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Westminster Hall

Volume 493: debated on Wednesday 3 June 2009

Westminster Hall

Wednesday 3 June 2009

[Hugh Bayley in the Chair]

Rail Industry

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

I sought this debate because the economic recession is hitting the rail industry hard. Despite Government efforts to develop long-term infrastructure investment plans and the exhilarating tour of the rail system by Lord Adonis, most commentators are now reporting a rail industry in crisis. The falling demand in the economy is resulting in a falling demand for rail services—both passenger and freight. The drying up of revenue resources or income is leading to cuts in jobs and services and the curtailment of some potential investment. There is a concern among many in the industry that unless the crisis is addressed, we could be going into a spiral of decline for the long term.

Some commentators this week have suggested there is evidence that the recession is bottoming out. I have serious doubts about that, particularly given the analysis of the US economy. However, if we look at the Left Economics Advisory Panel’s analysis of the evidence of the 1990s recession, we see that even though the rail industry was hit hard at the bottom of that recession, passenger numbers still fell for three years after the economy reached its lowest point. The evidence suggests that for the rail industry, although there is a potential crisis at the moment, worse is yet to come both for the rail and the underground.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on bringing this issue to the House. I am sure we all agree that investment in rail infrastructure would help us to climb out of recovery, and that we should take that opportunity. Such a strategy would also help to tackle some of the very serious problems such as the overcrowding on, among others, the c2c Fenchurch Street line into London, which is becoming intolerable and is a major safety issue. There are many reasons why we should make more investment in rail infrastructure and rolling stock.

I shall come to the impact on passengers, but I agree that overcrowding is a key issue. Some of the figures that we are identifying on particular lines are staggering in terms of the impact of some of the cutbacks, and of the overcrowding problems that passengers experience.

The recession is not just impacting on jobs and services; it is exposing the inherent and disastrous failings of the privatised railway system based upon the franchising mechanism that the Government created, which, in turn, has created a dependency of the railway sector and the railway companies on the Government and the travelling public. That dependency has created extensive public subsidy for what some would consider fairly rapacious profiteering by private companies themselves.

The franchising system that the Government introduced is good for those companies when the economy is booming, and they raked in immense profits during that period at the expense of taxpayers and the fares and charges on passengers. However, in an economic downturn, the franchising system is enabling those companies to pass back virtually all the risk to the public purse and the travelling public.

The rail industry could and should be one sector of the economy that is readily usable to increase demand and stimulate the economy. It should be usable as an investment tool for counter-recessionary measures through which public investment, particularly in the modernisation of the railway system infrastructure, could protect jobs, stimulate demand in the economy and assist in driving the economy out of recession. Rail could be used to set the Government firmly on the path of meeting climate change targets, as well as being part of our overall “greening the economy” policy. However, the Government have handed over to private profiteers effective control of the system. Private operators have made their profits and passed on their high dividends to their shareholders in the good times, and now, having milked the system for all it is worth, they are passing back the liabilities and problems to the Government and the travelling public.

My hon. Friend is referring to the counter-cyclical potential for investment in rail infrastructure and also in the rolling stock. Four months ago, the Secretary of State announced that the £7.5 billion contract for the replacement of high-speed trains should go to the Agility consortium, which has two possible sites in North-West Leicestershire. Does my hon. Friend agree that the Secretary of State was unable to be absolutely clear about the make-up of the 12,500 UK jobs that were said to be preserved or created by the award of that contract? Perhaps the Minister will put more flesh on the bones of that announcement.

Many of us hope that the planned rail industry investment will protect jobs and stimulate job growth. We need to be very particular about how that investment is developed so that jobs are created, and created in this country as well. However, there is a lack of specific commitment, which has led to fears that a lot of the investment will not stimulate or protect jobs in this country. Workers in the industry, passengers and taxpayers are now paying for the new recession within rail.

I should like to outline how the rail recession is impacting on jobs. In recent months, we have had 7,000 job cuts in the rail sector, London Underground and Transport for London. Let me put on the record some of those job cuts. We have seen 750 jobs go at the National Express group across East Anglia and the east coast franchises. Network Rail, which is deferring 28 per cent. of rail renewals, says 800 jobs are at risk. Workers at other maintenance companies may also be in jeopardy because of the proposed withdrawal of track machine contracts by Network Rail itself.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this extremely important debate. On recent job losses in the railway industry, is he also aware that a fifth of the jobs at the Bombardier plant in Crewe have been lost since December? Bombardier was one of the bidders for the Hitachi contract. Does he agree that if the Government are to help with the continued investment in jobs in the railway industry, the future contracts that are up for tender, including the Thameslink contract, should give credence to the position that Bombardier is in?

I certainly concur with the hon. Gentleman’s remarks, and I will come on to issues relating to the supply chain.

Let me run through some of the other job losses. Some 530 jobs are to go at the UK’s main freight operator DB Schenker, which was formerly English, Welsh and Scottish Railway Ltd, and it looks as though there may be further significant job losses there as a result of Network Rail’s announcements. Some 480 jobs are to go at South West Trains, including a large number of ticket office and platform staff, 300 jobs are to go at Southeastern, 162 jobs at East Midlands Trains, 40 jobs at First ScotRail, 30 track welders at Amey, 37 signal and telecoms jobs at Colas Rail, and 86 jobs at Bombardier. Those have already been announced but tragically, more are to follow. There has been a proposed cut in ticket office opening times at First Capital Connect, which has put 20 posts at risk. On top of that, 1,000 jobs are potentially at risk at London Underground and, as a result of some of the Mayor’s announcements, some 2,000 jobs are to go at Transport for London. That has had a significant impact on the rail industry itself. Hon. Members can understand why we have received reports from those on the front line of this industry that the sector is in crisis.

Freight has been affected as well as passenger services. We are told that the 530 jobs at DB Schenker that I mentioned could be just the first announcement. In the words of the company, there are further jobs at significant potential risk. There are also rumours of jobs at risk at Freightliner. However, the demand for freight has held fairly steady—Network Rail said that there has been only a 0.5 per cent. drop. It seems that a number of companies are using this opportunity to shed labour and reorganise, and there are sometimes threats to tear up union agreements.

Network Rail’s decision to defer 28 per cent. of rail renewals work, which includes the laying of new tracks and new signals, means, in the assessment of the unions involved, that 200 miles of track work has been put on hold. That is 1,000 jobs at risk. The company admits in its business plan that that will have consequences further down the supply chain. It has estimated that 20 to 30 per cent. less heavy materials—for example, from quarrying and steel production—will be demanded over the coming year as a result of the deferral of the work. That runs counter to everything that the Government are seeking to do in investing in the long term and in infrastructure to stimulate demand in the industry and, of course, in the economy overall.

I am the convenor of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers parliamentary group. We have received reports from members expressing their fears about the impact on health and safety. The union has asked Network Rail for risk assessments of the deferral of some of the works, but has been denied them. We do not want to return to the days of Hatfield, Potters Bar or Greyrigg.

There are concerns about the impact further down the supply chain. On train manufacturing, as has been said, Bombardier in Crewe is proposing that 86 staff be made redundant, on top of the job losses at Washwood Heath, Eastleigh and Derby. The company is now saying that a number of its existing contracts will come to an end by the end of 2009. It is critical when contracts are being considered and developed to have some understanding of the impact on jobs in this country and the possible loss of expertise and skills if contracts are not awarded to companies such as Bombardier, which has skills that have been built up over generations of developing our train infrastructure and manufacturing for the needs of our industry. Concerns have been expressed across the House that the Bombardier situation has not been helped by the award of the contract for the new super express trains for the east coast main line and First Great Western to Hitachi in Japan.

On London Underground, the objective of saving £2.4 billion announced by Mayor Johnson in November 2008 has been achieved mainly through large-scale job losses and the scrapping of projects. Up to 3,000 jobs could be at risk, and the Mayor has moved to compulsory redundancies and tearing up some existing union agreements. That has provoked strike ballots, which have come in at five to one in favour of strike action to demonstrate the strength of feeling of London Underground and TfL workers. The unions are seeking negotiations with the Mayor to examine the way forward to protect jobs and ensure that services are maintained.

There is no better example than London Underground of the recession combined with the privatisation proposals of past years producing a toxic cocktail of policy failures. The Government’s public-private partnership on the underground will go down as a memorial to the Prime Minister’s bloody-minded refusal to listen to expert warnings about the privatisation mechanism that has been used. It is a monument to dogmatic incompetence. London MPs went through the experience of Metronet, which milked Londoners for £800,000 a week in profits before it went under. The contract had to be brought back in-house, with a resulting £2 billion debt legacy. We are now told that Tube Lines, which in the past few years has been making £1 million a week in profits, is in jeopardy because its estimate of its work on the contract it was awarded has left a £2.1 billion funding gap. Again, the private sector has failed and the public sector must pick up the tab as administration looms for that company.

It is ironic that the system that was imposed on London Underground is now being imposed on Tyne and Wear Metro. The £300 million of investment that the Government have promised will be delivered only if the company’s services are put out to market testing. In effect, it is threatened with privatisation despite the opposition of local Members. In surveys, members of the public have demonstrated their absolute opposition to private sector involvement in the system, in opposition to local authorities in the area.

That is the impact of the recession on jobs in the rail sector, and it is a devastating appraisal of what is happening to those people on whom we have relied to deliver our rail system. The impact is not only on workers, but on passengers, who are paying for the crisis through high fares. They are paying because of a combination of the recession and the privatised franchising system. British commuters pay twice as much as those in all other leading European countries to travel the same distance. Annual season tickets for journeys of between 11 and 25 miles cost an average of £1,860 in Britain, compared with £990 in France, £944 in Germany and £788 in Spain—Italy has the cheapest season tickets at £444—yet our fares are still going up. In January 2009, average regulated and unregulated rail ticket prices increased by 6 and 7 per cent. respectively. Arriva CrossCountry, which will receive public subsidy in excess of £1 billion over its franchise term, raised unregulated fares by an average of 11 per cent.

My hon. Friend makes a very strong point. Does he agree that one of the problems is the excessively complicated fare structures in Britain, which means that travellers who have to travel at short notice because of a special commitment often pay ludicrously high fares? That does not happen in almost any other country in Europe.

Time and again the Transport Committee has referred to the complicated fare system and the discrimination against passengers who have no access to the internet, where they might be able to make savings by advanced booking. There have even been increases recently in the prices of special arrangements for savings, such as the young persons and family and friends railcards—on 18 May, there was a 50 per cent. increase.

Other concessions have also been hit, which I find extraordinary. Members of the armed services face the same increase in the minimum fare using Her Majesty’s forces railcard. Pensioners have had the price of their railcards increased by 8 per cent. recently. The minimum cost of using a network card, which offers discounts on journeys in London and the south-east, has risen by nearly a third. The card now costs £25 a year, which is a 25 per cent. increase on last year’s price. Passengers as well as workers are getting it in the neck.

Hidden, stealth charges have also been introduced. For example, we found that one franchise—National Express east coast—has introduced a booking fee of £2.50. That was condemned by local passenger groups. Mr. Ashwin Kumar, a director of Passenger Focus, said:

“Charging passengers to reserve a seat beggars belief, this is another example of back door fare rises. Some of National Express’s routes cover extremely long journeys, cost considerable amounts of money and passengers expect that a seat is covered in this ticket price.”

Recently, people have been paying more, but have increasingly received a poorer service.

Overcrowding has been mentioned. According to Department for Transport figures, 70 people stand for every 100 who sit on Southern and South Eastern. I feel sorry for people who travel on the most overcrowded train in the country, the 7.15 from Cambridge to King’s Cross, which carries an average of 870 passengers, but has only 494 seats. That sounds like the Chamber of the House of Commons.

My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. My daughter-in-law used to travel regularly on the train from Cambridge. When she was pregnant, she had to sit on the floor. That is what is happening. Does he agree that the railway industry is sweating the assets to maximise profits and ignoring passenger comfort?

That has been a consistent process in the privatised system and particularly in these franchises. Companies can maximise their profits by increasing fares and gaining public subsidy, while not rewarding the passengers with sufficient improvements in services.

I am listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman’s speech. Does he agree with the Public Accounts Committee that it is the Government who do not consider the damaging side effects on passengers of the rail franchising process and that that process is causing the problem?

I will come on to the rail franchising process because it is at the root of the system. That relates to this Government’s dogmatic commitment to privatisation, which the hon. Gentleman’s party probably shares.

Another issue passengers face is delays. I am sure that hon. Members will exemplify that with what is happening in their areas. We all remember the delays on First Great Western that produced a passenger strike only 18 months ago. There were demonstrations in which passengers refused to pay their fares because of the company’s failure to deliver services on time.

There have been front-line staff reductions. There are regular reports of ticket office closures. There are fewer platform staff, which increases people’s fear of a lack of safety. There are reductions in catering facilities. This week, I heard about the scheme companies have come up with for shorter trains, which beggars belief.

The service is no longer based on responding to passenger needs. The public service ethos that existed in British Rail has gone as a result of franchising and privatisation. The service is concerned not with passenger needs, but with cost cutting to maximise profits. That is a failure of franchising. At the heart of the crisis is the privatised franchising system. There is profiteering by converting fare increases and subsidies into profits and dividend payments for shareholders. That occurred even up to the edge and into the current economic crisis.

In December 2008, the RMT published research showing that the big five transport operators were converting above-inflation fare increases into profits and dividend payments of between 10 and 33 per cent. Arriva’s operating profit to 30 June 2008 was £14.8 million. The dividend payment was 10 per cent. First Group’s operating profits to September last year were £48.3 million. The interim dividends were 10 per cent., with £55 million paid out in 2007. Go-Ahead’s operating profits in the 12 months to September were £77.2 million and the dividends paid out £48 million. In the six months to June last year, National Express’s operating profits were £28 million and the dividends paid out £40 million. Stagecoach’s operating profits to October last year were £31.7 million, with a 33 per cent. increase in dividends paid out to shareholders.

Interestingly, the franchises are now floundering. The Government attempted to increase some form of control over the profiteering by introducing premium payments to the franchises. There had to be a repayment to the Government, but that was calculated using extremely bullish passenger usage figures. Many of us—people inside the industry and outside commentators—warned at the time that the bullish passenger growth predictions were not likely, particularly with the threat of recession. It is on the record in the trade and financial press that the Government were warned by the RMT that any downturn would jeopardise the premium payments. That is exactly what happened.

The situation has been made worse by the bizarre cap-and-collar arrangements introduced to the franchises. Many hon. Members have been involved in financial arrangements in the public or private sector. I was chair of the Greater London council finance committee and have worked in the private sector. I have never seen contracts like these entered into before by the public sector or others. The agreements offer protection to the private sector by committing taxpayers’ money to part-fund any shortfall if the revenues fail to reach levels predetermined in the franchise negotiations. Basically, that means that even if the private sector does not make the profits it wants, the Government have to intervene to subsidise it. That is an extraordinary agreement to enter into. As hon. Members across the Chamber have said, this is about privatising the profits while the risk is nationalised.

It has been reported that private sector franchise agreements in many areas are falling apart at the seams. The franchise operators are coming to the Government for further support and are trying to renegotiate the franchise. In some instances, there is talk of handing back the keys. The best example is the east coast line. In various meetings, Ministers have categorically denied that they are renegotiating the franchise or offering a management contract to the National Express Group that runs it. However, the National Express Group has made it public that it is in talks with the Government about the repayment terms, which it describes as too onerous. On the day when National Express Group announced that publicly, its shares shot up by 17 per cent. and by 29 per cent. the next day.

On that point, I received a written answer from the Minister on 8 May about press speculation on the replacement of a franchise by a fixed-fee agreement for National Express on the east coast. When asked what his policy was, he replied:

“Operating agreements with train operating companies may be considered when appropriate to discharge the Department for Transport’s duty to ensure continuity of rail services.”—[Official Report, 8 May 2009; Vol. 492, c. 488W.]

That appears to be an acknowledgment that a franchise can be replaced by a fixed-fee agreement. Is that the hon. Gentleman’s interpretation of that answer?

That is my understanding of it. We need more openness and transparency on what is happening in the negotiations that are taking place with a number of franchisees.

As my hon. Friend knows, I dealt with the Minister’s predecessor on the First Great Western’s yellow card. Speaking of franchises, it would be useful to have it on the record whether that yellow card has been expended by First Great Western. Has it met its side of the bargain? Talk about irony! It is as if a premier league striker has been fined for misdemeanours and the Football Association is paying the fine. It would be useful to know whether the Government are paying First Great Western’s fine for its yellow card for all it did wrong two years ago. It seems that the Government have to pay, yet again.

My hon. Friend and I have discussed First Great Western’s yellow card and how it has been monitored with successive Ministers with responsibility for rail.

My point is that the franchises want to have it all ways. They want profits in the good times, but when the franchises become too expensive, they want Government subsidies or to hand it back and negotiate management contracts. I am bitter about National Express laying off 750 workers on the East Anglia and east coast lines. We also know that, in April, Stagecoach went into dispute with the Department for Transport over its support payment system, and the case has now gone to arbitration. Again, it is arguing that there will be an operating loss if the arbitration is not resolved in its favour. On 13 May, First Group announced increases in its rail division of £2.1 billion and an operating profit of £94.2 million, but at the same time its managing director was reassuring shareholders not to worry because the company was accepting taxpayers’ subsidies to maintain other franchises in operation. This is the economics of the madhouse, and it is time to stand back.

The Government recognise that they will have to intervene. We are aware of that because the DFT recently advertised on its public tenders website for consultants to ensure “continuity of train services” and, if necessary, run a rail franchise on the Government’s behalf. If they are admitting in adverts that they will have to intervene in some instances, we need to ensure that there is a statement to the House about how they plan to do that, especially where, when and how.

I know that other hon. Members want to speak, so I shall end on these points. It is time for the Government, and indeed all of us, to stand back and have a rethink. We need to turn this rail crisis into an opportunity. We need to move away from the dogmatic obsession with privatisation and franchising arrangements. I cannot understand why the Government are refusing to consider other options, particularly a public sector option or role. Like a number of hon. Members present, I have been asking questions about how existing franchises are assessed and whether there could be a public sector benchmark or evaluation, such as a value-for-money assessment of alternatives in the public sector as against the private sector. When Connex was taken into the public sector and lost its south-east franchise, it was run successfully by the public sector for two years. A number of us argued then that we should step back from the dogma and keep at least one franchise in the public sector that could be a benchmark against private sector operators, but what did the Government do? They reprivatised it.

I agree absolutely with my hon. Friend. However, I understand that behind the scenes, very secretly, serious consideration is being given to taking the east coast main line in-house. Other franchises are in similar difficulties, so we could move in that direction. Does he agree that we should urge the Government to move rapidly in that direction?

I am not party to those discussions, but the way that resignations have been going in the past couple of days, my hon. Friend may be party to them sooner than he thinks.

There is an inevitability about this. For the first time in perhaps three decades we can start having a rational debate about the future of rail as part of an integrated transport system that is free from the dogma of privatisation, and that goes back to what works best. I urge the Government to launch that rational approach as franchises go into crisis and to consider using the public sector and testing that option. I urge them to accept that there might be an opportunity on at least one franchise to use the public sector option as a benchmark for others.

