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Westminster Hall

Volume 522: debated on Wednesday 2 February 2011

Westminster Hall

Wednesday 2 February 2011

[Jim Sheridan in the Chair]

Alcohol (Minimum Pricing)

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

I am pleased to have secured this debate. I thank Mr Speaker for selecting it and I am glad that it is taking place under your assured chairmanship, Mr Sheridan.

Alcohol pricing is of great concern to many MPs. The subject has been raised by Back Benchers on both sides of the House in recent Home Office, Health and Business questions, and it has been the subject of a number of early-day motions that received cross-party support.

Some say that alcohol misuse, with its related health and social problems, is a major problem in the United Kingdom, so it is right that we should debate how alcohol pricing can help to tackle it. A constituent of mine wrote to me recently, saying that politicians are too reactive and unwilling to offer leadership on difficult issues. The Conservative-led Government have certainly made a start on alcohol pricing, but it is a rather timid one. I hope they can be persuaded to be bold and to act swiftly. If they do not do so, precious lives may be lost and many lives blighted.

The British Medical Association has highlighted the staggering cost of alcohol abuse to the national health service, at £2.8 billion. The British Society of Gastroenterology says that a serious cost is attached to cheap booze, and the UK is now paying the price.

I requested this debate primarily because of my interest in public health, and I am glad to see the Home Office Minister and the shadow Minister here today. We all know that antisocial behaviour, fuelled by binge drinking, can blight our neighbourhoods; and many are affected in their own homes as a result of domestic violence and the breakdown of relationships.

A British crime survey showed that half of all crime is alcohol related. In 2008, the then South Wales police chief constable warned people that

“In Wales you are more likely to be assaulted by someone you know than anywhere else in the UK…alcohol plays a huge, huge role in it.”

Similar findings were set out in the excellent report of the Select Committee on Home Affairs, produced in the previous Parliament under the chairmanship of my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz); I am pleased to see him here today.

Figures released last week show that Wales has among the highest rates of death in the UK linked to alcohol. Over Christmas in my local area of Gwent, as a result of the Wales drink-drive campaign 95 people were found to be over the limit. Despite the snow and ice and the wind chill factor to be found at 1,200 feet—a time when most sober people would not dream of driving—some drivers were on the road and over the limit.

I raised this matter in the Christmas recess Adjournment debate and called on the Government for tougher action. A recent Alcohol Concern report showed that more than 92,000 children and young people under the age of 18 were admitted to hospital as a result of alcohol misuse between 2002 and 2009. Girls are more likely to need hospital treatment than boys. Furthermore, a university of Manchester study found that some young women were consuming more than a week’s allowance of alcohol units in a single night. Excessive drinking leads them to take more risks, such as walking home alone when drunk, particularly after they have sampled a ladies “drink for free” promotion. Since 1970, we have seen a threefold increase in cirrhosis, but it is ninefold for those under the age of 45. The age at which people develop cirrhosis has been falling, and even teenagers are now developing liver failure.

The Welsh Assembly rightly wants to take effective action to help people in Wales, but points out that the main levers for making the most significant change remain with the Government, who have the power to legislate on price, licensing and advertising—the Government did not accede to the Welsh Assembly’s request for alcohol licensing powers to be devolved.

Another problem is the so-called pocket-money priced alcohol on offer in supermarkets. That can undermine local pubs, which are generally places of responsible drinking. My dad was a publican after working as a steelworker, and before becoming a bread delivery man. Other Members will doubtless wish to elaborate on the negative effect that such pricing can have on pubs and the local community.

Before going any further, may I say that when seeking to reduce harmful drinking we must, in tandem, provide adequate funding for alcohol research, treatment and prevention programmes, with sufficient training for health professionals to detect and manage those who have alcohol misuse problems.

The Minister with responsibility for public health, the Under-Secretary of State for Health, the hon. Member for Guildford (Anne Milton), said:

“The Government alone cannot improve public health; we need to use all the tools in the box.”—[Official Report, 21 December 2010; Vol. 520, c. 1351.]

I would argue that alcohol pricing is a high-powered tool—and one that should be used now.

The Government may be about to act—I give credit where it is due—but their proposed minimum price is too low. It covers only duty and VAT. As the National Retail Federation said, the Government’s “duty plus VAT” definition woefully fails to cover the real cost of alcohol; 40p for a litre of cider can hardly be considered positive action. For me, it is the duty of Government to protect and promote the health of their citizens. I am unpersuaded by the concern expressed by the Wine and Spirit Trade Association that minimum pricing will hit responsible drinkers and hurt the poor the most. I cannot believe that responsible drinkers expect to get their alcohol at “duty plus VAT” prices, with no allowance for production or distribution costs.

Furthermore, as the Alcohol Health Alliance points out,

“low alcohol prices means that responsible drinkers are subsidising the behaviour of the 25% of the population who are drinking at hazardous or harmful levels.”

The effect of a minimum price on moderate drinkers will be low, as they consume less alcohol. If a 50p minimum price were introduced, it would mean an increase in spending on alcohol of less than 23p a week for a moderate drinker; but a heavy drinker could pay slightly more than £3 a week.

As for the poor being most affected by high prices, I cannot repeat too often that alcohol misuse costs us £2.8 billion. If we include the cost of crime and absenteeism from work, the bill would be much higher. The Government clearly need some more detailed research. We know that the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence, the British Medical Association, the Association of Chief Police Officers and others have called for a realistic minimum price for alcohol. How can the Government justify a minimum price for alcohol that covers only taxes but not the production and distribution costs? Will that really reduce binge drinking in our towns, particularly among vulnerable young women? Perhaps the Minister will tell us.

A spokesperson for the British Liver Trust said on BBC News 24 that the Government’s proposal would save 21 lives a year. That is good, but I understand that research commissioned by the Department of Health demonstrates that a minimum unit price of 20p, 30p, 40p and 50p would prevent 30, 300, 1,300 and 3,300 deaths respectively.

The hon. Gentleman wishes to increase the price of alcohol on the supermarket shelves and discourage the unscrupulous pricing behaviour that has been displayed. However, one of the unintended consequences of minimum pricing is that it could skew the market and encourage people to drink spirits such as vodka, which is becoming an increasing problem among young drinkers.

The point about discouraging young people is powerfully made, and I know that unintended consequences can be a problem. That is why we need more research. Having said that, I still think the price suggested by the Government is way too low.

Is it not more likely that minimum pricing will encourage young people to drink responsibly in public houses, thus supporting the traditional pub industry and also providing a degree of supervision?

The hon. Gentleman makes a powerful point.

It is not surprising that the former chief medical officer, Sir Liam Donaldson, has called for a 50p minimum price per unit, as it is estimated that it could save 3,300 lives a year. Does not a proposal from such an eminent source, with a distinguished record of public service, merit serious consideration?

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, along with the clear need to increase the price of alcohol, we need an education strategy from the Department of Health, perhaps to shock people into realising what would happen to them? Many who imbibe unfortunately end up with liver polyps at an early age. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, along with the need for an education strategy from the Department of Health, we need a concerted campaign from the supermarkets?

It is important that there be greater public awareness of the dangers of drinking excessive amounts of alcohol.

As yet, no legislative plans have been put before Parliament to implement the Government’s half-measure to end below-cost selling. None is included in the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill that is currently in Committee. Will the Minister tell us how the Government intend to introduce their proposal? Will we have legislation now, or action in the Budget? Some more details would be helpful. Moreover, the Minister has said that the Government will consider the rate of duty on super-strength lagers, but how long will that take?

In opposition, the Conservatives promised to call time on drinks that fuel antisocial behaviour. The Government know that there is a clear link between the price of alcohol and the harms associated with alcohol, but they are too timid to tackle the matter. They are concerned that everyone will be penalised if realistic minimum pricing is introduced. As I said earlier, that argument does not hold water.

I apologise for being late, Mr Sheridan. I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. The research papers on this issue say that two thirds of the public believe that drinking in Britain is out of control. In my constituency, the fact that children as young as 10 can easily access alcohol is destroying lives. In my own business, in respect of which I declare an interest, a 16-year-old was recently diagnosed as being an alcoholic.

The hon. Gentleman makes a powerful argument.

I am concerned that cinemas promote alcohol because young people can be easily influenced in such places. Alcohol marketing creates new young drinkers, many of whom, unfortunately, think it cool to drink in excess. We have to teach them how to enjoy a drink, as many of us do, without drinking too much. Therefore, more regulation may be necessary. France, for example, bans drink advertisements both in the cinema and on TV. It also has a great rugby team who play with real élan.

Finally, we have developed a culture in our country in which alcohol and sport go too easily together. We all remember the days when John Player sponsored cricket and Embassy sponsored snooker and darts. It is salutary to reflect on the fact that some of our greatest sports personalities, such as George Best and Alex Higgins, have fallen foul of too much drink.

We need a major cultural change, and out sports administrators should note the contradiction in alcohol sponsorship of sport and their primary goal of promoting sporting success and physical well-being for us all.

Watching the Heineken cup and having a pint is one of life’s pleasures, but it would still be a great tournament if it was sponsored by another industry and drinking in moderation was seen as cool by young people.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith) on securing this hugely important debate. We all see the consequences of drinks pricing in our high streets and A and E departments, so I pay tribute to him for recognising the importance of this issue.

I am the vice-chairman of the all-party parliamentary beer group and the MP for Burton. I am proud to say that Burton is the home of British beer. We have Carling Black Label, Marston’s Pedigree and Punch Taverns, which is the biggest pub company in the country. The Minister has been incredibly generous with his time. He has met members of the all-party parliamentary beer group, the Save the Pub group and the Campaign for Real Ale group. He has met the brewers and the pub owners and taken time to listen to the concerns and issues that so many of them face, and I thank him for that. I also thank him for recognising that pricing in the supermarkets is dangerous and is having an impact on our young people and on society. As a Government, it is important that we take action to tackle the problem. I doubt whether there is anybody in this Chamber who finds it acceptable for supermarkets to use alcohol as a loss-leader or as a giveaway to get people through the supermarket tills, yet that is what we are seeing daily.

I am glad that this Government have had the determination and confidence to produce legislation that, for the first time, not only recognises that cheap booze is a problem for society but sets out to do something about it. Sadly, though, like Oliver in “Oliver Twist”, I have to say, “Please, Sir, can I have some more?” None of us here believes that the price level that has been set, although well intentioned, will have a massive effect on drinking behaviour, particularly among young people.

It is interesting to put the whole matter into context. In 1987, the price of a pint of lager in the pub was £1, and in an off-licence 70p. By 2010, the pub figure had gone up to £3 and the off-licence figure had stayed pretty much the same at about £1. We have seen prices in pubs increase by more than prices in off-licences over that period.

I recently met the chair of one of the local working men’s clubs in my constituency. After a debate about whether or not the club should allow in women, about which we did not agree, we spoke about the pricing of alcohol. The club is concerned about the pricing issue. It believes that aggressive, cheap offers from supermarkets and corner shops are a big attack on its very survival. Historically, working men’s clubs are a key part of social life, particularly in the north-east, and we need to have that at the front of our minds when we consider minimum pricing levels.

If the hon. Lady would like to come to Rolleston working men’s club in my constituency, she will be welcomed with open arms and provided with alcohol in a safe and regulated environment. We all recognise that the pub and the working men’s club provide a safe, regulated environment in which people can enjoy a pint or a glass of wine and interact socially. They are the social hub of our communities. Unfortunately, supermarkets’ pricing and their use of alcohol as a loss- leader is making it almost impossible for our pubs and clubs to compete. As a result, we have seen the shift in drinking behaviour. As I am sure that the Minister is aware, 70% of all alcohol is sold through the supermarkets. If we go back 20 years, the difference in the sale of beer between pubs and off-licences was 80:20; now, it is 50:50. We are seeing supermarkets constantly eroding pub sales.

The hon. Gentleman is dealing with a very important point that relates to the social issue associated with drinking. I am talking about parents who may be buying alcohol regularly from the supermarkets at a very low price. Poor parenting skills can result, which will lead to parents having problems at home with their children. That is a hidden issue that results from the pricing policy, and it needs to be resolved.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman. However, there are those who say, “Why should we penalise someone who wants to buy a 24-pack of strong lager and take it home and drink one can a night for 24 days? Why should we penalise that?” The reality, however, is different. The clients at the Burton addiction centre in my constituency will talk about the impact that cheap booze has on fuelling people’s drinking consumption.

My hon. Friend seems to be against these loss-leaders. Would he outlaw loss-leaders for chocolate, salt, butter and other things that are not good for us if we take them in excess?

My hon. Friend makes a very important point. However, I cannot remember the last time I was on Burton high street and saw two guys knocking seven bells out of each other over a Toblerone. I also cannot remember the last time I was in Queen’s hospital A and E and doctors were pumping somebody’s stomach because they had overdosed on too much butter. The reality is that alcohol is a very different beast from things such as chocolate.

Surely the issue is not whether alcohol is distinct from other products, but the use made of it by the people who consume it. Is my hon. Friend not in danger of victimising people, particularly poor families, who benefit from these loss-leaders? He is trying to put forward the argument that, by penalising those poor families, he will tackle the problem of binge drinking, which I do not think he will.

I recognise my hon. Friend’s concern, but the people we are penalising are the taxpayers, who have to pay for the consequences of binge drinking through the costs of extra policing and the impacts on A and E departments. Furthermore, if I am being brutally honest it is those poor families who suffer most as a result of cheap alcohol. Young people and poor families are much more price-sensitive to alcohol than others.

Surely there is a more basic problem. The nation’s increasing addiction to alcohol is placing a huge strain upon the NHS—£2.7 billion a year. Surely we are talking on many occasions about treating the consequences of alcohol-related harm, rather than taking early action to prevent alcohol problems.

The hon. Gentleman gets right to the nub of the problem. I think we all recognise that a pub or a club is a supervised environment in which people can safely consume alcohol. When I was a young man, many was the time when I might have had a half of lager too much, or a half of Marston’s Pedigree too much, and somebody—my parents, my friends or somebody else a bit older and wiser than me—might have said, “Right, son, you’ve had enough, it’s time to go home”, or the barman might have said, “I’m sorry, sir, I’m not serving you any more, you’ve had too much”. However, the reality now is that too many young people are drinking to excess in an unsupervised manner.

The real problem is not only the price disparity. In recent years, there has been a massive increase in the regulatory burden placed on pubs and clubs—the smoking ban, for example—and a constant increase in the amount of red tape and supervision associated with dealing with the consequences of binge drinking. Actually, in many cases the pub only sells the last pint, because young people in particular are “pre-loading” before going out. When they get to the pub—increasingly, at later times in the evening—they are half-cut and the pubs have to deal with the consequences of that, including the fights and other problems. The danger is that we are loading too much of the burden on to pubs, when actually the supermarkets are driving a lot of this antisocial behaviour.

The previous Government did a lot of work with publicans to prohibit the “two for one” offer, the “happy hour” and the “drink as much as you can for a tenner” promotions that were fuelling excessive drinking. The pub industry, working with Government, took action to try to prevent those promotions—and yet it is perfectly okay for someone to buy a 24-pack of Stella or another strong lager from a supermarket. There are no restrictions on that.

Supermarkets are using beer as a loss-leader. We have seen the impact that supermarkets have had on milk and the dairy market through driving down the price of milk. They are doing the same with bread, and now they are using alcohol as a loss-leader. That is very dangerous and is sending out completely the wrong message to young people.

I thank the Minister very much for what the Government have done so far, but it is not enough. We need to go further. What we are all hoping for is some recognition today that this is the first step on a journey. The Minister will himself admit that if we agree that cheap alcohol is a problem, the question must arise, “How cheap is too cheap?” Is he honestly saying that he thinks we have got to where we need to get to on alcohol pricing, when we are still selling cider at 20p a can, beer at 38p a can and wine at £1.99?

If the Government and the Minister’s intentions are to be delivered, any solution must lead to an increase in the price of alcohol on the supermarket shelf. We need the Minister to take that idea forward and drive it home. I know that, like me, he has been frustrated that, with below-cost selling, we have not yet been able to find a solution that satisfies both the lawyers in Brussels and the industry here. I hope that today, he will issue another declaration to the industry, asking it to come forward with ideas on a meaningful definition of below-cost selling that includes the cost of production, so that we can see an increase in the price of alcohol on supermarket shelves and begin to tackle some of the supermarkets’ deeply dangerous activities.

Order. Several right hon. and hon. Members have indicated that they wish to speak. It is my intention to call the Front-Bench spokesmen from 10.30 am, so I ask speakers to take that into consideration when they make their contributions.

It is a pleasure to be present in a debate under your chairmanship, Mr Sheridan, and to follow the hon. Member for Burton (Andrew Griffiths), who made an eloquent and thoughtful speech.

I think that this is going to be a great debate. It will also provide a lot of information for political diarists. We have already heard this morning about butter-related crime, or the possibility of butter-related crime, from the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope); we have heard the hon. Member for Burton offer the working men in his constituency the prospect of welcoming my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington (Mrs Chapman) with open arms, and we have also heard about the Minister’s various meetings with beer groups, of which I am sure there are many, although some will think that the Minister, with his youthful good looks, might not even be old enough to drink.

Having said that, this is a very serious issue and I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith) for choosing it for a debate. It has attracted so many right hon. and hon. Members to Westminster Hall on a Wednesday morning, each one of whom has a constituency interest and a desire to ensure that we continue to move in the right direction.

Other Members here will be able to talk about the health aspects of the issue, for example, the hon. Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston), who has vast experience in the NHS. Indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent and the hon. Member for Burton both mentioned the cost of binge drinking to our health service and the health of the nation.

In the next few minutes, I want to concentrate on alcohol-related crime and the report of the Select Committee on Home Affairs, “Policing in the 21st Century”, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent referred. That report was published last year and it addressed the cost to the taxpayer and to the public of alcohol-related crime. When our Committee began the inquiry that led to that report, we were looking at what a police officer did with his or her time; we never intended to look at alcohol-related crime. It was only after we had visited a number of town centres, including Colchester, that we did so. The hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell), who was then a member of the Committee, invited the Committee to visit Colchester and hear from local police officers there about the amount of time that they spent on alcohol-related crime, especially on a Friday or Saturday evening. The latest estimate is that 70% of police officers feel that they are distracted from other aspects of policing because they are dealing with alcohol-related crime.

A statistic was sent to the Committee from the Cabinet Office showing that it costs £59 extra to process someone in a police station who has been arrested because of alcohol-related crime. In the current climate, the Government want to save money on policing, and there is no better way of doing that than to have responsible laws that reduce the time that police officers spend on this issue.

I do not think that anyone will disagree with the right hon. Gentleman about the problem, but how will limiting the price at which supermarkets sell alcohol be the solution? We know from our constituencies that it is alleged that small shops, where alcohol is sold at a much higher price than at the supermarkets, enable young people under the legal age to access booze.

I have huge respect for the hon. Gentleman because he was my Greater London councillor when I was in Richmond many years ago. I have always had a great deal of time for what he says, but I think that he is wrong on this issue. It is not the little shops or the pubs, but the supermarkets, that cause the problem. The evidence is clear, and it is in our report. As the hon. Member for Burton has pointed out, people get tanked up before they go out on a Saturday night, because of supermarkets’ special offers, which make beer cheaper than bottled water, even the cheapest water—I am not saying that we should not drink tap water.

I do not know where the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) lives, but where I live I have noticed that small shops are actually becoming supermarkets, and those Tesco Metros and Sainsbury’s Locals have the same cut-price promotions on alcohol, which occupies a larger proportion of shelf or floor space than it does in a larger store. Such stores are taking over territory that we might like to see remain with small local traditional shops.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. She tries to tempt me down Leicester high street, especially the Melton road, where we are currently fighting an application by Tesco to build one of its supermarkets in the middle of one of my main shopping areas.

My hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent mentioned the cost to the health service, but the cost to the taxpayer as far as crime is concerned is £7.3 billion a year—a huge amount. What do we do about that? It is in the hands of the Minister. At the last Home Office questions, I got up to praise the Home Secretary for moving in the right direction. We could not get the previous Government to do this; I do not know why. It is not that they were not concerned about the matter—I think that they were worried about alcohol-related crime and the pressure on the health service—but that the debate perhaps got distracted by claims that somehow the extension of licensing hours meant that people were drinking more alcohol. I do not think that that is correct, but as someone who does not drink alcohol, and has no constituency interest—no distilleries or production units—I feel that the previous Government should have taken up the Select Committee’s recommendations. This Government are moving in the right direction, but not far enough, as I think we will find from the contributions of most Members here this morning.

Some would say that the hon. Member for Burton has the most to lose because of the production in his town. I have visited Burton and been to the Coors headquarters there. It is a remarkable town, and the world centre of beer making, but down the high street there is an alcohol addiction centre—how very convenient. The people I visited made the case for minimum pricing, so if they can do that, we can look at the issue very seriously. There is something of a practical nature that the Minister can do, picking up on what the hon. Member for Gainsborough said.

Oh, I am so sorry: Christchurch, of course. How could I confuse the hon. Gentleman with the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr Leigh)?

What the Minister needs to do is to get the chairmen and chief executives of the five biggest supermarkets around the table for an alcohol-free sandwich lunch with both him and the Home Secretary, to discuss the issues. It is in their hands; they can do this.

Does the right hon. Gentleman not agree that if we are going to make a difference, the Government need to confront not only the supermarket low prices, but the non-stop availability of alcohol and the saturation of its advertising?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. Those issues have to be considered.

I shall end here, because so many other Members wish to contribute. The Government are moving in the right direction, but they have not accepted all the Select Committee’s recommendations. I make a plea to the Government to get those supermarkets together—that is in their hands—and I say to the Minister, “Do not be afraid.” I know that supermarkets are powerful organisations; we face them in our constituencies, and some of our constituents actually shop at them—I do. The fact is, however, that on this issue we need to make progress, and it needs to be now.

Order. I am reliably informed that both Front-Bench spokespeople are content to extend the licensing hour for Back-Bench speeches to 10.40 am.

I thank both Front Benchers for their generosity.

I shall try to keep my comments brief. I congratulate the hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith) on securing this important and timely debate, after the Government’s recent welcome announcement. I speak today as chair of the all-party save the pub group. I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman is a member, but if he is not, we would certainly be delighted to have him, particularly now that we know he is from a publican family.

I welcome the Government’s announcement, which is in itself a significant step that should be recognised. This debate has gone on for a long time, and I am pleased that the Government have acted quickly in the first year of this parliamentary term. Having said that, there are frustrations that my hon. Friend the Member for Burton (Andrew Griffiths) and I have expressed, both privately and publicly. I echo my hon. Friend’s comments about the Minister having being generous with his time and having sought to listen to people with an interest in pubs, and many others. He is right to do so, because that is a good way to make policy. However, I share the frustration, as do the majority of the all-party group members, that what the Government have done has not stopped below-cost selling. I want to make it absolutely clear that I do not support per unit minimum pricing. That is where the difference of opinion lies, and that is the challenge facing the Government.

Minimum pricing is not the way to solve the problems. As a Front-Bench Liberal Democrat health spokesperson, I said in a debate that minimum pricing is only part of the solution to two problems. The first is alcohol abuse, and it is important that we concentrate on “alcohol abuse” rather than on rather arbitrary terms such as “binge drinking,” because some of the definitions are confusing. We are talking about problem drinking, which is drinking that leads to health problems, antisocial behaviour or crime, and that is what we all, as policy makers, should concentrate on.

The second problem is the situation facing pubs and the huge discrepancy that has developed over the past few years. We have to accept that minimum pricing is not a silver bullet to solve either of those problems, but I have heard people both inside and outside this House suggest that it is. Such problems are not solved so simply. Year-on-year duty increases, particularly on beer, have done nothing whatsoever to stop the problems and, in fact, as the duty has increased the culture of alcohol-fuelled antisocial behaviour has got worse.

I highlight to the Minister, because I know that he is interested in the issue, that there is a conversation that he needs to have with his colleagues in the Treasury. May I make a plea? We do not want another duty rise in the forthcoming Budget, because it will damage pubs further. The hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent was absolutely right that well-run pubs and working men’s clubs that serve as hubs for their communities not only provide regulated, controlled places for people to enjoy alcohol responsibly in a supervised atmosphere but create a different culture of enjoying alcohol in a community setting, generally with people of all ages. That leads to a different approach to alcohol and prevents some of the problems identified by the Select Committee Chair, the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz), including pre-loading and under-age drinking in parks and unsupervised settings such as houses where parents are out, which is where many problems occur.

The duty question is more interesting still. Who pays duty? It is not the supermarkets. That is one of the huge flaws in the argument for a rise in duty. Duty is paid by manufacturers and producers, which includes not only Coors in Burton but WharfeBank Brewery in my constituency. Breweries must pay duty on the 20th day of the month of invoice. It is a considerable payment for some of them, but when supermarkets buy beer from breweries, including small breweries on tight margins, they do not pay them for months, often for three months and sometimes longer. As usual, supermarkets exploit their dominant market share.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. Coors, a fine brewer in my constituency, has extended the terms on which it pays its suppliers from 30 days to 90 days. It is having a considerable impact, particularly on small businesses.

My hon. Friend makes a good point.

Why would supermarkets not welcome either a genuine ban on below-cost selling, which I support, or a minimum price per unit, which other hon. Members support? Those approaches would increase their revenue, but they sell cheap alcohol for other reasons. Let us face it: supermarkets have virtually destroyed the stand-alone off-licence trade in this country. Names such as Threshers disappeared some time ago. We must remember that pubs, working men’s clubs, stand-alone off-licences and corner shops cannot sell alcohol below cost, because they rely on a reasonable margin on alcohol for their profits. There is something more sinister going on. Below-cost selling is a way to attract people into stores and maintain supermarkets’ power over manufacturers, some of which, unlike Coors, are too small to argue. That situation is causing a problem.

I accept that the issue is difficult, but we must come up with a definition of below-cost selling that includes the cost of production. I realise that we are on the first step, and I accept that the issue is difficult to define, but to say that below-cost selling simply involves tax suggests that supermarkets buy alcohol for nothing. They might take a long time to pay, but they clearly pay something. The price that they pay is often unreasonable, exactly as it is for the milk that they purchase from dairy farmers, but there is nevertheless a price. It cannot be impossible to include in the equation the price that the supermarkets must pay. That is the challenge, and I look forward to working with the Minister on it over time.

I accept some of the concerns aired by the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope). This is not about social engineering, moralising or saying that we should not sometimes welcome a reasonable deal and the chance to get a couple of pounds off a bottle of wine in a supermarket. Indeed, many people are concerned that if we set a high minimum price, that chance would disappear. There would also be other unintended consequences. For example, apart from increasing supermarket revenues, which is surely perverse, it could have the surprising effect of pushing up the price of a bottle of wine that currently costs £3.50 and is not worth more than that, and making good bottles of wine more expensive, which is not what any of us want. People should be allowed to enjoy alcohol sensibly without sudden unacceptable inflationary pressures.

I am concerned to stop the irresponsible selling of alcohol, which I am glad to say has been largely stamped out in the on trade but is, sadly, still alive and well, particularly in supermarkets. The Government have made a good start, but they can go further. I know that the Minister is listening, and I look forward to working with him and his team to close the unacceptable gap that has done so much damage to pubs, which are part of the solution to problem drinking, and to do something—we must recognise that it is only something—to deal with the problems associated with alcohol abuse that other hon. Members have rightly discussed.

I am delighted to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Sheridan. I congratulate the hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith) on securing this important debate. As vice-chair of the all-party group on alcohol misuse, I believe that this is an incredibly important issue for all hon. Members, and I welcome the Government’s commitment to tackling the serious issue of alcohol abuse. The proposal to introduce a minimum price for alcohol is undoubtedly a small step in the right direction, although I say that having listened to the hon. Member for Leeds North West (Greg Mulholland), who says the opposite.

I want to say clearly and early in my contribution that minimum pricing is just one aspect of what must be done to deal with increasing dependency on alcohol. I look forward to future statements by the Government on their alcohol strategy. In my view, treatment and rehabilitation services in this country are poor, availability is limited and service is disjointed across agencies. Little is done to help individuals and families ripped apart by alcoholism. The availability of cheap alcohol has undoubtedly encouraged the kind of drinking and antisocial behaviour that blights town centres each weekend. A culture, which is exclusive in many respects to British streets, has emerged in which it is fashionable to drink more than one is capable of. As a consequence, ill health and antisocial behaviour have become common.

The cost to the NHS of alcohol-related harm resulting from that culture is alarming. The statistics are well known, but one indication of strain on the NHS can be seen in the proxy services dedicated to treating binge drinkers. An SOS bus patrols Medway towns on Friday and Saturday nights, providing services to inebriated revellers. I visited it recently, albeit early in the evening, as I did not particularly want to see the consequences of heavy drinking. The dedicated volunteers are amazing and divert pressure away from the blue-light services, keeping vulnerable and very drunk youngsters safe. I certainly intend to try to protect that service during these financially constrained times, but it is a sad indictment of our weekend drinking culture that it is needed in the first place.

On minimum pricing, evidence points to a link between cost and sales. The theory is, obviously, that as cost rises, demand will fall. That might be a basic economic mechanism, and in principle it should make minimum alcohol pricing an effective policy for driving down dangerous levels of alcohol consumption, but the decision to set the base at the low rate of duty plus VAT is clearly controversial, and it remains to be seen whether it will work.

I share the concerns expressed by colleagues and others that such a policy will do little to help our beleaguered public houses, which must now compete with supermarkets rather than each other. I was interested to hear the price statistics quoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Burton (Andrew Griffiths), but I do not believe that the proposal will help tackle long-term alcohol dependency. It will be a small step in the right direction, if its aim is solely to clamp down on aspects of binge drinking such as pre-loading, which other hon. Members have discussed and the sole motivation of which is keeping the costs of a night out to minimum. Most leave their homes already very drunk, which prompts the question why they are allowed to continue consuming alcohol in licensed premises having already drunk enough before they arrive. As others have pointed out in this debate and others, one of the good things about public houses is that responsible landlords tend to prevent overly drunk and disorderly behaviour by stepping in and refusing to serve those whom they believe have had enough to drink.

As my hon. Friend, drawing on his experience, has pointed out, minimum pricing will, in theory, abolish the deep discounting that encourages that kind of drinking, thus equalising the cost of a night out and driving down alcohol consumption. However, the low minimum price proposed will only stop the very worst cases of discounting, and it may play out differently in practice. Therefore, bolder proposals should still be considered, targeting specific drinks associated with binge drinking, such as strong lagers, white ciders and alcopops.

It is important that we in this Chamber give credit where it is due. I was pleased to learn that Heineken, which produces White Lightning, recently discontinued the product due to its binge-drinking connotations. It should be commended for acknowledging the need to reinforce its stance on responsible drinking.

We must consider the limited scope of the policy and the likelihood that it will make headway only with a certain type of drinker. There is a growing dependency culture, and it is often hidden behind the closed doors of houses throughout the country. They are difficult to identify and affluent enough to absorb any increase in price, especially something as low as duty plus VAT. However, just because the minimum price does not impact upon them directly, that does not make them any less of a concern or any less dependent on alcohol and at risk of serious health issues in years to come. Current research reinforces that concern, because wealthy districts dominate the top of hazardous-drinking league tables. Although minimum pricing will target the binge drinkers who do it on the cheap, it is clear that it will do little to tackle alcohol dependency as a whole.

I appreciate that the Government have to balance their strategy of introducing a policy that meets their stated aims of reducing dangerous levels of alcohol consumption while not penalising the vast majority who enjoy alcohol sensibly. The question is: does this minimum price do that?

The pricing of alcohol is only part of the problem. It must be introduced in conjunction with a review of the late-night licences available to establishments, stricter alcohol-control zones and a close examination of the quality of treatment and rehab offered to those with a high dependency.

Will the hon. Lady join me in congratulating the Scottish Health Minister, who introduced a price structure in relation to vodka last September? As has been mentioned, the minimum price used to be £7.97, but it is now £11.81 under the new structure, which also applies to some beers. We encourage all the regions, including the Northern Ireland Assembly, to do the same.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I have read about the new proposals in Scotland, which are currently being debated. We should look at what is happening in Scotland. Indeed, we should have looked at what was happening there in relation to the 24-hour drinking culture before it was introduced here. The evidence that the police had gathered in Scotland should have been made available to the previous Government before they introduced the licensing extension.

In conclusion, we need to engage with the professional classes and young adults who regularly drink to hazardous levels, and target those establishments that prop up the binge-drinking culture through irresponsible sales and business practices. If we can in any way reduce the weekend strain on the NHS, the police and the local authorities that clear up the mess created by binge drinking, we can certainly hail this as a small step in the right direction. However, in order to reduce dependency on alcohol across the board and to stem the devastating effects that it has on the lives of individuals and families, let alone its financial cost to society, so much more needs to be done.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith) on securing this important debate.

I enjoy real beer and good wine, and support a traditional pub. One of the most enjoyable experiences of my early career as an MP was to open Bragdy Mws Piws, which, for those present who are not blessed with the Welsh language, is the Purple Moose Brewery in Porthmadog. I commend its excellent products.

Alcohol is a problem, and I need not go into much detail because many hon. Members have already done so. I was a psychiatric social worker for eight years and I would like to talk about three cases that I came across during that time. First, I once went to a club near Blaenau Gwent and had to drag one of my colleagues out at lunch time because he had been drinking a pint of cloudy scrumpy that retailed at 8p a pint. Its effects on him were dreadful. Of my second example, I need only say that the person in question was an alcoholic roofer—I need not spell out the consequences. The third, and most tragic, case relates to an elderly man with whom I worked with a noted local psychiatrist, Dr Dafydd Alun Jones, who has had a long career in the field. The elderly man had had a lifetime of heavy drinking and he was abstinent at that time, but occasionally he would have what he called “lapses” when he would go out and drink heavily for a few days, which he would then regret at his leisure.

Huge efforts have been made to combat the effects of alcohol. My constituency of Arfon has CAIS, the local alcohol and drugs council. Interestingly, a couple of weeks ago I went out with the Bangor Street Pastors, a local voluntary group that goes out on Fridays and Saturdays at 1, 2 and 3 o’clock in the morning to help vulnerable young people who are clearly worse for wear due to alcohol. The volunteers back up the emergency services, and the police appreciate what they do. I talked with the police when I was out a couple of weeks ago, and they pointed out the effects on their work of having to be out at 2 and 3 o’clock in the morning when their shift pattern did not really allow for it.

The hon. Gentleman referred to some of the Welsh statistics. I will not detain the Chamber with too many, but Alcohol Concern Cymru estimates that there are 13,000 alcohol-related hospital admissions and 1,000 alcohol-related deaths in Wales each year. It also estimates that half the violent incidents in Wales are related to alcohol and that the cost of alcohol misuse to the NHS in Wales is between £70 million and £85 million a year, and that is just for treatment by accident and emergency services. That is a huge cost to public services, but it does not reflect the pain, grief and intense stress that many families, not just the drinker, experience.

England has similar statistics, but I will not go into them now, other than to say that it is estimated that 17 million working days are lost per annum. I am sorry that the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) has left the Chamber, because that is one of the definite effects on trade and industry, about which I know he is concerned. The cost of alcohol-related crime in England is £4.7 billion a year.

As has been mentioned, the Scottish Government have tried to act. They commissioned research that showed that a minimum price per unit of alcohol of 40p could reduce alcohol-related deaths in Scotland by 70 in the first year, rising to 370 a year after 10 years, so there would be a cumulative effect.

Many of the arguments are in favour of addressing the price issue. I welcome the Government’s proposals to prevent retailers from selling alcohol below duty plus VAT, and I am glad that they accept the arguments about the effect of cheap drink and the need to act.

However, I fear that the proposals will hit only the special offers. In some of the briefing material available to us, the Alcohol Health Alliance has said that the proposals would have

“no meaningful impact on the health consequences of alcohol misuse.”

I do not know whether that is the case, but the Government should look at the matter further. A minimum unit price is not a silver bullet, as I think everybody recognises. We need concerted action on several fronts, including on licensing hours and the number of outlets. When I first started drinking many years ago, very few places sold alcohol. It now seems that every corner shop or garage has alcohol for sale.

I conclude by noting briefly that my party, Plaid Cymru, is in favour of a minimum price of 50p per unit. That is also the policy of the Welsh Assembly Government. We argue that such an approach would reduce consumption and lead to a lower consumption of very strong drinks. That would have a particular effect on young people. Someone asked earlier about the temptation to drink vodka if there were a minimum price. My knowledge of young people unfortunately shows that they need no encouragement to drink vodka; they seem to do it without any encouragement whatsoever.

As I said, the argument in my party also centres on the beneficial effects on the traditional pub. In the past, we have asked for pub licensing to be devolved. That came up when discussing the previous Government’s changes to the licensing scheme. The Welsh Government have asked for the rights to impose a minimum price per unit but, unfortunately, that has been refused. I therefore ask the Minister in the long term—I do not expect to have an answer from him this morning—to reconsider the devolution of licensing powers to the Welsh Government and the refusal to allow the Welsh Government to set a minimum price.

I am conscious of the time, so I will not delay hon. Members by going through some of the statistics on the type of harm that alcohol is causing in my constituency—they are firmly on the record. That is particularly the case in Newquay, where many people go to have a very good time—often too much of a good time. I should put an interest on record. Like many hon. Members, I enjoy a drink from time to time, and I also have a brewery in my constituency in St Austell.

For the Minister’s benefit, I want to touch on one of the potentially unintended effects of the duty plus VAT regime that the Government are introducing. When the Minister introduced the policy, he said that it was “an important first step.” I agree with that, but it is also a very tentative step. In fact, in certain circumstances, industry representatives have said to me that the policy could make the price of alcohol lower in some retail establishments. As has been mentioned by other hon. Friends, the proposal does not factor in any sense of the cost of production. Retailers and wholesalers, neither of which will be taking any margin, could end up paying the duty plus VAT and reducing the cost as part of a marketing exercise—brand awareness—and an attempt to drive footfall.

Just before Christmas, if someone had £20 and went into a store with a promotion on, they might have been able to get three 15 packs of beer or cider—about 45 cans. Under the Government’s proposals, supermarkets can legitimately charge £20 for 52 cans of lager or a staggering 107 cans of cider. That is a great offer for someone who likes that kind of thing. The proposals mean that, for £20, someone could buy enough cider to meet their recommended daily alcohol consumption for three months—107 cans of cider is equivalent to 246 units.

I will not give way. I know my hon. Friend wants to get in, so I will try to rattle through the points that I want to make.

Potentially, under a duty plus VAT arrangement, the following could be purchased for £20: not 45 cans of beer but 52; not 45 cans of cider but 107; not six bottles of wine but 10, and almost two bottles of spirits.

As has been mentioned, the policy does not factor in costs of production and is a very tentative step forward. There is a big discrepancy between the price of beer and the price of cider. We have to consider whether the Treasury is taxing those products equally. If we consider beer, at 4.2% alcohol by volume, the duty per unit is 17p; for cider, at 4.5% ABV, it is 7p per unit. Beer tax has increased by 50% over seven years and the gap between beer and cider tax widens every year. The Treasury is estimated to be losing £400 million a year. I shall now sit down, so that my hon. Friend can make her contribution.

