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Westminster Hall

Volume 487: debated on Wednesday 11 February 2009

Westminster Hall

Wednesday 11 February 2009

[Hywel Williams in the Chair]

Retained Firefighters

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

Welcome to the Chair, Mr. Williams. I am delighted to have secured the debate. It is the first debate of this sort that I have been able to secure in Westminster Hall for some time. For my constituents and many people living in rural and more remote communities, the issue is of great importance.

The debate is timely, as is reflected by the significant number of briefings and comments that it has generated. In particular, I place on record my appreciation of a briefing that hon. Members received from the Retained Firefighters Union. In highlighting the issue at this stage in the proceedings, the union has served not only its members but the communities they serve exceptionally well. It has been a model of engagement in that regard.

It is important to be clear about the parameters of what we are debating. This is not about the working time directive generally—we have debated that ad nauseam and beyond on occasions—but about its impact on retained firefighters in particular. That is distinct from any issues that the end of the opt-out from the directive might create for full-time firefighters.

Retained firefighters, who are employed under a retained duty scheme, are generally already in full-time employment with a primary employer. They supplement that employment by giving service to their communities and being available for anything up to 120 hours of “inactive on-call” time a week. They are available at the drop of a hat or the press of a pager button. They respond to road accidents, fires and the whole range of situations in which any firefighter might be called on to serve.

In some ways, the existence of the retained duty system is an historical accident; it is just how the service evolved. Often, such historical accidents provide a service that does not quite fit the needs of the community, and change can be challenging. That is not the case with the retained duty system. If we were to set out today with a blank sheet of paper to design a service to provide fire and rescue services for less densely populated areas of the country and more remote communities, I suspect that we would end up with something that looked pretty much like the retained duty system.

That is why I take any threat or challenge to that system seriously, as we all should. It is one of the most important services that any community can call on. Its importance is that, looked at in the abstract, the service is designed to meet the needs of the communities that it serves and not necessarily those of the people who provide the service.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on obtaining this important debate. Of course, as we are not starting from here, there may be slightly different arrangements, but does he agree that the vast bulk of retained firefighters, 70 per cent., work no more than 50 hours a week, including their basic job? That is slightly in excess of the 48-hour limit, but many fire authorities operate with a built-in shortage of full-time and retained firefighters, which exacerbates the situation. If they could be encouraged to staff their fire stations to the appropriate establishment, many problems, particularly south of the border—I cannot speak for Scotland—would not be as acute as the hon. Gentleman may be about to describe.

I support anything that will improve the service. If more slack can be built into the system that way, it is devoutly to be encouraged. However, for reasons that I will explain in greater detail later, the question is not just about strict interpretation of the working time directive. There are issues about how attractive it would be to allow staff—particularly those employed by small or medium-sized enterprises, which describes a lot of businesses in rural areas—to undertake duties in the retained service in the face of that pressure on working time. The law of unintended consequences can easily come into play. We must be careful to ensure that we maintain not only the structural integrity of the retained service but an environment where the service is attractive to those who would serve in it as well as to their primary employers.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate and join him in his tribute to the retained fire service as well as to full-time fire and rescue servicemen and women. They are essential to all our communities.

In hundreds of square miles in south-east Scotland, only two stations have full-time crews, each of which is backed up by a retained service. The number of call-outs for the vastly different smaller stations can range from 40 to 200 in a single year. Does my hon. Friend agree that that hints that we need as much flexibility as possible, and that we need to get out from under the strictures that the directive would enforce?

I could not agree more. My hon. Friend is right to emphasise the importance of the retained service in working alongside the full-time service, which it does very effectively in the bulk of the areas of which we have experience. He also used the word “flexibility”. That is key. The retained duty system offers all of us, in communities urban and rural, an extra degree of flexibility. If we lose that, we will lose a lot.

I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. Further to the previous intervention, the mainland highlands of Scotland have one full-time station. All the others—scores of stations across a huge rural area—are staffed by retained personnel. In my constituency, the A9, one of the most dangerous roads in Scotland, is covered between Inverness and Perth by a series of retained stations. They provide important cover. Flexibility, particularly in dealing with road traffic accidents, is highly important. Does he agree that that could be threatened if the regulations are implemented as proposed by the European Parliament?

If we did not think that there was a threat, we would not be here, to put it bluntly. The situation that my hon. Friend describes—one full-time unit for the highlands and islands in Inverness that must work alongside the retained units, which it does very effectively—is a model of joint working that we would like to see followed across the whole country.

My hon. Friend leads me nicely to my next point, which involves considering what the alternative would be to the present mix of full-time and retained duty provision. Inevitably, it would involve, in effect, a move to a full-time fire service across the whole United Kingdom. With the best will in the world, there will never be a full-time station everywhere there is currently a retained service, and anyone living farther away from full-time stations—although I grant that there would be more of them—would have longer response times. I hear that concern time and time again when I speak to people served predominantly by stations with retained duty workers.

I am slightly confused by the hon. Gentleman’s message. Is he arguing that we should retain the opt-out, or is he agreeing with what has been happening in Europe and saying that we should get rid of the opt-out, but exclude retained firefighters from it? I am not exactly clear where he is coming from.

If the hon. Gentleman had listened to my earlier remarks, he would have heard me say that I want to limit the scope of the debate quite strictly to the issue of the retained fire service.

Does the hon. Gentleman not think it is an important issue? If I had wanted to have a debate on the general question of the opt-out from the European working time directive, I would have called for such a debate.

Frankly, I am pretty agnostic about whether there will be retention of the opt-out, or some provision that will allow continuation of the opt-out for retained firefighters. Regarding the question of retained firefighters, what is important is the service that we are left with at the end of the process, not the mechanism by which we get there. If it is possible, as it were, to have our cake and eat it—I am sceptical, but we will hear what the Minister has to say—I would certainly be interested to hear it.

Yes, I do, and I will repeat what I said. That sounds like a very Liberal Democrat way of doing it. On the one hand, the hon. Gentleman is saying that he wants the 48-hour week restriction and on the other hand he is saying that he wants retained firemen to be excluded from that. You cannot have your cake and eat it. I am an ex-fireman and I have worked with retained firemen; no one has more admiration for them than me. Frankly, if the restriction went ahead, they would probably work for nothing, because they care about their community. The issue is about Europe deciding that we cannot have retained firemen paid in the UK.

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman should listen more carefully to what I am saying. I am not saying that we should have ended the opt-out; indeed, he will find that the vast majority of Liberal Democrat MEPs voted against the ending of the UK opt-out in the European Parliament when it came up for decision. I am saying that even if the opt-out is to end, we must have some mechanism that recognises the importance of the retained firefighters. I do not want to see the end of the opt-out, but if it happens we must have some provision that recognises the importance of the retained firefighting service, implemented in such a way that it will have the flexibility to ensure that we can maintain that service. That is why it is important that we engage in debate now, rather than waiting until we have a crisis in 2012.

My hon. Friend is making a powerful case for the fact that we in the United Kingdom have developed a system that serves our communities well and we are trying to find the best mechanism to ensure that it can continue, with or without the opt-out, although, like him, I would prefer to retain the opt-out—if we can retain it, we should do so.

I want to pick up on the point that my hon. Friend was making. Immediately after the vote on the opt-out was taken in the European Parliament, Councillor Mike Raeburn, who chairs the fire service in the Grampian region, contacted me, as well as other MPs and MSPs, to say that if the proposed change goes ahead, it is likely to cost the Grampian fire and rescue service between £35 million and £100 million to implement. He also said that response times would be increased. There would thus be a massive increase in cost for a reduced service and that is not an acceptable solution.

I commend my hon. Friend for trying to ensure that, working with the Government, we get something that will ensure that we can continue to provide the service that people enjoy today.

Indeed. My right hon. Friend is aware that I know Councillor Raeburn very well, having worked with him previously, and the councillor’s views should be taken seriously.

We know what the situation would be if we were to lose the flexibility that is offered by the retained firefighting service, because we have seen something similar before. It is not many years since we did exactly the same thing in Scotland with the ambulance service. The consequence of the change to the ambulance service is that although we have full-time ambulance cover across the whole of Scotland, there are longer response times and the service is patchier, notwithstanding the significant amount of money that the Government have put into the ambulance service in Scotland. Ultimately, the quality of the ambulance service has been diminished. Rather than bringing dogma to the issue, we should focus on the quality of service that we have at the end of the day.

The scale of the retained firefighting service, and its importance to people, should not be underestimated. In 2007, the UK statistical information service recorded that there were 67,951 personnel in the fire and rescue services across the UK, of whom 37,596 were in full-time units and 18,827 were in the retained duty system. In fact, 91 per cent. of the UK’s total land mass is covered by crews who operate as part of the retained duty system. Scotland has 391 fire stations, of which 321 are staffed by retained duty firefighters. That is a total of 3,429 retained duty firefighters in Scotland.

How would the ending of the opt-out affect the retained duty system? At its simplest, let us consider the firefighter who, in his primary employment, has a full-time job that engages him or her for 37 to 40 hours a week. They have a standing commitment of between two and three hours a week for training for the retained duty service, leaving them, at most, five to eight hours a week to provide the service as part of the retained duty system.

At present, individual workers enter into an agreement with their employer that they can work for more than 48 hours a week. It is called an opt-out agreement, which is a voluntary arrangement signed by both the employer and the employee. Generally, it will include an agreed period of notice to end the opt-out agreement. Obviously, employers cannot force their employees to sign it.

The agreement is flexible, fit for purpose and it works very well. It is particularly important for businesses that would be classified as SMEs. If we are talking about the provision of a fire service in rural communities in particular, hon. and right hon. Members will be aware that the vast bulk of the economic base in less populated areas tends to be SMEs. Certainly the economic base of my constituency is almost entirely built on SMEs. It is a sector where one of the unintended consequences of the ending of the opt-out may come into play, which is the point made earlier by the hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor). It is quite foreseeable that if we end the opt-out, the primary employer—if I can use that term—of a retained firefighter will say to his or her employee, “I need you to be available for 40, 43, 44, or 45 hours a week”. That may particularly be the case in the current economic climate, when everybody is trying to keep their cost base down and their margins tight. That pressure on SMEs will make it less attractive to employers to release employees to provide the type of fire service that they provide at present.

The hon. Gentleman describes the situation very well, outlining the economic trends in his part of the world. Nevertheless, has there not been a countervailing trend towards self-employment? That means that about a quarter of retained firefighters in Scotland could be self-employed—I would guess that is the proportion. Of course, the regulations do not apply to self-employed people, so is that not a factor that needs to be brought into the equation?

It is certainly a factor that must be brought into the equation. I keep coming back to the point about flexibility and, in fact, the importance of people being able to make these decisions for themselves. It would be nonsense to say that although this week I am employed in a particular capacity doing a certain job, next week I will be self-employed, so suddenly I shall be able to perform a service that otherwise I would not be able to undertake.

I have gone on for rather longer than I had intended, and I know that others want to participate, so I shall finish by addressing recent comment on whether this is a live issue. Some people, who unfortunately have not seen fit to attend the debate, have suggested that we are engaged in some sort of scaremongering. The Scottish nationalists in particular seem to prefer engaging in debate in the columns of The Press and Journal and The Scotsman, rather than coming to put their case in the Chamber.

Our briefings for today’s debate come from pretty impeccable sources. The Local Government Association, which covers England and Wales, said in its briefing:

“The LGA believes that the loss of the opt-out provision that currently exists would result in a reduction in the number of retained firefighters and would also see the need to increase the number of wholetime firefighters employed by FRAs to cover shifts. This would of course have a financial implication. The Chief Fire Officers Association is undertaking research to identify precise figures. The opt-out is an important tool in maintaining flexible labour markets, and if it were removed it would be a major blow to both employers and employees.”

In its response to the consultation on the working time directive, the Chief Fire Officers Association said:

“The Fire & Rescue Service could not function effectively without RDS employees, and when there are larger scale operational incidents, RDS employees will respond from their normal location to support full-time employees.”

Those comments make it clear that this is a live issue, which is of concern to those who are charged with providing fire services. Indeed, David Dalziel, the chief fire officer of Grampian fire and rescue service, was reported as saying, in The Scotsman of 24 January, that unless a

“compromise could be reached, the new rules would signal an end to the part-time service in Scotland.”

Mr. Dalziel, who is also secretary to the Chief Fire Officers Association, said:

“It represents a significant threat to the wellbeing of people across Scotland. Retained firefighters, already working 40 hours at their own work, could be restricted to only eight hours a week or even less.”

Those people do not have a political axe to grind; they are at the sharp end of providing fire and rescue services, and their views must be taken seriously.

We know what will happen if we do not engage in debate now, because we have seen the same thing before. I remind the Minister what happened with the Road Transport (Working Time) Regulations 2005, which also implemented a European directive—directive 2002/15/EC. Those regulations caused enormous problems for the retained fire service and the Territorial Army before we eventually found a rather messy compromise to get us out of the situation. As a consequence, I am told, although I have not been able to check, that the road haulage company Eddie Stobart no longer allows its employees to work as part of the retained duty service. The service will face that sort of threat if we do not take these matters seriously and engage in debate now.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) on securing the debate. I chair the Fire Brigades Union parliamentary group, and before becoming a Member of Parliament, I was the FBU’s solicitor for 17 years, so I have a little knowledge of these issues. The FBU represents 11,000 of the 14,000 firefighters who work on retained duty, so it represents the vast majority of them.

The debate has so far been focused on Scotland, but of course it goes beyond Scotland, as its title includes the country as a whole. We recognise that there is an issue to address, but I think that the hon. Gentleman has come to the wrong conclusion. We can get a little lost in double and treble negatives about what the directive is all about and ending the opt-out, but essentially it is about restricting the maximum number of working hours to 48. Why is that being done? It is not because of some European desire to screw up the British fire service; it is a health, safety and welfare issue that aims to improve the lives of individuals. Jobs such as those in the fire service have many inherent risks and are dangerous enough already. We do not want to increase those risks either for the firefighters concerned or for the people whom they might be called upon to rescue.

Let me deal with some of the myths that surround working time directive requirements. The fire service has peaks and troughs in demand, like many businesses and services, and the working time directive recognises those problems by requiring an average 48-hour week over a 26-week period, so it can provide the operational flexibility that the fire service needs. Moreover, the directive does not apply in emergencies when property, life or limb are at risk, so no firefighter will be stopped from doing their job. Services can waive the 48-hour week requirement in a wide range of emergencies, such as when they have temporary staff shortages, or in periods when they might be called on because of severe weather conditions, as they have been in the past few days.

I thought that the hon. Gentleman would mention that there are no retained firefighters in London—in fact, London refuses to allow retained firefighters to come on to its patch. Should not that have been an important part of his opening remarks, as a London MP?

Of course, I am a London MP, and it is correct that London operates on a whole-time fire service basis, but that is not to say that I do not have some knowledge of this subject, because my constituency is the last one before the countryside of Hertfordshire.

I do not think that I did misinterpret the hon. Gentleman. He may make his point later, but it does not make a great deal of difference to the points that I am making.

As I was saying, emergencies are not caught by the 48-hour rule, so protracted incidents can be dealt with. Obviously, managers have to roster staff to try to avoid overwork, but when there are major crises such as the Buncefield oil fire, relief crews will inevitably be brought in from other brigades, as happened then.

Some firefighters might have to change their working patterns, but that could be managed through relatively minor adjustments in the years between now and when the rule changes occur. Full-time firefighters work a variety of shifts, but typically work 48-hour shifts in four-day patterns, which provides for a 42-hour working week. Only 4,000 retained firefighters work more than 50 hours, with 2,500 working more than 60 hours. It should therefore be possible, over time, to manage arrangements to reduce requirements on them.

There is a UK-wide shortage of retained firefighters—between 3,000 and 5,000 across the country—and the way to deal with that problem is to improve recruitment and retention to ease the pressure on retained firefighters and to comply with the directive. The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland mentioned that the labour market is tight, but it should be easier to recruit retained firefighters at such a time because that is a secure form of employment. Given that many people are losing their job or being put on short-time working—a trend that has been adopted in many parts of the world to deal with the financial pressures being faced—this is a good time to recruit firefighters. That has to be considered.

Under the retained system, firefighters have other jobs and make themselves available on call. On-call periods are up to 120 hours a week, rostered over five days. However, those on-call hours do not count towards the 48-hour requirement. The only time that does count toward it is time spent on duty when attending incidents or training. It is not beyond the wit of any fire service gradually to reduce the limits to bite-sized chunks to achieve the objectives required by the working time directive. It is important to recognise that the average retained firefighter works 47.7 hours per week, when all their jobs are put together, which is within the time limit set by the directive. A very small number of retained firefighters who currently work very long hours might, as the hon. Gentleman suggested, choose to reduce the amount of overtime that they do in their main job. As my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) said in his intervention, one in five retained firefighters are exempt anyway because they are self-employed.

The hon. Gentleman is approaching this from the wrong direction. He thinks that the reduction in working hours to a maximum of 48, which would be phased in over time, is the evil, but it is not. The evil is the fact that we in this country expect people to work ever-longer hours, which is not in their best interests from a health and safety or a welfare point of view. We should be considering alternatives to enable people to work shorter hours, so that they can have a family life and they are not subjected to such pressures.

In a moment. I have nearly finished and the hon. Gentleman will make his own speech later.

It is important to recognise that this is being done for the benefit of workers, not to wind them up or frustrate them. There are other options. The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland has overstated the problem. There is plenty of time to adjust to the new requirements—for example, we could consider increasing recruitment—so let us not overstate the problem initially.

Does my hon. Friend agree that although those who tabled and supported early-day motion 552 were, no doubt, well intentioned, they were really taking part in the usual Liberal tactic of scaremongering? They stand in front of schools, post offices and retained fire stations that they say are going to close and when they do not close—and they never were going to—they claim the credit for it. That is what this is really about, is it not?

My hon. Friend makes a party political point, but I have tried to rise above the party politics in the debate. However, the right hon. Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce) referred to a £100 million price tag in relation to the change, which I think is a bizarre figure that is simply not credible.

No. The hon. Gentleman has made his points and many others want to speak. I have now concluded my remarks.

I thought I had been called to speak a few moments ago, and having listened to the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore), perhaps it would have been better if I had. This is a serious debate and I congratulate the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) on obtaining it.

