the Land Use (Garden Protection) Bill, which I co-sponsored.

The issue was hotly debated during the passage of the Bill that became the Planning Act 2008, through which there was an attempt to amend the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 and subsequent Acts to make local authorities have special regard to

“the desirability of preserving gardens, groups of gardens and urban green spaces.”

An amendment to that effect was made in the House of Lords on 12 November 2008, but it was successfully struck out by the Government when the Commons considered Lords amendments to the Bill on 24 November 2008. Ministers promised at that stage that there would be a review of the impact of garden land development. There has been some progress, in that the review’s remit has been announced, but I would be interested to hear what progress is being made with the review.

Many statistics have been traded on the impact of garden land development. Although the Government have met their target of increasing the proportion of development on brownfield sites, it is clear that many of those developments have involved garden land. Looking at the statistics, it has been difficult, even in my area, to draw out the impact that garden land development has had, unless one analyses individual sites. However, it is clear that there has been a significant impact in my area.

The main problem with garden land development has been well highlighted in previous debates. Such development contradicts the established British view of what towns and cities should be. The Town and Country Planning Association, Britain’s oldest planning charity, was founded in 1899 by Sir Ebenezer Howard. At that time, it was called the Garden Cities Association, and its purpose was to promote the idea of the garden city. Such a perspective of towns and cities is well established in British life. We do not see towns and cities as simply urban jungles without any green space, but as places where there are green lungs and wedges, and where gardens are protected. There is a recognition that such areas make a valuable contribution to the life of our towns and cities. As has been highlighted, garden land development can have an impact on biodiversity, drainage, climate change and aesthetics, and the creation of such developments can lead to neighbourhood conflicts. Also, as hon. Members have said, such developments do not necessarily address the urgent need for affordable housing, because, often, they are below the quota level on which local authorities insist.

The origins of garden land development go back further than 1997; in fact, they go back to 1985 when, under a Conservative Government, there was a change to the existing definition of brownfield land for the purpose of land use planning statistics. In my part of the world, there was a rush of successful applications to develop gardens during the late 1980s. The pressure arose because the message went out that people with large gardens were sitting on a gold mine that they should realise. The pattern emerged at that stage, so it is not new and did not first arise in the late 1990s.

Clearly, additional pressure was applied when the former Deputy Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott), who was then in charge of the Department of Environment, Transport and the Regions, set targets for councils to prioritise building new homes on brownfield sites in 1998. The Government met their target of building 60 per cent. on previously developed land in 2001, years earlier than planned.

A number of problems have been created in my part of the world by intense waves of excessive development, particularly in the mid to late 1980s, the late 1990s and throughout the past 10 years. I have received many letters from constituents, but I will read one from Naomi Cliff of St. Ives, which was sent to me on 18 July 2007. She wrote:

“We are constantly seeing inappropriate modern buildings rising up in our historic town on the smallest of plots and in the most inappropriate areas; mainly catering for the second home market as they make no provision for affordability and are architecturally misplaced.”

I have raised the issue on behalf of my constituents for many years. On 25 October 2005, I received a letter from the right hon. Member for Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper), who was then a Minister in the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, explaining:

“Classifying gardens as ‘Residential’ was…not a creation of the current Government. This definition was later incorporated into PPG3 in 2000. The Land Use Change statistics classification has not changed since 1985.”

The district council felt that it did not have the power to resist the kind of developments that I have described. When I showed a copy of that letter to the head of sustainable development and improvement at Penwith district council, Mr. Barton, he wrote back to me on 22 May 2006 saying:

“however, it is still evident from appeal decisions received that inspectors are placing much weight to the brownfield case.”

That letter concerns garden land development within my constituency.

The Government adapted what is now planning policy statement 6 in April 2007. In a letter to me dated 19 September 2007, the right hon. Member for Pontefract and Castleford wrote:

“Planning Policy Statement 3 (PPS3) goes further and gives local authorities more flexibility to shape new development according to the needs of their area, and allows them to make the decisions on where new housing should be located. It makes clear local authorities can put strong emphasis on protecting urban green spaces, parks and play areas within their plans…The new policy statement gives them greater powers to restrict garden development if they have alternative viable land available and the level of development within residential areas is much higher than their plan.”

The problem with that is that while alternative sites had been identified by local authorities, developers were unfortunately not prepared to bring them forward. The five-year development of land was available and planning permissions had been granted, but that put pressure back on garden land development, despite the best efforts of local authorities to find development land.

Is my hon. Friend aware that finding alternative sites in intensely populated areas such as south-west London is near impossible, even when trying to build new schools that are required? That caveat is entirely unsuitable for an area where population densities are already incredibly high; it merely adds more pressure, and is not necessarily an appropriate protection.

I certainly hope that the Minister will take those comments on board. My hon. Friend has a great deal more experience than me of the particular planning pressures in areas such as south-west London. I can only comment from my experiences of attempting to assist constituents in west Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly, which I represent and where I come from.

After I raised that issue with the sustainable development and design manager, Andrew England, from Penwith district council, he responded, in a letter of 25 July 2007:

“However, as the planning legislation currently states the plot in question”—

in this case, another plot in St. Ives—

“is regarded as brownfield land where the principle of development is supported. Inevitably given the national issues surrounding the need for more housing this places greater pressure upon such sites, unless further greenfield land is to be released for development.”

As I have said, the local authority had already identified plenty of greenfield development space for developers, but it was not being brought forward—hence the pressure for development on garden land.

Of course, the pressure is not only on garden land. I was rather shocked to receive a letter from Strutt and Parker, which presumed that I owned the offices that I occupied in Belgravia street in Penzance. The letter told me that

“There is a strong demand from developers for both green and brown field sites”,

and that Strutt and Parker were able to

“guide you through the planning system; co-ordinate other professional advisers in gaining planning permission and dealing with section 106 agreements; and consequently dispose of your property with the intention of”

optimising its value. Unfortunately, my landlady got hold of that information, and I was promptly turfed out of my office, which was turned into flats. The problem was that the car park that was available for the offices that I occupied had 10 spaces and that land is being developed as well. The parking pressures in that area are so intense for local people that adding further flats there without the provision of any further parking or amenity land is storing up serious problems. I certainly hope that the Minister is prepared to take that issue on board.

In dealing with all these issues, I want to spend a small amount of time concentrating on the need to be consistent in campaigns. I apologise for going on, but I have taken a number of interventions. I first became aware of the Conservatives’ campaign when the local residents group in my constituency alerted me to an unsolicited letter from the hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells on House of Commons headed paper dated 17 May 2006, following a debate on his ten-minute Bill, saying:

“the Parliamentary rules give the Bill another chance on the 14 July. This is a precious opportunity for the Government to change its mind.”

The implication of that perhaps led to the storing up of expectation among many constituents—perhaps even among people throughout the country—that a ten-minute Bill was likely to be passed by Parliament. A lot of Liberal Democrat Members agree with the proposal that the designation by the Conservatives of gardens as brownfield development land in 1985 should be withdrawn.

On 2 February 2007, the then shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Meriden, said during the Second Reading of her private Member’s Bill, the Land Use (Gardens Protection etc) Bill:

“The only people who are not losing out from the rush to develop back gardens are the developers and land speculators. For them, England is literally becoming a treasure island.”—[Official Report, 2 February 2007; Vol. 456, c. 473.]

On 1 October 2007, at the Conservative party conference, the shadow housing spokesperson, the hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps), said:

“I know that you share my concern over the practice of garden grabbing, so we’ll change planning law to recognise that brownfield does not mean your neighbour’s garden.”

On 28 November 2008, following the defeat of the Conservative Earl Cathcart’s amendment to the Planning Bill, the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles) was reported in The Daily Telegraph as saying:

“Labour’s rules have given a green light for garden grabbing and rich pickings for developers…leading to leafy gardens being dug up and replaced with soulless and ugly blocks of flats…Our proposals would increase protection for gardens”.

They say all that, but in my constituency in May 2007 the Conservative party headquarters applied for six flats in its own back garden. [Interruption.] Of course, it was not making the application, but a company made up of a former Conservative councillor and a prospective parliamentary candidate was. Earlier that year, the hon. Member for Meriden had said:

“Such applications are divisive, because they set neighbour against neighbour.” —[Official Report, 2 February 2007; Vol. 456, c. 473.]

Lo and behold, that application certainly did so, because the neighbours in that setting, in Alexandra road and Hawkins road in Penzance, were up in arms against that development and pointed out to the local Conservatives that the party had made a lot of claims to be the saviours of garden land. At the same time it was applying for planning permission to build in its own garden in a conservation area.

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the planning application for the garden land at Alexandra house—the headquarters —is before Penwith district council. Given that all six Conservative councillors on the planning committee of Penwith district council will declare a pecuniary interest and take no part in the debate, is he saying that the remaining councillors, including Councillors Ruhrmund, Mates, Cook, Jack Dixon and Terry Tonkin—all Liberal Democrats—will somehow make a decision outside planning law that is improper, irregular or potentially unlawful? Does he believe in local democracy or not?

I absolutely believe in local democracy. I am not going to comment on the merits or otherwise of that particular planning application because it is up to the local authority and its planning committee to decide how it will determine it.

In fact, the hon. Gentleman invites me to point out that the planning application of May 2007 was withdrawn with a certain amount of red face on the part of the Conservatives. They assured local residents that they had apologised for it, and local residents felt satisfied at that point that they did not need to take any further action, but they drew the matter to my attention and I took it up with the planning department. I could have made political hay with that issue in the House and scored a lot of political points. However, I am interested in the protection of garden land, not turning such issues into a political dogfight. Once the application had been withdrawn, that was it as far as I was concerned, which is why, later on in March 2008, I was content to sponsor the Bill of the hon. Member for Meriden when requested. I felt that we must stand above party political tribalism and not attempt to make party political points on the issue.

I was happy to support the Conservatives’ private Member’s Bill introduced in March 2008, but imagine my disappointment—the hon. Member for Peterborough (Mr. Jackson) has just drawn attention to this—when I discovered that, during that time, the Conservatives had indirectly sold the land to a developer and that a planning application by that developer had come before the planning committee in November.

That application is about to be determined and, as I say, I am not going to comment on the merits of it. However, the point is that it is all very well masquerading as the saviour of garden land, but Conservative Front Benchers were informed by residents in my constituency that that was going on at the time and they received no response from them whatsoever. The Conservatives had backed down shamefacedly in June 2007 when it was pointed out to them that what had happened directly contradicted everything on which they had been campaigning.

Residents in Hawkins road and Alexandra road in my constituency are much put out by the way in which the issue has been managed because not only was the garden sold to a developer, but the Conservatives negotiated a clawback clause. That means that if the development goes ahead and the planning application is successful, the Conservative association will secure for itself up to nearly £250,000. We need to be careful that what we say in this House is carried out by our foot soldiers on the ground in our constituencies. It is a matter of deep embarrassment for the Conservatives nationally and locally that this should have happened. I put my faith in the hon. Member for Meriden and the Front-Bench team because I was prepared to turn a blind eye to the mistake made in May 2007 and sponsor their Bill. I feel that they have seriously let me down and destroyed the trust I had that what happened was simply a blip—a mistake that they had made at that stage. I admit to making political mistakes and I have been shown to be naive in trusting the Conservatives at that stage and allowing them to go ahead in that way.

I am not clear whether the hon. Gentleman’s objection is to every proposal for development, or just some proposals.

Every planning application should come forward on its own merits, and I am not debating the merits of one application over another. All I am saying is that that planning application was at one time considered unacceptable for that area. The residents were up in arms about it, it was withdrawn and an apology was given, but there has been an attempt to bring forward the development by the back door.

I apologise to my hon. Friend and other hon. Members for not being present at the start of the debate, but I was attending a Public Bill Committee sitting that has only now ended. He is drawing attention to the fact that his constituents, and many others across the country, may be misled into believing that there has been a firm commitment and policy to act in a certain way. Individual cases might lead people to believe that things were done differently. The issue is not about the planning application, but about people seeking to make political capital out of a particular planning point. There is then a failure to address that at a local level

Order. The hon. Member for St. Ives has been very generous in giving way and has accepted nine interventions, but I remind hon. Members who wish to speak that I will call the first of the Front-Bench spokesmen at 12 o’clock.

