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Westminster Hall

Volume 508: debated on Tuesday 30 March 2010

Westminster Hall

Tuesday 30 March 2010

[Mr. Eric Illsley in the Chair]

Speaker’s Conference on Parliamentary Representation

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

I am pleased to have secured this debate. We had hoped to have a debate about the important work of the Speaker’s Conference on the Floor of the House at some stage, because Speakers’ Conferences are rare events, but that was not to be. I had hoped for a two and a half hour debate last Thursday, but that was not to be either. So I am absolutely delighted that we have been given the opportunity to spend an hour and a half this morning discussing the findings and consequences of the Speaker’s Conference.

I want to cover four different areas. First, I shall give some context to the Speaker’s Conference—why it was set up and the reasons behind it. Secondly, I want to talk about the findings of the report, some of which were surprising, and some of which were less so. We hope that some of the findings will educate people in the future. The third area that I would like to consider is the response of various organisations, such as the political parties and the House authorities, and how they anticipate taking forward some of our recommendations. Those responses to our report have now been published. Fourthly, I would like to spend some time looking to the future and considering how we might carry on the work of the Speaker’s Conference. Although a Speaker’s Conference only lasts until the end of the Parliament in which it is set up, I hope that our report’s recommendations will have long-lasting effects and will potentially change the future composition of our House of Commons. In the time I have available, I hope I can cover all those areas.

As I said, Speakers’ Conferences rarely happen. They are often set up at the behest of the Prime Minister of the day, which was true in this case, and they usually consider constitutional issues that will have long-lasting repercussions. Cross-party support might therefore be needed to put recommendations in place. It is no use just one political party or Government accepting the findings of a Speaker’s Conference report; it must have cross-party support. We were very conscious that some of the previous Speakers’ Conferences had come up with radical proposals. We did not think that we would suggest something as radical as votes for women, as one Speaker’s Conference did at the turn of the 20th century, or votes for 18-year-olds, which was one of the findings of a Speaker’s Conference in the 1960s. However, we hoped that the findings and recommendations of our piece of work would have the same kind of long-lasting effects on representation.

The Speaker’s Conference was set up to consider the composition of the House of Commons and to try to find solutions to rectify the disparity in the representation of some groups of people. For example, only 19 per cent. of Members of the House of Commons are women, despite the fact that women make up 52 per cent. of the population, and small numbers of Members are from ethnic minorities, despite the fact that an increasing proportion of the population comes from ethnic minorities. We also considered why there were so few disabled Members, when we know that there is a large disabled population in society. Those were the main areas of our remit, but the phrase “and associated matters” also allowed us to consider other groups that are perhaps under-represented, particularly those from the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.

We took evidence from across the whole country. We were keen to get out of the Westminster bubble, and did not want to be seen simply as a parliamentary delegation descending from on high. We were also very keen to engage with the people we met, and to listen to what they had to say, so that we could reflect those views in our recommendations. We took evidence in the Palace of Westminster itself, and I thank the leaders of the three main political parties, who gave evidence. Initially, they were not perhaps as tied into the process as we had hoped, but with a bit of persuasion, all three turned up, and we are grateful that they did.

One of the things that we became acutely aware of fairly early on in our deliberations was that the gatekeepers to the process of deciding who ends up in the House of Commons is not Parliament or the public; it is the political parties. They make the decisions on who their candidates are, and it is only the candidates chosen by the political parties who are put before the electorate. The electorate then make a choice from that group of people. We knew that we needed to get some kind of buy-in from the leaders of the political parties, because we were acutely aware that if they did not think that the work of the Speaker’s Conference was important, nothing would change—as in previous years, when in many cases nothing much did change. I pay tribute to the three leaders; they did turn up and they acquitted themselves extremely well. All three demonstrated that they thought it important to have a diverse Parliament.

When the hon. Lady went out and about with the Speaker’s Conference, how did the public feel about the grip that the political parties have on candidate selection? Do the public perceive that as being the key to the whole issue? Do the public want primaries, so that the whole community can decide which candidates will stand? How does she think such a system would work?

I am conscious that the hon. Gentleman perhaps has a slightly different perspective on these matters from other people—I think he is standing as an independent at the next election. Interestingly, the general public often say that they want independents, and that they do not want the party political bickering. However, in reality, they find it very difficult to make their choice when independents are involved, because one thing that the political parties can do is provide a shorthand, in terms of a political philosophy. It is very difficult for an average constituent to know all the ins and outs of every candidate and the minutiae of their views, whereas the political parties, with their manifestos, create a shorthand that makes it easier for the public to make a choice.

In the report, we say that it is a challenge for the political parties to realise their own importance in the democratic process. They perhaps must revitalise themselves and consider how they can reform their processes, particularly their selection processes, to ensure that they address the kind of issues about the general public to which the hon. Gentleman referred. The general public want people whom they can trust, and they want to feel that they have been given a proper choice. What is most clear is that people want a diverse Parliament that reflects them. They do not want to turn on the TV, put on the Parliament channel and continually see a group of people who they think have nothing to do with their lives. That point certainly came out loud and clear from our work.

At this stage, I should say exactly how important it is to have a diverse Parliament. We are not advocating having more women, ethnic minorities and disabled people in Parliament just because that would be a good idea—of course it is a good idea, as it would be nice to have people from different backgrounds in Parliament—but because that is fundamental to our democracy. It is imperative that we have people from different backgrounds and with different life experiences and perspectives in Parliament. Not only must the Executive represent the diversity of British society today, but Parliament, if it is to do its job of scrutinising the Executive properly, must represent that diversity as well.

It is not good enough to say that just because someone has been elected by a diverse electorate they know all about the different aspects of their community and everything that is going on. Had my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer) or someone like her not been elected, I suspect that the issue of forced marriages might not have been given the thorough attention that she has given it, because of her particular perspective and the work she had done on that. We know that people from different backgrounds and from more diverse sections of society have different views on what is important or crucial when deciding on policy.

There are three main reasons for broadening representation in the House of Commons. First, it is a matter of justice. Anyone who is an elector in this country should be allowed to stand for Parliament, and there should be equality of opportunity, so that all people have an equal right to stand for election to this place, no matter what their background, disability, skin colour or gender. Secondly, as I have indicated, we think that a diverse House will make better decisions and will therefore be much more effective. Thirdly, broader representation would enhance the House’s legitimacy.

All those points are important in the light of what happened while we were taking evidence. We did not know whether our timing was particularly bad or particularly good, but as we were touring the country and taking evidence the expenses scandal blew up in all our faces. It was not something that we expected when we started our deliberations, and there is no doubt that it had an impact on the evidence we took. We saw how the standing of Westminster and the House of Commons in particular, and trust in the institution, were being eroded day by day, as more and more revelations came out. There was also a public clamour to get rid of us all, because there was a view that if we were all cleared out and a new lot came in, somehow everything would be different.

All that was happening as we took evidence. My view is that our timing was perhaps very good, because a large number of Members decided to stand down, giving us a chance to ensure that the new House of Commons is much more representative of the general population. Many candidates had already been chosen—I am not sure whether that was unfortunate or not—but there was still an opportunity to bring our recommendations to bear on the selection of a new cohort of MPs. We therefore rushed out an interim report that recommended that political parties should aim to redress in their late selection processes some of the inequalities that exist in the present system.

As we took evidence, it became clear that that would not necessarily happen without the buy-in of the political parties and their leaders. It would not happen by accident, as it had not done so in previous generations. It became clear from the political parties that had a mechanism for encouraging groups that had been under-represented that that certainly made a difference. The only direct reference in the report to a party’s policy was the reference to the Labour party’s use of all-women shortlists. There is no doubt that the use of all-women shortlists increases the number of women representatives by a proportion that it is not possible to achieve by other means.

One of the amendments that we hope will be made to the Equality Bill would oblige political parties to report their monitoring of their candidate list with regard to gender, ethnicity and, if the candidates declare them, disability and sexuality. By making the parties aware that they have to report on those matters, we hope they will pay more attention to them. The Conservative party is trying hard to increase its number of women candidates but has not used such mechanisms, whether all-women shortlists or others. Although the number of Conservative women Members in the next Parliament is likely to double or even triple, regardless of which party wins the election—we know that just from the number of Members standing down and the number of women candidates standing in safe seats—that will still be nowhere near the 50 per cent. of the new cohort needed to redress the historical imbalance, as they are starting from a low base. Although I pay tribute to the work the Conservatives have done to ensure that they have more women candidates, because they did not go down the route of having a mechanism that would redress the balance, their proportion of women in Parliament will still be short. The most we can possibly hope for is that in the next Parliament, the proportion of women will increase from 19 to 24 per cent., which is still a long way behind what is needed, even though the numbers will increase dramatically.

There is no doubt that the political parties have chosen more ethnic minority candidates. No Asian woman has ever been elected to Parliament, for example, and there is a pretty good chance that there will be more than one in the next Parliament. Again, we will fall far short of the numbers we would need to reflect society at large.

I want to concentrate more on disability, because we are still not sure that the next Parliament will be any different in that regard from previous Parliaments. As someone with a disability, I know that we are used to being almost 20 years behind everyone else on the equality agenda, although during the past 13 years that has changed dramatically under the Labour Government —we are possibly only five or six years behind everyone else, which might still be two Parliaments or more. There are real challenges concerning people with disabilities. Disability is no different from the other issue, so unless we address the supply side the candidates will not come forward.

We need to ensure that political parties, community organisations and anyone involved in politicising—with a small “p”—people or campaigning open their doors to disabled people, so that those with the prerequisite qualifications will put themselves forward for Parliament. It is still the case that someone will not be selected for a winnable or safe seat in Parliament unless they have some kind of background in community or political activism, because that is one of the key qualities that constituency parties look for when selecting candidates. They want to know that the person will be able to do the job of being an MP. The political parties have a responsibility in that regard, but so too do voluntary sector groups, and in a much wider sense. In fact, it is the responsibility of everyone to ensure that people with disabilities are not forgotten or sidelined, but are encouraged to be part of the mainstream in whatever the decision-making process or campaigning may be, or the area of work in which the organisation is involved.

Disabled people also have in-built disadvantages. Generally, they are proportionally less likely to be in higher paid jobs. One of the things we found—the amount varies from party to party but this applies across all the parties—is that becoming an MP is not a cheap process. It can cost a huge amount of money to get selected, and if the constituency the individual is hoping to be selected for is not local, travel can cost a great deal. For someone with a physical disability, travel may be even more expensive. If they do not drive but rely on taxis, the costs of trying to get selected could be completely prohibitive.

One of the things the disability charity Scope proposed, with which we agreed and have recommended, is that there should be access to some kind of public life fund that would operate in the same way that Access to Work operates. It would make extra funds available to people with disabilities, to allow them to compete on an equal footing with those who do not have disabilities and thus, the extra expenses.

Another way in which disabled people have a disadvantage is that they are perhaps disproportionately put off even putting themselves forward for this place. I remember thinking that the last thing I, as a woman, wanted to be was an MP in Westminster. Why would I want to get involved in all that yah-boo politics? I have to say that once someone gets elected, they get caught up in it and really quite enjoy it, but that is how it is perceived from the outside.

The same can be true for disabled people in particular. They see this Victorian pile sitting along the River Thames and the stairs going into it, and they assume it is not particularly accessible, but that has changed. In the 13 years I have been in this place, the willingness of the House authorities to recognise that people with different abilities and disabilities should be welcome in this place—their whole attitude—has changed dramatically.

It is difficult to explain that to people who might want to put themselves forward. There will still be anxiety that perhaps adjustments will not be made. We have not had someone elected who uses British sign language, for example, so there are practical difficulties that would have to be ironed out.

Does my hon. Friend accept that role models are tremendously important, and that she herself, having slogged away for 13 years in this place, is the best role model imaginable for disabled people, particularly those with a mobility impairment? Every day she comes here, she shows that it can be done. People out there see that it can be done, and she is the one who has shown them that. She should be congratulated on that.

Modesty prevents me from responding. However, my hon. Friend has put her finger on something. My right hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Mrs. McGuire)—I hope she will not mind my saying this—qualifies as a disabled person under the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 because she is an insulin-dependent diabetic. She told me that she was at a hustings event for disability organisations, and one of our colleagues in this House did not imply but actually stated that he thought I was the only disabled person in this place. There are at present three of us who use wheelchairs to get around, so it was not that he had not noticed the invisible disabilities—he had not even noticed the visible disabilities. I am not sure what my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett) would have made of that.

It could be that we have been so successful in becoming integrated that people do not notice we have a disability. That would be great, but it is wishful thinking. That is part of the problem, and one of the issues. People who have an invisible disability are in a quandary as to whether to declare their disability. At present, we still equate the word “disability” with ill health and weakness. While those things are connected, it is difficult for people who have a hidden disability—I shall speak about mental health in a moment—to declare it. It is one of the problems they have.

Mental health is another issue on which the House of Commons puts out the wrong message. If someone is sectioned under section 141 of the Mental Health Act 1983, they lose their seat as a Member of Parliament. We had hoped to get an amendment through the House to repeal that section, but it will not be possible to do so before Parliament dissolves. It was interesting taking evidence, because we discovered that someone who was in a coma for six months could keep their job as an MP, but someone who was sectioned under the Act for six months could not. That sends out the wrong message, because it basically says that anyone with a mental health problem is not fit to be an MP.

To go back to the point I made at the beginning of my speech, it is imperative that we have people with different experiences in this place. We know that the proportion of people who have mental health episodes in their life is high; therefore, it would be useful to have people in this place who are willing to talk about their experiences and how they came through their problems. As with all health issues, a mental health disability is not necessarily permanent. It might be, but if someone has any kind of permanent disability or chronic condition, they learn how to cope and how to carry on. Those are the important things.

We asked the political parties to present the data they have been using in monitoring their candidates. From what we can gather, we are not sure that the next Parliament will have any more disabled people than this one. Of course, we do not know how many disabled people there are in this Parliament. We know of quite a number of people who have disabilities, as defined by the Disability Discrimination Act, that no one knows about, and that such people do not think of themselves as disabled. We still have a huge job to do to improve the representation of disabled people. I am conscious of the time, and I know that a couple of my colleagues wish to speak as well.

The next thing I want to discuss is the responses we received, including from the House authorities, to whom I pay tribute. I thought their response was very good. Their attitude has changed, and Parliament’s education department has improved in recent years. It does much more outreach, and one of the things we need to do—certainly on the supply side—is to enthuse people about politics and what we do in this place, so that they can become part of the political process, and, being part of the process, therefore be more likely to stand for Parliament. The three political parties have also responded, and the Government responded in the form of a Command Paper. All the organisations in question have taken the findings seriously.

Another area we are concerned about—perhaps this is where our timing was either good or bad—is the report published yesterday by the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority. If barriers to becoming an MP are built into how we remunerate MPs and how the expenses system works, we could make things worse. We have some concerns that what was published yesterday might act as a barrier to those who have caring responsibilities, whether for elderly relatives or young children.

I am still trying to absorb everything in the report. It recognises that an MP with a disability may have extra expenses, but the caring element for an MP with a child seems to end when the child is five. A Member who represents a Scottish constituency and who has a new baby will face a challenge when deciding where to send her children to school, and how to do her job as an MP. Both things are important, but the situation is difficult for someone with a young family.

The responses are there. The Speaker’s Conference ends when Parliament dissolves. I had thought that its work would finish when we published our report, but I discovered that it continues. My seat is marginal, and I do not know whether I will be re-elected—that is up to the electorate in Aberdeen, South—but having examined the issue, I realise how important it is. If I am re-elected, I will not let it lie, because responsibility for implementing the findings and recommendations is not just for this Parliament, nor even just for the next; it will be for future Parliaments. I hope that during the next Parliament we will make some progress, but it will be far short of what is necessary.

We probably came too late to the game. Our report was published only in January, fairly close to an election, and by that time many prospective parliamentary candidates had been selected, so we were not in a position to influence the political parties from the beginning of the selection process. That is why I am looking to the parties to ensure that this is not a one-election wonder and that, because they have made the right noises this time, they do not put the report on a shelf and forget it. We must start from the beginning of the new Parliament to engage young people, and to educate and develop the skills of the next generation of politicians.

We also have a huge job in restoring trust in politicians and Parliament, and in ensuring that political parties select their candidates for the election after the forthcoming one from a diverse background, so that they represent British society more thoroughly than at the moment, and will be part of the restoration of trust in Parliament. I hope that the political parties and the Front-Bench spokesmen here today will take that message on board. I hope they accept that the work of the Speaker’s Conference is as important as we believe it is, and that they will give a commitment today that the report will not sit on a shelf after the next election, but that it will become a working document and they will all take cognisance of it.

I have not prepared a speech, but I scribbled a few notes while my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, South (Miss Begg) was speaking. The hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) asked what feedback we received when we travelled around. I did not attend all the out-of-London hearings, but I went to Manchester, Cardiff and Leeds.

It was interesting that many of the people who gave evidence were from the voluntary sector—from the women’s institute, Soroptimist, Church organisations and so on. They were interested in what they were doing and saw nothing wrong with that, but we tried to explain that they should consider translating that desire to change society for the good into joining a political party, and trying to become a member of a local, district or parish council or a Member of Parliament. I tried to push the idea of joining a political party—not particularly the Labour party, but any party. Whenever I speak to people from Soroptimist, WIs and so on, as I do fairly frequently, I talk about the work of the Speaker’s Conference, and about them transferring their good work into another form. After all, politics is just a group of ideas. We join a political party because, by and large—but not entirely—we agree with what the party stands for.

The hon. Lady is touching on an important subject. Many people throughout the United Kingdom look on political parties and the House of Commons as irrelevant, except when they need a problem resolved or they are campaigning on an issue. They look on this place as being separate and distinct from, and irrelevant to, their ordinary working lives. Is it not part of our collective duty to try to make our activities here more relevant to the day-to-day lives of ordinary people?

I agree, and that is what we all tried to do when we went out into the sticks and talked to people.

The Speaker’s Conference was started by Speaker Martin. He has been given some hard knocks over the past year or so, so I want to put in a good word for him. The conference was his idea. Unfortunately for us, Speaker Bercow was already a member of the conference, so we lost a member but gained a sympathetic and understanding Speaker. I also thank Speaker Bercow for supporting us, although my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, South, has done all the donkey work throughout the year. It is a pity that we have not had more support from—dare I say it?—Conservative Members. Only one has been an assiduous attendee at our gatherings, and that has been appreciated.

My hon. Friend mentioned my work to oppose and try to stop forced marriages. I argued and argued for nine years, and there were times when that was difficult. I was called a racist and all sorts of things, despite the fact that everything I said was said to protect the most vulnerable members of the Pakistani community and, to some extent, the Bangladeshi community in my constituency. I was tarred with the usual racist brush, but I have three half-Indian grandchildren and one half-African step-grandchild, so I am hardly racist.

The Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Act 2007 went through Parliament because our party had so many women on our Benches—women who were prepared to argue that Government time should be made available for the Bill, although it took only a day and a half to go through all its stages, so time was not a huge problem. If there had not been so many women on the Labour Benches, the Act would not have got anywhere near the statute book, and we would not have made changes to immigration regulations to require people to be 21 or over if they are acting as sponsors, or entering the country as a spouse. In both cases, those changes were made because of women on our side of the House.

My hon. Friend should be congratulated on ensuring that the Act got on to the statute book. I have no doubt that that would not have happened without her campaigning. Does she agree that it is important not only to have many women on the Back Benches, who can see, from a different perspective, that an issue is more important than men might believe, but to have women Ministers, who can elbow and kick from inside the Government?

I certainly agree with my hon. Friend. My membership of the parliamentary committee of the parliamentary Labour party enabled me to push things in that committee with the able assistance of Cathy Ashton, who spoke on behalf of her colleagues in the House of Lords. We pushed the then Prime Minister and the then Leader of the House to find time to get the measure through.

Another measure that has not been greatly discussed came about because I am a woman MP. Mothers in my constituency had daughters who were being groomed for sex by some young men. As a result of that, and of me making a fuss, those women confronted the then Home Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett), and pushed him to make changes to the law so that in certain circumstances, hearsay evidence can be heard in court. That helped their case a great deal. Another change was to make the grooming of girls a criminal offence, because until I raised that issue, together with those women, who worked with me in my constituency, the grooming of girls was not an offence.

It is evident that, by setting that example, the hon. Lady is strengthening parliamentary representation, connecting people with Parliament, and showing people why Parliament needs a diverse set of MPs. That is relevant to the debate. While she was out and about, did she find that people had a desire to cut the size of Parliament from 657 MPs to 400, 450 or 500, depending on which party they support? I would like to cut the number to a smaller level. Did the hon. Lady get any feel for how that might affect the proportion of women in Parliament?

I am not sure that I follow that argument; the one thing does not necessary follow the other. I cannot remember anything being said at any time about reducing the number of MPs in Parliament, although perhaps my colleagues do. In my experience, we work a large number of hours, although it may be that at 70 I am finding it particularly hard. If we had fewer Members of Parliament, we would presumably have more work, but an MP’s job is already stressful with long hours—too long, I think. I would not take us further in that direction by reducing the number of MPs, and I am not sure how such a change would help to get more women into Parliament.

I want to touch on the issue of expenses. The sort of treatment that many of us in the House, particularly women, received from The Daily Telegraph and other newspapers has definitely put women off standing for election. Women know how hard those of us at the sharp end of things found the situation. I was eventually absolved and told that I had not done anything wrong, but I felt guilty for about four months, as if I were some sort of criminal. I think that it is more difficult for women to cope with that sort of situation than it is for men—I am not sure why, but that seems to be the case. I have talked to many young women from my constituency party and local Labour parties who said that although they might once have considered putting their names forward for selection, after what some MPs have been through, they felt that it was more difficult.

Similarly, the rules on how we claim and what we can claim for have become much narrower, as regards what we used to call London living costs. That will make it more difficult for women with families to enter Parliament, because they will need a flat that is big enough to allow children to visit during the school holidays—I am talking about women who have constituencies outside London. When my husband entered Parliament in 1974, John and Jane, my two kids, had to stay in the flagship of seedy hotels, the Stanley House hotel in Belgrave road. We hated it, but there was not enough money to do anything else at that time.

Are we going to go back to that? If we are, Parliament will go back more and more to being a gentlemen’s club, which people with money can enter because they can buy themselves out of that difficult situation. For those people, it does not matter that they do not get an allowance or expenses to pay for a decent flat so that their kids can stay at with them. If they have inherited wealth, just happen to have a lot of money in the bank, or are moonlighting and doing other jobs in courtrooms or boardrooms—as many Conservative Members do—and making extra money, their expenses do not matter. However, for most people in our party, particularly women, the sort of accommodation that they can have in London will be crucial.

As I have some money in the bank, I was able to buy a decent flat on Marsham street, which is just over 10 minutes’ walk from Parliament. It does not matter what time we finish at night; I can have a safe, comfortable walk back to my flat. I never use taxis; I always walk back home, and always walk to work in the morning, because I have a decent flat. That is partly because I have money in the bank, and partly because the expenses allowed me to claim the interest on my mortgage. That is all going to be stopped, and in the future women will have a real problem with where they are going to live. If they have to live out in Kennington or Lambeth or somewhere, they will have to get taxis. If they cannot get a taxi, perhaps they will have to use the underground late at night. That is a difficult situation for women to face, and if they think along those lines, it will be another deterrent to women entering Parliament.

If we could still claim interest on a mortgage, I would not object at all to the Fees Office claiming back any profits made on the properties. However, we are taking a retrograde step, particularly for women and people with children, and those who cannot afford to subsidise themselves when it comes to getting a decent flat near Parliament.

Just over a year ago, my constituency party started the process of choosing a candidate to replace me. As I am still the only woman MP in the whole of Bradford and Leeds—that is 15 constituencies—it was necessary to have an all-women shortlist. To its credit, the Keighley constituency party agreed, and went along with that. However, it became increasingly clear that another deterrent for women entering Parliament is the expense. One or two of the shortlisted women were coming from London. They had children, so they had the costs of child care and car or rail journeys.

We produce glossy leaflets for members of the Labour party, persuading them to vote for a certain candidate, and all that costs a great deal of money. Two of the shortlisted candidates told me that they could not afford to go for another seat if they did not get Keighley, as it would cost too much, and because of the time and travel difficulties that there are when one has children. I do not know how we resolve that; I have no idea what recommendations to make. Perhaps my colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart), might have a suggestion on how to get over the problem of the cost of being a candidate.

When I was married to Bob Cryer, who was MP for Keighley and then Bradford, South, he went to about seven or eight selection conferences over 20 years or so to become a councillor, an MP and an MEP. I went along with him to most of those selection conferences because I was interested, and the remarkable thing—no one saw it as being remarkable—was that at every one, there was an all-male shortlist. I do not remember a single woman being on any of those shortlists.

The Labour party has all-women shortlists. That is controversial, but it works. If anyone can think of a better solution to the problem of all-male shortlists, I am more than willing to hear it, but that is how things were, and I know that if we stop having all-women shortlists in the Labour party, we will drift back to the gentlemen’s club, and to all-male shortlists. I do not know why that should be. It is very disappointing, but that is how it is.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, South wholeheartedly for chairing the conference. It has been a pleasure working with her. I had to divide my time between the conference and the Select Committee on Home Affairs, which made things a little difficult at times, and I therefore did not attend as many meetings as I should have, but it was always good to work with her and my other colleagues. Being a member of the conference has been a very worthwhile and good experience.

Order. Before I call the next speaker, I remind hon. Members that I intend to call the Front Benchers from 10.30 am. I call Fiona Mactaggart.

Thank you, Mr. Illsley. Let me start by echoing the thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, South (Miss Begg) for her work on the Speaker’s Conference. It has been exemplary and rewarding for those of us who have participated.

I thought I would briefly talk about how people are feeling about politics at the moment, because in a way the Speaker’s Conference is about making politics and political representation more widely available to more people. As politicians, we have managed to write ourselves into being despised, yet young people say to me more now than they ever have done since I was elected, “I’d like to go into politics. How do I do that?” I always say to them, “Why?”, because it seems to me that politics is not in itself an end, but a tool to change the world into a better place. One of my concerns is that we have allowed a view that politics is an end in itself to become widespread. We need to restate that the reason why—I hope—everyone in this room got involved in politics was not to do an interesting job, but because they saw something in society that they felt needed to be done better, done differently, improved or whatever, and therefore politics became the tool they used to address that.

I turned to political representation after having tried to change the world through pressure groups, teaching and being involved in the local council, none of which changed it enough. That is not an unusual experience. One of the very important points about the conference is that it recognised that diverse representation changes society in different ways.

About five years after I was elected, I came out—that is really the only way to describe it—as someone who had a life-limiting condition. I have multiple sclerosis. I spoke about it only in the context of a debate about stem cell research, and the reason why I spoke about it was that it seemed to me grossly ironic—as a woman who had had infertility treatment, and had still in a refrigerator in a fertility centre two embryos—that although those embryos could have been used for research into my fertility, they could not, under the old law, have been used for research into my multiple sclerosis. At that point, knocking on for 50, I had given up on fertility and was much more concerned about dealing with the other condition. It seemed to me relevant to speak about that in the debate in the House of Commons.

My hon. Friend spoke in the same debate. I was very disconcerted by the headline the following day in The Times, which said “Disabled MPs speak up”. I thought, “You know what? I am not.” There are people with a condition that perhaps affects their life but they do not have to reveal it. I spoke about my condition because it was relevant to the debate, but I had never been called “disabled” before. Many of the issues that the Speaker’s Conference is dealing with are ones that people do not necessarily want to share. No one can hide their gender, but people can hide their sexual preference. People can keep private aspects of their caring responsibilities. All these things affect us as politicians, but unless we have in politics people with those diverse effects upon them, politics will have a narrower view.

After there had been 1,000 days of a Labour Government, I did some research on the difference that women MPs had made, and it was absolutely clear that it had been huge, not just in legislation terms but in how the Government were held to account. Defence Ministers were asked about the families of soldiers for the first time by members of the Defence Committee, which had previously never had a woman member. We can change the way in which politics is done. If people see that in the representative body of Parliament, there are life experiences that connect with their life experiences more closely, the chasm that has opened up between us and the general public can be narrowed, which can only be good for democracy. If democracy has the voices of a wider range of people, it does its job better, which is the very important point about the conference.

One issue I want to stress, which was mentioned in the opening speech of my hon. Friend concerns section 141 of the Mental Health Act 1983. Mental ill health is a disability that is much more silenced than most others. It is grotesque that someone who has been sectioned is therefore automatically excluded from this place. I am disappointed that an opportunity was not taken to get rid of that section. There was an opportunity to do that; I have to be clear about that. What I heard from Ministers was, “Oh well, we have to find something appropriate to deal with this issue at the same time as getting rid of that section.” I do not see why that has to be the case. When I was out of Parliament for months because I had cancer, there was no mechanism to deal with the fact that I was out of Parliament for months. If someone is out of Parliament for weeks because they have been sectioned, a mechanism is not needed to deal with that. It sounded to me as though there was a lack of leadership on the issue. I found that disappointing. I hope it is not allowed to persist and that the recommendation works.

I want finally to come to the issue of expenses. I used to be called a “quota woman” in Slough, but guess what? No one kept saying it, because people recognised that I, like most of the women who were selected from women-only shortlists, was a competent MP and a good representative of the town. I have promoted women in my party putting themselves forward for Parliament, but I have stopped doing that to the degree that I did, because women, who are the default carers, are now having to choose between their caring responsibilities and Parliament. Unless they can find a London seat within commuting distance of Parliament, so that they can have their children at school and do this job, it is impossible, and not just for women with young children—teenagers need their mums, too.

I think we are making a big mistake with the new puritanism, and I speak as someone who was declared a “saint” by The Daily Telegraph. I think that makes it easier for me to say it. The new puritanism will narrow participation in Parliament. It is the wrong thing and I am very disappointed by what the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority has done. We cannot afford to narrow participation in Parliament, because if we do, our democracy will be damaged by it.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Aberdeen, South (Miss Begg) on securing the debate. She and the hon. Members for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) and for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer) demonstrate dramatically the benefit of having women in the House. All three contributions exemplified the importance and benefits of diversity, and they were truly extraordinary.

At this point, I also want to mention those of my colleagues who were at the Speaker’s Conference. My hon. Friend the Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) is more than committed to the cause of creating a more representative Parliament, as is my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris). In the House of Lords, my noble Friend Lord Lester has certainly been very involved in these issues, and he introduced the Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Bill.

The Liberal Democrats very much welcome the Speaker’s Conference and its report. Many of its conclusions and recommendations are necessary steps towards creating a more representative Parliament, and it has to be that way. It is ludicrous that so many representatives do not represent and are not involved in some of the issues that arise. As good as we are at representing our constituents on everything, and that is what we do for them, the explicit knowledge of being something, rather than observing and understanding it, makes a qualitative difference to debate.

The Speaker’s Conference found that the main onus was on the political parties to ensure wider representation. The Liberal Democrats are challenged in this regard, and although we are working hard, we clearly do not have ethnic minority candidates, and we are short on women and those with disabilities. The hon. Member for Aberdeen, South gave an eloquent and distinguished speech about the importance of demonstrating that people with disabilities are not disabled in any way, other than because the House of Commons itself is not appropriately or seemingly welcoming, even though it has changed. The barriers are absolutely huge, but those with disabilities who are coming forward are more than able to be as good as, if not better than, most of the other people in Parliament. They can put their case and be the role models that the Minister mentioned.

My colleagues and I acknowledge that we are short on representatives from all the strands of equality. By implementing many of the report’s recommendations, and building on many of the procedures we are using, we hope to make ourselves more inclusive and more representative. I would add that we do very well at other levels of government—councils, the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly, the London assembly and Europe—but we have found things difficult in Parliament. We have identified that the reason for that is not our party’s selection meetings, where women are more likely to be selected, but getting women to put themselves forward for selection despite the great barriers they encounter.

My colleagues and I welcome the recommendation that all political parties should appoint diversity champions. The Liberal Democrat leader, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Clegg), has written to all our regional party chairs asking them to appoint diversity champions, and I am pleased to say that many of these champions are already in place. For example, seven champions have been appointed in London, one for each of the equality strands identified in the Equality Bill. These champions have been tasked with supporting individuals from under-represented groups to help them find their way through their role in the party and towards being elected.

The Liberal Democrats are committed to ensuring that the route into politics is as open and as transparent as possible, and we are proactively reaching out to those who do not necessarily follow the traditional route, which is sometimes difficult. There need to be numerous routes into Parliament, and we have recently started sessions on “planning your political career” to help those from non-political backgrounds to chart their way ahead in the political sphere.

If someone comes from a background, as I did, with no books on, history in or expectation of politics—no “in”—it is unusual for them to make the leap into politics. There was no one to chart my way for me, and I simply had what the hon. Member for Aberdeen, South called an overdeveloped sense of wanting to fight injustice and change the world. I did not think that someone like me could be a politician, because I do not look like one; there is something about politics that is very alien.

I came into politics late. I joined the party at 40. I hope that hon. Members will forgive me for sidestepping, but I am a woman and I made it in. I did not take a traditional route; I did not study philosophy, politics and economics at university—I was a designer. When we talk about diversity, we are talking about people from all walks of life. When we look around the House, we see people who are used to standing up and talking, such as teachers and lawyers, and they feel more confident doing such things. Someone who comes from a background where they do not have to speak to anyone other than boards of directors or suppliers is taking quite a different route in.

I was a designer, and there are not many designers in politics. We need all sorts of diversity, and the routes into politics should be diverse. We should encourage and help people who do not think of going into politics, as the hon. Lady said. Some people do not necessarily think about making the jump between working in a voluntary organisation and going into politics, and the same is true for people from all walks of life.

Discriminatory behaviour at selection is not permitted under the rules of the Liberal Democrat party. As I said, the composition of the selection committee must reflect the constituency’s make-up. Furthermore, diversity awareness training is a major part of our training for the selection of committee members. In priority seats, all members must be trained in diversity, and at least two people must be trained in all other seats.

I am a bit of a secret admirer of all-women shortlists, and that is well known in my party. While the Liberal Democrat party supports the legal right of parties to use the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 to enable the use of all-women shortlists, such shortlists would not necessarily address the underlying issues in my party, which are about getting women to come forward at all.

I am glad that the hon. Lady is a secret admirer of all-women shortlists. Perhaps she should tell the leader of her party, the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Clegg), that he should be an admirer, too. One thing we can say about all-women shortlists is that they produce results—they work. The Labour party has been trying to deal with this issue for 100 years, and all-women shortlists are the only thing that actually guarantees a result. Some of the people who come in do just as well as anybody else.

There has been a remarkable step change in the Labour party and the composition of the House because of Labour’s all-women shortlists. My party’s leader has said that if there is no step change in the methods we are using, he will look at a mechanism after the next election. Using a mechanism is quite a step forward for Liberals, but in the end we have to look at the outcome.

My party is doing mentoring and other work at the moment, and we have brought another 140 women through on the shortlist. We have a high proportion of women in winnable seats. Four of the eight male MPs stepping down are being replaced by women, so we expect an improvement after the election, but we are talking about a longer route. I am sure the Labour party wishes that it did not have to use a mechanism and that the world was a different place, but I agree with what has been said.

However, I am running out of time, so if the Minister will forgive me, I will continue. A third of the Liberal Democrats’ most winnable parliamentary seats now have women candidates. We acknowledge that we still have some way to go, but as I said, our leader has said he will review the need for a mechanism when we see the results.

I want briefly to touch on the atmosphere in the House. I was born into politics in the Haringey council chamber and forged in steel at a time when there were three Lib Dem and 57 Labour members, but that is not everybody’s cup of tea. In coming to the House, I have tried hard not to get embroiled in things in the way that hon. Members have described. I have tried not to score political points in the jeering, bullying way that we see. The Minister looks surprised, but I think it is possible to change things. If we simply join in the old-fashioned, adversarial stuff that the public see at Prime Minister’s questions, that is incredibly off-putting. It is a shame the microphone often does not pick up some of the Back-Bench remarks that are made about one’s appearance or contribution. I think that that would be off-putting and would expose those who make such remarks to the public gaze, which might be good for their behaviour.

The problem of getting a seat is not the easiest thing for women—or men, for that matter. I am a single parent and faced a huge Labour majority because I could not go anywhere else. I did not have parents or support, and my children were in school. I am lucky that I have a London seat because as a single parent, I would not have a chance in any seat but a London seat; I would not even have begun to think about coming to Parliament. What has happened about expenses would put that opportunity even further from me. The Solicitor-General has said, “Why not?” However, it is obvious why not. It is not possible to manage as a single parent, with no support, living in two places, and based distant from London. That will just be a barrier to women. I welcome the recommendations in the Speaker’s report on greater support and pastoral care for candidates, because the sheer mental and financial costs of standing for any office can be off-putting. We have the opportunity to transform the political culture, and all the parties must take advantage of that.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Illsley. I, too, want to offer support to the hon. Member for Aberdeen, South (Miss Begg) for her work as vice-chair of the Speaker’s Conference, and I congratulate her on securing the debate. It is welcome that she secured it before the Dissolution of Parliament, because, as she said, we have not had a chance to discuss the conference in any other forum. As a result of timing problems, we did not have a chance during consideration of the Equality Bill to talk about clauses on diversity in this House. There was a good, constructive debate between the parties in the other place, but we did not have a chance to have one here, and it is welcome that the hon. Lady has given us that.

