Skip to main content

Westminster Hall

Volume 502: debated on Tuesday 8 December 2009

Westminster Hall

Tuesday 8 December 2009

[Christopher Fraser in the Chair]

Afghanistan Strategy

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

A hundred British dead—why? That is the question this morning. A hundred British dead this year, three Dutch dead, seven Italians, 10 French and seven Germans; why the disparity? The flame at the Arc de Triomphe was rekindled last week to commemorate all Europeans who died this year in warfare. At that point, the total was 181 and the number of British dead was 99.

There was another significant anniversary last week, which was forecast by a Back Bencher in March 2006. The Government, with all their great knowledge and all of the experts on their side, said that we were going into Helmand province in the hope that not a shot would be fired and that we would be out in three years. That strategy was as accurate and reliable as the current strategy. At that time, there had been only seven British deaths, five of which were in accidents and only two of which were military deaths. We have gone from that to the dreadful position we are in now, with 237 deaths. At that time, a Back Bencher said that going into Helmand was the same as the charge of the Light Brigade—an act of incompetence and futility. Last Monday, the total British dead passed twice the number killed in the charge of the Light Brigade. Why have they died? Why are we there? Why are we continuing to send soldiers there?

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the tragic 100th death. That was the death of a soldier from the Royal Anglian Regiment—my local regiment—by small arms fire. Will he join me in sending condolences to the family?

I will certainly talk at length about condolences and the soldiers. The 200th soldier who died was Kyle Adams, who was engaged to and planning his future life with a constituent of mine. She wrote a touching letter about her hopes of marriage, the children they had hoped for and the place in which they had planned to live. She wrote that she met her “cold dead hero” when he returned to this country.

This morning, we were told a new fiction. We have reached the milestone of 100 deaths and carefully manicured soundbites have been prepared for the occasion. We are told that we must think not too much about casualties, but about other things: the propaganda, the lies and the posturing that we have been subjected to for the last eight years. We must not think about the casualties. Perhaps we should not think about those who are maimed, either. At least 300 have been maimed. People have lost arms, legs, genitals, their sight, their hearing. There is nothing we can do about that. We are told that we should concentrate not on that this morning, but on the manicured fiction that the Government—and the Opposition, I am afraid—are putting out.

Why are our soldiers dying? Are they dying to protect Karzai, the corrupt thief who says that he will suddenly become non-corrupt? If so, will he arrest his brother Wali, who is the best known, most powerful and richest of the drug dealers in the land? I think that is unlikely. Are they dying to demonstrate our solidarity with a man who rigged his election so efficiently? Of the $25 billion of international aid that he has taken, only $5 billion at the most has got through, and the rest has been spread out among his cronies and party members to buy his continuation in office. There have been no improvements in Afghan life as a result of the bulk of that aid. Afghanistan still has the second worst infant mortality rate in the world and the third worst rate of mothers dying in childbirth.

Are our soldiers dying to protect Karzai’s cronies, such as Mohammad Fahim and Abdul Dostum? Fahim, who is now Karzai’s chosen vice-president, was responsible for an orgy of murder, rape and looting in a poor section of Kabul, in which he and his army slaughtered 800 members of the minority Hazara community. He has a powerful position in the future of the new Afghanistan. Dostum, the other nominee for vice-president, was released from exile by Karzai to bolster the Uzbek vote. The most famous thing in Dostum’s career is that he promised 2,000 Taliban prisoners safe passage if they surrendered their arms, then sealed them in metal cargo containers and suffocated them. Karzai, Dostum and Fahim are our allies. They are running the regime that we are sending our soldiers to protect. They should be in The Hague as war criminals, but instead they are our chosen allies.

Another reason for being there is the repeated fiction of the protection from terrorism. The Germans, French and Italians do not have the brass neck to lie to their people by suggesting that keeping their soldiers fighting in the war in Afghanistan is anything to do with terrorism, but we do. There has never been a terrorist plot or threat from Afghanistan or the Taliban.

If we were to ask the Taliban why they are killing our soldiers, what would they say? I have asked various Ministers and military people whether they have asked the Taliban about that and they have not. Would the Taliban say, “When we have killed all your soldiers, we will come over to London and Newport to blow up your streets.”? Or would they say, “We are killing your soldiers because they are the ferengi. They are in our country. It is our sacred, religious duty to expel foreigners like yourselves from our country, just as our fathers did with the Russians and as our grandfathers and great grandfathers did with every foreign invasion into Afghanistan.”?

I am sympathetic to the hon. Gentleman’s comments. Does he agree that there are approximate parallels with the misleading way in which we attempted to deal with terrorists in the north of Ireland for a long time? Originally, we wrote them off as people who were insane and impossible to do business with, but they now seem to be running Northern Ireland rather well. Does he agree that if we are serious about a terrorist threat in Afghanistan, we should seek co-existence and negotiated solutions, rather than deluding ourselves and others that we can solve it through military solutions?

I agree entirely. We all know that there will be a deal eventually, perhaps in two or three years. We have a strategy that is gratifying and right for politicians. It is right for both main parties in this House because it takes us beyond the hurdle of the general election. It is right for the American President because it gives him some room. He has a Janus-faced philosophy. He must appear belligerent. As the first black President, with the middle name Hussein, he cannot possibly be seen to give in to a Muslim enemy because that would destroy him in redneck public opinion. He has no choice but to follow what has been urged on him. He is too intelligent to think that it will work; of course it will fail. There will be a deal and he has given a date for it, which is the perfect date for the next American presidential election. So, are our young people dying because of the presidential timetable in America and our own needs as politicians to survive? We are waiting for the day when we can exit, but we spin the situation as if it is a victory and present it as such. That is exactly the case that was put forward at the end of the first world war, which I will come to in a moment.

Perhaps we are fighting and dying in order for the day to arrive when we will hand over the country to the Afghan police and army. The Afghan police are depraved, brutal, lawless, drug-addicted thieves, who persecute and abuse the people they are supposed to serve. They are corrupt from top to bottom and are organised on the basis of bribes and theft.

In Penkala, a village that we liberated as part of Panther’s Claw, the elders said, “We’ve had the Taliban here, and now we’re frightened that the Afghan police are going to move in, because the last time they were here they practised bacha bazi.” They corralled the pre-pubescent boys in the town and used them for sexual purposes—for rape. That was the practice of the Afghan police, and the elders have said that if they come back again, they will join the Taliban. The person who was interviewing the elders said, “But the Taliban are cruel people,” to which the elders said, “Yes, they are cruel people, but they are men of principle and they do not practice bacha bazi.”

Yet, the Afghan police are the people on whom we are depending. The fantasy that we can substantially increase their numbers and have a clean Afghan police is completely unattainable. An example of a corrupt police force being replaced by one that is non-corrupt can be found in Georgia, where they sacked the entire police force and started again. However, we are not doing that; we are building on the rotten foundation of the Afghan police. That is not going to work.

The hon. Gentleman has been consistent with his views in many debates, and he is showing that again here. However, I am trying to understand where he is taking us with his comments, because he is actually making the very argument that has been made by Conservative and Labour Members.

The whole Afghan nation has been corrupt from the time of Dost Mohammad, when we first wandered over there, to King Amanullah’s time, to today. If President Karzai were removed and somebody else replaced him, the country would still be as corrupt as it is today. The fact that the police are corrupt and there is corruption shows what extra efforts need to be made to help the country. If we do not help the country, it will become the bastion of terrorism and we will end up with the problems that we saw in relation to 9/11 and 7/7. The hon. Gentleman’s idea that we can somehow withdraw troops and expect a non-corrupt civilisation to appear is simply wrong.

The hon. Gentleman is clearly a believer of fairy tales. He believes that there is going to be a happy ending to this, but no one will live happily ever after in Afghanistan. There was a civil war going on when we went in. The Taliban had control of 80 per cent. of the country, and the northern warlords had control of the rest. Of course, Afghanistan was corrupt. It was corrupt 100 years ago; it was corrupt 200 years ago. Corruption is the lubricant that drives Afghan life. We are not going to change that. We are not omnipotent, but we think that we are.

Let us consider our position. We talk as if we have got rid of elements of al-Qaeda in the country. The latest forecast from the independent body that produces maps on such matters shows that, last year, the Taliban had control of 72 per cent. of the country. However, the calculation this year is that they have control of 80 per cent. We will soon have 10,000 troops there, only 2,000 of whom are fighting troops who are on the front line. What percentage of the country does the hon. Gentleman think we control? We could possibly say 1 per cent., yet we are behaving as if we are masters of the universe and will change the habits of thousands of years. That is impossible. The new policy that has been introduced has been sold to us as something that will work, but it needs at least 12 miracles for the Obama policy to work.

The hon. Gentleman’s argument that the Taliban are somehow in control of 80 per cent. of the country is simply wrong. They may have access to 80 per cent.—or a high percentage—of the countryside, but much of that is desert. For example, 70 per cent. of Helmand province is on the Helmand river, which is where our troops are actually based. If he wants to get rid of the police now, where are the other batch of potential policemen in Afghanistan, who are not corrupt and will take these jobs?

Again, the hon. Gentleman makes some reasonable points about the state of Afghanistan, but let us consider the alleged progress and the current position. There was talk of progress this morning and I am sure that there will be more. We made a great fuss last August about the fact that a turbine was conveyed to the Kajaki dam, which had been bombed by the Americans in the previous war. That was regarded as a huge triumph. It took 4,000 soldiers to get that turbine there—I have been told that there were 3,000 NATO and 1,000 Afghan soldiers involved in that one operation. How much electricity has it produced? It has not yet produced enough electricity to light a bicycle lamp. In fact, there is one less turbine there, because another turbine has broken down.

Let us consider the situation of the Americans. They are paying $1,500 per lorry in protection money to the groups that regard themselves as security firms to get all their goods from Kabul to Kandahar. Most of that money goes back into the pocket of the Taliban. That is the reality of life in Afghanistan. There is a President who cannot travel 30 miles outside his own capital. That is the reality. The Taliban are very much in control of movements there.

Let me just give one more example that has had very little publicity. Back in August, there was a huge fuss about the number of helicopters in Afghanistan. In 10 days, we—the British Army—destroyed two of our Chinook helicopters, which cost £40 million each. They were not wrecked beyond repair—one of them had had a heavy landing and the other had some bullet holes from hand guns—and both could have been repaired at little cost. We did not repair them or wait 24 or 36 hours to get a heavy lifting helicopter to take them out to a place of safety. We blew them up because the security was so bad we could not guard them for the 24 hours it was necessary to do so. That is the truth, but we do not see blazing headlines about that in our newspapers. The mythology is continuing that there is the possibility of victory. The words “possibility of success” were used this morning. I do not believe that there will be success and I want our soldiers to be brought home.

Speaking from my personal experience as a development officer in Afghanistan, I wish to ask whether the hon. Gentleman will at least accept that he is focusing very much on just one region? I have seen projects going on with my own eyes—for example, irrigation schemes that I worked on in Herat, and a new airport and infrastructure that has allowed farmers to get their goods to market has been put in place in Faisalabad. Across much of the country, genuine development progress is being made, which is helping the lives of local Afghans.

Yes, of course I accept that, but that is not the problem. The problem is Helmand province. We are in only one of the country’s 34 provinces. The reason we have the problem in Helmand is entirely of our own making because we charged into what was a peaceful province and the result was predictable. When the first soldier was killed in Helmand province in June 2006, an early-day motion was tabled in this place, which said that this excursion will strengthen the Taliban and possibly lead to a British Vietnam. That was the view of Back Benchers at the time. Of course, it is very difficult to spend what the Americans are spending—£1 billion a day—without doing some good. We are very much aware that some development work is going on. However, that is not the problem. The problem is why are we sending our soldiers to die there? That is what we should be addressing now.

It is not only the Afghan people, but the British people who have been denied a point of view. At the time of a fundamental change in mission—when we went into Helmand—this Parliament should have had a vote. We were allowed a vote on the Iraq situation, but we were not allowed a vote on Afghanistan. Does my hon. Friend agree?

I will give way in a moment, but I want to make some progress first.

The other group on which we are building our hopes is the Afghan army. The idea is that the army will be expanded in huge numbers, which is a difficult thing to do. So, who is in the Afghan army? According to David Loyn, the BBC correspondent, 60 per cent. of them are heroin addicts and virtually all of them use cannabis.

That was mission impossible from the start. Going into Afghanistan with the aim of wiping out the poppy fields would have been as successful as the 20-year campaign against Colombia. Had we wiped out the poppy fields at the start, there would still be no shortage of heroin, because markets move and the poppy growing would have gone to Myanmar, north Pakistan, Kazakhstan and elsewhere, and we would have seen the Colombia-isation of that area. Wiping out the poppy fields would have done no good at all, because the problem is with the demand side. We are sucking in the supplies of poppy, so it would not have worked.

The hon. Gentleman’s argument about going into Helmand province is well made, and from one point of view we all agree that the force that was sent was grossly undermanned. However, could not the same argument be made about Normandy, which was jolly nice and quiet before we invaded? Why on earth did we have to go and stir up that hornet’s nest on 6 June 1944? It was because if we had not invaded, we would not have taken on Nazism.

I listen with some astonishment to the voice of the military on that matter. We went into Normandy because Europe was dominated by an evil empire run by a wicked man who had conquered other countries. There was a war, but the hon. Gentleman’s comparison is ludicrous. We went into a peaceful area in Afghanistan, and the Taliban are fighting and killing us because we are in their country. When we went into Normandy we went into the country of an ally and the French wanted us there. The people in Helmand did not want us there.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that trying to draw comparisons with world war two completely misses the point? I believe that his point is that there is endemic support for the Taliban in Afghanistan, partly as a direct result of our actions there. That was the same problem we had in certain parts of Northern Ireland, and it has been exacerbated and made much more extreme in Afghanistan.

It is certainly true that our presence in both Iraq, where a million Iraqis died, and in Afghanistan, where 100,000 Afghans have died, has increased the threat of terrorism on our own soil. Our terrorist threats have come from Yorkshire and Pakistan, not from the Taliban and not from Afghanistan at all. That threat is an utter myth and a scare story that has been put out. The latest scare story, which is similar to what happened when they ran out of excuses for going to war in Iraq, is the nuclear threat, yet the Americans say they are quite comfortable with the situation in Pakistan.

The Afghan army is another one of those platforms on which we build our hopes for success in the future. Virtually all the Ministers who have had responsibility for Helmand have gone to spend more time with their financial interests and are not here to answer on the matter, but my right hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd (Dr. Howells), who answered many of the debates here as a Minister, has now gone to the Back Benches, where he speaks the truth intelligently. He said in an intervention in a debate on Afghanistan a few days ago that one group of the Afghan army changed sides three times in one 24-hour battle, depending on who was paying the bribes. That is the Afghan army that we plan to build up and leave so that the country is secure and everyone will live happily ever after.

One of the old Afghan generals from Soviet times, Jabbar Karaman, described a section of the Afghan army several weeks ago, saying that seven Taliban attacked a convoy in Helmand that was being guarded by 300 Afghan soldiers, and the soldiers fled. That is the reality of the Afghan army. Jabbar Karaman said:

“The Afghan soldiers do not believe in the government, they do not believe in the system and they don't believe in the international community.”

Why should they? If they do not believe in the project, why on earth should we send our soldiers to die there? The idea that we are sending our people there for success or stability, based on the new strategy, is an utter fiction. It is impossible to have a victory using the Afghan army and police and the corrupt bunch of people now running the country.

I am following my hon. Friend’s argument with interest. Is it a myth that al-Qaeda, aided and abetted by the Taliban, was plotting terrorist attacks against this country on an ongoing basis from Afghanistan, and is it a myth that al-Qaeda was responsible for the dreadful attack on the twin towers in America? Are all of those contrived myths? Is al-Qaeda and the threat to British national security a myth or an invention of the British Government? I ask the hon. Gentleman to respond directly to that point.

The contrivance is that the Government conflate al-Qaeda and the Taliban, and they must understand—I hope the Minister is listening—that they are not the same thing. Al-Qaeda were guests in Afghanistan, and the Afghans do not want to get them out because they have a pronounced sense of hospitality. They would probably treat us as guests as well if we had not gone there with bombs and bullets.

There is a great difference between al-Qaeda and the Taliban. The Taliban has no interest in terrorism, yet we are fighting the Taliban. If we want to have a debate on Pakistan, let us have a debate on it, but the Government also contrive to conflate Afghanistan and Pakistan. They have invented a new country which they refer to as the region, as everything is put down to the Afghan-Pakistan border. In fact, they are two separate countries. The threat of terrorism comes from Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen, but not from the Taliban, who have an entirely different agenda.

James Fergusson, in his book, tells a story about a time he talked to a Taliban leader, which is more than any of our politicians have done. That Taliban leader said that he did not want to learn to love his children, who were aged eight, six and three, and that he had made them live in another village. He said that if they loved him and he loved them it would be worse when he was killed. James Fergusson asked, “You do not want to be killed, do you?” The Taliban leader replied, “Of course I want to be killed. It is my dearest wish, as my father was killed fighting the Russians, as my great- grandfather was killed and as my great-great-grandfather was killed. It is my sacred, religious duty, because these ferengi”— foreigners—“are in my country and I have to expel them.”

Can we not get this simple message across: our soldiers are being killed because they are present? The answer is not to send more soldiers to act as more targets for Taliban bombs, but to bring our soldiers out of Afghanistan. That is the only solution we have and we will do it eventually. In the meantime, we are dilly-dallying for reasons of political expediency here and in the United States. That is the heart of the position we are in. Five hundred additional soldiers are going to Afghanistan, and we were told on the radio this morning that we should expect more deaths and put up with that, but we should not put up with it.

The war in Afghanistan is probably an illegal war. International law states that a country may go to war when there is a threat against it from the local population of a country. There is no threat to Britain from Afghans and there was no threat to Britain from Iraqis, but we went to war in both countries. I believe that history will judge both to have been illegal wars. On the terrorism threat, we have seen the terrible event that took place in this country, but I believe that that had no connection whatever with the Taliban.

I was interested this morning to read a poem that has been published by our new poet laureate. At last we have a poet laureate who does not write poems about royal anniversaries, church bells ringing and Christmas bells at Christmas time. She writes about reality—the dirty, evil, horrible reality of life in Britain now. One verse states:

“In Afghanistan,

no partridge, pear tree;

but my true love sent to me

a card from home.

I sat alone,

crouched in yellow dust,

and traced the grins of my kids

with my thumb.

Somewhere down the line,

for another father, husband,

brother, son, a bullet

with his name on.”

In this House, in 1917, there was a parallel to the position that we are in now. The first world war was still going on, men on both sides were dying like cattle in huge numbers and a point of near stalemate had been reached. Siegfried Sassoon came to the House of Commons and gave his view of the situation. His comments then were entirely accurate in respect of our position now. He stated, as a serving soldier:

“I believe that the War is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it”.

That is exactly true now. This war could come to an end. We could leave, but we cannot do so because we have to protect the reputations of politicians. Our mouths are bandaged by the fear that the incompetence of the invasion of Helmand and the stupidity of our unattainable policies ever since would be exposed. If we left, the dying of our soldiers and the Afghans would end. There is no easy deal, but there will be a deal eventually.

Following that line of argument, if we were doing the populist thing rather than the right thing, and if we were considering the polls at this stage of the mission, we would leave Afghanistan. However, politicians on both sides of the House who believe in the mission believe that we need to stay there because we are doing the right thing. It would be politically expedient to leave tomorrow, and we might gain some short-term political support, but would that be the right thing to do for our long-term stability and security? That is the question that my hon. Friend has to answer.

If the Minister thinks that this debate has anything to do with populism, he is wrong. I have been saying these things since 2006.

