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Commons Chamber

Volume 495: debated on Thursday 2 July 2009

House of Commons

Thursday 2 July 2009

The House met at half-past Ten o’clock

Prayers

[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The Secretary of State was asked—

Bottle Deposit Scheme

Mr. Speaker, first, may I congratulate you on your election and wish you well in the years to come?

The Government believe that resources could be more effectively used in improving current systems than in developing a parallel system for deposits on drinks packaging. For example, improved household collections and developing the “Recycle on the Go” infrastructure are likely to be more cost-effective in increasing recycling and tackling litter.

I thank the Minister for his answer. Many of us here can recall collecting bottles to gain extra pocket money, but the matter is very serious, given that the UK recycles only 35 per cent. of its plastic bottles. Other countries have much better records—Denmark, for example, has a recycling rate of 87 per cent., so the difference is staggering—and they have deposit schemes, so it cannot be impossible to operate such schemes alongside kerbside ones. I hope that he will concede that a deposit scheme could have an enormous impact on reducing litter and the damage to our countryside and to parts of our towns. I would like to ask him—

I would like to ask the Minister whether he could re-examine the matter, undertaking a full cost-benefit analysis and considering what happens in other countries.

First, I should point out to the hon. Lady that we have had great success in recycling packaging in the past 10 years. The figures that I have obtained show that our recycling increased from 28 to 61 per cent. between 1998 and 2008. That means that we have recycled three and a half times more aluminium, four times more plastic, three times more glass, six times more wood and half as much paper again.

I remember taking my Corona pop bottles to collect deposits when I was a child, but we must consider the evidence on deposit schemes. In December 2008, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs published a report that examined the features of packaging deposit systems and the role that such systems might play in increasing recovery and recycling of single-use drinks containers—those made of plastic, aluminium, glass and so on—in the UK. The report, commissioned in consultation with stakeholders, reviewed deposit systems in four other EU member states. The report provided evidence for and against deposit schemes, but overall it supported the view that resources could be better used in other ways to encourage recycling and to tackle litter—

Order. May I say to the Minister that I am grateful to him for his generous remarks, but frankly we have made a very poor start today and we need to do a lot better?

Water Prices

I thank the Minister for that brief response. I hope that he will be aware of the rising and continuing anger of South West Water charge payers who, even after 15 years, are still paying substantially more for their water than people in any other part of the country; that is particularly true of people in Cornwall, which is one of the poorest regions in Europe. The Government simply cannot stand by and leave everything to Ofwat. What are they going to do to address that total unfairness, which has gone on for far too long?

I will tell hon. Members not only what the Government will do, but what we have done. We commissioned Anna Walker to undertake a review to examine those very issues, not only in the south-west, but across the UK. For those hon. Members who are not aware of this, I should say that the review reported its interim findings this Monday. The Government will seek to respond to that review in full when the full report is published, but we have indicated that we are aware of the particular issues in the south-west and we have to find a way to address them. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will attend Anna Walker’s forthcoming roadshow in the south-west.

Is my hon. Friend aware that the word on the street is that Ofwat is weak and needs to be shaken up or changed, that the private equity owned water companies are getting away with blue murder and that consumers are getting a raw deal? When is he going to do something about Ofwat?

My goodness, I am having to deal with some challenges today, Mr. Speaker. I also hear the opinion that Ofwat is far too strong and rigorous sometimes. What I would say to reassure my hon. Friend is that this Government introduced clear, explicit social and environmental guidance and we expect that to guide what Ofwat does. It has to make its own decisions and it is an independent economic regulator, but we have to ensure that issues of social justice, affordability and so on are properly taken account of, too.

Only yesterday, I passed to Ofwat a letter from the treasurer of the 1st Droitwich Spa scout group expressing concern about a likely increase in its water charges from £50 to £1,000 because of run-off charges. That will force the group to choose between a much-needed new roof for the scout hut or an increase in subs for the 60 beavers, cubs and scouts, which they could ill afford. What comfort can I give the 1st Droitwich Spa scout group?

The hon. Gentleman can give it the comfort that this Minister has met both the regulator and United Utilities and will continue to put on the pressure. It is right that the dialogue between the independent economic regulator and the water companies is the way they define how they will take their regime forward. I am clear that there should not be disproportionate impacts on groups such as community hall groups, scout associations, churches and so on. The great thing is that United Utilities has applied a moratorium in order to examine that very issue in its area. I am looking forward to learning the outcome of that shortly, because I hope that it will guide the way for future decisions.

Does my hon. Friend accept that a social tariff especially for large low-income households is essential if they are not to be clobbered by huge increases under water metering, and that Ofwat is unlikely to approve such tariffs without clear and firm guidance from the Government? Will the Government issue such guidance as a matter of urgency?

My right hon. Friend will know that that is the very reason that we set up Anna Walker’s review—to consider issues of affordability, social tariffs and how water metering can play a role not only in water efficiency, but in driving down costs, especially for low-income households, and measures to tackle water poverty. We need to look in the round at Anna Walker’s interim report and to respond in full to her final report to deal with the very issue that my right hon. Friend raises.

Mr. Speaker, may I add my personal congratulations?

Why has the Minister not put in the draft Flood and Water Management Bill his response to the Cave and Walker reviews, and why is he not giving a clear sense of direction to the water industry and a clear sense that the Government are on top of those issues?

The hon. Lady refers to the Cave review, as opposed to the Walker review, which has been out to full consultation. We said that we would respond to it in full. There is nothing that precludes the Government or the regulator from acting on what is in the Cave review: we do not have to wait for another pricing review. We have to ensure that whatever we propose in the Bill next Session deals with the important issues, including those that were raised by Pitt in his review—we said that we would act on those. We also need to deal with issues of flooding and so on, and we will get on with that.

Single Payment Scheme

3. What recent steps his Department has taken to reduce the overall cost of the single payment scheme. (283378)

4. What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the operation of the single payment scheme. (283379)

The Rural Payments Agency has made a year-on-year improvement in the timing of payments under the single payment scheme. For scheme year 2008, at 30 June it had paid out around £1.625 billion, representing more than 99.6 per cent. of the estimated total fund.

The agency has been working to reduce the administrative costs of the scheme, as well as to reduce the burden on farmers. A number of initiatives to improve the process of claiming payment have been introduced, including online applications and the issuing of claim forms that are part-completed. Those initiatives ensure that the overall process is easier and quicker.

Yes, but given our commitment to further reform of the common agricultural policy, is it not time to cut back the escalating cost of the single payment scheme, which is £1.6 billion in this country and £25 billion across Europe, and is expected to hit a staggering £35 billion in 2012? As well as the cost to taxpayers and consumers, is it not against the interests of young farmers if landowners are paid £100 an acre whatever they grow? Does not that just increase the threshold to get into the profession?

I assure my hon. Friend that we are committed to reforming the system. The health check has in recent years made the system less bureaucratic and fairer. We are continuing to press in Europe for a move from pillar 1 to pillar 2, which would make it less bureaucratic and easier for young people to come into farming.

Single farm payments are supposed to allow farmers to cope with a market that is unfair, but each payment last year cost the taxpayer £742 to administer. Some 14,645 payments of less than £400 were made, including 636 of less than £50. Will the Minister consider introducing a minimum claim value of £250 to £300, which would reduce bureaucracy without damaging hard-working family farmers?

As a result of the CAP health check, we are in the process of introducing new de minimis options. DEFRA is consulting on the new minimum of between one and five hectares. The Rural Payments Agency’s performance has improved dramatically in recent years, since the great difficulties of a few years ago. For 2009, for example, the target of paying 75 per cent. of claims by value by the end of January was met on 20 January; the target of 90 per cent. by value by the end of March was met on 10 March; and 104,000 farmers have been paid, with only 400 residual claims to be sorted.

Some years ago, my hon. Friend—as I shall call him—the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams) and I were both Members of the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs when it was holding an inquiry into the disasters of the single farm payment. The process has improved considerably, but is the Minister aware of the problems with the rural land register, which is at the heart of the single farm payment? Some 120,000 farms in England have received their maps recently, but those maps are showing remarkable things, such as hedges and walls that were demolished or removed in the 1950s, neighbourhood land being attached to farmers’ holdings and so on. What confidence can we have that the single farm payment in 2010 will be based on accurate data?

I can reassure my hon. Friend and the farming community that the mapping procedures being conducted now will not affect this year’s payments. There are 28 days for farmers to respond to the maps that they have received. We have been in touch with the RPA already. I have a meeting with the RPA chief executive next week and the mapping arrangements are at the top of the agenda. I met National Farmers Union representatives at the royal Norfolk show yesterday, where they expressed their concerns about the matter—[Interruption.] As my hon. Friend the Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle) says from a sedentary position, I am wearing a Norfolk Young Farmers Club tie to demonstrate my appreciation of their generosity yesterday.

In conclusion, there is concern about the mapping. We are aware of it, we are dealing with it and we will ensure that it will not cause problems such as those that we have seen before with the RPA.

I refer hon. Members to my entry in the register.

I am sorry, but the Minister’s answer is just not good enough. At the heart of the single payment scheme is the RPA. The RPA is sending out the wrong maps, again, to farmers and is giving them just 28 days to respond at the busiest time of the year. That shows that the RPA is still an incompetent organisation. At his meeting with the chief executive next week, will the Minister intervene to stop that process and remind the RPA that there is something called a harvest, which means that farmers are at their busiest at this time of the year and that they have to be given longer to respond to the mess?

I assure the hon. Gentleman that that item will be at the top of the agenda next week. We are aware of the anxiety that it is causing. As I have said, it will not affect the payments for this year. A pilot exercise was conducted with 1,000 farms to try to ensure that the roll-out would be as efficient and accurate as possible. We need to update the maps because they are static maps and the situation is changing regularly. That process will allow us to put them online, which will make it easier for farmers in the future. We are hearing some concerns and some complaints, and the RPA is responding to the farmers who contact the agency. I will make sure that the matter is top of my agenda in the weeks ahead, because we need to ensure that we get it right.

The costs of running the single farm payment scheme are but one item in DEFRA’s budget. The Secretary of State has made it clear that, from 2011, his Department’s budget will be reduced. Will the Minister now outline what cuts in services to the customers of DEFRA the Secretary of State’s announcement entails?

Our Department, like all Government Departments, continuously reviews its budget and seeks to be as efficient as possible. There is no threat in the statement by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. We will continue to examine our budget and we shall ensure that the Department runs as efficiently as possible.

Rural Economy

While the economic downturn affects both urban and rural areas, analysis of data from Government Departments and the regional development agencies suggests that there is no significant difference between urban and rural areas and that, if anything, there is slightly more success in urban communities.

The Minister will be aware that one sector that has been hit hard by both rising costs and falling demand is the hill sheep farming sector. That is reflected in the fact that in the highlands, for example, more and more farmers are taking their stock off the hills. That has a knock-on effect on one of the industries that could buck the economic trend, tourism, because of the work that hill farmers do to maintain and support the countryside as a whole. What steps is the Minister taking to ensure that there is greater support for the hill sheep farming sector over the coming years of recession, to maintain the benefits that it brings to the wider community and the wider economy?