There are only a few minutes left, so I shall address just four issues. Is it worth it? Will it work? Is it unfair? How can we do it? We have heard many statistics this morning, on which I will not dwell in the short time I have. Suffice it to say that nearly 15,000 people died of deaths attributable to alcohol in 2005, and they are the tip of the iceberg. Those figures do not take account of the person knocked over by a drunk driver or people whose deaths were perhaps attributable to alcohol in ways that are not recorded in the true statistics. We underestimate the scale of the problem. On the human cost, as an NHS doctor for 24 years and a police surgeon, I cannot begin to tell hon. Members the hideous nature of a slow death from alcoholic psoriasis.

Will the policy work? Yes, there is very clear evidence that it will. Several meta-analyses were studied in the university of Sheffield report that was commissioned by the previous Government. Those show that it is clear that pricing is a very good mechanism not only for controlling overall consumption, but for targeting those who are most at risk: young people and heavy drinkers.

On the question of whether the policy is unfair, let us consider the statistics. Someone from a deprived area is three to five times more likely than someone living in an affluent area to die of an alcohol-specific cause. In addition, they are two to three times more likely to die of an alcohol-related cause and two to five times more likely to be admitted to hospital for an alcohol-related cause. It is completely untrue to say that we penalise low-income families by addressing the problem. That group of people is most at risk. If we consider the statistics on children who are affected and the figures on domestic violence, again, there is a skewing towards lower-income families. We should address that matter and not hide it under the carpet.

Time is very short so, finally, how can we do it? There are various ways. We could, for example, look at varying VAT. I recently wrote to the Treasury to provide a copy of an article written by Nick Sheron that was published in the British Medical Journal. He argues that we can achieve minimum pricing by varying VAT, and that we should perhaps lower VAT on on-licence sales of alcohol. That would mean that we protect the licensed trade. I think everyone would accept that we do not want to penalise pubs. Simply using the blunt instrument of raising duty is the incorrect way forward, but having a variable rate of VAT would be an interesting method, allowing us to protect the on-licence trade. Unfortunately, the Economic Secretary has written back to me to say that she feels that that would be illegal under EU law.

Under EU law, we cannot make supermarkets have different ways of adjusting to adopt such proposals, so the alternative is to introduce minimum pricing across the board. That is worth doing. I know that the Treasury feels that such an approach would perhaps deprive it of income, but we are all paying a very heavy price in costs to the criminal justice system and to the health service. Many hon. Members have cited the £2.7 billion figure in relation to the health service, but it is probably more than that. Certainly, the cost overall to our economy is nearer to £20 billion than some of the lower figures that have been cited today. If we can address that, the Treasury would benefit indirectly, if not directly.

I shall mention a final mechanism. There are 30.4 billion units of alcohol sold in the off-trade. Perhaps we should consider introducing a levy just on the off-trade of 5p to 7p a unit on all off-licence sales. That would still leave 18 billion units of on-licence sales of alcohol unaffected. Perhaps that is another mechanism that could looked at by the Treasury, which could benefit more directly while trying to achieve something closer to 50p a unit. Like many hon. Members, I do not seriously believe that the Government’s current proposals, while a step in the right direction, will have any meaningful impact on severe problem drinkers, particularly young binge drinkers.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sheridan. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith) on securing the debate and on his excellent speech. I know about his long-standing interest in this particular problem, as well as his concern about wider health matters.

This debate has been interesting. I certainly feel that I have learned a lot about the drinking habits, or not, of a number of hon. and right hon. Members in this Chamber. The hon. Member for Burton (Andrew Griffiths) gave an interesting speech about how alcohol is a major issue for his constituency, which is a centre of brewing. My right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz), who is the distinguished Chair of the Home Affairs Committee, talked about the information that he has gleaned from looking at policing and the effect of alcohol. The hon. Member for Leeds North West (Greg Mulholland), who is a doughty campaigner for pubs, discussed how we can tackle the problems of alcohol, which we clearly have, and the important community role for pubs. The hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) talked about her experience in her constituency. The hon. Member for Arfon (Hywel Williams) talked about his experience as a social worker in dealing with clients and about what was happening on the streets of his constituency late at night. The hon. Member for St Austell and Newquay (Stephen Gilbert) gave very clear examples of what can be bought for £20, which was fascinating. The hon. Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston) spoke with a great deal of experience and knowledge of the effects of alcohol on health, and her last point about a potential off-trade levy should be considered.

It is clear that, as a country, we have a problem with alcohol. My hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent has supplied statistics about the effect of alcohol as it relates to Wales. We need to do something about this issue. Last week, we heard more disturbing statistics about liver disease in young people. The number of young drinkers admitted to hospital with liver problems has risen by more than 50% in the past 10 years.

In government, the Labour party started to address some of the problems relating to alcohol—for example, the Policing and Crime Act 2009 banned irresponsible drinks promotions. We all agree that we need to do more and to go further. From this morning’s debate, it is clear that we need to go further than the coalition Government’s current proposals, announced on 18 January, to ban the below-cost pricing of alcohol. As I understand it, that equates to minimum pricing of approximately 21p a unit for beer and 28p a unit for spirits. Under those plans, the lowest possible price for a can of lager in a supermarket would range from 38p to 78p, depending on its strength. Most drinks would be unaffected by that proposal, as that works out at as little as 47p a pint for lagers. My right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East has pointed out that that means that many soft drinks and mineral waters would still be more expensive than alcohol bought in the supermarket.

The Campaign for Real Ale has pointed out that in banning below-cost prices, the cost of production should be included. That would raise the floor price to 40p per unit, which is almost double the 21p per unit that will be the norm under coalition Government plans. In a quick survey by my office yesterday in the Tesco nearest to Parliament, we found that typical prices were four large 440 ml cans of Stella for £3.30, and four 440 ml cans of Strongbow for £4.25, or two for £7. Clearly, there is an issue with the pricing that will be introduced in the proposals from the Government. Those prices are typical up and down the country. Hon. Members have discussed what is happening in their own constituencies, and I know this from my own constituency in Hull.

We have heard about the proposal from the former chief medical officer for England, Sir Liam Donaldson, who, in March 2009, proposed a 50p a unit minimum pricing level. That would increase the price of all bottles of wine to at least £4.50 and raise the price of the average six-pack of lager to £6.

A number of concerns have been raised both in this debate and beyond. One concern, as I have just set out, is whether the retail price will make any real difference to influencing the excessive drinking that we have seen in recent years to a move towards greater moderation. There is also the question why responsible drinkers should be penalised by having to pay more, when they are not in any way part of the problem. That is a fair point, which has carried the day in debate for many years. It may be difficult to devise a way of dealing with irresponsible drinking, while leaving those people who just have an occasional glass of wine or pint of beer unaffected.

We need to consider the pricing mechanism, because if we do not do so, we will deny ourselves one of the most potentially useful weapons in reforming destructive behaviour as a result of alcohol. There is much to be gained for the responsible drinker from looking at pricing. Set against higher prices for alcohol, there are costs that can be saved in the areas of policing, cleaning the streets, and repairing vandalism, as well as the benefit to the NHS and the general welfare state. Perhaps the Minister will consider highlighting more clearly the costs incurred by society due to the abuse of alcohol and making the case more strongly for looking at higher prices. Any pricing changes must be seen not only as increasing the Treasury tax take, as the recent VAT change does, but a reform that is firmly for the health of our society and everyone in it.

We have heard much today about how drinking habits have changed over the years. People buy their alcohol cheaply in the supermarket, often in bulk, and consume it at home. That is referred to up north as “getting tanked up”, but I think that the technical word is “pre-loading”. People then go out later in the evening to take advantage of the later licensing hours, and so end up spending less in the pubs and clubs, having spent more with the supermarkets. The hon. Member for Burton has discussed his experience, perhaps when he was slightly younger, of being in a pub or club and having the benefit of that controlled, supervised environment, which means that people can be helped if they have a little too much to drink. That clearly does not happen if one is indulging in excessive drinking at home.

On late night drinking, the Government have introduced the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill and are considering a late night drinking levy, which is about asking pubs, clubs and licensed premises to contribute towards the costs of policing in areas that have late night drinking. While there is an element of the polluter pays, which is an attractive idea, perhaps the Minister will consider again the additional tax that will be charged to many small businesses and the bureaucratic nature of introducing this levy. Perhaps he will comment on that.

I want to discuss building a culture of responsible drinking. There is wide agreement that people need fully to understand the implications of their behaviour, so I hope that the Government will consider bringing back the proposal to introduce personal social and health education into our schools, so that young people in particular fully understand the problems of taking alcohol at an early age—many of them do not understand that. Some schools teach the subject very well, but others do not.

My time is nearly up. The Government have announced the proposal that they wish to take forward, but could the Minister comment on why the Bill, which is currently in Committee, does not include any clear proposals or clauses on this matter? Would he consider bringing forward an amendment to include it, and, finally, would he consider adding a further objective to the licensing conditions and include a health harm objective?

This has been an exceptional debate. Some debates that we have either on the Floor of the House or in Westminster Hall are partisan. Speakers may have entrenched positions and may not necessarily reflect the views of the whole of the United Kingdom or, indeed, of all political parties, but that is not the case this morning. That highlights the impact of the issue and the concerns that people have about the misuse of alcohol and what we see in our communities because of it. Equally, it reflects the complexity of the matter, which can and should be addressed in several different ways. There are societal, health and crime issues, and those themes came through clearly in a range of contributions, whether speeches or interventions, which have informed the debate and made it valuable.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith) on securing this debate and allowing this discussion to take place. When I was doing my research, I thought that I had suddenly latched on to something when I discovered a page on the internet that said, “MP admits mistake”:

“MP Nick Smith has told Parliament he ‘got it wrong’”

on the drinking age, but I then discovered it was a New Zealand MP with the same name rather than the hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent. I know that the hon. Gentleman takes this issue seriously. In his initial contribution in this House, he highlighted his concerns about social and health inequalities in his constituency as well as other themes. I know how keenly he feels about these issues, and why he sought to secure this debate.

It is important to recognise that, for the first time, because of research that we have undertaken and the many representations that we have heard, we have set out the need to establish a link between alcohol harms and price. I am delighted that the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) is in his place, because we have reflected on the comments in the Home Affairs Committee report, which, interestingly, was published in November 2008. That shows how time passes in this place. It recommended that the Government establish a legal basis for banning the use of loss-leading by supermarkets—that was one of the key recommendations. He and I have had several debates over the years on the issue and the points that arise from it.

It is also important to say that our modelling indicates that the change that we are proposing—duty plus VAT—will reduce the number of crimes by about 7,000 and hospital admissions by about 1,000. We heard from the hon. Member for St Austell and Newquay (Stephen Gilbert) about his fears that the change will somehow drive the price down. I certainly do not see it that way. The sad reality is that some products are deeply discounted. They will be caught by our proposals, and hence the change that we are seeing.

I appreciated my visit to the hon. Gentleman’s constituency. I went to Newquay and saw some of the good community work that is taking place on the ground, and how people are dealing with some of the issues around youth drinking and some of the pressures in certain towns. The Newquay Safe Partnership is an important example of that practical work, and I was delighted to visit his constituency.

I am conscious that time is limited, so I apologise if I am unable to canter through everything. The hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent asked about the options for bringing matters forward. I am certainly committed to doing that as soon as practicable. We are examining various options, but I intend to press forward quickly to resolve matters and ensure that the measures are introduced at the earliest opportunity.

There were also some questions about Treasury statements, and the hon. Gentleman asked about my comments on super-strength lagers. Before Christmas, the Treasury conducted its own analysis of duty and identified super-strength lagers of more than 17.5% alcohol by volume as a particular issue. It was considering options for duty in the Budget. I hope that that gives him an idea of the time frame.

My hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) highlighted some of the practical issues on the booze bus that clears up some of the problems late in the evening. I stayed out with the booze bus in London late into the evening and saw people literally being picked up off the street—they were dealt with professionally and impressively by the London ambulance service and paramedics. I found quite interesting the leaflet that they gave to the people with whom they dealt, who perhaps would reflect on it the following morning when nursing the after-effects of what they had been through the night before. The leaflet highlights the cost of the pick-ups—each case costs the London ambulance service some £200—and the fact that about 60,000 calls are made each year. I saw for myself some of the real challenges that professionals have to deal with on the ground, responding to the issue, which is why it is important to introduce several different measures to address the problems linked to excessive alcohol consumption.

There is a clear role for the industry. I have been struck by some of the positive work, not just in Newquay, on things such as community alcohol projects, Best Bar Nones, purple flags and some of the steps that are already being taken by the industry to address the problem. Yes, more should and could be done, which is why, for example, we are seeking to introduce the late night levy. It will assist local communities with funding and support for policing and some of the other initiatives, such as the booze bus.

As a rejoinder to the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson) who described our response as bureaucratic, I gently remind her of the previous Government’s alcohol disorder zones. If she thinks that what we are proposing is bureaucratic—it is actually simple and straightforward—I point her in the direction of ADZs and the bureaucracy that was attached to them. I hope that she will welcome some of the steps that we are taking on pricing, because I know that the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Alan Johnson), a former Home Secretary, indicated regret at not taking that on board. I welcome her support as we go on to debate some of the detail around licensing in the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill during the coming weeks.

It is important to set the proposal for the ban on below-cost sales in our proposal to introduce a floor price of duty plus VAT. The matter was considered carefully. There were some comments about the industry making further suggestions. We consulted during the summer on our proposals and listened carefully to the responses. Again, there were no simple solutions or unanimous views on what should happen. This is a complex matter, and there are issues around competition law. Also, we need to produce something that is understandable and easy to enforce. There are other models such as invoice pricing, but we did not want to get involved in them because of the bureaucracy attached to them.

Sadly, it appears that we are now calling time on this debate. Our proposals are a first step. We are determined to tackle the harms caused by alcohol and are introducing a comprehensive suite of proposals on problem practices, problem licensing and problem people, and we are looking at how we can better support and aid recovery as part of our wider strategy. I have appreciated this morning’s debate, which I am sure will continue.

Order. We must move on to the next debate. I ask hon. Members who are not staying to leave quickly and quietly.

Children’s Centres

It is a pleasure to hold this debate under your chairmanship, Mr Sheridan, and I am pleased to see the Minister here. She has written to me and other hon. Members on this subject in detail.

The question for which I seek an answer is why there is a difference of opinion between what the Government and the Minister are saying to local authorities, and what local authorities are saying about funding Sure Start children’s centres. Last Thursday, Sefton council voted to review all 19 children’s centres in Sefton, and to decide over the coming weeks which are to survive and which are to close. There is huge concern in my constituency that it will just cherry-pick from those services.

The Minister told local authorities that the early intervention grant is designed to replace the funding for children’s centres, and that there is sufficient money to guarantee the full network of centres over the coming years. My question to her is: why are so many councils, including Sefton, saying that that is not true, and that the money has not come through?

As Polly Toynbee put it in The Guardian:

“The sleight of hand drives children’s services directors to distraction.”

She goes on to say that the Minister

“has indeed given a specific early intervention grant to cover Sure Start, but as she well knows it is considerably less than the bundle of 22 grants it replaces. It amounts to a £1.4 billion cut in all early intervention programmes.”

In the case of Hammersmith and Fulham, the early intervention grant has been cut by 12.9%. The Minister may want to comment on that, as she has said that there is no need to cut Sure Start. The actual cut in service will be more than 50%, with nine out of 15 centres closing, having had their grants reduced from £475,000 to £19,000—not enough to run a service. That is the truth about Sure Start on the ground at the moment.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention. We have found exactly the same problem in Sefton. We face at least a 12% cut in the early intervention grant. The council has been told that it is there to replace several early intervention projects. The money is simply not enough to do the job that the Government claim it is there to do.

Faced with the financial crisis and the cuts that the Government are pushing through, the question is what gets dropped first. History shows us that early prevention projects always come off worst.

Polly Toynbee’s article continues:

“Where in this pecking order of need should children’s centres come? They offer the earliest help to young children, identifying difficulties before it is too late, a welcoming place to which families can turn.”

Many of my constituents have written to me to say how important those services are to them and their children. One parent at Hudson children’s centre in Maghull told me:

“I am a mum to two small pre-school children and consider the children’s centre an integral part of my life. I was delighted when the centre first opened, shortly after having my first child. It soon became my lifeline, opening doors to new friendships and experiences. We enrolled for all the sessions available to us and thoroughly enjoyed meeting up with other parents and carers. The staff are all so very caring and helpful, making us all feel like part of their family. We still regularly attend the centre and feel distraught at the thought that this may come to an end if funding is cut. Not only would my children lose their valuable educational activities, but I would also lose my support network. I plead with Sefton council to carefully consider their actions regarding this matter, as I feel our local community would be left devastated.”

A common theme coming through to me from parents, grandparents and carers, is that their children’s centre is a vital lifeline, without which they would have nowhere to turn. There are no other facilities; there are no other places for many families to go. I mentioned the Hudson children’s centre in Maghull. More than 750 families have used the services at that centre. A similar number has used the service at Thornton children’s centre in Crosby, and I have three more children’s centres in my constituency. All five are either phase 2 or phase 3 centres. Initially, Sure Start children’s centres were set up in areas of maximum deprivation. The evidence coming through to me from the parents and families who use the phase 2 and 3 centres is that they are just as important as the phase 1 centres.

People from many different backgrounds use the centres in my constituency. One of the benefits we have found is that people, who would often be isolated without access to those services, meet and form their own support networks and make new friends. Suzanne Bentham uses the Thornton children’s centre. She wrote to me to say:

“Thornton children’s centre is an essential part of my life. Firstly, I went with my partner for my antenatal classes, then with my daughter who loves all the activities she does there. The staff and amenities are wonderful but most of all the atmosphere is the best bit. If I am feeling a little housebound, we can pop in and join in or just chat. We attend most days. We have met so many people from all walks of life, all with stories or offers of help when you need it most. It is not just a play centre, it is a lifeline, and without it an awful lot of people, families and children, will miss out on valuable skills to help throughout their lives. You see, every child matters.”

My hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen) reported in the past few weeks that early intervention and the support that children receive in their first five years are crucial. That makes all the difference and prevents many children and families from having difficulties later in life. That is why children’s centres were set up by the previous Government, and why Sure Start matters.

Would a more sensible and humane approach for local authorities, which have suffered cuts in grants, be to consider withdrawing some of the services Sure Start provides, so that they keep the whole network? I say that because at some stage the Government are going to respond to my report, which advocated that, in some years, they should consider not automatically increasing children’s rates of benefits, but using all or part of that money to build up the foundation years. There will be all the difference in the world if, in a year or so, the Government say more money is coming into the area, between those authorities that kept their network and those that decided to shut up shop and disappear.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. His point about how vital it is to keep the network going is extremely well made. Perhaps I can make my own comments in support of that argument.

The network is so important. Families often use several children’s centres, not only one, and those centres work closely together. I cited some of the numbers of families who use those centres, and I have seen how they are now an integral part of building successful and sustainable communities, and bringing together families with different backgrounds from different parts of the same community. If that network is broken in any way, it would be a backward step.

I believe that children’s centres are as important in phases 2 and 3 as they are in phase 1. Pockets of deprivation and people who are isolated exist in all parts of our communities, not only the most deprived areas. Therefore, it is essential that the network is retained. How will the Minister ensure that councils carry out the Government’s stated wishes to retain the network? At the moment, it appears that in many local authorities the money is not being passed on to keep the networks open. The removal of the ring-fencing, and the fact that the grant is not a like-for-like replacement of funding, leaves that question open. The Minister will say that such matters are down to local determination, but if the Government are serious about retaining Sure Start children’s centres and the network, they must consider intervening in local authorities to ensure that their stated policy is delivered on the ground.

This is my first opportunity to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sheridan, and I am delighted to do so. I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. We have spoken about the subject in private, and we are both passionate about it. Does my hon. Friend agree that Sure Start centres are a lifeline for the sort of communities that he and I represent? Councils in Sefton and Liverpool are faced with the most horrific decisions about the future of Sure Start centres because of the local government settlement. Does he agree that Sure Start centres in the most deprived communities in the country should be the most protected?