I am grateful to you, Mr. Olner, for pointing that out to me and I apologise, but I have been attempting to be generous to hon. Members who wish to make points. I will now bring my remarks to a close.

It is all very well going through a rebranding process—I fear that the Conservatives see the world of politics merely as a marketing exercise—but politicians need genuinely to understand and accept the basis of the political claims they make. If they claim to be the saviours of garden land, they cannot at the same time be engaged in the type of activities I have just described. That example is not the only such incident. I do not know about London politics, but last night’s Evening Standard reported:

“Plans by the Mayor's London Development Agency to build 180 homes in Crystal Palace Park will be decided by Communities Secretary Hazel Blears, it was announced today. Bromley council”,

which I understand is Conservative controlled,

“approved the plan to build in the Grade II-listed park last month. Boris Johnson added his support in spite of his election manifesto pledge to protect green spaces.”

I look forward to the winding-up speeches and to hearing the views of all parties on the debate. There are issues of significant substance that I hope the Minister will address, particularly the review and the need to back up those local authorities that try to protect the integrity of their garden spaces, many of which are still under threat, even in the current market downturn. I hope that he will take those remarks on board.

I congratulate the hon. Member for St. Ives (Andrew George) on securing the debate and thank you, Mr. Olner, for allowing me to take part. We have to take a step back and remember what has been in place historically. People could always build in gardens and pieces of land within urban areas have been used for development. That historical agreement has always been in place and part of planning permissions, and local authorities took the ultimate decision on whether a piece of land was or was not appropriate for development. Of course, we all know that things changed when the Government began looking for more brownfield land to stop encroachment on greenfield areas. It was a difficult balance to strike, but in the end those decisions were taken.

In Chorley, we never had a worry: when the Labour authority gave up control, there was a complete moratorium. We did not have any building in gardens because we had so much planning development already agreed. In fact, we had one of the biggest brownfield sites to become available—1,200 acres of Royal Ordnance land. One can imagine what it does to an area when so much building land becomes available for development. We had all this building land and we knew that new town planning permissions would be granted, because Chorley was part of the old central Lancashire new town and there was historical planning consent on the land. The last thing we wanted was for more developers to come in and pick out land all over the place; that was why the moratorium was put in place.

What then happened was that the Labour-controlled council in Chorley left office and the Conservatives came in. The first thing they did was to lift the moratorium, which allowed a free-for-all. Any land in Chorley could be developed. Not only did we have an oversupply of building land, but it was being added to. Of course, cheap politics comes into it. I do not usually get into the gutter politics that seems to be happening in Chorley, but the candidate opposing me, Alan Cullens, put out a letter saying that I had allowed garden development in Chorley. What that Conservative candidate failed to do was even to state that he is a councillor, and a member of the council that has allowed development in gardens in Chorley. In his own area, developers have come along and bought up to seven gardens in order to create a large site for development. That will create 40 houses in back gardens and is a major development, but as it is in a good area that should be protected, even under the new legislation, I suggested to the council—through Labour councillors—that it should be a conservation area. That is still allowed, and it would not stop development in gardens, but the Conservative council said that it did not want to do that as it might cost money. What I would say about Councillor Cullens is that he is without doubt duplicitous—hypocrisy is the ultimate word for him—and that sending out a letter and not admitting that you are part of the problem that has been created in Chorley is very low politics.

We can do better, and we can do more. There is no doubt that the Conservative-led Chorley council has let the people of Chorley down. In the beautiful village of Mawdsley, two constituents wish to develop in their gardens for good reasons: they can no longer keep horses there and there is a tax on the animals. Yet the same council refuses them permission. The council has many questions to answer. My constituents in Mawdsley believe, rightly, that the council is being vindictive towards them. When it suits them, the council will support and allow developers to have free access to land, but in other areas they will not. This is a complete botch; it is hypocrisy. Chorley used to be the best-protected authority in the country, but all that was thrown out.

Councillor Cullens, and other councillors around the country who are making cheap points against Members of Parliament should be factual, truthful and honest.

Of course, it is my Government and my constituency. The hon. Gentleman obviously is not listening, so I will say it again and see whether he can understand this time. If there is a complete moratorium on building, no one can build in gardens. If the council lifts that moratorium, any developer can come in. Developers have always been allowed to build in gardens. That is the problem. Local authorities have to make decisions, but in Chorley there was no decision to make because of the moratorium. Once it was lifted, weakness was introduced. There is over-provision in Chorley, and the moratorium should never have been lifted.

I hope that the Minister will think long and hard about the position in Chorley. I agree with other hon. Members that we should have more social housing, but four and five-bedroomed houses are being built. There are crocodile tears from the local councillor and Conservative candidate, but he was part of the council that lifted the moratorium. Perhaps the Minister would like to comment on the hypocrisy of Councillor Cullens and the council in Chorley.

I congratulate the hon. Member for St. Ives (Andrew George) on securing this debate on a very important issue. I understand his concerns about garden-grabbing in Penzance. However, I take with a slight pinch of salt his claim that he did not want to spark a great party political dogfight in raising this issue. It seems to me that if he had wanted a party political dogfight, he could barely have done so more effectively. However, he raised some important concerns—I do not disagree with that.

On the substance of the issue, it is a question about quality of life, as the hon. Gentleman said, and the day-to-day enjoyment of residential areas, whether urban or rural, whether market towns or cities. In Oxford, it is difficult to build on the edge of our city, because the green belt is drawn too tightly and needs revising. There is also the economic and academic vitality of the city, which sucks in lots of jobs and students. The coupling of those two factors creates a pressure-cooker effect, so that there is enormous demand for housing within the city and buy-to-let has been a one-way bet for landlords for some time.

Residential areas that were originally planned with generous gardens and pleasant open spaces, inspired by garden city principles, have been under remorseless attack from infill, conversions to multiple occupation and even the exploitation of permitted development for ancillary buildings, such as garages and sheds, which then sprout windows, curtains and even bathrooms.

The presumption of higher densities within existing residential areas, which, as the hon. Gentleman said, is something that Governments of both main parties have been responsible for, can end up destroying those residential areas, as gardens are concreted over, corner plots are turned into flats and parking and refuse collection services are put under enormous strain, which the landlords who are carrying out the conversions are not making payments towards, as the hon. Gentleman also said.

I want to express warm thanks to my hon. Friend the Minister for coming to my constituency exactly a week ago to meet councillors and residents’ representatives, and to go round for himself to see a neighbourhood that has been transformed from one with good-quality housing, much of it social housing, into what is largely a student dormitory, with the most extraordinary extensions to properties. We looked at those extensions, which had been squeezed in, and also at neglected gardens, discarded rubbish and all the detritus of bad landlords, sitting cheek by jowl with the minority of original residents who take a pride in their property.

The purpose of that visit was to ensure that the Minister understood the overwhelming strength of the case for a licensing system for houses in multiple occupation to run right across Oxford—I think that he is getting the message from Oxford on this subject. As I said, I am grateful to him for coming and listening to us. However, there is a parallel need for stricter planning control and for councils to have more discretion to respond to the demands of their residents that they should be able to shape the nature of the residential community in which they live.

The right hon. Gentleman has hit the nail on the head. This issue is about local discretion for local councils. Under the current system local councillors’ hands are tied, whereas we should give those local decision-making powers back to local councils. If in some areas the council, for whatever reason, considers that garden developments are appropriate, it can go for them. Personally, I hope that in my area that would not be the view. However, if the decision-making powers are given back to local authorities, at least they can make the decisions locally about what is good for their area.

That is the point that I am making. These days, we all pretty much subscribe to the rhetoric of community empowerment; but if that rhetoric is to mean something on the issues that matter most to people, it must mean that they and their elected representatives should have more say on policies and planning decisions affecting their area, and that the inspectorate in Bristol, as an agent of the Secretary of State, should have less say. Of course, local authorities have to draw up those policies in a proper way, consulting with all relevant interests, and the policies must be applied consistently. That is not always easy with planning decisions. I used to chair a planning committee, many years ago, and I know that there are finely balanced judgments to be made.

Incidentally, I do not think that anybody is saying that no infill is ever acceptable or that no garden can be developed. The decision depends on the merits of the case. Indeed, I can point to some instances in my own constituency where development has been carried forward well and properly. The problem, when the planning system is too permissive and the overall policy is too centralised, is that it is too easy for developers and bad landlords to get away with too much. That is why we need regulation that is sensitive to the needs of the community.

The gardens, open spaces and trees in our urban areas act as lungs, and make areas look nice, so that people want to live there. They sustain ecological diversity and contribute something distinctive and positive to the quality of life of individuals and whole communities. The Government would do themselves and the country a great deal of good if they embraced the idea of giving stronger protection to gardens, as well as giving councils more power to decide when conversions to multiple occupation are appropriate, but with a comprehensive licensing system to police them where necessary, as it most certainly is in Oxford.

I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives (Andrew George) on securing this extremely important debate. The key issue is whether back gardens are designated as brownfield or greenfield areas. The Government have, to a degree, attempted to address that problem, and I welcome that. Following PPG3, the Government introduced PPS3, which gives local authorities some powers to separate gardens from wider brownfield development targets, but that does not stop developers, because local authorities can be overridden by external inspectors who do not have sympathy with or understanding of local areas, feelings and circumstances.

The hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) has kindly stayed to tell us that he is introducing a private Member’s Bill on this matter. I look forward to that, and I hope that it has more success than mine did in 2005. My neighbour, the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman), introduced a similar Bill in 2007, as did the hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark) in 2006. I am encouraged to hear that Members of all three main parties are introducing such Bills. As my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives has discussed, although my private Member’s Bill encompassed parkland, the hon. Member for Meriden has declined to do the same with hers, because her local authority of Solihull, which we share, has sold off parkland for development in two parks—Tudor Grange and Shirley parks. That development involves the, to my mind, near criminal destruction of a 350-year-old ring of oaks.

The problem is holistic. The whole nature of areas is being changed by overdevelopment. The forthcoming Bill is very welcome, because in previous debates on this issue Labour Members have criticised attempts to change the designation, saying rightly that people need homes, including affordable homes, but selling off large back gardens in reasonably wealthy areas does not help to resolve that problem. Indeed, hon. Members have mentioned the careful building of particular numbers of dwellings so that the threshold at which affordable housing must be built is not exceeded.

Valuable wildlife corridors are being lost, and there is increased pressure on local amenities and increased flooding in many areas. Back gardens provide natural drainage, and having more houses puts too much pressure on sewerage and drainage systems that were never designed to service the number of families and properties that they now service. Hon. Members have mentioned the problems that are being created with roads and parking. Above all, perhaps, the whole character of local areas is being changed.

Is all that a big problem? The Government have stated that 72 per cent. of new homes are built on brownfield sites. Those welcome statistics show how that figure has increased over time. However, we need to look underneath them to see how much of that 72 per cent. is back garden development. The Government’s figures state that just less than a quarter of such properties are built on previously residential land, but that could be just the tip of the iceberg. The hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells carried out a study on this matter. According to the Government’s statistics, 40 per cent. of new housing is on existing residential sites and garden plots, but on investigation he found that the figure is closer to 70 per cent. That is a cause for great concern.

The picture is stark over many areas of the country. In my own area of Solihull we have just re-fought an application that keeps being made on Streetsbrook road for 10 apartments on two properties. We lost an appeal over Fowgay hall—admittedly, it was an unlovely property—on the site of which now stand 14 flats. It is a 0.17 acre plot, every inch of which has been built on, with the car park having to go underground. It is so out of kilter with the area that it beggars belief that it was approved on appeal. Builders wear down local communities by persistently reapplying. They make an application knowing that it will not be accepted. They then re-submit and re-submit, causing tremendous stress and worry in local communities, and in the end they slip in just under the bar. And that is the end of a happy residential area and, often, of its character.

The current economic situation might well have some bearing. The demand for flats has been slowing for a considerable period. However, more important, the construction industry is not on its knees but on its back. If the Minister were to introduce good, properly planned developments—not back garden grabs, but shovel-ready planning applications to build homes, especially affordable homes—he would certainly hear no objections from the Liberal Democrat Benches. PPS17 requires local authorities to provide all types of open spaces, including parks and gardens. We need properly planned communities. The Government should consider strengthening legislation to facilitate a much more holistic approach to our planning system. As my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives said, local communities need a much greater say in decisions affecting the character of their area.