The upland entry scheme that we are about to introduce has been widely welcomed, and I hope that, when he sees the details, the hon. Gentleman will find some comfort in that. However, we fully understand and recognise that it is a serious issue, and we continually redouble our efforts to make sure that such matters are addressed properly.

May I add my own congratulations to you, Mr. Speaker?

It appears that the recession is already taking its toll on DEFRA, which has had its budget cut by £200 million since the pre-Budget report. Will the Minister confirm to rural communities that DEFRA’s budget is frozen for the next three years—what the Prime Minister would call a “zero per cent. rise”—which means that it will be cut in real terms?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that question, but the figures have been published and he is obviously capable of accessing and reading that information for himself.

Why does the Minister not at least have the courage to repeat what the Secretary of State admitted on “Any Questions?” last week, when he said that the DEFRA budget was “going to be less”? Rural communities are being hit hard in the recession and they want the truth about what lies ahead. Rising unemployment and debt interest mean that the Government’s own plans show spending cuts of at least 7 per cent. in every Department. Why will the Minister not be straight with rural people and admit that DEFRA is already making cuts and that, because of the Government’s mismanagement of the economy, spending will have to be cut even more?

I am not going to take any lessons from the hon. Gentleman about this. Let us be clear: if the Conservatives were in the government now, they would be cutting the figures immediately. We are looking very carefully at efficiency, because it is very important that we deliver value for money. We must make sure that what we do is not just good quality, but cost-effective and bears in mind the council tax payer and taxpayers.

Dairy Farmers of Britain

6. What discussions he has had with representatives of Dairy Farmers of Britain since it was taken into receivership. (283381)

May I take this opportunity to welcome my hon. Friends the Members for Poplar and Canning Town (Jim Fitzpatrick) and for Wansdyke (Dan Norris) to the DEFRA ministerial team? As we have heard already this morning, they are making a great impact.

I and my ministerial colleagues have been working with the Dairy Farmers of Britain members council, the receiver, Dairy UK, farm unions, banks, and charity and benevolent organisations to continue to help all those affected.

Many Dairy Farmers of Britain producers in Lancashire and Cumbria are suffering because of the collapse of their dairy business and associated cash-flow problems. Will the Secretary of State consider extending meeting the requirements of the nitrates directive by perhaps one year? Will he also consider bringing forward some of the single farm payment due in the autumn for affected farmers to alleviate some of their cash-flow problems?

I am only too well aware of the difficulties that farmers have faced, but let me take the opportunity to give the House the very latest information. Of the 1,813 farmers with Dairy Farmers of Britain on 3 June, 1,759 have found other buyers for their milk, 45 have retired or are in the process of retiring and nine have not yet decided. Given where we were on 3 June, that is considerable progress.

To respond to the two points that the hon. Gentleman raised, in theory it would be possible to try and advance single farm payments, but that might have a knock-on effect on other farmers. On the RPA, I have said throughout that the one thing that I am not prepared to do is jeopardise the recovery that my hon. Friend the Minister of State referred to. Secondly, we cannot delay the requirements on nitrate vulnerable zones further, but I remind the House that the new requirements on slurry storage do not have to come in until 2012.

What a pleasure it is to see you in the Chair, Mr. Speaker.

May I ask my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to pass on my welcome to my two colleagues who have joined him on the Front Bench? Food and food production are far too important to be left entirely to the advocacy of Members with rural constituencies. They are of importance to everyone.

I noted my right hon. Friend’s response to the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Wallace). Will he consider approaching the Office of Fair Trading and pressing it for its view on what is competitive in the dairy market? That would allow it to take a more pragmatic approach when mergers and changes happen in the co-operative sector.

First, may I say that it is very good to see my right hon. Friend in her new place? [Interruption.] At the last Question Time, I expressed my sorrow at her departure. To make it clear, I refer to the fact that she continues to take an interest in DEFRA matters. I thoroughly welcome that, and I thank her for her efforts in relation to Dairy Farmers of Britain.

On the role of the Office of Fair Trading, as my right hon. Friend will be well aware, a merger was proposed last year between two of the co-operatives, but it did not come off, not because of problems with the OFT, but because the two partners were not able to reach agreement. However, I will reflect on the point that she rightly makes.

When Parmalat went into administration in 2004, the Italian Government provided emergency compensation to the thousands of Italian dairy farmers who were affected and the European Union agreed to waive state aid rules. Why do the British Government not provide similar support now to the thousands of British dairy farmers affected by the collapse of DFOB?

The most important thing that we have done, as I have just informed the House, is work with all the partners to try to ensure that farmers can find other buyers for their milk. Considerable progress has been made, although one should acknowledge the position of workers in the creameries and dairies that have not been able to be bought by others. The dairy industry is facing longer-term problems because of the difficulties in the world market. Through the dairy supply chain forum, which we established in 2003, we are working with the sector to look ahead. There is over-supply at the moment, but the longer-term prospects are slightly brighter.

The most important issue for most farmers is, of course, the lack of the milk cheque. Will my right hon. Friend at least talk to PricewaterhouseCoopers about the fact that, although some people obviously knew how desperate the state of the company was, milk was supplied and has been purchased by various outlets? Is it not right that those outlets pay the farmers for the milk that they have received and that PWC ensures that that is done as a matter of urgency?

If others have contractual obligations, it is clearly very important that they are met, but we have made further progress in the past week or so because of Milk Link’s offer to purchase the rest of the milk—milk that had not been bought by other buyers—at a price of 18.45p a litre, as opposed to the 10p a litre that the receiver was offering.

The Milk Marketing Board was scrapped under the Conservative Government and its successor, Milk Marque, was broken up under this Government, all in the name of free and fair trade, yet dairy farmers are now receiving as little as 10p a litre for their milk in the aftermath of the break-up of Dairy Farmers of Britain. I wonder to what extent that constitutes a free and fair market. Will the Secretary of State undertake to do two things now? First, to prevent a disastrous loss of capacity in the dairy sector, will he underwrite the unpaid May milk cheque for Dairy Farmers of Britain? Secondly, will he intervene to prevent unfair trade by introducing a powerful food market regulator, to prevent buyers from exploiting farmers from all sectors in this unfair, unfree and unbalanced food market?

First, I cannot give the hon. Gentleman the answer that he wants on the payment of the milk cheque. Secondly, as he will be well aware, the Competition Commission has been consulting on the idea of an ombudsman and seeking agreement with the supermarkets and others. At some point in the not-too-distant future, the commission may come back to ask the Government to form a view on that, and we will consider it very carefully at the time.

On the dairy industry more widely, I simply say that there has been a huge increase in productivity. Although if we look back over 20 years, we see that milk production has declined a bit from about 14 billion litres to 13 billion litres, the dairy industry in Britain is much more productive than it was.

The situation is very serious. I represent hundreds of farmers, who were receiving 10p a litre, which is totally unacceptable and not sustainable, when the company went into receivership. First, we need the Secretary of State to call for a full inquiry into what has happened in Dairy Farmers of Britain. Secondly, we need him to help to fund the shortfall. Why did the banks foreclose when the farmers were owed the most money and the banks could therefore receive the most from the receivership? We need a full inquiry, we need support to ensure that those farmers are compensated, and we need him to see what help he can give.

Order. Before the Secretary of State replies, may I mention what will be apparent: questions are fast becoming threesomes and some trimming is required?

To be honest, I am not sure that an inquiry is required. Dairy Farmers of Britain had problems and in the end, despite the efforts of the members, it was not capable of being saved. I agree with my hon. Friend that receiving 10p a litre is impossible for farmers, and that is why Milk Link’s offer to all the remaining farmers to buy at an average of 18.45p a litre is to be welcomed.

Common Agricultural Policy

The common agricultural policy was one of the issues discussed at the last EU Agriculture Council that I attended, which was in Luxembourg on 22 and 24 June, during the Czech presidency. I look forward to continuing discussions under the Swedish presidency in the second half of the year.

In December 2005, Tony Blair surrendered the British rebate, which Mrs. Thatcher negotiated, on the false promise that the CAP budget would be slashed. Last year, the UK paid £3 billion to the EU; next year, it will pay £6.5 billion. How many teachers, police officers and nurses will have to be cut to pay for that?

The health check that I mentioned earlier provided much of what the UK wanted. Negotiations on the future are already under way informally, as was evidenced by the discussions that took place in Luxembourg last week. We are intent on making sure that we can reform the common agricultural policy to the benefit of Britain and British farmers, and to the benefit of Europe, and we continue with that policy.

Will my hon. Friend please assure the House that when he sees his European colleagues, he will get them to recognise that security of food supply requires a premium? That is not merely a handout for farmers; it is to allow farmers to work towards supplying us with our food. We should never slash and burn it, or run away from supporting our farmers in this country, as the Conservative party would.

My hon. Friend makes an important point. We are intent on making sure that the reforms to the CAP are in the direction of travel that he wants us to take. We had discussions last week that will clearly lead to intense negotiations in the months and couple of years ahead on the next round of the CAP and the next round of the European budget. There may be a new Agriculture Commissioner later this year, and the Lisbon treaty may have an impact on how the negotiations proceed in the years ahead. There is a lot going on in the background and we are intent on protecting British interests.

Very recently, the Secretary of State persuaded the rest of the EU to allow him to keep set-aside. It is widely rumoured that he will announce at the royal show next week that he will accept the voluntary approach. If he does, we will support him, as that would be the right decision. Does he agree that the success of the voluntary approach should not be measured simply by what area of land is taken out of production? The objective is to improve biodiversity. Will he reject the simplistic arguments made by some organisations in favour of setting targets on the area of land, and will he instead set targets on indicator species of birds, animals and invertebrates? That is the only way to really tell whether we are improving biodiversity.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is considering the conclusions and will make an announcement shortly, as has been trailed. Clearly, the issues are complex, as the hon. Gentleman has outlined. He knows better than I that whatever decisions are made to improve biodiversity and the ability of species to prosper, it will take some years to be able to demonstrate that that has happened. I assure him that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is taking all those complex matters into consideration and will make a statement shortly.

Economic Downturn

8. What steps his Department has taken to assist farmers and the agricultural industry during the economic downturn. (283383)

In difficult times, agriculture overall is doing well. Farming incomes increased by 36 per cent. in real terms last year and there was a record wheat harvest. The UK exported £12 billion-worth of food and drink in 2007. However, some sectors are facing difficulties and farmers have been able to benefit from the help that the Government are giving to all businesses.

What is my right hon. Friend doing to ensure that, in the economic downturn, agricultural workers receive proper training?

In April I convened a meeting of all those who have an interest in skills in the industry, and the industry has undertaken to come back to us with its plan. We are providing support through Fresh Start, funding for new businesses in rural areas, Train to Gain, apprenticeships, and of course the new land-based diploma for 14 to 19-year-olds, which will be available from this September.

These are difficult times and some farmers with land in my constituency have not received their single farm payment from four years ago because of the difficulty in ensuring that cross-border applications are properly instituted. Will the Secretary of State please respond to me if I supply details to him, so that we can obtain some relief for those farmers?

