Skip to main content

Westminster Hall

Volume 503: debated on Wednesday 6 January 2010

Westminster Hall

Wednesday 6 January 2010

[Mr. George Howarth in the Chair]

RAF Lyneham (Strategic Defence)

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

I will begin by saying how pleased I am to have the opportunity to debate a matter of key concern to my constituency, as RAF Lyneham is based in North Wiltshire. I should say at the outset, however, that the debate is not about RAF Lyneham or North Wiltshire, although I hope that a side effect of what I will say might be a rethinking of the plan to close the base. The debate is about the strategic defence of the realm, the way in which the air transport fleet as a whole has been developed over recent years and current plans for its future change.

It would be wrong to start the debate without paying due tribute to the airmen and airwomen of RAF Lyneham who play such a central role in armed conflicts around the world. “First in, last out” is their great claim, to supply, to save, and to provide everything that the Army, Air Force and Royal Navy need on the ground. That all comes from RAF Lyneham in the magnificent Hercules C-130Ks and C-130Js. They have done a superb job for the nation and I pay tribute to all that they do.

They also play a central role in the repatriation of military bodies through RAF Lyneham. I know that the Minister will be as concerned as I am by the ridiculous notion expressed by Mr. Choudary that he might lead some kind of counter-protest through the streets of Wootton Bassett. I know that the Government, the Prime Minister, the Home Secretary and others are totally opposed to any such nonsense. I mention, in passing, that I was surprised by Sir Hugh Orde’s remarks on the front page of The Daily Telegraph this morning, as he believes that Mr. Choudary’s procession down Wootton Bassett high street should go ahead. That seems an odd remark for Sir Hugh to have made, as he has no possible connection with policing in Wiltshire. I am glad that the Government are determined, as am I, to prevent any such protest.

The debate is not about RAF Lyneham, but about the air transport fleet more widely and a series of decisions made in recent years which seem to be wrong-headed, incorrect and internally inconsistent and which seem to have got the whole question of how we spend our defence budgets on air transport wrong. That relates in part to how the procurements have been run, most notably for the A400M, which I will return to in a moment. The debate is partly about the basing study, which concluded that all our air transport should be brought together in RAF Brize Norton. It seems to me that that started on the wrong premise, was written with the wrong arguments and included some questionable accounting. In general, it is well worthy of revisiting.

The Labour party, the Conservative party and the Liberal Democrats—in the event that they form a Government—are committed to a strategic defence review after the general election. As a result of our discussions this morning, therefore, we should at least be ready to think that all those questions about air transport should be re-examined on a fundamental and strategic level in the SDR that will follow the general election. I have mentioned two aspects, but other areas to be considered include cargo, passengers and air-to-air refuelling. In the meantime, other decisions and actions that might prevent that re-examination in the SDR should be stopped. That is the main thrust of what I am seeking to achieve in the debate.

The Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) and other hon. Members will know of the various plans currently afoot for the air transport fleet. We will run down the remaining 16 C-130Ks by 2012 and move the 24 C-130Js to RAF Brize Norton. I welcome the Secretary of State’s announcement just before Christmas that we will buy a further C-17, taking that fleet to seven. Theoretically, at least we are going to buy 25 A400M airframes, and I will return to that point later. It is claimed that those will be in service from 2015, but we have no idea when the first plane will come or how long it will take for the rest to come into service after that. We are going to buy a total of 14 A330 tankers—a point that my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot will expand on in a moment. We are also going to retire the VC10s and TriStars. All of that will be brought together at RAF Brize Norton, with RAF Lyneham closing by December 2012. All of that is known.

I have put together a little dossier, a copy of which I have given to the Minister, and copies are available for other Members and interested parties. It brings together all those facts, figures and thoughts in one easy place, and I should be grateful if the Minister would ask officials to respond to it in detail after the debate.

Central to all that has been planned for the air transport fleet is the notion that the A400M, together with the tankers and the C-130Js, will supply all our air transport needs, now and in all known or potential future conflicts. Central to those plans is the notion that that mix of C-130Js and the A400M could fill a smaller strategic footprint and, therefore, could all be crammed together at RAF Brize Norton. Behind that lies the notion that closing RAF Lyneham will save sufficient money to make possible the necessary upgrade at Brize Norton. I will briefly examine all those presumptions.

The first test flight of the A400M occurred recently, but everyone in this Chamber and outside knows that large questions remain over whether it will be ready in time—it almost certainly will not. We have no idea at all how much it will cost. Reuters reported this week that the chairman of EADS, the manufacturing company, said that unless substantially more money is pumped into the A400M, it will not want to go ahead with it. The Germans are busy touring the middle east trying to find new partners in the project.

I know that the former, and very much lamented, Secretary of State for Defence, the right hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (Mr. Hutton), in the week or two before he stood down from that post, and after being prompted by the RAF at a senior level, announced to the Department that he would cancel the A400M. That decision was overturned more recently, and it will be being considered within the Ministry of Defence, but I am reliably informed that he had decided to cancel the A400M for the reasons I shall describe.

In any case, no one believes that the gap between the end of the C-130Ks and the incoming A400Ms will be bridged. There is an undeniable gap in our strategic and tactical air transport fleet, and anyone who knows anything about these things is extremely worried about that gap. In a recent briefing here in the House of Commons, the Chief of the Air Staff commented on how the C-17s are burning up:

“The C-17s are burning up their useful life at an alarming rate, and will not last their projected 25 year lifespan.”

He said that there is a major problem with the C-17 fleet, that he knows that there is a major problem with the C-130Ks and that the A400Ms will not fit that gap.

Even if the A400M is ready, is it really what we want? It is not big enough for the future rapid effect system project, which is now on the back burner at least, and possibly cancelled, and it is not big enough for the Mastiff. Helicopters, which are now so important in theatres such as Afghanistan, even when dismantled to a relatively sensible level, cannot be put in the A400M, but they could be put in the C-17. Many people in the RAF are not at all certain that the A400M is what they want or that it is fit for purpose. Many people in the RAF and the MOD are increasingly coming to the view that a better fleet would be a mixture of C-17s and C-130Js. I am told that it would be possible to purchase more of both from Boeing, were the Government to make that decision reasonably swiftly.

Such a decision would, of course, have industrial consequences, not least in my constituency. The wings for the A400M are made in Filton in Bristol, so I am conscious that there would be industrial consequences if they were to be cancelled. None the less, surely the SDR and what we are considering this morning should not be about jobs or industry, but about the proper defence of the realm. If we identify a gap in our defences, and I believe that the air transport fleet is such a gap, surely it is not right to allow it to continue because jobs depend on it. Surely we want to do what is right for the air transport fleet, irrespective of the sad fact that cancelling the A400M might have consequences for jobs in Bristol. After all, closing RAF Lyneham would have huge consequences, as some 10,000 people in my constituency altogether, including spouses, owe their livelihoods to it. The Government have decided to close it despite the devastating consequences that that would have on the economy of my constituency. We have to take decisions that are right for the defence of the realm, irrespective of the economic consequences—in this case, for Bristol.

The Government’s conclusion that everything should be brought together at RAF Brize Norton through Project CATARA—centralised air transport and air-to-air refuelling assets—is wrong for a wide variety of reasons. This is a direct quote from what an extremely senior RAF officer said to me the other day:

“The move to Brize is to be completed with no reduction in operational tempo. It will be a disaster which the RAF will regret, but it’s got to be made to happen. I’m just glad that I’ll have left by then, so it’s [others] who will have to live with the mess.”

A serving RAF officer who knows exactly what he is talking about is delighted that he will have left the RAF by the time Project CATARA is completed. Others will have to live with the mess.

In the main, I want to touch on what that mess will be. It is fairly obvious that Project CATARA will put all our air transport eggs in one basket. It is very neat to take all our air transport and bung it in one place. Of course, there is only one runway at Brize Norton, compared with the three that we have at present: two at Lyneham and one at Brize Norton. Bung everything into one place at Brize Norton—what an invitation to an enemy, a terrorist or adverse weather conditions. Brize Norton is subject to flooding and fog, and if the runway is closed incessantly because of weather or—I shudder to say it—a dirty bomb on the one runway, we would remove our entire air transport capabilities for days or weeks.

Recently, a Vulcan was in the air, and a TriStar had a blowout on the runway at Brize Norton. The Vulcan had to divert to RAF Lyneham—thank goodness it was still there—and the plane landed with just enough fuel left. The other day, an emergency helicopter requested permission to land at Brize Norton and was told that it could not because there was not room on the runway. What a foretaste of things to come—we are putting all our air transport eggs in one basket.

I tabled a parliamentary question the other day, asking what would happen if the Brize Norton runway were to be closed for some reason or other. The Minister responded that in the event of the Brize runway being closed, civilian airports would be used in an emergency. By contrast, the day after I got that response, I had breakfast here, thanks to the excellent all-party Royal Air Force group, which is chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot. The Chief of the Air Staff was there, and I asked him what would happen if all our air transport eggs were in one basket at Brize Norton, and it were closed for some reason. He said, “We would have to use other airports.” I said, “That is very interesting, Chief. Which other airports have you in mind?” He said, “I think Bournemouth.” There we have it: Bournemouth. RAF Lyneham is closed, RAF Brize Norton is out of operation because of weather or a terrorist bomb, and we have dangerous cargoes, weapons, and, sadly, perhaps dead bodies being returned to Bournemouth airport. Does this Parliament really want Bournemouth airport to be used as an alternative to our RAF bases? I am sure that we do not.

Anyway, Brize Norton is fantastically crammed already. It is a much smaller airport than Lyneham, and there simply is not enough room for the 6,000 servicemen and their aircraft that will be based there. There will be 65 planes altogether, but there are only 62 parking slots, so it is too small for the planes themselves. There is no room at all for training. The Government are talking about reactivating Keevil airport for training purposes. Keevil has been used only by gliders for some years now. They are talking about closing Lyneham and bringing Keevil back.

There are not nearly enough married quarters at Brize Norton, so we have two options. We could bus all the airmen down from Lyneham to Brize Norton—they have already been told that that will take two hours each day off their shifts, thereby restricting the length of their shifts. Alternatively, the Government are looking into whether they could buy the married quarters at Faringdon. They are going to close the married quarters at Lyneham and buy Faringdon. The cost of buying the married quarters at Faringdon is £200 million. What complete and utter nonsense that is.

By contrast, of course, Lyneham has everything that could possibly be wanted. It has huge ramp and hangar capacity and plenty of married accommodation. Its simulators are state of the art. The C-130J simulator is widely known to be absolutely the best in the business. It will be torn down by big cranes and £10 million will be spent on building a new one at Brize Norton—another £10 million wasted.

The people around RAF Lyneham are not noise-averse—they are wholly supportive of the RAF. I am not certain that the people of Carterton in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron), the Leader of the Opposition, would necessarily be all that pleased about having all the planes in one place.

One particular thing worries me enormously. The House has been concerned in recent weeks about accidents of one kind and another that have occurred because of cost-paring in the MOD budget. There are some worrying air traffic control implications with all the planes operating from Brize Norton under Project CATARA. I have expanded on that in detail in the dossier that I have given the Minister, but there are three important aspects.

First, Lyneham and Brize Norton are at very different altitudes, and the runways go in different directions. Basically, they are at right angles to each other. Lyneham has two runways, and Brize Norton has one, which is often closed by fog or snow. They are ideal alternative airports to each other. Planes can easily divert from Lyneham to Brize Norton and vice versa. Of course, that safety arrangement would be lost if Lyneham were closed.

Secondly, a recently retired RAF air traffic controller said to me:

“It is certain—


“that the increase of aircraft numbers at Brize Norton will make the air traffic control environment a lot more difficult to handle, especially without the safety valve of Lyneham.”

He went on to say that there was a real likelihood of accidents occurring as a result of the absence of that safety valve.

In a parliamentary question, I asked the Minister what consideration had been given to the air traffic control implications of Project CATARA, and what he was doing about the safety aspects. He replied that

“consideration of potential airspace issues relating to the expansion of RAF Brize Norton's role remains ongoing.”—[Official Report, 16 December 2009; Vol. 502, c. 1215W.]

The Minister had not yet considered whether there were air traffic control or safety implications in Project CATARA. The Government do not know. Putting everything at Brize Norton may actually make life more dangerous and result in accidents, but the MOD has not yet looked into it—it is considering the matter. I find it absolutely astonishing that we as a country will spend hundreds of millions of pounds to bring all the planes together in one place, but we have not looked into whether that may make our air transport more dangerous, and result in more accidents.

The third point on air traffic control is that the concentration of aircraft at Brize will result in some real problems on the ground. I put some maps in my dossier, but, in simple terms, at Brize Norton there is no taxiway parallel to the runway to the north. There is only a taxiway to the south. What has to be done in such circumstances is rather like what is done at Heathrow, which has a one-way system.

However, having no taxiway to the north, which, incidentally, is where the passenger terminal and the operations base are, means that all the planes have to cross the runway to get where they are going. There are already substantial delays at RAF Brize Norton. A pilot tells me that one can wait for up to half an hour. One VC10 on the runway would mean that other planes would have to wait for half an hour to get across the runway. It is widely presumed that one cannot achieve a satisfactory operation with no taxiway to the north of the runway. Those details are laid out more carefully in the paper that I have given the Minister. There are very real problems: we are talking about the potential for huge congestion at RAF Brize Norton, which will obviously curtail our capabilities overseas.

Those problems and all the others that I have mentioned could, of course, be sorted out if the Government were to spend a sufficient amount of money on Project CATARA. Clearly, if they chucked a lot of money at it, they could build a second taxiway, reorganise the officers’ mess, which I gather is in the way, sort out the married quarters and the simulators and so on. Therefore, I would like to take a quick look at a rather obscure area of MOD accounting. I shall try not to bore the House too much with the detail, which, again, I have laid out with some care in my paper.

Originally, this project was budgeted to cost £360 million: the Government were going to spend £360 million on bringing all the planes together at RAF Brize Norton. However, I hear that that has already been slashed to £180 million to help pay for Operation Herrick in Afghanistan. Imagine any project’s budget being cut in half; either the budget was vastly too great in the first place or we are cutting corners to a significant extent today to achieve other things in the MOD budget. I should be interested to know whether that is so.

I have also been told that the way the MOD have worked the accounting on this project means that it is concealing quite a large amount of the infrastructure costs of Brize Norton, not under Project CATARA but under the A400M project. It is covering up the actual cost of rebuilding Brize Norton by putting the money invisibly into the A400M project. The Minister looks surprised by that, but it is simple. Perhaps he would care to lay out for me—I will happily table a parliamentary question to this effect—in words of one syllable the total infrastructure costs of rebuilding RAF Brize Norton. I have asked a number of parliamentary questions and been fobbed off. If the Minister denies that this is so, I will happily table a parliamentary question today and I expect him to reply by laying out in minute detail precisely what all the infrastructure costs are at Brize Norton. I suspect that they are much higher than he is currently prepared to admit.

The second area of dodgy accounting that I would like the Minister to look into is the annual saving from the closure of Lyneham that is talked about. At the moment there is a £44 million budget, but of course most of that will go across to Brize Norton. I am told that the net saving from closing Lyneham is round about £6 million a year: absolute peanuts. So it will cost us hundreds of millions of pounds to move to Brize Norton and we are saving £6 million a year. The MOD’s brave claim that this will all pay for itself within a few years is exposed as nonsense. I suspect that it will take at least 50 years to repay it, and probably even longer.

Perhaps we will make a lot of money out of selling the RAF Lyneham site. If we can make hundreds of millions out of that, we can use the money to pay for CATARA. I have looked carefully into that, too, and have noticed a couple of things. First, the so-called Crichel Down rules will apply to the sale of RAF Brize Norton. In other words, it has to be offered back to the original owners from whom it was requisitioned in 1938. A Member of the House of Lords, the noble Lord who occupies Corsham manor nearby, is the original owner. I suspect that that Liberal Democrat noble Lord will lay hands on it and say, “Thank you very much indeed. I’ll have the land back at the original price.” Anyhow, local planning rules mean that the site could not be used for extensive building, although there might be some light house building.

More importantly, it seems likely that the cost of decontaminating the site, as required under the Crichel Down rules, would be enormous. I asked the Minister how much he has budgeted to decontaminate the site of RAF Lyneham and here is his answer:

“Until a”

land quality assessment

“has been completed, it is not possible to give an estimate of the costs relating to land contamination. We currently anticipate that an initial LQA of the site will be undertaken in financial year 2010-11”.—[Official Report, 16 December 2009; Vol. 502, c. 1217W.]

In other words, they are talking about moving out of Lyneham and selling it under the Crichel Down rules, which means that it is not worth much anyhow, and they do not have the faintest idea—they have not yet even considered—how much it will cost to decontaminate the site. I can tell the Minister that I have been on the site many times over 13 years and it is absolutely contaminated up to the eyeballs. Local estimates suggest a possible cost of £100 million to decontaminate the RAF Lyneham site.

One RAF officer told me, “I’ve heard that according to the figures we’re putting into the budgets, we’ll sell the site for £10 million and it will cost £10 million to do it up—to decontaminate it.” I can tell the Minister that he will sell the site for almost nothing at all, if anything, and the contingent liability on the Government to get rid of the contamination and buildings and general mess that will be left on the site will be hundreds of millions of pounds. That is a huge white elephant for the Government and, at a time when defence budgets are under constraint as they are, to waste money in the way that we are describing is wrong.

The Minister should come forward with clear figures about precisely how much it is costing to move all these planes to RAF Brize Norton and how much he intends to save by closing RAF Lyneham, and he should say how much he intends to make, or believes he will make, from selling the RAF Lyneham site. He must come up with a substantial net figure, showing a saving in relation to the large tactical and infrastructure problems that I have described with regard to Brize Norton, to make it work. I do not believe that he can do it. If he thinks that he can do it, I refer him to the late-lamented project to bring all the Army and Air Force helicopters together in one place from three or four bases around England—Project Belvedere—that we decided not to go ahead with just before Christmas. It was concluded that the cost of bringing them together in one place at Lyneham, despite the fact that the bases would then be sold, was vastly greater than the cost of leaving them where they were. If that was the logic regarding Project Belvedere, how on earth can Project CATARA come to the opposite conclusion—namely, that bringing all these things together at Brize Norton will somehow save money?

I suspect that a decision was taken some years ago by the RAF or by civil servants, who decided to gallop down this track and are now realising that there are problems inherent in bringing all the planes together in one place and that the sums do not add up. The right hon. Member for Barrow and Furness had the guts to say, “Actually, I want to turn this thing round. I want a fundamental look at it.” But sadly he did not stay in the job long enough. The fact that the air transport projects that I have described are in a complete and utter muddle cannot be squared.

I shall say only one thing in regard to this debate: I should like the Minister to acknowledge that some of these things are wrong and that he does not necessarily have all the answers to the debate today. We have a strategic defence review coming up and this matter is central to it. If we cannot supply our troops on the ground and cannot get our people out to theatre of war, we cannot conduct a proper war. If the Minister will say to me today, “I want to have a fundamental look at the A400M, at Project CATARA and at the closure of RAF Lyneham and I will do that in my much-promised strategic defence review”, I will take the view that this debate has been worth while.

I congratulate the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) on securing the debate and on his impressive dossier, which is one of the most comprehensive that I have seen prepared for any Westminster Hall debate. The hon. Gentleman put forward his case strongly and I should like to hear the Minister’s response to it.

The hon. Gentleman has been running this campaign in a determined way since the decision was announced a number of years ago. He has worked on a cross-party basis with a number of people in his constituency, including some with political affiliation and some with none. I commend him for his efforts during that time. Unfortunately, the Minister and the Government seem equally determined to proceed with their case. Today’s debate gives us the time to explore that decision and to see whether there is solid justification for their proposals.

The hon. Gentleman was trying to broaden the debate to cover the airlift capacity for the defence of the realm, but he rightly focused on the implications for RAF Lyneham—I do not criticise him for doing so. I support his basic claim that as we are so close to a strategic defence review, this matter should be considered as part of that. We are considering a long-standing decision that goes back a number of years, but because of the facts that the hon. Gentleman advanced in such a detailed way, it would be illogical to rush to a decision on Lyneham so close to a strategic defence review.