I have three suggestions that I hope the Government will consider. On the ability of developers to continue re-submitting applications, should we not have a “three strikes and you’re out” system to prevent the constant worry?

I do not know; I leave that to the Government. For many communities, three will be a very welcome change. On one occasion, we had 19 in Solihull.

Could local authorities have more power to make a final determination? There is a problem with appeal officers looking at an area and going against the will of a large body of local opinion. We are not talking about nimbyism; what we really want is power to the people: subsidiarity—decision-making at the lowest point for the people who are affected. We understand that local authorities may make inappropriate decisions, but could the conditions for overturning those appeals be looked at again to take into consideration local people’s desire to have some say about the local environment in which they live?

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Hancock. I congratulate the hon. Member for St. Ives (Andrew George) on securing the debate and on his comprehensive remarks—only soured somewhat at the end by a rather churlish coda, to which I shall return later.

The sad thing about the tenor of the debate is that there is so much consensus on the main issues, and to be fair to the hon. Gentleman, he generously alluded to the role that my hon. Friends the Members for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) and for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark) have played in promoting private Members’ Bills and ten-minute Bills, and notwithstanding the efforts of the hon. Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt). We will hold the Government to account on their decision to instigate a review of garden grabbing. The Minister for Local Government said on 14 January in Hansard at column 768W that, following the Planning Bill, it would be undertaken and concluded shortly.

We concede that the Government have made some progress on the specific issues that Members have raised over the past few years, and that they have talked about the importance of local development plans and the issuance of supplementary planning guidance to protect gardens from overdevelopment and separate them from other types of brownfield land. It would be churlish not to support that. They also brought in PPS3 on housing in April 2007 and referred to the powers under part 2 of the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004 in respect of local development documents. The Government’s attempt to strengthen strategic housing market assessments for local planning authorities is right, at least in theory, but as I shall make clear later, it is all very well doing that, but the reality is that planning applications are effectively decided by the Planning Inspectorate in Bristol, and under forthcoming legislation, by the regional development agencies.

I have two quick points. First, applications have always been decided in Bristol, and everyone already has the right to appeal on planning, whatever the planning issue is. Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that we take that away? It is an historic process. Secondly, does he not agree that we could always have used conservation areas to protect land?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman’s second point. I was going to say that the situation is exacerbated by the new proposals in legislation that will put unprecedented planning powers and other powers into the hands of regional development agencies. I hope that he will take his customarily robust attitude towards that legislation in Committee and on the Floor of the House.

It would be wise to refer to my colleagues’ commitment to the issue. It is fair to say that the Conservative party has had a strong and principled commitment to the issue over a significant period. The hon. Gentleman referred to my hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells and his Protection of Private Gardens (Housing Development) ten-minute Bill in 2006, which sought to remove front and back gardens from the Government’s definition of brownfield sites of previous development. He made the point that if the idea of brownfield sites was to mean anything, it should be about improving the condition of our towns and villages and contributing to environmental progress, not about changing and destroying the character of areas for ever. I think that there is general cross-party agreement on that.

Does the hon. Gentleman acknowledge that that change in definition took place in 1985? Would he like to put on record the Conservative party’s regret at having made that error?

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman, who has strenuously denied a wish to be party political and claims merely to represent his constituents—[Interruption.] The point on which all parties agree is that there is insufficient local autonomy and authority for planning committees to make decisions in the best interests of their local communities. One has only to look at density and other targets effectively imposed by central Government through regional development agencies and regional spatial strategies. That is the key issue.

I will make some progress and let the hon. Gentleman intervene later.

The hon. Gentleman also made some generous comments about the Opposition day debate on garden development in June 2006, during which my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden argued for the reclassification of gardens under PPS3. She made the point that very little backland garden development results in affordable housing becoming available, because such development tends to take place in larger gardens in better areas of higher value.

My hon. Friend the Member for Meriden argued for greater planning powers to be devolved to local councils, especially in respect of density levels, and said that powers of reclassification should be given to local councils. That would not necessarily fetter planning authorities’ discretion to decide what was best for their local areas. Reference has also been made to her Land Use (Gardens Protection etc.) Bill of February 2007, and her ten-minute Bill, the Land Use (Garden Protection) Bill of February 2008. When speaking to the latter, she made the point that PPS3 focused on new-building gardens rather than conserving existing ones, and that housing and density targets rendered PPS3, in its new incarnation, effectively meaningless when set against local community planning policies. I think that we all agree with that—there is consensus between the Conservative Front Bench and the Liberal Democrats.

It is important to consider the lack of progress made by this Government in respect of the remediation of brownfield sites. If I am a little harsh on the Liberal Democrats, as I will be shortly, it is because they are quick to complain about homelessness, lack of housing stock and other issues, but when anyone proposes development of land for residential use, they are first in the queue against it. They cannot develop any arguments more complicated than can be put on an A4 “Focus” leaflet. The Minister has great experience of those with his erstwhile opponent in Hartlepool, Jody Dunn—whatever happened to her, one may ask.

To cut to the chase on the issue of Penwith district council, the hon. Gentleman either believes in local democracy and accountability or he does not. I made the point that Penwith’s planning committee has 15 members, and only six of them are Conservatives. All of them will declare any prejudicial interest in any planning application, and none of them will vote or take part in that debate, so is he really saying that the one Labour member, three independents and five Liberal Democrats are so stupid, so unable to consider the facts in front of them and so prone to making irregular decisions that they will not seek advice from officers or do the right thing for their local community, which is what they were elected to do? I ask that for a specific reason. In a press release issued on 30 January, the hon. Member for St. Ives commented:

“The Chairman and Vice Chairman of the local Planning Committee (Penwith District Council) are Conservatives”.

He does not name the individuals, and I would suggest that his insinuation is possibly libellous, given that he knows full well that they will not be voting or speaking.

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman has misunderstood the point. This is not a debate about the merits of the case, which is clearly a matter for the local planning committee. The relevance of the chairman and vice-chairman of the planning committee is simply that the residents want reassurance that the application will be considered on its merits. That is what I, as their MP, am seeking on their behalf. I find it extraordinary that the hon. Gentleman is getting into the nitty-gritty of the make-up of the local planning committee. I agree that the matter will be determined at local authority level. What we are debating is the contrast between what the Conservatives have been saying in this Chamber and what they are doing on the ground with their headquarters and garden.

The hon. Gentleman raised a specific planning application in this Chamber, which I would say is inappropriate. It is certainly not a campaigning issue for Liberal Democrats locally. If he wishes to discuss garden and backland development in general, he will find that there is some cross-party consensus, but he has sought to politicise the issue for his own local reasons. I am simply drawing to hon. Members’ attention the fact that he is saying—I have no reason to disbelieve him; indeed, I believe it myself—that the autonomy and authority of the local planning authority are paramount and that the elected district councils in west Cornwall will make the right decisions for their communities. I deprecate the fact that he raised the issue and has even issued press releases about it.

I will certainly do that, Mr. Hancock.

I made it clear that I did not wish to politicise this debate. In 2007, I made it clear that I was prepared to overlook the fact that there was an application for development in the back garden of the Conservative headquarters. It was because the Conservatives changed their mind, having reassured the local community, that I am quite happy to see a political element in today’s debate. That is right and proper, given what has been said in recent years.

I will bring my remarks to a close, although I find it a bit rich being lectured on transparency and clean politics by a party that took £2 million from an impermissible donor and refuses to give it back.

I accept your admonition, Mr. Hancock.

I think the hon. Member for St. Ives and the Liberal Democrat Front-Bench team have missed an opportunity to focus on what we have worked together on, certainly since 2006. We have worked together sensibly, and he has sponsored a Bill promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden. We both believe that garden development needs to be re-examined so that we can protect gardens, and, which is more important, that there needs to be much stronger local control.

I can assure hon. Members that we have taken a principled stance. A Conservative Government will give stronger powers to local communities, and we look forward to the support of the diminished numbers of Liberal Democrats in the next Parliament. I look forward to the Minister’s remarks, and hope that he addresses the pertinent issues that have been raised today.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Hancock. Although I have enjoyed today’s debate, I have, at times, felt slightly uncomfortable. Watching the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats sparring was rather akin to watching a man and wife have a fierce row.

I congratulate the hon. Member for St. Ives (Andrew George) on securing this debate. He said at the start how lucky he was to secure the debate. I have to say that he seems to be incredibly successful in securing Adjournment debates. I recall responding to his debates on at least half a dozen occasions in respect of housing, planning and development. He serves his constituents extremely well and is extraordinarily knowledgeable about the situation. I also enjoyed the meeting that we had a week or two ago about second homes, which is an issue that really concerns him. I hope that we can have a follow-up meeting on that.

The issues raised today have been very well rehearsed, not least in Opposition day debates, on private Members’ Bills and during the passage of the Planning Act 2008. As has been mentioned several times, the debate is also very timely. We are shortly to make clear how we propose to begin a review of the evidence of the extent to which development of gardens is taking place. Today has been a good opportunity to hear views before we take our final decisions.

In the time that I have, I should like to do two things. First, I want to set out the existing policy and planning framework, which local authorities can deploy to restrict developments in gardens. Secondly, as I have alluded to, I want to outline our plans to review this matter to ascertain the precise nature, scale and incidence of the problem.

Let me start by talking about the existing policy framework. We have a robust planning framework in place to address so-called garden grabbing when it is considered to be a problem. The hon. Gentleman—because he is very knowledgeable about the matter—rightly put PPS3 at the heart of his argument. That guidance, which we published about two years ago, strengthened local authorities’ hand on the quality and design of their buildings and their effect on the neighbouring environment, and reinforced the need for all development to be in suitable locations. Let me cite a number of the parts of PPS3, which are very relevant to today’s debate.

Paragraph 38 gives local planning authorities more flexibility to determine how and where new homes should be built in their area. They also have greater responsibility to ensure that the homes are built. Paragraphs 14 and 16 make it clear that local authorities can put strong emphasis on urban and green space—those very much welcomed green lungs—which includes gardens, parks and play areas. Crucially, paragraph 43 also gives local planning authorities greater powers to have particular policies in their area, such as setting out the circumstances in which the proposed development on back-garden land may or may not be permitted. If I have time, I might cite a number of local authorities that have just done that and taken advantage of PPS3.

I also want to mention annexe B of PPS3, which gives local authorities a key power. It says:

“There is no presumption that land that is previously-developed is necessarily suitable for housing development nor”—

and this is the crucial bit—

“that the whole of the curtilage should be developed.”

In a nutshell, that demonstrates that local authorities are very much in the driving seat. Within their overall policy for the location of housing, they can decide how much reliance to place on previous residential sites, including gardens, as opposed to vacant and derelict sites.

The idea that has been hinted at today—that central Government are dictating to local authorities and telling them to consider infill on gardens—is simply wrong and misleading. As the hon. Member for St. Ives said, it is cheap party political point scoring of the lowest order, and it should be stopped. Central Government are not saying that; they are saying that local authorities have considerable autonomy and discretion to decide the plans and the framework that are suitable for their particular area.

Will the Minister concede that, if developers are making a value judgment on where to build a new development of houses and flats, it is easier for them to take the path of least resistance and build on green belt, rather than navigate the difficulties of remediation of brownfield which, as he will know, is divided between the Treasury, the Department for Communities and Local Government and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs? That difficulty predisposes developers to go for greenfield sites.

I will respond to that question in two ways. First, as I was going to say, back gardens are considered brownfield, not greenfield. Secondly, we have been extraordinarily successful in the past decade in ensuring that the brownfield first policy works. I think that the hon. Member for St. Ives mentioned our target of ensuring that 60 per cent. of all new development is on brownfield sites, but as the hon. Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt) said, we are in the high 70s: about 76 or 77 per cent. of all new development is on those sites, so it has been a huge success.

I understand the hon. Gentleman when he talks about the line of least resistance, but all the evidence suggests that we have been successful in ensuring that previously developed land—brownfield land—is used first by developers.

Notwithstanding that, does the Minister agree that if the Government followed the proposal made by the Liberal Democrat and Conservative Front-Bench spokespersons and redefined gardens as greenfield rather than brownfield, they would provide local authorities with a mechanism by which to provide greater protection for gardens?