Exotic Animal Disease

9. What proportion of the costs of dealing with exotic animal disease outbreaks will be met by farmers under his Department’s cost-sharing proposals. (283384)

Proposals on how responsibilities and costs for animal health could be shared with livestock keepers in future have been the subject of a three-month consultation. Final decisions will be taken in the light of responses to the consultation.

DEFRA assumes that in a typical year, whatever that is, the costs of coping with such outbreaks might be £134 million, of which £65 million would fall on the Government and £69 million on the industry. The Secretary of State now proposes that the industry shares half the Government’s costs, effectively meaning that farmers will pay 70 per cent. of the overall bill. Are not DEFRA’s estimates of the overall cost of preventing such outbreaks too high, and is not the proposed burden sharing unfair?

The figures that we published in the consultation paper were illustrative, but the fundamental principle is about whether it is right to share responsibility for taking decisions about animal disease. My view, and that of the industry, is that it is. Indeed, the industry has long argued for it. Is it then unreasonable in the circumstances to share some costs of handling disease outbreaks, as we have done with blue tongue? It is not. Indeed, it was a recommendation of Iain Anderson after the 2001 foot and mouth outbreak. It is important that we get on with the process. Indeed, Germany has had a disease levy for several years.

Dairy Industry

10. What his most recent assessment is of the future prospects of the dairy industry; and if he will make a statement. (283385)

The long-term prospects for the dairy sector are encouraging, and the UK is well placed to take advantage of the expected growth in global demand. The British dairy sector as a whole is fundamentally sound, and, through the dairy supply chain forum, we are providing a framework for constructive debate and information for the industry to make informed decisions about its future.

Is the Minister aware of the particular vulnerability of small dairy farms in remote locations, such as the North York Moors national park, as the big dairies cherry-pick the accessible farms with the big herds? What does he think would be a fair price for milk to secure the future of such businesses for generations to come?

Setting the milk price is a commercial matter to be resolved through private negotiations that should take place within the parameters set down by competition law. The market must determine prices. I fully recognise, however, the different challenges that remote farms face and which the hon. Gentleman raises. They can be exacerbated by the fact that such farms tend to be smaller, as he describes, and unable to provide the quality of milk to make collection commercially viable. In the case of DFOB farmers, we have ensured that the parties involved have got together to make haulage costs more viable. That is one way in which remote farms could look after their business interests more collectively.

Please will the Minister listen to small dairy farmers, in particular, who will tell him that the dairy industry is far from secure in the long run? Indeed, what thinking is his Department undertaking to determine the future strategically—in terms of Britain’s food supply and, in particular, its raw milk supply? The prospects are so bleak that farmers are convinced that there will be no milk production in this country within 10 or 12 years unless we do something about the matter.

I hear what the hon. Gentleman says, and his less than optimistic description of the industry. I chaired the dairy supply chain forum 10 days ago at the Department, and the impression that I got from industry members, including farmers, National Farmers Union members, dairy supply chain representatives and retailers, was one of optimism and positivity, notwithstanding a reduction in production from 14 billion to 13 billion litres and a reduction in the number of dairy farmers over the past 12 months. The overall position for the industry, however, looked very encouraging.

Food Waste

11. What estimate his Department has made of the volume of wastage of edible food arising from date stamping and food labelling practices; and if he will make a statement. (283386)

The Waste and Resources Action Programme has estimated that 370,000 tonnes of food that is past its “best before” date but still probably safe to eat is thrown away by householders each year. The “best before” date is an indicator of quality rather than of food safety. I have no comparable statistics for the commercial sector.

I welcome my hon. Friend to the Dispatch Box and thank him for that reply. A number of my constituents have contacted me expressing real concern about the extraordinarily high level of edible waste that disappears into dustbins. They feel that we should be able to attack the problem in a number of ways. First, individuals should ensure that they do not waste as much food; secondly, supermarkets should cut back on their three-for-two offers, which encourage over-buying; and thirdly, the food industry should buy into the labelling. What additional help will the Government offer, and when does my hon. Friend expect the Food Standards Agency review on labelling to report?

I thank my hon. Friend for her comments. The key thing is that energy from waste is only one part of the picture; the Government’s priority is to consider waste prevention, reuse and recycling ahead of energy from waste. I do not have the specific answer to my hon. Friend’s question, but I will write to her with it.

Dairy Farmers of Britain

12. What recent discussions he has had with farming organisations on the taking into receivership of Dairy Farmers of Britain; and if he will make a statement. (283387)

As I said in answer to an earlier question, my ministerial colleagues and I have been working with a wide range of organisations to continue our efforts to help those affected.

In answer to a question from the hon. Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle), the Secretary of State said that he saw no need for an inquiry into the failure of Dairy Farmers of Britain. However, last August the co-operative issued an annual report that by any standards contained a preposterously over-optimistic assessment of its future. Given that so many farmers have lost so much money already and stand to lose even more, will the Secretary of State confirm that when he or his ministerial colleagues are considering the failure of the co-operative, they will take into account the actions of the directors who authorised that annual report?

I understand the hon. Gentleman’s concern on behalf of the farmer members. For some while, it has been no secret that Dairy Farmers of Britain was in difficulty; the House is well aware of that. Ultimately, of course, the directors are responsible to the members of the company. For reasons that the House will understand, we have been concentrating our efforts on trying to help those affected. The single most important step that we can take is to try to find alternative buyers for their milk.

Marine Conservation

13. If he will seek discussions with his US counterpart on UK-US co-operation on marine conservation worldwide. (283388)

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State met Dr. Jane Lubchenco, head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in the US, when he visited the United States in May 2009. They discussed the UK marine strategy and the impacts of climate change on marine ecosystems.

I welcome the Government’s close dialogue with the new US Administration on all things marine. However, does the Minister agree that, given the Marine and Coastal Access Bill, common fisheries policy reform and so on, we are increasingly becoming a leading reformer on marine fisheries issues globally?

It is an important agenda, and it is rising both in the public mood and among politicians. We need to consider how we bring marine and fisheries issues together within CFP reform, take a long-term view, base decisions on the science and better equip regional management. Furthermore, we are considering the Marine and Coastal Access Bill at the moment in Committee. The agenda is rising, and the Government are committed to playing a leading role in it, domestically and globally.

I am pleased to hear that the Minister takes the issue seriously; anyone who has read Charles Clover’s excellent book “The End of the Line”, or seen the film, will know that we have to hurry to make sure that we preserve our marine species. Monaco represents the Government’s next opportunity to fight to make sure that the bluefin tuna gets a convention on international trade in endangered species listing, and that the EU does not put together some cosy deal cooked up by southern states, thus splitting our strong and important sense that the species should be preserved.

The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. I have seen Charles Clover’s film and I have read his book—in fact, I met him the day before yesterday. [Interruption.] I have the T-shirt. We are as committed as any European nation to dealing with the bluefin tuna issue. We are awaiting with interest a possible proposal from Monaco and the US, and we will respond accordingly at the appropriate time. Like many other European nations, we are concerned about bluefin tuna.

Recycling

14. What recent discussions he has had with local authorities on waste recycling targets; and if he will make a statement. (283389)

Local authorities have made great progress in increasing the rate of recycling. I am encouraged that 85 per cent. of them have chosen to include a waste target in their current local area agreements to ensure they continue to prioritise this important area. I have not had any recent discussions with local authorities about waste recycling targets. My officials regularly meet representatives of local authorities to discuss all aspects of waste management, including recycling targets.

Household recycling has certainly improved considerably, but will Ministers talk to local councils about the recycling of material in public places, particularly at transport sites—railway stations, tube stations and bus stations—where, for example, lots of newspapers, especially free newspapers, are all over the place on a regular basis? That is an issue that should be of concern both nationally and locally.

I certainly agree about free newspapers, which pose a particular challenge that we take seriously. I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman feels that the Government have been doing positive things in this respect, but I completely accept that we need to do even more. Recycling on the go is something that we need to be thinking hard about in the years to come.

Commercial Waste

15. What recent representations he has received from the small business sector on arrangements for the disposal of commercial waste. (283390)

Officials from my Department have been in discussion with the small business sector and a wide range of other interested parties about the management of commercial and industrial waste. Later this month I hope to publish a statement of our policy objectives for these types of waste, which will include a list of actions to help achieve those objectives.

The local waste disposal site for commercial use in my constituency has been closed for refurbishment for nearly a year, which means that small businesses have to travel to larger sites in neighbouring towns where the charging regime is much more rigid. A sole trader who could previously have disposed of a small load for £5 now has to pay a minimum charge of £58 per half tonne. In the statement that the Minister is going to make later this month, will he consider the impact of rigid charging schemes, particularly the consequential increases in fly-tipping?

I completely accept that there are difficulties in this regard, and we need to think carefully about them. However, there are some good examples of local authorities raising their own initiatives to deal with circumstances that are not exactly the same as those that my hon. Friend’s constituents face, but are not dissimilar. I am certainly happy for his local authority people to liaise with my officers and officials in order to work out a solution to the challenge that he has brought up.

Topical Questions

DEFRA’s responsibility is to help us all to live within our environmental means. I wish to inform the House of the appointment of Christopher Parry as chair-designate of the Marine Management Organisation, which is to be established under the Marine and Coastal Access Bill. His appointment will be for three years from the point at which the MMO is created.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that reply. I was pleased to see the recent DEFRA consultation on amending the Animals Act 1971 to remove the threat of strict liability faced by responsible animal owners. That is one of the factors contributing to the crippling insurance costs now facing riding schools, disabled riding centres and livery yards. When will the Minister be in a position to give an update on the outcome of that consultation? Some of us have tried to fix this several times through private Members’ Bills and ten-minute rule procedures, and it really needs the Government to sort it out once and for all.

I share the view that the hon. Gentleman expresses. He rightly draws attention to the efforts that have been made in this House, unfortunately without success, to deal with this issue. We will publish responses to the consultation as soon as we can, because I recognise the concern that there is out there about the position that people find themselves in.

I welcome the Walker review on water metering and charging, which sets out for the first time the basis on which we can properly consider who should pay for the costs of environmental benefits such as the costly beach clean-up in the south-west. Will my right hon. Friend meet a group of colleagues from the south-west to discuss why this should be used to put right the very high prices that we have as a result of the botched Tory water privatisation?

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend and other hon. Members here today who have repeatedly led delegations to me to raise these issues. It is good to see that Anna Walker has been comprehensive in her response to those issues. The road tour in the south-west was particularly well attended by hon. Members, including my hon. Friend, and I am sure that they will attend the next one. She is right that we have to address this issue, and I look forward to meeting her soon. I am sure that she will keep up the pressure on me, and on No. 10.

Order. I am keen to get through as many questions as possible, and I remind right hon. and hon. Members that topical questions in particular need to be very brief.

T2. Does the Secretary of State agree that at a time of national crisis, the European Union contribution should relate to reform of the common agricultural policy? Should we not take a lesson from the Prime Minister and increase our contribution to the EU by 0 per cent., and save £3.5 billion? (283402)

I think we covered the arrangements for the CAP and its reform earlier. We will do everything that we can to protect British interests and ensure that it is as efficient as possible.