We have just heard the hon. Member for Hendon demonstrate a complete lack of understanding of what retained firefighters are about. I will quickly touch on the point that I made in my intervention on him. I did not say that he had retained firefighters in his constituency. I am sure that his constituents would like Hertfordshire firefighters to come over the border to help them in their hour of need, as happened at Buncefield when the London fire service came to us. The London fire service categorically will not allow retained firefighters across its borders to come on stand by in London; it will not allow that to happen. [Interruption.] Is the hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) saying from a sedentary position that it is a safety issue?

The reason why retained firefighters are so successful and necessary in deeply rural areas is the relative sparsity of the population. In London, there must be thousands of people within five minutes—or whatever the time is—of a retained fire station. In rural areas, that is less often the case. That is the reason—it is a city.

The hon. Gentleman simply does not understand what retained firefighters do. I slightly disagree with the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland: this is not a rural-urban issue. I was a firefighter in urban Essex and every day of the week that I was on duty, I worked with retained firefighters.

If I gave the impression to the hon. Gentleman that I regard this as a rural-urban issue, I apologise. That was certainly not my intention. If he recalls the response that I gave to my hon. Friend the Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey—and God knows where else—(Danny Alexander), he will recall that I emphasised the ability of retained and full-time firefighters to work together in his area and the importance of that.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for clarifying that point. It is crucial that people reading and listening to this debate understand that retained and whole-time firefighters work together daily in rural and urban areas. The point I was trying to make to the hon. Member for Hendon is that the London fire service does not understand that; it never has and never will. I have stood by at stations whose personnel have been pulled into London and, on the way in, driven past retained stations whose personnel could have gone into London to help stand by. Regularly in my constituency, when the two pumps at the Hemel station are called out and detained at an incident, it is the retained firefighters who come out and stand by to protect my largest town and community. Retained firefighters are a crucial part of community spirit, and that is proved every day.

I pay tribute to the Retained Firefighters Union and the Fire Brigades Union, and I declare an interest because I was a member of the FBU for many years. The fire service was a closed shop in those days. I had no choice but to join, but I made sure that I stopped the donation to the Labour party that came from my dues to the FBU as soon as possible. However, it is crucial that the two unions work together on this and do not bury their heads in the sand. I hope that that will happen. For many years, the FBU was anti-retained firefighters to the extent that when I served in Essex, they locked firefighters out of the station when they arrived for stand by. I have seen it and I know that it happens—in certain parts of the country, it still takes place today. The unions need to work together as one national fire service.

In certain parts of the country, the system has worked well. We have four types of firefighters in this country: whole time—the type that we have in London—whole-time retained, day manning, and retained. The system is different from that in any other part of the world. We pay retained firefighters for their dedication—we give them a pension, and payment for the time that they commit to their community—and that is why they fall inside the ludicrous rule on the 48-hour week. The rest of Europe is not affected in the same way. Local community firefighters in the rest of Europe are just as dedicated as ours: they want to serve their community and they regularly go out to protect their community. However, they are classed as volunteers and only get expenses. They are therefore not classed as employed and are exempt from the directive. Our firefighters are not. Will the Minister explain why we do not have an exemption because of the special circumstances we have in relation to the different types of firefighters?

Those of us who have lived on the continent will have seen that ours is a better system. People should not be asked to put their lives on the line and not be paid for it. We should not have an “us and them” situation where whole-time firemen are paid and retained firemen working next to them on jobs are not paid. That is wrong and is something that should be dealt with. I would have thought that that was something the Labour party would understand and fight the cause for.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one of the vital points about the retained system is the level of first-class training that is given to the retained firefighters, which I have seen in my constituency at Invergordon? It is appropriate that retained firefighters are properly paid, so that they are properly committed to that training and deliver the excellence and professionalism he describes.

I could not agree more. When I first served, in the early 1980s, it was horrible because the retained did not train with the regulars and no whole-time fireman was allowed to be a retained firefighter. That seemed ludicrous to me. When I left the Army and joined the fire service, I was a skilled professional and a huge amount of taxpayers’ money was being dedicated to my training, but I was not allowed to go and serve my community on my day off, as retained firemen were allowed to do. Fortunately, that has changed and we have developed whole-time manning stations—there is an excellent day manning station in Woodham Ferrers in Essex, where I used to stand by when I served. In my county, we are carefully considering day manning stations because they provide a better way for the fire service to serve the community.

I pay tribute to the fire services around the country that came to my constituency on 11 December 2005, when the largest explosion in this country since the second world war, and subsequently the largest fire, took place at the Buncefield oil depot. I was there with the firefighters for four days, and I never knew who was a retained fireman or who was a whole-time retained or a regular full-time fireman. Actually, that is not true. I did know because the London fire service wear silly pink uniforms these days, and I knew that they were whole time. I do not know why on earth they wear pink, but that was how we knew that they were London firemen. However, in terms of the job that they did on the ground, we did not know whether the firefighters were whole time, regulars or what. They came from all over the country. At the time, my mayor paid tribute to every single fire service, and they were invited back to a dedication ceremony.

That tells us about the situation of retained firefighters. During the debate, we have heard about the cost and what would happen if the retained service is undermined by the directive. I do not agree about the cost. We know what would happen: the communities would do it—they would do it like they do it in Europe. I am not an expert on Scotland but, in my part of the world, we recently lost retained fire stations when the Government reconfigured the response times. Scotland could not have whole-time firefighters. The position would be as it was all those years ago, when the fire service started, when people rose up and established fire stations to protect their community. They did it because of their love for and belief in their fellow residents, but it would not be right to have to do that now.

If something is not broken, we should not destroy it. The current system works fantastically well. I simply do not understand why we must kowtow to comments such as, “No one should be forced to do more than a 48-hour week.” No retained firefighter is forced to do it; they do it for the love of their community and to protect their community, and such comments undermine their dedication to their community. I never, ever met a retained firefighter who came on shift and said, “I hate being here; I don’t want to be here.” They love it, because they are serving their community. If we allow that to be undermined by the ludicrous idea of people being told that they cannot work for their community because they happen to have done another job during the course of the day, it will be a sad day for this country.

I am aware that a number of hon. Members wish to speak, so I shall be brief. I declare an interest: my son-in-law is a retained firefighter, and he knows rather well what this debate is all about. With the deepest respect, I must say that the major points about the threats to the retained service have been missed in this debate.

I am happy to engage with the issue, but I did not sign early-day motion 552, even though I have some sympathy with it and recognise that we must consider the opt-out. I am a member of the Fire Brigades Union parliamentary group, and it must be stated that the most important issue is that the opt-out became such a political issue in terms of working hours because of health and safety. If firefighters do not abide by health and safety regulations and do not have them at the forefront of their minds, who will? It is absolutely wrong to put in harm’s way people who may have done too many hours. I worry about my son-in-law in that regard, although I recognise that there needs to be some flexibility.

The hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) would not take my intervention, so may I stress that I am not peddling my own scaremongering? As I made clear at the end of my remarks, significant, objective voices recognise the problem, too, so will the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) not accept that there is a real problem with the argument that firefighters must have an absolute cut-off point? Why is it healthy and safe to work for 47.5 hours but not for 48.5 hours? [Interruption.]

My hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) says from a sedentary position that the figure is rounded up over a period. Indeed, there is much more flexibility than people would have us believe. People recognise that I am no fan of the European Union, nor is my hon. Friend, but they must also recognise that retained firefighters are put in an exploitatable position because of the number of hours they have to work.

I want to turn the debate on its head.

I am very conscious of that. The way in which the retained call-out system works means that it is entirely up to the firefighter whether they respond to the call. If they have been on night duty and are tired, it is entirely up to them. There are more than four to a station—they need four to a pump to ride—and it is entirely up to them, so it is not true to say that even if they have been up all night they will have to respond.

I know very well that call-out is voluntary, but, at the end of the day, people do the job not only because they love being firefighters, but because it is an important consideration in terms of income. As a father-in-law, I must say that it is not unimportant. When retained firefighters do not get the shouts, their income goes down, and that is of not inconsiderable importance.

In my constituency, there are four stations with retained firefighters—Stroud, Nailsworth, Painswick and Dursley— and I have nothing but praise for the people who work as retained firefighters. At the Stroud station, they work alongside the full-time firefighters, a situation to which the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning) referred, and it is a very amicable arrangement, although there are some problems. Until recently, it was difficult to recruit people, but the fire and rescue service in Gloucestershire has done well to up its recruiting standards, and the good thing is that full-time firefighters and retained personnel are treated exactly the same in terms of equipment and training. The latter have less time to train, but they are given every opportunity.

There are two problems, however. The first problem, about which I bear some angst, is that the relationship between retained and full-time firefighters is not helped by some of the recruitment policies that fire services operate. I know that, these days, it is important that we reflect the balance of ethnicity, gender and so on, but it is also important that retained firefighters are given opportunities to enter the full-time service. Many people become special constables because it provides access to the police, and, similarly, access is one reason why people join the retained fire service. Many people—not just my son-in-law, who would love to join the full-time service—tell me that there are problems doing so, however, and that people can be strung along: they are told that they have a good chance of entering the full-time service, but it never seems to happen. That causes disillusionment, and disillusioned retained firefighters are not a good entity within the wider fire service.

The second and more important problem is how we get employers to release people so that they can serve in the retained fire service. That is the crux of recruitment. Such service used to be a point of honour, and firms would willingly make people available. In Dursley, the whole station was staffed with retained firefighters when 6,000 Lister-Petter employees worked next door. Now, the firm employs about 350 people at best and, from memory, I do not think that any retained staff come from there anymore—for all sorts of reasons. It is nice that the opt-out—the working time directive—is at the root of the issue, but the fundamental question is: how do we give people security, so that if they take on such an important role their employer will support them and, to some extent, be compensated for their time?

The difficulty with the job, as the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead knows, is that training does not happen every Thursday, and every call-out does not come on a Friday night; firefighters may be on call for the entire weekend because there is a major fire in Stroud, as there was recently, but then they may not be called out for another two or three weeks. That is fine if they have a sympathetic employer, but, too often, employers look at the bottom line, as we know in relation to the Territorial Army. We must find a way to protect people, so that we do not put them at risk. Instead, we must assure them that if they do this very valued job, we will give them the opportunity to enter the full-time service or to secure their employment in other ways. That is the key issue, and I do not want to get too hung up on the working time directive.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) on securing this important debate. The working time directive should prevent employers from exploiting workers by forcing them to work long hours, but it should not prevent workers, such as retained firefighters, from carrying out the vital, life-saving work of answering emergency calls, if that is what they want to do.

Retained and volunteer firefighters are one group whose work will be threatened if Britain loses its opt-out. In remote communities, emergency service work, such as firefighting, is carried out by local volunteers, and in those communities there is always a tremendous willingness to work together for the good of the community. There is never a lack of volunteers for emergency service work, such as firefighting, crewing the lifeboat, mountain rescue and so on.

It is right that retained firefighters should be rewarded—remuneration is part of the job—but in my experience that is not the main reason why people in remote communities volunteer for the retained fire service. They do not get high remuneration—serving the community is their main motivation. In my constituency, there are only two whole-time fire stations—in Oban and Helensburgh—and even they have retained crews as well as whole-time crews.

In addition to those two stations, there are 13 retained and 27 volunteer units. Given the size of my constituency and others in the highlands and islands, it would obviously take far too long for a fire brigade to get from fire stations such as those in Oban or Helensburgh to many outlying areas in the event of an emergency. In the case of the islands, it clearly would be totally impractical to send a unit from the mainland.

Does my hon. Friend agree that for island communities—he represents many—there is an added imperative because the presence of retained firefighters contributes to the ability to maintain lifeline air services to and from the island, particularly where the provision is very small planes?

My hon. Friend is right. Argyll and Bute council recently started air services to the small islands of Coll and Colonsay, but they would be completely impractical without volunteer firefighters.

As an example of the time it takes to get to a fire, a retained firefighter from Cove, which is in my constituency but is by no means in the remotest part, told me:

“Response time from Helensburgh to Cove is in the region of 40 minutes, whereas our retained crew has an average of a 4 minute response and will normally be mobile within 5 minutes.”

Sending a whole-time fire crew from the stations in the towns is completely impractical. Equally, it would be completely impractical to staff the 42 fire stations in my constituency with round-the-clock, full-time crews. Some of the hon. Members who have spoken in favour of Britain losing the opt-out have not come up with an alternative to the present system of using retained firefighters in the provision of a fire service for the highlands and islands.

As was explained earlier, retained firefighters do normal jobs as well as the job of a retained firefighter. On top of their ordinary job, they can be on call for up to 120 hours on what is termed inactive on-call. I accept that the proposals in the directive do not include inactive on-call in the number of hours that would be capped at 48, but all sorts of complicated formulas have been proposed by the European Parliament and none of them would allow retained firefighters to be on call for anything like the 120 hours that many are at present. Any of the formulas put forward by the European Parliament would simply make the whole retention system impractical.

As my hon. Friend said, in rural communities at present, the retained firefighter’s main employer is more than willing to allow time off for training and for fighting fires. However, in these difficult times, if restrictions were to be placed on the number of hours that the retained firefighter could work in their main job, many employers may reluctantly have to refuse them permission to carry on doing their firefighting job.

Many of the fire stations in my constituency are crewed by volunteer firefighters rather than retained ones. My understanding of the difference between a volunteer and a retained firefighter is that the volunteer does not get paid a retainer for inactive on-call, but they are still paid for the time that they spend training and responding to incidents. They, too, would be affected by the directive. The volunteer stations are on small islands or remote communities on the mainland. Again, it would be totally impractical to service them with whole-time crews.

In many rural communities, people volunteering for extra work over and above their main job is the only way that any of the emergency services can function. That is particularly true of the smaller islands, where most people do several jobs. It is the only way that a small island can function. The EU cannot be allowed to destroy years of traditional ways of working and saving lives throughout rural Britain. As other hon. Members have said, the present system works, so it should not be broken up.

The Government have my full support in their efforts to keep Britain’s opt-out, and I urge them to do all that they can to ensure that whatever comes out at the end of the negotiations means that our retained and volunteer firefighting services can continue working successfully, as they have for many years.

I shall make only a brief contribution. I congratulate the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) on securing this debate, which has shown that the issue is not straightforward. My hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) outlined the complexities of the working time directive and its impacts.

Unlike other hon. Members, I have not been contacted by any of the councillors from the local administration in Dumfries and Galloway council, but perhaps that says more about my relationship with the Conservative-Scottish National party Administration than anything else. However, I have been asked why the working time directive is an issue. In the view of some people, there is no difference between a retained firefighter who works in a daily job and is called out on fire and rescue duties, and a whole-time firefighter who does a second job. I have tried to explain to people that the issue is just not that simple. We have to deal with the complexity of the working time directive.

I merely want to put on record the fact that the significance of retained firefighters to the Dumfries and Galloway region—not just my constituency—is there for all to see. There are 17 fire stations: one whole-time, 15 retained, and one auxiliary firefighting crew in the village of Drummore. More than 200 uniformed staff are based at the retained stations. As someone who was the chairman of the Dumfries and Galloway regional council public protection committee between 1990 and 1994, I very much value the job that those people do in our constituencies. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) about those who employ retained firefighters, because the system would collapse if they were unable to release staff.

Does the hon. Gentleman share my concern that if a rigid limit were imposed on the number of hours for which an employee is available to a primary employer, several employers, especially those in small and medium-sized enterprises, would be more likely to refuse permission to somebody who wishes to undertake service in the retained service?

I would not disagree with that, but, in agreeing with it, I would say that we need to deal with some of the complexities. It is good that we have two or three years’ breathing space, but we should not let this issue run for that period and achieve a solution at the 11th hour. We need to work with our colleagues in the European Parliament to determine how we might be able to secure an opt-out. I know that there is a commitment to retain as best we can—in some areas, at least—an opt-out that delivers the right working conditions and hours, and the family-friendly policies that we all want for workers in the UK. I know that work is continuing in respect of this matter, and I hope that the Minister and our colleagues and counterparts in the European Union can reach a conclusion well in advance of the 2012 deadline.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) on securing this debate, whose importance is shown by the number of hon. Members who have attended the Chamber to speak, intervene or just listen. The matter was brought to our attention by the Retained Firefighters Union. I did a bit of homework and spoke to a number of people, as I am sure my hon. Friend did, and discovered that this was a real, live issue that was causing grave concern. That is why I tabled early-day motion 552, which sets out the concerns that have been expressed to me.

I have been accused this morning of scaremongering for tabling EDM 552, but I refute that suggestion, because I did so to reflect both the views of many of my constituents who are concerned about the fire service that they will have and the views of many retained fireman whom I know personally: they are friends of mine. I know exactly what those retained firemen do and the amount of training that they put in. I know how much they enjoy what they do and how much they like to be part of that service. The EDM was tabled to reflect their concern and that of the community. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for having got off the mark far faster than me in securing this debate.

My hon. Friend stressed the importance of the work of retained firefighters overall and, naturally, as I do, stressed their importance in remote and rural areas. I confirm the comments that he made to the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning): this is not about how the fire service is dealt with in rural areas as opposed to urban areas. The fact that we choose to stress the importance of the service in our remote and rural constituencies does nothing to gainsay the exceptional job that is done by retained firefighters in urban areas, where, as he has explained, they fulfil a vital role.

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would permit me to emphasise that, in my constituency, for example, there is not one fire station that is wholly manned by whole-time firemen. The typical arrangement is for a full-time fireman to be in charge of the station, possibly with an assistant, with the rest of the teams—the crews—made up entirely of retained firemen who form the backbone. I believe that there are some 391 fire stations in Scotland, of which some 321 are manned by retained firemen. A statistic I always appreciate is that 91 per cent. of the landmass of the UK is covered wholly by retained firemen.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for clarifying the point on the urban and rural situation. Just to clarify things further, I have a very urban seat in Hemel Hempstead and a very rural constituency surrounding it. I only have one whole-time station: the rest are manned by retained firefighters. That shows exactly what can happen in and around London.

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s clarification.

Over the years I have visited many fire stations, which provide a vital emergency service and do a great job. I do not think that a single hon. Member from any party in the Chamber would say anything other than that our fire services do a splendid job. I was most impressed, as I mentioned in my intervention on the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead, by the training facility of the highlands fire brigade at Invergordon. I visited that facility and observed the professionalism with which the training was given to everybody who passed through, including some of the volunteer firemen from community response units; that was of great interest to me and underlined how well all those firemen operate.