Essentially, I agree with the hon. Gentleman that we should take time out and think about the matter more broadly, as part of consideration of the A400M problems, the C-130K life extension and its potential costs, issues to do with Brize Norton, and so forth. Given that those matters are complicated and detailed, they are worth considering as part of a strategic defence review, so I urge the Minister to tell us why we should proceed with this decision so close to a strategic defence review?

In his dossier, the hon. Gentleman advanced a number of detailed concerns about the consequences of Project CATARA. He put them in simple terms—putting all the eggs in one basket, over-cramming, air control, the safety case—and I do not wish to repeat the factors that he mentioned. He described these serious considerations in a compelling way and I hope that the Minister will respond in detail.

The hon. Gentleman will be pleased to hear that I have read his previous debates on this subject in which alternative uses for the site were suggested, should the closure proceed. I would like the Minister to tell us what options have been explored, as some uses seem to have been ruled out. The hon. Gentleman considered the rapid reaction corps and various other alternatives, but we have not had an explanation as to why those suggestions were ruled out by the Ministry of Defence.

If the closure proceeds, will the Minister tell us what is planned in the way of support for the community? The hon. Gentleman rightly referred to the parades in Wootton Bassett and its recognition of the servicemen and women who have lost their lives in conflict. It has been a totemic centre point for the whole of the UK to express its grief. We should be looking after that community, given the service that it has provided to the rest of the country, and I would like to hear what is planned, should the closure go ahead. What regeneration package is in place, and what is proposed for the use of the site?

There are also concerns about the Future Brize project, including the accommodation expansion. Part of that project involves overhauling the IT system, engineering, housing and so on. In response to a parliamentary question, the Ministry of Defence stated:

“some accommodation at Brize Norton is not of the standard that service personnel and their families deserve”


“we are taking steps to address this.”—[Official Report, 8 May 2008; Vol. 475, c. 1134W.]

There are reports about cuts in the budget for the changeover from Lyneham to Brize Norton. What impact has that had on the upgrade of the accommodation at Brize Norton?

The hon. Gentleman also referred to the diversion plans. He referred—quite amusingly—to the Bournemouth possibility, but there are also reports that RAF Fairford could be used.

I am conscious that I slightly misquoted the Chief of the Air Staff during my speech, and the hon. Gentleman has given me the opportunity of correcting that. The Chief of the Air Staff said that a number of other bases might be used, and in a list of several he mentioned Bournemouth. I perhaps chose the most ridiculous example, thereby slightly misquoting the Chief of the Air Staff, and I am grateful for the opportunity to correct myself.

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has done so because it is important that we get the facts straight. RAF Fairford is also a possibility for consideration, but the US air force is pulling out of there in 2010. What are the implications of that for the diversionary plans, if Brize Norton cannot be used under certain circumstances? I would like to hear those details from the Minister.

On the wider issue of airlift for the defence of the country, the procurement of the A400M has been problematic. As a pro-European, my heart is with the A400M and I am keen for it to be successful. However, there have been a number of problems, almost from the beginning—that is probably typical of many projects within the Ministry of Defence that experience problems due to delays, overruns, and specifications. A number of reports have covered issues such as whether the plane is now overweight and will not be able to carry the 32 tonnes originally envisaged but will instead carry only 29 tonnes. There is an issue about whether the plane is big enough, to which the hon. Gentleman referred, and there are concerns about the future rapid effect system vehicle, which we have discussed and are waiting for with great anticipation. Will it fit in the plane, or will the tyres have to be let down to squeeze it in? Will the helicopters need to be dismantled to such a ridiculous level that it is hardly worth while? Are those problems real? It would be helpful if the Minister could be frank about those issues and tell us in some detail how they will be addressed.

Yesterday, there were reports that the European Aeronautic Defence and Space Company was getting frustrated with European Governments’ inability to make a decision about the future of the A400M. It is demanding a decision by the end of the month. It would be helpful to have an update of the position on that. Will the extra €5 billion be covered, or is the project going to be scrapped? Those are important decisions affecting an important platform that we require for our defence. It is important to have some frankness about the project so that we may have confidence going forward.

We must also have contingency plans in place, and that is the next point that I hope the Minister will address. I have heard reports that the A400M could perhaps be delayed until as far ahead as 2020. That seems ridiculous, but the reports are from well-sourced people. Are contingency plans in place to cover that significant gap? In 2006, the Defence Committee expressed concern about extending the life of the C-130Ks beyond the life extension currently proposed, which would cost about £26 million. Its 2006 report stated:

“The delay to the A400M programme has required the lives of ageing C-130K aircraft to be extended. If there are any further delays in the A400M programme, the scope for further extending the lives of C-130K aircraft may be limited, and expensive, leaving a potential capability gap.”

What assessment has been made of that possible need for a further life extension, and what would the costs be? If concerns about a life extension existed in 2006, what are they now?

There have been extensive reports on this subject. At the end of last year, we had a statement from the Ministry of Defence about the problems in the defence budget. Can we afford to plug that affordability gap? If it is not physically possible to have the life extension, can we afford to buy additional kit to plug the capability gap because of the problems with the MOD budget? These are serious issues. We need confidence and clarity about what is planned, or debates such as this will continue.

The hon. Member for North Wiltshire has done a great service, and I know that he works closely with people in North Wiltshire to try and achieve a successful outcome. Again, I appeal to the Minister by repeating my central point: why, so close to a strategic defence review, would we rush this decision when there are so many complicated factors that need to be taken into consideration? I hope that he will respond to that in his reply.

It is a pleasure to serve for the first time under your chairmanship, Mr. Howarth. At the outset, let me congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) on successfully securing this debate. He has done us all a huge service, and he has produced a document that the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Willie Rennie) has rightly identified as extremely professional. Although my hon. Friend clearly has a constituency interest, which he has promoted with extraordinary diligence, he has made a compelling generic case for the role of RAF Lyneham and for the future of the air transport fleet. I will return to that in a moment.

I also wish to pay tribute to RAF Lyneham for the particularly gruesome role that has been thrust upon it, as the entry point for the repatriation of those who have fallen in Afghanistan. Having visited Lyneham, I know that it is not easy for the people at Lyneham and the Royal Air Force personnel to have constant public attention due to that extremely sad aspect of the war in Afghanistan, which has been thrust upon them on a weekly basis. I hope that my hon. Friend will take back to all those who operate at Lyneham our enormous appreciation for what they do, on behalf of not only all three services but the nation.

It would be wrong, in paying tribute to Lyneham, not to pay tribute also to the people of Wootton Bassett, who, by common consent, have struck such a chord across this kingdom because of the extraordinary dignity with which they have paid their public but in a sense private tribute to the fallen. I fully endorse my hon. Friend’s concerns about the endeavours of that serial ranter, Anjem Choudary, to try to destabilise the position and cause untold offence across the land. I am sure that the Government will take the same view; indeed, the Prime Minister expressed his abhorrence the day before yesterday. What Sir Hugh Orde thinks he is doing, goodness knows, but I certainly share my hon. Friend’s view on that matter.

I also pay tribute to the personnel at RAF Lyneham for the contribution that they make, across a range of activities, through the C-130 Hercules fleet. That aircraft has been in existence for about 50 years and has proved itself across a huge range of military and civilian air operations to be an outstanding platform. Versatile and rugged, it is capable of going to the most difficult places. Wherever there is a problem, it is rare not to see a C-130 in the thick of it, doing the business.

Having spent some time on the flight deck of a C-130 flying from Kabul to Camp Bastion before Camp Bastion even had a concrete runway, when it was just bare desert, and having talked to the crew about the trials and tribulations of operating in those extreme circumstances, in which there was no runway lighting save for three markers down each side of the desert strip, visible only through night vision goggles, it would be hard for me not to appreciate the extraordinary skill of the crews—not only the pilots but the loadmasters and other crew members of the C-130—in doing what they do. This is an opportunity for hon. Members to put on record our appreciation for all those Royal Air Force personnel and what they do.

I shall add to the tribute section of my remarks some very personal thanks to the Minister, as well as to the folk at RAF Lyneham. I am a trustee of the Vulcan to the Sky project, which has delivered the only Vulcan to be restored to flying condition. It has been displayed to 2.5 million people this year and has produced something called the Vulcan effect at air shows; it is a huge magnet for attracting the public to air shows. RAF Lyneham has played host to the aircraft over the winter, and we are extremely grateful to RAF Lyneham for providing us with accommodation over the winter, while we are undertaking quite significant modification works to ensure that the aircraft is on the display circuit next year.

I said at the outset that my hon. Friend had produced an extremely professional paper and that he had dealt with much more than simply the situation at Lyneham. Some of the arguments that he advanced are very compelling. One of his key arguments was that there is a severe risk that the Government will put all our eggs in one basket. That reminds me of an expression of Winston Churchill’s during the second world war when it was proposed that a number of Cabinet Ministers be transported together in one aircraft. He thought it undesirable that all his baskets should be confined to one egg.

I agree with my hon. Friend that what he has described is a major factor. I fear that officials see airfields just as opportunities to raise money. They see large tracts of land, which generate pound signs instantly in their eyes. There is a failure to recognise some of the practical implications of these decisions, to which my hon. Friend has drawn attention.

I have expressed concern both to the Chief of the Air Staff and to others about the risk that we face in reducing the number of runways available, for all the reasons that my hon. Friend has given. If a runway is out of action, we do not have the ability to use that airfield until it is repaired. What was the Vulcan’s endeavour during the Falklands campaign? It was to destroy the runway at Port Stanley, so that the Argentines could not use it to reinforce their troops on the Falkland Islands. In my view, we are taking a risk. It is fine to say that, in an emergency, we would close civilian airports to civilian operations and make them available for military use, but that is an unsatisfactory way of dealing with the issue.

The idea is that Brize Norton will be able to host a huge number of aircraft: myriad fleets, including the C-17, which has now been increased to seven aircraft, the future strategic tanker aircraft—up to 14 of those—C-130 aircraft, of which there are at least 40 at the moment and there will possibly be more, and the A400M, with another 25 of those. The FSTA will have its own bespoke hangar. The idea that Brize Norton will be able to host all that on an already fairly congested site makes the case admirably.

The hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife referred to the decision of the Americans in effect to put RAF Fairford on a care-and-maintenance basis later this year. I join him in saying to the Minister that we need an explanation of the implications of that for the RAF, of whether the Americans will continue to pay the cost of maintaining the airfield and of whether their decision is likely to have an impact on the MOD’s budget, in that it will have to find funds to keep that airfield available. For all those reasons, my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire has made a very strong case why we need more than one air transport airfield to provide this essential facility for the RAF.

The wider issue of the air transport fleet is also part of the debate. We have a catalogue of disasters, some of which are this Government’s fault; others are not. In the case of those that are not, I shall return to the A400M later. I shall deal first with the TriStars and the VC10 fleet. Those aircraft provide both air-to-air refuelling and air transport. Most notable in the public’s mind are the TriStars—those 1970s aircraft that had extended airline service and then were bought by the RAF in the 1980s. Those aircraft are now very ancient indeed and their reliability is not as great as people would desire.

The consequence is that our troops out on operations in Afghanistan find that their return home is delayed, and their leave counts from the moment that they leave their theatre of operation, not the airfield. Many soldiers in my constituency of Aldershot have told me of their frustration at finding that their leave has been consumed to far too great an extent by the business of trying to get home from theatre, because of the inadequacy of the air bridge operated out of Brize Norton.

I do not blame the Royal Air Force. The previous Chief of the Air Staff, Sir Glenn Torpy, took the matter in hand and did a huge amount to try to improve the situation, and there has undoubtedly been an improvement in the operation of the air bridge, but the RAF has to operate clapped-out aircraft, and that is simply not fair on those personnel.

Just over a year ago, I travelled to Afghanistan on a TriStar. As an aviator, I seek to spend as much time as I can on the flight deck, so that I can understand some of the issues, and a number of the dials in that aircraft had little red dots on them. I asked what they were for, and the crew said, “We’d better tell him. Those instruments are all unserviceable.” One of those instruments served a reasonably critical purpose. Obviously, the crew were happy to fly the aircraft—a pilot is not going to fly an unserviceable aircraft—but the fact is that the TriStars are old and expensive.

The Government propose to replace the TriStars and the VC10s with the future strategic tanker aircraft. The RAF bought some of the VC10s in the 1960s, so they have been operating for 50 years, although with an extraordinarily good safety record. However, I am on record as opposing that procurement, because it has been absolutely scandalous. Ten years ago, the Government approved a private finance initiative to replace the air-to-air refuelling facility provided by the TriStars and the VC10s. It then took Ministers five years—until 28 February 2005—to announce that the Air Tanker consortium was the preferred bidder. The contracts were not signed until three years later, on 27 March 2008. The first aircraft will not enter service until at least 2011, and the cost will be £13 billion over the 27-year life of the contract. If more than the core fleet of nine Airbus A330 aircraft is required, the costs will presumably go up, although I do not know, because I have had no sight of the commercial contract that the Government have agreed. It is impossible for the Opposition to hold them properly to account, because they will not release the commercial information. We shall have to wait until we come into government to find out exactly what Ministers have signed up to.

The Government’s incompetence has delayed the programme and forced the Ministry of Defence to waste £20 million providing new glass cockpits for the TriStars, which will go out of service. The cockpits are required because the International Civil Aviation Organisation demands that aircraft operating in international airspace have up-to-date flight decks, which the TriStars do not. Marshall Aerospace of Cambridge is undertaking the work, which is not expected to be completed until the end of next year. Those aircraft will go out of service by 2016, when the full fleet of A330 tankers is expected to be in service, and they will presumably be scrapped—I cannot see anybody wanting to buy them. What the Government have done is a scandalous waste of money: not only will £20 million go down the drain, but aircraft that are critical for operations in Afghanistan will be taken offline while their flight decks are completely stripped out and refitted.

Last year, the cost of operating the ancient fleet of VC10s was £83 million; this year, the operating cost will be nearly £30,000 an hour. Why did Ministers not take advantage of a commercial offer from Omega Air to lease DC-10s fully equipped to theatre-entry standard at about one third of the cost of operating the VC10s? Omega Air tells me that it can lease the DC-10s for about £10,000 an hour.

Why did the Minister with responsibility for defence procurement claim that there had been no trial of a commercial alternative, when I have before me clear evidence that such trials have been carried out involving air-to-air refuelling with the Omega Air aircraft? The internal MOD document before me is dated 9 May 2009 and headed “Quick AAR”—or air-to-air refuelling—“win from Exercise Torpedo Focus 08-1/2”. It states that “COS Ops”, which presumably means chief of staff operations, “approved a trial”—I emphasise the word “trial”—“using Omega Air assets”. It describes the trial as “a resounding success”, adding:

“The RAF now has an ‘on the shelf’ clearance to utilise Omega Air assets worldwide.”

In a parliamentary answer last year, however, I was told that no trials had taken place. I demand an explanation. I fully accept that I have landed this on the Minister without advance warning, so I do not expect him to give me a comprehensive answer now—that would be unreasonable—but I hope that he will understand my anger at the fact that I have been told something that, outside this place, might be described as a straightforward lie. I have an internal MOD document that uses the word “trial”, but Ministers say that no trials have taken place, so an explanation is required.

Omega tells me that it has one theatre-entry standard KDC—a DC-10—immediately available. The aircraft can carry more than 350 passengers, and up to six aircraft could be available within a year. If the MOD had seized the opportunity in 2008 to work with the company, which provides continuing service to the US armed forces, they could now be meeting the air bridge and air-to-air refuelling requirement in more modern, efficient and reliable aircraft, thus hugely helping our armed forces in Afghanistan and providing the RAF with the equipment that it needs.

Omega is not the only company to have submitted a proposal to the MOD; Crown Aviation has done so, too. However, despite the desperate need for a more reliable and cheaper aircraft, the MOD has stuck its nose firmly in the sand and ploughed on with clapped out aeroplanes.

A comparison of last year’s planned flying hours for the VC10s and TriStars with the actual flying hours perhaps says it all. The TriStar’s planned hours were 11,561, but it delivered 8,966—a shortfall of more than 2,500 hours, or 22.5 per cent. I wonder whether that is the result of the aircraft’s age and reliability. The VC10’s planned hours were 9,254, but it delivered 8,952, so the shortfall was only 300 hours, which was substantially less than that for the TriStars. The TriStar fleet was clearly well short of its planned utilisation, and it would be helpful if the Minister explained why.

I said that I would say a few words about the A400M. The hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife has raised a number of issues. Again, there is huge uncertainty about the aircraft. I do not entirely blame the Government. I cannot understand the difficulties experienced by Airbus, which delivered the A380 from design to service in about six years—admittedly, the aircraft had some problems, but it is in service. However, the A400M is a basic transport aircraft, and I do not understand how Airbus can have got itself into such a fix. As I say, I do not blame the Government for that, but we need to know their position and what they are going to do.

What is the contractual status of the aircraft? As my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire has reminded us, Airbus and EADS, the parent company, are so concerned about the implications for the financial health of the company if the contract is persisted with that they are seriously considering possibly scrapping the whole thing themselves. We need to know the Government’s position. It is a fixed-price contract, but the latest National Audit Office major projects report for 2009 makes it clear that the original forecast cost of each aircraft was about £110 million, and that has now gone up to £130 million.

Is it proposed that the Government will operate on the basis of 25 aircraft, at a cost of £130 million? Are they holding Airbus’s feet to the fire and saying, “This was a fixed price contract; you have to deliver at all costs?” Are they bending to Airbus’s concerns and saying, “Okay, we’ll take a reduced number of aircraft at the same price as was originally agreed?” We need to know. The House needs to know; the public need to know and, as my hon. Friend said, the Royal Air Force needs to know, because there are great concerns in the RAF about having such a large mix of aircraft in the fleet. That will undoubtedly add to cost and the logistics of operating the air transport fleet. It is not good enough for the Government to hide behind commercial in-confidence discussions on a matter of such great importance to the nation.

To leave the Minister plenty of time to respond to the debate, I want to conclude by saying that our position is clear. We think that it would be entirely wrong for the Government to pre-empt a strategic defence review that they have said they would undertake if returned to office later in the year and that we, too, have made it clear we would carry out. Indeed, the Government are doing some preparatory work, and so are we. The taking of major decisions that would pre-empt the review will be regarded as at best unreasonable and at worst knavish.

I am sorry to press my hon. Friend, but, of course, a few months from now he may well be the Minister making the decision. Am I right in understanding him as saying that the potential closure of RAF Lyneham and the bringing of things together at RAF Brize Norton could form part of a Conservative Government’s strategic defence review?

Absolutely. I have made it clear to my hon. Friend’s constituents that that is one of the things that we would do. It seems to me essential, if we are to have a defence review that will assess the real and potential threats to the nation, and if, having done so, we are to decide what military capabilities we require to meet those threats, that we must translate those decisions into the aircraft, ships, tanks and armoured vehicles that are needed and the places where they will be based. Making those decisions now—not only is Lyneham affected, of course, as we now hear that Cottesmore is to close—will deprive future Ministers of options that most reasonable people and certainly those who are concerned with defence feel should be available to them; they do not think that the Government should pre-empt those options, as they are doing.

Several RAF stations—I am thinking of places such as South Cerney, Catterick and Dishforth—have been turned over to Army use. Who knows what will happen to the Army in Germany and what decisions might arise out of studies about that? I am not suggesting that any decisions have been made about that, but they could be; and if our forces in Germany were brought back to the United Kingdom, where would they be based? If we close and sell off RAF stations, we limit the options that will be available. I can give my hon. Friend the assurance that he seeks that we would put the future basing of our fleets—not just the air transport fleet, but the fast jet fleet as well—into the mix for a strategic defence review. That seems to me to be the sensible thing to do, and I am sure that that is what my hon. Friend’s constituents, both military and civilian, want to hear. I hope that those who are informed about such matters will also be reassured to hear it.

It is a pleasure to respond to the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) in this debate, and I congratulate him on securing it. I thank him for his words of praise for servicemen and women and civilians who have been doing vital work in support of our operations. I thank all the people who work at RAF Lyneham, and the community there who have over the years given incredibly strong support to the station and the Royal Air Force. I also want to thank those who have done so much to ensure that people who lose their lives on operations are repatriated with the honour and dignity that their sacrifice deserves.