My hon. Friend’s constituency is next door to mine, and many of his constituents use Sure Start centres in my constituency, just as many of my constituents use centres in his constituency in Liverpool. The Holy Rosary children’s centre in Aintree village is used by people who live in Fazakerley and Walton. My hon. Friend’s point about protecting phase 1 centres in the most deprived areas is important, but I believe that phase 2 and 3 centres have come to deliver an equally important service for slightly different reasons. I would not like to see any of those centres go, and it is important to maintain the entire network. People use centres from phase 1 and from phases 2 and 3.

Let me turn to the report by my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North and some of the evidence that he produced on early intervention. He cites some examples that illustrate the importance of early intervention:

“A child’s development score at just 22 months can serve as an accurate predictor of educational outcomes at 26 years.

Some 54 per cent of the incidence of depression in women and 58 per cent of suicide attempts by women have been attributed to adverse childhood experiences, according to a study in the US.

An authoritative study of boys assessed by nurses at age 3 as being ‘at risk’ found that they had two and a half times as many criminal convictions as the group deemed not to be at risk…Moreover, in the at-risk group, 55 per cent of the convictions were for violent offences, compared to 18 per cent for those who were deemed not to be at risk.”

The report goes on to make it clear that the costs of investing in early years services are far outweighed by those of dealing with the problems created later in life. That is very apparent to people who use children’s centres in my constituency. They tell me that not only do their children do better at school than their older brothers and sisters who did not have the benefit of such a service, but that they can also start to see the benefits of their children mixing with other children and getting used to mixing with adults.

Clearly, children and families do better where that service is available. I am sure that the Minister accepts that the loss of that service would be a bad move.

My hon. Friend will know that the issues faced in my constituency, and across Sheffield, are similar to those faced in his constituency. Thirty children’s centres and nurseries are threatened by a £2 million funding cut. Does he agree that in maintaining the network—an important point—the choices that local authorities are forced to make when changing the offer from children’s centres by reducing hours and charging will push many centres beyond tipping point? That will make it impossible to maintain the network.

My hon. Friend makes an incredibly important point. That is further evidence of the importance of maintaining the network as a whole and building on it. Yesterday, I spoke to the head teacher of a school that has a children’s centre attached. She pointed out that a lot of evidence from the families served by that centre suggests that such centres should look to extend their services to families with older children, so that the good work can continue. That could perhaps link with youth services, which are also under threat. In fact, as of last Thursday, the entire youth service in Sefton has been cut, and that will store up huge problems for the future.

I am conscious that the Minister needs time to respond to the debate, but I want to remind her of what was said by her right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. One of my constituents, Marie Creed, sent me a “contract” between the Conservative party and her family. It states:

“We will support Sure Start, and boost it by paying for an extra 4,200 trained Sure Start health visitors.”

If the Prime Minster and the Minister are serious about supporting Sure Start, they must not only put in the money to keep that election pledge, but ensure that councils deliver on it. Otherwise, for many families in Sefton and elsewhere in the country, it will turn out to be just another broken promise.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sheridan. I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson) on securing this debate on an important topic. Like him, the Government believe that Sure Start children’s centres have a critical role to play in their communities, and they are at the heart of the Government’s vision for early intervention. There is enough money in the system to maintain the network of children’s centres, and we have also provided extra investment for health visitors. However, I recognise the concerns that the hon. Gentleman raised in his speech, and I will address those issues in my response.

First, I will make a few general remarks about Sure Start children’s centres and the direction of reform, which I hope will put things into context. Since my appointment as a Minister, I have had the privilege of visiting many children’s centres around the country, and I have seen how highly they are valued by families and communities. That point was echoed by the hon. Gentleman when he spoke of the testimony of individual constituents, and how much they have appreciated the support in their local area.

Those positive messages are reinforced by the evidence. The 2008 and 2010 reports from the national evaluation of Sure Start showed improved outcomes in a number of areas including better behaviour, more positive parenting skills and home learning environments, and better physical health of children who live in an area with a Sure Start programme. The evidence supports the messages we hear from families that children’s centres make a real difference to their lives.

Last week, the Government published their response to the report by the Select Committee on Education about Sure Start children’s centres. In that response, we set out in more detail our vision for children’s centres: they should be accessible to all, but with a clear role in identifying and supporting the most vulnerable and disadvantaged families. That policy vision will be built on by a policy statement that we intend to publish in the spring. It will differ from many of the policy statements and the way in which we have produced them in the past, in that we intend to co-produce it with the sector, building on the ideas on the ground, on best practice and on the sector’s views about how to shape the future of centres.

Evidence shows that children from advantaged backgrounds do better than those from disadvantaged groups, with a range of health, cognitive and language differences becoming apparent by the age of three. Those are some of the issues to which the hon. Gentleman referred. It cannot be fair that children’s outcomes and life chances depend on the circumstances of their birth. An important element of children’s centres is their accessibility. However, within that, I want them to be better at targeting resources on the most disadvantaged and vulnerable families to help close that gap in outcomes.

Key areas for reform will include an increase in the use of evidence-based interventions, which the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen) spoke about in his report. We believe that public money should go to services that have proved their effectiveness, particularly in supporting the most disadvantaged and vulnerable families. We also want improved accountability and transparency. That includes the introduction of payment by results so that local authorities and providers are rewarded for the results they achieve. We intend next year to make local authorities publish more information about how they spend their money, so it will be clear what money they are spending on children’s centres and what money they are holding back for administrative support, which picks up on some of the points made by the hon. Member for Sefton Central.

We also want increased voluntary and community sector involvement in children’s centres, so that organisations with a track record of supporting families can get more involved.

I want to pick up on the point about analysing whether local authorities have passed on the money to children’s centres, and waiting until next year. My concern, which was expressed strongly by my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field), is that that is too late. If they have not done that and the centres have started to close, it will be very difficult to rebuild the network. If there were a loss of that support over crucial months or even a year, that would be a very long time for families to wait.

I recognise the hon. Gentleman’s point. If it is okay, I will go on to say a little about the early intervention grant and the particular concerns about reorganisation on the ground.

The hon. Gentleman pointed to the 4,200 extra health visitors whom we will be committing to recruiting. We hope that they will work alongside children’s centre outreach teams to support the families most in need. That is being funded by the Department of Health. On our direction of travel, we want to work closely with the sector on the ground to ensure that we are getting the reforms right. We will be considering the report by the hon. Member for Nottingham North and the review by the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field), who intervened and whose point I will pick up on in a moment. We have also asked Dame Clare Tickell to review the early years foundation stage. That will inform the work we are doing.

The bulk of what the hon. Member for Sefton Central spoke about related to his concern about the early intervention grant. We have made clear our commitment to Sure Start children’s centres. We believe that we have ensured that there is enough money to maintain the national network of centres and to enable local authorities to meet their statutory duties.

The Local Government Association says that, on a like-for-like basis, there is a 27% decrease in the early intervention grant when compared with the previous year. My Conservative council, in trying to excuse its cuts, says:

“This grant is 12.9% less than the previous allocation for the same services.”

Will the Minister deal with that point, about which she is in denial? Will she also deal with the point that the lack of ring-fencing means that councils such as mine can make outrageous decisions to close down stage 1 children’s centres—exactly the ones she thinks should stay open? Their grant is being cut from £475,000 to £19,000. That is happening in Shepherd’s Bush—an area I think she knows well.

I recognise that there are particular concerns in the hon. Gentleman’s area, and it is an issue I am monitoring. However, I do not recognise the figures he gave from the LGA or the figures the hon. Member for Sefton Central cited, I think, from Polly Toynbee’s article. The hon. Member for Hammersmith will recognise that this is a very difficult time financially, and that local authorities are having to make difficult decisions on the ground in the same way that the Government are having to make difficult decisions. We are trying to tackle the deficit, and it is not possible to do that without reducing funds overall. When the situation is very difficult, it is even more important that we provide more flexibility for local authorities to make the right decisions in their area—to focus on what they need to do in their local community. That is precisely why we have reduced the ring-fencing; we are responding to what local authorities have asked us to do.

There is a contradiction here, because on the one hand local authorities are being given so-called freedom, but on the other the Government are saying that Sure Start children’s centres are an absolute priority. Unless there is some guidance from the Government or we have something stronger and the Government legislate for it, I fail to see how they can guarantee that the network will be maintained and enhanced.

Let me pick up on that point. The right hon. Member for Birkenhead made a similar point about the network. I have a great deal of sympathy with the point he made, particularly as we look down the track to the reforms the Government want to make. For example, we are providing extra money for relationship support, which will train people working in children’s centres to deliver that on the ground. To respond to the point that the hon. Member for Sefton Central made about developing services for older children, all those things are possible and are good things in an area. However, if we do not give local authorities the flexibility to make the decisions that are right for their area, we will not get a service that is suitable for local need: we will end up with a one-size-fits-all service driven from Whitehall.

There is a difference between a local authority that is making catastrophic cuts to services for children and one that is trying to make sensible decisions in a very difficult environment. That may include clustering children’s centres, merging back-office functions and reorganising where some of the centres are located because some buildings are not appropriate or because populations have changed since the stage 1 centres were put in place. Those are all sensible reorganisations, and we have to have some trust in local authorities to get on with that.

Providing a more flexible grant, the early intervention grant, which is significantly larger than the children’s centre budget, should allow local authorities, if they want to do so, to link together different services as they think about the long-term reorganisation of their children’s centres, youth provision or family support, so that they can offer things in a clustered way. I hope that that will provide more flexibility for them to do the right thing.

There is a legal duty on local authorities to consult before opening, closing or significantly changing children’s centres. From what the hon. Member for Sefton Central said, it sounds as though in his area, parents will be very vocal about what they want to see by way of the provision of centres in their area. That is the right process. Parents should engage, and local authorities should listen to the views of families about how to reorganise on the ground.

However, Sure Start children’s centres are at the heart of what the Government want to do in the long term with early intervention. Children’s centres are a very valuable resource, but often full use is not made of them. They are not always open all hours. There are opportunities for children’s centres—for example, where there are flexible services, such as baby massage—to charge a nominal amount for those services in order to bring in small amounts of income. Local authorities can think more innovatively about the way in which they organise their children’s centres on the ground, but the priority is that we have outcomes. The Government are trying to move towards measuring outcomes, rather than always measuring inputs, which is why we will move towards more payment by results. It is why our accountability framework will focus more on outcomes, particularly for the most disadvantaged children.

I am very grateful for the support that the hon. Member for Sefton Central has given today to children’s centres. We believe that they are a vital service. I believe that there is adequate money in the early intervention grant to fund the network of children’s centres, but I am grateful to him for raising the concerns in his area today.

Sitting suspended.

Coastguard Service

[Mr Mike Hancock in the Chair]

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hancock. I am pleased to have secured this debate, which is on a subject I believe to be of great concern to coastal communities and seafarers alike. I sought the debate so that the House could discuss the changes proposed by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency to reorganise our coastguard service.

I welcome the recognition given in the proposals to the importance of a volunteer coastguard service. I recognise the importance of improving incomes and career structures for the coastguards; doing so will resolve years of industrial action. However, I am deeply concerned about some aspects of the proposed changes.

I am sure that all Members here today share my pride in the work of the coastguards in our communities. As a nation, we are reliant on the sea for trade and commerce. Our economy depends on a well-managed maritime environment; 95% of all UK trade is shipped to and from the rest of the globe.

Shipping is the UK’s primary means of transport not only for commerce; we also depend on shipping to meet our energy requirements. As much as 80% of the world’s liquid fuel energy resources is transported by sea. If even a single tanker carrying liquefied natural gas were to fail to reach our shores, the lights in UK homes and factories would go out within a week. In short, our security and prosperity are almost entirely dependent on a well-managed maritime environment, and the coastguards provide an essential service in enabling that to happen.

It is not only large commercial shipping that uses our seas. Consider for a moment our fishing industry, which is important to many coastal communities, and the pleasure craft used by tourists and water-sport enthusiasts alike. I know that many constituencies benefit from the tourism industry, and I am well aware of the role that it plays for my constituents in Cornwall, with more than £1.6 billion being spent by visitors each year. All of that could be jeopardised by a single oil tanker losing control or being damaged in bad weather. Only an effective coastguard service could prevent that from happening or minimise the impact of such events.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this important debate. She mentions the possibility of an incident happening that could devastate her constituency. Does she not agree that she may be looking through the wrong end of the telescope at the proposals of the Government and the Maritime and Coastguard Agency? It is about cost savings; it is not an insurance policy for the communities she mentions.

I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s intervention, but I do not agree with him. I am assured by the MCA that it is not about cost reduction but modernising the coastguard service to ensure that it is fit for the 21st century.

On the question of the cost savings, does my hon. Friend not agree that a comparison needs to be made with the previous Government’s proposal to regionalise fire service control rooms, which is costing the country well over £400 million, and rising? If we contrast that with the Government’s current proposal, such modernisation is likely to cost, rather than save, the Government money.

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention, but I think it best to leave it to the Minister to answer that question, as he has experience of the impact of regionalisation of the fire service.

I reassure the House that every coastguard I have spoken to has said that the service needs modernisation. The maritime environment is changing fast in many ways. Commercial ships are getting bigger and are less manoeuvrable, and we have more drilling rigs and offshore installations such as wind farms, not to mention the growth in privately owned pleasure craft. The shipping lanes around our shores are more congested and our climate is changing, with more unpredictable and volatile weather. The result is that the seas are becoming more hazardous. Many more people are participating in water sports of all kinds, and millions visit our coastline. They all need a modern coastguard service.

I congratulate the hon. Lady most sincerely on securing this debate. In Northern Ireland we have an unusual, indeed unique, set of circumstances. The one remaining coastguard is based at Bangor in my constituency. As well as looking after maritime emergencies, it is responsible for inland stretches of water, including the huge area of Lough Neagh and Lough Erne. It is also the only officially designated coastguard in the UK nominated by the Irish Government to act in the event of an emergency off the Donegal coast.

I thank the hon. Lady for her contribution.

I am reassured by the commitment given by the chief executive of the MCA, Vice-Admiral Sir Alan Massey. He said that he will evaluate what people have to say, including what is said here today. I appreciate the fact that he is able to be here to listen to our debate. He said that

“all those with an interest in what we do and how we do it will take this opportunity”

to be part of the consultation process. I am reassured by that, and his presence here today underlines that commitment.

I shall make a little more progress before giving way again.

The MCA has developed its proposals over a number of years. The previous Government ducked the question of modernisation because they feared a backlash of public opinion. Having reviewed the proposals and discussed them with the coastguards at the Falmouth marine rescue and co-ordination centre, I am disappointed that significant areas of work undertaken at Falmouth for the nation have been missed from the consultation documents. It is particularly disappointing that none of the architects of the plans visited or discussed ideas for modernisation with the front-line team at Falmouth before the proposals were published. Had they done so, we could have had a better set of proposals.

We are very proud of the international rescue centre at Falmouth. It sits below the castle built by Henry VIII to protect the entrance to the Carrick roads, the third largest natural harbour in the world and the most westerly safe haven for ships. It is the Atlantic gateway to England. The port of Falmouth currently handles more than 4,000 shipping movements a year, and the Fal estuary has room for more than 10,000 leisure craft. As a result of European Union air quality directives, ships crossing the Atlantic have to bunker in Falmouth.

Falmouth coastguard station is responsible for search and rescue services for more than 450 miles of coastline and 660,000 square miles of the north Atlantic. It has the largest rescue area of any UK coastguard station, and it clearly has huge responsibility for safety at sea. Not surprisingly, given its location, Falmouth co-ordinates international rescues at sea, as well on the coastline.

Falmouth is the one point of contact for British ships anywhere in the world. In short, when a distress signal is sent, it goes to Falmouth. Falmouth is listening, and Falmouth takes action. Falmouth is also the UK co-ordinator of the global maritime distress and safety system, which assists vessels in distress. That includes the emergency position indicating radio beacon, which identifies stricken vessels anywhere in the world and co-ordinates the search directly or relays the information to the relevant authority.

Does the hon. Lady agree with the assessment that I have heard from the MCA, which is that the pivotal work that she says happens in Falmouth could happen anywhere, in any office of the MCA? It does not particularly need to happen in Falmouth.

My hon. Friend makes an important point. Falmouth is a pivotal station, and not having the skills that are available there would be a great loss to the nation. I doubt whether the skills of that station could be replicated elsewhere. Local staff have emphasised to me that the consultation was about one proposal, and that no alternatives were put forward. Many of the staff, who were not consulted at all, believe that alternatives should be considered, including those put forward by staff at Falmouth and at other look-out stations.

When I come to that point, I will make a suggestion that I hope will be carefully considered.

The Falmouth coastguard carries out a long list of specialist functions, which, following his recent visit, Sir Alan Massey is now aware of and will be able to take into consideration in the consultation process. It is one of three specialist centres, along with Aberdeen, which is responsible for the North sea oil platforms and drilling rigs, and the Solent, which handles the English channel. As would be expected, both those centres maintain a 24-hour watch, but Falmouth is to be downgraded to daylight operations. Such inconsistency must be addressed.

I should like to make some progress. I appreciated the meeting that I had with Sir Alan Massey and his team yesterday to listen to their rationale for their proposals for Falmouth. They were generous with their time, but I remain unconvinced of their case. I agree that there is a lack of resilience in the current system and the pairing arrangement. I agree that if Falmouth was hit by lightning, as I was told yesterday it has been on a few occasions, there would be a problem. I also agree that networking all the stations around the UK will enable a greater flexibility in managing resources and improve the skills of coastguards in other UK stations. Moreover, it would enable better management of peaks in demand on the service. It is a good idea to share the expertise and international relationships that the Falmouth coastguard has developed with other UK coastguards to ensure a resilient service.

I will give way in a moment. Nevertheless, Falmouth should continue with its 24-hour cover as the leading international rescue centre, and it will be backed up by the network of coastguards in the rest of the UK. That would address the stated aims of the proposals by improving resilience and creating a more flexible service that is able to cope with the anticipated growth in demand and peaks and troughs of demand in the service. It simply does not make sense and is a waste of money to develop a new centre and recruit and train staff in Southampton, in order to replicate what is recognised to work so well in Falmouth.

Falmouth’s reputation for international search and rescue is world renowned, and its expertise has been built up over many years. The monitoring and rescue work carried out by Falmouth coastguard is not, as has been suggested, a UK humanitarian gesture; it is absolutely a legal requirement of the UK Government.

In the past two years, Falmouth coastguard station has handled 7,356 incidents, of which 4,590 were specifically search-and-rescue missions. That makes Falmouth the busiest station in the whole UK for search and rescue. Out of those incidents, a third took place at night, between 8 o’clock in the evening and 8 o’clock in the morning. Under the current proposals, that is when the station would be closed.

I have noted from the graphs provided by the MCA’s consultation document that Falmouth, compared with all other coastguard stations, does not have as much variation in its work load from month to month, and nor does the work load disappear at night, as the MCA argues. In other words, while the MCA is correct in its assertion that coastguard stations are generally busier during the day and during the summer months, Falmouth is almost unique in being busy at any hour of the day throughout the entire year. The argument that the station does not have to be manned during night hours due to a lack of work and seasonal variations does not hold water.

Order. I remind Members that 12 Members want to take part in the debate. Interventions must be short and to the point otherwise Members will be very disappointed. If the intervention is really necessary, fine. If not, I urge Members to be respectful of other Members who want to speak in this debate.

I entirely endorse what my hon. Friend is saying about her concerns with regard to Falmouth. If Brixham, my coastguard station, goes, Falmouth and Southampton, which is 200 miles away, will have to cope with something like 1,500 incidents, if last year’s figures are typical.

I thank my hon. Friend for that helpful intervention. The Falmouth coastguards have developed effective working relationships with other services in the area, such as the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, the RNAS Culdrose where the search and rescue helicopters are based, Falmouth harbour commissioner for the co-ordination of tug boats to guide and protect larger vessels, maritime fire services and the emergency ship repairer, A&P Falmouth. Remember that any vessel coming in from the Atlantic, large or small and in distress, will rely on Falmouth for assistance. That includes the volunteers of the Mission to Seafarers, which takes distressed mariners under its wing. Such close working relationships have been cultivated over decades.