Hon. Members have asked whether there is a problem. All the sources to whom I have spoken indicated that a real problem is brewing. However, there is some confusion about the extent of the problem, which is why my hon. Friend called for this debate. There are three years to go until the impact of what is being discussed at the European Union will come into force and it is much better to discuss the matter now and seek a proper solution than, as my hon. Friend said, wait for three years to see how it pans out and deal with a problem when it arrives, rather than today. That is why I am looking to the Minister to give—I hope—some reassurance about how the Government are going to take this matter forward.

A number of Government Members sought to argue that this is all a matter of health and safety and that those of us involved in tabling the EDM or who brought forward the debate are looking through the wrong end of the telescope. The hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) said that we should simply look at it the other way round. He then told us that in emergency situations, retained firefighters are exempt anyway, which struck me as rather curious, because if ever there was a moment when people needed health and safety I would have thought it would be in the middle of an emergency. I put it to the hon. Gentleman that, in fact, he is looking through the wrong end of the telescope.

I have never met a fireman who was not concerned about health and safety. Indeed, I have always been impressed by the way in which health and safety has been both inculcated in the fire service, how it has trained for it and the way in which it practises it. That is not the issue. The issue is that people want to volunteer to do something for their community, and they can do so in various ways. Some volunteer for charitable work. In a number of areas of charitable work individuals, not least the sea cadets and others, spend a considerable number of hours undertaking dangerous work on the sea, for example, and nobody says that they should not do it because they have already worked 40 or 44 hours in their main job—we would not think of doing so. We have to understand that people choose to volunteer for certain exercises, and limiting that where there is a good system for health and safety in place—with the consequences that that might deliver—is looking at this matter from the wrong direction.

I should like to read a letter from a retained fireman, which goes to the point about volunteering:

“Although fully paid-up by the Fire & Rescue Service, it can be argued that we volunteer to do this work. The primary motivation for the vast majority of RDS personnel is a love of the job coupled with a genuine desire to help make our communities as safe as possible within our remit. No one asks us to do this difficult and demanding job, and the pay is relatively modest for what we commit to do.”

That sums up the attitude of the people who are there and working as retained firemen.

The silly thing is that if a retained fireman who was an agricultural employee and worked for the fire service, as often happens in my constituency, was called out to a major muirburn fire—if he were to heed the call, don his kit and safety gear at the station and work under the auspices of the trained leadership that he enjoyed—he would be subject to a limit on the number of hours he could work. However, if he went straight to the fire without obeying a call to go to the station, remained in civilian clothes and did not use any of the fire service’s equipment, but was one of the many civilian volunteers who always turn out, he could work as long as he liked. That is completely back to front; it is the wrong way to do it.

I urge hon. Members to take into account the voluntary nature of the work, the excellent training in health and safety that is given and the fact that the full-time officers understand and take care of the men under their command. I suggest that this is one of those unintended consequences that are the result of so much legislation, particularly from Europe. I say to the Minister that this is an unintended consequence that we need to deal with, so will the Government do so?

I congratulate the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) on securing this debate, and I agree with much of what he said about the retained firefighter system. The debate has benefited hugely from the input and expertise of my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning), but I do not agree with the hon Gentleman’ core contention that the issue is not the working time directive—it is the core of the debate. This is a key time in the destructive history of the directive, so it is a timely debate.

The working time directive requires employers to take reasonable steps to ensure that workers do not work more than 48 hours a week, averaged over four months. Despite that, workers may currently opt out of the 48-hour limit on the working week. For workers who opt to derogate from the 48-hour limit, the common position adopted by the Council of Ministers in 2008 lays down a maximum of 60 hours’ work a week, averaged over three months. That may be increased to an average of 65 hours over three months when there is no collective bargaining agreement and when an inactive period of on-call time is regarded as working time. Inactive on-call time is a period in which a worker is on call but is not required by his employer to work, as opposed to active on-call time, which is a period in which the worker must be available at the workplace to work when required to do so by the employer.

There is not enough time to discuss the wider issue of the working time directive. I would have liked to address the points made by the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore), but I shall simply say that for us the evil is not allowing people to work when they want to do so. The opt-out provision, which enables key workers to be available for longer hours as and when necessary, is flexible, and for workers who undertake potentially life-saving work, such as firefighters, that is extremely important. However, in December last year, the European Parliament voted to abolish the opt-out provisions, which have been widely used in the UK. The new category of “inactive” on-call time, approved by the Council and the Commission, was disapproved by the European Parliament. Consequently, there is a possibility that the ability to opt out will be abolished, contrary to the common-sense approach currently in place and developed by the common position. If implemented in the UK, there will be an across-the-board limit of 48 hours with no concession for inactive on-call time. That appalling position was strongly supported by the unions and, unbelievably, voted for by Labour MEPs over whom the Labour leadership seem to have lost control. The impact on the retained duty system is significant.

The background is important. Retained-duty firefighters respond to calls on a needs-only basis. They are often fully employed in other occupations, and their commitment as firefighters is typically part-time. They are indeed a valuable part of society, and a national asset, as many hon. Members have said. They are a crucial supplement to the full-time force. They are qualified to deal with the full range of everyday emergencies, and statistically the system covers 30 per cent. of all firefighters. Indeed, only 96 stations are wholly staffed by full-time firefighters, which gives a great deal of support to the point made by my hon. Friend that the debate is not a city-rural debate.

Retained firefighters play a crucial role in communities throughout the United Kingdom, and their flexibility is a particular strength. The rules reflect that importance, and allow a more flexible interpretation of the regulations, but as a result of the vote by the European Parliament on 17 December, we risk damaging that vital lifeline. In the current political climate, which is overshadowed by terrorism, it seems perverse that we are putting vital security and safety services under threat. Unfortunately, it is not only in the specific case of firefighters that the proposals will have an impact. Even without the implementation of these proposals, the directive has placed a great burden on businesses and service providers throughout the UK. Preventing people from exercising their ability to opt out of the 48-hour week would make things far worse for thousands of hard-working firefighters and many other employees in valuable employment. Unemployment is expected to reach a 12-year high without this extra legislation. For firefighters particularly, any justification for ending the opt-out rings hollow. The issue is not one of heath and safety—some Labour Members suggested that it was—as the Retained Firefighters Union confirmed:

“Appropriate management within the Fire Service has ensured that our members do not work excessive hours with any negative impact on their Health, Safety and Welfare. There are arrangements in place to relieve crews at protracted incidents”.

That being the case, the legislation serves no valid purpose, and is in fact counter-productive, denying retained firefighters and others vital work. The Minister with responsibility for fire and rescue, the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Khan) confirmed those fears and, to be fair, only last month said:

“Application of the working time directive, by setting a 48-hour maximum to the working week, would be likely to greatly reduce the hours which firefighters working the retained duty system could be available for duty, especially the substantial numbers who work full-time for their primary employer. The UK Government, therefore, places great importance on retaining its opt-out from the directive, a position that was acknowledged by the European Union Council of Ministers in June when it agreed in the Common Position that it should be retained, and will continue to defend it.”—[Official Report, 19 January 2009; Vol. 486, c. 1076W.]

Will the Minister for Employment Relations and Postal Affairs tell us whether that is still the position? He, too, has said in my presence, that the Government place great importance on retaining the opt-out, but that is what the Government said for six years about the temporary and agency workers directive until they folded under the great weight of the unions. Will he give us the comfort that this time they really intend to hold their ground, and can he persuade us that the nonsense emanating from his MEP colleagues and the unions is all smoke and no fire?

I congratulate the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) on securing this debate. The issue is important, and in the time available I want to deal with two aspects of it: the importance of the retained firefighting service, and updating the House generally on the working time directive and the individual opt-out, which is at the heart of the difficulties that he and other hon. Members have raised this morning.

We have heard about the importance of the retained firefighting service as part of the overall fire and rescue service in the United Kingdom, and I endorse the comments of support, gratitude and appreciation for the role that the retained fire service plays. The hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning), with his first-hand experience as a firefighter, told us how the full-time and retained services operate together. On the working hours of retained firefighters, my information is that about 10 per cent. of firefighters who work in the retained duty system already work 49 hours or more for their primary employer, and a further 25 per cent. work between 41 and 48 hours. It is clear what effect the opt-out could have on that group of workers.

One benefit of the debate is that although we have concentrated on a particular service and a particular sector, it shows the sort of impact—it has not been brought out properly in other debates—of simply adopting the European Parliament’s amendments to get rid of the opt-out and of not dealing properly with European Court judgments on inactive, on-call time, and the effect of that on our labour market. I shall explain the Government’s position. First, the opt-out from the 48-hour week is sometimes referred to as a UK opt-out. That is not so. The European Commission estimates that 14 or 15 member states use the opt-out. It is not a British issue, but extends throughout the European Union, as I know from my regular discussions with other employment and social affairs Ministers.

In June last year, we reached agreement in the Council of Ministers on a common position, which would have retained the opt-out and would have also dealt with the issue of on-call time, which has caused difficulty in a number of services, particularly health and social care, where residential on-call—that is at the heart of those judgments—has caused problems in shift patterns and so on. We were able to reach that agreement, precisely because it was not just a UK issue. We had the support of the majority in the Council of Ministers. The European Parliament amendments, to which the hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Djanogly) referred, were then introduced, and there is a process called conciliation between the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament to try to reach a solution.

The UK Government’s position has not changed. It is our aim, in the process of conciliation, to secure the future of the opt-out. Throughout the discussions, one thing that we have stressed is that it is a matter of choice for the individual and for member states. It is important, in European legislation on these issues, that we respect the different labour markets that operate in the 27 member states and that there is a choice. We have stressed that throughout the negotiations. That does not mean that we were not prepared to support change in the way in which the opt-out worked. For example, we were happy to support a position whereby the opt-out would not be signed at the same time as an employment contract, so that people could be assured that it was a genuine choice, because choice is important. We were happy for workers to renew their agreement to the opt-out periodically, making it clear that it is a matter of choice. However, with those changes, we have made it clear that we want to retain the opt-out. I was asked whether that was still the Government’s position, and it is.

Let me deal with the issue of health and safety. The working time directive has been in operation in the UK for a number of years, with the opt-out as part of it. Some 3 million workers in the UK regularly work more than 48 hours a week, and we do not have a worse health and safety record than other countries. In fact, the UK has the lowest rate of work-related fatal injuries and the third-lowest rate of non-fatal injuries, according to recent surveys of EU member states. Compared with many other countries, we have a low proportion of those in employment reporting that work affects their health or causes them to suffer stress. In fact, since the working time directive was introduced, the proportion of UK full-time employees working longer hours has fallen by about one fifth, so it is not the case that there is a longer and longer working hours culture in the UK. The proportion of people working long hours has fallen, but we want to retain that important flexibility for workers.

This is not just about retained firefighters; it is also a matter of choice for workers in other areas. Let us say that during the downturn, one partner in a married couple loses their job. I want the other partner in that relationship to retain the choice to increase their hours, if possible, increase their earning power and help to keep mortgage, home and family together. It is important that people have the right to choose their working hours. That is why the Government intend to do what they can to retain the opt-out.

We are in the conciliation process. We are arguing for the retention of the opt-out and we will maintain that position during the current negotiations. The Government’s position has been consistent throughout, not only because of the retained firefighter service, which has been stressed in the debate today, but because of wider reasons relating to the economy. The hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead asked about sectoral opt-outs and specific changes. The view that we have advanced is that the opt-out is widely used across the economy and a sector-by-sector approach would not give us the same flexibility. We believe that we should retain a wider choice in relation to the opt-out.

The Minister has made a very powerful argument and I think that he has reassured us about the Government’s commitment. Given that the current Commission reaches the end of its life in a few months, and given the impasse between the Parliament and the Council of Ministers, does he have any indication of whether there will be an agreement or whether we might have to negotiate the whole process again?

We would like to reach an agreement that preserves the opt-out. There are scheduled time scales built into the conciliation process of six weeks for this process and eight weeks for that process, so it should be possible to reach agreement before the present Commission and European Parliament reach the end of their life in a few months, but of course there is a danger that if we cannot reach agreement, the directive will fall. That is not the Government’s intention. We would like to reach agreement. This issue has been hanging over Europe for six years, but we want to reach the right agreement for the UK.

To pick up on what the hon. Member for Huntingdon said, when it came to agency workers, the reason why we were able to sign the directive in the end was that we negotiated an agreement that gave us the flexibility that earlier drafts of the agreement did not. We did not simply sign the draft that had been put in front of us in the past; we negotiated an agreement that suited the UK. We want to retain the opt-out. It is important to stress that, while the negotiations are going on, a sudden change will not occur in UK workers’ hours. If there is an impression that that is about to happen, it is mistaken. Nothing will happen in the short term. In the immediate future, our priority is to negotiate a deal in Europe that continues to offer choice for individual workers and choice for member states about how they implement the provisions on working hours. We have argued for that throughout and we will keep arguing for it in the negotiations.

Sitting suspended.

Further Education Colleges

I thank you, Mr. Williams, and Mr. Speaker for the opportunity to raise this important subject in an Adjournment debate. I thank the Under-Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Simon) for being here to provide further illumination.

I am sorry to have to stand here today to represent two colleges in my constituency that I have visited on many occasions while representing the Cotswolds. The first is the National Star college, which the Minister visited recently. Under its principal, Helen Sexton, it is the leading national provider of specialist education for severely disabled people. The Minister knows, but others may not, that it provides magnificent residential training for disabled people who can do virtually nothing, but who emerge from a residential course at the college able to live a largely independent life and to hold down a job.

Yesterday, the Minister presented the college with an Association of Colleges beacon award for its innovation. I am sure that the college would welcome a visit from the Secretary of State, so that it can demonstrate its work to him. The dedicated and talented staff provide opportunities and assistance for those with disabilities. They are a lifeline for students and their families.

The second college, Cirencester college, remains one of the most popular choices for over-16s in my constituency. It is a beacon college and the principal, Nigel Robbins, is rightly proud of the consistently excellent performance of his staff and students. The college was rated outstanding by Ofsted in the most recent inspection and for the past three years has topped the national league tables for tertiary and general further education colleges for level 3 students.

I hope that I have made clear the esteem in which I hold both colleges. I was therefore disturbed to hear of the delay in capital funding for colleges announced by the Learning and Skills Council, because it will affect both institutions. That is the reason for this debate. I know that colleagues have experienced similar problems with colleges in their constituencies and they may wish to intervene to give some of the details. In the debate on skills and further education in the main Chamber on 3 February, many hon. Members mentioned how the announcement has affected colleges in their constituencies. I welcome this opportunity to mention the colleges in mine.

The National Star college was the first independent specialist college in the Cotswolds to secure a groundbreaking 50 per cent. capital support from an application to the LSC for principal status in 2006. The funding was for its development programme to secure first-class resources and accommodation for specialist education for young people and adults with disabilities.

In 2007, I was invited, as the vice-president of the college, to open student accommodation built at a cost of about £1 million as part of phase 1 of the development. According to the principal, that development has enabled severely disabled students who had previously been totally reliant on personal support to develop skills to use specialist technology that allows them to open and close doors, windows and curtains and to switch on lights and televisions. When I visited the college, I saw a disabled student who was able to drive a wheelchair merely using eye movement. That is the type of technology that that college and others up and down the country deploy to help severely disabled people.

Being in control of their environment for the first time in their lives leads to a growth in confidence and a sense of achievement for severely disabled people, which increases their motivation, enhances their quality of life and advances their belief in their own skills and abilities. Consequently, many seek employment with the help of the college. Many of my constituents are generous in adapting their workplaces so that such people can gain employment.

Phase 2 of the development is near completion, with £3 million of investment enabling infrastructure development, the introduction of biomass sustainable heating, a new access road, car parking and an improvement in the student accommodation. However, phases 3 and 4 have been affected by the announcement of the delay in funding. About £700,000 has been spent in readying those phases for approval in detail. Work should have started on site immediately and completion is due in early 2010.

Phases 3 and 4 are the most substantive phases of the development and will provide about £10.5 million of specialist education and therapy facilities and residential student accommodation. A new community and work-related learning centre will provide enhanced opportunities for the development of work-based skills. The new therapy centre—the hub of the college—will build on the college’s exemplary practice. Its highly successful multi-disciplinary approach is recognised as outstanding by Ofsted. I pay tribute to the excellent staff at the Star college, who are exemplars for everybody. Their patience with the students is amazing to watch.

The funding delay has serious consequences for the Star college. Contractors have undergone extensive tender submission processes, and the college’s supporting teams of consultants have been placed on hold until a revised funding approval process is established for the LSC.

The college has raised two serious concerns about the implications of the LSC announcement. Delay to the completion of the project in the following academic year will result in the college’s resources being reduced, which will affect its leading specialist provision and its delivery of the national learning for living and work strategy for learners with learning difficulties and disabilities. Furthermore, the development is unlikely to be in place before the college’s next full Ofsted inspection. Anybody who has heard what the college can do for the most disadvantaged students will think it a national scandal if its improvement is delayed, postponed or cancelled.

In recent years, no organisations have done more than FE colleges to tackle disadvantage and to provide opportunity for all. They are the great unsung successes of our education sector and provide perhaps the best value for money in that sector.

The move of the East Riding college to the centre of Beverley will play a major role in the regeneration of the town. It is important to continue to provide opportunity, not least to those who have not had a great deal of it. Any danger of a spending freeze from the Government will impact greatly on Beverley.

I concur with my hon. Friend’s remarks. The role of FE colleges is critical to the future of this country. As shadow trade spokesman, I recognise that adding value to people’s intellectual skills, so that they can be applied in the rest of the world, is of paramount importance to our economic future and vital to the fulfilment of employment.

My hon. Friend intervened at a good point because I now move on to Cirencester college, the second college in my constituency that has been affected by the LSC decision. It expected to hear of the decision on the application in principle in March this year. An almost complete rebuild of the college was planned, eventually costing about £80 million. The first phase is an important part of that. To back up what my hon. Friend said, in the past year the college has seen its student numbers increase by 22 per cent.; they are drawn by the high standards set by the college. That demonstrates how popular and successful the college is. People enjoy going there.

So far, the college has spent £500,000 on preparatory work to get the process under way—for example, by employing architects, designers and consultants. As the downturn worsens, the capacity of colleges to deal with such financial shocks will be reduced greatly. The work is essential to accommodate the growing enrolment figures, while providing the facilities to ensure that the high standards of educational and personal achievement are maintained.