T4. When was the last time that the Minister met the water regulator to discuss the high charges that people are having inflicted on them at the moment, given the state of the economy? (283406)

Both my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I regularly meet the economic regulator. In fact, we have met within the past few weeks. As my hon. Friend knows, the pricing review is going on. We have to ensure that the water companies deliver for the consumer and deliver environmental benefit, within our social and environmental guidance. We will continue to advocate that.

T3. A decade ago, there were several dozen dairy farmers in the borough of Kettering. Now, the local branch of the National Farmers Union tells me that there are just two left. The new slurry storage regulations may well be the last straw. When will the Department introduce measures that reduce the cost of dairy farming in this country? (283404)

The legislation on nitrate-vulnerable zones dates from the early 1990s, and those who took positions at the time bear responsibility for the consequences. We have to apply the legislation as it is in place. As I indicated earlier, there is a specified period for farmers to take on the requirements for additional slurry storage, and as the House will be aware, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs has clarified there is access to a capital allowance for the construction of slurry stores.

T6. May we have a brief update on food labelling? I am increasingly receiving expressions of concern from my constituents about the dubious labelling of eggs and chicken. The packaging is designed to create the impression that the products are organic, free-range and produced in the UK, whereas the small print makes it clear that they are intensively farmed and imported from abroad. (283408)

My hon. Friend raises a very important point, and I can assure him that DEFRA is working hard on the matter. Labelling and country of origin are being examined, and we will come forward with proposals in due course.

T5. On Monday the Prime Minister launched the White Paper “Building Britain’s Future”. There is no reference in that document to farming, the rural economy or recycling. With the exception of a reference to the Flood and Water Management Bill, DEFRA is completely invisible in it. Why does DEFRA not seem to appear at all in “Building Britain’s Future”? (283407)

The hon. Gentleman points to the Flood and Water Management Bill, which is a really good example of our getting on with it in the light of the terrible floods that affected people in 2007. I simply say that the answers that the House has heard so far today clearly indicate a Department getting on with it and helping the farming industry to ensure that we can produce enough food.

May I press my hon. Friend the Minister of State on his earlier answer about country of origin labelling? Meat that comes from abroad is being sold under pictures of Union Jacks, which is tricking people into thinking that they are buying British when they are not. What specifically is being done to enforce honest country of origin labelling?

My hon. Friend makes an absolutely valid point. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has already pronounced that this is a nonsense situation. The matter was raised at the Agriculture Council last week in Luxembourg, and we are working as quickly as we can on it because we want exactly the same thing as she does.

T7. The Government rightly promote recycling, but is the Minister aware that Lewes district council’s recycling levels have effectively been capped at 27 per cent. by East Sussex county council, which will not provide further recycling credits because it wants a waste stream to feed its incinerator? Is it not about time that East Sussex county council was pulled out of the stone age and that councils that want to recycle more, such as Lewes council, which believes it can increase recycling by 50 per cent., were allowed to get on with it? (283410)

If the hon. Gentleman would care to write to me with the details of the point that he has just raised, I will happily look at them.

May I urge my right hon. Friend to hold to his intention of responding to the consultation on the so-called replacement insecticide with a voluntary scheme that will be workable and achievable and which will demonstrate our willingness to trust the farming community, which shares our concerns about the impact of agriculture on the environment?

I will announce my decision very shortly, but as I indicated to the National Farmers Union conference this year—and as my right hon. Friend will be well aware—in the end, I do not have a fixed view about the means of achieving the goal that we all share, which was set out well by those on the Opposition Front Bench earlier. In the end, we want an effective scheme that will work and, generally speaking, if we can encourage people to take part, we will get better results.

From his meeting with the farmers of South Staffordshire earlier this year, the Secretary of State will remember the acute concern expressed about bovine TB. Has he rethought his policy on a badger cull?

No, I have not—I believe in being straight—because the evidence from where badger culling has been tried, as reported by the independent scientific group, was clear. However, we are working with the industry through the TB eradication group. In the end, the considerable amount of money that we are putting into vaccines will, I hope, offer a better way of dealing with the disease. We are looking to start the demonstration projects next year, subject to licensing, in the six areas that are being identified now.

Further to the previous question, as an MP for a rural area for 12 years, I regularly contact the NFU in my area to track its concerns. Indeed, I am seeing the NFU as part of that schedule at Oaks-in-Charnwood on Monday morning. High on the agenda will be bovine TB, which is showing worrying signs of spreading towards our area and thereby posing a threat to herds, farm incomes and, potentially, health. I want to take this discussion to my local farmers, so will my right hon. Friend elaborate a little on his answer to the previous question?

In the interests of time and in keeping with the spirit of topical questions, I would be happy to write to my hon. Friend with further details. In the end, this is about doing things that will work. No one would thank us if we did things that did not work, although I understand just how difficult it is for the farmers who are affected by bovine TB. The testing programme that we have put in place is, in large part, about trying to stem the spread to other areas of the country.

Further to the question that my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) asked about DEFRA’s budget, could the Secretary of State tell us what informed his statement that his Department’s budget would be reduced from 2011 and say when he will publish details of what that means for DEFRA and the people whom it serves?

I did not say what the right hon. Gentleman has just indicated. What I was referring to last week was the published figures—they have been out for some time, although I realise that it has taken other people a little while to see them––which show the change between 2009-10 and 2010-11. As he will be aware, there are no budget figures beyond 2010-11, because that would be the subject of a future comprehensive spending review. What we are doing, as indicated earlier by my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Member for Wansdyke (Dan Norris), is spending money efficiently. However, like him, I am a little loth to take advice from a party that would cut budgets across the piece now.

Will my right hon. Friend inform the House when Ministers last met the waste industry with a view to considering proposals to reduce the amount of packaging and waste produced, the amount of waste going to landfill and the amount going into the production of energy? If we reduce the amount going to landfill, we will have more for energy.

We meet representatives of the waste industry on a pretty regular basis. Indeed, as the Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Wansdyke (Dan Norris) indicated in answer to an earlier question, we have seen progress in recent years in increasing the proportion of packaging being recycled. However, my hon. Friend is correct: the other part of the equation is about trying to reduce the amount of packaging that goes on goods in the first place.

What steps is the Secretary of State taking to stop or at least mitigate the worst effects of the introduction of electronic sheep tagging, which will have a disastrous effect on the farmers and crofters in my constituency? NFU Scotland is seeking a face-to-face meeting with Commissioner Vassiliou. Will the Secretary of State use his office to get NFU Scotland that meeting, so that it can put its concerns straight at the heart of matter?

As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, we have worked very hard to express the concerns of many people in the UK about the cost of electronic identification of sheep. He will also be aware of the changes that we have been able to get to the implementation of the directive under the slaughter derogation, and of the fact that the Standing Committee on Food Chain and Animal Health is looking at the idea of third-party recording, which would lift some of the burden that would otherwise fall on sheep farmers. I recently wrote to all my fellow Agriculture Ministers urging further support, and my hon. Friend the Minister of State raised the issue with the Commissioner at the recent meeting of the Agriculture Council.

As nationalisation is the flavour of the month, has the Secretary of State considered taking Dairy Farmers of Britain’s dairies at Bridgend and Blaydon into temporary public ownership?

No, we have not. However, as I told the House last week, we indicated to the receiver that we and One NorthEast would be prepared to offer financial support to keep the Blaydon dairy open while an effort was made to find a management buy-out. Unfortunately, it was not possible to achieve that and, for that reason, the dairy closed.

Business of the House

The business for next week will be as follows:

Monday 6 July—Opposition day [15th allotted day]. There will be a debate entitled “Young People in the Recession”, followed by a debate entitled “ID Cards”. Both debates will arise on an Opposition motion, followed by proceedings on the Consolidated Fund (Appropriation) (No. 2) Bill.

Tuesday 7 July—Remaining stages of the Finance Bill (day 1).

Wednesday 8 July—Conclusion of remaining stages of the Finance Bill (day 2).

Thursday 9 July—Motion to approve the draft Terrorism Act 2006 (Disapplication of Section 25) Order 2009, followed by motion to approve the draft Council Tax Limitation (Maximum Amounts) (England) Order 2009, followed by a topical debate, subject to be announced.

The provisional business for the week commencing 13 July will include:

Monday 13 July—Consideration of Lords amendments to the Political Parties and Elections Bill.

Tuesday 14 July—Remaining stages of the Borders, Citizenship and Immigration Bill [Lords].

Wednesday 15 July—Opposition day [16th allotted day]. There will be a debate on an Opposition motion, subject to be announced.

Thursday 16 July—Topical debate, subject to be announced, followed by a general debate on the climate change preparation for the Copenhagen conference.

I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for 16 July will be:

Thursday 16 July—A debate on the report from the Communities and Local Government Committee on housing and the credit crunch.

I thank the right hon. and learned Lady for giving us the business, and may I also thank her for at last getting this year’s draft legislative programme published? But will she explain what on earth has happened to the Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Bill? The former Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the right hon. Member for Salford (Hazel Blears), championed it on Second Reading almost exactly a month ago, and resigned three days later. Two new Ministers turned up to steer the Bill through the Committee, one of whom, the hon. Member for Portsmouth, North (Sarah McCarthy-Fry), arrived on the first day from the Department for Children, Schools and Families, and left on the last day for the Treasury. Now we learn from the draft legislative programme that there is to be a local democratic renewal consultation. Do the Government plan to run this consultation concurrently with the Bill? If so, what is the point of a Bill that precedes consultation? If not, are Ministers so ashamed of the Bill that they simply plan to junk it altogether?

Will the right hon. and learned Lady tell us what has happened to the motion that she agreed to table to refer the question of privilege raised by the arrest of my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Damian Green) to the Committee on Standards and Privileges? We were led to believe that this should have happened this week or even last week. After many months, this delay is not just annoying; it is beginning to get a bit rude. Will she definitely confirm that the motion will be tabled without further delay?

Talking about delays, may we have a statement on the time taken by Treasury Ministers to reply to Members’ letters? Apparently, in some cases, it has taken six months to get a response to what are often urgent constituency cases. That is shameful incompetence. I understand that the Ministers are all very busy trying to explain to the Prime Minister that there is no more money in the kitty, but may I ask the right hon. and learned Lady to remind them that their duty is to this House, and that Members who raise the plight of their constituents with them expect a prompt and full response?

Yesterday, the Prime Minister said:

“It would be wrong to have a spending review now… Because we are in the midst of a recession”—[Official Report, 1 July 2009; Vol. 495, c. 296.]

Yet later that day, No. 10 briefed that the Prime Minister had not confirmed a delay to the spending review. It is impossible to get a straight answer from anyone in the Government. Given that the Chancellor was forced to rebut the noble Lord Mandelson’s suggestion earlier this week that the autumn statement would be binned, will the right hon. and learned Lady tell us who is telling the truth and whether the Government will publish their spending plans before the next election?

May we have an urgent debate on the plight of students from poorer families under this Government? In the Prime Minister’s first week in Downing street, he said that teenagers from less well-off families would be guaranteed greater support at university. Now we learn from a written statement from the higher education Minister that the Government have totally backtracked on that pledge. Student grants are to be frozen, while tuition fees are to be increased. Is that not just a further indication that the Prime Minister is incapable of being straight with people and that his cuts in financial support will undeniably mean that poorer students will struggle to get through their degrees?