The travelling public have had enough of the greed and profiteering. We have gone past the days when the market could be said always to offer the optimum solution to every area of policy. We need an end to cuts in jobs and services, and we need an improvement in the long-term investment plan, but it has to be based on a public service ethos that overrides short-term profiteering. I urge the Minister to take back the message that we all want a rational debate about the future of rail. We want to use the current failures as an opportunity for future successes. It is time to move away from dogma and get to grips with the reality of what workers in the railway industry are experiencing with job losses and what passengers are experiencing with fare increases and reductions in service delivery. We must consider the potential for the sector to tackle the recession overall, to be part of the stimulus of demand, and to introduce an integrated transport policy that will help to tackle climate change. That could make a major contribution to rehabilitating political debate across the parties, and to having a reasoned and rational debate on such an important area of policy.

I intend to start the wind-ups at 10.30 am. Three hon. Members are trying to catch my eye, so they will have about eight minutes each.

I thank the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) for securing the debate on this serious issue, which affects people from the north to the south, and from the east to the west. He has detailed the job losses and other problems in the rail industry, which has been suffering a severe recession, but there is also an opportunity to move out of the crisis in the industry. One way out of the recession is to make sure that the UK rail industry plays a key part in that recovery, and I shall touch on a few places where such opportunities could be grasped by this Government, or whoever is in government in the years ahead.

I grew up with a railway line at the bottom of my garden and then went off to study transportation engineering at Napier polytechnic—now Napier university—in Edinburgh. As I come from Edinburgh, a key part of the railway industry that strikes me as being important is the Forth rail bridge, which was opened in 1890 and on which 4,000 workers worked. We need to see whether we can revitalise our rail industry, because much of its rolling stock and other supplies are no longer from this country. We have an opportunity to move forward to high-speed rail, as other countries have. We need to make sure not only that that high-speed rail is good for the environment, but that it stimulates the economy throughout the land and provides the shovel-ready jobs that have been mentioned. We could get the construction, civil engineering and railway industries working together to produce jobs immediately and to stimulate the economy.

When this country was growing, 100 years ago, the rail industry played a key part in that growth by improving transport links, but when we jump on to today, what do we see? We see opportunities for high-speed rail, with the Eurostar link taking passengers away from more polluting forms of transport such as air travel. We could extend the high-speed railway network throughout the UK, but I fear that opportunity has been largely missed because there has been a lack of clear vision from the Government. Many other countries have grasped that vision; there are new high-speed rail links in China, Russia, Brazil, India, Poland and Argentina, but what do we have in the UK? Very little.

There is a range of reasons for having high-speed rail, although I shall not spend too much time talking about them. One is the reduced impact on the environment of having high-speed rail links from cities such as my own, Edinburgh, from where 60 per cent. of flights go to other UK cities, causing a high level of pollution. Many of those flights come here to London, where there are protests about the need for a third runway at Heathrow airport. If we had a decent high-speed rail link, many people would decide not to fly, because they could jump on the train and it would take only a few hours to travel the length of the country. In other countries, there is clear evidence that where there are alternative high-speed rail journeys of three or four hours, people will happily move from the air to the railways. A good example of that is the Madrid to Barcelona line in Spain, which was opened in 2008, bringing massive benefits. Previously, trains had made up 15 per cent. of all journeys, but they now make up more than 50 per cent. That was one of the busiest aviation routes in the world, but it has been overtaken by trains.

The opportunities are certainly there, but there is another reason why high-speed rail has a wider opportunity at a time when we are looking at constitutional reform in the UK. There has been a push from the Scottish National party and separatist parties to say that that is the way forward. A high-speed rail system would actually unite the parties, as it is uniting the regions of Spain. High-speed rail will not come from the south of England to Edinburgh if there is a separate Scotland, so it is another reason to tie the country together.

There are opportunities in the UK not only for high-speed rail, but for light rail. In Edinburgh a tram installation programme is in progress and massive investment is being made. I have seen the mock-up of the tram and it looks great, and very efficient, but what has happened on the ground? The tram contract has been awarded to a Spanish firm. Undoubtedly it will produce high quality trams, as it is the same company that produced the trains for the Heathrow Express. The company that has been given the design, construction and maintenance contracts, the Bilfinger Berger and Siemens group, is not a local company, and although it is no doubt efficient, it would have been good if we had had the infrastructure in this country to provide the construction, maintenance and rolling stock and look forward to the future.

In Edinburgh we have had job losses as a result of the recession, as the biggest single employer in the city is the financial sector. The largest employer in Edinburgh, HBOS, is based in my constituency, and there have been many redundancies, but at the same time inward investment in Edinburgh is happening. Companies that are pulling back from investments elsewhere have said that they are going to Edinburgh because it will have an improved transport infrastructure in the years ahead. High quality public transport is absolutely vital. Providing a good quality transport system locally and then a high-speed rail system nationally will not only provide the jobs for the future, but ensure that our economy is in a fit position to take advantage of opportunities when we come out of the recession.

I have kept my remarks brief to allow other Members to speak. Edinburgh plays a key part, and not only because there are many local trainspotters—indeed, the book “Trainspotting” was based in Edinburgh—and because the Forth railway bridge is there. I would like the rail industry to play a key part in getting us out of the recession with the opportunities that are there for the future.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) on securing the debate and on his expert and detailed analysis, with which I entirely agree. I speak as a dedicated lover and supporter of the railway industry, who has commuted by rail daily for the past 40 years. The railways are important to me and, more importantly, to Britain’s future because they are the future mode of transport, especially in an era of energy difficulties and diminishing oil.

We are now seeing the beginning of the end of the mad, Dr. Strangelove experiment called railway privatisation. It has cost vast sums of money, does not work for passengers or taxpayers and was always utterly misguided. It has simply put vast sums of money into private pockets to very little benefit. The first stage in that decline was the collapse of Railtrack, which I understand had a neon sign in the foyer of its building showing its share price: that is how much it cared about railway safety and comfort and the future of passengers. Network Rail took over from Railtrack and effectively brought the network into public ownership, but its behaviour and methods continued many of the bad private sector practices.

Shortly after the creation of Network Rail I attended a waterfront conference addressed by its then deputy chief executive, who showed how the contracts would work and how they would not work. He explained how the specifications were drawn up by Network Rail and given to the contractors, who would then work precisely to those specifications because that is what they were required to do and because they would be fined if they did not do so, even when the specifications were wrong. If the work was done incorrectly over a weekend possession, by the Monday morning it would be inspected and found to be wrong. The work would then have to be done again with another specification and the contractor would say, “Thank you very much”, having doubled its money and got twice as much work. That, of course, meant more delays and interruptions to services.

Contracting, subcontracting and sub-subcontracting creates interfaces, all of which mean costs—interfaces always mean costs. British Rail, when in operation, was an integrated system with directly employed staff, so such interfaces did not exist, and if they did they were minor, internal and easily overcome. British Rail employed staff directly, worked under cash limits and corrected engineering work as it went along. It did not have the contracting chaos we have seen under Railtrack and Network Rail. It is not surprising, therefore, that when everything is taken into account, track renewal costs are five times higher then they were before privatisation. No wonder costs are out of hand.

I am sure that the Minister has seen the book, “Britain’s Railways, 1997-2005” by the academic Terry Gourvish, which was commissioned by the Strategic Rail Authority. It is a matter-of-fact book showing that total support for the railway industry between 1996-97 and 2006-07 increased fivefold, from just over £1 billion to £5.5 billion. That was simply putting money in private pockets, although I accept that some of it accounted for extra work. Maintenance has been taken in-house, but even that has not improved as much as it should have because of the continuation of practices similar to those that grew up under the privatised contracting system.

I am short of time and so will omit references to the train operating companies, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington dealt with that effectively. However, I will say that Virgin has recently complained that punctuality on the west coast main line is still as bad as it was when work to the tracks was being undertaken and has not improved, so the TOCs are still unhappy with the quality of what Network Rail is providing.

Network Rail has had a good financial settlement from the Government, but at the same time it is cutting back on renewals and sacking staff. In my view, and that of many others, that is evidence of financial incompetence. Do those in Network Rail deserve their huge salaries and bonuses? I think not: they are thoroughly undeserved. Indeed, the Prime Minister, when talking about MPs’ expenses at the weekend, said he wants to apply the same rigour to executives in the BBC and the NHS, “etc.” I suggest that the biggest component of that “etc.” should be Network Rail. We should not reward it for failure.

Valuable staff are being made redundant—often the experienced staff trained by British Rail, and sometimes because they get in the way when they want to do things right, are fussy and have a sense of commitment to doing the job well. Network Rail wants people who do the job quickly, cheaply and not well. Those staff being sacked are being defended by their unions at great expense, but Network Rail pays large sums of money to stop cases going to tribunal at the last minute when it is obvious that it will lose. That was detailed in a previous Adjournment debate by my hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Mr. Devine).

The whole edifice of privatisation is crumbling, and I believe that it is time to recreate the integrated, publicly-owned railway industry and save vast sums of public money, and passengers’ money into the bargain. Five years ago the then Secretary of State for Transport, now the Chancellor of the Exchequer, said the lack of investment had been compounded by ill-thought-out privatisation, producing fragmentation, excessive complication and dysfunctionality. I think that is a function of privatisation and of the way it has operated.

Two years ago I had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Mehdorn, the former chairman of Deutsche Bundesbahn, the German state railways. An impressive man with a strong and forceful character, he lives in a castle and has weightlifting as a hobby. He was extremely forceful in his absolute opposition to being forced into privatisation on the British model. He said it would be a disaster if DB was fragmented in the way British Rail had been. He is no longer the chairman, but the Germans have decided, very sensibly, not to privatise DB but to keep it in the public sector.

I recently met some colleagues from the former rail freight company English, Welsh and Scottish Railway and mentioned that it had been nationalised. They responded, “Oh no it hasn’t.” I replied that it was now owned by German state railways. It is all very well being owned by German state railways, but I suggest that we should take the British railway network back into British state ownership and operate our railways the way the sensible continentals operate theirs.

I welcome this debate, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) on securing it, and on the good work that he does in chairing the RMT group, consistently taking up railway-related issues and pointing out the failure of the privatisation model.

In reality, British Rail, which was nationalised after the second world war, had a good record in trying to protect a social railway, despite the best efforts of Dr. Beeching. BR was always underfunded and under-resourced for research and development. It was privatised on the basis that it was costing too much money. The then Tory Government said that they wanted a self-sufficient railway, but, shortly into privatisation, the amount of public money going into the railway system was greater than at any time during nationalisation.

We now pay far more money to private companies to run the railway system than we ever paid when it was publicly owned, and we have closed off from ourselves the possible benefits of any profitability coming from the railways. It is, frankly, a ludicrous system.

My hon. Friend pointed out the dogma attached to the privatisation. I believe that he would agree that surely now, of all times, it is time to end that dogmatic nonsense and have a fully publicly owned, publicly accountable and publicly run railway service in this country.

Does my hon. Friend accept that we were almost at a critical stage some years ago because of a lack of railway engineers? That is one way in which privatisation has completely undermined the basic infrastructure of the industry. There is no better example than the lack of railway engineers.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The hon. Member for Edinburgh, West (John Barrett) and my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North (Kelvin Hopkins) pointed out that we have a shortage of manufacturing capacity in this country to produce trams, railway carriages, locomotives and many other things. If people go around the world and look at any old railway, they will see that most of the stuff is British-made—most of it by Westinghouse or others, and any of the older trains, including the high-speed trains in this country, by British Rail Engineering. It was an act of political dogma by the previous Government to destroy British Rail Engineering. We lost the manufacturing capacity that went with it, in the same way that bus and other manufacturing capacities were damaged in favour of a money economy rather than a manufacturing economy. We are paying the price for that.

In a recession, investment in public transport infrastructure is of double importance. It protects jobs and the industries themselves, but it also provides a good public transport and freight transport system for the future. Therefore, I appeal to the Government not just to maintain but to increase investment in the rail network.

There is limited time, so, as a London MP, I shall raise a few specific points concerning London and its needs. London relies heavily on public transport. Indeed, public transport usage in London is at a very high level. The former Mayor and, before that, the Greater London council and Transport for London tried hard to invest in improving the bus and underground networks and, more latterly, the overground rail network.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington was right to point out the utter madness at the time when Mayor Livingstone wanted to refurbish the underground system. The then Chancellor of the Exchequer, currently the Prime Minister, insisted that the whole business be done through a public-private partnership. We thus had two companies set up—Tube Lines and Metronet—to undertake the refurbishment of various parts of the underground. Metronet famously finally went under and had to be taken over by TfL, and the staff were taken over as well. Thankfully, some of their working conditions have improved as a result.

However, Tube Lines is still part of the public-private partnership. London Underground is paying it £5.1 billion for the refurbishment work that it is doing, but it is demanding £7.2 billion. Who will pay the £2.1 billion shortfall? My view is that if Tube Lines cannot do the work for the money that it contracted to do it for—if it is not capable of doing the work on schedule, on time and to the satisfaction of TfL—it should simply be taken over. The work should be taken in-house by TfL, and the conditions and jobs of the workers guaranteed.

There is one particular group of workers that I want to draw attention to in this rail debate, short as it is. Those are the people, mainly women, who clean the underground stations. Under Mayor Livingstone and, to his credit, continued by Mayor Johnson, all Greater London authority employees enjoy the London living wage, which is higher than the national minimum wage to reflect the higher costs of living in London. Former Metronet employees, particularly the cleaners, now receive a London living wage, thanks to the actions taken by their unions and by the administration itself.

Tube Lines cleaners work for the national minimum wage in disgusting, dangerous conditions, for a company with appalling management practices. Workers are harassed, and great pressure is put on them. Many of them have no security of employment—as I understand it, almost from day to day, never mind from week to week—under the company’s antediluvian management practices.

I appeal to the Government to look into the employment of those contract cleaners, to insist that they receive the London living wage and that management practices be brought up to date for the 21st century. We must show respect for those people. They do a filthy, horrible job. They clean up all the crap that is left on the trains and in the stations every day, and we should thank them for it and pay and reward them properly for so doing.

I wish briefly to raise two other points concerning London. One is about the electrification proposals for some of the London overground lines. The north London network goes from Stratford to Richmond; the Barking to Gospel Oak line is attached to it. The Stratford to Richmond line is electrified and is a busy line indeed. It is doing extremely well but needs to do even better. It needs more trains, better signalling and better service, and it is heavily used.

The Barking to Gospel Oak line was once due for closure. Apparently, a previous Conservative Transport Secretary looked over a bridge on the Holloway road, found that there was a railway under it and wondered why it was not a road. We then went through the miserable experience of protecting the line from closure and, fortunately, were successful. The line is now much busier and more effective. Indeed, it is now suffering from overcrowding because it is so successful. That is a line that was due to be closed less than 20 years ago.

There are proposals to electrify the line. Seventy- five per cent. of the benefit of electrification would go to freight usage, because a much easier freight corridor from the east coast to the west coast of England would be opened up. Currently, electrified trains can bring freight in from the east coast ports of Felixstowe and Harwich, but they have to use diesel locomotives along the Barking to Gospel Oak line. The cost of electrification of the line is £40 million, of which £25 million has apparently already been earmarked by the Government. I would be grateful if the Minister confirmed that.

There is a £15 million gap, which is not very much, given the huge benefits that could be achieved by that piece of electrification. My hon. Friend the Member for Leyton and Wanstead (Harry Cohen) and I have put down an early-day motion on the matter. I would be grateful if the Minister confirmed that the Government actively support that electrification programme.

My final point concerns the relationship between the Government and TfL on station improvements and management schemes. My constituency includes Finsbury Park station, which is one of the busiest suburban, or semi-surburban, interchange stations for the east coast main line, the Moorgate to Hertford line, the Victoria line and the Piccadilly line. It is a very busy but very out-of-date station. It is impossible for anyone with any kind of walking difficulties or anyone using a pram, a pushchair or anything like that to access the station. It is a dreadful station in terms of step-free access.

Mayor Livingstone had a plan to introduce a completely step-free access arrangement for the whole station. It has since been postponed or cancelled by Mayor Johnson, but Network Rail, to its credit, has said that it will introduce step-free access from the street to the mainline platforms that are above ground level. However, TfL will not introduce a lift service from the street level to the underground platforms. We have the ludicrous situation of a lift going halfway through the station. We can get from the mainline platforms to the street, but we cannot get to the underground, yet most of the journeys that require an interchange involve going between a mainline platform and the underground.

As I said, the situation is ludicrous. It will probably end up costing double the amount to deal with the matter at some future point. Will the Minister be kind enough to intervene and knock heads together on the step-free access programme—I understand that there is a window of opportunity of a very few months to get this sorted out—so that when the work starts, it can be for the whole station, not just half? That might sound slightly localised and arcane, but it is very important as a message that the Government are serious about disability access at all stations around the country and are prepared to intervene where necessary to ensure that that is provided.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) and his Labour colleagues on presenting a common philosophical approach to the future of the railways. I somehow doubt that it will be shared by the Minister but we will doubtless find out. I congratulate the Minister on not being derailed and still being in office at this point. I hope that he is still there next week—a lot can happen in a couple of days.

On the effect of the recession on the railways, I shall concentrate predominantly on the issue of franchises, which has been picked up by Labour Members. The Treasury’s policy has been to try to reduce the call on the public purse of running the railways—rather belatedly, given the huge increase with Railtrack and other post-privatisation calamities. However, the consequence of the method that the Treasury has adopted to try to reduce the call on the public purse has not been in the best interests of the railways or their passengers, be they people or freight users.

Essentially, the policy of driving up income means that the Government are very vulnerable when a recession comes upon the industry. Suddenly, train companies are unable or unwilling to meet the costs of the reduction in income that they experience as a consequence of diminishing passenger or freight usage of the railways. That is a serious matter. It is leading to losses in individual companies, to job losses, as the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington rightly said, and to passengers suffering. Companies are considering where they can make cuts to services that are not governed by specific franchise agreements, so we are seeing cuts in booking-office hours, cuts in the number of staff on trains and cuts in catering services, most famously on the east coast main line. National Express appears to be adopting a policy of presenting bleeding stumps to the Government in the hope that they will bail it out. I hope that the Government will not be seduced by that rather ludicrous tactic. National Express’s customer base is being damaged by how it is approaching the matter.

What happens if a franchise fails? We have yet to receive a clear answer from the Government on that. I am asking the Minister, although I am not particularly hopeful, to give us a clear answer today on the issue. Lord Adonis, for whom I have a great deal of time and respect, has said repeatedly that the Government will not allow renegotiations of franchises. That appears to be the Government’s stated position, but the parliamentary answer that I referred to appeared to hold out the prospect of a train franchise being replaced by a fixed-fee operating agreement. In other words, National Express or some such company could hand in the franchise but could carry on running the franchise under a new financial arrangement. That is in effect a new train franchise—a replacement for the existing one. I therefore need to ask the Minister this point-blank: are the Government considering fixed-fee agreements for train operating companies as part of existing franchise arrangements, or are they not? What is the role of a fixed-fee agreement? If the Minister made that clear, that would be very helpful.

My view on the franchise agreements is clear. The Government should play hardball with the companies. They entered into a financial agreement and should be made to stick to it. If a company hands in a franchise, any other franchise held by it should be handed in or taken away from it at the same time. Indeed, I would go further, and this is where the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington may be surprised, but pleasantly, I hope. In my view, if a franchise is handed in to the Government—handed back—it should be held in the public sector as a public interest franchise, not least as a comparator for other franchise agreements currently operating. That was the case partly with South Eastern, when the Connex franchise was handed in.