Furthermore, the college desperately needs engineering, construction and land-based training facilities to prepare for the introduction of the diploma entitlement and for its collaborative work with local schools to provide pre-vocational training and vocational skills for 14 and 15-year-old pupils, for whom there are no such dedicated provisions in the locality. Everybody, probably including Ministers, recognises that not everyone can undertake an academic qualification; vocational qualifications for those not able to do so are critical.

That and the fact that, as I mentioned, the college has for the past three years topped the national league tables for tertiary and general further education for level 3 studies fits perfectly with the words of the Building Schools for the Future document, which was issued by the Minister’s Department. That document states:

“The necessary capital support will be prioritised to enable high-performing FE colleges”

—such as the one mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr. Stuart)—

“and school sixth forms to expand their provision, to fund the outcomes of 16-19 competitions, and to support new policies (such as extending compulsory participation in education or training to 18) as they are introduced.”

That is a worthy ideal, and I hope that the announcements will not undermine it.

Until the announcement of the delay, Cirencester college could have expected at least half of the £500,000 expenditure to be covered by the Learning and Skills Council. As it stands, the college may have to cover all of those costs using its revenue budget. That would place a severe hole in its budget, yet it was encouraged to go down that feasibility route by the LSC on the expectation that the application would be approved. I am sure that the Minister will know that the Association of Colleges believes that his Department and the LSC do not fully understand the scale of the effects of the delays.

I have referred to the two colleges in my constituency, but we are all aware that the delays have caused problems nationwide. The Association of Colleges believes the effects will be felt directly or indirectly by more than 100 colleges throughout the country.

My hon. Friend is making a most convincing case on behalf of the colleges in his constituency. Lawrence Vincent, the principal of Bournemouth and Poole college, has contacted me about a proposed £70 million project. He says that proposed redevelopment has been “sequenced” and that the college has received an application in principle, but that it is waiting for the application in detail, which has been delayed. The college is a vital part of the local economy, and it does great and good work. We need a decision from the Government on when the capital expenditure will be approved.

The real problem is that colleges were encouraged to come forward with such schemes in the expectation that the money would be available and the schemes would be approved, only now to be left in limbo. It is incumbent on the Minister to at least clear up the situation and say clearly whether those colleges are likely to receive the money, so that they will know how to proceed. I entirely agree with my hon. Friend.

My hon. Friends and I are concerned that a number of further education colleges are in limbo. The Isle of Wight college, whose principal is Debbie Lavin, deferred major building works from last year to this. The college is not being told by the Learning and Skills Council at national level whether it is able to get on with the work or whether it must defer it again. The regional LSC office is trying to achieve clarity, but apparently no information is available. Will the Minister let us know when the college will be told what is happening?

My hon. Friend echoes what I have been saying. The colleges need certainty, whatever the decision. I hope that the Minister will be able to provide that today.

Those colleges that were due to begin construction immediately face a number of grave financial concerns. They include the cost of extending time-limited tenders; the cost of re-tendering; the complications arising from property transactions; and the bank costs incurred. Those colleges whose projects are still in the planning stage now have to choose between paying for advisers out of their own pocket—as Cirencester college will—or releasing people and putting an indeterminate delay on their development projects. That is why we need certainty.

How did the situation develop? Last week, the Secretary of State stated that

“in some cases, unrealistic expectations have been allowed to develop or have been encouraged, which is unacceptable.”

He was correct to describe that as unacceptable, because as we have heard it has caused a number of problems. He also said:

“Some colleges that have anticipated early approval will be disappointed. Priorities will have to be set and hard decisions will have to be taken.”—[Official Report, 3 February 2009; Vol. 487, c. 719.]

The tone of those statements causes further concern. I am sure that all those colleges would like to be informed how the priorities will be set and who will set them. Above all, I hope that the Minister will assure us of the transparency of the process, a factor that will be truly essential because there is a suspicion that the criteria will be altered so that the projects have to demonstrate employment skills and regeneration aspects. We might agree with employment and skills being included in the criteria, but regeneration? Is that the purpose of further education? Surely it is about educating the people of this country in order to get the best possible skills.

During the same debate, the Secretary of State was asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) if he could

“add a bit more information about the number of colleges whose plans are ‘in the pipeline’ and on the value of those projects”.—[Official Report, 3 February 2009; Vol. 487, c. 719.]

At the time, the Secretary of State was unable to provide an answer. I hope that the Minister and his Department have done some work since then so that we can have a little more clarity on the numbers, the types of projects involved and their value. If he cannot do so today, I would be grateful if he put more information in the Library.

Questions must be asked about how the change was announced. The decision was made on 17 December 2008, yet the announcement was not properly communicated to colleges until 16 January. Perhaps we shall hear more today. When exactly will the final announcements be made? What progress has already been made in assessing the applications since the moratorium was announced? Can the Minister give us any indication of what will happen to the two colleges in my constituency?

I hope that the Minister will fully recognise the appalling discrepancy between the encouragement that the Government offered colleges to develop and the capacity actively to support that development financially. The realisation that the discrepancy existed has let down education institutions across the country, leading to confusion and possible financial loss. The problem cannot have occurred overnight, and the Minister’s Department must have had close communication with the LSC on the programme. Why then did his Department allow the situation develop to the confused state that it is in now? I look forward to hearing some answers from the Minister.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) on securing this debate, and on having the privilege of representing two outstanding colleges. As he said, yesterday I awarded an Association of Colleges beacon award to National Star college. As it happens, I also awarded beacon status to Coleg Menai. Both are outstanding institutions. As the hon. Gentleman said, Cirencester college is consistently graded as outstanding by Ofsted. I am sure that he is proud of their achievements.

The matter raised by the hon. Gentleman is one on which I have received many representations from hon. Members. Indeed, more Members have intervened in today’s debate than is customary. I shall therefore endeavour to do what the hon. Gentleman asks and restate some of the basic facts on where we are and where we are going.

The position is pretty simple. Before 1997, there was no distinct capital budget for further education colleges. The capital budget was nil. That is why the FE estate was in such an appalling state of disrepair and why we set in train the ambitious Building Colleges for the Future project. By 2007, we had spent £2.4 billion building some fantastic colleges, and over the next three years—the period of the current comprehensive spending review—we are scheduled to spend another £2.3 billion.

I stress that that figure has not changed, and is the same as that announced in the comprehensive spending review, except that in response to the Chancellor’s desire to accelerate capital infrastructure projects, we brought forward into this year and next year £210 million from three years’ time—£110 million and £100 million respectively. In that sense, the capital programme has been accelerated. It has not been frozen, stopped, cut or anything of the sort. More further education building projects are taking place than ever before. Since the programme began, nearly 700 projects at 330 colleges have been agreed, and only 42 colleges in the country have not yet benefited from investment. Likewise, it is important to stress that the position of the 253 colleges that have received approval in detail at all stages and have begun building has not changed. All those colleges are unaffected.

The problem is partly a result of the downturn. Many of the deals put together by colleges to finance their building programmes rely on land sales, some of which have been jeopardised or have fallen through because of the downturn. Almost all of them rely on a bank loan, but the ability of some people to meet the conditions of those loans has been altered by the downturn. As hon. Members have said, and as the Secretary of State and I said in the debate last week, the pace of demand has increased rapidly over the past year. Nationally, colleges’ expectations, and the likely effect of that demand, were not managed as they should have been, and the current situation is unacceptable.

In last week’s debate, my right hon. Friend apologised, and I am happy to add my apology now for our having got into a situation in which, as hon. Members have said, people’s expectations have become out of step with the size of the capital budget, even though it is very large and indeed has grown slightly. The most important thing is that the situation be resolved as quickly as possible, as we are determined it should be. My right hon. Friend agreed with the LSC to appoint Sir Andrew Foster to undertake an independent review of how the problems arose, and we expect the LSC to set out the position in more detail and to give us a clearer idea of the way forward following its council meeting in early March.

I shall turn to the specific questions concerning the constituency of the hon. Member for Cotswold. As I understand it, in July 2006, National Star college was granted in-principle approval for its development programme, which includes the re-development of the college’s main campus at Ullenwood with a variety of new build and refurbished accommodation. The estimated cost of development is £15.393 million, with LSC support of £7.697 million. Phases 1 and 2 have been completed and phases 3 and 4 are awaiting approval in detail. The college is not the only one in the country with such a structure—a single in-principle approval followed by in-detail approvals for each phase of the application and planning process. Ultimately, the LSC must manage every case at local and regional level. In partnership with local colleges, the local LSC should go through the plans to get a sense of the entire picture regionally and, thereby, nationally. By that process, it should find a way forward by readjusting plans where necessary, but always to the minimal extent possible, while to the maximum extent possible helping people to do what they originally wanted to do, in broadly the way that they wanted to do it, and hopefully in their desired time frame.

As I said, that structure is not unique to National Star college, and I have spoken to several others about the matter. It is for the LSC to manage the situation, and not for me to second-guess the detail of the solution. However, such projects have particular pressures, of which I am convinced and have been apprising the LSC. All the evidence is that the council is sensitive and sympathetic to the particular pressures of such projects and is doing everything possible to help people remain as close as possible to their original time frames and budgets.

I thank the Minister for responding to my debate very reasonably. Two things occurred to me during his reply: first, he said that he wanted to bring forward £210 million to advance these construction projects, yet the whole re-evaluation process started on 16 December seems to be doing exactly the opposite and providing a great deal of uncertainty; secondly, the National Star college was part of a package, and I do not think that it would have so embarked on phases 1 and 2 had it known that it might not be able to develop phases 3 and 4. Importantly, the college is a national not a local provision college, so I do not understand how the local or regional LSC will make the evaluation. Surely evaluation of the provision of disabled residential facilities must be made on a national basis.

I shall try to answer those three points quickly, because we are running out of time. I understand the hon. Gentleman’s third point. I could be wrong, but as I understand the structure of the LSC, even though the provision is national, the building is regional. These are capital projects being managed—I would have thought—by the regional LSC. On his first point, we have brought forward the capital to the next two years of the CSR period not in response to the current situation; it was being brought forward anyway in response to the economic situation, as part of the broader move across Government to try to accelerate capital infrastructure projects. Far from shrinking or stopping the scheme, it is being slightly expanded and accelerated. The difficulty is that expectations have run ahead of the size of the capital budget, even though it is very large and growing.

The hon. Gentleman said that Cirencester college was expecting its application approval in March. According to my information, the college was expecting to submit an in-principle application in April. It has now decided not to proceed according to that time frame, but to defer until it has a better idea of what is going on. It has committed expenditure and is discussing its early plans with the LSC, but that is not being done formally, and nothing is yet in the system or pipeline. It has not yet even applied for any kind of approval.

Sitting suspended.

Pleural Plaques

As you can see from the number of hon. Members present, Mr. Williams, there is a great deal of interest in this issue. If my memory serves me right, this is the fourth debate on pleural plaques. It has taken us a long time to get an answer to the problem, and we are not there yet. However, given what the Prime Minister said about an hour ago, we are extremely confident that something positive will be forthcoming.

First, may I thank a number of people? Through you, Mr. Williams, I thank Mr. Speaker for affording us the time to debate the issue. He has been extremely generous with time, and we should like to put our thanks on record. I also take this opportunity to mention the trade unions that have been extremely helpful and vigilant. Unite—my union—the Union of Construction, Allied Trades and Technicians and the GMB have been helpful. I thank Thompsons Solicitors for advising all those who have taken an interest in the matter.

Will my hon. Friend also congratulate Karen Gillon MSP who put through the Scottish Parliament the Bill that now receives all-party support in Scotland?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Karen Gillon worked tirelessly in the Scottish Parliament to bring forward that Bill. I will touch on progress in the Scottish Parliament later.

Finally, I put on record the apologies of my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dunbartonshire (John McFall) for not being in the Chamber. As Chairman of the Treasury Committee, he is currently raising some serious questions with bankers.

Although most people know where pleural plaques come from, it may be worth while for me to put on record the background. They are caused by asbestos fibres lodged in the lungs. In and of themselves, they are generally symptomless. The most likely source of exposure is the workplace. People diagnosed with pleural plaques are often very fearful of developing asbestosis or full-blown mesothelioma, which is always fatal. Our late great friend, John MacDougall MP, died from mesothelioma earlier this year.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. I am quite sure that he is aware of what is happening within John MacDougall’s family. His wife and daughter are very keen to set up a trust, which is supported by our hon. Friend the Member for Glenrothes (Lindsay Roy). who is on another Select Committee and gives his apologies as well. They want to set up a trust fund for all sufferers of lung disease, including conditions that could be related to pleural plaques. Would it not be a fitting tribute for our Government to give money for that in John’s name?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. When John MacDougall was alive, he campaigned long and hard for people with asbestosis. Unfortunately, he, too, fell victim to the disease. I am well aware that his family—his wife Cathy and his daughter Julie—are working to secure a trust fund for people who are suffering from that terrible illness.

My hon. Friend is talking about the links between pleural plaques and mesothelioma. He will be aware that insurance companies routinely argue that if someone has pleural plaques the probability of them getting mesothelioma is as low as 1 per cent, yet Thompsons Solicitors and others who have done well-rooted research show that the proportion is somewhere between 10 and 20 per cent. We need to work with sounder and better resourced figures than the ones that the insurance companies are using. Does my hon. Friend agree?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Some would say, “The insurance companies would say that wouldn’t they?” I think that I speak for many of my colleagues when I say that I would rather trust the words of Thompsons Solicitors than some of the Shylock legal people who are doing the rounds. It is worth remembering that if this problem is not solved, we could, in years to come, face a similar situation to the one that we now face with the bankers—we could be asking the insurance companies why they did not fulfil their obligations.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on campaigning on the issue and on gathering us all together. For the life of me, I cannot understand why the Government will not move on the issue. The villain of the piece is the insurance companies. They are the backers of the polluters, and they have been moving away from the problem for years. All we ask is that the insurance companies pay up—not the Government, the insurance companies. I hope that our Ministers are not hiding behind Departments that say, “Don’t do it. Don’t do it.” I agree with my hon. Friend that we could end up back in this Chamber in a year’s time with an insurance crisis on our hands as those companies back further away. We will be pulling insurance companies into public ownership and having to deal with things ourselves. Why go down that route when we can change the law now?

My right hon. Friend is right. Many of us know about the work that he has put in over the years. He was involved in the whole issue of asbestosis for many years, long before I was involved with it. I respect and value his views on the matter.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. If he wants to change the law back, there is now a vehicle for doing so—the Damages (Asbestos-Related Conditions) Bill, which I tabled after my famous sleepover to get priority for it on 24 April. The Government have a couple of months to make up their minds. Then all they have to do is back my Bill and give it Government time.

I am sure that the Minister was listening with interest and taking note of everything that my hon. Friend said. I genuinely wish him well with his private Member’s Bill.

In a recent decision, the Judicial Committee of the House of Lords held that pleural plaques do not constitute sufficient harm to justify any award of compensation, even when the individual is so upset by the diagnosis of future harm that he or she develops a diagnosed psychiatric illness. That unfortunate decision could adversely affect tens of thousands of working people along with all the major trade unions and other Labour Ministers.

I support a change in the law to overturn that adverse decision, otherwise the insurance companies will have a windfall. For many years, damages have been awarded for pleural plaques, so insurance companies have factored it in to their premiums, and have thus received the premium income on the basis that they would have to pay out a certain proportion of it to pleural plaques victims. If the court decision is not overturned, the insurance companies will simply be able to pocket the money they had planned to pay out, and that cannot be right.

I join other hon. Members in congratulating my hon. Friend on his campaign and on securing the debate. Does he agree that our Government must reverse the law before the next general election? We have waited for too long, and the pace and progress on the issue have been miniscule. The time has come for the Government to act, and they must act before the next election.

My hon. Friend is right. I hope that the Government will come forward with a positive reply soon—either yesterday or tomorrow and not simply before the next election.

Recently, my colleagues and I had a very helpful meeting with the Secretary of State for Justice, and he was sympathetic. However, he pointed out that if the decision is legislatively overturned, there would be a cost to various Departments, particularly to the Ministry of Defence and the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform. I sincerely hope that the insurance companies, rather than taxpayers, pick up the costs relating to pleural plaques.

We have to raise other questions about the trigger litigation to be used when a condition develops into mesothelioma, or indeed into pleural plaques. Mesothelioma, as I understand it, is a fatal illness caused by asbestos. Around 2,000 people in the UK will be diagnosed with mesothelioma this year and tens of thousands more will die in the next 10 to 15 years. People who worked in the manufacturing, engineering or construction industries, in which employers routinely failed to protect them from exposure to asbestos, are among those most at risk.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate and thank him on behalf of all the ship workers on the Clyde. One person we missed out is Tony Worthington, the former Member for Clydebank and Milngavie, who did excellent work on asbestosis, and I hope that my hon. Friend agrees that shipyard workers still need to be looked after, even all these years after losing their jobs.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and he has a proud record of representing the men and women on the Clyde in terms of this terrible disease. I too make brief mention of the late Tony Worthington, who worked hard and tirelessly for the victims of pleural plaques, as did John MacDougall. We must remember that there are tens of thousands of John MacDougalls and Tony Worthingtons, and every one of them deserves our attention and support.

The practice of the insurance industry for decades was that the insurer on cover at the time of exposure to asbestos paid the claim. If someone was exposed in 1965 but diagnosed with mesothelioma in 2006, the employer’s insurer in 1965 paid the claim. In the last 18 months a number of insurers have refused to pay out in mesothelioma cases, arguing that the wording of the insurance policies they sold to employers decades ago means something very different to what they previously accepted it to mean—in other words, a cop-out.

The insurers have run test cases arguing that the trigger for the insurance policy is not the exposure to asbestos, but the development of the disease, so the benefit for those insurers will be to escape liability completely. The problem for victims will be that 40 years or more after they were exposed to asbestos, many employers have ceased trading and no insurance details can be found.

I thank my hon. Friend for indulging me once more—I will not test his patience again. Does he agree that there are more health issues related to mesothelioma and pleural plaques? A person who develops pleural plaques sees how many people have developed mesothelioma as a result of pleural plaques, so they think that they will die. That produces the most distressing anxiety for them and their families, and often gives rise to mental health issues as well. The family unit and communities can be affected by pleural plaques in so many different ways. By the way, Tony Worthington is not dead—I saw him last week.