I received a letter this morning from the Chief Secretary to the Treasury on Equitable Life. He says—slightly ambiguously in the manner of writing, I have to say—that there will be a statement before the House rises to update us on the progress of Sir John Chadwick, but will the right hon. and learned Lady confirm that this will definitely be a full oral statement, which will allow the House the opportunity to question the Minister on the Government’s plans to compensate those who have lost out? Does she appreciate that a written statement would be an insult to this House?

Finally, may we have a statement on vandalism in this House? Indeed, may we have an inquiry into who has been regularly defacing the Dispatch Box opposite me and in front of the right hon. and learned Lady? It would appear—I can see it from here—that the culprit strikes once a week with a black felt-tipped pen, and detectives have already noted that the gravest occurrence seems to be on a Wednesday each week at around midday? Does the Leader of the House have any inkling of who the culprit might be, and is she prepared to reprimand him in the strongest possible terms?

The hon. Gentleman asked me about privilege and what happened with the office of the hon. Member for Ashford (Damian Green). As he will remember, the House decided, following a request from the then Speaker, that a Speaker’s Committee would be established to look into search powers and the arrival of police on House premises. It was decided to set up such a Committee, but not before the police action had concluded, since when the shadow Leader of the House has asked for wider questions relating to privilege and criminal proceedings to be looked at. Discussions are under way on whether a two-pronged approach, involving the Standards and Privileges Committee as well as the Speaker’s Committee, may be necessary.

I have agreed with the hon. Gentleman that we should look more widely than at questions of search and seizure and take the whole question of privilege into account. What still needs to be finalised is whether we need the two Committees to achieve that or just the one. The shadow Leader of the House rolls his eyes, but I want to get right the number of Committees—not too many or too few—to deal with these issues.

We have agreed on the terms of reference, but we have not quite got there on the question of who should undertake the review. I hope and expect that we will get there in good time—possibly next week. With any luck, and if we can get agreement, we may not need a debate; we can just put it through on agreement, which is what I am aiming for. Sure as hell, if I put it through and get it wrong, there will be lengthy debates about it, which would be problematic. I know that the hon. Gentleman and all hon. Members will co-operate fully to achieve consensus so that we will not have to debate it further.

Of course Treasury Ministers are accountable to the House. It is important for there to be full accountability both in relation to parliamentary questions, written and oral, and in relation to letters from constituents. I know that the Deputy Leader of the House keeps a close eye on the issue of responses to questions, and I will look into the position at the Treasury.

Incidentally, what was said about Business Ministers’ reply times confused the issue of letters from the public with that of letters from Members of Parliament. Obviously all letters should be answered promptly and effectively, but Members of Parliament must have priority.

The shadow Leader of the House asked about the spending review. As he will know, we have set out the plans for all Departments’ spending until April 2011. In the past, they were informed of their spending only yearly.

As for students from poorer families, since we came to power we have made increasing access to further and higher education a massive priority, particularly in constituencies such as mine where, in some instances, no member of the student’s family has taken part in it. In my constituency alone, there has been a 300 per cent. increase in the number of young people going into further and higher education. That is due to a combination of increasing investment from the public purse and increasing investment from students—they pay the money back, but only when they obtain jobs—as well as extra grants and loans. I think that our record in helping young people enter further and higher education speaks for itself, and I must point out that the Opposition have never proposed, or even supported, an increase in provision.

As the hon. Gentleman said, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury will update the House on Equitable Life. I cannot yet say what form the update will take, but I am in no doubt about the keen interest in the issue among constituents of Members in all parts of the House, and I shall make that clear to the Treasury.

Many of our constituents rely on the services of Royal Mail, especially in rural north-east Scotland, and on the services provided by the Post Office. There has been a great deal of uncertainty and upheaval for both the Post Office and Royal Mail. We now hear that the Royal Mail Bill is finally dead, but what will the Government do to sustain the universal service and bring about the promised and much-needed reform of the regulator? Will another Bill be drafted in narrower terms to deal with the regulatory problems facing the Post Office?

The Leader of the House said—and I want to reinforce the point—that there should be an oral statement about Equitable Life from a Treasury Minister. It is rather worrying that it is not yet clear whether that will happen.

I am pleased that there is to be a debate on identity cards. I hope the Leader of the House will ensure that the Minister who responds to it will brief the House on just how much money has been wasted on them to date.

I hope that the Leader of the House has had a chance to study Hansard over the last three days. If so, she will have noted how difficult it was for Parliament to scrutinise the Parliamentary Standards Bill, and the trouble caused by the conflict with Parliament and privilege that resulted from its original drafting. Will she ensure that, when Lords amendments return to the House of Commons, there is plenty of time for them to be debated on the Floor of the House before the recess? It has not yet been announced when that will happen, but it is clear from the state in which the Bill left this House that a great many changes will need to be made in the House of Lords, and we must have time for them to be debated properly.

We will soon have a long recess in which Parliament will not be informed of events of national and major importance. Today, there is a major troop surge in Afghanistan. Will she make sure that the House is given a full briefing before we rise on the situation in Afghanistan and developments with that troop surge?

The hon. Gentleman asks about Royal Mail. We remain concerned that there should be fairer arrangements between Royal Mail and private mail services, and about the unlevel playing field in regulation. That remains a problem, and it will need to be addressed. We are determined that the pension fund liabilities should be met. But, as the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills said in the Lords yesterday,

“market conditions have made it impossible to conclude the process to identify a partner for the Royal Mail on terms that we can be confident would secure value for the taxpayer. There is therefore no prospect in current circumstances of achieving the objectives of the Postal Services Bill.” —[Official Report, House of Lords, 1 July 2009; Vol. 712, c. 222.]

The hon. Gentleman asked about Equitable Life. There is nothing surprising about my not yet being able to tell the House about the form of a statement that will be made to the House. It would be quite unusual to announce a week or so in advance whether something will be made by way of a written or oral statement. Obviously, I will convey to the Chancellor and Treasury Ministers the strength of feeling in the House. I raised the issue with the Chancellor this morning and keep him well aware of the concerns expressed by Members on both sides each and every week.

On ID cards, it is not a question of wasting money. Money has not been wasted on biometric passports, because the people who take out such passports have to pay for them. Public money is not wasted on biometric ID cards for foreign nationals; they are a thoroughly good thing that will help us to have secure borders. We can be clear with people that once their identity is established, they will be entitled to a visa and to come here without any problems. Airside ID cards will be proceeded with if Manchester and City airports choose to proceed on a consultative and voluntary basis, instead of the Government laying down how it should be done. We do expect that to proceed, so there will be no waste of money. If the hon. Gentleman is not clear, he can ask about it at Home Office questions next week. It is not too complicated to understand, even for him, challenged though he is on these issues. We are going ahead with the proposal on foreign nationals and his party has now, reluctantly, agreed with it. We are having biometric passports anyway and we are rolling out on a voluntary basis—[Interruption.] I will not repeat it, as the Speaker will rightly stop me. It is clear.

We had a programme motion on the Parliamentary Standards Bill. It is always difficult if we have to take action to deal with an issue of public concern. If we do not conclude the Bill by the time the House rises, we will not be able to return to it until October. We should use the summer recess to set up the authority, to recruit to it and to get it up and running, so that in the autumn we will no longer set or administer our own allowances, which will be done independently. There will be further time to discuss the Bill in this House if there are further amendments.

The hon. Gentleman makes important points about Afghanistan and I will look at the opportunities to have the discussions for which he has asked.

Order. I have a list of 27 Members seeking to catch my eye and I am keen to accommodate as many as possible, so, once again, I appeal to each hon. Member to ask one brief supplementary question, and, of course, to the Leader of the House to provide us with a pithy reply.

Will my right hon. and learned Friend join me in congratulating Katrina London, Jason Addy and Paul Glanville on undertaking the mesothelioma awareness ride? It will cover 12,000 miles from Glasgow to Southampton, and today they arrive in London. The intention, of course, is to raise awareness of mesothelioma cancer, which is caused by exposure to asbestos, and at the same time to raise funds for the victims and to support the establishment of a national centre for asbestos-related diseases. Will my right hon. and learned Friend support the setting up of that centre?

I congratulate Katrina, Jason and Paul on their mesothelioma awareness ride, and I congratulate my hon. Friend, who has probably done more than anybody in this House to raise awareness of this cruel disease, which mostly affects people through their workplace.

May I take the right hon. and learned Lady back to a point made by the hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Sir Robert Smith), which I fully support? The right hon. and learned Lady is meant to be the defender of this House, yet, rather shamefully, yesterday and the day before we allowed an unfinished and very untidy Bill to go through to an unelected Chamber with no further debate here at that point. As she will have seen when clause 10 was knocked out, some of us on both sides of the House were ashamed of what this House was presenting to an unelected Chamber for it to make decisions on our part. On that basis, will she ensure that when the Bill returns we do not have this guillotine, and we have one final chance to debate the measure in full with time to get it right?

I make no apologies for what I hope—and expect, and will take action to ensure—for this Bill. It sets up an Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority so that our allowances are set independently rather than by ourselves, which is what the public want and expect and we all in principle agreed to. The Bill needs to be in and out of this House by the time the House rises. We listened to all the points made in the debate yesterday, and, indeed, acceded to many of them and voted on many others. The Bill was, therefore, changed as it progressed.

Will the Leader of the House find time next week for those of us who disagree with the Justice Secretary’s decision to overrule the Parole Board on the Ronnie Biggs case to discuss that, given that we allowed hundreds of terrorists and murderers to go free in Northern Ireland, and we also allow murderers who have done much worse things than Ronnie Biggs to go free? The Justice Secretary overruled the Parole Board, which he could not do under today’s law. Will the Leader of the House find a way for us to discuss this matter and bring it to the House’s attention?

The Justice Secretary was acting in compliance with the law as it relates to people who were sentenced at the time of the Ronald Biggs case. My hon. Friend is right that the system has changed for future cases, but it has not changed for cases of that age. The Justice Secretary made his decision based on the evidence in, and facts of, the case, and on legal advice and his own judgment acting in a quasi-judicial capacity. This is not a question of policy; it is a quasi-judicial judgment in the public interest on a particular case, so I do not think it is an appropriate issue for debate in the House.

Bedford unitary council is preparing a bid for the improvement of its schools under the Building Schools for the Future programme while not knowing what the financial future of the programme will be because of the failure to provide a spending review. Crucial decisions that have to be made about the structure of schools are being made in the dark because of the absence of these figures. Will the Leader of the House use her position to convey to the Chancellor how important it is to have a spending review, so that these crucial decisions can be made in the full light of what the spending by the Department will be, as opposed to there just being empty political rhetoric about the future of schools’ spending?

As the hon. Gentleman should be aware, not only has there been unprecedented investment in schools over the past 10 years, but that investment is continuing this year and next year despite the fact that his own party has said it wants to cut spending this year and next year. He will also be aware that we are bringing forward capital spending across the two-year period up to April 2011. That is not only important for schools. It is also important for the construction industry to have that injection of public investment at a time when private sector construction has ground to a halt. Therefore, the hon. Gentleman can look forward to improving schools in his constituency.