That brings me nicely to my next point about brownfield development. However, before I refer to the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore)—he has a Second Reading of a private Member’s Bill on 8 May, I believe—I will give way to my hon. Friend, who wishes to intervene.

Does the Minister agree that money would be better spent on creating conservation areas to protect gardens rather than investing in Iceland, where Chorley has lost £2 million? The Minister may not believe this, but it is the truth: the councillor in charge of finance is Councillor Cullens, who intends to stand against me at the next election. On the one hand, he will not support conservation areas, but on the other he is happy to waste council tax payers’ money that was invested in Iceland in September. What does my hon. Friend think of that?

I am led by your direction on that, Mr. Hancock, but my hon. Friend made a strong point about conservation areas.

We had a debate in the House last night about parliamentary standards, and the idea that there is a lack of faith in our political process in this country concerns me. Certain parties, far from being do-nothing parties, say one thing when it suits them, and do another when that suits them, but that does not strengthen the political hand for any of us. Hypocrisy, which my hon. Friend’s opponent seems to be guilty of, should be avoided. It is wrong that we have such petty, small-minded, misleading and disingenuous campaigns, which the hon. Member for St. Ives highlighted.

I am sure that you want me to talk about brownfield land, Mr. Hancock, and how it could be defined. As I said, PPS3 makes it clear that the status of a site as brownfield brings no presumption that it must be developed for housing. Local planning authorities should prioritise brownfield land wherever possible, as I said, by identifying suitable sites. However, if sites cannot be identified, there is still no obligation to grant applications for development in back gardens. Local authorities can set local brownfield targets to reflect available sites, and to support and enhance the national target to build at least 60 per cent. of new homes on brownfield land. This is important in the context of what we have been debating today. Local planning authorities can set separate targets for different sorts of brownfield land, where appropriate, to give them more flexibility to shape new developments to meet the needs of their local area—including addressing the point about development in gardens where that is considered to be a local problem.

The key consideration is not whether a site is brownfield, but whether it is suitable for housing development—that it is a suitable area that will contribute to the creation of sustainable mixed communities. The Government’s position is that local planning authorities are the best judges of that, taking into account their specific circumstances and needs. Garden land development should therefore be judged locally as to whether it is conducive to sustainable mixed communities. There is no diktat from central Government—far from it—but an insistence that local authorities should judge this, in consultation with their local residents.

The Government’s position, in advance of the review findings, is that it would be wrong to deny local authorities the flexibility to set planning policies and take planning decisions based on their knowledge of areas. Wherever possible, that is our preferred approach in line with improving local democracy and accountability. We should continue to allow planning authorities to make judgments based on the knowledge of their own area, through the development of local policies and taking decisions on planning applications. I was pleased to hear the hon. Member for Peterborough (Stewart Jackson) acknowledge that considerable progress had been made over the past couple of years on strengthening local development frameworks. That is somewhat at odds with his stance on how we are moving everything towards a regional spatial strategy, but I welcomed his sentiments.

I welcome what the Minister says about its being the Government’s intention that local authorities should have maximum discretion in determining these policies. However, I hope that he will acknowledge that occasionally, on appeal, there is conflict between what planning inspectors feel to be enforceable and what local authorities believe stands up. The Government should look at this issue again. Local authorities believe that they have discretion to act in a certain way, taking into account conditions such as the number of affordable homes in a development, and then have difficulty persuading the planning inspector that their policy should have some force.

The hon. Gentleman makes a strong point. As my hon. Friend the Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle) said, appeals are an historic part of the planning process, and no one wants to get rid of what is perceived to be natural justice. If a local authority has a robust local development framework in place and it is tested through appeal, it will be in a strong position.

In the hon. Gentleman’s own area, the North Cornwall district local plan contains the following text—I believe that it is called HSG 3—to support its policy on intensification of residential use:

“Restricting the subdivision of large garden plots therefore retains the environmental quality of these areas.”

So there is an idea that the council wants to strengthen it as much as possible. Brentwood’s replacement local plan of 2005, for example, has specific policies reflecting local circumstances that any new development should reflect the character and density of the surrounding area and shall have minimum net plot sizes and minimum building line frontages.

I do not wish to be party political about this, but the London borough of Bromley—which is not yet the socialist republic of Bromley—has the following text regarding housing density and design policy. It is worth quoting to show what local authorities can do, and how they can be in the driving seat in this regard. It says:

“Backland development, including development of land surrounded by existing properties, often using back gardens and creating a new access, will generally also be resisted. Private gardens can be of great importance in providing habitats for wildlife, particularly in urban areas. Except in Areas of Special Residential Character, such development, however, may be acceptable provided it is small-scale and sensitive to the surrounding residential area. Lower residential densities than those outlined in table 4.2 will usually be required and there should be adequate access. Additional traffic should not cause an unacceptable level of disturbance to neighbouring properties, and a high standard of separation and landscaping should be provided.”

That provides robust analysis and evidence to ensure that planning applications can be brought forward in that context—something that is important and places local authorities very much in the driving seat.

I do not have time today to move to the second part of my contribution, relating to the review promised by my right hon. Friend in respect of the deliberations on the Planning Act, but I will write to those hon. Members who have contributed to the debate. It is an important point. Let me reassure—

Bristol Barrage and Severn Estuary

I always seem to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Hancock, and it is a privilege to do so once again. I am delighted to have a chance to speak on a subject that might be slightly controversial, but something that I think that we can support. First, however, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose), in whose constituency the barrage will be located. He has played a vital role in moving the barrage to its current state.

My comments today are less about this Government and more about the operation of successive Governments. The problem is that, owing to their boldness, the plans for the Severn barrage have been on the drawing board since 1974, when I was still at school. They say that a week is a long time in politics; 35 years must be getting on for a bit of a record. I wish all Ministers well in their jobs, but I must remind a few people of the facts. Ministers, rather like barrage blueprints in Somerset, come and go quickly. If I were to list every hon. Member, living and dead, to have taken responsibility for this project, we would be here until well after bedtime and the snow would be falling again.

I suspect that no one really wants to be responsible for making a decision. The Government have tried to confuse us—I say this in the nicest possible way—by deliberately changing the names of the Ministries in charge. Until very recently, barrage experts were all based at the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, which is known colloquially as “brr”—which is rather appropriate, given my struggle out of Somerset this morning. The Department has now become the principality of darkness and the Prime Minister’s new best friend—dare I say it?—Lord Mandelson, is now in charge. Whatever I might think about the noble Lord, he has a very good nose for trouble. When he took over at BERR, the controversial subject of energy was promptly shunted off to another Ministry—of silly names, dare I say it?—the new Department of Energy and Climate Change. DECC has nothing to do with our famous northern friends, Ant and Dec, although I suspect that the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change might be looking at the barrage and saying, “I’m a celebrity, get me out of here—quick!” In short, the project is one of the most poisoned chalices faced by any Minister.

One of the problems is that the scientists are at loggerheads. Energy experts say one thing and the green lobby something completely different. They are complete rivals. Engineering firms are dying to win contracts, and consultants are crawling over everything for a fat fee, and that is not to mention a whole raft of do-gooders—unelected and unaccountable—and busybodies, such as my favourite whipping horse, Mr. Humphrey Temperley, who is in charge of the flood defence committee—God help us! He has managed to get himself on so many flood defence committees that he now wears wellies in bed, I am told. He is a menace to the success of this project.

The Government have allowed all those different groups to deluge them with views over many years, which helps to explain why, after umpteen reports, inquiries and consultations, we are still discussing the idea, rather than the reality—I say that advisedly. Twenty two years ago, after 65 million quid of public money had been spent on surveys, the Severn tidal power group came out in favour of a barrage—great! However, the Government of the day fudged it. Seven years ago, the tidal power group revamped its findings, but the Government said that the project was too costly and might damage the environment—in other words, they fudged it again. The whole thing then festered until three years ago, when an outfit called the Sustainable Development Commission was given a big bung to do more—guess what—research. At our expense, it ordered no fewer than five new reports—wow! It also took a large volume of evidence from a wide range of organisations and consultants—cor! It also got stuck in the politically correct agenda, and I have to quote the commission because this is such appalling stuff:

“We undertook a programme of public and stakeholder engagement to explore opinions and attitudes towards tidal power in the UK and the Severn Estuary resource”.

In other words, it did more talking.

Throughout this sorry saga, there has been too much talking and—I again say this advisedly—too little action. The project is now under the control of Ant and DECC, but Miliband minor may have actually come up with a few surprising signs of movement. Just a few days ago, the Government thankfully nailed their colours to the mast and produced a shortlist of possibilities, for which we are grateful. They have done the courageous thing: they have made a choice—sort of. The Government now have—wait for it—five different ideas for the Severn estuary, with plans for three possible barrages and two lagoons. First, there is the Shoots barrage up near the toll road over the Severn, which is estimated to cost £3.2 billion and designed to generate slightly less than 1 per cent. of the UK’s electricity—the rough equivalent of a very large coal-fired power station.

Secondly, there is the Beachley barrage, which is slightly smaller and further upstream than the Shoots barrage. It is priced at £2.3 billion, but it would generate much less electricity. Thirdly, however, there is the monster: the Cardiff to Weston barrage, between Brean down and Lavernock point, which could provide more than 5 per cent. of the UK’s electricity. This is the one that the environmentalists—to their shame—really hate. Critics say that the birds will have nowhere to feed, that the construction might get in the way of shipping and that it could cause flooding.

Next there are the lagoons: Fleming lagoon, over on the Welsh shore of the estuary between Newport and the Severn road crossing; and the Bridgwater bay lagoon, which will be on the English side of the estuary between Hinkley Point and Weston-super-Mare. This is the one that could really affect my constituency. Will the Minister give me cast-iron assurances today that a lagoon so close to Hinkley Point nuclear power station would not hinder its vital supply of cooling water or the outflow? She is well aware of the new developments at Hinkley and the possible building by EDF of two new reactors, but I wonder what the impact will be on the seaside holidaymakers who are absolutely crucial to that part of the coastline, not just in Weston-super-Mare but in Brean and in Burnham, which are in the constituencies of my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare and my right hon. Friend the Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory). Tourism is an absolutely vital ingredient of our local economy and we just cannot afford to lose the seaside because of a lagoon.

I sympathise with the dilemma facing Ministers. There are a great many unknowns, and I suspect that there always will be, but so much research has already been done that I wonder whether the latest round of consultations are a convenient excuse to put everything on the back burner again. As the Secretary of State might say about this case, “My indecision is final.” One might say, “Shall we have lunch, Secretary of State? Perhaps you would like to see the menu? Perhaps not. Suppose we add some extra courses?” When we look more closely at the Government’s position, we find that they have actually announced that there will be yet another three-month consultation before any one of those five plans can be rejected.

But hold on, there is a little more. An extra half a million quid of public money is about to be spent on developing other innovations, such as the tidal reef and the tidal fence. So, again we might be saying, “Bring on the new technologies and let’s have another hugely expensive public consultation exercise. How about next year—after lunch?” It is up to the Minister to decide.

Somewhere over the rainbow, perhaps after the next election, someone might make some sort of decision about this, but then again, perhaps not. I yet again urge the Minister to clarify what the Government would like. I represent Bridgwater and west Somerset. I am keen on using natural energy, if it works, but I am keener on keeping the lights burning in places such as Minehead where we need to keep people warm, so I am delighted—I mean this—that the Government have taken the future of nuclear energy seriously.

EDF Energy now runs Hinkley B nuclear power station, which it has taken over from British Energy, and it plans to build new reactors on the site. Not only will that contribute enormously to the UK’s energy needs and our energy security, but—more importantly, from a personal point of view—it will create vital jobs in the local economy and at our local colleges.

The difference between nuclear power and harnessing the tidal flow is that nuclear has a proven record—it is possible to look at it both ways, but it has a proven record. The estuary has never been given a chance. Even in France, the tidal project that is up and running is Mickey Mouse compared with what we are looking to do in the UK. I applaud the Government for what they are doing, but there is no real equivalent anywhere in the world to a civil engineering project on such a scale.