Let us say what the position is. The public feel strongly that we should be out—71 per cent. in the last poll—and it is the same throughout Europe. It is the same in France and Germany. But this is not about populism. Of course we should always do the right thing, but when have we done the right thing in this war? When have the Government been right? When has their assessment been correct? I cannot remember any claim that they have made that has been correct or true.

We cannot get rid of corruption, and it is stupid to pretend that we can do so in the next six months just by wagging a finger at somebody. We cannot turn the Afghan army and police into something like the Swedish army. It will not happen; those are impossible claims. We cannot alter the nature of the whole country of Afghanistan when we are in only one province.

We are in Afghanistan for political reasons. The President of America is in an awful position because of his political need to placate both sides, including the rednecks and the Republicans who suspect a President with his character and name, but he has also given the hope of an exit strategy because he knows that it has to come eventually.

Could what happened in Vietnam, which some hon. Members may not remember as well as many of us do, be repeated? That was a country that had to be saved. It was a war that was impossible to lose because, if it was lost, there would be a domino effect and every other country in south-east Asia would become communist. The Americans should have done a deal and walked out with some dignity.

We can still do that in Afghanistan. We can still do a deal which might well consolidate some of the gains made, and which might mean that our friends are not slaughtered when we leave. We could walk out after doing that deal or we could run out in panic as the Americans did from Saigon because of the public’s disgust at the coffins that were coming home and their refusal to see a strategy that made any sense.

Our new strategy does not make sense, and that was exactly the case in the last year of the first world war. I speak about this with some interest because my father was shot on 10 April 1918. Happily, his life was saved by a German group who stopped him bleeding to death. He was in that war, and his life was ruined by it.

Siegfried Sassoon, who had an honourable record in that war, stated in this House:

“I believe that the War is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it…I believe that the purposes for which I and my fellow soldiers entered upon this war should have been so clearly stated as to have made it impossible to change them, and that, had this been done, the objects which actuated us would now be attainable by negotiation.

That is exactly the situation now. He went on to state:

“I have seen and endured the sufferings of the troops, and I can no longer be a party to prolong these sufferings for ends which I believe to be evil and unjust. I am not protesting against the conduct of the war, but against the political errors and insincerities for which the fighting men are being sacrificed.”

Our men are being sacrificed now, and they will be sacrificed in the future. Our aim should be to bring our soldiers home, stop believing in impossible ends, and bring an end to the bloodshed of our soldiers, fellow NATO soldiers and Afghans.

It is a pleasure to participate in this important debate, considering the many announcements that have been made not only in the UK but in the US in recent days. I congratulate the hon. Member for Newport, West (Paul Flynn) on securing this debate, although I find myself not entirely agreeing with everything he says. He has been consistent in his views—that is for sure—but I believe that he lives in a different world if he thinks that a sudden and quick withdrawal of British, American and allied troops from Afghanistan would somehow lead to peace there and a decline in the threat here. We are there for a reason: we are there as a consequence of recent actions, and we are there with the approval of the United Nations and, indeed, the elected Afghan Government as well.

Yes, absolutely. I correct the hon. Gentleman who suggests from a sedentary position that the Government were not elected. They were elected.

I shall not stand here and say that everything is running correctly, or that I entirely support the Government. Indeed, I have been critical of their strategy, which is changing yet again. It cannot be right that we are in a war half a decade after we ventured into Afghanistan. Unfortunately, there is a similarity with Iraq: whatever the reasons, which we can debate separately, for making the initial incursion, there needs to be a better process of moving from war to peacekeeping.

The UK does not have a strong post-conflict capability, which is a shame, because that is exactly what was needed in the aftermath of March 2003 in Iraq. Nobody took responsibility for the umbrella of security that was created by the military, and the same thing happened again in Afghanistan. We cannot expect, particularly with the technological advances in our war-fighting capability—force multipliers, as they are called—to take aeroplanes and a high-tech armed force to defeat a low-level, low-tech armed force, and then expect employment, governance, rule of law and security to be created on their own. We lack that capability. We have a serious problem with the relationship between the Ministry of Defence and the Department for International Development. DFID does a fantastic job tackling poverty, which is its first remit, and it was never expected to take on the fairly new responsibility of stabilisation. So there are questions to be asked about how we can improve that situation, although perhaps those are for another debate.

The hon. Member for Newport, West is certainly right to pose thoughts about what sort of country Afghanistan is, because only by studying it and understanding the people can we work towards a strategy that fits with their desires and ambitions. Afghanistan is a fascinating country—even calling it a country is perhaps a bit advanced—that is a mixture and a wonderful grouping of ethnic alliances and tribes. Over the last 2,000 years, going back to Alexander the Great, it has been the location of, or battlefield for, various incursions from the Persians on one side, the British from the other and the Russians from the north as well, all scrapping over this piece of land that contains groupings that have never really been aligned. After so many years, how can we suddenly expect to impose a western-style centralised Government on a place that has never had one? Not even during the long reign of Mohammed Zahir Shah was there any remote sense of centralised operation. There was certainly a big chief—in the 1830s that would have been Dost Mohammed, who was at that stage in the capital at Kandahar, rather than Kabul—and the other tribes would simply accept that there was a tougher, bigger more powerful leader in another location. But when Dost Mohammed died, having kicked the Brits out after they invaded, there was a squabble that involved the deaths of a number of his cousins before a successor was finally strong enough to be respected by the various tribes—and so life would go on. In the same way, when Henry V suddenly became king, for example, a bellringer would wander into a village in England and the villagers would just accept that over towards London there was now a different king and somebody else was in charge, but life would continue on merrily.

Why are we suddenly trying to impose a centralised Government, with everything being Kabul-centric and focusing heavily on President Karzai who has absolute issues with corruption? Why are we not pushing for a more federal model? It is curious that the Americans had a huge hand in developing the Bonn accord, which was the blueprint for the constitution of Afghanistan. America has an interesting model. Those who are familiar with that country will know that every state has the power to hold its leader—the Governor—to account and to make its own decisions separate from what happens nationally. Considering the wonderful tapestry in Afghanistan of different groupings—Hazaras, Baluchis, Pashtuns, Uzbeks and Tajiks—why did we not go down the road of a more federated autonomous basis, similar perhaps to the United Arab Emirates, which has seven different fiefdoms that come together when there are national issues to be discussed, but have a sense of responsibility? In the 1950s and ’60s, Afghanistan was like that. The area containing Nimroz province, Kunduz, I think, Kandahar and Helmand was all controlled by one individual and there were about seven or eight different groupings of provinces that allowed a sense of rule in Afghanistan. Perhaps we need to use that model. If all the money is poured into Kabul and it is expected to trickle down into, for example, a little village outside Musa Qala, that will not work. That is the first governance issue that needs to be addressed as we approach a change in strategy.

But does not that make fighting the war even more difficult? Because there is no homogenous enemy, people just keep changing sides. Whatever wins we have in one part of the country—this has always been the difficulty—are compensated for by people changing side in another part, which shows the complete folly of our being in Afghanistan.

The hon. Gentleman makes a point that I cannot disagree with. That is why a vision is needed about where the country, or the region or the locality, is going. People who live in Gereshk or Lashkar Gah do not see Kabul as the capital city and do not understand the decisions that are made. In fact, for many Afghanis living in their villages the word “ferengi”, which is used for foreigners, also applies to the people living across the other side of the valley. Of course, there is a bond—the Pashtunwali code—that links all the Afghanis together, but the tribal instinct links those communities together, not a sense of belonging to Afghanistan as a state, because it has never been one.

My next point is about economic vision. When I go to Afghanistan, I ask, “What is the grand plan? What is the vision for the country? Where are we going in the long term? What are the plans for railway lines, for example?” Whatever widgets Afghanistan makes, we have to get them out of the country and into the international markets. Hon. Members mentioned that probably the only secure way of moving goods about is by aircraft. There is a workable railway line from Karachi on the Pakistani border, which is where we bring in our logistical gear from, all the way up to Spin Boldak, which is 40 miles away from Kandahar. Would it not be great if we linked that railway line—built by the British, oddly enough, to bring munitions to the fighting in Afghanistan 100 years ago—into Kandahar, so that the agricultural products, other than poppies, that people are growing can reach the international markets?

I give way to my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Milton Keynes (Mr. Lancaster), who has a lot of experience in Afghanistan.

This links to an earlier point that my hon. Friend made. If we are critical of some of the Government’s strategy, it is of the artificial timetable that has been imposed. Yes, we want to build capacity in regional governance. The Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development is a good ministry, where genuine capacity has been built. However, I remember meeting the head of police in Lashkar Gah, where suddenly UK funding was cut off on 1 April and he was told to seek funding from Kabul. There was not capacity in the system to allow that funding to come down. Rather than focus on artificial dates, we should focus on capacity and transfer funding only once mechanisms are in place.

My hon. Friend makes a valid point. I hope that the Minister listens to him, because he has experience in these matters: not only has he served in the armed forces but he has spent a lot of time in Afghanistan and seen these things first hand.

There would be a huge danger in packing our bags and turning our backs on Afghanistan. I say this as one who has been personally affected by the Bali bombing as well as 9/11, having been born in the United States. The hon. Member for Newport, West did not really touch on what would happen to Afghanistan as a whole or on the impact of the Taliban. If he thinks that the Taliban groupings, or leadership and followings, would not be a recruitment ground for al-Qaeda, in the absence of an international security force, he is hugely misled. The bigger consequence is that there will be a knock-on impact on neighbouring Pakistan. He says that they are two different countries, but he knows that when Pakistan gained its independence in 1947, the federally administered areas were just parked to one side and were not embraced within the constitution of the new country. It was regarded as being a little bit difficult and people said, “Oh, we’re not really going to bother with these tribes up there on the border line. You guys crack on and do your own thing.” Those places have now become the haven, probably, for Osama bin Laden and others. If the hon. Gentleman thinks that the issues in southern Afghanistan—Taliban-led—would not spill over into that area and then into Pakistan as a whole, which has nuclear weapons, he is sorely misled. That is the danger that we on the official Opposition Benches need to be concerned about.

The hon. Gentleman spoke too briefly. He agrees that the Taliban have control of 80 per cent. of the country, but they have not invited al-Qaeda back. They have the greatest vested interest in ensuring that al-Qaeda is not in the country again because it caused the Taliban to lose control of the Government.

First, al-Qaeda is not there for a tactical reason. It can easily move into an area where ISAF—the international security assistance force—is not, which is the Pakistani border. There must be concern about that, and it must be discussed, which is why we link Afghanistan and Pakistan together.

I correct the hon. Gentleman again, as I did during an intervention. The Taliban do not have control of 80 per cent. of the country, and his statement was misleading, because 80 per cent. of the population of Helmand province live in 20 per cent. of the Helmand valley, and it is in that 20 per cent. that we concentrate our forces. The rest of the area is desert, and to say that the Taliban have control of the desert and are moving around suggests that we have no control over Helmand province. There is no one there, and if the Taliban wander around, they can do so. We do not have control over that.

It is important to have this debate, but where the hon. Gentleman wants to go is extremely dangerous and goes against the grain of international concerns and our international responsibility to keep terrorism at bay.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Newport, West (Paul Flynn) on securing this debate. We need many more such debates, and Members of Parliament should study and scrutinise Government policy in this area ever more diligently. Indeed, a fault of my colleagues and I is that we have not done that for many years, partly because our attention was dragged off to Iraq where so many dangers and disasters happened with the knock-on impact on the Afghanistan mission.

The hon. Gentleman is right to raise the matter today, and to challenge the consensus. However, I disagree with him, as he knows from listening to our debates on the Floor of the House, because the objectives of the mission are extremely important. Those set out by the Minister and others should be pursued by the international community. Withdrawal now would be disastrous. One has thought long and hard about whether that is an option, but the more one considers it—and not just the impact on the people of Afghanistan, the stability of Pakistan and the fight against terrorism—the more one realises that one must find a way of achieving success in the mission, even if that success is defined rather more modestly by lack of failure.

We need to consider what President Obama said last week at West Point. Some of what he said was welcome, and he was clearly strong on the military side, but I am afraid that I was disappointed by the lack of detail on the political side. There was little reference to the political strategy that I and my colleagues have argued is critical if we are to avoid failure in Afghanistan. General Stanley McChrystal’s plan had a huge focus on the political side, and he argues that the military side alone is completely insufficient and inadequate. A strong political direction is needed, and I welcome what the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary have said during the past two or three months because they have begun to spell out in detail that sort of political strategy. The lack of that in what President Obama said worried me.

I hope that the Minister will be able to elucidate for hon. Members why President Obama did not go into detail on the political element. Perhaps in the testimonies that we shall no doubt read from Secretary of State Clinton on the Hill and others in due course we shall see that political dimension described in more detail. Clearly, it was in the white paper published by the White House last March, but it was not in the West Point speech. Perhaps when speaking to a group of cadets at West Point, the details on the political side are not discussed, but Obama needs to focus not just on the domestic and military audience, but on the international audience. We must all be convinced that he has the right strategy after so much deliberation.

I want to press the Minister and his colleagues to reassure us over the next few weeks that the political dimension is at the heart of what the Americans want to do and how they are leading the international coalition. In the run-up to the London conference at the end of January there is a space to ensure that that strategy exists.

I have discussed the matter previously, and will try not to reiterate what I have said, but the importance of putting pressure on Karzai—the Prime Minister is particularly committed to that—will require getting rid of some of the governors who have been corrupt, because one cannot build on a rotten base. That needs a Loya Jirga, which President Karzai talked about in his inauguration speech, to have real constitutional reform to build up power and governance at local level. It also needs a plan B to be articulated, because we cannot simply wait for Karzai if he does not deliver quickly. That might mean bypassing central Kabul and going directly to those on the ground and getting the money to those on the ground, as the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) said, and to local district governors who can deliver. Karzai must know that he is not the only show in town.

I have talked a lot about the local political dimension. The need for reconciliation was crucial to McChrystal, but the President mentioned it in only a single, almost offhand remark. General Petraeus brought in the British Lieutenant-General Sir Graeme Lamb and puts a lot of store by that, so one hopes that that is still in the strategy. We must debate the process of reconciliation more because it is an incredibly tough strategy, and as tough as fighting. It is not an easy strategy, and it needs a military side to enable us to persuade the Taliban that they should come over, but it needs a multi-layered approach at local, district, provincial and national level.

The Americans are unwilling to talk to the Taliban leadership, but that must be on the agenda, not necessarily because they are likely to agree to a settlement that we could accept—they probably believe that they are winning—but clearly feelers need to be put out to Mullah Omar and others to ensure that the ground is being prepared.

The Taliban that we hear about are an incredibly complicated group of people. I and many others have talked about the $10-a-day Taliban, the local Taliban and the jihadist Taliban. I am trying to get through a detailed book that has recently been written called “Decoding the New Taliban”, which is a series of essays by experts on Afghanistan and the Taliban. One chapter refers to the Taliban caravan and quotes an academic, Bernt Glatzer, who talks about different people. Even the Afghans have many different names for the different types of Taliban: Taliban-e jangi, the fighting or insurgent Taliban; the Taliban-e darsi, the madrassa or student Taliban; the Taliban-e asli, the real Taliban or clean Taliban; the Taliban-e Pakistani, who are there just to do Pakistan’s business; the Taliban-e duzd, the thief Taliban; the Taliban mahali, the local Taliban; the Taliban-e khana-neshin; and the Taliban sitting at home. Those are all disaggregated by other adjectives, including the concept of majbur Taliban, the forced Taliban, and the naraz Taliban, the dissatisfied Taliban.

If we are to understand how to reach out and integrate people, we must understand the culture and the different types of Taliban far better than we have until now. It has been a huge failing by hon. Members and probably the Government and the international community not to understand the complexity of that society. We have been omnipresent, and have given the impression that we can go in and solve everything, but we cannot. We must understand the Afghan and Pakistan people, and the people of the region from where they are, not from where we think they should be. That is the only way we can be successful in reintegrating and reconciling.

We cannot take comfort from the idea that the Taliban are unpopular because they are nasty people. Nasty insurgents can take power, and they did. They can impose their power through coercion. They do not have to be popular to rule or to take ground. It is no good us saying that the Taliban are unpopular so we will be okay. The matter is far more complicated.

We must understand the process of reconciliation. In the past, there have been two big findings from looking at people who have been brought over. Some were brought over, but were then badly treated by the Afghan Government or the Americans—some were taken off to Guantanamo Bay. That is not an incentive for people to come over in the future. Others who have come over and tried to join the Afghan mainstream have been assassinated by the Taliban or their families have been killed. The process of reintegration and reconciliation is difficult and fraught with dangers, but I believe that it is the best way forward. If we manage to do that, we will help Afghanistan and the Afghan people. We must understand how to do that in more detail than there has been until now.

I will conclude by talking about the other political dimension that was missing from President Obama’s strategy as laid out at West Point. I am sure that he is an intelligent, sophisticated man—I am sure it is somewhere there, but we need to see more sign of it and of the international dimension. People on all sides have talked about the importance of the regional peace settlement. I, together with other hon. Members, have asked Ministers to ensure that Russia and China, and possibly other countries, are represented at the London conference. It would be ideal to see Iran there. Clearly, there have been lots of talks with India and Pakistan, and the significance of that is well known.

I was interested to read in the Foreign Secretary’s blog a call for a Marshall plan for Pakistan. That is exactly right. When one looks at the international dimension, Britain has a particular role in Pakistan—even more than in Afghanistan—and that area is clearly one of our main objectives. We must think more about and debate how we can help the people of Pakistan, not only against the threat of terrorists who are murdering people in the cities almost every other day with outrageous bombs, but with development issues. For example, Pakistan has a massive water problem. If we can deal with its water infrastructure and assist agriculture in villages and small towns, that would be a massive step forward and win us real plaudits from the Pakistani people. We would win hearts and minds, and that is the sort of approach that we need.

My concern about the Pakistan peace is that there is a parallel with Iraq. For Iraq, the then Prime Minister said that it was all about the middle east. He said that there would be a peace process for Israel and Palestine, which was why we should support the invasion of Iraq. He said he had twisted the arm of the American President to get peace in the middle east. What happened to that? Absolutely nothing.

The current Government say that they will pursue the political strategy laid out so well by the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary, and that they will persuade the Americans to do more in Afghanistan. However, we must also be the strongest friend possible to the people of Pakistan. We must help that country move forward. If we can do that, we will really have achieved something. This will be well worth while and we will bring peace.

The hon. Gentleman is about to sit down, so I thought that I would seek clarification. As with so many other things, he seems to be positioning himself firmly on the fence, although he is likely to slip one way with a commitment to Afghanistan. The speeches that others in his party have made seem to be generally supportive of troops in Afghanistan, although they are now rowing back from that. My concern is that as we approach the general election, the Liberal Democrat position will be to call for troops to be withdrawn from Afghanistan. I seek clarity on that issue, and perhaps the hon. Gentleman can put it on the record.

I do not think that I could have been clearer. Certainly, Ministers have recognised our position during debates. The Secretary of State for Defence went on the record and criticised his own side for trying to make those sorts of comments, and the hon. Gentleman does not help the debate by his suggestion. The Liberal Democrats have been clear from day one about our support for the mission and its objectives. However, we have not allowed ourselves not to criticise the strategy. This is not simply about political matters such as troop equipment and supporting our forces, but about how the overall strategy has developed. We have been deeply critical for a long time about how the strategy has developed, because of the lack of a political dimension that I have mentioned today and in previous speeches.

I am still critical. The Government seem to have the right approach, and I commend them—they are developing the strategy, and I could hardly be more supportive of what they have been advocating, but my concern is that the Americans are not there yet. That does not mean that we should call for a withdrawal of troops. It means that we will retain our critical faculties and keep pushing at the points that need to be raised, so as to ensure that this is a successful mission.