As the hon. Member for North Wiltshire will be aware, the number and operation of military airfields is under constant review to ensure—and this is rightly the responsibility of Government—that the best use is made of the defence estate for our armed forces. To say that this is not the first time that the hon. Gentleman has raised the issue in the House would be the understatement of the year. I pay tribute to him for the tenacity with which he has made his case on behalf of his constituents, who I recognise are understandably concerned for the future of RAF Lyneham. However, although I recognise that there will be some disappointment about it, the answer that I must give him today is unchanged from the one he has heard from successive Defence Ministers over the past five and a half years.

It was first announced on 4 July 2003 that the future air transport and air-to-air refuelling fleets would, by 2012, be collocated at RAF Brize Norton, which from that point would be the single defence airport of embarkation. The hon. Gentleman knows that the strategic review work that considered the future role of RAF Lyneham, RAF Brize Norton and RAF St. Mawgan took more than a year. Phase 1 of the review was to decide the optimum basing for the A400M, which will, as has been discussed, replace the C-130K fleet currently at RAF Lyneham. The hon. Gentleman will recall that in August 2002 the then Minister of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Mr. Ingram), announced that RAF Brize Norton would be the home to the new fleet. Phase 2 of the review was to consider properly the longer-term future of all three stations. It was as a result of that work that the Government announced that the C-130J fleet would move to RAF Brize Norton in 2011, and that if no further defence use was identified for it, RAF Lyneham would close. That remains the position today.

The decision was driven and underpinned by a clear value-for-money case, which estimated the steady-state saving associated with withdrawing from RAF Lyneham at £27.9 million per annum. In addition, it is currently forecast that the efficiencies generated by amalgamating the functions currently carried out at RAF Lyneham with those based at RAF Brize Norton will realise input and output savings totalling some £437 million from the financial year 2011-12 through to 2019-20 alone.

Although the Minister may not have time now to answer in detail, if I table a parliamentary question on these lines, will he lay out in clear and precise terms how all the arithmetic works?

I was going to come to that, because the hon. Gentleman made that point earlier. He does not need to table a parliamentary question; I will write to him setting out in detail the underpinning logic and the way we have assembled the figures. I understand that it is important to make those clear.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State announced on 7 May 2009 that RAF Lyneham was no longer under consideration as a possible location for a consolidated support helicopter base under Project Belvedere. Our studies concluded that the proposal did not represent best value for money—specifically, that the efficiencies that could be achieved from a major rationalisation programme would not produce the necessary return, given the significant investment that would be required to implement the change.

It was therefore decided that to continue Project Belvedere did not represent best value for money for the Department, and the programme was closed. That means, and I know that the hon. Gentleman regrets it, that there will be no change at this stage to the current arrangements. At present, Chinook helicopters operated by the joint helicopter command are based at Royal Air Force Odiham; Apache helicopters are based at Wattisham station; Puma and Merlin helicopters are based at Royal Air Force Benson; the Lynx helicopter operates from Dishforth airfield; and the Commando helicopter force, comprising Sea King and Lynx helicopters, operates from the Royal Naval air station at Yeovilton.

On 15 December last year, the Secretary of State for Defence announced a package of enhancements to our future helicopter fleet, including the procurement of an additional 22 Chinooks to enhance the operational Chinook fleet. Those additional aircraft will be based at RAF Benson, as well as their existing base at RAF Odiham. Our future helicopter fleets will be based at existing rotary wing bases, which does not include RAF Lyneham. The position on RAF Lyneham therefore remains as announced on 4 July 2003 by the then Minister for the Armed Forces, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow; following the move of the C130 fleet to Royal Air Force Brize Norton, and if no further defence use is identified for Royal Air Force Lyneham, the latter will be closed and disposed of.

Will the Minister answer a simple question? If Project Belvedere, which will bring all helicopters together in one place, does not work, and if not enough savings are made from that exercise to justify the upgrade to RAF Lyneham, how is it that Project CATARA, which will bring Lyneham and Brize Norton together at one base, will save £400 million or so over the next 10 years? How can the arithmetic of one not work whereas the arithmetic of the other can?

It is because they are different propositions. Some rationalisations work from a cost-benefit analysis point of view, and some do not. If one embarks on a course of action or a review and then, through further research, one sees that it will not fly financially, one does not go ahead with that proposition. That is the stage that we have reached. I realise that that is disappointing news for the people at RAF Lyneham and for the local community. Nevertheless, we will do everything that we possibly can to manage the draw-down sensitively, and I shall comment on that in detail later.

The decision to close RAF Lyneham was not taken lightly. The hon. Gentleman can rest assured that the review that was undertaken was comprehensive. He will recall that the review team briefed him and participated in meetings with local and regional authorities in order to ensure that all the issues could be identified and properly considered. The reality is that it is never easy to close a unit, but we would be failing in our duty if we did not make the best use of taxpayers’ money to meet our defence requirements. To put it bluntly, keeping a station that does not meet the defence need would be a waste of public money. I hope that the hon. Gentleman agrees with that proposition.

Recent enhancements to the air transport and support helicopter fleets do not change that position. Infrastructure enhancements at RAF Brize Norton are well under way, and will be sufficient to handle the current and planned air transport and air-to-air refuelling fleets. The hon. Gentleman raised a number of other concerns about the collocation of the air transport and the air-to-air refuelling fleets at RAF Brize Norton. I shall deal with those later. First, however, I shall respond to some of the specific points raised during the debate.

The hon. Member for North Wiltshire started by remarking on Mr. Choudary’s proposed march at Wootton Bassett. I share his revulsion at the proposed demonstration. I hope and believe that such a march will not take place. It is disgusting and offensive, and I believe that there is virtually no public support for the town being used and abused in that way. I hope that that message is put across strongly and clearly.

The hon. Member for North Wiltshire, the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Willie Rennie), who speaks for the Liberal Democrats, and the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth), the shadow Minister, all asked why we would not put off this difficult decision and wait for the strategic defence review. We need a strategic defence review, but I do not believe that such a review can or should be used as an excuse for putting off sensible decisions that are well under way. I say to the Opposition, I hope charitably—they are committed to reducing the public deficit faster than the Government, which at the very least will require an additional £26 billion of spending cuts—that they need more credibility in handling such matters given that, at every juncture, they are effectively calling for delays and further public expenditure. Their arguments simply do not wash.

The Minister is being most generous in giving way. He admits the main thrust of my remarks, which is that not closing RAF Lyneham will save an awful lot of money—the vast sums not needed to upgrade Brize Norton. Let us call a halt to the project. We could spend the money on the front line in Afghanistan, not waste it on silly projects.

I will come later to details of the costings, and I shall set them out in writing for the hon. Gentleman. There is of course a short-term cost, but in the longer term there will be a saving to the Exchequer, which is why we are pursuing this course of action.

Just before the debate started, the hon. Gentleman handed me a copy of a pamphlet—I have not yet had an opportunity to read it—that sets out his views and the detailed research that he has undertaken on RAF Lyneham. I shall read it and instruct my officials to consider it in detail, and I give the hon. Gentleman a commitment that I shall arrange a meeting to discuss it with him in as much detail as possible. However, I do not want to mislead anyone. I do not want to raise optimism among the people at RAF Lyneham; I genuinely believe that grounds for such optimism do not exist. I am not convinced that there is an alternative, or that we could reach one. Nevertheless, the hon. Gentleman has put a lot of work into the pamphlet and argued his case strongly today. I shall meet him at the earliest opportunity.

The hon. Gentleman and others spoke about the A400M. Let me be clear about it; there is no immediate air-lift shortfall on operations. The capability gap resulting from the delay after 2012 will be addressed through a package of measures to enhance the availability of the existing Hercules C130J, and through the procurement that we recently announced of a seventh UK C-17.

I heard what the hon. Member for Aldershot had to say in respect of the negotiations—that we should come clean about them. With respect, the Opposition would make such an argument; but if they were in government they would not reveal their negotiating hand in public while the negotiations were ongoing. It is important to say that we remain committed to the A400M, but not at any cost. We regard contract negotiations as the best means of determining the way forward. I believe that we can achieve a positive outcome, but the discussions are critical. It has to be said that newspaper articles by commercial contractors are placed for a purpose. They are designed to influence the negotiations. It is the Government’s responsibility to get on with our partners in those negotiations, and that is what is happening.

The hon. Member for North Wiltshire also spoke of the remarks made by the Chief of the Air Staff. I welcome the fact that the hon. Gentleman corrected what he said. The Chief of the Air Staff said that a number of military or civilian airports might be used in the event of a diversion and that the decision as to which was to be used would depend upon a range of factors, including the weather, runway capacity and the ability to handle large aircraft. The hon. Gentleman rightly corrected himself, saying that Bournemouth was only one example.

The hon. Gentleman also mentioned safety. That was considered in detail by the review team. It considered the crisis operational requirements and concluded that there was no strategic reason why the aircraft could not be based at one main operating base. The degree of risk was considered acceptable, given the move towards expeditionary rather than home-base fighting. It found that historical weather data indicated a minimal risk of lengthy weather disruptions, and that both airfields and airspace capacity could cope with the aircraft numbers involved.

The hon. Gentleman asked detailed questions about the costs. As I said, I shall respond in writing. However, in broad-brush terms, the recent programme review concluded that total programme costs of £203 million had been identified against financial benefits of £437 million. The hon. Gentleman referred specifically to forecast costs. They include £10 million for an environmental clean-up. The exact costs are dependent on the conclusion of the ongoing land-quality assessment, which must take place before we can finalise the details.

The hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife asked about the implications of the US pulling out of RAF Fairford. We must be clear that RAF Fairford is unlikely to be a suitable diversion airfield because its facilities for handling large passenger aircraft are inadequate. Moreover, I do not think that it affects the overall viability of our proposition.

I listened with interest and in detail to the hon. Member for Aldershot as he responded to the case put forward by the hon. Member for North Wiltshire. He said that the argument had been extremely compelling, and that he feared that certain consequences would take place. He said that there were risks involved and that his hon. Friend had made a very strong case. What a detailed reading of Hansard will make of that response is that there was a complete absence of active verbs and commitments as to what the Conservative party would do differently from the Government in respect of RAF Lyneham, apart from delaying the decision, which would recreate uncertainty about the way forward. I have no doubt that if we were to put the matter back into a strategic defence review, the outcome would be the same decision as the one that we are pursuing at the moment.

We have not had a strategic defence review since 1998, and there is a widespread belief that the current review was prompted by our decision to hold a review, and that it should have been undertaken a lot earlier than it has been, which would have resolved this uncertainty much earlier. It is the Government’s own fault; it is pointless to blame the Opposition.

We had always planned to hold a strategic defence review; we announced it of our own volition. I listened with care to what the hon. Member for Aldershot said, and I am sure that the constituents of the hon. Member for North Wiltshire will similarly look at the detail of what he said. I had no sense that there was an active proposal by the Opposition to do differently to that which we are doing in government, apart from putting the decision into a strategic defence review, the outcome of which will be the same decision that we are pursuing.

The hon. Member for Aldershot raised an important point about the operational trial. I do not believe that he has been given the wrong information, but given that he raised it with me today I will immediately check the details and write to him in the next week to set the record straight.

As for the issue of jobs and the local economy, I am concerned about the impact on more than 3,000 people—around 2,500 service personnel and around 600 civilians, including contractors—working at and in support of the station. We have identified manpower savings of 251 RAF posts and 125 civil service posts through the amalgamation of RAF Lyneham and RAF Brize Norton. RAF personnel from the station will be posted to RAF Brize Norton and other RAF stations as operational and manpower requirements dictate. As far as possible, Ministry of Defence civilian personnel reduction will be achieved through natural wastage or by finding alternative employment for staff. We have been consulting with the trade unions throughout the review, and a formal period of consultation has now been completed.

I understand that the decision to close RAF Lyneham is disappointing news for the dedicated military and civilian personnel who work there, and who have done such excellent work to support operations over many years. I recognise, too, the disappointment that will be felt in the local community. The impact on the local economy was not overlooked in the review; it was and is an important consideration, and we will work with all the relevant agencies to ensure that the impact of the closure is minimised.

Airspace considerations, which the hon. Member for North Wiltshire raised, formed part of the strategic review that underpinned the original decision to collocate air transport and air refuelling assets at RAF Brize Norton. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that while there are no airspace implications that would have precluded the move, we continue to assess the implications of the expansion of RAF Brize Norton to ensure that the best use is made of the available airspace.

The hon. Gentleman also raised the issue of infrastructure capacity. Infrastructure enhancements to support the post relocation and future fleets at RAF Brize Norton are well in hand, and the necessary development will continue over the next three years. One of the key infrastructure projects is the expansion of the aircraft parking area, which will substantially increase the ability of Brize Norton to handle increased numbers of aircraft at the same time. It will enable the transfer of the C-130J capability from RAF Lyneham and will support the introduction of both the A400M and the future strategic tanker aircraft. Out of a maximum total of 70 aircraft that will be based at Brize Norton once the new fleets are introduced, a significant number will be deployed at any one time to support current or future operations, take part in routine training activity, or undergo maintenance away from the station. We assess that the expanded aircraft parking area and other improvements will be sufficient to cope with the demands of the future fleets that will be based at the station.

The Programme Future Brize aims to provide a future strategic and tactical air transport and air-to-air refuelling base and airport of embarkation that delivers excellence in rapid global mobility and offers greater capacity, flexibility and efficiency than current arrangements. A significant number of key benefits will flow from the programme, including reduced costs and manpower liability, greater airport of embarkation capacity following the development of the freight handling facility at Brize Norton, improved training through the development of a C-130J training mission rehearsal facility, which will be expanded in the future to incorporate collective training facilities for the A400M force, along with the development of other training facilities at RAF Brize Norton.

The hon. Gentleman also referred to the issue of terrorist threats. Careful consideration to the potential risks involved was given when coming to the decision to base all air transport and air-to-air refuelling assets at RAF Brize Norton. It was decided that there was no strategic reason why all the aircraft could not be based at one station. It is highly unlikely that any attack could compromise the ability to operate the fleets based at Brize Norton. For example, the length of the runway at Brize Norton is such that it is unlikely that it would be damaged to such an extent that it would be impossible to use.

The issue of diversions was also raised. If RAF Brize Norton were to become unavailable for any reason, there are a number of suitable airfields to which aircraft could be diverted or from which they could operate.

The capital cost of relocating the RAF C-130 Hercules fleet from RAF Lyneham to RAF Brize Norton is currently estimated to be some £60 million. That sum should be fully offset by the savings in running costs within the first four years. As I said earlier, I will write to the hon. Gentleman with further details.

Both the hon. Gentleman and I commented earlier on Wootton Bassett and the issue of repatriation. I wish to pay tribute to the people of Wootton Bassett, whose dignified and respectful tribute to those killed in operations has so amply and poignantly demonstrated the debt that we all owe to those who lose their life in active service. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that repatriations will continue to be held at RAF Lyneham until August 2011, when, on current plans, they will transfer to RAF Brize Norton. Appropriate facilities to support bereaved families and the dignity of the repatriation ceremony are to be provided as part of the overall development of that station.

In conclusion, despite the very significant increase in the defence budget since 1997, the pressures on our finances are acute. Operations in Afghanistan are our main effort and must take priority. The package of measures announced by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State before Christmas reflected that priority, including the decision to procure the additional Chinooks and the seventh C17. That makes it all the more crucial that we gain best value for defence in the way in which we use our defence estate. That means that sometimes tough choices have to be made and that will have an impact at a local level. I recognise that this is a difficult decision, and I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for the way in which he has argued his case. I genuinely do not believe that there is an alternative way forward. Nevertheless, given what he has proposed today, I will happily arrange to meet him in the next few weeks, but I do not want to mislead people; I am not convinced that there is an alternative way forward.

Maidstone East Line

Almost exactly four years ago, on 14 December 2005, I initiated a debate in this House on the integrated Kent rail franchise, which had just been awarded to Govia and its rail subsidiary, Southeastern. In my contribution to that debate, I referred to the substantial growth along the Maidstone East line that was taking place, not least in the mini-new town of Kings Hill in my constituency, where it was estimated that some 20,000 people would be living and working by the end of the franchise period, which was six to eight years in length. We are now more than halfway through that franchise period and in my remarks in December 2005, I said:

“That clearly necessitates significant improvement and growth in rail services. Sadly, we are starting from a base in which rail services are clearly inadequate to meet demand.”—[Official Report, 14 December 2005; Vol. 440, c. 1410.]

That was four years ago and where are we now? The rail services on the Maidstone East line into the city stations in London have continued to be inadequate throughout that four-year period. In fact, what was inadequate has now become disastrous, if not catastrophic, as a result of last month’s decision by the Minister who is here today to axe the services on the Maidstone East line into Cannon Street, Charing Cross and London Bridge. I wonder if the Minister really appreciates the truly devastating impact of his decision on the lives of hundreds, if not thousands, of individuals. They are facing significantly increased journey times, way in excess of the increased journey times that the Minister referred to in his letter to me on 27 November 2009, which I will come to in a moment. Those individuals are facing increased travel costs that run into hundreds of pounds a year and they are facing increased stress and hassle.

As the Minister must surely know, Victoria is the most congested rail terminus in London. It is a station where access to the underground quite regularly has to be closed because there are too many people already standing on the underground platforms. Surely it is madness to take decisions that will send hundreds, if not thousands, more people into Victoria station, which in the peak periods already cannot cope with the level of demand to use it.

Mr. Harold Sim, my constituent, wrote to me, telling me that his journey home, as he now must use Victoria station rather than Cannon Street station, can take up to an hour longer and is costing him more than £350 a year. Another constituent, Mr. Keely Oliver, wrote to me as follows, “Not only has my journey time been increased by 45mins per day/3.45hrs a week but I have to pay £600 more a year.” Another constituent, Mr. Phil Brooks, tells me that because of his increased journey time his child care arrangements have been completely upset and he is now having to ask his mother and his father-in-law to pick up his children four days a week, because of the delays that he faces in returning home. My constituent, Mr. Jamie Gardiner, wrote to me, saying, “My quality of life has been reduced to the point that we are now selling our house in King’s Hill”. So the Minister’s decision is leading directly to people being forced to sell up their homes.

That is the real impact on the constituents that I represent and also on those constituents who are represented by my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe), my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent (Hugh Robertson) and the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Jonathan Shaw). As the Minister knows, all of us were signatories to our joint letter to him on 14 August last year, enclosing the submissions that we had received from the Maidstone and Malling rail users associations; the local authorities, including Kent county council, Maidstone borough council and Tonbridge & Malling borough council; the firm Liberty, which is a joint developer with the Kent County council at King’s Hill, and other key parties. We concluded that letter by saying to the Minister:

“It is quite clear to us that the material in these submissions taken as a whole makes a totally conclusive case for the retention of the rail services to Cannon Street, Charing Cross and London Bridge on the Maidstone East line.”

To bring home to the Minister the devastating impact of these cuts on the lives of so many people in the Malling, Maidstone and mid-Kent area, I shall tell him what the equivalent treatment would be of individuals in the town of Ipswich, which he represents here in Parliament, if he dealt with his own constituents in the same way. The action by a rail Minister that would be equivalent to what he has exposed my constituents and people in the neighbouring constituencies of my right hon. and hon. Friends to would be for that rail Minister to say, “I am not going to take a blind bit of notice of the representations that you have put to me, I am not going to take a blind bit of notice of the exhaustive demand information that has been submitted to you, including by the rail travellers associations. Notwithstanding that, I am now going to axe all the rail services into Liverpool Street station and instead you will be obliged to get out of the train in Paddington station.” That would be the impact on the Minister’s constituents in Ipswich that would be equivalent to what he has inflicted upon my own constituents. He will not be surprised to know that my constituents are hopping mad and, frankly, so am I. The decision to axe these crucial rail services is thoroughly bad and thoroughly irresponsible. Frankly, it also makes complete nonsense of the Government’s housing and planning policies for the whole of the Maidstone, Malling and mid-Kent area.