However, I am not talking about a comparator simply in traditional Treasury terms. We need to consider what we are trying to get from franchises. A public interest franchise would allow us to recast what we expect from the railway. It is not simply a matter of pounds, shillings and pence, which is how the Treasury looks at these matters. We need to consider passenger targets for franchise holders. What do the passengers want? That is not necessarily the same as the financial outcome that the Treasury demands of train operating companies that are successful in franchise bids. If we had a passenger-based franchise, that would enable people to make not only a financial comparison but a passenger delivery comparison, which would be useful in driving up performance throughout the railway industry.

Having said that—this is where the hon. Gentleman will disagree with me—I believe that there is a case for significantly longer franchises but, crucially, with new passenger-based targets included in them so that there is not simply a financial measurement. In our view, a 30-year franchise with a five-year renewal checkpoint would be a sensible arrangement whereby if the passenger-derived, passenger-oriented targets were met, the franchise would be retained; if they were not met, the franchise would be taken away. That would give a train operating company a direct incentive to meet passenger objectives.

Would it not mean that the franchisees would just refuse to accept arrangements that made the franchises too onerous, and if in time they became too onerous, would not the franchisees just come to Government for more handouts? Would it not be just like the commitment that we have made to private finance initiative schemes, which will cost the taxpayer billions of pounds over the next 30 years?

I am seeing a Treasury Minister in 45 minutes’ time about a PFI arrangement that has gone ludicrously wrong in my constituency; it relates to a waste contract. On the hon. Gentleman’s question, no, it depends on the line that the Government take. The Government could say to the train companies, “These are the rules. These are the criteria you have to meet. These are the passenger targets you have to meet.” If they want to walk away from that, let them walk away and there can be a return to the public sector. That means that the Government would be involved in a bit of hardnosed negotiation with those companies. It would not simply be five companies giving people the runaround; there would be an alternative, which is a public sector interest test. That is the line that I would advise the Government to take.

The question of fares is very important. The Government have a policy of RPI plus 1 per cent. That was reinforced by Lord Adonis on 25 February when he said that the Government stood by the RPI plus 1 per cent. formula. However, rail fares in recent years have increased enormously above inflation. Since the Government came to power, the cost of travelling by train has gone up by 7 per cent. above inflation, while the cost of travelling by car has fallen by 13 per cent. As a motorist, I say to motorists that they should not moan about fuel prices. They are doing better under the current Government than train and bus passengers. Train and bus passengers should be out protesting. They are the ones who have seen the price increase.

RPI plus 1 per cent. makes no sense in a Government policy designed to tackle climate change. If we want to tackle climate change, we have to persuade people to use lower-carbon means of transport. It means getting people on to buses and trains, although they are being priced above inflation, and it means getting people off roads and certainly out of the air, although that means of travel is being reduced in price. That cannot make any sense. What will the Government do to co-ordinate their climate change strategy with their transport strategy, which is producing the opposite result to the one that they ostensibly say they want? This year, we could have frozen rail fares instead of forcing them up. We could have done that by cancelling 4 miles of motorway widening. That would have paid for all rail fares to have been frozen this year, but the Government want 4 miles of motorway widening instead. I know which one the public at large would choose if they were given the option.

It is very important for climate change purposes, for jobs and to tackle the recession that we end up with continual and increased investment in railway infrastructure projects. We could start with infill electrification. I am pleased that the Government have committed, or almost committed, themselves to electrification of the midland main line and the line down to Exeter. [Interruption.] Well, the Minister can confirm that he is committed to that. I agree that infill electrification in particular has a role to play. Lines such as Barking to Gospel Oak are crying out for investment in that regard.

We must also ensure that we invest in high-speed rail. My hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, West (John Barrett) made that point, and quite rightly, as Scotland must reap the benefits of the high-speed rail network as much as anywhere else in the country. I want to ask the Conservative spokesman, the hon. Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond), to confirm that the Conservative Treasury team, not him and the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs. Villiers), is committed to high-speed rail investment and to Crossrail investment if the Conservatives take power.

The hon. Gentleman is on in a minute; he can tell me in his response to the debate. Saying that his party has no plans to do anything else is no answer, by the way—I want a firm commitment from him that that investment will go ahead if there is a Conservative Government.

Lastly, on Network Rail, there is the issue of efficiency. It takes five to eight hours to change a set of points in Switzerland, but 40 to 42 hours in the UK. Network Rail has to do far more far more efficiently, and until it does, it is not right that its top management should receive massive bonuses.

There can be no doubt that we are in a recession, and there is no doubt that the causes of that recession, like all recessions, are both international and domestic. I therefore congratulate the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) on calling this debate, which allows us to look at some of the domestic implications of the recession.

I was pleased that I agreed with some of the points in the hon. Gentleman’s speech. His view that the recession is unlikely to have bottomed out is certainly borne out by history. Recessions are not common, nor are quick recoveries from them. A return to trend growth after the last quarter of negative growth usually takes at least two years. It is therefore highly unlikely that we will see a quick recovery or that the recession will have a small impact on the rail industry and other industries. That is presumably why the Government acknowledged in the Red Book that the downturn is forecast to be much deeper than that of the 1990s.

I also agree—I think that the hon. Gentleman knows, although he did not mention this in his speech—that the PPP was the 14th of the 15 financing options that London Regional Transport presented to the Government, and Ministers chose to take that 14th option. Where I start to disagree with the hon. Gentleman, however, is that Metronet’s failure was due not only to the economic incompetence of Metronet, but at least partly to the economic incompetence of Mayor Livingstone.

The hon. Gentleman has made an extraordinary allegation against Mayor Livingstone. He really should explain it to hon. Members or withdraw it.

I am happy to explain it. It is widely acknowledged that Metronet believed that it was in a cost-plus contract and that Livingstone believed he was in a cost-inclusive contract, but neither side wished to test that point. There was economic incompetence on both sides.

No, I have given the hon. Gentleman his chance.

It is important to recognise that there has also been a complete failure to acknowledge that the Government’s franchising process has given rise to a number of the issues that the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington described and that they are not the fault of the TOCs. The Government are trying to rebalance the position between the fare payer and the taxpayer, and that is their decision, but it is also one reason why fares are going up. The Government’s over-specification of the franchises is another reason why we are seeing increased job losses, because the specification of the contracts and the increasing premium payments have left franchisees with no other options.

I was intrigued by the speech by the hon. Member for Luton, North (Kelvin Hopkins), who said with relief, if I heard him correctly, that Network Rail had followed Railtrack and was effectively in public ownership. I am sure that the irony was not lost on everybody when he then went on more or less to rubbish the record of Network Rail, which, as he said, was effectively in public ownership.

I said that it carried on with many of Railtrack’s modes of operation. Instead of just being in public ownership, it should have operated as the equivalent body did under BR—as an integrated, properly publicly owned industry.

Indeed, but the hon. Gentleman did say with relief that Network Rail was effectively in public hands—that we can agree on.

Last month’s Budget from the then and, I guess, still current Chancellor announced a squeeze on public spending between April 2011 and 2014, so the line that it is only the Labour party that ever invests is clearly complete nonsense. Today’s debate gives the Minister the possibility, in the context of the recession, to put on the record a number of the implications of the Chancellor’s spending plans.

According to analysis by the independent Institute for Fiscal Studies, total investment spending will be cut by half across all Whitehall Departments to 2014. The Treasury’s often optimistic forecasts predict that investment spending will fall by half by 2013. Even before the proposed budget tightening, the IFS predicted that the Department for Transport’s spending allocation would fall by 4 per cent. over the three years from 2011 to 2013. Given that a quick recovery is unlikely, will the Minister confirm the IFS numbers? In addition, the DFT will be forced to find its share of the Chancellor’s announced £6 billion efficiency savings, which are independently estimated to represent 6 per cent. of current expenditure.

Given that we are in a recession, which will clearly impact on the railways, the Minister needs to answer a number of questions this morning. What size will the overall reduction in the DFT’s budget be as a result of the 2011-14 spending plans? What size will the resulting reduction in investment spending and current spending be? What is the Department’s judgment in terms of the balance between current and capital spending? Does it have any plans—this relates directly to the point made by the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker)—to review control period 4, which is being talked about in the industrial press? Electrification has also been mentioned, and I want to ask about its future because it has been widely suggested in the rail industrial press that the rolling electrification programme is one of the programmes that might, as the euphemism goes, be pushed to the right. The Government need to clarify those points, which are the direct implications for transport spending of the Chancellor’s Budget.

Another key question that the Government need to answer today relates to the implications and problems beyond 2014. The Budget’s predictions suggest a major decline in possible spending. Does the Minister realise that the Government’s spending proposals in the Budget have left considerable uncertainty across the rail industry?

Time is relatively short, but I want to put it on the record that the Government’s focus is all wrong. The Department has been working far too much on the minutiae, such as details of timetables and train specifications—on his trip, Lord Adonis even had a chance to look at the restaurant car menus. Such things should be left to the industry. The Department needs to concentrate its resources on the strategic direction. That was picked up in a Public Accounts Committee report, which said explicitly that the franchising process

“does not consider damaging side effects”

for customers.

The Committee also said that the Government could have a major impact on procurement. I totally disagree with how they are going about procurement. The Committee’s report states that:

“promises of bringing 1,300 new rail carriages into service by 2014 look over-optimistic.”

Analysis in answers to parliamentary questions to the Minister shows that only 973 of those carriages are likely to be extra carriages, and that the rest are part of the Thameslink growth programme, which the Minister’s predecessor rolled out.

I agree that shorter franchises and the whole franchising process bear a major part of the blame for what has happened. Longer franchises are at least part of the remedy. Clearly, a number of passenger criteria, as well as punctuality and service levels, will need to be set out in the franchises. However, it is also clear that longer franchises must be part of the answer.

I am sorry but I will not give way to the hon. Gentleman as I only have a minute left.

In the very short time remaining I want to concentrate on franchises, because it is an issue that has been raised a number of times today. Is the DFT going to stick to its mantra that it will not renegotiate franchises? If so, is the DFT, as the hon. Member for Lewes was going to say, prepared to offer fixed-fee contracts? If it does take contracts back in-house, does it intend to keep them in the public sector or to re-franchise them within six months? Finally, does the DFT recognise that the much talked about cross-default option is, in reality, not open to it, because if it takes the contract back in-house, that will not affect the holding company level, so the cross-default option will not be available to the Government?

I note, unfortunately, that my time has run out, but I hope that the Minister might answer at least some of those detailed questions about the franchising process.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) on securing this debate. This issue is very important to the Government in terms of ensuring that the railway system is sufficiently robust to meet the requirements of the travelling public and of the movement of goods through freight operations.

I will endeavour to cover as many of the points that have been raised as possible, but let me say first that some of the comments made and the views expressed about the railway system seem at odds with the reality. Out there, the reality is that more people are using rail services than at any time since the end of the second world war—since 1946, in fact. We have greater investment, punctuality, reliability, service, safety and operating rolling stock. Indeed, one of the pleasant challenges that we face is dealing with the fact that we have great demand for railway services. Nevertheless, of course the economic downturn is going to affect the railways, as it is affecting every other type of transport and other industries.

It is interesting that the hon. Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond) wants to discuss records of investment. If I am quoting him correctly, he said that it is now “false” that only a Labour Government will invest. One only need go back to recessions of the 1980s and 1990s to see that the railways are in a far better position today than they were in those days. In 1982, the railways were at their lowest point, with the lowest number of passenger journeys, the lowest number of passenger miles travelled and the lowest passenger revenue. The conclusion of the Administration at that time was to see what report could be introduced to try to delay the terminal decline of the railways. That Administration came up with proposals that would have seen wholesale line closures and the slashing of route mileage by more than 80 per cent.

Fortunately for us today, that view did not prevail. However, railways were still not invested in, which remained the position when we came to the 1990s and a further recession, which meant further problems. It is against that backdrop that we must view the situation. We then had a botched privatisation process, which continued the legacy of under-investment. We have had to deal with that legacy since 1997 in trying to address the problems on the railways. Now, we have had a growing railway system for more than a decade, with increasing performance, reliability and customer satisfaction.

However, there are still challenges to be met and they must be met within this recession period. Of course, that is why we have continued to invest—to ensure that we have a robust railway system within the existing framework. That is also why we have announced £10 billion of investment to increase capacity for the next control period, for an extra 183 million passenger journeys between 2009 and 2014. Let us recognise the substantial investment that has been brought into the system by both private and public resources.

I will not talk about Swindon and Camborne because I know that that is outside this debate. However, can the Minister confirm that that £10 billion is on track? I apologise for the pun there. Obviously, that £10 billion is a key counter-cyclical factor in extending the network, including opening up new lines and improving existing ones.

The Government’s actions, such as bringing forward fiscal stimulus packages at the pre-Budget report to invest in public transport, including the railway programme, show our commitment to ensuring that that investment continues at this time. My hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) said that it is at exactly this time that we should keep such investment going, and we would not disagree one iota with that view. Actions speak louder than words, but we have put on the record our commitment to bringing forward and continuing with investment to address the immediate issues relating to capacity on our railways. That is in contrast with the proposal of the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne), the shadow Chancellor, who would have lopped some £840 million off the transport budget from April 2009. So we take no lessons about investment—

I will not give way because I only have four minutes left and I want to cover some of the points that have been made.

I want to talk about the issue of franchises, which was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington and the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker). The hon. Gentleman asked whether we were going to play “hardball” with the operators to ensure that they deliver on their franchise requirements. That is our position exactly: we will ensure that the operators meet the franchise requirements. That is also why I say, as Lord Adonis has already said, that we are not in the game of renegotiating franchises.

Having said that, however, there is the question of a management contract, if required. What happened with Great North Eastern Railway is on public record, and there is nothing different in what I say now. There was a management contract, and as I am sure hon. Members are well aware, under section 30 of the Railways Act 1993, which was amended by the Railways Act 2005, there is a requirement on the Secretary of State to operate as “operator of last resort” if need be. However, the issue is ensuring continuity of the services that are required. We see that as being the important point—making sure that customers are put first when there are problems.

It has been said that only in the bad times do we have to bail out the companies, while they reap all the benefits in the good times. That is not how it works. In fact, in the good times the taxpayer shares in any revenue increases, and in the downturn there is a requirement for us to make up a percentage of the revenue gap. However, that provision applies only in the last year of a four-year franchise.

Opposition Members have talked about longer franchises. Having longer franchises would also mean having to predict revenues over 15 to 20 years, which makes matters extremely difficult.

I will not give way.

In addition, longer franchises would also raise further questions about our ability to ensure that we hold operators to account over any difficulties.

We recognise that the issue of fares, including getting the balance right between the fare payer and the taxpayer, is absolutely critical. The hon. Member for Lewes quoted from what Lord Adonis said to the Transport Committee about sticking by the RPI plus 1 per cent. formula. Of course, Lord Adonis went on to confirm that we are going to take away the flexibility that allows regulated fares to increase by up to a further 5 per cent. Furthermore, he said that, with negative RPI, we will expect rail operators to reduce their prices and not just freeze them from January 2010.

There was a lot of speculation about what the scale of job losses might be, and I recognise the issues that will be faced. On investment and renewals, everyone is well aware of Network Rail’s investment commitment. The package for 2009-10 is similar to that for 2008-09, but it is designed to achieve improvement in productivity by, for example, using modulus point sets so that we can get better turnaround. That is why there has been a re-profiling.

Other issues were raised that I would have liked to deal with, but I was not given the time to respond. We continue to invest in the industry and we will continue to invest for passengers.

Stroke Services (Ealing and Southall)

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise the important issue of stroke services in my constituency in Ealing and Southall. I will come quickly to the point and say that my concerns centre on the recent Healthcare for London proposals for stroke services in London. If proceeded with, those proposals will result in the closure of Ealing hospital’s stroke unit. I hope today’s debate will give the Minister good reason to get Healthcare for London to think again about those proposals, and designate Ealing hospital as a local stroke unit for patients to return to after treatment at a hyper-acute stroke unit.

During the consultation on Healthcare for London’s proposals that ended in early May this year, it became clear that there was significant local opposition to the closure of the unit. Many constituents, local health practitioners, local councillors, clinicians and the hospital management contacted me with serious concerns about the impact of such a closure on the local community. Of particular concern were the extra journey times that my constituents would face both as patients and as visiting relatives. That was because under the new proposals, patients would be treated in the first instance at either Northwick Park or Charing Cross hyper-acute stroke units, or subsequently at Hillingdon or West Middlesex stroke unit, which I understand is in the Minister’s constituency.

The recent early-day motion that I sponsored highlighted the fact that 170 people died from strokes in Ealing in 2006-07. In the same year there were approximately 1,600 admissions to hospital for stroke-related conditions, with admissions from wards in Southall running at twice the national level. There are 4,000 people in Ealing who have had a stroke at some time.

It is well known that people of south Asian and Afro-Caribbean origin have a higher incidence of stroke, and both those groups are well represented among my constituents. The figures also show that the correlation between age, ethnicity and the incidence of stroke is disproportionately high among south Asian, Afro-Caribbean and other non-white ethnic groups, regarding people who have a stroke before the age of 60. Given those figures and trends, it seems unwise not to have a stroke unit at Ealing hospital, which is geographically positioned in the middle of my constituency. Stroke is a major killer in this country, disproportionately so among my constituents. Major improvements in the treatment of strokes have been made in recent years, and Ealing hospital has invested in better facilities to treat stroke patients. The latest independent assessments of stroke services at Ealing hospital show that in the main categories of stroke treatment, it is in the top 25 per cent. of the country. The hospital also stands ready to work with Healthcare for London to ensure that it can reach the highest standards that a designated stroke unit would need to attain by 2011.

If there is no stroke unit at Ealing, residents from Ealing and Southall will be sent from the hyper-acute stroke unit to Hillingdon or West Middlesex hospitals for stroke unit care, even if they have had no previous contact with those hospitals. The proposed HASUs at Charing Cross and Northwick Park have already expressed concerns about their ability to repatriate Ealing residents in a timely fashion if there is no stroke unit at Ealing hospital. If patients cannot be moved from the HASUs efficiently, the hospitals might have to close to new admissions and the London ambulance service would have to take patients to HASUs in other parts of London.

The Healthcare for London consultation document states that the patient capacity supplied by Ealing hospital is “not required”. Healthcare for London has indicated at recent meetings that final decisions on capacity have not yet been made, and that designated stroke units will be asked to provide information on how many beds they will provide. I am concerned that the current plans will not have the capacity to deal with Ealing’s stroke patients.

If there is no stroke unit at Ealing, that will have serious implications for the running of other local services in the hospital and in the community. There are specialist acute services and procedures available at Ealing hospital trust that will be under threat if the stroke unit is removed. Those include acute surgery and coronary angiography. Patients undergoing those procedures have an increased risk of stroke, and the removal of an on-site stroke unit means that if they suffer a stroke as a complication of their treatment, optimal subsequent management might be compromised. If a patient has a stroke while in hospital, they will be unable to access immediate stroke care, which would significantly worsen the outcome. They would have to be transferred away from Ealing for further management. Access to key therapists, such as speech and language therapists, physiotherapists and occupational therapists will also be impaired, as they will not be available on site.

I and many of my constituents are deeply concerned about the proposal to close the stroke unit at Ealing hospital. I ask the Minister to work with Healthcare for London to find a way to provide those services for my constituents at their local hospital. The preferred option, which I believe is viable, would be to keep the stroke unit open under the management of Ealing hospital. If that is not possible, it is essential that a stroke unit is on the Ealing site under the management of one of the other designated stroke service providers.

I am sure that there is a positive way forward on this vital issue for the health of my constituents and I ask the Minister to do all she can to help to find a solution. I thank her for coming today and look forward to her reply.

