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Westminster Hall

Volume 488: debated on Tuesday 24 February 2009

Westminster Hall

Tuesday 24 February 2009

[Mrs. Joan Humble in the Chair]

Unitary Authorities

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

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs. Humble. For many colleagues present, this is a walk down memory lane, as the consideration by the boundary committee for England of proposals for unitary authorities in Norfolk, Suffolk and Devon has been an issue since October 2006. A vast amount of time, effort and money has been spent by local authorities in that period, and their attention has been diverted from the delivery of good local services. It has also been a time of great uncertainty for the staff of many local district authorities, as they do not know whether they will have a job at the end of the process.

This is the third debate that I have initiated on this issue. The first, a one and a half hour debate on 20 November 2007, and the second, a half hour debate on 9 July 2008, narrowly considered Norfolk and a bit of Suffolk, while today’s debate covers all three county areas. I asked for this debate largely as a consequence of the legal challenges that different local authorities have made and of the Secretary of State’s decision to extend the deadline for advice to 15 July 2009.

I find it amazing, at this stage, that both the boundary committee and the Secretary of State have conceded that the committee misdirected itself in restricting the publication of its draft proposals to a single scheme, last July, thus making the process unlawful. The boundary committee said that it would have published proposals on more than one scheme if it had thought that it could. With the best will in the world, although colleagues may disagree on whether the principle of having unitary authorities in their county areas is good, that kind of monumental cock-up, at procedural and administrative level, is an absolute disgrace. Either the boundary committee will have to go back to square one and reconsider all the evidence, or, as I shall reiterate at the end of my speech, the Minister should, with some grace, drop the whole proposal as it is fatally flawed.

My approach to this issue has been to consider whether any reorganisation of local government in Norfolk from the current status quo will provide better services and better value for money to my constituents. From the beginning, I have never been convinced that any of the options would do that, but I accept that other colleagues take a different view on different options. From the start of the process, I have believed that it is heavily politically inspired and related to the Government’s desire to help the Labour parties in Norwich, Ipswich and Exeter. There is considerable local evidence to support that view, which I have presented in earlier debates.

For me, the two main issues are, first, whether unitary authorities would, in principle, be good for my constituents in Norfolk, and, secondly, how legitimate and efficient the process followed by the boundary committee, as instructed by the Government, has been.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way, and I am sorry that I cannot stay for long, as I have to attend a Public Bill Committee. Does he agree that a third issue to consider, which the boundary committee has ignored completely, is the views of the wider electorate? Is he aware that in west Norfolk not one parish council is in favour of having a single unitary authority and that a poll commissioned by the borough council revealed that a staggering 75 per cent. of people were against it? At a public meeting on the issue, two weeks ago, 200 people attended, all of whom were opposed to having a single unitary authority, so the wider public have been ignored.

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention, and I shall comment on that issue in a moment.

My hon. Friend has raised two important issues, but may I invite him to add a third reason why the proposals should not go ahead at this time—the likely cost? Has he made any estimates of the up-front cost of that restructuring in the teeth of a recession, when Government coffers are running low? Even though there may be clawback over a number of years, can it really be right to charge the taxpayer to restructure in this completely unnecessary way when we simply cannot afford it?

My hon. Friend makes a good point, which colleagues have made in previous debates. The two points that my hon. Friends have made, on the democratic deficit and on cost, are absolutely crucial. As far as the democratic deficit is concerned, the irony is that the boundary committee made it quite clear that it was not in the business of weighing up the number of letters coming in expressing an opinion one way or another, and that it was going to consult only stakeholders. That is unacceptable in this day and age. As far as costs are concerned, a series of studies have shown that—my hon. Friend the Member for West Suffolk (Mr. Spring) made this point through a question that he asked—the costs of the process in Suffolk have been £250,000. There is also the issue of whether there will be any savings.

May I say what a great service my hon. Friend has done to the House by bringing this matter before it again this morning? I have two points to make. First, is he aware that the committee said that the cost in Devon, not of running the inquiry, but of running Devon after unitary authority status was granted, if that was its recommendation, was not important to it and was at the bottom of the list of priorities? Secondly, it was not concerned about the community either. That is why it planned to put the headquarters of the new Devon unitary authority in Barnstaple.

I was not aware of that, and that is a very good point. Like other colleagues, all I know is that in the past two and a half years I have not received one letter, e-mail or phone call from, or had one face-to-face conversation with, any constituent who is in favour of anything other than the status quo. Indeed, if anything, people have written vociferously to oppose all the options that the boundary committee has proposed. All the parish councils in the Broadland district council area have opposed the proposals.

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that I have received many representations from businesses, citizens and constituents in my constituency who argue strongly in favour of unitary authority status? [Interruption.] I am sorry, but I did not catch that intervention.

Serious business people have seen the argument in favour of a unitary system for cost reasons, because it will be far cheaper, far more effective and far more democratic than the current two-tier system.

The right hon. Gentleman may have received such representations; I accept his word on that. All I know is that the business community is divided on this issue. Big business tends to be in favour of the proposals, but most small businesses tend to be against them. I hear a desperate argument from some people in Norwich who want a unitary authority because they fear that local government in Norwich has not been in the top league in the past 20 or 30 years. The auditing of local government accounts, the recent problems with housing allocations, and the fact that, even today, Norwich city council is going to be in the biggest dog fight possible about setting the council tax rate, means that Norwich has specific problems, and I am very sorry for the constituents of both the right hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke) and the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson).

The right hon. Gentleman mentioned cost savings. The problem is that there is no agreed set of criteria by which to judge what savings have been made. That issue needs to be revisited given the economic downturn and the enormous economic pressures on all the councils in all the relevant areas. I suspect that the Treasury will not look favourably on any reorganisation that will cost money. In a previous life, the Minister was a Treasury Minister, under the current Prime Minister, although he might not want that fact publicised in these days of economic turbulence.

When mentioning the alternative proposals being put forward for Cheshire, in a debate on the Cheshire (Structural Changes) Order 2008 on 4 March 2008, Baroness Andrews, the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, said:

“It is important to stress from the outset that this is not a choice on which one delivers greater savings or which one has greater public support. It is about which one can better deliver long-term outcomes in a very challenging environment.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 4 March 2008; Vol. 699, c. 1031.]

The problem is that that assessment is subjective rather than evidence-based.

Local opinion in Norfolk and, I suspect, in Devon and Suffolk has become cynical about reorganisations. We have had experience not just of the appalling process of reorganisation of local government, but of the reorganisation of the primary care trusts—we went to six and now we are back to one—and the attempts, which the right hon. Member for Norwich, South supported, to reorganise the police in Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire, which was greatcoats on, greatcoats off. My hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk (Mr. Bacon), the hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) and I have attempted to achieve democratic accountability through the Broads authority, and that has failed. So, local opinion is incredibly cynical about these outcomes.

Having passed briefly over some of the principal aspects of whether unitary authorities are a good idea, I now want to look at the process itself, which has shown ministerial interference and plain incompetence at the level of both the Government and the boundary committee. The committee’s process began in summer 2007 before it received any ministerial instructions: it was found that it was attempting to bully local authorities into coming up with options before any instructions were received. The committee informed us at the time that cross-county proposals would not be considered and were not on the agenda, but in December 2007 ministerial instructions said that they would be. The committee had also said that it was unlikely that it would consider unitary authorities covering more than 500,000 people. Of course, as we know, the first unitary authority to be considered in respect of Norfolk and Suffolk would probably have had a population of between 750,000 and 800,000.

The boundary committee told Members of Parliament and peers that it would cost only those proposals that emerged from an initial sift. No other area that I can think of, either in the private or public sector, would do that. It is rather like the Ministry of Defence having bids for the procurement of a piece of equipment and deciding only to cost them after an initial sift. I find that absolutely incredible.

In July 2008, the boundary committee published its proposals: a single unitary for Norfolk, including Lowestoft, with two alternative patterns; a two-authority pattern for Suffolk; and, in Devon, a single unitary authority, less Plymouth and Torbay. Shortly after those proposals were published, a meeting of Norfolk and Suffolk peers and MPs saw the boundary committee chairman and officials absolutely scragged—to use a Dickensian expression—in terms of their proposals and the process. My right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) and the right hon. Member for Norwich, South were forthright in their views on those proposals. Later, we discovered under a freedom of information request that the boundary committee’s own experts had proposed an east-west divide as the favoured unitary authority for Norfolk. Why was that advice ignored? Why have experts if they are going to be overruled? Perhaps the boundary committee, or the Minister, could tell me the criteria by which it overruled its own experts. That does not give us confidence in the process.

I suspect that the proposals for all three areas satisfied no majority of local opinion and, if anything, enraged it. Norfolk district councils went to the High Court to challenge the basis for the boundary committee’s proposals and, as a consequence of a judgment, the deadline for advice was extended from December 2008 to February 2009. Now the Secretary of State has further extended that deadline to 15 July 2009. We were told from the beginning that, like the Mad Hatter, we had to rush and decisions had to be made very quickly indeed. However, I understand, from a judgment in court last week, that the judge said that there appeared to be no deadline and that it could be extended to 2011 or 2012. Once again, there appears to be a muddle about the process.

It was interesting that the Secretary of State’s letter said that she wanted to take into account

“directions contained in the judgment handed down by Mr. Justice Cranston after an application for judicial review by East Devon council.”

That actually means that the Secretary of State keeps refining her advice to enhance proposals for what she wants rather than what the boundary committee wants. As I mentioned at the beginning of my speech, there is a suspicion in Norfolk, Suffolk and Devon that this has more to do with party political issues than the good delivery of local government in our areas.

It is unlikely that the Secretary of State will be introducing any orders in Parliament until the new year of 2010 or, if those are passed, bringing any unitary authorities into being in Norfolk, Suffolk and Devon until May 2010—and by then there is likely to be a general election. I suggest that the Minister either goes back to the drawing board, given the failure to reach any agreed solution to the options on the table and given that the process is fatally flawed, or, even better, that he scraps this disastrous process, which has had relatively limited support within the county structures and has been an embarrassment to the Government.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) on securing this important debate on a subject that has caused enormous frustration in our county of Norfolk. I will keep my remarks brief, because other right hon. and hon. Members want to contribute to the debate.

I want to deal with three issues that have caused me real concern. First, when the process got under way, I assumed that it would be evidence-driven and that there was clear evidence in support of the case for unitary authorities. Instinctively, I could see a potential case for unitary authorities: one level of local government serving local people and delivering all local services seems to be a sensible way to proceed. However, my confidence in the process was undermined at my first meeting with the boundary committee, when I started the conversation by saying that I assumed that there was clear evidence for the case for unitary local government. The answer, which came swiftly, was no.  There is no clear evidence at all. The picture is patchy. Some have worked well and others have failed rather badly. The answer to my questions, “Does it deliver better services and better value for money?” and “Does it deliver services that are more easily understood by the public?” was, on an evidence basis, no. That undermined my confidence in the whole process. Surely this process should be based on evidence and should not be a political process driven from the centre.

Secondly, the process has passed the public by: they have been largely ignored. The views of bodies such as parish councils, as the Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) mentioned, appear to have been ignored, too. For me, if there is to be a review of local government—I have an open mind; if there is a better system than the one we have at the moment, we ought to be prepared to consider the evidence—the evidence should be put before the public and the public, locally, should be given the final say in determining the model of local government, delivering their local services, for their area. The public have been excluded from that process.

The process started in Norfolk with a bid from Norwich city council for self-government. One was left with the clear impression that rural areas were an afterthought. Consideration of them was left until after unitary local government was provided for Norwich. To me, as an MP representing a rural part of Norfolk, that was wholly unsatisfactory.

I am conscious that there are some real challenges in Norfolk to do with economic development and, in particular, education, where our county has not been performing well enough. Some review of local government may be necessary in order to deliver the improvements that are so important for the future of our county.

For the sake of argument, many people in the outer parts—outside Norwich—are prolific users of the services in Norwich. In fact, Norwich picks up the tab for concessionary bus fares on services for many other parts of the county. Norwich is fighting hard to maintain services where people find it convenient to use them.

One reason why I was opposed to the unitary bid from Norwich was that I did not want local government structures to cut north Norfolk off from Norwich. People in north Norfolk see Norwich as the capital of the county. They often use services in Norwich because there are none in rural areas. For instance, when I have constituents who need advice on benefits issues, there is often not sufficient expertise in rural areas, although citizens advice bureaux do a good job, so they gravitate to Norwich. That is where many of the services for people in the rural parts of the county are provided.

My argument on public involvement is that there should have been a Norfolk convention to bring everyone together, both political parties and non-political players, to have a full discussion about Norfolk’s needs, and that then the process should have resulted in a vote by the people of Norfolk.

My third point is that the result, as the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk said, has been a monumental and scandalous waste of public money and a diversion of local authorities away from the core jobs that they are there to do. It is outrageous that interference from the centre has forced councils into a botched and incompetent process that has resulted in vast sums of public money being diverted into campaigns on each side of the equation to preserve positions. That money has not been spent on the people who need the support of local councils, and it is often the most vulnerable who suffer as a result of money not being available for them.

One of the extraordinary things about the debate on local government is not so much the consultation, which was appalling, but that the fact that people want to pay less council tax—they do not want to pay more—seems not to have been discussed at all.

I completely agree. I made a point about achieving better value for money. No one wants to pay more than is necessary for good quality public services, quite apart from the fact, with which I am sure the hon. Gentleman would agree, that the council tax is grossly unfair and regressive.

This is a classic example of top-down, incompetent, politically driven meddling, which drives people crazy because they are not involved. The process has not been evidence-based; it has not involved the people; it has been a scandalous waste of money; and it ought to be scrapped straight away.

I am delighted to serve under your stewardship, Mrs. Humble. I apologise for my phone playing the “Flower Duet” from Lakmé a few minutes ago.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) for securing a debate on this important matter. Although it is a dry subject, it has gathered the interest of people in my constituency and, I believe, across Devon. People write letters to the local weekly newspaper about it. They do not think that it is just something for the politicians to deal with, but feel passionately about it.

As we know, East Devon district council sought a judicial review to challenge what was happening. I shall quote from the determination of Mr. Justice Cranston on the matter. He found that in deciding that it could consult on only a single proposal—that is, unitary Devon—the boundary committee had

“misdirected itself as to what it could publish, consult on and propose to the Secretary of State”.

What I would like to come out of today’s debate is an explanation from the Minister as to why the boundary committee “misdirected itself”.

The exercise has been a total waste of time, money and the passion of the public and the many district councils in Devon, such as the two district councils in my patch, which are doing a good job. East Devon, which sought the judicial review, is an exemplary council. It ticks the Government’s boxes and is one of the few councils in the country that has not carried any debt for decades. It is extremely well run—of course, it goes without saying that it is Conservative-run.

I know that the Minister understands the issues very well. I went with delegations to see him when we went through a similar exercise just over a year ago. The proposal on the table at the time was that the city of Exeter should take itself out of Devon county and become a unitary authority. The way in which the exercise was managed gave me cause for concern.

The Minister was new in post at the time, and I believe that his experience in the Treasury probably helped to bring some common sense to the exercise, and the proposal was rejected. None the less, what particularly concerned me was that, despite the fact that the proposal was rejected, when I tabled parliamentary questions to try to identify just what the outcome was of the consultation—that is, who had wanted Exeter to be a unitary and who had not—I was denied the information in all kinds of spurious replies from the Government. It was almost as if the Official Secrets Act applied and there was such high security in the national interest that nobody could be told who was in favour and who was not.

We happen to know that an overwhelming majority of people were against Exeter becoming a unitary, for the reason that Devon is a huge, sparsely populated county. Torbay and Plymouth already have unitary status, so if Exeter were taken out, we would be left with a rag-tag, bobtail county that would struggle to provide services.

The Secretary of State should quickly intervene on a serious matter arising from the proposal that we recently considered, which is the one on which Mr. Justice Cranston commented that, in seeking to make further changes, the boundary committee “misdirected itself”. Mr. Justice Cranston said that

“what must happen is that the Boundary Committee should consider with care whether it would be right to make further alternative proposals for Devon. If it were to decide that that course were appropriate, it would need to comply with the statutory requirements, including that under section 6(4) of consulting on such further proposals”.

Again, I would like an answer from the Minister. In his judgment, should the boundary committee start all over again in the light of Mr. Justice Cranston’s determination, or should it do the common-sense thing and, frankly, leave things as they are? It is clear from the previous consultation on the city of Exeter and from this latest fiasco that, on many counts, it would be unwise to change the status quo. Furthermore, there is an economic argument for retaining the status quo. It is certainly the view among the population of Devon who would be affected that the status quo is serving them very well indeed.

I am following my hon. Friend’s arguments carefully. Does she agree that one of the many mistakes made in this tortuous process has been the decision at the outset not to allow the boundary committee to consider whether Plymouth and Torbay should be part of the mix? They were excluded from the outset, which narrowed the options. Therefore, does she agree that it is right to conclude that the process should be scrapped completely and that people should be left to get on with delivering services?

I totally agree. My hon. Friend and I were present with other Devon Members when the Electoral Commission came to the House to discuss how it was going to proceed. We asked its representatives many questions, and my hon. Friend’s point about the position of Plymouth and Torbay was raised, as was the point about whether the commission could consider the status quo as an option. It ruled out all those options, so we know that its conduct of the consultation and the exercise has not only been detrimental to the people of Devon but cost a lot of money. It has considered not what any reasonable person would regard as a genuinely legitimate consultation in the interests of all Devon, but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk said, what is party-politically opportunistic for the party in power.

My constituency almost runs right around the city of Exeter; it once surrounded it entirely, which was a very comfortable feeling for me—[Interruption]and for my constituency neighbour, the Minister of State, Department of Health, the hon. Member for Exeter (Mr. Bradshaw), with whom I have a most cordial relationship. On the other hand, I have not, as the House will understand, been reticent in putting on the record my concerns about the carpet-bagging tendency of the city of Exeter, its council and its Member, because they have repeatedly tried to encroach on the rural areas that surround them. The reason why is clear for all to see: it is about Exeter, or, as has been written, the possibility of Exeter combining with the town of Exmouth, which is in the seat of my hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Mr. Swire), who feels passionately about this but, unfortunately, cannot be here because he is abroad on parliamentary business. The concept of unitary Exeter, or unitary Exeter plus Exmouth, is purely party political. The figures presented to the Government do not add up to make Exeter viable on its own, and, if removed, it would leave the rest of Devon in a parlous state because of its rurality and sparsity.