May I, with great respect, take my right hon. and learned Friend back to the question of ID cards? It is a scheme that will cost £4.9 billion, and this week the Home Secretary announced a shift in policy. Would it not have been better for the Home Secretary to have made an oral statement to the House, rather than relying on the Opposition providing some of their time to discuss what is a very important issue that requires consideration not just by a Select Committee and individual Members during Home Office questions, but by the whole House?

I have to say to my right hon. Friend, with respect—[Hon. Members: “Oh!”] Well, he was respectful to me, and I am returning the favour. The situation is that we are proceeding with biometric passports and with ID cards for foreign nationals. The only change, which I would not call a shift in policy, is for airside staff at two airports; instead of the Government putting a requirement on airside staff in this respect, it should be dealt with airport by airport in consultation with the people who work there and those running the airport. Therefore, the figure my right hon. Friend announced is not right at all, and we have always said that if we want to make them compulsory for people aside from foreign nationals, we will have to bring primary legislation before this House. Therefore, as my right hon. Friend can see, there is a small change in one part of the policy, but there is not a fundamental shift in the policy at all.

I rise to request a debate in this House on behalf of the farmers of Exmoor on the digital mapping system that the Rural Payments Agency uses to allocate money to farmers. The agency has got it wrong for the third year running. This is now becoming beyond a joke. Why can we not get this mapping correct? We can read papers from space, so why can we not get field outlines right? Farmers are getting sick to the back teeth of this. Please may we have a debate on it? It is a disaster across the United Kingdom, but especially in places such as Exmoor where fields are not openly defined.

I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman tried to ask that question in Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs questions, but if he was not able to be present for them I shall draw his comments to the attention of Ministers.

My Friend told us that we can expect to have the Lords amendments to the Political Parties and Elections Bill on Monday 13 July. When will Third Reading be held in the Lords, and will the Government seek to reverse the amendment that would stop tax exiles bankrolling political parties?

When the Bill returns to this House on Monday 13 July, the Justice Secretary will set out the Government position on amendments made by the Lords.

I want to thank the Leader of the House for the answer she gave me at last week’s business questions, when she said my point about the scrutiny of Government Bills being House business was valid; I am grateful for that. She also said she would do two things that I asked of her. First, she said she would consult proposed members of the Wright Committee about the terms of reference before re-tabling. As I understand it, agreement has been reached, and it would be useful if she indicated when she is likely to do this. It would also be good if she could go through the motions of consulting those of us who are on the Committee, although I do not think there is a controversy. Secondly, she said she would consult people about her plans—

Order. May I gently say to the hon. Gentleman, who is an extremely experienced and assiduous parliamentarian, that this in danger of becoming an essay question, rather than a question?

The other thing that the right hon. and learned Lady said she would do was consult on how she would handle the Report stage of the Equality Bill, to ensure that we fully debate all the matters that the House would wish to debate.

For the Wright Committee, the House will recall that we put forward terms of reference and amendments were tabled by those in all parts of the House expressing the view that those terms should be wider. As we wanted to go about this business in a consensual way, we withdrew the resolution and we have drawn up some new terms of reference that incorporate the spirit of the amendments. We will not be going through the motions of consulting those who will play an important part in this process by serving on the Committee—we will actually consult them. As with the question of privileges, I hope that we will be able to reach agreement and not need a debate on this. I am also aware that once it is established, the hon. Members on the Committee will want it to sit in September, and will want to get the work under way before the House rises, so I shall get my skates on.

I give a warm welcome to the consumer White Paper, which contains proposals on consumer credit and debt that are very important to our constituents. Can my right hon. and learned Friend understand the frustration that some of us feel at the fact that the lead Minister on this important subject is in another place? When will this House get an opportunity to question Ministers about these important proposals that affect our constituents so closely?

A written ministerial statement on that matter was tabled in the House this morning, and I thank my hon. Friend for her words of welcome. Of course, there are Ministers responsible to this House as well as Ministers responsible to the other place, so I will draw her points to their attention.

Would the Leader of the House find it helpful to invite her Cabinet colleague the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government to make a statement next week about her policy on equality, bearing in mind the speech that he gave to the Fabian Society yesterday?

The Equality Bill is in Committee, and what it will do is very important indeed. It will ensure that we tackle age discrimination—discrimination against older people on the grounds of their age will be outlawed—and pay discrimination against women. It will ensure that we make progress on a range of other issues, and it will also ensure that all public authorities, be they local government authorities, health authorities or Departments, and indeed Ministers, play their part in ensuring that this country is a more fair and equal society. That Bill has the support of the whole Government, albeit not the support of the whole House. Unfortunately there is a division on the Bill—[Interruption.] It is not between those of us in the Cabinet; it is between us and the Conservatives, who declined to give the Bill a Second Reading.

In the light of the Government’s welcome announcement yesterday about the National Express east coast franchise, will the Leader of the House make time for this House to debate and reflect on the many issues arising out of that decision, which I believe have relevance to the national railway network as a whole?

I know that this is an important issue for my hon. Friend and his constituents. A statement was made on it yesterday, and no doubt the House will be kept informed of any further changes.

The “Building Britain’s Future” White Paper, which was published earlier this week, states in terms that

“the Government hopes that time will also be available in each House to debate this document.”

As responses have to be in by 21 September, can the Leader of the House tell us when we will have an opportunity to debate the White Paper? We were promised such a debate in the White Paper itself. That substantive document contains a lot of detail and I hope that we will have a two-day debate on it. If not, all we shall get is, as it says,

“Ministers…taking part in regional events”.

That would, in effect, be a pre-general election publicity stunt, with Ministers going around the country, rather than providing us with an opportunity to debate what is proposed.

The Prime Minister made an oral statement on this, and thus provided at least an opportunity for hon. Members to ask questions not only on the broader document, but on the draft legislative programme. I believe that this is the third year running that instead of keeping the Queen’s Speech completely under wraps and springing it on people towards the end of the year, we have set the contents of it out so that people can join in the debate, respond and give their comments. As for discussion of the White Paper in the House, if there is anything further to be announced I shall bring it forward when we next have business questions.

May I ask my right hon. and learned Friend whether she will find time for a debate on changing the procedures of this House? Can we have a debate on allowing Secretaries of State who are Members of the House of Lords to come to this Dispatch Box to make statements and answer questions? Yesterday, a statement was made in the House of Lords about the east coast main line and four hours later it was made in the Commons by a very able but junior Minister—that cannot be right.

The timing of that statement was dictated not only by the difference between the Lords and the Commons timing and scheduling of business on Wednesdays, but by market sensitivity and the need to say something before either the House of Lords or this House was sitting, because of market information. Obviously we try to ensure that we bring information to the House as soon as possible. This was a question of balancing the need to ensure that very important and controversial House business was not interrupted by the need to ensure that the House had an opportunity to question the transport Minister. I understand the concerns, but I do not think that there was any easy solution to the situation yesterday.

Havering sixth-form college has received the devastating news that it will not receive any Learning and Skills Council funding for its capital project, on which it has already spent £6 million on enabling works. Could we have an urgent debate on how Havering’s college and the many others up and down the country can be helped to reverse the enabling works and to be able to operate efficiently from the beginning of the autumn term?

Ministers, including the Prime Minister, have been keeping the House up to date with the concerns about the LSC’s administration of issues relating to sixth-form colleges and further education colleges. Despite a substantial increase in capital investment, there has been uncertainty where there should not have been any, and some plans have been interrupted. Work is under way to ensure that we can take forward the important higher education programme as speedily as possible; no doubt that will apply to Havering college too.

Could we have a debate on how best we can improve sporting facilities for constituents throughout the country? My right hon. and learned Friend will be aware that we have just had a very successful Olympics, but many of the successful athletes were dependent on private finance and private facilities. The same can be said of Andy Murray, who had to travel abroad to develop his skills—and I am sure that the whole House wishes him every success. Although we have made progress, there remains ample room for improvement.

My hon. Friend will know that there has been a big increase in capital investment in sporting facilities and a big sports improvement programme in schools throughout the country and in specific sporting facilities in after-school clubs and generally in leisure centres provided by councils and others. I am sure that the whole House agrees with him about sending our best wishes and good luck to Andrew Murray.

I was dismayed to hear the Leader of the House say earlier that her response to the police incursion into my office without a warrant, and with the apparent connivance of the House authorities, was to continue to dither. I was cleared three months ago, and the previous Speaker said that he now wanted the Speaker’s Committee provided for by a motion of the House to be set up, because he wanted to give evidence to it about what had been said to him at the time. Can she at least give us a commitment that by next week she will have come to a conclusion about this matter? Frankly, this delay is disgraceful for this House.

I can say to the hon. Gentleman that there would not have been a delay but for the fact that his hon. Friend, the shadow Leader of the House, asked me to include some extra issues—

He actually asked me to make a reference to the Standards and Privileges Committee about the privilege issues surrounding the case of the hon. Member for Ashford (Damian Green); that was in addition. Had we gone ahead with the initial issue that the House resolved upon at the former Speaker’s request, we could have been in there, this could have been sorted out and we could have been doing it, but I wanted to listen to what the shadow Leader of the House had to say.

I responded to what the hon. Gentleman had to say, so I have been considering whether we should have two committees. There would not be any point in setting up one Committee and then needing a further House resolution to add to its terms of reference. [Interruption.] I have to say that my inclination to listen to the shadow Leader of the House in good faith is dwindling. I am trying to get this Committee set up in the terms that he wants. It was his suggestion and I acquiesced, although I did not think that it had massive merit. Because I am a forbearing and generous person, I agreed to it, but we are still trying to sort it out.

In that generous spirit, will the Leader of the House agree to a debate on the impact that the recession is having on the UK tourist industry? Although it is a resilient and important industry, employment levels are suffering, and it needs support to deliver the quality product that visitors expect.

I agree that that is a concern for my hon. Friend’s constituency and for the tourist section of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, and I will bring his comments to the attention of Ministers.

May we have a debate on how current immigration policy impacts on widows and widowers? My constituent Nidhi Singh recently had to return to India from Perth with her two small children following the tragic and untimely death of her husband, just a few months short of securing permanent right to remain in the UK. Surely the right hon. and learned Lady finds that discriminatory and unfair. The Obama Administration recently issued an order to stop all deportation action against widows. When may we expect something similar here in the UK?

Cases such as that of the hon. Gentleman’s constituent are dealt with on a case-by-case basis. Hon. Members can ask Ministers to intervene and exercise their discretion if the legal process has not produced a result that they consider fair. As far as the policy is concerned, the hon. Gentleman can raise it at Home Office questions on Monday. If his constituent remains in the country, he can seek a meeting with the relevant Minister to raise the issue personally.

I, for one, welcome the demise of the Bill to privatise Royal Mail. I ask my right hon. and learned Friend to talk to the Business Secretary about some of the work practices now operating among our glorious postmen and women. It would be a pyrrhic victory indeed if they were worked to death by changes to rounds, a ban on overtime and the other vindictive practices being introduced.

Obviously we want to ensure good relations between management and the work force in all areas of the Post Office and Royal Mail, as well as investment and modernisation to enable them to do their work.