I congratulate my dear friend the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr. Sharma) on securing this debate. It is also a particular pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Mr. Bayley.

I know that for many years, even prior to his well-earned election to Parliament, my hon. Friend has shown a great interest in the welfare of his local health services and the future of stroke services at Ealing hospital. I commend the dedication with which he serves the needs of his constituents.

On average, someone suffers from a stroke every five minutes in England. There may be people in this room who have been touched by a stroke that affected either them or members of their family. Behind that unfortunate statistic, however, lies a terrific cost for the NHS. At any one time, a quarter of all long-term beds are occupied by stroke patients. As those who care for their loved ones will testify, stroke survivors need long-term care and attention. In my many years as a nurse, I worked with stroke survivors and know the importance of dedication and continual rehabilitation, with staff trying so hard to bring quality back to once active lives. When sudden emergency hits, it is quite devastating—and it affects not only the stroke sufferer but of course the family.

To universal acclaim, the need for long-term care was recognised in the Department of Health’s 2007 national stroke strategy. The strategy underlined the impossibility of furnishing every accident and emergency department with a 24-hour stroke consultant service and open access to that all-important CT scanner. There simply are not enough people with the right skills to do it safely. The Royal College of Physicians and the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence both agree.

A and E is not the best place to treat stroke, and getting stroke patients directly to specialist units will put us in a position where more lives can be saved, which is what we want. Having worked in accident and emergency, I know that it is exactly what it says; to have people arriving after road accidents or particular traumas at the same time as someone who is suspected of having had a stroke can result in neglect to the stroke patient. Furthermore, the 2007 strategy document recommends that stroke services are co-ordinated into networks, supporting highly specialised centres of excellence. Networks have proven to be highly effective in treating cancer and heart disease, and we want to transfer and adapt that knowledge into the stroke strategy.

I am sure my hon. Friend is aware that the NHS responds to the national stroke strategy locally. NHS London is responsible for bringing stroke care for its population into the 21st century. At the moment, treatment throughout London varies radically. Each year about 11,500 stroke victims are admitted to hospital in London, 16 per cent. of whom die as a result of their stroke. There are outstanding examples of good practice, but we want to see them become the norm.

Consistent with national policy, the stroke strategy for London, published in November 2008, recommended that patients should be treated within three hours of having a stroke. To that end, stroke networks should comprise three vital elements. On the front line, the hyper-acute stroke units—HASUs—will provide an immediate response, with a CT scan and the appropriate drugs. Supporting stroke units will provide ongoing care and rehabilitation. Services for the mini-stroke—the transient ischaemic attack—will also provide rapid access to a specialist.

A consultation on the location of these services ran from 30 January to 8 May this year, and a remarkable 8,600 people responded. Taking account of those responses, a joint committee of primary care trusts will make a decision on 20 July about the location of stroke units across the whole of the capital.

I am aware that consultation took place between January and the first week of May, but does the Minister have the figures? How many from Ealing and Southall responded to the consultation?

I do not have the exact figures for that area to hand, but if statistics are available I will certainly let my hon. Friend have them.

As I said, a joint committee of PCTs will make a decision on 20 July about the location of stroke units. Under the PCTs’ preferred proposals, residents of Ealing and Southall suffering strokes will be taken to Charing Cross or Northwick Park hospitals for improved care. I am told that that is the local PCT’s preferred choice. The proposed locations of the HASUs will ensure that every Londoner is within 30 minutes of getting the treatment that they need. The PCTs anticipate that both Charing Cross and Northwick Park hospitals will also have stroke units. Depending on where they live, my hon. Friend’s constituents will either remain at those hospitals for ongoing care or be transferred to Hillingdon or West Middlesex university hospitals.

I must tell my hon. Friend that Ealing hospital did not bid to offer hyper-acute stroke care. The trust instead submitted an application to offer secondary and mini-stroke care. Bids were assessed by an independent panel of stroke experts from outside London. The panel assessed each bid on its merits. Influenced directly by the independent panel, the consultation proposals state that Ealing hospital should no longer provide acute stroke services.

I know that it is important to my hon. Friend, so I repeat that no decision has been taken to stop the commissioning of stroke services from Ealing hospital. The recommendation was proposed in the consultation. We must wait for the PCTs’ decision in July, so it remains a possibility that Ealing hospital could continue to provide stroke services. Indeed, as we speak, the trust and the local PCT are developing a proposal for delivering an effective, high-quality stroke service at Ealing hospital. The service would be part of the wider pan-London network. If that goal is achieved, the unit would have to meet the stringent Healthcare for London quality standards. The proposal is to inform the decision of the joint committee of PCTs in July.

I thank the Minister for giving way again. I accept that further reports and proposals will be coming from the PCT. How many locally based voluntary sector health organisations—what we call the third sector—have been consulted? How many local GPs have been consulted, and how many other patients’ groups have been consulted on proposals for the future and the vision for the local PCT and the health area in my constituency?

That point was very well made. I am sure that the PCT and the chief executive will be able to furnish my hon. Friend with answers. I am aware that he has a good relationship with them and meets them regularly when working in his constituency. I feel confident that they will be able to inform him.

Thanks to the standards being applied in London, and regardless of the outcome of the joint committee’s decision, Ealing’s residents can expect to receive world-class care if they have the misfortune to be affected by stroke. On 1 April, PCTs began the phased implementation of the NHS health check. The programme will cover everyone between the ages of 40 and 74, and it will asses the risk of stroke, heart disease, kidney disease and diabetes. Everyone will receive a personal assessment, setting out their level of risk and saying exactly what they can do to reduce it.

Members of the south Asian population in my hon. Friend’s constituency suffer strokes at a younger than average age, and many still of working age. The statistics are alarming. I know this from experience in my constituency, which is close to my hon. Friend’s. I understand how important it is to get stroke victims out of hospital and back to work and back to their families. It is imperative that people in that age group have the highest quality care, should they have the misfortune to suffer a stroke, so that we do not waste working lives. For the family, the emotional and financial consequences are high. Every one of my hon. Friend’s constituents will be within 30 minutes of that all-important hyper-acute stroke care. That speedy response will mean fewer people having their working life and their retirement marred by stroke.

The consultation does not propose the closure of any A and E departments or any loss of staff. Ealing hospital will continue to offer an extensive range of exceptional facilities for local residents. I realise that the first priority for all Londoners is to ensure that they have access to high quality care, and NHS London is working closely with the PCTs and other trusts involved to ensure enough beds and capacity for everyone.

My hon. Friend raised the secondary, but still important, concern about the time it takes for visitors to travel to the hospital. Although the new proposals will inevitably mean more travel for some, analysis has shown that average travel times will only increase from 31 to 42 minutes when travelling by public transport, and by three minutes when driving. I am not sure how those statistics were formulated, but I am sure he has as much faith in them as I do.

I live in the area. In my earlier days, I worked as a bus conductor there. I travel by public transport daily. I am familiar, therefore, with travelling times from the Southall area to Ealing hospital as well as to Charing Cross and Northwick Park hospitals, which are miles away from Southall. Traffic congestion is a major problem in the area, and the reliability of public transport causes concern among my constituents. They feel that the times will be longer than was expected and quoted in the consultation.

My hon. Friend raises an interesting point about an area that I know very well too. Depending on what celebrations are taking place in Southall at the time, travelling through the area can take some considerable time, so I share some of his concerns. However, we must focus on the safety of patients when they arrive at hospital having had the misfortune to suffer a stroke. They need the best expert care. I would like to continue my reply in that fashion, and perhaps later we can have a conversation outside the Chamber about transport in Southall.

The development of a high quality stroke service is a work in progress. Each stroke unit will be expected to achieve standards of excellence that London has not yet experienced. We hope that the proposed improvements to stroke services will save as many as 400 lives a year and save thousands more from serious disability. We should concentrate on those statistics. I saw them in practice over many years as a health worker. The service throughout London will be greatly improved, which will benefit my hon. Friend’s constituents.

The plans that I have outlined today are built on an outstanding dedication to the principle of patient and public involvement. More than 13,000 people visited 46 health fairs held in the capital throughout the consultation, and clinicians have been on hand to offer expert advice every step of the way. My hon. Friend’s local hospital, council and residents have all participated fully in the consultation—a consultation that demonstrated widespread support for the general principles of change. As I said earlier, I shall try to provide him with the exact figures later.

A stroke is a medical emergency. The signs and symptoms of a heart attack are now very familiar to us all, but stroke is an attack on the brain and its treatment also requires expert advice, support and help as soon as possible. A swell of good work has already begun to roll out across the country. The number of under-75s dying from stroke has fallen by a third in the past 10 years, and although far from perfect, it is clear that a heroic effort has been made already by health professionals to save, and improve the quality of lives.

In addition to extra funding to PCTs, the Department of Health has guaranteed £105 million over the next three years to train more staff and raise awareness. I am sure my hon. Friend will have seen the hard-hitting and successful FAST—face, arms, speech and time—campaign launched this spring throughout the media. The campaign highlights the need to check the person’s face immediately, to check whether they can raise their arms and whether their speech is affected and then, most vitally, to call 999. When that call is made to the ambulance service, the paramedics will then get that person to the appropriate unit as safely and as quickly as possible to save their life and enhance the quality of life afterwards. FAST will help public and professionals alike remember the symptoms and urgency of stroke.

Stroke is the third biggest killer in this country, and the largest single cause of severe disability. Men of south Asian origin and Bangladeshi and Pakistani women have a disproportionately high chance of suffering from a stroke, which is why stroke will remain at the top of the agenda for some time to come. I am sure that my hon. Friend will continue to champion and support health services, and in particular, stroke services within his constituency. I know that he recently had a very positive meeting with the chief executive of Ealing PCT, whose work, and that of his PCT team, I also acknowledge.

I would like to take the opportunity to thank Ealing PCT for campaigning on this issue. There are sometimes differences of view, but generally I am very pleased with the services that it offers, so I am grateful for the Minister’s comments.

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention.

I urge my hon. Friend, however, not to be negative in some of his remarks or to raise unnecessary fears about the rest of the hospital and its staff, who are striving to achieve excellence, as he recognised. I encourage him to continue to engage with Ealing PCT and to fight for his constituents, as he does so well. We must all continue to improve stroke services for the benefit of his constituents and everyone else in the country.

Sitting suspended.

UK Aid (North Africa)

Thank you, Mr. Bayley, for calling me to speak in this important and topical debate. At Prime Minister’s questions this afternoon, the Prime Minister gave his condolences to the family of Mr. Dyer, who was killed in Mali. Mr. Dyer, a British citizen, had been taken hostage on the Mali-Niger border and, regrettably, was killed by al-Qaeda operatives. The Prime Minister said to the House—I think that I am quoting him verbatim—“We will be giving every possible assistance to the President of Mali in trying to fight al-Qaeda and to help that country.” I find that rather ironic. It shows just how good the Prime Minister is at spin because the reality is the Government have completely slashed our aid to north Africa. The House of Commons Library figures show that last year no money was spent on helping north African countries. Therefore, although the Prime Minister stood up and told the nation that he would do everything possible to help those countries, the reality—as always with this Government—is that there is no substance behind what he said.

I want to take the opportunity to challenge the thinking of the Department for International Development. In the past, challenging DFID was almost taboo. One was perceived as some sort of nutter, fanatic or extremist if one dared to challenge the great DFID and how it went about things. However, under difficult economic circumstances, the tide of public opinion is changing. People such as me, who have critical things to say about DFID, are a little more empowered and confident about challenging the Department and how it spends taxpayers’ money.

DFID spends 90 per cent. of its resources in the poorest countries in the world. Some might say that that is very logical. Of course, we should be helping the poorest countries in the world, and not giving money to the very wealthy ones—I will come in a moment to some of the wealthy countries that get our aid. However, it means that middle-income countries receive only 10 per cent. of the budget. As the right hon. Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce), the Chairman of the Select Committee on International Development, has said, one in three of the world’s population who survive on less than $1 a day live in middle-income countries. Yet those countries receive only 10 per cent. of our aid. I should like the Minister and my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Milton Keynes (Mr. Lancaster) to address that issue. In the run-up to the next election, my hon. Friend and others in the Conservative party will talk about how to address that anomaly.

As I said, north Africa received nothing last year, according to the House of Commons Library. None the less, those countries are our neighbours and are of great strategic importance to the United Kingdom. When I was in business, before entering Parliament, I visited north African countries many times. They are extremely friendly towards the United Kingdom, very positive and they want to engage with us, but they are grappling with huge issues. Illegal immigrants from all parts of Africa use them as a conduit for trying to gain entry to Europe. They are also being used as a conduit for drugs as they are smuggled from Latin America, via Guinea-Bissau, through them and into Europe. They are also grappling with the terrible problem of terrorism and al-Qaeda. Mr. Dyer, our citizen, died as a result of that activity. I am very sad for his family.

As we speak, President Obama is en route to Egypt. He will make a major speech in Cairo tomorrow on the importance of the Arab world, and on the importance that he attaches to American relations with Egypt and the Arab League. Interestingly, whereas we give Egypt nothing, America gives it $1.5 billion a year. That is how seriously the Americans take Egypt. They understand the strategic importance of the country and of dealing with many of the issues that I have raised. That is why Americans give Egypt so much assistance.

As you know, Mr. Bayley, we are overstretched. As a country, we are borrowing billions of pounds, yet we can afford to give aid to China—more than £50 million—and we give more than £800 million to India. I do not see how we can justify expenditure in such other parts of the world. China, for example, is a very wealthy country: it has spent more than £20 billion on hosting the Olympic games, it has one of the largest armies in the world and a space programme. Yet we cannot give any money to north African countries, which are of strategic importance to the United Kingdom and are grappling with such serious issues.

I call on the Minister to assure me that aid to China will be stopped. The International Development Committee, of which I am a member, has endorsed the Government’s strategy of giving money to China. I fundamentally disagree with that, and I believe that the aid that we give to India should be reviewed as well. Interestingly, I appeared in an article in The Telegraph—not our Daily Telegraph I hasten to add, but the one in India. I made the front page when I called for aid to India to be cut. The Telegraph said what a fantastic MP I was. It said that I was the only one who was treating it seriously and with maturity. It said that I realised that it could look after itself without any assistance from the United Kingdom. I should love the Minister to look at a copy of the Indian newspaper because the journalists really supported my stance that India can go it alone and does not need financial assistance from Britain.

The hon. Gentleman’s point is very important and should be fully explored. He is talking about a strategy that we should have towards middle-income countries, but which does not exist. He is quite right in exposing some of the inconsistencies in who we do and do not support, and he makes his case very well. Nevertheless, does he not accept that the success of targeting our resources predominantly on poverty reduction in the poorest countries has lifted DFID into the world rankings as one of the most effective aid agencies delivering poverty reduction? That does not undermine his argument, but it is important that he acknowledges that achievement.

I agree. There is a lot that DFID does very well indeed, and it has very good branding around the world. I do not doubt the passion and sincerity of the people in DFID in the UK and around the world. When we visited Tanzania and Kenya we saw the passion for ourselves and just how committed those people are in assisting the world’s poorest. But as an Opposition MP it is not my job to smooth their feathers. My job is to scrutinise and assess some of the areas for development.

The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point about poverty in middle-income countries, but surely he recognises that in absolute numbers, the poverty levels in India outstrip those in almost any other country in the world. While there is an issue about misuse of aid and inappropriate aid, there is surely an overwhelming case for the provision of aid to the very poorest in India to help development. The numbers are phenomenal compared with those in any other part of the world.

My answer is that we give India more than £840 million a year. The sheer scale of that worries me. I will come to some of the serious problems that north African countries have, but if we slice too much of the cake off for India, there will be nothing left for north Africa. The King of Lesotho spent more money on his 36th birthday celebrations than the entire UK aid budget for his country three years ago. I have made that point repeatedly in the House. Frankly, I am appalled that when my constituents are facing difficulties with hospital services and suchlike, there are stories in the press that the King of Lesotho can spend on lavish celebrations for his 36th birthday more than we give to his country every year in aid.

What really upset me when the Committee visited Kenya, which receives £50 million a year, and Tanzania, which receives more than £150 million a year—I hope that you will accept the relevance of this, Mr. Bayley, and I will talk very soon about north Africa—is that there was no British branding. I have said that to the right hon. Member for Gordon.

When we finally get aid to north Africa, whether under this Labour Government or the next Conservative Government—I am saying this with equal force to my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Milton Keynes—it must have some form of British branding. There are no British flags or symbols—there is nothing—associated with the aid. It is so bad that the people in the village of North Horr in northern Kenya to whom I spoke thought that the aid was from France, because a group of French youngsters called Solidarité, to whom DFID had outsourced the work, were implementing it.

I have been told that when the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Clare Short) became Secretary of State she insisted, following scandals such as the Pergau dam incident, that there should be no linkage between DFID spending and British branding, so that we could not be perceived as trying to influence foreign Governments. The pendulum has, however, swung too far the other way when we send aid to countries and there is no link in the minds of the people who benefit from it that it has come from British taxpayers, that Britain feels strongly about supporting them or that Britain will continue to play such a vital role. Why should we hide our passion about helping others? Why should we not be proud, and state what we as a country are doing, rather than trying to keep it under wraps?

I hope that the hon. Gentleman acknowledges for the record that the Committee has just published our report “Aid Under Pressure”, in which we specifically ask the Government to revisit the issue of British identity in the name of the Department. Of course, the Minister or the Department will have time to reply over the next two months, but it is important to say that the Committee has specifically asked the Government to address the issue.

I am extremely grateful that our Committee has done that formally, and I look forward to the Minister’s reply. Some members of the Committee may not agree, but I think that some of the things that we saw in Kenya could quite easily have been done with microfinance. I hope that those projects will not receive so much money in future and that we can spend more of the money on helping north Africa. Interestingly, we met the Minister of Finance and Economic Affairs in Tanzania, which receives £150 million a year, and I had serious concerns—again, other hon. Members may disagree—about his lack of a coherent strategy for improving his country’s situation.

You will be pleased, Mr. Bayley, that I shall now talk specifically about north Africa, and first about the country for which I have a great deal of passion: Libya. I am chairman of the all-party group on Libya and I am desperately passionate about improving relations and trade with the country. I have frequent meetings with Mr. Jelban, the Libyan chargé d’affaires, who will soon become the ambassador and who does an excellent job promoting his country in the United Kingdom.

I led a delegation to Tripoli in September 2007 for the 38th anniversary celebrations of Colonel Gaddafi coming to power and will lead another delegation to the city on 1 September this year with Lord Steel of Aikwood—one of my favourite Lib Dems—and others when we celebrate the 40th anniversary. We will all remember the scenes from watching the BBC of the former Prime Minister, Mr. Blair, meeting Gaddafi in the tent. I wish I could have been a fly on the wall at those discussions.

I am sorry; I wish I could have been a fly on the canvas.

Mr. Blair and Colonel Gaddafi talked about weapons of mass destruction, and various promises were made to get Libya to move away from its isolationist policies. What promises were made to Libya? When I led the delegation to Tripoli two years ago, officials at the Ministry of Health and Environment and the Minister himself stated that various categorical assurances were given by Mr. Blair that there would be specific, concrete assistance for Libya’s health service. They were told that the NHS would directly engage with the Libyan health service, and that there would be help, particularly for the hospital in Benghazi. We all know of the case of the children who tragically contracted HIV. Subsequently, the Bulgarian nurses were held under the ludicrous proposition that they had deliberately infected the children, which was totally wrong. Those children contracted HIV, regrettably, because of the poor sanitation and management of the hospitals in Benghazi. Mr. Blair made a specific pledge that help with management would be given.