My hon. Friend referred to the meeting between the electoral commissioners and Devon Members. The commissioners did not say that they could not entertain any possibility of Plymouth or Torbay authorities being widened, extended or disbanded; they had been directed by the Secretary of State to exclude any such possibility. That is the point that the Minister must deal with. Why were the commissioners told that the authorities had to be left alone?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. His memory of that meeting, which was a while ago, is much clearer than mine. I remember that the issue was raised but ruled out of court, so he is quite right. In fact, towards the end of the meeting, the discussion hardly seemed worth while, because what the commissioners would or would not do was so narrowly defined. There was no real consultation in which Members could put forward their views, and we all left the meeting feeling that our views did not count for much at all. Whatever view we wanted to discuss was immediately ruled out of court, because it was outside the parameters within which they were going to work.

People talk about Devon, and many people know it because they visit the area occasionally, but I want to put on the record the democratic deficit in Devon. If the unitary proposal were to go ahead, there would be a huge democratic deficit and Devon’s democratic representation would be the worst in the country, with a proposed 100 elected councillors representing 740,000 people—that is, 7,400 electors per councillor. Currently, Bristol has the poorest level, with a ratio of 5,900 electors per councillor. But, in a sparse area, which includes two national parks, representation is not just about numbers; it is about geographic spread, and that is at the heart of our objections to the proposal. There are financial reasons and there are the views of the local population, but the resultant democratic deficit in Devon would be the worst in the country. The distance between electors and decision makers would be most keenly felt in rural communities. People talk a lot about communities today, but rural communities know what community means in its truest sense. People in counties such as Devon like to know whom they elect—their councillors and their Members of Parliament; it matters to them. The divorce of democratic representation from the electorate would be more keenly felt in Devon than in probably any other part of the country, although all rural areas would, I am sure, make the same case.

The party political imperative of the proposal is there for all to see, and it is not a very attractive sight. It is quite appalling for power to be used in that way. The Electoral Commission has clearly messed up big time, so the Minister should intervene, call the dogs off, leave the status quo as it is and let the people of Devon get on with things. That is what they want.

I shall start by stating the points on which I agree with the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson), who secured the debate. I agree with him and others who believe that the boundary committee has made a mess of the issue. He correctly reported me as being very angry with the way in which the first recommendations emerged, and a set of serious issues is involved. I am surprised by that, because I have a high regard for the commission. Over the years, it has performed its functions professionally and effectively, and, therefore, I felt confident that, when the Secretary of State asked it to conduct the process, she was right to do so. Its terms of reference and approach were right, but I was surprised that the boundary committee did not conduct it as effectively as it needed to. That is one point of common ground with the hon. Gentleman. There is, to say the least, an unfortunate set of issues, and they have led to a number of serious problems in relation to the up-hill, down-dale considerations that all our public elected authorities are having to go through on these questions.

I am afraid that that is where the common ground ends, however. It is absurd to claim, as several Opposition Members have, that the issue is all about party political considerations. Unitary local government has become the pattern throughout the whole country—in Scotland, Wales, the former metropolitan areas and, now, an increasingly large number of non-metropolitan areas—irrespective of any party political issue and for very good reasons. The first reason is coherence. Often, there is an incoherent relationship between district and county councils on important matters such as planning and transport, and it inhibits their ability to represent people properly. It runs through basic services such as planning and transport and through issues such as recycling and waste, and all kinds of contradictions arise in various circumstances, so that, on accountability, cost and coherence, it would be far better to run a unitary structure.

I alluded to the cost argument when I intervened earlier on the hon. Gentleman. It has to be acknowledged that, in the longer term, the cost of a unitary system is less than that of a two-tier system, simply because a large variety of functions that are duplicated in the district and county authorities are no longer duplicated in a unitary system. The cost issues are clear in the long term. The hon. Gentleman is right, however, to raise the point that the Treasury will be concerned about the pay-off period for the costs of the change itself, and about how long payback will take before the benefits of a unitary system are established. The Treasury is addressing precisely that issue and, I am sure, is in dialogue with my right hon. Friend the Minister and his colleague the Secretary of State. The point that a unitary authority is more cost-efficient in the long term is hard to argue against, and I also argue in that way on the democratic deficit point. By the way, I do not accept the argument made by the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Angela Browning), much as I love her, that rural areas have a greater sense of community than urban areas. Urban Norwich in my constituency has a strong sense of community, as there was when I lived in the London borough of Hackney, where I was a councillor and there were strong local communities. I acknowledge that the characters of those communities are different, but my constituents are no less desirous than hers of having councillors whom they know and who are accountable to them for what they do.

I accept the hon. Lady’s point that people want councillors they know and clarity about how functions are carried out and decisions are taken. I also agree—I have argued this in different areas—that the structure of local government finance makes it difficult for individual citizens to understand how services are delivered in a way that is relevant to them. That is a case for a much more sweeping change than we are discussing this morning.

One problem is confusion between the role of a county councillor and a district councillor in relation to the services that they provide. The average constituent is not entirely clear about which councillor has responsibility for which service—education, social services, transport, housing and so on. A virtue of unitary local government is that it provides more coherent and democratic representation for the people whom we seek to represent.

A good example in Norwich is the development of the Greater Norwich development partnership, which my colleagues from Norwich who are listening to this debate know about and are engaged with in a variety of ways. The dealing between different authorities on obtaining the necessary agreement for serious, long-term plans for the future is made more difficult because we have a two-tier system rather than a single-tier one.

I rest my argument on the case for unitary local government. It is a powerful case that is widely accepted and is not party political. I acknowledge that the question of what is the right form of unitary local government for Norfolk—and for Suffolk and Devon, although I am not familiar with the issues—is a difficult question. It is not straightforward. It is straightforward that a Greater Norwich is the right unitary structure for my part of the county of Norfolk, but I acknowledge that for my colleagues who represent other parts of the county there are different arguments about how to approach the matter. Those arguments must be properly assessed, and the boundary committee was charged to do that and to assess the alternatives from the point of view of feasibility of the options—the mandate did not require a unitary solution come what may—and to recommend the best one.

I regret the way in which the boundary committee’s work has gone. The Secretary of State had no choice but to extend the time, and that was right, but we must stick to what I think will be a superior form of local government for the citizens of Norfolk. That is why I support the Government in their approach and why they should be rigorous in going through the thinking necessary to evaluate the choices. I am confident that a better solution will eventually emerge for local government in the county of Norfolk than what we have at the moment.

I add my warm congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) on making the case so admirably. Obviously, I speak on behalf of Suffolk residents.

In February 2008, the boundary committee began a structural review of local government in Suffolk, and came up with two proposals, including excluding Lowestoft from Suffolk, of which it is historically part, and including it in a different area. Another option was a one-Suffolk proposal for a unitary authority covering the whole county. As we have reflected on the proposals, it has become clear that the result would be unwieldy, undemocratic and frankly remote from my constituents in the western part of the county. We know all too well the cost when the Government decide to reorganise elements of our national life.

My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk referred to the national health service. When I became a Suffolk Member of Parliament in 1992, we had two health authorities. We then acquired five primary care trusts against all the local advice. That number then fell to three and then back to one. We had an extraordinary magic roundabout of huge costs, closed buildings, additional construction and pay-offs for individuals with golden goodbyes. All that was a huge cost for taxpayers, and I remain to be convinced that changes in the structure of taxpayer-funded bodies have added anything substantially or materially to the welfare of the people whom they are supposed to serve.

I have witnessed huge structural changes in the delivery of services while I have been a Member of Parliament, and the disruption for staff, services and local people has been wholly disproportionate to any benefits accruing from the restructuring. That will happen again if the unitary bid is successful. The up-front costs are huge, staff will have to be paid off or relocated, buildings will have to be bought and leases will have to be terminated.

It has been estimated that the cost of transition and implementation for the one-Suffolk option, which would be an enormous unitary covering the entire county, would be at least £25.5 million, and I am sure that that is an underestimate. As my hon. Friend has said, people are being asked to pay more in taxation for less representation without being properly consulted in first place. It is difficult for many of my constituents to understand and accept that. The people of Suffolk simply want the Government to listen, but they have not done so. Local residents want their councils to focus on service delivery and to keep the council tax as low as possible.

I have made it clear from the outset that people are familiar with the existing structure and tiers of local government in Suffolk. There is no appetite for change, yet the status quo was never an option during the wholly flawed consultation process. The consultation on the draft proposal ran from July to September 2008, when the boundary committee invited views from anyone who wanted to express them and held some meetings with stakeholders, but there was no overall comprehensive attempt to canvass the views of the public, and I say that with real passion and irritation. If there were a referendum tomorrow, the proposals would be thrown out. The majority of Suffolk residents do not support any of the options recommended by the boundary committee, despite the criteria that any successful unitary proposal must meet, including

“a broad cross section of support”.

I am firmly against any change, but if it goes ahead, I hope that we shall end up with something equivalent to an east-west Suffolk split, which would at least have some historical precedent, and a west Suffolk council would at least have some relationship with the towns in my constituency such as Haverhill and Newmarket, which are quite remote from Ipswich. That proposal, which was supported by five district councils during the initial concept statements that they submitted, was completely ignored. That is incredible. It would have been reasonable to expect the draft proposal to contain at least a critique of an east-west split, but there was little mention of that idea in the draft proposal. The matter has been raised at meetings, but satisfaction has not been achieved. It is ironic that the committee has said that it is listening, consulting and considering the proposals with no comprehensive dialogue. The whole review has been an absurd exercise and a waste of taxpayers’ money.

In response to a parliamentary question, it was revealed that the review in Suffolk had cost £218,757 since March last year. Taxpayers are therefore footing a bill of £5,000 a week. Salaries account for £109,948, in addition to consultants’ fees, financial consultants, printing, mapping, couriers, staff training and so on. That money should be invested for the benefit of the whole county for services such as education, transport and even health at a time when there is clearly considerable stress in the provision of those services that people want.

I welcome the news, but the saga of the announcement of the delay in Suffolk has been distracting for our councillors and council officers for more than a year already. Of course there are benefits to be gained—I absolutely accept that—from more joint working among existing councils. That could be extended. Indeed, that is taking place and is something to be encouraged. We could do more to enhance two-tier working without the loss of democratic accountability that would result from unitary status in an area as large and diverse as Suffolk. Wholesale local government restructuring is simply unnecessary to achieve it.

The county of Suffolk is the eighth largest authority by geographical area in England, covering 3,800 sq km. My constituency is a large chunk of that. This is important because people want to have a sense of ownership of local services provided locally and they want to have a sense of local accountability for those services, which cannot be provided by a distant unitary model. From talking to people in my constituency and from the many letters that I have received, it is clear that people are unconvinced that big is better. In fact, the legacy of the present Government will be a widespread increase in centralised decision making.

I am pleased that the Secretary of State has again agreed to a delay. I hope that the proposals are now kicked into the long grass for good. The Government’s tinkering with local government structures is in nobody’s interest. It is simply a case of change for change’s sake.

I am pleased to have the opportunity to contribute to the debate, to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) on securing it and to endorse the last comments of my hon. Friend the Member for West Suffolk (Mr. Spring). He said that it is a mistake to think that big is necessarily better. That speaks directly to the points made by my constituency neighbour, the right hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke), when he adduced arguments of both cost and coherence. At least he had the grace to admit that there would be an up-front cost and that there was a discussion to be had about the payback period. That point was made by several of us in the previous debate on this issue.

Indeed, I endorse the comments by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk about this feeling like a trip down memory lane. It reminds me of Yogi Berra, the baseball star of the New York Yankees, who said, “This is like déjà vu all over again”, not just because the subject of the debate is local government, but because of the Minister who is responding to it. The first time that I came across him was in this Chamber, when he was again trying to defend the indefensible—the actions of another Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett), in relation to an adult training scheme. It seems to be his lot in life to have to go round picking up the pieces after various Ministers above him have made a complete mess of things. That was one of those cases of “Never mind the quality, feel the width.” Someone—perhaps it was even me—quoted Stalin, saying that quantity has its own quality. The headline in that case was that the 1 millionth individual learning account holder had been secured, never mind that there was fraud all over the place.

In this case, I have my doubts about the argument of the right hon. Member for Norwich, South about size. After all, when he was trying to push through the police constabulary changes, it became apparent that one of the best constabularies was also one of the smallest—Gloucestershire. It had some of the best indicators in terms of value for money, but also in the degree of compliance with its key performance indicators and acceptance by the public.

Will the hon. Gentleman accept that in my intervention earlier I did not mention size? I think that there are arguments about size to be had, but I did not make the case about size. I made the case, as he said, about coherence and cost. I do not in general believe that bigger is best; I do in general believe that to have one authority providing all the services in a locality is better than to have two or three different authorities doing that.

I accept that the right hon. Gentleman did not mention size, although he did refer to Greater Norwich, and Greater Norwich would of course be bigger than the present Norwich and would involve quite a lot of parishes in the north of my constituency going into Greater Norwich. They do not want to be part of Greater Norwich. They do not want to be part of Norwich city council, not least because their council tax would probably go up by about 50 per cent. from the already considerable level that it has reached in recent years after many years of Liberal Democrat control of the district council, but also because it is not clear to anyone that Norwich city council knows how to run a bath. Until that becomes clear, no one—no one with any sense, at any rate—seems to think that it should be given responsibilities additional to those that it already has.

I do not want to take up much more time, but I want to make two final points. One concerns the relationship between the Department for Communities and Local Government and the boundary committee. My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk mentioned that the committee did not seem to realise that it could have come up with other options than the one that it did, which speaks to an extraordinary lack of communication between the Department and the boundary committee.

That was made even more manifest in a letter that the Minister wrote on 9 February 2009, which is worth quoting at length. In it, he says that

“the Secretary of State made the request for advice, accompanied with Guidance to the Boundary Committee on 6 February 2008”—

just over a year ago. He goes on to say:

“We included the term ‘in aggregate’ in the request to make clear that any alternative proposals for unitary local government must have the capacity to meet the five criteria across the specified area. The February 2008 request for advice was quite clear in its terms. If the Secretary of State had intended that each part of the proposal had to meet the criteria independently, then she would not have needed to specify that the proposal in aggregate had to meet the criteria as well. If each part of the proposal met the five criteria it would follow that the proposals for the county area as a whole would too. I set this out clearly to the Chair of the Boundary Committee in correspondence I copied to him in March 2008.”

This is the extraordinary part. The letter continues:

“We then had no indication that the Boundary Committee might be taking a different approach until we saw the financial information published by the Boundary Committee on 21 November 2008. Having considered that information”—

this goes back to my point about the unfortunate Minister having to clear up after various Secretaries of State—

“it was not clear to the Secretary of State that the Committee was approaching the assessment of alternative proposals on the basis she had envisaged.”

We are supposed to believe that from February or at least March 2008 right up until 21 November, the boundary committee thought that it was doing one thing and the Secretary of State thought that it was doing another, so for eight or nine months she had not realised that it was not doing what she thought it was doing. It is no good the Minister saying—if he does respond by making this point—that the boundary committee is independent. Of course it is independent. The Electoral Commission is independent. That does not mean that it does not have constant discussion with political parties. The National Audit Office is independent. That does not mean that it does not have constant discussion with the various Departments and Executive agencies that it is auditing; it is in dialogue with them all the time. It is extraordinary that that miscommunication could have been allowed to sit there for nine months. Such confusion between the Secretary of State and the boundary committee is inexcusable. I hope that the Minister does not try to defend it; it is indefensible. The best thing that he could do is simply apologise.

My final point is about the financial condition of this country. We have just heard that the Treasury tax revenues for the month of January are £7 billion below where they were expected to be, compared with last year. Of course, that will have an impact on local government. It can hardly not, when 75 per cent. of the revenues for local government come from the centre. Local government itself has considerable financial problems. I sat down with the chief officers of South Norfolk district council only a few weeks ago, and it was evident that on any number of fronts, the income stream of the district council was being adversely affected. I am sure that the same applies throughout the country. Planning fees are down. Goodness knows council tax income will probably be lower as more people are unemployed and claiming council tax benefit. There are any number of ways in which local government, through its own income, will be suffering financially.

Even if the right hon. Member for Norwich, South is right about the proposal—I doubt that he is—he at least acknowledged that there was a discussion to be had about the payback. We so often hear about proposals for restructuring and for churning local government and, indeed, central Government structures as though it is the structure and the change itself that produces the benefit. Sir Michael Barber, in his book on the Prime Minister’s delivery unit, “Instruction to Deliver”, says that what matters most is not the structure, but routines and good working relationships, and that is exactly what we have with joint working. My hon. Friend the Member for West Suffolk was right to say that that could be extended. It is being extended, and it is working quite well. It could work better. Relationships between planning and transportation at county level and district council planning departments are getting better. They know each other; they know their responsibilities; they know how they interact. That can certainly be developed without a huge up-front cost, for which the payback will potentially be over many years.

The best thing that the Minister could do, after this Horlicks that has been going on for several years now, is gracefully withdraw and acknowledge that now is not the right time to be pushing forward these proposals.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) on raising this issue. Listening to the debate has made me think of the last year or so that I have spent covering local government and reminded me—I am sure that the Minister will sympathise when I say this—that the real danger for those of us covering such issues is that we get sucked into discussing only local government structures and finances and acquire a pointy head. There is a risk that we miss the bigger picture, which is ultimately about the people who consume public services and benefit from their delivery. From the comments that we have heard today, it seems that the only thing that is more disruptive than reorganisation is the threat of reorganisation. Authorities turn inwards on themselves to consider the issues, but they do not stand to benefit from the changes that might derive from any local reorganisation.

There have been failures in the process. As a result, we have not only introspection, but further delays. Until a few weeks ago, people in all the areas affected thought that they could have elections to a new authority as early as June, but those have now been put off again. The threat is that people will lose faith in the whole political process and think, “What is the point of elections? There are going to be local elections in June, but we don’t know how long the local authority will exist.” There is a lack of certainty.

From the point of view of people working in local service delivery, the appeal of looking purely at structures is even stronger. I took part in a New Local Government Network conference, where I sat on a podium with representatives from the health and police sectors. We talked mainly about how to improve local accountability for public service delivery, but what struck me was that they were vehemently in favour of unitarisation across the country. They said that it would be much easier to deliver public services if those involved knew that they were working on the same boundaries, but that missed the whole point. Coherent boundaries might be more convenient for people working in the police and health sectors, but those who receive services on the front line just want to know that they work, not whether the boundaries completely match up. That is the approach that my colleagues and I take: there should be no dogmatic presumption for or against changes to local government structures, as long as they provide people with improved services. Bigger is not always better, but we must not presume that smaller is always better either.

What stands out for me—I am sure that other hon. Members will have had similar experiences—is that changes can create duplication, even where there is co-operation. Let me give an example. A road runs along Falmouth beach, and the town council is preoccupied with ensuring that it is regularly cleaned because that is where most of the tourists go. However, responsibility for cleaning it lies with the county council. Cornwall county council therefore gives a pot of money to Falmouth town council, which then subcontracts the cleaning of the road to Carrick district council. That arrangement is fine, as long as it works, but it did not work. Somebody came to me and said, “The road’s not being cleaned. Can you help me sort it out?” I ended up going round in circles about three times before somebody would accept responsibility and make a commitment to resolve the issue. Such issues need to be addressed, and local government reorganisation might be able to address some of them.