I shall slightly alter the focus of my remarks, because hon. Members have said one or two of the things that I wanted to say. There were 71 recommendations and conclusions from the Speaker’s Conference, and I shall not try even to skate over a significant number of those. It is worth putting on the record—the hon. Lady dealt with this very fairly—that although my party acknowledges that we do not have many women MPs, my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron), the leader of my party, made it clear that he wanted to change that when he became leader.

If we win the election with a small majority, we shall have about 60 women MPs, which will be a significant step forward from the 17 we have now. I am perfectly happy to acknowledge that there is still more work to do, but that would be a significant step. Just to have a bit of fun with the Minister, it is worth saying that there are six female members of the shadow Cabinet, which is more than there are in the Cabinet. That is my opportunity to bring about a bit of balance, and to get one over on the Minister, in a small way.

I welcome the clause in the Equality Bill about reporting—particularly, in the first instance, with respect to gender, and to black and minority ethnic candidates—so that we get a clearer idea of the progress being made across the parties. However, I wanted to touch on one point that the hon. Lady mentioned. I am pleased, incidentally, that she spent a fair amount of time talking about disabled candidates, because sometimes, in the media, diversity issues focus on gender and ethnicity, and the issue of getting more disabled candidates is forgotten. The hon. Lady, and the hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart), highlighted one of the difficulties: many disabled candidates, apart from those who have an obvious and visible disability, do not think of themselves as disabled, as the hon. Member for Slough suggested, or do not want to disclose their disability, either for fear of others’ reaction, or because they do not think that it is relevant.

One of the challenges for us all, therefore, is to assess how many disabled Members of Parliament there are already. I think that it is more difficult for candidates who are trying to get selected, or trying to persuade the electorate to vote for them, to take the step of saying that they have a disability. Many do not want to be pigeonholed as caring only about that. As a result of the prejudices that people still have about whether people with a disability are up to the job, candidates do not want to show a sign of what they think others might perceive as weakness. Sometimes, therefore, it is only when people get here—once they have established themselves—that they can be more open about having a disability.

The issue makes a difference. In a Westminster Hall debate last week, the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Jonathan Shaw), who is Minister for disabled people, and I were talking about the number of people with a disability working in Government, and I highlighted the relatively small number—about 3.6 per cent.—with a declared disability. He said that in anonymous surveys in the Department for Work and Pensions, the figure is about 13 per cent. That suggests that something in the culture of organisations leads people not to be comfortable with openness on that issue. We must think about that. There are role models who have visible disabilities, but we need to think more creatively about how to get people with an invisible or hidden disability or health condition to talk about it more openly.

There are a few recommendations in the report about accessibility. One is about making campaign documents more accessible, and I am pleased that in this election and future elections, the Conservative manifesto will be available in a range of formats—Braille, large print, audio and easy read—to ensure that people with learning disabilities can read about our policies and make a judgment about them. I do what I can, country-wide and in my constituency, to encourage people with learning disabilities to take part in the political process by coming to debates, meetings and question and answer sessions with their elected representatives, and by voting. I am sure that that is something that all Members of Parliament do.

One specific recommendation that the hon. Member for Aberdeen, South, mentioned was an “access to public life” fund; that draws on work by Scope. I am pleased to tell her that the Conservative party is signed up to the idea. We published our commitment to it in January, and have said that if a Conservative Government were elected, we would put in place such a fund for disabled people seeking elected and appointed office, in recognition of the fact that increased costs are involved. That is about levelling the playing field, not giving advantage. The hon. Lady mentioned some of the extra costs, and we are keen to make sure that people from all sorts of backgrounds have an equal opportunity to take part in the process. It is very expensive, and those seeking office need to be dedicated, but those who are disabled should not be further disadvantaged.

The hon. Lady discussed section 141 of the Mental Health Act 1983, and the hon. Member for Slough talked about it at length. I agree with them. We have made some progress, but it is disappointing that we did not have the opportunity to change the law when the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill was going through Parliament. I tabled new clause 1 to that Bill, but after a number of conversations with Ministers and the Justice Secretary, I found I could not quite persuade them to go all the way in backing it. However, the Government have formally agreed that the current situation is untenable. My party has agreed that we should change the position.

I rather agree with the hon. Member for Slough; I do not really see why we need to have a process in place for dealing with people with a physical or mental incapacity before we get rid of section 141. I would rather get rid of it and then assess whether a process is needed for dealing with incapacity, but the Government took the view that they would rather put the process in place first. I have written to the Chair of the Select Committee on Justice, and asked for the matter to be considered. He said that it will be on the agenda for urgent consideration by the Committee in the new Parliament, and I hope that that will happen, and that a process will be set out for dealing with situations in which someone has either a physical or mental incapacity.

We deal well with physical incapacity informally. Parties have mechanisms for ensuring that constituents are still represented, that parliamentary work can be done, and that Members’ staff can continue their work. It would not be awfully difficult to make those mechanisms work equally for mental incapacity. It may be that we simply need to get that written down, and establish a process. I hope that whoever wins the general election will take the first available opportunity to change the law, to make it clear that we welcome people in this House who have a physical or mental disability, and do not discriminate against those with mental health problems.

Finally, I want to touch on the issue of ensuring that Parliament is relevant and that we connect with people. I find from talking to young people in my constituency that, despite what people say, they are very engaged with issues and care passionately about their local environment, their country and many global issues. Often, however, they not do connect their concern, their passion and their wish to change the world with this place, or with politics. They do not connect the campaigning and the wish for change with getting involved with a political party, or standing for office. The hon. Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer) touched on that when talking about women’s groups. Perhaps that is one of the things that we need to change.

Finally, I agree with what has been said about the expenses regime. I was not quite sainted by The Daily Telegraph, but I was cleared by Legg and did not have to pay anything back. Although I do not tick some of the diversity boxes, I do not come from a wealthy background. My father had a manual job, and my family has no history of politics; I would not be here if there were not financial arrangements to permit it. We do not want to go backwards. Remarks made today about ensuring that the expenses regime allows a diverse set of candidates, taking account not only of gender and colour but of financial background, are a welcome reminder that the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority should bear those issues in mind.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, South (Miss Begg) on securing this debate. She will have gathered from the reaction of the House that we are all grateful for the work that she and her colleagues working on the Speaker’s Conference have done. Today, she set out some important points that we need to take into account when implementing the conference recommendations; we all need to work together, whether as political parties, as a Government, or as a Parliament.

I was heartened to hear the general acknowledgement across the parties that we all have an interest in dealing with the matter. Diversity is not merely political correctness for its own sake, or some kind of game, but is a fundamental part of ensuring that our democracy is as representative as it can be, and does the job that it needs to do as well as it can. Ensuring diversity should take us closer to the people who send us here, because it would make us more representative of them.

This is not a matter of arithmetic correctness; it is not that we want 50 per cent. of those in Parliament to be women because women are 50 per cent. of the country. It is about properly representing the lives and experiences of all our constituents in a way that enables our democracy to see our society, and to change it according to the needs of those who live in it. One does not often read about the issue in newspapers, which sometimes categorise it as political correctness gone mad, but as we heard today, all parties recognise that diversity is important, because it improves, strengthens and deepens our capacity to represent the people. I welcome the acknowledgement of that by all parties.

We obviously want to see improvement across all parties. I am proud and pleased that the Labour party has pioneered improvements to increase diversity, and the Government have an excellent record in that respect. I do not pretend that we are there yet; indeed, the numbers indicate that we are not. After all that we have done, women still form only 19.5 per cent. of the total membership of the House. That is nowhere near good enough, as all of us recognise.

I have been a member of the Labour party for a great many years, and my experience is that these issues have to be addressed, and then addressed again; that pressure has to be kept up. The changes do not happen naturally. It is not enough to change behaviour in a one-off way, and then expect everything to work out. The issues need to be worked at, and the Speaker’s Conference acknowledges that. I hope that those who respond to the conference findings recognise that, as do the Government. Political parties and Parliament itself should realise that ongoing work is needed. Only through ongoing work will we be able to tackle the problem and get to where we wish to be on diversity.

My hon. Friend spoke of disability and her experience as a disabled Member of Parliament. Her comments were extremely thoughtful and insightful, as one would expect. It is important that we continue to ensure that more disabled people become Members. As the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper) said, it is not right to require people to declare their disability. If society had learned to deal with disabled people in a completely equal way it might be fair enough to ask people to declare their disability, but until that day, it is not right that we should enforce declarations. That is because of all the connected issues that can arise in respect of people’s attitudes and assumptions about what disabled people can and cannot do. I was Minister for Disabled People for four years, and had the opportunity to consider policy making on that subject. I decided that declaration was not something that should be required of the disabled.

We need to find a different way of making ourselves more disability-friendly. For help with that, we need to turn to the disabled people who are already here in Parliament; they have the life experience, and they know what needs doing. We should listen to them closely. I hope that my hon. Friend is re-elected, so that she can continue her pioneering work. If she is, she will make a great contribution.

My hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer) made some extremely important points. She stressed again why diversity matters. She set out the clear example of the forced marriages legislation, and spoke of the difference that she had made, a woman MP listening to women in her constituency whose voices were rarely heard. She started listening to them, and then came to this place. With force, through pressure and ongoing work, and helped by those women, she made a change that mattered a great deal to them. That would not have happened had it not been for her efforts, and had she not been aided and helped by other women in this place who understood the importance of their help. They knew that the issue had been too low on the list of priorities, and recognised that she needed their support. Women in Government and among policy makers recognised that, too, and ensured that the issue was given higher priority than it might otherwise have been given.

That is a practical example showing why we need diversity in this Parliament of ours, and why we need more women, and more people with experiences other than the dominant ones of being relatively well off, well educated, middle-class males of a certain age. We need those people, but we also need more from the under-represented groups in this place, and my hon. Friend set out the value of achieving diversity better than I could have done. She also set out the improvements that that would make to the relevance of this place and to our capacity to do our job for our constituents.

My hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) made some strong points based on her experience and her disability, and about the priorities that led her to do the work that she has done. I congratulate her not only on what she has done for the conference, but on what she does, day in, day out, for the women in her constituency and the nation.

I wish the Opposition parties well in ensuring that their diversity increases. That is something that we should all be doing. My Department, the Government Equalities Office, undertook an opinion poll for international women’s day, and we should consider it. As many as 73 per cent. of people think it important that women and men should have an equal say on political decisions that affect how Britain is run, and 82 per cent. think that the presence of women MPs helps to ensure that our policies and laws reflect the needs of women as well as men. However, only 75 per cent. think that it is important that women and men should have an equal say on international political decisions, so we have some work still to do on that. Increasing diversity in that way is popular; it is not a fringe issue. It is not something that we should do only when we have finished all the other things that need to be done. We need to put the issue at the centre of how we do our politics.

In the coming period and the election, I hope that the Opposition parties will get better representation for women and other minorities. I hope that they do not then assume that the work is over, and that they do not have to do anything more. The Labour party has led the way in that respect. We know that we still need to work hard. We need to carry on. I am pleased to say that whatever the swing in the next election, the parliamentary Labour party will have a greater percentage of women members. One can never tell what the numbers will be, but the percentage will be greater. However, we need more progress all round.

High Speed Rail (Government Policy)

I am glad that you are in the Chair, Mr. Illsley. Perhaps we will not have any instances of mistaken identity today, which is something that can happen. As I am sure you are aware, a number of hon. Members who wanted to attend this debate are not here because of confusion over timing. Apparently the usual channels collapsed, and the debate was on the Whip as being at 2.30. Those who wanted to be present are probably on the west coast main line right now.

I welcome the Secretary of State’s announcement on 11 March about the high speed line. If I have become an expert on anything over the past 20 years, it is probably on the railways. I have chaired the all-party parliamentary groups on rail and on the west coast main line for about 15 years. The Secretary of State’s announcement came as a bit of a surprise, because the Railtrack proposal had been to take the line up to the west. The idea that the line should go to Birmingham and then fork up to the eastern side must have pleased you, Mr. Ilsley, because it will go to Leeds, Sheffield and on to Newcastle. The west fork, of which I am more aware, will go to Manchester and, eventually, to Glasgow. It seems a very sensible way in which to carry on.

The trains will eventually travel at about 250 mph—initially, though, speeds will be closer to 225 mph—which will bring the country closer together. Members who represent areas that will be affected by the line but may not benefit from it may want to ask why we need a high speed line. Whether we like it or not, the reality is that the number of people travelling by railway has increased over the past two decades. That may be down to privatisation or to the fact that the motorways are congested. The west coast main line, especially south of Birmingham, is now running short of capacity.

It is easy to know when we are running short of capacity on a motorway because things do not move. It is more difficult for the public to know that the railways are running short of capacity, because all they see is an empty track, which leads them to think there is plenty of room there. For safety reasons, however, the trains have to run a certain distance apart, so extra trains cannot just be added. People might say, “Why don’t you put extra carriages on?” If we did that, the trains would not fit the platforms any more. Then, of course, we have the problems at peak times. We are getting to a point—we have probably reached it in some areas of the south-east—where we are suffering from severe overcrowding, so we need to build a new line. If we are going to build a new line, we must build one for the future, not the past. A new line is needed, so we will build High Speed 2, and that is what the Government have agreed to.

My understanding is that once we get to Birmingham there may be some arguments about where the line should go, and I will come to that later. Everyone is in general agreement that the line should go from London to Birmingham; the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives are agreed on that. However, will the hon. Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond) clarify one point? About three years ago, I visited China with the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling), who was Front-Bench spokesman on the railways. He had great enthusiasm for Maglev, the magnetic train that runs from the airport to Shanghai. Has the party changed its mind about that and does it now favour going back to the traditional rails?

I am happy to clarify that point. My hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) did suggest that we should investigate the possibilities of Maglev travel, but I think he was considering it for shorter distances. People do not seriously expect that a new high speed line would be run on anything other than the high speed technologies that are available in the continent of Europe, the far east and other such places.

That clarifies matters. I was not trying to make a political point; I just wanted to know what the position was.

Let me concentrate on the classic railways for a moment. I get the feeling that because the Government want to promote the new high speed line, they have been indicating that the money spent on the upgrade of the west coast main line—they spent £9 million, as opposed to the £30 billion proposed by Railtrack—has not been well spent, and that the upgrade created a great deal of disruption and will prove to have been unnecessary if we go ahead and build a high speed line. The reality, however, is totally different. The west coast main line had been neglected for nearly three decades. Some 75 per cent. of the money spent on it was not for an upgrade, but for necessary renewal work. If we are talking about a high speed line not reaching Glasgow for 25 years, then we should be talking about not only maintaining the west coast main line but making major improvements to it. For example, there is a need for block signal systems, or in-cab signalling, which will increase the capacity on the line by allowing trains to travel closer together. Such a device would help capacity problems in the short term.

The other issue is that although the Pendolinos are restricted to 125 mph, they can travel at 140 mph. In parts of the west coast, where there has been very little investment, we could increase the speed of the Pendolinos to the maximum and reduce journey times from Glasgow to Carlisle to less than four hours.

Does my hon. Friend not agree that one of the challenges of upgrading the west coast main line has been trying to do the work at the same time as trying to maintain an increasingly busy service, which is moving towards full capacity, as he has already mentioned? The joy of being able to promote the high speed network is that that delivers capacity without disruption to the existing lines and services. As some of the traffic moves from the west coast main line to High Speed 2 in the future, my hon. Friend’s suggested upgrades should be able to take place with less disruption to passengers on the west coast main line.

I agree with the Minister. I bear the scars of many a bad journey on the west coast main line. I will come back to that point, but I am not sure whether disruption can be avoided. We need a high speed line and we need to maintain the classic lines. I am sure that the constituencies of a number of Members here will be affected by the high speed line, but will not get the benefits from it. I am sure those Members will make representations, which is only right. It is also only right that the Government should listen to those representations and do everything they can to reduce the environmental impact of the new line on those communities. However, it would be wrong if the decision to build the line were blocked because of the opposition from Members representing their constituents. I have no doubt they will be representing their constituents—I have done so myself, on other issues—but the reality is that the country needs a high speed rail line. We have one from the channel tunnel to London and we need one that goes to the north of England and to Scotland.

I apologise to the hon. Gentleman for having missed the first part of his speech. I agree with him entirely that the line must not be blocked, although some colleagues will of course argue, from the point of view of their constituency, against it. However, does the hon. Gentleman agree that it would be a great pity if the improvements to the “classic lines” that he referred to—the provincial and regional lines—were derailed, as it were, by the high speed train? I am obviously thinking in particular of the south-west. In the Minister’s recent oral statement in the Chamber on high speed rail, he was unable to assure me that money would not be simply diverted from other rail schemes that are much needed elsewhere into high speed rail, which would obviously degrade our national rail network considerably.

I agree totally. One of the issues I will not talk about today is the financing of the high speed rail line; however, I got an indication yesterday during the continuation of the Budget debate that the Conservatives were suggesting they were going to take another £6 billion out of transport. If so, the hon. Gentleman will have great difficulty in getting any rail improvements in his area. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Wimbledon makes a comment from a sedentary position. Does he wish to intervene on that point?

Can the hon. Gentleman tell us which part of the 17 per cent. of funding over three years this Government are already taking out of transport, before he makes wild speculations about “£6 billion”? Exactly how much—£9 billion, £10 billion, £12 billion, £20 billion or £25 billion—will this Government take out of transport spending?

I am afraid that that is what gives politicians a bad name—answering a question with another question.

I would like to continue before we get too deeply involved in that matter. There are issues that I do not want to get involved in today. What matters is the high speed rail link and whether it should go to Heathrow. That issue will be debated at length—will the high speed line link with Crossrail, or will it go directly to Heathrow? I am conscious that others want to speak about that, so I do not want to go into it myself. I know that I have already trod on somebody’s toes on funding, and I do not really want to go into that, either, other than to say that the money for high speed rail should not come from classic lines.

The hon. Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond) asked a legitimate question and at the risk of offending my hon. Friend, may I answer the question from the hon. Gentleman with another question to my hon. Friend? Where does he think the majority of his constituents who would benefit from reduced journey times to London would want to go? Would they want to go to London as a city, or to Heathrow airport? Furthermore, does he think they would be put off by a diversion that added time to that journey to London by going via Heathrow airport?

The reality is that traditionally people from the north-west have come into London via Euston, without diverting to Heathrow. Of course, if someone is living in the Manchester area they will use Manchester airport for air travel and therefore they will not want to go into Heathrow at all. I think that that answers that question.

I also do not want to go down the road of considering whether high speed rail will be beneficial in terms of carbon dioxide emissions. I think that we will get people coming out of cars and on to the train, but we must also remember that the faster a train goes the more energy that it will use. So I think that those benefits of HS2 will probably be about carbon-neutral overall.

However, there are issues that I want to raise. The Minister made a comment that a new line would not create disruption. I am very pleased that the Government have decided that the high speed trains should come into Euston, because traditionally that is where the trains have come into London from the north-west. Nevertheless, there are two points to consider. The first is that I suspect that there will be disruption when we start to build the new platforms in Euston, which is something that we will look forward to particularly. I also wonder whether the scheme that the Government have chosen will provide enough new platforms. If we get things wrong and we have a bottleneck at Euston, it will be decades before we put it right.