Most importantly, the Libyan officials said that they want to learn from our experiences of running the NHS. They want our know-how. They said that we have one of the best health services in the world and that they want to learn about it from us. What has happened? What is DFID doing to fulfil Mr. Blair’s promise to Libya that assistance would be granted to the Libyan health services? They desperately need that help.

The Libyans dispose of their hospital waste, some of which is highly toxic, in the desert. They were promised assistance for an incinerator or other modern facility to dispose of that waste but none has been forthcoming. I worry that Mr. Blair has gone in there, all guns blazing, promising everything, and then nothing has happened. He got them to give up their weapons of mass destruction, but all the titbits he promised in exchange have not been delivered. What sort of a message does that send?

Libyan officials say to me, “We are rather miffed that all these promises were made and that none of them has been fulfilled.” What does that say to other countries that we hope to entice away from weapons of mass destruction and isolationist policies? What if the Libyans go to Arab League meetings and say, “Don’t listen to the British. They’ll promise you the world and then not fulfil it”? That is of great concern.

Also, Libya is chair of the African Union this year and is doing important work in the role. There will be a major conference in Sirte from 1 to 3 July. Will the Minister confirm that someone from DFID will be sent to act as an observer?

Italy, interestingly, recently signed a contract with Libya to provide it with $250 million a year for 20 years to assist with infrastructure projects, such as construction of motorways and a railway from Tripoli to Benghazi, and all sorts of vital, pivotal projects to do with hospitals and education. I do not agree with Mr. Berlusconi on many things, but I applaud that stance and his commitment to assistance for Libya.

Illegal immigration is a huge issue for Libyans to deal with. People from the whole of west Africa trying to secure illegal passage to Europe use Tripoli as a transit point. As a result, crime has gone up on the streets of Tripoli and there is huge pressure on resources. The Libyans are not responsible for that. It is a side effect of so many people trying to get into Europe illegally. They go from Tripoli to the Italian island of Lampedusa, and to Malta.

The Minister will know of the human suffering that such people go through. He will have seen the scenes of chaos on the BBC, with people drowning in the boats. He will have seen the state in which they reach Europe, how dehydrated they are and how they have been abused by human traffickers along the way. It is human tragedy of the most profound magnitude. What is the Department doing to assist countries such as Libya in preventing this human misery from happening?

Yesterday afternoon, I spoke to our ambassador in Tripoli, Sir Vincent Fean, who does an excellent job. He spoke of the detention camps in Tripoli that people are sent back to when they are caught on the high seas. The conditions are extremely poor and there is bad sanitation. I hope that the Minister will approach the Libyans and tell them that we will do all we can to help them with management and sanitation in the centres, so that the people who regrettably find themselves in them do not suffer as much.

The hon. Gentleman is making an important point about the tragedy, misery and horror of the lives of the many people who try to cross the Mediterranean. Hundreds die in the process. It is a testament to our times that so many people die in that horror. In addition to helping Libya with this matter, does he agree that it is more important to do something about the poverty in the central African countries that the people come from? A combination of aspects such as environmental change and economic policies has led to this dreadful human tide of misery and poverty, with so many dying in the process of trying to find somewhere to live.

Absolutely. I concur with that. This debate is about north Africa primarily, but countries in that region are affected by their southern neighbours. I will refer to questions that the hon. Gentleman has asked about Western Sahara, among other things. I applaud his work on raising those issues with the Government.

The issue of illegal immigration will be magnified tremendously over the next 10 years unless something is done. My understanding is—unless the Minister can contradict this—that we give Libya zero financial assistance in this matter.

The answers I have received to parliamentary questions on this issue have always taken a Sir Humphrey Appleby-type approach. They say things like, “The EU is sorting it all out”, or “We’re sending some money to the EU for part of another little EU budget”. That is simply not good enough. Frankly, I do not want to know what the EU is doing. I want to know what the British Government are doing. I do not want the British Government to shirk their responsibilities by saying, “We are giving a certain amount of money to the EU, which is doing X, Y and Z”. That may be fine for the Minister’s meetings with his counterparts in Brussels, but this is the British Parliament. We want to hear what the British Government are doing directly, rather than listening to what the EU is doing. If I wanted to know what the EU was doing, I would take the Eurostar to Brussels and ask it directly.

Libya still faces the huge issue of refugees from Darfur. The hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) has asked many questions on Sudan and Darfur. People are so desperate to escape the torture, brutality, rape and killings in Darfur that they cross the arid, barren and deserted Libyan-Sudanese border in their hundreds and thousands. They make their way to Tripoli seeking sanctuary.

I visited Darfur with my favourite Lib Dem, Lord Steel, and the former leader of the Conservative party, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard). It was the most tragic and heartbreaking experience I have ever been through. I never experienced anything like it as a businessman before I entered this place. It shook me to my bones to meet the people in Darfur and to see what had happened to them and the conditions they live in. The only help I saw in refugee camps in Darfur was from international non-governmental organisations. I could see nothing directly from DFID. The Minister may contradict that and I hope that he can.

The hon. Gentleman is being a bit unfair. A massive amount of resources go into Darfur from DFID. They cannot go in directly for many reasons—not least because our NGOs have been expelled from Darfur. That is a ringing indictment of the Government in Khartoum. He is being unfair because we have invested heavily. The problem is that peace is as far away as it ever was.

If that is the case, as a parliamentarian I look forward to hearing directly from the Minister what the Government are doing specifically and directly to help the people of Darfur.

I had the opportunity to meet President Omar al-Bashir in his gilded palace in Khartoum and to tackle him on the suffering of his people. It was one of the most unpleasant meetings I have experienced. He said that there were no problems and tried to fob us off. Being surrounded by 50 bodyguards holding pistols was not conducive to tackling him. He has been indicted for war crimes and, as the hon. Member for Stroud said, he has thrown out the aid agencies. What will DFID do to put pressure on the Sudanese Government to ensure that the agencies that fulfil this vital job are allowed back in?

I am conscious of the time, Mr Bayley, and will finish as soon as I can.

I turn now to Egypt. As I said, the United States gives $1.5 billion dollars a year to Egypt, but 40 per cent. of Egyptians live in poverty according to United Nations figures. Yet we give nothing to Egypt. That takes us back to the point that the right hon. Member for Gordon made about the strategy of helping middle-income countries.

Together with Dr. Wafik Moustafa, I chair the Conservative Arab Network. It has looked at statistics relating to Gaza in preparation for this debate, and today I received the following information. The funding pledged to Gaza, per capita, for March alone is almost equal to the entire annual GDP per capita of Egypt. The number of doctors and dentists per capita in Gaza and the west bank is approximately four times higher than in Egypt. The infant mortality rate is approximately 20 per cent. higher in Egypt than in Palestinian areas. Those are all United Nations statistics. The Conservative Arab Network stated:

“Yet the funding will support a terrorist regime with obscene human rights abuses (Hamas) whereas Egypt is actively working to stop and limit”

these extremists, but gets little funding.

Again, I disagree with things said in my Select Committee’s report about the Gaza strip. Why is there such a difference in funding? I do not object to British taxpayers’ money being spent to help the people of Gaza, particularly after the recent suffering and bombardments. However, why is there such a huge difference between the funding for Gaza on one side of the border, and Egypt on the other, when Egypt needs to play such a major part in the solutions to the problems?

Yesterday, I spoke to the shadow Foreign Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington), about Morocco in preparation for this debate. He met the Moroccan ambassador yesterday, and said that he was extremely positive and wanted to interact more and have greater contact with DFID, to challenge the French dominance in that part of the world. The Minister will know that Ceuta and Melilla are two Spanish enclaves in Morocco. I visited Ceuta, which is a fortress, when I was in business, and it is totally surrounded by barbed wire and surveillance equipment to prevent people from sneaking into that European enclave. Morocco faces huge issues with immigration and drugs as a result of people being smuggled from west Africa, through Morocco, to the Canary Islands and Spain. What help will we give to Morocco to stop that?

Aid should be about helping people, but it should also be of strategic importance to the UK. I keep going back to this because I feel so passionately about it. Yes, we should help the poorest people in the world, but we should start to think about what strategic value there can be for the UK and how we can kill two birds with one stone. How can we help the poor people but also tackle illegal immigration and the suffering of people being smuggled to Europe illegally? The Democratic Republic of the Congo has an identical GDP per capita to Morocco, but it is ranked 10th highest for bilateral aid, whereas Morocco gets nothing.

The hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) has asked relevant questions about what assistance the Department is providing for refugees from Western Sahara in refugee camps in Algeria. This issue is of great importance. He will know that, in 1990, the United Nations wanted to ensure that the Polisario in Western Sahara had the right to self-determination, but unfortunately, Morocco still occupies the country and there is a lot of suffering in the refugee camps in Algeria. I would like the Minister to tell us what is happening there and how he is working with the Foreign Office to help the Polisario refugees in those camps. How is he trying to resolve that long-standing sore and mediate in a situation that has been going on for decades, resulting in tremendous suffering for those people of Western Sahara?

On Mauritania, migration from the port of Nouadhibou to the Canary Islands is a huge issue, and we have seen reports in the national press about the suffering of those people. Tourists from my constituency and others go to the Canary Islands on their annual holidays, and when they are lying on the beach they suddenly see people who are totally dehydrated and near death being deposited. Many of the boats sink, and those people drown. I am not prepared to allow that travesty to continue, and I am shocked and baffled as to the lack of discussion about this human tragedy. People in all parties must be concerned about what is happening to those people and the suffering they are going through. This is not a political issue, so we must put party politics aside and focus on how to help Mauritania and other countries to prevent this human suffering.

The countries of north Africa are extremely friendly nations. My experience of them in business has been that they are extremely pro-British. They are trying to fight fundamentalism and terrorism, and they are of huge strategic importance to us. We have heard from President Sarkozy and others in the European Union how they hope to bring them into the EU fold with greater trading agreements and assistance, but I want to know what we in the UK are doing directly to help them with aid for refugees who are suffering in relation to migration issues.

I am chairman, as I said, of the Conservative Arab Network, and we are having our inaugural event at the House of Commons on 30 June. There are 500,000 British Arabs in the United Kingdom, but not a single one in either Chamber in our Parliament—an anomaly that I hope will be rectified. We need to engage with the British Arab community, who are prevalent in London and throughout the UK. One way of engaging with them is by showing them the interest that we have in north Africa and the Arab world, as well as how we are helping people who might even be their relatives, in certain cases, and how we are trying to tackle some of the appalling problems that they have.

I have asked quite a few written parliamentary questions on this issue in the past few years, which I am looking through now. The right hon. Member for Leeds, West (John Battle), who sits on our Select Committee, has also asked some very pertinent questions. He asked what contribution the Department has made to increasing food aid to Egypt since March 2006, and whether the Secretary of State would make a statement on that, but DFID’s response to that question was so Humphrey Applebyesque that it was meaningless. I find that so frustrating. The reply stated:

“The Department for International Development (DFID) does not have a bilateral programme in Egypt. DFID, however, continues to support poverty reduction efforts in Egypt through contributions to international institutions such as the European Commission (EC). The UK is contributing about €95 million towards the EC’s €558 million 2007 to 2010 programme of assistance to Egypt. DFID has also been in regular contact with the World Food Programme (WFP) and has responded to their recent global appeal for countries most at risk from rising food prices with a £30 million contribution. There was no specific appeal for Egypt, where the WFP operates capacity building programmes and school feeding programmes but has no emergency operations.”—[Official Report, 12 June 2008; Vol. 477, c. 441W.]

Again, the Government are saying, “We are giving a little bit of money to this and a little bit of money to that.” I very much hope that we stop giving a little bit of money to this and that, and start interacting and engaging directly with these countries and try to help them directly.

Finally, let me point out that DFID’s bilateral aid expenditure to north Africa fell from just £3.5 million in 2003-04—I do not know how to describe that figure without being rude: £3.5 million for the whole of north Africa!—to about £500,000 in 2005-06, and then to zero in 2007-08. When spending by other Departments is included, aid to north Africa was £38.1 million in 2003-04, falling to £2.8 million in 2007-08, so the entire contribution of not only DFID but all Departments was a squalid £2.8 million in 2007-08. Those figures are from the Library. That contribution represented 0.2 per cent. of total aid from the UK to Africa as a whole, but there are hundreds of millions of people in that region. That goes back to an earlier point. The Department also estimated the UK share of multilateral expenditure in northern Africa to be around £50 million in 2006-07, and there are no data for 2007-08.

I am delighted to have had this opportunity to get a lot of things off my chest. From what I have seen, the Minister does a very good job, and I very much hope that he will explain to me what his Department is doing on some of the matters I have raised. I hope that he will leave the debate having seen the passion that I have for north Africa, because I passionately feel that helping it will ultimately help our own country. No matter how difficult the economic situation becomes, I hope that the Minister and his Conservative and Liberal Democrat shadows will not forget north Africa or that we must help countries such as Egypt and Libya to deal with some of the terrible human suffering that they face.

I am pleased that we are having this debate and I congratulate the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) on securing it. North Africa is not a part of the world that is often discussed in an holistic way, and it is good that we can do that today.

As with all such debates, the problem is whether the reply should come from DFID or the Foreign Office. The Minister, who is from DFID, will clearly have difficulty responding on foreign policy issues, and I suspect that we will get letters from the relevant Departments after the debate. Inevitably, the issues that we are raising will cut across the work of both Departments.

The hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham made some extremely important points about migrant peoples travelling through north Africa. It is unbelievable that most British newspapers and broadcast media seldom report the daily toll of misery and suffering that is the lot of so many people from sub-Saharan Africa. These people do their best to travel through the Sahara or the countries on each of the coasts to reach north Africa, before trying to get across the Mediterranean to Greece, Italy, Malta, Cyprus, Spain or the Canary Islands. Indeed, there is more publicity when tourists are inconvenienced because poor, benighted people from sinking vessels have been washed up on the beaches of the Canary Islands. Such things are at the sharp end of the gap between the richest and the poorest on our planet, and they are an indictment of us all.

Children in our schools are rightly taught about the heroism of people in the 19th and 20th centuries who managed to travel to different parts of the world to succeed, survive or gain political asylum. I suspect that our grandchildren and their children will read about the heroism of those who managed to escape desperate poverty in central Africa to get to Europe or north America to survive. There is a daily story there, but it is simply not being reported.

I recognise what the hon. Gentleman said about the camps in Libya, Morocco and the fortresses of Ceuta and Melilla—the Spanish enclaves that are designed to keep migrants out. However, the issue goes much deeper. The economic policies that are adopted by, or forced on, very poor countries in central Africa lead to rural depopulation, urban poverty and the loss of public services and education. As a result, the only route out of poverty for many people is to escape somewhere else. Those who do end up working illegally in Europe so that they can send small sums back home, some of which are stolen by moneylenders on the way. These are extremely serious issues, and it would be helpful if the debate highlighted them.

I agree entirely with what my hon. Friend says. The situation is made that much worse by conflict, which often originates with the desire to drive out an ethnic group that may not fit into a region’s or country’s wider make-up. That is exactly what we had in Darfur.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that there is an enormous ethnic dimension to many of these conflicts. People are driven out of a region because they have a different ethnicity from the majority. Equally, people can be victims of environmental disaster. The galloping expansion of the Sahara desert in all directions means that cropping and herding are simply unsustainable as forms of agriculture, so people have to go somewhere else. When they do, they are not welcome because there is already pressure there on the remaining resources and bits of land, which leads to conflict. There is not one simple explanation behind such events, but a series of complexities. For the good of all of us, we should concentrate far more on such issues and on the needs of those involved, and I am pleased that we are at least having a debate about them today.

As the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham said, I am quite involved in the issue of Western Sahara. Indeed, I am the chair of the all-party group on Western Sahara, and my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) is our secretary—I have just promoted him. The group exists to highlight a fundamental injustice, which reflects not only on our foreign policy, but quite strongly on European policy and trade arrangements. The hon. Gentleman was right that British aid to north Africa is extremely limited. Such aid as is provided is disbursed through the European Union, the UN and non-governmental organisations, with a small amount being disbursed directly.

The issue of Western Sahara and its refugees is the result of politics and political conflict, but the European Union manages quite deftly to operate in two entirely separate and different zones when it comes to Western Sahara and Morocco. There is an EU trading arrangement with Morocco, which includes a human rights clause. A large number of European companies are doing extremely well out of trade with Morocco, and I have no problem with trade with the country—I have no quarrel with Morocco in any way. However, I do have a problem when companies benefit from the resources of Western Sahara or the fish off its coast—that is a different issue altogether.

I do not want to go into the history of Western Sahara—that would take too long, and you have asked for Back-Bench speeches to stop by 3.30 pm, Mr. Bayley—but I do want to make a few brief points in parenthesis. In the 1950s, France ceased to be, in effect, a colonial power in Morocco. In the 1960s and early 1970s, Spain still occupied Western Sahara as a colony. Morocco supported the right of self-determination and, therefore, the option of independence for the Sahrawi people. Indeed, throughout the ’60s and early ’70s, Moroccan Ministers made plenty of speeches supporting the concept at African Union and other events.

The demise of the Franco regime and Spain’s withdrawal from Western Sahara led not to what should have been an orderly process of decolonisation under the auspices of the UN, but to the occupation of Western Sahara by Morocco and Mauritania and to a war. Morocco, which was well equipped with weapons from America and other countries, drove the majority of the Sahrawi people out of Western Sahara and into Algeria.

The camps were established in the 1970s—40 years ago—and people then had to survive in them. Mauritania withdrew from its portion of Western Sahara, which became, in effect, the liberated zone. Ever since, about 150,000 people have been living in refugee camps in Algeria. Algeria has supported them and given them space to survive.

There should have been a UN-sponsored referendum to allow people to return to Western Sahara. There were years and years of argument about how to draw up an electoral roll. Morocco insisted that the people it had moved into Western Sahara as Moroccan settlers could vote in the referendum, which would clearly have negated the votes of the Sahrawi people living in the refugee camps. No referendum has been held.

The nearest that the situation ever came to some kind of development was the Baker plan. The former US Secretary of State James Baker convened a series of meetings and conferences at which he drew up a plan that was effectively a form of limited autonomy for Western Sahara, which would have involved its people going back and, at an indeterminate date—I think 10 years on—a referendum. The Polisario, the political leadership of Western Sahara, reluctantly accepted the plan—I was at the congress, in a big tent in the desert, when they did it—only to have it effectively vetoed by Morocco. We are back to square one and people living in refugee camps.

The UN organisation MINURSO has just had its mandate renewed by Security Council resolution 1871, of 30 April. Also, Christopher Ross, a former US diplomat, is undertaking a new round of negotiations. I hope that the British Government will do all that they can to support and facilitate those negotiations, but above all to recognise that it is not right that, 30 years on, the third generation of those who were driven into the camps are still living there. Imagine what it is like for a young person growing up in a refugee camp in Algeria, knowing that all they can dream about is the possibility of going to Western Sahara at some indeterminate point in the future. I pay tribute to the Polisario leadership for managing to hold the camps together and ensuring that sufficient aid gets through from the UN and other sources at least to feed people and provide medical care. The camps are extremely well run and are good communities, but they are still refugee camps, and are wrong and unnecessary.