Unlike the hon. Member for West Suffolk (Mr. Spring), I am not against all change in any form at any time.

Cornwall has, of course, already become a unitary authority. Is it not the case that its transition costs have already trebled to £60 million?

What I do know is that, in the first year alone, the new authority will save £2 million a year simply from the chief executive’s offices, so there is the potential for substantial savings. Ultimately, however, this is not just about money; it has to be about improving service delivery. I supported the unitary proposals in Cornwall because I felt that they were the first step towards giving people a stronger voice and getting more powers for Cornwall. The limitation of the Government’s proposals is that they are purely about changing the structure and do nothing about changing the powers.

The proposals that we are discussing demonstrate that the Government do not really know where they are going. The initial proposals were from more urban areas, and the Government acknowledged that simply pursuing those would have implications for the rural hinterlands, but they do not quite know what to do about that, so we have a sense of prolonged uncertainty. The Government have missed the big picture. They have been quite clear about how they see the city region structure working and about how it could give larger cities and their immediate commuter hinterlands greater powers, but they have no idea how an equivalent process would work in rural areas. That is the dilemma being played out in Devon, Norfolk and Suffolk. The reason why that is causing so many problems is that the Government do not have a vision of what the rural counterpart to city regions is. As a result, many rural areas are being left in limbo.

Another problem is that the Government’s focus is entirely on cost-effectiveness, which is, of course, important, but it should not be the sole determining factor. In the cases that we are discussing, there is a strong argument that the time spent investigating the various proposals and deciding to delay a further decision is a huge waste of resources and undermines the Government’s case for the need for cost-effectiveness—a huge cost has obviously been involved just in considering the change.

Clearly, there have also been failings in the consultation process, and that is symptomatic of some of the unitaries that will come into existence on 1 April. What made things difficult in Cornwall was the fact that the time scale was so tight that it was not possible to consult the public in the way that many people would have liked, and that has caused the new authority problems. In Devon, Norfolk and Suffolk, things are almost the other way round: the way in which consideration of the proposals is being drawn out and the lack of certainty make it difficult for people to understand exactly what is on the table and when—or, indeed, if—they will have a new authority. That is causing huge problems.

To draw on points that other hon. Members have made, there have been problems across the board in Cornwall with including parishes in the decision-making process. The implementation executive in Cornwall has representatives from the district councils and the county council, but there is only one representative—the chair of the Cornwall Association of Local Councils—from all the parish councils in Cornwall, and she has only observation rights. We are talking about a process in which councils are expected to push more powers down to a local level and to ask town and parish councils to take on greater responsibilities, so it is completely ridiculous that parish councils are not allowed to participate in a discussion of what form those responsibilities will take. That experience has probably been mirrored in Devon, Norfolk and Suffolk, and it is very difficult to deal with the issues involved when the goalposts keep moving.

Other concerns that have been raised concern the extent to which the new authorities and the new ward sizes relate to real communities. There is a question about how effectively a councillor in a rural area could represent 7,000 individuals, which is the case in Devon, as the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Angela Browning) said. The scale is similar in Suffolk and Norfolk. It is suggested that there could be one councillor per 5,000 voters in Suffolk and one per 9,000 in Norfolk, if Lowestoft is included. It is obvious that there would be a democratic deficit, which would not help voter engagement with the authority that delivers the services.

The biggest frustration for me is the lack of ambition. The proposals are a missed opportunity. The initial invitation went out to councils that were interested in becoming a unitary authority, but such a process is purely about reorganising services—it is not about greater ambition for local authorities. As the right hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke) said, why not open a discussion about local government finance? If we truly want to empower local communities and local authorities we must talk about their powers and resources—not purely the boundaries within which they operate. There is an opportunity to be more creative, which would be of real value in a downturn. I strongly believe that the organisations in the best position to respond to the downturn are the most local ones. The present time is a prime opportunity to give them greater powers.

The biggest disappointment, as I have said, is that the Government have missed an opportunity for innovation. The entire process is in danger of stifling any success that we might have seen.

I add my congratulations to those of other hon. Members on your presence in the Chair, Mrs. Humble, and on keeping us in order almost all the time. I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) on initiating the debate. He is persistent in raising the matter for the third time in the interest of his constituents. I am grateful to him, and I know from my visits to Norfolk that his constituents are grateful as well. It has struck me on my visits to all three of the counties that we are concerned with that there is frustration and exasperation about the handling of the matter. Neither the Government nor the boundary committee for England comes out with any credit.

There is a book by two well known academics, Michael Chisholm and Steve Leach, which I am sure the Minister has, like me, read—he sighs, because he knows it is not exactly complimentary; it is called “Botched Business”. That term is a polite summation of what has happened. What we have heard from hon. Members is compelling evidence of a farce of misunderstanding—I was tempted to say of black comedy—between the Department, and the Secretary of State must take personal responsibility for that, and the commission. The issue has been ill handled and the question of conducting any sensible debate, as suggested by the right hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke), has been made impossible by the way it has been dealt with. A disservice has been done.

I work from the premise, as did, I think, Mr. Justice Cranston in his latest judgment in the East Devon case, that the process should be driven by the evidence and that the decision should be evidence-based. It should be based on evidence and an adherence to the five criteria, which he restated in the judgment, and there should be a proper and adequate consultation, which he found had been lacking in the Devon case and the preceding cases.

The Government already stand condemned. They are fortunate that Mr. Justice Cranston decided that it was premature to intervene at this stage, because if one reads behind the headlines of that decision the findings of fact are damning. My hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk (Mr. Bacon) referred to extraordinary confusion, and that comment is reinforced by Mr. Justice Cranston’s judgment, in which he points out that at the very beginning of the making of requests in relation to the three counties, as would naturally be expected, preliminary discussions were held between officials of the Department and the Boundary Commission. Why on earth the extraordinary confusion was not picked up at that stage beggars belief. It raises questions of the basic competence of those responsible, politically and administratively. That farce was compounded by the Secretary of State’s U-turn about what was meant by an aggregate. Having started by saying that the criteria should be considered in aggregate, she had to explain herself and say that “aggregate” did not mean aggregate, but capacity. That did no service to sensible government.

The criteria are not met for the other issues that are raised. The democratic deficit was mentioned by practically every hon. Member. The fact that the counties in question are large and rural makes that worse. In addition, the question of cost has allegedly been at the forefront of the Government’s consideration, but the relevant formulations have been comprehensively destroyed. Professor Chisholm and Mr. Leach effectively destroyed them in “Botched Business”. In previous debates the Minister has rejected their figures, but the subsequent evidence proves, if anything, that not only were they right, but they may have underestimated them.

I shall present two figures to the Minister. As has been pointed out, the unitary bid for Cornwall estimated transition costs at £19 million. Professor Chisholm suggested that they would be more—about £28 million. The Minister pooh-poohed that in a previous debate. In fact, the One Cornwall transition costs have just, in a public document made available to the implementation executive, come out at £42.5 million. Northumberland was in the previous tranche of six, and the Minister himself has had to write complaining that rather than producing a saving, the new unitary council has produced a £10 million deficit. The Government’s own figures on cost are incredible and the methodology used by their independent financial advisers is discredited. A future Conservative Government will place no reliance on it.

My hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles) was said to keep a pearl-handled revolver in his cupboard to use on anyone who mentioned local government reorganisation to him. When he left the shadow team for his current job he left the revolver behind, and my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) and I know exactly where it is; so anyone who is tempted to think of applying for a lucrative post within a unitary authority should be on notice that, if the legislative process is not finished, our incoming Government will stop it and will ensure that there will be no more nonsense of that kind in the future. It is possible to achieve cost savings, and I take the point that has been made about the importance of achieving them. However, the irony is that of the councils in question, Norfolk has an excellent shared services agreement, which has been in place for some time, that highlights how costs can be saved by joint working, and Suffolk has a pathfinder scheme for joint working that has achieved beacon status. Why on earth not let those excellent systems of collaboration run their course, rather than interfere with them? “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” is a maxim well worth remembering in politics.

Secrecy is another matter of concern that has been raised in relation to costs. My hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Angela Browning) explained her difficulty in getting information from the Department. She is not alone. Although the Department has sought to rubbish the figures given by Professor Chisholm and his colleague in “Botched Business”, it has never issued a rebuttal, and it has declined at least two freedom of information requests in addition to that from my hon. Friend: one from the late hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich, Mrs. Dunwoody, and another from those distinguished academics. What have the Government got to hide? The methodology on which they rely does not hold water.

I shall conclude, because I want to give the Minister ample time to reply. The criteria, whether they are taken individually, on aggregate or as a matter of capacity, are not met in any of the relevant cases. The idea that large rural counties can meet the democratic requirement with 100 councillors per 700,000 is regarded by most people as ludicrous. It might be worth remembering why in many continental countries local government is in better health, and there is far more local pride in it. It is because often the units are more coherent and are closer to the individual. Generally, as it happens, they are two-tier as well, but joint working and procurement are the norm. Perhaps there is a lesson that we should take from that.

The concept that we are discussing is fundamentally flawed, as are the particular proposals and the process. The criteria are not met. There is no clear cross-section of support as was required, and, as several of my hon. Friends have said, it is a bizarre priority in the middle of a recession. The Minister should stop it now, because if he does not, we will. If he will not take it from me, may I give him a gentle hint from an independent source? Judges of course would never dream of telling Ministers what they should do. However, sometimes, in their judgments, as experienced and sophisticated people, they can give a subtle hint. At the very end of his judgment in the East Devon case, Mr. Justice Cranston quoted, in the last paragraph, what he described as “a significant passage” in a letter from Councillor Sara Randall Johnson, the leader of East Devon council, in which she said that leadership

“brings with it an understanding or acceptance that concerns are shared and understood and that the leaders are not so far removed from those that they govern that a sense of alienation and disempowerment or irrelevance is experienced. On this basis it is my genuine belief that a unitary County Council would be too big and too remote to provide effective leadership”.

The judge then said:

“In my view, all these matters deserve the closest attention of both the Boundary Committee and the Secretary of State. For East Devon, Councillor Randall Johnson is in a sense the most important consultee, elected by constituents, and then by her colleagues to be leader of the council. I hasten to add that there is no reason for me to think that her response will not attract that attention. But I make these remarks because of what I said at the beginning: this is an area where legal sensitivity to meaningful consultation is heightened—the future of local, representative assemblies is at stake.”

That is a subtle but clear judicial hint. I urge the Minister to take the hint and pull the plug.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) on securing the debate. He has certainly been persistent in pursuing his argument, through debate in the House and letters to the Department—and in the queue in the Tea Room. I note that he has marshalled his battalions for this debate in bigger numbers than in previous debates, and I congratulate him on that. I am grateful to him for not doing so in the corridors, where he often ambushes me—but perhaps I speak too soon.

I recognise the high level of interest in the subject, and the concern in some quarters about the process. I also recognise the uncertainty that it creates for local government staff. I am keen to ensure that we put an end to the process as soon as we can. However, because of what is at stake, I must be up front about it and say that I am not prepared to walk away from the process, as it has the potential to offer real benefits for his constituents and for the residents of Norfolk, Suffolk and Devon.

The debate is timely—it is the third of a series—not least because we recently agreed a new deadline for the boundary committee to advise Ministers, and because we are only weeks away from the implementation of nine new single-level councils in other parts of the country. In those areas, it is becoming clearer what the general benefits of unitary councils can be. I have to tell the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk—and the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill), given what he said at the end of his speech—that we are considering the proposals only because they were originally submitted to us by elected councils and the elected leaders of those councils of the areas concerned. Unlike previous reorganisations of local government, it is not centrally driven by the Government or a blueprint devised at the national level and imposed locally.

Does the Minister accept that, for Norfolk, the district and county councils preferred the status quo but that they were informed that that option was not on the table? Indeed, it was implied that, if they did not put forward proposals, they would be in trouble. The Minister’s is a false argument.

No change has always been an option. If no decision is made to change, no change is clearly what remains.

In terms of the accusations and arguments about political opportunism, if the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Angela Browning) were to speak about Northumberland to my colleagues in the House or in local government, many of whom have served on Labour councils that will end on 1 April, she will understand that it is not a question of political opportunism. Looking across the country, we took our decision because we believe that it will lead to better local governance.

The economic downturn has been mentioned. Reports of the councils that come into being on 1 April consistently say that they are able to manage the current pressures of the downturn better as a result of the reorganisation and not despite it. It has been said that it will cost a lot and save little, but evidence emerging from those councils belies that argument, as it does for doubts about value for money, better control of council tax, improved services and clearer accountability. The evidence is increasingly against those who argue for no change. The arguments are increasingly in favour of the general benefits of having a single level of local government, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke) clearly set out.

If the Opposition could, they would stop the process in its tracks. Without prejudging the boundary committee’s proposals, and having taken account of all the representations that we have received, there are some decisions that we will probably take. If an order is made to implement a restructuring proposal under the powers in the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act 2007, it cannot be revoked by another order. As a matter of law, a power to make an order normally includes the power to amend or revoke it; that is the effect of section 14 of the Interpretation Act 1978. However, the implied power to amend or revoke does not apply when such a power would be inconsistent with the statutory framework under which the order is made.

Because part 1 of the 2007 Act sets out a detailed process under which the Secretary of State makes her statutory decisions and does not provide any basis for reopening that decision once made, the implied power to make an order to revoke or amend the earlier order does not apply in this context. That would mean that any orders made under the 2007 Act and approved by Parliament to establish unitary local government could not be revoked by secondary legislation; it would require primary legislation. I want to make the legal position clear to the House.

Increasingly, the compelling case is not to stop such reforms. I was in Northumberland last week, and creating a unitary council there would mean that about 60 highly paid senior posts will go, leading to an annual saving of more than £4 million per annum. It will mean that central bureaucratic and administrative council staff will be reduced by 200 people, saving £7 million each year. If there were a move to one or two councils in Devon, Norfolk or Suffolk, are Opposition Members seriously saying that they would not want to see such savings and the benefits that would result from using that money to improve services or keep council tax down?

On the question of costs, I hope that Opposition Members are asking challenging questions about the cost of the legal process being pursued by some councils. Last week, we were in the Court of Appeal for three days; there were five QCs, five junior counsel, numerous instructing lawyers, and public officials from local and central Government. One local paper estimated that Breckland council’s legal costs for that legal challenge mounted to six figures.

In fact, the judgment was entirely helpful in confirming exactly the advice that we set out on 6 February 2008 about how the boundary committee should conduct its process—and that is what it will do. [Interruption.]

I return to the general case for a single level of councils, and will try to do so in the least partisan way. For instance, without a move to unitary local government, and being able to make savings of £10 million this year, Conservative-controlled Shropshire council’s budget for next year would have required a 9 or 10 per cent. increase in council tax or savage cuts in services. Instead, the new authority has been able to recommend a zero rise in council tax. It says that restructuring is helping it to manage better the current pressures of the economic downturn.

Liberal Democrat-controlled Cornwall council will have an average increase in council tax next year of 2.6 per cent.—the lowest council tax increase in the area for some years. I was in Labour-controlled Durham last week, and saw the call centre where staff will be operating the single number for local residents to gain access to all council information and all council services. The increase in average council tax in Durham is 2.9 per cent., with a cut in some areas. Those are some of the benefits that a single unitary council can bring to local people, alongside better leadership and arrangements for ensuring that local people are better involved in decision making. Until we have received the advice, or the deadline for that advice has passed, we have no powers.

Scientific Procedures on Animals (Statistics)

May I place on the record my appreciation to the Speaker for allowing this debate at rather short notice and for giving us a one-and-a-half-hour slot? That will give many of my colleagues the opportunity, should they so wish, to put forward their views.

I am very pleased to see my hon. Friend the Minister in her place, because in many ways she is more responsible for the debate than I am. On 4 February, when members of the all-party group on FRAME—fund for the replacement of animals in medical experiments—met her, she told us, to my surprise, how few parliamentary debates on animal welfare in scientific research there have been. She also pleaded for the debate to be held soon, because time was of the essence—it will not be long before she must go missing to deal with the new arrival. We have kept our side of the bargain, and she now has her opportunity.

I also pay tribute to Jenny Gowan, from the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection, and to Stacey Friar and Barney Reed, from the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, for giving me their thoughts. They spent a lot of time with me yesterday—the timing of this debate has not been ideal, because of the recess last week and because I was away in Strasbourg for three days, so I had to cram everything into yesterday in dealing with this matter.

It is nice to be speaking from this position. I think back to 1994, Mrs. Humble, when I was sitting in a similar position to you—behind that top table—while considering the Channel Tunnel Rail Link Act 1996, which was being dealt with by a Select Committee. However, unlike you, Mrs. Humble, I had another 11 months and three weeks to go before getting away—you will be away, no doubt, at the end of this sitting. I am sure that you will be quite pleased about that. Many changes have taken place since then, however, and I had been led to believe that this place was like a halfway house to the House of Lords—a little more genteel and refined than the House of Commons, but not quite as good as the House of Lords. However, what I saw in the last debate did not bear that out—but one lives in hope!

Since I and my colleagues from the all-party FRAME group met the Minister on 4 February and having done some reading and talked to people about this subject, I have changed my views. When we met her, the spectre of diminished UK legislation was looming before us, as a result of the dumbing-down that we feared necessary to fall in line with European Union legislation and recommendations. Although our system was by no means perfect, we did not want it to be made any worse. However, I have since considered the matter in detail, and now take a more positive and—I hope—constructive position.

I think that my colleagues in the all-party group will go along with my comments. There is nothing wrong with our seeking some much-needed improvements. The current situation is far from satisfactory. We hear about the three R’s—replacement, refinement and reduction—in animal experimentation and scientific development. Most groups would go along with those, although the anti-vivisection people take a stronger view. They want total elimination of animal experimentation, which is an admirable view. My heart tells me that it has much to commend itself, but my head tells me that it is unlikely to happen in the foreseeable future. I always recall what that great statesman, R.A.—later Lord—Butler said: politics is the art of the possible.

Furthermore, I would like to put on the record my views on certain extreme and criminal elements that have intimidated people, damaged people’s property and done neither themselves, nor the movement, any favours. All that they have done is take away the public’s attention from the real issue to the criminal aspects of the groups’ activities. They have probably set us back many years. Obviously, none of the groups to which I shall refer have any time for such people, although we believe that they have a point. We find how they make that point quite indefensible.