I have sought the intervention of the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham) and I must say that I have been surprised and amazed that he has chosen to stand aside while his own Department’s housing and planning policies for our area are effectively being torn up by the Department for Transport.

The Minister has quite recently received a fresh submission from the planning director of the Tonbridge & Malling borough council, Mr. Steve Humphrey. In the letter that Mr. Humphrey sent to the Minister on 17 December 2009, he said this:

“I believe we now have a flawed and ultimately disastrous outcome that will have seriously adverse effects on the proper planning and regeneration of mid and west Kent and a backward step in terms of sustainable transport.”

Coming from a very professional and, of course, politically wholly independent senior planning officer, that is indeed a very serious indictment of the Minister’s decision.

That decision might have been slightly better received—it would not have been accepted, but it might have been slightly better received—if the Minister had managed to come up with a more remotely credible and accurate justification for it than he managed to come up with in his letter to me on 27 November 2009. In that letter, he said that these cuts will only affect some 200 to 300 people in the peak periods. Frankly, that is a grotesque understatement of the real demand, which was demonstrated by the demand surveys that were carried out by the Maidstone and Malling rail travellers associations and submitted to him in August 2009. On the issue of the numbers of people using the Maidstone East line into the city, my constituent Mr. Martin Tripp, wrote to me as follows:

“On Friday 11th December, the final day of the City services, myself and a colleague caught every train to and from West Malling (barring one) to make a final count of the users and to hand out leaflets. We handed out 1,000 leaflets and counted 1,213 journeys being made on these trains (despite missing one train and having incomplete counts on three)—a rather significant increase from the 200 to 300 quoted in Chris Mole’s letter.”

Of course, the figure of 1,213 for a single day includes only those on the West Malling to City trains and takes no account of the hundreds more living in the area who were already railheading, or driving to other stations all over west Kent and, in some cases, south-east London, in order to get a better rail service into the City stations. That number will increase further as a result of the Minister’s axing of City services on the Maidstone East line.

The Minister says that Maidstone and Malling rail commuters face a “journey time disbenefit” of 15 to 30 minutes as a result of the cuts. I do not know who in the Department for Transport thought up the phrase “journey time disbenefit”, but whoever it was deserves an alpha for euphemism and a delta for accuracy. The crucial factor is not time spent station to station but time spent station to office, which is a quite different figure. It is clear from the many representations that I have received from my constituents that the Minister’s decision to make the cuts is obliging people to spend up to two hours each day, and even more in one or two cases, making their journeys to and from work.

The Minister says that it would cost an additional £637,000 in annual subsidy to keep the City services going, and claims that he cannot find that sum after April 2010. I must point out that that additional subsidy arises for only one reason: the Government misjudged—that is the politest word that I can use—in deciding to allow Southeastern Trains to axe those services at a time when growth in the area was taking place at a considerable rate. As a result of that decision to allow Southeastern to axe the services in its franchise contract under the integrated Kent franchise, the Government are effectively being held to ransom by Southeastern for the £637,000. The Government claim that they cannot find the money. I will leave aside the fact that they had no difficulty finding billions to give the banks; taking into account the money and the financial relationship between the Department and Southeastern, it is clear that the Government could find the money if they wished.

Look at what is happening to the question of subsidy under the integrated Kent franchise contract. Charles Horton, the managing director of Southeastern, said to me in a letter of 23 July 2008:

“With regard to subsidy, that given to Southeastern started at £139.9 million in year one and will decline to £24.7 million in year seven. In year eight, we will be expected to pay a premium of £9.3 million to the DfT to operate the franchise.”

With such an enormous turnaround in annual subsidy in the Department’s favour—from a negative outflow of £139.9 million in year one to a positive cash inflow of £9.3 million in year eight—the Department is making a cash gain well in excess of £200 million over the lifetime of the franchise. For the Minister to say that he cannot find £637,000 is ridiculous. He is acting like the multi-millionaire who says that he cannot afford a fiver. In light of the subsidy situation, the Government’s statement that they cannot find the £637,000 required has no credibility with my constituents.

In an excellent letter to the Minister of 8 December, Ms Laura Cloke and Mr. Felipe Alviar-Baquero, the chairpersons of the Maidstone Area Rail Users Association and the Malling and District Rail Travellers Association, say:

“Your decision to axe the services into Cannon Street and London Bridge from Maidstone East and Malling is shameful and it has serious consequences for thousands of people that live in the area. Moreover, the area will suffer and it is likely that business cease to invest and leave, house prices fall and people lose jobs.”

I agree entirely with that analysis.

My fellow MPs from mid-Kent and Maidstone and I urge the Minister in the strongest terms to reconsider and reverse his decision. If he declines to do so, I can say with the utmost clarity that should I be returned in the general election in a few months’ time, I shall once again beat a path to the door of the rail Minister, whoever he or she is, early in the next Parliament to urge most determinedly the restoration of City services on the Maidstone East line.

I congratulate the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley) on securing this debate on rail services to and from the Maidstone area. If I am unable to deal with all the issues that he raised, I will ensure that I write to him further.

The current timetable started on 13 December 2009 and represents the biggest change to train services in the area for more than 50 years. The timetable offers an integrated mainline, metro and high-speed service across Kent, south-east London and East Sussex and provides more choice to people visiting, living in or working in the area. The timetable was developed after several years’ extensive research and feedback from stakeholders and the public. In 2003 and 2004, public consultations were held to determine what minimum service level would be required to meet current and future demand in the region. The principles of the timetable are set out in the Department’s service level commitment, which forms part of Southeastern’s franchise agreement.

The franchise was awarded to Southeastern in 2006. Since then, Southeastern has undertaken further extensive consultation with local stakeholders while developing the detailed timetable required to meet the specification. Southeastern has also undertaken extensive market research into travel patterns and preferences across its network. The study considered current and future demand for services.

The consultation in 2003 and 2004 proposed to withdraw the Ashford to London Bridge and Cannon Street via Maidstone East services as part of the December 2009 timetable. Those trains were lightly loaded, relative to other services, and it was felt that the December 2009 timetable offered suitable alternative journey opportunities for people in the area.

Historically, the line serving Maidstone East and East and West Malling stations did not have the same frequency of service as the two main lines running through Chatham and Tonbridge. The Maidstone East line has suffered from poor geographical layout and what has been described as an accident of history. In the 1840s, the landowners and MPs of Maidstone objected so strongly to the railway going through their town and park land that the Bill to build the London-Dover mainline was amended to serve Dover from a junction at Redhill on the Brighton line via Tonbridge. When the railways were finally built to Maidstone, they took a circuitous route and joined up other existing routes as a secondary line.

During the late 1980s, when the high-speed route for the channel tunnel rail link was being selected, it was proposed not to have a station at Ebbsfleet, but to have a Maidstone and Medway Parkway station in the Nashenden valley, adjacent to the A229. That was opposed strongly by local stakeholders because it would encourage development and threaten to close the green belt gap between Maidstone and Medway. At that time, the regeneration of east London was taking place and the idea of the Thames Gateway was forming. Ebbsfleet became the logical alternative to aid the development of brownfield sites. Had the original plans gone ahead, Maidstone would now be about 25 minutes from London and would have an international station.

Although some people who live in and around Maidstone choose to use the Maidstone East line to travel to Whitehall and the west end, those who travel to the City and Charing Cross generally choose to drive to stations at Headcorn, Tonbridge, Sevenoaks or along the M20 corridor as far as Orpington. Kent has three parallel routes that offer a great deal of choice for commuters. It takes only a short drive to access them on a less congested road network than the routes into or out of Maidstone. The appeal to commuters of using those roads is another factor behind the relatively low demand for services on the Maidstone East line.

It is important to set out exactly what services there are for customers travelling from Maidstone and Malling to London.

Does the Minister agree that it is important to focus on the present and the future rather than on history? Will he acknowledge that there is major growth at Kings Hill and across the Maidstone area that must be accommodated? Does he agree that it is highly undesirable and not in accordance with Government policy to force people to travel all over Kent and into south London to get to a railhead? Quite apart from the cost to the individual, it is infinitely better for the environment for people to commute from stations near their homes.

I hope to cover those points generally in my speech. One would hope that sustainable development is in place to meet local demand, not just to provide a dormitory function for the city.

It is important to set out what services there are. There are two trains an hour to and from London Victoria. London Victoria offers a multi-modal interchange with underground and bus services for customers who are continuing their journeys. Additionally, all trains call at Bromley South station, which offers a cross-platform interchange with trains that serve London Blackfriars, City Thameslink, Farringdon and the Thameslink St. Pancras International station. There is no additional cost to people who travel to City Thameslink or London Blackfriars, which the right hon. Gentleman said some of his constituents face. The stations offer excellent connections to the City on foot, by bus and by underground.

During the detailed development work on the December 2009 timetable, it became clear that there was local opposition to the proposed withdrawal of services between Ashford and Cannon Street via Maidstone East. On 30 June 2009, I met the right hon. Gentleman and others to discuss the withdrawal of those services from December 2009. It was agreed that the local rail users groups would prepare a submission to support their case to reinstate the trains from Maidstone and Malling to London Bridge and Cannon Street that the December 2009 timetable proposed to withdraw. That report was submitted to me on 14 August 2009. It asserted that no services between Maidstone and London Bridge and Cannon Street should be withdrawn.

The submission had significant drawbacks. First, the passenger counts did not cover all trains and did not specify where people joined and alighted from the trains, so the figures did not help to improve our understanding of the demand for the services. The most accurate demand figures that we have were sent to the right hon. Gentleman by Southeastern’s managing director in June 2007. Secondly, the report aimed to demonstrate the level of concealed demand for services to and from Maidstone and Malling, but did not achieve that objective. The report itself noted that it was not representative. Therefore, I did not consider that it gave a credible view of whether there was concealed demand for services.

On 27 November 2009, I wrote to the right hon. Gentleman and others explaining that I had decided not to reinstate the services. There were three key reasons behind my decision. First, there was no business case to retain off-peak services because passenger numbers were very low and some of the passengers, particularly those starting from Ashford, were accommodated on services to London Bridge and Cannon Street that do not operate via Maidstone East. Secondly, to reinstate the peak services would require an additional annual subsidy of £637,000, and it was not possible to identify sufficient funds for those services in the Department’s resources. Thirdly, between 20 and 50 per cent. of the people who use all of the services board and alight the trains at Ashford.

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way again. Does he agree that the figures that I quoted, showing that the Department is making a cash gain of well in excess of £200 million from the franchise as a result of the change to the subsidy arrangements with Southeastern, are correct?

The Department looks at its budget for the support of rail services as a whole, not on the basis of individual franchises. I can therefore tell him only what the position is as a whole.

Customers travelling from Maidstone and Malling to the City have two options. They can take the train to London Victoria and use the underground to reach a suitable station in the City, or they can change at Bromley South for services to London Blackfriars—I accept that that means that the journey will take slightly longer. My letter to the right hon. Gentleman of 27 November stated that the additional journey time would usually be between 15 and 30 minutes on each trip, but clearly individual circumstances will vary. The generalised journey times demonstrated by Transport for London’s journey planning tools bear those figures out. If people really do wish to travel to and from London quicker than the services from Maidstone and Malling allow, other reasonable options are available.

London Victoria is a busy station and Transport for London has developed plans to improve it. However, it provides a range of interchange opportunities for passengers. Approximately 70,000 people use Victoria underground station during peak hours and it is anticipated that a further 200 to 300 people will need to use it as a result of the December 2009 timetable change.

I note the right hon. Gentleman’s assertion that higher numbers of passengers have been counted on some trains by users. However, the 200 to 300 people refers to those who board and alight in Maidstone and Malling. The total numbers include people travelling to and from Ashford, who have a different journey option. As I said, people who do not wish to use the underground can take advantage of the cross-platform connection at Bromley South.

It has been suggested that withdrawing the services might adversely affect the local economy. We have not seen evidence that there will be any detriment to the local economy as a direct result of the services being withdrawn. I reiterate that independent market research confirmed that withdrawing the services would be the correct decision because there is insufficient demand to make their continuation cost-effective.

It has been argued that removing the services will force people to drive to other stations to reduce their commuting time. Nobody is being forced to drive away from where they live to make a rail journey between Maidstone or Malling and London. Southeastern offers a wide variety of services to different destinations. It is inevitable that people will make the individual journey choice that suits them best. Southeastern’s network serves seven London terminal stations, in contrast to the situation that the right hon. Gentleman described with my rail service. That makes it the best connected commuter network in the UK. Most commuter operators serve only one or two terminal stations.

The December 2009 timetable seeks to make the best use of the rail network in Kent and delivers wider benefits to communities across the network. It delivers new high-speed services that provide significantly faster journey times for towns such as Dover, Folkestone, Ashford, Canterbury, Ramsgate, Gravesend and Chatham. It also provides new capacity and journey opportunities for the wider area. The timetable delivers benefits to west Kent with additional capacity at Sevenoaks, Tonbridge and Tunbridge Wells, which result from the freeing-up of seats and the introduction of the high-speed service. The timetable delivers capacity improvements to the Medway towns for the same reasons.

Looking ahead, the rail industry’s route utilisation strategy for Kent proposes many improvements. It proposes the improvement of signalling and track between Faversham and Ramsgate. It suggests an improvement in capacity across the network by allowing platforms to take longer trains. For the Maidstone East line, that will mean ensuring that all stations can take trains with up to eight coaches. In addition to existing services to and from London Victoria, it is proposed that Thameslink services run directly to and from the Maidstone East line as part of the longer term Thameslink programme. That will ensure that there is a direct service to and from the Maidstone East line that serves London Blackfriars, City Thameslink, Farringdon and St. Pancras International.

I believe that the December 2009 timetable offers people in the Maidstone and Malling area a good choice of destinations in London. It is worth noting that that choice is greater than that offered to customers by most rail companies. A change of this type must be reviewed to ensure that all objectives have been achieved. Therefore, the Department has agreed with Southeastern that there will be a full review of the timetable early in 2010. That will include, but will not be limited to, monitoring loadings, performance and connectivity, and reviewing the success of the overall implementation. If the review highlights areas where the implementation has not been as successful as anticipated, the Department and Southeastern will consider carefully what to do.

Sitting suspended.

Immigration Control

[Mr. John Cummings in the Chair]

I thank Mr. Speaker for giving me permission to hold this debate today. I welcome the Minister—I very much appreciate the contact from his office prior to today—and the Conservative and Liberal Democrat Front Benchers to the debate. I also welcome my hon. Friends on the Back Benches.

Immigration is the most important issue for my constituents. I get more complaints, comments and suggestions about immigration than about anything else. In the Kettering constituency, the number of immigrants is actually very low. There is a well-settled Sikh community in the middle of Kettering town itself, which has been in Kettering for some 40 or 50 years and is very much part of the local community and of the fabric of local life. There are other very small migrant groups in my constituency, but it is predominantly made up of indigenous British people. However, there is huge concern among my constituents about the level of immigration into our country.

I believe that I am right in saying that, in recent years, net immigration into the United Kingdom is the largest wave of immigration that our country has ever known and, proportionately, is probably the biggest wave of immigration since the Norman conquest. My contention is that our country simply cannot cope with immigration on that scale—to coin a phrase, we simply cannot go on like this.

It is about time that mainstream politicians started airing the views of their constituents, because for too long people have muttered under their breath that they are concerned about immigration. They have been frightened to speak out about it because they are frightened of being accused of being racist. My contention is that immigration is not a racist issue; it is a question of numbers. I personally could not care tuppence about the ethnicity of the immigrants concerned, the colour of their skin or the language that they speak. What I am concerned about is the very large numbers of new arrivals to our country. My contention is that the United Kingdom simply cannot cope with them.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. Like me, will he pay tribute to the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey, who has had the courage to make the point and elucidate clearly today that dealing with immigration in an honest, straightforward and reasonable way is not just a political but a moral imperative for the political parties in this country?

I am most grateful for the helpful contribution from my hon. Friend who, as always, is speaking up for the genuine concerns of his constituents. As usual, he has hit the nail on the head. I am delighted that today the cross-party group on balanced migration has published a clear declaration stating that the UK’s population must be stopped from rising to 70 million people. I have signed up to that pledge today, and I invite all hon. Members in this Chamber to do likewise, because my view and that of the cross-party group is that the UK cannot cope with a population of 70 million.

Will my hon. Friend assist us by saying what the current level of migration and residence in this country is compared with the 70 million that it is planned to rise to? When are we expected to reach that figure of 70 million?

I am most grateful for that helpful contribution from my hon. Friend, who is a fastidious champion of his constituents’ interests; they are also concerned about the level of immigration into this country. I hope that the Minister will be able to give us the official statistics during his remarks, but my understanding is that the United Kingdom’s population is currently some 61 million. Net immigration is about 160,000 or 170,000 a year. Unless that is cut by 75 per cent., we will not be able to prevent the UK’s population from rising to 70 million by 2029. That would be the biggest population our country has ever had. Indeed, we already have the biggest population that our country has ever experienced. We are the most crowded country in Europe, apart from Malta, and one of the most crowded countries in the world, yet a further 9 million people are scheduled to arrive on our shores within the next 20 years.

Is it not a sad indictment of this country’s political system that the reason why we have not been able to have an honest and accurate debate on immigration is that the party in government for the past 13 years has deliberately and systematically smeared those who have raised immigration as an issue? Incidentally, that has had an impact on people who are not well off—for example, those who live in social housing in places such as Barking and Dagenham. There should have been a legitimate cross-party debate precisely to stop the rise of people such as those in the British National party who exploit people’s fears. The Government have not done that. They have chosen to smear their opponents, principally the Conservative party and particularly my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard).

I am most grateful for that contribution. I will certainly take interventions from my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) and the hon. Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt), but first I want to address the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Mr. Jackson). The cross-party group on balanced migration recognises that point entirely and has stated in a press release issued today:

“We are convinced that failure to take action would be seriously damaging to the future harmony of our society. Nearly a million votes by our fellow citizens for an extremist party amount to a danger sign which must not be ignored. For too long the major political parties have failed to address these issues and the intense, if largely private, concern that they generate throughout our country. If politicians want to rebuild the public’s trust in the political system, they cannot continue to ignore this issue which matters so much to so many people. The time has come for action.”

In responding to my hon. Friend, most unusually for me, I also want to pray in aid the Prime Minister. In November, in a speech on immigration, the Prime Minister said:

“I have never agreed with the lazy elitism that dismisses immigration as an issue, or portrays anyone who has concerns about immigration as a racist. Immigration is not an issue for fringe parties nor a taboo subject - it is a question to be dealt with at the heart of our politics, a question about what it means to be British.”

I would certainly like to congratulate my hon. Friend on once again raising an issue that is hugely important to not just his and my constituents, but people right across the country. Returning to his theme of how we are an overcrowded nation already, would he like to comment on the fact that when the Government launched the ambitious house building target of 3 million by 2020—it seems that target will be missed anyway—they said by their own admission that 1 million new homes out of those 3 million will be needed for future immigration into this country? Does that alone not highlight how unsustainable the level of immigration into this country is and its effect on infrastructure and public services?

As usual, my hon. Friend is spot on. That is a real concern for my constituents in Kettering, because under the Government’s house building plans, the number of dwellings in the borough of Kettering are due to increase by one third by 2021. I am not saying that one third of the new houses in Kettering will be occupied by immigrants, but such net immigration into our country inevitably means that a large number of the new houses built will be occupied by new arrivals. In some places that number will be very large and in others it will be very small. The latest figures from the excellent organisation, Migrationwatch UK, show that the Government’s most recent household projections indicate that immigration will account for 39 per cent. of all new households in the next 20 years.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate and do not want to belittle what he is saying, because people are saying exactly the same thing to me on the doorsteps in Solihull. On his point about population density in the UK compared to other countries, other northern European countries have a greater population density than ours, such as the Netherlands and Denmark. However, we need to take account of people’s perception that this is an overcrowded island and that we cannot fit anyone else, which I hear all the time on the doorsteps. That is more to do with how we perceive our population and its density. Does he agree that many of the problems relating to lack of resources are the result of the Government’s misguided lack of planning for immigrant populations when they come to this country?