I hope that the Minister will at least be able to give me some assurances: first, that our aid to MINURSO and to the camps will continue until it is no longer necessary, because people have a right to return; and that we will re-examine the EU relationship with Morocco. There is a human rights clause in the trade agreements, as there is in all EU trade agreements. Morocco, by its illegal occupation of Western Sahara, is in breach of that clause. It is simple: why are we not doing anything about it? Why, instead, are we offering enhanced associate status to Morocco, instead of telling it, “You must come to an accommodation with your neighbours and stop the illegal occupation”?

It gets worse, however. Western Sahara has phosphate resources and 3.5 million tonnes are turned out a year. Who buys it? Who benefits from it—which companies? Sure as heck, none of that wealth or money is going to the refugees who were driven out of Western Sahara all those years ago. Last year, the EU, to its discredit, concluded a fish agreement with Morocco, by which the abundant fish stocks in Western Sahara’s Atlantic waters are now being harvested by Spanish and French companies, for the main part. They are making a great deal of money out of it. It is stolen property, as far as I am concerned, and I hope that something can be done about it, and that the Minister can give us good news about that.

At the UN in April, when the issue came up for debate, the southern African countries, and South Africa in particular, sent a very strong memorandum to the Security Council:

“It is of concern to us that for over three decades, the situation in Western Sahara remains unresolved. We would like to reiterate that for us, the Member States of SADC”—

the Southern African Development Community—

“the struggle for the people of Western Sahara is a struggle for self-determination and indeed is based on the principles of decolonisation, promotion of human rights, international legality and the stability and security of the African continent. It is a struggle that people of our sub-region fully associate themselves with.”

It is significant that the only self-determination issue in the whole of Africa that is recognised by the African Union is that of Western Sahara. It is recognised as Africa’s last colony. It is up to us to stop recognising de facto Moroccan occupation of Western Sahara and to start putting political and economic pressure on Morocco to withdraw.

The Polisario is clear—it has been announced today—about the fact that it partly blames Morocco for the very sad events concerning Mr. Dyer, because, of course, there is tacit support for the Salafist terrorist group, and it does not take a genius to work it out that one of the sub-Saharan countries is helping it. Polisario’s allegation is that it is Morocco.

That is indeed an important and serious allegation. We must be clearer in our relationship with Morocco and stronger in our diplomatic efforts to persuade it that if it wants to be accepted as a normal trading partner, with normal membership, the illegal occupation cannot be allowed to continue. The people of Western Sahara deserve better than that.

Last week I was at a conference in Madrid, organised by the Autonomous university of Madrid, attended by eminent lawyers and professors. We went through the legality of the situation, but also the simple human aspects, such as the march by women of Western Sahara alongside the sand wall, a heavily-mined “defence” facility constructed by Morocco. What is that about, apart from being a terrible waste of resources and an indictment of what illegal occupation and militarism bring us to? Let the people of Western Sahara go back and look after their own land, and live off the abundant resources that lie under it, and the fish in the sea beyond it. Otherwise, it will become the powder keg for yet another war, more killing and more misery.

I want to begin by expressing my condolences to Edwin Dyer’s family, following the announcement during Prime Minister’s Question Time that the Prime Minister had strong reason to believe that he had been murdered. Having read what has been put on the website of those responsible, I am left in no doubt that that, sadly, is the case. The case of Mr. Dyer—his being kidnapped and held in Mali and Niger, and his being sold on by local tribesmen to Algerian members of al-Qaeda—shows that several countries and terrorist groups in north Africa are at the heart of the problems of the region.

I thank the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) for obtaining the debate, because I served on the Select Committee on International Development, and I cannot remember there being a debate on aid to north Africa during those five or six years—or in my eight years in Parliament. In addition to the value of the hon. Gentleman’s speech and that of the hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn), and the interventions, the debate itself was a good idea. I question some of the issues that the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham raised, but the very fact that that he raised them is good.

There are issues about giving overseas aid to middle-income countries, and there are other problems in considering the question of the poorest people in the world. The poorest people live in Africa, but the majority of poor people live not there, but in other countries, some of which are middle-income countries. There are 150 million people in Uttar Pradesh—one state of India—and 50 million of those live below the poverty line. African countries have much smaller populations, and individual states in India have 10 times their population. Uttar Pradesh has 10 times the population of Mali. There is a problem when DFID must decide where to tackle the requirements of those most in need; some of those who are most in need receive nothing. I think that is part of the point of the debate.

I am aware from previous visits that I have made that branding is an important issue. I was with the Chairman and other members of the Select Committee following the earthquake in Pakistan. New housing had been put up, funded by UK taxpayers but erected by Norwegians, and local people thought it was Norwegian housing. However, I understand that there are risks in attaching the UK flag to projects in some developing countries, because they can become targets for hostile groups. Often, as the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) mentioned, there are problems with host countries—not least Sudan—and the sending of direct UK aid; the aid must go through agencies. There is a problem in dealing with countries such as Sudan whose Governments are, as the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham said, part of the problem, not the solution.

I agree that there are certain cases in which it would be controversial or difficult to shout from the rooftops that aid is from Britain. However, there are countries, such as Kenya, which I visited with the Select Committee, where it would be totally appropriate. The villagers we spoke to in the most northern village in Kenya that we visited said they were rather disappointed that they had not known that that was British aid. They feel a great empathy with Britain and were rather startled by how quiet we were about explaining what we were doing.

That reflects the view of the many people in Pakistan who asked why the British Government were not doing more, even though there is a huge Pakistani community in this country. DFID had in fact done much work, but that was not known on the ground.

I am glad that this debate is taking place. Sudan was mentioned earlier and I hope to mention it later because it is a key focus of the region’s problems. As has been mentioned, there is a lack of food and medical supplies there and the camps are becoming permanent because of the problems. DFID has done a lot of work there and ought to have due credit for it, but there is always much more to be done. When arguing for more direct overseas development aid, wherever it goes, we must press for it to be spent effectively. When we hear stories of birthday celebrations that cost more than the aid to the region, we know that there is a real problem. I genuinely have no problem explaining to my constituents, even in the poorest parts of the constituency, why more money should be spent on increasing our aid expenditure, but they want to see it spent effectively.

On that point, when I visited Kenya recently with the International Development Committee I read all the national newspapers, and I found that the debate there during that time focused on what types of Russian helicopter and plane should be bought for the Ministers, at a cost of hundreds of millions of pounds. That was in the national papers every day. I was so disappointed that while we are giving them £50 million in aid, they are spending hundreds of millions on luxury helicopters for themselves.

I must not be distracted because there are too many other issues I would like to squeeze in during the remaining time, but I will say that problems have arisen before in Kenya, as they have with the military hardware that India purchases and the air traffic control system in Tanzania.

I would like to focus on the fact, which was mentioned earlier, that UK bilateral aid expenditure to north Africa fell from £3.5 million in 2003-04 to £0.5 million in 2005-06 and then to zero in 2007-08. We cannot, however, ignore the amount of money that we, as major contributors to the European Union, spend that works its way to our near neighbours. That is an important reason why we must be aware of what is happening in countries that are effectively our near neighbours. Many people go from the UK to Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt on holiday, as it is a short flight away, but we also see on television that there are problems there with terrorism and migration, and they are right on our doorstep.

The challenges in north Africa are certainly different from those in sub-Saharan or west Africa, and while the need to reduce poverty in the whole region is perhaps not so pressing because it has oil wealth and other riches, there are nevertheless continuing economic and political problems in north Africa that ought to be of key concern to the UK. Mali, for example, is one of the world’s poorest nations, so it is natural to ask why it receives no aid.

Perhaps the biggest challenge facing north Africa, from a security and development perspective, is the growing spectre of al-Qaeda in the region. Since the foundation of the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat and its official siding with al-Qaeda, the threat of fundamentalism in Algeria and across north Africa has grown. Members will recall that in 2008 militants from al-Qaeda abducted the UN special envoy, Robert Fowler, and his assistant, Louis Guay, near Algiers. Their release in April 2009 was welcomed across the world. Meanwhile, security forces in Morocco have clamped down on several militant cells, arresting, trying and jailing their leaders. Having blamed four incidents in 2007 on al-Qaeda and al-Qaeda-inspired groups, security forces are said to be on the lookout for militants who are believed to be crossing into Morocco from Algeria. There were also the Madrid train bombings in 2004, which killed almost 200 people, as it was accepted that they were the work of a Moroccan gang.

Now that a significant number of al-Qaeda fighters are leaving Iraq after the latest military offensive, north Africa appears to have attracted the largest number of returnees. According to reports confirmed by officials and analysts, there is a new arc of potential terror in the region, across Libya, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco. For anyone who believes in the war on terror, the next bout could well be fought and based in north Africa, but I question the entire concept of a war on terror, which developed in the Blair/Bush era. We cannot frame our commitment to development and aid in the region without being aware of that growing threat.

Anyone who is in any doubt about the pressing need for our aid policies to react to those shifting realities need only look to Morocco, where Islamists cleverly exploit gaps in Government services to their own advantage. While preparing for armed action and terrorism, they have created a range of charities offering the services that the Government fail to provide, such as interest-free loans, medical care, scholarships, support for newlyweds and subsidised travel to Mecca. All are handled under the umbrella of the Justice and Benevolent Foundation, an old branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. If we cannot help those Governments to provide the essential goods and services their people demand, the ground will be fertile for potential extremists to fill the vacuum and reap political influence and legitimacy.

Conversely, by sharpening our aid-giving we can directly and drastically reduce the attractiveness of militant groups to local populations. While it is right that we base aid on humanitarian need, we must nevertheless accept that the danger of Governments collapsing in countries such as Mali, where there is a growing fear of al-Qaeda influence, would fatally undermine development goals across the entire region. Aid to north African nations must focus at least in part on securing strong and capable states that can provide for the people and thus reduce the attractiveness of al-Qaeda and fundamentalist doctrines. That regional approach to aid ought to be a key feature of our aid policy, that of the European Community and other multilateral programmes to which we are donors.

As Members have mentioned, there is a huge problem with refugees moving from western and sub-Saharan Africa to north Africa, and often then to Europe. Can the Minister confirm whether we have considered what further use we could make of the European neighbourhood policy? EU-north African relations are a good test of the ENP’s capacity to improve the EU’s relations with the region, and Morocco in particular, with which we have managed to construct a solid relationship, has been portrayed as a good partner with the EU. Does he believe that the ENP gives us the chance to develop those relationships with the entire region, and if so, what are we doing through the EU to lead action on that? I know that the European Mediterranean policy, a close cousin of the ENP, has faced criticism over its approach. I am sure that I am not alone in wanting to know what lessons can be learnt.

In addition to the problems with al-Qaeda, the whole of north Africa suffers from the problems of climate change, but unfortunately I do not have time to discuss those today. I will briefly raise the problem of arms exports from the UK. I believe that too many arms exports have reached north Africa and caused problems in the region. Time has beaten me, so I shall conclude there.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Bayley. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) on securing this timely and important debate. He spoke with great passion and knowledge and certainly gave me, and, I am sure, the Minister, enormous food for thought.

One of my hon. Friend’s key points was to highlight the different approaches the Department for International Development takes to low-income and middle-income countries. Indeed, I saw that at first hand when I travelled to Guatemala last year. It is a bizarre country. The first thing one sees after leaving the airport is a Porsche garage, and within half an hour’s distance from the city one is up in the hills with people living on less than $1 a day. As the Chairman of the International Development Committee, the right hon. Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce), said, we should perhaps look again at how we treat middle-income countries.

My hon. Friend commented on the branding of UK aid. That may be attractive to some, but, on the basis of personal experience, having served as a development officer in Helmand in Afghanistan for a time, I would urge a degree of caution. The last thing we wanted to do there, as we were trying to build a sense of loyalty to a central Afghan Government, was to brand everything with a UK flag. That would have been counter-productive, but there is no one-size-fits-all approach. We must look at each case individually.

My hon. Friend also spoke briefly about Sudan. We have concerns about how DFID support is being delivered there, and we need to look at that again to ensure that it is done effectively.

The hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) also made an interesting and informed speech. He cautioned against this debate crossing between the Foreign Office and DFID. For my own part, I intend to stick firmly with the DFID side of the debate, and I am sure that he will forgive me for that.

DFID’s website clearly states that its core role is

“to make sure every pound of British aid works its hardest to help the world’s poor.”

It goes on to say that the Department’s first target is to

“reach the millennium development goals…by 2015.”

Conservative Members may have some concerns as to how effective the Department is in achieving those aims, but, none the less, they are aims that we support. For example, we agree that reaching the millennium development goals by 2015 should be a core priority for any British Government, which is why the Conservative party is committed to achieving the UN target of 0.7 per cent. of gross national income spent on aid by 2013. It is also by following the core aims that we can help to define the UK’s approach to aid to north Africa.

From the latest figures that I have—they are slightly confusing—the UK allocated close to £2.8 million of bilateral aid to north Africa in 2007-08. That is a marked reduction from the £19.68 million in 2006-07 and considerably lower than the one-time high of £42.9 million in 2004-05. Indeed, the last time the Department itself gave bilateral aid was in 2006, when £519,000 was given. As my hon. Friend said, that has since reduced to zero. Does the Minister think that such levels of aid will continue?

To be reasonable, it would be superficially easy to criticise the considerable reduction in aid to north Africa, but the move is consistent with the stated aims of the Department: that UK aid should be spent where each pound will have the greatest impact on poverty, thus levering the greatest influence on helping to reach the millennium development goals. But what aid should we give to north Africa? It still faces its fair share of challenges in respect of democracy, as highlighted by the hon. Member for Islington, North, a lack of press freedom, especially in Libya, and poor maternal mortality, to name but a few.

However, it is important to note that none of the countries in the north African region—Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Morocco and Tunisia—are on the United Nations list of the least developed nations. The gross domestic product figures for Egypt and Algeria are $162 million and $159 million respectively—more than New Zealand—and GDP figures for Libya and Algeria are higher than those for Croatia or Luxembourg. Those facts are underlined by the UN MDG monitor, which is an initiative that tracks each country’s progress towards the millennium development goals. It records good to mediocre progress in the region. Indeed, four countries have made particular progress in delivering the millennium development goals.

Algeria is on track to meet the goals, and is poised to achieve both social and economic progress. If we take employment rates, for example, we can see that unemployment in Algeria has dropped from 27 per cent. in 2001 to 12.7 per cent. in 2008, and maternal mortality has declined from 117 per 1,000 births in 1999 to 96 per 1,000 in 2005.

Egypt has partially tackled its hunger and under-nourishment problems. Only 5 per cent. of Egypt’s children are now chronically underweight. That figure is still too high, but it is a vast improvement on a decade ago. More impressively, 95 to 97 per cent. of children of both sexes are enrolled in primary school education. Egypt is well on track to meet five of the eight millennium development goals.

The UN development programme’s 2005 report declares that all Libya’s millennium development goals are on target to be met within the appropriate time frame. Under-five mortality rates have dropped significantly from 160 per 1,000 in 1971 to 30 per 1,000 in 2001, and 90 per cent. of children of both sexes are enrolled in primary education.

Tunisia has made considerable progress in achieving the millennium development goals and is set to meet the majority of the targets by 2015. That impressive development has been spurred on by Tunisia having almost 100 per cent. of children of both sexes enrolled in primary education. Unfortunately, Morocco, while superficially booming from sun, sea and sand tourism, is struggling to keep pace with its north African neighbours. The MDG monitor suggests that a fully literate work force will not be achieved until 2040.

Further progress is required, but it is clear that north Africa as a region is making progress towards achieving the millennium development goals, especially when compared with other parts of the African continent. It is therefore our belief that the UK can spend its aid budget more effectively by focusing on the least developed countries which, on the African continent, would primarily be in sub-Saharan Africa rather than the middle-income countries in north Africa.

However, as with everything, there is a question of balance. It is not that we believe that north Africa should not receive any aid. UK bilateral aid has decreased significantly, but UK taxpayers’ money continues to be spent via multilateral institutions such as the World Bank, the African Development Bank and the European Union. I would like to take a moment to look at some of the ways that that money is being spent.

There are several successful UN and World Bank projects in north Africa, which help to foster both social and economic development. For instance, the World Bank’s poor peri-urban neighbourhood water provision scheme will have provided 11,300 homes in Morocco with basic water and sanitation by 2010.

Likewise, the African Development Bank is also working hard. It has its headquarters in the region, in Tunis. When I spent a week there last year on an internship with the ADB, I visited several projects in Tunisia indirectly funded by British taxpayers via that bank. Of particular interest was a development just outside the capital: a major road project on the coast, which is aimed at increasing tourism. It is an impressive project, but it speaks volumes that Tunisia is sufficiently advanced in its development programme that it can focus on tourism projects rather than the provision of basic amenities for its population.

There is a similar picture elsewhere in the region with ADB projects. Egypt has received support for power projects, and the principal work of the bank in Morocco is in strengthening the Government. Libya and Algeria have had no requirement to borrow from the bank at all.

Putting our contributions to multilateral institutions to one side, there are other ways that we can help north Africa to develop and not only meet, but surpass the millennium development goals and become a viable trading partner of the UK. Notwithstanding our concerns at the effectiveness of the delivery of aid via the EC—that is a debate in itself—we could, for example, look at helping the EC strengthen and build on its European neighbourhood partnership initiatives, which would help to boost economic growth in the region.

The ENP instrument was developed in 2004 to promote prosperity, stability and security in the EU’s new neighbours after its enlargement. The ENP offers a privileged relationship to neighbours who share the EU’s common values of democracy, human rights, the rule of law, good governance, market economy principles and sustainable development. The ENP rightly does not pre-empt the accession of countries and is not an alternative. It simply sets out to strengthen the economic and social interaction between the EU and its neighbours.

Currently, Algeria, Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia are members of the ENP, and Libya’s future inclusion is under negotiation. The EU and each of the countries have drawn up an ENP action plan to be carried out between 2007 and 2010 or 2013, depending on the country. Perhaps it would be appropriate to spend a few moments looking at how the action plans will help north Africa to continue to develop and meet its millennium development goals—on the other hand, perhaps not, as we are running out of time.

The ENP supplies not only binding treaties that have development at their heart, but a means by which to monitor progress in meeting the targets. What is more, treaties have not been forced on nations but are drawn from the priorities of the host nations—in this case, north African states—and the EU to strengthen the interaction between neighbouring regions. That said, given our major contribution to the EC and the fact that it is the key player in the region, I would ask the Minister what steps his Department is taking to strengthen the delivery of aid via the EC.

Although it is a relative term, north Africa is better placed than other regions both in Africa and the rest of the world to meet the millennium development goals. UK bilateral aid to the region has declined, but the UK taxpayer continues to support the region through other multilateral institutions, in particular via the European Community. The Conservative party will continue to monitor the situation. However, I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for securing this very timely and important debate.

It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Bayley.

I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) on securing this particular debate. He may not know it, but I shared an office for four years with his predecessor as the MP for Shrewsbury and Atcham, Paul Marsden, so I can say to him that the voters in his constituency certainly elect colourful and interesting characters to be their Member of Parliament.

I obviously want to discuss some of the comments that have been made about the Government’s support for the north African region. First, however, I want to express the Government’s sympathies to the family of Edwin Dyer, who was so barbarically murdered by terrorists in Mali. As has been said at Prime Minister’s Question Time, our thoughts are with his family.

The debate began with the hon. Gentleman saying that he felt that someone had to be “some sort of nutter, fanatic or extremist” to question the work of the Department for International Development. I would never, ever refer to him in that way. Indeed, I welcome well-informed and evidence-based challenges to the work that DFID does, because I do not believe that we can stay the best development agency in the world by resting on our laurels. I welcome challenges and prompting along those lines.