I am pleased to praise the Government, which is rare for me, for their endeavours and successes with the Bill involving stem cell research. There was a fair amount of opposition to it from various quarters, but it is the way forward, and I hope that it will help us to achieve some of our aims in reducing animal experimentation—all the potential seems to be there. One of the biggest problems facing the nation’s health relates to our ageing population and the terrible plight of the increasing number of people suffering from dementia. Given that it is a disease of old age, it is almost inevitable that more old people will result in more people with dementia. That is leading to many problems, not least that of resources. It seems that most of the advances made on the subject have come from stem cell research, which is very welcome. Dementia is probably the largest medical problem faced by mankind in Britain—there are many others, but it stands out on account of the large number of people involved.

We must first consider the statistics. I give praise to the excellent briefing paper prepared for this debate by the Commons Library. I am sure that I can quote from it, because all the figures in it come from Government sources. In these days of scientific enlightenment and advancement and of the greater accrual of knowledge, it is sobering to think that, over the past 12 years, animal experimentation has increased by no less than 21 per cent. In previous years, the figure had fallen from a level above what it is now to a fairly low level. This is not a party-political issue but a national issue. Some might say, “Oh well, the figures went down under our regime, and have risen under a different regime”, but that is irrelevant. What is relevant is to find out why that happened and to see what we can do to arrest the situation. We first need to ensure that this remorseless rise in animal experimentation is, at the very least, brought to a plateau. Only then can we begin to consider ways and means to reduce the problem.

I do not underestimate the complexity and difficulty of achieving such a reduction, but the 21 per cent. increase over 12 years is unacceptable by any standards. We can hear all the fine words in the world, but we need positive proof on the ground that the policies are working. Sadly, at the moment, they are not.

It is interesting to see the passion that the hon. Gentleman brings to this debate. Does he accept that the principal reasons for the rise in the number of animals used in medical research are the huge advances in medical science seen virtually on a daily basis? He mentioned stem cell research. Such huge developments in medical science are driving up the number of animals used in experimentation, rather than there being simply an inexorable move upwards in the use of animals.

The hon. Gentleman has put that in a very attractive way. He is expressing an opinion. One of the reasons for the rise is that we have failed to control the system in a proper manner. I will explain later why that has happened. It is probably not widely known, but the Freedom of Information Act 2000 does not apply to this particular industry. I shall call animal experimentation an industry because that is what it is. In my experience, strong lobbying groups and powerful financial forces, such as the pharmaceutical industry, laboratories and universities, quite rightly and understandably look to protect their own jobs and interests, which we all accept is reasonable behaviour. None the less, I have never heard any Government Minister or MP say that they are in favour of expanding animal experimentation. It may be in Hansard somewhere, but I personally have never heard it said. Therefore, I take a different view to the hon. Gentleman. Basically, we have a flawed system, which is far too closeted. We do not have a comprehensive and effective database. I am not disparaging those who try to produce the best set of statistics that we can have on a general basis in Europe. However, if someone applies for a licence to do some experimentation, how can we ensure that such experimentation has not been done 30 years before, and has reached positive or negative conclusions? We do not know because such information is not in the public domain.

Section 24 of the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986 has been misinterpreted. It is sobering to consider that this industry is de facto immune to the Freedom of Information Act 2000. We all know that many of the general effects of that Act are positive. For example, it is positive that Members of Parliament have to declare their expenses, which are paid for out of general taxation. No one argues against that. It is also right and proper that there is total transparency in the granting of licences, but there is not. Such information is not in the public domain. The public do not get to know about the procedure.

The House of Lords Select Committee that dealt with the issue of scientific testing on animals in 2002 said that the public must be enabled to make informed judgments about the justification for animal research. Such a pledge has not been fulfilled. We are nowhere near a situation in which the public have the sort of information that enables them to reach conclusions and to lobby their MPs or others. Such information is closeted. A cosy relationship exists. I am not saying that it is corrupt; far from that. I have no doubt that the people concerned do their best, but nothing ever seems to get the breath of fresh air that comes from public scrutiny. This is an area that badly needs more public scrutiny.

Another astounding fact that I read in the Commons Library report is that no application for animal research has been refused. I find that incredible. Under any system, surely, somewhere along the line, there will be a reason to refuse an application. I cannot believe that every application does not in some way—no matter how small—duplicate something that has already been done. Many people are not prepared to face up to the reality that this industry is a self-propagating entity. Unfortunately, despite all the Government’s good intentions, the records show that the system is not working. Anyone can say that we intend to control something and hopefully reduce it by using scientific advances. For heaven’s sake, given the number of years that we have had animal experimentation, we should have a tremendous database now. We will never reach the stage when we have run out of opportunities to get more knowledge, but surely as we get an accrual of information, it must become less necessary to continue with similar types of experiment.

Finally, an issue that is not given enough recognition is the fact that many animal experiments, which reached conclusions and were then tried on humans, were found not to be analogous. It was found that the experimentation on animals did not give the sort of information that was helpful as far as humans were concerned; indeed, it often had the opposite effect.

I am pleased to see so many hon. Members present today and I hope that they will have their say. Let us have more debate on the matter, and more debates in Westminster Hall.

I apologise for missing my hon. Friend’s initial remarks, and he may have covered the matter that I want to raise. I support the Government’s three Rs approach—reduction, replacement and refinement. When I look at the statistics, it would help me to see what definitive evidence there is—I know that we have an organisation that is tasked to do that, but it is smoke and mirrors—that those three R’s have reduced the amount of animal experimentation that would otherwise have taken place. I have never seen such evidence, and that is a real weakness in the system. Does my hon. Friend agree that that is a problem?

I agree with my hon. Friend, but all I can say is how long is a piece of string? Without the evidence, we do not know whether the 21 per cent. increase might have been a 60 per cent. or a 5 per cent. increase. We will only know that when we get the full information. We need to know why experiments are being carried out, what the results are and what conclusions are drawn from the results. We do not know such things. We have statistics on both numbers and occurrences. There are four categories of outcomes in animal research. The first one is a fairly minimal effect and the fourth one is death. The second and third category fall somewhere between the two. That is about as much as we know. We do not know much more because there are no details on why experiments are being carried out.

Some years ago, it became illegal to carry out animal experimentation for cosmetics. I would have hoped that such a ban would lead to a reduction in animal experimentation because that was a large and lucrative sector, but we did not see that. In answer to my hon. Friend, the fact that we see a 21 per cent. increase in animal experimentation means that we must question the veracity of the three Rs. We all agree with the three Rs, but they include the word “reduction”. We are not seeing any reduction. It would be a tremendous step forward if we could reach equilibrium. It is good to have my hon. Friend the Minister here to answer my questions, which I am sure she will do very capably. We need to have a step change here. We are not making progress. Politics is full of unintended consequences. Although people mean well, their actions do not always work out in the way in which they intend. If things do not work out in such a way, one should admit it and change it. That is what I am asking for, and what we need.

I hesitate to intervene on my hon. Friend because he is making an excellent speech. He mentioned the ban on cosmetics testing on animals, but does he agree that if we moved to ban the testing of other categories of products, such as household products, of which there are plenty that we can already use, and the testing of recreational drugs, we could at one fell swoop significantly reduce the number of animal experiments?

I agree with my hon. Friend but, sadly, that is not likely to happen. All Governments seem to be reluctant to interfere and instead follow the status quo. Whenever someone suggests something radical, there is always a massive move against it. For every one good reason to change something, 10 good reasons are given to keep things as they are. My hon. Friend makes an attractive proposal, but it is not likely to happen.

I have taken enough time—I did not intend to speak for quite this long—and I look forward to hearing what my colleagues say in the rest of the debate.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Sunderland, North (Bill Etherington) on his excellent speech, which I agree with entirely. I have the honour of being the chairman of the all-party group on the fund for the replacement of animals in medical experiments, which is celebrating its 40th anniversary. The group is grateful for the advice that we get from Professor Michael Balls and Gerard Duvé, who are respectively the chairman and secretary to the trustees of the Fund for the Replacement of Animals in Medical Experiments.

I was slightly concerned when the hon. Gentleman secured this debate that there would not be so much interest in it, but there is a lot, so I will cut my speech by half. FRAME is grateful to the Minister and her officials for the time that they gave to meet us and for the positive spirit in which she responded to our concerns. I am also grateful for the support today of my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, West (Sir John Butterfill), who was also at the meeting.

My interest in animal welfare has been consistent throughout my time as a Member of Parliament. I hope that I am not bragging by saying that I am not in the extreme wing of animal welfare activism, but belong to the sensible group of people who are interested in animal welfare. My views were best summarised in a speech I made on the Second Reading of the Animal Welfare Bill, but the fact that I served on the Standing Committee that considered the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986 shows how long I have been here. The Home Office Minister on that Committee was David Mellor.

I do not think that that had been in the spotlight to quite the degree that it was later.

I recall clearly that the Committee focused on extreme examples such as cosmetic testing. The 1986 Act achieved a great deal, but as the hon. Member for Sunderland, North said, time moves on, and FRAME feels strongly about some of the matters related to our closer integration with the European Community.

In our excellent Library briefing, we are told that Darwin understood the need for animal tests. The great naturalist loved all living creatures but defended vivisection, which sparked a debate that rages today. Animal welfare groups are concerned that current European Union statistics on animal experimentation are woefully inadequate. Although we should not generalise, the UK is by and large a nation of animal lovers, and some European Community member states do not have quite the same strength of feeling for animal welfare. There is widespread support for a new directive incorporating a far more meaningful system of reporting animal use that would include the level of pain and distress that they suffer.

Lord Davidson has proposed that the coverage of scientific procedures should be substantially reduced to annual Home Office statistics, but FRAME believes that the Home Office should continue to publish annual comprehensive statistical reports of the kind and depth that have been published for many years. The publication of the British statistics provides a valuable resource for those who seek an acceptable compromise between serving the legitimate interests of science, medicine and industry, and maintaining the highest possible standards of laboratory animal welfare.

To consider drastically reducing the scope of the statistics to a minimum standard would be seen as an unacceptable reduction in the long-held Government commitment to ensure transparency on what happens in British labs. For example, the statistical detail covering the breeding and use of genetically modified animals has long been understood as part of the commitment to transparency, even though it is not required for compliance with the EU directive or the Council of Europe convention ETS 123. Furthermore, because the registration, evaluation and authorisation of chemicals scheme may require the use of an additional 50 million animals, the members of the all-party group believe that the case for maintaining comprehensive statistics is very strong.

Lord Davidson recommended a cost-benefit analysis on the collection of annual statistics, but FRAME firmly believes that the retention of the present provisions for animal statistics, rather than being an example of gold plating, better serves the interests of the British scientific and animal welfare communities, by ensuring the most considerate treatment of animals in British laboratories.

The Minister may not be able to respond today to all the points that I make, some of which I made at our earlier meeting but, if she has time, she could respond in writing in due course. She received a letter from the all-party group on 14 November 2008 in which we expressed our view that the current practice should continue without any drastic reduction in scope or content, despite Lord Davidson’s views. The group does not believe that the argument for a change in current arrangements has been proven.

Following several years of consultation, the Commission’s proposal for a directive to replace directive 86/609/EEC was published toward the end of 2008, and it is now being discussed within individual member states. I hope that whoever is handling the Minister’s brief when she takes leave to have her baby—we wish her well with that—is in a stronger position because British parliamentarians are genuinely interested in the issue. The Home Office is conducting a series of meetings with various groups of stakeholders, concerned, for example, with alternatives, animal welfare, scientific research and industry. FRAME is a part of the group with a special interest in alternative methods and will do all it can to assist the Home Office, if it so wishes, in developing a sound negotiating position for the UK. FRAME’s initial comments were first submitted to the Home Office early in 2009.

The principal reason for the proposed revision is the uneven application of the current directive to member states. The proposals’ intentions are encouraging. They include the enhanced promotion of alternative methods, stricter control of the use of non-human primates and a system for retrospective reporting to enable judgments to be made about whether the benefits of programmes of work were delivered and the likely suffering of the animals used was reliably predicted.

However, the intentions are not expressed with sufficient clarity or in terms of the definite requirements that would be expected in a law. The main purpose of the proposal could be served only if massive rewriting provided something more like a directive, or if formal and detailed guidance were provided on how the directive’s provisions should be interpreted and applied by member states.

For example, there are references to how the conduct of animal procedures might ultimately benefit humans or human health, but no clear indication of who would judge whether the predicted benefits were sufficiently reliable and realistic to justify the annual suffering caused by the procedures or how such evaluations would be performed, as the hon. Member for Sunderland, North mentioned in his speech.

The hon. Gentleman need not worry. I apologise to you, Mrs. Humble, and to hon. Members for the fact that I am a member of a Public Bill Committee and will have to go back for votes from time to time. I have been listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman. On his last point, does he not think that that is being carried out at the moment and that benefit-harm ratios and the likelihood of adequate benefit from the research are being judged by the fact that one must apply for ethical approval and authority both to do experiments and to be licensed as an investigator? We already have that in this country. It is therefore not lacking in our current regulation or the directive.

The hon. Gentleman is trying to tempt me down another road. I do not regard his point as relevant to this debate, which is on a response to Lord Davidson’s report and how we will proceed with our European partners.

Another example of superficial thinking relates to the use of green apes—sorry, great apes. [Laughter.] A Freudian slip. My TV needs tuning, I think. The use of great apes would not be banned, in case some human health emergency arose that might justify it. As it is expensive to maintain chimpanzees in captivity and would take several years to breed them and raise them to an age at which they could be used, where would the animals be found for use in such an emergency? In the jungles of Africa? I doubt it. Would a few hundred be kept in cages at enormous expense, just in case they might one day be needed? I just flag that up. Whether the apes are green or brown, FRAME would not want to see that happen.

One point of particular concern relates to the status and future of the European Centre for the Validation of Alternative Methods. Professor Balls was the first head of ECVAM, and Dr. Jon Richmond is the current British representative on its scientific advisory committee. We are proud of that. Article 46 of the proposal sets out a scheme for a national reference laboratory in each member state for the validation of methods that could replace, reduce or refine the use of animals. It is attractive at first sight, but it is fundamentally flawed, as it is based on a lack of experience among those who wrote it, especially with respect to validation. There is a danger that the validation process would be frustrated by a lack of experience and national or other sectoral bias of a kind that has occurred in the past. Such issues could be handled satisfactorily via ECVAM’s relatively independent status. There is no specific mention of the role of ECVAM, which increases concern that much of what has been achieved in the organisation’s development over nearly two decades will be abandoned in favour of some inappropriate theory about how Commission services should be run in relation to what happens in member states according to the principle of subsidiarity.

In conclusion, it is clear that the emphasis is bureaucratic rather than scientific. Inevitably, that risks delaying the development, validation, acceptance and application of methods that are truly relevant and reliable in their stated purposes of leading to the greater protection of human health and steadily reducing the cost to laboratory animals. I think that the Home Office understands entirely what challenges it faces. I welcome the opportunity through this debate to strengthen its hand as it takes the negotiations forward.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, North (Bill Etherington) on presenting such a strong, passionate speech about the implications of experiments using animals. I recognise many of the things that he said, having practised some of those methods myself. As a young student, I was taught to inject rabbits and get antibodies from them. I had to fill in Home Office forms and so on, but there was a laxity even then about how seriously the issue was taken. Later in life, of course, during cancer research, one cured mice of cancer but was never sure whether it would work in human beings as well.

The great increase in using animals, particularly mice, is due not just to stem cell research but to the fact that people now want animal models for cystic fibrosis and other diseases, given that they can obtain genes, put them into what are called knockout mice or nude mice and see what happens in the process, thereby studying the progress of a particular illness. The increase in the use of mice is justified by scientists on the basis that it will help to give us some input into sorting out diseases, whether rare diseases or other sorts.

I am going to say something that opens up the whole field. As a hardened scientist, I never questioned what I did. They were just things that one did. However, I think that we have now learned quite a bit. I pay tribute to FRAME and Professor Michael Balls. He and I worked together, argued together and taught together. As a matter of fact, I got him his job. When he was at Berkeley, I brought him back to this country. Ever since then, we have conversed about alternatives to animal experiments, although not in the sense of doing away with animal experiments completely, because it is recognised that—in some cases, anyway—they can be useful. However, we should be working much harder to develop not just regulations but new technologies to replace some animal experiments.

I say that because I have a Bill, which is supported by the hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) and the Safer Medicines Campaign, to evaluate tests carried out on animals against the alternative methods coming to the fore. I had not realised how fast such alternative technologies were emerging until I attended a conference a few months ago at the Royal Society run by the Safer Medicines Campaign. There is an opening up among scientists. More and more scientists are getting involved in considering alternatives. We should welcome that, particularly if the validation process that we are trying to pass in Parliament allows us to assess whether animal experiments are working, whether they tell us what we think we can see in a mouse, a rat or other animal, and how other technologies compare.

As my hon. Friend said, there have been some tragedies in the field in which animal experiments on mice or other animals have been carried out, yet when the drug is put into human trials, a Northwick Park situation arises. In those trials, drugs for certain types of leukaemia—I will not go into the details—had adverse effects on people; in fact, they nearly died. Much has been written about that. In other instances involving pharmaceutical companies, there have been side effects that were not seen in animals but were seen in humans when the drug entered human trials. I know that if a drug is used, it is best to see how it works physiologically on the whole organism—I have used that argument in the Chamber. However, in physiology and biochemistry there are differences between animals and between animals and humans. That must be taken into consideration.

I am a great believer in some of the tests that have been carried out. My colleague, the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis), always wants me to talk about Dundee university, where understanding how a basic scientific procedure called protein phosphorylation worked in normal organisms allowed the development of nine effective drugs to treat cancer. From a position of not understanding how something works, people can arrive at a point where it does work. As far as I know, there have been no adverse effects in that arena and it has to go through the legal process.

We all get letters from the public—I received letters about the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 2008 because people did not like some of the things that were being done. Professor Michael Balls and I had a terrible fallout over some issues—he was watching what I was saying and we fell out and disagreed. That has been published. I have seen him since and there is no problem. We have argued out the matter.

Animal tests must be validated in some way, but they never have been. I have mentioned some cases where there have been problems. I want to talk not only about the number of animals involved, as my hon. Friend did, but about my concerns over the impact on patients of using animals as surrogate humans to develop and test new medicines. We rely on animals as a final safety screen before clinical trials on people. According to the US Food and Drug Administration, 92 per cent. of potential new drugs do not work in human trials. Sarah Boseley, a reporter from The Guardian, who I think is one of the best reporters in the country, digs deep and wins lots of prizes for what she unearths. She does not need the Freedom of Information Act 2000; she goes to countries such as Malawi in Africa and sees how drugs are being used in that community. She said:

“A million Britons are hospitalised by prescription medicines every year, costing the NHS £2 billion.”

It is admitted that drugs often have side effects, which can differ between different people. Drugs are metabolised and mobilised in different ways depending on our individual genetic make-up.