The Falmouth station has achieved many positive outcomes. Take, for instance, the Fryderyk Chopin, a Polish ship carrying 36 teenagers, or the MSC Napoli, which was holed during a storm and forced to beach in Lyme bay. Were it not for the constant reassurance and effective search and rescue co-ordination provided by the Falmouth station, the outcomes of those recent incidents would have been very different. I might add that both those high profile incidents, which took place in the glare of the world’s media, occurred at night, and that is precisely when the MCA wishes the station to be closed.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on making such a powerful case. Another recent high profile incident was the running aground of a nuclear submarine off the west coast of Scotland. Clyde coastguard agency, which is based in my constituency, has, in addition to all the commercial pressure she mentions, the responsibility of being the home of our nuclear-powered, nuclear-armed deterrent. Her constituency is outraged at Falmouth’s being downgraded, but in my constituency, there is a proposal to close the coastguard station. Does she not, therefore, accept the point made by the hon. Member for St Ives (Andrew George) that there is a need to consider alternatives and not adopt this one-size-fits-all approach?

That is just the sort of point that I was hoping that hon. Members from all parties could make to the Minister today.

The MCA’s headquarters has not sent any formal training programme or competence framework to Falmouth. Instead, staff from the Falmouth station have used their own initiative to manage and adapt these functions and to tailor them to suit the needs of the mariners under their care. Years of dedication and experience have allowed the officers to develop and modify policies accordingly. Allowing these men and women to work out their own practices, rather than adhering to centrally controlled diktats has meant that Falmouth has developed best practice not only in the UK but across the globe. International partners will often look to Falmouth to see how they can better manage and co-ordinate their waters. It is not uncommon to visit the Falmouth station and find international delegations there learning how the station operates. When they want to see how the UK coastguard system works, they do not go to the MCA headquarters in Southampton; they go straight to Falmouth. A south American country’s coastguards are instructed, “When in doubt, call the Falmouth coastguards.”

The hon. Lady talks about the local knowledge of the Falmouth coastguards, but that is something that can be lost across the entirety of our coastline. My constituency includes Rathlin island, the only inhabited island off the coast of Northern Ireland. If the skills of the coastguards there are lost, it will mean the loss of many more lives around our coast. I agree wholeheartedly with the hon. Lady. Does she not agree that the proposals to pass co-ordination on to a yet-to-be-developed IT system and software system pose genuine concerns for the future protection of lives on our coast?

I very much agree with the hon. Gentleman. I am very sceptical about the capabilities of some of the technology that is being advanced, and I will discuss that later. Even the MCA headquarters appreciates the best practice that has been worked out in Falmouth. It has published its work in the coastguard operations bulletin, which is a testament to its inventiveness, ingenuity and ability to solve problems quickly and efficiently.

Handing over the research and rescue co-ordination for such a large area to another marine operations centre will inevitably lead to a loss of efficiency, which will affect the outcomes of some incidents. Coastguards have expressed to me their grave concerns about the loss of local knowledge and the impact that that will have on the co-ordination of local coastal rescue.

I understand that, on his recent visit to Falmouth, Sir Alan Massey stated that the process of identifying the particular location of someone in distress and requiring urgent assistance will be longer than it is now, with a possible 10 minutes added to emergency response times.

I will not interrupt my hon. Friend for too long, but the assertion that the response time will be increased by 10 minutes is wrong. I do not know where that information comes from. The response time is five minutes now and it will be five minutes in future—that is important.

I am sure that everybody listening to this debate greatly appreciates that intervention and the reassurance given by my hon. Friend the Minister, because, as he knows from his experience in the fire service, minutes of delay in an emergency cost lives. That is a very welcome confirmation from the Minister, because that sort of delay—

Order. I ask Members to be a bit more careful and respectful of the other Members who want to speak. I want to get as many people in to speak as possible. The hon. Lady has now been speaking for 20 minutes and it will be difficult to get many Members in if the winding-up speeches start 20 minutes before the end of the debate. So please respect that.

Thank you, Mr Hancock.

Yesterday the MCA team told me that the location of someone calling 999 for assistance using either a land-line or a mobile phone could be identified by whichever coastguard answers the phone in any part of the UK, by using the latest technology. However, I remain sceptical of such claims and I worry about an ever-growing reliance on technology. How resilient are those networks?

During the same conversation with the MCA team yesterday, I was slightly reassured by the fact that the MCA proposals include the plan to test rigorously and evaluate each step of the new system before proceeding to the next stage. Those “gateways” acknowledge that the proposals will need real-life testing before implementation. Much more needs to be done to demonstrate the veracity of the claims made for the technology as well as the impact on response times. As the Minister knows, minutes of delay cost lives.

Although I have had only a short time to raise a few issues with the Minister today, I hope that he can reassure the people of Cornwall that he values the work of the Falmouth coastguard and, furthermore, that the views of the Falmouth coastguard and those of the Falmouth harbour commissioners, harbourmasters and mariners alike, who all have a great deal of experience of dealing with the coastguard service and who are all deeply concerned by the downgrading of the Falmouth coastguard station, are fully taken into account by the MCA consultation review team. Coastguards have publicly expressed grave concerns about the impact of the current proposals on safety and, quite understandably, there is a great deal of public opposition to the proposals to downgrade the Falmouth station and the other stations about which we have heard from Members today.

As I draw my remarks to a close, I want to reiterate one simple important point. All the aims of modernisation, which will provide a resilient 21st century coastguard service, of which the UK can continue to be proud, can be delivered with Falmouth’s coastguard remaining the jewel in the crown of the MCA, as the world-leading international marine and rescue centre.

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair today, Mr Hancock. I will try to adhere to your request to keep contributions brief to enable other hon. Members to speak, because a considerable number of hon. Members are interested in this debate.

Of course, the announcement about the coastguard was made not in an oral statement to Parliament but by way of a written statement, and this is hon. Members’ first opportunity to debate the issue. One of the things that I will be asking the Minister for today is that we do not just have this Adjournment debate and that hon. Members have a fuller opportunity to debate this issue, because there are serious concerns about the implications of these proposals for the coastguard service, if they go ahead.

I speak as someone who represents a coastal constituency. Indeed, a considerable number of my constituents work in the coastguard service. My experience—I believe that others have also experienced this—is that the coastguard service has been treated differently from other emergency services for many years, not least regarding pay. Many hon. Members will be aware that coastguard officers often earn only in the region of £13,500 per year, despite the fact that they have not only responsible positions but positions that require a great deal of expertise developed over many years.

The proposals that we are discussing today will probably lead to more than 200 coastguard officers losing their jobs. In many areas of the country, particularly in Clyde, it is unlikely that any officers losing their jobs will be relocated within the coastguard service. The coastguard service at Greenock is in an area of high unemployment and deprivation. The reality is that the relocation schemes that are available to civil servants will not make relocation for individuals—for example, to Aberdeen, which is an area of high cost, or to the south of England—a reasonable prospect. Indeed, I have constituents who are in that position. They know that if they lose their job at Clyde when the coastguard station there closes—if that closure is allowed to go ahead—other opportunities will not be available.

I have been in another Committee, which is why I was not here earlier. This issue is important to my constituents and to the constituents of many hon. Members who are here in Westminster Hall today. Of course, my concern is particularly about the Forth coastguard station, which is on the other side of Scotland to my hon. Friend’s constituency. The Forth station is also proposed for closure. There is also a sub-centre that covers my constituency’s shoreline.

In the firth of Forth, we have three major oil and liquid gas terminals. We also have a new bridge and a number of anchorages, and a new wind farm is being built. Does my hon. Friend agree that the firth of Forth is another area where safety means that closure should not go ahead and that having one coastguard station for the whole of Scotland is not acceptable?

Order. I think that you are pushing your luck there with that one. That intervention was more like a speech.

It is far from clear what criteria have been used to develop these proposals. I hope that, when the Minister responds to the debate, he will address that issue. It has been suggested that the Clyde coastguard station has been proposed as one of the stations that will close, because its lease is due to expire in the next few months and it is therefore cheaper to close that particular station than, for example, the station in Aberdeen, where the costs of closure would be extensive.

The hon. Lady has made an important point. The principles that are pushing this process are not the principles that should be pushing it. The considerations are not marine considerations, but real estate considerations. The Aberdeen situation is particularly interesting, because the MCA has problems with the leases on the Aberdeen building. In addition, the MCA has not considered the high turnover of staff in Aberdeen in comparison with other stations.

Indeed. The hon. Gentleman has made some powerful points.

People who have not visited a coastguard station might be surprised to learn about the role of coastguards. The reality is that the way in which a station operates is that the operative who takes an emergency call usually stays in charge of that incident throughout the whole process, which hopefully leads to the person who called being rescued. That operative has to liaise with a range of other agencies, and they have to call on their own experience as a coastguard and on the knowledge that they have developed of the terrain in which they are operating. In the west of Scotland in particular, there is a huge amount of concern that if there is only one coastguard station in Scotland, much of the expertise and local knowledge that individuals have developed over many years would be lost.

The Clyde coastguard station’s area of responsibility is the largest coastguard area in the UK, and the station has 41 coastguard rescue teams under its control. There are 26 ferry operations to island communities in the area, including to Arran and Cumbrae in my own constituency, as well as a number of other ferry operations to other islands off the west coast of Scotland. If we include the sea lochs, which are part of the terrain in the area, there are 1,900 miles of coastline. I have always been told by those who work in the coastguard service that a huge amount of local knowledge acquired over many years is essential for the role of coastguard.

A similar point has been made to me by the staff at Crosby coastguard station in my constituency, which is listed as “Liverpool”. They say that in Liverpool bay and throughout the Irish sea there are many creeks, gullies, mudbanks and sandbanks. That local knowledge, from many decades of experience, is vital in shortening the time taken to get search and rescue to the right place.

My hon. Friend has made an incredibly important point. In the west coast of Scotland coastguard area, there are, I think, eight Tarbets, so when someone on a leisure craft phones the coastguards and tries to describe where they are, expertise and local knowledge are required to assist the distressed vessel.

The proposals seem to be based on the view that it will be possible for much of the slack to be taken up, and much of the work to be undertaken, by volunteers, who form a huge part of the coastguard service. Coastguards rely on their local knowledge to assist people in difficulties, but more than that they have to rely on the coastguard rescue teams, and it is surely wrong for more pressure to be put on those teams. As we develop the service, we should try to ensure that we do not have to rely on individuals who have work commitments of their own, and that we do not put them in a position in which they might be pressurised and get involved in incidents, because it is not possible for the paid structure to provide the service. The way in which we operate our coastguard system in this country is perhaps a cheap way of doing so, in that we rely on volunteers.

There are particular concerns about the west of Scotland, both because of the terrain and, increasingly, because of the number of vessels—including leisure vessels—with the extension of marinas and of sailing on that coast. Will the Minister indicate the criteria that have been used to come forward with the proposals? Given the great concern among hon. Members, will he ensure that there are further opportunities to debate these issues?

Order. The Front Benchers have decided that they will take no more than 10 minutes each, so if everyone who wants to speak keeps to about four minutes, everyone who is here will get to speak.

I shall do away with the niceties, apart from congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton) on securing this exceptionally important debate. However, I will say something else that is a bit of a nicety—I do not want to suggest that the Minister is in any way committed to increasing risk for the people of this nation. He and the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) both served in the fire service, and they are absolutely committed to the safety of one and all in a far stronger way than I have ever been.

I welcome several of the proposals and believe that change is required. I recognise that changes in technology and the evolving nature of our seas mean that the status quo is not always necessary. I was surprised to discover, as a result of the consultation, that most of our coastguard stations are linked only to each other, and particularly that Thames and Yarmouth are not linked. Those are the two coastguard stations that cover my constituency, with the Yarmouth centre covering down to about Southwold, and the Thames centre at Walton-on-the-Naze coming up the other way. I welcome changes that mean that coastguard centres will be working together, regardless of numbers. I also welcome the changes that will enhance the volunteer side, and I understand that aspects of pay might be being looked at, so that we can invest in the people who remain in the coastguard service.

I want to point out a few issues that relate to my constituency and to try to get some clarity from the Minister. The consultation document discusses how the seas are becoming more congested and how ships are getting larger. It talks about oil carriers, a busier coastline and extreme weather conditions that lead to increased coastal flooding. All those issues apply fully and squarely to my constituency, where we have the largest container port in the country at Felixstowe and, as of April 2011, the only area within inshore coastal waters where ship-to-ship oil transfers are allowed. I recognise that 70% of incidents involve leisure vessels—a high proportion of activities up and down the coast, and in and out of the creeks and estuaries, are leisure based—in addition to incidents in the shipping lanes around Felixstowe.

I am interested to understand how the decisions about which centres should remain open were made. Yarmouth and Thames both respond to a large number of incidents, of which there are more than in Dover. Dover also has responsibility for the Dover strait and the Channel Navigation Information Service. I would have thought that the number of incidents handled by each centre would have come into the review, but I do not see how that has been addressed. On a broader point about the Border Agency, I would have thought that the coastguard service would be one of the links in trying to ensure that we have safer borders. In the consultation, there is a focus on allowing senior managers to free up time to have such a relationship with other partners. The police are specifically mentioned, and I assume that that relates not only to people’s safety but to crime and other such activities.

The narrative from my constituents includes the assumption that the closure of the coastguard centres means that there will be no full-time paid coastguards delivering the service. It would be helpful if the Minister were to clarify whether in areas where coastguard centres are to be closed, we will rely solely on volunteers. If that is the case, I will be genuinely concerned. I share the coastguard at Lowestoft, and its branch at Southwold, with my neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous), and the teams there are about 60% full. Southwold has five vacancies and Lowestoft seven, which means that we have only three people on the Southwold team.

The consultation document also mentions some of the roles that the coastguard will have in the future—vessel traffic monitoring, for example. It talks about how automatic identification systems provide

“precise real time data up to about 30 miles from the coast”,

which is welcome, but it also states:

“In the coming years the development of Long Range Identification and Tracking (LRIT) will mean that ships can be tracked over much longer distances”.

It would be interesting to understand the time scale for that, and how it will fit into the role of vessel traffic monitoring. There is also the creation of counter-pollution officer roles, which all seem to be based in Southampton, and an understanding of some of the risk assessments undertaken would help us to see which parts of the country are perceived to have the greatest pollution challenges.

I come back to ship-to-ship transfers. I do not seek to use the debate to open up that issue, but when it was mentioned, Yarmouth coastguard agency was identified as the monitoring body.

I will finish here, Mr Hancock.

I appreciate that. I was one of the hon. Members who submitted a letter requesting to speak before the debate.

I would be grateful if the Minister were to clarify whether the response to incidents will be solely from volunteers, so that instead of having to resort to freedom of information requests we could provide more detailed information, by centre, on timing and number of incidents. I would also be grateful if he were to refer to the monitoring of ship-to-ship transfers.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton) on securing the debate.

My constituency of South Down in Northern Ireland plays host to two of the three fishing ports in Northern Ireland, and as a community we share a long, proud and sometimes difficult history of fishing and seafaring.

Over the years, my constituency has seen its share of tragedies and miraculous rescues at sea. Each time—whether it has been to bring family members’ bodies home from the sea or to undertake those miraculous rescues—we have looked to our coastguard, which has always performed an amazing service.

In Northern Ireland, the Bangor coastguard station, which is located in the constituency of the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon), faces possible closure. There is a proposal to transfer its operational role to another station, perhaps in Liverpool or Aberdeen, many miles away. Hon. Members will be aware that opposition to the consultation proposals is mounting, and I hope that the Minister will allay many of the concerns that have been raised.

Let me tell hon. Members, and particularly the Minister, that it is rare for any subject to unite all the parties in Northern Ireland. We are talking about saving the one remaining coastguard in Northern Ireland, which is the only part of the United Kingdom that risks losing its coastguard service. I extended an invitation to the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister to make a joint visit to the station, and I am delighted to say that both accepted it warmly. The First Minister is from the Democratic Unionist party, the Deputy First Minister is from Sinn Fein and the hon. Lady is a member of the Social Democratic and Labour party, so this issue has united all parties. I hope that the Minister remembers that.

I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. She is indeed correct.

The Northern Ireland coastguard service at Bangor provides a vital service to the fisheries and tourism sectors right from Lough Foyle to Carlingford lough. Axing such a service will put at risk not only livelihoods, but lives. The Government must not take for granted the courage of those who devote time to rescue efforts on our shores. Funding must be protected.

We must remember that the coastguard protects not only the coast, but, as the hon. Member for North Down has said, Lough Neagh, Lough Erne, inland fisheries and inland lakes. It also provides an inland mountain rescue service for the Mornes and the Sperrins, and it is the point of contact for all helicopter operations in Northern Ireland.

The current proposals will leave Northern Ireland without a full-time coastguard station. This front-line emergency service has saved countless lives since its establishment. In the past year alone, the Northern Ireland team has dealt with more than 700 incidents. For me, my constituents and all my colleagues in Northern Ireland, saving lives is paramount.

The document that has gone out to consultation proposes that the Belfast Lough station, which is based at Bangor, might become a part-time station or that it might close, in which case our nearest coastguard would be the part-time station in Liverpool. The nearest full-time station would be at Aberdeen, on the east coast of Scotland. Co-operation is certainly important. Our co-ordination with Scotland and the south of Ireland has been invaluable in saving lives in previous rescue missions. I support north-south co-operation.

What an opportune time to get an intervention. In 1989, I was involved in an attempt to rescue two drowning children off the coast of Northern Ireland. They had been holidaying there, but, unfortunately, one of them died. However, if it had not been for the co-ordination that the hon. Lady has mentioned, there would have been a double tragedy. It is essential that people recognise and get to grips with the fact that Northern Ireland will be naked to the ravages of the sea if we do not properly protect our coastguard.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely correct. Co-ordination and co-operation are vital, particularly on the island of Ireland. Closing the coastguard station in Northern Ireland is foolhardy, because there is a need for both coastguard services on the island of Ireland to work together and to co-operate.

The chief executive of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, Sir Alan Massey, has indicated that the closures can be offset by the introduction of new technologies, such as Google Earth. Although I support the introduction of such measures, which can help to save lives, they must supplement, rather than replace, existing provisions. Nothing can replace local knowledge of the waterways or, in the case of Northern Ireland, the mountainous regions. That knowledge has been built up by generations of people living in the local communities.

I represent the Liverpool coastguard station, so let me express a degree of solidarity across the Irish sea. The staff at Liverpool recognise exactly the points that the hon. Lady and other Northern Ireland Members have made about the dangers of Liverpool trying to look after Northern Ireland. They do not feel equipped to do so, and although they welcome new technology, they also recognise that local knowledge and experience are critical. They do not want to stay open at the expense of Belfast, because they want both stations to stay open.

It is important to emphasise for the historical record that, in 1994, the then chief coastguard, Commander Derek Ancona, told the Select Committee on Transport that the importance of local knowledge should not be underestimated, and that point needs to be taken on board.

I am heartened to hear that Liverpool and Belfast are not accepting the framework that the MCA has given them to set them at each other’s throats. We have had the same situation between Stornoway and Shetland, and we are not accepting that, too. We in the Western Isles believe that Shetland should stay open 250 miles away because it is needed for the safety of mariners there. Stornoway should stay open as well. I am pleased that our message to the MCA is the same.

Thank you, Mr Hancock. I will do so.

Previous attempts by Governments to implement large-scale technological developments have frequently encountered delays and cost overruns. We must ensure that we do not lose our existing resources and that we do not rely on the hope that needs can be met by using new technologies alone. Indeed, the same technology on which the coastguard is meant to depend has just been discarded by the UK’s fire and rescue service, because it cannot rely on it. We risk people’s safety becoming dependent on information technology that has not yet been implemented and which has not even been designed. Let us have new technology by all means, but we should supplement it with local knowledge.