It is a delight to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Fraser. May I congratulate the hon. Member for Newport, West (Paul Flynn) on raising this debate? As I listened to him, I wondered, rather like Churchill and his comment on the pudding, whether there was a theme. As far as I could see, the theme had two parts: first, why is the UK in Afghanistan and particularly in Helmand province; and secondly, that the answer to the difficulties being faced in Afghanistan is to bring our soldiers home. The hon. Gentleman raised such questions quite legitimately, although I disagreed with the answer.

I was also struck by him calling Siegfried Sassoon in aid. When I had a real job before becoming a politician, I did a little work and writing on the Royal Welch Fusiliers during the first world war. The hon. Gentleman might have forgotten that although Siegfried Sassoon criticised the war in 1917, he returned to regimental duty where he was known as “Mad Jack” because he went into no man’s land and was an expert personal killer of German soldiers. He fought honourably to the end of the first world war and his attitude towards war and soldiering was, I think, ambivalent to say the least. It is always doubtful to call him in aid to support arguments about contemporary conflict one way or another.

I am well acquainted with the military career of Siegfried Sassoon at Mametz Wood, where he fought with Welsh regiments. What happened in those areas is a matter of great interest in Wales. However, does the fact that he saw himself as a loyal, faithful soldier not add more authority to his actions? He risked being jailed for the declaration that he made. It still rings true. Please do not try the ad hominem approach. The words apply precisely to our situation now.

I will beg to disagree. Both my grandfathers served in the first world war, and they had no doubt as to why they had volunteered and served. The peoples of Belgium and northern France were only too well aware of the reasons why they were fighting in the war. Siegfried Sassoon was never going to be tried because the Army would never have been stupid enough to do that, particularly following the intervention of his good friend and regimental comrade, Robert Graves. Perhaps we can debate that at another time.

This debate is about the strategy in Afghanistan. However one likes to define it, in simple terms, a strategy is a plan of action designed to achieve a particular goal. There is no doubt that we can wind the film back, and say that over the past eight years we have seen a series of failures by the United States of America, the United Kingdom and NATO to have a clear policy and strategy from which everything else flowed. There are reasons why we should be in Afghanistan, and I am not going to repeat all of them. Many hon. Members from both sides of the House have been at debates or briefings in the Foreign Office, and we have raised the issues. We cannot wish ourselves back to where we were eight years ago, so we must make the best of what we have.

The hon. Member for Newport, West made a crucial point. Without the support of public opinion, it is difficult to execute and implement the strategy. There is no doubt that public support for British troops in Afghanistan has declined over the past nine months for lots of reasons. First, there is the lack of a clear strategy, and secondly there is the drip, drip, drip of casualties. The hon. Gentleman was right to talk not only about deaths, but about the physical and mental casualties. However, if we looked at casualties alone, however personally horrendous for individuals, it is likely that at different times in our history we would not have pursued strategies of one kind or another.

There is a supreme irony that perhaps some of the casualties that we are sustaining now are due to General McChrystal having restrained the use of air power and ground fire power because he is concerned about its impact on Afghan civilian causalities. Our servicemen and women understand that. They are only too well aware of that balancing act, and have perhaps more grit and determination about it than we do.

However, the onus of responsibility must be on the Government to explain their policy. Although I accept that Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup and others are saying that the negative aspect of the debate—the casualties and the comments made by Members of Parliament and the media—undermines the morale of the troops, I do not accept that that is a reason why we should not have such a debate or, indeed, why the hon. Member for Newport, West should not raise these questions. It is the duty of the Government to provide the arguments about why we are in Afghanistan, why we are taking casualties and why, as the military themselves have accepted, we may, at least in the short term, end up taking more casualties.

My hon. Friend is making a very powerful case for the importance of exposing a strategy. Does he agree that it would have been helpful not only to the House but to the nation if we had had regular updates—quarterly updates—from the Prime Minister on what is happening in Afghanistan, to ensure that we keep the British nation on side in understanding why we are there and the progress that is being made?

Yes, I do. The hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey), who speaks on behalf of the Liberal Democrats, has already made that point, as have a number of Government Members. The Prime Minister has missed an opportunity. If, before Christmas, he had had a major debate on Afghanistan—in which he had, with support from Ministers, set out all the arguments—with both the Leader of the Opposition and the leader of the Liberal Democrats, the Government would have been in a stronger position. I hope that in the new year the Government will think again. That might well be in the aftermath of the London conference. I certainly agree that regular updates beyond the occasional statement would help to advance the arguments.

There are a number of questions to be raised about the strategy. I will not repeat some of the excellent points made by hon. Members on both sides of this Chamber. I shall concentrate on three or four questions. The first relates to the difficulty at present of measuring what success is. Along with many other hon. Members, I am concerned that both President Obama and, at one stage, the Prime Minister seemed to be giving the impression that there was a series of timelines of one kind or another. That might feed into the suspicion, raised by the hon. Member for Newport, West, that that had more to do with mid-term elections and the general election than with real success. To be fair, certainly the Secretary of State for Defence has rowed back from that, but the Government need to explain much more clearly how we demonstrate what success will be. Some of that will be beyond the control of the United Kingdom Government or the Prime Minister. I think that three issues are crucial in the immediate short term as far as the Government are concerned. The first is the London conference.

Reluctantly, I will not, if the hon. Gentleman will excuse me. I have only a few minutes left and we want to leave time for the Minister.

The London conference will be crucial, and not only because of the attempts to bring everybody there, which raise the danger that it will be an enormous political bazaar. The most crucial figure will be President Karzai, who, going by his previous track record, has the mental approach of an old British Army quartermaster—I may be denigrating that fine body of men—which is called “consent and evade”. The quartermaster says, “Yes, sir, I absolutely agree, sir. This will be done” while thinking, “He’ll never remember and I don’t have to do very much about it.” President Karzai’s consent and evade will no longer be acceptable. The pressure that needs to be brought to bear on President Karzai from now on is along the lines suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood): he will have to face the fact that there must be a devolution of power. There will have to be some form of federal government in Afghanistan. That goes with the grain of Afghan history. He will also have to recognise that without it, his long-term success will be incredibly limited. That is the first point.

The second point that will be important is to involve the regional powers, particularly Russia, China, India and Pakistan. That will not be easy, given the mutual antipathy and the mutual contradictions of one kind or another, but those countries are beginning to see that it is no longer in their interests that this conflict goes on for five, 10 or 15 years, and that instability in that area overruns into other areas in one way or another.

The third element, which is crucial and comes under the strategy, is the impact that these operations will have, politically, economically and militarily, on the United Kingdom. Our need to provide the resources over the next three or four years will put enormous pressure on the UK economy and, in particular, on the three main Departments: the Foreign Office, which has a tiny budget and only a limited number of personnel; DFID, which has a much bigger budget but seems to have problems in delivering on the ground; and our armed forces, which are running red-hot. The ability to sustain such operations, which are incredibly manpower intensive, will have to be considered not only by this Government but, probably, by another Government after June next year. I should like to know whether the Minister thinks that the Government are aware of that.

My final point is that I have never been absolutely sure who, to use the awful management term, “has ownership” of Afghanistan within Whitehall. Obviously, the Prime Minister does, but is the lead Minister who ultimately takes responsibility—the equivalent of the chief executive—the Foreign Secretary or the Secretary of State for Defence? The message that many of us get back from many of the people involved in all three Departments, both in Whitehall and on the ground, is that there is a failure in that crucial area. To use the analogy of Henry Kissinger wondering whom he should phone to get a decision out of Europe, if I was an American, I would wonder whom to phone in Whitehall. Who, apart from the Prime Minister, is the lead person? That is about wiring diagrams and delivery, but it is an important part of the element of strategy.

The Conservative party supports the Obama strategy. We also support what the Government are trying to do. The Government recognise, however, that we retain the right to press them, and to ask the difficult questions. Indeed, I hope that the Prime Minister will take the opportunity to have a formal debate on Afghanistan in the new year.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, West (Paul Flynn) on securing this important Adjournment debate. I find it difficult, though, to agree with virtually any part of the contribution that he made. That will not come as a surprise to him. He expressed the notion that the threat to national security was entirely non-existent and contended that it would be impossible to achieve any sense of stability in Afghanistan. I can subscribe to neither of those views.

That is an utter distortion. Of course there is a threat from terrorism, but it comes from Pakistan and it is home grown—it comes from this country as well—and it is made worse by our intervention in Iraq and our intervention in Afghanistan. To suggest that I said that there was no threat is untrue.

I shall not quibble with my hon. Friend at this stage. I urge him to go back, though, and look at Hansard and the tone of his speech when he dismissed, and accused us of inventing almost, the threat from al-Qaeda, aided and abetted by the Taliban in Afghanistan. That threat is the reason why we went there and why we must never allow it to return to Afghanistan. That is at the core of our mission.

The contributions made by the hon. Members for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood), for North-East Milton Keynes (Mr. Lancaster) and for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) were balanced, reasonable, very well informed and helpful at this stage in terms of the mission that we face.

Hon. Members will understand that I want to begin by paying tribute to each and every member of our armed forces who has been killed or injured in Afghanistan. The deaths of 100 brave servicemen and women this year and 237 since the operations started are nothing short of a tragedy. Nothing can ever compensate for the loss felt by the loved ones and colleagues of those who have laid down their lives for this country. We owe them a debt of honour and must always remember them. We know that there has been a tragic recent death, and our thoughts and prayers are with that serviceman’s family at this difficult time.

Our reasons for being in Afghanistan are consistent. Like the 42 other countries that are there, we are there to safeguard our national security. As I said, our forces are there to prevent the return of al-Qaeda, aided and abetted by the Taliban. The only way to achieve that is to create a stable and secure nation.

We warmly welcome President Obama’s speech of last week and the announcement that the US will send 30,000 troops to Afghanistan. As the President made clear in his speech, the current increase in US forces is designed to enable the Afghans to step up their activities on a number of fronts.

As hon. Members are aware, the UK Government have already announced an additional 500 troops and we will make permanent the additional 700 troops we provided for the summer, including in the election period. That takes UK forces to more than 10,000.

Hon. Members mentioned support for Pakistan, which is vital. As has been said, Afghanistan and Pakistan are very different countries, but they require complementary policies. We need Afghanistan and Pakistan to work together on the shared problems of terrorist activities, narcotics, weapons trafficking and the limited economic opportunities. The insurgency straddles the border and so, therefore, must the solution.

Our core strategy remains Afghanisation. The long-term security of Afghanistan and our own national security are best assured by training the Afghan police and army, by building up civilian government at the national and local level and by providing for economic development that gives Afghans a stake in their future. As the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary recently said, and as the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) stressed, we need to combine a military strategy with a political strategy, improving governance, reducing corruption and offering a way back for those who are prepared to renounce violence and choose the political process.

In his inauguration speech, President Karzai laid out five key issues: improved security, improved governance, reintegration and reconciliation, economic development and strengthened regional relations.

I want to echo a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) from the Front Bench. There is a difference between the £200 million that DFID spends in Afghanistan and the approximately £3 billion that our armed forces spend. That disparity shows how much we are spending on security and how much we are spending on stabilisation, economic regeneration and governance. Does the Minister agree that as long as that huge difference remains, we will not be able to take advantage of the fragile umbrella of security that our military forces are creating?

The development investment that we have put in has made a difference, and I will refer to that later. As development professionals increasingly understand, however, securing security and stability is the precursor to being able significantly to expand development interventions that make a long-term sustainable difference. Indeed, that is right at the heart of the recognition in the recent DFID White Paper of what needs to happen in future development policy in conflict areas. It is, therefore, a question not just of comparing amounts of money but of looking at an integrated strategy and a staged approach that bring together security, governance and development. As a consequence of DFID investment, there has been a significant improvement, but a lot more needs to be done.

I referred to the five areas of improvement that President Karzai laid out. The international community must now work with him to turn those objectives into action and to ensure that his Government deliver on them.

On security, only five of Helmand’s 13 districts were under Government control in 2006. Following the end of Operation Panther’s Claw, the Government of Afghanistan now broadly control 10 of those 13 districts. We want to see a 134,000-strong Afghan army by the end of 2010, including an additional 5,000 troops trained by British forces in Helmand. Afghan national police numbers in Helmand will increase immediately to 4,100, with further increases to follow.

The Afghan national security forces are increasingly contributing to securing their own country. More than 90 per cent. of international security assistance force operations are conducted in conjunction with the Afghan national army, which is starting to take the lead in independent operations. The ANSF have already taken lead responsibility for security in Kabul, but we expect other nations to share further the burden in Afghanistan and we are increasingly confident that they will do so.

Much of the focus seems to be on building the strength of the Afghan national army, but given the tribal nature of Afghanistan and particularly of Helmand, and given that few members of the army are recruited from the south, does the Minister accept that it is sometimes too simplistic to think that recruiting an Afghan national army is the answer to all our problems, given that its members will be viewed in much the same way as the British Army is in Helmand—as foreigners?

There must be a combination of building up the army and reconciliation and reintegration. As the hon. Gentleman himself said, we must increasingly know about the influences and the elders at the local level, and we must be able to work at that level if we are to be clear about the most effective way to secure security and stability. The Afghan army and police are crucial, but they are not the only interventions that will enhance security.

I need to make rapid progress now. I referred to the expectation that other countries will share the burden of providing security forces.

On governance, we have made it clear that President Karzai has to take action in forming his new Government to demonstrate that he is serious about rooting out corruption, which must be dealt with on an institutional basis. As the Prime Minister has outlined, one key element of that is a fully independent and empowered anti-corruption commission.

As the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East persuasively said in his speech, there is also the crucial question of sub-national governance. Clean and competent governors need clear roles, appropriate training and resources to function effectively. We welcome the Afghan Government’s announcement of a sub-national governance reform programme and we will support them in implementing it. We also need better governance structures at village level. Across Afghanistan, the number of community development councils elected at village level will increase within two years, from 22,000 to 31,000. That is an important part of the strategy.

The same is true of the focus on reintegration of those whom we can peel off from the Taliban. As my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, West implied, the majority of Taliban fighters and supporters are not hardcore terrorists, but are motivated by tribal allegiances or simply money—sometimes as little as $10 a day. If we can demonstrate that they cannot win and we can provide those who are prepared to live peacefully with a way back to their communities, we should do so. That has worked with former Talibs, who have now assumed legitimate positions in the Afghan Government, and old enemies now work together in Parliament.

As the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton said, the reintegration process must be led by Afghans, but the international community can and should provide the funding. We are working with our international partners to determine how best to achieve that.

Alongside the military and security strategy, we of course need to ensure that there is economic development so that the people of Afghanistan see a direct benefit in their everyday lives as the situation moves forward. Economic growth this year is due to be 15 per cent., albeit from a low base, and that is an important step forward.

More Afghans are rejecting opium cultivation. This year, poppy cultivation decreased nationally by 22 per cent., and 20 provinces are now entirely poppy free. More Afghans are finding legal livelihoods, and the average income in Afghanistan has almost doubled since 2002.

The Prime Minister and President Karzai have signed a 10-year development partnership to support Afghan leadership of development. Some £510 million of DFID money will be invested over the next four years to support that development.

Hon. Members have rightly referred to the importance of regional development and the role that countries neighbouring Afghanistan will have to play in security. Some progress has been made, with Afghanistan and Pakistan negotiating a trade and transit agreement to facilitate trade. Afghan agricultural produce is regionally renowned. All that could help to undermine the appeal of poppy production to Afghan farmers. We welcome Turkey’s offer to host a regional economic co-operation conference in 2010 and we hope that all attendees will contribute positively.

Finally, I come to the London conference. It is crucial that the conference, which will be followed by a Kabul conference in spring 2010, brings together the Afghan Government’s commitments and the international community’s support so that we have a cohesive and clear strategy focused on the five pillars identified in Karzai’s inauguration statement. As the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk said, that will give a clear sense of how we measure progress and how the Government and President of Afghanistan will be held to account. The London conference will be seen as a crucial moment in moving the mission forward so that we can truly create long-term stability in Afghanistan and, having done that, start to bring our troops home.

High-speed Rail

It is the first time that I have served under your chairmanship, Mr. Fraser, and it is a pleasure to do so. I am delighted to have secured the debate, which is important to many right hon. and hon. Members of the House, as well as hugely important to the country, not just for transport reasons but for our entire economic future.

I am pleased to say that I was delivered here safely on time, having got a very early train from Leeds this morning by standard mainline rail on, of course, the now publicly owned east coast franchise—may it stay in public ownership for the foreseeable future. I want early in my remarks to express my disappointment that it is not Lord Adonis who will answer today on this important matter. That is meant as no disrespect to the Minister, with whom I regularly correspond: it is simply a matter of the role of Lord Adonis, and the way in which he has personally taken the initiative on high-speed rail and shown an interest in it. We would all agree that it is positive that high-speed rail is very much on the agenda. I hope that today’s debate will contribute to that.

We must start by facing the country’s abysmal record on high-speed rail. In a meeting with Lord Adonis in his office I looked at the high-speed rail map of Europe, and it shows about 3,500 miles of high-speed rail line on the continent. Yet at the moment in the UK a rather pitiful 68 miles, currently known as High Speed 1, links St. Pancras to the channel tunnel. We need only look across the channel to see how the French have taken the matter forward. The regional economies of places such as Lille and Lyon grow because of the bonus for business and tourism, as well as the development of whole industries that are based around the siting of high- speed lines.

On the crucial point of the siting of lines and the impact for business, does my hon. Friend recognise that if it were announced that high speed would go only as far as Leeds, as the Conservatives have said, the immediate effect could be to encourage business to relocate away from the north-east and east of Scotland? It is very important to get the siting right.

Of course my right hon. Friend is right, and I am sure that other hon. Members feel similarly about their cities and areas.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on obtaining the debate. Obviously, France has a population similar to that of the United Kingdom, and an area three times the size of England, so there are separate issues. However, does the hon. Gentleman agree that high-speed rail, highly desirable though it is, is not necessarily an unalloyed benefit, in that we need to act in parallel with any major investment to improve local transport and protect the environment, and to ensure that the projects integrate with regeneration? In particular we need to make sure that the trips that are generated are not new ones, but transferred ones: modal switch is the name of the game, is it not?

Of course I agree with the hon. Gentleman from that point of view, and we must accept that we have a very poorly integrated public transport system in this country. The rail network has never recovered from the disaster of the Beeching cuts. Perhaps we must consider high-speed rail as an opportunity to rectify that. I hope for an improvement in regional railways, stemming from high-speed rail.

The benefits of high-speed rail are many and well documented, and include improved inter-city links with the capital and the great cities of the rest of the United Kingdom. It reduces congestion by encouraging people, as the hon. Gentleman said, to move from the roads on to the railway, and it also reduces the demand for domestic flights. Most of the right hon. and hon. Members present for the debate represent areas outside London, and there are clear benefits of high-speed rail for areas such as Yorkshire, the north-east and the north of England. Overall what has happened on the continent has proved the possibility that high-speed rail in this country would do something to redress the historic economic tilt of the United Kingdom towards London and the south-east.

We have today had an extraordinary announcement on Heathrow, about the third runway apparently ticking the boxes for emissions targets—either that is wrong or the emissions targets are not worth the paper they are written on—but there is nevertheless a real environmental benefit to high-speed rail. That is particularly on people’s minds at the moment because of the Copenhagen summit.

I agree that high-speed rail offers the possibility of environmental benefits for the entire country, but I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will agree that one issue that will need to be faced is that its impact locally may involve serious environmental detriments. A challenge will be how to minimise those, if, indeed, the benefits that the hon. Gentleman identifies are to be perceived widely and shared by everyone.