There have been lots of reports from the United States and a vision has developed there focused on trying to limit animal tests and replace them with new technologies. I will not describe all those new technologies, as they have been mentioned before. People are critical of some, but not of others. Using human tissue is a more favourable practice in laboratories because we can have banks of such tissues. They can be studied and we can understand how a new compound will work. There are DNA chips, where the effect of a drug on a particular gene is looked at on a slide. There are different computer models, and microdosing is new technology where small amounts of a drug can be given to a human to see what reaction it produces. At the conference that I attended, I found it stimulating to see the good sciences being used to try and work out alternative procedures. That is why I hope that the Bill manages to get somewhere as we look for validation of those technologies.

There have been many inquiries into animal testing. The Lords Select Committee, the Animal Procedures Committee, the Nuffield Council on Bioethics and the Weatherall report all called for research into the validity of animal tests. None of those inquiries assess the effect of that on predicting drug safety, and that is a huge gap. The Committee on Safety of Medicine’s evaluation was the first, I think, to require a scientific comparison of the ability of animal tests to predict the risks of drugs in humans with the ability of a set of human biology-based tests. That is worth taking forward, and I compliment not only the Safer Medicines Campaign but also FRAME; they have continuously made us think about other ways of doing things.

Perhaps we can make savings by using these technologies. This is an expensive business involving animal housing, ensuring that welfare is properly provided, arranging Home Office visits and spending time in collecting data from different laboratories. Enabling animal houses to be smaller would save a lot of money for a starving higher education process. I remember once in Portcullis House that I saved a university £1 million by ensuring that humans could not enter its animal building. It was thought that allowing access would leave it open to the kind of people who have recently been imprisoned for their violent behaviour because of their beliefs about animals. There is a huge change in the way that people think about animal experiments, the need for them and the possible alternatives. I welcome that. This scientific field might turn out some very exciting results.

Following on from the last three speakers is quite difficult; nearly everything I was going to say has been said. However, I would like to join my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) in thanking the Minister for the courtesy that she showed when we met her a few weeks ago.

I have been involved with animal welfare for a long time. I am the longest serving trustee of the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals. I was one of the founder members of FRAME, and we have been lucky to have Professor Michael Balls guiding us through the process ever since it started. I was attracted to FRAME because it was the sensible person’s approach to animal welfare and experimentation and not extreme in any way. Nearly all scientists engaged in this field are not wicked, extremist people who love torturing animals, as they are sometimes portrayed by the extreme animal rights wing. They are, for the most part, conscientious and careful. I know that from first-hand experience: for the past 40 years, my wife has been a fundraiser for Action Medical Research; she is now the south-east regional chairperson. The brunt of what Action Medical Research does—the cutting-edge research—largely involves stem cells rather than animals. I have met many of the scientists whom it employs and they are fine people who are conscious of the need to minimise the effect on animals of any research that they do.

However, there are some defects in the law as it stands. There is a lack of openness and transparency that must be addressed. One understands that much research might be commercially confidential. What drugs companies and others do is often expensive and their research must be protected to a degree. Nevertheless, particularly as a result of some EU legislation, there is a good deal of unnecessary duplication of research. We must be satisfied that efficacy is involved and that it is not duplication. We must be more demanding in what we ask of those who request consent to carry out these sorts of experiments. If we do that, I think that the public will be with us. How we present our case is extremely important. We are not trying to shut down experimentation, but we can take a lot of satisfaction from advances in research that mean that things that used to be indispensable are now not wholly necessary. Perhaps by being a little tougher, we will drive people into research which, although it might be more expensive and difficult, will reduce, rather than increase, the level of animal experimentation. We should therefore tighten up procedures.

Let me congratulate the hon. Member for Sunderland, North (Bill Etherington) on securing the debate. He is right that the House should constantly debate this issue. I had little difficulty with much of his speech, although I respectfully disagree with him on several issues, which I shall raise. I congratulate the hon. Member for Bournemouth, West (Sir John Butterfill) on putting the case for the Fund for the Replacement of Animals in Medical Experiments so clearly. FRAME has brought respectability to this area of opposition, rather than simply adopting a black-and-white approach to animal testing, and I do not criticise its work.

Even if I wanted to, I could find no Member of the House and no scientist who uses animals for experiments who would not like to find an alternative way of doing those experiments. I do not believe that there is a demand, other than from people who are particularly perverse, for inflicting pain on animals. I acknowledge people’s genuine concerns about this issue, but I have real difficulty with the title and central thrust of today’s debate, which is really about the production of statistics and the idea that producing more statistics will somehow improve the lot of animals and reduce the number being used in experiments. Neither FRAME nor anyone else has produced evidence that having better statistics will drive down the number of animals being used.

May I give the hon. Gentleman an example that might help to answer his question? On the testing of household products, I gather that more than 100 chemicals are used in disinfectants and that more than 250 have been tested and are available for use. Surely, if statistics were available on the multitude of experiments being carried out to create ever more household products, there would be consumer demand not to license more experiments. Would not that be useful?

The duplication of experiments is nonsense—I do not think anyone could argue with that—and we are delighted that the UK no longer experiments on animals for household products or cosmetics. As I am sure the hon. Lady knows, however, the problem is that the new REACH—registration, evaluation, authorisation and restriction of chemical substances—regulation will revisit many of the compounds that are used in everyday chemicals because of the need to test the toxicity of each one. That will cause a real problem. A driver of that regulation is the need to control information more centrally.

We do not want just a simple debate on statistics and numbers; we want a debate on why we are using animals in science. More than 3.2 million procedures were started in 2007—a rise of 6 per cent. on the previous year. There have been significant rises, year on year, in the number of animals used in science, and it is absolutely right that we put those statistics on the table. Since 2000, the number of scientific procedures performed on animals has risen, and we have to ask why. This is where I disagree with the hon. Member for Sunderland, North, because, as the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) has mentioned, the rise in the number of animals is due largely to the increasing use of genetically altered animals—mostly mice, not primates, cats or dogs. Genetically altered mice are engineered to have particular diseases, and drugs or chemicals are created to knock out that disease. There has been a move to improve medical science by using genetically altered animals.

I have heard strong condemnation of the work on the three Rs, which was an incredibly positive development set up by Lord Sainsbury when he was Minister for Science and Innovation. Rather than being a barometer of the lack of progress for the three Rs, statistics have provided an indicator of current trends in research. An increase in numbers can reflect an increase in the overall amount of research done, and therefore of the benefits to patients.

The central driver for the vast majority of research using animals is the laudable objective of improving human health. As the UK is particularly successful in biomedical research—we are second only to the United States, so we are leaders in that key area—it is not unreasonable to think that there will be an increase in the number of animals used in the UK for such research. One particular statistic is worth noting because it has been produced by the Home Office and the Department of Health—the proportion of animals used, despite increases in biomedical science, is going down.

Let me return to the point that the hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) made about the European directive. There have been slight misunderstandings regarding FRAME’s position and the way in which the new scientific directive, directive 86/609/EEC, is being considered and discussed. We in the UK are proud of our high standards in the treatment of animals in science. Covance—a private, US-based company—has laboratories in my constituency where a significant amount of testing on animals is done. I have visited those laboratories many times, and I have been astounded by the efforts that are made to maintain and look after the animals, with the best of husbandry. Recent efforts being made in England include bringing in animals in colonies, rather than in individual breeding pairs, to replicate their home conditions. In this area, we lead Europe, and it is important that the directive is used to ensure that the standards of animal care throughout the EU come up to ours, rather than go down.

I agree with the hon. Member for Southend, West that the directive is badly worded. It needs considerable revision before it becomes law. There is misunderstanding about the fact that any European directive has to be framed in the image of each particular nation, and it is up to the UK Government to frame the directive in British law according to how we want it. The hon. Gentleman’s party has accused the Government of gold-plating EU directives, but this one does not need gold-plating. Indeed, we should maintain the high standards of openness and transparency on which Labour Governments of the past 12 years have a decent record.

[David Taylor in the Chair]

I am also concerned about the hon. Gentleman’s comment on the use of great apes—or green apes, as the case may be—and where we would find them in a dire emergency. At the moment there are 1,400 great apes in breeding programmes in the United States. It is not the case that there would not be sufficient great apes available in an emergency, if needed. There are another 600 great apes in active research programmes in the US.

The hon. Gentleman’s point about the European Centre for the Validation of Alternative Methods is right. Particularly over the past five to six years, that organisation has established a terrific reputation throughout Europe. It would be sad if this directive moved us in the opposite direction.

I have four cats and two dogs and a great number of mice despite them. On speaking to my wife this morning and telling her that I was filling in as Liberal Democrat spokesman on this subject this morning, she said, “I hope you are going to support a total ban on all animal experiments.” I replied, “I’m sorry dear, we’ll have to continue to disagree on that.”

There is a need for greater transparency about the benefits of using animals in medical science. Looking at the huge breakthroughs in medical science and the number of diseases for which cures have been found as a result of testing on animals puts these matters into perspective. The hon. Member for Norwich, North, who leads much of the work on cancer research in the House, would accept that the huge advances in cancer treatment have come about not just as a result of animal testing, although it has been part and parcel of them. The same applies to antibiotics and vaccines. Animals have been used to develop cures for everything from smallpox to polio, insulin, tetanus, rubella and anthrax. If we go down the road of saying, “At this moment in time, we can suddenly find cures without using animals”, we do so at our peril.

Order. I have to interrupt the hon. Gentleman. I should like to call the other Front-Bench spokesman at an early point and call the Minister at 12.15 pm.

Mr. Taylor, thank you for calling me to speak on behalf of Her Majesty’s Opposition. This has been an excellent debate. I welcome the opportunity to discuss this subject. I congratulate the hon. Member for Sunderland, North (Bill Etherington) on his contribution and thank other hon. Members who have spoken. There is consensus on most issues among hon. Members in this Chamber today and among the Government and the Opposition, and there is little that we have to disagree on. A lot of progress has been made and much more must be made in years to come.

Today’s debate has been useful. I particularly commend the remarks made by my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) about the work of the Fund for the Replacement of Animals in Medical Experiments, and I commend the excellent work that he does with my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, West (Sir John Butterfill) in the all-party group on FRAME. We look forward to making progress on this matter in the years to come.

The Minister will be taking a sabbatical quite soon and we all wish her well. I know that she feels as passionately about this matter as we all do. We look forward with hope to using the cross-party consensus to move this agenda forward.

May I emphasise my satisfaction with the fact that, following the recent European Committee sitting on the revision of European directive 86/609 relating to the protection of animals used for scientific purposes, this subject is once again being debated in the House and getting the attention that it rightly deserves? As the spectrum of animal welfare issues—particularly animal experimentation—continues to expand both in volume and in terms of public interest in it, Her Majesty’s Opposition are wholly committed to reflecting this in parliamentary business. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Sunderland, North for choosing this subject for debate today.

My colleagues and I are satisfied with the general direction in which the animal testing debate has been heading in recent years. It is safe to say that everybody across all sectors would like to see the same eventual outcome: the replacement of animals used in scientific procedures, however long that may take. Indeed, it may take many years, but ultimately we all want to reach that goal. The Government, Opposition parties, welfare organisations and, perhaps most significant, industry have all made clear their dedication to continuing to develop and utilise alternative methods of testing that will help work towards eliminating the use of animals in scientific procedures.

As is made evident by the current revision of EU directive 86/609 on the protection of animals used for scientific purposes, many of the regulations on animal testing are being determined at European level in order that our European neighbours adhere to the standards that we already apply here in the United Kingdom. Although my party has reservations about the top-down approach taken by Europe in some areas of legislation, it is a pleasure to see an international approach to animal testing. I envisage that in just a few short years we will be debating this matter from a much more unified European perspective and adjusting our focus to more inclusive consideration of data gathered from our European neighbours. That can only be a good thing.

As shadow Home Affairs Minster with responsibility for animal welfare, I am continually reminded by members of the public and organisations that the overall number of scientific procedures involving animals has been rising steadily since 2000, as several hon. Members have mentioned. This rise follows continuous reductions throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Indeed, the most recent figures available show that we have now completely reversed the reductions achieved over the previous decade, to return to numbers not seen since 1990. Specifically, in 2007, we saw a rise of 6 per cent. in the number of procedures, which is a significant figure given previous annual rises of around only 2 per cent. The number of procedures undertaken annually is now 21 per cent. higher than when Labour came to power in 1997. Such data, of course, raise immediate concern about scientific progress, particularly in respect of the three R’s programme, which we all support.

The National Centre for the Replacement, Refinement and Reduction of Animals in Research has, since being established several years ago, been widely accepted within the research community, yet we continue to see an increase in overall animal use. This is somewhat alarming when considering the long-term approach to developing alternative methods. Continuous rises in both the number of procedures undertaken and the number of animals used do not encourage a healthy mentality among the industry or the concerned general public.

Despite these reservations, it should be noted that a major factor in these rises is the use of genetically altered and mutant lines of animals, which can produce more relevant models for research purposes. The proportion of procedures involving so-called genetically normal animals has fallen significantly over the past decade. That is an especially welcome fact, considering that such procedures include animals taken from their natural habitats. The proportion of procedures involving normal animals rose by 5 per cent. in 2007, but that can mainly be attributed to studies using mice and fish that, traditionally, have not been controversial.

Additionally, it is worth considering the overall long-term financial commitments made by the scientific community. Over the past decade, the increase in procedures involving animals has been relatively marginal, compared with what went on before, but spending on bioscience and medical research and development has surged significantly. Therefore, animal-based research has become a smaller proportion of the overall spending in those key industries. That, too, is extremely encouraging. It highlights the investment being poured into other areas that will, I hope, lead to the eventual demise of animal-based procedures.

To summarise, I emphasise that the Government should be working harder to curb the overall trend in rising figures, but that we should also acknowledge some of the valuable work being undertaken by the scientific community in helping to minimise animal suffering. The animal testing debate comprises what can be classified as various sub-debates that focus specifically on different species of animal used in procedures, and different products or ingredients being tested. It is through those lower-level, more specific debates that we can work towards an eventual eradication of animal testing.

For example, it is a widely held view that testing on animals for the safety of cosmetic products is unacceptable and unjustifiable. That is reflected in the fact that, for the past 10 years, the granting of licences for the testing of finished cosmetic products and ingredients to be used in cosmetic products has been prohibited in the UK.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree, however, that many people are under the impression that animal testing for cosmetic purposes has already been phased out? In particular, many people do not realise that a product that uses the words “natural”, “herbal” or some mutation of the word “organic” in its name may have been tested on animals. Does he think that we could do more to promote the fact that there are cruelty-free alternatives?

I completely agree with the hon. Lady. It is true that testing of cosmetic products on animals has been eliminated, and that many people do not realise that. They believe that it is still done, so we need to do more to promote such information. We also need to move on to eliminating completely testing of household products on animals. We can make progress on public perception, but, of course, such things take a long time to permeate through to the general public.

May I clarify what I said? Although the tests are being phased out, there are still many products on the market that have been tested on animals. There are also alternatives that have not been tested on animals. I was urging people to buy the alternatives rather than products produced by the like of Procter and Gamble, which does a significant amount of testing, or products that are imported from places where testing is still allowed.

That is another point. Many countries have much lower standards than the UK for animal testing, so anything that comes from the UK will be of a much higher standard than anything that comes from certain other countries. It is important to get the message across that we have one of the highest standards for animal testing in the world and that we are working hard gradually to reduce such testing. We have consensus on all those points, and it is important to get those messages out.

I am conscious of the time. There is much more that I wanted to say in this debate, but I know that the Minister wants to respond to many of the points that have already been made. I conclude by saying that all of us in the Chamber are committed to animal welfare. We are all committed to the gradual replacement, reduction and, ultimately, the elimination, one hopes—however many years that may take—of the use of animals in testing. We should be proud of the progress that has been made in this country. We have one of the best, if not the best, standards of animal welfare in testing in the world. The last thing that we want to do is to drive testing abroad, to countries with far lower standards, by making it impossible here.

We should salute those in the industry who have worked so hard with animals to ensure that cures and medical treatments are found for many human ailments and diseases. That is something that we should all support. I believe that nobody today takes the extreme view that we should abolish such tests. We need to have that resource, but, ultimately, perhaps long after we have all left Parliament—it may take that long; who can tell?—we may look forward to the development of alternatives such that the use of animals will no longer be required. I hope that there will be cross-party consensus on working towards that eventual aim.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Taylor. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, North (Bill Etherington) on securing this debate, and I echo the comments of the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis). I agree completely that we need greater transparency, and I welcome the debate for that reason.

I became the Home Office Minister responsible for this area of inspection in July 2007. This is the second time that I have had the chance to debate it in the past couple of weeks, but we do not discuss it enough. Also, we do not discuss the benefits of testing, as well as the important work that the Home Office does to hold the ring and regulate the work that is done to ensure that scientists work humanely and constructively.

I also welcome the constructive support of Her Majesty’s Opposition. The hon. Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) rightly highlighted the importance of the European approach to the matter. I will not go into that, as we debated it recently, on 3 February, but it is important that we are having this debate in the UK Parliament today. It sends out a signal to others in Europe that, although there are differences of view, there is cross-party consensus in the UK Parliament that we need to maintain high standards in this area and that we do not want them to be watered down by a European directive.

I shall try to rattle through many of the detailed points that have been made, but it is worth stressing where the Government stand on the issue. In essence, our position is straightforward. We believe that animal experiments continue to be necessary for the time being if improvements in health care are to be developed with the minimum of delay and if humankind and the environment are to be protected from other hazards. I shall not go into great detail about some of the medical benefits—we do not have time in this debate—but it is true that almost every form of conventional medical treatment has relied in part on the study of animals. Asthma treatments, medicines for peptic ulcers, schizophrenia and depression, the polio vaccine and kidney dialysis and transplants are just a few examples of how such work has led to benefits for humankind.

It is clear from the tone of today’s debate that, although we all accept that animal experimentation is both effective and necessary, we do not relish it. We believe that it should be used only if the benefits have been carefully weighed against the costs to the animals; if there is no other way to achieve the desired results—I shall say a bit about alternatives later; if the procedures will cause the least suffering and will use the minimum number of animals to achieve the outcome; and if high standards of animal welfare are applied. We believe that that approach reflects closely what the public want. I shall touch on many of the points that were raised by hon. Members.

My hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, North spoke about the National Centre for the Replacement, Refinement and Reduction of Animals in Research. It is a vital contributor to the work done to reduce the need for animal research. I welcome the support of my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew), who also spoke about it.

Hon. Members raised the issue of transparency, and this is where I may have to disagree a bit with my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, North. The Government are keen that there should be as much transparency as possible about the use of animals under the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986, and I believe that we are making progress. I welcome the cross-party support for the Government’s aim of being as transparent as possible.

Since 2005, we have published abstracts of project licences granted under the Act. The scheme is voluntary, but at present more than 80 per cent. of project applications provide an abstract, and 1,700 are posted on the Home Office website. That is important: the information is on a website, and anybody can look it up in their local library or wherever. It is not difficult to find.