I also want to point out what were perhaps contradictions in the hon. Gentleman’s arguments about the assistance given to middle-income countries as compared with low-income countries. He said that a third of the poorest people in the world were living in middle-income countries and more should be done to help them. At the same time, he argued very strongly that UK aid to China should cease and he also argued that India should go it alone. I would hazard a guess that that third of the poorest people in the world are living in China and India. I urge caution about the nature of the argument that he makes, if he is so passionate about helping those people.

Our policy towards middle-income countries was raised by the International Development Committee, as the right hon. Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce), who is the Chairman of that Committee, mentioned. I would just add that, with the White Paper that is being discussed, there is an opportunity for individual MPs, and even the Committee as a whole, to contribute towards developing that White Paper, including making a contribution on our policy on middle-income countries.

I also feel strongly about branding. There is a case to make for better branding of the things for which the United Kingdom taxpayers pay. Indeed, I sent the hon. Gentleman, along with all colleagues in the House, an e-mail that showcased our work on Gaza. In that e-mail, he will see a picture of four Toyota Land Cruisers being supplied by the UK with a DFID logo and a big Union Jack on the side, to show that the UK taxpayer was making a contribution and effort in Gaza. However, that is not something that can be applied in each and every circumstance where aid is given, as the hon. Member for North-East Milton Keynes (Mr. Lancaster) suggested.

DFID tries to provide 90 per cent. of our funding to low-income countries, to enable us to hit the millennium development targets. That means that the bulk of our funding goes to Africa, Asia and parts of the middle east. The fact that the north African countries are typically middle-income countries means that they do not receive a large proportion of our bilateral aid.

However, as the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham said, a significant number of people in north Africa are living in poverty and facing major challenges, such as insecurity, conflict, breaches of their human rights, gender inequality, rapid population growth, unemployment and economic stagnation. Many Governments in the region are either reluctant or unable to take forward the economic, political, security and social reforms that are needed to tackle poverty and to pursue policies that promote peaceful regional co-operation. Therefore, DFID has adopted five strands in our particular approach to supporting north Africa, working in partnership with, or through, other organisations in the region.

First, DFID and the Foreign Office are helping to shape the EU’s European neighbourhood policy and the allocation of its aid budget, the European neighbourhood and partnership instrument. The ENPI covers 16 countries, including those south of the EU, such as Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Morocco and Tunisia. The ENP aims to secure mutual prosperity and stability, along with deeper political and economic integration between the EU and its neighbours.

The hon. Gentleman suggested that he was not really interested in what the EU was doing; he described EU aid as being “little” pots of money. I just want to put on the record the fact that as part of the UK’s overall contribution to the European Commission—a contribution of around 17 per cent. of the European Commission’s budget—the UK’s contribution to the ENPI is about £120 million a year, which is not a little or inconsiderable sum of money. Furthermore, in terms of the annual average allocation to countries in north Africa, Libya received €2 million, Algeria €55 million, Egypt €139.5 million, Morocco €163.5 million and Tunisia €75 million. Those figures are the annual average allocation to those countries for the period from 2007 to 2010.

We have worked in partnership with the Foreign Office to influence and implement the design of the programmes funded by the ENP, to ensure that the aid is delivered effectively and properly monitored. We also work to ensure that the programmes of the European Community, the EU member states generally and the European Investment Bank are joined-up and prioritise poverty reduction and economic development.

The second strand of our approach is delivered through DFID’s middle east and north Africa regional programme, whereby we support the work to tackle key barriers to development by stimulating economic growth and improving security right across north Africa. Our main intervention for the promotion of growth in the region has been through support to the International Finance Corporation’s private enterprise partnership for the middle east and north Africa, or PEP-MENA. That is a multi-donor trust fund that supports new investment and job creation and develops new income opportunities in Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Morocco and Tunisia among others.

The fund provides advice to companies and helps to improve their access to finance, making it easier for people to set up new businesses, especially small and medium-sized enterprises. It also helps Governments to develop public-private partnership projects and to introduce environmentally and socially sustainable business practices.

What advice is given to private sector companies on trading with Morocco where the goods bought or traded with are produced in Western Sahara?

I made a note about the EU’s relationship with Morocco and the trade between the two when my hon. Friend spoke. He will be receiving a letter from me explaining exactly the details of our policy on that particular trading issue.

The third strand of our approach to north Africa relates to security. As well as working with other Departments—the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence—we have targeted funding at think tanks, such as the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Middle East Centre, to produce evidence-based analysis on political and economic reform issues, which will encourage open and progressive debate. We also provide support to Transparency International to set up advocacy and legal advice centres in Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco and the occupied Palestinian territories. Those centres help to build up the capacity of civil society to engage citizens directly in the fight against corruption.

The fourth strand of our approach involves working with regional development partners who have significant influence on stability and economic development in the region. For example, I recently signed a partnership agreement with the Islamic Development Bank and we will be contributing to its statistical capacity-building initiative in the middle east and north Africa. That programme will improve the quality of statistics to increase accountability and give Governments the data that they need to help them to make better evidence-based policy.

Finally, the fifth strand of our approach is that we believe that securing good development outcomes in north Africa requires explicit engagement with the political process. Politics can make a difference between violence and the path to prosperity. It means giving the poor and marginalised a greater voice and greater opportunities in life. For example, time and again the evidence demonstrates that maternal health care is more likely to be improved where women themselves have a greater say in the policy formulation.

We will continue to work with the Foreign Office and through the EU and other partners to do more to support lasting political settlements, to build institutions to resolve conflict and to give a voice to the poor and the vulnerable. We will encourage states to provide basic security, justice and the rule of law, creating the stability that countries need to get on the path to economic growth.

The hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham mentioned UK support to Sudan. I just want to put on the record the fact that the UK is the largest European bilateral humanitarian donor to Sudan. We gave more than £55 million in humanitarian assistance to it in 2008-09. Furthermore, the UK provides 50 per cent. of the common humanitarian fund for Sudan and we have just given £36 million for 2009. That makes up the UK’s largest single humanitarian contribution in the world, and those figures would have been available on the DFID website.

The debate has raised some important issues, which I hope I have been able to address. The Government will continue to support north Africa as part of our wider approach to poverty reduction, working with our EU partners, multilateral organisations, non-governmental organisations and other Governments to make progress towards meeting the millennium development goals in all regions of the world.

Private Parking Companies

It is a delight to be under your chairmanship, Mr. Bayley; I have not had that privilege before. I am grateful for the opportunity to raise an issue that I am sure many hon. Members have come across in their constituencies: the regulation of parking on private land—predominantly land owned by businesses—and the enforcement of rules by privately run and contracted parking companies.

Let me say first that I do not advocate a state of affairs in which business owners are unable to maintain propriety over the parking spaces that they provide for their customers. I also recognise the work of the British Parking Association and many of its members to raise standards and improve practices in the private parking industry. It must be made clear, however, that the behaviour and attitudes of a significant minority of private parking firms are at best questionable; at worst, they are rude, aggressive, manipulative and potentially threatening.

I have called for this debate to raise the concerns of my constituents, to expose the opacity of the legal landscape in which the firms operate and to see whether my hon. Friend the Minister will give me some comfort in thinking that we can move some way towards finding a solution. Although the experience of my constituents does not relate specifically to wheel-clamping, many of the arguments that I shall make are relevant to the companies that impose wheel-clamping sanctions as well.

First, I shall highlight some of the experiences of my constituents in recent months, which initially brought the problem to my attention. In Stirling we recently had an example of what I can only suggest is questionable practice on the part of one particular private parking firm, even though it is apparently operating within the voluntary guidelines. It was able to access the details of the drivers—my constituents—through the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency, as it is a member of the BPA. My constituents have been subject to fines for wheels being inches “outwith the parking bay”. In fairness, the company has disputed that. Constituents have told of parking attendants waiting in their own vehicles, apparently ready to pounce as soon as someone leaves their car unattended. Again, in fairness, I have to say that the company denies that. My constituents have suffered at the hands of parking attendants who have not been clearly identifiable by their uniforms, contrary to the claims of the company involved, or who have failed properly to identify themselves when asked. Many elderly and infirm constituents have reported parking attendants being confrontational, rude and intimidating.

Many of those ticketed live on extremely limited means. The parking area to which I am referring covers an area where there are cut-price shops, which are attractive to people watching their budgets. Failure to pay the so-called reduced parking charge of £60 within the tight time scale of 14 days results in an increase in the fine to £85, which increases to £135 to cover “administrative costs”—I am quoting from the letters received by my constituents—if it is not paid within a further 14 days. I ask the Minister to compare that with the local police authority fine of £30, with 21 days to pay, and an option, if the owner challenges the fine, to request a court hearing.

It is not reasonable to expect my constituents who found themselves in that situation to be able to find £60 or £85 in the time scale given. If there was a breach of the deadline, they received even more threatening demands—letters that implied that non-payment could affect their credit rating or lead them to lose part of their wages. One constituent reported that she was receiving calls up to twice a day from what she believed was a debt collection company, demanding payment on behalf of the car parking firm for a fine that she claimed she had already paid. The tone of the calls was described to me as rude, patronising and threatening. The company could not explain what the £65 it was demanding was for, and in the end the woman was so fed up and distressed that she paid it by direct debit over the phone. She believes that she has now paid £135 in total.

Signage in the car park met the minimum BPA guidelines but, in my opinion and that of my constituents, it was improperly placed and therefore difficult to see. Only this week, a constituent sent me a photograph of a parking sign upside down at the bottom of a wall. I do not know how people are expected to see such signage. As the parking area had previously been free and was supposed to be free for people shopping in the area, the signage should have been sufficient to indicate that that was no longer the case.

The company will tell us that there is an appeals system, but it is flawed. First, it is conducted by the company whose operatives have handed out the fines in the first place, so it is someone’s word against theirs. A number of my constituents report submitting an appeal, receiving no acknowledgement and then receiving an automatically generated final demand for payment. Eventually, many of the fines were written off at appeal, but that was after a lengthy, stressful and very public process that caused great distress to my constituents. There is no margin for understanding and no middle ground. The attitude is far from constructive. I am only astonished that the business owners in the area did not see that the attitude was counter-productive and that it was detrimental to their businesses if customers were frightened of parking outside their shops.

I want to reflect on how this situation could have come about and to dwell for a few moments on the legal landscape. We have seen regulations passed to govern parking enforcement on highways and other local authority land with the Traffic Management Act 2004, along with similar legislation in the devolved regions and nations. There have also been welcome attempts by the Home Office to regulate the wheel-clamping industry with the Private Security Industry Act 2001 and its corollaries. However, the issues that I am raising go far beyond wheel-clamping, which, as the Minister will no doubt tell me, is not legal in Scotland.

With parking on private land, however, the situation is somewhat different. Currently, private parking is not governed by any specific legislation. In England it falls under the laws of contract and trespass; in Scotland it is purely contract law. In Scotland, by parking on private land, a member of the public is in effect entering into a contract with the owner. If they contravene the rules set out by the owner, such as in respect of parking bays, by exceeding the time allowed or in respect of patronage conditions and so on, they are in breach of contract. It is a mysterious contract to many, I have no doubt. It may be covered by contract law in Scotland, but then perhaps it is covered by contract law that covers aspects of life on a Great Britain basis.

Is it not also the case that car owners who intend to pay but need to go to a nearby shop to get change to do so are given no period of grace in which to do that?

I have not had time to go into all the examples, but what the hon. Gentleman describes certainly illustrates some of the experiences of my constituents in that there was no period of grace at all. I refer him back to my comments about operatives waiting in vans, giving the impression that they were ready to pounce as soon as someone came out of their car. I want to be clear that the penalty notice is not a fine. It looks and feels like a fine, people think it is a fine, but it is a notification of a breach of contract. Paying it is effectively an out-of-court settlement of a contract dispute, not a fine. However, none of that is much comfort to an elderly lady who receives an unpayable fine and a threatening demand letter. I shall return to the behaviour of some of those firms in a moment.

Any landowner—which could be anything from the local pub owner to the largest supermarket—can set restrictions for parking on their land. If they own the land on which they provide parking, they are free to enforce whatever rules they see fit. They are also free to employ somebody else to enforce those rules, which is where private parking companies come in. If a landlord enters into an agreement with one of those firms, the amount charged by the parking company, and who gets the revenue, is decided on an individual basis by the landowner and the parking contractor. Sometimes landowners will pay firms a flat fee, in which case the landowner will usually receive all or a share of the revenue from the tickets issued. In other cases, the landowner will pay the firm nothing on the understanding that it can keep all revenues from ticketing, however large.

There is no legal limit on the amounts that contractors can charge, and no oversight of how they enforce their charges. The parking industry’s representative body, the British Parking Association, is aware of that, but I suspect that it is no more enthusiastic about poor practice among parking firms than I am. Although it has made no particular criticism of the company that I have used as an example, it recognises that the poor behaviour exhibited by some of its members reflects badly on the entire industry.

The BPA has established an approved operators scheme, which sets out approved practices that should remedy the above concerns. However, as I indicated, the firm that I mentioned was a member of the BPA and the approved operators scheme. Although the BPA does not investigate individual incidents, consistent breaches of the rules by member companies could lead to exclusion from the scheme and from BPA membership.

The approved operators scheme is voluntary, and because the BPA is a membership organisation, its sanctioning powers are limited. No companies have been excluded from the BPA as a result of reported abuses. That reflects the BPA’s desire to keep member companies on board and retain some form of incentive for companies to comply with the scheme. Part of the way such companies work is by utilising the right of anybody to request keeper information for a vehicle from the DVLA. That can be done by post or—most likely in the case of a parking company that handles large amounts of requests—electronically.

The DVLA recently restricted electronic access to its vehicle keeper register to members of an approved trade association, which in effect means the BPA. That provides a stick—albeit a very small one—to add to the BPA’s carrots. However, I suggest that it exposes a potential conflict of interest for the BPA. As the registered trade association, it would be incredibly difficult for the BPA to act as both regulator and representative of the industry. In addition to creating a conflict of interest, it simply does not have the capacity to be all things to all parking firms.

I am delighted to see the Minister here today. However, I must be frank and say that I had some initial trouble in finding a Department to take this issue on. Eventually, I was able to confirm which Department had that responsibility, and that allowed me to submit a written question on 20 March 2009, column 1390W. I asked whether the Secretary of State would bring forward plans to regulate parking on private land, and I was told that the Department had no plans to do so.

It is not surprising that there is some confusion as to who in Government holds responsibility for this area. I would be happy to be proven wrong, but by my reckoning, we have the following range of responsibilities: the Home Office regulates clamping through the Security Industry Authority; the Department for Transport regulates on-street parking through the 2004 Act; the Department for Communities and Local Government is responsible for local authorities, which administer parking within their remit under the law that I have just mentioned; and the Ministry of Justice is responsible for contract law across England, which as I have said forms the legal basis for parking restrictions and charges on private land. I have not even mentioned the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform as having a role in this as well.

In Scotland, some of those matters will be the responsibility of the Scottish Government and a host of other agencies and Departments. We also have the BPA, which covers private parking firms that operate across the whole country and provides access to DVLA records as a GB-wide organisation. To tackle that problem, I suggest that we need to address not only gaps in regulation of the parking industry but—with the greatest respect—gaps in Government responsibility.

I will move on quickly to a couple of comments that I want to make on future measures. We must create a framework that addresses three aspects of the private parking industry: regulation, adjudication and representation. For regulation, we need a legal framework in which companies can operate, and the means to judge how they have done so. That requires a means of setting and assessing compliance and common standards. The adjudication of individual cases of grievance requires some sort of recognised, transparent and trusted appeals process that is fair to landowners and those who have been ticketed. Representation is needed to allow a continued role for organisations such as the BPA, so that it can represent its members without a conflict of interest, set standards of best practice and lead the development of the industry.

We all recognise the importance of allowing business owners to control the use of their land to their best advantage. I recognise that some of the issues that I have raised will require discussion with devolved Administrations to seek a solution. I hope that we will have the chance to begin to expose some of the weaknesses in the system, identify what needs to be done and set in motion the work needed to do it. I look forward to the Minister’s response.

It is nice to be with you again in the Chamber today, Mr. Bayley. At the outset, I want to congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Mrs. McGuire) on securing the debate. It is an issue of importance to many people.

There is a debate about where a motorist can leave his or her vehicle on land owned by an individual company or institution. As my right hon. Friend pointed out, those bodies are many and various. They can be schools, hospitals, large shops, complexes, or cinemas and other entertainment venues. The one thing common to all those places is that their land is not part of the public highway, and a member of the public has no automatic right to use it.

We all have the right to enjoy the use of our land as we see fit and—if it is large enough—to restrict access to it. Landowners are entitled to prevent unwanted parking, which includes the use by others of any parking facilities provided for visitors and customers. Therefore, they also have the right to charge for the use of their land and to put in place such charging schemes as the law allows.

On the other side, drivers have a responsibility to check when they park their vehicle that they are allowed to do so. They must undertake that requirement, but we should expect fairness and civilised behaviour from those whose business it is to enforce the rights of landowners—an issue highlighted by my right hon. Friend. Of course, that does not mean that a motorist who parks on private land is not protected by the law. A motorist may complain to the local trading standards office if a landowner does not provide in good time material information about the service that is provided. Motorists can complain to the Office of Fair Trading if contract terms are considered unfair. It should be noted that unfair contract terms are not binding on the consumer.

Motorists are at risk, however, if they trespass on land. Many of us will have used such areas ourselves—for example, when visiting a pub or restaurant—and will know that the land can be used only by the customers of that establishment. It is therefore unacceptable for people to leave vehicles there if they are not customers. Land can also be set aside for resident-only parking; again, not everybody can leave their vehicles there.

Landowners use one of three main ways to keep watch over who is using their land. One is to have barriers at the entrance and/or exit, which can often be seen in private car parks. The second is immobilisation and/or removal of the offending vehicle. The third is ticketing. The barrier is, perhaps, the most acceptable method, but it is not always practical for small areas such as shop or petrol station forecourts. Nor is it suitable if it is likely to cause disruption to traffic on the main highway—for example, if people are queuing on the road to get in through the barrier. Nevertheless, barriers have a role to play.

My right hon. Friend mentioned immobilisation, but it was not the key thrust of her speech. None the less, I can tell her that on 30 April the Government launched a consultation on the regulation of vehicle immobilisation businesses. We wish to curb practices such as unreasonably high release fees and inadequate signage, another important subject in today’s debate. To tackle unacceptable practices, the consultation seeks views on the Government’s preferred option of introducing a compulsory membership scheme for vehicle immobilisation businesses. You will not expect me, Mr. Bayley, to prejudge the outcome of that genuine consultation, but the Government are likely to introduce industry-wide standards for the size and visibility of signage, maximum penalties and control of payment methods.

That brings us to the third way of watching over those who park on private land—that of ticketing, the sending to the vehicle keeper of a request for payment or an excess charge for leaving the vehicle on the said piece of land. Developments in technology and the requirement for vehicle immobilisation operatives to be licensed have resulted in a number of landowners changing their enforcement methods from immobilisation to ticketing.

The Government’s view is that the disclosure of keeper data is fair and reasonable if there is a breach of civil or contract law—a factor highlighted by my right hon. Friend. Tracing people who do not comply with the conditions for parking on private land is regarded in most circumstances as reasonable. To ensure that the data are used responsibly, the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency introduced in 2007 a requirement that data could be obtained electronically only by companies that were members of an ATA—an approved trade association.