There is a second issue about trains coming into Euston. People get off the train at Euston and they go on the tube. The tube is desperately crowded now. So, if we are going to bring the high speed trains into Euston and consequently bring more people into Euston, remodelling Euston in the process, we need to do something about the tube. That is the other issue that we need to discuss.

I would just like my hon. Friend to reflect on the benefits of the potential west London connection that is proposed as part of HS2, at Old Oak Common to the Crossrail link, which would encourage many people coming into London via high speed train to reach their final destination by changing at that point, rather than having all those people come into Euston, where we understand that there are clearly capacity limits on the interchange with some of the existing tube lines.

I accept what the Minister says and perhaps I had not taken that point into full account.

The other development that would obviously be of great benefit would be if some of the high speed trains on HS2 could go straight to St. Pancras station and then people could travel on HS1 into Europe. Hopefully, we will look at that issue; we will probably have a little time to look at it.

The other general issue that I want to discuss is the rolling stock issue. It would appear that we are going to have a high speed line to Birmingham and then classic lines to the north-east, the north-west and Scotland. I understand that the report on HS2 says that slow trains should not go on the high speed line. Therefore, the 140 mph Pendolino trains will not be allowed on the high speed line. That means that we will have to build new rolling stock—new trains—to run on both the high speed line and the classic line. However, I am not sure that it is a good match. In an ideal world, the Minister and the Government would not want to do that.

So I want to ask the Minister a question; will the trains that run on the classic lines off the high speed line be tilting trains? If they are not tilting trains, that will actually slow down the journey time on the classic lines, for example between Glasgow or Edinburgh and Preston. If they are not tilting trains, the trains will be slower than they are now, even if they will speed up when they get on the 90 or 100 miles or so of track from Birmingham down to London. So that is an issue. Then, there is the issue of what will happen to the Pendolinos. They will probably be 25 years old by the time that the new high speed line is built, but they will still have a remaining life of 15 to 20 years. Somebody needs to say something about that issue.

I want to discuss the construction of the high speed line itself. I accept the timetable. I know that the Opposition would like to do it sooner, but I do not think that we will get the Bills and the planning inquiries through and start work before Crossrail finishes in 2017, so we would have to start in 2018. I think that we are talking about 2026 before HS2 is completed—is that right? So will construction on the lines further north begin before that time, or are we going to wait until we get to Birmingham and then start construction further north?

Alternatively, if there is a bottleneck, for example, at Stafford, and if it is decided that there should be a bypass around Stafford, will that bypass be built to high speed line standard? It would make sense to do so. If we look at the motorways, the first part of the motorway system was built 50 years ago and it was the Preston bypass, which is now part of the M6. Those are the sorts of things that we need to consider.

Given these amazing time scales, my hon. Friend might be interested to know that the original Camden Town to Birmingham railway, which was then extended to Euston, was completed—that is, from the cutting of the first sod to the first train going to Birmingham—in less than three years.

I understand that and I know the reason why; it was because the vast majority of the people in this country at that time did not have a vote. [Laughter.] That was the reason why.

There is another point about building the line. I notice that my hon. Friend the Member for Central Ayrshire (Mr. Donohoe), an hon. Member from Scotland, is in Westminster Hall today. Whose responsibility is it to fund the high speed line in Scotland? Transport is a devolved matter. It might be difficult for the Scots to find the full amount of money required, but would it be possible for them to start building their part of the line before the rest comes from the south? Such issues are probably not for today, but they must be discussed.

I am going to make the case that the train should stop in Cumbria, at Carlisle. Hon. Members will say, “Well, he would say that anyhow, as he’s the MP for Carlisle,” but there is a lot of logic in the suggestion. Network Rail’s proposals said that the train would not stop in Cumbria. The Government are silent on the matter; their proposals say that intermediate station stops will be decided later. Not stopping does not seem sensible.

I know very well what the Conservative policy is. It is not an issue in Cumbria, because it involves taking the high-speed line to Manchester, turning right, going to Leeds and continuing up the east coast. Stopping at Carlisle would not be an issue because the line would not go through Cumbria at all. It is not a case that I would like to defend to the Cumbrian electorate, but that is a matter for the Opposition.

We are building a line—or, to be emotional, putting a scar—through 90 miles of Cumbria that will run through parts of the Lake district and the Eden valley, some of the most beautiful countryside in England, without stopping. The Cumbrian west coast is a centre for the nuclear industry; it is an issue that I know well. It has Sellafield, and there are plans for three or four new nuclear power stations. If there is to be a deep nuclear repository, it is likely to be in Cumbria. Because the people of Cumbria are used to working in the nuclear industry and understand it, they are likely to be the only people in this country who will accept it. We are saying to them, “By the way, we’re going to build a line through 90 miles of Cumbria, but we’re not going to stop.” That is not a good argument.

The county is united on the matter. I wrote to the six district councils, and they all agreed; it is the first time that they have ever agreed. The county council agreed with them. I wrote to all the MPs for Cumbria—four Labour, one Conservative and one Liberal Democrat—and they all agreed. I wrote to my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Mr. Brown), who is sorry that he could not be here today. He is totally supportive. I wrote to the hon. Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson), and he is supportive. I wrote to the shadow Secretary of State for Scotland, the hon. Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale (David Mundell), whose constituency will be affected, but he did not reply; I suspect that he is a bit embarrassed by his party’s policy.

The politics of not stopping in Cumbria are daft, and the economic case is even dafter. It is proposed to run a train 200 miles from Manchester to Glasgow, through an area that has traditionally been a railway centre, without picking people up, dropping them off or collecting a fare. At the moment, only one train a day goes through Carlisle without stopping. It is a major transport centre, because of the geography of the area. Ignoring the south of the county, which will not use the Carlisle train, there are probably 350,000 people in the north, west Cumbria, Penrith and Carlisle who would be served. In the east, there are probably another 40,000 for Northumberland. In Scotland, there are probably another 150,000. Although Carlisle is the last city in England, it is the first main line stop in Scotland, because people get off there to go to Scotland. There is an economic case for stopping in Carlisle; I am sure that the people in south-west Scotland are in favour of it.

The other thing that people forget is that the shortest route from Northern Ireland is via Carlisle. People coming across either catch the train from Stranraer or drive to Carlisle and get on the main line. Carlisle serves more than 500,000 people and three countries. It is nonsense not to stop there. However, I am pleased that the Government have not said that they will not.

In conclusion, for many years, we will have a classic line down to Birmingham and Manchester. During that time, the trains will stop at Carlisle. After the high-speed line is in place, it will not make sense not to stop there. It is politically unacceptable and economically daft. I look forward to seeing the high-speed train stop at Carlisle, as it will mean that I am 86.

I suspect that this will be my last speech in Parliament. I hope that the Minister hears it. I suspect that he will not be in the same job by the time the train stops in Carlisle, but I am sure that he can speed it on its way.

The hon. Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew) put his case well, highlighting the point that although everyone wants a high-speed rail station, no one is particularly keen on the track. It is a classic example of the conflict between local concerns and the national interest. That is not unusual in infrastructure projects.

It is slightly ironic that we are debating high-speed rail at a time when the first major rail strike and disruption for a considerable time is about to start. I am sure that I am not alone in hoping that even at this stage, through the good services of ACAS or in some other way, the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers will call off its strike, because it will be disruptive to huge numbers of people. It is very unfair that such things always happen on bank holidays, when many people go to see their families by rail. Every time it happens, it undermines confidence in rail as a means of travel. It is extremely frustrating.

Will the Minister flesh out the exceptional hardship scheme? Perfectly understandably, Ministers arranged for the publication of only one preferred route. That obviously makes some sense. Clearly, if a number of alternative routes were published, it would simply increase the number of properties blighted along the various routes. However, I am sure that he will understand that for the householders and landowners who woke the other day to discover that the high-speed route would go through their property, it is a matter of concern. It is also of concern for those whose properties are next door to the route. Such circumstances occur. One property in my constituency is a disused railway station that has been next to a disused railway line for a long time. The prospect of a high-speed rail link going immediately past the house will blight such properties.

The Government have clearly assessed how many properties will be blighted in that way, because the White Paper uses the number 600. I suspect that a significant number of those are in London, where a new path will have to be created for the high-speed rail link to leave the city. The number of properties likely to come within the ambit of the exceptional hardship scheme elsewhere along the proposed route cannot be very great. I put that point to the Minister of State at Transport Question Time the other day.

It cannot be beyond the wit of man and woman for officials in the Department to get in touch directly with each household on the route and ensure that they know about the exceptional hardship scheme. It must be known which properties will be affected. I find it strange that details of the scheme have been advertised in local newspapers in Buckinghamshire, but not, as far as I can see, in Oxfordshire, even though a chunk of the route goes through my constituency, which definitely is and always has been in Oxfordshire. It must be possible to explain to the householders exactly what is being proposed, especially as construction on the high speed link is unlikely to start until 2017. Between now and then, many people may understandably want to sell their properties at the proper market value under the exceptional hardship or statutory blight schemes.

It would be extremely helpful if the Minister and the Government set out the proposed timetable and the various mechanisms that will be used. There will clearly be a lengthy consultation process, which is sensible. The Government have learned that it is sensible to make such processes as judicial review-proof as possible. On the comments of the right hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Frank Dobson), when the railways were built originally, lawyers were not so quick to rush to the courts for judicial review. Ministers in the Department will have realised only last week that if they cut corners, as they sought to do with the third runway at Heathrow, judges will tell them to go back and start again. There must be more haste and less speed. It is sensible to ensure that there is plenty of time for the consultation process.

I suspect that two things are likely to emerge from the consultation. First, there will be a number of suggestions about how the existing preferred route might be mitigated to avoid certain towns and properties through tunnelling or other mitigating features. Secondly, there will be suggestions for different lines of route, perhaps going towards Milton Keynes. As we are coming up to an election and are likely to be asked about these matters on the doorstep, perhaps the Minister could explain how the Department envisages such matters being dealt with. Will the final preferred route be decided on by Ministers or by a planning inquiry? What statutory procedures will ultimately be used to take the project forward? A balance must be struck between protecting the legitimate interests of people whose properties and communities might be affected and ensuring that Britain gets the high speed rail link that it needs in a timely fashion.

It is well known that the Opposition believe that the high speed rail link should be extended. It should run not just between London and Birmingham, but should link up to other major cities such as Manchester and Leeds, and to Heathrow. One of the most important benefits that the high speed rail link could bring people in the west midlands would be a link to the UK’s main airport hub. Without that, they do not feel that it will be of the same value because it will just go between Birmingham and London.

It would be extremely helpful if Ministers did two things this side of the election. First, they could ensure that officials or the company concerned get in touch with householders who might be directly affected by the exceptional hardship scheme and discuss with them how it will operate. I understand that there has to be a consultation on the exceptional hardship scheme to make sure that it is judicial review-proof as well. However, it would be helpful to give householders an indication of the likely timetable for the exceptional hardship scheme so they know when it will kick in. Inevitably, some families would have been in the process of selling their homes when they found themselves caught up in this scheme. I know of one such family in my constituency, who are now finding it difficult to sell their home. Such households are anxious to know when they will be able to sell their homes and benefit from the exceptional hardship scheme. It cannot be beyond the wit of the Department to carry out the straightforward exercise of telling those who will be most directly affected how their interests can be protected.

Once that is done, everyone else can sensibly engage in the consultation process about whether the existing preferred route or possible alternative routes would be best. It would also be helpful if the Minister set out clearly for the House the timetable he envisages for between now and when it is hoped work will start in 2017, including the various steps of consultations, inquiries and statutory measures such as legislation.

I will start by being extremely parochial. I believe that Britain needs a high speed train network, if only to bring about a massive reduction in the harmful number of short-haul flights. I am pleased that High Speed 1, the channel tunnel rail link, comes into St. Pancras. It is greatly to the credit of this Government that they spotted that it made no sense to have the channel tunnel with no rail link and built that link. I welcome the Government’s grasp of the need for a high speed network. However, to be parochial, I cannot support the scale of the work proposed at Euston.

That area, which I represent, is densely built-up and populated. The railway engineers are treating it like a greenfield site. The proposals will involve massive demolition that will affect various office blocks, a couple of hotels, a couple of warehouses and, more importantly, the homes of about 350 people. They will also involve concreting over about two thirds of a local park. It is clear from looking at a map of Euston station or from going there that there is a huge amount of wasted space in its curtilage. The railway engineers therefore need to take a much more imaginative approach and not think that they can just draw a line on the map and decide that they will get the necessary land.

There is a wider concern. A group of railway engineers believes that Euston is the wrong station and that it would be better to bring the proposed link into Paddington. That would involve far less tunnelling, which is an expensive item, would remove the need to build a new station at Old Oak and would automatically connect the high speed link with Heathrow via the Heathrow Express and Crossrail, neither of which run through Euston.

I believe that the Government should take a wider look. It is not reasonable for them to say that they have looked at the matter secretly and that the idea they have come up with is the only thing anybody can consider. The first thoughts are not always the best. I remember when probably the self same engineers proposed that the channel tunnel rail link should come into a huge cavern to be excavated under King’s Cross station. Local people denounced that as barmy, which was eventually accepted. I can reasonably claim to be the first person who suggested that High Speed 1 should be brought into St. Pancras station instead, which has been a great success.

However, there is an even wider consideration. Personally, the more I consider the concept, the more dubious I am about a Y-shaped network, with a single stem or leg proceeding from one station in London up to Birmingham, before rightly branching out and dividing, with one arm of the Y going to the north-west and the other through the east midlands to the north-east. Is having just one leg coming into London—only one route in and out—sensible? If anything were to block that route, the whole high speed network would, in effect, cease to exist. That could be the result of a major accident or, sadly, of terrorist activity blowing up part of the stem. If that were to happen, the network would cease to function.

I accept that connections between east and west are a good idea, so that people coming from the north-east can get to the west midlands and, similarly, people coming from the north-west can get to the east midlands. That is a sound idea. However, the letter X has a lot more merit than Y—two connections into London stations, rather than a singular, monopoly connection into Euston. As my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew) mentioned, facilitating a direct connection with High Speed 1 would then be possible, which would be another merit of the system.

On the shape, would my right hon. Friend agree that the difficulty with a Y-shaped link is the potential for downgrading the midland main line to little more than a commuter line? Such a case would significantly disadvantage people in the east midlands.

I accept my hon. Friend’s point. However, a new high speed link could have that effect on various parts of the existing system—which my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle mentioned—particularly if there were not the investment.

I say to my hon. Friend the Minister that the proposals for Euston are not satisfactory, but are grotesquely in excess of what is necessary. The Government should at least give us the case for rejecting the Paddington idea, which I believe was considered. More fundamentally, they need to take a serious look at whether the concept of having the only connection to the high speed network coming into one station in London is sound, safe and secure. The Victorians were bad at some things, but they were good at building railways—although they always went broke afterwards.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew) on securing the debate, which is on an important subject. I agree with a great deal of what he said and, somewhat disturbingly, with quite a lot of what the right hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Frank Dobson) said.

Quite a lot of the constituency that I represent—even more after the boundary changes, I hope—would be cut through by the proposed route for High Speed 2, so I have a direct interest in the subject. None the less, I support the principle of a high speed rail link between London and Birmingham for the reasons given by the hon. Gentleman. We will have capacity problems on our existing railway lines, whether the west coast main line or the Chiltern line, by 2026 when we hope the new line will be operational. I also agree with him that it is sensible, therefore, to plan for a railway line for the future, rather than one for the past, with a high speed railway line.

Support for the principle of a high speed rail line, however, must be conditional on certain things. First, having a line simply between London and Birmingham is not adequate—it must go further north than Birmingham, whether as a Y-shaped or an X-shaped structure. The new line must connect to Heathrow, although as my hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond) has already made clear, it would not be a choice of either central London or Heathrow but would include both. In the same way, current plans make no choice between Birmingham city centre and Birmingham international airport, but include both.

Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, the High Speed 2 line must connect directly to the High Speed 1 line because—again as I think the right hon. Gentleman said—one of the primary arguments that I find persuasive in favour of a high speed rail link in principle is the opportunity for us to use that railway line instead of getting on a plane for a short-haul flight. It seems unlikely that we would succeed in persuading potential short-haul air passengers to use a high speed rail link instead unless they can travel directly from Manchester or Birmingham through London and the channel tunnel to Paris, Brussels or wherever their eventual destination might be. The link between the points at which High Speed 2 enters London and High Speed 1 leaves London would be crucial in persuading potential air passengers to use the train instead. For me, and for most Members of the House and indeed most of the Government, that is one of the best arguments for a high speed rail link. I note from the document and the Government’s Command Paper that they have asked High Speed 2 to look at the possibility of linking the two directly. I hope that the Government will go further than that or, if they will not, that the next Government will go further than that, and make it clear that the project does not stack up or give us all the benefits it ought to unless we make that direct link.

My second point is about the route. I am interested in the route laid out by the Government, for the reasons I set out at the beginning. The first question of my constituents, certainly those directly affected by the Government’s proposed route, is why on earth the high speed rail line cannot go along an existing transport corridor. It has already been said that there will be considerable damage done to open areas of the British countryside, through Buckinghamshire, through Oxfordshire, as my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) said, and through Warwickshire—most importantly from my perspective. If such a case can be made, part of the case must be to explain clearly why the railway line cannot follow either a motorway corridor—for example, the M1, which would be the Milton Keynes link mentioned, or the M4 corridor—or follow an existing railway line such as the Chiltern line. A number of existing transport corridors could be followed predominantly. The advantages are obvious: we would not be cutting through virgin territory, as it were, but through areas already affected by a major transport link and, therefore, the environmental damage would be less.

The answer to why an existing corridor cannot be used may very well be that, from a technical perspective, we cannot get a straight enough railway line to carry trains at the required speed unless we build a brand-new railway line across a completely different part of the country. I am in favour of a separate set of tracks, for the reasons of future congestion given by the hon. Gentleman. However, we shall have to explain clearly to my constituents and others why we cannot use an existing transport corridor.

If the Minister’s answer is, “Ah, yes, but you cannot run a train at 250 mph along a very winding piece of track and, if you put it alongside an existing transport corridor, that’s what would happen,” the next question would have to be why 250 mph was the magic number. Exactly how do we work out what time savings are involved in a train going at 250 mph? However, I note from the Command Paper that a train travelling at 225 mph is far more likely, even though the capacity of the line is for 250 mph. If that is the argument, I hope that the Minister can assure me about the technical information required to match up the straightness of the line with the speed at which a train can travel along it, and whether time savings would be inadequate if the trains did not travel quite as fast.