The annual report of the national centre for the three R’s, which has just been published, provides details of all its work, including grants given for research. If hon. Members are interested in following this up, the report is one way of finding out about money from the Government and the centre that has gone into research on alternatives. A great deal has been done to ensure that work is not duplicated, and I shall touch on that in a moment.

The animals (scientific procedures) inspectorate is also going to publish its annual report, which explains the inspectorate’s role. The Home Office is in the middle regarding the animal welfare issues raised by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and by scientists. With the interests of animal welfare firmly at heart, we have to strike a balance between a number of interested groups without stymieing UK science plc and the important work that scientists do in helping to cure the diseases and resolve the scourges of this world. The inspectorate’s report also contains features on topics of special interest. This year, for example, we intend it to include the work of our policy and licensing teams, and I commend it to Members present as good reading.

My hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, North focused on statistics today, and, importantly, I stress my belief that our statistics are robust; I must differ with him on that point. We publish comprehensive statistics annually, and they have been collected and published for many years. In fact, I am told that our handwritten records go back to 1876, when the Cruelty to Animals Act was introduced, so Members could take on a lot of reading if they wished to research the subject. Our statistical analysis has improved somewhat since then, and we have not hidden any facts.

The statistics are produced under the provisions of the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986. They are also part of the national statistics framework and under the management of the Home Office’s independent chief statistician, who is accountable to the national statistician. The statistics are also subject to the UK Statistics Authority’s new code of practice for official statistics, and those governance arrangements demonstrate that we are not trying to hide anything. We are also required to consult on substantive changes to the context and coverage of the figures, and we have many debates with different interested groups—mostly practitioners, but those with an animal welfare focus, too—about how we collect them. We ensure that we listen to those views and take them on board where we can. I reassure colleagues that we have no plans to reduce the scope of the current figures. We want to give a full and accurate account of scientific procedures under the 1986 Act, and it is important to be clear that we are not trying to hide anything.

On the statistics, in 2007, the main increases in testing, compared with the same period in 2006, were on mice, which went up 7 per cent., on fish, up 20 per cent., and on chickens, up 16 per cent. That was mainly fundamental research, including the breeding of transgenic mice and fish. Hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough, raised the issue of transgenic breeding. I must tell him that I visited Covance and saw some of the work there, so I recognise the characterisation given by the hon. Member for Bournemouth, West (Sir John Butterfill) of scientists being not big, bad people trying to do horrible things to animals but people who are keen on and enthusiastic about animals. Certainly, those whom I met are, and that includes the veterinary scientists who work there, too.

The overall number of procedures has increased, but the use of animals in safety testing for regulatory purposes has declined steadily. In the United Kingdom in 1995, there were 677,000 instances of such work, but in 2007, the figure had gone down to 416,000. New opportunities, especially in molecular genetics, cancer research and immunology, have led to new uses and an increase in numbers, but it would be difficult to say to the public, “We are so obsessed with the statistics that we want a reduction, even if it is at the cost of cancer research.” We have to strike a balance, but the Home Office is clear that no licence is granted willy-nilly; it must be clear that there is no alternative and that there is a real scientific purpose to the work.

There has been some criticism of the fact that licences are not refused, but the inspectorate, which is locally based, goes out regularly to the labs for which it is responsible and holds discussions with the licensees while an application is being prepared. If it were not up to scratch, it would not get as far as submission; it would have to be modified or withdrawn. We obviate the need for unnecessary paperwork, where people submit pointless and bad licence applications, and we give them guidance in the same way as a good local authority planning officer would. Planning officers do not receive bad applications if they have such dialogue, so it is important that we do so, too.

The point was made about genetically altered animals, so I shall explain the process. The creation of such animals involves a number of surgical and non-surgical procedures, which generate a founder’s stock. The process is currently counted as a procedure under European legislation, so simple breeding counts as a procedure. Maintaining colonies involves breeding from the founder’s stock and, in most cases, the tissue sampling of an offspring to determine their genetic status—again, a procedure that is counted. Breeding per se is not a procedure, but producing genetically altered animals is, so whatever one’s view about genetic modification and alteration, the process alone does not lead to suffering, although, in some cases, offspring will develop the disease involved, so suffering will take place there. In many cases, however, offspring are overtly normal. Although breeding alone counts for just over one third of the UK’s use of animals, many will be subsequently used, albeit only for analysis after their humane killing.

Hon. Members asked whether the national centre for the three R’s has achieved any results, and I refer them to its annual report. On replacement, we now require that monoclonal antibodies be produced in cell cultures. That is a step forward; it is not done with animals but in cell cultures. The majority of tests for toxins in shellfish no longer use mice, so that is another replacement. On reduction, the use of in-vitro screening tests to reduce the number of animals needed to identify potential skin irritants has also been successful. And, on refinement, there is a mouse-based test using pre-disease end points—rather than a guinea pig test involving skin sores—to determine whether the test materials might cause contact dermatitis. They are just some examples that I can provide quickly in this debate, but I recommend that anyone with an interest in this important subject look at the national centre’s own work and report. I know that the all-party FRAME group keeps a close eye on it, and I thank the group for its work, because it is important that we have a reasoned debate. The group provides a good forum for such debate on a cross-party basis, and I am delighted that it has helped to secure today’s debate under the sponsorship of my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, North.

The Freedom of Information Act 2000 also applies, and we have replied to more than 50 freedom of information requests. Unfortunately, we have had extremists in this country, but, happily, they are now generally in prison or have been dealt with appropriately. It has been difficult to be as transparent as we would have liked, because even publishing the address of a laboratory has caused problems, but we are not trying to hide information. We have to strike a balance between ensuring the safety and security of legitimate scientists doing legitimate and safe work, and ensuring that we provide as much information as we can. On the refusal of applications, inspectors recognise poor applications early in the process and discourage applicants from applying.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, East (Kerry McCarthy) raised the issue of household product testing, and it is clearly a concern. In terms of my ministerial mailbag, it is the biggest issue, other than immigration, that I deal with. There is little animal testing of household products in the UK. One animal—a rabbit—was used for the purpose in 2007 and none was used in 2006. Although the numbers are small, the case for ending such testing is not clear cut. Many household products have significant benefits, such as killing bacteria and germs, and national and international regulatory bodies require that products, ingredients and chemicals are tested to ensure that they are not a danger to children, adults, households pets and the environment. Until reliables are developed, procedures have to be performed using animals, but there is not a great number, if that is any reassurance. Furthermore, there was no cosmetic testing on animals in 2007.

I turn to some of the points raised by the hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess). Again, I thank the all-party group, under his chairmanship, for its work, and on non-human primates, I refer Members to Hansard of 3 February, when I went into the issue in more detail. It is important to stress that, although the directive’s provisions appear weaker than our current position, we support the European Commission’s proposal in principle, because the exemptions would be invoked only in truly exceptional circumstances. In practice, the provision amounts to an effective ban on the use of great apes, and that is consistent with our policy. We must ensure that we reserve our fire for other concerns about the directive. The European Centre for the Validation of Alternative Methods to animal testing is important. The directive proposes a national reference lab, but we believe that the national centre for the three R’s could be a virtual lab.

It is a shame that we have so little time to discuss this important subject. Animal experimentation comes under an area of Government policy that must recognise a wide range of opinions, and I am delighted that we have been able to air some of them today.

Gas Storage

I am grateful to have secured this short but timely debate on the adequacy of UK gas storage. We are experiencing another winter of tight gas supply with supplies being drawn down heavily in the face of a colder than normal winter and European supply disruptions caused by the dispute between Russia and Ukraine. Rather perversely, it is only because of a sharp drop in industrial demand, due to the recession, that the UK has avoided severe difficulties in meeting peak gas demand this year.

Over the past week, since receiving notice of this debate, I have been contacted by numerous companies that take a close interest in the subject, including some that are directly involved in trying to take forward some gas storage projects, and some of the large industrial gas users or their trade bodies—for example, the Chemical Industries Association—which are deeply concerned about the future security of gas supply. Their individual interests may differ, but all have emphasised the crucial importance of adequate gas storage as the UK becomes increasingly reliant on imported natural gas and gas per se in our overall energy mix as ageing coal-fired and nuclear power stations are decommissioned.

By 2010, gas imports could be meeting up to one third or more of the UK’s total annual gas demand, perhaps rising to around 80 per cent. by 2020. That represents a huge change from our position just five years ago, when we were a net exporter of gas. I do not share the populist panic about imported energy, and I do not believe that energy independence is achievable or even a necessary or desirable goal in an age when international energy markets are increasingly interlinked. There is an unquestionable economic loss to the UK as our domestic oil and gas production declines and that is significant, but I shall not lose sleep about energy security and energy imports as long as we have a diversity of reliable suppliers with proven long-term reserves alongside as strong a domestic component as possible with diversity of infrastructure for the import, transmission and distribution of energy, including a measure of spare capacity and, crucially, an adequate stock of stored energy to serve as a buffer against supply disruptions.

The UK has significant stored capacity of oil and gas. We have around 80 days’ consumption of oil and petroleum products in stock and around 90 days’ consumption of coal. There is no common stocking obligation on those types of fuel, but it is interesting that there is around three months of coverage for both. Britain’s natural gas storage capacity is around 4.3 billion cu m, which represents no more than 15 days’ supply. I take the point that the Minister made in response to my parliamentary question last month that the amount of gas held in storage, expressed in terms of days’ supply, may not be meaningful, but will he explain why it is deemed to be an adequate measure for oil and coal, but not for gas? Will he also say what he believes is a prudent level of gas held in storage as we become increasingly reliant on imports expressed, if not as days’ supply, as a proportion of total demand or volume in billion cubic metres? How much gas should we have stored for when we become, for example, 30 per cent. reliant on imported gas and how much should we have when we become 70 or 80 per cent. import reliant?

The UK needs more storage capacity, and the Government must provide a clearer message on how much new capacity is needed, where it will come from, when it will be delivered, and what can be done to mitigate the effects if it does not come on stream in a timely way.

I believe that the current and future inadequacy of gas storage facilities represents a crucial vulnerability in our energy system, which could have profound negative consequences for UK industrial and domestic consumers. Over the past 10 years, the Government’s response to this increasingly important issue has been disturbing complacency. The inadequate level of UK gas storage facilities has been well discussed, and in October 2008, the Select Committee on Business and Enterprise reported:

“The Government has not responded quickly enough to the UK’s increasing, and entirely predictable, gas import dependency by encouraging investment in storage…Significant additional storage, beyond that currently planned, is needed to reduce volatility in the wholesale gas price, which is otherwise likely to increase as the UK becomes increasingly dependent on gas imports. It is now an issue of national importance”.

Five years ago, the regulator, Ofgem, predicted that the UK would have 10 billion cu m of storage capacity by the end of the decade, but here we are in 2009 and current capacity is not even 5 billion cu m, and 75 per cent. of existing capacity is provided at just one facility, Rough. That facility has around 3 billion cu m of capacity, but it can pump only 45 million cu m a day, so in periods of peak demand the UK could run out of gas relatively quickly if demand outstripped supply.

More than three years ago, I asked the Minister’s predecessor what steps were being taken to increase the UK’s gas storage capacity, and his reply was rather over-confident. In a written answer, he said:

“Some 10 new projects are currently being developed, which (if they all proceed to commissioning) would more than double GB’s gas storage capacity”.—[Official Report, 13 February 2006; Vol. 442, c. 1467W.]

In November 2007, I asked whether new storage capacity would be provided through the marketplace or price signals, or whether the UK would have a stocking obligation imposed on it. The Minister’s response then was that we need more storage and that

“The new planning Bill will help us realise that aim before too many years have passed. That kind of infrastructure needs speedy implementation…and I believe that we have the answer to it.”—[Official Report, 22 November 2007; Vol. 467, c. 1331.]

Here we are in February 2009, and when I asked the Minister last month about progress on the projects, he said that in 2007-08 no new gas storage facilities were becoming operational. Only 13 million cu m of additional capacity is provided at existing facilities. Progress has been breathtakingly slow, and I am afraid that when I looked at the official list of projects that represent current and future gas storage developments, totalling some 13.5 billion cu m of capacity, I saw the picture as one of continuing delays, timetable slippage and reports of some projects hitting financial difficulties. We are told about the various stages of development, but frighteningly little is under construction. For example, the Portland project, which is an enormous 1 billion cu m facility, recently reported financial difficulties. Gateway Storage and the Esmond Gordon projects have also reportedly hit financial difficulties. Will the Minister please say what new storage capacity he envisages coming on stream in 2010, 2011 and 2012? The next three years could have some tight, challenging supply and demand scenarios during peak winter seasons.

Despite the marginal economics of providing storage and, at least in the short term, the declining availability of bank financing for those projects, the private sector has shown an appetite for working up development opportunities. If the problem is not, by and large, market failure, the delays must be due to regulatory and planning processes, for which Ministers are ultimately responsible.

I want to raise some points about the steps that the Minister could take to create a more benign environment for private investors. We welcome the measures in the Planning and Energy Act 2008 to speed up delivery of energy infrastructure, but the Minister must be aware that there is huge concern in the industry about the time it is taking to develop the national policy statement under the new Act. It seems that it will be at least another year before designation of the relevant national policy statement for gas storage projects. Perhaps the Minister will update us on that.

On cushion gas—the gas that must remain in storage facilities and cannot be used commercially but is used to maintain pressure in the facility—the industry is waiting to hear whether there is an entitlement to capital allowances. It is still waiting for clarification from Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs on that point. Perhaps the Minister will update us on what discussions he has had with Treasury colleagues about the tax status of cushion gas and on when HMRC might be able to clarify that.

Another concern that has been raised with me relates to the rents being charged for offshore storage facilities. I understand the duty on the Crown Estate to extract the maximum rent from offshore projects—especially at a time when the public finances have been smashed to pieces—but I ask the Minister to examine whether those rents are currently a deterrent to investment and whether the public interest might be better served by a more co-operative approach, perhaps along the lines of the regime introduced to stimulate offshore renewable developments.

My final point relates to the problems created for UK consumers by the asymmetry in market liberalisation that currently exists between the UK and the continent. During and following the period of the Russia-Ukraine gas dispute, UK gas stocks were rapidly depleted as large volumes of gas were exported from the UK on to the continent via the interconnector pipeline to help to meet the shortfall created on the continent. What many people would regard, perhaps naively, as our gas—British gas—was pumped out of our storage facilities to respond to demand conditions in Europe. However, we know that that does not necessarily work in reverse. We know from our experience of the winter of 2005-06 that the market on the continent does not necessarily work like that.

Securing additional gas imports when our own storage capacity is inadequate may be tricky because of a range of what the Department describes as

“regulatory, commercial and infrastructure constraints”.

In other words, European gas stocks will be much less available to help to meet UK demand spikes than our stocks are for continental demand. In fact, under third party access rights, up to 85 per cent. of the gas held at our most important storage facility at Rough is potentially available to continental purchasers. Centrica, the British company, gets first dibs on only 15 per cent. of that gas. Forget British jobs for British workers, what about British gas for British consumers?

In addition, with the decline in the value of sterling, gas in UK storage is currently about 20 per cent. cheaper for continental purchasers. A large chunk of Rough’s capacity in the coming year is already being tied up, I understand, in European contracts. I do not believe in turning the clock back on liberalisation, but I have gone from being optimistic about European gas liberalisation to being profoundly pessimistic about it. Can the Minister give me any assurance at all that there is progress on creating a level playing field? At the moment, the asymmetry is serving to compound the challenges facing our energy system because of the tightness of supply and the lack of greater storage capacity. When will EU authorities get tough on the continued non-compliance of other European Governments with previous energy directives and EU competition law?

Britain’s shortage of gas storage capacity is potentially a critical vulnerability in our energy system. It is driving up wholesale prices during peak times, leaving British businesses and consumers facing higher bills. Instinctively, I do not feel inclined to support a mandatory stocking obligation, but I would be interested to hear the Minister’s thoughts on that issue. I want to have faith that commercially held stocks will be all that is required in the future, not some costly strategic stock that is held inactive somewhere and which British consumers will end up paying for. I need convincing by the Minister that there is a practical plan to deliver adequate gas storage for the UK. I would be interested to hear what he regards as adequate gas storage capacity, whether we are anywhere near to achieving that and what plans he has for ensuring that we deliver more.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mr. Crabb) on securing this debate on an issue that I agree is very important. I also agree with him on a number of other things, and let us start with that. This winter, there have been gas shortages across continental Europe caused by the Russia-Ukraine dispute. We have seen the lowest temperatures in Britain in more than a decade. The picture in the longer term is indeed a challenging one. Declining stocks of North sea gas will increase our dependence on gas imports. The hon. Gentleman has cause to be grateful for that, in that his constituency has one of the leading liquefied natural gas terminals where gas is imported. I therefore understand why he has no concern about, or no objection to, a reliance on imported gas. Indeed, I suspect that he is grateful for the jobs in his area that come from that.

However, I do have concerns about the hon. Gentleman referring to “British” gas when he starts talking about the interconnector. He should be grateful that the Europeans and a number of other countries that export LNG are not talking about Qatar gas or whatever. What we have is a market in gas. For a brief period in the last month, it was the case that the interconnector exported gas. However, for most of the month, it was going the opposite way; we were importing gas from continental Europe. Just under one fifth of our gas comes from Norway. When I was previously an Energy Minister, I signed the treaty with Norway that enabled us to have the Langeled pipeline, which ensures that we get a large amount of our gas. During the recent cold snap and during the dispute between Russia and Ukraine, we saw the energy market across the board working very well for the UK. In respect of gas, we were able to ensure that we had adequate energy supplies. We were not in a position, in either of those cases, of being concerned that we would have to disconnect people’s gas supply. That was never an issue. No domestic gas supplies, certainly, were ever in the slightest degree at risk. To suggest that the only reason why we did not have a serious problem was the recession is just plain wrong. I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman’s analysis at all. It is simply wrong.

The concern primarily is not among domestic consumers; it is among the large industrial users, whose supply will be cut off first, as the Minister understands. However, my reason for intervening is that the popular perception of gas held in British storage facilities is that it is gas for meeting UK demand. I understand and agree on all the points that he is making about the international and European nature of the gas market, but will he accept that when people talk about gas held in UK storage facilities, understandably the man or woman on the street would think of that as their gas?

I am sure that people will have all sorts of perceptions, but when they look at the way in which the gas market operates and the fact that it operates by and large in Europe to the UK’s advantage, they will see that we have a diversity of supply that is facilitated by ensuring that the market operates as efficiently as reasonably possible. The hon. Gentleman mentioned larger industrial users and he is right, because there are what are called interruptible contracts. He knows that; he is nodding. Under those contracts, in order to get a discount in the price, various larger companies say that they will reduce or cease their consumption on request. As it happens, that measure was used a few years ago; I seem to recall that it was briefly used the last time that I was an Energy Minister.