I was aware from speaking to the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) that that important point was to be made this morning, and I am pleased that it has been. I hope that the views in my conclusions will be good news for both hon. Gentlemen.

The Northern Way’s evidence has shown that high-speed rail could create £13 billion in wider economic benefits. We have fallen behind our continental neighbours in that respect, and we need to take it seriously and make progress as quickly as possible.

I want to try to throw some light on the various proposals that are on the table, because there is some confusion about them. Four serious proposals are being considered. One is from Greengauge 21. The Government’s High Speed 2 quango, of course, has not yet reported, but we have indications of what it thinks. Network Rail came out with a report, and there is also the High Speed North proposal. I want to take the debate forward this morning by briefly outlining those options, and to focus on where high-speed rail should go. The Government have said they are committed to high-speed rail to Birmingham. That might be accepted as the starting point—although for some people it seems to be Heathrow airport, rather than central London, which I consider a grave error. High-speed rail will work if it connects London as a city with other capitals. I shall present more evidence about how important that is.

Greengauge 21 has an estimated cost of £25 million per route mile for the first network. The proposal is for, first, a route from London to Birmingham and Manchester, then to Glasgow and Edinburgh, with a dedicated branch into Heathrow airport. Greengauge 21 is an organisation that is very much interested in the project, and proposes a second line going up the east side of the country. There would then be connectivity between the two. However, the problem is that realistically, at the moment, it is a west coast high-speed rail proposal. There are other problems with it, not least that of ploughing straight through the Chilterns. That has already been commented on, and it needs to be taken seriously.

The Network Rail proposals are disappointingly similar. The cost estimate is about £32 billion, again to go from London to Birmingham, Manchester, Glasgow and Edinburgh. That was in its publication “The case for new lines”, which was published earlier this year.

Order. Before the hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire puts his point, I remind him that many hon. Members would like to contribute to the debate. He has already made one rather long intervention and as a member of the Chairmen’s Panel knows how to go about the business.

I will be very brief. Network Rail does not have a brilliant track record in that regard. It has deferred some rail renewal projects and laid off 1,000 skilled engineers, and from April next year it intends to reduce maintenance and cut a further 1,500 jobs. Will the skills be available to support the new high-speed lines once they are built?

The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point. Network Rail’s report was odd in that it did not make a strong case for its proposals apart from saying that the high-speed lines will deal with the greatest need—current capacity—rather than giving genuine economic benefits.

One interesting thing about the Network Rail report is that, like other studies, it firmly states that is not realistic or cost-effective to have an S shape. It seems that the Department for Transport and High Speed 2 are leaning towards going from Manchester to Leeds. However, the time that it would take to get from London to Leeds via Manchester would make it economically unviable. I challenge the hon. Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond), who speaks for the Opposition. Conservative party policy seems to be for high-speed rail to Manchester and then to Leeds, yet the engineers say that that would not make economic sense.

It is rather concerning if that is the best answer that the hon. Gentleman can give to a serious point. I worry that Conservative party policy has been drawn up for its populist appeal rather than as a sensible way of moving the debate forward.

Then we come to High Speed 2, at a cost of £34 billion. Although High Speed Two Ltd has not reported, Government information acquired through freedom of information requests suggests that the line will simply go from Birmingham to Manchester and possibly on to Scotland, ignoring the east side of the country. I have read the studies and spoken to experts, transport policy planners and engineers about them, and the fundamental question that should be asked is not being asked. It is that wherever high-speed rail goes after the initial link with Birmingham, it should be planned on the basis of the greatest economic benefit.

We are dealing with a large amount of taxpayers’ money, and we all acknowledge that is a very expensive project that will take some time to deliver. It is vital that what is finally built delivers the greatest value for money, the biggest bang for your buck, the greatest economic benefit, but some of the proposals now on the table do not provide that. Indeed, the information acquired through freedom of information requests suggests a laziness, with people saying that the biggest cities are Birmingham and Manchester and that the line should simply go from one to the other.

I would ask all Members, including the Minister, to imagine a large map of the island of Britain with a red circle around the main centres of population and the key economic drivers. They will see that there is little between London and Birmingham; but there is nothing in the way of an economic driver or a large centre of population between Birmingham and Manchester. Conversely, on the other side of the Pennines there will be a red circle around Leicester, Nottingham, Sheffield, Leeds and Newcastle. Suddenly the lazy assumption that the line should go from Birmingham to Manchester is shattered. The debate has not focused sufficiently on the key question of ensuring that, wherever high-speed lines are built, they should indeed deliver the most economic benefit.

Lord Adonis wrote an article in the Yorkshire Post a couple of months ago in which he said that people must have their say on the matter. However, many on the east of the Pennines have the strong perception that that is not really the case and that the Government have followed the lazy assumption, taking the route of suggesting that the line should go to Manchester. If that is not the case, I ask the Minister to clarify the matter. The city regions that would be served in the west would include Manchester and Birmingham, and possibly Liverpool. As I said earlier, those served in the east would include Nottingham, Leicester, Leeds, Sheffield and Newcastle if they were linked.

I assure the hon. Gentleman that the Government have not followed any lazy assumptions. We have not followed anything yet, and will not do so until the publication of the HS2 report at the end of the year.

That is a relief. The Minister will understand the worries that resulted from information acquired as a result of FOI requests.

I do not say that we do not get a fair deal in Yorkshire, but I must point out that our region continues to have the lowest transport spending—a lowly £234 per head in Yorkshire against a UK average of £326 and £641 in London. Capital spending in Yorkshire and the Humber is £668 million and in the north-west it is £979 million. Current spending in Yorkshire and Humber is £595 million; in the north-west it is £1,036 million.

The west cost main line has been upgraded at a cost of nearly £9 billion, and that was money well spent. I reassure my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Leech); it is right that the people of the north-west should have good transport links, but we too should have them, as should the people of Leicester, Nottingham and all regions.

I was delighted when the Yorkshire Post took up my suggestion of a campaign, specifically for a high-speed rail link to Yorkshire. The paper’s excellent “Fast Track to Yorkshire” campaign has had real resonance with the region’s business community, the public and elected representatives.

We need to move the debate on a little further from saying that the economic case is not sufficiently at the heart of discussions about high-speed rail. We need to go one step further. This is where I may disagree with some Members. Having considered the various high-speed rail proposals, the enormous costs and the huge engineering challenges, as well as the transport policy challenges, I have come to the conclusion that it is not realistic—not in the medium term and possibly not in the long term—to have two lines running between the north and the south.

In an ideal world, it would be wonderful to have high-speed rail throughout the country. As I said earlier, we are unlike France; our country is much smaller. The island of Britain has a smaller landmass. Could there ever be two north-south lines? Some of the debate is focused on that question. I am 40 next year, but—[Interruption.] I thank those who think I look younger. According to current predictions, we will not be discussing a second line until I am 70 and there is no real chance of one being built until I am 80. Not only is that a sad indictment of the overly cumbersome way in which we make transport policy, but I have come to the conclusion that those on the east side of the country—I see colleagues here today from the east—are being led up the garden path with the idea that we may get a second line. We hear it said: “Don’t worry about it; you may get a second line at some time in the future. There, there; don’t worry about it when we make the rather lazy assumption to take the line from Birmingham to Manchester because they are the two biggest cities, even if we ignore the fact that that is not the strongest economic case.”

Just to reassure other colleagues I will make it clear again that I absolutely agree that Birmingham should be included; that is an obvious assumption. Manchester, too, should be included. It is a hugely important city, and the economic driver for much of the north-west region. Let me also say to my colleagues in Scotland that we cannot conceive of a genuine high-speed future without Scotland and both the great Scottish cities—the capital and the biggest city, Glasgow—being connected. My point is that it must not, and need not, be an either/or situation.

The one proposal that has not had sufficient consideration so far is the High Speed North proposal, which was the first serious one to come out. It was put together in conjunction with the 2M Group, which opposes the third runway, in July 2008. The proposal is a single line solution that runs through Leicester, Nottingham, South Yorkshire and West Yorkshire. It includes Manchester by way of a spur, in much the same way that Birmingham would be a short spur off the main line. The High Speed North proposal uses the M1 corridor, and, although there are huge engineering challenges in delivering that project, there is a real possibility of it happening.

The good news for the hon. Member for Aylesbury and the hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve), who represent areas in or close to the Chilterns, is that because there has been a skewing effect of the Heathrow idea, which threatens part of the area of outstanding natural beauty, it would be more sensible to look at starting and finishing the line in London. Such a suggestion would hugely reduce the impact on those areas and see the line moving across to form realistic corridors through Greater London and into the north. Additional tracks would be required, but I am told that that would not be a problem. After that, we could introduce European-style double-decked trains, which are needed on any high-speed network, to deliver the kind of passenger numbers that are needed.

The overall high-speed rail network could be completed within about 15 years, which is a further reduction in the delivery time of the project, at an estimated cost—all of the costs are estimated—of £33 billion. It is strange that such a project has not been seriously considered. If we considered it, we would conclude that it is realistic to have one line with spurs off it to deliver benefits north and south. If we had a single line going from Birmingham to Manchester, the next step would be to go to Scotland, and not the north-east. After that, what would we then do? It is not necessarily lazy to assume that we would then have one in the east. What about Bristol, Cardiff and other areas of the country? We could open up the south-west. Given the size of the country and the huge investment that would be required, it is simply not realistic to have two lines that run no more than 50 miles apart. I ask the Minister to consider again the proposal and see whether there is a way in which we can have one line delivering benefits to all the regions that could be served by high-speed rail.

Some of us have been stuck in debates about east versus west, north-west versus Yorkshire and so on. My message to all hon. Members is that we should be arguing for one line with spurs that serves all the main economic drivers on both sides of the country—the west and east midlands, the north-west, Yorkshire, the north-east and Scotland. Only that option would justify the vast investment that high-speed rail clearly needs. To plough ahead with one line, serving only Birmingham and Manchester—especially from Heathrow—simply does not make sense. It does not add up or deliver the kind of benefits that we need from such a project.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his thoughtful and well-informed speech. Before he concludes, does he agree that there is a fundamental issue here that high-speed rail, as exciting as it is, must not detract from the very badly needed investment in the classic rail network, particularly the completion of the electrification of the main lines and the improvement in rolling stock that the Government are already committed to?

As the Minister knows, I probably should not get started on discussions about rolling stock in Yorkshire. The hon. Gentleman has a real interest in railways and the rail network, which is not surprising given the area that he represents. Of course he is right, and that matter is absolutely fundamental. Again, this is not an either/or matter. We need real improvements. Clearly my time is limited today. My purpose has been to take on the high-speed rail debate and make it a more realistic one that will deliver real benefits, including to the hon. Gentleman’s constituency and city.

I would be very pleased to work with hon. Members from across the House, in particular with the hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts), who is here, and the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies), who is not, to show that there is real cross-party consensus in taking forward the matter. We have an interest in wanting high-speed rail links to Yorkshire and the Humber, and we will continue to campaign for that. All of us who are passionate about high-speed rail should now change the focus of our debate.

I ask one question of the Minister. Will he and, hopefully, Lord Adonis meet those involved in the High Speed North proposal, including the engineer Colin Elliff, who has done a wonderful job in bringing forward the matter, to get the proposal firmly on the agenda? We all want to see one thing, which is a genuine high-speed rail network that serves as much of the country as possible. A single line, running from north to south, delivering as much as possible, should be the very first step forward.

Before I call the next person to contribute, I remind right hon. and hon. Members that six people have indicated that they would like to make a contribution, and I intend to start the wind-ups at noon.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Leeds, North-West (Greg Mulholland) on securing this timely and important debate. I will not go through the economic reasons or justifications for investment in a second high-speed rail line, because they have already been well made, but what I will say is that HS2 must provide evidence of a strategic approach to the development of the second high-speed network—a network is exactly what we need. We want a plan for a long-term investment in high-speed rail in this country. It must be one that brings together all the major conurbations. The High Speed Rail UK campaign is an alliance of all the major cities. Some 55 per cent. of the nation’s wealth is generated by such conurbations and a third of the population lives within them, including London. Despite the differences between France and the UK, our population is on a par with that of France. Although we may be smaller, our population, wealth generation and our importance as an international economy mean that we can draw parallels with France. An investment in a high-speed network that links all the major conurbations, including those in Scotland, in the west and the east of the UK, and in the south-west, is critical to the economic future of this country. I do not want to lay down any kind of imperative as to where the first phase of high-speed rail should go or to say that there should just be the one line, because we have to be realistic. We must be strategic, and have a network laid down by HS2 and agreed by Lord Adonis that will link all the conurbations.

Given the importance of the coming period and the possible contractions in public spending in that period, it is quite unhealthy for the conurbations and for MPs representing constituencies from the east and west of the country to be arguing, in a sense, about where the high-speed rail line should go. If there is a squeeze on public spending, we may well find that it is really important that MPs from Yorkshire work with MPs from Manchester and other parts of the north-west to ensure that we keep our fair share of the spending cake from the Department for Transport in the coming years.

As several colleagues have already said today, it is also really important that we ensure that investment in the conventional rail network is maintained and, if at all possible, increased. There is a real interest in the north in ensuring that the Manchester hub, which is an example of that investment in the conventional rail network, goes ahead. So it is vital that all of us, especially those of us from the provincial cities, stick together in making the case both for high-speed rail and for investment in the conventional rail network.

It is crucial to recognise the economic importance of high-speed rail to shorten journey times not only between northern and Scottish cities and London but between the east and the west of the country. For instance, the economic relationships between Sheffield and Manchester, Sheffield and Bristol and Sheffield and Birmingham are as important as those between Sheffield and London, and they are potentially even more important given the investment that we will receive in Sheffield for generating nuclear research and nuclear capacity. It is not just the link with London that matters; that is a really important point.

I would always support a rail line that takes in Sheffield in the first phase of a strategic network; of course I would support that. For me, it is absolutely critical that Sheffield is linked on such a network. However, whatever decision is made about the first phase, it is really important that markers are laid down at the earliest opportunity to demonstrate a serious intention to develop the rest of the network.

For example, if a decision was taken to build a line that went to Birmingham and then across the country, via Rugby, to Sheffield and Leeds and then further north, it would be absolutely vital to undertake planning work to lay down the parameters and the groundwork to ensure that a line also went through the west of the country to Manchester and to areas further north. So, although it would not be realistic to develop two major rail lines at the same time as part of a first phase, the first phase must be paralleled with the investment to lay down the groundwork for further phases of high-speed rail.

Another example of that type of planning would involve the Woodhead route across the Pennines, which is the obvious choice for a transpennine link. If that route is not part of the first phase of the high-speed network, we must ensure that it is at least safeguarded for the future and for further phases of development. So I would like to hear more from the Minister about the potential for safeguarding routes that are currently not being used and about the importance of ensuring that early work is undertaken on further phases of high-speed rail.

I will conclude my remarks, because I know that other people want to contribute to this debate, by saying that we must be ambitious on high-speed rail. To be honest, we cannot afford to turn our backs on the opportunity that is now before us for the future of high-speed rail in Britain. There are 3,500 miles of high-speed rail network across Europe and we have just 68 miles of that network. That is absolutely appalling and shows our dreadful record in investing long term in public transport links, including rail links. We cannot afford to say no to high-speed rail and we cannot afford to get our approach to it wrong. Our approach must be strategic and ambitious and, as I said earlier, there must be a network that links all the major conurbations, giving each one the opportunity to develop economically, bringing the country closer together and, if you like, enabling the regions to develop an economic capacity that will allow them to compete with London. I say that for the sake of London as much as for the sake of the regions, because if London continues to grow at the expense of the rest of the country, in the end it will become unsustainable. That would not be good for UK plc.

So we have to invest in high-speed rail; we have to stick together in the regions on this issue, and we have to ensure that we get the decision on high-speed rail right.

First, I congratulate the hon. Member for Leeds, North-West (Greg Mulholland) on securing this debate. High-speed rail is one of those things that almost everybody, whichever part of the country they represent, can happily sign up to as an attractive and valuable idea in principle. The trouble is that, unless and until we reach the stage where we are starting to debate particular route options and the problems and challenges that arise from each of them, we will not start to come to terms with both the benefits and the costs that are involved and we will not be able to assess the benefits and costs of a project of this ambitious scale.

We do not have a route yet. We have all sorts of speculation or informed leaks appearing in the media about what High Speed 2 will produce. We have a model of high-speed rail development that is rather different from Network Rail and we also have the other two proposals to which the hon. Gentleman alluded.

When the Minister responds, I hope that he will clarify one point, which is the timing of any announcement by the Department for Transport. My clear understanding is that HS2 is under an obligation to present its report to the Secretary of State for Transport by the end of the year. In an earlier intervention, the Minister talked about an announcement at the end of the year. My constituents and I want to know whether the Government are looking to make a public announcement at the turn of the year, as the Minister indicated in his intervention, or whether Ministers will study the report for a bit before they make a public announcement.

I am happy to advise the hon. Gentleman that it is the Government’s intention to consider the report. It will be a significant report requiring appropriate consideration. Furthermore, we will obviously want to ensure that it is aligned with any other publications on our national transport corridors.

I am grateful for that somewhat elliptical response from the Minister; it did not seem to clarify the Government’s timetable very much at all.

In the Select Committee on Transport, I recently asked the Secretary of State for Transport about the HS2 report; I asked him if I could get a copy of it under the Christmas tree. His answer was that he would have a copy under the Christmas tree, but it would be a number of months before I could receive a copy, because there could well be planning blight involved.

The hon. Gentleman’s account of that Select Committee hearing rather fits with my recollection of a radio interview with the Secretary of State a couple of weeks ago.

I think that I represent a greater proportion of the Chilterns area of outstanding natural beauty than any other Member of the House and already there is concern in my constituency about reports in the newspapers and the broadcast media that HS2 will propose routes that would plough straight through the heart of the Chilterns AONB. If such routes are indeed proposed, it seems to me that the exercise that I and other Members who represent constituencies in the Chilterns must undertake would be to balance the national interest with the interest of our constituencies. The Government could reasonably ask our constituents to consider that issue too.

Any proposal involving the Chilterns would have to pass two critical tests. One is a financial test involving value for money. Is the very large expenditure of public money entailed by a high-speed rail proposal justified by the economic benefits that would accrue to the nation? Also, would we be able to recoup at least a large part of that investment from various carbon access charges in subsequent years? Part of that analysis must include whether the fares it would be necessary to charge to make a sufficient return on the capital outlay would be affordable for ordinary people in this country. One reason why the abortive Central Railway freight project fell is that it became apparent that the necessary capital expenditure could be financed only on the expectation of freight access charges too high to attract any significant amount of traffic away from the motorways on to the proposed railway line.

The value for money test is particularly important given the point made by the hon. Member for Leicester, South (Sir Peter Soulsby). It is inevitable that expenditure of that order—current estimates of the total are between £30 billion and £40 billion—will involve diverting money that might be spent on upgrading other parts of the network, which sorely needs upgrading and modernising at many bottlenecks and pinch points that we could all identify.

Secondly, there is the environmental test. For my constituents, that is of particular importance. My constituency includes an area that is part of both the green belt and the Chilterns area of outstanding natural beauty. By definition, therefore, it is an area designated by successive Governments as having landscape of national value. There is quite a lot of National Trust land along the valleys of the Chilterns. The Chilterns Conservation Board, the statutory agency charged with protecting the AONB, along with the National Trust, the Chiltern Society and the Campaign to Protect Rural England, is already concerned about the proposals emanating from HS2.