I live close to the Bristol channel. I have spent my time going down to the sea—occasionally wanting to chuck myself in when it all goes wrong—and watching the behaviour of oyster catchers and ringed plovers. I live in the most beautiful part of the world. However, to be brutally frank, I have witnessed swifter decision making by our visiting feathered friends. The water birds wade in the waves and get on with it. Dare I say that consecutive Ministers have wallowed and wavered? Yes, hon. Members have guessed it: the only winners after three decades of Government indecision are the blessed birds themselves. The Severn estuary is designated a special area for conservation. There is nothing wrong with that; in fact, it is absolutely right. I know that it is a special place—I live there—but this is why I tried to secure the debate.

Every year, up to 85,000 migrating birds pass through my constituency and stop off at our beautiful estuary, so there is an awful lot of flapping, squawking and carrying on. People cannot move for curlews and dunlins, and all sorts of greedy waders fill their beaks on the mudflats of Bridgwater bay. What will happen to those mudflats if one of these three barrages is built? Will the birds take off and simply fly elsewhere and, to be brutally frank, does it matter if they do—they are birds? I am not sure of the answer, but I do not know whether the Minister is sure, either, because this area has not been explored. The only people who say that they are sure are the bird lovers of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, who are forever on the local television, condemning everybody. The RSPB is so sure of itself that it has got involved in some high-powered and very expensive lobbying, which, I am afraid, makes the recent antics of a handful of Labour Lords look like chicken feed.

The RSPB is backing the idea of lagoons as though it was the holy grail. It supports an American company called Tidal Electric, which says that it can construct shallow lagoons to trap incoming water and then release it through turbines when the tide goes back out. The RSPB paid for an impressive report by the British engineering giant WS Atkins, which handles huge Government contracts—for example, it takes care of the roads in Somerset—but the firm will write a report for anybody, providing they foot the bill, because that is the name of the game. Guess what? Atkins now favours lagoons—funny that, especially when it does a lot of work in Somerset.

Meanwhile, Tidal Electric insists that its lagoons could generate almost as much power as the best barrage, but that that would cost the taxpayer absolutely nothing. It sounds like the bargain of a lifetime, but most bargains, as we Members of Parliament know, are too good to be true. We have free lagoons versus billions on the barrage. The cost of constructing the biggest barrage is already being talked about as being in the region of £20 billion at today’s prices, although it might be slightly more or less than that. For months, I had the uncomfortable task of sitting on the Committee that considered the Crossrail Bill and watching the public cost of Crossrail going up like a high-speed taxi meter in a gridlocked London traffic jam, which is rather pertinent given the conditions of the past two days. The cost of the barrage might be £20 billion now, but by the time whichever Government make the decision to actually build it, it will cost a few squillion more.

Even the bargain basement lagoon will not be cheap and, as always, the taxpayers will end up footing the bill. I am afraid that I do not think that the lagoon will be free and I am certainly not seduced by the RSPB. No one has, to my knowledge, ever built a working lagoon of this size, but there are not a whole lot of working barrages like the ones planned for the Severn either.

What I am getting at with this? Some 35 years ago, when the prime source of electricity in this country was coal, people started dreaming up ways to trap the energy of the sea, which was fantastic. I was 15 then, and I am heading for 50 in a month’s time, yet we are still too far from that point and still too busy talking about whether it would be a good idea. We do not know all the answers—we accept that—and perhaps we never will, but we must try to understand.

The gossip is that Ministers favour the big 10-mile barrage but do not want to upset the bird lovers by saying so. Britain is used to innovation; we are a country of innovation. Brunel left his mark on my part of England because he took risks. The time for shilly-shallying is over. I say to the Minister: please make the decision, build the barrage and to hell with the RSPB. Let us get the job done as quickly as possible.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. Liddell-Grainger) on securing the debate and on the way that he presented his case. I am rarely amused in Westminster Hall, but I have been thoroughly amused this morning, and I thank him for it.

The hon. Gentleman said that it had taken all of 35 years, and that he is familiar with it all. Coming from south Wales, and having been at school there, I am also familiar with the proposals over the period that he mentioned. For me, it was always an exciting possibility, but one that clearly had huge impacts on the local environment, no matter which side of the estuary one came from.

As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change said at the launch of our first consultation on the issue last week, we want an open debate about whether a Severn tidal power scheme can help us meet our climate change and energy goals. Although it has been a long time coming, the consultation is serious and focused, lasting three months. It is occurring because we want to go to the next phase and make a decision.

There must be an open debate with stakeholders, with the public and here in Parliament. To help inform that debate, we have published alongside the consultation document a number of detailed reports covering the range of issues under consideration. They include the scope of the strategic environmental assessment, the potential finance and ownership options, the regional economic impacts and a preliminary review of compensation and mitigation requirements under the habitats directive. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, who spoke at the Severn tidal power parliamentary forum last week, has already offered to hold two further parliamentary briefing sessions during the consultation to cover in more detail the economic and environmental impact work done so far in the feasibility study.

Combating climate change while ensuring secure energy supplies is the biggest long-term challenge that we face. Hon. Members will know that we have committed to providing 15 per cent. of our energy from renewable sources by 2020 and adopted a domestic target of an 80 per cent. reduction in greenhouse gases by 2050. To meet those requirements, we will need greater energy efficiency coupled with low or no-carbon generation, including nuclear power and renewables. Our actions must be not only ambitious but fair and sustainable, and we must consider all reasonable options.

In that context, consideration must be given to harnessing the power of the Severn estuary, with its phenomenal 14-metre tidal range. As the hon. Gentleman said, it could provide some 5 per cent. of UK electricity from a renewable, indigenous resource. It is a hugely important option. The Cardiff-Weston barrage, which he favours, could save 7 million tonnes of CO2 a year and have an operational life of more than a century, which would be more than equivalent to turning off two medium-sized coal-fired power stations.

Of course, before we take a decision on whether to support a Severn tidal power scheme, we must understand all the pros and cons. As the hon. Gentleman said, that takes time. We must understand the potentially considerable effects on the estuary’s unique and internationally important environment, the possible impacts on flooding, the impacts on the people and economies—he mentioned tourism—of the south-west and Wales and how a scheme could be financed and owned. Only when we have that information will we decide whether we want to support a scheme, and that decision will be a question of which of all the alternative low-carbon options offers the best, fairest and most sustainable way to meet our climate change goals.

Over the past year, we have begun the work that we need to do, building on the valuable work done by the Sustainable Development Commission, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned. We have assessed, in high-level terms, the costs, benefits and impacts of 10 possible schemes and are consulting on a list of the five schemes that we consider are technically and economically feasible—the schemes that we believe could be built. The consultation will cover the process used to move from the long list to the shortlist, the proposed shortlist and the proposed issues for further investigation, including the scope of the strategic environmental assessment.

As the hon. Gentleman said, the shortlist includes two lagoons—one proposed for Bridgwater bay and one on the Welsh shore of the estuary—a larger tidal barrage between Lavernock point and Brean down, known as the Cardiff-Weston barrage, and two smaller barrage proposals, at Beachley and Shoots. Those schemes vary in cost between £2 billion and £21 billion. They also differ in respect of potential environmental and regional impacts and the way in which they could be financed and owned. The hon. Gentleman has said that the taxpayer will always have to pay. That is not our assessment. We believe that there would need to be very serious public money for the Cardiff-Weston barrage because of the huge cost, but it is not impossible that some of the smaller proposals could be funded entirely by the private sector.

All schemes would impact on the estuary’s unique environment by reducing designated intertidal areas, displacing protected bird species and threatening migratory fish, with the scale of the impact varying between the different schemes. Clearly, that is why we have to assess all of them. More work will be done this year further to understand the scale of the potential impact on the environment and how those impacts could be mitigated or, if not mitigated, compensated for as required by law. We do not take threats to biodiversity lightly, but climate change is probably the greatest threat to biodiversity, not least through rising sea levels.

All the schemes are likely to have, on balance, positive regional economic and employment benefits, with the Cardiff-Weston barrage potentially bringing 1,500 net additional jobs over a seven-year construction period and smaller schemes bringing an additional 500 jobs over a five-year construction period. Of course, we also recognise the potential impacts on the estuary’s ports and other industries such as fishing and tourism, to which the hon. Gentleman alluded. Clearly, that has to be taken into account in any of these debates. As I said, the smaller schemes could be constructed by the private sector alone, but we believe that the Government will be required to help if the largest of the schemes goes ahead.

The hon. Gentleman raised a number of points, particularly about the impact on Hinkley. We recognise that there is concern about flooding in the Severn region if a Severn tidal power scheme goes ahead. We will need in-depth investigation involving the Environment Agency to examine that issue. We already know that much more work will be needed over the coming year, but at this stage we do not expect the higher low-tide levels behind a barrage significantly to affect any upstream flooding caused by rain—the hon. Gentleman will be familiar with the major floods in Tewkesbury in 2007. It is even possible that some schemes could provide extra protection from flooding caused by strong storm surges from the sea. That was one of the aspects advanced in support of the outer barrage, which has not been included in the shortlist because we consider it simply unaffordable.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the impact on Hinkley. Again, that needs to be fully understood and examined. The strategic environmental assessment that we are doing within the study will examine the impact of a Severn tidal power scheme on existing and planned infrastructure in the Severn estuary region. That is the assurance that I can give him: we are entirely mindful of the present infrastructure and any future developments. That all has to be taken into account. A decision on whether we want to support a Severn tidal barrage will have to take in the wider context of all our alternative options for meeting our climate and energy objectives. As he said, nuclear power will play an important part in meeting those objectives.

The hon. Gentleman also mentioned the tidal reef and tidal fence. I want to say a quick word about those technologies, which are not on the shortlist. We are keen not to rule out those innovative new schemes but they are not sufficiently developed technically at the present time, so there must be more detailed evaluation if they become technically feasible.

We are committed to considering the progress of those technologies before taking a decision in 2010, after a second public consultation, so that is why we will need to see what technical developments they can bring on stream in time for that second consultation. In order that those technologies should have a fair chance of being selected, we have provided £500,000 of public money to examine them. They have their supporters, they are interesting schemes and we must give them a fair chance as we are progressing.

The hon. Gentleman said that he thought that perhaps we just wanted to prevaricate further and put this issue on the back burner. I can assure him that that is absolutely not the attitude of Ministers. We have taken seriously our commitments on climate change and on renewable energy, and we know that this scheme could play a very significant part in meeting those commitments, so we are very keen to move ahead as fast as is reasonable, while treating consistently all the issues that must be discussed.

We do not think that it will be possible to deliver on our climate change goals without radical action and without making tough choices. We are absolutely committed to ensuring that we take those choices in a way that is fair to people, communities and businesses, and in a way that is also sustainable. As I have said, we are also absolutely committed to entering an open dialogue on whether or not harnessing the vast power of the River Severn has a role to play in meeting our goals.

I am so sorry to tell the hon. Gentleman this, because it is exactly what he does not want to hear, but to that end there will be a second public consultation. However, at that point, we will have so much more material—so much more concrete evidence—to put before people and it is only in that way that we can move towards making a proper decision.

Meanwhile, I hope that all hon. Members will join in the current debate, keeping an open mind until we have the evidence we need to make an informed decision on whether or not we want a Severn tidal scheme to go ahead. I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving us the opportunity to have a very interesting exchange; I know that it will be the first of many that we will have.

Identity Cards (Welsh Language)

I am grateful to have the opportunity to raise this important issue today. I am pleased to see my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) and the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mark Williams).

This week, we have had the publication of the Welsh language legislative competence order, which is another historic step forward in developing the use of Welsh in public life. I want to start by referring to the enormous progress that we have made in the past 50 years in the development of the use of Welsh in public life and to say, therefore, why it was so disappointing to see that there was no Welsh text on the first identity cards.

I remember well going to visit my grandmother when I was a child, who never spoke anything but Welsh to us and always wanted us to use Welsh. Yet, when she sent a birthday card, the little note inside it would invariably be written in English—an English that was clearly a literal translation of the Welsh. That is because she was born in 1901 and had little opportunity to use Welsh in an educational context. Therefore, when using money and writing notes she used English—although as she was a Sunday school teacher, she had a good knowledge of biblical Welsh. That is one of the reasons why Welsh has remained so strong in many of our communities through the centuries.