I am grateful for that helpful contribution—[Interruption.] There is quite a lot of sedentary chuntering from the Government Front Bench. The Minister is welcome to intervene at any time.

The hon. Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt) made an important point. The Migrationwatch UK press release that the hon. Gentleman mentioned cleverly refers to England, rather than to the UK.

The Minister has the statistics, so if he would like to furnish Members with that information, I am sure that we would all be most grateful, but all my constituents actually live in England, so that is what they are concerned about—[Interruption.]

I am grateful to you, Mr. Cummings, because this is a good debate on an important matter. The serious point is that the propaganda that is put out refers to the population density in England and compares that with other EU nation states. I simply point out, as did the hon. Member for Solihull, that the figures are different for the UK and provide a fairer comparison.

I am sure that that is right, but the fact is that, whether we are talking about the UK or England, we are still one of the most crowded countries in Europe and the world. Whether we are a couple of places below or above Denmark, Holland or Malta is of no particular consequence to my constituents or, I suggest, the Minister’s. What people in this country do know is that we are already far too crowded and that we are likely to have 9 million more people in our country by 2029, unless his Government change their policy or, I hope, my Government do so.

The hon. Gentleman is asserting that the population will be 70 million by 2030. How much of that figure is built on the extrapolation of the net migration of recent years, and how much is based on the extrapolation of birth and death rates?

The statistics are not mine. They come from the independent Office for National Statistics. I suggest that the Government need to take them far more seriously than they have heretofore.

On the figure of 70 million, does the hon. Gentleman think that that should never be surpassed, and if so, what would he do if, for instance, there was a sudden spurt in births among the indigenous population that leads to the overall population rising above 70 million?

That is a perfectly legitimate question, which I am grateful for. The answer to the hon. Gentleman’s point and to that of the chuntering Minister is that 70 per cent. of that increase in population, according to the ONS, is due to—

I will do so when I have finished answering the previous intervention. The answer is that 70 per cent. of that increase is due to immigration, so effective measures could be taken to reduce immigration before we reach the situation, highlighted by the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake), in which the population passes 70 million.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way, because that is an important point, and we all agree that the far right is a problem. The figures show that 45 per cent. of the extrapolated population increase, which is based on figures for 2006-08 and includes net migration from the EU accession countries such as Poland—it is an extrapolation and not a forecast, as the ONS states—will have been the result of migration, not the 70 per cent. that he has stated. The figure he referred to is actually 65 per cent, which is what the ONS describes as the indirect implication of net migration, meaning the sons and daughters of immigrants and their sons and daughters. So the figure is 45 per cent. Furthermore, as that is an extrapolation and not a forecast, the result of the fall from 233,000 to 163,000 in net migration, because of the Polish people who did not come to this country, is that the fear of 70 million that he mentioned is not founded on the statistics.

If my fear is not founded on the statistics, the Minister will have no problem signing up to a manifesto pledge that the UK’s population will not reach 70 million by 2029.

When I was appointed to this job, I gave an interview to The Times in which I said that I could assure the people of this country that the population, as a result of migration policies, would not reach 70 million.

That is great, so the Minister can sign up to that pledge tomorrow. I think that he is playing with statistics, because as far as my constituents are concerned, whether the increase in population is due to new arrivals each year or to their children after they have arrived in the country are related issues—[Interruption.]

The Minister is trying to get away with saying that once immigrants are here the increase in population is not due to net immigration, and that is playing with words in a way my constituents would not appreciate. I do not know why he is looking so pleased with himself.

That is because we have exposed the hon. Gentleman’s policy. If he is saying that that is indirect net population—the result of previous immigration—there are two questions he must answer. First, what is he going to do about it? Is his policy to stop the previous immigrants to the country having children? Secondly, will he say that the net population increase is a function not just of immigration, present and past, but, as the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) said, of the birth and death rate? What will he do about it?

To repeat my answer to the Minister’s point, net immigration from this point on needs to be cut by 75 per cent.

In which case the hon. Gentleman must concede that his 70 per cent. figure—it is in fact 65 per cent.—is about the sons and daughters of previous migrants and their sons and daughters. What is he to do about that?

One cannot do anything about that. If we are to stop the UK’s population rising from 61 million today to 70 million in 2029, we will have to cut net immigration every year by 75 per cent.

One thing that the Minister clearly does not think is important at all is the need to deal with the illegal immigrants already in this country, whom the Government do absolutely nothing about. Does my hon. Friend share my concern that when people come to constituency surgeries with immigration cases, it often transpires, from the Home Office reply that their application for leave to remain expired in 2001 or 2002, yet they are still in the country and the Government do absolutely nothing to remove them?

My hon. Friend is absolutely spot on and I agree with that 100 per cent. I see cases most weeks from constituents—I use the word loosely—who are clearly here illegally and complaining that their cases have not been dealt with. In some instances, I have basically told the authorities the names, addresses and mobile phone numbers of people I know to be in this country illegally, but nothing has been done.

Is my hon. Friend as surprised as me about the rather cocky attitude of the Minister, given that when the Conservative party promised in its manifesto for the May 2005 election an Australian-style points system to deal with immigration from outside the EU, it was comprehensively rubbished as racist by the Minister’s party? Lo and behold, within three years, the same policy has become the official policy of the Government. Is my hon. Friend surprised that this Government lack any credibility whatsoever, given that kind of disgraceful behaviour?

I am a little surprised by the Minister’s attitude, because he is normally a nice fellow who takes part in well-reasoned debate. I can only assume that his colleagues in the Home Office have got to him and told him to start playing rough today. Nevertheless, we have a long way to go before the close of this debate, and his tone might well change.

I wonder what the hon. Gentleman thinks of Boris Johnson’s proposal that there should be an amnesty for irregular migrants.

It is a load of rubbish. Under no circumstances whatsoever should this country ever contemplate any kind of amnesty for those who are here illegally. I have some statistics about that that I shall draw on later.

For the avoidance of doubt, as they say, an incoming Conservative Government would not introduce an amnesty. This is a matter on which we disagree with the Mayor of London.

I am reassured to hear those remarks, and as we are on that subject, I shall deal with it now. Countries such as Italy, Spain and Belgium have had amnesties. I am sure that the Minister has more statistics, but I believe that Italy, for example, has had five such programmes. In 1987-88, 119,000 illegal immigrants were regularised. The figure increased at subsequent stages to 235,000 in 1990, 259,000 in 1996, 308,000 in 1998, and 700,000 in 2002. The point is that once one starts to regularise illegal immigrants, further illegal immigration is encouraged. That is why the Mayor of London is wrong-headed on this issue, and why no UK Government of whatever colour should ever consider an amnesty for illegal immigrants.

On the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley about the removal of illegal immigrants, in reply to a question that I asked the Minister in May 2009—he will not be able to dispute these statistics—he told me that 66,275 people were removed or departed voluntarily from the UK in 2008, and 63,365 in 2007. The estimate of the number of illegal immigrants in this country varies, and I would be interested to hear in the Minister’s closing remarks, as we have lots of time before the end of the debate, the Government’s latest estimate of the number of illegal immigrants still in the UK.

I have been able to ascertain from the figures that that number is somewhere between 600,000 and 750,000. With a removal rate of 66,000 a year, it will take the best part of a decade to remove all those people from this country. Indeed, the right hon. Member for Harrow, East (Mr. McNulty), the then Minister responsible for immigration, said on BBC 2’s “Newsnight” programme in May 2006 that it would take at least 10 years to clear the backlog of illegal immigrants in this country. My constituents want that to happen, and while I very much doubt the present Government’s determination to see it through, I would welcome the Minister’s comments about the strength of his determination to remove from our shores those who have entered our country illegally. The situation concerns not just my constituents in Kettering, but legal migrants to this country who have gone through all the hoops, who have done their best to abide by all the rules and who are furious at those who have crossed the seas to come to our country without permission.

I can sympathise with the view that we need to get rid of illegal immigrants, but the problem is how. I do not know of any country in the world that has a successful programme, other than a programme involving voluntary acquiescence on the part of those who might wish to go home with support. Would the hon. Gentleman agree that this is a massive undertaking?

It is difficult, but even this Government are making some progress on it. If they are removing 66,000 people a year, it shows that they are being at least a little bit effective in dealing with the issue. They can do it if they carry on at that rate, but they need to be determined. I hope that we will hear later that that is their intention.

There is another group of people in this country who are here illegally and in a very difficult situation. They have applied for asylum in this country and have, quite rightly, been turned down. However, they are, in effect, left in limbo. Often they are not able to go back to the countries from which they have come. Under our rules, we are not able to support them, and theirs is a dreadful existence. Any properly humanitarian approach to people crossing borders would include an effective policy to deal with them.

I do not know how many people fall into that category. I hope that the Minister will be able to tell us how many people have failed to secure asylum in this country—I am not disputing whether they have a right to be here—but are still here because they have nowhere else to go. We are not able to support those individuals, and we must come up with a policy to deal with their human needs.

Will my hon. Friend join me in paying tribute to the Red Cross, which does fantastic work to help people in that situation? In my constituency, we have had significant problems over the past three years with Darfuri asylum seekers and Zimbabweans. They are literally living on sofas and existing on tins of soup under the auspices of the Red Cross, which does its best. It simply is not good enough, in the fourth or fifth richest economy in the world, that people are in that situation while others are treated much more generously.

My hon. Friend is right. This is an example of how a tough immigration policy is fairer and kinder. If we make it clear to people that they cannot come into this country and claim asylum, if they have crossed many other safe countries before they get here, we will reduce the number of people who try to do so. I do not believe that we should offer asylum to people who have crossed other safe countries before they get to the UK.

I agree with that point—the hon. Gentleman is right. Under the European Union rules, of course, the Dublin agreement allows us to do exactly that. If somebody has claimed in Greece, for example, we can return them to Greece. However, does he recognise the difficulty involved if people claim to be Zimbabwean, for example, but it turns out that they are actually not Zimbabwean?

We need a system whereby people’s nationality and entry status are determined before they get here.

I agree with that instinct. The difficulty, of course, is the Geneva convention. Does the hon. Gentleman support the idea that we should reform it so that asylum claims are allowed only in the first few hours or days after arrival in this country?

My understanding is that the Geneva convention does not allow people to flit from one safe country to another. Clearly, the UK does not border any unsafe countries. Unless people fly directly to this country, by definition they must have crossed a safe country.

I agree with the intent, but how would the hon. Gentleman determine that? How would he know if somebody claiming asylum as a Zimbabwean were not Zimbabwean or whether they had arrived through an unknown route? How would he cope with that?

If somebody came on a cross-channel ferry from the north coast of France and claimed asylum in this country, that should not be permitted. They should be sent back across the channel.

The hon. Gentleman is saying that if somebody arrives on the shore of the UK and claims asylum they should be sent back to France. Is that compatible with the Geneva convention? Does he think that the Geneva convention needs reform?

That is compatible with the Geneva convention and that always used to be the case. The problem with not applying these rules correctly is that asylum seekers are encouraged to chance their arm to come to these shores. That is why the French are all too happy for these people to live on the north coast of France, chancing their arm and jumping on the nearest lorry or ferry to get here. It is a humanitarian catastrophe that is the result of a weak, feeble-minded immigration policy. The tougher a nation is on such issues, the fairer and kinder it is.

This is a good debate and the hon. Gentleman is giving way generously. I am not trying to score points; I am trying to get to the practicalities. I agree with his proposition that sometimes the kindest thing to do is to be tough. I have said that before and have been pilloried for saying it by members of the press who support the hon. Gentleman’s party. But the reality is that Calais is an example of the UK having tough border control. Does the hon. Gentleman not agree with that?

Well, yes, it is good that we are stopping people crossing the channel, but sadly lots are still crossing it. If they were not, there would not be people on the north coast of France. If we were stopping people crossing the channel illegally, there would not be a camp on the north coast of France. [Hon. Members: “There is not.”] Well, there are certainly lots of people hanging around the ports. Whether they are in a formal camp or not is of no particular concern to my constituents.

I agree with my hon. Friend that mostly the problem is that, across the world, Britain is regarded as having weakly defended borders. But there are also problems on the French side. I visited Calais fairly recently, where they have expensive pieces of kit that lorries have to drive through, with monitors that can see whether living bodies are inside. I asked the French operatives how effective they were and was told, “They’re very effective. We catch several hundred people every month.” I asked what happens to them and the operatives said that they are taken to the edge of the port and released to the police. I asked what the police then do with them and they said, “Oh, they let them go.” It is not surprising that they keep trying. I was told that 70 per cent. are caught, so people just keep going until they are in a particular week’s 30 per cent. That is what happens.

I do not know which international body is responsible for enforcing the Geneva convention—presumably it is the United Nations. The Secretary-General of the UN ought to have a word with the President of France about why so many people are being left in limbo in that country.

I can see why people want to come to our shores: we are an English-speaking nation and we are prosperous. But my constituents are concerned that, at a time when we are sending our young men and women to die in Afghanistan in defence of ours and other people’s freedoms, refugees are making their way halfway across the world to claim asylum in this country from the very country that we are trying to sort out.

My hon. Friend is right about people’s motivation and why they might want to come to Britain, but would he add to his list another motivation, which is that many of them know that if they get here the chances of their ever being removed are slim? Once they are in they are in, which is why they want to get to the UK.

My hon. Friend is right. One of the big magnets is London. It may surprise lots of people to learn that London is the biggest city in Europe and the most cosmopolitan city in the world. Some 40 per cent. of the population in Greater London were born overseas. It is a huge magnet for illegal immigration. There are many good things about the diverse population in our capital city, but there are many bad things as well, one of which is the large number of illegal immigrants here who attract further illegal immigrants from other countries.

It is a disgrace to the European Union that so many refugees from across the world are making their way across countries in the EU to try to claim asylum in the UK.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman’s point: the pull factor is a real problem. Diaspora communities attract people. Illegal operatives and agents charge money and promise people things. However, France has more asylum claims than the UK does. This is a global or a western problem, not just a UK problem. I think that the hon. Gentleman agrees with that point.

I am not particularly concerned about how many asylum claims France has. It needs to speak to its European partners about that. But clearly there is a problem with the external border of the EU if so many are coming in in the first place.

Britain is almost the last country that people can get to, apart from the Republic of Ireland, if they are coming from Africa or Asia, and they will have had to cross so many other safe countries before they get here. So in a way France’s problem is a bit like ours, and the EU countries closer to the external border on the east and the south need to do more about it. I strongly suspect that Spain, through the Canaries, Italy, Malta, Greece and other countries are not being tough enough on the people coming across the Mediterranean.

The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. In fact, within the EU the Italians are criticised the most for being the toughest.

That is not a complaint that I would make, because lots of people who pass through Italy clearly end up on our shores.

Will my hon. Friend give me some information? Is not the point that if people come to this country, there are no circumstances in which they can claim asylum legally, except for those who have come in a boat from an unknown source? Nobody else who comes can legally claim asylum.

That is an important point. I should say, factually—for information, not to make a point—that until 2006 17 per cent. of asylum claims within the EU member states were duplicate claims: people had claimed in Greece and Ireland, for example, or France and Germany. The Dublin agreement and Dublin II allow us to return people to the country of first claim. The problem with that is that it could be argued that it encourages routes. The truth is that there are different routes within the EU. For example, Germany is a destination for people from some colonial countries, as are Denmark, Sweden, the UK and France, so this is a European Union problem. But I respect that point.

I am grateful to the Minister for that most helpful intervention.

Perhaps I should bring us back on track. Although asylum is an important issue for all hon. Members and our constituents, the number of asylum claims is small compared with immigration as a whole. I believe that asylum claims are now running at a rate of about 30,000 a year, which is only 10 per cent. of net foreign migration. The big problem in this country is legal immigration, which brings us back to the population projections of 70 million.

I understand that a migrant now arrives on our shores every minute. We must build a new home every six minutes for new migrants. Immigration will add 7 million to the population of England in the next 15 to 20 years, which is seven times the population of Birmingham. Immigration directly added a million people to the UK’s population in the years 2003 to 2007. There was a net inflow of 2.3 million people to the UK between 1991 and 2006, and 8 per cent. came from the new east European members of the EU.

I differ from my party in not agreeing with the free movement of people across EU borders. Effectively, we have, by agreement of our Government, uncontrolled immigration within the EU. The Government told us that there would be 13,000 new arrivals from the new entrant eastern European EU countries, but the figure was approaching 1 million at its peak—perhaps the Minister will confirm what the figure was—which was a world apart from the 13,000 that we were told about, and it has placed huge strain on local infrastructure.

My hon. Friend touches on an important point about EU migration. Is it not a disgrace that the Government took four years to establish a Migration Impact Forum to look at the impact of migration on housing, policing, the health service and education, when dozens of local authorities, including my own in Peterborough, were advising them that they simply could not discharge their responsibilities with regard to those public services?

My hon. Friend is right—it is an absolute disgrace. The issue has been completely mismanaged. While other major EU countries took up their rights to defer migration from the new EU entrant countries, Britain deliberately did not. That was a major policy error, given the difference between the Government’s estimate of 13,000 and the 1 million people who actually came here.

The hon. Gentleman argued 10 minutes ago that Spain had to give an amnesty because of the large numbers of immigrants. What is his point?

My point was that Spain gave an amnesty to illegal immigrants who were already in the country but it at least had the good sense to block new arrivals from the new east European entrant countries, while Britain—almost alone—did not. There will be frightening consequences for this country should Turkey become a member of the EU and should the UK Government at the time not defer the arrival into this country of what could be millions of Turkish people.

I have nothing against Polish people, people from other east European countries or people from Turkey, but this country simply cannot cope with the number of people arriving here all at one time. An article in the Daily Mail on 22 December said that more than one immigrant a minute is registering with a GP for free health care. It said:

“Analysis of NHS research shows that 605,000 people who arrived from overseas registered with a doctor in England and Wales last year—up by 50 per cent. in only seven years.

Campaigners say this places a significant ‘strain’ on services and could force patients to wait longer for appointments and treatment.

While the number of GPs has increased over the past seven years it has not kept pace with the increase in registrations.”

That is causing genuine problems for well-meaning GPs, who are having to spend far longer on consultant episodes with new patients, often because of language difficulties. They are having to draw diagrams to explain medical conditions because they cannot converse in English with patients.

On policing, half the people processed through the custody suite at Thorpe Wood police station in Peterborough do not speak English. It takes an enormous amount of time to process people whose first language is Lithuanian or Polish, and that has a massive impact on front-line policing. Does my hon. Friend, like me, also deprecate the fact that the Government specifically opted out of the sharing of criminal records, which seven other EU countries introduced post-2004? The Government set their face against that, which means that our law enforcement agencies have their hands tied behind their back. [Interruption.] I am glad that the Minister thinks that is amusing.

That is an important point, but I simply reflect on the fact that the hon. Gentleman’s local authority and others in his part of the country lobbied me to increase the seasonal agricultural workers scheme.

Well, I had a debate in this hall—it happened to be with Conservative Members, but they were genuinely representing their constituents—on how to cope with the skills shortage. I do not deny the important points that the hon. Gentleman makes about the impact of migration, but the Migration Impact Forum was set up after representations from areas such as his.

There have been lots of problems as a result of lots of people from eastern European coming here all at once. One example involves motor vehicles. Someone who drives their motor car over to this country from Poland is allowed to run it on the roads for six months before being required to take it for an MOT to ensure that it meets British standards. As far as I can tell from questions that I have asked in the House, there is no effective monitoring of the time that people take to put their cars through an MOT. I strongly suspect that tens of thousands of effectively illegal motor vehicles from eastern Europe, which have not had the required MOT, are being driven on British streets. That is just one example of the problem. If we had a controlled migration system, we could have tackled the issue in a sensible and controlled way. Given that we effectively flung open our borders to all and sundry from eastern Europe, however, the danger posed by vehicles on British roads has increased.

The Government are not taking the population projections of up to 70 million seriously; indeed, as we have heard today, they do not believe them. However, all sorts of statistics show the effect on our country. The Department for Transport’s 2008 road transport forecast predicts a one-third increase in vehicle traffic by 2025. Quite reasonably, I asked the Minister of State, Department for Transport, how much of that increase was driven by unacceptably high levels of immigration. His reply on the Floor of the House was:

“I have seen lots of tenuous causal links, although not one involving immigration”—[Official Report, 25 June 2009; Vol. 494, c. 932.]