When the report is published, I will want to see evidence of how the environmental balance would be struck. A project of that scale, like any big construction project, will inevitably involve the emission of a great deal of carbon. How will that be placed in the balance? What assumptions will be made about how much carbon will be saved by diverting passengers away from domestic flights and road travel on to the proposed new high-speed rail network?

My hon. Friend is making all the points that I would seek to make if I had time to speak. Does he agree that the project affects not only the Chilterns but, on one showing, the edge of London through the Colne valley regional park? One of the proposed schemes envisages building a Heathrow airport terminal, culverting the Colne along a section of its length and driving the railway line through the heart of the park, which has long been regarded as a key lung of considerable biodiversity on the edge of London. Those things will also have to be factored in—I will be interested to hear the Minister’s response—if that is indeed going to be the preferred route.

My hon. Friend makes a telling point in respect of his constituency. Those of us who represent seats in Buckinghamshire are all too well aware that the Government are insisting on the construction of tens of thousands of additional new homes in Buckinghamshire, Bedfordshire and Northamptonshire. One argument—which, in fairness, the Government put forward themselves—is that areas such as the Colne valley regional park and the Chilterns AONB are critical to the Government’s vision of sustainable communities where urban development provides residents with access to neighbouring areas of open space in which to enjoy recreational and sporting opportunities. The loss of that rural amenity must be placed in the balance, as must the risk of permanent and irreparable damage to landscape that Governments over the years have defined as being of national significance.

My questions to the Minister are these. First, what arrangements will be made for environmental impact assessments? Do the Government envisage a single assessment for the entire project, dealing with both strategic and local impacts, or will more than one such assessment be done? At what stage in any Government proposal would such an environmental impact assessment be presented? For example, would a full EIA be available to Parliament and the public before the proposal was voted on in the House of Commons?

Secondly, what consultation do the Government plan to hold with people whose personal lives, amenities and local communities could be seriously adversely affected by the construction of a high-speed rail link and who, because the rail link will exist to serve cities and will have as few intermediate stations as possible, are unlikely to benefit very much from its operation?

Thirdly, how will the Government take account of the fact that there is an inevitable relationship between the cost of the project and the provision of measures to mitigate the damaging environmental impact of a new railway line? Cuttings, tunnels and embankments to protect people from noise pollution all cost money. All too often, as I know from having the M40 in my constituency, Governments over the years have cut corners when it comes to protecting people, particularly in rural communities, from the adverse impact of large-scale infrastructure improvements. It would not be acceptable, for example, for all the money for environmental protection to go into tunnelling under London and then for the Chilterns or other rural areas affected to be told that there is no money left to look after their interests. I hope that the Minister will give us some assurances on those points.

Before I call the next speaker, I remind right hon. and hon. Members that there are still six people left to speak in 12 minutes.

I will be brief, Mr. Fraser. I support the concept of high-speed rail. I congratulate the hon. Member for Leeds, North-West (Greg Mulholland) on securing the debate. We have worked closely on the possibility of high-speed rail links into south and west Yorkshire. I agree that it is important in the meantime to consider other measures such as electrification, track improvements to the midland main line and other improvements for which I have been campaigning, with other colleagues such as my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Ms Smith).

The benefits of high-speed rail are clear. Getting people out of planes and their cars is good for the environment, and the possibility of rebalancing economic growth in this country back to the north is important. It is also important that we have a vision for the long term, not just of a short single line, but of a network for the whole country, and that we plan over 10, 20 or 30 years. We need only look at France and Spain: only six years ago, the train journey from Madrid to Barcelona took me six hours; it now takes two. Soon Spain will have more high-speed track than any other country in Europe. If Spain can do it with that sort of planning, we ought to be able to do it as well.

I certainly oppose proposals involving just one line to Birmingham, or the ridiculous idea of a line going from Birmingham to Manchester and then cutting across the Pennines to Leeds as an afterthought—I cannot possibly be associated with any scheme that treats Leeds simply as an afterthought. Occasionally in the past, Sheffield and Leeds have competed over things; on this occasion, the two cities are united, as are the parties. Any strategic approach to high-speed rail in this country must serve the major cities of the east midlands—Leicester, Nottingham and Derby—and go on into west Yorkshire and serve Sheffield, Leeds and other places. If high-speed rail is to be effective, it must target those major areas of population.

As the hon. Member for Leeds, North-West said, two proposals, each with advantages and disadvantages, would do that. The first is to go straight up the middle of the country. That is a logical way to serve the east midlands and south and west Yorkshire. There would be spurs off to Birmingham and Manchester and the line would go on to Newcastle and Scotland. In terms of population covered against track used and pounds spent, that is probably the most cost-effective option, although I understand that it could divide some of the supporters of high-speed rail who want the alternative proposal to be taken up.

The alternative is the Y option—a line that would go from Birmingham to Manchester, with a spur coming off somewhere near Rugby that went on to the east midlands, south and west Yorkshire and the north-east. If the Y option were taken, it would make economic sense for only one line to go to Scotland, and that would be the north-eastern branch to Edinburgh and Glasgow. I am not sure that there is economic sense in taking two lines to Scotland, but we can have that debate.

My argument is simple: we need a clear strategy from the Government and a commitment, when they make the decision, not to just one short line, but to a network for the country. If the Y line were chosen, I would argue that both branches should be developed in parallel. The eastern side of the country cannot wait until the western line is built for its line to be started. Having such a strategy is important for the development of an industry in this country that can produce the rolling stock and trains and the equipment needed to build the lines. Without that certainty, industry will not invest. It is important that jobs are created, not just through high-speed lines serving the population, but by the generation of economic development through the production of trains, rolling stock and equipment.

Mr. Fraser, I will restrict my remarks to a few points emphasising the environment. A lot of good things have been said, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Leeds, North-West (Greg Mulholland) on securing the debate.

I use the train from Glasgow to London regularly and I enjoy my time on it. Taking the train is cheaper and better for the environment than other forms of transport, but it is certainly not faster. Environmental figures from the Association of Train Operating Companies show that rail transport produces 42 grams of CO2 per passenger kilometre, road 127 grams and air 144 to 304 grams. I accept that if initially we are to go to Birmingham, that is to do with capacity in south-east England, which must be addressed; but if we are talking about time and, linked to that, the environment, the savings are greater if we can get plane users to switch to rail, and that means running a line to Glasgow, Edinburgh, Dundee and Aberdeen much more than to Manchester, Birmingham or Leeds.

There was an interesting discussion yesterday at the all-party rail group about whether we should go for a network immediately, or for a step-by-step approach. I think the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Ms Smith) was right to say that we need a strategic view, even if we build in stages. When the motorway was built from Glasgow to London, Scotland built it right up to the border but England failed to build the motorway to match it. We must not do that again. I urge real consultation from the start with whatever Scottish Government are in power. If it is going to take until 2025 just to finish the line to Birmingham, there will presumably be many different Governments here and in Scotland before it is finished. There is support from all parties, but there will also be opposition in all parties.

I will keep my remarks brief, Mr. Fraser.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Leeds, North-West (Greg Mulholland) on securing the debate and on his campaigning. It is about 20 years since I started the campaign for the upgrade of the west coast main line. I had black hair at that time and was about 3 stone lighter. The first thing that he must do is keep his seat.

I take exception to one or two points. A high-speed line would not be built to Birmingham to reduce the journey time by 20 minutes—£10 billion would not be spent on that, because it does not make economic sense. The reason for doing it is that it is the start of the high-speed line. The hon. Gentleman was rather lazy in his arguments. When he did not like something, he said that it was a lazy conclusion, but did not go into the issue.

The point is that we need to build a high-speed line because there are major capacity problems on our railways. Whether we like privatisation or not, a lot of people have been travelling by rail and there are major capacity problems. We therefore have to build new lines. If we are to build new lines, we might as well build high-speed lines so that there is a better railway. The capacity problem is in the west, on the lines to Birmingham and Manchester. Beyond that, we can argue about which direction the line should go in. There is a major capacity problem that we need to deal with and that is why we are talking about building a high-speed line. This is not a wish list. We are talking about spending £30 billion to complete one line from London to Glasgow and Edinburgh. That is a lot of money, so we have to justify it. The capacity problem is the justification.

We do not have to forget about the classic, traditional lines. I chair the all-party west coast main line group and our lobbying has been successful. At the moment, speeds on the west coast and east coast main lines are limited to 125 mph. The speed on both lines could be pushed up to 140 mph with little investment. I suggest to people who live on the east coast that their first priority should be to upgrade the east coast main line, because that could bring faster speeds and quicker journey times to London and elsewhere without the need to wait 30 years for the high-speed line, as the hon. Gentleman said. We need to sweat our existing resources better.

We must be careful that those who live on the periphery of London, such as the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington), do not block the advancement of the economy in the north. The question of Scotland, as raised by the hon. Member for Glasgow, East (John Mason), is difficult. From the Scottish border, it is about 70 or 80 miles to Edinburgh and Glasgow. The question is whether the Scottish Government will have the money to pay for that and whether an independent Scottish Government would have the money to pay for it. I doubt that they would.

I think that an independent Scottish Government would have a lot of different priorities, and this question is about priorities. If we are putting money into things such as nuclear weapons, there will not be money for railways.

I take it that the hon. Gentleman’s party would scrap Trident to build the high-speed line. I am very interested in that because I represent Carlisle, which is on the Scottish border.

High-speed lines work. They work on the continent and High Speed 1 works. However, we must drive down the costs of high-speed lines. There is a very good line from St. Pancras to the channel tunnel, but it is the most expensive high-speed line in the world. We must reduce the costs and make savings. When the policy is decided on, it must be stuck to.

I chaired a meeting of the all-party rail group last night. An hon. Member who is not present said that he would sooner have no high-speed line than one that did not go to Yorkshire. That is the sort of planning and bigotry that has held back the railways in this country for so long. We need a high-speed line, we have to give it some thought, we must get the money to do it and we must do it as cheaply as possible, but in the meantime, we must not forget the lines that we have. I say to the people on the east coast, the upgrade of the east coast main line and the electrification of the midland main line should be their first priorities.

[Mr. Joe Benton in the Chair]

I will be very brief indeed. I want to put in a plea about the first stage, which hon. Members all agree will go to Birmingham. HS2 still has to report on whether we will have two stops in Birmingham—one in the city centre and one at Birmingham international airport. I want to explain to hon. Members why it is so important that we get a Birmingham international airport stop.

First, the west midlands economy is highly dependent on access to fast communications. We have had the worst unemployment increase in the country and we have suffered worst from the downturn. We are looking for overseas investment and we are having an extension to our runway to facilitate wide-bodied aircraft, so that people can come into Birmingham international and move on south, or to Manchester or further north. That is extremely important and will provide economic benefits for the whole country, not just the region. A high-speed rail link will make Birmingham international airport truly international and, as other hon. Members have said, it will be the first step towards having a better, faster, environmentally friendlier link to the rest of the country.

Thank you, Mr. Benton, it is a pleasure to serve under you this afternoon. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, North-West (Greg Mulholland) for securing this important and timely debate. As we await the HS2 report, which will no doubt be the Secretary of State’s Christmas reading, it is vital to debate an issue that could shape our domestic transport infrastructure for the rest of the 21st century.

It is fair to say that the Government have been slow to get on board in support of high-speed rail. Had Lord Adonis not been made Secretary of State for Transport, I doubt whether the Government would have had a change of heart. Hon. Members will remember the former Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Bolton, West (Ruth Kelly), who said only two years ago that

“it would not be prudent to commit now to ‘all-or-nothing’ projects…for which the longer-term benefits are currently uncertain”.

Government inaction and indifference to high-speed rail has resulted in the UK lagging behind the rest of Europe. As my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, North-West mentioned, out of 3,500 miles of high-speed rail around Europe, only 68 miles are in the UK, between St. Pancras and the channel tunnel. Hon. Members from all parties will be aware that the Liberal Democrats were the first party to pledge support for a high-speed rail link to the north and beyond. As usual, the Conservatives have limped in at the last minute with a half-hearted proposal.

Does my hon. Friend agree that, in the run-up to the general election, now is an opportune time for all parties to make a clear commitment to a high-speed rail network throughout the UK that serves all major cities, so that no area suffers from blight?

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention and I am certainly happy to go on record as giving a Liberal Democrat commitment to a high-speed rail network. I hope that the other parties will do likewise.

Understandably, there will be much debate and disagreement about the exact route of a high-speed network, and hon. Members will make the strongest possible case for high-speed rail coming to their own areas. I was interested to hear that the General Synod of the Church of England has stated in a recent resolution:

“This Synod urges Her Majesty’s sustain employment opportunities, further environmental targets and strengthen future economic and social development by implementing the planning and development of a high speed rail line from London to the North-West and Scotland.”

I am not sure how that resolution will go down and be viewed in God’s own county of Yorkshire.

I do not want to get too embroiled in a debate about the exact details of a network, except to say that we envisage a high-speed rail network, rather than just a line, which will serve and provide access to northern cities and carry on through to Scotland. The hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Ms Smith) is absolutely right that Members representing northern cities either side of the Pennines should not fight over which way the line goes; they should work together to ensure that the north, Scotland and other regions of Great Britain receive the same transport funding as the south-east.

Until we know what is in the HS2 report, we are not in a position to talk about the detail of the exact routes. Sir David Rowlands recently told the BBC that a spur north of Birmingham

“would allow both sides of the country to be served…We will tell the government that the preferred option from our point of view is a network that certainly serves Manchester as well as places like Nottingham, Sheffield, Leeds and up to Newcastle and one way or another, up to Scotland.”

That is broadly in line with our thinking on providing a network, rather than simply a single line, but the devil is in the detail.

There is also the issue of stations. My hon. Friend the Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt) raised the issue of Birmingham international and Birmingham New Street. Of course, there will be a wider debate about whether we ought to consider city centre or airport locations for stations. Clearly, such details will have to be debated thoroughly.

May I inform my hon. Friend that New Street is not likely to be an option for Birmingham? We might be able to develop the east side of Birmingham, which is in need of regeneration, in order to facilitate a Birmingham city centre site.

I thank my hon. Friend for that clarification. I meant to say Birmingham city centre, rather than Birmingham New Street.

The real issue is how we will pay for high-speed rail. Some hon. Members were at the all-party rail group meeting last night at which high-speed rail was discussed. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew), who has done an excellent job of chairing the all-party rail group and has argued the case for investment in rail over a long period. In these uncertain economic times, there is understandable concern about whether any Government will be prepared to commit the money, particularly for such a long-term project.

In our policy paper, “Fast Track Britain,” we have set out in great detail the benefits of high-speed rail and other rail improvements, but we have also indicated how we would start to pay for them. There would be a £30 surcharge on domestic flights— we have been very open about that—and a lorry road-user charging scheme, which would also ensure that foreign lorries paid their way for using UK roads, instead of having an unfair advantage over British hauliers. We would also get more money out of the train operating companies by offering much longer franchises in return for better investment. Currently, train operating companies have little incentive to invest for the future, as they are uncertain whether they will be running services in two or three years’ time.

We are the only party to have a costed plan. In the Manchester Evening News on 9 September, the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs. Villiers) claimed that the Conservatives have a costed plan. Perhaps the hon. Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond) will clarify how the Conservatives will pay for their plan. I recall listening to the shadow Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet, at an all-party rail group meeting possibly 18 months ago. She was trying to claim that the Conservatives could pay for high-speed rail out of existing budgets, and still have money for the rest of the network. Is that still the position of the Conservative party? If so, where will the savings be made and what part of the existing rail network budget will be cut?

As for the Government, I suspect that we will have to wait until the Secretary of State for Transport has finished his Christmas reading before we get any commitment to funding HS2, but I will be interested to hear what the Minister has to say in his reply. In the meantime, the Liberal Democrat programme for high-speed rail would begin immediately and be rolled out over 15 years. A high-speed network is vital not only to increase capacity, but to encourage more people out of their cars and dissuade them from taking domestic flights, as well as to help drive the economy and growth in the north and Scotland.

Developing a high-speed network would free up capacity on the conventional railway for shorter-distance local travel, as well as for freight. Currently, some local services play second fiddle to inter-city services and, following last January’s timetable changes, some local services became less frequent or were lost completely to increase inter-city capacity. Tony Collins of Virgin Trains has highlighted that the west coast will run out of capacity possibly as early as 2015, and certainly by 2020, despite the £9 billion invested in the west coast main line. High-Speed Rail UK estimates that a high-speed rail network could accommodate all the passenger traffic travelling on the west coast, east coast and midland main lines twice over, which would be up to 15,000 passengers per hour in each direction.

Of equal importance is the potential for expanding rail freight. I understand that HS2 is unlikely to recommend carrying freight on any extended high-speed network, but ruling that out at this stage, in my view, would be a mistake. There is little justification for not taking advantage of the network through the nights when passenger services are not in use. Even if we ruled out freight on the high-speed network, freeing up capacity on the existing network would undoubtedly open opportunities for freight on the traditional lines.

There are sound environmental reasons for supporting high-speed rail. The Eddington transport study estimated that it could lead to carbon savings of 500,000 tonnes per year, or 30 million tonnes over 60 years, valued at £3.2 billion. Transport is responsible for around a quarter of all emissions in the UK and, more worryingly, is the only domestic sector in which emissions have risen since 1990.

Order. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman, but I am trying to be absolutely fair about allocating time. It is already 11 minutes past 12 and other Members are yet to speak, including the Minister, so I ask the hon. Gentleman to bring his remarks to a conclusion.

I will quickly bring my remarks to a close.

The other massive benefit of high-speed rail will be to the economy. I rarely agree with Sir Richard Leese, the leader of Manchester city council, but I think that he was spot on when he said:

“The two major challenges facing our next government will be the economy and the environment. A far-reaching high speed rail network that serves the main economic hubs of the UK will help to succeed in both of these areas.”

I, too, welcome the opportunity that the hon. Member for Leeds, North-West (Greg Mulholland) has offered us this morning by securing the debate. It gives me the opportunity to spell out why I believe absolutely that a high-speed rail network is important for this country and why we hope the Government will do a little more than play catch-up in this matter, which is certainly what they are doing at the moment.

We have heard some interesting contributions. The hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Ms Smith) made a thoughtful contribution, yet again, on the importance of the strategic network. My hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) made the point about routes, which we will all have to address when the High Speed 2 report is published. Clearly, there will be issues about national considerations versus local considerations, and local environmental issues versus national environmental issues. He was right to raise not only the concerns from his constituency, but the argument that the House will have to face when a clearer route is proposed.

I was interested, as usual, by the remarks of the hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts). He did not want Leeds to be an afterthought, so he must be worried that his Government give no thought to Leeds or Sheffield in their plans. I can only concur with the hon. Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew), who said that the case for high-speed rail is not an end in itself. It must contribute to the economic regeneration, the travel considerations or the environmental considerations of this country.

While I forgive the hon. Member for Leeds, North-West for his less than gracious response to my intervention, I gently say to him that simply claiming that anyone else’s argument is a lazy assumption is in itself a lazy assumption. He predicates his argument on the views of Mr. Colin Elliff, whom I have met three or four times. Mr. Elliff is a passionate advocate for his route, but surely the hon. Gentleman must remember that many people think Mr. Elliff’s route has several problems and that he, I suggest gently, is a relatively controversial figure in the railway industry.

There are, of course, problems with all schemes that must be dealt with, and it would be dishonest to suggest otherwise. On the hon. Gentleman’s other point, can he tell me why the Conservative leader—joint leader in a coalition—of Leeds city council, Andrew Carter, does not support Conservative party policy and wants a direct high-speed link to Leeds?