On the point that the hon. Gentleman was just making about the difficulty of tracing insurers and about insurers either going bust or disappearing, may I plug my other Bill, which also relates to the matter, the Employers’ Liability Insurance Bureau Bill, which is scheduled for Second Reading on 13 March? It would provide for a register of insurers so that if employers disappear, we will still have a register of insurers and also an insurer of last resort. If negligent drivers can be required to compensate people through the Motor Insurance Bureau, why should negligent and uninsured employers not also be, because they have broken the law by not having insurance in just the same way? My Bill will provide for that, so perhaps the Government would consider it as well.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. I reinforce what my hon. Friend the Member for East Lothian (Anne Moffat) has just said. As someone who spent 30 years in the mining industry, and indeed was exposed to asbestos for the whole of that period, I regularly meet friends and colleagues whose lives have been ruined as a result of such exposure. People who have been diagnosed with pleural plaques can think of little else, and all that they can consider is that their next step could be a fatal one, so it is vital that compensation is paid.

My hon. Friend makes a perfectly valid point. The anxiety that is caused when a person is told that they have pleural plaques is such that I think that it is incredibly irresponsible of the legal profession to blame the medical profession for causing anxiety because they told someone that they had pleural plaques.

I, too, pay tribute to my hon. Friend not only for securing the debate, but for all the work he has done to get some form of compensation for the disease, and indeed that work has been done by many Members on the Labour Benches. Will he join me in congratulating my local newspaper in Newcastle, the Evening Chronicle, which has launched a people’s campaign to bring justice to a “forgotten generation”? That is the sort of campaign that all newspapers across the country should be adopting to get all MPs on board on the issue.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the sorriest part of all is that the Law Lords accepted advice from lawyers representing insurers who will save around £1 billion by not compensating pleural plaques sufferers who are also suffering from stress and that that is entirely wrong? It might be all right where the lawyers and insurers live and breathe the air, but where we come from, in areas such as Tyneside and Clydeside, people are dying every day from mesothelioma, and that puts real stress on families, communities and the individual.

My hon. Friend raises an important point. I have read the press releases and news reviews from the Evening Chronicle, which has been very positive and helpful, focusing on things that really matter to people. Perhaps our friends in the news and media could take that point on board and report the positive things that parliamentarians of all parties do every day.

Returning to the question of the trigger litigation, the trigger test cases were heard in the High Court over nine weeks from June 2008. The judgment was delivered on 21 November 2008, and the insurers lost. They argued for an appeal, and have been given leave to appeal the case to the Court of Appeal. They successfully sought a stay on any payment of compensation until the decision of the Court of Appeal. The prospect of the trigger issue appeal means that the frustration and delay in the process of obtaining compensation for those dying from mesothelioma and for the families of those who have died will continue until next year.

If the insurers’ appeal is ultimately successful thousands of mesothelioma victims and their families will be deprived of their entitlement to compensation. It is supremely cynical of Anthony Hughes, the president of the Forum of Insurance Lawyers, a lobby group representing insurers, to say, as he has been quoted by the BBC:

“We welcome this clarification of the law. We hope this will now unlock the flow of damages to mesothelioma victims.”

He must know full well that the insurers obtaining leave to appeal signals a further delay to any payments.

Across Britain, asbestos-related diseases claim the lives of approximately 4,000 people every year, which is more than the number of road traffic deaths. The heat-resistant mineral was used widely in the UK construction sector from the late 19th century until it was banned in 1999. In the UK, with its history of heavy industry, the consequences have been acute and will continue to be so as the latency period can be as long as 40 years.

I also wish to pay tribute to photographer Louie Palu, who has journeyed from Canada to India, England and Scotland, taking stark black and white pictures of sufferers. He said:

“No one deserves to die because they go to work and breathe a dust that gives them a death sentence…I met workers in the late stages of cancer from asbestos who looked like they had wandered out of a concentration camp. That shocked me and made me angry. Thanks to these brave people consenting to having their stories told and images published, we will not forget that the next victims of asbestos could be or already are our friends, mothers, sisters, wives, husbands, brothers, fathers and children. Their experience, memories and suffering should not be forgotten. There is asbestos all over the place, and people need to know and see that average everyday people can unknowingly poison themselves and die.”

I congratulate my hon. Friend. There is another important aspect to the issue. Some of us are interested in radiation’s effects on Christmas island; the veterans in that case are often told that asbestos is different in terms of getting the evidence. That often seems to be an excuse—we know that the evidence has not been given—to hide behind. If we can win this one, we can win many other battles where people know that they have been subjected to radiation, chemicals and so on. If we cannot win on asbestos, we will lose an awful lot for many people. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is important to win this one, so that we can carry on with other problems that have been inflicted on working people?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. He has extensive knowledge of safety in the workplace. If we succeed on pleural plaques, I hope it will send a clear message to all UK employers that they cannot play with people’s lives, and that if they subject workers to serious conditions or toxic chemicals, they will suffer the appropriate consequences and pay for it.

I thank my hon. Friend for raising this issue yet again. It is frustrating that we have to keep coming back to it, but it is only right that we do. His point about how people are treated at work fits in with what has been called the compensation culture. It is clear to us, at least on this side of the House, that the best way to do away with compensation culture is to stop killing, poisoning and injuring people at work. Then there will not be any need for compensation.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. He has a proud record of working with people, particularly in the third world, who have suffered serious damage from the workplace, and of campaigning on the issue.

It is important that the UK Parliament should take responsibility for dealing with pleural plaques. The deputy leader of the Democratic Unionist party, the hon. Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Dodds), came to the last debate on this subject in Westminster Hall and talked about the situation in Northern Ireland. He said to my hon. Friend the Minister:

“In Northern Ireland, the Department for which I have responsibility is currently undertaking a consultation on this issue. We have followed closely what Scotland has done and proposes to do…We must make a priority of dealing with and tackling the issues facing ordinary families, who have been devastated by the consequences of this disease and other effects of asbestosis. Hopefully, we in Northern Ireland will be able to move forward on this issue at the earliest opportunity, taking account of the consultation process.”—[Official Report, Westminster Hall, 26 November 2008; Vol. 483, c. 304WH.]

As I understand it, that is similar to what is happening in the Scottish Parliament.

I welcome this debate, congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing it and apologise for not being able to stay for all of it. He said that the UK Government must take responsibility. They have not yet made clear what they intend to do in relation to funding, but in Scotland, the first and second stages of the legislation have been passed. Notwithstanding the UK Government’s failure so far to declare, it is the intention to pass the Bill at the earliest possible opportunity. I hope that that gives the hon. Gentleman and his English and Welsh colleagues more leverage in the campaign that they are running, particularly for constituents who are not in Scotland.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for those comments. I have put it on record that at the end of the day, victims and families simply want compensation. Where it comes from and who is responsible for it is secondary. On a practical level, however, I think it will have to happen through UK legislation. Most people who have been diagnosed with pleural plaques or mesothelioma travel all over the UK. For them to be subjected to different laws in Scotland, England, Northern Ireland and Wales would make no sense. There must be a blanket UK legislation solution to the problem. Although I welcome what is going on in Scotland and I wish the Scottish every success, in the long term, the aspirations and compensation claims will be more effectively dealt with at UK level.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate and on his hard work. Does he agree that at the end of the day, it is a question of justice? All the legal niceties, the House of Lords decision and so on can take a running jump. What the families, survivors and victims want is justice. The issue is a political one that should be sorted out in our country’s democratic arena, the House of Commons. The Government should get on, sort it out politically and stop worrying about technicalities. The insurance companies have had the money; they should pay out now.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I can sense the frustration in his comments. It is probably shared by most of my colleagues in Parliament.

I shall now make some progress, as I am conscious that other people wish to contribute. I offer my commiserations to the lawyer David Pugh on failing to clinch an award for his campaign to deprive workers of compensation for the effects of asbestos. He was shortlisted for the personal injury awards 2008 after clinching a ruling in the House of Lords that he claimed saved the industry £1.2 billion. He argued that workers who develop pleural plaques, a scarring of the lungs, should not receive compensation, as the symptom is not dangerous in itself. Asbestos campaigners point out that plaques are often terrifying early warnings of worse to come and that the insurance industry has been paying out for them for 20 years. Pugh, a partner with Sheffield-based solicitors Halliwells, won what he described as

“one of the most groundbreaking personal injury litigation decisions in UK legal history”.

I was delighted to find out that he did not win the award. Perhaps we should recognise his lack of contribution.

Dr. Pamela Abernethy, of the Forum of Insurance Lawyers, gave evidence before the Scottish Parliament’s Justice Committee. She said that

“the consensus…is clear that pleural plaques are simply the body’s physiological response to the presence of foreign fibres.”

The fibres, she said, are then walled off by the body’s defences to prevent them from causing harm, so

“my submission would be that plaques are a good thing and do not cause harm…The plaques are markers of exposure to asbestos.”

The Bill before the Justice Committee is intended to reverse a decision by the House of Lords that people with the condition cannot claim compensation. That gives us a flavour of how the insurance industry feels about the situation.

During the last debate on this issue, my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer) asked the Secretary of State for Justice whether he was aware that trade unionists were demonstrating and lobbying at that moment outside Parliament and in this very Chamber. The Justice Secretary said:

“I am indeed aware of today’s lobby and demonstrations. I fully understand the concern of all who are here and the people they represent about the implications of the Law Lords’ decision…The consultation that I initiated earlier this year closed three weeks ago. We have received more than 300 responses to it and we are currently assessing them. I hope to announce our response next month.”—[Official Report, 28 October 2008; Vol. 481, c. 726.]

We are still waiting for that to happen.

The Prime Minister has said on record:

“Asbestosis and mesothelioma are terrible diseases, and all of us who have seen the effects that they cause know that we have to do more to help the victims of those diseases.”—[Official Report, 12 March 2008; Vol. 473, c. 276.]

Later in 2008, he said:

“I met a delegation of hon. Members concerned about pleural plaques. It is a serious issue that has arisen as a result of a High Court judgment, and the Government are proposing to bring forward a consultation document on it in the next few weeks. We are looking very carefully at the representations that my hon. Friend and others have made. We are very sensitive to the fact that people with pleural plaques may suffer from asbestosis and other diseases as a result of their exposure to asbestos, and we are determined to do what we can to help them. I think that he will look forward to the document that we will bring forward in the next few days.”—[Official Report, 21 May 2008; Vol. 476, c. 317.]

This is a very important debate. Thousands of our constituents are concerned about the lack of compensation. They look to their legislators, from all parties, to come up with a solution to the problem, so that they can receive the compensation they so richly deserve and so that, most importantly, we send this message from Parliament to employers: “If you treat your workers badly, if you cause them harm, we will be after you.”

I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North (Jim Sheridan) on securing this debate and on his excellent speech. The number of hon. Members who are here this afternoon, all of us representing the industrial backbone of this country, shows the great strength of feeling in our communities about the Law Lords’ decision.

I want to pose one question: why is it that, when bankers are threatened with losing one year’s bonus, they threaten legal action straight away, but when ordinary people who have worked all their lives and then become ill because of an industrial injury, whether it is pneumocosis, byssinosis or asbestosis, the history all along is that those folk have had to fight for what is their right and their just dessert? This issue of pleural plaques is yet another example of that, and that is why people are so mad.

I hope that when the Government announce their decision, they will not just deal with this one issue. I hope that they will set in train a system that will prevent employers and insurance companies from avoiding their responsibilities. It is quite clear to me that, whether it is from the trigger case or whatever, there must be legislation in place to ensure that employers have employer’s liability insurance and that records are kept.

We also need to keep records of when people are diagnosed with an injury. In Rochdale, we had Turner and Newall, a company that used to boast about the annual medical inspections that it gave its work force. The fact is that the workers were never told what injuries they had contracted, and when workers tried to chase things up, the company denied that they ever had an injury.

I want to put on the record that that company, Turner and Newall, which was the parent company of J. W. Roberts in my constituency, where people died in the 1980s, denied that it even had any records. We had to go to court to force the records out of the company to find the list of employers, because they claimed, rather amazingly for an asbestos company, that the records had been destroyed by fire.

Of course they were not destroyed. Some of us are concerned that there may still be changes in the Turner and Newall compensation fund. That is why I believe that the Government, in dealing with the issue of pleural plaques, must go further and not just deal that issue alone, as a one-off, so that next time round the insurance companies find another way to weasel out of paying people their due.

Does the hon. Gentleman also remember a time when Turner and Newall argued that blue asbestos was the danger and white asbestos was so safe that people could eat it on their sandwiches? That was a lie as well, which was backed by the medical brotherhood.

Yes, absolutely. There is a lot of guilt hanging about, so I do not think that we should feel guilty about any of the things that we are saying now about the lies that the medical, academic and other professions spread in the days of Turner and Newall.

I agree. The hon. Gentleman is exactly right. As I said, at every stage throughout this whole sorry saga, hon. Members and ordinary members of the public have had to fight for what is their right. The issue of pleural plaques is yet another example.

As I say, I hope that the Government will consider broadening the scope of their response to measures to ensure that there is a register and that the records are kept. It is quite clear that the voluntary register is not working and that people are being denied their rights. I hope that the Government will go further and insist that anyone who is diagnosed with pleural plaques receives regular medical examinations, so that the extent of their injury can be determined and they do not have to go into a legal fight to receive what they are due when, say, they have a terminal illness such as mesothelioma. I also hope that the Government will use some of the subsidy because, let us be honest, we are not saying that the Government should pay. The employers have paid their liability insurance, so this is now an insurance company matter. Finally, I hope that a levy can be introduced to ensure that research into asbestos-related diseases receives the priority that it deserves.

In my view, this is a marker for whether the Government are serious about taking on the insurance industry. That is the root of the problem. Are we going to take the industry on, or will we continue to allow it to use every legal trick in the book to deny people who have worked all their lives, often on low pay, what they deserve? I hope that in the Minister’s response today and in the announcement later on, we will see not only a resolution of the pleural plaques issue, but a root and branch review of the system of dealing with industrial injury compensation. At the moment, clearly, the only winners are the insurance companies—and the lawyers.

First, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North (Jim Sheridan), not only on securing this debate but on the long campaign that he has waged to try to get justice for the victims of pleural plaques.

As my hon. Friend rightly said, pleural plaques are caused by the asbestos fibre coming through the lung on to the lining of the lung. Some time ago, during a meeting with a Minister, we encountered an adviser who said at that time that pleural plaques were not confined to people who had been exposed to asbestos. As a result of that, we got the report of two eminent consultants, who made it quite plain that pleural plaques occur only when a person has been exposed to asbestos. We know that after 15 years the plaques generally show up, and that after about 20 to 30 years, there is a calcification of the plaques.

The decision that was made by the Law Lords was a perverse decision. I realise that many lawyers say that the decision complies with the law, but I take the view that my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris) expressed. We are not talking about the “niceties” of the law. We want to see justice and fairness. The law may be correct, but it is unfair and unjust. We want to see that judgment of the Law Lords overturned, to give people with pleural plaques fairness and justice. We know from evidence that pleural plaques can, in certain circumstances, lead to a worsening of the disease.

My hon. Friend says that the law may be correct, but if it is, why have the legal systems in Scotland and Northern Ireland rejected that same law? Surely, the law being an ass is normal.

I hear my hon. Friend’s comment. In many circumstances, the law is an ass, and in this particular case I believe that it is an ass. In our last debate on this subject, I recall the hon. Member for Cambridge (David Howarth), who is the spokesman for the Liberal party, talking about where the law became very complicated and complex in relation to this case. As I say, it is not the “niceties” of the law that we are concerned with. We want to see the judgment overturned and we want to see justice and fairness.

We know that there is a relationship between pleural plaques and mesothelioma. When the courts dealt with these cases before 2004, they accepted that relationship. Then we got the 2004 High Court judgment that gave us this term about the well-being of people who had pleural plaques. Since then, we have seen the law move on from November 2005 to the recent House of Lords decision. In that period, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, West (John Battle) said, the insurance companies have waged a continual assault on the legislation as it relates to asbestos and diseases that are brought about by exposure to asbestos.

I hope that when we get the decision from the Ministry of Justice, it sends the message that we will not tolerate the insurance industry interfering, as it has over the past five years, to set back decisions in cases involving asbestos, asbestosis and mesothelioma cancer, thus depriving people of compensation. We have to reinforce people’s right to compensation.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) has mentioned his private Member’s Bill, with which he hopes to introduce an employers’ liability insurance bureau based on the principle of the Motor Insurance Bureau. That is the way forward, because we need to know that people who take out employers’ liability insurance will also pay a little extra into a fund that would then be available to someone whose employer’s insurance certificate could not be traced. That person would then be able to obtain compensation and would not be denied it because the insurance certificate that his employer might or might not have had could not be traced, or because his employer had gone out of business. It is important to develop that concept, and I hope that the Minister is prepared to take that on board.

The employer’s liability insurance bureau would be very important in relation to mesothelioma and other cancers that are caused by exposure to asbestos—it does not cause only mesothelioma. As has been noted, about 4,000 people a year die from exposure to asbestos, although the TUC argues that the number is twice that. An expert on the subject, Peter Martin, set out in The Sunday Times magazine of 17 April 2007 that between 2000 and 2050, there would be 186,000 deaths as a result of exposure to asbestos. We have to ensure that people who are exposed to asbestos have a fair and just system by which to proceed with compensation claims if they have been negligently exposed and have then developed the diseases that we have heard about as a result of their employer’s negligence. That applies particularly to pleural plaques, which come about only through such exposure. In 99 per cent. of cases, exposure has been negligent.

The Government have done a number of things, and the Minister has played an important part in ensuring that we got the Compensation Act 2006, which dealt quickly with the Barker case and reductions in compensation. The House of Lords’ decision in that case was delivered in May 2006, and the Government had overturned it by July 2006. The Government’s speedy action on that was welcome, as was the Child Maintenance and Other Payments Act 2008, which set out a compensation scheme for mesothelioma cancer sufferers that kicked in on 1 October 2008. Anyone who is diagnosed with mesothelioma cancer may make a claim and receive compensation, so the Government have acted very speedily in certain areas. The dual diagnosis system that was used when people claimed for industrial injuries and disability benefits has gone. Now, the report of the consultant who diagnosed the mesothelioma cancer can be used when claiming industrial injuries disablement benefits. A great deal has been done, but we must overturn this case to give justice and fairness to people who suffer from pleural plaques.