If important Departments of State such as the Department for Transport are not taking the impact of immigration seriously, the country will be heading for the buffers. We already know that our roads are far too congested. On many routes on our rail network, there is often only standing room at peak times. The idea that our roads can absorb a one-third increase in traffic by 2025 fills me with absolute horror—I have no idea how on earth this country will absorb that traffic. If the 70 million estimate is wrong—if it is on the downside, and the number is actually higher—we are heading for even more trouble.

Immigration is an important concern for my constituents, as I am sure it is for many constituents around the country. Those of us who express concerns about immigration are not racist and we will have our say because it is important that the issue is taken up by mainstream politicians; if it is not, the extremists will have their day.

I very much support the efforts of the all-party group on balanced migration, because we must tackle the issue of net immigration. We must cut it by 75 per cent., from 168,000 a year to 40,000 a year. The Government should have an explicit and reasoned target for net immigration, as recommended by the House of Lords, and they should adjust their immigration policies in line with that objective.

That mention of the House of Lords brings me to the economic benefit of immigration. In a major report in April 2008, the House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee said,

“we have found no evidence for the argument, made by the Government, business and many others, that net immigration—immigration minus emigration—generates significant economic benefits for the existing UK population…The overall fiscal impact of immigration is likely to be small, though this masks significant variations across different immigrant groups.”

I simply do not accept the Government’s argument that immigration is of net economic benefit to our country. I forecast that there will be grave problems for England and the United Kingdom unless this Government or the next Government take balanced migration seriously. If they do not, we will be heading for an unsustainable population of 70 million.

In that case, I shall do my best to share the time equitably.

As for the concerns of the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone) and those expressed by his constituents when he meets them on the doorstep, the situation in Solihull is very similar. In Solihull, as in Kettering, the number of ethnic minority people is low—about 8 per cent. However, the perception in this country is damaging. Many people whom I speak to on the doorstep see the country as full—bursting to the seams, with immigrants coming and taking jobs and social housing and pushing the indigenous whites to the back of the queue for health, housing and other services. We ignore that perception at our peril. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that that is the elephant in the room.

We cannot ignore the perceptions of the people of the United Kingdom. Much of what they believe is not factually accurate. Tabloid newspapers—I name and shame the Daily Mail—feed on people’s worst fears and paint a picture that is so exaggerated that the vast majority of people in Parliament could not, I am sure, recognise it. However, it is a real fear, and so we must address it and do whatever is necessary to reassure the British people that that is not the situation. We must address the real concerns, many of which the hon. Gentleman has outlined today.

We have had quite a discussion about Europe. More British people work in other parts of Europe than there are Europeans in the United Kingdom, but most people, certainly in the west midlands, where I come from, see immigrants as people with a different skin colour from theirs. In the west midlands, they are seen as mostly emanating from the Indian subcontinent. The Government have made a number of mistakes, some of which were outlined by the hon. Gentleman, but the first was made by a Conservative Government, when the then Mrs. Thatcher abolished exit checks. That situation was not redressed by the Labour Government. How can we know how many people we have here when we do not count them out? The hon. Gentleman mentioned the prediction of 52,000 people coming over four years when the EU eastern European borders were opened. The actual figure was 766,000. I wonder whether that was the worst Government forecast in history. [Interruption.] It must be close.

Many areas have been left without resources. That has fuelled the sense of resentment of indigenous white people, and we need to deal with that where resources are scarce. We need to look at where the people are going and whether those are the appropriate places for them. We need to reintroduce exit checks, first and foremost, and to know who is actually here. We need hard-headed assessments of need in different regions and different parts of the economy. In the south, there is not even enough water, but areas such as Scotland need more migrants. We would propose a points system to match the need with the area. New migrants should be permitted to settle only in the appropriate areas, as opposed to congregating in areas such as Sparkhill in Birmingham, where it is difficult even to see a white face as one goes through.

We also need to reassert control over our borders, with a national border force with police powers of arrest. We should not join the EU open borders scheme, but we should co-operate on cross-border crime across the EU. We need more employment checks on rogue employers. In nearly 12 years up to 2008, there were only 114 such prosecutions, and certainty of detection in all areas of crime is the highest guarantee of compliance with the law. Often, the lack not of rules, but of enforcement causes disregard of the rules and laws of this country. Immigrants must tolerate and respect British values, which is why a reduction in the availability of language lessons is a short-sighted and mean-spirited action by the Government. The numbers were reduced by 39 per cent. between 2005-06 and 2006-07.

The Conservative policy of annual immigration limits is not, however, the answer, because economies are flexible and needs vary in unplanned ways. If the set level was reached, would the Conservatives block Robinho from joining Manchester City?

I hear mutterings from a sedentary position that that might not be such a bad thing.

Would the Conservatives stop Japanese sushi chefs from coming over, bringing their skills and contributing to the diversity of the British restaurant industry? An amnesty for illegal immigrants, as proposed by Boris Johnson, is not the answer either, and the hon. Member for Kettering has already said that it has been tried in southern Europe and it merely encourages more migrants to come. The Liberal Democrats would instead propose a tough, earned route to citizenship, only for those who have been here 10 years, who make amends through community service and who speak English. They would be given a work permit for two years before citizenship was awarded.

The Government’s plan to deport all illegals—the median number estimated in a London School of Economics study was 720,000—would cost £8 billion. We cannot afford that sort of figure in these times. The difficulties of implementation have already been discussed at length. I wonder whether the Minister can give us a more sensible plan, because, my goodness me, we need it.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone) on securing the debate. I agree with him on at least one point: we should certainly not be scared of discussing this matter. It is not to anyone’s benefit to pretend that it is not an issue. We need to discuss the benefits and disbenefits of immigration in an open and frank manner, because we will all benefit from that and it will help to put down the extremist parties who want to use it to their advantage.

What is important about the debate is the way in which we conduct it and the tone that we use. A couple of comments made by hon. Members fell into the category of being unhelpful in tone, such as the remark by the hon. Member for Kettering that we have flung open our borders to all and sundry. He cannot substantiate that statement, and it is clear that we have not thrown them open to all and sundry. The hon. Member for Peterborough (Mr. Jackson) referred to the fact that half the people in police custody in his area do not speak English. That might be something that he can substantiate statistically, or it could be a throwaway comment with no factual basis.

I am happy to disabuse the hon. Gentleman of the notion that I made up that fact. It is contained in a periodical report by the Cambridgeshire constabulary as part of its ongoing campaign for better funding from the Government to deal with these issues—it is a matter of public record.

I welcome the fact that I have given the hon. Gentleman the opportunity to confirm that he can prove that point. However, I am afraid that the hon. Member for Kettering cannot prove that we have opened our borders to all and sundry.

We could get into a long discussion about that. Presumably, “all and sundry” would apply to people from all over the world, not just to the Polish people to whom the hon. Gentleman refers. My point is that we must be careful about the terms and tone that we use so that we have an open and frank debate that is based on fact, rather than people’s perceptions—or, occasionally, their prejudices.

Immigration is clearly an issue, however. We have heard lots of statistics, but it would be useful to cite other figures in this debate—perhaps the Minister will refer to them. We often believe that immigration is a problem for the UK alone, but it would be interesting if the Minister referred, for example, to the number of asylum seekers, refugees and illegal immigrants in South Africa, Chad and Kenya.

I accept that, but it is helpful to have such facts and figures in the public domain so that the British public can appreciate that immigration is an issue across the world and not just something that the UK—the fourth richest country in the world—has to deal with. It is often something that very poor countries have to deal with, to a much greater extent and at much greater cost than we do.

My hon. Friend the Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt) spoke about Britons who work in the EU, and there are more Britons living abroad than there are foreigners living in the United Kingdom. One in 10 British nationals lives abroad for part of or all the year—that is 6 million people, including about 1 million pensioners. When debating whether there should be tighter restrictions in the EU, for example, or whether we are being too generous, perhaps we should talk to Spanish politicians about how generous the Spaniards are towards those British pensioners who retire to the Costa del Sol and use the country’s excellent health services. Clearly, there is a quid pro quo. The UK receives many immigrants from other EU countries, which puts pressure on our system. Equally, however, there are other European Union countries that are not as enamoured as we feel that they should be about receiving British citizens who make use of their services. This cuts both ways, so it would be useful to have some of those facts in this debate.

Public perception is obviously that immigration is an issue. A recent poll found that more than 60 per cent. of the population believed that there were too many immigrants living in Britain. What can we do to address that? A degree of incompetence and underinvestment in the system has threatened the historically progressive approach that we in this country have had to immigration. It is not the Labour party that is responsible for that, but rather parties or Governments of the past. Before I was elected in 1997, there was a Conservative Government. I remember seeing asylum seekers in my surgery who had been trying to get their cases dealt with for eight, nine or 10 years. There is a historical legacy on immigration and asylum that recent Governments have failed to address.

I am fortunate in that my hon. Friend has outlined all the Liberal Democrat policies that have been proposed to tackle problems involving immigration, such as exit controls, a national border force and a regional points-based system. The only initiative that she did not mention was that of ensuring that employers pay more for permits to employ immigrant workers coming to the UK, so that that money can be used to train British workers to do the jobs that those immigrants have taken.

Before I conclude, I will touch briefly on the issue of amnesty. There is clearly a split within the Conservative party on that issue. Research conducted by Boris Johnson identified that there were about 750,000 irregular migrants in London. It is our view that under certain strictly controlled circumstances, as outlined by my hon. Friend, there is a case for dealing with those people in a compassionate way. How many Labour and Conservative Members have campaigned publically in their local papers in support of families in their constituencies who might have been in an irregular position but perhaps have children at local schools? Perhaps an exception should be made in such circumstances. Perhaps an amnesty could apply to a particular individual or family. We must be compassionate if there are strict controls in place, such as a 10-year period, no criminal record, the ability to speak English and so on.

I shall conclude on that point to allow the official Opposition spokesman to make his remarks. I believe that it is possible to have a fair and firm immigration policy that is beneficial to the country as a whole, and we are moving slowly in that direction. We should not be afraid of saying that immigration provides benefits to the UK, providing that it takes place in a controlled manner.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) for sitting down a little early. As he mentioned, a lot has been said today, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone) on securing this debate on what we all agree is an important topic. I believe—as I know my hon. Friend believes—that the country needs a significant change in policy.

I would like to correct one factual error. Things have been said with which some of us agree and others disagree, but the factual error was made when the hon. Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt) repeated the Government’s canard that all exit controls were taken off by the Conservative Government. In fact, the main exit controls were taken off in 1998 by the current Government. Some controls were taken off in 1994, but the final abolition of exit controls was in 1998 under this Government. I know that the Minister dislikes me pointing out that fact, but I feel the need to do so.

A lot of the good, detailed debate between my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering and the Minister attempted to establish what lies at the root of the projection of a population of 70 million in 20 years’ time. At the root of that projection lies the sheer scale of the rate of change in our population over the past decade. The current Government’s immigration policy has seen the largest and most sustained rise in immigration in the UK’s history. There has been a fivefold increase in the 10 years between 1997—when this Government came to power—and 2007. Even after that, our most recent figures show that 512,000 people came to the UK as immigrants in the year ending December 2008. That is a pretty small change from the 527,000 from the year ending December 2007. As my hon. Friend pointed out, the sheer scale of those numbers puts pressure on the public services. We have heard about GPs, police and housing, which are vital public services that lie at the core of what many people—particularly the most disadvantaged—demand from the political system. When people feel that they are not getting a decent service in those essential public services, they are turned off from mainstream politics, and that is what lies at the root of the problems. It is about the scale of change.

It is also worth noting that grants of settlement—those who are staying here permanently—rose by 19 per cent. between 2007 and 2008 from just under 125,000 to 149,000. That suggests that the pressure on public resources imposed by these high immigration numbers will be permanent. The problem with the solution that the Minister is no doubt about to commend to us—the points-based system—is that it does not work without other measures, which need to be introduced, not least because the immigration system itself is still in chaos.

Over the years, we have seen a series of Home Office scandals. The latest is the student visa scandal. For many years, the Minister’s predecessors—I will exempt him from this because he has taken some action, but for many years the Government ignored warnings about abuse of the student visa system, and the consequence was tens of thousands of bogus students in the UK and hundreds of unregulated colleges providing student visas but little education. That has been extremely dangerous, as we have seen recently, but it has also been a significant contributor to the collapse of public confidence in our immigration system.

What does my hon. Friend make of the comments of Andrew Neather, the former speechwriter to the former Prime Minister, Tony Blair? Andrew Neather let the cat out of the bag in the media a few weeks ago by saying that the policy of uncontrolled immigration was in fact a systematic and pre-planned policy to teach the right a lesson, rather than some accident that happened to this Government.

As my hon. Friend can imagine, I was fascinated by those comments. I do not know whether the long-term really serious policy failure by this Government was a result of a cock-up—I normally subscribe to cock-up rather than conspiracy theories—or whether, as Mr. Neather said, it was a conspiracy from the start. Only those who were there at the time can answer that. Either way, it has been a disaster for this country. To some extent, it is interesting historically, but in the time available, I do not particularly want to go into the history, not least because, bringing this right up to date, the current Home Secretary is the first in a long line of Labour Home Secretaries to begin to show welcome signs of admitting that we have had a disastrous decade in immigration policy. He says:

“I accept that governments of both persuasions, including this one, have been maladroit”—

good word—

“in their handling of this issue”.

In an interview with the New Statesman, he described the Conservative party as having a

“decent, centre-ground debate on immigration”

and he said that debate on a migration limit was “legitimate”. That is the first time any Labour Home Secretary has admitted that.

I urge the Minister today, in this new phase of the Government groping towards an honest assessment of their immigration policy, to go further and admit openly that significant mistakes—really serious mistakes—have been made in the past 10 years on immigration.

There are those who argue that simply the act of having a big national debate about immigration will somehow solve the problem of political extremism. I do not agree, because I think that what is needed to lance this boil is a change in policy, so that the British people can see that immigration is once again under control and therefore not a source of significant worry to many of them.

The history of the past 60 years tells us that that is possible. Immigration has moved up and down the league table of political salience. In eras such as the 1980s and ’90s, when broadly speaking it was under control, it was not seen as a difficult and contentious issue at the top of the political agenda in the way it certainly is now and it certainly was in the ’60s and ’70s, so we should not despair about the impossibility of having a successful immigration policy. This country has within living memory had successful immigration policies. What is clear is that we cannot go on like this. We need a change in immigration policy, and this is the year for change, so let me set out what a Conservative Government will do if we are given the chance.

We believe that Britain can benefit from immigration, from attracting the brightest and the best from around the world to this country, but we do not think that we benefit from uncontrolled immigration. We want to see net migration running at the levels of the 1990s—tens of thousands, rather than the hundreds of thousands that we have had in recent years—and we have developed a range of policies to enable us to achieve that. Those include: placing an annual limit on non-EU economic migration; preventing illegal immigration through the creation of a national border police force—I was delighted to be reminded that the Liberal Democrats support that—and reducing the numbers of what are called family reunions through an English language requirement before people come to this country to get married.

Let me briefly run through each area of policy, because they will all be needed to reduce the numbers and establish control. I shall start with legal economic migration. That area of policy has several key elements. As I said, we need to set an annual limit on non-EU immigration according to labour market needs. We should impose transitional arrangements on any new EU entrants.

If my hon. Friend will forgive me, I have only a few more minutes.

We are not being wise after the event. The Conservative party said to the Government before the A8 countries joined the EU that we should have transitional arrangements, just as all the other big western European economies did at the time. The Germans, the French and the Spanish established transitional arrangements. The result of that was of course that far more people came to this country, because this was the only labour market opened to them.

This is outside the scope of this debate, but of course we need to reform our welfare system and skills training for British workers, because if we are to limit, in particular, unskilled people coming to this country, we need to ensure that at all levels the skills necessary in the British work force are there in a way that they are not at the moment. I am sorry; I cannot leave my old friend looking forlorn, so I shall give way to him.

I intended to ask my hon. Friend about another issue—immigration from the EU. Although we have to provide for those who wish to work here, does he accept that some people are hanging around and trying to find work beyond the 31 days to which they are supposed to restrict themselves?

I dare say that some are. There are a number of problems and there is clearly a wider issue of benefit claiming across borders within the EU, which is done by British citizens as well. I recognise that that is a problem, but what we can control is the numbers coming from outside the EU and we can have the transitional arrangements within the EU, which in terms of that economic migration are what are needed to bring us down to levels that people will find acceptable.

As has been said by many, we need to be much better at stopping illegal immigration as well, so we would set up a border police force that would not only crack down on organised immigration crime but, in particular, enforce laws on illegal employment. One of the often unsaid reasons why Britain is such a magnet for illegal immigration is that around the world, it is believed that it is easier to get and keep an illegal job in this country than it is in most other western European countries—and the reason why people believe that is that it is true. We are not good enough at cracking down on illegal employment, and one of the roles of a border police force would be to do precisely that.

The force would also have the extremely important job of combating more effectively than we do now the modern slave trade that is human trafficking. I am conscious that the Government have taken action on that. There is nothing between us on that. We all want to be more effective at fighting it.

We also need to do better at promoting integration among those who come here to settle. Again, we have a range of proposals. We would introduce an English language requirement to ensure better integration. We would want to tighten the family reunion rules. Again, that is outside the narrow scope of this debate, but we think that devolving power and funding to local authorities will enable them to take more decisions about their local communities. That will allow them to identify much more effectively the individual problems of integration that many hon. Members have mentioned.

The biggest of the measures will be the English language test. In its interim report, the Government’s own commission on integration and cohesion stated:

“The most commonly identified barrier to ‘being English’ in our polling was not speaking English—with 60 per cent. of respondents identifying language as a key issue.”

Figures show that not having proficiency in English results in lower wages and higher chances of being unemployed, and that deprivation tends to go from generation to generation. Everyone coming to this country should espouse the core values of our society. We will have an English language test for spouses to ensure that only those with a reasonable command of English can come here to get married.

There are measures we need to take on economic migration, on illegal immigration and on cohesion, but above all, we need to get control of the numbers to reassure people. I hope that the measures I have briefly set out reassure my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering and others that a Conservative Government would make significant radical changes to how this country deals with immigration, with the aim of establishing better controls and greater confidence in the system, thereby capturing the economic, as well as the social, benefits of immigration, while reducing pressures on our public services, which too often cause tension between communities.

In commending my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering for securing this debate, I say that getting immigration right is one of the hugely important tasks facing any incoming Government after the next election.

Thank you for your chairmanship of this extremely important debate, Mr. Cummings. Congratulations to the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone) on securing the debate. Its title, “Immigration Control”, filled me with horror because it covers such a broad range of issues, but the hon. Gentleman has been very specific. I am grateful to hon. Members for the way in which the debate has been conducted.

Let me say from the start that I have never said that anybody who raises the issue of immigration should be accused of racism. My primary strategic objective when I took this job was to separate the debate on immigration from ethnicity, and I told the Prime Minister that. The issue has bedevilled this country for 30 or 40 years, but I believe that we have achieved that separation. I say that clearly and on a non-partisan basis.

The hon. Member for Kettering raised important points that I want to address. The hon. Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt) said that this is a real issue on doorsteps. I do not see this as something about which we have to persuade the public that they are wrong. As the hon. Lady said, we have to give them the facts and put forward our arguments.

I want to start with the matter of the 70 million. I have said on the record, and have been backed by the Home Secretary and the Prime Minister, that our policies are reducing net migration and that is a deliberate policy. Let us establish where the 70 million figure comes from. It is an extrapolation of net population, which is different from net migration. Population is a function of birth and death rates, as well as net migration. In the Office for National Statistics’s own words, it is not a forecast. It is an extrapolation from previous years’ net migration. The years chosen were the calendar years 2006, 2007 and 2008, which saw the significant increase in migration to this country from accession countries, particularly Poland—what the hon. Member for Kettering was complaining about. It is unfair to extrapolate from the experience of those three years and say that that is a realistic forecast of what our population will be in 2030. Incidentally, the ONS put that figure back from 2029 as the prospect of it diminishes.