I am afraid that I omitted to answer the part of the question asked by the shadow Leader of the House about the Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Bill, which came out of Committee on 18 June. The Report stage will be held later in this Session, but there has been pressure on dates because of the three days that we had to spend on the Parliamentary Standards Bill.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) has shown great leadership in strengthening the role of Back Benchers by allowing Conservative Back Benchers in Committee to vote against the Whip. Yesterday, more than 20 Labour Members voted against the Whip in Committee of the whole House and defeated the Government. May we have a statement on whether the Government are following my right hon. Friend’s lead?

May we have a debate on entry clearance operations? Many hon. Members make detailed representations to the UK Border Agency so that refusals of visas can be reviewed. There is a growing tendency for Members to be told simply that refusals have been upheld, without any attempt to address the arguments that they have made. In some cases, MPs’ representations have not even been passed on to the post for entry clearance officers to consider. Will my right hon. and learned Friend ensure that that abuse is stopped?

That would be an important point for my hon. Friend to raise in Home Office questions next week.

May we have a statement, or at least something in writing, from a Culture, Media and Sport Minister on the question of what duties journalists have to disclose their credentials when challenged? That would help three of my nearest neighbours, who yesterday were surprised to encounter a person purporting to be a journalist who was trying to find out information about my constituency home. That person refused to give their identity or the name of their newspaper. When asked why they were trying to contact me at home when I must be up in Parliament, they turned tail and ran from the scene. Such harassment of our neighbours, if not of ourselves, needs some attention.

The hon. Gentleman may wish to draw that issue to the attention of the Press Complaints Commission. If that was indeed a journalist, the media organisation for which they work will be subject to regulation by the PCC, and it should be prepared to look into the matter and take action.

Will the Leader of the House find time for a debate on the Prime Minister’s proposal to give extra housing points for years on the waiting list? In my constituency—perhaps also in hers—sons and daughters can almost never afford to rent or buy anywhere near their parents. They may never get enough points for a transfer or a move into social housing, no matter how overcrowded their homes are. This proposal would give hope to many people who have been told time and again that they have no chance of a place of their own.

Despite the billions of pounds of investment over the years, which has helped council and social housing tenants in my hon. Friend’s constituency and mine live in homes of a decent standard, and despite more building of homes, there is still a great shortage across the country. That is why the programme in “Building Britain’s Future” for building more council and housing association homes is so important. As for the management of those applying for council or social housing, my hon. Friend will know of the House of Lords decision that clarified the fact that it was possible for councils to take into account not only need but length of residence in an area and time on the list. New guidance will be issued to make it clear to councils that they can do that.

Will the Leader of the House read the Hansard report of yesterday’s 30-minute debate in Westminster Hall on the Government’s response to the Archer inquiry and the victims of contaminated blood products? A substantial number of hon. Members attended the debate, notwithstanding its short duration. Will she take that as evidence of the need for a proper debate in this Chamber that can be attended by other hon. Members, such as myself, who would have attended that debate yesterday if we had not been here dealing with the Parliamentary Standards Bill? The victims of contaminated blood have been treated shabbily, and if we do not allow them the opportunity to ventilate their concerns fully we risk becoming complicit in that shabby treatment.

There has been an increase in compensation for those who have had the great misfortune to be infected by contaminated blood. I will certainly read the Hansard report, as the hon. Gentleman suggests, and consider how the issue can be further debated in the House.

My right hon. and learned Friend may recall that on Tuesday the issue of the boat carrying emergency supplies to Gaza that was seized by the Israeli forces was raised. One of my constituents was on that boat and I raised the issue with a Foreign Office Minister later that day. A total of six Britons are believed to have been on the boat when it was seized. Can she arrange for a Minister to give an update to the House, or at least to the Members concerned?

I will ask the Foreign Secretary to write to my hon. Friend with an update, and to place a copy of the letter in the Library so that other hon. Members can see it.

Further to the question posed by my right hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (Mr. Mackay), may we have a debate in Government time on the Floor of the House entitled “The Government’s alienation of the middle classes”? Perhaps it could be opened by the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, so that he could expand on his reported thesis that the Government’s approach to egalitarianism is badly out of step with the majority of the population.

I think that the majority of the population believe that it is better to have a fairer and more equal society—one in which people’s lives are not blighted and marred by bigotry and discrimination, whether on grounds of sexual orientation or reflecting unfairness towards women at work, unfairness on grounds of race or unfairness caused by the different start that people have by virtue of where they were born. We make no apologies for that agenda. We have put it in the Equality Bill, and it is disappointing that the Opposition declined to support the Bill on Second Reading. We are pressing on with it.

As one of 30 Co-operative MPs in this place, may I draw my right hon. and learned Friend’s attention to the fact that this Saturday, 4 July, is the United Nations international day of co-operatives? May we have a statement, or perhaps a short debate, on the value of the co-operative movement, whose objectives include international solidarity, economic efficiency, equality and world peace? The Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families is a prominent Co-operative MP in this place. May we have a debate on this issue, which is important to many people, not only in this country but internationally too?

I will look and see what opportunities there might be; that could be a subject for a Westminster Hall debate.

Speaker’s Statement

I would like to make a short statement on two matters. First, the House is served by three outstanding Deputy Speakers, but my election was an indication that the House was ready to accept change. In a modern democracy that puts Parliament first, I am convinced that the choice of such office holders should be determined not by consultation but by the process of election. By convention, and as supported by the Procedure Committee in 2002, the combination of the Speaker and three Deputy Speakers should be drawn equally from the Government and Opposition Benches. A change now is therefore appropriate. Accordingly, I am proposing that a ballot or ballots should be conducted in the House to choose one Deputy Speaker from the Opposition side and two from the Government side of the House. I have consulted the usual channels and I hope to bring that about shortly after the House returns in October.

The second matter that I wish to mention is the speed of answering written parliamentary questions, which I know is a matter of considerable concern to the House, and especially to Back Benchers. Such questions, and timely answers to them, are an important means by which this House calls the Government of the day to account. I will today be writing to all Ministers in this House to ask them to ensure that the backlog of written questions that remain unanswered is cleared before the recess. I am also setting in hand work on a system of tracking the timeliness of answers so that information will be available to Ministers, Members and those outside this place whom we serve on which questions remain unanswered and the delay in each case. I will have more to say to the House on this matter after the recess.

I gently remind the right hon. Gentleman and the hon. Gentleman that, as I think that they will know on reflection, points of order come after statements.

Swine Flu Update

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement on the AH1N1 swine flu pandemic.

As of today, there are 7,447 laboratory confirmed cases of swine flu in the UK. A significant number of people have been hospitalised. Three people, all of whom had underlying health problems, have, sadly, died. Since the first UK case was confirmed on 27 April, health protection officers, NHS staff from across the UK and Department of Health officials have been leading the fight to contain the virus.

Last week we started to see a considerable rise in swine flu cases, and the emergence of hot spots in London, the west midlands and Scotland. Since then cases have continued to rise significantly. There are now, on average, several hundred new cases every day. This creates challenges on the ground and pressure on services, but the response from the health community has been tremendous. I hope that the House will join me in putting on record again our sincere thanks to staff in the Health Protection Agency and the NHS, and to general practitioners and all those who work in primary care.

Our efforts during the containment phase have given us precious time to learn more about the virus, to build up antiviral and antibiotic stockpiles and to start to develop a vaccine. We have always known it would be impossible to contain the virus indefinitely, and that at some point we would need to move away from containment to treating the increasing numbers falling ill. That is why last week I announced the move to outbreak management. That gave hot spots, where there is sustained community-based transmission, more flexibility to deal with the virus.

Scientists now expect to see rapid rises in the number of cases. Cases are doubling every week, and on this trend we could see more than 100,000 cases per day by the end of August—although I stress that that is only a projection. As cases continue to rise, we have reached the next step in our management of the disease. Our national focus should be on treating the increasing numbers affected by swine flu. Based on experts’ recommendations and with the agreement of Health Ministers across all four Administrations, I can today tell the House that we will move to this treatment phase across the UK with immediate effect.

That will mean that in England the Health Protection Agency will take a step back and primary care will take the lead in diagnosing and distributing antivirals. There will be an immediate end to contact tracing and prophylaxis in all regions, GPs will now provide clinical diagnosis of swine flu cases rather than awaiting laboratory test results, and primary care trusts will now begin to establish antiviral collection points where necessary. The new approach will also mean a move from the daily reported figures of laboratory confirmed cases from the Health Protection Agency to more general estimates of spread.

Our policy on schools is that they should not close because of individual cases of swine flu but that they could close if the particular local circumstances warranted it. For example, there might be grounds for closure if a significant number of pupils or teachers are ill, or if it is a special school with particularly vulnerable pupils. The HPA will advise on outbreak control issues as usual, and closures will be reported to the Department for Children, Schools and Families.

I must report to the House that the Civil Contingencies Committee has had lengthy discussions, drawing on expert scientific advice, about who should be treated with antivirals if they contract swine flu. Health Ministers across all four Administrations have noted clear scientific advice that the majority of cases in the UK so far have not been severe, with those catching the virus making a full and fast recovery. However, a minority of people here and overseas have had more serious illness and some have died.

As we move into the treatment phase, Ministers have considered whether we should continue to offer antivirals to all patients displaying symptoms or whether a more targeted approach should be adopted, focusing on those most at risk of becoming more seriously ill. When very little was known about the disease—especially given the reported fatalities in Mexico—using antivirals prophylactically was sensible to protect people, and may have helped to contain the initial spread of the disease.

During the containment phase, experts have had time to study the virus. Some experts now suggest that since the virus has proved largely mild, antivirals should be used only to treat those in designated higher-risk groups—that is, those who are more susceptible to developing serious illness or complications. Those are all the groups at risk from seasonal influenza, plus pregnant women and children under five. The experts argue that overusing the drugs can increase the chances of antiviral resistance and expose too many people to the risk of side effects from the medicine.

The scientific advisory group for emergencies—SAGE—says that, on balance, the science points towards a targeted approach, but it acknowledges that this is a “finely balanced” decision. Expert advice points to the fact that, as this is a new virus, its behaviour cannot be predicted with certainty. Swine flu is different from seasonal flu in that most serious illnesses have been in younger age groups, as happened in all three 20th-century influenza pandemics. A doctor faced with symptomatic patients cannot yet predict with certainty the course of their illness and whether or not they will be in the small proportion who may become more seriously ill.

Given that, we have decided to take a step-by-step approach. That means that, as in the outbreak-management phase, we will continue to offer antivirals to all those who have contracted the illness. However, it remains a matter of clinical discretion to decide whether antivirals should be prescribed in individual cases, particularly in circumstances where doctors are likely to be contacted by patients with coughs and colds and by the worried well, in addition to those with swine flu. Expert advice emphasises the high importance of treatment with antivirals of those in the higher risk groups. We will therefore issue clear guidance to doctors to ensure that those at higher risk get early priority access to antivirals.

I acknowledge that this is a cautious approach. Many people will be able to recover from swine flu without the need for antivirals and they may therefore choose not to seek treatment. However, we are much closer to the time when we will receive the first doses of the pandemic flu vaccine that will potentially offer high protection. In the meantime, it is prudent to use our only current measure against the virus— antivirals—to the maximum effect. The science indicates that, as we discover more about the virus and develop a more precise categorisation of risk groups, we are likely to reassess our approach and move to a more targeted use of antivirals. We will keep the matter under review, with advice from SAGE, and will update the House as and when necessary.