My understanding, from my conversations with Mr. Carter, is that while he would prefer a direct link to Leeds, presumably as would the hon. Gentleman, he absolutely supports a plan, which is the only plan proposed at the moment, for a service running from a London terminus, with a spur to Heathrow, to Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds. The hon. Gentleman has advocated a different route today, but I believe that Andrew Carter, with whom I speak regularly, very much supports the plan.

It is worth emphasising that the plan laid out by the Conservative party is more extensive than the one the Government currently propose, or any that they are likely to propose via High Speed 2, if the rumours are correct. We have continually emphasised that we see that development as the first stage of a network. I accept that at some stage other major cities in England, such as Newcastle, and Scotland will want to be connected. Ultimately, we, and everyone in this Chamber, want to see a full national network connecting as many UK cities as possible.

I say to the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Leech) that we, unlike other parties, have sat up and done the hard work on the detailed feasibility study, looking at the data and analysis from several expert sources in relation to finance and construction. Our modelling of projected revenue flows deploys some cautious assumptions on fares, which we have looked at with several operators, to ensure that we do not build a railway that no one can afford to use, because that would be pointless.

I have said before that high-speed rail must be neither an end in itself, nor a totem. It must be there to fulfil the key challenges. There is a desperate need for new capacity. I travelled on the west coast and east coast yesterday, and both were fabulous services—[Interruption.] The main line services, indeed. As the hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe mentioned, the chief executive of Virgin acknowledges that there is a need for new capacity. With the west coast main line expected to be full to breaking point certainly within the next decade, but probably much earlier, we face a capacity issue. As the hon. Member for Carlisle rightly said, we will need to build new capacity. Should we build slow routes or fast routes? Surely we should build high-speed routes and concentrate initially on those routes that have capacity problems, particularly when considering the economic benefits.

There is no economic benefit in building a high-speed rail route to Birmingham, but there would be a huge economic benefit of building beyond, and I think that there is a national consensus on that point. Certainly, the economic numbers that we have had verified for our proposal show that connecting Manchester and Leeds to a high-speed network would benefit those cities by billions of pounds. We must layer on top of that the huge potential switch from air to road, as approximately 63,000 flights a year would be taken out if there were a high-speed line connecting London, Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds.

The reality, of course, is that flights from Manchester have been devastated by the upgrade of the west coast main line. The real benefit in reducing flights will come when the line is extended to Glasgow and Edinburgh.

I can see that as part of a network, but all I am laying out now is that, with regard to domestic flights and short-haul continental flights, we could take out around 63,000 flights. Whichever party is in power after the general election—I hope that it will be a challenge for a Conservative Minister—it will face the challenge of Air France wanting capacity on our High Speed 1, and we will see a further expansion of that.

Clearly, we must continue to make the case for high-speed rail, not as an end in itself, but because of the need for new capacity, the potential for huge environmental benefits as a result of modal shift and the potential for huge economic benefits through the shrinking of our country and economic zones. We must continue to make the case for a strategic network, wherever we start.

I readily concede that the Government have made huge strides, and Lord Adonis is to be congratulated on his desire for cross-party and national consensus on high-speed rail. That has been a huge change of attitude for the Government, and the message therefore from all parties is that we recognise the benefit to this country of high-speed rail. Sixty-eight miles of high-speed rail—0.007 per cent. of the continental European network—is something that we should be ashamed of and that we should all commit to change.

I hope that the Minister will clarify how the Government see high-speed rail developing in this country beyond whatever proposals come out of High Speed 2, and I would welcome a commitment from the Minister that he and the Government recognise that building a rail line to Birmingham should be only the start of a strategic high-speed rail network. Only if we have such a network will we get environmental, travel and economic benefits for our country.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Leeds, North-West (Greg Mulholland) on securing this important debate. High-speed rail is, without doubt, a hotly debated topic across the country, and I was grateful for the opportunity to hear all the views that have been raised today, including those from my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Ms Smith), the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington), my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts) and the hon. Member for Glasgow, East (John Mason), the common-sense comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew) and the views of the hon. Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt). I shall endeavour to respond to all the issues, but, if I do not, they have been heard and will be examined.

Railways across the UK are a success story. We have seen great improvements in the areas that matter most to passengers, including punctuality and reliability. Our priorities for the railway are still capacity, safety and performance. A reliable railway is the single most important requirement of passengers, and it is also important to the wider economy.

Rail punctuality and reliability have improved by more than 10 per cent. since early 2004. The rail White Paper, “Delivering a Sustainable Railway”, published in July 2007, specified further improvement during the high-level output specification period to 92.6 per cent. of trains arriving on time by March 2014, a 25 per cent. reduction in delays of more than 30 minutes and, to maintain momentum on safety, a 3 per cent. reduction in the risk of death or injury to passengers and employees by 2014.

The White Paper outlines the single biggest programme of investment for a generation. It does so without imposing new burdens on regulated fares while being able to return to historic levels the demands made of the taxpayer. More than £10 billion will be invested in enhancing capacity between 2009 and 2014, with overall Government support for the railway totalling £15 billion. Without drawing the hon. Member for Leeds, North-West into a debate on this, I can say that we will introduce a significant number of extra carriages on to the rail network in England and Wales by 2014.

The £8.9 billion spent on upgrading the west coast main line has already delivered faster journeys between London, Birmingham and Manchester and beyond, and the December 2008 timetable change has resulted in greater frequency of services to some of our greatest cities. For example, we now have more frequent and faster journeys between Manchester and London, with a train every 20 minutes during the day and average journey times of around two hours eight minutes. Liverpool and Preston to London takes only a few minutes over two hours, and Warrington and Wigan are less than two hours away. Chester is one of the big winners, having a regular hourly service for the first time, with a journey time of just two hours. Services between the north-west and Scotland have also improved as have those to the west midlands.

But it does not stop there. On 23 July, the Government announced a major £1.1 billion programme of rail electrification. The Great Western main line between London and Swansea will be electrified by 2017, the line between Liverpool and Manchester will be electrified by 2013, and we are working to identify other viable routes for electrification.

Turning to the central issue of this debate, high-speed rail in the UK, I would first like to mention that we already have our first high-speed rail line, the £5.8 billion channel tunnel rail link, known as High Speed 1. That significant project opened on time and on budget, and, from next week, HS1 will be used for the full-service Southeastern Javelin service. That timetable change will bring about the biggest change in more than 40 years and will mean an entirely new service pattern throughout parts of Kent, East Sussex and south-east London. It will provide passengers with more than 200 extra trains in the south-eastern region every day, boost capacity by 5 per cent. and dramatically speed up journey times for people using the high-speed services; for example, the journey time from St. Pancras to Ashford will be 38 minutes.

We are planning now to ensure that we are in the strongest position possible to make the right investments in future years to continue developing the rail network. However, we also recognise that the west coast main line will be operating to its maximum capacity by the end of the 2020s, and that a new route might be needed. That is why we have created High Speed Two Ltd to develop a proposal for an entirely new line between London and the west midlands, and to advise on the potential development of a new line beyond the west midlands. HS2 will also provide advice to Ministers on the potential development of a high-speed service beyond the west midlands and consider in particular the potential to extend to Greater Manchester, West Yorkshire, the north-east and Scotland.

To pick up on some of the points raised in the debate, I can assure those such as the hon. Member for Aylesbury and the hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve), who are concerned about local environment impacts, that HS2 has carried out detailed environmental analyses at a local level, and its report at the end of the year to the Government will include an assessment and mitigation measures. I can also advise that HS2 has been actively seeking the views of stakeholders from across the country and has engaged directly with interested parties as its work has progressed.

As hon. Members will be aware, the Secretary of State is also keen to understand the benefits that high-speed rail can deliver to the country and has met a range of stakeholders, including several Members of this House, to discuss the issue. I, too, have heard views on high-speed rail, in particular during my summer trip to the north of England, where I met with Nexus, South Yorkshire, West Yorkshire and Greater Manchester integrated transport authorities, all of which were keen to impress on me the value that high-speed services would bring to their economy.

To address a couple of detailed points, I can assure the hon. Member for Leeds, North-West in respect of double-deck trains that HS2 is working to a gauge minimum of UIC GB+ or similar, which will give the flexibility to run duplex high-speed trains on a new line if that is necessary. Of course, that would have freight benefits as well, which I believe addresses one of the issues raised by the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Leech).

Several hon. Members said that they wanted a strategy for a wider network, and I can assure them that in our response to HS2’s report early next year we will address the question of a strategic view on a wider UK network.

Let me set out why we feel that high-speed rail needs serious and informed consideration. Until recently, Governments considered rail in the UK to be in a state of inevitable and irreversible decline, and they failed to invest in new infrastructure. As a result, today we are behind most other developed countries in building a high-speed rail network. Yet over the past decade, rail has experienced a tremendous renaissance in Britain. High-speed rail has the potential to meet future inter-conurbation capacity requirements and sustainably to transform the transport connections between our major conurbations, with substantial economic, social and environmental benefits.

International experience bears that out. Before high-speed rail, just 24 per cent. of journeys between Paris and Brussels were by train. Since the introduction of a high-speed line between those cities, the proportion of train journeys has more than doubled to 50 per cent., with a huge increase in capacity. In Germany, high-speed rail is so popular that Lufthansa has scrapped flights between Cologne and Frankfurt—little wonder, now that the high-speed line has slashed the 110-mile journey time by train from two hours 15 minutes to just under one hour. Before high-speed rail in Spain, two thirds of journeys between Madrid and Seville were by plane; just one third were by train. With the advent of a high-speed line, the railway now takes 84 per cent. of the market. A similar dramatic change is taking place on the Madrid to Barcelona route, with the opening of the high-speed line between those two cities earlier this year.

I am not sure that we can lay all the credit at the door of the west coast main line upgrade, but it is the case that not that many years ago only one third of the journeys between London and Manchester were made by train, with two thirds being made by plane. Now it is the other way around.

The question is where we in Britain go now. The Department for Transport will receive the report from HS2 at the end of the year, and it is currently envisaged that we will respond early in 2010, at which time the HS2 report will be published. Later in 2010, we intend to consult on the proposed route, with options, between at least London and the west midlands, subject to analysis of HS2’s report and decisions thereafter.

We are keen to engage with colleagues in this House on high-speed rail. It is our firm belief that a project of this magnitude, with such long-term investment and planning timelines, will succeed only if we all work together, across parties, on a shared national strategy—

Heavy Goods Vehicles (Seat Belts)

I am grateful to Mr. Speaker for the opportunity to have this debate on what may seem a small and somewhat arcane issue of fitting seat belts to heavy goods vehicles. However, on occasion small issues have large consequences and, in this case, it can be a matter of life or death. Normally, discussions about road safety and heavy goods vehicles focus on their role in accidents and fatalities involving pedestrians, cyclists or other motorists. Clearly, there are issues to be addressed in that respect and the Minister is well seized of those. But today I am focusing on a different matter: the dangers posed to the drivers of HGVs whose lorries have not been fitted with a seat belt.

I have called this debate because in July 2007 a constituent of mine, Peter Williams, was killed when the 7-tonne lorry that he was driving crashed near the village of Wolsingham in County Durham. Peter was just 23 years old. According to evidence heard at the inquest into his death, the injuries that Peter sustained were mainly above the legs and on his chest, probably indicating that he had been thrown against the steering wheel before being thrown out of the cab as the lorry plunged down a bank and on to a railway line. The Calor Gas tanker that he was driving dated from 1995. It had not been fitted with seat belts.

After Peter died his mum and dad, Jan and Mark Williams, who are also my constituents, came to see me as their local Member of Parliament. Understandably, they were deeply upset by Peter’s death, but what impressed me then and what has continued to impress me over the two years that I have known them is their shared determination and their calm resolve to see some good come out of their family’s terrible personal tragedy. At no point have they displayed any rancour or bitterness about what happened to their son. They are a quite remarkable family and I want to pay tribute to them today.

Mr. and Mrs. Williams have worked tirelessly over the last two years campaigning to highlight the need for every HGV on Britain’s roads to be fitted with seat belts so that no other family has to endure what they have endured or suffer the loss that they have suffered. I hope that this debate helps the Williams family and helps their campaign; I hope that it raises awareness about the lack of seat belt protection in too many lorries; and above all else I hope that it prompts the Government and the road haulage industry to take action together to save lives.

After Mr. and Mrs. Williams first came to see me, I started looking into this issue and I was genuinely shocked to find that Peter Williams’s lorry is not the only one on Britain’s roads lacking that most basic safety protection—a seat belt. I had assumed, obviously naively, that every lorry on the roads had seat belts fitted. I guess that most Members of Parliament and members of the public would make the same assumption. By law all HGVs weighing more than 3,500 kg and registered for use after 1 October 2001 have to be fitted with a seat belt. That followed European legislation that we introduced in this place. The problem is with lorries that were registered before 1 October 2001.

I tabled questions to my right hon. Friend the Minister’s predecessor as a Transport Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Canning Town (Jim Fitzpatrick), to gauge the extent of this problem, which is pretty big. My hon. Friend estimated that more than 250,000 vehicles were registered before 2001 and are still in use. Since that number includes many older vehicles, those are precisely the ones that are probably most prone to having safety problems. Of course, it is true that their numbers are falling year on year as they are scrapped and new lorries are introduced: the Road Haulage Association and the Department for Transport estimate that some 40,000 of these older lorries are disappearing year by year. Although there was no statutory requirement for manufacturers to fit seat belts in lorries registered prior to 2001, some manufacturers, such as Scania and Volvo, did so voluntarily because they were concerned about the safety implications if their cabs did not have them. So not every one of the 250,000 older lorries will be without seat belts, but many will. It is time to close that loophole.

I know from helpful conversations with Ministers and officials in the Department for Transport, and from helpful communication that I have had with the RHA, that there are no reliable data to allow us to judge just how many lorries there are currently on the road and in daily use that do not have seat belts appropriately fitted. But it is highly likely that their numbers run into many thousands—perhaps tens of thousands. DFT figures suggest that in 1997 alone more than 400,000 lorries in use had been registered prior to that date. Of course, I understand that the cabs of those old lorries may be difficult to adapt to enable a seat belt to be fitted, but that will not be so in all of them. Indeed, when my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Canning Town kindly agreed to meet the Williams family and myself in this place more than a year ago, he informed us that he had discovered that more than 150,000 HGVs registered before 2001 have the necessary anchorage points already fitted in their cabs to enable seat belts to be easily installed. So the fittings are there, but the seat belts are not. I can see no excuse for that, and I believe it has to change. I am not alone in that presumption.

In a letter to me dated 2 June last year, the chief executive of the RHA said that

“fitment of belts to those vehicles not currently fitted should not cause too much of an engineering problem.”

The DFT estimates the cost of installation to be some £110 per vehicle. The RHA said that the cost could be between £200 and £300. I have every sympathy for road hauliers, particularly in the current difficult economic circumstances, who are finding it difficult sometimes to make ends meet. But this will not cost the earth. A few hundred pounds seems an incredibly small price to pay for something that is potentially life-saving. We know from the experience of the last few decades that seat belts save lives. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents estimates that in all vehicles—lorries, vans, cars, buses, etc.—over the last 25 years some 50,000 lives will have been saved as a result of people wearing seat belts.

In 1997 a report specifically looking at the consequences of fitting HGVs with seat belts indicated that some 130 deaths and serious injuries could be prevented if all truck drivers wore a seat belt. A further study conducted for the DFT in 2001, prior to the legislation being introduced, concluded that three deaths and 35 serious injuries could be prevented if seat belts were fitted to HGVs.

Of course, even when seat belts are fitted they are not always worn. A decade ago, when the Government were thinking about introducing the legislation, it was estimated that only one in 10 truck drivers regularly wore a seat belt when fitted. That low level of usage remains a problem today, and I know that the Minister and his colleague are anxious to address the problem, and rightly so.

It is welcome that both the DFT and the organisations representing the road hauliers, most notably the RHA, are actively encouraging drivers to wear a seat belt when one is fitted. Sadly, Peter Williams did not have that option. If he had wanted to wear a seat belt, he could not have done so because his lorry was one of perhaps many thousands that did not have one installed. No one will ever know whether, if Peter’s lorry had been fitted with a seat belt, he would still be with us, but I hope that most sensible people believe, as I do, that it is not unreasonable for lorry drivers, regardless of the age of the lorry that they are driving, to be afforded basic protection from death or serious injury in the event of an accident. We are all rightly concerned, here and in wider society, about drivers of cars and lorries not wearing seat belts when they are fitted.

I am no great fan of the nanny state approach to public policy, but when research consistently shows that one third of car occupants who received fatal injuries were not wearing seat belts, society, the Government and the law have a responsibility to act. Most people would agree with that. My question is a simple one: should we not extend our concerns from drivers not wearing their seat belts to vehicles that do not have seat belts fitted? Those are two sides of the same coin. They are both road safety issues, and they need to be addressed.

I know from conversations with the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham (Paul Clark), that he is worried about the current loophole. My hon. Friend, like his predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Canning Town, has taken an active interest in the Williams campaign, and I thank him for that. In essence, its plea is simple. It is urging haulage companies to fit seat belts to all commercial vehicles on the roads that do not have them. More than 10,000 people, many from my constituency, have already pledged support for the campaign, and they are not alone.

Mr. Andrew Tweddle, the Durham and Darlington coroner, who presided over the inquest into Peter's death, has called for the current law to be reviewed. When I approached the RHA, I was pleased to receive its support for a campaign that focuses on the operators of older vehicles that have anchorages fitted but no belts installed. Similarly, when I contacted the Health and Safety Executive, it offered to assist in disseminating messages about the fitting of safety belts in lorries.

Such a campaign is long overdue. I hope that today my right hon. Friend the Minister will pledge his Department’s support for that campaign and, more than that, I hope that he will actively work with the various organisations representing road hauliers to make that campaign a priority for the new year. The aim should be to win the hearts and minds of the firms operating older lorries to fit seat belts to every single one of them. It is far better for the loophole in the current law to be addressed by voluntary action than by the sometimes arduous and often long process of legislative change. For one thing, that action, if the will exists to make it happen, can make progress quickly. Equally, however, if that campaign does not happen or does not succeed in persuading road hauliers to install seat belts, I hope that the Minister will at least keep open the option of amending the law to make such a change mandatory. I hope that common sense will prevail, and that we do not have to contemplate moving down the legislative route. More than that, however, I hope that common human decency will prevail.

Without seat belts, older lorries can become death traps for drivers who are unfortunate enough to be involved in an accident. We know that from what happened to Peter Williams. Nothing can bring Peter back, but I hope that lessons will be learned from his untimely death. My plea to my right hon. Friend the Minister is straightforward. Let us not wait for another preventable death before action is taken. Now is the time to take action, and I hope that he will pledge that he and his Department will take the lead in making that happen.

It is a pleasure to respond to an Adjournment debate with you in the Chair, Mr. Benton, and one introduced by my right hon. Friend the Member for Darlington (Mr. Milburn). I congratulate my right hon. Friend on securing the debate and providing an opportunity to discuss the fitting of seat belts into older heavy goods vehicles. He has already written to and been in regular contact with my Department, and met Ministers. He has done a lot to bring the issue to the fore, and let us be clear that, as he said, it was not at the fore for many MPs, my Department or the Government before his campaigning. I extend my condolences to my right hon. Friend’s constituents, the Williams family, on the accident in July 2007, which had such tragic consequences for Peter and his family, who are doing a huge amount to raise this important issue and to ensure that no other family goes through the trauma that they suffered in 2007.

It may be helpful if I begin by summarising the current requirements for the fitting of seat belts in heavy goods vehicles on the road. They are set out in full in the Road Vehicles (Construction and Use) Regulations 1986, as amended. Regulation 47 is key to the context of today’s debate. It states that every heavy goods vehicle first used on or after 1 October 2001, and having a maximum gross weight exceeding 3.5 tonnes, shall be fitted as respects the driver’s seat belt with a three-point “lap and diagonal” belt or two-point lap belt, and as respects every other forward-facing front seat with a three-point “lap and diagonal” belt or two-point lap belt. Vehicles first registered between 1 October 1988 and October 2001 were required to be equipped with the mounting points for two-point lap belts only.