Governments cannot control birth and death rates, and I do not think that the hon. Gentleman was suggesting that they should. That is not his policy; he is against the nanny state and, as far as I know, he is against euthanasia and compulsory birth control. It is very revealing that part of the increase in net population is a result of the birth rate of previous immigrants. What is his policy to deal with that? History shows that the birth rate among migrant communities diminishes over the years. That has been true of Irish migrants and other populations.

I do not accept that the 70 million is a forecast. I got into a lot of hot water a year ago when I controversially said in my interview in The Times that Government policy was that we would not allow the population to reach 70 million, as far as it is possible to prevent that through migration policies. I accept and agree with the hon. Gentleman’s premise but I disagree with him on the validity of his fears.

As the Home Secretary pointed out, previous population projections—extrapolations, not forecasts—have been wholly wrong. In 1965, the population in 2000 was anticipated to be 76 million, based on an extrapolation from previous periods. In fact, attempts by Governments of both persuasions to control migration, such as the 1961 Bill that led to the Commonwealth Immigrants Act 1962, the Immigration Act 1971 and the British Nationality Act 1981, have led to increases in net migration because of the “closing down sale” phenomena.

In the brief time that I have available I shall turn to policy issues. I think there is much more agreement among the parties than the public debate perhaps recognises. The hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) spoke very well for the Liberal Democrats, as did the hon. Member for Solihull. He accepted the case for controlled migration within the context of the net benefit to our country of immigrants. I agree with him on that point, as I believe does the hon. Member for Kettering, and I do not think there is much between us but I disagree with the idea of a cap. We know, following the debate at the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufacturer and Commerce, that the figure would be in the tens of thousands. I think that the cap is only on the tier 1 and tier 2; that arbitrary figure is not on general migration.

We should bear in mind that the ONS definition of a migrant is somebody who stays in this country for 12 months or more. Interestingly, the biggest single group of immigrants into this country in 2008, according to the ONS definition, were returning British people—85,000, which is more than any other nationality. They are defined as immigrants. Within that figure are overseas students. Many Members, on both sides of the House, put me under intense pressure not to restrict tier 4 immigration. I hope that those Members support the hon. Gentleman’s policy but I suspect that they will not.

It is not a simple issue. A key policy point in the press release from the cross-party group on balanced migration is that we need to end the assumed automatic jump from presence in our country to settlement. That is a key policy issue that the Government and the official Opposition support, and it is what we are intent on doing. The points-based system is a huge shift forward in achieving that. There have been teething troubles, which I recognise.

On the marriage proposals and the English language test, I was one of the first politicians to suggest that English language teaching rather than translation services should be the priority. I said that in 2001 and I was pilloried by all sides and accused of being a racist. There is now a competition to see how much we can spend on English language lessons. The 39 per cent. reduction mentioned by the hon. Member for Solihull is on NVQ work-related English language teaching; the overall budget for English language teaching has gone up.

The hon. Member for Ashford (Damian Green) mentioned marriage policy. We accept that there should be a basic English language requirement. He and I debated that in the Borders, Citizenship and Immigration Bill Committee. The issue of student visas has also been raised. We have introduced tier 4 and closed around 2,000 bogus colleges, but there is a cat and mouse game, which we are addressing.

My basic point in response to the debate, and I thank the hon. Member for Kettering for securing it, is that controlled migration is necessary, beneficial to the country and provides the public with the reassurance that the hon. Member for Solihull was concerned about, but the devil is in the detail. The measures that we have put forward have brought about the biggest shake-up in migration controls since the exit control changes in 1994 or 1997. The fact is that this country has never had as strong migration controls at its borders as it has now. That is recognised in the debate in the United States, where the call from all sides of Congress and the Senate is, “Let’s do what the Brits are doing.” That is good advice, Mr. Cummings.

West Yorkshire Police (Funding)

It is a pleasure, Mr. Cummings, to serve under your watchful eye.

Hon. Members are often accused of special pleading in such debates, but I believe that what I am about to say does not amount to special pleading. All that I ask my hon. Friend the Minister and his Home Office colleagues to do is to fund West Yorkshire to the extent suggested by their funding formula. Progress made with local policing in West Yorkshire, particularly in my constituency, has been phenomenal during my time as an MP, which goes back to 1997.

At one time—my right hon. Friend the right hon. Member for Leeds, West (John Battle) will echo this—our contact with constituents was much more to do with the unsatisfactory responses and attitude of our local police force than with the crimes being suffered by the community. Today, although challenges remain and criticisms continue, they are few and far between compared with those of the earlier period. The no-can-do mentality that characterised the previous era has been almost totally reversed.

It is a tribute to Colin Cramphorn, the late chief constable of West Yorkshire, and his extremely able successor, Sir Norman Bettison, that the development of neighbourhood policing has been driven forward so effectively. They worked in concert with the police authority, under the chairmanship of Mark Burns-Williamson. It is always difficult when naming names because one invariably misses some, but many individuals have helped to translate neighbourhood policing into a reality. They include people such as Chief Superintendent Ian Whitehouse, the divisional commander, and his two predecessors, Howard Crowther and Ian Levitt. I also single out some of the neighbourhood police team inspectors—Tom Horner, Simon Hepworth, Richard Coldwell and Richard Cawkwell—and their immediate superiors, Chief Inspectors Paul Money and Elizabeth Belton. I am sure that I have missed some names, but I have mentioned the most recent incumbents and those with whom I work.

Substantial real-terms increases in Government funding for the police have played a huge part in West Yorkshire’s success, and we have seen tremendous improvements in my constituency. Over the past seven years or so, acquisitive crime has fallen by something like 35 per cent. That includes burglary and robbery, and crimes such as the theft of motor vehicles for which the figures are even more impressive. Although that kind of improvement cannot go on for ever, we must provide the resources that the West Yorkshire police need to keep a lid on crime, in which they have so far been most successful. However, resources on their own are not enough. They have to be used effectively, and change has to be transmitted from the top down to the local level, with every police officer playing his or her role in the constant fight against crime, to meet the expectations of the local community.

My hon. Friend the Minister will be aware that the Audit Commission recently praised West Yorkshire police for their ability to provide a policing service that offers good value for money to the local people. It will not come as a surprise, therefore, that I want to concentrate on the police funding formula. The Government have already given a clear indication that the settlement for 2010-11 will remain unchanged. Although it is obviously to be welcomed that West Yorkshire will receive an increase of 3.3 per cent., the force is still almost £18 million short of what it would have received if it had been fully funded under the raw funding formula.

The Government’s revamping of the police funding formula recognises the chronic underfunding to which areas such as West Yorkshire had been subjected under Tory Governments. As I said, there is no denying that extra funding for West Yorkshire has allowed the number of police officers to rise to record levels. I have already mentioned the beneficial effects of that in my constituency and that of my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, West. However, that clearly does not change the fact that West Yorkshire is still about £18 million adrift of what it should have received under the Government’s own assessment of its needs.

I appreciate that one reason for the Government’s decision is that they need to mitigate the impact on those authorities that receive more than is suggested under the funding formula. Unfortunately, the dampening of their pain also dampens West Yorkshire police’s ability to continue meeting the challenges—and meeting the expectations not only of the local communities but of the Home Department. Those expectations are quite legitimate.

Other factors constrain West Yorkshire and prevent it from escaping that financial impasse. For instance, there are obviously wide variations in council tax between the different police authority areas. West Yorkshire’s precept is now the third lowest in the country. If my hon. Friend and his ministerial colleagues are not already doing so, I urge them to apply pressure to get some flexibility in the capping process.

The capping system currently focuses more on increases in precept and in overall council taxation than on the individual budget increases and precepts of authorities such as West Yorkshire. That is particularly important in West Yorkshire, because it has such a low gearing. I understand that an increase of 5 per cent. in the West Yorkshire precept increases the overall council tax in places such as Leeds by only 0.5 per cent.

Another concern in West Yorkshire is the potential vulnerability of specific grant funding, which is exacerbated by the overall failure to deliver resources through the funding formula. The loss of specific grant, or funding from external partners such as local authorities for police community support officers, would obviously have a tremendous impact on the force’s capacity to continue imposing downward pressure on crime and meeting community expectations.

I understand that a few posts remain at risk and that no commitment has been given to continue funding. They include 60 detention officer posts paid for by the Home Office and three senior police officer posts funded by the Ministry of Justice. I hope that my hon. Friend can give me some assurance, if not today then perhaps in writing, that that funding is safe.

There are also problems on the capital funding front. They reflect the difficult economic circumstances and the state of public finances. I understand that an announcement is due to be made later this month about capital funding. The provisional figures are £3 million for supported capital expenditure and £5.6 million of capital grant, but the fear is that will not be confirmed. The difficulty is that those figures have been injected into the planning process. Any shortfall will result in the revenue budget being raised to pay for the revenue consequences of meeting capital expenditure, yet a lot of that capital expenditure is much needed, and it will create savings over time. I would be grateful to my hon. Friend if he commented on that factor.

I thank my hon. Friend for giving way—and thank you, Mr. Cummings, for allowing me to intervene. My hon. Friend has rightly been praising the work of the police force in our neighbourhood, but he, too, deserves some credit for his consistent and indefatigable campaigning for public services, particularly the police, transport and fire services.

Will my hon. Friend join me in suggesting that the pioneering restorative justice project in Leeds, which operates out of the Belle Vue police centre and has great leadership, is proving to be a brilliantly successful scheme that could be pushed out across the country? We do not want to see its revenue funding undercut.

I thank my right hon. Friend and neighbour for his comments. I agree wholeheartedly with what he said and thank him for his accolade. I have been accused by some people of having been “bobbied”, which is a reference to those who at one time were hostile to the police and who have now been taken very gently under their wings. If that was put to any of the officers whom I mentioned earlier, they would smile because they know what a robust relationship we have. I have always believed in credit being given where credit is due.

The crux of the problem is that West Yorkshire is not receiving the funding it should under the funding formula, that various aspects of its funding are under some specific threat and that many of the priority developments that it is taking to respond to Government initiatives and the demands of the local community increasingly have to be funded from savings. Although the authority is efficient and has proved its ability to make savings, that is not in the long term a sustainable way of meeting the funding challenges, especially on the revenue front.

The authority was conscious of the difficult economic climate when it settled its budget for 2009-10, and agreed a 2.99 per cent. increase in the police precept, which allowed for an increase in spending of 3.38 per cent. overall. However, two thirds of that is already locked in by the pay award that was negotiated over a three-year period. Savings have been identified from the base budget to divert into priority areas, such as the automatic number plate recognition team, the road death investigation team and additional resources for Every Child Matters and force intelligence. The result was as we would want it—the force strength remained virtually unchanged. Some of that was achieved by leaving vacancies open for much longer than is operationally desirable, which I regard as the cracks starting to appear in the revenue budget.

The preliminary estimate for the budget that is required in the next financial year is an increase of 4.3 per cent. Again, more than half of that is locked in by pay awards that have already been agreed. The increase is also required to meet the full-year consequences of some of the developments to which I referred a minute or so ago. It is also needed for further developments, such as the replacement of body armour, making up for the loss of interest on investments resulting from reductions in interest rates and the revenue implications of capital expenditure.

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

On resuming—

As I was saying in this soap opera before I was so rudely interrupted, the Government have already announced that they expect council tax increases to be below 3 per cent. for 2010-11. The West Yorkshire force must therefore make savings of £10 million to cope with those expected increases and the challenge provided by all the other measures that I have referred to.

The Chancellor’s pre-Budget report on 9 November 2009 announced that sufficient funding will be made available in the years up to 2012-13 to enable police authorities to maintain the current number of warranted police officers, police community support officers and other staff who exercise police powers. However, no further details were given at that stage, and I would like my hon. Friend the Minister, either today or in due course, to indicate that some clearer guidance will be given to authorities, such as West Yorkshire, to enable them to plan to meet the challenge ahead.

Initial forecasts of the anticipated budget shortfalls in 2011-12 and 2012-13 in West Yorkshire, assuming a 1 per cent. pay award, which I suspect will itself be a vexed question, are £16 million and £26 million respectively. Those forecasts also assume the continuation of the specific funding to which I referred earlier. Again, we need far more detail about the funding mechanisms and how those sorts of targets will be reached than we received in the Chancellor’s statement, so that effective planning can take place.

I want to end my contribution by referring to two revenue-funding avenues that would help to mitigate the major problems that the West Yorkshire force faces—problems that I have outlined—because the Government cannot find overnight the resources required to make up the gap between what West Yorkshire currently receives and what it should receive under the funding formula. One of those avenues is to introduce a statutory power for police authorities and police forces to charge for the full cost of policing commercial events, such as sporting events and music festivals. I cannot see any justification for council tax payers to subsidise profit-making organisations in the way that they do currently.

The other avenue relates to revenue raised by the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002, or POCA. The West Yorkshire force has made significant advances in raising money from POCA. Each division within the force now has a specialist team dealing with POCA and the economic crime unit within the force is also undergoing structural and process changes.

Receipts from POCA obviously fluctuate enormously as a result of delays in bringing cases to court and delays in the judicial process itself, and also because of the fact that during the economic downturn assets that are seized, such as houses, have lost a lot of their value. To its credit, the West Yorkshire force has been running a campaign called, “Why should they?”, which is an attempt to raise awareness of the use of POCA both internally within the force and among the general public, as a way of encouraging people to report crime or people who are believed to be criminals through Crimestoppers. That campaign has had a great deal of success.

The notion of recovering moneys from criminals through POCA is obviously very popular. I understand that a recent Ipsos MORI survey found that, despite relatively little knowledge about the mechanics of POCA among the people surveyed, there was a lot of support for the idea of criminals’ assets being seized. In fact, asset seizure was the third most popular option selected, with 86 per cent. of people who responded saying that it was a good idea. It came third only behind the usual demands for a greater police presence on the streets and longer sentences for criminals.

However, I must make a point about the incentivisation fund through which POCA operates. It is quite right that those agencies that are at the coal face, such as the police, the Crown Prosecution Service and Her Majesty’s Courts Service, and working to make POCA operate effectively, should receive the proceeds from POCA. But it is far from clear to me—perhaps my hon. Friend the Minister can enlighten me—why 50 per cent. of the proceeds of POCA should be retained by the Treasury, and it is also unclear exactly who or what that division of the money is supposed to incentivise. There is an overwhelming case, in terms of fairness and providing an incentive, for at least some and ideally all of the money that is retained by the Treasury to be disbursed to the three agencies involved in POCA. Obviously, such a change would benefit all police authorities, including West Yorkshire.

That is really the end of my journey through the trials and tribulations of West Yorkshire police funding and how the particular constraints that I referred to will undermine the West Yorkshire force’s continuing attempts to address the challenges that are put before it, not only by the Government but by people such as myself and local communities.

The West Yorkshire force has made huge progress. It obviously uses its resources extremely well and it deserves a fairer allocation of money through the funding formula. However, if that is not possible—we all know the reasons why that is not instantly possible—then at least the force should be able to enjoy more sympathetic treatment in relation to some of the other problems that I have referred to. I am looking forward to hearing my hon. Friend the Minister’s response to those points.

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

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Mr. Truswell) on securing the debate and the way in which his contribution recognised, in a very balanced way, both the progress that has been made in recent years by police forces, including the West Yorkshire force, and the challenges that those forces still face. I welcome the opportunity to discuss the issues that he raised.

As my hon. Friend would expect, I want to refer to some of the more general issues before dealing specifically with the points that he raised. West Yorkshire police received a 37 per cent. increase in real terms in total Government grants between 1997-98 and 2009-10, which means an actual increase of £194 million. In addition, the provisional police settlement for 2010-11 allocates £250.5 million in general grants to West Yorkshire, which is an increase of 3.3 per cent., or £11.3 million over and above the previous year. That is well above the minimum 2.5 per cent. increase guaranteed to all forces, and I will return in a moment to the point about the damping mechanism in the funding formula. Alongside the general grant, the West Yorkshire force will receive a range of other Government funding totalling £30.8 million in 2010-11. In addition, it will receive a capital allocation, to which I shall also return shortly.

In 2009-10, West Yorkshire police, along with other forces in the region, will benefit from an additional £564,000 in specific grants relating to collaborative delivery of protective services. The facts show that there have been continuous increases in funding, and we are protecting the increases in 2010-11, despite the present challenging economic and financial conditions.

With the growth in funding, there has also been growth in police officer numbers. The number of police officers in the West Yorkshire force has increased by 578 since 1997, which is an 11 per cent. increase. That has resulted not only in a force that has nearly 5,800 officers, but in a ratio of officers to members of the population in the area that is above the average for England and Wales.

Alongside the increase in officer numbers, police staff numbers have also been rising since 1997. That increase has given chief constables more flexibility to support officers on the front line and to ensure that they spend their time protecting their community where they can and making a difference. West Yorkshire has deployed police community support officers since 2002-03 and received more than £50 million towards their salary costs. Neighbourhood policing is key to delivering a responsive police service that deals with crime and antisocial behaviour, which affects areas up and down the country, including my hon. Friend’s constituency.

The evidence suggests that West Yorkshire police has used its additional resources well. Between 2002-03 and 2008-09, total crime in West Yorkshire declined by an impressive 32.7 per cent. That is a positive reflection of the good work done by the force and the resources provided to support it. It is essential that greater numbers of officers and staff at the front line link directly to increased capacity and productivity in delivering for the public. West Yorkshire, like all other forces, must keep up the good work

I will discuss national funding and then come to my hon. Friend’s point about the funding formula. The funding increase for West Yorkshire sits against a background of year-on-year grant increases—60 per cent. to date—for all police forces since 1997-98. That is an increase in real terms of almost 20 per cent. in the grants that police have to spend.

The provisional police funding settlement of November last year honoured our commitment to increase the revenue settlement by a further £259 million in 2010-11, notwithstanding the challenging economic times. We have also honoured our commitment to fund counter-terrorism. Our commitment to providing such levels of funding reinforces the fact that policing and reducing crime are a top priority, but I accept that police forces will always be concerned about whether they are getting a fair and adequate share of funding.

My hon. Friend referred to funded posts. If he will allow me, I will ask the Minister for Policing, Crime and Counter-Terrorism to write to him with a full answer about funding the post to which he referred. On the wider issue of guidance, it might be necessary to allow and help police authorities to meet funding challenges, which will continue despite the revenue funding committed in the pre-Budget report.

On funding for such things as football and music events, opportunities have arisen in recent years to raise funding through such channels, but a consultation on the funding formula is planned for this summer. That will be a good opportunity for police authorities to come up with innovative ideas for additional funding sources.

On asset recovery, we are considering incentivising the distribution of assets recovered. I congratulate West Yorkshire on playing a proactive role and making the matter a priority. The public want to ensure that criminals do not get away with it, but there is also a view, to which I subscribe, that many criminals fear losing their assets almost as much as being sent to prison, if not more. That affects their status within the criminal world and the society in which they live. We want to ensure, as the public want us to do, that they do not get away with it.

My hon. Friend raised the issue of the 50 per cent. share for the Treasury. That is actually a mechanism by which 50 per cent. comes to the Home Office and goes into its budget. The Home Office relies on that to fund policing, for example. I assure him that it is not squirreled away or used for other purposes. I am aware of concerns that the incentivisation in place is not necessarily appropriate. We are reviewing it, and I hope that police forces will be able to benefit more from the good work that they do.

On that point, I think that most people, irrespective of whether they live in West Yorkshire, believe that if the police, the Crown Prosecution Service and the Court Service have recovered assets in an area, the money should go back into the area, both to fund the capacity to raise even more, and to reward the people there for their efforts.

Yes, of course, but in many ways that is what happens. In many cases, the money that comes into the Home Office as part of that 50 per cent. goes to finance officers in the first place, and the officers then collect assets. We want them to collect more. Particularly in a recession, even if cars and houses are seized, income can fall, if we are not careful, and we want to ensure that that scheme is properly incentivised.

There is also a community cash back scheme, which we ran successfully this year with £4 million taken from assets recovered. We allowed local communities to bid for the money so that something physical could be seen in their areas as a result of recovering assets. I assure my hon. Friend that we take his points seriously and I will certainly reflect on his remarks.