I hope all that information can be made available to us, so that we can understand exactly what the argument is. Many of my constituents accept the logic of a high speed rail line in principle, but do not follow why we are cutting a scar through a great deal of virgin countryside to achieve it, as the hon. Member for Carlisle said. How do we persuade those people—I have to say that, at this stage, I am one of them—that although we might slightly reduce the speed by having a few more curves, we could not still gain a significant time saving, which I accept is important? If we cannot do that, we need to know why. I hope that the technical information to support the Government’s argument, if that is what it is, will be made available to us.

A further point is, again, about the existing route. I understand the Government’s argument that they have not produced four or five potential routes for fear of blighting half of southern England in the process. However, it seems that if only one proposed route is produced, it suggests to those who live along that route that although the Government might not quite be concrete in their choice of route, they will certainly take a lot of persuading to move away from it. I find that concerning. I want to be reassured that if that is the case, the route has been proposed as a result of the Government having done their homework properly.

Having read the document—the Command Paper—very carefully, it seems that there remains a bit of undone work here. We still do not know exactly where all the listed buildings are. I know that because several constituents have come to me with a map and have shown me where the listed buildings are, and they are certainly not appearing along the route in the Government’s documents. Conservation areas are also not comprehensively listed in the documents. It seems that we do not yet know where the oil and gas pipelines in the ground match up to where the proposed High Speed 2 route will go.

If there is more homework for the Government to do on the matter, is there not a danger that route 3 will be proposed and perhaps settled on, but we will discover later that it cannot be followed in its current form because of other factors that have not yet been considered? I want reassurances for my constituents that the consultation process allows for the possibility that the route can move substantially to follow a completely different corridor. If that is not possible and we can be persuaded that it is not possible, I want a reassurance that the route can move in various different ways throughout various parts of the country. Those different ways must be made clear, so that we know exactly why the Government have proposed the current part of the route to which we are referring.

In relation to changing the route, it might be useful to consider Stoneleigh. That is a good example because, as the Minister will know, Stoneleigh is specifically referred to in the Command Paper, as it is one of the places where the Government are not quite confident they have got the route right. That strikes fear into the hearts of my other constituents, because if the places they are concerned about are not mentioned specifically, the suggestion is that the Government are confident they have got the route right there. If we have not got all the information I referred to on the map and marked route already, how do I know that the Government have that part of the route clear in their own minds and can persuade us it is the right one? I also want reassurance that if we can make a decent argument for doing so, we can move the route so it goes the other side of the village or 100 yards this way or that way. I am assuming that that part of the argument will only be relevant if the Government can persuade us that their chosen route, rather than an existing transport corridor, is the right one.

I know that the Minister will accept there is a great deal of work yet to be done both by the Government and by my constituents to defend their interests in response to what the Government propose. We need absolute clarity from the start, first, that the Government have done their homework; secondly, if they have done so, that they are open to persuasion that they may have got it wrong and there might be a better route; thirdly, if there is no better route and this is the route that must be followed, we must be clear why they have chosen, for example, embankments not viaducts and cuttings not tunnels to reduce the environmental impact to the maximum effect.

Although I understand that there is a great deal more work to do and that more effort needs to be put in not just by the Government and High Speed 2, but by those who wish to change the route, it is important at this stage that we have absolute and clear undertakings from the Government that the route is capable of being moved if the arguments are powerful enough for that to happen. We also need confirmation that, within very short order, we will have all the technical information we require from the Government in order to mount a serious and sensible argument against the proposed route.

[Mr. David Wilshire in the Chair]

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew) on securing this important and timely debate, and on putting the case, as he has done on a number of occasions, for having services on the high speed line stop at and serve his constituency and surrounding areas. It is a powerful case, and he has again made it forcefully today.

Like other hon. Members, I very much welcome the Government’s announcement of the High Speed 2 proposal. The Minister will perhaps not be surprised to hear that I wish to make the case for the classic network, and wish to press him to give an assurance again today that the very welcome investment in High Speed 2 will not be at the expense of much-needed investment in the classic network. Again, the Minister will not be surprised to learn that there is a particular part of the classic network that I want to ensure is not neglected as a result of investment in High Speed 2; I refer to the completion of the electrification of the midland main line.

As the Minister knows, the midland main line is already electrified as far as Bedford, but it is not yet included in the firm proposals for further electrification—proposals that are very welcome, particularly those for the electrification of the Great Western. It would be most unfortunate if, as a result of waiting for investment in High Speed 2, we were to lose out on that much-needed investment, which will bring faster journey times and considerable economic benefit to the east midlands and beyond, up to Sheffield.

As the Minister will be aware, the cost-benefit analysis of the investment in the electrification of that line is very positive. We need electrification of that line to be completed, not least because the High Speed 2 proposals—the Y-shaped link to which my right hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Frank Dobson) referred—include a link across the east midlands, with a single station in the east midlands. That station will probably not be capable of serving the whole area. Of course, as I suggested in my intervention, that could lead to the downgrading of parts of the midland main line, so that they provide little more than a commuter service, rather than the main line service currently provided. That would be most unfortunate, and would be to the considerable disadvantage of the cities of Derby, Nottingham and Leicester, which might have only one single high speed station serving them all. The midland main line would no longer provide the high-quality service that it does.

For that reason, it is vital that the electrification of the midland main line is completed in advance of any High Speed 2 construction, so that interoperability is ensured, where it is appropriate, between the new high speed trains and parts of the midland main line. That would ensure that the midland main line does not ultimately lose out. It is equally important that a commitment is made to the electrification of that line at an early date, because much of the existing rolling stock on the midland main line, and particularly the high speed trains, are coming to the end of their useful life. It would be most unfortunate if they were replaced by diesel rolling stock that was not suitable, or appropriately interoperable with the new high speed line. I hope that the Minister will give some reassurance, as he has done in the past, to people in the east midlands that we will not lose out in the short term as a result of the longer-term commitment to investment in High Speed 2.

Finally, I put on the record my concerns about the parliamentary process that High Speed 2 will need to go through if it is to be completed. The process is, of course, that of a hybrid Bill. I speak with some experience of hybrid Bills, having served my time—it felt like serving one’s time—as a member of the Select Committee on the Crossrail Bill.

There was some speculation about what particular crime I and others on the Committee had committed. I want to put on the record that, before that procedure is used again for the High Speed 2 line, Parliament ought to consider whether it is not over-cumbersome for modern needs and whether it is, indeed, entirely fit for purpose. I put that on the record in the hope that others need not suffer quite as much as did those of us who were interred during that Bill’s progress.

It is a pleasure to contribute to the debate under your chairmanship, Mr. Wilshire, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew) on securing the debate. Given that there now appears to be widespread support across the House for high speed rail, I will start with a few comments on its potential economic impact, and will explain the background and context of the debate.

The construction of high speed rail could create as many as 10,000 jobs over seven years, according to the High Speed 2 proposals. A study by KPMG published earlier this year showed that high speed rail could create between 25,000 and 42,000 extra jobs and boost the UK economy by 2 per cent. by 2040. The greatest economic gains and potential growth in jobs would be in Yorkshire and Humber, Scotland, the north-east, the north-west and the west midlands, a point that has already been made today. That is important. Along with the hon. Gentleman, I am among a minority of Members who have participated in the debate, in that I have regular direct experience of the west coast main line, as I use it to commute back and forth between my constituency and the House each week.

Also of great significance is the business support for high speed rail. A survey of 500 businesses of various sizes carried out in December 2008 showed that businesses believe that high speed rail would benefit them more than would a third runway at Heathrow. When asked specifically which development would help them more, almost four in 10 businesses chose high speed rail links, and fewer than one in 10 chose the third runway at Heathrow.

High speed rail will benefit the regions, which is important, not least because spending per head on transport is far lower in the north than it is in London. That is an established fact. According to the July 2009 report from the Transport Committee, both the north-east and Yorkshire receive 72 per cent. of the UK average of funding per head of population, whereas London receives 195 per cent. per head and Scotland, perhaps more surprisingly, receives 162 per cent. per head. There is a similar gulf in capital investment. In the five years to 2008, investment in rail rose by 35 per cent. in the north-east and 37 per cent. in Yorkshire, but in London it rose by more than 80 per cent. in the same period.

The environmental benefits are absolutely key to the debate. Transport, as most Members know, is responsible for 28 per cent. of all UK carbon emissions. Emissions from transport have increased since 1990, which is against the trend for other major sectors. Estimates show that in 1990, transport emitted 140.8 million tonnes of CO2, but by 2007 that had risen to 153.2 million tonnes, an increase of almost 9 per cent. In aviation alone, emissions have increased by 119 per cent. That should be contrasted with the 16 per cent. reduction from business and the 9 per cent. reduction from households. The message is clear—transport needs to catch up.

A passenger taking the Eurostar from London to Paris emits 10.9 kg of CO2, compared with 122 kg of CO2 if the passenger takes a flight. Similarly, a passenger travelling from London to Brussels by train emits 18.3 kg of CO2, compared with a massive 160 kg of CO2 if they take a flight. High Speed 2 has concluded that, even allowing for additional demand for travel, high speed rail’s carbon impact is likely to be broadly neutral, and the change in average annual emissions is estimated to be in the range of 0.41 million tonnes to 0.44 million tonnes, which is equivalent to just plus or minus 0.3 per cent. of current annual transport emissions.

There is also a great potential for modal shift, a point referred to earlier by other hon. Members. According to Eurostar, 34 million air journeys between the UK and the continent could be switched to rail using existing capacity. As we know, flights from Brussels to Paris have virtually been eliminated as a result of high speed rail links, and rail now holds 91 per cent. of the market share on journeys between Paris and Lyon. In future years, people at Manchester airport, which is on the doorstep of my constituency, will look back in wonderment at the notion that people used to fly regularly, and even daily in some cases, between Manchester and London, especially as such an effective rail service on the west coast main line is already available.

High speed rail will also free up space on the classic, established network. That, too, is important because rail travellers have increased by 50 per cent. in the past 26 years, and by 36 per cent. in the past decade. Those figures are impressive, but the figures for individual stations in our constituencies are often even more so. Rail passenger journeys at Gatley railway station in my constituency, which is a small commuter station but a key link to Manchester, have increased by 130 per cent. in the past 10 years, according to figures provided by the Greater Manchester integrated transport authority.

In 2008-09, 18.8 per cent. of trains on the east coast main line were late, as were 26.6 per cent. of all Virgin trains, so there is still much room for improvement in existing services. That is why it is good that high speed rail will free up space on the established network. That would also bring benefits for freight. That market has grown by 66 per cent. in the past decade, and there is increasing demand for space. Consequently, we currently have shortfalls on many routes, including an estimated shortage of around 150 trains a day between London and Crewe.

The trains that will be introduced with high speed rail will be capable of travelling at up to 250 mph. Journey times between London and Birmingham could be as short as 49 minutes, down from the current time of one hour and 24 minutes. The journey between London and Manchester could be one hour and 20 minutes, down from the current two hours and eight minutes. The journey from London to Edinburgh could be three and a half hours, down from four and a half hours. The proposed Y-shaped network would cover around 335 miles and, as we have heard, run up both coasts, but it would not include a link to Heathrow. High Speed 2 estimates that every £1 spent will deliver more than £2 of benefits, and that the overall cost will be around £30 billion.

Let me make it clear that the Liberal Democrats welcome the proposals and the proposed route. My hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) has accepted an invitation to look at the plans with the Minister and his team, and we are grateful that he will have the opportunity to do so. That does not mean, however, that we are absolutely committed to every single detail of the proposed route. It is right and proper that that is a matter for public consultation. As far as delays to the start of the scheme are concerned, Lord Adonis’s original statement indicated that construction would not begin until after the completion of Crossrail in 2017.

The hon. Gentleman said that he welcomes the route but that the Liberal Democrats are not committed to every aspect of it. Would he clarify whether that means that they have ruled out the prospect of an alternative transport corridor being used for High Speed 2?

No, it means precisely what I said. It is sensible to take the opportunity to look at the details of the route, and it is right that that should go out for public consultation, but what is proposed is not set in tablets of stone.

A detailed timetable from the Department for Transport referred to 2019 as the date by which construction could start. It would then take until 2026 for the line to be built to Birmingham, and a further six years, as we have heard, for the twin lines to reach Leeds and Manchester. That looks suspiciously like an excuse to delay spending, and is against a background of just 27 miles of new rail since 1997, excluding the channel tunnel, compared with more than 1,000 miles of new road since then.

I am not excluding the channel tunnel per se. If the hon. Gentleman will listen to the wider point, I am pointing out that, within the confines of the UK, only 27 miles of new railway have been built since 1997, compared with 1,000 miles of new road. Even if we were to include the channel tunnel, it would still be a poor comparison.

Like the hon. Gentleman, I share some concerns about stops on the proposed new routes. Stockport is an important stop on the established west coast main line, and I very much hope and intend that it should remain so. Frankly, it would not be acceptable if any future proposals to speed up journey times were to mean a reduction in the current number of stops at Stockport.

Finally, high speed rail should not come at the expense of other improvements to the rail network. Electrification is important—virtually the entire network needs to be completed by 2050. At present, only 39 per cent. is electrified, whereas in France, some 90 per cent. of passenger traffic travels on electrified lines.

We also want to look in more detail at the reopening of existing lines, particularly those that have already been identified: Bletchley to Oxford, Lewes to Uckfield, Galashiels to Carlisle and others. There are benefits to the established rail network, and we need those improvements as well. Ultimately, our proposition is simple: there is not a case for a third runway at Heathrow, but there is definitely a case for high speed rail, and the sooner, the better.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew) on securing this debate, which he said may be his last in Parliament. I have been an Opposition spokesman for about four and a half years, and I know that he has been a faithful follower of a number of transport debates, in particular those on rail. This is an important debate because, as several Members have said, it can set out a huge number of opportunities for our country in the following decades.

We have heard some powerful contributions today. My hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) raised issues about the extent of the consultation so far, in particular with his constituents and the whole of Oxfordshire. He discussed the exceptional hardship scheme, about which several Members have already seen the Minister and the Secretary of State.

My hon. Friend the Member for Rugby and Kenilworth (Jeremy Wright) got to the core of a matter on which there is some disagreement between our party and the Government: the publication of a route without some of the real issues being decided, and the commitment to a route in the febrile atmosphere of a general election. He made several good points about historic monuments, conservation areas, oil and gas pipes and so on. Those of us who have noted some of the information in the public domain about the potential costs of the station at Birmingham will be concerned about whether we might have done better to discuss some of the principles, corridors and specifics of the route outside the period of a general election.

The right hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Frank Dobson) mentioned Paddington. His contribution was interesting, and he made the case for his constituents. The hon. Member for Leicester, South (Sir Peter Soulsby) made a point about the classic network. I wonder whether we ought to start calling it the standard, or the established network, on the basis that calling it the classic network implies that it might be something like a classic car. We all want the railways preserved, enhanced and continued, but I think that “classic” has a connotation in transport that we would do well to pull away from.

The high speed train is the 21st century version of Stephenson’s Rocket.

At my party’s conference in 2007, my hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs. Villiers) announced our policy of linking in airports. There is a regeneration argument. The Minister dismissed the comments about a direct link to Heathrow, but let me tell him what one of the experts, Greengauge 21, said in its report of 2009, “Fast Forward: A High-Speed Rail Strategy for Britain”, in which it discussed not only environmental but economic arguments. It said that

“fast direct links to the nation’s dominant international airport at Heathrow will help businesses located outside the south east to compete in world markets.”

The argument about taking both domestic and short-haul flights out of the air by connecting to Heathrow is overwhelming and powerful. The case for high speed rail stands: it is better for the economy, the environment and the travelling public.

I welcome the cross-party consensus on the principle, but it is absolutely clear that the specifics of the high speed proposals need to be judged on their merits. We have already made it clear that the Conservative party will reserve its position on the route that has been chosen. We will listen carefully to the points of view of those who are affected by it, but I do not believe that a report being published this close to a general election should close down the options for any incoming Government to reconsider both the remit and the route when elected. There are some good reasons for that. The remit that the Government set for High Speed 2 did not include clear plans beyond Birmingham, so much of the economic benefit of regeneration to the north has not been outlined in the report because it was never part of the remit at stage 1. There are some huge arguments about that.

On the failure to link Heathrow, we all accept that Old Oak Common will be a necessary stop because of the dispersal arguments, which the Minister raised. However, he failed to say that on the 20 and 25 per cent. dispersal, there are some real arguments. Without the connectivity to Heathrow, it is not the airport. Changing trains and getting to and from Old Oak Common are all issues that need considering. High speed rail also provides a huge alternative to short-haul flights. Being wedded to not allowing a remit to assess potential modal shift from air to rail by high speed rail will clearly frustrate and restrain the argument for a direct link to Heathrow. That is a huge flaw in the plans.

Many of the High Speed 2 proposals have merit, and I hope that the cross-party consensus on the principle of high speed rail will survive the general election, and that it can be built earlier. There will be a chance to go through the planning and legal phases by 2015 and I hope that the first sod can be cut two years earlier than the Government propose. I hope that high speed rail will be built in phases, and that the first phase—London-Birmingham-Manchester-Leeds—

The hon. Gentleman, who speaks for the official Opposition, has raised again the prospect of an earlier start. The Government were commended by the hon. Member for Rugby and Kenilworth (Jeremy Wright) for their inclusive and all-encompassing consultation approach. Does the hon. Gentleman seriously believe that the legal mechanisms and appropriate consultation could take place and that work could start by the earlier date that he suggests when much of the necessary expertise will be transferred from the Crossrail project, which does not finish until after that date?

I thank the Minister for his question. We have carefully examined and set out the plans that will be required, including extensive consultation and the need for a hybrid Bill. I believe that that could be done during the lifetime of a full Parliament.

I have a limited amount of time to respond to a range of excellent contributions from hon. Members. I start by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew) on securing this debate, and I welcome all the points that have been made. It might be helpful if I first explain that the Government believe that high speed rail is the best way of enhancing our inter-urban transport networks. It is clear that over the next 20 to 30 years, key inter-urban routes linking our major cities will become increasingly congested.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Frank Dobson) said that the original railways were built in just three years. The history of the railways shows that routes were often designed specifically to circumnavigate the opposition—usually landowners who had corporate interests in the canal system. The routes were dictated by political factors in the first instance, which is why we have inherited such a higgledy-piggledy network of railways from those Victorian entrepreneurs. We are the first Government to break that mould, to move away from that inheritance, and to start to deliver a new high speed network that links London with Birmingham, Manchester, the east midlands, Sheffield and Leeds. That could more than treble capacity on the congested west coast corridor, improve journey times between our major cities and, as many hon. Members have said, release capacity on existing lines for additional commuter services and freight.

In addition, linking the proposed core high speed rail network to the existing west coast and east coast main lines will make it possible to provide high speed services to other destinations, such as Liverpool, Newcastle, Glasgow and Edinburgh—I might also add, Carlisle—from the outset. For example, the proposed network could reduce journey times from Glasgow to London to around 3.5 hours, creating significant scope for a modal shift from aviation to rail. It also has the potential radically to improve regional connectivity, drawing together the major conurbations of the midlands and the north.