We need to ensure that we have an adequate gas supply, and during both the cold snap and the dispute between Russia and Ukraine, we monitored the situation closely—I was watching it very closely on a day-to-day basis; let the hon. Gentleman be in no doubt about that—and we were never in a position in which we had a crisis of any kind. That just was not the case.

The hon. Gentleman raised other issues, on which we do agree. Given our increased reliance on international markets to deliver gas, we need to ensure that those markets are diverse and that we do not become over-reliant on particular sources of energy. Furthermore, there is fierce competition in the global gas market, so prices can vary considerably. In addition, a quarter of our coal and oil-fired electricity generating capacity will close in the next 10 years, which will put even more pressure on gas. Finally, there is the possibility of investment in gas supply infrastructure being held back by the credit crunch, and I am watching the issue closely to ensure that its impact is absolutely minimised, because it is important that we ensure that supplies come through.

I therefore have no doubt that these are testing times for the energy market, and we need to ensure that it delivers. We must ensure that those of our oil and coal-fired power stations that close are replaced and that there is not a gap, although I do not believe that there will be. Look at it this way: every consumer in the country knows what bills they pay; they know that those bills have gone up and that many of the energy companies are making quite healthy profits. There is a lot of money to be made by those energy companies, and they will supply the energy to ensure that they make those profits. We need to ensure that we have adequate energy supply and that when I turn on the electricity or the gas, it is there, and that is what most consumers want. They will argue about the price, as they should, and we are sometimes in the business of arguing with the energy companies about the price, too.

A lot needs to be done to meet all those challenges, and I agree with the hon. Gentleman that ensuring that we have adequate gas storage is an important component. The Government recognise that, and the fact that last October Parliament passed its largest tranche of energy legislation ever shows the priority and importance that we attach to energy, climate change and the whole agenda. The planning legislation and the Energy Act 2008 were key parts of that package, and they will help with gas storage issues.

We have recently also launched a public consultation on offshore gas storage and unloading, with a view to introducing a new offshore regime later this year. We have also been working closely with the industry to provide advice on the credit crunch, and I have been holding weekly meetings to ensure that we are in the best possible position to deal with the issue.

A lot is being done, but I entirely accept that much more needs to be done if we are to ensure that our gas supplies are secure over the next decade and beyond. The Government recognise that; we are addressing it and we want to ensure that we are in a strong position.

Over the past 10 years, there has been a significant increase in Britain’s gas storage capacity. Expansion at the Rough facility off the Yorkshire coast means that it can now meet about 10 per cent. of the UK’s peak demand. The Aldbrough facility in east Yorkshire is predicted to become operational next month, bringing in new capacity of 370 million cu m. In addition, 17 new commercial gas storage projects are at various stages of development.

The hon. Gentleman rightly says that all those projects might not happen, and it is correct that companies change their commercial plans from time to time for commercial and proper reasons. However, we have had a whole series of announcements; indeed, only on Friday, Canataxx announced that it has submitted a planning application to Lancashire county council for its Preesall—also known as Fleetwood—storage project in north-west England. At about 1 billion cu m, it would potentially be the largest onshore storage in the UK. I could go through a list of other projects, including the Gateway, South Bain and Caythorpe projects, that are going through the processes at the moment. Their combined capacity would bring 17.3 billion cu m of gas storage if they all went ahead. If we added our existing storage capacity of about 4.4 billion cu m, we could have just over 20 billion cu m of commercial storage capacity by 2020, which is equal to 20 per cent. of our current annual demand.

Why is it that the Germans, the French and a number of other countries have more storage than we do? The answer is fairly simple if one thinks about it. We have North sea gas, and although it is depleting, it will not deplete tomorrow, but over the next three or four decades—it will gently go down. There is a ratio. As North sea gas production declines, we will have to import more gas and will therefore become more reliant on gas imports. At that point, we will need to have more gas storage just in case we have a problem with some of those gas imports. Our North sea gas means that we do not need as much gas storage as countries that do not have their own oil and gas reservoirs, but we need to be aware of the ratio that I mentioned, because as North sea gas declines, imports rise and storage needs to rise, too. Germany has vastly less indigenous gas production than the UK, so it needs much more gas storage capacity now. As a proportion of our gas imports, however, our gas storage capacity is broadly in line with Germany’s, at about 25 per cent., and that is an important statistic.

As our North sea gas declines, we will need more gas infrastructure, including storage, and that is why we are bringing forward the 17 projects that I mentioned. At the moment, we have a level of variability in our gas and storage supplies. The Sean and Morecambe fields provide us with a bit of flexibility, so that we can quickly access gas supplies. However, I would be the first to say that the storage facilities are not new and that we need more new facilities to ensure that we have more flexibility of supply.

Just for clarity, does the Minister regard the 25 per cent. measure that he referred to as the benchmark that we should keep in mind as new infrastructure is planned?

I do not think that we particularly need to measure ourselves against Germany; we need to decide what is right for us, and that, to some extent, will be a market decision. I am not one of those who says that we have to have this target or that target for the amount of storage that we need. We need to have an adequate supply, so that when I turn on my gas cooker, it will light—actually, the ignition does not necessarily come from the gas, but from other sources. However, we must ensure that the gas is there, so that I get the power that I need.

There is another factor to bear in mind: it is not just about profit. It is important to recognise that gas storage is just one of the tools that companies have to ensure that gas supplies are secure. Licensed gas shippers have a legal duty to balance the gas that they put into the network with demand from their own customers on a daily basis. The UK’s commercial regime therefore allows demand and supply to balance in the most efficient and cost-effective way, as both sides react to price signals. If the gas shippers fail to balance, they have to pay the national grid at spot price for urgently putting the gas that is needed into the system, so there is a real market incentive. If the shippers have the customers, they have to ensure that the gas is there; if they do not, they have to pay the spot market price, which could be quite high. Shippers therefore have a real incentive to make sure that there is adequate gas.

The industry’s cash-out arrangements are complicated, but they provide real financial incentives for shippers to ensure that they have access to the gas that they need, including in gas storage, which is important. The amount of gas storage or import infrastructure in the UK is decided by the gas shippers on the basis of the price signals that they receive. That is illustrated by the way in which we have been able to deal with the problems of the cold snap and the Russia-Ukraine dispute.

A significant amount of gas infrastructure has been completed over recent years and a lot more is in the pipeline. Many of these planned projects are likely to be completed, and we are carefully monitoring the situation to ensure that we have adequate gas storage supplies in the future. There is always the issue of whether the market will provide, and we need to ensure that it does. We need to create the right planning and legal structures to ensure that the market provides, and that is precisely what the Government have been doing.

Epilepsy

Epilepsy is a serious neurological condition that affects nearly 400,000 people in England alone. It is a complex condition and can affect anyone, at any age, in any walk of life. It can have a significant impact on a person’s quality of life, as well as the lives of those caring for them. It is estimated that 5 million people in England are affected by the social implications of epilepsy. Only about 50 per cent. of people with epilepsy are seizure-free.

There are numerous guidelines on the treatment of people with epilepsy, the most important of which are the national service framework on long-term neurological conditions, which was published in March 2005, and the NICE clinical guidelines on epilepsy, which were published in October 2004. Those documents both contain clear guidelines on the diagnosis, investigation, classification and treatment of epilepsy and on access to services and how people with epilepsy should be able to live from day to day. The Government also published an action plan for epilepsy in February 2003, which committed them to an increase in spending on epilepsy services.

The key concern for epilepsy patients, however, is whether any of the guidelines and action plans have led to actual improvements in services. The all-party group on epilepsy sought to determine that through an inquiry into services, and in June 2007, it published a report on the human and economic costs of epilepsy in England, entitled “Wasted money, wasted lives”. The report found that the NHS was failing people with epilepsy and that a much improved service was desperately needed. It concluded that a catalogue of failures in the care and treatment of people with epilepsy had resulted in about 400 avoidable deaths a year and £189 million in wasted funds.

As the NICE guidelines for epilepsy came up for review in the autumn of 2008, Epilepsy Action, supported by UCB Pharma, undertook a further review of service provision, with a view to understanding whether the care guidelines had led to any improvements in the provision or delivery of services. Epilepsy Action, supported by the health informatics team at Sue Ryder Care, then carried out a further survey of all primary care and acute trusts in England, to gain an insight into the pattern of service provision for epilepsy patients. Alongside that study, Epilepsy Action conducted its own survey of people living with epilepsy, to try to understand their personal experiences of the NHS in the past couple of years.

The findings of all the surveys were brought together in the new report, “Epilepsy in England: time for change”, which was launched at an event in Parliament on 14 January. The report showed that, despite the prevalence and severity of epilepsy, it is largely being ignored by those delivering local services and that service levels are still falling well below the recommended guidelines. Despite the fact that NICE guidelines state that all people with suspected epilepsy should be seen by an epilepsy specialist, half of acute trusts do not even employ one. Even though they state that all people with suspected epilepsy should be seen within two weeks, more than 90 per cent. of trusts have waiting lists much longer than that. Despite the fact that epilepsy specialist nurses should be an integral part of the medical team providing care to people with epilepsy, well over half of trusts—60 per cent. of acute trusts and 64 per cent. of PCTs—do not have one.

There are huge discrepancies in the ways in which PCTs and acute trusts currently gather and collate information on epilepsy. It was found that many trusts do not even hold basic data on the prevalence of people with epilepsy in their region. Only 18 per cent. of PCTs were able to report the number of children with epilepsy, which makes planning for transition services from paediatric to adult care almost impossible. Patient access to specialist clinicians is being compromised by the fact that only 51 per cent. of acute trusts have at least one consultant neurologist with a special interest in epilepsy, and only 76 per cent. have a consultant neurologist at all.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate on such an important topic. She may well be about to come on to this point, but does she agree that one of the most disturbing findings of the research was that the lack of specialist care that she so eloquently describes led to a 20 to 30 per cent. wrong diagnosis of epilepsy? Not only are resources removed from services that should go to people who have epilepsy, but that is poor value for money for the taxpayer.

I thank my hon. Friend for that knowledgeable insight. The previous report showed that 69,000 people live with unnecessary seizures and 74,000 take anti-epileptic drugs that they do not need. The regularity of avoidable deaths, of which there are about 400 a year, is shocking, and the money wasted in delivering inadequate and in some cases acutely wrong services is as appalling as the unnecessary deaths.

Unfortunately, the majority of epilepsy patients wait more than two weeks for an appointment with a specialist after their first seizure. In some cases, they wait between 17 and 24 weeks, which I suspect makes a correct diagnosis even more difficult. A very low number of PCTs and acute trusts have the right equipment to carry out essential diagnostic tests, and that causes delays in diagnosis and treatment. Taken together, the surveys, sadly, paint a picture of poor service provision. Epilepsy appears to be a forgotten condition, and patients are falling through the cracks in the system. Government and NICE guidelines, which set a minimum standard of care, are simply not being adhered to.

Epilepsy organisations have pointed out that primary care trusts often seem powerless or unwilling to implement improvements. Reasons given for non-inclusion in local delivery plans were that national targets took priority and left insufficient funding to enable health trusts to implement the NICE guidelines. Doing so will require serious investment of as much as £150 million per year, but in real terms that is only £340 per person with epilepsy.

To address the shortfalls in service provision for people with epilepsy in England, the new report calls on the Government and policy makers to take a lead in driving improvements in epilepsy service provision. That includes implementing the following 10-point plan. To ensure that people with epilepsy have access to the services that they deserve, we should appoint a national clinical director for epilepsy, to review service provision in England, and lead change. We should define, in the NHS constitution, a patient’s right to care to the standards outlined in NICE clinical guidelines.

We need to ensure that local commissioners carry out a formal review of the local implementation of the NICE epilepsy guidelines, and develop plans to ensure that they are met. We must ensure that NHS work force planning focuses on the recruitment and training of sufficient epilepsy specialist consultants and nurses in order to allow trusts to deliver the NICE guidelines; and we must ensure that PCTs build a clearer picture of the epilepsy population in their areas, especially among the under-18s, and factor that into their review.

We should commit ourselves to ensuring that all patients with suspected epilepsy see an epilepsy specialist consultant within two weeks; and ensure that all acute trusts have adequate diagnostic equipment, in line with the patient population that they serve. We must also ensure that all patients receive an annual review of their epilepsy; and ensure that transition services are in place for children moving to adult epilepsy services, and that they are effective. Lastly, we must ensure that all patients with epilepsy who want a comprehensive care plan have one.

I know that the Minister is interested in the matter and that she has responded positively in the past. I therefore I ask her to ensure that the Government urgently put in place a programme to increase the number of neurologists and other relevant clinicians to levels recommended by the Royal College of General Practitioners. The Government should also ensure that the Healthcare Commission carries out an improvement review into the state of epilepsy services, formally assesses the provision of epilepsy services in individual healthcare organisations and develops an action plan to improve services that are shown to be failing people with epilepsy.

I apologise, Mr. Taylor, for my late arrival. It was the result of an unexpected incident in Parliament square.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Calder Valley (Chris McCafferty) on her success in the Speaker’s ballot and on choosing epilepsy services as her subject. I know that my hon. Friend has a strong and long-standing interest in the matter. She has raised a number of important points. My hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Mr. Truswell) made some strong points in his intervention; I know of his personal and constituency interest in the subject through his membership of the all-party group on epilepsy.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Calder Valley indicated, a number of reports in recent years have covered epilepsy services, most recently the Epilepsy Action study of epilepsy service provision in England, which was published last month. They all highlighted the fact that services continue to fall far short of the standards that people with epilepsy have a right to expect—and I agree that services are still not good enough.

Epilepsy Action’s report cites the failure of primary care trusts to implement National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence guidance. I welcome that hard- hitting report, which in many ways is exactly what we and the NHS need to hear. Those messages are for all who commission and provide services, and I will be writing to strategic health authorities to draw their attention to the report’s recommendations.

It is important, however, to emphasise that clinical guidelines are not mandatory in the same way as NICE technology appraisal guidance. The purpose of clinical guidelines is to support clinical decision making, and they can also assist PCTs in service development and redesign. Health professionals must be free to use their clinical judgment and, in consultation with the patient, to decide on the most appropriate treatment options, taking account of individual clinical factors. Clinical guidelines include making an assessment of both clinical effectiveness and cost-effectiveness, so it is clearly in the interests of PCTs to implement the recommendations when appropriate.

NICE’s implementation directorate has taken considerable steps to improve the support that it makes available to the NHS in order to raise awareness and implement the guidance. It has published a commissioning tool to support the development of effective services for the accurate diagnosis of epilepsy in adults. The tool helps PCTs to estimate and inform the level of services needed locally, as well as the cost of making local commissioning decisions. NICE also employs implementation consultants, who work with a range of NHS staff, including clinicians in local NHS organisations, to spread best practice and to share concerns on the implementation of NICE guidance. The Government recognise their role in supporting the NHS to plan and prioritise.

The need to plan for NICE guidance is included in the prioritising investment competency for world-class commissioning. Those competences describe the knowledge, skills, behaviours and characteristics that will need to be developed by PCTs in order that they can reach world-class commissioning status. The competences are underpinned by an assurance system, which holds commissioners to account and which will drive performance and development. The assurance system will be nationally consistent and managed locally by strategic health authorities.

However, I believe that we can do much more from the centre. The Government have a strong role to play in encouraging and supporting the NHS to improve the care that it provides. Through a series of workshops, we are working with NHS commissioners and the third sector to improve commissioning for neurological services. I have asked epilepsy stakeholder groups to be invited to those workshops; the importance of implementing the NICE guidance and the particular issues for epilepsy services should be fully integrated into the sessions.

I have emphasised the importance of effective commissioning in delivering high-quality, accessible services. However, an often-voiced concern is that without robust data PCTs cannot effectively plan and commission services. The development of a national dataset is a key part of the programme of work needed to support the implementation of the national service framework for long-term conditions. My hon. Friend will be aware that the NSF published in 2005 focuses on improving services across England for a range of neurological conditions, including epilepsy.

When implemented, the dataset will be used at a national level to monitor the achievement of NSF standards and quality requirements. The dataset will also support secondary use functions. At a local level, it will be used by clinicians and managers for commissioning, clinical audit and research and performance management, and it will help to drive up standards and the quality of care.

Quality, of course, is key to my ministerial colleague, Lord Darzi, and his next stage review of the NHS. Indeed, quality is key to all ministerial portfolios and to all hon. Members. The next stage review, a once-in-a-generation review of the NHS, involved more than 2,000 local clinicians working with many more thousands of patients, members of the public and others to develop regional visions for improving health and healthcare services for all. The national report “High Quality Care for All” responds to the challenges of delivering the visions developed locally. It sets out wide-ranging proposals that place quality of care at the heart of everything that the NHS does, particularly in empowering patients and staff to secure the effective and personalised care that we expect for ourselves and our families.

A key component in the drive to improving the quality of care across the NHS will be the establishment of a national standards board to advise Ministers on the priorities that NICE should adopt when setting standards for the NHS. The board will also advise on whether there are any conditions that require closer attention from the Department. Clearly, that could be an important lever to support improvements to epilepsy services. I encourage all concerned to get involved. I have asked Department officials to explore the mechanisms for referring the matter to the board.

The next stage review also reinforced our commitment that everyone with a long-term condition who wants a personalised care plan will be offered one. Care planning is, of course, key to delivering the services and support needed by people with long-term conditions, such as epilepsy, to self-manage their condition in partnership with their care teams. We are developing a range of tools and resources to support the NHS and its partners in delivering this commitment. That includes a suite of guidance documents, starting with a guide for commissioners, which we published last month. The aim of this guide is to provide commissioners with the information and support that they need to embed care planning in their localities. It should help them to achieve truly personalised services, promoting health and well-being and ensuring proactive, planned, co-ordinated and integrated services.

Effective and personalised care planning also requires patients to feel more involved in their care and empowered to participate in decision making.

Quite rightly, this debate concentrates on the urgent challenge of addressing the clinical needs of people living with epilepsy, but does the Minister agree that we need much more joined-up thinking across Government about the provision of services to people with epilepsy? For example, we need more training of people whose professional lives bring them into contact with people living with epilepsy. We need to monitor the incidence of sudden unexpected deaths from epilepsy and how we support bereaved families. We need to ensure that the education system supports young people living with epilepsy. How can we achieve that joined-up thinking?

My hon. Friend is right that we must work together more closely, and I think that the new children’s health strategy, launched in the past few weeks, will help us to do that. The Secretaries of State for Health and for Children, Schools and Families meet regularly, and the issues concerning young people, especially in the education system, are being worked on at all times.