I agree with my hon. Friend about having an employers’ liability insurance bureau, and about the other steps that the Government have taken. However, does he agree that although it is important to have state insurance and state help for victims, the Government should not cast the burden on to taxpayers and let insurance companies off the hook in pleural plaques cases, allowing them to save £1.5 billion? Does he agree that although we want state support for victims, we also want insurance companies to pay out the money that they have taken in premiums in previous years?

I totally agree with my hon. Friend; the polluter should pay. In cases in which a man or woman has been exposed to asbestos, and that has brought on a disease, their employer should pay. On the basis of the polluter pays principle, the employer should be made, through its insurance, to ensure that there is compensation.

Indeed.

I shall wind up by drawing hon. Members’ attention to the fact that a group of consultants met here just before Christmas with a view to setting up a national centre for asbestos studies. They have been in touch with Mike Richards, at the Department of Health, and things seem to be going very well. I hope that such a centre will be set up in the UK early this year, because there is such a lot to be done and so much that we do not know about the effects of asbestos on the body. We do not know whether people tend to develop mesothelioma after a number of brief exposures or whether it can be brought about by a single exposure for a short period.

In 1997, I brought to the attention of the House a case of a former miner—like my hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck (Mr. Murphy), who is no longer in his seat—who had kept a fair record of his work and could recall that he had worked with a machine for four months in 1954. Because of the long latency, he was not diagnosed with mesothelioma cancer until 1997. It is important that we give fairness and justice to our people by overturning the Law Lords’ decision through legislation.

My hon. Friends have explained the situation clearly. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham) in particular for his excellent work on mesothelioma, and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North (Jim Sheridan) for securing the debate.

One issue of concern is that there was a precedent for compensation payments back in the 1980s, and there was recognition of why we needed those payments, so their subsequent disappearance has made people extremely angry. In 2004, when insurers brought test cases before the High Court for England and Wales, Mr. Justice Holland gave a judgment in favour of the claimants. One cannot believe that that case was not well prepared. I am sure that absolutely every effort would have been put into it, because the insurers were trying desperately to wriggle out of their responsibilities. Clearly, the message was sent that there was a need for compensation, so it came as a disappointment to everyone when the Court of Appeal and the House of Lords turned that decision on its head.

I know that my hon. Friend has met my constituent, Brian Legge, the chairman of the boilermakers’ section of the GMB in Swansea, who is a pleural plaques victim and an assiduous campaigner for justice for his fellow victims in south-west Wales. Does she agree that this issue will not go away until the Brian Legges of this world have got justice?

I certainly do agree. The campaign has been going on for a long time, as my hon. Friend says, and many people who are more experienced than me have done a tremendous amount of work on it. The current situation is that the Government consultation closed on 1 October. Although it is a decision that is extremely significant and will take some time, four months have gone by and we really want to have answers now.

The important question about the answers that we get is: what sort of message are we sending to insurers? Are we sending out a message that they can wriggle out of payments? We have made huge strides forwards since the 19th century in terms of health and safety and improving working conditions and, indeed, in our development of the understanding of occupational medicine. However, in any profit-making industry, there is always the temptation to cut corners. Often, the first things to go are the measures necessary to protect workers from the harmful substances with which they are working.

Such cost-cutting exercises are often exacerbated by the fierce competitive tendering culture that we have seen in the past few years. Taking no action on the issue or, indeed, letting insurers think that they can get away with wriggling out of compensation for conditions such as pleural plaques sends out a powerful message—to my mind, the wrong sort of message—that workers do not matter, that any hardships, difficulties and diseases that they suffer are not of any importance, and that companies and insurers can forget about social responsibility. Taking no action tells employers to spend money on finding ways of dodging their responsibilities, paying their lawyers, and dining out with their cronies in the insurance business, rather than looking after their workers and making their workplaces as safe as possible.

That is not my vision of a just and fair society. I want a society in which people come before profit and where a worker’s health and lifespan are more important than a boss’s bonuses. I stress to the Minister that the Government’s response to the consultation must send out a clear message to society, employers, insurers, and workers, that goes much further than the issue of compensation for pleural plaques. That message will go to the heart—or perhaps I should say the lungs—of what sort of society we want.

When this debate was proposed, I asked my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North (Jim Sheridan) whether anything had changed because I have been involved in the past few debates on the matter. He said, “No, Dave, nothing’s changed.” I wondered whether it was worth coming here today, other than to give support.

Are we going to discuss again the history of working people across the world who have been abused and the fact that in Namibia they put young children inside great big plastic bags to stamp down the asbestos and make sure that they have more of the poisoned substance loaded up to send around the world? Are we going to talk again about civil servants who described pleural plaques as being little more than freckles? Do we talk about employers who for many years knowingly and criminally exposed workers to the substance, despite the fact that they knew for more than a hundred years that it was killing people? Do we go over the debate about people arguing in court that if it cannot be proven which fibre from which factory killed a worker, they cannot get compensation? Do we have to speak again about the £1.4 billion that the insurers said that they would save as a result of the Law Lords’ rulings last year or the year before? Do we again have to go through the issue of doctors saying that people only get stressed because they have been told that they have pleural plaques—the inference being that they should not tell somebody that they have an illness? That seems quite wrong.

Do we again talk about the frustration that we all feel about the debate? We should not have had to have a debate here in the first place, but we are now here for the fourth time. We have been to see the Prime Minister, and we have met the Minister, and I have nothing but total respect for the way in which she has dealt with the subject. However, the truth is that we have met Ministers time and again. We have asked questions; we have tabled early-day motions; we have had debates. In addition, as mentioned before, there have been campaigns in the local press, and it would appear that, more or less, nothing has changed.

However, the truth is that some things have changed. One of things that I have heard today makes me feel confident, but also worries me. We have heard that in Scotland—as we clearly said would happen—Karen Gillon has introduced a Bill. I am pleased to tell hon. Members that Karen Gillon is a close friend of mine and my hon. Friend the Member for East Lothian (Anne Moffat)—it is good to see one of our apprentices doing well. If the legislation in Scotland is all we can get, it is great for the people in Scotland, but there is a real worry that if we have different legislation in this part of the United Kingdom, we will end up creating another bun feast for the lawyers.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North (Jim Sheridan) for securing the debate, and I apologise for not being here at the beginning. The last time we were here, I told the Minister that a solution to the problem must be found in this House. I reiterate that I have a constituent who probably became ill during his working life without knowing it. He now lives in my area. The last thing that we want is people living in one part of the country and finding that they cannot get compensation, which can only be paid in relation to something that is happening in a devolved Administration. We need a solution here in this House of Commons—in our Parliament.

I agree entirely with my hon. Friend, who first made that point about four months ago—it could even have been in the debate about eight months ago. The thing that I worry about is if we have legislation here and other legislation in Scotland, the lawyers will once again get their hands on it and have an argument, but while that is going on, people are dying.

The real reason that I want to speak today is that something has changed. Three hours ago, I was advised that a close friend of mine who was a leader of the community for which I am MP died. She had been suffering from mesothelioma for two years. She had worked in the health service and was a vivacious woman. She was well known in the area, full of life, and at the top of the tree in her career. I will not name her, because her family and friends might not be aware of what has happened yet. However, her death has brought home to me what far too many people in this country are going through, day in and day out. People are dying as a result of criminal negligence—there is no other way to describe what has gone on. We must make sure that we put an end to the matter as quickly and as fully as possible today.

First, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North (Jim Sheridan) for securing the debate. I am sorry that he has had to do so. The comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Mr. Anderson) about how long this has been going on show that the situation is clearly unacceptable.

In the few minutes available, I shall talk about an aspect that we sometimes forget. All contributors have spoken eloquently about the victims, but we never really define who they are. We talk about compensation for the person suffering from asbestos-related disease, but the person suffering from the disease is not the only victim, because this is a whole-family issue. The family suffer and we never stop to think about that and how to compensate them.

We heard earlier that money is not the only compensation. First and foremost, how do we recognise how devastating this disease is? How many of us have had members of our family contract these diseases and die from them? From my own personal experience, through which I wish I had not had to go, I have had two such people in my family. I do not wish that on any family in the country. There might, for example, be someone who has an uncle who is told that the pleural plaques are nothing, but who then goes on to develop a full blown asbestos-related disease from which he subsequently dies. A member of the family will have had to visit the hospital—not during the normal hospital visiting times—and stay there all through the night so that they can turn their loved one and ensure that the fluid in their lungs does not cause them discomfort. People cannot expect hard-working health care nurses and doctors to turn a loved one every couple of minutes through the night. When someone spends 28 nights in one month before their loved one dies, working through the night turning them and they hear the suffering of the other patients, they realise what a horrible death results from respiratory disease.

I would like the Minister to take away from today the understanding that although the comments about compensation and the legal decisions are correct, this is not simply about the person who suffers the illness; it is a whole-family issue.

I know a bit about industrial lung disease myself, because my grandfather, who was a coal miner and then a foundry worker, died of it; and, only last month, a former colleague, who was a scientist, died of mesothelioma. The disease affects not only industrial areas, such as the one that I am originally from, but the area in which I now live. It is important, however, that we do not let our natural anger at these negligent and often deceitful employers—or at the insurance companies which, as the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North (Jim Sheridan) rightly said, have had a windfall as a result of the events—divert us from proposing practical and fair solutions to the problem.

I shall say a couple of things about where I think the solution lies. I agree largely with what the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) said in an intervention about setting up a better insurance system, and I strongly agree with the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North about the psychiatric injury cases. However, I am perhaps the last person around to have some doubts about the Damages (Asbestos-related Conditions) (Scotland) Bill, which does not quite work. It defines pleural plaques simply as personal injury, but there are two problems with that. First, it is unfair to other people who are exposed to asbestos and have an equal chance of developing mesothelioma or asbestosis but who do not have plaques—we must sort that out. The second problem, which is more distant but still bothers me, is that the Bill does not help people who are in a similar position but suffer from other diseases—for example, people who have been exposed either to contaminated blood and have HIV-positive results but no symptoms of AIDS, or to other blood diseases. The Bill leaves them no better off than they are now, even though, in many respects, their cases are equivalent to the pleural plaques cases.

The explanatory notes to the Scottish Bill state that the average compensation will be about £8,000, but that the lawyers’ fees will be £14,000, which is not right. There must be a better way than just handing all the money over to lawyers, but I fear that the result will be worse, because the relevant Scottish Parliament Committee assumes that the compensation payment will be roughly the same as it was before. I am not too sure that it will, however, because the law, after Gregg v. Scott, states that one cannot get compensation simply because of the risk of developing a future disease, and a good part of previous pleural plaques payments were associated with the idea that one could.

I fear that the Scottish Bill will not produce compensation anywhere near £8,000, and the courts will treat the plaque issue as separate from the future disease issue, because there is no causal link between the two. It is a sign that one is at risk, but there is no causal link between the plaque and the eventual disease. If one cannot get any money for the risk of future disease, one will get money only for the plaques, and nothing in the Bill states what that compensation will be. Even allowing some money for anxiety, I would be surprised if, based on the Bill as drafted, people got more than £1,000. If so, the ratio of compensation to lawyers’ fees would be 1:14, and we must do better than that; we cannot allow a lawyers’ bonanza to develop in this area. That is why we must consider other solutions and look at the Scottish solution more carefully.

On the idea of better insurance arrangements, I must say that people who have claims against employers, where the employers are insured, can in theory, under the Third Parties (Rights Against Insurers) Act 1930, recover against the employer even when they have become insolvent. However, there are many practical problems in doing so, and the Law Commission has proposed a draft Bill that would clear away many of those practical problems. I gather that the measure—the draft Third Parties (Rights Against Insurers) Bill—will be brought forward this Session, and I really hope that it is, because it will help.

The Child Maintenance and Other Payments Act 2008 also helps, because, under that measure, people suffering from diffuse mesothelioma can get a compensation payment from the Government, and the Government can get the money back from the employer later. In both cases, however, there are gaps, and the two pieces of legislation do not cover the whole field. The 2008 Act covers only mesothelioma, not asbestosis, and the rights against insurers legislation does not cover cases where the employer illegally failed to insure, or failed to insure enough. That is why the suggestion from the hon. Member for Hendon, which I have also made in the past, is so important. There must be arrangements, first, to demand that when a plaque case comes up, the employer certifies that they are insured adequately for the purposes of the 1930 Act, because if they are not, there will be an obvious gap; and, secondly, if that does not work or the case involves a past event that cannot be corrected, there must be arrangements to provide for a fall-back liability fund, like the Motor Insurers Bureau fund, which is paid for by a levy on the industry. That is where I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale (Paul Rowen). We need that arrangement to ensure that people can be compensated fully when they get mesothelioma or asbestosis without having to rely on the present, shaky arrangements or hoping that the employer is still legally in existence.

Turning to psychiatric damage cases, the hon. Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham) rightly said that, in purely technical and legal terms, the pleural plaques case in the House of Lords was orthodox. In one area, however, it was not orthodox but very odd, indeed: namely, in the case of Grieves v. F. T. Everard, to which the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North referred. Mr. Grieves developed clinical depression —a recognised medical condition—as a result of his diagnosis. In previous cases, the House of Lords said that all one had to prove to recover psychiatric injury damages was that some injury, whether physical or psychiatric, was foreseeable based on what the defendant did. Suddenly, based on the Grieves case, however, the illness had to be specifically psychiatric, and the House of Lords said—I do not think that even this is right—that psychiatric illness is not a foreseeable consequence of being diagnosed with pleural plaques.

On the facts, I do not understand that decision, and even on the law, it makes no sense. The argument, as other Members have said, was that either it is somehow the doctor’s fault for telling someone that they have pleural plaques, although I do not think that that is right, because doctors have a duty to tell their patient their condition; or, worse than that, it is somehow the victim’s fault for worrying about it, which is a Victorian point of view and is not right, either. It cannot be the case that it was nobody’s fault, because, as Members rightly keep saying, the employer was negligent—in the wrong—in the first place by exposing the employee to asbestos. That aspect of the House of Lords case must therefore be reversed, so that it applies to all cases, not just to asbestos cases. It can be reversed in principle, not just in the one case. I recognise that there are some difficulties with the Scottish method of dealing with the problem, but I urge the Government to come forward with proposals that will work, that are practical and that have been suggested in this Chamber.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Williams. I congratulate the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North (Jim Sheridan), who has been an assiduous and tireless campaigner on this issue. He sponsored a debate in January last year, but I believe that this one is even better attended than that one, which shows the level of interest in the subject.

I agree with the hon. Member for Cambridge (David Howarth) that the vast majority of pleural plaques victims are in constituencies that historically contained heavy industries, but there a substantial number around the country. In my constituency, it is not just retired constituents who have developed the condition. It has also been picked up by employees in the packaging, house building, electronics assembly and warehousing industries. It has spread across the entire country.

As we have heard, pleural plaques are caused by asbestos passing through the lungs and the pleura that protect them, causing a hardening of the pleura. It is an incredibly unpleasant physical condition, because people live in the knowledge that it might at any time develop into something that is life threatening. The point was made today that the victims of pleural plaques were negligently exposed to asbestos. They would not have developed the condition if there had not been some negligence on the part of an employer. That point was made clearly by the hon. Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham), and it was reinforced by the hon. Member for Cambridge.

While most of the victims mercifully do not go on to suffer life-threatening diseases, I know from talking to constituents that the psychological harm and stress are enormous. I do not understand how any court of law or insurance company can measure it. How does one quantify it? In many cases, families are torn apart, people lose the will to go on working and they suffer enormously. We heard from the hon. Member for Eccles (Ian Stewart) how appalling the suffering can be when full-blown symptoms develop.

The previous situation was based on a pragmatic compromise: the victims received what was not particularly generous compensation but a reasonable amount of money. For people in a vulnerable position, receiving between £5,000 and £7,000 could make a difference to their lives. The final award of up to £20,000 was not a life-changing sum, but it could bring some respite to families who were suffering a great deal. The compensation did not cost the insurance industry a lot of money because, as was made clear by the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North, the cost was carried by insurance companies which simply adjusted their premiums upwards. It was almost as if the insurance industry accepted that it had a wider moral and social obligation to a group of vulnerable people.

We had a reasonably acceptable state of affairs which, as several colleagues pointed out, was based on Church v. Ministry of Defence; Sykes v. Ministry of Defence; and Patterson v. Ministry of Defence. Those cases, which were heard in the 1980s, were based on the theory of aggregation. In other words, although it was accepted that pleural plaques themselves could not give rise to a claim, they could create a causable action when aggregated with the risk of anxiety. Then, as the hon. Member for Cambridge explained, we had the Gregg case, which encouraged the insurance industry to take various test cases—I believe that there were 10 in total—leading ultimately to the House of Lords decision in Johnston v. NEI International Combustion, and Rothwell v. Chemical and Insulating Company.

I agree with the hon. Member for Cambridge about the October 2007 House of Lords judgment, but we should not necessarily criticise the House of Lords. I agree with the hon. Members for Rochdale (Paul Rowen) and for Barnsley, West and Penistone, who questioned why the insurance industry felt that it had to take the test cases. After all, we are talking about a problem which ultimately will go away, because, mercifully, there is much less exposure in the modern industrial context. The problem was not going to get worse. It was a problem that the insurance industry could live with by adjusting the premiums, as it did.

Before the hon. Gentleman carries on with the legal history, could he simply agree with me and most of the hon. Members in this Chamber that the law should be changed?

We must be clear about the facts and the fictions. The hon. Gentleman hits on an important point, because work was done by Professor Richard Doll some 10 years ago, as hon. Members know, which set out accurate projections that are proving to be true of the number of people who would become victims. He proved that there would be a peak, then the numbers would draw down. It is not as if a quantifiable measure cannot be put on the insurers’ bill. That is why, for the life of me, I cannot understand why they had to panic and rush to the Lords to get that decision, other than to get a short-term windfall gain.

What a pity the right hon. Gentleman is no longer a Minister in what is now the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform. He would be gingering up other Ministers to demand a solution.

To be fair to the Ministry of Justice, it published the consultation paper, “Pleural Plaques”, on 9 July. I would like to ask the Minister about the response to some of the key questions in that document. Was there any broad consensus on the two key options? Option 1 was to change the law; in other words, to go back to the status quo ante. It is staggering that the range of costs for doing so in the document is so wide. Can the Minister not be more specific and accurate on the costs? Presumably she has to hand a substantial amount of research.