The only trade association accredited for the private parking sector is the British Parking Association. To obtain and keep membership of the BPA, a company must abide by a strict code of practice. The provisions of the code include the requirement for appropriate signs to be provided, which means that the contract for using that land would in most circumstances fall within the Government’s consumer protection legislation. Not only is there a need for signage, but to comply with BPA membership a company must have a contract with the landowner, use trained staff and operate dispute resolution procedures. Indeed, BPA companies are encouraged to use liveried vehicles and to use the BPA’s charge structure.

I listened carefully to my right hon. Friend’s comments about the experience of some of her constituents; I understand that the company concerned is a member of the BPA. What she said about the trouble and difficulties that her constituents have had with this company causes me concern. I have no doubt that the BPA will be aware of today’s debate, and the concerns raised here will do it no good. It must be well aware that one of its member companies is falling short of the association’s requirements. I will return to that issue.

I wish to clarify a couple of points raised by my right hon. Friend. I understand that the BPA investigates individual incidents if it believes that there has been a breach of the code of practice or if the DVLA receives a complaint about a company that it would like the BPA to investigate further. The BPA will work with such companies, usually to ensure that they understand the requirements and the standards that are to be met. I have known that happen in other examples, and there has been substantial improvement.

The Competition Commission is not concerned that the BPA cannot fulfil two functions at the same time, although my right hon. Friend said that it would be a conflict of interests, but it would be concerned if the BPA was the only organisation that the DVLA would consider for accreditation, as it would effectively hand the BPA a monopoly. That, however, is not the case. The BPA is the only organisation that has applied for and gained accreditation in the parking sector. The DVLA is happy to consider applications from other organisations for accreditation.

Under current arrangements, data can be obtained electronically only by recognised members, although they can be obtained manually by non-ATA members. However, we recognise that the provisions should be tightened, and in April we consulted on extending the requirement for membership of an ATA to all parking enforcement companies, whether data are obtained electronically or manually.

I am conscious of the time, and I want to cover most of the main points raised today. Legislation is already in being. For instance, the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 ensures that we receive service free of harassment. I recall the case raised by my right hon. Friend of the lady who had received a threatening telephone call. Under the Administration of Justice Act 1970, it is an offence to claim payment of a contractual debt in ways that cause alarm, distress or humiliation. We also have consumer protection legislation.

Given the points raised this afternoon, I believe that we need to continue our work across various Departments. There is no question about that. However, the BPA will be well aware of the cases raised by my right hon. Friend. We need to ensure that the strict codes of the BPA, which are normally followed through properly, are enforced in this case.

Back Pain Treatment (Costs)

It is, as always, a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Bayley, during today’s final debate. It is also a pleasure to see the Minister in his place; no doubt he has come hotfoot from his Department. As he well knows—I arranged a little pre-briefing for him—I shall address the issue of low back pain costs and the relationship to complementary and alternative medicine and integrated health care, and I shall refer specifically to the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence’s new guidelines, in which his Department no doubt had a hand.

I should like to provide some background. In 1914 the General Medical Council issued a warning notice to qualified doctors, directing that there should be no associating with unqualified persons or collusion with therapists using alternative therapies without the appropriate qualifications and registration with the GMC. We have moved on light years since then, and there have been three defining moments in the pursuit of the integration of complementary and alternative medicine in the health service. I say that with 20 years’ experience in the House, during which time, as the Minister knows, I have led debates on this subject on many occasions.

The first milestone came in the 1990s when the then Member for Loughborough, my right hon. Friend the Member for Charnwood (Mr. Dorrell), while Under-Secretary of State at the Department of Health, introduced guidelines stating that doctors could contract with complementary and alternative medical practitioners provided that they took clinical responsibility. That was the first time that the health service moved towards the provision of care with complementary and alternative practitioners. Running almost in parallel came the Osteopaths Act 1993 and Chiropractors Act 1994, which were introduced as private Members’ Bills. I had the honour to serve on both Committees. For the first time osteopathy and chiropractic were regulated by Acts of Parliament and started to develop their own registers, which were later recognised.

The second milestone was a House of Lords report in 2000 that, for the first time, officially categorised the different types of therapy into broad classifications, making it easier for legislators, the Department and Members of Parliament to think about complementary and alternative medicine. This debate focuses on disciplines in the first category—osteopathy, chiropractic and acupuncture, which are referred to in the new NICE guidelines. Some of the recommendations in the Lords report have been implemented, but others have not. In the nine years since, there has not been the growth in access to complementary therapies through the NHS that we might have expected, despite the enormous public demand for such services. There is a bit of a lag there.

The third milestone is the recent publication of NICE’s guidelines on low back pain. Finally, NICE has issued guidelines to physicians suggesting that complementary therapies, whether osteopathy, chiropractic or acupuncture, can be employed for a given period and that patients can use any of them. This is a tremendous breakthrough because, as I understand it, the guidelines are backed by carefully controlled studies that have given the Department the confidence to do this. Perhaps the Minister can confirm that. The guidelines open up wonderful opportunities for the further development and roll-out of complementary services in the health service.

In low back pain the Minister has found a wonderful target, given the massive amount of time taken off work because of it. It is a very big problem—not only is the Minister nodding, but so are you, Mr. Bayley. I could hardly receive a greater vote of confidence without going through the Division Lobby. But anyway, about 20 per cent. of people with low back pain—one in 15 of the population—will consult their GP about it. As an exercise programme, NICE has recommended a course of manual therapy, which includes osteopathy or chiropractic, or a course of acupuncture, and GPs can offer a range of options if necessary.

What are the problems? The first, which I hope that the Minister will talk about, is roll-out. How will people access these services across the country? Until very recently, most were provided privately. There is a postcode lottery. It is estimated that only 10 per cent. of primary care trusts refer any patients for osteopathic treatment, despite more than 7 million osteopathic treatments being carried out in the UK each year. What is the cost to the economy? In 2006, 175 million working days were lost, at a cost of between £103 billion and £129 billion. We are talking about astronomical sums of money. According to the Department for Work and Pensions’ figures, a combination of stress and musculoskeletal disorders accounts for up to 75 per cent. of work-related sickness. The Government could hardly have chosen a better target for this new policy.

Much action is needed, however. Studies have indicated the existence of a turning point: after four to six weeks the likelihood of an employee with low back pain returning to work rapidly falls. We need to be very aware of that window. Although the new NICE guidelines for persistent low back pain are welcome in increasing the options for patients and clinicians, I respectfully suggest to the Minister that we need to consider greater options during the stage prior to the sixth week.

I want to comment on the three main disciplines, and then address some other issues, such as the attacks made in the press, and the Health Bill, which no doubt the Minister is looking forward to considering—I think that Second Reading is on Monday. I have experienced all three treatments. Many years ago, I had a bad fall and broke some vertebrae in my back, and I am grateful to both osteopaths and chiropractors for putting me back together, rather like Humpty Dumpty—although hopefully sizeism is not an issue here. An American Senator said to me the other day that all health care basically relates to diet and exercise, and I am inclined to agree with regard to the origins of problems. But anyway, I must not digress, Mr. Bayley, because you might call me to order.

Osteopathy and manipulation, as distinct from physiotherapy, offer fantastic relief for people whose back matrix is out of order, and some very good studies have supported that conclusion. In 1999, the Royal College of General Practitioners concluded that osteopathic manipulation can provide pain reduction and an improvement in activity levels. The UK back pain exercise and manipulation—UK BEAM—trial, funded by the Medical Research Council, also came up with some positive results, as have other health service studies. For example, the Oxford and Buckinghamshire Mental Health NHS Foundation Trust found that

“rapid access to an osteopath can prevent or reduce sickness absence and allow employees to benefit physically from early intervention”.

Many of the press reports that have been positive about the NICE guidelines point out that the cost of bringing in such treatments will probably be, at the very least, no cost at all because of the savings made. The treatments may even have a positive outcome for health budgets at a time when we have an overburdened health service—we could make another speech on that and the Minister could reply. Anything that can reduce demand on conventional services and give surgeons more time to operate must be a good thing.

We have studies, such as the 1990 British Medical Journal study, that are very supportive of chiropractic. The Clinical Standards Advisory Group study in 1994 found that both chiropractic and osteopathy worked, and the Wiltshire study in 1999 also referred to the use of chiropractic. Although that is a good body of work, we need more research because then the Minister would feel confident in allowing other forms of treatment to be used. For example, cardiac, upper back, lower limb and circulatory problems could all be helped through chiropractic, osteopathy and acupuncture. A significant body of research supports the view that osteoporosis, post-operative pain, neck pain, headaches, nausea and vomiting can all benefit from acupuncture. I have used the treatment extensively to improve my own health. I believe that it has improved my eyesight, too, because I have had to reduce the strength of my glasses. I think that was due to the treatment of internal organs, which improved my ability to circulate energy. I have no scientific proof that that is the case, but I believe it to be so.

To help to pave the way forward, primary care commissioners need to be given effective advice. I have been asking for such advice in the Chamber for years. The time has come for NICE to give its blessing to osteopathy, chiropractic and acupuncture. Please get some advice out to health care commissioners about how to do that. We need a review of existing NICE guidance on complementary and alternative therapies. NICE has recently incorporated the National Electronic Library for Health into the newly launched NHS service. It will now be possible for NICE to review that guidance, which it has produced on a range of conditions, and to assess the potential to include CAM research bases there. There should be increased investment in CAM research, which could be modelled on that produced in the US or Australia. In Australia, there is the National Institute for Complementary Medicine, which might be a very good model for this country.

I was about to call you Mr. Deputy Speaker, Mr. Bayley. We used to call you that in what was the Grand Committee Room. We served on the Committee of the Channel Tunnel Rail Link Bill in that room for a year—long enough to walk to Madrid and back. Anyway, to return to the debate, I am concerned about some misleading attacks in the press by people who should know better. David Colquhoun, professor of pharmacology at University College hospital, states that despite all the evidence acupuncture is

“a rather theatrical placebo”.

He goes on to define chiropractic as

“an invention of a 19th century salesman.”

Such people are working in the Minister’s hospitals. Can he not send out a warning shot to them, to say that now that these therapies are available on the health service, we want no more of this nonsense about science? I look forward to the Minister’s reply.

Let me being by congratulating the hon. Member for Bosworth (David Tredinnick) on securing this debate about the cost to the NHS of treating back pain. He has quite clearly shown his depth of experience and interest in the subject, which he has gained from his personal experience and use of various therapies. Moreover, he does a huge amount of work in the House as the joint Chair of the all-party parliamentary group for integrated and complementary health care. I expected a fairly impassioned call for greater regard for complementary medicine, and I was not disappointed.

Anyone who has suffered from chronic back pain knows just what a debilitating condition it can be. In the worst case, it can devastate people’s careers, their family life, their leisure time and their entire psychological well-being if it is not properly addressed. The chief medical officer made that point abundantly clear in his recent annual report, which found that people with chronic pain are seven times more likely to quit their jobs due to ill health, and that a quarter end up losing their job.

I was interested in the figures that the hon. Gentleman mentioned. Regrettably, back pain is on the rise. It is at least twice as common as it was 40 years ago. Some 7.8 million people in the UK have suffered moderate to severe pain lasting more than six months. More than 1.6 million people develop back pain lasting more than three months.

The hon. Gentleman was right to point out the considerable financial cost to the NHS. According to one report published in 2000, the cost to the NHS of treating back pain stood at around £1 billion a year in 1998. We can assume that that figure has increased. He used some other remarkable figures about the wider cost to the community. The study that I have just mentioned demonstrated the price that was paid by the wider community. It estimated that the total cost to society was somewhere between £6.6 billion and £12.3 billion, of which lost productivity accounted for at least £3.5 billion. Clearly, we have an issue that we need to address, and to continue to address in the way that we have in the past few years.

The hon. Gentleman was right to emphasise the importance of effective treatment for those who are unfortunate enough to suffer from this condition. I definitely share his pleasure at the final clinical guideline on lower back pain that was published by NICE last week. As he said, that guideline is based on the best available evidence, and it provides detailed advice for GPs and other clinicians on what treatments should be considered for patients presenting with lower back pain for more than six weeks. That is an important step forward. Like him, I hope that it is a spur to encourage the NHS to do even more to help those whose lives are blighted by chronic back pain.

I should like to put on the record my thanks to Professor Martin Underwood, the chair of the guideline development group, to Professor Paul Watson, the clinical adviser, and to other members of the group for their very thorough consideration and for the clarity of the resulting guideline.

The work by NICE builds on the work that we have already done to improve access to specialist pain services of all kinds. The hon. Gentleman will forgive me for saying that, because of the amount that we have invested in the NHS, we have moved from a position in 1998 where the typical waiting time for access to specialist pain services was 16 weeks for non-urgent cases, a quarter of patients had to wait for more than 28 weeks and, in the worst cases, patients had to wait nearly three years to be seen. Thankfully, the situation is now much better. Waiting times for pain clinics, as for other specialist services, have been brought down to an absolute maximum of 18 weeks, and the average wait across all specialities is now four weeks for out-patient treatment, or nine weeks for treatment requiring an in-patient stay.

As part of that 18-week initiative, we are doing more to support local commissioners and clinicians in helping patients to manage chronic pain. For instance, we now have generic guidance to support the 18-week programme, and the Department of Health will be holding a series of regional seminars on chronic pain management, bringing together members of voluntary organisations, patients, commissioners and providers. All that should stand us in good stead in ensuring that the NICE guidelines on low back pain are properly implemented. I shall say more about that in a moment.

Let me turn to the role of complementary therapies, which was the central point of the hon. Gentleman’s contribution. He is right to state that complementary treatments, such as acupuncture and spinal manipulation, are represented in the guidelines, alongside the use of painkillers, structured exercise programmes and patient education. The Government’s position on back pain, as with all other conditions, is quite straightforward. We want to open up the fullest possible range of treatments to patients—but only if the evidence base is there to justify it. Our position on complementary therapies, as on any form of treatment that NICE considers, is that we keep an open mind. If the experts tell us that acupuncture or other forms of manipulative therapies, including chiropractic therapies, osteopathy or physiotherapy, can be effective, as they have done in this case, we are happy to see them added to the clinical armoury available on the NHS.

The hon. Gentleman was right to ask, “That’s fine, but is it going to happen in practice? Is it going to be delivered on the ground? Can we ensure that what is written in a NICE guideline is what happens in practice when a patient with back pain goes to a GP?” The NHS has proved to be very responsive on the issue of back pain in tending to its own staff. Interestingly, in 2003, the National Audit Office estimated that an NHS trust with a budget of £100 million was likely to be paying out £1.25 million for staff who could not work because of back injuries. I am delighted to say that since that time, the NHS has achieved a 7 per cent. reduction in lost days from musculoskeletal problems, so within the NHS at least, there is a strong awareness of the issue and action is being taken.

On implementation, NICE has developed detailed guidance on costings and commissioning, which is available on its website. Obviously, it includes advice on the full range of treatments set out. However, guidelines are just that. Decisions on what treatments GPs suggest for patients remain with GPs. They need to take into account the safety of a treatment, its effectiveness and the availability of suitably qualified practitioners, but they are obviously best placed to know the individual circumstances of the patient. Likewise, the commissioning of local services must remain at the discretion of local PCTs, based on their understanding of the needs of their local community.

Maintaining autonomy for local practitioners to make local decisions is paramount for running an effective NHS, even though it means some variations in services. The hon. Gentleman used the term “postcode lottery”. The Government believe—I hope he agrees with us—that the closer to the community and the patients we go, the better the decisions. It would be entirely inappropriate for a Minister to promote one treatment over others, however effective it is. Ultimately, decisions about the most appropriate treatment for a patient must be made by them and their GP.

A number of developments should help to ensure that the full range of NICE-approved treatments, including complementary treatments, gets a fair hearing with clinicians, commissioners and patients. First, last year’s Next Stage Review clearly set out a future for the NHS in which primary care services are increasingly influenced by the patient’s individual needs. The review clearly states that GPs and PCTs should have an innovative and entrepreneurial approach to developing new services for patients. We are beginning to see a culture change throughout the NHS that should encourage GPs and commissioners to be more creative, ambitious and flexible about the treatments they offer. That shift presents new opportunities for complementary and alternative therapies.

Will the Minister assure me that he will write, on the basis of this new development, a general instruction about the availability of the new service, so that there is no confusion?

As I said earlier, such decisions are ultimately a matter for the GP and local commissioners, who look at the NICE guidelines. I want to assure the hon. Gentleman that we are doing what we can to draw attention to the new guideline, which was published only last week. That will make a big difference. Generally encouraging the NHS to be more entrepreneurial and responsive, and to offer a full range of treatments, will have a direct impact of the kind that we would both like.

Personal health budgets, which we are piloting at this stage, could be a powerful mechanism to broaden the range of available options. We are not being prescriptive about the areas for personal health budgets that should be piloted, but through some 40 pilots, we want to investigate the use of personal health budgets to provide services for people with long-term conditions, which could include people with chronic back pain. The provisional pilots are still developing their proposals and we will know more about their scope in due course. However, in time, personal health budgets could indeed be another mechanism to support the wider use of complementary medicine in back pain relief, if, of course, the patient wants to go down that route.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned research. The Department of Health commissions research to underpin policy and practice in health and health care through the National Institute for Health Research and the Department’s policy research programme. Our research programme includes £3.4 million for a complementary and alternative medicine personal award scheme. That forms part of our research capacity development programme. The scheme supports 18 CAM researchers at the doctoral and post-doctoral level. They are developing a programme of research and nurturing the methodological skills of the more junior researchers in their teams. Their presence in the programme has allowed factors specific to CAM practice to be incorporated into approved research methodologies. That is an important step forward.

We are also funding complementary and alternative medicine evidence online, which is a collaboration between the Research Council for Complementary Medicine and the university of Westminster school of integrated health. That involves a detailed review and critical appraisal of the published research on specific complementary therapies, focusing on their use in NHS priority areas. The Department has also put money into research on the role of CAM in cancer patient care, and on the use of complementary medicine in primary care.

Finally, regulation is crucial when it comes to giving alternative techniques the credibility and respect that they need in the eyes of GPs and the general public. At present, there is no statutory regulation system in the UK governing the practice of complementary and alternative medicine, with the exception, as the hon. Gentleman said, of chiropractic therapy and osteopathy. As he said, he played an important role when, during his long service in the House, he sat on the Committees that brought the measures into being.

We will, however, soon be launching a public consultation on whether and how we should regulate practitioners of acupuncture, herbal medicine and traditional Chinese medicine. That comes from the recommendations of one of the working groups that were established in 2006 to implement proposals in the “Trust, Assurance and Safety” White Paper, so there is more work under way. Once the consultation is completed and when we have assessed the response, Ministers will make a decision on the way forward.

People with chronic back pain expect the NHS to do its utmost to help them to manage their condition. The new NICE guidelines will bring new clarity and choice to patients, in line with the Next Stage Review vision and the work we are doing to improve pain management in general. I expect clinicians and commissioners to pay equal attention to the full range of options that the new NICE guidelines advocate. The Government are playing their part to ensure that all scientifically proven treatments are considered on their merits, including complementary techniques.

The bottom line is quite simple: we want all patients to have access to the best possible treatments for them. I believe that the NICE guidelines are another important step towards achieving that for people suffering with the misfortune of chronic back pain. A debate such as this is another good opportunity to raise public awareness of the changes that are being made and of the enthusiasm of the hon. Gentleman and others for our work, and to ensure that patients, GPs and commissioners take the issue seriously and take it forward in the interests of the wider community.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting adjourned.