On the funding formula, I assure my hon. Friend that I did not take what he said as special pleading. I took it as him standing up for his constituents, for which I applaud him, even though I cannot necessarily agree with what he asked us to do. The formula has been in development for many years and is under constant review. It will go out for consultation in the summer of 2010, and I hope that he and his police authority will make the points that he made on behalf of his area and that changes can be made, if necessary.

My hon. Friend also raised the issue of damping. I understand that some police force areas, such as his, are adversely affected by damping; I assure him that mine—Northumbria—benefits from it. It is not just about applying rules but about whether the rules are right in the first place. To state the blindingly obvious, the pot remains the same size. If we change the funding formula and someone wins, someone else will lose. Damping ensures that nobody loses to the extent that it completely disrupts their activity.

The announcement on capital allocations was delayed until January, but I assure my hon. Friend that it was made today. Capital allocations for 2010-11 will be unchanged from those announced provisionally at the start of the comprehensive spending review period. That is good news for his area, which will receive £8.6 million and will not require decisions about capital and revenue funding to be made. The money will be there for capital funding and for front-line officers.

The pre-Budget report brought positive news for the future of police funding beyond 2010, as my hon. Friend acknowledged. There will be sufficient funding in 2012-13 to enable police authorities to maintain current numbers of warranted police officers and police community support officers. It is not our view that areas will need to increase their precept greatly. In fact, we believe that the 3 per cent. figure is accurate and necessary, not just because it allows the police to continue to be funded properly in their areas, but because it protects council tax payers in general. There is a balance to be struck, but I am sure that he will make a contribution by lobbying his community and local government to argue, when the time is necessary, the issues around council tax.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on what he has done throughout his time in this House. He has stood up for his constituents, especially by speaking about their safety and security. I hope that I have provided him with assurances on most of the points that he raised, and I will ask my right hon. Friend the Minister for Policing, Crime and Counter-Terrorism to write to him about any outstanding questions.

Multiple Births

Twins are nature’s original “buy one, get one free”. Occasionally, the special offer on a single transaction can be even greater: three or, more rarely, four for the price of one. Are twins double joy or double trouble? My personal experience is that the answer to both is yes, although “trouble” is better defined as cost and a double work load, particularly during infancy.

This debate is primarily about the educational consequences for families with twins or other multiple births. I am grateful to the Twins and Multiple Births Association—Tamba—which has assisted me with the statistical background to what can be a serious issue or series of issues for such families.

Parents of twins and other multiple birth children can do without the uncaring attitude that some schools and local authorities can take, although fortunately that was not the experience that my wife and I had in Colchester. Research by Tamba throughout the country discovered that about 200 sets of twins every year were allocated places at different schools against the wishes of their parents. There are frequent examples of schools ignoring parental choice by placing twins in separate classes when their parents wish them to be in the same class, or putting them in the same class when their parents want them to be in separate ones. I hope that this debate will lead to the Government introducing guidelines so that twins and other multiple birth children will always be allocated places in the same school, unless the parents choose otherwise. I hope also that parental choice will prevail in the allocation of places in classes.

The most recent high-profile twins to attract media attention were Jedward, the entertainment hopefuls on television’s “The X Factor”. Less well publicised was the birth on new year’s eve of the twin grandsons of the Duchess of Cornwall in London. Somehow, I do not think the parents of Louis and Gus will have the same experiences as many other parents of twins. The most significant multiple birth of recent years, in the UK at least, occurred as recently as Sunday 27 December, when Mrs. Lisa Kelly gave birth in Newcastle to quadruplet daughters—Heidi, Annabelle, Hannah and Jessica. Newspaper reports state that they are the first set of quads made up of two sets of identical twins born in this country. I congratulate the father, Mr. Sean Kelly, and mother on the safe arrival of their four baby daughters. I also congratulate the family of the Duchess of Cornwall and all other families blessed with multiple births over Christmas and the new year.

There is much joy at the birth of any child, or there should be. I have many fond memories of becoming a father for the first time—twice over. My wife went into hospital to have a baby and gave birth to two wonderful boys. Only when the first was born was it realised there was a second. That was nearly 42 years ago; the scanners used today would have shown that my wife was carrying twins.

About 10,000 sets of twins and 130 sets of triplets are born each year. Problems frequently experienced by multiple birth children include prematurity, speech and language delays, and physical, emotional and social immaturity. A recent survey of 939 parents of multiples, conducted by Dr. Erika Fraser for Tamba, looked at the educational needs and experiences of multiple birth children at pre-school, primary school and secondary school level, and at the additional challenges faced by the families of multiples when applying for schools.

Tamba works throughout the UK and has nearly 8,000 family members and 150 club members. The impetus for the survey was the growing number of parents who were asking for Tamba’s help because their twins who were about to begin primary school were being offered places at separate schools. Understandably, parents were concerned that sending their children to different schools was practically difficult and could cause serious emotional and developmental problems.

The findings of the survey suggest that around 200 sets of twins are offered places at different schools each year. Tamba’s meetings with local education authorities across England support that finding. I welcome the recommendations of the chief schools adjudicator on amending the admissions code to ensure that children from multiple births are allocated places together at primary school and that the list of “excepted pupils” in the class size regulations be extended to include them. I understand that the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families has accepted that recommendation and the further recommendation that all admission authorities should be required to consult on and publish arrangements for the admission of twins and children from multiple births. It would help parents and authorities if the Minister clarified the timetable for amending the code.

Tamba’s survey uncovered another troubling issue: primary school children being separated into different classrooms against their parents’ wishes. Each year, almost 2,000 multiple birth children who start at a primary school with two or more reception classes are split up without their parents having any input in the decision. A further 500 children are placed in the same classroom against their parents’ wishes.

Why is that issue important? In a number of cases, early enforced separation causes mental health problems for children. New research by King’s college London’s twins early development study, which is a national study of 2,232 twin children, found that twins aged five who were separated at the start of primary school had on average more emotional problems than non-separated twins, such as symptoms of withdrawal, depression, shyness and anxiety. The effects of early separation were still detectable at ages seven, 10 and 12—seven years later. The differences were consistent whether the twins’ emotional problems were rated by the parent, teacher or child. Not all twins were affected in the same way, however, and some might benefit from early separation. It is therefore important that schools treat multiples on a case-by-case basis and consult with parents about what would be best.

The problem of splitting twins was highlighted recently in The Guardian. It reported the case of Darras Hall first school near Newcastle, which has a policy on the matter. Angela Parkinson has identical six-year-old boys. as well as two other sets of twins, who were automatically split up when they started at the school. She said:

“I went to see the reception class teacher and she said in their experience twins developed better (when split), but she didn’t seem to have much evidence to back it up, and I have to say I wasn’t convinced. All the same we had no choice.”

She added:

“We are happy with the school in almost every other way, but I think my twins would have been better kept together and I think schools should listen to parents’ views on that.”

Tamba confirms that that case is typical and the charity has supported dozens of families who wished to keep their children together or separate them across different classes.

One of the most concerning cases, which has been ongoing for many months, is of twin boys who were upset because they were split up against their will. Those arrangements, which were imposed on the family, are making school an unpleasant experience. The parents, supported by expert opinion, pleaded with the head teacher on a number of occasions to alter the arrangements, but their pleas were met with a stubborn refusal to act. The situation was avoidable, but instead the family has been forced into the sad situation of considering legal action against the school to ensure that their children’s best interests are finally met.

In the absence of national guidance, Tamba expects many more schools to face similar legal challenges. I note from the answer to my recent parliamentary question that the Government believe:

“It is up to individual schools to determine which classes children from multiple births should be placed in.”—[Official Report, 2 December 2009; Vol. 501, c. 836W.]

I would welcome confirmation from the Minister that he agrees with me that such decisions are best made in consultation with parents. I would also welcome insight into what further action might be considered to avoid parents being forced to take legal action against schools, should a dispute arise.

Another significant issue is the uncertainty faced by parents of premature children who wish to delay school entry by a year because the birth date would put the child in a school year 12 months ahead of when they should have started. Tamba estimates that about half of all multiple births are premature. In about 20 per cent. of those cases, babies who should have arrived after September arrive earlier—some as early as June. About 2,000 multiples who are born prematurely effectively end up starting school in the wrong school year. If the parents of those children were allowed to correct their age in line with their gestation, they would not have to enter school until they were almost five. Currently, most go into reception when, had they arrived at nine months’ gestation, they would have been three years old. By starting school a year too soon, such children spend their school life trying to keep up with children of up to a year older. That problem comes in addition to the developmental delay that is common in premature babies, and very common in those born before 32 weeks. Many multiples also have speech and language delays as a result of having less one-to-one time with their parents.

The survey found all sorts of problems resulting from premature children starting school too early, such as speech problems, tiredness, learning and behaviour difficulties, toilet accidents, difficulties getting themselves changed for PE, being academically behind their peers, and being emotionally and socially immature. Parents of those born in the wrong school year were almost twice as likely to be worried about their children being educationally behind their peers and emotionally immature, and 64 per cent. of parents thought that they were too young when they started school. Those concerns are shared by Bliss, the premature baby charity. I welcome the recent consultation on improving the flexibility in deferring entry to school. Will the Minister confirm whether the Government intend to do the same for those who want to delay?

The survey found that young multiples have restricted access to play and educational opportunities. In particular, parents find it difficult to take their young multiples swimming, with 70 per cent. missing out. Other activities that many parents found unmanageable with only one set of eyes and hands included going to gym classes, playgrounds, soft play areas, baby massage classes and toddler groups that are spread across a number of rooms. Financial costs can also be prohibitive.

According to Professor Pat Preedy, a leading researcher into prematurity and multiples, it is vital for premature children—especially multiples—to move a lot as it aids their physical development. Play opportunities can improve learning and social interaction, and help to reduce the isolation of mothers and prevent postnatal depression, which research shows is twice as likely for mothers of multiples as for mothers of singletons.

The Government’s response to another of my parliamentary questions suggested that the play strategy and Sport England’s swimming pool design guidance should enable everyone to swim and play without difficulty. Clearly, that is not happening. I would therefore welcome further clarification of how the Government intend to address the difficulties that many larger families have in taking part in simple activities, such as learning to swim or going to the playground.

I am sure that the Minister will agree it is important that all families that want their children to attend pre-school or other early-years settings should be able to ensure that that happens. However, the survey found that a significant number of families were unable to do so because of cost or because places were not available. The answer to another of my recent parliamentary questions is clear as far as it goes:

“Local authorities have a duty to ensure there is sufficient provision in their area, but this does not necessarily ensure that the specific needs and preferences of families can always be met.”—[Official Report, 1 December 2009; Vol. 501, c. 706W.]

I would welcome the Minister’s confirmation of how the problem that some multiple birth families have in accessing places at the same setting can be addressed. It appears that the lack of accessible and affordable child care provision might have an impact on the number of mothers who work and the level of household income.

Tamba has commissioned a study to show how family finances are affected by multiple births and the results are expected in the coming months. It is being conducted by Professor Steven McKay, a leading social scientist who is based at Birmingham university, and it analyses a number of nationwide surveys that include large samples of children. The study will look at factors such as incomes, receipt of benefits, living standards and patterns of work. Some analysis has already taken place and early findings suggest that having a multiple birth is associated with a slightly increased work effort by fathers, but rather decreased rates of work among mothers, even though they tend to be older, which should cushion the impact.

Although rather more than half—56 per cent.—of all mothers are in paid work, that figure drops to 47 per cent. among those with twins or higher order births. Those mothers are also working about two hours less each week. Consequently, these families as a whole appear to have a lower household income and experience greater material deprivation. Sadly, there is also evidence that mothers with twins are more likely to be divorced or separated, although fewer are single and with no experience of marriage. Financial pressures are often regarded as a significant reason for couples to separate. Tamba has long campaigned for greater practical state support for these families, including the payment of additional benefits to recognise the additional social and financial strain caused by having a multiple birth. I would welcome the Minister’s comments on that.

Remus and Romulus are arguably the most famous twins in history, but for the House of Commons, our history makers are twin sisters: the Minister for Pensions and the Ageing Society, the hon. Member for Wallasey (Angela Eagle), and the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, the hon. Member for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle), who I believe are the only pair of twins to have served in the House. For the record, research by Tamba shows that there are eight right hon. and hon. Members who are fathers of twins: myself, the right hon. Members for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry) and for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley), the hon. Members for Blyth Valley (Mr. Campbell), for Falkirk (Mr. Joyce), for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps) and for Finchley and Golders Green (Dr. Vis), and my hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion (Mark Williams). On behalf of all eight fathers, I thank our respective wives for giving us the special extra joy of giving birth to twins. Despite unfounded boasts that that might perhaps warrant claims for super-stud status, we all recognise that it is the mother, not the father, who determined the wonderful bonus of two children.

It is a pleasure to be in Westminster Hall under your chairmanship, Mr. Cummings, and to answer the debate initiated by the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell). I had forgotten that he was the father of twins and have never thought of him as a super-stud—I have never looked at him in that way before.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. It is another example of how he takes up and pursues with great determination and vigour causes in his own constituency—for example, he is doing so with a current campaign on school organisation in Colchester. He also takes up many other issues in Colchester, as well as matters that are not always in the headlines, but are none the less extremely important and of national significance and concern. We should reflect on the fact that he takes great pride in pursuing national issues, as well as issues in his own constituency.

May I also take this opportunity to congratulate Tamba on the work that it does, particularly the work of its chief executive, Keith Reed, and the people who work with him? They represent many families across the country and campaign with zeal in pursuing the various causes that the hon. Gentleman has mentioned. I shall go through my formal remarks and, no doubt, if I fail to answer any of the points that he has raised, he will intervene.

This is an important topic, which the Department takes very seriously, because when we said in our children’s plan that we want every child to get a good education, we meant every child. That, of course, includes families with twins and children of multiple births. I am sure that many hon. Members would agree that raising a child can prove challenging, including when finding the right local school to meet their needs. So I understand the concerns of parents who naturally wish to see their children attend school together, and I know that although twins, triplets and other multiple births bring much joy, they often bring many challenges for parents, both financially and emotionally. I assure hon. Members that we have sought to improve the process for parents, and we will continue doing so for these families.

As the hon. Gentleman has stated, some parents have had difficulty in trying to get their multiple birth children into the same school. However, let me make it clear that we will support multiple birth families throughout those important years of schooling, and we will ensure that those families are properly considered in local admissions and that their children can attend the same school wherever possible.

I want to take stock of the improvements made thus far. Over the past two years, we have strengthened the local admissions process and have put in place requirements to ensure that it is as fair as it can be, takes into account the views of parents and others and has clear lines of accountability, so that concerns can be properly addressed. The school admissions code, which came into force in February last year, places children and families at the heart of this fairer system. The schools adjudicator has much greater powers to hear about and decide upon local disputes and can strike out or rewrite unfair policies and practices.

Schools and local authorities must now set admissions arrangements following extensive consultation with the parents and communities that they serve. Local authorities in particular have a decisive role in ensuring access to state schools is fair and must report annually on their area to the chief adjudicator. Local admissions forums have a duty to review how effective local systems are at working to the benefit of children and parents. Where families do not get their first preference of school, local authorities will work towards their next preference, to offer a place at the nearest school with an available place. Children who live further than the statutory walking distance are entitled to free home-to-school transport. As a result of a stronger admissions code, we now have one of the fairest admission systems that we have ever had.

On multiple birth families and the issues that hon. Gentleman raised, I understand very well parents’ passion in seeking the same school for their children. The admissions code already makes the process fairer and states:

“Families must be at the heart of the admissions system and the Government expects the admission authorities for primary schools to take the needs of parents with young children into account in deciding which oversubscription criteria will be used. The admission authorities for primary schools should ensure in their oversubscription criteria that siblings (including twins, triplets or children from other multiple births) can attend the same primary school”.

I have no doubt that schools and local authorities understand that need, and many work towards fulfilling it. However, we want to make things as easy as possible for parents of every set of twins or of children from multiple births who seek a state school place.

Early last year, there was growing concern from parents whose twins were about to start their education in two separate schools, and who understandably felt left out of the process. Following that, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families asked the chief schools adjudicator to publish a report on the problem. On the 2 November 2009, he published his report, which found that, although understandably traumatic for some parents, the problem was relatively rare and only occurred when children from multiple births tied for the last available place at a local school. However, the chief adjudicator recommended that admission authorities should consult upon and publish arrangements for the admission of twins and children from multiple births and that the list of excepted pupils in the class size regulations should be extended to include those children.

I am extremely grateful to the Minister for his helpful and positive response. Would he give as firm a guarantee as he can that, from this September, we will never again hear of a local education authority placing twins or children of multiple births in separate schools against the preferences of the parents? There will be occasions on which parents want them to go to separate schools, but when they wish their twins or triplets to go to the same school, can he give a categorical assurance that every local education authority in the country will be told that they must find places at a school for those twins or triplets?

To give that the statutory force that the hon. Gentleman seeks would require a revision to the admissions code that the schools’ adjudicator recommended. One of the questions the hon. Gentleman asked me, which I will answer in a moment, was when we expect that new admissions code to be in force. Before answering that, I will say that he knows—this is why it is sometimes important to read things into the record—that I hope that what he has described will be the case in September 2010, or indeed whenever young children are admitted to primary schools prior to the new regulations coming into force. To be clear, that will not have statutory force until the admissions code is amended. The fact that I have said that on the record means, I hope, that some local authorities, when coming to those decisions having read those remarks, will take the sort of decision that he and I would want.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State considered carefully and accepted in full both recommendations from the chief adjudicator. He will consult publicly on those at the next opportunity to amend the admissions code. Our expectation is that the new admissions code will be in force in early 2011, provided all goes well with the consultation. Those important changes will seek to ensure that children from multiple-birth families are routinely included in local policy making and that their parents have a say in the allocation of schools. I was particularly pleased to note that Mr. Keith Reed, the chief executive of Tamba, warmly welcomed the measures that we intend to take.

I would like to address the hon. Gentleman’s important point about respecting parents’ wishes on what class their children should be placed in. Wherever possible, schools should take into account parents’ wishes about where children should be placed, and certainly the expectation is that good practice would demand that the school consults the parents on the placement of their children. I do not know whether every parent of every twin would want their children placed in the same class, but certainly the important point the hon. Gentleman made was about consultation with parents, which is absolutely right and would be good practice in most schools.

The point that I would like to emphasise is that some parents wish their twins to be in the same class and that others wish them to be in different classes. Whatever their choice, I hope that parental choice would prevail, because Tamba’s evidence indicates that teachers and head teachers are setting themselves up as authorities on multiple births, which they are not.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the rights of the parents and the expression of their wishes should be paramount. In the vast majority of cases where schools have consulted with parents who wish their children to be together, they have been placed together, and I am saying that that would be my hope and expectation. The issue for us is that framing that in legislation is difficult. However, reading into the record the fact that that is our expectation and certainly an example of good practice, which one would expect a good school to follow, means that schools will be expected to consult with parents about what they think is appropriate for their children. That would be expected to happen as a matter of course on a range of issues, and clearly it should also happen for an issue as important as which class their sons or daughters are in.

The hon. Gentleman raised several other issues about the challenges for multiple-birth families, but we have addressed his main concerns with regard to schools. The Government have tried to reflect some of the additional financial burdens as well as the joy that such families have. We have tried to do that through the child tax credit system, and there are obviously the additional child benefits that are available for each child. One would also expect local authorities to ensure that access to their facilities was such that no family was disadvantaged. That often varies across the country, but the Government’s expectation is that local authorities would properly provide for every family within their community, whatever a family’s needs. For example, in some areas, discounts are available to families to ensure that they have access to facilities and services.

To conclude, I thank the hon. Gentleman again for raising this important issue. We want to ensure that every child has access to a good school in their local area, without any barriers stopping them from doing so. That is one of the Government’s priorities and certainly one of mine. The measures that we intend to take via the admissions code to formalise support for families with twins, triplets or other multiple-birth children will help more families get the best for their children. As the hon. Gentleman said, every child deserves a good education. We will continue to work with local authorities, schools and families to ensure that they can access it on a fair basis and, in so doing, fully realise their potential.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting adjourned.