I agree with the hon. Member for Cambridge that there is a solution. If we were to change the law and go back to the status quo ante, then build into the system a number of insurance safeguards and possibly tag on a levy on the industry, we could well have a way forward. That appeals more than the idea of some no-fault payment scheme, although it should be considered as well. Perhaps the Minister could tell us what the balance of support was between the two main options in the responses that were received.

I shall close now, because people do not want to hear from the official Opposition—they want to hear from the Government—but I will just say to the Minister that the shadow Ministry of Justice team has strong feelings about the issue. A solution must be found. We accept that there is a huge amount of anger and concern in the Commons, and we will work with the Minister to the best of our ability to find a solution to the problem.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Williams. I am sure that the hon. Members for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) and for Cambridge (David Howarth) will forgive me if I do not spend too much of my time responding to their contributions, important as they were, but turn specifically to those made by my hon. Friends.

First, as my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North (Jim Sheridan) said, this is the fourth debate on this subject. I congratulate him on securing it, and I hope to God that it will be the last one. The debates demonstrate the real importance that my hon. Friends and others attach to the issue. Secondly, I want to make a profound personal and departmental apology to my hon. Friends and to the victims of pleural plaques for not yet publishing the response to the consultation. I deeply regret that. It is very unfortunate, and all I can say is that, along with this debate and the question that my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham) put to the Prime Minister today, the focus is very much on getting the response out quickly.

Let me speak briefly about the responses to the consultation. There was a large number—larger than we expected—including many from my hon. Friends, among others, and they are quite complex. The issue is complex, and the hon. Member for Cambridge highlighted some of the complexities. I say to my hon. Friend the right hon. Member for Leeds, West (John Battle) and others that the Government are not hiding behind the insurers. We are determined that we get to a resolution quickly.

I did not say that the Government are hiding behind the insurers, but I am worried that the Department officials actually say, “We’re on the side of the insurers and not on the side of justice in this case.”

I do not think that Department officials say that, but even if they did, they do not make the policy—elected Members do, and we certainly would not be going down that line.

I say to my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone that I absolutely intend that something should happen well before the general election. I shall also keep in mind the fact that my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) has a number of private Member’s Bills in the offing and, if it is not to be the draft Third Parties (Rights Against Insurers) Bill, which I will mention in a moment, one of his Bills is also hanging in the air if there is a role for legislation.

I say to the hon. Member for Cambridge that the draft Third Parties (Rights Against Insurers) Bill is second in line to go under the new procedure in the House of Lords, so I cannot guarantee that it will be dealt with in this session of Parliament. However, it is up there near the top, so that is another example showing that we are considering ways of moving this forward. The scrutiny of Karen Gillon’s Bill in the Scottish Parliament highlighted some of the complexities involved. Although the Scottish Justice Committee welcomed the measures to enable people with pleural plaques to claim compensation, it is concerned about the Scottish Executive’s financial memorandum. In a sense, that confirms that our decision on going out to consultation was the right one.

My hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Mr. Anderson) said earlier that this would create a division, again, between Scotland and England—and Northern Ireland, for that matter. I agree that there are certain anomalies in the Bill as it stands and that it will be amended before it goes through. It is important to note that it receives all-party support—Tory, Liberal, Scottish National party—and was introduced by Labour. However, there is a second issue. After that Bill goes through, and the status quo stands, how will employers be dealt with in Scotland? Will they not be disadvantaged by heavier premiums and insurance than apply in England? That is another anomaly that would emerge. We need a UK solution to this issue.

I could not agree more with hon. Friend. We need a UK solution. In past debates, we have raised the matter of what would happen to someone who worked in Scotland but lived in England, and vice versa. We have all rehearsed those arguments on many occasions.

As hon. Members have mentioned, the consultation considered a range of options. We received some 220 responses, some of which came from people who had been diagnosed with pleural plaques. I read helpful, informative responses from medical professionals, including Dr. Rudd and Dr. Moore-Gillon, who gave evidence to the House of Lords in the Rothwell case. Those responses, along with the review that we asked the chief medical officer and the Industrial Injuries Advisory Council to undertake, demonstrated that in a number of areas there was consensus on some key points. That is useful, important and positive.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Mr. Anderson), who said that the best way to do away with the compensation culture is to have better health and safety at work. He is right. Although to some extent I accept the logic of looking at things from a wider perspective, I say to the hon. Member for Rochdale (Paul Rowen) that, given the time that people have waited on the pleural plaques issue, I would prefer on this occasion to see something done in respect of this matter, then we can consider things in a wider scope on another occasion. My hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone has been rightly praised for the work that he did in respect of the Child Maintenance and Other Payments Act 2008. In the first three months of the scheme, 225 payments have been made totalling more than £3 million. We expected the payments to be, on average, in the region of £10,000, but on average they are £18,000. Our target was to pay claims within six weeks but, in fact, the majority are now being cleared in less than a week. What my hon. Friend said on the subject is important and shows that if we put a scheme together that goes directly to the individuals we get a better, more efficient and faster scheme that does not just pay £14,000 to the lawyers.

How much money has been recovered directly from employers—from defendants—under the Act that the Minister mentioned? She has given the figure for the money out, but how much money has been brought in?

Unfortunately, I do not have those figures, but if I can get hold of them I will certainly make them available to the relevant Committee.

My hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow (Mr. Hepburn), who has left to attend a Select Committee sitting, was right. The Newcastle Evening Chronicle has been running an effective campaign—I get more coverage in that newspaper than in my local papers—and, hopefully, one day, there will be something slightly more positive to mention than there is at the moment. It is important that those campaigns continue and that the pressure is kept on. My hon. Friend the Member for Eccles (Ian Stewart) made a passionate contribution to the debate. He is right: the victims are not just the people with the pleural plaques, but their families and the loved ones around them.

Does my hon. Friend the Minister, as a Labour Member of Parliament in a Labour Government, accept the basic proposition that justice demands that the law, as interpreted by the House of Lords in its decision, be changed statutorily by the House of Commons for the whole of the United Kingdom?

I think that I can probably agree with my hon. Friend on that subject. We need to find a way of ensuring that people get some recompense, because another unwelcome effect of the House of Lords judgment was that people diagnosed with pleural plaques were no longer able to establish the employer’s liability of negligence at an early stage. That potentially creates difficulties, especially if people eventually get mesothelioma, or another asbestos-related disease, as that delay inevitably affects the speed with which they can obtain compensation.

My hon. Friend the Minister has not said whether she agrees with the proposition that there should be an employers’ liability insurance bureau and a compulsory insurance register for employers who may later go out of business. Perhaps she could say whether she agrees with those propositions, which are in my Bill and have generally been welcomed in this Chamber.

That would be a constructive way forward and it is something that we would want to look at. I would not want to go any further than that on this occasion. [Hon. Members: “Go on!”] Perhaps in the next debate we can have that discussion.

Today, we heard the Prime Minister make a clear indication, in response to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone, that something will be coming forth soon from the Government. I want to reassure my hon. Friends and, indeed, all hon. Members that we are firmly committed to helping people who have suffered as a result of exposure to asbestos.

I say to my hon. Friend the Member for East Lothian (Anne Moffat) and others who mentioned our dear departed friend, John MacDougall, that the idea of a trust fund in his memory would be an appropriate way for us take this matter forward. I hope that the trust fund that the family is setting up will be successful. When my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North was thanking people at the beginning of the debate, it was a bit like the Oscars, but I hope that the award to him and to those he represents will be that we will treat people with pleural plaques and other asbestos-related diseases with the respect and support that they deserve.

Lobbying (Whitehall/Westminster)

Thank you, Mr. Williams for calling me, as my colleagues leave for the imminent vote. I am grateful to Mr. Speaker for granting this debate, and I shall put my cards on the table straight away.

I want a mandatory register of lobbyists, as do my friends on the Select Committee on Public Administration. We published a unanimous report, “Lobbying: Access and influence in Whitehall”, on 5 January, before the terrible revelations in The Sunday Times. The last time Parliament reported on lobbying was way back in 1991—a lifetime ago, before mobile phones, e-mail and the internet.

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

On resuming—

I am grateful that we are able to resume the debate, Mr. Williams. I will canter through my speech as quickly as I can.

Before we were interrupted, I was drawing attention to the Public Administration Committee report that was published on 5 January. It calls for a mandatory register of lobbyists. It was published before the dreadful revelations in The Sunday Times article, “Labour lords change laws for cash”. It is worrying that people out there think that Parliament is a den of thieves. Revelations and allegations of sleaze are a spreading stain that contaminates Members of Parliament and peers alike. Something must be done.

The House of Lords Committee for Privileges is looking at the allegations. However, what I have heard with my own ears—not mediated by the media—is appalling, such as the comment that rules are meant to be bent. The Leader of the House of Lords, Baroness Royall, talked of the possibility of suspending or even expelling peers who are guilty of wrongdoing. She was right in saying that the revelations were “deeply shocking”. Sam Macrory of The House Magazine—our internal journal—said:

“Cash for questions is one thing; cash for changing the law scrapes a new low in the annals of political scandal.”

Why did the fake lobbyists target the Lords? In the same article, Sam Macrory quotes Professor Robert Hazell of the constitution unit at University college London:

“Since 1997 the government has suffered four legislative defeats in the House of Commons, and nearly 500 in the House of Lords”.

I know colleagues who have been lobbied by bona fide organisations such as housing associations to press an amendment in the House of Commons. They have been told by Ministers that hell will freeze over before the Government will accept the amendment. The same amendment goes to the other end of the Palace and is accepted in the House of Lords. That is where legislation is changed. Lobbyists understand that. Professor Hazell goes on to say that

“it is no surprise that lobbyists and interest groups focus on the Lords: the prospects for getting legislation changed there are so much greater.”

According to the Financial Times, more than 40 peers have given passes to people who work for lobbyists, PR firms and other organisations such as the National Farmers Union and the TUC. That list can be accessed at the website, FT.com/lobbyists.

My friends on the Public Administration Committee and I take the view that transparency is essential. The Freedom of Information Act 2000 has changed everything. It has changed the way in which we think about information and our rights to it. For Parliament and its procedures still to be shrouded in mystery is anomalous in this day and age. I think that we need a mandatory register, and so does Sir Christopher Kelly, the chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, who is at the apex of the ethical pyramid. Yesterday, he told the Public Administration Committee that he agrees that there should be a mandatory register of lobbyists.

The report has its critics. I think that it is good, but it has not received universal acclaim. Lord Bell said:

“It is an incompetent report which contributes nothing—either in its analysis or in its recommendations—to help people who are concerned that the Government comes under undue influence.”

At the other end of the spectrum, George Monbiot told The Guardian that our proposals were “timid and dated”. I do not know which planet George is on at the moment, but it is not planet Earth. Our proposals are radical and quite revolutionary.

The report recommended that there should be changes to the ministerial code. The independent adviser on ministerial interests, Sir Philip Mawer, cannot initiate inquiries into ministerial conduct and must wait for a direction from the Prime Minister. Sir Christopher Kelly told the Select Committee, and stated in his annual report, that it is a serious weakness that the independent adviser cannot initiate inquiries. Until that is possible, newspapers will continue to run stories about members of the Cabinet meeting Russian oligarchs. Such stories will not go away.

The Prime Minister is committed to constitutional reform, so I would like to see him change the ministerial code and consider a mandatory register of lobbyists. I was given some encouragement today when I raised the matter at Prime Minister’s Question Time. I get the sense—I am looking at the Minister as I say this—that we are pushing at an open door. The climate of opinion has changed. Lobbying is not always bad and can be very good. It is an essential part of our democracy. People want to influence decisions, and doing so can be malign or benign. My views are influenced all the time by people who lobby me. My views on the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill changed after I read material from the Royal College of Nursing, the British Medical Association and others. Lobbying can be positive, but those on both sides of the argument must have equal access. We are being lobbied on the third runway at Heathrow; we should hear the arguments against the third runway. We are lobbied on genetically modified foods. Is that a good thing? We should be lobbied on the alternative viewpoint. There should be a level playing field.

What conclusion has my hon. Friend reached on the evidence that hon. Members, particularly ex-Ministers here and in the other place, seem to be acting for large sums of money as paid stooges to outside interests? Does he think that it should be one MP, one job?

I thank my friend for that intervention. I believe that being a Member of Parliament is a full-time job. I shall return to that point later, because a large number of MPs, many of whom will retire from the House at the next election, have taken well remunerated posts. I do not mean £5,000 or £10,000, but £50,000 or £70,000—in one case as much as £110,000. Such sums completely dwarf the parliamentary salary.

What is the problem with lobbying? It is unregulated, it cannot be accounted for and it is largely out of sight. That is the view of the non-profit charity Spinwatch, which monitors public relations, spin and lobbying in society. It says—and I agree—that lobbying is secretive and that it leads no evidence trail. At the moment, insofar as there is regulation, it is conducted by the three main umbrella bodies. They have codes of practice, but sanctions are rarely employed. During the past decade, the Chartered Institute of Public Relations has formally reprimanded only two of its members; the Association of Professional Political Consultants last used its procedures in 1998—11 years ago; and the Public Relations Consultants Association has never received a formal complaint that required the involvement of its professional practices committee.

So there we go. It is not as if the industry is so squeaky clean that the absence of references to the Standards and Privileges Committees could tell us something. That is why the Public Administration Committee is calling for transparency and disclosure. Indeed, we go further: we want details of the person being lobbied and the minutes of meetings. Lobbying happens overseas. People here recoil in horror at the thought of senior civil servants’ diaries being open to the media, the press and hon. Members, but it happens overseas. The Committee visited Brussels last year or the year before, and in June last year, the European Commission introduced a voluntary register of lobbyists. Later this year, probably in June or July, the Commission will decide whether to go for a mandatory register. In the United States, President Obama is red hot on transparency and is a great backer of the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act of 2007. Of course, there have been scandals in the US; people who are fraudulent or corrupt are inventive and will exploit loopholes, which must be closed. That is how to deal with the problem.

Our sister democracy in Canada has regulated lobbying by statute for more than 20 years. Its system focuses on improper access to decision makers. It therefore knows the identity of the lobbyists, on whose behalf they are lobbying, the issues on which are lobbying, and the targets of the lobbying. That is happening in Canada, but why do we need it here? Power is concentrated in the United Kingdom. We all remember the Drapergate affair. In 1998, Derek Draper worked for Lord Mandelson, who is now Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform. I believe that Derek Draper is now a psychotherapist. In 1998, he famously said that there were only 17 people who exercised real power in the new Labour Government, that he knew them all and that he could introduce lobbyists to them all. After that, the Government acted, and properly so. They brought in new guidance—“Guidance for Civil Servants: Contact with Lobbyists”—which said that they should not do anything that would place them under an obligation to the lobbyist. That was good guidance, but it has not been updated since 1998.

What do we want, and do we want it now? We want a mandatory register of lobbying activity to be provided for by statute, we want it to be independently managed and enforced, and it should include information provided by lobbyists and those being lobbied. We want the names of the individuals carrying out the lobbying activity and the organisations that employ or hire them, and in the case of multi-client consultancies, we want the names of the clients. We want information about any public offices previously held by lobbyists—for example, if they were former MPs. Such information would come from their career history, and there is no great secret about that. We also want a list of the interests of decision makers in the public services—I think of Ministers, senior civil servants and senior public servants—and summaries of their career histories outside the public service. Finally, we want information about contacts between lobbyists and decision makers, especially diary records and minutes of meetings. That is what we want, and we want it now.

I turn now to the revolving door, which was mentioned by my friend the Member for Newport, West (Paul Flynn). Lobbying is about identifying and influencing those who exercise power and make decisions. Lobbyists buy access. The Government spend around £79 billion every year buying services from the private sector. Over the past 20 or 30 years, first under Margaret Thatcher and then under Tony Blair and the current Prime Minister, whole slabs of the public sector have been privatised. The private sector now has a foot in the door of the health service, and as I speak, the House is debating the Royal Mail and the Government’s proposal to part-privatise it, with TNT, a Dutch company, being a preferred partner. A decision has not yet been made, but Lord Mandelson has said that TNT is in the frame. Just imagine what TNT would give for inside information on discussions within the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform about giving a private-sector company a chunk of Royal Mail.

What can we do to prevent that? We already have a sort of quarantine system. When Ministers and senior civil servants leave office, they have to notify the advisory committee on business appointments. If there is a connection between someone from the public services subsequently profiting from the knowledge and contacts he or she acquired, the committee is supposed to blow the whistle—but it is a very quiet whistle. Lord Warner came before the Select Committee. He used to be the Minister with responsibility for health service reform, and he now has seven or eight consultancies. They are all above board and have been declared. He told the Select Committee that the advisory committee on business appointments had told him:

“The main thing…I could not do for the first year after being a Minister was to lobby Ministers, whatever that means”.

We know from the Mayhew report that the system is not policed—that is a huge lacuna—and it needs a complete overhaul.

It is a huge problem, and it is impossible to condense it into 10 or 15 minutes, but I have done my best. I finish on this note. I have been talking to my colleagues in the Labour party, and they say if people outside knew what was happening and the money that was involved, they would recoil in horror. It is not advertised. About a year ago, some of my friends proposed changing the standing orders of the parliamentary Labour party so that if a Member of Parliament or Lord wanted to take a second job, perhaps in consultancy, they would be obliged to write to the party stating the time commitments, remuneration and how the job would advance the party’s aims and objectives. That is what is required to drag lobbying into the daylight.

I hope that the Minister will respond positively to this new landscape. Things have changed in the past few weeks, and I hope that he will tell us that the Government are committed to introducing a mandatory register for lobbyists along the lines that I have set out.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) on securing the debate; not for the first time he has made parliamentary history by changing the terms and conditions by which we conduct our debates in this Chamber. He has also shown his customary dogged determination for change, for which I commend him.

My hon. Friend wants a mandatory register for lobbyists. I do not know whether we will go down that route yet. The Public Administration Committee published its report on 5 January, and I am committed to responding formally on behalf of the Government by 5 March. He is right that the world has changed in the past month, and the Government accept some of the valid points raised in the report’s analysis. I shall go through some of those points.