Just before Christmas, I had the opportunity to be present in Llangennech community hall in my constituency. They have named one of the halls in the new centre “Beasley hall”. Members of the Beasley family were there to commemorate the fact that it was their family who had objected to having a rates demand that was only in English and asked to have one in Welsh. We have come a long way since those days and the majority of our documents in public life in Wales are available in Welsh if we want them to be.

My predecessor as MP for Llanelli, Jim Griffiths, is famous to many for his role in the post-war Labour Government and for introducing national insurance. We sometimes forget that he was also passionate about Welsh and about setting up a separate Department in Whitehall. Eventually, towards the end of his political career, he saw that come to fruition in the setting up of the Welsh Office and he became the first Secretary of State for Wales.

Later on, in 1967, it was a Labour Government who introduced the Welsh Language Act, which laid down the principle of the equal validity of English and Welsh in Wales. By that time, enthusiasm for Welsh was growing—even in the more anglicised parts of Wales. A huge investment was made by Labour councils, such as the old Glamorgan, which in 1974 became the three Glamorgans—Mid, South and West. There was huge interest and investment in the expansion of Welsh-medium education; new schools were opened, and the element of Welsh in traditional bilingual community schools was considerably strengthened. A whole range of materials were developed that pupils could use. Someone could walk into a school and learn about millstone grit or the Vikings through the medium of Welsh. All those support materials are extremely important to developing confidence that Welsh is a language that can be used in all walks of life to talk about all subjects.

We also saw the development of the Welsh spelling of place names. Many of our place names, such as Llanelli and Llandeilo, had acquired an anglicised look, possibly because of the English-speaking census collectors in the 19th century. Gradually, in the 1960s, partly through some of the good work done by the Royal Mail and a number of enthusiasts, we restored the authentic Welsh spelling to many of our place names in Wales.

Why, then, does it matter so much to have Welsh text on ID cards? There are four main reasons. First, those whose native or preferred language is Welsh expect to see it. They expect to see Welsh on most official signs and on official documents, and they expect to have the opportunity, if they so wish, to read the Welsh part of a form or see the Welsh part of a sign. It is important that we set a good example, lead from the front on this matter and make sure that those things are there.

Secondly, using Welsh on ID cards sends a clear message that it has equal validity with English, and that is what was said in the 1967 Act. Welsh is not just the language of the kitchen or the farm yard; it can be used in official settings. If people see that Welsh is there, they may begin to use it in dialogue. The fact that someone can see the Welsh sign and that they are greeted in Welsh may mean that they continue to use Welsh. Welsh text sends out a clear message that people can use Welsh, and it acts as an encouragement for them to do so. It is important, too, to emphasise the fact that Welsh is a living language. It is used all the time. It is not a fossilised language, such as Norman French, that is brought out on occasions and for ceremonies. As we invent new things such as dishwashers or computers, we find valid Welsh words for them and so our language grows. When we introduce jargon, such as “antisocial behaviour”, we have valid Welsh words for them. The use of Welsh, both in the printed form and in the media, is extremely important in modernising our vocabulary, so that we can talk about all sorts of modern devices and not just recite the parables in the Bible.

The fourth reason for using Welsh text is that it builds up confidence. Some 20 per cent. of people in Wales define themselves as Welsh speakers. We have many who do not have a great deal of confidence in their Welsh. They will even say to Welsh speakers, “I don’t think that I can speak Welsh to you because your Welsh is too good for me.” They may not have had the opportunity to have all their education through the medium of Welsh. In addition, among the 80 per cent. of non-Welsh speakers, we have a lot of people who have a keen interest in Welsh. They like to see it being used and to see that opportunity there for people who can use it. They often benefit themselves from seeing signs and forms in Welsh because it helps them to develop their own vocabulary. It often reminds them of things that they vaguely remember from their time at school but they have not used in their lives since.

One other important way of expanding the use of Welsh is through television and radio. The 1967 Act laid the foundations for Radio Cymru and S4C. They were important landmarks that came out of that Act. Does my hon. Friend agree that that is important for the whole cultural spirit of Wales?

Absolutely. If we talk about the modern context, it is far more important to be able to say and hear something than to be able to write it down. As for influencing people’s lives, the development of radio and TV has been immensely important. It provides the opportunity to use Welsh in all contexts that go far beyond people’s own experience in the home.

Therefore, we have made huge progress. Government Departments have done their bit as well. If someone wants to discuss their tax, they can ring up a Welsh helpline. If someone needs advice or help on issues raised by the Department for Work and Pensions, they can ring up a Welsh helpline. There has been tremendous progress not just in the written language but in providing the opportunities for people to speak Welsh if they wish to. The utility companies have adopted similar policies and helplines. With the use of technology now, there are so many ways in which we can make things bilingual.

The question is, what went wrong? Are we now saying, “How do we fit three languages on the ID card that we have designed?” What we should say is, “How do we design an ID card to fit three languages?” I say three languages because the rule is that we need two EU languages. Whereas my passport has English and French, and my driving licence Welsh and English, we will need three languages on the ID card. That is not impossible because there is a number by the words “name” or “address” and then there is a key. On the back of my driving licence there is not only English and Welsh, but a lot of little pictures of various vehicles. I am sure that on an ID card there could be room for a third language. On my passport, I have a key, and I can see that my passport was issued in 2002. At that time, 12 official EU languages were listed. Therefore, it does not seem to be a great deal to ask that we should get three languages on the ID card. I hope that the Minister will arrange for that to happen as soon as possible.

I very much agree with the hon. Lady. She is a former teacher, and she expressed concisely and clearly her frustrations at the inability to get the issue of languages addressed on the cards. Does she share my concern about the timetable and the assertion that we will not hear from the Minister until 2011? We have heard some warm, encouraging words from the Minister about her intention to pursue the issue, but should we wait until 2011? Does the hon. Lady share my regret that, as part of the roll-out of the voluntary ID card system, young people and students will be offered ID cards in 2010 without any provision for the Welsh language?

Indeed I do, which is why I asked why we had to think about fitting something on to the card when we could have designed the card to fit the purpose. I share the hon. Gentleman’s disappointment, but I look forward to better things in future.

It is a great pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith) and I congratulate her on securing this important debate. As she indicated, we follow two very important figures not only in Welsh politics, but in British politics: Jim Griffiths, a former deputy leader of the Labour party and the Minister who introduced national insurance; and Cledwyn Hughes, a predecessor of mine, the second Secretary of State for Wales—he followed Jim Griffiths into the office—who introduced the Welsh Language Act 1967, which was the first such Act. I am proud to follow my hon. Friend, and it is fitting that I do so.

Jim Griffiths and Cledwyn Hughes believed in a Welsh identity in a British context. They believed that they could be proud to be British and proud to be Welsh, and saw no contradiction in those things. Both men were instrumental in promoting the legal status of the Welsh language through the 1967 Act. My hon. Friend alluded to some of the provisions, including the right to have forms in the Welsh language. The Act set that important precedent.

Jim Griffiths and Cledwyn Hughes were pragmatists. They understood that problems of this nature had to be dealt with incrementally, so that people could catch up with the changes. They understood both what was practical and what could be achieved. It is important to refer to those very important parliamentarians—they graced Westminster and were well thought of for their Welsh identity, and for the way in which they represented Welshness in British politics.

It will be no shock to the Minister that I am not a fan of ID cards per se, but the debate has moved on, and we are now looking at the practical elements and asking how to move forward. We should do so by introducing a Welsh text on to the ID card. Welsh identity is important. To many Welsh people, that identity is partly expressed through the Welsh language, along with history, culture, heritage, and a sense of belonging.

I welcome the early attention that the Minister has given to Welsh text and bilingualism, and the discussions that she has had with me and other parliamentary colleagues. It is important to have such a dialogue. In the few minutes that I have to speak, I intend to say what I think is the practical way forward, so that our aspirations can be met.

I am mindful of the debacle that surrounded the 2001 census—a Welsh box was not on the original forms—which rightly caused uproar. People in Wales felt that their identity was being sidelined. That situation will be rectified by the 2011 census, but if there had been greater consultation and dialogue prior to the database being set up, the debacle could have been avoided. There is no problem with it now, but there would have been no problem at all had there been such consultation. I thank the Minister for having such an open dialogue and, indeed, the Home Office for consulting more widely. As many of us in Wales say, the Welsh language does not belong to any one group, and certainly not to any one political party: it belongs to the people of Wales.

I am very pleased to hear that. Does the hon. Gentleman agree with the hon. Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith) that the Welsh learners—the people who have moved to Wales and feel passionately about the language—are a very important lobby that needs to be considered? It is important to take into account the confidence and passion of those who wish to feel a sense of belonging.

On a personal note, I had to learn Welsh. My mother came from the capital of north Wales—Liverpool—and the language spoken at home was English. I missed out somewhat, but my mother contributed a great deal to Welsh society. She could not speak Welsh fluently but could write it and Latin and a number of other languages, and used to help to translate letters from Welsh into English. Non-Welsh-speaking people can contribute to Welsh society in many ways, but the Welsh language is part of the sense of belonging and identity so it is important that we develop and use it in practical ways.

I urge the Minister, as part of her consultation, to talk to such august bodies as the Welsh Language Board, which was established under the 1967 Act. The board has had many people as its chair who have all taken it forward. I also urge the Minister to talk to local authorities as they often produce literature and cards in both Welsh and English. Reference has been made to the DVLA, which has overcome various problems to include data on driving licences.

Yesterday was an historic day for the Welsh language, with the publication of the legislative competence order which will further enhance the Welsh language. It will be debated in this House and we hope it will give Welsh and English equal status. The term “equal status” expresses the hope that Welsh and non-Welsh speakers will be on an equal footing in a confident, bilingual Wales.

Like Jim Griffiths and Cledwyn Hughes and my hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli, I am proud to be both Welsh and British. The United Kingdom is a diverse country and reflects its nations and the regions. I think it appropriate openly to express our identity, and one way of doing so would be to have the Welsh text on any identity card. My friend and near neighbour, the great linguist Professor David Crystal, never tires of saying that Welsh is one of the only minority languages to have grown over the past 50 years; many have declined. He talks about that at great length. That growth has been allowed to happen because of measures passed at Westminster, such as the 1967 Act and the Welsh Language Act 1993. The LCO will be an important addition to them.

The people of Wales understand that there are practical difficulties, but I think that including the Welsh text is a reasonable request. Some problems have been identified—for example, the limited space available on the data cards, the collation of information, and the costs involved—but they can be overcome, as has happened with various other Welsh cards. Databases and software can be made to cope, as we have seen with other EU languages.

There has been a leap forward in that Welsh has been used at EU level. I think that the inclusion of the Welsh text on the ID cards will marry well with that development and the fact that the LCO will promote equal status. I say again that I think inclusion of the Welsh text is a reasonable request and I believe the Minister to be a reasonable person. I also believe that people at the Home Office are reasonable and will have understood that the people of Wales want to express their Welsh identity in their unique way. Including Welsh on the ID card will be a great advantage in promoting the diversity of the United Kingdom, allowing Welshness to be expressed in that way. Who knows? I may even grow to like ID cards.

It is a pleasure, as ever, to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Hancock.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith) for securing this debate on the important issue of the inclusion of Welsh text on UK identity cards. It is fitting that we are having the debate today after what was a historic day yesterday in the history of the Welsh language, with the introduction of the Welsh language LCO by the Welsh Assembly. As hon. Members have eloquently described it, we are on a mission and a journey for the Welsh language, whether or not we are Welsh ourselves. As a UK Minister, I regard it as being very much part of my responsibilities to represent the whole of the UK and to be sensitive to the issues that matter in different nations and regions of the UK.

It is important that identity cards are introduced in a way that ensures that they are as convenient to use as possible for members of the public across the United Kingdom and that the individual’s identity is reflected as well as it can be. The Government recognise that, in Wales, the Welsh language is an important part of the identity of people who live in that nation, particularly those who have a Welsh linguistic and cultural heritage.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) has suggested, I have had conversations with a number of colleagues in Parliament about the issue, particularly with my hon. Friend himself and my hon. Friends the Members for Llanelli and for Conwy (Mrs. Williams), who have been very vocal on the issue. What has been interesting is that a lot of English-speaking Welsh MPs who represent English-speaking parts of Wales have also come up to me and made a point of stressing their support for that measure. I am always keen to talk to all hon. Members who represent Welsh constituencies about their concerns and about other issues relating to that subject.