As my right hon. Friend stated, a costs and benefits study for my Department in 2001 indicated that 100 per cent. safety belt fitting across the fleet would save three lives and 35 serious injuries. Since then, the number of HGV casualties has fallen steadily to 20 driver and three passenger fatalities in 2008, compared with 47 driver and seven passenger fatalities in 2001. That is still too many, but the casualties are fewer than originally estimated.

Our latest data from 2007 show that 527,740 large goods vehicles with a maximum gross weight exceeding 3.5 tonnes were licensed for use in Great Britain. Of those, 240,000 vehicles were first registered for use before October 2001, and my right hon. Friend made that point in his excellent speech. I have explained that those vehicles were not required by law to be fitted with three-point lap and diagonal seat belts, but some manufacturers install the anchorage devices to accept three-point belts. Some more safety-conscious manufacturers also provided the actual belts voluntarily, and we estimate that 105,000 vehicles may have been fitted with safety belts in this way, although, surprisingly, some may since have been removed. Around 25,000 vehicles—approximately 5 per cent. of the active fleet—were manufactured before October 1989 and are not suitable for any form of retrofit action.

The specific mounting points required in vehicles to install safety belts are usually incorporated at the time of manufacture. If the relevant anchorages are present in a vehicle’s structure, we estimate that a safety belt could be fitted for less than £200. My right hon. Friend has explained in graphic terms the impact that a safety belt can have on the safety of a driver who is involved in an accident.

In some cases, safety belts are attached to anchorages on the seat, which are in turn mounted to reinforced points within the vehicle cab. Those seats are specially designed to withstand the large forces generated by a restrained occupant in an accident—otherwise, they would need to be replaced. For vehicles with suspension seats that are designed to reduce driver fatigue from vibrations, the retrospective installation of safety belts to the vehicle structure is an unlikely option due to comfort and ergonomic factors. In those instances, the entire seat would need to be replaced with one that used an integrated belt, at a cost in the region of £1,500 each. As my right hon. Friend will note, the issue is technically complex, and he is well versed in some of the issues involved.

Any campaign for the retrospective fitting of three-point lap and diagonal seat belts would need to target at least 110,000 vehicles. Such an action on those remaining vehicles could be completed during scheduled downtime, such as routine maintenance, thereby minimising any loss of income to the haulier. However, even if undertaken during downtime with no loss of income, such an action across the fleet would still cost between £25 million and £35 million, based on retail labour and material costs.

My Department has considered those costs in the context of the road casualty benefits, while also taking into account the economic situation, and in particular the burden that any new measures would place on companies in this important sector. In his important and considered speech, my right hon. Friend accepted that his preferred route would not be primary legislation. However, I am not complacent about the issue, and neither is the Department, which is actively working with trade associations to encourage haulage operators to fit safety belts into vehicles where the anchorage points are already installed. My officials have held two meetings with the Road Haulage Association and the Freight Transport Association, which between them represent about 75 per cent. of the active fleet. The Health and Safety Executive attended one of those meetings, and I am pleased to say that all present were supportive of the intent to encourage voluntary fitment of belts to those vehicles already engineered to accept them, and agreed to assist in the delivery of the message to their members, using existing networks.

It is mandatory to wear seat belts if they are fitted on heavy goods vehicles. However, it is difficult to get robust statistics on rates of seat belt wearing in heavy goods vehicles, because it is almost impossible to see whether the vehicle is fitted with a belt and, in some cases, it is difficult to tell whether a driver is using one. During our meeting, the trade associations also indicated that they would take the opportunity to encourage the greater use of seat belts, where fitted, among their members. If all goods vehicle drivers used their seat belts all of the time, lives would no doubt be saved. That wider message is not only for drivers of heavy goods vehicles but for drivers of other vehicles. I am pleased that both trade associations have engaged in publicity to promote the use of safety belts, and have produced reminder stickers that can be placed in vehicle cabs.

My right hon. Friend referred to the Freight Transport Association, and I am pleased to say that the FTA members magazine, Freight, included a supporting editorial that sought to remind employers of their responsibilities towards their employees, and further highlighted the issue among operators and drivers alike. The FTA has also updated its training DVD, and since January 2009 the daily checks that every driver should make as a routine part of their job now include the wearing of a seat belt where fitted.

My right hon. Friend referred to a speech made by my predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Canning Town (Jim Fitzpatrick) to the road safety charity Brake, at a conference on work-related safety issues earlier this year. The speech highlighted the fact that if seat belts were fitted to vehicles that were engineered to accept them, casualties could be reduced and lives could be saved. Additional publicity to highlight the issue of seat belt wearing among operators and drivers could usefully raise the profile of the problem, and we will continue to work with the industry to ensure that any opportunities are fully exploited.

On that point, I fully understand and welcome the fact that the various associations are campaigning and giving a profile to the issue, so as to encourage more truck drivers to wear belts when they are fitted. I want to ask the Minister two simple and specific things. First, alongside that campaign, may we have a small, specific campaign run by the Department for Transport, the two associations, the HSE and anybody else who wants to get involved? It should be given a reasonable profile, so that we can see that it is happening.

Secondly, may we try to get an arrangement with the Road Haulage Association, and through it the fleet operators that it represents, to ascertain the impact of such a campaign? It would be good to be able to come back at the end of 2010—alas, I will not be here, but no doubt someone in my place will be taking up the cudgel—and ascertain what impact such a campaign has had, and how many additional older lorries that currently do not have seat belts have been fitted with them.

I welcome that intervention, and I will respond with a couple of points. First, I am happy to look at the issue of a specific and discrete piece of work that the HSE could do on this specific and discrete problem. Secondly, of course we need to measure success on an objective basis, to see whether there has been an impact on this working relationship. In his speech, my right hon. Friend made a plea for us to keep all matters under review, and I am pleased to do that.

I conclude by saying that this is not an issue that fills the postbags of MPs. The fact that my right hon. Friend has taken up the cause means that it is higher up the DFT’s radar than would otherwise be the case. I hope that he will go back to the Williams family and not only pass on my condolences but say that we have heard the message about the importance of this issue. We will continue to work with key stakeholders, road safety charities, the industry and haulage companies, drivers, the Health and Safety Executive, and with my right hon. Friend, whether he is inside or outside the House. He has been a passionate advocate for this important cause, and we must see what progress can be made. If it is not made fast enough, we must see whether we can make it even faster. I thank my right hon. Friend once again for raising this issue in what has been an important Adjournment debate.

Immigration Policy (Language Schools)

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Benton. This important topic is causing great concern among the hard-working people in language schools up and down the country. First, I will say something about how important these schools are, and then I will do a little geographical tour to show how important English language schools and centres are to certain areas. At that point, hon. Members might like to make brief interventions, and then we can perhaps touch on immigration policy.

There are 600,000 foreign students who are in the UK to learn English, and over 400,000 are in the 435 centres of English UK. That generates £1.5 billion of foreign earnings for the UK economy. Better than that, there is great potential for growth. We are still leaders in the area; there is stiff competition from Australia and many other places, but it is an area which, over recent years, has shown and can potentially show growth. Given our nation’s current economic circumstances and the value of the pound, it is an area which, if nurtured and encouraged, could generate significantly more jobs.

Many of these businesses are family businesses. In my constituency, we have the Wessex Academy, which has been going for 38 years. It was founded by the father of Andrew Doran, who is the current principal. Like many other businesses, a lot of blood, sweat, toil and tears—to use the phrase of a former great Prime Minister—has gone into building up these businesses, and a lot of hard work has been undertaken to encourage students in a competitive international market.

Language schools are very important because, according to the recent survey, 52 per cent. of their students either go on to study for professional qualifications or go to UK universities. That provides a major income for our universities. In our universities in 2007-08, 229,640 students were from outside the EU, generating a fee income of £1.87 billion—about 8 per cent. of the income for UK universities. That is a very important factor.

More importantly for the language schools—apart from the fee income—many of the students stay with local families. We know the tax break of £4,800 that families can get. Many families in my constituency not only have students staying with them but had the parents of those students staying with them 20 years ago when they came to the UK to learn English. That is of major importance to many of the centres where there are English language schools, which are fairly geographically defined. Many hon. Members in this Chamber represent areas where there are many language schools.

The income is significant. The local tourism people in Poole estimate that for every £1 million-worth of foreign exchange earned by the language schools, 22 local jobs are created. We have had many debates on the difficulties of coastal towns, where language schools tend to be prevalent. One industry that those towns can grow and create jobs with is language schools. Therefore, anything that the Government do that makes their position more difficult will cause problems, especially for the more geographically isolated. At this point, I shall give way to the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (David Lepper), who is chairman of the all-party group on English language teaching.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this brief but important debate. Brighton and Hove has the full range, from English language schools to two universities, for which foreign students—overseas students—are essential. Has the hon. Gentleman, like me, had an opportunity to read the excellent submission to the review, prepared by English UK, which not only sets out the dangers to the education system in this country of the changes proposed, but offers alternative ways of dealing with suspected visa abuse?

I did look at that submission; I would draw it to the Minister’s attention. We do not have time to go into the detail of it today, but it was very constructive and made alternative suggestions about how we can deal with the abuse of the system. I know how important education in all its forms is to the Greater Brighton area, and that many other hon. Members, who represent areas not too far from Brighton, take an interest in such matters.

Does my hon. Friend agree that at the heart of this debate lies the problem that exists in his constituency and mine and all over the country, which is that this excellent part of our education system will be dragged into disrepute by the large number of over-stayers who will be able to come and abuse it?

We all want firm and fair immigration policies and we have to deal with abuses. We should not do so in a way that causes problems for legitimate businesses, jobs and the income that is generated.

I add my congratulations to the hon. Gentleman on securing this enormously important debate, and I endorse the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Pavilion (David Lepper). Is there not a real danger that a signal will go round the world that somehow these students are not welcome here? That would be disastrous. This issue is enormously important not only to coastal towns but to Oxford, which has a number of high-quality language schools. As the hon. Gentleman said, they are a very important source of income for the host families as well.

The right hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. Of course, Oxford is one of the major centres. We must bear in mind those competing with English language schools. At the moment, many agents are not sure what to do. They are dealing with students who may come in March, the summer or the autumn, but are not sure whether they should send them to the UK or elsewhere. Therefore, even the process of having a review can cause difficulties. The right hon. Gentleman has a long history of taking an interest in this matter and particularly of considering regulation and accreditation of language schools.

The Bournemouth and Poole area is very important for language schools, and it would be wrong of me not to allow my constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, West (Sir John Butterfill), to intervene.

My hon. Friend will know very well that the Bournemouth and Poole conurbation produces some £200 million for our local economy. The real problem is that the changes come in so quickly. The previous change was only seven months ago. That alone has cost the Bournemouth business school, for example, £315,000 in the past year. If that was carried on, the revenue loss for that college alone would be more than £2.9 million. Such losses are unsustainable. Unless something is done, thoroughly reputable large language schools in our constituencies and elsewhere will go to the wall.

My hon. Friend raises a very important issue, which is very close to our constituents.

London, of course, has language schools, but not such a concentration; they are a bit more diffuse. I talked about the matter to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) the other day, and I note that my hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond) is in his place.

I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to the debate. My hon. Friend is right. The schools in London may be more diffuse, but in pockets of London, such as Wimbledon, there is a thriving language school sector. The point that he makes about the local economy of Poole is also true in Wimbledon, particularly in relation to the large number of host families. Some 60 or 70 host families have written to me about the economic change that would take place for them and the school.

Does my hon. Friend agree that at the heart of this there are two problems for the Government? First, they are using a very small number of circumstances to make a wider point, which is wrong for the formulation of policy. Secondly, if we consider what many of the language schools do, which is to teach the English language to beginners, we see that the hurdle being set is the wrong one.

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. I talked a moment ago about areas that are slightly isolated geographically, and I would include Torquay and Torbay, where my parents had their honeymoon.

Perhaps I can enter this cross-party consensus. I cannot over-emphasise to the Minister the vital trickle-down effect of the money that goes into the household budgets of host families. That is particularly important in low-wage areas such as mine.

The hon. Gentleman makes an extremely good point. I hope that the Minister now appreciates how important this industry is for our constituents and for those who benefit from the courses.

To move on to immigration policy, seven months ago we had major changes. They were always going to be phased in. We know that there are some problems—clearly, the Government’s migration adviser has made a number of points about that—and we know that there are some loopholes, which particularly relate to south China. What people do not understand is why suddenly we have this very quick review, taking four or five weeks to get the information in, and with possible decisions being made very quickly, when all the parts of the changes seven months ago have not yet been introduced in the system. I also understand that in February next year the IT system kicks in. People are a little perplexed that this has come out of the blue, and they are worried about where the Government are going with this policy.

The matter on which the Government are consulting would have dire implications for many of the schools. As many as 50,000 students could end up not being able to come to the UK, resulting in a loss of hundreds of millions of pounds-worth of foreign exchange and in those people not feeding through to the university sector. If we stop people coming in for technical education, that will have an impact on technical colleges. Taking the wrong decisions at this point would have many consequences—for language schools, for foreign exchange and for jobs. When the Minister winds up the debate, will he confirm whether the IT system is still on track to be introduced in February?

Things can be done. We can tighten up immigration policy without having a blanket change that affects every single language school. I have had the following points made to me. If there is a problem with certain countries, why not seek a solution on a country-by-country basis, rather than on a blanket basis? If there is a problem with the practice by individual education centres, why not address it centre by centre, rather than on a blanket basis? Why not introduce greater controls in terms of the proof of funds that student visa applicants must show? Why not introduce the payment of fees in advance? As we know, people have fiddled their bank statements to show that they have significantly more money than they actually have. Allowing people to provide a deposit or some money towards courses—certainly towards non-degree courses—would be one way around the problem. We could also introduce independent testing of students’ English language competence when they apply for their UK student visa.

I cannot emphasise more that introducing a blanket measure could have a dire effect on businesses.

Let me just support what my hon. Friend is saying. In Bournemouth, the British Study Centres Group, which turns over £4.2 million, has a high proportion of students from Japan, South Korea and Saudi Arabia. Students from those countries are not likely to overstay or to make false applications. What we are talking about is a sledgehammer to crack a nut.

Absolutely. I agree with my hon. Friend.

Even the measure to restrict the work that students can do, which the Government are consulting on, could have a big impact. If we introduced such a measure, only wealthy students would be able to come to the UK. Many students come here from, for example, Kazakhstan and Colombia because they need English and want to improve themselves. They do not have the benefit of massive state funds, so they are motivated to take a local job. Reducing working from 20 hours to 10 hours or fewer would therefore be detrimental and a great problem. Indeed, Tony Blair was one of the individuals who promoted the current arrangements to allow some poorer students back into the UK. Many of the things that are being consulted on will therefore cause a problem for schools.

Not allowing in people for pre-university courses will also have geopolitical ramifications. More than 15,000 of the students who come here for pre-university foundation courses in English are funded by the King Abdullah scholarship programme in Saudi Arabia. If we start introducing blanket proposals, there may be diplomatic consequences for some of our friends around the world, who want their students to come here to benefit from a good education and to help sustain good relations with the United Kingdom.

I do not have time to do the subject justice. I am pleased that the Minister has agreed to meet 12, 13 or 14 MPs and representatives of language schools tomorrow afternoon so that we can continue this conversation. However, I urge him not to pursue blanket policies, to be specific where there are problems and, most importantly, to get the review team to work with the education sector and its representative bodies to find alternative proposals that promote firm and fair immigration control, which we are all in favour of, without causing widespread, indiscriminate damage. That is the great risk in what we are discussing today. I look forward to what the Minister has to say.

Once again, it is a pleasure to serve under you, Mr. Benton, as one of the most senior Chairmen—if not the most senior Chairman—in our House.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Poole (Mr. Syms) for securing this timely debate, which gives me an opportunity to calm some nerves. At 3 pm tomorrow, in Committee Room 13, we will be having the meeting that he requested of me for hon. Members who are interested in this subject. That is important. I have never refused a request for a meeting with a Member of Parliament and I hope I never do.

Let me give hon. Members a personal reassurance about what I intend. I examined language colleges in Bournemouth and Poole in 1987, when I made a documentary on behalf of unregulated students. Aside from winning an award for my production team, I learned two things: first, regulation of the sector was desired by genuine colleges because some students were being exploited; and secondly, the sector’s importance to the UK economy is significant. It is, or was at that time, the UK’s seventh-largest export in economic terms—indeed, it was more important than textiles to the balance of payments, and I suspect that it is even more important now.

The hon. Gentleman’s local authority and the authority in Bournemouth pursued a deliberate strategy of introducing language students to bring younger people into the constituencies, which were described in the national press at the time as being the oldest in the country. I always thought that there would be advantages in that regard to being the local Member of Parliament. I can therefore give the hon. Gentleman a personal assurance that I understand deeply the importance of the issue.

Let me explain what the Government are doing and provide some reassurance. The hon. Gentleman asked some important questions, one of which was why we are conducting a review so early. We introduced tier 4 in March to give the sector advance notice for the freshers intake in the autumn. I may need to do some tweaking and I want to be able to do that in good time for the new applications next year. That is why the review is to be short and quick. As the hon. Gentleman accepts, we are playing a cat-and-mouse game, and my responsibility is immigration control.

The hon. Gentleman seeks a reassurance that the review understands the sector’s importance, and I can give him that. The review is being undertaken with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, the further and higher education sector and the UK Border Agency. We needed to make the review short and sharp to try to address the issues.

The most important thing that I want to say is that we are not talking about proposals. Several hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Pavilion (David Lepper), suggested that there were proposals, but we are talking about a consultation—an open-minded consultation. I am trying to refine the immigration system for students so that it protects the sector and provides for strong and robust immigration controls.

I take the Minister’s point that these matters are out for consultation. Unfortunately, the speed with which the review was announced and the lack of any background information accompanying that announcement have sent shockwaves through the sector. Many people, including the well over 100 representatives of host families in my constituency, are convinced that these are proposals. Greater thought should have been given to the way in which the review was presented.

I take my hon. Friend’s point. However, the review needed to be short and sharp. We needed to balance the need for proper consultation with people who know what they are talking about with the precise need not to damage the sector. I have described this as a cat-and-mouse game, and I will give some examples of why we had to take the approach that we have taken.

The introduction of the points-based system with the sponsor-licensing system resulted in the closure of about 2,000 organisations that were clearly not providing decent and proper education and that were exploiting students, who had often paid for non-courses. Crucially—I ask hon. Members to take this point on board—the best way in which we can protect the reputation of decent providers of education to foreign students is by removing the non-decent providers. I need to do that if we are to ensure that the system is robust and that our qualifications are the best in the world, as I believe they are. That is difficult, but my purpose is immigration control, not the diminution of the sector, and I hope that that provides some reassurance. As I said, we have flushed out 2,000 organisations.

Let me reassure hon. Members about the Government’s understanding of the importance of the sector. The British Council estimates that overseas students’ fees directly and indirectly benefit this country by £8.5 billion. The use of the English language as the predominant language of business and commerce around the world is in my view one of this country’s greatest assets, other than its people. It is important that we understand that: it is why protecting the reputation of the colleges is so important. Of course we understand that the technical standards, language, culture and understanding in the different sectors benefit this small trading nation immeasurably, over and above that £8.5 billion.