The report probably surprised everyone in the industry, and it has already had an effect. However, let me place the debate in the context of where we have come in the past 10 years, partly as a result of the work of the Select Committee. When considering the case for change, it is important to remember how far the Commons has come in the past 10 years. Lobbying became a concern after the famous “cash for questions” debacle in the 1990s when a compelling case was made that two Conservative MPs had been accepting cash for questions. On the back of that, the Government changed the way that things were done. Business appointment rules were extended to apply to former Ministers; we introduced an automatic waiting period of three months before Cabinet Ministers could take up posts; advisory committees were given the power to publish advice to former Ministers and civil servants where it was not followed; and Departments began maintaining records of gifts accepted by Ministers. We have now gone even further by publishing the annual list of gifts received by Ministers. Similarly, Departments began keeping records of hospitality accepted and the ministerial code now sets out the circumstances in which it is acceptable to receive hospitality. Furthermore, guidance is now available for civil servants accepting hospitality.

Interestingly, the Nolan Committee did not see the need for Ministers’ financial interests to be recorded separately from interests declared as an MP, but now all Ministers notify their permanent secretary on appointment of the relevant private interests, and for the first time the Government will be publishing that information. The Government also accepted the recommendations in the 2000 report by the Committee on Standards in Public Life. It recommended that details of all ministerial and official meetings with external interests be properly recorded by Departments, and guidance to Departments now states how that should be done. The recommendation to issue guidance on consultation was accepted, and clear rules and guidance on how Governments should consult, including a Government code on consultation, are now in place.

The Committee also developed the seven principles of public life that now underpin the ministerial and civil service code and govern everything that we do as public servants. Of course, as my hon. Friend said, we must not forget that the Freedom of Information Act 2000 has had a huge impact on the way that the Government do business. I hope he acknowledges, therefore, that we have made great and incremental change over the past decade, which has made the system more transparent and led to a culture change in the way in which people go about their business in government.

I accept absolutely my hon. Friend’s point that we can go further. He made some sensible recommendations for tightening the rules.

Early Voting

The recent election and inauguration of Barack Obama has been politically a wonderfully bright moment in these dark days of the global economic downturn. “Obama mania” gripped everyone on both sides of the Atlantic, and for once it was not media hype, but a real feeling that something historic was being witnessed. Now that things are settling down, and Obama is getting on with the job in hand, it is time for reflection here. In British politics, it does us no harm to cast our eyes across the Atlantic and to learn one or two things about the American way of doing things—they learned enough from us in the past.

One of the most striking factors about the recent election in the US, other than the huge amounts of enthusiasm and grass-roots campaigning pumped into “swing states” across the country, was the sheer number of people queuing up for hours on end, exercising their right to vote. As a reminder, in November, nearly 57 per cent. of America’s voting age population flocked to the polls. If we compare that with previous elections— 44 per cent. in 2004, 51 per cent. in 2000, and 44 per cent. in 1996—we find that last year saw quite a substantial increase.

In the UK, luckily, our turnout has sustained slightly higher levels. In 2005, just above 61 per cent. of the eligible population voted, but we have seen a fairly disturbing fall in numbers given that the figure was 71 per cent. in 1997. Furthermore, in comparison with the rest of Europe, we are still lagging significantly behind. In France, 84 per cent. of the electorate took part in the last contest.

I have recently come to the conclusion that ease of voting is one of the main factors determining whether people turn out. Members might consider, for instance, the events last week: thanks to the weather, no one could reach work, transport networks failed and traffic came to a halt on roads across the country. Imagine that we had the profound bad luck of that happening on election day. What would turnout levels be like then? I admit that it is highly unlikely that a snowstorm will hit the UK in May or June, but weather conditions are just one example of the numerous deterrents that could, and do, prevent people from fully partaking in the electoral process.

The only answer is for us to consider methods of improving turnout through making voting far easier. Academics have researched the implications of postal voting and of improving access to polls by, for example, increasing the number of possible voting locations, lowering the average time voters have to spend waiting in line, or requiring companies to give workers some time off on voting day. Some countries have even considered internet voting as a possible solution. However, the only method I regard as fully tried and tested, with sufficient evidence in its favour, is what I call “early voting”.

The British electoral system remains very conservative. For years, we have voted on the same day of the week—Thursday—in the same way and at the same polling stations. The Americans did much the same thing, except that they voted on a Tuesday, until recently when they took the initiative and asked, “Why Tuesday?” Recently, in the UK, positive electoral innovations have taken place, such as the rise in the uptake of postal ballots. However, with turnout dropping, faith in the political system falling and people feeling more remote from their elected representatives, radical steps must be taken to re-enthuse people about voting.

On 7 January, Congressman Steve Israel introduced the Weekend Voting Act in the US Senate and the House. He said:

“It is crazy to me that we’re only allowing people to vote over a certain period of hours on one day. Other nations that have voter turnout allow their people to vote over several days.”

Clearly, we are not one of the other nations, but he is right. France allows people to vote at the weekend, thus avoiding the need to take time off work. Some people might say that is common sense, but I will leave that for the Minister to decide.

The work of Congressman Israel has been spurred on by the organisation Why Tuesday. I encourage everyone to visit its website, whytuesday.org. Its motto is, “Fixing our voting system one question at a time.” That is why I am here today—to begin getting such questions asked on our side of the Atlantic. I will turn the question: we should be asking, “Why Thursday?”

Turnout is already worryingly low in local elections. I suspect that it will not be high in this summer’s European elections, and if it starts falling any lower at general elections, the alarm bell will start to ring. A lot can be done to encourage voter participation, increase turnout and restore the vital link between voters and the people for whom they are voting.

Ken Ritchie, the chief executive of the Electoral Reform Society, has investigated the matter of early voting in some depth. He says:

“At a time of falling turnout, those who are planning to vote should be given every opportunity to do so. There are enough other reasons why people don’t vote that we don’t need to add to them by providing just one polling day on a Thursday.

This is why ideas such as early voting, which in no way detract from the security of the ballot, should be introduced as part of efforts to promote participation. In many ways, this is a better idea than weekend voting as it provides even more flexibility for the voter…Early voting can also give opportunities to let people vote in more accessible places, such as shopping centres or at bus stations, etc. There may be some costs associated”—

I am sure that there will be—

“with voting in polling stations over several days, but democracy is important and if a little extra money makes democracy better, let’s go for it. Moreover, when we consider the amount that political parties are willing to spend on election campaigns, there should be no objections to spending more money on putting the voter first.”

I am sorry to have missed the start of the hon. Lady’s speech. I very much endorse what she says. In the case of Croydon, would it not be good to use the main railway station in east Croydon to increase participation? I was a candidate in the London Assembly elections, which had early voting. Such voting did not make a difference then, but things may be very different in general elections. The hon. Lady’s American example might apply in places such as Croydon. Black and minority ethnic voters might be encouraged to increase their participation in elections.

We have to make voting as easy as possible. There have been pilot schemes, but they have not been rolled out. Chester council used a pilot scheme and there was an increase in voter turnout, and the council would have liked to roll out the scheme. I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman. We should use anything we can to increase voter participation.

How do we put the voter first? I recently tabled early-day motion 314 on early voting, which I encourage all hon. Members to support if they believe that allowing only one day for people to vote hinders the democratic process.

The evidence from across the pond is clear: turnout can be raised substantially by making voting easier or more attractive. In the US, there were record levels of early voting. More than 30 states in the US now allow early voting. Research has indicated that more voters are interested in casting their ballots earlier than ever before, and about 30 per cent. did exactly that in November’s presidential elections. Consider what 30 per cent. of the electorate in our constituencies would mean to us. In short, it is time for a radical overhaul of our voting system.

This is not a narrow party political issue, and it has cross-party support. There is no evidence that such a system would lead to any one party increasing its share of the vote. No politician or party should be against a move that makes the franchise easier to use, and expanding democracy is not something that elected politicians should ever be against.

At a time when it is crucial to increase voter participation, we need to be a bit bolder in the reform of our system. Recent years have seen a wide range of pilot schemes, but they quickly fall from favour. It is time to drag our voting system into the 21st century—look at the way in which the American elections caught the public’s imagination. We should understand why people took advantage of early voting and introduce it in our country.

I will finish by reading an e-mail that I received this morning following my interview on the “Today” programme:

“I write to congratulate you on your remarks on the Today programme this morning about extending the voting period at general elections to one week prior to the actual polling day. This is probably the sanest remark yet made about getting more of the electorate to cast their vote in a proper and responsible manner.”

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Mrs. Riordan) on securing this debate on such a fundamental issue. A healthy society depends on a healthy democracy, and healthy democracies depend on high levels of participation. It is very worrying that this country and other western democracies have seen a trend towards lower turnouts. All democratic politicians and citizens should be concerned about that. This Government take the matter very seriously. I am delighted that my hon. Friend is taking such a debate on.

The causes of this trend are complex. I have to say that part of the cause lies with us politicians. We are not exciting our electorate sufficiently to get them to turn out and vote for us. Much of the time, it is clear that part of the problem resides in the fact that voters do not see that there is enough in the election for them to vote for. We are not making them think that politics matters. That is something that we have to look to ourselves to address.

It is clear that when voters in other democracies feel that a fundamental issue is at stake in an election, they turn out to vote in very large numbers. We saw that in the recent presidential elections in France. Arguably, the extraordinary scenes that we saw in the United States after the wonderful election of President Obama are the result of the fact that American citizens felt that that election was profoundly important for the future of their country. It was not necessarily to do with the voting mechanisms themselves. Such matters are complex. My hon. Friend is right to urge us to investigate how we can make voting more accessible and straightforward.

The very act of voting is at the heart of the democratic process, so how do we make that easier? How do we identify the barriers to people voting and how do we make the process more accessible? It is axiomatic that all voters who are entitled to vote should be able to do so. That is why I shall introduce measures to improve the register. Approximately 3 million voters in this country are entitled to vote but are not able to do so because they are not on the register. We must do everything that we can to improve the quality of the electoral roll.

Early voting or, as we call it in this country, advance voting could offer voters a greater opportunity to vote in a supervised environment if they are unable to vote on polling day itself. The act of voting in a polling booth is important in itself: it offers greater guarantees of security in polling and militates against electoral fraud, of which we have unfortunately seen some examples in postal voting, which is another way of making voting more accessible. It also gives people a choice of publicly affirming the democratic act of voting, which is very important.

The vote was hard won for everyone in this country and the progress towards universal suffrage took many years. Blood was shed in this country and in others to achieve it, so it is very precious. In some ways, it is important that voting should remain fundamentally a public act and that we should affirm the principle of voting in a democracy in that way. Advance voting perhaps offers that in a way that other more accessible forms of voting do not, as neither postal voting nor proxy voting offer that advantage.

Over the past decade, the Government have explored a wide range of options and mechanisms to see how we can increase participation by making voting more accessible to voters, and part of that work has involved advance voting. We have run pilots that examined the impact of improving the opportunity and convenience for electors who choose to vote using traditional methods, but in advance. The choice of times and locations for advance voting can be a key factor in determining convenience, turnout and value for money. As both hon. Members who have spoken today have suggested, it is important that those polling stations are located in central and easily accessible locations such as train stations, shopping centres and public libraries for several days running up to the election.

The exact effect of such measures is open to debate. We piloted advance voting in local elections in England in 2000 and then again in 2002, 2006 and 2007 in a total of 26 pilots. Their aim was to determine whether advance voting increases turnout and convenience for voters. Local authorities ran awareness campaigns highlighting the availability of advance voting and information was made available on polling cards, inserts in election packs, billboard advertising, local newspaper advertising and interviews on local radio stations. As much as possible was done to publicise the innovation.

According to research conducted by local authorities, it appeared that the majority of the electors who voted early could or would have voted on the normal election day if the advance voting option had not been available. In the pilots that followed, the effect on turnout was limited. In 2007, advance voting as a percentage of turnout amounted, for example, to just 0.5 per cent. in Gateshead and 0.7 per cent. in Sheffield. Only in Broxbourne was there a substantial take-up of advance voting, and even there the proportion was just 7 per cent.

Since 2002 the Electoral Commission has evaluated pilots to determine whether they are successful and made recommendations for the future. It has concluded that although advance voting does make the process of voting more convenient for some, it does not seem to have had a significant impact on turnout. The aim of the 2007 pilots was to facilitate voting among those who usually did not participate, targeting so-called opportunistic voters. However, the Electoral Commission has reported that there was relatively little success in achieving that aim. Feedback from election staff and evidence from local surveys suggests that the majority—around 74 per cent.—of users of advance voting would have voted in any case. Across the five pilot areas, turnout at the May 2007 elections was more or less consistent with turnout in previous comparable elections.

In 2007, we specifically wanted to test whether repeat access to advance voting in successive elections would lead to greater awareness among electors and greater uptake. That is obviously a consideration that we would have to take into account, because the cumulative effect could have been greater than a one-off pilot had suggested. Three local authorities that had previously trialled advance voting—Broxbourne, Gateshead and Sunderland—did so again in May 2007. Significantly, and disappointingly from the Government’s point of view and, I am sure, that of my hon. Friend repeat piloting of advance voting in the same local authority did not seem to lead to a higher uptake.

The difficulty in measuring the impact that advance voting might have on turnout is that other factors are not taken into account, which is one reason why we should not dismiss the idea out of hand. I am certainly not going to dismiss it today. We do not know the impact of important local issues, which is difficult to measure, or what the impact of a national political issue would be, and it is hard to disentangle voters’ motivations. Polling surveys and surveys of the sort that we conduct, although methodologically sound in their own terms, sometimes produce different answers according to the exact nature of the questions asked, as all politicians know.

Methodologically, this is a complicated area, but we have done our best to produce robust answers. Although the answers are disappointing for supporters of advance voting because they do not necessarily suggest that it has an impact, in this country at least, we are not dismissing the idea—I assure my hon. Friend of that. In everything that we do, we have to be extremely vigilant and not rule out anything that may increase levels of participation.

Does the Minister accept that one of the complications in analysing whether early voting has successfully increased participation is that local authorities have sometimes chosen fairly obscure locations to trial it? I recall that, in the 2000 experiment, my local authority chose an unused part of the town hall as a venue, which might be one of the reasons why turnout did not significantly improve. Is the Minister saying that the Government’s mind will still be open to the idea of pilots of early voting at the next general election?

I accept the first point that the hon. Gentleman makes: there are always local factors, especially in local elections, where turnout is particularly low. We accept absolutely that there are methodological problems in that, and that is why, in answer to his second question, we have an open mind. I am not committing to that at all, as there would be considerable problems in so doing.

We are taking a breath on further pilots for the time being, but we will publish our electoral strategy by the summer, which will set out a vision of how we want electoral policy to develop for the next 10 years or more and for at least two Parliaments. At the heart of that policy will be the overriding imperative for elections to be not only legitimate, but perceived to be so. Central to that legitimacy are precisely the concerns that my hon. Friend has voiced in this debate about participation and making voting accessible to every voter who wants to vote, targeting dedicated, routine and habitual voters and also opportunistic voters who will perhaps only vote if it is convenient.

With that quest in mind, in June 2008 the Ministry of Justice launched a consultation on whether turnout would be likely to increase if elections were moved from the traditional polling day of Thursday to one or both days of the weekend. My hon. Friend rightly drew attention to the conservative—with a lower case “c”—habits of election policy in this country. We have got into the habit of holding elections on Thursdays for no obvious reasons other than tradition. We also asked people what they thought about other forms of voting, including advance voting.

We have not yet completed our analysis of the responses, as we received nearly 1,000, but we will publish the report soon. I would like to share some of the findings today because they are informative. The consultation asked whether greater access to advance voting in polling stations should be made available alongside weekend voting. Although the question referred to advance voting in conjunction with weekend voting, the vast majority of respondents chose to address the issue on its own merits. Unfortunately, the results suggest that there is not a huge demand for advance voting.

Obviously, the consultation is not a statistically representative reflection of the views of the public as a whole—the views expressed were those of people with a particular interest, and the sample was self-selecting—but it is valuable evidence none the less and we should not ignore it. In all, 240 respondents gave their views on advance voting. Overall, 31 per cent. were in favour, because they felt that it would provide increased accessibility and voter convenience, but a quarter of those were not strongly in favour. They argued that it should be introduced only on a limited basis and only if it proved to have a significant impact on turnout.

There was some support for making advance polling available at centrally located polling stations rather than at all of them—that relates to the points made by both hon. Members who have spoken. Some respondents suggested making advance voting available in non-traditional but well attended places such as train stations, town centres, supermarkets and shopping centres. However, about 60 per cent. overall were opposed. Many local authorities and electoral administrators noted that it would be likely to add significantly to the cost and complexity of running elections, as the cost of staff, premises and security would almost certainly increase depending on how many polling stations were open in advance of polling day and for how long. One would expect the local authorities responsible for funding to be deeply concerned about that, particularly at the moment.

Nearly a third of those opposed noted that it was already possible for those unable or unwilling to attend a polling station on election day to vote by post. However, that does not deal with the fundamental point that I made earlier about the importance for many people and for our democracy that one should be able to affirm one’s vote in public in a polling booth. There are also security issues.

In considering any move towards advance voting, we would also need to consider the impact on the election timetable and party political election campaigning. If polling stations were open in advance, it would bring a profound change—maybe a welcome one—to the way that political parties approach election campaigning. They are used to doing things leading up to the key polling date on Thursday, so there would be problems for them too.

One potential electoral innovation that attracted support among respondents to the consultation was remote electronic voting. We have conducted trials in which it appeared to have a positive impact on turnout, although there were other issues from which we must learn lessons. Remote e-voting clearly has potential advantages. For example, we must make an extra effort, perhaps now more than ever, to ensure that our armed forces serving overseas can vote, and people with disabilities could certainly benefit from it.

However, there are issues of security and of public confidence in elections. Although we are increasingly becoming an online nation, many people are still uncomfortable with online operations, and we do not want a significant section of our electorate to be suspicious of the means of voting. One great advantage of voting in a polling station is that it is physical and can be seen, so it inherently still commands more confidence.

The Government recognise that we must ensure that our electoral processes put the elector at the heart of the system. I will publish a strategy and vision that will include our view on how best we can do so. Fundamentally, though, as my hon. Friend rightly said, the electoral system must be beyond partisan dispute, and all measures need to be developed on the basis of cross-party consensus. I believe that that consensus exists on these issues. I do not believe that the matter is a party one at all; I agree completely with her.

Although the evidence does not support my hon. Friend’s proposition at the moment, we remain open-minded. I am delighted that she has engaged so vigorously with it. In the context, I can assure her of a wider electoral strategy. We will continue to explore whether advance voting should be part of that. In the shorter term, I understand that she and I have a date in the diary for about two weeks from now, when we can discuss these important issues further.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting adjourned.