I am very supportive in principle, as my hon. Friends are aware, of doing what we can to provide an option of having Welsh language on identity cards. We still have to determine exactly how that can be done—it is not as straightforward as it may seem, as I will go on to explain—but I can give a commitment that we will make a final decision well in advance of the high-volume roll-out of identity cards that will start in Wales, as in the rest of the United Kingdom, in 2011 or 2012.

I will go into that timetable a little more later. However, I just want to explain the timetable that has applied so far. As my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn has said, ID cards are here. The Act creating them was passed in 2005, it became law in 2006 and at the end of last year we began introducing cards for foreign nationals; 25 November 2008 was when the scheme went live. From the end of this year, airport workers in Manchester and London City airports will receive the first identity cards for British citizens, along with a few volunteers who are keen to take up the cards early. From next year, young people in certain parts of the country will be issued with cards. I will go into that in a little more detail shortly, for the benefit of the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mark Williams), to explain how that will work and why young people in Wales are probably unlikely to be affected at that point. From then on, everyone will have the opportunity to get either a passport, an identity card, or both.

I must stress why the national identity card scheme is important. It is important that we have strong safeguards to protect our identity and to protect us from those who would hurt us, our families and our communities. The identity card scheme is one way that we can help to do that across the piece.

The cards that are being issued to foreign nationals may go to some people who currently live in Wales. However, as those cards are only issued to foreign nationals and must meet a common standard throughout the United Kingdom, they do not include the Welsh language. We are bound, quite rightly, by certain European rules on how we can frame the card. In order for the cards to be useful, it is important that they are recognisable across the whole of Europe.

As I have said, the first British citizens to receive identity cards will be those who are working in airports. The first airports that we are working with are Manchester and London City, and we do not have any immediate plans to issue identity cards to airside workers at airports in Wales. However, if any hon. Member wishes to raise with me the issue of an airport in Wales engaging in that part of the scheme, we would be very keen to talk to them. It may be a little late, at this point, for Welsh airports to participate in that first wave, but we are incrementally rolling out identity cards and we expect that they will go to Wales in due course.

At that point, we will also issue the first identity cards for British citizens to a limited number of volunteers who will have pre-registered their interest, which will happen in certain areas of the country. The precise locations of those people and of the young people who will get the cards from next year have yet to be identified. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary was in Manchester last week, and local authorities and other key partners there have expressed some interest in it becoming one of the first areas of the country to have the cards for young people, but no final decisions have been made. The discussions on cities and regions to start issuing identity cards to young people have focused so far on cities and regions in England and not yet Wales. However, as I said, I am keen to talk to hon. Members. If they would like to promote this interest in an area of that nation, we would be keen to discuss that with them.

I have always maintained that it makes sense to implement identity cards incrementally, not in a one big bang approach. However, from 2012, the cards will be issued on a voluntary basis—it is not a compulsory scheme—to British citizens in all parts of the United Kingdom. That will be alongside the issue of 5 million to 6 million British passports every year.

We currently have Welsh language on passports, but it is worth stressing the difference between a passport and an identity card. If hon. Members look at their passports, what is on the page with their photograph is broadly what will be on an identity card, but it is twice the size of an identity card. On that part of the passport, no Welsh language appears; the Welsh language on passports appears in the explanatory notes. Under EU rules, we have to have two full European languages on them. Welsh is now considered a minority European language. It is not one that would qualify to appear in place of the French that we choose to put on the British passport and the language that we will put on identity cards.

Another challenge is the length of words in the Welsh language. We would have difficulty in fitting the same words on to a very small identity card. However, I can reassure my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn and other hon. Members that we are sensitive to these issues. The Identity and Passport Service is in regular contact with the Welsh Language Board and the Welsh Assembly Government. We are considering how best to meet the expectations of people in Wales. I welcome the suggestion of liaison with local authorities. Across the UK as a whole, I and the Home Office generally will be doing more of that to discuss the roll-out of identity cards.

However, we are not able to introduce Welsh on the initial identity cards, as I have explained. We are considering options for doing so when we move to the introduction of the second generation card in line with the upgraded passports. We have to tackle the issue sensibly and I appreciate the suggestions that we do that practically. We are looking to issue cards in a process that is along the lines of the current process for driving licences, whereby anyone with a Welsh postcode is issued with a card with headings in Welsh as well as English. As I have highlighted, there are technical and space issues that we need to resolve, but where there is a will, there is a way, and we need to find a viable option.

I appreciate the Minister’s saying that she is willing to consult local authorities and examine what they are doing. Will she agree to meet me and colleagues from Wales and the Welsh Language Board to see how those early cards for driving licences were introduced?

I am certainly happy to do that if we can get it in fairly quickly, but I know that officials are already having discussions. In fact, the issue was first raised with me when I was at a roadshow in Cardiff about what identity cards would mean. People there were very concerned, and since then hon. Members have raised the subject with me persistently. We need to ensure that we do not underestimate the practical difficulties but, as I said, where there is a will, there is a way, and we need to find that. However, we do need to meet the International Civil Aviation Organisation standards and the EU standards. The cards need to be useful. It is no good having Welsh on them if that makes them less functional, so we have to get that balance right, but I do not think that means that we will not have Welsh; it just means that we have to answer those questions.

To avoid confusion, I should stress that when we talk about headings, we are talking about name, date of birth and so on. If someone has a Welsh name, that will obviously be on the card.

I look forward to contributions from hon. Members to the consultation that is under way and that ends at the end of next week on secondary legislation for identity cards. I urge them not only to contribute themselves, but to urge organisations in their constituencies to do so. I am happy to provide information outside this debate.

I hope that today I have reassured hon. Members—on the record, not just in conversations with colleagues separately—that we take this matter very seriously. We are considering how best to meet the expectations of people in Wales and to ensure that their identity is properly reflected on a UK identity card when the cards are introduced in high volumes, including to people living in Wales, from 2012.

Tax Credits

I am pleased to have secured this debate, and I welcome the opportunity to put concerns to the Minister on behalf of my constituents. However, it is regrettable that so long after the identification of the problems with the tax credit system, mistakes are still occurring and even getting worse.

Difficulties with tax credits cause stress and heartache at the best of times, but in this time of economic hardship, sudden demands for repayment could be enough to push many families over the financial edge. It is therefore more important than ever that the Government act to reduce the misery caused to families across Britain by the maladministration of tax credits.

The fundamental problem with the administration of tax credits is that the system is too complicated. It is not only claimants who find it difficult to understand what their entitlements are; Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs officials have found the system so difficult to administer that an endless catalogue of mistakes has resulted in the loss of more than £14 billion of public money through overpayments, fraud and error since April 2003. If the system is not simplified, that figure will surely continue to rise. In this short debate, I will highlight three major problems with tax credits: overpayments, underpayments and the worrying non-claiming of tax credits by many who are eligible.

In 2006-07, one in five families claiming tax credits was overpaid, which means that some 1.2 million families were overpaid a total of £1.1 billion by HMRC. In the past four years, nearly 2 million families have been overpaid more than once, and some 60,000 have been overpaid three or more times. Although the Government have acknowledged that there is a problem, the figures indicate that it has not been addressed. On the contrary, it has got worse: 400,000 more families were overpaid last year than the year before. The parliamentary ombudsman has referred to the situation as systematic maladministration.

Let us be clear about the situation that people are in. After filling in all the forms and providing all the information requested, their lives are made a little easier by tax credit payments. Then one day, out of the blue, a letter drops through the door demanding the repayment of a large sum. Understandably, many families are shocked and anxious when they read such a letter.

The average overpayment in 2006-07 was £916, which is a considerable amount, especially when one considers that most claimants are families on low incomes. For many families, the overpayment is several thousand pounds, which is an unthinkable sum for a working family to have to find suddenly. Some of my constituents have been in that situation. One constituent wrote to me and said that they were “traumatised”. That is an intense word to use, but it describes what people feel when a financial bombshell is suddenly dropped on them. Dealing with the tax credit office can involve many phone calls and letters. A common feeling was summed up by one of my constituents who wrote:

“I am completely frustrated and disillusioned.”

Elizabeth O’Brien is a single mother in my constituency. When her son left school in 2005 and she continued to receive tax credits, she immediately contacted the tax credit office, both by phone and in writing, to check whether she was still eligible. Despite her efforts to keep the tax credit office informed of her situation, she was eventually overpaid £1,982.92.

Mrs. O’Brien was distressed when she came to my surgery and explained that she was having difficulty affording the repayments. She has even had to cancel her monthly £8 union subscription. It is somewhat ironic that the policies of a Labour Government are leaving people unable to afford their union dues. Although the tax credit office was responsible for Mrs. O’Brien’s overpayment, it refused to write it off so, at the rate of £25 a month, she will be paying for the tax credit office’s mistake until 2015. That is not an isolated case. The need for continual updates to claimants’ information has caused huge difficulties. Surely it would be simpler to have a system of payments fixed on a six-monthly basis to reduce the risk of miscalculation.

The system is so complex that even the tax credit office cannot seem to work out how much people are due. Another couple in my constituency, Mr. and Mrs. MacMillan, have received a number of contradictory letters. I have copies of two award notices—from 10 November 2006 and 6 December 2006—that list exactly the same income for the couple, but give different award amounts. On 10 November, the award was £3,026.06, but less than a month later, using exactly the same information, the award was calculated as more than £1,000 lower, at £1,897.66. If the tax credit office cannot decide how much people are due, how on earth can ordinary people be expected to work it out? That, however, is exactly what the Government ask people to do.

It is not uncommon for scanning or input errors at the tax credit office to result in overpayments. My constituent, Mrs. Gallacher, was overpaid almost £5,000 after the tax credit office incorrectly recorded her and her husband’s income as £340 rather than the correct amount of about £30,000. Although she had provided accurate information from the start, she did not spot the tax credit office’s mistake, and the overpayments continued for more than two years. Mrs. Gallacher is a carer and her husband is a teacher. They have had to remortgage their house and are struggling on their current income, so the repayments demanded by the tax credit office are making life even more difficult for them. Like many others, they are unable to sell their home because of the present market. I wrote to the tax credit office about their case in December, but have so far received no response, and the money continues to be recovered. That couple now face the possible repossession of their home as a result of those problems. I would be grateful if the Minister would agree to look into that particular case and get an answer for my constituents.

More generally, I ask the Minister to offer all claimants a statutory right of appeal against overpayments and to write off overpayments that result from official errors. If nothing else, that might be an incentive for the tax credit office to get things right. In cases in which the tax credit office, not the claimant, has made an error, surely the office should carry the burden of proof, instead of expecting claimants to identify its mistakes.

Another of my constituents, Claire Robertson, was able to resolve problems with an overpayment, but then found, when she went to the cash point one day, that £6,000 had been put into her account with no explanation or warning. Given her past experience, she was understandably suspicious. She said:

“I was yet again left in a state of shock and disbelief. Not being able to obtain any details relating to the transaction until Monday morning I once again had a worrying weekend. It transpired that the money was an automatic pay in from Tax Credits for an amount oustanding! I feel the manner in which this institute deals with people’s lives and emotions is disgusting. First of all I am facing legal proceedings with an amount of approximately £10,000 now I receive £6,000 with no explanation or warning. I don't think my nerves can take much more.”

These cases demonstrate that whether a mistake has been made by the claimant or the tax credit office, and even when the claimant has diligently contacted the tax credit office to point out its mistakes, the claimant is still made to suffer, often through many years of repayment. At a time when the Government are keen to be seen as cracking down on benefit fraud, this system provides a disincentive to claimants to demonstrate honesty in coming forward when a mistake has been made. More and more families are being taken to court over this issue by HMRC, and the average number of court cases each month in this tax year is nine times higher than that in the previous year. Between April and October 2008, 5,697 families were taken to court to recover money that was lost through overpayments, and all at the expense of the taxpayer. Not only is HMRC so cavalier with taxpayers’ money that it pays out too much to more than a million families, but it then compounds its mistakes by starting thousands of costly court actions.