Today, we will set out the new arrangements in a short guide which will be e-mailed to NHS staff and made available online for the public. I know that local GP surgeries and hospitals, particularly in hot-spot areas, are coming under increased pressure. It is important that we do everything we can to reduce the strain on local health services, so we will begin to establish and use alternative routes for people to receive treatment. Initially, that will be via www.nhs.uk or the swine flu information line. Subsequently, it will be via the national pandemic flu service.

So, if people think they have swine flu, they should first go online and check their symptoms on www.nhs.uk or call the swine flu information line on 0800 151 3513. If they are still concerned, they should then call their GP, who can provide a diagnosis over the phone. If swine flu is confirmed, they will be given an authorisation voucher that someone who can act as a flu friend can take to an antiviral collection point to pick up antivirals. The collection point may be a pharmacy or a community centre.

As cases increase still further, we will move to a system whereby cases are diagnosed and dealt with by the national pandemic flu service. That will take the pressure off GPs by allowing people to be diagnosed and given their antiviral vouchers either online or via a central call centre. I can tell the House today that preparations are now at an advanced stage, and that we expect the service to be ready when it is needed. At that point, if people have swine flu symptoms they should go on to the national pandemic flu service website, or ring the dedicated call centre.

Finally, I should like to update the House on vaccines. We have now signed contracts to secure enough vaccine for the whole population. We expect the first batches of vaccines to arrive in August, with around 60 million doses—enough to vaccinate 30 million people—available by the end of the year and more following that. Administering vaccines will need to be prioritised, and we will make a decision on that when we know more about the risk profile.

Most cases of swine flu have not been severe and we are in a strong position to deal with this pandemic. However, we must not become complacent and, while doubt remains about the way that the virus attacks different groups, today’s decision on the move to the treatment phase reflects our caution. I commend this statement to the House.

I am sure that the House is grateful to the Secretary of State for the further update. I am grateful to him for the regular opportunities that he has allowed to discuss the matter, and I dare say that that view is shared by the Liberal Democrats.

I want to join the Secretary of State and the rest of the House in extending our condolences to the families of those who have died. I should also like to express again our gratitude to NHS staff in the pathology laboratories and primary care, as they are under increasing pressure, especially where there are a lot of cases. I am also grateful to general practitioners: sometimes in the past they have felt that Health Ministers have engaged in too much GP-bashing, but we now appreciate how much we need them. Given that we are in the middle of a heat wave, primary care is coming under considerable pressure.

The Secretary of State will know that we supported the strategy of containment. It has had some success but it is no longer realistic to try to sustain that strategy across the country and we therefore support the move to a treatment strategy. However, given that the disease is less severe than we anticipated—it could have been a great deal worse—it is important that we do not engage in the wide-scale prophylactic use of antiviral drugs.

The Secretary of State knows that we agree with the proposal that treatment should be offered to all patients, and not just to those in the at-risk groups. About a quarter of fatalities associated with swine flu in the United States were among patients who were not at risk and did not have underlying conditions. Given the availability of antivirals in this country, and the potential to make them available to symptomatic patients, there is no reason why patients who need them and who might go on to have severe or even fatal complications should not be offered them.

We agree with the Secretary of State that there should be a presumption against automatic school closures: even so, risk assessments clearly should be made. They should cover classes and year groups but, as we go into the autumn, they should also take account of the pressure on the local health economy. If that pressure becomes very great, there might be a case for trying to prevent the rapid spread of the virus through schools, but that may require some future modelling.

Some of what should be in place according to the contingency plans for the pandemic phase is not ready. The Secretary of State has replied to a letter that I sent on 15 June, and I am grateful for that, but his response does not answer some central questions. He seemed to say that there was no national pandemic flu line because the antiviral distribution arrangements were not in place, but he went on to say that the antiviral distribution arrangements were not in place because the national pandemic flu line was not ready. I am afraid that that is not good enough: both were supposed to be ready by the time that the pandemic phase occurred, and they are not ready. I ask the right hon. Gentleman again: why is the national pandemic flu line not available now, when the Department said that it would be? He says that it will be ready when it is needed but, technically and according to the contingency plan, it is needed now.

Moreover, the primary care trusts are supposed to have antiviral collection points for the whole population available within seven days of a move to a treatment strategy. Can the Secretary of State therefore confirm that antiviral collection points will be available a week from today?

The Secretary of State’s predecessor wrote to me at the end of April to say that the Department was

“working urgently to accelerate the procurement process”

in relation to the acquisition of a national stockpile of antibiotics. Where there are difficulties and complications, especially with infection, treatment often requires antibiotics rather than antivirals. Will the Secretary of State say when that antibiotic stockpile will be required? How large is it? The national modelling suggested that we needed enough for 14 per cent. of the population, but what is he aiming for?

Is the face-mask stockpile in place? Can the critical care capacity be increased rapidly? What are the criteria now for the cancellation of elective operations? The Secretary of State has made a projection that there will be 130,000 cases a day, and that would be consistent with up to 2,000 hospitalisations a day by the autumn—a figure that would create very considerable pressure on hospitals.

Vaccination may begin quite soon, in September. Will the Secretary of State therefore publish for debate the Government’s proposals for prioritisation for vaccinations?

Finally, we may not have an opportunity to debate this matter in the House over the recess. With that in mind, will the Secretary of State and the House authorities look for a mechanism to allow virtual statements to be made in that period? The right hon. Gentleman could put up a statement with a few hours’ notice and hon. Members, on behalf of our constituents, could ask questions and get answers in real time.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for the measured tone of his remarks, again, and for all his advice as we go along. I am grateful to him for the helpful discussions that we have had. I am particularly grateful for two points today. I welcome his support for moving to the treatment strategy and the timing of that move. He and I agree that the pressure on the system is such that it is the right time to take this step, and I think that it will be welcomed across the NHS. I also welcome his statement that he agrees with the cautious approach that we have outlined in the statement that antivirals should be offered to all those who display symptoms.

The House will have heard over the years, as we have prepared for this eventuality, how steps were taken by the Department of Health to put us in the strongest possible position to plan and face any outbreak of a flu pandemic, and because of that preparation we can use the stockpile of antivirals to offer that cautious approach. As I said in my statement, as the availability of the vaccine comes on line, pressure on the antiviral stockpile will obviously be relieved. So we think that that approach is prudent, although I say again that the science points us to a more targeted use of antivirals. In discussion with colleagues in the devolved Administrations, I felt that now was not the right time to go, given that SAGE said that the decision was “finely balanced.” We need to know more and we need to have more conclusive evidence before taking a move of that kind.

I further welcome what the hon. Gentleman said about the policy on school closures. It is worth pointing out that many schools in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have already broken up for the summer, and that in itself may help us to control the spread of the illness in those countries. The policy has to be judged locally—a decision has to be taken on the ground—and I assure him that, if there are concerns and grounds to close, although it is the job of the Health Protection Agency and others to advise, it is the job of the head teacher and the school governing body to take the final decision about any school closure.

The hon. Gentleman asks about the flu line and the readiness of antiviral collection points around the country. I can confirm that, through strategic health authorities that have been working with PCTs, we have now in place sufficient collection points that can be stood up within seven days. So I can give him the assurance that he sought. Obviously, we can also activate the interim pandemic flu service within a short time frame. That point has not yet been reached, but I can assure him that we will update the House on that issue over the coming days.

The hon. Gentleman asks about access to antibiotics and the size of the antibiotic stockpile. We are on track to have sufficient antibiotic stocks to cover 31 per cent. of the UK population, which equates to 19.6 million courses, by the end of September, with the stockpile having reached over 10 per cent. of the population—6.2 million courses—by mid-June. He has challenged on that point a number of times; he is absolutely right to do so. I will continue to update him on it. Of course, antibiotics may be needed to treat some of the most common complications of flu, including bacterial infections of the respiratory tract and lungs. It is important that anyone who thinks that they are in danger of developing such complications should get in touch with their GP.

I want to make a couple of final points. The hon. Gentleman asks me whether we can debate prioritisation. I will have to reflect on whether a debate in the House is the right thing to do. At all times, we should be led by the guidance from SAGE and the experts. I can assure him that we will bring our conclusions to the House. Indeed, if there is a measure of debate about them, I do not think that that would be a bad thing, but I do not want to give a commitment to hold a debate on the Floor of the House, when we are obviously dealing with a fast-moving situation.

Lastly, as was raised during Prime Minister’s questions yesterday, there needs to be a mechanism so that we can continue to update both Front-Bench teams and hon. Members on both sides of the House over the summer. Perhaps we need to find a way—perhaps through the Speaker’s Office, or some other mechanism—whereby we can get virtual statements, as he referred to them, to any hon. Member who wants one.

I start by offering apologies from my hon. Friend the Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb), who is unable to be here today. He asked me to thank the Secretary of State and his predecessor for keeping him fully informed throughout the progress of the flu pandemic. I should like to add my thanks for the advance notice of today’s statement.

I, too, should like to thank the NHS staff who have been dealing with the illness and all those at the Department of Health who have been providing support to others behind the scenes and burning the midnight oil—they do not get praise very often. We, too, welcome the cautious approach that the Secretary of State is taking to these matters. It is a difficult decision—a finely balanced one—but we support him in the conclusion that Ministers have reached.

I have a short list of questions, which are designed both to be constructive and to elicit more information. First, at the moment, all who have contracted the illness will be offered medication, but that could change to its provision to at-risk groups only. The Secretary of State did not mention the position of NHS staff. It seems to me that particularly front-line staff in hospitals are a special case, so has any different consideration been given to providing prophylactic measures for those staff and are they being offered any special treatment? What contingency plans are in place if flu affects the availability to work of large numbers of front-line staff?

What assessment has the Secretary of State made of PCTs’ preparedness? My hon. Friend the Member for North Norfolk has asked in the past for details of preparedness to be published, and it would be helpful if that was done. My understanding is that some PCTs have made excellent preparations and others less so. What measures are being taken to bring the less proactive PCTs up to speed?

Are sufficient stocks of Tamiflu left to meet predicted demand? Is there any clarity about whether the hot weather has affected the spread of the virus in any way, or has it had the opposite effect?

With regard to information, the Secretary of State mentioned the hotline, but he will probably recall that most households received leaflets earlier in the year at the beginning of the outbreak. I suspect that many householders will have thrown away those leaflets, which provided a useful range of information. So are there any plans to re-leaflet or to run a wider media campaign, so that people can be informed about the outbreak? Will the e-mail to NHS staff include pharmacies that are contracted to the NHS?

I have a couple of questions about collection points. Has any special consideration been given to the more rural areas, which very often rely on dispensing GPs? I suggest that it is probably not the best idea to have even flu friends or other possible contacts descending on dispending doctors’ surgeries. So has any thought been given to such access in rural areas?

There has been some publicity in the media about something called a flu party. It strikes me as particularly bizarre that parents want to try to improve their children’s chances of contracting flu. Has the Secretary of State had any advice on whether t