My hon. Friend asked about the first generation of high speed trains that will have to be able to run on the classic network. I assure him that the speeds at which they run will be similar. They will not tilt, but the journey time savings on the London to Birmingham section will more than outweigh any restraint on speed on the network, which he has often made the case for upgrading.

My hon. Friend also asked about the future of Pendolinos. The subject will be up for discussion and further work. Some rolling stock and services will continue to operate on the classic network, but detailed planning of service patterns, rolling stock, timetables and distribution will take place later in the process.

On the benefits to the UK economy, the modelling carried out by HS2 suggests that a high speed line from London to Birmingham alone could provide benefits totalling some £29 billion, and up to £32 billion if wider economic benefits such as agglomeration effects are taken into account. The more extensive network in the Government’s proposed Y-shaped core would bring still more significant benefits. It would shrink journey times further, and enable the UK’s city economies to function more effectively together. At long last, we would start to tackle the problems inherent in our Victorian rail heritage.

My right hon. Friend referred to multiple connections to London, and that aspect of the consultation will start in the autumn, but there will be questions about the cost and provision of a second London station site. The Government have rejected that at this stage, on the advice of HS2 Ltd. We are confident that a single stem will provide sufficient capacity. Resilience issues are important, but they have been thoroughly considered. The Command Paper published on 11 March, as well as supporting an initial core high speed network going as far north as Manchester and Leeds, also supports two further elements of high speed rail policy.

The first is the through-running of high speed services to destinations further north. Through-running will be possible when the line to Birmingham has been constructed and when it has been extended to Manchester and Leeds. Journey time savings to Scotland, Newcastle and elsewhere will be dramatic, and I encourage hon. Members to inspect the helpful journey time schematics that are available in the Command Paper.

The second element in the Command Paper is extensions to the core network, which would run to Newcastle on the eastern branch and to Edinburgh and Glasgow on the western branch. Intermediate stations on those lines will continue to be discussed, and I note that my hon. Friend staked a claim today for a station there. That, and proposals for stations elsewhere, will receive careful attention.

Let me put it on record early in my response that the Government have no intention of allowing the existing rail network to wither on the vine. My hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, South (Sir Peter Soulsby) made a case for electrification of the midland main line, to which the Government are committed. We continue to examine the business case in the context of the existing rolling stock.

I am running out of time, but this is a national cause, which the Secretary of State has driven forward with his usual energy and passion. Much work remains to be done, and all interested parties have a chance to register their views. I am sure that they will do so through the consultation, whether on the extended hardship scheme or the route. High speed rail has the potential to rewrite the geography of our country, to conquer the north-south divide at last, and to ensure that all the UK’s regions are open to the opportunities of our globalised economy.

Early Intervention

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Mr. Wilshire. I understand, with a note of sorrow, that you will not be with us on future occasions. It is a pleasure to have known you over the years as a parliamentary colleague.

I also welcome my right hon. Friend the Minister. She and I share some unfortunate statistics regarding the make-up of our constituencies, and the deprivation and difficulties that exist. The third member of the trio, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett) is not with us, although sadly our constituencies sometimes linger near the wrong end of tables. I know that the Minister wishes to make an impact on such issues in her constituency, as do I, and she brings a special knowledge to bear on that.

I have called this debate to welcome the Government’s document, “Early Intervention: Securing good outcomes for children and young people”. I am not sure whether it is a White Paper, a Green Paper or just a document; none the less, I was pleased to see its publication last week. It is a guide and an inspiration, and I wish it had been available five years ago when I started as the chair of One Nottingham, trying to make Nottingham an early intervention city. It would have been of tremendous assistance.

In the spirit of early intervention, I hope that this document will be a guide and inspiration to many who come after us in different guises, and that it will inform the policies of the next Government, of whatever political complexion. It is a long overdue, well drafted and well pulled together document, and I have sought to spread it far and wide. It provides the groundwork for something I would like to see, which is a commitment in the election manifestos of all three main parties to furthering early intervention, and to developing 12 early intervention cities, perhaps by learning from what we tried to do in Nottingham. We also need the creation of an early intervention policy assessment centre. That issue is touched on in the document, although we must solidify it in practice. Early intervention should be funded through the capital markets and not through the Government, so that we can obtain the longevity and certainty that is the foundation of effective early intervention.

I have given the document a warm welcome, but I will now focus, rather perversely, on one or two issues where I think we could go further. I do not intend to be destructive in any way, and I hope my comments will be taken in the creative and constructive spirit in which they are offered. My first—it is rather wistful—is that I wish we had made more of this publication, and perhaps the Minister will tell us why it was dealt with in such a low-key way last week. I did not know it had been published until I was asked to comment on it by specialist journals. When I sent the document to the usual suspects and to national and international experts on early intervention, not only did they not know it had been published; many did not know it had been written. It was a low-key publication, which is a shame as there is a great story to tell. If we are to win people over to early intervention, we must start to trumpet it as a concept and philosophy that counters many of the ideas that exist so strongly in the way we currently administer social policy. I could not get a hard copy of the document this morning from the Vote Office, and that was rather strange.

It is an excellent publication, although we could have improved it further had we had a conference and a more open process of critique and consensus. The Minister may have known of time constraints that I was unaware of, but all friends of early intervention want to gather round and be as helpful as we can when the Government are doing such good things. The Government have also created an early intervention section within the Department for Children, Schools and Families, and that is welcome. All the trend lines are going in the right direction, and we hope to build on that with the Government.

A more serious criticism is that the opening definition of early intervention in the publication is not particularly good. Thankfully, it goes on to ignore that definition, and there is lots of good stuff in the body of the work. The definition of early intervention is given as,

“to tackle problems that have already emerged”,

but the whole basis of early intervention is that we get to problems before they emerge. We anticipate and pre-empt, and in some ways that definition is almost the antithesis of early intervention. The real definition of early intervention, and the one arrived at by many practitioners who think about and practise it, is to develop social and emotional capabilities in every baby, child and young person, so that problems do not emerge. It is not about problem-solving; it is about eliminating causes. To put it in less flowery language, a stitch in time saves nine—something that every parent understands.

The document is most welcome because of the way it pulls together a lot of understanding and practice in the field. However, we must guard against adopting the language of early intervention on a flavour-of-the-month basis by co-opting the language, but not changing existing practice. We must challenge and change existing practice, as well as paying lip service to the concept of early intervention. When I was chair of One Nottingham we pioneered the concept of an early intervention city, and there was undoubtedly an unconscious process on the part of some of the big public bureaucracies of absorbing and incorporating non-conformist ideas that were not measured, tested or benchmarked from the centre. A warm embrace tends to envelop such ideas, and they disappear after a brief life. It would be a tragedy for children and our intergenerational development if that happened with early intervention. We do not wish to see an exciting vision turned into policy administration and the defence of existing public bureaucratic boundaries and enormous remedial budgets.

We cannot go on as we are. There is a clear public policy choice: we either continue as we are, which will mean that we pauperise every taxpayer to pay for the costs of social failure; or we take a different turning and try to squeeze down on dysfunctionality at the earliest possible moment, in order to ensure our economic, let alone our social, survival.

One of the issues that comes through in the document is the attempt to commit to a common attainment level across society. There is a terrible waste of babies, children and young people throughout some of our communities. If we can define a social and emotional bedrock and a standard that is applicable to all children—particularly to make them school-ready—we will obtain a fundamental sea change in the way we view our role and responsibilities in society. We need clarity in raising standards, particularly the standard of having a child who is ready to go to school, rather than condemning that child to go to school followed by 11 wasted years because they are unable to listen, learn and make the best of that time. If we do not do that, we could slip back into pure remedialism.

I guess this is just a personal thing, but some of the professional jargon we encounter rankles a little. I am thinking of debates about stigmatisation, and the use of pseudo-medical phraseology such as “triage” or the misuse of the word “resilience”, given that many children cannot bounce back if they are not given the right social and emotional tools and equipment to work with. One of my least favourite terms is “risk factors”. That tends to involve a list of the symptoms, rather than seeking to deal with the fundamental causes of many of those symptoms. Again, the fundamental cause is the social and emotional capability or incapability of many of the babies, children and young people whom we are discussing.

We must be careful: unless we have the vision that I have set out and unless we have it in mind at all times, we can lapse into the day-to-day maelstrom of micro problem-solving that so many of our public servants are sucked into. They do remarkably well in that firefighting job, but there must be a point at which people step back and, as well as fighting the fires, have a proper programme for smoke alarms. As well as swatting the mosquitoes, people must have a proper programme for draining the swamp. That vision and aspiration cannot be set by hard-working local officials in the health service, the police, children’s services and community services. It must be set at the top. The philosophy and the desire to change the culture have to be clearly there at the political and ministerial level. I welcome in particular the personal work done by the Minister, but also the work done by the team at the Department in moving that forward.

Fundamentally, we need to reach much further back to resolve some of the difficulties than we are currently doing. On occasion, the language in the document I am discussing slips a little from its own very high standards. People talk about specific problem solving and remedialism, when really this issue is about breaking the intergenerational cycle. As the Minister will know very well from experience in her own constituency, we need to see the baby who is born as tomorrow’s parent, who can go on to raise a better generation. If we can crack the intergenerational cycle of deprivation, that will go a long way towards resolving many of the symptoms, including crime, drug abuse and drink abuse, with which we are all too familiar.

I commend the document, particularly for its work on partnership. Partnership is about a vision and a culture. The chief executive of Nottingham city council has said that

“early intervention is in everyone’s DNA”.

I hope we can continue that momentum, but to make partnership working more effective, we must ensure that proper help is available from a policy assessment centre for early intervention such as those in Colorado and Washington state, which were mentioned in the document, and many other areas. I am talking about a centre that can implement and drive my ambition, which is to see a dozen cities become early intervention cities and break out of the constant and expensive cycle of trying to tackle the consequences of deprivation and dysfunction.

I also commend the document for its excellent work on funding and money saving; it is a small section, but I know it is not an afterthought. There is much more to be done in that regard. We have to break out of the problem whereby funding tends to be for one year or two years and people do not have a 20 or 30-year, long-term view, which is essential. Unless we do that, there will just be small starburst efforts based on personal energy or individual projects, rather than a long-term philosophy.

Tracking is also referred to in the document. It talks about the common assessment framework, but that framework is more of a snapshot than an action plan and often tends to be bogged down in its own difficulties, such as who will pay for it and who is taking responsibility for the individual. We need a proper data-sharing tracking policy so that we can identify people not when they commit an offence or appear to have a problem, but when it would be really helpful to do so—not least to parents, who want assistance at the earliest possible moment.

I hope the Minister will agree that there is undoubtedly a degree of paralysis locally when people talk about data. There is always a problem with data protection. Ministers tell me that no problems exist—“Challenge them and confront them.” However, the culture is there of saying no first—“Justify your request”—rather than building up the trust and the processes that would make data-sharing effective.

I have a few final questions to throw into the pot regarding the proposals. First, I very much welcome the idea that there should be a research centre on child well-being, which will include early intervention. When will that be created, how will it be set up and who will be represented in it? Will it, for example, use the expertise of the Centre for Excellence and Outcomes in Children and Young People’s Services, which does such good work?

Secondly, an early intervention implementation group will emerge. That is very welcome, but can we ensure that it does not, as was said in the document, act after a child’s exclusion from school, but four years earlier than that—or possibly five, six or seven years earlier—so that we can pre-empt the child’s being excluded from school by getting the right help to the parents and the baby?

The third issue is the use of evidence-based programmes. I think we would all like to see that, but we also need an independent organisational driver of the sort I have described as a centre for policy outcomes.

Finally, on the economic side, there will be an expert group on the long-term financing of early intervention. That is very welcome. I hope it will not be as narrowly drawn as the document suggests. That seems to favour social impact bonds only. There are many other instruments. There are early intervention bonds and many other possibilities whereby the market, which over the past two years has shown its brilliance and invention in getting us into trouble, could show its brilliance in organising out some of the social problems and being seen to be even more socially responsible. I do not mean soft money, ethical money or money with Government underwriting. I mean a hard-faced proposition about making money from ensuring that babies, children and young people grow up to be productive people, rather than an imposition on taxpayers. That should not be limited to the 14-to-16 age group. On the contrary, the focus should also be on babies who are 14 to 16 days old, rather than just on young people who are 14 to 16 years old. It would be useful if the Minister told us when the expert group on financing early intervention will be created, who will be in it and how she sees it functioning.

There are a number of crunchy particulars in there. I hope the Minister will take the questions in the spirit in which they have been offered. Once again, I place on the record my thanks to her, her civil servants and her Department for what I hope will be seen in many years to come as probably the first big building block, philosophically, to be put in place by the Government. The breakthrough to make early intervention a philosophy and a vision will benefit children as yet unborn and generations still to come. If we can start to lay the groundwork and operate consensually as far as possible with other parties, everyone will look back on that in the future and say, “If they did nothing else, they did a good thing on moving early intervention forward.”

I join my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) in welcoming you to the Chair, Mr. Wilshire. This will, as you put it, be your last outing, so let me say how much I have valued your friendship and our discussions about Bristol City football club—when its performance has been good and when it has been bad. I will sorely miss that, because we are probably the only two Members in the whole of Parliament who follow Bristol City.

Once I have retired, the attendance at Ashton Gate may increase a little. I understand that the club is looking for a manager. Should I apply, can I count on the Minister for a reference?

Mr. Wilshire, it will certainly be great to see you regularly at the games. Given the recent publicity about retiring Members of Parliament offering themselves in various roles, perhaps you and I should have a private conversation about your idea.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on the debate. His commitment in his constituency, in the city of Nottingham and in the House in pressing forward the urgent and important debate on early intervention stands as a beacon in this Parliament. As he rightly said, early intervention is at the heart of all our children’s and young people’s services. As we know, the most effective way to improve young lives is to act at the earliest possible opportunity. My hon. Friend talked about securing the social and emotional capabilities of every child and young person, and I agree with what he said.

My hon. Friend will not be surprised to hear that there are, regrettably, many definitions of early intervention. For the purposes of the document—not as a final conclusion—we are talking about intervening as soon as possible to tackle the problems that have already emerged for children and young people, and I take exactly my hon. Friend’s point about the need to take that wider step as well.

My hon. Friend talked about the cultural change that is necessary in our children’s and young people’s services. The document seeks to lay out a simple process for early intervention. The aim is, first, to identify the particular issues that make intervention necessary. Secondly, we need to have a good assessment of need. That is then carried forward into the final step, which is about making sure that the results inform a purposeful response. As my hon. Friend said, such a response is about making a stitch in time and acting early for the benefit of the individual, the family and the community.

The consultation—the document the Department has published—is intended to open up a debate further to clarify and develop the issues. The Government are determined that we—frankly, the same is true of all political parties—need to improve outcomes for children and young people. That is why we have already made significant steps on early intervention, but we need to go further.

With our 3,500 children’s centres—the number is rising—we are providing services to intervene early to help families and children. We are also working on early development and we have put £1 billion into extended schools services. On transition, we often see problems later on with the eight-to-13 range, so it is important to intervene early to support the family, the child and those in the wider setting.

Could I just be clear about the status of the document? Is it a consultation document? If so, is the consultation still open? How do people put in their views to help improve the document?

I was going to pick that point up. I am sorry; I did not mean to mislead my hon. Friend. The document is up for debate; it is not a formal consultation, in the sense that the Government would have a 12 or 13-week period for responses.

My hon. Friend asked about the early implementation group, and the document is intended to be the starting point for the discussions that the group will take forward and lead. Those discussions will, for example, be about specific practice—we have tried to address this in the documents—that demonstrates clear outcomes that are of value to the child, the young person, the family and the community. There is lots of value for money around, but the question is how we spread understanding so that everybody locally does not invent their own solution, which may or may not work, and the data are not collected.

As part of the exercise—this relates to one of my hon. Friend’s questions—we have asked C4EO, which already collects good practice for us, to make sure that good practice is fed into the implementation group. The Association of Directors of Children’s Services is also advising the group. There are discussions about who will sit on the group, how they will link to an institute, how we can develop these things and—I will come to this shortly—financing. The implementation group is taking these issues forward.

In terms of the Government process, I am not quite sure how we would describe the document; it is not a Green Paper, it is not a White Paper and it is not a formal consultation. It seeks to make more advice, support and good practice available, particularly to children’s trusts, which have to bring together health bodies, local authorities, the police and the third sector—all the services on the ground—in their children’s and young person’s plan. Organisations have to look at how they can work together, based on a needs assessment, to deliver not only the services that they do now, but the early intervention that my hon. Friend has so rightly explained.

We need a practical method of doing such things. We do not want to tell people what to do or to issue guidance, although guidance might come at some stage, but to make sure that people not only sign up to the principle, but develop the practice, as my hon. Friend has done so ably with his partner agencies in Nottingham.

The implementation group will also need to look at financial considerations. My hon. Friend touched on the social impact bond, and there have been two pilots, which have given us some interesting results. That is not the only possible financial mechanism, but it is the one that has been piloted, and we are asking for it to be considered. I am attracted to such a bond for the following reasons. First, it gives charities, third-sector organisations and local authorities extra finance, so that they can start bringing together seed finance and early implementation provisions. Secondly, the local authority or charity would have to agree specific outcomes with those they had received the money from. They would have to track their data and show that their approach worked.

On that basis, the Government would pay for the bonds—that is the idea—but we would not do so if they did not work. Instead of having targets, pressures and silos from central Government, we are looking at whether a local assessment, based on need, could deliver. However, my hon. Friend is quite right that other financial solutions may be available.

To answer my hon. Friend’s questions, therefore, the implementation group is central, and he is right that the question of whom we have on it is crucial. We are being advised by two important institutions, but we will make sure that we have more. Those involved will then engage in dialogue and settle the way forward on the other questions that my hon. Friend asked.

Why was the document low key? Whether publications are low key or not is not always in the Government’s hands. Regrettably, the document did not attract attention, and nor did the children’s centres. However, as the debate goes forward locally, I hope it will achieve what my hon. Friend and I want: great social and emotional development for young people and children, based on early intervention. With the support of my hon. Friend and others, I am sure we will achieve that.

UK Chemical Industry

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Wilshire. I wish you well in your retirement. I think that this will be my last speech in this place, as well. It is a great pleasure, also, to see my hon. Friend the Minister here, because he has shown quite an interest in some of the subjects in which I have been interested.

I dedicate this debate to Dr. Ashok Kumar, the late Member of Parliament for Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland. I succeeded Ashok as chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on the chemical industry, which is administered by the Chemical Industries Association. It was his intention to become chairman of the all-party group again after my retirement. I am sure that we all agree that Ashok will be sadly missed in this place, and I send my condolences to his family and friends.