Finally, I hope that the Minister will see fit to ensure that the proposal for the Belfast coastguard station at Bangor is abandoned. I hope that the message goes home to him and the Department that Northern Ireland needs to retain its services. My colleagues in Northern Ireland and I represent all the Northern Ireland constituencies, and we wholeheartedly oppose any attempt to remove those services.

Order. It is my intention to call Mr Gilbert, then Mr Owen and then Dr Wollaston. I will then try to fit everyone else in. Can we please give others the chance to make their contributions?

I will make every effort to show atypical restraint in my remarks. I give notice to all colleagues that I will not give way.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton) on securing this absolutely key debate. The number of people here shows the concern that is shared across the House and the country, as well as across all parties. I also congratulate the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Katy Clark) on tabling her early-day motion, which I was pleased to sign.

I grew up by the sea in Cornwall. My great-granddad made his livelihood as a fisherman. My constituency’s north coast is protected by services from Brixham, while its south coast is protected by services from Falmouth, so there is every danger that we will suffer a double whammy. My intention is to press the Minister for assurances that that will not happen, and that he will always put the safety of those who use the sea before any other consideration.

I do not think that any hon. Members doubt the importance of the sea for trade, our food supply, leisure and our ability to come and go from these islands and explore the rest of the world. The people who protect our safety and ensure that we can benefit from all that the sea, and sea lanes, provide are the coastguards. As my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth said, in a well-argued and passionate speech, Falmouth is already a centre of excellence for what it does; it is the place the rest of the world looks to to learn how to do such things. It concerns me greatly that the Government choose, outside of anything mentioned in the coalition agreement, to consider the reforms.

I shall be brief, to give other hon. Members the chance to speak. I want some reassurance from the Minister that the consultation is a real one, that the outcome has not been prejudged and that he will listen to all the bodies that are responding to the consultation. I want his assurance that the Government are exploring all other options to make the necessary revenue savings without reducing front-line services, and that at all times the safety of those who use the sea will come before any other considerations. Other hon. Members have noted that we are of course dealing with the need to modernise the service and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey) said, improve resilience, adapt to modern technologies and face a new century in a different way; but we must remember that we are an island nation and need the sea. It behoves us in this House to protect those who use it.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton) on securing the debate. I raised the issue of the need for a Government debate on the matter with the Leader of the House, because of its importance and the timing of the announcement a few days before Christmas. I want to praise coastguard workers, volunteers and officers, and to thank the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, among other organisations; I am a member of its council. Search and rescue is another important part of the mix, and we need proper co-ordination.

I have limited time—and will respect your judgment, Mr Hancock—and will concentrate on local knowledge and the Welsh dimension of that, which there has not yet been the opportunity to discuss, as well as previous inquiries by the Select Committee on Transport into the Maritime and Coastguard Agency. Those are important. I agree with what has been said about local knowledge. It cannot be managed by a centre far away. The response time and co-ordination are essential, and require local knowledge, which cannot be transferred from one part of the country to another.

The current process has more to do with centralisation than modernisation. I support devolution and real localism, and what is happening goes against that by centralising services in the most northern and southern parts of the United Kingdom, rather than having them dispersed in different areas. I think there is an element of cost driving the process for the Government. I am sad to say that, but I think it has the potential to lead to loss of life. I see the badge that the Minister is wearing; I served in the merchant navy for more than 17 years and I have some knowledge of the sea, having worked on it, and representing an island constituency, so I do not make those statements lightly: I believe them. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) who, when he was the Minister, did not duck the issue but dealt with it and listened. He had representations from all sides of the House when there was the potential for closures in the past, but he did not feel he should move forward with the speed and haste that is being adopted now.

I am not going to take any interventions. I apologise, but I know that some hon. Members have made two or three interventions, whereas I only have a short time and did not make any.

There is a Welsh dimension to the issue. Swansea would be the only coastguard left under the proposals. That is a long way from Holyhead in my constituency in the north-west, which is strategically important in the Irish sea. I pay tribute to all those hon. Members from the west coast of Scotland and, indeed, Northern Ireland and the north-west of England who have spoken. We should not be pitting coastal communities against each other. We are talking about the safety of the British coastline and we need strategically important coastguard stations in that strategic overview. That could be compromised.

There is also a Welsh language issue, to do with local knowledge and the identification of places. Incidents have occurred in other emergency organisations that have been centralised, and I should like the Minister to look into the matter. The fire service, ambulances and police in north-west Wales have gone to the wrong location because either they cannot pronounce the place name or they have mixed it up with another location of the same name. That is a question of lives, and it is far too important to deal with it by saving costs and centralising, putting the service at risk and exposing it even further.

Finally, in 2003-04 the Transport Committee looked into the future of the MCA and closures in Oban, Tyne and somewhere else—it escapes me. The Committee concluded that there was a need for a proper safety impact study, and I do not believe—there is no clarity about it—that that has been carried out, years down the line. It would be a crying shame to rush into a new closure programme when the safety impact studies have not even been done on the previous recommendations of the Transport Committee. Holyhead is strategically important. There is a Welsh dimension to the question. The Minister had the courtesy to phone me up about the matter. I said that I would raise it. Under the time constraints of this debate no hon. Member can do their area justice. We need a debate in Government time and I urge the Minister to suspend the consultation and proposals until the issues have been properly dealt with and seriously given the consideration they deserve.

I want to talk about Brixham maritime rescue co-ordination centre and its importance. Last year it co-ordinated more than 1,300 search and rescue incidents, assisting more than 1,900 people and saving more than 350 lives; 78% of those incidents were inshore or shoreline. Those are the incidents that need local knowledge, as I think all hon. Members would agree.

Local knowledge is an extremely important point from a west country perspective. I wonder where someone in Solent would direct services if a call came in that someone was in difficulties off Blackpool beach. We have a Blackpool beach, just as Lancashire does.

I thank the hon. Gentleman. Of course, we have the equivalent of 22 full-time and highly skilled watch-keepers. I know that the Minister pointed out that local knowledge will not be lost because the individuals can be relocated—to Falmouth, in the case of my area. However, unfortunately Falmouth is also drastically cutting staff under the proposals, so I suspect that the highly skilled staff at Brixham will find that very difficult. I suggest that their important local knowledge would be in danger of being lost. The point about local knowledge is that Devon, for example, had 25.2 million visitors last year—bringing in £2 billion to the local economy—and those individuals have no local knowledge. I have been told by a coastguard that very often a distress call will come in from people who do not know where they are. They might know that they are in Devon but they will not know they are on Blackpool beach, for example. They have no local knowledge and are often very distressed. The highly skilled individuals dealing with them on the phone must cope with that, to find out where they are.

The other issue is IT. My experience of IT in the NHS, for example, is that we had a £12.7 billion project, which was very disappointing, over-budget and highly overrated. We have also seen what the fire service experienced, which I shall not talk about much as it is the Minister’s area of great expertise. My understanding is that it cost £423 million and the Taunton regional fire centre has not opened. The air traffic control system went £150 million over budget and was much delayed. I would say, to coin a phrase, “Over-budget, overrated, over time and over here.”

One of the primary drivers—in fact the primary one, to go by page 16 of the consultation document—is so-called limited resilience. As the document recognises, coastguard stations are paired. There is no suggestion that the resilience has failed. Yet we are not told anywhere in the document how resilience is improved under the proposals.

I thank the hon. Gentleman. I agree. Currently, we have paired coastguard stations, which are directly linked by cable as part of an existing BT cable network. In addition, the stations are linked by point-to-point communications on a so-called BT kilostream unique to the coastguard—a kind of private radio network used by VHF radios. However, I find it hard to understand why it is so difficult to piggyback on existing cable networks to network all stations. I am dubious of the argument that it would be immensely expensive. I suggest that it is possible to network all existing stations at less cost than has been stated. It has also been stated that coastguard radio equipment is 12 years old and needs upgrading, and that it cannot be installed in existing coastguard stations, but the vast majority of calls are made by phone.

Brixham has been disadvantaged by the costings. In the year the costings were made, Brixham received a brand-new roof and an upgrade to its generator, which means that the building will now be fully fit for purpose for the next century. Given that its ongoing running costs will be considerably lower, it seems a shame that those renovations have been taken into consideration.

Like the coastguard stations in many colleagues’ constituencies, Brixham also performs other functions. For example, the marine surveyors, which are vital to the Brixham trawler, are based there. Brixham also houses cliff rescue equipment, a rescue vehicle and a radio station. I hope the Minister will take that into consideration.

As many Members have said, we do not want one station to be pitted against another. We call on the Minister and the Maritime and Coastguard Agency to review the proposals thoroughly and hold a debate on the Floor of the House.

Thank you, Mr Hancock. I will dispense with the normal formalities to allow other people to speak.

In the past week, the coastguard at Stornoway has dealt with a French fishing boat on Rum, rescuing 14 people aboard, and a Tornado aircraft in the water off Rubha Reidh near Gairloch. Submarines have grabbed the headlines. Sometimes it is not about the number but the seriousness of incidents. We have had only one Braer, but that was serious. If Lord Donaldson were alive today, I wonder what he would say about the proposals. I hope that the Government have approached the co-authors of the Donaldson report to ask them exactly what they think of the proposals.

Nearly all this week in the Hebrides, we have had force 6 to 7 gales. On Thursday night, we are expecting storm 10. A person has to be there to appreciate exactly what that involves. In cold, calm London—I refer, of course, to the weather—it is difficult to do so; it is necessary to be in the locality. We need coastguard stations in the locality.

The weather primarily affects maritime safety, which is where I expected the consultation to start. Unfortunately, I discovered through various consultations and briefings from the MCA that the proposals are driven not by maritime safety but by real estate considerations, lease deals and hangovers from old industrial disputes within the MCA. The MCA management has desired to do it for some time. Safety and risk have been way down the pecking order, coming in a distant and shabby last to all the other considerations. I find that absolutely amazing and appalling.

I find it even more amazing that a risk assessment was not carried out specifically on the consultations. I am now hearing that a risk assessment will be carried out after the consultations, to make up for what has been done. Who can trust a risk assessment done after a consultation? We will be suspicious of any risk assessment from the MCA that is done to dovetail with MCA proposals. I am shocked, as are many other people. When we had a meeting, all the Stornoway coastguard workers were shocked that no risk assessment had been done.

Leaving Scotland with only one coastguard station in Aberdeen, where staff turnover is high, is also worrying. We need Shetland and Stornoway. They are 250 miles apart. Stornoway covers about 50,000 square miles at the moment; I do not think that it needs more.

As I said, no risk assessment has been done. No evidence is available on the impact of the reforms. The councils in the Hebrides and Shetland have commissioned their own research into exactly what they will mean. We feel that the proposals are technically flawed, and there are serious doubts about the reliability of the communications technology on which they rest.

The proposed reforms are also being touted as an efficiency saving, but I argue that the potential gains are minimal. It is estimated that just over £120 million will be saved over the next 25 years, or about £4.8 million a year. To put it in perspective, that is such a small part of the Department for Transport budget that it was not even included in its comprehensive spending review figures. It is absolutely astonishing what is going on.

I am aware of the time, so I will come to an end fairly quickly. To give a wee illustration, if someone in distress is using their radio and the ship is at Miavaig or Meavaig, but they only say it once, where is that ship in distress? That is what we are talking about. Ultimately, we are considering not efficiency but a marine insurance policy. I have not even mentioned the tugs that we are losing on the west coast of Scotland. There are huge questions connected with the plans. They are ill conceived, ill thought out and ill advised. The Government should go back to the drawing board and make absolutely sure that we are not compromising safety or our insurance policy in the maritime arena.

I am delighted to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hancock, and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton) for securing this debate. I will précis quickly what I was going to say. I pay tribute to the crew of the Lowestoft lifeboat, who received awards last week for the great bravery that they showed during a storm in 2009.

The coastguard needs to be reviewed. I have five concerns. The first relates specifically to the East Anglian coast and the proposed closure of the Yarmouth and Thames maritime centres. I am concerned about increased activity off the East Anglian coast, including the building of 1,000 wind turbines, continued dredging, renewed activity in the oil and gas sector and forthcoming construction work at Sizewell, as well as ship-to-ship transfers, increased shipping movement from Felixstowe and Yarmouth and more leisure activity on the broads, in the estuaries and along the coast. The current system has the advantage of close co-ordination with the helicopter rescue service at RAF Wattisham and the ship service provided by Suffolk fire service. I therefore ask the Minister to review closely whether it is appropriate to close both stations.

My second point, which has already been made during this debate, is the importance of harnessing and retaining local knowledge. Members have spoken eloquently about it. I could speak about it as well, but the point has been well made.

Thirdly, I would welcome confirmation from the Minister that the review is a genuine effort to restructure and improve the service and that adequate Treasury funding has been secured to implement the proposals. It is vital that reorganisation is properly managed and resourced and that no effort or expense is spared to secure a successful transformation.

Fourthly, I understand that the Royal National Lifeboat Institution will make a single representation. I do not know what the RNLI’s thoughts are, but I urge the Minister to give them full consideration, as the RNLI will play a vital role in implementing any change.

Finally, I have a slightly unusual request concerning flares, which must be disposed of safely if unused. I am advised that in East Anglia at present, the nearest disposal station is the Thames coastguard. If that is closed, will East Anglian seafarers have to travel to Dover or Humberside? If so, will the Minister consider the provision of a closer and more accessible disposal station?

I congratulate the hon. Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton) on securing this debate. I tried to secure it twice myself, so I am glad that somebody was successful. She mentioned Sir Alan Massey’s remarks about the time delay. In an interview with BBC South West, he confirmed that there would be a time delay. Will the Minister address that apparent anomaly between Sir Alan’s interview and what the hon. Lady said?

In his letter to me, the Minister said:

“You will be aware of the increasing levels of activity taking place on the coastline and waters of the UK.”

Many of the staff at Crosby coastguard station have highlighted the irony of that statement, given the apparent reduction in the number of coastguard stations.

In the brief time that I have left, I will describe a couple of key issues raised with me. On consultation, staff tell me that the ideas that they have brought up in the past have never been taken on board. They were concerned that the people who drew up the proposals lacked recent front-line experience, and they were very concerned that Liverpool coastguard station was not included in the original draft consultation document and that it was earmarked for closure. Belfast would have survived and Liverpool was added only in the final version, which tells us a lot about the intention. The expectation is that Liverpool’s closure is a done deal.

I will now allow the Front-Bench spokesmen to address the points that have been made. I urge the Minister to look at the issue again, go back to the drawing board and use recent front-line experience to come up with a set of proposals that, as well as using modern technology, recognise the vast experience and importance of local knowledge.

I apologise to hon. Members who have been trying to catch my eye. I would have liked to give everyone an opportunity to speak, but I now call Jim Fitzpatrick.

Thank you, Mr Hancock. It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair. The last time I saw you, you were posing with an inflatable elephant, so you are in a much more dignified position now, and I am grateful for the opportunity to take part in this debate. I will try not to speak for a full 10 minutes in order to allow the Minister the opportunity to take a few interventions and respond to the points that have been made.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton) on securing this important debate, and all those who have contributed by way of speeches or interventions. As has been mentioned, the number of MPs present indicates the importance of this debate. It is good to see the Minister present. He had an important engagement at Transport questions last week, during which I raised the issue under discussion. The Secretary of State responded to my question, the context of which was the cancellation of Nimrods; the ending of the emergency towing vessels’ contract; coastguards being made redundant; the closure of coastguard stations, and air-sea rescue being sold off. All those proposals are serious and significant. Individually, every one of them has national significance; collectively, they raise serious concerns about maritime safety. My question last week was whether the Department acknowledged that. I would be grateful to hear whether the Minister recognises that concern. I thought that the Secretary of State’s response was slightly ungracious, but that is a matter for him.

As the shadow Minister with responsibility for shipping, I have been lobbied, not least by my hon. Friend the Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock), on the question of the Walney coastguard. I have also been contacted by colleagues from the Western Isles, Brixham and elsewhere. I cannot imagine the pressure that the Minister might be under, given that he has to make the decision. It is entirely understandable that colleagues have today been engaged in special pleading for their local coastguard station or geographical area.

The MCA’s 2010 annual report reported an increase in coastal deaths in 2008-09. More people are holidaying in the UK—I believe it is called a staycation—and the current economic conditions mean that such activity is likely to increase, which, aligned with the possibility of more tourists and visitors coming to Britain, means that there will be even greater risks. One of the questions being asked—most recently by my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen)—is whether the MCA has undertaken a risk assessment of the proposals. The consultation document mentions an equality impact assessment, but I would be grateful if the Minister confirmed whether I am correct in thinking that the impact, or risk, assessment will follow the conclusion of the consultation.

Parallels have been drawn between the proposals and the previous Government’s plans for regional fire controls. The Minister and I share a little history: I was in the fire service, then he joined the fire service; I got elected to Parliament, then he got elected to Parliament; I was the Minister with responsibility for shipping, then he was the Minister with responsibility for shipping.

My apologies. The hon. Gentleman is the Minister with responsibility for shipping, which is a very good place to be. He is doing a good job and I know that the shipping industry acknowledges that and respects him for his involvement, even though he has been in the position for less than a year. I am tempted to ask him whether he will make the same mistake as me on fire controls. That contract has been cancelled due to a number of issues. Does he, like several colleagues present, recognise a parallel between that and the proposals under discussion?

It is proposed that staff numbers will fall from 491 to 248. There is an historic question of underpayment of coastguards. Historically, many coastguards were recruited from former members of the Royal Navy or the merchant navy. They came with pensions and were able to be paid a little less than the going rate—certainly less than the other emergency services. That tradition has, of course, been outlived. It was one of the issues with which I grappled as a Minister and, I think, managed to solve with the support of the MCA and Department for Transport officials, whose service I commend—there are many excellent people in both organisations. We managed to persuade the Treasury that that issue needed to be looked at, and I would be interested to hear what discussions the Minister has had with the Treasury about it.

How many of those who lose their jobs does the Department estimate will receive compulsory redundancies? The savings are estimated to be £120 million over 25 years, as the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr MacNeil)—or the Western Isles as the rest of us like to call it—said. The Lord Donaldson inquiry into the Braer disaster recommended an emergency towing vessel for Stornoway. It is suggested that, if that contract is abandoned, it would take 18 hours for a privately contracted vessel to arrive. That one incident involving the Braer cost £100 million, which will wipe out 25 years of savings if the Government proceed with their proposals. Does the Minister acknowledge the connection between emergency towing vessels and the coastguard proposals?

Much is made of volunteers and volunteering. We have a proud tradition in the UK, as do other countries, in that regard. However, as we have seen only today with the noble Lord Wei’s decision to cut his hours at the Cabinet Office from three to two days, volunteers can face problems in giving a commitment due to the pressures on family and business life.

We all acknowledge the need for deficit reduction after the global banking crisis. The real concern is that the Department seems to be going too far, too fast and too deep with these cuts, and the consultation, with which the Minister is encouraging everybody to get involved, will demonstrate whether that is the case.

In conclusion, shipping is pretty much invisible to most people, but it is absolutely critical to the UK, as has been articulated by many colleagues this afternoon. It generally does its job quietly and efficiently, which is to the huge credit of everybody involved in an industry that serves us so well. Safety for those involved and for the millions of recreational seafarers, citizens and visitors who enjoy our coastline is paramount. The proposals are causing serious concern among that whole community. As others have said, I am certain that we will return to the issue time and again, with more debates and more questions, in the months ahead. I look forward to hearing from the Minister to allow that debate to begin.

Before I call the Minister, it would be remiss of me not to apologise to those who did not get an opportunity to speak, and not to thank those who showed courtesy and played their part in making this a worthwhile debate. I hope that the debate’s message is not lost on the Minister or the usual channels: Members of this House expect and require a further debate on the issue sometime in the near future because, as has been demonstrated, it touches so many of them.