It is not easy to admit to having epilepsy. Sadly, a stigma is still attached to the condition, for the person and their family. We should therefore do everything and anything possible to bring the condition out into the open, so that it can be discussed in a professional way and so that people can feel safe and competent working, studying and being with people with epilepsy, whether in a family, social or any other setting. That is long overdue. I commend Epilepsy Action for its work in bringing the condition to the forefront. In particular, however, I commend the all-party group on epilepsy and its sterling work on this subject. It is easy to talk about empowerment and the creation of workshops, but at the end of the day most families living with epilepsy do not necessarily feel empowered, so that work must begin at a grass-roots level. We can do that best if we try to rid ourselves of the horrendous stigma still attached to this serious and unexpected neurological condition.

Patients need good information to make the most of this process. NHS Choices is one of a number of initiatives that we have developed to provide comprehensive, clinically-accredited information about health and health services. As part of the ongoing development of the NHS Choices website, we will shortly be publishing an NHS guide to epilepsy. Different age groups and people with different abilities will be able to access this powerful tool of empowerment. The guide will provide comprehensive information about symptoms and diagnosis, as well as treatment options and information about living with epilepsy. It will also include data indicators providing information about how local services perform, which is exceptionally important for families and patients. Although the proposed performance indicators are still subject to agreement, it is hoped that these, where possible, will reflect aspects of care congruent with NICE guidance.

Through the NSF and NICE guidance, we have set out our very clear expectations on services for people with epilepsy. Through world-class commissioning, the dataset and our work with commissioners, we have provided the levers to commission services that meet these expectations. We also continue, as part of the Healthcare Commission inspection regime, to require people to work in accordance with both NICE guidance and the NSF. The NHS next stage review has reaffirmed our vision of services shaped around people and that continuously improve quality. We have identified ways in which we can realise these aims for all patient groups.

I welcome this debate and share my hon. Friend’s desire for people living with epilepsy to receive the services they need and deserve. I shall not accept excuses from local commissioners and primary care trusts that the problem is with other targets or the provision of resources. That argument is exceptionally easy to make when really people need to say, “We need more help with commissioning. We do not know where to start.” That is understandable in a very complex PCT setting, where individual needs are being met locally. However, I find it difficult to accept excuses for why things are not happening when we are putting in place a framework to provide assistance. I can assure my hon. Friends that we will continue to provide support and encouragement to the health service to ensure that those living with epilepsy receive the services that they need, and I shall do all that I can on this very serious subject.

NHS (Co-operation/Competition)

It is very nice to see you in the Chair, Mr. Taylor, and it is good to see the Minister in his place, because in my experience he is a listening Minister who takes note of what people say and tries to answer questions put to him.

The Government have just founded another panel—the co-operation and competition panel—which is such a crucial development in the NHS that I thought that we should shout it from the rooftops. I realise that there are not many hon. Members here, but at least this debate will get into Hansard, which hopefully means that it will be widely read, because this panel is crucial. When I started thinking about this subject, I thought that the words “co-operation” and “competition” were the opposite of each other. I was browsing around and came across something that John Ruskin said in 1862:

“Government and cooperation are in all things the laws of life; anarchy and competition the laws of death.”

I do not quite hold to that extreme view, and as can be understood I was staggered when, again while browsing, I came across new clause 4 of the Labour party constitution, which I had never come across before. In part, it refers to

“a community in which power, wealth and opportunity are in the hands of the many not the few, where the rights we enjoy reflect the duties we owe…in which the enterprise of the market and the rigour of competition are joined with the forces of partnership and co-operation”.

There we have the origin of this apparent paradox between those two particular words. The scene for competition was set by the previous Government in the 1980s and 1990s with the purchaser-provider split, contracting and so on, and that approach is now espoused in the constitution of new Labour.

A very significant change in words has taken place. We no longer talk about NHS services, but about NHS-funded services, which immediately poses the question of whether NHS services will now be provided by a wide range of organisations. For someone such as myself who grew up passionately believing that the NHS could cope and work so well that the private sector would not be needed, it goes against the grain to accept that there are possible benefits to competition. When parts of the NHS are unable to improve, there is a place for competition. As we are so firmly set on this path, we must accept that it is the only way to go. There is not much point in trying to fight against it. In the Financial Times a fortnight or so ago, the appointed chairman of the panel, Lord Carter of Coles, said:

“But once you have created a market as the NHS has, up to a point, the law of unintended consequences kicks in and big issues arise. People want clarity about what the contracting relationship should be.”

He goes on to say that the shift to the more competitive market for health services is “inexorable” and that

“ultimately most things will be contested.”

In the 1980s, when I was on the local health authority, domestic services were being considered for privatisation. Domestic staff were about to go on strike, but we explained to them that such an action would do no good. We told them that the only way they could compete was to put in a competitive tender. They did that, and they won the contract and retained the services.

I have two messages to give during this debate. I say to NHS staff that it is possible to win a tendering process, and to the Government I say that the tendering process has to be fair and on a level playing field for all potential providers. Richard Smith, a former editor of the British Medical Journal, had almost a Damascene conversion. In 2008, in the journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, under an article entitled, “The NHS: losing my religion” he said:

“There would be regulated competition, because, much as we might bemoan the fact, competition is one of the few drivers that can consistently deliver higher quality and lower costs.”

If regulated competition is really what the co-operation and competition panel is going to promote, then I for one welcome it.

I now want to address some of the information that we already have about this panel. The information is voluminous to say the least. There has been not just one consultation, but four separate ones. I welcome the statement about the target audience. Such an audience includes commissioners, providers of health services—including GPs—and patients and other interested parties. In other words, it includes everyone. I hope that notice will be taken by all interested parties and that they will get in some responses.

On page 4 of the consultation document, the seven criteria for consultation are listed. I will not go through them all, but let me mention a few. Consultation must be early enough to influence the policy outcome. The process must be at least 12 weeks or longer; it must be clear and have an appropriate scope, and the analysis of it must be open and honest. Those criteria, which came out in July 2008, reflect the Cabinet code of practice that was published in January 2004, and they are welcome and timely. I often refer to my election to this place. If consultation had gone according to those criteria, I am sure that I would not be here. During the downgrading of my hospital in 1997 to 1998, consultation was a complete mockery. Analysis of the responses was decidedly odd. There was no consultation over the private finance initiative. The initiative was portrayed as the only game in town.

Bringing us right up to date, the NHS Support Federation has recently compiled a report on public consultations around GP-led health centres. The executive summary says:

“A survey of all 152 PCTs showed that there were wide variations in the timetables and approach to consulting taken by each PCT and even confusion about the need to consult at all.”

Some of the PCTs said that, because it was Government policy, they did not need to consult on it. The report then looked in detail at the consultation of 37 PCTs outside London to consider the consultation process. It said:

“Only 22 per cent. of PCTs are explicit in their consultation documents about the fact that a new health centre could be run by a commercial or voluntary sector provider.”

It went on to say:

“2/3 of PCTs do not ask local people whether they agree with the overall plan for a GP-led health centre; 16 per cent. provided less than 12 weeks for responses…only 16 per cent. of PCTs asked about the importance of the distance of travel to the new health centre”.

There were many deficiencies in that consultation, which took place after the Cabinet guidelines of 2004 and probably before the latest criteria of July 2008. The report concluded:

“There is a need for far greater accountability of NHS bodies and providers especially in the new market-based era for the health service. Diminishing is the inherent protection of a public service ethos. Public consultation is therefore an essential check to safeguard the public interest.”

Let me turn to the principles and rules for co-operation and competition that are mentioned on page 6 of the document. It says:

“The aim of the Principles and Rules is to ensure seamless services for patients; foster patient choice, transparency and fairness; encourage competition for NHS-funded services; and establish the ground rules for mergers and other transactions involving an NHS body.”

I should like to pick out one or two of the principles. Again, I will paraphrase rather than quote them. They say that commissioners must commission from the best providers. That is both obvious and correct. Commissioners and providers must co-operate to produce a seamless experience without boundaries and with continuity. This is where co-operation comes in. The Department of Health is talking about co-operation between commissioners and providers. Another principle says that commissioning and procurement should be transparent and non-discriminatory. I hope that that refers to the level playing field that I want to see. Another principle says that the payment regime must be transparent and fair. I hope that that means we will not have any loss-leaders, because loss-leaders from the commercial sector would not help.

On page 10, the document says that the panel will work closely with stakeholders. Absolutely correctly, the first group of stakeholders mentioned are patients and the public, but the document does not go into detail on how they are going to be involved. The document mentions choice, and by choosing and providing feedback, people give a certain amount of comment. It states:

“The public also hold the Government to account for their stewardship of health services, to ensure the taxpayer gets good value for money”,

but only once in five years do the public actually hold the Government to account for that sort of thing. I am disappointed that the document does not mention active participation of patients and the public in the form of general practice participation groups and local involvement networks, which should have been set up for exactly such processes. Digressing for a moment, it appears that LINks are rather slow in forming and becoming functional, and the all-party parliamentary group on patient and public involvement in health has been rather distressed by the delay. It is crucial that the panel communicates with LINks.

On mergers, the place of overview and scrutiny committees is mentioned, but the place of the independent reconfiguration panel is not. I can see the latter being removed from the field, which would be a great shame, because it has proved its use and independence frequently recently.

We have heard that the Department of Health is talking about co-operation between commissioners and providers, but there has been staggering news in the press recently about much wider co-operation between competitors. It was reported that GlaxoSmithKline has pledged to cap the prices of its drugs to the 50 poorest countries and, amazingly, to pool intellectual property with its competitors. That goes towards the “Webster’s” definition of “co-operate”, which is:

“Work or act with others for a common end.”

The common end for the NHS must always be the patients, to whom it belongs. I just hope that the consultation on the new co-operation and competition panel will result in a valuable body that works to make competition fair and transparent. It should foster co-operation not only between commissioners and providers, but between providers.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Wyre Forest (Dr. Taylor) on securing the debate. I hope that he will forgive me, but I was looking forward to a more philosophical debate on competition and co-operation in the NHS before I was pre-warned that he was going to talk about the more technical issue of the competition and co-operation panel, which I will mention later.

I recognise the good work of NHS staff throughout the hon. Gentleman’s constituency. They are delivering a better health care service than ever, which benefits his and other hon. Members’ constituents. Perhaps more than anyone else in the House, he has demonstrated his commitment to the NHS in 50 years of dedicated service. We should all be grateful that he continues his dedication in a different way in the House.

When this Government came to power, we found the NHS on its knees. It was chronically underfunded, woefully understaffed and provided a service to patients that was unacceptable in too many cases. The immediate and urgent answer was sustained and substantial investment combined with a strong direction from the centre. Having resuscitated the patient in the years after 1997 and addressed some of the pressing capacity problems that we faced, the next challenge was to build a health service that was more responsive to the public’s modern-day expectations. That is where choice and competition come in.

The NHS was built on two enduring principles: that health care available to all is free at the point of need and funded by the taxpayer. Those principles have not changed over 60 years, and they will not change as long as we have a Labour Government. However, in every walk of life, the current generation is used to exercising informed choices. People are no longer prepared to accept gratefully from the state services over which they have no control and little say. The medical evidence suggests that engaged patients are healthier patients. Being involved in decisions made about one’s health care improves results and speeds recovery.

However, as the hon. Gentleman acknowledged, there is another important reason for providing choice and an element of competition in the NHS: it helps to drive up standards. General practitioners or hospitals that know that they will lose money if their patients choose to go elsewhere face a strong incentive to improve the quality of the services that they provide.

The diverging health policies of the constituent parts of the United Kingdom amount to an interesting experiment. Scotland and Wales have not followed England down the path of choice and competition. In fact, in many ways, their health policies are going in the opposite direction. It might be too soon to say with certainty which approach is better, but if we look at performance against amounts of money invested and public satisfaction levels, we will see that England is doing far better. We have considerably shorter waiting times and better GP access.

The Minister is right to stress fostering patient choice. Will he explain how the move towards health centres—closing down individual GPs and moving them to major centres—will foster patient choice on GPs and pharmacies? Centralising pharmacy services puts individual pharmacies at great risk.

None of the new GP-led health centres, which are in every primary care trust area—I think the hon. Gentleman is asking about that—will involve the closure of existing services. The centres are extra capacity, over and above existing services. Any of his constituents who want to use the new GP-led health centres because of their convenience and long opening hours will be able to do so while remaining registered with their existing GPs. It is an extra rather than an alternative service, so it should not have the detrimental impact on existing GPs that he fears.

The founder of the NHS, Nye Bevan—a Welshman—understood that how services are delivered and who delivers them is never as important as the quality of the healthcare provided.

In England, what do we mean by competition? Competition is not and never will be about the privatisation of the NHS. The health service is concerned with patients’ needs, not shareholders’. The hon. Member for Wyre Forest has raised the spectre of health care in the United States in the House. In my view, the US has the kind of competitive health market that is disastrous in terms of both cost and the results for the American people. America spends twice as much of its gross domestic product per head on health care as we do, yet it has worse health outcomes. Some 50 million Americans have no health cover at all. Providers in America compete first and foremost on price, and insurers battle to gain market share by stripping the services that they provide to the bone, while pushing their costs ever higher. In our system, providers do not compete on price: they have to compete on quality and patient experience. As the American academic and big fan of the NHS, Professor Michael Porter, said:

“The fundamental flaw in the health care sector is not competition, but the wrong kind of competition”.

I believe that in England we have the right kind of competition: it increases value to the patient and the taxpayer.

Competition operates on two levels in the NHS. First, PCTs, holders of around 80 per cent. of the entire NHS budget, commission services from a wide range of providers based on the expressed needs of their patients. Public sector partners, social enterprises and private companies all compete to supply PCTs in a free, fair and transparent way. It is the job of the local NHS and local PCTs to hold providers to account through their contracts. The end of a contract is an opportunity for the PCT to see whether there is a better provider of care for its patients. If the current contract holder is still the best, the PCT will keep it. If not, it will not. As the hon. Gentleman has acknowledged, PCTs need to see it as their role not to commission services in order to prop up a local underperforming or failing provider, but to get the best services and best value possible for their public.

The second level of competition is patient choice. Today, patients—in most cases, we hope, with the support of their GP—play a significant and growing role in choosing their treatment and where and when they are treated. That ability to choose will soon be enshrined as a right in the NHS constitution. I am tired of hearing the frankly patronising line that patients do not want a choice. It is nonsense and, I am afraid, reflects the remnants of an outdated paternalism in which doctor or bureaucrat always knew best. In the recent British social attitudes survey, 95 per cent. of people said that they want some choice over which hospital they attend and what treatment they receive. As more people learn that they have a choice, more people are making one.

As the hon. Gentleman has acknowledged, this debate is not just about competition; it is also about co-operation. I am grateful to him for his historical references not just to Ruskin but to the more recent event—I am embarrassed to say that I did not pick up on it in researching my speech for this debate—of my party’s replacement of clause 4 of our manifesto. As he rightly said, although some people see co-operation and competition as mutually exclusive principles, the co-existence of which creates an unstable tension at the heart of current health policy, I do not agree—nor, I believe, does he.

For a patient, any one provider or service is only one part of the story. Patients do not care and need not know that a range of organisations are taking care of them; they just want to deal with the NHS. Everything should happen seamlessly behind the scenes. Without the in-built fundamental principle of co-operation, as the hon. Gentleman said, that would not be possible. Far from being mutually exclusive, co-operation is a vital and necessary counterbalance to competition to ensure seamless and high-quality care.

Holding the ring, we have the local NHS, through PCTs, the strategic health authorities at a regional level, the NHS boards and, ultimately, the Department of Health and its Ministers at a national level, to intervene where necessary. Recently, we have added to that mix by forming the panel on co-operation and competition to give people confidence that, where arguments or disputes cannot be resolved locally, there is a fair, transparent and independent process. The hon. Gentleman is right to highlight that important development. It is a shame that it has not got more publicity outside this place. We have created, in effect, the NHS’s own Competition Commission. Under the chairmanship of Lord Patrick Carter of Coles, it will provide impartial, expert advice and recommendations on specific disputes. If an independent provider, a social enterprise or an existing NHS provider feels that it has not been given a fair crack of the whip in bidding for a contract and the dispute cannot be resolved by the SHA, it will have somewhere trusted to go to settle the dispute.

As the hon. Gentleman acknowledged, the principles for the panel’s operation are laid down in the principles and rules for co-operation and competition, which effectively set out the NHS’s first ever competition policy. They outline the rules governing choice, co-operation and competition, and detail the behaviours that we expect of commissioners and providers. Their aim is to ensure fairness by putting the interests of the patient and the taxpayer first.

The hon. Gentleman raised a number of specific questions about the panel’s workings. I was thinking as he made his speech that Patrick Carter or some of his colleagues from the panel might be prime candidates for an invitation to give evidence to the Select Committee on Health, on which the hon. Gentleman sits, so that he can ask the sort of detailed question that he asked here directly of Lord Carter. Indeed, he could also seek a meeting with Lord Carter himself, who I am sure—although I hesitate to add to his diary commitments—would be happy to meet with him or other hon. Members to go through some of the issues.

I want to reassure the hon. Gentleman about the role of local involvement networks. We certainly think that the panel should seek representations from LINks in its investigations. The role of the independent reconfiguration panel will depend on how fundamental a service change is being proposed in any particular case. I am glad that he acknowledges the panel’s important work in helping to resolve the issues and to take the politics out of controversial local proposals and disputes on the reorganisation of services. Clearly, it will still be up to the democratic lock at local level—the overview and scrutiny committees—to decide whether a full consultation is necessary on a proposal or, if they do not agree with a proposal, to refer it to the independent national reconfiguration panel. That will remain the case. It will depend on their view of how important the proposal is.

The mix of competition and co-operation in the NHS is a unique model in the world. It is, in my view, no accident that Governments around the world, including Barack Obama’s recently elected Administration in America, look to learn from our NHS as they address the serious crises in their own health care systems. I think the hon. Gentleman gives us the benefit of the doubt on having got the balance about right. I agree, and from all the recent international comparator studies of different health care systems, the international experts seem to agree, too. In its latest annual report, the prestigious Commonwealth Fund in Washington rated the UK as one of the highest performing health services for the past three years. It specifically praised the NHS on quality, managing chronic illnesses and access to primary care. It also highlighted the NHS as one of the most cost-effective systems of health care. Harvard medical school’s Donald Berwick called the NHS the

“bridge between the rhetoric of social justice, and the fact of it.”

The people of this country seem to agree. The latest public attitude survey shows satisfaction with the NHS to be higher than at any time since we began measuring it and dissatisfaction to be lower than at any time since the 1980s, although, of course, one will not read any of that in our newspapers; the good news on the NHS is no news as far as most of our media are concerned. That has been achieved through unprecedented investment and reform, getting the delicate balance right between the principles of competition and co-operation, and staying true to the founding values of the NHS, as well, of course to the amazing skill and dedication of those who work and have worked in the NHS, including the hon. Gentleman himself.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting adjourned.