The UK chemical industry, including pharmaceuticals, is a £60 billion business, which employs over 600,000 people. It adds £30 million to our balance of trade every working day and represents 12 per cent. of total UK manufacturing—twice that of aerospace. Throughout the 1990s, 16 countries produced 80 per cent. of the total world output of chemicals. The UK was sixth behind the USA, Japan, Germany, China and France. According to figures produced in 2005 by CEFIC, the European Chemical Industry Council, the EU chemical industry leads all EU manufacturing in terms of value added per employee, and is second only to the USA in world output. Therefore, for both the UK and Europe, the chemical industry is a valuable contributor to our economies.

The chemical industry’s current major concerns are the cost and security of energy supplies, skills training and recruitment, the availability of capital for investment in developing new products and acquiring new plant and equipment, the costs of transport, and the regulatory burden placed on the industry in recent times, which has had the biggest impact. The election manifesto just published by the CIA expands on those concerns.

Our Government have decided that energy security is a major concern, and major changes in energy supplies are under way, with less reliance on imported oil and gas in future years and more reliance on a basket of renewable energy generation technologies and nuclear fission. Coal will play a major role in future, but only if either pre- or post-combustion carbon capture technologies are incorporated in new plant, or retrofitted to old plant. That will require massive capital investment which, in turn, will result in increased energy costs.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman, who has been a superb advocate of and worker for the chemical industry in the UK. I wish him well in whatever he does in the future. No doubt he has plenty of ideas.

Did the CIA say how we can conserve feedstocks for future generations, so that we can keep the industry going, rather than burning them, as he is about to describe?

It did not, is the honest answer, but I have some thoughts about that, which the hon. Gentleman will hear.

Increased energy costs will obviously impact on the chemical industry, which is affected particularly by spikes in gas prices. It believes that those are caused by a shortage of gas storage facilities in the UK, which is now being addressed by the Government. In the winter of 2005-06, many UK companies were forced to cut or stop production altogether. Aluminium production in the UK has been particularly badly hit, as have processes such as chlorine production and metallurgical and ceramic processing. The image that the chemical industry had when I was a student in the ’60s has changed beyond imagination through the introduction of environmental and health and safety legislation. Chemicals are highly regulated products today. In environmental legislation alone, more than 500 measures affect the industry. Much of the current national and international legislation is complex and some of it is obscure, and various organisations are pressing for better regulation of the industry. There are signs that the EU is beginning to take notice.

Retaining a viable chemical industry in this country, as against displacing it abroad by over-regulation, is of the utmost importance. If our Government over-legislate, however good their intentions are, displacement of our chemical industry to other countries will occur. There are signs, of course, that that has happened in the past few decades. The impact of displacement on the manufacture of just one strategic raw material can be illustrated by the case of ethylene oxide, which has many downstream uses. This year, unfortunately, Dow Chemicals will close its Wilton ethylene oxide plant on Teesside, which has supplied 98 per cent. of the UK’s needs. The opening of a plant in the middle east producing monoethylene glycol, resulting in a significant drop in prices of that downstream chemical, appears to have prompted Dow’s decision. Although ethylene oxide can be shipped into Britain, there is limited shipping capacity. It cannot be brought through the channel tunnel and ferries are reluctant to carry it in tanks. Those difficulties are causing the closure of other UK plants that use UK-produced ethylene oxide, such as the Croda ethoxylation facility.

Climate change is seen as the biggest global challenge facing mankind today. With a projected population increase from 6 to 9 billion by 2050, I see water and food security as our greatest global challenges but, of course, there is a connection. For two main reasons I believe that we should not be burning fossil fuels. First, coal and oil are larders of chemicals for the enjoyment of a high quality of life by future generations, in developed as well as developing countries. Secondly, 50 per cent. of the carbon dioxide generated since the industrial revolution has now been partitioned between the atmosphere and the seas, which cover more than 70 per cent. of the earth’s surface. In turn, acidification of those seas is causing a breakdown in the marine carbon cycle. We are losing corals, on which other marine species rely, and shellfish. In any case, burning fossil fuels is an extremely inefficient way to provide energy.

We have to get things in proportion, however. This country is responsible for only 2 per cent. of current world emissions of carbon dioxide. However, we need to show countries such as India and China, especially, but also other developing countries, that there are alternative ways of producing energy that have an overall benefit to the environment. For every unit of greenhouse gas emitted through chemical manufacturing, the resulting products enable two to three units to be saved downstream. The downstream products that result in the greatest savings of carbon dioxide, evaluated in a recent report on responsible care by the International Council of Chemical Associations, for emissions-saving enabled by the chemical industry, are insulation materials, chemical fertilizer and crop protection products, advanced lighting solutions, such as compact fluorescent lamps, plastic packaging, marine antifouling coatings, synthetic textiles, automotive plastics, low-temperature detergents, increased engine efficiency, and plastic piping.

I declare an interest in that in the somewhat distant past I was an adviser to the United Kingdom Offshore Operators Association and to Shell and ICI. I take a great interest in the questions that the hon. Gentleman is discussing, from the environmental point of view, and in terms of enterprise. As a member of the all-party group on clean coal, I presume from the hon. Gentleman’s previous remarks that he would regard what he was saying about not wanting to use fossil fuels as being overtaken by the advances that we hope will be made in carbon capture, which would overcome the difficulties he mentioned. I absolutely believe in carbon capture as part of our energy security.

I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman. We need to keep oil for the petroleum industry, but of course there is far more coal on earth than oil so we can carry on burning it for a little longer.

The Government were one of the first to tackle climate change, initially through the introduction of the climate change levy. Climate change agreements allow energy-intensive industries to receive a discount on the climate change levy provided that they meet certain energy efficiency targets. More than 230 climate change agreements have been made in the UK chemical industry. However, the rebate received by energy-intensive industries will be reduced from 80 per cent. to 65 per cent. from April next year to comply with the EU energy taxation directive. That will cost the UK chemical industry £10 million, and UK manufacturing a total of £50 million. The CIA believes that the Government have gone further than necessary in meeting the requirements of that directive.

The introduction of the climate change levy has resulted in a change of behaviour in the chemical industry. The industry realised that it made sense to think about its energy usage and costs, and it changed its manufacturing processes as a result of regulation. Subsequent cost savings made those industries more competitive. Based on 1990 levels, the chemical industry reduced world CO2 emissions by between 8 per cent. and 11 per cent. by 2005, according to the IPPC. Since 1990, the UK industry has improved energy efficiency by 35 per cent., which is equivalent to a saving of more than 2 million tonnes of CO2.

Britain has set itself some tough targets. We were the first, with the Climate Change Act 2008, to introduce climate change legislation. That Act enshrined in law the reduction of UK CO2 emissions by 80 per cent. by 2050. The EU emissions trading scheme, which works on a cap-and-trade basis, is central to the UK’s long-term policy of reducing CO2 emissions. Under the emissions trading scheme directive, large emitters of CO2 in the EU, including in the energy-intensive chemical industry, must monitor and report annually on their emissions of greenhouse gases, and are obliged to return emission allowances equivalent to their annual emissions, currently to the Government. To do that, they may have to buy or sell emission allowances on the market.

Minds are now turning to using the CO2 emitted into the atmosphere to synthesise other chemicals. Methanol, which can be synthesised from CO2, can be used instead of ethanol as a transport fuel. Lotus cars have already developed engines that will run on pure methanol. An article appeared in the 22 February edition of “Chemistry and Industry” on the world’s first resins made from polyols using CO2 as a feedstock.

Probably the most significant piece of legislation on chemicals introduced by the EU has been REACH––the registration, evaluation and authorisation of chemicals—with which all European countries are expected to comply. It is being implemented in stages by the EU Chemicals Agency, based in Helsinki; by 2018, it will have dealt with all the 30,000 chemicals that are supplied in quantities of more than 1 tonne a year. That legislation replaces more than 40 pieces of previous legislation, but 20 pieces of connected legislation remain in place. Implementation of REACH has proved more difficult and more costly than forecast. Instead of the expected 200,000 pre-registrations, the EU Chemicals Agency has received 2.75 million.

Chemists still have a difficulty in explaining, and the general public in understanding, the relationship between hazardous substances and their risk to society. However, the good safety record of the chemical industry is noteworthy when compared with the rest of manufacturing, and especially with the construction and farming industries.

At a recent meeting of the all-party group on the chemical industry, it was reported that some chemical manufacturing previously displaced offshore—for example, to China or even elsewhere in Europe—is returning to Britain. That is being encouraged by taxation changes, a good working relationship between employers and employees—including a responsible approach by the industry’s unions—and a recognition that this country produces high-quality products.

At the high-value end of the market, the availability in the UK of a highly skilled work force, graduate or otherwise, is another important factor. In addition, the supply chain in the UK and Europe is better than in developing countries. The changed image of the chemical industry has attracted more people to consider working in it. That has been helped by the fact that wages and salaries, as well as working conditions, are also good in comparison with other industries; for instance, workers can earn up to 20 per cent. more than in other manufacturing industries.

There are further challenges ahead for the UK chemical industry, but I am confident that it is capable of meeting them. However, 70 per cent. of chemical and pharmaceutical businesses operating in the UK are foreign owned. It is therefore important to create the right financial and regulatory conditions to retain those businesses in this country.

I look forward to the Minister’s recognition that the chemical industry is essential to the UK economy. After all, its products are used by nearly every other manufacturing industry.

I intend to return to Parliament, Mr. Wilshire, but I give you my best wishes for your retirement.

It was a privilege to listen my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon), who has just demonstrated why he will be missed in the next Parliament. I welcome my hon. Friend’s dedication of this debate to our former colleague, Ashok Kumar. As my hon. Friend said, the late Member for Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland will be sadly missed. He brought a formidable knowledge and a quiet intelligence to the business of Parliament, especially when considering matters relating to the chemical industry. Coincidentally, I attended an award ceremony last Wednesday, when I spoke to a Cluster Mark group from Teesside. They spoke very warmly of Ashok, and expressed their profound shock at his death. He was highly regarded in the north-east, in the chemical industry and, of course, in the House.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East, for his long and distinguished academic and parliamentary career. I am genuinely pleased to have the opportunity to respond to this debate. I think that I first spoke to my hon. Friend at an aerospace lunch. He may remember that we had a discussion on nuclear power in the UK, which he has always supported. At that time, it was not as politically fashionable as it is now, but he has always shown a quiet intelligence and maintained a logical argument.

We heard today that he has a wide knowledge of scientific matters; I speak as a lawyer, and I am sorry to say that his knowledge was not as much in evidence in the House as it should have been. His commitment to the chemical sector has been demonstrated in Parliament since 1997, and is shown by his involvement with universities and learned societies. Through his support for organisations such as the Catalyst discovery centre, the Bolton Technical Innovation centre, and through his own magical chemistry demonstrations, I am sure that he has encouraged many young people and adults to take up careers in the chemical industry.

In Parliament, my hon. Friend has maintained a focus on chemical industry matters, including through the constructive work of the all-party group on the chemical industry. His interests extend far beyond that to embrace drug misuse, policies on higher education, skills research and British-Palestine relations. As a Back Bencher, he has made an important contribution to marine safety, and his private Member’s Bill became the Statistics and Registration Service Act 2007. It is therefore with real sadness that I note that my hon. Friend will be retiring from the House. I am sorry that we will lose his considerable knowledge and experience, but I do not envisage him sitting back in an armchair with pipe and slippers. I suspect that he will be very active in his so-called retirement, and I look forward to hearing from him on a regular basis in the future.

I agree with what my hon. Friend said about the significance of the chemical industry for direct and indirect employment and the balance of trade, and also with what he said about how important chemicals are to our manufacturing base. The industry invests heavily in research and development, and provides some of the highest quality, best paid employment in UK manufacturing. The chemicals industry underpins most of our manufacturing. For example, if we look at the supply chains in most of the UK’s manufacturing industries, we will find a chemicals producer in there somewhere. It is easy to lose sight of the fact that chemicals are essential for a vast array of everyday products, ranging from packaging and pharmaceuticals to car interiors and personal care products.

The chemical industry, like many other sectors, has had to face some very tough trading conditions due to the global recession, particularly where downstream customers have been struggling. The Government have, therefore, been supporting the industry in various ways over the past 18 months to enable it to face the challenges ahead.

Today, we announced details of our support for the industry in the north-east, where the UK’s largest chemical cluster is located. As a result of working with the regional development agency and making good use of the strategic investment fund, a total of £7.5 million will be invested in the region. That is just part of the £60 million support package that was announced last November, which will help to create about 3,000 jobs in the region, and some 150 apprenticeships. The £7.5 million investment will help some promising projects. For example, £2 million will go to MSD Biologics UK, which is based in Billingham, creating 75 jobs over the next three to five years; £2 million will go to PYReco, which is based at Wilton, to help with the development of a new processing plant to reclaim and recycle material from tyres, creating 52 new jobs, and a further 240 construction jobs; and £1.34 million will go to GrowHow’s environmentally essential project to tackle nitrous oxide emissions at its Billingham plant.

We are also spending more than £600,000 on a building operator certification energy efficiency project at Tees dock, Middlesbrough, which, again, will safeguard jobs.

I should like to place on record my admiration both for the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon), with whom I have debated often, and for you, Mr. Wilshire. As well as being an hon. Friend, you have been a very good friend of mine.

The Minister presents a picture of numerous grants being made, of aid being given, and of systems being put in place to help the chemical industry, but what about the problem of over-regulation, which the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East, mentioned? Both at a European and a domestic level, many industries are heavily over-regulated, which causes massive unemployment. According to Lord Mandelson, 4 per cent. of GDP is lost in over-regulation, which must affect the chemical industry as well. Does the Minister not agree that it would be in our national interests to override European legislation and instead pass legislation here?

The hon. Gentleman puts an interesting proposition to me, which, unfortunately, I shall decline. As a Minister responsible for regulatory reform, I am well aware of the importance of better regulation. Regulation in the chemicals industries is extremely important. My hon. Friend referred to the perceptions among the general public about safety in the chemicals industry. The relationship between risk, safety and regulation is vital to the continued confidence of the British public in the chemicals industry. We heard from my hon. Friend that the chemicals industry has a very positive safety record, and that depends on good regulation being properly and intelligently enforced. I say to the hon. Member for Stafford—

I am sorry, but Stone is in Staffordshire. I apologise to the hon. Gentleman from Staffordshire who represents Stone. On this issue, it is important that regulation is based on logical and—I hesitate to say it—scientific criteria, and that it is intelligently drafted and applied. It is very important that at both European and national level, we consider the effects of legislation at an early stage. Regulation is very important. We have to command the views of the general public, but be conscious of the necessary impact that regulation will have on business.

Let me first say what a pleasure it is to be in this Chamber under your chairmanship, Mr. Wilshire. May I also wish you all the very best in your retirement? I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) on securing this debate and thank him for devoting it to our late friend, Dr. Ashok Kumar, for whom we all had great respect.

Will the Minister tell us whether we are likely to see further regulation concerning safety? I am talking about the safety of transporting chemicals along our roads. I serve a north-west Wales constituency, and transporting chemicals has been a particular concern of mine.

My hon. Friend raises an extremely important point. I know that there is genuine and profound public concern about the transportation of chemicals. However, we have a very good safety record in that regard, which we must maintain. That will involve co-operation between Government, the industry and trade unions, and it will involve presenting the good practice in the industry to the general public.

The chemical industry has faced difficult times over the past 18 months, and the Government have been supporting it in the best way that they can. It is clear that the high level of skill required in the industry needs to be built on, so we must focus on developing highly skilled technicians in the sector. Moving to a low-carbon economy is not an easy task for an industry that has been highly dependent on fossil fuels.

I visited the INEOS plant at Runcorn, which is contributing to the reduction of the carbon footprint of the sector. I heard at first hand how the municipal waste from the north-west will be used to generate power for INEOS’s chemical processes. That is a model approach to change in the industry, and one that should be greatly encouraged.

I also had the good fortune to visit the Wilton plant in the north-east, where major progress is being made. Innovative approaches are being taken to the use of new technologies, new sources of energy and new fuels. The industry is long-established—I heard about the industry’s Roman roots while I was in the north-east—and it has the capacity for change.

I, too, wish you well in the future, Mr. Wilshire. Particle physics and, eventually, chemical engineering will change drastically as a result of the experiments taking place with the large Hadron collider. While promoting near-market development, will the Minister also agree that innovation is important for the industry? Will the Government continue to fund blue skies research, such as that done through the LHC?

I think that the hon. Gentleman has been slipped a copy of my speech, because I was just about to move on to the importance of innovation. Blue skies thinking is very important, and it is something that we have been good at in the UK in the past. We should be proud of our science and innovation record and of this Government’s massive investment in the university sector since 1997, which is evident when I travel round the country visiting universities. What we also need to do better is translate some of that blue skies thinking and innovation into manufacture. We must carry forward the powerful ideas from the universities to create manufacturing capacity and employment in the UK.

The Government, and my Department in particular, have made a strong commitment to ensuring a constructive and positive relationship between industry, trade unions and Government. We believe that such a relationship is essential to building the foundations of a sustainable manufacturing industry in the UK that has the capacity to change in a low-carbon world. We have tremendous potential in this country. We were the first industrial nation—

Order. I am sorry to interrupt the Minister, but he went past a full stop, so I have to call a halt to the debate.

Motorways and Trunk Roads (Litter)

May I also pay tribute to the work that you have done in this House, Mr. Wilshire, in your time as a Member of Parliament and as the Chair of important Committees and of Westminster Hall? I wish you well in whatever else you go on to do.

I asked for this debate out of the anger and real frustration that I, my constituents and indeed everyone in the country has experienced at the fact that our great country and our excellent road network are being blighted by the rubbish that is continually being discarded; the network in my own part of the country is being particularly blighted. That rubbish is either being dumped from vehicles or it is escaping from the top of waste disposal vehicles or skips on to the highways. I am very aware that there is legislation in place to deal with this problem. Frankly, however, having driven around the highways and byways of Britain, particularly our motorways, I know that it is not working.

At this stage, I would like to pay tribute to Keep Britain Tidy and the Campaign to Protect Rural England. Those organisations did not lobby me to secure this debate, but once I had secured it they were very quick off the mark to contribute and their briefings have been very useful.

As someone enters this country, or as they enter a town or one of our great cities, there are first impressions that will stick in their mind. If someone leaves the great city of London and travels up the M1 from Brent Cross, they are driving through a rubbish tip—there is no other way to describe it. Sadly, as I travel on that motorway all too frequently, I know that traffic builds up and drivers sit there, waiting for the traffic to move on. As they do so, they glance to the side and they see a build-up of rubbish that has obviously been thrown from private vehicles or that has escaped from commercial vehicles. Clearly, that rubbish has been there for some considerable time. That is obvious, because a modern drinks can takes an awful long time to break down, as does a crisp packet.