Thank you, Mr Hancock. It is a pleasure to speak as the Minister with responsibility for shipping under your chairmanship. Like the shadow Minister, I come from an emergency service background, so I am exceptionally proud of my position. The issue is not devolved, and we should be very proud of the fact that there are people throughout this great country of ours who wish to serve their community. I shall try to touch upon as many points as possible in the very short time available to me. I want to state from the outset how proud I am of the emergency services that serve under me, whether they be the coastguard—my volunteers and my full-time staff—or the other emergency services that work with us, namely the RNLI and the hundreds of volunteers who work in other boats, crews and rescue services that, while they may not be generally well known, are well known in their communities.

It is way above my pay grade to decide whether there will be a debate on the Floor of the House, but I will speak to my Whips about it. Of course, we have a new wonderful system, under which we can go to the Backbench Business Committee. Thursdays are also available for exactly this sort of debate. That hint might be taken up by some of our colleagues. It will be very difficult to do the debate justice in the short time we have had together. If I do not answer each individual point, my officials are listening and I will write to colleagues. If hon. Members want a meeting about any specific points, that option is available. My officials, including the coastguards who are represented here today and are listening, will be available to hon. Members.

I thank colleagues who took time yesterday to come to the Back-Bench meeting that we had upstairs. For some colleagues, it was a busy time in Parliament, but I think those who attended the meeting felt that it was useful to have face-to-face conversations, and not just with me. It was a cross-party meeting. Interestingly, not as many colleagues attended as are here today, but I can understand that. We will arrange some further meetings.

The consultation is progressing. I stress that, at this point, we have not made a decision. That is why it is a consultation and I am pursuing people to take part in it. There is no opportunity for no change at all. All the union representatives to whom I have spoken around the country accept that. Only the other day, when I was at a coastguard station, one of the senior officials said after discussions, “Well, we think it should be nine.”

I will make some progress and, if there is time, I will take interventions. However, there have been a lot of interventions during the debate and I think my hon. Friend—I call him that because I know him very well—has done very well at getting in. Colleagues might want to listen to the Minister a bit now.

Interestingly enough, I do not know what those nine stations are. I hope—the hon. Member for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson) was present when it was said in his constituency and I met the coastguards there—that some proposals are made to us. Proposals in some shape or form, not dissimilar to those we have been discussing, have been on the table for a considerable time—before I became the Minister; when the shadow Minister had the role. The chief coastguard has been in the role for two years. He said to Back Benchers yesterday that the proposal was on the table when he arrived two years ago.

The debate is about: where, how many, resilience and how we take this into the 21st century. As much as there is expertise in, passion for, dedication to and, in some cases, love for the coastguard service, it is not a 21st century service. If we try to say, “It’s okay. We could each individually save our coastguard station,” we are not doing the service justice. We have to make progress.

There is a debate about the matter, and when I first looked at the list, there was certainly a discussion on which stations would close, which would go to part-time working and which would be made into larger hub stations—the national resilience stations. The hon. Member for Sefton Central is absolutely right: Liverpool was listed for closure. I apologise, if it is not technically Liverpool, but it is Liverpool on the paper. I said, “No. It is a very balanced argument between Belfast and Liverpool.” We will look at that matter.

No, I will not give way because I did not do so before. I looked again at Scotland, where there was a similar situation. We looked at the document and inserted the other stations, so that we could balance the two that I mentioned.

Let me discuss what we are proposing and what we have got now. I have heard some passionate contributions from hon. Members who represent areas from all over the country. What is great about having this post is that the subject with which I deal is not devolved; it is about the United Kingdom, complete and in its entirety. It is about the protection of the fleet, of people on holiday and of communities, whether people are visiting the community or not. Let us consider what we have today. I shall use one classic example and look at Belfast, which is the only station in Northern Ireland. That station is paired with Clyde. If Belfast—Bangor station—goes down, where is all that knowledge and information, which is mostly stored in people’s heads, not on paper? It is lost. If we have a power cut or resilience problems, the station that the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) represents is paired with Clyde. After listening to the hon. Lady’s arguments, with the best will in the world, Clyde does not have that knowledge. Why? Because that knowledge is trapped in Belfast and in Northern Ireland. The same applies to Falmouth, Brixham and the Humber.

No, I will not. I have listened to the debate. To be fair, hon. Members asked for a debate and I need to respond to it. As we go around the country, each station is paired with another one. However, there is not a transfer of knowledge. Falmouth is internationally renowned for its international rescue capabilities. If we have a problem in Falmouth, where does that get picked up? Nowhere.

It does not. The knowledge is in Falmouth. The international rescue knowledge is based there. I know that everyone will try to defend their own individual situations, but we have to bring that knowledge together and use it.

I take issue with the Minister because I know that Brixham coastguard takes over from Falmouth in international incidents, when Falmouth is unable to respond.

The case that we heard earlier, which was brilliantly made on behalf of Falmouth, referred to the fact that it is the centre of excellence. That is the place with all the knowledge, all the information, all the expertise and skill. It is not duplicated identically across stations.

I gave way previously because I specifically referred to Falmouth. If we are to go forward, we have to be honest with our constituents about what is going on. Let me just touch on some of the points and some of the things I have heard on the airwaves and read in the paper.

There will be no reduction in the cover provided to rescue people. The service provided by those fantastic almost completely voluntary people who give up their time to go out will be enhanced and invested in. That service will not under any circumstances be touched. We will invest and go forward. They know that. We worked with the unions very early on and we talked to them all the way through. It is wrong—really wrong—to use emotive language and say that people would die if these changes take place because there is no evidence for that. I listened to the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) earlier talking about such things. I have been at incidents where people have died. I have gone in and done everything possible, like the people in the crew that was mentioned. We do not know whether that crew would have got there any quicker under a new or existing system. What I will do—this has been touched on several times in the past few minutes—is publish the risk assessment next week; not at the end of the consultation, but next week. That will mean that everyone, including hon. Members’ constituents, can look at it. I have been accused of not publishing it and not acting. It will be published next week and it can be part of the consultation as we go forward.

The hon. Gentleman will have to bear with me because I have two minutes left.

We should not sit back and, on behalf of our constituents, say that we think all stations can stay open and that everything is fine. I know that the previous Government looked at the matter because it was on the table when I was appointed. My hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick)—I call him my hon. Friend because we have been friends for many years—has been sensible and this has been quite a sensible debate. What worries me is that, when hon. Members go home, they will say to their local papers tonight—I have seen such things in the papers that land on my desk in the morning—that lives are at risk and are going to be lost. The headlines will be : “Cuts to your service,” “Cuts to the frontline,” “Cuts to this.” That is not going to happen. There will be job losses. Some will be voluntary and some will be compulsory.

On a point of order, Mr Hancock. The Minister has made reference to the unions agreeing with his proposals in some form. I would not wish him to mislead the House. I chair the Public and Commercial Services Union group in Parliament. That group represents 500 members who will be affected. The unions have not supported these proposals and will not accept 220 jobs being cut, which they believe will put lives at risk.

This is a very healthy debate. I have worked with the unions and sat down with them. They know that there needs to be change and they also know that there will be job losses. That was discussed before I became the Minister and since. A trade union dispute has gone on that has affected these wonderful volunteers for years. That has to stop.

I agree, Mr Hancock, that the matter needs further debate. My closing comments are these. The consultation is open. The matter is not actually decided. I will be in Belfast the week after next. I will be in Scotland. I should have been in Stornoway last week, but I could not go. I will do my best to go around, and my officials will be at the public meetings—

Order. I am sorry that I had to cut in on you, Minister. Can Members who are leaving do so quietly and quickly? We have a Division.

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

On resuming—

I am delighted to say that we can start in advance of 4.15 as most of the participants in the debate are in the room. It is a unique occasion to have a Liberal Democrat in the Chair, a Liberal Democrat as the Minister replying and a Liberal Democrat Member opening the debate. It must be a first.

Myalgic Encephalomyelitis

I begin by reading what a constituent of mine, Jan Laverick, who suffers from myalgic encephalomyelitis, wrote to describe her condition:

“ME is sudden and extreme muscle weakness to the point of not being able to lift a glass. It is collapsing with exhaustion and not being able to move for hours. It is struggling to sit up long enough to eat a meal that has been placed in your lap. It is tachycardia, seizures, paralysis and black outs. It is sensitivity to light, sound and touch. It is extreme abdominal bloating, nausea, loss of appetite, excruciating stomach cramps…It is daily fevers and sweats. It is inflammation and horrendous joint, nerve and muscle pain. Imagine suffering from these symptoms only to find there is little research into the cause or cure, that you might not be taken seriously by your GP or the benefits system. Your condition might even have been dismissed as ‘yuppie flu’.”

I welcome the fact that the Department of Health now accepts ME as a genuine medical condition. However, it is clear from speaking to sufferers and medical professionals that diagnosis can still pose a problem because ME symptoms are similar to those present in several other medical conditions. I recognise that one of the main obstacles to the adequate treatment of ME is the lack of knowledge and consensus about the disease, and I will argue that funding and research must be focused on the biomedical factors involved, and not simply on managing the psychological symptoms.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate on a subject that I know is close to his heart. It has been raised with me, as it has with him, by a number of constituents who are concerned about it. I echo his comments and point out that, at present, no funding is available for biomedical research into the causation of ME. Does he agree—I believe he just said that he does—that this is an area we want the Government to look at again, and that we should encourage them to take seriously?

I thank the hon. Gentleman; indeed, that is right. I am not sure whether no funding is available, but it certainly is the minority of funding, and that seriously needs addressing.

My goal is to see the Government-funded Medical Research Council work with ME sufferers and biomedical researchers to achieve a proper understanding of the condition’s challenges and to change the unjust perceptions of it.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. It is almost a year since I had a similar debate, but I am not sure that we have moved on since then. Recently, the MRC announced £1.5 million for research, but does he agree that there appears not to be an overall strategy to deal with research into ME, and that there still seems to be concentration on the symptoms and not enough attention given to the causes?

I thank my hon. Friend. Yes, the lack of a strategy focused on the latest information is one of the problems.

I was delighted that two days after this debate was announced, the MRC announced £1.5 million for further research into ME—I am sure that it was just a coincidence. That important step shows that leading medical researchers and the Government are finally admitting that current thinking on ME is inadequate.

The condition affects an estimated 250,000 people in the UK. It is not a disease of the elderly: onset commonly occurs during the 20s to 40s in adults, and between 11 and 14 in children, wrecking the lives of so many young people. Studies show that the vast majority of patients never return to their pre-illness level of functioning, and relapses can occur several years after remission. ME is an extremely complex disease for which there is no scientifically proven cause or cure. The main symptom is severe fatigue following almost any mental or physical activity which does not go away with sleep or rest. That often leads to its being defined under the term “chronic fatigue syndrome”. However, an important step in changing the misleading perceptions of ME is to recognise that CFS is a loose umbrella classification covering a wide range of illnesses of which fatigue is a prominent symptom, and that those illnesses may be neurological, malignant, infective, toxic, genetic or psychiatric in nature. Fatigue is a loosely defined symptom which can occur to some degree in a wide range of conditions.

Using that umbrella term has further compounded the already significant obstacles to the diagnosis and treatment of ME, which is now identified on the basis of at least nine different definitions. A major problem lies in the fact that different types of illness are also contained under the CFS umbrella. That makes sound scientific research difficult to conduct, as different illnesses have different biomarkers. A research group that consists of people with completely different physical and psychological causes of their fatigue or tiredness can have only limited use, and certainly cannot lead to the development of any sound findings on the causes of ME.

ME, on the other hand, has a clear definition. The term “myalgic” means muscle pain, while “encephalomyelitis” means inflammation of the brain and spinal cord and represents a clearly defined disease process which has been included in the World Health Organisation’s “International Classification of Diseases” since 1969. That poses the obvious question of why research has been mainly focused on psychological symptoms, when the very definition of the disease refers to a physiological condition. “Fatigue” is also a clumsy way of describing a complex range of extremely debilitating symptoms. It is not the kind of fatigue that non-sufferers would recognise. ME, as we heard from my constituent, can involve sudden and extreme muscle weakness to the point of not being able to lift a glass. What recognition is there in the Department that ME is distinct and different from the much broader term CFS? Equally, in the light of the recent MRC funding announcement, I urge the Minister to encourage the Department to focus its research, as treating ME/CFS as a single homogeneous condition will only encounter the problems I have just outlined.

That blurring can also lead to a uniform approach to treatment, which is unreasonable and even dangerous. An indiscriminate, blanket approach to treatment was advised by the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence in 2007, no matter what the disease process, infectious agent or psychological condition. Again, the symptom of fatigue gets flagged up and treated in the same way in nearly all cases. That can be ineffective for many, and positively dangerous for others. That lack of recognition of ME specifically happens at every level; yet I believe it essential that GPs have the ability to spot ME early and to prescribe appropriate, tailored advice. I would like the Government to recognise the many differences between and subtleties of ME and CFS, and urge the Minister to do the same, as the current treatment guidelines are completely unacceptable.

I decided to call for this debate because the issue has been under-researched. The lack of understanding and stigma surrounding ME have meant that sufferers have had to live with the condition without recourse to the treatments and research they deserve. I initially tabled early-day motion 778 to gauge support, and I am delighted to report that, as of yesterday, 100 colleagues from all parties have put their names to it. That shows the strong feeling in Parliament that significant changes need to be made. There has been a distinct lack of funding into ME research in the past decade. Between 2000 and 2003, not a single penny was spent by the MRC on researching the condition. Things did improve, peaking with just over £1.3 million allocated in 2007-08, but that dropped to just £109,000 in 2009-10.

I welcome the recent funding announcement. However, more than 80% of the MRC’s expenditure on ME research so far has been allocated to psycho-social therapies, instead of biomedical studies to prove the existence of a physical cause. That research has continued to pursue a well-trodden path and ignored a vast landscape of other, potentially more rewarding areas. I am concerned to see whether the new MRC funding will focus on that biomedical work. Not only has there been a palpable lack of funding for research; a past study commissioned by the Department of Health found that the quality of research was poor. For a long-term condition that affects 250,000 people in this country, with no known cause or cure and huge costs to the NHS, the amount of research funding dedicated to it, even with the recent announcement, is pitiful.

Misinformation, widespread confusion and ignorance about ME and CFS have resulted in people with entirely different illnesses receiving the same diagnosis. A London sufferer, David Eden, drew my attention to some interesting research that has been taking place in the United States. Recent studies by the Whittemore Peterson Institute, the National Cancer Institute and the Cleveland Clinic have linked ME with the presence of a newly discovered retrovirus. Blood from 68 of 101 ME patients was found to contain a human gammaretrovirus, xenotropic murine leukaemia virus—XMRV—while only eight of 218 healthy patients were found to have the same retrovirus. While that result grabbed headlines, most subsequent studies have been less clear, although one other study did support the original findings. It remains uncertain as to whether XMRV is linked to ME and is involved in causation. I would like to encourage the Minister, therefore, to explore other areas of research, such as retroviruses, in order to ascertain once and for all whether they play a part in ME. To judge by the contact I have had with sufferers, there is constant frustration that the Government are failing to fund research into key areas.

Another, more practical consideration is the recognition of ME by the benefits system. Currently, disability living allowance is assessed by severity of condition, and ME is treated like the vast majority of other conditions. Due to the lack of overt clinical findings, much of the assessment rests on anecdotal evidence and whether the person’s description of their disability is consistent with their daily activities. However, despite the guidance on conducting these interviews, an ME sufferer will only be able to attend such a session on a good day. It is therefore impossible to judge accurately the severity of the condition at the assessment interview. I would argue that a more flexible approach to ME is needed. The effects of the condition can wax and wane unpredictably, meaning that often, a person’s DLA is withdrawn because of a short-term respite of the symptoms. There needs to be more consultation with and input from GPs and other medical professionals who are in contact with the individual over a prolonged period. Obviously, I understand that this issue is not directly the Minister’s responsibility. However, I strongly urge him to make representations, and to make this case, to the Department for Work and Pensions.

I thank hon. Members and the Minister for listening. To end the plight of ME sufferers, appropriate and correctly targeted biomedical research into the causes of the disease must be funded. GPs must be properly apprised of the specifics of ME; sufferers’ disability must be recognised in the benefits system, with the support of GPs; ME and CFS must be properly classified; and fatigue must no longer be used as a catch-all symptom. The current situation, which has endured for decades, cannot be allowed to continue. As things stand, 250,000 men, women and children, their families and carers, face terrible injustice and neglect. I call on the Government to put that right.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hancock, with the coincidence of speaker and respondent in the debate.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Redcar (Ian Swales) on securing the debate, and thank him and other hon. Members for their contributions. This is not the first time the House has debated these issues. My hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) raised them—as have others, including me—when in opposition. My local ME support group has been encouraging, and what it has taught me has been an invaluable part of how an MP gets an insight into a condition they might not personally suffer.

I realise that this is a difficult and controversial subject, and I can understand why feelings run high. I appreciate the difficult and desperate struggles that people often face to achieve clinical recognition and relief from the condition, and a sense of hope that there is a direction of travel toward understanding the underlying causes, and eventually getting a cure.

I will ensure that the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Redcar about benefits are passed on to ministerial colleagues at the Department for Work and Pensions. Although he made some important points in that regard, I will not address them as they are above my pay grade—or certainly outside it.

The basic challenge is that we do not know with any confidence what causes the distressing symptoms—indeed, the condition itself—that my hon. Friend so clearly described. That is why he is right, as is the hon. Member for Stockton South (James Wharton), to highlight the need for research. On my hon. Friend’s point about defining the condition, until we have a strong clinical evidence base, we have to keep an open mind about whether this is one condition or a number of conditions with similar symptoms but different causes. The Department does follow, and will continue to follow for the time being, the World Health Organisation convention in how we describe and refer to the condition—that is, to call it CFS/ME. That is the WHO definition; it is not a specific term that the Department of Health has alighted on and no one else uses. It is important that that be understood.

On present understanding, that definition best captures the spectrum of symptoms and effects that characterise the illness. As yet, there is no cure nor any consistently effective treatment for the condition. As my hon. Friend rightly said, we do not even have a standard diagnostic test to confirm the condition. Diagnosis is possible only through excluding other illnesses with similar symptoms. There is, however, strong international consensus that CFS/ME is a chronic and disabling neurological illness. I want to stress that it is a neurological illness; it is not a mental health problem. I know that that suggestion causes great concern—and, arguably, offence—for many sufferers who have campaigned vociferously against it. The strength of many people’s reaction to that label says a lot about the stigma that is still attached to mental illness, and about the attitudes of health professionals towards it. We seek to tackle those two problems in the mental health strategy that the Government have published today.

Although CFS/ME has no psychological foundation, that does not mean that we cannot gain lessons and insights from cognitive behavioural therapy, and that where appropriate, it should not be used as part of a treatment plan, just as it is for many other long-term health conditions. The NICE guidelines, to which my hon. Friend has referred, include counselling and graded exercise as possible treatment options. Let me emphasise the words “possible” and “guidelines.” Neither of those things is mandated, but they could form part of a conversation between the clinician and an individual about the appropriate, personalised approach to their situation.

The guidelines seek to help a person to manage their symptoms as much as possible. In lieu of any clinical cure, that is about social recovery and helping people to manage their symptoms, be clear about their goals and define their own recovery, rather than simply prescribing a clinical treatment. We know that the treatment in the guidelines helps some patients but, as my hon. Friend has said, for many people it does not help at all, and some people find it offensive. The obvious point—I will return to this in a moment—is that a doctor needs to work with the patient to find the most appropriate way forward. That is why personalisation is at the heart of our general approach to long-term conditions, which is critical in this debate.