We believe that the new sponsorship system, in which responsibility is put on the organisation—the college providing the service—better enables us to manage migration in the sector. I also want to reassure hon. Members that, since the introduction of the points-based system, the number of overseas students coming to Britain has gone up, not down, despite the worries of the United Kingdom Council for International Student Affairs, which has raised some points.

On that point, did the Minister hear on the BBC the other day the senior immigration officer who said:

“We have an awful lot of students who have been refused five, six, even up to nine visas to come here to this country, whether it be for working holidays or student applications, and they’re now coming here”?

Is not it true that, with the best will in the world, the points-based system is not working in this case?

The hon. Gentleman, who knows a lot about the subject, makes an important point from the point of view of controlling migration. If I may make a partisan point, it is that a cap on immigration, were it to include tier 4 and short-term student visitors, would decimate the sector, and higher education as well. I have not heard from the Opposition Front Bench team, whose members are not here, whether the cap should apply to students. I should be interested in the answer to that question, because if the cap does not apply, it renders the policy meaningless in terms of reducing net migration, bearing in mind that immigration is defined independently by the Office for National Statistics on the basis of people who come to the country for 12 months or more. That includes significant numbers of overseas students. Thus, the policy of the Opposition is not commensurate with the intention of the hon. Member for Poole. I made my partisan point not to buy time but to make a political point, which no doubt we shall hear more about over the next few months.

To return to the important policy area that we are discussing, the system has resulted in a cat-and-mouse game. We experienced significant increases in the number of applications for student visas from four countries—Bangladesh, China, India and Nepal. The hon. Member for Poole made a strong point about whether we could take a country-by-country rather than blanket approach. We have acted to close down applications in those cases, particularly in the case of an office in south China. I suspended applications there because clearly something untoward was happening.

I needed the review to produce the changes—if there are to be any—to make the system more robust. I want the action to be short and sharp to deal with exactly the point that my right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith) made. It is only right that we should do that. The hon. Member for Poole asked whether we could proceed centre by centre. The sponsoring system allows us to that, and the message that he and other hon. Members of all parties should take back to their constituents is that we want to protect the reputation of the proper institutions, and the team that we have from the two relevant Departments understands that.

It is important to consider the questions in the review. It asks—it does not make a proposal—whether we should raise the bar on the minimum level of study; and whether we should consider the point that the hon. Member for Poole made about English language and how we test it. The United Kingdom Border Agency makes English language requirements in visa applications in many cases. It is a policy that the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex and others have supported. We pay particular attention to the accreditation and we are grateful to Cambridge ESOL and the International English Language Testing System for their work. We look at the relationship between vocational study and work, because the question of access to working rights for students—both part-time work and work through vocational courses—relates directly to abuses or intended abuses of the immigration system, and we need protection in that context as well.

We need also to think about dependants’ rights. In some posts there has been a significant increase in the number of applications for entry visas for dependants of students, which again suggests using the policy advocated by the hon. Member for Poole of a country-by-country and centre-by-centre approach. However, do we need to do anything in the rules for tier 4 at the higher education and further education levels? Those are the questions that we have been asking.

I believe that the introduction of tier 4 has been a success. The hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) asked about that. I remind him that before, in the old system, there was very little objectivity. There were subjective decisions, which resulted in significant numbers of appeals, and of course there was no check on the intention of the student and whether the student visa application was intended not for study but for entry into the United Kingdom with a view to a permanent stay. It is the breaking of the link between temporary admission and the automatic right to permanent settlement that is at the core of our immigration policy. I know that the hon. Gentleman supports that.

The challenge that the House faces is how to carry that policy out without damaging—indeed, while protecting—the reputation of our language sector and further and higher education sectors. I reassure hon. Members that the consultation questions are questions, not proposals. That is why we have gone about things in a short sharp way. We thought that that was right. My right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, East made a valid point about whether the review itself would damage the reputation of the sector. I hope not—it is not intended to do so. That is why it is happening now, before Christmas, and why it is being done quickly. It is also why I am keen to listen to the views of hon. Members, who have the interests of their constituents and the United Kingdom at heart. There is a cross-party view on the matter, which relates broadly to the south coast of England, but is not exclusive to it. My experience is that it would be foolish of any Government to ignore the south coast of England.

I indicated that there are exceptions, although I wonder whether I needed to be reminded of the importance of Oxford. I wish that all the organisations that applied for a sponsor licence and that had the word “Oxford” in their names were actually in Oxford. Perhaps my right hon. Friend could get intellectual property rights to the name. He would be well served by doing that.

I think that I have answered all the questions that the hon. Member for Poole raised and I have tried to explain the approach that we are taking. Perhaps I may abuse my position by re-advertising tomorrow’s meeting. Many people in this important sector will listen to the debate, and I want to reassure them that our intention is robust immigration control, which we believe will be to the benefit of the sector’s reputation. We are also keen to make any changes that are needed to protect that immigration policy in a way that is commensurate with the protection and promotion of that valuable sector.

Will the Minister confirm the venue of the meeting? Is it Room W4? I thought I heard him say something else.

It is in Committee Room 13—a number that I hope is not significant.

I could have gone into more detail, but I suspect that right hon. and hon. Members wanted to know the Government’s intentions. I hope that I have provided an explanation of those intentions. There are some difficult questions, including about the interface between the further and higher education sectors and about temporary and permanent residence.

Finally, a useful piece of information is that tier 4 does not cover short-term student visitors coming for six months or less. Many of the institutions that the hon. Member for Poole is concerned about are in that sector and are not affected.

Purton Hulks

I am delighted, Mr. Benton, that you have already given some publicity to my Adjournment debate; I shall say more about the Purton hulks over the next quarter of an hour. I am delighted to see my right hon. Friend the Minister in her place. Not only will she be responding to the debate, but she has been to Purton and seen for herself a wonderful bit of potential archaeology—something that is witness to the history of our nation.

Although the Minister has visited the area, I should explain that the hulks are beached vessels, barges and trows, that date from 1919 to 1965. They were drawn up on the banks of the River Severn. Some say, rather stupidly perhaps, that to some extent we have preserved the vessels, but they were put there to protect the river banks and have been there ever since. That would be of interest in itself, but I raise the subject today because although the weather and the river have taken their toll, human beings too have taken a toll.

If nothing else, I do not need to disabuse my right hon. Friend about the Purton hulks. Some might think that they are some form of Gloucestershire manhood. I repeat the ditty that we sing on the terraces, “We can’t read and we can’t write, but it don’t really matter ’cause we come from Glos-shire and we can drive a tratter.” I do not need to say anything more, except that we are here not to drive tractors but to try to protect this wonderful site. We want to do whatever we can.

To be fair, I have received almost a deluge of paperwork and many phone calls over the past couple of days, which shows that there is interest and commitment. The reason for calling today’s debate is to give the matter some urgency and some oomph. We seek a solution to what is a tricky problem. Sadly, we might have had a proper debate if the Heritage Protection Bill had not been put on hold, because it included a section on protecting the marine environment. It was not included in the Queen’s Speech but is sitting on someone’s table, and I hope that it will be resurrected because, although we are debating the Purton hulks today, the problem arises in other marine sites; they too need protection.

I start by paying due regard to those who proselytised me to take up the matter. I think of the group led by Paul Barnett, who chairs the Friends of Purton and many others, including Professor Mark Horton of Bristol university. They have helped us to understand that we ought to do something about this little bit of our history. We are not asking for the hulks to be repaired or to be floated away; we are just asking for them to be kept in as good a state as possible and for humankind to stop damaging them.

There are 81 vessels tied up alongside the Severn, and they have been there since 1919. Some of the vessels are unique; they are the last of their type. That in itself is a good reason for trying to keep them for people to see. Until I was sent the itinerary, I could not believe how popular the site has become for visitors. Virtually every weekend, groups are looking at what, when I was younger, was simply something on the shore line. We did not understand what it was; it looked rather like a collection of boats, but one could not make sense of it.

Now, however, the boats are all labelled, and thanks to British Waterways a monument has been constructed. I congratulate those who have made it such a unique experience. It certainly seems unique when one hears Paul Barnett talking about the hulks for several hours; he is most enthusiastic about them. I know that some find him somewhat difficult because he has driven things forward as a personal campaign, but with hindsight people will say, “Thank goodness he saw it as a vision and as his responsibility.”

What am I asking for? In reality, two simple things. First, I would like the Minister to organise a round table to bring together the various parties. I would like to be there, and although I do not expect the Minister to attend, she may care to drop in. At the meeting, we could establish where we are at. There have been misunderstandings and, dare I say, a degree of distrust as a result of the belief that something would be done and promises that people thought had been made but were not kept. It is time that we cleared the air.

Secondly, I am pleased that as a result of today’s debate we now have an interim statement of significance—is it a coincidence that it arrived in time for the debate?—but I would like to know when the final version will be available and what it will say. At least we now have some documentation. Alongside that, I was sent last month’s scheduled monuments paper by the Department for Communities and Local Government. I am not sure that I understand it all—as the Minister knows, I am a poor country boy—but it suggests ways in which we can consider some form of protection without legislation. I hope that my right hon. Friend will have something to say about that.

Those 81 vessels are there for the reasons that I have given, and nature will take its toll, but we want to stop human beings taking their toll—wantonly damaging the site and setting fire to it. Even trophy hunters have been taking quite valuable artefacts. Some artefacts may be best in other places, but some are best left in situ; that is what makes the hulks, the beached boats, what they are.

I know that a lot of work has gone on. The Department has been working with English Heritage, the Friends of Purton Hulks, Bristol university and Mark Horton, Cotswold Archaeology, Stroud district council, Gloucestershire county council, National Historic Ships—formerly the Advisory Committee on National Historic Ships—and the Advisory Committee on Historic Wreck Sites. If we get them all around the table, we will need a big table, but that may be the way forward. There is also English Heritage. The area is a site of special scientific interest and is the responsibility of Natural England, but does that body have the ability to protect the human environment? We can protect the natural environment, but the hulks have become part of the natural environment despite being entirely man-made. It would be interesting to know whether SSSIs fit its remit.

I shall go through the interim statement of significance. The hulks have four heritage values—English Heritage’s definition of how to measure the site—which are evidential, historical, aesthetic and communal. It would be great if that referred to all marine sites of importance, but how does it relate to Purton, and what protections does it give the area?

In particular, the question is whether there is a statutory duty on the various bodies, such as Natural England and English Heritage, to protect it. We know that we cannot have the site policed morning, noon and night, but it is not as simple as that. However, although theft has been reported to the police, they say that it is impossible to do anything because the site has no specific protection. That is galling for those who have spent their lives trying to protect it. The Minister told me in a parliamentary answer that perhaps we should consider asking the local authority to CPO it. To be fair, I have asked the police about using crime prevention officers, but they say that it would be difficult and might not be appropriate on such a site. None the less, that is one matter that could be discussed around the table. We would also need to include British Waterways—as my right hon. Friend knows only too well, the hulks are next to the Gloucestershire to Sharpness canal—and the Berkeley estate, the landowners; both would have a view on whether it should be CPO-ed. I imagine that neither would object to that, but there would be questions about value, access and who should take responsibility.

I welcome the interim statement of significance as a move in the right direction. However, it has been criticised by the Friends of Purton, which is why, if we want to move things on, we need a round robin discussion. The four heritage value statements in the document include tangible reasons why the site should receive better protection, which would help us to take it forward for future generations. As I have already said, the boats are unique, and we want to keep them for as long as we possibly can.

I have only one other point to make before I hand over to my right hon. Friend the Minister, who, I am sure, will have some interesting things to say about the site. The existing mechanism that enables the friends and other interested parties to give their time and effort to the site is one of the ways in which we could take the matter forward. If we give such people some status—I do not necessarily mean that they will be policemen and women—they will know that they have the power of protection. They will be working with English Heritage, which is very important, and the Department. However, I do not want to underestimate or deny the influence of those volunteers who have been so important in getting the matter to this stage.

It is sad for me and the Minister that we are not taking the Heritage Protection Bill through the House. I am sure that it would have been a consensual Bill. I would have been interested to find out where Purton fitted within the wider marine environmental concerns that the Bill would have addressed. I have already talked about the issue of the SSSIs, but more particularly, will we be more serious about protecting the marine environment? The people who have talked to me, passionate though they are about Purton, raise all manner of questions about other sites, which are less well known and sometimes in an even poorer state in terms of the type of material that is left as evidence of their former selves. They are, nevertheless, important.

Although I am no expert—I am fast becoming one—I have been told that the subject is one of growing interest, both historically and archeologically. Quite rightly, we protect buildings of all manners because we think that they are really important to our heritage. Yet our maritime environment seems to be subjected far more not to the depredations of nature but to the wilfulness of human beings, which is very sad. Perhaps if people knew what they were doing, they would not do it, and let us hope that if we get some protection on the site, they will stop doing it. I hope that explaining to people and educating them is a good way forward. That is why to get people round the table would at least be a helpful way forward.

It is a pleasure to sit under your chairmanship, Mr. Benton. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) on securing this debate. He is assiduous in working on behalf of his constituents. I have had innumerable debates on issues that he has raised in this Chamber. He is an excellent constituency MP.

Let me say something general about heritage and scheduled monuments and then come to the issues around Purton. We have a proud record in the UK on the policy and practice of heritage protection. We have had legislation in place to protect all our ancient monuments since the 1880s. This Government have a proud record of investing in heritage and developing policies around heritage.

More than 19,000 sites are legally protected through designation, and they are called “scheduled monuments”. They represent our most valued archaeological sites and landscapes, and they are designated because they are of national importance. They include a whole range of lovely things, such as burial mounds, stone circles and hill forts, Roman towns, villas, medieval settlements, castles and abbeys. They also include the structures of our more recent industrial and military past. They are a unique inheritance that tells the story of many generations of human endeavour, and provide the only record of millennia for which we have no written history.

In compiling the schedule, our aim is not just to preserve everything of interest— clearly that would not be practicable—but to ensure that a representative sample of England’s most important assets are protected and conserved for the benefit of current and future generations.

Scheduling a site is a three-step process. First, we must ensure that it complies with the definition of a “monument” under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979. Secondly, we must ensure that it complies with our non-statutory criteria for determining “national importance”, which are published in planning policy guidance note 16. Finally, we must ensure that scheduling represents the most appropriate management option for long-term protection and conservation.

If there is a site that does not meet scheduled monument status, we have the Government draft planning policy statement for the historic environment, which we are just putting together and hope to publish shortly. In my trip to Purton—I thank my hon. Friend for buying me a pair of Wellington boots to ensure that I did not ruin my high heels—I was very well looked after by the Friends of Purton. I know that the work of local communities and voluntary groups is important to ensure that our heritage assets are valued and cared for. Heritage assets are strong in creating a sense of identity in the community, and in bringing a community together.

When there are monuments or other heritage assets that are at risk, English Heritage intervenes. It has a register that includes all our scheduled monuments. Some 18 per cent. of scheduled monuments that are currently considered to be at risk are monuments, compared with only 3.5 per cent. of buildings. Therefore, that indicates that even if something is scheduled, there is difficulty in ensuring that it is conserved properly and protected for this and future generations.

Scheduled monuments are vulnerable not just to development, which we will come back to, but to the pressures of nature, whether totally natural forces such as erosion, which faces us in Purton, or agricultural intensification, forestry and other factors. It is those pressures that pose the greatest threat to lots of scheduled monuments, and that brings us to Purton hulks.

If we were to schedule Purton hulks, it would oblige the owner of the site, the Berkeley estate, to apply for consent if it wanted to change something. It would not put any legal obligations on the owner to do anything with regard to conservation. So, it stops the owner from doing things, rather than positively making the owner act in a way to conserve the hulks for future generations.

Vandalism is one of the problems facing the hulks. If the hulks were scheduled, theoretically English Heritage could then prosecute those responsible for the vandalism, because it is a criminal offence. However, as my hon. Friend knows, it is a terribly isolated site, and the idea that anyone could catch the villains who either took a trophy from it or deliberately damaged it is remote. So I am not sure that scheduling would provide the sort of protection that my hon. Friend and the Friends of Purton seek.

Erosion is a similar problem, and an important one in that particular area, but there is no legal obligation on the owner of the land or on English Heritage, if Purton were to become a scheduled monument, to do anything about it.

There are many agencies that could take an interest in the Purton hulks. Perhaps my hon. Friend and the Friends of Purton, as an active group, could persuade those agencies to take action. Obviously one thinks of the Environment Agency, Natural England and English Heritage, and if those agencies worked together they might do something. However, there is not a legal obligation on anybody to do anything. So scheduling would not be the silver bullet that some members of the Friends of Purton group believe it to be.

Finally, I want to say that English Heritage is doing a lot. It has published the interim statement of significance that I referred to and it has also published an aerial photographic review of Purton, which is part of the Severn estuary rapid coastal zone assessment survey; I think that that survey will be published in June 2010. In January, it will commission a strategic thematic review of hulks around the country, to establish the value of those hulks in general and the specific value of the Purton hulks. It is preparing a conservation statement and management plan for the assemblage at Purton. Also, a report that will assess boats and ships will be published in June 2010, which will determine the special interest of surviving hulked vessels. So there is quite a lot going on.

I am just trying to see what the time is.

Then I can go back and discuss all that in a bit more detail. I panicked and thought, “My goodness, I’ve got three minutes left”.

So, as I said, English Heritage is doing quite a lot. Now that I have realised that I have slightly more time than I had thought, I can say that by June 2010 English Heritage, according to its current timetable, will be able to assess the vessels at Purton as part of the nationwide assessment that it is making of the vessels that are scattered right across the coast and probably in other estuaries around the UK. By July 2010, it will issue the first draft of a conservation statement and management plan, which will enable the assessment of the national importance of the assemblage at Purton to be undertaken. So, as I say, English Heritage believes that by July 2010 it will have done something about Purton.

My hon. Friend referred to the letter that I sent to him. I say to him that his local authority can and should seriously consider taking action to compulsorily purchase the site at Purton. I know that he said that the local authority has no interest in doing so. However, if there is local concern about conserving and preserving those hulks, it is for the local authority in that instance to consider whether the use of a compulsory purchase order would be appropriate. Frankly, if one thinks about the problem of vandalism at the site it seems to me that the local authority, rather than a Government agency, taking responsibility for dealing with that problem would be a good way forward.

That is a very good reason for getting us all around a table, so that we can at least address issues such as vandalism, find out why there may be some reluctance on the part of the local authority to deal with them and see how English Heritage, the Minister’s Department and Natural England might be able to help it to deal with them.

I will come to that issue shortly. I think that I will finish soon and, knowing my hon. Friend, I am sure that he will take up the last two minutes of the time allotted for this debate.

I will undertake to do two things. First, I have asked my officials to consider whether we should schedule this particular site in advance of the other actions that are being taken in relation to the site. So there will be consideration of that issue and I hope to come back to him within about two or three months with more details, if he can give me that time. However, he must recognise that scheduling is not the silver bullet answer that he wants.

Secondly, after we have taken a view on whether to schedule the Purton site, I will undertake to convene the round-table discussion that my hon. Friend has sought today. I hope that that discussion can happen in March or April—in that sort of time frame.

March, rather than April. I hope that, by the end of March, we will be able to convene that round-table discussion.

Finally, I want to say something about the Friends of Purton group. It is doing a fantastic job. Having seen the commitment, enthusiasm and determination of members of what is a very small community in a very lovely part of my hon. Friend’s constituency as they work together to conserve hulks that excited me when I saw them—I thought that they were really something and that we ought to do our best to achieve a good solution for them, despite all the difficulties that we face—I want to say that their efforts need to be commended in this House. I hope that my hon. Friend and I, working in co-operation, can find some solution to the problem of the Purton hulks before the end of this Parliament.

Sitting adjourned.