Indeed, the other day I was amazed to see a Marathon bar wrapper that had been discarded. Marathon bars have not been for sale in this country for some considerable time; they have been renamed “Snickers”, or whatever the company wants to call them these days. I do not actually eat those bars, but I am aware that they have not been called Marathon for some time. I tried to find out when the brand or name of “Marathon” went out of use, but I could not find that out. However, it is certainly several years and yet these Marathon bar wrappers are still sitting on the side of our highways and byways. They are the type of awful litter that is blighting the countryside around us.

That is unfair on towns such as Hemel Hempstead and in particular on local authorities such as my own, Dacorum, which do everything they can to clear up the refuse and litter that is thrown around, for whatever reason. My town of Hemel Hempstead is very clean; I am very proud of it.

However, a driver might come off the M1 at junction 8 in my constituency. Before going further, I would like to pay tribute to the Government for the excellent road-widening that took place in my constituency, in particular the work done between junctions 6A and 10. I also pay tribute to Neil Owen, who was the team leader for the Highways Agency, and to John Hollaway, who was the project manager for Balfour Beatty. They have brought onstream a fantastic piece of motorway networking.

That piece of motorway has only been open for about a year, but if a driver looks at it now as they enter my town it is absolutely covered in litter. I must ask who is looking after that piece of motorway? I asked my local authority whether it had any right to go down there and, even if it was not going to be paid for it, to clean up. I was told, “Oh, no, that’s very much the responsibility of the Highways Agency.” I then looked up what the Highways Agency has been doing. I found that every week 13 tonnes of litter is thrown or discarded from vehicles around the country.

I could not find a breakdown of what proportion of that litter is coming from private vehicles, as people go about their normal daily business in their cars or vans, and what proportion is escaping from refuse vehicles or skips, which is a problem that I alluded to earlier. I suspect that any such breakdown would largely be guesswork, anyway.

There is legislation on the statute book to deal with the problem of litter escaping from commercial vehicles. We have all driven down the highways of this country behind a lorry and seen litter—commercial paper, etc.—escaping from the back of those vehicles. I hope that the Minister will address that issue when he responds to the debate.

Apparently 13 tonnes of litter are being thrown from vehicles every week. However, according to the figures that I have here, 50 tonnes of litter are being cleared from just five motorways. So, are there special roads in this country that are being cleared while other roads are not being cleared? Clearly, the M1 in my part of the world, which is the responsibility of the Highways Agency, is hardly being cleared up at all. As I have said, I know that simply by looking casually out of my car window and seeing the length of time that some litter has been left in place.

However, it is not just the Highways Agency that is responsible. Some local authorities, particularly the county authorities, have their own highways teams. In my own constituency, for instance, the A41 is a wonderful bypass that was put in several years ago. To come into Hemel Hempstead from the west, drivers come off the A41. However, it is possible to mark the line when a driver enters my local council’s area by the litter line. That litter line is there. It is also possible to mark the line by seeing how the hedgerows have been cut back, etc.

So I have a question to put to the Minister; I noticed that he was nodding, from a sedentary position, when I mentioned that 13 tonnes of litter is being discarded from vehicles every week. I want to ask him how the cleaning of that litter is being carried out. What sort of system is in place?

Frankly, I am very angry that our beautiful countryside is being blighted. To meet our transport needs, motorways cut through the Chilterns and many other great and beautiful areas of our country. But people, such as my constituents, who pay their taxes, including huge amounts of road tax and other duty, are driving along the highways and byways of the country to look at what? If someone is a passenger, they look out of their window and what do they see? Refuse. Everywhere you go, there is rubbish and litter.

In my personal view, I do not think that it should be the job of the Government to pay lots of people to clean up that rubbish. Clearly, that is what we are doing; I am sure that the Minister will tell me how much the different agencies are spending on that work. I think that the people who should also contribute to this work are the people who need to pay back the community when they have done something wrong but who have not been sent to prison.

I am particularly interested in the wonderful community punishment and rehabilitation orders that our courts are being encouraged to give out to defendants who have been found guilty of certain offences. The sorts of projects that those people should be doing are supposed to be priority projects to allow high volumes of offenders to work in the community safely. I cannot think of a better thing for someone who has committed a crime and gone through the court process but not been sent to a prison than to have to carry out—as it says on the packet—a “punishment and rehabilitation order”, to come out into the community and pay back the community by fixing something that has been blighted and damaged.

I could not agree more with what my hon. Friend is saying. He is right to place huge significance on this problem, both in terms of the damage to our landscape and in terms of the use of juvenile offenders and other people who would be able to come into an area and deal with the litter that accumulates. That litter includes the dangling plastic bags and other pieces of plastic that get caught up in the hedgerows all around the country. In my constituency of Stone, I get absolutely furious when I look at such litter. I see the problem that my hon. Friend is so rightly concentrating on. This is a real bread-and-butter, nuts-and-bolts debate of great importance.

I had not intended to take any interventions in this short debate, but I am now pleased that I did so. I have been to my hon. Friend’s constituency and it is a beautiful part of the world, which he represents fantastically well. However, these plastic bags that he mentioned blight the countryside. My farmers talk to me about them on a regular basis, not least because if they have any cattle or sheep—I have a lot of sheep farmers in my constituency—they know that the number of animals killed each year by plastic bags is very high.

One of the things that I noticed the other day in a hedgerow on the M1 was audio tape. Clearly, someone had tossed out of their vehicle a small audio tape; such tapes used to be the fashion in our cars, before compact discs and everything else that came along after. I do not know when the person tossed out the tape, but they seem to have tossed rather a lot of them. It is now a sort of moving graffiti—when the sun catches it, one cannot miss it—yet it seems to have been sitting there forever.

How do we address the problem? We are in a tight fiscal situation. I am sure that agencies—particularly the Highways Agency, which the Minister is going to discuss in a moment—will say that they are short of money and cannot get to such places as often as they would like, but thousands of community punishment and rehabilitation orders are given every year. I have read the literature, and the orders seem absolutely perfect for the purpose. I also looked to see whether other countries use offenders for such tasks to pay back the community. It takes place around the world.

As I dug deeper, I was surprised that not many people in this country are out there paying back. I got an e-mail from a magistrate in London who, for obvious reasons, does not want to be named in this debate. He discusses

“the government’s concerns on prison overcrowding and the pressure on the judiciary to use more community sentencing.”

That is eminently sensible. I would prefer people who should be in prison to be there and people who can pay back in the community to do so. I am sure that we would all agree that a community payback project should not be the soft option, that it should be visible and that the people involved should work hard. Yet attached to the e-mail was another e-mail from a gentleman called Malcolm Jenkin, director of interventions for London Probation, who said:

“Please be advised that, due to budget restraints, London Probation has temporarily ceased using casual status Project Supervisors in Community Payback.”

It goes on to say, in effect, “Please don’t do this.” I do not blame the Minister, who I am sure can feed that back into the Justice Department, but it is absolutely ludicrous that magistrates are being told on one hand not to put young people—I apologise. Not all people who commit offences are young people; far from it. There are a lot of very good young people doing fantastic work in the community. I do not want to brand them. The courts are being told not to give so many custodial sentences and to use these wonderful community punishment and rehabilitation orders, but the people who are supposed to administer them are asking courts not to give them out.

The e-mail says that community payback teams have:

“Merged many groups to ensure that they are used to maximum capacity”

and

“reserved weekend sessions, where possible, to offenders”.

That is not what community payback was designed for. It was designed to be exactly what it says on the tin: a community punishment and rehabilitation order. It is imperative that the Government get a grip on that and put such people out in the community where it is safe to do so. Believe me, people can work on roads in safety. It is done regularly. Otherwise, we would not be able to pick up the 500 tonnes that I am sure the Minister will tell me about in a moment.

If the Government did that, we could start to recapture the beauty of our countryside and towns. Motorways are driven through areas of outstanding natural beauty or areas that have experienced natural regeneration since the motorway was built. We must take the opportunity to keep such areas tidy for the sake of first and daily impressions, so that both visitors to and permanent residents of this country can care about it.

There seems to be a complete lack of penalties available for people who litter from vehicles, although there are plenty on the statute book. How many people have been prosecuted in England in the past 12 months for littering from a car? Presumably they were picked up by Highways Agency vehicles, unless the Highways Agency cannot do so. I understand that it has no powers to issue such penalties. If someone on a motorway is chucking rubbish out the window of their car, who is responsible? If it is the traffic police, I must say that they are few and far between in my part of the world, having been mostly replaced by Highways Agency vehicles.

This is a serious debate. I am sorry that I got only a half hour. I wanted an hour and a half, as I knew that some colleagues wanted to debate it as well. The issue affects everybody in this country. Those of us who are enormously proud of our country cannot understand why anybody would want to blight our countryside and roads by throwing refuse out their window. Those who do should be penalised, and those who let down their community and country should pay it back under the orders. I hope that the Minister will ask the relevant Justice Minister to explain why the orders are not being used in a sensible way.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the second time this afternoon, Mr. Wilshire. I did not realise earlier that this is likely to be one of the last times. I wish you well for the future.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning) on securing this debate and providing us with an opportunity to discuss litter on motorways and trunk roads. I recognise that litter on our motorways and trunk roads is of considerable concern to road users, neighbouring communities and businesses, as well as to the officials and contractors who must deal with the problem.

Some 700,000 sacks of litter are collected from the motorway network each year. Between 18 February and 11 March this year, 745 sacks of rubbish were collected on the M25 along the northern approach towards the A4127 during 35 visits to the area by the Highways Agency’s service provider. On the M11 between junctions 6 and 9, an estimated 80 to 90 sacks of litter are collected each week. In fact, the increased amount of litter being deposited on the M11 has required additional resources to be allocated to the task.

Picking up litter along a high-speed carriageway is a dangerous, continual task, and appropriate traffic management may be required to protect those engaged in that crucial work. I do not want to disagree with the hon. Gentleman about the role that community punishments might play in providing additional resources for addressing the problem, but I caution him that there could be safety issues involved in using untrained, inexperienced staff in an environment that can be dangerous. I do not demur from what he said about the value of community punishments. I have seen offenders painting benches in kiddies’ play parks in my constituency, and I appreciate the value of such activities and the sense of payback that I hope individuals receive from being asked to take part in them. I am more than happy to take away his suggestion and discuss it further with Highways Agency officials and colleagues in the Ministry of Justice.

If the Government started by asking “How can we do this?” rather than saying “We can’t do it,” we would get a lot further. Other countries around the world have done it. It happens already in certain parts of this country. As difficult and back-breaking as the job may be, I suggest that the necessary training to pick up litter on a motorway that has been coned off is not huge.

I will discuss the different types of roads, as I think that it will put my comments in a little more context for the hon. Gentleman.

Roadside litter is a national problem. It is unsightly. It pollutes our environment, blocks drains and endangers wildlife. It also presents a risk to service providers carrying out their maintenance duties and to public health. It is composed not just of crisp packets and sweet wrappers thrown from vehicles but of large items that have accumulated in lay-bys or been illegally dumped. Fly-tipping at lay-bys on trunk roads is an ongoing problem. Large items such as tyres, beds and sofas are regularly dumped. I know, for example, that it is a particular problem on the A11, A12 and A14. The Highways Agency regularly reports such accumulations to the relevant local authority.

Responsibility for clearing highway litter and sweeping carriageways is governed by the Environmental Protection Act 1990. Under the Act, the Highways Agency is responsible for litter collections on motorways in England, but responsibility for litter collection on the vast majority of all-purpose trunk roads, or A roads, rests with the appropriate local authority. The task of clearing litter from motorways in England is undertaken by the Highways Agency’s service providers, which are required under their contracts to meet the standards set out in the Environmental Protection Act.

I cannot provide a specific cost for the collection of litter from motorways, as the task is included in the overall maintenance duties of the Highways Agency’s service providers. As for the trunk roads, the task is undertaken by local authorities. The constant need to clear litter from roads diverts valuable resources away from road maintenance and repairs and places a financial burden on central Government and local authorities.

Responses to the Highways Agency’s road user satisfaction survey rate reflect the central importance of keeping roads free of litter, and litter features frequently as a topic in customer correspondence received by the Highways Agency. A recent study by a major motoring organisation showed that 88 per cent. of its members feel angry about litter louts who throw rubbish on to our roads and motorways.

To counter litter on trunk roads, the Highways Agency works collaboratively with local authorities, whose responsibility it is to collect litter from such roads. For example, when the Highways Agency has traffic management in place on trunk roads for other works, if practical it notifies the relevant local authority so that litter picking activities can be planned to coincide with that so that disruption to the travelling public is minimised. In the west midlands, traffic management has been shared on 51 occasions on various routes during periods of routine maintenance or other works since July 2009, 12 of which have been since January this year. In the south-west, the local authority took advantage of the Highways Agency’s traffic management to clear litter during the work to improve the A303 between Willoughby Hedge and Mere.

The Highways Agency’s service providers monitor the whole motorway and trunk road network for cleanliness, with special attention being paid to areas of slow-moving traffic and places close to service areas. Some of those factors may be relevant to the geography the hon. Gentleman described. When they have concerns about the amount of litter on a particular trunk road, they contact the relevant highway authority and ask for the litter to be cleared. On some parts of the trunk road network, the Highways Agency is actively working with local authorities to reach agreements on litter picking duties, whereby the Highways Agency collects litter from the trunk roads on behalf of the local authority or provides the traffic management for the local authority to do so. Those are local arrangements and are not part of a general policy.

The Minister is right that litter tends to build up where motorways end or where there is often congestion at junctions. When motorways go through cities, there can be a wind tunnel that picks up the litter. Can the Minister arrange for the relevant agency or local council to drop me a line to tell me what work is being done in my part of the world? In particular, it would be great if the road signage and sandbags that were left over from the roadworks at junction 8 of the M1 could be picked up. We are talking about litter and rubbish, but things are often left over when work has been done. I do not know if sandbags are biodegradable, but they are doing their best to deteriorate because they have been there for so long.

I will certainly raise with Highways Agency officials the hon. Gentleman’s concerns about the signage that has been left following the recent roadworks.

Litter would not be such a problem if people disposed of it more responsibly. The Highways Agency encourages drivers and passengers to take their litter home with them by having a rubbish bag in their vehicle. The agency runs local events and an annual national campaign called “Bag it! Bin it!” to highlight the danger to other road users of throwing rubbish out of moving vehicles or depositing it along the roadside. The bags distributed as part of that campaign are biodegradable and can be recycled.

I hear what the Minister says, but his description does not deal with the problem in my constituency where there are trunk roads and a motorway. On the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning) on people being expected to use juvenile offenders’ orders or other Ministry of Justice mechanisms, why could we not have a litter and rubbish removal order that is allocated specifically for this purpose? Will the Minister speak to the Ministry of Justice about that? Like my hon. Friend, I would also like to be told how the Highways Agency is operating in my area.

I said that I am happy to engage with my colleagues in the Ministry of Justice on the community punishment approach.

I am pleased that the national campaign that encourages people to take their litter home is supported by the AA, the Royal Automobile Club Foundation and the Institute of Advanced Motorists. Yesterday, the Highways Agency’s south-east region began holding local events at motorway service areas as part of its ongoing “Bag it! Bin it!” anti-litter campaign that will run until 1 April. As part of the campaign, agency and service provider staff will engage with their customers to talk about the problems caused by litter on the network and offer bags to motorists. Initiatives with schools are being discussed in some parts of the country, particularly those located near litter hotspots. The agency has worked with some primary schools as part of the “Bag it! Bin it!” campaign.

The Highways Agency is working with local authorities wherever possible to find ways of improving litter collection. On the A30 and A38 in Cornwall, the agency now clears larger items of litter from the verges into holding sacks provided by Cornwall county council. A trial will soon start whereby Cornwall county council will provide recycling bins in lay-bys, which it will empty as and when required.

I have read the literature and I have seen the “Bag it! Bin it!” campaign. I am pleased to hear that work is being done at service stations. There is no point in giving bags to customers once they have come out of service stations because it would have such a small effect. Surely we could work with service station providers to ensure that their bags are biodegradable because they invariably end up on the side of our motorways. Instead of giving out biodegradable bags when customers already have bags that are not biodegradable, service station providers should work with us to ensure that all of their bags are biodegradable. That would be eminently sensible.

I was going to refer to work being done by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and it might be able to raise that directly with suppliers and motorway service area providers.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned litter escaping from vehicles. There are issues with vehicles that should have nets across the back to contain material that could be drawn out by the wind and left on the highway. Highways Agency traffic officers keep an eye out for such vehicles and although they do not have direct enforcement powers, they can refer vehicles to the police so that they can investigate whether a prosecution is appropriate.

It is not the police who have the enforcement powers on that matter, but the licensing authority for the waste vehicle. If the netting is not on the vehicle, it should be reported to the relevant body that licensed the vehicle under the waste legislation.

The hon. Gentleman might be right about certain types of vehicle for which waste is the primary function. However, other vehicles might not be covered by that framework and could be pursued directly.

On the hon. Gentleman’s point about prosecution for people who throw litter out of vehicles, traffic officers do not have those powers. It is not our intention to give them such powers because their primary function is to be the motorist’s friend on the highway in helping to resolve accidents and situations. A line is crossed when they are given powers more akin to those of the police.

I am not sure that is correct. I thank the Minister for giving way. He is being very generous and I promise not to intervene again in the next two minutes. Traffic officers do have powers. If one overtakes a Highways Agency vehicle while it is performing a moving roadblock, it is an offence under the relevant legislation. I understand that traffic officers are the prosecuting authority for such offences.

The hon. Gentleman is right that it is an offence to pass a traffic officer engaged in a rolling roadblock, but I am not sure whether he is right that they have the power to undertake the prosecution. I think that has to be done by the police.

On its routes, the Highways Agency is continuously looking at ways to prevent the dropping of litter. In parts of the east region, signs requesting that the public take their litter home have been erected on slip roads adjacent to motorway service areas. Litter picking schedules were disrupted earlier in the year because of the severe winter weather, which resulted in a heavier than usual accumulation of litter, but they have now resumed. As the weather improves, and more people travel at weekends for leisure purposes, we are likely to see an increase in the level of litter that is deposited, which will put more pressure on the litter collecting authorities.

On 23 March, a representative from the Highways Agency attended a litter roundtable event hosted by the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and attended by senior people from a wide range of organisations, including supermarkets, fast food chains, local authorities and campaign groups. The remit for that meeting was wider than litter on motorways and trunk roads, but I am pleased that they are being included in the wider problem of litter across the country.

The Highways Agency is conducting strategic research into a number of key work aspects designed to develop and inform litter policy. Those include improving partnership working with key external stakeholders such as Keep Britain Tidy, Campaign to Protect Rural England and CleanupUK. In conjunction with local authorities, the agency is seeking to trial a number of initiatives, such as temporary anti-litter road signs, utilising variable message signs and partnership working with local business and industry.

To conclude, I thank the hon. Gentleman once again for securing this debate. This is an important issue and I hope he is encouraged and reassured by the information I have given about the work the Highways Agency is doing to tackle litter on our strategic road network.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting adjourned.