With no cure, research is naturally a source of hope for those with the condition, and my hon. Friend has made a powerful and compelling case for further investment. However, it is not as simple as the Government saying, “We will the end but we are not clear about the means when it comes to research,” and it is not a case of allocating a research pot to a specific disease type. Down that road lies poor research, not discovery and real change.

We are protecting health research budgets overall. That decision was taken from the centre and made by the Chancellor in the spending review. However, decisions about how money is allocated remain—rightly—with the Medical Research Council and other funding bodies, not with a Minister behind a desk in Whitehall. That must be the case with other funding bodies.

The MRC has nominated CFS/ME as a strategic priority area for several years. Indeed, it has set up an expert group to focus specifically on the condition in a way that did not happen previously. The group comprises leading academics from across the country, as well as representatives from several organisations that have direct experience and interest in the condition. They are working together to improve the capacity and opportunities for research in the area.

My hon. Friend has acknowledged as good news the fact that the MRC is making up to £1.5 million available to support research into the causes of CFS/ME, which is welcome. Decisions on funding will continue to be made purely on the quality of research funding received. Critically, as in any area where we need more research, that sends a clear signal that the money is there and that there is a willingness to commit funds to research. The gauntlet has been thrown down to the research community to rise to the challenge and ensure that there are enough bids of sufficient quality to draw in that funding.

The funding call will focus on six priority areas identified by the expert group— autonomic dysfunction, cognitive symptoms, fatigue, immune problems, pain management and sleep disorders. I will ensure that the MRC and other research bodies look at this debate and see the additional points that have been made about biomedical research, so that that can be taken into account by the expert groups.

The call will also seek to build up research capacity, because one of the challenges has been attracting more researchers into the field. The expert group can only achieve so much on its own and, if I may be blunt, there has been a history of fractiousness and fragmentation between different groups with an interest in the area. Often, it is easy to agree on what we do not like, but harder to agree on the common ground and what the course of action should be to change things. I understand the heightened emotions that are often articulated by constituents who suffer from the condition, and I have spoken about that to people in my surgery. However, we will not achieve anything if organisations do not work together and engage with one another to find common ground and build alliances.

All patient groups need to look outwards and be positive about how they can work with the NHS, the Department, medical researchers and each other to influence change. One big challenge is to get more researchers interested in that area of work, but we are sometimes in danger of shooting ourselves in the foot by failing to show a united front.

Everyone with a stake in this area has an interest in ensuring that a constructive and supportive environment exists for research—that is key. Division and discord will not accelerate the pace of change, and I hope that the reconstituted all-party group on Myalgic Encephalomyelitis will play its part in facing that challenge and driving us forward.

My hon. Friend has mentioned the XMRV retrovirus, and I want to underline his point. It is an area in which research is not conclusive and where further research is being pursued to establish whether there is a link. At this time, however, there is no robust evidence to suggest such a link. Research can provide hope for the future, but we need to do more now to improve care for people with the condition.

The NHS does not always get it right for people with long-term conditions in general, let alone those with CFS/ME. The problems faced by people with CFS/ME are consistent with those caused by other conditions. Care is fragmented rather than integrated, and people struggle to be referred to a specialist in a timely and appropriate way. Most importantly, there is a sense that health professionals see the condition, rather than the person in front of them. Although this debate is about how we describe CFS/ME, it taps into some basic ideas. All too often, the label ends up mattering more than the person. Health professionals decide how people are treated and to which services they should be referred, but that should not be the most important determinate. We want the patient and doctor to work in partnership in the consulting room, meeting as two experts—one on the person, and one on the appropriate ways to support and treat them.

The greater use of personalisation and care planning can play a part, and that must be an explicit part of the Government’s plans for the NHS. However, it goes deeper than that, because it is really about patients being given the power of self-determination. The idea of, “No decision about me, without me,” should be a governing principle of the NHS. People should be asked to set their own personal goals and work together with professionals to achieve them. Everybody is different, and we must ensure that the care they receive reflects that.

My hon. Friend did not mention commissioning, but it is important to touch on that issue. To achieve these changes and get the right services and specialists, we must make sure that support is available. I know from my own constituency that excellent work is done in specialist CFS/ME clinics to integrate care for patients. Nevertheless, there is patchiness around the country that compromises the quality of treatment and reduces the options available. That is why we must improve commissioning, and GP consortia can help us involve patients much more in how local services are shaped.

I stress that the future of the NHS is local, not national. It is about local NHS and local GP consortia working with local patients’ groups and making decisions based on a clear understanding of their needs and local needs. To commission effectively, GPs must understand the needs of patients with long-term conditions.

I hope that the Neurological Alliance can play an important role in that. Nationally and regionally, it has support networks that can make a huge difference by levering change in the commissioning of neurological services. I urge groups with an interest in CFS/ME to engage with the Neurological Alliance, use it, work through it and form connections with it, as a way of shaping and changing services in the future.

In conclusion, there are real opportunities ahead, and a real chance to address some of the frustrations and misery experienced by people with this condition. My message, and that of the Department of Health, is that there is an open invitation for representative groups to get involved in shaping the future of the NHS. We want the Neurological Alliance to be a key source of advice and support for GP consortia and health and well-being boards at local level. I am sure that the new NHS commissioning board will be keen to build links with the alliance in forming national policy.

The urgency exists, and the additional commitment to drive long-term conditions to the top of the agenda is one of the Government’s ambitions. I thank my hon. Friend for raising these issues, and we will continue to work together to make sure that we improve the lot of his constituents and those of other hon. Members.

Thank you, Mr Burstow. I ask those hon. Members who are not involved in the next debate to leave the Chamber quietly and speedily.

Police Funding (Devon and Cornwall)

I begin the debate by warmly praising the work of Devon and Cornwall police. Those of us who are fortunate enough to live in Devon and Cornwall live in the fourth safest place in England. My experience as the MP for Exeter means that I know at first hand of the tireless work that my local police and community support officers and, indeed, civilian staff do in tackling and deterring crime, bringing down antisocial behaviour and making the people of Exeter feel safer on the streets.

Crime in Devon and Cornwall fell by a whopping 11% last year alone. That fall was unprecedented in times of economic recession, and it followed year-on-year falls in crime throughout the period of the Labour Government—a period during which crime fell by 43% nationally and by even more in Devon and Cornwall. I pay tribute to the men and women of Devon and Cornwall police and to their excellent chief constable, Stephen Otter, for such a fantastic record.

However, I fear that that record is about to be undone. It is inconceivable that the level of cuts being forced on Devon and Cornwall police by the present Government’s reckless economic policies will not make it harder for our police to fight and deter crime. Before and after the election, we were assured by the Prime Minister and others that the cuts would not affect front-line policing. We now know those claims not to have been true. That is coming not from me or from Labour’s shadow Home Secretary, but from Devon and Cornwall police themselves. They now have to cut £47 million, or 25%, from their budget during the spending review period. Seven hundred police officer posts are to go—that is a massive one in five officers from the current 3,500.

The chief constable, an accomplished diplomat who chooses his words very carefully, said that he was “disappointed”, adding that the settlement was

“even worse than we had anticipated it would be.”

Sergeant Nigel Rabbitts, chairman of the Devon and Cornwall police federation, which represents rank-and-file officers, says that some west country communities will never see a police officer in future. Even in those areas that will continue to see a police presence, the provision that was promised and ensured under the previous Labour Government of a dedicated police officer and community support officer will be unsustainable, according to an internal document published by Devon and Cornwall police about how they will cope with the cuts.

To add insult to injury, the Government have also scrapped the extra funding that Labour made available to Devon and Cornwall in recognition of the challenges and extra costs involved in policing a large rural region. It is deeply ironic that Conservative and Liberal Democrat politicians who used to moan about the Labour Government ignoring rural areas—often flying in the face of the evidence—are now taking away Labour’s rural policing grant. Devon and Cornwall’s chief constable has made it clear that that will have a further disproportionate impact on Devon and Cornwall. Sergeant Rabbitts said that the force had been—I do not know whether this is unparliamentary language—“shafted” by the Minister’s Department. Brian Greenslade, the former leader of Devon Liberal Democrats and head of the Liberal Democrat group in the Association of Police Authorities, said that Devon and Cornwall had been the “big loser” in the funding round.

At a time when our police services are facing the most savage cuts in their history, why are the Government embarking on a costly and dangerous restructuring of the police that no one wants? The Government’s proposals for elected police commissioners are madness, and the last thing we need against the current financial backdrop.

Mike Bull, the chairman of Devon and Cornwall police authority, which, let us not forget, is dominated by Conservative and Liberal Democrat councillors, is withering in his assessment of the Government’s proposals. He says that they are a “shocking waste of money” that will bring “party politics into policing”. He goes on to warn that a low turnout in the proposed election for a police commissioner could lead to extremists such as the British National party taking control of the police. Writing last month in our regional newspaper, the Western Morning News, Mr Bull asks:

“How…can one person be in touch with and understand the different communities across Devon, Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly?”

The cost of the election for the police commissioner will be nearly £2 million, not including the commissioner’s proposed salary of £120,000. That is the equivalent of employing 50 police constables every year, and far more than the cost of the current police authority.

I therefore have a number of questions that I would be grateful if the Minister responded to. Why did he and the Home Secretary get such a poor deal from the Chancellor of the Exchequer in the comprehensive spending review? Does he accept that the level of cuts imposed on Devon and Cornwall will mean—contrary to assurances given by the Prime Minister—that front-line policing is hit? On what basis has he scrapped the rural policing grant? Will he accept that that will hit Devon and Cornwall particularly badly? Why are the Government forcing us to have elected police commissioners? Will the Minister not accept that they are a waste of money and risk politicising our police? Can he name a single Conservative or Liberal Democrat member of Devon and Cornwall police authority who thinks they are a good idea? Where are the west country Conservative and Lib Dem MPs queuing up to intervene in this debate in support of the Government’s proposals? Will the Minister rethink these disastrous plans before he does even more damage to our police?

I would be grateful if we did not get the usual excuses that we get from Ministers about having no choice in how they cut the deficit. Of course the deficit needs to be cut, and there are economies to be made in the police as there are in all our public services, but the present Government have taken the deliberate decision to eradicate the deficit in a single Parliament. The consequences of such recklessness are clear from last week’s terrible growth figures—or rather, economic contraction figures—which saw Britain’s economy go into reverse in the last quarter of last year. Let us contrast that with Barack Obama in America. He is following the course that we in the Labour party advocate, resulting in growth of 3.5% in the same period.

The Government’s wrong-headed approach to the economy is not only wrecking the recovery, as we warned it would, but doing untold damage to our vital public services, such as Devon and Cornwall police, completely unnecessarily, and risks reversing the huge improvements that we have seen in recent years.

I regret to say that I disagreed with almost every word that the right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw) said. Normally it is possible in these debates to agree about a great deal—about the value of the local force and so on—and I certainly agree with him in his assessment of the chief constable, but many of the points that he made were party political and he has not addressed what I accept are the considerable challenges that confront policing generally and his local force in a way that is sensible or helpful to the debate.

First, we have to deal with the deficit, but the right hon. Gentleman appears to be in denial about that. He should know that the shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, when he was briefly shadow Home Secretary, accepted that the police would have to be cut. He said that he agreed with the independent inspectorate of constabulary that the police could make savings of some £1 billion a year. The previous shadow Chancellor, the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Alan Johnson), when he was Home Secretary, refused, at the time of the general election, to guarantee police numbers. The Opposition have admitted that they would have made significant cuts in policing. We also know that they had £40 billion-worth of cuts, but they had not said how they would make them.

There is no disagreement about the fact that, in the current circumstances, the police would have to make savings, because there would be cuts to their budgets under Governments of either party. We might disagree about the scale of the cuts, but for the right hon. Gentleman to pretend to his local force that it will not have to make savings is wrong.

I simply do not accept—I shall return to this—that because forces have to make savings as part of their contribution to dealing with the deficit, it will necessarily impact on the efficiency and effectiveness of the service that they provide to the public. The right hon. Gentleman did not make the case that there would be a detrimental effect on the public; he simply asserted it and quoted one sergeant. That is not a responsible suggestion. All parties agree that forces will have to make savings. We need to debate how the forces can make savings, and where the priorities should lie.

Secondly, the right hon. Gentleman said that we have scrapped extra funding for Devon and Cornwall police. I understood him to mean that we have scrapped the rural policing fund.

The right hon. Gentleman did not note that we have maintained the neighbourhood policing fund, which will enable the continued funding of police community support officers for the next two years. It will then be for the locally elected police and crime commissioners to decide how to deploy those funds—I shall return to that later. The general direction of travel is to roll all those grants into one, so as to give greater discretion to chief officers about how they can spend the money, but it is not true to say that we scrapped extra funding simply because the grant has gone.

The rural policing fund has been consolidated into the rule 2 grant, which has been the case since 2006-07. The decision behind rolling the rule 2 grant, the crime fighting fund and the basic command unit fund into the main police grant from 2011-12 is, as I have argued, to give more freedom. The right hon. Gentleman should be aware that no force will lose funding as a result of rolling that grant into the main grant over the next two years.

Is the Minister saying that the chief constable of Devon and Cornwall is wrong on that point?

I am not sure, because I do not know exactly what he was quoting the chief constable as saying. However, I assure the right hon. Gentleman, and if necessary the chief constable, that the nominal loss of the rural policing fund will not mean that forces will lose funding in the next two years. It is simply that the grants have been rolled into one. The right hon. Gentleman has said that we have scrapped extra funding, and he has implied that we somehow do not care about rural areas, but I challenge him on that.

I meet chief constables regularly, and I have spoken to the chief constable of Devon and Cornwall. I recognise the significant challenge that he faces, and I realise that he has to make considerable savings. There will be a loss of police officers, which will not be easy for him, the force and the staff who will have to go. However, I am impressed with his commitment to do everything that he can do drive savings in areas that will ensure that service to the public is not reduced. Indeed, his declared ambition is to improve the service that the public receive and to improve the visibility of local officers, despite the savings that he has to make. That can be done by more effective deployment, by changing shift patterns and by improving productivity on the front line. He tells me that his ambition is for the number of police officers engaged in local policing to go up slightly. Chief constables, including in Devon and Cornwall, are rising to the challenge of reduced funding, recognise the situation that forces are in and are finding savings, in accordance with the view of the independent inspectorate of constabulary that those savings are available.

The right hon. Gentleman has said that the Home Secretary reached a poor deal with the Chancellor, but I disagree. The reduction in grant is lower than was indicated by the Chancellor at the time of the emergency Budget. It is a 20% loss of overall grant in real terms over four years, but that does not take account of the fact that the force meets about a third of its funding from local council tax payers through the precept. When that is taken into account, the loss in grant faced by the force is not 20% in real terms over four years. I accept that it is a significant sum, but the savings can be made.

I do not agree—in fact, I strongly disagree—with what the right hon. Gentleman said about police and crime commissioners. It was the previous Government’s policy to introduce direct accountability into police authorities, and they proposed two sets of policies before abandoning them. He should know that is now Opposition policy to have directly elected police chairs of police authorities, but the cost of holding those direct elections once every four years would be exactly the same as the cost of electing police and crime commissioners. His argument that the policy is unacceptable on cost grounds goes out of the window. That is now Opposition policy, which would cost more.

I want to make it clear that we are determined that police and crime commissioners will cost no more to run than police authorities, because there is no reason why they should do so. However, there will be a cost to holding elections for these new posts once every four years. It will cost £50 million once every four years, but that money has been found by the Chancellor and allocated to the Home Office. The money will not come out of individual force budgets, because it was separately negotiated by the Home Secretary and provided separately by the Chancellor. It is not true to say that money has been wasted on this policy. In any case, it is a bad argument against the introduction of democracy in any form to object to it on the ground of cost.

How many referendums did the Labour party propose in its manifesto? Did the party advance arguments of cost when it proposed referendums left, right and centre in its manifesto? No, it did not. Does the Labour party advance the argument that we should not hold a referendum on AV in May on the ground that the referendum will cost money? No, I do not think so. The cost will be minimal—it is a tiny fraction of the overall policing budget—and it will be incurred only once every four years.

The benefit will be far greater accountability, because an elected individual will represent people in the force area and hold the police to account. That will help to drive more efficient policing that is responsive to the local community. It is not surprising that members of police authorities are opposed to this policy, because the authorities will be abolished. I hardly expect their members to say that they would like to go, and many of them are campaigning to keep their positions.

A single elected individual will represent the whole of Devon and Cornwall, holding the police force there to account just as the chairman of the police authority covers the whole area now. Every local authority will be represented on the police and crime panel, including district councils, and they have not been represented before in the governance of policing. Local areas will continue to have a say.

I do not think that Conservative members of Devon and Cornwall police authority will take kindly to the Minister’s suggestion that they oppose the idea only because they are worried about their own jobs. These are honourable people who have entered public service and who care about the quality of the police authority. The chairman of the authority, Mike Bull, is non-political and independent. He has no interest in defending the police authority, because his term of office will come to an end. Those are not my words—they are what he said about the costs and drawbacks of the Minister’s proposals. If the Minister’s proposals are so good and so popular, why is it that no member of his party in Devon and Cornwall supports them?

I was just making the point that I do not expect members of police authorities to be first in line in supporting a policy when their own positions are to be abolished. Their stance is hardly surprising. The general direction of travel towards democratic reform and having a greater democratic say in policing has been very popular in London, and it will be in the rest of the country.

I also reject the argument that the policy will somehow allow extremists to be elected. We know that the British National party polled a very low share of the vote nationally at the general election—I think that it was less than 2% of the national vote. It polled 15% in its best performance in a parliamentary constituency, which was in Barking where Nick Griffin stood. Given the size of the constituencies that we are talking about in relation to directly elected police and crime commissioners and the electoral system, it is almost inconceivable that such people will be elected. In fact, that argument is a complete red herring. The people must decide whom they wish to represent them, and it is right to give the people a say.

In conclusion, I am always willing to talk about the challenges confronting Devon and Cornwall police. I am absolutely committed to helping the force deliver efficient and effective policing and to ensuring that the officers will be there for the public who value and need them. I appreciate that the force, like other forces around the country, faces a considerable challenge. We have treated all forces equally, with each having to make an equal share of the cut. Chief constables know what the challenge is, and it is essential that they continue to drive savings in the back office, as the inspectorate says that they can, and drive savings in the middle office—

The Minister has referred to the inspectorate’s report three times now. Will he confirm that the report that he is talking about from the inspectorate of constabulary stated that a “redesign” of the police system could

“at 12% of central government funding”?

That is nowhere near the cuts that his Government are now imposing, which is an important distinction.

I will send the right hon. Gentleman a copy of the speech that I gave to the City Forum last week. I set out how the savings that the inspectorate identified—they amount to more than £1 billion a year, which is, as the right hon. Gentleman has said, equivalent to 12% of central Government funding—can be delivered. There were also other things that the inspectorate did not take into account. For instance, there are the savings that will be realised from the two-year pay freeze. Those savings will amount to some £350 million. Some £380 million of savings are expected to be realised from procuring IT and other equipment together. Those were not taken into account in the inspectorate’s report.

There are also a number of other ways in which we can make savings. If police forces work together and redesign their businesses, we are confident that we can drive real savings in such a way that will improve the effectiveness and efficiency of policing and not affect the service that the public expect—front-line policing, officers in neighbourhoods and on the streets, satisfactory response times and the investigation that is needed if crimes are committed. We believe that the service can be improved even as it becomes leaner.

I do not underestimate the challenge that faces the whole force, but we are in this position because, to quote the former Chief Secretary to the Treasury in the previous Government, “There is no money.” This Government were left with the biggest fiscal deficit in our peacetime history. It is our responsibility to deal with it and it is in the long-term interests of all our public services that we deal with it. We must ask the police to make a share of the savings. We know that they can do so, and we will do everything possible to support them and to continue to protect policing, including in Devon and Cornwall. I am absolutely committed to doing everything I can to secure that and to working with the chief constable.

Question put and agreed to

Sitting adjourned.