Overpayments are not the only problem—there are also many underpayments. Since 2003, 3.3 million people have been underpaid tax credits; again, those mistakes have often happened multiple times. Some 555,000 families have been underpaid more than once, and 82,000 have been underpaid three times or more. In 2006-07, 135,000 families were underpaid by more than £1,000, and 326,000 families on an annual income of less than £15,000 were underpaid. Missing out on £1,000 of income would be extremely difficult at the best of times, but in the current economic climate, the impact will be felt even more deeply. Hard-pressed families deserve that money and need it to buy basic groceries and children’s clothes, and to pay essential household bills.

In 2004-05, HMRC estimated that only 61 per cent. of eligible families claimed working tax credit and that 82 per cent. claimed child tax credit. Some of the people who are not claiming simply do not know that they are eligible, while others say that the claim procedure is too complicated. Perhaps most worryingly, others, including some of my constituents, have claimed tax credits in the past but have decided not to do so again because they had such a bad experience the first time. A system that was meant to help people has proved so frustrating and worrying, and caused so much misery, that people are now reluctant to claim. That is a truly damning indictment of the tax credit system.

In 2001, when the Government announced the introduction of the working tax credit and the child tax credit, the then Paymaster General, the right hon. Member for Bristol, South (Dawn Primarolo), announced in a press release:

“The Government is delivering on its promise to introduce a new streamlined system of tax credits”

and

“will provide a secure stream of income for children, whether parents are in or out of work”.

However, it became clear early on that the system was not as streamlined as promised, and in 2005 the right hon. Lady announced:

“The Government has looked to learn from the early operation of the system and will continue to do so.”

The cases I have described and many others like them clearly demonstrate that, more than three years on, the complexity of the tax credit system is still a fundamental flaw. If the Government’s objective was to provide a secure income stream for families with children, they have, by their own standards, failed. As the cases I have cited show, claimants feel anything but secure. Why has the application system not been simplified to eradicate the problems that the tax credit office is having in processing them correctly? Given the complexity of a system in which nine out of 10 families are eligible for some means-tested tax credits, would not it be more sensible and cost-effective to use the existing universal benefits system? Will the Minister at least consider an official review of the efficiency and cost-effectiveness of the present system?

I conclude with the words of one of the many people who have suffered at the hands of the tax credit system. After one of my constituents had the particularly harrowing experience of receiving a letter from the tax credit office demanding £17,000, she wrote to me stating:

“I wish I had never received family tax credits and not because I do not think it’s a wonderful concept, but because of the way it is implemented. This has to stop.”

I quite agree, and I look forward to the Government’s response.

I congratulate the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) on securing the debate. She has made several important points and raised some cases from her constituency, and I am concerned to hear what she said about them. If she wants to drop me a line about those, I will certainly investigate for her.

Tax credits provide support to almost 20 million people in this country, in around 6 million families and including 10 million children. In the hon. Lady’s constituency the average award is £3,820 a year, which according to the most recent figures is above the national average—by December 2008, 5,700 families and 8,800 children in East Dunbartonshire were benefiting from them. Tax credits have been central to reducing the tax burden on low to middle-income families, helping to ensure that around four families in every 10 in Britain pay no net tax at all.

Tax credits play an important part in helping the unemployed move into work and those who are in work to move up the employment ladder, ensuring that work pays more than welfare. They have also played a key role in reducing child poverty: as a result of all the changes to the personal tax and benefits system since 1997, families with children in the least well-off fifth of the population are now an average £4,100 better off in real terms, and that will rise to £4,400 in the new financial year.

The hon. Lady raised some points about take-up, but the take-up of tax credit is actually very high when compared with all previous in-work family support programmes, and low-income families are the most likely to take up their entitlement. The latest figures show that in 2005-06 the take-up of child tax credit was 82 per cent., with over 90 per cent. of the money available being claimed. Take-up among those with incomes of less than £10,000 a year is now 96 per cent., which is up from 93 per cent. in the first year of tax credits. That is significantly higher than for any previous system of income-related financial support for in-work families. Take-up was 50 per cent. in the early years of the family income supplement, 57 per cent. for family credit and 65 per cent. for the working families tax credit. Of course, we would like the numbers to be even higher, but it is clear from the figures that there is no widespread phenomenon of people having claimed once and choosing not to do so again. I hope that nobody is in that position; at any rate, it is not a widespread problem.

The Government want to ensure that as many families as possible take up the available help. We have set up a taskforce of experts from local authorities and the third sector, which will report in the spring with advice for local authorities on how to improve further the take-up of tax credit and benefits. We are also taking steps to ensure that childless workers claim and receive the support to which they are entitled through working tax credit. In the 2008 pre-Budget report, the Chancellor drew attention to initiatives to increase take-up of such assistance. In particular, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs has been working in partnership with other organisations to promote working tax credit in new ways. HMRC is extending its marketing of the credit to 44 organisations with 660,000 employees.

In the year ahead, HMRC will aim to increase coverage further, working with employer corporate social responsibility programmes and using the national employment partnership to draw employers’ attention to working tax credit and the opportunities for their employees. HMRC will also work alongside Jobcentre Plus to ensure that people who find a job through a jobcentre also get advice on the tax credit support available. A big programme of work is under way to ensure that people take up the help available to them, so that we can increase further the already high rates of take-up of tax credits.

The hon. Lady was right to draw attention to some of the difficulties, especially in the early days of tax credits. However, matters have improved considerably since then and HMRC is generally, but not invariably, providing a good service. I recognise, however—the cases to which she referred underline this—that there is room for further improvement. I am optimistic that the tax credits transformation programme will lead to a substantial improvement. It started in 2006 to improve the services that families receive. Through that programme, HMRC aims to provide the help that tax credit customers need when they need it. It involves a new set of services and communication products tailored to customers’ needs. Four new national services have been introduced and the programme is building on this with further pilot projects with a view to implementing them at national level once they have been proved. For example, the first of them will help customers at a difficult time in their life—during a breakdown of a relationship. That service allows HMRC to take the new claim over the phone in just one call so that the customer can get back into payment with, potentially, no delay.

In last year’s Budget, we announced a number of additions to that programme, including: increased proactive support for vulnerable customers renewing their tax credit claims; the roll-out of new services to make claiming tax credits easier and quicker; greater engagement with customers to ensure that they report changes affecting their awards and that could lead to overpayments if not reported; the introduction of more robust identity authentification of tax credit customers; new communications and guidance to ensure that people have more accessible information, allowing them either to take; the right action or know where to ask for help to take it, and work with the national network of children’s centres set up over the past decade to identify the best way to deliver tax credit advice and services to families with children under five. On that last point, HMRC officers have been going into children’s centres—I have spoken to officials at children’s centres in my constituency—and finding valuable channels through which to provide the information on tax credits that parents need. A great deal of work is being done to improve the service, although I recognise that there is further scope for improvement. HMRC is committed to making whatever potential for improvement exists into a reality.

End-of-year adjustment leading to overpayment had already fallen very significantly in 2006-07. I think the hon. Lady was referring to 2006-07 when she said that the number of overpayments had gone up, but that is not correct. The number of overpayments fell sharply in the period, by roughly a third, to £l billion, as a direct result of the successful implementation of a package of measures to improve tax credits announced by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, the then Chancellor, at the pre-Budget report in 2005. That might be the package to which the hon. Lady was referring. The current level is less than half what it was in the first year. Overpayments constitute only 5 per cent. of gross spending on tax credits, which is ahead of the projection that was made in 2005 for the fall in overpayments that would follow from the changes that we announced.

The number of families affected by overpayments is down from 1.9 million to 1.3 million, and the average overpayment is down from £827 to £738. In the hon. Lady’s constituency, the number of families affected is down from 2,200 in 2003-04 to 1,300, bringing the total amount of money down by more than a half, from £2.1million to £800,000. Of course, she is right that a single overpayment can still cause real problems, but I wanted to underline how significantly lower the number of instances is. We want to do better in future.

The policy on recovering overpayments is set out in HMRC code of practice 26, entitled, “What happens if we’ve paid you too much tax credit?” which was significantly amended at the start of last year. Previously, the policy was that an overpayment was written off if there was an official error and if it was reasonable for the customer to believe that their award was correct. However, the “reasonable belief” test caused serious concern, particularly because people’s views on what is reasonable can vary greatly.

We replaced that test in COP 26 with a much clearer test that sets out HMRC’s and customers’ responsibilities for checking factual information. In effect, it represents a contract of responsibility. It builds on the existing practice of giving customers the responsibility for checking the factual information that HMRC plays back to them: for example, how many children they have and their income. HMRC also expects customers to check that the amount going into their bank account matches the amount in the award notice.

This is important, and I am keen that hon. Members draw their constituents’ attention to it: if people check the accuracy of the information that is obtained from them, which is set out in the award notice that is sent to them, and check that the amount that is paid into their bank account matches the amount set out on the award notice, they have done all that is required of them. There is no expectation that they will know the formula, and they will not be expected to check the calculation. If there is an overpayment as a result of an official error, but the customer has met his or her responsibilities as I described, by checking the accuracy of the information on the award notice, the overpayment will be written off.

The hon. Lady drew to hon. Members’ attention, perfectly fairly, a case in her constituency, which I am aware of, where the award notice stated a household income of £340 when it was actually £34,000. If the recipient had informed the tax credit office of that error on the award notice, there would not be a recoverable overpayment. It is important that people check those notices and that if they find a mistake they let the tax credit office know. Once they have done that, their position is protected.

The Minister sets out the responsibilities of the recipients of tax credits, but surely the tax credit office has to take some responsibility when accurate information has been provided by people in good faith, after which they receive award notices. For many people, because of the complexity of the system—these are complex documents with lots of different sections—they think that it has all been done properly, having provided accurate information in the first place. So what responsibility does the tax credit office take?

Actually, in terms of presenting the information on which the claim is based, the notices that are sent out are pretty straightforward and include how many children are in the family and what the family income is. If your income is £34,000 it is easy to spot a problem with a notice saying that it is £340. All people need do is to inform the tax credit office of that error and then there will not be a recoverable overpayment. That is the checking process. Those award notices are sent out so that people have the opportunity just to check that the numbers are correct, and if they do so their position is protected.

Unfortunately, that is not the experience of all my constituents. I have constituents, as I outlined, who have taken the proactive step of trying to inform the tax credit office of changes in their circumstances, by phone and by letter, but because the tax credit office has not acted on those new pieces of information they have still found themselves with huge amounts of overpayments. It beggars belief that those people are being made to pay the cost of the tax credit office’s mistakes.

If the hon. Lady’s constituents have informed the tax credit office of errors on the award notice and if those errors have led to an overpayment, that overpayment is not recoverable. If she would like to draw my attention to any examples of that kind, that would be the outcome.

The new code of practice has gone further. HMRC now has a time limit to process reported changes of circumstances, which is, at most, 30 days. In addition, where HMRC makes an error, any overpayment will be remitted if a customer reports the error within 30 days of receiving the award notice. HMRC will remit all overpayments arising following a report from a customer of an error by HMRC. That change will mean a fairer balance of responsibilities between the customer and HMRC. I agree with the hon. Lady that it is important that there should be fairness in that relationship.

It is intended that overpayments should be recovered in a way that does not cause hardship. HMRC restricts recovery from ongoing awards to 10 per cent. for those on the maximum award, and to 25 per cent. for those on the first income taper. A 12-monthly instalment arrangement is available for those no longer receiving an award, with longer payback periods where appropriate. But if even those slow rates of recovery cause hardship, people can contact HMRC, which will consider operating a slower rate of recovery or even, sometimes, writing off overpayments if the circumstances are exceptional.

The hon. Lady asked about underpayments. I am not sure that that is necessarily a problem. In the case of an underpayment, a lump sum top-up would be paid at the end of the year, when families confirm their income and other circumstances to HMRC, if it turned out that they were due an additional sum. The sooner they renew, the sooner they will get their top-up. I would have thought that, on the whole, that is good news for those families. I do not think that that reflects errors in the system. Underpayments are a helpful part of a responsive system; they mean that there is an arrangement through which, if people’s circumstances change and their income falls, the system is able to respond quickly and provide extra help to them. That is a great strength of our flexible system of tax credits, which would be lost if we were to adopt the less flexible system that the hon. Lady suggested.

I shall mention the benefits of the tax credit system in respect of reducing child poverty, including the fall, by 600,000, in the number of children growing up below the poverty line over the last few years.

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